Special Reports

Depression-era octopus puts on a play, in eight acts

Gordon Findley was 3 when his mother died and his father disappeared. The older couple he landed with were not even sure how to spell his last name.

By his late teens, the nation was mired in the Depression, and he was on his own.

“I was in dire straits here,” he said. “I couldn’t get in the Civilian Conservation Corps because I didn’t have any parents to sign for me, but they had this National Recovery Administration. It was a thing down from the CCC. It paid less, $17, not $30 a month.”

For a year, he worked with the NRA in the gardens and greenhouses at Point Defiance Park, planting, propagating, pruning.

“One day they told me to go down to the aquarium,” he said. “I was really glad … It was something different for me.”

He would fish for new specimens for the tanks butted up against each other in rows throughout the waterfront aquarium.

He would spring Dub Dub the seal from his pool, and they would head to the launch ramp to get some nice, fresh herring.

And he would wrestle the octopus.

“The octopuses had the largest tanks,” Findley said. “I would say they were about 6 feet long and 4 feet high.”

These were impressive specimens, one with 6-foot tentacles, and one with 8 feet worth of suckers.

“Their favorite food was Dungeness crab,” he said. “We’d put the live crab in, and they’d watch it for a while, then sit on it, surround it with their tentacles and suck the meat right out.”

All went well until the larger of the two octopuses discovered how tasty its neighbors were.

At night, it would reach over its glass wall, hike itself into the abutting tank, dine on the inhabitant, and repeat the process until it landed in the subaquatic Dungeness buffet.

Findley would arrive for work, and his supervisor would command, “Put that thing in its tank.”

He didn’t say how.

“I’d get a ladder and get up there,” Findley said. “It wasn’t easy. There was water in the tank, so I couldn’t get in. I had to get a 2-by-4, stand on the ladder and try to move the octopus around. They’ll grab onto anything, you know. You’re pulling on one or two tentacles, and he has the others hanging on, so you try to pry them loose with the 2-by-4.

“I’d grab onto his arms, and he’d grab ahold of me and throw another arm on me. They give you a weird feeling when they grab your arm with all the suction cups, and they do grab you. It was quite a job.”

In the end, he’d extract the octopus and carry it back to its tank. But an octopus who finds the Dungeness buffet once knows how to find it again.

“In time, we put wire mesh on top of the tank,” Findley said. “That ended the getting out of the octopus.”

Kathleen Merryman, The News Tribune