Here’s the start of that story..
Thursday, February 10, 2000
I just got back from a February vacation in
Hawaii—a day early. I hate when that happens.
Just had to cut it short.
I spent most of my vacation being very concerned
with competence—human competence. I was also
concerned with the competence of the environmental
assets with which humans interact. I was
seriously concerned. It was, at times, a matter of
life and death. I hate when that happens, too. Vacations
shouldn’t be so seriously concerned with
We planned our early February warm weather trip
to have some fun in the surf and sun…as opposed
to a cold weather trip to ski in the snow of the
Rockies. This early February trip coincided with
our anniversary, The wife’s birthday, Valentine’s
Day, and some typically very cold Chicago
weather. Surf and sun usually win out in heavily
weather-weighted decision criteria. At least they
did this last time.
Off to a Bad Start
The trip began with a competence issue. The
travel agent screwed up (a technical term) the
original plans by not asking for a deposit on time
and by not using the credit card account numbers
already in the system. As a result, flight plans had
to be changed and I wasn’t happy. There were
other little things that were not quite right. Hence
my concern with incompetence.
With the recent air disasters, I was concerned
about fleet maintenance competence, pilot training
and testing competence, and I can’t forget the
baggage handlers. Then, the car rental counter
staff. Many vacations have gone very poorly when
these areas of competence are at issue.
The wife and I spent the first two days in beautiful
Honolulu right on Waikiki Beach. After the
long flight from Chicago, the sun and sounds of
the pounding surf were very relaxing. After three
years of Navy life back in the mid 1970s, I just
can’t go to that state without stopping by the Arizona
Memorial to pay my respects. No one
should. It is sobering experience. I thought of the
competence of the U.S. sailors, soldiers, and marines
stationed at or near Pearl Harbor in December
1942. I also thought of the competence of the
decorated heroes from across racial boundaries,
even way back then.
Then, I was concerned with the competence of
the serving staff and chef preparing my shellfish
meal at the ocean-side outdoor restaurant as we
toured Oahu for the day. Hoping for competence.
On day four we flew to Maui, where we were to
spend another seven days at a very nice resort.
More pilot and maintenance competency being
personally tested here by the tourists. And, then
we personally tested limo-driver competence, followed
by front desk, bell services, and finally
room services competence.
Looking for Competence
The next two days on Maui were spent relaxing on
the beach, catching some rays and planning “what
will we do with our limited time without running
ourselves ragged?” We saw the whales playing at
sea from our villa window and again from the
beach lying under the umbrellas, sipping from
cups embellished with little umbrellas and fruit.
“Bartender competency tests complete. Care for
another?” The wife smiled.
We planned a helicopter ride (with video) of the
entire island. Would the pilot be competent? What
about their maintenance crew and their suppliers?
Is the snack food okay?
We planned a snorkeling trip. How competent is
that crew in life saving and emergency procedures,
in teaching snorkeling techniques, and in driving
We planned a drive to Hana that would take us
over 56 one-lane bridges and a night luau at Lanai.
My driving competency would be tested as well as
the wife’s patience.
We gladly left off golf, diving, horseback riding on
the beach or in the mountains, tennis, sailing, and
dinner cruises from the competencies we would
test. Enough is enough. Otherwise we were going
to need a vacation from our vacation. Sadly, there
wasn’t enough time. After these two days of carefree
planning with pure relaxation, we were ready
to explore paradise at a relaxed pace.
Sunday, February 4
Just before returning to our villa on Sunday afternoon,
we walked into the water to
splash around. A big wave came up and as it
passed, I dove into it back toward the shoreline. I
was going to body surf back to the shoreline just
as I had watched dozens of competent kids and
grownups do all afternoon.
The signs along the beach walkway had said to
never turn your back to the ocean. Many signs.
Many warnings. I did not competently understand
their true meaning. It turned out that I was incompetent.
As I dove into it, the wave hit me high and the
undertow hit me low. Remember the cartoons of
characters being tossed in a washing machine?
They spinned and tumbled. So did I.
I immediately lost all feelings in my arms after my
head hit the ocean floor. They hung limply by my
sides, floating listlessly, all akimbo in the aftermath
of my spinning and tumbling cycle. My eyes
opened despite the salt water. My mind raced.
Which way was up? Which way to shore? Was I
going to drown? The undertow was powerful, it
could take me out to sea. In a weird, slow-motion
speed my thoughts flashed to the controversial
Super Bowl commercial of Christopher Reeve
getting up from his wheelchair and walking.
I was scared. Very scared. Why did I flash on that?
This can’t be good. A diving experience came to
me and told me to slow my breathing down, way
down. I did. Competently.
My arms were useless. I could not motion with
them and push myself around. All I had going for
me were my legs. They were off the ocean floor
but sinking down and would soon touch. I understood
the potential of the undertow to carry me
away from shore and back out to sea and the need
to get planted and then push with my feet. But I
needed to get oriented and directed back to shore.
Which way to the shore? Which way out to sea?
When will my feet make contact?
When they did I pushed myself ahead in the direction
I was already facing. I couldn’t turn around
easily. My arms floated up and down at my sides
with the action of the waves. I could see the surface
of the water above me, it was a foot or two
away. I watched silently as the surface steadily
lowered itself to meet my waiting face with each
step I took. The top of my head broke through
first as I steadily pushed myself forward with my
feet. My arms hurt. Pain shot up and down. It felt
like a giant charlie-horse.
When I broke the surface, my scream for help was
only a whimper. My wife heard it but didn’t sense
an emergency. Luckily, she was looking for
me when I didn’t come up right away. She approached
me as another wave rolled over me. I
said, “My arm.”