A Christmas Smile for Happy Jack

“Where do we sit?” the older sister asked while standing amid benches evenly spaced from bow to stern on either side of the excursion boat hull. Her question arrived out of the cloudless, blue, Caribbean sky because it wasn’t as if she had much choice: she could obviously sit on the benches, less obviously on the deck or improbably on the gunwale. I was all the more baffled by her question since she stood in a position to actually sit if she so chose and since there was no indication that those of us already seated or even standing nearby would be displaced by such a decision. Still, I appreciated her quandary since the wooden benches were hardly inviting on this warm morning. Each was liberally covered by pools of rainwater; the result of the squall that had passed across the island of Barbados a few hours earlier. So there she stood, waiting for an answer while holding a black mesh bag containing a set of black swim fins and a face mask.

With the exception of her odd question, the day started the way several others of our West Indies cruise had begun — with a baker’s dozen of us seated in an air conditioned minivan headed for whatever excursion we had scheduled via the Internet. On this day our intermediate destination proved to be a mere 5-minute ride from the cruise-line dock to an excursion facility on the far side of port. I hadn’t paid much attention to details offered by the tour guide (my bride of 29 years) when she asked months earlier if I was interested in snorkeling. I simply said yes without asking for details and she scheduled the adventure. As I stood in front of the facility I presumed that the sign explaining how a submarine functions was one of the excursion details my tour guide had failed to mention. It looked to me as if we headed to the snorkeling site via submarine. Nifty!

Submarine Poster

My bride is like that. She often gives just enough information to get me interested, but not so much information that I would pepper her for endless details. She could be a classic salesperson: under-sell the product and over-deliver. Anyway, we were not going anywhere on a submarine; we were just going snorkeling with the older sister who wanted a dry place to sit. I bet her own tour guide had not explained that she was going to get wet snorkeling which led to her momentary perplexity. To be fair to her tour guide, most participants would suspect early in the planning process that at some point snorkeling would cease to be a dry excursion.

Before we approached any portion of the excursion boat, we of course had to sign the obligatory excursion waiver that had been issued by the minivan driver while making the short trip to the submarine facility. The lawyer with us was getting a good hoot from reading the waiver to the guy sitting next to him. The waiver covered every manner of untoward event that the proprietor ever encountered while conveying tourists for the purpose of snorkeling. The listed, foreseen, unplanned, and altogether problematic occurrences included falling, slipping, excess water ingestion, severe air shortage, drifting out to sea, trapped underwater, etc. But what really got the lawyer hooting was the way events were listed on the document. If a customer could slip from the ladder while entering the water to start snorkeling, the document was clear to distinguish that event from say, slipping while exiting the water after snorkeling. I gathered there were other oddities; the lawyer’s repeated laughter and his plan to obtain a take-home copy was prima facie evidence that the document was riddled with unintended humor for those who read it. (He probably wasn’t a lawyer; no lawyer worth his title would find a legal document funny.)

Inside the facility (after signing the waiver I did not read) we were directed to a nearby bench where we were to select a set of fins that fit our feet. The fins were in black mesh bags located inside four containers. The containers had been created from plastic 55-gallon drums that had been sliced in half along the vertical axis and then laid side-by-side on the dock and marked with shoe sizes. It was anyone’s guess whether the marked sizes were men’s or women’s which led to frequent re-tries when either a foot didn’t fill the fin or the fin didn’t fit over the foot. Yes, we were told, a left foot would fit into a right fin and a right foot would fit into a left fin. Or we could conclude independently there was no differentiation between any two fins in the net bags…except perhaps size. With the fin-fitting exercise complete, we were ushered single file and as occasional pairs down the dock to an open-hulled boat. A portable set of steps beside the boat led up to the gunwale so that we could step down into the gently rocking hull. The rocking was by no means a function of the sea state; it was a function of folks hesitantly stepping into the hull and occasionally stumbling to a place near a wet bench.

Ship's Crew

So there she was; the tall, slender, older sister, standing next to her brother who could easily have been an identical twin. Well not exactly identical, although you certainly know what I mean. They were clearly brother and sister by virtue of all those attributes that genes working behind the scene make obvious to our senses of sight and imagination. Her bench-question hung in the air for me to massage the way I tend to massage funny things: should I address the question or should I simply “Leave-It!” as I would admonish my two Beagles. Customarily, I don’t blurt replies in public situations even when they are gleefully tempting, challenging, rhetorical questions as this one was so easily categorized, unless I: 1) am an acquaintance of the one asking the question, 2) was at the point of exasperation with the person who posed the question, 3) was party to the conversation from whence the question was tossed, or 4) had consumed one shot more than my limit and my lack of sobriety would offer cover. None of those applied so I didn’t blurt anything out and only muttered humorously to my bride: “She can sit down!”

The nearby deckhand, however, did address the question on this Christmas Eve Day…morning. I think he had heard similar questions from tourists on each of the 358 previous days of the year and he wanted to stave off any more of that sort on this trip. His reply was decidedly friendly in manner and expression and maybe a touch sarcastic. I have become inured to sarcasm so that may be a complete mis-characterization. Anyway, he pointed dockside to a bench a few feet from the boat as an option if in fact she did not like the white painted wooden object close by her knees. Her deliberation was swift and silent. She elected to stay on the boat and sat on a wet bench like the two dozen other folks. Thus the tone was set for others who harbored a question; hesitate, and think before you ask. With all finally seated and without a safety briefing, the crew maneuvered the boat away from the dock and our excursion headed toward the lengthy list of waiver-able possibilities and the one planned event: snorkeling from an open-hulled boat which might be called a Boston-whaler if we were north of New York which we were not.

Upon leaving the marina the boat passed by the docked cruise-liner and headed south along a route that hugged the shoreline with sea spray dousing those on the outer portions of the benches – which didn’t include the older sister. About a mile and a half distant from the marina the crew anchored over a collection of five shipwrecks lying about 50 yards offshore. The varied histories of the wrecks included legal business enterprises and others less so, like the double-hulled drug-smuggling vessel whose telltale sign before being sunk by authorities was a stream of bubbles from scuba divers steadily transferring drugs to shore all day and night. All the histories ended in a common manner…as a shipwreck in 25 feet of water with schools of needle and sergeant-major fish in constant passage and with years of sea life growing in their hulls and on their appurtenances. The upper decks of the wrecks were within an easy dive for daring snorkelers — by the tour-boat-load.

Snorkeling Area

All snorkelers were required to don international yellow inflatable life vests, as much for visual identification as it was for swimming safety. The vests consisted of a single air pouch that could be inflated via a tube fixed to the left side. Attired as yellow sea canaries we moved once more in a single file to a set of steps (the subject of one or two previously mentioned waivers) that first rose over the bow and then descended to the water level. One-by-one snorkelers sat on the last step of the ladder while squirming to squeeze their feet into their fins and then tighten a mask on their faces. To the credit of all participants, no one was seen struggling to overcome buoyancy created by an inflated vest. The snorkeling excursion proceeded uneventfully over the site of the shipwrecks for a little under two hours or the time it took to make body core-temperatures drop and shivering to begin its warming function.

Bridgetown Coastline

Having successfully passed through the contracted window of perilous, waivered, albeit enjoyable activities without incident we retraced our path, stopping briefly at the base of the ladder to remove fins and masks and then step back over the bow to the benches. Following a count of cold, yellow canaries the crew turned the boat towards the marina and in a matter of minutes we arrived back at the dock. It was there that we were requested as we left the boat to place our fins and masks in mesh bags and deposit then on the dock beside the portable steps. After a few minutes disembarking, passengers began tripping over the mesh bags that were strewn, as directed, at the foot of the aforementioned steps. After 359 days of what the crew had assumed were safe instructions, they crew quickly modified their instructions: leave the mesh bags on the boat’s benches but not on the boat deck where they potentially would become new tripping hazards! Clearly, the boat crew was forced to accommodate this group that was disposed to avoid asking questions – specifically about exactly where the bags were to be deposited. The reluctance to ask questions was undoubtedly the reflexive recoil to the response to the wet-bench question! Not having read the waiver I signed, I don’t know if a tripping hazard was a waiverable action. If it was not, that could explain why the crew opted to change the longstanding procedure!

The process of loading the minivans for the trip back to the cruise-liner proved, surprisingly, to be interesting and entertaining. Although I was in no rush to go anywhere on this relaxing vacation, I did select the minivan that was in the final stage of loading and hence offered a fair chance for a speedy departure. On that point I misjudged the situation. We were one passenger short of a full load and that caused a major delay. Three, two-person-families already occupied the three two-seat (dry) benches. The fourth family consisting of the older sister, the younger sister, the brother, and the mom occupied single seats along the full length of the left side of the minivan. The dad remained standing outside the van next to the jump seat occupied by his son. Although there was a single empty seat in the back row for the dad, in order for him to reach it he would have had to struggle past the occupied jump seat and then squeeze down the narrow isle. It should be noted that the entry door on this minivan was on the left side since vehicles in Barbados are driven on the side opposite that which we in America generally use.

To resolve the seating dilemma, both daughters implored their brother to vacate the jump seat, move to the back seat and allow dad to readily occupy the jump seat. That didn’t happen for reasons not made perfectly clear. As with other discussions on this day, I was not in position to offer comment. The dad, having chosen not to make a scene, elected to catch another minivan and with that decision made, the siding door was closed and the driver started the engine. The diver got as far as backing out of the parking space before the dad gave hand signals indicating he needed his identification card which was in the older sister’s bag. It was quickly forwarded from the backseat and out a window to the dad. Once again for reasons still not clear, the family now quietly realized that by moving one player, the entire team could ride back in the van together. The son vacated the jump seat and occupied a seat in the back row as had been previously recommended. Dad then occupied the vacated jump seat and off we all finally went in the direction of the cruise-liner.

During the ride back to the cruise ship I remained out of the conversations held by other families and was not in the conversation initiated by my bride with the folks behind me. Like motivational speaker Zig Zigler’s, “Unbelievable”, reply to the generally innocuous “How are you?” question, any reply to my bride’s “Where are you from?” question was guaranteed to take her conversation in limitless directions. I missed the early portions of the answer to her question since I was deep in thought with my own topics about which I have no recollection. As we approached the security gate at the Bridgetown port, all conversations to include my bride’s were interrupted by the stooped entry of the security official into the packed minivan. He directed us to identify ourselves, which meant we simply presented the Fun Pass issued by the Carnival Cruise Line for just such an occasion. Immediately everyone presented their Fun Pass, with one exception. The exception was the older sister who was intent on inspecting the internal voids of her bag for any evidence she still had the pass with her. Meanwhile, the security official showed increasing impatience as he waited for any hint of success in her search while occasionally glancing over his shoulder at the another group of persons who were strolling thru the security gate and who otherwise should have received his undivided attention. Finally success was achieved, first by the older sister who found her Fun Pass and then by the security official who found he could exhibit patience. Both successes allowed us to proceed beyond the security gate to the cruise-liner.

Unseen by the younger daughter who was seated in the backseat, her mother had exited the minivan during the security check. After finally noticing her mom’s empty seat, the younger daughter inquired about her. When no one proffered an explanation, my bride, who rarely misses anything and who less frequently allows a conversation to rest incomplete, replied that the mom was headed to the pharmacy. A momentary silence was broken by the younger daughter who offered that no one was keeping her informed about family affairs. That led my bride to suggest that was because the younger daughter was now semi-orphaned and she should get used to the absence of information from her mom. Again with only a momentary silence, the younger daughter inquired of my bride in a voice that could only have originated from a page of a Dr. Seuss book, “Are you my mommy?” That feigned, woeful question, contrasting in style and context to the bench question, precipitated another period of silence that was uncharacteristically broken by my urge to blurt. I turned to look over my right shoulder into the shining, mischievous eyes of the younger daughter and answered her latest question with an emphatic, “No! We’ve been down that road already!” and faced forward. The blurted remark drew snickers from somewhere by others who paid attention to conversations in a manner similar to my bride. Concerned that I may have inadvertently dimmed the younger daughter’s previously shinning eyes, I turned this time over my left shoulder with an additional, blurted remark: “I will advise my only son and only child that he almost had a younger sister!” The eyes that once were shining with mischief now widened brightly to accentuate her wonderful smile. The local snickers of the conversation’s interlopers were now replaced with laughter. A smile that I felt surfacing after my uninvited entrance into the conversation now began stretching across my face. It felt good to be smiling. And then the van arrived at dockside and we walked in a gaggle back to the cruise ship.

My smile, as I recall feeling it, stayed on my face the rest of Christmas Eve Day. It was there later in the evening when I ran into the dad who was looking for his offspring after supper. It was there again on Christmas Day when I ran into the cheerful, smiling, older sister on the Carnival Victory’s main staircase. It was there on Christmas Night when I explained the “missing mommy” story to mother of the family at their dining table. Each moment with her family brought forth the smile I planned to share with my son, Jack, who as the military phase goes was “out of country.”

Just after Thanksgiving Day weeks earlier, 1LT “Happy Jack” had begun a second tour of duty in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division. I had hoped I would hear his voice on Christmas Day although I knew a scheduled call was never a guarantee because of his unit’s mission. Despite hopes that stretched into the late hours of the day, I did not get that Christmas call. Still, I kept that smile wrapped in mind. Days later after typing the story from the shipboard, handwritten draft, I realized that the smile I wore on Christmas Day was God’s gift, passed via that family to me, to be shared with Jack whenever we finally got to talk. In the meantime, I sent him an email with the story attached – and with a smile on my face.

December, 2008