A Noble Ditch

In my last travel related post I told you of my experience at the U.S. Rocket center in Huntsville, Alabama and of my infatuation with the Saturn V, the most powerful transportation machine ever built and certainly one of the fastest. Today I found myself, unexpectedly, spending the greater part of a day in downtown Syracuse, New York where I became, if not infatuated with, at least deeply fascinated by another museum dedicated to a much slower mode of transport.

After an amazing lunch at the Creole Soul Cafe (who knew Syracuse, NY would have absolutely amazing cajun food?) I walked up to the Erie Canal Museum which lies on the aptly named Erie Boulevard. It turns out that the boulevard, now blacktop instead of water, was the route the famous canal took through Syracuse. The museum is part of the original Weighlock building where passing canalboats were, quite literally, weighed to assess their toll for canal passage.

The Weighlock at Syracuse – Now the Erie Canal Museum.

Looking at a Saturn V rocket and the Apollo program in it’s entirety one can scarcely believe that this little ditch was its equivalent, perhaps it’s superior, in 1820. Considering the resources and technology of a still young nation this project was audacious. In fact, when asked to help with the financing of it Thomas Jefferson, no slouch in the visionary department, wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. “…little short of madness,” he is said to have commented.

It fell, instead to the Governor of New York, Dewitt Clinton, a bunch of progressive legislators, and some even more visionary but less celebrated thinkers and engineers to bring this crazy idea to life. And, like the Little Red Hen, when the wheat grew, was, harvested, ground into flour, and baked into a nice warm loaf, New York ate that loaf and became, well, New York.
Many big cities grow organically from a wide spot in a river. Clinton’s audacity was to build the river. Cities like Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, and, to a greater extent the Big Apple, grew from these seeds.

If going to the moon seems like one giant leap (to quote Neil Armstrong) the building of the Erie canal, in it’s day, was no less improbable. To understand the difficulty it is useful to assess the terrain of upstate New York.

Starting in Albany the canal follows the course of the Mohawk River west. This makes a lot of sense. The more your route can follow existing rivers the less you have to dig. Also, to New York’s great good fortune, the Mohawk possesses a unique characteristic unknown to other eastern rivers. It flows east into the Hudson, but it rises west of the Appalachian mountains. It’s valley transects the one insurmountable obstacle which stymied so many dreamers intent on building a water route to the Ohio or the Great Lakes.

Minimizing the digging is not the only consideration for a canal, though. The Mohawk route made sense from a hydrological point of view, also. A canal is not a static system. Moving water is what makes the locks work and allows boats to change elevation. That means that water must be added to the system continuously from the highest elevations. Having rivers nearby makes that possible. Only sea level canals like the Suez are not subject to this requirement.

The Erie Canal route across upstate New York is emphatically not a sea level affair. Even with the advantage of the Mohawk, the elevation changes from Albany to Buffalo were daunting. The net rise from tide level on the Hudson at Albany to Lake Erie at Buffalo is about 600 feet. That’s just a little less than the height of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. The best locks that could be constructed in 1825 would raise a boat about 12 feet. That would require about fifty locks, a big job. However, kind of like your Grandpa’s old story about walking to school “uphill both ways” the Erie canal route doesn’t just slope from one side of the state to the other. From Albany it goes up to about 420’ at Rome, then back down to about 380’ near Montezuma, then back up again at the Niagara River to 565’. In between it crosses rivers, creeks, valleys, and hills. The original “Clinton’s Folly” had 83 locks, each hand dug, lined with clay and stone, and fitted with heavy gates and valve systems. This was not child’s play.

Not a sea-level affair. A contemporary profile view of the Erie Canal route. Click on image for enlargement.

Looking at the map of the canal and upstate New York one is struck immediately by a question. You slap your head and think, “these people couldn’t have been that stupid.” The question is; Why build a canal across 363 miles of forests and swamps when you could, near Oneida Lake, cut a few miles up to Lake Ontario, ship your goods on this vast natural waterway to Niagara Falls, and build a short canal to bypass the falls? It is a good question, but there was, indeed, a method to the madness.

Firstly, canal boats are a great deal different from the sailing vessels required to navigate big open bodies of water like Lake Ontario. They are long and shallow draft to fit their highways of water. They are not designed to take big waves or make top speed under sail. So it would have been necessary to swap one for the other at Lake Ontario, again at Niagara Falls, and again to proceed on Lake Erie. If these dreamers had wanted to load and unload cargo three or four times they would have just kept transporting goods the way they had for years; overland in horse drawn wagons. Secondly, building a canal around the Niagara Falls, while doable (Canada did it in the mid-1800’s near Welland), was not an easy task. There is a reason Niagara Falls is such a famous attraction. It’s a damn 167 foot tall waterfall.

The truth is this though; It was mostly politics. In those days Canada was not the benign little puffball that we know today. Canada, or as they were in actuality then, England, was a very real existential threat to the new nation. We had just fought two wars against them and a multitude of skirmishes. It is easy to forget now, but was undoubtedly vivid in the American imagination then, that only three years prior to the commencement of canal construction, a British force had occupied Washington, D.C. and set fire to the White House and the U.S. Capitol. Only in September 1813 had the U.S. won undisputed control of Lake Erie during the famous Battle of Lake Erie which we all remember, if we remember it at all, from Oliver Hazard Perry’s cable to Washington after the victory, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” The U.S. never did achieve decisive control of Lake Ontario.

To make a long story short we didn’t trust them, we didn’t like them, and we certainly didn’t want them to get the benefit and control of trade in the western Great Lakes. The New Yorkers spent extra time, extra money, and probably extra human lives to keep their new canal just out of reach of those dastardly Canadians. Thanks to their sacrifice we are not obliged to eat poutine three times a day.

Seriously though, building the Erie Canal was a matter of blood, sweat, toil, and tears. The claims of 1000 men dying of swamp fever (probably malaria) during the excavation through Montezuma Marsh in 1819 are probably exaggerated. Still, it is quite likely that many hundreds of men were crushed, drowned, lacerated, blown up with gunpowder, and killed by epidemics.

Consider, if you will, the difficulty of removing a single tree stump. Even today, with chain saws and tractors, and grinding equipment it is difficult, at best, to remove the stump of a large tree to below grade level. If you are digging a canal, grade level is not good enough. You must remove the entire stump including the tap roots. For a tree of considerable size, like the American Chestnuts comprising the primeval forest of upstate New York, these roots can go 20’ deep.

The engineers who met these challenges were clever men. The way they solved the tree stump problem tells you all you need to know about their resourcefulness. Below is a picture of their stump puller. It’s elegant use of simple mechanics and leverage is an inspiration.

Stump Puller – An elegant solution to a big problem.

The catalog of challenges faced by the Scots Irish immigrants who dug the canal, the German Stonemasons who built the locks, and the engineers who mapped out the route, were astounding. In building locks, bridges, aqueducts, and machines to do so, these men advanced science and technology in their age no less than did the NASA scientists who built the Saturn V.

Some of their achievements are truly astounding. There is, of course, the 363 mile long canal 40’ wide and 4’ deep. There are also the 83 locks. Beyond that are the marvelous creations that Pharaoh might have been proud of. There is the “Deep Cut,” a high spot in the bedrock near Pendleton where men, without the benefit of dynamite, chiseled a channel for the canal 40’ deep and 7 miles long. There is the “Flight of Five” locks climbing the Niagara Escarpment near Lockport. There is the giant aqueduct of stone crossing the Genessee River at Rochester. And, there is the “Great Embankment,” a mile long earth fill 76’ deep crossing the valley of Irondquoit Creek. These are all remarkable feats.

A river crosses a river – The Erie Canal/ Genesee River aqueduct at Rochester.

What makes them more mind-blowing is to consider the catalog of things these men did not have. In 1817 they did not have bulldozers (invented 1923), diesel excavators (1930’s), or even steam shovels (patented 1839). They didn’t have the aforementioned dynamite which Alfred Nobel did not perfect until 1867. There were no rubber boots (Wellingtons invented in 1852). There was no nylon rope (1940’s), no steel cable (1830’s), no really very good steel at all (Bessemer process 1855). Feeding huge numbers of men in a remote wilderness area was difficult too because there was not yet refrigeration (1856). There were no antibiotics (penicillin 1928), exactly one “sort-of” vaccine (smallpox, 1796), and no anesthetic (1842) for the inevitable amputation of infected limbs. These men made Chuck Norris look like Steve Urkel.

They worked 12-15 hour days in terrible conditions with inadequate equipment and, in most cases, for about $12 – $15 per month. The unluckiest, and there were many of these, had been lured to the United States by deceptive advertisements in Irish newspapers promising a good job with decent pay, three meals a day, and an allowance of whiskey. The workers, too poor to pay, were brought to the U.S. by the Erie canal contractors and their passage was charged against their future meager earnings, making them, immediately, indentured servants. They were basically slaves without chains.

Once the canal was completed, New York’s investment paid back, and the financiers made rich, the men who labored to build this canal did what laboring men have always done – they took a deep breath and went back to work. Because they had to. They built railroads, worked in dank mines, and dug more canals.

A canalboat (2016 recreation) in the weigh lock chamber at Syracuse. I am standing where the opening in the building is visible in the previous weigh lock building photo.

Sleeping quareters on a canalboat. Cramped but cozy.

The Erie canal changed the United States. It enriched the country, it sped up western settlement, it insured U.S. dominance of the Great Lakes, and it helped to make New York City the financial and cultural powerhouse it is today. All these things were bricks in the great edifice which became U.S.A. – the Superpower. In this way the Erie canal, “Clinton’s Folly,” the little ditch, changed the world.

As I walked back to my hotel through the streets of Syracuse I thought about these men. I thought about rockets and I thought about canal boats. My thoughts drifted to the pyramids, the cathedrals, the railroads, the highways, and to all these ostensibly “good” things brought forth by men and women who got very little out of the exercise but exercise. Others with money and capital and power got more money and capital and power. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “So it goes.” And yet.

There is nobility in hard work and in struggle and in the creation of things which make the world a better place even if such benefits do not accrue to those who build them. The thing which raises human beings above the animals is not that we have iPhones, but that we can make iPhones. The Gateway Arch is a magnificent thing, but so is the Niagara Falls. What ennobles the Gateway Arch is not that it is pretty and gleaming and very, very tall, but that some man imagined it and a few men developed a plan to make it a reality, and hundreds of men and women with their hands and their feet and their brains summoned it into existence.

The Erie Canal, no less than Michelangelo’s David, was a work of art. The sacrifice of those who built it is not dimmed because their masterpiece has been superseded by bigger, better, and faster modes of transport. The nobility is in the striving, made all the more noble by the difficulty of the task. As John Kennedy said about sending men to the moon (the Saturn V) so might we say about the Erie Canal. We do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Therein lies the nobility.

by: Dustin Joy

And Now For Something Completely Different – A Weird Year In Review

One of the fringe benefits of my job is, of course, the ability to travel around the country. If I’m lucky I get to see some weird and interesting people and things. Since I love oddities, superlatives, and miscellany I always keep my camera at the ready and I am seldom disappointed. Here are some things that brought a smile to my face in the last year. I took all these pictures of actual places and things I saw. Hopefully you might get a chuckle, too. God knows we could all use one right now.

by: Dustin Joy

Tourism

Every City wants to attract tourists, even if it doesn’t have all that much to brag about (I’m talking to you Fargo, North Dakota). Cities have tried this in different ways but the  common approaches are the “braggy” tourism guide from the Chamber of Commerce and the “do-it-yourself” tourist attraction.

The Braggy Guide

Fargo’s try – It is so flat and cold and boring in Fargo that their local tourism museum’s biggest attraction is the iconic wood-chipper which rearranges Steve Buscemi in the movie Fargo (most of which takes place in Minnesota)

 

Santa Fe is a little cooler but still has to qualify their claim a bit. Not Best Cheeseburger in the USA, but best Green Chile Cheeseburger. Still a good try.

 

Richmond not only runs their NASCAR races “at night,” WOW!, they also…

Have the 9th best Shopping Neighborhood in America. Go Richmond!

Noticed this ad for the Richmond Ballet (Yes, Richmond, Virginia has a Ballet.) What caught my eye, though, was the name of the Artistic Director. What kind of person, exactly, names his son Stoner?

 

Alamagordo, NM might have other exciting tourist attractions, but I put my money on PistachioLand U.S.A. After all, they do have the World’s Largest Pistachio. By the way, PistachioLand and “World’s Largest Pistachio” are trademarks so don’t go using them yourself.

Finally, there is Nemaha County, Nebraska which has a pretty nice tourist guide for a little place and a catchy motto, “All Roads Lead To Nemaha County.”

Unfortunately, two of the three roads depicted on their own map fail to lead to Nemaha County.

 

 

The D.I.Y. Attraction

The DIY is usually a representation of something or someone the city is famous for, sometimes life-size, sometimes absurdly big.

 

 

Louisville, KY has a couple. Here’s the blue horse.

And the giant baseball bat (A Louisville Slugger, of course)

 

Silver Bay, MN has Taconite Man who is, I guess, what a lump of iron ore would look like if you brought it to life.

 

Lubbock, TX, home of Buddy Holley, has, of course, giant nerdy glasses, just like Buddy.

Many cities opt for something made of bronze, Lubbock included.

Here’s Buddy himself.

 

Go on down to Corpus Christi, TX and you will find another hometown singer who died tragically young. Here’s Selena, immortalized in bronze. I hope if they immortalize me they at least put a shirt on me.

Here’s President Jimmy Carter. Oddly, though, this is not Plains, Georgia or even Atlanta. It’s Rapid City, SD. Don’t ask me.

Here’s a creepy bronze bust of rocket scientist and ex-nazi Werner vonBraun emerging from …a flowerpot, I guess, in Huntsville, AL. The green cast is not an optical illusion. The statue really is that color. Weird.

 

Finally, here’s a careless Ronald MacDonald in downtown Chicago.

 

 

The Local Paper

In addition to browsing the local tourism magazines I absolutely love small-town newspapers. They are usually good for a hilarious police blotter, a grammar-deficient news story, or a raving editorial about a monumentally unimportant subject. Here are a few tidbits I gleaned from local papers this year.

Rock Island is a tough place, after all.

 

I love the detail that it was a “three-legged” tiger.

Part two. She was intoxicated? You don’t say.

Part three. The final quote from the Omaha Police speaks for itself.

 

Leave it to Oklahoma.

 

I’m sorry to keep picking on North Dakota, but, you know.  So, let’s get this straight, you want to put a tax on windmills to offset the tax credit people get for building windmills. Brilliant! That’s the kind of forward thinking we expect from North Dakota.

 

This is the one and only picture here I didn’t take but you gotta admit it’s a good one. This is the headline the East Oregonian newspaper came up with for the Associated Press story about Oakland pitcher Pat Venditte – who is ambidextrous. Who knows, maybe he can pitch underwater, too.

 

Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs

Traveling about I also get to see some pretty interesting signs from time to time. Here is a collection from this year.

 

At the Ottawa, Ontario airport.

 

Ottawa again.

 

Louisville, KY

 

Hayden, CO airport.

 

The Muscatine Environmental Center, Muscatine, IA.

 

The Lavatory of an EMB-145 jet. I wonder what part of the country you are in if the second notice doesn’t go without saying? Okay, I won’t say North Dakota. They’ve taken enough abuse.

 

I’m certainly too smart to comment on this.

 

Just outside security checkpoint at the Fargo, ND airport.

 

As you might have guessed – over the urinal. Restaurant/ Bar in Andalusia, IL.

 

Actual restaurant in the food court at the Maine Mall-  Portland, ME. You don’t want to know what’s in the ….well, anything.

Any children or my children?

Montreal, Quebec. So, no golfing and …what… no pooping goats? Or is it a sheep? Or is it a dog?

More damn rules. Okay, so no golf, no pooping sheep , and no hunting campers. I got it. State park in the arrowhead of Minnesota.

 

Deli in Iowa City, IA. Okay, maybe I’ll just go to McDonalds. The spatters of blood are a nice touch.

 

Hospital – Aledo, IL. I love glyphs! Where are his arms, by the way?

 

Carleton College – Northfield, MN. I love it that the Career Center is in Severance Hall.

 

Super 8 – Cloquet, MN. Are hard boiled eggs regional or rotational? Must be rotational, because they’re round. Get it? Get it?

 

Old Threshers Reunion – Mount Pleasant, IA. Sign needs to be…bigger, maybe?

 

Yes, we carry this sign with us everywhere we go.

 

Preston Hotel – Nashville, TN. No crappy little Gideon Bible is gonna cut it at the Preston (an awesome and quirky hotel, by the way.) In addition to the Spiritual Menu they ask you when you check in if you want a fish or a lamp. When you look puzzled they tell you that they will deliver to your room either a live Guppy in a fishbowl or a Lava Lamp for company or ambiance. Love that hotel!

 

A sign next to the history museum in Dickinson, ND. “German’s from Russia – They Came?” Well, good for them.

 

The Game Cleaning Room at Bemidji State University – Bemidji, MN. I bet Harvard doesn’t have that.

Some Questionable Grammar

Buckle Up. It’s more important then you think.

 

With rights comes responsibility, eh?

 

EL PASO, TX. Somebody has to sell tickets for Virgin Galactic.

 

Des Moines, IA. – Who says Iowans lack a sense of humor?

 

Beef Jerky Outlet – Huntsville, AL. Who says Alabamans lack a sense of humor?

 

And my final sign.

No comment.

 

 

Buy, Buy, Buy

Here are some actual products I saw, and you can buy.

Really?

 

For Deer hunting. God I hope it’s for deer hunting!

 

This slogan seems needlessly menacing, or is it me?

 

A real game but I should get some royalties from the manufacturer for infringing on my joke – What does a Yeti put on his spaghetti? Squatchsauce!!!! Get it? Get it?

 

This is not your Grandma’s hot sauce. Check out the attached label in the next picture.

With great hot sauce comes great responsibility!

 

I know this is an engraving art set but I just can’t stop thinking that this is a Jedi Kitten holding a light-saber. Use the Force Jedi Kitten!!!!

 

Yes, everyone will think you are cool if your wear these.

 

Try our recycled Kleenex, too.

 

Sorry, I thought that was a different product.

 

Do you want some of my Nut Goodies? What? What? They’re really good.

 

Halloween costume…er…costumes.

 

Don’t know why this makes me laugh but it does every single time.

 

At The Bookstore

I’m not sure what the Dewey Decimal code is for Hipster Baby but here’s the section.

 

Okaaaay?

 

Best Book Title Ever!

This should be shelved with the Vegan Stoner Cookbook, I guess.

 

Spoiler alert ……..

 

Yes. Yes we are.

 

I’m all for it.

 

A Millennial update of the old classic.

 

Cleanse is one term for it.

 

Etcetera

And, finally, other random stuff I saw this year that gave me pause…

Or Paws…

You can’t unsee it. I’m sorry.

 

Merry Christmas …. I guess. (I wonder what the Chinese kid thought when he was painting this.)

 

Santa Fe, NM – A VW Bug – I get it!

 

I thought there was a limit to what states would allow on a vanity plate. So did he get this one first?

Or this one?

 

Mmmmmm. Jesus Donuts. They are HOLY!  Holey, Get it? Get it?

 

Aquarium bar. The Galt House – Louisville, KY. It really freaks out the drunks.

 

It’s the Christmas Dragon …I guess. What’s the Christmas dragon again?

 

A perfect square knot spontaneously tied by my iPad charger and my iPod charger. Cool, huh? I wasn’t even a Boy Scout.

 

Walking Sticks making the beast with two backs (and twelve legs) on my shed. I’m sorry. This was just so weird and cool I had to include it.

 

Cool! A Lego version of Mark Twain’s House – Hartford, CT Airport.

 

Amish men watching the Saloon show at the Midwest Old Thresher’s Reunion – Mt. Pleasant, IA. I guess they didn’t want the elders seeing them inside.

 

A Tesla charging station in Amarillo, TX in the middle of Texas Oil country. Not even any graffiti.

 

The box the box my new shoes came in came in.

 

My son’s class did dioramas of the U.S. states. My son did Vermont. It was awesome. I do have to give honorable mention to the kid who did Tennessee, though.

 

Parked in Nashville next to the Rolling Stones tour plane and had to get a picture. My twenty-something FO looked puzzled. “The Rolling Stones, MAN!” I shouted by way of explanation. He turned back to me and said, in all seriousness, “That’s a kind of candy, right?”

 

Smithsonian Air and Space Museum – Chantilly, VA. Actual china found in the wreckage of the Hindenburg. And I can’t even get a cup of coffee to the table without spilling it all over myself.

 

Best bumper sticker of the year, bar none.

 

Photo caption – Smithsonian Magazine. Favorite phrase of all time – Raze the Ruins. Sounds like a great name for a band.

 

Have some almonds. But be careful if you are allergic to …almonds.

 

Dye used in our PTC fundraising Color Run! Maize starch I get. But what, exactly, are permissible colors?

 

Who puts this ornament on their tree? And what does it mean if you do? Peace on Earth, Goodwill to men?

 

Bass Pro Shop Store – St. Charles, MO. True Story. I was looking at the fish in the big aquarium in the middle of the store when I became aware of a middle-aged lady standing beside me also looking into the tank. She was a store clerk it turned out. After an uncomfortably long time she turned to me and said, very calmly and seriously “I hate that fish. He watches me all the time I’m stocking shelves over here. He just watches.” I smiled politely and backed away slowly.

 

Final cool thing I got to do this year in my travels. On Veteran’s Day in Ottawa, Ontario I got to meet the Prime-Minister of Canada and get his picture. He’s a smart, young, handsome Liberal who doesn’t seem to hate too many people…I’m not sure where I’m going with this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3…2…1…?

Yesterday I visited the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. It is the home of the famous U.S. Space Camp and, at the nearby Redstone Arsenal, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Since space flight is predicated on rocketry, Marshall is arguably the birthplace of the American space program. At Huntsville America took the shameful remnants of Hitler’s missile program and transformed them into an ideal of peaceful, civilian-controlled scientific achievement, culminating in the landing of men on the moon. The centerpiece of NASA’s effort, and indeed the showpiece of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, is the Saturn V rocket.

The Saturn V - The Most Powerful Vehicle Ever Built

The Saturn V – The Most Powerful Vehicle Ever Built

To a certain kind of person, one like me, standing under this massive machine, the most powerful vehicle ever built, fills the heart with pride. Every patriotic American should be proud of what this country achieved, ostensibly to beat the Russians, but truly to advance science and answer the fundamental questions men have posed since our ancestors first looked up at that bright light in the night sky.

Since the Saturn V is a superlative machine, let’s say the superlative machine, I cannot help, at this point, offering some data to back up that claim. The Saturn V, fully assembled with the Apollo capsule in place, stood 363 feet high. Loaded and fully fueled the Saturn V weighed 6,500,000 pounds (3,250 tons). For reference this is the weight of about 7 Boeing 747s. The fully loaded weight of the Saturn V represented a great deal of fuel. After liftoff the five powerful F1 rockets burned for 2 minutes and 41 seconds, each generating 1,500,000 pounds of thrust. In that time those engines consumed 4,700,000 pounds of fuel (Kerosene and liquid oxygen). In terms of energy released as a function of time, this makes the Saturn V a bit like a scarcely controlled bomb. In 161 seconds the Saturn V burned 82% of an Olympic swimming pool of fuel.

So that is pretty big and pretty powerful and pretty god-damned amazing and yet …

Apparently, according to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, the most powerful machine ever built is an inadequate showpiece to hold the attention of entertainment-starved Americans and get them to part with $27 in the museum gift shop for a flashing Chinese-made keychain with Katelyn, or Caitlin, or Katylynne printed on it. To buttress the Saturn V and the Jupiter C and the Mercury-Redstone and the full-size mock up of the Space Shuttle and, get this, an actual, no-kidding rock from the frigging moon they needed something “flashy.” So, right in the middle of this monument to American can-do technological know-how we have – a carnival ride. No, here are two carnival rides. No, wait, three. Here my internal curmudgeon shows his wrinkled face. Since cell phone addled kids can’t be expected to focus on something as humdrum as a 363 foot tall rocket there is a ride called the “G-force” or something suitably “spacey.” The G-force, pretending to be an “astronaut-training device,” is nothing more than the ride we used to puke all over at Adventureland called the “Silly Silo.” Next to it is a “temporarily out of service” launch simulator named the “Space Shot” which is no more than the kid’s “bouncy ride” from the Mall of America.

The V2 - Hitler's Evil Toy That Led To Something Really Good

The V2 – Hitler’s Evil Toy That Led To Something Really Good

And I suppose the amusement park philosophy at the U.S. Rocket center is actually market driven; gotta pack in the paying customers. But why must everything in this country, including a museum dedicated to our space program have to turn a profit? I soon saw why. As I was standing in the main hall taking in a captured German V2 rocket, a disgusted father and his tween son hove into view from the IMAX theater (another concession to entertainment culture.) The father, about my age, tried to engage his son in the wonder of the Saturn V. The son continued to groan and send text messages on his phone. A bit later I saw the father literally throw up his hands and say, loudly, “So this is how today’s gonna go, I guess! You are going to refuse to be impressed by anything?”

I am not, at all, prone to picking on the Millennial generation. My children’s cohort, the ones I have known, are intelligent and savvy, and hard-working. They are achieving some amazing things against the strong headwinds of a tough job market, low pay, and crippling college costs. They face challenges that my generation and my parents generation never faced and indeed “laid on them.” What is sad, to me, is that we have failed to inspire these kids with the science and technology that set our hearts afire. More on that later.

A Model of the Future - We Can Hope

A Model of the Future – We Can Hope

1.5 Million Pounds of Thrust Each - Not too Shabby

1.5 Million Pounds of Thrust Each – Not too Shabby

A 363 Foot Roman Candle

A 363 Foot Roman Candle

3 Men, 8 Days, Half a Million Miles, In This Tiny Capsule.

3 Men, 8 Days, Half a Million Miles, In This Tiny Capsule.

Unlike the tween boy I found much to be impressed by at the U.S. Rocket Center. Exhibits in the main hall included the Saturn V, the aforementioned moon rock picked up by Astronaut Alan Bean, an actual piece of Skylab the size of a Mini Cooper which survived its plunge to Earth when it crashed into Australia in 1979. There were models of the U.S.’s past and (hopefully) future rockets, “extra” F1 rocket engines, and a full scale mock-up of the lunar rover demonstrating the manner in which the little space car could be folded into a box about half its size. In the corner stood an actual Apollo spacesuit. It looked just like my grade school friend had described the one he owned and “forgot” (so many times) to bring to school to show us. All of these wowed me. I found myself lapsing into vivid daydreams starring me, lying in that implausibly small capsule atop that pillar of explosives and being catapulted into orbit, watching the wide green horizon of Earth resolve itself before my eyes into a curved blue billiard ball framed by blackness.

I have, several times in my life experienced what Edgar Allan Poe called “The Imp of the Perverse,” a powerful, nay overwhelming, urge to do a dangerous, forbidden, and completely uncharacteristic thing. My imp presents himself mostly at moments of awe or grandeur, or at times when circumstances call for decorum. I felt his presence when I stood on the observation deck of the Empire State Building and heard his whispered voice describing to me the perfect swan dive one might execute for the crowds below. My imp gnawed at me yesterday as I stared at the moon rock, urging me, prodding me, tempting me to lift up the glass enclosure and pick up this otherworldly relic. I had to walk away eventually, out of fear.

An Actual, No-foolin' Moon Rock. I Successfully Walked Away.

An Actual, No-foolin’ Moon Rock. I Successfully Walked Away.

Nearby was a fascinating exhibit which showed Neil Armstrong’s heart rate during his manual landing of the Apollo 11 lunar module. Even Armstrong, whom I always found to be disappointingly boring in interviews, could not hide the pressure and excitement of the mind-blowing activity in which he was engaged.

Neil Armstrong's Heart Rate - A Cool Customer, But Still...

Neil Armstrong’s Heart Rate – A Cool Customer

Outside the rocket center’s main exhibit hall are some other pretty amazing pieces of American-made technology, now left to moulder. The A12, an early model of the SR-71 sits, apparently rusting if such a thing is possible, in front of the gift shop. This is an aircraft capable of traveling from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. in 64 minutes. Today it was going the opposite of fast. It needed a thorough cleaning to remove the pine pollen and a coat of paint.

The A12 (Predecessor to the SR-71). Can Titanium rust?

The A12 (Predecessor to the SR-71). Can Titanium rust?

Behind the visitor center and flanked by the carnival rides were rockets representing the critical baby steps it takes to get to the moon. There was the Mercury-Redstone rocket, America’s desperate attempt to catch-up to the Russians and put a man “up there.” The Redstone part was simply an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) with the warhead replaced by a capsule the size of a pup tent. When ready for launch it resembled nothing so much as a high powered rifle cartridge with Alan Shepherd the little lead projectile on the end. The courage it must have taken to climb into that claustrophobic bullet and be launched into space makes Schwarzenegger look like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. Why can’t we sell this story to kids? Why do we need gimmicks and rides to hook kids on science? We have actual heroes and actual amazing machines to inspire the next generation. The other rockets, like the A12 are fading in the hot Alabama sun. Their chalky paint looks like my old ’87 Mercury Sable. Even the signs and placards meant to explain these wonders to the center’s visitors are faded and warped and unreadable. In the meantime the Space Camp kids, whose parents are paying thousands of dollars to send them here, are treated to the Silly Silo and a foil package of Astronaut Ice Cream. We should do better.

Rocket Garden

Rocket Garden

This Is The ...I Guess...Jupiter C?

This is the …I Guess…Jupiter C?

We are so cheap in this country now and have lost our collective swagger to the point that we have to pay the Russians to send our astronauts to the International Space Station. What we can do, apparently, is make movies. Finally, overwhelmed by the heat, I retreated into the visitor center again to take in the IMAX movie. This movie had the highest ratio of flag-waving pride to things to be proud of I’ve seen since the last time I was in Texas (sorry Texas, that was a cheap shot). It crowed about our past glories, Mercury, Gemini, Apollo. But then it lapsed into cheap sci-fi, commercialism, and wishful thinking. Part of the film was little more than an unpaid advertisement for Spacex (Elan Musk’s commercial rocket launch company) and it’s competitors. A breathless narrator explained how these highly-subsidized private companies would be doing the basic “Earth orbit” stuff in future so NASA could focus on dreamy stuff like a trip to Mars in the next 30-100 years.

IMG_3304

How Old Is Too Old To Be An Astronaut?

I’m sorry guys. That model does not inspire one kid to study Physics. It is not a vision we can all take ownership of and be proud of like Apollo was. And don’t fool yourself; unless the American public is inspired and unless they feel real pride and ownership in our space program none of this stuff is going to happen. If kids can’t go down to Cape Canaveral and feel the vibration in their chest as a Space Shuttle roars off the launchpad with a big American flag painted on the side, there will be no money for space flight and there will accrue none of the tangible and intangible benefits of space flight we got from Apollo.

When I walked out of the U.S. Rocket Center with a strange combination of inspiration and disappointment I waited near the curb for my hotel van. To my right, near the entrance, was a specially marked parking spot blocked for use, so the sign said, of the U.S. Rocket Center Director. Parked in the spot was a shiny new Tesla sport’s car, manufactured by Elon Musk’s other flagship company. I do not imply here a quid pro quo. I will allow you to draw your own conclusion. It is possible that the Director, obviously a space enthusiast, is simply a fan of Musk and his technologies (I am, too). All I am saying is that if the U.S. Space Camp is in the business of promoting private space initiatives while NASA dreams unfunded dreams we have lost our way.

Not everything we do as a nation requires a profit motive. Some things should be done because they are intrinsically worth doing. They are worth doing because they inspire us, lift us up, give us a nobility of purpose. Doing these things together as a nation, instead of as companies watching the bottom line, bestows that nobility on all of us, rich and poor. When Armstrong made that step onto the powdery surface of the moon every American’s heart rate rose with his because we were all there with him.

 

by: Dustin Joy

Local Flavor

I’m sitting, staring out the window at a light but steady rain falling from a low overcast sky in Lafayette, Louisiana. This is my first time in Lafayette and I am sorry to report that I am disappointed. It’s not the dreary overcast, nor the rain exactly, although those certainly contribute to the mood. It is just the sameness of every place we visit that contributes to my ennui today.

My minds-eye is still 20/20, even if my real eyes are not anymore. Since I was a little boy I have loved to read about places. I read about Louisiana and New Orleans and the Bayou. I know what they are supposed to look like. I know what they are supposed to be. I have a vivid picture in my mind of weathered cypress-wood shacks close by the mocha-brown water with alligators sunning along the shore and a jon boat tied to a tree. I visualize a little old place which doesn’t look like much, but which has the best crawfish étouffée around and big glasses of sweet ice tea. I expect to hear voices like Justin Wilson speaking that slow syrupy cajun dialect. And I expect the soundtrack to the whole world here to be some Beausoleil song with momentum like a locomotive rolling down a track and lots of manic fiddle playing and squeezebox. Instead, when I walk down to the hotel lobby they’ve got Fox News blaring from three TVs.

Maybe there are crawdads and cajun fiddle and sweet iced tea still to be had in Lafayette. Maybe that stuff exists. I hope it does. But the dapper young man at the front desk of the Doubletree speaks clear and perfect english as if he were ready for an anchor job at WGN. Everyone I have met here so far talks like that. From my room on the 10th floor I look out over a “bayou.” And it is a real bayou, I guess, but in Illinois we would just call it a creek. It looks like the Edwards River back home except here it is less wild. It has been tamed by retaining walls to prevent shoreline erosion near the office buildings and condos along its verge. If there is an alligator hereabout he is not sunning today and really there is no place along this stretch of bayou to sun. The water flows slowly between the revetments with not a floating log or rock in sight. I think I see what might be cypress trees adjacent to the office building but they are almost certainly ornamentals planted to make the landscaping “authentic.”

Here is what I see of the “cajun capital” from my vantage point. From left to right I see two office towers that look like corporate headquarters in Naperville, a neighborhood of average looking frame houses which could have been transplanted here from Moline (nothing at all unique or southern about the architecture). I see a Wyndham Garden hotel, two cell phone towers, a billboard for Smoothie King and another for the Louisiana State Lottery (just change the word Louisiana to Illinois and you get the idea.) A busy stretch of road runs by the hotel with the exact same types of cars one sees everywhere, a preponderance of SUV’s, a helluva lot of white pickup trucks, and all vehicles late model- you just don’t see people driving rusted out clunkers anymore like you used to. Along the street opposite our hotel, in lieu of the great little étouffée place, is a Chili’s, an Outback Steakhouse, and a sushi bar (really?) bracketed by a Comfort Suites and a Fairfield Inn.

I could honestly look out the window in Cleveland or Newark or St. Louis or Minneapolis and see this same general picture on any given day of the year. We are homogenizing our country slowly but relentlessly. If there is uniqueness to be found in our melting pot nation you have to look hard for it. I have to wonder why are we so divided politically when we are all so very much alike in what we want and value and dream about. To judge by my travels around the United States, I would say that what we Americans want and value and dream about are a plate of Riblets from Appleby’s, cheap Chinese consumer products from Target, a Slushy from Kum n’Go, and, of course, good cell phone reception.

But maybe I have unreasonable expectations. What is it that I am pining for? I would like to say “authenticity,” but it’s not authenticity, exactly. Because if Americans are authentically anything in 2016 we are authentically obsessed by convenience. We genuinely want things to be easy and cheap and fast. Lafayette is as authentically American as Cleveland or Des Moines or Syracuse. What I’m looking for, admittedly, is a nostalgic or “tourist” version of America. I want a Dodge City saloon full of lawless gunslingers, bowler-hatted pi-ana players, and bartenders with big curled handlebar mustaches. When I go to Maine I want to see yellow-mackintosh-wearing lobstermen in brightly-painted little boats bobbing in the harbor, raising their traps. When I go to South Dakota I want to see an Indian wearing a war bonnet, sitting on a buffalo skin rug outside a teepee, dispensing wisdom.

But in 2016 the saloon is just a barn-board facade backed up by a metal frame building which has to meet code just like all the others. The gunslingers head off to the microbrewery after their shift is done to grab a “Long Branch Pale Ale.” The piano player “didn’t go to Juilliard for this crap.” And the bartender is bitter every time he trims and waxes his ridiculous facial hair, thinking about the the upper management job he lost when the injection molding plant closed down.

The lobsterman is sick and tired of chapped hands and this god-damned cold weather and fantasizes about moving to Boca Raton. The Indian doesn’t really have any wisdom he wants to pass on to a bunch of sun-burned nitwits from Chicago on their way to Mount Rushmore. The nitwits probably don’t want the wisdom, either, which might consist of something like “you don’t carve a !@#$%ing 60 foot sculpture of a white man’s head on our sacred mountain and we won’t build a casino in Arlington Cemetery.”

There is a reason we don’t do authentic “regional” things anymore. There is a reason we don’t tan our own leather, or make our own candles, or sew our own dresses, or slaughter our own pigs, or run a trap line, or go out in the frigid ocean in little boats to catch sea bugs anymore. It’s because we don’t have to! The truth is, most people never wanted to do those things. It may seem romantic to read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and imagine Pa coming in the door after a long day of plowing behind a team of oxen and sitting down with the girls to eat dinner by candlelight before gathering around the fire to play the fiddle. In fact, writing that sentence makes me want to go back and live there. But what we have to remember is that plowing behind oxen was brutal, exhausting work. Losing your entire crop to locusts or drought was not a setback to be brushed aside by a little of Pa’s philosophy but a real, true, life-threatening catastrophe. The dinner was probably salt pork and potatoes for the 1100th time, and the reason they had to listen to Pa’s lousy fiddle-paying was because “Game of Thrones” is on HBO and the Ingalls’ only had basic cable.

I confess that I love quaint local traditions. I love antiques. I love to learn about the good-old-days. Every year we go to the Midwest Old Thresher’s Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. I love to watch the antique tractors and ride the electric trolleys, and visit the log village. For a week we all steep ourselves in the old-timey ways. We watch volunteers cooking dinner over an open campfire, splitting logs with a wedge, hand cranking a Model T Ford, and cleaning clothes in a tub with a washboard. And then, you know what, we all go home and turn on the air-conditioner because, truly, washing your own clothes in a tub sucked. Hand cranking your Model T is a novelty once or twice. But there is a reason some genius invented the “self-starter’ and there is a reason that EVERY SINGLE CAR has one now.

Lafayette, Louisiana, Dodge City, Kansas, Portland, Maine, and Walnut Grove, Minnesota are not like they used to be. The people who live there have kept some of the flavor of the “old days.” Indeed, some people in these places still dress up like cowboys, play cajun music, catch lobsters, and farm the great plains. But the sad (or maybe happy) truth is that we Americans don’t want to work that hard. We don’t want to struggle and freeze and go hungry and spend our days doing endless, repetitive, subsistence work. Thanks to science and innovation and creativity we don’t have to anymore. We can enjoy our “nostalgia” because we want to, not because we have to.
We are all very alike, really, around the USA and around the world. We like many of the same things and we obsess about many of the same things, too. It is not surprising, when you think about it, that we are becoming more and more alike in terms of our culture as we share technology and communication and entertainment. This phenomenon has advanced to the point where we have to make up things to have political debate over. We are so affluent that we are running out of things to be outraged about. Well, I am outraged that I can’t find a good cajun restaurant within walking distance of my hotel. I will be furious if I have to call Uber.

by: Dustin Joy

North Dakota – The Dirty White Pickup Truck Driven by Vaguely Threatening White Guys with Facial Hair State

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and
narrow-mindedness, and many of our people
need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome,
charitable views of men and things cannot
be acquired by vegetating in one little corner
of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

-Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad

“…nothing so liberalizes a man and expands
the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel
and contact with many kinds of people.”

-Mark Twain
Letter to San Francisco Alta California, May 18, 1867

Anyone who knows me very well will attest that I love to travel. Even after finishing a four day trip flying around the U.S. I am keen, when I get home, to jump in the car with my wife and kids and take a road trip. I love geography and I love maps and I love to see and meet other people who look and think differently from me. I take Robert Frost’s suggestion seriously that “the best thing we’re put here for’s to see.” The point of travel, I think, is to see, to bear witness. The urge to travel and to “see” molds a man into something different than he was, perhaps even into the liberalized man of expanded kindly instincts that Mark Twain describes. I like to think Mark Twain was right about travel being “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” I not only like to think it but I do, indeed, believe it. Travel makes a man better and, perhaps, if he can pass that instinct on to his son and daughter then he has changed them, too, for the better. And yet.

If travel is a mind-broadening and prejudice killing force, I think it also tests the “liberalized” man’s liberality. Because when one travels one comes into contact with strangers and strangers are, at least to him, strange. They challenge his assumptions and his expectations and maybe his sense of order and propriety. On the other hand, the man who lives in the same little town all his life may never encounter folks who challenge his narrow outlook. He will live in a comfortable cocoon of conformity (to conjure a Spiro Agnew-ism). He may retain his biases but, if he is geographically insulated enough, it may not matter. It is the traveller who needs to hold Twain’s words not as axioms but as aspirations. Travel is neither necessary for open-mindedness, nor is it sufficient to insure open-mindedness. It is a possible formula for achieving it.

My faith in Mark Twain’s formulation was tested on a recent trip. It was tested by North Dakota. Though I had been to 45 U.S. States and, indeed, every state and Canadian Province surrounding the Flickertail State I had never been to North Dakota. I must admit that I had already imbibed some of the negative stereotype that clings to this state. They have an “official state beverage” for example and it ain’t tequila. (It’s milk, by the way, probably warm white 2% if I don’t miss my guess.)

Or this:

Q: Did you hear the Governor’s Mansion in Bismarck burned down?
A: Yes, it almost took out the whole trailer park.

Or this:

Q: Why do ducks fly over North Dakota upside down?

A: There’s nothing worth crapping on.

Or this:

Q: How do you know if a man from North Dakota is married?

A: The tobacco spit stains are on both sides of the pickup. (The pickup theme will show up again later.)

To be fair I must concede that most of these barbs come from their beloved neighbors down below, the ever so urbane South Dakotans. If we wanted to we could apply a few of these zingers to them. To wit:

Q: Did you hear the Governor’s mansion in Pierre burned down…….?

Most North Dakota jokes can be just as easily reassigned to those bumpkins in Nebraska or Wisconsin or Missouri or even our neighbors to the west. Like this joke:

An Iowan and a North Dakotan were walking along a country road one day and spotted a sheep with it’s head caught in a fence. The North Dakotan immediately began pulling down his trousers. The Iowan, surprised, asked “What are you doing that for?” He replied, “well in North Dakota we don’t pass up an opportunity like this” and he has his way with the sheep. Finished, he turns to the Iowan and says, “Okay, your turn.” The Iowan shrugs, bends over, and sticks his head in the fence.

IMG_2602

North Dakota – miles and miles of it

I arrived in Dickinson, North Dakota by airplane. As a pilot for a regional airline I see many small airports which lack the facilities of say, an O’Hare or a JFK. I am accustomed to landing on short runways and boarding and de-boarding without the luxury of a jetway. But after breaking out of a low grey overcast to find a narrow strip of black pavement surrounded by miles and miles of dull brown undulating grass I was surprised to pull up to an airline terminal no bigger than a house. I gingerly coaxed my 65 foot wingspan plane onto the 20 foot wide taxiway as my First Officer made radio calls “in the blind” to any other airplane that happened to be in the area. He made these announcements because not only does Dickinson lack radar coverage it also lacks a control tower to clear planes for takeoff and landing.

The Dickinson terminal - a whole lot less hassle than O'Hare

The Dickinson terminal – a whole lot less hassle than O’Hare

We let the people off the plane and in less than a minute I could see them in the parking lot on the other side of the fence getting into their cars. There is something to be said for small terminals, I guess. We called the hotel for a ride and in a few minutes were picked up at the curb by a young man in a Toyota Sienna, the first of many nonnative-North Dakotans we would meet.

With the discovery of an enormous pool of oil in what is called the Bakken formation Dickinson and its neighbor farther north, Williston, went from sleepy backward hamlets with an occasional bar fight to bustling backward hamlets with many bar fights. The boom in drilling and servicing oil wells brought jobless people from all over the country; places hit hard by the 2008 recession. These immigrants descended on western North Dakota in their thousands until a tiny apartment in Williston rented for what a (well, for what a tiny apartment would rent for in Southern California.) Speculators built houses and hotels on the North Dakota plains like players in a demented Monopoly Game.

And some folks got rich. In a 2012 Reuters Article Staff Writer David Bailey wrote:

“Average income in Mountrail County, the hub of the North Dakota oil production boom, roughly doubled in five years to $52,027 per person in 2010, ranking it in the richest 100 U.S. counties on that basis including New York City, and Marin, California…The boom could be creating up to 2,000 millionaires a year in North Dakota, said Bruce Gjovig, founder of the Center for Innovation at the University of North Dakota.
Many oil region residents receive $50,000 or $60,000 a month in oil royalties and some more than $100,000.”

Republicans in North Dakota, as Republicans will, touted the success of their low tax, anti-regulation philosophy in creating the “lowest unemployment in the nation.” In 2012 Yahoo finance put North Dakota atop its list of “Best Run States in America,” specifically noting:

“Budget deficit: None
Unemployment: 3.5% (the lowest)
Median household income: $51,704
Pct. below poverty line: 12.2%
Between 2010 and 2011, North Dakota’s GDP jumped 7.6%, by far the largest increase in the nation. This growth has also increased home values, which rose a nation-leading 29% between 2006 and 2011.”

The politicians in Bismarck did not, of course, give credit for their amazing success to the important strategy of being born atop 18 billion barrels of oil.

But, of course, like many natural resource-based “booms” from the Klondike Gold Rush to the Dutch tulip bulb mania certain well-rehearsed aphorisms apply: “what goes up, must come down,” “all good things must come to an end,” “easy come, easy go,” “the bigger they are the harder they fall,” and, “God, it’s cold in North Dakota!” A whole lot of anything can be a good thing. But, of course time and the market play a role. 18 billion barrels of cabbage patch kids were a wonderful possession in 1983. Not so much in 1988. When the price of oil declined in 2014 many of the “new” North Dakotans found themselves driving hotel vans.

We were driven to our Dickinson accommodations by a Mississippi born former oil company employee who was then studying hotel management at the local community college. He practiced his skills on us. He was friendly and outgoing and optimistic despite his setback. He touted the hotel to us as if he owned stock and even presented the town of Dickinson as an up and coming place. How much of this was salesmanship and how much honest wishful thinking I could not be sure. He was persuasive.

Our hotel was indeed very nice. It is, like many hotels in this area, circa 2012; a product of the boom. The rooms are clean and modern and mine overlooked a Burger King and the Interstate 94 exit ramp. It is surrounded by the same McDonalds/ Wal-Mart/ Applebys/ Car Dealership/ Convenience store composition which is slowly homogenizing the world. The only novelty to these places anymore is the unpredictable and sometimes clever naming scheme of convenience stores. If the interstate-exit-ramp hotel restaurant is closed for the night a hungry crew member can at least count on a microwave burrito from one of the following (All real, by the way):

7-11
Circle K
Gasamat
Little General Store
BreakTime
Star Stop
Race Trac
Speedway
GetGo

Go Mart
Moto Mart
Sprint Mart
EZ Mart
Xtra Mart
Quality Mart
Lil’ Mart
Gas Mart

Flash Foods
Flash Market
Hasty Market
Roadrunner Market
Road Ranger

Quick Chek
Quick Trip
Quick Stop
Kwik Trip
Kwik Fill
Kwik Sak
Kwik Stop
Fast Stop

Pump n Munch
Pump n Pak
Pump n Pantry
Pick and Pump
U Pump It
Jet Pep

Casey’s
Huck’s
Bucky’s
Wawa’s
Terrible’s
Mother Hubbard’s

Mr. Gas
TrueNorth Energy
Plaid Pantry
Blarney Castle
Town Pump
Kangaroo Express

And my all-time favorite for sheer sophomoric humor:
Kum and Go

Dickinson has one that’s almost as good as Kum and Go. Along the main street from the airport is a gas station called “Loaf ’N Jug.” I wondered immediately how many folks in Dickinson had read Omar Khayyám’s famous poem and considered how it might be repurposed to promote a convenience store. Perhaps:

“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—“
Oh, and get me a pack of Marlboros and a slushy!”

I had broken my wristwatch band prior to this trip and so had to hoof it up to Wal-Mart to buy another (since Loaf n’ Jug was fresh out). On the way (about a half a mile) I tried to learn a little something about the local area. I paid attention to the people and places I passed and, sadly found it to be only about 2% different from walking down the street in Monmouth, IL. You have to really look hard to find unique regional differences today. A Wal-Mart in Dickinson, ND is very much like one in Birmingham, AL or Portland, ME. If you are lucky you might detect a slight southern drawl or an R-less “Mainerism” in the checkout clerk but TV and travel and immigration seem to be quickly doing away with regional flavor. It is odd that people are becoming indistinguishable while political differences become more ossified.

As I walked I started to note some peculiarities, however about the locals and their modes of transportation. Like many places in the West, or even the MidWest, drivers here like their pickup trucks. I would estimate that one out of four vehicles that passed me on my one mile round trip hike were pickup trucks. I didn’t notice at the time whether or not they had tobacco juice running down the door. I did notice a definite trend in the color scheme, however. What I discovered is that while North Dakotans love pickup trucks, what they really love are white pickup trucks. And they love to get their white pickup trucks dirty, very dirty. And while North Dakotans may be male or female, young or old, the one’s who drive the dirty white pickup trucks are, to a man, men. The dirty white pickup trucks driven by men are driven by white men and those white men are almost invariably hairy. I sat down on a park bench for awhile during my little hike and idly counted the number of white pickups which passed my position. I kid you not; in a ten minute period in this town of 25-30,000 people some 62 white pickup trucks passed me or were visible to me in adjacent parking lots (and I’m not counting car dealerships). I was stunned. I took a few pictures as evidence some of which I include here.

IMG_2563 IMG_2564 IMG_2565 IMG_2566 IMG_2568 IMG_2570 IMG_2574 IMG_2575 IMG_2577IMG_2578 IMG_2579 IMG_2580 IMG_2581 IMG_2586 IMG_2588 IMG_2589 IMG_2590 IMG_2592 IMG_2593IMG_2594 IMG_2595 IMG_2596 IMG_2597 IMG_2598

I had read an article in The New York Times by John Eligonjan called An Oil Town Where Men Are Many, and Women Are Hounded. The story, specifically about Williston, pointed to the disproportion between men and women in western North Dakota since the oil boom. Most of the immigrants who came to work on the oil rigs were men. This set up an environment where local girls were a rare commodity and single, not to say horny, men were a dime a dozen. According to the article:

“Many (women) said they felt unsafe. Several said they could not even shop at the local Walmart without men following them through the store. Girls’ night out usually becomes an exercise in fending off obnoxious, overzealous suitors who often flaunt their newfound wealth…Prosecutors and the police note an increase in crimes against women, including domestic and sexual assaults…Some women have banked on the female shortage. Williston’s two strip clubs attract dancers from around the country. Prostitutes from out of state troll the bars.
Natasha, 31, an escort and stripper from Las Vegas, is currently on her second stint here after hearing how much money strippers made in Williston on a CNN report last year. Business in her industry is much better here than in the rest of the country, she said. She makes at least $500 a night, but more often she exceeds $1,000. “We make a lot of money because there’s a lot of lonely guys.”

Because of the article and other news reports I had heard about this oil boom I was prepared to judge the lonely guys in their white pickup trucks harshly. I expected cowering women and leering men at the Wal-Mart. I didn’t see any. The people there and at the hotel and at the Loaf n’ Jug seemed just like people I knew back home. No one acted odd or was ill at ease. On my walk back to the hotel I thought about the generalizations I had made about Dickinson and North Dakota and the people who lived there. I thought about the jokes I had told and the stereotypes I had accepted. And I found myself coming back to the same sad realization I had made about my experiences in Oklahoma (see my essay, Michael). It is easy to travel but it is hard to “know” a place. At best we get glimpses, glimpses of people and places. From the road we see the farms and fields that are along the road. At the hotel or the store we meet and talk to the people who are at the hotel or the store. We do not get to sit down to dinner with folks in town. We do not get to open the gates and drive out into the prairie. We only ever scratch the surface.

My experience of Dickinson, North Dakota consisted of a handful of very friendly people at the Dickinson Astoria Hotel and the local Dickinson Wal-Mart, two days of dreary, low-overcast weather, and a glimpse of an austere brown wintertime prairie seen from the road. It almost seems silly for me to write to you about it. Considering the scale of things I know just about as much about Dickinson as those of you who have never been there.

On our last day in Dickinson the hotel van driver took us over to a local Mexican restaurant so we could get some lunch. My Flight Attendant had lost her credit card and wanted to cash a check. The driver, another oil-boom optimist from Chicago, offered to take her to a local bank. The bank would not accept her out-of-town check. Chivalrously, he drove us to “his” bank where he had an account and when they would not accept her check either he allowed her to write him a check which he then cashed and gave her the money. He drove us over to the restaurant, suggested some good menu items, and refused a tip when I got out of the van. Good people are to be found wherever I go.

What are we to think? How are we to feel? Is Mark Twain right? I think so. I believe that coming to Dickinson opened my mind just a little bit. It wiped away some stereotypes and made me sympathize with the struggles of other people, people who came thousands of miles to a cold and unforgiving place to try to make a living and people who were born and raised here only to see their little town taken over by outsiders.

Late in his life Mark Twain said,

“Travel has no longer any charm for me. I have seen all the foreign countries I want to except heaven & hell & I have only a vague curiosity about one of those.”

Though I am sometimes discouraged about what I can hope to “know” I still think it is worth trying to “see” and unlike my hero, Twain, travel still charms me. I hope it continues to do so.

 

by Dustin Joy

The Island

The visual approach, contrary to what you might imagine, is one of the more difficult maneuvers that a pilot is asked to accomplish. Using an instrument approach, even with low clouds, places the aircraft in a very stable and consistent position during the landing and is mostly a “straight-in” affair. It is the “visual”, where the aircraft is approaching the field from many possible directions and the pilot is judging his or her descent rate by eye instead of by instruments, which tests one’s art and skill.

At airports I fly into frequently I like to stake out landmarks which help me to judge the “letdown” and plan the diameter of my turn from downwind to final. In Cincinnati landing south I plan my base to final turn to fall just a little north of the Ohio river. In Roanoke, Virginia landing northwest I judge my turn based on a small mountain just left of the final which has a big illuminated star on its peak, a sort of advertisement for the city.

Lately I have been flying into Harrisburg, PA on a regular basis. Except in unusual wind conditions, we land to the northwest on runway 31. With good visibility we approach the field on what is called the “downwind” which is an imaginary track about 1,500 feet AGL (above ground level) paralleling the runway opposite the direction of landing. We usually begin our descent from the downwind “abeam the numbers” (which refers to the big white numbers painted on the threshold of the runway). Smaller aircraft make nearly square turns to the base leg (90 degrees from the runway heading) and then another square turn to the final. In our faster jet we tend to plan a smooth descending 180 degree turn to the final hopefully rolling out in line with the runway and at the appropriate altitude to be on the proper stabilized glide path for landing.

My reference landmark for runway 31 at Harrisburg is an island in the Susquehanna River. On the Island is a nuclear power plant with four 30 story cooling towers two of which are generally belching clouds of steam into the air. These towers make an excellent center point for my imaginary arc from the downwind to the final and my visual approaches here are better than they otherwise would be thanks to this reference.

The Susquehanna, and indeed the entire valley surrounding the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, is beautiful. The low forested mountains to the south run right along the river bank and upstream from Harrisburg the river seems to cut straight through the mountain range at a 90 degree angle in a phenomenon called a “water-gap” which you really should read about. The river itself, at least in low water, seems lazy and inviting as it winds past little islands and rock bars. It looks like it would be great fun to float down it in a canoe or even an inner tube. The airport lies along the river and the runway parallels it behind a small levee so that coming in to land from either direction one gets a stunning view up the valley and, coming from the southeast, a glance at dozens of small pastoral farms with crops planted in contour around the numberless hills. Just downstream from Harrisburg is Lancaster County, famous as the home of the “Pennsylvania Dutch” Amish community, where the tiny picturesque farms are tiny because they are still worked by horses. To know quickly how beautiful the Susquehanna is just look at its Wikipedia page. The photo below the header tells you exactly what I’m talking about.

Some of you, particularly those older than 40, might have had a dim memory awakened by my description of the scene above, particularly of my landmark for landing and the cryptic remark about “two of the four cooling towers belching steam.” Only two of the many FO’s who have accompanied me into Harrisburg had a glimmer of recognition when I mentioned the name of the place to them. None of them had a sense of the momentous events that happened there.

To look at Three-Mile Island now and the Susquehanna flowing past it is difficult to summon up the fear and apprehension that most American’s shared for several weeks in 1979. It is so pretty here. Even the power plant perversely seems to fit its surroundings. It seems benign. Within about 5 miles downstream, in fact, is a coal burning power plant which always has a dirty, yellowish plume of smoke trailing downwind. The cooling towers at Three-Mile Island just seem to have a happy white cloud over them much as Bob Ross might have added if he had ever painted a nuclear plant.

And the people I meet in Harrisburg, or Middletown where our hotel is, don’t seem to think about 1979 either. I have asked numerous residents about it and the result is the same; the young one’s have never heard of it and the old ones don’t really want to talk about it. I guess I don’t blame them. We are all whistling past the graveyard in one way or another whether we be Angelinos living atop the San Andreas Fault, Oklahomans watching the skies in May, or you and I knowing we shouldn’t have that Five Guys Cheeseburger, but having it anyway.

It is probably a good idea to remember, once in awhile, that things are not as bad as they could be. The mistakes of 1979 were big mistakes. They encompassed all manner of human failing and frailty from inattention to denial to tunnel vision to misleading optimism to outright deceit. They commanded the nation’s attention for good reason. They made us step back and take stock of our unquestioning embrace of nuclear power. The lessons learned were ultimately applied to making power plants safer and machines more dependable. And the worst did not happen here. This lovely valley was not laid waste to like the dead zone surrounding the Chernobyl reactor in Ukraine. Thousands of people were not killed in a devastating explosion or in the hopeless effort to stop the radiation from spreading. Southeast Pennsylvania and Harrisburg and the Amish country and the Chesapeake Bay were not poisoned and rendered uninhabitable for hundreds of years. And, though there is still some argument about the long term effects of the radiation that was released, there were not thousands of cancer deaths and birth defects in the major cities of the east coast.

But it could have been that way. Some things went right here that did not go right at Chernobyl or Fukushima. Were our people smarter than theirs? Probably not. Was Three-Mile Island better designed than these? Probably better, for that time, than Chernobyl for its time, but probably not better than Fukushima. So could the disaster have happened in this lovely valley? It seems likely that it could have if a few things that went right had gone wrong instead. 50% of Three Mile Island’s uranium fuel melted down. That is 20 tons. Chemical reactions generated a huge hydrogen gas bubble in the reactor containment building which could have exploded releasing radiation and radioactive elements into the air over the east coast much as happened at Chernobyl. It might have been worse, much worse.

There were not exactly villains in the drama at Three Mile Island, just flawed humans who made mistakes, some poor designs, and, as we always see in such circumstances, a tendency to “cover your own ass.” The utility running the plant and its contractors paid over $100 million in compensation to various plaintiffs and spent about $1 billion dollars cleaning up the site. Hundreds of tons of radioactive fuel and wreckage from the site were shipped to a Department of Energy facility in Idaho. Radioactive coolant which had seeped into the concrete of the containment building could not easily be recovered and its removal has been deferred likely until the other reactor at Three-Mile Island is decommissioned.

The fact that the infamous Three-Mile Island nuclear plant continues to generate power and a white cloud of steam above two of its four cooling towers is what surprises me most. Despite heavy local opposition reactor #1 was allowed to resume operation in 1985 and, in 2009 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission extended Three-Mile Island’s license to allow reactor #1 to continue operations until 2034. Money is money, after all. When I do my circle to land around the ominously quiet cooling towers of reactor #2 I think about what still lies inside that building and reflect on the huge concrete sarcophagus the Russians had to build over the wreckage of Chernobyl at great personal cost to those who did it.

What happened at Three-Mile Island in 1979 has largely been forgotten and perhaps that is as it should be. Our “collective memories” are already filled up with worries and, in some cases, manias. Kids today don’t think about the possibility of the Russians blowing us up like I did when I was a kid. Parents today don’t obsess about their kids getting Polio, as our grandparents did. And apparently people in Harrisburg today don’t fret about nuclear meltdowns like they did in 1979. Today kids worry about terrorism (which they statistically shouldn’t have to) and parents worry about vaccines (when they should be worrying about the renewed specter of Polio and the diseases that these vaccines nearly eradicated) and the loonies give us a thousand other things to worry about if we listen to them.

Worry is something we all live with and it is hard not to. It harms us in many ways and it seems, often enough, that the things we worry about, terrorism, illegal immigration, other people’s morality, are not the things which we really should statistically worry about. If you look at the data we should be concerned with heart disease, auto accidents, suicide, and the overuse of antibiotics. From Three-Mile Island to 9/11 to saturated fat the challenge has always been to worry about the things that matter, to learn from our mistakes, and, finally, to ignore those boogeymen who pose us no real threat. Only by doing this do we make progress without hurting ourselves in the process.

When I look at the steam plume at Three-Mile Island I still can’t decide if it represents a victory or a defeat. Did we learn from our mistakes and advance our search for clean energy or did a bunch of people with money find a way to overcome a PR nightmare to keep on making more money? I’m still not sure. But I do still feel lucky when I look around this pretty valley and reflect on what might have been.

by: Dustin Joy

St. Louis Breakfast – What is their Story

I’m eating breakfast at a hotel in suburban St. Louis. It’s a pretty good breakfast with a lot of choices and possibly some real eggs (as opposed to the synthetic polymer common to such venues.) People of every different age, shape, and shade make up the morning clientele. At my one o’clock position is a young mother and her baby. The mother is wearing a St. Louis Cardinals jersey and is patiently handing the little pink-clad girl pieces of banana which the little girl carefully, almost fastidiously, places in her mouth and chews (or gums) until the next bite is ready. She is so quiet and absorbed in the work at hand that it startles me a little when her mother runs out of banana and the little girl looks up quizzically and says, “No more?”

At three o’clock is a girl’s soccer team all eating breakfast together. Kids’ teams are a hazard of the frequent hotel guest and I reflect that this team didn’t wake me up in the middle of the night running up and down the halls. I must say girl’s teams are not nearly the problem in this regard that boys teams are. The team of let’s say 14 year olds are so identical, with one exception, that you could almost believe they were sisters. All but one are thin and blond with long, carefully braided pony tails. Their heights don’t vary more than an inch among the six girls. They all sit the same way on their chairs, seem to have the same food on their plates (yogurt cups and a banana), and, of course, wear matching uniforms. The exception is a young girl in the team uniform who is several inches shorter than the average at the table, black-haired, and, I’m guessing, a Pacific islander. She, too, has the requisite yogurt cup and banana but doesn’t seem to converse with her teammates as the others are doing.

At ten o’clock there is a young bearded man (20ish) in a faded green T-shirt that reads “Roanoke Island Running Club.” He sits by himself but in a way that seems to indicate he is waiting for someone. On his right arm, partially covered by his short sleeve is a tattoo. It is some kind of odd looking bipedal creature whose head is obscured. My first guess is the Michelin Man. That would be odd, of course, unless the guy really has a tire fetish or something. The Stay-Puft Marshmallow man would also fit the bill, or perhaps the Pillsbury Dough Boy, but the tattoo is really not rounded enough for either of these. Finally, as he leans over to pick up a napkin he has dropped on the floor I see that it represents a person from a bomb squad in protective attire. I assess him to see if he looks like a soldier. He is certainly physically fit enough although the scraggly-looking beard suggests he has been out for some time if so.

To my left and facing the same way is a woman of about 60 with dyed black hair who is wearing a loose cotton pastel blouse and a short white skirt that would be eye-opening on a woman half her age. She is unselfconscious about her revealing attire and so I think this is a sort of uniform for her. She flirts briefly with the front desk clerk when he comes out from behind the desk to check something on the breakfast buffet. He blushes at some suggestion she makes that I cannot hear. I admire her a little for not acting her age but also feel a little embarrassed for her. Even at 46, I understand that I can only get away with so much in the “young at heart” department. I set off fireworks and “fell in” the creek on our farm over the 4th of July holiday, which is okay when I am playing with the kids but might be questioned if I was by myself. I don’t want to be old. I guess this lady feels the same way. One of the teenage soccer players gives her a withering look and waggles her pony-tail. “To hell with you, pony tail! Time will get you, too.”

My interest is drawn, necessarily, to a couple sitting directly in front of me on the other side of a small railing/ barrier which bisects the dining room. Their table is at right angles to mine but so close that it is almost as if I am sharing a table with them. Only the top of the barrier separates us. The man is older, maybe 65, and thin. He is lean in a way that suggests not only life-long wiriness but perhaps a recent struggle with, what, cancer maybe, or a heart valve problem. He doesn’t look ill now, but it is apparent that it wouldn’t require much to put him in the category “frail”. His hair, once black, is now shot through with grey and he wears a small, neatly trimmed grey mustache. He has a proud bearing and sits, with excellent posture, chewing his eggs. He is as white as white can be. His skin is thin and almost translucent in spots where it has been drawn tight, such as the bridge of his nose. He has the kind of prominent Adam’s apple that some thin men seem to have and it bobs up and down aggressively as he drinks his orange juice. Everything is dignified about this gentleman with the glaring exception of an impressively flamboyant Hawaiian print shirt. It becomes clear to me over the course of our time together that he did not choose the shirt but is wearing it for the benefit of his wife, who sits opposite him.

The wife is as different physically, almost, as can be. She is a short woman and heavy set. I guess that she is about 5’ 4’’ to his 6’ 2”. The term pear-shaped was invented for her it seems and the term stubby would easily apply to her arms, legs, fingers, and probably toes. She is, I’m pretty sure, Vietnamese, or perhaps Laotian.  She has a dark complexion. Whatever other physical characteristics she might have, or shortcomings for that matter, are overcome by an omnipresent and beautiful smile. The smile, and the lack of wrinkles on her face make her seem younger than she probably is. It seems to me that she must have been very pretty as a girl.

As they eat, they chat politely and I might say lovingly with each other about their trip. I do not catch all the details due to a group of noisy new arrivals to the breakfast buffet. I think they have been to a family gathering, maybe even a family reunion. She is solicitous of his every need, looking up from her breakfast at his least cough or clearing of the throat. She butters his English Muffin for him and, at length, produces one of those large pill cases which is divided into days of the week. She removes Thursday’s compliment of medicine, five large colorful capsules, and arranges them neatly beside his plate in what I understand to be an “order of consumption.” She solicits his advice and help with the toaster, even though it is clear to me that she knows how to do it just fine. All this she does for him, not dutifully, but lovingly. She wants him to be okay and she wants him to still feel relevant and valued.

It is clear that they have been married for many years as each of their respective moves is obviously anticipated by the other gratefully. He peels her slightly green banana for her, breaking the tough stem loose and pulling back a couple of the peels before handing it gently to her. At the same time, she hands him a cup of coffee into which she has poured one packet of sugar and a half a container (only half, mind you) of creamer. It is clear that this ritual is of long standing and represents one of those dollops of mortar which bind together a long and happy marriage.

The husband and wife consume their breakfast at half volume (compared to the other guests, anyway) and I find that I am struggling to eavesdrop on their murmured conversation. There is much I want to know. And since I can’t know my mind wanders into a game of “What is their story” much like I did in Philadelphia with the office window and with my son on the streets of Chicago. As they finish their breakfast my imagination intrudes itself into their quiet lives. Here is what I thought:

How did this odd couple meet and why are they so clearly devoted to each other? Time and familiarity can build a bond like this in some relationships just as it can lead to contempt and disgust in others. I think there is something deeper here though than just becoming acquainted with each other’s habits through long observation. There is a gratefulness to her devotion that seems to transcend the daily squabbles and work of marriage. And, though subtler than hers, his actions and clear adoration of her reveals that he still desires to be her “knight in shining armor” and would gladly hurl his pitiful frail body against a dragon if one showed up here in the St. Louis hotel. This couple’s relationship has, I think, been welded in the fire of adversity and they have clearly been through something difficult and traumatic together which is belied by their serene and mundane breakfast together.

Their Story

He was a young boy, living on a farm in southeast Minnesota in 1968, the year I was born. He was a strong boy, and handsome. Perhaps a bit on the tall and “gangly” side, he nevertheless possessed a bright and cheerful face and a quick and friendly smile. He liked hot rod cars and his Dad, who farmed about three hundred acres of corn and soybeans near Spring Valley, had given his “boy” a truckload of soybeans from the bin and told him to deliver it to the elevator, receive the check in his own name, cash it, and buy a 1964 Mustang he had been salivating for. This generosity was typical of his father but also the boy had been a good boy all his life. He did his homework, got good grades, was devoted to his mother and father, and worked hard on the farm. Driving the Mustang home he couldn’t help taking a circuitous route which looped past the homes of each of his high school buddies. When he got home, near the apex of joy which is possible for a young man, there was an envelope laying on the kitchen table with his name on it.

It’s not that he hadn’t thought about Viet Nam. Every boy in America his age had thought about Viet Nam. Actually, when he reflected on it later, there were very few thoughts about the future, at that point, or even the present which were not tangled up by the thorny vine of Viet Nam. It was ever present in his thoughts but somehow in the background, too. It was so abstract. Here was this place which he probably could not find on a map, where boys from Minnesota and Iowa and Wisconsin were going, against their will. And these innocent young farm boys and city kids too were killing people. They were killing people they had not given one thought to in their brief lives and also … they were being killed there.

In less than six months, his Mustang sat in a back corner of the barn with a tarp over it and he was in Hawaii, a place he had never been and had never thought much about. The serene and beautiful days there were short in number and he thought back on them many times in contrast to the foreign and sometimes ugly place he would later be.

What he discovered in Viet Nam was heat and humidity and boredom, at least for the first few months. Later he would discover noise – noise on a scale he had never imagined. He had thought nothing could match the discomfort and misery of baling hay in August in Minnesota. But the humidity in Saigon defeated even his vivid imagination. A cold shower gave just the briefest respite because almost as soon as the valve was shut off the heat bulldozed back in to rejoin the humidity of the shower stall. Doing any work at all caused a torrent of sweat to gush from every pore and, to add to the misery, it did not evaporate but simply wicked into his clothing to give him the sensation more of splashing around in a blood warm pool than walking. Riding fast in a jeep was some relief but there were few opportunities to do so in this teeming city and he found it unsatisfying when he did, comparing the experience with driving Minnesota highways in his Mustang. The boredom was palpable for the first few weeks in Saigon. The work was mind-numbing (filling sandbags, digging holes) and was punctuated by long periods of sitting around in the sun waiting for further pointless orders.

Sometimes change, even for the worse, can be a relief and when he got orders to climb aboard a chopper headed for the country’s interior he was almost glad for the opportunity to do “something else – anything else.” This feeling was short-lived, though, as too much of one thing, monotony, was quickly replaced by too much of another, fear.

The noise was a big part of the fear. It was ceaseless and stupefying. And there was an odd sense of disorientation with it since some of the noises were routine, and harmless; generators running full speed, jeeps racing back and forth, choppers, the clang of pots and pans in the mess hall. But intermixed with the drone of the mundane were sounds that would literally kill you, the scream of mortar rounds, the staccato “tat-tat-tat” of machine guns, and the deafening roar of the 155 mm howitzers. The boy spent a lot of time in base trying to morph in his mind the olive green jungle around him into the verdant rows of corn back home. He was not too successful.

Finally the day arrived when he was selected to go out on patrol to a village near the base. There was news that the Viet Cong had infiltrated the village and were using it as a staging point for recent attacks against the forward air base. The boy was scared, naturally. But again it seemed that change, any change, held an dark allure. He had stared at the jungle until his eyes were blurry on watch. He had listened to the noises, the noises, the noises, until he could not stand it anymore. He stepped up into the Huey with a sense of foreboding mixed with a sense of relief. Something might happen but something was better than nothing.

The village was tiny and sat out in the middle of a flat open plain of dried up rice paddies surrounded at a distance by dense jungle forming almost a wall at its edge. Low dikes broke up the landscape into an checkerboard pattern with the village of thatch-roofed huts in the center. This was a resettlement village and was home to about 150 peasants, 50 PF’s (Popular Front soldiers from the South Vietnamese Army), and 5 CAP’s. CAP’s were American soldiers assigned to the Combined Action Program. These soldiers lived in the village with the peasants and protected them and helped them with things like digging wells, repairing structures, and building dikes. They lived in fear and trepidation as the the little village was under constant attack from the communists massed in the jungle just to the north. The PF soldiers, while officially there to defend the village, were not from there and were not crack military troops. The American CAP’s would often hear rumors of communist attacks and in the morning find many of the PF’s had slipped away or hidden their uniforms to blend in with the local villagers in case the Viet Cong overran the village. When the attacks did come they were usually not straight up gun fights. They could take the form of mortar rounds suddenly landing all around them in the village, booby traps laid along paths during the night, or in one horrible case, a twelve year old boy heaving a hand grenade into the middle of the CAP’s as they were eating dinner. There were sometimes firefights and if the CAP’s were lucky enough to hear rumors of them from the local villagers, they could call in support from the local bases. This time the CAP’s had heard such rumors from credible sources and had noted that about a quarter of their PF’s had disappeared into the night. The boy’s unit was called in for the first time. It would not be the last.

As the choppers circled in a wide arc around the village, there was no sign that there was anything menacing at all here. The boy looked out, with great concentration, as the Huey settled onto a dike a few hundred feet from the outskirts of the village. For a few moments dirt and dust were everywhere in the air, churned up by the rotor downwash. The boy found himself shoved bodily out the door and onto the hot ground.

In a moment the chopper was gone, as he had been told it would be.  Lingering would have been suicide for the pilot and the gunner as such a target was a great temptation for the Viet Cong back in the trees. The boy gathered his weapon and backpack and used it to push himself into an upright position. When he did this and rubbed the dirt out of his eyes, the first thing they fell upon was the smiling countenance of a young Vietnamese girl. She was his age and she giggled as he brushed the dust off himself. He had never really believed in love at first sight but he knew then, instinctively and immediately, that the greatest thing he could aspire to for the rest of his life was to elicit this smile and this giggle from this girl. He blushed a vivid crimson which was not lost on his Lieutenant.

The girl took a couple of steps forward and held out her hands in which was a steaming cup of tea. She offered it to him and in very broken English said “Here sir, some tea for you.” He chuckled to think of the term “sir” applied to him who for months had only heard the words “scum, and maggot, and boy” applied liberally by his drill sergeant back in California. He dropped the pack and took the offering, a thin metal cup so hot that it must have been very uncomfortable for her hands to hold as she waited for him to make up his mind. The Lieutenant, another tall farm boy from Tipp City, Ohio, whom the boy had found to be friendly, likable, and approachable nodded at the girl and winked at the boy. “Your watch is 2200, why don’t you let her familiarize you with the village. It’s important that we fully understand what’s going on here and find out who we can trust.” The boy knew that the Lieutenant had already had a thorough debriefing by the CAP’s. The girl smiled even more broadly, if such a thing was possible, and beckoned for him to follow her to the common dining hut which the villagers, the PF’s and the CAP’s shared. She took his hand and the touch of her skin thrilled him as he had only experienced once before. He remembered now that he had been solely in the company of men for 65 days. This new sensation was a thing he could get used to. Through a strange alignment of the stars, he had an opportunity to do just that.

This village remained, for nearly four months, the target of Viet Cong threats. The CAP’s were far outnumbered by the communist strength in the nearby jungle. The PF’s assigned to the village were flighty and undependable. The boy’s platoon was called back time after time to stand guard over the village at night and make forays into the edge of the jungle to root out the Viet Cong. The boy, to the surprise of everyone except his Lieutenant, volunteered for this duty every time. Even the horrors of the jungle and what were increasingly suicidal patrols were insufficient to prevent him from spending time at the village. Four men he knew well were ambushed on such a patrol, their bodies found the next morning just yards from the edge of the tree line, riddled with bullets.

Occasionally he and several members of his platoon would stay in the village for a week at a time when the threats of attack were credible enough. He watched over the villagers paternally as they went about their subsistence farming. He played with the children and watched them play. And he watched over one hut in particular and was loathe to let it or its occupants out of his sight. When he was ordered back to the base at the end of such a deployment, he lingered and resisted, even begging his Lieutenant to let him stay on as a CAP. At length he would board the Huey and watch out the open door as long as he could until the little village merged into the dark green blur of the jungle passing below.

He hated leaving her and he hated the Viet Cong for starting this absurd war and he hated the other soldiers in his platoon who looked at the girl and saw something very different than he did. He almost punched one of the men, a loud-mouthed cocky son-of-a-bitch from Jackson, MS who had made a lewd remark about the girl. The Lieutenant had overheard the exchange and ordered the boy off to some made-up duty on the other side of the village. The next afternoon the son-of-a-bitch from Mississippi stepped on a booby-trap near the latrines and blew one of his legs completely and cleanly off and mangled the other grotesquely. After helping to load him onto the evac chopper, the boy hid behind the mess hall and cried.

Another day a single mortar shell came screaming out of a clear blue sky and exploded almost on top of a water buffalo and an old man trundling behind it through the rice paddy. The boy was only sixty feet away and when he ran to help the old man found that the bomb had done such a thorough job that he was unsure which bloody part belonged to the buffalo and which to the man. The old man, it turned out, was the girl’s uncle and when he told her about it her smile faded for the first time in his memory. Horrified at what he had done, he spent the rest of the day trying to rekindle that precious smile. At length he simply held her in his arms and squeezed her.

She did not smile again for days and he felt he would rather have spray painted graffiti on the Mona Lisa than have defiled that lovely life-giving smile of hers. He was finally able to coax it back with a little card trick he had learned in basic training but he felt, forever after, that this had been an unworthy, desperate, selfish thing for him to do. He had cajoled that smile, her smile, for his own purposes, because he needed to see it. Little did he know that she offered it up to him as a gift to assuage his sadness and guilt even though she had not yet felt ready to smile.

Nearing the end of his tour of duty the boy became distraught at the idea of returning to Minnesota and never seeing the girl again. He could not countenance the thought of her remaining in this village which would surely be overrun and the villagers massacred by the Viet Cong as traitors. She assured him she would be alright but he could tell that, once again, she was offering him up this fantasy as a gift. He conjured up increasingly implausible schemes by which he would spirit her off to Saigon in the back of a jeep under a tarp. He considered going AWOL and simply joining her in the village to await whatever fate dealt them. He could not imagine his world without her in it.

On his last deployment to the village he landed with a heavy heart and went directly to her family’s hut. She offered him tea and set by the fire with him talking for hours, sharing thoughts and dreams and fears.

Near dusk the boy heard a distant popping sound coming from the jungle to the north. He recognized this, immediately, as AK-47 fire and peered up over a low wall to see what he could see. What he saw sent a wave of fear and nausea through him. Advancing slowly across the  furthest rice paddies were hundreds of Viet Cong troops fearlessly and brazenly crossing open ground and headed for the village. He then heard the thump of mortars being fired from the trees and the earth twenty yards to their right suddenly exploded into a shower of dirt, rocks, and debris. The CAP’s raced to the machine guns and laid down a withering fire in the direction of the communists but it did not stop them.

The boy grabbed the portable radio set and the girl’s hand and they raced to the mess hall where he knew the Lieutenant to be. The Lieutenant emerged as they approached and with incredible composure took the radio set and began transmitting instructions and numbers to someone listening on the other end. The boy didn’t really understand what the Lieutenant was saying but he knew what the conversation was meant to result in. The lieutenant had called in an airstrike which meant the calm and collected officer thought the situation was dire. The boy grabbed the girl’s shoulders, looked her in the eye, and told her to return to her home and hide in the root cellar below the hut’s floor. She shook her head. He insisted and drug her that direction. She relented finally and ran for the hut. He followed her progress until she disappeared inside and then grabbed his M16 and knelt beside the CAP’s to hold off the attack until the planes could arrive. He wasn’t sure that was possible.

Despite the CAP’s steady fire the Viet Cong advanced, stepping over their dead comrades and coming on. Minutes seemed like hours to the boy as he replaced cartridge after cartridge and the barrel became a branding iron if touched. He was no longer thinking about the people he might be killing or even the possibility of being killed himself but only concerned that he hold off just long enough to protect the girl and her family.

When it seemed impossible to hold off the oncoming enemy any longer, he finally heard, off to the South, the screaming roar of two F-4 Phantom jets just above the trees and coming on fast. He hit the ground as the first unloaded its weapons seemingly just over his head. The bombs continued forward and down as the F-4’s streaked forward and up twisting rapidly to the left and disappearing into the clouds just as the napalm exploded all around him with a deafening roar. The enemy soldiers in front of him simply disappeared into the conflagration and as he rose unsteadily he turned around to find that much of the village had, too. One of the bombers had dropped its load a split second early and at least one or two napalm bombs had burst in the middle of the village, turning the nearby huts into an inferno.

He raced to the girl’s hut finding it fully engulfed in flames. He rushed in through the opening and unmindful of his own burns tore open the hatch leading down into the root cellar. The girl lay curled in the tiny space dazed but unhurt. The boy could see that her father and mother had not made it into the cellar but had been killed by the concussion of the explosion. The girl looked up into the eyes of the boy surrounded by wreckage and flames and smiled. He smiled back. He pulled off his coat and wrapped it around her, taking care to cover her head, not only to protect her from flames but also to protect her from a sight which might have lingered with her for the rest of her life. He picked her up and carried her out through the door of the hut just as it collapsed into a pile.

During the escape, the boy had been burned badly on his exposed arms and scalp. He fell to his knees near the flaming mess hall taking care that the girl not fall on the ground. When he looked at her again, he found her smile gone and replaced with a look of fear and concern focused on his chest. He looked down to find that his shirt was covered in blood apparently the result of shrapnel from one of the napalm bombs or mortar shells. He was suddenly dizzy and he slumped to the ground as the world went dark around him.

When the evac chopper arrived moments later, the rotor wash fanned the flames into a frenzy of searing heat. The Lieutenant, who had seen everything from near the machine gun emplacement, carried the boy like a rag doll to the landing site. He pushed the boy into the open door of the chopper where a medic went immediately to work on his wounds. Then, to her surprise, the Lieutenant whirled and grabbed the girl below her arms and boosted her into the chopper, too. The gunner, surprised and uncomprehending, objected to this Vietnamese girl’s presence and pushed her back toward the open door. The Lieutenant leaned in close and said something in the gunner’s ear which the girl could not hear. The gunner scowled and pulled the door closed with the girl still aboard. The chopper, seeming to struggle and beat at the air frantically, cleared a flaming palm tree and then soared into the fiery orange sky. Neither the girl nor the boy ever returned to the village and neither ever saw the Lieutenant again.

Back in St. Louis

As I finish my cereal and my reverie with the old couple’s lives I notice that the man in the Hawaiian shirt has paused in his chewing. He grimaces a little and I think he has started to choke. His wife, the girl from the chopper, looks worried and pushes back her chair, preparing to rush to his side. He winces again, swallows, and takes a drink of orange juice. Then he gives her a little thumbs-up sign and grins in a goofy sort of way. She smiles her wide smile and lays her little hand in his outstretched palm. No more words are exchanged that I can hear.

The soccer team gets up noisily and leaves. The little girl in pink has finished her breakfast and her mom picks her up. She looks quiet and thoughtful. Then she smiles. I would like to know more about all of them. I see these people every day in hotels and airports and on trains and busses and I get snippets of their conversations. As they pass I catch partial sentences and non-sequiturs. One day I heard a man on a cell phone at O’Hare say clearly and rather sternly to someone on the other end “that is the kind of thing that will get us put in prison!” He passed by and his conversation and his odd story continued and I never saw him again. That happens to me a hundred times a day in my line of work. So, I have to make up stories for them.

I had to leave to go catch my van to the airport. I never saw the old couple again and probably, barring some miracle, never will. Their story now is the one I made up for them. But whatever it was in real life I like to believe that their story continued and had a happy ending.

by: Dustin Joy

A True Story (with minor embellishment) – The Dude

Caution: This story contains foul language, specifically the words “motherfucker” and “poop” and, for my vegan friends, gratuitous reference to bacon. If you object to such language I suggest you- oops, sorry.

 

I got onboard the hotel van this morning at 4:00 AM central time in Cincinnati. The van was filled with sober and sedate pilots and flight attendants sitting silently, nodding off or looking at their phones as flight crew tend to do at 4:00 am.

The other four passengers were a group of exuberant, perhaps “lit up,” twenty-somethings who were just a little past the point of tolerable for this time of the day. I believe they had not so much gotten up early to catch their flight, as stayed up late to do so. The runt of the litter who we might call “Tiny” weighed 300 if he weighed a pound. They were all wearing flip flops, baggy shorts, and t-shirts that looked like they had been slept in (or passed-out in).

About five minutes after our scheduled van departure time, the fifth member of their group (the leader?) finally hove into view from the hotel lobby, climbed aboard, and plopped down practically in the lap of a very stern-looking United Captain who had already been tapping his watch for the last five minutes. “The Dude,” as he shall hereafter be called, was wearing the requisite flip flops, a dirty “wife beater” with some samples of last night’s meal on it (I would suspect poutine if we had been in Canada. Gravy, at least, was involved), and a pair of droopy shorts with what looked very much like poop smeared across the bottom.

The United Captain scowled relentlessly but the Dude, totally oblivious to this, jumped up, ran to the front of the bus, and started an impromptu rap performance which went as follows. His mates joined in immediately with beatbox sound effects:

“Four o’clock in the morning,
Cookin’ bacon,
Motherfucker in the kitchen,
With a bulletproof
Apron”

This, I had to concede, was better than I could come up with at 4:05 AM. I know I never would have thought to rhyme bacon and apron or even how to work “motherfucker” in effectively. Even the United captain couldn’t help chuckling at this.

Having apparently exhausted his repertoire with that simple, excellent verse, or feeling perhaps that nothing more was deserved by his thankless and unresponsive audience, the Dude resumed his seat. The United Captain, hoping to avoid another game of musical chairs grimaced and shrank back against the wall leaving the Dude an ample landing strip.

Noticing, perhaps for the first time, that we were all in uniform the Dude suddenly waxed philosophical about aerodynamics. He pestered the good Captain all the way to the airport about the unlikeliness that them “big jets” could really get off the ground. As we bid the group goodbye at the terminal, the Dude asked each of us, in turn, whether we planned to “hit the liquor store” after the flight which always sounds good in front of fifty passengers waiting in line. The last I saw of the Dude and his crew was at the TSA security checkpoint where they were being diverted into the private screening area (usually a bad sign). Godspeed, Dude! I have to admire anyone with that much energy at 4:00 in the morning (even if it is chemically induced).

The Embellishment: You may have wondered what aspect of this story I made up or exaggerated. As Garrison Keillor would say, this is a “true” story. The only made-up thing in it is the United Captain’s sour demeanor. He was, in fact, enchanted with the Dude and chatted with him enthusiastically all the way to the airport. Surprised?

 

by: Dustin Joy

Memphis has the Blues

1996377394_f3e0b537fe_o

The Pyramid – Formerly an arena and convention center. Now, believe it or not – A Bass Pro Shops Superstore

Memphis, Tennessee is, to me, a disappointment. It is unfortunate to come to this conclusion because, you see, I love Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis has so much to offer. It has all the things I dearly love.

There is interesting geography. It sits in a stately way high up on a bluff overlooking the mightiest part of the mightiest river in the world. And their biggest Mississippi River bridge is named after explorer Hernando de Soto. That’s pretty cool, right?

It has history. Sun studios, right downtown, has pictures of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins in the same photo. To borrow a joke from comedian Rich Hall, “If you were a religious scholar, that would be the equivalent of having Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed and ….. Carl Perkins in the same picture.”

And Memphis has Food (and yes that is a capital F). There is barbecue and more barbecue and catfish and fried chicken and sweet potato pie and fried okra and did I mention barbecue. There are very few places on this planet where I can say that I never ate anything I didn’t like. Memphis is one.

I have watched school kids doing gymnastics in the street down on Beale. I have ridden the monorail over to Mud Island. I have walked the whole length of the coolest thing a geography buff can imagine (a scale model of the Mississippi River a hundred yards long). I have stood on the balcony of the Loraine Motel in the very spot where Martin Luther King was cut down and was overwhelmed with the intensity of the place. I have walked along the riverfront and watched as the Mississippi Queen hove into sight and docked right in front of me. I have ridden the antique trolley cars down Main Street and up the riverfront to the giant gleaming pyramid (bigger than at least the little ones at Giza.) I have eaten at BB King’s and the Blues Cafe, and the Flying Fish, and Gus’s and Interstate and Corky’s and ……..yes, even the Crazy Canuck. And I have walked past St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital which I think you must concede is about the greatest goddamn place in the world considering how many kids they help every year free of charge.

So what is there to be disappointed about when you are in Memphis? After all, you can tour the Gibson guitar factory. You can listen to live blues every night of the year down on Beale Street. If you are prone to historical self-flagellation you can visit the Cotton Museum and relive the bad old days when slavery was a fact of life and cotton was more valuable than human beings. You can go to a city park named for the First Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan or perhaps go see the toilet Elvis died on (okay, actually they won’t let you see that, although they will let you gawk at the rest of his house and click photos of his grave with your iPhone). And after the guilt and shame there is, of course, barbecue. So why do I love Walkin’ in Memphis and yet, sometimes hate Walkin’ in Memphis.

It’s because I’m sometimes scared of Walkin’ in Memphis. Memphis is beautiful and historical and thought-provoking and, yes, tasty. But it is also dirty and gritty and in-your-face and yes, scary. I do not walk around Memphis at night unless it is with a group and then only those couple of blocks from the hotel to Beale Street. And though I do sometimes walk around alone in the daytime I am, more often than not, ill at ease. I have walked and ridden busses all over downtown Chicago and I have walked the length of Manhattan from China Town to Central Park but in almost no other city I have visited have I been so circumspect simply walking around.

I recognize that I am a panhandler magnet. There is something about my goofy red face that screams “he’s a sucker, he’ll give you a dollar.” And I have dealt with panhandlers from Ottawa, Ontario to Key West Florida (and by dealt with I mean that I gave them a dollar.) But I have never been aggressively followed down the street for blocks by a panhandler in any other city. I did a bit of research and discovered that Memphis has been “battling” these spangers (spare change artists) for years with almost no progress.

A Memphis blogger who lives downtown has documented numerous strategies these panhandlers use to coerce and if necessary threaten passers-by into giving money. There are the squeegee-men who wash your windows at a stoplight and then demand payment. New York famously cracked down on their squeegee-men and made great headway on their panhandler problem. There are the “fake parking attendants” who “charge” drivers to park in metered downtown spots. There is the “tour-guide” gimmick where a panhandler offers to lead tourists around the downtown area to local sights or restaurants and then demands payment once they arrive.

I encountered a version of this scam with my crew on an overnight in Memphis last year. The large middle-aged man hailed us as we walked up the street and told us he was an official ambassador for the city of Memphis appointed by the chamber of commerce and that he was assigned to help tourists navigate the downtown area. When we refused his services he immediately dropped the charade and cursed at us. There was even a young woman, probably early twenties, who came up to us with a clipboard and said she was authorized by the Peabody Hotel to solicit donations for her girls soccer team who was raising money for a trip to New York. As part of her well-rehearsed spiel she said that she understood that there were a lot of panhandlers in downtown Memphis and that I could see her ID and letter of permission from the Peabody if I wanted. When I said that I would like to see those documents she cursed mildly and stormed away.

But worse than the “ambassador” and the “fundraiser” are the aggressive “bums” who demand money and, if you do not give it, will follow you down the street verbally assaulting you and sometimes invading your personal space.

So what is a good bleeding-heart liberal to think about a place like Memphis. “Round ‘em up and lock ‘em up” just doesn’t appeal to me as a solution to the problems that come with poverty and disadvantage. But, on the other hand, don’t honest, law-abiding folks have the right not to be afraid while walking down the streets where they must live and work and hopefully play?

My research has led me to believe that we must make a distinction here. Despite our intuitive response the fact is that the homeless as a rule, are not panhandlers and panhandlers, as a rule, are not the homeless. The old man I wrote about lying on the street in Philadelphia is not in the same Venn Diagram circle as the able-bodied young “grifter” who tried to “show” me around Memphis. People who have looked into this conundrum have found that most of these con artists have a home, even sometimes driving into town to run their scams.

These panhandlers are criminals. Their activity is very little different, and is actually akin to, the ponzi scheme of a scumbag like Bernie Madoff. Their crime is worse, perhaps, than Madoff’s because they poison the natural instinct to kindness and charity that we all feel.

There are truly people out there, like the homeless man on the streets of Philadelphia, who desperately need our help. The aggressive panhandlers of Memphis are a different breed. They deserve our scorn not our dollar. The Memphis blogger who has devoted his time to this problem recommends making your donations to organized charities who run soup kitchens and rehabilitation programs in Memphis and other cities. This seems like a logical approach.

I would not discourage you from visiting Memphis. As I have illustrated there is a lot here to see and do and appreciate. Just visiting the Loraine Motel and nearby Civil Rights Museum is something every American should do. But, as an amateur tour guide (a free one) I would offer the following advice; go during the daytime, walk around in a group, stay at a nice hotel, and use your powers of discernment to avoid the scammers and help the truly needy. There is a difference.

 

by: Dustin Joy

Back Soon!

Sorry folks,

I realize I haven’t posted for a little while. In fact I’ve been up in Canada with my family on a little vacation fishing trip to Lake of the Woods. To me it’s one of the prettiest places on the planet. In fact, the home page picture from my blog is one of mine that I took on Whitefish Bay of Lake of the Woods a couple of years ago. We had a great time this year, the weather was beautiful, and we caught a few fish. I should be back in the swing of things this week. In the meantime I will try to back up my statement above about Lake of the Woods with a few photos from this year

Dustin

 

100_7931

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

100_7841

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

100_7856

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1963

 

 

100_7893

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_2055

IMG_1995

100_7752

IMG_2035

100_7939

Lighter Fare

I realize that my last post was perhaps a little “dark” for some of my audience. It may have been a bit self-indulgent to share it with you and I thank you for your comments. Writing has always been cathartic for me, though, and telling that sad story has helped me wrap my mind around it and move on.

In the spirit of changing the tone and the mood of the blog I would like to take this opportunity to share with you some of the actual photos I have taken myself and accumulated during my travels. I absolutely love quirky, odd things and superlatives. I will happily drive 50 miles out of my way through the sand hills of Nebraska to see Chimney Rock which is …. well, … I just can’t do it justice ….okay, it’s a big rock that, get this, looks like a chimney. I love giant statues of Paul Bunyan, and fish, and the biggest whatever, wherever. And I love weird juxtapositions and clever put-ons. This country, in my experience, is not a sad place fundamentally. It is a fun place filled with interesting characters and crazy, wacky folks doing interesting things. Here are a few:

100_7140

Yeah, I guess that’s a pretty big twine ball. I love the little qualifier they have stuck in there in very small letters (By 1 man). I’m hoping that means there is an even bigger twine ball out there (made by a whole family, perhaps)

 

IMG_1473

Actual sign about a block from the Canadian Parliament Building in Ottawa, Ontario. Presumably it is near the Ministry of Silly Walks.

 

IMG_0112

A “pro-reading” sticker on a light post in Portland, Maine. They are passionate about their reading in Maine, it seems.

 

IMG_1508

Chicagoans are just as passionate about web-surfing, apparently, at least according to this sticker on a CTA bus.

 

IMG_0743

Cleveland, Ohio Wal-Mart parking lot – Okay, I believe the boyfriend thing and I believe the 28 cat thing, but I don’t believe them at the same time.

 

IMG_1523

Amtrak Train between Galesburg, IL and Chicago. – “Never Exit a Moving Train” You must admit it’s good advice!

 

 

100_7220

Kenora, Ontario Auto Repair shop. – Yeah, that’s a pretty big bug!

 

100_2161

Riverside, Iowa – My favorite part is that it’s the Future Birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk.

 

100_1416

Chicago Modern Art Museum – Lesson: Don’t give the four year old the keys.

 

img_0192

My favorite elevator at the Holiday Inn in Harrisburg, PA. Good luck getting to the fourth floor where my room was.

 

100_0164

Broadway, New York City – Big Gay Ice Cream! Is there any other kind?

 

scan0002

Santa Fe, New Mexico – Some people just really like Peeps.

 

100_0533

Kenosha, Wisconsin – Some people just really like Jelly Beans. Former President George Bush done completely in Jelly Belly Jelly Beans. I thought it was Reagan that was so crazy about those.

 

040706_1624a

Jacksonville International Airport, Jacksonville, Florida – I swear to God he was just standing there reading a magazine as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

 

IMG_0466

Graffiti on bridge near Bethlehem, PA – “#Menstruationation” I’m way to smart to comment on that.

 

IMG_1520

Amtrak Train near Princeton, Illinois – A key chain on the handbag of an Amish woman. No keys needed, obviously.

 

100_6435

Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin – World’s Largest Hand-Carved Sturgeon. It was a close thing for awhile, but this is the winner!!!

 

100_6659

Muscatine, Iowa – Yeah, that’s a pretty big Mark Twain!

 

IMG_1477

McDonalds, Gatineau, Quebec – Did you ever wonder how to say “Twoallbeefpattiesspecialsaucelettucecheesepicklesonionsonasesameseedbun” in French. Well, now you know.

 

IMG_1186

 

Sporting goods store, Iowa City, Iowa – Skis on a kids bike – What could go wrong?

 

IMG_0952

Wichita, Kansas – Christian Scientists are hungry for knowledge – and pepperoni! Credit for that clever caption to my friend Gregg.

 

IMG_0857

Syracuse, New York – “Paradise of Love Daycare.” Boy, they like to set the expectations pretty high right off the bat. The best part was the menacing looking guy driving the van who was a doppelgänger for Javier Bardem’s character in “No Country for Old Men.”

 

IMG_0710

Allentown, Pennsylvania – Yep, that’s a rear-view mirror sticking out of the snow. No matter how bad your Winter was this year, it wasn’t this bad.

 

 

IMG_0556

Oklahoma City, OK – Unnamed hotel breakfast buffet. “Pork Ham” – redundant, you might say. After tasting it I still wasn’t sure.

 

IMG_0294

Spam Museum – Austin, Minnesota – No Pork Ham here. It’s “Spiced Ham”. And yes, they give free samples.

 

IMG_0476

Meijer Gardens, Grand Rapids, Michigan – Yeah, that’s a pretty big horse. And, yeah, that’s me about to get squished.

 

And, Finally,

 

IMG_1482

Barne’s and Noble, Iowa City, IA – An actual side-by-side display. Let’s see, I can get the life story of the Nobel Prize Winning teenager who was shot in the face by the Taliban religious extremists for speaking out in favor of letting girls go to school or …… you know…. that Duck Commander Girl…. you know, she was on Dancing with the stars…..Nice Job, Barne’s and Noble.

 

 

 

 

 

Pilot’s Journal – The Soundtrack

June 4, 2015 – Amarillo, TX

“Well we’re living here in Allentown,
and they’re closing all the factories down,
out in Bethlehem they’re killing time,
filling out forms,
standing in line”
Allentown by Billy Joel

The human brain is a weird and wonderful thing. We think of the mind in terms of consciousness; Descartes said “I think, therefore I am.” Most of us probably consider our brains to be a necessary tool. We consider what our brain can do for us (help us solve math problems, read a book, surf the web for cute kitten pictures). It allows us, some of us more than others, to think about things, analyze them, and edit them for release to the public (e.g. Not telling the whole world that one of your brain’s top three functions is surfing the web for cute kitten pictures).

But our brains are involved in a great deal more than consciousness. If your brain is anything like mine (and I will not insult you by suggesting that it is) your brain has projects of it’s own; internal programs that it runs without your permission and sometimes without your conscious participation. And it seems to me that some of this behind-the-scenes work is actually very good and beneficial to us. It does (sometimes) prevent us from saying stupid things. It pulls our hand away from the hot stove. And it allows us to catch a ball thrown to us. Think of the physics involved in calculating the trajectory of a thrown object; adjusting for mass and velocity and wind and …. I bet you cannot do those calculations on a sheet of paper but your brain makes the necessary calculations and predictions and…..voila! you catch the ball.

Your brain, while an amazing and wonderful computer, does have it’s limitations. You can demonstrate this quite easily. Try this test sometime when you are in an airport or other locale which has “moving sidewalks.” When the moving sidewalk is functional (moving) you can walk onto it smoothly and confidently because your brain is familiar with this machine and makes the necessary adjustments to your stride to account for the suddenly moving floor. What is cooler is when you approach a moving sidewalk which is broken (not moving, which is sadly too common in airports). As you approach you will notice it’s lack of movement and you will (involuntarily) say “damn.” But that’s not the test. Here’s the test. Try to walk onto it. Just walk right along as you normally would on a regular concrete sidewalk. You know this moving sidewalk is not moving. You know this. You can see it. But I guarantee that you will stumble just a little as you take that first step onto this non-moving moving sidewalk. It is a case, apparently, where the brain’s amazing unconscious ability to analyze, calculate, and extrapolate override even the conscious brain’s solid and valid input. It is interesting.

Among these unbidden and unconscious brain functions that my brain wastes time on is what I call “The Soundtrack.” My soundtrack consists of songs that “run through my mind,” sometimes all day long. I know this phenomenon is hardly unique. But my ear worm is not just the latest Taylor Swift number that you would gladly lobotomize yourself to be rid of. Because I’m a pilot and travel for a living I suppose, my soundtrack is geography based. Let me explain.

When I take a flight to Allentown, Pennsylvania I can be assured that, before I leave the airport to get in the hotel van, the song “Allentown” by Billy Joel will be running on an endless loop inside my head until the landing gear are retracted after takeoff when I leave. During all my waking hours in Allentown I will hear in my mind and sometimes find myself mumbling

No they never told us what was real,
Iron and Coke and Chromium Steel…

This is relentless and it is exacerbated by sights and sounds which reinforce a city’s famous attributes. For example, our hotel in Allentown is actually right next to the famous Bethlehem Steel works which was once the largest steel mill in the world and now houses a casino. When I walk outside the hotel and see the rusting old hulk in the distance it is almost inevitable that Billy Joel’s booming voice will increase in volume (not to 10, mind you, but certainly 6).

Now, you may not think this would be a problem. As I said, everyone has ear worms whether they be ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”, or Billy Ray Cyrus “Achy Breaky Heart.” (hah, hah! I got you, didn’t I.) How many songs could there be about cities, states, and landmasses? Well, as it turns out, A HELLUVA LOT! As I walk around downtown Wichita good old Glen Campbell is with me, inside my head, in fact, crooning Jimmy Webb’s great old lyrics.

I am a lineman for the county,
and I drive the main road,
searchin’ in the sun for another overload
                          Wichita Lineman by Jimmy Webb

I cannot overnight in Cincinnati, or even land there without this running through my head;

Baby, if you’ve ever wondered,
wondered whatever became of me,
I’m living on the air in Cincinnati,
Cincinnati WKRP …
WKRP by Tom Wells

In New York City the unbidden voice of Sinatra intrudes, of course;

I want to wake up in a city,
that doesn’t sleep,
And find I’m king of the hill,
top of the heap…
Theme from New York, New York
by John Kander and Fred Ebb

And the thing is, I’m not really a big Sinatra fan.

It’s one thing to sing the wrong lyrics in public and fill in the unknown lines with dah, dee, dahh, dum. But what I find is that I do the same thing on my brain soundtrack. I know some of the Rodgers and Hammerstein favorite “Oklahoma” which runs through my head when I walk through Bricktown in Oklahoma City ….

OOOOOOKLAHOMA! where the wind comes
sweeping down the plain,
and the wavin’ wheat can sure smell sweet,
when the …..Dah, De, Dah, De, Dum Dum…

Yeah, Dum Dum is right. Is deluding yourself worse than deluding others?
(Small aside here. The song Oklahoma from the musical of the same name is actually the state song of the State of Oklahoma. It was adopted in 1953. That is one of those delicious little tidbits of fact that you run across from time to time which just make you smile. I would love to run into the crusty right-wing Senator James Inhofe sometime just so I could remind him that his bright red state’s state song was written for a Broadway play by a couple of New York composers.)

And on it goes. I was landing at O’Hare the other day and, yep, Sinatra again;

This is my kind of town, Chicago is
My kind of town, Chicago is,
My kind of people, too
People who smile at you…
My Kind of Town
by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen

Not always my experience in Chicago, but perhaps I don’t smile enough, either.
Over West Virginia, John Denver chimes in;

Almost Heaven, West Virginia,
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River,

When I’m ordering a Filet-o-fish at a McDonalds in Denver he is back;

Colorado Rocky Mountain Hiiiiiigh,
I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky,
The shadow from the starlight,
is softer than a lullaby,
Rocky Mountain Hiiiiiigh ….

I walk around the Grand Ole Opry and the Lovin’ Spoonful are inside my cranium;

Well, there’s thirteen hundred and fifty-two
guitar pickers in Nashville,
and they can pick more notes than the number of ants,
on a Tennessee ant hill,
Yeah, there’s thirteen hundred and fifty-two
guitar cases in Nashville,
and any one that unpacks his guitar,
could play twice as better than I will…
Nashville Cats

Well, that one is just awesome, you gotta admit. I don’t mind that ear worm at all. Although, in the spirit of full disclosure I always sang it as “fifteen hundred and fifty-two” guitar pickers. John Sebastian’s line, I will admit, sounds better than mine. Imagine that.

I could continue my sad catalog of musical woe. There are many more geographical references in song than you might guess. Somehow my brain seems to know more songs than I do if that is possible and it cues up the right 45 at just the appropriate moment (Millennials, you’ll have to ask your parents to explain what a 45 is. No, it’s not a gun.)

When I’m walking in Memphis, of course, I’m Walkin’ with Marc Cohn. When I’m in Philadelphia Bruce Springsteen’s halting, haunting number is ever present. Unfortunately, when I’m at the Subway in Tulsa, I’m on Tulsa Time with Don Williams (Once again, not a huge country fan but, what are you gonna do. There it is.)

I take off north out of Hartford and bank left over beautiful western Massachusetts and I hear James Taylor;

Now the first of December was covered with snow,
and so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston,
though the Berkshires seemed dreamlike
on account of that frosting,
with ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go…
                          Sweet Baby James by James Taylor

I love that one, too.

So why are there so many songs about places and why do they ring through my head? It’s because we love places and the people in them. These songs bring back memories to us of the places we have been and the places we live and, of course, the places we would like to go. I love geography. I love maps. I love to travel. So, I guess it should not be a surprise that my particular species of ear worm is about places. If I could train my brain to redirect the energy required for my “soundtrack” to more meaningful activity I would probably be polishing my Nobel prize or, as Mark Twain said “Keeping store, no doubt, and respected by all.” But, as when Stephen Colbert asked neural scientist Francis Collins “where would I stab a pencil to get Call me Maybe out of my head?” I am unable to rid myself of my particular ear worm. I do wish that I liked all the songs on the album (Album? Again, millennials, ask your parents). That would make it more bearable. Fortunately I like most of them. I might as well embrace my soundtrack. At least I save a lot of money on iTunes.

P.S. I’m in Amarillo this morning. So I’m sure you can guess the playlist for Dustin’s head today.

Pilot’s Journal – Philly Wintertime (What is his story?)

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

William Penn atop City Hall

JANUARY 30 – Philadelphia, PA

I wake up this morning to the sound of a car horn 19 floors below me. Even up here the sound is clear and loud as if it is right outside. I sit in a corner window and look out on Market street, normally bustling, but now relatively quiet, even abandoned for some seconds at a time.

It’s a Sunday morning in January and light snow is falling. In fact, it is not exactly falling since each flake is wafted upward near the buildings. Sometimes I can watch the same snowflake levitate before my window for as much as 5 seconds before it is lost from view among the millions of its fellows. The office building across from me is exactly aligned with my hotel room but is set back from Market street by three or four feet more than my window and so affords me a view down the street to City Hall. On top I can see the austere statue of William Penn, his back turned from me, his shoulders covered with snow.

I am looking straight across now into the window of an office. All the offices are dark, but all the curtains, if they have them, are open so that I can look into each one. This one is a large corner office and I wonder, immediately, what kind of person works there. The desk is clean; unobstructed by clutter of any kind. The office is rather spartan, in fact, except that it contains, in addition to the desk, a round table with two chairs. Also, around the perimeter of the window shelf are a number of pictures in frames and a vase with no flowers in it. I can’t see the pictures since they face into the room, away from me, but I fancy they contain the smiling visages of some handsome children, now in their late teens or early twenties.

Maybe someone who keeps his office so neat can also keep his life in order and I like to think this guy also has a picture of he and his wife of twenty-some years on a beach in the Bahamas. No, make that Fiji. Yeah, the guy with the corner office is going to be able to afford it. As I examine the office more closely from my vantage point a mere thirty or so feet away I realize that the term spartan was overstatement. There are, in fact, a number of objects present which lend some definition to this office’s owner.

A second glance reveals a large globe in the corner of the room sitting on a stand about waist high. Does this say something about the occupant’s business, requiring geographical reference, or his own personal love of travel? Surely the latter, I think, for a globe is not as precise as an atlas for such reference. Yet, the thing might be some sort of status symbol, or backdrop for clients, suggesting that the man possesses a long view or a worldly approach. I secretly hope that he is, like myself, simply someone who likes maps.

In another corner I note a couple of personal items that I am surprised at myself for overlooking at first. There are two white binders, a small brass replica of the Liberty Bell, and a white, limestone looking rock of unknown provenance. The binders are not out of place in an office, of course. They look like computer manuals, to me, and indeed there is a computer monitor on the desk. What is odd, though, is that there are no other books or publications visible anywhere in the office. I carry more reading material in my flight case than this guy has in his entire office. The rock is curious, I think, because of its plainness. If it were a geode or the fossilized Trilobite it might betray some interest, by the owner, in geology. In the case of a polished geode it might even be just a conversation piece or decoration. But it is as pale white and nondescript as a piece of gravel. What is it, then? Perhaps it is a souvenir; a piece of coral from the beach in Fiji. But it is ridiculously large to be a memento from a vacation. It probably weighs five pounds.

My little boy and I, when we are in the city, play a game with each other called “what is his story.” We watch people passing on the street and take turns describing their lives and what they are doing. I will say “that lady walking fast with her coat pulled tight around her just won $10,000 on an instant lottery ticket and is hurrying home to tell her husband.” He will say “that man carrying the umbrella is really an FBI agent. He is undercover trying to bust a drug cartel. His umbrella is really an weapon.” And so on. So when I look into this corner office I try to make a life for this, not fictional but still unknown, character.

My creative guess is as follows: This guy likes the perks and prestige of his job; Vice-President of marketing, I think. But he finds the work unfulfilling and hollow. He works in the city because he has to, but he pines for the countryside. His nice home in a close-in suburb is also too constraining for him, like a necktie pulled a little too tight. So, he has saved his money and bought himself a small farm, out near Lancaster, I think, or perhaps in the pine barrens in New Jersey. On this farm is a ramshackle farmhouse where he spends his weekends, maybe even today, fixing it up. After spending the week firing electrons back and forth from his computer to another, he likes the feel of a hammer in his hand; something solid and tangible. He likes to sit and look at the drywall he put up in the kitchen of his farmhouse. Sure, there is a blemish here and there where the joint compound is not perfectly smooth, but its not bad at all for a guy with smooth hands. Behind the house is a collapsing old hulk of a dairy barn which he sees in his mind’s eye as a guest house; somewhere he could bring select friends from the city to admire his country life. Behind the barn is a little bluff with an outcropping of white limestone. One day he took his hammer and knocked off a protruding piece. He put it in the trunk of his BMW and carried it up to his office when no one else was around. He doesn’t like to show off. I have decided that he is a geography buff and keeps the globe because he likes it. He keeps the rock, also, not to show off, but to keep a little piece of his dream next to him in the soul-sucking city. The rock is in a corner of the window shelf, after all, not in the middle of his desk. It is there for him, and sometimes he runs his hand across it to calm himself after a frustrating meeting or teleconference gone bad.

The little Liberty Bell is more puzzling to me. It could be an award, maybe something his company gave him in honor of an anniversary or the landing of a big contract. If it is, he doesn’t value it, for it is tucked far back in the corner behind the rock. Maybe it’s a souvenir, also, although a Liberty Bell is a curious souvenir for someone who lives in Philadelphia.

I have fleshed out enough of this man in my mind. I like him. He is solid and hard working, but he yearns for something more meaningful out of life than making sales. He loves his family, is proud of his kids (they go to Princeton and Penn. State respectively), and has a country soul. His coworkers think he is a little strange (the rock) and his country neighbors look down their noses at his amateur carpentry. To them he is a city slicker. To the city folks he is a mystery. He is out of place in both the worlds he inhabits and that somehow endears him to me even more.

__________________________________________________________________

In the evening I go downstairs to the hotel restaurant, a place called the “Elephant and Castle or Castle and Elephant,” a reference to an intersection in London, I believe. The restaurant specializes in British food, as if that was a selling point. I am seated by a waiter who seems irritated by my very existence. Consequently I make him refill my iced tea about seven times during the meal. The menu contains such tasty offerings as bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie, and Yorkshire pudding. Haggis and tripe are nowhere to be found, so I settle on the shepherd’s pie and begin to dig in. Dig is the appropriate word since this shepherd’s pie is literally a pile of hamburger, peas and carrots in the bottom of a dish completely covered by mashed potatoes. It isn’t too bad.

As I eat and torment the waiter I happen to notice that I am sitting in a small enclosed sunroom which sticks out onto the sidewalk about six feet. In daytime one would be able to look up through the glass ceiling to see the tall buildings all around the hotel. Being dark outside it seems rather like eating your meal in an aquarium with passers-by gawking at your table manners.

About halfway through the meal I notice that a lump on the sidewalk outside that I had taken to be a pile of rubbish has rolled over and revealed itself to be a homeless man. He has been lying flat out on the sidewalk and when he sits up he is staring straight at me with a baleful expression. I halt, a spoonful of mashed potato halfway to my mouth, and stare back transfixed. He is a small black man with grizzled hair and he is wearing several ragged coats. All around him are discarded newspapers, which had served as his blankets. His eyes are unfocused as if he has just crawled out of bed which, in a way, I guess he has.

Being my mother’s son I am kind of a sucker for guilt, anyway, but I find it hard to even take another bite of my meal. Here am I, a not at all undernourished “young” man eating what turns out to be a nineteen dollar meal, after tip, while one of my elders sits on the sidewalk on a freezing cold January day with no home, no one to care about him, and no prospect of a meal like mine in the foreseeable future.

To my discredit I go upstairs quickly after paying the bill, but the old man stays with me. I reflect that a really good person would take part of his meal in a box over to the man or give him some money. But I don’t do that. And I’m not sure why. I tell myself that it is because I am afraid of being accosted by him, or by an unsavory looking character waiting at a stoplight nearby. But, of course, the old man would be no match for me, unless he has some kind of weapon. And why would he? And it is a busy street, with many pedestrians stepping over and around the old man. And, and, and… Probably I am afraid of what those pedestrians or my fellow diners will think. What a revolting excuse.

It is easy to rationalize the plight of a man like that by saying that his own choices have led him here. Even so, it breaks your heart to think that he has been, in the dim past, somebody’s baby boy, cheerful and full of promise, just like my little boy. If that’s not worth the benefit of the doubt I don’t know what is.

As I had done with the man in the corner office my mind plays a game of “what is his story” with the old man without the moderating influence of my cheerful little boy. I go to bed feeling lousy, indeed guilty and lousy.

But I wake up early in the morning and I fly to Jacksonville, Florida where it is warm and sunny. It’s funny how a change of scenery can improve your temperament. I leave winter and the old man behind me in Philly and I go on about my life, as we all must do. But every game of “what is his story” is not fiction. Behind each person we pass on the street there is a real story; happy, sad, or, like most of us, happy and sad. And I think it behooves us, when we are playing “what is his story,” like we all do, to remember that fact. And perhaps sometimes we need to take some shepherds pie out to the man lying on the street and maybe ask how the game is going for him.

Pilot’s Journal – Philly Summertime

Walt Whitman Bridge

July 26 – Philadelphia, PA

I don’t know why, but Philadelphia always inspires my imagination. It may be the history the place is steeped in. It may be the reputation of the city as a cultural crucible. Heck, they have a bridge named after Walt Whitman- something interesting has to happen when you are there! I almost expect to see Ben Franklin or maybe Bruce Springsteen walking down the street toward me.

I am not a frequent visitor of big cities. I live in the country. I probably visit Chicago a few times a year. On my trips I often stay in hotels on the outskirts of cities like Atlanta, Washington, and Denver. But in Philly I get the chance to stay right downtown on Market Street and walk around, soaking in the city. Today I woke up late (1700 show time) and went for a walk in mid-morning. I walked the equivalent of 3 miles, just turning right here and left there, with no particular agenda. Doubtless my impressions of the city would seem trite, especially to one who lives his life here. My wide-eyed descriptions of the “huge buildin’s and all them people” would generate laughs from locals. But, in my own defense, I have always believed in the value of seeing old things with new eyes. The people who work every day in downtown Philly cannot see it anymore with the sense of awe and mystery that I do. Nor can I anymore see some of the beauty inherent in the place where I live. Someone from the city could visit our farm and recognize a subtle majesty in the row upon row of corn and the rolling hills. I still appreciate these but can no longer see them with new eyes.

Walking around Philly, to a rural boy, is a full sensory experience. There are sounds, smells, and sights impossible in the country. There are “big buildin’s” and, my goodness, there are people. I walk down the bustling sidewalks and I feel strangely dissociated from my own body as a wave of humanity folds around me like water in a stream. The heat is intense and enveloping. After a while the shouts, honks, and sirens fade into a persistent background hum, like the constant drumming of waves on the shore when you visit the beach.

It is absolutely impossible to guess what you may see next. A brass band? Yes! In front of a newly-opened, storefront McDonalds, a door swings open and out marches a man carrying and playing a sousaphone, followed by a trumpet, trombone, and incongruously, a man strumming a banjo, all dressed in dazzling red and green sequins. The proprietress of a fortune-telling and palm-reading shop is arguing with her landlord about the rent right in the middle of the sidewalk (didn’t she know the landlord was coming?). What’s that smell? A mix of sauerkraut and fresh baked bread (does krautbread exist? Probably here.) A well- endowed woman passes in a bright yellow t-shirt with black letters splayed across her ample, bra-less chest, the wording – IF YOU CAN READ THIS YOU ARE TOO CLOSE.

I stop for a Coke at a food court in one of the office towers and share a table with a harried looking middle-aged man in a rumpled suit and tie wearing a clean, white panama hat. Throughout his meal he pecks away at a tablet computer with a pencil-like stylus and fumbles from time to time through a stack of stapled files each headed “Application for Easement” or something like that. I conclude that he isn’t going to speak to me at all when he suddenly looks up, in what I take to be a sense of obligation, and says, without looking over at me, and in a strangely loud voice, “How hot is it outside?” I say “pretty hot” to which he responds nothing for about 3 minutes, then “It was really hot yesterday.” I allow that it probably was and we each resume our silence for the remainder of the meal. I think of the famous supposed rudeness of city people, then remember that I have had numerous similar conversations with farmers in our area.
I walk some more and pass a young couple paused at a street corner, looking around. The boy, about 20, is unexceptional, if fairly handsome. The girl, though, is one of the most attractive young women in my experience. The thing that distinguishes her most, however, is that she has two of the largest, most ungainly-looking, hearing aids I have ever seen. These are of the old style, flesh-colored crescents which wrap around the outside of the ear with a long loop of rubber tubing going into the ear canal. I figure they predate solid state electronics and may be heirlooms from pre-transistor days. They look like something a elderly man might have worn, but surely not a beautiful young women with otherwise trendy attire.

I am exhausted. I have been up the steps of the art museum, perhaps not with Rocky’s enthusiasm. I have seen the Liberty Bell. I have eaten in Chinatown and seen frogs and turtles in aquaria along the wall; not pets, by the way. Sweaty and feeling washed out I trudge back toward my air conditioned hotel room. As I turn the last corner I pass a heavy-set lady in what appears to be an ill-fitting nightgown. She gives me a broad smile and winks at me as I pass.

Pilot’s Journal – Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh - The Point

Pittsburgh – The Point

Saturday, August 27, 2011 – Pittsburgh, PA
We were supposed to overnight in Hartford, CT tonight but due to the approach of Hurricane Irene the powers-that-be concluded, rightly I think, that they would like to have their airplane far away from 75 mile per hour ground gusts. Consequently we repositioned our plane empty to Pittsburgh and had the good fortune to find that our usual hotel in PIT was booked up. That was good news because our company was forced to put us up at the Wyndam Grand, probably the best hotel in Pittsburgh, and right downtown on the point. We arrived about four in the afternoon after some small kerfuffle with the limo service.

I changed clothes and looked up some tourist information on the internet. I was disappointed to find that most of the museums, etc. I was interested in were already closed for the day or closing within minutes. So I ventured out around downtown to see what I could see. My first stop was the point park, otherwise known as the confluence. This is the point where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio. It is a beautiful park and all the more so for the human activity around me. Heinz Field, the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers stood directly across the Allegheny river from me and it was game night. A stream of people, literally thousands, was filing slowly and cheerfully out of downtown, through the park, and across the bridge to the stadium. It was a walk of perhaps two miles but everyone seemed in a good mood. There was no pushing or rowdiness and everyone seemed to be taking their time.

Since I was not going to the game I simply sat down along the cement parapet which runs along the river and watched small boats jockeying in the current to find anchorage abeam the stadium. I decided that some folks must come by boat to watch the game which struck me as a wonderful idea. I did not see any unoccupied boats, however, so I’m not sure whether one or two stayed to watch the boat while the others went to the game or if the boats were just there to get caught up in the general excitement of the evening. Periodically a large steamboat looking vessel laden with hundreds of people would round the point from the Monongahela and pull right up to the landing below the stadium. It was a gorgeous night with cool temps and a light breeze and, despite the nearby hurricane, not much cloud cover. I didn’t have this beautiful park to myself, but nearly so. Excepting the stream of humanity crossing the northeast corner of the park there were very few people along the promenade itself. I sat and soaked in the sights and the cool evening air and watched the sun go down.

It is an odd thing to be by oneself in a city which is not your own. You feel that you are somehow apart from the rest, yet, in a big city it seems to me that no one owns the city. A stranger in my small town is indeed a stranger and residents, though friendly, recognize his outsider status. But in a city as large as Pittsburgh nobody has a big enough share to claim posession. You can own a town like mine, but you can’t really own Pittsburgh.