Verbosity21's Blog
Short Stories by Ralph Proenza– mostly Fiction, but some based on true events

*THE DANGER BELOW


[Based on a true incident]

Robbie stared out at the blue-green ocean, then at his uncle’s small skiff, and wondered how he could say no.  He gazed with longing at the small patch of water he’d mentally marked off for swimming — shallow, clear, sandy-bottom, no bigger than a house pool.  It was all of the ocean he cared to get into during his vacation without his parents in the Florida Keys.

“Ready?”  Robbie’s uncle’s familiar voice jarred him.

“Um…” said Robbie, as fear tightened his stomach.  “I’ll help you load the crab pots.”  His uncle looked at him momentarily then moved away.  When the eight traps were balanced precariously on the skiff, Robbie took a deep breath and said, “How about if I just watch you again?”

“Oh?”  A man of few word, Uncle Frank stood very still and looked hard at Robbie.  “But I could really use the help.”  Robbie knew it was difficult for one man to handle the crab pots and oars both.  “..and you’re a good rower by now…”

Robbie nodded, speechless.  He couldn’t believe the compliment even though they had been practicing in shallow water for two days.

“…and you’re a good swimmer,” his uncle continued.  Robbie couldn’t deny that.  Back home at the local YMCA pool he was number three on the swim team.  Not bad for a twelve year old kid!

Embarrassed, Robbie ducked his head, then bent down to adjust the Nike water shoes he always wore, in the water and out.  His fingers brushed the scar on the sole of his foot, still visible after four years.

His uncle, bare-chested, well muscled from hard work and darkened by the sun, waited patiently for Robbie’s reply.

“Um, okay Uncle, I’ll be glad to help.  Maybe I’m ready.”

“Of course you are,” Uncle Frank remarked with a smile.  Within minutes they cast off.  Robbie rowed reluctantly from the safety of the shore and toward the hideous darkness beneath the water surface.  “Okay, Robbie.  We can drop the first crab pot about here.”  The man lifted the trap as Robbie stopped rowing.  “Just hold ‘er steady for a bit.”

“Right.”  Under twelve feet of water Robbie could see the dark broad-leaf grasses. They waved in slow motion like the the dead fingers of many hands warning him to stay away.  He turned abruptly, biting his lip and feeling chills running along his spine.

The memory of four years earlier flashed though his mind:  he was walking waist deep at the beach.  Through the crystal water a brilliant gleam of mother-of-pearl caught his eye.  He knew the gleam came from a large shell.  It distracted him from the sea urchin lurking in a dark patch of sea grass.  Several of the animal’s long sharp quills pierced his foot.  A hot searing shot of pain ran up his leg…he screamed, and…

The sound of the crab pot slapping the water jarred him back.  The old memory still lingered.

Robbie rowed in silence into deeper waters, from one spot to the next, tying to keep his attention on his work and not on the danger below.  But the fear kept on crowding in, darkening his mind with it.  He felt it tighten its grip like a vise at his stomach.

“Go ahead, Robbie, keep on rowing.  We only have this last pot to drop.”  Uncle Frank turned and noticed the boy’s anguished look, but said nothing.  The work finished, Robbie awkwardly turned the skiff toward shore and splashed sea water upward.

“S-sorry, Uncle,” said Robbie nervously.  He felt his face turn pale.

“What is it, son?  What’s the matter?”  His uncle’s brow knitted with concern.  Robbie sighed loudly, then told his story.  His eyes became moist and his fists clenched, humiliated at having to admit to fear of the ocean.  A long quiet moment passed as the skiff swayed gently with the tide.  “Yes, I remember now when that happened.  I never knew it left such a bad memory.”

“I guess I never mentioned it to you.  I guess I’m just a wimp!”  Uncle Frank smiled warmly.

“Robbie, you have good reason to feel the way you do.  Lots of people are afraid of what may be hiding beneath dark waters.  That’s just fear of the unknown.  But being afraid doesn’t make you a wimp.  As a matter of fact, it sometimes can make you a stronger person.”

“But I HATE being afraid, Uncle.  I feel like a sissy.”

“I know for a fact that you are NOT a sissy.  But what would you have done if a shark had bitten you?”

Robbie thought for a moment.  “I would have so afraid of  the ocean I probably couldn’t even get near a glass of water!”

The man chuckled, then pulled up his shorts on one side.  Robbie gasped when he saw a huge scar on his leg.  Part of his uncle’s thigh was missing.  “A Mako shark took a chunk out of me years ago.  And yes, I became afraid of the ocean.  But I dealt with it and worked it out.  Now I love the sea.”  The boy looked at his uncle with awe.

“Son, you’ve carried this thing far too long.  Let’s deal with it right now.  Are you willing?”  Robbie thought for a moment.  The boat swayed beneath them, reminding him of the water’s depth, and weakening his resolve.

“Y-yes, I am.”  He felt more confident once he’d said it.

“Good!  Let’s go back and get two masks from the house, and two snorkels while we’re at it.”  In a short while both were in three feet of clear water.  “Now, get that worried look off your face, son.  This will be easier than you think.”

Robbie adjusted the mask and bit tightly into the mouthpiece.  He wiggled his toes inside his water shoes for reassurance before sticking his head under the water.  The ocean currents had created ripples in the white sand, making it look like his granny’s old washboard.  A tiny crab quickly buried itself as Robbie approached.  They floated toward the edge of the dark grass.  Robbie slowed down.  Uncle Frank gave him a thumbs-up and seemed to smile despite the snorkel.

The man reached out and ran his hand through the grass, scavenging  for anything of interest.  He found a few clam shells and a small conch.  Then he reached deeper and pulled out a tuft of sea grass from the sand.  It dangled harmlessly in the current.

Robbie cautiously moved forward.  The grass waved and he touched it.  He picked up a baby conch, then a clam the size of a quarter.  The clump of grass that his uncle had pulled out looked like green onions.  He played with the soft blades.

Suddenly he burst through the surface of the water.  “Uncle Frank, it’s…it’s just grass, isn’t it?”

“That’s right,  son, it’s ONLY grass.”  The man grinned at Robbie.

~   ~   ~   ~

An old plank in the yard served as an outdoor shelf for Robbie.  On it, he arranged a long row of interesting things he had found while exploring the Sargasso grass beds off the shore, by himself!  All this ocean stuff had become treasures to him now…reminders of the all-time-best vacation he ever had in waters that were not dangerous after all.

*    *    *    *

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