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RIP Peter Benchley

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(alternate text) There were numerous reports on Sunday (here’s one from CNN) that Peter Benchley, author of Jaws and other books, passed away at the age of 65. Benchley was an advocate for shark research and protection, as his wife recalled, “Peter kept telling people the book was fiction, it was a novel, and that he no more took responsibility for the fear of sharks than [Godfather author] Mario Puzo took responsibility for the Mafia.”

I have to admit that the only Benchley book I ever read was Beast which I did not care for at all. It seemed way too formulaic, predictable and fresh off the assembly line. But I always admired the work he did for shark research and my own fascination with Great Whites undoubtedly stems from Jaws. But my relationship with these great creatures wasn’t always a good one.

I grew up in the smallest town in America to have a YMCA (or at least that’s what they told us) and the Y’s swimteam mascot was a shark. The swimming pool was in an L shape and one side of the L was the “shallow” end although it got deeper than six feet there. They just didn’t allow any diving in that area. The “deep” end was where they had a diving board and high-diving board. As little children, we were never allowed in the deep end.

Then, one day, the swim coach hauls us up the high dive and instructs us to jump. I peer over the edge, and much to my childish horror, there is a shark painted on the bottom of the pool. And I ain’t talking ’bout no silly Jabberjaw cartoon shark with a big nose and a silly grin.

No sir. This damned beast has a pointy tail like the tip of an icepick and a malevolent look in his eye. Although not quite this detailed, the Y mascot was a helluva lot more like this image than Mr. Jabberjaw above.

Keep in mind that I lived in a land-locked state and so this deep end of a municipal swimming pool was the biggest body of water nearby, the film version of Jaws has been playing continuously on television, and I always snuck opportunities to watch it, obsessed and scared to death but unable to resist. And now I gotta jump in with this damned thing looking up at me. I gave into peer pressure, took the plunge literally, and swam my ass off to the ladder up out of the pool.

Luckily, my fear has turned into a bit of shark fascination and I’m planning a shark diving expedition during a visit to South Africa later this spring. So in a very round-about way, Mr. Benchley’s work has made a big impression on my life.