Who Am I?

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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

05 January 2017

Washington to Florida - 2016: San Francisco



You can't traverse the state of California from north to south without seeing San Francisco, right? It's a beautiful city.

Coming down I-5 from the north isn’t a particularly great drive.  California is pretty and all, but the inland scenery isn’t what you’d call spectacular.  You do pass close by Mt. Shasta and Redding where my friend, pilot and musician, Hal Johnson lives.  And of course there is the town of Weed, which always makes me laugh when I see the sign for the exit even though I know that the town got its name from Abner Weed, a lumberman, not the hippies growing and smoking marijuana up in the hills.  At least, that's the story...


We stopped short of San Francisco in the town of Vacaville.  Next morning we got off the Interstate at Vallejo where we cut across to Highway 101 which would take us down into San Francisco via the Golden Gate Bridge.

Californians are a little strange.  They don't say, "Take 101 south."  Instead, they'll  say something like, "Take the 101 to the 5 and then take that to the 10 east to Florida."  Don't ask me why.  Here in the south, it's different.  We'd never think of saying, "Well, just take the 10 to the 29 and then take that to Montgomery where you catch the 85 to Atlanta."  They'd look at you funny down here.  But all Californians seem to refer to roads as "the"- something.

Anyway...I jumped off the 101 at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge. There's a park with a nice overlook of the bridge and the harbor. However, the sun was just at the wrong angle - I should've gone across to the south side for better lighting. Nevertheless, the views were breathtaking even if the pictures didn't come out so great.

The obligatory shot of the Golden Gate Bridge and (of course!) a selfie of me and Jacob

From there we hopped across into San Francisco proper and headed for the town of Pacifica where we were to pick up the Pacific Coast Highway southbound.

24 December 2016

Hotels.com


It used to be that in the olden (read: pre-internet) days if you were headed cross-country, and didn’t know exactly where you’d be stopping for the night, finding a place to stay was an iffy proposition.  Sometimes all you needed was a cheap place to grab a shower and a few hours of sleep before hitting the road again at dawn – nothing fancy.  There was no need to stay in a big traditional hotel.

We all knew the inexpensive motels: Motel 6, Days Inn, etc.  But the chances of finding one at exactly the point where you wanted to stop driving were slim.  Not to mention that the low price you paid for that cheap motel came with some…uhh, additions.  Most of the time the motel was located right next to the Interstate, or a railroad, or close to a truckstop.  Or maybe it was in a not-so-nice area.  Maybe all of the above.

I digress: The word “motel” itself is what they call a portmanteau.  It is derived from “motor hotel.”  Back in the 1920’s, some guy in California couldn’t fit, “motor hotel” onto his sign so he made it into a contraction.  Voila! - an industry was born.  (I wonder if “IHOP” would qualify as a portmanteau?)  Anyway, it’s interesting to punch up “motel” on Wikipedia and read about the origins and evolution of the concept. 

Sometimes motels would put their nightly rate up on a billboard along the highway, alerting you to what was available up the road.  And that was good.  Or maybe they just had a big neon sign at the exit.  If you saw something you liked (or were just desperate), you’d stop and hope they actually had a room at that rate.  “Ohhhh, that’s the rate for a single,” you’d be told.  And the rate for two people would be considerably higher.

Fast-forward to today and our indispensible smartphones.  Now we have the internet and a website called Hotels.com.  You can find a hotel or motel anywhere along your route.  Most (but not all) of them are listed.  You can see their amenities and rates, read reviews of the place, and of course book and pay for a room.  You can even pull up a satellite image of the property in order to decide in advance if it’s someplace you’d rather not stay.  I’ve done that a time or two.

Hotels.com makes traveling sooooo easy.  On our trip from Washington State back to Florida, Jacob and I used it for every stop.  At some point in the afternoon we’d decide where we wanted to shut it down for the night, and then start looking for hotels in that area.  We wanted a half-way decent place with an indoor pool, a hot tub, and breakfast for under $100 per night.  Bingo!  No problemo.  Lots of times were able to snag rooms for around $55/night.  Decent rooms too, surprisingly. not fleabag dumps.

And while we’re on the subject of breakfast…  Apparently, Americans assume that every dinky motel in the country should provide a full hot breakfast with the price of the room.  And we seem to be obsessed with waffles!  Every damn motel now has a waffle maker, as well as a steam table with cooked eggs, sausage, biscuits and gravy…I mean…  Some of the spreads these motels put out are really extensive!  What started off being a “Continental Breakfast” has morphed into a serious buffet!  (I don’t think Americans ever really grasped the concept of “Continental Breakfast” anyway.)

Me, I’m not picky.  I’m happy with a cup of coffee, some juice and a bowl of cereal…maybe a muffin of some kind.  I don’t want to spend a lot of daylight eating.  I’d rather be on the road, and I’d rather not have to poop halfway between here and wherever we’re headed.

Anyway, I’m sold on Hotels.com when I travel.  It’s pretty cool.

22 December 2016

Washington To Florida - 2016: Day One

That right thar is my smiling friend Jacob and me. I was giving him the grand tour of the Brewster area. He seemed to be enjoying the cold weather and snow. Me, not so much.

Brewster, Washington sits just east of and in the shadow of the Cascade Mountains.  Go west and you're into them pretty quick. East of us is a desert-y bit until you get through the almost-twin-cities of Spokane and Couer d’Alene, Idaho. From there you start going over the north end of the Rocky Mountains. They're not not hugely tall up here, but the passes are typically way above the snow line. And there's lots of them.

Heading south is no better. You can go down some back roads, and eventually you hit Interstate 84 where you can (and should!) turn east or west. You could keep going south on Highway 97 I suppose, but that’s a secondary road that takes you through some pretty high country - not a good route in the winter. And the whole area was under a Winter Snow Warning.

Going east on I-84 takes you down through Boise, Idaho and eventually Salt Lake City. Also not a great way to go in the winter. Heading west on I-84 takes you through the Cascades – there’s no getting around them! Whether you cross them on I-84 in Oregon or I-90 in Washington, you’ll have to deal with the snow. The plows will be out, trying to keep the roadway clear, but there’s only so much they can do.

Getting a late start, Jacob and I headed east out of Brewster. I figured we’d hit the Grand Coulee Dam (which is an awesome “must see” even in winter) and then turn south. Which we did. As we passed through the town of Soap Lake, Jacob checked Google Maps. ”Hey, it looks like I-84 is closed!” I said no way, that never happens. But it did, and it was. I-84 *CLOSED* in both directions for the foreseeable future, no estimate of when it might be reopened. Damn.

Jacob worked out a reroute: “Well, we can take I-90 to Seattle…” Which is just what I did not want to do in the first place because that would take us over Snoqualmie Pass, which is notoriously treacherous. I mean, at only 3,015 feet of elevation it’s not like crossing the Himalayas. But Snoqualmie gets *lots* of snow, and it’s not fun when it does.

And so that’s the way we went, passing sign after sign that cautioned: “TRACTION TIRES RECOMMENDED.” And us in a car with no snows (studded or otherwise), no chains…no nothing. If the signs changed to “Traction Tires Required” we would’ve been screwed.

It was snowing like crazy as we ascended the pass. I tried following in the ruts left by 18-wheelers, but traffic was so light (and the trucks were going so slowly) that we were often blazing our own trail through a couple of inches of freshly-fallen snow. We kept seeing the plows going the other way, wondering why they didn’t dispatch some to the westbound side? We saw plenty of spin-outs, crashes and cars that just slid off the road. It was kind of disheartening, and kind of stressful. Because as careful as I was being, I knew that some idiot could come slamming into us. Then it would be game-over.

It’s stressful because not only are you driving through blinding snow, but you’re up in the clouds as well. So visibility really sucks. You can’t see anything and you can’t use your brights. Your whole world becomes that little bit of road that your low-beams illuminate. You hope that there isn’t a car spun-out and sideways to the road and that you’re not going too fast to avoid hitting him. And you can’t go too slowly, for the idiots in the big four-wheel drive pickup trucks speed along as if they’re on dry ground.

(Even as I write this on Wednesday morning, I see that I-90 is closed eastbound though the pass due to a jackknifed tractor-trailer.)

Eventually we made it without incident over the high point of the pass. Gradually we began descending to lower terrain. Then, all at once, in the blink of an eye the precipitation turned to rain and the snow disappeared. I breathed a sigh of relief. We got off on Highway 18 toward Auburn, then hooked up with I-5 southbound. Compared to Snoqualmie, driving in the rain was a piece of cake.

Hotels.com found us a Best Western with an indoor pool and hot tub just north of Portland, Oregon. Even though we’d only covered a short distance I was ready. If we’d just gone west from Brewster across I-90 to being with it would have been about 340 miles. Instead, our little sightseeing trip turned it into 415 miles.

Ah well. At least we were out of the snow.

20 December 2016

Washington to Florida - 2016: The Plan

Guys love road trips! We live for them. Most of us will eagerly jump at the chance to get in the car or on a motorcycle and take off for parts known or unknown.

So I was greatly looking forward to driving back to Florida from Washington State. But I did not want to do the trip alone. Road trips are always more fun if you have someone along to share the experience.

I have a lot of friends with whom I’d like to make the trip. Unfortunately not all of them could be available. However my friend Jacob and I have been on many trips together: motorcycle, car, camping/canoeing. He is an affable travel buddy. And – good news! - he was free to take a week “or so” off and come with me.

The schedule for the trip had to be flexible. There was a helicopter the boss wanted me to look at in Los Angeles. Going south through California always adds miles to the trip. Plus, the boss wanted me to drop off some engine parts at an aircraft overhaul shop in Arkansas. ”It’s right on your way!” he said cheerfully, not knowing whether it was or not. It wasn’t.

Heading east from Brewster is the easiest/shortest way home. There is no diagonal route from the northwest corner of the country to the Gulf Coast. You have to “stair-step” your way down. It ends up being about 2,600 miles, and you stay north (i.e. in the cold) for a long, long time. Going south to Los Angeles and then east puts you in warmer weather sooner, but it’s the long way. Figure around 3,500 miles.

Even though the calendar did not technically say “winter,” it was close enough. The weather in the northern part of the country was bad: cold and snowy. I was not looking forward to driving east through Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota in a car with no snow tires. Heading east and then south through Denver would have been worse.

Jacob had never been down the Pacific Coast Highway, nor had he ever been to the Grand Canyon. He asked if we could we put those on the itinerary? Why, sure! Even with that routing I figured that if we averaged 800 miles per day we could be home in five days…six if we dawdled…seven if we had any, um, “issues.” Well we did dawdle and we did have issues and we didn’t quite do 800 miles per day.

The trip took seven days. And it was 4,000 miles, total. It was quite the adventure, as I’d hoped.

The vehicle for this trip would be the venerable 1998 Buick LeSabre crew car. It’s owned by the company but I’ve sort of adopted it. The old "La Sob" and I have made numerous trips back and forth to Florida, contributing to the 200,000 miles on the odometer. It’s been well-maintained, and I figured it would do the trip with no problems. Nevertheless, I brought along as many tools as I could. You never know…

The Buick is a great road-trip car. In fact, it’s about perfect for a week-long trip along our country’s Interstate highways. Roomy and comfortable, it’s like sitting in your living room. You can set the cruise control on 80, kick the seat back and ease on down the road with just two fingers on the wheel. It’s as close to a self-driving car as you can get.

The Buick is the epitome of the stereotypical “big, floaty American car” which draws disdain and scorn from those who believe that we all should be driving flimsy, efficient shitboxes like the Prius, Honda Fit and Smart ForTwo…or maybe sporty BMW’s with seats that hold you in position firmly in case you ever stumble upon a racetrack and want to do a couple of hot laps. Our Buick turned in close to 30 mpg for the trip. It was a pleasant way to spend 4,000 miles.

Before leaving Brewster, we put on new front struts, new rear hubs (which were making an awful howl), and new tires all around (with a wheel alignment). The brakes were checked and good. We put on a new alternator and a new thermostat. We did not, however, change out the power steering pump, which was starting to groan a bit, or the water pump which also was making a noise I did not like. Ever the optimist (or idiot, your choice), I figured those items would make the trip.

Jacob arrived on Friday, December 9th. His plane was due to get into Wenatchee just before midnight. At 12:30 he finally landed. Because of a snowstorm, it took us two hours to traverse the 70 miles upriver to Brewster. So our plans for leaving early on Saturday morning were messed-up. I hoped that wasn’t a bad omen for the rest of the trip.

19 December 2016

Loader Boy

When the cherry-drying season ended in Brewster, Washington, I agreed to stay on as ground crew to help with a big cropdusting job the boss picked up. A customer wanted us to spray 10,000 acres of apple and cherry trees with a nutrient called boron.

With all of the summer pilots gone, there were only three of us left to help Dave, the owner of the joint. First was Dave’s son Danny (who is 49), who’s been working with him all his life. Then we had another helicopter pilot, jack-of-all-trades, great guy named Chris who’s in his 30’s and who happens to live in the area. Chris is a God-send. He’s been a “loader-boy” before and knows the business well.  Finally there was me.

When a cropduster lands, it must be reloaded with product and refueled. Since the plane always flies low, it picks up a bunch of bugs and the windscreen must be cleaned each time. There is a “flagger” on the wing that must also be reloaded. The flagger is a device that shoots off toilet paper-like streamers that land and mark the row the plane just dusted, letting the pilot know where to come back into the field.

ABOVE: Here's our Grumman AgCat spray plane. Yes, it looks and sounds like something from WWII. It's a biplane with a big, honking 600 horsepower radial engine on the front. It can carry an amazing load and do an incredible amount of work in a day.


Between flights, all of these things must be done. It’s not exactly a NASCAR-style pit-stop, but as we get into Fall and the days get shorter we try to keep our ground-time to a minimum. Once the plane is gone out again for another run, there is a big metal hopper that must be reloaded with boron from 2,000-pound sacks. The tank has a chute that sticks out the bottom through which we transfer the boron to the plane.

Here we see our "extend-a-fork" loading a 2,000 pound bag of boron into the ground hopper which is itself held up by another forklift.

Finally, this front shot shows the chute. With the forklift, we raise the whole shebang high enough to position the chute above the plane's hopper. Then we pull that bucket off the bottom of the chute and let the boron drop.


Although there is a lot going on during the ground stops, it can be handled by just one person and the pilot. But the job goes MUCH easier and faster if there are at least two ground guys. Having three is an absolute luxury. And during the course of the job we did have three many times. But also sometimes it was just the boss and me.

I won’t lie: There is a lot going on with a spray job such as this. It can be hard work. There’s a lot of climbing on ladders, and climbing up on the airplane, lifting and carrying this or that. It’s fatiguing for an old guy like me who’s spent his life avoiding exactly this type of work. There is a reason that the job is called “loader-boy” and not “loader-old-guy” for it is really better done by young, strapping, energetic guys with strong backs. Not me, in other words for I am none of those things and my back has the strength of a string of warm Twizzler (or Red Vine if you prefer).

But hey, you do what has to be done and you don’t complain, right? When it was Danny, Chris and me, I was quite happy to let them handle the climbing and heavy-lifting if they chose (and they did). Not that I shirked those responsibilities mind you, but being the oldest of the group does get some slack cut, as it should. I act like one, but I’m not a kid anymore.

By the time the first snow fell we had sprayed about 9,000 acres with boron (which looks very much like white kitty litter). It all went very smoothly (surprisingly smoothly!), which is always good. We didn’t break anything and no blood was spilled. All in all, the boss was quite pleased.

While we were spraying, Fall progressed beautifully. The days never got really cold and/or windy. I thought to myself, “This isn’t so bad!” But then the bottom fell out of the thermometer. And the wind picked up. It got COLD, man. Then the snow came. And once it did, the white boron blended in with the white snow in the orchards making it impossible for the pilot to determine where he’d already sprayed. The flag markers are also white, so they’re no help. So with a little over 1,000 acres to go, we were done.

The spraying was over until Spring when the snow melts, and so it was time for me to go “home.” But I had waited just a teensy bit too long. There was a lot of snow on the ground, AND we were under another winter storm warning. My ride home was a company car with no snow tires. There is no way out of Brewster, Washington that does not involve going over some very high, very snowy passes. I was not looking forward to the start of the trip.

24 October 2016

Home

It seems strange; this year I will have spent more time up here in Washington State than in my own home in Florida. Next year looks to be about the same. I've taken on a lot more work than just piloting. It's kind of turned from a cool little summer gig into a full-time job.

I "plan" on leaving Washington in early December, God willing, hopefully before it snows too much at any rate. But there's a lot of work yet to do, so I'll be back up in April of 2017 to prepare for the upcoming cherry-drying season. So that's, like, maybe four months at home in Florida.

But what is "home?" In my case, home is wherever I'm at, I guess. I have no real roots. My boss here keeps tossing out suggestions that I just move to Brewster permanently, and in some ways that makes a lot of sense. But I resist. For one thing I like Florida, especially Pensacola which I consider my home town. I have friends there, not to mention a house (and attic, and two-car garage) full of my crap. I mean, how does one person accumulate SO MUCH CRAP in his lifetime?? Ugh.

But there's more.

This climate up here just does not suit me. I know it sounds crazy - most people would think that this low-humidity, desert-like environment would be would be agreeable. But it's not for me. Maybe it's the dust or something. Maybe it's just too dry - daytime humidity in July is usually in the low teens. My throat is always raw and I have a persistent cough that I can't shake.

One year I rode my motorcycle home. I left Washington fairly early, in August while the weather was still hot. Coming south through Mississippi, just south of Jackson I went through some sort of weather front. All of a sudden the air changed from just "warm" to warm and muggy. I was instantly bathed in that gulf coast high humidity. It felt good. I smiled and immediately thought to myself, "I'm home!" even though there was still 250 miles between me and the house on Southpointe Lane.

Me, I like the humidity of the south, or at least I've grown accustomed to it. It's comfortable. And it doesn't take long at home for my cough to go away and I feel better. So I think the chances of me moving to Washington State permanently are pretty slim.

Don't tell my boss.

07 September 2016

The 2016 Cherry Season Wrap-Up

So another Washington State cherry-drying season is in the bag! All our ships are off contract and safely back. Now it’s a matter of getting them all inspected and worked on and then put away for the winter. There are some small items to repair, but no major maintenance to do aside from one engine change on what would have been a spare ship this year. Oh well.

Next year we’ll have, God willing, eleven Sikorsky S-55s, a Bell UH-1B and a Bell 206 available. (We don’t like using the small 206 though because we don’t like messing around with the smaller growers.)

It was a busy, rainy year! I won’t tell you how much our fleet flew, but I will say that by the end of the season our boss was walking around like one of those cartoon characters with big dollar signs where his eyes ought to be. He was happy. Our customers? Not so much. They had to write some pretty big checks. Then again they got off really easy in 2014 and 2015 which were very dry years in which hardly anybody flew.

I did the hiring and firing this year - and yes, there was some of each. It’s tough being an HR person. The job is so stressful. In the first place you agonize over whether you’re hiring the right person for the job. Then, if it turns out that you were wrong, you agonize about letting them go. At least I do.

This year we had one guy who looked really good on paper. But people sometimes “massage” their resumes, and they can fool you into hiring them when you otherwise might not. This particular guy was a really good guy and not a bad pilot… but he just couldn’t get with our program. I gave him more than double the amount of training we usually allot, and he still was struggling. He knew it too. When I pulled up at his quarters to give him the bad news he was already packed. Still, I felt badly.

Another (fairly young, single) pilot met a local girl with whom he struck up a…umm...err…relationship. Thinking that it would not rain overnight, this pilot stayed at her place. Of course it did rain, requiring us to fly at sunrise, which by the way was five a.m. The pilot didn't show up for the launch, and we couldn't get a hold of him. They had to call the Boss out to cover his ship. The pilot finally showed up around nine a.m. He was miffed when I let him go, but he had no one to blame but himself.

I am finally pretty comfortable in the Sikorsky S-55. Even though I have quite a lot of flight time and it’s my sixth season on this particular job, I haven't been super-comfortable in it. Because I usually don’t fly all that much. Whenever I’m with another pilot I try to let them fly as much as possible. Hell, I don’t need to build flight time, but the ones I often fly with usually do.

Still, I felt really good this year. When that aforementioned pilot missed the launch that morning, they called me to come down and fly with the Boss. I was happy that I acquitted myself well…at least…I hope so. I act like I know what I’m doing, which is 50% of making people think you do. Maybe more.

In addition to operating helicopters, my boss is also a cropduster. He mostly utilizes airplanes to do this, but we do have a helicopter set up for spraying. Late in the season we got a contract to drop Boron on 10,000 acres of orchards. For that we'll use a plane...a big plane. Since I'm not an "ag-pilot" (and have no desire to be) this means ol' Bob is going to be a Loader Boy - one of the guys who humps the 50-pound bags of Boron into the hopper of the spray plane. Oh, and I refuel it too and wash the windows. Oh what fun it shall be! Until I throw my back out.

So in the end it was a safe, fun, productive cherry season. And now, if we can get done with this big spray job soon, I might just be back to Florida by Christmas. Fingers crossed!