“It’s dangerous,” Titi’s father says. “There’s a lot of barracudas.”
This is Jose’s response when I tell him I’d like to take my goddaughter snorkeling in the waters off Key Largo. It isn’t exactly a “No,” an outright refusal, but it falls far short of approval. Last spring one of my former grad students offers to take me and Titi on a day of snorkeling in the Keys, and Titi is very excited at the prospect, but her mother says she can’t go.
“The water’s too cold,” Alina says.
It’s late April, and people from all over the country and some parts of the world have come to the Florida Keys to swim, snorkel, scuba dive, sail, and sit on the beach, but I know from experience that pointing out such information will only cause irritation rather than permission. Alina hasn’t been in the ocean yet this year, nor has she seen any reports of water temperatures, but once her verdict is rendered there is no appeal.
I still don’t give up on a snorkeling trip with Titi. By the end of summer, as September begins, the days and the water in Florida have both warmed up, and when I raise the question of snorkeling again to Alina, she has no objection. Now that Titi’s dad is in the picture, and I’m trying to win his confidence (and hopefully be regarded as an ally, if never quite a friend), of course I have to ask his permission as well. After he brings up the barracudas, I realize I need a strategy for this campaign.
I enlist a good swimmer—one who is young and strong—to go with Titi and me on the trip. This is for my own reassurance as well as for Titi’s father. It’s been more than half a century since I earned my swimming and life-saving merit badges at Camp Chank-tun-un-gi, and I no longer have the stamina and skills of my Eagle Scout days.
Jenny actually grew up on a boat in the Caribbean with her family. Jenny is an accomplished scuba diver as well as a veteran hiker who has trekked in China and Tibet, and she already knows and likes Titi.
“I’ve seen my share of barracudas,” Jenny assures me when I tell her about the snorkeling trip, and Titi’s father’s fears.
I have complete confidence in Jenny, who says she would also like to bring her boyfriend on the trip—Christopher is one of our writing program’s graduates, a poet who is in great physical shape, and is also an accomplished swimmer and scuba diver. Like Jenny, Christopher is a very quiet person, and somehow I feel I need more heavy artillery in this campaign.
I invite Jose to have dinner at his favorite Cuban restaurant with me and Titi and some of the grad students who might be going with us on the snorkeling trip. Christopher can’t make it that night but I bring Jenny, as well as Corey, who was captain of her college swim team at the University of Pittsburgh, and the person I am counting on as my heaviest artillery in this campaign for Jose’s permission—Esther. Or, as I introduce her to Jose—“Eh-stare.” Esther is a small, rather delicate, and frail-looking young woman, and I don’t even know if she can swim, but none of that matters. She is Cuban.
I have coached my three student friends on their mission, with special instructions to Esther to speak Spanish to Jose and try to make him feel at ease.
“Don’t worry,” she says, “I have a lot of experience introducing gringos to Cuban families. I know what to do.”
I realize Eh-stare (which is how I think of her now) must be accomplished at this sort of thing, since her own boyfriend, who she lives with, is a gringo. To add to her other qualifications, when Esther arrives at El Prado on the big night, it turns out she has eaten there before as a child!
Having passed the fried cow test, I order grilled snapper when we all have dinner, and everything seems to go well—my grad student pals are friendly and charming as always, and Eh-stare chats up Titi’s father in Spanish.
He brings up the barracudas again, and Jenny re-assures him of her own familiarity with them from the time she was a child growing up in the Caribbean. Jose warns Titi she mustn’t wear any jewelry or anything that sparkles or shines when she’s in the water, because it will attract barracudas.
“Like the things in your ears,” he says to Titi.
Titi touches the three silver studs she has—two in one ear, one in the other.
“I have to take them out?” she asks, concerned. “Won’t the holes close up?”
“It’s easy,” Corey says. “I had to take mine out for swimming meets—you just put string in the holes where they were, and that keeps them open.”
Titi smiles. “I get it,” she says.
By the time we leave, Jose says to Titi, “Be careful.” I take that to mean that it’s all right for her to go on the snorkeling trip if she is careful. I am greatly relieved, exhausted, and happy, but just to make sure of my interpretation of the evening I call Titi the next day and she confirms that her dad is giving her permission to go snorkeling.
“Titi, that’s great,” I say, and I ask her. “What did your dad think of my students?”
“He really liked the Cuban girl,” she says.
* * *
I tune in to the weather channel every day of the week before the big trip, and every day it shows a grey cloud with rain coming out of it and the words “Scattered Thunderstorms” for Saturday. I am hopeful things will change for the better, and that the weather predictions are—as often seems the case—unduly dire. The weather channel as well as local TV news channels here predict potential hurricanes at the drop of a hat, and scattered raindrops accompanied by a light breeze prompts newscasters down here to don their yellow slickers and hold on to palm trees to dramatize the possible danger. When I lived in Boston, I rushed to crowded grocery stores to stock up on canned beans when the weather-casters predicted deadly snowstorms at the first sign of flakes in winter, and in Miami I rush to crowded grocery stores and stock up on canned beans when the weather-Cassandras spot the first drops of rain during hurricane season.
Still, I am nervous, wondering if I should try to postpone the long-awaited adventure due to dangerous weather. I know how General Dwight D. Eisenhower felt as he studied the bad weather forecasts for the early days of June, 1944, deciding whether or not to cancel the long-awaited invasion of Europe. Only a few days of the month were suitable, since a full moon was necessary for aircraft to spot landmarks, and a spring tide was needed for safe navigation to the beaches. The moon would not be full for another month, and if the invasion didn’t take place on June 6, the troops would have to be sent home. Fearing the loss of momentum more than the threat of bad weather, Ike courageously gave the order for D-Day.
Just like Ike, I decide if I cancel our plan the campaign may forever be lost. While Ike needed a full moon and a spring tide, I need the permission of Jose and Alina (and of course Abuela) and there is no guarantee that any or all of them will be agreeable to it in the weeks ahead. It’s already October, and the weather might be declared “too cold” at any time after our D-Day until the following summer. General Eisenhower consulted his chief meteorologist on the eve of battle and was told there might be a slight break in the weather the next day. I have no meteorologist, but I take heart from the TV weather-map’s forecast that the predicted thunderstorms are only scattered and the fact that the picture of the cloud is only half dark. Maybe the thunderstorms will disappear and the clouds grow brighter when we get to Key Largo–after all, it’s about sixty miles away.
I settle down with a soothing Henry James novel to calm my nerves. I assure myself that everything will be fine, and the weather will probably clear overnight. Besides, what if it’s raining and the clouds are dark and the sea is rough? The online ad for Quicksilver Snorkeling assures me that our snorkeling will be in “shallow waters” in the “Pennekamnp State Park and Marine Sanctuary!” I figure it must be something like a large “seaquarium,” or mammoth wading pool. At the most, it will be like the only snorkeling I’ve ever done—which was thirty-four years ago at a luxury resort in the Virgin Islands (those were the days when, as my agent used to say, I was “living high on the hog.”) You walked out from the beach into the water, and when the water got a little bit above your knees you intrepidly pulled down your mask and snorkel and, like Jacques Cousteau, plunged in, looking at the pretty fish below you and wondering if their astoundingly bright colors were enhanced by the rum punch you sipped for breakfast, or the home-made, grass-laden brownie you ingested the night before.
I check the online ad of our snorkel service again for reassurance, and of course there’s no mention of barracudas. I suppose they could be among the “300 varieties” of fish – but what would barracudas be doing in a state park? Stop being paranoid, I tell myself, and I roll over and thrash my away to sleep.
* * *
I am outside my condo building on the dark, cloudy morning of D-Day, silently going berserk as Jenny and Christopher are almost a half hour late to pick me up, and the always-faithful, always-on-time, never-failing Jenny doesn’t answer her cell phone. She always answers her cellphone. I am hopping up and down as if I am doing (what now must be called) a “Native-American War Dance,” and thinking of all the things that might go wrong. Jenny told me the day before that it will take two hours to get to Key Largo, and by that calculation we won’t make the mandatory check in time and the snorkeling boat will leave without us. What if Jose finds out that “Es-ther” the Cuban girl is not going on the trip, and decides that any trip is too dangerous if not accompanied by a Cuban? What if Alina or Abuela look at the TV weather report and decide it’s too dangerous a day for snorkeling?
Just before I start clawing the bricks by the entrance wall of my building’s parking lot, a rather rusty-looking car pulls up and Jenny gets out. Christopher assures me we will make it there on time, which somewhat eases the fear of missing the boat, but not the other fears.
It’s a little before nine o’clock when we pull up to Titi’s house, so I assume Titi will be the only one up. Her brother usually wakes up at dawn, and Abuela gets up to feed him, but then they go back to bed. Alina, if she’s home, doesn’t get up until much later. Today, however, every one is up and dressed. Even the mysterious Abuelo, who rarely comes out of his room, is up and sitting on the couch, with Titi’s little brother on his lap. A cousin from out of town is there too, and I figure his visit must have prompted the family’s early rising en masse. Either that, or they all want to go snorkeling with us. Whatever the reason for the family’s unusually early assembly, they all seem friendly and willing to release Titi to her fate. We are off, and though the skies are dark, no lightning is piercing the clouds nor is thunder rumbling in the background.
* * *
When we board the catamaran we’re supplied with fins, face-masks and snorkels, as well as inflatable life vests, though some of the women look hefty enough to be buoyant without any extra help. Most of the dozen and a half people on the boat are middle-aged, though Titi and I are easily the youngest and the oldest, respectively—which is usually the case. Jenny and Christopher are the youngest after Titi, and the three of them are in the best shape of anyone on the boat, except for the muscular, tattooed boat captain.
The sky gets darker and the water gets rougher the farther we go. When the captain finally anchors and announces we are “there” –we have reached the reef—the only land in sight is a thin line on the horizon. I mean, I assume it’s land of some kind, somewhere. The captain lets down a four-step landing platform at the front of the boat into the water, and says we can either walk down into the water on it, or jump over the side. The boat is rocking and it’s hard for me to keep my balance with my fins on. I feel like a floundering fish as I step toward the landing. I watch Christopher go into the water, followed by Jenny, and then Titi. Dear God, keep her safe. It seems like I’m watching paratroop comrades dive into space. I let the fat ladies go by me and step down into the lapping waves. I flash on the sunny beach and the warm, translucent water of Little Dix Bay on Virgin Gorda several lifetimes ago, then I pull down my mask, push the snorkel into my mouth, and walk the plank.
The water is lukewarm and clammy. I go under and try to breathe through my snorkel, but I get salty water instead of air. I bob up, and am pushed back toward the boat by the waves. There is a rope line that evidently leads to a buoy, and I grab it and try to pull myself along. As soon as I duck back down into the water I get a mouthful of sea water. After I repeat this several times and feel I am going to gag on the water, I give up and head back to the boat.
It’s a battle with the waves to get there, and I pull myself, floundering, back up the steps with relief; then I take off my mask and snorkel, go to the edge of the boat, and try to see where Titi is. Thank God she’s with Jenny and Christopher—or they’re with her. At least I think so. The snorkelers are all bobbing around by the reef now. I think I can see Titi’s head and I try to follow it. After a while I’m just hoping I see her, hoping she’s ok and safe. I’ve forgotten about the whole point of the trip—to look at tropical fish and have a good time. Now all I care about is Titi being safe. I ought to be out there with her.
I flop back to the landing steps and am just about in the water when Jenny comes back. She raises her mask, smiling, and says Titi is fine, she’s having a good time.
“Even with her snorkel on, she shouts when she sees new fish, and points us to them.”
Jenny urges me to come back out.
I slip back into the water and splash my way toward the reef. I’ve been swimming every day in our condo pool, which deceived me into thinking I am in good shape. It’s clear now that I’m okay for swimming pools, but not for the ocean. Still, I press on, swallowing more salty water, and finally I am over a part of the reef. I can see it below, but of course it is the outermost reach, and there aren’t even any fish there. I bob up to spot Titi’s head, but that’s as close as I get. I am worn out and full of water and I don’t feel I can go any farther out. I fight my way back to the boat and flop aboard.
Finally the snorkelers return, and Titi is smiling, and talking about all the fish she saw.
“That’s great!” I say. “What all did you see?”
“Oh, there were lots of pretty fish with all different colors—and a lot of barracudas.”
I turn to Jenny, who is just taking off her mask and snorkel.
“There were barracudas out there?” I ask.
“A lot,” she says.
The boat takes us on to where the captain says there’s another reef. No land is in sight. The boat is rocking and the waves are higher now. The captain says everyone who wants to can go and explore the new reef. He points out into the darkening sea. The middle aged men and the fat ladies don’t move; Christopher is the only one who jumps in the water. He is only gone a few minutes when he comes back swimming fast.
When he gets up onto the boat he is breathing hard.
“What happened?” Jenny asks.
“I came up face to face with a big barracuda,” he says. “It wasn’t below me, it was right at my eye level, and I was the only person still out there. I got out of there as fast as I could.”
The captain pulls up the platform of stairs and we head for home. The boat is rocking harder as we move faster, and Titi says she is sick.
“Look at the horizon,” Jenny says. “Don’t look down.”
Titi looks down and says, “I think I have to throw up.”
“That’s OK,” I say, and Jenny helps Titi move to the edge of the boat and lean over. But she can’t throw up.
“I’m so sick!” she says.
She sits back down, looking out at the ocean. She sits looking out at the water, her back toward me, and I take hold of her shoulders, and hold on. She is trembling, and she starts to sob.
“You’ll be all right,” Jenny says. “You’re just seasick.”
“Don’t think about it,” I say. “I’ll tell you a story.”
She sniffles, and stops crying but still is trembling.
I hold on tight to her shoulders as if I’m trying to keep her from falling and I tell her about my biggest outdoor adventure, when I went to Canada the summer before my junior year in college with my old Boy Scout camp friend and high school buddy, Joe “The Fox” Hartley, and we drove to the northernmost road to the Lake of the Woods and took a seaplane up to the last outpost. We rented a canoe and portage north to Big Sand Lake and Little Sand Lake where we camped out and lived for five days without encountering another human being. We lived on the dried fruit we’d brought and mostly on the big northern pike and muskies we caught when we casted our fancy lures out into the lakes – lures that never tempted fish in Indiana but brought them in every day of our Canadian adventure; we cooked them over the fire every night and afterward took turns reading the Yukon poetry of Robert W. Service in Deep River Jim’s Wilderness Trail Book.
Titi settles down and goes to sleep and her sea sickness is over when we land. On the way home she says what a good time she had, and I tell her, “Titi, maybe you don’t need to mention the barracudas when you tell your dad about the trip.”
“No, I won’t,” she says. “I’ll just tell him I got seasick. I know he gets seasick too.”
“Good idea,” I say.
It isn’t until I get back home that I google “barracudas.” I am glad I didn’t look before. The way my sea-going students (two that were raised on boats in the Caribbean!) had scoffed at the danger of barracudas, I simply assumed they were some kind of trumped-up father-fear that was nothing to take seriously.
The “Planet Ocean” website tells me to “Take one look at a barracuda’s toothy grin and you’ll understand why it has earned the nickname ‘Tiger of the Sea.’ With its sleek, torpedo-like body, dagger-like teeth, and ferocious appetite, the barracuda is built to hunt in the ocean. And that is exactly what it’s been doing for the last 50 million years. . .So, is the barracuda a cold-blooded killer? You betcha!. . .”
The website “essortment” adds: “In tropical regions the barracuda is highly feared by divers, not just because of its formidable appearance, but also because it is very unpredictable. Unlike the shark, the barracuda are not known to silently creep up on a victim since what they perceive in their under water world is not so much by smell, but more by sight. Any unusual movements or colors that might imitate those of an injured fish would be more apt to attract the attention of the barracuda. . .”
At least Titi took those shiny silver things out of her ears. And she was wearing a plain blue bathing suit. What if she’d worn a red one? Would that have made the barracudas think there was blood? Or would orange or yellow have excited them? Oh well, it’s not so stressful to worry in retrospect; now she has snorkeling under her belt and survived unscathed. With barracudas out of the way, what’s the next big threat she’ll face?
And then it hits me, the realization I’ve mostly been able to push from my mind. She’s turned thirteen, and there will be no more walks around the black to hunt for snails, no more pulling the rusty wagon with the dog riding in it, no more games with dinosaurs. Despite all the warning signs—the ear-piercing, the rap music, the choice of a bare-midriff costume for Halloween, the reports of being sleepy after talking on the phone till three in the morning with her friend Michelle (no doubt talking about the boys they meet in the snack bar at the park after school)—I’ve avoided the realization of childhood’s end. Now comes adolescence.
Now come the real barracudas. Like the ones in the sea, they are sometimes six feet, and they, too, perceive their victims by sight, and are also attracted by movements and colors, and shiny objects and displays of flesh, and sometimes also by smell (perfumes). The lures are called sex, drugs, and rock and roll. There is no fail-safe antidote.
No more than any other teen will Titi be immune to the barracudas of adolescence. I only pray she survives them, with some of her childhood sweetness and caring and humor intact, and that she somehow safely navigates the rough seas and dangerous reefs ahead.
Read Dan Wakefield‘s interview.
Dan Wakefield is a novelist, journalist and screenwriter whose best-selling novels Going All The Way and Starting Over were produced as feature films; he created the NBC prime time TV series “James at 15.” A documentary film has been produced of his memoir New York in the Fifties. His non-fiction books on spirituality include Returning: A Spiritual Journey, Creating from the Spirit, The Story of Your Life: Writing a Spiritual Autobiography, Expect a Miracle, and How Do We Know When It’s God?: A Spiritual Memoir.
Visit Dan online at www.danwakefield.com.