Swimming with Killer Whales, and Cars that Go Up, Up, Up

It is a scientific fact that there exists a space in the human gut that […]

Charlotte Getz / 3.19.19

It is a scientific fact that there exists a space in the human gut that functions purely to process stories. We’ll call it the Story Organ. You hear a particular story and at once there begins this churning and grinding, like one of those plastic rock polishers you get from the nerd stores. Said Organ lies somewhere above the belly button and below the rib cage. When operative, it has been described as “the butterflies,” or “light to acute nausea.” Popular research may not yet own up to its existence but, let’s be honest, those guys wouldn’t know a good story if it fell into their Bunsen Burners. A really captivating or perplexing story will sit there and marinate for days, weeks, or even years. You latch on to it, or it latches on to you, and you are helpless to let go of one another. This is exactly how I feel about Ted Kennedy and also the documentary Blackfish.

My sister, Din, a fellow enthusiast of perplexing stories (read: scaring the living wits out of herself and then obsessing about it), insisted I watch the trailer for Blackfish a few years ago. I have never recovered; and of course I’ve since added a new fear to my ever-expanding list…

Item #304: Becoming an orca trainer.

Blackfish speaks out against the captivity of killer whales in venues like SeaWorld, but focuses primarily on one whale, Tilikum (which I assume is native for “the devil himself”). Tilikum, more fondly referred to as Tilly, was responsible for the deaths of three individuals. By my estimation, here’s the gist of what happened: first and foremost, these trainers loved their killer whales. They petted them, fed them little fish, swam with them, made them do tricks, and then locked them up at night in teeny tiny pools. After a while, the whale says something like “I’m over this” and then he turns on his beloved trainer. The attack isn’t just violent. It’s psychological. It’s manipulative. It involves the enormous creature casually taking a limb of the trainer into its jowls and pulling him or her to the bottom of the tank. He may keep them down there for a while, or repeat the process over and over again — drag to the depths, release, drag to the depths, release — with a sea of balloon-toting onlookers, until the trainer fully flatlines. The death is gory, and it is executed with revenge-like intention. You scared yet?

When I first saw Blackfish, it awakened some strange darkness in me, like drops of ink in water. My Story Organ churned on overdrive. Chugga-chugga, chugga-chugga, chugga-chugga. Who to blame in the matter? The poor, evil whales? The naïve (dead) trainers? I resonated with both.

First, the whale. Imagine having your loving family and a limitless existence ripped out from under you by greedy old fishermen, and then being held captive for the rest of your life. (Oh wait, Genesis 3!). Now you’re perpetually surrounded by walls haphazardly painted the color of your real home, a place of beauty, perfection, and utter freedom. Like, “Sorry you got kidnapped, but here’s a nice mural painted by schoolchildren that will vaguely remind you of the paradise you’re missing every single day until you die an early death.” Of course the big guy snapped. He’s a little sick in the heart. But aren’t we all? If I don’t think too much about it, I can ignore our bald-faced sameness, collapsed dorsal fin and all.

Second, the trainer. Imagine that one minute you’re the star of the show, a hero wielding power over the earth’s mightiest creatures, and then the next you’re looking up at your shiny pedestal from the murky depths of a fish tank (oh wait, Genesis 3 AGAIN!). Now you’re deep in the ailing trenches of the many long minutes of knowing that death at the hands of your precious, giant pet is imminent, but with no ability to turn back the clocks and decide not to go into a career of killer whale training. There is something about those minutes when the whale lets the trainer have a glimmer of hope by releasing them, followed by the slashing of that hope by delicately latching onto his or her ankle and pulling them back down, that hits at something visceral in my Story Organ. It’s the type of story where you (I?) feel a direct participant.

Death? Life! No, death. Life?…er…

It’s all too much. I often feel like that orca trainer at the bottom of a pool, and yet — and yet — some improbable surfacing always seems to follow.

I wish Mary Jo Kopechne could say the same. Allow me to explain.

I once had a mysterious dream that felt so real. It came at a time in college when even my skin hurt from some nameless sadness. The advent of this dream, I assume, was from a story I had heard about Ted Kennedy that summer. My family and I were aboard a fishing boat on our way from Cape Cod to Martha’s Vineyard for the day. As we approached the island, with Edgartown to our right, my Uncle Alan reminisced. Here was the story he told:

He began, “It was around 1969 I think. Ted Kennedy attends this party on Chappaquiddick Island, which is over to our left.” Alan pointed. I looked. “And Mary Jo Kopechne, a girl from his brother’s presidential campaign staff is at the party too. So anyway, later that night Ted offers to drive Mary Jo home. Mind you, he’s married with children at the time. But Mary Jo agrees. Then, on their way to the ferry, Ted veers left off of Main Street and onto Dyke Road — a sort of odd misstep as he knew the island pretty well, right? After heading down Dyke Road for a half a mile or so, he drives the car off of a toll bridge, into a channel over that way.” Alan pointed. I looked. “Ted escapes the vehicle, totally unharmed, and just casually walks back to the party with Mary Jo Kopechne still in the car. Anyway there are something like twelve houses along the two-mile stretch where he could have at least used a telephone to call for help. But he doesn’t. He just leaves her there, underwater. Doesn’t call the police or anything. Later that night, Ted returns to his hotel in Edgartown right over there. But because of the hour, the ferry has stopped running, so he actually swims across the channel — Mary Jo in his car under the water the whole time.” I hazarded a lean over the edge of the boat, taking in the surface of the quickening water below. “Ted goes to sleep and learns over breakfast the next morning that local fishermen found a black Oldsmobile Delmont in the pond. There was a woman in the car. Dead. I saw on the History Channel or some place that studies show Mary Jo probably survived for at least four hours in an air pocket before suffocating in her own polluted oxygen.”

And the Story Organ goes whirr, whirr, whirr.

Butterflies. Acute nausea. I know in an instant this story will not, maybe never, let me go.

Suffocating in a car at the bottom of the ocean, forsaken by your married lover — this, much like being held against your will at the bottom of a whale tank, must be the epitome of anguish. “He knows not what he does.”

Take this from me.

And then I had this dream. The whole thing will sound strange, but go with me there, won’t you? Let me tell you every detail.

In the beginning of the dream, I was a Magician (you were warned). Somehow, I was able to control the dream’s happenings as both my character in the dream, and as myself — the dreamer. Then, out of nowhere, I lost my Magic. My Power. At one moment, I sat with my feet dangling over ancient walls, calling into existence sunsets, rainbows, and all sorts of other amusements. Then there was only darkness. There was only me. And I was powerless to bring about the light.

I stood alone on a chilled rainy night in what now seemed to be the deadest part of winter. In my hand sat an opened umbrella and a still body of water covered the expanse before me. I looked down to see the tips of my feet at odds with the steep edge of a bank, and at once I took a few uneasy steps back.

Suddenly, there was trouble in the water. Bubbles and splashes and gurgles churned atop the craggy surface before me. I felt afraid and so ran a safe ways back from the water to the threshold of a dismal forest. Tree limbs gripped towards me like tangled arms, both repelling and somehow beckoning me deeper into its shadow. Nonetheless, I stayed, compelled by the disturbance blooming in the water. But I was hidden. Safe.

Before long, a car — a black 1967 Oldsmobile Delmont 88 — began to surface. Without being beckoned, or pulled, or towed, it moved backwards from the dreary depths below, as if alive. The car began to climb the nearly vertical banks, the red of its hazard lights illuminating the world with caution. The engines roared at the challenge of the climb. As the car moved further onto the flat dry ground, black sea water spilled by the gallon from the bottom of its rusted doors, dumping out seaweed and all sorts of peculiar ocean life with it.

I craned my neck to see more, and jumped at the eerie sight of a human form sitting in the passenger seat, her head hung low. And I was filled with both the largest hope and the largest dread.

Was she dead? Almost dead?

As the Oldsmobile moved closer to the veiled woods — and me, trembling on its brinks — I saw that the form was a woman. But I could not see her face. Her head pressed limply against the dashboard. Paralyzed by fear and confusion I did nothing, which was strange; I always wanted to be a hero. But no. I just stood there, fixed under the shelter of my umbrella and the protection of the night, and watched the mysterious scene unfold before me.

And then he came. And I did not hear his approach. A man stormed from the woods behind me, cloaked in a dark hooded rain jacket.

I did not — I could not — recognize him.

And he ran so fast I thought the filthy ground beneath him would burst into flames. He threw open the passenger-side door to the drenched car, almost ripping the thing from its hinges. And out fell the woman like a soggy rag doll. Cold and soaked and lifeless, she folded into his steady, eagerly outstretched arms. And he carried her like a father carries his daughter. He laid her gently on the ground. Breathless, I leaned forward to see who the woman might be. But her long brown hair was swept wet and carelessly across her face.

And then, with no warning at all, the man clenched his fist until it was white. And he pounded her frail chest with a force so commanding, I worried the aggressive gesture would shatter her ribs. I thought his efforts extreme, but was stirred by them nonetheless.

Some thing began to feel wrong beyond the bizarre events unfolding on the shore — the kind of thing that creeps up into your belly and tickles and itches and nags until you realize it. And then I saw. And the stars turned to fuzzy streaks across their cobalt backdrop. Not wanting to add further burden to this hero’s shoulders, I steadied myself, doing what I could to not faint altogether. But what I had seen shook me to my dead, dry bones.

The woman’s hair had fallen from her forehead, revealing her face. And I let out an audible gasp — perhaps it was a scream — as I realized with a torrential sickness that the woman in the car, now motionless on the ground, wasn’t Mary Jo.

She was me.

And from the sanctuary of the shadows, I looked on in horror as this man pounded my chest with some tenacious, unrelenting rage — as though he would take these infirmities onto himself. From the edge of the woods my feet neglected to move. I reached forward to no avail. To save myself? The man pounded and pounded until the thing within would beat again.

After some time — from failure, exhaustion, or some other conclusion I could not know, the man stopped beating my chest. Instead, he took my weary hands into his, as if to offer some transfer of Power, some gift of Magic. And at once, I saw from his eyes that I was still alive. For a rising Rhythm Rhythm Rhythm had begun to resonate throughout the night, as if it were the fiery basso profundo paying homage at the finale of a firework show. BoomBoom BoomBoom BoomBoom. I knew in that moment that a Great Wrong had been furiously righted. And because somehow I was a part of it, as both a witness of this exchange as well as its recipient, I knew even in the dream that I would long to re-dream it over and over and over again.

With a swift movement, the man slipped into the driver’s seat of the car. And after catching the attention of the tired eyes of the me who lay sprawled in the dirt beside him, barely alive, he smiled. Still smiling, he closed the door behind him. The engines of the Delmont roared beneath him, and the car switched gears from reverse into drive, slowly rolling forward, back towards the water. And dirt and rocks and litter crunched beneath the crippling weight of the bashed-up vehicle.

The crescendo.

The car rolled off of the bridge and into the thirsty water below. From my place under the trees, I lunged forward to stop him. But I was arrested by the curious contentedness in his eyes, which held my stare in the rearview mirror, the car rolling away all the while. The water received the thing with a splash so tremendous that the sight of it evoked a vision of a colossal tsunami, whose power and might would reimagine every inch of this world from Atlantis to the treetops to the slums. And then at once, that is exactly what happened (because, of course, dreams can change at the drop of a hat). I found myself — the real me — underwater, lost, and decaying, too. And the New Life above the surface, where the sea spray soared like glad confetti, well, it dazzled and glittered and shone like Some Place I have never known or ever dared to conceive of. It beckoned to me, and I longed to go there. And with an enduring assuredness — an assuredness unbelonging to me — I felt satisfied that one fine day, I would.

And then I was awakened.

Like I said, although it felt real, it was only a vivid dream — a dream where, like Mary Jo or an Orca trainer, I was in the mud, dead and underwater. And then, unlike Mary Jo, I wasn’t.

And I know it’s peculiar, but every night I pray and I pray to dream it again and again and again — this one story — that it would never end. Or that the very thing of it — fluttering about like the wings of a butterfly, taking residence in the place where only the great stories go to live on — would make me lighter and lighter, or maybe heavier and heavier, or perhaps some strange alchemy of the two; nonetheless, altogether whole, altogether free. That it would never, not ever let me go.