What a dead jellyfish taught me about behavior

Posted 3/29/19

It wasn’t a rare occurrence, this thing I encountered — a jellyfish washed up on the sand of a North Carolina beach — but still, to me, it felt like it was some kind of omen.

It was the …

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What a dead jellyfish taught me about behavior

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It wasn’t a rare occurrence, this thing I encountered — a jellyfish washed up on the sand of a North Carolina beach — but still, to me, it felt like it was some kind of omen.

It was the summer I turned 14. My dad and my older sister Belinda and I were spending a week at Long Beach. It turned out to be a tough and trying stretch of days for a lot of reasons that aren’t important now, and one evening, after dinner, I found myself in need of a walk and some separation.

Taking a meditative stroll on a quiet beach in that hour or two before sunset, when the towering white cumulus clouds over the ocean turn shades of pink and blue, is something many of us have done. You know that peace; the sounds of the breeze and the softly pounding surf and the distant and delighted squeals of children running through the saltwater shallows.

I carried with me a broomstick-sized stick I’d found discarded on the sand — just right for batting shells into the ocean, something I enjoyed doing. So it was with that stick in hand that I stood alone on the shore, looking at the bulbous jelly, wondering how it had come to this spot.

Moments later I was joined by a man, probably in his 30s. He greeted me with a nod and bent to examine the animal. He then politely asked to borrow my stick, which he used to carefully turn the jellyfish over as he studied it closely. No other words were exchanged. Even dead, the jelly scared me, but this man’s curiosity was buoyant and intense. I felt like a witness to a detective investigating a crime scene.

After a few minutes, satisfied, the man did something I’m not sure would have occurred to me: he knelt and carefully cleaned the stick by wiping it in the moist sand, eliminating any traces of the jelly that might have clung to it. And then he handed it back to me like one would a knife, turning the handle portion toward me.

He said a soft “thanks” and walked on.

I did as well, continuing on in the opposite direction.

At some point, as day transitioned into dusk, I turned back. The skies were turning ominous with darkening clouds, the kind we get during summer that bring lightning flashes but rarely rain. As I walked, still batting the occasional shell, I realized I had more company on the nearly deserted beach: four figures on the shoreline, noisily examining something.

My jellyfish.

They turned out to be a mix of the raucous and the reserved: two muscular, crew-cutted young men accompanied by two very pretty — and very bewildered, like they’d realized they’d bitten off more than they could chew — young women.

As I approached, one of the men looked at me and spoke.

“We’re in the Army,” he exclaimed, just a little too loudly. “Wanna fight?”

I was measuring out my reply — it wouldn’t have been within the same time zone as a “yes,” but then again I was pretty sure he wasn’t serious — when his friend reached toward me, palm open, expectantly. It was clear he wanted my stick, the same stick I’d been batting shells with for almost an hour, the same stick that the studious man I’d encountered earlier had thoughtfully and respectfully used to examine the stranded gelatinous animal.

Reluctantly, I handed it to him. In an instant he began beating the jelly mercilessly, jumping up and down and pummeling the animal with the stick, striking it with the most forceful blows he could muster.

“Yeah! Yeah! Yeah,” he screamed. Pieces of the jellyfish were now breaking off as the dead and battered sea creature began to disintegrate.

I felt sick to my stomach. The girls looked horrified.

Then the man who challenged me to fight took his turn. In another minute or two, with the jellyfish now shredded, he grew bored. He stopped and without a word threw the stick to me.

Girls in tow, they noisily continued up the beach, leaving me, my battered stick and the remains of the jellyfish just standing there, right where we’d all been nearly an hour before, now in very different condition.

I walked home.

I didn’t tell my dad or my sister about the experience, but I think about it from time to time; it was an unusual experience during an unusual summer. The striking juxtaposition and the contrast in those two encounters around the jellyfish were so heavy — like a lot of life’s unusual experiences, part depressing and part fascinating.

But mostly fascinating, if you avoid the fight.


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