On the beach, thinking of Jaws

Published 4:32 pm Wednesday, March 22, 2017

It was around this time of year, and gloriously warm and sunny on the Gulf coast of Florida. I was there on vacation, and I had a grand old time lying on the white sand beach and watching the waves crash to the shore. Well…it was the Gulf, so the waves kind of splatted to the shore, but it was a beautiful thing to watch anyhow. Every once in a while, I got up and wandered up and down the beach, pretending that I was a movie star strolling in the sand in front of my Malibu mansion.

I love the beach, and I love the warm salty water of the Gulf of Mexico. I love sea shells and I even love the precious little hint of pink that streaks across my nose and cheeks if I stay out in the sun for too long. I remember loving to ride the waves, wading out into waist-deep water and waiting for the swells to lift me up, up, up and then gently let my feet find the sand again. When Brother and I were little, we would sneak out over our heads, paddling and kicking our feet, squealing with glee and fear every time a fish or ray brushed us on its way to deeper water.

That all ended the year I was eleven. That year, a man named Peter Benchley published a novel that changed my life forever. The name of the book was “Jaws,” and I sat up all night reading it and had to fake the flu the next day because I was too tired to go to school. The book was about a giant, but not so large that it wasn’t realistic, Great White shark (Carcharodon carcharias, which is Latin for “Can swallow you whole but prefers to chew off bite sized chunks”) that spent about a week eating the citizens of Amity Island, New York. I was fascinated with the eeeeevilll shark and how it patrolled the shallow water around the island, chomping swimmers, adult and kid alike! It even ate a Cocker Spaniel!

I thought I was fine, but when the time came for me to frolic in the water at the beach that summer, I couldn’t do it. I tried. Brother laughed at me, my friends laughed at me, but I just couldn’t get in the water past my knees! Mama didn’t help, either. Other kids’ mamas would have said things like, “Oh Honey, those old sharks won’t come this close to shore!” Or, “Oh silly! Those little old sharks are as scared of you as you are of them! They won’t mess with humans! We’re the top of the food chain, you know!”

Mama said, “Yep, they’re out there. Probably any water over three feet deep has a shark or two, but normally they’re not interested in humans. Well, Bulls and Tigers and the Great Whites, yeah, they’ll get you if they can. Apex predators of the seas, you know.” Yep, that’s what happens when a kid has a science teacher as a mama.

So, for years and years I kept anything north of my knees dry whenever I went to the beach. This last trip though…the water was so clear that anything over sardine size would’ve been immediately obvious. There were a bunch of people swimming and splashing and there was that one scene in the movie version of “Jaws” where the critter swam around amongst the feet and legs of a bunch of revelers, but that water wasn’t clear, so…

I went to the Surf Shop, and I bought myself the biggest, pinkest innertube they had. It was something! At least three feet wide! I figured that if a shark got after me, I could just jump up on the innertube and kind of surf back to shore, confounding the finny villain and becoming the stuff of Walton County legend.

I trotted down the steps that led over the dunes, and when I reached the shore, I put the innertube around my waist and stepped into the water. It was warm, and the wet, hard-packed sand felt so good beneath my feet! I was back! I was in the water again, just waiting for the next wave to ride! It came sliding up, and at just the right moment, I plunged forward!

“Yeeehaaaaa!” I squealed, waiting for the water to take me for a ride.

It just wasn’t the same. The magic had gone. I fell over in the water and came up spluttering and looking around for fins and teeth. I tried again! I fell over again. I must have face-planted a dozen times before I noticed a little boy looking at me. He was wearing an itty bitty innertube and holding his daddy’s hand. His daddy was trying very hard not to look at me.

“You gotta do it like this, Lady! Watch me!” and the little stinker went just as hard as his little legs would take him, right out into waist deep water, and caught a nice wave, whooping the whole time. I looked down at my knees and sighed. I had been so sure that I was ready, and in my mind I was waaayy out there where the surf was breaking, but I’d actually been trying to ride the waves in knee-deep water.

I trudged back to my beach towel and took off the innertube and picked up my book. Yep, I re-read “Jaws” every five years or so. Gotta keep those instincts sharp.