A couple of years ago, after receiving in the span of three days, not one, but two rejections from editors in distant New York towers of glass and steel who'd read my submissions about the Oregon Coast, I headed to Nestucca Spit in Bob Straub State Park near Pacific City, with my dogs, to determine a possible course of action. I needed to see the ocean and wanted answers to wash ashore.
Quitting was on my mind, as in forever quitting the idea that I could score the big book deal and put the special Oregon on my mind into the minds of readers around the country. I wanted this outcome, somewhat badly, and felt my stories worthy, but it didn't seem like it would ever happen. I mean, at what point do you pack a dream permanently away? Doubtless, it didn't bolster my resolve at the time to read Elizabeth Gilbert's mega-bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love, in which she relayed the horrible suffering of having her publisher provide a hefty advance so she could go to Italy, India, and Indonesia to get her shit together after a tough divorce, get laid, and oh yeah, write about it.
A hefty advance to write about me trying to get my shit together on the Spit? Sarah Palin might as well ride a bicycle to work.
As I walked out on the beach, the dogs split off in different directions and the wind nudged me to the water's edge, where an extreme low tide revealed odd undulations in the sand. To my left, 20 yards away, I noticed an elderly couple standing wordlessly together, staring vacantly at the ocean. A large white box roughly the size of a golf bag rested near them between pieces of driftwood.
Curiosity got the better of me so I veered toward the couple. As I drew nearer I saw a picture of an airplane with a propeller on the box. A few steps closer and I and read the box's bold energetic lettering. An explanation of this mystery began to coalesce in my mind after I asked the man, "What happened?"
"I forgot to raise the antenna," he said in monotone without looking at me. "The antenna on the airplane. I don't understand how I could have forgotten." The woman said nothing. She was still searching the horizon.
"Well, you seem to be taking it well," I said. He didn't respond.
I asked him more questions and he freely answered them all without a shred of emotion, never taking his eyes off the water.
It was the airplane's inaugural flight, brand new out of the box. The plane had lifted off flawlessly from the wet sand runway on a perfect low tide. It had barely cleared a wave, then flew a straight line out over the ocean until a gust of wind rose up and banked it toward Haystack Rock.
"I went to move the stick on the remote controller," he said, "and… nothing. A few seconds later, the plane somersaulted, then stalled, and then plunged nose-first into the ocean."
The man's wife chipped in a few details; she was equally dispassionate. She never once looked at me either. His stoicism in the face of a comic fiasco entirely of his own doing struck me as nothing short of incredible. How refreshing it was, considering that the average American man in a similar situation would rage and curse until an embolism threatened to form and travel upward. Yes, how refreshing. How unlike me when I receive letters from distant towers of glass and steel or read about Elizabeth Gilbert's awful travails.
It was time to leave them alone and head down the Spit with the dogs. Ten minutes later I turned around. The couple still looked west. Five minutes later I turned around again and saw the woman sprint toward the surf while the man hesitated. She waded into the water and he ran toward her. I made her out picking up a part of the plane, apparently a wing. He joined her in the water, and for the next few minutes they carried out a joint salvage operation. I watched all of this from half a mile away. I could not take my eyes off them. Finally, nothing else washed ashore and they started to leave the beach, each holding parts of the plane.
I had more questions. I called out to the dogs and we hustled to the parking lot. As the man loaded up the wreckage into his camper van, I walked up to him. His wife was inside straightening things up.
"You found it!"
"Yes, but it's shot. The motor is ruined."
"I admire your patience in waiting."
"Well, I was ready to leave but my wife said she would wait a while longer. Then she saw it wash up."
The wife emerged from the van, petted the husky, and we all chatted for 10 minutes or so. They had both just retired and had bought the van, a tricked-out beauty I coveted for a sex-and-literary road adventure some far-flung editor would never understand, let alone finance. I also learned the couple planned to spend Christmas at the beach in a campground; they had expected to fly the plane every day at low tide, weather permitting.
I drove away feeling I wasn't ready to quit the literary dream — yet — although I realized it might help me a lot if I had a woman like this man did.
As I said, that all happened a couple of years ago, but I still think about the incident and have flirted with a big book deal since then. It didn't pan out, but I haven't yet quit the dream of penetrating the distant towers of glass and steel.
I'm not losing any sleep over it, either.