This is a sad story, a story about the death of a poor penguin that was burned in southern Argentina.
This happened because my friend Bill Fisher, an extremely kind and big-hearted man, tried to help the penguin. At that time Bill and I lived in Argentina. Bill lived in the province of Chubut, in Patagonia. He used to walk the beach, which was usually deserted because the water was almost frozen, and a strong wind blew dragging much dust and sand. I had lived in the same place, but had been fortunate enough to ascend to the Argentinian Heaven, what they call Buenos Aires, and Bill and I visited only occasionally.
One day Bill was walking along the beach and found an oil covered penguin. This was the result of an extraordinary coincidence, because normally the oil spilling state oil company (YPF) did all of it in Caleta Cordoba, and hardly anyone went there precisely because it looked so ugly (however, sometimes the spilled oil was pushed further away by sea currents).
Nor can we say that the beach where he visited was full of penguins. They came to visit from the Antarctic during a portion of the year, but they went further north. So this particular poor penguin was a rare individual. I think it was passing through on its way north when he got into an oil spill floating offshore in the Atlantic Ocean. An alternate theory is that it decided to relax on the beach when it was covered with oil.
The fact is that Bill found the poor bird in poor condition. Bill, being the excellent guy that he was, wrapped the penguin in a towel and took him home.
Bill was wonderful, a very practical engineer (I say was because I lost contact with him about 15 years ago). But he was not an expert in cleaning oiled birds. So….this is what he told me later, the story of what happened that day:
Bill took the penguin and put it in the tub, and proceeded to clean up the oil with a solvent liquid. I think he used gasoline or kerosene, I can´t remember. This procedure left the penguin clean but well soaked in a flammable liquid.
And now comes the ugly part. If you are a minor or have a weak stomach stop reading this.
At that time, in southern Argentina it was very cold most of the time. Most apartments had heaters, but the gadgets were natural gas burners with an open flame, like this:
Photograph: Open flame heater used
by Argentinians in their apartments
These heaters were located at various points in the residences. It seemed to me a silly system, but who was to tell the Argentinians there were better solutions (I know it´s hard to believe, but they are a very proud people).
Bill made sure the penguin looked very good, but he still had to clean it a second time, because it was soaked in gasoline. And this is where things went wrong. Suddenly, at one point when Bill got distracted, the penguin jumped from the tub, and ran into the hallway, where unfortunately one of those natural gas burners with the open flame was located.
Then the penguin began to shake to dry itself (just like a dog does after a bath), a cloud of gasoline droplets jumped from the penguin and touched the burner flame. At that moment Bill was chasing the penguin and was about to grab it when the gasoline touched the burner, and the flame proceeded to jump through the air to the penguin, and then jumped from poor Penguin to Bill's hands, which were still wet with gasoline.
The next day I met Bill at the office. The poor man had a very sad face and both his hands were heavily bandaged.
Photograph: Burnt hands
Bill told me very contrite that the penguin had been burned to a crisp, and the flames which leaped toward him from the burning penguin had also burned his hands. He added that he was lucky because he could have burned down the apartment. Also, his wife was extremely upset.
I have written about this because I have been thinking about the times when people or countries, try to help someone or remedy something, and the results are not what was expected.
Bill was (or is) a very good man, and I don´t think he deserved having his hands and his apartment burnt when he tried to try to help the poor penguin. But sometimes bad things happen when good people try to help others.
Photograph: Friendly soldier gives out candy