Monday, June 30, 2014

The Dolphin Is Also A Fish - Part One

         They called him Flipper. In the history of network programming, no weekly half-hour television show has done more, with the possible exception of "Lassie," to bolster the reputation of an animal in the eyes of human viewers. The weekly frolicking of Bud, Sandy and their pet dolphin during the 1960's left an endearing legacy the effects of which are still emerging. The trend in "hands-on" dolphin encounters at megabuck resorts in Hawaii and the Bahamas is a testament to the lasting power of an image created almost fifty years ago.
         In February of 1984 no such hotel-sponsored experiences were available. My fascination with dolphins, however, led me to the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory in Waikiki as a participant in Project Earthwatch (  Teaching Dolphins Language was enticingly presented in a catalogue as one of hundreds of ongoing scientific research projects being carried out worldwide. The Earthwatch concept of financially contributing volunteers involved in tax-deductible working vacations was the backbone of many of these expeditions.  For me, it was a cheap way to see Hawaii for a month while indulging myself in a Flipper Fantasy.

* * * * *
         Kewalo Basin

         "If you've come here in search of Flipper you're going to be severely enlightened."
         I had. I was. And in my opinion, Lab Director Louis Herman could have waited a few days to burst our collective bubble.  He continued...
         "The dolphins we are teaching are wild animals captured for scientific purposes, nothing like those you'll find at Sea World, which were raised in captivity."
          Flipper was wild, I thought to myself.
         "And for those of you who are concerned about restaurants with "dolphin" on their menus.....don't be.  That dolphin is a species of fish unrelated to the mammals we'll be studying. In Florida the Bottlenose Dolphin is called a Porpoise. The two names can be used interchangeably."

         He went on with his opening remarks warning of the dangers involved with wild animal research of this kind. Being intensely social creatures, Phoenix and Akeakamai, our two "girls" as they were known, required hours and hours of tankside play. That was part of our job. The remainder of the day would be spent tossing various objects into the tanks where the dolphins were kept waiting for visual and auditory cues such as "Take Ball to Basket," while notes were taken, objects retrieved and dolphins praised and hugged for a proper response.

That would be the order of operations for the coming weeks:
         command, respond, reward
         command, respond, reward
The dolphins knew it well and came to expect it of us. How well they knew it would be revealed to me later in a private training session. What happened that day was not recounted until now, perhaps to the detriment of those running the decades-long project.

         Like any job, the routine became boring and repetitive. And there were distractions. The views of Diamondhead, daily rainbows over the hills, and the fragrances of flowers, native cooking and suntan lotion filled the air.

         Myths were constantly de-bunked. For instance, it was pointed out that the only reports of sailors being led to shore by dolphins came from those who survived the experience. Those who were led in the opposite direction obviously gave no account of their misfortune. Dolphins love to push objects through the water. And being the equivalent of approximately an 800-pound muscle, can do so with considerable force and ease.

          On his experience with such an in-tank encounter, one young lab assistant related:
         " was radical...worse than any body-slam I've ever gotten playing football."

In-tank encounters were thus forbidden. Nor was safety out of the water a given. An irritable dolphin could signal for a "hug" at one moment, tire of the experience without notice and attempt to bat your head away like a tennis ball off a racket a moment later. And it seemed their irritability was the norm rather than the exception. They were wild dolphins.

         It took the better part of two weeks for our lilly-white winter complexions to tan evenly. Defending against intense exposure to tropical sun with varying levels of sunblock produced a patchwork quilt effect on tanning shoulders and arms. A spot left untreated was scorched.  Pale handprints were not uncommon. Thirty minutes of exposure was dangerous. We were outside eight hours a day. I have never been, nor will I ever again be, as tan as I was by March of 1984.

By the third week on the project some special changes took place. The "girls" began to recognize us. This behavior was unstudied and undocumented.  It wasn't charted, recorded, or data-fied.  But it made the project worthwhile.

Previously oblivious to us as we wandered around the outdoor lab in the morning, we would be greeted tankside by a bobbing pair of noses, playfully splashing and chirping (you know that Flipper sound…) to get our attention, rising out of the water in the "hug me" position.  It was heartwarming, and very much like the tail-wagging dog/master feeling I'd known before.

To Be Continued


The Fall of Roy G Biv

Spectral surfing dominated the skies over southern California long before the sport became popular along the shores and piers of the congested human community below. Cool ocean breezes carried moisture inland on mild November air, creating conditions ripe for brief afternoon precipitation over the hills of Los Angeles. The resulting sun-showers and the accompanying rainbows were spectacular in their arching radiance, unless benders were prevented from doing their jobs. It was the benders that turned unremarkable horizontal rays of wet white light into splayed jewels of colored luminance.

Roy kicked off his skids as he monitored the sky, anticipating a hearty straight and narrow that he would mount in a leaping dash from the foothills near Santa Monica and ride for miles in a rush of color and spray. He existed for the pure art and joy of a splendid ride, and prided himself on the depth and breadth of colors he was able to extract, briefly tattooing the sky with his footwork. He would frequently hang five on his descent, goofy-foot on rare occasions, and on his best days bend double rainbows Earthward under his feet.

Catching a ray took timing and patience. Opportunities were scarce, and competition between surfers was growing as the number of benders grew relative to the number of available rays. Because of this rivalry, a ride’s exhilaration was always tempered by the possibility of conflict, or even sabotage.

On the afternoon of November 14th the rain bent and bowed, shredding into seven brilliant bands under Roy’s white refractals. He dove earthward in the vicinity of the Los Angeles River and dipped below ground level hoping to exit unseen. Too late to react upon approach, he spotted a rival bender reflected in the shallow water of his intended culvert, standing on the bridge above. He struggled to reduce his speed and braced himself for impact, helpless.

* * * * *

Reports of a fallen bender came into the Central Office Of Luminance from a field officer patrolling Santa Monica south of Sunset Boulevard. An outbreak of fractal offenses had stretched the department thin for several weeks and the short rainy season had only just begun.

Investigator Birg was first on the scene and called in his report. Bender falls were seldom solved and rarely accidental. Birg knelt over Roy, pulled back the hood on his jacket and shook his head. He knew the victim by reputation.

“Damn shame,” he muttered, then looked around at the torrent of water that had followed Roy to the ground, leaving him face down in a shallow pool under a bridge.

“Looks like a hit,” he said to his commanding officer, angrily snapping the send button on his radio, “Seven balloons tied to his wrist. Trademark of the Solaris gang. One for every color of the rainbow.”

A wagon arrived to quickly dispatch Roy’s remains. Birg stood quietly surveying the scene. The sun came out, darkening his glasses. Water in the culvert evaporated as the sky cleared. A silent figure walked over the bridge above, unseen and unheard.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Summer Jobs: Tool or Die

My first job at Brown’s Fried Chicken paid $1.25 per hour. Factoring for inflation over forty years, this is the equivalent of $7.09 in 2014, which is still below the current minimum wage. I have seldom worked as hard since. I cleaned floors on my hands and knees with coarse green scrubbing pads, and eventually worked my way up to slinging fried chicken in 450 degree oil. The little burns hurt. Larger burns sent you to the emergency room. The stench of grease saturated my white uniform and ridiculous paper hat, and the rats by the garbage dumpster scared the crap out of me. Ah youth. At least I got to meet Mr. Brown.

It seemed as if all of us experienced the coming-of-age fast food journey up the payscale. By the next summer I heard about a job paying $3.75 per hour from a friend who came home from work each day soaked in sweat and covered with machine oil. All he talked about was the pay.

The job was in a local tool and die company that cranked out mysterious small metal parts for larger unknown machines. Output was critical. Orders needed to be filled. There was a brief training session that lasted about 15 minutes by one of the senior staff members. Senior status was achieved by surviving workdays in a large metal barn with no air conditioning through blazing Chicago summers. I never got to experience winter in the same structure. Perhaps the machines kept it warm.

I was led over to a grinding machine where I was shown how to flatten one end of an inch-long metal rod by running a grinding wheel back and forth over the end of the rod in exactly the same place, slowly so as not to create blackened friction burn, but fast enough to keep the parts flowing.

Each pass of the grinder made a rumbling screech when the wheel made contact with the rod. I then turned an adjusting lever a quarter turn to bring the wheel down a fraction of a millimeter to grind a bit more metal. Perhaps ten passes got the job done: grind, adjust, grind, adjust, grind, adjust. Toss the part in a box on the floor.

I did this for hours at a time through the increasing heat of the day in that airless shed of a building. For added pleasure, a small amount of machine oil was released onto the grinding platform and sprayed all over the front of my t-shirt with each pass of the wheel. The microscopic metal shavings incinerated instantly, becoming airborne and going mostly up my nose. I discovered this during my first work break upon blowing black tar out of my face into a handkerchief that would never be white again.

I knew it was break when a whistle blew. No kidding, it was like the sound on the Flintstones when Fred yells “Yabba Dabba Doo!” Except at this employer, unlike at Slate Rock and Gravel, an old German man across the shed had decided sometime during the past thirty years to yell, “Jawohl!” (yah vole). By the end of my second day, I wanted to strangle him, or at least blow my nose on his shirt.

My clothes were unlaunderable, covered in oil and black soot. It took most of the evening to clear my sinuses of black tar, and I was so dehydrated and exhausted I nearly cried by the start of day three. This was long before the possibility existed of listening to an iPod with favorite music or audio books. It was mind-numbingly boring work that resulted in my imagination going places I had never had time to go before. And it was not lost on me that the shed was populated by a gang of men who had provided for families for decades, doing the same work week after week, heading off to this hell hole with a metal lunch box and a deadened soul. “Jawohl!” It’s happy break time, lunchtime, end-of-day time. Repeat.

During the middle of afternoon three, the man who had shown me how to grind metal rods into metal rods with flat ends came by to see how I was doing. He picked up a random piece from the box on the floor, commented that it was pretty good, and then said, “Oh, your exhaust fan’s not on.” He then casually walked away. Apparently, my lungs were not supposed to be the grinder’s exhaust system after all.

I went home that day and never came back. For decades since, whenever I feel badly about a particular job or task, I think back on my brief stint as a tool and die worker, cringe and then think more pleasant thoughts. And I never, ever use the word “Jawohl” under any circumstances.

Sunday, June 22, 2014


Across the yellow-orange display within my head, rhythmic, shadowy shapes drifting across my inner panorama belonged to Evan. He was doing his morning yoga. Judging by the intensity of the sun blazing across the living room and onto my face, it was later in the morning than we had hoped to get started. But I sensed this only through closed eyelids. My throbbing headache was somewhat diminished since the night before, and Aunt Ellie’s couch and blankets enveloped me like a womb. Her condo’s air conditioning simulated the chill of a winter cabin, in contrast to the warmth of my body in its comforting nest. It had been a late night at Tradewinds. It seemed like days ago.
“I don’t get why you do that to yourself dude,” said Evan, turning at the sound of my groaning.
I didn’t have a good answer. Evan didn’t drink. He claimed to be high on life and said it dulled his senses. I admired him for that.

“Have more fun when I’m buzzed,” I said, squinting briefly before covering my face with a pillow.
“You puked all night. Is that fun?” he prodded.
“Noooo,” I said, swinging my legs onto the floor, folding myself forward onto the pillow like a kid crying on a grade school desk. At least the room had stopped spinning.
“…need food,” I said, standing and staggering slightly on my way to the refrigerator.
“We’ll eat on the way,” said Evan, giving me that look that said, “Don’t screw up my day, man.”

It had been like this since high school. Evan, the energetic free spirit. The Zen master. Always on the go, driven, looking for adventure and testing his limits. He was athletic beyond anyone else at Murdock High, consistently disappointing coaches in their attempts to recruit him for team sports. I drew my strength from him, and I usually grounded him when he needed it most. We were stronger together in school and inseparable ever since.
We hit the river much later in the day than Evan had hoped. Already in the water and sitting upright, straddling his paddleboard on the slightly brackish water, Evan repeatedly dunked his hands into the river, combing and drenching his long blonde hair with dripping fingers. The water offered refreshing relief from the searing Florida sun as he rinsed the sweat from his face with a final handful. I stood at the boat launch, nervously finishing a bagel and scanning the shore. Dense foliage surrounded us, cascading in a hundred shades of green across the river’s banks and onto the water, threatening to consume it. The Peace River has a reputation as a kayaker’s haven. Clear, calm and deep, it flows for miles from its fresh water inland source to the salty Gulf of Mexico. A dark and green wildlife sanctuary, the river meanders like a living thing, silently, relentlessly through the surrounding junglescape, mingling fresh and salt waters before spilling its secrets into Alligator Bay. Entering the river on boards had been Evan’s idea, something he wanted to try. I reluctantly agreed, but would have preferred to take the boats as usual.

As if in affirmation of my thoughts, a small blue kayak passed nearby, followed by two others, rounding a bend in the river where I stood at the launch. Nodding heads and brief waves were silent greetings between fellow adventurers. The novice boatmen in the group struggled mightily in the slow but powerful current to keep up with their guide and stay on course. I saw them glance at Evan’s dangling, unprotected limbs, but they couldn’t look away from the prow of their boats long for fear of coming clear around. Two yellow boats brought up the rear, the women in their party. Like their male companions, they wore bulky safety vests and shared faith that a quarter inch thick fiberglass hull offered protection against whatever might lurk unseen in the water below.

“Let’s go,” said Evan, balancing momentarily on his extended arms, pivoting his torso into a squat, legs bent as they came out of the water and onto the long board beneath him. It was like big-board surfing without the stabilizing forward momentum of a breaking wave.
“Don’t you think?…” I said, anxious about our first attempt at SUP, stand-up-paddle, downriver without a kayak.
“We’re fine. It’s not the Amazon,” laughed Evan.

My board was less flamboyant than Evan’s, shades of brown and beige and about a foot longer. A fitting metaphor for our respective sizes and personalities. The ride was smooth and tranquil, befitting of the river’s name. Aside from the party of kayakers we were alone on the river, quietly paddling and taking in the scenery. About forty-five minutes into the ride a blue heron took flight, startling me to attention. Evan paddled in the direction of a small branch of the river, away from the more quickly flowing water.

“Relax Jake. We’re at the top of the food chain. Watch this,” he continued, paddling faster with his full youthful strength and surfer’s endurance. He had the shoulders of a gymnast, rippling like the river under the alternating strain of the paddle’s blade against the water, first on his left side and then on his right. He propelled the board through the river like a champion crew of one. The yellow starburst pattern on his board contrasted with the river beneath it like the sun setting beneath the horizon in a green flash. He pulled rapidly ahead of me as I struggled to keep up. I shook my aching head in frustration at my weakened condition. We frequently surfed the Atlantic coast, but the Gulf side was new to both of us.

“I saw a snake in the water Ev,” I shouted, feeling somewhat ashamed at the admission, but remembering Indiana Jones voicing the same concern, “Why did it have to be snakes?”
By the time Evan grew tired and needed to rest, a glance back over his shoulder revealed how far his sprint had taken him. He looked small, standing on his board a hundred yards in front of me. He coasted now without propulsion or a meaningful current and looked ahead as his blade barely broke the water’s surface, acting more like a rudder than a propeller. I did my best to catch up.

I imagine at first that Evan failed to notice the subtle change in the river’s surface. I saw it from a different angle. The sun had fallen behind the western tree line, darkening the water with lengthening shadows, an impenetrable green the color of a military tank. The river consumed diminishing light that earlier would have been reflected. Evan manipulated the blade to halt his forward motion. He no doubt calculated the distance between him and what he saw ahead, the way he’d innately learned to gauge and time the waves he favored on the Atlantic coast. He might have hoped it was a manatee, but he knew better. The glassy surface of the water bent unnaturally like an old green 7-Up bottle. There was something floating just under the surface, observing.

The distance between an alligator’s eyes and the end of its snout in inches is equal to the creature’s length in feet, I remembered from a high school biology class. Evan stood motionless, staring into the eyes of a monster that could balance two large shoes end to end atop its slightly submerged head. The gator’s unblinking eyes gave it a wide field of vision and a superb view of Evan, just twelve feet away.

Evan instinctively began sculling, trying to move the paddleboard backward without disturbing the surface of the water. The blade was like a propeller, fighting the design of the board’s triple rudder to steer in a forward direction. As smoothly as Evan attempted to paddle, an inevitable ripple or two escaped. They slowly rolled toward the gator in a widening arch, bringing Evan’s attention to another protrusion in the river, and then another. Three evolutionary survivors of Earth’s last mass extinction floated patiently in wait for their favored feeding time.

Backing down a river on a board designed to move forward through water like a rocket through air, would tire Evan quickly. Turning the board and paddling away was equivalent to turning one’s back on the ocean. Only in this case, the ocean waves had brains and tearing teeth. To Evan’s right and left was shoreline, densely foliated mostly with mangroves and an occasional glimpse of open shore. Evan looked slowly to the right at such an opening, and then to the left. Both open areas were occupied by lounging alligators, more menacingly visible than the water dwellers. He had to turn the board.

Evan was in fact not in a branch of the river at all, but a watery offshoot that served effectively as a nesting ground for breeding females, guarding their eggs. He stood on a nine-foot plank like meat on a carving board.  Any attempt to dive away from the board and swim to safety might trigger a feeding frenzy. He continued sculling and began to pray as he slowly turned the paddleboard, pivoting on the starburst.

It was growing darker by the minute and the river assumed a more sinister attitude as shadows lengthened and nocturnal wildlife began to emerge.
“Jake, get help!” he shouted.
The sound of his voice echoed along the surface of the river. Several water birds startled and took flight. The gators took notice. The three now behind Evan began to move slowly toward him, pushing the water like a tidal surge. The largest of the three submerged.

Down river, the kayakers and their guide returned from the lower Peace, heading back to their outfitter near Tradewinds Bar and Grill. I frantically signaled them just as Evan panicked.
“GATORS,” screamed Evan, and he threw both of his shoulders and arms into a desperate attempt to paddle the board back into the river. The noise and commotion set off a frenzy of activity in the water and on both shores. Splashing came from every direction as the alligators entered the water, either to hide or to attack. Evan tossed his paddle and threw himself onto the board on his stomach in an upper body butterfly stroke, leveraging his strength and the use of both hands as paddles. The kayaking party’s guide broke formation and quickly pulled alongside me, matching my movement toward Evan’s position.
“I have this,” he said, motioning toward a pistol partially concealed under his life vest. “I’m just not sure what good it’ll do.” The guide knew the river and its hazards. Evan’s dream of paddling the Peace had become a nightmare. The guide pulled ahead of me, then stopped paddling and drew his gun.

For a few moments I hoped that Evan’s strength as a swimmer and his adrenaline-fueled burst of motion toward open water would enable his escape. But just as it appeared that he might succeed, his body violently flew up and off the paddleboard and into the water. The board itself tumbled in the air like a toy, the wet starburst glinting in the sun like a comet, smacking the surface of the river after being batted into the air with a single powerful thrust from below. Evan regained his orientation and swam hard toward me. I had closed the distance between us but dared only go so far. Entering the small offshoot of the river where Evan struggled would be suicidal. I felt helpless and ashamed, but I could not bring myself to lie on that grenade.

Strokes and kicks by a human swimmer generate a water turmoil signature like that of a much smaller animal. With every thrust of an arm or leg, Evan broadcast an enticing message to the submerged and agitated beasts. Notoriously bad chewers, alligators use their power to drown, shred and swallow small prey in large, slowly digestible gulps.

A flash of light produced by an explosion of nerves firing in Evan’s brain blinded him temporarily. A strike on his left leg had sent electrical signals racing to his head faster than pain could be perceived. He was startled before he knew why. Feelings of terror ran a close second. He rapidly processed wordless thoughts of his own death, of being eaten alive, and the realization that his recklessness had irreversibly turned on him. In several frantic surges above the water, gulping and gasping for air, he saw me and the group of kayakers shouting and paddling toward him in the narrow channel. And then he was pulled under.

 The gator began to roll Evan under water, dizzying and confusing him as the light and dark of sky and river bottom rotated and alternated. Pressure in his ears accompanied a descent into the deeper river as air streamed from his lungs despite his desperate attempt to hold his breath. The pain in his crushed leg became secondary to his attempt to survive the turmoil of the alligator’s efforts to drown him. Unmercifully, he remained conscious as the choking, gagging reflex to breathe gave way to a spasmodic, torturous filling of his lungs with water from the Peace River.

As the alligator surfaced and dragged him toward the shore, the last sound Evan heard before he lost consciousness was the loud slapping of paddles on the river’s surface. A single gunshot, and then two more in quick succession accompanied his descent into utter darkness amidst a quick series of sad and final thoughts. Acceptance of his fate, his insignificance, his role as prey and the final separation of his mind and body mingled with memories of family, childhood and tales of adventures as a young man and the final knowledge that this was not a story he would tell.
* * * * *
Early the next morning rescue divers pulled Evan from between two submerged logs at the river’s edge. He was badly mauled but otherwise intact, stored as a future meal for the monster that lodged him there. Ellie told me I could stay in her condo as long as I needed. The funeral was typical of the surreal gatherings that result when a young person dies. Crying girls, their boyfriends, Evan’s friends, and even adversaries, all facing their mortality and humbled by the tragic early loss of their legendary friend.

As for me, I felt like half my former self. Perhaps less. And in a tribute to Evan, weeks later I took his recovered starburst paddleboard for a final ride in the Peace River. I headed out of the launch at Tradewinds, downriver past the scene of the attack, pausing to survey the area briefly, then continued on to the river’s end to complete our intended journey. I crossed Alligator Bay and on into Charlotte Harbor, hugging the shore to avoid boat traffic and waves, and then onward to the Gulf of Mexico. I sat down on the board and floated a while, considering the primordial nature of the water that supported me, source of life and specter of death.

Near a small stretch of beach and shallow surf I walked Evan’s board into the waves until the water reached my neck. Maneuvering to the edge of the estuary where the Gulf drinks in water from the Peace, I shoved Evan’s board into the resulting gentle rip current. I swam to shore, sat on the beach while the sun went down and watched the empty board rise and fall over small waves, retreating slowly into the distance as if it was being ridden, fading from view as darkness fell.

Thursday, June 19, 2014


     Kurt stared into a sink half-filled with motionless gray water. An occasional small bubble erupted from below the water’s surface, bringing with it the unmistakable pungent oceanic tang of Chicken of the Sea.
     “Mary?” Kurt yelled toward the kitchen door, “What’s in the sink?”
     She wasn’t far away.
     “Oh yeah, I meant to tell you about that.” she said, “I was cleaning out the refrigerator for  vacation.”
     “What is this stuff?”
     Mary glanced at the large empty tuna can on the counter. Kurt followed her glance.
     “You put THAT in the Disposall?”
     “It’s just tuna,” she said. “I tried to rinse it down, but, well, the water just kept getting deeper until it looked like this,” she gestured toward the sink.
     “It’s FOUR POUNDS of tuna!  Jesus, Mary, this is like something I’d do. I can’t believe the timing,” he laughed. “Where’s the plunger?”
     His smile had a calming effect on Mary’s hesitant response. She nervously put her hands to her mouth the way she always did when suppressing a giggle.
     “I’m sorry Kurt. I’ll go get it”
      “Maybe hot water will break it up,” muttered Kurt, moving the single handle faucet fully to the left.
     Kurt submerged the plunger’s pink rubber dome over the drain in the left basin of the double stainless steel sink while the hot water ran. As he pushed and pulled in a gentle attempt to dislodge the clog, the chunk-filled gray water appeared in the other side of the sink, mimicking his motions like a groundhog contemplating escape. The water was now hot and fuming, and smelled more strongly.
     The Disposall had apparently done the best it could with what it was presented. Gobs of emulsified tuna-water had been disgorged into the main pipe that led away from the U-fitting that joined the twin basin sink. The clog was firm and well beyond the reach of a simple plunger.
Kurt paused. “This isn’t working. Do we have any Drano?”
     Mary reached into the cabinet under the sink.
     “I guess you were right to always keep two bottles on hand Kurt!” she said, laughing.
     “Don’t patronize me. What does it say?”
     “Use half a bottle for stubborn clogs. Allow 30 minutes. Repeat if necessary. Drano can be poured through standing water.”
     Kurt looked at the label, and then poured an entire bottle carefully through the water at the approximate center of the sink.
     “We can’t leave this for a week,” Kurt commented pensively. They both looked intently at the water as if any second their problem would be whisked away in a vortex of triumphant clog dissolving action. Nothing happened.
     Mary blamed the Disposall. “It’s called a dispose ALL, isn’t it?”
     “I know Mary, but you just can’t stuff four pounds of tuna down a drain and expect it to be whisked away. Was that the can we just bought at Sam’s Club? It would have lasted in the fridge for more than a week.”
     “It would have smelled up the refrigerator. You opened it the other day.”
     Kurt resisted the implication that this was somehow his fault.
     “The toilet would have made more sense. That’s designed to carry away… chunks of stuff, you know?” Kurt laughed.
     “Let’s go pack and let it sit,” said Mary.
     Two hours later, the stinking chemical tuna ooze had obstinately refused to move. The acrid odor of sodium hydroxide now mingled with the essence of hot tuna water. It was simultaneously abrasive and offensive.
     “We need a plumber, but there’s no time. We have to be at the airport in six hours. We have to get this mess out of the sink or the whole house will stink when we get back,” said Kurt.
     He considered disassembling the pipes under the sink and draining everything into a bucket. The thought of gushing hot Drano/fish water in a confined space kept him thinking.
     “I know!” he exclaimed, “The ShopVac!” and he headed off to the garage.
     Mary fetched some old towels and a couple of large black plastic garbage bags from the laundry room. Kurt returned from the garage, wrestling the ShopVac on its rotating wheels and dragging the electric cord behind him.
     Kurt read the side of the vacuum, “Two gallons, that should be enough.”
     “I don’t know honey, that looks like a lot of water,” said Mary.
Kurt positioned the vacuum hose vertically over the sink, and then plunged the steel wand into the liquid mess.
      “Turn the vacuum on when I say ‘now’,” he instructed.
     Mary, with her hand on the switch, was a step ahead of her intense husband. She flipped the ShopVac on as the wand disappeared into the sink. The screaming motor bucked against the liquid that was blocking airflow into the holding tank, and the metal wand engaged the safety cutoff in the throat of the Disposall with a jarring ruckus as the old Disposall turned on. Banging cutting blades pummeled the wand, stinging Kurt’s hands like an off-center pitch against a metal baseball bat.
“MAAAARRRYYY” he shouted above the racket, “TURN IT OFFFFFFF!”
     Mary turned it off.
     Gray chemical water had splashed up onto Kurt’s arms, face and t-shirt. He stood like Arthur over Excalibur, holding the vacuum wand erect in the throat of the Disposall. Slime covered his forehead and nose. He turned his dripping face slowly toward Mary, who briefly considered reaching for the sink’s spray nozzle but quickly decided against it.
     “This is a nightmare,” said Kurt. “One more time, when I say ‘NOW’”
     The second attempt went much better. Kurt held the vacuum attachment above water level until     Mary turned the machine on, then cautiously dipped the sucking device into the water, giving the vacuum time to recover between punctuated mechanized slurps.
     Kurt stood straddling the ShopVac and looked triumphantly at Mary, who alternately smiled back and watched the water level drop.
     “See, I told you two gallons would do it,” he said.
     Looking down admiringly at the powerful little machine, he quickly understood its surprising capacity.  On the back of the canister, water spewed from a spigot intended to be used with an attached hose. The screw cap was missing.
     “Oh, son of a…MARY, SHUT IT OFF!” shouted Kurt.
     He grabbed one of the towels Mary had brought into the kitchen and stopped the flow of water with wadded up pressure like an army medic.
     “Open the back door!” he yelled, as he wheeled the ShopVac, holding the soaked towel over the spigot with one hand, guiding the rolling tank toward the patio door. The wand came free from the sink, disgorging its contents onto the kitchen counter and the laminate floor. Mary quickly reached for the electric outlet and unplugged the ShopVac before the cord fully extended.
     Kurt guided the rolling chemical hazard off the patio and down the sloping lawn all the way to the trees at the edge of their property. As the canister gained momentum, the rolling poison began to speed almost out of reach ahead of him but finally settled near the base of an old oak tree. He unlatched the canister from the vacuum head and dumped the stinking contents at the base of a patch of buckthorn.
      “I hope that doesn’t hurt the trees,” he muttered dejectedly. “God knows it won’t kill the buckthorn, but the raccoons should love it.”
     Inside, Mary was on her hands and knees wiping the floor with towels and clear water, tossing everything into garbage bags and shoving them toward the patio door. She stood to go to the laundry room for more supplies just as Kurt stepped into the kitchen from outside. Both Kurt and Mary flew off their feet, slipping on the soap-like sodium hydroxide slick that coated the linoleum floor. Unhurt, and erupting into laughter, they both lay on their backs and reached for each other’s hand.
     “It’s like black ice, this stuff, just like black ice,” laughed Mary.
     “Yeah, I need a vacation,” chuckled Kurt. “Say Mary, you didn’t happen to check the lint screen did you?”