One of the prerogatives of an academic life is that you have the summer free of duties. Of course, you don’t get paid either, but many academics arrange their salaries to be paid over twelve months rather than the nine months they are at work. In reality, many academics, especially those in scientific or technical fields, have grants for research that help them out by providing summer salaries as well as support for undergraduate and graduate assistants to help in their research.
My first academic summer was that of1961. I did not have funding, but I had saved up enough so that I was able to coax an undergraduate senior, Don Marszalek, to act as assistant to collect fossils with me in Europe in return for covering his expenses. We traveled via one of the especially cheap Icelandic Airlines flights for faculty and students headed to Europe. It was a long flight, with a propellor driven plane, a landing for refueling in Reykjavik, and finally arriving in Luxemburg. I had arranged to purchase a car, a little Renault, which I later had shipped back to the US and which served me well for a number of years. It got better gas mileage than almost anything on the road in the US today.
Early on, I said that my life has been strongly influenced by serendipity. Events that summer changed the direction of my research and allowed me to be a witness to history. Don and I started out collecting samples for microfossils in the Paris Basin, a classic area for geology. I had visited much of the area during a postdoctoral year in Basel, Switzerland in1959–1960, but had not been able to see everything I wanted. From there we went south to Biarritz, on the Atlantic just north of the Spanish border.
We were walking along the promenade one evening when we passed a shop with snorkeling and SCUBA gear. Don asked if I had ever been snorkeling. I had not. The next day we came back and bought masks, fins, and snorkels. Don also bought a very nice Italian spear gun. Most spear guns at that time were complicated arbolette-type guns powered with one or more sets of rubber surgical tubing, with the external spear attached to the gun with a line. The Italian gun was metal and a very clean design. It was powered by a spring inside the barrel; it was basically a tube with a pistol grip and a nylon line attached to the protruding spear tip.
My first experience snorkeling was around the ‘Rocher de la Vierge’ in Biarritz. The Rocher is a big rocky promontory, jutting out into the sea from the center of Biarritz. Several people were walking among the rocks in shallow water—they were prying limpets and snails off the rocks and eating them. We went into the water, and in a few minutes Don had taught me what I needed to know and I discovered a new world. The rocky shoreline was covered by sea urchins, and a wealth of undersea life. Swarms of fish abounded. The undersea world was wholly different from what I expected.
Don, interested in trying out his new spear gun, swam out a considerable distance. In water depths of6 or8 m he came across several large boulders. Under an overhang he saw a guitar-shaped ray about60–70 cm long. He knew they were edible and that someone on the beach would appreciate a fresh fish so he shot it—the gun worked perfectly. It was a long swim for him back to the beach, in part because he was towing the large flat fish several meters behind me. When he finally reached the beach, he stood up in the ankle-deep water—I couldn’t see the fish but the spear was protruding in the air along with the wet nylon line attached to the spear gun he was holding. He suddenly jumped and the spear gun went flying in one direction and Don in the other. He yelled “What happened, I just got two strong electric shocks”. One of the beachcombers identified the ray as a Torpille, also known as an Atlantic electric ray. They can produce electric shocks of170–240 volts. Using considerable care some of those on the beach gathered it up and took it off for dinner. Ray cooked in red wine is a local specialty.
During the course of the summer we went snorkeling in sites along the French and Italian Mediterranean coasts, and I realized that I wanted to learn a lot more about the marine world.
Don and I were in the south of France on August 1. Everyone in France has a month long vacation during the month of August; virtually everything shuts down and most of the country tries to visit resorts on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. We had just come north from collecting samples in Spain and tried to find accommodations starting in the late afternoon, first in Perpignan, then in Montpelier, and finally around midnight in Nimes. Not a single room was available anywhere. Resigned to sleeping in the car, we drove into the hills, and came upon the place where the2,000 year old Roman aqueduct built to bring spring water to Nimes crosses the river Gard, the Pont du Gard. We used coats and clothing to make beds and slept on the ground. I will never forget waking up in the middle of the night with the moonlight shining on the great structure. We spent part of the next day climbing around on it.
You can’t sleep under the Pont du Gard anymore. The area is now a park, and there is an excellent museum about the aqueduct, its construction and even how it was financed. You can see the lead plumbing fixtures used to provide running water for homes in Roman Nimes. And the stone arches remain the largest ever constructed.
The other thing that happened that summer was an unplanned visit to Berlin. Don and I were in Munich, where I was visiting friends at the University. We also met some old friends of mine from Dallas, a German sculptor, Heri Bert Bartscht who I had met at an art exhibition at the little gallery in Dallas. Heri and his wife, Waltraud, or ‘Wally’ as we called her had just returned from Berlin. I had not been paying any attention to the news, and Heri told us that the East Germans were sealing off their part of the city from the west, and planned to build a wall. He said ‘Its really interesting, you should go see it if you can’.
The next morning, August15, Don and I drove the short distance to Munich’s Rhiem airport, and simply went up to the counters asking if there was space on a plane to Berlin. There was space late that afternoon on an Air France flight, and we got on it. I jokingly told Don that the airline had earned the nickname Air Chance. The weather got bad as we approached Berlin, and the plane finally landed after three tries to get down on the runway. The nickname Air Chance no longer seemed so funny. We stayed at a Hilton hotel not far from Potsdamer Platz. The boundary ran through this famous old square, which once was the commercial center of Berlin but was a desolate wasteland of ruins in1961. About9 p.m. we left the hotel and started to walk the few blocks to Potsdamer Platz. We were stopped by an American soldier who told us we should not go any further; the border could be a dangerous place.
Frustrated, I remembered I had a micropaleontologist friend in Berlin, at the Technical University. Many of the buildings of the TU are near the famous ‘Zoo’ railway station, and the next morning we went there. Klaus Müller was in is office and delighted to see us. I asked if he could show us the border. “Absolutely, I’ll not only show it to you, we’ll cross it as many times as we can today. It’s fascinating, the situation is chaotic, border crossing requirements are different everywhere”.
Armed with our US passports and Klaus with his west Berlin identity card, we set off. As I recalled we crossed at least four different places that day. We said we had appointments at the Humboldt University and at the Academy of Sciences. The East German guards did not know what to do, so each time we were allowed to pass. At each border crossing station, construction on the wall had begun. It was a rather feeble thing at first, just concrete blocks cemented together. We did go to both the Humboldt University and the Academy of Sciences to visit paleontologists I had met earlier at conferences. We were having coffee in the Academy of Sciences when our host casually asked “By the way, how did you get in here? This building is supposed to be off limits to foreigners”. Klaus said, “Well, I knew where your office was, so we just walked past the guard”. Our host actually lived in west Berlin, but worked in the east. This was not uncommon before the wall was built. He said “When we finish our discussions I will give you an hour to get to the Friedrichstrasse crossing point (later to become ‘Checkpoint Charlie’); then I am going to call security and denounce the guard. Then I will leave and go home to my place in west Berlin and never come back”. We got to the Friedrichstrasse crossing point in half an hour, but leaving East Berlin had gotten more complicated. The guards wanted to know where we had been. Klaus talked us through.
This had been my first experience in a Communist country; I found it fascinating. When, a few months later I was asked to serve as a reviewer on a doctoral thesis at the Charles University in Prague, I happily accepted.
But now back to the story of how I got involved in marine research.
I resolved at the end of that summer that I wanted to study modern shallow water marine environments. To my amazement, the Department Head at the University of Illinois, George White, found this a great idea. Since Urbana, Illinois is not exactly on the seashore I needed to find a location where I could work. I decided to tour the marine laboratories of the Gulf Coast and Florida during the Christmas break after spending the holiday with my family in Dallas.
To make a long story short, the seawater around the laboratories in Texas and Alabama is muddy, and it is cold in winter, so I was much happier when I visited Miami. The University of Miami’s Institute of Marine Sciences was filled with interesting characters, perhaps the most intriguing a geologist named Cesare Emiliani. Miami seemed like a good place to work, but I had one more place to visit on my list, a field station of the American Museum of Natural History, the Lerner Marine Laboratory. The Laboratory was located on the island of Bimini, Bahamas, just across the Florida Straits from Miami. After visiting the Institute in Miami, I flew with Pappy Chalk himself, owner of Chalk’s airline, in a seaplane to Bimini. There I found a paradise for someone who wanted to study marine environments. Crystal clear waters, a huge variety of environments, including some small coral reefs, and an incredibly hospitable staff. I worked out of the Lerner Marine Laboratory for over eight years.