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The adventuresome, life-changing unit

April 20, 2017 - 12:05am

I was clinging to the edge of a live volcano, risking my life for one lousy unit of science.

That’s all I needed to graduate from the U of H, one stinking unit and I’d set up this class and was now gagging on sulfur dioxide fumes, hanging over the precipice of a steaming caldera. Some science class.

Caldera is the scientific word for gaping hole in the ground splashing up 20-foot spumes of lava, and at present it was burning my face off, almost.

Gazing down into that frothing pit of red and gold magma quite literally was unbelievable. Seeing a lake of churning red liquid rock, there was nothing to compare it to, it was unworldly, like a bizarre animated cartoon.

It was near Kilauea Iki in southern Hawaii.

My job was to put on a gas mask, scramble up the side of the caldera, check the gauges on this big recording machine teetering on the edge of the cliff, and then tumble back down to the bottom of the cinder cone. I swear I almost died every time.

I was earning my science unit.

More accurately, a UH professor was getting free labor from a couple of chumps, me and two other college students, paying us in school credit to do his work studying the volcano.

He was getting a half a million dollar grant, we got lunch and a science credit.

But hey, to us it was high adventure.

I got to go on full-fledged treks to a volcano, real-live Indiana Jones movies, maybe throw in a King Kong movie. To a young college kid, this was pure story-telling magic at the beer parties. No one could touch this tale.

How it got started was simple enough. I needed a unit to graduate so I invented a class and called it Vulcanology 499. An independent class, always in the fine print of every college catalogue. Anyone can make up a class in any college. You write it up, get a prof to sign it and there it is, instant class.

To my adventurous luck, the professor’s name was Dr. Finlayson. A quiet, conservative fellow, but I dubbed every volcano trip, the Finlayson Expedition. Perfect. I went on and on, to me it was an expedition.

He would drive and pick up myself and two other students and we would head to some hellandgone lava field somewhere, but the equipment was the thing.

You have to picture it, thin Dr. Finlayson leading us on with his parka and binoculars. He smoked a pipe. Behind him the two other expedition members, carrying this generator thing on two long poles like litter-bearers, and me bringing up the rear with a pack of food, notebooks and data.

Ahead of us loomed the ominous, smoking volcano. It was priceless.

We were studying the effect of volcano fumes on tomatoes in Ka’u or something. We would huff the big machine onto the rim of the cinder cone and each of us would take turns running up to it, gagging to death while recording the data amid the fumes and raging heat.

All the while Dr. Finlayson would sit back and smoke his pipe like father knows best.

And I guess he did. We did all the work and he got to laugh to himself.

I got the one unit and graduated. I pretty much forgot the other 119 credits in college, but not that one. Not that one.

Dennis Gregory is a teacher, artist and writer who mixes truth, humor and aloha in his columns. He can be reached at

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