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Stories from The Register

We all have great stories to tell from the field that never make it into the reports or literature. Fieldwork can be heartwarming, humorous, or down right hard. Stories from the Register features short (500 words or less) creative non-fiction stories written by Registrants who want to share their experiences.

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  • 9 Jul 2021 10:35 AM | Cathy Jo Beecher

    The Closet of Mysteries

    By Chris Epenshade

    I was directing an excavation in south-central Puerto Rico.  I was staying in the Hotel Melía, just off the square in Ponce.  It was a nice, older hotel, and it was a half-block from the best ice cream shop on the island and a block from one of the best bakeries.  The Melía had a gourmet restaurant and a nice, quiet bar.  I remember that on my 50th birthday, being away from home, I decided I needed a rum and coke.  I mentioned to the bartender that it was my 50th, and he said that couldn’t be right, I didn’t look that old.  Okay, almost certainly he was working for a tip, but it was one of the many reasons I liked the Melía.

    As part of our research, we were going to screen the recovered stone artifacts with Luminol to see if they had been exposed to blood.  This was basically the same process as seen on CSI.  There are various environmental factors that can create false positives, so you always need to test the site soils as well.  This presented a bit of a challenge because the US Department of Agriculture frowned on you taking dirt from Puerto Rico to the mainland US.  The solution was to test the soils on-island.

    You may be aware the Luminol reactions can be hard to see, so the screening is best done in the dark.  I was lucky to have had a large closet in my room at the Melía, so I laid down a trash bag, put out small piles of dirt from various site contexts, and put down a couple of pennies, which will glow if the Luminol is working.  I closed the blinds, turned out the lights, took the spray bottle into the closet, and closed the closet door.  Now, it is a little difficult to know exactly where you are spraying a mist in the dark, and I wanted to make sure I covered all of the dirt samples.  I must have been extra, extra careful because I ended up spraying the entire floor and much of the back wall of the closet.

    The dirt did not react.  The pennies did, but it was a bit difficult to see because of the significant glow coming off the floor and back wall of the closet.  I was not certain what exactly had happened in that closet, but a lot of biological material was dispersed (or it may have been a false positive on cleaning solutions), and it was probably better that I not know as I had to stay in that room for three more weeks.  I never worked up the nerve to ask the owner if there was something I should know about my room.  I simply avoided the closet for the remainder of my stay. 

    As archaeologists, we know the past is all around us.  More so in some rooms than in others.

    Author Bio: 

    Chris Espenshade is a Senior Technical Advisor with New South Associates and has more than 37 years of experience in CRM. In 2019, he began creative writing and landed a side gig as an outdoors columnist for a weekly paper. For a more epic tale, please see https://underwoodpress.com/truechili/2019/06/01/jackrabbit-soup-by-chris-espenshade/

  • 2 Jul 2021 4:11 PM | Dina Rivera (Administrator)

    American Grave Digger

    By Cathy Jo Beecher

    I’m standing in brown rubber Xtratufs, ankle-deep in a soggy rice paddy. A rickety Soviet military helicopter set me down among verdant limestone karsts somewhere north of Luang Prabang. I’m miles of Mekong beyond where most Westerners venture. Shovels and buckets in hand, the Lao call me Lady Sikhav - White Lady. Reverently or irreverently, I wouldn't know. Maybe it’s just pragmatic. Suke, my interpreter, sticks to swapping Lao for English not context for meaning.

    James is buried out here. He told me in a dream, wearing his green tattered flight suit and Vietnam War-era flat top. The Pathet Lao took him from the wreckage but it’s murky after that. My informant is an ancient man in threadbare shirtsleeves pinned for limbs lost to landmines. He knows where James is, but this soothsayer is coy. Local officials who arrange our meetings like Americans; like our capitalist dollars in their communist pockets. My informant is precariously directed to provide just enough information to keep us digging. Hoping Americans keep promises to their dead; hoping we keep coming back. We all know it’s macabre bartering, but we move the dirt anyway.

    The Lao squat just above the mud, wearing bamboo hats and nibbling scraps of fish and rice. Meanwhile, I sit in an $80 REI camp chair munching an $8 chalky protein bar. These Lao trek a few miles from a nearby village to work. They earn a few dollars a day; the most they’ll make all year. They march from corrugated metal shanties wearing cheap rubber flip flops — the kind that rub wrong and break.

    Margaret doesn’t want us here. She ardently believes James is 80-something, alive and well. We all tell ourselves better versions of history to keep the wounds of grief zipped up. Then again maybe she’s right. Governments lie and he’s living under a thatched roof speaking fluent Lao with his other wife of 50 years. You must love someone unconditionally to prefer that scenario.

    I’m 120 cubic meters into this monsoon-season excavation: one morphine vial gone thick and brown; a weathered wooden cow pelvis; countless buckets of rusted bomb fragments; and so much plastic. If James is here, he’s buried under a meter of garbage. Suke teaches me to listen for the rain. The cicadas’ hum silences as the humidity thickens. This rain is otherworldly. Big, fat, drops pound with a sense of urgency, like the saffron-robed monks on temple drums. Cymatic vibrations reverberating in my chest as the open pits we dig become brown turbid pools. I don’t know what’s so unsettling out here, but the insides of my waterproof boots are soaked.

    James’ grave remains surreptitiously out of reach on our last day. We bombed them for nine years, and the tiny Lao woman we call “Grandma” lifted buckets of heavy mud all summer, searching for the bomber. With leathery hands and wet eyelash shimmers, she hugs me goodbye. Maybe it’s the unfettered irony of it all, but how could I not weep too?

    Author Bio: 

    Cathy Jo is an anthropologist, writer, and RPA member (#17252) living in Montana. She received her Master’s degree in Anthropology from the University of Montana in 2015, and  worked as an archaeologist for the University of Montana’s Center for Integrated Research on the Environment. She’s also served as a civilian anthropologist for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, and occasionally teaches as an adjunct instructor. Connect with her at linkedin.com/in/cathy-jo-beecher.

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