This spring I acted as a chaperone for a second grade class visiting a park to learn about the beach ecosystem. The 7 and 8 year olds learned about Florida alligators, peered through a telescope to view a nesting osprey in the top of a dead tree, and encountered the Snowy Egret.
When I first saw the Egret, I saw nothing particularly interesting about him. He was small, an apparently young wading bird doing what Egrets do, stilting into shallow water looking for minnows.
We had just learned how tiny the brain of an alligator was, and I thought the brain of this little bird couldn’t be much larger. But what I didn’t know was that it was capable of controlling the minds of eight year old humans.
Park Rangers, never passing up a chance to educate children, wanted to show the students how fish start off life in shallow water estuaries, like that surrounding St. Andrews Park located between St. Andrews Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Small fish grow up to be big fish, or else get eaten by bigger fish, which grow up to be eaten by us. It’s all part of the oftentimes short circle of life for fish species.
With education in mind, two rangers took a seine net into the water and scooped up a bounty of small fish, placing them into shallow plastic pans for the children to observe.
The children were then asked to identify as many of the small fish as they could using Ranger-provided identification charts.
In the meanwhile, I noticed that the bird was no longer looking towards the water for fish. The Egret started sizing up the children, and apparently decided upon a different plan of action; a mind-control plan of action. The children had a lot more fish in front of them than the bird did. How could he turn that situation around?
Perhaps he’d learned from past experience that eight-year old boys are more easily manipulated than eight-year old girls. He seemed to single out one of the older boys and locked eyes on him. Perhaps the boy’s sixth sense alerted him that he was the recipient of stares, because he turned away from the other children and stared right back at the telepathic bird. And then I heard the boy utter the words all little fish must instinctively know will bring their doom. “Let’s feed them to the bird!”
Being a biologist by training and heart, I attempted to save this sampling of the next generation of fish by saying, “No, the Rangers want the fish back in the water to grow up.”
The Rangers remained silent, perhaps having seen this scene play out before. And the children were deaf to my words, hearing only the words of the boy. What a great idea!, their young faces seemed to say. And in a matter of seconds young hands began plunging into the shallow trays, scooping up the hapless fish, carrying the youngsters in their cupped hands to toss into the water directly in front of the waiting bird.
Temporarily stunned by impact with the water, the fish lay immobile just long enough for the bird to clasp them in his beak and swallow them whole.
Admittedly, I was too stunned to capture a photograph of the slaughter. You will just have to use your imagination; it was all over for the young fish in a matter of seconds.
At the time I wondered if I should tell my grandchild that she had been manipulated by a bird with a pea-sized brain, but I’m sure those words would have been wasted, just as had been my plea to stop the slaughter.
Biologists spend careers studying interspecies communication, verbal and non-verbal. Well, this may well be an example of non-verbal communications between animals and humans.
Which leaves me to wonder: should the normally derogatory term “bird brained” really be a compliment?
Nature does not always provide good options. When faced with weather-related adversity, making the right decision can be as much a matter of luck as wisdom.
Homerville, Georgia is the home of some first-rate southern barbeque and home of one of the best genealogical libraries in the Southeast, the Huxford Geneological library. In June of 1975 I made an unintended stop at the Homerville Airport after flying my 1962 Cessna 150 from Thomasville, Georgia to Waycross, Georgia. My wife and Mother-In-Law were in Waycross, visiting, and on a Friday afternoon I took off in my 2-seater aircraft to meet my wife’s family 92 miles away.
As I approached Waycross a thunderstorm was directly on top of the field. The Waycross Fixed Base Operator confirmed they were being clobbered, so I made a 180 degree turn and flew 26 miles back to the Homerville airport that I had passed on the way in.
When I landed I found I was the only aircraft, and only human, on the field. But regrettably, there were no tie-downs, ropes or chains that I could use to secure the little Cessna while I found a phone to call my wife and tell her about the change in plans. The weather was good, and it should take only a few minutes to bother one of the nearby neighbors for a phone call. What could go wrong?
After I explained to my family where I was, I thanked the friendly lady who let me use her phone, and headed back to my aircraft. But as I approached the plane, the view at the other end of the runway was turning ugly. Another thunderstorm was headed straight for the field. And it was close, and mean-looking.
I climbed into the cockpit, started the engine, and sat there assessing what I was seeing out the windscreen. And thinking about options.
What I wanted to do was take-off and head for Waycross. I was not at all prepared to abandon my airplane and watch it be destroyed by the approaching storm. As I considered the fact that I would be taking off towards a thunderstorm, I thought of riding out the gusts on the ground, using the engine power and rudder to keep the plane pointed into the wind. But as I throttled the engine and rudder back and forth, reacting to the increasing gusts, I realized the 1000 pound plane would inevitably be picked up, with me in it, and dashed to the ground. It would not be a pretty sight, especially if it was lifted to a significant height by updrafts before being dropped.
The wind ahead of the thunderstorm rain shaft was picking up, gusting, and as I weighed the different options, the storm kept getting closer, closing my window of opportunity. As they say, the clock was ticking.
Finally, I decided I’d rather be airborne, in some semblance of control, than being airborne out of control. The storm was not yet on the field, but I knew I had scant seconds before the cloudy violence would make an escape impossible. I pressed hard on the brakes, dropped my flaps one notch, pushed the throttle full in, and when the engine was roaring as loudly as a 100 horse power engine can roar, I let go of the brakes and started my takeoff roll.
Thanks to the advantage of straight-down-the-runway storm winds, I lifted off very quickly. I stomped a rudder pedal and dipped a wing to turn as fast as I could away from the storm, passing over the roofs of nearby houses much closer than the residents were used to, I’m sure. But the plane was fully in control and headed quickly towards safety.
Although the storm winds were actually helping to push me away, I felt an occasional shudder from the back of the plane. I imagined the storm shaking me in its jowls, plucking at my wings with its sharp talons, as if angry that I had escaped its clutches.
I made it safely to Waycross, but my aircraft’s escape was short-lived.
If there were such a thing as a Storm Monster, I would think that it was malevolent, because exactly two weeks after that incident another thunderstorm hit the field in Waycross, where the plane was supposedly safely chained down. I was on the field as a vengeful storm snapped the steel chains holding down my plane’s tail, flipping the plane over on its back, crushing the tail. My little bird never had a chance.
I had risked my life in Homerville to avoid watching my beautiful bird be destroyed, only to see it destroyed in the same manner only a fortnight later.
We tell our children there are no monsters … but I’m not so sure.
I’ve decided to invent a new series of non-controversial flags for all 50 states of the United States of America.
I began with a plain white flag. Not much to be controversial about there. (By the way, I was not the first to think of that.)
Then I proposed adding to each state flag the two letter state identifier used for our postal system. We’ve been using those for decades, so again, no controversy.
For instance, the Florida flag would be white with FL in the middle of it. If the state is really proud of itself, it could be a big, bold FL. If they’re a little embarrassed by, oh I don’t know, crime rates, hate crimes, voter apathy, or whatever, they could use smaller letters, and maybe not bolded. The voters could decide.
But voters would not get a choice on the overall design. Two white letters on a pure white background – that is the state flag formula.
Of course I tried this idea out on a focus group made up of mixed gender identity, mixed ethnic, educational level, and mixed financial levels. I even took care to keep the test group evenly divided among political parties.
And that’s when the trouble began.
Unfortunately there were many, many complaints, but I’ll only mention some of the more interesting ones; all based oddly enough on the Periodic Table of the Elements.
Take my state of Florida or example. FL stands for Florida of course, but the “F” in it represents the element Fluorine, a chemical which I believe has strengthened my teeth since childhood. But some believe it is a toxic chemical dumped into our water supply by all levels of government, (county, city, state and federal) to poison Americans. [Google it. I will not provide a link to those websites.] I’m highly skeptical of that notion, but I wouldn’t want to offend them by forcing them to look at “Fl”uorine on their flag.
And then there’s Florida’s neighboring state, Alabama. AL can stand for Alabama, but it also is the symbol for aluminum. Aluminum is cheap and not very strong. Some Alabamians don’t like that word association, even though it’s been on their U.S. mail since 1963.
AR for Arkansas also means Argon, a narcotic gas. Some didn’t want to be associated with stoners.
GA for Georgia is also gallium. Gallium melts at approximately body temperature, which was too troublesome of an association for those who are still pained by Sherman’s March to the Sea through Georgia. A melting-in-the heat mineral connotes weakness, which Georgians certainly don’t want their flag suggesting.
CA for California, also stands for calcium, a component of lime, which is basically crushed limestone. Water and carbon dioxide react to form acidic water that dissolves limestone. With an atmospheric carbon dioxide rise and global warming, some apparently fear that acid rain will dissolve their state, leaving nothing but caverns leading straight to geological fault lines. Even though I don’t think there’s an awful lot of limestone in California (certainly not like Florida), some just don’t concern themselves with the facts. Apparently, for them this fear is too horrendous to contemplate, so CA is out as far as a state flag goes.
MT stands for Montana, or Meitnerium. I must admit I wouldn’t have thought of that one, but apparently some apologist did. I was quite surprised to find out that Meitnerium was created by Germans after a week of bombardment of bismuth with iron. The notion of Germans bombarding anything with iron for a week was simply too painful for those who had survived the Nazi bombardment of Russia and Poland. Apparently some take the analogy very seriously. The MT flag had to go.
Louisiana, or LA, is also Lanthanum, which in Greek means “escapes notice”. It is soft enough to be cut with a knife. It was reported that students from the LSU Chemistry Department strongly objected to being compared to a soft, highly reactive, and hardly noticed element. I guess I can see their point.
PA or “Protactinium” sounded like an interesting element synonymous with Pennsylvania. That is until someone pointed out the following from the Los Alamos Periodic Table of the Elements. “Because of its scarcity, high radioactivity and high toxicity, there are currently no practical uses for protactinium other than that of basic scientific research, and for this purpose, protactinium is generally extracted from spent nuclear fuel.” OK, I get it. There is basically nothing in that sentence that would be a point of pride for Pennsylvanians.
Why does this have to be so hard?
Not far away geographically or chemically from PA is MD, or Mendelevium. That element is named after Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian Chemist who apparently invented the (or maybe “a”) Periodic Table. He is certainly a noteworthy man to help us remember the state of Maryland (MD), but ever since Vladimir Putin went on the offense in Eastern Europe, no state wants to be associated with anything Russian. I can understand that.
Then there is Indiana, or Indium. Now who could find anything to complain about either Indiana or Indium? Well, lo and behold, someone read that Indium gives out a high-pitched “cry” when bent, somewhat like a little girl I suppose. That discovery immediately condemned it as being sexist, mocking our youngest young ladies.
Really? This is getting ridiculous.
There were a few flags that were not deemed objectionable by anyone. For example, MN stands for Minnesota, or Manganese, as in deep-sea manganese nodules. No one objected to MN, so Minnesota, I guess your flag stands. The same went for SC, South Carolina, or Scandium; no objection. Then there was CO for Colorado, or Cobalt, and MO for Missouri or Molybdenum.
Ironically, people have been writing these state initials on their stationary for years and no one objected. However place the same initials on a state flag and someone gets offended; which is a fact that puzzles me. You see no one salutes a state flag. No one pledges allegiance to it. It has no power, no meaning. If you don’t like my flag, make up your own!
To be fair and all-inclusive, I thought about alternative flag designs that might appease everyone. Suppose we just number the states in the order in which they entered the union (ratified the Constitution). The first four would be Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Georgia. But of course some highly competitive New Yorkers might be miffed that Georgia, a Southern State, entered the Union before New York did. And we can’t have any New Yorkers miffed.
So then I considered a random number generator. Your state might be State 87.42 and the adjoining state might be 91.82. That was a fine idea until I considered that the same problematic scientists who fussed over their concerns with a Periodic Table of the States would question how truly random was the random number generator.
It exhausts me to think of the possibilities.
So, if I was King for a Day I would simply say this is how it will be: All states will have white flags with two letter state identifiers. If someone doesn’t like it, then burn it, deface it, walk on it; I don’t care. It has no meaning except to let people know what state they’re in. And if that’s a problem, if people really don’t know what state they’re in, then using my powers as King for a Day I’d give everyone a free GPS.
“It was a gorgeous day to jump from a perfectly good airplane. I, Mickey McGurn, was good at it, and I got paid well to do it.
But one day I got careless.
It was 1927, and parachute jumping was a new thing on the barnstorming circuit. It made people catch their breath when I jumped out of airplanes. They just knew they were going to see me fall straight to my death.
I would gather the parachute in my arms, without packing it, bundle it into the cockpit, and go aloft for a jump.
One day a number of my barnstorming friends protested at the way I handled the parachute. But I told them to mind their own business.
“Forget it,” I said. “I built this thing myself and I know what it’ll do.”
Well, I might have been wrong about that, because one day the ‘chute didn’t work. It opened only about a quarter of the way and I fell to the ground with a terrific speed. Those folks who were waiting to see me die almost got more than they bargained for.
Folks told me I bounced at least 10 feet into the air, but I don’t remember anything after I hit the ground.
The doctors said I broke pretty much every bone in my body, but obviously I lived, sort of.
I’m now hobbling around on crutches. I’m deaf, nearly blind, and can’t taste my food, or enjoy any of the things I used to.
My bones have healed, sort of, but not the way they were when I was a cocky young fool who felt invincible.
I guess I should have listened to my friends. They realized I was courting disaster, but I was too proud, or arrogant, or just plain stupid to notice it.
But they were right.
I suppose that no matter what you do, whether it’s racing cars, jumping out of airplanes, or walking on the bottom of the ocean, your friends are usually better at telling when you’re getting careless than you are.
I guess it’s similar to the way a friend can usually tell when you’re drunk before you can.
The above is a fictional version of an actual accounting by one aviation daredevil named Mickey McGurn, given to a newspaper reporter for the Syracuse American. The short piece appeared in the Sunday edition under a section called the “World of Aviation”. The publication date was February 26, 1928. The writer was Gordon K. Hood, a feature writer who penned several aviation-themed chapters for the paper, a collection of mini-stories such as this one, collectively called “Sprouting Wings”. Mr. Hood was himself quite an accomplished early aviation pioneer, as recounted in a 1939 edition of the Syracuse Journal.
I have taken the time to paraphrase this story due to its applicability to many potentially hazardous endeavors. Safety risks are not always noticeable to those at greatest risk.
The actual article is found below. It, and a full page copy of the 1928 newspaper page, was provided to the present author by Mr. Douglas Barnard, presently from Waldorf, Maryland.
There is nothing quite like a heart attack and triple bypass surgery to get your attention.
Even if you’ve been good, don’t smoke, don’t eat to excess, and get a little exercise, it may not be enough to keep a heart attack from interrupting your life style, and maybe even your life.
Post-surgical recovery can be slow and painful, but if you have an avocational passion, that passion can be motivational during the recovery period after a heart attack. There is something about the burning desire to return to diving, flying, or golfing to force you out of the house to tone your muscles and get the blood flowing again.
My return to the path of my passions, diving and flying, began with diet and exercise. My loving spouse suggested a diet of twigs and leaves, so it seemed. I can best compare it to the diet that those seeking to aspire to a perpetual state of Buddha-hood, use to prepare themselves for their spiritual end-stage: it’s a state that looks a lot like self-mummification. Apparently those fellows end up either very spiritual or very dead, but I’m not really sure how one can tell the difference.
The exercise routine began slowly and carefully: walking slowly down the street carrying a red heart-shaped pillow (made by little lady volunteers in the local area just for us heart surgery patients). The idea, apparently, is that if you felt that at any point during your slow walk your heart was threatening to extract itself from your freshly opened chest, or to extrude itself like an amoeba between the stainless steel sutures holding the two halves of your rib cage together, that pillow would save you. You simply press it with all the strength your weakened body has to offer against the failing portion of your violated chest, and that pressure would keep your heart, somehow, magically, in its proper anatomical location.
I am skeptical about that method of medical intervention, but fortunately I never had occasion to use it for its avowed purpose.
Eventually I felt confident enough to ditch the pillow and pick up the pace of my walks. In fact, I soon found I could run again, in short spurts. It was those short runs that scared the daylight out of my wife, but brought me an immense amount of pleasure. It meant that I might be able to regain my flying and diving qualifications.
After that teaching adventure, I prepared myself for the grinder that the FAA was about to put me through: a stress test. Not just any stress test mind you, but a nuclear stress test where you get on a treadmill and let nurses punish your body for a seeming eternity. Now, these nurses are as kindly as can be, but they might well be the last people you see on this Earth since there is a small risk of inducing yet another heart attack during the stress test. Every few minutes the slope and speed of the treadmill is increased, and when you think you can barely survive for another minute, they inject the radioisotope (technetium 99m).
With luck, you would have guessed correctly and you are able to push yourself for another long 60-seconds. I’m not sure exactly what would happen if you guess incorrectly, but I’m sure it’s not a good thing.
And then they give you a chance to lie down, perfectly still, while a moving radioisotope scanner searches your body for gamma rays, indicating where your isotope-laden blood is flowing. With luck, the black hole that indicates dead portions of the heart will be small enough to be ignored by certifying medical authorities. (An interesting side effect of the nuclear stress test is that you are radioactive for a while, which in my case caused a fair amount of excitement at large airports. But that’s another story.)
The reward for all the time and effort spent on the fabled road to recovery, is when you receive, in my case at least, the piece of paper from the FAA certifying that you are cleared to once again fly airplanes and carry passengers. With that paper, and having endured the test of a life-time, I knew that I’d pass most any diving physical.
Having been in a situation where nature dealt me a low blow and put my life at risk and, perhaps more importantly, deprived me of the activities that brought joy to my life, it was immensely satisfying to be able to once again cruise above the clouds on my own, or to blow bubbles with the fish, in their environment. Is there anything more precious that being able to do something joyful that had once been denied?
Without a doubt, the reason I was able to resume my passions was because I happened to do, as the physicians said, “all the right things” when I first suspected something unusual was happening in my chest. The symptoms were not incapacitating so I considered driving myself to the hospital. But after feeling not quite right while brushing my teeth, I lay down and called 911. The ambulance came, did an EKG/ECG, and called in the MI (myocardial infarction) based on the EKG. The Emergency room was waiting for me, and even though it was New Years’ eve, they immediately called in the cardiac catheterization team. When the incapacitating event did later occur I was already in cardiac ICU and the team was able to act within a minute to correct the worsening situation.
Had I dismissed the initial subtle symptoms and not gone to the hospital, I would not have survived the sudden onset secondary cardiac event.
The lesson is, when things seem “not quite right” with your body, do not hesitate. Call an ambulance immediately and let the medical professionals sort out what is happening. That will maximize your chances for a full and rapid recovery, and increase the odds of your maintaining your quality of life.
It will also make you appreciate that quality of life more than you had before. I guarantee it.