Jack, as in the admittedly unoriginal name I gave to my fish, is a Jack Dempsey. Yes, that Jack Dempsey. Jack (the fish) is a cichlid common to the tropical rivers of Central America, basically from Mexico to Honduras. The species gets its name from “aggressive nature and strong facial features” that reminded its discoverer of the 1920s boxer of the same name. The Jack Dempsey idea caught on, and given my inexperience naming pets, “Jack” was good enough for me, and frankly, just perfect for Jack.
He became my closest companion.
The Norwalk Aquarium was Jack’s first home, though perhaps not his birthplace. The Aquarium is not actually an aquarium in the sense of the big public aquariums I so often frequent, so it shouldn’t be confused with the current Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk, which didn’t exist until almost a decade after I left that area. I don’t recall the name specifically, but it may be what is today called Exotic Aquatics, on New Canaan Avenue. Most people would just call it a fish store. Not far down the coast from my undergraduate college, the Aquarium was the natural place to shop for some tropical fish to keep me company in the single dorm room of my junior year. Initially there were several small tropical fish, with Jack being only 2 to 3 inches long and the others about the same size or much smaller. The smallest unknowingly became bait for the largest, and eventually there was just Jack and a large Plecostomus, best known as a “giant algae sucker.” Massive and armored like a military personnel carrier, the Plecostomus confidently ignored Jack and everything else, at least until the morning I found it dried up on the floor, presumably having been chased over the top of the tank. Clearly Jack looked pleased to have the place to himself.
Unbeknownst to him, Jack was a magnet for the girls in my Biology class (I was studying to be a marine biologist). Okay, some girls were not too sure about a guy who kept fish in his room, but that just helped weed out the clearly incompatible ones. Those that stayed to play with Jack were keepers. At least that’s the story I told myself at the time. (Many years later, not long after publishing my first book on Nikola Tesla, I saw a cartoon about speed dating. In the first frame the guy starts off by asking “Edison or Tesla?,” to which the girl responds “Who is Tesla?” The next frame shows the guy leaning back and saying to the person behind him, “Next!”)
Jack clearly was a novelty and a conversation starter, even if the conversation lagged once they tired of the novelty of “the fish in the tank.” To me, Jack became a companion in a way that was somehow manly without being creepy. By the end of that junior year Jack had grown to a length of about six inches, but the real growth was in his breadth, depth, and attitude. As a young fish he came off as brash and threatening as the skinny kid trying to stand up to the neighborhood bully. But seven months later he had earned his pugilistic nickname. No longer merely bravado, he was now a force to be reckoned with. Bashing up against the tank wall (by this time he had moved from a 10-gallon tank with others to a 20-gallon tank all by himself), Jack was quick to introduce himself to anyone who walked within eyesight of the glass. And Jack had very good eyesight.
By now the tank was barren of anything remotely related to interior design. Live plants were unceremoniously uprooted, then shredded. Plastic plants simply were pulled up and allowed to float on the surface. The bubbling treasure chest? Turned over and disconnected. Nothing was safe. It was a chore just to keep the place aerated.
I’ll stop here to make clear that I don’t mean any of this in a negative way. In fact, it was fantastic. Jack had more personality than any fish, and many people, I had ever met. He would follow me around the room; not literally, of course, but with eyes and body. When I would spend time with him his caudal fin (the one in the tail) would practically wag like a dog. Feeding him became a game where he would try to capture the pellets before they even hit the water. Live food he would chase around, but only briefly before gulping them down whole. He was actually the best roommate I had in college (no offense to the two great roommates I had in my freshmen and sophomore years).
[to be continued]
David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, due out in late July 2017. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.