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All the Lovely Creatures: Chapter Three; Gone Fishing

Gone Fishing

My natural and unsettling fate that there would never be a place I could go without an unwanted and unexpected creature encounter, continued, and was the one gift in my life that kept on giving despite the fact I never wanted it to. It is a personal phenomenon that continues to this day with little to no forewarnings. No matter what town, city, or state in the US I’ve lived, visited or vacationed in, creatures seemed to await my arrival at every stop. It didn’t matter if I was on a farm, in the city, out and about shopping in town, sitting on a dock, riding my bike or driving my car, at a gas station, taking a hike or walking along a beach, some random creature was going appear out of nowhere to teach me something new and scare the living hell out of me while doing so. It is how I got the nickname Janet Doolittle, a haunting moniker I wish I never had. These foreboding and unnerving happenstances would ultimately change the way I lived life, and I hated that too.

I was never able let my guard down, something that was disruptive to my daily attempts at better controlling my stress and anxiety and something that any creature encounter could escalate. Being out in nature had always been such a natural tranquilizer for me in that sense and the only adverse side effect was when I had to leave that solace and return to the indoors. It was like an addiction to fresh air. There were repercussions to almost every attempt at finding inner peace when outdoors. It would spark an immediate response of absolute fear and there were none greater than those triggered by creatures. Complete with stress sweating, and the feeling my fight or flight response had short-circuited, I felt multiple emotional reactions firing off at the same time, and I could smell the hormones my body released. This, I believe, would make matters worse and in some cases, escalate the probability that what I smelled was defeat. Once the panic arose I had already rendered myself incompetent for battle. This complicated the fact in that I first had to fend off myself before I could help myself. When it came to fear, I was always my own worst enemy and nothing could set off that chain of events better than a life that wasn’t human.

It wasn’t like I ever asked for it. I was just going about life like those around me, none of whom ever described the experiences I’d had with creatures big and small. I felt singled out, even targeted, and tried everything in my power to prevent that from happening but always felt like such a fruitless effort. It wasn’t like I was living in the woods, near a swamp, or in an underdeveloped country, choosing places that would increase the encounters. Nor had I willingly approached anything tamed or untamed in my life… as if open to an encounter, like a welcome mat in front of a door. Well, there was that one time. I was working on a property in a wooded rural area and one early morning spotted an adorable fawn. I loved spotting deer, so regal and majestic, and while practicing extreme caution (and making sure the little one’s bigger relatives weren’t nearby), I froze silently in my tracks for the opportunity to have that moment last a bit longer. But when I spotted the buck and the large rack on his head, beyond the dense tree line just behind the fawn, I retreated. I knew that with my luck, I’d end up getting trampled by the herd or dropkicked by the buck. I was taught how to avoid an attack from a human, but never an animal, which made no sense since creatures were the origin of all of my dreaded confrontations. Given the frequency of the episodes, I had to master the art of knowing exactly when to retreat and flee, a bonus skill that could be used for many things including bad boyfriends and terrible neighbors. It wasn’t so much I was running from an undesirable situation as much as I was running towards one that was better, which made me feel less like the coward of confrontation.

Still, some majestic encounters were so mesmerizing, there were times, abet briefly, I was transfixed by the magnificence of the moment leaving little room for fear. Like the time I was rollerblading between Valley Forge Park and Penn’s Landing (Pennsylvania), where between a stretch of back road trail bush and a red fox crossed in front of me, pausing briefly to stare before running back into the thick landscape. The eye contact was as unforgettable as its pointed ears, thick coat of red fur and white tipped tail. But those are the few creature encounters that didn’t scare or otherwise scar me for a life of purposeful animal avoidance at all costs. I will admit, though the moment was a beautiful one, my first thought of the fox wasn’t that it was a stunning sight but that it may have been rabid and that I might get bitten. Rollerblades aren’t the best defense shoe of choice and could prove to be my downfall if I didn’t remain on my feet or on paved ground. One stone in the path was all it took to bring this skittish goliath down and pavement was the only route I could take wearing wheels on my feet, which caused a feeling of entrapment. I was a sitting duck on open road even if I was skating at a good clip. Those were the kinds of things that ran through my mind milliseconds following any surprise creature encounter and few of them left me with fond memories.

Skating that fifty mile roundtrip run was something I’d have preferred not to do alone, but everyone I knew thought I was crazy for doing (and enjoying) it and wanted no part of that adventure. There were some rough and unfinished portions of the trail back then that required changing into shoes, which then required a backpack (with food and water) and walking through some unsavory sections of a trail that were mostly secluded by natural growth. One would think that a strange encounter with another human in such a remote and often desolate place would be the concern for fear, but for me there was more concern for encounters of the animal kind and my past experiences made it hard to blindly trust otherwise. I would have to work on my preparedness skills for what I knew was to come.

Due to creatures of the wilderness, I began to carry mace for my own safety, but as the encounters got bolder and potentially more dangerous, I’d graduated to a loaded handgun (with license to carry) because at times I ventured off the beaten path without anyone knowing I’d done so and every trip was a dawn to dusk adventure. The one rule I followed religiously was to always make it back to my car before dark because of my intense creature fear and it was just the safe thing to do for woman on her own. But it was my love of the water that introduced me to fears of aquatic creatures that would supersede those of creatures on land. Land, sea, or air, wherever the creatures would originate, I remained determined in my need to conquer my fears of all that seemed to derail my desire to be free to do what brought me the greatest joy in nature. I don’t know the word for the fear of anything inhuman, but whatever it is, I know it probably contains the word phobia and that I have a very bad case of it. Despite my fearless desire for adventure, there’d be no chance of combining my love of the great outdoors and my distaste for creature intrusiveness; they’d remain forever opposites, like oil and water.

From the time I was a squeamish young girl, I had this innate sense (which was always followed by an undisputable affirmation) that something, somewhere, would just find me and become the basis for endless PTSD stories that resulted out of my love of being outside. I’d soon learn my encounters would also include the indoor kind as well, casting doom over the only two places I could safely and comfortably enjoy and was running out of places to go between land and water and was not cut out for hiding indoors. I attributed my fear of water creatures as the result of being born on the island of Oahu, where the big blue ocean was home to things I wasn’t aware of until I returned to live there again as an adult, sort of an early false sense of security. How could anything so tranquil with the ability to leave you awestruck and speechless possibly be dangerous? I would soon learn that being obvious was an early character flaw.

As a military brat, my father was transferred from Hawaii to California where I spent a decade of my childhood encountering many different creature dangers, especially when camping. I was taught to watch for snakes with rattles on their tails and others that were venomous, but the water, sun, and sand were just like the moon and stars to me in both those starter states and there was little time for worrying what the odds of my being discouraged from enjoying any of it were. I viewed things in life back then like a crap shoot… like what were the chances and do I take them? Still, I felt the need to enjoy the outdoors every chance I got and my youthful fears were few and far between. It all felt like one big vacation back then. Like running along the beach at Big Sur (California) with my siblings carrying empty sand castle buckets we’d soon fill with little smelts that were flipping about on the wet sand just after being pushed ashore by crashing forceful Pacific waves. It was my first time touching a fish with my bare hands. They were so small and cute, and catching them before the next wave returned to claim them was fun. My dad would fry them up at our campsite and when we were at home my mother would buy them cleaned and frozen in quantity, bread and fry them, a family of seven’s favorite fish meal on a military budget. Actual fishing, however, was something I was unable to do in my youth, despite my father’s coaxing. I had unresolved issues with hooking live bait and then removing the fishing hook from the live catch’s mouth. It gave me the willies.

It wasn’t until I lived in Pennsylvania and Florida that I became aware of the seemingly never ending face-to-face meetings with things I had preferred never to see up close and personal. I don’t remember having to be so watchful for so many different creatures growing up on an island or close to the coastline. The East Coast just felt scarier than the West Coast. I can’t explain why. Maybe I was just blissfully oblivious, but just like people and cultures differed in locations, I soon discovered so did the creatures, and most were innately territorial no matter where the place or what the circumstances were. I’d have to overcome a lot of idiosyncrasies if I planned on experiencing any normalcy in my continued quest for enjoyment throughout life. It would prove to be a most difficult and never-ending task and there would be sacrifices.

My first significant water creature encounter occurred during childhood, in California, where I remember swimming in a very scenic, warm, natural swimming hole surrounded by large boulders and other assorted rocks. I was with my siblings and having a grand old time until one of them spotted the moccasins and alarmed everyone in the water. I quickly climbed on top of the nearest boulder used to jump off and plunge into the swimming hole, and from that height, could see there were a number of moccasins moving quickly through the murkiness, much faster in water than any snake I had ever seen move on the ground during camping trips in the woods with my family. The water seemed to magnify my fears when the snakes disappeared so quickly in it and in no time my siblings and I were out of it.

When you’re surrounded by others, things seem less scary and one feels much braver. I had a father and brothers back then to protect me, but would eventually fly solo throughout much of my adulthood without such protection, causing me great distress and the desire to find a mate or companion who could help me minimize that problem. For endless decades after that initial moccasin sighting, that black line inside an in-ground pool that differentiates the depths of the shallow and deep ends, a line that moves with any action of the water, caused me instant panic and would eventually kill my love of being in protected waters. My first reaction was always that it had to be a big black snake in the pool and that because I was up to my neck in water, was unable to ever get away and get out of the water fast enough. It was a terrifying and paralyzing experience every single time I thought that black line was moving and something that kept me from swimming in public pools. It was too nerve-wracking to have to be on alert while trying to chill out. I grew up having an above ground pool in the backyard, but the plastic liner that sloped into the deep end was absent that black line, so for a number of years was able to enjoy being a kid in a pool, but as an adult, and having in-ground pools of my own, all with painted black lines, I eventually lost my love of swimming pools altogether, and stopped going into the water completely by the age of fifty, for a number of very good reasons. Some of them involved snakes and frogs finding their way into those pools, or hidden inside the filter basket, caught up in the current of the suction mechanism. I hated that I would lift the basket cover off and reach my hand down to grab its handle only to find my hand wasn’t the only thing in there. Then I had to remove the culprit, dead or alive, a disgusting pool chore.

Another life altering encounter would come as a young teen in Cape May, New Jersey, where I was during the time my parents spent visiting my mother’s aging and progressively ailing mother. The perks to letting us kids roam about, never past the beach town and its boardwalk (within walking distance) was the upside to all the downsides. There were chores we still had to do on vacation and a ton of rules and guidelines, none of which my neighborhood girlfriend Dale (who I was happy to have along on the trip) and me followed when we awoke very early on the morning of the last day of our short vacation. We were set to return home to Pennsylvania later that day, a three hour ride with eight people (six of them kids) in an old station wagon. The plan was to take our rafts to the beach for some wave time before the rest of the family woke up. I had four other brothers and sisters, none of whom I wanted to accompany us on our last hoopla on the water. I don’t remember asking permission to do so but remember the plan was to return before anyone even knew we were gone, so it was probably just a rouge teenage mission, one that had a big unforeseen glitch. When you are in your teens there is little likelihood for any real foresight.

After reaching the beach, we discovered that it was void of any significant wave action and the ocean instead looked more like an endless murky lake with staggered shoreline ripples. Bored and still feeling a bit sleepy, we tied our rafts together and because of the early excursion for nothing but disappointment, simply stretched out our arms above our heads, and using them for a headrest, laid our head’s down, talked awhile, and fell asleep. Unsure of who dozed off first, I remember being the first to rise sometime later. It was obvious we’d lost track of time completely. I remember opening my eyes and lifting my head only to see the shoreline had gotten smaller and the distance between our rafts and the beach had gotten longer. I’m nearsighted, which made things even scarier. The big blur in the distance meant that the water we were floating away in was going to be way over our heads and the tide’s current made it difficult to return to shore. We were faced with a situation we lacked the experience to get ourselves out of and I was overcome with the feeling of helplessness followed by panic and fear.

The Atlantic Ocean always seemed a very strange green color to me, not like the blue Pacific Ocean surrounding the Hawaiian Islands or hugging the California coast, making it difficult to see past the sun’s reflection coming from its surface. To look into the water and see nothing beneath it isn’t a feeling I was ever comfortable with since the water moccasin event. Dale went in the water first, one because she was the brave one and two because of my preconceived fears about opaque or deep water. I was the validation lunge that followed hers because she was unable to reach the bottom. I was most confused by that and thought I should try next despite the fact that Dale was the problem solver and I was the flight of ideas. When I too failed to touch the bottom, confusion was quickly replaced by the actual fear that we were both in deep water and deep shit and when she didn’t have a technical resolution to our current demise were also in grave danger.

There is difficulty with some parts of the story because of the moments that frightened me the most and left void black holes in my memory. They were the scary details that seemed purposely left out of the brain to spare itself from the continued and unwelcome drama of remembering despite the ability to recall most all of the other details. Maybe it is the body’s own protective mechanism to prevent information overload and the return of inconsolable or irresolvable panic or fear, like the action of chewing off your own foot to escape the hopeless and irremovable trap attached to your ankle.

I was blessed with hair trigger reflexes, and like the rising and falling of the hair on my body, believed that what goes up eventually must come down. That became my consolation mantra to creature fear… that this too shall pass, no matter what the circumstances. But as time passed, and the strange creature encounters increased, my central nervous system became overloaded with signals and instead began to send me straight into a frantic spin of nonsensical options complete with terrifying mind’s eye images of what might lie ahead. How I’ve managed to avert life-threatening danger thus far remains a mystery and something that always causes me to knock on wood after entertaining that fact.

When I jumped off my raft and into the ocean, I tried opening my eyes in attempt to see whatever was in the water with me, to perhaps quell my fears of doing so, but salt (or chlorinated pool) water always caused my eyes to snap shut because of the instant and unnatural burn. I was blind without glasses and blind in the water. I was a good swimmer and knew how to descend quickly, but never liked holding my breath in water I couldn’t see through and worse yet was not being able to judge how far the surface was to reach much needed air after releasing small amounts of it on the ascent least my lungs burst. What if I miscalculated the depth and fell short on the amount of breath needed to surface? It was a real phobia of mine. I never wanted my life to end in a drowning or in a fire, so I was extra cautious around both water and flame.

I was running out of air and now needed to surface just as fast as I had gone down. I knew I was not alone in the ocean but was blind to whatever was, which heightened my fear, and also knew the deeper the water the bigger (and more dangerous) the sea creatures and that I didn’t belong there. Then the image of a shark came quickly to mind causing panic and an ascension to the surface in record time without consideration for lung capacity whatsoever. I reached the raft and scurried on top of it like a drowning rat on its last breath holding onto a tiny piece of driftwood after the cargo ship went down with no rescue in sight. Dale and I were in some serious trouble.

Since swimming against the current was impossible, Dale immediately started paddling to a large buoy further out to sea in the same direction as the tide took us. It was anchored and bobbing around in the distance like a beacon of hope. My first thought was that Dale was really smart and how incapable I was of thinking of something like that when the perfect moment to do so presented itself, as when safety is at risk, there is little time for lollygagging. I started to follow Dale to the buoy but did not like the fact that my arms were flailing about at the sides of my raft in waters deep enough to house some really big fish, in particular, sharks. The only thing that would have made that moment scarier was if I was bleeding or mistaken for a hunk of chum. I was still in shock over not being able to reach the bottom and getting caught up in waters so deep; it was a feeling of intense helplessness. Dale reached the buoy and tied her raft to it to stop herself drifting further out to sea. Despite my panic level, I again remembered how impressed I was at her quick thinking. I don’t recall ever making it to the buoy.

We heard the rescue lifeguards who had arrived early for morning rescue training exercises on the beach. They were yelling at us from the shoreline and gathered around the rescue boat on the sand next to the lifeguard stand. I knew they were coming for us but felt just as much apprehension as I did relief. We were not supposed to be in the water unless there was a lifeguard sitting in that lifeguard stand and there were set hours for that and we were nowhere near that timeframe. The lifeguards continued to scream and shout at us but were too far away for us to hear what they were saying, their calls lost in the direction of the wind that had taken us that far out to sea and in the current of the tide going in that same direction. There was no way we were able to swim inland and remember being annoyed that we were initially expected to, like it was intentional that we’d gotten out that far and could just come back. Had we been able to do so, my girlfriend would not have tied herself to a large buoy. I still remember the sound of the lifeguard whistles wafting in the breeze. The only sound louder than that was that of my own heartbeat.

The captain of the lifeguard team and a few of its members got into a rescue boat and made their way towards us. Dale and I were pulled into the rowboat and scared about the big trouble we had gotten ourselves into. Once the boat reached the beach and we thought that would be the end of our rescue, it soon became apparent that after the long bellowing safety lecture in the boat, the captain of the team wasn’t done with us and we weren’t going anywhere just yet. Funny how one can recall the volume of screaming during an unfriendly confrontation from a memory that never fades and resulted in a lifelong lesson learned, despite the fact that I’d have one more rescue in the cards decades later. Once on the beach, we were asked questions about our parents, and where we lived, which prompted the feeling there’d be parental contact and maybe a chaperoned ride home. In the eyes of the law, my friend and I were minors, just stupid kids that needed to be taught a lesson and we were about to get one. I decided it would be best if we made a run for it (as facing my parents would be equivalent to floating above shark territory on a small raft), and after one glance at each other both agreed to do just that.

We suddenly bolted in unison and never stopped running until we got back to my grandmother’s house, still carrying our rafts as proof that we really did go to the beach one last time despite the fact that it was hard to run carrying a blown-up rectangle, an obstacle to the aerodynamics of fleeing the scene; never mind that we were drenched, salty, and in our bathing suits. I don’t recall any retribution for our actions as I doubt I was truthful about the risky and unauthorized excursion that day, but can still remember how very scared I was just at the notion my parents could be contacted by that screaming lifeguard Captain angered by what could have ended as a tragic drowning for two young girls. I was never remorseful for escaping before divulging that information either but never again entered waters deeper than chest level or into water I couldn’t see my feet in unless I was on a boat. Some experiences just never leave you and to this day Dale’s feet remain firmly planted on the ground on which she plants them while I remained untethered, though it seems age affects those dynamics with each passing decade just as the memories do. It was the last time I would ever get on a raft. I was smart enough to quit while I was ahead.

(Story continues below images)

Nearly forty decades after the New Jersey ocean event, I was living in an awesome rental home, in Apollo Beach, on the brackish canal waters leading out to Tampa Bay (Florida) and from there, the Gulf of Mexico. I was working as a hospice nurse and the house was my sanctuary from the daily death and dying that consumed my responsibilities while working there. Spiritually, it was an experience that carved permanent life grooves into my soul, teaching and forever changing me, but when I returned home was so in need of the magic and the solace that the Spanish-looking little pink house with the curved Adobe roof tiles provided me. The delicate balance to the acceptance of dying is fully living life and that house truly was the slice of property heaven on the water in a neighborhood that was just the serenity I needed to maintain balance of the living end.

It was an open floor plan house and the living room and master bedroom had big sliding glass doors that led into the enclosed pool and lanai areas. Just beyond that were private boat and fishing docks that stood over the water. I couldn’t believe my luck. This was one of my favorite houses, though the joy would only last the length of a one year’s lease. It was the only house I ever regretted not buying when I had the chance to, but life back then revolved around the decisions between the responsibilities of renting or a full blown mortgage held by a bank. Since I was single, the notion of putting all of my chips on one number felt like an unsafe bet at that time. Still, like fishing, it felt like the big one that got away.

Everything about the house was inviting, especially the dock I knew I’d be fishing from as often as I could. There was not a boat in my immediate future until a couple of years later, after the purchase of my first home, when I finally felt sure such a purchase would no longer feel like a gamble and had finally reached the yearly salary to safely do so. I enjoyed riding my bicycle around ApolloBeach, exploring the boating community and looking at all the beautiful homes and enormous boats, but enjoyed fishing even more when I wasn’t working or on call at night when it seemed most of the hospice deaths occurred. When surrounded by so much death, I felt the need to seek out as many things that were a reminder of all that comes with living life to the fullest, least my time as a hospice nurse be cut short due to the magnitude of loss and sadness associated with my job. Doing the work of earth angels causes one to dig deeper than the depth of one’s own soul and requires the continuous need for self-checking to be sure that you can set your own feelings aside to tend to the final needs of another. It can be both rewarding and draining.

The canal front house provided the place where I learned that one could get lost in the hours of any day that was a good one for fishing or crabbing at the backyard docks, or for simply watching the boats and marine life pass by, something that could be seen while standing at the kitchen counter, sitting on the living room couch, laying in bed, or when anywhere outback, including being in the pool. It was the most serenity I had ever experienced in a private dwelling and it spoiled me for anything else in my life that followed. It was a hard act to follow. At the time, I had a new boyfriend that couldn’t believe his luck that he’d found a woman who loved the water as much as he did and the fishing that went along with it, and I had found someone to share those experiences with. It was also a boyfriend I learned couldn’t protect me from creatures I’d encounter anymore than I could protect myself. That surprised me, as he was a Southern boy who I’d imagined grew up with all kinds of animal and insect creatures on his parents (and grandparent’s) tobacco farm. Surely he’d grown up getting his hands dirty. That’s just what most boys do or so I’d imagined watching my own fearless brothers growing up.

Ray wasn’t home the day I was standing on the fishing dock cleaning up shortly after the move-in. The first thing on my schedule was to get acclimated out back with everything I’d need to spend many a day there. The serenity of the moment was interrupted when I thought I saw something in the rather darkish canal waters just a few feet away. I always stopped for any movement on the water, especially for anything of size, which usually meant I’d see a dolphin (and in other deeper waters, perhaps a Whale). I saw only small ripples in the water. I stood silent but when I saw nothing more, I turned around to finish up when out of the corner of my eyes I saw what looked like batman’s black bat mobile bursting up from the surface and into the air before landing with such a large loud splash that I jokingly deemed the experience the Jimmy Hoffa splash (the long lost mobster whose body has never been found) because it sounded like someone with concrete shoes had just gone overboard.

Though seriously stunned by what I believed I had just witnessed, it was a habit of mine to name my encounters, my way of minimizing anything scary that might follow. When possible, it was always humor first fear second. One of the few coping mechanisms I had. The large rings that I used to see only after throwing or skipping rocks on the water were suddenly transformed into something extremely wide and alarming right before my very eyes, so I had an idea of what that might signify, but what could have possibly made rings so large that they only stopped after reaching the banks at both sides of the canal? Even more mysterious was the fact that such a crazy and strange encounter only occurred when there was nobody else around to share that experience with. That made repeating such that story so difficult to believe, and even as a self-professed raconteur, I wasn’t ever able to make up anything that good. Something that amazing had to be experienced firsthand for it to be remotely believable.

Since I had recently purchased a book about creatures I knew I was bound to confront in the state of Florida, I ran into the house in an attempt to look up that which had just lunged out of the water and towards the sky leaving me dumbfounded. I recalled I’d recently seen an artistic sculpture somewhere at an aquarium in Tampa, and that it might also be the trademark logo of a professional sports team I knew little about in that same city. I had seen stingrays before, but what I saw had a much bigger presence and a more ominous feeling because of its size and pitch black color. I felt as if I had just seen my first prehistoric water behemoth and was in such awe there was little room for any fear. I cannot image how the sighting may have gone had I been on the water in that narrow canal, the reason I’d never get into a canoe or kayak again after falling out of the first canoe I was ever talked into and one that would also be the last. Since I knew there were fairly large boats in the canal and the waters had to be deep enough to accommodate them, I knew the water creatures could be quite large too. What I discovered had jumped out of the water that day was a very large adult manta ray. They can grow to have an average wingspan of twenty-two feet (but can reach up to thirty) and can weigh as much as four thousand pounds (which explained the huge splash and spanning ripples) and jump out of the water for a number of different reasons. They can “fly” by flapping their fins giving them great height once out of the water and by doing so can also rid themselves of pesky parasites and other marine life attachments. Breaching is also a communication method and is used to scare off predators, including boaters. By 2018, Florida manta rays had been added to the endangered species list which heightened the prehistoric feel I had to the encounter that day and would be my first and last.

On another afternoon, while fishing off the dock, I encountered something else that appeared slightly overgrown. It was a good day for crabbing. There were two good crabbing seasons in the canal, stone crab and blue crab, and I loved them both though I never enjoyed the cooking part since they are alive when they enter that process. As simple woman on a budget, I liked to use that which I already had easy access to, and soon devised a way to entice the crabs my way using a raw turkey neck. I was always more comfortable going into a grocery store than a bait shop as I really knew very little of the skills necessary for serious fishing. Sometimes I fished using cut up chicken hearts and livers and caught (and released) some pretty big catfish by doing so, but crabbing resulted in a high end meal for the price of some table scraps. I couldn’t handle the grunting sounds that came from the catfish that I hooked and laid on the dock, so they were always returned to the water and crabbing became the favored catch using just a pole, some line, and a turkey neck. It was tranquility on a string.

I tied fourteen pound fishing line around the turkey neck and enjoyed the cat and mouse game that would ensue. It was a thrill to see just how many crabs I could coax to the surface at one time, but quickly learned just how sly (and quick) they could be. Once you reel them to the surface and they see your blurry silhouette, they let go. I can still envision the spread eagle claws while they drifted back into the deep and when there were big ones, I vowed with conviction to lure then back again with more success at capture. Big crabs went into the portable cooler on the dock and the little one were returned to the water to mature. I believed the escapees were laughing at me as they drifted back to the bottom thinking they had outsmarted me. Though I knew I needed a good net to secure the catch, it seemed a true test of patience and skills not to use one and I could spend all day outside crabbing using the slow and steady technique that was a huge diversion to the usual stress of my nursing career and personal life. I could deal with any drama a crab because it guaranteed a fresh seafood meal in the end.

Since the canal had an accumulation of unseen junk on its bottom, it was not unusual to fight with my fishing line getting caught up on any number of those things, but this day, using a turkey neck, I got caught up on something very different. I knew I wasn’t dealing with crabs because the line was too heavy for that, but my tug of war game started to cause concern that perhaps I had caught a shark, as I knew that if I had seen other big fish in the canal, sharks had to be there too. I pulled and struggled with my fishing pole until I prevailed by slow and steady reeling in towards the dock, perseverance a virtue. I couldn’t imagine what the hell I could have caught with a turkey neck and stood at the dock’s edge awaiting that first glimpse of the answer to that question. What slowly came into view was the biggest grouper I had ever seen outside of an ocean, with a turkey neck stuck sideways in its mouth horizontally jacking it open. I didn’t initially panic, as grouper was one of the few fish I would eat, but when I realized how many times greater this mammoth’s weight was versus my fourteen pound tackle line, I did. I held onto the pole as did the turkey neck hold the grouper and looked around for help. My neighbors on both sides of me weren’t home that day, just my luck. I looked across the canal and wondered if it would be crazy to scream for help out of my craving for the taste of grouper. There was no way I was getting this fish on the dock by myself but I wasn’t about let go either. This grouper would have filled my freezer and then some.

Because I was new to the neighborhood, I thought it best not to start screaming, as the help that might appear could be the police, and not a helpful fisherman. Just as my brain was sifting through options to get this monster out of the water and up onto the dock, the line broke, and I saw this beautiful delicacy move away from me and disappear into the canal. I felt sad, not because I lost the biggest fish I would ever catch, and months of filleted meals for the price of time and a turkey neck, but because I didn’t know how the grouper would survive with its mouth permanently jacked open like that. If that large grouper lived only to be caught again, I’d be perplexed at how the fish, now unable to open or close its mouth, could get hooked in the first place. I don’t believe in fish ghosts, but if that were a possibility, that grouper would absolutely be mine and forever haunt me for the damage I caused it that day, all for the love of crab and a sad case of mistaken identity.

Crabbing was always a success, and there was nothing like steamed crab with some top shelf melted butter, the days when cholesterol was never given a thought. The only thing better than crab or lobster was if there was champagne to go with all that melted butter; no other food groups need apply. The one time crabbing brought me additional joy was when my boyfriend Ray was helping me in the kitchen getting ready for the boil. Given my distain for creatures of most sorts, the crab action surprisingly didn’t concern me. Perhaps it was because the chances of great harm were little to none, and I could easily outrun a crab if things got sketchy. The deep boil pot was ready and it was time to get the crabs into the water for steaming. This particular evening, a few of the crabs were extra feisty, as they had been held inside a cooler since mid-day, and as one might imagine anticipating the misfortune of boiling water, they were resisting entrance into the pot by clinging onto its rim. I freaked out first followed by big Ray, and both of us were screaming like we were on a roller coaster and stuck at the top. A few crabs broke loose and began scurrying across the kitchen counter, so I took the pot off the stove and placed it on the stone floor. I thought it better that the crabs be below elbow level versus above for additional leverage over the situation. I expected that Ray had begun chasing down the runaway crabs, but realized he was running from the scene… and still screaming. I was on my own again.

I couldn’t believe I was tasked with capturing the crabs for a second time, as Ray couldn’t be bothered crabbing without cages, which we never had, so he never did. And while I was scream-laughing at the sight of Ray running from the getaway crabs, I managed to pick up some long handled kitchen prongs and chased after the crabs that were gaining speed trying to get away from two screaming humans. It was the first time my dinner had ever run from the table but the amount of laughing that night was well worth the trouble. Completing the crab boil was my seafood payday for confronting my fear of creatures that come out of the water with an added bonus of causing big Ray to scream like a terrified little girl. There were few times in my life that I ever laughed that hard, and could laugh at the mere thought of that image of runaway Ray anytime that memory arose.

I never really did look at him the same way after that though. It was more than just a funny event and later become obvious he wouldn’t be the one in the relationship who got their hands dirty or could come to my rescue, an annoying deal breaker when he could squirm worse than I could. Ray could move even faster if there was a snake in the yard and when you’re near water, and a gator was even more possible, a woman doesn’t need a running mate, she needs bravery. I could deal with having someone in my life who didn’t like to get his hands dirty… if he was a surgeon. But when you’re a blue-collar worker struggling to reach your goals, and you’re one half of a partnership, both parties need to be ready to go all in at some point. I’ve always needed to feel that my partner had to be able to respond to any situation with as much (or more) conviction than I could, but if you run screaming from dinner crabs, you’ve already set that bar too low. I hated that about myself, and it was a factor in my being single for way too many years, but I was the one with the creature PTSD, and no matter how hard I tried to suck it up, my experiences brought about the memories which validated the fear that only I could overcome. Nobody else could save me from myself.

I’d encounter my last sizable water creature while living on the Gulf side of the Florida coast again, this time in Clearwater. My partnership had ended with a division of property and since I couldn’t operate the boat we’d purchased together by myself (or without hiring a captain), I relinquished my shares of that investment for another, but soon had a yearning to get out on the water again after months of not being able to do so. Every time I crossed bridges that spanned the ocean waters and connected the Gulf shores to the Tampa area, the feeling of being out on the water again was more than I could bear being without. It wasn’t a difficult decision as to how to turn the thought into a reality and I soon purchased something I could manage on my own. It was a 1,000 CC Suzuki three-seat (with a swim platform) wave runner. I was so excited that I purchased every accessory for myself and anyone else that wanted to ride with me. The only difficulty I encountered was learning how to safely hook up and trailer to the boat ramps nearby, but I’d get up real early every Saturday morning and head to the empty parking lot at the local Wal-Mart, practicing the necessary maneuvers needed to show up at what was mostly a male dominated ramp. Nobody there seemed to have any patience for anyone futzing around and delaying their time on the water, especially in Florida weather; it was to be an in and out experience without issues. I watched my share of couples’ fighting at the dock ramps when things went wrong, like a missed catch on the mooring rope, or a missed opportunity for keeping any watercraft or vessel from hitting the dock when heading into or out of the water. There was little tolerance for not knowing what you were doing once out there in serious water country.

I got extremely fearless fairly fast on my new water motorcycle, where if I fell off I wouldn’t have to pick gravel out of my skin or repair my ride had I chosen a street bike instead. I had the best of both worlds. I had the wind in my hair and the water under my feet and I took great pride in honing the skill of wave jumping, an exhilaration the likes of which I have never experienced since. I was now working in the legal nursing profession, and had weekends to myself and never being on call for work again made getting up early on weekends so very worth it. The experience of being one little dot atop a vast body of ocean water was without competition and the sense of accomplishment, for me being able to do that which I didn’t believe I could do on my own, was huge and had a lasting effect. Making a healthy breakfast and wrapping it all to go, and heading out on the Gulf waters to dine among the seabirds and the dolphins, was how it always started. One day, that would also be how it nearly ended.

Since there were just some things I never thought I should do as a single female, like the technical mechanics of a water vessel and engine, I knew only the basics and the necessary safety regulations. One weekend after picking up my wave runner in for an oil change and engine check-up, something I routinely did for my own safety. I headed straight out to the water. I grabbed a bottle of water and a small bag of sunflower seeds as it would be a short ride for a morning that had already started late. I always had my cell phone in case of any emergency so there was never really anything to fear, or so I thought. I was in the water, through the channel, and out into the Gulf of Mexico in no time. Since I had no breakfast on board, I decided to turn the engine off and sit quietly on the water and just take it all in. It was such a peaceful and extremely private setting in the ocean.

Then I decided to call my coworker who was also a friend, and share the beauty of the moment with her. She enjoyed hearing about my latest off work escapades as much as I enjoyed the stories of hers. I loved telling her about everything I’d seen on my water excursions, especially if I was seeing them while talking to her, like playful dolphins swimming alongside my craft or graceful sting rays that congregated around the little islands I would anchor next to and wade onto the private little beaches found there for additional seclusion. The excitement was difficult to contain hence the need to share. We were both single professionals who had to juggle careers as well as a home without a masculine presence (muscle when you need it) to share the hard stuff with (like repairs), which made sharing our personal accomplishments flying solo somewhat satisfying.

While drifting on the ocean and talking to Kim on the cell phone, my feet felt extra cold despite my neoprene socks and swim shoes and were submerged in water in the foot wells of the wave runner. I had never seen water accumulate there before and turned around to see the swim platform off the back submerged even deeper. I relayed my concern to my friend and just as I did, I saw what I thought were baby dolphins swimming beneath my craft, which had a big white underbelly that I always joked looked a little like the belly of a baby whale. Then I noticed they were not dolphins. They were baby sharks. I joked to Kim that though they were only babies, I wondered where the parents were. I looked at my cell phone only to discover I had one power bar left causing me to panic a little. I had to get off the phone and get out of there as while distracted while on the phone I had also drifted from the shoreline and the tide was going out not in. I had flashbacks of my teenage rescue on the Atlantic Ocean which was initially paralyzing.

I turned the ignition only to hear a sound I had never yet heard coming from the engine compartment and repeated the motion shaking my head that this could not be happening again. After a number of failed attempts, the engine wouldn’t turn over at all. The battery was dead and my craft appeared to be slowly sinking. I couldn’t take the large three person seat off as it was without hinges, so I had no idea of what went wrong in the engine compartment below. One wrong move and the seat above the engine would be on the ocean floor below and irretrievable. I imagined what it would be like to have to straddle the wide craft over the ocean waves and boat wakes without falling off, but the engine had to start before that could happen and the dock was a few miles away. I had bought the craft new, and it was the top of its line, now clueless as to the reason I was stranded in the Gulf of Mexico.

Before I could call 911 a large fishing vessel approached and paused far enough away from me that the captain could call out. He asked me if I was in trouble and I hollered back that I was. He called the Coast Guard (I was stupid enough to not have towing insurance, the most important boating accessory of them all) and asked me if I needed water because I could be sitting out in the hot sun for another hour, the time it would take for the Coast Guard to get reach me. He threw me a bottle and I couldn’t believe I caught it, one of the few victories of the day. I ate the rest of my sunflower seeds and rationed the bottle of water not really knowing how long I’d be out there or worse yet, above water. I had already been on the water for over an hour without cover. My life vest wasn’t going to save me from anything besides drowning, and for the second time in my life the fear of a confrontation with a shark trumped my fear of drowning, something I vowed would never be my demise. I knew there were sharks swimming beneath me. It was my worst nightmare coming true… again.

A sailboat passed with three men aboard. They called out to me saying they had seen me adrift an hour before but weren’t sure I was in any distress until they saw me further drifting much later and realized I had must have lost engine power. When I told them the Coast Guard was coming they advised me that if I was uninsured that was going to cost me hundreds of dollars given my location and the ramp I launched from and advised me the money clock started from the time of the call. They offered to tow me to the dock and I wasn’t sure stepping aboard a boat on the ocean with three strange guys was a good thing to do. When confronted with either sitting on my sinking craft awaiting a staggering bill for the rescue or taking a chance with three clean-cut men, all of whom advised they were married, I opted for the sailboat rescue.

The men tied ropes to the front of my vessel and then pulled me onboard their boat. What should have been an easy tow got complicated quickly. The rope kept snapping and the guys couldn’t figure out what the problem was. It took countless times retying that rope and using slow boat engine power to gently pull it towards the closest sand bar. Once we had reached the sandbar, we all jumped off the boat to take a closer look at my craft. After the seat was removed, the added water weight in the engine compartment validated the reason that trying to tow it through water was like trying to cut steak with a butter knife. It was confirmed the engine had flooded. I would find out soon enough that my engine compartment was submerged to the top with water and the drain plug that was the result of the oil change my wave runner just had wasn’t replaced and threaded properly after that service. A mechanic’s failure was what allowed water to seep into the craft and fill the engine compartment which was the flooding sound I heard while trying to restart the craft and return to shore.

One of the guys got a bucket and bailed out as much water as he could, but it had become such a long day and I’d been on the water for hours without food or drink, that before I could get back onto my wave runner, I needed to eat and drink something. I treated the gang to lunch (and liquid courage cocktails) at the waterfront bistro literally on the water, and the bill for four of us for an additional hour was a couple hundred dollars less than what the Coast Guard’s tab would have been, so I was feeling somewhat better about things. But after the second attempt to bail out the water that had again filled the engine compartment, I now had to prepare myself for the scary ride back to the dock before there was another chance at sinking. It was a helpless feeling to be moving on the water without control of any kind and I hoped that the guys on the big sailboat knew what they were doing in letting me sit on the compromised wave runner during the tow back to the boat ramp. I had no idea how that was going to play out.

The guys advised me I’d have to untie the rope attached to the front of my craft and throw it back to them as they pulled me closer to the dock. I was going to be sailing into the dock without power or the ability to stop. As afraid as I was of the shark and near sinking encounter, I had newfound fears that things would end badly against the old wooden dock but was without additional options. It is called letting go of the wheel. It became an example of just one of the many times I had to overcome my own fear before being paralyzed by it. They sounded the warning which meant my tow across the water and towards the dock was about to end and it was time to untie myself from the rope that attached me to the sailboat. I tossed the rope back to my three heroes as they continued to sail away from me as I waved and thanked them. Then, staring down the dock that now looked more like a bulls eye, and my wave runner the arrow, I braced for impact. Amazingly it was a perfect landing! Those guys really did know what they were doing another first and last for me; finally, men that could come to my rescue, only they were the men of other women and therefore unavailable.

I tied my craft to the dock, retrieved my truck and trailer and pulled out my waterlogged ride. I heard water pouring out the back everything I was on an incline or accelerated, and by the time I got home, the only water left in the engine compartment was the mark left by how high the water had reached. It was all the way to the top. The next thing I did the moment I got into my house was secure boater’s insurance so that the next year of riding was covered. I also made a new rule to never use cell phone while out on the water to call anyone that wasn’t part of a rescue team. I put my house up for sale the following year due to the challenges of numerous back to back hurricanes (too much for a single woman to endure) and sold most everything too big to ship to Hawaii. If my days on the water were going to end, I at least wanted to live next to some really nice beaches with blue water clear enough so to see my feet. It is easier to run if you know what you’re running from and are able to do so. My days of adventures in deep water were over.

(Story continues below images)

North Shore, Oahu (Photo of a Photo)

North Shore, Oahu (Photo of a Photo)

North Shore, Oahu Surfers and a Whale (Photo of a Photo)

North Shore, Oahu Surfers and a Whale (Photo of a Photo)

Soon after relocating, I found myself standing on a beach on Oahu’s North Shore, photographing surfers bobbing around on their surfboard awaiting the perfect ride and was taken by the sheer beauty of that part of the island, famous for its seasons for gigantic waves and competitive surfing events at the Pipeline. I imagined the photos I’d taken at the NorthShore would be amazing given the perfect weather they were taken in; the surrounding colors, from the sand to the sky, were breathtaking. When I finished off the last roll, a local approached me and asked me if I’d gotten the whale in those last frames. I had no idea what he was talking about. I had just used a telephoto lens on that shoot and sometimes zooming in on a subject allows for missing the periphery. It wasn’t until I had the film developed that I saw the tail of the whale that surfaced along side of a surfer just sitting spread eagle on his board waiting for the big wave. It confirmed my fear of water with depth and everything that comes with that. I imagined what it would have been like to be sitting on a surfboard and having something of that size come out of the water right beside me, or worse yet, while sitting on my wave runner. Those are images that propel the fear and panic which in turn drives the PTSD. After all, I grew up reading the tales of Moby Dick. I guess every generation has their own boogeyman stories.

The more important lesson of all was that though we sometimes have to eventually give up things that we’ve long enjoyed, for whatever reason, there are always replacements of equal happiness; you just have to remain vigilant and open to the change. And learning to conquer things you’d once believed required the help of another could be pretty darn satisfying. Eventually, I had also given up encounters of the boyfriend kind. It was a personal choice that was never afforded me by the unending presence of creatures everywhere I went… as I could no longer fathom the thought of protecting anyone other than myself at this late stage of my life when that occurred. Which I was certain it would.

© 2020 Janet Vincenti

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