Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) drawing by Suzanne Baird.
Have you ever noticed that love is like an invading alien? It sneaks into your brain and changes your view of the world. The sky looks sunnier; the air smells fresher; and the birds sing sweeter. Even if you realize the change is in you and not in the world, you still love it. This alien invasion is always good. Well, there are a few exceptions that the Montague and Capulet families may want to tell you about. However, I think the world would be a better place on balance if there were more of them.
This story was published in the on-line magazine Mouse Tales Press (mousetalespress.com) in November 2015.
Flight to Paradise
I arrived on the tarmac just after dawn. The Hercules cargo plane had its tail end open. I looked directly into its maw, large enough to accommodate a standard military cargo truck with room to spare. I could see a couple of dozen passenger seats in the forward section of the cargo area. One of them was for me. The other passengers and I were there to hitch a ride. But the Navy had chartered the aircraft from the Air Force to fly one dolphin and one sea lion from the Navy’s marine mammal research facility in San Diego to its sister facility in Kaneohe, on the island of Oahu in Hawaii.
The Navy was testing sea lions to see if they could reliably work untethered in the ocean to perform tasks such as attaching a marker buoy to practice torpedoes or other hardware for later recovery. The Navy was also testing dolphins for such tasks, in addition to exploring the extent of those animals’ sonar systems. Their sonar could detect mines buried in the sea floor mud or anchored close to the ocean floor, capabilities beyond those of the current hardware systems. San Diego and Kaneohe were the sites for these tests.
The weather was cool and overcast with rain forecast for that night. It was winter in San Diego. The tarmac was still wet with last night’s dew. While some of us stood around waiting for something to happen, other passengers straggled in. Dan, my boss, arrived. He and I had such busy schedules that we never got a chance to talk even though our offices were only a few doors apart, so we agreed to get caught up during the eight-hour flight (the Hercules is a turboprop, not a jet) to our meetings in Kaneohe. Others from our department (like us, civilian employees of the Navy) and some Air Force people arrived for the flight. They joined our scrum.
The two trainers for the dolphin and sea lion arrived with the two penned animals on the back of a stake-bed truck. A forklift rumbled over to start unloading the animal containers. The sea lion pen came off first. With his nose only a foot away, the Hercules loadmaster watched the fork tips while giving hand signals to the lift operator. The lift operator delivered the cargo without the forks even touching the aircraft. The loadmaster let out a deep breath. The two trainers, beefy guys dressed in their usual sweatshirt, shorts, and rubber boots, rolled the pen to one side of the cargo area and tied it down so it wouldn’t move during the flight.
I watched all this while standing by my luggage with everyone else. I looked around and saw that George had arrived.
George was our newest employee and arrived with a brand new master’s degree in microbiology. He dealt in germs. He showed up wearing sandals, shorts, and an aloha shirt he later told me he got at a garage sale. His light brown hair was in its usual random state, but short enough to not look messy. A duffle bag hung from his right shoulder. When Dan saw him, he smiled to himself and shook his head slowly. George put his bag down next to mine.
I smiled a good morning smile at him and said, “Mornin’, George. It looks like you’re ready for Kaneohe.”
“As ready as I can be. For a boy from Buffalo, New York, having a snowless winter in San Diego is surreal. But being in the tropics in January will be a real mind-bender.”
“You sound almost as if you like the snow.”
“Actually, I love it.” He paused. “I snow shoe, downhill ski, and cross-country ski. For me, winter is always too short. My DNA must have a snow gene. I can’t imagine life without snow.”
I noticed that he was lean and more muscular than most guys, obviously someone who engaged in a lot of physical activity. “Maybe you won’t like Kaneohe. Not only is there no snow, there are no seasons, either.”
“I’ll be helping on this project for only a couple of weeks. I don’t think I’m going to notice the absence of seasons. But I’ll be soaking up as much of Hawaii as I can. I’m looking forward to this trip.”
Back at the truck, the trainers wrestled the dolphin container to where the lift driver could slide the lift forks under it. The container was a frame of steel tubing. The frame was about fifteen feet long, waist high, and slightly wider than a dolphin tail fin. It wasn’t just ordinary steel tubing, either. The tubes were about six inches in diameter. Everything was painted gray, of course. After all, this was the U.S. Navy. Inside the container frame hung a large waterproof bag.
Near the top of the open bag, the dolphin laid on its back in a custom sling. Because dolphin ribs are very thin and flexible on the ends by their stomachs, when resting on its stomach out of water, its ribs flex, and it’s difficult for the dolphin to breathe. When the Navy started transporting dolphins upside down, they were much calmer. Moving the dolphin from the truck to the Hercules went off without a hitch.
George watched the loading process with obvious interest. “It looks like there are plenty of seats.”
“Yup. We should be loading in a couple of minutes.” I glanced at his bag. “You, uh, have some warm clothes in that bag of yours?”
“Warm clothes? Naw. Haven’t you heard, man?” George tapped my shoulder with the back of his hand as he smiled at me. “I’m going to Hawaii.”
“No long pants? No sweat shirt?”
“George, that dolphin gets sprayed with a mist of water at timed intervals to keep its skin wet.” George looked at me, and I continued, “The water keeps the skin wet, but that isn’t enough to ensure that the animal can dump all its body heat. They’re designed to live in the infinite heat sink of the ocean, you know.”
“So, to help it dump its body heat, during the flight they’re going to lower the temperature in the cargo hold to fifty degrees.”
George looked down at his shorts, loose aloha shirt, and sandals. His brow wrinkled. He looked around at the rest of us. We all had long pants, thick long-sleeved shirts, and were carrying heavy coats. A pair of gloves or a knit cap stuck out of a pocket here and there. Some, like me, wore boots. With any announcement, there is always someone who doesn’t get the word. This time it was George.
Before he arrived, all I knew about George was that he was coming from Buffalo. Then my mother phoned, asking me to help him get settled in his new job. As it turns out, he is the son of her best-friend-forever girlfriend from high school. When I asked Mom how and why her girlfriend left life in a southern California beach town to live in Buffalo, she replied, “Love.”
“Yes, love. She fell in love with a guy who got a job offer too good to refuse. The job was in Buffalo. So she left the California beaches, and went with him to Buffalo. Love changes what’s important to you.”
I had never thought about love like that. When Mandie and I fell in love and got married we continued to live in San Diego. We didn’t have to face a challenge like George’s mother did.
As it turned out, George arrived when I had reports and proposals due. I was working late and barely had time to meet him, much less help him get settled. Fortunately, he’s the type who doesn’t need much care, and he settled in just fine. I was glad this flight offered an opportunity to get to know George a little better.
When we got the signal to board, we filed through the passenger door and claimed our seats. I sat between George and Dan. The rear of the cargo hold closed upward like a giant lower lip and sealed us in. The trainers had pulled sweat pants over their shorts, donned their heavy coats, and checked the animals one more time before they buckled in.
I heard the sound of a blower and felt a breeze on my neck. I looked around and saw that in the center of the hold were air ducts and ventilation registers attached to the ceiling. I saw fog blowing out of them and felt the temperature dropping. I rolled up the neck on my turtleneck shirt. Then, with a scream and a roar, each of the four huge turboprop engines awoke, and we started rumbling down the runway.
George tucked his shirt into his shorts, folded his legs under him, and rubbed his arms. A worried expression settled on his face. His introduction to the tropics had a very un-tropical start.
In a few moments we were airborne and everyone settled in for the long flight. The temperature inside the cargo hold dropped steadily. Ice began forming on the vent registers. Gloves and knit caps came out. Most of us had brought along work to do or books to read.
George had a novel, and he tried to read it, but his concentration seemed broken by his intermittent arm-rubbing and changing his sitting position. Someone dug into his bag, pulled out an extra sweatshirt, and loaned it to George. George smiled. It was an improvement, but not enough. George alternated between huddling in his chair reading and doing deep knee bends and push-ups to generate some heat. Every time Dan looked at George, he smiled to himself and shook his head slowly.
I struck up a conversation with George and learned that, not only was he born and grew up in Buffalo, but he also went to college and grad school there. He had never been west of Ohio until he got the job in San Diego.
I knelt down on the deck and helped hold his ankles while he was doing sit-ups. I asked him how he liked the San Diego weather. He managed to gasp out an answer.
“This weather … is just amazing … When I got here … the end of September, … I couldn’t believe … it was fall, but the leaves … were still green. … I got sunburned … on my first weekend. … This lack of cold … will take some … getting use to, … not to mention … the lack of snow.”
I stood up as George stopped his sit-ups. He patted his stomach and then started doing deep knee bends. “I didn’t realize how much I missed the cold and snow until I got here. Every day here is nice, almost too nice. I kept looking at the newspaper to check the date.”
“If you have such a strong genetic link to snow, why did you apply for a job in snowless San Diego?”
He pursed his lips and looked upward for a moment. Then he looked at me and said, “Love.”
I must have looked really puzzled because, as he commenced doing deep knee bends, he explained. “Actually, the departure of love. My girl friend and I broke up. I was totally torn up. I hated my life and I hated being in Buffalo. Nothing was right and everything looked ugly. I was so done with women that I almost joined the French Foreign Legion. Almost. Instead, I applied for jobs as far from Buffalo as I could get. It was spring and I wasn’t thinking about snow. So here I am.”
“I’m sorry about your love life. Those things have a way of self-correcting with a little time.”
“I’m not planning on it.”
I looked at him exercising. “It’s a good thing you like the cold. Otherwise I’d worry about you on this plane.”
George looked at me, but didn’t say anything. He wrapped his arms around himself as he went up and down with his deep knee bends. “Right now I’m not missing the cold. I’m looking forward to what Hawaii is like, and I want it to be real soon.”
George started doing push-ups, and I went back to my seat. Dan and I opened our briefcases. We pulled out the appropriate file folders and settled in to our overdue discussion. It was quite extensive, covering all the topics we should have discussed for the last six months: my physiology studies and their husbandry implications, my dolphin swimming studies and their implications for swimmer-assist devices. We also discussed plans we had for the next six months (I wanted more work space and another technician) and the funding outlook (only so-so), so it was a very productive flight for us.
Meanwhile, George walked around the cargo hold and did more exercises. He went over to look at the sea lion, and it looked back at him with large brown eyes. When he looked at the dolphin, all he could see was its pale gray belly. There was a long “pffft” as the water spray system cycled on and wet the underside of the upside down creature. The water ran down his sides and coated his body before it ran off into the bag.
When Dan and I were taking a break from our conference, George asked me why the dolphin wasn’t just carried in a small tank of water. I explained, “This spray method required transporting a lot less water. The amount of water in a small tank or bag wouldn’t make any difference in an aircraft like this Hercules, but moving it around by truck or forklift would quickly encounter limits. But mostly, the dolphin’s life in the open seas doesn’t require it to retain feces or urine for marking locations like land mammals do. They poop and pee almost constantly, quickly fouling the water in any container. Veterinarians don’t like that.” He nodded.
George looked down at the animal lying there calmly. He ran his fingertips along the dolphin’s belly with its wet-rubber texture. The dolphin flexed upward one time as though being tickled, but otherwise didn’t protest.
Everyone did some walking around since there was ample room to do so and only an empty ocean to look at through the windows. At some time everyone managed to walk back to look at the sea lion and the dolphin like George had. The only sounds were those of a few conversations muffled by the rumbling roar of the engines, punctuated intermittently by the “pffft” of the dolphin sprayer. Icicles grew on the vent register.
At one point, George walked over to a window on the left side of the aircraft. He looked down at the blueness five miles below, and it sparkled back at him. It looked balmy out there, and the sun coming through the window fell on his face. He closed his eyes and put his face closer to the window as though trying to collect some warmth. But the blower kept pushing its cold air everywhere, including the space by the windows. George did more sit-ups.
After a while, people were digging into their bags for their lunches and beverages. There is no cabin service on Air Force flights and definitely no in-flight movies. Most brought insulated bottles of hot drinks. George had some sandwiches and cans of soda. He ate slowly as though trying to generate heat with his jaw muscles. He didn’t look any warmer.
As the flight wore on, some people grabbed naps. George curled up in his seat with his bare legs tucked under him. He closed his eyes as though trying to sleep. He kept shivering and his lips acquired a slightly blue cast. In a few moments, he was back in the cargo portion, exercising. I grabbed a short nap, and when I woke up George was still in the back doing push-ups and deep knee bends. When he stopped, it wasn’t for long.
The trainers spent a lot of time near their charges. They talked to them, providing them with familiar voices and faces in unfamiliar surroundings. The dolphin couldn’t see any faces, only the inside of his bag, but remained calm none-the-less. George told the trainers he wanted to get a dog after he settled down and asked them about training techniques. They chatted while George did deep knee bends and push-ups.
As we approached Kaneohe, the other Hawaiian Islands came into view on both sides of the airplane, like fuzzy emeralds on blue silk. We approached the Marine Corps Air Station in Kaneohe on the wet side of Oahu. The engines changed pitch as the pilot cut them back. We circled the base once, and landed in the middle of a bright tropical afternoon.
Shortly after our plane finished taxiing to its appointed spot, its four engines shut down one by one. Without their background roar, our world was amazingly quiet. The shuffling of feet and rustling of clothes, unheard during the flight, suddenly sounded loud and crisp. A moment later the rear wall of the cargo hold slowly folded down on its hinges. Bright sunlight splashed off the concrete taxiway and into our dim cavernous hold. The moist tropical air surged in, replacing the icicle-forming traveling climate that spilled out onto the runway. We all peeled off coats and warm shirts, and got out of our boots. We started filing out of the passenger door. All of us except George.
As soon as the rear wall folded down, George ran to the back and jumped out onto the runway. He stood facing the sun with his arms stretched out from his sides, trying to soak in as much warmth as he could. By the time I deplaned and walked over to him, the blue tinge was fading from his lips, being replaced by a pink glow, and his shivering had stopped. A relaxed expression replaced the pained one on his face, and he began to look like a normal person. The waiting crews unloaded the dolphin and sea lion, and we headed in our various directions. Those of us with the marine mammal facility were ferried over to that part of the base.
Some of the staff showed George around and helped him get settled. While I was there for my meetings over the next few days, I would occasionally stop in to see him. He always had a smile on his face. “It’s warm here,” he would say.
* * *
A few weeks later, back in San Diego, I heard that George’s help was so necessary on the project that his supervisor had extended his duty there another couple of weeks. A few weeks after that, I was surprised to find George at my office door.
“My project has gotten a lot bigger and is going to last a lot longer,” he said. “I’m back to pack up my apartment because my job assignment is getting permanently changed from San Diego to Kaneohe.” He had a how-did-I-get-so-lucky expression on his face. “I’ll be setting up a micro lab, so we can detect and monitor bacteria in the experimental chow they’re working on for the dolphins, in addition to providing lab support for the vets.”
“Wow! Good for you!” Then I remembered our earlier conversation. “Are you going to be able to handle all that absence of snow?”
“So far, I like it there. The scenery has a lot of character, and so does the food.” I smiled at that, thinking of the culinary offerings from the whole of the Pacific Rim available there. He continued, “I’ve got so much to do helping set up this project and learning about Hawaii that I’m not missing the snow … at least, so far. And, y’know, it’s pretty easy to meet girls there.” He flashed a big grin.
As things would have it, I didn’t see George again until my next trip for meetings about a year later. I asked him about his life there.
“Well, I have a good job, a nice place to live, and a serious girlfriend.” He showed me a picture of him with a curvy young woman smiling into the camera. “Nani is the love of my life. I can’t believe how great we are together. She taught me to surf, and I joined her canoe-racing club. The more Hawaiian life she shows me, the more I feel like I fit in here. My DNA must have a Hawaiian gene.” He smiled. Then, in conspiratorial tones, he leaned forward and said, “I don’t miss the snow.”
We grinned at each other as two people do who share a secret. “I’m glad you’ve managed to adjust to living a life without snow. Have you been back to see your parents much?”
“Not once.” He smiled a satisfied smile. “My folks were happy to come out here to see me.”
“I’m not surprised. Good for them.”
“Y’know, since I came here with you in that flying refrigerator, I’ve come to love this place.” George glanced at the picture on his desk. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.” Then he locked his eyes on mine. “I’m in paradise, man, and I’m not leaving.”
I smiled at George and thought, “Love strikes again.” Later, I phoned Mom to report how right she was.