On a map, Shityerself Beach is called Nehalem Bay. But only tourists and parents with young kids use its proper name. To the seasoned locals of Harper, Oregon, it’s been Shityerself Beach for as long as anyone can remember. The story goes that a surfer mythically known as Jackie B. gave Nehalem its flattering nickname in the 1950s (the timeframe will vary depending on who you ask), when Oregon was making a name for itself as a legit alternative to the crowded surf spots of California.
Jackie B. was from North Carolina, they say, and wanted to try his hand at the clean, steep rides of the West. Like a good East Coast surfer, he was the type who would tell you with a sly, toothless smirk about his experience surfing The Infamous Graveyard of the Atlantic, where cool water from the Labrador Current collides with the gulf stream to create a hotspot for wild conditions.
If you had spoken to him, he would have been full of stories about shredding the same turbulent waters that have claimed hundreds of ships and many more lives since colonial times, probably spewing fancy oceanographical terms at every opportunity. You, the humble West coaster, would of course have invited him to blow it out his ass.
In any case, Jackie flew to Portland and drove confidently out to the coast, where he famously discovered that even the Graveyard of the Atlantic is far from adequate preparation for the pounding, frigid waves of Oregon. If you’re ever in town, stop at Natalia’s Cafe or Rockaway Coffee and ask about him. Any hunchbacked eighty-something year old will be happy to look up from his clam chowder long enough to paint a lucid picture for you of Jackie sprinting out of the waves, vomiting sea water and sausage pizza and telling anyone within earshot of how he could have died out there, and how—-crucially—-he had nearly shat himself.
That’s the story, anyway. Variations exist, like the one high schoolers like to tell on first dates where Jackie drowns, or the one my neighbor told me when I was eleven about how he ran out of the water having deposited an actual floating turd in the water. Whatever version you hear, Jackie B. has claimed a spot in Oregon State history as everything we love to hate. I think about him a lot when I surf. On shore, I doubt that he ever existed. But in the water, like I am now, I quietly hope that he did. Whatever the truth is, I for one like to think that Jackie was like me. Not a bad guy, or even a foreigner necessarily. I think he was just a man who found himself suddenly and irreversibly expelled from his element.
I push the backlight on my watch and see that it’s 6:54AM. It’s less than an hour until sunrise now, which means I should catch one last wave and head in. I don’t want to just yet. Although it’s autumn, there is no fog and the sky above is clear. The moon is nearly full, and the water around me is illuminated beautifully.
Back on shore, beneath the silhouetted peaks of the Coastal Range, Harper is showing its first signs of morning activity. Here and there, lights are on that were not before. On the corner of Pacific and Tolovana, the red and blue “open” sign has just come on in the window of Natalia’s. Headlights are beginning to appear around town. I sigh and turn my head back toward open water, scanning for my final wave of the night. There is one developing that will be upon me in a few seconds. I turn my board into it and let it wash over me. Popping out the other side, I shake my head, shedding the frigid water from my hood and face mask. There is a clean wave, maybe four or five feet, building. And it’s a beauty.
Lying flat on the board, I turn toward shore. With the thick wetsuit and hood I wear in cold conditions, I can’t turn my head completely around, nor can I hear much of anything. Instead, like a good northwestern surfer trains himself to do, I feel the wave approaching. Eyesight locked on the sands of Shityerself, I wait for the subtle sensation of being pulled backward as the wave sucks me in. For a second, everything is still. Then, nearly all in an instant, I paddle ferociously, pop up and drop. I turn and lean into the wave as it begins to break, blasting me with spray from behind.
This is my element now. Out here, alone in the ocean with my board, I’m in control. I’m safe and I’m comfortable. But as soon as I paddle in to shore, it’ll be different. If a car swings suddenly into the parking lot as I’m strapping my board down on top of my car, I’ll have to duck away before its headlights shine on me. I’m running low on milk at home and I’ll need to stop and get some. But only at the Harper General Store, because the owner has known me all my life. Craig is his name, and he lets me in before opening so that I won’t run into any other customers. It’s nice of him, to be sure, and I know that he does it because he cares. But even Craig—-the man who taught me how to fish when I was seven and tutored me in just about every subject throughout high school—-is more of an ally now than a friend.
At 7:10am on the dot, I’ll get out of my car, hood pulled low over my face, and walk up to the dirty glass door with Visa and MasterCard stickers taped above the store’s hours, and Craig will appear from the back. It takes him six steps to get from the back room to the front door. When he emerges, he’ll walk quickly and pretend to be fumbling with his keys. That way, he doesn’t have to look up. Then he’ll unlock the door, open it for me, mumble a greeting, and stand aside so I can pass. I’ll grab a gallon of Tillamook 2% milk, some vegetables and bread, maybe a candy bar or two, and approach the counter. He’ll be there leafing through the Oregonian and chewing nicotine gum the way a cow chews cud. He’ll set down his paper only when I’m standing right there at the counter, and ring up my items as quickly as I set them down. After I’ve paid and he’s handed me my change—-only then—-he’ll look up.
Between his bushy greying mustache and cueball of a head, his eyes will beg my pardon for his behavior, and with a quick nod of appreciation I’ll be out the door. When my shopping is done, I’ll get back in my car and drive with my high beams on the entire way home, so that no one can get even a glimpse of my face. I’ll get home probably just as the sky behind the mountains begins to glow with morning twilight, and won’t leave again until the sun has set.
Some things never change.
You’re probably thinking I’m a wanted criminal. I’m not. You might think I’m a witness with testimony dangerous enough to draw a mob hit. I’m not that either. It’s nothing that I’ve done or that anyone has done to me that forces me to live in the shadows. It’s like I said: Plain and simple, no one can see my face.
I’ve gotten pretty good at concealing myself over the last three and a half years, but I wasn’t at first. At the beginning, I was naive enough to think that I wouldn’t need to. Sure, I’d wear lots of hats and hoodies and tolerate the occasional gasp and horrified stare, but would turn the other cheek and carry on. I thought I’d be treated like an unwelcome stranger, not a dangerous enemy. But people attacked me. Literally, sometimes. Like on one rainy morning in November, when I was filling up on gas and gazing absently at the ocean when someone behind me asked if I had a light. I shouldn’t have turned, but I did. The polite smile on the sixty-something year old woman’s face disappeared in an instant, and the cigarette in her hand dropped to a puddle in the pavement. We stared at each other for maybe a second; maybe longer.
I’ve since learned that smiling reassuringly only makes things worse, let alone speaking. I did both that day, and the crude terror in her eyes only intensified. I don’t remember my own words, but I’ll never forget what she said as she stumbled backward, her lower lip trembling: “You’re the devil.” This woman apparently thought that the pepper spray she kept in her purse would be an effective deterrent against satan, and gave it a shot. That I didn’t react probably only confirmed her fear. That was the day I decided that it was time to shut myself off from the world.
It started on a Sunday afternoon in August. August second, in fact. My birthday. I was on final approach into Colorado Springs Municipal Airport in a Beechcraft Baron 58. After two years in the Air Force Academy and nearly a hundred flight hours, I’d earned my wings with an instrument rating. I was on leave that week, and eager to finally take my visiting parents on a flight. It had been a great day. I had originally reserved a Cessna 172, but that would have meant puttering along with a little lawnmower engine barely capable of making an IFR climb.
That wasn’t good enough for an Air Force cadet showing off to his parents what he had learned, and the twin-engine Beechcraft was calling my name. We took it north from Colorado Springs and flew over Rocky Mountain National Park. I pointed out the famous landmarks, like Long’s Peak, the Stanley Hotel, and the jagged spine of mountains that form the continental divide. After putting down in Aspen for lunch, we headed southwest and buzzed over the Black Canyon. With every radio call, every instrument input, and every course adjustment I made, I could feel the pride radiating from my parents.
It was a little after four-thirty in the afternoon when I got my clearance to descend to the glideslope intercept for runway 17L. As forecast, broken clouds were moving in from the plains, obscuring almost everything below three thousand feet. I didn’t mind. It never hurts to log a few additional IFR hours. I took a final look at the radar before descending into the clouds. I wouldn’t exactly say my stomach knotted, but I definitely began to feel uneasy. Off to our left and closing in on the airport were echoes that weren’t there before. Nothing too scary. Just an isolated blob of precipitation. Trying to hide the butterflies in my stomach, I took a deep breath.
I might have gone around if I hadn’t looked up at my father right then. I was trying to be casual about it, to see if he’d picked up on my nervous breath. He obviously hadn’t, because he was looking back at me with a grin carved by confidence and pride. You’ve made it, bud, that grin said to me. You’ve carved out your place in the world. I smiled back. This was no time for a missed approach.
It was right about then that we got into the updraft. First came the disorienting stomach-on-the-floor sensation you feel at the bottom of roller coaster tracks. Then I confirmed on the instruments what my gut had already told me: The nose was pitching upward and we were gaining altitude. Reflexively, I put the nose back down and increased the throttle. The plane lurched and rocked. “What’s going on?” My mother’s mildly concerned voice, hesitant to speak up and disturb the expert flying the plane, drifted innocently from the back seat. It wasn’t until the next day that I found out the answer to that question. A few days after that, my lawyer found out why I hadn’t been made aware of it in the air. Turns out there was a Notice to Airmen that was supposed to be published that day, but it had slipped someone’s mind: SVC MICROBURST/WINDSHEAR DETECTION SYSTEM OUT OF SERVICE—ALL RUNWAYS.
Twenty-twenty hindsight: It should have been obvious to me that I was flying us into a microburst. I remember sitting in class the day we went over them (believe me, our incident that day has cemented that memory in my mind very well), and the diagram the instructor drew on the board. It looked like an upside-down mushroom of wind streaming out of a dissipating thunderstorm.
I can remember the gravely voice of our instructor, summing up the lesson: “Doesn’t matter what direction you enter from, how many hours you have, how fancy your instruments are, or whether you’re flying an ultralight or a 380. Fly into one of these puppies and you’re basically going way up and then way down. Any time you get a sudden, inexplicable increase in aircraft performance while on approach… well, you just better turn yourself around and haul ass the other way.” Then again, just from common sense, the sudden updraft and turbulence alone should have been alarming. But it wasn’t. Not to me, anyway. If only my concerned mother had been in charge instead of her son with all of his impressive training and hours and service to his country, she and my father might still be alive.
But they aren’t. With the nose angled down and the throttle wide open, I flew us into the downdraft. About fifteen seconds later, the Beechcraft slammed into the ground half a mile short of the runway. I don’t remember dropping out of the sky, nor do I remember the crash. The only thing I do remember after the updraft is opening my eyes and seeing flames. They weren’t flames from the Beechcraft, though: By that time, I’d managed to force the door open and stumble away from the wreckage. The flames I was seeing were from the burning oil that covered my face.
In a settlement with the city, I received enough money to dump in a mutual fund and live quietly and comfortably for the rest of my life. Having lost sixty percent of my vision, I would never fly again, and had a quick and painless honorable discharge from the Air Force. I would move back to Harper as soon as I was well enough to do so, and take up residence in the home my parents had left for me. Eight days after the crash, I was able to get up and walk around for the first time.
A nursing student helped me to my feet, my arm slung over her shoulders, and I stumbled into a pair of fuzzy white slippers she had brought for me. She slowly eased my weight off of her shoulders and placed a hand protectively on my chest while I found my balance. My knees shaking, I took a deep breath—-like the one I’d taken in the plane—-and stood for the first time in more than a week. I looked around the room as if everything might have changed as a reward for my effort, and then back at the nursing student. She tried to smile. I looked away.
A few minutes later I looked in the mirror for the first time since the crash. I stood there in the bathroom, a pale green hospital gown covering my body, my feet cold against the ceramic tile floor despite the cushioning of the slippers. My first thought was that the pain drugs they were pumping into me might be making me hallucinate and see some creature from my childhood nightmares staring back. My second was that I wished I could cry. But between the extensive damage to my tear ducts and the artificial membrane doctors placed over my one functioning eye in place of an eyelid, I will never cry again.
I should be optimistic that reconstructive surgery will be an option in the not-so-distant future, I’ve been told ever since. Just look at the tremendous progress that’s been made for burn victims in the last decade, and medical technology is accelerating exponentially to levels impossible to imagine until now, and blah blah blah. But the reality is that for the time being, there is no surgeon in the world who can rebuild my face around the incinerated tendons and ligaments that I’m left with.
It’s 6:46PM when I step out the front door of my home and lock it. Although the sun has gone down, the moon illuminates the streets brilliantly, and the fallen leaves that cover the lawns and sidewalks almost seem to glow. In typical Oregon fashion, there’s a damp chill in the air and I shiver as I zip my coat up. I trot quickly down the concrete steps and take up a leisurely pace down the sidewalk, drawing a deep breath of the cold, salty air with refreshment. In the distance, the squawking of the gulls fades against the pounding surf. It’s a nice night.
There are some families out, and one is strolling down the sidewalk toward me. Dad, mom, two little girls, a slightly older boy, and a St. Bernard about as big a colt. I take a nervous gulp as they draw near. The parents’ attention is on the kids, who appear to be playing a game of keep away from the dog with a miniature football. I watch as the boy tosses it to one of his sisters. The enormous dog, obviously quite the gentle giant, woofs loudly and trots quickly over to her, crouching and wagging. I can’t help but smile.
A patch of dry leaves crackles loudly under my foot. Mom and dad are the first to look up. The smiles disappear quickly from their faces, replaced by the kind of blank stare you generally only see on a person about to do a double take. The son, bored with the keep away game, tosses the football mercifully to his dog and looks up at me. After a moment, an ear-to-ear grin breaks out on his face. “Nice mask, Mister!” He extends a hand and I high-five it.
“Thanks, Bud! You guys having fun?”
The kids give an energetic, “yeah!” in unison. The St. Bernard, having lost interest in the football he’d fought so hard to get, trots up to me and I give him a pat on the head.
The parents smile at me. “Enjoy your night,” mom says.
“You guys do the same;” I nod and smile and we part company. From across the street, another group of kids waves to me and I wave back,“Happy Halloween!” They turn and race each other up to the next house.
You see, there is one night a year when I can engage in meaningful social interaction. It’s a precious window of time when I can not only walk the streets without having to dodge everyone else, but can talk and laugh with people as well. I get compliments every year on how skilled I am with makeup or how grotesquely realistic my mask looks, and I’m more than happy to roll with it. Usually I crack some joke about how I could have saved a lot of time by just cutting a couple of holes in a sheet and throwing it over my head, or how my girlfriend has a different opinion about my makeup skills. That one draws a laugh every time. For a few precious hours every October thirty-first, my scorched face is a channel instead of a barrier.
So, just for tonight, I’ll walk around and mingle with my neighbors that I never see. I’ll pretend that I’m just another Harper resident out having fun and sharing in the holiday excitement. For tonight, I’ll be part of the community. Tomorrow night, hopefully, I’ll go surfing.