Of course, as usual, tons of stuff has happened in the past week. Like, I got most of my polar physical exam and filled out about a ton of forms to send to Raytheon Polar Services, which included a form about what size I am. Ash and Rainy had to do it, too. Mom says this is so they (Raytheon) can put together bags of special extreme weather gear for us to wear on the icebreaker. But I’ll talk about that in the next post. Right now, I want to tell some more of the story of how Donald Frog started the whole thing.
So, Donald, who we thought was dead, thawed out and started croaking in my bedroom during the night. This was a huge crisis, because keeping a frog for a pet is hard, especially in the winter. My book said wood frogs (and that was Donald, wood frog, Rana sylvatica) eat “small animals of the forest floor.” Which turned out to mean bugs, slugs, and snails. Which are impossible to find alive in the winter (dead ones wouldn’t be good enough). Therefore, I called a meeting of the Three Musketeers.
Meetings of the Three Musketeers are called by lighting a Musketeer Beacon, which means one of us turning on a flashlight in the window of our house. I got the idea from a book I read about the Great Wall of China, where they used beacon fires to warn of approaching Mongolian hoards. The Musketeer beacon system only works because I live close enough to Ash to see his house, and Ash lives close enough to Rainy to see her house. You can probably guess that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It kind of depends on whether people are looking out of their windows, and sometimes it takes a while. But that morning, Ash was watching TV in the room with the best view of my beacon, and Rainy was working on her computer near the window with the best view of Ash’s beacon. Here’s a picture of the beacon towers on the Great Wall (circled in red), and uh…my beacon.
So within about half an hour, the three of us were sitting at the kitchen table staring at Donald inside the dirt-filled aquarium while Roxy asked dumb questions like, “What’re you gonna do with him, huh?”
Actually, it wasn’t really such a dumb question. As Rainy pointed out, “If we put him back in the freezer, he might die. But if we don’t, he might starve.”
Just then, my mom came in with her eyes half open and started feeling around for the coffee pot. “Mom, what do we have that a frog can eat?” I asked, admittedly feeling desperate.
She bent down close to the aquarium, trying to get her eyes focused. She had left her glasses in the bedroom. “A what?” she said.
“A froggy!” shouted Roxy.
“What will you kids think up next?” said Mom, yawning.
“Mom, this is serious!” I said.
Gazing at Donald with an absent look on her face, she said, “I dunno. Ask Mr. Grabowski.”
“Mrs. Finney, you’re a genius,” said Ash with a huge grin.
“That’s right,” said Mom. “While you’re there, please pick up a bag of food for Doofus.”
So Mom gave us $10, and we got on our bicycles and went to see Mr. Grabowski at the pet store. It was a cold, clear day, and by the time we got there all of us were red-cheeked and blowing on our fingers. Grabowski’s Pet Gallery is one of my favorite places. It is small and dark, except for the lights in the aquariums and the windows up front where the parakeets chirp in their cages. It smells like alfalfa pellets and dog biscuits and some other thing that reminds me of licorice. Best of all, it’s always toasty warm to keep the tropical animals comfy, which we definitely appreciated that day.
Old Mr. Grabowski, who looks like a talking prune, told us to try giving Donald live crickets, which he was happy to sell us for $6.99. This was for 250 crickets, which I figured would take Donald about four gazillion years to eat.
“He’ll eat ‘em faster than you think, sonny,” said Mr. Grabowski. He smiled, and I wondered, as I always do when he smiles, whether he ever brushes his teeth, which are brown and mostly gone.
“Hmm,” I said. “How much is a bag of Laughing Pooch Dog Chow?” Laughing Pooch is the brand Mom always buys. She thinks it makes Doofus less rambunctious. Her word, not mine. I think it is all in her imagination. Doofus is the berserker barbarian of dogs, with or without Laughing Pooch.
“$8.50 for five pounds, on sale, get it while it lasts, sonny boy,” said Mr. Grabowski.
Ash and Rainy and I looked at the ten dollar bill, then at each other. $10.00 minus $8.50 left…not enough! “Mr. Grabowski,” said Rainy, “would it be possible for us to buy $1.50 worth of crickets?”
The old man frowned. “I figure that’ll only be…” He stared at the ceiling, as if maybe the answer was floating somewhere near the winking florescent light. “Letsee. $1.50 divided by $6.99…21.4% times 250…that’s only 53 crickets. Waddya gonna do with 53 crickets? It’s hardly a mouthful.”
A mouthful of 53 crickets. It wasn’t a pretty thought. Rainy swallowed, looking queasy. “That’s okay,” she said. “If we need more, we’ll come back.”
“Suite yourself,” said Mr. Grabowski.
It would be nice if I could just say, And he wrapped up 53 crickets and a bag of Laughing Pooch, and we went home. Which would allow me to avoid the embarrassment of describing what actually happened, which was this: Mr. Grabowski said, “The crickets are right over there. Put 53 in this cup.” At which point, the Three Musketeers turned into the Three Stooges.
Let me just say catching crickets is a test of will and eye-hand coordination that makes basketball seem easy. If “Catching Crickets” were a Wii game, nobody would ever win. By the time we got 53 crickets into the cup, there were at least 100 fluttering and hopping around the pet store, and Mr. Grabowski, looking disgusted, said, “You owe me another $1.50, which you can pay next time you come in here, and you’d better not forget.”
So we swore an oath to repay him soon, and left feeling generally overheated and glad to be out in the freezing air again.
When we got home, Ash used the tweezers on his Swiss pen knife to put a cricket into the aquarium with Donald. Since he had practiced in the pet store, this went fairly smoothly. Except Donald wasn’t hungry. He hopped to a far corner and croaked while the cricket fluttered around, trying to escape.
Rainy said, “This is disgusting. We should just put the frog back outside in its natural habitat.”
But this idea made Roxy totally desolate. She started to cry. Loudly. Truth to tell, I didn’t like the idea, either. I mean, if we put Donald back outside…
“He’ll freeze again,” I said. “For all we know, that’ll kill him!”
Donald croaked. Rainy breathed out through her nose and rolled her eyes. “Oh for Pete’s sake,” she said.
So a compromise was reached. We decided to give Donald 24 hours to eat the cricket. If the cricket wasn’t gone by the next day before lunch, Donald would go back into the woods. As luck would have it, Donald refused to eat the cricket, and the next day at lunch time, the three of us were once again staring into the aquarium. To make matters worse, sometime during the night, the cricket had died. Donald was starving, and the cricket was a putrefying corpse.
“All right. It’s over. We’re putting him back in the woods,” said Rainy. “And don’t look at me that way. We made a pact!”
The three of us put on our coats and trudged out into woods. Crusty snow from the last storm covered the ground in places. But we found what looked like a cozy spot in the shelter of my favorite big, flat rock. We covered Donald with leaves. I had a yellow Ticonderoga pencil in my pocket, and I stuck it in the ground right next to him so we’d know where to find him later, assuming he didn’t hop away before he froze again.
As I pushed the pencil into the ground, something crunched. The pencil’s tip had speared a scrap of soggy paper, or at least I thought it was paper at first. It was folded in eighths and was sort of a boogery beige that looked as if it might have once have been white. As I began to open it up, I realized it didn’t feel quite right to be paper. It was thin enough, but paper that wet should have been falling apart. It was way too strong, and it was slippery.
When I got it unfolded all the way, I looked at it, blinked, and looked again. There was a message on it, written in purple, in a big, hurried scrawl. As she leaned over my shoulder, Rainy gasped. The message was a warning from the future!
Well, this is not the same night as my post about the beach. I kind of blew that. Have you ever made so many promises you can’t keep them all? This has been happening to me a lot lately. My life has turned into a creaking banquet table loaded with roast beef, mashed potatoes, and pineapple upside-down cake (this would be the Antarctica stuff and the Mitchell Rutherford Middle School baseball team, which I am on) and way too many vegetables (this would be homework and chores). I want to get back to Donald Frog and the whole thing about how Ash, Rainy, and I got ourselves into an Antarctic adventure, and I will, I swear my most excellent oath. But first, before I forget the best parts, here is what we did in California besides going to the beach and the aquarium.
We were still mostly asleep when Dad got us up, herded us into our rental car, and drove a few miles down California Highway 1 to MBARI. MBARI is right on the beach at this place called Moss Landing which is a good harbor for ships, which is great, because they have a few of them — the Point Lobos (yep, same name as that great beach), the Zephyr, and the Western Flyer. The scientists use them to go out into the ocean and measure things like water temperature and depth, and to get samples of sea animals, some of them way strange. The Monterey Bay gets really deep really fast, which is one reason researchers love it. We did not actually get to see any of these ships, because they were all out at sea. Two were doing research, and one (the Western Flyer) was getting fixed because it hit a reef down in Mexico and got temporarily messed up.
But, not to get too far off track, we went into this big room with one whole wall of windows you could look through and see the beach right below. The three of us stood around eating enormous pastries and grapes, talking about everything we saw through those amazing windows — people flying kites and walking their dogs on the sand, sea gulls floating on the wind, and big waves pouring up onto the shore like milk from a giant’s bucket. One by one, the scientists and techs arrived, until finally everybody (about 20 of them) was there. We took our seats and the meeting began.
First, people introduced themselves and said a little bit about what they’ll be doing on the icebreaker. Rainy got to use her mom’s cell phone for the trip by promising to call and tell her all the news each day. The cell phone has a camera, so she took pictures of everybody, which you can see by clicking here. Everybody was really nice to us (actually nicer than nice, more about that soon) and said we should ask questions any time we want. No problem there. I already have about a bjillion, and I’m pretty sure Ash and Rainy do, too.
Now…this may sound weird, especially coming from someone who has been in a science fair, and knows he’s going to become a scientist, invent the unner, and end up being one of the strangest old guys who has ever lived. But probably the biggest discovery I made at MBARI is that I did not know the truth about scientists. Until February 27th, when someone said scientist I thought of a deadly serious person in a white lab coat and goggles, like Mr. Maynard, our science teacher, who is the only guy at the school who wears a tie except the principal. But now I have a new theory based on observation. Which is: they are basically Musketeers in grown-up bodies. Which makes me feel a lot better about becoming one.
What will we be doing in Antarctica? It turns out we will be chasing big ol’ icebergs, and when we catch them, we will find out everything we can about them — how tall and deep and wide they are, how they are shaped, what they are made of, where they are going, what happens to the water when they melt in it, what lives on them and under them and around them. To do this, we will use a remote control submarine called The Phantom, a radio controlled airplane (see above) like the one Ash won at the carnival except bigger and with a better engine and a bomb bay that launches real GPS beacons, a giant high-volume water pump, various one-of-a-kind machines (a Lagrangian sediment trap, for example; and no, I don’t know exactly what it is yet), hoses, tubes, cords, binoculars, and possibly a giant slingshot or a crossbow. How cool is that??
Last but not least, we will be doing this in Antarctica — a place that is so much like Mars that it almost doesn’t belong on Earth. Rainy has just finished reading Shackleton’s Boat Journey by Frank Arthur Worsley, which is about these guys who get shipwrecked in Antarctica. She says it is extreme and makes her wonder if we are out of our minds. Maybe we are, but it doesn’t matter. I found a note in the woods last week, which I think is from my future self. It says, “Do not chicken out. Antarctica is your destiny.”