By Wendy Hodge
There is a box next to my bed that is full of pages in my sister’s handwriting… children’s stories she wrote. They are delightful. And they are precious because she wrote them in her own hand.
Mixed in with those is a piece she wrote about our dad. A handful of weeks ago, I couldn’t sleep, and so I read (for the thousandth time) the account my sister wrote of how Harold Hodge became a Marine. He was 17. It was a Saturday, and he and a buddy went to the picture show.
They watched the news reel of the war that was playing itself out on the other side of the world. And, being boys still, they made a bet with each other. A bet that, if they were given the opportunity, they would become fine soldiers. And so they did. They honored their bet…. my dad, by earning a purple heart for the wounds he suffered rescuing his fellow Marines, and his buddy, by throwing himself on a grenade and saving countless others. Both heroes. Both honoring their bet to each other and to themselves.
I fell asleep reading my sister’s words and woke the next morning with the echoes still in my head. My best friend and I headed south that day. Our destination was Panama City Beach, and the closer we got the more evident it was that last year’s storms had devastated that whole area. Fields of broken trees lined the highway, bent over like old women by the force of the wind. Buildings with no roof or no walls or nothing but a foundation dotted the landscape.
Businesses closed down or blown away altogether. All these months later, and it still looked like a war zone. We grew quiet, taking it all in.
I was already a bit nervous, if truth be told. Panama City is where my best friend calls home. He misses the water and being a sea captain and, more than anything, the friends who are as close as family. I was going to meet them all, and I was anxious. Would they like me? Would I fit in?
Turns out I was worried for no reason at all. His friends are as warm and easy going as he is, and they made me feel welcome instantly. We spent the day eating fresh oysters and crab claws and scallops and shrimp and laughing loud and long while they filled me in on all the crazy wonderful things my best friend has ever done. Turns out my best friend is a skilled boat captain. And from that moment on, for the remainder of the trip, I referred to him as Captain T.
Late in the afternoon, we agreed to meet at a favorite spot of theirs for a friendly game of ping pong and some more good food.
Maybe it was the afterglow of a spectacular meal, or maybe it was the dazzling sun dipping down to touch the ocean, or maybe it was just the real contentment that comes from being where you feel like you truly belong…. Whatever the reason, I made a bet with my best friend.
A bet that I would beat him at ping pong. Never mind that I hadn’t actually picked up a paddle in at least 25 years. I was confident that I could beat him.
On the ride over, we discussed the details of our wager, and in yet another bold move, I said, “If you win, your friends can decide my penalty.”
Captain T raised an eyebrow and asked, “Are you sure about that?”
I smugly answered, “I am.”
Oh, Wendy Lynne. Had you not still been in a seafood coma you might have thought through more carefully.
I don’t really have to spell it out, do I? If you’re imagining me being soundly beaten and appropriately embarrassed, triple that and you will be close to the humiliation I actually endured. After my defeat, we all sat around a large table, the six or eight of us, eating yet moreoysters. I held my breath the entire meal, hoping against hope that the whole silly bet would be forgotten. But, no. That was not to be. Captain T’s oldest friend ate his last oyster, leaned back in his chair, and fixed me with an unflinching gaze.
“It’s time to settle your wager.”
Sigh. “Okay. Tell me what I have to do.” I was ready to face my fate.
“The Gulf of Mexico sure is pretty this time of night. I’m thinking we need to take a boat ride out to Shell Island, all of us, and watch you do a cannonball right into the water. From the top of the pontoon boat. In the clothes God gave you.”
I looked at my best friend. He smiled at me and said, “I got your back…. but a bet is a bet is a bet.”
I don’t remember much of the ride to the pier or the preparations for getting underway. I do remember the cold wind in my face as we made our way to Shell Island and my best friend’s arm around my shoulders and how he reminded me, more than once, that a bet is a bet is a bet.
We reached the island and stood there taking in the view. The moon was low and full and seemed to glow around the edges. The sand sparkled like silver under our bare feet, and there was not a soul in sight besides our small group. Our happy chatter died down, and we soaked it in, leaning towards each other. From a distance, we must have looked like the only people on a deserted planet. And it was then that I realized I wanted nothing more than to keep my bet.
Wendy Hodge is an Opelika native, an empty nester and lover of all things Opelika. She previously had a column titled A Word or Ten, which was featured in the Tennessee Star Journal and is currently awaiting release of her first novel with Harper Collins Publishing Company.