Survival

By Bud Smith

Essay

Good Luck: Episode Thirty-Seven

 

 

I brought the U.S. Army Survival Manual to the beach.

She brought yarn and knitting needles.

My driver’s side window was broken.

I opened the door, and leaned out, gave ten dollars to the ranger in her tiny hut.

We drove down the narrow road. Pine scrub, Juniper (you can roast the berries and grind them, use as a coffee substitute according to the army), turtle crossing.

Rae put the receipt on the dashboard.

I’d been reading FM 21-76 to her at night like it was a bedtime story. I suppose it’d saved many lives.

I was halfway through it.

One of the best books I’d read in forever.

I’d learned how to make a swamp bed, and how to avoid a passive outlook. I’d seen engineered blueprints to construct my own igloo, which I could heat with a lone candle.

Note to self, get some candles.

But FM 21-76 was also accidentally hilarious, accidentally poetic, accidentally thrilling.

You should read it one day.

Rae’s seatbelt was broken.

I went slow.

My brother owed me $400.

Us. He owed us $400.

From that trip across the West.

He’s going to fix the seatbelt.

And the broken window.

And give me $200. Maybe.

Cattails on the side of the road.

Because of FM 21-76, I knew you could eat cattails, raw or cooked. When its still green, boil it and nibble it like corn on the cob. I knew the cottony seeds make good pillow stuffing and insulation, and I knew the pollen made for excellent tinder.

Rae said, “What are you thinking about? You’re quiet over there.”

“Corn on the cob,” I said.

The beaches were miles ahead.

I saw the flags in the distance.

American flag. Flag of New Jersey.

Calm waters. Green flag.

The book had seventeen chapters: The Will to Survive; Survival Planning; Survival Medicine; Field Expedient Weapons and Tools; Water Procurement; Wild Plants for Food; Wildlife for Food; Shelters; Firebuilding; Water Crossings; Field Expedient Direction Finding; Signaling; Desert Survival; Tropical Survival; Arctic and Subarctic Survival; Sea Survival; Knots. And then there were four appendixes, one for poisonous snakes, another for clouds, another for edible plants, another for poisonous plants.

I tie a lot of knots at the oil refinery.

But I only ever tie two types of knots.

Clove hitch or bowline.

They’re the only two I trust.

One time I was working with Huntley and he tied a weird knot and I said, “Is that legal? What is that?”

He got mad.

He said that that was the knot he tied when he was in the Marines. It was a rescue knot. And it was the knot he used when he jumped out of helicopters, or something.

The Marines have a whole different survival guide.

I’m reading that one next.

So Huntley and I tied his knot on the next piece we rigged. When we went to lower it off the side, the knot slipped and the piece fell, very far, very fast.

Huntley said, “Maybe I’m remembering it wrong.”

I’ve been out of work now for nine weeks.

I think I’ve forgotten how to work.

No work today either.

The beach.

Rae said, “We going to Beach One? Or Beach Two?”

“How can you even ask that?”

“Two.”

“Yeah, Two. We aren’t Beach One people.”

“We could be if we wanted to be.”

“But we don’t want to be.”

“No, not at all.”

“We’d rather die than go to Beach One.”

“That’s us.”

She really liked Chapter 4, the one on improvised weapons. I’d showed her how to make a caveman club. And a caveman mace. And a bola: three short ropes, knotted together, with rocks at the end of each rope. You swung the bola over your head and released it to stun and entrap a turkey.

A line of cars leaving the beach, coming at us.

They’d had enough.

Good, more room for us.

Rae also liked a diagram that showed you how to make a trip-string deadfall trap, which looked like something from Looney Tunes.

Rope thrown over a tree branch, and an Acme boulder suspended in a cradle made from the rope.

End of the rope was tied to a stick, wedged against a post. Trip wire tied to the post.

So if the roadrunner ran by and knocked over the wire, the post fell, and the rope released, and the boulder crushed the roadrunner. Meep meep.

Past the beach cops.

Past the lifeguard headquarters.

Getting close.

She also liked a part in Chapter Seven:

“Another way to get a beaver is to dig out the beaver dam so the water drains. The beaver will come to inspect the damage.”

The army says to grab the beaver by the tail and swing it around to its doom.

The army also says you can kill a beaver by drop kicking it.

Chapter Seven, page 28. Dropkick a beaver.

Air and water station. Here is where you fill your tires back up. At the end of the road, beach access.

With the right pass, you could drive your four wheeler onto the sand. I wanted to but the last time I was here I talked to the ranger about driving my car onto the beach, she was against it. She looked at my shitty little car and said it’d get stuck and when the tide came up, the ocean would wash into my car, maybe carry it out into the Atlantic. But since I have full coverage, I’d get enough money to buy myself a proper four wheeler, so I might just do it. Still deciding.

A wooden sign said DO NOT FEED THE FOX. Another little sign said we’d be fined $1500 if we were caught feeding the fox.

“Have you ever seen that fox?”

“No, I never have.”

“How many years have you been coming here?”

“Let’s say forty.”

“In forty years, no fox.”

“No fox.”

“They named the new bar at the first bathing beach the Red Fox.”

“They haven’t seen it either, they might as well have named it God.”

We drove past Bathing Beach #1 and went to Bathing Beach #2.

Oh, another tip. If you want to catch a ground hog, take off your belt and lower it down into the groundhog’s burrow, the ground hog will bite the end of the belt and will not let go, you just pull the groundhog up out of its house and you have it for lunch.

Beach Two is less crowded.

Beach #2 is less crowded but it still has lifeguards and bathroom facilities and showers and you can buy Cokes and hamburgers.

I parked the car.

We got our stuff.

We took the beach chairs and umbrella and the plastic bag with the sandwich. We carried it all down past the bathrooms and the outdoor shower and up the ramp.

Droves of people leaving.

Two o’clock in the afternoon and most of them got to the beach before nine in the morning.

We set up camp.

The umbrella was red and it said Tommy Bahama.

The chairs were blue.

Mine said Tommy Bahama.

Hers said Tommy Bahama.

I put on Tommy Bahama sunscreen.

People watched me rub the lotion on my body.

I stared at them and said with my eyes, “You love me, don’t you? I own this beach. My name is Tommy Bahama.”

The seagulls were going crazy.

The army says you can eat a seagull if you want. You can eat a seal too. You can eat most anything.

Chapter four, page seven, they show you how to make a rabbit killin’ boomerang out of any old twig.

Chapter sixteen, page twelve, they say dolphins love to headbutt rafts for fun, and you need not be alarmed, smack one with an oar, barbecue it up (jerk-style) on your desert isle.

Some kids played beer pong.

The army says don’t drink alcohol if you are trying to survive. Not even wine coolers.

The air cooled because the sun went behind a cloud. It was one hundred degrees one minute and then less than eighty the next.

We swam out into the green water.

I thought about sharks.

I thought about whales and porpoises. The army says eels are excellent eating. If you find a giant clam shell, use a stick to pry it open. The clam shell will clamp down on your fingers like you are Elmer Fudd, then what?

Coming out of the ocean, I wondered if the clouds blocking the sun were storm clouds. I sat down and opened FM 21-76, and saw in Appendix B, that the clouds were cumulonimbus. The book said since they were extending up to great heights, and were forming an anvil, we could expect thunderstorms. Oh shut up.

Shut up, army.

We sat down in our chairs.

Shared the sandwich.

Chicken salad.

Rotisserie, of course.

Shredded, mixed in a bowl.

No raisins, no grapes.

Her mother’s fridge.

Buleri recipe. I don’t know it.

Some secret spice.

But also, celery, onion powder.

Salt and hot sauce, any fool knows that.

And knows this:

Romaine. Plum tomato.

Little vinegar. Mayo.

Rye. Caraway seeds.

Bread cut on diagonal.

Dollop of spicy mustard.

Should I keep going?

Want to hear any more about this sandwich?

Where’d the chicken come from?

Food Universe.

Or Fried Paradise.

Raindrops began to fall.

No big deal, we’ll just stay under the umbrella.

Then a rumble of thunder.

No big deal. We’ll just pretend like we didn’t hear that.

Then a flash of lighting.

The lifeguards blew their whistles, called everyone out of the water. Kids were crying. Husbands yelled. Wives yelled, “Stop yelling.” Beer pong ceased.

I was still in my chair. Rae was still in her chair, chewing.

I swallowed. Fizzy lime seltzer.

Burned all the way down.

Gasping. Little more bubbly.

Better.

“Let’s see what happens.”

The lifeguards looked at us and yelled at us to get up and get off the beach.

We ate our sandwich faster.

The clouds opened up.

Torrential downpour.

That life-changing sandwich abandoned.

Dropped in the sand.

“Motherfucker.”

Beer pong carried off beach.

Table used as shield.

Giggling frat guys.

Shrieking mothers.

Batshit fathers.

Terrified children.

Monsoon.

Sidewinder rain.

Whole world wet and gone.

I collapsed our umbrella.

Folded my Bahama.

She folded hers.

I blinked.

She was already booking it up the ramp.

I followed behind.

Oh shit, my book.

Pivoted.

Went back, against the flow.

Lifeguard blocking me.

“You can’t!”

I squirreled by.

There it was in the grey mud.

A sucking sound when I lifted it up.

Lifeguard on the ramp hollering.

“Do you want to die in an electrical storm?”

“I’d love to, please.”

I showed him the book.

He didn’t understand.

“Trying to survive.”

Heavier rain now.

Felt great. Tickled.

Itched almost.

Nickels falling from up yonder.

Pelt the scalp and shoulder.

Massage. Start to enjoy it.

Lightning. Crick crack ka-boom.

A child weeping.

“It’s all right, Freddie.”

“Calm down, calm down.”

Freddie hysterical.

Barefoot tourists sprinting.

Faster, faster, faster the sheets.

Rae at the car waiting, mouth open, gargling. Dancing. Who cares? Arms up, hopping foot to foot.

Flip flops slimy.

I unlocked the car.

Threw the chairs and the umbrella on the hood. Took off my shirt. Got inside.

Dried off with a t-shirt from the backseat, bootleg, Bart Simpson with dreadlocks saying, “One Love Asshole.”

“Where were you?”

Showed her the book.

“Aw, it’s ruined.”

More rain. You felt like you were standing in a cave behind a waterfall.

“This is insane.”

“Yeah. Insane.”

“But fun.”

“You’re in a clown car and that out there—”

“Fish bowl.”

“Everyone’s leaving,” I said, and she waved her hands at them and said, “Sayonara.”

“They’re being babies.”

“Damp diapers.”

“End of times flood, maybe.”

“Let’s wait.”

“We’re waiting.”

“Check the radar, will you.”

“No signal. Nada.”

“Sky is clear over there.”

“Oh yeah, look at that.”

“Passing, passing.”

“Let’s chill.”

“We’re chilling.”

FM 21-76 looked like generic food packaging. BEANS. Or OATMEAL. I dried it off with a Tommy Bahama towel. The cover beige, plain as can be. Heavier now. A sponge of water. I opened it. Read from the middle.

“You can use body heat to melt snow.”

“How?”

“You put the snow in a bag and then put the bag between layers of clothes. As you snowshoe across Antarctica, it melts.”

“Smart.”

“And if you’re on a desert island, this is how you get drinkable water. You make a campfire and you heat up stones. Then you dig a hole and when the ocean fills the hole, you throw the red hot stones in and the steam rushes up, but you’ve got some shirts hanging there and they get soaked with the steam and you wring that out and that’s fresh water, you can drink that.”

“How do you handle the red hot stones?”

“It doesn’t say. It doesn’t say everything.”

“Right. Like yesterday when I asked you how to get the bananas out of the tree.”

“Uncle Sam figures if you can’t get the bananas out of the tree, you might as well not be a soldier.”

“I wouldn’t make it in Vietnam.”

“Vietnam is long over. You better focus on Afghanistan.”

“Isn’t that over?”

“Maybe. Who knows. And besides, you could get bananas out of a tree if you had to. If you really had to. Even if you had to fight apes and orangutans.”

“The Will to Survive, Chapter One.”

“That one.”

“What were the tips for crossing a raging river? Read that to me again.”

The windows were fogged up. I started the engine. She flipped on the air conditioning.

I found the page. “Here it is. Under ‘Rapids.’ Army says, and I quote, ‘If you are going to ford a swift, treacherous stream (river) remove your pants and underpants…Keep your shoes on.”

She cracked up, “Porky pigging it.”

Slapping dash. Receipt floating.

“Yup, the Army loves Looney Tunes.”

“Combat cartoons.”

“Whole Porky Pig platoon holding hands crossing the Nile.”

“Sexy.”

“Or they say to chop down a tree.”

“With what? Yeah right. And chances are it just falls on you, splat.”

Soon we could see blue skies in every direction.

The rain shut off.

Drip drop. Rainbows. Bird song.

Spiders getting back to it. New webs.

Ice cream men getting into gear.

Baseball games resuming.

Clotheslines re-stocked, re-socked.

Hardhats back on, workers stepping out from the overhang, fluorescent shirts and bills to battle.

Cats leaping over mirror-bright puddles.

Muddy dogs scratching at muddy backdoors.

The first children jump back into the pool, splashed by the next wave of children, splashed splashed by the next next wave of children, splashed splashed splashed by the next next next wave wave wave of children.

Olly olly oxen free.

Trees grow one millionth of an inch taller.

Flowers say, “This is bodacious.”

The pedals droop. The aluminum gutters empty again.

The storm drain sings on and on and the song gets quieter and quieter until it is gone to sea.

A brave lawnmower starts up somewhere. Then another. Then another. Then another. Soon the mowers are going at maximum, worldwide. Weed-whackers, too. Zipppzippppzipp.

The sun doesn’t notice anything has happened.

The sun is 93 million miles away.

The sun doesn’t know about any storms, or any joys, or any terror, or any beautiful days.

The sun doesn’t notice that you are blowing kisses at it and squinting, so happy to be headed back to the beach, and you, going a little blind looking into its fires.

The sun doesn’t know it’s summer.

The temperature immediately climbed back to one hundred and two degrees.

We tried to go back on the beach but there was a sign at the ramp that said it was closed. The lightning lifeguard who didn’t like me, said we are out of luck twice.

We loaded the entire Bahama catalogue into the trunk of our car and drove deeper into the park. She spread the yarn onto the dashboard. Spooled it out into a big circle to dry.

The road was a dark lake, we sped through it.

Little waves hit the cattails.

More dunes. No red foxes.

A path, another car. I pulled over. Fishing beach. No lifeguards. Sign said No Swimming.

But no one there to stop you from doing it.

We walked on. Far to the left. Fisherman far to the right.

He saw us and nodded, walked into the surf, cast out.

Long sleeve white shirt with a diver down emblem, floppy sun hat, yellow zinc on his nose.

Garage beach.

Chunks of firewood.

Old fireworks.

Perfect unwanted home.

We sat on our chairs. Drank some seltzer.

Searched the sky for a distant kite, an early moon, a jumbo jet, a stairway or an escalator, and then the ocean for the oceanliners, or the junk barge trollers, and then the fisherman for his prize he sought but couldn’t yet hook.

It was lovely.

“Let’s swim.”

We waded out.

Dunked down.

Salty mouths.

Don’t you love it.

Like the womb, I think.

Go under, come up, reboot, reborn.

Maybe I’m crazy.

Dead man’s float.

Dead woman’s float.

Dead person’s float.

Maybe sunburn.

Tiny white crabs.

Shells underfoot.

Look back, a dog running.

See its master, trotting slow.

Shaggy black doggy.

Shirtless puffy dad.

They beat on together.

Toward the forbidden beach.

Lightning lifeguard, arms crossed.

And oh!

Check it out.

“Our fisherman caught a fish.”

Pale orange. Or pink.

See it flop into the bucket.

Briny. Man, he looks happy.

“You did it!”

Got his pole and cooler.

“Teach a man—”

“Thanks.”

“—to fish.”

“Thanks, thanks.”

Smiling, outdoor politician.

Leaving while ahead.

Fish yelling, “Fuck you!” in fish.

Echoing in the bucket.

“Help,” it screams, in fish.

They got smaller.

Walking off into the distance.

Here came the fat father, lagging, and his son the sprinting dog with flying tongue and wild eyes.

Dog passed. We waved. The father huffed and bent over.

The dog circled back, licked his father’s face.

They went up the path toward civilization.

Now us, alone.

“Care to swim farther out?”

“No way José.”

“Don’t worry, I’m your lifeguard.”

“Who’s yours?”

“You.”

“Then I’m worried.”

“Speaking of worry—”

“Don’t say it.”

“What?”

“Don’t.”

“The book says during an attack, you should stick your head underwater and roar at the shark.”

“Did Bugs Bunny do that? I want to get out now.”

“Stay. Let’s think of something else besides mutilation.”

“What should we think of?”

“When lost at sea, you’ll hear the cries of gulls on land long before you see the surf. Head toward the cries of gulls.”

“Good one.”

“Also look for a single cloud in an otherwise clear sky, that cloud will be floating over an island.”

“I know.”

“The north star is directly between the Big Dipper and—”

“Cassiopeia.”

“Casio Keyboard.”

“The army says don’t drink urine.”

“Or seawater.”

“Or court martial. If you have no water, don’t eat.”

“I’m getting hungry, Bud”

“Me too.”

“As soon as I got in I was.”

“Want a snack?”

“Please.”

“We got those potato chips.”

“Oh my god, I forgot.”

“The good ones.”

“Artisanal.”

“Yes yes.”

“I’m starving now. Can you chomp on a jellyfish?”

“They didn’t specify.”

“Probably not.”

“I’ll take Frito Lays.”

We rode the waves in.

Came up out of the surf.

Could see up the slope.

Seagulls sitting on our chairs.

Thrashing.

Wings ripping.

Screaming.

Tommy Bahama birds.

Beaks and talons.

More swooping in.

Beady-eyed bandwagon bitches.

Attack. Attack, fine feathered dinosaurs.

They had our bag of chips.

A foil balloon of food.

Kettle-cooked.

Himalayan sodium.

Sealed package.

Tug-o-war.

Pull. Rip. Pop.

Bag bursting.

Shrill screeching.

Potato fireworks.

Signal flare spuds.

Snacks everywhere.

White demons swarming.

One second.

Two seconds.

Chips gone.

Blue sky. Waves. Sand, sand, sand.

The sun didn’t know shit.

Saturday, July 20th.

Over the dune, there it was.

Looking off.

“There it is.”

“There what is?”

Pointing. “I saw the red fox, laughing.”

“Really?”

“I did, I did, I did.”

No I didn’t.

 

 

 

BUD SMITH lives in Jersey City and works construction. He is the author of the novel Teenager (Tyrant Books '19), among others.

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