Death can come at any time, from above or below, but life requires putting fear aside

Thomas Peschak/Flickr
Thomas Peschak/Flickr


Five months after the September 11 hijackers completed their flight training in Florida, I was on my first solo flight. Three quick jaunts around the pattern and with three good landings, I’d be done.

Classic California flying weather: clear blue sky, light onshore breeze, no turbulence, and a gray wall of fog shrouding the Pacific in the distance. Alone in a ’75 Piper Cherokee—basically a VW bug with a propeller, tail, and wings—on final approach to runway 30 at Santa Maria Airport, I steered toward the fat white center line and worked the throttle, trim, and flaps to stay on glide slope. As I descended from 1,000 feet, my eyes scanned the instruments—air speed, altitude, vertical velocity—and the runway. Everything seemed fine.

Four square lights on the left side of the strip shifted from four white (too high) to three white and one red (slightly high) to two white and two red (on track). The old saying “Four white, fly all night; four red, you’re dead,” echoed in my head. Radio chatter, the only tether to the ground, filled my headset. My mind replayed mantras from Dave, my flight instructor: “Fly the airplane. Can’t will it to the ground. Be patient. Breathe. You don’t like something, go around. Ditch the bitch.” Dave was watching the Cherokee, the only plane in the flight pattern, through binoculars from the tower.

Two red and two white as I passed the threshold, and the world expanded and gained depth as the ground rushed up. Time warped and slowed through the last 15 feet. Finally, the main wheels punched the tarmac. The plane shuddered. A curtain of dust fell from the upholstered ceiling. A bounce, no time to think, then like a rodeo bull the nose pitched up and over, and the gear pounded the runway again. Instinct kicked in. I cut the throttle and pushed the yoke to the ground. No use, the nose popped skyward—a boxer’s view after a nasty uppercut. A third strike and the Cherokee quaked and rebounded. A second later, the plane dropped flat. All three wheels hit hard and stuck. Slightly off centerline, I gained control and taxied from the runway to the tower.

Dave, in dark sunglasses, button-down shirt, and slacks, stood outside with his tie flapping in the wind. After the wheels stopped, he climbed on the wing, opened the door, and yelled “Keep going, you’re fine,” over the engine’s thrum.

I wanted to say, “No way, man, I screwed that up!” But he slammed the door, beat the aluminum roof twice with his fist, and jumped off before I could respond. Sweating and shaky, I thought about cutting the engine and stopping for the day. Instead, I pushed up the throttle and taxied back to the runway, a heat mirage wavering in the distance. A quick radio call, the garbled clearance, a wide turn onto the runway, and then I took off.

The next two landings came easy and smooth, and I taxied to park. Dave stood in the sun smiling, and Roger, the plane’s owner and mechanic, pedaled his beach cruiser over from the nearby hangar, where his parrot perched on a workbench. I ran the shutdown checklist, and the engine bucked and sputtered as the propeller wound down.

Thrilled to be done with the solo, I wondered if they would cut off the back of my shirt and hose me down—an old tradition. When I emerged from the Cherokee, I watched the smiles slide from Dave and Roger’s faces as they stared at the propeller. Each blade was obscenely folded back on itself about three inches from the tip in a cartoonish and symmetric C shape. The prop had hit the runway during the bounced landing.

“What the fuck!” I said, trying to comprehend the damage. Then I realized I’d flown at least 20 minutes in a crashed airplane. The engine could’ve died, or the propeller might have sheared off in flight. Running his hands along the warped prop blade, Roger shook his head as the dollar signs spun through his mind. The repair would cost well over $20,000 after the mandatory engine overhaul and new propeller. He didn’t look at me or say anything. He simply got on his cruiser and rode away.

“Porpoise,” Dave said, waving a flat hand like a skipped rock, up and down in front of his chest. “You should’ve gone around.”

Studying in my apartment that night, I looked out the window toward the streetlights tinting the fog a cotton-candy pink and thought of Dave watching the landing from the tower. In the vision, he stands next to the chain-smoking air traffic controller and says, “Go around, man, it’s easy, just go around!” The controller shrugs, says, “I’ve seen it all, brother.” Dave shakes his head and turns to the stairs as I taxi toward the tower.

Opening my copy of the FAA-H-8083-3A, the FAA Airplane Flying Handbook, required reading for aspiring pilots, I turned to the section titled “Pilot Induced Oscillations” (AKA “porpoising” or “cameling”):

In a bounced landing that is improperly recovered, the airplane comes in nose first setting off a series of motions that imitate the jumps and dives of a porpoise—hence the name. The problem is improper airplane attitude at touchdown, sometimes caused by inattention, not knowing where the ground is, mistrimming or forcing the airplane onto the runway. … Usually, if an approach is too fast, the airplane floats and the pilot tries to force it on the runway when the airplane still wants to fly. … The corrective action for a porpoise is the same as for a bounce and similarly depends on its severity … the safest procedure is to EXECUTE A GO-AROUND IMMEDIATELY. In a severe porpoise, the airplane’s pitch oscillations can become progressively worse, until the airplane strikes the runway nose first with sufficient force to collapse the nose gear. Pilot attempts to correct a severe porpoise with flight control and power inputs will most likely be untimely and out of sequence with the oscillations, and only make the situation worse. No attempt to salvage the landing should be made.

Some people say dolphins and porpoises are lucky, that they scare sharks away and guard humans. The ancient Greeks thought dolphins protected sailors, and the idea has permeated modern lore. Scientists disagree about this popular legend. Some say dolphins and sharks often inhabit the same waters since they hunt the same fish. Perhaps the species tolerate each other by keeping their distance. Scientists agree that dolphins are faster and more agile than most sharks. There are reports of dolphins protecting members of their pod, and even humans, by ramming into the sides of sharks. Yet there are also accounts of dolphins retreating from large sharks, like great whites, and others suggesting that sharks eat dolphins.

Growing up near the beach in the early ’90s, I liked the idea that dolphins kept sharks from lurking nearby. At Avila, Jalama, Tajiguas, Refugio, El Capitan, and County Line, I’d see dolphins weaving up and down through the shore break—their half-moon backs rising and falling and appearing again as if bouncing along the wave tops. Rarely would I enter the water if seals—a favorite meal for sharks—barked nearby. Seventeen years ago, at a Lompoc tattoo parlor, I had a dolphin surrounded by breaking waves and a blazing sun tattooed on my left shoulder. That ink is faded now.

Aerodynamics and hydrodynamics are siblings in the house of fluid dynamics. Turbulence occurs in both water and air.

My buddy Derek lived in the water. A six-foot-six lifelong swimmer and all-star water polo player, he occupied much of his free time bodyboarding at nearby beaches. After high school, we ended up going to Northwestern Prep School together. Perched on a hillside above County Line Beach outside Malibu, Northwestern focused on getting its students into one of the country’s military academies.

Derek devoted most afternoons to competing for waves with the locals at the point break. Almost every day, we’d run shirtless on the shoulder of the Pacific Coast Highway against traffic for miles as the sun sank toward the sea and dolphins arced through the wave tops. More often than not, we’d stop near the coastal hills, across from Thornhill Broome Beach, where a giant dune rises nearly 500 feet from the highway—the product of constant onshore winds that have piled up sand over the ages. We’d race each other to the top and down, and he’d always win.

Eventually, Derek and I ended up at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He ached to be a Navy SEAL but chose Colorado Springs after the water polo team recruited him. In 1998, while on leave from the academy, after a trip to check out Surf Beach, Derek said he wanted to get a tattoo. We went to the same shop in Lompoc. Derek asked for a barbed wire band around his arm with a shark on the outside, but the tattoo artist said barbed wire bored him and offered a tribal design instead. Derek agreed and told the guy he wanted a great white shark with diver fins sticking out its mouth.

When I was growing up, Surf Beach offered our closest ocean access. Most people in town didn’t like the place, said it was “sharky.” The water, cold and chaotic, roiled in dozens of foamy walls. Often you’d spend more than 20 minutes paddling beyond the huge breakers. Surrounded by Vandenberg Air Force Base, the wide beach adjacent to the Santa Ynez River mouth usually hid under a layer of fog. Missile sites loomed in the distance, and freight trains sped past on nearby tracks. A couple times each day, the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner stopped at the unmanned Surf station overlooking the beach. For a few years, on Thanksgiving and Christmas days, we braved the water at Surf. The teenagers in my family’s circle of friends created this holiday tradition—beach time before the feast.

After graduating from the academy, the Air Force assigned me to a helicopter unit at Vandenberg. At the time, the service required us to earn a private pilot’s license before beginning military pilot training. So, when not on base, I flew the Cherokee in Santa Maria. Several of the helicopter pilots surfed in their off time, and they said they’d never enter the water at Surf. They flew along that rugged coastline nearly every day and said they saw too many big dark shapes in the water. Sometimes the pilots recognized whales. Sometimes sharks.

Sharks didn’t worry me during my invincible teenage years. The last fatal attack had happened long ago at a faraway beach, and when I was a kid, nuclear war and earthquakes scared me more. Catastrophes like disease or car accidents should’ve frightened me. Maybe human nature wires us to fear rare calamities, like airplane crashes or shark attacks, more than the things that’ll most likely kill us. Despite the inherent flaws and variables, statistics offer an abstract perspective. One report from the National Safety Council puts the odds of dying by shark attack at one in 3.7 million, in a commercial airplane crash one in 11 million, by car accident one in 113, by heart disease or cancer one in seven.

They knew the crash had dented my confidence. Tim, the flight school’s owner, wanted to fly with me the next afternoon to get me back in the air. He ran the school in his off time from the base fire department. In his Florida drawl he said how lucky I was, that being an Air Force pilot would be the best job in the world, and that we’d get past the prop strike. I bought four cases of imported beer for Roger, Dave, and Tim. They stacked the brew in a back room, and Tim and I went out to fly the pattern in one of the school’s other planes, a Cessna 172.

The sun hung low in the west, and we cruised around the pattern at the golden hour—that time of day when colors glow in the soft afternoon light. Tim demonstrated a few good landings, then had me practice countless touch-and-goes, offering bits of advice on each approach. He kept repeating, “If you don’t like it, give it some smash and go around.”

After the flight, he asked, “Why didn’t you go around after the first bounce yesterday?”

No words came. No good answer. I couldn’t remember if Dave had mentioned the proper procedure. Couldn’t remember if I’d read the steps in ground school, if I knew and forgot or freaked out, or if I knew and just wanted to get the goddamn plane down. I knew to abort the landing if things were going wrong, but abnormalities can be subtle in flight. Maybe there was nothing to recognize, merely a fluke air current to ride and wait out. Perhaps I just needed patience.

A few days after that flight, my girlfriend, Jennifer, and I escaped to Avila Beach, an hour up the coast. That night we stood on the pier in the darkness, staring into the water. An old fisherman sat on his cooler, eyeing his poles and their long lines running toward the abyss. The orange lights along the pier illuminated the water. We saw several fish zip by, followed by a man-sized gray streak, barely under the surface and heading toward shore.

“Shark?” I said, leaning over the rail.

Jennifer replied, “Don’t know.”

Then the fish rushed past in the opposite direction, again trailed by the larger shape.


“Hunting?” she said.

We watched the dolphin chase the fish back and forth along the pilings for 10 minutes before the fish and mammal vanished.

The next day, we strolled the pier under the bright clear sky. The green-blue water ebbed and surged against the pilings. The creosote plank smell melted into the sea breeze.

“I want to jump,” I said.

Jennifer laughed, said, “No way, why?”

“I don’t know, for you.”

Near the end of the pier, I breathed the tar and fish air, headed to the side where the faded wooden ladder dropped into the sea, shed my shoes and shirt, handed Jennifer my wallet and keys, and climbed onto the rail. I knew jagged underwater pilings from an old storm-damaged pier lurked below, but the water seemed clear. I jumped and straightened my body as they’d taught me in water survival class at the academy. A millisecond of free fall, a recognition of beauty—sun, sky, water, love—then the jolt of cold water, bubbles and light in the greenish blue and a flurry of wide kicks for the surface. Treading water, I looked up to see Jennifer smiling down at me. I climbed the ladder, reached the pier deck, and felt alive. Neither of us realized we’d be married within two months and have our first child within 14 months of that jump into the Pacific under the cloudless sky.

About two years after my jump, Deborah Franzman, 50, donned her wetsuit and fins and entered Avila’s calm waters for a morning swim. She was going along with a group of seals about 75 yards from shore when a 15- to 18-foot-long great white attacked her. A beachgoer shouted, “A shark’s got her! A shark’s got her!” Despite the blood in the water, four lifeguards rushed from the pier and brought her to shore. The bite severed Franzman’s femoral artery, and she bled to death in minutes—the 10th person killed by a shark in California waters since 1952.

An article on the attack showed the four lifeguards standing in front of the pier. In the photo, a cloudless sky gleams behind the stern-faced young men with blond hair and sunglasses. The pier reaches toward the sea, and other than the serious faces, the scene offers no hint of the carnage that had occurred earlier that day.

My difficulty in flight school hardly compared with what Derek endured to become an Air Force special tactics officer. The brutal training required to join one of the nation’s most elite special operations forces takes two years and includes the military’s toughest courses: combat control, air traffic control, survival, jump, and dive school. Derek excelled. So strong in the water, he frustrated his trainers with relentlessness. They made him swim and tread water with extra weight to see how far they could push him. He never broke.

Afterward, Derek married, and within a few months deployed to Afghanistan. There, he ran missions with Marines, guarded international dignitaries, and earned the respect of his teammates and superiors. His son arrived after that first deployment, and not long after came orders to Iraq. On Memorial Day, May 30, 2005, four years to the day after graduating from the academy, the day he had pinned on his captain’s bars, Derek and four others climbed aboard a small Iraqi aircraft for a routine mission. Less than an hour later, the plane slammed into a barren patch of sand in Jalula, about 20 miles from the Iranian border.

Everyone on board died: Derek and his teammates, Captain Jeremy Fresques and Staff Sergeant Casey Crate, as well as the pilots, Major William Downs and Ali Hussam Abass Alrubaeye, a captain in the Iraqi Air Force. At the time, I was in the unit that tracks Air Force casualties. I was on call that weekend, but for whatever reason, the Air Force didn’t inform me; instead, my mother did. The hometown network broke the news quicker than the military bureaucracy, and I’m thankful for that.

In the mid-’90s, I took a United Airlines flight to Colorado for a visit to the academy. After landing, the flight attendant announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, we hope you enjoyed your flight. … Your captain today was Denny Fitch, one of the heroes from the 1989 Sioux City crash.”

Remember Sioux City?

Grainy video shot through a chain-link fence. Everything looks fine; then that right wing slices the grass. The cartwheeling DC-10 explodes and disintegrates across the lush cornfields. Black smoke veils the carnage.

Denny Fitch, a United check pilot, whose job was to train and evaluate other pilots, was deadheading home when the center engine on the DC-10 exploded and severed the jet’s three hydraulic systems. Fitch stepped up and helped the pilots control the aircraft by adjusting the throttles of the remaining two engines. After the engine explosion, the plane entered a phugoid oscillation—similar to pilot-induced oscillations—and Fitch worked the throttles to “get in tune with the airplane.” Of the 296 people on the plane, 184 survived, thanks in large part to Denny Fitch, a former Air Force pilot.

What a strange thing for the flight attendant to announce.

Two sets of red-and-black graffiti initials emblazon a wooden fence near the Surf Beach train station. “LR” for Lucas Ransom, a 19-year-old University of California, Santa Barbara student, and “FS” for Francisco Solorio, a 39-year-old surfer from Santa Maria. In October 2010, as Ransom bodyboarded with friends at Surf, an 18-foot white shark struck and severed his left leg. He died within minutes. A police photo shows a lone fin alongside a red boogie board with a crescent chunk missing. Nearly two years later to the day, in 2012, as Solorio surfed with his friends at the same beach, a massive great white bit him in the torso. He also died at the scene.

In October 2014, three separate nonfatal shark attacks terrorized watermen in the same area. A 20-foot-long shark knocked a kayak fisherman from his boat. Luckily his friends paddled to him, and he climbed aboard another kayak belonging to a high school friend of mine. A television show, The Great White Serial Killer, recently highlighted the attacks and theorized that perhaps the same shark, a serial killer, returns to Surf every two years. A leading marine biologist discounts this theory, arguing that white shark populations are up because of federal protections. He also cited greater participation in water sports and the fact that certain areas are more prone to shark attacks, offering as an example one area north of San Francisco where nine shark attacks have occurred since 1980. Researchers point to elevated levels of domoic acid in the waters off Surf Beach. The acid, a neurotoxin produced by algae, collects in high concentrations in shellfish. Seals and sea lions exhibit a sort of drunkenness after ingesting domoic acid, linger at the surface, and become easier prey for sharks. Some scientists believe sharks congregate in areas with high levels of domoic acid because it makes for better hunting.

The noses of a few Air Force jets still feature bright white, jagged shark teeth, a blood-red mouth, and a severe eye on each side.

The Air Force investigates every aircraft mishap, but Derek’s crash proved complicated, since the plane belonged to the Iraqi military. The Iraqi government asked the United States for help in the investigation, but the Air Force couldn’t offer specifics about the cause of the accident because of legal constraints.

The resulting report states, “While attempting a low-pass landing or ‘go around’ from an aborted landing, an Iraqi Air Force (IzAF) Comp Air 7SL, tail number 2245, impacted the ground and came to rest inverted on a dirt berm near Jalula, Iraq. There was no evidence that hostile fire or major airframe or systems failure caused or contributed to the accident.” The report indicates the weather was clear, and the plane’s nose gear hit the ground before the final impact … inverted, at 70 to 90 degrees nose down, at max power.

The report contains facts without conclusions. But in the final pages, a subsection, “Additional Relevant Information,” lays out several concepts that likely contributed to the crash: effect of density altitude on engine power and propeller efficiency, visual illusions, aircraft stall, and pilot-induced oscillations (porpoising or cameling).

For a long time, I didn’t think about why the report included these basic flying concepts. Then questions stacked in my head. Did the pilots misinterpret the uncontrolled dirt runway? Did their misread lead to a bad approach? Did the bad approach result in a bounced landing, a porpoise? Did they push the throttles forward to go around? Was the engine underperforming because of density altitude? Did they nose the plane up too much and stall too low to recover? Is this “additional relevant information” simply a distraction? Did they have time to register that sickening final drop and roll as the world flew up and closed in?

I think a lot about those final seconds. One late night at Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Oklahoma, during pilot training in November 2001, four years before Derek’s crash, a group of us students sat around a fire pit holding plastic cups of bourbon. One kid from Kansas asked, “What do you think that moment is like when you realize you’re crashing?”

“The most sickening, terrifying feeling ever,” said Jared, a wiry, former enlisted aircraft mechanic. “You think you wouldn’t know?”

While I was at the academy, three trainer aircraft crashed in just three years, each time killing the crew. I was a freshman when the second T-3 spun into a brown Colorado prairie. At breakfast the next day, an upperclassman—a friend of the killed cadet—made me stare at the front-page newspaper photo of the wrecked plane.

“I’ll give you one minute to memorize every detail,” he said. “Then I’ll ask questions, and you better get them right.”

All of my answers were wrong.

Death and war seemed abstract and far away in 1996. The Air Force scrapped the T-3s before I graduated and temporarily began sending prospective pilots to private flight schools for their initial training. In a very real way, then, those crashes at the academy led me to that Cherokee in Santa Maria.

The author (left) and a pilot school classmate stand beside a Cessna T-37 “Tweet” trainer at Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Oklahoma. (Courtesy Brandon Lingle)The author (left) and a pilot school classmate stand beside a Cessna T-37 “Tweet” trainer at Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Oklahoma. (Courtesy Brandon Lingle)

The T-37, or “Tweet,” served as the Air Force’s primary trainer for more than 50 years. Pilots sat side by side, and the underpowered, reliable little jet helped thousands of pilots get their wings. The Tweet amassed more than 13 million flight training hours in 53 years, and in that time, crashes killed 107 crew members and destroyed 138 jets. Engineers built forgiveness into the plane, but the trainer could spin, and the spin recovery procedures were tricky. So, the little jet came with provisos—chief among them a warning not to exceed 45 degrees of bank at low airspeeds. Banking higher could create an instantaneous stall, and at low altitude there’s little hope for recovery or ejection. In the final turn before landing, the difference between life and death in the Tweet spanned less than a one-inch move of the stick.

The year before my arrival at Vance, a young Navy pilot on his second solo in the Tweet overshot the runway on final approach because of winds. He banked the plane more than 45 degrees and the aircraft stalled and spun less than 500 feet from the ground. Without time to recover or eject, he must have felt a second-long flash of panic and dread before oblivion.

Days before my pilot-school class started initial solos, another academy friend, Nick Jabara—grandson of Korea Ace James Jabara—along with his instructor, died in a similar accident outside a base in Texas. Nick, on one of his first flights, wasn’t flying when the instructor pilot overbanked to 80 or 90 degrees on that cold Texas day. They likely felt a gentle shudder before the sickening nose drop.

Witnesses say no warnings came for the shark attack victims at Avila or Surf. As these people enjoyed the Pacific, they had no idea a prehistoric creature bigger than a Cadillac stalked them from below. Imagine trying to comprehend being clamped in a shark’s jaw. Would you feel anything beyond disbelief? And what about after the shark lets go—those moments bleeding out in the cold water, wondering what comes next?

In July 2015, I called Kyle, an old teaching buddy in the Air Force Academy’s English department. Minutes into the conversation Kyle asked, “Have you heard about those shark attacks in North Carolina?” I said yes, and he told me his stepson was the 16-year-old who’d lost his arm to a shark while wading in waist-deep water near a pier on Oak Island a few weeks earlier. I’d met Hunter a couple of times in Colorado.

In a television interview, Hunter said, “I’m thinking, there’s no way this just happened, because there’s no pain. … I didn’t feel anything. … I saw the shark on my left arm. It was halfway up my bicep, kind of. It just attached [itself] and then it wasn’t attached anymore.”

After a month of not flying thanks to a perforated eardrum I suffered in the unpressurized T-37, I fell behind, washed out of the program, and changed career paths. Part of me thinks that the crash on that initial solo stayed with me. Another part thinks maybe I didn’t really like flying all that much. And yet another argues maybe I couldn’t cut it. That was 2002, and as things turned out, I traded 14 years’ worth of flying deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan for several ground tours as a public affairs officer. What a strange calculus.

When I was a junior at the academy, the commandant, a brigadier general and fighter pilot, called the cadets into a massive auditorium. Several thousand of us in our blue polyester uniforms and short haircuts sat there dreading another mind-numbing speech from some old dude who thought he knew everything. He stood next to the podium holding a champagne glass, staring at us without speaking. A photo of a pilot in front of a jet flashed on the screen behind him. He told us the guy in the picture was one of his best friends, that he’d screwed up, and that he’s dead. Then another photo and another terrible story. This went on for nearly an hour. Sometimes the blame fell on the dead, sometimes not. By the end, the general’s voice was shaking and we sensed his tears. He talked about the serious nature of our business. The screen went dark. He stared hard at us and threw the champagne glass to the floor. The glass shattered, and pieces flew across the black stage. Then the general turned and walked out.

Over the years, that talk has gained more and more resonance with me. The losses of friends—to helicopter and airplane crashes, car accidents, and disease—punctuated life. And, even when it’s not quite so close, there’s a strangeness about proximity to death. This bizarre relationship is amplified and complicated in war and in poor countries where death looms. When an acquaintance dies or a tragedy strikes close, you experience a sense that the reaper has passed too near. On the 10th anniversary of Derek’s death, Matt, a buddy of mine, an Air Force combat rescue officer with multiple combat deployments and a Bronze Star for valor, said, “It’s a game of ghosts, my friend.”

Our kids are starting to think about death. On my last deployment, Jennifer helped one of our 10-year-old twin boys flush his dead pet crab and later dug a hole so that our 12-year-old daughter could bury her hamster. This summer, our daughter’s math teacher died in a car accident two weeks after school let out. We’ve talked about the loss, but she gets quiet. Her bio note on social media says: “RIP Mrs. Anderson, we love you.” The kids haven’t asked about airplane crashes, but the Titanic and other disasters capture the boys’ imaginations.

The flashes always come at night in that quiet moment when the mind winds down—a home intruder slaying us all, a head-on collision on a narrow highway, the news from a serious-faced doctor in a wood-paneled office, a psycho with a machine gun at the mall. When I fly with my family, there’s always that glint that we could all be wiped out in an air calamity. I see the oxygen masks hanging, the seats shaking, my wide-eyed children, a quick reach to clutch Jennifer and the kids. I never speak of these visions, and I wonder if Jennifer renders such atrocities in her head.

On summer vacation, as we swam in Hawaii’s warm turquoise water, I watched my family snorkeling along a reef, saw how their flippers worked the water, and imagined a tiger shark lurking barely out of view.

The next day, I was on a bodyboard in shoulder-deep water as the kids floated on their own boards nearby. One of the twins asked, “Are there sharks here?”

“Yes,” I replied, “but don’t worry about them. They won’t bother us.”

Bobbing up and down with the swell, he looked me in the eye, trusting me, then turned to the sea and waited for the next wave.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Brandon Lingle has published essays in the SCHOLAR, as well as The New York Times’s At War blog, Guernica, and The North American Review, among other publications.


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