Rogue Birder Goes to Washington
For more years than most anyone cares to remember, the United States was attempting to duke it out with North Vietnam. Because I was a 1960’s young Danny McSkunk, that is, a male and breathing, worry that the war would consume me one way or the other was a constant. The situation had my attention when I checked for Rogue country warblers in the spring, extracted a junco from a mist net, while counting birds on Oregon islands, all the time. One fateful day, a draft notice arrived. Luckily, so to speak, I had already joined the Navy in a program that allowed me to finish school before requiring me to active duty. By active, I mean not just having my attention, but standing at attention.
In early summer of 1967, I had just turned in all college requirements and had packed for a few days birding up the coast of Oregon. The respite was welcoming. In 30 days hence, I knew orders from the Navy would be arriving, requiring me to pay my dues. However, paying up came prematurely when a phone call from the local Navy recruiting office said one of the people presently supposed to go to boot camp had somehow escaped the noose. I was to fill in the gap, to be the maker of the month’s quota. Trying to explain that I was scheduled to become sailorly next month fell on deaf ears. The uncaring voice on the other end said I had 45 minutes to grab a toothbrush and transportation to San Diego. So much for birding up the Oregon coast or even offering meager pleasantries to friends and relatives.
As I recall, although that time was a blur, I boarded a bus to Portland where they, the military, confirmed I was breathing, could cough on signal and that my hearing was sufficient to hear commands and derogatory comments for the new sailor on deck. Then they flew me to San Diego. Maybe the Navy put me on a plane from Medford to San Diego or maybe put in a box and shipped to California by train. I just do not remember. I was too shocked to put in nicely, to register what was being done to me.
What happened for the next weeks should not happen to anyone except those who want it. For those that do want it, I salute them, something I learned to do in boot camp. Boot camp was not fun. Compared to the neighboring Marine boot camp, the Navy training was easy, but it was not fun, it was a four-letter word. Being three or four years older than most of my intimidated and scared companions and that weeks earlier I had taken college weight training that involved daily running, did help me cope emotionally and physically. My age, albeit youthful, also helped me see through some of the verbal and physical abuse. My company commander, a chief on his last assignment, stepped up the heat on me personally when I refused to opt out of the enlisted ranks for officer candidate training. Strange, most chiefs, I learned later, disdained officers.
There was more than one moment when I thought of scaling the tall fence surrounding the huge impoundment with its quarters, mess hall and the grinder. I felt like a prisoner. I felt worse on the grinder, the acres and acres of blacktop we grunts marched on, up and down, sideways, until our blisters on our feet burst. It was no fun. Perhaps I should have opted to be an officer, but I reasoned, officers are subject to recall, and I wanted the military experience over and done with as soon as possible. In addition, I was tired of classrooms and told myself I could survive the name-calling and slaps and kicks from the company commander’s two minions that were not supposed to render abuse. Unlike a recruit in our so-called sister company who was killed by over-zealous trainers, I somehow survived and flew home for Thanksgiving.
Time home was barely long enough for a Rogue Birder to put in practice a few birding tricks. What a delight it was to see the freedom of a Red-tailed Hawk, Mourning Doves, towhees, and what a surprise that summer and fall were gone, replaced with juncos and Golden-crowned Sparrows in the valley. Before I could think, I was back in San Diego, this time to attend navigation school. Initially, the Navy thought I should be a corpsman since I had taken so many courses in zoology. My interpretation of corpsman is not someone who is in the corps, but someone who attempts to prevent someone from becoming a corps. No thank you, sir. No sir, no how, sir. I told them I only knew about birds and pointed to my nose and called it an ear. No, not really. I might have been court martialed for such unmilitary behavior. Luckily, I was granted to be an assistant to the navigator, once I attended a few weeks of training. Being an assistant navigator meant being on the bridge of a ship vs. throwing up below deck. As assistant navigator, I might even be able to throw-up on the captain. It was be possible on the bridge to know where and what was going on. Most importantly, it could be a good chance to observe pelagic birds.
Speaking of observing pelagic birds, five years earlier during my visit to Smithsonian, I met some people planning work on pelagic birds. The study, called the Pacific Project, short for Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program, got off the ground in 1963. Division of Bird’s Phil Humphrey, who I had met in 1962, remembered my interest in working for Smithsonian. The project needed people, and with a few years of school behind me, I became a candidate. Sadly, by the time I received a letter from Smithsonian offering to hire me while fully dressed in my Donald Duck suit in San Diego. Had the Pacific Project hired me before induction into the Navy, the employment would have replaced my time in the military. I could have been a contender. However, I was not, and the word “sadly” was sadly off the mark since playing pop-eye was now mandatory for years to come.
The classes on navigation included more math than I could imagine. This all before GPS and was taught as if even calculators did not exist. Columbus would have been proud of anyone passing the frequent tests. Between classes, I managed a few birding forays. Bus rides took me to the country scrub and seashore where I managed to find Gambel‘s Quail but not much more. Being without binocular did not help. Back in class one day, someone ordered two other students and me out into the hall. I knew I should have studied harder. Were they kicking me out of class to become a corpsman and eventual corps? Much to my surprise, someone asked the three of us who would like a transfer to Washington, D.C. Everyone, of course, said yes. Surprisingly, I got the nod.
Before heading east, I navigated home for a little rest. Being a Rogue Birder now seemed almost foreign. My destiny was chosen for me and I arrived at Washington National Airport, was bused to a rundown set of buildings full of beds and bed bugs and two days later, transported to a set of World War II barracks on a hill above the Pentagon. Across the Potomac River was greater Washington, D.C. and some of it was smoldering from devastating riots. Had I escaped one war across the Pacific to witness another in my own country? For someone that did most of their growing up in less than cosmopolitan Rogue Country, the smoke wafting in the air was a shock. Thankfully, the answer to my question about war, at least in this country was no, the country was not under direct attack. Washington would soon calm, but not until after April and the wounded neighborhoods would be rebuilt, although, as I would see, very slowly.
My Naval career in Washington, D.C., is not much to contemplate. It started simply, working with three sailors dyed in the wool anti everything but themselves. The color of their necks put any Redhead or Canvasback to shame. Luckily, I received an invitation, as if the military invites, to work in the bowels of the Pentagon. It was an opportunity to shed myself from my three hateful musketeers. What I did there is something I cannot repeat, otherwise I would have to kill whoever heard or read of my assignment. Let us just say it was similar to boot camp in that it was not fun, but did teach me a little about preparing information for consumption by people much higher on the food chain than me. Two aspects of my job were fine. The first was sitting in a darkened windowless room while watching part of my contribution to the intelligence gathered from the world causing an occasional gasp of surprise by a member of the big guns. Of course, I had already coiled from much of what went into that show and tell. That was not fun. The second aspect of the so-called fun was that during most of the week, I was able to accomplish my duties in less than four hours per day. That left at least four hours of idle time that I used to read a couple of bird journals and dream of the day I would again be a Rogue Birder.
The long days continued, over and over and over. As a break, weekends and some evenings were times to volunteer at Smithsonian in the Division of Birds. Specifically, donation of my time went to the Pacific Project. Measurements were needed for several pelagic species, including hundreds of specimens of storm-petrels. The specimens retained some of the odors familiar to birds on Goat Island, the musky odor that transported me momentarily back to the wild subterranean colony. Later, I would discover odors unique to other species. Specimens of Osprey retain a definite fishy smell, one that quickly causes the air downwind from an open specimen case to reek. Vultures sometimes offered a whiff not to wear after a close shave.
While volunteering, exposure to Pacific Project specimens of Red-footed Booby lulled me into wanting to know something about their geographic variation. By now, the conundrum concerning taxonomy of Savannah Sparrows seemed far away, if not unattainable. Having access to the second largest bird collection in the United States was dazzling. So many birds and so little time.
Reality required me to get back to, huh, whatever I was doing at the Pentagon. In the meantime, I married. Volunteering for the Pacific Project continued. Museum time was interspersed with second jobs. My first was as an employee at a miniature golf course on West Potomac Island where I once camped in 1962. The campground is now gone. Later I toiled as an attendant at an Arlington, Virginia, service station pumping gas, changing tires and waiting for the clock. By 1970 Jack Anderson, local columnist and self-appointed watchdog, and others had gathered half-truths about the Pacific Project. Part of the funding for the project was from the U.S. Army. Anderson, with others, engorged from their own paranoia and, with lack of a good fact checker, destroyed one of Smithsonian’s important programs. Information about countless seabirds banded as chicks was lost. That is because many pelagic species require several years to reach maturity and by the time they do, the Pacific Project is only a memory. A party, really a wake, took place on a country estate overlooking the Potomac. Dillon Ripley, most usually addressed Mr. Ripley instead of Dr. Ripley, as Secretary of Smithsonian invited Pacific Project employees and volunteers.
Of course, there is more to the story, but belief of a connection between the data for the Pacific Project and alleged biological warfare was nothing more than imagination. The Army might have been paying for a kind of ecological impact statement since they may have been planning something harmful to the Pacific environment. That might have been no more ominous than gathering data for an environmental impact statement that an individual or business would file before building a factory, a housing project, a place to park tanks or other weapons. Who knows? But why shoot the messenger. Why attempt to tarnish Smithsonian’s good name? I would like to think that sine Mr. Ripley knew the real James Bond (expert on West Indian birds) and he would not have purposefully allowed Smithsonian to be under a cloud of suspicion. Suffice to say, Mr. Ripley was as sad as the rest of us mourning the loss of opportunity to know more about birds of the Pacific Ocean. Nineteenth Century Captain Charles E. Bendire, who visited Jackson County during his career in the U.S. Army at Fort Klamath, might have been up to no good. Would the Jack Andersons of yesteryear write he was something other than Bendire publicly presents? Was all the specimens and information about birds Bendire gathered some sort of ill-gotten gain? As for all those birds studied in the Pacific, many dedicated ornithologists, several of who were members of the project, continued to mine the Pacific Project’s mass of data already collected.
Something did happen that overshadowed the wake of 1970. In the fall of that year, I became a father. Fast-forwarding, Sarah has her PhD and elected to stay in the region of her birth, where she became a school administrator in Virginia and later an educator in Connecticut. Her contribution to Rogue birding would occur between birth and teaching, but, once again, I am getting ahead of the story.
Less than a year later, the Navy turned me into a civilian. I was happy to sail out the Pentagon door and happier three days later when was I working at Smithsonian for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That was my beyond lucky day. At that time, there were no open positions with Smithsonian. However, calling the sister office, the Bird Section of the Fish and Wildlife got me to Richard C. Banks. Before I could state my reason for calling, Dick (then Dr. Bank) stated he had heard I was looking for a job and would I be interested in working with him. He became my my immediate supervisor and I became a member of the Biological Survey. The survey began as the Section of Economic Ornithology in the Section of Entomology of the Department of Agriculture in 1885. Finally, after reorganization and renaming, the name Bureau of Biological Survey stuck in 1905. The Bureau became the nucleus of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The specimens collected under the auspices of the Biological Survey were at first housed separately from the Smithsonian in the National Natural History Museum. Merger of the two collections was complete by the 1940’s. Finally, and until some bureaucrat changes the name yet again, the parent organization starting in the 1800s remains the National Biological Survey.
As for being proud to be a member the National Biological Survey, that could not have been further from the truth. I was walking the halls of C. Hart Merriam, Edward W. Nelson, Alexander Wetmore and many other members. I even being paid by the same parent organization that paid them, but I needed to do more than simply be an employee. I needed to do something to earn the membership. The next day could not come soon enough.