Wheelus Air Base was on the northern coast, so the base had its own stretch of beach. It was also close or within walking distance of the trailer park we lived in. I remember this not because of my own memory, but because of home movies my dad probably took, showing the family walking to the beach, with me invariably trying to push the stroller through the sand. First, let me say it wasn’t an all-terrain stroller like some of the ones around today. It was an ordinary stroller. It didn’t like sand, or gravel. So I had to push pretty hard to force it.
I think my dad found it funny, because in the home movies, there is an inordinate amount of time spent with my big butt the center of the picture. Mind you, I didn’t consider myself a fat kid. But when your dad takes a closeup of your butt and immortalizes it on film, it doesn’t make any difference how proportionally sized you are. Your butt will look big. Trust me on this one.
Still, playing in the Mediterranean made it all worth it. The water was a warm, shimmering cerulean blue-green that stretched as far as the eye could see. On the ocean’s edge, the only thing to worry about was mistakenly stepping on a jellyfish. But in the water was where it was really cool.
My dad was into snorkeling, and he taught me. I had never learned how to swim before, but that didn’t matter in the Mediterranean. I think it is the salt content that makes you buoyant, but all I knew was that I floated. Having the snorkel on meant I could float and look beneath the water to see the magic and majesty that was there. Because I didn’t have to worry about sinking, I learned how to swim (although not to the standards of US swimming coaches, I learned later).
Anyway, one day my dad took me out snorkeling. This time, instead of staying by the shore, we swam out really far. In fact, the water was so deep it became dark, and I couldn’t see the bottom. My dad had brought his spear gun with him, and he wanted to see if he could spear a fish. Because we were already far from shore, he took me to where there was a rock that jutted up just enough so I could stand on it and barely have my head above water.
Then he left me there.
Oh, he came back. He brought a fish with him. It was still alive. He asked me to hold it while he went to look for another one. So I did.
Then he left again.
So here I was. 9 years old. Standing on top of a rock in the Mediterranean Sea. The shore barely visible through my perfect vision. Holding a fish.
To this day, I don’t have any memory of what the fish looked like. I remember it was heavy, which was why I liked holding it in the water, but when I did that, the fish thought he could get away. I told him to stop fighting or I would have to hold him outside of the water, which wouldn’t be fun for either one of us, but he didn’t listen. Or, maybe he didn’t understand.
I’m sure he got the message though, when I hauled his scaly tail out of the water and held him there–not long enough to kill him, as he was too heavy to hold up there for long. But I felt good about getting my message across.
The fish and I repeated this so often that it became a ritual. I’m sure he thought that I would get tired and let go, but I was standing on a rock, I was young, and I was determined to keep the fish for my dad, because he had asked me to. Maybe the fish thought it was fun. I know that I didn’t.
I was out there so long, I started wondering if something had happened to my dad. What would I do if he was injured somewhere, bitten by something, and then washed up on shore? I couldn’t just stand there. And there was no way I was going to wrestle a live fish all the way back to shore. So I did the only thing I could think of.
I held it out of the water until it stopped moving completely.
Yes, my situation had made me a fish killer.
So what happened after that? Well, my dad showed up before I took off for shore myself. He had indeed caught another couple of fishes. He added my dead fish to the little bag he carried, and we started back to shore.
And I think we had fish for dinner.
That event shaped me, though. Or rather, it put a curse on me. Or made me a pariah of the sea. Because years later when we got back to the states and I went fishing, I would hook a fish and reel it in, only to find it was dead. Now, it had to be alive when it clamped its mouth over the worm we were using. Somehow between that moment and reaching shore, it died.
So was it a suicidal fish? Or, did it know who was on the other end of the line, and did it sacrifice itself for the good of other fish?
I guess we’ll never know.
Categories: Random Thoughts