Friday, November 22, 2013
Tuesday, September 18, 2012
A NEW and DIFFERENT PHANTOM
Those of you who follow my ramblings know that I have a bit of a passion for quality music and an admiration for those with the skill to perform it. Whether drummer, organist, pianist, guitar player, bassist, no matter the instrument, it is the ability to make the difficult appear easy and create magnificent music seemingly without effort. Watching and listening to the master of an instrument weave his or her musical web is inspiring to me.
At first sight I had thought that this would be something akin to the old 'Swiss bell ringer' groups where three or more people dressed in silly Swiss costumes tinkled out a basic song by ringing the appropriate bell at the appropriate time. Talk about being completely wrong! As the first song started, there was a steady beat and a driving bass line gradually joined by a full arrangement of piano, horns, and strings. When my 'phantom' began to play the bells, the sound came together as a perfect audio recipe for excitement. I was swept away by the amazing musical ability and showmanship of a true master of the instrument. With flying fists and feet, my 'phantom' created musical magic while casually glancing at the audience as if his instrument were playing itself.
On this day, Frank DellaPenna captivated and thrilled his audience both with his music and with the flair and style he presents. To you, dear reader, all I can say is, click and behold! The video is best viewed at full screen.
For more information about Cast in Bronze and Frank DellaPenna, please go to:
Friday, August 26, 2011
Thursday, May 26, 2011
The thing called 'Facebook' may be considered as a teenager's toy where the texting generation posts inane comments about meaningless happenings in their young lives. But sometimes it can be a miracle that enables a generation who grew up with rotary telephones, black and white television, and Mom being at home to reconnect to friends long lost to the four winds. After 47 years the 'backfield' was once again together. Certainly no longer able to even get into a football stance, let alone charge an opponent. Paunchy, balding, white haired, a bit frail, and seriously medicated, three geezers rekindled the spirit of their relationship with a couple days of 'laugh and scratch', revisiting old haunts, and even a visit to a local nudie bar. It's hard to really get into the spirit of a nudie bar when the girls are younger than your children and only a few years older than your grandchildren. Instead of admiring their lovely young bodies with lusty thoughts of sexual desire, we found ourselves trying to stay awake, wondering if the girls were warm enough, and if the wooden stage hurt their knees. A far cry from the trip to Acapulco where...I'll just leave it at that.
Those 18 year old hoodlums had somehow been transformed (seemingly overnight) into grandfathers with numerous medical ailments and failing memory cells. Young bodies that had once enthusiastically smashed headlong into an opponent now bore the scars of assorted surgeries and the pain of arthritic joints. No one can ever see themselves age. The face in the mirror (at least from our perspective) is the same as it was 30, 40, 50 years ago, and mentally we're all still waiting for summer vacation at the end of the school year. But when seen through the prisim of old friends, suddenly the changes become evident. Physically we can never be the same. Those hard young bodies are long gone, victims of the process of establishing our identities in life. But the spirit of friendship and the remaining memories of times and people now gone, remain as the rock to which we cling while life attempts to sweep us away to join the dust of ages. And after a couple days with two other old farts, I can tell you, we're clinging pretty good.
Saturday, March 19, 2011
I had a scare last week at my abomination station on Wheeling Island. The Ohio River has a record of flooding over 'Da' I-Lan' about every seven years on average. Let's see, last flooded in 2005, this is 2011, yep, she's due. When I acquired hedo-house in 2005, it had been flooded to the first floor in September of 2004 and again in January of 2005. The owner at the time was a widow in her eighties. Fortunately she had moved into assisted living before the flooding so she was safe, but the damage to the house was a problem for her. The electrical panels and some of the wiring had been destroyed, the water heater was destroyed, a finished room in the basement (itself a fool's project) had been obliterated, the first floor carpeting had been soaked with mud, and numerous other parts of the house had been damaged. She had some restoration work done, but her funds were limited. She eventually just put the house up for sale, 'as is', at a reduced price. Enter your most humble and obedient servant who was searching for a base of operations for his completely corrupt lifestyle.
Most of the intervening years between 2005 and 2011 had been spent in cleaning, restoring, replacing, remodeling, renovating, and a bunch of other "re's" that totalled up to a significant amount of $$$$ and a whole lot of perspiration. Other than residual flood damage, the house had not been too bad to start with, but six years of work had turned it into quite a comfortable den of iniquity. Among the improvements were the installation of a sump pump in the basement, relocating the electrical service to the first floor, and blocking up two open window openings into the basement. I didn't understand the existance of that one either but hey, "It's Da I-Lan mon', some strange thin's goin' on ober der".
When you live on an island, you have to know 'your number'. Every house has one and it's not an address, it's the river level at which water begins to come into your house. At the 'clap shack', that number is 38.3. The numbers come from river elevations as monitored and predicted by the U.S. Army, Corps of Engineers who control the system of locks and dams that prevent the catastrophic floods such as happened in the 1930's. They have a website with a 'hydrograph' and without getting too technical, it is a prediction of river level changes that will occur based upon predicted rainfall.
(right click, Open in new window)
For instance, the normal river level at wheeling is about 22', but a 3" rainfall over the huge Ohio river watershed area can result in a peak flow that reaches 40', well above the 36' flood stage. When extended rainy weather or snowmelt is predicted, Island residents with computers check the website regularly to see if emergency measures will be necessary. Those without computers monitor television and radio reports of the predicted river level.
Monday, February 7, 2011
Enough trains already! Well, maybe not just yet. In an effort to escape grey drizzly skies, snow flurries, biting cold, and the weatherman's twisted concept of 'partly cloudy', I made a January pilgrimage to the Gulf Coast of Florida. It was a quest to find that most elusive dream, a coastal drinking village with a fishing problem. The kind of town where you could swear that you just saw Ernest Hemmingway, and where the bar stools are occupied at 10 AM. A writers' haven filled with colorful characters who spin tales of adventure, and where even the morning coffee has an umbrella in it.
At the check-in booth near the station entrance, I received my car number and instructions as to what to do next. Guided into a temporary parking space by one of several auto attendants, I gathered up my overnight bag and ticket paperwork while my car was video-documented for pre-existing damage. With number 430 magnetically attached to the driver's door, I stood watching as my car was whisked away, up a ramp and into one of the numerous cavernous auto carriers. I could only hope that it would find a cute little compact or a brightly colored Corvette to get chummy with during the long night's journey.
Inside the station, I was startled by the number of people already there. Almost every one of the hundreds of seats was occupied, some by people with enough luggage for a two week trip rather than an overnight stay. I couldn't help but wonder where they intended to put it all, and why they felt the need for so much 'stuff'. There comes a point where you cease to look like a traveller and start to look like a refugee.
The check-in process was brief and efficient, giving me my room assignment, dining schedule, and the other general information required for the trip. After a wait of half an hour spent watching the media's panic over the approaching weather, passengers were called to board.
I have ridden trains before, starting as far back as the late 1950's. Then, my mother gathered up my brother and my pre-teen self to catch a Chicago bound train at Connellsville, PA. At that time it was a one and a half day trip, and a wondrous adventure for a kid. With a sleeping room, the trip was far less testing than it would have been in a "comfortable reclining chair" in the coach section. Many years later, in the 1990's, I took the Auto Train to Florida and was surprised to find the same room accommodations, rolling stock, and positive attitude toward customer service that I remembered from the 50's. One of my favorite features of both trains was the "observation car", a glass-domed car with elevated seats that allowed passengers to look around freely at the scenery and out over the train while it snaked through the countryside. I was to be disappointed on this trip by the absence of that car.
During that 1990's trip, a walk through the coach section during the night had shocked me. What had been an orderly place with rows of seats like an airliner had been transformed into something from a third world country. Pajama-clad children lay trying unsuccessfully to sleep across seats and in the aisle, food bags, toys, blankets, pillows, and drink bottles lay strewn about, while disheveled, exhausted adults struggled in vain to pacify their young. All that was missing were the goats and chickens. I remember wondering why AMTRAK had not reinstituted the old Pullman cars where coach passengers could sleep in upper and lower burth (bunk) beds behind privacy curtains. That would have to be better than the 'cattle car' atmosphere in the coaches. It appears that someone at AMTRAK had a similar idea, but applied it to the sleeper passenger cars instead of the coaches.
My previous trips had been in a reasonably comfortable bedroom that slept four and had a private bathroom. That was then, this is now. The new 'Superliner Sleeper Cars' have two levels of full-sized bedrooms, handicapped-accessible bedrooms, and communal toilet and shower facilities on the ends with rows of 'roomettes' in between. A 'roomette' is 3'6" by 6'6" with two single seats that convert into the lower bed while an upper bed folds down from the ceiling. It has no toilet or wash facilities. With the sliding door closed, there is room to stand and turn around, but this is no place for a claustrophobic. That being said, I found the arrangement infinitely roomy when compared to the extreme confines of airplane travel. My cubicle was on the upper level of the car, providing me a better view than those on the lower level. (Right click and 'open in new window')
Friday, July 30, 2010
From childhood I have been fascinated by trains. Perhaps it is the gigantic mass of moving machinery, or the quasi-romance associated with railroads that attracted me, but whatever it is, it's still alive within me. I would have loved to have enjoyed a career with a railroad company, but I had the misfortune to be completing college at a time when railroads were in a precipitious decline and masses of employees were being shown the exit door. Spilt milk at this point.
There is an excitement that accompanies walking toward a restored and immaculately maintained railroad station with "1908" emblazoned on a stone tablet set high below a roof overhang. It's a chance to escape the disposability of today for a brief return to the strength, elegance, and permanence of long ago. The thrill fades a bit when faced with the 'gift shop frenzy' of children and adults pawing through pink engineer hats, multi-colored tee shirts, plastic trains, and wooden train whistles made in China. If you make an honest effort to stick with admiring the architecture, the buzz stays a bit longer. Then the building begins to shake and an ever-louder roar signals the approach of a 1500 horsepower shark-nose diesel-electric locomotive built in 1947. The blast of the horn is deafening and sends whiney children screaming back to their mothers, but sends a welcomed chill down my spine.
Stepping outside I am confronted by a huge beast that sits at thunderous idle, diesel fumes spewing from its exhaust stack. Power throbs from within it, vibrating anything nearby. It is sleek and beautifully curved, painted shiny black and emblazoned with "WESTERN MARYLAND" in bold yellow letters that seem to extend to the horizon. Like the impulse to touch a wild animal, I am filled with the desire run my hands over the smooth, curving surfaces. High above me the large glowing headlight shines like a single eye. All about the machine are wires, pipes, and conduits. A pipe railing guards workers who must stand at the front as well as inconsiderate and disrespectful tourists. High above sits the engineer in his windowed chamber, master of all that will happen on this day. There is a feeling of awe that mere men could build such a grand and powerful creature as this.
Ticket in hand, I carefully avoided the gift shop in favor of an old corrugated metal building labelled "Cass Showcase". Once inside I was treated to a scale model of the town as it existed in 1908, a narrated history provided by a knowledgeable gentleman, and a wonderful 10-15 minute movie. All were quite interesting, and the end of the movie was punctuated by the melodic scream of a steam whistle. When I exited the building, a huge black steam locomotive with four passenger cars sat at the depot. I would learn later that the engine before me was a 160 ton Shay steam locomotive, the second largest ever built, constructed in 1945 in Lima, Ohio. It was a magnificent creature, vastly different from the shapely diesel of Elkins and unlike anything I had ever seen.
An incredibly complicated machine, it had a boiler and a cab, but other than that it bore no resemblance to the usual steam locomotives. There are three exposed steam cylinders on each side and the cylinders drive a long crankshaft along the lower right side of the unit. This crankshaft drives gears at each of the six wheels, including two beneath the tender. Since the six wheels are rigidly connected to axles and the wheels on the other side, technically it is a 'twelve wheel drive' machine. It is the locomotive equivalent of 'all wheel drive', which was necessary to negotiate the steep grades encountered while climbing the mountains where logging operations were being conducted. As I studied it, I began to realize what an absolute marvel it is that something like this could still be in regular service after all those years. Unlike the relatively smoke-free diesel, a steady cloud of black coal smoke chugged from the stack while water leaked from the botton and steam hissed from relief valves. It was both frightening and strangly magnetic at the same time. It was like staring at a bomb with the strange compulsion to see what that large red button does.
Most trains operate at a maximum grade of about 2% or two feet vertically in one hundred feet. Beyond that, their drive wheels begin to slip on the steel rails. Applying sand to the rails may help gain an extra percent or two, but that is about the limit. Almost immediately we were at 9%, a gradient that sent most people to their seats and kept them there. The ancient engine worked its mechanical heart out with clouds of bellowing smoke and flying pistons spinning the driveshaft. But up we went.
After visiting the sites of two abandoned logging towns and a couple of engineering feats, we began our descent back down the mountain. It is disconcerting to start down an 11% grade in front of 160 tons of steel and steam on wheels. Looking through the open cars at that huge boiler, I couldn't help but hope that those 65 year old brakes would hold until we reached level ground. Despite trust in competent people, there seems to be a point where those 'Stephen King' thoughts start to pop up. But in the end, thoughts were needless as we slowly and steadily returned to the Village of Cass.
All told it was a very nice couple of days. I have grown to appreciate history and the people who comprised it. It is equally satisfying to experience the efforts of those who put their passions into action so that others may experience a bit of the times long behind us.