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?

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!

24 July 2016

First Times If Not Fast Times

The first time I went to The SweetRiver Bakery was the very first day I arrived in Brewster back in 2011. It had been an arduous journey on my motorcycle. The last 1,000 miles were rainy and cold, a challenge to even the most stalwart, dedicated motorcyclist, which I’m not. I was tired and wet and, frankly, just happy to be somewhere.

Shortly after parking the bike at our company headquarters which were then at the Brewster Airport, before I even had a chance to unpack, Mikey showed up and hijacked me. “Come on!” he said, ushering me out to his truck. We hightailed it down to the Bakery, which he had been telling me about for the past couple of years that he’d been coming to Brewster.

As soon as we walked in, they greeted Mikey the way the people at Cheers did to Norm on that old t.v. show (i.e. like a celebrity). Before he even said anything they were already making him a large “Carne” (meat lovers) pizza. He introduced me to the employees and I felt warmly accepted simply for being Mikey’s friend. We sat outside…had the place to ourselves since the weather was so dismal. We ate pizza and drank wine until our stomachs were full and we were both good and drunk. It was awesome.

Welcome to Brewster!

And even though it was an otherwise-unremarkable day, it was still a magical experience in that I was with an old friend in a new place, meeting new people, embarking on a new job flying a new (to me) helicopter in an area of the country that was strikingly beautiful in spite of the dreary, low-overcast weather conditions.

I sat there with Mikey, thinking about how strange my life is…how I do all these weird-ass things and how I’m in grave danger of fulfilling my parent’s biggest fear and never growing up. (I get pensive when I drink wine.) It might not have been the most exciting moment of my life, but it definitely was one of the most sublime. It ranks right up there.

Since that fateful day I’ve been to the Bakery countless times. Alex, Donna, Barb and the rest of their crew have become like an extended family.

Last week one of my closest friends, Matt, my partner-in-grime, who I’ve known forever and who’s been on so many adventures with me both in the air and on the ground, came up to Brewster. Of course he wanted to see the sights. Of course we went to The Bakery. And thankfully it was jam-packed.

It might not have been the same kind of experience for Matt as it was for me at first, but hey, at least he got to see what I’ve been writing about for the last six years. The beauty of this area is it’s nothingness. It really is the middle of nowhere. And so places like The Bakery stand out, maybe more than they would in a city like Seattle. Or Atlanta. Or even Pensacola.

But that doesn’t make it any less special.

10 July 2016

The Bakery Experience

I write a lot about the fun we have at great places like The SweetRiver Bakery, Smallwood Farms and The Club Sports Bar. And I try not to embellish any of the things that happen. But sometimes visitors will come up to Brewster and they specifically want to see this bakery that I keep blathering on and on about. They want the “bakery experience.”

So we’ll go there…

And sure enough, it’ll be an “off” night. There won’t be a band, there won’t be much of a crowd, and Alex isn’t up there being his usual goofball self and cajoling people into singing karaoke. We’ll sit at one of the outside tables, just chilling and drinking beer, and I can tell that the visitor is, well, less than impressed. The expression on their face is one of, “Ho-hum, so this is it, eh? Meh. I could‘ve had more fun if I‘d stayed home and watched my Chia pet grow.” Sometimes they say that out loud. It is perhaps not the magical, thrill-a-minute, exciting time they expected…that I make it out to be.

Because that’s just life. This is, after all, Brewster, Washington. It’s about as far off the beaten track as you can get. It’s halfway between Middle of Nowhere and Bumphuck, Egypt. There are no…as in zero bars in Brewster. “The” bar (Kodi’s) is six miles downriver in Pateros. In Brewster, there are three restaurants, and they all have “Mexican” in their name. (Although having said that, our McDonalds is fixing to reopen after being closed for two years due to a, ahem, “fire.”)

We go to The Bakery because it's basically the only place around where people can congregate and eat and have a good time. But that doesn’t mean it’s Times Square on New Year’s Eve every weekend. It ain’t Bourbon Street. Sometimes these places are pretty boring. Sometimes we are pretty boring.

And so for every night that somebody gets up and drunkenly karaokes “I’m On A Boat” (Note below) at The Bakery there might be two nights that we’ll just sit around with nothing happening. I like it when things are jumping, but I happen to enjoy the off nights too. And when it’s “lit” (as the kids say), we have an incredibly good time.

But it could go either way.

NOTE: “I’m On A Boat” is a…ahhhh…I guess you could say it’s a parody of a rap/hip-hop song by a couple of white guys. I won't post the video here, but I’ve put a link to the YouTube video. But be warned: it's raunchy - definitely something you don’t want your kids to hear. (And yeah, someone really did karaoke it at the Bakery. It's a long story. And it was perhaps not our finest moment.)

18 June 2016

The Cherry Season: 2016

I got back up here to Brewster on May 6th. This year the area had a mild winter and an early spring. Each growing season seems to get earlier and earlier. Normally the contract to which I’m assigned begins around the second week of June and runs for a minimum of 45 days or until all the cherries are picked. This year, the grower put my ship on standby on May 20th. All of the growers in the area were in a panic as well, wanting their ships on contract early. This meant that we were scrambling to have the helicopters ready. So it was kind of hectic from the day I arrived.

I was in charge of hiring and training the new pilots this year. Even that didn't go smoothly. One guy, barely two weeks into his training suddenly left for a better job. That kind of put is in a bind; if he'd told me that he had other hot irons in the fire I probably wouldn't have hired him. Another, an older guy who we thought would be good turned out not to be. I had to let him go.

I've hired and fired a lot of people in the course of my various jobs over the years. Neither part of that process is easy. You agonize over resumes and interviews, never knowing if the people you hire are really going to work out. If they do it’s great! But when they don’t, it’s not easy to let them go. But it must be done.

Things have kind of calmed down now. We've got a bunch of good, mostly new pilots. And we've got the right people in the right places...I think (knock on wood). Which is good because it's been a wet year so far, and we've all been flying a lot. Many growers have already started picking, trying to get their cherries to market before the Big Dog in the area floods the market with his. I imagine that everyone will be done picking a couple of weeks sooner than last year. And then we can relax. So far...so good.

13 June 2016

Blue Highways

Yes, yes, I know I’ve been remiss in my blogging duties lately. Mostly it’s because of a lack of things to write about. I used to think that I had something important! to say. Not so much anymore. Not that my life isn’t interesting and fun…to me it is. But we all have lives. The more people I meet…the more lives I get to hear about, the more arrogant I am to think that mine is any more important or special than anyone else’s. For it’s not.

Plus, I seem to have run out of stories. And without stories a blog is…well…pretty boring. “Today, I woke up and…” Zzzzzzz.

I often write about my trips back and forth between Florida and Washington State. This last time I drove up and it was the most uneventful cross-country trip ever. I’d get in the car, set the cruise control for “+9” and just sit back until I ran out of fuel or had to pee, two things I tried hard to get to coincide - not always successfully.

(And I’ve long wondered why gas stations don’t put urinals out at the pumps? And a soda machine. It would be so convenient if I didn’t have to go inside at all. Just defuel while I‘m refueling, grab a cold soda and I‘m off for the next 400 miles.)

Whatever romance Kerouac and H.S. Thompson found on the American road is gone, replaced by an endless, boring ribbon of Interstate highways, where moronic drivers doing the speed limit sanctimoniously guard the left lane as though their ultimate purpose in life depended on not letting dangerous law-breakers pass. I’m often reminded of comedian George Carlin’s insightful routine about drivers: Everybody who’s slower than you is an idiot, and everyone driving faster is a maniac. I’m usually the maniac.

The title of this post refers to a book of the same name by a writer named William Least Heat-Moon. He made a cross-country trip by staying off the Interstates and travelling only on secondary roads, those that are depicted in blue on most maps. It's an epic adventure, one still worth reading if you have not.

Cross-country travel has changed so much in my lifetime. The Interstate highways didn't always go where you needed to be. And the Interstate usually bypassed the town itself. You had to get off and go into the town to get something to eat or fuel up. It took a while, but now virtually every exit on the Interstate has food and fuel and every motel chain imaginable.

The Interstates offer a level of sameness and predictability. You know that the McDonalds at the next exit will have the same Quarter Pounder with Cheese as the last one. There’s comfort in that. It takes the chance out of stopping at a sketchy place with bad food, especially when you’ve got a car full of wife and kids with delicate digestive systems.

It was different in the 1960’s and early ’70s. You’d drive along, looking up ahead for the big, red “DINER” sign. The joke was that a lot of trucks parked outside meant the food was good. Sometimes that worked, sometimes not. On the Interstate, you might not see the sign until you passed the exit - D'OH!

Then the federal government started putting up signs prior to the exit alerting you that there was “Gas, Food and Lodging” ahead. Sometimes they’d add “Phone” back when there weren’t at least four phones in every family car (five if you include GM’s OnStar). Eventually they actually started putting signs up telling you which brands of fuel, which motels and which restaurants were at the next exit. Now, if you don’t see the McDonalds sign you just keep driving until you do. We make our overnight room reservations on the go with Hotels.com.

I’d like to say that I miss the old days…but I don’t. When you have to be 3,000 miles thataway in a couple of days, our modern Interstate system can‘t be beat. If you’re not in such a hurry you can always eschew the big road and take the “blue highways.”

I had driven a company car home from Washington last year. The boss cleverly gave it to me to use, knowing I’d feel compelled to bring it back for one more season. But this year I don’t yet know how I’m getting home. I could fly (but I won’t). Or I could buy a car (or maybe a motorcycle!) and take the long way home.

28 April 2016

The Road To Nowhere

It's the end of April. And already it's time to go back up to Washington State. I leave in a couple of days. Funny, it's been six months but it seems like I just got home.

How does the time go by so quickly? I don't like that. It's one of the reasons I quit flying for Petroleum Helicopters Inc (PHI) back in 2001. What had started as a stint of "maybe six months" turned into thirteen years. The week-on/week-off schedule makes time literally fly. The years went by in the snap of a finger. And it was an enjoyable job for the most part - never drudgery. There wasn't any real reason to quit.

I had started with the PHI in 1987 at the age of thirty-three. The company had around 500 pilots, many of whom had been there since the mid-1970s when they came home from Viet Nam. I used to look at some of the "old-timers" (guys in their 50's) and think to myself, "Gee, I don't want to become them." I mean, no offense, but many of them considered flying in the Gulf of Mexico to be just any old job - nothing special about it. They'd show up at the beginning of the "hitch," do their seven days and then go home. Their interest in aviation outside of the company seemed to be zero. Very few of them considered it a hobby. Some acted as if they didn't even like flying. It was kind of dispiriting.

I lasted as long as I could. By 1995 I was ready to move on. But momentum is a funny thing. I was making "okay" money (for a single guy). I owned an airplane and a motorcycle. And as I said there was no real reason to quit. Plus, there wasn't anything else in aviation that I was burning to do, except maybe to go back and give sightseeing tours. I always enjoyed doing that.

Then I got wrapped up in a union organizational drive. Coming from New York City and seeing union abuses first-hand, I was at first leery and skeptical of a pilot's union. It's a long story, but eventually I came to believe that the PHI pilots needed and deserved a professional union (a view I still hold to this day). I thought that the pilots would want it...would want to run it and make it thrive and succeed. I didn't hate the company - I just wanted representation. I wanted a union like the successful one the pilots at Southwest Airlines Pilots had. And I felt we could achieve it. As usual, I was wrong.

It turned out that there were a number of PHI pilots who'd been there for a long time, who felt they'd been wronged by the company over the years and wanted revenge. There was a lot of sympathy among young and old pilots alike; we did get the union voted-in. Sadly, the resulting negotiations were not so much about crafting the best possible deal for both the pilots and the company, but rather a way of redressing all of the pay cuts, lost benefits and perceived slights that had occurred over the years. And yeah, we have to admit that there were many. We were so-called "at-will" employees who could...and often were...fired without good reason.

There were four of us on the Negotiating Committee. The prime mover/main guy had been involved in two other failed union "pushes" over the years. He found another disgruntled cohort in one of the other members of our committee. Together their attitude in creating and negotiating the contract was, "Screw the company." Let's just say there was dissension among our ranks. We did finally hammer out a contract with the company, but it was a painful and slow process. The company challenged every single item we proposed.

The two de facto leaders then ran together for President and Vice President. Of course they won. I had put my name in for Vice President but my heart was not in it. One night I received a testy phone call from one of the union head honchos in Washington D.C. "Are you running for Vice President or not?" he asked. I said I was. "Don't you want to win?"he asked snidely. Then gave me the details of what the other two guys were doing. Theirs was a platform of taking a hard-line with the company. It resonated with other pilots, many of whom were just as angry and bitter. I was more conciliatory and wanted to foster a good relationship with the company. I guess that's not possible for helicopter pilots. I realized that I had no chance against the two main guys.

But to be honest I did not care. By this time it was 2001. I had been with the company for thirteen years. I was forty-five years old, and I was tired of all the union bullshit. The flying was still fun but the job was not. I'd always promised myself that if it got to that point I'd quit. So I did. At the end of one "hitch" in January, I turned in my Operations Manual and ID card. "I'm done," I told my Area Manager, who was neither a union member or supporter. He weakly tried to talk me out of leaving, but we both knew it was for the best.

I didn't know what I was going to do, actually. I had some money saved up. I didn't know if I wanted to be a pilot for a living anymore. Strangely enough, other opportunities came along that I could not have predicted or even dreamed about. I've documented some of them in this blog. I don't know if I should have quit PHI sooner, but it has not worked out badly since. I reflect on this as I pack and take care of the final details of closing out this part of my life in advance of getting back on the road. It seems that I'm always on the road to somewhere.


The union muddled along for the term of the first contract. As I'd predicted, relations with the company were poor. PHI had been sold, and for the contract renegotiation the new owner decided to play hardball. Talks broke down and came to an impasse, and finally a federal mediator was called-in. Things got bad. The union president took a strike vote which returned a positive result. But instead of calling the strike right then he waited for six months, "for the right time." Well during that time, the company made other plans for covering their flights. They worked with customers and even competitors, and arranged for contract pilots to fly the ships. When the strike was finally called, the effect was minimal. Eventually the union gave in and called it off. Afterward, having "won," the company was not required to rehire the strikers if they had been replaced as most of them were. Some good pilots lost their jobs for nothing. In the end I felt vindicated, but hardly victorious.

18 March 2016

How Much I Hate Flying On The Airlines

As you know, I officially live in Florida but spend half my time in Washington State. I prefer to drive up and back when I can.  But it’s a 3,000-mile, four-day road trip and sometimes circumstances dictate that, as much as I hate to, I fly. 

Heading up for the 2014 season two years ago I had to fly.  Grudgingly I booked passage on American Airlines.  Of course you have to connect through a hub on any airline flight these days; in my case the routing was PNS – DFW – SEA – EAT.  (KEAT being the code for Wenatchee, Washington, the closest airport to Brewster.) 

The flight left at a reasonable eight a.m.  The recommendation is that you arrive at our conveniently-located, hilariously-named Pensacola International Airport two hours in advance of your flight, which I thought was excessive.  I mean, come on, our little dinky airport is hardly JFK.  No, me being Mr. Smart Guy, I thought that one-hour would be sufficient.  I was almost very, very wrong.

The day of my departure turned out to also be the day when American did an “equipment change,” meaning that they because of the demand they put a bigger airplane on that flight.  Instead of a horribly-uncomfortable 90-seat regional jet, I’d be traveling to Dallas in style in an MD-88 which is actually just the latest/greatest version of the venerable Douglas DC-9. 

And here’s where we all made our mistake: Instead of just 90 passengers, the MD-88 holds 149.  And of course the flight was full.  American had not counted on the time it would take to check-in another sixty passengers and had not put on any extra counter staffing that morning.  Oops!  But neither did I account for such a possibility.  Second oops!

I got to the terminal a full hour before departure.  I had checked-in online but because our printer was out of ink (big surprise, right?) I had not printed my boarding pass.  I figured I’d do that at one of the little kiosks that the airlines so thoughtfully provide. 

To my dismay I saw that the check-in line was literally out the door.  I tried to get my boarding pass from one of the kiosks, but for some reason it would not work (I don’t remember why).  I had a big suitcase I could not carry on, so I got on/in line – and I was last.  And it was moving slowly; there was no curbside check-in for bags and everyone in front of me had tons of luggage.  As the line inched forward I felt every tick of the clock echoing like a sonic boom.

Finally up to the front, the CSR (customer service representative) punched my name in and hit “Enter.”  My boarding pass began printing.

“Oooh,” he said as he examined the document before handing it to me. “That was close!”

“Why’s that?” I asked, puzzled.

“The TSA mandates that we close-out the flight thirty minutes prior to departure,” he said.  “You made it with about a minute to spare.  If you came up to me..."
he looked at his computer screen, "...right...now I wouldn’t be able to check you in.”

Wow.  The gravity of that sank in: thirty minutes prior to departure, the flight gets locked-out.  I was relieved.  But given how screwed up airline travel is these days, I didn’t give it too much thought.  I just thanked my lucky stars and headed for the gate, filing that bit of knowledge in my brain for next time, if there is one, which I hope there is not.

Recently, Brian Fung, a writer for the Washington Post newspaper got caught up in a similar situation as me, only he wasn't as lucky.  He’d booked a flight on American and had actually checked-in online but neglected to print his boarding pass.  He got to the airport less than thirty minutes prior to departure and they denied him boarding.  He was so steamed about this policy that he decided to write an article about it.

My advice if you absolutely, positively have to travel by airline?  PRINT YOUR BOARDING PASS!  That way, even if you have to stand in line and check a bag you won’t be locked out of your flight.

You can read Brian Fung’s whiny article HERE.

This year, in a little over one month, thank Jesus, I am driving up to Washington.