Navy cowboys, pilot-whale priests, and other odd jobs

When I was young, I wanted to be a cowboy. I did, years later, meet a cowboy, and I asked what the most interesting part of his job had been. "My time in the Navy," he said.

"What did you do in the Navy?" I asked.

"I was a cowboy," he said.

It seems World War II had wiped out a large proportion of Europe's farm animals, and after the war the United States Navy carried shiploads of cattle to Europe to restock farms. Someone had to care for the cattle on shipboard, as well as get them on and off the ships. Sailors with experience caring for cattle were needed. The hold of a cargo ship isn't quite my idea of the wide-open spaces, but the work was very important for the postwar world.

I've been on, and dealt with, enough search committees to marvel at the odd talents sometimes needed for a job and the strange places in which jobs may have to be filled. My wife and I were recruited in such circumstances once, in 1988. Like the sailor, we were needed in the middle of the North Atlantic - not on a ship, but on a small island about 300 miles east of Iceland.

The Faroe Islands are a string of 18 small, rocky islands belonging to Denmark. They stick up out of the mid-Atlantic Ridge - you need a very good map. The population is about 45,000.

The main industry is fishing. And even there, fishing is computerized. The plants that process the fish have modern equipment, and a fisherman out in the ocean alone in a small boat may use as many as 10 rods and reels - each with a small computer. The computer plays the line and whistles when it needs human help to land the fish.

In the early 1980s, the Faroese had found that going to a large university in Denmark was a great culture shock for some of their students. So they established an undergraduate college, The Academy of The Faroes, in Torshavn (pop. 15,000) on the island of Stremoy - an irregular mountain peak sticking up about 3,000 feet from the water. It's about 30 miles long by 5 miles wide.

In 1987, the college had 56 students, and four of them decided they wanted to major in computer science. They started looking in Denmark for people who could help get the program started, but the timing was difficult and none of the big Danish universities had much resemblance to an isolated small college.

In 1977, I was teaching at New England College, a small school in Henniker, N.H. The college wanted computers but didn't think it could afford them. I knew of people in garages building things called "microcomputers." I taught mathematics, and my colleague Eunice Stetson taught physics and electronics.

We started buying equipment from small startup companies, in the days before the Radio Shack TRS-80, and were among the first to teach computer science in a small college using the new microcomputers.

In 1981, IBM started producing microcomputers and, to our surprise, Eunice and I were suddenly experienced experts in this new field. In 1983 we married, moved to the University of Memphis, in Tennessee, and found we were welcome anywhere in the world. In the fall of 1987, we were teaching in Aalborg, northern Denmark, and Eunice's résumé was in the right place at the right time. A Danish colleague asked the Faroes if they could cope with visiting Americans instead of visiting Danes for their new program.

Our microcomputer experience, and our experience starting a small-college program, led us to five weeks of teaching short courses and helping to start the computer science program in Torshavn.

Torshavn is just south of the Arctic Circle, and trees can be made to grow there only if there is a wall to shelter them. It is a modern European small town, with differences. Many houses have roofs with live grass growing on them. A sheep is hoisted up periodically to trim the grass. And the Faroese still hunt whales - pilot whales, a small species that is not endangered. When a school of pilot whales is sighted, business stops and everyone rushes to their small boats to try to chase the whales into the inlet. The meat, we were told, does not enter commerce - it is divided up among the residents of the town or of an entire small island.

One aspect of our job was talking with the committee preparing a computer science vocabulary list. The Faroese want to maintain their own culture, and they want their own technical vocabulary to be based on their own traditions - not terminology derived from English or Danish. So we found ourselves thinking about traditional Faroese terminology and occupations.

Browsing in the dictionary turned up a remarkably evocative phrase. Goyar grindaprestur is the nearest I can come in our alphabet. The "O" needs an acute accent and that silent "Y" should be an eth, a letter English lacks. According to our Faroese-English dictionary, this phrase means: "The tenure of a priest during whose term many schools of pilot whales came." I don't recall whale hunting ever being taught in a divinity school.

While it does bring us back to using the ocean for delivering food to the hungry, I suspect that recruiting a "good pilot-whale priest" might be even harder than hiring a seagoing cowboy.

I'm glad I'm not on the search committee.

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