California Luau

The long afternoon sank into the sea, the brown Los Angeles basin smog turning the sun fantastic, distorted, like a rotting orange. Summers in Southern California heat to almost 100 degrees at midday, but the dry, desert air quickly cools at night. Shawn liked the beach best on these late afternoons and evenings.

He’d asked Sally to go with him to the Calvary Church luau, but she said, “I’m driving down with Cindy and Saundra; we have to take a bunch of food.” So Shawn drove down with Bill, a year younger that he, who had no car. They pulled into the blacktopped Huntington Beach parking area, found a space and revved the engine of his 1953 metallic blue Ford—-nosed, decked, and hung, with twin glasspak pipes.

Shawn and Bill walked onto the beach barefooted, the sand squishing between their toes. They wore Bermuda shorts and teeshirts over their swim trunks. Shawn carried a watermelon and Bill, a six-pack of Pepsi, their respective contributions to the luau. The beating of the waves on the sand grew louder as they inhaled the salt spray.

Shawn wondered if Rod would be here. Of course he would be here; Rod had to be here, mainly because Sally was here. Rod was barely 5’8” tall (Shawn was a full six feet), and had just completed his first year at Fullerton Junior College. What he lacked in good looks he made up in wit and confidence. Shawn was certain Sally looked at Rod as older, more mature, a man with a plan, already in college and on his way to a skyscraper corner office. How could Shawn compete with that? Like Shawn, Sally had just graduated from Orange High School.

As they walked up to the Calvary group, Shawn stared at the girls—maxi-skirted, with hibiscus flowers in their hair, bare feet and painted toenails. They walked with grace, and stooped over as they made food preparations. Saundra wore a tiny silver chain around one ankle.  Cindy was a bit more robust, and wore a cover-up over her purple swimsuit. Melanie was less than five feet tall. Shawn noticed her long maxi skirt and the bathing suit top above her bare midriff. He pulled his eyes away.

Shawn smelled the smoke from the Tiki torches, and the loud music coming from a portable radio excited him. The Luau had been Saundra and Melanie’s idea. Melanie was Rod’s old girlfriend; one of several. When Shawn asked her out once she said, “I’ll have to ask Daddy; I’m only 13 going on 14.” Daddy said yes and they had gone to a football game, nothing more.

All the food lay on gunny sack cloths atop a woven mat of green palm branches. Succulent hunks of pork hung on skewers for roasting kabobs Sweet corn still in the husk, watermelon, potato chips, and rice that the girls had piled on banana leaves. And for dessert, big frosted chocolate cakes. Mango drinks sat cooling in a red ice chest. Most of the boys assumed that their greatest contribution was their presence, although some had thought to bring fruit or chips.

Shawn and Bill dropped off their watermelon and Pepsi, stripped off their teeshirts and shorts, and ran toward the water. The defiant sun sank to the horizon as the waves washed farther and farther up the beach.

They dove into one wave after another, sometimes jumping on top of the peaks and body-surfing in the foam toward the beach. Pacific waters are cold, even in summer. But the huge, pounding waves throw you around so much you don’t realize you’re getting numb.

They just let the smaller waves break over their waist or shoulders, but they could see two or three waves forming in the distance, and with experience they knew which one of them would be big. With these you try to jump up onto the peak and then swim furiously as it carries you in to the shore.

Shawn saw the monster wave approaching.

He and Bill jumped just before the wave broke, but they didn’t jump high enough. Instead of lifting them, the wave crashed over them and somersaulted them. Shawn tumbled helpless against the power of the foam; then he hit the ocean floor hard. The force kept him underwater and he panicked, afraid he would run out of air. But the relentless wave rolled him all the way into the shallows where he weakly stood up, spit out salt water, and felt the sting from the scrapes on his back and knees.

Then he saw Rod, barely visible, out beyond the breakers, calmly swimming parallel to the shore. Clearly showing off. Shawn never went out there; he lacked the confidence. Shawn glanced toward the firepit and saw a couple of girls looking past him out to sea as if he were invisible, watching Rod. One of them was Sally.

One of the other guys had helped Glen bring some dead wood from his home orange orchard, and some eucalyptus chopped into firewood lengths. Neither woods were native to the area. The Spanish had brought in the orange trees in the 1700s, and the tall-growing eucalyptus trees came from Australia—local orange growers used them to form windbreaks. Glen struck a match (no one carried cigarette lighters), lit a wad of newspapers he’d thrown into the firepit, then carefully added splinters of eucalyptus. When it blazed up, he said, “Throw on some orange branches; let’s get this thing roaring.”

Saundra said, “The fire’ll be great for the kabobs. We’ll roast pieces of pork, along with onions and green peppers.”

Melanie said, “Hey, you guys, pick up a skewer and load it up with meat and pieces of vegetable. There’s some bacon over here. We’re not going to do it for you.”

Sally said, “Why don’t we have a prayer before we eat?” People paused, bowed their heads, and she prayed a spontaneous prayer of thanks. (Calvary people always prayed spontaneous prayers.) Sally was not only pretty, social, intelligent; she also had the requisite Fundamentalist piety. At that moment Shawn thought to himself, I think I’m in love.

People grabbed their skewer sticks and loaded on pork pieces and vegetables. Everybody sat around the firepit roasting kabobs.

After dinner people took marshmallows to roast. Saundra cut the chocolate cake in pieces. “There’s more Pepsi, you guys. There’s some orange in there too.” Calvary was no-alcohol. Some of the guys occasionally imbibed, but never here, never with their church friends.

People ate cake and marshmallows. It was really dark now, and the seaward breeze had blown away the smog. The air chilled and the bonfire began to feel good as everybody sat around talking. Someone started Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version of “Michael, row the boat ashore…” We sang at church, so we had to sing here also.

Shawn saw Sally walking down to the edge of the rising waves, and followed her. His low social skills and low self-confidence with girls set his heart beating fast. “Great luau. Thanks for fixing the food.”

“Oh; Saundra and Melanie did most of it. It was good.”

“Are you accepted to BIOLA Bible?

“Yeah; but I’m also looking at Multnomah School of the Bible. Are you still going to Moody Bible?”

Shawn told her he hoped so. “I love the idea of going east—I’ve never been east of Texas. Old brick and stone buildings, snow, thunderstorms, and miles of corn fields. Moody has a great aviation program. I don’t know what I’ll do if I’m not accepted. Mission aviation—-that’s all I want to do.”

Shawn wondered, was he talking too much about himself? Let Sally talk.

“Roddy’s going to Fullerton JC to study business.”

Roddy? Shawn hated it when Sally talked about him. What did she really think of Rod? They’d gone out a few times; how serious were they? Rod swam in, walked back up the beach and lay on a towel, exhausted. Shawn accidently kicked sand in his face.

Sally had come with Melanie, but she rode home with Rod. Shawn and Bill left together with Cindy, who needed a ride home.

A great luau, but what Shawn really cared about was Sally—-and it looked as if she was slipping through his fingers.

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