Shamu and Scott

Scott in my arms in Urbana, Illinois

Nearly 57 years ago on the eve of my 23rd birthday, I was blessed with my first child, John Scott Clapper – to be called Scotty. One of my favorite pictures is of me dressed for graduation in cap and gown and holding this marvelous creature in my arms.

As he grew up, we became fond of our joint birthday celebrations. When possible, it would involve a journey somewhere leaving the rest of the world behind for those precious two days.

Following is Scott’s recollection of one of those special weekends. We weren’t always this crazy … but we tried as best we could. -GrandpaLyle

By Scott Clapper, 19640423

Years ago when I was in college, Dad suggested that we take a father-son bonding trip. We settled on a long weekend in San Diego. I seem to recall that we stayed at a Shoney’s Inn which was basically a motel attached to a Shoney’s restaurant so at least we had a great breakfast buffet every day. One day it rained so hard, we didn’t even leave the hotel room. And this was in the days before smartphones and the internet. As I recall, we played cards and talked and read books.

Then the next day, when the sun came back out, we went to Sea World. We had seen most of the attractions and then went to the Shamu the Killer Whale Show. I’m sure you’ve seen it. They have trained whales that do tricks and splash water (we made sure to not sit in the splash-zone seats). When the show was over, we walked down by the tank to get one last look at Shamu underwater. As he was swimming by, a surge of water spilled over the top edge of the tank like a wave. Dad had anticipated the water and ducked in next to the tank, but in doing so, he kind of nudged me outward directly into the path of the tsunami. Needless to say, I was drenched, which normally would be all in good fun, but we had reservations to have dinner at the park’s upscale seafood restaurant.

Shemu – big enough for its own seat on the redeye flight home.

Needing a new shirt, I suggested we go to the park’s gift shop. As I was looking for a dry shirt, Dad was talking with the sales clerk nearby. I overheard him asking if they had stuffed Shamu’s which he wanted to bring home for my youngest brother Jeff who would have been 3-4 at the time. The shop clerk showed Dad a group of progressively larger and larger stuffed toys. And then I heard him ask, “Do you have anything larger?” And jokingly, the woman pointed to the stuffed Shamu hanging from the ceiling. which was roughly three feet in diameter and six feet in length. Dad said, “I’ll take it!” Stunned, the clerk stuttered, “But you don’t even know how much it is!” It didn’t seem to matter to Dad. As no one had ever bought this sized toy before, the clerk called the park’s General Manager who came right over. And we had our pictures taken with the staff and our new killer whale. 

We were booked on the redeye flight back to Chicago which thankfully because of the late hour was lightly booked. As we walked through the San Diego airport, Dad and I got some rather curious looks. Dad had offered to carry the luggage which left me struggling to carry our new friend. I can only imagine what the other people were thinking looking at a college kid carrying a six-foot stuffed whale.

As we were in the gate area, the agents began the pre-boarding process for the flight. And over the loudspeaker, I heard the announcement, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we will now board any families traveling with small children or killer whales!” This, of course, elicited some laughter from the other passengers. Again, we were lucky to get a row to ourselves. So there we sat with Dad on the aisle, me in the window seat and Shamu in the middle between us. Mind you, this was long before the days of emotional support animals, but that’s pretty much what it looked like.

When we got home, Mom was annoyed at Dad for spending so much on a stuffed whale for Jeff. Jeff, for his part, was initially excited, but that lasted maybe a day or so. Pictures were taken and Jeff had his friends over to “ride” on Shamu’s back. Then for the next maybe three years Shamu and I shared a bunkbed (Jeff had his own room). I slept in the top bunk and Shamu resided downstairs. Years later, as Shamu had gotten a little ragtag and started leaking stuffing, he ended up in the trash bin. A sad parting for such a majestic creature!

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