I stood on the bowsprit as we sailed Biscayne Bay.
The wind swept the swelter of the sun from my skin.
A bucket of Noon rain had dumped and now steamed up from the decks of the Annie Lee, taking my troubles—real and imagined—with it.
“Annie!” Dad hollered from the cockpit. “Check our depth.”
I startled and scrambled for the world’s longest mop handle and jabbed it into the water until it struck bottom.
“Six feet!” I read from the notches Dad had carved in the pole.
“Six and a half… six and a half!” We drew four feet, so I knew we were okay for the moment. I rammed the pole through the seaweed into the muddy bottom again.
The pole stuck fast in the mud.
In a split-second reflex, I clung to the stick and the Annie Lee sailed out from under my feet.
The pole sunk deeper in the mud as I wrapped my arms and legs around it—suspended over the bay like a girl shish kabob. “Daaaad!” I clung to the pole while my brain registered I wasn’t reading this in Nancy Drew, but living it.
My brother jumped up and down on the aft deck screeching, “Daddy, Daddy! Annie lost the boat!”
I caught a fleeting glimpse of R.J.’s sun-toasted face gone pale as my toes touched bay.
“This water is freezing.” I yelled at the Annie Lee’s transom. “There’s mud down here! I hate seaweed! God only knows what’s slithering around in here!”
Cold fingers of water and fear climbed my ribs as I inched down the pole. Dad would rescue me, but the barracuda and hammerhead I’d met this summer still lived between my ears.
In up to my neck and treading water with one hand, I kicked slimy kelp.
The chill crawled up my scalp as my hair slurped sea, morphing into soggy noodles.
Water lapped into my mouth and I tried to spit out the salty taste and my fear, but they hung around.
I peered at the shoreline. I could swim that far if I had to.
Clouds bunched their way across the horizon, white bumper cars converging and parting.
In the distance, Dad dropped sail. The anchor would be next. I knew Dad wouldn’t about-face the Annie Lee in shallow water to fetch me.
Should I swim for the boat and drag the stupid pole along?
While I debated, Dad landed on cat feet in the dinghy, shoved the oars into the oarlocks. He glanced over his shoulder to get a bead on my location.
Dad’s shoulders and arms flexed and relaxed under his T-shirt as he stroked.
Dad always loomed larger than life, but today as I watched him, he approached super-hero status.
At last he coasted up beside me. He grabbed my forearms and hauled me into the boat with a grunt. I couldn’t read his tight-lipped expression.
I inhaled the scent of Dad’s sweat and safety as I landed in a soggy lump in the bottom of the dinghy.
Dad braced his legs and yanked the pole from the bay in one heave.
The pole clattered where he dropped it—one end extended over the bow, the other oozing mud into the water behind the dinghy.
As I launched into a litany of every little detail Dad needed to know about my lapse overboard, I thought about how good it felt to be rescued.
I usually felt left to fend for myself.
Normal was bumping my knees against the ring where Mom and Dad went rounds in a marital bout. When they shed their mouth guards and gloves, and stepped off the mat into Mom and Dad, they were black and blue and beat.
I walked alone two stints of kindergarten—Miami and LA. My barracuda and shark were a graffiti-scrawled tunnel and a freeway bridge where cars whizzed by my elbow, blowing exhaust in my hair.
At seven, I rode two Miami buses to ballet, poised on my knees with my hand at half-mast beneath the pull cord.
I fixed my own breakfast every day. And once or twice I forgot and fainted in school.
My third grade picture—put down for posterity in the family album—is a shot of the Pippi Longstocking braids I did myself.
Mom pasted a smile on life, as if a Groucho Marx nose and mustache could make happy.
But when I really needed them—like today—my parents came through.
They whisked me to the hospital when I downed a bottle of baby aspirin as a kid.
Mom carted me to the orthodontist to un-buck my teeth, the orthopedist to fix my inward-turning feet—with ballet, saddle shoes, and nighttime boots nailed east and west on a plywood board.
Dad taught me how to pinch a penny, skin a fish, and feel things deep down in my gullet.
Back on the Annie Lee, before my suit completely dried, Dad spotted the cove he’d been looking for. We’d tie up along the seawall and head inland.
But we dropped sail too late and came in hot against the concrete.
A crunch sounded as the Annie Lee sideswiped the rough wall, skinning off a two-foot section of fiberglass, resin, and paint.
I gritted my teeth. We should be called the Four Stooges instead of the Fettermans.
But Dad went grimly about tying the Annie Lee to nearby pines, positioning the bumpers to insure there’d be no more blunders today.
We tumbled out onto land and traipsed after Dad.
My mood had swung south with Dad’s. I swatted a mosquito from my sweaty neck and braced myself for an afternoon digging clams with my fingernails or wading through mangrove swamp hunting antique bottles.
Dad stopped and my nose bashed into his shoulder blade.
A rope swung in the breeze from the high reaches of a banyan tree. Sun dappled the smooth green water below.
My mouth dropped open.
A tree-gnarled Nirvana.
I glanced at R.J. and saw my grin written on his face.
Dad climbed down the bank and scouted the rope’s span for rocks and logs. Satisfied, he caught the rope with a dead branch and pushed it into my waiting hands.
I swung out into air and let go. Cucumber crisp water closed around me, encasing me in a delicious coolness I’d thought frigid when I fell overboard.
R.J. did a cannon ball, Dad a jackknife, and Mom, a graceless plop.
I laughed at R.J.’s next let-go. His arms and legs flailed in mid-air before landing in the water.
I savored this sweetest day of childhood—not realizing it would shine through the stormy seas ahead.