A panicked wail comes across the water, shaking the seafloor. A young sperm whale, caught in the North Pacific Gyre, is separated from her pod. The speed of the current carries her cries far away from their source. The calf’s father chases a trail of barnacles that had been ripped off of the child’s underside by the current. It isn’t long before the father is lost. An infernal din coming from far above the water grows louder and louder.
On the surface, the rasp of John Fogerty busts through the gaps in the radio static as about two thousand people miss the point of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s anti-war anthem “Fortunate Son.” In the throes of the Nixon era, the children of Florence, Oregon pledge their allegiance to a country in the midst of a war that is older than them. Fathers and brothers they’ve never met lay dead on Saigon streets, sent to wage senseless battles for a nation who bought their caskets before they ever boarded the plane out. The war seems to literally weigh on the townspeople, as if the elephant in the room climbed on their backs and perched on their shoulders.
The sidewalks are spotless; the icy November wind came over the Siuslaw River through the Willamette Valley and froze the close-to-falling leaves to their branches. The water near the shore sits still as if fastened to the seafloor. It’s half past eleven, yet the moon hangs in the sky in defiance of the sun, a conscientious objector to service in the armed forces of nature. It will be at least an hour until the moon dies behind the line where sea meets sky. Then, out of the stillness, a noise. A low cry pierces the air as the sea spits out a swollen mass.
The schoolboys were the first to find the body. Fresh off of lunch they took to poking the carcass with sticks. With each stab, a foul belch emerged from the mass. The boys didn’t know what to make of it. The local news had run a story about biological warfare in Hanoi, where corpses, bloated with chemicals, were lobbed across enemy lines when the militiamen ran out of bullets. Could this be one of those swollen corpses? Could this be war? When the boys told the town about what they saw, the Highway Division called in the Navy, the whole town paranoid that there could be a nuclear weapon lodged somewhere underneath the layers of fat. The gruff lieutenant said it was just a whale; by its size, it was about sixty years old.
The beach stinks of age and rot, the already-degrading corpse a reeking monument in its denouement. What had the whale seen? It’s 1915. Dogger Bank is cold and lifeless. Then, ships and submarines spawn across the sea. Mother is harpooned by shipmen low on lamp oil. Hours later, Dogger Bank is cold and lifeless. It’s 1945. The waters of the Pacific are bloodied with war and blackened with soot - a deep crimson permanently tints the blue of the ocean. It’s 1970. Coos Bay is heavy with natural gas. Oregon factories have been hard at work building weapons for the war effort overseas. Careless supervisors, donning vestigial hardhats and squeezing into coveralls that cover nothing, instruct their employees to toss the leftover barrels into the water. Fuel seeps into the whale’s lungs; it crashes on the beach.
Each grain of sand feels like a shard of glass. The whale’s breathing gets shallower and shallower… and shallower. It sees humans closing in. Their paths had diverged eons ago, but the whale musters a final gasp of air, reaching into its sub-subconscious for some semblance of language, some Rosetta Stone etched into the folds of its brain. “O-o-o…” An all-encompassing black washes over the whale. Its last breath is wasted on the surface. Those who can hear it can’t understand it and those who could understand won’t hear it. The beast sinks into the sand. Close parenthesis.
To the good people of Florence, this was not just a whale; it was an invader. For all they knew, there could’ve been a whole Viet Cong squadron tucked into the corpse’s layers of blubber. They weren’t going to let this go, not when the sons of Florence were rotting on the beaches of Hanoi. The townspeople were calling for an eye for an eye; they were content with being blind if it meant the enemy was, too. They wanted blood – for Harry Jones, for Don Patterson, for other men who would never return to Oregon. The Florence City Council decided to blow the whale up. George Thornton, the project manager, passed the news on to the town’s resident explosives expert, Walt Umenhofer, who got his hands on half a short ton of dynamite and set demolition day for November 12. Word of Florence’s plan spread quickly; a car salesman in North Bend, about an hour from Florence, announced the “Get a Whale of a Deal” promotion. Hot off the rush of a job confirmed, Umenhofer bought himself a new Oldsmobile from that lot. Reporters flock from all over the Pacific Northwest to document the event, the glass eyes of their Super 8 cameras trained on the beached body.
Zero hour. Planes carrying the next wave of young recruits fly overhead, backlit by the Agent Orange glow of the afternoon sun. Townspeople stand behind the barricades watching the half-rotten corpse with anticipation. Their faces, once dripping in malaise, light up as Umenhofer parks his Oldsmobile in front of the barricade. Thornton takes pleasure in watching Umenhofer stuff the whale full of dynamite, its deflated body forced to full volume. Its skin hangs loosely, draped on its skeleton like canvas on a tent. A smile slowly spreads across Thornton’s face looking at his creation. A sense of pride washes over him, the feeling felt when God looked to Adam, or monk to manuscript, or Monk to “Round Midnight.” The feeling when, in an instant, something tumbles across the plane separating mind from matter, when something is no longer yours but the world’s.
Umenhofer gets behind the barricade and takes a puff of his cigar. Flashing his shark-toothed smile, with endless rows of teeth, Thornton detonates the whale. It’s silent at first. Then: an unholy boom cracks the sky in half. Too much dynamite. A salmon mist launches toward the sun, like a Pollock painting turned on end. Blood and guts and blubber cling to the horizon, the sunset shaded a waxy orange – half amber and half ambergris.
When the spray reaches the zenith of its arc, for less than a moment, the particulate matter stretches a scarlet banner across the sky, softening the contours of clouds like the cataracts of Florence’s Greatest Generation. It’s the kind of sky kids resting in the grass abstract faces from: God, Jesus Christ, John Lennon. The kind that the nuns in Sunday school say will descend on the homes of unruly children if they keep doodling in their Bibles. The kind that one wishes they could pull in and throw around their shoulders like a shawl. It’s ethereal, ephemeral. It’s gone. Everything blurs together – slowly at first, then all at once. It’s a warzone, the whale napalm and its organs the shrapnel. Umenhofer’s car is flattened by a falling piece of fat and the townspeople are coated with the awful stench of death and decay.
Gulls and crabs battle for real estate on the sand, aiming to take what was left of the whale home to their colonies. They settle for an uneasy truce, the birds on one end and crustaceans on the other. The sun has long since sunk under the sea, the moon taking its place in the heavens. The sky still seems to be tinted red, as if the whale’s blood had stuck to the clouds; perhaps the residents of Florence hadn’t wiped their eyes quite yet. The light of the stars runs together like a river across the evening. Hobbyists in basements toggle through sobbing men and sex callers on the shortwave radio to tell their acquaintances in neighboring towns about the whale. Teenagers hog the phone lines, frantically giving their friends who hadn’t been on the beach to watch the explosion a play-by-play. News stations up and down the west coast play and replay footage of the whale.
Soon, grainy videos of the explosion are displaced by Portland Trail Blazers highlights (Geoff Petrie had scored 22 points the night before). Teens give up the telephones and sit at the dinner table as their parents serve meatloaf and casserole. Ham radios are abuzz with talk of George McGovern’s chances in the next election. Things return to normal just as quickly as they had been thrust into the abnormal. Kids have the next two days off of school for no reason other than that tomorrow is Saturday.
That’s not to say that the people of Florence forgot about the whale. It weighed heavy on their hearts and stomachs; one does not easily forget watching a carcass explode, nor does the smell and taste of the air soon leave one’s lips and nose. The stores popped up like mushrooms on fallen logs, selling pins and T-shirts memorializing the whale. Tourists all over the country flocked to Oregon. But in the years to come, it stopped being about the whale. Slowly, what drew people to Florence was no longer the memory of the whale but the fact it was exploded. People ceased visiting the beach where it happened. The graphic tees and branded backpacks bought from the stores were enough. The memorabilia stopped reminding people of the whale; souvenirs only reminded them of the shops they bought them from.