“Aloha,” Balena Gardner murmurs as she looks at herself in the mirror. Her husband tells her every day that she looks beautiful.
Today is her last day on the job. She had worked overtime for months to get a beautiful Chevrolet Vega, and by now she has scraped up enough for the exclusive Yenko model. Fire engine red.
“Balena, Balena,” she remembers telling herself in the summer of 1972, as she sat in her driveway on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu, “what are you going to do? Move back to the mainland? I hate California!”
She was a young telephone operator at the time, and spoke to herself as if she were two separate people—the one asking rhetorical questions and the one simply listening without responding.
Balena had a few jobs, but with this one she made friends, good friends, friends she could count on and trust. No gossiping was their rule. Ramona became both her colleague and her best friend, and they believed this job would last forever. They were always a little nervous whenever they heard diesel trucks idle near the building in which they worked, because they were well aware that new technology, perhaps being hauled by those trucks, would one day replace them. The building itself was fairly new; how long would it be before they wanted new people, as well? The soldering iron process helped replace many of those jobs. One consolation, however, was that Balena’s headphones became lighter with every passing year, which helped alleviate her neck pain in the evenings.
That day, as she drove downtown to work, an unusual feeling took hold in Balena’s mind and lingered there. Living most of her childhood near San Louis Obispo, she used to venture into the hills during the summer months, to see just a sliver of wildlife, to see the butterflies, to help her escape her daily routine. Now, each time she gazed at her employer’s building she understood why the Hawaiian natives never greeted telephone employees with the same welcoming “Mahalo” with which they greeted all others. The building’s very presence was in odds with nature. In no way did it reflect the beauty of the island. Even the brown and copper skin tones of the natives complemented the beauty of the island. But not the building in which Balena worked. Not in any way whatsoever.
She parked between a brick wall and a speed bump, hoping that would protect her Vega. She rolled down the window to get a better glance at the Pacific blue. How she longed to be able to sit there for a few peaceful hours.
“Balena! Hurry in.”
That was Ramona, calling out to her in a loud voice from across the parking lot.
“It’s my last day,” Balena called back. “What’s the hurry?”
“The switchboard is lighting up something awful!”
Balena exited her car and walked into the building with Ramona. They went to the elevator and Ramona pressed the button for the sixth floor.
“It’s lighting up this early?” Balena asked. “What’s going on?”
“We’re getting calls from London, India, Ohio…”
As she listened to the harrowing description of calls, Balena raced across the main room to her personal locker, only to be distracted in her pursuit by her boss’s call:
“Where’s Balena?” she yelled.
“I’m here, I’m here,” she announced before taking her regular seat.
Balena sat at her station while most of the other women continued to respond to problems being called into the switchboard at what seemed to be lightning speed. She took a deep breath, blocked out all the confusion, and zeroed in on the first blinking light on her console. Her hands were trained for combat, highly skilled, like a gymnast who lathered up with chalk before each set on the uneven bars. Her hands were just one asset; her soothing voice was another.
“Mrs. Lin, I have a call from Hyderabad,” she said to her supervisor. “How do I switch them when this equipment is incapable of relaying the request?”
“Where is Hyderabad?” retorted Mrs. Lin.
“It’s in India.”
“Do they speak English there?”
Balena was unable to answer, and with a worried look on her face she asked what she should do. The supervisor told her to take the call and started to provide some additional guidance, but before she was able to offer more advice, Balena began her end of the conversation.
“Hello,” she said, “I’m Balena Gardner, an operator on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu. How may I help you?”
“Hello?” came the response from Hyderabad.
“What is your name, sir?” Balena persisted. Then she whispered to Mrs. Lin, “The connection is perfectly clear!”
“My name is Kevin Simha,” said the voice on the other end, as steady as a surgeon’s. “I think my father is having a heart attack.”
“How do you know that, sir?”
“I briefly majored in biology and his color does not look good.”
“Is your father responding to your voice?” asked Balena.
“Yes. I gave him an aspirin,” Mr. Simha responded
“Good, but I’m afraid I don’t have the emergency code for Hyderabad. Do you know CPR?”
“My father just can’t die now.”
“Stay with me, Mr. Simha. Your father is not going to die. Do you happen to have the emergency number for Hyderabad?”
Balena dialed 102, hoping that this bizarre long-distance call would be relayed to the proper regional office in India, and to someone who also spoke English.
Someone picked up. “Aapaka aapaatakaal kya hai!” they said, followed by, “What is your emergency?”
“I am speaking to a Mr. Kevin Simha in Hyderabad, and his father needs immediate medical attention for a heart condition.”
Balena listened in as the Indian operator spoke first with Kevin Simha and then with his father, and assured them both that help was on the way. When the call with the Simha men ended, the operator in India asked Balena where she was from.
“America,” she said. “Hawaii. I know it sounds ridiculous.”
“Ridiculous? Not really,” the Indian operator responded. “I’ll tell you what’s ridiculous. Today started with unusual amount of car accidents and strange illnesses, and by this afternoon, dozens of hospitals began reporting more than a normal amount of mortalities. Well, I have to go now. Thank you for your help.”
“What’s your name?” Balena asked.
Meanwhile, on this early morning of August 4th, 1972, naval ships were trolling from O’ahu and across the entire South Pacific Sea. Because of the dust and vibrations, every mortar shell that had shaken the countless small villages in Vietnam, beginning in 1955, inadvertently hid the existence of a great solar storm. While American citizens took to the streets to protest an unjust war, nature was warning of its unpredictable and unfathomable power. The random events of which Balena had been warned united people from around the world into a sort of humbling dance between the Earth and the sun. Simultaneously, American and Soviet satellites were being launched; the Soviet Union launched satellites Prognoz 1and Prognoz 2 with the sole purpose of studying the sun. At home, technology made the world somewhat more hostile; in the cosmos, a serene civilization loomed, and a nine-year-old Vietnam boy named Due dreamed of the peace it could bring to one and all. Every night Due looked to the stars for the tranquility he knew was up there somewhere, and which, he was certain, would never hurt him. Throughout his childhood, Due sat at the feet of many temples in Hai Phong, a city historically occupied by many kingdoms, and realized that temples and museums made for ideal shelters during times of artillery attacks.
Due knew the difference between landmines and sea mines. He knew the difference between friendly aircraft and enemy aircraft. He knew how to gather trash not for food, but to learn how to identify the labels. He was well aware that learning to read was a skill of the utmost importance.
But this morning, the sky felt different. Due knew it, and so did his friends.
As Due thought about all this, there was another Chevy Vega rolling out of an assembly line in Lordstown, Ohio. The automobile was made by men who put their sweat, blood and anger into every model. Vietnam vets knew that General Motors was on the fast track to use automation to replace them. For their very survival they knew there was an immediate need to complete with Japan’s auto market.
In the wake of this war, Balena Gardner, Kevin Simha, Due, and all the troubled auto workers pressed onward both with courage and fear. Almost all of them felt that the sea had placed some wisdom in their souls.
The nurturing behavior of the male seahorse inspired a marine biologist named Cecilia Pérez Martínez to claim this creature as her guardian. So attached to the seahorse was Cecilia that her husband agreed to paint one in their baby’s nursery back in their apartment. Cecilia clutched tightly to her seahorse bracelet when the pain was unbearable, while lying in the maternity ward at Bellevue Hospital, in New York City. She was exceedingly happy to welcome her firstborn, and was counting the minutes until the blessed event. During the first hours of Cecilia’s stay, a nurse brought in coloring books to help the mother-to-be relax, and she also rolled in an electrocardiogram machine—which Cecilia felt was a bit unusual. She looked at her husband, standing tall between the sunlight reflecting from the iconic Chrysler Building and the plate-glass windows of maternity room. The room was tucked away on the sixth floor of the hospital complex’s east wing, with a perfect northwest view of the city. A nurse checked in on her every hour, reading number displays and gauges on machines and then scribbling into medical charts.
“How are you feeling today, Mrs. Martinez?” a nurse asked.
“Just fine,” Cecelia murmured.
“Are you from out of state?”
“No, my husband and I are from Brooklyn.”
“The doctor will be here soon,” the nurse informed her. “I just need to warn you, dear, that Dr. Pyle does not want husbands in the operating room when your water brakes.”
This startled Balena, who turned to her husband and pleaded with him to find out what was going on. “Why isn’t Dr. Lawless Park here?” she asked desperately.
“I’ll try to find out,” her husband assured her.
As Cecilia’s baby tumbled in her belly, and as cars rolled off the assembly line in Lordstown, the sun altered the course of history, with a powerful solar flare—a virtual hurricane in the stars—with Earth as its meteorological target. On August 2, 1972, natural satellites fixed in orbit were moved by solar forces to create a clear path for the events to come two days later, on the fourth of August. Interplanetary disturbances were of no concern to Due. But those little creatures that hide in the mysterious jungles of the sea, like seahorses and the occasional sea turtle, always sense the geomagnetic storms that affect all hemispheres of the planet. On this particular day, there were no more rules about what can occur or who can feel what.
On Friday morning there was a frightful shout from the lead operator at the General Motors Ohio plant warning of high amperage that regulates a twenty-ton press. “Excessive overheating,” he yelled several times in succession.
He called up to the manager’s office as an alarm began to ring out, which distracted everyone on the assembly line. There were disgruntled moans from all the workers who were concerned that their six dollars an hour would now be in serious jeopardy. A man named Mr. Patterson, who claimed to have been a great great-grandson of one of the founders of the automobile industry, pulled the handle that instantly shut down operations throughout the facility. There was a scuffle. Men pushed into one another, uncertain why two of the plant’s generators were suddenly speeding up. Nor were they certain if the heavy-duty copper cables would be able to cope with the backup batteries. There was mass confusion.
One of the workers in the shop called the men up to the roof. They all ran feverishly.
“No clouds!” one of the men shouted. “But heavy shadows!” another echoed. “Ghosts?” called a third. “No—too big to be ghosts. Must be heaven,” argued a fourth man.
The shadows moved slowly, like a corpulent snake casting silhouettes as far as the eye could see.
“Come down, guys,” the shop foreman demanded. “The show is over. Back to work.”
It was a hot August afternoon. The upcoming presidential election made it even hotter. Vietnam War protests heated it up further still. American Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, a veteran of World War II, believed that by mining the northern Vietnam ports, American troops could gain control of the situation. After seven years of war, in the spring of 1972, Washington decided to put on the table either a nuclear attack or sea mines in the ports that supply goods from the USSR and China. The size of a grapefruit, magnetic sea mines were planted using Grumman A-6 Intruders, and the mines were set to explode at eighteen feet, or three fathoms, at the channels in Haiphong, a northern port city. This action placed the United States in conflict with the Hague Convention of 1907; if one of the mines detonated and damaged or destroyed commercial cargo, the conflict would escalate and perhaps even unite the USSR and China.
This, of course, was of no concern to Due, residing in Vietnam. To him, planes fly high and low, and bombs turn the nighttime sky into daylight. But as far as Admiral Moorer was concerned, with his experience and training he would never consider breaking all the rules set by the Hague and Geneva Convention. Still, because it was out of his hands, the solar storm penetrated Earth’s magnetic field, and stretched it, on August the Fourth, thereby beginning a chain of events that has never been seen or felt—at least not since 1859.
One bang, then two, then four thousand sea mines exploded. Whoever ventured outside could never imagine such a fortress of armaments, particularly with no vessel from which they came and no target in its sights. Due, burying himself in his mother’s bosom for comfort, put his hands over his ears to ward against the deafening roar of the exploding mines, which echoed mercilessly off tin roofs and bamboo roofs across the countryside. Warehouses near the port of Hai Phong came tumbling down as if a tsunami had rolled in and swallowed the town.
The 1859 solar event, scientifically known as a CME for Coronal Mass Ejection, set the bar. That one took 17.6 hours to reach Earth; the one on August the Fourth took 14.6 hours. By contrast, most solar events take two or three days to reach Earth, giving Earth-bound professionals enough time to put some defenses in place.
The lights flickered with Cecilia’s groans, with each and every push. The nurses were startled when the room went complete dark. The EKG machine stopped beeping. Cecilia glimpsed out the window, where black smoke started to billow. Then the power came back on. The doctor took a deep breath. “The generators,” he acknowledged. One nurse called for Cecilia’s husband and said that something felt amiss when Cecilia had grabbed onto her finger. While the power was keeping only crucial parts of Bellevue Hospital energized, the nurse who had requested the return of Cecilia’s husband looked over the daily manifest. She was a Filipino woman named Susan, and she had sensed danger from the slight touch of Cecilia’s hand. In her commanding voice she told the doctor that she had much experience handling births back in the Philippines, “under candlelight and in the remote areas,” she added.
Cecilia’s husband was ordered to put on scrubs and remain close to his wife.
“Don’t worry,” he said to her. “I’m here. There’s no rush.”
Cecilia turned her head toward the window. A striking shadow caught her eye—the silhouette of a seahorse passing between the Chrysler Building and two large construction cranes in the distance. When Cecelia turned back to look at her husband, their baby boy entered the world.
Back in Hawaii, Balena removed her headset and was escorted to the cafeteria on the main floor, where her colleagues arranged a banquet of gratitude. She took a deep breath and blew out the candles. Several friends shed tears, and everyone forgot the events of the day. Later, as she left the building, she turned around and gave one last look at her place of employment. Hawaii said farewell to her in a most splendid way: a ribbon of green and red stretched across the sky. The sun threw out a brilliant cloud of light—in the form of a seahorse.
Captain Edmund Gardner was the first whaleship to visit Hawaii she was graced with the name Balena or Balaena.