They Don’t Look Like the Picture at All

When I was 7 growing up in Mississippi, my best friend, John Briscoe, and I ordered some sea monkeys off the back of a comic book (pretty sure it was Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos). We had toyed for awhile with getting the X-Ray Specs, but really didn’t understand what the advantage of having them would be. That insight wouldn’t form until I was about 13 or so.

The thing is, kids are idiots. It’s not their fault, they lack life experience. The reality of life has yet to beat them into quivering heaps of angst, cynicism, and dull rage. And that’s a good thing. Some, like me, never stop being idiots. The world runs on industries developed to take advantage of stupid people. Whenever I saw comic book ads for a 7-foot Polaris nuclear sub with real torpedoes and a working periscope for only seven bucks, I had no doubt if I could scrape together $7.00, I’d make a fortune selling submarine rides to my friends in the pond behind our house. When we ordered our sea monkeys, I truly believed they would be exactly as depicted in the ad.

Anyway, we sent off the order, and, after what seemed like a year, the sea monkeys arrived in the mail – sort of. The kit included a tiny plastic “aquarium” and lid about the size of a drinking glass as well as a packet containing our monkeys. John opened the packet.

“What are these, man?”
“I don’t know. Monkey eggs, I guess.”
“They don’t look like the picture at all.”

The picture on the front of the packet showed what appeared to be a family of happy, smiling, naked creatures – more human than monkey in form. Since all the monkeys had crown-like head protrusions in the illustration, we assumed they were descended from royal bloodlines.

“Well, put them in some water and let’s see what they do.”

Figuring the provided container would be much too small for our giant family of aquatic primates, John decided to dump the contents of the packet into an actual aquarium in which we were already keeping three baby turtles we had caught about a week earlier. John said that once the sea monkeys grew to their full height (which we assumed to be about a foot and a half) they could ride the turtles around like horses. John dumped the contents of the package into the aquarium…

… and all hell broke loose.

As with most 7-year-old boys in the Deep South in the late 1960s, John and I were masters at small game trapping (turtles, frogs, lizards, cotton mouths) but absolutely lousy at keeping them alive once he had them. You would have thought that fact would have encouraged a liberal catch-and-release policy on our part. You would be wrong. Playground law was firmly fixed in the precedent of Finders/Keepers vs Losers/Weepers. If we found it – we kept it.

Pretty much everything we caught was put in a jar, box, or cage, ogled at for about 5 minutes (the absolute maximum limit of our attention span at the time), and then set in a cupboard or closet somewhere to be promptly forgotten until our respective mothers smelled the odor of decaying flesh and ferreted out the source. I received more than one beating (usually administered with a wooden spoon or section of Hot-Wheels track) for putting a small animal in my closet and forgetting about it for several weeks. Sometimes, the carcass would actually fuse into the carpet before the smell would give it away.

As you may have figured out by this point, our three captive turtles had been flapping around the aquarium for a week without food. I would not actually hear the word “ravenous” until some years later, but when the sea monkeys were introduced to the aquarium, I received a terrifying introduction to the concept behind the word. When John dumped the contents of the packet into the water the turtles went absolutely berserk. We stood there, mouths hanging open, eyes bulging in abject horror, as they flapped around and gorged themselves wholesale on our sea monkey eggs.

“Shit! They’re eating our sea monkeys!”
“Get ’em out, get ’em out, get ’em OUT!”

John managed to scoop out a couple of the eggs, which he put back into the original container with some water… at which point we promptly forgot all about them. The surviving eggs may have hatched eventually, but since we were expecting ocean-going chimpanzees rather than a species of brine shrimp, we never even noticed them. And although it is still a painful memory to me, I do take comfort in the thought that the turtles gave our sea monkeys a swift and painless death, sparing them the slow, excruciating starvation they would have otherwise experienced once we realized they weren’t monkeys at all.

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