User:Erastus/Serving the Sentence - Part 1
Serving the Sentence - Part 1/14
Copyright © 2010 Erastus Centaur -- all rights reserved
"Here we are," said Rose, pulling the jeep to a stop. It had been a long flight for David -- four flights over a twenty-four hour period, actually -- to get from Cincinnati to Mongolia. That was followed by a jeep ride that felt just as long as it bounced over the bad roads and rough terrain. And now, with the camp before him, David expected to feel a sense of wonder at the start of an adventure. Instead, he felt his heart sink. Perhaps he could blame his mood on lack of sleep.
This was David's first job at an actual paleontology site. His advisor at the University of Cincinnati had assured him it was a wonderful opportunity to work with the top-notch team from the University of Montana. Looking over the camp here in northern Mongolia, he had his doubts about whether this opportunity was all that wonderful. The job might be to do a paleontology survey -- his area of study -- and it might look good on a resume, but northern Mongolia was out in the middle of nowhere.
David tried to keep in mind that it would only be for the summer, May through August, a mere four months. Then he would be back on a modern American university campus in the fall with all the amenities of modern civilization. The scene now before him made him seriously question why he thought paleontology was an ideal major.
He had to repeat to himself, "Dinosaurs are cool," as he surveyed this desolate outpost, "Dinosaurs are cool and a lot of dinosaur bones are from Mongolia." Perhaps if he repeated it enough times he might actually believe it -- at least until he got home.
There were perhaps ten tents scattered around the site, though they didn't look like the Boy Scout variety. They had canvas tops and sides, of course, but they were big enough so one could stand up inside and large sections of canvas could be opened for ventilation.
The tents were on the edge of a grassy plain, the Steppes of Central Asia, nestled against the foothills of a mountain range. When he looked across the plain, David was reminded of the prairie of Kansas -- or what the prairie might have looked like before it was divided into farms. Much of their work, however, would be in and around the hills.
They hadn't taken a dozen steps from the jeep when a man appeared from a tent, eyed David critically for a second and turned to Rose. "Rose, I thought we told you this wasn't a nursery. What are you doing bringing a child to camp?"
David felt himself shrink before the onslaught. He has just turned 21 and had completed his junior year! He was not a kid. His face had given him away again. As he had learned through encounters with the police and bartenders, he was treated like he was 15, official documentation to the contrary notwithstanding. His height -- five foot seven -- his pale complexion, his brilliant red hair, his inability to grow a satisfactory moustache or goatee -- though his latest attempt at a moustache was still on his face -- all contributed to the impression of lingering childhood. His mother had tried to tell him it would work to his advantage when he was 42, but that was still a long time away and no help at the moment.
"Oh, shut up, Jack," said Rose. She turned to David. "Don't mind him. He's our resident grouch."
Jack had a burly physique and cultivated a tough-guy image, a combination that made many people -- not just David -- fearful. He wore cutoff jeans, a bright red tee-shirt, whose message was thankfully obscured by a leather vest. Both his hair and beard were brown and short, his visible face tan and weather beaten. His forearm tattoo did not say "Mom".
Jack grunted, but with a bit of a sneer on his face. He disappeared back into his tent as Rose steered David into a second one. Another man was inside, this one with better manners. "Hi, I'm Zane. You must be the new kid."
Though not great manners. According to David, if he had great manners there would be none of this "kid" nonsense. David shook hands anyway -- at least he was polite -- as he briefly considered if it was worth the effort to protest, "But I'm not a kid!"
Zane had nearly black hair with a neat salt-and-pepper beard. He was tall enough to be respected, but not so tall as to intimidate. He was slender, but David could see his strength.
David claimed the empty cot and proceeded to unpack his backpack and stow his few belongings. He was suddenly glad his brother Matt had offered the backpack, allowing him to avoid showing up lugging a suitcase and looking even more out of place.
As David approached the mess tent an hour later he had no trouble hearing Jack talking to Rose. "How 'bout you coming over to my tent? Say nine-thirty? I can even guarantee some privacy."
"Give it up, Jack," said Rose. "The answer hasn't changed from the other hundred times you've invited me to your tent."
David wondered if Jack had issued his invitation because he though Rose was beautiful or because he hoped she was an easy target. In David's eyes, Rose was rather plain looking with brown hair styled for the sake of minimum fuss.
"Couldn't have been that many," said Jack. "We've only been here two weeks."
"The answer is still no."
He reached a hand towards here cheek. She swatted it away and marched into the ness tent.
At dinner, Rose introduced David to the rest of the team. "This is Amos," she said of an imposing black man. "We think of him as our camp philosopher. You won't find anyone more practical than him. He got his doctorate from--"
"Rose," Amos interrupted, "you don't have to go into that." He glared at David, "And please don't call me Doc Amos."
"You got a doctorate?" David was impressed.
"What's the matter?" teased Amos. "You didn't expect me to be smart?"
David glanced away. "Sorry. I didn't mean it like that."
Amos chuckled. "Long ago, I learned people rarely mean to offend. There's no use getting upset about it."
Rose directed David's attention to the man beside Amos, who seemed to be quite the opposite--pale skin and definitely not imposing. David had never seen hair such a brilliant golden-yellow, though David wasn't one to talk when his own was such a bright red. "This is Piet."
"The Swedish spelling," said Piet, tapping the embroidered name above his pocket. "Having it on my clothes can save so much hassle."
"You don't seem to have a Swedish accent," said David.
"Actually, I have a Wisconsin accent. Grew up in Madison."
"Piet's our mechanic," said Rose. "When you can't take a jeep to the corner garage," she waived an arm to indicate the emptiness around them, "someone like Piet is a necessity.
"This is Taki," said Rose indicating the Asian guy next to Piet who wore a Laker's shirt. Taki must have been the one David heard at the makeshift hoop while he was unpacking.
"Pleased to meet you," said Taki, rising to shake hands. So much for stereotypes of small Asian men; David guessed he was at least six foot three.
"Is Taki an Japanese name?" asked David.
"Sure is, though I didn't see the country myself until I was twelve."
"Taki is our expert on really old fossils. You can ask him anything about trilobites," said Rose.
Next was a guy that looked to be about David's size and age. "This is Ivan, our foreigner."
Ivan responded with the mock indignation of an old joke, "I'm the foreigner? My home in Moscow is so much closer than yours that I'm almost a local."
Rose turned to David, "'Foreigner' is so much easier to say. He's the only non-American. I'm sure the two of you could swap stories about college life -- Ivan will finish with his Masters next spring."
Rose steered her charge to the other side of Amos. "This is Chaz, our translator with the locals."
"Howdy," said Chaz.
Piet leaned over in front of Amos, "Not only does he look like a Texan, he is a Texan. That hat," he pointed to the Stetson Chaz was wearing, "only comes off his head when he's asleep, and then he uses it to shield his face."
The brown Stetson Chaz wore was a good match for his hair and moustache, both of which were carefully trimmed. David saw that Chaz was only a couple inches taller than himself.
"Do you spend all your time translating?" asked David.
"Nah," drawled Chaz. "I'll be out at the worksites just like everyone else."
Rose turned to the only other woman in camp. "This is Lily, our camp nurse."
David thought she was rather pretty, with long hair bleached by the sun. "Hi," he said.
"Hi," she replied. David watched her look him over. Alas, it was with the eyes of a nurse or a mother, not of someone who might think he was handsome. "You did pack sunscreen, didn't you? Your skin looks like it will burn to a crisp in fifteen minutes flat."
She even sounded like a mother. David looked away. "Um, no. I forgot the sunscreen."
Lily got up from the table and scurried away. A moment later she was back with a large bottle of sunscreen and thrust it into David's hands. "I do not want you in my tent with a burn. Apply this generously after breakfast and again after lunch. Every day."
About then, the last member of the team entered the tent. His hair was white, his face had become lined, his beard was bushy, his head and general physique were round. If he had been sitting in a classroom instead of a tent, he would have been wearing tweed with elbow patches. Rose said, "And this is Professor." David turned to her to prompt her for the rest. She saw his expression, "Yup. Just Professor, though don't believe him when he says that it's the name on his birth certificate."
Professor winked at her than shook David's hand. "Welcome to my team, son. I hope you have a good summer. Did anyone happen to tell you what we're doing here?"
"My advisor only said you were doing a fossil survey. Will that include dinosaur bones?"
"Sorry, David," said Professor. "Probably not. Not in this part of Mongolia. Yes, we're doing a fossil survey in the hills nearby. We will be recording the type and age of rocks and looking to see if there actually are fossils in the rock. We have Taki on the team as these rocks tend to be older than the dinosaur era."
Ah, well. His advisor back in Cincinnati had assured him that working as a grunt at this site for a summer would add appropriate luster to a resume, something about "paying the dues". Next time, David would be in more of a position to choose a site with higher chances of finding dinosaur bones. Always next time.
Over the next few days David settled into camp life with its lack of privacy, barely tolerable food -- he figured out the reason for the bottles of ketchup at every meal -- and the camaraderie amongst fellow sufferers.
David got his first real taste of local culture when the trader pulled his truck into the camp just after breakfast at the end of the week. There weren't any nearby stores this far from the nearest town, so the trader had volunteered to bring supplies to them -- at a price, of course. He was a local that visited many of the area's nomadic tribes as a roving general store and news service. Chaz translated for Rose as she listed the supplied she needed, then translated the stories the trader had to share as they sipped coffee.
David's first encounter with Jack was a mere glimpse of what Jack could dish out. David frequently heard, "Come on, ya wimp!" or "Real men would just do it," or "I don't know why we even bother with a child like you." These comments came whenever David showed the slightest hesitation about climbing rope ladders, carrying any kind of a load, or simply getting his hands dirty.
Rose was the one David felt most comfortable around due both to the chance to talk in that long ride from the airport and to her faint resemblance to his Aunt Beth. After watching Jack's fourth dinner proposal David finally got the nerve to ask, "Why is Jack so mean to me?"
She sighed. "The way I have it figured is that Jack is obsessed with being macho."
"That much is obvious even to me," said David. "But why?"
"You would have to ask Jack -- and asking Jack is like talking to a brick wall. He'll only get annoyed that you asked. All I can tell you is how you fit into it."
"How I fit in?"
"Yeah. Jack is obsessed with macho, but it was obvious to me at first glance he'll never get there. Then he has to look at Zane every day. Zane can embody Jack's macho ideal simply by opening his eyes in the morning, something Jack won't ever accomplish in a lifetime. My guess is that Zane's physique and personality just happens to match Jack's goal. Jack has to work at it, and is undercut by his own personality."
"So Jack hates Zane for being what Jack can't be. It makes some sense, but I still can't see why Jack bothers."
Rose ignored the comment. "And now we come to you. What do you think about the macho image."
"Not very much," said David. "Everyone I've known that has talked about macho has been a bully -- usually attacking me."
"And why attack you?"
"I'm short and look young." David shook his head. "They're bullies."
"In other words, it is because they know you can't defend yourself." She held up a hand to stop the protest that wasn't coming. "Whether you really can or can't usually has nothing to do with it. As you said, you look like you can't. How many of the fights after those attacks have you won?"
"I wish I knew." David let out a sigh. Rose waited. "I think about it a lot. I'm not very big or strong. I think it is wrong to fight."
"And on a macho meter, how would you rate?"
"How important to you is that macho meter?"
"Like I said, it isn't."
"That's why Jack hates you. You're the opposite of Zane. You want to have nothing to do with the macho ideal and Jack doesn't understand why you don't and thinks that you mock him in your refusal to attempt it."
"So what do I do about it."
"Endure it. There's not a lot you can do. It is Jack's problem. I know that understanding is supposed to bring compassion, but I'm afraid understanding the group dynamics doesn't bring us much closer to understanding the man. I know it is going to be a long summer for you, but it will be for all of us, at least when dealing with Jack."
"If Jack is such a pain, why is he even here?"
"Because he's good." Rose saw the answer didn't quite satisfy David. She sighed and looked off into the distance. "Because he can identify fossils faster than anyone else on this team and do it with greater accuracy. It is strange that he can put up with someone not knowing their stuff, but not with someone that he thinks isn't doing the work."
Part 1 * Part 2