Shortly after I arrived as a graduate student at the University of Kansas, my major professor suggested that I do my Ph.D. thesis on goldenrods (the genus Solidago).
I had a 1962 VW and proceeded to drive all over the Great Plains from Kansas to Canada collecting plants, drying them in a press on the rear bumper with the heat of the engine.
I slept at the edge of wheat fields or just about any place I wanted because it was wide open spaces with few trees. I dug up plants of each species and carried them back to Lawrence to plant them in an experimental garden. I have no doubt I totally changed the floral composition of Douglas County Kansas because they have no doubt spread and persisted.
While on trips I left the rear seat of the car in Lawrence and made a fold-up platform, allowing me to fill in the space over the floor so that I had over 6 feet of length to lie out on my air mattress. This worked so well that my wife, Pat, and I used the same method for a long trip to California.
Gasoline was 12 cents per gallon in Lawrence at the time so we were shocked when they charged us 57 cents per gallon in Yellowstone Park. Generally, we slept in remote places and were undisturbed, but one night sleeping on the top of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco we were awoken by the police. They let us stay put when they found out we were newly married.
The worst incident I had while collecting with the VW beetle was when I was looking too intently for goldenrods and drove off the road crossing the dam of Baldwin Lake, south of Lawrence.
While I remember nothing of the accident except being awakened in the hospital with Pat standing by the bed, the police related that they had found me sitting in my car.
They calculated on the basis of the burns I had sustained that I had rolled over three times, being thrown out on the first revolution but ending up under the car’s engine when it landed on top of me. The long burns on my hand exactly matched the motor fins. There were burns on my nose, chest and fingers, but only the fingers posed a problem. After soaking the hand for a while, I had nothing but bone exposed.
A doctor in Kansas City sewed my hand to small holes on my belly and let it grow to my fingers. Twice a week, I had to drive with my right arm, only steering with my knees while I operated the stick shift. Teaching lab classes at the time for the university with my arm tucked into a sweatshirt, I tried to stay far enough away from the students to avoid letting them smell the often rotting flesh.
Sleeping was especially difficult because I can’t fall asleep on my back and could not now lie on either side with my arm sewed to my belly. So I consumed a lot of sleeping pills during that time.
People often ask me what happened to my hand and I sometime use the holes in my belly to spin a yarn about getting hit with machine gun fire in some pitched battle. In Nicaragua, when the locals warned me of the dangers of sleeping out in the open, I opened my shirt and said that I welcomed them to come try to get me, that I had not had a good fight in a long time.
The skin has never toughened up like real fingertips, so in the field they are often getting cut. There are often a lot of drops of blood in my field book, making them a bit personalized and unique. Then there is the matter of hair growing on my finger tips made from belly skin. Not many botanists have hair growing from their fingertips.
Dr. Thomas B. Croat has worked at the Missouri Botanical Garden for 46 years and is now the P.A. Schulze Curator of Botany. His specialty is the Philodendron family and he has discovered about 1,000 new species. He lives on seven acres near Pacific in a home he designed and built himself. He and his wife, Patricia, have two children and five grandchildren in the St. Louis area.