When the biology teacher gave instructions on dissecting our first specimens, grasshoppers, I looked at Jim across the table and gave him a knowing smile. This was going to be easy, or so I thought. By this time, I had dissected hundreds of fish and other numerous wildlife, including frogs, squirrels, quail, and even a whitetail deer. So what could be so hard about grasshoppers, worms, and alley cats? However, as usual, I wasn’t listening to the instructions, and I started my dissection on the wrong side of the grasshopper, earning a failing score on that particular assignment.
From my grasshopper experience, I learned to listen a little closer to instructions, and over the next couple of months, I successfully dissected a worm, alley cat, and finally, a baby shark (not quite the fish I was used to). I was enjoying the class immensely, and when I heard that we were going to be doing other experiments, I was anxious to get started. In each of these new experiments, I was allowed to partner with Jim. Good for me, and maybe not so good for him.
Our first assigned experiment in biology 101 involved the well-known fruit fly, which is scientifically known as Drosophila melanogaster (much more impressive than my scientific name, Homo sapien). Utilizing this tiny creature, we were supposed to learn about genetics. Our assignment was to crossbreed them and then study what emerged from the cross. The flies were stored in glass vials, with a food substance maintained in the bottom of the tube. Fruit flies are used in place of rats or fish due to the low maintenance and ease of care involved.
Being unsure of specifics, I whispered to Jim, “How do we know if our flies are male or female? They’re awfully small, and even under a microscope, I can’t see any obvious giveaways. What are we supposed to look for?”
Jim was a trusting soul and answered, “Mr. Harrison said we have plenty of both in our vial, so we’ll just have to wait and see.”
At first, we had difficulty keeping our low-maintenance flies from dying.
“Hey, Jim, we’re supposed to look at them under the microscope, but how do we keep them from flying away?”
Jim responded, “We just anesthetize them with a little of this ether, and they’ll be knocked out for a while, giving us plenty of time to examine them.”
When we applied the ether, the flies were indeed rendered motionless.
What do you get when you cross a curly fruit fly with a wild-type fruit fly? We never found out the answer to that question. Our fruit fly experiment was a failure due to one of four possibilities: (a) they were all male, (b) they were all female, (c) they were homosexual, (d) we kept killing them with too much ether, or (e) the excess ether caused sterility. Whatever the reason, our fruit flies did not become “fruitful and multiply.” There’s a reason I ended Biology with a C grade.
Jim and I were given a second chance in joint experimentation, only this time it was with mice. The genetic lesson wasn’t all that different from the fruit flies we had tried to breed. Why mice? They’re cheap, breed quickly, and their genetic code is similar to, though much simpler than, a human being. What do you get when you cross white mice with black ones? Which traits are dominant? Jim and I were assigned to find out answers to those questions and more.
“Jim, where do we get mice?” I asked. “We had a mouse in our house one time, and we caught it with a mousetrap, but it was dead, and that wouldn’t do us any good with our experiment.”
Jim looked at me with an odd look on his face and replied, “We go to the store and buy them.”
Maybe I hadn’t been to the right stores, but I was sure that Carthage didn’t have any “mice stores.” I was right. Joplin was where we had to go. Being very explicit with the clerk at the mice store as to our need for both male and female mice, we paid the man and loaded our cage and two mice into the back of my car and began the sixteen-mile drive home. I would be the first to house our experiment, but only after assuring Mom that the mice would remain in their cage.
On the way home, I cranked up some Bachmann–Turner Overdrive at a volume designed to hear all the nuances of the music. Upon arriving home, I took the cage into the house and showed the family my newfound prized possessions.
Timmy, always observant, asked, “Ronnie, how come the mice aren’t moving?”
“Maybe they’re asleep,” I guessed.
It was soon evident that the mice were expired. I said, “We got ripped off, Jim.These mice are dead.” After much contemplation and discussion, we both agreed that the mice were very healthy when we put them in the car. So it had to be something in the transport from Joplin to Carthage.
At first, we speculated that it may have been the car ride, possibly death from motion sickness. We ruled that out because no one else in class had it happen to them. Our next guess was probably right on when we both said, “The music!” Apparently, our mice were not BTO fans, at least not at the decibel level they were forced to endure. Barry White would have probably been more appropriate and may even have put them in the mood for “love.”
We took the dead mice back to the store and were allowed an “even exchange.” This time, I made sure to keep the music at a minimum volume, and the mice made it home safely. Unfortunately, our mice had something other than love on their minds and fought viciously the entire time we had them, ripping into each other with fur flying, raw skin exposed, blood dripping, and an overall nasty attitude. We tried everything to get them to cohabit, but to no avail. At the end of the appointed time, our experiment had failed. No babies, no genetic conclusions drawn. We determined that the store clerk didn’t know the difference between a male and female (and obviously, neither did we), and we ended up with two of the same. Or maybe, these two mice just weren’t made for each other. Another experiment gone bust, another substandard grade.
Near the end of the school year, the teacher relaxed his requirements and allowed us to come up with experiments of our own. After much consultation, Jim and I decided to catch a bullfrog in the wild and bring it into class for some analysis. What research we were intending wasn’t spelled out yet, but we knew we wanted to use a frog. At least we were experienced at catching frogs, only in this instance we had to bring it in alive.
When it came time to demonstrate to the teacher that we had real scientific motives for bringing in the frog, Jim came up with the brilliant idea that we would hook up an electric current to the bullfrog’s heart to see how long we could keep the heart alive
(this was entirely Jim’s experiment, and I was lab assistant on this one). The teacher gave us the go ahead.
Once the frog was sliced open, Jim attached small alligator clips to the no-longer-beating heart of the “dead” frog. Once the 120 volt current reached the heart, it began to beat slowly and steadily. We both became excited, and I exclaimed to the other students, “Hey, everybody, look over here. We’ve got a beating heart in a dead frog.” The remainder of the class, involved in their own individual experiments, didn’t seem interested. Suddenly, the frog came alive and began twitching on the table. The muscles were stimulated by the electric current, and I thought of Dr. Frankenstein’s line: “Look! It’s moving. It’s alive. It’s alive…it’s alive, it’s moving, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive!”
In a reflexive moment, one of the frog’s rear legs jerked outwardly, and some of the blood surrounding the frog was splattered in my direction. Looking down at my new bright-yellow tank top sprinkled with dark-red blood, a four letter word escaped from my mouth and this time, the class was all ears, and so was Mr. Harrison. It’s a wonder I made it out of that class alive.