Friday, September 25, 2009

Howz Yer Legs?


Back in Bermuda, when I wasn’t feeding fish, or out on the open sea Turtling, or helping the aquarists wrestle with the harbor seals to take their blood (a monthly activity that was dangerous for us, but entertaining for the visitors!), I was tucked away in a little pink one room house that was set off in a tangle of palms and under a huge old poinciana tree...it was Jen, the Head Aquarist’s office -- Jen took me under her wing the minute I arrived in Bermuda. She was in charge of the Bermuda Turtle Project and she had almost nine years worth of turtle data stored in a rusty file cabinet that she had been saving just for me. Jen was a strong tan tawny haired Bermudian woman -- she had blazing blue eyes and was the most sea worthy person I ever met in Bermuda. She and I connected on a few levels...one being that we rode horses. She took me riding a few times on the island -- loaned me a horse that had no brakes and laughed at my concerns that the mare might just take me into the middle of South Road. Jen was very properly Bermudian -- and she considered me to be extremely American, something that eventually I understood. She constantly corrected my spelling -- color was to be spelled colour and behavior was to be behaviour...she truly felt that I had learned how to speak and how to spell all wrong and she was determined to reeducate me.

But that filing cabinet, I was handcuffed to that rusty file cabinet for almost two years. On my first day at the Aquarium, Jen gave me the grand tour of the Aquarium and the zoo. I met all the staff and all the residents...the Galapagos turtles, the Parrot fish, the Trunk Fish, the Moray Eel the Flamingos, the Macaws, the Golden Lion Tamarin, the Alligator...I was thrilled that I would be surrounded by such wonderful animals and plants and people. And Jen was excited to have me there. My resume was just what she was looking for -- a data manager. After a fabulous lunch she took me back to her little pink office that sat behind the museum...a wonderful building that contained whale skeletons and my favorite; a giant squid in formaldehyde! We sat down at her messy desk and as the peacocks sauntered past the open window she told me of the file cabinet. Jen and her cohorts had been chasing and tagging green sea turtles in the waters of Bermuda for over 9 years. One to two times per month they would take the government fisheries boat out at various locations around the island -- on the reefs, in lagoons, beyond the reefs in open sea -- and there they would drop nets and catch turtles. The turtles were taken aboard the government boat where the equivalent of alien abduction would happen. They were measured this way and that, weighed, and had their blood taken. Then they were tagged with a nice big metal tag which was stapled to one of their flippers and as suddenly as they were captured, they were released. Some turtles were ‘recaptures’ as noted by their already existing tag.

All the information that was collected about these turtles was on paper in that rusty file cabinet -- all their measurements, and DNA info and weights, and notations of scars and injuries...recapture information, all of it. And there was no way to do anything with it. Jen couldn’t get any statistics or trends or reports about her years of work with the turtles of Bermuda. And because she couldn’t utilize her data, she couldn’t write grant requests -- Jen’s turtle project was running out of money.

Jen opened the cabinet and it made a horrible noise, an audible one and a psychic one, the kind of noise only a data manager can hear, like a dog whistle to a hound. Its the sound of disorganization and untapped information -- data managers go nuts at this sound. Suddenly I realized I was back in the business, like an ex-con who had just been released. I thought I had left all that back in the States with the big international conservation organization I worked for. I had come to this island to redeem myself in other ways, to feed fish and marvel at Galapagos turtles while they awkwardly ate lettuce leaves. But no, Jen opened that drawer and this ex-con looked at all that paper and I found myself saying, “okay Bugsy, just one more bank...this will be the last one, I swear and then we can go live in the High Sierras and we won’t have a care in the world.” Nine years of data -- no problem! And then she hooked me good, “And we will take you Turtling...one day or two days a month, out on the sea, you can help us tag turtles!” And now, every Jaques Cousteau television special I had ever seen replayed in my head -- I was a goner, where was my red watch cap?!

And so began a two year project in which I spent my mornings hunched over a little ancient laptop -- first to design a tidy little data base that matched the turtle forms, complete with a turtle diagram to note scars, injuries, and unique markings. And then came the data entry, turtle after turtle after turtle. All the while, out the window I watched tourists and school children and aquarium staff go by. I had a particularly excellent view of the back exit of the museum, which had a wide set of limestone steps, not steep, but gently rolling steps that brought the visitors out of the slightly musty smelling museum into a tropical paradise complete with the wonderful calls of the birds in the aviary.

Sometimes the tourists were so hypnotized by their entrance into this wonderland they would completely miss the fact that they were about to walk down a flight of stairs and on more than one occasion, I witnessed the tumble of a poor fat vacationer in badly fitting shorts and a pale set of thighs go tumbling down...cameras would take flight and there would be a rush to assist. And the usual result was embarrassment on the side of the visitor.

But one day, one Bermudiful day, as I sat there with my stack of sea water stained turtle papers, squinting and trying to discern the chicken scratch of some researcher, a handsome dark skinned Bermudian man came wheeling out of the museum in a motorized wheelchair -- and unlike just about every one I had observed leave that museum, he did not pause to take in the air of the little jungle, no, he had the hammer down, he was on some sort of mission, a suicide mission. And before I could even take a breath of humid island air to gasp, the man and his wheel chair went bumpity-bumpity-bumpity-bump down those limestone steps and he and the contraption landed in a face-down heap at the bottom. His wife came running out of the museum just as I reached the scene -- she had the look of a woman who had seen this all before, I took from her stance that this man was a bit of an Evil Knieval with that chair...perhaps she was even contemplating why she ever gave him that motorized wheelchair for his birthday last year anyway? That maybe she should have kept him in the old chair that required him to think before he moved.

I began my rescue...first I got the enormous chair cleared away from the accident victim -- the chair was heavy and the wheels were still whirring away, the throttle was stuck! The wife magically pushed something and the chair went silent. Just as we got the chair out of the way, Richard arrived. Richard was the tall, curly headed, barrel chested, boisterous, rum loving and fun loving Bermuda Aquarium and Zoo Director. He always had a smile on his face and he could charm a baby from an alligator’s jaws...which he probably had on a few occasions in that zoo. He stopped and our eyes met - I gave him this confident look as if to say, “No worries Richard, I have this all under control!” and so he waited.

The man rolled over, and sat up. The first thing I noticed about him was that both his legs had been amputated below the knees. He was thin and neatly dressed, something Bermudians were good at, they were the most well dressed people I have ever known. His camera was still hung around his neck. I figured he was probably a diabetic -- diabetes occurred in epidemic proportions among black Bermudians, and there were constant reminders around the island in the form of educational posters and public announcements were punctuated with testimonies from diabetic amputees. I kneeled down and straitened the man’s terrific straw hat and remembered that I had seen him land first on those knees, they looked a bit raw and so I quickly asked him, “How’s your legs?”

And like a bad Bermudian storm he blasted me, “GIRL, I AIN”T GOT NO LEGS!“ I sputtered and my face went all hot...I thought, well, yes he does, he has half of his legs...oh dear, what have I done? Richard swooped in. I backed away from the scene. Tourists were slowly walking by trying to ignore the wreckage.

Good old Richard, ”Oh man, we gotta do sometin’ about those stairs! Let me get you back up in your chair man!“ And smiling strong Richard lifted that cantankerous old man back in his chair. I slinked back to the little pink office and watched from the window as Richard did what he was best at -- he had that couple laughing and talking about Bermudian politics or some such thing and then I think he took them over to the zoo cafe and bought them hot dogs and they just had a wonderful time. In fact, it was like the wreck of the wheelchair had never happened. Richard calmed the sea with his guile.

The next morning I returned to the Aquarium. I made my usual walk by the Harbor Seals. I liked to stop there and watch them lap the pool a few times. Early mornings at the Aquarium were the best...no visitors, just a few staff running about getting things ready. By then I was a part of the scene there, I had the run of the place and every one knew me. As I stood watching the seals bullet through the clear water, Richard came swinging by, he didn’t stop, he just tapped me on the shoulder and with a big grin uttered ”Howz Yer Legs?!“ and I crumpled with embarrassment as he disappeared around a corner. And that was how it started, that’s how my nickname became ”Howz Yer Legs?!“ Every where I went in the Aquarium I was greeted with ”Howz Yer Legs?!“, I would never live it down.

1 comment:

Robert said...

Another fine story. "Turtling" is the verb of the week; I wish I could use it in the first person.