Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Part 19, Research

My dog Ladybug, tick magnet.
I hesitate to bring up this regrettable episode from Biology class, but I'm afraid that its significance to subsequent events demands its inclusion.

I was a confused, desperate teenager.  Please don't judge me.

Now this must have happened in my junior year.  I've never understood why I floundered as I did in Biology.  Seems like I always had a head for science, as long as there wasn't too much math involved.  Astronomy, forget it, but Biology, that seemed a lot less demanding in that regard.  Learn the parts of a cell.  Remember what a pituitary gland does.  You didn't need a calculator for any of that stuff.

Maybe it was too hands on for me.  I remember having to dissect a frog, and once I had to prick a classmate's thumb with a little aluminum device that looked like the World's Worst Crackerjack Prize.

I'm not a real hands on guy when it comes to biology. I had to take a tick out of my dog once.  The vet had to walk me through it on the speaker phone.

Anyway, I was straddling a C-plus and a B-minus in Biology, and I knew I had to act fast.  Extra credit.  That was my only hope.

The Biology teacher was Mr. Hodges, a Vietnam vet who always reminded me of Colonel Blake in "M*A*S*H."  I mean the movie, not the TV show.  The movie Colonel Blake always seemed to have a more fatalistic outlook.

Mr. Hodges had a standing offer with regard to extra credit.  Any time you wanted to turn in a research paper for extra credit, you just had to give it to Mr. Hodges, and he'd give you a grade for it.

So I needed to write a research paper, but on what topic?  Well, obviously something that required an absolute minimum of research.

Remember this is in the days before Google.  Research was a dreary, time-consuming process that involved something called the Reader's Guide, a tedious little periodical that listed newspaper and magazine articles by subject.  I dreaded the Reader's Guide the way you dread filing your taxes, the way you dread traffic school or buying clothes for your 12-year-old.   I avoided it at all costs.

What I needed to do, I decided, was to find a research topic that had generated a sufficient level of popular discourse that it wouldn't require a lot of tiresome rooting around in the Reader's Guide.  I needed a topic that would allow me to pull data straight out of the current issue of Time or Good Housekeeping.

If you were around in the '70s, you can probably guess the topic I chose.  Total no-brainer, right?  Right.

If you were a lazy kid in the '70s with a research project to write, cancer was your best friend.  Cancer was everywhere in the news.  Seems like every week, they were finding something new that gave you cancer.

And no wonder.  We lived our lives awash in a chemical stew.  We wore clothes that looked like they came out of an injection mold at the DuPont factory.  People shampooed their shag carpeting with a noxious foam that came out of a spray can.  The stuff we put on our hair left a hole in the ozone layer that's still up there.

I doubt I spent more than 35 minutes gathering up source material for my extra credit research paper on cancer.  I found magazine articles on saccharin and Red Dye Number 2.  I liberally plagiarized a pamphlet called something like "The Seven Warning Signs of Cancer."  It was a little 8 by 11 sheet folded into thirds, like the Jews for Jesus give you.  I don't remember where I found it.  Could have been the school library or the nurse's office, or somebody could have left it in a booth at the Dairy Queen.

In any event, I typed up my research findings, using both sides of a piece of lined binder paper.  I remember the final draft being single-spaced, but that could be a psychological defense mechanism on my part.

I went to class and handed in my research paper to Mr. Hodges.  He held it in his hand for a moment and looked at it as if he were contemplating every foolhardy decision that had brought him to this point in his life.

Then he waved the paper at the class and said "You people know this sort of thing isn't going to fly when you get to college, right?"


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