Mr. Fleming

Mr. Bob Fleming came swooping into our lives when I was in the 8th grade.

Mr. Fleming graduated from Woodstock in 1954 where his dad, Dr. Bob Fleming taught starting in the late twenties. His mother was a doctor (and was the attending physician when my younger brother Vernie was born). Even though his dad’s Ph.D. was in sociology, he was really known for his passion for birds and science. And, in fact, it was this passion that gained him permission to do an ornithological expedition in Western Nepal in the early fifties. This ultimately resulted in missions getting a toehold in Nepal with the establishment of a hospital, Shanta Bhavan, in Kathmandu.

Well, like father, like son. Bob Jr. came out to teach biology at Woodstock while he was working on his dissertation for his Ph.D. at Michigan State—in ornithology, of course. Soon his ruddy, cherubic face was seen chugging around the hillside. And he could chug. In no time he had his hiking legs back and kept up with us with ease. Right from the start, one thing was clear—he loved birds.

So did we.

We had always loved birds. There were lots of them in the area and we would shoot them with our catty’s (slingshots), get a fire going and roast them. We loved them. But Mr. Fleming gave us a different kind of appreciation for birds 

First, there were far more types around then we ever imagined. We could identify perhaps twenty, possibly thirty common varieties in our area. He could identify 400 (some of which migrated through the area).

Secondly, he taught us there was more than one way to identify a bird. You could identify it by its flight pattern—the way it flew. You could deduce a lot by the habitat a bird was in, and you could identify it by the way it sang or called. You did not always have to see a bird to know what it was.

Lastly, he taught us how to field-mount birds for scientific purposes. He was working on a Ph.D. and collected birds. This meant shooting, skinning, and then field mounting them–putting in some cotton on a stick about the size of the body and sewing it back together. But equally as important was the little tag that went with it—date, location, species, male or female, and finally, the collector. Without this little tag, we discovered, it was not an acceptable specimen. He patiently taught us how to do these field mounts using a few simple instruments—scalpel, tweezers, scissors—and a little cotton.

Mr. Fleming taught science and biology at Woodstock while he was doing his research. Anyone who sat under him knew immediately that here was an extraordinary person and a superb teacher. Mr. Fleming was single at the time and he simply engaged himself into our lives. He came on our hikes, and showed us new places to go—Lurntzu, for example, on the ridge above Deosari. He caught the hunting fever and we showed him all our good spots. He was a crack shot. I was with him once out past Second Jaberkhet when he got two ghoral with two quick shots at 250 yards nearly straight downhill. Even Mahatbur, a local shikari who was with us, was impressed.

His interest in hunting led us to take out a hunting permit for the Dhanaulti block, about 18 miles up Tehri Road during the winters of ‘67 and ‘68. Between me, my brothers, Gordy, Norman, Paul Seefeldt, Mr. Fleming and Bud Skillman, we had a nice little group, along with a Tibetan cook, Tashi. We camped about a half a mile up the ridge from the little village of Dhanaulti, one of the quaintest and most beautiful places around. It became a popular hiking spot because it had a forest rest house and was an easy walk from Mussoorie. But we camped in tents and it was now December, and it was a bit chilly.

It was here that we discovered Mr. Fleming’s amazing ability in playing cards. We would play hearts and we got the impression that the only way he was winning so consistently was he was cheating. He wasn’t. He was just a natural card sharp and he could, it became apparent, remember every card played. We hated it when he “shot the moon” because he always ended up jiggling with laughter, shoulders shaking. Even though we were losing, his laughter was infectious and had us laughing too.

We got a number of ghoral, kakar and many Kokolas pheasants, but we were loaded for bear. Once I remember we spent the entire day with a dudhwala (milkman) who did quite a bit of hunting in the area and he knew where the bears were. He had an ancient and outlandishly long-barreled muzzleloader with the date “1862” stamped on it that served him well. And he did know his mountain. There was sign of bear everywhere but in the entire time that we were chuffing up and down and around through the steep forests we only got a fleeting glimpse of about two square inches of black hide. And never even came close to firing a shot. But I learned that the thrill of the chase could be as exciting as actually shooting something. Mr. Fleming thoroughly relished the mere “being there”.

And it was also on these hunts we discovered he could spin yarns, mostly true. But there was one yarn that was made up of whole cloth, about a giant Himalayan horned owl and a snow leopard and what happened to him hiking in the high Himalayas in Nepal one time. The essence of the story was that the horned owl and the snow leopard were acting in concert to attack their victims…which included humans. His descriptions were so plausible, his characters so realistic, his knowledge of birds and animals so amazing he had us in the palm of his hand. We would be hunkered in our sleeping bags and with a little urging we could get him started on a story. We were tired, cozy, and he would lull us into a story telling stupor until…. AAAAGHHHHHHGGGG! He let out this loud, blood-curdling scream that chilled us to our already chilled bones. We screamed too. Half of the detailed information he had imparted on snow leopards and owls was bogus…but we had no idea which half. Meanwhile we had nearly torn a new hole in the canvas trying to get out of the tent.

Then came a lot of nervous laughter and denials of having been taken in.

And there he was in his sleeping bag, jiggling uncontrollably with laughter. Then the next story the next night he would have to preface by explaining it was true, really, I tell you, this one is true, it happened. And sometimes we would get sucked into that one as well. 

My guess is that no one in the history of that school motivated more students to major in biology in college than Bob Fleming Jr. His teaching style was hands on. He expected you to be able to identify thirty common plants and thirty trees with their common names and Latin names. Debragesia Hypoluca was my favorite. It just sounded so….euphonic and appropriate for the waterwood plant. He loved these little field trips for plants, trees, birds. So did we. Our test involved walking outside, around the school. He would stop in front of a tree, we would write it down, quercus incana, common oak. He would move on to the next tree, fern, or bush.

One of the things every boy did at some point was collect ferns. From my present perspective I can hardly believe the amount of enthusiasm and energy we put into this hobby. I have no idea, now, why it seemed so cool and important. But trust me, at the time it was. Mr. Fleming fanned the fern collecting flame. We would collect ferns and press them in the biggest book we could find until dad found out it messed up the book when the fern spore dried and stuck to the pages. Then we went to a homemade wooden press with wing nuts to compress the pages of ferns.

On one occasion, down between Magru and Tatur I came across I fern I did not recognize. It looked a bit like nail. But not like Japanese Nail. Or the less common Golden Nail. I brought a clump of it back (one must have some roots) and no one seemed to be able to identify it. Mr. Fleming couldn’t. We searched the botany books. Nothing. Mr. Fleming became increasingly enthused that it might possibly be a new type of fern, something never before discovered. Wow! And at his suggestion, Paul Seefeldt and I took that precious little specimen down to Dehra to the Forestry Institute. We biked out there, explained what we were there for and were led down impressively long halls to a particular office. We had to leave it there for them to examine. A new species! Not Japanese Nail. Not Golden Nail. Something new!  Maybe.

Three weeks later I got a postcard. It was just a malformed specimen, a mutation, of one of the most common ferns around, Common Nail. Rats! If Mr. Fleming’s enthusiasm was any gauge of the potential of this discovery, I had been on the brink of a major find. Maybe this would lead to a career like that of Thor Heyerdahl (who had written Kon Tiki, a book that gripped us at the time)!

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The best day of the year for those of us interested in biology specimens (and lots of us were) was the day after Coming Up Day. This occurred at the end of February or the first couple days of March each year. Everyone was coming back from three months on the plains. With them they brought their trophies in order to accrue points for a contest between the various science or biology classes that Mr. Fleming taught. Beautiful butterflies. Animal skulls. Even collections of dung roller beetles. And my personal favorite, various jars of spirits with kraits and other poisonous snakes in them. These would be brought to the lab, labeled and awaited Mr. Fleming’s practiced eye. He would award points for each entry, the more unique and interesting the more points. However, and this is one of the things that made him unique, it did not matter what you brought. If you brought it, he was enthusiastic about it, often all out of proportion to whatever it was. The fact you brought anything meant a great deal to him.

As a result, the lab simply brimmed with scientific samples from all over India.

During the ten-day holidays between my junior and senior years, I was asked by Mr. Fleming to help him with about a dozen boys from younger grades on a hike in the Kulu Valley. You bet, wouldn’t miss it. We took off by bus to Dehra Doon, switched busses and headed towards the Punjab, veered off into Himachal Pradesh and wound our way up the Kulu Valley to Manali. Dog-tired we pitched our tents and spent the night.

The next morning we loaded up, hired some coolies to carry some supplies and tents, and started walking towards Humpta Pass. At the end of that first day, still some distance from Humpta, we came to the tree line and found a suitable place to camp. There is nothing like the Kulu Valley for pristine beauty. We were there just before the monsoons broke, the air was clear, the grass lush and green. We were there for a glorious week.

Each morning we had suji, a type of cereal similar to cream of wheat. We took turns cooking and somehow, each morning, I ended up supervising. We had some raisins to mix with the suji (a real treat) but they lasted only a couple of days.

About the second day there we bought a sheep from one of the nearby shepherds, which we devoured in about two days. One of the shepherds asked for the entrails, which we were more than happy to part with. But the head, the head we chucked down the khud (hillside) as far as we could throw it. Mistake. In the shortest possible time it had maggots and then there were flies galore. In fact, so many they would get in the suji in sufficient quantities to appear to be raisins. Mr. Fleming looked at his sujione morning, propped his glasses on his forehead and looked closer. With a smile he started flicking the “raisins” out without saying a word. Everyone else just ate the “raisins”.

And in the evenings, ahh, in the evenings after a day’s excursion in the high country scoping the slopes for red bear, viewing marmots, locating unique flora to the area, and bird watching, we would have dinner. And then, after some light conversation around the campfire, head to the tents. And it came about one night that I piped up, “Hey Mr. Fleming, I don’t think these guys have heard the story of the Great Himalayan Horned Owl and the Snow Leopard.” There was a general clamoring for the story. And so it began…and lasted several nights. I was amazed at the detail, the filigree in the story, the compelling enthusiasm of the storyteller and nearly got hooked into it myself, almost forgetting that it was created out of whole cloth. And on the final night, Mr. Fleming lulled them into a story telling stupor. Half were near sleep as he neared the scary conclusion of his tale at which point he erupted into an unexpected scream. There was a mad scramble. The dead awoke. Once again, new exits were attempted through canvas. Flashlights were shone all about. A dozen shaken and shaking boys all wondering what happened. And Mr. Fleming lay shaking with laughter. And again the denials. “ Naw, naw, I wasn’t skeered. I knew he was going to do that.” And even though I knew it was coming, it gave me goose bumps and a jolt of adrenalin. Where had he learned to scream like that?

Bob Fleming (on right), at the WOSA (Woodstock Old Student’s Association) reunion in 2002.

Bob Fleming (on right), at the WOSA (Woodstock Old Student’s Association) reunion in 2002.

Mr. Fleming eventually finished his Ph.D. And then he moved to Nepal where he and his father wrote the definitive book on the birds of Nepal, utilizing local Nepali artists. He eventually married and has been earning his living giving ornithology tours all over the world from his home base in Oregon.

Extraordinary enthusiasm and passion. Extraordinary teaching skills. Extraordinary knowledge of his subject. The incredible, indelible, Bob Fleming.

(note to Mr. Fleming: I tell you they were Crossbeaks and they were eating charas seeds off that patch above the eyebrow near Edgehill.)