I was a hyper-sensitive 10-year-old in 1975, when my parents thought it would be a great idea to take me and my 6-year-old sister to see JAWS at a drive-in theater in a little town close to ours. That shit messed me up to this day.
After seeing JAWS, I was not just an overly emotional little girl anymore, no, I was on the verge of a psychotic breakdown. I’m now talking about a full-on phobic reaction to sharks, and any body of water, regardless of size or it’s ability to sustain sea creatures – lakes, rivers, swimming pools, bath tubs, toilets – for years after that. As a matter of fact, there didn’t even have to be water. I became afraid to walk across my bedroom floor in the dark.
I actually moved my bed, by myself, across the floor, to the wall that had the light switch, so that I could get in bed before turning the light out.
Now… I lived in Kentucky, a land locked state with no coastline of any kind. My family lived in a very small, one story ranch house that was approximately 28 feet long.
Yet, I imagined that somehow a giant, mythical shark, described as being 30 feet long in the movie, could travel hundreds of miles overland to Kentucky, to live out of water in the depths of my 1970’s electric blue shag carpet in my tiny bedroom, in a house that was TWO FEET shorter than the shark’s body. I know that those were more innocent times, but surely today’s ten-year-olds are not this stupid.
I cannot stress to you in any stronger terms that I was a full-fledged basket case that needed therapy, but we did not have therapy in 1975, we had state mental hospitals from which you were never seen again.
So, as time went on, while my fear stayed buried deep in my heart, my over-active, animated imagination died a slow death, as it does with age. There is a moment between childhood and adulthood where you can still believe in just about anything – sea monsters, ghosts, sharks who live in shag carpets… but as you age, that fun, crazy part of your brain ages too and isn’t quite as crazy and fun anymore.
So, twenty years after JAWS, I dared to enjoy my beloved ocean again, but I had my safety rules.
- Never be in the water at dawn or dusk. Those are a shark’s breakfast and dinner hours.
- Never be more than waist deep. Yes, I know, most shark attacks happen in shallow water which leads me to rule number…
- Constantly scan the horizon and immediate area for an elongated shadow just beneath the surface or a tell-tale dorsal fin. Be prepared to punch it on the nose.
- Never, EVER be the farthest person out. I always make sure there are people in the water at least 20 feet farther out than me. If they move in, then I move toward shore until others are again farther out than me. If this means that I wind up sitting on the sand, then so be it, but my theory is that a shark coming in to shore would start eating the first swimmers he came too, giving me time to quietly back towards the beach making no splashing sounds at all.
Of course… I am going to do this calmly and methodically while people are screaming and thrashing around mere feet from me, drowning in their own frothy blood, being whipped about in the mouth of a giant killer shark… or so I imagine…
Now, I have just told you about the ridiculous amount of emotional trauma that I suffered from watching a MOVIE… Bethany Hamilton, at the age of 13, had her ENTIRE LEFT ARM eaten by a 14 foot tiger shark while she was surfing. Her entire arm. A shark snack. And just over a month later, she was back in the water. A year after that, she won a surfing competition. This young girl – my age when I saw JAWS in 1975 – had her left arm, up to the shoulder, EATEN BY A SHARK and 35 days later went back into the ocean, while presumably, a monstrous tiger shark was still swimming around with a taste of Bethany on his tongue and looking for seconds.
How do you do that? How, mere days later, missing an entire appendage in what must have been a horrific and frightening attack, do you swim out on your board with your tasty and delicious legs dangling in the water? I try to wrap my mind around that; to imagine what and how she thinks and it is like trying to figure out an alien life form.
I, just a couple of years younger than she was at the time, saw a MOVIE about a shark, and with both arms still attached to my body, have never had the same relationship to the ocean since.
Even more recently, in the last few days and weeks, serious shark attacks have happened in shallow water in Florida and North Carolina. Other young people have lost limbs in a scenario that is my worst nightmare. And people still get in the water. On the same beach. A teenage girl loses her arm, and may lose her leg, and the beach was closed for an hour. An hour. And then people went back in the water. Cause you know, that shark couldn’t possibly have waited around for 61 minutes. What sort of bubble do these people live in and can I get a reservation?
For me, after a lifelong phobia, in 2010, my personal, summer of JAWS finally happened. My husband, daughter and I had just arrived in St. Augustine for an extended holiday weekend. We drove straight to the beach upon arrival, which happened to be around dusk, and you know what that means.
I should have known better. The sun was low in the sky. The water was gray. I stood firmly and safely on the sand holding our dachshund on his leash, while my husband and daughter stood in water only inches deep and let the tide roll over their tasty toes.
The beach was deserted and only people who didn’t seem to give a damn about whether they were eaten by a shark or not were in the water. A family about 30 feet to my right came out of the water, congregating excitedly on the sand next to me and one of them just casually happened to mention that they had just seen a shark near the shore.
I immediately called to my husband who was holding hands with my daughter in the shallow surf… “Come in… there is a shark”… I called, gesturing urgently.
With both of them safely out of the water, I still had not seen an actual shark, and was not even entirely sure that the people who warned us were not over-imaginative nutjobs… their credibility was not helped by the fact that they stood there, milling around, with no seeming urgency about the folks in the water down the beach within in sight of us…. then my gaze fell closer to shore… and there it was… the stuff of my decades-long nightmares, the dorsal fin of a shark, not 20 feet in front of me, leaping in and out of the surf as it chased its dinner.
The reason I did not spot him before is that I was looking OUT to sea… and the damn thing was swimming where the surf broke at approximately the height of my knee… I could have skipped twice and reached out and touched him…
Strangely, I wasn’t THAT afraid, knowing my child was out of the water and of course, finally arriving at this epic battle of me and nature that I had known my whole life was coming… I looked to the left… as it traveled in that direction… and noticed sporadic groups and families down the next mile or two. The people who warned US seemed to think their obligation was complete.
My husband also seemed to feel like there was nothing else we were supposed to do… but forgive me for being, I don’t know what you would call it… a HUMAN BEING?… I didn’t want the people a couple hundred yards to my left to lose a toe or a hand or a toddler to a shark bite when WE, people who were in sight of them, knew there was a shark in the water.
I also knew I would never hear the end of it , if I succumbed to my natural instinct, which was to run screaming down the beach like Chief Brody yelling, “SHARK… there is a shark in the water… GET OUT of the water!”… so doing both my civic duty and maintaining my marital pride at the same time, I, very casually, told my husband that I was going to walk the dog down the beach. He laughed knowingly. I ignored him.
I did not hurry. I was slow and deliberate… but with purpose, as if I was just casually walking the dog while simultaneously trying to save my fellow human beings from a gruesome death. As I came upon each group, I said casually, “Hey, there’s a shark in the water.” The first group of portly Eastern European women that I came upon seemed to ignore me. It occurred to me that maybe we did not speak the same language.
So, as I held up my hand sideways, waving it back and forth in the air like a swimming fish, thumb up to represent the fin… they immediately recognized the international sign of the shark and started backing their big butts out of the water. My heroic actions that day saved people from all over the world.
I also got a surfer out and a fisherman, and a family dipping their baby’s feet in the breaking surf. I saw the shark once more as I walked, bobbing in and out of the waves… its belly had to be grazing the sand, it was that close to shore. I thought it was going to beach itself. Which caused me a whole new level of anxiety.
But despite coming face-to-face with my life-long fear, I was a hero that day, as I strolled purposefully… yet casually… so as not to look like an idiot… down the beach warning people to save their lives. I had been emotionally preparing for my own year-of-the shark every day since 1975 and here it was… my chance to be a hero, to relive those decades of fear and this time, show that sucker who was the boss.
I walked until the beach was deserted. I endured the humiliation of my husband teasing me and you should hear HIS version of this story. According to him, I incited a riot, sending people panicking in all directions. But he is full of shit, that is not what happened, and I saved untold dozens that day from the possibility of losing a limb. They should thank me. But no one did. They were too busy getting out of the water.