By Dan Haag
I have an irrational fear of sharks and I try to keep it in check by not going into water much deeper than my ankles. Occasionally, however, the fear is revived by news reports of sharks patrolling my Pacific Northwest waters.
Every spring, surfers from Seaside to Newport to San Francisco have varying degrees of shark encounters. When questioned by reporters, they’re always very nonchalant, chuckling as they casually show off the shredded toothpick that was once a surfboard.
One television report covered an Oregon man who actually rode the back of an attacking shark for a few moments before swimming to shore. “It was kinda cool,” he gushed to the reporter.
No, not cool. Not cool at all, I thought as I peeked at the television over the edge of my hiding place behind the couch.
I get that surfers tend to be laid back folk, but just once I want to hear one say something a little more realistic. For example, had that happened to me, I might hysterically declare “Holy s#*t, I can’t believe I’m alive! I’m giving up surfing to go live out my life as a goat in Nepal.” Or something like that.
Though I now live near the ocean, I call my fear “irrational” because I grew up in Minnesota, a place with fewer sharks than the moon. If you were putting money down on animal mauling odds in Minnesota, the smart bet would be on an amorous moose or swarms of voracious mosquitoes. Loons have likely killed more people in Minnesota than sharks, for god’s sake.
My fear came, of course, from the film Jaws (though I also believed that the classic Saturday Night Live “Land Shark” skit was a true “ripped from the headlines” story).
Only four when Jaws debuted, I nonetheless developed a rudimentary understanding of the film’s basic premise: things in the water wanted to eat me. Obviously, the sharks of the world had nothing better to do than pack up their shark belongings and move to the upper Midwest to terrorize me.
Accordingly, I stayed away from everything wet: lakes, puddles, bath tubs, etc. Naturally, my social skills, not to mention my personal hygiene, began to suffer.
My parents, dutifully balancing exasperation with concern, were once forced to explain to my swimming instructor why I refused to leave the pool’s shallow end. “It’s Jaws,” my mother told her conspiratorially. Surprisingly, the instructor nodded. “That movie scared me, too!” she said earnestly.
A light bulb fizzled and popped in my head. Maybe I wasn’t being irrational. Other people shared my fear. I knew what had to be done: somehow, I had to pay this fear forward.
I waited patiently and my opportunity came the following summer. Jaws was slowly receding into memory and people were returning to the water. My family was camping near Lake Winnipeg in Canada (a freshwater lake!), and we were spending a July day lounging by its shores.
I gradually tired of diversions like building and demolishing sandcastles, stuffing pebbles up my nose and throwing lily pads at my sister. I wanted to swim but was still bothered by a nagging thought: if a shark could find me in Minnesota, why not Canada? Surely they had clever ways of disguising themselves from the prying eyes of Canadian Mounties. Maybe a fake mustache or some manner of clever fin camouflage was all it would take for a mass-infiltration. Before the Canadian Prime Minister could act, scores – flocks? herds? – of sharks would be buying up all of the country’s prime waterfront property, driving up real estate prices, and devouring beach-goers and bathers at will. Even being in close proximity to a lawn sprinkler could put you jeopardy.
As I pondered these weighty issues, the sounds of singing birds and happily splashing families were replaced by the ominous opening strains of John Williams’ infamous score from Jaws. Despite the summer sun I broke out in a cold sweat. I needed to rid myself of this paralyzing fear once and for all! But how?
I studied the surrounding swimmers and frolickers. Everyone was far too relaxed, an attitude that just didn’t sit right with me.
So, I did the only natural thing: I stood tall and confidently cried “Shark!” There was a pause in the action, people frowning and looking at each other in the way they do when they hear something so ridiculous they need independent confirmation. Other than the lapping of waves on the sand, nothing moved. No running, no screaming, no trampling of loved ones, no panicked thrashing to reach the safety of shore. I needed a catalyst, a patsy.
Then, I saw her. She was a few feet away, wading in the cool Canadian waters; a teenage girl, frowning skeptically at me, her perfect 1970’s Farrah Fawcett hairdo impervious to the breeze. She was beautiful, innocent, perfect. I locked eyes with her, inhaled and bellowed all the conviction a six-year-old could muster: “SHAAAARK!”
The reaction was instantaneous. She screamed, sprinting for shore, parting the waters in a way that would have made Moses green with envy. Best of all she was screaming “SHARK!” at the top of her teenager-running-from-an-ax-murderer lungs.
People extracted themselves from the freshwater lake post-haste, heeding the siren-song of my unwitting accomplice. Even without a stopwatch, I remember being impressed with how fast the lake cleared. People gathered wide-eyed on the shore, looking at one another in confusion. The good citizens of Canada had responded and, judging by the looks on their faces as they scanned Lake Winnipeg, they felt my fear.
Farrah had fled. I could still hear her scream, her voice getting fainter as she continued running, presumably to Quebec or Newfoundland. I’m cured, I thought. Time to swim!
In my reverie, I didn’t see the burly lifeguard until he had me by the scruff of the neck. With an effortless heave, he deposited me unceremoniously in front of my mortified parents. “Does this belong to you?” he demanded. They paused momentarily, their eyes wide as they shared a single, unspoken panicked thought: all we have to do is walk away, no one would ever know. “Yes,” my father grudgingly answered.
The lifeguard pushed me towards them and I landed in the wet sand at their feet with a splat. “Jaws has sure made my job exciting,” he said with a grin. Turning to the huddled, trembling crowd, he declared “False alarm, everyone back in the water!” Suddenly, the uncertainty disappeared and people were laughing and joking. One gentleman even came over and patted me affectionately on the head. Canadians are such nice people.
Everyone went back in, and the splashing and playing resumed unreservedly. My parents threw a towel over my head and I was hustled to the car like a corrupt police officer being whisked out the back entrance of a precinct before the media could arrive to question him. We spent the remainder of the vacation sequestered in a hotel room nervously peering the curtains for an angry Canadian mob coming to banish us from their lovely country.
While that never materialized, punishment of sorts was meted out: my parents stopped feeling sorry for me and gleefully used the story as an ice-breaker in numerous social situations: parties, parent-teacher conferences, church. Anytime I expressed concern over lake or pool water being shark-infested, I was hauled, pushed or tossed in without preamble. Bonus points and high-fives were distributed if I was fully clothed at the time. In short, I had placed all of my sympathy currency in a pile, poured kerosene over it and set it ablaze with a flamethrower.
By all accounts Lake Winnipeg is still shark-free, as is Minnesota (though molestation by moose is on the rise).
I often wonder about my shrieking friend with the Farrah hair. Hopefully she is happy, healthy and leading a well-adjusted life. I’d hate to think I ruined her dream of becoming a marine biologist or water ballet ingenue.
For myself, I now live peacefully near the ocean and try not to dwell too much on past anxieties. I’ve also matured to the point where I don’t let fears – irrational or otherwise – keep me from occasionally dipping my toes in the water.
Still, if you see me running down the beach in a panic, take anything you hear me yelling with a grain of salt. Especially if you are Canadian.