This episode is also the second scene in a three-part series about hunting, and why I stopped hunting. It fits chronologically in the Yellow Wood series, so here it resides for now. I am not proud of this story, but the karma I incurred eventually contributed to a good cause.
We ran through all our missiles and all our beer in two days. Lieutenant Stevens was pulling in all his favors to get more beer, but the Navy was not inclined to help us out after the Big Drone Turkey Shoot. With almost a week to go on our Puerto Rican deployment, we looked around for other ways to get into trouble.
Viegas is a desolate postage stamp floating on the immense Caribbean Ocean. White sand, a tiny off-limits camp, fleas, and that’s about it. So we took to the clear aquamarine waters, inventing every sport or game that bored, reckless, and irresponsible Marines could devise, drunk or sober.
Having actually paid attention to the stateside briefing, I came prepared with a free-diving rig: snorkel, mask, fins and . . . coup de grace . . . a sparkling new spear gun! Yes, go ahead and shudder. Spear gun wielded by 18 year old hungover Marine.
The water was so transparent it was like swimming through air. The bottom was mostly sugary sand, so it was difficult to judge the depth. Warm, soft, calm, quiet.
I went hunting for dinner.
As it turned out, the big game I sought (anything I could shoot at and hit) was actually stalking me. I turned around in fifteen feet of water to come face to face with a barracuda, about six feet of barracuda, just hovering motionless a few feet away, slightly above me, slowly opening and closing its mouth to show off its many, many sharp white teeth, as if in warning, or, perhaps, anticipation. I resisted the urge to fire a spear at it; a rare moment of good judgment, or terror.
We looked at each other for a while until it dawned on me that I was out of air and needed to breathe. I didn’t want to surface, dangling my legs like plump sausages, and exposing myself to attack from below. The best plan I could formulate was to hoot something that sounded like “blubba blubba blubba” and wave my arms menacingly. This plan I commenced with ferocious energy.
The big-toothed monster didn’t move. I realized my failed “blubba” tactic had cost me my remaining air. I had to breathe, now!
“So, ‘cuda, my brother, I am going for air and I’m going right through you to get it.”
I pushed off straight at the barracuda. In a silent, but violent swirling detonation, it disappeared. I mean, vanished! It was there, then it was gone. I never saw it swim away. I saw nothing. Nada. Zilch.
I surfaced, cleared my snorkel, breathed, and looked back down to make sure it wasn’t coming for me. All quiet on the Viegas front. So, I continued the hunt, embarrassed by my fear of the barracuda. Hey, it snuck up behind me and surprised me! A sneak attack. You’d be scared, too, don’t think you wouldn’t. I was not in a good mood.
That’s when I saw the manta ray.
I was now in about thirty feet of water, and the ray was quartering below me, a perfect shot. No, I don’t know why anyone would want to shoot a manta ray. Maybe it was a different time, before PETA, before awareness. Maybe I just wanted to scare something. Without thinking about it, I leaned back with the spear gun pointing down between by fins, and, as it passed under me, put a spear into it. The spear poinked into the right wing. The ray, about twelve feet across, wing tip to wing tip, didn’t seem to notice, didn’t turn, didn’t slow down, didn’t speed up. It just kept gliding. The spear was attached to twenty feet of line, maybe less, and for a couple of seconds I thought:
“This is really cool. I’m going for a ride on a manta ray!”
Then, as all the line reeled out, and I started moving much faster than I anticipated, these thoughts came quickly:
“It’s going deeper it’s going really fast it doesn’t even know I’m here I’m not going to stop it it’s really really strong I’m running out of air what the fuck have I done?”
Well, nobody has ever pointed to young Marines as examples of good judgment. I had stupidly gotten myself into this fix and I had to make a choice.
I let go of the gun.
For a few seconds I watched the huge creature swim off over the white sand and into the blue beyond, towing my spear gun behind. Damn. I really liked that spear gun. I only shot it one time. Damn.
By the time I got back to the beach, a sad and shameful realization had begun to creep into my mind.
“Why did I shoot that animal? I wasn’t going to eat it. I just like shooting things. What’s that about? What if the wound gets infected and it dies? I’m sorry, manta ray, for shooting you. Oh, fuck. Oh, goddamn.”