The most terrifying vacation of my life occurred before I even entered Kindergarten. The start of the trip provided no indication of the danger ahead. In the still-dark morning, Dad inched his beloved new 1976 Monte Carlo out of our driveway and cruised down the quiet street, the burnt orange muscle car at odds with Dad’s pale, skinny frame. I opened my cartoon strip books but was too excited about the journey to fully appreciate Peanuts’ sardonic wit or the domestic buffoonery of Hi and Lois.
As soon as the Monte hit the open road, Mom, my brother, and I started playing Interstate Bingo, marking off objects on our panels as they passed by: blue car, yellow sign, black bird. A melancholy man came on the radio and sang informatively that it neh-ver rains in Southern California-uh. I couldn’t imagine. It never rains. Mom added that, unlike Omaha, it never snows either. What a nice place, California. No rain, no cold, Mickey Mouse easily accessible for a chat, movie stars on the sidewalks. Three days stuck in the back seat with my older brother seemed a small price to pay for it all.
Then I heard it. The word that halted the image of my California fantasy. The word that literally chewed up my hopes of sunshine, Disneyland, and celebrities. I thought I heard my dad say it, but no, it couldn’t be. I leaned forward and, yes, he said it again. A cold chill ran through me; a remarkable feat considering the back seat registered a constant 80 degrees. I listened intently and pieced together the information like Barney Miller investigating a homicide: Universal Studios. Favorite movie. Twenty-five feet long. Three-thousand pounds. Jumps. Roars. Water. Teeth.
I clutched my stomach as though the word itself had taken a bite out of me. My father planned to take us to see the actual Jaws, the shark that terrorized a nation. Apparently, the prince of predators had been captured and was being held at this Universal Studios place; people could go there and watch him do tricks or something. I suspected one of his tricks might be to swallow a little girl whole.
Jaws, the movie, had been released the previous summer on June 20, 1975. The film that would become a classic tells the story of an enormous great white shark that attacks residents of a coastal town. The movie instantly became a cultural phenomenon, striking fear into the heart of all humans who had but dipped a toe into any major body of water. I had not yet viewed the film, but its commercials made even the bathtub seem risky. Dubbed the summer of the shark, that season America became inundated with publicity about the film. The shark’s image appeared everywhere: in comedy skits, political cartoons, and advertisements promoting everything from toothpaste to hot tubs.
Even after a year, public interest in the film had hardly declined. People still wore T-shirts with simulated bites taken out of them and hats topped with dorsal fins. The movie poster of Jaws projected the powerful image of a woman swimming obliviously along the water’s surface as the enormous conical head of Jaws loomed hungrily beneath her. In my mind’s eye, the slender woman of the poster morphed into me in my Winnie the Pooh one-piece.
I had three days of road travel to come up with a plan to avoid the monster. Mom mistook my plotting for boredom and told me she had a great idea! She tossed a box of Reynolds Wrap into the back seat and suggested my brother and I make stuff out of it. My seven-year-old brother dug in excitedly, but I simply stared at the shiny insult. Unless I could fashion a harpoon out of the tin foil, I wanted nothing to do with it.
Thankfully, my dad is the type who gets easily wowed by road-side attractions. Any sign that promises The World’s Largest or The First such-and-such, is likely to put a jolt into the old man and give him an excuse to take the Monte off the beaten path. This trait usually annoyed the rest of us, but this time my dad had an enthusiastic accomplice. I welcomed any distraction that put time and distance between me and the man-eater.
So, when Dad said, “Ooo, looky here! The Pioneer Village in Minden!” I feigned great interest in the town’s sod house and antique tractors. When he asked, “Who’s game for the World’s Biggest TV Antenna in Colton?” I admitted a genuine curiosity to see how Bugs Bunny might look with that kind of reception. And when the old man questioned, “Anyone up for the Petrified Wood Exhibit in Ogallala?” I swiftly raised my hand and offered up my best Arnold Horshack, “Ooh, ooh, ooh!” Mom studied me with puzzled eyes, wondering what happened to the normally passively resistant child she had grown to know and love. My brother, more angry than curious about my behavior, glared at me from his seat on the World’s Largest Tractor. The sun glistened off his tin foil hat.
My scheme to delay California was off to a good start, but the Monte eventually wound its way out of Nebraska and we spent the first night of our journey in a Colorado hotel. Its swimming pool was the first of many to become my dad’s instruments of torture. His idea of a swimming lesson was to toss his own flesh and blood into the pool and yell feverishly to paddle, kids, paddle! But by the end of the trip, we actually swam adequately in the water; a skill I figured might come in handy.
Our Chevy pressed on through mountainous Colorado, wide open Utah, and the vast
Nevada desert. I kept up the diversionary tactics as much as possible. I urged us to see Amelia Earhart’s car in Denver about which my mom repeatedly complained, “I could understand seeing her airplane, but her car? Who wants to see her car?” Professing an attack of Gold Fever, I persuaded a stop at a tourist attraction where Dad paid a few bucks to let my brother and me pan for gold. The pebbles of pyrite like magic in our hands. At a restaurant in Nevada, Dad slipped coins into slot machines and let my brother and me pull the giant-knobbed levers. I wondered how much money I would need to win for a ticket back to Omaha.
Throughout the trip I prayed for flat tires and fender benders. I “lost” maps and feigned illnesses. I rattled off all the things left behind that we should probably go back for. Day three had crept up on me like a stealth predator, and I found myself left with no more distractions or excuses. I longed to tell my parents how much I was struggling, how scared I felt, but I just couldn’t. Dad tended to dismiss or bark at words he didn’t like to hear. Mom would have kissed and cuddled and reassured me, and not wanting to fill her heart with worry, I would have lied and said I was all better.
I’d recently overheard my parents talking, concerned about me starting school, the phrase too sensitive used more than once. It was after that, I guess, I just started keeping things to myself. Staring out the car window I watched the concrete blur past, my face as blank as the cloudless sky, wishing someone—anyone—would show me the way to go home.
In the evening of day three, a sign welcomed us to the Golden State and weary hoots and hollers filled the car. I remained quiet, deciding to save my hollering for when I really needed it. I pushed Jaws out of my mind long enough to enjoy the rows of palm trees decorating pastel buildings and the fading sunshine shimmering across the blue waters of the Southern California coast. We stayed with my grandparents at their modest home in a Los Angeles suburb. Grandma greeted me with a tight hug, dizzying me with the pungent combination of Aquanet and Freshen-Up Gum.
I lay awake that night on a tiny bed Grandma set up for me in her “cat room.” She collected all things cat—figurines, pictures, stuffed animals—and gave them a home in this room. You would think hundreds of felines that could cheat death nine times each might propose some insight on facing fear, but I gleaned no support from my roommates. Lying there, I began to wonder why I had wasted my young life learning to draw and read when I could have been honing the art of big-game fishing. What options were left for me now? What did I think I was going to do at Universal Studios tomorrow? The commercial for Jaws offered the grim suggestion: Don’t go into the water. A simple solution. That is, unless your father has a penchant for tossing you into the deep end.
Avoiding eye contact with the cats, I stared at the ceiling and tried to determine why Jaws scared me, and for that matter, the rest of the country so much? Why did all prior foes seem harmless, almost laughable, compared to him? Perhaps it was the realness of Jaws that the other monsters lacked. Jaws didn’t go home after a day of filming, take off his make-up and toss his teeth into a jar. There are no such things as monsters, my parents liked to say. And very likely, they heard the same words from their own parents, a comforting mantra from generation to generation. But the words no longer rang true.
Morning California sunshine trickled through the window. I climbed out of bed, resigned to my fate. I told myself I’d had five good years and, like Mom said, that’s nothing to sneeze at. Grandma bounced in happily, brushed my hair and gave me a frilly new sundress to wear. I figured she might as well rub me down with tuna fish.
Grandma and I sat at the breakfast table while the others finished getting ready. I pushed my spoon around the bowl as Grandma and the man on the Quaker Oats box stared at me. Eventually, Grandma placed her soft, lined hand on mine and asked, “What is it, honey?” Just four little words, but somehow they managed to unlocked days of pent up emotion. Tears began to fall into my already sad looking oatmeal. Grandma pulled me onto her lap and let me cry quietly on her shoulder.
Finally, I managed to whisper, “I’m afraid to see Jaws.”
I wouldn’t call Grandma’s response a maniacal laugh or even a chuckle. It was more of a dismissive giggle. But still, it was laughter, which didn’t help at all.
“Oh, honey,” she said. “That shark can’t hurt you. Why, I would sit in that shark’s mouth myself.” More giggling. “I mean, I would set up a folding table, get my lawn chair, and play solitaire right there on his tongue!” Defeated, I stopped crying and merely gazed at the snickering old woman, hoping her brand of crazy did not run in the family.
Dad parked the annoyingly reliable Monte Carlo in the Universal Studios of Hollywood lot. A giant archway welcomed us as my family walked into the movie theme park. Mom accepted a pamphlet from a young woman dressed as Lucille Ball and began reading aloud.
“Universal is the oldest surviving movie studio from the Golden Age of film. The studio is nicknamed The Old Monster due to its legacy of producing such quintessential horror classics as: Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Werewolf and Dracula.” Formidable monsters in their day, perhaps, but they were no match for Jaws. Frankenstein’s monster and the Mummy, for example, could be easily scared off by a lit candle. When you consider he wore pants and held a day job, the Werewolf seemed far less menacing. And a bite from Dracula? Please.
After obtaining directions from Charlie Chaplin, Dad went immediately into shark mode, leading us feverishly to the Studio Tour tram ride, which promised many attractions including my toothy adversary. My father had a spring in his step and a glint in his eye that scared me a little. He had become Ahab to my Ishmael, Quint to my Brody.
I’m not sure why I didn’t throw a fit and refuse to board the tram, as many of my contemporaries might have done. Perhaps pride. Perhaps I didn’t want to dash the hopes of my father or ruin the ride for my family. The disappointment on their faces might prove more painful to me than a severed limb. Or it could be that, when you’re little, you just follow the leader. When you’re little, you aren’t allowed more responsible decisions than chocolate or vanilla, or where to bury your new Barbie. Then again maybe, just maybe, I boarded that tram because I didn’t want to let the shark beat me.
The tram bumped along, driving us past some Psycho’s house. I didn’t understand why the other tourists found it so scary. To me, it only needed a fresh coat of paint, and maybe a nice flowerbed. At one point on the ride, our tram drove right through a wall of parted water in a 600 foot lake. Our blond, mini-skirted tour director, Julie, pretended to be Moses parting the Red Sea. Back on dry land, our tram became overrun by Jessie James and his band of outlaws. The cowboys whooped, hooted, spit tobacco and fired pistols. Some people on the tram covered their faces and screamed, but I remained unfazed. I had bigger fish to fry.
The tram rolled onto a low bridge surrounded by water. We faced the set of a beachfront town as deceptively friendly as its name: Amity. Julie suddenly panicked, saying the tram had stalled. She pulled the same stunt back at the Doomed Glacier Expedition, and I wasn’t falling for it again. I knew something was coming. Something big.
Then I heard it. The hot summer air filled with the instantly recognizable Jaws theme music, which rightfully won composer John Williams an Oscar. The famous da-dum, da-dum symphony enveloped the tram, the low bass building slowly, leading up to its inevitable crescendo. Mom put her arm around me and squeezed. Julie screamed and pointed to the giant dorsal fin that ripped through the water’s surface. The fin glided swiftly past the tram then plunged underwater again. Taunting. Teasing.
A man in a This was no boating accident T-shirt yelled, “We’re gonna need a bigger tram!” Some travelers giggled nervously.
But I feared he might be right, especially when I heard Dad whisper, “I was gonna say that.”
Julie exaggerated a brow wipe and whewed, claiming all would be fine now, but I had already dismissed her as untrustworthy. I kept my eyes keen for the black-eyed bottom feeder. The music played on and then, just as the violins in the concerto thundered to their loudest, highest, most fever-pitched screech: Jaws leapt out of the water!
Though not officially ruled a cardiac arrest, my heart did stop at that moment. In fact, everything seemed to move in slow motion like The Six Million Dollar Man shifting into bionic gear. My eyes widened and my jaw dropped in a manner Dad liked to call catching flies. Terrified, but determined not to look away, I called upon every resource of courage I had developed over my short life. Like a movie, images came to me in rapid succession: the harrowing Santa encounter, the neighbor boy chasing me with a snake, the dreaded clothes-pin-stuck-on-finger incident. Everything else dissolved into the distance leaving only Jaws and me.
Jaws lunged at the tram, his slick, gray body bigger and swifter than my brother’s school bus. His huge mouth gnawed at the air, and his fleshy pink gums flashed above endless rows of sinister serrated incisors. I stared right down into the belly of the beast, unwavering. The mighty Jaws bellowed a ferocious roar and gnashed his razor teeth. He splashed gallons of water on the tram full of laughing, screaming fans.
And, just like that, it was over.
The music stopped, the tram rolled ahead, and Julie asked, “Are you all in one piece?”
My heart raced as I quickly patted myself down. My family giggled excitedly, Mom and Dad hugged, my brother laughed and pointed at all the soaked tourists while he remained dry in his foil poncho.
Dad rubbed my wet head, “Wasn’t that fun, Pumpkin?”
A sense of relief washed over me, and a tiny smile crossed my face. Now Kindergarten would be a breeze. I turned around and watched Jaws as the tram trudged away. His top half stuck stiffly out of the water. His lower half appeared to be missing, replaced by a motorized crane on which a turning wheel sputtered to a stop. A sound like a freight elevator started up, and I watched as my worthy opponent sank slowly beneath the black water.
* * *
That lasting image remained with me until, as an adult, I returned to Universal Studios to watch my great white friend rise again from the same black water. This time, I traveled to California with my boyfriend; we took an airplane.
Marilyn Monroe gave me a breathy welcome as I entered the gates. After the Back to the Future ride, ironically, I found myself seated on the same old Studio Tour. The tram offered a smoother ride this time around, with television screens in the aisle and a new tour director, Bob. The ride had added several new attractions over the years: King Kong, an earthquake, a flooding river. When the tram rolled onto the familiar bridge surrounded by water, the set appeared much smaller than I remembered. This time I smiled when I heard the music: da-dum, da-dum.
When the dorsal fin popped up Bob yelled, “That’s no dolphin!” I laughed along with the rest of the tourists.
I noticed one vacationer, however, who wasn’t laughing. The little boy sat beside me. We had exchanged pleasantries at the beginning of the tour: Sam, first grade, matchbox car enthusiast. I witnessed him appear uneasy at the King Kong attraction, and now, with Jaws looming, he grew increasingly anxious. His eyes darted nervously, and he thrust his foot into the aisle in an on-your-mark running position. The boy’s parents, too excited about the upcoming attack, did not seem aware of his turmoil. I considered talking to the little guy. I wanted to tell him there was nothing to be afraid of, that Jaws was fake, that this would all be over and he could go get a malt at Mel’s Diner. But, I knew better. Such words never really decrease the fear, they only make you feel worse about having it. I wasn’t about to discount or minimize his terror, having understood it all too well.
I lightly tapped the boy’s foot with mine and he looked up at me, our faces reflected in each other’s eyes. I offered him a warm smile, and as the music thundered to its loudest, highest, most fever-pitched screech, I said, “Nice knowing ya.”
Hayley LeMay lives in Omaha, Nebraska with her husband and 4-year-old son. She received an M.S. in Counseling from Creighton University and recently completed her M.A. in English with an Advanced Writing Certificate in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Hayley enjoys reading and writing personal essays, narrative nonfiction, memoir, and experimental creative nonfiction. She and her family recently traveled to Disney World where her son became terrified on the “It’s a Small World” ride – he found the doll-kids creepy. Hayley suspects he will write about the experience in 30 years.