Having escaped from the Aquarium, Hopper and his mate find themselves in the Mississippi River heading south, which is the direction to their home. Danger lurks in the river along the way, but they also find new friends and one important character, Emp the Wanderer.
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Life in the Mississippi
After such a long time, it felt so good to be in the water again! Even though it wasn’t salt water, it was wet, and they felt greatly invigorated.
They dove under water and caught some fish and then porpoised around just for fun. They laughed at the thought of all those scientists running after them.
A number of boats were in the lake, and they hadn’t been paying much attention to them. There were sightseeing boats, ocean going freighters, small pleasure craft, and lots of sailboats.
One small boat came closer, little by little. Then Hopper noticed it was full of scientists. He recognized some of them from the Oceanarium. They were trying to sneak up on them. Hopper and Eudy dove under the boat, and the scientists headed out away from the shore to keep the penguins from swimming far off into the vastness of the lake.
Hopper and Eudy swam toward shore under water. As they came up for air, they could see two other boats closing in on them from the sides. Hopper said, “I don’t know if we can out-swim these guys. Their boats are faster than we are, and we have to come up for air. How long can we keep going?”
“We have to try,” said Eudy.
Hopper said, “I have an idea. Let’s dive under heading away from the shore, and then turn around under water and head for shore. Maybe we can find a hiding place until they give up the search.”
So when they dove under heading away from the shore, the boats headed out a ways. When the penguins surfaced in a few minutes, the boats were farther away, and the scientists were watching for them to come up farther out. Hopper and Eudy dove under again and headed toward shore.
Not far from the Shedd Aquarium is the place where the Chicago River meets Lake Michigan. At that place is a lock system to keep the Chicago River water out of Lake Michigan. The lock is like a movable dam that opens to let boats pass from the river to the lake, or from the lake to the river.
As the two penguins headed to the shore, they found the lock opened to let a big boat into the river. They swam in beside the boat, because it wasn’t one of those being used by the scientists. It served as a cover for them. Soon they found themselves in the Chicago River with the locks closed and their pursuers on the other side.
The river wasn’t much to their liking, but they swam on in the murky, smelly water. They had to dive occasionally to miss being hit by boats of all sizes, but continued on, unnoticed by the millions of people all around them.
From the river they swam into the Ship and Sanitary Canal, which eventually came to the Illinois River, which flows into the Mississippi River. This is where Hopper and Eudy found themselves in a number of days.
Swimming down the Mississippi was fairly peaceful. Their main concern was to avoid being spotted by people on the boats, especially passing by St. Louis, which they did at night.
When they needed to rest they could let the river carry them, so they were always moving, although they wondered where the river was taking them. About the only time they got out of the water was when they thought it was best to hide from boats by concealing themselves in the grass at the water’s edge.
As they passed through Memphis, they were getting braver and decided to go through in the daytime. They swam under two bridges with many cars zooming over them. The noise was unnerving to them, but they continued on.
About a half mile after the second bridge they saw a little girl of about six sitting on the bank of the river. She was staring at the water and looking very sad. She saw the penguins, but didn’t seem to pay much attention to them as they floated by somewhat nervously. They knew they’d been spotted. What if this little girl said something and the scientists were after them again?
“Hi, little birds,” she said. They pretended not to understand and swam a little faster. Yet they felt sorry for her, because she looked so sad.
Then they heard a woman’s voice calling from the ridge far above her, “Marie! Come quick up t’ the house! Ya got a phone call. It’s yo’ daddy!”
“Really?” she shouted. “Daddy? Yippee!” And up the hill she bounded out of sight.
The penguins continued their journey down the river, cutting the border between Arkansas and Mississippi, and then Louisiana and Mississippi, and finally into the final stretch through Louisiana. It was getting hot for penguins, but a certain excitement was growing in each of them. For one thing, they could tell the ocean was getting nearer. And Eudy was also feeling a familiarity with this area. She felt she’d been near here before.
Between Baton Rouge and New Orleans she exclaimed, “I know what it is! We’re near my old zoo. This river goes right by it in the city of New Orleans. You know what, Hop? Your Uncle Emp is still there, still wanting to get out. We have to try to get him out.”
“Yeah, we can’t just pass by on our way to freedom and leave him there, but how can we do it?”
“If we can get out of the Oceanarium, we can get him out of the zoo.”
Hopper looked up and said, “What shall we do?”
Just like the time he’d been told, “Help your friend,” he received the answer, “He’s your uncle!” So they knew they must get him out, and the way would be provided.
On they swam, closer and closer to New Orleans. At night they could see the city lights. The next morning they figured this would be the day they would come into the city.
They were floating along, talking about freeing Uncle Emp, when suddenly Eudy went under water with a gurgly, “Help!”
Hopper dove under and saw her being carried down by a huge alligator. Hopper flew under water at top speed and rammed his beak into the reptile’s back. It didn’t seem to faze the alligator, but it was painful for Hopper.
Then he tried beaking its belly. It may have tickled him a bit, but he still held on to Eudy. Hopper swam around to the front of the beast and looked him in the eye, and then swam toward the varmint, intending to beak its eyes out. The alligator opened its jaws to bite Hopper, thus letting go of Eudy. Hopper quickly grabbed her and swam for shore.
The alligator was briefly surprised and confused, but recovered and swam after them. Hopper wasn’t sure how Eudy was. She wasn’t moving and he had to carry her. The alligator was gaining on them, but Hopper found incredible strength to propel himself to shore and to drag Eudy up the bank and into the trees.
The alligator came out of the water shouting, “What do little black and white foreigners like you think you’re doing in my river? I better not find you in here again! Next time you’ll be swimming in the digestive juices in my belly before you knew what hit you!”
Hopper didn’t pay much attention, but dragged Eudy farther into the woods. When he felt safe he stopped and looked at her. She was lying still, not breathing.
“Help,” said Hop. “Do I have to be alone again? Do all my friends have to leave me?”
Eudy opened her eyes and said, “Sure is hot here, isn’t it?”
Hopper hopped and shouted as he looked up, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
“I don’t think I like it here much,” she said.
“Neither do I,” said he, “but you’re alive!” Then he looked at her closely and said, “How are you? Is anything hurt?”
“I’m a little sore, but I’ll be all right. It sure is hot, though. We need to get back in the water.”
“Yeah, I know, but the big guy with the teeth warned us to stay out. He’ll be waiting for us.”
They stood and thought for a while, and then Hopper said, “There have been lots of little streams flowing into our river. Maybe there will be more we’ll come to if we head into the woods and walk along with the river for a while. If we get too hot we’ll have to take our chances in the river.”
They looked up, asking directions, and felt they should follow the river on foot through the woods.
It was slow and frustrating, especially since they knew they were getting close to the ocean and to New Orleans where Uncle Emp was. Now they were walking in a hot forest, not really knowing where they were going or how long it would be until they could return to the water.
They walked all that day and into the next. In the early afternoon they heard laughter ahead of them. The accent of the talking they could hear was unfamiliar to Hopper, but Eudy said, “It sounds like rabbits. Maybe they’re friendly ones who can tell us a better way.”
They crept behind some bushes and watched the rabbits, about ten of them around one sad-looking bunny. “Jump, Gump, jump!” they yelled with a mocking tone. “Jump, Gump, jump! Jump, Gump, jump! Jump, Gump, jump! Gump, jump, Gump!…” Then they all laughed and hurled insults at the poor rabbit, whose name apparently was Gump.
He just sat there with his head down and said quietly, “Aw, c’mon, Harey, you know I can’t. I’ve tried, and I can’t.”
Then Harey replied, “You have the nerve to talk to me like an equal, and you call yourself a rabbit! Come on, fellas, let’s fix this fluff of fur. We don’t need his kind around here giving us real rabbits a bad name.” With that, the ten bared their teeth and closed in on the helpless Gump.
The yellow feathers on the heads of Hopper and Eudy stiffened, and they charged out of the bushes saying things like, “Ah, rabbits, my favorite food!”
The ten bad rabbits, who had never seen a penguin before, scattered, saying things like, “Let’s get out of here and leave Gump to them!”
Gump cowered on the ground as the penguins hopped up to him. “Do it quick,” he said. “I’ve never been eaten before, and I don’t think I’m going to like it very much.”
Hopper answered, “Well, generally the food I eat doesn’t suffer long. One quick snap of my powerful beak and bam! That’s it. You don’t feel anything any more.”
“Hopper!” reprimanded Eudy. “What are you doing? This poor bunny has been kicked around by his fellows for no good reason, and now he thinks we’re going to eat him, and you’re acting like we really are!”
Hopper replied, “Oh, yeah. Sorry, Gump. I couldn’t resist. No, we’re not going to eat you. We’d like to be your friends, and I’m sorry if I scared you.”
“Who are you guys, anyway?” said Gump.
Eudy answered, “We’re penguins, Rockhopper penguins, and we’re a long way from home.”
Then they all walked along together toward New Orleans and told their stories to one another.
Gump, as it turned out, was a very intelligent rabbit, but he couldn’t hop as most rabbits do. He could only walk, and that is why the other rabbits were ridiculing him.
As they traveled, the penguins gave Gump some hopping lessons, and gradually he began to catch on. By the end of the second day he was hopping about as well as the average rabbit.
He hopped around and around the penguins for joy. He hopped away and then back again. “Hey,” he said, “There’s nothing wrong with me. I can hop like the rest. I just needed someone with some patience to help me. Yippeeeeee!”
The next day they all hopped on. The penguins were starting to drag from the heat, and they were very hungry and thirsty. “We need to get back to the river,” said Hopper. Eudy agreed.
Then they spotted a little river ahead of them, and shouted, “Aha! A place to cool off and get some food! Maybe we won’t have to return to the big river yet.”
In they dove, drank some water, and caught a few fish, which wouldn’t have tasted very good if they hadn’t been so hungry. They popped out of the water to where Gump was waiting for them. Now feeling refreshed, they were ready to continue their journey.
“How will I get across the river?” asked Gump. “I can hop now, but I can’t swim like you guys.”
“Hop on my back,” said Hopper as he jumped back into the water. So he ferried Gump across the river, and they continued their trek through the woods.
The penguins and the rabbit became good friends as they traveled the next few days. He enlightened them on the ways of this area and its creatures, which ones were friendly and which ones should be avoided, especially the alligators.
“I’ve heard there’s one huge alligator who thinks he owns the whole Mississippi River. He’ll eat any creature he finds swimming in “his” river. He’s been known to grab animals who were walking along the bank of the river. Some say he’d even attack people he caught swimming in the river.”
Hopper said, “That must be the varmint who caught my friend Eudy here and warned us to stay out of the river.”
“No doubt,” said Gump. “And I think he’d like to get a second chance at you two.”
After a while they came to another little river, a welcome sight to penguins who were not well equipped to travel through the woods in a climate that to them was very hot. They dove in and had their fill of fish.
Then they began to wonder why they were walking when they could be swimming. They realized it was fear that was keeping them out of the big river. At the same time they saw it was part of the plan to meet Gump.
After hopping out of the water, they approached Gump hesitatingly. “Uh, Gump,” said Hopper. “We need to head back to the River.”
“I know,” said Gump. “I’m sure glad for this time we’ve had. I wish there was something I could do for you.”
Eudy answered, “We were only doing what we were called to do. And now we have a new calling in New Orleans.”
Gump knew they were talking about the plan to free Emp from the zoo, because they had told him about it earlier. They talked for a little while longer. Then Hopper ferried Gump across the little river, they said some affectionate good-byes, and the penguins swam downstream to the Mississippi.
“What do we have to be afraid of?” said Hopper. “We can swim faster than that big blowhard alligator.”
“Who’s a blowhard?” growled a mean alligatory voice.
Hopper answered, “Oh, uh, the all-invader. It’s an incredible creature. Wherever you are, it invades, and irritates you. He’s sometimes called the all-irritator. You never know when it’ll come. You wouldn’t believe it.”
“And I don’t think I do believe it. I thought maybe you were saying ‘that blowhard alligator,’ and were possibly referring to me.”
Hopper replied, “Would I say such a thing about such a fine, respectable blowhard as you? But if you don’t believe me, I guess I can’t change your mind. If you think you’re a blowhard, far be it from me to try to wrongfully influence you otherwise. So I think instead of trying, I’ll just say ‘good-bye.’”
Hopper and Eudy took off at top porpoise speed and were soon well away from the alligator. As they were almost out of earshot they heard the alligator yell, “I’ll get you yet! Time is on my side!”
“No, it isn’t,” shouted back Hopper.
“Yes, it is!” returned the alligator.
Soon they were drawing near the city, and they had to slow down because there were so many boats. They were a bit unnerved, and spent a day hiding in the grass by the river.
They wondered how they could ever get into the zoo, and free Uncle Emp, and they said many “helps”. Continuing on to the ocean wasn’t even a consideration, even though it would be so much easier, and more comfortable, and the ocean was calling them. They could smell it in the air. But they knew they must get old Emp out where he could be free in the sea once again.
They continued swimming, and finally the city came into view. Now they sped along at a fast pace, following the curves of the river into the city. As they rounded one of these bends, Eudy exclaimed, “There’s the zoo!”
They climbed out of the water and up to the fence surrounding the zoo grounds. After finding a penguin-sized hole under the fence, Eudy said, “Over this way to the penguin house!” It was a much cooler day than most, and they felt more comfortable than they had in a long time. It was actually a very chilly day for people, especially people of the South, but quite nice for penguins.
They hopped rapidly across the zoo grounds. Not many people were in sight. Still they tried to take cover behind bushes as they moved along.
Then ahead of them across the green expanse, they saw a tall bird-like form moving somewhat in their direction. It didn’t fly. It didn’t run. It actually waddled, and it was drawing nearer.
Eudy said, “Hey, that looks like a penguin, an Emperor Penguin!”
“That is an Emperor penguin!” said Hopper.
“That’s Uncle Emp!” shouted Eudy.
Indeed it was Uncle Emp. He was about to pass by them when Eudy called to him, “Emp! You got out! How did you do that?”
Emp replied, “Well, Eudy, my little Rockhopper friend! And you must be Hopper, my nephew I never knew I had! And how could you be my nephew? Well, we must keep moving. We’ll have time for all these things later. I can smell the sea, and it’s beckoning me!”
They turned toward the river at full land speed. Now they could hear a crowd of people approaching rapidly and shouting, “There he is!” and “Look! There’s those two Rockhoppers!”
In short order they were diving into the river with the crowd of people gathering on the bank, saying things like, “Boy, that was close! We almost got them!” and “We’ve got to get those birds! They can’t make it on their own!” and “Head for the boats!”
The penguins headed downstream, now led by the great traveler, Uncle Emp, or Emp the Wanderer. He could smell the direction to go with his eyes closed, and he could hear the right way with his nostrils plugged, and he was so excited to be back in the water, free to wander and explore!
Now my good (and perhaps somewhat critical) reader is likely thinking, “This is a little far-fetched, isn’t it, that old Uncle Emp just happened to escape on the same day that Hopper and Eudy arrived at the zoo, and they didn’t even have to do anything?” Well, this will all be explained.
As they porpoised along toward the sea, Hopper asked, “Hey, how did you get out of the zoo? I thought we were going to get you out.”
“Rabbits,” said Uncle Emp.
“Yep. Rabbits.” Then he told them what had happened.
When the penguins headed back to the River, Gump headed for New Orleans as fast as he could. The ground seemed to be flying under his feet, or maybe he seemed to be flying over it, because now he could run and hop. His heart was filled with gratitude.
He decided to check the city parks for any other rabbits who might come with him. Besides, they could probably direct him to the zoo.
At the first park he came to, he was in some bushes, a likely rabbit hiding place, when he was startled momentarily by people talking. After he got over his original shock, he peeked out to see two men sitting on a park bench.
They were ragged looking, except one had on new-looking pants. These fellows looked like they lived on the park bench. Their newspaper was their blanket. Beside the bench were a suitcase and a trunk.
“Hey, did ya see this article in the paper here?” said one. “It says some little girl in Memphis saw some penguins swimming down the Mississippi. When she told her daddy, he found out that two penguins had escaped from the Oceanarium in Chicago. Imagine, penguins in the Mississippi. Be a shame if they became alligator food.”
“Yeah,” said the other. “Hey, how do ya like my blue jeans? My mother made them. She’s a tailor, ya know.”
“Yeah, fine. I guess some scientist fellows are aiming to catch up with those penguins and bring ‘em back to Chicago. I say let ‘em go. If they’ve gone to all that trouble, I say let ‘em go.”
“Yeah. You know what my daddy did? Well, I followed in his footsteps, and here I am…”
Anyway, Gump was off in a flash. He rounded up all the rabbits he could, and headed for the zoo. He also enlisted the help of all the rabbits living on the zoo grounds.
Because it was a cold day for Louisiana, quite cold for people, but almost comfortable for penguins, the zookeepers let the penguins outside for a while. People could come by and look down into a pit with a better view of the magnificent Emperors and Kings that were there. However, not many people were there that day.
Gump located the penguins with the help of the zoo rabbits and led the charge into the pit with what seemed like millions of rabbits. This was quite annoying to the penguins, and all but one of them backed away to the extremities of the pit and even back into the penguin house. One brave penguin stood to watch this strange outpouring of rabbits into his cage.
“You must be Emp the Traveler,” said Gump to the tall, dignified old penguin.
“Yes,” he answered, “but I haven’t traveled in a long while.”
“Well, it’s time to travel again. You must go quickly and get your friend, Eudy, and your young nephew, Hopper, back to the sea before the scientists catch them and return them to captivity.”
As they were talking, the rabbits were piling on top of each other, making a ramp from the floor of the pit up to freedom.
“Up you go, Mr. Emp!” said Gump.
Emp said, “How will you get out of here?”
“Some will use the ramp, and the rest of us will jump, and if we can’t make it we’ll entrust ourselves to the zoo keepers. I think they will treat us kindly.”
“Yes, they’ve been good to me, but I sure want to be free to travel again. There are so many things I’d like to see. So, here I go, and many thanks to you!”
Emp then went up the ramp of bunnies, and soon joined Hopper and Eudy.
“Good old Gump!” said the Rockhoppers. “He really wanted to do something for us, and he sure did! I don’t know how we could have gotten you out of there. Many thanks be to the one who holds us in his plans, and to Gump and the bunnies!”
The ocean beckoned them onward. They felt freedom was about to overtake them as they porpoised along. Their beaks were set like flint toward the south and the sea.
Then they saw a row of logs across the river in front of them. “Ramming speed!” called Emp.
“Ramming speed?” asked the Rockhoppers.
“Ramming speed!” repeated Emp, and off he went at ramming speed.
Hopper said to Eudy out of the corner of his beak, “I guess we better do ramming speed,” and so they did. Ramming speed was quite fast, and it appeared they were going to ram their beaks into the logs, which they were approaching rapidly. In fact, they were now so close they could see they weren’t logs at all, but many alligators waiting for them, trying to act like logs.
Now their great jaws were getting ready to invite the penguins in for a meal.
“Okay,” said Emp in the above water portion of their porpoising, “When I say, ‘Now!’— fly!”
“Fly?” said the Rockhoppers.
“When I say, ‘Now!’—fly!”
They approached the gators, and Emp said, “Now!’ just as they were about to ram them. The jaws were opened wide as the penguins porpoised higher than they ever had before, over the open mouths, clear to the other side of the log-jam. They splashed down into the water and continued south at ramming speed.
“I’ll get you yet, you little wise guys that dared to come into my river!”
Hopper wanted to yell something back at the old blowhard, but decided against it. The sea was calling him. Freedom was ahead.
They entered that final wide stretch of the Mississippi just before it is swallowed up by the ocean. Actually the ocean here was on either side of them, separated by a narrow strip of land and vegetation.
The smell of the sea was all around them. They could even taste it a little as it mixed in with that dirty river taste.
“Going home!” sang Hopper.
Then what they saw dampened their enthusiasm. Waiting for them, a line of small boats stretched across the river.
“Ramming speed?” asked Hopper.
“No, indeed,” answered Emp.
“I thought we’d be freed!” said Eudy sadly.
They swam on in silence, unable to think of any more rhymes that really fit the situation.
Then Emp said, “The ocean is calling us, and that’s where we’re going.”
The boats were about 100 yards away. The penguins had slowed down, and the alligators were catching up from the rear.
“Head for the bushes on the left, “ shouted Emp.
As they climbed out of the river they heard excited shouts from people ahead of them, and angry yells from alligators behind them, saying, “There they are!”
The boats and alligators began converging toward the spot where the penguins had left the water. Then they saw each other. The alligators thrashed angrily in the water. The scientists in the boats said things like, “Whooa, oh, oh…!” Confusion set in, but there were no casualties. The penguins crashed through the bushes, and soon found themselves in the sea, swimming free toward the south.