The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dodgin' Codgers

Several years back, when I was an intern in an Air Force base's environmental office, one of my tasks was to travel around the base to check up on various sites that were threatened by erosion and document their condition.  These sites were usually in spots that were far from buildings and structures, but in areas that the folks who would come onto the base to go fishing would frequent*.  So, it was no surprise when, one spring day, I encountered an elderly fisherman standing next to one of the sites.

He saw me coming, and decided that he wanted to see who I was and what I was doing there - amusing in that I was there performing a base-required work task and he was there because the base allowed him to be there - and I explained that I was one of the archaeologists on base, checking up on various locations.  He looked at me with what I assume was supposed to be contempt, but instead came across as cartoonish grumpiness, and said "well, you people shouldn't be bothering over here!  I've seen stuff that came out of Honda Canyon** and you have plenty to study from there and you don't need to be looking anywhere else!"

I went on to try to explain that we don't just study large quantities of artifacts, but that the locations of sites was also of importance, and under federal law we were required to at least make a good-faith effort to know what was going on with sites on base, regardless of whether or not we did anything to or with said sites.

He simply nodded his head and said "I don't know who you think you're talking to, but I'm a veteran, and I was an electrical engineer!  Don't think that you can pull one over on me!"

This seemed astoundingly strange.  That he was in the military and an electrical engineer had, of course, no bearing whatsoever on archaeology.  I responded, int he calmest voice I could muster, "I don't doubt that, but I'm an archaeologist, and I understand my field, and what I have told you is accurate."

"No it isn't!  If you believe that then you don't know what you're talking about."

The hell?  Now, I am accustomed to people with no experience thinking that they know more about archaeology than I do, it's a common enough delusion, but they didn't usually throw out irrelevancies about their past career as would-be evidence of their allegedly superior knowledge.  This guy, though, just seemed to want to be right, and int he face of someone who was clearly more knowledgeable on a particular subject, he decided simply to push his weird-ass notions anyway.

"You're as bad as the wildlife biologist" he then said to me.

"Heh?"  I wittily responded.

"Yeah, that wildlife bioldogist, Nancy whatshername, the one who says that the snowy plovers are endangered even though they aren't!"

Ahh, the snowy plovers.  These are a type of beach bird the status of which is a bit controversial.  The Fish and Wildlife service holds that they are endangered and that the base's beaches were among the few pristine habitats left.  The local public, and a few biologists not involved with the base, claimed that they were not endangered.  The base biologists were caught in the middle, required to enforce the Fish and Wildlife Service's ruling, even though they were not sure if they agreed with it.

So, I explained to the fellow that the biologist didn't make that ruling, and that it had come from the outside.

"No, it didn't!"  He insisted, "she's the one who claims that they're endangered!"

I explained again that the biologist didn't make that ruling, I didn't even know if she agreed with that ruling, and that I had a bit more knowledge of the matter than he did because I worked with her and he, by his own admission, had never met her nor read anything that she had put out on the subject.

"Well, I know the Colonel," the Colonel being the man in charge of the base, "and he says that she made the decision, so I know that you are lying to me!"

One of the issues that we encounter in environmental work is that very often the people with whom we work think that we are the ones who are dictating what they can or can not do, when, in fact, we are usually just the messengers for messages from outside authorities.  So, it is possible that this Colonel, no long since retired, honestly believed that the biologist was the one making these decisions, and not the FWS.  However, as the facility head, he had the responsibility for knowing, at least at a basic level, how the various laws impacting the base functioned.  I had been present when this particular issue had been explained to him, and I was told that it had been explained to him on a regular basis, and he simply chose not to listen.  So, it wasn't me that was lying to the fisherman, but his buddy the Colonel who was little enough concerned with reality that he was willing to badmouth his subordinates to score points with his buddies***.  I am, however, pleased to say that, from what I have seen and heard, this was unusual among commanding officers, and when this colonel left, his replacement was much more on-the-ball.

Anyway, I looked at the man and said, sternly but calmly, "I am not lying to you.  DO NOT accuse me of lying to you.  I know this subject, I know what's going on, I work with it every day, and I am telling you the truth."

"No you're not.  Damn liberal."  And with that he walked away.

In retrospect, I realize what sort of personality I was dealing with.  I have a very disagreeable elderly relative who was similar to this man in that he "knows what's going on" when his alleged knowledge is nothing more than delusion based on a need not only to be right, but for everyone else to be wrong.  This relative is okay with those who generally agree with him being right, but as soon as someone disagrees, no matter how much more demonstrably knowledgeable they may be on the subject on which they disagree, they are not only wrong, but somehow immoral and corrupt.

And that seemed to be what I was seeing here.  What I told the man disagreed with his "me vs. the evil liberal environmentalists" notions, and so I was clearly not only wrong, but somehow corrupt.  I don't have a problem necessarily with people disliking what I do on philisophical or even pragmatic grounds, but if you're going to dislike it, at least dislike it for reasons based in reality, not delusional supposition.  No doubt he left there thinking he'd given me what for, when he had, in fact, only exposed his tremendous ignorance of the subjects discussed.  So it goes.

*One of the reasons why prehistoric peoples had lived in these locations is because they relied on the fish, so it's no surprise that we would frequently find fishermen still frequenting these locations.

**One of the many canyons on the base, has nothing to do with cars.

***What an asshole.

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