Richard C. Murphy, PhD

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Murph’s Story

Happy Beginning

A mussel shell descends through water, shimmering with iridescence as it wobbles toward the bottom 7 feet below.  Two eyes follow its path.  Then, with the exuberance of a puppy, a small boy dives in to retrieve the shell.  No mask, no fins, just exuberance.  After a couple of tries success.  He emerges with his trophy.  His father nods approval.  This was the perfect place to become acquainted with the ocean – the outflow of warm water from a power plant in Seal Beach, California.  

It was 1948, I was 6 years old, and  my dad had driven us here so he could body surf and so I could learn to love rather than fear the ocean.  Those days were happy. My mother had quit her job as a bank as a teller to be a housewife and take care of me.  My father “settled down” as a truck driver after traveling the world working as a seaman on ships and eventually becoming a “hard hat” diver blowing up coral reefs to make passages for ships to enter harbors in the South Pacific before WWII. His adventures provided endless stories that captivated the imagination of my friends and me.

Today I would certainly be labeled as hyperactive.   Fortunately, in the late 1940s, I was just a little kid full of energy doing what kids did.  In the late afternoon when my father’s car pulled up I knew that it was time for us to go to the beach.  I rushed out to greet him and then to release pent up excitement and energy I would run around the house two or three full cycles just to calm down. Panting and much calmer I collected towels and sandals for the beach.

We were off in the green hornet – a 1948 green, slope backed Nash.  At Seal Beach the waves are bigger than in Long Beach so the destination was perfect for us both.  My dad was an avid waterman and loved to bodysurf.  While he was in the water I explored a rock jetty for creatures.  A world of discoveries lay at my feet.  Green animal flowers, called sea anemones, decorated the rocks.  Sticky tentacles would withdraw when touched, particularly when I dropped a crab onto the anemone.   I was enthralled to watch it struggle and slowly, very slowly, disappear as the anemone engulfed and consumed it.  A treasure chest of debris waited among the rocks.  Owl limpets, turban snails, pieces of scallop shells, moon snails, and crab molts were wonderful discoveries. I was most enamoured with the iridescence of mussel shells.  The deep blue, green, silver and black intermingled, a magic interplay of color depending on the angle of the sunlight.  How could something change color just by moving it?  Six year old minds are quick to find mystery and magic in the most common of things, things that older minds are likely to ignore.  Blase was years away and I happily collected my treasures for my little museum of nature’s wonders at home.  

Back in the car I had a responsibility.  I was in charge of “chasers.”   While my dad reminisced about faraway places and a more simple life, I was to have a bottle of Squirt open and ready to “chase” his snort of 4 Roses whiskey.  His bottle was kept in the “whisky locker” which I never knew was also called a glove compartment until some years later.  Once when we had company, I was asked to get a flashlight from the car and after returning I announced, to my mother’s horror, that I had found it in the whisky locker. She had to explain to others that that I meant the glove compartment.  

As my father drank and I chased, I was captivated by stories of sharks, coral reefs, life aboard ship, jungles, native peoples, exotic cities, and strange foods.  He swam the Golden Gate channel and body surfed Ocean Beach, long before wet suits were invented. He worked and dived on islands in the Pacific (Midway, Wake, Guam), traveled with botanists in the Panamanian jungle, and in Shanghai was attacked by a rickshaw driver who tried to rob him.  We both escaped our daily lives and shared in the exploration of the planet.  Reality to him and fantasy to me.  His was of the past and mine was a dream of the future. I was filled with a thirst for adventure, fearless of the unknown, and oblivious to discomfort as I wanted to taste the world in its fullest.  I wanted to be just like my dad – at least in the beginning.  His stories were often punctuated with messages: “Never turn your back on the sea; Remember when you travel you are in someone else’s back yard.  It not your country, you are a visitor, and you had better respect the rules of the culture. Pay attention, listen, and keep your mouth shut.  That’s the way to get along in someone else’s country!”

Back home dinner was waiting.  After dinner my mom, dad, and I would walk to the local fishing pier and look at the harbor and whatever fish had been caught.  More stories of far off adventures.  After the walk I would play with toys or read a book while my parents would sit and listen to classical music. My favorite was the William Tell Overture.  Our house was filled with love – my parents were affectionate, I was adored, everything was perfect.  

My dad loved sea food and we went fishing on weekends.  As he fished I would snorkel in tidepools, harassing crabs, sticking my finger in sea anemones, and collecting shells.  When he was cleaning the fish I always wanted to see what they had eaten so opening the stomach was a high point for me.  I also liked the lens of the fish’s eyes, a perfectly spherical, transparent jewel.  I would hold it and see how it focused light – very  cool.  The best was going for abalone.  In those days, one could get a limit of green abalones at low tide without even diving.  My dad taught me how to slice, pound, and fry these delicacies.  The perpetual teacher, he said if you catch it you clean it.  So I soon became good at slicing abalone or filleting fish.  Through some of his frineds I eventually got a job as a deck hand on a sportfishing boat.  The job was nothing special but the big wow was looking over the bow at night when we were in transit to the Channel Islands.  It was one of the most mind blowing experiences of my life in those days.  Greenish blue streaks of light xx from the boat.  Some were thin, some large, sometimes a round blobish thing would burst into light.  There was amazing diversity and never could I really see what was making the light.  I knew most of this light was caused by fish, scared by the boat, racing through the water and causing bioluminescent plankton to glow.  But the shapes and streaks and sheer beauty of this underwater fireworks blew my mind.  Instead of sleeping I would watch this spectacle and then end up totally exhausted by the next afternoon when we got back to port.  Based on that I would go to the beach when we had a red tide, fill a couple of bottles of water, put them in my closet, and wait till dark.  I would then have friends over to watch the fireworks as I shook the bottle, causing the plankton to give off their light.

My mom was not as much as an outdoor person as my dad but she was super patient and encouraged me to follow whatever seemed interesting to me. together we created a shell collection through the local library. We would go into the local bay and along the coast at low tide and collect shells.  Most were alive so we would boil them and then with a pin pull the animal out of the shell.  Our kitchen reeked of dead mollusks and it was not a pleasant smell at all.  The collection was a sort of competition and she helped me name and label each shell in my box.  We got books and looked up information about the animals.  I was also fascinated with fish and she got books that I could use to make my notebook of fish.  The colors, shapes, and diversity of fishes was astonishing.  I still have those notebooks full of my little kid drawings.  I was quite busy!

The ocean was my life, my dad was my companion and teacher, and my mom was loving and nurturing.   To this day I have never felt as secure and happy as I did in those early days.