One of the curiosities of parenthood is that your children take you for granted. Once grown they tend to see you flat and one dimensional – as someone hatched out of an egg fully grown when they were born with only at best, a minimal history beforehand and none at all once they leave the nest.
For example one of my sons married a Japanese girl and after some years would lecture me sonorously and very condescendingly about Japan. I sighed wondering if he remembered that while he spent maybe six weeks there in total and I spent over a year roaming up and down that country and the nearby like countries like Formosa and Korea, before he was born. So I said something and what I got back was a flummoxed look like I had a lot of nerve bringing that because after all he didn’t remember any of that, therefore in some tangible sense, it wasn’t a valid experience. He had me you might say, all figured out and wasn’t about to re-compute. Add any new colors or hues because the way he had framed my portrait was too important to him. Or maybe I should say, self-important.
It’s a sticking point with all six of our children. And colors our relations. Which I suppose to some greater or lessor degree is true in every family.
But grandchildren ah ha, that’s a differently case entirely. They’re a blank slate.
So I write this my story in episodes in no particular order not for my children but for them. An attempt to show the ingredients in the soup so to speak.
Unlike my own children I grew up near and in salt water. My father was a NYC Fireman and their three platoon system meant we had time with him during the week, almost every week which in turn meant we went to the beach all summer long whether it was Monday through Friday or not. Also we lived in Bay Ridge Brooklyn only a couple of blocks from the Narrows and I was always fishing and crabbing. Then too I’d be swimming “off the rocks” along the Belt Parkway as we called it whenever I could get away with it because it was forbidden and people would tell your parents, even call the police. My friends and I swam off the rocks at night too daring each other to swim closer and closer to the great ocean liners which still entered New York Harbor in those years during the last hurrah of the behemoths racing the Atlantic.
A bit older, say around sixteen, my friends and I began renting outboard motor powered boats and began ranging far passed Coney Island and into Jamaica Bay or far out towards Sandy Hook. One of our favorite destinations on the way was Hoffman island one of two small islands in Lower Bay where there was an abandoned Coast Guard training base from the Second World War.
In the satellite photo at left Staten Island is on the left, Coney Island is the bulge to the right and of the two islands shown in the Bay Hoffman is the one at the top.
One of the infelicities of growing up in Brooklyn was there was no place to shoot. I had a very nice bolt action Marlin .22 I had purchased with money I earned when I was fourteen and another guy had a heavier caliber deer rifle and another a single shot shotgun. Buying ammo was no problem but again there was no place to shoot except at this times when we went the country.
So we hit upon the idea of shooting on Hoffman Island.
And one day we were out there doing that – as a matter of fact shooting down the hanging lights in the cavernous old dining hall – when I returned to the boat in order to check on it and wound up having my first encounter with a shark.
Believe it or not in all the time I spent in salt water up to that point I had never seen a shark. I know they were there of course and what they looked like but again I had never ever seen one and so never thought about them at all. The ocean as far as I was concerned was benign. I’d jump off a boat five miles at sea and quickly as I would into the surf at the beach.
But then I got a lesson. What happened was this. Hoffman Island had a derelict pier in the shape of a square maybe two hundred feet across. There was an opening twenty feet wide on the seaward side so that small boats could enter and tie up inside the square. See the photo taken from space a few years ago. It’s rotted away considerably but the outline of the pier is still visible if you look hard. Typically we left our boat loosely roped to a bollard with a single line close to where you see the red arrow. But in addition that day we were having a problem in restarting the outboard and decided to leave it idling.
A deep throated low and slow bang – bang – bang – bang.
A half hour into our little expedition I looked out through on of the broken windows of the main building at the pier and I could not see the boat. I could hear the engine still idling but the boat itself was somewhere else. So I ran back outside.
The rising tide had somehow undone the loose way in which we had tied up and was carrying the boat, motor still idling, out to sea through the opening in the pier.
Quickly I stripped off all my clothes and dived in.
Ten feet under I took a couple of breast strokes in the crystal clear water and made a beeline for the boat. But that wasn’t all because under the boat was an enormous shark. Now the boat was sixteen or eighteen feet long and it wasn’t as long as that but it was easily two thirds of it long and shocked I watched the menacing huge thing, maybe nervous over the big splash I made diving in, slowly swim through the entrance and disappear into the gloom of the open water.
I knew, don’t know how but knew, it would return and was into the boat in a flash, powered the motor up, turned the boat around back inside the pier where I proceeded to tie it up very well. Extremely well. And sure enough once back up on the dock I saw it again, gray and mottled, its dorsal fin swirling out of the water as it turned inside the pier – again inspecting the boat.
Years later learning that a rhythmic deep pulse in the water like that produced by the outboard idling will attract a shark. But then? Who knew?
End of story and lesson learned about making certain you tie a boat up well (leaving of course enough slack to accommodate the tide) and about not idling your motor unless you want a visitor. A very nasty visitor.
And so if he had gotten me your grandfather would just be a fifteen year old boy who mysteriously disappeared in the middle of New York’s lower Bay way back in the late nineteen fifties. But then again I couldn’t have been your grandfather. You would have had another grandfather – not nearly as handsome of course