PICKLES

By Wendell A. Duffield


Fifty-eight years old and counting. I know that I'm just a youngster compared to my 90-year-old mother, but, still, my tired legs are relieved when I find some shade beneath an overhanging ledge and scrunch down into a modified lotus position to enjoy a mid-day lunch that is tucked safely away in my backpack. Pele, my dog and faithful field companion, is also ready for a break from what has been a full morning of scrambling over hot and hilly terrain in search of something as mundane as rocks.

Yup, I'm a geologist. Not the nerdy contemporary kind, who spends hours staring into the bloodshot eye of a computer monitor, looking for electron-generated wisdom and inspiration. Nor the white-lab-coat variety, who mixes this chemical powder with that inert grunge, heats and squeezes the resulting brew and believes that the nature of real rocks is illuminated by whatever the experiment produces. And certainly not the type who develops grand mathematically supported theories of how the Earth should behave, and then has difficulty accepting the notion of what really happens in nature is not so neat, predicable and shaped to fit into a calculated cubbyhole.

Sure, I'm willing to use a computer to write a story like this one. But I have never had a yen or the talent to do lab work, and I can get bogged down with numbers when more than the four basic functions (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division) are involved. Even these simple exercises of the mind have accumulated a patina of difficulty as I age. You see, I'm what's called an old field geologist. We hammer, examine through a magnifying lens, drop acid on, kick and even lick rocks in their natural state to help push back the frontiers of earth science. Sometimes the frontiers push back pretty hard, but field geology is truly the bread and butter, or is it bread and pickles, of earth science.

Field geologists, young and old, tend to be rather unremarkable folks who are prone to what some consider aberrant behavior. Those who study human personality types generally categorize us as rigidly ordered and introverted people, whose habits and preferred interactions with other humans border on the a- if not anti-social. I know, because I've been through testing and evaluation required by my employer as part of career-enhancement training. You can imagine how far my self-esteem rose with the introduction of this bit of knowledge into my life! What do those behavioral scientists know, anyway!?

The fact is that a field geologist spends a lot of time alone, or only in the company a non-human critter, like Pele. Field seasons spent walking over remote areas looking at rocks can account for a large part of a typical calendar year, and the rest of life in the office and at home may not include enough socializing to backfill the field-induced void. Some of us sure try to compensate, though.

As fallout from the hermit-like part of my life, I have had many lengthy and animated conversations with Pele, and her predecessors, and even with cows, who have about as much gray matter as your average slug. Feedback, of course, is minimal - maybe a canine bark and wagging of tail, or perhaps a blank bovine stare followed by rapid retreat complete with the raised-tail diarrheic spray so typical of those beasts. This is a pretty disgusting reaction to my attempts at conversation. But as field geologists know, just the sound of one's own voice can be comforting and at least a partial substitute for real human company. And talking to almost any other living creature seems less silly and bizarre than talking to one's self.

If this strikes you as at all odd, consider the inflated importance of lunch-in-the-field to us rock beaters. In the mind of a typically anal, introverted and judgmental field geologist, the selection and preparation of a "correct" lunch are as sacred as communion is to a priest. After all, lunch is the fuel needed to keep the field body energized and productive, and I'm sure it feeds the soul, too. My colleagues and I have honed this food ritual to a piercingly religious art form that only its practitioners can properly appreciate. Probably as far back as the time of its invention by an Earl of the same name, the SANDWICH has been the centerpiece of a proper lunch. And as those behavioral scientists would be quick to point out, day-to-day sandwich variety is fundamentally anathema to our personality type. A true field geologist would never want to be so adventuresome and flexible as to change his sandwich type during his career. Well, maybe just once or possibly twice during a decades-long career, but any change would most certainly be for a profound reason. Geologists sometimes practice fieldwork in groups of two, and in even larger though usually single-digit numbers on special rare occasions. From my observations at such uncomfortably crowded gatherings during the past three decades, I have concluded that peanutbutter-and-jelly is the sandwich of choice. This is where I jump off my profession's food bandwagon.

Early in my career, I let myself be influenced, for a few days, by senior mentoring colleagues to the point that I tried this popular food. What a mistake! A single bite quickly convinced me that there is only one effective way to get peanutbutter off the roof of your mouth (with your index finger), just as there is only one effective way to get peanutbutter off that finger (insert in mouth and scrape along the roof thereof, against the upper teeth). The energy spent in such an iterative eating process is about equivalent to the caloric value of the consumed food. It is rumored that the bleached skeletons of field geologists have been found in remote places, with index-finger bone in mouth and half-empty peanutbutter jars nearby. I shun the risk of such demise. Besides, most of my fieldwork is in dry, hot semi-arid and desert places, where viscid sticky peanutbutter would make me even thirstier than I normally am. So, in self-defense and -preservation, I have perfected the properly and adequately moist pickle-based sandwich, whose secrets I now share.

Take two pieces of bread (doesn't much matter what type, as you will soon understand) and thickly cover one side of each with a smooth layer of Miracle Whip Salad Dressing. Contrary to hosts of suggestions I've received over the years, mayonnaise will not do, nor will Hellman's attempt to imitate Miracle Whip. On one of these already tasty surfaces, add thin slices of a mild cheese in whatever pattern is needed to cover the dressing. Next comes the principal moisture-giving ingredient, a layer of bread-and-butter pickles, the kind that Mother made . literally, in my childhood home. These pickles come in slices about the size of a quarter, and typically, ten can be arranged to cover the cheese layer for conventionally shaped bread. However, and here is the most important part of the sandwich-making process, pickle slices straight from the jar to the sandwich provide so much moisture that by lunchtime the bread is a soggy, unappetizing and nearly inedible lump. So, each pickle slice must be sucked just enough to reduce moisture content to an acceptable level. Not everyone can (or wants to) master this step, and most who succeed do so after several failures. Once the pickles are adequately sucked and properly positioned, slap the two slices of bread together, and insert sandwich into a plastic baggie to preserve a proper moisture level for the noontime feast.

I claim to be the originator and most proficient pickle-sandwich assembler in field geology. I warned you that we're an odd lot.

Back to the present: With Pele napping at my side, I carefully extract lunch from my backpack and bite into yet another pickleish culinary delight. The texture, moisture content and taste are just right. Lunchtime perfection!! No peanutbutter stickiness, and enough sandwich moisture to help me comfortably ration out the drinking water I carry for the rest of the day.

As I'm enjoying this lunch in our shady rest spot, my mind inexplicably daydreams to the realization that at about 100 field days each year, I am eating the 3,500th pickle sandwich of my geologic career. And I (am barely able to) mentally calculate that I have consumed nearly 35,000 pickle slices in the process. If one is what one eats, I should be a semi-sweet 400-foot-tall greenish cylinder of swallowed slices accumulated as stacked-up discs. Thank god, this hasn't happened to me, yet, though my wife sometimes thinks that I'm semi sweet . when I'm not repeating my hope that she will keep the house a bit more orderly. In recent years I have recognized a slightly shriveled dimpleness showing up in areas of formerly firm and svelte epidermis. Huummmm. Cucumber skin or cellulite?

Lunch finished and my focus back on the reality of today's work, I roust Pele and we head off to look for more rocky outcrops to hammer, kick and lick.

Fifty-eight years old and counting. Still sucking pickles after all these years. I may be the most accomplished pickle sucker in my entire profession. And boy is it worth it, regardless of the occasional off-color joke that this habit elicits from some of my colleagues!


Wendell write this story after a picture in the Carleton VOICE reminded him of a college roommate, David Larson.


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