(NOTE: Slowly, too slowly, as in glacially slowly—wait: glacially doesn’t work for slowly anymore, does it? Not with self-crafted curse of greenhouse gases, it doesn’t. Well, nonetheless, I have been working on a memoir called “Wildeor: My Wild Life” now and then, when I find a little slice of time, and I might slip a tidbit from it in as an “Around the Campfire” column every so often if Susan lets me. Thus, what follows.)
The strand of pink sand sweeps away like a cat’s claw or—this week in school we are studying King Richard the Lionhearted and Saladin in the Crusades—a Saracen’s sword striking at black ragged stones coming down to the turquoise sea. Stone also hems in the half-moon beach from behind. Beyond where the stone tongues thrust themselves into the Atlantic is a froth of white as the surf hits the girdling coral reef. Today the surf is bigger and louder than I’ve ever seen it. The eye of a hurricane roved over Bermuda a day ago and the water is still roiled. Being in a hurricane thrilled me and I am yet all-atwitter.
I’m in my flippers with mask and snorkel, though today I won’t be going to the reef. First, my dad isn’t with me. Mom is sitting on the beach reading under an umbrella. She doesn’t swim. It’s okay for me to swim by myself out from the beach, where it’s shallow and there are lifeguards, but not to go out to the reef. The reef is a dream of bright fish and odd, wonderful beings; just outside it, the bottom falls away. White sand gleams sixty feet down. The water is so sheer that the ripples in the sand look as near as your hand. But I’m also not going to the reef. After a big storm the lifeguards tell everyone not to go beyond the reef inasmuch as sharks come nigh to the islands afterward.
I’ve heard my dad tell tales about sharks he’s seen while diving. I haven’t seen one while snorkeling yet, but the ones at the outside aquarium that you can look down on from the bridge that goes over their pool fill me with wonder and happiness—and maybe a little bit of dread. Something that big that doesn’t fear us is beyond wonderful to me. Back home in Albuquerque at my Grandma’s, I stretch my eyes to look for mountain lions six miles away in the Sandia Mountains. In bed at night there, I run with Lobo and his pack over the flowing grassland sea of Carrumpaw. And here—out in middle of the Atlantic Ocean—I swim in the same water as do sharks….
Just as I am getting my feet wet, shouts break into how the sand feels underfoot and how the water sloshes over my anklebones. I look out to where folks are craning their necks to look. Yelling and overwrought splashing just beyond the reef drift back to those of us on the strand. My mother sprints up and grabs my hand to drag me from the water. I’ve never seen her dash so fast. The lifeguards are already nearly out to the reef in their rescue boat. I hear the word whispered by the grownups about me.
The lifeguard boat pulls up on the sand. There is someone inside. Blood is all over. “A shark took off his legs,” I hear.
We later learn that he is a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. He was swimming past the reef on a dare. Three days later he died in the hospital.
I was almost eight years old that day. My dad was stationed at the U.S. Air Force base in Bermuda where we lived for two years. That day shines brightest and most alive in my childhood recall. The next day when I went into the water—I had to—I told my mom, the salt in my mouth tasted like blood and I thought of sharks. It still does and I still do.
Home, but with briny tides sloshing in my skull
©2011 by Dave Foreman