Being back home for the holidays means returning to the most familiar places of my life. One of those places is the beach. I don’t mean the glamorous, white sand beaches of vacation posters. I mean the worm rock reef beaches of Hutchinson Island and Stuart, FL – the Sailfish capital of the world.
When I was growing up, Stuart was the opposite of glamorous and although its beaches still teemed with surfers and sunbathers alike, what made you cool around our dunes was how long you’d managed to wear your Reef’s before they disintegrated (which, with Reefs, means you never removed them for five years), or – better yet – whether or not you could walk across the sizzling, razor-sharp pavement of McArthur Blvd without any shoes at all.
Gleaming with tanning lotion and sporting a designer suit only signified that you were probably a tourist or a snowbird…or a reject from the classier West Palm Beach. Besides, it’s hard to keep your couture beneath the continual whizzzz of a reel, or the plash of fresh bait in a barnacle-clad bucket.
Accidents were not uncommon, and from the time we were infants, we’d been schooled to avoid hot tar balls (courtesy of some leaking Atlantic freighter) or man o’war, and to give fishermen a wide birth both in and out of the water. Having Beach Cred. meant that you knew the difference between a jellyfish sting and sea lice. And, it meant that you were willing to pee on your friend – or to be peed upon in turn – should they become the victim of a nasty sting. Beach Cred meant that you had once sliced open your foot on a reef and went swimming anyway. Beach Cred meant you were fully aware that the blood trail might attract a shark. It also meant that you already knew approximately how many sharks were out there minding their own business on a given day. It meant that you were cool with that.
For me, growing up on the coast meant that you could recognize these accidents when you saw them…and fix them. The necessity of self-sufficiency around coastal areas strikes me as so obvious that I tend to not-so-privately sneer at anyone who looks scared, confused, and/or sunburned in said environments.
That’s why, while walking on Jacksonville beach with three friends a couple of years ago, it did not occur to me that any of them could ever fit this description. One of them had been raised on the Gulf in Tampa, the other had spent most of her life there as well, and the last (though an Italian from Bologna – not a coastal city) was intelligent, and therefore must have common sense. But within seconds of spotting the interesting scene ahead of us that day, I found out just how unusual my idea of Beach Cred really is.
We’d come to Jacksonville for a couple of days to run the Gate River 15K that spring. My friends Tara and Stephanie were both running, as was I, and Eleo, an Italian visiting scholar, had decided to come along and enjoy the sight of 15,000 Americans running 9.3 miles and then gulping free cups of beer at the end. The day was windy but warm and we had decided to take a walk along the beach to pass the time. Tara had lived and attended college in Jacksonville, so we were enjoying a tour of the best spots in a city that stretches from beyond the St Johns River to the coast.
So we walked, the four of us side-by-side – probably anticipating a chill morning for the run next day – when some way ahead I spotted a fisherman.
Side note: Though most Floridians have done it at least once in their lives, including me, I’ve always looked with frustration on beach fishing. It’s fine when you’re alone on the shore, but unless you’re willing to drag your carcass out of bed before dawn, that’s not very likely on a public beach. The problem with this is, you’re slinging a sharp metal (often dead and pungent) object around your head as hard as you can, and then jerking it through the water on an invisible line. Your hope is to pierce the lip of a wriggling fish which mistakes your object for something tasty, but at a public beach you are just as likely to catch a careless child or passerby. Lips, cheeks, ears, hands, and – if you’re lucky – clothing and headgear are all conveniently easy to puncture with a steel barb.
On the up side, gross as it may seem, at least when you catch a human they understand that further movement increases their suffering and they quickly move towards the thoughtless fisherman and hope he has a pair of pliers. But there are other unsuspecting beach creatures that do not react to being accidentally hooked in so rational a manner: seagulls.
Seagulls are even more likely to be accidentally hooked than people. They love a populated beach. It means easy pickings: French fries, potato chips, and discarded sand fleas or other bait. In all honesty, nobody with any sense actually likes seagulls, and certainly avoids feeding them if they can. Feeding a seagull will instantly earn you the ravenous adoration of every seagull on the beach. Five French fries later, and you have a flock hovering directly overhead, swooping low, and inevitably pooping on your face. This has happened countless times, and has been the start of many beach side fights between locals and tourists with ignorant children.
Seagulls especially love fisherman because fisherman leave behind dead fish and other smelly delicacies. And, since fishing hooks are baited with these tidbits, seagulls often dive for them as they go soaring through the air towards the water. Funny, right? Stupid seagull. Pooping on our faces, demanding our lunch scraps. Wish you hadn’t been so greedy now, huh?
Actually, not very funny to see in real life. Not very satisfying for lovers of irony, either, since seagulls understand neither irony, nor cause and effect. All that poor bird knows is that it had been trying to eat something delicious, and now – inexplicably – every movement is an exercise in panic and pain.
So, these many innocent victims of fishing hooks always flash through my mind when a beach fisherman flings his line into the sea. And, on this day, there were certainly plenty of people passing by the fisherman I spotted on Jacksonville Beach. There were seagulls gliding about him, too. Naturally, as I listened to the conversation of my friends, my eyes fixed upon his figure. He was still at some distance, obscured by other walkers; I couldn’t see him all that clearly, but as I watched it became evident that he had just caught something. Oddly enough, his face wasn’t focused on the ocean before him. He was looking up.
I followed his line of sight. The other seagulls had fled, but one seagull seemed to find the fisherman particularly attractive. So much so that despite all the bird’s desperate, feathery efforts to fly up, down, or away from the man and his pole, it remained suspended in midair. The white wings beat at the wind as if trying to climb right up it; instead, the bird flipped, flailed, and fell – only to propel itself off the sand and climb again. All the while, the fisherman clung to his pole, as helpless as the bird.
I don’t remember what Tara, Stephanie, and Eleo had been talking about. I must have been talking about it, too, whatever it was. What I do remember is dropping my shoes to the sand and sprinting toward the fisherman and the seagull. Person after person walked by the man and the bird, their heads turned towards the battling pair, first in curiosity and then in consternation, but person after person just kept on walking. They either didn’t know what to do, or were afraid to do it. I knew that without help, that man couldn’t free the bird before it exhausted itself, or maybe set the hook even deeper. So off I went to fix it.
By the time I reached him, the bird had begun to beat itself against the ground, unable to understand why, when it tried for the sky, something kept jerking it right back to the earth.
“Where is it hooked?” I asked.
“I can’t tell!” he answered. The man looked to be in his fifties, neither old nor young. He wore a t-shirt, jeans, and a ball cap.
The gull was hysterical. I tried to steady the line and draw closer, but I could imagine the outcome once I reached the bird. That poor thing would peck the hell out of my hands – if it could – and possibly hurt itself even more. I was also not thrilled at the prospect of getting pecked.
“Do you have a jacket? A shirt?” It occurred to me that if cloaked with something lightweight, the bird could be handled, and then hooded. It would calm down enough that we could sort out how it was entangled. As I spoke, another middle-aged man approached us and offered to help.
This sort of situation seems to call up some inner instinct in me, I call it “The Bossy Gene”. It goes something like this: Shit goes down. Maybe it is a car stuck in a ditch, maybe it is a leaky faucet, maybe it is a house in need of painting. People around me do not immediately suggest a solution/plan for dealing with said shit. Then, unable to stop myself, I start telling them what to do. So, when neither the fisherman, nor the new fellow presented what I judged to be intelligent plans, my Bossy Gene kicked in and I began ordering them around.
“Take off your flannel,” I commanded the new fellow, “and throw it over the seagull! Grab him gently!!” I said this in a polite, but ‘I KNOW What I’m Talking About, Fool’ sort of tone, and – poor chap – the new fellow peeled off his shirt and did what I told him to do. Meanwhile, I was holding onto the fishing line, steadily following to the bird as the new fellow brought it back, cradled and struggling, in his hands.
The bird was jerking around madly, and though I could now see that the line was definitely wound around its wing, I couldn’t tell if it were hooked. So, I gave more instructions.
“Your hat! Your hat! We need to hood the bird. Cover its eyes so it can’t see. It’ll calm down and then I can get this sorted out.” The hat came off and slipped over the bird’s head. It stopped struggling.
I took a deep breath. I didn’t want to see that line going down the bird’s gullet. I really didn’t want to imagine what that meant. But, I followed the line until it buried itself in the wing feathers and carefully began to disentangle, untwist, and untie the wing, until suddenly… the bird was free.
“It was just caught in the line! Just tangled in the wing! It’s okay. Not hooked!”
The line fell to the sand, and the new fellow released the seagull. Silently, I hoped the bird had not pooped in his shirt. But, had it been me, I’d have shat every French fry I ever ate in that shirt. As I watched the gull hit the wind like a drunken missile, I felt compelled to say something.
“Thanks so much for your help! Might want to check your shirt, though; birds always poop when they’re scared. Sorry.” Had I just thanked a stranger for helping another stranger with his problem? Yes, I had. Had I just apologized for the seagull’s shit? Yes, I had. That’s when the fisherman, who had been clinging helplessly to his pole the entire time, thanked us both.
And then, just like that, the three of us parted: The fisherman to check his lines, the new fellow to rejoin his group, and me to find my friends. Like the bird, we hit the wind, befuddled but determined to get away.
I scanned the beach for Tara, Stephanie, and Eleo. Expecting to find them crowded somewhere nearby, I was surprised to glimpse them thirty feet up the beach. Tara and Eleo were watching my approach, waving, cheering, and holding out my shoes. Stephanie had her back turned, and didn’t look around until she heard me approaching.
“What the heck you all doing over here? Didn’t you see what happened?” They hadn’t seen. At least, they hadn’t seen how the bird had been caught. I was baffled. I began to wonder… Aloud, I asked, “Why didn’t you come help?” The answer to this question taught me something about Beach Cred: It doesn’t grow on sea grapes, after all.
Here, in a hot bean, is my otherwise fearless friends’ excuse for not approaching within thirty feet of the shit going down: Stephanie had honestly – and to the credit of her creature-loving heart – been stricken at the thought of a bird on a hook. The idea of a helpless animal suffering with a barb in its flesh, or worse, its gut, made her incapable of doing anything to assist its plight. (This is incomprehensible to me – which definitely means that I am insensitive. But, it also makes me much more handy in a crisis involving hurt and helpless creatures.)
Tara, a highly efficient person in a crisis regardless of the amount of sun, sand, or gore, is a nurturer by nature. When she saw Steph’s state of horror over the seagull, she immediately decided that her need was greater than the seagull’s. She also noted the Bossy Gene in full effect and decided I could McGuyver that shit on my own.
Eleo is Italian.
So, as we walked back up the beach, and I regaled them with a blow-by-blow of the adventure – assuring Steph that no blood had been shed – I had to ask myself….why HAD I run over to that fisherman and the seagull? It wasn’t any of my business. It wasn’t any of my fault. It wasn’t even a particularly desirable or endangered creature on the end of that line. Did I just want to be able to say, moments, days, years later that I had saved a seagull from a fisherman’s line?
But, I’d like to think it was more than that. I’d like to think it was my Stuart Beach blood – that sixth sense for an accident on the beach in need of fixing. And, the knowledge that, since no one else seemed ready to, I had better fix it.
I think, looking back, I wouldn't trade that for an even tan and a designer bikini any day.