Friday, October 31, 2014

Veteran scientist #6, Robert Tucker Abbott

Lieutenant Robert Tucker Abbott (1919-1995)

US Navy dive bomber pilot 1942-1944, US Navy research scientist 1944-1954, and World War II veteran.  Malacologist and conchologist.

Robert Tucker Abbott, one of the 20th century’s influential mollusc biologists, is most famous for uncovering the life cycle of a form of schistosomiasis, a disease afflicting millions of people every year.

Interested in seashells from childhood, Abbott studied malacology—the study of molluscs—as an undergrad at Harvard.  While still a student he founded a journal, Johnsonia, dedicated to the study of western Atlantic molluscs.

After graduating in 1942 Abbott joined the US Navy, serving as a dive bomber pilot in the Pacific War for two years.

Meanwhile, troops throughout the Indo-Pacific region were falling prey to a mysterious disease—Schistosomiasis.  Like Ebola and many other diseases, Schistosomiasis is a zo├Ânosis—meaning it lives at least part of its life cycle in animals other than humans.  In this case, flatworms in the genus Schistosoma live part of their life cycle in snails and part in vertebrates, including humans, where they cause Schistosomiasis.

The species infecting Marines, soldiers and sailors during the Pacific War—Schistosoma japonicum—had not been studied, however, and its non-human host was unknown.  Until the host was identified there was little hope of preventing the disease.  Researchers knew it probably lived in a freshwater snail.  But thousands of snail species roamed the Indo-Pacific and there were few people available who could identify them.

So the Navy turned to Abbott, transferring him to a Medical Research Unit based on Guam.  Traveling between the Pacific and Maryland, Abbott began tracking down the mysterious parasite’s host.  At the end of the war he was sent to China’s Yangtze River Valley.  There, working out of a makeshift lab, he finally tracked down the host of Schistosoma japonicum—little brown snails in the genus Oncomelania that inhabited rice paddies.  The mystery was solved.

Abbott continued to work for the Navy Medical Research Center as a research scientist until 1954.  At the same time he was a curator of the Department of Mollusks at the Smithsonian in D.C.  Still more amazing, he earned his Master’s and Ph.D. at George Washington University during this period as well, and somehow managed to find time to publish a book—the first edition of American Seashells.

Eventually leaving Navy work, Abbot moved to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, then to the Delaware Museum of Natural History, and finally became founding director of the Bailey-Matthews Seashell Museum on Sanibel Island, Florida.

In addition to fighting a war, publishing research, and combating diseases, Abbott tried throughout his career to popularize conchology—the study of seashells—by writing popular identification books and lobbying for responsible seashell collecting.

Upon his death in 1995 he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Lessons in drowning

The water came up to my chest.  Keeping my rifle barrel above the surface, I felt along the bottom with my boots.  My Kevlar helmet, belt with canteens, and full pack weighed me down.

It was Swim Week in boot camp, the beginning of 2nd Phase.  After the few days in Receiving, the first four weeks of boot camp—1st Phase—were focused on the basics—marching, PT, obstacle courses, Marine Corps history, first aid, taking apart and cleaning rifles, classroom learning, and martial arts.  It culminated in a martial arts test and the awarding of our tan belts—the lowest rung of the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program.

Now, new belts in hand, we moved on to more field-oriented learning.

It was the second day of swim quals.  The Marine Corps is amphibious, and every Marine must swim.

Day 1 tested our basic swimming ability.  Wearing cammies but no boots, we had to swim 25 meters in shallow water.  Then the DIs pushed us off a 10 foot ledge into deep water.  We treaded water for four minutes.  They taught us to blow air into the sleeves of our blouse, pinch the collar shut, and use it as a flotation device.  Finally, we swam 25 meters in deep water.  If we passed we advanced to the next stage.  Those who failed—mostly people who had never learned to swim—were doomed to a week of practice and retesting.

Day 2 started off simple.  A DI pushed me off a ledge into deep water with boots on.  I surfaced and swam 25 meters.  Then they added more realism.

I entered the pool with full gear, Kevlar, pack and rifle.  After wading 50 meters I had to swim.  Our packs doubled as flotation devices.  By leaning back, kicking my legs, and steering with my arms I swam feet first with my rifle on my chest.  After swimming in shallow water we moved to the deep end.  Finally, I jumped off a platform with all my gear.  Treading water, I took off my pack, wrapped an arm around it, and swam 25 meters to a ladder.  I had passed the second qualification.

On Day 3 they added body armor and took away the pack.  I had to swim 50 meters wearing cammies, boots, belt and canteens, Kevlar, flak jacket and rifle.  I entered the water, slung my rifle on my back and started swimming.

If I succeeded here I would make it to the 4th and final qualification, where we had to get pulled to the bottom of the pool by a DI, fight him off and swim to safety.

I've never been a strong swimmer.  I struggled to stay above the surface, fighting frantically against the dragging weight.  20 meters in I panicked and sank.  A DI thrust a pole into the water in front of me.  I grabbed on and he pulled me up.  Dejected, but not drowned, I climbed out of the water for the last time.  I wouldn’t advance to the final stage.  Swim Week was over for me.

Only about five guys made it to the 4th qual.  One of them, in his underwater struggle, stuck his thumb in a DI’s ass.  The startled DI let him go and he swam to safety.  The instructors praised the recruit’s ingenuity and he lived to tell the tale.

In the years since I’ve never had to use my blouse as a flotation device or swim with a rifle.  My war experience, after all, was limited to the deserts of Iraq.  But I have to admit wading with a pack is a skill that has come in handy a few places, from New Zealand estuaries to Indonesian rivers to rice paddies in Madagascar.

Now that we could march, fight and swim, it was time to learn to shoot.  The rifle ranges were in a different part of the island, and we had to move to another barracks.  After a Physical Fitness Test in the morning—three mile run, pull ups and crunches—we put on our packs and Kevlars, slung our rifles, and humped the five miles to our new home.  It was my first time moving on foot.

Upon arrival in the new barracks I promptly got myself quarterdecked by Sgt Crum again.  This time it was worse—especially after the PFT and the hump—and I was sore for days.

It was a fitting welcome to our new home.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Veteran scientist #5, Amotz Zahavi

Amotz Zahavi (1928-present)

Israeli military 1948-49.  Evolutionary biologist and proposer of the handicap principle.

Zahavi is perhaps best known for his work in animal communication.  His handicap principle hypothesis, put forward in 1975, attempts to explain what keeps signals honest and prevents cheating.  The hypothesis has been especially useful in explaining the evolution of expensive sexually selected traits, such as male peacock tails.  Since its proposal, the handicap principle has been influential in guiding communication and sexual selection research, and is a basic concept learned by budding biologists around the world.

Not as well known, however, is his military experience.  Zahavi served in the Israeli military from 1948-1949, a period coincident with the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

After the war Zahavi pursued his studies in biology, doing his Master’s research on birds of the Hula marshes in northern Israel.  During his work, however, the government drained the marshes as Zahavi raced to study the area’s biology before it disappeared.  The experience spurred him to found the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel—now the nation’s oldest and largest conservation organization.  Zahavi went on to get his Ph.D. and begin his work on communication.

Zahavi started his career by serving during a politically difficult war, and later fought to conserve nature in a troubled and densely populated nation.  At the same time he somehow managed to change the way we think about communication and the evolution of sexual differences.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Naked collision

“You wanna talk?  Good, take off your blouse and get on my quarterdeck.”

It was a Sunday, and I’d been in boot camp twelve days.  Until then I’d somehow avoided getting quarterdecked.

I’m ashamed to admit I only received this punishment five times.  Many people got it dozens of times, and at least one guy in my platoon broke a hundred.  Real Marines tell graphic stories about getting in trouble as recruits, and the resulting physical torture.  With my measly five quarterdeckings, I spent the next five years feeling like I’d somehow missed out on the boot camp experience.

They say boot camp makes you either strong or smart.  I think I got smart.  I was good at blending in and not getting caught.  It helped that my hickeys wore off before I met my real DIs.  And although I got issued glasses in receiving, I never wore them because they’d make me stand out.

I was so successful none of my DIs even knew my name until after the first month.  I’d seen other people get quarterdecked and figured it was something I’d rather avoid.  After experiencing it myself I was sure of it.

We were making a quick head call.  80 guys rushed to piss and fill up their canteens in the bathroom sink before continuing training.  In a press of people I made the unforgiveable mistake of asking someone to fill my canteen for me.

Rather, I made the unforgiveable mistake of getting caught.  Speaking is not usually allowed in boot camp.  But communication is necessary.  Complicated group tasks have to get done.  The expectation is that you either rely on non-verbal communication, or you speak but don’t get caught.  Getting caught is worse than the crime itself.  It’s one of the subtle ways you are taught to be flexible and seize hidden advantages.

But this time I blundered.  Drill Instructor Sergeant Crum was right behind me.

Sgt Crum was the only combat veteran of our three DIs.  He had recently returned from fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan as an infantry squad leader.  The evening of September 11, 2001 he got a phone call saying to be ready the next day to ship out somewhere unknown. Within a few days he had left his family and was overseas, and became part of the first wave of Marines to enter Afghanistan that fall.

In an institution devoted to warfighting combat experience is the gold standard, and infantry Marines are often seen as a cut above the rest.   Even as recruits we were taught this, and we respected Sgt Crum.  We were also terrified of him.

I ran to my rack, put my blouse on my foot locker, ran back and stood at attention on the concrete floor in front of the DI’s office.

As far as quarterdeckings go, this wasn’t so bad.  Sgt Crum stood in front of me and told me to push.  I dropped to the floor screaming, “Push, aye sir!” and started doing pushups.

“Now run.”

“Run, aye, sir!” I stood up and ran in place with my arms held out in front of me.


“Push, aye, sir!” Back to the floor, my hands slipping in a sweat puddle.

“Now run.”

And so it went, with some other exercises thrown in—mountain climbers, crunches, jumping jacks, the works.  The exercises aren’t bad.  Rather, what gets you is the lack of control over your own body, and the uncertainty about what’s next or when it will end.  Sometimes you switch exercises—say, from run to push and back—without actually having time to the do the exercise itself.  It’s an unpredictable back and forth designed to break you mentally.

And then, after you’re broken or the DI gets bored or feels guilty, it ends.

I put my blouse back on and rejoined the other recruits.

I had another, more literal, run-in with Sgt Crum.

In the beginning we showered together.  Sgt Crum marched a couple dozen naked bodies into the shower room.

“Turn on the water.”  Sgt Crum watched us with hands on hips, ignoring the splashes of water on his immaculate uniform and wide brimmed campaign cover.

“Aye, sir!”

“Put soap on your body.”

“Aye, sir!”

“Now rinse off.”

“Aye, sir!”

And so it went, showering by the numbers.  The whole process took 45 seconds and we were out, and another batch of recruits marched in.

Once after showering I walked through the head with a towel around my waist.  I took a step backward and bumped into someone.  I turned around, and Sgt Crum was behind me yet again.  I had committed two cardinal sins—I touched a DI and I looked him in the eye.

Sgt Crum blocked me with his arm and looked down with hate in his eyes.

“Get your disgusting naked body away from me.”

Averting my eyes, I scuttled off with an “Aye, sir!”  For some reason he didn’t quarterdeck me.  Perhaps he was too busy showering the other recruits.

A few weeks later, while getting ready for a hump, I swung my pack over my shoulder… and right into a passing Sgt Crum.  I turned to see what I’d hit.  Again I got the hate stare, but again he let me live.

I just couldn’t get it right.  But at least that time I wasn't naked.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Veteran scientist #4, Gerd Heinrich

Gerd Heinrich (1896-1984).

German Army lancer, fighter pilot and administrator 1914-1918 & 1940-1945.  Wasp taxonomist and ornithologist.

Perhaps best known as the father of biologist and world class distance runner Bernd Heinrich, Gerd Heinrich was an accomplished taxonomist.  Though he worked with birds as well, Heinrich’s real passion was ichneumonids—a diverse family of parasitoid wasps that eat their prey alive from the inside out.

But Heinrich began his career in the military.  Growing up in an area along the Polish-German border that frequently changed hands, Heinrich felt ties to both Poland and Germany.  At age 17 at the outbreak of the First World War, Heinrich joined the German Army as a lancer—an elite cavalryman specialized in fighting with lances, swords and rifles.  A holdover from earlier times, lancers quickly found themselves obsolete in the face of the machine guns and razor wire of trench warfare.

Heinrich at first fought on the Russian front, earning an Iron Cross for bravery at age 19.  Later he joined the newly formed Luftwaffe as an enlisted fighter pilot.  It speaks for both his character and his times that Heinrich fought the same war with both spears and planes.

Fighting in Italy and France, he was twice shot down.  By the end of the war he had moved up to squadron leader.  Hearing of his bravery and skill, Baron Manfred von Richthofen—“the Red Baron”—personally invited him to join his elite fighter unit, an offer Heinrich turned down.  It was probably a wise decision.  Heinrich, after all, survived the war while the Baron did not.

After the war Heinrich devoted himself to his beloved ichneumons.  Much as the great explorer Alfred Russel Wallace had done in the mid-19th century, Heinrich funded collecting expeditions by selling bird specimens to museums.  His inter-war years are a catalogue of such trips—the Danube Delta in 1925, northern Persia in 1927, Sulawesi, Halmahera and Bacan in eastern Indonesia in 1930-32, the Balkan and Rhodope Mountains in 1935, and Burma in 1937-38.

With the outbreak of war in 1940, Heinrich was recalled to active duty as an administrator in Poland and Russia, eventually running an airbase.  It was during this period, as he struggled to survive both the Nazis and the war, that his son Bernd was born.  At the end of the war Heinrich fled west with his family to escape the Soviet advance.  Realizing that he would never see his home again, Heinrich sealed his ichneumon specimens—his life’s work—in a metal container and buried them on his family farm.  In his last act as a military man, he arranged for the post-war survival of his men in occupied Germany, before tossing his own uniform and blending into civilian life.

He and his family survived the post-war years by living in a forest near Hamburg.  They foraged for edible plants, caught fish and used mammal traps from his collecting expeditions to hunt small game.

Eventually moving to Florida and then Maine, Heinrich resumed his scientific exploits.  With the help of collaborators in Europe, Heinrich’s buried specimens were recovered.  He resumed his collecting as well, going on expeditions to Mexico in 1952-53, Angola in 1953-55 and 1957-58, East Africa in 1961-63, and South Africa in 1963.  His last major monograph described 47 new ichneumon species from Florida.

During his career Gerd Heinrich described nearly 1,500 new ichneumon species from around the world.  He also discovered six new species and 45 subspecies of birds, a new rodent, a new frog, and rediscovered some bird species that hadn’t been seen in decades.  One of the birds he discovered in Sulawesi, Heinrich’s Nightjar, wasn’t seen again it until it was rediscovered by Jared Diamond in 1997.

And he did all of this while fighting in two world wars and escaping both the Nazis and the Soviets.

The Snoring Bird: My Family’s Journey Through a Century of Biology, 2007, Bernd Heinrich
Pioneer of Asian Ornithology: Gerd Heinrich, N.J. Collar, 2009, BirdingASIA 11:33-40

Sunday, October 12, 2014


Every classic Marine boot camp story begins with yellow footprints.  Painted in front of the receiving building on Parris Island, so the story goes, are a few dozen yellow footprints in formation.  When your bus pulls up at night, a drill instructor boards and orders you outside.  By placing your feet in the footprints you learn the first lesson of boot camp—how to stand at the position of attention.  Meanwhile, the story continues, a drill instructor says that you have now taken the first step towards becoming a member of the world’s finest fighting force.  And you are supposed to remember the generations who went before you who performed this same symbolic act in the same place.

But this is not a classic story.  Or maybe I’m just not a classic Marine.  A DI did board our bus and yell at us, and I did get off and stand in formation in the darkness.  But I was near the back and by the time I got out there were more recruits than footprints.  I stood on plain old fashioned pavement.  A DI may have yelled something motivating, but if he did I either didn’t hear or don’t remember.

Inside the building we lined up along a row of pay phones.  Each phone had a printed message taped to the wall above it, saying something like “I have arrived safely at Marine Corps Recruit Training, Parris Island.”  A DI ordered us to call home, read the printed message and say nothing more, and hang up.  When it was my turn I got an answering machine.  I hung up and tried to walk away.

“Did someone answer?” the DI yelled.  “Pick up the phone and call someone else until you get an answer.  I don’t care who you call.”

I have no idea who I called either time, but the second person answered.  I read the message and hung up.  It was the last time I’d use a phone or hear the voice of anyone I knew for three months.

Those first days are a blur.  They are designed to disorient you, wear you down and remove traces of your old identity.  I woke up in Cleveland that first morning at four, and at Parris Island would not be allowed to sleep until late the next night, and even then for only a few hours.

We paraded around mazes of concrete walls and fluorescent lights, moving mindlessly from task to task, surrounded by drill instructors.  My hickeys drew attention like neon signs—every new DI that saw my neck ran over to scream in my face.

We got our heads shaved early on, while we still had our civilian clothes.  The cuts were rough and short, only a few seconds each.  Blood trickled down someone's head where his mole used to be.

People threw uniforms at us.  We stripped naked and changed into cammies.  At a warehouse we bundled up our civilian clothes and handed them over.  We would get them back when we left the island.  My only remaining piece of the outside world was my wallet and a piece of paper with addresses and phone numbers.  At the armory I got a rifle.  I would carry it everywhere over the coming months.  At medical they gave me glasses—I knew I didn’t have perfect vision, but had never worn glasses before.

A receiving drill instructor shepherded us through those confusing days.  He had recently returned from the war in Afghanistan.  He told us he didn’t sleep through the night anymore and that his wife would verify that.  He told us to forget about our families and wives and girlfriends.  We were alone now and could only rely on ourselves and each other.  Wives and girlfriends would forget about us and seek comfort from our best friends.  Many of us would get Dear John letters.

From now on we would use naval terminology.  Buildings were treated as ships—doors were hatches, windows portholes, walls bulkheads and floors decks.  When you go to the head, you piss or shit.  Peeing is for boys.

I experienced my first Marine Corps urinalysis test.  I would soon lose any shyness about bodily functions.  But this first time, as the drill instructor watched my crotch to make sure I didn’t cheat, I couldn’t bring myself to fill the bottle.  He got impatient, and I got more nervous.

“You can’t piss like a man?  Fine, sit on the shitter and piss like a bitch.”

I did, and it worked.

That was on my girlfriend’s birthday.  Would I be the first to get a Dear John letter for missing it?

The receiving DI formed us into squads, and needed to appoint four recruits as squad leaders and one as guide above them.  He walked past us as we sat in formation on the floor.  Suddenly he stopped and stared at one of the recruits.

“What’s your name?”

“Recruit Shackleford, sir.”

Shackleford had deep blue eyes with a thousand yard stare, his arms were covered in knife scars, and when he talked he sounded like a barking dog.  Shackleford was from the streets.  He had seen pain.  He was terrifying.  Shackleford was, in short, good Marine material.

“You’ve seen people die, haven’t you?” the DI asked.

“Yes, sir,” Shackleford barked.

“Pretty cool, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’re the guide.”

We moved into the squad bay that would be our home—two rows of bunk beds along a central aisle.  The DI told Shackleford and the squad leaders to hand out pillows and pillow cases.  He said there weren’t enough and began leaving to get more.  Before he did, the squad leaders and guide put pillows on their own beds.  The DI stormed over, yanked up a pillow and shouted.  That’s not what leaders do.  Leaders take care of the people under them before themselves.  They picked up their pillows and passed them along to other recruits.

After three and a half days, we were now a platoon.  We were ready to meet our drill instructors.  Our receiving DI gave us one last piece of advice.

“The best thing you can do in boot camp is listen and remember everything the first time you hear it.”

It’s actually one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten in my life.  In high school paying attention isn’t that important—you can always find out what the teacher said by asking someone else, or you can remember things by writing them down.  It’s the same in college or grad school or most other places in civilian life.  You can really do just fine without paying much attention.

Being alert and aware and committing things to memory after one pass, on the other hand, takes conscious effort.  But it pays off.  I haven’t always followed the advice, but I’ve never regretted it when I have.

Just days before I was a punk kid in Elyria, Ohio.  Now I was hairless, wore camouflage, carried a rifle, and lived in a room with 80 other guys.

The disorientation was complete.  I was unrecognizable.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Veteran scientist #3, Willi Hennig

Willi Hennig (1913-1976).

Germany Army infantryman and medical entomologist.  Evolutionary biologist, founder of cladistics, fly taxonomist.

Every biologist knows about Willi Hennig—or at least they know of his work.  Hennig revolutionized the science of systematics—mapping the evolutionary relationships among organisms—by inventing the method of cladistics.  Almost any intro bio student will at some point do a lab exercise where they use cladistic methods to make a simple phylogeny—a “family tree.”  And the methods aren’t limited to biological organisms.  Comparative linguists, for example, use cladistics to reconstruct the histories and relationships of human languages and the people who speak them.

Through his contributions to cladistics, Hennig not only changed the way we do biology, but altered the way we see the world and our place in it.

But how many people know Hennig was also a veteran?

Willi Hennig survived 3 years as an infantryman in WWII, and 3 more years as a military entomologist and prisoner of war, and went on to fundamentally change the way we do biology

Hennig was drafted into the Germany Army in 1938 as an infantryman, and starting in 1939 fought in World War II in Poland, France, Denmark and Russia.  Fighting in Russia, at one point he was one of only five survivors from an entire company.  His brother was killed in Stalingrad, and his family’s house in Leipzig was destroyed by Allied bombs.  Eventually Hennig was seriously wounded by a grenade and removed from combat.  Afterwards he served as a military entomologist fighting malaria on the Italian front.  He was captured by the British in Italy in May 1945.  Even as a prisoner of war, however, the British continued to employ him as an entomologist to fight malaria.

Hennig continued to work on his science during the war, publishing 25 papers before war’s end.  In fact, he wrote the first draft of his magnum opus on cladistics—Principles of a Theory of Phylogenetic Systematics—in a small notebook while he was a British POW!

Late in life, Hennig claimed the experience of war contributed to his productivity as a scientist.  It “made him aware of the limitations imposed on his creative output” and made him feel “obliged to use the available time to the utmost.”

To all my scientist friends out there:  next time you read or construct a phylogeny, or teach an intro biology lab, remember Hennig.  Try to imagine where he was when he made these discoveries.

Hennig not only survived one of mankind’s worst wars, but used the strength he gained from the experience to become one of the most influential biologists in history.

In Memoriam Willi Hennig 1913-1976 Eine biographische Skizze, D. Schlee, 1978, Entomologica Germanica 4:377-391

Monday, October 6, 2014

Hickeys are a bad idea

I didn’t keep a journal during boot camp.  But I did write letters almost every day, mostly to my girlfriend.  Over 11 years later, my copies of those letters are the only written record of my time there.  That record, combined with hazy memories, forms the basis of my boot camp stories.

I said goodbye to my family on a Monday a week after graduation.  A young Lance Corporal on recruiter’s assistance picked me up.  My family, my girlfriend and my best friend gathered on the front lawn to wave goodbye and watch me drive away down the street.

I had only the clothes on my back and my wallet.  I’d never left my family for more than a week.  I’d never lived on my own.  I’d never flown on a plane.  Everything—anyone I knew, anything I owned, any place I’d been—was behind me and I didn’t know what was coming.  I was afraid.

The Marine drove me to the processing station near Cleveland to do medical and bureaucratic stuff.  I stayed at a hotel and used the room phone to talk with my girlfriend late into the night.  The next morning I woke at four and headed to the airport with other recruits to fly to Charleston, South Carolina.

Someone’s parents, not ready to let their son go, showed up at the airport.  But we were late and had no time to talk—we ran to our gate and the mother jogged alongside us in a panic, her eyes wide with terror and wet with tears.  Her husband tried to get her to stop running and say goodbye, but she followed us as far she could.

In Charleston we found a drill instructor waiting at our gate as we got off the plane.  He picked us out from the crowd—recruits had no luggage, carried envelopes of paperwork, and looked lost and terrified—and started yelling right there in the middle of the airport.  Onlookers watched as the DI herded us into a group and shuffled us away to the basement to join other recruits.

The morning I left Elyria my girlfriend thought it would be funny if I went to boot camp with a hickey.  I agreed and she gave me one on each side of my neck.  As I walked past the DI in the receiving area he stopped me.

“What’s that on your neck?” he yelled.  “Did something bite you?”

“Yes, sir.  My girlfriend, sir.”  I hadn’t yet learned to talk in the third person.

His eyes bulged and he pulled me aside into a windowless concrete room.  He threatened to charge me with destruction of government property and disrespect.  Worse, he said he couldn’t send me to boot camp like that.  He wrote down my information and said I would have to go back to Cleveland.

I requested permission to speak.  I told him if he sent me home to remember my face because I would be back as soon as possible.  He looked at me and asked if that was a threat, or if I was just motivated.  I said I was motivated and he didn’t answer.  He left the room and I was alone for a long time.

When he returned he handed me an airline ticket envelope and told me to open it.  It was empty.

“You’re going to boot camp.  You just might have the intestinal fortitude to survive my island,” he said.  “And next time tell your girlfriend to move that suction somewhere else, where it’ll feel better.”

I rejoined the other recruits to find that they’d already eaten dinner—I missed my last meal before boot camp.  I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and wouldn’t until sometime the next day.  The hickeys were a bad idea.

We boarded a bus and rode in the night to Parris Island.  I thought about my decision to join the Marines, debating whether almost being sent back to Cleveland was a near miss or a missed opportunity.  There was no escape now.  In minutes I would be in boot camp, trapped on Parris Island.  I couldn’t picture my future.

And I worried about my exposed neck.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Veteran scientist #2, Eugene Sledge

Corporal Eugene B. Sledge (1923-2001)

US Marine 1942-1946 and World War II veteran.  Nematologist, botanist, ornithologist and professor.

Our second scientist—a fellow Marine—is more famous for the military part of his career.  Sledge served as a mortarman in the Pacific War, fighting in the battles of Peleliu and Okinawa.  His memoir of the war, With the Old Breed, was the basis of both a Ken Burns documentary and the HBO miniseries The Pacific.

After the war Sledge served in China before returning to the US.  Back home in Alabama “civilian life seemed so strange.  People rushed about in a hurry about seemingly insignificant things.  Few seemed to realize how blessed they were to be free and untouched by the horrors of war.  To them, a veteran was a veteran—all were the same.”

Sledge turned to science and nature as a refuge.  He worked on bird banding projects, went to college, got a Master’s in botany and then a Ph.D. in biology, became a professor at the University of Montevallo, and published papers on nematode worms.

Like many veterans, Sledge found it hard to translate his military experience into civilian life.  Who can forget the scene from the final episode of The Pacific, when Sledge enrolls in college and struggles to answer glib questions about what the Marine Corps taught him?

How do you sum up, in one line, years of experience, struggle and hardening in what seems like a different world?

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, 1981, Eugene B. Sledge
China Marine: An Infantryman’s Life after World War II, 2002, Eugene B. Sledge
The Pacific, 2010, HBO