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After all the serious and depressing news about the environment, war and poverty, I thought it might be of some use to discuss something else. I was not going to discuss my personal life any further on this blog, but I thought that I would share a few other stories with the reader.

I am a retired professional biologist and because of that I have been fortunate enough to meet a number of interesting people and visit some fascinating parts of the planet. In the process a few misadventures occurred, although I generally limited them by following a dictum that originated with Marston Bates - the view that a expedition that has adventures is a badly planned one.

The first two stories I am going to recount actually happened in a museum, the invertebrate museum at the University of Arizona in which I, as a graduate student, was assistant curator for a while and earlier maintained an office there.  At the time I was studying the behavior of a group of spiders and I needed a steady supply of live insects to feed them. Fruit flies did well for the smaller spiders and I had a steady supply of them from old colonies in the genetics lab. Somebody told me that the Entomology Department (I was in the Biological Sciences Department) had cultures of the common house fly (Musca domestica) and so I went over to their building and visited their live insect room. They, very generously, gave me a batch of maggots and a bag of fly chow and I hauled the maggots and chow back to the museum.  I put the maggots in the chow in a dish pan and covered it temporarily with a screen, planning to build a fly cage soon.  I figured that I had a few days, but I miscalculated badly. The day I was going to build the cage I approached the museum door and notice that the louvers in the bottom of the door were dripping live house flies. They had matured, going through their pupal stage faster than I had thought, and when I opened the door it was to find clouds of flies filling the museum rooms!  What to do?  I quickly closed the louvers and went into town to buy fly paper.  I did not dare to use insecticides as my live spiders would have died.  I also picked up a large fly swatter.  Needless to say I spent the next few hours swatting and trapping flies, until the hoard had lessened to a few individuals.

Just down the hall from the museum was the office of the cell biology professor and as I passed his door he remarked on how bad the flies were. I thought fast!  "Yes," I said, "they are terrible.  So much so that I bought a batch of fly paper, which I will share with you."  "Oh,' said he, "I would be ever so grateful." I brought him the fly paper and decided that sometimes it is better to keep one's mouth shut, lest a fly enter.

My associated graduate students at the museum, before I was assistant curator, were a rowdy pair, who once picked me up in my office chair and dumped me out in the hall. They also engaged in a totally out of hand rubber band fight, that I finally joined in on, mostly to defend myself from flying rubber. However, the most outrageous stunt that they ever pulled was that during one evening they plastered the museum with Playboy center folds!  I came into the office the next day only to find Miss April hung on my book case and others staring at me from the aisles between specimen shelves, over and on the refrigerator and above their own desks. It was hard to get work done! Unfortunately for them one day when I was gone the Department Head paid a surprise visit and ordered the pinups to be taken down.  During my tenure they did not reappear, in part because by then we had several female assistants and in part because I had to maintain the museum's reputation.  

Probably my most, in hindsight, hilarious misadventure happened at the University of Florida when I was a zoology graduate student. At the time I thought that our group of students would certainly be reported to the department head or even the dean, but I  did not understand the tolerance of Florida students that existed in the area.  "Oh those are just crazy UF Gators" they probably said, and then turned their attention elsewhere. The story is below the fold.

At the time I was working a summer job assisting an entomology professor who was a specialist in aquatic moths (Yes, Virginia, there are moths that live underwater, at least as caterpillars.) One hot Florida summer day our boss (there were five of us working for him, plus a couple of other graduate students, who worked in an adjacent lab) said that he was going to be out of town for a few days and while he was gone would a couple of us take the state station wagon and drive up to Ichetucknee Springs and collect as much watercress as possible. The moth caterpillar that he was studying lived inside the stems of watercress. As soon as he was gone the other grad students decided that this was a good day to float down the Ichetucknee River and cool off.  Soon it was established that all the students (three men and three women) were going, leaving me the only person at the lab. This hardly seemed fair and so I was invited along too.  The next thing was to decide on how we would get there as we now had to take a boat, a canoe, and several floats to accommodate everybody.  So we took a private car, the university station wagon (which would have been used in any case,) and one of the student's motorcycle. All went well until we parked down at the end of the river run, but then we saw our folly! We had to transport six people in the university car up to the springs! That would have normally worked, but the backend of the station wagon was full of a small boat and several floats, and the canoe was on the luggage rack. The guy with the motorcycle, who, with his nearly white blond long hair and beard, looked for all the world like a statue of Moses (except for the torn teeshirt, cutoffs and sunglasses) would drive to the spring behind us. Now where to put the rest. One student was from Nigeria and he assured us that he was used to clinging from the back of busses in his home country, so he hung on to the luggage rack, with his feet on the rear bumper. One woman laid on her stomach in the boat.  However that left four people for the front two seats.  Another professor's graduate student was driving and that left me and two, now bikini-clad women to fill the other seat. What could I do?  I had to sit on the seat, with two women in bikinis on my lap!  We drove into Ichetucknee Springs in this condition and to my horror the entire population of North Florida seemed to be there to witness. What they saw was a university vehicle that pulled in with a black man hanging to the back, a woman's feet sticking out the back window, and me with two women in swimsuits on my lap.  The Moses-like arrival of the other grad student finished the scene!  It might not have been so bad if the side door of the blue vehicle had only University of Florida emblazoned there, but below this was the damning descriptive statement "Love Bug Research." The love bug is a numerous fly that is unfortunately attracted to automobile exhausts and clogs up radiators.  It gets its name from seemingly forever mating in pairs until they are squished on a window or grill.

However, nobody at the Springs seemed fazed and so we set out.  One of the women who had been on my lap, the Nigerian and I were shoved into the canoe.  As we were pushed out into the river I said "I hope one of you knows how to handle this canoe as this is the first time I have ever been in one."  I knew by their shocked stares that neither had they! We were pushed by the current down the river run sidewise until by chance we ran into a group of girl scouts and their scout master who were tubing down the run.  As we untangled ourselves from the girl scouts, I heard their leader say"You know, canoeing can be fun, IF YOU KNOW HOW TO DO IT!"  We learned fast!  Our technique was certainly unorthodox, but we eventually got the canoe to go straight down the run.

After taking up a seeming ton of watercress we reached the parked car and sent people up to retrieve the station wagon.  The next day it became my job to sift through the now odiferous watercress and I discovered ONE CATERPILLAR! We never told my supervisor and no one reported us.

Finally, when I was a post-doctoral student at  the university I was sent with an undergraduate woman to a research site in south central Florida.  We had finished our work and had just reached the end of the Florida Turnpike and paid our toll, when, as we rejoined a freeway, the car lost power. We coasted into a gas station and garage and called my post doc director.  An hour or so later, he arrived with his wife.  After negotiating with with the gas station owner, my boss said that he did not like the quoted price of repair and that he knew of a truck stop with a garage a mile to the east.  I pointed out to him that the car had no lights and that it was rapidly getting dark.  It did no good for me to object.  Of course I was elected to drive the car, which would barely reach 10 mph, to the garage.  I made it but I am to this day certainly not sure how.

The truck stop was a revelation.  I felt that we had gotten out of the real world and been transported to Mayberry R.F.D. The mechanic said just about what you would have expected of Gomer Pyle - everything but "Gooollyee.'  I had to later retrieve the car and then had to explain the university billing procedure to their bookkeeper (I doubt that they saw too many of our sort in their neighborhood.)  When she got to the name of our department she said "What's this here Entomoollogee and Neemotoology?"  I said, "Bugs and worms,"  which seemed to satisfy her.

Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Fri Jun 20, 2014 at 08:18 PM PDT.

Also republished by Backyard Science and Community Spotlight.

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