Why I haven’t been writing much

I haven’t been writing much lately. I’ve had some big changes in my life, including a move, and the death of my mother, who I was very close to. I’ve been in a real funk and have had trouble finding the motivation to do much of anything.

My mom had an interesting life. Since she was young, she was involved in the performing arts. She sang opera on the radio when she was a teen. The station advertised her as a ‘German Diva’, in spite of the fact that she had no German heritage. She taught ballroom dancing at Arthur Murray‘s dance studio. After she married my dad, she performed at night clubs, and was very active in community theater, usually playing the female lead in such plays as “Brigadoon”, and “Milk and Honey” (the only two I, as a young kid, have memories of viewing her in). In a chorus, she once performed at Carnegie Hall. She gave guitar and voice lessons, both privately and at after school and summer programs.

I remember her being the music director at a YMHA camp that I attended. It was embarrassing at times because my fellow campers would talk about her without knowing that I was her son (because I didn’t want that to become public knowledge). Because she was a tough, strong woman, sometimes not everything that I heard would be flattering, so one day I just had to say it, “You know, that’s my mom.”One thing I learned is that you should NEVER have your mom as a teacher (she was harder on me than on anyone else, of course). That’s when I

One thing I learned is that you should NEVER have your mom as a teacher (she was harder on me than on anyone else, of course). That’s when I decided that maybe the guitar and I were not a good match. She tried teaching ballroom dancing to me and my friends before my Bar Mitzvah, and that also was equally trying. Don’t get me wrong — I always had a close relationship with my mother. But that doesn’t mean that she never drove me nuts. Hey, she was my mom — and that’s part of the job description.

My grandfather had taught me how to read before I was in grade school, and I would devour books on a daily basis. I was an incredibly voracious reader. Anyway, I was done with children’s books. My grandfather was giving me boxes and boxes of assorted books that he had found abandoned while working in the NYC Subway system (he was a carpenter and helped build and maintain the subway system). My fondest memory of my mother was when she brought me to the library — I don’t know how old I was — maybe 9 or 10. I was a very precocious child. While I was looking for my next book to read in the adult section, a librarian yelled at me and told me I had to go to the children’s section, which was downstairs. I was done with all of those thin, shallow books that other kids my age were reading. I wanted to read Asimov’s Foundation, and Clarke’s Childhood’s End, and Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar. Anyway,  my mom overheard the librarian chastising me, and yelled at him. “How dare you tell my child what he can and can’t read”. My mom was never much of an intellectual, and maybe she didn’t always understand me. But I knew she was always there to stand up for me and to set an example that I should stand up for myself.

In her later years, she worked in nursing homes, always entertaining the residents and leading art and music classes. Even after her voice went (which happens with age), she loved music — even though our taste in music didn’t always overlap, it was something we had in common. I might not like opera, and show tunes were not my normal fare. But we both enjoyed Paul McCartney and the Beatles, and Paul Simon, and Joni Mitchell. I even introduced her to Bruce Springsteen, and The Who, and The Rolling Stones, all of whom she enjoyed… on occasion (even if they weren’t her favorites).

I moved from Ohio to take care of her when my dad died. The last couple of years, she was bedridden in a nursing home, after a fall cracked her spine. I would see her almost every week, to bring her eggrolls or whatever food it was she wanted, tell her about a movie I had just seen, or we’d discuss a TV show we both liked (we both loved “Game of Thrones”, for example), and I’d eat lunch with her and tell her the highlights of my week (I tried not to burden her with the lowlights). And then she got Pneumonia, and eventually died in her sleep.

Anyway, I’m going to try to start writing again. I feel like I shut down a bit in the past couple of weeks. The reality of her death didn’t actually hit me full on at first. It was only after missing a couple of weekly visits that it all really hit me. She wasn’t perfect, and she’d be the first to admit that. But she was strong, and still sending me requests for chinese food up until the end. I just wanted to share that.

My Thoughts After the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election

I moved recently, so I currently have a backlog of books to review that I haven’t gotten around to. I thought when things quieted down, that I’d eventually go through them, but after last night, the only thing I can think of is what happened in our nation.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m an unapologetic liberal deep in my bones. The roots of my beliefs stem from both my upbringing and things I’ve witnessed over time. I grew up believing that my neighbors — who I perceived as people like me, shared my values… Sure, I’d traveled to the south on family vacations in the ’60s and ’70s, driving through rural parts of the country, and being lectured to by my parents to not mention anything to anyone that would lead them to believe that any of us were Jewish — although I didn’t understand why at the time, that this was an era of lynchings and murdered NAACP workers. I was raised with people like Martin Luther King, Jr. as one of my heroes. My best friends, when I lived in the Bronx, were a girl who was the daughter of Hungarian immigrants who had fled communism, the son of a mixed-race couple (who I found out years later had lots of problems because he was not fully accepted by black or white people in his schools), and the son of a Japanese businessman. But it wasn’t until  I witnessed a race riot in front of my house, that I realized that I really didn’t know anything about my neighbors.

There was this guy, a neighbor, who was in the same grade as me, also who played little league. We really traveled in different circles, but we’d still say hi to each other. He was friendly and an all-around nice guy. I remember hitting a double off of him in Little League when he was pitching (to this day, I’m not sure if he purposefully went easy on me). A few of his friends, who lived down the block, really didn’t like me for whatever reason, so we didn’t socialize). Anyway, his family was moving, and somehow news got out that the prospective buyer for his house was a black family. Note that they wouldn’t have been the first black family in our neighborhood — I knew one guy from High School, who wrote poetry for our literary magazine, and who was a dancer (he was destined to study dance in college, against his father’s wishes), who lived on the outskirts of the neighborhood, but I suspect they were invisible to a lot of people.Anyway, one evening after the news had gotten out, a mob gathered in front of our mailbox

Anyway, one evening after the news had gotten out, a mob gathered in front of our mailbox. They were angry and there was shouting. I remember my mom and dad telling my brother and I that we should stay in the house. My dad (as imperfect and human as he was, knew how irrational what was going on was — sidenote, he was very proud of the fact that he had been honored by a church in Harlem and asked to speak to their congregation — a Jewish lawyer speaking in Harlem. So that should give you some idea of where he stood.Anyway, my dad went outside and did his best to calm people down.

Anyway, my dad went outside and did his best to calm people down. But by then, someone had already vandalized my friend’s family’s car and had thrown a brick through their window. Since then, I’ve never assumed that I knew what was in the hearts of my neighbors, that we are all, for the most part, fair people willing to give strangers the benefit of the doubt regardless of their race, or religion or ethnicity or heritage. Since that time, I’ve witnessed, and have even been a victim of bigotry of various kinds. But that was the first incident that made me realize that bigotry wasn’t just something that happened elsewhere, in other countries or in other parts of our country.

Which brings me to President-elect Donald Trump… I wish I could say that I was surprised by the support he received from hate groups and that he did not speak out against them, by his supporters persecution of Jewish journalists who did not support him, by the fact that people rallied around his hateful statements about Mexicans and Muslims and women, and his making fun of physical handicaps. Because I’ve known about our big national secret for years, that our nation has always had an undercurrent of hatred for foreigners, in spite of us being a nation of immigrants, a hatred of anyone who’s out of work and simply needs a helping hand, in spite of the fact that in most cases, those people paid for their safety net, a hatred of anyone who’s simply different.

It pains me to know that many hate-filled people will now take the results of our election as reassurance that their hate speech and hateful acts are mainstream, that they are ‘ok’, that the American people joined with them on election day to let them know that their hatred is now acceptable. Good job, America. Well done.

This is something that I’ve seen the signs of for years. I know that there are people who are shocked by this. I’m not. I did have hopes, based on the fact that there were Republicans who went with their conscience, instead of their party, that there were people who realized that a vote against Trump was a vote against hatred and racism. There wasn’t enough of us, though. The only good thing that might come out of this is that people will eventually come to their senses when we see what kind of country they have voted for, the way they eventually did when GWB was elected. Unfortunately, it would have been better to make the right choice to begin with than to learn from experience.

Richard Feynman

Feynman_2553738bA couple of weeks ago, I started giving some talks — I’m not going to go into any detail about where or why. The talks are basically very brief anecdotes of things in science that I find fascinating. I don’t know all of the subjects I talk about that well, so I do research first, but they are usually things that I’m aware of at least on a superficial level. They aren’t meant to go into any great detail, which is good for me since I’m trying to learn stuff also, as I do them. Anyway, I thought I’d share the one I’m planning on giving next week. Instead of talking about something from science, I’m going to talk about a person who I actually met way back when I was in college. Although some of this can be found in his autobiography, all three of the Los Alamos anecdotes were told to us at a dinner party at Page House at Caltech back around 1980 (give or take), where Mr. Feynman was our guest. The rest, I simply got from his Wikipedia page.

“Instead of my usual science anecdote, I decided instead to talk about an actual scientist, someone who I met back when I was in College, and who was considered to be one of the most brilliant Physicists alive, at least until his death from Cancer back in 1988. But instead of focusing on his scientific achievements, many of which are completely beyond me, and I could never really explain them to you. Instead, I’m going to focus on him as a person.

Richard Feynman was born May 11, 1918, in Queens, NY. His IQ was nothing extraordinary, but at age 15, he taught himself Trigonometry, Advanced Algebra, Infinite Series, Analytic Geometry, and both differential and integral calculus. He applied to Columbia for college but was refused because of a quota they had of Jewish Students. Instead, he attended MIT, where he studied Physics. Before he even graduated, he had already published two papers in Physics journals, and his paper on Cosmic Rays was even quoted by one of the great physicists of the day, Werner Heisenberg. All this before he got his degree.

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, was recruited to Los Alamos to work on Uranium enrichment for what would become the Manhattan Project. I got to meet Feynman years later when he was a dinner guest at my student house at Caltech (where he was teaching at the time).

Richard-Feynman-KF012575-Corbis-1725x810_26895One of the many stories he told us was about how bad the security was at Los Alamos. The whole base was surrounded by a fence with barbed wire. Unfortunately, there was a big, gaping hole in the fence that virtually everyone, except for the MPs knew about. Being a practical joker, he decided to illustrate the vulnerability by playing a joke on them. He would sign out to leave the base, sneak back in through the hole in the fence, and then immediately sign out again. He repeated this until the MPs figured out that something was wrong, and only then did he explain the problem.

feynman-letter-to-wifeAnother story he told was with regards to the safes that all of the higher ups had in their offices to store classified documents. One thing he noticed was that nearly everyone when they received a safe, would leave the combination at the default setting, which would usually be 0-0-0.  Also, one other vulnerability he found was that people would always leave their safes open while they were in the office. What most people did not know was that Feynman’s father had been a locksmith so he had picked up a whole lot about locks of all kinds while he was growing up. One thing he could easily do is to look at the open safe and be able to tell immediately what the combination was.  So, of course, instead of telling people about the vulnerability, he played another little joke on them – leaving notes in the sealed safes with the message, “Guess Who?”.

Newcomers to Los Alamos would quite often, late at night, hear the pounding of bongo drums coming from the desert. Such people would always ask about that, and the response would usually be “Oh that’s just crazy Feynman”.

large_pwADoLVt7sO79V9HtTUKLNSPTEtIf you want to hear more stories about Feynman, you can read the first half of his Autobiography, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman (Adventures of a Curious Character), it’s sequel What do you Care What Other People Think, or see the film “Infinity”, in which he and his wife were played by Matthew Broderick and Patricia Arquette – it tells about his experiences at Los Alamos, and about the relationship with his wife, who was dying of Tuberculosis while he was working there. Or, if you want, I can tell you more stories next time.”

On Death

Last night, I found out that someone I knew and considered a friend, but haven’t seen in about 10 years or so, died of cancer. His name was Joe.

When I was living in Jacksonville, Florida, working as a programmer, I was very unhappy. Note that I had not been diagnosed yet with Depression. But I was bored with my job, which I had been doing for 10 years or so, with only a few changes here and there. I loved the apartment I was living in, but didn’t have any real friends there. Plus I really didn’t like a lot of things about Jacksonville (though they throw a really cool Blues festival  right next to the Beach every year, and if you are ever in the neighborhood, I recommend it).

Anyway, I got a phone call one day from a headhunter, saying that, essentially, they had a job opportunity in Columbus, Ohio, that fit my qualifications perfectly.. I said I was interested (I couldn’t wait to get out of Jacksonville, really). Joe was one of the people who talked to me on the phone. As it turned out, they didn’t want me for that particular job, but told me that they did want to hire me for a different position, but I’d have to wait a couple of months. Sure enough, 2 months passed, and they contacted me again, they flew me up to Columbus, and then hired me

Joe was a great boss, and this was the type of job that comes around once in a lifetime, if you are lucky. So I’m forever grateful for Joe hiring me.  He had a strange sense of humor, but he joked around all the time. Everyone under his watch was very casual with one another.  We all became friends, and respected one another. Joe and I didn’t agree on everything, but we had a mutual respect for one another, so our disagreements were never serious. He was a smart guy, a guy that everyone respected. So after he moved on to another job, and he contacted me to tell me that he wanted to hire me again, I had to say yes.  I felt really flattered that he wanted to hire me a second time. That job didn’t work out quite as well, partly because I wasn’t really doing any programming, and what I was working on was thoroughly frustrating and irritating and I hated it. And also partly because, through no fault of Joe’s, my life was starting to fall apart. My Dad’s deteriorating health (due to Alzheimer’s and Cancer), plus a series of unrelated events that left me feeling isolated and unhappy.

Even though I hadn’t seen Joe for 10 years, I feel bad for his family — his wife who lost a husband, and his kids who lost a father. And I feel bad for everyone else who knew him, who considered him a friend, for their loss as well.

The Knife

I attended Ramapo Sr. High School in the years 1975 to 1978.  It was a school with a pretty good reputation — certainly not perfect.  We had our share of bad teachers, certainly a few troublemakers among the students.   But, for the most part, those were good years for me, particularly after the hell that was my Jr. High experience.  I had a small circle of friends who shared a love for some of the same things — science fiction, computers, board games, going to conventions.  And we were all good kids, with a decent, if not perfect, study ethic.  And we all aspired to going to a good college, maybe getting scholarship.  Keep in mind that this is back when the government actually considered it a good thing to have a well-educated citizenry.

I was in the school library, at one of these desks they had set towards the back.  I think that I was working on a paper for my history class — I have no idea what the subject was. The library was just about empty, except for the librarian, and some random student that he was helping..  I know that this has to be time distorting my memory, but when I try to envision it, the small desk I was at, working with my books was miles away from the front, where the librarian was — in my mind, the library was huge, but the front desk, where the librarian was, was so tiny because of how far away it was.

I remember there was some noise — a couple of kids who I didn’t recognize came in at the front.  I totally ignored them as I was digging through the books I had assembled at my desk.  To this day, I could not recognize them.  They’ve always been faceless in my mind, a couple of punks looking to have a good time in the library.  And I was alone in the back — they didn’t single me out because of anything in particular.  Ramapo was a big enough school that its no surprise that I didn’t know these guys.  I doubt that they knew me either.  I’m 100% sure that we travelled in different circles, probably never even shared a lunch hour, much less a class.

So there I was studying, and next thing I know, one of the guys came up from behind me with a knife.  The second punk grabbed me.  They were laughing, having a good old time.  I struggled and got my arms free.  And when I did so, I felt the knife pressed up against my throat.  I’ve heard other people describe the feeling — I’m not sure if my memory of those other stories were true, or from fiction.  But I’d heard that the steel felt cold against their skin.  I can only envision warmth.

I grabbed at the arm that held the knife, and I managed to push it away, but then the other guy grabbed me again, and I was struggling against both of them.  To this day, I’ve speculated why I didn’t feel fear — maybe it was the adrenaline.  Maybe I was hardened by the bullying I’d experienced through the entirety of my Jr. High School experience.  Maybe the reality of the situation never actually hit me.  Maybe it was a combination of all of those things.  In retrospect, I could have died.  I like to think that those kids had no intention of actually harming me, that they just thought it was fun.  But I felt like I surprised them by fighting back.

I have no idea how long the incident lasted.  Probably it was no more than 30 seconds, but it could have been as long as 5 minutes.  At some point, I decided that it would be a good idea to make some noise.  I talked back to them from the start, but I decided to be a lot louder, and eventually I heard a loud “Shush!” from the librarian.  This sudden attention scared the punks, and they rapidly made their exit.

I don’t know why I never reported the incident.  I just didn’t.  Part of it was that I couldn’t describe the guys faces.  The whole time, I was focused on that knife.  I never wondered why.  These guys were bullies, and I’d dealt with bullies before.  But they were different than the bullies I’d dealt with in Jr. High.  The bullying never previously involved an actual physical confrontation.  And somehow, the fact that it was physical made it better in my mind.  Had I been attacked in Jr.High, that actually would have been better.  Being ostracised, being made the butt of jokes, being made fun of — that was worse.  It seems weird, and certainly it’s because I never actually got hurt, and because I fought back and because I scared off my attackers… but assault with a knife was no where near as bad an experience.

Anyway, I don’t talk about this experience much.  I’ve been in therapy for years, and I think I may have mentioned it once in all those years.  It seems like it SHOULD have been more traumatic to me.  But it wasn’t.   It certainly has embedded itself in my memory.  It’s a part of who I am.  I think that’s what stands out to me the most, not that it happened, but that it never caused me much stress.  There are so many things that I can think about that illicit feelings of depression or anxiety.  This is not one of them.

Why I’m writing about it now is that I was reminded of the incident while reading a New Yorker article on trauma.  It’s a decent article, and if you’ve ever experienced trauma in your life, or if you know someone who has, you might want to read it.  In some ways, writing for me is therapy.  Writing this article in particular certainly has been.  Thank you for reading it.

The Field Trip: A True Story (Chapter 4)

That was a miserable evening.  Most people did not bring extra food (plus we all had one more night after this one, so I’d have to make due with hand-outs again, and I didn’t look forward to that).  But I did manage to piece together enough snacks and fruit to get by. There wasn’t a lot of time for my clothing or sleeping bag to dry out, so I was cold and damp myself all evening.  Consequently, I was fairly miserable.  All the while, the Professors, particularly Professor Silver, and anyone else who had purchased Tequila was having a grand old time getting drunk and laughing, and that certainly didn’t help with my mood.  I never had a chance to study for my French exam, but we still had 2 days to go.  I was taking the class pass-fail, so it wasn’t like I needed to get an A.

The next day, at least, was a day of sightseeing for most of us, and things were a lot less eventful.  We visited the site of a prehistoric mudslide — when volcanic ash mixes with water, you can have conditions that will result in the burial of lots of wildlife, so we went to this location where we tromped around looking for fossils.  I found the fossilized remains of a mollusk and its longish ‘foot’.  It was a very cool souvenir.  And later that day, we walked along a rocky coast, explored a cove that you can only enter at low-tide.  We got a lecture on the tiny animals that only live in the briny pools there.  I know there was more to it, about the fossil record, and so on. But remember, I’m trying to recall this from about 37 years later.

We got back to our camp and the other group had actually managed to set the car back on its wheels, on the roadway.  I had to beg a bit more for food, but at least my backpack was dried out by then.  We got back so late though, that it was dark, and I knew from experience that trying to study from the light of a flickering lantern is kinda tough.  I read little but not much.  I also was starting to feel a bit ill.

The next morning I was feeling a whole lot worse.  Most of that day was a blur to me.  I know we made at least one stop for sightseeing, for the benefit of the people who had missed the previous day’s explorations and lectures.   After that stop, and I don’t know what exactly had transpired, but Professor Margulis was ejected from the car with the rest of the Professors.  As I said, they didn’t get along to begin with.  She ended up being swapped for someone in our car.  One other thing that did happen was that one of Dr. Silver’s bottles of Tequila broke on the bumpy road as we headed home.  His car stank of Tequila.

I wasn’t feeling well to begin with, and Professor Margulis insistence on lecturing us during much of the trip back only made me feel worse.  As I said, it was a bit of a blur, but I imagine that Gingko Tree sperm had to be a big topic of discussion.  But I could not tell you in any detail about whether or not any more cars got stuck in the rivers as we crossed them in the other direction — whatever it was, we got through it.

Eventually, we reached Tijuana at the same time as it was getting dark.  We must have lost a bit of time, with the extra sightseeing stop, and with the traversing of the flooded areas, because I knew we had been scheduled to get back home in the early evening, and it was now early evening, and we were still in Mexico.  And as I said previously, that town was a maze of construction and detours.  We got to the long lines of cars to cross back into the U.S., and noticed that two cars were missing.  But there really wasn’t anything that we could do about that.  We figured they had gotten lost, and they would eventually find there way through.  As it turned out, they got home just fine, about an hour after we did.

The first car in the convoy was Dr.Silver’s and when they asked him if he had anything to declare, he stupidly said ‘No’.  And, of course, his car simply stunk of Tequila.  So we had to wait while the border guards searched his care thoroughly, and they found two more unopened bottles that he had bought, and he had to pay a fine.  When it came to our turn, again, they asked us if we had anything to declare, and we said no the guards just looked at us funny and said ‘you know your professors lied to us — you didn’t buy any Tequila also did you?”  “No officer, no Tequila”.  And they let us go without further ado.

I don’t remember what time we actually got back to the dorms — it probably was after midnight.  I know I was feeling incredibly ill by then.  But I also knew that I had a French exam due the next day, and there was no way I could stay up another 2 hours to take it, much less study for it.  Friends of mine who were awake and sympathetic to my situation helped me find the Professor’s home phone number.  I literally woke her up in the middle of the night to beg for mercy.  And she gave it to me.  She knew I was on a Geology field trip because I had missed Friday’s class.   She gave me an extension and told me she hoped I felt better and that was that.  I was worried over nothing.  She didn’t even complain about being woken up in the middle of the night.  But things like that, apparently happen all the time at the school, so I’m sure i was not the first student to do so.

By the next day, the stories of the trip were already legend.  Following years, when I’d meet a new student, they’d ask me if the stories were true.  Of course they were true.  I was there.  And I should know.  I’ve told bits and pieces of the story before.  But it’s been over 35 years since I’ve told about the whole thing, from beginning to end.

One thing that does come to mind though, and I didn’t know it at the time, but I found out after the fact — the rocks and fossils that some of us had collected on the trip — I did not know that we were not permitted to bring them into the country.  I have no idea what the border guards would have done, had they actually searched our car.  Is there a penalty for trying to smuggle a cheap rock across the border?  I have no idea.

The Field Trip: A True Story (Chapter 3)

Not the actual car, but this is a MUCH newer, slightly smaller car than I remember.  It’s the closest image I’ve been able to find on-line that actually reminds me of those vehicles.

It was close to an hour before the  convoy came back for us.  I don’t know how far they had gotten, but I remember feeling my spirits being lifted up as they appeared from around the trees ahead of us.  The lead car had a mechanical winch on its front, with a metal cable and a big metal hook on the end.  None of us was going to get out of the car, so we could only hear bits and pieces of the conversation.  There was supposed to be a hook on the front of all of the cars, for just such an occasion, that they could safely hook up to, in order to drag the car out of the muddy river.  But, maybe because of the dirty water no one could see it.  At least the water was much shallower at the front end, so they could safely get right up to the front of our car.  So they were feeling around under the bumper, trying to find that mythical hook. Someone had the idea to hook the winch to the crossbar that the wheels hang off of (if you can’t tell, I’m not a car guy — I have no idea what the actual parts are called).  But it would have been problematic getting under the car to do so, plus there were some suspicions that it could render the car undrivable.  Finally, after giving up finding a more appropriate place to connect the winch, they settled  on wrapping it around the front bumper.

So the car with the winch was facing us, and they unwound enough cable to hook it up to the bumper.  The winch started to slowly eat up the slack in the cable, until it pulled taught.  Then it continued to pull.  But instead of pulling us out of the mud, it tore our front bumper off.  And apparently, there under the now loose front bumper, clear as day for everyone (not in the car) to see, was the hook. And then, once the winch was properly attached, it wasn’t too long until we were out of the mud, and out of the river.

The rest of that day went a tad better, but we still had a few incidents with other cars (not ours) getting a bit in the frequent rivers that we had to cross.  But the water was never as deep, so we never needed to use the winches again.  There was a bit of stopping and starting here and there, but we got through it alright.

Pretty soon the terrain changed.  We were in an area that had some tiny farms.  There were no more trees and no more rivers to cross.  It was getting to be late afternoon, and I knew we would be getting to our camp site pretty soon.  We were pretty exhausted, and I was  looking forward to getting some sleep.  We could see the ocean in the distance.  I remember daydreaming as I watched the car ahead of us bouncing up and down on this rocky dirt road.  The next thing I knew, that car simply flipped over on to its side.  We all stopped and got out to to check on the driver and passengers — everyone was wearing seatbelts, and no one was injured.  I saw that the road had simply collapsed under the weight of the car.  It looked like the flooding had eaten a big gap out from under the roadbed, such that the when the road collapsed, the car rolled into a ditch.

I asked the driver of the car, a fellow undergrad, ‘what the hell happened?’.  He told me, simply that he was bouncing up and down in the car as they drove, and then the car bounced up…. and didn’t come down again.  That’s how he experienced it (btw, this guy was cursed or blessed — on a different field trip for a different class, he also walked off a cliff, slipped about 60 feet down a steep hill, and survived — I don’t believe in luck or fate or any of that.  But I swear, it was the same guy).

Now remember I said that none of us was supposed to be driving?  Well, here’s where that came back to bite us.  There was a small farmhouse nearby that had a phone wire connected to it.  So, of course, we all thought ‘great, we can call for help’.  The only problem was that the professors didn’t want to get in trouble.  They thought about calling and lying about who was driving, but decided finally, that we’d try to dig the car out from the ditch ourselves.  Geologists always had shovels (not enough for everyone).  But we were resourceful, we could do it.  It didn’t require the entire class to do so, so a plan was devised where about 10 of us would work on digging out the car the next day, while the rest of us would go and do our field trip stuff, see some of the sights that we had travelled so far to see.   I can’t recall how it was decided who would be in which group, but I ended up on the non-manual labor side.

As we’re all standing around, discussing our plan of action, the neighboring farmer came by to see what was going on.  I had studied some Spanish in High School, but it was rusty, and I hadn’t used it in a while.  He was a short, skinny fellow, darkly tanned, looked like he had been working hard on his farm, when our caravan had run into trouble.  I remember him bragging to us how he owned the tiny farm himself, he wasn’t married.  He was very proud of his accomplishments.  I guess, he didn’t have a chance to meet many people, and he just wanted to be personable and asked if we needed help.  Meeting that farmer was one of the highlights of the entire trip so far.  He was incredibly charming.  We politely turned down his offers to help.  Here we were, over privileged young college students, and this poor farmer comes over to offer us help.  It’s something that I will never forget.

Anyway, we decided to make camp on this flat area overlooking the ocean, probably less than a mile from where the car had gotten stuck.  We were exhausted, and starving and it was only our first day.  I unpacked my gear and inspected it — my sleeping bag was quite damp from the river, as was the warm clothing that I had packed for the evening.  All of my food, which I had carefully packed into baggies, was also damp from the river.  Baggies, I learned on this trip, just aren’t good enough.  I’m starving now, and I realized, I didn’t have any food to eat.  There was no way that I would risk getting sick by eating food that had been drenched in the floodwaters. For the very first time in my life, I learned what it was like to beg.


The Field Trip: A True Story (Chapter 2)

To prepare for the field trip, I had to call back home to get a copy of my birth certificate from my parents (this was back before you needed a passport to go to Mexico).  The night before, I prepared a bunch of sandwiches, packed up my sleeping bag (I didn’t know if we’d have tents or not.  Typically on these field trips, we simply lie out under the stars.  Generally, the only time it rains is for a couple of weeks in the winter, when it rains every day.  As an east coast, Brooklyn-born guy, I had always assumed that the desert would be hot all the time.  I’m used to the humidity, where the air holds its heat. I learned the lesson quickly on my first couple of field trips that it actually can get quite cold out there. Shivering in your sleeping bag all night will do that.  So I packed some warm clothes for the evening. I also knew that I had a French exam due on Monday, but the schedule said that we’d be back early on Sunday, so I didn’t think there would be a problem.

If you don’t know much about Caltech, you may be confused by that — having an exam ‘due’. Caltech has an honor code (I’m not sure that anything has changed in that regard).  The Honor Code states, simply, that “No member of the Caltech community may take unfair advantage of any other member of the Caltech community.”  That was, literally, the only rule. That rule has a number of implications.  One of them is that exams were nearly always of the ‘take-home’ variety.  The rules for each exam would vary — if there was a time limit for the exam (and god help you if there wasn’t one, because those were the nastiest kinds of exams), you’d be on your honor to time yourself and stop at the end.  Rules might state that you could use your textbook (or not), a calculator, the CRC (Chemical Rubber Company handbook, which was this massive tome filled to the brim with almost every physical or mathematical constant, equation, tables of derivatives, etc.).  Often the only restriction was that you could not get help from anyone.

I know that I’m going off on a tangent here,  and you can just skip the next couple of paragraphs if you wish to, but there were other implications of the honor code — one of which was that the school really didn’t concern itself with anything else you did that was not against the honor code.  Back in the 1960s, while there was a great deal of unrest and problems at nearly every other university, involving protests and drugs and so on, Caltech was one of the quietest of schools.  There was one incident where students from Dabney house ‘kidnapped’ a job recruiter from Union Carbide and tried him in a mock trial for crimes against humanity, found him guilty, and then honey and Team flaked him and ran him off campus.  But, for the most part, things were quiet.

But while people were busy protesting and dropping LSD at other schools, Caltech had a hidden mushroom farm in the crawl space between two floors in one of the student houses.  Apparently, they were supplying magic mushrooms to many of the other California schools.  It wasn’t against the honor code though, so no one bothered them, until the administration got a tip of a drug raid.  And at that point, they warned the students, who promptly made that farm ‘disappear’.

Getting back to the subject… I wasn’t worried about my French exam.  I brought my textbook to study in my spare time, and I’d get back to my dorm with plenty of time to take the exam.

The morning of the exam came and we all met in a campus parking lot.  There were about a a half-dozen of these rugged off-road vehicles — each could carry up to 6 people comfortably, with room  in the back to carry our food, water, and gear.  Going to Mexico, of course, legally the driver would need to have an international drivers license, and we had enough people that could drive.   But, if you are on a school field trip to Mexico, students are NOT supposed to be driving.  Well, the teachers were not going to lower themselves to drive with students.  So, all of the teachers crowded into the lead van.  Because one of the Grad students had dones this same field trip previously and knew his way around, he drove the van I was in as the last one in our convoy.  If anyone would lose track of the van ahead of them, at least the car in the back could (theoretically) fix things.

We had a pretty uneventful time until we hit the border.  As it turned out (and this wasn’t just true for me, but for everyone else),  Mexican immigration gave me a hard time because my birth certificate was a certified copy, and not an original (my parents, not wanting to lose the original, had gotten a certified photocopy, which probably should have been accepted).  But they wanted to be tight-assed about it, so , they demanded an extra ‘fee’ because it didn’t meet their requirements.  No joke, they did not block me from entering the country — they merely charged me a bribe (they called it a fine, but we all know what it really was).

We drove into Tijuana, which at that time was a very busy town, with lots of traffic, and it seemed like every other road was having construction done.  We were warned to be careful because, with all of that construction going on, it was easy to get lost.  But we got through without incident.  The further south we went, the less people and buildings we saw.  The paved roads we were following turned to dirt roads.  We all stopped at this small convenience store along the way, where I got some snacks and drinks for the road.  Dr. Silver, and maybe a couple of the students and other professors, picked up some bottles of Tequila.  I’ve never been much of a drinker — back then, I’d have a drink or two at a party — mostly wine or maybe a white russian.  But I certainly didn’t drink straight Tequila.

The first sign we had of the effects of that winter’s harsh rainy season was when the convoy stopped in front of a wooden bridge to cross a narrow river.  More specifically, we stopped in front of small piece of the bridge.  Everyone got out to take a look.  The road sloped up to this narrow wooden piece of the bridge, and there was a similar piece across the river.  The middle of the bridge lay in one big, but damaged piece, about 30 feet downstream.

The river bank was a little bit steep on the other side, but the water looked pretty shallow, and most of the drivers agreed that we could drive through the river and up the far bank. And we did so, with only a bit of engine revving to get up the slope.  It was a surprise, but nothing serious.  I was wishing, and I bet others did to, that I had brought a camera along.   I knew I’d have a story to tell.

As we continued on, one odd thing that everyone noticed was that there were lots of these rivers that weren’t on the map.  Obviously, these rivers had been carved out of the dirt. And there were a lot of them, and not all of them were as narrow or shallow as the one at the bridge.  But we kept on going.

Now remember how I mentioned that we were the last car in the convoy, and the reason was that we had the most experienced (non-faculty) driver.  Well there we were driving south through a still partly flooded Baja.  A large river was ahead of us, and it did look pretty deep.  But all of those cars ahead of us were driving through it without incident, so of course, we just followed.  And then when we were in the middle of the river, everything just stopped.  The wheels got stuck in the mud in the deepest part of that river.  None of the cars ahead of us seemed to notice, and they just kept on going.  I looked out the back and saw that the water level was above the height of the rear of the car, and water was pouring into the car through the back, and through the side doors.  And our car was just getting no traction whatsoever.

We were stuck.  Everyone was convinced that the guys ahead of us would have to notice pretty soon that we were missing.  Our driver then had the brilliant idea that maybe he could get out of the car and try to push, while someone else pressed on the gas.  He managed to get the door open, stepped out of the car, and nearly got washed away downstream.  Thankfully, the water was flowing towards the drivers side, and he had a good grip on the door handle.  We knew that that wasn’t going to work.  There was no safe way for him to get behind the car to push.  The current was just too strong.  One thing we did realize from the experiment was that although the water was about 4 feet deep in the front and rear of the car, it must have been closer to 5 feet deep in the middle.

There was nothing we could do but wait.

The Field Trip: A True Story (Chapter 1)

At Caltech, back in 1979, I decided on majoring in Geophysics. That’s not the degree that I eventually graduated with, but that was my major before I switched over to Engineering. As any kind of Geo major (Geology, Geophysics, or Geochemistry), part of the experience was field work — going out into nature, and seeing rocks and volcanoes and fault lines in their native habitat, so to speak. One of the beautiful things about studying the Geosciences in Southern California, is that much of that beautiful geology isn’t covered by forest or dirt. It’s all out there in the open. Visit the right locations, usually out in the desert, and you can see the ancient layers of ash deposited by volcanic eruptions, or siltstone and sandstone layers from ancient river or lake beds.  And you can also see how those layers bend or break or have been moved and even flipped upside down by the tectonic movements over the ages.

Wikipedia - Rainbow Basin is a geological formation located approximately eight miles north of Barstow in the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County, California. It has been designated a National Natural Landmark. Rainbow Basin is a mixture of private and public land, but it is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and is accessible to the public via an unpaved loop road. The basin is notable both for the fantastic and beautiful shapes of its rock formations and because of its fossil beds, which have provided scientists with valuable information about life during the middle Miocene epoch, between 12 and 16 million years ago.
Wikipedia – Rainbow Basin is a geological formation located approximately eight miles north of Barstow in the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County, California.  One class of mine had us spend several weekends there practicing the mapping outcroppings of a particular ash bed from a particular volcanic eruption.

I remember one of my very first field trip in a freshman geology class.  Doctor Leon T. Silver, this rugged, man’s man in his mid-50’s led us on a climb up a mountain.  Then, once we were high enough that we could see all of the geology surrounding us, and as I held a death-grip on a steep cliff-face so that I would not fall to my possible death, Dr. Silver lectured to us about the plate tectonics that had created those mountains — no one was able to take notes, simply because we were all too scared to let go.  This was a favorite tactic of Dr. Silver, to bring us to visually unforgettable locations, and tell stories about the geology.  Another memorable trip, we climbed up the side of an volcano.  I remember being so parched by the heat and exertion that when I tried to get the attention of the guy ahead of me, carrying the big water thermos, nothing would come out except for a thin croak.  I don’t know how much I actually learned from those trips, but they certainly were memorable.  And I think, that as a freshman class, that was more of the point.

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Badlands near the Salton Sea — another memorable field trip had us, again, mapping a lava bed through the dried gullies. On a previous field trip, at least as we were told as a kind of horror story, an undergrad had been killed as a result of a flash flood.  As the story went, if the water was close enough that you could hear it rushing down the gully, it was already too late to escape.  Was the story true?  I have no idea.

Say what you want about the Freshman field trips, they did make me want to pursue Geophysics as a major.  Sophomore year, I decided to take this class called “Earth History”.  It was a multi-disciplinary class, taught by 4 different professors.  Again, Leon Silver was there, representing the Geophysical aspects of the subject.  If I remember correctly, we also had a Geochemist, a Geobiologist, and a Biologist. a professor on loan from Scripps, Lynn Margulis.  Ms. Margulis, as it turned out, was quite a character herself. As I recall, almost every lecture that she gave, she would mention some of the same facts over and over again, about how human sperm was not very different from Gingko tree sperm (yes, Gingko trees do produce sperm).  After a bit, it became kind of like a joke to the students, partly because there were Gingko trees along the street on one side of the campus.  I’ll leave it to the reader to come up with his or her own punch line.

One of the interesting things about the class was that it was divided between Geoscience majors and Biology majors.  This turned out to be a source of conflict, that didn’t just affect the students, and what we wanted from the class, but also to the professors themselves, and what they envisioned the class to be about.  The professors themselves would frequently argue over who would lecture in each class.  And it was always Ms. Margulis representing the biology department, and everyone else representing the geology department.  There was a lot of mutual resentment.  But then again, I don’t think that these were the kinds of people who could get along at a dinner party, much less vying for control of a stupid college class.  The Geology majors AND professors completely resented Ms. Margulis, and Ms. Margulis seemed to have a desire to teach almost every class, leaving some of the Geology professors to fume in the background.

As it turns out, this class, like a lot of Geoscience classes, had a tradition of taking field trips.  Professor Margulis was dead-set on taking us all down to Mexico, along the Baja peninsula.  There were so many things she wanted us to see. The problem was that Baja had just experienced one of its worst rainy seasons in recent history. As Dr. Silver and his fellow Geoscience professors pointed out, the roads that we’d have to travel to get to any of those places were mostly dirt and not great. Even under the best of circumstances, we’d be driving rugged roads in the backwoods of Mexico. With all of the flooding that had occurred over the winter, no one knew if those roads were even navigable. But Professor Margulis insisted that the roads were fine. She was quite passionate about bringing us to Mexico. None of the other places that were suggested at all appealed to her. It was Mexico or bust. And there was no way that anything would ever convince her otherwise.  And, to be honest, I was incredibly excited to travel to Mexico, even on a field trip.  And I’m sure that others felt exactly the same way.  I can’t remember exactly how the decision was made.  I think maybe she managed to get the grudging support of at least one of the other professors, and so plans for the trip began to form.

The Baja Peninsula