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Jack DempseyYeah, that does sound kind of weird. But this fish is Jack, as in the admittedly unoriginal name I gave to the fish I had for many years, a Jack Dempsey. Yes, like Jack Dempsey the boxer. 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 (other than a white rabbit named Snowball that mysteriously arrived, then just as mysteriously disappeared a few months later when I was child, I never had pets), “Jack” was good enough for me, and frankly, just perfect for Jack.

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 location 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 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, 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 unwillingly became bait for the largest, and eventually there was just Jack and a large Plecostomus, better 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 himself, 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 played that role.)

In any case, 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.

Jack also reflected my life’s interest in marine biology. Sure, he was a freshwater fish, not marine, but he represents for me my love of the aquatic environment. For several years after college I worked as a marine biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service, first on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and then at Sandy Hook, NJ, in the New York Bight. After the arson that destroyed my lab and changed my career path, I worked as an aquatic toxicologist and then environmental consultant. All the while I was buoyed by memories of Jack and the sea that still draws me.

Jack stayed with me for eight or nine years, growing larger and more assertive with time. Unfortunately, Jack passed away while I was on a week-long work assignment out of state, or at least that is the reason given by my then soon-to-be ex-wife for his absence when I returned home. Jack, even in death it seems, continued to play his role deciding who were keepers.

[See previous “50 Objects” stories, “My Life in a Book,” “My Life in a Brick” and “My Life in a Bust.” Or click on “50 Objects” and scroll down to see others as they are added.]

David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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