Updated: Aug 30, 2022
Jumping off that bridge… As long as your safety is assured, sometimes you've just got to do it…
And I’m speaking metaphorically, of course. Although, not really…
I’ve always had a slight fear of heights and I’ve never been one for jumping into water from high perches. Luckily for me, though, these past few years have given me annual opportunities to confront such phobias. Right here on Martha’s Vineyard.
As most of you know, the original “Jaws” movie from 1975 was filmed on this island, though “Amity Island” was the name given. In one of the crucial scenes early on, the fins of an eerily-realistic shark can be seen lurking ominously as little children are swimming and enjoying a bright and sunny summer afternoon. Alarmed, the sheriff runs onto a bridge as the fins cross into an inlet, where his son happens to be wading. Many of the ensuing moments have been firmly planted in the minds of movie-goers ever since.
And eventually, in real life, this very spot, previously known as “The American Legion Memorial Bridge”, has been lovingly referred to as “the Jaws Bridge”.
To this day, the act of jumping off this bridge has been a right-of-passage for a huge percentage of all residents, both seasonal and year-round. One might have expected my first summer working here, in 1993, would have seen me joining the party. But no - such a brazen and seemingly-unnatural act had me uncomfortable for all sorts of reasons. I’d instead occasionally gaze in awe at these athletes of all ages, amazed at their bravery.
I can still clearly remember my first time, though. We were at the end of some staff party and a group of us in swimming trunks and bikinis lined up, ready to take up the challenge. Our amazing dishwasher - whose name now escapes me - absolutely delighted in climbing up that fence repeatedly and plunging down at whatever angle best suited him in the moment. But I stood standing for what felt like ages. The act of even being in this position was phobia-denying enough, and perched atop the fence, which served to add an additional five feet to the jump, made the situation feel all the more imposing.
We had a Russian girl named Alina (who inspired the story “Wonderful” from the “Bingo Ray” collection) working as a hostess that season and she was standing some six feet away, equally as apprehensive. We eventually made a pact to conquer our shared fears at the same time. On the count of three, off we went.
Ah… This really wasn’t so bad!
Conquering fear… This moment felt promisingly auspicious.
Since then, I’ve made a pilgrimage to this spot every summer. The fear is still palpable, but as with most things in life, repetition has made the act more bearable. And now, just yesterday, I added the year 2022 to my personal record.
There have been plenty other examples of panic-inducing moments calling for a measure of internal fortitude. Working new jobs with new people, changing living conditions for months at a time, speaking in public. Even sharing stories and my recorded music on michaelaba.com can make me feel uncomfortably vulnerable as well, no question. But I’ve been trying to recognize fear in all aspects of my own life and then seek out ways to rise above. I’m not always successful, but occasional failures are meant to be overcome as well. This annual jump off the Jaws Bridge serves as a reminder to myself to continue to try.
Now this year this particular bridge brought a unique tragedy to our island; two incredibly well-liked young men from Jamaica did a night jump and were unable to reemerge. (I guess I should note that jumping off bridges can be horribly unpredictable, though no one needed such a horrifically harsh reminder.) For this part-year island resident, the ensuing outpour of grief had not been seen since the plane crash that took the lives of John Kennedy Jr. and his wife Caroline back in the summer of 1999. Everyone here felt devastated, but the memorials and loving tributes will never be forgotten.
I’ll be heading back to NYC in ten days, hopefully rejuvenated and ready for the challenges to come. Of which I’m sure will be many. I’m actually a bit afraid to discover how badly my piano skills have diminished after not touching a key for the past eight weeks. Although, of course, not enough to avoid finding out.
Oh - and here’s the other thing about jumping off bridges. Here in Martha’s Vineyard, it’s against the law. The sign is clearly posted on both ends of the Jaws Bridge. But well, I guess it’s kind of like trespassing, or driving over the speed limit, or doing anything against the advice of so-called “experts”.
Sometimes you’ve just got to do it.