I’m in a flat aluminum jon boat, a mile or so east of South Carolina’s intracoastal waterway.
With a stranger who’s steering the two of us out to sea.
Neither of us wear life jackets.
“We’re on our way,” he says.
He leans over and points straight ahead, his arm outstretched toward the foggy gray horizon.
“Where?” I say.
“France,” he says.
It’s his boat. His motor.
I now realize how easy it would be for him to bump me off if he had even the simplest of motives.
“Oh, Rich? Yes, it was horrible! He fell out and got swept away.”
I’m not as scared as I might’ve been ten years before. Since then, I’ve learned to swim. In fact, I excel at it.
As the wind picks up, the ocean tide swell, steel gray waves hammer at the floor of the boat like battering rams.
I realize that if I fell out, it wouldn’t make any difference if I can swim or not.
It started out as a lark.
Gina and I are friends with a young couple in our upstate home town. One of them has parents who own property on the Isle of Palms. We hit it off with John and Barb and are invited down for a weekend with them.
We drink wine and craft beer.
Barb introduces Gina to her library of books. John turns me on to old jazz, including The Hollywood Saxophone Quartet.
At some point on Saturday, John asks if I’d like to ride out and look at the crab traps he has set in the waterway.
Slipping through the harbor, John’s little boat is dwarfed by the multi-million dollar yachts. Boats the size of small towns. Speedsters that look like spaceships. Personal water-craft skimming the surface like Indianapolis race cars.
But the faithful jon boat putters among them, sure of itself, as am I.
Confident that I’m living an incredibly cool life visiting incredibly cool people in an incredibly cool place.
And then John has to be a smart ass and drive me out to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean just to prove a point.
“Sharks out here,” he says. “Jellyfish. All sorts of nasty.”
Which, more or less, describes my stomach as the waves toss us around.
The look on John’s face is gleeful and smug. He’s enjoying the ride more than me.
Whether by accident or design, he’s scaring the hell out of me. But I put on the stoic mask of my German heritage and shrug. “How far to the Bermuda Triangle?” I ask.
I realize then that I have no idea who this guy is. I’ve only been in his presence a total of maybe two days.
I don’t know anything about him, really.
If something bad happens, I don’t deserve it. But I didn’t do anything to prevent it, either.
I’m starting to feel like one of those crabs we looked at, caught fast.
So, I swallow my pride, glance at my watch and say (as casually as I can), “Maybe we better head back inland? The girls will be waiting.”
John laughs and nods and turns us around.
And just for an instant, I catch a glimpse of relief on his face.
Now that our undeclared game of chicken is done, I see how close I came to winning.
I see what kind of guy John is.
And we never stay with them again.