Michael O’Neal is a country gentleman…broad-shouldered and fit and strong. He reminds me of a blond Michael Landon—but with shorter curls.
Instinctively, he seemed to know that my heart was fragile—-that it had been shattered a dozen times, at least. He told me not to worry. He only wanted an hour of my time. Just an hour for a picnic at the beach. So I obliged him.
That first meeting was a date extraordinaire. I’ve never had one like it…..
We met at Trinidad Beach…a long stretch of cliffs and caverns. Crashing surf. Archways carved in the rocks. I gazed about me, transfixed. It was so glorious…so heaven-on-earth…The most romantic spot I’d ever seen…
Michael brought out the picnic lunch and a large book. I eyed the latter curiously. It was a coffee-table book and seemed rather out of place on a sandy beach—but I soon forgot about it as Michael set out our lunch…a luscious spread of sliced turkey on sourdough. Avocados. Potato salad.
Michael fed the seagulls tidbits as we ate and talked. Squirrels and other critters showed up, as well. Michael was like Dr. Doolittle to them.
A sea otter scampered along the rocky ledge. A gray pelican appeared from the mists…a stately old bird who was clearly attracted by Dr. Doolittle’s gentle demeanor. The pelican approached with sure steps and steady eyes.
Michael looked at the old patriarch of the sea. “In all my years on the coast,” he murmured, “I’ve never seen one come this close. Pelicans just don’t do that.”
A passerby echoed the sentiment. She paused and stared at the bird. “This old guy can’t be a local pet,” she said. “I’ve lived in this area for 30 years…So I should know!” Shaking her head, she walked on, mumbling to herself.
The pelican ate the sardines that we offered him, then sat down nearby and eyed Michael with curiousity, listening to his soothing voice and kind words. They discussed many things together, the pelican making approving noises from time to time…his head nodding sleepily.
When at last they’d finished, the pelican took his leave, lifting his great wings slowly, laboriously. Flop. Flop. Flop. He disappeared into the mists and sun-drenched sky.
I exhaled, unaware that I’d been sitting there with bated breath. “Wow!” I said. “…Wow.”
Michael remained silent. He sat staring out at the waters, his eyes as blue as the sky above and the sea beneath. The breeze played in his golden hair, stirring the wispy curls at the back of his neck.
I looked away. He was just too gorgeous. My thoughts scared me somewhat, so I put them out of my mind and suggested we go for a walk.
We ambled down the beach, revelling in the wonders of the day…the saltiness on the breeze. The warm sand, the frothy surf. So romantic. Too romantic!
Our one-hour date stretched into two hours, maybe even three. But who’s counting? We talked of our ambitions and dreams—pondering our mutual love of God and His creation. We spoke of gardening and camping.
“Beach-combing…” he said.
“Tide pooling and starfish…”
“Campfires at midnight…”
“Vic,” he said, putting an arm around me. “Have you ever built a driftwood castle on the beach?” His voice sounded dreamy. “…Camping in your castle at night and watching the moon go down. Then watching the sun come up in the morning?”
I stifled a sigh. This man had to be my long lost soulmate…who else would dream up such craziness? I walked on beside him, feeling whimsical and half-intoxicated with foolishness—my thoughts spinning on and on beneath the blue sky. A sky as blue as his eyes—-
I brought myself up short. This foolishness had to stop. .
Reluctantly, we headed back toward our picnic supplies. We were nearly there when Michael suddenly halted.
“Oh no…” he said. “The little devils!”
I followed his gaze. Bits of food lay scattered about the ground, mingled with scraps of paper. Noisy birds were picking through the debris.
“Crows…” Michael said with a sigh, “are the roving terrorists of the natural world. One time, they ate all my potato chips and my T-bone steaks, too.”
Michael stared at the birds ruefully. But he didn’t chase them away. Instead, he finished scattering the food to the little black devils. “There!” he said. “See if that holds you for a while.”
He saw me looking at him, and he grinned. “They need it, I guess,” said the golden-haired Dr. Doolittle. “Crows need a picnic, too.”
Indeed. Crows need a picnic, and I need a man like you, I thought. Ah me. What I really needed, right now, was a distraction.
Looking down, I saw the coffee-table book sitting there amid the picnic supplies. I picked it up. Hope and Heroes…Portraits of Integrity. There were pictures and profiles of famous folks. Nelson Mandela. Art Linkletter. Dr. Phil McGraw. Billy Graham. Stories of courageous men who had changed their world through simple acts of integrity and heroism.
I turned the pages, idly. “Neat book, Michael,” I said. “I love the pictures and the stories and—-”
I stopped suddenly, my hand frozen in the middle of a page turn. There was a photo of a man with golden curls…Oddly familiar. A good-looking man. “Michael O’Neal”, it said.
My mouth fell open. I dropped the book and grabbed Michael by the shoulders, giving him a shake. “You are famous!” I shouted at him. “You’re in there with Mandela and Linkletter and Billy Graham and Dr. Phil?! You’re famous!”
Michael looked bemused. “Well…not exactly famous,” he said, “But rather well-known on the West Coast, at least.” He smiled at me, and one eyebrow quirked. “My story’s been told on TV and on news networks, but I wouldn’t really say that I’m famous.”
I sat down on a log and opened up the book, again. I read Michael’s story—-my eyes growing bigger as I scanned the words….An avalanche heading for a sleeping town. A courageous man who heard the mudslide coming and ran to warn his neighbors—barely escaping with his life—yet sparing many others.
I closed the cover of the book and sat staring at the man beside me. After my initial outburst, I didn’t know what to say.
Michael was silent, watching the waves surge and froth…waves galloping to shore like bands of white horses.
“Michael,” I said, “How did you have that kind of courage? I mean—-you risked your life for your neighbors! How did you choose between your own life and theirs?”
He didn’t answer right away. He had that habit, it seemed.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do,” he said at last. “The really hard part was when I had to fight the Lumber Company in court. Their clear-cutting of timber caused the erosion and avalanche. It only took a few minutes to warn everybody about the mudslide, but it took over three years to win that court case.”
Michael paused, his eyes growing darker at the memory. “Somebody had to go after the culprits. The townsfolk were scared. Nobody else would go after the Lumber Company. That Corporation’s like God around here….and they all wanted me silenced. Dead.”
I stared at him.
What an incredible man. So stubborn and courageous—yet so gentle, too. I knew I was in the presence of an American hero.
Fumbling in my pocket, I took out a heart-shaped rock: a stone as unique as the man beside me. It was reddish purple with white cross-marks—-one of Nature’s finest treasures…a souvernir from a past beachcombing spree.
I gave the stone to Michael. “I want you to have that,” I said. “It’s a cross-my-heart rock.”
We sat looking at it together. It was Nature’s ‘purple heart’ for bravery, and it now belonged to the greatest hero I’d ever met. If anyone deserved a medal of honor, it was Michael O’Neal.
“This is special to me, and so are you,” Michael said softly, “I’ll keep this rock close to my heart.”
He put my cross-the-heart stone in his front shirt pocket, then took my hand. “The very first time I met you at church, Vic, I felt a kinship. I knew we were so similar, with like passions and interests . I don’t think I was wrong, was I?”
I shook my head, not daring to speak. It was a sacred moment. A moment of tenderness and destiny, somehow.
Michael stood up and pulled me to my feet. He put his arms around me and we stood there in the Pacific breeze…swaying slightly. A slow dance without music….Swaying to the symphony of the ages—the rhythm of the surf and the sound of the ocean breeze in the spruce trees. A slow dance beneath the rays of the setting sun.
The sun slid lower. Shadows grew longer. Day was almost done.
We eventually roused ourselves, and gathered up our picnic supplies. I touched his arm. “Thanks for our picnic,” I said. “This has been wonderful.”
“It was nothing, Vic,” he said. “There are so many other places to see. Some day I want to take you to islands out in the Pacific. There are hide-away coves, and caverns even more beautiful than this—-”
He paused and smiled at me. “Beach-combing…” he said.
“Tide-pooling and starfish…”
“Campfires at midnight…”
Michael’s eyebrow quirked in that special way, making my heart beat faster. His curls glinted in the sunlight…a halo formed by the rays of the setting sun.
“Vicki…” he said, “Today is only the beginning….”