The three-foot hammerhead shark lay writhing, white belly up, on the Pier 1 planks while we kids gaped.
Matt Canfield jerked his pole and the fish galumphed a foot closer on its fishing line tether.
Kate, Scottie, R.J., and I shrieked and skittered backwards.
The eye closest to me looked like it wanted to eat me for dinner. I edged back another step. The shark just supplanted The Spider at the top of my to-be-feared list.
Matt’s eight-year-old chest inflated as though he were the best fisherman on the planet.
Scottie and R.J. crowded in as the hammerhead wore out.
Kate stood, feet planted, hands on her hips like she wasn’t afraid of a dang fish.
The shark gave a last flop and went belly down on the boards.
Kate screamed just as loud as the rest of us.
We stared at the motionless, slick gray back.
Someone strummed a folk song on a guitar a few boats away.
The sun sizzled into Coconut Grove’s treetops, and I thought about how we’d just spent the afternoon climbing up the pilings and jumping off less than ten feet from where Matt caught the hammerhead.
Dad walked out to the tee to see what we were yelling about, took one look at the shark, and clapped Matt on the back. He circled the fish, nudged it with his bare big toe, and stood back to admire it—giving us a mini lecture on how hammerheads can grow to ten feet, usually preferring to eat stingrays and other bottom dwellers over humans. He walked away mussing about the possibility of eating shark meat.
I shuddered. My first up-close encounter with a hammerhead came too soon after yesterday’s life and death snapshot.
We’d sat on the end of Pier 1 kicking our legs back and forth, gnawing mangos Dad had found in someone’s yard and letting the juice run down our chins.
“Look! A coconut!” Scottie said, pointing at a bobbing brown sphere.
R.J. hopped to his feet to get a better look. “It’s somebody’s head!”
Scottie and Matt dove off the dock and swam for the guy before the rest of us got over the shock.
When we came to, we screamed bloody murder.
The boys each grabbed an arm and scrabbled like crazy back to the ladder.
The adults we’d roused hauled the guy onto the dock and turned him on his side.
We watched in horror as water foamed out of his mouth.
Paramedics wheeled him down the bumpy dock on a stretcher.
Now, staring at the shark, my safe world no longer felt safe.
Sun burn, jellyfish, and getting mowed down by speed boats—threats we faced every day—never caused any of us to lift a brow.
With the dock as our playground, we learned to use pliers to pull out our own and each other’s one-inch splinters. We poured hydrogen peroxide on the cuts we got swimming too close to the barnacles on the pilings. We applied pressure until the bleeding stopped, went back about our business. Our mothers, both registered nurses, remained steadfastly unimpressed with our paltry injuries.
Most days we only worried about out-swimming raw sewage when someone flushed their head.
We spent our days swimming in Biscayne Bay, roaming the windbreak island, and cruising Dinner Key Marina on bikes. We swam in the shade between the pontoons of the Canfield’s houseboat and did somersaults off the end of the pier. Once or twice we hit boat-kid nirvana and found a wreck to explore on the sandbar.
I’d always felt safe.
Even listening to Matt recount another rescue hadn’t fazed me:
Just before I dove under the water, my eyes caught what looked like a tiny arm waving
above the water. I swam to it but it was no longer near the surface. I dove under again and saw a little boy, Peter, sinking to the bottom. I grabbed his arm, brought him to the surface, and screamed for help.
Adults pulled the kid out, and after they revived him, my Dad and others went off on Peter’s parents for allowing their toddler to walk around on the dock without a life jacket or bubble.
Gads, had I not seen his arm, he would have drowned!
None of us dock rats ever drowned, turned up shark bit, contracted a bacterial infection from swimming in polluted water, suffered second degree sun burn, lost a limb to a barnacle, or were run over by a speed boat.
Sure, the ten feet of water we lived on was dangerous for others—but I was a stronger swimmer than everyone on the pier but Dad. I respected the water, but I didn’t fear it.
Until I saw a not-coconut floating in the bay. Until I nearly shook eyeballs with a hammerhead.
The dangers we should have feared were the ones all kids face. Two friends from another pier succumbed to coke addictions, then prostitution. Though none of our Pier 1 gang veered that far off track, we consumed our share of drugs and alcohol, and wrestled with our own excesses. We vandalized, shoplifted, grew pot in the back yard, and tussled with the law.
When things boiled over at home, we ran away. Our parents shipped us out of state to relatives, Baptist boarding school, and Catholic summer camp.
We each faced down our demons. R.J. limped through school, dragging a duffle bag of dyslexia. Kate fought her way back from chronic, debilitating health. Matt battled depression and obesity. Scott weathered betrayal. I wore bitterness like an Olympic wreath for putting up with Dad.
Perhaps from the lessons of self-reliance we learned as kids at Dinner Key Marina, we all, more or less, righted ourselves.
And when we couldn’t, we got help. Loved ones—some bonded by blood, some by choice—gave us a leg-up.
We joined the Marines.
We chased God.
R.J. learned a trade. Kate studied alternative medicine and regained her life. Matt runs marathons—something that daily wards away his depression and obesity. Scott loved again. I forgave.
We earned four bachelor’s degrees, five master’s, wrote five books, produced ten members of the next generation. We are swimmers, runners, surfers, beach walkers.
We give back. We serve our country. We help the sick. We point people to God. We care for our aging parents. We love our kids.
I’ve never quite decided if it was in spite of or because of our bohemian, and sometimes dangerous, upbringing that we landed on our feet.
But I’m glad I met that shark—even if he did cure me of ocean swimming—because he left me with respect for danger. My Marlboro habit only spanned the spring of eighth grade. I walked away when offered cocaine at Merrie Christmas Park, and again when my freshman boyfriend held out THC in his palm. To my stepfather’s suggestion I sleep with the football team to get dates, I said, “Whatever.”
Yeah, that hammerhead did me a big favor.