Senior Seminar, Part III
“I want everybody at Kathy’s camp tomorrow morning. Wait for me there.” With those final instructions Pam huffed into the Sonoran night trailing her anger like a cloud of locust.
Laura poked bitterly at the fire until she couldn’t contain herself. “Why’d you tell them about the fish?”
“I don’t know,” said Ray. “It just came out.”
“You could have said anything. You could have said nothing! Tell them Laura’s taking a piss and she’ll be right back! Damn it, Ray! Now we have nothing!”
Sargento. Marine Biology, Instruction. Whatever sales pitch Zeigler used to attract marine biologists to the program year-after-year the responses undoubtedly came down to, “It beats working at an aquarium.” In 1977 Seminar got a two-fer: a husband and wife team, both superbly qualified to fail at inspiring a bunch of bone-headed seniors in the Mexican desert. They did give good effort in an ultimately futile endeavor. If you construct a caricature of a 1970’s hippy-dippy science couple you would not be exaggerating in any respect.
We awoke from our first night’s sleep in Argento to witness pure madness – and we thought we’d seen insane beach behavior from the Federales a few days before.
One of the groups was apparently led by General Patton. He had his kids dunk themselves in the sea first thing upon waking up. He gave it some catchy phrase the memory space for which I’ve repurposed. The morning temperatures were cold enough to doff the down parka until the fire and the sun got about their business. The Patton-wannabe worked hard to generate an aura of bravado around this clear case of child abuse.
Pam was not a morning person and neither was her group. We propped up on our elbows to watch in amazement, from the warm comfort of our sleeping bags, as the insane group ran chest-deep into the sea then dunked themselves. The thing I learned from them was that it is impossible to strut and shiver at the same time.
After breakfast the camp was abuzz over an amazing find at the marine biology zone. Since that was our day’s assignment we headed straight over to see for ourselves.
Whatever the pair of marine biologists had intended to teach us went right out because sometime in the night a six-foot-long squid had chosen to die yards from their tent, beaching itself as if donating it’s body to science (and dinner). They were practically jumping in place in their excitement over both prospects.
Somewhere they had found a table on which to lay out the squid and begin to dissect it. Our general disinterest frustrated them almost as much as the “ewww” factor but they pressed on, pointing out all the super-cool features of the big, slimy length of goo on the table. Things were turning in their favor until the bearded husband with round John-Lennon glasses enthused about the beast being featured on the evening’s menu. While outright choking might not have occurred the Gag-o-meter pegged for most of our group. Kevin, to no one’s surprise, said he’d eat it.
In answer to the most pressing question from our group the hippy biologists declared the death the result of natural causes (as best they could divine under the circumstances) and therefore safe to eat.
It was later reported to have been excellent. I remain skeptical to this day.
Sargento. Marine Biology, Practical. Freed from our scholastic obligations for the day most of us set about exploring the precincts. In the process I heard the word estuary for the first time. The Sargento area had a tiny little estuary (if the term had been applied correctly) of beautiful, still sea water about chest deep lined with trees and a sandy bottom.
Living in this little bit of heaven were a smallish species of crab roughly the size of a salad plate. Dave learned that the biologists possessed a long-handled fishing net. Armed with the net and information that the crabs were edible, several of us began our first crab hunt.
The well-thought-out strategy was to wade out into the estuary, peer into the water, watch for the sea-spiders skittling about, and then scoop them up with the net. It was all fun and games, huge fun in fact, until some of the crustaceans objected to our invasion of their homeland and the forced deportation of their kin to our kettle. A surprise attack on one of Dave’s big toes drew howls of pain, anger and frustration. Another of our assault team screamed out. Then another.
The crabbian defensive efforts resulted in a lowering of the required crab count to those already in the bag. We beat a limping retreat.
That evening Pam borrowed a stock pot for the special feast. I don’t eat much seafood and generally gag on crustaceans but I decided to give the crab a go and found it to taste marvelous, not seafood-ish in the slightest. They were the tuna of crabs. We were all, however, in the early stages of a condition that would not become fully evident until the final days in the desert and so that may well have been a factor.
Sargento. Shipwrecked. The Sonora desert had few dangers we needed to be aware of. Rattlesnakes, we had been informed, probably were not out-and-about due to the cold nights but scorpions needed to be on our minds at all times.
Sleeping bags were rolled or stuffed every morning without exception. As soon as you got out of the bag it was to be stowed away immediately. Before hitting the bushes, before anything. No article of clothing was to be donned without a vigorous shaking, especially boots. Every stick of wood picked up had to be inspected and beat against the ground whether we saw a scorpion or not.
These were not paranoid or theoretical instructions. We saw the stinging buggers every day. I still perform this action on my shoes and boots before putting them on.
After breakfast Pam huddled-up with Zeigler then returned to our camp with grave news: we had just been shipwrecked.
Each member of our groups, sans Pam who would not be participating in the exercise, was allowed to carry one item from their pack while no more than two of any type of item (say, sleeping bags) could be taken by the group. No food, no water. We had five minutes to choose our items then head for the unnamed spec of an island a couple miles away where we would spend the night.
This island is so insignificant nobody bothered to name it, perhaps due to it being an island only at high tide. The rest of the time it connects to Sargento via a long sand bar.
The long, cold night ahead dictated our choices but only two sleeping bags could be brought. We quickly identified two that had full zippers then everyone scrounged for anything that could be employed either over or under us. It wasn’t going to be enough.
We hiked out to the island with high enthusiasm. The lee of the island proved the only real option for our camp as the rest of the island was a steep drop into the sea. Plenty of driftwood to keep the fire going without having to hit the mainland.
Several of us decided to take a swim before the sun went down and for some reason we went to the seaward side. The ground fell away just as rapidly below the water line so that it was chin deep only a few feet from shore. I felt the ebbing tide instantly pulling me away from the island with a force I’d never experienced before.
I swam for all I was worth back the short distance to the shore, awed by the unseen power churning beneath the waves. It is impossible to imagine the strength of the tides until you’re in them and often by then it is too late. I was thankful for the lesson without having to endure the full lesson.
The fire got started, the tarps spread, and then the battle for the center mass began. Two sleeping bags and a couple of other items would only benefit those in the middle of the dog pile. Rocks and twigs tormented everyone equally, however. Not much sleep that night for anyone.
Sargento. Day Off. The following day our only task was returning to camp. Hungry from the shipwreck exercise we raided the crab beds again in retaliation for our previous injuries.
Our food planning included several treats including Jiffy Pop popcorn, hot chocolate, and a homemade trail mix we called Gorp. There was enough hot chocolate to indulge every evening while the Gorp disappeared quickly when brought out and so was husbanded carefully.
In the evening while on firewood patrol Barb found a scorpion under one stick. She dutifully whacked the stick against the ground then returned to camp. As she was adding her armful to the pile the scorpion, which had clung on in spite of Barb’s effort, emerged and stung her on her bare thigh.
Barb screamed and everyone ran to her side. The sting became instantly swollen and inflamed. Zeigler and another adult hauled her to one of the buses and raced back to Kino. She returned late that night but we stayed up waiting. The swelling was significant but not life-threatening. Barb never complained about it.
I awoke in the middle of the night to a blazing moon hanging high in the night, casting her beacon across the mirrored sea. A pair of silhouetted Coyotes frolicked at the shoreline. I watched for several minutes then succumbed to fatigue once again.
Tomorrow was a big day.
Laura, Ray, and I vented all of the woulda-coulda-shoulda’s we could think of then fell to silent waiting. I tracked the moon across the sky in an attempt to estimate the return of our away team. In the distance I heard faint splashing which I announced as the others nearing the camp.
Sure enough, before long Dave, Kevin and Vince appeared in the firelight, breathless and excited.
“We couldn’t find the space blanket,” Kevin announced.
“Doesn’t matter anyway,” said Laura while stabbing the coals with a stick.
We had some ‘splaining to do.