It was a sunny afternoon on the Indian River. The sky was a brilliant blue with patches of puffy white clouds. Palm trees lined the shore. Small Islands dotted the bay. Most looked like a typical cartoon desert island...one or two trees, a bush and and pure white sands. The water was turquoise and clear. The smell of the salt water rode on gentle breezes. I remember the image like it was yesterday.
I was only a boy. Twelve years old and visiting my father in Florida. My skin was bronzed and my shoulder length blond hair was bleached from weeks in the tropical sun.
We had anchored our small boat in a shallow bay. I drank in the beauty of my surroundings while I put on a pair of old tube socks and stripped to my underwear. I imagined what the early explorers would have felt like when they first laid eyes on this land. It was easy to picture. There wasn't any sign of civilization as we know it, from my vantage point. No buildings, no hydro wires, nothing that would distract my mind from my imaginings.
I threw an old innertube into the shallows and hopped overboard. The saltwater fizzed around me and it felt like soda pop. It had always felt that way to me. Millions of tiny bubbles tickled my skin accompanied by a light fizzing sound.
I grabbed a wire basket and squished it into the middle of the innertube so that the bottom was under the waterline. This was clamming. This was freedom.
My feet adjusted to the sensation of the bay floor. Through my socks, I could feel the mud, sand and plant life that made up the bottom. I rested my elbow on the side of the tube and started my ritualistic dance.
It reminded me of marching. The balls of my feet probed the bottom step after tiny step. My heels never touched. It wasn't long before I found a pocket. Clams lay half buried in clusters. Sometimes small, and other times over vast areas. Nature had made a perfect habitat for them. The shallow watters warmed by the sun were teaming with small aquatic life. I would occasionaly feel a crab scuttling over my foot or the undercurrents left by sting rays gliding along in the shallows.
I squished my toes into the mud and pressed my toes upward to dislodge my first clam. I forced the top of my foot into the shape of a little basket. My toes spread wide. Gently, I lifted my treasure straight up. and reached underwater with my right arm. I always used my right. My left elbow on the tube for balance. My fingers grasped the clam and, as I always did, quickly inspected my little shellfish friend for size and shape.
We were clamming for necks. Necks are clams that are about the size of a tablespoon. At the time, they fetched twelve cents a piece. Nine got you a dollar back in 1983. I continued collecting my bounty one by one. It was a small pocket. About twenty. My mind quickly calculated what I could spend my two dollars on.
My goal was always around two hundred and fifty clams. That filled an onion sack and made me a cool thirty-some dollars per day. That sure beats the average allowance!
Two men were in the bay. A boy and his father. We didn't speak much while we were working, but there was no need . We were each in our own place, but together.
He was not a tall man, but he was huge to me. Years of work had sculpted his body to the form of a rennaisance statue. He was tanned with golden hair and a brilliant white smile. His powerful back and shoulders made me feel safe when I was with him. A large tattoo on each of his large biceps, one of a skull and one of an axe-weilding headsman, sent the message he needed to convey. "Don't screw with me!" I never wanted to.
I loved him. I missed him. I still held on to the fantasy that a child often has while growing up with only one parent. I wanted him to say he was sorry to my mother and come home with me. But, for now, I was happy. He had told me that I was his favourite son yesterday.
The morning had passed and we climbed into the boat to eat lunch. It seemed to taste diferent on the bay. Hoagies and a Yoo-hoo were chilled in the cooler and the taste was as vibrant as the beautiful scenery. We stared out to the sea as we ate. The sounds of chewing and drinking mingled with the lapping of small waves against the hull.
I watched as he reached into his basket and found a clam. He quickly smacked the shell against the deck. Instant seafood. He sucked the moist meat out of the shell and threw the remains back into the bay.
I could never do that. The idea was repulsive to me, but the image furthered my opinion of this man. He was a free man. Independant and resourceful. He was a survivor. I came form a long line of baymen. I was, and am still, proud of that.
My earliest memories were on the bay. I can still see the millions of sparkles reflecting the afternoon sun. It was my first recollection of natural beauty.
We shared a laugh or two and slid overboard. The water was up to our chests. It wasn't long before we were out of comfortable speaking distance from each other.
Some time had passed when I heard my name.
"Emil." I liked hearing him say our name.
"Emil!" He sounded more serious this time. I snapped into the present. He had said my name in a way that was only reserved for a warning. I use the same tone with my boy.
I was still. I followed his gaze until I saw it. My blood ran cold instantly.
About thirty feet from me, a pair of fins, one behind the other with the taller in front, were making a winding path towards me. It's not the first time I had seen that. Dolphins would sometimes play and snoop nearby but this was different. A dolpin has a flat tail, and the dorsal fin moves up and down as if it were on a mini roller coaster. This was a shark.
Hammerheads are specially made for swimming in the shallows. Their flat heads and low profiles made them a perfect preditor in these waters. I quickly estimated the distance between the fins. Three to four feet. My mind connected the underwater dots. It was about seven feet long.
I turned my head and stole a glance at the boat. Too far. It took about two seconds for my mind to replay every Jaques Cousteau episode dealing with sharks. I was half frozen with fear, but the the logical mind also prevented any movement. Sharks are attracted to human movements because to them, we could be an injured fish. Easy, delicious prey. I felt the teeth on my calf.
"Just stay calm and still." My father's voice broke the silence and brought me back to reality again.
I fixated on the predator. I could feel my heartbeat. The sound of my blood rushing through my body was deafening. The shark started his slow cautious circle around me.
I thought of the phonecall to my mother.
"Mrs Parker? Something terrible has happened..."
The innertube gently bobbed in the small waves. Every sensation was heightened. I prepared myself for battle. On the second circle it happened.
A loss of interest had taken the hammerhead on a new course to deeper waters. I would not die that day.
I don't remember the few minutes after that. I recall the vision of the boat getting larger. I was over the edge and laying on my back looking at the sky. My dad climbed in and asked me if I was okay. I think I answered him.
"Good job son."
Almost thirty years have passed. I play the events back in my mind and sometimes I am the father. Would I have the fortitude to watch my own son being circled by a shark? Would I calmly give directions to him?
I think so. I think I felt when I ran behind him on his bicycle and let go for the first time.
"Stay calm son." I said.