Saturday, May 11, 2013

Gerald's Adventure, Part One

Gerald the Skeleton came to live with my family and me in the mid-1990s, when I was preparing a slide show for the U.S. Department of Agriculture about how to recognize human bones that might turn up in farm fields; he's an anatomically (but not always politically) correct plastic skeleton, who I disassembled and buried, then exposed parts of to photograph for the show.  Reassembled, he lived in our attic for some years before moving to Miami (specifically Cutler Ridge), Florida, where today he lives with my biologist daughter Rachel, her biologist husband Paul Richards, and especially their kids, space scientist-in-training Noah Richards and paleontologist/geologist-in-training Jacob Richards.  In 2010 he accompanied us to Nikumaroro with a special work assignment; only later did we learn that, while awaiting transit home from Samoa after the trip, he'd taken advantage of the shipping company's computer to write Noah and Jake about his adventures.  He's now searching for an illustrator and publisher, but has given me permission to post his letters here.

Gerald (center) with Tom Roberts (R) and me (L);
Apia, Samoa, 2010 on return from Nikumaroro
So here's the first one.
Dear Noah and Jake,
Thanks so much for letting me go on the TIGHAR Niku VI Expedition.  It was a lot of fun, and I want to tell you all about it.
As you know, I flew all the way to Samoa on a big jet airplane, in the box that you and Mom packed me in.  It was very comfortable, even though you did have to take my legs off.  I waited around in a warehouse in Apia, a city in Samoa, for awhile and then went on a truck to the harbor.  Grandpa Tom unpacked me; we were happy to see each other.
Grandpa Tom put my legs back on and took me aboard the expedition ship, the Nai’a.  “Nai’a” means “dolphin” in the language of Fiji, the island country where the ship is usually docked.  But she’s not docked very often; mostly she sails around taking divers to see Fiji’s beautiful coral reefs and fish.  And she takes the TIGHAR teams up to the Phoenix Islands every few years to look for Amelia Earhart.  Mom or Dad can tell you all about Amelia, and why TIGHAR’s looking for her.
My job on the expedition was a pretty easy one.  All I had to do was sit in the ship’s salon and let people look at my bones.  You see, back in 1940 – that’s so long ago that even Grandpa Tom hadn’t been born yet – people on Nikumaroro Island found some human bones just like mine, but they found only thirteen of them, and as you know, I (and you, and most other people) have hundreds of bones.  Grandpa Tom and the other TIGHAR people think that the bones may have been Amelia’s, and they want to find the rest of them.  The trouble is, the site where they think the bones were found – they call it the Seven Site – is a sort of ridge (like Cutler Ridge, but not as big, and without any houses; come to think of it, it’s not much like Cutler Ridge at all).  Anyhow, it’s a kind of ridge made up of broken pieces of coral.  As Dad and Mom can tell you, corals are little sea animals that grow in all kinds of shapes, and leave their skeletons when they die (just like people do).  Their skeletons are in all kinds of shapes, too, and when gazillions of them have died, their skeletons form islands like Nikumaroro.  So the Seven Site is made up of all these broken up coral skeletons, and it’s really hard to tell the difference between a piece of coral and a human bone.  So Grandpa Tom wanted all the TIGHAR people to look closely at my bones, so they’d know what they were looking for at the Seven Site. 
When everything was loaded aboard Nai’a, we sailed for Nikumaroro.  It’s about six hundred miles between Samoa and Nikumaroro – which everybody calls “Niku” – across open ocean.  On the first day it was really rough, and the ship rolled waay over to port (that’s left) and starboard (that’s right), back and forth and back and forth.  But I didn’t get seasick because, of course, I don’t have a stomach.
Leaving Samoa
The second day the ocean was smoother, and everybody started getting things organized to go to work when we got to the island.  Grandpa Tom put together screens for sifting dirt, which was actually pretty silly because there’s almost no dirt at the Seven Site.  His friends John, Walt and Jesse assembled the ROV and AUV – these are machines that go deep underwater and take pictures.  Other people sharpened their bush knives and trowels and made sure their cameras were working.  My new friend Tom Roberts got his total station running, so he could map where things were found.  Ric, the Boss TIGHAR who's in charge of everything, did all kinds of things and talked with everyone and occasionally played his accordian.
We finally got to Nikumaroro, which is a beautiful little island without any people on it at all – except the TIGHAR people when they’re there.  Every morning after breakfast most of them would get in a rubber boat called a Naiad and go ashore.  John, Walt and Jesse would work with the ROV and AUV to explore underwater in the lagoon and on the reef, while everyone else got in another Naiad in the lagoon and rode down to the Seven Site, which is clear down at the other end of the island.  There Grandpa Tom and his friends laid out areas to excavate, and they dug and dug looking for bones and stuff that Amelia might have left.
I stayed aboard the Nai’a, which spent most of its time tied to the wreck of a big steamship that crashed on the island many, many years ago; about all that’s left of it now are the engine, some tanks, and the shaft that the propeller was attached to.  I just sat in my corner of the salon and watched Suliana and Richie, and the others who take care of things.  They cooked, cleaned things up, and made sure everything was in place for the TIGHARs to eat and sleep and take showers.   I also watched the sailors, who kept the ship working, fished, told jokes, played the guitar and sang, and sometimes drank kava.  Mom and Dad can tell you about kava.  It actually got pretty boring.  Every afternoon the TIGHARs would come back all hot and sweaty and dirty, and over dinner they’d talk about what they’d done that day on the island.  I got pretty interested in the island, but nobody offered to take me ashore.  So I decided to go by myself, if I could figure out a way.
At night after everyone went to sleep – and they went to sleep early, because they were so tired, except for a few people who sat up in the bow and watched the stars (They called it “Star Theater”) – I started getting up out of my corner and exploring the ship.  I went up to the bridge and down to the engine room, up to the bow and back to the stern, very quietly so nobody noticed me.
Back on the stern there was a platform for getting in and out of boats.  I liked to go back there because I could be close to the water and talk with whoever came swimming by.  I got to be friends with a lot of dolphins and sea turtles, and talked with a couple of sharks, too, though the dolphins said not to trust the sharks, they were tricky and might try to bite me.  Anyway, one night a big green sea turtle named Frederick offered to take me ashore, so I climbed on his back and held on tight to his shell while he swam over to the island.  I got all wet when he dived down into the deep water, but of course I don’t have to breathe so I didn’t drown.  Frederick swam right into the lagoon, and let me get off at the nice long sandy beach where the TIGHARs kept their lagoon boat.  They call the place Club Fred.  I was really happy to see AUV sitting there, and he was glad to see me.  He said he was charging his batteries; he was all hooked up to solar panels like they use on spaceships, but of course it was night so he wasn’t really charging right then.  He said he was fully charged and would take me anywhere I wanted to go around the lagoon. 
Club Fred
Very close to AUV’s camp, two big birds were sitting on an egg.  Actually they weren’t doing so at the same time; they took turns.  They were a mommy and daddy – or would be when their egg hatched.  They were brown-footed boobies, named Honk and Honkette.  They had one egg that just sat there on the ground being an egg, and one of them sat on it all the time while the other one went out and caught fish to eat.  They were very proud of their egg.  They let me see it, but not touch it, and they squawked really loud and flapped their wings if I got too close.  I couldn’t blame them; it was their baby, after all.
So from then on, every night as soon as the TIGHARs went to sleep, I’d tiptoe back to the stern platform and Frederick would take me into the lagoon.  Then I’d talk with Honk or Honkette, whichever one was on duty, and then climb aboard AUV and we’d go around looking at stuff and having adventures.
To be continued

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