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Musing: A Shark Attacked My Best Friend
I was eleven years old when a shark attacked my best friend. His screams of agony still echo in my memories.
Jimmy was thirteen, two years my senior, bigger, stronger, and afraid of nothing. We had wrecked bicycles, wiped out on skateboards, fallen from trees, and hurt ourselves in about every way imaginable. Yet, I had never heard him scream like he did that day. All I have to do is close my eyes and that sound fills my head despite the gulf of years.
Worse, though, was the quiet that followed. Water lapped as the waves rolled my raft. Seagulls called in the air. The distant sound of people playing on the shore carried from so far away. I waited alone in that ocean for the predator’s return.
It was the summer of 1975. For boys growing up in Gastonia, a mill town in the central part of North Carolina, the ocean meant Myrtle Beach. Giant arcades filled with pinball machines, skee-ball, flashing lights, and loud music beckoned us inside to spend our change. A plethora of putt-putt courses with fire-breathing dragons and wicked obstacles challenged us. After sunset, the pavilion in the center of the strip came alive with amusement rides and crowds of teenagers.
And, of course, the wide, sandy beaches and endless ocean invited us to enjoy the surf.
One morning, tired of diving under the waves and swimming in the shallows, we wandered to one of the numerous stores that offered cheap t-shirts, trinkets, and other tacky treasures. After a search through our entertainment options, we pooled our money and bought an inflatable raft. It wasn’t a cool surfboard like we’d seen in the movies, but it was as close as we could get.
And, yes, it was fun. Our first attempts to ride the waves ended poorly, flipping us over and dunking us underwater. When we finally mastered the basics, we tried more advanced, ridiculous, and dangerous stunts. Most of them ended badly, but we laughed ourselves silly.
At some point, we paddled beyond the white caps and floated in the swells further from shore. We told jokes, made up stories, and mourned our ending summer. I was entering my last year of elementary school. He was going to his first year of junior high. It was the first time we would be going to different schools.
Soon enough, our conversation turned to movies we loved. The Godfather. The Sting. The Exorcist. Deliverance. And, one of our favorites, Billy Jack. We had cheered Tom Laughlin’s karate moves from the balcony of the old Webb theater.
But that summer, one movie had taken over our imaginations. Jaws. A man-eating shark hunted its human prey with blood, gore, and the coolest-ever theme song.
Those simple notes might be the most recognized music from any movie. You heard it everywhere you went that year. You still hear it today. And we hummed it on the raft that fateful day, though I don’t remember which one of us did it first.
We paused for dramatic effect. Sprawled on the raft, we searched the water for creatures but found only shadows. We pointed anyway as if something lurked.
We laughed nervously, knowing it wasn’t real, but wondering just the same as the music picked up its pace.
Duuunnnnnnnn dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun
Then one of us would scream as if being bitten. We did that joke over and over and over, but it never failed to make us laugh. As soon as the giggles subsided, the music would start again.
Yes, that day, we were doing what boys do best—pretending to be brave while trying to scare the crap out of each other.
Absorbed in our fun, we hadn’t paid attention to how far out we had drifted. As an adult, I recognize how dangerous the ocean currents can be, but the invincibility of youth blocked that from our minds.
But while we weren’t afraid of Mother Nature, we both feared the punishment of our mothers if we were caught doing something we shouldn’t. We needed to return to shore.
Jimmy, the stronger swimmer, dove into the ocean, grabbed the towrope, and pulled the raft toward shore. I climbed on top of it, kicking and paddling. We were making good time and were both confident of not getting caught, so the games resumed. I hummed the first two notes.
He turned his head back to me, that fearless grin of his on his tanned face. His eyes twinkled in the sunlight. He wasn’t going to scare that easily.
As I finished the second pair of notes, his eyes grew wide and lost their shine. His smile turned to a grimace. He tilted his head back and…
Screamed. A blood-curdling, agonizing, wailing, terrified, pain-filled scream.
I wanted to believe we were still playing our game, but I knew that shriek wasn’t a joke. Nothing about it carried any humor. It chilled me to the bone.
Jimmy let go of the towrope and flailed his hands against his chest. The water churned around him as he battled his attacker. The more he fought, the louder he yelled. “Get it off me! Get it off!”
In his pain and fear, he did the only thing he could think of—he tried to outswim it.
I don’t blame him. If the roles had been reversed—if I had been the one in the water and not him—I would have attempted to swim to safety as well.
But at that moment, seeing him swim away from me and leave me alone, I was horrified. The shark that caused him to howl like that was still out there.
I pulled my arms and legs out of the water and floated on the raft, frantically searching the dark water for signs of it. I couldn’t see it, not exactly, but in the murkiness, I couldn’t be certain it wasn’t there either.
In front of me, though, was my best friend swimming frantically toward shore. He was wounded and crying in pain, but he was fighting.
If he was fighting, so was I. I wasn’t going to abandon him.
I stretched out on my belly on the raft and tentatively reached into the water with my hands. Nothing gnawed on me, which I took as a good sign, so I began to stroke. With my heart pounding with fear, I lowered my feet and kicked, propelling my vessel forward.
For a brief moment, the scene of little Alex Kintner on a raft in Jaws flashed through my mind. Seen from the shark’s underwater perspective, the camera aimed upward toward legs and arms flapping in the water. The shark closed in. Mayhem followed, leaving only a tattered raft in the bloody surf.
Panicked at the thought, I searched the water again, but nothing emerged from the depths. Ahead of me, Jimmy had somehow made it past the breaking waves and was swimming furiously for shore. A crowd, hearing his screams, had gathered and urged him to swim faster.
We weren’t the only ones who had seen the movie, of course. Probably everyone on that beach had seen it. Many had probably played the same games we had, but the fun had evaporated.
Parents shrieked for their children. Swimmers stampeded for the beach. Sunbathers sat up and scanned the horizon. Many were pointing out toward the water. In my direction.
That could only mean one thing. A dorsal fin had broken the surface and was closing behind me.
I didn’t look back. I paddled harder. Kicked furiously. With each stroke, I waited for teeth to clamp around a leg or an arm, rip muscle away, and crush bone.
Jimmy reached the shallows and stood on wobbly legs. Clutching his wounded chest, he stumbled to the beach, dropped to his knees, and collapsed into the sand. Adults raced to his aid and tended to his injuries. Some ran to a nearby hotel to call for medics. Onlookers gathered around his body and blocked my view.
At last, I caught a stroke of good luck. A large wave came in behind me, lifted my ride, and drove me toward shore. When I could reach the bottom, I stood, amazed at my survival, and raced toward the mob surrounding my friend.
Was he still alive? Was he bleeding out? Was a chunk of flesh ripped from his body? Did gruesome teeth marks score his mauled skin?
I pushed frantically, shoving my way to the front of the crowd. When I finally broke through, Jimmy was on his back, staring with wide eyes into the blue sky. Tears streaked down his face. Wet sand clung to his body. His chest heaved as he fought to catch his breath. His arms were folded over his wounds.
I fell to the sand beside him. I reached out for his hands and gently pulled them back. As much as I didn’t want the blood and gore from the movie to become real on that beach, I needed to see the damage for myself.
When his wounds were exposed to the sunlight and I could see them clearly for the first time, I gasped in horror.
From his shoulder to his waist, from one side of his chest and stomach to the other, stretched the nastiest, ugliest, most gruesome jellyfish stings I’d ever seen.
No gaping holes. No ripped flesh. No blood. But those whelps striped across him in an ugly pattern.
The shark may not have been real, but his pain was. The medic who treated him said they were some of the worst stings he had ever seen. The jellyfish had wrapped its tentacles around him, front and back.
For the rest of our trip, Jimmy had to apply an ointment several times a day. It helped, but he still hurt. We played putt-putt, drove go-carts, and rode the rides at the pavilion to help him forget.
The one thing we didn’t do, though, was go back in the ocean.
As I always tell you—my stories are 100% true except for the parts I make up. In this case, the story is more true than not, at least as well as my memory of childhood holds up.
Jimmy was my best friend for many years, but we drifted apart as we entered adulthood. We moved to different cities and pursued our separate lives.
I last saw him when we were in our 20s. We were both in Gastonia for the holidays, visiting our parents. We stood in the old neighborhood and chatted for a long time before parting with a promise to get together again.
It never happened.
A few years ago, my sister and I were telling stories about our youthful exploits (much to my mother’s horror) and Jimmy’s name kept coming up. I wondered what he was up to and did the modern thing—I Googled him.
To my shock, I discovered he had died from cancer in 2015 at the age of 53, just over 40 years after our encounter with a shark.
In my mind, he will always be a teenager, a couple of years older than me, with that happy-go-lucky smile and those mischievous blue eyes. In his quintessential Eddie Haskell ways, he’d charm all the adults with his sirs and ma’ams while dreaming up our next misadventure. A touch of bad boy, but with a heart of gold.
I almost changed his name in this tale, but, instead, I dedicate it to him.
Enjoyed the Story? Try a Novel
If you enjoyed today’s musing, please consider reading one of my novels. Each standalone book tells the story of big lives in a small town, ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges.
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His Royal Highness Little Prince Typhoon Phooey can become quite perturbed when I disturb his hunting sessions. Not sure what the prey was, but it was big and ferocious in his mind and that is all that matters.
On The Website This Week
Spectacular Vernacular Word of the Week: Victuals (Though I prefer the simpler version of this word)
September survey results: Just in time for Halloween, find out what readers think are the Scariest Monsters. As you will see, one of those answers was sharks. That stirred my memories and inspired this week’s story.
The October survey has already hit a nerve based on the volume of responses. The race is going to be close, so your vote is important. How does cranberry sauce fit into the traditional Thanksgiving dinner? Let me know your thoughts.
Until Next Monday
Don’t let time slip away. Reach out to an old childhood friend before it’s too late.
See you next Monday.
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