Wading in Florida
When I was about five or a little younger, we lived in Florida, around Panama City and Mexico Beach. I have fond memories of the Gulf of Mexico; dolphins, seashells, snapping turtles. Here is my recollection of wading with my father.
There were two things I worried about in the waters of Florida – stingrays and Portuguese man o’ wars. They both had amazing, frightening reputations as being exceedingly dangerous. The Portuguese man o’ war floats on the surface, like an iridescent balloon, and trails stingers that can kill small fish. The stingray is very flat, stays buried just beneath the surface of the sand, and has a serrated barb in its tail loaded with venom. You step on one, it slashes you in the ankle. I knew about the slashing because there were warning signs with gristly photos posted on the beaches. The photos looked like someone had been hit in the ankle with a hatchet. The Portuguese man o’ war was easy to avoid, because you can see them. But the stingray was another matter.
One day my father, my brother and I are wading in the water near Mexico Beach. My father is in water up to his knees, my brother in water up to his thighs, and me in water up to my waist. And my father says, “Look. Watch.” I watch as he reaches out with his foot and taps the sand and woosh! away swims a stingray. This was exciting to see, but also very bad, because, a) I cannot see stingrays under the sand like he can, and b) I am now unmistakably in stingray waters. The look on my brother’s face must have mirrored my own, because his face said, “Dread. Dread!” We were in the soup. He said we should step only where my father had already stepped, these being the only places that were certain to be stingray-free. But try that. Try being 3 foot 6 in waist-deep water and following in a grown man’s footsteps. It cannot be done. You move in slow motion, and time and again fall short of your mark.
We got back to the beach safely. When I told my mother, she said it was probably a skate, the mild-mannered, barbless cousin to the stingray. I’m not so sure. Of course it could have been a skate my father tapped with his toe. I think it was a stingray.