Monday, March 18, 2013

Childhood Tragedy No. 34: Sea Monkeys

Every kid in America knew Sea Monkeys. The perfect little undersea nuclear family. The tall commanding father with his crown and long monkey tail with a little arrowhead at the end. The kindly mother with her Mary Tyler Moore flip hairstyle except in blond so we all knew she was a stay at home mom. That’s what blond hair meant in the 1970s. The prepubescent daughter, naked, with her perfect white toothed smile. And the naughty baby brother. They lived under the ocean in their majestic purple castle, a happy loving home full of fun and laughter. I suspected they played lots of board games together. From the moment I saw the Sea Monkey advert I had to have them.

I dreamt about my future Sea Monkey life. They would be my friends. At first a bit confused about the abrupt shift from their ocean home to my fish bowl on top of the water heater. But then they’d settle in and they’d tell me all about their life under the sea and I’d tell them about my life on land. They’d be the best kind of pets, talking ones. I knew this because from the photo in the Richie Rich comic book it was obvious they were conversing with each other. And I lived in America at the time, so, of course, Sea Monkeys spoke English, none of that foreign Sea Monkey talk.  It was going to be great.

I was nine years old and had a bit of experience with comic book buying. I’d already bought the X-ray glasses. I was obsessed with the idea that once I got those glasses I’d be able to see my horse Barney’s skeleton. While everyone else wanted to look under Miss Mason’s dress, I was more interested in the equestrian bone structure. It didn’t matter in any case, the X-ray glasses didn’t work, not to see horse bones or third grade teacher’s very pointy boobs.

I bought the life-size glow in the dark skeleton poster which I hoped would scare me at night. Where all other kids were afraid of ghosts and monsters that filled up bedrooms at night, I welcomed them and they never showed up. I hoped the glow in the dark skeleton poster would fill in until they did.  The skeleton did glow in the dark, so that was a good thing, but only for a very short time, seconds. Not long enough for you to forget it was a poster and to trick you into thinking you had a glowing skeleton man in your room ready to eat you.

So my comic book buying experience was a mixed bag. But for some reason I was sure the Sea Monkeys wouldn’t let me down. They were like the Cleaver family. Would Beaver let you down? Maybe by accident, but never on purpose. Never, never on purpose.

I was a big fan of happy nuclear families mostly because I’d never known a real-life one before. I knew all of them on TV, though. I knew the Partridge Family. And Laura Ingalls Wilder’s happy pioneering family living in The Big Woods in books, but on TV they lived On The Prairie. I knew the Brady Bunch. I knew happy families were out there. I even sometimes had hope my family, with my mother living in the mental hospital, a stepmother filling in who wasn’t too pleased about the situation, and my father who tried his best to stay away from home for as long as he could, would transform. I  hoped my family would be one of those happy TV nuclear families. It didn’t matter if they didn’t though because I was sure once my Sea Monkey family arrived I’d be welcomed into their lovely functional watery family life and everything would be perfect.

So I sent off my money collected from weekly 50 cent allowances and waited.  When the package arrived, I was worried. It had no air holes. There was no water. The post takes some time and I was sure they’d killed my sea monkey family with their negligent packaging. I tore it open and inside I found two packages of powder with lengthy instructions.

I’m genetically predisposed to instruction avoidance. I know many people claim this affliction just to get out of reading instructions, but I have evidence that I actually have it. The evidence is my father. My father was keen on DIY and purchased a set of DIY encyclopedia from the TV. These encyclopedias had detailed instructions about how to build all sorts of things. For my father, the lengthy, detailed instructions were just taking up space, he bought the books for the pictures. Using those pictures he managed to build a picnic table that if your stepmother, for example, sat on one side and you plopped down very hard on the other side, directly opposite her, you could launch her like Apollo 11. He also built an elaborate brick barbecue stand using the DIY photo in the encyclopedia that got all sorts of compliments for being the most beautiful dog house in the neighbourhood.

So like I said, I had no ability to read instructions much less follow them. But I tried my best. My sea monkey family depended on me. I dumped both packages in the fish bowl and added warm water. I was sure they’d want warm water. In the photo they didn’t even have clothes.

Then I waited for the Sea Monkeys to emerge. I wondered how big they’d be. I knew they wouldn’t be my nine-year old size, but I was sure they’d be about the size of the goldfish that I’d won at the fair that had previously inhabited the bowl, at least the father would. The daughter, Debbie, maybe half his size, and Tommy, the little brother, half of Debbie.

Days passed. Each morning I rushed downstairs to the water heater to see what had happened over night. At first I just thought they were slow starters. But then brown bubbles began to form on the surface of the water. After two weeks the smell was so bad I was afraid it might harm Arnold, the hamster that shared the water heater with the Sea Monkeys. After two weeks, I dumped my Sea Monkeys and all of my Sea Monkey dreams down the toilet.

Now that I have a bit of distance, 38 years of distance in fact, I guess I was to blame. I should have read the instruction more carefully. But after reading other people’s “successful Sea Monkey experience” I think I’ve decided I am not the most culpable for this tragedy. The bulk of the blame rest on the shoulders of the inventor of Sea Monkeys- Harold Nathan Braunhut aka Harold von Braunhut. First, I think we can agree any person with aka in their name is a shady fellow. But too, I find out now he put over 3 million adverts for Sea Monkeys in comic books. Three million lies targeted at naive kids like me because there was never going to be a happy Sea Monkey nuclear family. Sea Monkeys were just a few sizes above microscopic, they were not monkeys, they were not even mammals. They were brine shrimp. Even the inventor didn’t have much faith in them as was discovered in an interview done in 1997 when journalist Lara M Zieses interviewed Harold Nathan Braunhut aka Harold von Braunhut  for The Baltimore Sun, a man who she describes as “a cartoon character come to life”. When speaking about Sea Monkeys he admits, "Keeping them alive was a terrible struggle."

Great. In a way I guess it makes me feel a bit better. Only a bit though.

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