Of Jumping the Shark
By Stephen J. West
Followed by Q&A
After my three older sisters and I tumbled out of the family van, I anxiously shuffled in place to keep my bare feet from burning on the sandy pavement. My mom coated us with weapons-grade sun block, draped colorful towels over our shoulders and handed us sand pails, shovels, water bottles, and snacks. As we raced along the path to the beach, the sun block on my face started to melt and ooze, stinging my eyes when I rubbed it away. Before I even caught my first glimpse of the water, I remember listening to the enormous explosion of the surf crashing on the shore—I could actually feel it boom inside of me. I felt disoriented. The cozy beach with sandcastles and sailboats I’d been imagining disintegrated into something harsher to match what I sensed waiting for me on the other side of the dunes.
I don’t remember much from the rest of my first day at the ocean, but I know I barely touched the water. The beach was covered with people, and all of the kids seemed to be having fun splashing around in the gently curling waves, but I couldn’t find reassurance in that. I didn’t see anything out there in the water, but I knew it was deadly. I imagined myself wading in just to test the temperature when suddenly I’d be pulled underwater by a powerful riptide, drawn further and further away from the shore and my shrieking sisters, the bronzed lifeguards sprinting, diving and swimming Baywatch-style out to where the foamy greens meet the blackish blues of deep surf and the thrashing fins of the blood-mad sharks that would shred me, my white trunks flashing like butcher’s paper in the pinkish red water.
My curiosity eventually overcame my fear and I got in the water—and no, I didn’t die. I think I even enjoyed it a little. I remember just before we left for the ride home, I commemorated my survival with a few keepsakes from the souvenir shop: a pocketful of shark teeth, a t-shirt with an image of a smiley shark in aviator sunglasses, and a braided necklace displaying a single extra-large shark tooth. Riding home in the back of the family van, I wondered where those teeth in my pocket came from, picturing the entrepreneurial attack survivor sitting by a bonfire plucking them from his femur and thinking of the profit he could turn, or the torso of a boy that washed ashore a few miles from the site of his disappearance and the handful of teeth extracted from it that were delivered to the surviving family amidst tearful embraces, only to be donated to the souvenir shop a few days later because they were just too emotionally volatile to keep.
It was the early 1990s when I went on that trip to the beach with my family, so I would’ve been around eleven years old. Here’s the problem with that. Sometime before we left, I watched Jaws for the first time. I don’t remember if I watched the whole movie or not, but I saw enough shark’s-eye view camera shots of limbs dangling like bait and heard enough ominous E and F notes to make my first visit to the beach feel like tape left on the editing room floor. I know I’m not alone. Twenty years have passed since I saw Jaws, 35 since it made its debut, and like you, my time spent paddling in any ocean since then has that soundtrack, even though it has to this point maintained such a soft and slow repetition of those E’s and F’s that they’re barely noticeable. But that doesn’t make me feel any more secure. Every time I kick off my sneakers and wade out into the ocean, I hear the orchestra strike up in the soundstage of my memory; I picture myself from shark’s-eye view and the flesh on my legs feels just a little more delicate.
I’m also terrified of spiders. “Terrified” might be a bit dramatic; I’m more loathe of them, and there’s a movie I watched around the same time I saw Jaws that I blame for it. A few scenes from Arachnophobia still haunt me: the corpse in a pine box that’s sucked to the point of mummification; the dead bird that lands with a thud while the spider creeps away and the farm house in the background comes into focus; the adolescent girl showering with her eyes closed when the killer spider emerges from the shower head and washes down between her breasts, down the length of her stomach, below her bellybutton and out of frame as the image on the screen is replaced in my mind by glistening spider fangs poised over teenage genitalia.
I’ve heard that a person will eat an average of seven spiders in his lifetime, most likely on the coldest early spring or late fall nights when one of them, like any living thing, is looking for a warm and dark place to safely deposit its eggs before dying. I’ve woken up from a dead sleep on several occasions coughing and gasping for breath, when that thought comes to mind—seven spiders—and I’ll remember that suspicious midnight coughing fit whenever my stomach aches, wondering if it might be caused by a sticky egg sac clinging to my esophagus, my foster babies about to hatch from the cottony cocoon in my stomach and pour out of every orifice of my body to devour the world.
There are friendly versions of spiders—like the fuzzy googly-eyed variety that appears for Halloween—but they’re usually represented by an empty web, the trace of the absent killer that’s lurking somewhere nearby, like the shark under the water, its geometric web the visual equivalent of the E and F notes. Charlotte’s Web depicts one of the only inherently good arachnids I can think of. Charlotte is the Jiminy Cricket to Wilbur’s Pinocchio, the Machiavelli to his Prince. In the end, Charlotte dies, everyone on the farm cries, and she leaves Wilbur with that cute little egg sac, a more endearing version of one of an average of seven I imagine inside my body at any given time. Instead of smashing it right away and eliminating any chance of being sucked into bacon strips, Wilbur becomes an ideal foster parent, raising the babies in Charlotte’s stead and all is harmony on the farm. But this, as we know, is fiction. A pig could never raise spiders.
With sharks, we don’t make them friendly or sensitive like Charlotte, but we do neutralize their threat. Just look at the NHL’s San Jose Sharks. S. J. Sharkie patrols the crowd in the Shark Tank, a mascot who’s replaced his menacing teeth with a churlish grin, leathery skin with a hockey jersey, and razor sharp fins with fuzzy hands to shake. How many parents do you think have snapped a photo of Sharkie with his furry jaws open and resting flaccidly on the crown of their child’s head?
Before Sharkie, there was the Land Shark. The Land Shark made its debut in 1975 during the first season of Saturday Night Live, and, like Sharkie, it was a person in a shark suit. The Land Shark was cunning and could hunt us anywhere: in our houses and apartment buildings, our living rooms, our bathrooms, and even our bedrooms. With the same E and F notes from Jaws, the Land Shark would disguise itself as a plumber, a candy gram, a long-lost relative, even a dolphin—anything at all to get the unsuspecting victim to open her door—at which point the outrageous attack ensued, and we laughed heartily at the absurdity of our fear.
The shark craze reached its anticlimax in 1977 with the antics of the Fonz, when he literally jumped a shark on an episode of Happy Days. The story was a blatant homage to Jaws, down to the bursts of E and F notes and underwater shots of a shark that was being kept in a ring of buoys just off shore, apparently waiting for the Coastguard to take it away. Never one to back down when faced with a battle of machismo, The Fonz agreed to a challenge proposed by the “California Kid,” a local beach bum who was tired of the Fonz stealing his spotlight. The challenge? The Fonz had to jump the only thing in the world he was afraid of: the shark in the ring.
No surprise, the Fonz is victorious. The California Kid bailed before the jump, and the Fonz overcame his fear and dramatically soared over the shark to the delight of the crowd watching from the beach. Viewers of the show were less impressed. Avid fans stopped tuning in after that episode, and I like to think they watched reruns of the Land Shark on Saturday Night Live instead. “That is just too unbelievable—the Fonz would never do that, would never wear that,” they would have muttered as they cranked the knob on their faux-wood-paneled Zeniths, desperately trying to escape the image of the Fonz on skis clinging to a tow rope in jean shorts, his iconic white t-shirt and black leather jacket suddenly less cool when paired with the yellow swimmee wrapped around his waist. As if those millions that had watched Happy Days since 1974 had seen too much—as if the Fonz was no longer the most desirable greaser on television, no longer had killer hair and a natural odor of motorcycles. As if jumping the shark had changed all of that. I think what the Fonz did, what Happy Days did, was important no matter what history has concluded. The Fonz actually jumped a shark, a real shark, not a cuddly kid friendly shark, not an ironic shark, but the real fucking thing; there was an actual shark lurking in that ring beneath his amazing water-ski jump, a real-life human-shredding shark—or at least that’s what Gary Marshall wanted us to think.
Here’s a theory: Gary Marshall, the creator of Happy Days, knew it all along, knew this particular stunt would kill the Fonz, would kill his show, and this scene was his masterstroke. And it was ironic—more ironic than even the Land Shark could imagine. He could only have dreamed that “jumping the shark” would become the phrase used to describe an action that betrays the integrity of something’s original purpose. Maybe he knew the German origin of shark is schurke, a word that refers to a person acting immorally—“shirking” ethical responsibility. Maybe Gary Marshall was upset about the sensation surrounding sharks in the midst of the Cold War—after Vietnam, after the Korean War, after World War II. Maybe he thought it was too willful a way for people to avoid the real dangers in the world, the kind we pose to ourselves.
How absurd and ironic those postwar years were, Gary Marshall might have thought as an angsty twenty-something in the mid 1950s, a proto Fonzarella suspicious of the Cleavers and their track homes, smoking marijuana cigarettes and mussing up his perfectly parted hair, a blacklisted beatnik regular of Los Angeles coffee shops writing poems filled with political vitriol that desperately tried to express what he felt about the injustice in the world. But Gary Marshall’s poetry would’ve gone largely unacknowledged. Maybe he met a girl, got married, had a baby, cut his hair, quit smoking, bought a house and a car, and found a job in Hollywood to pay the bills. But what if he never really quit that poetry; what if, after two decades of success, in the heart of middle-age, after watching people shriek at Jaws and laugh at the Land Shark—what if his thoughts returned to the real-life sharks that those beasts were named after, the ones that annihilate humans not one at a time and randomly, but decisively, en masse, like those responsible for releasing that Great White over the sea of Japan, glinting in the sky on a sunny and clear August day, the perfect beach day, a sleek and silver monster cruising overhead, its engines humming a soundtrack of E and F notes that vacillated so rapidly they would’ve been barely noticeable to the humans below when the bomb named Little Boy plummeted toward the sprawling grid of Hiroshima.
Gary Marshall would have been around eleven years old when the bomb was dropped. What if he was haunted for the rest of his life by what he saw on the news the night of August 6, 1945, the image of the mushroom cloud below the opened hatch of the U.S. bomber and that unbelievable footage of an entire city of humans razed by a tidal wave of nuclear fission. What if while sitting in a theater with his family in 1975 watching Jaws and listening to the people shriek in fear, his wife and kids clinging to him, Gary Marshall remembered what he really feared, what he watched thirty years earlier at such a tender young age, and he thought about the decade that followed with its imaginary satisfaction that America was so eager to believe in. What if he smirked at the absurdity of the hysteria incited by a fake shark, and an idea that would annihilate Happy Days once and for all hatched inside of him.
Maybe Gary Marshall thought about the people on the beach that day everything changed, like an eleven year old who might have been making his first trip to the ocean with his family, all smiles and laughter. Maybe he imagined that, at 8:15 a.m., the boy’s excitement was disoriented when he heard and felt an unbelievable boom just on the other side of the dunes that didn’t match the sound he expected the surf would make, and his first glimpse of the water was met with searing white light he couldn’t rub out of his eyes, and not the sandcastles and sailboats he imagined. Maybe Gary Marshall thought about those unsuspecting families disintegrating on the beach and the black rain that fell down on them, their faces melting and oozing into grotesque masks as the sharks that should’ve been their only real fear that day morphed into glowing clumps that bobbed in the waves as the E and F notes hummed off into the distance overhead. Maybe Gary Marshall believed that if that day wasn’t considered a betrayal of integrity in any lasting way, if we could drop a bomb like that for no real reason and then shirk our responsibility for it, then he had to do it. He had to write one more poem; had to have the Fonz jump the shark.
Stephen J. West received his MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Iowa and now lives in Morgantown, West Virginia where he teaches writing at West Virginia University.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: I love how Montaigne wanders around in his essays, and by the end, leads a reader to some surprising idea—no matter how estranged it is from where he began. With this essay l wanted to wander upon something like that by starting with one of my favorite pop culture references.
Q: What musical instrument are you?
A: Casio Sampletone SK-1.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m currently finishing a biography of an avatar called Crisis Shoes.