Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Snake, The Chicken and The Archaeologist

Now many of you have heard my stories of fieldwork. Some are fantastic, some are farcical. Often times fieldwork enjoys a quiet rythem of sun up, work, sun down with very little excitement. However, there are moments which lead to the stories that have accumulated over the years starring a cast of characters from snakes to hippopotami. You never get in trouble when you first arrive. That is when you still have a more then healthy respect for the harshness of the environment and the wildlife. Soon, you fall in to a pattern of life and become more lax in how aware you are of what is around you. It is then that you often come face to face with a little reminder of where you are. I'm afraid to say that one of the new students thought I was sometimes exaggerating... You just wait. To this day, he still can't bring himself to talk about it. 

This one isn't about me. Oh, I was there, but gratifyingly I was not the hapless victim of circumstance. This time.

It was my last day in the field before leaving for Nairobi. We were revisiting a site where I had done a surface collection of artifacts several years before. NB (for anonymity) was especially looking forward to this excursion because he had just done an analysis of the previous surface  collection, but had never seen the site. In order to get there we had to hike a few km down the river bed and then find the overgrown path up the gorge to the top of the ridge. This is a long walk over unpleasant footing of cobbles or soft loose sand. We are cruising along, NB is to my left and we were talking about something inconsequential. Suddenly NB leaps into the air - 
"F*ing Hell, Mother F... Shit... God Damn...." A veritable blue streak, which I can't do justice to here. Now honestly, I've never seen a person actually levitate before, but damn, it's possible. For underneath him was a small and very angry cobra. You see they really don't like it when you nearly step on them. Fortunately NB was wearing long pants and recognized at the last second what he almost put his foot on. The dun colored little snake (the smaller ones are more deadly) blended in with the cobbles we were walking over, and we all had our guard down. How things can turn deadly in an instant always takes your breath away, your heat stutters and the adrenaline kicks in. "Oh. My. God. Are you ok?" After the appropriate breather, we carried on. 

The rest of the hike went along in comparable silence. Scanning the way ahead for any more unwelcome critters. A few hours later at lunch, I could no longer help myself. I looked over at NB and quipped "Still think I'm making it up?" 
He smiled and said, "You know, right after I stopped swearing and could breathe again, that is the first thing I thought about." I couldn't help but to laugh. Guess you are going to start accumulating your own stories now. 

The rest of the work day was long, but the journey back down the riverbed was uneventful. We were all on high alert. Across the road from the campground is a little shop that has the most coveted object around at 5 pm - cold soda, especially when you are out of water. We piled out of the truck and all ordered large sodas. We were soon joined by the other half of our group who had been up in the highlands that day. There aren't many benches and when you are this dirty it really doesn't matter if you sit on the cement stoop and we were soon joined by our friends. Of course this was followed by the innocent question "So, how was your day?"
NB looks at me and says,  "You can tell them. I can't talk about it." 

I was standing there leaning against the Land Rover explaining how poor NB had nearly stepped on the cobra. That is when the clucking started. Now goats and chickens are always foraging around hoping for a bit of  this or that which someone might drop, but we are looking around and there isn't a chicken in sight. Sylvia, the teenage girl who often minds the shop for her parents, comes out of the shop also looking around. LH pauses, "It sounds like its coming from the trash can (positioned directly behind NB)."

Behind everyone's back, Sylvia tiptoed up to the can. She reached out, keeping well back and slowly lifted the lid of the can. In a flurry of feathers, a highly agitated chicken streaked out of the depths of the trash can. Fortunately for the chicken, NB's head was right there, and the somewhat flight challenged chicken decided to use it as a launching pad, leaving a trail of feathers in its wake. For the second time that day NB levitated shrieking "F*ing Hell, Mother F... Shit... God Damn...." Didn't see that coming...
Arms and legs were flailing in a way that can only be described as something between a goose-step march and a windmill - what you might expect from someone being attacked by an angry swarm of bees. Someone was having a bad day. He was already pretty tightly wound after thinking about his cobra encounter, only to be accosted by an unkempt chicken.  Poor NB, impending heart failure for the second time in one day. I think I actually spit my soda out I was laughing so hard, as did just about everyone else. He will never, ever live that one down.

The chicken had apparently been peacefully sleeping in the can until we woke it with our chatter and it found itself trapped. I can't help but wonder how the chicken got in the garbage can in the first place? 

Weather it is a cobra or a chicken, life in the field never stays boring for too long. 

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Accident Prone (Episode 2)

The cat and I have just reestablished whose territory my desk is. I've won this battle with only minor bleeding.  

I've reclaimed my desk, the cats haven't killed anything unidentifiable lately, and it is still to cold for the hoi poloi to be out in the neighborhood. This leaves me a little short of new material. However, this is ME we are talking about so really there is no lack of material for a post. So sit back and get ready for the next episode of Accident Prone. 

For the first few years of grad school I also worked at a bank. Business suit in the morning, dirty archaeologist in the afternoon. The rectangular lobby of the bank was flanked on one side with the teller line and on the other with glass fronted offices. I had just started work there and my mail box had been bombed with memos overnight. I have always been absorbed by the printed word. As a child my nose was constantly poked into some book or comic book. When I turned 16 I didn't know how to get to anywhere past a three mile radius of the house (the length of my attention span before getting bored, sticking my nose in a book, and tuning out the world), and of course this habit also lent itself to walking. I have a tendency to read and walk at the same time with obvious consequence for someone of my particular talents...  That being said, I could not prolong  looking at the contents of my mailbox even for the three minute walk to my office. As I strolled down the aisle of offices I became more and more absorbed into the letter detailing the current mortgage rate changes. As I turned to enter my assigned office BAM!!!! Followed by the sound of reverb as the shock wave traveled through the pane of glass. Now some would say that it was probably a good thing I was looking down - as it was my forehead that hit the glass, and I narrowly dodged a broken nose. However, as my luck would play out every other one of the customer service representatives just happened to be in my office trading some juicy new gossip. I'd like to say they waited to laugh until they made sure I was OK, but that might be a bit too generous. Within in a nanosecond everyone was doubled over choking out 
"The look on your face...." 
"Oh my god...."
"Can't breathe...." Between gasps for air. 

Welcome to the workforce. Reputation established. 

We sort of got into decorating the office in extravagant ways for every new holiday, painting the windows of the offices to advertise our savings/loan products in a holiday theme. This was in some ways nice, as down time could be spent painting windows rather then twiddling your thumbs waiting for the next customer to walk through the front door. At the front of the lobby was the phone desk. It was one of those regular industrial strength wooden office desks with drawers to the side. Attached to the left side running along the wall was one of those desk L-additions, with drawers on the left and no legs to the right where it was bolted (supposedly) to the other desk. This desk extension held the very large central phone for the branch office. I had phone duty that day and the phones were unusually quiet although the branch was full of people. We were decorating for Halloween, and one of my co-workers brought me several bags of fake cobwebs, construction paper and some plastic bats with instructions to "make a moon" and decorate the wall above my desk. 
"Ok, sounds like fun." Right. 

With my moon lovingly made, I kicked my shoes off and hopped up on my desk to start hanging things up. Everything was going smoothly on the left portion of the wall. Then I stepped to the right. This is the precise moment that I learned that my desk extension was not in fact bolted to to my desk. It gave out under my foot and all at once the branch phone was launched into the air, my desk chair took off of its own volition, and I commenced a swan dive directly onto my desk. Unable to restrain myself, and knowing how much it was going to hurt when I landed I yelled "Oh, SHIT!!!!!!" and then "Offff..." as all the air in my lungs got forced out as I landed on my stomach on top of my keyboard... There were these two old geezers in the end of the line, they managed to squeak out a "Are you OK?" to which I managed a nod, and then they lost it. I thought Angela (one of the tellers) was going to come over her teller window and run over. I managed to scramble up, right the desk, and retrieve my chair and shoes in that order. Both the manager and the assistant manager just happened to be in the vault during my little outburst of profanity, and for some reason not a single customer complained about my language... The two old geezers laughed their whole way through the line and out the door. 

Reputation reaffirmed. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Accident Prone (Episode 1)

I've been reading (with some hilarity) the recent accident exploits of a certain good friend (JMS) who has yet to completely internalize the much used  (in my house) "freezer hop" so the frozen burrito takes out the dog and not her toe. This has inspired me to share a few historical anecdotes regarding my own clutztastic moments. 

I took my first job doing archaeology ages ago, we were conducting archaeological sensitivity testing on three national guard bases - basically digging a lot of holes in the mosquito infested woods. We began by working out in the open at Camp Rell, which is situated on a beautiful flat promontory abutting the sea, in other words prime real estate for Native American habitation. Unfortunately this meant that it was also the perfect place for the parade ground. We laid out a grid and started digging regular holes on the parade ground. Our pits were 50 cm square and more then a meter deep. Despite trying to carefully replace the grass - it always dehydrated and died, resulting in these unsightly patches of dead grass at regular 20 meter intervals across the parade ground. Now if you really want to piss of a grounds keeper -- kill his grass. I swear I still have visions of Bill Murray when I think of this guy. He would wait for us to leave and then break out the HUGE tractor pulled mower and mow down all our stakes that we used to mark out our grid. 

It was because of this that I didn't see the open hole. I was walking along with two others flanking each side of me. In my own defense - no one else mentioned the gaping hole in the ground either. I stepped out with my left foot and suddenly there was no ground... Amazingly quickly this produced a SPLAT, and there I was. A perfect face-plant: one leg was dangling free in the hole, three other limbs splayed out all around me and I had a mouthful of grass. The moment couldn't have been a more perfect comic strip panel if I'd planned it. To add insult to injury - the oddity of having the parade ground dug up had attracted an constant audience for us. So, as I managed to extract the grass from my teeth I also noticed the line up of soldiers doubled over in hysterics. Lucky me. 

The same parade ground claims another victim.. (Oh wait, the same victim. Surprised? Probably not.) I had just finished digging and drawing the soil profile for the latest test pit, and we were about to fill it in. I realized just in time that I'd dropped my tape measure in the bottom of the pit and needed to retrieve it. Unfortunately, this particular pit was over a meter deep. I did not ponder this little maneuver long.  I just grabbed a handful of grass with one hand and leaned in the pit with the other. Now I WAS thinner then but grass is not much of a lifeline, even if it is well manicured grass. Of course the clod just ripped out and I went headfirst into the pit, with one arm in front of me and one pinned to my side. I was unable to exit this position. I just love to imagine what this must have looked like at the time - two legs sticking out of the top of a pit and waggling as fait cries of "Shit, I'm stuck!" and "Get me out of here!" could be faintly heard to the surface dwellers. 

Someone whom shall remain unnamed had to grab me by the belt and bodily haul me out of the hole, asking,
 "What the hell did you do?" 
Talk about embarrassing (I had a slight crush on this guy too, which basically means I'd make an ass of myself constantly around him). 
Just to bring this point home the next summer we were both doing geology field school. We were going to be climbing around a lot of really steep drop offs trying to work out the geology. The aforementioned gentleman looks right at me and said, "Please try not to fall down anywhere life threatening." Mental head slap. 

I seem to have a knack for embarrassing spills, but I usually manage to control my spastic behavior when it might have the potential to actually kill me. Instead we were walking down a forest path - a nice, wide path clear of both roots and rocks. That is the moment I went ass over teakettle. Yep, green backpack went one way, clipboard another way, limbs akimbo - I suddenly found myself looking at the sky. 
After picking up my backpack, my clipboard and peeling me off the path, he simply asked "What exactly did you trip over?"  
"Ow, I have no idea..." I mumbled.
Perhaps this is life just keeping me humble, or just giving the rest of world an excuse for some hilarity. I'm always good for a bit of that.