The author in Ocean City, MD, 2016-2017. Photo by author.
I’ve had Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws in my To-Be-Read list for several years. A writer friend recently recommended its dramatic opening chapter, so finally I picked it up and took it with me on my beach vacation last month.
It was that opening scene which stuck with me as I waded ankle-deep in riptide currents on my last day of vacation, unexpectedly recalling with visceral clarity the suspense of a young woman swimming and being snapped in two.
As might be expected, Benchley’s novel provides a thorough exploration of the characters—of course I pictured them as the actors from the 1975 Spielberg film—including an impossible-to-forget liaison between the police chief’s wife and the expert marine biologist. A different colleague suggested it as a teaching text for a graduate lecture on “How To Write Sex Scenes.” I’d recommend it as a classic example of write-what-you-know, or more precisely, don’t write what you don’t know. One misplaced detail destroys plausibility. Benchley describes Chief Brody’s wife heading out for her assignation and changing her clothes in a gas station restroom: “She stripped, and standing on the cold floor in her bare feet. . .” I had to put the book down and laugh. No women would ever stand barefoot in a gas station restroom!
My favorite scene in the movie wasn’t in the book, but I did find it quoted elsewhere, described as “one of the most famous monologues in film history.” During a drinking-and-male-bonding moment, fishing-boat captain Quint reveals his naval experience during World War II:
Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was comin’ back from the island of Tinian . . . just delivered the bomb, the Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes. . . Very first light, Chief, the sharks come cruisin’. So we formed ourselves into tight groups. . . And the idea was, the shark goes to the nearest man, and then he’d start poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’ and sometimes the shark would go away. . . Sometimes he wouldn’t go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, he doesn’t seem to be livin’. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then . . . ah, then you hear that terrible high-pitch screamin’, and the ocean turns red, and in spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’ they all come in and . . . rip you to pieces (quoted in Vincent & Vladic, p. 80).
With the movie scene as my introduction to this W.W. II Pacific Ocean disaster, I was delighted to stumble across Lynn Vincent and Sarah Vladic’s Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight To Exonerate an Innocent Man. In the movie Jaws, Quint explains that “the bomb mission was so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They didn’t even list us overdue for a week.” Not exactly. In Vincent’s and Vladic’s book, we learn the truth, details too horrible for a summer action film. As the vessel quickly filled with seawater, a distress signal was sent; when the “Abandon Ship” order came, Chief Warrant Officer Leonard Woods dismissed his men and stayed alone at his post, bracing himself against a bulkhead due to the extreme list (tilt), sending and re-sending the SOS as the ship went down to the deep. He didn’t know the equipment was damaged, and the distress signal never went through. Due to a series of miscommunications, back at Naval HQ in the Philippines, officers assumed the Indianapolis had arrived at her next destination. Despite these and other institutional failures, Indianapolis Captain Charles McVay himself was court-martialed for losing his ship. For fifty years, his crew fought to clear his name.
The true horrors the men of the Indianapolis faced were worse than only sharks. Drifting in the ocean, in too few life rafts, men were covered in ship fuel, oil coating their bodies and dripping into their eyes. Rare, salvaged food supplies were hoarded and fought over. Days of dehydration led to hallucinations. Some hallucinated that rescue was nigh:
Their beloved Indy had not sunk at all! She was anchored just below the surface—and there were treats to be had: Ice cream sundaes! Candy bars! Ice-cold Coca-Cola! The men dove happily down to take their pick. Not far off, a hotel was discovered suspended on the water, and anyone could enjoy an hour of rest in the one available bunk if he just waited his turn in line. So far, the line was only fifteen men deep, because some had found an even better option: an A & W root beer stand with free floats served by beautiful pin-up girls (221).
Men swam to their death, thinking they were grasping salvation.
In others, dehydration brought out violent paranoia. Men turned against each other, seeing their mates as enemies. To some, cannibalism meant survival. Survivors were forced to kill their comrades in self-defense. One group of friends made a pact to kill one another if a man developed signs of insanity.
In school, we learned the basic elements of plot: Man versus man; man versus nature. The horrors that humans can do far outstrip Benchley’s and Spielberg’s giant shark. The tragedy of the Indianapolis is that it is true.
Still, Quint’s speech captures the essence of the horror of the historical event. It resonates in my mind, impossible to forget, not only due to its subject matter. He concludes: “. . . eleven hundred men went into the water. Three hundred sixteen men come out. The sharks took the rest.” Quint’s speech is the epitome of oration. I find myself repeating and reciting the penultimate words of his monologue. Finally, I realize: it’s poetry.
Ĕ lév ĕn / hún drĕd / mén wĕnt / ín tð / thĕ wát ĕr
Thrée / hún drĕd / síx tĕen / mén / cóme ðut.
Thĕ shárks / tóok / thĕ rést.
Robert Shaw, the actor playing Quint, re-wrote this speech himself before filming. His words are memorable enough to make me think of Shakespeare and the shipwreck in The Tempest; the presumed drowning of Ferdinand’s father:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made.
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
Both doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! I hear them, — ding-dong, bell.
–The Tempest, Act I, Scene 2
Playbill from Drury Lane Theatre,1757 production
For landlubbers interested in history or those who have served, I recommend this recounting of the Indianapolis saga. Now that summer has ended and the lifeguards have gone home, it’s a perfect time to read or re-read, or watch again the movie version of Jaws. For classic drama, magic, and romance, check out Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
To those in the path of Hurricane Florence, I wish you the safety of solid ground – no shipwrecks, no sharks, no dehydration – and to evacuees I hope you encounter no dirty gas station restroom floors.
“50 Years of US Pin-ups.” The Week. December 12, 2008. Web.
“Connecting with the USS Indianapolis”. Schmidt Ocean Institute. Website.
Hughes, Neil. “The Indianapolis Speech by Robert Shaw in Jaws (1975).” Blog. March 10, 2013. Web.
Phillips, Karen. “ ‘We Knew the Ship Was Doomed’: USS Indianapolis Survivor Recalls Four Days In Shark-Filled Sea.” The Washington Post. August 20, 2017. Web.
Rein, Lisa. “Researchers Find Wreckage Of Lost WWII Warship USS Indianapolis.” The Washington Post. August 19, 2017. Web.
Benchley, Peter. Jaws. Garden City, N.Y. : Doubleday, 1974. Print.
Jaws. Directed by Steven Spielberg, screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottleib, performance by Robert Shaw, Universal Pictures, 1975. Motion Picture.
Vincent, Lynn and Sara Vladic. Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight To Exonerate an Innocent Man. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2018. Print.