Thank god or vishnu or whomever for the 2×4 bouncing around the interior of the car. I jammed it between the door and the frame and waited to see if I was doomed or saved. The next big jolt and the door stayed in position. I waited through a few more rough rail sections to confirm I was safe and curled back up in my warm bag in the corner of the empty car. It took a while to go back to sleep. The clickity-clack of the wheels, engine blasts and the RR crossing bells kept a percussive rhythm through the night.
Blame it on William Golding and Joseph Conrad, but often during the more beleaguered days of my formal education, I drifted off into day dreams of tropical lands, vast oceans and thrilling adventure. At the same age as the kids in the Lord of the Flies film, and having read the book as required at the all-boys Horace Mann Preparatory School in New York City, I was intrigued with the social dynamics of those thrust into isolation, severed from society and dependent on innovative survival strategies while developing adaptive cultural norms and …the thrill and fun of a great Adventure. I recognized the light and dark side of my personality, and wondered if tested, I had it in me to be a Ralph in the face of adversity, holding a moral compass under pressure of the irrational world, or was there a fascist Jack lurking in me willing to meet chaos with irrational ferocity. The chant of “Kill The Pig! Spill His Blood! Bash Him In!” vied with “Kyrie Eleison” as a soundtrack to day dreams.
Another factor that stimulated wanderlust was the immensity and density of New York City, the place selected as our new home by my parents. The hostile space gradually seemed to be wearing down my bearings, inhibiting my childhood drive to find wonder in the outdoors, a drive fed by early years living in Washington State. A certain innocence was losing out to urban cynicism.
For my English assignment in High School, when we were to concentrate on the works of one author, I chose Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim and other books by Joseph Conrad. My teachers were probably wondering what was with this introverted, quiet, brown haired kid who explored the dark side. Jungle fever, that was my excuse.
At college, I had deliberately sought out a specialty that would offer the rare opportunity to participate in research projects in wild places. I signed up for projects that led me into the jungle studying monkeys in Puerto Rico, Panama, Colombia and St Kitts. Two studies placed me on an island with four guys and groups of rhesus macaques. Though the 300-acre rugged island offered warm weather and forest full of gumbo limbo trees, this was not my island dream. The Atomic Energy Commission had control of the space (we asked no questions as to why). The island had been used for target practice by the Air Force during some previous war and old bombs (perhaps duds but who wanted to find out) could be found scattered in the forest floor. Once while trekking in the hills, I spotted a puff of smoke down at the valley mouth and assumed some monkey had become collateral damage. Though isolated, with rare supply replenishments by the AEC ship, we humans only reverted to a few odd tribal patterns, but no one went completely bonkers. Each participant found some reason to take a break off the island, to relieve the tensions from isolation. I made a false start, getting sick right away and being flown by helicopter back to San Juan, along with three goat hunters whose skiff had sunk when they tried to help us move gear around the island. The government suspected them of being Independistas and smuggling guns. Once back on Desecheo, these guys shared their goat with us on the beach and after feasting on meat and fish around the fire, one drunk hunter put a gun to my head…in jest. The laughs were nerve-wracking.
The monkeys themselves had been separated from their home troop, families split and taken off the island of Cayo Santiago and dropped onto Desecheo without provisions. Forced to fend for themselves, they scavenged and survived. One young male, NK, separated from the support of his alpha family (their family was divided in the experiment), attempted to restore the order and his position as a dominant male after having been relegated to the perimeter. With each attempt to challenge, he was mobbed and finally injured severely. Retreating to the shoreline, he bathed his wounds in the salt water, sitting in isolation with water up to his chest…and finally moving up off the sand to die in the shade, alone.
His bones became sacred to our tribe, and when at one point the NK skull disappeared, accusations flew around our camp. It was revealed later that a land crab at rolled the skull some distance from the final resting place. The grave site was put back in order and we tried to persevere as objective observers, while each person measured how far we had drifted from sanity.
During a second expedition, only a Navy helicopter ran supply runs. The astonished looks of the pilot on seeing the wild monkey men in ragged attire did indeed recall the final scene of Lord of the Flies.
On St Kitts, I had my own bungalow which I shared with a co-worker/girl-friend, so my metal was not tested by tribulations…except perhaps for trepidations about performance anxiety, this being my first solid relationship.
On a dark, and stormy night and with a dead motor on a skiff, a Basseterre local and I drifted dangerously out towards open water. Since my shipmate had sighted Jack-0-Lanterns racing across the island’s hills, and since they were not to be trifled with in the dark, he declared that only with the moon showing could we safely row towards shore. He was surprised that I did not know about these spooks. I admitted that at least once a year Americans suspended their disbelief and got into the spirit of things.
Unfortunately, our safe harbor was the location of the island voodoo cult. Turns out they were my nearest neighbors. The resort owner that rented the cottage to me, a woman with brown leathered skin and sun- bleached blond hair, swore that this cult had put the hex on one of her builders, causing him to crawl into the sea until restrained and sent to the hospital. I did not want any spells cast due to my cultural incompetence. The voodoo folks spent the night huddled around a Coleman lantern (very Caravaggio in the central lighting effect), but I spent the night quietly some distance away (very Stephen King in effect) trying not to startle a soul. Next morning, they escorted us to the dock and our skiff and, as if by magic, the engine started right up.
While on St Kitts, we had to battle the prevailing rave reviews of monkey meat, “Sweet Meat Mon!!” The cravings tended to cut into, and cut down on, the subjects of a research study. I sampled a delicious turtle stew and felt so full of remorse that I tried to raise some baby turtles, hatching them and releasing a few to make the trek into the sea. I failed at conch chowder. The killing of the conch was a gruesome affair, the mollusk hung by a hook while the weight of the shell slowly forced the creature to loosen its grip. Perhaps I did not have the stomach for a career traveling the globe sampling exotic foods.
With a grant from the Smithsonian Institution, I spent some time on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal observing marmosets. Each dawn, the howlers roared from the canopy. Army ants moved in waves across the leaf litter. Tarantulas hung out in holes near our cabin. And research scientists strutted around with tremendous egos.
In the San Blas Islands, while visiting a Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute station, I heard a conch shell blown with powerful bursts, its deep, resonating sound crossing the bay. Fishermen were still blowing into the shells for communication to each other.
When the Rockefeller and Marshall fund review panels failed to see my plans for exploring the Rwanda Mountains of the Moon would lead to positive world enlightenment, and the Peace Corps threatened to throw me into epidemic regions of Korea, I decided to head to the South Seas on my own, after graduation.
The shuddering of the train cars coming to a stop startled me from my sleep. What the hell! This was a Hot Shot! We weren’t supposed to be making stops.