Posted by: The Amoeba | August 3, 2008

Of Long Drops, Land Crabs, and the Prerequisites for a Life in Science

This tale, a true story of my fitness for the profession I now hold, first appeared on Felloffatruck Publications on 3 January 2007. Folk seemed to enjoy it at the time. Perhaps you will too, even if you’ve already seen it.

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I am a scientist. Yes I am. You can look it up. Have been all my adult life. And I have wanted to be one for as long as I can remember.

At almost any other time and place in the history of the planet, I would never have become a scientist. Science was not a paying profession until the 20th century, and even then, entry to the fields of science, along with most of the other “intellectual” spheres, was (is) restricted to people with money. And the family into which I was born didn’t have much.

But in the aftermath of Sputnik, they were taking even impecunious folk like me. And I had all the other prerequisites. An ability to remember arcane facts. A consuming interest in things no one else even saw. The social skills of a pithed frog. And the common sense of … well …

It is 1974. I am about to embark on a six-week field course in the out islands of the Bahamas, to study the biology of the desert and the coral reefs. I selected my college because they had such courses. Little did I know that the charismatic teacher who taught them was about to lose his bid for tenure because he didn’t publish, and his teaching was more fluff than substance. I might have known this if I’d paid any attention to the records of the people on the faculty of the Biology Department. I might also have known that the Biology Department was so seriously overloaded with students, the degree program was on the verge of collapse.

But if I had actually based my life’s choices on common sense, I would have gone into accounting, or driven a semi, and I’d actually have a few bucks in my pocket now. And you wouldn’t have an amoeba looking up at you from the bottom of the tree of life.

Back to 1974. I have never before traveled outside of New England. I have never before traveled on a commercial airliner. And I’m sitting with my ticket in the departure lounge at Boston’s Logan Airport, waiting for my classmates and my professor to show up.

Which they don’t. They all left for Nassau yesterday. I have no clue that this has happened.

So I get on the plane, fly to Nassau via Miami, and go to the hotel I’ve booked, expecting to catch up with them.

I don’t. They’re all in another hotel. I have no clue that this has happened.

By this time, I’m in a panic. I figure I’m late and they’re all wondering where the hell I’ve gotten to. Remember, this is 1974. No cell phones. Not that I could have afforded one. The college took my life savings and said “Tuition payments. You sucker.” I should have told them right then and there to take their school and shove it. National Merit Scholarship or no National Merit Scholarship. I didn’t. I am a sucker.

So now I’m alone and scared in a foreign country. I get myself on a plane to Long Island, our study site. The airstrip is on the north end of the island. The study site is in the middle, some twenty miles away. There are no buses, no taxis. As if I had money for either. I start walking. Me and my bags. In sneakers. No hat. No water. In a desert. People have died of exposure walking the roads of Long Island. I have no clue that this can happen.

I don’t get very far before a fellow stops and offers me a lift. This is a plot complication. On the one hand, I desperately need a ride. Especially if the driver knows where this place is that I’m supposed to be going. On the other hand, I am violating a Commandment. Thou Shalt Not Hitchhike. Thou Shalt Not Accept Rides From Strangers. I violated the rule once, back in Boston. He was gay and looking for pickups. I never ran so fast in my life.

Somehow the dude convinces me that it’s safe to get in the pickup. I am not molested. Not least ’cause I’m sitting in the back. We drive to the camp, where I expect to meet the professor and my classmates.

I don’t. They have taken a boat to Long Island. I have no clue that this has happened.

I do meet the couple who are in charge of the campsite. We are expected. “Where are the rest of them?” I dunno … They show me the place we are to stay. It’s got four walls, a concrete floor, and a roof. That’s it. No heat pump. No feather beds – there are a couple old mattresses shoved in a corner. No showers. No running water. The toilet’s a long-drop outhouse out back. The prof promised “primitive”. He delivered. What’s more, the place looks like it hasn’t been occupied since the course was last taught, two years ago.

It’s still early afternoon, and there’s nothing else to do, so I grab a broom and start sweeping up. I don’t touch the mattresses. There are visions of centipedes, scorpions and tarantulas dancing in my head. Especially tarantulas. We will be returning to the tarantulas.

I don’t recall what if anything I have for dinner that night. I must at least have gotten water from somewhere. What I’m mostly concerned about is nightfall. Having nothing in particular to sleep on, and wondering what might be crawling out from under that pile of mattresses. And realizing that, sooner or later, I’m going to have to go out, in the dark, and use that outhouse. It was spooky enough in the daylight. At night? Those mattresses will be sterile by comparison.

It’s midnight. There’s no longer any help for it. The outhouse it has to be. And I’m going to have to park my can on the can. With great trepidation, I grasp my pathetic little flashlight and head out the back. I enter, scanning the premises carefully for signs of life. There don’t seem to be any. So I make the usual preparations and have a seat.

Suddenly, right underneath me, there is frantic scurrying and rustling. I pop off the hole like a Mexican jumping bean on a griddle, grab the flashlight and look back at where I’ve been. The rustling gets louder … and a long jointed leg sticks out of the hole …

Tarantula!

On a shelf of the outhouse there is a can of insecticide. I snatch it, aim the nozzle at the seat and start spraying. I empty the whole can in that outhouse, behaving all the while like the last American soldier on the Bataan Peninsula, emptying his machine gun at the Japanese Army that is descending on him. If I’m going down, you’re going with me!! At last both I and the can are exhausted. I dress, reeking of Raid, and escape back to the relative sanctuary of the concrete floor of the cabin.

The next morning, I go back into the outhouse intending to examine the wreckage. Nothing. It’s as if the previous night had never happened. Not so much as a dead fly. I learn later that the leg in the night probably belonged to a land crab, which wouldn’t have been affected by the insecticide, rather than to a tarantula. I also learned that the natives consider the tarantulas to be harmless. But they were scared to death of the centipedes. Which can take you out. I have no clue that this can happen.

About midday, the prof and the rest of the students show up. With the food and the gear. The place is transformed almost instantaneously. They tackle the pile of mattresses as if there was nothing in them. There isn’t. By nightfall, the class is well underway.

It was a great time. We bonded and shared – well, most of us anyway. And practically everybody in the class was going to honor our soon-to-be-departed prof by going on to graduate school and becoming famous marine biologists in our own right.

What most of the others eventually became was restauranteurs, or insurance agents, or truck drivers. I’ve lost track of several of them. Like the one I was assigned to “buddy” on a skin-diving trip one day. Five hours this guy stayed out in the water on a hot tropical afternoon, with me tagging along begging him to return ’cause I was getting fried, but refusing to leave him because that would violate a Commandment.

He returned to base unscathed.

Me? I spent two-and-a-half of my precious six weeks in the Bahamas flat on my stomach, nursing severe second-degree burns across my neck and shoulders.

Years later, one of the technicians working in my laboratory – who graduated from the same college I did, but two years later – was fond of saying that, in order to get a Ph.D., you have to check your common sense at the door.

I didn’t have any to check.

– O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2007 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions are mine as a private citizen.

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