By Terri Hendrix

(LSM Oct/Nov 2010/vol. 3 – issue 6)

When I was a kid, the movie Jaws ruined swimming for me.

Up until that point, I practically lived for the moment I could throw on my swimsuit and hit the beach, for we were living in Central America, in Panama, at the time — a tropical paradise where the ocean was as pristine and blue as the sky.

So it was natural that I spent more time underwater during our family vacations than I did on land. Underneath the waves, the world grew quiet and a whole new universe came alive with teams of silvery fish, coral reefs and multi-colored chunks of land that formed hills and valleys along the ocean floor. I’d float with the aquamarine current, imagine I was flying above the world beneath me, and sway with the sea grass, till eventually, I’d have to surface for air.

“You’re a fish,” my mom would chuckle, as I’d wrap my arms around her neck and breath in her coconut scented sunscreen till she waved me off, clutching her paperback protectively to her chest as I shook salt water from my hair like a wet dog. I’d then rush off and free-dive to depths unknown — making believe I was a dolphin — before finally meeting up with my older brother and sister sunbathing on their rafts out by the buoys.

My love of swimming in the deep blue sea was, of course, before Jaws made its unforgettable splash on the big screen.

Our family saw it at a drive in. I absolutely hated it. That night, I came to the conclusion that “I don’t do scary.” For me, at the age of 7, life was scary enough. I was suffering from a learning disability and doing horrible in military school (my dad was Army and we were stationed on base). I was also simultaneously trying to adapt to living in a foreign country. So of course I didn’t choose “scary” as an outlet for entertainment. My family did.

After I saw Jaws, I heard “Ta-da, ta-da, ta-da,” the theme song (which would soon come to be dubbed by movie critics as the “classic of fear”) anytime I got in a body of water larger than my plastic kiddie pool.

To make matters worse, our family spent every single weekend at the lake on our ski boat, which kind of resembled a few of the dinghies I’d seen in Jaws. Further compounding my newfound fear of water was my father’s insistence that I learn to water ski. It didn’t matter to me that sharks didn’t hang out at Lake Gatun, or that the Panama Canal served as a divider between the ocean and us; I no longer wanted to swim. Period.

To even get me in the water after Jaws, my dad would have to pull me out ankles first from where I hid beneath the steering wheel, and toss me over the side of our boat. My mom would throw the skis in right after me. Without fail, I ended up with the “red skis,” which had a defect — one side of the skis would fill with water, which made it impossible to stay upright (even for a small child) longer than a few minutes. Once our boat kicked into high gear and our ski ropes grew taught, my brother — who always grabbed the good pair of skis — would soon be air-born, weaving in and out and popping the wake alongside me as our dad pulled us. My mom would sit behind our father, and my sister would sit by the engine, clutching onto her seat with both hands as our boat chopped along. Our dog, Tiger, would attach himself like a hood ornament to the padded point at the bow of our boat, and with ears flattened, dig his claws into the leather, leaning into the wind as water sprayed his face. No doubt looking just as miserable as Tiger, I’d clutch onto my ski rope for dear life and scream “Aaa-aah-aah!” as inevitably, one of my skis would fill with water, causing me to lose my balance and flip like a skipping stone across the lake until finally coming to a stop.

My brother, Johnny, would look back at me and shoot me a toothy grin, and my sister and mom would wave good-bye until they all but disappeared into the horizon. I wasn’t left by my family all alone bobbing in the water out of a streak of meanness; no, my dad was scared of hitting me with the ski boat, so he’d circle really wide — picking up my skis from wherever I’d fallen — before finally returning to fetch me.

Though our boat was always within eyeshot, the moments I’d wait for them to come back and get me were excruciating. At Lake Gatun, there was quite a bit of seaweed to muck through in the water, which not only made my skin itch but made the water too dark to see my own limbs. And sure enough, from the moment I’d fall, I’d hear “Ta-da, ta-da, ta-da.” My self-confidence shattered from my fall, I’d tilt my head back into my yellow life jacket and scream for my mom at the top of my lungs. Shortly after several episodes of me doing this — and not stopping my whimpering once back in the boat — my father finally opted to just leave me underneath the steering wheel. Soon, Tiger joined me. He didn’t do scary either.

Years later, my Jaws days far behind me, I succumbed to peer pressure and saw the horror movie Friday the 13th with a group of friends. When the serial killer Jason rose from the serene water (just like in Jaws!) right where the heroine’s arm was draped delicately over the side of the canoe, my friends decided they didn’t do scary either — at least not with me, because from that moment forward, I hollered like a wounded animal and didn’t stop till the credits rolled.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve added other “Don’t Do’s” to my list, so as not to repeat experiences that freaked me out. I don’t do any ski slopes other than those marked with a green circle; I don’t do cruise ships, helicopters, attics or basements, snakes, six passenger puddle jumpers, roller coasters or haunted houses.

I still prefer a swimming pool — where I can see what’s beneath the surface — to taking a dip in the lake or ocean.

To some, my “Don’t Do” list makes me boring. Perhaps I am. All I know is that, come Halloween, I’ll hang my orange and purple lights and eat the chocolates I picked up at Dollar General, and that’ll be the extent of my agenda for the night. By the time the gremlins and goblins crawl out from their cobwebs to the tune of “Ta-da, ta-da, ta-da,” I’ll be fast asleep, with my four mutts sprawled across my bedroom floor — two of which could eat Jaws or any other monster with a ghoulish agenda whole, in one gulp!

Like I said, I don’t do scary.