The Leviathan

By Zack Martin

dead whale"Sweet fucking Christ, what's that smell?"

Fred Sweeney was almost overcome by the smell of death as he opened the screen door of his house on the beach in Florence, Oregon.

"I haven't smelled anything like that since Iwo Jima," he said to himself.

Fred started walking up the beach to Joe Kildare's house. Joe was Fred's old Marine buddy and the two usually took walks on the beach every morning to get some exercise.

"Holy shit, what the fuck stinks?" Joe asked.

"I dunno. Let's find out."

The two men started walking up the beach and knew they were getting closer as the smell got worse. They could also see seagulls circling something in the distance.

"That thing is fucking huge," Fred said as they approached a large gray mass on the beach.

And it was. The cause of the smell was a departed gray whale.

"What do you think it weighs?" Joe asked Fred.

"A few tons at least. Let's head back. We should probably call the sheriff."

Fred and Joe met Lane Country Sheriff Earnest Oakley on the beach near the dead beast about 20 minutes later.

"Humph," said the sheriff, walking around the whale. Sheriff Oakley was a tall, slender man. He was wearing aviator sunglasses, smoking a cigar, and shaking his head. "Well, I'll be damned."

"Whatcha gonna do about it?" asked Joe.

The sheriff said nothing. He continued walking around the huge sea mammal shaking his head.

Joe and Fred continued standing there for another five minutes waiting for the sheriff to say something.

"I've never seen anything like this before," he finally said. "I better get back to the office and make some calls to find out what I should do next."

"You going to do something soon?" Fred asked. "I'm supposed to have family over for a barbecue in a couple of days and this stink is revolting."

"I don't know," the sheriff replied, still dumbstruck. "This is the damndest thing I have ever seen."

The sheriff got into his car and started heading back to town. He was still shaking his head. "What the hell am I going to do about this?" he said to himself.

During the entire drive back into town, the sheriff mulled over different options. "Could we drag it back out to sea?" he thought. "I wonder what it would take to bury it."

Sheriff Oakley climbed the stairs to his office in the county building, still oblivious to everything going on around him. His only thought was what he was going to do.

"Damn, sheriff, you don't smell too good," said the deputy as he passed the sheriff on the steps. "What happened?"

The sheriff was oblivious that the smell of the beast had clung to him.

"We got a dead gray whale out on the beach," the sheriff said. "Damn thing stinks like nothing you ever smelled before."

"Anything like this ever happen before?"

"Not that I know of. I need to figure out what to do."

Oakley walked into his office, poured himself a cup of coffee, and formulated a plan. "First, I'll call the state, they'll know what to do," he said to himself.

He called Commander Jim Lake, the commander in charge of the closest Oregon State Police unit. "Morning, Jim, it's Oakley over in Florence," the sheriff said. "We have a bit of a situation over here and I need your advice."

The sheriff went into the details about the whale on the beach. Commander Lake started to laugh. "Sounds like you guys have a whale of a problem," the commander punned.

"It's not funny," said the sheriff. "You should smell this thing. Its stink just clings to you. I'm probably going to have to burn this uniform."

"Let me make some calls and I'll get back to you."

The sheriff leaned back in his chair, put his feet on his desk, and lit another cigar. Florence was a small county, about 15,000 people. Nothing much ever happened. The occasional drunk driver, teenagers vandalizing some property, and maybe the occasional bar brawl but that was about it. "Whale of a problem," the sheriff thought back to the commander's comment. "What an asshole."

About three hours and 10 complaints later, Commander Lake got back to the sheriff.

"The highway department is sending some people out there to take a look and figure out what to do," the commander said. "They want you to meet them out there at 2 p.m."

"The highway department?"

"That's what the guys from the state said. I don't think they've ever seen anything like this before either."

dead whale The two highway workers were already on the beach when the sheriff arrived. He thought it was strange that they were wearing yellow hard hats and bright orange safety vests on the beach in the middle of the day.

"So, you guys take a look at it?" the sheriff asked.

"Yup," said the older of the two men, who then proceeded to spit some chewing tobacco. Dwayne Walton was a guy in his mid-30s who had worked for the highway department for more than 10 years.

The sheriff was expecting more but nothing was forthcoming. "And?"

"Well, we have a couple of options," said Dwayne. "We could bury it. But I don't think we could dig a hole deep enough to keep it covered, and the stink would still be pretty bad. We could also chop it up and then bury it, but I don't think anyone would want to do that and the Teamsters would probably get all up in my ass if I asked my men to do that."

Dwayne paused a moment to reflect.

"Which leaves an option that me and Mike were just talking about." Mike was Dwayne's younger and less experienced coworker.

"And what would that be?" the sheriff asked.

"We could blow it up."

The sheriff was dumbstruck at this idea.

"You want to blow it up? Are you nuts?"

The sheriff wasn't too far off the mark with his assessment. The only reason Dwayne Walton worked for the Oregon Department of Highways was because his father had been a heavy political contributor. Dwayne, more or less, was an idiot who couldn't hold down any other job. But he managed to slip by all these years working for the highway department and getting lost in the bureaucracy.

And the idea of blowing up this whale was a dream of Dwayne's. His fascination with explosives started out with inanimate objects but quickly moved on to small animals. And if the sheriff would have checked his files he would have found out about a time when Dwayne tried to blow up the neighbors' cat with an M-100. The only disappointment for Dwayne was that the whale was already dead.

"You see, what we would do here is plant the explosives so that the remains of the whale would be blown out to sea," Dwayne explained. "The seagulls and what not would take care of the rest."

"You sure you're authorized to do something like this?" the sheriff asked.

"Sure," said Dwayne, but in reality he wasn't sure. But if nobody tried to stop him, he could do it. "We're going to move in some equipment in the morning and start planting the dynamite. We'll be good to go tomorrow afternoon."

"Well, if you think this is a good idea I guess I'm not going to stop you," said the sheriff.

* * *

That night the phone rang 175 miles away from Florence, Oregon.

"News desk," said Stan Ashland.

"I have a story you guys might be interested in," said the voice on the other end of the phone.

"What is it?" Stan was annoyed. He hated working the phones, especially when crackpots were calling. Everybody thought they had a story but nobody ever did. He hadn't been on the street in weeks. Ever since he tried to get the story about the city councilman having an affair he had been banished to the desk answering phones.

"The highway department is going to blow up a dead whale in Florence tomorrow afternoon," said the voice.

"What? You're kidding right?"

"Nope. This beast washed up on the beach a couple of days ago. It's gotta be eight tons, and the highway department is going to blow it up with dynamite. Damn thing stinks like nothing you've ever smelled before."

Stan's head was spinning. If this was true, it was a compelling story.

"Can you tell me exactly where it is?"

The caller did just that and now Stan had to figure out how to talk Jenni Mulligan, the station's news director, into letting him take a crew up there. He took a deep breath and walked into her office.

"Jenni, I just got a call about the highway department blowing up a dead whale on a beach in Florence. It might make an interesting story and I think we should take a trip out there."

"How'd you find out about this?" she asked.

"One of the residents who lives on the beach called in."

"Did you confirm it with anyone else?"

"Of course," he lied. This was the sort of thing that got him into trouble in the first place. "I talked with the highway department and they confirmed a large amount of dynamite was being used in a project in Florence. Considering that no highway runs directly through Florence this is interesting. They wouldn't give me anything else."

"Did you call the sheriff? How about other neighbors to see if they heard the same thing?"

"Nobody is in at the sheriff's office and I haven't done a reverse directory search of the beach yet."

"How far is Florence anyway?" she asked.

"About 170 to 180 miles. It should take about three hours or so to get out there."

"When are they supposedly detonating the thing?"

"Some time tomorrow afternoon."

"Talk to some more neighbors and get back to me."

"That didn't go as bad as I thought it would have," Stan thought to himself.

For the past month Stan had been the red-headed stepchild of the newsroom. It began when he asked a Portland city councilman about an affair he was supposedly having.

The problem was that he asked the question during the dedication of a community center with hundreds of people looking on. If the councilman hadn't been ducking him for weeks before the dedication he wouldn't have done it, but he had been frustrated and he finally blurted out the question. The crowd looked on in horror. This guy was a hero in his district and nobody would dare accuse him of such things. "I was lucky to get out of there without getting killed," Stan still thought to himself.

But the whale could be his chance to redeem himself. "Why would anyone blow up a dead whale?" he wondered. "Who would do such a thing?" First he had to try to confirm the story with the neighbors.

After three calls he had enough. All had confirmed the first guy's story. He went back to Jenni and she gave him the okay.

"Go talk to Gus. He'll be your cameraman on the shoot," Jenni said.

Stan was getting ready to protest but then he realized he shouldn't push his luck. Gus was difficult, he smelled funny, he wore those yellow tinted glasses people wear on a shooting range, and he constantly sharpened knives in the newsroom. He was pretty much a creepy bastard.

Stan tracked down the psychotic Gus in the motor pool. "Hey Gus! Looks like you and I are going to be working together again." Stan tried to sound excited.

"Lucky me," Gus said, as he whittled a small tree branch while sitting on the bumper of one of the news vans, smoking a cigarette.

"The highway department is going to be blowing up this dead whale on a beach in Florence. We'll probably need to get an early start. We should probably be here around 5 a.m. so we can get out there early enough."

"Fine. I'll be here at 5," Gus said.

"Great, I'll see you then."

* * *

As dawn broke the following morning Dwayne Walton was standing on the beach, drinking a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette. Dwayne was waiting for the heavy equipment and dynamite to arrive.

"This will be a truly glorious day," Dwayne said aloud to no one in particular.

Dwayne turned around when he heard the bulldozer arriving with the dynamite. Besides Mike, Dwayne was going to have two other men at his disposal for this operation.

As soon as the men exited the truck Dwayne gave the men their orders. "Alright, guys, here's the plan. I need the two of you to get the bulldozer going and start digging a trench around the leeward side of the whale. I would say six to eight feet should be deep enough. Then we'll fill the hole with dynamite, set the charges, bury the dynamite, and get ready for the explosion. I would like to get this done around noon so let's get to it."

The men had been working for about an hour when Fred and Joe made their way up the beach.

"So, when's this thing going to happen?" Joe asked Dwayne.

"Should be around noon."

"If we wanted to watch, how far away do you think we'd have to be?"

"A few hundred yards. I'll have it figured out later."

The two old men nodded their heads and walked away.

* * *

Meanwhile, word stated buzzing around Florence High School about the whale detonation. It was of particular interest to 16-year-old April Oakley, the sheriff's daughter.

"I can't believe they're going to blow up that poor animal," April told her boyfriend Paul.

"Well, it is already dead, right?" Paul said. "So it doesn't matter."

"It doesn't matter? How can you say it doesn't matter? This is one of God's creatures and they're just going to blow it up. We have to do something."

"We?"

Paul had been starting to question his relationship with April for some time. The two of them had fun together but April was too much into the save-the-world crap. Paul's friends had started saying that April was so granola she crunched when she walked. All Paul wanted to do was have fun. Was that so wrong?

"I'm going to start a protest," April said. "I could probably have a dozen people on the beach in an hour."

"Have fun. I have an English quiz fifth period and I can't ditch," he lied.

April looked at him skeptically and then went on her way.

* * *

About an hour outside of Florence, Stan Ashland was wishing he could get rid of his traveling companion. Stan was allergic to cigarette smoke so Gus couldn't smoke in the van. Instead he was chewing tobacco and spitting into a plastic 16-ounce Coke bottle, the sight of which was making Stan ill.

"You know that could give you gum cancer, right?" Stan asked.

Gus just looked over at the squeamish reporter and spit another long strand of brown liquid into the bottle.

"Just my fucking luck," Gus thought to himself. "I have to make this three-hour trip and I get stuck with this pansy."

Stan just sighed.

* * *

Back at the blast site, things were progressing nicely by Dwayne's estimation. The trench was most of the way dug and they were starting to prepare the dynamite for the blast.

"That's half a ton of dynamite," Mike said. "Don't you think that might be a bit overkill?"

Dwayne shot his underling a dirty look. " I know what I'm doing."

Mike wasn't as sure. Having been teamed with Dwayne for the last five years Mike knew his penchant for explosives and wasn't sure if he was going a bit too far this time.

"Do you hear that?" Dwayne asked Mike.

All of a sudden over a sand dune came about a dozen people carrying signs and chanting over and over again, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, these damn explosives have to go."

"Shit. Protestors," Dwayne said.

He pulled the cell phone off his belt and called the sheriff's office to tell him the situation.

The leader appeared to be nothing more than a 16-year-old girl. People in the crowd had a variety of placards, such as, "Save the Whale," "Make a Grave, Not an Explosion," and "Don't Detonate Mammals."

The leader started a different chant. "What do we want?" she asked through her bullhorn. "A grave," the crowd replied. "When do we want it?" "Now."

"This is going to get old real fucking fast," Dwayne said to Mike and walked up to the leader.

"What seems to be the problem here, miss?" Dwayne asked.

"My name is April Oakley and we are here to demand that you not blow up this whale. It's inhumane. It should be buried."

"You do realize that it's already dead, don't you?"

"It doesn't matter. It's still one of God's creatures."

"Well, it's a dead God's creature and it washed up on a beach in the State of Oregon and that makes it my business to dispose of and I've decided this is the best way."

Dwayne was getting ready to go on until he noticed a guy in a suit followed by someone carrying a camera walking up the beach. "Oh shit, it's the media."

Stan had thought he had heard some sort of chanting on his way from the van, and when he saw the protestors his heart leapt for joy. "Nothing like some protestors to make a story more interesting," he said to Gus. "Get ready to shoot."

At the moment Gus was raising the camera, the sheriff walked over the sand dune to see the commotion. "I don't need this shit," he said to himself. "Protestors, the media, and some idiot from the highway department who's going to blow up a dead whale." Then the sheriff saw who was leading the protest. "Goddamnit."

The sheriff entered the crowd. "OK, alright, what seems to be the problem here?"

Dwayne and one of the protestors started speaking at the same time. The cameraman kept shooting.

"Alright, here's what we're going to do. First, you," the sheriff said pointing at the cameraman and reporter, "If you could wait over there I'll talk to you in a minute. Second, Dwayne, why don't you keep doing what you were doing and I'll talk to you in a minute too. And finally, April, shouldn't you be in class, dear?"

"But Dad, once I heard what was going on I felt it was my duty to come down here and make sure things were taken care of," she said.

The sheriff was proud of his daughter. She was a good student and didn't get into much trouble. The only time she did get into trouble was when the environment was involved. First it was styrofoam cups in the school cafeteria and then it was low funding at the animal shelter. She meant well but sometimes she got a bit too caught up in some matters.

"I suggest you get back to class. I don't want to have to arrest my own daughter. All of you get back to class. These men are professionals and they know what they're doing," the sheriff said, but he didn't believe it.

The sheriff then turned toward Dwayne. "What are you doing, baiting a young girl like that? She doesn't know any better. You should have waited until I got here to talk to her."

"She was holding up my work with that chanting," Dwayne said.

"You know what you're going to have to do now, don't you?"

"What?"

"So that reporter doesn't show you on television yelling at some teenage girl you're going to have to talk to him and make nice. Tell him what you're doing and keep him up to date on what's going on."

"Fuck him. I don't deal with the press."

"You will if you know what's good for you."

Dwayne knew the sheriff was right. If he didn't want to be shown on TV screaming at the girl he would have to cooperate. "Let's go make nice," the sheriff told Dwayne.

The two of them started walking towards the reporter. "How you doing?" the sheriff asked the two men.

"Fine. I'm Stan Ashland with WANC in Portland. We heard about this story and decided to come down and take a look."

"Great. Well, I'm Sheriff Earnest Oakley and this is Dwayne Walton with the highway department. Listen, we're more than happy to talk to you for your story but we would appreciate that little flare-up not being made into a big deal."

"I'll see what I can do about that."

"In that case, I'll leave you in the capable hands of Mr. Walton. I'm sure he'll be happy to answer any of your questions."

"I appreciate the help, sheriff." Stan motioned to Gus to start taping.

"So, Mr. Walton, what do you have going on here?"

"Well, it appears this eight-ton gray whale washed up on the beach a few days ago and we're going to dispose of the remains."

"And how are you going to do this?"

"We thought the best way to dispose of the corpse would be to blow it up with half a ton of dynamite. It would be too difficult to bury as is and nobody wants to cut it up and then bury it. The blast should take care of the majority of the carcass and whatever remains can be eaten by seagulls, crabs, and other scavengers."

"That sounds like a lot of dynamite!"

"We're actually not sure if it's going to be enough. We have some extra in reserve in case we need to set another charge."

Stan motioned for Gus to stop taping. "Great stuff, Mr. Walton. If you don't mind, my cameraman will take some footage of the whale and you guys working and then we'll want to tape the blast. How much longer?"

"It'll probably be about an hour, an hour and a half."

"See you then," Stan said. "Gus, can you get some cut-away shots? I'm going back to the van to give Jenni an update."

Gus nodded and lifted the camera to his shoulder. As crazy as Gus may or may not be, he was a good cameraman. He walked around the site for about 20 minutes taking footage and different shots.

"What kind of charge are you setting?" he asked Dwayne.

"It'll be a concurrent charge. We don't want to take the chance that only half the load will go up. It takes a bit longer to set up but there's no risk that anything will go wrong."

"That's the way I would have done it. I haven't seen this much explosives since the service."

"You served?"

"Yeah, I was a demolitions guy. This stuff is right up my alley. What about you? You serve?"

"No, I have a degenerative hip," Dwayne lied. He tried to get into the army but he failed the psych test.

dead whale The two continued to talk about explosives for another 15 minutes. While they were talking, groups of people started appearing on the beach with chairs and coolers, ready to watch the show.

Dwayne had one of his men set up a 450-yard perimeter while he and two of the others started burying the dynamite.

Gus found a good angle on a nearby sand dune, set the camera on a tripod, and waited. Stan made his way down from the truck. "Did you get any shots of the people watching?" he asked.

Gus just nodded; he knew what he was doing.

It took about another 20 minutes for Dwayne and his men to bury the dynamite on the leeward side of the whale. Dwayne connected the final wires to the detonator while the rest of his crew made sure the area was clear. A crowd of about 50 people had gathered on the beach to watch the detonation. Dwayne walked up to Gus and Stan and told them what the sign would be for the start of the countdown.

As Dwayne walked back to the detonator he was trembling with excitement. He picked up the detonator and gave the sign to the newsmen.

Dwayne yelled out, "5, 4, 3, 2, 1," and then he pushed the plunger.

blown up whaleThe noise was deafening. The dead mammal went up in a red and gray cloud.

The crowd cheered. "Ohh yeah," and "Whhheeewwwww," could be heard among the spectators.

Ethel, Fred's wife, said, "It's OK, Fred, you can take your fingers out of your ears now."

And then it happened.

"Oh my God, it's pieces of…" said Ethel, as the remains of the whale started to fall back to earth. But they weren't falling in the ocean. They were falling on the crowd.

It was chaos. Out of some instinct, Gus had already taken the camera off the tripod and had begun running back to the van. It took a bit longer for Stan to realize what was going on, so he followed a few feet behind.

While Dwayne's crew hightailed it away from the beach, Dwayne remained still, marveling at what he had done and laughing as small pieces of whale covered him and larger pieces fell to the ground around him.

The whole thing probably didn't last longer than 30 seconds but its impact was felt for much longer.

Fred and Joe had to go rent a power washer from the hardware store to clean the dead whale bits off their houses.

While the story eventually won Stan Ashland a local Emmy, he was in hot water after a 300-pound piece of whale flesh flattened the news van.

Furthermore, the blast failed to detonate the entire whale carcass. The highway crew had to use the bulldozer to bury the remains of the beast, which left a smell that lingered for the better part of a month.

And no amount of political patronage could save Dwayne's job. But his father had the means to set Dwayne up in his own fishing business. Two years after the whale blast, Dwayne killed himself trying to fish for salmon with quarter sticks of dynamite.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: While it is true that the Oregon State Highway Department blew up an eight-ton gray whale in Florence in 1970, the characters in this story are completely fictional and bear no resemblance to those actually involved in the incident. And for the record, the National Marine Fisheries says the best way to dispose of a dead whale is to drag it a half mile out to sea.


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Copyright©2002 by Zack Martin.

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