Tuesday, August 25, 2015


Having grown up in the greater Ohio Valley of the northeast, I always believed that heavy cloud cover on the verge of rain was the normal weather forecast.  Daily weather ranging from 'partly cloudy' to 'mostly cloudy' with the 'possibility of thunder showers' was as predictable as sunshine in Southern California.  It was not until I began to travel that I became aware that such gloomy weather was not the norm for most of the nation.  Because of the coloration projected by the sun when it did penetrate the clouds, I began to refer to the dark cloud conditions as 'The Grey'. A look skyward would be met by a mass of more or less angry clouds that gave the sky a grey cast.  After visiting more distant areas of the U.S.A., I came to realize that 'the grey' was not universal and that sunshine through a clear blue sky with occasional puffs of fluffy white clouds was more the norm.  After my final release from the slave ship of employment, my next focus became escaping 'the grey'.
Anyone who has followed my scribblings knows that my holy grail search for a place to live would take me to a small coastal fishing village, largely undiscovered by tourists, where the bars open early to colorful characters who exchange stories while sipping on frozen alcoholic creations.  Ideally, such a place would have an uncrowded stretch of sandy beach with warm water and palm trees but, above all, clear blue skies.

Inertia being what it is, it took a while to locate some likely candidates.  Mrs. Randall, being a 'snow queen' from northwestern PA where they get about twelve feet of snow per year, quickly let it be known that coastal areas are too hot and humid for her, and any place vulnerable to hurricanes was instantly out.  For as much as that threw water on my dream, the reality was that we could neither afford decent housing in a coastal area nor the insurance coverage such a house would require.  But that did not mean we had to be hundreds of miles from the beach.  After extensive research, we began to look seriously at the Charleston, South Carolina area.

During the first week of December, 2014, we made the trip to Summerville, SC to look at houses.  Immediately we were taken by the area, primarily that it was 55 degrees with a perfect blue sky.  We laughed at the locals who were bundled up in heavy jackets while we were comfortable in short  sleeved shirts.  The area appeared lush with abundant landscaping and some plants still blooming.  Lawns were green and free of snow and ice, a far cry from back home where nothing would grow for another four months.  And there were palm trees!  A wide variety of palm trees in yards, parks, shopping centers, parking lots, and just lining streets and roads about the area.  There is  something magical about palm trees to me.  They represent sun and warmth, and a more relaxed lifestyle free of heavy clothing and absent that deep chill that penetrates into your body until your joints feel stiff and painful.  It was as if heavy chains had been removed from my spirit.

During that week, the evenings were filled with searching the real estate listings for potential homes, then days were spent visiting those houses.  Some looked good in photographs but were disasters in reality.  Some were so bad that we did not even get out of the car, instead choosing to drive by and off to the next house.  Others were nice houses but located in questionable areas.  Our real estate agent was a great help, getting us into houses that we wanted to see more closely. Soon all the houses we saw started to blend together making it hard to remember which we liked and which we did not.  As it grew near our time to return north, we began to feel as if another trip south would be required before we would find a house.  Then suddenly it appeared!  A brand new listing in a neighborhood we liked.  Three bedrooms, two car garage, new roof, newer heating and cooling system, everything but a partridge in a pear tree.  And it had Mrs. Randall's dream refrigerator; a French-doored monster with lots of cubic feet and the freezer on the bottom.  Once she saw that, the rest of the house could have been a burned-out meth lab so long as she got that refrigerator.  The price was higher than we had intended but was still comfortably below the phenomenal amount for which we had pre-qualified.  We were hooked.

Our offer (including the demand for the refrigerator) was accepted and suddenly we were homeowners.  The emotions that go along with that status were a bit of whiplash by  themselves.  Whereas we had been focused upon finding a house, almost instantly we had to become focused upon the process of selling the existing house, moving all of our belongings, and the financial and logistical requirements that went with it.  Immediately we were mentally numb wondering what kind of a monster we had just unleashed.

We found the answer to be "one step at a time".  With the target date for closing set, we started by contacting a real estate agent to list the northern house and assembling all of the paperwork required.  That was followed shortly by contacting a moving company where we had the pleasant surprise that they would take both motorcycles for a modest sum in addition to that of moving our 'stuff'.  That alone solved a serious problem for us that could have included driving motorcycles 600 miles in February, a frightening prospect.  The next step was to sort through what 'stuff' would make the trip south and what would go to Goodwill, recycling, or garbage.  Then started the packing, a spiraling process that allowed unused things to be packed immediately, followed, in turn, by things as they became no longer needed for daily use.  Eventually that left us with boxes and plastic totes stacked floor to ceiling, and virtually empty closets, drawers, etc.  The last of the packing took place the evening before the movers were due to pack glassware, dishes, and the more fragile things that we did not trust ourselves to pack.  As hand truck after hand truck of boxes and totes went out to the huge truck to join our furniture and other belongings, the house became increasing empty until the 'OMG factor' began to kick in.  Areas of walls and floor that had not seen light in generations were exposed along with  their accumulated dust.  We spent our last evening in that house cleaning walls and floors while marveling at the emptiness of it all.  The next day was spent in a 10 hour drive.

The closing was well managed by an experienced attorney who made the boring process feel lively and personal.  After a couple of trips to utility offices, we unlocked and opened the door to our new (very empty) house, taking in the few belongings we could take in a packed car.  Sleeping on the floor on an inflatable bed might be cool as a kid but it was very trying as an adult.  Our furniture could not arrive soon enough.

Days were spent cleaning and painting while evenings were largely a 'crash and burn' situation. We did explore a bit, discovering our new surroundings and confirming that the intense traffic we had encountered during previous visits was the rule rather than the exception. Part of the price of escaping the grey was the large number of others who were there to do the same.

Once our furniture arrived and was in place, our house began to feel like a home.  After several days on the floor, sleeping in a real bed was blissful.  It was SO nice to roll out and put legs DOWN onto the floor rather than struggling to get UP from the floor.  With our furniture came our motorcycles, and the opportunity to explore.  There we were wearing jeans, tee shirts, and vests cruising happily while the locals bundled up against the "chilling" 50 degree temperatures.  And the sky was BLUE!  A beautiful powder blue with a few fluffy white clouds as far as the eye could see.  It actually took a while to get over the mindset that we would soon have to return to 'the grey', but gradually we adapted to the comfort of mild temperatures and having a sky that looked as a sky should.

Among the many discoveries we have made was a REAL beach town.  Charleston has many miles of beautiful beach, but the majority has been gobbled up by developers who build hotels and private homes that lock away large tracts of beach, reserving it for the wealthy and those with enough money to rent a beach house by the week.  The remainder of us, the great unwashed, can purchase yearly passes to use a few small county beach parks, hoping we can get there early enough to beat to rush and bringing sufficient coins to feed the ever-hungry parking meters.  To say this was a disappointment would be a huge understatement.  But, with research and exploration, we found a beach town less than an hour away.  By and large it has resisted the curse of moneyed yuppies and remains a small beach town with no big hotels, no chain restaurants, free parking, and a casual lifestyle reminiscent of years gone by.  Several days a week the shrimp boats go out to trawl just offshore.  They return with catches of shrimp, part of which go to the local bars and restaurants to be served in a mind boggling number of dishes where they are steamed, deep fried, broiled, baked, sautéed, flambéed, and, for the adventurous, served raw.  Shrimp are a culinary building block upon which much of the local cuisine is built.  Along with flounder, the local ocean fish, seafood is a sizeable chunk of the menu.  Add to that local barbeque in pork, beef, or chicken and some creative burgers, and a trip to a seaside restaurant becomes an adventure.

Recognizing that there is no  'free lunch', the best beach access is through a state park where, yes, we did have to pay for an annual pass.  But the amount is nominal and gains us abundant free parking, rest rooms, and a changing area, all of which are cleaned regularly and well-maintained. Blessing of blessings, the water is warm.  Usually mid 80's and very easy to get into and remain as long as desired.  At first glance I was reminded of a trip to Maine where we introduced our children to the Atlantic Ocean.  The water was bone-chilling cold and even the most enthusiastic child was soon dashing out of the water with chattering teeth and a blue hue.  Fortunately, after one plunge, we discovered that this was NOT Maine.


Even the drive to this place is pleasant. Unlike the northeast, where utility companies cut back trees to four foot high stumps, in South Carolina there is a tree called a "live oak" that tends to grow out and arch over the smaller roadways.  The result is roadways with shady "tunnels" that provide very welcomed cool oases from the baking sun of the southern summer.  A motorcycle is a delightful way to travel, offering abundant breeze, but still these cool zones are appreciated.  Most of the secondary roads, especially those near the old plantations are this way, and many carry the Spanish moss seen in films about the South.
Suffice it to say, in the six months we have lived here, South Carolina offers much that is different, but the most welcomed of these differences is not having to face "the grey" with each new day.

Friday, November 22, 2013

That Blue Time of Year

         So...it is late November of 2013, that time of year when the short days and chilling temperatures bring an end to motorcycle riding for all save the very most hardcore riders in the north.  I have an expression I use that goes, "You can tell hardcore riders because their body hair grows through their long underwear".  For as much as I try to be 'hardcore', 30 degree temperatures soak in far too deeply and 20 degree temperatures are painful.  As a result, it is with regret that the great 'Blue Beast' gets dosed with fuel stabilizer, has its battery removed and put on trickle charge, and gets covered for winter hibernation in the storage unit.
              I am now and have been, for what seems an eternity, a motorcycle rider.  Back in 1965,  from the first time I sat on the back of a classmate’s Honda 350 Super Hawk, helmetless and clinging desperately to the driver to avoid slipping off of the back of the seat, I was hooked.  Until you have experienced the freedom of motorcycle travel, it is difficult to understand the addiction.  And although it was several years before I was able to get my first motorcycle, the desire for one never left me.
           In 1971, my first real pay check went to help pay for a new four cylinder, 75 horsepower, 600 pound beauty with chrome fenders and exhaust pipes that wrapped like chrome snakes beneath the frame of the machine.  Over the next 20 something years I logged 15,000 miles of bug-eating while experiencing lead butt, unexpected  rain storms, clueless drivers, flat tires, and a myriad of other unpleasantness without ever losing the enthusiasm for the ride.  Eventually my ol’ hoss surrendered to deterioration and antiquation, becoming resigned to a dusty corner of the garage because I didn’t have the heart to scrap it.
            There is an exhilaration that goes with feeling the warm, fresh air against your skin.  Going from a warm hilltop to a chilly, fog-laden valley sends a tingle through your body that is hard to explain.  On the breeze are the scents of mint, blossoms, pine and other natural aromas, admittedly accompanied by shots of road kill, diesel, and dairy farm.  But it is the endless variety that makes the journey colorful.  Those who travel in cars (cagers), breathing chilled, recycled air and listening to artificial sounds are truly missing the depth of experience that is out there for the taking.
             One of the few benefits of age is that mortgages get paid off, children complete their education and get jobs, weddings get paid off, and finally the big house is sold to be replaced by a smaller, more efficient, and less tax-burdensome accommodation.  When you stop writing checks to everyone else, you get to buy toys.  Nice, comfortable, sexy toys that almost make getting older worthwhile. As my years wind toward their inevitable end, I include among my toys a machine that is as powerful, luxurious, and high tech as the mind of man can create.  I can now travel many miles over many hours in comfort, yet still experience the sensory delights that the outdoors has to offer.   In the spring of 2010, enter the 'Blue Beast'; a 1000 pound machine with sleek lines, frightening power, extraordinary luxury, and as much high tech as I cared to pay for.  Otherwise known as a Victory Vision Tour.

          From the time the 'beast' arrived on scene, Mrs. Randall displayed her characteristic curiosity.  Although she remained 'hands off' while I made the transition from a 600 pound UJM (Universal Japanese Motorcycle) to my  frighteningly large but gloriously American touring bike, I could see that spark in her eyes.  Once I had reached the point where I could relax in the saddle, enjoy the ride, and had learned to control the terror of low speed turns, she was amenable to try riding on it.  This was no small leap for someone who had never, ever been on a motorcycle before.
          It took a while to finalize the 'getting on' and 'getting off' procedures and for us to have that little talk that all drivers have with new passengers.  Her one word answers clearly displayed her 'heart-in-throat' state of mind as we prepared for our maiden voyage together.  Off we went, through city streets to suburban roads and finally onto the interstate highway.  I cruised casually, trying to reassure the absolutely rigid person on the back, whose fingernail imprints still remain in the passenger handgrips, that she might actually survive her first experience as a 'mouse among elephants'.  It took several outings, but eventually she began to relax as evidenced by the beginning of a steady flow of questions about riding practices, state laws, safety procedures, etc.  Once she asked to sit in the front seat, I knew she was hooked.
          She looked rather small in the front seat as she explored the basic brake, clutch, and throttle controls.  It took a while to go through all the gauges, symbols, lights, communications systems, cruise control, etc., but I could tell that her curiosity was at full speed.  Once she started the engine and twisted the throttle, there was that smile that said to me, "I want one". 
          I would have loved to take her out to an open field where she could dump it a few times before she finally learned to control the beast, but there was a problem.  When you sit in the saddle and your feet do not touch the ground, that may work on horseback but it is a serious problem on a motorcycle.  So for the next year and a half, Mrs. Randall rode shotgun while her sponge-like mind absorbed every bit of motorcycle information she could get to.
          I have learned, in my years, that women who are self-reliant and have been so for a period of time usually have a problem entrusting their safety and well-being to someone else.  A woman who has made her own way in life is likely to be a bit reticent to jump on the back of a motorcycle and entrust her life to a man just because, "he looks so sexy in leather".  They tend to have thoughts of self-preservation when a momentary lapse in his judgment could result in an artwork of steel and fiberglass becoming the most expensive hood ornament ever attached to a Mack truck, while the driver and passenger are reduced to streaks of color and pieces of texture between the skid marks on an otherwise bland section of pavement.  I guess it is kind of a control thing.  Basically, "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy".
          Then it showed up!  Like money in the mail, like a gift from Heaven, a solution to the conundrum.  Something called the Can Am Spyder, a three-wheeled motorcycle that looked more snow mobile than motorcycle.  A nifty bike with all the bells and whistles of a high tech touring bike, plenty of power, a semi-automatic transmission, tons of storage, and a design so stable that, unless you back it over a hill, it will not upset. It was love at first sight.
           From that point, the search was on.    She did computer  research and she asked a million questions; we followed Spyder drivers into gas stations and shopping malls and she asked a million questions; we visited  a dealer and she asked a million questions, I think you get the point.  Once she sat on one and put her hands on the controls, the search was over.  We went to the closest dealer (where she asked a million questions), and we took one for a test drive.  Because Mrs. Randall did not have a motorcycle license, I had to drive.  We had barely started down the country road before her head was beside mine watching every movement I made.  When we approached a church with a large empty parking lot, the commands started.
          "Pull in there, right in the middle."
          "OK."  We stopped in the middle of the lot.
          "Get off, I want to drive this thing."
          "But you have no license."
          "(Expletive deleted)  Get off!"
          "OK."  I got off and stood beside her as she slid into the driver's seat.  Apparently I answered her questions adequately just before she took off circling the parking lot, stopping, starting, backing up, shifting, and playing with some of the controls.  It was a match made in Heaven.  We returned to the dealer with yet another million questions.
          Any married couple is comprised of two individuals.  Two individuals with different likes and dislikes, different ideas, different approaches to life, etc., and it takes a lot of compromise to hold the relationship together.  Too often, in order to avoid the conflict or compromise, they end up with his chair and her chair in front of the television where they fight over the remote.  One of the best things that can happen is a shared passion that makes it a pleasure to do something together that you both enjoy.  Something that you do not need a reason to do, just an excuse.  So it is in the Randall household. 
          This joint passion has been the stimulus for almost 30,000 miles of riding in two years.  Although we have yet to start those month-long trips across the country and exploring our neighbors north and south, they are in the works.  Multi-day and week-long trips have been the source of many shared experiences and lots of wonderful memories.  Even after two years, we cannot wait for survivable temperatures free of snow or rain to get the rides out and launch.
             But this has become that blue time of year.  When the rides go into storage and we have to be satisfied driving the cage through slushy and snow covered roads.  When we have only the memories accumulated during the warm months to sustain us until the warm weather returns.  I just hope those are sufficient to keep peace in the household because she gets REALLY grumpy while sitting in front of the television with a helmet on and regularly looking through the window to see if the snow has melted.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012



Finally, after a year's absence, I'm back to post a story about an event worthy of posting. It has been a quiet year with minimal long distance travel but lots of local jaunts.  One of these was a trip to the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival.

 With my cynic's mind completely engaged, I was prepared to roll my eyes at what I perceived would be "Comic-Con" for those with a medieval fetish.  And, to a degree, I found what I expected to find.  Large men with red beards dressed in tights, plastic armor, carrying wooden axes, and wearing horned helmets. Slender young women with very long hair dressed as princesses complete with pointy hats with flowing scarves. My personal favorite, middle aged matrons in push-up gowns, their abundant breasts lifted to new heights and proudly displaying the accomplishment. Among the notables, a random assortment of would-be knights, royalty, jesters, minstrels, and a lot of nondescript characters whose intended purpose was known only to them. It must be said that the attendees became a large part of the atmosphere, assuming personae that presented to the world a deeply held fantasy brought to life as they wandered among the vendors of medieval clothing, armaments, jewelry, crafts, and recognizable food with strange names. I can assure you that pulled pork and lemonade served by a tavern wench tastes surprisingly similar to that served at any neighborhood barbecue place, the difference being several dollars and a peek at some attractive cleavage.

There were numerous stage shows, many that we attended and were greatly entertained by vastly better than expected performances.  We saw an escape artist who could open his handcuffs, shed his chains, and then dislocate his shoulders (to the gasps and groans of the audience) to escape a straight jacket.  He was followed by an energetic group of musicians who played ethnic music from several European countries while toasting Ireland with generous swigs of grog between tunes. Then came the "Washing Wenches", a pair of extraordinarily bawdy young ladies with several blacked out teeth, who mercilessly teased the men in the audience with their naughty antics, while leaving the wives laughing until tears ran down their cheeks.  That show alone was worth the rather considerable price of admission to the festival.
 Then came the demonstrations of horseback skills using lances, swords, and maces upon numerous defenseless melons and cabbages. Where ARE the vegetable rights groups these days anyway?

The fire-eater awed the assembled with bursts of flame into the sky and skillful juggling of burning torches. He was followed by a singing duo who specialized in pirate songs and 'punnery'. Exit the pirates in favor of two 'Tavern Wenches'.  Let me state that I have become a serious fan of 'wenches', their bawdy humor, and the soft, swelling cleavage of their young bosoms, a treat to aging eyes.  Their 'not child friendly' announcement before the show sent many parents scurrying with their impressionable youngsters. As it turned out, both the humor and the antics of two young wenches in search of male companionship were funny but ever tasteful. 
Still wearing a smile from our close encounter with two lusty wenches, we made our way up the hill for the scheduled performance of "Cast in Bronze", having no idea what the show entailed.  We joined the growing crowd in the already standing room only area of the performance.  Before us was a large wheeled 'goose neck' trailer with a steel framework that held thirty five brass church bells of varying sizes.  Connected to the clapper of each bell was a cable that ran through pulleys to connect to an odd keyboard. Imagine a piano keyboard with only white keys.  The keys are longer and physically larger than those of a piano and there appear to be only about three octaves. At the front of the keyboard rises a vertical face with smaller black keys projecting out at six to eight inches above the white keys. At floor level is a pedal board like that of an organ, but designed such that the player pushes down on a step to activate the pedal.  A very curious and unusual device that is called a Carillon.  At the hour of the performance, an oddly dressed figure stepped from the shadows and took his place on the bench at the keyboard. I would learn later that his name is Frank DellaPenna.  He is dressed head to foot in a black spandex bodysuit, his face covered by a strange, bird-like bronze mask, and  his feet in heavy combat boots. He looked more ninja than musician.  My first thoughts were of the "Phantom of the Opera", the master musician who played the huge pipe organ in the popular Andrew Lloyd Weber show. As he took his seat, the accompanying music started and my 'new and different phantom' dramatically raised his arms, scanned the audience, and a fun day became magical.

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

Attitude Adjustment Day

Those of you who suffer through my ramblings already know that I can be a smug son-of-a-bitch. I freely poke fun at the proclivities, mental slips, bad habits, and strange mannerisms of others with some serious attitude, although the attitude is usually couched in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Much of that has to do with my lengthy life experience and the subsequent feeling that I'm prepared for whatever life throws at me. Mentally I still believe my body is 30 years old and fully capable of complying with my demands. Well today, August 26, 2011, I got one serious attitude adjustment. I have watched numerous television shows about people who were placed in life or death circumstances, and invariably they say, "I though I was going to die." To me that sounded trite and overly dramatic until I said it today. Instantly it became honest, frightening, and not one bit dramatic.

Mrs. Randall and I have for several years put aside a couple of days during the summer for a kayak trip. While that may sound adventurous for the social security set, let me assure you that our choice of kayak trips is far from being an advertisement for Mountain Dew. Instead of ''white water' kayaking, we prefer to call it 'wimp water' kayaking. We do the same run on the Youghiogheny River, a very flat water class 1 stretch that is about 6 miles long and takes 3-4 hours to complete, most of the time spent simply drifting and enjoying the scenery. Having made the same trip so many times, our main concern is sunburn and hoping we don't have to pee during the trip. The rental company provides small, moulded plastic kayaks with those double ended paddles, life jackets, and transportation to the 'put-in' or launch area. We are on our own until we finish the journey, drag the boat out of the water at the rental place, and return all gear. With familiarity comes complacency.

We had to sign a release forms that promised that we would not abuse the equipment, would not drink alcohol during the trip, and would wear a life jacket while on the water. Any of you boaters who have worn a life jacket on a hot summer day know how incredible hot and sticky they become very quickly. So we signed and returned our forms, got on the bus, and away we went to the launch point 6 miles upstream.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Youghiogheny river, it is a senic river that is too shallow for motorized boats. In fact, most of it is so shallow that becoming hung up on the rocks is a common occurance. Having made the trip so many times, I was well aware of how shallow the river is and, with my smug attitude fully in force, considered a life jacket an unnecessary burden. As we exited the bus at the launch point, I grabbed a small life jacket that I could pack away behind the seat of my kayak and out of the way. Mrs Randall carefully selected a properly fitting life jacket which she adjusted and secured. She and I launched with the group but soon left them behind to escape the chattering families and noisy teenagers.

The first 4 miles were relatively uneventful. Both Mrs. Randall and I found ourselves aground on the rocks a few times, but since the water was 12" to 16" deep, it was no problem for me to climb out of my boat and pull Mrs. Randall free. We cruised along in the clear water occasionally seeing rather large fish swimming below us. We negotiated a few 'rapids', successfully avoiding the large rocks while occasionally getting splashed as we crashed through the 'monster' 8" waves. It was all so routine. We entered a large pool of quiet water with almost no current. We seemed to just sit, unless we paddled to keep moving. Then it happened.

From my education and years of work, I know a lot about things like 'center of gravity', 'overturning forces', and 'stabilizing forces'. I know not to stand up in a boat and would not do so. I don't even know how it happened. Without warning, my boat began to rock and suddenly rolled over plunging me into the river. Somehow this event had occurred in what is probably the deepest section of the Youghiogheny River. When I hit the water, my glasses came loose and left my face just as I grabbed them with my hand. I went down for the first time expecting to simply hit bottom at 4 or 5 feet and stand up very embarrassed. Instead I found myself sinking into an abyss that could have been 20 feet deep for all I knew. After the first six feet, the rest is academic. I fought my way to the surface, struggling hard to stay above the water. My boat (and life jacket) were now 6 to 8 feet away, and my efforts at swimming were accomplishing little. Try as I may, I could not seem to make progress toward my boat and I felt like I had concrete blocks on my feet. I was in serious trouble. Of those people who said, "I thought I was going to die", you can add my name to that list. I've heard people say that their lives flashed before their eyes during a life or death experience. Had I been sinking to the bottom, who knows, but while I was still breathing, my mind was working at warp speed trying to find a way to get to that boat and the life jacket. I was rapidly running out of breath and the strength to keep swimming was fading. Suddenly my capsized boat was right in front of me. I went under and brought my head up into the air pocket beneath the boat, trying to catch my breath and hold on to the shell to rest. I spun around and saw that my life jacket was gone, instantly assuming that it had fallen out and was floating downstream. I could tell that the air under the boat was quickly being used up and knew I had to move. If I could get the boat turned over, I could cling to it until help arrived.

Help came from an unlikely source. Mrs. Randall is a short gal of roughly my age who, like me, has put on entirely too many pounds. She is far from athletic and has not done any swimming since college phys ed where she learned the basics and eeked out a passing grade. She has an artificial knee and a touch of arthritis in other joints. It is a real effort for her to get into one of the small kayaks and even more effort to get out of one. When I came out from under my boat, Mrs. Randall was there to help me turn the boat over and to slam my life jacket on my hands. The child's life jacket I had chosen did little to support me, but it was enough to keep me from drowning. Together we clung to the flooded boat.

When she saw me go under, she paddled as closely as she could. Knowing that she could not easily get out of her boat, she chose to roll her boat over, draw up her legs, and kick her boat away. That push enabled her to shove my boat the last few feet so I could reach it. I don't know how or where she found my life jacket, but she actually saved my life. I have always consider myself to be her guardian and protector but, in this time of danger, it was her who saved me.

As we clung to the boat, two people in a canoe nearby saw what had happened and came to help. Still on the verge of panic as the flooded boat hovered near sinking, I could hear a female voice calmly offering reassurance and shouting instructions. I knew from the tone of her voice that she was a nurse, and I later found out that I was right.

While we clung to the boat, she and her son gathered up our paddles and Mrs. Randall's boat, taking them ashore. When they got to us, she gave me a second life jacket (adult size) and told both Mrs. Randall and I to swim to shore while she hauled our boat to the riverbank. Abandoning our flooded boat, Mrs. Randall backstroked toward shore. I hung on to the life jackets but all of my kicking gained me no progress toward shore. With help on scene, my concern turned to my brave, loving, almost non-swimming Mrs. Randall. Frightened by any number of potential scenarios, I called to her regularly while stuck in my watery limbo. Each time I heard her voice, she reassured me that she was making progress. Finally, to my great relief, I saw her reach the slippery, muddy shore, although she slipped and fell. Soon our rescuers were with her helping her to climb into the rocking canoe. Once Mrs. Randall was safe with our grounded boats and equipment, they came back and towed me to shore.

With well-practiced skills, our savior nurse calmed us and set about reassuring us that the danger was passed. She and her son sat patiently with us until she felt we were ready to again launch into the river, with me now wearing the adult sized life jacket that she carefully adjusted and securely snapped across my chest.

The remaining trip was one of physical discomfort. Without the life jacket to prop up the back of my seat, I leaned back much too far, leaving me the choice of either looking at the sky and not being able to paddle, or sitting forward to paddle until my abdominal muscles cramped. I'm sure that Mrs. Randall was equally uncomfortable, but she bravely paddled on. Finally two wet, exhausted, sunburned, pain-filled people mercifully reached the rental company where we returned everything and gratefully headed for the car.

And so it was, on that attitude adjustment day. A day when I learned of my own mortality, my own limitations, and my own vulnerability. It is a great ego inflater to be the strong and capable protector. To be the 'master of all you survey', not needing help from others and sneering at the weak and vulnerable. Life has a way of taking that self-important image and flushing it down the toilet, leaving us to face the reality of our own limitations and the true importance of others who chose to care for us as we are rather than as we picture ourselves.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

47 Years later

In late Summer of 1963, just before the start of the school year, pre-season practice began for the football team of our high school. Previous teams had done well, and this was our senior year and our chance to shine. The common backfield formation of the time was called the 'straight T', which saw the quarterback (who receives the ball from the center), up against the center of the line. 2 to 3 yards behind him was the fullback with the left and right halfbacks on either side of the fullback. To those with a knowledge of football, that probably sounds like 'leather helmet' stuff and that actually is pretty close. We were among the first teams to have face guards on our helmets, although often those were simply a single curved bar at about mouth level. Careful maintenance of facial contours was not a high priority in football at a time when, "It's a long way from your heart son", was the coach's standard response to injuries.

Of the backfield for our team, the quarterback was a largely untested junior who replaced a highly skilled and awarded senior who graduated the previous year. The left halfback was a senior, more experienced, very quick, and agile. The right halfback, also a senior, was the team's star player, captain of the team, and frequently referred to as, "the fastest white man in the Ohio Valley." Between them stood your most humble and obedient servant who acquired the position more as a matter of attrition than ability. But we practiced hard and carried high hopes for the future. The thinking was that, if the rest of us could do anything that would get our right halfback into the open, we had a chance to win. The first game of the season, and the first quarter of play saw our team captain fall with a devastating knee injury that would all but end his play for that year. The left halfback stepped up and made his best effort to fill the void, but found himself being hammered regularly by opponents who easily overwhelmed our less than stellar front line. The fullback was not much of a contributing factor save for the odd block or 'three yards and a cloud of dust' play. The season quickly became a disaster with a couple of high points and many lows.

The three seniors of the backfield became close friends through all of the social events of the year as well as numerous times spent simply wasting each other's time and laughing while doing it. The culmination of that relationship was a four week trip together into Mexico that included two weeks at a small University and a week in a rented apartment in glamorous Acapulco. In the interest of decorum, the details of that trip will be omitted while leaving the reader free to imagine the escapades of three 18 year olds loose in a nation with no age limit for drinking, gambling, or other vice-laden activities. Before that trip, one or more parents, while still questioning the wisdom of unleashing their offspring upon an unsuspecting and (previously) friendly nation, took pictures of the usual suspects standing in front of the six month old 1964 Pontiac GTO that would carry them on their journey.

That trip would generate a lifetime of memories for all three, who went on to college before losing track of each other. Life has a way of supplanting those early friendships, no matter how close, with things like careers, family, mortgages, and such. So, some how, some way, 47 years slid by in the wink of an eye, leaving a trail of jobs, marriages, children, relocations, divorces, and (as much as it pains me to admit) grandchildren.

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.

In an ironic turn of events, the unsung hero of that near-miss international incident from 1964 has survived much better than its occupants. After 15 years of abuse, road salt, and neglect followed by 30 years sitting in a barn where the mice turned it into Club Med for rodents, the 1964 GTO has been restored into a head-turning, award winning, hearthrob. If they could just do that for people, sigh.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

WHEW! That was CLOSE!

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.

Built in 1910, my place has a full basement with no drain. Subsequently, if a gallon of water went into the basement, it stayed in the basement until it evaporated or until an ambitious homeowner mopped it up and carried it out. What that meant to previous owners was that, if the river came up to 40' and your number is 39', you had a foot of water in your basement. Among the numerous things I failed to understand about the previous owners was why they tolerated such a condition. By locating the low point in the basement floor, digging a hole, and installing a sump pump with an outdoor discharge, water could be pumped out of the basement. The big question in my mind was, why did it take 95 years for someone to figure that out? The other question was why window openings into the basement had not been closed up. But anyway, I digress.

I had several other scares in the past. Predictions of above flood level had me making plans for quick removal of stored property and utilities from the basement, but until last week, the river crest would fall below flood stage before it reached Wheeling. Last week was different.

Two and a half days of light to heavy rain had brought surrounding creeks to above flood level and the predicted level at Wheeling was 42.7 feet. Flood level is at 36', my number is 38.3, the land around the house is at 41, the street is at 40.5, and the first floor of the house is at 45. In March of 1936, a monumental flood put water up to the second floor of my house. At 42.7, I would have 2.2 feet of water in the street, 1.7 feet around the house, and the potential for 4.4 feet of water in the basement. Time to get serious.

The good news is that flood crests can take days to travel up the Monongahela River and down the Allegheny River, meeting in Pittsburgh and travelling many miles down the Ohio. Day one was spent in preparation by sorting and packing possessions into plastic containers for easy removal. The second day saw me testing the sump pump, checking the seal around blocked up basement openings, prioritizing vehicle storage, and generally finalizing planning. The crest would hit about noon on day three. I was glued to the computer for the hourly monitoring reports and modified predictions. Typically, the predictions were conservative, predicting higher crests than would eventually occur, and I hoped for the same. The end of day two saw a revision down to 40.3 feet. This was a relief because it meant that there would probably not be water in the street. If that held, the vehicles would not have to be moved.

Especially after images of recent tsunamis, people tend to think of flooding as a giant tidal wave that sweeps over the land. In the open ocean that is true, but river flooding is more like filling a bathtub. Close the stopper on the bathtub, put some solid object at the high end, and turn on the water. The level raises slowly and steadily around it until it is innundated. On a river island, the same thing happens until the surface is covered, then the water flows with the river current, carrying mud and debris with it. The devastation of river flooding is as much the mud and debris left behind as it is the water damage.

The morning of the third day brought with it a revised level of 39.3 feet. This was a great relief for me, but it still meant flooded basements for some with lower numbers, including the Wheeling Island Racetrack and Casino. As the crest passed at approximately noon, the racetrack was flooded by about 3' of water, knocking out the ground level betting area, poker room, employee locker rooms, underground parking, and some of the lower parking lots. Fortunately they prepared well also and their damages and operational interruptions were minimal. Godfather's Gentleman's Club, next door to the Casino, never missed a beat.

I stood in my basement not knowing what to expect. Would water come gushing up through the floor, or through the stone walls? After all of the worry and careful preparations, all I finally experienced was a steady trickle of water up through cracks in the floor and slow seeps at the base of the walls. The water ran immediately to the sump pump where it was soon pumped out. The relief was glorious. Sooner or later 'the big one' will come to test my preparations and planning, but for now, WHEW, that was CLOSE!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Quest for Shangri-La

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.

Knowing that I was only hours ahead of a monumental snowstorm that had left Kansas in the stone age, had crippled Chicago, and which had the northeast in it's cross hairs, my butt was smokin' southward. With the skies turning an angry grey, I pulled into the Amtrak station in Lorton, Virginia, the home of the Auto Train. For any who are unfamiliar with this marvel of transportation, it is one of the few remaining passenger trains, but this one has the added bonus of allowing you to take your car along. With an average of 30 multi-level auto carriers and 750 passengers in 25 passenger service rail cars, the Auto Train is the longest train in the world, extending 3/4 of a mile in length. It runs only between Lorton, VA and Sanford FL, near Orlando.
(Right click and 'open in new window')

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')

(Not my videos but really cool)

Following the train's timely departure at 4 PM, I sat happily watching the miles and nameless towns fall behind. I was surprised to find absent the hypnotic 'click-clack' of the wheels on the rail joints. Apparently either the rails now have welded joints or the rail cars have dampening buffers that no longer transfer the noise. Whatever the reason, the train seemed to glide almost soundlessly along the tracks. Approaching an hour into the journey, there was an announcement that the dining car was open for the 5 PM seating. Because the dining car has limited seating, passengers must choose from 5 PM, 7 PM, or 9 PM dinners. The 7 PM session was apparently the most popular and was closed, prompting my choice of the early meal. With little red ticket in hand, I made my way along the narrow hallway and down the stairs to the dining car.
A railroad dining car has a degree of romance associated with it generated by years of books and movies. Many of those 1940's movies, with the likes of William Powell and Myrna Loy, contained scenes of romantic chat across a white table clothed table with a red rose in a silver vase, while the scenery floated by in the background. Dining cars haven't changed much. The white table cloth and red rose are still there. To a degree, the service and elegance are also still there, albeit more efficient and sterile as dictated by current times. The menu was limited by restaurant standard, but completely adequate for a hungry traveller. Entree choices of chicken, beef, pasta, or fish were accompanied by salad and choice of dessert, all served promptly and without drama. At my table were a lady from New Jersey (obvious after her first words) who was travelling to stay with her daughter; and, a man from Cumberland, Maryland who was scouting Florida's east coast for his future winter home. Not present, gratefully, were children of any age, making the twenty-something servers the youngest in the room. Actually, my displeasure with children in restaurants is not so much with misbehaving children as it is with the annoying adults who inexplicably believe that they can negotiate their disruptive darlings back into control. "The definition of insanity is...". Having a meal and peaceful adult conversation without distraction was, by itself, worth the train fare.
What is any good meal without continued conversation over cocktails? By moving to the lounge car, we extended our evening with the help of several greatly-overpriced beverages. The scheduled movie was Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in the 1952 classic, "Singing in the Rain". The simple mention of the movie brought groans from those present, most of whom could remember being dragged to the theater as children by their mothers for two hours of crushing boredom while mom revelled in the singing and dancing. The courteous bar steward expressed his gratitude at not having to run the movie. He responded more enthusiastically to calls for several other movies involving "Debbie" and offered to search the crew quarters where he assured us that such fare was readily available.
As the evening wore on, I found myself more and more missing the observation car. Even at night, it was fascinating to sit up high and watch the scenery go by, as if the backdrop of houses, roads, cars, and people was being presented solely for my entertainment. Cars and trucks had to stop at the crossing gates and red flashing lights while we, like some kind of royal procession, glided smoothly by. But, alas, another icon of more luxurious times has fallen to the wayside. With little else to do, it was time to retire.
It took just minutes for the car steward to convert my roomette into sleep mode. In what would prove to be a bad choice, I climbed into the upper berth to discover two disconcerting facts: 1) the upper berth was 6'2" from wall to wall, and 2) the ceiling of the car was just inches from my face. Being 6 feet tall, the additional 2" left precious little wiggle room for someone who was used to sleeping diagonally in a roomy queen size bed. Finding a comfortable position was, to say the least, challenging. Fortunately I'm not a 'back-sleeper'. In that position with eyes open, I had this irrational desire to pound on the ceiling while screaming, "I'm alive! I'm alive!". The unfamiliar on-going movement also made it difficult to sleep, but each time I felt uncomfortable, I pictured myself in the coach car trying to sleep in the midst of the chaos. Compared to that, my cramped quarters were luxurious. Eventually sleep found me. It was not a great 'matress ad morning' kind of sleep, but it was restful and adequate for this traveller.
5:30 AM has mercifully become an unaccustomed hour for me. Being nocturnal by nature, I have never understood those who eagerly shove bacon and eggs into their faces at that obscene hour, then collapse into catatonia by 8 PM. During my years at the slave ship, I learned that those early morning types run the world, and my choices were: 1) get up early,or 2) starve. Now it is usually mother nature who forces me from my comfortable bed, and so it was on the train. It was a surprise to find a line at the bathroom at that hour, but understandable given the ages of my fellow passengers. By 6 AM I found myself in line with those early riser types mentioned above for a seat in the dining car. As I shovelled in my corn flakes and downed my (fresh, cool-but-not-cold) Florida orange juice, I noticed that the scenery had changed considerably. Gone were the thick, swampy vegetation and dense deciduous trees to be replaced by sparse pine and palm trees in sandy soil. Welcome to Florida.
Florida had the look of warmth; no snow, no gloom, no misery's palette. The sky was blue; wonderfully soft blue with a few fluffy-white, harmless clouds. The kind of sky that people in the north dream about. The kind of sky that makes you want to fly a kite or take up gliding. A truly grand welcome. I felt like a prisoner who had escaped his captors and crossed the border to a free country.
By 9:30 AM I was off the train and waiting for number 430. It was just a short time of standing outdoors in the near 60 degree temperatures before my familiar car eased down the ramp to join me. It struck me as odd to see the locals bundled up in coats and jackets. My jacket had long since joined the luggage and the long sleeved shirt would be replaced at earliest convenience by its short sleeve counterpart. As I drove off, intoxicated by the fresh warm air that carried the scent of flowers and vegetation, I turned on the radio. For a moment I felt guilty about laughing at the reports of New York and New England being paralyzed under up to 24" of snow. But only for a moment.