Never let them know what you're afraid of...
|“Didn't you once swim out to a raft like that?” Lacey asked. She was holding my right hand. My other granddaughter, Beth, was holding my left. We strolled along the beach just ahead of my sister and daughter who followed close behind.
“Yes, once,” was all I offered. I looked behind me at my sister. She was looking elsewhere.
I picked up a shell and handed it to Beth who was four years old. She looked at it briefly and threw it away in disgust. Beth was a seashell snob.
Lacey continued, “Were there a lot of sharks here in Carpinteria when you were a kid, Jurgens?”
“No Lacey,” I said, answering her question with a pretend-tinge of irritation in my voice. “There were not many sharks then either.”
“Sharks are Eating Machines," Beth ventured.
You got that right, I wanted to say.
“You were so scared of them you wouldn't get off the raft!” Beth added. “You were going to wait for the Coast Guards!”
I turned around and walked backwards forcing eye-contact with my sister, Liz. She had a large grin on her face, daring me to disagree with anything my granddaughter had just said. This story could only have come from Lizzy. She just looked me in the eye and continued smiling.
“I had very mean and cruel older sisters,” I said, turning back around to Beth. “They made me afraid of sharks back then,” My voice was more than loud enough for all five of us to hear.
“But you're not afraid of them anymore, are you, Jurgens?” Beth said, making it a statement.
Muffled laughter tittered from the rear ranks. Beth turned around to see what it was that was so funny, then looked at me, the wise grandfather, for explanation.
I lifted my shoulders and let them fall in a 'don't ask me, kid,' kind of gesture.
“When we were your age, Lacey, all these houses were only one story high. You could barely see them from the beach. They were much smaller then.”
“Your old house is two stories,” Lacey said, having just seen it at the other end of the beach.
“Not when we lived in it,” I said. “Every summer we would come up here from Pasadena and spend three months. We had great big parties with all the other people that lived on the Cove. We would have bonfires, and barbecue fish, and hot-dogs, and roast marshmallows, and when it was a full moon we would go grunion hunting.”
I picked up another shell and handed it to Beth. She threw it away. “I only want the pretty ones,” she said as though exhausted at having to explain this to me all the time.
“You barbecued fish?” Lacey asked conversationally.
“Sometimes,” I answered.
“Did you ever barbecue shark?”
Lacey was nine years old and bound and determined to keep the subject on sharks. Something was up. I didn't know what, but something was definitely up.
“No, Lacey, we didn't barbecue shark.”
“I bet you were afraid they would bite you!” Beth said, and made a claw out of her non shell-burdened hand.
I picked up a broken piece of something the size of a dime, and handed it to her. She barely considered its worth before she wound up and threw it as far away as she could manage.
“No good, huh?”
She wouldn't look at me. It seemed she was going to just let this one slide.
“Okay,” I said. “I'm going to take you all out tonight to a restaurant where we can barbecue our own meals. We used to go to this very same restaurant when we were kids. Remember Liz?”
“The Palms? Oh, yes!”
“Do they offer shark, dad?”
It seemed my own daughter was now getting in on the fun.
“I'm not sure, Janie-Jane. Darn it, I remember when you were cute!”
“I'm still cute, dad.”
“Anyway, I think I'm going to have a steak.”
“Not afraid of cows, huh, Jurgens?” Lacey said and smiled her grandmother's smile at me. My stomach gripped and I put my arm around her. “This child could do with a bit more discipline, I'm afraid,” I said over my shoulder.
“That's where you come in handy, Jurgens,” Janie-Jane said. She was apparently having a tiff with her husband who was at this moment in the rental house. I was glad to see a smidgen of humor starting to show itself after a full day of barely a word from her.
“Only my adorable grandchildren can call me 'Jurgens',” I said, putting my arms around them both.
“Oh, okay, Mike,” Janie-Jane said.
“Well, anyway, as I was saying, I'm going to take everyone except your mother to the Palms for dinner tonight."
“Father, please don't be upset with me!”
We had arrived back at our rented cottage on the beach. My son-in-law, Bradly, was sitting on the porch with one of my beers in his hand. He came to the wooden railing and waved. We all waved back, Janie-Jane too, though her wave included a fake-smile I could spot from a mile off.
We walked up the soft sand to the porch.
“Everybody sit down; we have beer, iced-tea, and Snapple!” my sister announced, opening the screen door. “Who wants what?”
“Iced-tea for me,” I said.
“I'll take a brew-ski,” Little Beth chirped..
The four of us sat down on the comfortable furniture on the porch and looked out over the beach. Sun-umbrellas were scattered everywhere and little kids ran in and out of the ocean, never going out further than their knees. There were sand-castles being erected all along the water's edge and older kids were trying desperately to body-surf the small waves that rolled in. Close to shore were two rafts floating side by side and I could see people sitting on each. Further out beyond the rafts were the oil-derricks, and beyond those were the remote Channel Islands, looking close enough to swim to.
I had thought for a long time that I would one day write of this scene. It was all so familiar and fondly remembered. I could see my sisters, Liz and Kate and Gretchen and Babs lying on towels, their bikini-clad bodies smeared with baby-oil. Next to them a transistor radio garbled out "Twist and Shout" from The Beatles. Before that, before my sisters were old enough to wear bikinis, we had played horsie in the back yard. Well, my sisters had played horsie. I was relegated to stable-boy, and was told to stay in the garage and muck out the “stalls” while they went off for a “ride”. Two hours later, it would finally dawn on me that my sisters weren't coming back and I would go inside the living room and watch “Father knows Best” on channel three, which was the only station we could get at the beach-house my grandfather owned.
I must have laughed at the memory, for when I looked around, everybody on the porch was staring at me.
“What were you thinking about, Jurgens?”
“A long time ago," I said. "And you can refer to me as, Mr. Jurgensen,” I told my daughter.
“Here we are,” Liz said. She brought out a large pitcher of iced-tea and glasses and a bottle of Dos Equis. She filled everyone's glass with iced-tea and handed me the beer.
“This is what Beth ordered,” I said, and handed Beth the bottle. Liz took the bottle back from Beth and re-handed it to me.
“Have the beer, Mr. Jurgensen, you're going to need it.”
Everyone was suddenly smiling at me. Never a good sign.
I saw Janie-Jane give Beth a gentle push and suddenly my granddaughter was climbing up on my lap.
When she got comfortable, she looked up at me with her blue eyes and took a deep breath.
“We want you to swim out to the raft with us very much,” she said.
“So this is what this is...” I said, and had just begun to shake my head 'no', when the verbal barrage began landing from all sides.
“Oh, come on Jurgens/dad/Mike-!”
I looked at them all sitting around me with their bright smiles and eager eyes, and knew I was in trouble, but I was not going to go down easily. I still had one card left to play. “You guys go,” I said with absolute finality. “Me and old Beth here are going to stay right where we are and count the seashells we found today.”
“No!” Beth said. Suddenly she was standing on my lap and I felt her sandy fingers all over my face, and nose, and in my ears as she began planting little wet kisses on my cheek. “And you didn't find one seashell today,” she had to add, “I found them!”
“This kid has absolutely no confidence in me!” I told the group. “And who is going to watch her? She's too young to go out to the raft, and I am too old. You guys go, I mean it! I'm going to stay here and show Beth my old war scars.”
“You don't have any 'old war scars', and if I'm going, you're going!” said my sweet sister, throwing me under the bus once again.
“We're going to put you in a inna-tube,” Beth patiently explained to me.
“I don't have an 'inna-tube,'” I patiently explained to Beth.
“We can rent them down the beach!” Janie-Jane said as though this was a happy thing.
Suddenly my other three sisters were on the porch with us. They were all dressed in brightly colored muumuus carrying beach-bags and donning identical straw hats. Gleeful laughter erupted as we all kissed and hugged. Children were lifted up and marveled at, and cheeks were pinched, and out came more straw hats which were passed around until every woman and girl on the porch was proudly wearing one. We sat down to more iced-teas, (all except for me who was apparently being force-fed Dos Equis) and we caught up on the happenings of all our assorted lives. Three O'clock turned into four O'clock which turned into four thirty O'clock, and I was just getting my hopes up that this “swim out to the raft” business was a forgotten thought, when a gift-wrapped box was placed with solemn fanfare squarely on the center of my lap. The porch grew quiet as it sat there.
They all looked like they were trying to hold back smiles and not one of them was very successful at it. I untied the big red bow and pulled off the lid. They all roared with pent-up laughter as soon as I put the baseball style cap on my head. It said, Shark Bait in proud red letters.
“We will leave the menfolk here while we secure provisions,” Gretchen, my oldest sister said when the jokes at my expense finally died down.
When they were gone, I turned to Bradly. “Look, this is crazy! Those old ladies can't make it out to the raft. Bradly, son! You're the only one I can trust here!”
He smiled his finest smile at me. I suddenly had the urge to grab him by the ear and tell him he had better be nice to my daughter, when he jumped to his feet; the first wise thing I had seen him do in some time.
“Get some swim-trunks on, Jurgens! You're going for a swim!”
I told him I didn't have any swim-trunks.
He looked down at my Bermuda shorts.
“These are my brand new shorts,” I informed him
“Oh,” he said, “I wasn't sure what those were.” Then he was off, saying he had “things to do”, and again wisely kept his ears out of my reach. I watched him descend the steps to the beach, running on his tan, youthful legs in the direction the women had gone. I looked down at my skinny, pale, chicken-legs sticking out of what, until recently, I thought were a fine pair of red and green and blue Bermudas.
I took a long slug of beer and thought about switching to scotch. Sitting there, my mind went back to that time so long ago when my sisters and I had swum out to the newly arrived wooden raft that floated so majestically off our coastline.
The five of us swam in a tight group with me pulling up the rear. Halfway out to the raft-- which was now anchored ten miles further away than I had first realized-- my sisters began spotting sharks. They pointed out four or five Great Whites, half a dozen Makos, and God knows what other sharks beneath us, beside us, all around us. And when they weren't seeing the actual fins of these deadly brutes, they were seeing their shadows, black and swift, passing just beneath our legs in the bottomless water. By the time I reached the safety of that little raft, I adamantly refused to get off again, barring a rescue ship. I never went back.
My reverie ceased the moment I spotted a group of boys about ten years of age dragging huge, tied-together, black inner-tubes along the beach to the edge of the water. Behind them came brightly dressed old ladies wearing muumuus and straw hats. The ones wearing the muumuus began marching toward me with their jaws locked in position and seagulls soaring past their hats.
As they manhandled me down to the beach I was thinking this might be kind of funny if it were not so horribly sad. “This is going to be fun”, they kept insisting as the ocean grew nearer. And deeper. And darker. We were the center of attention of the whole beach. Those people who weren't pointing at us seemed to be taking pictures. Even the joggers stopped to watch.
By the time we had all secured our rear-ends into the huge black inner-tubes I had no idea how we were ever going to get them out again. And thus began The First Annual Swim to the Raft Extravaganza. Beth in my lap with a life-preserver, and I foolishly without one, were positioned in the middle of this floating armada where both she and my gallant sisters could protect me. Yes, we made it to the raft, and yes, we made it back to shore, and no, we weren't attacked by sharks, even though a great many were once again being randomly spotted to an apparent pee-athon of hysterics.
Oh, the fun my family was having! Janie-Jane and Bradly were holding hands like two love-birds. Lacey was forever leading a chorus of "dahdum, dahdum" from Jaws with everyone joining in. And Beth kept snapping her baby teeth at me. It was pretty darn funny, I have to admit.
But then, it always is, I kept thinking amid the hilarity, until some poor sap gets eaten.