My aquarist rant

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wesleydnunder

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The blood-curdling wail erupting from my room without the preamble of a falling dresser, snapping of a bed slat or the splintering concussion of an F-111 hitting the house caused my parents to move in a fashion heretofore unwitnessed. WHAT HAD HAPPENED!!? Mr. Goldfinger was DEAD! Potential explanations for the calamity flashed through my mind; did I not feed him enough? Did he get cold? We hadn't bought him a tiny sweater at the five and dime like the one Charlie Brown had!

As a pair of disheveled and agitated parents materialized in the doorway I concluded that the world no longer made sense. How could my new best friend just die like that!? I sobbed inconsolably as mom checked for blood or protruding bones. Discovering an absence of enough injury to account for the caterwauling, concern for her chick quickly turned to something approaching the look she assumed right before I "got a whoopin'". "What's wrong?", she growled. Still unable to speak coherently, I could only point at the fish bowl.

Mom shot a quick glance at the bowl and her countenance softened. She took me in her arms, crooning softly, "Everything will be ok honey". I didn't see dad come into the room and the sound of the toilet flushing a moment later barely registered. I was devastated and hardly touched my breakfast of fruit loops and toast as I sat slumped at the table, snuffling. Afterward, sitting in the back yard under the plum tree hugging Charlie Brown while he nuzzled my neck and licked under my chin, I decided that I'd get another fish. There was a pet shop on 23rd st. called Fins and Feathers. Being very bright (did I mention how very bright I was?) I knew that fish at Fins and Feathers weren't free. I needed a way to earn some fast cash.

In Richmond, Ca. in 1968, earning opportunities for an 8-year-old boy were few...well, really, one; mowing lawns. A plan began to form. I'd need dad's cooperation. I found him in the driveway working on the engine of his 16' Chris Craft ski boat; a teak and mahogany beauty outfitted with a Chrysler Hemi and inboard drive. I was too young to appreciate his "baby" which was destined to one day become a "Classic".
 
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wesleydnunder

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I presented my case to him as he grunted over the head bolts he was torqueing down. Could I please use the lawnmower? Oh, and I'd need some gas, too. The previous summer had been my indoctrination in lawn mowing. Dad had a Montgomery Ward mower with a 2hp Briggs and Stratton engine. You started it by pulling on a cord attached to the top of the mower a couple hundred times. Dad could do it with one pull. Looking back, I realize how lucky I am that I emerged from those first few years of landscaping with all my toes. The mower's safety features were primitive, at best.

Dad gifted me one of his rare smiles ( he was a stern kind of man) and spoke around the Camel filterless dangling from his mouth. "Sure," he drawled "you can use the mower, but you won't need gas". Puzzled, I followed him. He went to the back of the garage and began pulling yard tools out of the corner. He emerged with this squeaking, rattling contraption that I'd seen before but never out of its repository among the gardening implements. "What's that?", I queried, as he halted in the garage doorway. "The mower.", was his reply. Whaaaaat?

You had to have seen this thing. It looked like something out of one of Torquemada's interrogation rooms. It certainly looked old enough to be. It had two wheels separated by a cylinder-shaped cage of twisted metal bars. Two pieces of pipe stuck up from the back and curved outward to form handles. As you pushed it forward, the wheels caused the cage to spin and the twisted metal bars contacted a flat bar on the bottom to form the shear. You pushed it along and the twisted metal bars ("blades", dad explained) pulled the grass back between them and the bottom flat bar, lopping it off cleanly. That was the theory. Dad demonstrated on the small patch of grass alongside the driveway. He then showed me how to adjust the height of the cut via a nut and bolt on a bracket at each wheel. He pointed to a large pegboard mounted on the wall of the garage from which depended a whole array of tools and said, "It takes two 7/16" combination wrenches to adjust it. Make sure you put 'em back where they go when you get done."

I literally swelled with pride. I'd never been allowed to touch his tools before and here he was, allowing me to use them all by myself. He had a small smile on his face as he walked back toward his boat, which I mistook for pride in his very bright and industrious son. I sprinted next door to ask Mr. Kennedy if I could mow his grass for $.50 cents.
 

biondoa

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I am loving this story Mark, and you write so well. As I read, I can just see that little boy and feel what he is feeling. I think at one time or another, we all were that little boy (or girl). Think a novel is in your future?
 
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wesleydnunder

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Yeah, I know. At age 8 I knew what money was for and could make change and so forth, but I had no concept of its real worth or what one asked for mowing Mr. Kennedy's lawn. Even though I was a bright...ah, never mind. I was a dope, but I'd learn.

He and Mrs. Kennedy were sitting on their front porch in the high-backed rattan chairs they'd brought back from the Philippines where he'd been stationed in the Navy. I made an impassioned pitch, explaining the loss of my new best friend and the urgent need for income to purchase a new fish at Fins and Feathers. He listened expressionlessly while puffing on an old yellow-brown Meerschaum. When I concluded, he set the pipe in the ashtray atop the small carved wooden table (also from the Philippines) between their chairs and said, ""Well, son, I just cut the grass yesterday". My shoulders fell. My vision began to tunnel. Before I could respond, Mrs. Kennedy took pity on me. "You can mow the yard next Saturday, hon.", she offered, "How'll that be?"

'Next Saturday!!!', I thought, 'That's YEARS away!' Looking down at my feet I mumbled, "Thank you Mrs. Kennedy", turned and slouched my way back home.

Only two other things known to mankind can serve to alter space and time for an 8-year-old the way that time crawled through the following five days; one is the hours between bedtime on Christmas eve and the next morning. The other is the last hour on the last day of school before summer vacation. By Wednesday I was convinced that Saturday would never arrive.
 
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Rbishop

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You should have sued your parents for not giving that fishie a proper burial in the yard...such permanent trauma.....
 

wesleydnunder

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But each time I looked at that empty bowl, my resolve strengthened. Finally, the Gods of all things Timex relented and Saturday dawned. I was at Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy's front door immediately after breakfast (Cocopuffs, this time). It had taken a few minutes of struggle to get the "mower" next door; its movement being hampered by a healthy coating of rust and the fact that the handles were level with the top of my head.

Six hours later, I finished the front yard...sort of...mostly. Mr. Kennedy said I could come back tomorrow to do the back yard. I was able to drag the wretched thing back home...just. Everything hurt and I'd lost about five pounds. As I went in to eat lunch, I didn't hear Mr. Kennedy's own mower fire up behind me next door.

Sunday afternoon I finished the back yard and Mrs. Kennedy said I did such a good job! She gave me a whole dollar! Mom said she was proud of me and we'd go to Fins and Feathers after she got home from work Monday. Now we add another adjustment to the space/time continuum; the thousands of hours between when mom says we can go to the pet store and the actual trip to get a new fish. No one understands the patience required of 8-year-olds! Well...the Dalai Lama, maybe...

Monday at school was interminable...and I got in trouble and had to stand in the corner. Mrs. Golightly felt that approximately two dozen interruptions during the morning to tell the whole class about the upcoming trip to the pet shop was a tolerable maximum. Two dozen and one, wasn't.

By the time mom parked in front of Fins and Feathers I was positively manic. Whose Idea was it to put all those stupid stop lights up, anyway?! Walking into that store was like entering the front gate at Disneyland. Immediately the ears are assaulted by squeaks and squawks and chirps and...wow! There were hundreds of aquariums(actually around 30) with millions of different kinds of fish (again, the reality was far fewer). There were birds and hamsters and even snakes! This was the coolest place ever! As I turned in a slow circle, mouth open, a man came over and introduced himself. He was Mr. Peterson and he and his wife owned the shop. Mom explained that we were there to buy a fish and about Mr. Goldfinger's recent demise. Mr. Peterson asked if we'd used dechlorinator when we'd filled Mr. Goldfinger's bowl. Mom's negative reply, accompanied by a blank expression, prompted Mr. Peterson to explain about chlorine in the water and the necessity for its removal.
 
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wesleydnunder

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Unknown to us, I'd doomed Mr. Goldfinger the second I opened the valve on the kitchen faucet the afternoon we'd brought him home from the fair. We followed Mr. Peterson over to a shelf from which he plucked a small, plastic bottle. After determining from mom's description that our bowl was about a half gallon, he said we needed to put a couple of drops of this dechlorinator in the bowl as we filled it. "Swirl it around in the water with your finger," he said, "then give it a minute or two to work. Then you can put your fish in." The price on the bottle was $.59 cents. Yikes! Over half my money gone and we didn't have a fish yet!

Then Mr. Peterson picked up a small can from another shelf with the words 'Tropical Flakes' on the label. He told us that we should feed a very small pinch of this once a day. Once a day!! Everybody knew that you had to have three meals a day. My opinion of Mr. Peterson fell a couple notches. He was still high on a pedestal for being the owner of the coolest place ever; just on a slightly shorter pedestal. I saw the price tag on the food... $.99 cents! Vision tunneling again. Mom didn't say anything as she added the small can so I kept my lip buttoned.

Mr. Peterson then led us to the biggest aquarium I'd ever seen. It must have been hundreds of gallons (a standard 55, actually). It rested on the floor beneath shelves which held smaller tanks and contained hundreds of small, orange fish. A small sign taped to the front glass read, 'FEEDER COMETS $.05 ea.' I was both encouraged and disappointed by this 8 1/2" by 11" declaration. I was happy that the fish were being fed but dismayed by the fact that he took us to the wrong fish. We wanted a goldfish, not a comet. *sigh* Down another peg, Mr. Peterson. As Politely as I could, I began to explain to Mr. Peterson that I wanted a goldfish, not a comet. He smiled and told me that comets are goldfish. I was dubious. They didn't look like Mr. Goldfinger. They were orange, not his flashy, metallic gold. But mom said she thought they'd be fine. He quickly netted and bagged one. At checkout I found myself almost a dollar in arrears. Mom smiled, added a dollar to the one I'd laid on the counter. On the way out she said I'd make it up to her. I found out later that settling a debt with mom involved washing a 1959 Ford Galaxy 500 station wagon; then washing it again when she'd declared that I didn't do a good enough job the first time. Lesson learned.

But shortly after arriving home, Comet was swimming happily in his new home. Mom had taken charge of feeding. I'd named him Comet because, really, a fish called a comet named itself. Plus it fit in with my waxing interest in the Apollo space program and astronomy.

As I sat there appreciating my new best friend, my little sister walked into my room, dragging her latest doll behind her by one leg. "It's just a stupid fish," she declared after a few moments, "and besides, I heard Mommy tell Daddy that you killed the other one cuz you didn't put the klormamater in the water". With that she turned and flounced out. I let her live. Honestly, there are few things as irritating as little sisters, and most of those require salves or lotions with the word 'soothing' somewhere on the label.
 
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wesleydnunder

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He lived with us for a little over two months. The next time we had to visit Fins and Feathers Mr. Peterson explained about water changes.

Over the course of the next four years we learned from Mr. Peterson. Our bowl graduated to a larger bowl and, finally, to a metal-framed, slate-bottomed 20 gallon with its own top and a blue incandescent light bulb. Financed by a burgeoning lawn business, our tank's inhabitants changed also. Stocking went from heavy to overstocked to,"Hey! If all of y'all swim in that direction at the same time, I can shoehorn a couple more fish in there." Fish deaths were a regular occurrence and I'd learned to accept them as a normal concomitant of having an aquarium.

Water changes were performed in the same way as the bowls, just not as frequently. We didn't need frequent cleaning. We had a filter; a little plastic box filled with floss that sat in the corner and bubbled. When the layer of black gunk resting atop and within the multicolored gravel got too thick, I'd dip a couple cups of water into one of mom's Tupperware bowls, net the fish out (that's right, I had my own net now) and syphon all the water out into the yard. This was followed by the removal of all gravel and tank decorations. Tank and accoutrements were scrubbed clean and new floss replaced the black floss in the filter. The tank was refilled with fresh water and the conscientious addition of dechlorinator drops. The fish were returned to their sparkling clean home. Deaths inevitably followed.

Mr. Peterson had never detailed a partial water change regimen for us as we'd never asked for complete step by step instructions. We were doing what we'd done since the early days of Comet's successors.

The years passed. By my senior year in high school in 1977 we lived in Texas and had a 55 gallon on a stand in the den which housed a huge plecostomus and a tiger Oscar named Cassius. He'd grown into a massive 12" bruiser on a diet of feeder comets (yeah, I'd finally learned what that sign meant and why they were so cheap) and something called cichlid pellets. Usually, Cassius ate just the comets and the pleco ate the pellets. By then, we'd learned about partial water changes. I'd become an expert at syphoning and usually managed not to swallow too much water.

I'd also compiled a pretty complete, or so I thought, library of aquarium books. Among them was Axelrod's 'Handbook of Tropical Aquarium Fishes' and William T. Innes' 'Exotic Aquarium Fishes'. I was officially a fish geek.
 

Tifftastic

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I'm loving these! It's making for nice breaks between reading scientific papers on shoaling and maternal effects. However, it's making me wish my memory of my childhood was that clear.
 
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wesleydnunder

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A year later I was married, enlisted in the Navy and had had to leave Cassius and his roomie behind with my parents. The following year he succumbed to H.I.T.H. and my parents never kept another aquarium in their home.

I, on the other hand, got another at the first opportunity...which turned out to be shortly after arriving at my first duty station in Japan. One of my shipmates was nearing transfer and I bought his 55 gallon Oceanic setup complete with fish, top, light and HOB filter made by a company called Hagen. He also did me the biggest favor that one aquarist ever did another. He took me to a small LFS in a nearby city named Yamato and introduced me to it's owner, Kenjiro Mizuno.

Kenny was a quiet, very intense but good-natured man. He spoke a little English and I eventually learned a little Japanese. He was 30 years my senior but never condescended; treated me from day one as an equal and fellow traveler. I learned so, so much from Kenny and spent as much time at his shop as duty and my young wife would permit. He taught me biofiltration, fish compatibility, stocking, water chemistry. His were the first real planted tanks I'd seen and he had a couple of them connected to a carbon dioxide system! And the plants! OMG! You never saw such plants! Well, yeah you have but I hadn't...not in 1979. He also taught me the rudiments of fertilization. I soaked up everything like a sponge and happily worked alongside him for free on my offtime doing tank maintenance, helping him unload shipments of fish and any other grunt work he'd let me do around the store.

Kenny had one large tank in the store; around 150 gallons. Within were the first live discus I'd ever seen; eight large adult wild browns. The tank was simply outfitted with a couple large pieces of driftwood and white sugar sand substrate. He filtered it with the first wet/dry I'd ever seen. These discus were his pets and not for sale. I was immediately in love and vowed to keep these remarkable fish some day.
 
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