I became a strong enough swimmer by age eight to venture deeper into the ocean without my parents as long as my twelve-year old brother accompanied me. We swam far enough past the first set of crashing waves to tread water out in the “in between”—close enough to shore to still see our parents, but deep enough that our toes no longer touched. We spent hours in this space, letting the sun freckle our faces and the waves bob our bodies up-and-down. Over time, the undertow swept us left. We knew we were too far away when our mother’s arm rose, and waved dramatically from left to right indicating it was time to reposition. We swam into shore, and ran down the beach so we were ten houses past Grandma’s house. Then we headed back out—hoping not to step on a crab or a jagged shell on the way back past the breakers.
My brother and I spent most of our time in the water talking about one solitary topic: sharks. If a fish hopped out of the water my brother yelled, “Oh shit. I bet it was trying to escape a shark!” If my brother’s foot accidentally brushed mine I screamed, “Oh shit! A shark just brushed by me!” We spent an obscene amount of time debating whether a choppy wave was water or a shark. And, often, we submerged ourselves underwater and violently grabbed each other’s legs hoping the other would believe they were the next victim.
Our fears were not unfounded. Our grandparents lived in New Smyrna Beach, Florida which, over time, earned the moniker “Shark Capital of the World.” For many years, New Smyrna Beach had more shark attacks than anywhere in the country. I even had a friend in high school who was attacked by a shark and lived to get all the local attention on the 6 o’clock news. So, we felt genuine fear out in the ocean, and exhilaration at the risk we took.
I survived my youth without a single bite from a shark—not even a sighting. I suppose the thrill of risk provided enough adrenaline to sustain our desire to continue swimming. But, I think something deeper kept us swimming time and again. It was the bond of two brothers, bobbing up-and-down in an ocean all alone—scaring, screaming, and laughing our ways through childhood.
About the Author
Brian Kissel is an Associate Professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His focus is writing instruction. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Hattie and three kiddos: Charlie, Ben, and Harriet.