"...everything in life is writable...if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt."..... Sylvia Plath

Sunday, August 4, 2013

"Summers With Papa" a work in progress

I adored my grandparents, Roxie and Alfred. So when they moved away from Detroit, where our whole family lived, I was devastated. But they wanted to return to the ocean, having both been born in North Carolina on the Atlantic coast. The pull was just too great to keep them from moving to Tampa, Florida where Papa would build them a home not far from his beloved sea. I made many trips to Tampa as I grew up and still have vivid memories of my adventures with my grandfather, fondly referred to as Papa.

An excerpt from Roxie and Alfred: A Memoir 

     Papa woke me at five o'clock in the morning like he always did. We were going fishing, he said, for Shovel Nose Shark. It scared me a little and I let him know that I didn't think fishing for sharks was something I wanted to do. But he insisted that I would love it as he loaded up his truck with fishing gear,our jackets, hats, and lunch.

     "Hop in , honey. It'll only take me a couple of minutes to attach our boat and trailer."

     We drove out onto the causeway between Tampa and Clearwater. All along the way there were fishermen standing or sitting in beach chairs near the shore. Papa pulled into Mac's Bait and Tackle Shop to pick up a few more necessities and then we were off to find the channel. That's where he said the Shovel Nose Sharks would be. Every time he mentioned those sharks my heart jumped down into my stomach and my right knee started twitching. I'd never gone fishing for anything larger than a catfish and I couldn't imagine how we were going to get a big old shark into the boat by ourselves.

     The sun was dimmed by a sky full of clouds that morning. When we reached the channel, no one else was there. Papa maneuvered the truck around so the rear end of the trailer was pointing toward the water. There was a short driveway to roll your boat down into the water from the trailer. I jumped out when the truck came to a stop and ran along side, until papa had unstrapped the boat and began easing it down into the water. I tried running my hand along the edge of the boat in an effort to steady it, but a gust of wind blew sand in my face and down the front of my shirt so I had trouble seeing where I was going.

     "Sure is windy today, papa. Do you think maybe there's a storm comin' up? I don't see any sun comin' out either."

     "Never you mind, honey, papa knows what he's doing. Won't be no storm today."

     I was a little skeptical about that last remark when another gust of wind swirled around my bare legs and blew my hat right off. Grabbing my hat away from the wind, I ran to get our jackets out of the truck. I thought I better roll up the windows too. Papa came and lifted out our fishing rods and bait, and locked the doors. We headed for the boat, which stood waiting for us in the lapping water. The laps were growing higher and higher by the minute. I wondered why papa didn't notice.

     "Come on, honey. Let's get underway. Ships ahoy."

     "Ships Ahoy, matey" I said and into the boat we both jumped, me first and then papa so he could give us one last big shove away from the shore. He yanked hard on the cord of the outboard motor and the nose of that little boat lifted into the air and took off like it had some place important to go. I looked down into the water. It was so black you couldn't even see the bottom.

     "Papa, why is the water so black?"

     "It's not black, honey. It's just very deep. We’re in the channel where big boats can go though to the other side of the causeway without getting stuck on the bottom."

     "How come we're in the channel?"

     "Cause that's where the sharks hang out."

     My right knee started twitching again and I prayed to God that we would not be eaten by one of them.

     Papa trolled us out a ways "See how fast the water is moving in the channel? It carries a lot of shark food with it," he said. "And when there is abrupt change in currents, the salt, or the water depth, there's even more food."

     "I don't see any food."

     I didn't see a thing in that cold, black water but I knew that Papa knew what he was talking about. He had been a sailor longer than I'd been alive.

     The wind whipped around the bottom of the boat knocking over one of the cans of bait and scattering pieces of crab meat all over. I zipped my jacket up to my chin and tied a blue bandanna tight around my head. The temperature had dropped and we hadn't even put our rods in the water yet. I threw on a pair of fisherman’s gloves and returned the bait to the overturned pail, stopping to thread a large chunk of crab meat on my hook like Papa had shown me.

     "Throw your line in, honey."

     The sea around the boat had started a steady roll and gentle waves were breaking against the sides of the boat. As I leaned a little over the edge to make sure there was a good spot to drop in my line, a splash of salt water licked my forehead and ran down my entire face, stinging my eyes. The line fell out of my hand and into the black water.

     "Just hold tight to your rod, honey, you'll get a bite soon."

     I straddled the seat, positioned my feet against the other side of the boat, and leaned back on the plastic cushion Papa always kept under the seat. Holding tight to my fishing rod with my left hand, I placed my thumb and forefinger on the reel. I knew what to do when the moment came. The movement of the boat had such a mesmerizing effect on me, my eyes began to slowly close. My body relaxed and the fishing pole fell out of my hand catching on my tackle box. I sat up suddenly aware the boat was rolling from side to side. Just then papa's reel gave a loud whirring sound and started to unwind.

     "Papa! the shark! the shark!"

     Papa jumped up, stationing his feet firmly on the bottom of the boat. He leaned back slightly and positioned the handle of his fishing rod on his navel. He began to wind up the line onto the reel, fast at first, then gradually slowing until it seemed an effort. The boat was now rocking back and forth steadily so much so that papa was having trouble maintaining his balance. The entire rod was bent forward. Something huge must have a hold of it, I thought. I covered my eyes picturing papa being swallowed up by a giant Shovel Nose Shark.

     When I opened my eyes, there was papa wrestling with the strangest looking fish I'd ever seen. It was about two and a half feet long and looked like a cross between an eel and a large pike, only flatter. It was grey and smooth on the top side and stark white underneath. When it opened its large slit of a mouth you could see sharp, inch-long, pointed teeth all around the edges. I was scared that it would chew off one of papa's hands. But he held it down with all his might and removed the hook which had snared him in the lip. The boat was still rocking but papa didn't seem to notice. We had drifted far out into the channel towards the open sea. A drop of rain hit my nose and then another one.

     "I got my shovel nose shark," papa said, smiling proudly.

     "Well if that’s what it is, where's his shovel?"

     "Right here," papa said. He pointed to the head of the wriggly animal.

     "See that flat piece just above his nose?"

     Holding on to both sides of the moving boat, I crouched down low and crept closer to papa and gaped at the strange thing.

     "That's his shovel?," I asked.

     “Sure is,” papa said. “Only some people call it a hammer.”

     Just then a wave of water gushed over the side of the boat flooding the bottom and heaving the boat to one side. A light steady drizzle of rain had covered my head and shoulders.

     Papa's arms flew up in the air tossing the hammered creature towards the sky. I stayed in my crouching position and followed its path 'til it came down hitting the rear seat of the boat hard and landing at my feet, thrashing furiously. If I hadn't been so scared out of my wits, I would have felt sorry for it. Papa had lost his balance in the shuffle and was half-way out of the boat, both legs dangling in the icy brine.

     "Papa! papa!

     The boat leaned way over with the weight of his body. I started to jump up thinking I could help him.

     "Nancy, don't move! Stay right where you are. Don't stand up, just try to slide yourself to the other side of the boat, along with as much of our paraphernalia as you can." By that time, the fish had squirmed into corner at the back of the boat and was lying very still.

     Papa threw one leg over the side and tried to pull himself up into the boat, which by this time  had tipped so far in his direction, it nearly touched the water.

     It was raining pretty heavily then and both papa and I were soaked to the skin. I  shivered and bent over and laid on my knees to try to capture a little heat, keeping my eyes on Papa the whole time.

     "Come on, papa, you're almost there. Give it another try. Please don't leave me out here alone with Mr. Shovel Nose."

     Papa gave a huge heave ho and threw himself into the boat. For a moment he just lay there breathing in and out heavily.

     "Where's my shovel nose?" he lifted his head and yelled.

     "He's back in the corner. Just leave him there, Papa. He's fine. He's taking a little rest.”

     We were both so relieved that papa hadn't succumbed to a watery grave that neither of us noticed how much the boat was rocking back and forth or that the ocean was becoming more and more turbulent, not to mention the incessant rain. Papa made his way to the back of the boat and sat next to the outboard motor. He checked out his fishy friend and gave a hard tug on the cord. Nothing happened. He gave it another tug and still nothing happened. Turning in his seat he faced the motor, bent forward and gave it several hard pulls, one after the other. Still nothing happened.

     "Where are the oars? he yelled

     Papa got up turned around and switched to the middle seat, where he sat when he was rowing. Both oars were on the bottom of the boat. He carefully placed them in the oar locks. Turning the nose of the boat away from the shore, he tried to row but the waves were beating so strongly against the back of the boat it wouldn't move an inch. Papa struggled against the waves and gave another hard pull on the oars. The right one lifted in the air out of the oar lock and pitched towards the outside of the boat. He let go of the left one and grabbed the escaping one with both hands. The boat started turning in circles, as he retrieved the oar and threw it to the bottom of the boat. The ocean had swelled around us and was lifting our little craft high each time another wave crested. Both my knees were twitching now and I was praying out loud.

     "Dear God, please..."

     Papa made his way to the back of the boat again and began yanking on the cord of the outboard motor. The motor began to whirl immediately and the boat lurched forward, throwing the shark up on the seat next to papa, who was trying to turn the boat around and point the nose towards the shore.

     "Let him go, papa. He's just a baby. He needs his mama"

     Papa sat there for a moment. He looked at the fish, who lay very still beside him. Then he looked at me.

     "Please, papa."

     He looked back at the fish, who lifted his head slightly, then at me again. With his right hand on the motor handle, he picked up Mr Shovel Nose and tossed him into the sea.

     Wiping his hand on his soaked shirt, he focused on the journey back to shore. He had the motor turned on high so that we were skipping along the tops of the waves. A huge gust of wind gave us a shove from the rear. We were going so fast Papa's fishing hat blew off and rolled across the white crested waves.  His white hair danced in the wind and a wide grin transformed his worried face. We were home free and he knew it.

     I was ecstatic. My prayers had been answered. As I scanned the shore line, I could see that papa was headed right for the shore where our truck was parked. Papa never slowed down. He gunned the motor and steered it right up on the shore onto the grass. It stopped suddenly throwing both of us forward. I toppled into his lap and he held me tight. Papa had saved our lives. I will never forget that day without sun in the briny sea with papa. He was truly my hero.


*Note: Papa was confused about the name of the shark we caught. There is a Shovel Nose shark and a Hammer Head. He kept referring to the one we caught as a Shovel Nose, but it was actually a Hammer Head.

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  1. You were a brave girl because I never could have gone fishing for sharks. Even now, I do not think I could have gone in the water with someone doing that.

    1. I was only 12 years old, but I trusted my grandfather completely. And, I might add, I've been a risk-taker all my life. I guess that's when it started. :=)

    2. The only reason I went is that I trusted my grandfather completely. He was my hero.

  2. Hi I'm looking for your contact info for a book review/post?
    Can you email me at EdenLiterary at gmail dot com