Saturday, August 3, 2013

The True Legend of the Concrete Tapeworm

The True Legend of the Concrete Tapeworm
John Janovy, Jr.

There once was a beat-up, white-painted, wooden building that sat in a wooded depression across the road south from the Lake McConaughy spillway in Keith County, Nebraska. That building had been the headquarters for the crew that build Kingsley Dam, the enormous earth-filled structure that impounded the lake called “Big Mac.” During the early 1980s, the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District decided to “finish” Kingsley Dam by putting a hydroelectric plant into the spillway, a rather formidable but interesting task. That building had mainly been used by fishermen as a convenient restroom, but Central moved it out of the woods and down to a site near the Cedar Point Biological Station’s White Gate. See TEACHING IN EDEN, RoutledgeFalmer, 2003, for the complete analysis of the White Gate’s influence on American higher education. Obviously, late at night, over beers outside the White Gate, there was plenty of discussion about that building, the wisdom of Central’s decision to build the hydro plant, what might happen to it after the project was finished, and, of course, parasitology.

Central used the building to store various construction supplies. I was director of the CPBS at the time, and we needed some additional research space, so Ron Randall, who was the CPBS facilities manager at the time, and I did an inspection of the building and decided it might be useful. Ron said something like “it needs a new roof, new siding, new floor, and new wiring, but other than that, it’s in good shape.” The timbers were 1930s-era, and very solid. After the hydro plant was finished, I asked Central if we could have the building and they said “yes,” although we had to move it.

Ron rented a Bobcat, and although he did most of the work, I got to drive the Bobcat and did some of the excavation at the site, at CPBS, that had been formerly occupied by a green mobile home used as a research lab by several workers. After the building site was level, we dug the footing trench and Ron called in the concrete truck. After the footing was poured, there was some concrete left over, so I asked the truck driver if he’d pour a string of concrete in the space that would eventually be beneath the building’s floor. He did, and I shaped that string of concrete into a very large tapeworm sculpture, maybe 10 feet long. A local mason was hired to lay the foundation, and Star Moving Company from Hershey, Nebraska, moved the building from the White Gate to its new site, setting it gracefully on the foundation (but not without knocking a couple of blocks off, which had to be replaced before the building could be lowered).

There were barn swallow nests on the building, just under the eaves, when it was outside the White Gate, and those birds followed the building as it made its journey in to CPBS. That’s why the building is now named The Swallow Barn. Ron did virtually all of the updating and repair, and The Swallow Barn was used as a research facility, mainly by parasitologists, for years before it was remodeled into living quarters.

During the summer of 2013, there was some reason for people to get beneath that building, maybe because of a needed air conditioning repair. A couple of students, I believe, crawled into the crawl space (which is fairly generous, but you can’t stand up in it), and confirmed that yes indeed, like in a true intestine, that concrete tapeworm still lies there in the dark, absorbing all the parasitological wisdom that’s been brought into The Swallow Barn by the various people working above it’s concrete scolex.


Wednesday, January 2, 2013


On the other hand, sometimes a problem can turn into a positive experience. Not long ago, standing in front of a large auditorium full of freshman students, three ladies in the back of the room simply would not shut up, and the laughing seemed to be disturbing those around them. So I kicked them out of class. As you can imagine, the other 257 people in that room were very attentive for the rest of the period. But I got an e-mail later that day from one of those who’d been sent out:

I was asked to leave your class this morning and 
I just wanted to say that I am sincerely sorry for my
actions. I am ashamed and I honestly meant no 
disrespect to you or my classmates. Make no mistake, 
I was very humiliated by being asked to leave class. 
I really was paying attention to your lecture 
and final exam preparation discussion, but I did allow 
myself to become momentarily distracted and I take 
full responsibility for that lapse of judgment. Please 
understand that I am not writing this in order to argue 
my actions as acceptable, because I was in the wrong, 
but I just wanted to tell you that I am sorry. 
Respond if you wish, but I just thought you should know.
I responded. And the fact that this student sent the above message means that at the end of the semester, if she is a tenth of a point away from the next highest letter grade, I’ll move her up. But the real lesson is that no matter how anonymous or hidden you may think you are in a large auditorium, a teacher can probably see you and recognize immediately whether you are contributing to the overall academic atmosphere or being a distraction to your classmates. Fifty minutes is not very long. Just sit there, pay attention, and at least look like you’re taking notes, glancing up at the screen or blackboard periodically, even if you’re busy writing a poem or a letter to your significant other.