Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Wild Boy

While the doctors and anthropologists were never able to prove their theory, they were convinced that the child had to be the sole survivor of a remote plane crash.  In addition, although they could not say with any certainty how many years ago the accident had happened (which meant that no one knew for sure at what age the child had been left alone in the wilderness), most of the scientists believed that the child had to have been at least a toddler. 

There were some facts on which the anthropologists could all agree:  when rescued, the child was approximately twelve years old, he neither spoke nor understood any human language, and he was functioning as an independent member of a family unit of undomesticated canines.

Put simply, the feral child had been raised by wild dogs.  Many of the scientists who studied him in the first years post-rescue could exhibit the scars of bite marks to attest to the fact.

While most people believe that the stories of feral children raised by animals are solely the work of fiction by such authors as Edgar Rice Burroughs and Rudyard Kipling, there are dozens of documented cases of young children being raised by dogs, monkeys, wolves, and—in one particularly bizarre case—a two year-old child who lived to age twelve with ostriches in the Western Sahara.

But I digress.  When "The Wild Boy" was rescued, it was impossible to determine how long he'd been among the dogs, but the scientists theorized that the child had gained the trust of the dogs by helping them obtain food.  Since the pack had lived on the outskirts of a small town, it was believed that trash cans were frequently scavenged for food scraps. 

When rescued, the feral child was suffering from a Vitamin D deficiency and he was filthy, infested with fleas, and covered with a bewildering assortment of scrapes, cuts, and scars—many of which had not completely healed.  When discovered, he was nude, and preferred walking on all fours, only walking upright for short distances.  He was also terrified, violently aggressive, and desperate to escape.  It is doubtful that the child’s first year after being rescued would have been possible had it not been for the tranquilizers that his doctors surreptitiously added to his water.

In time, the boy, who was nicknamed Joe by the scientists who cared for him, began to warily accept his new surroundings, and he ceased to be hostile.  The change in attitude was probably due to the change in his diet, because for the first time in his life, he was well fed.  Like any wild animal, satiation brought him, if not tranquility, then at least a more relaxed attitude.

Joe then learned quickly:  at first, he simply copied the actions of those around him, but eventually he demonstrated that he understood what was happening in his lessons.  It did not take long for him to begin talking and in a matter of just a few weeks, his vocabulary grew to several hundred words.

For the scientists, Joe's rapid learning initiated a heated argument:  Was Joe naturally intelligent or had his years of struggling for survival honed his skills at adaptation?  This was a new twist on the old ‘nature versus nurture’ argument.  While the scientists could not reach any conclusions, everyone could agree that Joe was developing and learning at an incredible rate.

By the time Joe had been rescued for a full year, he was academically the equivalent of a first grader, matching a student chronologically half his age.   Two years later, however, Joe had progressed to doing work at the high school level.  Joe began to devour books, often reading several at a time, to the exclusion of everything else around him, for hours at a time. 

Joe's social skills did not progress nearly as fast, however.  The subtle interplay between people, the unspoken rules of human society, and the niceties of group interaction among Homo sapiens were completely lost on him, despite his previous obvious mastery of canine society.  He social skills were  entirely based on what scientists politely referred to as "pack mentality".  Joe was direct, aggressive, and completely lacking in empathy, which was usually demonstrated by a complete disinterest in the activities of other humans unless they directly involved him. 

It was devoutly hoped that these interpersonal skills would develop in time. 

Five years after Joe's rescue, he had earned his high school equivalency degree, and had been accepted at Harvard University.  Whether his acceptance was for his commendable SAT scores or for the universities' desire to acquire a student with a unique claim of diversity was never disclosed, but without a doubt, Joe was actively courted by several Ivy League schools—despite the fact that his applications could list no traditional extracurricular activities.

"In just five years, Joe made remarkable progress, he went from being incapable of understanding simple human speech to reading at a college level in the same amount of time it takes most humans to grasp basic math skills," said Dr. Tomlinson, the head of the team that had nurtured Joe since his rescue.

Just how well Joe could have eventually reintegrated into human society will never be known, since the once feral child died before he could start his studies at the university. 

As Dr. Tomlinson said, ”It’s a damn shame that Joe was accidentally killed in a senseless traffic accident.  We could just never get him to stop chasing cars."

Saturday, December 22, 2018

A Fence Around It

Thirty years ago, The Doc and I purchased thirty acres of high desert scrubland in a fashionable new neighborhood.  At the time, we looked forward to building a new house on a lot with enough room for the boys, What’s-His-Name and the The-Other-One, to run wild. 

At the time, we ignored the fact that it would take twenty minutes for The Doc to get to the hospital, that not a single tree did or could grow at that waterless altitude, or that for most of the year, a chilly, piercing wind blew constantly from the West.

While it won’t surprise you that most of the lots were sold during the summer, you might be surprised to learn that now, the barren neighborhood contains a hundred isolated homes, each trying so hard to look like Fort Zinderneuf that any one of them would be a suitable location for filming The Last, Last, This Time We Mean It, Remake of Beau Geste.

For years, I made regular trips to our lot, hauling water for the trees we planted (they died) or to occasionally hunt a few rabbits (so did they).  On one of these trips, I met our prospective neighbors, a young couple from Philadelphia, who had just bought the adjoining thirty acres.  We met along our prospective shared fence line and discussed our future plans for our homes.

They were….Different.  Born and raised in Philadelphia, our neighbors-to-be were recent arrivals and were in the process of renting greenhouses for their new business—growing poinsettias to sell at Christmas.  That turned out to be the most practical of their future plans.

First, ignoring the fact that we all had all purchased oversized desert lots for the isolation, they informed me that they were going to build their new house just twenty feet north of our shared property line, “So the sunsets would last longer”. 

Second, the wife told me they were going to erect a fence around their property to keep the snakes out. 

“A snake-proof fence?”, I asked.

“Yes,” she said.  “A rock fence about six feet tall all around the property.  I hate snakes.”

“Well, there are a couple of things wrong with your plans.  It is almost a mile all the way around this lot, so that fence is going to cost you a lot more than the ground you’re enclosing.  And even if the fence worked, you’ll be fencing in as many snakes as you fence out.

“No, there are no snakes here,” she said.  “We’ve walked all over this property and there are no snakes.”

“It’s summer and the middle of the day.  Snakes can’t stand the heat.  Come out tomorrow morning as the sun rises and walk this property.  Trust me, there are snakes.”

Two weeks later, on a trip out to water the dying trees, I noticed a sign on my neighbor’s lot: the property was for sale.  Evidently, they had taken my advice and discovered a few snakes.  It was just as well, I heard a few years later that their poinsettia business failed because of cheaper Mexican imports.

I don’t know what happened to my former neighbors, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they are currently working as advisors to the Trump administration.  That might explain why our president keeps trying to build a fence along the border.  A fence that won’t work any better then the proposed enclosure my neighbors were proposing.

I’ve lived most of my life along the Mexican border, I've worked on both sides of it, and I will even admit to casually crossing it a few times myself.  (By casually, I mean without government approval.  "Accidents" happen.)  A fence is not going to work if you are trying to stop immigration. 

Yes, a lot of people cross the border illegally.  They do so because it is slightly easier and cheaper than crossing it legally.  But, only slightly.  The majority of illegal immigrants currently inside the United States entered the country legally and simply stayed.  The majority of those who entered legally did so with visas, the rest legally crossed the border as tourists to work, go to school, visit relatives or shop in American towns along the border and remained in the US, with some eventually finding ways to travel further into the interior.

A citizen in either country with a valid passport or an enhanced driver’s license can legally cross the border, without a visa, as long as they stay in the border zone.  I live in that border zone in Southern New Mexico.  While no one knows exactly how many immigrants live along the border waiting for an opportunity to move north and find work, they are not hard to find.

For the record, most imported drugs that cross our southern border come across inside legally imported commercial freight, so a wall would have little effect on smuggled drugs, either.

If the United States really wants to control immigration, it has to change the laws.  Changing the visa requirements would be a start.  If we helped build the economy of Mexico, it would negate the need for people to emigrate to find employment.  We could expand the Green Card program.  We could do lots of things, but we don’t need to try and build a snake-proof fence.

Before I get the hate mail, I am not comparing immigrants and snakes, I am comparing fences and walls and the environment of the Southwest, something people who live thousands of miles away should learn about before proposing massive building projects.

Oh, yes.  My former would-be neighbor was wrong about something else: Sunsets are longer the farther away from the equator you move.  Though the duration would have increased by only a fraction of a second, she should have planned to build her house on the opposite side of her lot.  Or just stay in Philadelphia—it has longer sunsets than New Mexico.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Christmas on the Brazos River

The two old cowboys were sitting at their favorite booth in the Santo diner finishing off large plates of biscuits and gravy.  As Mike reached for the third time for the bottle of Tabasco (or what he referred to as ‘Texas Ketchup’) his friend Kent complained.

“I don’t see how you can do that to good biscuits.  All I can smell is the vinegar.”

“Wakes me up,” Mike answered.  “I was out early this morning looking for deer signs along the Brazos.  Still got one week left in the deer season, and I decided I wanted some venison this year after all.  All I saw was a lot of tracks left by hogs.”

“I thought you quit hunting deer years ago.”

“I did.  I took Matt hunting when he was young, and after I bagged a buck he cried for an hour, claiming I had killed one of Santa’s reindeer.  By the time I got him calmed down, I had promised him I wouldn’t do it anymore.”

Kent pushed his empty plate away from him and signaled to the waitress for more coffee.  “Matt’s grown and got kids of his own, now.  Why did you wait so long to start hunting again.”

“Oh, I just got out of the habit somewhere.  Deer hunting was never as much fun as dove hunting anyway.  Too much trouble and cost nowadays.  But, I got to thinking about deer sausage and decided to take advantage of the season.  With any luck, might have venison for Christmas dinner.”

Sharon filled the coffee cups for both men.  “We just pulled a fresh apple pie out of the oven.  Care for a slice?  I can add a slice of cheddar to the top while it's still warm enough to melt it.”

The two men looked at each other and answered together, “Yes ma’am.”

By the time Sharon returned with the pie, Kent was still teasing Mike about the deer hunting.  “What will your grandkids say when Matt tells them you are still killing Santa’s reindeer?”

Sharon laughed as she put a plate in front of each of the old cowboys.  “Even worse, one of them will write Santa and tell on you.”

“They can’t.  None of them speak the right language,” Mike answered, carefully ignoring Kent as he offered the bottle of Tabasco.

“Why not?” asked Sharon.  “Doesn’t Santa speak English?”

“Nope.  Everyone at Santa’s workshop speaks the same language.  North Polish.”

“Ugh,” Kent groaned.  “You sleigh me.”

“Besides,” Mike continued.  “Santa doesn’t use the reindeer anymore.  Now, he rides a Holly Davidson.”

As she once again filled the coffee cups, Sharon asked, “Don’t you know any good Christmas stories?  Somethin’ devotional or uplifting?”

As Mike pulled his plate of pie closer to him, he looked up and answered, “Sure.  I’ve got just the tale for you.”

Sharon and Kent both looked at the old cowboy, waiting patiently while he sampled his apple pie.  Finally, he smiled and slowly waggled his head, obviously enjoying his dessert.

“Well, Saint Peter had been working the Pearly Gates for a most a millennium and wanted to take a small break and grab a cup of coffee and maybe a piece of heavenly pie as good as this one.”

Sharon smiled at the compliment and leaned against the booth while Mike took another quick bite of pie.  Reinforced, he began telling the rest of the story.

“Now, Saint Peter didn’t have a union rep or even a shop steward to help secure him a work break, but finally he saw Jesus walking by and he stopped him.”

“Excuse me, Jesus, but would you mind watching the store for a few minutes while I go grab a cup of coffee?  I just need someone to watch the gate and keep out the politicians.  Jesus accepted and Saint Peter hurried off for a quick cup of coffee.”

“Well, Jesus had been standing at the gate for a few minutes when he saw an old man slowly walking toward him.  As the old man made his way towards the gates, he paused frequently, looking to the side, obviously searching for something.”  Mike paused from telling the story for a minute and took a quick sip of coffee before continuing.

“When the old man was close enough, Jesus asked, ‘Can I help you with something?’  The old man stopped and looking at Jesus, answered.  ‘I’m looking for my son.’”

“‘What does he look like?’”

“‘Well, the old man answered, he has a hole here, and another hole here.’  As the old man talked, he pointed at the palm of his hand, then switched hands and pointed at the other hand.  Then he pointed at his feet and said, ‘and he has a hole in each foot.’”

“Jesus was startled and stared at the old man, clearly surprised.  The old man saw the look and each of them suddenly had the same thought, speaking at the same time.”

“‘Father?’ asked Jesus, as he held out his hands to embrace the old man.”

“The old man raised his arms, too, and simultaneously cried, ‘Pinocchio?’”