Who Am I?

My photo
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?

26 December 2006

On music...

I love music. But I am really just into songs. I grew up in the 1960’s listening to Top-40 radio. Plenty of one-hit-wonders and catchy singles. Give me a tune that I can hum, or a decent beat that I can dance to, or a clever turn of lyric and I go crazy. This is why I loved the “new wave” music of the 1980’s. Wonderful pop songs back then.

When I got out of high school in 1973 I went to work for a small AM/FM radio station in upstate New York. I discovered that while I have the perfect face for radio, I was not destined to be the next Casey Kasem (this was way before Howard Stern or even Imus).

Our AM side was your typical small-town daytime station. We did different things during the different parts of the day. I was the “news guy” on “The Dawn Patrol” morning show. But I also occasionally filled in on the afternoon Top-40 rock show when the regular d.j. was late getting home from school. On weekends, I’d “run the board” for the local Baptist preacher’s Sunday morning show, then do the same that afternoon for Mike Morelli’s all-Italian hour.

Our FM was “Solid Gold” during the day, then switched to “Progressive Rock” from 6 p.m. to midnight, when it signed-off. I was the night guy. My job: program rock music that would appeal to 18 to 49 year-old males. I was only 18 years old myself – what did I know about 49 year olds? Basically I played what I wanted. It was fun.

Sometimes I’d fill in and do a Solid Gold shift when someone needed the day off. They were fun because I got to play the music I grew up with in the 1960’s. Oddly, I do not ever remember playing an Elvis Presley song. Elvis was still pumping out current hits right up until 1977. So we didn’t think of him as an “oldies” artist, I guess, although he certainly was.

This Christmas, a friend gave me one of those super-cool iPods. Two hundred and forty songs in a tiny little box no bigger than the battery for my digital camera.

Naturally I signed up for iTunes and began buying songs at a dollar a pop. I started with new stuff that I like: Gomez and Death Cab For Cutie and Citizen Cope. But exploring their library a little deeper, I struck…well, gold.

I never really appreciated Elvis Presley’s work – I was not an “Elvis fan.” But I liked that recent remix of his “A Little Less Conversation” so I downloaded it. That reminded me of a couple of other of his scorchers: “Burning Love” and “Promised Land,” both of which I hadn't heard in a long time. Elvis could belt out a song like nobody’s business. In retrospect, he really was The King. “Promised Land,” written by Chuck Berry and recorded by Elvis in Memphis in 1973, may be one of the most perfect pop songs ever recorded – 2:51 of pure aural heaven.

I left my home in Norfolk Virginia,
California on my mind.

I straddled that Greyhound and rode him past Raleigh,
On across Caroline.

Had motor trouble it turned into a struggle,
Half way 'cross Alabam,
Well that 'hound broke down and left us all stranded
In downtown Birmingham.

Right away I bought me a through train ticket,
Ridin’ cross Mississippi clean
And I was on that midnight flyer out of Birmingham
Smoking into New Orleans.

Somebody help me get out of Louisiana

Just help me get to Houston town.
There’re people there who care a little 'bout me
And they won't let the poor boy down.

Sure as you're born, they bought me a silk suit,
And put luggage in my hands,
And I woke up high over Albuquerque
On a jet to the promised land.

Workin' on a T-bone steak a la carte
Flying over to the Golden State
When the pilot told us in thirteen minutes
He would sit us at the terminal gate.

Swing low chariot, come down easy
Taxi to the terminal zone
Cut your engines and cool your wings,
And let me make it to the telephone.

Los Angeles, give me Norfolk Virginia, Tidewater Four Ten Oh Nine
Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin'
And the poor boy's on the line...

It’s a great song because it moves. The lyrics move the protagonist from one side of the country to the other. They move him through different modes of travel (bus, train, plane). They move him socially (although it is only implied) from Virginia to California. You get the impression that when he calls from California it’s not to say, “Be home soon!” but just the opposite. And the arrangement of the song is smoking! Elvis just kills it. (And I mean that in a good way.)

I’ve got room for another 220 songs in my iPod. Time to start digging again. I have a feeling that I’ll be spending another $220 very shortly. Got to love technology!

24 December 2006

Side Effects

When you drive around Guanaja in your boat (which is the only way to "drive" around Guanaja), you are struck by how there all these beautiful hills, and nobody lives up there. Pretty much everyone lives at water level, save for a few hardy souls who managed to lug construction equipment and material up a ways. But literally, there are no roads going up into the interior of the island, and no one lives there. It's odd - almost disconcerting. Such a pretty place yet so undeveloped. Not really all that far from the U.S. mainland as the crow (or in our case, the King Air) flies. But Guanaja might as well be a million miles and a hundred years away from Houston, not 800 and in the same time zone.

The lack of tourism here has some amusing effects. For one thing, stores and businesses do not feel the need to put up a lot of signage. With only about 12,000 people, this is not a big place. Everyone knows which business is which, so why bother? Bars, in particular may have no sign outside at all. Local custom is that you cannot see into bars from the outside. So if you didn't know where the place was, you might not find it. Again, not a problem for the locals.

I was told to go to, "Angie's place," an internet cafe on the Cay. "Is that the name of the store?" I asked. The guy looked puzzled. The name? He didn't know. "It's just...Angie's place," he repeated, looking exasperated. There are only four telephone/internet stores on the Cay. And everybody knows which store is Angie's store. Everybody but the new gringo, that is. Needless to say I went into two of the wrong ones before I found Angie's.

Another amusing aspect of living here are the restaurants. There may be menus, but they're typically superfluous. What usually happens is this: They've got either fish or chicken. (Not a lot of red meat here.) Once you've decided on that, then the only other option is whether you want a baked/boiled potato or papas fritas (what we Americans used to call french fries). There will probably be a small green salad that may or may not contain pieces of tomato. There may or may not be a choice of salad dressing; usually it's Thousand Island. It's best not to quibble or expect too much. You want food? This is what they've got. It's usually more than you can eat, and it never costs a lot of money.

The simplicity of life itself in Guanaja is refreshing. The simplicity of the eating experience here is especially nice compared to those aggravating American restaurants where every item must be special-ordered. You know, the ones with the laminated eight-page, multi-fold menus (and extra "drink" and "dessert" menus on the table buttressed by the salt/pepper shakers). I get through the ninety-nine different types of beer (but ohhhh sorry, no Killian's Red draft - bastards!), the eighteen ways they can cook my steak, and the twelve different ways they serve potatoes. I just want to eat, not play twenty-friggin'-questions with "Todd," my server tonight. But wait! We're not done.

Waiter/Todd: "And for your vegetable?"
Me: Mmmph...Broccoli, I guess.
Waiter/Todd: "The broccoli, very good. Now, would you like that steamed or boi-"

I know, "Chill, dude!" But man, I get frustrated! Look, I like fine food as much as anyone. But I'm not a "foodie." I don't like to think too much. And I'm not picky. I just love to eat, and will eat everything on the plate (including the plate on the right night). I don't care so much about the overall quality of the food or having umpteen-thousand options as long as it's cooked well and tastes good and/or if it happens to be accompanied by a good red wine from Chile or Argentina.

I know some people for whom dining out is never a pleasant experience. They whine incessantly about the food - that it's not right or it's this or that... And I'm, like, "Who cares? We didn't have to cook it and they even bring it to our table for us!" For me, it's as much about the whole dining experience as the food itself.

On the other hand..! Couple of nights ago I went to Graham's Place, a bar/restaurant one cay up from ours. "Casual" doesn't even begin to describe this joint. I said to the bartender, "I'd like some fish." Usually Graham's has two or three different kinds, depending on if they've gone fishing today and what they've caught. But before Renee could even ask, I said, "Surprise me." They did. I was not disappointed. It was a broiled-something with a white sauce, boiled potatoes and a side-salad. Delicious! Their cook, Reggie is very good.

But I've had similar, simple, satisfying meals at just about every restaurant in Guanaja. Like I said, when it comes to food, I'm easy.

23 December 2006


It was brought to my attention that there was no way in this blog to reach me by email. I checked, and sure enough, no email link! An odd oversight, now corrected. It's right there by my picture in the profile box, and if you click on the profile the link has been activated.

19 December 2006

I Am An Idiot, Conclusion

I know I should have posted this last week, but our internet is SOOOOOO unreliable here in the Bay Islands...but that's another (long) story.

If you look closely at the above picture, you can see a plume of light blue smoke coming from the exhaust stack of our front-end loader. That's a Catepillar mechanic in the driver's seat, and the machine is running. Success at last! But it was not easy.

I have changed engine control computers ("ECM's") in cars numerous times. I've even gone to junkyards (excuse me, "auto salvage facilities"), yanked the computer out of a crashed car, then plugged it into another car and driven away. No. Big. Deal.

Not so with Catepillar equipment.

First, we had to have the mechanic come up to Guanaja from San Pedro Sula on the mainland. That alone was $750. He spent the day and in the end confirmed what I suspected: The computer was bad.

So we ordered a computer from Cat in the States. It was $2,500. Brought it down on Friday, December 1st. The Catepillar guy here in Honduras said he'd have to come back to "adjust" it to our machine. "Bullshit!" I said. "I can put the computer in and get the thing running." (Silly boy...why do I say such things?) On Saturday, December 2nd I get the computer installed and the loader will not run no matter how much we crank and crank and crank. Not even a puff of smoke. I admit defeat. I don't like it, but I admit it.

So on Monday we call Catepillar, and they said to send BOTH computers to them in San Pedro Sula. They would download the information from our old one, and upload it to the new one! I was dumbfounded. We spent $2,500 on a BRAND NEW COMPUTER that cannot be used until we pay another $750.

But that's just what happened. Fortunately, our company airplane just happened to be going to San Pedro on Tuesday, December 5th (an amazing coincidence, really). So down the computers went. Only...and you knew this was coming...the Cat place in SPS didn't have the correct updated software to download/upload the data. God in heaven..

Our airplane left on Friday. We went through the weekend. Monday, the weather was very bad - no airline flights in or out. Tuesday, same thing. The rest of the week was like that. Just miserable.

Monday, December 11th. FINALLY, the Cat mechanic arrives on the last flight in. He makes it up to our job site on Tuesday morning. I was elsewhere on the property just before lunch when I heard a familiar diesel rumble. Halleluja! I ran over with my camera in hand, just in case it was a fluke. Thankfully, it wasn't.

So we're back in the earth-moving business. You have no idea how good it feels to have that machine back in action. And to think it only took one full month and $4000 bucks!

It's tough getting things done here in Guanaja, Honduras, CA. Everything is a hassle.

18 December 2006

Tis The Season!

Remember the song, “Both Sides Now?” It was a hugely popular hit back in the late 1960’s. Although Judy Collins’ version was the one played on the radio, the song was actually written by Joni Mitchell. It’s all about ambivalent perspective. She’s looked at life, and love, and even clouds from both the bad and the good.

So I had yet another medical flight down to the mainland over the weekend. Deckhand on a boat had a nasty fall and broke some ribs. The boat skipper called my cell phone Saturday night and briefed me. Since there was no doctor at all in Guanaja, and no x-ray machine anyway, the prudent decision was obviously going to be to get the guy to the hospital. Since there are no airline flights to or from Guanaja on Sunday, that’s where I came in, as I do. I told the skipper I’d be ready to go in the morning.

I was kind of looking forward to going to Ceiba. On her blog, La Gringa wrote of a new supermarket that has opened there called Paiz. This is exciting news for people who like to eat. Our grocery stores in Guanaja, shall we say, leave something to be desired. Like groceries.

By six a.m. I was up and out, coordinating activities on our end, getting the helicopter ready and fueled. No call. Six-thirty…seven…no call. Dang. I told our caretaker that I knew how to get them to call – I’d go make breakfast! I went inside and no sooner had picked up a frying pan for the eggs when my phone started ringing. I had to laugh; works every time. Question: Could we do a nine o’clock takeoff? Well why not?

Complicating matters were not one but TWO parties scheduled for the day. (Got to love the Christmas season.) First one began at noon, and when there are good friends and alcohol involved, I sure don’t want to be late.

I stayed low on the way down, hustling to get there as quickly as possible. The two passengers that were escorting the injured man were originally going to stay in Ceiba. At the last minute they decided to ride back to Guanaja with me.

In what is becoming an all-too familiar pose, here we are at La Ceiba, with my injured passenger being loaded into his "ambulance." Yes, he's got a couple of broken ribs. But don't worry! The roads in La Ceiba are as flat and smooth as billiard tables.

Going back at 3,500 feet put us at the top of a layer of puffy cumulus clouds. I decided to play a little. That Joni Mitchell tune began running through my head:

Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air,
And feathered canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way

Joni got that part right! But there are also passageways, saddles, cloud-mountains to zoom over and then scoot down the puffy ski-slope on the other side, little alleyways, and wormholes to explore. It’s not too bright to be doing it where there might be other aircraft around, but out between La Ceiba and Guanaja I could be 99.99999% certain I wasn’t going to run into anyone else. Plus, it’s just an awesome blast like you wouldn’t believe. It's the best amusement park ride in the world.

Coming close to Guanaja, I could see that there was one humongous ice cream castle parked right over the island.

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way

I held my altitude as long as possible, then began zig-zagging my way down through the maze of feathered canyons. Coming around one corner, I aimed straight for one little cloud. Poof! We punched into it, and were enveloped in nothing but white. In two seconds we were through it and suddenly Guanaja appeared directly ahead of and below us as if by magic. I know I was impressed! (I get like a kid sometimes, I'm ashamed to say.)

But I wanted to maintain my cool, unflappable pilot image. So I very casually glanced over my should at the girl in the back seat. What’s she doing? Text-messaging on her cell phone, of course. I should have known.

We land at the airport and they get out. I’m expecting huge, ear-to-ear grins like the one I've got. Instead, I get the casual, nonchalant wave, like, “Nothing special about this flight. I’ve done this a zillion times before.”

I don’t often allow myself to “play” when I fly. When you get paid to do something, you have an obligation to do it with the seriousness the task deserves. If I were the type of writer who uses hackneyed clich├ęs, I’d say that sometimes you have to take the time to smell the roses. But I’m not. So I’ll just say that sometimes...once in a while...you have to get out and look at the things from all different angles.

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all

09 December 2006

Other Voices

I don’t spend a whole lot of time reading other people’s blogs. I guess I’m not really a blog-person. But there are a few that have piqued my interest. A woman emailed me about my blog. “La Gringa” is a fellow ex-pat - she from Texas, resettled with her Honduran husband in La Ceiba, a coastal city about 70 miles to my southwest. Although her blog is ostensibly about gardening, it ends up being part diary, part travelogue and mostly, interesting stories of someone a lot like myself – a “spoiled” American trying to come to terms with life in a third-world country.

I write well, but I’m not a good writer. I don’t have that eye for capturing the essence of things and then translating it into words. Sometimes I think I’m not a very observant person. Oblivious would probably be a better description. I envy writers like P.J. O’Rourke, Rolling Stone Magazine’s Matt Taibbi, and George Will. You probably have your favorite writers too.

As a guy who’s been a fairly technical person all his life, I can describe stuff pretty well. You want to know how a helicopter rotor works in language you can understand? I’m your guy. But that can get pretty dry (close friends who don’t have to feign politeness would say “boring”). La Gringa has “it.” She is a good storyteller. Her voice comes through. It’s funny, that. I’ve never spoken with her, but I know exactly what she’ll sound like. You will too.

So if you want to read about what life in Honduras is really like, I recommend La Gringa’s “Blogicito” (a word she made up) over mine. Read it here: http://www.lagringasblogicito.blogspot.com

29 November 2006

I Am An Idiot, Pt. 2

So the mechanic from Catepillar gets up here Monday evening. Of course he does not speak English, so I'm working through a translator. People are still clinging to the belief that it is that "little black fuse" that is causing the problem. Oh yeah, and it's on back-order.

Next morning, the word comes back to me: It's the computer. Fried like an egg. Somehow, moisture got inside this supposedly-sealed unit. The corrosion is unbelievable. So is the *big* burn mark on the printed-circuit board where something shorted-out big time. (My guess would be the circuit that controlled the fuel pump, but what do I know?)

Yes, I feel vindicated. But this is not rocket science. I have so far downplayed my mechanical abilities, mainly because I am not a trained or licensed mechanic but just someone who's spent a lifetime working on mechanical stuff - not to mention that I do not have test equipment of any sort. But I am going to have to start being more assertive.

Our airplane is coming down on Friday (day after tomorrow) with a new computer. It'll be nice to have the front-end loader back in business. That is one useful machine, and it hurts the project for it to be unavailable for so long.

27 November 2006

Tropical Weather

What the hell is this? A sunny morning? Heh - almost forgot what the sun looks like, it's been miserable for so long. It's been over a week that we've had nothing but cloudy, chilly days with rain every day. This morning dawned beautifully clear. But shortly after sunrise the clouds started moving back in - from the north, dammit. And it's still blowing like crazy out there. And as I write this, looking out the window I can see that we've already progressed to the "mostly cloudy" stage. Oh well. I want my summer back.

23 November 2006

I Lost The Dang Boat

I was going to write about how lousy our weather has been for the last week. Horrible. More like Seattle or London than a tropical Caribbean island (is that redundant?). It's the rainy season down here. Rainy, it is. Windy, too. And chilly, which I hadn't expected. Down in the upper 60's. What are you, kidding me? I didn't bring clothes for this. And I mean *no* long-sleeve shirts, much less a sweatshirt. It's 18 degrees latitude fer cryin' out loud.

I was going to write about how depressed it makes me...about how I need sun and sand (and rum) for my mental health.

I was going to write about the American holiday of Thanksgiving. Hondurans obviously don't celebrate it, and I was a little bummed about not being able to be up in the States to be with friends and/or family. But a couple of other kind and good ex-pats invited me over today for dinner. How could I refuse!

Sharon and Mike Jones are former CIA agents in exile or hiding I think, either/or. Anyway, they have this gorgeous house on a lush hillside not too far from town (the Cay). And boy, do they know how to entertain! They always put on these incredible spreads. You never leave Sharon's table hungry, believe me. This time it was traditional Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. And she outdid herself this time.

Thanks to Mike and Sharon I am beginning to develop something of a social life here. I've gotten to meet some of the other interesting and colorful local transplants who inhabit this crazy place.

As usual, I stayed behind drinking after all the other guests had left. Not a great idea, since although I had planned on hitching a ride in someone else's boat, I ended up taking my own. But I do this. I find that I can get comfortable in just about any surroundings now. And maybe that is the whole secret key to life: Get comfortable, wherever you are. If you can do that, life's a beach. But it must be said that Sharon and Mike's place is an easy place to get comfortable. Relaxing on their wrap-around deck with a fresh rum and coke or a cold Salva Vida beer is good livin' indeed.

It was nearly sunset when I finally made my way back down the path to their dock...the dock where I had...parked...the...where's the fookin boat?! I wasn't even that drunk. I was being good; just a little beer, a little wine, a little more beer, a little rum - certainly not drunk enough to misplace a boat. But sure enough, it was gone. Funny thing was, when the other guests had left just an hour or so before, my boat was still there.

Now I'm freaking. We had maybe twenty minutes of daylight left. So time was definitely not on our side. We jumped in Mike's boat and headed out. "Which way?" Mike asked. "Give me a heading." Me? Like I know? There were a couple of bumps on the horizon which also happened to be downwind, so we headed that way. But did the boat drift downwind or down-current? We're driving along and I'm thinking, This is not good. Mike was confident that we'd find it quickly.

I'll cut to the chase: We found the boat quickly. Nobody had stolen it. It was just floating there, bow line still attached, having come undone from my un-nautical knot. I jumped in and roared away. Made it back to our cay at last light. Close.

So tomorrow I'll get someone to teach me the various knots boaters use.

In the end, I just decided to write about how much I have to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

19 November 2006

The People Of Guanaja: Pt. 1

In many ways, the island of Guanaja is a place that time has passed by. People here generally only have an elementary school level education, if that. They do not have driver's licenses and do not drive cars (chiefly because there are no roads). They have few technical skills or even technical knowlege for that matter. They do not bowl, nor golf. Many don't even swim! They are not computer literate. Those young ones who do know how to get online generally have to do it at a couple of internet cafes on the Cay.

But they have discovered cellphones. Boy, do they love their cellphones!

Because there is no such thing as billing-in-arrears down here, virtually all cellphones are pay-as-you go. You buy cards in various denominations and then talk until the card runs out. None of the phones tells you how much time you have left. You have to call a number that tells you. Nobody does that. What happens is, you go to make a call and a Spanish lady tells you that you don't have enough lempiras. If you have another card, you put it in. If you don't you're out of luck. Very inconvenient. (Smart ones always keep a fresh card in their pocket.)

Cellphone etiquette is something that has totally eluded and evaded the people of Guanaja. They seem to believe that if you have a cellphone it is their God-given right to be able to get ahold of you (and be gotten ahold of). My employees seem to think that they can call me anytime, day or night, seven days a week. My company phone has rung at 11:15 p.m. Do I pick it up? Hell, no. Most of the time, I don't even answer it on weekends. If people cannot for some reason reach you, they get all indignant and uppity when they finally do.

"I tried to call you FOUR times!" they'll complain angrily, as if I was obliged to take their call. Heh.

"Yeah?" I say. "That's too bad." Unapologetic but not rude.

They'll press the issue: "Was your phone off? Isn't it working?"

I say, "No, it's working fine," without further explanation. It freaks them out. They take it personally.

This absolute right-of-contact has a dark flip-side: They simply cannot *not* answer their cellphones. It is impossible for them to let a call go to voicemail if they can absolutely avoid it. The end-result is rather annoying. But it can be humorous, too.

Guanaja is a poor island, and people live well beyond their means, personally and professionally. Some here think we have big, bottomless pockets from which we'll donate money to every cause and company, whether it's a charity or not. We get so many requests for funds that a major part of my job is filtering and prioritizing them before presenting them to the boss. Recently, two ministers from a local church/school politely asked if they could "get together and talk with me." Of course I knew what they were after: Money. I told them to come see me on our cay and I'd try to be here.

We have a big conference table out on one of our decks. It was a beautful day, there was a lot going on inside, so we talked out there. Basically, they wanted about $20,000...as in DOLLARS, not lempiras. As we sat there and they gave me their spiel, one of their cellphones rang. "Excuse me," the minister said, "I have to take this." And he did. He backed his chair away from the table a little, then began chatting. We caught him up when he returned to the conversation. A short while later, the other one's cellphone rang. Sure enough, he took that call too. I was impressed at their blatant and blitheful rudeness. But not surprised.

I had purposely left my own cellphone on a counter just inside the house. I heard it ring (naturally, as I knew it would), but decided against answering it. Daniel, our cook retrieved it and came running outside. "Bob, your phone!" he said excitedly, holding it out for me to grab. I sighed and waved him off. "Just let it go to voice-mail," I said. "There's no call so important that I have to take it right now." Daniel left, looking very perplexed. I was trying to make a point specifically with the ministers, but I think it was lost on everyone.

I cannot single-handedly change this culture's fascination and obsession with their cellphones. But I'll have fun trying.

15 November 2006

I Am An Idiot

Oh yes! Repeat after me: I am an idiot. I let self-proclaimed "experts" tell me what was wrong, and they were wrong. And we lost a day of work because of it. And I know better!

At our marina construction site, we have three Caterpillar products: A D3 bulldozer, a track-hoe (like a back-hoe with dozer-tracks instead of wheels), and a 924G front-end loader. The three of them are almost in constant use. They're amazing machines; together they can move earth like you wouldn't believe.

So on Monday the front-end loader was lifting up our bulk diesel tank so we could do some work on it (hidden behind the white storage building in the picture below). It was just sitting there, idling when suddenly, the huge machine died like the operator had switched the key off. But he hadn't. Puzzled looks were exhanged all around. Panels were opened, and a half-dozen heads and sets of hands started exploring. They seemed to know what they were doing, so I backed off. Hey, what do I know about front-end loaders? Nada, that's what. And I didn't want to appear like the know-it-all boss telling them what to do.

Our Broken Loader
The guys decided it was a clogged fuel filter, so it was removed. What they did not tell me was that they had no fuel pressure (which meant that it didn't matter whether the filter was clogged or not - it wasn't getting any gas in the first place). I had to leave the jobsite, but I did so with confidence that they'd get the machine running shortly. At the end of the day my foreman reported the bad news: No go. He said that a "little square fuse" had blown.

Um, a little square fuse? You mean a relay?

"Yes, that's it."

The fuel pump relay?



Next morning, out of curiosity I asked to see this "fuel pump relay" fuse. Sure enough, it looked like every other small, black, square five-prong electronic relay in automotive use. I asked where it came out of? My foreman pulled a cover off the fuse panel and pointed to the empty slot. So far, so good. On the inside of the cover was a diagram...where they always are...with the location of all the fuses and relays as well as what they are. Nobody had noticed it. A quick glance showed me that the relay they removed was for the...get ready...brake lights. Hmm. Looking over the diagram a little further, I noticed that there was a 10 amp fuse listed as "Circuit 150 ECM." Electronic Control Module. "That one," I said. "Pull it." My foreman did and, sure enough, it was blown. We put a spare in and it blew as soon as we turned the ignition key on. Well there ya go! There's either a dead short in that circuit or one of the components in the circuit has gone bad. Troubleshooting 101.

Needless to say we didn't have a wiring diagram for the loader. Urgent emails and calls to Catepillar went back and forth, and now Wednesday - two days later - I have the wiring diagram and am tracing out that "circuit 150." Only problem is, the wiring diagram is about three feet by four feet. Looking at it on my computer is like examining an elephant through a straw. It ain't easy.

Troubleshooting mechanical things is not hard. What's hard is *not* jumping to predrawn conclusions about what is wrong. Keep an open mind, and start at the beginning. If something stops, before you start turning wrenches, check the fuses first!

So here I sit, kicking myself.

11 November 2006

The Start of Another Typical Weekend

Yet another pregnant woman to La Ceiba this morning. Don't any of the women here have normal pregnancies? This one's water broke yesterday before noon. The doctor on the Cay tried to get her to deliver all afternoon and night with no success. Ergo, we took off at seven a.m. this morning. Uneventful flight both ways. I'm getting used to this route; it's almost like the helicopter can do it by itself. I'm not sure my boss ever anticipated that his helicopter would be used for so many medical flights.

The King Air has gone back to Florida, meaning I have the place to myself for the next two weeks. With the boss and our guests out of town, I usually leave the helicopter in the hangar at the airport. Instead, I just flew back to our cay and left the stretcher set-up installed. After all it is the weekend, and the Saturday Night Machete Fights are still ahead of us.

09 November 2006

Pleasant Surprises

Sunset In Guanaja
Seems like all I write about lately are problems - medical ones that require the special capabilities of a helicopter. But I feel compelled to point out that life here is very, very special.
I have a digital camera (doesn't everybody?). But I haven't really been impressed. For one thing, this one doesn't zoom well. For another, being from the old school in which we put this substance called "film" in our cameras, I am frustrated that I cannot mess with the aperture settings and shutter speeds. Not that I was any good at it; it just made me feel better, being the incurable control-freak that I am. Heh- and I still have control. Now, most digital shots I take are "massaged" a bit in Photoshop after the fact instead of before.
The other evening, a couple of our guests and I were on the deck above our boathouse, sharing a beer and toasting the sunset like they do in Key West, Florida. Sunsets down here can be spectacular. Ironically, you can start to take the beauty of this island for granted. Anyway, as the sun sank behind the hills on the west end of Guanaja I whipped out the camera and snapped some obligatory, "throwaway" shots. When I opened the above image on my computer I was actually impressed. No Photoshop massaging necessary. It's my desktop wallpaper now. It doesn't look all that great here in the blog but it's awesome in full-screen. I guess digital cameras aren't so bad after all.

08 November 2006

Medevacs and more medevacs...

The first helicopter medical evacuation flight (“medevac”) I ever did was as a copilot back in 1978 or ’79. This was before helicopters were widely used as air ambulances; there were only a handful of such dedicated aircraft in the country. The company I worked for was routinely called by various agencies, and it was not uncommon for us to rip the interiors of our helicopters out so that stretchers or premature baby “isolettes” could be fitted. We did many flights within a 100-mile radius of New York City.

One afternoon, we were called to go pick up a burn victim at a hospital just up the Hudson River a bit. It was a young guy who had deliberately, for reasons unknown set himself on fire. We got there and sure enough, this guy was burned badly. Some relatives were there, and since we’d come with a large, eight-passenger helicopter, they rode with us to New York Hospital’s Burn Unit in Manhattan. All through the flight, the mother kept talking to her son. “Hang on, John. Just hang on. We love you, John. Just hang on.” It was heart-wrenching. At the same it was pretty disgusting. The smell of burnt flesh is not pleasant; it’s not something you forget either.

I called the hospital a couple of days later to inquire about our passenger. The nurse who answered the phone got very quiet. "Oh yes, John," she said softly. "He, ahh, passed away shortly after you brought him in." You could tell they don't like losing people in hospitals.

So at two o’clock yesterday afternoon the power surged on our island, like it does in those B-movies when the warden nods and they pull the huge hinged-metal switch on the wall that sends the juice to the guy in the electric chair. “Uh-oh,” I said. “That’s probably not good.” The power usually doesn't have problems on nice, sunny afternoons. Five minutes later the power went out completely. Almost immediately, my cellphone rang and I was not suprised. As usual, it was Roger, the head of the local power company.

“Bob, I’ve got a problem,” he said, sounding very, very distraught. “One of my guys got electrocuted. He’s still up the pole – the crew can’t get him down. We’re not sure if he’s still alive. Can you fly him to La Ceiba?” Well, sure. We started prepping the helicopter to receive a stretcher. Our local doctor should have been called to the scene; for reasons I'm not sure of, he was not.

As the minutes dragged on, Roger was getting frantic about why I wasn’t airborne and headed his way. He urgently wanted to get the man, Marcos, to a hospital – any hospital. Remember we do not have one of those in Guanaja. Being the stickler that I am (some would say “uncooperative prick”) I told Roger to make sure that the local doctor saw the man, administered proper first-aid and pronounced him stable for flight. The very last thing I want is for us to snatch-up a badly-injured accident victim and have him die on the 45-minute flight to the hospital because of something basic that was not accomplished on the scene but could have been.

Instead of bringing the doctor to the man (which would have been quicker), they took the man by boat to the doctor. We all rendezvoused at the airport about an hour after the accident. Marcos’ injuries were certainly severe. His right foot was nearly blown completely off. His unbandaged left foot was…well let’s just say that his entire skin looked like it had been deep-fat fried. It was not pretty. The doctor checked him over, did what he could (luckily there was no bleeding), administered some pain-killers, started an IV, and we were good to go. Marco was conscious through the whole thing and in quite a lot of pain. I knew that Marco was going to smell bad. Roger warned me, but he did not have to.

Loading Marcos At The Airport
(Think we've got enough help?)

We made it down to La Ceiba in 45 minutes. The hospital we were headed to has a soccer field adjacent to it. Someone from the power company told them to meet us there with a stretcher. They did. It was like clockwork. I wasn’t on the ground for more than five minutes. Then I hopped over to the airport for fuel. It was getting late and I was cutting it close again. Even if everything went right I’d be getting back right as it got dark.

In America this would have been no big deal, very routine. But it's not like America here, not at all. The Honduran government inexplicably does not allow emergency flights directly to hospitals by civilian aircraft operators, and I am aware of this. When I shut down I was met by two obviously-pissed airport authorities who lectured me sternly. “In the future, you must come to the airport,” they said. “We can have the ambulance meet you here.” Outwardly, I was all, “Oh no, sir. No, sir! I’ll never do that again.” Inwardly, I was like, “Yeah right, blow it out your ear.” There’s an expression: Sometimes it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. (Just please, dear God do not let them read this.)

So. Nine weeks, nine medevac flights. It’s funny. I’ve never really wanted to be an air ambulance pilot. But it seems like it’s all I do down here now.

WEDNESDAY, November 08, 2006
Roger called from the hospital. Marcos is still in really bad shape. During the night, they had to amputate his left arm and right leg. They’re still trying to get his internal organs functioning again. It is touch-and-go whether he will even live.

05 November 2006

Vegetables and other cargo

I knew when we did our first medical flight that it would not be the last. And boy was I right. In the nine weeks that I've been here, the helicopter has been used eight times to transport those who need urgent medical attention that cannot be provided on Guanaja. Says a lot about health care in third-world countries.

Friday is payroll day. I was immersed in spreadsheets and attendance rosters when I was called urgently to the phone. Another pregnant woman, another life-or-death situation, yadda yadda yadda. I confess that I'm getting a little jaded about these things. Not that I'm insensitive, but I can't invest too much emotion in the flight or I open myself up to the possibility of making a mistake. To me, it could be a sack of potatoes or a woman who's about to give birth; it's all the same. I'm just a driver. And it is why we let the local doctors make the decision whether to fly, not the friends/family of the injured. If the doctor says "go" then it's serious enough and we go.

This afternoon, the doctor said "go." We don't have a heliport on Banacca Cay, where the medical clinic is. I land the helicopter at the local airport, a short boatride from the Cay. "Short" being a relative term if you are in a lot of pain, I guess. Anyway, here comes the girl, no husband/boyfriend in sight (maybe he was working). Of course she's young and looks ready to pop. Forgive the bluntness, but it's a forty-five minute flight, totally over open water and I worry about being halfway between here and there and having the girl deliver in the backseat, which is tiny by the way. I cannot "just land on the water" as some people think. She'd be (and I hate to make this bad pun) screwed.

It was nearly three p.m. when we finally got airborne. The female doctor from the Cay wanted to ride along as an escort, which was fine. I contact La Ceiba Radio, our non-radar version of Air Traffic Control to file my flight plan, and the "controller" tells me that the airport has pretty much zero visibility with heavy rain in all quadrants. Ahh. Greaaaat. I know of at least one huge-ass radio antenna between me and the airport, and make a mental note to try to not hit it.

We're trucking along toward La Ceiba when the doctor keys the intercom. "I'm sorry, Mr. Bob," she says in a voice that tells me she genuinely is. "We hate to keep asking you to do these flights. But we wouldn't call you unless it was a real emergency." I look at her and see the grateful expression on her face. To the doctor, the girl in the back was not just a sack of potatoes. Suddenly, inexplicably, I get all choked up. "Look," I say, all Mr. Cool-and-Dispassionate Pilot, "we're glad to do it." I reach up and pat the top of the instrument panel. "It's great having a machine like this." I'm suddenly very proud of my little helicopter, not to mention my generous and benevolent boss who makes it available to the locals FOR FREE.

Going this way, we almost always have a tailwind. I'm experimenting, trying to find the altitude that gives us the best ground speed. Even if everything goes well, I'll be getting back right at sunset, and I do not like flying at night. But playing with different altitudes doesn't seem to make much difference today. Twenty miles out we enter the rain. I drop down to 500 feet, then 400. Turning around is not an option. This sack of potatoes is going to La Ceiba today. All that experience flying around the Gulf of Mexico in truly crappy is not going to waste. I've been here before.

The dramatic set-up was for naught; by the time we reach the coastline the rain at the airport has eased. I climb back up to miss the big radio tower, and the control tower clears me in direct. An ambulance is on the ramp, waiting for us when we land. Sometimes things just work out. I told the doctor that I would wait for her until 4:15 but at that point I had to leave.

Needless to say she shows up at 4:30. We lift off and head home, fighting a stiff headwind now. I drop her off at the Guanaja International at last-light. It's surprising how short "sunset" is down at these latitudes. One minute it's evening, next minute - like throwing a switch - it's dark. The hop over to our cay is in total darkness. Our caretaker has thoughtfully turned on the heliport lights. As the rotor spins down, I sit there feeling very content. Yes, I'm just a driver, but it makes me feel good to be able to do something nice for people in need. Tomorrow I'll call and check on the condition of my sack of potatoes.

02 November 2006

And another thing...

…About boats. You have to wear your baseball cap backwards when you drive them. Closeted country music star Kenny Chesney must be as bald as a cue ball. You never see him without a hat. Ever. In the beginning it was a cowboy hat. Then Chesney bought a place in the Caribbean. Suddenly, all of his music videos had beach or water themes and his music was less “country” than before. (Steel drums? In a country song? Come on.)

Chesney must’ve started spending a lot of time on boats too, because when he appeared in the videos, he had ditched the cowboy hat for a baseball cap that he began wearing backwards, the way kids in the States used to when that was a fad…a fad that I’ve never been very fond of. Now when I drive the boat, like Kenny Chesney I wear my baseball cap backwards. I’ve become what I hate.

..About country music. American country music is wildly popular down here for some reason. As I’ve already written, reggae and other forms of tropical music are curiously absent. There is no indigenous music at all. It is disconcerting to be in a bar in a place like this and hear nothing but country music emanating from the jukebox.

Our cook is crazy about country. He keeps the Sirius satellite radio in our main house tuned to a country channel. And he plays it loudly. It’s not that I dislike country music – I don’t. I just don’t like hearing the same six or seven country songs over and over and over. I could overrule him and switch the channel, but you do not want to piss off a good cook. And Daniel is a good cook. So I settle for just turning it down.

…About satellite radio. There are those who believe that satellite radio will cause the demise of regular old, terrestrial radio, the kind we’re all used to, the kind where the signal emits from a big tower and the programming is produced locally. I’m not sold on satellite radio, and here’s why: Repetition.

There are scads of channels, more than you can imagine. Something for everyone, literally, and all commercial-free (for now – remember when cable t.v. was commercial-free?). There are two Howard Stern channels, and one devoted entirely to the music of Elvis Presley. There is even a music channel devoted entirely to a certain type of “new wave” music that was popular in the 1980’s. Now, I happen to be very fond of ‘80s music, especially that type. So when Daniel isn’t around I switch the Sirius radio to “my” channel. It did not take long before I realized that, just as with his country channel I was hearing the same few ‘80s songs over and over. There were literally hundreds of songs that became popular during that period, but Sirius only plays about thirty of them, if that, regularly. It was frustrating. After two months I’d heard enough. Click!

29 October 2006


The view from my deck.
(Not bad, huh?)

The weather in Guanaja, Honduras is uncharacteristically crummy this weekend. Fortunately, I have nothing to do except some work on the helicopter that will just have to wait. I can’t even fly it to the airport and put it in the hangar to work on it because the company King Air is already there taking up that space. They’ll both fit, but the helicopter has to go in first.

Today is dismal and rainy, and the wind is out of the north, which it typically is not. Between rain bands, I found myself an unoccupied hammock and settled in with the latest issue of FLYING Magazine.

On one of the helicopter internet discussion boards that I haunt, we often discuss the merits of the career of helicopter flying as opposed to other types of flying. Although there are many jobs within the fixed-wing world, the usual other alternative (as if there is no other) is flying for the airlines. To many helicopter pilots, airline flying seems humdrum and dull…horribly, unbearably boring and unchallenging. And therefore unsuitable as a career choice. Me, I don’t know. I fly both and like both.

In the latest FLYING Magazine, columnist Dick Karl writes about a series of flights he took in the jumpseat of an American Airlines Boeing 757 piloted by fellow columnist Les Abend. They had to go through a big run-around through various agencies for all the permissions required for such a ride-along. I’m sure American expected a big feature article with pictures of their shiny airplanes in picturesque locales. Instead, they got an expanded version of Dick Karl’s regular monthly column. Oops.

The four-day trip began in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida with stops in San Juan, P.R., Orlando, Fl., Boston, Ma., San Juan (again) and then back to Ft. Lauderdale. It is informative on many levels.

Yes, airline flying is routine; by its nature it must be so to guarantee a certain level of safety through standardization. But that doesn’t mean that airliners can be flown by robots. There are still humans up there in the pointy end, always more than one of them. Les and his copilot on that trip matrix had flown together a lot, and their friendship comes through. It’s nice, flying with someone you get along with and whose company you enjoy. Yes, the inside jokes get predictable, but that happens with any small group of people.

The amateur psychologist in me suspects that a common trait among helicopter pilots is a dislike of the participation in team sports. It is often said (by us!) that we are loners or “lone wolves” and I believe that to be true. Something in our psyche makes us not like working/playing so closely with others. To really enjoy airline flying, one must necessarily enjoy working in concert with someone who is, for all practical purposes, a co-equal.

After reading the magazine, I was on my way back to my house when one of our guests stopped me. “How long have you been flying helicopters?” he asked. I had to think. My first flying job was…what…1980? While I sorted it out he said, “Must be a long time if you have to think about it, huh?” Yeah, it’s been a long time all right.

The question and the article made me think back on my career. I’ve always flown by myself, with the exception of one short stint I did as an copilot in a Sikorsky S-58 helicopter back in the very beginning. I’ve missed the camaraderie that goes with airline flying. I miss the going-places aspect typical of fixed-wing (especially airline) flying. And I usually only realize that I’ve missed those things when I read articles like the one in this month’s FLYING.

On the other hand… I’ve flown a couple of times in our King Air with Mike, our fixed-wing pilot. He has a bazillion hours, is a great pilot…former C-130 Herc and DC-8 driver…a great guy and he is becoming a good friend. But oddly, we do not fly together well. In the cockpit Mike is a one-man show and does not need a “copilot.” I’m a pretty fair pilot too, but I’ve also been a one-man show for too long now. I doubt I could change if I wanted to.

As I reach the top of the stairs of my unit above the boathouse, just before I go through the door my view is directly out on the helipad. There sits my bird, strapped down against the tropical squalls, no flying today. I stop and stare at it for a bit, pondering my fate and the choices I’ve made. I cannot complain, I mean really. I love flying helicopters and I thank God that I still get to do it with proficiency and skill. But still, I do wonder about other paths I could have taken and where they would have lead? I wonder if I would have been successful as an airline pilot or if my “lone-wolf” personality would have surfaced and made me miserable? Too late to ask such questions, and it doesn’t matter anyway, does it?

22 October 2006


Sunday, October 22, 2006

I have discovered something about boats: I don't like them. I've been here in Guanaja for two months now, either driving or just in a boat every single day. Consequently, my experience level quickly went from zero to...well...whatever it is now. I am by no means an expert boat driver. But I'm not bad. So far I've only run aground once, and that was in some marsh, and the boat backed out fairly easily.

The Bay Islands of Honduras are out in the ocean, about forty miles north of the nearest land. Guanaja is almost completely surrounded by a coral reef. This diminishes the waves somewhat, but there is almost always a stiff breeze blowing from the east/southeast which can churn up the water inside the reef like you wouldn't believe. Which is where I live and drive.

Since there are no roads here in Guanaja, they use boats for everything. Moving vans, school buses, fishing vehicles, delivery trucks, taxicabs... But ironically there is little pleasure boating. People never say, "Hey, let's go out on my boat!" as if it's something special and unique. They get in the boat to *go* somewhere. Kids learn how to drive boats almost as soon as they can walk. It's as natural to them as riding a bicycle - which few down here do, actually. There is a word for a person without a boat down here: Stranded.

Back in the 1960's there was a television show called "The Everglades." It chronicled the adventures of a fictional Park Ranger who mostly did his job in a boat but, as I recall occasionally patrolled in a bubble-type Bell 47 helicopter. The show had one of those cheezy, '60s theme songs:

In the Everglades there's a way of life
It's a way of peace without stress or strife
There's a fellow there who protects these rights
Lincoln Vale in the Everglades
The man on patrol in the Everglades

But they'll fight for rights and the homes they've made,
Simple grass-roots people of the Everglades
There's a natural danger and the man to face,
Lincoln Vale of the Everglades
The man on patrol in the Everglades
Movin', ever movin' through the Everglades
Movin', ever movin' through the Everglades...

The tempo of the song conveyed my idea of what life there must be like - smooth and easy and gliding through life adhering to the natural rhythm of the earth. Movin', ever-movin' through the Everglades, Movin' ever-movin' through the Everglades. That catchy little riff has stayed with me for forty years.

Because of shows like "The Everglades" and "Flipper" (also set in south Florida), I imagined boating to be carefree and fun. Imagine my surprise! It's not. The locals don't seem to mind the constant crashing up and down through the waves; I dislike it.

Also, boats yaw and slew through rough water, producing movements that are very unnatural to a pilot. Aircraft need to fly through the air "straight"; that is, with the nose aligned with the direction of travel. Even with a stiff crosswind, the aircraft is always in what we call "balanced" flight - not skidding or slipping. Boats are influenced by the water and the wind, and they often move in uncomfortable ways. At least to me.

However, this past weekend has been smooth and calm. It's almost as if nature herself knows it's the weekend. The water may not be glassy-smooth, but it's close enough. I've been tooling around, singing to myself, "Movin' ever-moving through the Everglades. Movin' ever-movin' through the Everglades..."

Oh, if it were only like this all the time. Maybe I might grow to like boating.

15 October 2006

Sunday, Bloody Sunday

Yet another medevac today; yet another loser of a machete fight. Same as a couple of weeks ago. When will these guys learn? The machete is a bad weapon. People worry about guns? Feh- I don't. What I really worry about is a guy coming on the island in the middle of the night with a machete. I keep my doors and windows locked. The locals tell me it didn't use to be this way. But we've already had two nighttime intruders: one just before I got here; the other shortly after. So I keep a .40 caliber Glock pistol close by on the nightstand - just in case.

The guy today had a huge gash in his head. The local "doctor" couldn't tell how deep it was, so he stopped the bleeding, bandaged the wound and sent the guy to a hospital on the mainland. I was just about to sit down to breakfast when a boat pulled up fast to our dock. Don, one of the workers said, "I wonder what they want?" But I knew. When unfamiliar people come to the island so early on a weekend morning, it can only mean one thing: they want the helicopter. And these guys did. Bad.

So I flew Mr. Machete-Fight Loser down to La Ceiba. He was walking (if not talking), so I guess he wasn't in too-bad shape. But don't depend on Dr. Bob for your diagnosis. I just fly 'em.

After I got back, Roger the head of the local power company came by. We joked that there ought to be a law that says: "If you get drunk and get into a machete fight, you DON'T get a helicopter ride to the mainland." Not that that would change anything.

It occurs to me that I haven't posted a whole lot of pictures of my new life in paradise. Having said that, here are a few. One other Sunday not long ago, I took the previous machete-fight loser (the one who got his left hand lopped clean off - and lost it) down to La Ceiba. Kenny, one of our workers flew along with me. When we got back to Guanaja, I decided to do a little exploring/sightseeing.

Here is a shot of our airport. They don't call it "Guanaja International" for nothing. In fact, they don't call it that at all, as you probably already guessed. I'm not sure how long the runway is other than "not very," but the pilots of the twin-turboprop commuter planes sometimes use up every inch of it. Our hangar is that white building just visible at the top left of the pic. There is no terminal to speak of. You buy your ticket at one of three airline offices over on the Cay, then boat over to the airport. At the far end of the runway there is a little path that leads down to a boat dock. Very third-world.

The north side of Guanaja is quite beautiful. Mostly uninhabited, there are miles and miles of unspoiled, deserted, inviting beaches, such as this one above. We were tempted to land and go for a swim, but decided to leave it for another time. There was someone I wanted to drop-in on.

While out playing around that day, I decided to visit with a woman who lives up on the north side. Her name is Sue Hendrickson, an archeologist of some renown. She discovered one of the oldest dinosaurs ever, and they named it after her. Unfortunately, because of this she will forever be known as "Dinosaur Sue." She's a wonderful, eccentric woman, endlessly fascinating and generous to a fault.

I had to actually hover in under a palm tree to get on the beach. It was tricky. Kenny, who was riding with me, said, "You are the BEST helicopter pilot!" I was inclined to agree, but modesty made me correct him. "Just *one* of the best, Kenny," I said. "Just one of them."

I probably should have landed on her boat dock, which was roomier and more solid. But the helicopter on the beach just makes such a pretty picture, doesn't it? Plus, I had never done it before.

Life in paradise has it's advantages, let me tell you.

08 October 2006


At seventeen, Javier was kind of young to be operating our front-end loader. But he had already been cutting the grass at the Guanaja airport with a fairly large tractor. He impressed us with his intelligence and maturity, so we put him to work. He handled the huge Caterpillar with deft ease, speed and proficiency. In fact, he drove all of our Cats: the loader, the track-hoe and the bulldozer (which the locals pronounce with the accent on the second syllable). Day after day, he moved tons of earth for us, non-stop, back and forth without complaint or even stopping to take a break. Dark-skinned with sharp, angular features, he always seemed to be grinning at some inside joke. It was like he knew he was special, at least compared to most of the other workers who, while older than he, spent their days shoveling sand and mixing cement. As soon as Javier saw me each morning, the sly grin would break into a wide smile and greeting.

At seventeen, Javier was already a ladies’ man. I’d recently spent a Friday evening in town on the cay carousing. Slim and strikingly handsome, the women flocked around him. Unabashedly, he flirted with them all despite the fact that he reportedly had a serious girlfriend who was conveniently off the island for a while. Something told me that he’d be just as flirtatious even if she were not. Later that same night, when I’d finally made it home to our island, it was Javier who followed us in another boat so that he and Kenny could continue partying after this old-timer had called it quits. So young and energetic, these kids here, so full of restless energy and life, doing everything at a million miles per hour, living like there was no tomorrow. And for Javier it finally came true.

Around ten p.m. there came a terrible banging on my door. It was our cook, clearly distraught. “There’s been a bad accident, Javier is dead?” he blurted all at once, making it sound like a question. More words spilled out frantically and I processed them as best I could to get an idea of what happened. Javier, three other boys and two young girls were out partying on the north side of the island. Somehow, they collided with another boat.

First reports (which are almost always wrong) had only four in Javier’s boat and all of them dead. At the same time it was not known how many people were involved or if all of them had been found. The head of the local power company arrived to ask if the helicopter was available should it be necessary to transport any injured. Unfortunately, nights are just too dark down here to risk flying in an unstable aircraft like a helicopter without the necessary instrumentation. Feeling like the biggest heel in the world, I said I’d have to wait until sunrise.

Tragically, it turned out that Javier’s parents, unable to contact their son by cell phone had sent another young boy out to look for them in another boat. A much bigger, more powerful boat. Inexplicably, both boats collided.

The impact from the collision had sufficient force to kill three of the boys instantaneously and seriously injure the two girls. Sadly, Javier was one of those who died. The driver of the second boat and two of the other boys in Javier’s boat escaped with only a scratch or less. The girls were taken by boat to the mainland during the night. They’re going to be okay.

How does such a thing happen? After being around here for a while, my question is why such things don’t happen more often? Theories abound about this one, as they always do. Everyone has an authoritative opinion. But I know from my knowledge of aircraft accidents that no one really knows – sometimes not even the people involved. And when you consider the elements associated with this one: young boys, alcohol, young girls, fast boats and a dark night…maybe even the people involved won’t say exactly what happened even if they do know. Right now it’s best that everyone just keep their mouths shut until things have had a chance to settle. But they don’t do that. Everyone speculates. It doesn’t help.

Needless to say, the island of Guanaja is dealing with a tragedy of a magnitude not seen here in a long time. Hell, the previous-worst thing to ever happen here, which pretty much destroyed the whole island but only killed two people. That was Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Today, the weather is lousy, matching our mood. This is the first day since I’ve gotten here where it’s been overcast, rainy and dismal all day long. It’s like God Himself is crying.

I had wanted to get a candid photograph of my skinny, smiling front-end loader driver in his element, in command of that big Cat with a bucket-full of black dirt. But every time Javier drove it he wore sunglasses and a baseball cap pulled down low over his eyes. Now it’s too late. As usual. (Why do we put off stuff “until later”? I know better. Still…)

After such a dreary Friday, today could not be more beautiful. The water inside of the reef is like a lake. It’s one of those picture-perfect Caribbean days you only see in travel brochures. We’re burying Javier this afternoon. Quick, yeah but maybe it’s better this way. No autopsy, no coroner’s inquest, no big police investigation. Life is uncomplicated for these people. There are no multiple layers of bureaucracy and government as we’re used to in the States.

And as bad as we all feel, life must go on. Javier’s father will have to keep fishing. Monday, it will be back to the business of building a marina for us. I’ll have to hire or train someone to drive the front-end loader. Replacing Javier will not be easy; he did a lot of stuff for us, both at the job site and at the airport. But I’ll worry about that on Monday.

03 October 2006

Medevac Flights

The Bay Islands are pretty remote. Not just in a physical sense - although they are 40 miles distant from the nearest mainland. But as far as Honduras' capital of Tegucigalpa is concerned, the Bay Islands may not even exist. All of the money the government has is already given out before they get down to us on the list of the needy.

Guanaja, with all of 13,000 people or so, only has marginal little medical clinic. For anything more complicated than a broken fingernail, patients are routinely sent to the city of La Ceiba on the mainland where they can receive free medical attention. To get there, they must catch one of the sporadic commuter airline flights. Takes about twenty minutes, costs about $120 round-trip.

Now that we have our helicopter down here, some of the locals assume that we run a 24/7 air ambulance. I get calls at all hours of the day and night to do "urgent" transports. Takes about 45 minutes one-way. Some we do, some we don't.

First one I did was a pretty little pregnant girl with complications, needed immediate surgery. She got it in time, and mother and child are fine. Second was a guy who was on the wrong end of a machete fight. He ended up losing the hand, lots of stitches closed his other wounds.

Third and fourth were a "two-fer." The woman who had been our longtime Postmaster on Guanaja was visiting La Ceiba when she had a serious heart attack. Her family wanted to bring her back to Guanaja to die at home. Naturally they called me. This was more of a mercy flight than anything else, but what the heck. When they loaded her onboard, it was clear that if the attending nurse stopped squeezing the oxygen bag the elderly woman would die. Which is just what she did 30 minutes after I landed her in Guanaja.

Coincidentally, as I was fueling the ship in preparation for the flight, one of our employees was at the airport and limped over to our hangar, having gotten bumped off the commuter flight due to no seats. While working, he had gotten rammed in the...well, let's say "tender region" by the handle of a wheelbarrow. His 'nads had swollen to the size of a grapefruit (this was described to me, not actually witnessed). He was walking funny. It looked painful. Local doc said he needed surgery. Instead of taking the commuter, I transported him down to La Ceiba while headed there to pick up the Postmistress.

I've had to turn down a couple of flights. One night we had a bad boating accident that killed three teenage boys and injured two teenage girls. The call came in on an overcast, moonless night not long after I'd gotten home from dinner and drinks (lots of drinks) at a local restaurant. Even without the alcohol involvement, it would have been too risky. Our FH1100 is not equipped with the necessary instrumentation needed for such a flight. And I'm just not that brave/invincible anymore. It hurts to say no, but sometimes you have to. You can't save the world.

I have no doubt that we will be doing more of these medical flights. Fortunately, the FH1100 is very easy to convert from passenger to stretcher configuration, and I can do it at an enroute stop. Donating the helicopter for such public service flights is obviously a good thing for the community. But I will not deny that it makes us feel really good to do something truly useful and helpful with the machine. My boss is an incredibly generous person. I'm not sure the community really appreciates it yet, but I have a feeling they will come to in time.

29 September 2006

I Got My Baby-Back, Baby-Back, Baby-Back

Unimpounded! Finally got the helicopter back home to Guanaja, no thanks to the Honduran "government."

Back on September 6th, Mrs. Bossman wanted to do some shopping. So I flew us from the Bay Islands down to the mainland city of La Ceiba. There, we were informed that our seven-day permit to fly in Honduras had expired. We had erroneously thought it would be a mere formaility to renew turned into a federal case. The airport manager looked at me very sternly and said, "You must go to Tegucigalpa right now to deal with this violation!" His tone indicated that I was on the verge of being arrested.

Oh yeah? Me, go to the capital of Honduras with no representation or agent, to meet with government officials who may or may not speak English and deal with a "violation?" Thaaaaaat's not gonna happen, sorry. The boss's wife sent for the plane, which spirited us out of there but quick.

Here's the King Air and the FH1100 together for the last time for a while.

We wanted a permit to fly in Honduras that was of longer duration than just one week.

The Honduras government's position was simple: If we keep the helicopter in Honduras for any length of time we'd have to put under Honduran registration. If we only intended to keep it in Honduras for a short time, we could keep renewing our weekly permit.

Lots of legal wrangling ensued. We had all sorts of help on our side, but we got nowhere for three weeks. The most likely reason I heard was that there was a new government in place, with all new department heads, and everybody was worried about making any kind of decision. They griped everything. Typo on the boss's medical certificate? No go! Then there were registration, insurance, and airworthiness issues. They even wanted to do a mechanical inspection of the ship.

Finally, they said we could come get the helicopter. We didn't have the permit, exactly, but "they" assured us we would. So my local contact and I went back down to La Ceiba...where we were stonewalled yet again. We cooled our heels as the government fussed. "Maybe tomorrow," we were told. So we stayed overnight. Next day it was one thing after another. We waited some more. I came to the conclusion they were just screwing with us, so we booked a flight out back to Guanaja (rather than sending for our King Air).

Sure enough, at the very last minute, right before close-of-business the fax from Tegucigalpa came through: a six-month permit! Paper in hand, I filed a flight plan, paid our $350 parking fee and we fled the scene like La Ceiba was on fire.

And here is my baby, back on our island, safe and sound, no worse for the wear. Yes, I should park it on the wooden platform behind the helicopter, but it just looks more picturesque on the sand, no?

23 September 2006

Reality Bites Back

Just over a month ago my reality was: Living a nice life in a small southern city and driving my car to my cushy office job every day where I spent my time on the computer and on the phone. I almost never went to the beach. And when I did, the seaweed and jellyfish were usually so bad I did not often go in the water. I bought a Glock semi-automatic pistol for "home defense" but deemed the threat of a home invasion to be so low that the gun stayed in it's case, unloaded most of the time.

Now, I live on a tiny little island and drive a boat to work every day. I swim every day in the most beautiful, clear water that you could imagine. I have not worn long pants since I got here, not even at work; most of the time I wear sandals too. I almost never talk on the phone except at the construction site, where cell phones are used like walkie-talkies. Most startling of all, there are no Wendy's down here. Talk about a reality shift! (For single guys, Wendy's and the $.99 value menu is great. Who needs to cook?) We've already had one intruder on the island trying to steal one of the boats in the middle of the night. Something tells me it's not the last time we'll be "visited" at night. The Glock now stays on my nightstand, loaded and at the ready. The night-vision goggles for me and laser-sight for the gun are on order. You can't shoot what you can't see.

I grew up in New York City in the 1960's and '70s. We did not fish. Back then, you would not want to eat anything you caught in the East or Hudson Rivers. We did not even swim in them. As a city boy, I never had the opportunity to drive a boat. Even as an adult, even living in a boaters paradise like Pensacola, that activity never interested me. Oh, I went out with a few friends on their boats occasionally, but I never drove. Ever. Now, at the ripe old age of 51 I get down here to Guanaja and suddenly I'm the boat driver. It is, ahh, interesting.

Since there are no roads on Guanaja, we use boats as employee shuttle vans, picking up groups of workers at two opposite locations from the jobsite. Every morning, I pick up 12 to 14 guys in a little 21 foot center-console outboard. Every afternoon I take them back. Calm or windy, flat water or rough. And sometimes it is very rough. Scary-rough. The lumps in my throat sometimes feel like golf balls.

So far I have not crashed the boat, capsized it or run aground. So far. I'm not saying it won't happen. The guys all look at me confidently. I can almost see what they're thinking: "Hey, he's a pilot, right? He knows what he's doing." And I pretend that I do.

After work yesterday I stayed in town. "Town" in our case is a breezy little island called Bonacca, about a half-mile out in the water toward the barrier reef. Bonacca is commonly referred to as "the cay" (pronounced kee, even though we say Cay-man Islands and not Kee-man Islands - don't ask me why some things are the way they are). Thirteen-thousand people live in Guanaja, and half of them live on the tiny, overcrowded, smelly sewer of an island of Bonacca.

The story is that Guanajarans originally moved over to the cay to escape the sand flies and mosquitoes that can be fierce on the main island. That's probably the most likely reason. You think the gnats and skeeters are bad where you are? Feh- you have no idea. Or maybe you do...IF YOU LIVE IN THE AMAZON JUNGLE... Whatever, Bonaccans built their houses up on stilts, dumped their garbage out their windows, and just ran their sink and toilet drains down open pipes to the water. Many still do. You can imagine the ambiance.

Now, the cay is a happening place, especially on a Friday night. Plenty of bars and even a dance club or two. The guys wanted to show me a good time. And we started having that good time around two p.m. with the opening of the first beers. There are a couple of local Honduran beers, and they are not bad. In fact, Salva Vida is quite good. There are not many things to do on the cay except drink. Fortunately, I've had practice. I could keep up. The beer flowed like water, the good times rolled, shots of tequila all around, the jukebox blared (strangely, they love American country music down here). Just like home. But not just like home, the local women all gathered around the rich gringo. I'll admit to being a gringo, but rich? Heh, if they only knew.

We called it quits sometime after midnight. And here's where that weird reality thing kicked in again.

We were on the way home in the boat. Kenny, the brother-in-law of our caretaker and who lives most of the time on our island was driving. He was at least as drunk as me. The night was pitch-black. He had the throttle wide-open as he usually does when he drives. Oddly, boats do not have headlights. Immediately in front of the boat was the dim glow of our puny navigation lights. The water was really rough, so I was standing up next to him. Looking forward, I could see...nothing. And I mean absolutely nothing except for four yellowish lights out on the horizon. There could have been a Navy battleship parked in front of us and we would not have seen it. "How do you know where you're going?" I yelled above the roar of the engine.

"See those lights?" Kenny asked, meaning the ones arrayed in front of us. He pointed to the right-most one. "That one is Half-Moon Cay. The middle one is us. The one to the left of that is Graham's Place."

"And what's that one all the way on the left?" I asked.
"I don't know," he shrugged. We weren't going that way anyway.

And we droned on like that for ten more minutes or so, pounding over, across and crashing through the waves (hey, maybe smaller boats for all I knew) until we got to our island. I kept staring out front, at the black nothingness and thinking, "Man, this is insane. What am I doing here?" I've done some stupid things in my life, and that was one of them.

Kenny got us home...er...safely. Well, without crashing, anyway. As I stepped onto the dock, Javier roared up in another, smaller speedboat, one with no lights. He'd left the cay ahead of us but somehow got behind us. Kenny hopped in and they sped off, back to the cay to continue partying. They do like to drink down here in Guanaja.

17 September 2006

The New Job

The job I was hired to do was sort of vague. The Boss has bought a large tract of real estate down that he plans to subdivide and sell the lots. Since he intends to cater to the “occasional-use” crowd, each lot will come with a boat slip. Which means we have to build a marina, which is what we’re doing now.

My basic job description is that of logistics officer – getting all the materials and supplies we need, getting enough of them to complete the job and getting them here on time. That alone is a big challenge since everything must come from someplace else. But I’m also to oversee the payroll of up to 55 employees. And when the Boss is not here, I act as him as far as supervising them goes. It’s a bigger job than I anticipated.

Mind you, I know exactly nothing about marina construction. But I do know about managing people. So I let the people just do what they’ve been taught and told to do. This is not as easy as it sounds. It’s not that they’re lazy (they’re not), but whenever the supervisor is absent, the guys sit down. Work simply stops unless there is a Bossman in attendance to keep them at it. This means that I constantly move from one crew to another, checking on progress, giving words of encouragement or answering questions/solving problems.

Problem #1 for me is that I do not speak Spanish other than what I learned in junior high school 35 years ago. And that doesn’t go much beyond the, “Como esta? Muy bien, gracias,” level. Most of the guys do not speak English. As you can imagine, this makes for some difficulties. The English-speakers get the most responsibility; that should be obvious even if it’s not totally fair. This has the effect of making the others learn English if they want to get ahead. Hey, that’s life.

Among my talents is that of “mechanic.” This is not because I enjoy working on machines, which I do not. But most of the cars and motorcycles I’ve owned were such pieces of junk that I had to learn how to work on them to keep them running (or *get* them running when they broke down on the road). So I know which end of a screwdriver to use as a hammer. But make no mistake, I am no master mechanic. I get by.

Over the years, I’ve actually learned quite a lot. Primarily, I’ve learned to be patient and methodical. If you’re patient and methodical and half-way know what you’re doing, you could rebuild a nuclear reactor. But I rue the day that I ever learned how to work on stuff. Because if people know that you have this skill, they will always come to you to fix their stuff. If you are a mechanic, take my advice: Do not let anyone know – keep it a secret. You’ll thank me later.

On the Sunday that was my very first night in Honduras, we were sitting around after supper and the Boss complained that we were supposed to be pouring cement on Monday but one of the two cement mixers was not working. “The guys say it’s the spark plug,” he said with a skeptical roll of his eyes. (It is almost never the spark plug.) I casually mentioned that I could take a look at it if he liked. As the words were escaping my mouth I was regretting saying them.

Next morning, we go over to the job site. I’m dressed in my best casual “supervisor” clothes (nice shorts, polo shirt, sneakers and socks), definitely *not* my working-on-cars clothes. Right off the bat, the Boss announces to one and all that I would *fix* the cement mixer. Not “take a look at it,” fix it. I looked at him in disbelief. I’d never seen a cement mixer in my life, much less worked on one. Not only that, I hadn’t brought along my tools.

Hey, it’s just a machine, right? A socket set was scrounged up; the owner was not happy to be lending it to me. I went to work, like a surgeon operating with a butter knife. The thing was in terrible shape. The air cleaner cover was all melted and warped, but there was no filter element inside anyway. There was so much sand in the intake I could only imagine how much damage had been done to the cylinder walls. I checked for fuel and sure enough, there was plenty in the tank and at the carb. Looked clean, too. Next, ignition.

“It’s the spark plug!” everyone suggested.
“It’s not the spark plug!” I barked.

It didn’t matter; we had no spark plug wrench of the proper size, so removing the spark plug was not an option. Instead, I took the ignition lead off and showed them how to check for spark – and there it was! Hmm. Why wasn’t it running? If there’s fuel and spark, any engine should run unless there is internal mechanical damage. Which crossed my mind, considering the environment the machine routinely operates in combined with the lack of an air filter. Secretly, I thought it might actually be the spark plug. I put it all back together with confidence (you have to know how to fake that).

Next problem: The starting pull cord was broke. No problem! Grabbing my borrowed socket set, I quickly removed the one from the other cement mixer. Naturally, they were not the same size. D’oh! I found a piece of rope to use instead. A couple of hefty pulls and…the thing fired up! No surprise to me, but the guys couldn’t believe it. Even the Boss was impressed. I’m just glad that nothing serious was wrong, or I would have been out of my league and out of luck.

But now I’m the hero, and I’ll take that. I’m sure that the guys all thought I was just another sunburned gringo in nice clothes, down there to tell them how to do what they’ve been doing all along. But right off the bat they’ve seen that I know my stuff when it comes to mechanics.

I just hope they don’t ask me to fix anything else.