Gators, snakes and a pink suitcase: my first day as a field geologist

My very first experience as an employed field geologist was in June 1998.  I had graduated in August 1997 and wasn’t called by the engineering firm for eight months, so to say I was excited was a bit of an understatement.  I met up with my coworker for the day at the nearby McDonald’s at 7 a.m. after a two-hour drive up a hectic interstate that, unbenownced to me, would be the first of numerous trips.  I didn’t want to be late, since this was an important day – a day of not only testing monitor wells for groundwater quality, but also testing my endurance and overall “fit” into this new world of contamination assessment.  I wanted to do well and was eager to work hard.  As I sat across from the field technician, all I could think about was what he was possibly thinking about.  Did he think I could handle this day?  Was he irritated to have to train me? Or worse yet, was he dreading this day with the new female who could probably only carry half the load?  But Bob smiled back at me with his piping hot, black coffee in his hand and assured me it would be a good day.  He was experienced in sampling for numerous years and had been to this missile and fire control facility before.  More than anything, he wanted to make sure that I was onboard with starting early and leaving at 3 p.m., so he could watch television at the hotel room.  I think the show was Jerry Springer Live, but I could be wrong.  It was at that moment that I knew Bob and I would probably not be working together much on future projects.  I was pretty much by the book, and the thought of leaving at 3 p.m. without my employer knowing, didn’t set right with me.  I figured I’d agree and just wait to see what happened.

I followed the sampling truck to a gated side entrance that was no longer maintained and weeds and grass were overgrown along the sides of the paved road and within the numerous cracks within the asphalt. Bob told me we would be going into the “remote” section of the site – the area that used to be for military training, but was no longer used.  I left my car near the front entrance and hopped into the passenger seat for the first of what would be many times.  He drove slowly down the road as we headed to the first well site, and he began explaining the site layout and sampling locations that included groundwater and surface water.  He began sharing his years of experience at the site that was still contaminated with volatile organics and metals from previous operations. He explained that groundwater sampling was not as bad as surface water sampling with all the snakes and alligators in the stormwater drainage ditches that dissected the central part of the property.  As we drove by those treacherous waters, he showed me the exact spot he was forced to fight off these beasts, as he waded in to get his water sample.  And I think it was at that point, that I realized my new life as a field geologist wasn’t going to be in that beautiful park setting or cool research facility.  I might have actually signed up for hell.

He pulled the truck up to the first well and popped a cigarette in his mouth as he rounded to the back to pull out the sampling equipment which consisted of long, tubular bailers to collect the water inside the well, a water level indicator, and a lanyard.  He explained that the idea was to slowly lower the bailer down the well using the lanyard and emptying its contents into sample bottles that were laid out along the back of the tailgate.  Each bailer had to be cleaned in a particular way prior to sample collection and tied onto the lanyard with latex-glove covered hands.  The whole idea was not to cross contaminate the sample.  I watched him as he lowered the bailer and poured the water into the sample jars, tapping each one to make sure there were no residual bubbles.  It looked easy.  I told him I could do it too.  That I  definitely could do it too.  So, he handed me the bailer and lanyard at the next well location to try my  coordination skills and I think I was still trying an hour later to get out those stubborn bubbles from at least five test bottles that I had to throw away since I had all but exhausted any hope of having preservative left in them.  Bob was quiet during the entire time, puffing away behind me.  He was certainly a patient man.

Eventually, we wrapped up the sampling at the well site and stored the samples in the cooler which should have had ice in them, but did not, and headed to the next well location.  Normally, heading to the next site would have been easy, but when you have to drive through what seemed like 10-foot, tanker practice hills to get to them, this easy task ended up being a time killer.  And when your sampling partner decides to try out the hills at 50 mph, the old Ford sampler truck with side compartments is probably far from capable of surviving this challenge. And as I’m laughing myself silly from watching Bob try to control this maneuver, we careen down the other side of one of the hills, only to stop short in the dead center of nowhere with a broken axle.  Then, I wasn’t laughing.

Remember, it was June.  Hot, sticky, muggy, and already sunburnt, I followed Bob up and down the hills in my jeans and hiking boots for the long trek back to the front entrance where the only phone was located, since this was before the times when cell phones were issued and phone booths cost 25 cents.  As we made our way up and down the path along the gator-infested ditch, I heard all about Bob’s wife, a red-headed waitress that he met while at Denny’s just down the street and I told him about my husband and two kids.  Along the way, we decided to take a break, so I broke off the path and into the thick of the woods, and as I parted the brush, I saw the most beautiful sight.  A blue heron that was so huge, it was startling.  With no camera in hand, I just stood still watching it for a minute as it looked back at me without flinching.  I’ll never forget that bird.

Finally, we made it back to the gate and the phone on the pole.  Bob called the tow truck which arrived an hour later and pulled out the old Ford.  Good thing, because he had left his pink suitcase in it.  Yes, pink.  I didn’t dare ask this manly man who fought off gators and snakes why in the world he had a pink suitcase.  I left it alone and still don’t know to this day.  We ended up leaving at 6 p.m. that night.  So much for Springer.

Photo source:  www.dtsc-topock.com (note – bailers are not typically used for this type of sampling anymore, and picture depicts more current sampling equipment)

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