The Vacation Tradition

We had been doing the same thing for a summer outing for three years in a row, counting the summer of 2003, which made it a family tradition. The whole family, consisting of four households totalling eight adults and nine children, would pile into vans and SUV's and make the twelve hour trek to Gulf Shores, Alabama to stay for a long Fourth Of July weekend in a home that a friend would rent to us by the week. My wife Pat and I were the last to arrive and the rest of the gang were sacked out when we got there at dawn. The house was small so they were lined up like cordwood on cots and air mattresses all over the floor. The others had been able to spend the previous day on the beach and sleep at night. We lost consciousness sometime around sunrise and when we woke up around lunchtime they had already gone back down to the beach again.

The Beach

We soon joined them and had a glorious afternoon boogieboarding and building sandcastles. It was after 5:00 PM and my seven year old grandson Trenton brought me a shell that he had found. Gushing with excitement, he told me that he was starting a collection of seashells. Did I want to help him? As a matter of fact I did. We went out into the water and hunted seashells in water that was up to my waist, Trenton's chest. The water was exceptionally clear so it was not hard to spot artifacts on the sand. I was also using a technique that I had perfected long ago (being a veteran beachcomber) of feeling for solid objects with my bare feet and then picking them up with my toes. The nicer specimens would be handed to Trenton, who would run up to the beach umbrella where the rest of the gang were chillin', show off the latest prizes, deposit them in the vault, and return to hunt some more.

The Bite

The waves had died down as the sun sank lower and were little more than swells now. I had been noticing that small fish were jumping and, knowing this meant there were probably larger fish feeding on them, I was idly looking into the swells to see if I could spot any of these hunters. I was facing out to the open water and it looked like a dark gray torpedo, about six feet long. I remember thinking, "That's really big!". Trenton was about fifteen feet away on my left and the torpedo appeared to be moving away from him, toward my right. Probably a trick of the evening light and the waves, I suppose. At that moment Trenton yelled, "Papa, something's got my foot!". Still calm, I thought, "He's probably cut his foot on one of the shells". Then I saw his face. Forget calm; he looked like a nightmare feels. I churned the water to get to him and lifted him clear of the water. One look at that mangled left foot and I knew. "You've been sharkbit!", said I. "I've been sharkbit!", echoed Trenton, only at much higher volume.

The Rescue

I carried him up to the spot where the others were and, almost at the same time as we, the lifeguards arrived. To this day I have no idea how they were able to respond so quickly. These heroes managed to administer first aid, keep the crowd from converging on us, and radio for the ambulance all in record time.

Medical Technology

Trenton put the surgeons to the test that night. Every tendon in his left foot had been severed and without the best surgical skill available, I am convinced that he would not have walked again. He got it.

Chuck Anderson

While Trenton was recovering in the hospital in Gulf Shores, Chuck Anderson was having a Fourth of July party with some friends. One of them said, "Hey Chuck, did you hear about the kid getting sharkbit yesterday? It was on CNN." Chuck Anderson had been the first case of sharkbite on the Alabama Gulf Coast in twenty-five years or so when he lost his right arm three years earlier while training for a triathlon (actually another man, Richard Watley, training with Anderson, was attacked by the same shark, on the same day). Skeptical, he contacted the hospital and, upon confirmation of the story, decided to pay Trenton a visit. The two swapped stories and Coach Anderson, a junior high school football coach and vice principal, told Trenton that he had gone on to compete in a triathlon the following year. Trenton, looking at his stump, asked, "What did you do, swim in circles?". Coach Anderson then asked Trenton, "If that shark hadn't bit you, what would you be doing right now instead of lying in that hospital bed?" Trenton made a square lip and said, "I didn't get to see any fireworks!". Chuck Anderson told Trenton that he was in luck because he (Anderson) just happened to own the biggest fireworks stand on the Gulf Coast. He also made a pact with Trenton to get back in the waves together the following summer and he and Trenton shook hands to "seal the deal". Anderson did show up at the rent house the following summer and loaded the family down with fireworks again. Since Coach Anderson's mother had just passed away, they didn't go into the Gulf waters together, but Trenton did. I think that was tougher for his parents than it was for Trenton. We are trying to get a new Family Tradition started; a long weekend at Lake Ouachita.

Update: On December 6, 2021, Trenton and I went back to the "scene of the shark bite" to film an interview for Nat Geo Wild. Our interview is the first one on the episode, so if anyone reading this wants to see us on cable TV, you can. I found it on Disney Plus, but any package with National Geographic should have it. It is titled "Gulf Fear" and is Season 8, Episode 5

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