The Albino Vs. The Sea Lion
The first time I laid eyes on Basie Pharris, I knew there was going to be a problem or three. There aren’t many times that I can recall coming to a conclusion just that quickly, but there wasn’t a doubt rattling around my skull that this pasty-faced nub was going to be in for one hell of a bad time.
On the afternoon in question, I was standing topside watch on the USS Pennsylvania, a ballistic missile submarine that we called home after all of us were stupid enough to think that the recruiter was full of anything other than shit. I’d been on board for about three years, long enough that I had begun my countdown to when I could strip off my uniform, smoke enough pot to make Bob Marley’s eyes cross, and ask and tell just as many motherfuckers as I wanted. It wasn’t even that I minded the uniform, particularly wanted to smoke weed, or was anything other than (depressingly unsuccessfully) heterosexual. I just wanted the choice.
On the flip side, I didn’t think that the Navy was going to weep too much when I left. At this time, it felt like the Navy and I had reached an unspoken agreement: they wouldn’t keep me from leaving, and I would continue to do my job with an impressive level of focused mediocrity.
That’s how, on this cold November day, I found myself leaning up against the brow of the ship, a rifle slung over my shoulder, alternating between drinking slugs of coffee that would qualify as toxic waste in Oregon and shoving my hands in my crotch to get them to a temperature just north of freezing. All in all, I was somewhat less than the image of martial splendor that Navy would hope to see on their recruiting posters.
As I braced myself for another swallow of coffee, I saw a solitary figure walking down the pier toward our ship. I had been told earlier that we were supposed to get two new transfers to the boat today, both fresh out of boot camp and submarine school. The first had reported earlier that morning, a tall, fit sonar technician whose easygoing manner and friendly demeanor had immediately earned him the nickname, “Stop grinning at me, you fucking useless shit factory.” I thought it fit.
You see, new arrivals to the boat discovered rapidly that the stories of camaraderie and brotherhood they had heard, while somewhat true, had one very important fact left out. When a new sailor arrived on a submarine full of torpedo warheads, toxic missile fuel, oxygen tanks that could blow up like bombs, a nuclear reactor, and 150 sailors, all of which are designed to go so deep that the water pressure could crush a propane tank to the size of a can of beans, they were clueless as a kerosene-soaked chimp in a fireworks factory, and just as dangerous. It took months of rigorous study for them to learn how to take a shit without killing five others.
To motivate them into studying just as hard as they could, we made sure that until they earned their submarine warfare qualification, their life was a living hell. Some call it hazing, but that’s somewhat akin to referring to a drive-by shooting as a disagreement between neighbors. Until that dolphin pin is on their chest, they are a nub: a non-useful-body.
As such, when I saw a sailor trudging through the cold wind down towards our boat, his peacoat drawn tightly around him, I immediately began cataloguing the various ways I could welcome him to our ship. I was considering making him strip naked while I claimed I was conducting a bomb search when I got a closer look.
The guy was a damn midget. Now, most of the squids on a submarine are short, for obvious reasons. At 6 feet tall, I towered over quite a few of my shipmates. But the nub plodding down the pier was no taller than five feet, and possibly shorter. As I stared, I heard a voice behind me.
“Who the fuck ordered an Oompa-Loompa?” Chief Anders’ voice sounded like a tracheotomy patient gargling molten asphalt, thanks to cigarettes and twenty years of working on diesel generators. He was wearing a set of blue coveralls, and an assortment of wrenches and other tools poked out of every available pocket.
I started to answer, but the sailor in question had gotten closer, and the words got lost between my throat and my mouth. The chief and I were both speechless as the kid got closer.
His skin was the color of milk, almost translucent. Both his hands and his face were the same pale, delicate complexion. His uniform hung on him like a scarecrow’s flannel shirt. Of course, finding clothes that would fit him would either demand an obsessively skilled tailor, or a visit to Baby Gap. His eyes were a pale pink, with the black pupils looking like a raisin floating in a bowl of strawberry Yoo-Hoo. Wisps of stringy blonde hair poked out from underneath his cap.
He came to a stop in front of us, and snapped to attention so sharply I was afraid he was going to dislocate something. Opening his mouth, he squeaked, “Petty Offither Pharrith, reporting for duty!”
His voice sounded like the creepy shit that comes out of baby dolls when you pull their string, high-pitched and cracking, and was finished off by the worst lisp I’ve ever heard. All of the possible insults, teasing and hazing rampaging through my skull came to a screeching halt, and without thinking, I simply said, “Oh, you poor bastard.”
Chief Anders smacked me on the back of my head, breaking me out of my stunned stupor. “You going to take his orders, or what, Whiting?”
I nodded, still unable to take my eyes off the pasty nub. He extended a manila envelope, and opened it up. While I read through the cover sheet, the chief asked, “What the fuck is wrong with your skin? You look like a vampire had sex with a hobbit.”
Pharris looked down for a moment, clearly embarrassed. “I’m an albino, Chief.”
“Well, that fucking sucks,” Chief Anders said. “Whiting? What division is Elmer here reporting to?”
“Elmer?” I asked.
“Like the glue.”
I grinned, and flipped to the appropriate page. “Says here he’s to report to the wire biters.”
The electrical division was responsible for the massive circuit breakers and generators on board the ship. Known as wire biters, they had the friendly demeanor one would expect years of electric shocks to produce. Chief Anders winced, but shoved the personnel packet back into Pharris’ hands, and chucked a thumb over his shoulder. “Go ask Lopez what you should do.”
Pharris nodded, and stepped past me onto the jagged steel deck of the brow. He began tentatively working his way across, and both the chief and I watched him with a sort of horrified fascination.
“Lopez is not going to be gentle with him,” Chief Anders commented as a seagull squawked, causing Pharris to jump in a terrified jolt. “You two are friends. Think there’s any way you could convince him to cut Elmer there a break?”
I snorted. “Are you fucking kidding me? We are talking about the same guy, right?”
The chief sighed. “Yeah, never mind. Hell, he’s already pissed.”
Chief Anders pointed. Looking towards the aft end of the ship, I started laughing. Dave Lopez was watching four other sailors spray a fire hose onto the back end of the ship, right into the face of a snorting, six hundred pound bull sea lion.
Okay, let me explain the sea lion.
The deck above the engine room on a submarine gets fairly warm when the ship is testing their engines before departure. This makes it a favored resting spot for the large population of sea lions in the harbor. They would flop in a large, writhing pile on the back of the boat, shoving each other around and generally acting like a group of fat men fighting for the first spot in the buffet line.
That’s bad enough. But when you take into account that it was mating season, you had dozens of horny sea lions loudly barking out their desire to romance any female that drifted into their field of view. The arrival of one of a female resulted in a riot of desperate bulls slamming into each other for the privilege of flopping atop said lucky female for thirty seconds of bleating, spasmodic passion.
Their loud barking and constant fighting had resulted in some equipment damage earlier that day. Our captain, not pleased at having to report that his multi-billion dollar warship had been damaged by sea lion humping, ordered the on-duty engineering crew to get them off the boat. As the senior enlisted engineering sailor on duty, that responsibility fell to Dave Lopez.
Lopez was five feet, four inches of disturbingly hairy Mexican. His arms looked like someone had rolled a lump of cookie dough on the floor of a barbershop, while his eyebrows looked as if they were about to spin a cocoon and become a hideous butterfly every minute. He was experienced, brilliant, and crazier than a two-legged cat pumped up with nitrous oxide and handed a pogo stick. He had woken up in a bad mood, and that mood had not improved when he was told that his years of engineering training were to be used today to break up a sea lion version of spring break, Daytona.
Lopez’s solution had been to spray a high-pressure fire hose into the cluster of bulls. For the most part, it worked. One by one, they slid into the steel-grey waters of Puget Sound, bleating their protest at this inhumane treatment, and occasionally depositing a basketball-size pile of shit on the deck as a farewell gift.
All except one.
This bull was the size of a small truck. His face was scarred from multiple encounters with other animals and outboard motors, but to look at him, neither the other animals nor the boat the motor was attached to survived the encounter. He was perched comfortably on the rough non-skid decking, and seemed to be enjoying the spray of freezing salt water blasting over his deep brown hide. Occasionally, he would glance over at the sailors, and grunt out a few bleating yelps, but he showed no interest whatsoever in moving.
Lopez was screaming a few choice phrases at the animal involving some anatomically improbable suggestions when he felt a light tap on his arm. He turned around, and slowly lowered his eyes to the pasty sailor in dress blues standing before him. Lopez’s mouth opened and closed for a few moments, his mind struggling to switch gears from a horny intransigent sea mammal to the albino sailor standing stiffly at attention in front of him.
Finally, Lopez asked, “Who the fuck are you, and why the hell do you look like a sperm cell in a midget’s navy uniform?”
Pharris blushed, and the effect was startling. His skin turned pink; not the healthy pink of normal skin, but more like Pepto-Bismol poured over notebook paper. He stammered, “I’m Petty Offither Pharrith. He thaid to come thee you,” and pointed back towards me.
Lopez looked over at me in complete disbelief, and I cheerfully waved, grinning broadly. Lopez mouthed, “Are you fucking serious?” and I nodded. He looked back at Pharris, clearly at a loss for what to say. After a few moments, he asked, “What the hell am I supposed to do with you?”
Pharris opened his mouth, but a passing sailor said, “Don’t answer that, moron,” and he snapped his mouth back shut. Lopez considered him for a moment, and then suddenly smiled in the same manner as a snake smiling at the discovery of a quadriplegic mouse.
Lopez threw his arm around Pharris’ scrawny shoulders, and spoke in a companionable tone. “You know what, Farley?”
“Pharrith, Petty Offither,” Pharris interjected.
“That’s what I said, Foppy.” Lopez patted him on the back. “I’m damn glad you’re here. Being new to the boat, I’ll bet you’re eager as a virgin in a two dollar whorehouse to chip in and be a good shipmate.”
“Oh, yeth! Anything I can do, Petty Offither!”
“Good!” Lopez began walking towards the aft storage locker, still keeping Pharris in a tight grip. “I knew as soon as I laid eyes on you that you were the kind of guy we could trust to get things done. I’ve got a task that’s perfect for your particular skill set.” Pulling open the door, Lopez plucked out a broom, and handed it to the younger sailor.
Pharris immediately brightened, and started sweeping the deck in front of him. Before he’d managed more than two enthusiastic swipes, Lopez grabbed the broom out of his hands. “What the fuck are you doing, Fenwick?”
“Uh, thweeping, Petty Offither.” Pharris looked confused.
“I never told you to sweep, you idiot.” Lopez shoved the broom back into his hands, and pointed aft. “You see that sea lion?”
Pharris looked, and his eyes widened. “Holy thit.”
“Don’t swear, you fucking dipshit. Do you see it, or not?”
“Yeth, I thee it.”
“Good. You see how it’s sitting on the back of my boat?”
“Outstanding, Farnsworth!” Lopez beamed at him, and said, “Get it off my boat.”
“Yeth, Petty Off…” Pharris trailed off in mid-sentence. He looked at Lopez, looked at the sea lion, and then looked back at Lopez. “Get it off the boat?”
“I didn’t really think it was that difficult,” Lopez said. “Step 1; get the ugly sea lion off my boat. Step 2; don’t get thrown overboard for being an uncooperative nub.”
Pharris looked back and forth a few more times. He looked like a man watching a terrifically disturbing tennis match. “Uh, how do I get it off the boat?”
“Use your imagination, Flopsweat,” Lopez said, and gave Pharris a hard shove. Pharris stumbled forward, towards the back of the boat. He looked around at the other sailors, all of whom had been watching with grins on their face, and none of whom offered any suggestions. Slowly, he turned and faced the sea lion.
Fifteen feet away, the big bull was noisily licking his fins, snorting through his tusks every few moments. Pharris stared at it for a nearly a full minute. Finally, he held the broom up in front of him like a fairly pathetic sword, the bristles trembling in the air as his arms shook. He began taking small, hesitating steps forward, bracing himself to wildly urinate and leap overboard at the first sign of trouble.
By this time, a small crowd had gathered. Sailors and shipyard workers alike clustered on deck and on the pier, staring at gleeful disbelief at the sight before them. I looked over at Chief Anders, and asked, “Aren’t you going to say something, Chief?”
He told me to shut up, watching eagerly. If he’d had a lawn chair and popcorn, he would have found true happiness in that moment. I shook my head, and looked back over.
Pharris had made progress. Each of his steps seemed to cover less ground than the last, and his hands were shaking so hard that the broom was gyrating wildly in the air, but he was less than five feet away. Suddenly, the bull loudly snorted, and swung his big head around, fixing his beady eyes on the pasty, shaking form in front of him. We all held our breath as he stared down at Pharris, confusion etched across his face.
Pharris looked wildly back at Lopez, who yelled out, “Let’s get this show on the road, Foopster!”
Slowly turning back to the bull, Pharris raised his eyes. The sea lion had straightened up, and towered over the little nub. Pharris swallowed hard, and then cried out in a loud, cracking squeak, “Go away!”
The sea lion cocked its head, bewildered.
Pharris began waving the broom back and forth, yelling at the top of his lungs, “Go away! Get off the thubmarine! Go away!”
The gathered crowd exploded into laughter. Chief Anders sagged against me, loud gasping guffaws wracking his body. Lopez was doubled over, tears of mirth on his ruddy cheeks. Sailors were pointing and howling with laughter at the sight of a scrawny albino squeaking threats at a massive bull sea lion.
Pharris looked at all of us, and suddenly he didn’t look scared any longer. He looked angry. His eyes flashed, his jaw set, he whirled back around towards the bull, screamed, “GET THE FUCK OFF THE THUBMARINE, YOU FAT PIECE OF THIT,” and broke the broom over the sea lion’s skull in one furious downstroke.
We all stared in mute disbelief at Pharris clutching a broken broom handle, frozen in position, the blood that had flooded his face in anger rapidly draining away, leaving his face even whiter than before. For a few very long seconds, the bull looked down at Pharris, not moving, and I thought for a moment that it was actually going to leave. It was going to be incredible. This little scrawny albino was going to be a fucking legend, the nub who went toe to toe with the biggest sea lion we’d ever seen, beaten it with a stick, and drove it back into the sea. In one fell swoop, Pharris had become a…
The bull opened its mouth, and roared.
It wasn’t a goofy yelp, or a mating bark. Something primal and violent clawed its way up from deep inside the sea lion, echoing across the bay and shaking the deck plating. It rolled across the water, a deep, booming scream of rage and fury, and in one terrible moment, we realized that there was a lot more lion in this animal than we had ever realized. Lips pulled back to reveal massive teeth, the canines dirty yellow spikes that looked like daggers. Lifting himself up on his front flippers, he looked down on Pharris with bulging, wild eyes, and roared again, spittle spraying from his gaping maw.
Pharris went stiff, his eyes blinking furiously quickly. A dark stain spread over the front of his trousers, but there was nothing funny about it, and as the lion reared back, Chief Anders bellowed, “RUN!”
Jolting from his stupor, Pharris spun and bolted. His feet skidded on the deck, and he threw his hands out to catch him as he fell, the non-skid decking shredding his palms into a bloody mess. He scrambled back to his feet, and scampered towards the submarine sail.
The bull charged.
His movements weren’t graceful. In one motion, he’d haul his massive bulk off the deck, and hurl his body forward, slamming down onto the deck with a slam that shook the boat. Each jerking spasm carried him about six feet forward, and in this convulsive charge, he moved quicker than we could have imagined, chasing his prey across the boat. Sailors leaped aside, yelling in panic, and I saw one electrician pinwheel his arms in vain just before falling backwards into the bay. Lopez didn’t move fast enough, and the bull’s shoulder caught him on the hip. Lopez flew up in the air, arms and legs akimbo, and slammed down on his back.
My rifle was in my hands, and I charged past Chief Anders, who was bellowing something into the ship’s phone. I crossed the brow in seconds, and dropped to a kneeling position, taking aim at the rapidly approaching animal. Pharris streaked past me, and jumped up on the brow. I could hear his gasping sobs rise and fade as he ran past. The bull kept coming, and I sighted down the barrel, reflecting on how big he was and how small my bullets were, when the air was split by a disembodied voice.
“REPEL BOARDERS! ALL HANDS LAY TOPSIDE TO REPEL BOARDERS!”
The sound seemed to infuriate the bull further. He snapped at the air, his jaws slamming shut terrifying force, and whipped his head around in search of the booming voice. White spittle sprayed from his maw as he roared again. Lifting himself up as he bellowed, he slammed back down, and his eyes fell upon me.
Cursing, my thumb flicked the safety off, and I began to squeeze the trigger, but the sea lion was lightning quick, and he closed the distance between us in the blink of an eye. I fired a single shot, and saw a puff of red from his massive chest. His bellow changed, becoming more of a scream, and he slammed down, bent his head, and slammed it into my chest.
It felt as if I’d been hit by a truck. I saw the horizon whirl drunkenly around me, and the deck rushed up and slammed into me. My teeth crashed down on my tongue and blood spilled into my mouth and white bursts exploded into my field of vision as my head smashed into the unyielding steel of the deck. Stunned, I could hear the shouts of my shipmates and the bellow of the beast, but they sounded muffled. Some detached part of my brain shrieked for me to move, move NOW, but I could only lift my head.
The lion was less than ten feet away, his eyes fixed on me. His mouth split open as he closed the distance, roaring his rage. I tried to roll away, but a surge of vertigo tilted the world on its axis, and I collapsed onto my back. Looking up again, I could only see the massive chest and head, and I shut my eyes as the lion lowered its jaws down toward me.
A roar louder than any I’d heard yet jerked my eyes back open. The sea lion was thrashing around, sharp barks ripping from his maw. He lifted up, and would have slammed down on my prone form, but I felt a big hand roughly grab my collar and yank me out of the way, the non-skid surface ripping my coveralls. Chief Anders pulled me a few feet away, and, I saw him turn back towards the lion, my rifle clutched in his hands. I sat up, my head howling in protest, and looked back at the bull, whose violent convulsions had taken him about fifteen feet away.
The bull was whipping his body side to side, and his roars had taken on a squeal of pain. At first, I thought my head injury was fucking with my vision, but it wasn’t a hallucination. Pharris was atop the sea lion, gripping tightly to the pair of 11 inch deck screwdrivers he had buried between the beast’s shoulder blades. His legs were scrabbling against the bull’s wet fur, and his mouth was open as he screamed a high-pitched wail of absolute terror, but he refused to let go. The lion slammed back down on the deck, and Pharris didn’t hesitate: he pulled one of the screwdrivers out and drove it back into the sea lion’s back.
Eyes bulging, the bull began thrashing even harder. Pharris’ hands slipped off the bloody handles, and he flew twenty feet, crashing onto the deck and skidding off the edge of the boat with a splash. Before I could do anything, the rifle in Chief Anders’ hands barked once, and then again in quick succession.
The chief steadily advanced on the lion, firing carefully and methodically. Bursts of blood and flesh exploded from the bull’s face and throat, and the animal howled, shoving itself back along the deck. He had made it about ten feet when the cracks from the rifle were joined by the deeper boom of a shotgun round, and the lion’s back burst with scarlet sprays. Three sailors were advancing on the beast from the rear, 12 gauge shotguns in their hands, their faces red with anger. The sea lion bellowed again, and rolled to the port side of the ship. One of the shotgun sailors barely had time to leap out of the way, and the massive animal splashed down into the bay, sheets of seawater splashing over the deck.
With the gunfire and roars gone, the pier and ship seemed eerily quiet. Chief Anders ran back, and kneeled next to me as I slowly rose to my knees, my entire body wracked with pain. “You still with us?” he asked, helping me up.
I spat out a mouthful of blood, and nodded, still unable to speak. We heard shouts, and looked over to see Lopez with two other sailors and a shipyard worker hauling on a line. Together, they pulled a soaked and shaking Pharris back up on the deck, where he collapsed on his back, chest heaving. After a few seconds, I walked drunkenly over to him, and fell heavily into a seating position next to him. Clapping a hand onto his shoulder, I croaked, “Welcome to the Pennsylvania, Pharris.”