My Brilliant Career IV (again, with apologies to Miles Franklin, author of the real book My Brilliant Career)
Life in Florida was good. I had a great husband, a nice home and an interesting job at 101 square miles of conservation area. When I saw the advertisement for the job, I knew it was just what I wanted. There were lots of other applicants and I didn’t have a lot of experience, but my enthusiasm and shameless begging got me in the door.
My first day consisted of a driving tour of the conservation area, where I saw lots of alligators, a wild hog, a few deer and various water fowl and snakes. The young man taking me on the tour was sweet and a real cutie. I couldn’t help but to think that he should meet my youngest daughter! We bumped down dirt roads, slogged through water several feet deep for mile after mile; there were times when I thought we should be in a boat! But, although I helped with the field work occasionally, my position was to be the secretary in the office. I not only answered the phone and all the usual secretarial duties, I handled most of the purchasing and kept the office clean and organized.
Every Monday morning, I’d bring in some type of goodie that I’d baked and sometimes, other days, like a birthday, as well. Even though I’m not the greatest cook, the guys really seemed to appreciate a morning snack. One morning, I’d just come into work and one of my co-workers came trotting up to the office and breathlessly opening the door, he stuck his head in and took a look at the plate of cookies in my hand and exclaimed; “Oh, good! You brought cookies!” Then he dashed off and a moment later I heard a distant HOOOONK-HOOOONK of a truck horn. In a few minutes, he returned to the office and started helping himself to the cookies and explained; “That’s our signal! We were working in the back shop and we’d just said how hungry we were and we hoped you’d bring us something to eat; so when we saw you drive up, I was sent to see if there was any food and then I’d honk the horn so everyone else could come and have a bite to eat!” Sure enough, the rest of the crew followed in short order. Now that I knew they had good appetites, I knew that if I’d cooked too much of something at home, they could be counted on to make sure nothing went to waste. One evening, I had my parents to dinner and I made scallops wrapped in bacon, but there were still a large number of them left over and I knew I couldn’t eat them all before they’d spoil, so the next morning I called into the office where the guys gathered early in the morning to discuss their plan of attack and asked if they liked scallops. I was given an affirmative reply, so I quickly heated them up before I left for work and the scallops took a ride to the office with me. They were being quickly consumed, but the guys all had one question; “What kind of company did I have over that they didn’t eat all the food?” They were aghast and kept saying: “I can’t believe they didn’t eat all the food!” Apparently, they were all raised on the Clean Plate Club mantra. There was one scallop wrapped in bacon left when someone called out that one of the State big wigs was approaching. No one liked this person and there was a remark that he didn’t deserve a scallop, so the last scallop was stuffed into the mouth of an unsuspecting office visitor, rather than see Mr. Big Wig get to eat it.
Even though the office was out in the middle of no where, it was used by many hunters and fishermen and the general public often called in questions for advice about wildlife. I have a couple of favorite calls. My most favorite was the person who obviously hadn’t spent much time in the Florida back woods; he asked: “Do you still have the hippos?” Hmmmm.... A close second was the guy who called to ask if the bears in Florida were gray. I said I suppose if it were a very old bear, but no, the bears were black. He then proceeded to tell me that he had just seen a gray bear scurry into the bushes at his trailer park. It had a sloping head, it was about 18 inches tall and it had a long bushy tail.... and he finished “my wife thinks I’m crazy!” I snickered to myself and thought; ‘I’ve got news for you, pal! So do I!’ But I was polite and said that it didn’t sound like the description of a bear, but he wouldn’t take my word for it and he wanted to speak to a biologist, so I put one of our biologists on the phone and he, too, said that it wasn’t likely that he’d seen a bear. The man wouldn’t believe either of us and he hung up, still insisting he’d seen a bear. From then on, every time my husband and I spotted a raccoon, we’d say; “There’s one of those Florida Gray Bears!” Another good one, was when a woman called and said that she was sure that panthers were getting in her garage. I questioned her about where she was located and it was in a city. I explained that Florida panthers are pretty rare and they are almost never seen in urban settings. There were only about 85 known panthers in the whole state and they resided in a different area that was far away from her home. She persisted; “But I KNOW its panthers- at least TWO of them!” “Have you seen them or their tracks?” I inquired. “No,” she admitted, “but they make such a big mess in my garage it just HAS to be panthers!” Okey-dokey. How can you argue with that kind of logic?
My boss was well known for being a big tease and sometimes it got on the nerves of the other employees. I’d noticed that he never ribbed me, but I thought it was just because he hadn’t known me for that long. However, one day one of the guys complained; “How come you always pick on us? You never pick on Beth!” My boss nodded; “That’s because she carry’s a big knife! When UPS made a delivery she pulled this big, long knife out of her bag to open the box and I’m afraid that if I give her a hard time she’ll cut my throat!” This struck me as funny, because since I’d grown up in the fishing business, knives were just a tool that you always carried. I always have two knives with me- my heavy ‘Buck’ knife that I’ve used to open cans, boxes, cut rope or whatever and my Swiss Army knife with all the screwdrivers, scissors, tweezers, etc., for any other applications that come up. To me, being without my knives is to be unprepared. I never gave a thought about what anyone else might think of my habit.
Our conservation area always had several studies going on. One was the study of an endangered woodpecker and the scientists who went in pursuit of them were dubbed “pecker-checkers”. These woodpeckers supposedly had very fussy eating and housing requirements, so when my Dad, an avid bird carver, made up a life-sized model of one of those birds, he thought it might be amusing to take some photos of the woodpecker doing unlikely things, like eating corn chips and perched at the world’s gaudiest bird house. He gave me the photos to leave on my boss’s desk at work and it sure gave him and several others as well, a moment’s pause. But, once the guys were in on the joke, they wanted to borrow the carved bird and pose it in a tree on fire or in a dog’s mouth just to get a rise out of the pecker-checkers.
Another study was for quail. We had two men working on that project and they couldn’t have been more different, but they were both nice guys. The head of the project was Harry, who was about six-foot-five and 300 pounds. His helper was named Don, and he was about five-foot-four and 140 pounds. They caught quail and put radio collars on them as part of their study and they had three ways of catching the birds. One way was to set out baited traps; but sometimes the traps caught other things- like a full grown beagle, once. They didn’t know where the beagle came from or why it wanted to eat the cracked corn in the trap, but it was crammed in there so tight that it’s fur was sticking out from between the bars on all sides of its prison. Another way was to use a toss-net; a large circular net with weighted edges that is usually used to catch fish, but it was discovered that if you went out with hunting dogs to point out the quail, you could throw the net over a covey and catch quite a few at once. This had its pros and cons, too. Sometimes the dog was so close to the birds that you had to throw the net over both dog and covey and that put the quail at risk of being snapped up by the dog when they attempted to fly off. The other problem was if the quail were hiding in thick brush, sometimes the weighted edges of the net didn’t go all the way to the ground, leaving the quail an escape route. The first time Harry noticed this, he had just tossed the net over an unusually large covey of quail and he was thrilled to think that they’d get to collar so many at once; but then was horrified to see a couple of birds popping out from under the net, so he threw himself on top of the whole thing. The quail panicked upon seeing a giant man dive for them, and Harry was further displeased as he saw the quails’ renewed efforts to get free as they skittered out from beneath the net on all sides and disappeared into the undergrowth. The last method of catching quail was to set up large nets that resembled badminton nets at night when the birds were asleep in their coveys, and then startle them into flying into the nets. I was allowed to help on one of these excursions and it was fascinating. I was mesmerized watching the guys work with the little birds. When I was asked to hold a quail, I couldn’t resist gently stroking its head. I noticed some side-long glances and slight smiles, and I’m sure they thought I was a silly female for petting a quail, but it was a awe-inspiring experience.
Both Harry and Don were from mountainous states and they had to adjust a bit to their new surroundings. Don had told me how the wild hogs kept getting into the cracked corn they had for baiting the quail traps, so he found four boards of uneven length and hastily nailed some legs on the corn crib to get it up off the ground and out of the hogs’ reach. One of the guys from the office saw the corn crib and he shook his head; “Those boys from Kentucky! Tsk! They keep forgetting they’re in Florida where it’s flat!”
Don mentioned that he had bought a large terrarium and he was hoping to catch a baby alligator to keep in it. But, apparently he didn’t tell our boss the whole truth when he brought up the subject with him. Later, Harry came in and he unwitting spilled the beans on Don about the baby gator. Our Boss said: “Ahhh! So that’s what the terrarium is really for! He told me he wanted it to keep turtles in! ‘Alligators’ must be what you Kentucky boys call ‘turtles’.”
Harry and our boss were having a discussion about the need to raise our own quail to bait the traps with female quail which would call the male quail to them and thus attract the males into the traps. I overheard our boss telling Harry to leave the particulars with me- and to have me place the order to buy the quail. Then our boss had to leave the office and Harry came over to my desk and I took notes about how many quail to purchase and when he needed them by, etc. So, I began an Internet search of places to order quail chicks and while I was still looking, my boss returned. “What are you up to?” He asked. I said; “I’m looking for chicks on the Internet for Harry.” The boss’s face was the picture of surprise; “What?!” I was sure he’d remember the conversation he had just had with Harry, but evidently not; “You know- you told Harry to have me do an Internet search for baby quail?” The boss began to laugh and I added; “What kind of chicks did you think I was talking about?!? I don’t think Harry needs my help in THAT department!”
The tiny office had not seen much TLC in years, so when all the guys were out in the field I took advantage of my time alone and would start tearing the place apart and organizing and cleaning it up. One day, I’d just been going through boxes of junk, and I’d gotten to the bottom and uncovered a huge dead spider! I mean, it was HUGE! At least three inches across! At that moment, Harry walked in the door and he saw me holding the box with a horrified expression on my face. Harry looked in the box and without a word; he took it from my hands. As he left the office with it he said; “That’s okay. I don’t like those things either!”
Getting around the woods and swamps of the conservation area was always a challenge, so we got funding to get a ‘swamp buggy’ made up for us and when it arrived, I was invited to go on the test drive with all the other guys. There was only a half dozen of us, so there was plenty of seating for everyone, but the problem was that the vehicle was so tall; I didn’t know how to get in it. The young man who had given me my initial tour of the place on my first day at work climbed down from the swamp buggy to assist me, but being a true gentleman, he didn’t know how go about that without touching me. As I tried to ascend the back of the frame, I saw his hands tentatively moving around- he knew where he needed to push- he just couldn’t bring himself to actually do it! One of the guys, Big Ben, was roughly the same size as Harry, and he saw the predicament. He reached down with one hand and pulled me up into the swamp buggy like I was no more than a child! Problem solved!
These were happy days and my co-workers couldn’t have been more wonderful; but then the job began to change and it became more hectic as the upper levels of State government lost more and more employees and more and more chores were getting passed on to me. I wasn’t making much money and getting no benefits of any kind and it was a considerable drive for me to get to work. My husband was encouraging me to quit and I also knew that this was what my doctors had warned me to avoid, so after two years, I eventually made the sad decision to leave. I still keep in touch with the guys and visit them when I’m in the neighborhood and I’ll always fondly remember the time I had there.
Now-a-days, I get to be a house mouse. I do work part-time in the office of the company where my husband is a site manager, but I’m just a fill-in secretary when they are short on help. (Or ‘under-handed’ for those of you who read my last blog.) I can enjoy being a June Cleaver at last, keep house, cooking, working in the gardens and on my various projects.... and writing blogs.
Updated: 3:21 PM GMT on July 10, 2006
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