Sharks and thoughts on death

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What do you think death is like?

Photo by Tim Forkes
Photo by Tim Forkes

Is it restful, does it have stars and bars, blaring bands heralding a new beginning? Is it just a white light with the glowing souls of our dearly departed beckoning us to follow them to the end of the tunnel?

Is St. Peter standing in front of pearly gates: “Tim Forkes! You gotta be shittin’ me! Get outa’ here, you get the express elevator to the basement.”

How do you think you’ll die? In your sleep from a heart attack, in a motorcycle accident — murdered — from cancer, emphysema, diabetes or a host of other incurable degenerative diseases?

We don’t know. Often, when standing on the county bus, I picture myself flying through the windshield if the bus has to come to an abrupt halt. As in, it rear ends a vehicle and everyone holding those little straps or the aluminum rails go flying forward in a screeching crunch of flesh against flesh against shatterproof glass and then most certainly metal and concrete.

Kind of messy: blood, brains and flesh splattered all over California State Route 163, the howl of sirens screeching through the early morning commute, the emergency vehicles causing an even more time consuming traffic jam as two or more lanes — maybe in both directions — are closed to facilitate the clean up.

  • Which brings up this tangent about the crushing number of single occupant vehicles cramming our roads and freeways. That probably has more to do with traffic accidents than anything else.

More than likely, I’ll be doing something mundane or routine and have that third heart attack … or maybe the fourth or fifth … and voila! You’ll be reading my obit in the San Diego U-T, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and quite possibly the Shepherd Express. Yeah, they’d write my obit. At least I hope they would.

If there’s a fantasy death, it would be having wild, uninhibited sex with one of my many fantasy girlfriends and voila! Just as I squirt, I expire — with a smile on my face.

Gigi Cestone death scene, played by John Fiore on The Sopranos. (Photo is a screen shot from YouTube clip)
Gigi Cestone death scene, played by John Fiore on The Sopranos.
(Photo is a screen shot from YouTube clip)

The flipside of that delusion is I could be having some “alone time” with one of those many fantasies, her photos splayed across my monitor. Just as my erectus genitalia is about to explode its sinful load of wasted human seed all over the … whatever … phewt! My last thought will be, “This is so effing embarrassing.” Umm … what can I say? Shit happens, even at the most private of times.

  • Remember the episode of The Sopranos when Gigi Cestone, one of Tony’s Capos, died on the shitter whilst either taking a dump or … err … having some alone time … at Satriale’s? That was pretty funny.
  • But it wouldn’t be so funny if someone found me in that … err … position.

When the time comes, I’d like to be cremated and my ashes interred at a military cemetery, preferably Fort Rosecrans, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. That’s where my Dear Brother Carl’s ashes are resting. I miss him.

Which brings up the reason for this moribund subject: there was a segment on a TV show about a surfer who lost part of his leg to a tiger shark off the coast of Hawaii, Mike Coots. He went back to surfing as soon as he could and became a shark preservation advocate.

Tiger shark (Photo via Wikipedia)
Tiger shark
(Photo via Wikipedia)

That reminded me of a man who died  after suffering a great white shark attack off Solana Beach a few years ago. He was 100 yards out, swimming with some folks who were training for a triathlon.

A couple days later, in an act of defiance towards Mother Nature,  I went snorkeling in La Jolla Cove, the choice spot for getting under the waves. It’s actually an underwater preserve so all the creatures and plant life are protected. And, I think, you can’t even take any rocks from under the water.

The beaches up and down San Diego’s coast were closed for three days while authorities searched for the shark so they could “remove” it from the area. What that really means is they kill it.

If you know anything about great white sharks and most local beach-goers know this: great whites migrate thousands of miles a year looking for dinner. So the authorities wanted to find it before it actually left the area.

It was a tragedy for the man’s family of course, but there is the risk, every time we get into the ocean more than a foot deep, we will stimulate the curiosity of some giant predator that thinks we could possibly be one of the harbor seals it’s hoping to munch on for breakfast. I don’t really tell my visiting relatives this when they come out to Sandy Eggo and want to jump in the ocean. Unless they ask, but maybe they will read this first.

So here is my standard answer: there are sharks in the water.

Elaine, swimming and enjoying the Pacific Ocean. (Photo by Tim Forkes)
Elaine, swimming and enjoying the Pacific Ocean.
(Photo by Tim Forkes)

One of my favorite photos that I ever took is of my wonderful sister Elaine having fun jumping in and getting pounded by the waves at Pacific Beach, a smile of pure ecstasy on her face. Life doesn’t get any better than that for me. If I could see that every day, life would be grand.

It would be a shame though if a shark attack, as infrequently as they occur, kept any of my family or friends from getting in the ocean. Sharks live in the ocean and no doubt when Dear Elaine — and Dear Brother Tony — were jumping about in the waves, there were flesh-eating sharks no more than 100 yards away doing what they do. I didn’t tell them that, as I recall, since the odds of getting attacked were next to nil. So, this is the forewarning: there are sharks in the water.

Once, when my nephew Dan was visiting from Colorado, we decided to do some snorkeling. In La Jolla Cove and then off La Jolla Shores Beach, the latter in the hopes of swimming in and about the local leopard sharks. They’re bottom feeders and rarely ever attack humans. They rarely get as large as six feet, although some have been that big.

As I recall, I forgot to mention a small detail to Young Dan. At the time, hundreds, maybe thousands, of leopard sharks were congregating at the south end of the La Jolla Shores Beach, in as little as five feet of water. You could actually see their silhouettes. As we finally paddled out to them I said — yelled — “Dan! Sharks!”

Dan had been close on my right. When I looked towards where he had been, he was gone. My first thought was, “How am I gonna explain this to his mother (Dear Elaine).”

Oh, Dan was just 16 at the time and I was effectively (or not so effectively) his legal guardian for a week. I know, some of you are asking, “What was your sister thinking?”

Great white shark (Photo via Wikipedia)
Great white shark
(Photo via Wikipedia)

Elaine was thinking a little. The day before, she and I had gone ’round and ’round about Dan and I visiting Tijuana, B.C., Mexico, in the light of day no less. He had been to Mexico with his church group so I figured, no problem. Dan and I could get some cute souvenirs for his family, Young Dan could brush up on his Spanish and I could get some Cuban cigars. That’s what I told Elaine anyway and we would have done all of that too.

But, there are a lot of nasty stories about Tijuana, most of them true, so Elaine was adamant I would not be taking her son into Mexico — Tijuana in particular. As Elaine put it, “You are NOT taking my son to Mexico without adult supervision.”

In hindsight, I should have been at least a little insulted. After all I was in my mid-40’s at the time. But I knew she had a point because Elaine knew me all too well: I really wanted to take him to a donkey show or something. He was 16 and it was about time, I thought, for his first real intense sexual experience.

I didn’t tell her that of course … moms get peculiar about those subjects and what the Hell, she was objecting to the relatively benign reasons I had for visiting T.J. It was kind of a bummer too because I had run out of Cuban cigars.

So, Young Dan was forbidden from going to Mexico, but when I told his mother we would be swimming with sharks, she was okay with that. Geez, moms are peculiar. But I love the ones in my life anyway, as goofy as they are.

Getting back to our shark encounter. After the shock of losing Young Dan in about six feet of water, my heart pounding with the fear that he might be lost forever, I turned in every direction hoping to spot his snorkel bobbing in the water. After a few seconds I turned to the beach and there he was, already on dry land.

Leopard shark (Photo via Wikipedia)
Leopard shark
(Photo via Wikipedia)

Bear in mind we were about 150 yards out. In about 15 seconds he had turned around (we were facing out to sea when we first saw the sharks) and bee-lined his way back to the beach. He was one helluva swimmer that day and I’m still impressed.

No amount of persuasion could convince Young Dan we were safe from attack, as even the harmless leopard sharks look pretty mean, so we didn’t spend any real time with them. Didn’t get any photos either. Foolishly I tried reaching out to touch them, but they skittered away, frightened by the big blob of a human invading their home. But, they could have acted more aggressively to defend themselves so trying to touch them was an idiot thing to do. Ah … live and learn.

So, when you come to visit, don’t be afraid of getting into the water. Shark attacks are so rare we’re more likely to be killed in a traffic accident getting to the beach, so maybe we’ll take public transportation.