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Charlotte goes first, driving the camper. She handles such an outsized vehicle well, but in the cities she usually forgets after a turn and leaves the blinker light on. Jerry, her husband, follows her in Old Blue, which is a whitewall, wide-nosed Kenworth with $6,000 worth of highly polished chrome, a 335 Cummins diesel engine, a four-by-four gearbox, a Jacobs brake and 46 dashboard dials and buttons.
Jerry has a special contoured driving seat for himself and snappy tuck-and-roll upholstery in the air-conditioned cab, although, of course, he never has to curl up in the sleeper behind the cab since he and Charlotte have a queen-sized bed in the camper and all the other comforts of a stationary home. Still, Little Irvy, lying on his I-beam cradle inside the Thermo King trailer in the back, appears even more comfortable.
The people wave in the passing cars, and Jerry pulls his horn in acknowledgment, although he is never quite sure whether they are greeting Little Irvy or Old Blue, since both are one of a kind. Little Irvy is the only, and the ugliest, traveling whale in the world. Old Blue is the most beautiful truck in the world: all shades of blue—powder and azure and deep royal—the prize of the Interstates, a glorious galleon tossing along the swells of the highways. Just the thought of it all makes Jerry break into song sometimes, as he does now, shifting through some of his 16 gears down toward the crest of a hill:
"Little Irvy, Little Irvy, colossal 'n' frozen, what a show,
Little Irvy weighs 20 tons, most of it blubber, the rest meat and oil, and he reclines at something more than 38 feet long. He has been dead—or more euphemistically, refrigerated—for more than two years now, and more than half a million people have seen him, including at least 50,000 underprivileged children that Jerry has let in on the cuff. All the others are separated from 35� for the privilege.
Everybody the world over, it seems, has a fascination for whales, and people have been paying to see them exhibited at least since 1861, when P. T. Barnum himself brought two small dying white whales to his New York museum. It was left, however, to Jerry Malone, onetime used-car salesman of Visalia, Calif., to first manage to freeze a whole whale and put it on the road. By now, Little Irvy, who debuted at Fisherman's Wharf in 1967, has traveled about 25,000 miles of the United States and Canada, which is probably more than he ever managed without Old Blue in the Pacific Ocean. This thought pleases Jerry, for he has grown somewhat attached to Little Irvy, invariably referring to him as "my whale" and to the whole enterprise as "the whale business," as if it were a thriving national industry on the order of electronics or life insurance.
Certainly, he prefers not to dismiss Little Irvy as just another large meal ticket. "I've thought about my whale so much," Jerry says, "that most times it seems like he is part of me. I look at it this way: if Little Irvy wasn't here in my truck, going all over the country and becoming famous, he'd just be oil and dogmeat by now. So I can't feel bad about him frozen. I just pat him and say, 'Hey, you ugly, smelly son of a gun, I love you.' "
Little Irvy is entitled to such a wealth of affection. To bring him in and refrigerate him cost $12,000. Old Blue is an $80,000 truck. The camper, incidentals and the interest on the loan has made "framing" Little Irvy, as they say in the amusement world, a $125,000 proposition, but the American love of whales (and trucks) should pay that off in less than the four years Jerry originally figured. Then, as humorists tell him about 593 times a day, he will really have a whale of a deal.
The scheme is marred only by a few disgruntled patrons. "Many people," Barnum wrote, "have such a horror of being taken in, or such an elevated opinion of their own acuteness, that they believe everything to be a sham, and in this way are continually humbugging themselves." The modern examples of this thesis are upset when they discover that Little Irvy is not frozen alive. Presumably, these people are under no parallel delusion that the Bird's Eye Brussels sprouts they purchase at the supermarket may be thawed and replanted, but they pay their 35� on the premise that Little Irvy, though somewhat larger than a garden vegetable, will himself be brought back to a more active existence. "What, you mean that whale is dead?" they declare after careful examination. "I paid 35� to see a dead whale?"
Others are even more disturbed, since they altogether overlook billboard references to Little Irvy's glacial status and actually expect to find him, all 20 tons and 38 feet, splashing about in the 40-foot trailer.