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Ben Cunningham told this story live before an audience at the Oberon in Harvard Square on August 27, as part of a Story Collider event sponsored by WBUR. The Story Collider features true, personal stories about science.
"Brothers and sisters! Brothers and sisters! If man, if man was meant to fly, God, God would have given him wings!"
This was how most of my family felt in Columbia, South Carolina. Which meant that, as a child, I would always be the one who had to take a plane from Boston to visit them. My parents lived up here, they weren't very religious, and we didn't always go to church.
My dad was a cook, photographer, and sculptor, which meant that on the weekends we would turn the kitchen into a science lab, experiment with light in the darkroom, and build robots in the woodworking studio, which was actually part of the kitchen.
I felt like one of those mad scientists in the B-movies that I would watch on TV while everybody was at church on Sundays. It all felt like one and the same, science and fiction. But as far as my family down south, they didn't care for science or fiction. They liked to watch religious programs on TV. Back in the '80s, I stayed with my aunt and uncle and they had one of those old color television sets. You know the kind, it's about the size of a piece of furniture, and it's got that nice hardwood finish along the sides, kind of like a station wagon from The Brady Bunch. They gave off low levels of radiation that most parents were concerned about.
Well, my aunt and uncle went to work from 9 to 5 and they left me in the home alone, with nothing to do but watch television. The problem was—television in the '80s in Columbia, South Carolina—you didn't have many programs to choose from. You had ... static ... televangelist... static ... televangelist ... static ... pro wrestling and B-movies.
So I watched a lot of B-movies. And one thing I learned from those B-movies is that every mutant, every monster, and every giant had one thing in common: radiation. Radiation from the atomic bomb turned them into giants. Kinda like the radiation in the television set.
So I ran my hand across the screen and I felt the static electricity, the radioactive glow on my palm, and I thought, Wouldn't it be cool if I could just run my entire body across that screen? I could become a mutant, I could become a giant, I could become ... THE COLOSSAL MAN.
But it was too late. The television was too small and I was already too big. And that's when I looked at my aunt's goldfish tank. And I looked at the television set. And a light bulb went off in my head. BLING! Science experiment! Mwahahahaha! I was going to take the goldfish, run them across the screen, through the field of static electricity and radiation, manipulating their DNA and creating a giant mutant goldfish.
By the end of the day, Columbia, South Carolina, was going to have one hell of a fish fry. And I would solve world hunger and end up on the cover of Popular Science magazine.
So I took the first specimen out of the tank and I brought it to the screen. There was the televangelist and he was beating on his Bible, shouting, "Brothers and sisters, brothers and sisters, the end, the end is coming near!" I brought the goldfish closer to the screen, and when my hand kissed that glass—MWAH!—it was like science and religion meeting for the very first time. And I took that fish and I went shwip! across the TV screen and I dropped that fish back in the tank and the fish went ... plop!
So I took the second specimen out of the tank, and I — click — changed the channel and there was Hulk Hogan and he had some wrestler's life in his hands, kind of like how I had this tiny little goldfish's life in my hands. And I went shwwwip! with the goldfish, across the TV screen in the opposite direction — to reverse the current.
And I dropped that fish back in the tank and the fish went ... plop!
Now, I couldn't figure out what was going wrong with my experiment. All my specimens were dying. So I shut the television off and I let it juice back up and I waited. And then I turned the television set back on and there was Godzilla and Mothra on Monster Island, and Godzilla was going, "Rawrrrr!" and Mothra's wings were going swoosh, swoosh, swoosh! and everyone was running like it was Armageddon, and they were going, "Ahhhh!" and I took that fish and I went swish swish swish around the screen and dropped it back in the tank and the fish went plop!
By the end of the day, all the fish were floating at the top of the tank. And the televangelist was still beating on his Bible, shouting, but the volume was down. It was like some surreal message from the Book of Revelations about the apocalypse that was soon to come. And it did.
My aunt and uncle came through the door. And my aunt said to my uncle, "Theodore! Theodore! I done bought these goldfish the other day and they all dead! Lord have mercy!"
Then my aunt and uncle looked at me like I was some sort of devil child. When, in reality, I was just a child with a keen mind for science ... fiction.
Who knows, maybe if I had continued with those experiments, it would have been an evolution in the TV dinner or a re-inventing of the microwave oven, or microwave weapon. Science is weird that way. We can create things that are beautiful, and things that are scary.
But I will tell you this. Back in the '80s, in Columbia, South Carolina, I had set out to solve world hunger, and I ended up getting sent to bed without dinner.
Listen above to Ben Cunningham telling his story in front of a live audience at the Oberon Theater in Harvard Square. The Story Collider returns to Cambridge on September 23 at the Middle East Downstairs.
About the storyteller: Ben Cunningham won Boston's Big Mouth Off Story Slam at Boston Public Library's Rabb Hall and was chosen to represent Massmouth in the Boston vs. Philly Story Slam at Philadelphia's Book and Science Festivals. He was a guest storyteller at Massmouth's 2012 BigMouthOff at Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline.
This program aired on September 4, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.
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