During a cross country season my sophomore year in high school, a friend and I were paired up to do an outdoor field biology project. His name was Doug Benson, I believe, who was a teammate and friend.
The instructor of the biology class was a man named Frank Kaminski. He was one of the few adults at that time who encouraged me in the activity of birding. He’d quietly (and carefully) call me aside before class to ask what birds I’d seen,. He knew that to discuss it openly might open me to ridicule from classmates who thought it silly to go out birding.
Mr. Kaminski assigned us to team up and engage in a bug collecting project. Doug and I considered our schedules and realized the only time we’d have to collect was on a Saturday afternoon after a morning cross country invitational. So my mother drove me to his house and we wandered out in the fields together with nets and cages in hand.
The day was bright and sunny, perfect for fall insects. Our job was to collect a certain number of species and display them for class by that Monday, the deadline for the project. This was the early 1970s when things such as butterfly collecting were still engaged. But Doug and I found far more than butterflies. We caught and identified more than two dozen species of insects, as I recall. Then we carefully mounted them for class.
It was fortunate that we went out that Saturday afternoon, because the very next morning a hard frost hit, wiping out most of the types of insects we’d collected just the day before.
But we had our bug collection and our teacher Frank Kaminski smiled at the returns on our efforts. “You did well!” he told us in looking over the collection.
The other sensation I recall during this process was walking around those fields on a set of very tired legs and likely dehydrated to boot. The race that morning had been hard. It was a strain on fifteen-year-old legs to hike about the fields after a race. Doug and I sat down in the warm sun several times, laughing at our fatigue.
The sad aspect of this story is that Frank Kaminski later took his own life. He was a hugely overweight man. Perhaps that contributed to his decision to end is days here on earth. Or perhaps like so many, he suffered from a clinical form of depression as do so many millions of people. Back then the stigmas to mental illness were much greater and medications were not so refined. His immense weight often caused him to sweat and he breathed heavily while lecturing. Physically, life had to be difficult for him. And mentally as well. For whatever reason, he checked out for good.
I was quite sad on hearing that news. I can still see the twinkle in his dark eyes as he would ask me to cite my favorite bird. I told him it was the kingfisher, and he smiled. “A lovely bird,” he replied.
In some respects that man and I were opposites. Yet his weight issues did not obscure his kind nature or his love of nature in general. At a time when I struggled in some other classes due to boredom and an overly creative mind, I excelled in his biology class because he made everything he taught seem so important.
There is no better virtue in life.
As for Doug Benson and I, there was a lesson to be learned in going out to do our work even when our legs begged us to stay home. The hard frost that hit the next morning was profound, like a wave of the Almighty’s hand to cast a plague on the efforts of all those who put off bug collecting to the last day. “Do your work even when it tires you,” that frost seemed to say.
And the next morning as I walked through the whitened grass to go for a run on Sunday morning, I smiled that we’d had the guts to go through with our hunt the previous day.