The First Decision of My Life
As a boy death, and the fear of it, were concepts foreign to me. It was a time when the consideration of things not done, loves not loved, were only waiting ahead, lurking beyond adolescence. It was the period of my life when, at age ten, the only hair on my body had a name: a haircut that honored an Ivy League University, Princeton. My father, older brother, and I were taking a cruise through the Bahamas on a three-mast sailboat called Victory.
Someone mentioned — filling my head with a multitude of pirate fantasies — a ship that had been used in a Walt Disney film. This proposition was more than anyone could possibly hope for. As a child of the Sixties, I belonged to the Apostle of St. Walt. On St. Lucia the fiberglass reproduction of a giant snail used in Doctor Doolittle sat on the beach across from our hotel. I think some family had moved into it.
I talked to the animals on St. Lucia.
The ship was docked in the harbor of Large Bimini when Death introduced himself to me. It was not the false Reaper that one looks forward to when vomiting violently on the open seas. Go to the other side. Go to the other side, aft of wind.
Well, at least they didn’t make me clean it up.
Our day was free to explore the island. We did this, and the impression left on me was only that all dogs on the island had faces that looked the same. Ky and I were forever, after this point, on the watch for Bimini-faced dogs wherever we went. “Oh look! A Bimini-faced dog,” my brother would say.
My father got the idea that it would be fun to do a little snorkeling. Someone had said there was a nice coral reef just around the point where Large Bimini and Little Bimini met at the mouth of our harbor. We had the masks and fins, so off we went along with a schoolteacher from somewhere in Minnesota — four adventurous souls in search of the ocean’s wonders.
The bottom was only sand and grass . . . nothing exciting. So we continued to kick away with webbed feet. When swimming in this fashion, you always keep your head underwater.
The reef was not to be found. I can’t remember who it was, but one of us decided to lift his head out of the water to take a look around and get a bearing. I heard a muffled shout. Lifting my head, I noticed the others pointing toward shore. It was so far away; only a white strip was visible along the edge of the horizon. We had been caught in what I later learned was a rip tide.
Immediately we started to swim toward shore. It was a struggle. Ky and the teacher were making headway; I followed close after. My father, upon my inspection, was falling behind.
This is when I had to make the first decision of my life, other than which channel to watch.
All right. Fog-Horn Leg-Horn. I love this big chicken. No, he’s a rooster, stupid.
I knew that I could make it to shore, but I also knew that my father could not. And I was going to stay with him, no matter what. If we perished, so be it. Death had no meaning to me. Why, people die on TV all the time, and for noble reasons. I was noble. I knew right from wrong. What I did was the right thing.
My father was legally blind. His vision had left him when he was almost the same age as I was at this point in my life.
I was his seeing eye dolphin. He needed my eyes. I needed him.
I was a child.
We were an organism, greater than the sum of our parts.
I could see that my brother and the schoolteacher were probably going to make it to shore. My father and I kept drifting farther out. There was no longer any land to be seen.
After several hours, I still had plenty of energy left. I was as fresh as when starting out. When you have no fear, you do not uselessly burn it up.
My father was fading.
It is odd, my entire focus, my entire being, was directed toward my father. This was my first lesson comprehended: There is serenity in selflessness. My school was the ocean.
I was never very religious. To me God was something to put up with between the hi-jinks at Sunday school. But I have forever since had a notion that the Fates do exist. This is because I spotted a fishing boat in the distance. For some reason, the captain had the fortune to turn and glance at what was only a spot on the water in the distance. Our glances met each other. It was not supposed to happen; he just had a feeling.
There is something that cannot be explained when you are dragged out of the ocean miles from shore like two shipwreck survivors set adrift. You are somewhat embarrassed. You have a feeling of being safe in a way that will never leave you.
I was a son.
I was a man.
Later that night, we were walking along the main road of the island. There was a research center for the study of sharks. We talked with one of the employees. There were tanks of giant man-eating sharks that intrigued my Walt Disney imagination.
When asked where they got those sharks, the man turned and pointed toward the part of the ocean where my father and I had faced death together.
I was a child.
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