Tales of Barranco Lagarto: THE SAND SHARKS OF BARRANCO LAGARTO
THE SAND SHARKS OF BARRANCO LAGARTO
There is little doubt that the most dangerous fish in the ocean is the shark. This prehistoric beast is a ruthless killer, nature’s perfect eating machine. It cruises the undersea currents in all oceans on the prowl for anything that will make a meal regardless of size or protein content. When it strikes, it is with lighting speed and it devours its prey one mouthful at a time.
The larger the shark, of course, the bigger the bite. The good news, however, is that today’s sharks are midgets compared to those of the Oligocene. Twenty-five million years ago the king of the ocean was megalodon, a monster of the deep that was 67 feet long and weighted more than 100 tons. Its teeth alone were more than 7 inches in length and a grown man could easily walk through its jaws without stooping.
That, of course, was the Oligocene which was a long time ago. And it was in the ocean, a body of salt water a long way from Agua Minerale. That, however, did not mean that Agua Minerale did not have sharks. In fact, as every newcomer to the Coast Guard outpost was told, the Barranco Lagarto had a unique breed of the specimen. Scientifically known as the Odontaspididae Laniformes Barrancos, the beast inhabited the deep recess of the underground flow of the Barranco Lagarto. This was a fresh-water shark, to be sure, but it did not ‘swim’ in the same sense that its chordate brethren did. Because of its environment, it actually settled in one spot in the underground river and allowed prey to come to it, swept into its jaws by the currents deep below the surface of the desert floor.
All of this is, of course, absolute hogwash. Every resident of Agua Minerale knew that — except the very young children whose mothers frightened them with tales of gnashing jaws if they strayed too far from home into the riverbed. Every visitor to the mineral springs knew it as well since there had never been a shark attack in any of the bathing pools. The Commander of the Coast Guard lifesaving station knew it was well. The only people who did not know that the sand sharks of the Barranco Lagarto were, at best, a local legend were the young Coast Guard recruits on their first assignment.
With the establishment of the facility, the lurid tales of the sand sharks of Barranco Lagarto were standard fare for the recruits. Every new arrival, from sailor to shave tail, was subject to lurid tales of the blood-thirsty sand sharks that lurked just below the sandy surface of the Barranco Lagarto. These beasts had grown large on their diet of sand krill and sand fish but were always alert to the possibility of a foot or leg that sank too deeply in the riverbed sand. More than one sailor lost an appendage, the newbie’s were told, when he ventured to far out into the riverbed during a gully washer. That, of course, was why so many sailors had wooden legs — like Long John Silver for instance.
To enhance the story, Jerome Kincaid had purchased a number of shark jaws on one of his trips to Hawaii. The largest pair he hung over the counter in the Kinkaid Roadhouse and told every new recruit how he alone on one dark and dismal day had fought the beast in the deepening waters of the Barranco Lagarto. He always finished his tale by stating that it was a choice between the shark eating a man or a man-eating shark and he was able to make the latter occur. (What he did with the other jaws will be discussed later in this tale.)
Kincaid also purchased handfuls of sharks teeth whenever he went to Los Angeles. Available, quite a literally, for a dime a dozen, he had a small peach crate of the objects secreted beneath the counter. What he usually did with them was wait until a new sailor arrived at the lifesaving station and then pass them out to some of the old timers. These men would sit around the Kincaid Roadhouse and frighten the recruit until he could barely sit still. Then they would take him out into the riverbed to look for signs of the ferocious beast. Sure enough, when the recruit went out into the sand, he would find sharks teeth, proof positive of the existence of sand sharks lurking just below the surface of the riverbed.
A second set of jaws was in the office of the first Coast Guard Commander. He also had a bone-chilling tale of how he was set upon by not one but two sand sharks during a reconnaissance operation searching for gun runners who were supplying illegal weapons to Mexican bandits. His was a particularly harrowing tale and resulted in his leg being badly mauled by the beast. At this point of the tale the Commander would draw up his left pant leg to show an ugly lower leg scar. He never bothered to mention that the sand shark scar was, in fact, proof of his encounter with a scythe hefted and swung by his first wife and the reason — the hefting, not the scar — he had requested an assignment as far and remote from New Bedford as it was possible to go. (The second and last commander had no scar to exhibit so he would point to his booted left foot and swear he had lost “three inches of leather, two toes and part of my soul” to a sand shark while on patrol in the Barranco Lagarto.
The reaction to the tales of sand sharks were so hilarious that it was not long before every old salt in the Service knew of the tall tale. Thereafter it became theater to tell every new recruit on his way to the Barranco Lagarto outpost that he must be extremely careful of sand sharks. Salves and bandages were given as part of the initiation and, as the tale of sand sharks made it down through the ranks, it became standard fare to tell naïve sailors on their way to Barranco Lagarto that they were on their way to a very dangerous assignment and they should expect to see “a lot of action.”
It also became standard fare to allow the new recruits two days of peace — one evening of which was usually spent at the Kincaid Roadhouse which was officially Off Limits but roundly ignored since the Commander was usually there — and then a reconnaissance mission was schedule to proceed right down the center of the riverbed, the trail having been liberally salted with sharks teeth.
Life Savings Station Barranco Lagarto was considered a plumb assignment. In its short existence it had two Commanders. Though it was considered a remote assignment, it was close enough to Palm Springs, Los Angeles and Los Vegas that both commanders came with their families. Remote it may have been geographically and on the assignment roles of the Service, but families loved it so it was common for commanders to request follow-up years rather than rotate out after the obligatory one-year remote assignment.
Servicemen further down the administrative ladder found it a hell on earth. It was hot, dry and other than the soiled doves behind the Kincaid Roadhouse, the nearest eligible women were in San Bernardino — as long as one did not count those among the evangelical spasmodics. Forays to the ‘big city,’ as San Bernardino were called, were monthly events with men piling into wagons for the half-day trip into and out of that Sodom to the southwest. But it did not take most of the men long to realize they had a better deal in Agua Minerale than the big city. The liquor was cheaper at the Kincaid Roadhouse, there were just as many available women in town — i.e., none — and it was far more preferable to crawl home from the Roadhouse than subject oneself to a tortuous half-day wagon ride when potted or suffering from the Bourbon flu.
Other than the lack of eligible women, the relationship between the Coast Guard sailors and the good citizens of Agua Minerale was excellent. The servicemen knew the difference between ‘uptown’ and ‘downtown’ and were careful not the mix the two. The same could also be said of many of the husbands in town who were careful to the do the same. As a result, there were two different societies in the small community, both living side-by-side and ignoring one another just as if they were in a large city.
But if there was any one thing that both uptown and downtown knew, it was that the lifesaving station was an economic boon to the community. It was a solid mainstay of cash. All commodities for the station were purchased through the two stores in Agua Minerale and all repairs were done by locals. This meant that a lot of money was dependent on the good will of the lifesaving station. So the residents of Agua Minerale, uptown and downtown, expressed their appreciation as fit their residence; uptowners opened the door to their churches are parlors and downtowners satisfied more prurient interests.
But there was, to use modern parlance, one man who pushed the envelope. That man was Neville Chamberlain. Not related to the man who swore he had achieved “peace in our time” 20 years later, he did make quite a show of waving a piece of paper around town in later years. [The Agua Minerale Neville Chamberlain lived until the mid-1980s and “died young.” That was because his mother outlived him by a good decade. She died at the ripe old age of 102 courtesy of botulism from a can of chili con carne which no store in Desert Hot Springs claimed to have sold her.]
In his day, which lasted until his death, Chamberlain was a prankster. Today we would call him a practical joker. He was legendary in the high desert for his high jinx and his antics were so hilarious that anytime someone returned to Agua Minerale from vacation or a business trip, one of the first questions asked was “And what has Neville been up to lately?”
A selection of some of Neville’s better-known practical jokes follows but, for this story, a few will illustrate his mind set. Sometimes he would empty a can of dog food and replace its contents with chili. Then he would go to a public gathering like a picnic or football game, sit next to someone he did not know and proceed to eat the ‘dog food.’ If someone made a comment, he would dig some of the chili out and offer them a bite.
In the early days he was a regular at the Kincaid Roadhouse even though he was a modest drinker. This did not bother the Kincaids as Neville was a fabulous conversationalist and told credible stories of adventures he had never had and experiences he had created on the spur of the moment. But he loved to pull pranks on drunks. If he was talking to a man who was inebriated, he would slowly lean to one side. The drunk, unsure of his own footing, would assume that he was the one that was not upright and try to correct his posture by leaning in the direction that Neville was leaning. Until he fell over. Other antics included putting goldfish in water coolers, removing the hinges on doors so they fell when touched and putting beebees on the tops of ceiling fan blades.
It was, needless to say, that the wild tales of the sand sharks of Barranco Lagarto were originated by Neville Chamberlain. But just talking about the ferocious beasts and scattering teeth about was not good enough for the prankster. He wanted more. The community expected more. The commanders of the lifesaving station anticipated more and who was Neville Chamberlain to deny them?
Sometime in the late 1920 or 1921 the lifesaving station had an unusual number of new service men. Usually the replacement came one at a time but at this moment there were four, all new to the service and all from large cities. This fact filtered through the community to Neville who figured this was the moment for a practical joke that would make the history books. A week before the recruits were to arrive, he took a trip to Los Angeles to buy a shark. Shark meat was common in Los Angeles at that time — it was called “gray fish” — and could be found in many restaurants. But the fish arrived at the restaurant in fillets so Neville had to backtrack to the fishermen and get the shark ‘in the round.’ When he finally found the fearsome creatures of the deep he realized why they were sold only by the fillet. The animals had been so manhandled that it appeared they had been beaten to death rather than captured with hook, line or net. Further, they were hardly of man-eating size. At best they were seagull-eaters and only if the fowl had drowned and sunk to the bottom of the bay.
But a shark is a shark is a shark and any shark was just as good any other shark and better than no shark at all when it came to practical joke. So he purchased the largest, least bruised specimen he could find and dropped it into a barrel of salt water for its transport back to Agua Minerale. The shark made no objection as it was dead and in the process of decaying.
Back in the Kincaid Roadhouse the evil trio of Chamberlain, Kincaid and Commander Gerald Prendergast laid plans for the subterfuge. Chamberlain, with the assistance of a number of Mexican laborers in the employ of the Kincaid Roadhouse, had a pit dug in the exact center of the Barranco Lagarto about two miles downstream, so to speak, from the lifesaving station. The pit was hip-deep and filled with the wooden keg of decaying shark. A tarp was spread over the hole with about four inches of sand on top. An inconspicuous marker, in this case a rusted beer can, was placed directly on top of the sand over the tarp. Kincaid, for his part, agreed to purchase and fry a selection of fillet of alleged-to-be shark when the man-eater was brought to his establishment. Prendergast agreed to lead a reconnaissance down the riverbed within hours of the shark being deposited in the sand.
Thus it was that at 6 a.m. on a date long forgotten in the history of Agua Minerale, a contingent of eight sailors including the four recruits who were as far from the ocean as they ever expected to be made their way down the center of the dry riverbed. Led by Prendergast, a regular in the Kincaid Roadhouse, he was not remiss in warning the newly arrived coastguardsmen to be wary of sand sharks and even managed to point out a number of shark’s teeth they happened to be alongside the trail. Further, as the eight men marched forward, several of the elderly servicemen talked among themselves describing the hideous mauling that had occurred “just recently” and how the man had barely escaped with his life.
The further along the trail the more bloodcurdling the stories. As one tale finished another started and each was more frightening than its predecessor. When the rusted beer can was observed in the distance, Prendergast told of how the sand sharks like to swarm in the shallow sand and wait for prey to fall in from the surface. This congregation of sharks, he assured the recruits, caused the sand to change from hard to porous which would allow animals as large as a horse to simply “disappear into the sand and never be heard from again.” Just as he reached an intricate description of the dental make-up of the massive jaws of the sand shark he purposely stepped on the rusty beer can and, as anticipated, sank to his hip in the underlying pit.
Screaming in agony he asserted that his leg had been seized by a sand shark. “Run for your lives, men,” he shrieked. “Don’t let them get the rest of you!”
In the next instant there was a mad dash of servicemen in all directions. With Prendergast still howling at the top of his lungs, the recruits ran as fast as their legs would carry them back to the lifesaving stations. Only after the four recruits had disappeared back up the riverbed did the seasoned salts return to pull Prendergast out of the pit. They also retrieved the shark and then filled the pit with sand.
Later that afternoon the four recruits, who had made it back to the lifesaving station without taking so much as a five-minute rest, were told to come to the Kincaid Roadhouse for a sand shark barbeque. Rather sheepishly they complied and found Prendergast with his leg wrapped in bandages. He displayed the alleged sand shark and told how he had “beat off the pack” and come away with a prize. Now, he said, Rosario was going to cook the beast and there would be an evening of men eating man-eating shark. The shark was taken into the kitchen and immediately out the back door and tossed in the riverbed where it remained until the local dogs found it and dragged it from one end of Agua Minerale to the other.
For years the men eating man-eating shark is a local legend in Agua Minerale. No further sorties were ordered down the riverbed so it can be assumed that the recruits left the life savings station firmly believing that sand sharks did indeed lurk beneath the surface of the sand. To this day I am sure that some grandfather somewhere is telling his grandchildren how he barely escaped with his life the day the sand sharks of Barranco Lagarto took a bite out of the leg of an ensign of the Revenue Cutter Service.
[This is a story from Steven Levi’s TALES OF BARRANCO LAGARTO (Lizard Canyon) available on Kindle.]