Monday, November 24, 2014

An Indignant North Dakota Camper

I had not thought about Lewis and Clark State Park in North Dakota for a very long time.  In fact it had almost completely slipped my mind until this morning when I was going through some old records from my life in North Dakota and found a reference to the park in one of my notebooks.

The park sits on the north shore of Lake Sakakawea, a gargantuan and thoroughly unnecessary reservoir that has inundated hundreds of miles of what used to be a free flowing Missouri River in northwesternmost North Dakota.  Lake Sakakawea was built to facilitate the development of a wasteful water development project conceived more than 50 years ago (and still not built today) and called the Garrison Diversion Project.  Garrison was designed to divert Missouri River water east into central and southeastern North Dakota to provide irrigation water for 0.6 percent of the agricultural acreage of North Dakota at a cost of more than $2 BILLION dollars.  The Benefit/Cost ratio for Garrison at the peak of its supposed usefulness was less than 0.5 to 1.  In other words, with a B/C ratio of .50 the American taxpayers would receive in benefits 50 cents for every dollar they invested in the construction of Garrison.  The project would also negatively affect nearly 20 National Wildlife Refuges and destroy more than 20,000 acres of native prairie – all to provide irrigation water to hard red spring wheat so you can have toast with your coffee in the morning.

Lewis and Clark State Park, on the north shore of this monstrosity known as Lake Sakakawea is about 900 acres of largely native habitat that was most likely set aside as mitigation for the destruction wrought by the construction of Garrison Damn and the resultant flooding of the Missouri River.  Ironically the two explorers after which the park is named, Lewis and Clark, would likely object strenuously to the destruction of the forest and river through which they paddled more than 200 years ago.

During the 1982 bird nesting season I was tasked with getting population estimates of song birds and raptors nesting in wooded draws in the western part of Nebraska.  Wooded draws are tiny strings of woody vegetation usually no more than 10 acres in size and generally in intermittent waterways or drainages in the highly arid western part of Dakota’s and eastern Montana.  Concern was expressed at the time about how much environmental damage would be brought on by anticipated coal development in western North Dakota and especially in how much damage would be done to songbird populations in these sensitive and highly unique woody vegetation communities. My job was to determine the species richness (number of species present) and to calculate population estimates for each species in these unique woody habitats.

A classic wooded draw on a prairie landscape in western North Dakota.  I was amazed by the diversity of birds and their population densities in these seemingly insignificant patches of woods.

In those days I had the enviable position of being the nongame bird research biologist at the highly prestigious Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in Jamestown North Dakota.  At the time Northern Prairie was one of the preeminent wildlife research facilities in the world and me, a snot-nosed kid from the north woods of Wisconsin, had the honor of working there. 

My pattern in those days was to leave home on Monday mornings and drive to western North Dakota where I would sample bird populations in randomly selected wooded draws Monday evening (for crepuscular birds like owls and thrushes).  I would then be out in the field before dawn on Tuesday through Friday sampling bird populations until late Friday when I would return home.  At the conclusion of the research I published this paper and one other in scientific journals and gave a paper about my findings at the Cooper Ornithological Society meeting in Arcata, California.

As a Federal employee I received a certain amount of money each day for my hotel lodging and for my meals.  I think at the time the maximum I could receive for a hotel was $22 a day and $12 a day for food.  If I spent more than the maximum of $34 a day, then I paid for the difference out of my own pocket.  If I spent less than that amount each day I didn’t get to pocket the difference.  Instead I saved the government X number of dollars each day I was away from home.

To say that my colleagues and I were despised by the agricultural community in North Dakota was an understatement.  The most commonly used phrase, usually uttered with a few expletives attached, was to refer to us as “leeches" on their tax dollars.  This came from overly subsidized wheat farmers who rarely paid any taxes themselves and had government support programs (provided by Congress) to ensure that they received a certain amount for each bushel of wheat produced.  If they didn’t receive that amount at the market the government would make up the difference.  If they produced too much wheat they still received that base amount but now the government paid to store their wheat until the price was better and they could sell the surplus production.

Yet we were the leeches.

In late June 1982 I had a series of wooded draw sample plots on which I wanted to count birds that were located along the north shore of Lake Sakakawea.  The nearest town in that area that had habitable hotels was Williston and if I stayed there, the Super 8 Hotel cost $22 a night which was the per diem maximum.  However one trip I had several sample plots not far from Lewis and Clark State Park and to save time (and money) I decided to camp in the state park.  The cost of a camp site was $2.00 a night and it was much closer to my sample plots than the Super 8 in Williston 25 miles away.

I remember well the day I camped there.  About 4:00 p.m., I pulled into the park in my vehicle with a US Fish and Wildlife Service emblem on the side and with US government license plates on the front and back.  Because I was a Federal employee on official duty I was given free access to the park but paid the person at the front gate $2.00 for the camping fee and I then received a receipt.  From the front entrance I then proceeded to the campsite where I pitched my 2-person tent at a site not far from the water’s edge.

We used to refer to my agency's emblem on the side of our cars as "The Target" because it gave antagonists something better to aim at.  By the time I moved to Nebraska we took the targets off our cars for the safety of employees and when I supervised our office in Ventura, California the emblems were removed and I would not let my employees wear the official Fish and Wildlife Service uniform because of the same safety concerns.

After completing my camp set up I sat at the picnic table provided with my site going over my notes and data sheets from that morning’s bird censuses in wooded draws several miles away.  As I sat there crunching data a man in a neighboring camp site strolled over my way. I assumed he was coming to have a friendly chat but instead he was on a mission.

“Saw your car there and wondered where you’re from,” he started.

I told him who I was, where I was from and what I was doing.

“Well what the gives you the right to camp on my tax dollar?”

I asked him to explain what he meant and he went into a diatribe about me a Federal employee pitching a tent and camping in a state park at the expense of him a loyal and no doubt heavily taxed wheat farmer (it turned out that he was a wheat farmer from nearby Ray, North Dakota). 

I long ago learned that, as we used to say in northern Wisconsin, “When you get in a pissing match with a skunk all you get is sprayed on,” so I opted for being informative rather than combative.  I explained my research project, why I was doing it and why I was in the State Park.

Rather than chill out he only became more livid now promising to call the governor (who had no authority over Federal employees) and the two US Senators from North Dakota (both life-long lovers of wheat and despisers of government employees).  Having heard that line so many times before in North Dakota it no longer phased me and that rather upset my antagonist.

Although tempted to give him the addresses and phone numbers of both US Senators (I carried them with me at all times for when I received these veiled threats) I instead started to pull up my tent stakes and leave the state park.

A large grin passed over the wheat farmer’s face as he saw that he had apparently won.  Without saying anything negative I just explained my position.  I said, “Sir, you’re right.  It is not correct for me to be camping at your expense.  When I travel the government gives me up to $22 a night to cover my lodging expenses.  I chose to camp here for $2.00 a night saving you $20 but since my presence bothers you so much I’m going to pull up camp and drive to Williston and stay at the Super 8 Hotel for all $22.00.”

Dumbstruck, my antagonist quickly realized that camping at “his” expense was a lot cheaper than me spending $22 of his hard earned dollars to stay in a hotel.  It was hilarious then to see him walk over to my tent and start putting the tent stakes back in the ground.  Now suddenly he didn’t want me to leave.

A year earlier, in a similar situation in Pembina, North Dakota I explained to a group of antagonists that if they paid taxes the average American taxpayer contributed 2.3 CENTS (2 point 3 cents) out of their total tax bill to the operation of my entire agency and therefore the cost of my existence was almost negligible.  I was prepared to tell this fellow the same thing but figured one lesson in tax policy was enough for him for one life time.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Day on Kinja

Everyone at Tiptoe’s Beach Bar in Charlotte Amaille harbor knew about Herman Wouk’s book Don’t Stop the Carnival.  “It’s one of the most famous things ever to happen to St. Thomas,” said Charlotte, a middle-aged woman working as a morning waitress and barmaid at Tiptoes.

Don’t Stop the Carnival tells the fictional story of Norman Paperman, a middle-aged press agent in New York City who one day suffers a mild heart attack.  While recovering and contemplating his future Norman reads an advertisement in the New Yorker about a hotel for sale on the island of Amerigo.  The island was called King George when it was under British rule but over time native islanders bastardized King George into Kinja.  With snow pilling up and his time clock running down, Norman makes a hurried trip to Kinja and after some dealings with a shifty associate purchases the Gull Reef Club and the result is a tropical disaster.

Wouk’s book was published in 1965 and twenty years later I discovered it in the bookstore of the Nassau, Bahamas airport.  It was at a time when I was traveling extensively and almost continuously in the West Indies and Wouk’s escapism theme struck a chord with me.  I read the book eagerly and fantasized about doing what Paperman had done.  By the book’s conclusion, it was clear that the heaven Paperman sought turned into “hell with palm trees.” It was a bittersweet lesson for him to learn and one that made me rethink my desire to hideout on a Caribbean island.

Several years after I last read the book my idol, Jimmy Buffett, purchased the rights to it from Herman Wouk and together they produced a musical by the same name.  It never opened on Broadway but it was popular in Nassau but not so in Miami’s Coconut Grove where a theater critic for the Orlando Sentinel said unabashedly, “The musical by Jimmy Buffett and Herman Wouk suffers from flat characters and weak songwriting.”  However the enthusiastic response to the musical caused the original end date to be extended several times to accommodate the audiences.  Obviously the Sentinel theater critic was not a Parrothead.  That same year Buffett produced the soundtrack as an album with the same title as the musical and it peaked at 15th on Billboard Magazine’s Top 200 album chart.  I’m not a music expert but 15th out of 200 suggests solid music to me.

The cover of Jimmy Buffett's CD/Album "Dont Stop the Carnival"

Wouk based Kinja on both Water Island and Hassel Island in Charlotte Amaille harbor in the US Virgin Islands.  One source said it was based on his experiences managing the Royal Mail Inn on Hassel Island.  Others have said it was based on his fictional experiences while he was merely a resident of the Virgin Islands, having moved there with his wife and two sons to escape the distractions of New York City. Whatever the truth, I wanted to discover more about where the book originated but each time I have traveled to the Virgin Islands I had other, higher priority, activities on my agenda.  When the Norwegian Star tied up at the cruise terminal on its way from Copenhagen to Miami, however, I had nothing else on my agenda but that island.

A local taxi starter at the cruise terminal told me the cost for a taxi ride to the ferry launch at Tiptoes Beach Bar was $100.  I told him he was crazy and took off on foot.  As I passed through downtown Charlotte Amaille during rush hour I felt like I was in Nassau or maybe Kingston, certainly not on a serene laid-back Caribbean island and certainly not one that could have remotely influenced Wouk’s writing about Kinja.

Kinja (Water Island) from the dock at Tiptoe's Beach Bar in Charlotte Amaille harbor

Ed, a local tourism tycoon on Water Island, knew everything there was to know about Herman Wouk and Don’t Stop the Carnival.  “I’ve lived on Water Island for 30 years,” he said, “and just like Norman Paperman I’m from New York.  The only difference is Norman went back and I never will.”

Seeking directions on this tiny island Ed told me to simply walk up the hill from the ferry dock.  “Turn right at the four-way intersection and you go to our beach.  Keep straight ahead and in a couple hundred yards you come to a field where the hotel used to stand.”  “The Hotel” was the example Wouk used for the Gull Reef Club.  It long ago outlived its usefulness and a combination of sun and time and hurricanes obliterated everything.  Unlike most of the rest of the West Indies, it was not replaced or rebuilt.

“There’s not a thing about the book I don’t know,” Ed boasted.  “If you have any questions come find me and I will fill you in.”  I asked him for clarification about whether the book is based on Water Island or Hassel Island.  “Remember how Hippolyte paddled between islands?  He was paddling from Water Island where the Gull Reef Club was over to Hassel Island.  Clearly the Gull Reef was on Water Island.”  Hippolyte Lamantine was the fictional gondolier at the Gull Reef Club.  It was only appropriate that he paddled between islands. 

Ed wished me a successful journey and left me saying, “I’ve heard so much about Don’t Stop the Carnival I think I’m going to write my own book and call it, “Stop the Carnival, I Want Off.”

I spent several hours on Water Island however in the absence of any actual remnants of the Gull Reef Club or where Wouk may have lived I sought out a beach where I spent part of the afternoon.  Megan, a local barmaid and self-proclaimed authority on virtually everything, gave me a ride back to the ferry dock after my time at the beach.  “Did you come over for a day trip at the beach,” she asked.

Honeymoon Beach, a great place to chill out and drink Carib beer, is among the many parts of Water Island that influenced Herman Wouk in his writing of Don't Stop the Carnival

Telling her of my interest in Wouk and the book, she declared with considerable certainty that Wouk may have occasionally visited Water Island but he certainly didn’t live there.  “If you ask me, that book is based on a hotel on St. Croix.  It has nothing to do with Water Island.”

Explaining further and mentioning my interest in the book because of the connection to Jimmy Buffett and his musical, Megan launched into a diatribe about Buffett.  “You know he’s opening a Margaritaville on St. Thomas, don’t you.”  Saying that I did she said, “It’s not going to be a Margaritaville, it’s going to be a Marijuanaville.” 

Megan explained how the US Virgin Islands had recently approved the use of medical marijuana.  “Buffett came down here a couple of years ago looking for a place for a new restaurant.  He searched three islands and chose St. Thomas because of the marijuana.”  Megan, of course, had no direct knowledge of this; it was all speculation.

As we arrived at the ferry dock she ended her diatribe saying “Buffett is the angriest little man I’ve ever met.  He sat in a bar here one day drinking $700 shots of tequila and leaving $100 tips. He did it all just to impress people.”  Apparently it impressed Megan because she remains livid that it wasn’t her receiving those large tips.

Unfortunately I didn’t have time to tell Megan about the night I sat backstage with him before a concert in Fort Lauderdale drinking beer (Jimmy opened mine for me) and talking about travel and fishing and conservation in the Caribbean.  He was one of the most down-to-earth people I’d ever met. 

Escaping from Megan’s golf cart just as the ferry was arriving at the dock her parting comment to me was “You seem to have a passion for the book and the story.  Why don’t you move down here and write the true story about Wouk, Buffett, and this whole Carnival thing?”  

Wouldn’t Megan be surprised if I showed up on Water Island one day intending to do exactly what she suggested.

My European Roots

A letter from my agency’s personnel office arrived every other year.  Its contents and its questions were always the same.  In it I’m asked to “reconfirm” my ethnicity as if something happened in the last two years to change where my genes originated.

My genes originated in Norway and in Eastern Europe.  My family name is Norwegian and I’ve always called myself Norwegian.  The personnel office asked about changes in my ethnicity to satisfy some game played with hyphens.  If you are a hyphenated American, you are in a protected group and unofficial official quotas are established to hire and promote a certain number of hyphenated Americans.  If your grandparents didn’t emigrate from a “protected” area, then in the eyes of the Federal personnel offices you don’t count.

Two years before my last ethnicity check I marked the box for Native American.  My reasoning for being Native American was simple.  I was born in Wisconsin and am a native of that State.  Wisconsin is in America, so logic dictates that I am a Native American.  Two years later, I received a letter confirming that my ethnicity was “white, not of Hispanic origin.”  When it was determined by the personnel office that I was not a Native American, but “white, not of Hispanic origin,” I decided to question them. 

My great grandparents sailed from Norway, in July 1885.  They landed in the United States and found their way to northern Wisconsin.  They started chopping down trees and plowing fields and raising crops and having children.  From Norway, they brought many Norwegian traditions like a serious work ethic, a love for fish, stories of the Viking explorers, cross-country skis, and an affinity for cold weather and snow.  Our last name was slightly re-written to make it more Anglicized.  My ancestors gave up their Norwegian citizenship and became Americans.  They voted in elections, they drank beer and they had more children.  Over time, they became obvious Norwegian-Americans.

I responded to the last letter reconfirming my ethnicity by checking the “other” box and writing in “Norwegian-American.”  Several months later I received a letter from the personnel office informing me that I was not Norwegian-American because we of Norse descent are not a “protected group.”  I wrote back to the personnel office and pointed out a few simple facts.  I began by quoting an oft-forgotten piece of paper called the Constitution that affirms that we are all equal, so how can there be any protected group?  I also pointed out that a Norwegian named Leif Ericcson found the North American continent long before any of the protected groups arrived with their hyphens.  I mentioned the many contributions to American society that my Norwegian ancestors brought to this land, things like lutefisk and lefse, cod liver oil, and cross-country skis.  As a footnote to my argument, I mentioned that if personnel did not recognize my Norwegian-American ancestry, I was sure that a Federal District Court judge somewhere would recognize it for them.

Another two months passed before I received a letter from my personnel office.  It told me that there had been a communication problem earlier and that I was a Norwegian-American after all. I wrote back and said that my Norse ancestors thanked them and could I now start using the hyphen when I applied for promotions.

A trip to Iceland gave me my first feel for Scandinavia while driving along a fjord.  It helped me understand a little about where I originated, yet it wasn’t the real thing.  During a later visit to Epcot Center, I ate dinner at the Norway display and afterward knew that I had to visit Norway.  Several reservations were made to travel there, but each trip fell through.

A birdwatcher from England posted on the Internet a report from his recent trip to Sweden.  The report told about his travels to central Sweden near Uppsala, and mentioned finding several bird species that I had not yet seen.  My curiosity was piqued by the birds and I consulted references for finding the same species in Norway.  Only two of the five species I hoped to see could be found with any regularity in Norway.  Still, my heritage is Norwegian, and it didn’t seem right to visit the Swedes before I explored my own roots.

A check of airline websites confirmed my decision to travel to Sweden and not Norway.  SAS, the Scandinavian airline had astronomically expensive flights to Oslo and to Stockholm.  British Airways’ fare to Oslo was nearly twice as expensive as was their fare to Stockholm.  Weighing these facts, and adding the chances for finding more birds in Sweden, I concluded that Sweden was close enough to Norway that a trip there would give me some idea of my Scandinavian roots even if it wasn’t Norway.  I went to the British Airways website, typed in Washington, D.C. to Stockholm, chose the dates I wanted to travel, and clicked on the purchase icon.  I flew from Washington three months later.  It was Scandinavia and it was close to Mother Norway but it wasn’t the same as being there.

My last night in Stockholm I stayed in a hotel near the airport and caught their courtesy van to the departure lounge the next morning.  The driver of the van was a Swede who was married to a Finnish woman.  As we talked, I noticed that each of his statements ended with “you know,” as if I did.  His mannerisms reminded me of old Norwegians I knew when I was a child.  He asked about my visit and why I traveled to Sweden.  I told him about the birds and about my Norwegian heritage.  I mentioned how beautiful I found Sweden and how much it reminded me of where I grew up in Wisconsin.

“If you think Sweden is beautiful, you need to see Norway.”

My flight to London lifted off from Stockholm at noon and we flew in perfectly clear skies.  I was seated on the right side of the plane, forward of the wing and its engine.  We flew almost straight west before turning southwest and flying out over the North Sea.  As we made our turn, the pilot announced that we were near Kristiansand, Norway.  I looked down at my homeland and saw deep fjords that had been gouged from the Precambrian bedrock.  The land was covered with forest of spruces and birches as it was to the east in Sweden.  I had finally seen Norway as the van driver suggested several hours earlier. 

But I still hadn’t really been there.

Several years later I swallowed hard when looking at the prices of everything in Norway and traveled there to trace my roots.  I spent several days in and around Bergen on the fjord-filled coast because my family sailed from Bergen to the United States when they emigrated.  As with Sweden, this part of Norway looked exactly like home.  The lay of the land was the same, the color of the barns and the shapes of the houses were the same.  Aspen forests sprinkled with white birch and black spruce dominated the landscape exactly like they did in Barron County, Wisconsin.  Even the pastoral landscapes with Holstein cows chewing their cud in Norwegian farm yards looked exactly like they do in my natal Wisconsin.  It was instantly clear why my ancestors chose to settle where they did when they found northern Wisconsin.  Except for the language difference everything there was like it was back home.

Although my family name is obviously Norwegian my mother’s name was a bit of a mystery.  My maternal grandmother was a Gohr (not Gore like the real President, but Gohr). There is no doubting the origin of that very Germanic name.  However it was a different story with my paternal grandfather’s family name and ultimately my mother’s family name.

Some thought that “Beranek” was German and others said “oh, no, that’s a Czech name. It’s from Bohemia.”  As a child in northern Wisconsin I was quite aware of the hell that someone could be put through because of their ethnicity.  Being Norwegian was just as cool as being a Swede or German.  However some of the “lesser” nationalities seemed to cause problems.  Heaven help the Pole’s for being Polish.  The same, it turned out, was true for “Bohemians” or “Bohonks” as they were also called. For some reason I never understood, a “Bohonk” was actually a lower life form than was a Polack, and a Polack was right down there with Bohonks. Still, the possibility remained that some of my genes, in this case 25 percent of them, were Bohonk and a week in the Czech Republic was the most logical way to find out.

We slipped and slid our way out of the Prague airport and onto the motorway to the city. Seated next to me was a drunk (or at least feeling no pain) obnoxious British woman who tried her best to impress all of us with her command of the Czech language and her knowledge of the streets of Prague.  Despite her having told the driver where she wanted to go, she promptly began telling the driver how to find the address. She tried telling him in what sounded like Czech.  After five minutes of being kind and putting up with her the driver began saying “what did you say? That sounded like Czech but not any Czech I’ve ever heard.”  Instead of her taking the hint she just piled it on thicker and louder until I wanted to reach over and strangle her. At one point I stuck my index finger out, raised my thumb to resemble a pistol and then made a motion like the gun was going off – while pointed at her.  Unfortunately my finger wasn’t loaded.

By the time we were in the university district of the city the driver had had enough and told her “madam, you either shut up or you are getting out and walking. I don’t care how much luggage you have.”  Ms. Britain didn’t listen and the shuttle promptly slid to the side of the road.  The driver put the vehicle in park, opened his door, walked to the back of the van, extracted her luggage, opened her side door and said “OUT!”  She had no choice.

Wenceslas Square is one of the main city squares and the center of the business and cultural communities. It has been a place where many historical events occurred; it is also a traditional place for demonstrations, celebrations, and similar public gatherings. The square is named after Saint Wenceslas the patron saint of Bohemia.  As I worked my way around the square I was able to confirm with no reservations at all that my mom’s family name is Czech and not German.  I confirmed it when I found the Hotel Beranek on one of its street corners.  When I found my other family name attached to this hotel I dropped in to see if there were any long lost cousins floating around. Unfortunately the woman behind the counter said that the manager was not a Beranek but she was able to confirm that Beranek was “a very Czech name, you know.”  That mystery was finally settled. 

For my last evening in Prague I sought out an ethnic restaurant that was recommended by the hotel – a place where I could get real Czech food without having a sign outside the door advertising that it was authentic.  The meal, whose Czech name I cannot remember was some sort of pork sausage, boiled cabbage and a hunk of potato. It was prepared and presented exactly like my grandmother used to make this same meal. Its aroma was like grandma made and its taste was exactly as I remember her making it.  It was, as Yogi Berra once said, “déjà vu all over again” eating this food. The only thing missing was my grandmother.

Subsequent research on provided additional confirmation of my family name’s Norwegian roots and also my mother’s maiden name’s Czech roots. Intermingled with all of the ancestors I never met or heard of was several references suggesting that my maternal grandmother’s family (the Gohr side) originated in Poland and not Germany as we once speculated.  Examination of old European maps and other historical references suggested that the town from which her family originated was in what was once Poland but geopolitical influences changed the country boundaries to Germany.  Thus although the family name is undeniably German there is a hint of Polish in there somewhere which made a trip to Poland an essential and perhaps final aspect of my journey to uncover my roots.  

The Norwegian Star sailed from Copenhagen Denmark to Miami on October 6 but I arrived a few days early to not only have time to recalibrate my body clock but also to spend a smidgen of time in Poland.  Regular flights from Copenhagen to Chopin International Airport in Warsaw made it easy to spend a day in Poland and on my first full day in Europe I flew LOT Polish Airlines to Warsaw to discover a bit about this final country from which my ancestors may have originated.

Poland's national airline, LOT, was a most appropriate way to travel to Warsaw

In what seemed like seconds we had passed over the Baltic Sea and made landfall over Poland. Our pilot made certain everyone knew because of his boastful announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen we have just passed over the frontier of the beautiful nation of Poland, my home.”  Our route of flight took us over extensive areas of farmland mixed with extensive areas of heavy forest.  We passed just north of Flatow, Poland from which my maternal great grandparents emigrated in the 1870s and then began our approach to Warsaw.

Anyone who paid attention in history class in high school is aware of the carnage that rained down on Poland by Hitler and the Nazi’s before the start of World War II.  Those same history classes likely also were the site of many discussions about how Hitler behaved toward the Jews and especially the Polish Jews.  Estimates are that before the war there were 3.3 million Jews in Poland; during the war the estimates are that 3 million of them were killed.  I wanted to learn more about these atrocities and more but had only a few hours to explore.

My flight arrived in Warsaw under brilliantly bright sunshine at 9:30 and the Warsaw Uprising Museum opened at 10:00.  A quick and efficient subway from the airport to the downtown transported me to within a few blocks of the museum and I entered it shortly after its doors opened.  The museum's website provides visitors with a little tidbit of the treasures that wait inside:

Opened in 2004, this remains one of Poland’s best museums. Packed with interactive displays, photographs, video footage and miscellaneous exhibits it’s a museum that’s guaranteed to leave a mark on all visitors. Occupying a former tram power station the 2,000m2 space is split over several levels, leading visitors through the chronological story of the Uprising.  Start off by learning about life under Nazi rule, your tour accompanied by the background rattle of machine guns, dive bombers and a thumping heartbeat. Different halls focus on the many aspects of the Uprising; walk through a replica radio station, or a covert printing press.

The mezzanine level features film detailing the first month of battle, before which visitors get to clamber through a mock sewer. The final sections are devoted to the creation of a Soviet puppet state, a hall of remembrance, and a particularly poignant display about the destruction of the city; take time to watch the black and white ‘before and after’ shots of important Warsaw landmarks being systematically obliterated by the Nazis as punishment.

Near the exit check out the film "City of Ruins," a silence-inducing 5 minute 3-D aerial 'film' which took 2 years to make and used old pictures and new technology to recreate a picture of the desolation of ‘liberated’ Warsaw in March 1945. There is also an exact replica of a B24 Allied plane once used to make supply drops over the besieged city. A viewing platform and ‘peace garden’ wrap up this high impact experience. 

The most descriptive phrase in the website information is “high impact experience” and a visit to the Uprising Museum certainly fits that description.   I left after four hours with an entirely different perspective not only on the war but also on Polish people.  As a child growing up in northern Wisconsin it was an everyday occurrence to make some negative comment about a “Polack” whether it was in a Polish joke (“Did you hear about the Polack who…”) or some other degrading comment.  Back then it was an almost accepted form of interacting but not once did I ever stop to think how it affected Carl Jalowitz or Ted Gonsowski or David Antczak or any of the others of Polish descent among whom I lived. 

My experience growing up reinforced my belief that if I had any Polish ancestry it was something about which to be ashamed.  However a few hours in the Warsaw Uprising Museum changed that view.  Instead I left the museum hoping that some of my maternal genes had originated in Poland.  The Poles are a grand and proud group of people who have persevered in spite of horrific odds, horrific treatment at the hands of the Nazi’s and in spite of all the Polish jokes I told as a child.  Wojeich, a 40-something Pole I met in the museum, easily figured out that I was an American and asked about my impressions of the museum.  I told him about my past, about the potential for some Polish genetics to be floating around inside me, and about how thoroughly the museum experience affected me.

Wojeich simply smiled and said “Welcome to your homeland, Craig.  We accept you even if you’re not Polish.”  I took his comment to mean that I was forgiven for all those Polish jokes I told in high school.  

I didn't make it to Flatow, Poland, on this trip but it was not for a lack of desire.  My oldest daughter and I want to make a trip there some time before I'm too old to travel.  We might also race down to Prague to expose her to even more of her genetic roots.  Maybe with luck we can find the restaurant that served authentic Czech food exactly like her great grandmother used to make for me.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Determining the Age of Deer at a Wisconsin Deer Registration Station

If you grew up in Wisconsin in the 1950s and 1960s you knew that from sunrise on the Saturday before Thanksgiving until sunset on the Sunday after Thanksgiving everything except the bars in Wisconsin stopped operating because it was deer hunting season.  

At dawn this coming Saturday everyone in Wisconsin will become an expert on the ecology of white-tailed deer.  Just a mere 24 hours earlier the only deer biologists in the state were men and women hired by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to manage Wisconsin’s deer population.  However at dawn Saturday every janitor, sales clerk, bank president, dentist, and truck driver, along with everyone else in Wisconsin who never studied deer biology as a profession, becomes an authority on the ecology of white-tailed deer.  Those few biologists hired to manage the deer population know not a thing about the animal.  By noon Saturday most of the bars in the state will be filled with deer experts telling stories that make fish stories look lame and most of those stories will carry at least one reference to “those god damned DNR people don’t know shit about deer.” 

Just watch.  It’s going to happen.

The other topic that will rage among the bar room debates is how old the deer is that someone has on ice in the bed of their ¾ ton pickup truck outside the bar.  Bar room biologists mostly claim that their deer is a certain age because of the number of tines (points) on the deer’s rack of antlers.  If your deer is “a 6 pointer” then by all means it’s 6 years old.  And if your deer is a “10 pointer” then by god it’s 10 years old.  These pronouncements have no basis in scientific fact.  Their origin is a combination of beer, testosterone, and north woods lore.

A deer's jaw tells a lot about its age and health (well, its health before it was shot to death).  How old do you think this animal was?

The way deer are aged is by a simple method involving slitting open one cheek, spreading the jaws with a thing called a “jaw spreader” and then looking at 1) the eruption of the last molar on the lower jaw and / or 2) the amount of wear on the remaining molars and on the premolars.  It’s a reliable method that has been around and in use since at least 1963 and its regularly used by most state resource agencies as one aspect of determining the health of a deer population.

Stop here and register your deer before you get home or you will be subject to a substantial fine.

In Wisconsin when I used to work there each deer hunter who successfully harvested a deer was required by law to have it registered at an official deer registration station before the deer was transported more than (I think it was) 50 miles.  Even if you lived closer, you needed to have it registered because a game warden passing your home and seeing a deer hanging from a tree had a no-warrant-necessary right to enter your property and examine the deer to see if it had been registered. 

In November 1976 my now former wife and I managed the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources deer registration station at a bait and tackle shop along Highway 63 in Cumberland, Wisconsin.  A large sign along the road side told lucky hunters this was the place to stop to register your deer before continuing any further along your journey.

To operate the registration station Ruth and I showed up with data sheets, a clip board, jaw spreaders and youthful enthusiasm.  We saw it as a way to not only collect data on the deer population but also to educate the public about the health of their deer.  It turned out most people could have cared less.

The first hunters arrived shortly after 7:00 that morning.  With the legal hunting season set to begin about 6:30 you had to wonder if maybe a 7:00 a.m. arrival didn’t meet its demise a few minutes before legal season.  However, and regardless, they started coming in regular processions and by the end of the first day of the season we had registered a little more than 150 deer.

Our process was simple.  After greeting the hunter we’d ask their permission to cut open its jaw and examine the teeth.  Most often we’d be asked why and we’d explain that we wanted to use a technique to determine the age of the deer.  Probably 50 percent of the time that statement would be met with a boast of “No need for that kid.  It has 6 points so it’s 6 years old."  We would ask again and usually be given permission and when we did we would show the hunter the graphic from Giles’ “Wildlife Management Techniques” handbook and explain the simple process of aging the deer.

Most deer born in Wisconsin are born between late April and early June.  By the start of their first deer season they are somewhere between 7 and 5 months old.  A year later they are between 1 year 5 months and 1 year 7 months old with the vast majority of them 1 year 6 months old.

Every wildlife biology student worth his or her salt has spent time studying and memorizing the details on these two charts from Giles' "Wildlife Management Techniques" handbook.

When aging a deer the first thing you look at is the eruption of the last molar on the lower jaw.  If it has 3 cusps (points) on it the deer is 1 year 6 months old or younger.  If it has 2 cusps on it the deer is 1 year 7 months or older.  If there are 2 cusps present then you look at the amount of wear on several other teeth and from that get an accurate idea of the deer’s age.  In general, the vast majority of deer harvested (maybe 60 percent) have 3 cusps on that last molar and are 1 year 6 months old or younger. Of all the deer I have aged the oldest male (buck) I ever saw was 3 ½ years old and the oldest female (doe) was 12 years old.

Usually when you explain this to hunters their testosterone level drops and they ask how it can be that their 8 point monster buck (certain to be the center of most deer stories for the next 11 months) is just a 1 ½ year old baby.  The answer is simple – antler development is a function of nutrition not age.  If Bambi ate well as a yearling then Bambi could have grown some exceptional antlers.  If Bambi didn’t eat so well, then that poor nutrition will be reflected in his antler development.

At about 2:00 p.m. on opening day 1976, three obviously inebriated deer hunters rolled into our deer registration station.  They had in the rear of their pickup truck three recently harvested male deer.  Each of them as I recall had 8 points (about average for most Wisconsin deer).  On asking the first hunter if I could age his animal I discovered a 3-cusped last molar and informed him that his deer was 1 year 6 months old.  He accepted the answer and I went on to the second deer in the bed of the pickup.

Unfortunately for my ex-wife the hunter she had to deal with wanted no part of some 5 foot tall redhead telling him about his deer.

“I don’t know why you want to look at its teeth,” he began.  “That deer has 8 points so its 8 years old.”  He then added, “Biggest god damned 8 year old I’ve ever shot.”

Quietly and respectfully Ruth asked him again if she could age his deer and he finally said, “Sure.  But it’s a waste of your time. Told you that deer is 8 years old.”

Dutifully she slit open the deer’s mouth exposing the jaw. She then placed a jaw spreader between its jaws, twisted it, and exposed the last molars on the lower jaw.  When she did she saw that just like most other deer we had registered that day, the last molar had 3 cusps and she informed him, “Sir, your deer is 1 year 6 months old.”

“BULLSHIT,” he bellowed.  “That deer is 8 years old and you better god damned well write down 8 years old on your sheet there.”

Undaunted she took out her copy of the graphic from Giles’ Wildlife Management Techniques handbook and showed him what a 1 year 6 month old jaw looks like and then showed him his deer’s jaw and the teeth were an exact match.

“Sir, your deer is 1 year 6 months old.”

He responded saying, “You’re full of shit lady” which I generally did not appreciate so I walked over to Ruth and asked if there was a problem.  She explained what she had done to the deer, and told me the hunter’s response (as if I had not already heard it.) She then asked me to look at the jaw and age the deer.

I popped open the jaw, looked at the last molar on the bottom, saw that it had 3 cusps on it and informed the hunter, “Sir your deer is 1 year 6 months old.” I then picked up the graphic from Giles’ Wildlife Management Techniques book and offered to show it to him.

Giles' Wildlife Management Techniques was the bible of wildlife biology when I first started out. Most of the things you needed to know and even more that you didn't need to know, were contained in this giant handbook

Instead of accepting facts, this clown yelled “You fucking college boys don’t know a god damned thing about deer!”  By now he was livid.  “That deer is EIGHT YEARS OLD and you better write it down that way.”  Sensing he was getting a little out of control, and fearing for the safety of my diminutive 5 foot tall 105 pound wife, I agreed with him.

“You know sir, I made a mistake.  You are right - that deer is 8 years old after all.”  I then penciled in “8” in the age column and wished him a safe drive home.

As he drove out of the parking lot I’m sure his story was not only about the 8 year old buck he had shot but also about how he put those two miserable DNR employees in their place.

Before his truck reached Highway 63 and they turned south, I erased the “8” in the age column for his deer and replaced it with a “1.6” to indicate a 1 year 6 month old.  I guess in the long run we both won.