A Young Man and His Shark

By Merle Harton, Jr.

Radisson Hollingsworth wanted to be a surf champion. As a boy living near the ocean in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, he grew a youthful interest into a passion. In his last year of the fifth grade his father paid for surf lessons for him and got him his first board, a not-too-expensive dark blue epoxy Malibu board. Every weekend, he and his friends would carry their boards down to the beach and paddle out for waves. During the winter months, he wore a wetsuit; in spring he wore a rashguard shirt; in summer it was just him and baggies and maybe some zinc oxide on his nose. He would study other surfers and their styles and avidly read surfing magazines. He let his hair grow longer, at least as long as his parents would allow, and he made sure that he wore the latest surfing styles. Hanging out on the beach whenever he could helped him to cultivate a brown solar-burned skin and sun-whitened hair. He also rode a skateboard, but that was only to continue honing skills he needed to maintain his balance on the board in the surf. It was a lifestyle thing, too, but it suited the young Radisson, who got the nickname "Rad," which he liked. "Rad" seemed like a truncated version of radical and that boosted his self-confidence with friends and strangers. So Rad he was: young surfer, cool dude, athletic and healthy. He won his first surf contest at the age of 13. Life was good for the young surfer. Until he met the shark.

It was a spinner shark, prone to leaping high out of the water as it hunted schools of fish. It was a Saturday in the early summer, not unlike others the young Rad was familiar with. The surf was small that day, as is normal on the Florida east coast in summer, but glassy and surfable, at about waist high. It was very early in the morning, around 8 o'clock, and Rad was sitting on his board, legs dangling, facing the rising hot sun. His companions were scattered, several yards away, in silent anticipation. Small waves, too small yet to ride, rose and closed past them on the shore. It was calm and very quiet. Rad squinted, searching the horizon for the hump of a swell. He paddled a few feet to the south and then sat up again.

Suddenly a swirl of activity happened all around him; popping sounds were everywhere; scattered masses of small silver fish hopped on the water's surface. They lit the surface of the water like small intermittent flashlights. Out of the depths of this maelstrom of fish emerged an enormous gray figure. It rose quickly and its strong body twisted as it breached the water's surface. The fish, as big as a torpedo, was close enough for Rad to touch. Its skin was like dull slate; water streamed from its surface. Its harsh mouth opened and closed and the small silver fish, some horribly mangled, their small eyes wide with pain, poked through its gnarly razor-wire teeth. Just as quickly as it emerged, it fell back into the ocean. A hideous eye stared at Rad before it submerged. The school of frightened fish, in flight from this savage life-eater, moved quickly away. And then the water was calm.

A swell moved on the horizon. Rad's companions twisted their boards and paddled, vying for the best position to ride. A light west wind whispered over them. Rad couldn't move. He remained sitting on his board. But sitting suggests volition, and this Rad did not have. Ripples of the sea moved him, but he remained rigid like a vessel. Like a Cartesian ghost, he saw his body and the board and the ocean, and things occurred, but he was not responsible for any of it; he was conscious and thoughtful and was, ergo, aware that he existed. Still he could not move the body and could not interact with the board, with the sea. Large swells emerged from the horizon and crested and swept over him

His friends, seeing him like this, paddled over to aid him, but they could not interact with the body. The body of Rad remained rigid on the board. His face showed neither fear nor care. It was not a dead face, but it was not the face of someone alive. Surely this was not the Rad they knew.

A large wave suddenly crashed over them and pushed Rad to the shore. He rolled beneath the water and bobbed back to the surface, tossed like an inflatable, until he reached the shore and was eventually separated from his board. His friends hurried to the beach and pulled him up onto the sand. His gaze was straight, into the blue sky above them, distracted only by an occasional wisp of small cloud. He lay on his back and the hot sun, which he did not feel, burned his skin. A lifeguard was summoned and it was determined that Rad should be transported to the medical center. A call was made to Rad's home.

Rad's hospital stay was highlighted by many visitors, but all were turned away, except immediate family and his acknowledged surfing buddies. Rad was healthy, said his physician, but some trauma had left him in a semi-catatonic state. He was no longer rigid, but instead he would repose in whatever position his body was placed. His nurse called it waxy flexibility. He could eat, but not on his own. He blinked, but only in response to the needs of his eyes, which looked forward at all times during his waking moments. Many tests were of course performed, but revealed no clue as to the possible duration of his state. After three days, he was sent home. He stayed in bed for a week, in the same state, being fed and wash-clothed clean, with his body's toileting functions discharged through the use of a bedpan.

At the end of the week, Rad awoke from a sleep and with some hesitation, got out of bed, peered curiously at the bedpan on his mattress, and then washed his face and hands and made his way into the kitchen. He was looking for food, he said, when his startled mother, at first alarmed and then relieved, asked him what he was doing out of bed. She made him a light meal and called her husband and they rejoiced. Rad returned to school the following Monday, and it appeared as if the long episode, now concluded, had never happened.

But it did happen, and all were surprised as Rad refused skateboard, beach, and surfing. He would not go near the ocean, nor would he discuss his refusal with anyone. Instead he read books, studied piano, and rode a bicycle. He wore his hair shorter. His clothing tastes changed and he began wearing pleated khaki dress pants, belt, and button-down shirts, in a style then called preppy. He gradually changed his friendships. At nights he slept, but often he awoke in the middle of the night in a panic, sometimes punctuated by screams. His mother and father were concerned by this, but the episodes were always brief and did not interfere with his sleep, so they pursued no further medical treatment. He remained popular at school,, and still enjoyed the name Rad, although he could no longer express how he got the nickname.

After high school, he left for college in Arizona, far way from any ocean. He majored in psychology, minoring in criminal justice. His bad sleep episodes subsided and only during the most extreme periods of stress would he leap from bed at night in a panic. Eventually this too went away. He visited his parents and friends in New Smyrna Beach, but these visits became shorter and then very infrequent. Rad loved the dry climate of the southwest. There was no ocean, and he did not miss this.

He graduated from college, took possession of his baccalaureate in psychology (with a minor in criminal justice), and took a job in security for one of the smaller casinos in Las Vegas. He liked the pace of Las Vegas. The city was divided like other cities, but the blocks were large and deceptive: you thought that you could walk a block, but whatever your destination, it always took longer to reach than your sight suggested. And the lights never went out. In the day there was hot sun; at night the moon, its light and sky were effectively dissolved by bright neon and noise.

Rad was quickly promoted to assistant director of security for one of the larger casinos in the center of the city. His new job included hiring and supervising a large security staff, some in uniform and some in plainclothes. Technology was a big aid, and he had to learn the probabilities of gaming and how the games could be defeated. All was not as it seemed, he discovered, and he was taught how to spot card counters, slot cheats, card and dice palming, and some of the technological tools used in cheating and the software used in detecting possible dishonesty. He learned the finer science and art of protecting both people and stuff , especially during the many complicated acts that appeared on the stages of his big casino. This was a new start for him, and this new job, and Las Vegas, too, swept over him like the Atlantic Ocean of his younger days. Every day he felt refreshed and confident.

One day his director held a meeting with the security staff and informed them that the aquarium-themed facility in Las Vegas was hosting a show at their casino. It would feature a large tank with various fish, some very dangerous, from the aquarium's reef exhibit; live actors would also participate, performing in and about this large tank, on stage. Security would include maintaining the integrity of the tank and the fish species and coordinating with aquarium personnel for the safety of casino staff and patrons. Rad was charged with managing this project.

Rad met with aquarium personnel, who gave him complete information about the stage performance and their specific security needs. All shows on the casino's stage were rescheduled and the building of the tank began. Built of thick-gauge Plexiglas, the tank took up most of the stage, and required nearly a half-million gallons of specially-treated salt water. Intricate filters, chemicals, piping, and pumps were operated 24 hours per day for the integrity of the tank's water. Before the debut of the performance, a selection of sea life would be transported from the aquarium to the stage tank, and the show would begin for a limited run in the casino. Tickets were already being sold and signs and circulars were being made and printed.

In addition to assessing the show's risk and vulnerabilities, Rad was responsible for ensuring timely patrols and controlling any breaches of security policies for this show. He had a schedule of all planned activities for the show, during construction and after, and he had a dedicated staff of security officers on regular patrol for this project. He reported twice a week to the director.

On the eve of the debut performance, Rad received word that fully half of his security officers had called in sick; a flu-like illness was sweeping through the casino and some of his patrolmen had succumbed; this left him short-handed, at a time when he needed a full complement of staff for security. He notified his director, who helped him to pull staff from other duties to assist. This still left a whole in one of the evening shifts. Rad decided that he would take one of the evening patrols himself.

Rad left work early and went home to nap. He awoke in early evening, ate a light dinner, played a few songs on the small upright piano in his apartment, and then cleaned himself up and drove back to the casino. He checked in with his security detail and then took a flashlight from his office and began the scheduled patrol of the casino staging area and the aquarium's new performance tank. A few workmen were leaving the stage area as he walked up. He chatted with them briefly and then went around the auditorium, beginning with the box office area and seating and then finally to the stage. The curtains were closed. He went around to the backstage area. The tank was dark; its lighting was off. It was noisy: the pumps and filtration systems hummed loudly as they moved the seawater around in a careful rhythm of activity. Rad inspected this, not so much because this was security-related but more because of his own curiosity. He walked around the tank, which took up most of the stage, and the stage itself was nearly the span of a city block. It was an impressive structure, standing well over 16 feet high.

As Rad surveyed the tank, he heard a strange thumping coming from within. It was dark and he could not see inside the tank from the back of the stage, and the sound, though soft, was loud enough to carry above the din of the pumping systems. He spotted an extension ladder at a corner of the tank. He positioned the ladder and climbed. At the top, he threw the beam of his flashlight over the water. All was still. He did not hear the thumping. He move the flashlight again and leaned over to look into the deep of the water. As he did this, an enormous fish emerged from the dark water and with a mouth as wide as his victim the fish enveloped Rad and took him into the unlit tank.

The next day, there was no word or sign of Radisson "Rad" Hollingsworth, the casino's assistant director of security. He had not checked in after his patrol of the stage area. He was reported missing, but the Las Vegas police eventually put the matter into an envelope and placed it with other missing persons in a file cabinet.

The aquarium show was an exciting addition to the casino's performances, and it remained for several months, before the theater was again dedicated to elaborate stage plays, singing, dancing, and comedy routines. When the tank was drained and dismantled, workmen easily overlooked the shoe and flashlight that were shoveled and discarded as debris from the bottom of the tank. Few of the audience members, even the show participants, could forget the aquarium show itself, and many of these made it a point later to visit the aquarium in Las Vegas to see the original star attraction, the breaching blacktip shark that would leap several feet from the surface of the tank, gnash its teeth, and return to the simulated sea depths from whence it came.

"A Young Man and His Shark"
Copyright © 2008 Merle Harton, Jr.  All rights reserved