Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Odd Couple goes West

(DrTom and Paul Sherman could have played the parts of Oscar and Felix naturally, and did.)

Paul Sherman and I were colleagues at Cornell University.  For several years, Paul and I drove the 2,200 miles from Ithaca, NY to the OX Ranch in western Idaho to conduct research on Idaho ground squirrels. We lived there for two months a year for most of the 1990s. Have you ever spent four days in a truck with Paul Sherman, followed by two months in a bunkhouse 30 miles from the nearest town (pop., about 600), followed by another four days in the truck to get home? Of course not, because your mama didn't raise no fool. Apparently, mine did.

On the trip out, Paul enjoyed working mentally on evolutionary problems---aloud.  Why do opossums play dead?  Why do humans nearly everywhere believe in some kind of a god?  Why do humans keep pets?  Paul liked to listen to Linda Ronstadt tapes in the truck; I liked to hear Jon Secada. He drove 55 mph; I drove 65. He liked to eat at McDonald's; I hated the place. I smoked; he hated that. He is fastidious, organized and neat; I'm not so much that way. He has a Type A personality, if you know what I mean; my type is yet undefined, but it can't be higher than a C.  And Sherm worried a lot more than I did about what other people thought.

When we arrived at the bunkhouse at the OX in March of the first year, I threw my jacket on the chair near the front door as we entered the old clapboard structure. Paul asked me if I was going to do something with that. I told him I intended to leave it there until May when we packed up to go back to New York.  And so it went for the next 55 days, and for the next eight years---Sherman as Felix Unger and I as Oscar Madison of the old tv series, The Odd Couple.

When friends or biologists visited our squirrel project, they invariably asked if we bickered like this all the time. No, we've cleaned up our act quite a bit for your visit. You should have heard us yesterday arguing about whether the kitchen floor needed mopping yet. And the day before that it was whether ketchup really needs to be kept in a refrigerator. Of course not, I said. But I repeatedly found it in there getting all cold as soon as I turned my back.  And Tony Randall worried whenever I left the Crock-Pot on all day. "Paul, it is a crock-pot. That's what it does. You cook slowly with it on ALL DAY." And tomorrow, we have to decide who drives the 30 miles to town to get groceries. And whose turn is it to call the ranch foreman and invite him and his wife for dinner?  "Tom, isn't that firewood a little close to the wood stove?" I started going to bed at 8pm so I could get some peace and quiet.  "Tom, did you brush your teeth before you went to bed?"  Judas Priest!!!!

One year we decided to take a more northerly route back to Ithaca.  We went through Montana.  At the end of a long day of traveling, we were ready to stop for the night.  We were both exhausted from a day of negotiating about the best route to take, which octane gas we should buy, and who gets to read the Missoulian first while the other drove.  I detected the unmistakable smell of testosterone as we hit the city limits of Bozeman; a few minutes later we discovered why.  We noticed that there were few vacancies at motels as we proceeded down the main drag.  We stopped at the only place that did not have a "No Vacancy" sign flashing.  That was the good news.  There was a rodeo in town, and nearly every room in town was taken.  The only room they had left was the honeymoon suite, the bad news.  I kid you not!  The friggin honeymoon suite.

The middle-aged woman behind the counter snickered and told me with as straight a face as she could summon that she would give us a discount.   The lobby was full of cowboys in western shirts, huge metal belt buckles with bighorn sheep and other animal heads on them, wide-brimmed hats curved up at the edges just right, and the obligatory boots with stiletto toes.  There was probably more testosterone per cubic foot in that motel at that moment than any place on earth.  "Lady, please keep your voice down.  We're considering this because we are dead tired, but let's not let this develop into a group decision between the university profs who study squirrels and have New York license plates and all these hombres who just rode in here on wild mustangs they only roped this morning on the open range."  Agreed.  But as we were walking away from the check-in desk she shouted: "Do you want flowers sent to the room?"  

Sherman and I accepted the deal, but we took a circuitous route to get to the room, and then waited until the hall cleared before we unlocked the door and slipped inside faster than a Google search can bring up the results for "lynch mob". The room was much nicer than the room my wife and I had stayed in on our wedding night 40 years earlier; there must be some kind of moral or life lesson in that fact, but I can't begin to figure out what it is.  The Bozeman room was so feminine, so flowery, so over-the-top nuptial that I blurred the memory of the place almost as soon as we checked out.  I do remember that there was a heart-shaped bed on a raised platform in the middle of the room and a pull-out couch.  Sherman and I flipped to see who got the bed.  He won the toss, or lost the toss, depending on your point of view.  We both agreed not to discuss the incident for at least 10 years.

Back in Ithaca, Sherman and I rarely spent any social time together.  An occasional email or phone call where the words "dickhead" and "whacko" were flung about was the extent of it.  Living together for two months a year pretty much exhausted what we had to say to one another.  During those years, we discussed every topic known to man, and we pretty much solved all the world's problems.  Professors in biology are often loners, so to live and work together closely for a significant period of time, far removed from your families and routine concerns, fosters a mutual dependency.  When it was all said and done, we were both wiser for the rare opportunity that comes with two adults jointly seeking answers to questions on a daily basis.  It takes a compromising spirit, but in the end it was all good, and life-long memories were made.  I still think that ketchup should be kept at room temperature, however.