Strip-searched in a Spanish cathedral!

June 27, 2020 • 9:30 am

Although I have other things to write about, I thought I’d begin by recounting an adventure from my youth (well, young adulthood). As readers may remember, many of my youthful peccadillos—a word that always reminds me of a hybrid between an armadillo and a peccary—involved me in various states of undress, including the famous and often mis-cited story of me in Dick Lewontin’s office.

Here’s another in the same genre. Now I may not have been the only American to have been strip-searched in Barcelona’s famous cathedral, the great Sagrada Família of Antoni Gaudi, but I don’t know of another. Construction on the cathedral, still unfinished though it was begun in 1882, came to a temporary halt when Gaudi died in 1926 after being hit by a streetcar. Construction slowly resumed according to Gaudi’s incomplete plans, and is now scheduled for completion in this decade.

It is a sui generis masterpiece, and a must-see if you’re in Barcelona. (Have a look at a few images here.) It would take too long to describe Gaudi’s style, but I find it immensely alluring. The cathedral is like a giant organism, festooned with organic shapes, weird imaginary gargoyle-animals, and real animals sculpted in stone, like snails, climbing the towers.

Have a gander, and note the walkways between each pair of spires; I’ve circled one in red. These play a crucial role in my tale.


This all happened in 1995, when I was invited to give a lecture on evolutionary genetics at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, hosted by Professors Alfredo Ruiz and Antonio Barbadilla. I had a few days before the talk, and checked myself into a hotel on the Ramblas, the Happening Street in Barcelona. Although it wasn’t my first visit, I treated myself to some sightseeing, which included visits to tapas bars and, of course, the various buildings and parks of Gaudi, including the Sagrada Família. I went to the cathedral by myself, and walked up and down all four spires. Each pair of spires, connected with one catwalk, has a separated gated entrance in the bottom courtyard (the nave, which was not covered then).

When I was walked between the left pair of towers on the narrow catwalk, a pair of women British tourists was walking in the other direction, and it was a tight squeeze to go past them. After I went by, I heard a bit of a commotion behind me, with the women exclaiming something, but I couldn’t make it out.

After I’d had my fill of both spires, I went down to ground level to access the other pair of spires, climbed them, and then came down. When I wanted to leave, the exit gate was blocked. “That’s weird,” I thought to myself, and decided that there was only one open door to all the spires. But when I went back to the one I’d entered, it too was locked. I was trapped.

I stood by the door, a jail-like gate, and called for help. Eventually a uniformed officer came in and, though I spoke almost no Spanish, I said something like “exit, please” (“Salida, por favor”). The guard said, “Un momento,” and went away.

I was puzzled and starting to get a bit anxious.  After about ten minutes, an entire cadre of police (the Guardia Civil, as I recall) showed up, opened the gate, entered, and then began yelling at me in Spanish. I could not understand them, but it was clear that they were very angry at me.  I had no idea what they wanted, but they begin pointing to my daypack, took it, and began going through it minutely, examining every object. In my fractured Spanish, I tried to explain who I was: “Yo soy professor”, and I showed them a paper on which was written the names of my hosts. This was to no avail; they yelled at me and were extremely nasty.

After they went through my daypack, shouting and manhandling me all the while, they gestured at my clothes. It was clear that I was to remove them all.  What choice did I have? And so I stripped naked on the stairs at the bottom of the cathedral’s spire, surrounded by police. They went through every bit of my clothes, from shirt to shoes, turning out my pockets.

What they were looking for mystified me. All I knew was that I seemed to be in serious trouble. There I stood, a nude American in Gaudi’s masterpiece, and my fate was in the hands of the notoriously hard-ass Guardia Civil.

After a while, an English-speaking Spanish official showed up, and explained to me that one of the English women whom I’d squeezed by had discovered, shortly thereafter, that her wallet and passport had been stolen. They immediately went to the authorities in the Cathedral and reported that I had somehow purloined the items when I squeezed by them.  That accounted for the commotion I heard shortly after I passed the pair.

Of course I hadn’t stolen anything; Barcelona is notorious for pickpockets, and the woman had clearly had her passport and wallet lifted before she came to the cathedral, but just discovered it after I passed them.  Finally, the cops let me put my clothes back on, but by that time I was shaking with fear at the rough treatment I’d received.

When I was finally released to leave the cathedral, both English women were standing in the courtyard (the future nave). As I passed them, one of them said to me, “We know you did it. We just don’t know where you put the stuff.”  How they knew this so certainly baffles me. (Perhaps they thought I’d sequestered the goods somewhere in the spire.)

I was about the most shaken I’d ever been, matching the time when the Moroccan police stopped a car in which I was hitchhiking, suspecting us of committing a hit-and-run murder—but that’s another tale. I was so shaken that all I could do was to find a place to sit down and pull myself together. And that place was the real Gothic Cathredral in Barcelona, a masterpiece from an earlier time. I went inside where it was quiet, and I sat in a pew and tried to recover for an hour or so, but I was still deeply shaken. That was the only time in my life I’ve gone into a house of worship to seek respite.

I was to meet my old friend Andrew Berry that afternoon, who was in Barcelona giving a course of lectures at the Autonoma, and he recounts meeting me after my horrible encounter:

On the fateful day in question, I was teaching at the Autonoma and took the train into town at the end of the day to meet you, as pre-arranged, in the Plaça de Catalunya at the top of the Ramblas.  I found you in the specified location in a genuine state of shock.  Even though some hours had elapsed since your traumatic experience, you were still actively shaking.  They say that people *shake* when terrorized, but I’d never actually seen it before.  You were quivering.

I was to lecture at the Autonoma the next day, and the crowd was pretty big. Antonio introduced me in Spanish, and as part of his introduction he told the audience how I’d been treated in the Sagrada Família; they audibly gasped at the way a visiting professor had been treated (being a professor is a bigger deal in Europe than in the U.S.). Several people told me I should make a formal complaint and write letters to the newspaper about what had happened, but I wanted to put the episode behind me. But even now when I think about that day, I get the willies.

The denouement of my visit was pleasant. My lecture went off well, and then, with true Spanish hospitality, Andrew and I were taken out for an evening of drinking, dining, and dancing. We first went to a restaurant famous for its lamb dishes (I can’t recall the name); our reservations were for 11 p.m.! (To an American, the Spanish dine at ungodly hours.) The dinner was terrific, and then we all repaired to a disco on top of a mountain and danced until dawn. (I was a bit friskier in those days!). Here are some photos from that evening that Andrew took with real film:

Dinner with some of the biology department. If you’re an evolutionary biologist, you may have heard of some of these folks (labels from Andrew):

It was only 25 years ago, but I looked so much younger then, with a bushy head of black hair.  Here I am drinking wine from the communal vessel called the porron, a Catalan device that helps promote sociality while preserving sanitary drinking. You have to be good enough to pour the wine into your mouth without slipping up:


Dancing till dawn in a disco. I’ve only done that once since: at my 25th college reunion.

How I was caught naked in Dick Lewontin’s office

May 9, 2020 • 10:30 am

Over the years, two slightly salacious stories have circulated about me among evolutionists, and over time they’ve been combined into one story that was sometimes used to introduce me when I gave scientific seminars. Many of my pals don’t mind embarrassing me this way, and I reciprocate. It’s all in good fun.

But I want to set the record straight by recounting both stories separately, and tell you how they’ve been merged into one fallacious story.

Story 1.  Many of Dick Lewontin‘s grad students worked late in the evening. We’d all go out for the 99 cent student dinner special at Charlie’s Beef and Beer on Massachusetts Ave (the restaurant is no longer there), and then return to the lab for a few hours. One night there was just two of us working late: Russ Lande (now a famous evolutionary biologist) and I.

Lewontin designed his lab on communal (if not Communist) principles. There was a huge central room with a long map table that Dick had gotten from the remains of the defunct geography department, surrounded by a circle of offices, each containing two people. The idea, which was a good one and worked well, was that to get to your office you’d have to walk past the big table, where people might be having coffee, eating lunch, or just chewing the fat. Dick’s office was next to his secretary’s office (his was bigger because some animals were more equal than others) and to Russ’s.

Two more points: Dick always left his office door open, even when he left for the evening. Part of this was simply so we could walk in and talk to him during the day if he wasn’t too busy.  Also, Dick almost never came in in the evening. A devoted family man, he went home to his wife Mary Jane about 5 p.m. and didn’t return (he also had four sons, but they were in college or grown). I remember him telling us once “I have to leave: Mary Jane has a duck in the oven.”

So, one night at about 8 or 9 pm, Russ was working in his office and I in mine. All the offices had glass doors so you could see in. I decided to play a prank on Russ: I would strip to the buff and then run at his closed door, flattening myself against it and screaming like a banshee. I was hoping to scare the daylights out of him. I decided to go into Lewontin’s office right next to Russ’s, remove my clothes, and then streak out and flatten myself against the outside of his door.

I went into Dick’s office, turned the lights off, and removed my clothes.

When I was standing there stark naked, ready for The Big Streak, suddenly the light switch was flipped on.  Dick was there! It was one of those very rare nights that he came in, almost certainly to retrieve something.

Imagine the situation: The Boss (Dick’s nickname) was standing there, and I was naked in his office. There are few interpretations that one could make that aren’t unsavory, if not perverted! At least I was alone, but one could still construe some sort of bizarre intent on my part.

But I quickly explained to Dick what I intended to do, and, Ceiling Cat bless him, he understood. He left, and I don’t remember whether I ever pulled that prank on Russ.

Story 2. This actually preceded story 1, but has become conflated with it.  As I explained yesterday, the MCZ labs, where Dick designed his lab, was new, and they were building his space on the third floor while we occupied cramped spaces on the first floor (later to be occupied by the ichthyologist Karel Liem and now George Lauder). But we got to go up and look at the third-floor space under construction and choose our future offices. I picked mine out, and, at the time, had a new girlfriend.

As is the wont of young randy males, I decided that I would “christen” my future office by spending the night there with my new inamorata. We got a pair of sleeping bags, did the christening, and then fell asleep—soundly and for the rest of the night.  In fact, we were woken up the next morning by the construction crew building the lab, who found a pair of humans largely divested of clothing. I didn’t know this, but the workers reported it to their boss, a man named Charlie Atlas (I am not making this up).  Atlas had a talk with Lewontin, who then called me into his office for a paternal “chat.”

Dick is pretty laissez-faire about such things, and he told me this, “Jerry, if you want to blow in someone’s ear at Harvard, be my guest. Just don’t do it in the lab.” And that was the end of that.

Well, not completely, because Story 1 and Story 2 became conflated into the false story which I’ll call Story1/Story 2. I’ve been introduced with that conflated story more than once.  It goes like this: “Jerry was caught by his boss Dick in flagrante delicto on top of Dick’s desk.”

Now THAT is a salacious story, but it’s false.  And don’t you believe otherwise, though I think I’m past the days when these stories would be used to introduce me before a talk.

Here’s a photo when Dick was doing field work with some colleagues in Death Valley, work that I took up and continued for several years as a postdoc: Left to right: Theodosius Dobzhansky (taken to observe the site), Steve Bryant (kneeling), Dick Lewontin, Steve Jones (looking fierce with a moustach) and Tim Prout, my postdoc advisor.

Russ Lande:

In the fly kitchen where media was made. Kneeling left to right: Don Wallace and I. Standing left to right: Russ Lande, Harold “Swamp” Lee, and Alex Felton.

At the big center table with Lewontin’s writing on the blackboard. Left to right: Rama Singh, Ann Litke, Donal Hickey, and me. Ann is holidng up vials of flies, and there’s a tray of them in front of me.

You can see more photos from my time in the Lewontin lab here.

I also have a story about how I climbed Mount Lewontin (a hill in Death Valley) without clothes (we didn’t need oxygen, so to make a first ascent without something, it had to be clothes and not oxygen).

More autobiography: How I wangled myself into Harvard in one day

May 8, 2020 • 12:00 pm

And the end of my last tale, “How I became a conscientious objector“, I had been released from my CO job by the Federal courts, and, as it was too late to start graduate school, I was headed off to Europe for a five-month “Wanderhalbjahr.”

This next part is a bit fuzzy, but before I went to Rockefeller University in the summer of 1971, I’d also been accepted to several other graduate schools, including the University of Chicago, where I wanted to study evolutionary genetics with Dick Lewontin. When I turned them down to study with Theodosius Dobzhansky at Rockefeller, I remember that they told me that if I changed my mind I could still go to Chicago. (Who imagined that I would wind up here today?).

Here’s a photo of me with my cabal of buddies at Rockefeller, probably taken in 1972 when I was doing my CO. I have the tennis racket, cigarette, and lab-made “hookah”.  Everyone in the photo is a landsman.

When I was released from my CO, Dobzhansky had retired and gone to the University of California at Davis with his former student Francisco Ayala, who became a professor. As I didn’t want to study with someone who was retired (it may not have been possible anyway), I believe I called Chicago (not Lewontin himself) and accepted their offer for the fall of 1973.  As I recall (again, the details are hazy), they said that was great, and I could start there in that fall. Relieved that I had a good grad school and a good professor to study with, I went off to Europe for five months with my girlfriend.  That epic trip began in Athens and continued to Crete, where we lived for a month in the tiny village of Sitia (story here). That trip was to continue to Santorini, up through Greece to Istanbul, through Yugoslavia, Austria, Germany, France, and Spain, then across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco, and down to Marrakesh. But more on that later.

At any rate, when I returned from that trip in August, I believe I called Lewontin and said “I’m ready to join your lab in Chicago.” He then informed me that he had in fact accepted a job at Harvard beginning that fall. When I said, “Well, can I join you there?”, he informed me that he had already bargained with Harvard to take his five Chicago grad students and one postdoc, and I was not among them. When I asked them if he could do something for me, he said no. Lewontin barely remembered me, and as I recall, when I interviewed at Chicago and met him, he spent very little time with me and then dumped me onto somebody else. I didn’t know the drill then, but we became good friends later and so I don’t resent that. After all, though I had a good undergrad record, Dick didn’t know me from Adam. (I did have a four-year NSF predoctoral fellowship, which made me almost no financial burden to a University.)

I was of course downhearted, because graduate school was going to start in a month or so and I had nowhere to go, nobody to study with. I decided then and there that I would fly up to Harvard and try to get in on my own.

And so, within two days, I was on a plane to Boston with my papers, transcript, and other documents, determined to talk my way into Harvard. Oy, was I a greenhorn back then! Now I would have said the effort would have been futile. But I was young, fearless, and ambitious.

The next day I went to Harvard and, at 9 a.m., I knocked on the door of E. O. Wilson, the famous biologist who had an office in the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ). I explained to his secretary what I wanted, and I was given an audience with the great man.  Sitting in his spacious office, I pleaded my case, not forgetting to mention that I had four years of free tuition and stipend, and so would barely cost Harvard anything. I also had straight As from William and Mary, where I was a valedictorian, two published papers, and very good GRE scores.

I think Wilson thought me a good bet, because after our conversation he told me that he would make appointments for me with other Harvard professors so that I could have an impromptu interview. I spent the rest of the morning and afternoon further pleading my case with other professors. Then, at the end of the day, somebody from the Biology office gave me an application for graduate school to fill out, took me down to a dark room in the MCZ basement and sat me down in front of an old Royal typewriter—not even an electric. They gave me a few hours to write my application, which included the crucial “why I want to study at Harvard” essay. Since I was not prepared to write that, I had to wing it.

A digression: You might know that Wilson and Lewontin were bitter enemies during the “sociobiology wars”, but earlier on they were good friends and part of a small group of ecologists and evolutionists (including Richard Levins and Robert MacArthur), who planned as a group to unite ecology and evolution into one theoretical framework. Wilson had in fact brought Lewontin to Harvard, so that Wilson was not at all put off that I wanted to study with Lewontin. But later Wilson began writing about sociobiology, first in articles and then in his eponymous book of 1975, and by then Dick and Ed had become bitter enemies, and wouldn’t even speak to each other in the elevator. (I rode up with both of them once, and believe me, it not a comfortable ride. Not a word was exchanged.)

Back to writing my Harvard application. I remember that at one point the keys on the typewriter jammed, and, trying to unstick several of the bars with the typeface on them (I type very fast), I cut my fingers and began bleeding all over my application.  So what I turned in at the end of the day was a blood-spattered application for graduate school at Harvard.

I was told they’d convene a special meeting of the admissions committee, and I would hear shortly. I flew back to my parents’ house in Arlington, Virginia, and, sure enough, in a few days I was told I’d been admitted to Harvard (I’m sure my NSF fellowship helped, as I was pretty much of a freebie).

That September, I moved into a small apartment with friends in a basement on Beacon Street across the river in Boston, and began commuting every day to the MCZ. Lewontin’s lab was under construction on the third floor of the MCZ labs, one floor below Wilson’s space, so we all lived in cramped quarters on the first floor for a year. I should add that our landlord in Boston was Jim Davis, the owner of the New Balance shoe company, which was just starting up as a mainstream sneaker company. Jim used to give us samples to try out. (I still wear New Balance running shoes out of loyalty.) Now, of course, Davis is a billionaire.

And so I settled in at the MCZ, awed by both Lewontin and the high quality of the grad students and postdocs he had. (For several years I didn’t think I could ever measure up, but I gained some confidence after a while.)

So that’s how I got into Harvard. One more thing remains to be said. Despite the rancor between Wilson and Lewontin, I never really took sides, especially personally. Lewontin’s objection to sociobiology was largely ideological: the idea that humans had evolutionarily-based behaviors was repugnant to a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist like Lewontin, who believed in infinite human malleability. I was too scientifically naive to take sides in that debate, but I always liked Wilson. Not just because he helped me get into Harvard, but because he really was a nice guy and without the arrogance of, say, Steve Gould (who was on my thesis committee). I also was a teaching assistant for Ed for two years in the introductory course Bio 1, and it was a pleasure (Ed was a great lecturer).

I have of course had scientific differences with Ed in recent years as he moves toward group-selectionist explanations for everything, but as a person and a human being I still respect him immensely. He’s been a great force in promoting conservation and ecology and a polymathic biologist despite some of his misconceptions.

More stories to come, I guess. Here’s a photo of me at Harvard taken by my friend Peter Haas. I’m not sure of the date, but it’s probably around 1975:


How I became a conscientious objector

May 5, 2020 • 10:00 am

Today I’ll take a break from travel stories as I have two stories connected with my Wanderhalbjahr in Europe. Today’s (at the request of a reader) tells how I became a conscientious objector, worked in a hospital, found out I’d been drafted illegally, and got the government to release me and many other men from service. The other, for another day, is how, after my post-release jaunt through Europe, I came to be admitted to Harvard though I’d been accepted to graduate school at the University of Chicago.

I’ll tell the first one today, and the other one some other day. It’s easy to write this because the ducklings are about to hatch, I’m quite nervous, and it’s easier to tell stories about the past than to ruminate on or analyze current events (there aren’t any that intrigue me, anyway). Some of the details of this account are hazy, but I’ll do my best.

On December 1, 1969, the first draft lottery during the Vietnam War was held; this would assign numbers to every eligible man’s birthday, with the number specifying the order in which you’d be drafted. “1”, for example, would be the first person called for service, “2” the second, and so on to 365, the last person called to service. It was clear that they wouldn’t go through the entire year, which would have meant drafting everyone born between between January 1, 1944 and December 31, 1950, the class subject to the lottery.

That included everyone in my college class. (I was born on December 30, 1949). The draft was explicitly meant for service in Vietnam, and we all knew what that meant.  If you had a low number, that meant that the government would begin processing you in 1970 for military service, which in my case meant that the service would begin after I graduated from The College of William & Mary in June, 1971.

The government put one day of the year on each of 365 slips of paper (as you see below, there were Feb. 29 births too), and those slips were put in plastic capsules, mixed up in a barrel and picked out sequentially. All of us watched the television drawing in the dorm, nervously awaiting our numbers. A low number meant that, barring a medical deferment or conscientious objection, you would go into the Army and probably to Vietnam.  If you were assigned to a combat platoon, you had a high risk of dying.

The general feeling, as Roger Mudd notes in the short documentary of the drawing below, was that if you were in the lowest third of the numbers (1-about 120), you’d be sure to be inducted, in the middle third it was a toss-up, and in the lowest third you’d be safe from conscription forever.

Here, from HistoryNet, are the results of that drawing. My birthday is circled:

As you see, December 30 was assigned #3. That’s the third worst possible number, and guaranteed that I would be drafted. While my dorm-mates who got high numbers celebrated, I had to think hard.

All of us, being Leftist hippies, were opposed to the Vietnam War, and many of us, including me, had gone to Washington several times to demonstrate against it. We saw no point in fighting the Viet Cong, many of whom were South Vietnamese. We saw no point in having our bodies used as targets in a war that had no bearing on national security, and I, personally, saw it as an unjust war on the part of the U.S.

As a peacenik, I had a record of opposing war, but can’t remember exactly when that began, or the time frame during which my antiwar activities occurred relative to the lottery. I know that I’d written a long term paper for my Ethics class (taught by Alan Fuchs, a student of John Rawls), trying to come to grips with the question, “Is there any war that one would consider just?” (I can’t remember my answer save that the vast majority of wars were unjust, and didn’t warrant conscripting and killing soldiers.

What I did realize is that I would try to seek conscientious-objector status based on my views, and if I didn’t get that 1-O deferment, I was prepared to go to jail instead of serving in the Army. Some of my friends saw that stand as impure, thinking that being a CO was a coward’s way out since you were still acting at the behest of the government, and that going to jail or fleeing to Canada were better alternatives. David Malament, one of my fellow students at Rockefeller University (where I started grad school) felt this way, and wound up spending time in jail. Malament later became a well-known philosopher of science and in fact spent a quarter of a century teaching at the University of Chicago. I always meant to look him up, but didn’t get around to it.

I spent the rest of my junior year and most of my senior year engaged in various antiwar activities, which included demonstrating and working for the Quakers as a draft counselor, a period that, as you’ll see, was pivotal in my later history. I also compiled a dossier of my writings and activities that I would need to submit to the draft board supporting a request for 1-O status.

At the time, the only valid objection to war that draft boards would consider was a religious one: you had to have a sincere and religiously-based opposition to war. That applied to Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses, but not to me, as I was already an atheist. But there were ways in which a profound moral objection to war could be considered, and that’s what I worked on. I’d already written a term paper on the issue, and I went to talk to various rabbis, priests, and ministers, telling them that I was an atheist but detailing my objections to war. To their credit, they all wrote me letters of support averring that my objections were profound, moral, and, I suppose, “spiritual”, though I no longer have a copy of my dossier.

On top of that, my father, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army, offered to write me a letter of support, as did one of his Army friends. I remember part of what my dad said, which was something like “I believe that every able-bodied man should serve his country in the military, but I also know that my son has a sincere moral objection to war, and should not be required to serve.” In the end, I think that that letter, and the one from the other Army guy, were pivotal in getting me my 1-O.

But that was to come. In the meantime I had to go to Richmond, Virginia to take the Army my physical and mental tests. I passed both, though they found my hearing substandard (it still is). I remember standing naked in two rows and being asked to bend over for the fundament check.  I was given “draftable” status, so I continued to pursue my 1-O.

The normal procedure for requesting exemption was to appear in person before the draft board to answer tough questions, and they’d decide your status. They rarely granted exemptions.  I was preparing for such a grilling, which would also take place in Newport News, Virginia, a notoriously stringent draft board known to almost never grant exemptions. (The city is, of course, home to a huge Navy base and has a huge military population.) But it turned out I didn’t need to. I remember my mother running into my room in the early summer, waving a letter from the draft board. She’d already opened it, and inside was my draft card with the prized “1-O” designation. I was a CO! I was particularly proud that they awarded me my status based on my dossier, and saw no need to put me through the usual in-person grilling.

After I graduated in June, 1971, I immediately went to Rockefeller University for the required summer biochemistry course for all biology grad students. (I’d been admitted to pursue a Ph.D. in evolutionary genetics under Theodosius Dobzhansky). At the end of the summer, #3 was called up for service, and I was required to find my own CO job. The stipulations were that it had to be some kind of public service, and that you’d be paid the same amount as an Army private, regardless of what the normal salary for the job was. (As I recall, I made about $5500 a year.) And of course you didn’t get free food, housing, or medical care like the regular draftees did.

Eventually I found a job as a lab technician working on neurochemistry at Cornell University Medical School in Manhattan, right across the street from Rockefeller University. Rockefeller was kind enough to allow me to live in the dorms and to continue having subsidized food and medical care, as if I was a regular graduate student. They expected me to return after my CO stint, which is what I intended, too. (I worked in the lab of Dr. Michael Gershon, who apparently still works at Cornell. Gershon was a nice guy and was glad to take a CO on board.)

My stint as a technician was easy work compared to some COs, who had to wash bedpans and work as orderlies in hospitals. But it lasted 13 months rather than the regular two years (equivalent to a stint in the Army).

Why the truncated period of service? Well, one day I found that I’d been called up for service illegally. I was reading the New York Times at breakfast, and read on the front page an article that from the first draft lottery, nobody would be inducted into the Army. The war was winding down, and they didn’t need more cannon fodder. Having worked for the Quakers as a draft counselor, I knew that this wasn’t legal: the law required anybody with a given “inductable” draft number be called to service at the same time, regardless of whether he was going into the Army or into service as a conscientious objector. What the Selective Service had done was to draft a lot of COs (about 2500, as I recall), but nobody into the regular army.

I immediately contacted the American Civil Liberties Union and told them my plight, and they agreed to help me. As I recall, they found five other COs like me and put together a class action suit against the government for violating its Selective Service regulations. I said yesterday that the suit was Coyne et al. v. Nixon et al., but it could have been Coyne et al. v. Curtis Tarr et al. (Tarr was head of the Selective Service). I do know that Nixon was named in the suit as a defendant, along with other government officials like Melvin Laird, Nixon’s Secretary of Defense.

After a short while, we had a hearing in Federal court in New York City. I recall that  it lasted only about 30 minutes, as the government basically admitted it had violated its own rules. Soon after that, the ruling came down: we got a letter from the ACLU saying that we five—and the 2000-odd other COs who fell into the plaintiff class—were released. I was free!

But it was winter, too early to go back to graduate school, and at any rate Dobzhansky had retired and left Rockefeller for the University of California at Davis. I left my job at Cornell, and had to find some place to go to grad school for the fall of 1973. Fortunately, I’d earlier been admitted to the University of Chicago to work under Dick Lewontin, so I went off to Europe for my Wanderhalbjahr expecting to study at Chicago when I returned. (As I recall, I’d rejected Chicago’s offer in favor of Rockefeller’s, but they told me they’d take me if I changed my mind.)

Little did I know that Lewontin had taken a job at Harvard for the fall of 1973, and had forgotten that I had been accepted to work with him. I didn’t know this until I returned from EuropeI called Lewontin, who told me that he couldn’t help me: he’d already bargained to take his five Chicago grad students to Harvard, and I wasn’t one of them.

That meant that I had to wangle my way into Harvard on my own, and I had about two weeks to do it. And that is the next story in this odyssey: How I Got Into Harvard In One Day with the Help of E. O. Wilson.

Stay tuned.

Time to check the ducks. . . . (they’re still on their nests).