Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Jun-19-18, 11:18 PM (EDT)|
"book excerpt of the year"|
LAST EDITED ON Jun-21-18 AT 05:40 AM (EDT)|
In Chapter 4 of Carrying the Fire, Apollo astronaut Mike Collins's memoir, he discusses the initial round of training his astronaut group (the third) received after they were selected in 1963—in particular the jungle survival training, which they had to undergo in the vanishingly unlikely event that they found themselves in one during a mission.
So we were off to Panama, the fourteen of us plus Pete Conrad (our den mother), to the Air Force's tropical survival school, where we spent a couple of days in the classroom followed by a couple of days living off the land. The classroom work was most illuminating, and this city boy sat frozen into attentiveness as we discussed a few dos and don'ts. Our bible was Air Force Manual 64-5, entitled Survival, and it makes jolly good bedtime reading. In fact, I have kept two copies of this little gold mine to this day, for one never knows.
The manual opens on a cheery note: "Anything that creeps, crawls, swims, or flies is a possible source of food." Then it gets a bit too specific for my taste. "People eat grasshoppers, hairless caterpillars, wood-boring beetle larvae and pupae, ant eggs, and termites." Not me, babe! Oh yeah? Read on. "You have probably eaten insects as contaminants in flour, corn meal, rice, beans, fruits, and greens of your daily food, and in stores in general." No wonder the supermarket has been less crowded lately.
How about something for the person of more conventional taste? "Look on the ground for hedgehogs, porcupines, pangolins, mice, wild pigs, deer, and wild cattle; in the trees for bats, squirrels, rats, and monkeys. Dangerous beasts—tigers, rhinoceroses, elephants—are rarely seen and best left alone." I'll say! Besides, to hell with all that, I'll just be a vegetarian. How about a recommendation along that line? "The taro grows 2–3 feet high and has yellowish-green jack-in-the-pulpit flowers. Cook the large heart-shaped leaves well, preferably with lime juice, before eating, otherwise they will irritate your mouth and throat." Or mushrooms, maybe? "Poisonous fungi cannot be detected by unpleasant taste or disagreeable odor." I had seaweed one time in a great Japanese restaurant, so how about that? "... Some have too much lime carbonate or are too horny to be eaten. Others are covered with slime." Isn't there anything a little closer to home? "Sweet potato vines are easy to recognize; they look like morning glory vines." Now what the hell do morning glory vines look like? Just as I am ready to throw in the towel, I get a little encouragement. "Poisonous plants will be met with in the tropics, but in no greater proportion to the non-poisonous kinds than in the United States." Bully! At least there is some solid practical advice scattered about ("Don't eat toads") with which I can wholeheartedly agree.
Suppose I give up the idea of eating entirely, and just sit there and wait to be rescued? Be careful where you sit—"... will sting you if you touch them, and their sting is like that of a wasp. Avoid many-legged insects." You bet I will, but will they avoid me? "Scorpions are real pests, for they like to hide in clothing, bedding, or shoes..." Would they bite a fellow Scorpio? Snakes? Oh, no problem there. "Poisonous snakes are less abundant than most people think." Than most people think, for heaven's sake! They don't have the vaguest idea of what I'm thinking, which is, if snakes are so goddamned non-abundant, then what is? "The crocodile... is very dangerous. It is abundant."
That does it. I'll need help, and quickly. "Call or clap your hands to attract attention. Don't be afraid to be an object of amusement to the natives. Be ready to entertain with songs, games, or any tricks of cards, coins, or string which you may know." They gotta be kidding! "Rock salt, twist tobacco, and silver (not paper) money should be used discreetly in trade... Someone may understand a few words of English. If not, use sign language; natives are accustomed to it because they communicate a lot by signs themselves. State your business simply and frankly." You bet I will. Get my ass out of here! While waiting for transportation: "Leave the native women alone at all times... always be friendly, firm, patient, and honest. Be generous but not lavish. Be moderate." Moderation in all things, well, almost all things. "Don't worry about lack of bowel movement; this will take care of itself in a few days." On my diet, I don't see how it possibly could.
But no matter, put all fears away, leave civilization cheerfully and confidently behind, and put your trust in Air Force Manual 64-5. After all: "You are probably safer from sudden death in the jungle than in most big cities." Armed with this dubious reassurance, and a dull machete, I stepped briskly off a helicopter and plunged straightaway into the green wall of awaiting jungle. I had to know for myself; there were some things I simply had to confirm: "The sea cucumber can and does shoot out his stomach when excited."
From this, you may get something of a flavor for why I think Carrying the Fire is the most engaging astronaut memoir I have yet read (and I've read a lot of astronaut memoirs). :)
Benjamin D. Hutchins, Co-Founder, Editor-in-Chief, & Forum Mod
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited http://www.eyrie-productions.com/
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