Published on the Az Republic editorial page, February 15, 2006
So you are thriving out there in the sage-brush, writing about Ed Abbey was the greeting in the last letter from my old friend and colleague. Id like to think there’ll be occasions for our paths to cross, but the chances, I’m aware, are slim. Too bad, I hear you have land-based sharks out your way. Slim has become none now that the illustrious New Jersey-based author of JAWS, Peter Benchley, has gone to the great saloon in the sky.
Being the son and grandson of famed literary characters comedic grandfather Robert and father Nathaniel who authored The Russians are Coming The Russians are Coming, Peter started out with a cumbersome cross to bear, but he carried it well, ignoring his fathers advice to avoid the family’s literary tradition and do something useful.
At sixteen, he sold his first freelance piece, sailed through prep school and Harvard; then it was on to the Washington Post and next to Newsweek where we first worked together- he as TV editor, I as West Coast correspondent. After that he wrote speeches for President Johnson and began to think about a novel. No Ahab he, nonetheless he was becoming obsessed over a fish, a whale of a tale told by a fisherman who’d allegedly caught a 4,550-pound great white shark off Long Island.
Could there be a fish that huge, he wondered? Bent on becoming a rent-paying author with a seamless style, he was on his way to being, in Ray Bradbury’s telling phrase, an amiable compost heap of scenes, rumors, memories, conjectures about -you guessed it- sharks.
When some wealthy friends gave up a small abode on a beach in the Cayman Islands in the final days of the Johnson Administration, my then-wife and I invited Peter and his wife, Wendy to join us down there for an adventure for a few days. And didn’t we have one! The second night, Benchley and I found ourselves near midnight in a long, beat-up rowboat inside a reef that was being pounded by enormous breakers. In the boat with us were a local Cayman who was part guide, part medicine man, a chicken on a half-inch hook dangling off the stern and a pint of Cayman Glow at the ready. All was calm except for the thrashing surf when our oarsman pointed to a long shadow circling our tiny boat. Noticing that the shadow was longer than the boat, Peter grabbed a Bowie knife and cut the line. This allowed the chicken to be gobbled up by what Peter decided afterward was a harmless 18-foot-long shark. Soon it was gone and so was the Cayman Glow. Back on a shack on the beach, more liquid fire in our hands, the question hung in the air: What would happen if one of those really big sharks like a Great White, for example, came around and wouldn’t go away?
The next afternoon the Benchley’s decided to take a nap after an amazing lobster and wine lunch while my wife and I accepted an invitation from a perfect stranger to take a short sail on a catamaran. Soon, the wind was up, our craft was heading out to sea and the skipper was not only confessing his ignorance about sailing but saying that even if he knew how to sail, there were too many people aboard for us ever to come about and return to land. Some of the guests began to weep. By twilight, half the people on board were in tears and the lights of the island had swiftly receded until one by one they’d blinked out. About then Peter was up from his nap, walking the beach looking for us. At first, no one recalled seeing a catamaran off shore. Then a young native boy walked up to him and pointed out to seaway out to sea. No boats were moored on that side of the island due to approaching weather but the boy said he had a small put-put and for a few bucks he’d rescue us. Peter dished out the money and off the boy went. To this day, I’m able to hear the sound of the tiny outboard approaching, to see the rope thrown to us, and see the crowd that greeted us on the beach, and the mocking smile on Benchley’s handsome face. You should have napped, laddie, said he.
Was JAWS, which terrified millions, based upon true past experiences? Time and again he told interviewers that everything I have written is based upon something that has happened to me or something that I know a great deal about. In JAWS I knew a great deal about sharks. What with the book and the film, Benchley made millions from our fear of sharks.
So it is ironic that one of his greatest regrets besides dying is that his book presented the Great White Shark as a horrible monster. In defense of the shark and other creatures of the oceans, he became a dedicated conservationist. If we kill everything in the ocean, and if we pollute the ocean to a point where it can’t sustain life, we’re committing suicide.
–James Bishop Jr. is based in Sedona