All nighters and first nighters

Charles Lowe, Bob Bezy, and Mike Robinson on Mike’s Land Rover at Huerfano Butte. Photo by Jay Cole, 1967
Charles H. Lowe and Robert L. Bezy, Granite Station, Kern Co., California.
Photo by Kathryn Bolles, 5 June 1982.

By Robert Bezy

Lowe Memorial, 22 Oct. 2002

It was a little over 42 year ago that I first knocked on the door of Room 127 in the Biology Building at the University of Arizona. I was 17, had just arrived on campus as an incoming freshman, and was eager to meet Dr. Charles H. Lowe whom I had come to study under. The door opened and there stood one of the largest men I had ever seen. I could only guess that this was the infamous Dr. Lowe. I mustered my courage, introduced myself, and indicated that I had come to the university to study herpetology under him and had read a number of his papers, which I found quite interesting. He replied, "Well, how-do-you-do, Bob Bezy." He immediately explained that his wife was teaching school and that he needed to go pick up his two kids. "See ya later," was all he said as he walked out of the door.

I could only conclude I wasn't the impressive young herpetologist I thought I was. I looked around the room and there were large stainless steel water baths placed on the counters, each with a tall yellow thermometer protruding above it, and there was someone who seemed to have a very long thumb adjusting the dials. Another student sat on a stool in front of an oven watching a lizard inside, checking the temperature gauge, and taking notes. "What are you doing?" I inquired. "Just cooking up your-o-saur-ass," he replied, looking both annoyed and bored. I concluded that I must have come to study in some kind of a weird torture chamber.

Not one to be easily discouraged, I returned the next day at the same hour. Chuck again explained that he had to leave to go pick-up the kids, but I was welcome to ride along if I wanted. My big chance had finally arrived. As we motored along I noticed that Chuck seemed to be able to drive the car with only one hand, a cigar in the other. Finally, I made brave to explain that I had been collecting Xantusia in mountain ranges of central Arizona, but had failed to turn them up in the Superstitions, where Klauber had previously recorded the species. I was shocked when he admitted that had no idea where they might occur in that range. Then he turned toward me totally ignoring his driving and said, "Well tell me this, Bob Bezy, do you really think Xantusia arizonae is a valid species?" I hadn't the slightest idea how to respond. Of course I thought it was a valid species because it had been described by Laurence Klauber, one of the greatest herpetologist of the Southwest. But, rather than risk sounding too smug, I just answered that I didn't really know. "Well, that's what you should try to determine while you are out there looking for Xantusia," he replied.

So there you have it. Within my first two days of knowing Chuck, he had taught me that science consists of testing hypotheses, and he proposed one that would interest me for more years than I care to admit.

The rest of the academic year I volunteered in the herpetology collection, and got to know Chuck and his students, Wally Heath, John Tremor, and Gerry Gates. That summer Lowe came up with a small amount of money to hire me to continue working in the collection and to do some field work. During the first summer in Tucson I discovered "all-nighters." In the lab Chuck and I usually worked all night, and at about 3 am we would often have a "chili-size" at the all-night cafe on Speedway with Joe Beatty, an arachnologist and fellow nocturnal worker. When we got back to the lab, the food heavy on our stomachs, Chuck would start to fall into a torpor. He would stumble toward the hot plate, pick up the crusted old pan, and pour the small amount of water that had not yet boiled away into his cup of instant coffee crystals, singing "There's a long, long trail awinding .... " (see below)

My first monsoonal summer in Tucson, I also was introduced to the greatest thrill in the Sonoran Desert, the "first-nighter." There were no radar images to tell us where the rains might hit and the frogs would be calling. We just looked at the sky and guessed. In the early evening, we threw our gear into the back of the Arid Lands Truck, a large GMC carryall that he called the Rockefeller Rocket, and headed out of town. As we approached the intersection of Mission Road and Ajo Way, he popped the big question, "What did you bring for us to eat, Bobby?" I proudly replied that I had brought three large cans of Dinty Moore beef stew. "You don't expect me to eat that crap, do you?"

He pulled into a market and got out. "Stay here and watch the vehicle." He was inside for only a few minutes, and came back out with several packages of Roi Tan cigars and a white cardboard box. He set the box on the seat bench and started up the engine. As we bounced along the Ajo highway, he opened the box which held a large chocolate cake, tore off a hunk, and began eating. Soon his hands and face were covered in chocolate icing, and cake crumbs littered his lap and the carryall seat. Afterwards, he lit a cigar and launched into an enthusiastic and animated monologue. He covered it all, from the biogeography of amphibians and reptiles in the Southwest to the evolution of the Sonoran Desert, "the fat rat, the how how, and the hogan" from the Madro-Tertiary Geoflora. He added emphasis to especially important points by pounding on my knee. I never encountered anyone with such contagious enthusiasm before or since.

By the time we reached Robles Junction, Lowe had faded. He pulled the carryall to the side of the road, got out, climbed in the back seat, and curled up. "Take 'er on in from here, Bobby." "But, Dr. Lowe, I don't know where we are going," I replied. As he drifted off, he mumbled something like, "Santa Rosa, Ventana, can't miss."

I climbed in the driver's seat, turned the key in the ignition, and switched on the headlights. It was the first time I had driven the Rockefeller Rocket. With a great deal of effort, I managed to shift it into gear and I timidly pulled off the shoulder and onto the pavement. It was the most difficult vehicle I had ever driven and it seemed to have a mind of its own. It would unexpectedly veer into the oncoming lane or onto the shoulder, and it took all my effort just to steer it down the road, which fortunately had almost no traffic. I managed the best I could and was able to stop and catch several rattlesnakes along the way. Near the Baboquivaris I passed three Tohono men sleeping on the pavement.

Far past Sells there was an old wooden sign with "Santa Rosa" painted on an arrow pointing north. A great sense of relief came over me as I turned onto the washboard dirt road. Not far from the Ajo highway I came around a bend and was suddenly confronted by a flash flood raging across the road. It appeared to be several feet deep and there was ominous noise of boulders tumbling beneath the broiling water. I was afraid to drive the truck into the torrent. I tried to wake Lowe to ask him what I should do, but I was able to elicit only some uninterruptible grunting sounds. In despair, I lay down on the front seat and tried to sleep.
Around 4 a.m., a voice boomed from the back seat. "Where the hell are we?" "We are on the Santa Rosa road, Dr, Lowe." "What would we be doing parked in the middle of the road?" "There is a broiling flash flood raging across the road and I was afraid to go any farther." Just then I looked out the front window to see that the flood had subsided to a bare trickle. "Shit, Bobby, you call this a flash flood?"

Needless to say, as a result of my bungling we had missed our first-nighter, reaching the Ventana grasslands at dawn. On our three-day field trip other mistakes of mine emerged, the worst of which was having failed to check to see if there was a spare tire in the carryall before we left Tucson. But that's another story.


Although I have heard Chuck give a number of sterling, detailed formal lectures, he generally preferred simpler lectures that impart a clear "take-home message." I have thought over my 42 years with Chuck and attempted to come up with a few, simple messages that he has imparted to me and that I would like to share:

  1. "If it isn't fun you shouldn't be doing it. If it's money you're after, buster, go out and rob a bank." Chuck always believed that doing science is its own reward.
  2. All meaningful hypotheses are generated in the field. Armchair biology is meaningless.
  3. Over-reliance on data is a clear sign of a biologist who does not know what he/she is doing. You should gather only enough data to test (falsify) your hypothesis.
  4. The distribution of a species in time and space is determined by its genetically controlled limits of tolerance on the temperature-moisture gradient. Forget competition, predation, succession, etc.
  5. Biological species are real entities that are independent of human definitions and constructions.

Robert Service
(Distributed ca 1969 by Charles Lowe to his graduate students)

There once was a limpet puffed with pride
Who said to the ribald sea:
"It isn't I who clings to the rock;
It's the rock that clings to me;
It is the silly old rock who hugs me tight,
Because he loves me so;
And though I struggle with all my might,
He will not let me go.
"So if of the limpet breed ye be,
Beware life's brutal shock;
Don't take the chance of the changing sea,
But - cling like hell to your rock.

Zo Elliott (music) & Stoddard King (words)
(Sang at ca 300 hrs by Charles H. Lowe)

There's a long, long trail a-winding
Into the land of my dreams,
Where the nightingales are singing
And a white moon beams.
There's a long, long night of waiting
Until my dreams all come true;
Till the day when I'll be going down
That long, long trail with you.

Charles H. Lowe's card, given in 1974 to Robert Bezy and Kathryn Bolles by Doris Sidall, Lowe's high school biology teacher:

Charles H. Lowe's card, given in 1974 to Robert Bezy and Kathryn Bolles by Doris Sidall, Lowe's  high school biology teacher