Back when I was in high school, my family took a trip to visit my grandparents in San Diego. We went during the extended Christmas vacation time (that’s what it was called back then), and I remember it being rather bizarre seeing Christmas lights on large cacti and palm trees.
We didn’t visit often, nor did they visit us often. Actually, I think this trip was my first time traveling there during an age I could remember. It wasn’t a particularly happy or upbeat trip, as no one got along particularly well: not my dad with his parents, nor they with us. But, I guess one needs to check off such activities every few years or so, and there we were.
Our grandparents had a membership to the world-famous San Diego Zoo, and so we spent one of our days visiting there.
We went here, and we went there. We visited these animals and those animals. Even to my then-14-year-old’s eyes, I knew the place was special in the realm and world of zoos. Like many people, I have mixed feelings about zoos and putting animals in small cages with the assaults and sounds of human activity, lights, and intrusions, but this zoo was clearly top class.
I felt like I was in another world, surrounded by so many different plants and animals far beyond my prior zoo experiences. It was all rather magical and special. Beyond the many plants, trees and flowers there–species that would never survive the winters and weather of the National Zoo in D.C.–it was palpable this zoo was serious about its mission to be more than just a place with animals in cages that people gawked at. I was more able to enjoy the experience rather than feel the compression of the zoo animals’ lives.
At one point we were at the silverback gorilla enclosure. If I recall, it had some hills and rocks and trees and this-es and thats in it. A large male silverback was sitting, close to the impassable concrete pit that stood between the enclosure and where the people were and had his back to the crowd. With perfect timing, he took a poop in his hands, and then right as the open-air train came past the enclosure, he flung that hot, steamy poop at the passing train.
Everyone screamed! Those of us watching, with surprise and humor; those on the train, perhaps with surprise and disgust.
Holy smokes! That was a moment. Whether I’d have been 14, 44 or 104–that was a moment of witnessing intent! (I was glad he wasn’t throwing his poop at those of us right in front of the enclosure.)
As I turned my head to watch the flying poop hit the unsuspecting train passengers, my eyes saw something — someone — that made me pause. It was John Mikolasko, my dad’s business partner and someone I saw here and there when I had cause to visit my dad’s office. John and his family, turns out, were also in San Diego during the same week we were, were also at the zoo the same day we were; and were also looking at the silverback gorillas at the same time we were.
Now, I didn’t grow up in a family of church and faith; nor was spirituality much of a thing in the Newburn household; and I’m guessing there were more conversations about science and physics and nature and chemistry than there were about philosophy and metaphysics, but dang if that moment didn’t do something to my worldview. Forever.
The number of factors, the choices, the options, the variables, the minuteness and the grandness of life that needed to combine at that exact moment — including, of course, the arrival of the train, the large silverback’s desire to pitch his poop, and the moment at which I turned my head and John Mikolasko’s face being turned in a way where I could see his features — all of these things came together in one flash moment for me to see, and recognize, someone who lived some 3,000 miles away–someone who shared an office with my dad–to be at the exact same place, at the exact same time as we were. It blew my mind.
And opened it.
A view of the enclosure.