The following is what I hope will be part of a series of short stories that I plan to compile into a book. As it has no pictures, it isn’t exactly suitable for this site and will be taken down after about a week. But in the mean time, any and all feedback is greatly appreciated. I’d like to know the feasibility of such a project, and it’d be great to know what people think. This is just a rough draft, but please enjoy.
How do I keep getting myself in these situations?
This was the question I kept asking myself as I straddled the stern of an aluminum canoe while clawing away at the mud in a futile effort to free the boat. My headlamp was dying, the canoe was full of baby alligators, we didn’t know where momma gator was, and the boat was stuck in the mud. No matter how hard we tried, my two lab partners and I simply could not budge the canoe. To make matters worse, the mud was far too deep to get out and push. Things were looking rather dire, and one of my lab partners, Nicole finally spoke up. Waving a little yellow walkie-talkie at me, she asked: “Should we call for help?”
During my time spent as an undergrad in Wildlife Ecology, I was given the chance to go on multiple field trips to…well…The field. One such field trip took place on the Ordway Swisher Biological station. This area of land was specifically set aside for research for the University of Florida. And so while taking a class focusing on Wildlife Techniques, we were forced to spend an entire weekend camping out at the Ordway.
I say forced because my professor, in his infinite quest to make our lives miserable, planned this –required- field trip to be the first weekend of Spring Break. So while most of my friends were taking off to the beach or heading back home for a full week of relaxation, I was busy packing for a field trip that I had no desire to be on. To add to my misery and woe, I had begun a downward spiral of college life that spring where I hovered between broke and dirt poor. So while packing, I raided the apartment and discovered a half a loaf of bread and an unopened can of Spam. With those two items in hand, I’d made my decision:
This should last me three days.
So with my weekend Spam meal packed in a backpack along with a change of clothes and a canteen, I made the drive out to the Ordway late Friday afternoon and met with my class. Once there, we had a meeting with the professor who laid out the evening schedule for us. We were to set up camp, and meet back up after dark in order to do owl call and deer spotlight surveys.
I hadn’t really worried about camping. We were told in class earlier that week that there would be big tents set up for both men and women. Students were also allowed to bring their own tent should they wish. So I arrived under the impression that I’d just sleep in a giant tent with a few other guys. To my surprise, I was the ONLY person in the class who didn’t bring a tent. Yes, I was that guy. I felt bad for the teaching assistants. They were going to have to erect a tent big enough to house an entire regiment just for my scrawny self. I told them not to worry about it, and I managed to find my buddy Todd who was willing to share some tent space.
We got the tent set up about an hour before dark and I took advantage of the little bit of time we had before the night began to make myself a quick meal. I got out my can of Spam and loaf of bread, and prepared myself for a dinner of champions. Now, I’m not sure how many of you have ever tried to get that delicious pink block of meat out of a Spam can, but it’s about like forcing a watermelon through a McDonald’s straw. You must squeeze, and pry, and shake, and pray the mystery meat from its container. So as I was busy doing this, a miracle took place, right there in the middle of the woods…
My block of Spam actually slipped right out of its can…and plopped itself triumphantly in the sand.
Not only did it fall into the sandy concoction of leaves and sticks, but it rolled itself around in it. So while my weekend meal was busy frolicking in the dirt, I took the opportunity to teach bystanders several new colorful phrases. Once the filth covered block of Spam had finished rolling around, I picked it up to discover that it was simply beyond washing. Dirt and twigs had embedded themselves into the meat wall.
I should probably take this opportunity to note that I’m not much of a social butterfly. I don’t have an infinite amount of friends and I’m relatively slow to make new ones. Part of it must be because of situations like this. Many of my classmate’s first impression of me outside of a classroom consisted of me violently cursing a dirty block of Spam. And there probably aren’t many who want to hang out with that guy.
Luckily, all was not lost. Using a knife, I managed to shave off the dirty outer layers of my Spam and was left with a clean 2/3 of a block. I quickly made myself a sandwich out of some of it, practically inhaled it, and raced off to get ready for the night.
Owl call surveys were something I was admittedly interested in. I’d never done it before, and though I have a general hatred for birds, I actually find owls to be pretty cool. So when we arrived at our evening meeting, we were told to load up into the truck, and part of the class would go off to do the survey. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting as far as our transport went. I heard the word “truck” but still assumed we’d all climb into the big vans, drive to where the survey was to take place, pile out, and conduct the survey. My assumptions, however, were quickly proven wrong when I laid eyes on our chariot. It was an old, rusty, beat up Dodge. From the looks of it, probably one of the first one’s ever built.
So with the teaching assistants driving, approximately ten of us climbed into the extraordinarily uncomfortable bed of the truck. It was at about this time that I felt my stomach give a slight twinge but I didn’t really pay it any attention because I was excited about doing the surveys.
Fast forward about thirty minutes and a few bumpy dirt road miles later, and my twinge of a stomach ache had become a full blown, apocalyptic scale battle inside my gut. I needed to use the bathroom RIGHT then. But alas, I was stuck in the bed of a moving truck, with ten other people, at night, with no light.
Maybe it was something I’d eaten for lunch, or possibly some bad water. Who knows? But rather than worry about what caused this bowel erupting stomach ache, I opted to curl into the fetal position and pray for a swift death. Somehow, I either bounced or shoved my way into the corner of the bed, and I sat there writhing in misery while the owl call went off. As my usual good fortune would have it, this was to be one of the longest nights of the whole trip. We were out for hours. And I simply had to hold it in. One of my friends Nicole did actually ask if I was alright, and I reassured her I was fine with a series of dying groans.
When we finally made it back to camp later that night, I no longer needed to use the bathroom. No, I didn’t have an accident. But the urge had simply left me. At the time, I figured the only possible scenario was that my organs had simply given up and stopped working. But the stomach ache still persisted. Knowing that there was no chance of falling asleep while in such pain, I decided to take a seat on a bench next to a campfire with several students from the other group. And upon seeing me sit down, one of my classmates piped up: “Want a beer?”
Now, I’ve never been one to turn down a beer. And considering I’d spent the last few hours in sheer misery, I figured there was nothing I could do that would make my stomach feel worse. So I cracked open an ice cold PBR, and what would you know?
I was right. For once. It didn’t make me feel worse. In fact, my stomach ache began to subside. I’m not one to advocate drinking away any pain; be it emotional OR physical. But it was blessed relief after what seemed like a stomach ache that was going to be the death of me. After drinking a couple more of the magic elixirs, my stomach was back to feeling fine. About this same time, my buddy Todd was complaining about being hungry. I’m still not sure why, but he adamantly refused my offer of a Spam sandwich.
Instead he opted to make himself a “hobo pizza” which consisted of pita bread, sauce, pepperonis, and a little cheese, all baked over the fire. It actually sounded pretty good until the problem arose as to what to cook the pizza on. No one had a pan or anything really suitable, and we both agreed that placing it on hot coals would make it taste rather…charred. Instead, and against my advice, he opted to try cooking it on top of a sheet of dead bark from a tree. Smoke from the rotten piece of wood soon began to envelop the hobo pizza and before long, it looked as though it was heated up enough.
Everyone watched in horror as he took a cautious first bite of his pizza. And from his expression while he chewed, I knew it had to taste something like a burnt tire, or maybe old dirt. I will give my buddy his dues though. He slugged his way through the entire thing and kept his dignity. But Lord it was painful to watch. The worst part was that he still looked hungry, and for reasons unbeknownst to me, he continued to refuse my offers of a Spam sandwich. So rather than watch him destroy another pizza on a piece of old bark, I took it upon myself to make him a pan. By using my multi-tool and empty PBR cans, I was able to flatten out the cans and link them together to create a flat pan. A hobo pan, if you will. And after cooking and eating another pizza, even my buddy admitted that it tasted infinitely better than the bark pizza. The many uses of beer never cease to amaze me.
The following day was a very busy one and consisted of trapping all sorts of small mammals and amphibians. But once the sun finally set, we were going to get to do something I’d actually been looking forward to for quite some time: Ride around on airboats and catch alligators at night. However, I should have known right off the bat that my night wouldn’t go as planned. I quickly discovered that I had forgotten my headlamp and was in desperate need of another.
As luck would have it, my professor said he had an extra headlamp and he rummaged around a big box before finding it. What he finally handed over to me was a massive, ancient headlamp. It looked like something Galileo and his buddies probably used to go spelunking with and weighed approximately 30 pounds. What surprised me the most was that for being so huge, it put out slightly more light than a lit match. But I didn’t complain. Some light was better than none.
My excitement grew as we got closer to lake that night. We bailed out of the trucks, and walked down the hill to where the boats would be waiting. Upon arriving, however, I discovered that there were no airboats. Instead, by the dim candlelight of my headlamp, I gazed across a fleet of aluminum canoes. Something obviously fell through with the airboats, so we’d be using paddle craft as our means to catch alligators. To add the hilarity, we were given small grabbers to catch baby alligators. You know, the kind that old ladies use to get things off of high shelves?
So without too much complaining, my two lab partners and I, Nicole and Jim, climbed into a canoe and set off to catch gators. I paddled from the stern, Nicole sat in the middle with a spotlight, and Jim paddled up front. It was little surprise to me that all basic canoeing rules still apply at 9 pm. The wind will inevitably blow head on, regardless of what direction you’re traveling, and no matter how you position yourself, your butt will fall asleep on the metal seats.
We paddled around for hours and barely saw any gators, much less got close enough to catch any. Jim and I were exhausted from having paddled all the way across the lake, and just as we were about to give up, Nicole whispered “I see eyes. Lots of them”.
We looked to see where she was pointing and sure enough, on the far side of some thick vegetation, were a –whole- lot of glowing eyes. Not wishing to return empty handed, we made the decision to force our way through the vegetation and grab as many gators as possible. Jim and I built up a good head of steam, and rammed our way through the weeds and into a clearing on the other side. When the canoe finally screeched to a halt, we looked down to see the water practically teeming with baby alligators. We frantically began grabbing them and tossing them down into the bottom of the boat. We even used the little grabber to reach ones that were out of range.
I was honestly really excited. All the paddling and searching paid off and we weren’t going to have to head back empty handed. Having grabbed all the gators we could, we decided to head back. I put my paddle in the water and…
I looked up to see Jim having the same problem. Mud. Thick, nasty mud. In our excitement to get the gators, Jim and I managed to ram our canoe onto a giant mudflat, and we were now stuck. The water couldn’t have been 2 inches deep on it. Rather than take strokes with the paddle, I tried using it to push and quickly discovered that there was no bottom. The mud clearly led all the way to hell. To make matters worse, my headlamp was dying. Probably from old age.
I tried rocking the boat, digging away the mud, but nothing seemed to budge us. I considered stepping out and pushing, but that idea was quickly snuffed out with how deep the mud was. If I’d stepped out, I couldn’t help but imagine that thousands of years in the future, some poor archeologist would discover my bones in an ancient swamp and then be completely confused as to why I was wearing a piece of equipment around my skull that dated back to a different millennia than the bones.
It was about this time that Nicole piped up: “Should we call for help?”
“NO!” I shouted. “We’re –not- calling for help”
I was technically the one who’d been steering the canoe, and I could think of few things more embarrassing than having to call for help because we got a canoe stuck in the mud. I had my pride to worry about after all. I’m not one to never ask for help when I really need it. I’ll get directions from a stranger if I’m ever lost. But then again, I’ve never actually been lost. Merely temporarily misplaced. So we weren’t going to ask for help.
We opted, instead, to make Nicole walk back and forth between the bow and stern to make the boat rock kind of like a teeter totter. When the bow would rise, Jim would push off. When the stern would rise, I would push off. It felt like it took a century, but we were actually moving and eventually we “walked” the canoe off of the mud flat and into open water.
On the last day of the trip, I found myself sitting in the cab of the truck with the teaching assistant, on our way to check some reptile/amphibian traps. We were supposed to finish up sometime before lunch, and my Spring Break was FINALLY going to start. Even if I had to make the 5 hour drive back to Pensacola first. I barely paid attention to any of the frogs we caught that morning. I was really just ready to be done. I’d finished off the last of my Spam earlier that morning, and I was sore from sleeping on every root that magically poked through our tent. So finally, after identifying the millionth tree frog, it was time to leave, and everyone piled back into the truck.
As we bounced along back to camp, I had visions of pulling down the tent, packing up what little gear I had, and maybe making it back home in time to fish that evening. As I was thinking about this, I felt the truck slide a little bit, and the back tires begin to spin. I looked out the window to see us stuck in the sand, 15 minutes before my Spring Break officially started. I glanced over at the teaching assistant who was about to pull out his phone.
“Maybe we should call for…”
“NO! We’re NOT calling for help!”