Of Frogs and Fire
When I was ten or so I heard the story about how frogs reacted to change in temperature. As the story goes, if a person puts a frog in water and begins to heat the water very, very slowly, the frog will adapt to its environment so well that he will remain comfortable in the water until he is boiled to death.
I wondered about that. Could it be that the frog would just sit there as the water became warmer and warmer until he died? I wondered. Maybe I would just test that story.
Step one: Get a frog. That should not be a problem. There were plenty of frogs in the bayou and the bayou was close by. All I needed was just one frog. Any size would do. I saw frogs everywhere in the bayou but most were sunning themselves on logs several feet away from the bank—too far for me to reach. The few frogs near the bank fled before I could get close enough to catch one.
I was stymied. What to do? I rode my bike back home and pondered my problem. I couldn’t wade out to the frogs. They would be gone long before I reached them. I had no boat. I needed a long-handled net—something that could reach a frog before he jumped into the water.
Our barn was a ready supplier of all manner of raw materials. I wired cheesecloth onto an old barrel hoop and fastened the hoop to the end of a long bamboo pole. Now I had a catching tool that ought to work, though it looked like a butterfly net on steroids.
Back to the bayou. Have you ever looked at a frog up close? Ever notice those eyes? They stick out on the sides of their heads like horse droppings on a hard clay road. They are that way for a reason. It is hard to slip up on a frog—darn near impossible. They see everywhere, even behind their backs.
I could reach frogs easy enough—for what good it did. Those eyes picked up my weird frog catcher. No matter how quietly and slowly it approached a frog, off into the water he plopped. I worked all afternoon. Few frogs sunbathed that day, but many took a swim.
I just needed one frog—one dumb frog, one retarded frog, a crippled frog—any kind of frog as long as he was alive. It took all afternoon but finally I had my frog.
Step two: Apply heat. I knew where I could do that but when to do that was a problem. Mama had to be out of the kitchen, somewhere away from home. I knew she would not be quite as curious about frogs as I was—not nearly so curious, not even a little bit curious. But that’s just how mothers are. They don’t care much for frogs, but they do like a clean kitchen.
I was lucky. Mama was at the beauty shop that day. I pulled out a large pot, filled it about half full of water and put it on the stove over a low flame. I plopped my frog in the pot and splash! Out he jumped (doing what frogs do). He flopped around the kitchen, one flop ahead of this desperate scientist. I finally caught my subject and turned to start my experiment once again when Mama walked in. She looked at the stove, the pot, the poor frog in my fist and the water splotches on the floor.
“What is going on here?” Mama asked. Things did look a bit unusual. Frogs had never lived in our house before. After a short lecture from Mama, I realized that frogs would never live here again.
I never did test the hypothesis about a frog in slowly warming water. Such are the frustrations of a research scientist.
Bill Fleet grew up in rural Mississippi. He earned BA and MD degrees from Vanderbilt University. He was a faculty member in the Vanderbilt Department of Pediatrics for nine years before entering private practice in the Nashville area. He began creative writing shortly after retiring in 1998 and published his first book in 2000.