Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Ants in flight

When most people think of ants they probably picture a colony of wingless workers.  Seen this way, it is easy to forget that ants are really just an odd family of wasps.  Most ant queens, on the other hand, are indeed wasp-like and have wings and fly.

After developing from an egg virgin queens leave their birth nests and fly out into the world to mate, find a place to live, and start their own colonies.  These aerial explorers—the mothers of the ant world—fascinate me.  While most ant enthusiasts spend their time looking down at what worker ants do on the Earth’s surface, I spend my time looking up at what their elusive queens do in the atmosphere.

Ant life cycles are complicated and varied, but in almost all species the queens have wings and fly through the atmosphere to mate and find new places to live (Drawing by Brittany Benson)

In my most recent paper, just out in Insectes Sociaux, I take a comprehensive look at queens from across the ant family.  By comparing the wings and bodies of over twenty species from Panama—ranging from the tiny Pheidole christopherseni, weighing in at less than a third of a milligram, to the grape-sized leafcutter ant, Atta colombica, with a two inch wingspan—I begin to answer some questions about ant flight.  How well do different species fly?  Does flight vary depending on whether a queen is a huntress, a farmer, or a social parasite?  How and why do some species lose the ability to fly at all?

I find that just as there are a ton of ways to be an ant (over 12,000 known species and counting), each species likewise varies in how it flies.  Tiny species are nimble flyers, able to stay aloft for a long time, but large species fly faster and can cover longer distances.  Huntress queens (from the subfamily Ponerinae), with their agile athletic bodies and large flight muscles, are decent all-around flyers.  Soft-bodied tree-dwelling ants (subfamily Dolichoderinae) appear to have short, fast flights—probably just long enough to find a suitable hollow branch or snag to settle in.  Social parasites—queens who take over or make their homes inside other ant or termite nests—can probably fly longer and farther than queens who go through the trouble of starting a colony from scratch.  It's the same with the leafcutters, who plant and tend fungus gardens in their new homes.

Dolichoderus laminatus queens fly through rainforest canopies and found new colonies inside the nests of tree-dwelling termites

On the other hand, those hardworking queens who grow their own colonies through sheer individual effort, without the help of crops or a manipulated host species, have evolved the ability to carry extreme loads of fat and protein to fuel them as they start popping out eggs.  In fact, we believe they can fly with more weight than any other known insect.  The flight muscles of some species can carry nearly nine times their own mass!  Not only do ants fly, but, by this measure at least, some of them are actually really good at it.

As for those species that have lost the ability to fly, permanently abandoning the skies of their ancestors and cousins, they may have done so in exchange for the ability to become extra fat and nutritious, thus ensuring they are productive mothers for the next generation.  Tradeoffs like these are a pervasive theme in evolutionary biology (and pretty much everywhere else too).

As exciting as these insights are, they are based on only a tiny fraction of the world’s ant diversity.  And I’ve conspicuously ignored male ants, who are also winged and wasp-like.  What about them?  How do they fly?  We have no idea.

Male ants also fly, and some, like this Dorylus driver ant from a Ugandan rainforest, can be over an inch long

Ants are one of the Earth’s great animal groups.  But we know next to nothing about how they move through the atmosphere to cross landscapes or colonize new areas.  We have, after all, only just begun to explore the hidden ant world above our heads.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Veteran scientist #20, George Miksch Sutton

Major George Miksch Sutton (1898-1982)

US Army Air Corps 1942-1945.  Ornithologist and artist.

A familiar name here at the University of Oklahoma, George Miksch Sutton was an accomplished ornithologist, artist and writer.  He was also a soldier.

Sutton grew up around the US—in Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, Illinois, Texas and West Virginia.  At a young age he developed an interest in observing and drawing birds.  He published his first artwork at age 12 and his first scientific observations at age 16.

As a 20 year old, while a student at Bethany College in West Virginia, Sutton began working on the side at the Carnegie Museum, preparing bird specimens and going on collecting expeditions.  The work took him on several expeditions to far northern Canada.  It was Sutton’s first taste of the Arctic, a region that would loom large over the rest of his life, rivaled in importance perhaps only by Oklahoma.

Sutton stayed in the region after graduating, working as the Pennsylvania State Ornithologist for four years.  Then, in 1929, he quit his state job and entered grad school at Cornell.  He spent the first year of his Ph.D. program, predictably, in the Arctic, this time for an entire year on Southampton Island at the north end of the Hudson Bay.  After getting his doctorate Sutton stayed at Cornell to become the Curator of Birds, doing fieldwork in Texas, Mexico, Michigan, and, of course, back in the Arctic.

When World War Two broke out a few years later, Sutton, then in his 40s, struggled to find a way to enlist in the military and contribute to the war effort.

Meanwhile, the Allied forces had lost many pilots to the harsh Arctic climate.  Pilots of the time who crash-landed in high latitude regions had inadequate training or gear to survive long enough to be rescued.   Going down in the far north was almost always a death sentence.

Recognizing Sutton’s extensive experience in far northern Canada, the US Army Air Corps finally agreed to take him on.  In 1942 he left for Officer Training in Florida and was commissioned as a Captain in May 1943.  Captain Sutton was then assigned to the Army Air Forces Arctic, Desert and Tropic Information Center in Minneapolis.  His job was to produce gear and training to help downed Arctic pilots.

One of his first tasks took him to Hollywood, where he worked with actors to write and produce a training film for pilots—How to Survive in the Arctic.  His work then took him to Manhattan and then Wright-Patterson Air Base in Dayton, Ohio.  There he contributed to a book the Army was preparing about life in the Arctic.  At the same time, he even got to fly north to help with a few real life rescue missions.

In the fall of 1944 Sutton was sent south to Orlando, where he developed a friendship with another veteran scientist, ornithologist and painter, Sergeant Roger Tory Peterson.  Sutton and Peterson would work and bird watch together on and off over the next year.

In early 1945 the Army sent Sutton north yet again, this time to Fairbanks, Alaska for a couple months to field test sleeping bags and snowshoes.  From there he went to Attu Island in the western Aleutians to test life rafts in the Bering Sea.

Throughout all this fieldwork Sutton continued observing birds, creating art, and collecting specimens on the side.  He published several scientific papers and magazine articles while on active duty, as well as editing Audubon Magazine.

For one of his last assignments, the army paired Sutton up with Sergeant Peterson to perform a short DDT experiment in Florida, examining the effects of the new pesticide on birds.

And then, that summer of 1945, the war ended.  Sutton, by then a Major, was discharged shortly therafter.

He worked at the University of Michigan for a few years, but struggled to find his new place in the world.  Then, in the summer of 1951 he taught a field course at the new University of Oklahoma Biological Station in southeast Oklahoma, the very same field station where I did my purple martin work last summer.  He, like many of us, fell in love with Oklahoma and a year later became a professor at OU.  He would spend the rest of his life here.

Though now a permanent southerner, he didn’t forget about the far north.  In 1958 he spent the summer in Iceland observing and painting birds, and published a book based on the experience.  The Icelandic government knighted Sutton for his work depicting and popularizing the country’s landscapes and bird life.

When he died many years later, Sutton’s ashes, according to his wishes, were scattered over Black Mesa at the western tip of the Oklahoma Panhandle.

Today George Sutton is a minor celebrity here at OU.  The building where I work is named after him, there’s a bust of him outside my office, there’s a successful Avian Research Center named after him in northeast Oklahoma, and scholarships in his name go to students every year for both artwork and ornithology research.

He was a great example of how there are many ways to be in the military, and to be a scientist, or both.

—George Miksch Sutton: Artist, Scientist, and Teacher. 2007. Jerome A. Jackson.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The prophet of San Jose

The woman sitting next to me on the bed was crying.  It was winter in early 2005.  Not that winter really meant much in coastal northern California.  I was in a hotel room with a few other Marines, a soldier, and four older women from Puerto Rico.

We—the guys—had decided to leave Monterey and drive up to San Jose for the weekend.  We ate at In-and-Out Burger, got a hotel room, and in typical young Marine fashion immediately busted out a few bottles of liquor and started drinking.

There was a knock at the door.  The soldier answered it and found an attractive older woman standing in the hall.

“Are you Bruce’s friend?” she asked.

Not in the least troubled that we had no inkling who Bruce was, the soldier quickly answered, “Yeah, we’re Bruce’s friends.”

“Ok, the party’s about to start upstairs.  Just knock on our door.”

“Alright, we’ll be there in a few minutes,” the soldier answered.

And so we went to the party.

The women were pharmaceutical sales reps from San Juan who were in California on a business trip.  They invited us in, pulled their alcohol stash from their luggage and mixed us some margaritas.  The oldest one had me sit beside her on the bed.  She turned and pleaded with alcohol loosened tears.

“I know you have to go to Iraq.  But please, do one thing for me when you’re there.  Promise me you won’t let it ruin you.  I can tell you have a good heart and a good soul.  Please, whatever you see and do over there, don’t let it ruin your heart.”

“Ok, I won’t,” I said quickly, a little uneasy at how emotional she had become.

“I’m serious.  You have innocent eyes, and I’d hate to see you lose that.”

I had been in the Marine Corps a little over a year and a half.  The war, which started just before I went to boot camp, had of course dragged on and intensified.  Just a few months earlier Marines had fought the grisly Second Battle of Fallujah, the bloodiest battle of the Iraq war and the worst urban combat Marines had seen since Vietnam.

As a linguist nearly finished with Arabic school, I knew Iraq would likely play a big role in my future.

It had been over a year since I hobbled into Monterey on injured feet after finishing Marine Combat Training.  I had been assigned to learn Arabic and a month later started school at the Defense Language Institute.

A senior Marine in my platoon gave me some advice.  Before joining the Marines he had been an engineering student (today he’s a Ph.D. candidate in Physics), and knew I had a physics background in high school.

“You like physics, right?  Well, Arabic is just like physics.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.  You know how in physics if you really understand the material you don’t have to bother remembering most of the formulas?  You just remember a few basic ones, and then during the tests you can re-derive on the spot any equation you need, without wasting time memorizing them.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.”

“Arabic is like that.  If you understand the grammar you don’t need to memorize words.  You can tell what new words mean based on how they’re formed, and you can invent new words and people will know what you mean.  I never study vocab.  I’d probably get better grades if I did, but I still have one of the highest GPAs in the platoon.”

I remembered that as I started my studies.  I would be at DLI for the next seventeen months.  While that was four times as long as I’d spent in boot camp and MCT combined (which was an overwhelming thought in itself), it seemed hardly enough time to master a language.  A language people would depend on me in a combat situation to know.

But the time did pass and I did learn Arabic, among other things.

Every day I’d wake up early and walk out to stand in formation with my platoon.  We’d make sure everyone was accounted for, pass word, and then I’d go to breakfast.

Class was all day, every day, from 8 to 3:30 with a break for lunch.  Our instructors were all native speakers.  I had two Iraqi teachers, three Egyptians, two Palestinians, a Sudanese guy, and a handful of others who came and went.  It was also my first time working with other services.  In my class of thirty students only two of us were Marines.  The rest were soldiers, sailors and airmen.  We spoke to our instructors only in Arabic.  We studied Middle Eastern culture, geography, history and politics, and watched Arabic news.

At the end of a full day of class I’d have another formation at the barracks and then platoon PT.  Occasionally I had to serve guard duty at the barracks on weekends, and every few months we had a field exercise.

It was a demanding schedule and I mostly focused on work, isolating myself in the evenings to read.  Nevertheless, to this day many of my closest friends are people I first met in Monterey over a decade ago.

Meanwhile, I also met my first Iraq veterans.  Sergeants and Staff Sergeants on their second enlistment trickled in from other fields to retrain as linguists or counterintelligence Marines.  They shared their stories and tried to prepare us for Iraq and Afghanistan.

An artillery Marine told of being cut off by Saddam’s troops in Al-Kut and having to fix bayonets in preparation for hand to hand combat.  An infantryman took shrapnel in his neck and couldn’t sleep at night.  Another infantry Marine, hailed as a liberator in southern Iraq, had been offered a local bride.  One Marine, returned to DLI for a second time to learn another language, had served as an Arabic linguist in Mosul.  There he had the heart wrenching task of comforting the grieving families of Iraqis who had been killed by allied bombs and bullets.

With these stories in mind, I steeled myself for the challenge of learning Arabic.  As senior Marines graduated I worked my way up to Fire Team Leader, Squad Leader and finally found myself Guide of my platoon.  I was promoted to Lance Corporal and then Corporal.  I did well in class and became the platoon Academic Coordinator.  I’d monitor the grades of the other Marines and tutor those who did poorly.  I ran an Arabic study group from my barracks room.

And then, just a couple months after the woman in the hotel room begged me not to lose my innocence, it was over.  The course ended and I received an Associate’s Degree in Arabic.  Of the thirty students who started in my class a year and a half before, seventeen of us graduated together.  Over forty percent didn’t make it through the rigorous course.

I graduated at the top of two combined classes of sixty students, was elected class speaker and delivered the commencement speech in Arabic.  In recognition of my accomplishment I was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal.  The award wasn’t combat related, and it’s not even my highest ranking medal.  But to this day it’s one of my favorites.  It was the first medal I ever earned for my own actions. Behind it lay a year and a half of concentrated focus and effort, not to mention a big chapter of my life.


After a year and a half of intense language training, my classmates and I graduated from Arabic school in Monterey

It was March 2005.  With my new language in hand and Monterey behind me, I headed east to my next adventure—Intelligence School in West Texas.  I was excited about graduating and moving on.  I was one step closer to actually performing the job to which I’d devoted myself.  As it turned out, I would be in Fallujah itself by year's end.

Yet I thought little of the warning in that San Jose hotel room.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Veteran scientist #19, J.B.S. Haldane

J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964)

British Army infantry officer 1914-1919.  Biologist, geneticist, mathematician and writer.


John Burdon Sanderson Haldane was one of the 20th century’s most prominent biologists.  He played pivotal roles in the development of several fields—from physiology to genetics to evolutionary biology—and to this day is one of the most widely quote biologists.  He was also a decorated combat veteran.  Unlike many veteran scientists his combat experiences are well documented, revealing that his military accomplishments were as diverse as his academic ones.

J.B.S. Haldane was born to a Scottish family and quickly showed talent in several areas.  As a child he excelled at reading, math, science and languages.  He learned four languages before leaving school—Latin, Greek, French and German—and published his first scientific paper at age 19 on haemoglobin function.  At first studying math, Haldane changed his major to classics and graduated from Oxford in 1914.

That summer, with the outbreak of WWI imminent, he volunteered for the British Army and became an officer in the famed Black Watch, a Scottish infantry regiment nicknamed the “Ladies from Hell” for their kilts.

That winter his unit deployed to France to fight the Germans, and Haldane was put in charge of a mobile explosives lab.  He and a group of a dozen enlisted men would design and build small bombs, as well as improvised shells to be used as trench mortars.  Then Haldane and his men would crawl through the no-man’s land between the lines and toss their creations into enemy trenches or machine gun emplacements.  His enthusiasm for the job earned him the nickname “Bombo” among his fellow soldiers.

He quickly earned a reputation for bravery, going on solo missions through no-man’s land until a superior forced him to take a Private with him.  One time he even rode a bicycle alone straight through the open, rightly calculating that his brazen behavior would stun the German soldiers long enough for him to get to cover.  His bravery and unconventional methods eventually drew the attention of Field Marshal Douglas Haig, commander of all British forces in France, who called Haldane the "bravest and dirtiest officer in my Army.”

Meanwhile, Haldane published his first genetics paper from the trenches, based on lab work he’d done before the war.  In it he provided the first demonstration of genetic linkage—the tendency for some traits to be inherited together because the genes encoding them occur near each other on the same chromosome—in mammals.  Until Haldane showed that it occurred in mice the phenomenon was known only from fruit flies.  He claimed, almost certainly correctly, to be the only officer of the regiment to publish a scientific paper from the front.

Three months into Haldane’s time at the front the Germans unleashed their first chemical weapon—chlorine gas canisters—against the French in Belgium.  Haldane’s father, a physiologist, was commissioned by the British government to invent a mask to protect troops from the terrible new weapons.  Within weeks J.B.S. Haldane was recalled from the front to help with his father’s gas mask research in another part of France.

Over the next few days J.B.S., his father and other researchers, by experimenting on themselves with small amounts of chlorine gas, quickly developed a working gas mask that could be distributed to troops.  J.B.S. was then sent back to the front to do field research on the German gas attacks.

On the way to his assignment, however, Haldane heard that his old unit was about to attack the German lines.  He decided to postpone his gas mask assignment to join his men for the attack.  Still suffering breathing problems from his chlorine gas exposure, Haldane charged through no-man’s land with the rest of the Black Watch.

The battle was a disaster.  No British objectives were achieved and the Germans inflicted heavy losses.  During the attack, which quickly bogged down, Haldane took command of a scattered platoon and pushed forward, but was soon knocked to the ground by an explosion.  He stood back up, gathered the platoon again and continued the attack, only to be blown up a second time.

The second explosion sent shrapnel through Haldane’s arm and torso.  He eventually got up and walked in a daze back to the rear, where a fellow officer spotted him wandering.  The officer loaded Haldane into an ambulance.  By strange chance, the ambulance driver turned out to be none other than the Prince of Wales and future King Edward VIII, who recognized Haldane from a meeting they’d had a year earlier.

The Prince drove Haldane to an aid station and after a series of operations Haldane found himself recovering with his family back in England.  That summer, after recovering from his wounds, Haldane volunteered to return to active duty, this time directing a bombing school in Scotland.  There he spent several months training officers and NCOs on how to use grenades and grenade launchers—both novel weapons at the time—and on how to teach the methods to their troops.

The following spring, 1916, Haldane was assigned to do intelligence work in Edinburgh, a job he thought was “silly.”  He longed to return to the Black Watch at the front.  In fall of that year he finally succeeded, and was sent to a battalion of the Black Watch in Iraq to fight the Turks.  After going ashore in Iraq he traveled up the Tigris from Basra to join the front somewhere south of Baghdad.  Once there he was appointed executive officer of a company and was also put in charge of the battalion’s snipers.

Haldane earned distinction helping to improvise new sniping techniques and methods for harassing the enemy.  He was soon given free reign to move his snipers around the area, picking off Turkish soldiers posted on the opposite bank of the Tigris.  Haldane described his time in Iraq as “war as the great poets have sung it,” believing he was “lucky to have experienced it.”

Early in 1917 his battalion crossed the Tigris and pushed back the enemy lines.  During the attack an airplane hangar filled with fuel and bombs caught fire.  Haldane gathered men to fight the blaze, and was soon blown up yet again, by an exploding British bomb, and took shrapnel in his leg.  He was taken to India that summer to recover.

During his recovery he did what war work he could—writing reports and doing minor intelligence work for the Army.  He also fell in love with the people and country.  He taught himself Urdu in the hospital, traveled as much as possible, and tried to adopt local customs.

After recovery from his Iraq wounds, in early 1918 Haldane was sent to another part of India to be an instructor at yet another bombing school.  There he saved a Corporal’s life by picking up and tossing away an armed rifle grenade that the man had improperly attached to his rifle.

But yet again Haldane ended up in the hospital, this time from jaundice, and was sent to the Himalayas and then to England to recover.  There he was attached to an intelligence unit for the last few months of the war.  After the war he briefly returned to his men at the Black Watch, then stationed in Ireland, and then left the Army in early 1919.

Haldane, like many combat veterans, had mixed feelings about his war experiences.  He recoiled from the horror and waste of war, but felt unfulfilled with the emptiness of civilian life.

“I enjoy the comradeship of war.  Men like war because it is the only socialized activity in which they have ever taken part.  The soldier is working with comrades for a great cause (or so at least believes).  In peace-time he is working for his own profit or someone else’s.”

Haldane devoted the rest of his exciting life to political causes, the popularization of science, and a long career of groundbreaking scientific research.  All this despite the fact that he never actually got a degree in any scientific field.

Among other things, he was an early founder of the field of population genetics and, along with another famous veteran scientist, Julian Huxley, helped bring about the modern evolutionary synthesis.  He also did research on statistics, physiology, the evolution of body size, and the chemical origin of life.  He wrote books, essays, and short stories.  During World War II he researched the physiology of living at high pressures as part of a government effort to help protect sailors on submarines.  Some have even proposed that he worked as a spy during that war.

Forever in love with India after his exposure to it during WWI, in 1956 Haldane finally emigrated there, partly as a form of political dissent from the policies of the British government.  He became an Indian citizen and worked at the Indian Statistical Institute, and died there from cancer eight years after his arrival.

Today he is remembered for his many timeless quotes about biology and life in general.  Here are just a few of his famous nuggets.

“Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

When asked in an interview if there was any character he could attribute to God based on his study of the world, he answered “an inordinate fondness for beetles.”

“No,” he wouldn’t give his life to save a drowning brother, “but I would to save two brothers or eight cousins.”

“There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god.”

To the end, Haldane remembered his combat time in France and Iraq.  Two years before his death, at age 70, he claimed that "I still hope to die in battle at the age of a hundred."

J.B.S. Haldane is remembered as one of our most witty and irreverent scientists, unafraid to challenge authority or conventional ideas.  He was no less brave and irreverent a soldier, fighting and surviving on two separate fronts during one of history’s bloodiest wars.


 —The Life and Work of J.B.S. Haldane, Ronald Clark
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Arabic it is

As an 18 year old Private First Class that fall of 2003, the farthest west I’d ever been was Enid, Oklahoma on a family trip as a child.  Then again, my mom liked to remind me that I was conceived in the Aleutian Islands—about as far west as a person can go.  So if you count womb time I suppose I had a little more geographical breadth than I gave myself credit for.

I’d been in the Marine Corps for four months.  I was with family and friends for only a week and a half of that time.  The friends I’d made in boot camp and MCT would not join me on this trip.  For the second time that year I was starting over from scratch.

The Defense Language Institute.  I would be a linguist.  I’d always had a talent for languages but had never translated in real life situations.  What was a real life situation for a Marine linguist?  What did they do?  My recruiters had little idea.  They just knew it was a good MOS.  I didn’t even know what language I would learn.

It was a Tuesday.  I flew from North Carolina to California.  At some point I transferred to a smaller prop plane that delivered me to the local airport in Monterey.  It was nearly midnight when I landed.  I took a cab to the Presidio, showed the gate guards my ID, and got directions to the Marine barracks.  I paid the driver, lifted my seabags from the trunk, and stepped into my new home.

Two young Marines sat at a table guarding the entrance.  They looked up from their magazines in surprise.  They were expecting me but thought I would arrive the next day.  They woke the Duty NCO, a Corporal.  He got me a blanket, sheets and a pillow from supply and put me up in an empty room.  I hung up my uniform, made my rack and went to sleep.

The next morning I put on my Alphas and went to the admin office to check in.  I met two other Marines who had also arrived the day before, from the west coast MCT.  The three of us waited nervously on a bench to be called in.  The hallway was busy.  Marines of all ranks shuffled by on their way to morning formation.

I’d never seen so many NCOs and we rushed to stand up and greet every Corporal, Sergeant, Staff Sergeant and Gunny that passed.  Most didn’t respond.  Worse, because of my poor eyesight I called one Marine by the wrong rank, promoting him from Sergeant to Staff Sergeant.  He froze, walked over and with one hand pulled on his lapel where his rank was pinned.

“What rank is this?  Do I look like a Staff Sergeant to you?  If you’re gonna greet someone you better get their damn rank right.”

I managed an “Aye, Sergeant” and he walked away.

Later that day, amid all the chaos of checking in, moving from office to office getting signatures, we were directed to a conference room.  We sat at a long table.  It was sunny and warm outside, and through the open windows we watched people in different uniforms walk down the street carrying briefcases and book bags.  I’d never worked with the Air Force or Army, and the only sailors I’d encountered until then were Corpsmen and medical people.  But here they all were mixed together on one base.

It was a far cry from the cold mud I’d left behind at Camp Geiger the day before.  What was this place?

Two Gunnies walked in.  The first, a man with thick glasses, put his hands on the table and leaned over to us.

“Which of you thinks you can beat a Navy SEAL?”

One Marine instantly raised his hand.  The other guy and I thought for a second. What kind of question is that?  Beat them how?

Before we could answer the Gunny launched into a lecture.

“Every year I take a group of Marines from this detachment on a field ex with a nearby SEAL team.  We help them train by playing the part of the enemy.  And we always win.”

The other Gunny, a calm mustached man, sat in the background while Glasses explained how he managed to trick the SEALs year after year, defeating them at their own game until they threatened to stop letting him and his Marines participate.

“So the two of you who don’t think you can beat a SEAL, you’ve got some thinking to do.”

I never said I couldn’t beat a SEAL, I thought.

“You’re here to become Marine linguists.  It’s a privileged job and if you do it right you’ll get to do things most Marines could never imagine.”

Then Mustache took over.

“I’ve been in this job for about ten years now and I wouldn’t want to do anything else.  Knowing a language opens up opportunities.  This is a small field.  It’s the type of job where people learn your name.  If you’re really good at it one day a man in civvies may walk up to you and slip you a business card that just says Johnny, and tell you to call him if you want an interesting mission.  That sort of thing happens to me pretty often.

“But you’ve got to be careful.  You’ve got to work hard and stay out of trouble.  If you screw up in this field you’ll miss out.  And that starts here at DLI.

“Think about it.  This place is almost like a college campus, with a lot of college aged people.  But unlike college students they all get a regular paycheck.  They have money in their pockets and they can get into even more trouble.  So be careful.

“Plus, this is Monterey, one of the nicest places in the country to live.  Movie stars pay millions of dollars to live here.  And you get paid to do it.  Appreciate that, take advantage of it, and don’t mess it up.”

The Gunnies told us what languages were offered and gave us forms to fill out.  They left us alone for a few minutes to list our top three preferences for languages to learn.

“In the end we’ll put you wherever we need you, but if you request a language we need we’ll try to give you what you want.  If you request Arabic or Korean you’ll probably get it.  After that it all depends.”

I don’t remember my second and third choice.  My first was Arabic.  To a Clevelander whose only foreign experience was an afternoon in southern Ontario it seemed exotic.  The Middle East, Islam, the Holy Land, ancient civilizations, One Thousand and One Nights, vast deserts and legendary rivers—Arabic would open this world to me.

How could I not request Arabic?

The Marine who thought he could beat a SEAL got Farsi and the other Marine got Russian.

And I got Arabic.