I’ve been telling this story for some 35 years now. I’ve told it at youth firesides, classes of all kinds and once, with some secular changes, even at a high school baccalaureate where I was most kindly requested to speak. A few people have asked that I write it down. Well, it turns out that writing it isn’t so easy. For one thing I always brought essential visual aids when telling this story…..most often a live fish of some kind…..sometimes a large whole one from the fish market. And then there’s a lot of eye rolling, pregnant pauses, facial expressions and that sort of thing that go along with the telling. I’ve learned that, try as I may, punctuation just doesn’t cover those situations. So it is with some real worry that due to my feeble writing skills, printed words won’t translate this story very well. But…..since you asked…….I’ll give it a try. So, here she is……Francine the fish. And to those of you who made the request…..thanks so much for remembering.
Oh, and this is one of those times when I must remind you that I always tell the truth in my stories….even if the events didn’t actually happen. In the introduction to this blog I relate how I explain to my youth audiences that I always tell the truth in church. Once a young man approached me after a fireside and asked with a quizzical look, “Did that really happen?” I’d told a story with a talking rock in it I think. It was about the sometimes tragic outcomes that befall young people who make poor choices involving alcohol or drugs. Well, I’d already explained that I never lied in church so I looked him in the eye and said, “Sadly yes, it happens every day.”
Francine the Fish
When our family was young our love affair with the ocean and the beach began. I suppose this was because every one of us except Larry were true desert rats…..born and raised in the parched Sonoron desert. True, Larry was a mid-westerner as a boy. He’d lived by year-round rivers, but far from the oceans, so his heart was with us on this for the most part. We wanted to spend every vacation near sand and big rolling water. The problem was money. There wasn’t any. At least for expensive hotels and restaurant meals. Then, luckily we found out about the wonderful beach campgrounds all along the gorgeous coasts of California, Oregon and Washington. Glorious days and nights could be had sleeping right on the sand with the waves breaking just outside your bedroom door……as long as you brought the bedroom yourself…..in the form of a tent or camper. At the time all this was to be had for only 12 dollars a night! No hotel room could compete with that price! If we borrowed a camper from Larry’s dad and saved up for gas we could swing this every now and then for sure! Some of our most precious memories come from those wonderful days….. including the day we first met Francine.
We were heading north on the Pacific Coast Highway just outside of San Diego. The blue ocean waves were coming in to shore on our left and lots of interesting, non-deserty things were happening on our right. Things like rivers finally reaching the sea, deltas, mud flats, and estuaries. Novelties to us so used to gulches, dry washes, and saguaro and mesquite studded mesas. We came across a little bridge and there a sign read “Batigos Estuary ½ mile.” We all hollered at the driver at once…Stop here, Dad! When we pulled in we found another little bridge with a gently moving stream flowing under it and out to sea. The stream came from some wetlands on the right of the gravel parking area. A sign in front said “Wildlife Sanctuary” and a little, dusty, dirt road wound its way into the reeds. As much as we wanted to head to the sand and waves we couldn’t resist exploring that little road first. So down we tramped. Tall reeds grew up on both sides. Now and again there was a pool where ducks and other birds were doing their bird things peacefully in them. Then as the road passed just next to a murky pond I heard a distinct burbling sound which made me look down into the water. There swimming in furious circles was a small fish. The burbling was coming from that fish! I couldn’t believe it so I knelt down to investigate. As I got closer I could hear a voice! Yes, a watery but distinct voice. It was complaining loudly, “I am not going to do any of that stuff those guys are telling me to do!! They’re just trying to boss me around. I’m not giving up my freedom to do what they say!” Larry and the kids were up ahead looking at birds so I called them back to see this amazing development. We all knelt down in the dust, gazed intently into the murky water, and witnessed an amazing drama.
We could see the little fish swimming around and around, all the while complaining bitterly about not giving up her freedom, when over to the side of the pond we saw two more fish swimming in place beside a little rivulet that was leading out of the pond. The two fish there were talking too! They were pleading with the little fish who had now come near them and was listening intently to what they said. Incredible as it seems…….. they wore suits and ties with white shirts and little badges pinned to their coats! They were saying, “We promise you, on our honor, we’re telling the truth. We know the path to great happiness and blessings. Our older brother found the way and showed us how to get there. We’ve come here to tell you and the others. Follow us through this little straight and narrow way and you’ll have joy, peace and freedom beyond your wildest dreams. You can become more and have greater power than you ever thought possible. Please. Just swim to the straight and narrow stream and follow the directions. It won’t be easy but you can do it. There’s help along the way. You’ll see.”
They kept talking and the little fish began to swim more slowly in her furious circles. It seemed to us like she was thinking. Then she cautiously stuck her head into the little stream and slowly swam in. She looked around, swam down a little ways, and there on the bank was printed a little sign that read “In order to make it through this stream you must follow the directions.” Then a bit farther down another sign said “Thou shalt not eat the green algae that grows on the bottom of the rocks.” “What?” we heard her cry. “That algae’s my favorite! It gives me a real buzz! Saturday night’s the night we all get wasted on Green!” She hesitated but went on. Then another sign said, “Fooling around with lots of different fish during mating season won’t lead to happiness. You need to find one other fish and settle down.” “Are you serious?” we heard her say sharply under water. “I’m the hottest little flounder in the marsh! Everybody says so and it’s true! Besides who doesn’t fool around!” But she kept on going, now grumbling all the while. She swam slowly by other signs that said “You must give a portion of your hard won fish food to those who don’t have any.” “Sacrifice your gulf golf, shell shopping, or nap time each Sunday to swim in schools to learn more about how to get through this straight and narrow stream.” “Smoking dried seaweed’s bad for your health.” “You must love and do service for other fish, even when you’re too tired.” “You must forgive barracudas and sharks for being mean and try to help them.”
She swam slower and slower past each sign but when she swam by that last one we saw her tail flip and her silvery body turn and dart back down the little rivulet and into the murky water of the pond. There she stopped to scold the two fish who were still swimming at the entrance trying to convince others to give the straight and narrow a chance.
“You must be out of your minds!” She practically shouted. “You want me to give up all my freedom, all my fun! I’m not buying it! No one tells me I can’t eat green algae! And there’s no hope for barricudas! I’ll always hate them! Forgive them my fin! I choose for myself! I choose algae and fooling around! I choose freedom!” She swam off to search the underside of rocks. It was Saturday.
That was the end of the little drama.
Amazed we all stood up, hardly being able to believe what we’d just seen and heard. Then slowly each one of us became very sad. Because, as we looked around we all could see what the little fish couldn’t from where she was down in the murky pond. That straight and narrow rivulet led to the little stream. The stream went under the bridge, past the reeds and marshes, and then out to the sea. The awesome Pacific which joined on the other side of the world with the Atlantic and all the other mighty seas of the earth. An entire planet that was made mostly of water. Freedom beyond wildest dreams. Endless possibilities beyond imagining. Thrown away by the small fish swimming round and round in the little murky pond. Thrown away in the name of freedom.
What a lesson, I thought. We need to remember it. I sent one of the kids back to the camper for the fishing net and a bucket. The murky pond was drying up anyway so we caught the little fish, named her Francine and kept her for many years in a little bowl on a shelf. She reminded us of the day when we all learned a great lesson about freedom.