The classic call from the crow’s nest in all the tales you’ve ever read about whaling ships in the 1800’s. Woe betide the unfortunate whale who surfaces for a breath of good clean air within the eagle-eyed sight of the scruffy-faced old sea dog high above the wave-washed deck of his captain’s sturdy wooden vessel.
That was always when the excitement began...the thrill of the chase in the rolling deep. If you were a kid in your local movie theater, you found yourself sitting a little taller, leaning a little forward,munching your popcorn a little faster as the music swept up and the small boats hit the water with crews of half a dozen or more brave men (just like you imagined yourself to be) armed with harpoons.
I remember watching Hollywood’s great version of “Moby Dick” with Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab when I was nine years old, and believing with all my heart that poor old Gregory Peck died all tangled up in that harpoon line, pinned against the white whale’s side. Six years later, when I was a little more worldly and sophisticated I watched him as Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mocking Bird.” I felt better about Hollywood not actually killing off its actors.
But this isn’t about Hollywood or Gregory Peck, it’s about whales. It’s about “Thar She Blows.”
I learned something about the coastal community of Florence, Oregon last week. Just over a half century ago, the fine folks of that burg found themselves with a genuine dilemma. It seems the forty-foot carcass of a recently deceased whale had washed ashore on the lovely beach that graced the area. Not something you can just roll down the beach and slide back into the eternal sea. Nor can you dig a hole and bury it. It won’t stay buried...tidal action and all...it’ll just rot and stink up the whole area, not to mention cause an awful health hazard, all the while attracting hordes of wild scavengers into the neighborhood. What to do, what to do…?
I’ve got it! Let’s blow it up! And that, by golly, is just what they did. Live and in color. On TV. With an intrepid reporter providing play by play, interviewing the local dynamite expert and showing the expert’s crew digging a large concavity right up under one side of the decaying behemoth, and stuffing half a ton of dynamite in there. A thousand pounds of explosives vs approximately sixteen thousand pounds of blubber,meat, guts and large bones. No one seemed to think this might not go well, although they did caution the gathering crowd to move their lawn chairs back about a quarter of a mile on the dunes. Watching the 50-year-old video I was reminded of pictures I’ve seen of the early battles of the Civil War, where the locals brought picnics to the edges of the battlefields to watch the excitement. People are stupid.
Don’t get me wrong. I was a freshman in college in 1970, an Air Force Veteran. If this had been happening on the banks of the Susquehanna, not far from campus, I would have been there, absolutely. How often in your life are you going to get to watch a group of otherwise intelligent men explode a whale? We can all be stupid, given the chance and the right circumstance.
The above-noted intrepid reporter provided a ten-second countdown from the safety of a quarter-mile distance, camera rolling, and at zero...KA-BLOOEY! Or, “Thar She Blows!”
A lot of excited crowd noises as the unfortunate cetacean rocketed skyward in thousands of pieces, along with a sizeable crater-worth of beach sand.
And then, those thousands of pieces of blasted blubber, bone, guts and putrid meat began raining down from on high. The sound of whale chunks splatting among the assembled throng was astonishing as people ran for cover--of which there was none. Even the cars they had parked further back from the calamity were being pelted with dead whale. The cameras were shut down as crew and reporter fled in the same wave of panic as the residents. A post-explosion shot of the cars showed damage throughout, with one brand new 1970 Chrysler land yacht suffering almost complete destruction, the roof crushed flat onto the seats. Fortunately nobody was in the auto at the time.
Intrepid reporter and crew were back later to show that only about half of the eight ton whale had been pulverized, and the crew of experts were bullying the remaining mass of flesh down the beach with industrial sized heavy equipment.
The good people of Florence, Oregon, apparently haven’t had anything more exciting to commemorate over the years, but at least they can look back with a wink and a smile at their day in the spotlight. They held a 50th anniversary community celebration last week, at a local brewery where they served “Exploding Whale Pale Ale.” The brewery promises an even bigger event next year. I see a budding arts and crafts show featuring whale-gut jewelry and whale bone sculpture. Maybe an interactive virtual explosion booth, or a “blow up” floating whale for the family swimming pool. I don’t think I’d trust that one.
Contact Lloyd Davis at email@example.com