MONORAILS AND KILLER WHALES
Anyone who knows me well knows I’m passionate about theme parks—the ones in Orlando in particular. In the past nine months, two of my favorite places have been backdrops for shocking tragedy: in July, Disney World Monorail Pilot Austin Wuennenberg, 21, was killed when Monorails Pink and Purple crashed into each other; in the last week of February, Sea World Whale Trainer Dawn Brancheau, 40, died when an orca named Tilikum…well, flipped out.
Heartbreaking. Just heartbreaking. But I did take small comfort in two things. According to a July 6, 2009 article on the WESH-2 News Orlando website, “Austin Wuennenberg died doing what he loved. People who knew Wuennenberg said being a driver for Disney’s monorail was his dream job.” I wasn’t surprised to hear this—mostly because, believe it or not, I have always fantasized about what job I’d like best at WDW, and the answer has always been ‘Monorail Pilot.’
Dawn Brancheau, the whale trainer who was killed at Sea World, was no different. In 2000, WESH-2 News Orlando’s Amanda Ober did a piece on Dawn. According to a February 25, 2010 article on the station’s site, “Brancheau identified her dream at the age of 9 and went on to realize it, becoming SeaWorld’s leading whale trainer…‘What I remember most is that Dawn was someone truly living her dream,’ Ober said.”
In Dawn’s case, I didn’t need a news article to confirm this. I know from having many friends in the husbandry business that you don’t become an animal trainer unless you love it more than life itself. It’s never just a job; you live and breathe to go to work.
I have several passions, but the two that mean most are writing and marine biology. When I was a kid—starting at the age of, oh, around seven, I guess—I’d write stories that usually featured a grown-up me working at some aquarium someplace. But life passed and I was only dabbling in both: since the mid-1980s, I’d been writing stories on and off. Since 2001, I’d been working as a volunteer at two different aquariums and writing short stories inspired by my experiences.
But in 2003, I was at a crossroads. It was time to make a decision, since I’d never pursued either passion completely. I could go back to school to be a writer or an aquarist. But I couldn’t do both. Obviously, I chose writing, and here I am. So far, it’s gotten me all the way to the Norman Mailer Writer’s Colony in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
On my last day at the Colony, I went next door to Apartment 1 to say goodbye to the other Fellow, Merissa Nathan Gerson, who’s an Aquarian and dream chaser like me and pours her heart and soul into the very helpful, wise website www.askyouryenta.com. She gave me a big hug and said, “Just remember that we all die someday. People get all tangled up in their bills and responsibilities and guilt and they sometimes choose to just hang out, but they forget that everybody dies.”
This struck me. Yes, it is terribly sad about Austin and Dawn. But their dedication and service to their passions should be a reminder to all of us. They both died doing what they loved.
If all of us will only be so lucky.
In honor of each of their memories, I’m posting two previously published stories which are no longer available anywhere, and one thing I wrote up when I was nine which isn’t really a story, but evidence of just how big my dreams were at that age.
This Flash piece was Admit One Literary Theme Park’s Issue #3 in July, 2008. AOLTP was a project of mine connected with my MFA thesis: Disney fan fiction delivered monthly to subscribers’ e-mails. While successful, it was a bit overwhelming with only me doing the writing. For more info on Admit One, you can visit my “Projects” tab. What’s posted here is the original issue that went out to subscribers. Oh, yeah…and if you like what you read, stay tuned. Pandora Ink Books is publishing an illustrated collection of the Admit One pieces later this year.
Note: for the following pieces, you can click on each picture and it will open in a separate frame for easier reading/printing.
“Done for Glory”
This is another short piece called “Done for Glory,” which I wrote in April of 1986 (I was 15). I entered it into the short story contest for The Piper, our high school’s literary magazine, and it won second place. What’s interesting is that this is definitely the root of the story “Wailing Station,” which I wrote in 2006 and placed 2nd in Toasted Cheese‘s 2007 Dead of Winter Contest. Apparently, I had whales and desolate climates on the brain for many years.
“Daytona Beach News”
Okay, here’s that thing that’s not really a story. This was written in 1980, and the names you see in there are the names of some of my third grade classmates (who are all going to kiss me or kill me when they see this, since I’m still in touch with all of them). Notice all the lovely misspellings (well, I DID lose the Spelling Bee that year). Kristina Hals, Tina Mowrey, Greg Grenier, and Joe Strickland, this one’s for you. Betcha guys didn’t even know I was writing this stuff, did you? Well, at least you know you were along for the ride early on!
 “Family, Friends Remember Austin Wuennenberg,” WESH.COM, July 6, 2009, http://www.wesh.com/news/19969256/detail.html (accessed February 28, 2010).
 “Interview Recalled With Late Trainer,” WESH.COM, February 25, 2010, http://www.wesh.com/news/22665827/detail.html (accessed February 28, 2010).