March 21, 1997
Yesterday was the first day of spring. Also yesterday, someone who shall remain nameless said, "Let’s see what this will do…" Four people from the tech department then spent two and a half hours trying to undo what had been done. Of course, we’ve all at one time or another followed the "Let’s see what this will do…" impulse, but it’s always best to take some precautions. I learned this valuable lesson from, of all people, Uncle Rupert. A few years back, in the spring, the kudzu vines in Uncle Rupert’s backyard leafed out and started their warm-weather rampage. For those of you who don’t live in the south, kudzu is a vine that grows at the rate of about half a foot an hour and suffocates anything in its path. Well, Uncle Rupert had some leftover fertilizer (the kind used for making homemade bombs–but that’s another story) and decided to throw it into his kudzu patch. The resulting vegetative explosion covered his driveway, his car, and three of his dogs completely disappeared. He managed to hold back the runaway vines with a lawnmower, some lighter fluid, and a pack of matches. Fortunately, a sudden overnight freeze followed by four weeks of continuous rain (in other words, typical spring weather in Tennessee) saved the rest of us from the plant peril. So now, whenever I say, "Let’s see what this will do…" I do three things:
convince someone else to try it while I stand far back
wear protective clothing, and
keep a lawnmower handy.
Unfortunately none of these measures saved me from the glaring looks of the tech department. Enjoy these other examples of intelligence in action:
The Smithsonian Museum’s phone answerers usually get questions like "How do you get there?" "When are you open?" Etc. More detailed questions get shunted to departments such as Anthropology. But every so often, you get funny ones. Here are some Cordelia Benedict of the Smithsonian’s telephone information services and Marilyn London of the anthropology outreach and public information office have gotten over the years:
There’s a mastadon in my back yard. Can you send some scientists to dig it up? "There was literally a mastodon buried on her ranch," Benedict says. "She was right. We referred her to the vertebrate department, I think."
Do you have the Original Bible? You know, 10 Commands, tablets, Moses, etc?
What’s the name of the guy who invented the wheel? ("How do you know it was a man?" London replied.)
Where do you keep the flying saucers you’ve captured?
Can a small plane land on the Mall? The caller was sure it could since "all those planes in the Air and Space Museum had to get there somehow."
Is Fawn Hall’s underwear on display? This from "two men in a Texas bar who obviously had a lot to drink," says Benedict.
Where is the Ark of the Covenant? (Try Indiana Jones movies.)
Does the Smithsonian display Civil War planes?
Is the Smithsonian interested in buying the carcass of Bigfoot?
Will the Smithsonian sell the starship Enterprise, used for the popular "Star Trek" television show? "She only wanted it if the transporter was in working condition," Benedict says. (The only life-size Enterprise at the Smithsonian is the space shuttle of the same name).
Can the Smithsonian set up a caller with a hula teacher? "Actually, I tracked one down for her," remembers London. "We have a curator involved in South Pacific and Hawaiian culture, so she knew one."
How do you say "I’m thinking of you" in Apache?
Can you send "all the information you have on human evolution, even the secret stuff?" from a grade school letter writer.
How about the coin George Washington tossed across the Delaware River?
Could the Smithsonian take a "petrified whale" off a caller’s hands? He was referred to paleontology. "I told him that means `very old biology,’ and he said, `good because this is a very old whale,’" Benedict recalls.
And one of Benedict’s favorites: an offer to donate a collection of potato chips resembling "famous people and animals."