February 25, 2023by Jon Kramer

Three Jacks Is Not A Full House

Nonfiction.  These events took place in 2013 and early 1960s.

July, 2013 – the weather glorious.  A tropical breeze cooled the open deck as the small ferry filled with passengers from around the globe.  Some were headed to Jess & Mattie’s wedding on Elbow Cay, just as Julie and I were.  Others were simply vacationing in the storied Bahama Islands.

Just as the boat was pulling away from the dock, two young and attractive girls came bounding aboard, sleek as gazelles.  They landed amidships and sashayed aft to flirt with the Captain and First Mate.  The engines revved and we left the dock behind.  Once in the channel, the Captain hit the throttle and the vessel roared to life.  The boat slowly lifted up onto plane, trimmed atop the surface, and we started racing across the turquoise sea to Hopetown.

Presently the First Mate came by and collected our tickets.  The couple next to us kinda freaked out and said, We don’t have tickets! Then explained they thought they could buy them at Hopetown.  The crewman explained they needed to pay in advance.  But the issue was quickly resolved  –  they gave him cash on the spot and we proceeded.  No problem.

Then, as we were settling into the groaning rhythms of motor and waves, there developed a heated discussion up by the wheelhouse, not coincidentally where the young gals were standing.  Suddenly, the boat pitched over into a tight starboard turn, and we headed directly back from whence we came. Are we going the right way? the guy next to me asked. I replied, If you’re heading to Marsh Harbor then, yes, you’re going the right way.  But if you want to get to Hopetown – like we do – then we’re heading in the exact opposite direction…”

The Captain was barking into the ship-to-shore radio.  He was not a happy camper.  In fact, he was livid – gesticulating and pointing his finger at the gals with one hand, yelling into the radio with the other, and sometimes grabbing the wheel in-between.   The First Mate got into it as well – aggressively in the face of the women, waving wildly and screaming at them.  The two gals began yelling back, defiantly.   Pretty soon we were back at the dock we’d just left 12 minutes earlier – all the passengers now thoroughly confused.  The boat sped into the mooring and just before it hit the dock, the Captain threw it into reverse.  Everything pitched forward – people, luggage, and cargo crashed onto the deck.  The First Mate and the Captain grabbed the gals and physically launched them off the boat, heaving them over the gunwales onto the pier, yelling as they did so.  The two women screamed back and huffed away.

When he came back aboard, the First Mate explained the girls were trying to get passage across by paying only with their smiles.  You frigging whores, never come back to our boat!, he shouted after them.  He then turned to us and politely said,  We don’t work dat way, mon.  Everyone pay, or you off da boat!… The motors roared again and across we went, finally pulling into Hopetown marina

I remember the sharks.  There were two of them –  nurse sharks sleeping languidly in the shallows off to the side of notch in the coral which housed the dock.  Only Julie and I noticed them, and we kept the sighting to ourselves out of fear that the sharks would be hassled or killed.  Nearly all sharks CAN be dangerous – just as all cars COULD run you over on the sidewalk.  But, by and large, most are not going to bother you if you don’t bother them.  This is especially true of nurse sharks.   But public paranoia – especially the tourist public –  is such that every shark is considered a killer and must therefore be exterminated.  Yet, that’s like saying all members of the nightshade family can kill you.  By the way, in case you didn’t know, tomatoes are a nightshade.

The sight of these two chondrichthyans (cartilaginous fishes) took me back to 1962 and two other sharks – a pair that frequented our berth at Staniel Cay, some 150 miles south of where we stood.  The difference being the sharks of old were hammerheads.  And they were in a frenzy – thrashing around the water, ripping to shreds the sizeable jack that Dad had thrown overboard.

There were scarce few SCUBA divers in the Bahamas at the time we were living there in the early 1960s – and none at all on Staniel Cay. Despite the sizeable permanent population, very few of the natives even knew how to swim!  Not one of them had a dive mask before we arrived.  Generation after generation, they fished from boats.  It never occurred to them to see what might be below the surface. So, when we pulled into the dock at Staniel Cay for the first time, Dad made a bargain with the natives: we would periodically bring them a variety of fresh seafood in exchange for bread and fresh vegetables.  Every week thereafter, we piled into the Boston Whaler and headed out to dive and spearfish a nearby reef just to supply the village.  We came back laden with catch and bartered it with the native elders.  It was traditional time-honored commerce, well appreciated by both parties.

(A slight paranormal detour to Compass Cay):  The villagers were not without their superstitions.  A perfect example were Alfeus and Lernus – our two native friends who came from Staniel Cay but lived in an unfinished clubhouse on Compass Cay, seven miles to the north, where we sometimes docked.  Both of them were terribly afraid of the “She Wolf”, a particularly cunning demon that they were sure inhabited the island, sometimes killing animals willy-nilly and causing sudden sickness and sometimes death to people.  The demon was said to come in the dark of night –  especially one without a moon – and wreak havoc on the populous.  Lernus was so scared of it that during the new moon he slept in the dynamite shed.  It had no windows and thereby prevented access by the She Wolf.  His wife and kids, meanwhile – sleeping in the family shack – were left to their own devices but somehow managed to survive…

Alfeus, on the other hand, had determined that the She Wolf could be placated with gifts.  Since he was not wealthy, Alfeus had to make do with only what he could come up with on his own.  Lucky for him, his aunt had taught him how to weave palm leaves into baskets, hats, and assorted figures.  Apparently the She Wolf took a liking to Alfeus’ handiwork and regularly collected items from the drying rack behind his shack.  You see here, he’d say, pointing excitedly to a vacant spot on the bamboo shelf, she dun took da hatz I make yesterday…

A particular event occurred while we were at Compass Cay that reinforced Alfeus and Lernus’ belief in demons.  A shooting star came blasting over our head right in the middle of the day.  It was a single streaking miniature comet that dashed right out of the sky and, seemingly, very close.  Everyone witnessed it and it took our breath away.

Alfeus and Lernus were sure it was a sign – and not a friendly one.  They lumped it together with solar eclipses and took it as a reminder that the She Wolf was displaying her powers, as if to say: I come in the dark night but, you see, I can also come in broad daylight if I choose!

Mike and Dad, on the other hand, agreed that it was a meteor and Mike became obsessed with finding it.  You can look, son, but you’ll never find it, Dad said.  It burned up in the atmosphere.  Nonetheless Mike went searching on the other side of the island that very day.  He came back empty handed.  The next day, however, he found a crater in the sand and dug through until he found it – a fist-sized iron meteorite!  We were all super impressed – Dad especially, Well, I Suwanee…  Can you imagine finding a meteor that you actually saw fall?   It was a unique treasure that Mike added to his collection.

Mike has always been lucky that way.  By the time he added the Compass Cay meteorite to his collection, he’d already found several Spanish pieces of eight while snorkeling in the Islands.  And he’d still have them all if our own Captain Pete, to everyone’s everlasting lament, hadn’t gotten blitzed and thrown overboard a whole host of valuables – including Mike’s treasure box – during a drunken rage after an argument with the boat owners (Mom & Dad).

(Back to Staniel Cay):  One day while out collecting fish for the village, Dad had caught a large Crevalle Jack and, along with all the other seafood we’d harvested, brought it in for trading with the community.  But when we got to the dock, he was quizzed by the elders about the jack.  They were particularly interested in whether the jack was swimming with a school.

Well, depends on what you consider a school, dad replied.  It was swimming with two other jacks.  Is three a school?

That piqued their interest, and the elders went into a huddle.  When they emerged, they thanked us for bringing them the day’s harvest, but decided they could not accept the jack.   They suggested we keep it, but our freezers were already full, and we had no room for another large fish.  When Dad asked them why, the answer was unexpectedly Quixotic:  The elders said all “good” jacks travel in a school, while a lone jack is “bad” and thus poisonous.   Since they could not agree on whether three constituted a school, it was better to err on the side of safety…

Well, I Suwanee… Dad said under his breath, lamenting the wasteful death of a beautiful fish, as well as the effort it took to catch it.  (“I Suwanee” was Dad’s own placeholder for “I swear…” sometimes a replacement moniker for more extreme language that may be uttered later in private).   With nothing else left to do, the poor fish was then thrown off the dock into the water.  The rest of the harvest was gladly taken by the villagers.   Shortly thereafter, two hammerhead sharks appeared and dined on the carcass with vigor.  To my 5-year-old eyes that feeding frenzy was a magnificent spectacle.  Ever after I have had both a deep appreciation, and fear, of hammerhead sharks.

But what of this superstition about “bad” jacks?  At the time, of course, we all thought the elders were crazy.  Turns out they weren’t so crazy as it might seem.

Ciguatera is a serious illness caused by eating tropical reef fish that are contaminated with certain toxins. It occurs most commonly in the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, and the Caribbean Sea between latitudes 30 degrees north and 30 degrees south.  Symptoms, which onset from 30 minutes to 24 hours, include diarrhea, vomiting, numbness, itchiness, dizziness, and weakness.  They typically last up to four days, but some can remain for weeks, or even months. Heart problems and low blood pressure may also occur.  While death from ciguatera is rare, it is extremely unpleasant and has no cure. Most disheartening is the fact that no amount of cooking will destroy the toxin.

The elders of Staniel Cay are not the only ones who have developed a mythology around the disease:

In Australia, where ciguatera is common, native groups have their own ideas on ways to detect it. The first method is that flies will not land on a contaminated fish. The second is that cats will refuse to eat it. A third involves putting a silver coin under the scales of the suspect fish and if the coin turns black, it is contaminated.

In the Dominican Republic, a common belief is that during months whose names do not include the letter “R” (May through August), it is recommended to not eat certain kinds of fish because they may carry the toxin at that time.  How they came up with that one, God only knows.  The toxin builds up in the food chain and predators that eat infected prey carry it until the day they die.  The toxin takes no holiday – whether the month is with an “R”, or without.

On Grand Cayman and some other Caribbean islands, locals test barracuda flesh by placing a piece of the fish on the ground and allowing ants to crawl on it. If the ants will eat it, then the fish is deemed safe.

Of course, none of these folkloric methodologies have been validated by scientific method.  But, if you consider the alternative, maybe it’s best to agree three jacks isn’t a school after all…

Three Jacks Is Not A Full House, Copyright 2-25-23  /   2,155 words by Jon Kramer