Who Am I?

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

30 December 2010

Bob Does Not Do Karaoke

That’s right, the rule is No Karaoke. But that rule got violated last night, under the influence of mass quantities of alcohol as you probably can imagine. But we’ll get to that in a bit.

Matt came into town from Atlanta yesterday. A mutual friend of ours died – a guy who’d been a strong father-figure to and big influence on Matt since the age of 10, about when Matt’s own father left the building, as they used to say about Elvis. (Matt is now 28.)

Fred Sale was his name. He ran the local batting cage/arcade business near the airport. He was a gentle giant of a man, with snow white hair and beard, and the Santa Claus disposition to go with it. Yes, he was jolly. Always jolly. He was kind and patient, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He was generous with his time and advice to the kids who hung around the arcade. He was an accomplished mechanic. He was also deeply religious, but far from judgmental. Although our views on religion differed widely, we had lively, fun conversations about spirituality.

I met Fred about fifteen years ago when we were both about 40. With his white hair, he looked much older than me. Turned out he was four months younger. Diabetic and overweight, he didn’t take particularly good care of himself. He had constant heart problems. In the end, his big heart gave out in his sleep on Christmas Eve. Why do so many people seem to die during the holidays?

After the funeral, Matt, my friend Mike and I went out to dinner. We figured that the town would be pretty quiet this close to New Year’s Eve, but we were wrong. The restaurant we went to out on Pensacola Beach (the Grand Marlin) was packed, and Seville Quarter was hopping. One of the many bars in the complex had a karaoke machine, and like rubberneckers at a train wreck we were drawn in.

Karaoke is a much-derided form of entertainment. Everyone thinks they can sing. Most people cannot. It can be literally painful to hear some people torture a song. But here’s the thing: Karaoke brings the people of the bar together. With the right crowd it can be a great time for everyone. There is a sense of collective fun. Nobody boos (although it is certainly justified now and then), and everyone appreciates a singer’s genuine effort. And some of them can be quite good! There was one strikingly beautiful young woman named Kate who would have easily made it through the first few rounds of “American Idol.”

Now, if you don’t like to drink…or if you do your drinking at home, alone, then the bar/karaoke scene is probably not for you. Matt and I generally prefer to see live bands – but then again we’ve seen some horrible live bands that are even worse than good karaoke, if those two words can even go together.

So we’re sitting there getting wasted. Mike bailed early…something about “going to see about a girl.” Matt and I joined up with a small group- a guy and two girls who’d been up on stage a couple of times. I was idly flipping through the song selection book, and you know what, they really do have every song ever recorded in the history of music.

Now let me reiterate: Bob does not do karaoke. Nobody wants to hear Bob sing. But you know… I mean, there were so many other bad singers belting out bad renditions of “Bad Romance” (Lady Gaga) that I thought…well, what could it hurt? Except ears and sensibilities. But Matt’s never heard me “sing” (which we will put in quotes because it is a very loose use of the term). So I gave the DJ my song and waited for the call. I must have been pretty drunk.

I won’t say that my version of Elvis Presley’s “Promised Land” was very or even any good. You cannot hear the music very well up on stage. Elvis’s backup band kept getting ahead of me, and I was struggling and rushing to keep up. And I could only “sort of” hear myself. And what I heard were a lot of bum notes. I’ll tell ya, it sounded NOTHING like my version in the car singing along with the radio. Nothing. In fact, I was surprised (and dismayed) at how bad it sounded.

Poor song choice? Perhaps. Some time later, I gave the DJ another suggestion: Johnny Cash’s great “Man In Black.” By now I must have been very drunk. Hoooeeee, worse than before! It was like the Tennessee Three were on speed, rushing way ahead of me while I stumbled along behind. Way behind. Like Nick Nolte after a three-day bender. Nobody booed- but they could/should have.

The DJ had planned on cutting it off at midnight. But the place was so crowded, and the crowd was so good that he kept going. At one point- and this had to be around 1:00 a.m. he stopped by our table. “I’m gonna stick around,” he announced. “Any requests?”

“Achy-Breaky Heart!” I yelled impulsively. It’s a rousing, crowd-pleasing song of which I thought I knew the lyrics. On the other hand, it’s been years since I’ve heard it. And although the words are displayed prominently on a nearby monitor, I thought I would just “wing it.” Sadly, I thought wrong. Let’s just say, my performance had deteriorated somewhat as the night progressed. Which it does. Ah well…

Matt, always the smarter of the two of us, declined to sing. It was probably a wise decision.

Matt and I have not gone out partying like that in a long, long time. There’s a good reason: We call it a “hangover.” And truthfully, I’m getting a little old to be hanging around in bars, getting drunk and making a fool of myself. I do enough of that at work! Fortunately, neither Matt nor I had a bad hangover this morning.

As always, it was a good visit and a great night on the town, even if the circumstance (Fred’s death) was kind of a bummer and even if we did drink a little too much. We vowed to not do this again anytime soon, at least not until the next time we hang out together. And then he jumped in his car and headed back to Atlanta, leaving me to just chill on a rainy, dreary day and be glad that none of our other friends were there with their cellphone cameras with the quick upload-to-Facebook feature.

See, as long as there’s no video evidence, it never happened. And Bob can still say that he does not do karaoke.

24 December 2010

Christmas Wishes

Grrr, that just makes me mad. I had what I thought was a great post yesterday. But I got to thinking that it sounded a little familiar. So I went back and reviewed my Christmas posts for the last couple of years. You guessed it, yesterday's post is an almost note-for-note remake of the one in December 2008. Damn! What- am I that hard-up for material...that short on creativity? I must've had the Chiffons' "He's So Fine" running in my head when I wrote yesterday's post*.

You can read 2008's post HERE if you like. You probably won't be able to tell the difference from yesterday's.

But if you want to read a couple of really GOOD posts about Christmas, read THIS one by my blogger friend Bob from Nashville, TN. And while you're at it, read THIS one from him as well. I've mentioned "Other Bob" before. He writes in an easygoing, casual way. His posts never fail to make me feel good - like a phone call from an old friend. Ahh, I'm starting to sound like a broken record. But I love reading Bob's stuff, as well as posts from Debby in Pennsylvania, and my friend and fellow helicopter pilot, Hal Johnson who should write more.

Anyway, I offer my apology for the repetitive post, which has hastily been deleted. And I hope that you'll accept this modified-and-superior one (with 27% more originality!) in its place. Well, I hope it's superior.

This year has been odd. Christmas came fast!...well, all of 2010 went by in a blink for that matter. Were we all so preoccupied with the economy, politics, a never-ending "war" on...something or somebody, and the existence (or non-) of Big O's birth certificate?

Or were we just having so much fun that the year flew by?

My friend Matt in Atlanta posted on his Facebook that he took Alisha and Dylan out to look at Christmas lights last night (Christmas Eve). Later on he noted that it was, in his words, "kind of lame, not many people decorated." Hmm.

Every year since we've had the helicopter, the Boss usually takes people up to fly around our town and look at Christmas lights. I go along, as I must, and I do not complain. It's always spectacular.

Err, not this year.

This past Monday we went up again shortly after sunset. Gorgeous, brisk night, not-a-cloud, full moon. A beautiful night for flying. I punched up a modern-Christmas music station on the XM radio and flew around, looking for the usual "hot-spots" I figured would be all lit up: No dice. Oh, there were some...the regulars, of course. But as Matt found out was the case up in Atlanta, down here in Brewton, Alabama there were noticeably fewer Christmas lights up this year than last. A puzzling, troubling sign o'the times. We didn't stay up long - it was too depressing.

It's been a tough year, and it seems as though our collective spirit has been broken. It's sad. And my Boss, who's no slouch when it comes to financial stuff, predicts that 2011 may be as bad or worse than 2010. Oh joy! Let us hope he is wrong.

So again I apologize for the repost. But I do want to thank you all for indulging me by continuing to read this never-ending stream-of-consciousness (more like stream-of-crapciousness), and I sincerely wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

And I promise not to make this same post next year.

*Oh, and for those of you who might not have gotten the reference, Beatle George Harrison was successfully sued by the writers of "He's So Fine" because they convinced the court that George's "My Sweet Lord" was a direct rip-off.

17 December 2010

How To Make Shorter Blog Posts

I usually agonize over my posts. I write them up in MSWord, and then spend an eternity editing, tweaking, fiddling, changing, cutting-and-pasting until I get them to a point I’m happy with. Only then will I transfer them to Blogger and tweak some more. I admire my blogger friends like Debby, who can convey in so few words what takes me so many. Brevity is not one of my strong points.

The day after my little run-in with the FAA that evening, I had to fly my boss. So on Wednesday morning I was sitting in the pilot lounge at some airport and had a couple of hours to kill. I’m never without my laptop, so instead of starting with Word, I fired up Blogger and directly began composing while the event was still fresh in my mind. I got the main part of the post down, then hit “Save” and went on to some other stuff, figuring on getting back and adding more stuff to the post later – like, about the adversarial relationship between the FAA and the rest of aviation.

Anyway, the boss showed up a little sooner than expected. We flew on to our next stop. I had just shut down - literally the blades were still spinning - when my mechanic Chris called.

“Hey, I heard you had a visit from the FAA last night,”
he said.
“How the heck did you know that?!”
I asked. Only the people at the airport knew.
“I read your blog,”
he said.


There are two little buttons at the bottom of each Blogger page: “Publish Post” and “Save Now.” I must have hit the wrong one.

One of the things I would have added to the story was that, as one commenter pointed out, my deal wasn’t technically a “ramp check.” Although they can happen at any time at any airport, those meetings with the FAA are usually unexpected. This one was pre-arranged. It was more of a “facility visit” or whatever they call it. The inspector admitted that they’d known about our helicopter for a while, and had been meaning to pay us a visit. “We’ve been here for nearly three-and-a-half years,” I said. “What took you so long?”

I went back and re-read the "Ramp Check" piece. I thought to myself that it was pretty good as it was, with no further need to mess with it. I’ll have to try that again in the future – just get to a natural stopping point in the story and hit “Publish.” Like now.

15 December 2010

Ramp Check!

There are a couple of things that strike fear into a pilot's heart. I've already talked about our annual flight physical, perhaps the scariest thing we endure. Right after that comes inflight fire, and catastrophic structural failure. But among them on the list has to be a little visit from the FAA we call a "ramp check."

What happens is this: You land somewhere. A well-dressed person with a clipboard and the usual ID-on-a-lanyard approaches your aircraft. He or she announces that they are with the FAA and they'd like to ask you a few questions. They will usually proceed to verify the legality and safety of you and your rusty, trusty steed. It is the aviation equivalent of getting stopped by the cops and getting a random driver's license check along with a vehicle inspection.

We pilots have a bunch of rules we must comply with. A bunch of rules. Among them, there are certain documents we must carry on our person and in the aircraft. Although we are not required to keep our maintenance logs in the aircraft, we must be able to prove that the ship has a current Annual Inspection in effect, and that it is loaded within the weight and balance limits.

While going over your documents and while perusing the aircraft, there is always a chance that the FAA inspector will catch something that is not to his liking. Thus, we fear getting "grounded" in a place other than home. It is why many pilots get nervous when the FAA shows up.

When I was at Petroleum Helicopters, they told us to not fear the Ramp Inspection. The company took great pains to comply with all applicable regulations. As long as we pilots did our part and followed the rules (both company rules and those of the FAA), we had nothing to be afraid of. In the 13 years I was with PHI, I never got ramp-checked even once.

But this past week, an FAA inspector showed up at our Home Base and asked the airport operator if we were there. As it turned out we were gone. He said he'd be back. From his description I knew who it was - but we'd never met. So I called the guy and offered to set up a time when we could meet. I did not ask what it was all about, although I was curious as you can imagine.

The inspector arrived on the appointed day. It was cold in the hangar and I knew he wouldn't be hanging around very long. He gave the ship the once-over, then dove into the maintenance records. Not to brag, but we have a very squared-away operation; I keep very good records.

I know from experience that the FAA does not care too much about the actual plane. Let me explain. Any aircraft has little niggling stuff...we call them "discrepancies"...which can render the ship unairworthy depending on who's doing the looking. Some planes have more than others (mine has very few - if any). The FAA knows this. They know that they can go and "ground" just about any aircraft they look at. So instead they look at the paperwork. If the paperwork is in order - well organized and up-to-date, then they assume the aircraft has been receiving good maintenance. A sketchy airplane with bad paperwork will put them on edge. A nice-looking ship with good paperwork puts them at ease. It's just human nature.

After about an hour, my FAA inspector was satisfied - and pleased. He did give me a few items he felt needed correcting (e.g. a missing placard on the instrument panel, and a logbook maintenance signoff he felt was incomplete - both easily fixed).

04 December 2010

Night Time Ain't The Right Time, Part II

Okay, let me explain. In my last post I wrote about my discomfort with flying at night in a single-engine helicopter at low altitude over inhospitable terrain. That will never change. I'm not going to find a way to "relax" or come to terms with it in any way. It is a risky endeavor; it will ALWAYS be a risky endeavor. Is it riskier than flying at a higher altitude during daylight over good terrain? Yes. How much riskier? It's hard to say. But it is that higher level of risk that makes me uncomfortable. Any pilot who downplays or minimizes the risks of flying at night is being very naive and not looking at things properly.

Okay, back up for a second. Yes, night flying can be beautiful, often spectacular, especially when it's "severe clear" and calm. For some psychological reason the aircraft noise seems muted. It seems to run more smoothly. You fly along, feeling strangely insulated in your little cocoon, under a dome of twinkling diamonds, above a carpet of sparkling, flashing red and white Christmas lights (white house and streetlights, red tower obstruction lights and the tail lights of cars). It seems that you can see forever. Even the passengers are less boisterous than they are during the daytime, and have more of an hushed tone in their voice when they talk on the intercom. With the right XM music channel selected the experience can be indescribable.

Cities and towns show up clearly at night, even from very far away. "See that glow of lights off the left? That's Birmingham. How far away? Oh, about 60 miles." Closer in, the green and white airport beacons beckon alluringly...comfortingly. As your eyes adjust to the darkness you find yourself turning the instrument panel lights down lower and lower. Sometimes, when there's a full moon out, it can be almost like flying in the daytime, such is the detail you can make out of the terrain below.

Flying at night can be beautiful. From a couple of thousand feet up...in an airplane...a night flight can be one of the most sublime, awe-inspiring experiences man can have.

That's the good news. There is bad news.

For one thing, not every night is clear and calm. Clouds don't magically disappear at sunset, nor does the wind inexplicably lay down. Fronts don't always move through when they're "supposed" (i.e. forecast) to. And fog sometimes forms behind them when it's not supposed to. And that's just for starters.

When we take off from Tuscaloosa, Alabama headed for my boss's hunting camp (which is out in the middle of 4,000 very dark acres), we are usually right at maximum allowable weight. With a full load of people and bags, I cannot carry much fuel. If for some reason I cannot land at our camp (which has happened), my only alternate is the airport in Selma, which is unattended at night and out in the middle of nowhere. If I cannot make it into Selma (which also has happened), we might have enough fuel for a return to Tuscaloosa...or we might not. I have been thrust into this very situation once...which was more than enough. Thankfully, it worked out and I was eventually able to land at the camp. As I've always said, I'm glad I was born lucky instead of handsome.

You give me an airplane...any airplane (but preferably one with two engines), and let me go up high where I can talk to ATC and show up on their radar...you give me a clear night with light wind, and a nice, lighted runway to land on at the end of the flight...and then I'll say that I'm comfortable at night. In fact, I'll fly until sunrise. I'll even say I enjoy it! Until then, in my present job I remain with a certain level of uneasiness.

Does this uneasiness or discomfort compromise how "safe" I am? Honestly I do not know. That's hard to assess. All I can say is that I am aware of it and I try to not let it affect me. There are other things in my life that I am uncomfortable doing; that does not mean I don't do them well.

Not only that, but all helicopter pilots fly along with a certain level of uneasiness whether they admit it or not. It has to do with the nature of these peculiar machines. The truth is, helicopters have a WHOLE BUNCH of things that can go wrong at the exact wrong moment. You cannot just sit back and fly blithely along as if you were paddling a canoe down a lazy river. I'm not saying you have to be overly-paranoid, but you have to be ready for anything. Certain emergencies do not give you much time to respond and react. Sometimes all you have is a few seconds to analyze and perform corrective action before the helicopter does what we coyly call "departs controlled flight." Which is to say, "it crashes." Which is not a good thing as you can imagine.

Back during the Viet Nam War, ABC newsman, the late-Harry Reasoner composed a little treatise about pilots and the machines they fly. To him the difference was striking. Here's what he had to say:

The thing is, helicopters are different from planes. An airplane by its nature wants to fly, and if not interrupted with too strongly by unusual events or by a deliberately incompetent pilot, it will fly. A helicopter does not want to fly. It is maintained in the air by a variety of forces and controls working in opposition to each other, and if there is any disturbance in this delicate balance, the helicopter stops flying, immediately and disastrously.

There is no such thing as a gliding helicopter.

This is why being a helicopter pilot is so different from being an airplane pilot, and why, in generality, airplane pilots are open, clear-eyed, buoyant extroverts and helicopter pilots are brooders, introspective anticipators of trouble. They know that if something bad has not happened, it is about to.

Granted, nobody is shooting at me, and helicopters are more reliable than they were back in 1970...but most of us old-timers have to admit that ol' Harry pretty much nailed it. Most of what he said is still true today.

It is about 80 miles from Tuscaloosa down to our hunting camp. Even something "simple" like a chip light would be problematic. See, we have these magnetic plugs in the engine, main transmission and tail rotor gearboxes. If the plugs begin collecting metal, indicating a developing problem with that component, a light comes on in the cockpit. According to my Bell 206 flight manual, the response to *any* chip light is to "land as soon as possible." What does that mean? Bell tells me: "Land without delay at nearest suitable area (i.e. open field) at which a safe approach and landing is reasonably assured."

Not so difficult during the day. Kinda hard to do at night.

Assessing the level of risk, hazard or danger in any given task is very personal, and depends on a lot of things. What might seem unreasonably dangerous to one pilot might seem perfectly acceptable to another. In my case, I guess I've become too much of an introspective anticipator of trouble. (Which is odd, considering that I fly airplanes too. I would have described myself as a clear-eyed extrovert! Damn.) Nevertheless, perhaps it's time for a younger, more-bulletproof and less brooding pilot to take over this job.

28 November 2010

The Night Time..ISN'T...The Right Time

I don’t like flying at night. I mean I really don’t like flying at night. Let me explain.

I fly a single-engine helicopter over some fairly inhospitable, densely wooded, sparsely populated terrain (central Alabama). If I had my druthers, I’d always fly up high, day or night, up around four or five-thousand feet. Up there, I’d be in radar contact and could talk to an ATC facility. That way, if anything went wrong I could at least alert someone and get help coming my way. Aviation radios rely on line-of-sight communication. Thus, when I'm down low I'm out of range of any air traffic control facilities. They'd probably not be able to "see" me on radar either.

But my boss doesn’t like to fly high in helicopters. I fully understand this; with no wings and not much structure around you, many people feel very naked and vulnerable at high altitude in a helicopter. The boss likes to fly down around 1,000 feet above the ground. It’s where he’s comfortable. And since it is his helicopter, and since he pays my salary, I comply with his wishes. I may not like it, but unless there is some compelling safety reason for flying up high, I stay down low.

Flying low is risky but not dangerous. (If it were dangerous I would not do it.) The risk comes from the possibility of having to make an emergency landing. A single-engine aircraft is always subject to a failure of the one-and-only powerplant. In a helicopter, when the engine quits you can make a perfectly controlled landing (it’s called “autorotation” and we practice these often). But the descent angle is steep. You don’t glide around, casually looking for a nice, open, level, unobstructed place to land. You land on whatever is immediately underneath you. You better hope it’s something suitable. During the day, we helicopter pilots always keep a sharp eye open for potential emergency landing sites. It's ingrained into us from our very first flight lesson. At night, it's a little more difficult.

An airplane pilot friend and I were talking about this. I mentioned my discomfort about flying a single-engine aircraft at night. He agreed. He told of a recent trip in his airplane in which he was coming back from Tennessee at night and was worried about the engine quitting. I asked how high he was flying? “Nine-thousand feet,” he replied. I said, “What?! From 9,000 feet you can glide fifteen miles in that airplane!!” He'd be in the air for over 10 minutes. That’s enough time to call for help, select a suitable nearby airport, and then eat a sandwich on the way down.

Truth be told, modern turbine engines like the one in my helicopter seldom quit. Keep ‘em supplied with fuel and oil, and they just keep on running. So while the possibility is always there, I'm not super-paranoid about the engine quitting.

However, in a helicopter there are a couple of other things that can cause you to want to be on the ground
right now! There are driveshafts and couplings and gearboxes, that dang tail rotor, and various other mechanical bits…all of which must work perfectly in order to continue flight. Do such things fail often? Thankfully, no. But a helicopter is a complex piece of machinery that is designed, manufactured, assembled and maintained by humans. There’s plenty that can go wrong- we’re all familiar with Murphy’s Law. I’ve already had two complete tail rotor failures in helicopters. Both were when I was flying on offshore oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Both were during the day, and both were caused by human error (mechanics leaving hardware loose).

So as they say, shit does happen.

As challenging as a mechanical failure would be during the day, it would be immeasurably more difficult at night. Despite the boss’s discomfort, I do fly higher at night – up around 2,500 feet. All this does is give me slightly more time to analyze and deal with whatever failure might occur. Seconds count. It doesn’t help in choosing a landing site; you cannot see anything on the ground at night. All I would do is head for a road (we follow well-traveled roads) and hope to find an open area at the last minute. I am under no delusion that it would be a nice, safe, pretty landing. It will most likely be a crash-landing. I’ve told this to the boss as plainly as I can. He’s okay with that risk, which he feels is not all that great.

Me, I’m not so sure anymore. I’m no kid. I’m at a point in my life where I don’t like taking unnecessary risks. I know, I know, you could say, “But Bob, you still ride motorcycles, and occasionally crash them!” which is true. Riding motorcycles is risky, I admit that. But so are a lot of things in life.

I’ve been flying long enough now that the risks of doing it at night in a single-engine helicopter are getting to me. I’m starting to feel that I just don’t want to be doing it anymore. We are done with football season, in which we do most of our night flying. With the upcoming hunting season, we’ll probably do very little flying at night. Then, as the days begin to get longer we won’t do any night flying at all again until summertime, and even then only sporadically.

So I’ve got a decision to make before we get into football season next year.

12 November 2010

Back In The Saddle Again

Fun Fact #1: There are NO taxicabs in Eufaula, Alabama. None. Zero. This historic city of 14,000 has no taxis. Then again, it has no airline service either. So there's probably no demand for a car service - where would anybody go? Which begs the question: What are we doing here? God only knows. Hey, I only drive the thing; I don't get paid to ask questions. But here we are. I had to borrow a car to get to the hotel. At least they do have hotels in Eufaula, Alabama.

It's only been just over a month since I last flew by myself, but it seems a lot longer. Back when we did a couple of flights with my friend Mike as pilot-in-command, I took two short segments just to show him a thing or two. The pain in the arm made it not enjoyable. Plus, flying from the copilot's side just felt...I dunno...wrong. (For those flights the Boss had to sit in the back. He normally rides up front with me, and I'm sure it felt equally wrong to him.)

But today I got back in the ship, climbed back into my regular seat. Ahhh, it felt good! There are only a few things in this world that I do well. Flying is one of them. And in this helicopter I am at home...maybe more so than when I'm in my real home. Still I was a little nervous: Had I forgotten anything? (That's why they make checklists.) Still, I paused one last time before hitting the starter button...looking around the cockpit, making sure everything was set right. Satisfied that it was, I fired up and took off for the Boss's house.

With just me in the cockpit and my bags in the luggage compartment, I knew the ship would assume a slightly nose-high attitude in a hover. So I lifted off slowly...feeling it...easing it elegantly and smoothly into the air like I've done it a thousand times before. And I have, actually- 50,000 times, I reckon, or more. (Back when I worked for PHI I amassed some 7,000 hours over thirteen years. On most jobs I was assigned to, I averaged six landings per flight hour. Add to that all the takeoffs and landings I did before that as a sightseeing pilot in NYC, and those I've done since and I easily have over 50,000 landings, which always must equal the number of takeoffs.)

It's a good feeling, like slipping into a comfortable old pair of jeans and sneakers. It was a gorgeous, beautifully clear day. The slight headwind slowing us down did not bother me in the least. I was back in my element and loving every minute of it.

So here we are in taxicab-less Eufaula, Alabama. Even so, I love coming here. For one thing, Eric, the guy who runs the FBO (fixed-base operator - a facility for general aviation) is also a helicopter pilot not to mention a great guy. He and his wife always go out of their way to make sure I'm well taken care of. I mean really, they go above and beyond. Wonderful people.

Headed down into town on Highway 431, I spotted a place called River City BBQ on the side of the road. Talk about your holes in the wall. But despite recommendations of other, more upscale places to eat, I knew where I'd be coming back to. And sure enough, once I got checked-in to the hotel, I made a bee-line back up the road. It was dark when I arrived and I thought the place was closed because the big sign out front was unlghted. Nevertheless, the locals were streaming in.

The special was a chicken and brisket platter (with two sides and Texas toast), so I ordered that plus a large sweet tea to go. They had a whole long list of side items from which you could select, but I stuck with the old standby beans and slaw. I had barely gotten my big jug o'tea filled when they were calling me back to pick up the food. It was McDonalds-fast.

A little pricey, it came to $16.00! When I got it back to the hotel I saw why: It was enough to feed an army. Seriously, it was a lot. I do know some (unattractively skinny) people who, upon seeing such a mountain of food will grimace and turn away. Not me! I consider such meals a challenge - one that I have proven time and again to be up to. And tonight was no exception. (They're not stingy with the sauce, either. There was so much leftover that it made a great dippin' sauce for the Texas toast. Yum!)

It. Was. Marvelous.

If you're ever on the road between Dothan, Alabama and Columbus, Georgia, stop in at the River City BBQ. It'll have to be in the daytime because you won't find it at night. You won't be disappointed.

Good flying and good food...does life get any better than this?

09 November 2010

Collateral Damage

In the words of Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, the Chief Engineer on the Starship Enterprise, “Ya canna change the laws o’physics!” When you throw yourself off a motorcycle and go tumbling down the pavement at 25 mph there are consequences to pay.

Although my broken arm was the focus of my attention immediately afterward, there were other injuries suffered in my accident. I mean, thinking back, even though I had just grabbed the brakes and had started to slow down, I honestly hit the ground still going about 25 or 30 mph. Trouble is, the pain from the other bangs was so comparatively less than that of the arm that they temporarily faded to near insignificance. It wasn’t until the pain in the upper arm abated that these other injuries made themselves known. Then boy, did they!

For one thing, my whole arm was beat up, not only from the shoulder to the elbow, but the elbow itself and down the forearm as well. My left foot also hurt like hell, so it must have hit something either on the motorcycle or on the street (probably the latter). Oddly, I had a strange, sore, black and blue mark on the back of my leg below my knee. I couldn’t figure out where this one came from, except to assume that my leg must have whacked the rear turn signal as the bike and I were going separate ways.

The worst-looking injury occurred to my side. My entire left side, from my beltline down to my knee, front to back, was black and swollen. It looked and felt like a ripe plum. So swollen and tender in fact that I thought the skin might split open. It was scary-looking. And painful. I took progress pictures, but since they reveal parts of my body that only a cheap hooker should see, you won’t be getting to. And believe me, you don’t want to. At least, I would hope not.

The side injury was disturbing to the few who saw it. It’s amazing that you can take such a beating with only one broken bone. So I guess I’m fortunate. Equally amazing, the black patches soon faded and within two weeks were completely gone, although the soreness remained.

The arm is healing well, just not as fast as I’d like. I don’t have full range of motion yet, and it’s a painful struggle to get it all back. Then again, it’s only been five weeks since the accident, and the doctor told me it might be as much as eight weeks of healing. They gave me some rehabilitation exercises to do, but maybe I’m pushing things a little.

I dwell on this accident because it’s the first one I’ve had in 38 years of motorcycle riding. Oh, I’ve dropped bikes before; low-speed get-offs that were more embarrassing than anything else. But this was the first, dammit-better-go-to-the-hospital accident I’ve had.

Speaking of which, the more I think about my treatment at Sacred Heart Hospital here in Pensacola, the angrier I get. We all know that people who work in hospitals have a prejudice against motorcycles and those who ride them. “Donorcycles,” they snidely call them.

What makes me angry is that none of the people who saw me in the Emergency Room that evening bothered to find out if I had any other injuries…never bothered to inquire as to the circumstances of my crash. They focused on the upper arm and the upper arm only. Truthfully, I was sore all over – all up and down my left side from my shoulder to my foot. I just didn’t know how badly I was hurt. The fact is, nobody even asked. It wasn’t until two days after the accident, when I was finally able to get my pants off when I looked in the mirror and went, “Holy good-night!” or words to that effect. It was ugly. …Err, uglier than usual.

And not that there was anything the E.R. staff could have done for me – thankfully they didn’t have to. But nobody knew that at the time.

I guess the takeaway here is that if you’re involved in a motorcycle accident, the treatment you receive in the hospital may vary. Next time (and God-forbid there is a next time), I’ll go to Baptist Hospital.

07 November 2010

Conan O'Brien and His Return to TV

Am I the only person on the planet who does not consider Conan O'Brien funny? I'm puzzled that so many people do. Various sources refer to O'Brien as a "comedic genius." Genius? Really? Rolling Stone Magazine recently did an article on him, sort of explaining why he is so popular with the college-age stoner crowd. And maybe that's it: Maybe I'm just too old and out of it to "get" his humor. I pride myself on keeping up with pop culture and stuff. And so it's kind of sad/tragic that I realize I'm on the wrong side of the generation gap. When did that happen??

O'Brien may be a great comedy writer (I'll admit that), but his on-air persona just does nothing for me. I don't find him funny at all and in fact, I find his interview skills particularly weak. Instead of genuinely listening to what the guest is saying, he always seems to be figuring out a way of turning whatever they say into some faux-self-deprecating joke. And everything is a joke to Conan O'Brien - a joke that he pretends to make at his own expense even though we know (wink-wink) he doesn't really mean it. It's as annoying as it is juvenile.

Thus although I shouldn't be, I am baffled by O'Brien's popularity (he reportedly has over a million Twitter subscribers), and all the hoopla surrounding his return to television - albeit as the host of a talk show on basic cable. I mean, TBS for cryin' out loud? What, TVLand didn't bite? He must be some kind of world-class attention-whore if he'd settle for the pittance TBS was able to cough up - which surely must pale beside what he used to make at NBC. He has said that he's not going to "reinvent the wheel" of late-night talk shows. How could he? It's been tried before - unsucessfully - by others, most notably Howard Stern. So we're not going to see anything different than what Jack Paar and Groucho Marx pioneered a thousand years ago. Wowee.

After NBC gave him the boot (and a $34 million severance check) and gave The Tonight Show back to Jay Leno, O'Brien was subject to a non-compete clause in his contract, which has now expired. Suffice to say, I won't be watching O'Brien's "triumphant" return to almost-late-night TV tomorrow night. Or the night after, for that matter.

You know, if it was me, if I was some unfunny, pretentious goofball and a major TV network just gave me $34 million to leave my job, I'd run away fast and you'd never hear from me again, ever.

Then again, I'm not a world-class attention-whore.

31 October 2010

Stuff That Happens

So...the boss wants me to get rid of my motorscooter in light of my recent accident. A reasonable request, I suppose, inasmuch as I am his one-and-only pilot, and this broken shoulder has put me out of commission for a month, and there is no one who can jump in and take my place (pesky insurance requirements). So I see his point.

I guess I shouldn't tell him about my mountain bike riding. If I have another accident, maybe I'll just say I fell off a ladder at the house.

Life is risky. Shit happens.

28 October 2010

Out Of The Fog

It’s been three weeks and a couple of days since my motorcycle accident. And honestly it’s been difficult. Not only has the pain from the break been fairly constant (although thankfully manageable), but the loss of use of the limb has been a huge inconvenience as I’ve previously whined. Jacob has been a tremendous help, as I’ve also mentioned, driving me around and doing things I could not do myself. But being incapacitated like this makes you frustrated and angry…well, makes me frustrated and angry, anyway. I want this to be over with.

Use of the arm has come back surprisingly quickly. Of course, I haven’t exactly followed doctor’s orders when it came to wearing that damned immobilizing sling. But hey, no pain – no gain, right? While I’m not exactly back up to 100%, I can at least tuck my own shirt in now. But I didn’t tell Jacob that, heh-heh.

This morning, as we both were getting ready for the day, I asked him if he’d tuck my shirt in for me on my left-hand side, the one I supposedly cannot reach. His hand was at my waistband, just an inch or so from “going in.” That’s when I casually mentioned, “Oh yeah, I’m going commando* today.” Man, he pulled his arm back like he’d touched a hot burner on the stove. The look on his face was priceless. “Uhhhh…” he said as he stumbled backward. I laughed, and then tucked my own shirt in.

You had to be there.

So Jacob took off today on his own (as yet uncrashed) motorcycle, riding up to Tuscaloosa, Alabama to see his girlfriend for the weekend. He was concerned about leaving, but I assured him I’d be okay.

After he left, I jumped in the car and headed up to our company headquarters in Brewton, Alabama, about an hour north of Pensacola. It’s the first time I’ve been in the car alone in over three weeks. On the way out of town I drove through a weak cold front. There was a little rain, then all of a sudden the rain stopped and it was nice out.

It was great driving by myself again. I cranked up the tunes (extra-loud), and sang along with my favorite Elvis Presley songs. You can’t really do that when you’re driving with someone else, even if they enjoy the exact same type of music as you, which nobody does, let’s be honest. Nobody wants to hear my bad sing-along version of “Burning Love.” (I really have a terrible singing voice, too – thanks, dad!)

Halfway up Highway 29, a strong feeling of exhilaration came over me. Not only had the weather cleared up, but it was like a thick emotional fog was lifting as well. I can steer and operate the turn signals with my left (bad) arm. I felt alive and in control, enabled and energized. Such a small thing, really – dressing and driving yourself to work. But it was, I have to admit, thrilling. I yelled, “I’M BACK, BABY!!” at the top of my lungs. In fact, I even texted that to my friend Matt. Well of course I’m not totally back, but the progress is undeniable. I have not enjoyed feeling like a cripple these past couple of weeks (no offense to any cripples out there).

I suppose it would have been easy to just lie around the house, taking it easy and taking the eight weeks the Emergency Room doctor predicted recovery might take. It would have been easy to let Jacob do all the work with the whiny excuse of, “My arm hurts.” But it wouldn’t have been fair. Not to him, and not to me.

Today, the weather cleared up in more ways than one. I’m feeling like a fully-functioning human again. And I am damn glad. Damn glad. The Brewton Little Theatre is going to have to get someone else to play the one-armed-man in their musical version of “The Fugitive.”

We tentatively have "some flying" to do this weekend, according to the boss. I'll use my usual safety pilot. But it won't be very long at all until I'm ready to take the controls by myself again. I'll tell ya, I'm looking forward to that!

(*Commando = sans undergarments)

23 October 2010


This morning, nineteen days after my motorcycle accident I passed a major milestone: I was able to button my own jeans. I know, it sounds silly. But for the last couple of weeks, my broken shoulder simply made it impossible for me to use my left arm for much of anything. Healing progress has been slow, perhaps because I’m not a teenager anymore. I still cannot raise the arm away from my side (much), nor can I swing it fore and aft. But this morning I was able to button my jeans. I’ll take that.

The time has passed slowly. While the pain in my upper arm has thankfully diminished, it hasn’t completely left. There’s a constant low-grade, dull pain that’s just bad enough to keep me from sleeping well. I get, maybe, three hours at a time. Up until very recently I haven’t even been able to sleep lying down. So I’ve been spending a lot of time sleeping on the couch…sitting on the couch, actually. I guess I could take the oxycodone they prescribed, but I’d rather not take those. My little cocktail of Aleve and Tylenol works well enough.

With my arm in the sling and under my shirt, I joke that if the Brewton, Alabama Little Theatre ever puts on that musical version of "The Fugitive" I’ll be perfect for the role of the one-armed man (menacingly played by Bill Raisch in the original TV series). But seriously, the loss of use of a limb is a tremendous inconvenience. I cannot imagine what life must be like for an amputee. It’s got to be horrible. There are so many things you cannot do. Like tie your shoes. Or open a jar of pickles. Everything is more difficult.

Normal people have wives and/or kids and/or girlfriends to help them out in times like these, and there are compelling reasons for having any or all of those. Unfortunately, I don’t. Fortunately, I have great friends. One of them, my riding buddy Jacob is currently on-hold, waiting for his church to send him on a two-year mission. Thus, he was available to come and stay with me. And right after the accident he did just that. I am so thankful.

Aside from helping me around the house, helping me get dressed and driving me around, Jacob has been performing certain, um, other duties. Not to be indelicate, but in the shower I cannot reach certain areas of my body. Get your minds out of the gutter – I mean between my shoulder blades and under my arms. Jacob, bless his heart, has been helping me in that regard (no, he doesn’t get in the shower with me).

As luck would have it, the boss is out of town for a couple of weeks so I don’t have to fly. I can just sit around and get better, which is exactly what I’m doing. It’s easy with someone to wait on me hand and foot. Jacob has literally been a Godsend. If I were obscenely rich I’d have a manservant around to help me put my socks on every day!

22 October 2010

Seeing Us Naked For The Sake of "Security"

My views on the TSA and airline security screenings in general are well-known 'round these parts: They are useless. Not only are they unnecessary and a tremendous waste of government money, they are an instrusion of our privacy. We are all treated equally - scrutinized as potential criminals. Travelers must pass through metal detectors, we must remove our shoes, our carry-on bags are x-rayed for explosives or other contraband. And sometimes...randomly...we are pulled out of line for an "enhanced" search (the metal wand screening and maybe a pat-down). All in the name of "safety" of course. Right. I've been subjected to an "enhanced" search, and my response to this unmitigated bullshit is that I will NEVER fly on the airlines again.

Airline pilots must go through the same gauntlet of security devices as everyone else. Even they are eyed as potential terrorists. Can't be too careful, you know.

The latest and greatest security device that the usless TSA has implemented is a scanner that can see right through your clothes. You heard me - right through your clothes. They call it "Advanced Imaging Technology, or AIT. And yes, it can see your naked body. There are those of us who feel that this egregious invasion of privacy is unconstitutional.

One airline pilot apparently agrees: For instance a certain Michael Roberts, who flies for ExpressJet Airlines. On his way to work on October 15th, he arrived at the Memphis International Airport. He passed through the initial battery of metal detectors, but refused to submit to the AIT. The TSA monkeys offered him an alternative: a physical pat-down. Roberts, who obviously knows something about constitutional law, asked if he was suspected of a crime? The answer was obviously "no" but rulez iz rulez, according to the TSA monkeys.

Hilarity ensued. Roberts was in fact made to feel like a criminal, scolded like a misbehaving child and ultimately he was denied entrance to the airport...to work. Yes, a federal case is being made of this.

HERE is the story that aired on ABC News.

Roberts and his attorney are quite clear: These types of strip-searches are unconstitutional. Legally, the alternative "pat-down" search is only called for when a person is suspected of committing a crime. And so they are suing, as damn well they should.

When oh when are we Americans going to stand up and put an end to this bullshit destruction of our civil rights? Maybe Michael Roberts and his attorney can start a movement and we can get rid of the TSA once and for all.

HERE is the story from the pilot himself, in his own words, on Lew Rockwell's blog. As we edge deeper and deeper into a police state similar to Nazi Germany, it is worth the time you'll spend reading it so you'll see how far it's already gone.

America: Land of the free, home of the brave? Nah. Land of the sheep, home of the scared.

10 October 2010

At Risk

Up until her death the other day, a 36 year-old British woman named Linda Norgrove was working in Afghanistan for a civilian company called Development Alternatives Inc. (“DAI”), which is based in Washington D.C. DAI is described as a “global consulting company.” DAI had a contract funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development to help the people of Afghanistan grow something besides the poppies used for heroin production. Agriculture/horticulture was Ms. Norgrove’s field. Apparently, helping developing countries was her passion.

On September 26th, Ms. Norgrove and three Afghan “colleagues” were kidnapped by the Taliban. The three Afghanis were soon released, but Ms. Norgrove was held, big surprise. Her location was known. This past Friday night, NATO forces decided to try to rescue her. It went badly. Reportedly, one of her captors detonated a bomb, and she died in the explosion. Very sad.

Why do I bring this up?

I have three equally-brilliant sisters. Seriously, the women got the brains in my family; they make my two brothers and me look like drooling, slack-jawed mental retards. My youngest sister, Eleanor, is an archeologist. She specializes in the history and archeology of the Middle East. Throughout her life, she and her husband have made numerous trips over to some extremely unstable areas. We always worry about them both. Being tall and veddy, veddy British, my sister’s husband Tony stands out like a sore thumb. And Eleanor herself, well, a young, pretty American woman always makes an easy and desirable target.

Eleanor has always downplayed the risks, claiming that she and Tony take extraordinary precautions, blah blah blah. That may be, but a fact she cannot change is that she is often an American woman in places where they don’t like women to begin with, never mind American women.

Eleanor has always gone to places like Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, and Israel. (She often has to get a new passport so the visa stamps won’t betray her travel history.) In fact, in 2003 she was in Iraq and left only days before U.S. forces invaded to “liberate” Iraq from Saddam Hussein – oh, and to find those darned weapons of mass destruction.

My family has come to terms with the fact that Eleanor and Tony voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way. We understand the consequences that could arise from such actions. …Which is the delicate way of saying, “we know they could get killed doing what they do. And that is their choice.”

But I will never understand why people like Linda Norgrove and my sister Eleanor deliberately go into such risky places: countries that are either at war, or Muslim countries that don’t like Americans (or any white Christians for that matter). To do so seems reckless and dumb. We grieve for Ms. Norgrove’s family, but what can we tell them? She certainly knew there was a war going on…knew that she had no protection over there. Bottom line: She should not have been there.

I fly helicopters. I ride motorcycles. I do some risky stuff. But you won’t find my ass over in Afghanistan, trying to convince people to grow soybeans instead of poppies. That's just crazy.

07 October 2010


Whenever you go into a hospital they always ask you to rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10. In my case, my arm/shoulder was causing intense pain that did not subside even for a moment. It was accompanied by dry mouth, occasional light-headedness and nausea. Thus, I characterized the pain as a 10. Not that I’m a wimp, as I’ve said, but it was really, really bad.

But I tend to take things in a lighthearted way. I see no point in complaining or putting on a martyr act. I try to see the humor in events. And so I make with the jokes. It can backfire.

A long time ago, I fell out of a tree. (It’s a long story.) They thought I broke my back. On the way to the hospital, the woman EMT was asking me the usual, “how many fingers am I holding up?” questions. I was cracking wise. I may have asked her to open her blouse and let me see ‘em inasmuch as I might be dying and it would be a nice gesture. I heard my nephew riding in the “shotgun” seat of the ambulance go, “Uncle Bobbbbbbyyyyyyyy…” and I could tell he was rolling his eyes. The woman EMT snapped at me, rather sharply, “Sir, we are just trying to do our jobs here!” I replied,
“Missy, let’s not forget that I am the one in pain here.”

So in Sacred Heart Hospital this past Tuesday evening, they may not have taken me seriously when I said how badly I was in pain. My body was fighting hard- my BP and pulse were off the chart but that did not seem to impress them. Eventually, I did see a doctor who said they’d give me something…perhaps he mentioned Demerol…for the pain. Eventually a nurse did come in and give me a shot. She warned me that it might sting a little. I said, “Sweetie, you could stick that needle right in my scrotum and it wouldn’t hurt as bad as my left arm is hurting right now.” (I swear I said that, too. I have no filter when I’m in pain.) She looked a little shocked. I can’t say I felt the injection at all, even though she may have been digging around for bone. I am not popular in Emergency Rooms.

Twenty minutes later, the doctor stuck his head in the little room where I lay writhing in pain on the gurney. I mentioned to him that the shot did not seem to have
any effect at all. Casually, he said we’d just wait a little while longer and see about giving me another one. That “little while longer” turned out to be an additional 45 minutes, when they came to discharge me. (Sacred Heart Hospital is not exactly generous with the pain meds.)

As they tried to strap me into an immobilizing sling, the same nurse gave me a shot of what she called the same stuff as before. All I know is, as she pulled the needle out I immediately felt extremely nauseous and woozy. I was gulping down water (“SIR, JUST SIP IT!”) fast. As I did, the pain melted away like an ice cube in a hot frying pan. I was, like, whoa! “You sure that’s the same stuff as before?” I asked. She answered in the affirmative. Hmm.

Next day, I was relating this little story to a pilot/attorney friend of mine. “They probably gave you a placebo the first time,” he offered. I was incredulous. Would they do that? He opined that they might. And it sounded logical.

I entered the hospital complaining of Richter Scale 10 pain. But I wasn’t acting like I was in pain. Suppose they only gave me sugar-water, or liquid baby aspirin to see how I’d react? If I reported drastically reduced pain levels, they’d know I was faking it. But I wasn’t, and they were forced to give me the real stuff on the second go-around. Bastards!

I have no proof, of course, and I might be all wrong. All I know is that the first injection they administered had ABSOLUTELY no effect. It did not diminish the pain, nor did it cause any nausea or what we in aviation call “secondary indications” - you know, like how you can just feel when a drug has entered your bloodstream? I can’t prove it, but I’ll bet they gave me a damn placebo.

06 October 2010

After The Fall

This was going to be a nice little story about washing a motorcycle on a gorgeous day and then taking it out on a 30-mile ride to “dry her off.” Didn’t work out that way.

Motorcycling involves risk; I know that. And I’ve always believed that every accident can be avoided with the proper level of defensive riding. ...Until that lady pulled out in front of me yesterday.

It started off innocently enough: Absolutely beautiful day for a ride, and me without a care in the world. Instead of going to the beach as per usual, I just took the “long way” tour around town. I was almost home – 4.3 miles according to Mapquest. I came upon a t-interesection where, just to my right a car had pulled up to the red light and stopped. The woman driving the car looked in my direction and then pulled out in front of me! Damn! I wasn’t going very fast. I grabbed the brakes and started to swerve to go in front of her. But suddenly I could feel the front tire sliding. The bike fell over and spit me off. Just like that, just that quick. What the...?

I felt myself hit the ground and start to roll. I was worried about the cars behind me running over my body. I thought I could feel my helmet hit the ground, and remember thinking I’m damn glad I wore it. However, later inspection inexplicably revealed not a scratch. Which explains why I did not lose consciousness.

I got to my feet. The bike was on its left side, dripping fuel. I didn’t even want to look at what damage might have been caused. About that time, my left arm was hurting, bad. I knew that feeling. A long time ago I fell while jogging and broke my clavicle. At first I thought I had done it again, but the pain was further out the shoulder this time, in my upper forearm. A woman immediately appeared and asked to examine me.

“What are you, a nurse?”
I asked, walking around in little circles to try and make the pain go away. I figured she wasn’t a doctor, because a doctor would not have stopped.
“As a matter of fact, yes I am a nurse,”
she replied, kind of curtly.
“Stroke of luck then!”
I said.

We peeled my dungaree jacket off and were happy (delighted?) to see no jagged bones sticking out anywhere. I couldn’t lift my left arm, and I knew that wasn’t a good sign.

We got the bike up on its stand and I could not believe my luck. When motorcycles fall over, the gas tank always gets dented. The handlebars usually bend and the switch gear or bar itself contacts the (expensive) tank. Not this time! The left bar was bent back a bit, but it had…somehow…not hit the tank. Aside from that there was very little other damage. The rear turn signal kept the back of the bike off the ground, and at the front, my highway peg – which is built waaaay more solidly and heavier than it needs to be (thanks, Harley!) kept the engine from harm. I was literally astounded. I must have really been going slow when the bike hit the ground. With the help of some Samaritans, we popped it into neutral and moved it out of traffic.

People want to immediately start explaining stuff. What happened? everyone asks. Even if I “know,” I do not say. Let’s let the dust settle, okay? The woman I almost hit was rattled. She seemed to think she’d done nothing wrong, but the man with her said to her, “Why’d you run that light and pull out in front of him?” Why indeed!

The nurse, finding nothing obviously wrong, gave me her number and said she knew a guy with a trailer who could get my bike home. She was, as was everyone else, strongly urging me to go to the hospital. I was having none of it. Leave the bike by the side of the road? No way! However, I knew I had to get home before the shock wore off.

With all information exchanged, I hit the starter button and the Sportster fired right up as I knew it would. My left arm was pretty useless. I won’t bore you with the details of how I clutched and shifted, but it wasn’t pretty. Or easy. There are eight traffic lights between me and the house: I hit every red, naturally, for that is my luck.

At home, I took some Extra-Strength Excedrin. The shock began to wear off. The pain in the arm was…let’s say “intense” and it was causing me to be nauseous. I’d lost my cellphone and had no way of calling anyone locally to come help. So I…don’t laugh…got on Facebook and described the situation. Everyone’s response was the same: “GO TO THE HOSPITAL!” But I knew that. And I would. I just needed to get the bike into the garage, which I couldn’t do alone. However, none of my friends were available to come help me. Neighbors weren’t home from work yet.

Pain is a funny thing. Usually I can bear it pretty well. But this pain in the arm was so bad – a pain I’d never felt before. And believe me, I’ve felt some pain (sordid details to come). I don’t usually get nauseous and lightheaded, so I knew this was bad.

Eventually, I just got in the car and drove to the hospital around 6 pm. They asked, as they always do to rate the pain on a scale of 1 to 10. Honestly…and I’m no wimp now…it was a 10. Nausea, light-headedness, dry mouth, pulse 140…whew, man! I’ll cut to the chase: I broke my arm right where it comes out of the shoulder socket.

I didn’t want to tell them I’d been in a motorcycle accident, knowing the opinion most hospital workers have of motorcycles. But the story came out nonetheless. “How’d you get home?” they’d ask. And of course I got that disapproving look when I told them I rode. “And how’d you get here this evening?” they’d then ask. And I got the same disapproving look when I told them I drove. Hey look, you do what you gotta do, alright?

The doctor says I’ll be out of commission for eight weeks. (We’ll see about that.) About 10:30 last night he finally gave me a shot of some kick-ass drug that made the pain melt away. (But why did they have to wait so long to administer it? Jeepers!)

“You do have someone to drive you home, don’t you?”
they asked.
“Sure do!”
I lied.

And so here I sit, 14 hours after the fall. Not much sleep last night. I took my left arm out of the immobilizing sling and gingerly moved it to the keyboard of my laptop. At this point there is no way to position the arm that does not hurt, so what’s the difference if it’s over the keyboard? What else have I got to do? They gave me some prescriptions for drugs (Percoset, I think) but I’m not a big drug guy. Excedrin and Tylenol can handle just about anything. And what they can’t, Rum and Coke can.

Oh, there is one other thing to do: Call the boss? Yeah, that. He’s going to be really pleased (not) when he hears this bit of news. He’s never liked the fact that I ride motorcycles. And I know the three little words he’s going to say. You know them too.

Oh well. Shit happens. That’s just life. To truly appreciate pleasure, you have to experience pain. And it is pain that I will be experiencing for some (hopefully short) time in the future.

03 October 2010

Learning The Unteachable

I like riding motorcycles, always have, ever since I can remember. Why? Dunno. Maybe it’s that “one with the machine” thing. Driving a car can be fairly automatic, but riding a motorcycle is totally absorbing. All the extremities are occupied, some with more than one device. For instance, on the motorcycle your right hand not only controls the throttle, but also activates the front brake. You become part of the machine and the machine becomes part of you in a very real way.

When I was first learning how to fly, my instructors put it in much the same context. “Let the wings become extensions of your arms,” they’d say, which I thought was terribly silly. Or, “I don’t get in the aircraft, I put it on…I wear it.” To which I would roll my eyes and think, “Yeah, yeah, suuuuure you do.”

My own approach to flying was more mechanical and methodical and scientific. You do this with the controls and you’ll get the desired result. It works – works every time. I did not put the helicopter on like a pair of gloves or something. Poppycock! There is a certain amount of artistry to flying, no doubt. But I did not understand that the artistry is not in the connection between the painter's hand and his brush and the canvas, but rather the artist's brain and the final image.

Somewhere along the way, something changed. And I’m not sure when it did. But it’s the strangest thing. Now, I no longer find myself sitting in an aircraft. When I climb aboard and strap in, I literally feel myself becoming a part of that machine. I do what I used to make fun of. Now, I don’t think about pushing the little sticks around. It just sort of happens. It's taken years and years, but flying finally feels very natural to me. I’m very happy about this.

My dad was like that- a natural pilot. I only flew with him on a couple of occasions, but each time he exuded this…this…confidence. You simply knew he was in charge and in control.

I do not claim to be the World’s Greatest Pilot or World’s Best Motorcyclist. But I feel lucky to have at least reached a level of oneness with these crazy machines. It was something my mentors tried to teach me, but it is also something that cannot be taught.

19 September 2010

Imitation: Sincerest Form of Flattery

A fellow blogger who sometimes writes about flying is a motorcyclist as well. After a long hiatus he decided to buy a bike again. After much deliberation he is now the proud owner of an Italian job called a Moto Guzzi. I’m happy to see any rider get back “in the wind” as we say, even if it is on a quirky, un-mainstream bike like the Guzzi. If the bike is dependable and he takes good care of it, he’ll have tons of fun, which is what life is all about, right?

This blogger read the story I wrote about the trip my friend Jacob and I took to Key West. Knowing that Jacob’s Honda Shadow and my Harley Sportster are very similar bikes, he wrote:
“Did you ride the Shadow?
Compare and contrast with your Sportster if you have the time Bob.”

Happy to oblige! I started to write it as a response to my original post, but then decided it could use a post of its own.

Harley-Davidson has been making the Sportster model since 1957. Although much-improved (the new ones even have fuel-injection!), the 2010 version retains the same basic configuration and much of the styling as the original: two-cylinder, V-twin engine displacing 883cc’s. It’s an elemental, lightweight, no-frills motorcycle – just an engine, a small gas tank and two wheels. To my eye, it is what a motorcycle should look like (and be). When it was first introduced, it was a powerhouse! The Sportster is inarguably the first “superbike,” a term that has come to mean the ultimate in performance and handling. There was really nothing like it on the market. Triumph and BSA had their 650cc twins, but nothing could match the Sportster for raw performance. The Sporty was king!

With little competition, the Sportster held onto its reign throughout the 1960’s. Ah, but then came the Japanese. In 1969 Honda introduced the legendary four-cylinder CB750 model. It was amazingly fast, smooth and refined. The age of the Japanese superbike had begun. In 1973 Kawasaki rewrote the book on performance with their own superbike, the incredibly powerful 900cc Z-1. (I have two of these awesome bikes in my garage: an original 1973 Z-1 and a 1978 Z-1R.) By the late 1970’s, Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha and Suzuki all produced scads of inexpensive, reliable, high-performance motorcycles that fed the craze occurring in the U.S. at the time.

The Sportster, which seemed so fast in the 1960’s was now bog-slow by comparison. Due to the old design of the engine, there was no way Harley could make it competitive (meaning: fast) with the new technology appearing in the bikes from Japan, Inc. Rather than change the design, Harley kept it the same, and ironically kept selling as many as they could build. See, not everyone needs to have the fastest or quickest or best-handling bike in existence. The Sportster…the bog-slow, old-technology, “boat anchor” of a motorcycle…still offered a certain riding experience that other motorcycles did not.

This fact did not go unnoticed by Japan, Inc. In 1983, Honda began introducing models targeted at Harley-Davidson, specifically the Sportster. First was the Shadow 750. It had the same basic design elements: teardrop gas tank and V-twin engine, but that engine was water-cooled and had overhead cams. Thus it was quieter and smoother and more reliable (because it didn’t shake itself to pieces like the Sportster engine did…and still does).

Then came a whole slew of models from various manufacturers, all trying to out-Sportster the Sportster with varying levels of success. The current Honda Shadow 750 is almost a dead-ringer for a Sportster – it’s that good…of a copy. But it lacks a certain…something…an indefinable quality that Harleys have always possessed. Some Harley owners call it “soul,” or “personality”…whatever. Harleys are merely different. It’s hard to describe or explain. You just have to ride one to understand. Trouble is, not everyone appreciates the Harley difference. Jacob, for one.

That's Jacob's Honda Shadow Spirit 750 on the left, and my 883 Sportster on the right on the beach in Apalachicola, Florida. You can clearly see where Honda got their, um, "inspiration" for the design of the Shadow.

Jacob’s is a 2003 Shadow 750, meaning that the engine displaces 750cc’s. Most full-size motorcycle engines these days displace anywhere between 1200 and 1500cc’s, so the Shadow and my 883cc Sportster are now considered “middle-weights.” These two bikes are about equally-matched in acceleration, and both turn in almost exactly the same gas mileage (55-60 mpg on the highway). Both have plenty of power, can carry a passenger without breaking a sweat, and both will easily run up to 100 mph or so.

Jacob does not like it when we trade bikes. He calls the Sportster “a truck,” which I suppose is fair. The clutch lever takes considerable effort to pull, despite Harley’s efforts over the years to reduce it. The front and rear brakes take deliberate energy to operate; these are not “two-finger” motorcycles like the newer designs. Although the engine is rubber-mounted, it pounds like a jackhammer and you can feel the vibration resonating through the frame, footpegs and handlebars. It occasionally backfires out the carburetor when blipping the throttle, especially if you didn’t let it warm up long enough. The transmission emits a loud CLANK! when shifting gears, both up and down. The shift lever looks like something you’d see in the cockpit of a steam locomotive. The suspension travel is small, and the ride is rough. Overall, the Sportster feels like something from the early Industrial Age.

On the other hand, the Shadow is like a Sportster with all the rough edges polished off. The liquid-cooled, dual-carburetor engine runs flawlessly: smoothly and unobtrusively. Punch the starter button and go. All the controls work fluidly, with minimal effort: a Honda trademark. The clutch requires a light pull, and the transmission snicks easily and silently from gear to gear. There is plenty of suspension travel, and the bike rides softly over bumps that launch the Sportster rider off the seat. The Shadow is a very nice motorcycle which anyone would be happy to own – and Jacob is.

So why would anybody buy a cantankerous new/old Sportster? I mean, there are so many better bikes out there. And yet I’ve owned two Sportsters so far and am actually looking for another (an older one) to buy as a “project bike.” But why? That, I cannot answer. Sportsters have some magical quality that transcends the act of riding. For all their “faults” they have a certain attraction that I cannot explain. All I know is that when I fire the thing up I am in touch with a machine which is a direct descendant of the one introduced in 1957 by a company founded in 1903. It’s weird, but I like that.

To each his own. And that's the beauty of motorcycling: There is something for everybody.

09 September 2010

The Most Interesting Man In The World

The most interesting man in the world... on Rollerblading:


Oh man, you know me and TV commercials.

The ad agency representing Dos Equis beer has created an ad campaign that is friggin' hilarious: "The Most Interesting Man In The World." He's an older, very sophisticated, worldly gent, always in the company of young, beautiful women. With gentle flamenco music playing in the background, he is described somberly by the same guy who narrates all those PBS "Frontline" programs.

"He lives vicariously...through himself."

"His blood...smells like cologne."

"The police often question him...just because they find him interesting."

"He has been known to cure narcolepsy...just by walking into a room."

I've always found the commercials funny. They're filmed darkly, with only the subject lit up. They often use flashback footage of TMIMITW when he was younger and darker-haired.

HERE is the Wikipedia story about the campaign. I can't believe it's been running since 2006!

Then at 8:15 PDT this morning my friend Hal Johnson facebooked: "Got my wife and son out the door this morning, and for once, I didn't feel like I was herding cats. It's time for a breakfast burrito and a Dos Equis." And I thought to myself, "Beer, so early in the morning? How interesting!" (I don't think he was kidding, either.)

08 September 2010

24 Hours Of Crap Crammed Down Our Throats

I’m always amused when small stories from across the country get blown up way out of proportion by the national media. As a culture, we seem to revel in the trivial; every little thing captures our interest for a few moments.

When I was growing up, there were only three national television news networks, and they focused on pretty big issues. Tons of stuff happening in the country went unnoticed. But in the late 1970’s, with the proliferation of satellites, any two-bit TV station in any podunk town could get “on the bird” and have their little local reporter hit the Big Time. Accordingly, in 1980 some guy named Ted Turner got the bright idea to put up an all-news cable TV channel. Nothing but news, 24/7. Oh boy.

And then came the rest.

Now, with 24 hours of time to fill, small stories gain national importance whether they actually are important or not. Most are not. And so we’ve learned about automobile accidents, fires, killings, robberies, sinkholes and millions of mundane, everyday things going on in places that nobody cares about except the people who live there – and maybe not even them. No story is too insignificant, especially if there is aerial footage from a helicopter, which makes any story all that much more dramatic.

I remember watching CNN one day and seeing a story about a FedEx 18-wheeler burning on the side of some Interstate highway in Missouri (complete with the requisite aerial footage from the helicopter!). For some reason they spent an inordinate amount of time covering this story. I thought to myself, “A burning truck on a highway. And I should care about this…why?” Because honestly, I did not. In fact, I could not have cared less if I tried. Obviously, people thought it was an act of TERRORISM! because we have become such a nervous, paranoid society that everything bad that happens now is suspected to be a TERRORIST! act. Turns out, the driver was drowsy and just ran out of his lane and hit something that caused his external gas tank to catch fire, . Oops! (I went back and researched it for this blog reference.) No terrorism. Sorry! But by God, it could have been!


Everybody gets…heck, everybody deserves that “15 minutes of fame” Andy Warhol promised them, right? Everybody is a star, just waiting to be discovered and put on national TV.

And so now some pinhead in Gainesville, Florida is getting WORLDWIDE attention because he’s promised to do something very controversial and distasteful on September 11th. Making it worse, this idiot is pretending to be a pastor in a church.

It seems that everybody on the planet including those yet to be born have condemned what this lunatic plans to do. Every TV news reporter, every print reporter, every columnist, every pundit, and every politician has had to weigh-in because, you know, I care about what the actress Angelina Jolie has to say about this (not!). Ed McMahon was even brought back from the dead and asked for his thoughts. ABC News immediately flew a reporter down to Gainesville to interview the jackass and ask him inane questions like, “Pastor, what would JESUS do?”

The uproar is quite amusing – at least to me. Because we’ve created this guy. We give people like him a national stage. And then we act horrified at all the attention he’s getting. Well, duh.

In the old days, a guy like this would have been just another crazy hick in some tiny hick town in Florida. He would live his life in well-deserved obscurity, with his little 30-member congregation of like-minded, brain-dead boobs. And nobody ever would have heard of him. But in this age of instant-fame and gotta-have-it-now information, he’s become a worldwide celebrity beyond all reason or expectation. Paris Hilton reportedly contacted the man and asked if he would help with her career.

It’s our own damn fault. We’ve got 24 hours of programming to fill!

Coincidentally, the ever-sarcastic but always-funny website The Onion has an equally fake Onion News Network and in a recent report it addressed this very subject. Watch the following hilarious video at your peril – the language is kind of strong.

Breaking News: Some Bullshit Happening Somewhere

05 September 2010

Harley Davidson 2010: The Giant Awakens!

The 2011 Harley Davidson Sportster

The Harley Davidson Motor Company has always had a problem attracting young riders to its product. Especially lately, the demographic of the typical Harley rider has been...well...me (a 55 y/o boomer). This is a problem. If you don't have young riders coming in the front door, the old riders will eventually die off.

Part of Harley's bigger problem lies in the fact that the company really hasn't made bikes that young people want. Young guys want to go fast. They want sportbikes, like those loud, annoying, psuedo-racers you see terrorizing the highways and byways. With few exceptions, these are mainly from Japanese manufacturers, who have dominated that market segment since the 1980s.

Typically, young people don't go for slow, American "cruisers," which have always been considered "old man bikes." They think sportbikes (so-called "crotch-rockets") are more fun. But there are many reasons we ride motorcycles. "Going fast" is part of the fun, yes, but only a part. It's also about what we do with our bikes.

Harleys have always had a certain undeniable charisma and attraction, and H-D has always had the lion's share of the "cruiser" market, which has been their main source of revenue. In numerous attempts to compete head-to-head with Harley, the Japanese manufacturers have produced many blatant copies of the Harley design, with varying degrees of success. Today there are models from Star-Yamaha and Kawasaki that can even fool me at first glance - they are that much of a ripoff of certain unique Harley design cues (for instance, the two-cylinder V-twin engine with the air filter and exhaust system both on the right side of the bike, the big, flared fenders, etc.).

In 1995, Honda even went so far as to produce a Harley-clone (ironically called the "American Classic Edition" or A.C.E.) in which they actually designed-in some "extra" vibration because they felt the bike was "too smooth," a Honda trademark. But see, many bikers prefer to know they're on a piece of machinery and not a sewing machine or electric motor.

Can you tell them apart? Top: Honda A.C.E., Middle: H-D Heritage Softail, Bottom: Kawasaki Vulcan

Nevertheless, "cruiser" bikes (e.g. Harleys) never really found wide appeal with the younger generation. It is true that the majority of Harleys are the big touring (e.g. "Electra Glide") and cruiser models, but they also have the smaller Sportster, which is what I own, which is more what we used to think of as just a regular ol' motorcycle. I've always felt that Harley was missing the boat by not marketing the Sportster to young people as a fun, all-around, general purpose streetbike.

It took Harley a long time to figure this out, but they finally did. More than that, they decided to do something about it. When I first saw the following commercial on television, I was blown away. I stared at the screen thinking, "This is HARLEY advertising??"

Apparently young, cool, good-looking people ride Sportsters now! Apparently these young, cool, good-looking people hot-rod their bikes around in the dirt. And have lots of other young, cool, good-looking friends. And apparently hot chicks who ride Sportsters often spontaneously go skinny-dipping! What the...?! What are you, kidding me? Harley?! I want to hang out with these people! I want to be like them! I mean, I'm not...and I already ride a Sportster! (Notice that there is not a beer-gut in sight in that spot, and the only gray beard belongs to the jealous-looking cop.)

Don't get me wrong, it's great! It's just such a different direction for what has always been such a staid, conservative, laid-back company. Talk about aggressive marketing! NOBODY is doing this anymore: showing how much fun motorcycles can be. Which they are, of course.

Harley is in trouble, as are all motorcycle manufacturers. Motorcycles are pretty much thought of as a hobby. They are bought with discretionary funds that as we all know are pretty scarce these days. Instead of just sitting back and waiting for bankruptcy, Harley Davidson has decided to do something pro-active and go after a market they have traditionally been ignoring. (By the way, I *love* how Harley brought back the classic red, white and blue "#1" logo they originally used in the 1970's. Nice touch.)

I say bravo! I hope it works.

30 August 2010

(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction

I recently posted about a motorcycle trip my friend Jacob and I took to Key West. It generated a response from another blogger, a guy also named Bob who I admire greatly. He wrote: “Sometimes I think you have the life I would have if I didn't have this one . . .”

This is a very odd thing to say, considering that I am so unsatisfied with my own life. Notice that I said unsatisfied not dissatisfied. There's a difference.

I know it must seem fun: flying helicopters and riding motorcycles and living a pretty free and easy lifestyle. And it is. But I have to admit that it leaves something to be desired. I just don’t know what. There is an emptiness...something missing. Lately, it’s been bothering me. A lot.

Back when I worked for Petroleum Helicopters I worked a week-on/week-off schedule. I had a motorcycle then, too. Often, I'd get home from work, strap my bags onto the Sportster and take off for a couple of days, roaming around, just traveling and seeing if I could get into some trouble. (I couldn't. It seems I am the most boring motorcyclist to ever come down the 'pike.)

Arriving home after one such "adventure" (heh), my mom phoned. After hearing of my trip she said...and I shit you not, this is exactly what she said, "Bobby, when are you going to stop having all this fun, settle down and get married?"

I let the crickets chirp for a while before replying. I finally said, "That's about right, huh? STOP having fun and get married."

She quickly backpedaled. "Ooooh, that's not what I meant," she said, genuinely chagrined. "Your father and I had lots of fun after we got married...just in a different way than when we were single."

Perhaps. Didn't look like it from where I stood, but I wasn't about to argue with her.

That was almost twenty years ago, amazingly. And not much has changed with me. I’m about to turn 56 years old. And you know what? I haven't really done anything with my life. Yeah, I’ve had a fun career, but there is more to life than work, no? And anyway, it is not our work that defines us. So, what does?

I have no family – not married, probably never will be. Honestly, I'm not even in the market for a relationship. I like living alone - which even I realize is messed-up. No kids. Good God, no kids! Some of us are just not parent material, and I’m one of them.

One of the women at work just had a beautiful baby girl. She brought the child in recently. All the other women in the place were going ga-ga over it - holding it, kissing it, loving on it – doing all that motherly stuff. When Jenny finally offered the baby to me I was, like, “Uhhhhhh no thanks. I…really…don’t…you know… “ I had no desire to hold her baby but at the same time I did not want to offend her. So I said I had a bad cold and went off, fake-coughing down the hall in another direction.

So it’s not that I long for a wife and kids and all that crap. I know that ain't me.

So what do I want out of life? For as long as I can remember, all I ever wanted to be was a pilot. And I have achieved my childhood dream. I should be happy, right? So how come I’m not? Why do I feel like there’s something…else…I should be doing? Maybe childhood dreams aren't all they're cracked up to be. Problem: It’s getting late. There isn’t much time left to figure it out.

Deeper thinkers than I have pondered the question of “What is life?” George Harrison for instance, he wrote a song about it. And I just wonder if this is just all there is? We live each day: We work, we play, we laugh, we love…we do all the mundane things that get us by. And eventually we die. I'm doing it; my dad did it - as did his father as well, probably (I never knew him). His father’s father too, I’d imagine. The cycle repeats.

I hope my friend Bob is not unsatisfied. From his blog, he seems to have a wonderful life, full of happiness and joy and fulfillment. His incredible posts are so much fun to read. They always bring a smile - and sometimes a tear. I won't go so far as to say I wish I had his life, but I will admit that is surely doesn't seem like a bad one. When it's over, he will have nothing to be ashamed of and indeed, quite a lot to be proud of! I, on the other hand, will have a hard time answering St. Peter when he asks, quizzically tapping his clipboard with his pen, "Sooooooo...ahhhhh, what DID you do for humanity while you were down there? We really...ahhhh...have no record of you here."

This is not one of those “I’m so depressed I want to kill myself” posts. I actually like my life and am having a pretty good time. It’s just that you get to a point where you go, “What was I supposed to do again?” Because more and more I get the feeling that what I am doing isn’t it. I think I missed the assignment.

As usual.