Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Belief, Reality, and Marks on the Reef

It’s being widely reported in the media, and it’s accurately discussed at  In a nutshell, the Earhart Forum’s Richard Conroy has detected an interesting anomaly in the 2012 side-scan sonar imagery of the Nutiran reef at Nikumaroro.  Detailed analysis has led to the suspicion that it may represent the fuselage of Earhart’s Electra, leaving a debris trail as it slid down the reef face and was simultaneously displaced by the south-flowing current.

I see that at least one television news channel (admittedly, the foxy faux one) has been saying that we “believe” the thing to be the Electra.  This strikes me as typical of the tabloid media; reality is all about what we “believe” to be true.  Which may be what reality is, but we science-types like to think (believe?) that we’re trying to discern reality, not make it up.

And what we discern is what seems to be a sort of diagonal mark on the reef face, which might be some kind of natural formation – but if it is, it’s the only one like it we can see – and which looks a lot like the signature of something about the size of the Electra’s fuselage, working its way down and along the reef face under the combined influences of gravity and the N-S current.  And its location is sensible vis-à-vis where we hypothesize that Earhart landed, and where Eric Bevington photographed the “Nessie” object in 1937. 

Until we can get an ROV down on the site, we won’t know whether it’s the Electra or not, and what any of us “believe” is irrelevant.  Gerald the Skeleton may know, but he’s not talking.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Gerald's Adventure, Part Nine (The End)

The Continuing (but here concluded) Adventure of Gerald the Skeleton on Nikumaroro, 2010.

The expedition was almost over.  The two TIGHAR ships – Nai’a and VVs1 – hovered off the northwest reef while Jesse, John and Walt sent ROV down on his last dives; AUV was already tucked away in the forward deckhouse, relaxing.  At the Seven Site they were drilling cores out of trees, flying kites with cameras on them, scanning with ground-penetrating radar, and continuing to scratch along in their excavation lanes, but nobody was really expecting now to turn up a smoking gun, not this year.  Grandpa Tom was pleased with the information they’d collected, but frustrated because they hadn’t finished all the lanes.  Ric was just frustrated.
Last Days at the Seven Site
Karl bores a ren tree
Radar probes the depths
The Site from a Kite
One night I went to the forward deck house to talk with AUV and ROV.  Maybe they could help me figure out what to do about the airplane, and the Sheel family.

“You have come to the right place,” ROV buzzed when I’d explained the situation.  “Machine intelligence is 725% faster and 362 % more reliable than meat-based intelligence.”

“Those percentages have been disputed,” AUV grumbled, “but in general terms….”

“Yes,” I said quickly; “that’s why I’ve come to you – besides the fact that I can’t talk to the humans.  So what do you think I should do?”

Both machines were silent for a time.  Finally AUV spoke.

“It is not our normal function to exercise judgment.”

ROV flashed several LEDs on his display -- red, yellow and green.  “But we understand how it is done.  Let us weigh the facts.  You are certain, Gerald, that what you saw is Amelia Earhart’s airplane, correct?”

“Yes, it looked like it, it’s in the right place, and no other airplane….”

“…is recorded to have crashed here; correct with at least 92% confidence.  So it is almost certainly what the TIGHARs are looking for.”

“Well, they're also looking for evidence of what happened to Ms. Earhart and Captain Noonan after they got here, particularly at the Seven Site.”

“Not relevant for current purposes.  The airplane is the so-called smoking gun.”

“Yes, it would prove their hypothesis.”



“So, the answer is simple.  If your highest priority is helping the TIGHARs do their research, you must find a way to tell them.  You could perhaps access someone's computer....”

Somehow this answer didn’t satisfy.  I couldn't think of anything to say, and found myself just looking out over the dark sea. The sky was full of stars.  A passing pod of dolphins cast sparks of phosphorescence. 

“Perhaps,” AUV buzzed, “that is not Gerald’s highest priority.”

“I’m just thinking of Sheel, and all his chum,” I said softly.

“Living creatures,” AUV said, and if a machine voice can be sympathetic, his was. 

“Meat,” ROV interpreted, but from him it didn’t sound insulting or dismissive.

“Yes, living…..”

ROV's LEDs blazed red.  “They will find it anyway,” he said firmly.

“…creatures… uh, why?  Why will they – who, the TIGHARs? – why will they find it anyway?”

ROV hesitated for a moment, LEDs flashing different colors.  Then they all glowed steady yellow.

“I have imaged pieces of it – probably pieces of it.  73.8% probability.”

“What?  Where?”

“Up the reef slope from the location you give for Sheel’s house, and below the feature photographed in 1937, that the TIGHARs call Nessie.  Linear and curved objects, not consistent with natural formations.”

The 1937 Nessie Photo
Nessie enlarged
“Pieces of the airplane, then, scattered down the reef face!”

“83.976 probability, assuming Sheel’s house is the airplane and Nessie is a piece of landing gear.”

“So Jesse already knows.”

“Jesse does not know.  Jesse has not yet analyzed the imagery.  But when he does, he will know.”

“Oh dear.”

Multi-colored LEDs flashed on both robots.

"Oh dear?" AUV inquired.

"Well, I.... er...."  I lapsed into embarassed silence.  So did they, but their LEDs flashed.  Finally ROV spoke.

“I tentatively, conditionally conclude from your words, Gerald, that when confronted with the reality of the aircraft’s recovery and the loss of Sheel’s residence, your preference is to leave it where it is.  Am I correct?”

My empty head ached, but I had to acknowledge that he was right.  I nodded.

“I interpret that as an affirmative, correct?”

“Yes.  Correct.  Affirmative.”

“Well then….”  Lights flashed all over the display panels on both robots; for the first time I realized that they communicated with each other via by a wireless network.  The LEDs settled down to a steady green glow.

“We have decided,” ROV said, “that we will not let them find it.”

“What?  How.”

“ROV will cook the data,” AUV buzzed, and I swear there was glee in his voice.

I looked from one robot to the other, confused.

“Cook the data?”

“I will adjust the resolution on the imagery so as to make certain images very hard for a meathead to interpret, and I will muddle the navigational data….”

“So,” AUV put in, “even if they do see something, they won’t know where it was.”

“This will not save Sheel’s home forever,” ROV cautioned, “but I calculate between a 77.2 and 99.8% probability that it will delay its discovery at least two years, considering the typical frequency of TIGHAR expeditions and the challenges inherent in fundraising….”

"And the lifespan of a sheel," AUV added, "is only two years."

“Oh.  But….”

“But calculating the probability of human actions is not an exact science.”

"And there is a 99.714% probability of new generations of sheels."

"However, they will not be our sheels."
My tibiae and fibulae felt weak; I leaned heavily against the bulkhead.  “But – your job is finding the airplane!  How can you just decide not to?”

“It has been said,” AUV buzzed after a moment, “that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.  There are how many TIGHARs?”


“Eight hundred seventy seven world wide at last count.  And how many sheels?”

“Uh…. Four thousand eight hundred and – uh – forty six.”


“One can also consider qualitative factors,” ROV hummed, somehow sounding self-satisfied.  “Is having a secure and happy home not more important to meat creatures than solving some historical mystery?”

“Whose solution,” AUV put in, “has less than 0.2% probability of making the world a better place for man or machine?”

I sat slowly down on the deck.  “You guys are making value judgments?”

“Many capacities of the machine mind,” said ROV – a bit pompously, I thought – are not yet understood by meatheads.”

"And plastic is derived from organic molecules," AUV added.

So that’s how it happened.  Something Jesse couldn’t explain scrambled ROV’s data, greatly compromising the maps he tried to make, and obscuring the suspicious things that ROV actually imaged, while leaving enough innocent things to be seen – the rope, some steel bars that were probably lost fishing spears; things like that – that the TIGHARs thought they were getting a more or less accurate picture even if they couldn’t tell just where anything was.  Ric blamed Jesse, Jesse blamed machine errors, and nobody ever guessed that the machines did it deliberately.

Departure Day: the Boats Come Aboard
And then the day of departure came.  SSv1 left first, for a cruise around the island before heading back to Samoa.  Awhile later Nai’a winched in her boats and turned her prow south.  The TIGHARs lined the rail and watched as the island’s shores slid past; I watched out the salon window.  I could make out filmy shapes hovering over the remains of the Norwich City, and knew that Ismael and his brethren were wishing me a safe journey, insh’allah.  Honk and Honkette flew over and dipped their wings before flying back to little (well, not so little) Honkito.  I couldn’t see Polly, of course, and who knows where Clavicle was.  A whale spouted in the distance, and I fancied it was Ginger.  Dolphins played in our bow wave; red-tailed tropicbirds hovered over our wake.
Niku falls astern

And as we slid past the southeast end and began to take the long rolls of the unimpeded Pacific, I thought I saw a couple more ghosts watching us from the shore.  One of them had curly hair and a checked shirt.

SSv1 overhauled us not long after Nikumaroro had dropped over the horizon astern, and quickly left us behind, but we all made it safely to Apia in Samoa after three days at sea.  There Grandpa Tom took off my legs again and with Tom Roberts’ help packed me back in my box.  I rode a truck to the shipping company’s warehouse, and it was there that I was able to get out, work my way across to the office in the dark of night, and start composing these letters to you, Noah and Jake.

Samoa in sight

With love, your peripatetic (Polly said that means wandering) skeleton,

Noah, Jake, and their mom anxiously await Gerald's homecoming

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Gerald's Adventure, Part Eight

The Continuing Adventure of Gerald the Skeleton on Nikumaroro, 2010

The Excavations Continue

There were just a few days left in the expedition, and some of the TIGHARs were getting pretty worried.  AUV hadn’t found any airplane parts in the lagoon.  ROV had found some metal and rope on the reef (far above Sheel’s home), but it didn’t look like anything from an airplane.  Down at the Seven Site they were finding things – metal and bottles and animal bones, buttons and even pencil lead.  Grandpa Tom reported every evening on what they’d found, and everybody talked about them.  Grandpa Tom and Ric often argued about how to interpret what they found, and Karl kept shouting “I disagree!” just for the fun of it.  Sometimes Gary, Ric, Grandpa Tom or others composed silly songs that they’d sing to keep everybody’s spirits up.  But they weren’t finding what they kept referring to as “the smoking gun” that would prove that Amelia Earhart had been at the Seven Site, or anywhere on Nikumaroro.  It made me feel very conflicted; should I tell them what I knew?  If so, how?  And if I did, what would happen to Sheel and his chum?

One night I crept out of the salon while everybody was on deck playing guitars, singing songs, and watching the star theater.  Down by the stern platform Frederick was waiting; he never told me how he knew I’d be coming.  I slipped over the side, grabbed the edges of his shell, and away we went. 

As we closed in on the Club Fred beach, I could see something going on there.  Two somethings, actually.  AUV was back on the ship, but Honk and Honkette were both there, jumping up and down and flapping their wings.  Their egg had hatched!  Their baby – a pretty big baby bird, all covered with fluffy grayish feathers, was reeling around on unsteady feet, and his parents had their wings full keeping him from running into trees or stumbling and falling on his face. 
Honk and Honkito
But the big excitement was among the ghosts.  They were everywhere!  I’d seldom seen so many ghosts, even on Halloween back in Cutler Ridge.  Adult ghosts and baby ghosts, woman ghosts and man ghosts, all drifting ghostily around among the trees, mostly in groups of three or four.

“Wow!” I burbled, getting water in my mouth and spitting out a small fish.  “What’s going on?”

“Their egg hatched,” Frederick grunted.  “Pretty exciting, in the life of a bird.  Now, when we lay our eggs…..”

“No, I mean the ghosts!”  Then I remembered that he couldn’t see them.  “Oh, never mind – yes, you guys are much calmer about your eggs.”

“Yup, bury ‘em in the sand and hope for the best.  No muss, no fuss.  What ghosts?”

“Oh – uh – I was just thinking about something else.”  I’d seen Ismael and the other Norwich City ghosts sitting under a palm tree talking.  “If you’ll just let me off here at the beach, I think I’ll visit the village again tonight.”

“Suit yourself; I’m going to drift out here in the cove and get some sleep.  Rattle some bones when you’re ready to go back to the ship.”

“Thanks, Frederick; you’re a real friend.”

“Hey, it’s not every day I get to hang out with a skeleton.  Enjoy the village; I hear it’s pretty spooky.”

That was putting it mildly.  Ghosts everywhere, drifting up and down the overgrown streets, sitting around in the ruined house sites, strolling – well, ghosts don’t exactly stroll, but they put on a pretty good imitation – up and down the beach.  I found Ismael and his friends under their tree.

“Salaam aleikum, Ismael effendi,” I said politely, as he’d taught me.

“Gerald effendi; waleikum a salaam.  Praise be to Allah, the merciful and compassionate, who has brought you back to us.”

I bowed to him.  “It is kind of you to speak so, Ismael.  But what is going on?  Why are there so many ghosts?”

“So many?  Oh, Gerald effendi, a thousand pardons; we have not explained.”

“Explained what?”

“We are – uh – always here – all of us.”

“But,” Usama said, raising a filmy finger, “’always’ implies the existence of 'time,' and as we all know…..

“True, true, brother,” and they all began to explain things to me, or to each other; I wasn’t sure which.  I couldn’t really get it all – it was about time and space and what exists and what doesn’t, but I guess the main message was that the ghosts were there on the island all the time, and at the same time in other places, and at the same place in other times, but there were only certain conditions that allowed the reality we experience to connect up with theirs, and tonight those conditions – whatever they were – were right.

“So all these people died here?” I asked, watching what seemed to be a family of ghosts drift by – a lady ghost, a man ghost, a little kid ghost.  The man was telling a story, and his family were laughing.

“It is true,” Ismael nodded, “as did all the crabs, birds, fish….”  I hadn’t noticed it before, but there were ghostly crabs and other animals scurrying around.  I looked for Polly, but all I could see were ghosts.

The village in 1942.  Lots of brave people died here, so there are lots of ghosts
“Most of the people ghosts were colonists from other islands, may peace be upon them.  And then there are a few – there, for example – “  He pointed a misty finger at the beach, where two male ghosts were drifting along, deep in conversation.  Both were tall and thin; one wore khaki shorts and a starched white shirt, and the other was in dark shirt and pants.

“There, for example, are Gallagher effendi and Captain Noonan.  Salaam aleikum, my friends.”

Gerald Gallagher himself?  And Captain Noonan!  Could that be Fred Noonan?  Amelia Earhart’s navigator?  The two ghosts came drifting over, smiling.

“Waleikum asalaam,” they both said politely, with little bows. 

“Welcome to Nikumaroro, Mister Skeleton,” Mister Gallagher added.  “I’ve not seen you here before.”

“Thank you, Mister Administrator, and greetings.  Yes, I’ve been here only a few weeks, with the TIGHAR group out there on the ship….”

Captain Noonan slapped his forehead and shook so hard his ectoplasm almost dissolved.  He was laughing.

“Those poor numbskulls,” he chortled, “looking for Amelia and me, and that bloody Electra.”

“Well,” I said, somewhat offended for my friends, “what’s wrong with that?  You’re obviously here.”

“Oh indeed we are.  But frankly, Mister Bones, who gives a….”

“Now, now, Fred,” Mister Gallagher put his spectral hand on Captain Noonan’s filmy shoulder.  “What Captain Noonan means, Mister – er….”

“My name’s Gerald, sir; actually Grandpa Tom named me after you.”

“Well, I’m – er – honored, I’m sure.  Anyway, Gerald, what Captain Noonan meant was…”

“Really Gerald,” Noonan interrupted, talking to Mister Gallagher, “I’m capable of explaining it myself.  Look, Gerald, we’re dead, aren’t we?  Myself and Amelia?”

“Of course, sir,” I said quickly, “there’s no denying that.”

“So they’re not going to find us alive, are they?  Rescue us or something?”

“No, but they’re looking for evidence…..”

“Ah, and that’s what’s so endlessly amusing.  Watching them find something we left – like pieces of Amelia’s compact, or that pot she kept her freckle cream in, and puzzle and puzzle about what they are, so earnest and taking it all so seriously….”

“And of course what’s even funnier,” Mister Gallagher put in, “is watching them puzzle over things you DIDN’T leave, but WE did, or the Coast Guardsmen did, all with the same sort of earnestness, wondering if it could be yours….”

“And you know, Gerald effendi,” Ismael added, “it is really something of an insult to Gallagher effendi, and to us from the Norwich City, and to all the brave colonists who died here, for your friends to be so…so...”

“Fixated,” Mister Gallagher offered.

“Fixated.  Thank you.  Fixated on Amelia hanum and Fred effendi.  Are we all not equal in the sight of Allah?”

“Indeed we are, Ismael effendi “ – the voice came from behind my shoulder, and made me jump.  “But not in the sight of American public opinion.”

“Salaam aleikum, Amelia hanum,” all the Arab ghosts said in unison, while Mister Gallagher made a slight bow and Captain Noonan raised a hand to his brow.

She came into the loose circle of ghosts and looked at me.  A slender ghost with short curly hair and a checked shirt.  Just like her pictures in the books the TIGHARs kept consulting.

“So,” she said, “you’re with those TIGHAR types, are you….”


“Named after our Gerald?  That shows a little class, but you've a lot to live up to."  Mr. Gallagher made a dismissive hand wave, as Ms. Earhart went on.

"So tell me, Gerald, why do they want to find us?  They know we’re dead, yes?”

“Oh yes, but what happened to you is a great mystery.  People wonder about it, argue about it ….”

“Yes, I’ve heard about it from my mother and sister since they came over – all the wild stories about being captured by the Japanese, or being so incompetent that I – we, sorry Fred – ran out of gas and went into the drink.”

“Well, so the TIGHARs want to solve the mystery.  And they think you landed and died here.”

“So, you can tell them they’re right, and they can stop wasting money coming here and disturbing the birds and crabs.”

“Oh, Amelia,” Captain Noonan objected.  “It gives us something to make jokes about.”

“And,” Mister Gallagher smiled, “it’s rather fun to throw false clues in their paths.”

Captain Noonan chuckled:  “Or clues that aren’t quite false, like that shoe.”

“The shoe they found in 1991,” I asked, “that looked like Miss -- er, Mrs. Putnam’s but was too big?”

“Right,” Ms Earhart giggled.  “My shoe all right, but part of the pair I wore with thick socks when it was cold in the plane, so bigger than the ones they had pictures of.  Has that confused them as much as we planned?”

“Oh yes, it was very embarrassing when one of the people who thinks you crashed in the sea pointed out how the size was wrong.  They still argue about that.

“Good, good.  Argument keeps their brains alive.  But I’m really of two minds, Gerald, about whether to let them find us – or find the plane.  Find definitive proof.  What do you think?”

“Why not?”

“Well, it would bring the mystery to an end, wouldn’t it?  And don’t you think people need mysteries?”

“I don’t know.  I’m a plastic lab skeleton.”

"But a very well made one, I must say."  I would have blushed if plastic could blush.

"And a modest, brave and wise one, Gerald effendi," Ismael said with a bow.  But Amelia hanum, surely it is not for us to decite whether the TIGHARs will learn the truth.  Such decisions surely lie only with Allah, the all-knowing."

"Well, to avoid another interminable theological debate, Ismael -- granting that we have ample 'time' for such things -- let me just take the matter under advisement.  Perhaps I'm being selfish...."

"It would be a shame if the TIGHARs stopped coming," Mr. Gallagher mused.  "They're endlessly amusing."

There was a bit of a silence, as though everyone were recalling a favorite TIGHAR episode.  Then Mr. Gallagher shook himself.

"In any event, Gerald, I'm delighted to be your namesake, and very pleased that you've come to talk with us.  Very glad to have met you.”

“Goes for me too,” Captain Noonan reached out to shake my hand.  “But I’m afraid the sun’s coming up, and they’re likely to miss you if you don’t get back to the ship.”  He stepped over to the beach and let out a shrill whistle.  In just a couple of minutes Frederick came swimming up, looking confused.
TIGHARs head for the beach in the morning; I had
to be back aboard before they got up.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Gerald's Adventure, Part Seven

The Continuing Adventure of Gerald the Skeleton at Nikumaroro, 2010

It was a dark and stormy night….  Really, it wasn’t that stormy, and it was getting along toward morning, when the wind changed and blew Nai’a onto the reef.  Big bump, scraping sound.  Karl screamed “We’re gonna sink!  We’re gonna die!”

The Nai'a
But we didn’t, and in the confusion I was able to just step off onto the reef and stroll over to the Norwich City.  I looked around for Ismael, and pretty soon I found him, leaning on thin air where the ship’s rail used to be, along with three other ghostly sailors.

“Skeleton effendi!” he greeted me.  “It is good to see that Allah has preserved your bones another day.”

“Greetings to you, Ismael effendi,” I said, trying to be formal.  “It is good to see you, and your friends.”

“Forgive my discourtesy,” he replied with a sweep of his hand.  “Allow me to introduce Ahmed, Yousef, and Usama.”  They all murmured their greetings, and drifted down through the air to hover just above the reef.

“We were just considering,” Ismael said, “a trip to the other side of the island, to visit the Great Crab Clavicle.”

“Clavicle? “ I asked, fingering my collarbone, “why’s he named after one of my bones?”

They all looked at me rather oddly, and let me tell you, ghosts can look at a person VERY oddly.

“You have bones, effendi, named for the Great Crab?” 

“Well, no, -- uh – Usama.  My clavicles – these two bones right here – have always been called clavicles.  I don’t know about this great crab.”

“Beyond the knowledge of mortals,” said Ahmed solemnly, “are the ways of Allah.”

“It is truth,” said Ismael, and with that he and Usama took me by the hands and floated off through the trees. 

It’s fun to fly with ghosts, but a little strange, too, because there doesn’t seem to be anything holding you up.  And they sometimes forget where they’re going.  But this time they stayed on a steady course, down the lagoon toward the Seven Site.  I began to get worried.

“Uh… fellows,” I said, “those hermit crabs down there….. they get awfully hungry…..”

“Very greedy,” Ismael agreed, “but do not worry, Gerald effendi.  They behave themselves around the Great Clavicle.”

Soon we swooped down into the forest just north of the Seven Site.  It’s known as the buka forest, because the trees here are bukas; being biologists, Mom and Dad would call them Pisonia grandis.  They’re big, gray-barked trees, very soft wood, with big holes and gaps in them.

The Buka Forest
 And in one of these holes – the biggest one around – lives Clavicle.
Clavicle's House

He was the biggest crab I’d ever seen.  Unlike the gang at the Seven Site, he wasn’t carrying anybody else’s shell to hide in.  He was just out there in the open, but bigger than my head, or even my pelvis, with great huge sharp pincer claws.  He was crouched inside his den, under the buka tree, looking out at the world with mean looking little red eyes. 

Ismael and his shipmates all bowed to him.

“Clavicle effendi,” Usama said, “we have come again to greet you.”

“Yeah, well,” the crab sneered at them, “don’t be expectin’ any o’ yer A-rab hospitality from me, bub.  I don’t care if you live or die.”

“Indeed, great Clavicle, this you have taught us.  But since we can no longer do either thing….”

“Don’t be tellin’ me no riddles, ghost-guy; I got no time fer ‘em.  Lots to do.”

“Like – er – what?” I asked – I just couldn’t help myself.  Clavicle turned his red eyes toward me, then turned back to Usama.

“Who, or what, is that bunch o’ bones you brought to clutter up my courtyard?”

“He is Gerald, effendi, our friend, who came here with those living ones, those humans….”

Clavicle rose up on all his legs and snorted; I thought he was going to charge at us.

“The HUMANS!  You mean them TIGHAR critters?  The ones who come around here poking things into my courtyard and windows and doorways, and carrying things away?”

“The same, effendi, but Gerald….”

“The walking food bags who won’t lie down long enough fer me to even snatch a bite of lunch?”

“Yes, effendi, but Ger…..”

“Don’t ‘Yes, effendi’ me, bub!  So, how come you didn’t bring me one with some meat on his bones, instead of this – this – “

“I’m a laboratory skeleton, Mister Clavicle, made of the highest quality museum-grade plastic, and I’m a friend of Noah’s and Jacob’s, too!”  I was getting a little bit angry.

“Well, I don’t know-a who Noah is, and I don’t know Jacob from a corn cob, but I can see that there’s nothing worth eating on you.”  With this he snorted and backed into his hole, until all I could see of him were his two beady, angry-looking red eyes.

“Alas,” Usama shook his head.  “It is so often thus with the great Clavicle.”

Ismail nodded.  “His mind, I fear, is ever on his gut.”

“Unenlightened,” Ahmed agreed, “and an infidel’s infidel, but entertaining in his way.”

“But it is time for prayer,” Ismail said.  “Gerald effendi, we must take you back to the shipwreck.”

It was a good thing they did.  The crew had gotten the Nai’a off the reef, and divers were down checking the hull for damage while the TIGHARs all stood around chatting about their adventure and Ric worried about what could have happened if the ship had hit just a little harder.  A second TIGHAR ship -- the swanky VVs1 -- had arrived just a few days before, so they would have been rescued, but it would have been a tight squeeze, and I wonder what would have happened to me……

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Gerald's Adventure, Part Six

The Continuing Adventure of Gerald the Skeleton on Nikumaroro, 2010

Nikumaroro Sunset

One night after all the TIGHARs had gone to bed, I was tiptoeing out to the stern when I stumbled over something – it was ROV’s tether, lying all coiled up alongside the cabin.  It’s a huge long tether, because it has to carry all the wires and things that control where he goes and that bring photos and sonar images back up to Jesse.

“Watch the tether!”  ROV grumbled.

“Sorry,” I said; “I didn’t see it, there in the dark.”

“Hah!” he said, and switched on one of the bright LED lights he uses to see and take pictures underwater.  I would have been blinded if I’d had eyeballs, but luckily I don’t.  Anyhow, there was the tether.

“So,” he said, “I was thinking of going for a dive.  Want to come along?”

“Don’t you need Jesse?”

He laughed his buzzing, electronic laugh.  “Naw, I let him think I need him, so he’ll keep me plugged in, but I can do whatever I want, all by myself.  Come on!” 

So I grabbed hold of him – unlike AUV, ROV is a little square guy – and he slipped over the side.
“How deep do you want to go?”  He asked.

“I don’t know; how deep CAN you go?”

“300 meters.  That’s about a thousand feet.  Want to go?”

“Uh…. Sure.” 

So down we plunged into the dark water, which got steadily darker as we sank.  We were dropping right down along the face of the reef – it was like a huge cliff, and we were floating down its front.  A shark swam up and looked me in the face, shook his head and swam away.  We dropped down through a whole school of tuna, all slivery and flashing.  We were pretty deep when a little skinny guy came swimming up with a big smile on his face.

“Hey, Sheel,” ROV said.

“Hey, Rovie,” Sheel squeeked.  I’d never heard ROV called Rovie, but the name kind of fit him.

“We call him Sheel”, Rovie explained, “because he’s shaped like an eel but has a head like a shark.  Nobody topside” (he meant on the surface) “had seen one until I ran into him down here.”

“Are you all alone, then, Sheel?”  I asked, feeling kind of sorry for him.

“Oh no, there are lots of us, but mostly we live deeper down.  I just come up here now and then to see the sights.”

“You have a family down there?”

“Sure, five wives and 4,280 chum.  Want to visit?  We have a really neat house.”

ROV shook himself.  “Sorry,” he said, “but we’re as deep as I can go.  Beyond this the pressure gets too great; I’d be smushed.”

“How about your bony friend?”

“Oh, he’d be OK, but he has no way to get down and up again.”

“No problem!”  Sheel swam off into the darkness, but pretty soon he was back, and there was somebody really big with him.  I mean REALLY big – as big as the Nai’a, or maybe bigger.

“This,” said Sheel, “is my friend Ginger.  She’s a whale.”

“Ginger Whale,” I said, thinking I’d heard her name before.  “Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you, too, Mister Skeleton.”  She talked in a funny combination of deep hums and high-pitched squeaks, kind of musical.

“Actually, my name’s Gerald.”

“Well, I’m glad to know you, Gerald.  So you want to see Sheel’s palace, huh?”

“Uh – yes, sure, I’d love to.  But it’s awfully dark down there…..

“No problem!” buzzed Ginger and Sheel together.  “Well just gather some phosphorescent plankton!”  And they swam off together and came back with globs and globs of glowing plankton on their heads.

“Now,” Ginger boomed, “hop aboard.”

“I’ll see you topside,” said Rovie, and disappeared toward the surface.

I had to hang on tight to Ginger’s back – luckily it was all rough, like sandpaper, and there was a harpoon sticking out of it that I could use like a handle.  She dove straight down.

“Nice of you to have this handhold,” I gasped, short of breath because she was going so fast.

“Not my choice.  Stuck in me by some jerk from Japan.  Claimed he was doing research.  Research, my blubber!  Anyway, I got away, and it stopped hurting after awhile.  Ah, there’s Sheel’s place.”

The cliff-like face of the reef had begun to level out; the slope had gotten a lot more gentle, and there were lots of rocks and boulders lying around that had tumbled down the slope and come to rest on the bottom.  But Ginger – following Sheel – was making for something different.  It was a long, silver-gray thing shaped kind of like a big tube, with some clear windows on the end, all draped in seaweed.  There was some kind of a flat extension off to one side, with something round on it.  But all of a sudden there were hundreds of little sheels bursting out of the thing, swimming all around us, bubbling: “Daddy! Daddy!”  Sheel called them his chum, and he tried to introduce us all, but there were really too many, so he got me to slide off Ginger’s back and come into his house.  There was actually a door in the side that I could walk – well, swim – right through.

Inside, the place was lighted with plankton.  Up behind the windows n the front there were seats kind of like the ones in the salon aboard Nai’a, and a lot of instruments kind of like on the bridge.  I rubbed off the scum that coated one of them.  There was a sign on it; it said “Altitude.” 

Suddenly I realized.

“This is an airplane!” I said.

“What’s that?”  Sheel asked.

“Uh… well… “  How could I explain flying in the air to somebody who’d never even seen the surface of the sea?  “Uh… well, it’s a kind of a ship thing….  Uh, how long has it been here?”

“Oh forever, Sheel said,” but Ginger, hovering outside the window, shook her great head.

“No, not forever,” she said.  “I remember, when I was just a calf, there was a big storm on the surface and your house came sliding down from up above.  Just like those fishing boats and things that fall out of the surface from time to time.”

I was thinking as fast as my empty skull would allow.  “And – uh, about how old are you, Ginger, in human years?”

“I don’t know, what’s a human year?”

I was trying to figure this out, when she went on.

“I know I’ve been on 75 migration cycles, if that helps.”

It did, because I know – I think Mom or Dad told me, or maybe it was you, Noah – that lots of whales migrate every year over great parts of the world.  So if Ginger had made 75 migration cycles, she was about 75 years old, and if she’d been a calf when this airplane slid down the reef……

“This,” I said, “must be Amelia Earhart’s airplane!”



“It’s my house!” said Sheel, rather unhappily, and all his chum chimed in: “my house! My house!”

“Oh sure,” I said; “I’m sorry.  It USED to be Miss Earhart’s airplane, but she doesn’t need it any more and it’s just great that it’s your house.  Thanks so much for showing it to me.”

“Say, Gerald,” Ginger bubbled, “I’m about out of air here.  You ready to surface?” 

And in less time than it takes to tell it, Ginger was on the surface, next to the Naia’s dive platform, letting me off, and I was trying to figure out how to tell Jesse and John and Walt that the airplane they were looking for was just out of their reach.  Actually, I was also thinking that maybe I wouldn’t tell them, because I didn’t want them or the other TIGHAR’s hooking onto Sheel’s home and dragging it to the surface.  Sheel really likes that airplane, and so do all his chum.  So I haven’t told anyone.  Except you guys, of course.
Where Sheel Lives

Gerald's Adventure, Part Five

The Continuing Adventure of Gerald the Skeleton on Nikumaroro, 2010
After my encounter with the crabs, I stayed around the ship for awhile, resting in my corner and contemplating what it means to be a plastic skeleton in a world of flesh and blood. 
Me, contemplating my identity in Nai'a's salon
Thanks to Leonid Sagalovski for catching me unawares
When I was first manufactured, the scientific supply company called me X17Z23856HS, but when I went to live with Grandpa Tom, he started calling me Gerald and the name stuck.  Over time, I learned that he had named me after Gerald Gallagher, a young British colonial officer who had been in charge of the colony established on Nikumaroro in 1939.  Listening to Grandpa Tom and the other TIGHARs, I learned that this Gerald had died on the island in 1941, and was buried there.

So after a few days sitting around with the laundry, which Suliana and Richie piled in my corner of the salon to be sorted and claimed by the TIGHARs, I decided to visit the ruins of the colonial village and see if I could find my namesake’s grave.

“I can’t help you much,” Frederick said when I told him what I had in mind.  “Like that sharklet said, humans stay on land, or ought to, and I suppose that’s where the village is.  We turtles only go ashore to lay our eggs, and about the farthest we go inland is the edge of the beach.  Crabs go all over, though, so one of them might guide you.”

“I think I’ll give that a miss.”

“Suit yourself.  I can take you to the landing channel, where the TIGHARs go every day; I think that’s close to the old village.”

A few minutes later, we were paddling up a long channel through the reef flat, and then clambering up the beach.

“There used to be a big tall stone thing here that the old people built; it was all white – very interesting.”

“I guess it was to guide their boats in.”

“Maybe; impossible to say what makes people do what they do.”

Thanking Frederick for the ride, I walked up the beach and into the woods.  It was dark, but since I don’t have eyes anyhow, that didn’t matter.  The woods were full of sound – palm fronds scraping against each other in the wind, the occasional “thump” of a coconut falling to the ground, and the constant scurrying sound of crabs. 
The Village
Not far inland I came on the remains of an old wooden building with a tin roof, collapsed on the ground.  I was puzzling over what it might be when I heard a squeaky voice from somewhere near my feet.

“It was the Gardner Cooperative Store.  Gardner is what the humans called this place before the wise ones taught them that it was Nikumaroro.”

I carefully backed up a pace or two, scanning the ground.  No crabs. No birds, no eggs.  But…

“Right here, Mister Bones.  By your left calcaneus.”

There, by my left heel (How did he know its scientific name?) was a little ball of fur.

“Oh!  A mouse!”

“NOT a mouse, if you please; I’m a Polynesian RAT -- Rattus exulans, and I exult in that fact every day.”

“Oh, I beg your pardon.”

“Apology accepted, but please don’t let it happen again.  There are no ‘mice’ on Nikumaroro.”

“Oh.  Well,…..”

“My colleagues and I are the only mammals here, not counting the occasional transient Homo-supposedly-sapiens.”  Our ancestors were great voyagers who came here by canoe long ago.

“Your colleagues…?”

“We are approximately eight-hundred-ninety-seven in number, we R. exulens – give or take the passing elderly and the newborn, and those who fall victim to the cold-blooded killers.”


“Crabs, yes.  Especially the beastly Birgus latro.  But enough of that.  What brings you to the sad, flattened remains of the Gardner Cooperative Store, established 1940 but not on this site?”

“Uh – I’m looking for the grave of Gerald Gallagher, but how do you know so much….”

“Sorry, we haven’t been introduced.   I doubt if you could pronounce my R. exulens name, so just call me Polly.  And you’re the Gerald those booby birds on the beach squawk about, eh?”

“Why, yes; word travels fast.  But…..”

“How do I know so much?  We Nikumaroro rats are university educated; Nikumaroro University is just along the trail over there toward the lagoon.  It’s where the young humans used to go to school, and when they left – back in 1963 – they left all the schoolbooks.  All rotted away now, more’s the pity, but we – our ancestors, that is – had time to – er – consume their contents, and we’ve passed down the knowledge from generation to generation.  We hold classes regularly to share and update our knowledge.”

“Well, that’s truly remarkable, and I’m very glad to make your acquaintance.  Do you know Ismael?”

“Can’t say that I do.  Is he one of your TIGHAR friends?”

So rats don’t see ghosts either, I thought.  “No, no, just someone I met.  Anyhow, can you….”

“…show you the way to the H. sapiens Gallagher’s grave?  Certainly; I can show you ALL the sights of the village of Karaka – named after him, you know, but sometimes called Ritiati after the former High Commissioner…  well, are you coming?”
Polly leads the way to the village

Polly scurried off to the north, and I tried to follow, slipping on coconuts and stumbling through piles of fronds.  It wasn’t long before she came hustling back and hopped up on my shoulder.

“With fronds like this, who needs enemies, eh?  We enjoy word-play.  If it’s acceptable to you I’ll ride up here and guide you; otherwise you’ll lose me in the deadfall.”

“Very much obliged indeed, Polly.  It’s really pretty thick in here.”

“True.  You might want to do what the TIGHARs do – break off a palm frond and wave it in front of you as you go; it knocks down the spiderwebs.”

I followed her advice, having already gotten my head festooned in webs and several spiders in my mouth.

“The TIGHARs are quite amusing to watch,” she went on, “stumbling through the forest waving fronds in front of themselves.  They look like some sort of mad religious procession.  Now look down to your right; do you see that line of flat stones standing on their edges?”  I did.

“That’s one side of the street we’re walking up – the old Sir Harry Luke Boulevard.  Named for the High Commissioner who visited here in 1941.  Seven meters wide, lined with those coral kerb-stones, and long ago paved with crushed coral.  All grown over now, of course.”

“I’ll say.”  We were skirting a thick patch of Scaevola, and several clusters of coconut palms.
“Now, here,” Polly said with pride in her voice, “is one of Nikumaroro’s engineering marvels, designed by the great Jack Kimo Petro – truly a sapiens – and built by the colonists under his expert supervision.”  She pointed her nose at a dilapidated – but intact – concrete structure with a peaked roof.
The Cistern

“The cistern, without which the human colonists and their coconuts would have died of thirst.  The roof collects rainwater, which flows through those gutters around the sides and into the interior.  Holds 20,000 gallons, and even now it’s almost full.  Now, just keep going north….”

I stumbled on, and soon came to a low stone wall with a sort of gateway in it.

“Now we’re entering the Government Station.  This is where the colonial government – in other words Gerald Gallagher, plus the clerk, the policeman, Jack Kimo the Public Works Officer when he was here, and a few other local officials – lived and worked.  Most of the colonists lived in thatched houses over there….” Her nose twitched to the right.  “All vanished into the bush now, of course, though easily accessible by us R. exulens.  Here, go left and let me show you the dispensary.”

What Polly called the dispensary was made up of two high concrete platforms, evidently old building foundations, littered with medicine bottles.  Farther to the north there was a place where storm waves had obviously driven into the village, wiping out parts of the street and any buildings that might have stood there.

“It happens more and more often these days,” she commented.  “The sea’s getting higher for reasons that we debate but have yet to work out, and the storm surges come farther and farther inland.  Here’s where the great Jack Kimo Petro used to live….”

The great Jack Kimo’s place was relatively clear of vegetation, though it had clumps of coconut palms.  Also a big square water tank, some gear wheels, and what looked like a picture I’d seen of a cement mixer.

“Did Mister Petro make it so clean and neat?”

“Even Jack Kimo couldn’t do that.  Anyhow, he left during World War II – you know about World War II, don’t you?”

“I’ve heard of it.”  The TIGHARs actually talked about it a lot.

“Big fighting, but nothing much happened here – except there were some sailors who lived down at the far end of the island….”

“The Coast Guard.”

“Is that who they were?  Heavens; I didn’t know that.  What else can you tell me about them?”

“Not much.  They were here to operate a radio station of some kind….”

“Ah, of course; that accounts for all the electronic items the colonists collected after the sailors departed in 1946.  Very interesting…..  Anyway, where were we?  Oh yes, Jack Kimo left during the War.  The place is relatively clear of vegetation because the TIGHARs cleared it a couple of years ago.  Then dug very neat little square holes in the ground, made maps, wrote a lot of notes that we’d have loved to get our paws on, and went away.  Sadly, we don’t know what they were doing, or what they found.”

So this was the Carpenter’s house, I thought; I’d heard Gary talk about it.  He’d been in charge of the dig there.  I almost told Polly, but she was already urging me on.

“Over there to the left is the wireless station – blown over in a storm before I was born, and the TIGHARs cleared and mapped and dug around there, too.  And straight ahead…” (We were going east now) “…is the Rest House.”

What I saw was a huge pile of rotting coconuts.

“Yes, well, that’s the TIGHARs again.  When they cleaned up the wireless station they dumped the detritus on the Rest House.  I heard one of them say they’d recorded it, and the stuff would protect it from the elements.  It stirred up a lot of insects and things.”

“That must have been nice for you rats.”

“Oh, indeed; a veritable feast.  Anyway, underneath there’s a big cement platform with holes for the upright posts; it was quite a large, handsome house, all thatched, I understand.  Burned down long before I was born.”

“So this is where Gerald Gallagher lived?”

“Yes, he certainly did, and where he died; very tragic for the H. sapiens.  If you turn around and walk that way – no, a little to the right – you’ll see his grave.  It’s right in the middle of the parade ground.”

“I’ll take your word for that.”  The parade ground was grown up in coconut palms and scaevola just like the rest of the village.  But there, with a palm at one end, was the grave monument – like a tiny cement house on a coral platform. 
Gerald Gallagher's Grave
“You see that big log there on the ground, with the cross-piece and the big pulley?  That was the flagstaff.  He was buried at the foot of the flagstaff, where the Union Jack would fly over him every day.  It’s so romantic and tragic!”  Polly sniffed; I wondered whether rats could cry.

On the end of the monument, facing the coconut tree, there was a brass plaque; it looked pretty new.  I stood silently and read what it said:

“In affectionate memory of Gerald Bernhard Gallagher, M.A….”

“That means ‘Master of Arts; it’s an academic degree.”

“Ah, yes.  ‘Officer in Charge of the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme’…

“That’s where we are; the Phoenix Islands.  And the Settlement Scheme was the plan to colonize the islands.  The acronym is…..”

“PISS; yes, I know.  ‘who died on Gardner Island, where he would have wished to die, on the 27th September, 1941, aged 29 years.’”

“Such a young man,” Polly sniffed.  “In the prime of life for H. sapiens.”

“’His selfless devotion to duty and unsparing work on behalf of the natives of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands’…”

“They were a British colony then, God save the Queen; now they’re independent as Kiribati and Tuvalu.”

“Ah, yes.  ‘…were an inspiration to all who knew him, and to his labours is largely due the successful colonization of the Phoenix Islands.’  But of course, the colonization wasn’t a success, was it?”

“No, sadly.  It would have been far better for us – R. exulens, that is – if we still had a human colony here, but they all went away.”


“That means Rest In Peace.  And he has.  Some people came after the colonists left, who said they were charged with digging him up, but they didn't; they just took the original plaque.  One of my ancestors knew a relatively trustworthy B. latro who burrowed down to check, and he’s still there.  Probably looks a lot like you.”

I found that strangely touching, and would have shed a tear if I had tear ducts.  I read the rest of the plaque:

“’Erected by his friends and brother officers.’  And then it says it’s a reproduction, re-dedicated in 2001 by TIGHAR.  I didn’t know they’d done that.”

“Back in my great grandfather’s time.”  Why did everyone else have great grandfathers?  "They held a ceremony – laid a Union Jack on the tomb and made speeches, and their leader sang a song; Great Grandfather said he had a very nice voice.”

“Yes, he does; that’s Ric.  Well, so that’s who I’m named after…..”

“After whom you’re named, you mean to say.  Quite an honor, indeed.  And I’m honored to meet you, Gerald.”

“And I to meet you, Polly.  Thank you so much for guiding me here.  It’ll be light soon, so I’d better get back to the ship….”

“Oh yes, quite.  It’s just a short walk now to the beach where those boobies flap around and your machine friend lies buzzing.  I’m so glad to have met you, Gerald; your story will make a great addition to our archives!”