Saturday, October 4, 2008

A Couple of Jakes

Jake (henceforth “Jake” and “JakeOne”) and Jake (“JakeTwo”) were best friends in college. They are both from Illinois, but they met at Murray State in Kentucky. JakeTwo has continued on as a Masters student in herpetology there. JakeOne has abandoned for the wild beauty of North Carolina. They are both fire technicians, they are both talented biologists, and they are, for the time being, my roommates.

At home, JakeTwo refers to OtherJake as “the drawling Hoosier.” Both of them enjoy harping on my mistake in thinking that Hoosiers are from Illinois. “Easygoing, drawling Hoosier,” I correct, refusing be misquoted. “We don’t drawl,” drawl the Jakes. At work, we distinguish between the Jakes by calling them Jake and Jacob, because they need to have different names on the fire radios. As “indelicate” as the fire crew can be, they recognize that it is wrong to use “JakeTwo” as a signifier for our newest Jake, and so call him Jacob, which is not his name. Touching.

Jake has offered to be called “Jeff” for historical reasons. Last year, there were eight Jeffs, but the new season of hires left us with half that. Jake recently got hired onto the fire crew permanently, earning him the title of “6362.” This, of course, means that JakeTwo will now be “Jake,” and Jake will be called “Six-three-six-two.” Confusing? Try listening in on the fire channel when Lincoln (Fire Boss 646—spoken as six-four-six) calls his fourth crewmember. “6464? 646. 6464… 646.” “646—6464 here.” Our Jake degeneracy is trivial.

Regardless of what we call them individually, everyone likes to refer to the Jakes as “a couple of Jakes,” which, in hunting terminology is a pair of immature male turkeys. Oh yes, as you might expect, the jokes are endless. Among the mildest: “You caught yourself a couple of Jakes,” says my boss, a Jeff, as they walk by. “I’m holding out for a Tom” is my standard retort.

JakeOne is a tall, blond farm boy who grew up raising cattle, and also hell. He loves slow-pitch baseball and thinks vegetables are some sort of mean joke. And as I have mentioned, he is fond of snakes and photography, and terrifying combinations of the two. I am including links to some of his photographs below. There was a night at the house when an Eastern Hognose slid up to me as I was returning phone calls, and I called the guys out to take pictures. A hognose is not poisonous to people, but it is not small, either, and it puffs itself up, gapes, hisses and rattles like a poisonous snake. It will also mimic a cobra, which can cause you to panic if you are at all normal. Jake lay down on the ground next to the hognose and took about a hundred pictures with the snake striking at him. Every picture JakeTwo and I have of this snake has a piece of Jake’s camera lens or Jake himself in it. There is only so close sane people will get to any sort of wildlife regardless of toxicity, but Jake is apparently unaffected by this convention.

Jake immediately impressed me as a wild man, even before I met him. I had been living in the house with him for a number of days before I even saw him. I heard him coming and going, but as he never used the bathroom or kitchen or anything contained within these walls, I had to meet him at work. Events since then have reinforced my first impressions, as when I returned from shorebird surveys to find Jake, surrounded by a group of tired and wet men, skinning a four-foot catfish that he had nailed to the house. Some of the guys had gone hogging—also known as “grabbling” and “noodling”—which is a sport where you walk through a river and stick your fist under rocks until a large fish grabs it in its mouth, at which point, you try to hoist the thing out of the water and wrestle it until it is dead. Yeah, I’m not kidding. You have to let it bite you and clamp onto your wrist, because a catfish is too slippery to hold onto otherwise. An added benefit of noodling around here is that the water is so deep that you need someone to stand on you to keep you down on the riverbed while you are doing this. (Lincoln caught this one with Rupert standing on him.) Oh, and have I mentioned that this is snapping turtle country? No? Watch your fingers.

I tried to skin one side of the catfish, but Jake was cleaner, faster, and had his side skinned and filleted in a matter of minutes, before I even got done assessing the subdermal physiology of the fish. My side was bleeding like a freshly slaughtered cow, and I had the better knife. We had a 30-pound fish fry at work two days later, which might be the field-station equivalent of an office party with a swarm of cupcake-baking secretaries. Why does our workplace have its own deep-fat fryer, you ask? There are no simple answers to questions like this.

JakeTwo is shorter, darker, and tough as titanium jerky, but he has a warm smile and a sometimes-friendly if constantly obscene nature. This is a conversation I overheard between JakeTwo and my boss, and is fairly representative of conversations with JakeTwo:
“So, you think you’ll try your hand at grabbling next time ‘round?” questions Jeff.
“I gotta be honest with you, I just don’t think my testicles are big enough for that,” answers JakeTwo, as directly as possible.
Jeff, not exactly used to being addressed like this, thinks for a minute. “Maybe you could use them as bait?”
“Sir, they’re not even big enough for that.” I won’t transcribe the fire crew conversations that involve JakeTwo, but they are funny. You get the idea.

JakeTwo is also NASCAR fanatic, so his move to North Carolina is a trip to the Promised Land; a homecoming for the True Fan. Through playing NASCAR 07 on the PlayStation2, and watching movies like Days of Thunder and Talladega Nights with JakeTwo (these are basically the same movie except for a puma named Karen, and you can see shots of Rockingham in them if you are curious), I have learned the differences between open-wheel and stock-car racing, what makes a good driver, how you “line up under caution” behind the “pace car,” and how each of the NASCAR raceways differ in terms of shape, turn characteristics, surface friction, and so on. For example, our Rockingham raceway, “The Rock,” has unique track bed characteristics that make it sort of a gem of NASCAR tracks. The Rock is also narrower on one end than the other because it was built to accommodate a small and now non-existent wetlands on one side of the site, so each turn requires a different driving technique and strategy to get through. This is one of those details I cannot help but laugh about, as NASCARs get 4 miles to the gallon, and have a major impact on the local environment. Somewhere there is a point that is being missed.

For his Masters research, JakeTwo tracks and captures cottonmouths alone in remote areas. He should be wearing his medical bracelet with information as to his antivenom allergies, but he isn’t. “They can kill you with their venom, they can open their mouths almost 180 degrees and bite you from any angle, they’re lightning fast, incredibly strong, and they still have six defensive mechanisms so that they don’t have to attack you,” he says, when I ask him what he likes about cottonmouths in particular. I guess there’s something likable about all that, though I still run the other direction when I encounter one. He wants to end up in the Everglades. “Big, flowing water, big snakes,” he says, with that reserved passion of someone who truly loves his work. I’m sure he’ll get there eventually, but we have cottonmouths, and he has a snake hook, so he just might see fit to stay for a while.

What else can I say? The Jakes are good roommates. I am a fortunate girl.

Living in Constant Terror,

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Southern Culture, Part One of Many: The Mullet Toss

Before I moved to the south, I felt as though I had no impression of this place. Maybe I had blocked it all out. In reality, I have been in the Deep South three times before this, and now I remember everything in stunning, unwanted clarity. My impressions have not changed so much as they have become more sticky and complicated.

My first visit to the south was with my family. I might have been eleven. It was unbelievably hot, and I saw the largest roaches I had ever seen before or since. There were good things about that trip, too, but that is all we need to cover here.

My last trip south before this one was to Georgia. I remember most clearly the heat. The combination of heat and humidity… are not two great tastes that go great together, as in the "You got your chocolate in my peanut butter! -- You got your peanut butter in my chocolate!" great tastes. There were certainly moments of "You got your ignorance in my politics!" and "You got your bigotry in my contempt for you!" moments for me, but mostly I remember the heat. I cannot express how disappointing it is when the sun goes down and the temperature continues to increase because the humidity captures the heat being reradiated from the ground. Your body turns the dial from "wilt" to "melt," pauses briefly, and then cranks all the way up to "ooze." Your brain has had a head start, and stopped functioning at around four, which is, coincidentally, when they like to start serving mint juleps. I also saw my first Carolina wren. I would be back.

It was the second trip south that was most memorable. Destination: Alabama, for the wedding of my boyfriend's brother. This was the trip that provided me the most insight into the South, and will be the topic of the remainder of this letter. A slight oversight on the part of the wedding planner led her to schedule this wedding in bucolic Nowhere, Alabama at the same time as a 60,000-person annual sporting event in that same town. The impossibility of booking a hotel room might have clued her in to impending mishap. Perhaps I am being harsh, but it is for the purpose of avoiding this kind of catastrophe that you hire a wedding planner at all. I mean, unless you specifically desire that your wedding take place in the middle of a redneck fish-throwing festival. Maybe I am assuming too much, but I believe that this couple did not want their special day overshadowed by an even more beloved festival of deceased fish.

The closest hotel we could book was thirty miles from the wedding site. Andrew and I were treated to Southern hospitality in the form of a small, wet bag of boiled peanuts. I ate one. It tasted like soil, decay, mold, and the sour beginnings of fermentation. I didn't know if I was detecting the unmistakable signs of spoiled food, or simply too inexperienced with southern ways to appreciate a real delicacy. I was puzzled, but withholding judgment and contemplating the alien flavors of cheeses, raw oysters, pickled herring, and even the common Ho-Ho. I asked Andrew about it, and as if by reflex or brainwashing, the question produced from him a five-minute diatribe about what it was that southerners were forced to eat out of desperation after the Civil War. The speech was impassioned and informed, impressive both in its content and ardor. I still have no idea what boiled peanuts should taste like. Confusion took root then, in the form of an unsettling peanut, and, kudzu-like, grew to consume my experience with its inexorable progress.

The next confrontation to my senses was minutes away by car, in the form of the Interstate Mullet-Toss. There is no word that invokes the concept of "redneck" as clearly and completely as "mullet." But here, it does not indicate that dreadful bi-level hairdo that saw some success outside the south in the 1980's. Instead, it signifies an unassuming one-pound fish, small, silver, and reasonably aerodynamic. To some, the mullet is food. To others, it is an instrument of destiny. To me, this fish is more synonymous with "redneck" than the haircut ever could be.

The Mullet-Toss was originally the brainchild of two regulars to the Flor-Abama, a small and otherwise unremarkable bar situated on the border of two states. After a number of beers, the two went outside to smoke, and as the legend goes, came across a bucket of mullet tossed out by the kitchen. Our protagonists took this rejectementa in hand, and, with great purpose, hurled the fish from Florida over the border into Alabama. Perhaps our heroes retrieved their little fishes and hurled them back over the border. Perhaps they left them to the seagulls. The mythology is unclear at this point, although the modern-day version requires competitors to retrieve the fishy and replace it in the Florida-side bucket before it is put out for the birds.

Our first introduction to the Mullet Toss was through its astonishing traffic-creating abilities. Sixty thousand people in various states of sobriety arrive with as many vehicles as can physically exist on a two-lane highway. We stopped and picked up a newspaper published specifically for the event. They did not carry the Washington Post. We educated ourselves. We talked to locals. We continued on.

It was a gorgeous day for a wedding. The bride and groom stood barefoot on the beach, the sun shining, waves lapping peacefully on the sand. Family and friends were happy and tearful, and passed around tissues as bride and groom recited their vows. The couple was joyfully reunited, the groom having just completed a one-year prison sentence, the bride one month from delivering the first of their litter. The wedding was beautiful. I sat and thought of dead fish raining down from clear Alabama skies.

The trip back to the hotel involved another hour and a half in Mullet-Toss traffic. Andrew had time to get out of the car and walk around the event while we, car-bound, inched forward. Andrew's mother talked, and talked. I daydreamed about fish missiles striking Floridian sands. Traffic started and stopped. I imagined the freedom of flight, the graceful parabola of a scaled creature arcing through the air, the pervasive smell of rotting fish. A thousand seagulls, the true beneficiaries of this contest, adding their shrieks of expectation to human ones. I saw, in my mind's eye, small children, basing their dreams of fame and fortune on the incredible spectacle of an Olympian food fight. The sun beat down on the roof of our cramped car, invoking a can of sardines. Sad sardines, who would never know the liberation of the sky.

I could have opened the door onto the whole world of women in tube-tops and men in tattoos and baseball caps that waited just outside, drinking beer and cheering fish-flinging champions… but somehow I knew that this was a realm where my imagination was going to guide me on a safer journey than callous reality had in store. Fish tossing is not for the meek.

The Flor-Abama was blown away by hurricane Ivan the fall following our visit. I do not if the Flor-Abama was rebuilt or the fate of the displaced Flor-Abamians, but sometimes I like to think that somewhere, a parent has handed a child his first mullet, and the dream continues.


P.S. More on mullet-tossing:

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Life, The Army and You

Very early on in the course of my work here, I realized that the entire Sandhills Gamelands were littered with interesting and sometimes dangerous military castoffs. This is a direct result of sharing the Gamelands with Fort Bragg, which uses them to train soldiers in weapons and maneuvers. We are not supposed to interfere with military business, and they are not supposed to interfere with our scientific work. In fact, we are not supposed to establish contact of any kind, but it is still difficult to avoid occasional conflict, as, for instance, when the orienteering leaders take down my directional flagging, leaving me stranded in the middle of nowhere for unknown ages, with no idea where I might find my truck.

Last week I was out locating survey points for an upcoming study, and twenty soldiers came running over the hill in full camouflage with loaded automatic weapons. All I can really say to that is good for them. The main responsibility of my job is to be aware of the environment around me, and I had failed to notice twenty-one human beings (including the commander) until they had successfully captured my bird survey point. I did, however, manage to pick out a very rare Bachman’s sparrow nearby.

One notable example of interactions with the military and why not to have them occurred a month before I arrived. Three of our scientists were out on the Gamelands late in the evening to survey frogs, and were quickly surrounded by a large group of soldiers, who were there, announced their commander, to “deconflict the situation” (stress on the second syllable there). Did the frogs need deconflicting, or was it the scientists themselves? Or maybe, as was claimed, the “situation” itself needed deconflicting, but that’s a tough one to parse. I imagine that these interactions require both parties to peer through some veil of mystery, normally opaque to all of us, temporarily thinned in the mutual attempt to conceive that the other is doing something useful or relevant. All in all, I am not sure that that situation was ever deconflicted satisfactorily.

A rather more serious event occurred two years ago, when two soldiers in civilian clothes were taking part in reconnaissance training in one of the local towns. Because of lack of communication, the police sheriff was not informed of the exercise. He demanded to know what the soldiers were doing, and was treated by them a “plant,” as the real sheriff should have known about the exercise. With no other information to go on than that he was facing two hostile, armed youths, he shot them dead.

Some of the interactions with our non-civilian brethren are thankfully more passive in nature. On one of our regular trips through the Sandhills to delineate bird territories, I found an unopened MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) of “snack bread.” Curious as to its origin and edibility, I brought it along to lunch. The others were excited by the find, and assured me that there was a long and questionable history of eating every unopened military ration that the Sandhills offered. Kendrick and Ryan between them have found (stomach-cramp inducing) cheese tortellini with tomato sauce, jambalaya (tasty), drink mixes (ordinary), salt rations, and in the non-food category, long underwear, rain gear, unlit flares, live ammunition (common!), locking ammo boxes, and various personal effects, some of which are old, perhaps from the 1940’s. Institutional memory is strong among the field biologists here, transient though we may be, and the finds of field techs stretching back many years make for good conversation.

I imagine that there are many challenges in creating appetizing yet durable food, and said as much as I opened the sun-baked mylar pouch to share the contents with Kendrick. We both gave the flat, moist, shortbread-like confection high marks. It had an unmistakable but mild flavor of anise, and it made me want to find more of the same little pouches out on the Gamelands. But, I am told, you eat what you can find, and there have been no repeats thus far. Another day, another surprising lunch item.

Aside from the egregious amounts of litter, there are other reminders that we are sharing the Gamelands with the military. On languid afternoons when the sun is shining down through the pines and turning the grasslands into a gold ocean, the air is filled with primordial calls of flickers, and the constant singing of warblers, bluebirds, martins, finches and sparrows, but equally punctuated by an insistent RAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT of machinegun fire, as well as the occasional, much larger explosion. Low-flying planes buzz over, four at a time, for what purpose I do not know. I pass lone soldiers orienteering through the Gamelands and realize again, each time I see them up close, that they are children, just over half my age, and this is all the preparation they will have before we send them off to war. My anger about the garbage I find everywhere gets deflated when I look at these people, as if I suddenly see that litter is only waste resulting from negligence, and not a much more serious waste caused by treachery and misinformation. These kids will be sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, and whether or not they return, and in what condition, is anyone’s guess. I sneak in a wave from time to time, and on rare occasions, they wave back.

Stay Deconflicted,