A Lesson Learned From My First Library Book



"Are you crazy?" I asked my two Air Force buddies.

"C'mon," one of them said. "We'll be able to see it from up close."

"The warning on the radio didn't say how high it was going to be," I pointed out to him.

"Ah-h-h," the other one said. "We'll be OK."

They went. I didn't.

Where were we? Okinawa. What was going on? Well, to answer that I have to back up a few years ... quite a few, in fact, to second grade and a field trip to the library.

They issued each of us a library card that day. Oh boy, was I proud. I had my own library card. I could sign out books and take them home. I didn't need my mother with me any more. I signed out my very first library book, a book of Chinese fables.

One of the stories in the book was about a boy who could take the entire sea into his mouth. The people of his village asked him to perform this wondrous act so they could witness it. He agreed, warning, however, that they had to be careful because he could only hold the sea in his mouth for a very short time.

But when the little boy took the sea into his mouth and the villagers saw the seabed suddenly laid bare, and large numbers of fish and other valuable things lying about just for the taking, they rushed out and began gathering them up. And though the boy waved his arms and jumped up and down, they paid him no heed. Being no longer able to hold the sea in his mouth, the boy was forced to release it, whereupon the villagers were all drowned.

Now, I'd read or heard other fables, and they all had a moral of some kind. I wondered what the moral of that story was. It wasn't obvious, so I asked around. I asked my mother, my older brothers and my teacher. Nobody knew. So I went back to the library.

It took a long time for a little guy my age to find the answer. It took three visits, in fact, but I finally learned what that fable was really about. Can you guess?


It was trying to teach that if the sea suddenly recedes, the thing to do is to run away from the shore, as fast and as far as your feet will carry you.

That's the first warning of a tidal wave, you see. The sea suddenly recedes, sometimes by as much as a mile. Then it comes back -- not in the hundred-foot-high wave that Hollywood would like you to believe. Usually in a wave that is six, ten or 12 feet higher than sea level.

But that wave is a gift that keeps on giving. The surge of water may continue running inland for ten, 15, 20, even 30 minutes. And then it runs back out again. And it may have a half dozen wave-buddies behind it ready to do the same thing. Can you imagine what would happen if a five-foot-high rush of water ran through your back yard for 15 minutes? And then reversed and ran back the other way?

All that is what I was trying to explain to my buddies that evening on Okinawa, but they went down to the shore anyway. Well, as it turned out the tidal wave that arrived from the 1964 Alaska earthquake was only three inches high on Okinawa. So, no harm was done. But a few years later, as you know, in almost identical circumstances, people did the same thing as those buddies of mine.

They stood around and watched when the sea receded.

Bad idea.

The ancients often had no explanation for why things happened but they still tried to warn us about them, often in the form of a saying or a fable. So, if the little boy who can swallow up the sea rolls the waves back someday when you're basking on the shore, run for the hills, not for the free fish or the pretty seashells.

At least that's what it said in my very first library book.

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