The Glass Ball
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by John Nippolt
2016 Spectator Ron - The Spectator All Rights Reserved
We were running away from it all; real things and things we imagined. We just couldn’t
seem to make it to the place we were headed for without coming back to where we started from. During one of those attempts to flee
we were driving and drinking, arguing about everything which was usually the case after a heavy bout with alcohol. Darkness and madness
rose up between us as the sun went down. My friend drove “Vasco” off the road with such force he created a tremendouscloud of dust
and parked us in it. Ignition off, lights off, we stewed in our separate juices, pots simmering, until we passed out.
Morning was as merciless as the night; I was shivering myself awake. The price one pays for such stupidity, I kept telling myself.
I clambered out of the old De Soto to get my bearings and put a jacket on. My hangover wasn’t as serious as the one I knew my friend
was suffering. As if it was supposed to happen this way, we found ourselves parked right in front of a sign marking the trailhead
for Point Reyes National Park. The brisk morning found us straggling out toward the beach for a look at the ocean.
After the long walk, as always, my first instinct was to look at the waves. My pal was too busy puking to take in the enormous swells
coming out of the northwest. I turned around to commiserate with him and looked at the spot next to where he was making his mess.
In the same instant something caught our eyes. It was transparent aqua blue, the very color of the ocean and the size of a volley
ball. Bright beams of sunlight danced off it, and it had a knotted rope net tied around it.
My friend stopped what he was doing, and there we were staring at this object I suddenly wanted very badly. One of the more beautiful
images I can recall, I watched helplessly as the wondrous sphere was lifted up off the clean morning sand by a pair of hands other
I’d never seen a glass ball delivered right up on the beach like this; it had to have floated in on a very high tide. I
looked off at the shore break whose pulse I could feel pounding on the sand under my feet from fifty yards away. I strained to hear
the sounds of those waves and as I did, I remembered I was thinking about smaller glass balls I’d seen in some of my friend’s houses
when I started surfing.
I never got the picture of what these things were really all about
until that morning. I began to wonder where they came from, who made them, and why? My first impression had been that glass balls
were made for decoration. You know, surf kitsch. Although this glass float appeared to come down out of the Pacific Northwest via
the California current, closer inspection revealed a glass stamp with a kanji symbol near the plug and another on the plug itself.
Molten glass was used to write the kanji. This meant the floats were made in Japan! Later, I would learn these little voyagers drifted
across the North Pacific Ocean via the Kuroshio extension, a cold current that moves westward from the coastal waters of Japan.
There are exceptions to the glass balls that land unscathed (like the one my friend claimed that morning) or those that get dashed
against rocks and cliffs along the rugged Pacific west coast. Some glass floats continue their journey north after meeting up with
the Aleutian current on a route that could take them under the Polar Cap. Proof of such a journey can be found in those glass balls
that have water inside them. I was told that the immense pressures exerted on balls that go under the ice causes water to penetrate
the interior of the floats. Balls survive or explode; I have seen balls with sea water in them, I may still have one or two myself.
Years passed since that walk to the beach at Point Reyes and once again I was looking for
the place to start my life. A friend I had known since childhood moved from California to surf the legendary waves on the north shore
of Kauai. He worked for a family as a taro farmer in Hanalei Valley and lived in a ‘taro shack’ in Wainihau Valley. In his free time
he worked on his writing and surfed. He wrote me, telling me of the many surf spots on Kauai, and in particular the beauty of the
island. He said it was a paradise for artists, too. Throughout my childhood I heard many tales and a few warnings about living in
Hawaii from my friends. I had never been there but the islands definitely “called me”. Surf and the beauty of Polynesia were what
I wanted and needed, so I made my decision. I packed my things and moved to Kauai. “There’s an island across the sea…..”
On my very first day I was reminded of the Point Reyes glass ball incident. I was sitting ‘shotgun’ in my friend’s VW bus and I could
see that Hawaiians hung glass balls from the eaves of their roofs. I asked my friend to stop his van so I could have a better look.
At first I wondered why people bought these balls to decorate their houses when it hit me! These were found objects. My friend told
me some Hawaiians thought it was a sign of good luck to find a glass ball and that’s why they were openly displayed on their homes.
In fact, he told me that he had just found one a few days before I got there.
after, my first Hawaiian friend would explain to me, how the great oceans developed circular motions of currents whose movement responds
to the rotation of the earth. Known as the coriolis effect, it causes the glass floaters to eventually drift back towards where they
came from, allowing for many of them to end up washing ashore on the beaches of the windward (eastern) side of all the islands of
the Hawaiian Archipelago.
We arrived at the house where I spent my first night in Hawaii,
and I noticed that the owner of the house had many different size glass floats everywhere. My thoughts fell into place and I began
to understand why these objects struck so resonant a chord deep inside me; now, it all made sense: soul searching, ocean, surf, luck,
Hawaii. It was some sort of a lifestyle connection for me, a kind of symbolic metaphor for the path I had chosen long ago.
I have spent most of my adult life living in Hawaii. I moved from Kauai to Oahu, and as is my preference, I live on the east side
of the island for the sunrise and the trade winds. I have walked out on many beach trails during this time, to paint, surf, or exercise
my dog. There were days I would come upon three or four balls without a thought about looking for them, even though I knew certain
beach trails I could hike for the express purpose of finding glass floats. I was able to take my old Point Reyes pal along one of
those stretches and we had a great time reminiscing about our past, reflecting how we had gone off on our separate paths much like
the glass balls for which we combed the beach. My friend found another beautiful netted ball similar to the one we spotted together
at Point Reyes, only this time I didn’t envy him his good fortune. I already had a fine collection of floaters by now and I found
some pretty nice balls that day too.
Glass balls seem to act as portents for me. Before
the birth of my second child I was wondering what gender it would be. I had a dream about a glass ball floating up to shore, but what
made the dream really unusual was that I spotted it through the open legs of some unknown person who was walking alongside the ball.
Before I woke, I conceded ownership of the float to the pair of legs; I figured the owner of the legs was closest and obviously would
get the ball. A week after I had my glass ball dream, I was at work, prepping to paint a house that fronted the ocean. I was taking
a break out on the beach, reloading my caulking gun and getting a breath of fresh salt air. I looked down along the shoreline and
I saw this official beachcomber type guy with fine walking shorts, straw hat and a hiking staff. His eyes surveyed everything on the
beach in front of him; he wasn’t looking at the water as he walked right by a huge glass floater about to end its long voyage. Déjà
vu! The sun winked at me through the ball floating between his legs as he passed it by. I dropped my caulking gun and started running
toward him like a madman, praying that he wouldn’t turn around and see the prize he missed. I was closing ground so fast, the closest
people behind him were now farther from the ball than I was. I whizzed past the professional beachcomber in his authentic beach comber’s
uniform and he gave me what I took as a look of dismissal. I guess I was dressed in the wrong beach comber’s outfit: overalls and
boots. My baseball cap had blown off during my initial sprint to the ball. I whooped loudly, making a great show of splashing into
the water to grab and lift the newest and largest addition to my glass ball collection above my head in celebration.
Two days went by and I was still pretty stoked about my dream find. I got home from work and it was beginning to get dark. I was out
of my car to open the gate to my yard and I heard a clink of glass bumping against cement. I stopped what I was doing and walked over
to a nearby iron grate that blocked the entrance to a flood drainage canal running underneath my street. I knew that high tides brought
ocean water into the canal system and I peeked down into the water through the grate. I saw a flash of a reflection from the street
light above me on something floating in the water; I heard the noise again. I pried the grate open and climbed down into the flood
canal to retrieve a small netted glass ball that floated right up to my house! I knew that I was going to have a son.
Not many of us have had the rare experience of welcoming a glass ball ashore. Luck and good timing has allowed me to be there for
such an event more than once. Sitting in the sand mesmerized, I’ve watched the ocean releasing a glass floater from its grasp, propelling
the ball forward up onto the sand until it rolls to a stop.
Glass balls are no longer produced
for the Japanese fishing industry and haven’t been for some time. Like everything else, they have turned into plastic. I’ve read there
are supposed to be many more glass balls adrift out on the ocean somewhere. I haven’t found one for over a year; the last one came
to me just before my son arrived home safely from his final tour of duty in Iraq. I know I’ll probably bump into another one when
I have to; I figure they still work for me.