Viral Whales and Dynamite

David Messmer

IMAGE: Chad Robert Collofollo

David Messmer holds an MFA from the University of Houston, holds down a job as the director of the first-year writing program at Rice University, often holds his daughter on his shoulders, and can proudly hold his liquor.

Things with me and Jackie might have gone differently if a chunk of whale blubber hadn’t crushed my car right before our second date. We’d met at the college radio station where my Free Jazz Free Play used to bleed into her Jack-EZ-Listenin'. I worried she’d get mad when my show ran over, but when I explained that “I’ll never cut a solo short, no matter how long,” she seemed more impressed than annoyed. I asked her out the next day. Maybe things wouldn’t have worked out regardless of the whale fat. I’ll never know, and that’s what eats at me.

 

 

And, yeah, some say a botched second date’s a small price to pay for a bit of internet fame. Over twenty-four million views. Twenty-four million. That’s the population of Australia. Imagine every Australian in the world laughing at you even though you had the good sense to park your car a quarter mile away from the dead whale.

It’s a lot to live with.

Thing is, I had a life before and after that video. I’ve had three jobs, two wives, two

divorces, two kids. I even still talk to my son—Nathan—every once in a while. Hell, that whale exploded way back in ‘70, before the net even existed, back when we had nothing better to do than drive to beaches and watch things blow up.

It was all Carl’s fault, really. We lived together in an apartment outside Eugene, a good

hour or so from the beach in Florence where the whale had washed up. I still don’t know how Carl heard about it. He was just the kind of guy who found out about stuff. I was the kind of guy with nowhere to be on a Friday morning in November. The first thing I remember is the smell. 

“That just means we’re close,” Carl said. 

I was afraid it might soak into the upholstery, which would make for a bad impression

when I picked Jackie up for our second date, so I parked far enough away that the winds coming off the Pacific would push the smell clear of my Oldsmobile.

We made the short walk to the beach where we joined the other suckers checking out the

carcass. For over a week, the seagulls had been feasting on what had turned into a massive pile of goo. The Highway Division would have left it there to rot if the locals hadn’t made such a fuss about the stink. By then, the thing had gotten too mushy to cut up. Naturally, stuffing it with dynamite was plan B.

The workers from the Highway Division were busy setting up the dynamite, and a news

crew was milling about. The reporter disappeared into the news van after a while. Either he knew something was up, or he didn’t want the chilly breeze to muss his perfect hair.

Eventually we had to move back, in case the explosion kicked up a lot of sand. No one

seemed concerned that the explosion was going to kick up a lot of whale, too.

See, the video clip cuts most of that. There’s a short explanation and then—boom—the

explosion. The cameras stop rolling when the chunks hit the beach and all the screaming starts. Next thing you know, the reporter’s back, all clean and smug and joking about how everyone else is coated in bits of skin and blubber. And then there’s a final shot of this one car, the roof completely collapsed from a hundred-pound glob of whale fat.

My car.

 

 

For those of us on the beach that day, life kept going. The reporter took control pretty fast,

cornering me for an interview as soon as he realized I was the owner of the Oldsmobile that had just gotten crushed under a glob of whale innards.

I’d never seen Carl so excited. “I wish I had a car, just so that whale could have crushed

it,” he said.

When the interview started, I didn’t have much to say. As for the car, all I could think

about was how to jiggle the knob to get the AM radio to work, which didn’t really matter anymore.

The reporter wouldn’t give up. “When did you know something was wrong?” he asked.

I said, “When whale chunks fell on me.” 

“I meant your car.”

I said, “When I saw a chunk of whale on it.”

“But before that.”

“Before that, I was worried about the chunks of whale falling on me.”

He seemed annoyed, but kept at me. “How would you describe the odor?” he asked.

It was a dumb question—the odor was still all around us. All he had to do was breathe to

get his answer. But his asking made me think more about the smell until it flooded my whole body, and before I knew it, I wasted my breakfast on the sand. The reporter tried to kick the half-digested Cheerios off his shoes while he told the camera man to cut, and that was that. He didn’t even offer to help or ask if I was okay.

The interview never made it to the news. Just the car. And my reputation.

 

 

It all left me in a pretty crappy frame of mind when I went on my second date with Jackie. I

was taking her to see this new movie—Love Story. What can I say? I liked her. I wasn’t going to shy away.

Then, two days before our date, I was left with no car and a shaggy head of hair that

smelled like a skunk wallowing in rotten cottage cheese. No shower could get that out.

A hot check at the car rental place solved one problem. Scissors and an electric razor

solved the other. I thought it was all going to work out, especially when the rental turned out to be a pretty sweet Chevy Corvair with a bursting purple paint job. Jackie’s eyes lit up when I pulled that beauty into her dorm’s parking lot.

“What happened to your hair?” she asked when I got out.

“I cut it.” The last thing I wanted was to explain about the whale.

“And a new car, too?”

This was a big moment for me and Jackie. She liked the car—that was clear. The trouble

was, I liked her. I’d spent the morning wondering if she planned on moving after graduation and if so, would five months of dating be enough for her to take me along? In other words, I didn’t want to lie on our second date if I didn’t have to.

"The Olds got totaled," I said. No need to mention that the Corvair was only a rental.

“Oh my god, are you okay?”

Her concern felt good. “I wasn’t in it at the time,” I said.

“Did you see who did it?” she asked.

“Sort of,” I said.

“What does that mean?”

See, the thing about accidents—everyone wants the whole story. Eventually I had to admit

that, yes, I’d gone to watch a whale get blown up and, yes, it had been a terrible idea, and, no, dynamiting the whale didn’t really work, and, yes, a massive chunk of dead whale landed on the roof of my car and totaled it and, no, the Corvair wasn’t mine, I’d only be driving it until I saved up enough money to buy a new car, and, no, my insurance wasn’t going to help me out because apparently whales were an act of God, but, no, I really don’t want to keep talking about it, and, no, I’m not snapping, I’m just trying to change the subject because I’m tired of talking about the whale blubber that crushed my goddamned car.

 

 

Ruining things with Jackie was a shame. Who knows what might have happened if I hadn’t been in such a foul mood that night? 

Whatever. I’d meet other women. I’d get married and divorced and all that. Then married

again. Divorced again. 

Maybe someday my daughter will return my calls.

Anyway, eventually I got a new car—a used Chevelle for $300—and stopped thinking

about Jackie. Carl and I were still roommates, but we didn’t hang out much anymore. I finished school in May of ‘71 with a degree in finance. I’d considered one more semester to finish out a minor in math, but after the whale incident and the blow-up with Jackie and the bridges burned at the radio station, I figured it was best to get to the next phase of life.

It was the news story that really did me in. It was all anyone could talk about in the bars

around Eugene for a good long while. We didn’t have internet or even VCRs back then—just memories, and those tended to get stranger and more embarrassing for the fool who’d parked his car a quarter-mile from the blast site. Eventually the stories got so out of hand that I had to set the record straight and, voilà, everyone knew I was the fool. Then came the usual questions about what happened to the car and how bad everything smelled.

 

 

I think that was one of the reasons I fell in love with Clara. I was working in finance, making decent scratch at a low level, number cruncher kind of job. At least I could say I was using my degree. I got my own apartment—no roommates, no hangovers from college.

I’d only been at the new job for a couple weeks when a receptionist told me I was kind of

cute. I thought she was cute, too, and was trying to decide if the ring on her finger was a deal-breaker when she said, “I have a friend. I think she’s a little lonely, but she won’t admit it.” That sounded like the perfect amount of lonely to me. Turned out she was even cuter than the receptionist.

Clara had been holed up in her art studio for a year, cranking out paintings and scraping

to stay ahead of the bills. She’d had no time for television, especially the news. She’d never heard of an exploding whale—or at least she didn’t mention it. We got married two years later.

A year after that, the same receptionist who’d introduced us was in our living room, wedged between a couple of blank canvases and sucking down our wine, when she declared that Clara’s art stuff made the place smell like rotten fish. Clara laughed and they locked eyes in that way girlfriends do. I waited for them to let me in on the joke. They didn’t.

Then it hit me. Fish. Smell. Maybe Clara knew about the whale after all. Maybe she’d kept

it to herself to save my feelings or maybe so she could feel superior while my full-time job kept up her art habit. Regardless, I was sure she knew.

I asked her about it after her friend left.

“What look?” Clara asked.

I kept my voice casual. “When she said our living room smells like fish.”

She got quiet.

“You might as well admit it,” I said. “I already know.”

“You know about Paul?”

“Who’s Paul?” I stopped trying to sound casual.

“What did you think I was going to say?”

“I thought you knew about the whale.”

“What whale?”

“The one that totaled my car.”

I saw the struggle as she tried not to laugh. “That was you?”

“Who’s Paul?” I asked again, my voice a bit squeakier than I wanted.

Turns out Paul was a marine biologist Clara had been sleeping with for a few months.

She’d told her friend that sometimes he smelled like his job.

 

 

Clara and I divorced. She moved in with Paul and I moved as far as I could from oceans and whales and marine biologists and two-bit artists who cheated on me and made my living room stink. It was ‘73 and John Denver was always blathering about the Rocky Mountains. I bought a used pickup truck, loaded it with everything I owned that didn’t remind me of Clara, and headed east.

In Denver I got a job I didn’t completely hate, working for a bank. Back then the air in the

city was thick with cold and smog—about as far from the smell of the sea as I could get. On the weekends I drove into the mountains and did some hiking. It was during one of those trips, on a crisp Colorado afternoon, that I met Sarah.

She reminded me a lot of Jackie in the way she could bend to new ideas without ever

seeming like a pushover. With no dynamited carcasses to ruin the second date, we sailed straight through to a third, then a fourth, and before we knew it, she was pregnant and I’d bought another engagement ring.

We didn’t get married right away. Sarah didn’t want to blow a bunch of money on a big

ceremony. All she wanted was one last tropical vacation before the pregnancy ruined her figure. I tried to explain that I had bad memories of beaches.

“I know, I know,” she said. “The marine biologist.”

I’d told her about Clara and the cheating. I’d kept the dynamite and blubber to myself.

Sarah didn’t give up. “It’ll be my last chance to wear a bikini,” she said, “before I turn into

a whale.” She talked like that the whole time she was pregnant. “I look like a whale.” “I’m turning into such a whale.” “I feel like a beached whale.” “I’m like a whale that’s about to explode.” I tried to ignore it all and focus on how much I loved her.

After Nathan was born, Sarah and I finally did get married on a mountain, beneath a\

bright, clear sky, surrounded by the scent of pine. We timed the ceremony so the “I do’s” happened right at noon, when the shadows are at their smallest. It all felt good and right. She looked perfect in a dress blanched white in the sun while she smiled at my full head of clean and well-groomed hair. Even now, with everything such a mess, I can’t find anything but love in my memories of those days.

We were both thrilled when Sarah got pregnant again. I promised I’d trade my truck for a

station wagon as long as she didn’t call herself a whale during the new pregnancy. She thought I was being sweet. I took to our daughter Isobel right away. I tell myself that every father cares more for his daughters than his sons— that it had nothing to do with Sarah comparing herself, this time, to a balloon.

 

 

Things were fine for a good long while. Then they weren’t. I’m not sure who to blame. The kids got through it. Sarah and I did too, in our way. She remarried. I didn’t. She visits our kids now that they’ve gone away to college. I don’t. She seems relatively content with how things turned out.

 

 

It was right around the time Sarah left my life that the whale came back into it. By then I’d swapped finance for work as a math teacher at a for-profit college in the Denver metro area. I was at a local sports bar called The Hoof celebrating the arrival of the final divorce papers when I overheard two guys talking.

“They just blew it up?” the first said. He wore an expensive suit and a Denver Broncos cap.

“Boom,” said this guy decked out in Bronco gear from head to foot. “Whale blubber

everywhere. Totaled some loser’s car. You’ve got to see it. There’s a whole website for it.”

I settled my tab and went home. I hadn’t been online in a while—didn’t like to clog up the

phone line. Isobel was pretty much lost to me by then, but Nathan rang every once in a while. This, though, was an emergency. I cranked up the modem and went straight to theexplodingwhale.com.

Sure enough.

 

 

The video made me nostalgic for Eugene. All that cold, wet air beneath the slate gray skies. Nothing like the faded greens and whites of Denver.

The video also got me thinking about how my life could have gone, and how it might still

go differently if I made some changes. It got me thinking about that second date.

There were thousands of Jackies on Whitepages dot com. Hundreds just in Eugene. I

couldn’t remember her last name. I thought the old college radio station might have some record of her. They’d loaded their website with old highlights that didn't include anything from ‘70—not even my stuff with Ornette Coleman.

I was about to give up when I saw a couple recordings from January of ‘71—two months

after Jackie and I had our second date. The first was this guy —Brad—doing a Led Zeppelin Power Hour. The second was a voice I’d never forget.

“This is Jack-EZ Simmons, and I’m glad you’re listenin’.” Simmons—of course. I listened for

a while, enjoying the sleepiness in her tone, until her words got my attention. “...that’s right," she was saying. “Blubber. Right down on his car. No one at the station’s seen him since.” That was a lie—we’d gone on a second date. “We think he’s still on the beach,” she went on. “So if you see a stinky whale shaman dancing in the moonlight, just know that he’s harmless and probably needs a ride. We’ll all miss him here at the station, but he's married to mother nature now.” I shut down my computer. They skipped Ornette Coleman for this? 

I headed back to Eugene.

 

 

Jackie wasn’t the only reason I went back. I’d moved to Denver to get away from the whale story. And Clara, I guess. But there was no getting away from the internet. Besides, as I neared my fifties the dry Colorado air was making me wrinkle faster than normal. Sarah was gone and both Nathan and Isobel were going to college out of state. There was no reason to stay except work. Then that blew up, too—they called my commonsense ideas “insubordination.”

I already knew my way around Eugene and living there would put me closer to Nathan,

who was a junior at San José State. Isobel was in Virginia last I’d heard. Still is, I think. I packed what I could into my Saturn, wedged my computer into the passenger seat, and drove back the way I’d come over two decades earlier.

In Eugene I blew my savings on a new apartment and a new suit. Resumes, interviews, a

few long-distance calls to my son. One of my talks with Nathan went okay. None of the interviews did. I ended up working at a Radio Shack for six bucks an hour. It was a start.

 

 

I hardly recognized the outside of the radio station building—the bricks had been painted

white and the roof was near collapse. The insides, though, were very familiar. Old vinyls and turntables and pieces of equipment were piled into corners of the audio booth, making room for the CD rack and a soundboard that looked like a toy. I got a whiff of that familiar, electric scent, like static mixed with charcoal. And weed, of course.

The biggest change in the place was the kids— a guy who looked a little like Nathan and

a girl who looked nothing like Isobel. The girl was talking into the mike and shaking a tambourine. The boy met me in the waiting area, his hair flopping in front of his eyes.

“We’ve got our permits in the back,” he said. He’d mistaken me for someone with

authority. I doubt there was a permit for what was making his eyes so bloodshot.

"I’m here for information,” I told him.

“Are you a cop? If you are, you have to tell me.” He scooped some of his hair out of his

eyes, giving me a thorough look-over.

I put my hands up as a sign of peace. “I used to work here. I’m interested in some of the

broadcasts on your website. The old ones.”

“Yeah, some of those are dope.” He let his hair flop.

“There’s one about me on there. I was hoping you could take it down.”

“I don’t know if we can do that.” He was scratching at his cheek now.

“I’m thinking about getting a lawyer,” I said.

“Whoa, whoa,” the kid said. His cheek was turning pink and blotchy. “Which recording

are you talking about?”

“It’s by Jackie Simmons.” His hand stopped scratching. “She called me a whale shaman.”

“Wait,” the boy said, his cheek forgotten. “Are you talking about the exploding whale?

That shit is dope.”

“I'm talking about the girl who lied about it. Jackie Simmons.”

He used both hands to pull all of his hair back for a full view of me. “Wait, are you the

whale dude? With the car? You’re, like, a legend around here.” He pulled open the door to the sound booth, “Hey, Cynthia, this guy’s the whale dude. Check it out.”

The girl said a few words into the mike, then put on a CD. She joined us, her tambourine

still rattling in her hand.

“You blew up that whale back in ‘70?” she asked.

The boy explained. “He’s the guy with the car that got all messed up.”

“Right on,” she said.

I braced myself for questions. The girl just stared at me for a while until she finally asked,

“What did it feel like when the dynamite went boom?”

It took me a moment to say anything. I’d only ever been asked about my car or the news

report or the internet video. Or the smell. What had I felt? I had to think about that.

“Everything came in waves,” I finally said. "There was the explosion and then a burst of

sand. Then the sound. Like a massive crack in the brain, then a thump on the chest. Then it got real quiet—all the birds had left and none of the people knew what to do.

“The pattering was next—stuff hitting the beach. Too loud to be rain or even hail, and none

of it was soaking into the sand. Then screaming. Bigger chunks raining on us. People running for cover. I remember this one guy holding his suit jacket over his head, as if it could save him.”

There wasn’t a bit of humor in this girl’s eyes as I talked. Maybe that’s why I kept going.

“Now everybody laughs about what happened. Nobody realizes what it was really like—

massive globs of stuff hurtling at us from the sky. If I’d known then that some blubber crushed my car, I’d have been grateful that it hadn’t crushed me instead.

“After it all stopped, we stood still and tried not to look at each other. It was embarrassing

—all the whale stuck in our hair, how bad we all smelled, how scared we'd been. What did we expect to happen to an eight-ton whale carcass packed with explosives? I was embarrassed to have been so stupid.”

“Dude,” Cynthia said. She was as stoned as the boy who reminded me of Nathan. “Could

you say all that again? On the radio? I mean, like, exactly like you just said it?”

It was then that I knew Jackie Simmons was lost to me forever.

 

 

A few days later a phone call bumped me off the internet. Carl was the last person I wanted to talk to. We'd fallen out of touch shortly after watching the whale explode, mainly because that was all he ever wanted to talk about. I asked him how he'd been.

“You remember when we watched that whale explode?” he asked.

“How’d you get my number?” Damn Carl.

“You’re back in town, huh?”

“For now,” I said.

“I’ve got an idea,” he said.

“I remember the last time you had an idea,” I said.

“You still got that car?” he asked.

“Why would I keep a car that’s been totaled?”

He was quiet while he adjusted his idea. “What about the bones?” he asked.

“What are you talking about?” I should have hung up.

“I could get a couple shovels from work,” he said.

“The thing got blown into a million pieces.” I knew nothing I said was going to matter. Carl

didn’t give up once he had an idea.

“Most of it was still on the beach,” he said. “They buried all the chunks left over from the dynamite.”

Curiosity got the better of me. “What’re we going to do with whale bones?” I asked.

“People are crazy about the internet. It’s the future. That’s why I wanted the car, but the

bones’ll do. We’ll start a collection. Maybe we could get that fat kid with the pretend lightsaber to donate his sticks. We could have an ‘Ate My Balls’ gallery.”

“That’s not much of a collection.”

“The internet's just getting started. There's more shit coming. It's going to blow up.”

“Just like the whale.”

“That's the spirit.” Carl was so sure that everything would work out—that the future could

only be great.

 

 

I heard more of Carl’s ideas while we drove. We’d crammed two shovels and a cooler full of Bud Light into the trunk of my Saturn. When we finally got to Florence, we drove up and down the beach front, passing the small parking lots spotting the shore and arguing about which one we’d used all those years ago

“I remember the shape of that sand dune,” he said after our third pass up the street.

“You think the dunes might have changed in the last thirty years?” I asked.

“I remember that one.”

I gave in. What did it matter? The bones had probably washed out to sea or burrowed into

a shoreline that was receding as fast as my hair. I was only there to humor him and kill some time.

I carried the shovels while Carl dragged the cooler down the wooden stairs that led to the

sand. I have to admit, something about the spot felt familiar, as if the ghost of that whale had lingered for three decades. Carl left his sandals next to a trash can, then hoisted the cooler onto his shoulder. I kept my shoes on. I remembered the cling of whale residue—how I could never get it off. I felt like I might throw up in this place a second time.

It was getting late, and other than a few elderly couples taking their evening walk, we

were alone. Carl had insisted on coming at low tide, as though we might find something.

The digging was hard work, especially for a guy in his fifties. The sun was low and intense

and I didn’t have much hair to absorb the sweat. My palms got raw from the work. Carl was squinting into the brightness, scanning the beach as if there’d be a grave marker for thirty-year-old, half-detonated whale remains.

Our hole was just getting to a good size when an ambitious wave flooded the bottom of it,

the cold water soaking into my shoes and socks.

“We should move,” I said.

“I think this is the right spot,” Carl said.

“I think the whale was a bit further inland,” I said. Best to play along.

We moved a few yards up the beach.

After another twenty minutes of digging the tide crept up on us again. “I think we're too

close to the water,” I said.

After another hour our third hole was four feet deep and wide enough for both of us to

stand inside it. The sun was near the horizon and the water was nearly black.

“I don't know,” Carl said. “I think we were closer the first time. Maybe we should come

back tomorrow.”

I kept digging. I wasn't giving in to Carl’s optimism anymore. The only thing left was to find

out how deep I could go before the tide rolled all the way in and flooded the thing.

“Do you know if metal detectors pick up bones?” Carl asked.

I flung a load of wet sand over the lip of the hole.

“Come to think of it,” he went on, “I've heard fish are mostly cartilage.”

I didn't bother telling him that whales weren’t fish. I was finding a good rhythm, ignoring

the water that immediately filled in each hole that I scooped.

“Hell,” Carl said as he climbed back out and dragged the cooler to where the sand was

still dry. “Maybe this isn't going to work.” He cracked open a beer.

I kept tossing sand out of the hole, pushing through the ache in my muscles. I wasn’t

stopping—not now. Carl sat on the sand just above me, swigging his beer and watching the sun set, his face golden and serene. I refused to join him. Refused to stop. Sped up, in fact—the shovel dipping into the mix of sand and saltwater then flinging it all over my shoulder, some of it raining back down on my bald head, some of it piling up on the beach around me, some of it tumbling back into my hole, waiting for the shovel to fling it again. It was pointless, I knew. In the same way that stuffing a whale full of dynamite was pointless—damn the Highway Division. They should have just left that whale carcass alone—let it decompose, or sink into the sand, or turn into bird food the way it was supposed to. The whale would have gone away eventually. So what if it stunk in the meantime?

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