By Wendy Hodge
When last we “met,” I was standing on an island just off the coast of Florida, contemplating the consequences of making a bet in a sport I haven’t played in over two decades against an opponent who plays often and whose friends have set the wager on his behalf. On that island, under the moonlight, surrounded by people who felt like an instant family, I was ready to settle my bet.
Before I could think it through, I shed a few (not all) of my clothes and ran into the slowly rolling waves until I was waist-deep in the Gulf of Mexico. I raised my arms toward the moon and tilted my head back. The world looked simply astounding from that spot in that moment. And then the shock of the cold sent me running back to shore.
The group was waiting for me, clapping and laughing. The friend who decided on my wager was clapping louder than the rest. “Girl, that was one crazy thing to do,” he said. “That water is freezing!”
“Tell me about it,” I said through chattering teeth.
“But you kept your bet. You’re cool in my book,” he whispered as he hugged me.
Captain T wrapped a blanket around my shoulders and said, “You’re pretty amazing.”
That alone kept me warm all the way back to the marina.
The next day Captain T gave me another amazing gift – an up close look at a pod of dolphins.
They jumped and played in the waves as if they knew we were watching. I took pictures and videos and then just sat in silence and gave them my full attention… living in the moment.
We ate meal after delicious meal and strolled on the beach at sunset. We went to Pier Park and shopped (and ate yet again).
We mingled with guests in neighboring cabanas, all of whom were retired – “snowbirds” who had escaped to the South. There was Ms. Blue Hair, whose hearing aids were always visible in her ears but were never actually turned on, so conversation was done at a higher volume than with anyone else. And Mr. Bicycle Pants, who may have been in prime Tour de France shape a few decades ago, but who now… well… some things are just better left to the imagination and not to the efforts of spandex. His vision was just about nonexistent, so we could never be sure to whom he was actually speaking.
And then there was the leader of the group, whom I affectionately thought of as The General.
He was barrel chested and looked imposing but was in fact a teddy bear with a weakness for orange Sunkist and Danielle Steele novels. Despite that the others definitely deferred to him in matters of shuffleboard tie breakers and other critical decisions.
We watched pinochle tournaments, cheering on our favorites. We learned some smooth dance moves while big band tunes floated in the breeze. And we laughed along with our “neighbors” who took such pleasure in going nowhere in a big hurry.
Our time passed so quickly. In the blink of an eye, it was check-out day. The sky was overcast, and we decided to take one last stroll in the sand.
As we walked, a cluster of older folks caught my eye. There were two men digging in the sand while a group looked on. As we got closer, I realized they had already unearthed mounds of seashells. The taller of the two gentlemen was displaying one of his treasures to the group who cheered and clapped. They welcomed us into their circle and all began speaking at once.
“Look what he found!” Ms. Blue Hair yelled. One hearing aid had become dislodged in the excitement.
“That there’s a valuable piece of history!” Mister Bicycle Pants shouted in the general direction of the ocean itself.
“It’s definitely from World War II,” The General said. “That’s a bullet. I am familiar with that particular item. More familiar than I would like to be, as a matter of fact.”
The group grew quiet and clustered around the two strangers. And then the stories began.
Stories of fathers and brothers and uncles who went off to war and made heroes of themselves.
Or came home a different person, broken and scarred. Or never came home at all.
I had no paper or pen with me, but I can close my eyes and hear their words even now.
I don’t know how long we stood there, but the sound of the waves brought me back to the present. I stepped backward and narrowly avoided stepping squarely on a sharp metal object.
Bending down, I realized I had found another bullet. I pulled it free, and it was large and heavy in my hand. The shorter of the two strangers realized what I had found and moved toward me as if he wanted to take the bullet out of my hands.
“She found another one!” he yelled.
The whole group cheered and began chattering again. I grinned at Captain T and said, “We have time for me to dig a bit, right?”
“We sure do,” he said with his easygoing smile.
And so I spent the next two hours on my hands and knees, elbow-deep in the sand. If we had not had to check out, I would still be happily digging away.
When all was said and done, I had unearthed many pounds of beautiful seashells, intact and perfect, along with three WWII bullets, three spent flares, and a round metal ring covered in rust and with seashells attached by time and sand. Was it a piece of a cannon? Part of a ship? Imagine the hands that had touched the cold metal as they made their way to war. What had they been feeling and thinking? Were they among the ones who had returned or were they lost forever on some shore far from home?
Like the wind from the ocean, my sister’s words came back to me. Life is all about the bets we make – with ourselves, with each other, and with the universe itself. If we keep them and how we keep them says so much about what our soul is made of.
I bet my best friend and I will be back at this spot again. And, as a wise person recently told me, a bet is a bet is a 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.