Definitely More Than “A Goober With a Flashlight”
By Clark Miller | June 3, 2017
With her latest bestseller, "Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War," author Mary Roach has combined science and humor to dissect the simple, stubborn annoyances of military life — the struggle to get a good night’s rest on a cramped submarine, survive the mind-numbing heat of the Middle East or, say, deal with pesky flies.
Roach, who comes to the National Writers Series stage on Wednesday, June 7, can be expected to demonstrate her highly developed nose for the quirky: To understand the military’s nastiest odor weapon, the aptly-named Stench Soup — something so strong it might change the course of a battle — she visited a government-funded malodor research project. (If a definition of the word malodor eludes you, think malpractice, malignant, or malicious, all things to avoid).
As she described the lab, “On a shelf over our heads is a box of firefighter underarm odor, each subject’s contribution sealed in a Ziploc bag.”
It says something that one of the lab’s scientists, Pam Dalton, once served as an expert witness in a pig farm lawsuit. She is the same researcher who, during a 15-hour flight to South Africa, brought along lab samples ominously labeled Vomit, Sewage, Burned Hair, and US Government Standard Bathroom — all of which began leaking in-flight.
Grunt kicks off with a bang when Roach describes something you don’t get to see every day: a 60-foot-long chicken cannon, a device the U.S. military uses to test the resiliency of airplane canopies to bird strikes. A four-pound chicken is shot at 400-plus miles per hour at a parked plane. The experiments, it seems, can lead to interesting data, though less so for the researchee.
Without even a tiny flush of embarrassment, Roach devotes a whole chapter to diarrhea as a threat to national security — a topic that, judging by the name, Diarrhea Clinical Trials, our military takes seriously. Entire wartime missions can go wrong simply — yes, in malodorous fashion — because, as one special ops soldier put it, “Unfortunately, we don’t fight in first-world countries.”
With Roach, the humorous, weird and seriously inappropriate co-exist peacefully. Clearly, nothing is off bounds to her curiosity. And she never misses a good quote. For example, in what we can only hope is intentional self-irony, one enthusiastic longtime researcher of diarrhea notes, “I live and breathe this stuff.”
A researcher who designs high-tech military clothing doubts anyone will invent bomb-proof skivvies: “If the insurgents can make a bomb big enough to blow up a 71-ton M1 tank, they can certainly make a bomb that’s going to blow up your underwear.”
Throughout, Roach has paid attention to seemingly small details that impart to readers a sense of the military mindset.
Fort Benning, Georgia, she described as possessing the three main ingredients for inducing heatstroke, “humidity, intense sun, and Army Ranger School.” When a battle-hardened instructor there removes an earbud to hear a question, Roach said “a tinny musical aggression leaks out. It’s Five Finger Death Punch, a metal band that from what I can tell uses synthesized machine-gun fire in place of a drummer.”
Roach described the food at Fort Benning in her typical, stomach-churning style: “The pizza at Warrior Café does not look healthy. By that I don’t mean that it’s unhealthy to eat — though possibly it is — but rather that the item itself looks in poor health … The sweating cheese. The scabs of pepperoni.”
Writing about her tour guide at another special forces camp, Roach observed, “Seamus Nelson is six foot three. When he extends his neck to its full reach, his head is like a periscope. It’s up now, surveying a scene of clean-shaven, supper-chewing heads in the Camp Lemonnier dining facility.”
Somehow, Roach always finds a way to gain access to the people and places she wants to write about. Her engaging sense of wonder and self-deprecating humor opens doors. A self-described “goober with a flashlight,” her modus operandi seems to be, if you can help me, a non-scientist, understand this subject, just maybe I can explain it to other people.
She even charmed her way onto a nuclear submarine, and noted excitedly, “I’ll be traipsing through the missile silos with no security clearance.”
Next, she tracked government attempts to make and test shark repellant. That’s where she dug up this little gem: “For actual shark expertise, the OSS [precursor to the CIA] turned to a college dropout named Stewart Springer, whose resume included stints as a commercial fisherman and as a chemical technician at the Indianapolis Activated Sludge Plant.”
Who but Mary Roach would even think to ask? And who knew that such arcane, smelly and downright disgusting topics could be so interesting?
"Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War," is Roach’s eighth book. It is a New York Times national bestseller and was Library Journal’s Best Science Book for 2016.
Her other works include the New York Times bestseller "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers," "Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex," "Packing for Mars," and "Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Gulp," in which she takes her readers on a winding, guided tour of the digestive track.
Tickets to National Writers Series events can be purchased online at the City Opera website (cityoperahouse.org), at the box office 106 East Front St. in Traverse City, or by calling (231) 941-8082.