The fear came on as I stood there, a knife in my hand, a tank on my back. The boat drifted with the engine off. We had rope in the wheel. Someone needed to get in the water, cut it out.
Breathe like you normally would.
In fear situations you never want your imagination in charge of your intellect. You’ll freeze.
I froze. Standing on deck in my boxer shorts, one year out of high school, I let the lions into my head, the snapping turtles, the shape behind the tree.
1990 was the year of the basking shark. Our lobster gear lay across the northern edge of Coxes Ledge, right where the hard bottom slopes into the mud. Basking sharks are the second largest fish in the world—35-feet large. They have an ageless and isolated look to them, more like a dinosaur than a fish. And I knew then what I know now: a basking shark is a harmless animal.
Get in the water and cut the rope out.
A mourning dove in the back yard doesn’t keep you from weeding a flowerbed, right? Still I wasn’t ready to hop the rail, and wait for my bubbles to clear, open my eyes, see an eerie brown shape looming deep in the green. This image would absolutely cause the inhalation of seawater into my lungs—then the slow-sink to bottom, the spiral-down.
I stood on deck and the two brothers—the guys I worked for—waited. They offered me no words of encouragement, no, “You’ll be fine, John. In and out. Won’t take but a second.”
Nothing but silence. The two brothers and me.
A basking shark is a lethargic, plankton-eating fish, a grazer of temperate seas. Yes, it does indeed resemble, in ways, the mackerel sharks—the great white and the mako, the porbeagle. But the resemblance ends with their lunate tails, the position of their fins.
Fear is narcotic.
They say that without courage all other virtues are useless. I heard the captain, Mike, speak: “Time to learn how to dive.”
I made the famous greenhorn mistake, saying “yes,” by which I meant “no”—a grunt solider volunteering to sweep for mines.
“Okay,” I said.
“Breathe like you normally would,” Richard said. Richard was Mike’s younger brother. He was the mate. I awaited further instruction. None came. Today’s dive lesson was done.
“Basking sharks ain’t gonna hurt you,” Mike answered, annoyed. “Don’t have all day—got three more to haul yet.” He reached for his smokes by the compass and drove one into his mouth like a spear.
Richard retrieved the tank from down below. The tank lived propped behind the starboard bunk, wedged—so it wouldn’t roll—between a five-gallon bucket of engine oil, a case of lobster bands, and the heavy, oil-soaked tool chest. I say ‘tank’ because that’s all it was: a rusty scuba tank with peeling yellow paint. Attached to the tank was a rubber hose. At the end of the hose was a breathing regulator. That was all of it. No tank bracket designed to fit comfortably on your back, no shoulder straps to keep the tank from sliding, no dive vest to help with buoyancy, no weight belt, no gauges.
But the tank supplied the air. Who knew how old the air was? Had gas molecules become a solid? Richard opened the valve; air, under high pressure, hissed out. He looked pleased.
“Take off your shirt and put on your jacket,” Richard said.
I took off my shirt and put on my rain jacket. I stood there in my boxer shorts.
Richard waited for me to snap the buttons on my Grunden’s jacket. The jacket smelled like bait and the ocean.
Mike grabbed the tank off the deck. He held the tank up to my back. Richard, armed with a fresh roll of duct tape, started wrapping. He wrapped me and the tank up like an awkward Christmas present. Around and around the tape went. I felt the pressure of the tank sinking into my back.
“How’s that feel?” he asked.
“I don’t know. How’s it supposed to feel?”
Mike pulled the cigarette from his lips, fired it overboard. “Too tight or too loose? You don’t want the tank to shift—understand?”
Lord help me.
The sun beat down on the deck and the bait-skate cooked in the barrels. Small bubbles rose up from the barrels’ depths like a scene from Earth’s creation. I watched the surface for basking sharks, their fins. A harmless animal. I watched for the wakes they make when feeding on the surface, the bulge of water cast aside by their snouts. I picked at the duct tape around my chest. The tank had already begun to slide, as though greased. Not the recommend way for fledging divers vacationing in the Caymans. Not in the dive manual.
Mike grabbed a knife from the cull-box, a wooden box containing lobster bands, tools, hammers, hog rings—everything needed for lobstering, including knives. With a red brick, he honed the knife. The brick was our sharpening stone. When he finished, the knife’s edge shined like foil.
My head spun. A year ago I was in a Shakespeare class at a boarding school in the Berkshires. Now I was standing on deck, terrified, with a scuba tank duct-taped to my back and the instruction, “Breathe like you normally would.”
You can’t stall forever. It’s not so much courage as it is the clock.
You’re standing on the bridge looking down at the river with all your friends’ faces looking up at you, heads bobbing in the water. And your feet start to grind the bridge’s cement. The world waits. You hear a bluejay call in the woods. You hear the air brakes of a truck. Hear voices calling your name, shouting: “Just jump!”
In the end you realize the wait is worse than the fall. Once you’re in the air, it doesn’t matter anymore. You hit the water; air bubbles rise and cover your body. Your toes just barely touch the muck on the river’s bottom. You rise, laughing. There never was a snapping turtle to hold you down.
I jumped and cut the line clear from the prop. I breathed like I normally do. I didn’t see any sharks.