I’m not sure what year our family encountered bumper sharks in the Gulf of Mexico. Several of us were playing in the clear waters off St. George Island. Melanie, our second grandchild, was probably seven or eight. She’s sixteen now, but that moment is still vivid in her memory, as well as in mine.
St. George Island is one of my favorite places. Our family enjoys vacationing there so much I’m reluctant to bring attention to it, but I know good things are meant to be shared. The uncrowded beaches account for much of the island’s charm. Sparkling white sand has trails of nesting sea turtles comingled with the scattered footprints of man. And melodies of gently breaking waves ride salt air breezes to a porch hammock perfect for afternoon naps.
Four generations of our family have been going to St. George every June for a long time. There’s nothing more relaxing than drifting in those calm warm waters while watching seagulls glide overhead and dolphins patrol the coastline.
The state park at St. George is a popular place for shoreline shark fishing. That’s a mile or so from where we swim, but sharks are not always courteous enough to stay only where they are welcome. We’ve seen a few uninvited guests that came close enough to get our attention. A shadowy figure sends us in retreat to the shallows, but the effect is temporary. The promise of merriment quickly seals the small crack in our confidence.
I don’t remember who else from our family was in the ocean when the bumper shark came. Melanie was on top of a rectangular float while I drifted nearby. Something sparked a conversation about sharks and other dangers, and I saw a teachable moment.
“There were some bumper sharks spotted down the beach yesterday,” I told Mel. Then I assured her she didn’t need to worry, that my long pale legs would be more tempting than snatching a small girl off a float. I said, “A unique thing about a bumper shark is they let you know before they attack.”
“How do they let you know?” she asked.
“They give you a small bump before they bite,” I answered. “You’d feel a short nudge underneath the raft. That should give you time to grip the sides tightly or start paddling toward shore. You’d have to decide what to do. The main thing to remember in a crises is don’t panic.”
Less than an hour later a bumper shark punched her noticeably from beneath the float. She abandoned ship and made a frantic lunge toward shore. That’s when I confessed the culprit was her Papa’s big toe. We laughed as she nervously returned to her raft, and I asked what she had learned.
“Don’t jump off my float?” she offered rather tentatively.
“That’s a good point,” I said, “but not the main lesson. Rule number one in a crisis is don’t panic. Do you know what rule number two is?”
“Don’t jump off my float?’ she repeated with the same uncertainty.
“Nope,” I responded. “Rule number two is don’t ever forget rule number one.”
Mel and I still laugh about her close call at St. George Island. Although bumper sharks are mythical creatures, “Don’t panic” is a good rule when real trouble comes. As the coronavirus wreaks global havoc and gets closer to home, it’s hard not to be anxious and overwhelmed with fear.
Caution and concern are warranted. It’s not a time for reckless behavior that endangers others. But it’s also an opportunity to be reminded of what’s most important. What if we pray as often as we wash our hands? Being careful and prayerful seems a perfect combination. “Clean Hands-Clean Hearts” might be a good theme.
I don’t know what the future holds, but I have confidence in the One who does. He said, “Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God.” (Isaiah 41:10 NKJV)
Life as we’ve known it has abruptly changed, but the Creator of life is still the same. That’s reason enough not to panic. And should we forget rule one for a spell, then rule number two works almost as well. God bless, stay safe, and don’t panic.