How Come Nobody Told Me About All This Stuff?


I’ve had a lot of pleasant surprises in my life. I can look across the room and see one of them sitting in her recliner sound asleep, and she is second to none. But the one I got just a two weeks ago when I casually went out on the Internet to take a peek at an island I happened to be reading about is a close second. 

I was reading a book called “Man Against Nature: Tales of Adventure and Exploration,” written by Charles Neider. It’s a great book for anyone who likes reading true stories of people who have found themselves in a position where they had to do their utmost to stay alive. On the other hand, as the author points out, if you are looking for a book about people who deliberately placed themselves in harm’s way, look elsewhere.

Anyway, I was re-reading something I had read many years ago, the tale of a man who, found guilty of some unnamed crime aboard a Dutch ship cruising the Atlantic, was set ashore on a deserted island as an alternative to execution. The ship’s captain who set him ashore provided him with a tent, a keg of water large enough to last a man a month, some pots, a pail, seeds, a prayer book, clothing and writing materials. The man kept a diary. As his small supply of water began to run out he scoured the island for more, but found only a few places where rainwater had collected. He soon drank up his water and found himself reduced to eking out his small supply by drinking the blood of turtles and birds that he managed to catch. Though he stretched out his life as long as he could, he apparently died of thirst in a few months. 

The first time I read that sad tale I had a rough idea where Ascension Island was: Level with Recife, Brazil, about halfway between Africa and the western bulge of South America. In other words, in the middle of nowhere. But this time, being spoiled by the Internet, I decided to go have a look at the place.

Happy thought. Happy day. Happy result!

I opened Firefox, went to Google Maps, took a glance at Ascension Island in Map view, decided to have a better look in the Satellite view, did that, and decided to zoom out so I could get a better impression of what “nowhere” looked like from 100 miles up.

What a moment! But before I tell you what I saw, let me tell you why it was so important to me.

I’m a scientist. Been studying science since I was old enough to read. Read a couple of small Air Force libraries dry over the years and took more than 90 semester hours of courses by correspondence with American universities while in the service. When I retired from the Air Force with a new life ahead of me, I took an undergraduate degree in chemistry, physics and biology, ending up with about 50 hours more than my degree required. 

Hey, Johnny! When I finally made it through the door of an institute of higher learning at age 41 I wanted to learn everything there was to know.

It began all the way back in third grade. I think I must have been born a scientist. As far back as I can remember — and I mean as early as 5 or 6, I found myself doing unlikely things like lying on my belly and studying the life in a mud puddle. I had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. I just wanted to know! Know! Know! It didn’t matter if it was up in the sky or down on the ground, I wanted to know what it was, how it worked, and why.

I have forgotten — or probably repressed — the name of my third-grade teacher. One day she was talking about geography. I was looking at the map of the world in our book, and I made a startling discovery. After she finished talking and assigned us some desk work I went up and showed it to the teacher.

“Look!” I said, showing her the map happily. “South America and Africa fit together.”

She didn’t even look at the map. She just frowned in my face and said, “No they don’t, Thomas.”

Hey, Johnny! She might have well have slapped me across the face and challenged me to a duel. My eyes told me one thing; she told me another. One or the other of them had to be wrong and I set out to find out which it was.

Next week, “The Rest of the Story.”


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