The Portuguese Man of War Incident

posted on May 20, 2009

Setting this story in a bit of chronology.  In the early 70’s, I went with my family to Waikiki and stayed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village.  We toured the island and ate brunch at all the different hotels.  That pretty much summed up the way my family traveled; let’s go some place and eat here and there.  If some tours are available, we’ll go.  As long as it doesn’t interfere with the eating schedule.  In 1977, there was the trip to Israel via London, Rome, and back via Paris.  Less than a year after that, my folks wanted to take all four of us back to Hawaii, to the big island, because they discovered the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and thought we all would enjoy it.  It sure sounds like my family was really wealthy, huh?

We arrived in mid-June and we were going to stay almost two weeks.  We had a long cab ride from the airport.  The driver was going on and on about the goddess, Pele.  He asked me if I believed in the goddess Pele.  I told him I did not.  Even if there was a lady named Pele, who in their right mind believes in a capricious bitch goddess that will stop blowing lava if you throw some flowers in her mouth?  Bitchy regulators on volcanoes?  In all my bar mitzvah training there was no mention of such an entity.  God’s power fills the entire Earth.  Remember that, the next time the ground starts shaking.  If you are familiar with Goddess Pele worship it is infamous for leaving things like roasted pigs on the slopes of volcanoes which attract all kinds of vermin.  Makes sense to me.

The restaurant at the hotel was its own five-star attraction and they did not repeat the menu for two weeks.  A no-effort, no-brainer from my gluttonous, shape-shifting Dad’s perspective.  Eat, sleep, sit in the sun, shop at the hotel, not too many tours available; just “relax.”  Mom and sis were amenable to this but I was getting bored really quickly.  The rooms had no TV or radio and the newspaper got there a day late.  I made a joke; if the world came to an end we would not know about it until the day after.  Imagine a headline “IT’S OVER” arriving the day after the event.  My folks thought that was really funny.

I brought my goggles on this trip and the amazing diversity of life inside the coral reef that separated the hotel’s beach from the open ocean and the “surfable” waves was just fascinating to me.  It was like swimming in a fish tank.  The sand on the beach was so fine I collected some in a soda can to bring home with me; it reminded me of powdered sugar.  One day, as my regular swims got longer and longer I decided I would attempt to swim the length of the reef, to get my appetite up for yet another very rich meal.

I started out with the crawl followed by the breaststroke.  I then went to the butterfly which was my weakest mode.  I got tired quickly and decided to sidestroke for awhile to get my breath back.  The side stroke is a real type of swimming but no one takes it seriously.  When was the last time there was a sidestroke competition? 

As I got near the midpoint of the reef something bizarre happened.  I felt intense stinging all along my right arm.  The stinging then moved to my back.  I brought my right arm up out of the water; there were a few things that looked like purple peas with red streaks in them.  They were stinging me and making my muscles tense up and begin to go numb.  There was more stinging on my back; I tried to knock them off my back as I struggled a few meters from the reef.

I realized I needed to get back to dry land as soon as possible and get help.  I looked both ways toward the beach; being a math whiz I knew I was in the middle of a parabola.  No direction would be shorter.  The best way back was directly at the beach perpendicular to the reef.  The lifeguards were there as well, and if I got their attention then I might make it back safely.

I started swimming with a mostly numb right arm and back.  Left arm “stroke.” Right arm “splash.”  Soon I was mostly propelling myself by my legs and steering with my left arm.  I waved, with my left arm, to the lifeguards on shore and yelled “HELP!”  I yelled as loud as I could but I was still really far out and they seemed to not see me at all.  I was beginning to swallow water and was scared out of my mind.  For the first time in my life the thought “I am going to die!” went through my mind.

“I’m going to die here.  In Paradise.  This is really gonna suck!” At the end of that thought a loud voice bellowed through my mind, and it said: “DON’T PANIC!” I was stunned.  Where did that voice come from?  My first reaction was “Okay!”  I then remember this same voice telling me “YOU CAN TREAD WATER AND GET YOUR BREATH BACK!”  My reaction was “Yeah, I’m good at that.  I could even dog-paddle back to the beach.  Who cares what I look like doing it?”  I tried to yell at the lifeguards on the beach a few more times but gave up on them.  Yelling at them was wasting energy.  I engineering my way back by treading water a lot and dog-paddling.  Tread, paddle.  Tread, paddle.   I did not stop this pattern until I could reach bottom at the beach.   As the the waves crashed against my prone body, crawling on all fours, two lifeguards showed up and lifted me out of the spot where the sand met the water.  “Now you’re going to help me?  It’s about time!” was what I thought as I nearly passed out from exhaustion.

The lifeguards knocked several of the Portuguese Man of War spawn off my body.  My back and arm were red and swollen.  Soon my parents and sister, fully oiled up and baked, showed up to look at me.  My Dad had a look of fear etched on his face and my Mom and sister were crying.  I was too tired to say or do anything.  The lifeguards started applying a paste composed of meat tenderizer and water.  Eventually, they let me go with the crusty substance on my back and I still ate lunch with my family.  For the next few days I was confined to our room and my family took turns putting the meat tenderizer paste on my back until the swelling went down.  Eventually, I returned to normal and went back to the beach.

One day, before we left the island, one of the locals came up to me at the beach and asked me if I was going to “marry Nicole.”  I had no idea what to say.  On some level I realized the girl I chose at Sydney Rushakoff’s house about a year and a half earlier had just been born.  However, at that point, how could I have known what the best answer should be?  I do not remember giving a response.  From my perspective, the lifeguards had almost let me drown.  The boat I saw pass on the other side of the reef might have dumped the Portuguese Man Of War spawn in the water just because I had a misunderstanding with a heathen about the Goddess Pele.  I was not really trusting anyone in the vicinity at that point.

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