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The fish that I was

 I was seven years old when I wandered into the Fish Gallery. It was a good
sized tropical and marine fish, bird and small animal pet shop off of
Washington street. The elusive owner(he "worked" about 20 hours a week), Ron
Siamunic, was seldom there but today he was. Like most seven year olds, the
world underwater fascinated me. I must have asked Ron thirty five questions
in twelve minutes. Finally he asked "Are you going to buy anything?". "I
have no money and my parents don't give any allowance." Ron asked " Do you
do chores?" "Uh huh", I replied. "Well ask them for some allowance so you
can buy a ten gallon tank of your own."

    I raced home excited about the prospect of having such a "huge" tank and
so many interesting fish. Upon explaining my desires, I immediately got the
speech. "You will have to be responsible and take care of these pets and
besides, we don't have the money." I "negotiated" a deal whereby I would set
aside 3$ a week for the purchase and to show my commitment and ability to
take care of the fish. Reluctantly, my mother consented although the step
father was never pleased by the idea. "Ugly" was his name that I gave him.
And not just muttered under my breath, I made a joke out of it and he heard
it daily. "Hey ugulelee!", was the first thing I'd say when ever I saw him
much like a greeting. Even his own kids laughed and joined in on the joke.
It went on for years, till finally being replace by "Tiltin Milton's Mental
Lentils" which was a backpacking horror breakfast memory that scarred the
stomach, mind and senses. Apparently, years later after my mother caught him
cheating and the divorce, she told me it really bothered him and made him
extremely self conscience. He was a stern "Puritan" type through and though.

    Six foot four and about 150lbs. But he was not without his good
qualities. The backpacking horrors and he help me do my first wood project:
a wooden stand for the tank. It was to be entirely from hand tools just like
our log cabin out in Green County pass Whitehall, west of Bloomington.
"Ugly" would not have it any other way, no power tools for him, so that
meant me as well. "I'll show you how to do it like my uncle Big Mo". The
stand was made from a milled solid 9 ft x 16" x 3/4" piece of rock hard
forest white oak. It took me a day for each hand saw cut across all 16
inches before I had to stop due to blisters. "What are you doing NOT wearing
gloves!" I got a whack with a 2ft by 1"x4" board for that and it was not one
of those school principle whacks, your behind was black and blue with red
spots. Did I tell you he was very Putritanical? Typical philosophy

   Ten weeks passed and I made the trip to the Fish Gallery close four times
a week. I poured over every book they had and read everything. "How much
would a Synodonitis angelicus cost me?" "225$!". This was almost thirty
years ago. Eventually I was stumping Ron. I had learned all that was there.
All I needed was experience. I suppose Ron figured with me spending so much
time there it was time to put me to work. "How would you like to work here
and help in the afternoons? I'll pay you 3$ and hour credit and 2$ an hour
cash" I said "Yes". "You can vacuum, change the water and bag fish for
customers." Later I found out I had to change all the newspapers for birds
and avoid getting bit by a mean old Macaw. Ron himself was a hound dog. He
had a some new gal every few weeks. But part of himself was really that of
father and mentor for a number of kids that came in the store. The world
needed more Ron's but the gals might not have thought so. Like "Ugly" no one
is all bad nor all good. Even a seven year old can tell you that.

My first fish were six Julidochromis reganii. I quickly had more than enough
money with a job and of course it all went to credit for fish equipment. I
bought a nice Aquaology powerbox filter with 120 gph which was the best back
in the day. 

I sat endlessly staring into their eyes. They stared back. I imagined that I
was a Julidochromis reganii. The more I stared the more their coal black
eyes with mirrored reflections pulled me in. I would tap on the glass if one
fought and chased the others. The offender would look back at me with a
guilty look in it's eye. I already knew that dogs knew when they were being
bad. My mother had told me that "knowing right from wrong" proved an animal
or a human "had morality and conscience". I wondered what it would be like
to breath and live underwater. I wondered if I could trade places with my
fish. Was I like my fish? I knew right from wrong and it did as well. I felt
like I was trapped in a box like my fish. I had no freedom, I had this big
fish, "Ugly" bullying me. The longer I stared the more I became obsessed
with being a fish. The Julidochromis was pulling me in. It controlled my
time at night as I peered into it's mind. It was controlling me. I felt my
proper place was in the glass box. Through the eyes I would transform my
mind to the Julidochromis. I would escape out of the box and become this
seven year old boy.

  I would control him and make him stare into my eyes till the
transformation was complete. Then I would escape this glass ten gallon box.
I would be able to breath air and be free. I looked back at this boy who was
now a fish. I know it seems unbelievable but it did happen. The boy wanted
to trade places and it was not as if I trapped him against his will. He
fully wanted to become a fish. Through our eyes I was able to leave the
prison of the tank and become the boy. We both agreed it was for the best. I
took good care of the boy. I removed the other fish that might bully him,
after all I knew them well. It took awhile for him to eat although I'd seen
him drink a cup full of thawed brine shrimp that was in a similar cup right
next to his cup of water. It went down but he grimaced. Now I could eat not
small low grade common "street" brine but could feast on Prawns. My only
competitors for food were the step brothers and sister. "I can eat more
prawns than you!" My step father's wallet winced as we embarked on an eating
contest which I lost but the step brother was 8 years older than me. "That's
75 "fish" years."

Eventually Ron sold the store and I lost my job. The next owner Ruth was a
hippy that never washed her hair much and smelled funny. She smoked menthol
cigarettes that when I got near made feel like I'd just been throat raped
with a toilet brush. One day she approached me and said that a piece of
Driftwood was missing and that I'd been in the store when she last saw it
and after I left it was gone. I told her Julidochromis don't like wood and
prefer limestone instead but she'd never believe that. So no more local fish
shops. I never stole anything and was wrongfully accused. In Lake Tanganyika
stealing would be consider fine if you could keep it and defend it. Of all
the nerve.

  The cabin was finally finished out in Green County and we had hauled the
last batch shingles over three steep ravines for that time. The splitting
froe was finally laid to rest. No more cabin chores. Down by the creek I
spotted some aquatic plants. I took some home and placed them into three
tanks. Two had two incandescent 15w lights and the other had a 15w
fluorescent light and the plants thrived. I add water sprite after this and
it grew fast. My Datinoid looked at me in this tank and he wanted out also.
I felt bad that I'd escaped but he was trapped. I became very fascinated
with these green leafy things called plants.

Many German and European aquariums always seemed to have them. I had never
seen so many before. These don't grow in Lake Tanganyika after all. I stared
into my tank at the plants for many hours.........one plant started staring

Tom Barr