Charlotte goes first, driving the camper. She handles such an outsized vehicle well, but in the cities she usually forgets after a turn and leaves the blinker light on. Jerry, her husband, follows her in Old Blue, which is a whitewall, wide-nosed Kenworth with $6,000 worth of highly polished chrome, a 335 Cummins diesel engine, a four-by-four gearbox, a Jacobs brake and 46 dashboard dials and buttons.
Jerry has a special contoured driving seat for himself and snappy tuck-and-roll upholstery in the air-conditioned cab, although, of course, he never has to curl up in the sleeper behind the cab since he and Charlotte have a queen-sized bed in the camper and all the other comforts of a stationary home. Still, Little Irvy, lying on his I-beam cradle inside the Thermo King trailer in the back, appears even more comfortable.
The people wave in the passing cars, and Jerry pulls his horn in acknowledgment, although he is never quite sure whether they are greeting Little Irvy or Old Blue, since both are one of a kind. Little Irvy is the only, and the ugliest, traveling whale in the world. Old Blue is the most beautiful truck in the world: all shades of blue—powder and azure and deep royal—the prize of the Interstates, a glorious galleon tossing along the swells of the highways. Just the thought of it all makes Jerry break into song sometimes, as he does now, shifting through some of his 16 gears down toward the crest of a hill:
"Little Irvy, Little Irvy, colossal 'n' frozen, what a show,
Little Irvy, in Old Blue, they're always on the go."
August 10, 1969
Little Irvy weighs 20 tons, most of it blubber, the rest meat and oil, and he reclines at something more than 38 feet long. He has been dead—or more euphemistically, refrigerated—for more than two years now, and more than half a million people have seen him, including at least 50,000 underprivileged children that Jerry has let in on the cuff. All the others are separated from 35¢ for the privilege.
Everybody the world over, it seems, has a fascination for whales, and people have been paying to see them exhibited at least since 1861, when P. T. Barnum himself brought two small dying white whales to his New York museum. It was left, however, to Jerry Malone, onetime used-car salesman of Visalia, Calif., to first manage to freeze a whole whale and put it on the road. By now, Little Irvy, who debuted at Fisherman's Wharf in 1967, has traveled about 25,000 miles of the United States and Canada, which is probably more than he ever managed without Old Blue in the Pacific Ocean. This thought pleases Jerry, for he has grown somewhat attached to Little Irvy, invariably referring to him as "my whale" and to the whole enterprise as "the whale business," as if it were a thriving national industry on the order of electronics or life insurance.
Certainly, he prefers not to dismiss Little Irvy as just another large meal ticket. "I've thought about my whale so much," Jerry says, "that most times it seems like he is part of me. I look at it this way: if Little Irvy wasn't here in my truck, going all over the country and becoming famous, he'd just be oil and dogmeat by now. So I can't feel bad about him frozen. I just pat him and say, 'Hey, you ugly, smelly son of a gun, I love you.' "
Little Irvy is entitled to such a wealth of affection. To bring him in and refrigerate him cost $12,000. Old Blue is an $80,000 truck. The camper, incidentals and the interest on the loan has made "framing" Little Irvy, as they say in the amusement world, a $125,000 proposition, but the American love of whales (and trucks) should pay that off in less than the four years Jerry originally figured. Then, as humorists tell him about 593 times a day, he will really have a whale of a deal.
The scheme is marred only by a few disgruntled patrons. "Many people," Barnum wrote, "have such a horror of being taken in, or such an elevated opinion of their own acuteness, that they believe everything to be a sham, and in this way are continually humbugging themselves." The modern examples of this thesis are upset when they discover that Little Irvy is not frozen alive. Presumably, these people are under no parallel delusion that the Bird's Eye Brussels sprouts they purchase at the supermarket may be thawed and replanted, but they pay their 35¢ on the premise that Little Irvy, though somewhat larger than a garden vegetable, will himself be brought back to a more active existence. "What, you mean that whale is dead?" they declare after careful examination. "I paid 35¢ to see a dead whale?"
Others are even more disturbed, since they altogether overlook billboard references to Little Irvy's glacial status and actually expect to find him, all 20 tons and 38 feet, splashing about in the 40-foot trailer.
A few weeks ago in Portland, Ore. a woman in pink plastic hair curlers asked if Little Irvy did any tricks. "Yeah, he does one trick and he does it real well," Jerry said. "He plays dead." Hardly had she left before a sedate, well-dressed older gentleman inquired: "Do they take him out and let him exercise in an aquarium every now and then?" Such sorts have periodically sicced societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals on Malone. Others have asked Charlotte in the ticket booth if peanuts could be obtained so that they might feed Little Irvy. Still others, extreme self-humbugs, have simply cursed her graphically for exhibiting a dead whale.
Charlotte is a pretty, 25-year-old redhead who met Jerry when she was working in a Visalia bank. This was a good place to meet, since Jerry's roller-coaster business career has made him at home in loan departments. Bright and friendly, she has learned to shrug off the vitriol. "It used to bother me," Charlotte says, "but then I've seen people get mad at free shows, so at last I just decided it wasn't us—it was them—and I forgot about it."
Jerry says: "People want to know, why don't you put DEAD WHALE in big letters on the side of your truck, and I tell you I don't put DEAD WHALE in big letters on the side of my truck for the same reason that banks don't put 12½ INTEREST in big letters on their front windows."
Anyway, Jerry views Little Irvy as more of an adjunct to institutional education, and the 4½-minute recorded lecture that a visitor hears while inspecting Little Irvy details various habits, dimensions and peccadilloes of whales. Such as, "He is not dangerous, but capable of swallowing a man over 200 pounds." Jerry is disappointed to hear that the Smithsonian has no real whale on display and he toys with the idea of offering them Little Irvy when his traveling days are through.
Already Malone is looking ahead to an especially sophisticated whale show that would ply a more cosmopolitan circuit than Little Irvy's tour of shopping centers and fairs. "Now, when I get my second whale," Jerry says, his blue eyes dancing, "I'm going to get me a professor to travel with it and make it real educational. We'll play schools and colleges. I was thinking maybe I'll get a much bigger whale than Little Irvy and cut it in two and carry it in a set of doubles—that's a cab pulling two trailers linked together. I'll have to work it all out but then I'd have it so you could look right inside the whale, and when you got out of there, hey, you'd know whales."
To help patrons become more familiar with whales now, Malone not only has the recording going, but little signs describing various points of interest are pasted all over Little Irvy, making him look rather as though he has been stamped for mailing by a haphazard post office employee. HERE IS WHERE LITTLE IRVY EXHALED HOT AIR WHICH CONDENSED AND TURNED TO STEAM, says one. And: IF YOU WERE TO WET LITTLE IRVY'S SKIN, IT WOULD BECOME SOFT LIKE VELVET. The latter is important, because in the dry cold of the trailer Little Irvy's skin has begun to peel with a freezer burn, making him rather unsightly. "Believe me, madam," Jerry told a suspicious matron, "if I was gonna make me a fake whale, you don't think I'd make him as ugly as this, do you?"
However, despite all the signs and other visual aids—including color pictures of Little Irvy being harpooned and the actual murder weapon itself—many whale watchers leave unimproved. In the South they depart still calling him "Little Ivory," and now, in Portland, following the most careful recorded explanation about how whales are mammals, a large woman in tight-fitting pastel slacks points and tells her barefooted son: "There, you see, that's the biggest fish in the world."
A helpful bystander, moving the six feet down from Little Irvy's 42 teeth to his glass eye, politely corrects the mother. "No, ma'am, he's not a fish, he's a mammal." The woman, turning away from an inspection of Little Irvy's fatal harpoon wound, only glares back, at last addressing herself again only to the boy. "Fish are in the sea," she tells him, and the youngster, a bit shaken by the giant squid perched on Little Irvy's back, nods gratefully at this assurance of the verities of life.
Outside now, Jerry beckons to Charlotte to abandon the ticket booth. "Come on," he says, "we got to pull a Hank Snow." Hank Snow sang a big hit once called I'm Moving On. It takes an hour or so to strike the set, to pull the sides over Little Irvy's glass window and to be on the way to the next stop, this time Winnipeg. Jerry is already in the cab, warming up Old Blue for the long trip. Charlotte starts to move out. "Well," he says, looking back fondly, "there's 8,000 more people walking around without 35¢ in their pockets."
The desire to see whales never seems to lag. In the 19th century the fact that they were the prime source of oil and that Melville had glamorized them with Moby Dick—who, like Little Irvy, was a sperm whale—may have accounted for the fascination. But then, and always, it is just that they are so big. For every year since 1908 the most popular exhibit at the Museum of Natural History in New York has been the replica of a blue whale, the largest creature on land or sea that God ever put the breath of life into. The newest model is 94 feet long, made of poly-urethane foam and fiber glass and it cost nearly $300,000.
Whales petite enough to remain alive in confinement are always the hit of marine shows, and Namu, the five-ton killer whale who was captured and held in a Seattle aquarium four years ago, became a nationwide celebrity before he passed on. Mrs. Haroy, a 70-ton finback who had been hollowed out and reinforced with steel and concrete, made a small fortune for her Danish owner with European appearances in the 1950s. Despite being soaked with 8,000 quarts of formaldehyde, Mrs. Haroy became somewhat odiferous on her maiden visit to the U.S. and was at last dispatched to a grave on Staten Island. Presumably, there are enough other exotic beasts in the heart of Africa to diminish whale curiosity, but only two years ago a dead whale named Jonas, 66 feet in length, tumbled off a flat truck taking him to display at the annual Zambia trade fair and blocked traffic on the main road from Rhodesia for some time.
It was not uncommon in the United States well into this century for entrepreneurs to haul dead whales about on railroad flatcars. The fly-by-night promoters would run a spur line right down into the ocean, hoist a harpooned whale on the car and tote the monster around until the stench overcame even the most determined curiosity. Too often, when a whale reached this state of decay, the quick-buck operator would simply have him pried off the flat-car, leaving a dandy problem for the surprised local firemen and constabulary to argue about. There were a sufficient number of whale carcasses dropped throughout the country so that ordinances were hastily drafted in several states prohibiting the immigration of deceased whales.
Occasionally, a modern trooper conversant with such an obscure law has detained Little Irvy as he crossed a state line, but so far Little Irvy has eventually been accepted in all the states and nations that he has desired to enter. Malone, the signal authority on the subject, says that Little Irvy only smells "20% as bad" as he originally did and, besides, however gamy he might be, he is prevented from assaulting the noses of customers and law enforcement officials by two thicknesses of glass. A regular Thermo King truck refrigeration unit that costs only 25¢ an hour to operate keeps Little Irvy's quarters at approximately 5° below zero Fahrenheit, and the carcass itself measures down to better than 300° below. It took 40 tons of liquid nitrogen, pumped in and around Little Irvy, to freeze him. "I could keep Little Irvy frozen and run my show if it were 120° in the middle of the Sahara Desert," Jerry says.
"I knew if I was going to make it, I had to be self-sufficient. That, and the whole thing had to be framed beautifully. I knew I had a good thing—nobody would ever call Little Irvy a 'California show,' which is what they call them if they're all flash outside and nothing inside—but even if you really got something inside, you've still got to be beautiful outside. And you can't beat Old Blue for that. The only thing I changed was at first Charlotte and me were in all these special blue-and-white outfits. Why, I had $43 Bostonian shoes, $37 slacks, the works. But people figured we had to be making too much money to be dressed like that, so we just started dressing regular."
Now, he shifted gears down again, because they were heading up past Mullan, Idaho into the mountains on the way to Missoula, Mont., which looked like a good place to spend the night. They never really stay anywhere; they just pull off the road and sleep wherever it is convenient and there is room for the rolling stock. This night, it was on a lot full of John Deere tractors and Case-Beloit industrial machinery right on the main drag in Missoula next to the 4Bs Café. "We never slept in a tractor lot before," Jerry observed to Charlotte.
There was an old man with his pickup truck there to greet them in the morning. He was walking around Old Blue, communing with it, wanting to touch it but not daring to. Jerry came out of the camper and told him all about Little Irvy inside, 20-ton, 38-foot, etc., but the old man didn't care. "You can keep the whale," he said, "just let me have this here truck. This truck is too pretty for any man to drive on the road." Jerry gave him a picture postcard of the truck. At most cafés and diesel stations where he stops, the people want to have a picture of Old Blue and, in fact, Jerry estimates that fully one-third of Little Irvy's paying audience is really more interested in getting a closer look at the truck. Little Irvy himself has been named an honorary Teamster.
Jerry Malone began life as an Okie, born in 1930. Destitute, his family came west from Apache, Okla. in 1936—with 13 in the car—and the whole way Jerry took turns with his cousin Odell sitting on the cookie jar that held a good bit of the family's sustenance for the trip. The Malones settled in California's San Joaquin Valley, in Corcoran, and the first morning there Jerry's father started walking, knocking on every door, asking for work. Three miles down the road he got a job cleaning out chicken coops. From the age of 7, Jerry spent his summers getting up before dawn and, with the other members of his family, picking prunes for 2¢ a 50-pound box until twilight and exhaustion. Eleven years after they had arrived in Corcoran, Mr. Malone—who had progressed to digging cesspools, carpentry and contracting—was able to buy the same prune patch his family had worked for so long.
Jerry started slowly; he quit school to work when still in the 10th grade; he was married at 19, a child was soon on the way and then he went into the Navy. Before he was discharged, though, he talked a loan company into setting him up in a trailer rental business in San Diego. It failed when a larger rental firm moved across the street, just as there were to follow a succession of car enterprises that were all signal in their auspicious debuts and dismal conclusions.
"Some guys called me a loser," Jerry says, "but the same guys who did always wanted me to come to work selling for them whenever I went under. Sure, I went broke a lot but I knew how to go broke just right. I never went bankrupt, and I could have, it's the easy way. And I learned things from going broke. You learn or you quit, you die. I think a lot of people have become the biggest successes because they did go broke once.
"The trouble was, I could never get an edge. I was always operating on borrowed money, so I could never get far enough ahead before something would happen. But I'll tell you one thing: I don't ever think it's a crying shame to go broke in America. It's a crying shame only if you stay broke in America."
The trouble with Jerry Malone was that he was never satisfied working for someone else, even though he was an outstanding salesman and made a good living at it. But financial independence always meant more than financial security; he was a capitalist, pure and simple. And he could sell a bank or a loan company on a scheme almost as easily as he could sell used cars.
Jerry came to the whale business relatively late in life and, indeed, he is still known in his new trade as a "JCL," a Johnny-come-lately. Bald and 39 now, with three teenage daughters from that first marriage that ended in divorce, he has had experience as, among other things, a farmer, a school bus driver, a bartender, an automobile racing driver, a ma√Ætre d', but mostly as Jerry Malone, used-car dealer. There was Jerry's Auto Sales, M&M Auto Sales ("Our cars melt in your heart, not in your hands"), The Wild Irishman, Auto Liquidators. Jerry Malone sold a purple Edsel once.
It all fits in: Malone grew up as part of the first generation to have clearly exhibited greater admiration for the speed, show and breeding of mechanized vehicles than for animals. And nowadays, too often, Jerry is less celebrated as the man who owns Little Irvy and created the whole scheme, than as the man who drives that gorgeous Kenworth. A frozen whale inside? It might just as well be a pay load of lettuce or strawberries.
Indeed, though he has been involved with motor vehicles all his life, Malone admits that even he was awed by the growing mystique of truck and trucker. "When I was getting started with the whole idea," he says, "getting money, getting my whale—all that was only a challenge. There was only one thing that worried me and that was whether I could handle the truck."
He laid on the Jake brake down a steep incline. "Now, here's what I'm going to do next," he said. He was really excited, and the red was coming to his face. "I am having the first drag truck built, the first one. Just the cab, and it will be something. I'm calling it The Boss Truck of America, and it will be all red, white and blue. The whole frame will be chrome, and nobody's ever done this in the history of the world—$4,000 in paint and upholstery, $6,000 in chrome and, remember, this is just the cab. More than 600 horses, a V-12 Jimmy diesel engine with Allison automatic transmission instead of gearboxes. It'll weigh nine tons, and when I drag—get this—it'll need special chutes coming out the back to stop me. There's about 1,500 fairs in the U.S. and Canada, and I can play auto shows and trade shows, and when I come roaring out of there, red, white and blue, I can hear it now, that announcer saying, "Hang on with Malone, ladies and gentlemen, because here he comes in The Boss Truck of America!' "
There was a knock on the camper door, and Jerry got up to answer it. The man standing there was perhaps a few years younger than Malone, a well-built, healthy-looking fellow with his wife and daughter. Jerry recognized him; the man, who said his name was Carl Perleberg, had stopped him earlier to talk about the truck. "It's a good show inside," he said. "We liked it."
"Thank you," Jerry said.
Perleberg is an apple grower in Quincy, Wash. He had come out there from Fort Lee, N.J. because outdoors was the life he wanted. His wife worked and he moonlighted when they first arrived in the Northwest, and they saved enough to buy some land and plant 9,000 apple trees five years ago. Perleberg kept putting his profits into more orchards, and this year he cultivated 170,000 apple trees.
"Yes, it was a good show," Perleberg said, "but you know what really impresses me?"
"No," Jerry said.
"What I like most is the idea," Perleberg said. "It means something to me that if a man wants to catch a whale and cart it around this country, he can get the money and do it. Take off, live a free life, show the whale, and in the end I guess you end up giving more to Uncle Sam than I do. Now, that's all good. There's something very good about that. If this were some Communist country, I guess you would need an act of Congress to do a crazy thing like this."
"If they have a Congress," Jerry said.
"Right. Well, I know you're busy but I just wanted to say thanks, because I enjoyed this and I like the truck, and most of all because I kept thinking that what you are, carrying a whale around—you are a perfect example of the free enterprise system of this country."
Jerry nodded bashfully at the grandeur in that, and the men shook hands and, when Perleberg left, Jerry mused on how growing apples and trucking a dead whale around weren't all that different. It was both a case of wanting and trying, improving and expanding. Americans of Malone's age have been shaped by the sharpest of contradictory economic experiences—first, growing up in the harsh, sore days of Depression and then suddenly being tossed on the labor market at the instant of boom when all of the rules of a childhood are out the window.
The generation is hybrid, related neither to those who came before with Calvinistic devotion to long hours and frugality, nor to those who followed, who have known only affluence and the leisure and idealism it affords. Instead the Malones believe, on the one hand, in the honor of good, old-fashioned employment and, on the other, in risking the fruits of all that on speculative home runs. Hard work, easy money. You really must work for yourself if you are to manage as an apostle of these twin faiths.
Malone has always been an overextender. The Little Irvy scheme did not just happen. It sort of took shape in the marvelous sequence of Jerry's life and, as soon as the whale business began to look successful, Malone was promptly off spreading himself thin again.
Rambling in some disorder, he explains: "See, here's what happened. First I had bought these two cute little Casey Jones trains, kiddie rides, and then I bought a trailer and put a monkey circus in it," says Jerry, getting started. "I brought in an artist from Albuquerque, and many people said he painted the most beautiful trailer front they'd ever seen. I bought 10 monkeys, bars, rings—everything for the kids—and then I got Eric Rasmussen, who has the most successful Arabian Giantess in the business, and, also, everyone thinks he does the best bally. And he was great. He gave it all this stuff on a recording about how this one monkey shaves and that other one does something else like that, but even with this and the trailer front it just never caught on. Because, like Charlotte had told me, what do I know about monkey circuses?
"Not only that, though, but then in Phoenix I saw a friend, Mr. Kelly, and the world's largest alligator, but his alligator just died, so he gave me a good price on his trailer, and I fixed it up and put two seals in there. So you see, by then I had two Casey Jones trains and two trailers.
"But what I found was that a show can't work just with a beautiful paint job. People want beautiful equipment, like the truck. I had to do something. I sold the two Casey Jones trains. Then I was down in L.A. and I ran across this guy doing shopping centers named Bebe the Clown. We made a deal and I took my monkey circus trailer and fixed it up different inside with a little theater and pillows all over the floor for the children. Then I got Bebe to change his name to Macaroni and we bought a St. Bernard dog and called him Noodles—so now you got Macaroni and his friend Noodles, and maybe we can find a spaghetti company somewhere to work something out with. Macaroni shows movies and jokes with the kids. It's going very well. There's a lot of shopping centers in L.A.
"I've still got the seal trailer setting back in Visalia. We had a fire and one of the seals was killed, and the other I put in a friend's pool in Bakersfield, and it was stolen out of there. Now I'll be damned if I can figure out who would want to steal a seal in Bakersfield, California, but they did. Now the trailer in Visalia, the trouble was, it was never meant to be a seal trailer. That was my mistake, but it'll sell because a lot of guys know I got it and, if you do have the world's largest alligator, it is perfect for that."
Charlotte was with Jerry that day in 1964 when they visited an aquarium and he first got the idea of freezing a whale. Increasingly intrigued, Malone performed his own market research at truck cafés. He would sit down at a counter, order coffee and say, to no one in particular: "I saw the damnedest thing today." Then he would drink the coffee, until at last someone could stand it no longer and ask him what, in fact, he had seen.
"I saw a whale, a 20-ton whale, frozen in a truck. Would you pay to see a thing like that?" Better than a third of those interviewed in this unique random survey allowed as how they would. Jerry figured that was potentially 75 million Americans times 35¢.
Malone's car lot (s) had folded by then and he was married and making $1,575 a month in commissions selling cars on the lot of a close friend, George Zarounian. Finally, he gave Zarounian notice and told him he was going after his whale full-time. "It's crazy," Zarounian said.
"Crazy things work these days, George," Jerry replied.
By now, Jerry had already named his future whale after an uncle, Irv Mulanax, the other half of M&M Auto Sales and various other defunct ventures. Jerry bought business cards with gold-leaf lettering and headed out in search of investors. Potential dead-whale angels, however, remained more prone to place their savings in convertible bonds, the American Stock Exchange and other such investments, and Zarounian pleaded with Malone to come back.
Finally, he made a proposal. If Malone could march cold into three shopping centers (selected by Zarounian) and sell them all on the idea of booking a frozen whale, he, George Zarounian, would co-sign the loan. When the third straight shopping center went for Jerry's pitch, Zarounian—who, it is said in Visalia, resembles Gilbert Roland—leaned back in his chair, sighed in exasperation, lit up a Bering cigar and said: "Well, I guess I'm in the whale business." Stunned but game, the United California Bank approved the loan application.
The risk on Zarounian's part was considerable. There was no guarantee, first of all, that Malone could even get a whale to put into his $80,000 truck, which he was already committed for. There is only one U.S. whaling station, at Point Richmond, Calif. Malone had to get permission from the Department of the Interior before dealing with the whalers, who had little margin for error themselves. There is a $10,000 fine for harpooning a sperm whale under a 35-foot minimum, and Malone could not fit one in his truck if it was more than 40 feet or 21 tons. Besides, even at that point, some cryogenics experts that Malone consulted said they didn't think he could freeze a 20-ton whale anyway.
On June 30, 1967, Malone was already out $100,000, with no whale and no assurance he could keep it from deteriorating even if he had it. On July 1, after almost two months of searching the Pacific, the whaler Alan Cody harpooned Little Irvy; on July 2 he was at Point Richmond, and on Saturday, July 8 he was frozen solid. Nobody really was bothered with the detail that Little Irvy had turned out to be a girl whale.
Little Irvy was still caked in ice when they finished cleaning up the truck that night about 7 o'clock. Malone had somehow obtained the rare permission to bring his traveling exhibit to Fisherman's Wharf, and Uncle Irv Mulanax allowed as how they could open up bright and early Monday morning with his namesake. "Are you kidding?" Jerry asked. "Two years I've been working on this and I'm going to wait two more days?"
He and Charlotte were parked and setting up for customers by 9 o'clock. At this point they inventoried, and between them their resources totaled one nickel and four pennies—9¢. Charlotte worked the entrance and Jerry went inside and started explaining about Little Irvy to the patrons, because, of course, they had no recording set up yet.
After an hour or so Jerry's voice was wearing thin from the lecturing, so he walked down the steps to Charlotte. They had already welcomed their first 100 paying customers, so Jerry kissed her and took a couple bucks from her and walked over to a bar. The bartender came around and Jerry said: "Give me a tall VO and water." The bartender started to mix the drink, and Jerry put both dollars on the counter and said: "Make that a double, because you can call me Mr. Success."