It was late in the fall, probably our last dive of the season, years ago. My young buddy, Harry, at fifteen years old, was already a good diver. We were working a jetty on the north shore of Long Island. The sky was overcast. The air was still. A perfect night for catching lobsters, who can be scared back into their rock crevices by shadows overhead.
Perfect, except that I couldn’t find Harry.
I sat on the flat top of the jetty, my tank beside me. A sudden offshore wind cut through my wet suit. I shivered as I listened for the crunch of footsteps on the pebbled beach. Perhaps Harry had left the water for some reason. But the only sounds were the slop of wavelets against the shore and the lonely call of a restless seagull.
I walked the top of the jetty again, searching the black water for Harry’s light. Phosphorescence lit waves that broke on the cold gray rocks.
Where could he be?
I had let Harry go first around the jetty. The front diver usually catches more lobsters and often stirs up the bottom. But I had circled the jetty in the water and doubled back to the tip without seeing him or his light before I climbed out.
Four weeks ago Harry’s father, Harry Senior, died of a heart attack at the early age of forty-six. Harry, his wife Rosemary, and I, had been the best off friends. Rosemary and I still are, with all these miles between us.
I stared out at sea and tried to hold down the fear that crept into my heart. What if Harry had drowned and been sucked out to deep water with the outgoing tide? The current was strong here in the dredged-out inlet where large ships plowed into the harbor beyond. I knew that a rip current raced through the inlet with the outgoing tide and curved past the jetty, far off its tip.
Sky and sea met in a black shroud without horizon.
I felt cold deep inside, not just from the winter chill that had come early. I remembered Harry Senior telling me how, as an offshore patrolman, he had found the bodies of a young brother and sister in a whirlpool off the tip of a Port Jefferson jetty after the Coast Guard dredged the area and gave up.
“Harry,” I whispered and pictured Harry Senior’s broad smile,”what am I going to do?”
I stared out at the featureless water. His son was my responsibility on a dive. I should have stayed closer to him, but I was distracted by a lobster that was now in my bug bag. What price would we pay for that lobster? And then I thought I felt Harry Senior’s presence like a guardian between me and the unforgiving sea.
Was it only my need that made me feel him so close, or something more?
Oh, Harry. What am I going to tell Rosemary? My hands shook within my neoprene gloves, but I felt his quieting presence. He had always been a rock to friends and family.
OK, Harry. You wouldn’t give up. I did the only thing I could do. I strapped on my tank, and climbed down the barnacled rocks and slippery algae of low tide.
I shivered as cold water seeped into my suit. A lobster, legal-size, scavenged on the bottom. He turned, attracted by my light. I ignored him and swam toward the tip of the jetty. Before I reached it I saw Harry’s light! He was way past the jetty on the sandy, sloping bottom.
“Dammit, Harry!” I mumbled into my mouthpiece while gripping it tightly, and a sense of relief that felt as broad as the ocean settled over me.
Harry came into view with a monster-size lobster clutched in one hand. It was probably a five-pounder. He couldn’t get it into the bug bag we keep clipped to our weight belts. As he approached, he held it out for me to take. The lobster’s huge crusher claw had probably never been lost and re-grown. It was massive. The lobster saw me and opened it. I didn’t know until then that I could backpedal in water. But I finally got a grip on the creature’s carapace and we swam to shore.
I handed Harry his great catch without a word. I knew he expected praise, but I was in no mood for handing out accolades.
I slipped out of my gear.
“I thought you drowned,” I finally said, “and were swept away by the current!”
He hung his head. “Sorry.”
We were silent as I drove off the beach. I glanced back once at the sea that Harry Senior and I both loved, and in my mind I said, “Thank you, Harry.” Just in case it had been more than my own need when I felt his presence.
The next day, having recovered from my ordeal, I went next door to Rosemary’s house and congratulated Harry on his fine lobster. But I couldn’t help thinking that the incident might have ended differently.
Harry and I met four years ago to dive off Bonaire, in the Caribbean. We were no longer underwater hunters and were content to be spectators in the beautiful coral beds. We had both gotten heavily into ocean conservation.
But I had to smile when I realized that now Harry was protective of me in the water. I didn’t know that he walked the pier watching my bubbles as I swam under it to view green rays of light that shimmered between pilings, and a moray eel that kept an eye on me as I paused to watch him near his hole.
Harry had been worried, he told me, when we got separated. He’d gone ashore and walked the pier, searching for my bubbles.
I hung my head. “Sorry,” I said.
I guess some would call that “closure.”