Shark Sucker | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

"I'm pleased and happy to repeat the news that we have, in fact, caught and killed a large predator that supposedly injured some bathers. But, as you see, it's a beautiful day, the beaches are open and people are having a wonderful time." -- Mayor Vaughn to reporters, Jaws

The summer I was 6, my father tossed me in the deep end of the pool at the Wilmerding YMCA. Six years later, he took me to see Jaws.

"I thought she'd bob up, you know, like an apple," he said about the first incident.

"Christ, it's only a movie," he said about the second. "The shark didn't even look real."

I hate the water. Every summer, I forget this. All those travel brochures -- oceans bluer than toilet bowls; tourists buff as driftwood; coconut boat drinks -- make me wistful.

"Not wistful," my husband would say. "Insane."

I doggy-paddle like a pit bull with palsy. I breaststroke like a frog in Jell-O. I've read Peter Benchley's novels and every National Geographic story on ocean life. I am knowledgeable about sharks, which means I'm terrified.

Two years ago, in Ocean City, I was brave. I went up to my ankles. My husband took our son further -- waist deep, where most shark attacks happen. It didn't help that, a few yards away, a giant mechanical great white was thrashing through the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum. The entrance sign pointed into its mouth.

Our son was 4. He looked like a chicken nugget.

"Not so far," I said, and tried not to look crazy.

"Anybody for ice cream?" I said.

"Please," I said. "Come back."

Fear, my father believed, would keep people he loved safe.

Fear would keep me from drowning, or worse.

Fear is something I'm trying not to pass on.

When my father took me to see Jaws, he told my mother we were going to see The Apple Dumpling Gang. He sprung for a bucket of popcorn. He pried my fingers from my eyes.

Every summer, my parents took me to Florida. We spent our time at theme parks and buffets. I'd always nagged for the beach, but after Jaws, I stopped. And so he was testing when, a few months after I saw Quint swallowed whole, my father suggested a day at the ocean.

"What the hell is this?" he said when he saw me far from the water, digging a moat around my beach towel. But his eyes gleamed.

My mother figured she'd show me. She pulled on her bathing cap -- a pink rubber number with wriggling daisies. She looked like a mental patient in a water ballet. She looked like a woman with a puffer fish on her head.

"Don't be a chicken," she said. She tucked her arms into wings and did knee bends.

I was about to tell her not to splash. I was about to say clucking was a bad idea. I was about to say sharks love warm water. And then it happened.

There was a fin. It was large and black and had come within a foot of my mother. Then it went back under.

I screamed.

My mother shook her daisy head.

"Chicken," she yelled. "Chicken of the sea!"

The fin came up.

The lifeguard adjusted her cleavage. My father fiddled with his pocket radio.

This was, I knew, the end of everything.

The fin splashed down and came up again, followed by a fat man in snorkeling gear. In his right hand, there was a net full of crabs. He flopped from the water like a giant beanbag. His flippers were black, shiny, like fins.

"We're having seafood tonight," he yelled to his wife, who waved back.

I was sobbing.

"I thought you were dead," I told my mother.

"Don't be ridiculous," she said. "We're on vacation."

"Anyone for ice cream?" my father said, and he was smiling.

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