Register Thursday | June 20 | 2019

A Pirate Life for Me

Growing up in Sea World's backyard

For three months in the summer of 1989, I was a pirate at Sea World. Every morning I took the bus over to the water park, donned an eye patch, headscarf and striped pants, and lip-synched to yo-ho-ho songs under the blazing San Diego sun. It was the peak of my brief, un-illustrious acting career.

I rarely talk about it, but becoming a pirate made me the person I am today. Or rather, there was always a bit of pirate in me, waiting to be acknowledged. Camp was in my bones. I liked the getups, the pageantry-when I was nine, I had choreographed and performed a solo dance to Judy Collins' version of "Send in the Clowns." Now, after three weeks of rehearsal, I was an expert at lip-synching to the high-pitched, pseudo-cockney pirate voice of my character. The show was called Return To Pirate Island and I was the butt of every prank, joke and pratfall: a whale shot water in my face from its blowhole; I fell backwards over a chest of gold and landed on a fake foam sea urchin. I probably got the part when, during a dance audition, I improvised spastic hand movements and a hyperbolic smile to keep the casting directors from looking at my unschooled feet.

My fellow pirates included a yoga-practicing Willem Dafoe look-alike and a born-again Christian who always invited me to pray before performances. The born-again pirate had issues with carrying around a fake liquor bottle, which he had to "guzzle" from and hit me over the head with several times each show. The Willem Dafoe pirate also had his demons-he was a Shakespearean-trained actor, and when he wasn't twisting himself like a pretzel, he was ranting about how far he had fallen: from the Old Globe Theatre to this. His dramatic pauses and steely-jawed turns to the audience made him the most brooding, Hamlet-inspired pirate I've ever seen.

We shared the stage with an army of short people in dolphin and killer-whale costumes who routinely overheated, hyperventilated and passed out. They were a horny, vaguely gendered lot, and they were always making out with each other backstage. We performed for sparse crowds, mostly made up of toddlers and their mothers, who didn't seem to notice our complete lack of onstage chemistry. In between sets, the sea creatures and pirates were required to walk around the park in costume and greet visitors. It was hell, and it was just above minimum wage.

Why did I do it? I realize now that I was desperate for escape, for open doors. I can't speak for the Christian or for Willem Dafoe, but the show playing in my mind was wilfully sunny and cheerful. It was one where my parents stay together, our house isn't filled with regret and remorse, and, in the last act, my mother doesn't die from a long-term illness my junior year of high school. It was a show in which my father loves and accepts me, pirate or not. You see, I had recently dropped out of college; I was bored, had no money, and my interest in theatre was waning. Perhaps playing a pirate, I thought, would give me back that zest for performing, that zest for something. Assertiveness? Initiative? Chutzpah? I had already tried my share of majors and occupations: drama, English, history; fast food, retail, telecommunications. Seafaring buccaneer seemed as logical a next step as any.

I grew up in Sea World's backyard, in the Polaroid-orange suburbs of San Diego. Every year, my family had season passes to the park and we would go at least once a month. My mother would pack a picnic basket and my sisters and I would pile into our avocado-green station wagon. My father would roll down all the windows and soon my mother would complain that the wind was messing up her hair, even though she had spent thirty minutes in the downstairs bathroom with a can of Aqua Net in one hand and a Virginia Slim in the other. They'd argue until we pulled into the Sea World parking lot, where an eerie silence would fill the car-a mix of tension and anticipation and awe-in which the only sound was the crackle of my mother lighting another cigarette.

The park was exactly what its name promised: a different world, sealed away behind large walls, all for $5.95. On dry land, I was a misfit child. I preferred watching classic movies on television to playing baseball; I got along splendidly with old people; I wrote my first book, about the misadventures of a sunflower seed named Sylvester, when I was eight. But pushing through the Sea World turnstile, I transformed into a regular kid, running around with a fruit-punch moustache, petting dolphins, eating corn dogs.

Our favourite show was Shamu the Killer Whale. This was around the time that Jaws was scaring the crap out of beachgoers, so the word "killer" was always boldly emblazoned on Sea World's billboards. My dad would make us sit in the front row, with nothing between us and the majestic beast but six inches of glass. Whenever Shamu or one of his incarnations (Namu, Kandu, Shampoo) passed by and did a flip or belly flop, a wave of water would curl over the tank wall and come crashing down on us. My sisters and I screamed with pleasure while my mother held the picnic basket over her head and yelled at my father. Afterward, we would wring out our matching tie-dye shirts. Our wet socks would squeak in our shoes for the rest of the day.

The Sea Lion and Otter show, another favourite, was set in a haunted house where the two animals played Holmes- and Watson-like detectives trying to solve a mystery involving missing fish or a disappearing life preserver. Every few minutes, one of the animals would break character and dive in the water, swimming somersaults like a tiny, whiskered Esther Williams. I marvelled at the comic timing of the Otter, at the spirit-gummed moustache on the Sea Lion and at the lavishness of the Victorian mansion, with its velvet curtains and oil lamps.

Then we would ride the elevator up the Southwest Airlines Skytower, a 320-foot needle that offers panoramic views of San Diego. Looking out over the expanse of streets and houses, I was relieved that I couldn't see our two-story house. Even then, home represented my parents' unhappy marriage, nascent struggles with my sexuality and feelings of inadequacy. I was glad it was just a smudge on the horizon.

On one of the last family trips we made to Sea World, my sister Andrea accidentally knocked my mother's sunglasses into the walrus tank. The chubby, barking walruses batted and nosed the sunglasses until a trainer scooped them up, scratched and bent, with a net. It was a sign. We rushed through the other exhibits, silently and without exuberance. Later, as we ate our liverwurst sandwiches, my father seemed disappointed, kept checking his watch and sighing heavily, as if it were his sunglasses that had been ruined. My mother silently doled out Fruit Roll-Ups.

My parents separated soon after. They told us the arrangement was temporary, but it was obvious they had grown out of love. A year later, when they divorced, my mother moved my sisters and me to the edge of San Diego. We were now further from Sea World, and my mother was working to support three kids on her own. There were a few scattered trips to the water park, usually with a single parent, but they were disappointingly brief, hastily organized and desperately nostalgic.

I now find it ironic that the name of my Sea World show was Return to Pirate Island. I didn't want to jumpstart my acting career-I wanted to return to that old $5.95 world of clichéd childhood: close-ups of me with a wide smile and tanned cheeks, my family laughing, waves of water, pink flamingos, rows of starfish, the blue gleaming backs of dolphins, the squawk of seagulls.

As an employee at Sea World, I looked for signs of this old world, but they were impossible to find. The price of admission was now $19.95. I had not been back since I was a kid, and the place was in the midst of a full-fledged renovation, with construction sites popping up all over, noisily promising innovative attractions for a new generation of children. I frequently found myself unsure of where I was going-all my old reference points were gone. The beloved Sea Lion and Otter show was being turned into a Home Improvement-style mock-television show called Fools with Tools. Elsewhere, the Forbidden Reef was rapidly forming: underwater caverns that housed ominous moray eels and bat rays. Next was a human high-dive show, made up of Olympic diving rejects. Then came Shark Encounter, a creepy, 280,000-gallon attraction featuring a walk-through acrylic tube-very Buck Rogers-that showed the slick, dead-white underbellies of the sharks and rays as they swam menacingly above.

I left Pirate Island at the end of the summer. I was singing pirate songs in my sleep, and my friends complained that I used the word "arrghhh" unconsciously. I was tired, sunburned, disillusioned. I thought that working at Sea World would be a valid escape for me, but the place I wanted to retreat to was moving forward. My sisters and I sold our mother's house and moved into separate apartments. For a while, I was lost. Floating aimlessly. But eventually I pulled it together; I graduated from Columbia University a few years ago and now, when I'm not trying to write the great American short story collection, I teach college English. The only performing I do involves a chalkboard and a lengthy discussion of the semicolon.

This past spring, Sea World celebrated its fortieth anniversary; according to park spokesman David Koonts, the event was somewhat low-key. I emailed Koonts to get information about the new attractions and decided to mention Return to Pirate Island. "Wow," he emailed back. "That was way before my time. I don't think any of the people involved with that show are still here."

When my boyfriend Ted and I visited San Diego in mid-August, admission was $49.95. Thankfully, Koonts gave us complimentary day passes. Much of the Sea World I remember is gone. New, high-tech attractions-R. L. Stine's Haunted Lighthouse 4-D, Journey to Atlantis, Dine with Shamu-dominate the park today. I wanted to show Ted the tide pools, the walruses, the dolphin tank, the stage where I lip-synched my little pirate heart out. We tried to stand at the edge of the dolphin pool to slap the surface of the water-something I used to do between shifts as a pirate-but were quickly informed that this is no longer allowed unless you buy a bag of fish to feed the dolphins.

But I'm not going to hold that against Sea World. It had to change in order to keep up with Disneyland and Universal Studios. And I'm still part pirate. A scavenger. My parents' divorce, my mother's early death, my sisters and their weddings, their children; my first love, my first heartbreak, my first time onstage. I write about all of them now. They inspire as much as they keep me sane and grounded. One by one, piece by piece. A pirate's booty.