My parents would have failed a health and safety course. Perhaps because there were seven of us. If one child was lost, there were six others to replace him or her. Whatever the reason, they were an epic fail in the safety department.

They let us throw chicken bones to wild alligators we found in the ditches along Florida highways. Alligators can run 35mph. A few chicken bones would not have satisfied a huge reptile’s hunger with a tasty morsel like a child standing in front of it within easy reach.

For my eighth birthday, I got a baby alligator as a pet. Alligators are not petable regardless of their size. The power of their bite depends on the species and their size, but they can exert up to 3,700 pounds per square inch when their jaws snap shut. For comparison, humans exert 150 to 200 pounds per square inch in their bite. News headlines like the following are not uncommon: “Florida officials search for alligator that ate man,” “Crocodile eats man in front of his family.”

I am currently reading and enjoying Beth Haslam’s newest book, “Fat Dogs and Welsh Estates.” Although I love fiction, and fiction is what I write, I get every book that Beth or Valerie Poore write. As I read this book, I am fascinated by the closeness of Beth’s family and the kindness and nurturing of her parents. Like our family, their family surrounded itself with animals. But not alligators like my birthday “pet,” and not half-grown African lions like our Ebenezer who could easily have eaten one of my younger brothers when my father brought him home in the back of a station wagon. By the time Eb left us, he weighed 450 pounds and had pinned me down on the ground and bitten my stomach.

When school was out for the summer, Mom rarely knew where I was. With the choice of a bicycle or a horse to ride, or exploring the woods on foot—I roamed miles from home and didn’t get back until dark. Once when I crossed a newly cut tree across a stream, a horrifying roar split the air and a black bear rose up from under the leafy section of pine. I ran away so fast that when I hit our property fence, I flipped over it and ripped both jeans and skin on three strands of barbed wire. Mom was furious about the riddled jeans, but less sympathetic about the slashes on my legs because she thought I was being careless and lied about the bear. My bear story was not believed until months later when we watched a black bear munch blackberries from the thicket behind our pond.

Except for the once-a-year week-long tent camping vacations to Florida, my family never went places together. There were too many of us and we didn’t have enough money. My mother took us shopping. We kept our hands clasped behind our backs and were not allowed to touch things. She also took us to the library. We all loved reading and won the county-wide library sponsored reading contests for the most books read every year. Other than that, we mostly went our own separate ways except when I—being the oldest—talked the others into risky adventures like climbing up and down the 150-foot cliff left by the highway department when they built the interstate. When a rock dislodged under my foot leaving me hanging, it took the quick intelligence of my sister, fellow author Leslie Garcia, to save me. She instructed our neighbors Billy, Bobby, and Ronnie to get down on the ground and form a human chain to grab me and haul me back up. Her job was to cry. My parents never knew about that misadventure, or many others. We simply weren’t as connected as other families.

When I look back at the dysfunction of my childhood (without even revisiting the sexual abuse), I am amazed that at age 71—I am still alive. I can’t credit my safety-unaware parents for this miracle. Even before I knew Him, God had my back.

Perhaps this is why from childhood—long before I knew God or understood the Bible—Psalm 27 was my favorite Psalm. “When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take care of me.”

My parents did not intentionally forsake me—they just made a lot of mistakes. We all make mistakes. Some are potentially deadly. Whether we know it or not, we owe our next breath to the Lord God who made us. He has our backs.

Don’t Dis Jellyfish

Jellyfish taught me to swim.

When I was five, my father, grandmother, and I travelled from California to Florida. It was before the construction of interstates and we hugged the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico. It was a hot summer day and we stopped along a Mississippi beach to swim. I couldn’t swim, but I loved the water. I wadded out deeper and deeper until the salt water was up to my chin. Suddenly my father shouted, “Jellyfish. Get out of the water.”

Rotating my head, I saw three clear blobs, long dangling tentacles intertwined, riding the top of the waves just behind me. I swam.

I’m not sure I knew what jellyfish were back then. I’m not sure I knew they stung. It was the panic in my father’s voice that transmitted danger to me. Like the time he came home from work and found me happily playing with my new best friend. My fascinating friend crawled around in the bottom of an empty tin can with me watching it—blissfully unaware of danger. It was a scorpion.

The jellyfish incident taught me not to disrespect danger. Recognizing the danger of smoking, drugs, and alcohol has kept my life free of them. The Bible warns that “At the last they bite like a serpent, and sting like a viper.” (Proverbs  23:32) I don’t like being stung.

Don’t dis jellyfish. They can teach us how to safely navigate life.