Fall Guide: A yank in the wake

If you can't manage to pull your scrawny ass up on those two worthless twigs on my wide board,' says the voice on the other end of the cellular tether, 'then you are only one thing: pathetic.'

It's the gloating 'ooh-rah' braggadocio inherent to extreme sports — one that serves the dual purpose of catalyzing and discouraging the aquatic death wish of shirtless futility known as wakeboarding — and at the moment, it's making me wish my iPhone would drop the call into a pool of sanity.

Orlando is lousy with lakes meant for reckless plundering, and I'm on my way to a friend's lakeshore manse to engage in the foolhardy exercise of being pulled against the laws of physics and gravity into a lake-skimming upright state — some kind of sweet spot meant to bring with it the exhilaration of cheating nature (or something).

That something might be death. On the one hand — or arm — studies have shown that among the frequent injuries reported by doctors who deal with wakeboarding accidents, there's a high risk of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears, shoulder dislocations and ankle sprains. No big deal, right? But it's the more sinister risk, the word that's brought fear to the trembling lips of those raised in Florida for the duration of their waterlogged lives — go ahead, say it, 'amoeba!' — that makes this pending nightmare manifest in my panic. Naegleria fowleri, the technical name for the invisible blob that climbs through any of the holes above your neck to nest in your brain and grow into primary amebic meningoencephalitis, tend to thrive in hot lakes in Florida, just waiting for hapless thrill-seekers to inhale them. Today, I'm that guy.

Outside on the dock, I cast a Roy Scheider Jaws glance over the brownish-green expanse, hoping to make peace with the drowning pool of Lake Holden. Then, because it's a prerequisite for watersports, I throw back some liquid courage and wait for the tightening angles of reason to disappear from my mind.

'You'll be fine,' says my host, pouring gas into his boat. If only.

Off in the periphery, about two docks over, two shirtless beauhunks smack each other's pecs and shove each other into the water; a momentary shiny distraction of homoeroticism that couldn't come at a better time.

'I'm ready,' I burp, and we're off.

Two other first-timers have been drafted to join in our afternoon humility crusade. The first, a 22 year old with a skeletal build similar to my own, offers to go first. After two failed attempts to effectively walk on water while being yanked by a speeding machine of doom, he's up, carelessly winding up and down the splitting wake behind us. He shrugs his shoulders as he climbs back in the boat. Piece of cake.

'I'm not doing this,' I finally decide, just as my second foot is shoved into the black high-top sneaker of the wakeboard foot-binding. Somebody shoves me in the murk and throws a rope at my head. Yes, I am.


'Uh, no?'

Some instructional conversation follows as I swish around in dead-fish agony: 'You need to hold your feet at a 45-degree angle!' I'm not too bad with geometry, but two things are missing here: 1) I can't feel my feet; and 2) 45 degrees to what?

My spirited flagellations are basically ignored, and I can feel the rope tightening. OK, this is it: 45-degree angle, hold the stick at the end of the rope tightly, don't lean forward, it's you against the boat. Faster, faster now — and yank! There go my arms. There goes the whole rest of my body as it's smashed against (and into) a dull-white splash of putrid failure.

I hoover up just about as much of the lake as would likely be required for a scientist's water-quality test. Then, stillness. Just bobbing and waiting in a too-big lifejacket, feeling lifeless and vulnerable, with a gator's eye view of mortality.

We attempt this charade three more times, each with diminishing results — the kind of results one might expect from being yanked by an engine at 30 miles per hour into a wall of water. I inhale, I swallow, my ears feel like they've taken quite a few sips themselves. I think I'm dying. There is no sensation of accomplishment, just a reminder of failure — one made even more poignant by the sight of hot guys doing somersaults on their wakeboards whirling around me.

The third contestant, a hulking Army veteran with tattoos, doesn't fare much better than me, though I doubt he'll ache with the same muscular shame that I will tomorrow. (Or, in fact, for the next week, when I fall into a hypochondria shame-spiral of sniffles and coughs and amoeba dreams.)

'Well?' I ask, as I dry off my defeat.

'You tried,' offers my friend. 'And you are pathetic.'

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