It was a good spring. We were lucky. The air and water were warm already. I can remember closing my eyes as we walked out onto the dock. It was damp…I can still feel my Tree-Torn’s sinking into the dank wood. Tide was high and the two little Whaler’s were waiting for us. Chico was on one boat, the other was empty.
“How do you want to split this up Frank?” My father said while laughing at what I can imagine was the idea of himself and John on a boat with Capt. Chico all day.
“You and John take that one with Cleo, Beth, Melinda, Linz, Doe, Alex, and Amanda. Ill go with Chico, Bets, Rich, young John, Sam and Abi.”
I was pleased with the crew Frank had assembled. Our families had been vacationing together for years and although we were all close, I preferred the company of my little brother, Richard as well as Sam and Abi. Young John was several years older than me, but I was crazy about him. He was a handsome and sweet boy. John use to organize “hold-ups” amoung us kids. The most recent being the robbery of my fathers Thule, which we had discovered earlier that morning was securly attached to my mothers mini-van…and locked. It was a disappointing mission to us all, however I remember being excited watching John craft a gun out of sticks, and he looked good with a hankerchief covering the lower half of his face.
I could see the relief on John Seniors face not to be stuck with Chico. John was tall and distinguished looking, with perfectly combed silvery gray hair. His shirt was tucked in, and he wore boat shoes. Chico was not a large man, maybe 5” 9’, skinny, but with a brown pot belly covered in white hair. He wore sunglasses and a pair of grey shorts perfectly faded by the sun. I liked him. He had yellow toe nails. They were thick, rippled, and chalky from salt and poor hygiene. As I sized him up I let go of my Dad’s hand and grabbed Uncle Frank’s.
Frank picked me up uncomfortably by the arm pits and set me down in the boat. I waited eagerly for Sam to get lowered on as well and relaxed once she did. I was always relieved when Sam was around. She, unlike my older sisters Lindsay and Dorrie, was uniquely drawn to things in life that I shared a passion for as well. Nature, music, a generally dirtier lifestyle than that of the one heavily peppered with tripple-layered mini dresses and brownie meetings, that my sisters firmly embraced. I felt lucky to have her as a friend even though she was a few grades ahead of me. In high school Sam would sneak me out when my parents were out and squirt cheap vodka into my mouth from a once-empty facial cleanser bottle. She also taught me the joys of heavily buttered cooking habits which I would later love her for. Her younger sister, Abi I found facinating, as did Richard who adored her, the two had a bond that the rest of us weren’t in on. The sisters had beautiful straight and shiny hair. Sam’s was brilliantly blonde and Abi’s was jet black, the opposition always enchanted me. Thier bright, blue eyes would widen with affection when you would open your arms to embrace them.
We pulled out of the harbor into the reed ridden savannahs of South Carolina. Chico plowed through the harbor and passed the no wake bouys as John was just getting his lines untied. I looked back and John had his arms in the air, furious.
Chico, being a seasoned stoner who chose an alternate path to suburbian life, was immediately liked by Frank, who has always been torn between two lives. One involved daily commutes to an office broken up by parties at a country-club where he would wear bright red pants covered in something horribily offensive like ducks or cocktail olives. The other involved eating acid in the jungles of Uruguay, studying the minutia of rare spider habits and making passionate love to indiginous women named Hu Tu. As the two bonded Sam and I were quiet while Richard and Abi played with thier milk cap collections.
I remember breathing deeply that day. I would pull as much air through my tiny nostrils as I could, whistling at times because I was increasingly unsatisfied with the amount of salt I could taste in the back of my throat. It was my first time on the ocean and I was curious. I could easily compare it to the first time I became horny, watching two teenagers make out on a moving motorcycle in Aerosmith’s video for “Livin’ on the Edge.” I was excited, unsettled, and frustrated, wanting more and not knowing what of.
We stopped to explore a small island littered with gulls. Chico cut the engine and we went searching for sand dollars. An incredibly boring activity which Im sure Chico indulged hundreds of tourists in each month, especially small children. I waded in the water about waste deep and took another deep breath in. Finally I could stand it no more, I had to taste it, I dunked my face, eyes open, toungue out ready to drink in what I imagined to be pure and refreshing.
I was wrong. Uncle Frank and Chico laughed as tears came to my eyes and I spastically flailed my wrists, fanning my face then rubbing it profusely. Frank hugged and kissed my head, trying to calm me, all the while laughing. When I became less hysterical Chico put his face right in mine and spoke to me in a thick Carolina accent. His voice was rich with salt, cigars, and bourban. All three were delivered in a raspy tone that made me feel safe.
“There is a better way to taste the ocean, can I show you?”
I nodded yes as I wiped my upper lip, still hyper-ventilating from my recent shock and overreaction. Chico took me from Frank’s arms and hoisted me back up onto the boat. The others joined and we headed back out to the depths. We didn’t go far before we came upon a bouy bobbing sullenly and Chico once again cut the engine.
Chico reached over the boat and began pulling up the rope. Whatever was at the end of that line was heavy enough to make chico quietly grunt as his tan almost black back flexed with each heave. All six of us were quiet until Frank reached over to pull a dark and slimy crate on board.
“What is it Poppa?” Abi sweetly inquired.
Frank looked at Chico and grinned before shouting “Oysters baby, they’re oysters!”
I quickly and clumsily stepped to the bow of the boat, my brown feet slapping unsteadily on the sandy wet floor. Chico pulled out a pocket knife and stabbed, twisted and flicked the sharp metal into the hard shell, effortlessly prepping it in seconds and handing it to Frank. Frank brought the shell to his lips, tilted back his head slurped it down. The slurp bothered me, but I was still curious, debating on whether to try one myself. Chico began to indulge as well, he had about three down before Frank was done with his one, but Frank was taking his time, enjoying. Then he slowly slipped his toungue between his lips and curled it up to his grey and white moustache. His lower lip followed and I could see blissful content pouring out of him. It was this expression on his face from that salt water chaser that sold me.
“Can I have one?” I asked, still uncertain.
Chico looked to Frank for approval before shucking my very first oyster. I had no idea the depths of love and appreciation that I was about to open my eyes to. I opened my mouth and awkwardly fit my lips and toungue around the shell. It being to big for my little jaw, Frank helped me slip the oyster into my mouth. My eyebrows involuntarily crushed themselves together as an initial reaction to the texture, then raised and relaxed as the fresh salt rolled over my toungue. I swallowed without chewing and let the cold meat slide down my throat and into my warm little tummy. I rolled my toungue around in my mouth, sucking the remaing sea off of it. I then opened my mouth and took a deep breath, now feeling pure and refreshed from the oceans beautiful gift.
There are only a few moments in ones life where you can actually feel an emotional shift in your heart. This was the first moment I felt it open up and make room for somthing other than my Mother. It was on this day, with Chico, that I fell in love with food…and it changed me forever.