On my first tour of sea duty, in the Sea-Bees, we were deployed in Guantanamo Bay Cuba. It didn’t take me long to discover that there wasn’t much to do with my spare time. There was; fishing and swimming or swimming and fishing, or just plain swimming, of course if you did that you had to watch out for the fish. Then there was always just plain fishing . . . but then you had to watch out for the swimmers. If it was too tough to make up your mind about whether to swim or fish, you could just drink beer, until you looked like a fish and the room was swimming.
I guess I was one of the lucky ones I liked to swim and I also liked fishing. While I was in high school I had read some books about skin diving and spear fishing, so I decided this was an ideal opportunity to take up this new activity. I invested a few bucks in a snorkel, fins, face mask, a knife and a spear gun, and I went down to the beach and literally jumped into my new hobby.
It was the most incredible experience I had ever had in all my 20 years of life on God’s green Earth. There, right in front of me and all around me was this Jacques Cousteau, like scene, that just simply overwhelmed me with wonder. I couldn’t believe my eyes. In this day and age this might seem a little overstated, however let me explain to the reader; this was in 1956, and I grew up in a relatively simple environment . . . no TV, not too many movies and a lot of hard work, in my leisure time I had radio, books or just plain sitting around talking the nights away with friends. I never even got out of the San Francisco Bay Area of California, except for one two week trip to 29 palms to visit my sister and nephew when I was ten, until I was 19 and joined the Navy.
I soon adapted to my new found world and got comfortable enough to go out of a morning and not come back in to shore until late in the afternoon. I made friends with a fellow Sea-Bee who also loved skin diving. The two of us spent all of our spare time skin diving. My friend’s name was Frank, he was about a year younger than me and a very good swimmer, he was tall and lean with a typical dark Cuban suntan. He had a peculiar sense of humor and such an infectious grin that I couldn’t stay mad at him if he played a joke on me. He liked to slip up from a blind spot as we were intent on stalking a fish or poking into some dark spooky looking coral overhang. This was difficult underwater with a snorkel in my mouth I had to maintain breath control or drown.
One Sunday morning we went out bright and early to do some shelling and general poking about the outer edge of the reef. We didn’t take our spear guns because we had just had a big fish fry the day before and we really didn’t want any more fish for a few days. I grabbed my gear and headed out of the Quonset hut so fast that I left my knife hanging on the handle of my spear-gun. We settled down to an area of the reef just off Windmill Beach north of Leeward Point, we were about 100 yards off the cabanas at the edge of the reef, in water 30 to 50 feet deep, and the tide was at ebb, so the currents weren’t very strong. The water was exceptionally clear that morning and the visibility was about a 100 yards in all directions except close to shore in the shallow water.
When Frank and I were diving together, we had a sixth sense about the others presence, without really watching each other we knew about where we were relative to the area we were diving in, we always made a point of making a visual contact each time we surfaced. On about my third surface I made a visual sweep of the area immediately below me and to each side, I didn’t see Frank anywhere. So I made a quick dive in the direction I had last spotted him, just to make sure he was OK. I was about 15 feet from the edge of the reef, and 20 feet beneath the surface, when I was startled by a blur of bubbles and motion that came at me out of the coral to my left. I instinctively veered upward and away from the blur as I turned my face toward it at the same time, then I stopped swimming, as I recognized Frank, boring for the surface as if the devil from the deep had a grip on his soul, I followed him to the surface and expected him to chide me about how bad he had scared me. Instead he grabbed me by the shoulder and said, “What’s that down there, coming in from the deep?”
I thought he was continuing to try and scare me. He didn’t even look at me he was looking intently beneath the surface, while keeping one hand on my shoulder. I began to worry that maybe he was serious, but I was a little hesitant to be too gullible for fear that Frank would have another laugh at my expense. When Frank lifted his head and looked at me there was a look in his eye that I could not mistake; he was scared.
“What is it Frank?”
He answered by pointing away from shore and under the water, I put one hand on his shoulder and looked under the water toward where he was pointing. There about 50 yards distant and skimming along the bottom of the sea at about 80 feet deep was a very large, slender, silvery shape that emanated an ominous presence as it made its stealthy approach toward the reef. I do not think at that moment the fish had seen us yet. I was not sure but from the pictures I’d seen, in my reading material, the one word that immediately came to mind was Barracuda. I started to raise my head out of the water and say something to Frank. From all that I had read I knew that the worst thing we could do was to panic and start swimming erratically toward the shore. I was going to suggest that we stay put and keep quite so that maybe he wouldn’t see us, but I never got the chance. Before my face mask cleared the water, Frank took off like a shot for the beach. I called after him, “Frank stop! He’ll see us for sure!”
It was no use because Frank didn’t even hear me. I started to follow, but instead I decided to take a look and see which way the fish was headed. Sure enough it was a huge barracuda, and he surprised me at how fast he had zeroed in on the sound of Frank thrashing his way toward shore. The fish was almost opposite me, about 5 or six feet beneath the surface, on a bee line for an intersection point with Frank’s chosen line. I thought, oh no Frank’s fish bait, he’ll never out swim the cuda.
With only a moment’s hesitation and without thinking, I brought both my flippers out of the water, and smacked them down as hard as I could. I was trying to scare the fish off or distract him from Frank, in hopes that he’d lose sight of his objective. Wrong! I saw the fish veer off immediately and begin a series of concentric spiraling circles which rapidly closed on the center of the circle, me! There we were eyeball to eyeball, the fish was a good five to six feet long, and the middle of his body was as big around as a basketball. He was broad side, about 10 to 15 feet away and right about waist deep beneath the surface. I hung there scarecrow like not daring to take my eyes off of him. The only part of me out of the water was the top of my head. I was trying to remain calm and to breathe evenly through my snorkel so the fish would not sense my fear. Actually I was thinking that this was probably going to be my last day on earth, and I silently said a prayer and mentioned something about being sorry that I was not paying proper respect to the Sabbath. I began to study the fish which by now was almost motionless I could see his fins moving rhythmically to maintain his chosen standoff position. I wished that I had my trusty spear gun with me, or at least my knife. His deadly eye stared at me and I can still remember how big and fierce it was. I tried to stare him down, but I could see the big fang like teeth that protruded from the upper jaw and projected about a half inch below his lower jaw-line. I thought, those teeth are going to tear me to shreds. I’ve never felt so helpless in my life. I guess I didn’t want to go down like a scared rabbit, so I decided I had to do something to break the awful dark spell. I remembered something from my reading about barracudas being afraid of a larger unknown creature swimming toward them, so I took a deep breath, not knowing if it would be my last, and made a sudden surface dive toward the fish. Zoom! He vanished behind the closest coral bank. I continued in the direction I had thought he had gone for a few yards and pulled up short. While keeping a sharp eye constantly turning in all directions, I swam as smoothly and as quietly as I could back to shore. I hauled out and sat down on the beach to give my legs a chance to settle down and my knees a chance to stop knocking.
Frank came trotting up like an over exuberant puppy, and said, “What took you so long? I was about to call out the troops”
When I could speak I said, “If you only knew what I just did to save your dumb ass, you’d want to stand by for me on every mid-watch I pull for the rest of my hitch, and that’s a fact!”
It took him awhile but eventually Frank came to realize how close a call it was that day at Windmill Beach. He finally came to appreciate what had happened, although Frank never ever mentioned it to me . . . I guess that’s why we got along so well, if our roles been reversed Frank would have done as much for me, he was like that.