by Robert J. Collins

Anyone who has tried explain­ing being late for an appoint­ment, I mean seriously late, will recognize and appreciate the following. (In­cidentally, seriously late does not mean showing up 15 minutes after dinner started, or a mere hour or two after midnight. It means being a month tardy for one’s own wedding, or taking over the new job in a different calendar year.)

Seriously late situations require more involved ex­planations than the standard “I couldn’t find my shoes” ploy, or “The Yamanote Line driver must have gotten lost because the next thing I know, we were in Yokohama” chestnut. Instead, the explanations must border upon the truly dramatic.

Truly dramatic explanations must, however, bear some semblance of reality. To report, for example, that one was caught up in the war between the Japanese and the Vikings in Tsukiji (or anywhere for that mat­ter), and it will just compound things by adding one more necessary explanation to the seriously late ex­planation. One must avoid explaining explanations at all costs. (If I’m going too fast, I’ll slow down.)

Consider the following:

Scientists Rescue Penguins

Threatened by an oil spill from the carrier Trea­sure, which sank off the coasts of Robben and Dassen islands near Cape Town, South Africa, scientists captured 20,000 penguins who were the first to arrive at their traditional breeding grounds. The penguins, al­ready oil-soaked, were transported by truck 755 km. to Port Elizabeth on the Indian Ocean for cleansing and rehabilitation.

(AFP-Jiji—June 25, 2000)

Penguins Warm Up Under Infrared Lamps & Tagged

The avian demography unit of the University of Cape Town fit a penguin dubbed “Peter” with a satel­lite-tracking device as he emerged from a wash tub in the rehabilitation center. He and two other satellite-tagged penguins, dubbed “Percy ” and “Pamela,” will be released along with 20,000 others for the 850 km, swim home once they have regained their waterproof­ing and weight.

(Reuters—Jane 30, 2000)

Peter Approaching Familiar Waters

Peter the penguin, released 19 days ago in Port Elizabeth, is approaching his home on Robben Island. Percy is likely to be back on Dassen Island in a couple of days, while Pamela has completed only about two-thirds of her arduous journey.

(AFP—July 19, 2000)

Fishermen Shoot at Penguins Saved from Spill

Penguins evacuated from islands off South Af­rica to save them from an oil spill were shot at by fishermen who feared the birds would chase away their intended catch. Fishermen on at least two boats fired shotguns at the large group of penguins for about 45 minutes. Scientists believe Peter arrived at Robben Island at 4:56 a.m., but they have failed to find him.

(The AP—July 21,2000)

“Where the hell have you been?”

“You won’t believe what happened.”

“Peter, I’ve put up with your baloney for years. The time you wore a tweed jacket to meet my parents. The time you sat on my cousin Patsy’s eggs ‘by mistake.’ And the time you missed the hatching of Paul, Penny and Petunia because you were off ballroom dancing. But this time…”

“Pestilence, my dear, permit me to explain. The truck ride was…”

“.. .you’ve gone too far. I’m on the verge of molting over this whole thing.”

“Ohmigod, don’t do that. It’s just that the blow dryers, the beeper thing they tied around my neck, plus ducking the boom-booms from those featherless fish-thieves plum tuckered me out. And 850 km, isn’t a waddle in the park.”

Pestilence wasn’t paying attention. She had turned and was facing the grey water smashing against the rocks at the island’s shore. Sprays of water immediately freezing into blades of ice slashed through the air. The wind was in the rocking back and forth cat­egory—altogether a beautiful day.

“Okay, I’ll confess,” said Peter at last. “I’m late because my watch stopped and I didn’t know what time it was.”

Pestilence turned and faced Peter. She pecked at random feathers on his breast.

“Then why didn’t you say that in the first place?” she asked. “Instead of that song and dance about go­ing to Port Elizabeth?”

Peter didn’t argue. He and Pestilence bumped breasts. It became clear to him that another element existed in the formula for explaining serious lapses in punctuality. What one wanted to hear was as important—more even more important—than what one was told.

Better late than never, trite as can be, often applies.