Beyond the Breakers…Why, Chapter 1, and Chapter 2


Why Write Beyond the Breakers?

Eventually, everyone faces tragic grief. At some point they will lose someone dear to them. Sometimes it seems normal, as when a person dies at an old age. And then there are those other cases of prolonged illness, or the long lingering results of an accident, or a killing that results in premature death.

When it comes to the emptiness and pain of loss, arguably the worst loss is the sudden and unexpected death of your child.  The death may be only at their start in life, or they may die in the midst of discovery at any age. What is left are unfinished lives, torn from their goals and their dreams far earlier than life’s intent. And your future dies with them.

The world goes on with the merest of notice. You want to scream, but you can’t, for it won’t help. Or, writing skills be damned, you want to put something down on paper that reminds the world of the wonder that’s been lost, but you can’t, not because you can’t write, but because you can’t write about it. And who will read it anyway?

So, that’s where I am stuck. My son of twenty-four years died suddenly, three thousand miles away from his mother and me. It has been nearly twenty years since…and I still cry.

Writing this book makes it no better. It is not my way of “letting it out,” but it is a story that knows why it screams in lonely silence. It is a fiction about non-fiction reality that all too many of us experience. I am not the protagonist, but I know how he feels. I know how he breathes. And I know how he yearns for justice. In my son’s case, the murderer was an accident, a wisp of fate. In the case of the son of the fictional Dale Riley Richards, it was an intentional bullet.


Beyond the Breakers

1 – The Ocean

Long Island is about 110 miles long east to west and about 30 miles wide at the thickest part north to south. That’s where I grew up – to the left of the middle.

Along the southern side there are a number of thin islands close to shore. The one separated from Long Island by Great South Bay is called Jones Beach Island. It contains Jones Beach State Park, which covers 6.5 miles of the island’s ten-mile length. It’s hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and has more sand than you could ever want to play in.

As a family, we often went to Jones Beach to swim in the Atlantic Ocean. I loved it there. Sometimes after my dad got home from work, we quickly drove out there and ate cold fried chicken and cold boiled potatoes in the cooling ocean breeze of the early evening. And the water was freezing too. It was great!

When I go there now my senses fill up with memories, mostly of the waves, beautiful and terrifying, waves that would knock the largest man down without any effort. The day after a hurricane went through, I once saw waves higher than the top of our house roof ­– power beyond belief – power from Hell! As a boy, I used to stand at the water’s edge and watch the waves come ashore in wild chaos, crashing down as frightening breakers, or so it seemed to me, fascinated and fearful. I couldn’t swim very well then, and have remained so, but I never even thought about the actual drowning process. It was simply the power of the breakers, simultaneously beautiful and deadly, that I feared. And yet the greatest lesson of my life was theirs to give me.

When the ocean was relatively calm, I could walk far out in the freezing water, but eventually a wave would always rise up to attack me. The fear of that wave, not of drowning, would overtake me, over wash me with shear unthinking terror, and there I was, just a little boy alone. I would run with legs as in a dream, slow, impeded, fighting the irresistible undertow, and seldom did I outrun the inevitable. I would tumble in a world of sand, water, violence, and darkness, drinking in the very wave I feared. I never cried, but it was my personal solid proof that going beyond the breakers was never to be done.

I look at ocean waves now, and they calm me down. Back then they were a living nightmare. Other children my age and younger would enter the water and go out beyond the breakers. “Just get beyond the breakers,” my parents would say, but I knew they were wrong. Yet, deep inside of me, the will and strength to do it was there all the time and growing. And then one day I did, and I became stronger than the ocean that threatened me. The ocean became calm for me in the midst of fury, chaos, and destruction.

The fear didn’t leave me, but now I knew its name, its face, its illusion. Now I could trick it, outsmart it, defy it.

And then I grew up and married, and we had a son who would hopefully someday learn the lesson of the breakers, but instead, in an instant, my wife and child were gone, as if washed out to sea by a violent, irresistible undertow, far beyond the breakers – lost in the darkness, yelling my name and yet uttering not a word, forever beyond my reach.

2 – The Aftermath

The murderer was never caught, and his reasons for the murder were drowned in a sea of ignorance.

I had been brought up a Christian, yet I couldn’t believe it was God’s will.   Still, it was one of God’s creations that had shot them. One lone breaker had finally risen to a height that I couldn’t cross. And it continued to grow as the minutes and hours flew by. Along with that breaker came an unrelenting undertow – grief, hatred, and darkness – the searing confusion of the greatest loss. I knew to approach the wave would bring more destruction, maybe my own, but I wasn’t ready to stop hating it. Those of you who have been through deep grief know what I mean. You would do anything to destroy the destroyer, even at the risk of your own life, but what was the name of the wave? No one knew.

I was left without my family, and surprisingly without some who had called me friend. They could leave rather than face it. I had no choice. The only thing I had left was a dying dog that hung on for what, for me? I don’t know. Maybe she wanted vengeance, and knew she couldn’t get it if she died. It was her family too. She had to know something about the horror. She was there. She was part of it. How deep can a dog think? Where was the reasoning in any of it?

Still, Esther hung on. She had been shot once, and after two nights at the vet, she returned home bandaged and on death’s brink. The vet held out no hope, but there we were in our house, just Esther and me. Esther was a comfort to me between the tears, and sometimes even while they rained down.   A few friends, relatives, and even strangers offered advice and food. Esther offered only extremely weak and intensely sad eyes, her breathing abnormal and labored. Strangely, at least to me, food was a big part of it. It was probably about the only real comfort that got through the haze along with Esther.

On went the ocean, waves of grief, waves of anger, waves of bewilderment, and the undertow of hatred for the person that did this.

I remember thinking soon after it happened, “Two hours ago they were fully alive, unharmed…three hours…four hours…a day…a week. How can it be true and yet seem so untrue? Let’s fix this mistake before it becomes permanent.”   And at that point my body would almost come to a complete stop.

Their names? You want to know their names? It’s hard even now to say them to people. They’re gone, and I feel so responsible for the thing that I could not possibly have predicted or prevented. I can just barely talk about it, but say their names, and it becomes too real to talk at all. I can only say them to Esther. Ask her. She’s still alive.

What purpose was there to leaving me here and taking them? They deserved their lives. They were good. Why kill good people? Why maim an innocent dog. Why give it the pain of a long recovery? Esther never barks anymore – for joy, for anything, with few exceptions. And the point is?

How can God allow this? Why fill me with hate and grief?

The police had all but given up. And I didn’t see why they had any reason to go on. Unlike the police, I had no choice, neither did Esther. “Move along, there’s nothing more to see here.”

I can’t. I won’t.


OK, Beyond the Breakers sounds pretty depressing, but you must know that the protagonist means to have his revenge.  I simply gave him a reason to do so.  That’s all.  And now he must find the killer, deal with him, and repair his life as best he can!


Before I go on talking about the pitfalls of dealing with data, I thought I would say a few things about writing  for this web site.   The other day I was thinking that I should really name it “My Own Two Cents dot com.”  Writing is a egocentric act in many ways.  If you keep it to yourself, I guess it falls out of that category, but doing what I do here does at times seem rather self-centered.  So, I looked up in a search engine.  I figured someone must have a site by that name.  Turns out that there is no such web site…but I could buy the name for $2495.00.  Now that was funny, to me anyway.  TWO CENTS would only cost me $2495.00!

So, why do I write these blogs for all to see?

I write because I enjoy the flow of what passes for logic in my brain down onto paper, the written word.  We all spend our lives wondering why most people don’t truly appreciate our thoughts about things, and the older we get, the longer the list becomes.  This blog and my novels are my list.  The blog is free and the novels are cheap.  Read what you want.  Then make your own list.


So, back to talking about my logic and how it applies to data.  Feel free to comment.  I refuse to roast criticism, although I may comment back politely.  Don’t worry about embarrassment, The Novel Slide Rule doesn’t get many visitors, but the visitor list does cover a very wide range of countries.  That also surprises me.


“Watch Out!”

If someone says that to you, are your senses heightened?  Now let’s say someone asks you to collect observations for them.  Are you liable to see things that you never noticed before?  There lies the problem.

A number of years ago a government agency that we all know was brought in to investigate a particular set of employee complaints about working conditions that seemed to be causing illnesses in the employees.  It was in an area that was of interest to me, so I read their report.  The report contained one rather silly mathematical mistake, but we can forget that for now.  It is what the report failed to contain that is of interest.

The level of complaints included those recorded both before and after the agency was on site working with the employees.  However, the report never presented the data as a function of time.  And as a function of time, it looked like this.  Before the agency came on site, the level was five complaints per month.  While the agency was on site, the level was ten complaints per month.  After the agency left, the level immediately dropped back to five complaints per month.

Now you can read anything you like into that, but be careful.  It is just data without explanation.  To its credit, the agency did a thorough check of possible causes, and no cause was ever found for any of the complaints.  Guessing is not an option at this point.

I have witnessed similar situations for other types of reported observations at least twice.  In both cases, the level of observations slowly returned to “normal” in about a year.  The observers in question were aware at the beginning that the levels were out of proportion to “normal”.  How did they know this?  Probably this can be blamed on two causes:  word of mouth rumors and the fact that they were asked to specifically look for the problem.  Eventually the excitement of the problem grew dim in the minds of the observers, and it disappeared.

I’m sure the world of psychology has already noticed this effect and written extensively about it, but I’m afraid that general data taking by public or private observations doesn’t always keep that in mind, maybe seldom keeps that in mind.

So, be careful how data is gathered by observation.   Try hard to keep the human mind out of the picture.

Just remember how many times you said in anger to a friend or loved one, “You always do that!”  No they don’t!  You didn’t really keep track.  You just think you did.  Prove it with objective data, or better yet, cut them some slack!


Extrapolation:  The riskiest form of prediction.

It has been said that when you are afraid that people will think you are a fool, don’t open your mouth and remove all doubt.  That is precisely the risk involved in making a prediction based upon someone else’s theory, especially if you do not fully understand the theory.

To that end I will tell you a true story.  I have left out some of the names as my intent is not to embarrass.

The propagation of disease by the inhaling of airborne particles of the disease is of no small interest.  And I will tell you up front that it is not my area of expertise…but when has that ever stopped me.

A colleague of mine was studying airborne disease propagation, and I kept hearing about the “Wells-Riley” equation.  It is an equation that looks at propagation as a process of inhaling disease carrying particles in quantities called, oddly enough, “quanta”.  The theory is that if you inhale a single quanta of diseased particles, you will get the disease.  I’m purposely leaving out two important issues for the moment, but don’t worry about them for now.

OK, so along comes the equation.  It’s relatively simple, it’s elegant, and unfortunately for a particular group of researchers, it was beguiling.

Do you remember the anthrax scare?  Sure you do.  There were stories of letters and packages being delivered by mail.  In them was a powder which usually was harmless, but was thought initially to be anthrax, a deadly source of disease.  One such incident involved what I think was the main Washington D.C. Post Office.  This then became the focus of a now published study.  The study was done for good reason.  There were unanswered questions about how difficult it was to provide sufficient protection against the threat of anthrax, and since that post office had actually been attacked, it appeared to be an ideal case to study using the Wells-Riley equation.  Sounds perfect, doesn’t it.

When my collegue first showed me the equation, it looked strangely familiar.  So, I looked at a statistics book and confirmed that the equation was actually a form of the Poisson Distribution equation for the probability of having one or more encounters with a single item that is randomly distributed.  So, here is the first thing I neglected to tell you.  In their original paper, to their credit, Wells and Riley mentioned that very fact.  We’ll get back to this.

The next thing I didn’t tell you is that each type of disease is thought to require a different number of separate particles (identical particles in theory) in order to form a single “quanta”.  That is, not all diseases have a single particle quanta.  Most require several particles to form a quanta.  The only disease with a single particle quanta as far as I know is tuberculosis, and as I said. this is not my field of expertise.  I have heard that the common cold requires a few hundred particles before a quanta is reached.  Anthrax supposedly requires thousands of particles to make up one quanta.  This is important to know because the Wells-Riley equation only works for a single particle quanta.  If it takes more than a single particle to make up one quanta, the equation has to be modified to include more terms.

And there lies the problem.  The Wells-Riley theory freely admits that it only covers the one particle quanta problem.  If you are dealing with a disease that requires thousands of particles to form one quanta, you need to add thousands of separate terms of the Poisson Distribution equation to run the proper calculation.  As it turns out, the conclusion reached by the anthrax researchers was off by a very substantial amount for just this reason.  As mentioned above, anthrax requires thousands of separate particles to constitute one quanta.

A foot note for this is that no one seemed to be sure at that time how many particles are in a quanta for any given disease or any type of particle that carries the disease.  I would also guess that a quanta for one person is not necessarily a quanta for some other person.  So at best, you can only look at this from the standpoint of the “average” person, whoever that is.

As I said up front, this is not my area of expertise.  I presume that the study of disease propagation has moved on since this incident.  This is just an example of one of the pitfalls of dealing with data where adequate theories have yet to be promulgated.  “All that glitters is not gold.”