Thursday, April 1, 2010

Stalking the Wild Parrot Fish

Parrot fish come in a variety of sizes, from minnow-sized baby manahoc (I'm not sure of the spelling here, but it's pronounced mah.NYAH.hahk) to adults up to two feet long. They have beaks like parrots, hence their name. Many closely packed teeth line the outside of their mouths. They use their teeth to wrench away the algae from coral, thereby helping to maintain the reef's health. In the process they also ingest small amounts of the coral which emerges from the other end as sand. That's right. They poop sand. Over the centuries, their gastrointestinal activity helps to maintain the beaches. Think about that the next time you sunbathe on the beach.

Not only do the parrot fish help clean the coral of algae and restore our beaches, they taste wonderful. They have this white flesh that flakes beautifully when barbecued. Their heavy scales blacken and char over the charcoal, protecting the flesh inside. It is a perfect fish to barbecue.

And on Guam the weather is always wonderful. Warm, humid, so your skin and hair are always in great shape, moderated by gentle tradewinds. The water was always clear, always a little warmer than Hawaii's. If visibility was only sixty feet, that was a poor day.

With that kind of weather and water, scuba diving was a natural activity. Once I learned to dive, I took up spear fishing, although I never became any good at it.

One young man from the Trust Territory (I think he was a Palauan) really made me look inept. For equipment, he had a piece of rebar ground down to a point and a rubber thong sandal. That was his Hawaiian sling. For a game bag he had a pillow case. He had goggles so he could see, but no snorkel. Certainly no scuba tank or regulator. I had those plus a two-rubber spear gun, interchangeable barbed and trident heads, game bag. Compared to him I looked like I came from outer space. 

He usually brought in two to three times as many fish as I did. Not to put too fine a point on it, he made me look ridiculous. If I'd had any pride at all, I would have given the whole thing up and played bingo.

I finally did give up spearfishing (although I resisted the lure of bingo) after a stalk on the reef near Gun Beach. I came up on a huge cloud of parrot fish and saw an exceptionally large specimen, totally ignoring me, munching on algae, creating sand. He looked delicious. Slowly, cautiously, I glided through the water exercising all of my guile and skill, moving my fins just enough to give me some forward momentum. Quietly, lethally, I glided through the water. Picture Elmer Fudd “appwoaching the wascaly pawwot fish.”

The trident head was on. Both bands in place. Locked and loaded. Didn't want to lose the big guy. Ready, aim, FIRE.
A huge cloud of mud erupted as parrot fish fled everywhere. GOT him.

But when the mud settled, I didn't have the big guy. I had the little shrimpy guy behind him. He was so tiny my trident head tore him to pieces. There wasn't enough left for a cat snack. Apparently the big guy knew I was there all the time. I just wasn't worth the effort of responding to until I actually fired. Then he dodged my spear and I nailed the little guy behind him.

Eternal vigilance. That's how you get to be a big fish. 

Thursday, March 11, 2010

My Sister-in-Law's Turkeys

I have two sisters-in-law. One of them raised turkeys and the other one didn't.

One day my turkey raising sister-in-law's husband was telling me about how intelligent the turkeys were.
“That's 'cuz you raise sheep,” I replied. “Anyone who raises sheep is bound to think turkeys are intelligent.” I think this is a just observation. In my opinion trivets are smarter than sheep.

But then he told me some stories about their turkeys and I had to admit that maybe they had a brain cell or two in that cavity above their wattles. For one thing, the turkeys hitched rides on the sheep. Apparently they could charm the sheep into trivet mode, and then ride around the farm sheep-back, two birds per sheep. Eventually the sheep had raw backs from the turkeys digging their talons (claws? toenails?) to maintain their balance. But the sheep never seemed to lose their enthusiasm for turkey toting.

One day he claimed the turkeys discovered they were sharing their pen with a rattlesnake. They went into defense mode instantly. They lined up single file and the lead turkey struck at the snake with a set of talons (claws? toenails?) and immediately retreated to the end of the line. His place was taken by the next turkey who repeated the performance. I can't remember now whether the turkeys actually killed the snake or he simply went away because large birds were being mean to him.

I was very impressed, not because turkeys demonstrated they were smarter than sheep – that was a given – but because the birds had the discipline to follow a plan. I know some people who could learn from that example.
In fact, I'm one of them.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Cockroach Cake

Joanne doesn’t like me to tell this story, so naturally I will. Aesthetic concerns keep me from putting it on page one of this collection of memories, but the temptation is strong.

After Joanne taught at George Washington Junior High School for a year, she transferred to George Washington Senior High School. The math and science staffs took turns bringing in goodies for Friday snarfing. When it became Joanne’s turn, she decided to make an angel food cake.

She got out her bowls and the ingredients, and soon she was ready for Mr. Mixmaster. Unfortunately, a large cockroach had taken up residence in the mixing machine and when Joanne turned it on he dropped into the batter. It is hard to tell who was more surprised, Joanne or the cockroach. Joanne had the better of the deal because she at least survived whereas in a matter of a half second the cockroach disassembled into unrecognizable parts.

What to do? After some thought, Joanne continued mixing until the cockroach was thoroughly assimilated into the batter. Then he was baked like four and twenty blackbirds and set before her colleagues. Joanne ate the first piece. Nobody detected an extra portion of protein in the cake, nor did Joanne see anyone picking pieces of mandible from between their teeth.

Teachers will eat anything put before them in the staff room, but often they don’t know it.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Appreciation for a Goddess

Molly did her own share of terrorizing. She wasn’t the innocent, persecuted victim she pretended to be. One day our landlords, the Perez family who lived on the ground floor of our house, brought home an amiable, large footed German Shepherd mix puppy. The pup greeted everyone with joy and gladness, sure that no one meant him harm. And then he met Molly. She meant him harm. She met him with outright fury, fanging and slashing viciously. The puppy hastily retreated, having lost the fight before he even knew he was in the arena.

For the next few months Molly tormented the puppy every time she met him. And she went out of her way to meet him. But from one thing or another, Molly and the puppy did not encounter each other for six months. Finally, one afternoon, Molly caught scent of the dog around the corner and charged only to meet not a cringing puppy but a fun loving young giant of a dog who was not in the least afraid. Molly went from fifth gear to reverse in a tenth of a second, leaving paw hide on the pavement, and then attempted to climb a concrete post. She actually got about four feet up the post before she realized that cats can’t climb concrete posts. She made a mighty leap from the post to the stairwell and disappeared into the house and hid for the rest of the day, reflecting on life’s basic unfairness.

Eventually we left Guam for Spain and had to leave Molly behind. Molly went to live with Lyn Walker. Lyn had a two-bedroom apartment, one for Lyn and one for Molly. At last, someone appreciated a goddess. But Lyn left the island as well and Molly moved in with Bob and Marcia Hartsock. Since the Hartsocks never let anyone drive on their couch, Molly lived to enjoy a comfortable old age.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Molly and the Pig

Still on the subject of life’s imperfections, there was the time we had the shipping strike. Almost everything Guam uses is shipped in or flown in. Molly had become accustomed to eating a certain dried cat food. The bits came in the shape of little dried starfish. We were happy because the food was relatively cheap.

We were less than happy, though, when the island ran out of little dried starfish and Molly wouldn’t eat anything else. We tried everything. Canned tuna, canned salmon, fresh fish, smoked oysters, carrots with butter on them, but all to no avail. She wrinkled her lip and turned up her nose at all our offerings, and she got thinner and thinner. Finally, she even began to get smaller. She got down to about three pounds, did our incredible shrinking cat. But still she wouldn’t eat. One day she stalked into the house with something furry in her mouth and spat it out at our feet. The furry object, a shrew by profession, squeaked and ran away. Molly, meanwhile, gave us a “see-what-you-made-me-do” look and stomped out of the house, making as much noise as a three-pound cat can make.

Fortunately, the shipping strike ended and the little dried starfish reappeared before Molly disappeared.

But even without food shortages and surgeries, Molly found life difficult at times. For instance, there was The Pig. There was this wild pig, you see. Well, not really a wild pig, but a tame pig belonging to someone, we never knew who, that just ran at large through the neighborhood streets raiding garbage cans. We couldn’t outwit the pig. Firmly fitting garbage can lids posed no particular problem. We tried waiting until the garbage men were almost to the house and then quickly ran out with the cans. We’d run back in and hear the crash as the pig, appearing out of nowhere, tipped the can over and gorged himself on our garbage.

The pig just didn’t outsmart the Harrises. He outsmarted the whole neighborhood. Granted, we weren’t Harvard faculty, but you’d think we could outwit a pig, collectively if not individually. But no, things came to such a sad pass that our son, Eric, went to the village commissioner to complain. The commissioner’s advice was short and succinct. Eat the pig! But we didn’t do that. We didn’t know who the owner of the pig was or how he would react to his next fiesta entrĂ©e disappearing into his neighbors’ gullets.

What did the pig have to do with Molly? Well, pigs, you see, are omnivorous with a curious taste for cat food. Every time the pig saw Molly he would think, “FOOD,” and chase her. Fortunately for Molly, she always reached the nearest coconut palm before the pig. On several occasions we would come home to find Molly up a palm tree, waiting for us and wondering what had taken so long. She grew to really hate pigs.

One day we were on the southeast side of the island for some obscure reason and we came across someone’s idea of a zoo. The zoo had carabaos, a pony or two, one poor fruitbat hanging upside down trying to get some sleep if only people would let him alone. And a wild boar. At least, that’s what the sign outside the cage said. Inside the cage was a little black piglet hoping somebody would scratch him behind the ears. Joanne granted his wish, and gave him a belly rub as well.

Having done her good deed for the day, we returned home. Molly greeted us and Joanne reached down to pet her. But the cat recoiled from Joanne’s hand and her face wrinkled in revulsion. As far as she was concerned, we had been consorting with the enemy and she wouldn’t come near us until we had changed clothes and boiled our hands.