No one holds a candle to Joel
Tuesday, August 12, 2014 5:00 PM
Near the beach where I grew up in South Jersey, there lived a guy named Joel Fogel. He was a legend. Those who didn't know him, knew of him.
He was as tan as humanly possible and walked around the beach all day in a tiny red Speedo that left little to the imagination. He was almost a walking R-rated movie.
The older ladies swooned over him and parents covered their children's eyes when he walked by. When he wasn't coasting to shore on his catamaran, he was either carrying a kayak or a surf board. He had the most laid back demeanor, said hello to everyone and always wore a smile.
He had short silver hair parted along the side that was always combed neatly. Even when he came out of the ocean, his hair was neatly combed. I often wondered if he was born with a head of perfectly styled silver hair.
His chest was sprinkled with silver hairs and he always smelled like coconut oil. He wore the same red Speedo, unless he owned several. I often heard my mom and her friends remark how handsome he was.
Another thing about Joel was that he never seemed to age. He looked the same exact way from my first memories of him as a tot until the last time I saw him more than a dozen years later.
The stories told about Joel ranged far and wide. He was said to be a famous explorer who canoed across India, China and the U.S., often upstream in raging waters. Another legend had him captured by an indigenous tribe in Ethiopia, trading his pocket watch for freedom. It was also said he rescued a baby water buffalo from an alligator along the Nile.
Some said he was a movie actor, an author, a ship captain and a pilot, who flew during the Vietnam War. Others said he had once belonged to the CIA. Some claimed he worked with Jacques Cousteau. It was also noted that he had saved a woman who drove off an icy bridge into frigid water.
I'm not sure what Joel did for a living but he once gave me a photo of himself with his arm around Sylvester Stallone.
One day, when I was 13, he stopped me on the beach to chat. He had a kayak under one arm and as he was talking, he paused for a moment and reached toward my nose. "Oh look, boogey time," he said, and pulled a huge booger from my nose, rolled it up and flicked it into the sand. He then resumed talking right where he had left off as if nothing had happened. I was mortified and hurried home to tell my mom what happened.
"That's nothing!" she said. "He stuck his entire arm up an elephant's behind! A booger is nothing to him." Put into that context, it made me feel better.
A few years ago, an old friend told me Joel died a while back hang gliding over the Himalayas. I felt a twinge of sadness mixed with nostalgia.
But then a year later, I heard he suffocated while snorkeling in Tahiti. Then I heard he broke his neck surfing the giant waves of Australia. I even heard he went to live with the indigenous tribe to which he gave his watch all those years ago.
So finally, I did what we all do nowadays. I googled Joel Fogel. Well, to my surprise, he popped up all over the place with the same silver hair and tanned smiling face I remembered. What surprised me, though, were the biographies and autobiographies I found about him. As it turns out, much of what people said had really been true, albeit slightly exaggerated! He was truly a real life hero!
In 1970, he paddled a kayak from New York to Florida to film and report on water pollution. He founded Waterwatch International, a nonprofit worldwide water monitoring group, which led to Lowell Thomas sponsoring him in the Explorers Club.
In 1973, he discovered and lived with the Stone Age Tribe on the Omo River in Ethiopia and in 1987, he kayaked the Great Bend and Tiger Leaping Gorge on the Yangtze River in China. He was the first person to explore the Upper Yangtze River by kayak. There is a documentary about him called "Challenging China's Yangtze."
He kayaked the Grand Canyon, the Mississippi and the lengths of both U.S. coasts.
He is a Coast Guard licensed ship captain and a pilot who flies water planes. He actually did work with Jacques Cousteau in Hawaii while working on the Conshelf Project and he studied marine zoology at the University of Hawaii.
A self-professed explorer, he is president of the Philadelphia Explorers Club. He has been a member since 1972 and was recognized by the club for his amazing travels and significant work in evaluating the water quality and promoting clean water. He was named as Explorer of the Year in 2004 and has led nearly two dozen major expeditions.
Joel's biography says he has appeared in 10 movies including Rocky V and Dead Poet's Society.
He did actually save a woman whose car went off a bridge into icy water in 1986 and he was awarded a commendation from President Ronald Reagan as well as a nomination for the Carnegie Hero Award.
He splits his time between Somers Point, N.J., and Manzanillo, Mexico, and has a wife and five children. Now that was a surprise since we never saw him with any wife or little ones. Apparently they have been married 42 years!
After I read all of this and more (believe me, there was a lot more), I tried to wrap my mind around all of it and combine the real Joel with the legendary Joel. Truth be told, I was not disappointed. He was a true and living legend. But did he do all of this in a red bikini Speedo, I wondered.
So maybe he didn't wrestle jaguars in the Amazon Rainforest and hang glide over the Himalayas but if you talk to children playing up and down the beach near Atlantic City, N.J., you may just hear that he flew a key on a kite string and discovered electricity or about the time he walked on the moon with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Oh, you haven't heard?
Whenever I see Sylvester Stallone in a movie, I think of Joel. Maybe Stallone has Joel's autograph framed somewhere along with the photograph of the two of them with their arms wrapped around each others' shoulders like the best of pals.
Maybe Stallone tells tales of Joel at dinner parties because not even Rocky Balboa and Rambo can hold a candle to Joel. I mean who else can surf the sun and ride a tornado while holding a kayak? And, in a red Speedo no less.
Heather Hill is the community news editor for The Battle Mountain Bugle. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.