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?

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.

14 September 2006


This one's a little out of order. There's so much to write about and oddly so little time.

My helicopter got impounded. And as I write this we do not know when or if we will get it back. Fortunately, it’s a short story.

When Bart and I flew through Mexico we received a permit to fly in that country. It was good up through the end of 2006. When we landed in Roatan, Honduras we also received a piece of paper that entitled us to fly in-country for seven days, an unusually short amount of time. We did not want to have to renew our permit every seven days, so the Boss made inquiries with some local politicians. We assumed (and you know how that goes) that renewing the weekly permit would not be any big deal.

In the interim, we’ve been using the helicopter. We’ve made some personal flights, sure. But we’ve also made one “EMS” hospital transfer flight for a guy who’d broken his pelvis in a 4-wheeler accident and needed to go to the mainland for x-rays. I also made on real medevac flight with a pregnant girl who was experiencing serious complications and needed surgery that day. One of the reasons that the Boss brought the FH1100 down to the Bay Islands is because the people on Guanaja are very isolated from medical care. I can have someone in a mainland hospital in about an hour-and-a-half if necessary.

Anyway, on Wednesday, September 6th, Mrs. Boss wanted to go down to a town on the mainland called La Ceiba to do some shopping. Our arrival was something less than friendly. Apparently, the Honduran Air Force had been watching our little flights and was curious about what we were doing. When we showed up in La Ceiba unannounced, they requested a copy of our permit. It became quickly obvious that it was expired and began causing extreme distress.

The local airport manager was adamant: I’d have to go to the capital of Tegucigalpa (a town I’d only recently learned to say without stumbling) and see them about “this violation.” Needless to say, the next flight to Tegucigalpa was tomorrow. Oh boy. Mrs. Boss was not happy. On a hunch, I went out to the helicopter and locked up everything of value in the baggage compartment. And then we went shopping, as planned.

Behind the scenes, politicians and lawyers went to work. Ideally we wanted a longer-term permit. But what we really wanted was to just get the ship released so we could get it back to Guanaja and put it in the hangar and work out all the details later. The Boss was scheduled to leave on Friday morning. All of the diplomatic entreaties were for naught. We had to have the King Air come get us and bring us back to Guanaja. As of Thursday over a week later the ship is still in La Ceiba with no release date in sight.

I get the impression that despite all of our political pull, I may have to make an appearance in “Ta-goose” anyway. Something just tells me that some bureaucrat wants to yell at me in person and flex his muscles. And maybe extract a little “fine” from us. Meanwhile my ship sits out on an airport ramp 70 miles away. It’s not a good feeling.