Jaws. You know the movie. I sure as hell do. That hot summer it opened, my parents took my sisters and I to see it at a local drive-in. I watched while lying on a sun-cracked lounge cushion set on the roof of my mom’s ocean blue Dodge station wagon. From such a perch it wasn’t hard to imagine myself afloat in the open sea, nothing but my wits and slammed eyelids to defend me from a behemoth Great White shark.
For years, the movie’s ad line ran through my head:
Don’t Go in the Water.
It appears I didn’t heed the marketer’s advice. In fact, Jaws and other movies from that period inspired me to seek those large expanses of water. Not so much literally but figuratively. I wanted to be in the biggest ocean. Swimming with the big fish. Doing my best to swallow the opportunity in the biggest gulps possible before I myself became shark food.
I’m talking about LalaLand. Hollywood. The Big Pond.
In no time, it seemed, I was here. It felt like a million miles from the one-stoplight town in Northern California I’d come to call home. Call it youthful exuberance. The fearlessness of flying. It was indeed an exciting time to be broke, living by a sliver-thin thread, and breathing all things as if real life itself was projected in Cinemascope.
Around the holidays, though, I’d return home to visit family and friends and the familiar touchstones that kept me earthbound. I’d often gather with old pals, many of them fellow movie and theater geeks who’d shared my youthful filmmaking passions. Many of them still had plans to make the five-hundred-mile leap. I was always inviting, promising that even though the water was vast and deeper than anything they’d ever seen, it was still warm and full of unlimited opportunity. Upon my inevitable return to my Hollywood hovel, I’d wait for the phone call. Someone, anyone from my former area code to punch their own life into fast forward, travel southward and swim in the big blue with me.
I recall only two who eventually braved the trek. Both chockfull of talent. One barely dipped his toe into the water before screaming for a lifeguard. And the other discovered it was more rewarding lining his nostrils with yards of cocaine than giving a career on the frontlines a solid try.
As one might expect, I stopped expecting or hoping my cinematic comrades would join in the game. Their dreams were just dreams and their talk was just air passing over their tongues. Yet I wasn’t disappointed. They clearly had their own true trails to blaze as I had mine. At least we could still be friends.
Or maybe not.
I’d heard the stories. An artist leaves the safe confines of his or her community to seek greater success in one mecca or another. Only to return in hopes of reconnecting with the rooted vines of the past or simply to steal a sip from the fountain from which the artist was initially formed. Yet when he returns he is met with polite indifference, begrudging complaints that the artist had somehow changed, or a never-ending earful about how great the former wannabe’s life is–which may in fact be somewhat accurate or true to the nth degree. Still there’s another emotional undercurrent. And no, it’s not jealousy. At least not overtly. It’s that the prodigal son’s temporary return is, to some, a bitter reminder that some dreams or ambitions had never been given even a gambler’s chance, let alone any actual effort.
Mind you, I’m not necessarily speaking of family members or neighbors or plain old schoolyard chums, though they themselves may harbor their own petty miseries that might vex the visit. I’m speaking to that communal club which has since become all about being big fish in the small pond. They’ve found their own success and comfort in a body of water they can measure with their eyes. One where the deep end is not so deep and is seemingly free of predators larger than themselves.
Well, bully for them, I say. The big water wasn’t their destiny. They steered clear and found a place warm and nurturing and generally free of peril. I can dig that. Envy it, even. Pine for a crown in my own controllable Kingdom of Me. Who knows? I may yet settle for that.
But what if I would’ve compromised my dreams for a life less ambitious? Would I forever wonder what could’ve been? Would I wonder if my greatest success had been that circumnavigating trick of staying the hell out of biggest ocean of all?
All metaphors aside, my son is uncomfortable around open water. Big expanses of sea terrify him. If the boat goes down, he wants to know that he’d still be close enough to shore to make a swim for the nearest beach. One vacation in Hawaii, we’d been snorkeling off a coastal reef. As expected, we kept the diving to nothing deeper than twenty feet and a safe sprint to a nearby landform. Yet on the boat ride back to the resort, another guest made a request to the boat captain—a detour—hoping to catch some snaps of breaching whales. This required the captain to point the boat away from coastline and drive two miles out into the greater depths. My son, ten years old at the time and nervous as a tick, gripped my hand as the boat charged further and further away from shore.
As it turned out, there were no whales to spot that afternoon. But moments after the boat was turning back toward the safety of the Big Island, the captain suddenly pulled back on the throttle.
“Holy smokes!” shouted the boat captain. “Port side!” He was pointing over the gunwale at a dark, ghostly object cruising beside our boat.
“What?” squeaked my son.
“Giant manta ray,” yelled the captain.
Sure enough, to our left was what looked like a submerged stealth bomber. No more than a couple of meters below the surface with a wingspan wider than our significant hull.
“If you ever wanted to swim with a giant ray,” spoke the captain, “this is a once in a lifetime chance.”
“Stay in the boat,” I cautioned my son, realizing our significant distance from shore. “And close to the captain if you get scared.” I grabbed my fins and mask and launched myself over the side. In a matter of seconds, I was soaring above the beast, my body dwarfed by massive wings displacing water with every graceful surge.
Then I heard a muffled splash behind me. Another diver was in the water. I slowed to offer my guidance to whoever needed to catch up, only to discover that is was my one and only son. I took his hand and through it I could feel his entire body quivering with fear. He was, after all, paddling with me alongside a monster sea creature with no actual shore in sight and perhaps six or seven hundred feet of sea water between the pair of us and the ocean floor. Yet hand in hand we snorkeled above that slowly descending beast until, after Lord knows how many breathless minutes, it disappeared into what looked like a bottomless expanse.
We climbed back aboard the boat, both of us clearly satisfied with the adventure. After the adrenalin ceased, I asked him why in the world—considering his deep abiding fear–he chose to dive in the water after me?
“Because the captain called it a once in a lifetime chance?” I queried.
“No,” said my son. “Because I didn’t want to wonder, ‘What if I hadn’t?’”