September 07, 2006

Fish Story

The untimely death of Steve Irwin saddened me greatly this past weekend, as I'm sure it also saddened the four or five crocodiles left in the wild.

Though famous for being the frenetic, empty-calorie modern equivalent of Marlon Perkins, underneath it all Steve was a dedicated conservationist. He nearly single-handedly introduced a whole generation of Australian children to the wonders of their natural habitat and the cautious appreciation of the creatures with whom they share it, educating as he entertained.

While the world mourns his passing and his family comes to grips with his loss and the immense show of support his loss has inspired, I can't help but reflect upon the brutal truth his death has exposed - no matter how many deadly land animals Steve taunted and annoyed throughout his life, it was the vicious, freedom-hating monsters of the deep that finally did him in. That stingray didn't care one bit about Steve Irwin and the joy he brought to millions of children, it couldn't have cared less about the vibrant, vital human life it was snuffing out with one whip of its poisonous, barbed tail-spine. No, this flappy killer of the deep had a shot, and he took it. And you should let this be a lesson to you:

Fish hate you, and they'll kill you given half the chance. Believe it.

I didn't always feel this way. Once upon a time in my reckless youth I was quite fond of my time spent swimming in a lake, dolphining about like the Man from Atlantis and trying to catch fish with my barehands. It was the heady days of the late 1970's, and the undersea world was full of possibility.

Until one dark day at Lake Compounce.

For those of you unfamiliar with New England, Lake Compounce is a moderate sized amusement park situated next to Connecticut's only body of water named after a compounce. It has been a leisuretime destination since 1846, making the lake area the oldest continuously operated theme-park in North America and it's a terrific local summer spot for families tired of that nearby shit-hole, Lake Quassapaug.

My parents, who otherwise did a terrific job keeping me happy and healthy during those dangerous formative years of my childhood, brought my sister and I to Lake Compounce one summer weekend for some light, supervised, sugar-enhanced fun. Though there were many rides, at that age I was consumed with video games and spent as much time and money playing in the arcade as possible. (Astute readers will recognize how radically different the pre-adolescent Dan was from the thirtysomething Dan of today.)

The only other activity I was particularly interested in was swimming; I was an excellent swimmer and diver from an early age, achieving the lofty heights of flying fish when I was only nine, and shark by the summer of '80 when I was ten. Always uncomfortably warm, the summer temperatures regularly drove me into any standing body of water to cool off, and Lake Compounce's waterfront beckoned that afternoon like a siren luring me to my doom.

Having spent the past 140ish years as a summertime destination, the Lake has hosted thousands and thousands of sweaty, pasty New Englanders every summer. The impact of this on the ecosystem is quite clear, as the denizens of the surrounding parkland and especially the lake have come to appreciate the benefits that close association with humans bring them.

Perhaps in some nether region of the ichthyotic hindbrain there was a primordial fear of humans, but summer after summer of being around - and more importantly, fed by - frolicking humans had conditioned the many unnatural fish of Lake Compounce to lose their fear of man. Let this be a lesson to you bleeding heart liberals out there - when animals stop being afraid of us, we lose the only edge our soft, weak, pink bodies afford us in our eternal struggle for dominance over the beasts of land and sea.

This particular afternoon my father and I were in the lake, him swimming about in the distance, me working my way in. I was up to my mid-belly or so, taking my time acclimating to the chilly water, when my father shouts out to me "Look at that fish!"

Casting my eyes out into the distance, I began scanning the water for whatever fish antics my dad was trying to point out. "No, there" he calls, pointing to right in front of me. Again, I scan the surface of the water, expecting to see something leaping, or perhaps even floating belly-up. What the hell was he pointing at?

"Right in front of you" my father says, observing I still hadn't caught sight of the fish in question. And it was then that I finally saw what he had seen: hovering in the water just a few inches directly in front of me, mouth puckering and dead, fishy eyes staring at my exposed, pale ten-year old belly, was a big-assed fish. This evil hell-spawned leviathan was clearly sizing me up for a death-dealing chomp, and I immediately went all Shaggy and Scooby and got my ass out of there.

Ever since that moment I've had to actively suppress my fear of swimming in infested waters, and in fact I can count on both hands the number of times since that day that I've gone more than toe-deep into any un-chlorinated body of water. When I have done, the moment something as innocuous as seaweed brushes up against me, I'm gone - up the beach, into the car, home, and under my blankets.

It's not every day that one has a life-long phobia generated, and I suspect that it's fewer people still who can pinpoint the exact moment in time their irrational fears were kindled. Years later, reading 1984, I knew immediately what would be in my Room 101: a tank full of murky water with one single hungry fish. Just one - because that way I'll never really know where it was or when it would strike. It could be seconds, it could be minutes. I may not know when, but I know it's in there with me and it's coming for me -- and that's enough to give me shivers even now, aged 36 and sitting alone in the dark covered in Dorito crumbs...

Do I rationally know that swimming in lakes and the ocean is just fine, sure I do. Can I overcome my fears and get into the water and have some fun, yes I can, and I have. But every now and again I'm reminded that every irrational fear is only irrational until the horrible event that proves the difference between being paranoid, and being prescient.

Steve Irwin wrestled crocodiles for a living, played with poisonous snakes on a nearly daily basis, thriving for years and creating interest and affection for all the world's creatures. Yet just one day in the water and he gets stabbed in the heart in a single moment of fishy antagonism.

Watch yourself, dear readers. Those fish hate you. They hate everything you stand for. And they especially hate that Arthur Treacher.

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