The Gadfly: Ed Raymond

Column in the High Plains Reader, January 25, 2001

Puck Parasites

I have been trying to write a column recently about the most fascinating book I've read in years, “Parasites” by Carl Zimmer, but area humans and parasites keep interfering. And then came the exposure of Ralph (“I Am An Army of One”) Engelstad's threatening non-threatening letter to the North Dakota Board of Higher Education. It gave me an opening to my parasite column because Ralph was going to abandon the BHE parasites if they took away his nickname and logo.

Exhibiting all the courage found in a wet noodle, the board voted 8-0 to keep sucking on Ralph's life-blood, gambling money. After all, isn't hockey everything?

If you could travel through the human body you would see marble-sized nodules containing coiled worms as long as snakes and as thin as threads. These parasites, male and female onchocerca volvulus, spend their 10-year life making thousands of little worms. The babies leave the nodes and travel close to the skin, hoping to get sucked into a black fly, a lover of human blood.

Then comes stage two. The babies mature to the next stage after they are absorbed into another human by a black fly bite. Another nodule is formed, triggering an attack by the human's immune system. The immune system puts a rash of black spots on the human trying to fight the infection. This rash gets so itchy that people have been known to scratch themselves to death.

But even more insidious, the worms can travel just below the surface of the eyes. The immune system then attacks the worms, scarring corneas and pupils, blinding the person. This disease is called river blindness because black flies love to hang around water. Communities along the rivers of Africa rarely have people over 40 who can see.

The Grand Bluff

Notice the parallels? I have always thought it was a university's principal function to seek truth through contemplative research and study and to pass that truth to the members of the society it serves, not to develop players for the National Hockey League. In this case, Ralph's $100 million created an itch the board and its other parasites just couldn't resist. The problem is they have severely damaged the host.

I can't understand it. Ralph had $35 million attached firmly to the ground in the form of a partially completed temple, had only two deuces and a wild card in his hand, and bluffed the board and its minions out of any self-respect they had left by sending a letter that no one seems to have read before the vote! Is this guy brilliant or what? He stuffed their faces into buffalo dung -- and they ate it willingly! I guess when eight people have river blindness over the almighty dollar they can stumble into anything.

Simply put, Ralph is an old rich jock with a nodule under the skin itching to build a jock temple to himself. Nothing wrong with that except for the screwed up priorities. Evidently he is no Andrew Carnegie or Rockefeller Foundation or Mellon Foundation art nut. He loves the sound of bodies crashing the boards.

Sucking up to Ralph's Billfold

But guys like that have to be cajoled, controlled, influenced, suckered, pumped up, made to feel important, and wined and dined while you are picking their pockets -- instead of making them co-president of the university because of a free hockey puck.

A trypanosome is a parasite which “augurs” its way around a blood stream, evading immune cells by tossing off coats and putting on new ones. Make your own comparisons, but certain educational leaders in the state come to mind.

Bob Jones University in South Carolina has become the laughing stock of the country, except for the Bible Belt. The Fundamentalist school manages to insult every race except white and every religion except the “Bornagains.” According to them, the Mormons are moronish and the Catholics are cultish. Of course, it is all said in the name of Christian forgiveness!

Every right-wing twit who wants to be elected or selected has to put in a mandatory appearance at Jones U. to sell his soul to that nest of Eden vipers.

But with this latest debacle of the hockey temple and the insults directed at the red men, UND may become the laughing stock of the civilized, university world. What competent professor would teach at UND, Ralph Branch, if it worships crossed hockey sticks, and frowns on interracial hockey?

There are some similarities. Jones U. worships some kind of God who is for whites-only whites while UND worships Mammon. Jones U. passes around gold collection plates for the offering; UND passes around gold protective cups. Jones U. gets money from followers by threatening everlasting fire and association with uppity blacks. UND gets money by rolling over and playing dead for a donor who insists on insulting red men. But, of course, UND could be doomed to hockey mediocrity for years without Ralph's gold!

As Lily Tomlin says, “No matter how cynical you become, it's never enough to keep up.”

Ralph writes that the UND co-president Charles Kupchella would fail in business because of indecisiveness. Maybe, but “Commerce Without Morality” is one of Ghandi's “Seven Social Sins.” So far, just about everyone connected with the hockey palace extortion has exhibited the ethical and racial sensitivity of a walnut.

This all reminds me of the ethical selectivity of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, one of the “selectors” in the Bush-Gore case. Remember the five-striped “admiral” robe Rehnquist wore during the Clinton impeachment soap opera? He recently donated it to the Smithsonian Institute as a tax deduction. His estimate of the value? $30,000! That sure helps the income tax bill, doesn't it?

The Big Balls Theory

There seems to be a never-ending list of exotic parasites. “Parasites” is a mesmerizing book about creatures great and small that live only inside other creatures. Tapeworms as long as 60 feet live in our intestines, made up of thousands of segments, just eating away at us in comfort and privacy. There's no need to diet with a large tapeworm chomping away. In medieval times people would sometimes pass tapeworms -- to their absolute horror. But they had no idea how they got there because they had never seen them crawl into anyone's mouth!

Then there is the filarial worm that causes elephantiasis, a disease which can cause a male's scrotum to swell up until it fills a wheelbarrow. A female's legs often swell to the size of small barrels.

Ralph certainly has exhibited signs of this disease, blustering around, making demands, sending threatening letters to college authorities, and at every occasion reminding ordinary mortals that he has big ones. But the board has enormous, voracious tapeworms, devouring reason and common sense at the same time.

It's amazing that ewe can survive when parasites outnumber free-living species four to one. Every living thing has at least one parasite in it. Boobus Erectus has the most. A species of parrot in Mexico has 30 different kinds of parasites just on its feathers.

Some parasites can castrate their hosts and then take over their minds. (If you think I'm going to interrupt your train of thought or give some suggestions on this one, you're crazy. But it is almost irresistible!)

Some parasites live only in a deer's Achilles tendon and attack it. Others lay their eggs only in a deer's nose and are playfully called “snot bots” by veterinarians.

The Political Tongue

One of my favorite parasites is a crustacean which invades a fish's mouth, takes the tongue's place, and then acts like a tongue. Fish use the parasite to grip and swallow their prey. I just can't help thinking of a politician.

My favorite comment about life comes from the red man Crowfoot of the Blackfeet tribe: “What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”

If life is “the flash of a firefly,” why can't we use a little more balance and sensitivity in our lives? Why can't we all put on a pair of moccasins -- or a pair of wingtips or workboots -- or a pair of skates for a little time?

Fautus made his deal with the devil, selling his soul for “life.” North Dakota doesn't have to, unless the authorities decide that money can buy anything.