The hair rose up on the back of my neck . . .
My uncle Don was a great guy, always doing fun stuff. So one day he invited me to go abalone diving at the Palisades. Abalones are those big, ear-shaped seashells everyone used to decorate their flower gardens because they sparkled in the bright sun like precious opals. My uncle Mary collected abalone shells, so she smiled. My uncle Bob said to look out for sea monsters. I should have listened to him.
We lived in the great Mojave Desert where it’s hot and windy and the dry sand swirled up into dust devils, and tumbleweeds stampeded across the roads. It was a long way to the beach, so when my uncle Don invited me to go skin diving, I was infinitely enthusiastic. And in my youthful eagerness, I immediately read a whole book on the subject, and it discussed sharks and sea urchins. Urchins are spiny, golf-sized creatures that cling to underwater rocks and sting with excruciating pain. And I told my uncle all that I had learned, and he said I was a worrywart, so I didn’t mention the sharks. Instead I asked it we’d see any girls in swimsuits, and he looked at me seriously, and said, "We're after abalone, not Skeeñoritas."
The next Saturday we went to the Palisades, and my uncle and I stood at the very edge of the sheer cliff, dizzy, like looking down the empty elevator shaft of a tall building. And we admired the deep blue Pacific Ocean, its choppy surface flickering in the bright afternoon sunlight like a sea of liquid mercury, and the horizon gently curved. Our flowery Hawaiian shirts flapped around in the cold wind like loose sails, and our hair whipped straight up like wild men, and the salty air stuck to our faces.
Below us, wave after wave crashed over the rocks, roaring down the coast with the thunder of sonic booms; and foamy, white spray spewed upwards, fizzing into a misty rainbow of beautiful colors. I looked around for girls in swimsuits, and my uncle said to stay focused. He pointed to a rugged trail that zigzagged its way down to the rocky beach.
We found a sandy spot next to the base of the cliff in the small cove, totally deserted, and I saw a mummified starfish sprawled out on a rock. My uncle removed his street clothes and dawned his brand new dry suit, a slick, full-body rubber outfit that looked like it had been made from green inner tubes, a pair of jet-black, genuine frogman swim fins and a tight, cheek-squeezing facemask that gave him the appearance of a curious ostrich; and a snorkel stuck straight up like a short length of plastic pipe with a bright red ball on top of it. He had a long knife in his belt, and he didn't wear gloves. As for me, I was completely naked except for a pair of baggy swim trunks, my uncle loaned me a leaky facemask, and I didn’t have a snorkel. I stood there shivering.
The wind was really blowing, swirling around the shallow cove like a tornado, the surf was pounding hard, and the freezing mist settled down upon us as we carefully made our way across slippery basketball-sized rocks to the breakers. Then my uncle said: Let’s do it Kimosabe. And we dove head first into the crashing breaker like a couple of long-legged frogs. And the weight of the water immediately pushed us downward against the rocky bottom, and I bumped my knee against a sharp rock, like hitting a piece of solid iron. Man, that hurt, and I grabbed my knee and made an ugly face and gritted my teeth, and a gurgling sound bubbled from my mouth and rushed to the surface. But the pain didn’t last very long because the water was like absolute zero and it quickly numbed all feeling. And we tread water on other side of the breakers, and my teeth chattered like an old alarm clock. My uncle asked if I was okay and I said yes. So we submerged.
About ten-feet down, the tide gently rocked us back and fourth, and lifted us up and down, and bits of paper and twigs floated by, weightless, like being in outer space, and long vertical strands of greenish seaweed twisted and swayed in the current like dancing sea serpents. And the thunderous breakers above the surface were muffled like the distant rumble of atomic bombs. But the sounds from below the surface were razor sharp and magnified a hundred times. I could hear small rocks clacking together as they scraped back and forth along the bottom with the undulating tide. And my uncle barely tapped his knife on a hard boulder: ping, ping, ping, and I could hear it as clear as if I had the sensitive ears of a cat. I tapped two stones in response, and he waved.
My leaky facemask was half full of water as I watched my uncle swimming around the car-sized boulders, carelessly close to the dozens of thorny sea urchins. And there were abalone shells hovering over the boulder’s surface, just barely, and he pointed to them, like they were gold nuggets, and I could tell that he was excited, and through my facemask they just looked like thick brown tumors.
He carefully slipped the long blade of his knife underneath one of the shells, a fat ugly thing, and he quickly flipped it up and caught it with his bare hand; as easy as flipping pancakes in a skillet. He dropped it into his white net bag and gave me the high sign. I waved back, and while he went about his business looking for bigger and bigger nuggets, I focused my curiosity towards the open sea where the water was deep and mysterious. I wondered what deadly sea monsters lurked in that dark water, circling, waiting for the right moment to strike. Could they be watching us now?
Then I heard a loud, gurgling sound. I whipped around, and my uncle was waving his hand, and air bubbles were bursting from his mask. So we surfaced and he yelled that he’d been stung by an urchin, and he swam for shore. But I stayed back. I didn’t want to get back up into the cold air until I was sure of what he was going to do.
I watched him navigate back through the breakers and across the slippery rocks on the beach. I could see him holding his hand tightly, snapping it up and down, like he was in pain. And I waited to see if he was okay. I didn’t know if he’d come back into the water, or if we’d be leaving. I floated on my back, my arms and legs outstretched, and the passing waves lifted me up and down, and I stared up at the infinite blue sky, completely unaware of the danger building around me.
And then my uncle started waving frantically, with both arms held high, desperate, and he yelled, but his voice was swallowed up in the pounding surf. And he jumped up and down and pointed out towards the open sea. So I looked around, and the hair rose up on the back of my neck, and I caught my breath, and a jolt of adrenalin shot through my veins. Sharks were all around me, whipping their tails, their pointed dorsal fins slicing through the surface of the cold water like angry torpedoes homing in on their target. And for a split second I was light headed as if I were back on top of that sheer cliff looking down into that empty elevator shaft. And my uncle was yelling and waving, and I waved back.
And then as if I had suddenly awakened from a nightmare, I snapped to, and the roar of the ocean was all around me, and it lifted me up and then dropped me down. I kicked the water with my feet, and thrashed it with my arms, and I swam with the determination of Moses crossing the Red Sea, straight for the shore. And I made ten feet, and the receding tide pulled me back five feet, as if I were trapped in a giant whirlpool, sucking me down into a swirling black hole, but I persevered. And my arms grew tired, and the cold water sucked away my strength, and my shoulders ached like they were about to separate from their soft sockets, but I didn’t look back, I knew the torpedoes were getting closer. And I thought about that skin diving book. It said sharks wouldn't bother you if you didn't bother them. I prayed that were true.
Finally, I was at the breakers, and the sea rose up, and I tumbled over the top of the rolling pipeline, crashing down hard onto the beach, and I pulled and clawed my way across the slippery rocks, my skinny white arms and legs stretching out like some pale, langourous octopus. And suddenly my uncle was there, and he helped me stand up. And we saw that my leg was covered in blood, gushing down across my foot onto the wet sand. I had been bleeding all that time, ever since I bumped my knee. But my leg was numb from the cold water. And my uncle told me to sit down.
Only then did we look back out towards the open ocean. Sharks were everywhere, darting here and there, crazy with the scent of blood. My blood! I didn’t know what to say. My body was ice cold and I was trembling. Finally, my uncle said let’s get out of here, so we wrapped my bloody leg in a dry towel, and we packed our gear and headed back up the steep cliff.
Back at my uncle’s turquoise 1955 T-Bird, while the sunset faded from yellow to a crimson red, my uncle cracked opened a can of beer. I rarely saw him without a can of beer in his hand. I didn't know it then, but beer would kill him someday. He measured the abalone shells to make sure they were legal. Then he heaved the smaller ones back over the cliff. But he winked at me, slyly, and hid one in the trunk for my aunt Mary. “That’s for Kitty,” he said. My uncle Don had nicknames for everyone. He called me Kimosabe, young women were Skeeñoritas, and my aunt Mary was Kitty. Then he closed the trunk.
We took one last look at the Pacific Ocean, squinted our eyes from the sharp glare of the splinter of setting sun, and we smelled the salty ocean breeze one last time. I looked around for any girls in swimsuits, but there were none. Then we jumped into the T-Bird, he handed me the keys and I turned the radio. My uncle Don's finger was pale yellow and it burned, and my knee was wrapped tightly in a small white towel, and I could feel my pulse pounding under the towel. And then we left, and that was the last time I ever went diving for abalone.
That was fifty years ago, and I still have a three-inch scar on my leg.