My daughter attends my alma mater, Oregon State University. My most recent visit to OSU found me wandering past a building and a particularly disturbing memory popped into my head. When I attended OSU, this building’s basement contained something you would expect to find at an esteemed institution of higher education — classrooms, faculty offices, and, of course, a “chamber of horrors.”
Let me explain.
It’s the spring of 1982, and a friend tells me about an extremely lucrative job opportunity. “Lucrative” in the sense that it paid at least ten cents over minimum wage. I wasn’t just “dirt poor” then. Don’t be crazy — I couldn’t afford dirt. But this job not only paid well, it INCLUDED room and board. I had struck gold! Dollar signs floated in my head.
The job title was Fishing Vessel Observer. The US government was hiring people to live on foreign fishing boats to make sure they weren’t taking the wrong kinds of fish. This was the perfect job for me! Mind you, I had never lived on a boat, never been on the “high seas,” nor could I speak any language other than the Alsea Public School version of English. Nevertheless, I was overflowing with confidence. What an adventure! What stories to tell!
This is when I learned something that created an inkling of concern — my dream job, the one that would pay so much cash and offer such adventure — required passing a test.
This test, it turned out, involved correctly identifying different North Pacific fish species. How hard could it be? Only time, and a deep desire to suppress the physiological pain, have dulled my memory, but suffice it to say, here is how this ugly chapter came to a heart wrenching end.
I went to the designated building on OSU’s campus and walked down the steps to the basement. I had a pencil and the test sheet which contained a list of fish species. Names of fish I never knew existed. Reams of different fish. Fish with unpronounceable, incomprehensible, scientific names. Maybe they were Greek fish. Many sounded Greek, that, or maybe Klingon.
Awaiting me in that dank fluorescent basement were row upon row of jars. Each jar contained a fish floating in fish embalming fluid. They looked like they had been floating in those jars for a while, say, since the 1850’s. Long enough that they had lost any color and become translucent. Their skeleton’s shined through them like X-rays. AND, to my great shock and gut-wrenching disappointment, EVERY fish looked EXACTLY alike.
I took a slow lap around the room, and paused to reflect on the gravity of my situation. Then I set my test sheet down and quietly made my escape, never again to visit this “chamber of horrors.”
And now, I thought as strolled by, I bet they’re all still down there — floating.
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