Back in 1959 our family took a vacation in Bermuda. We stayed at a nice hotel, right on the oceanside. I don’t remember what it was called. But it had a wonderful beach with the softest sand that molded itself to you as you lay in it. That’s probably how so many visitors fell asleep in the tropical sun, only to wake with a severe sunburn. Enough people that the service providers who roamed the beaches filling requests for food, drink, lounging chairs, towels and blankets would spot a sleeper and erect a little white tent over them to block the burning rays of the sun.
They had a marina as well, and from it one could charter fishing trips, rent snorkeling and scuba gear and arrange for diving trips. You could also rent rowboats, speedboats and sailboats by the hour, half day or full day. My father rented a Lightning sailboat, a small single sail craft that could accommodate a family. It also had a spinaker sail that could be employed, though few people used them. It was fun enough cutting through the water, driven by the trade winds. Of naval descent, my father of course had sailing in the blood, and the Lightning was easily mastered and soon my dad had us dancing across the waves and far from shore. We could see the islands, but I’d not like to have to swim to them from where we were.
After a few hours, my father dropped the sail and we bobbed in the undulating light waves of the sea. My mom opened her wicker picnic basket and passed around sandwiches, potato salad, potato chips and, from a cooler, cans of root beer. We bobbed and ate and talked among ourselves until my sister exclaimed, “Quick, everyone. Look over there!”
Not fifty feet from our boat a number of vertical fins cut through the water. The dark shapes beneath them were large, easily the same size as a person. My father stood in the boat and regarded them. “Those are sharks!” he exclaimed. “We need to sacrifice one of us so the rest can escape!” With those words leaving his lips, he picked me up by an arm and leg and tossed me overboard.
I surfaced, screaming in fright to see my mother and sister looking horrified and my father laughing to the point of almost choking. Turning as I tread water, I saw the fins turn towards me and dart in my direction. I saw for the boat as hard as I could, but even with the sail down, the wind kept it moving too fast for me to catch. The fins circled me and approached and then turned away, only to approach again. Some swam past me and I could see their huge bodies as the glided past.
My dad raised the sail and brought the sailboat about and brought it alongside me. With little effort, he grabbed my arm and pulled me inside the boat. I was sputtering and in tears, frightened witless but also relieved that I was safely back in the boat. The large fish came alongside of us, easily pacing the boat and undulating up and down, as they swam along. “They’re porpoises!” my dad explained with a big smile. “They wouldn’t ever hurt you. In fact, there are many stories of people rescued by porpoises who nudged or even carried them to shore. They’re very smart and very friendly.
We all watched the pod of porpoises as they swam alongside. Eventually, they turned away and went off elsewhere to porpoise purposes. My sister saw the humor in my father’s prank, but then she was always in favor of anything that made me uncomfortable. My mother, and myself were not as giving. “You could have given our son a complex or frightened him to the point he drowned.” she said disapprovingly. My father looked a bit abashed, but maintained that I wasn’t damaged and that I was really the lucky one, I’d gotten to swim with real, live porpoises.
It became one the the ever appearing family stories that my father would tell, and it always got a good laugh from the audience. I would simply glare at my father for reminding me of the incident, which I never have come to find funny. Of course, this is the same man who, one day as we walked along a pier in Emerald Bay at Lake Tahoe asked me if I had learned to swim yet. When I, a five year old at the time, said no, not yet, he threw me off the pier. I managed to make it to shore where my father swears he would have been to congratulate my accomplishment had it not been for the three fishermen who saw it happen and took their exception up with my dad. I ended up coughing up water and an inclination to learn to swim before my father drowned me, my father ended up with a black eye and for the next and last week of our vacation had people pointing to him and shaking their heads as they said things like “that’s the guy I was telling you about.”
My feelings on the incident are ambivalent these days, I don’t resent it as much as the porpoise incident. But then, when pitched off the pier the shore was only 30 feet away and the water was only five feet deep. It did not cause me to feel the spread of warmth in my swimming trunks as I wet myself with fear in the waters of the Bahamas.