03 Feb Shark Attack!

A friend of mine who travels the world left me a phone message the other day to announce that he had been attacked by a shark and was now laid up in a Miami hospital. I’ve known John since college and, while he is inclined to exaggerate on occasion, this didn’t sound like a joke. So I phoned him. When it happened, he says, he was spear fishing with a friend off the coast of Cuba, specifically Guantanamo Bay. After spearing one fish in particular and bagging it, blood clouding the water, he had a bad feeling about the sport. “We didn’t need the fish,” he said. “We had plenty to eat. It occurred to me that this was just bad ju-ju.”

A short while later, John decided to go ashore. He didn’t have his swim boots; otherwise he would have walked over the reef. Instead he had to take a longer route to shore and swim in. His friend decided to fish a bit more in deeper water. John was about 100 feet from shore when he felt a wave surge behind him. Then he felt great pain at the back of right calf. “Like someone slammed me with a baseball bat.” He turned around and saw that it was a bull shark, rocketing to the surface, yanking him up by the leg.

John did what any trapped animal does. He fought. He says he threw a fist at the shark’s snout. Apparently the shark released him after its unsuccessful snatch. Having bitten the bone of John’s leg and come away with nothing – John’s leg was still intact – the shark had to reconsider. Usually sharks have an easy time of a chosen meal. Had John’s leg been a parrot fish, there would have been no argument.

At this point, the water was red with John’s blood. He managed to clamber to a nearby reef rock that allowed him to get out of the water. He says he was aware of his great loss of blood. He tied off his wound as best he could. Then he flagged down his friend, who swam with John on his back until John could clamber through the sand. The shark was still cruising behind them, looking for an opportunity.

All the while, two American MPs were watching from their car on the shore road. When John and his friend asked them for help, the soldiers said, “Sir, we’re not allowed to leave our weapons.” John decided that he was a dead man. The soldiers would not put him in their car, which, John noted, was new. “Blood was everywhere,” he said. Eventually, an ambulance boat arrived and sped him across the bay to the military hospital, where surgeons sewed up his leg. Then a military plane flew him to Miami, where he has been for eight days.

I’ve never understood what John does for a living, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear that he was working as a subcontractor for the Department of Defense at Guantanamo Bay, where he and others were digging up and exploding discarded ordnance (bombs) for the U.S. Army. “It’s not as dangerous as it sounds,” he asserts. “It’s really not dangerous at all. The money’s good and you get to work outside.” He says he trained for it about six months ago.

But now he’s in the belly of the bureaucratic beast, a hospital where he can hardly trust the nurses and doctors. “I’ve got to be an asshole to protect myself,” he says. “They’ll kill me if I’m not watching.” The other day a nurse was about to insert an IV line into his arm but the line was full of air bubbles. “You might want to purge your line before you plug me in,” John told the nurse. She did. This week, John phoned a friend who happens to be a surgeon. He told John to make sure they splint his injured leg; otherwise, his toes will curl under as his muscles atrophy and it will make rehab hell. John informed his doctor – “the kid is only 25” – and the doctor looked perturbed, as it was obvious John was getting advice. The doctor said he’d recommend a splint.

Today they told John he’d have to leave soon, since he is no longer in critical care. He’s missing some muscle in his calf but his ligaments are intact and he should be able to walk just fine. He thinks he can do his physical therapy on his own, as long as he can keep his wound from getting infected. “Dressing a wound is not rocket science,” he observes.

Interestingly, John seems to harbor no ill feelings towards the shark. Here’s what National Geographic has to say about the animal in question:

Bull sharks are aggressive, common, and usually live near high-population areas like tropical shorelines. They are not bothered by brackish and freshwater, and even venture far inland via rivers and tributaries.

Because of these characteristics, many experts consider bull sharks to be the most dangerous sharks in the world. Historically, they are joined by their more famous cousins, great whites and tiger sharks, as the three species most likely to attack humans.

I spent five months in the mid-Pacific last year and saw nary a shark. John admits that his attack is an outlandish happenstance. “What are the chances?” he says with cynical humor. “I see it as destiny.” To which I answer: “Apparently, you weren’t destined to die.” In states that have coastlines, you stand a far better chance of getting struck by lightning than bitten by a shark. But in Florida (remember, John was in Cuba), you stand a 20% better chance of getting attacked by a shark. Still, we’re talking long odds. Consider this: in 1996, nearly 200,000 people died from home-improvement injuries caused by nails, screws, tacks, and bolts. That same year, just 13 Americans died of shark attacks.

Still, give me a nail to the head any day. Nothing strikes more horror in my heart than the thought of being consumed by a beast many times my size. It’s a primordial fear, the fear of total obliteration. No body to bury or mourn over or pray for. Gone. That’s the terror of it, the vanishing, not the thought of being ground to fish food. We strive so hard to be present, to make ourselves a part of the world. That’s why we buy houses and fill our garages full of junk – we want to anchor ourselves to the here and now, to feel ourselves fully in the world. When one of us disappears, as a missing person or the irretrievable victim of an accident, the world seems out of kilter. Such a vanishing seems a diminisment of our collective humanity. It’s a threat to us all. If he can go, then I might be next.

But John is here and healing. It would be just his luck to be killed by an incompetent nurse, we joke. At the end of the day, what else is left us, but to joke and shake our heads in wonder at the smoking ground nearby, our ears still ringing, and say, “Damn, that was a close one!”