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?

15 December 2013

Keeping Track Of Us.

We are in a time when our privacy (and the expectation of it) is dwindling. If you have a computer or cell phone there are a lot of people who can know a lot about you whether you want them to or not.

I find it more than slightly creepy that if I search for something on Google, ads for that very thing will appear on my Facebook or eBay pages. But I guess that’s the “connected” world we live in now: What you do on the internet in one place is monitored by various other entities. Some of is fairly benign – in that marketers want to be able to better target their audience. But some of it is nefarious – as in government snooping which, come on, we know they do. We’ve all heard about the snooping into private lives that the NSA is doing.

On the local level, there was an article in our Pensacola newspaper recently about some new technology the police have and which they’d rather you not know about. Police can do what they call a “tower dump.” This lets them know the identities of all cellphones that have used a certain tower (or number of towers) in a given time period. And if the police know which phone was used, then they also know the number that phone called. And vice-versa. The article did not say, and perhaps cleverly omitted any admission by the police that they can actually monitor cellphone conversations.

But why could/would they not? Cellphones broadcast over public airwaves. As such, the police say that they are legally able to listen in. You don’t have the same right to privacy as you would using your regular old home phone landline; therefore no warrants are necessary. Civil rights organizations obviously do not agree.

Another device that police have is called a “Stingray.” This thing is the size of a suitcase and can emulate a cellphone tower. It tricks all cellphones in reception range to connect to it. (Your cellphone is always “looking” for a cell tower unless you put it in “Airplane” mode.) All the cops need to do is put the Stingray in the trunk of a car and drive into a neighborhood. They will know what the “bad guys” are doing…who they’re calling…and who’s calling them. And they’re probably listening in.

Details of the Stingray and how it works are understandably sketchy. The manufacturer says nothing…refers all inquiries to the law enforcement agencies that operate the device…the same law enforcement agencies that had to sign a confidentiality agreement just to purchase it.

Of course, the police have long had the ability to track you through the GPS feature of your cellphone. As long as it’s in your possession the government can know your whereabouts. It is still unclear whether “they” can track you even if the cellphone is turned off. Also, one federal agent I spoke with said “they” had the ability to turn your cellphone on and off at will. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know.

This technology and these abilities trickle down from the federal government, who use and implement them to fight “The War On Terror!” And of course, when fighting TERROR! anything goes. Remember, the American people willingly, gleefully give up their rights when the government says it’s doing something in the interest of their safety and security. …What was it Ben Franklin said about that?

There are probably no practical solutions to the increasing invasion of our privacy. If you use the internet or own a cellphone you are being tracked in some way. You could, I suppose, never get on a computer and not ever keep a cellphone in your possession…but seriously, how could you get anything done in today’s world?

However, more and more things we carry casually and without thinking…credit cards and passports for instance…have chips in them that allow their use to be tracked – they’re called “RFID” or radio frequency identification chips. Mostly these are only readable at close ranges – for now. More and more cars have “transponders” in them that allow vehicle tracking. Some of these devices you’ll know about (e.g. Onstar services and the like)…and some you won’t.

I don’t want to sound like a paranoid, tin-foil hat-wearing conspiracy theorist, but the implications of this capability to track an individual are equally scary and disturbing. I know that the excuse always is, “Hey, if you’re not doing anything wrong then you have nothing to fear.” But I don’t buy that. We always have something to fear when our government is involved; I think they’ve proven to us at this point that they cannot be trusted.

With no small amount of irony I saw that in the same newspaper, on the facing page to the one with the article on police cellphone snooping there was a full-page ad touting free cellphones for senior citizens. It was designed to look not so much like an ad, but a regular news page. And on it was one of those fake news articles with the headline: “U.S. Gov’t urges citizens to carry cellphones.”

Yeah, I’ll bet they do. The better to keep track of all of us.

Wall Street Journal Article on the Stingray

New York Times Article on Cellphone Tracking

12 December 2013

The Fat Guy

For the last three summers I’ve lead a pretty sedentary life – sitting around waiting for it to rain – or, more accurately waiting for it to rain and then stop raining – so I could go fly. For days on end we’d sit around the hangar drinking Pepsi and eating junk food. Our boss was the instigator. He liked to feed us, both at the airport and at restaurants. Often we’d go out for breakfast (he’d buy) and then we’d cook up a big barbecue feast at the hangar for lunch. Or I'd cook up something in the crew house. Oh God, did we eat! And we drank, which you can do when it’s severe-clear with a zero percent chance of rain and forecast to be that way for the next month. Needless to say, the pounds piled on.

But it didn’t just start when I began the cherry-drying thing. I’ve been a working pilot since 1982 (and I wasn’t in all that great shape back then either). It just doesn’t take much effort to sit in the seat of a helicopter and push those little hydraulically-boosted sticks around. And I was never big on exercise. So over the years my weight steadily increased.

I’m 5’9”, and I weighed under 170 when I started with Petroleum Helicopters in 1987. At the end of the 2013 cherry season I weighed just north of 202 pounds. Twenty-five years and just over 30 pounds. Doesn’t sound so bad when you say it like that, does it? Just a pound a year! But goddam, do they add up!

Up in Washington I felt like a whale. In fact, during the summer a couple of us went swimming at this place we liked to go on the Methow River (it’s pronounced met-how, by the way). It was Brandon (who weighs maybe 140 and is built like a toothpick), Mikey (who’s tall and slim) and Alex (who’s tall and husky-but-not-fat)…and me (the fat guy). Camera-phones were out as usual to document the event for posterity and Facebook. When I saw the pics I was so ashamed of the way I look that I made Brandon promise to not put them up. I mean, seriously, I looked terrible. I’m not People Of Walmart.com-obese, but I’m on the way. In any event, I have no energy or stamina anymore. Climbing up onto the helicopters was a chore, and I did not want to look bad in front of the younger pilots. I don't want them to think of me as "the old guy" who can't keep up.

On another level, I don’t mind being bald. But bald and fat? If I ever want to have sex again in my lifetime (and I do), one of those things is going to have to change. Maybe both.

In a lot of ways I look like my dad - no offense, pop. He always had a “beer-belly” for as long as I can remember (except he never went bald). Hey, we were city people not country folk. The most exercise most of us ever got was the walk from the apartment to the car and back, which usually didn’t even involve any stairs.

So this year I vowed that things would be different. Before I left I told the guys in Washington that when I got back next year they would at first think it was Brandon walking in the door. Which may be a bit unrealistic, since Brandon is 30 years younger than me and much better-looking, but still…

I’ve tried diets; we’ve all tried diets. Mostly they don’t work. Here’s why: They’re so restrictive…unreasonably restrictive, I think. You don't stay on them. One diet plan I looked at specified that between breakfast (half-cup of black coffee and half an orange) and lunch (an unsalted celery stalk), if you were feeling “snacky” you could have “ten sunflower seeds.” I was, like, “Really? Screw that!"

So I knew that a “diet” wasn’t going to work. I just had to change how I ate. And how much. Look, this isn’t rocket science: If you want to lose weight you simply have to take in fewer calories than you’re burning. PLUS, you have got to exercise regularly. It’s got to be a combination of the two.

I decided that when I got back home I’d do a couple of things. You can go online and plug your height, weight and age into these calculator programs that’ll tell you how many calories you “need” in a given day. For me it comes out to about 2100. Okay, so I figure that if I keep my calories down to 1500 or less, I should be able to lose weight. Less than 1500 calories a day is easy. It simply means eating better: No more three-big-meals per day; no sodas, and cut way back on the sugar; no McDonalds or fast-food; no junk food; no snacking. It’s do-able.

For exercise, I thought about walking around the block. It’s just under a mile and it’s got a good uphill and downhill to it. Problem is that I don’t like walking. Or jogging. I do like riding a bicycle, so I planned on getting the one in the garage (don't we all have them?) fixed up and road-worthy again.

But when I got back to Pensacola, what should I find in my bedroom but an old-school exercise bike! One of the kids who stayed in my house while I was gone inherited it from his father or something. Instead of selling it or throwing it away he just (ahem) “temporarily” put it in my room, hope you don’t mind. No, I don’t mind! Perfect!

So every day now, I ride the exercise bike and work with my kettlebells. I’m eating better too (and strangely, I don’t miss the Pepsi, which I thought I would). I’m not going to obsessively weigh myself every day – although I know I have lost some weight (down below 200 already). I’m not intending to get “buff” or even skinny. I’m not setting any artificial or target weight…no “before” and “after” pictures. I'm just making a committment to live a healthier lifestyle…to get back down to a good weight…one at which I won’t be huffing and puffing after climbing up on the helicopter…one at which I won’t be so ashamed to have my picture taken with my shirt off on the river or up at Soap Lake. I'm 58 and I don't want to look like this. I don't want to be "the fat guy" anymore.

We’ll see how it goes.

10 December 2013

Taming The Taildragger

I am a pilot. And up until recently I’ve always considered myself a pretty “shit-hot” pilot (as we say) of both airplanes and helicopters. I even have my seaplane rating…and owned one! I mean, I know how to fly, and I've been doing it a long time, which has lead to the assumption that I’m good at it despite the occasional-yet-mounting evidence to the contrary. Sadly I was proven wrong yet again this past fall when I got checked out in an airplane that has a tailwheel instead of a nosewheel.

The differences are noteworthy. Although both types of airplanes are pretty much exactly the same in terms of how they fly, the skill needed to land the damn tailwheel airplane is what sets it apart and makes the FAA require that pilots get a separate “tailwheel” sign-off from an instructor before flying them.

Let me explain. Here is my nemesis, the Aeronca Champ.

As you can see, the landing gear of a tail-dragger is pretty far forward – at the very front of the wings right near the firewall where the engine attaches to the fuselage. This is great if you need a lot of clearance for the propeller – like say if you’re operating from so-called “unimproved” airstrips out in the bush, away from smooth and/or paved runways. But in order for the airplane to sit on its tail this means that the main wheels are forward of the longitudinal center of gravity.

So when you come in for a landing a teensy bit too fast and touch down a little too hard on the main wheels only, physics forces the tail of the airplane downward - sometimes faster than you can react. When this happens, the wings go to a higher angle of attack with respect to the relative wind from the front…which generates more lift…which pulls the airplane back up into the air. This is bad. The pilot’s natural instinct is to push forward on the elevator control (sometimes a yoke but often a stick) which forces the plane back to earth. The main wheels hit again, and again the tail goes down, increasing the angle of attack of the wings… Without the proper corrective action, things usually go from bad to worse, with the airplane “crow-hopping” down the runway until something breaks (usually the landing gear).

Also, because the center of gravity is behind the main gear, there is a strong tendency for the plane to “weathervane” into a crosswind or simply “not go straight” on the ground. It’s like trying to throw an arrow tail first. It just doesn’t want to go that way; the heavy end always wants to lead. And if the wind isn’t blowing directly down the runway, or even if it’s light-but-gusty, it messes with you big time.

The “trick” is to come in at an exact airspeed, altitude and nose pitch attitude. You want everything just right, so that you’re mere inches off the runway in a “three-point” attitude, holding the plane there, keeping it from touching down until the speed has bled off sufficiently that the wing isn’t generating any more lift. As the wings give up, the airplane settles softly and gently onto all three wheels. Supposedly. In theory. It sounds simple, but it often is not.

With Dave Sr. in the back seat, he and I went ‘round and ‘round the traffic pattern at the Brewster airport, with him coaching me and announcing all my mistakes – which were plentiful. I have a lot of time in airplanes, but almost all of them are bigger and faster than the Champ, and none of it recent. It’s hard to readjust to flying an airplane so slowly. The wing of any airplane will “stall” (stop producing lift) if you get it too slow, but this Champ had an almost helicopter-like ability to hover. The wings have a lot of lift.

The helicopter pilot in me likes to make steep approaches compared to airplanes, just because they’re safer for reasons too complicated to go into here. To me, the angle of an airplane’s normal glidepath just seems painfully, almost unbearably shallow.

So usually I’d come in way too fast and way too steep. I had a hard time nailing that exact nose attitude needed to stop the descent inches above the runway without clunking right onto it or alternatively ballooning back up in the air.

I did finally “get it” and Dave signed me off, but it was not the piece o’cake checkout I egotistically assumed it would be. It was both challenging and fun. But I’d be lying if I said that at times it wasn’t actually work.

07 December 2013

Road Warriors

One more post about my trip home, if you'll indulge me.

My friend Mike who lives in Seattle had gone to Wisconsin to visit family. He was about to return westbound just as I was leaving Brewster, WA to go south. Turned out that we got on the road at exactly the same time, around one o'clock, my time; just after noon, his time. His drive was only two days, a little shorter than mine. As we do, we kept each other company on the phone as we droned along on the Interstate, going our separate ways together.

My plan was to drive until midnight or one a.m. or so, then find a rest area to stop in and get four or five hours of sleep. It's not that I'm cheap, but what's the point of stopping in a motel if you're only going to be there for a couple of hours? I had the seats out of my van. And with a thick, cold-weather sleeping bag rolled out to lie on, a big quilt and a couple of pillows, I had a warm, comfortable place to catch some shut-eye when the time came.

Mike had said he was also going to drive until midnight and then crash for "...two and a half hours." He said he didn't need much sleep. Plus, he wasn't driving a van and would have to recline his driver's seat of his rental SUV and sleep in it.

By midnight I was done - couldn't keep my eyes open. I hadn't gone as far as I'd hoped, but I know better than to force it. A sign saying “Rest Area” beckoned. I pulled in, climbed in the back and snuggled into my makeshift bed.

Rest areas are cool out west. The cops don't bother you if you pull in to sleep for a while. At this particular rest area, someone had even raised their pop-up trailer and was sleeping in it. I don't know how well that would go over down here in the south, but I'd bet they frown on it. "Find a Walmart!" they'd probably say.

Next thing I knew my alarm was going off and it was five a.m. Feeling good, I got back on the road, cruise-control set at 79. I thought about calling Mike to see how he was doing - but no need. As if on cue my phone rang. It was him. “Wakey, wakey!”

Mike said he also stopped around the same time I did. And instead of sleeping for just the intended couple of hours, he slept until five a.m. as well. He would drive another ten hours before getting home to his own bed. I would drive for another five days.

What a crazy life we lead.

03 December 2013

November 2013: The Voyage Home

Well I promised you pictures, didn't I? I guess I better get to it.

My cross-country trips from Pensacola, Florida to Washington State and back are usually pretty balls-to-the-walls affairs. I get in the car and go, driving as far as I can in a day so I can make the 2,700 miles as quickly as possible.

But this year I planned on taking the long way home. It was mid-November by the time I left Brewster, and I didn't want to take the usual route which would have had me stair-stepping my way down. The new route had me going down through California all the way to Los Angeles where I'd catch Interstate 10 eastbound. Since I was taking the "scenic route" I asked my friend Gene to come along with me. He'd never even been west of the Mississippi River, and I thought it would be a good opportunity for him to see the country. I picked him up in San Francisco and we meandered from there.

All the pictures are "clickable" if you'd like to see them in a larger format.

Typical postcard shot of downtown San Francisco from a park called Twin Peaks, from which you had commanding views of both the bay side and the Pacific side. It was pretty nice until the two large buses full of tourists showed up.

And here's your faithful, well-fed reporter, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. It was a beautifully clear day, but windy as hell and pretty chilly, hence the denim jacket and hoodie. What was it Mark Twain supposedly said (but didn't), "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." Yeah, like that.

Driving around, we literally stumbled upon the intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets. This was the epicenter of the hippy movement back in the 1960s. George Harrison made a pilgrimage to the area once, unannounced. Of the experience he said, "I went there expecting it to be a brilliant place, with groovy gypsy people making works of art and paintings and carvings in little workshops. But it was full of horrible spotty drop-out kids on drugs..." Heh. The hippy kids, it seems, are long gone. I wondered if even their spirit remains? Unfortunately we didn't stick around long enough to find out.

Here's Gene at the Golden Gate Bridge. I think he's actually posing for someone else's picture. Over here, Gene!

Going down the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) I had to stop at the Bixby Bridge. It was made famous in the 1970 TV movie (and subsequent series) "Then Came Bronson." After the suicide of a close friend, a San Francisco newspaper reporter turned societal dropout takes off on his motorcycle (a Harley Sportster, what else?) to..."see what's out there." In the opening credits of every episode, there's an aerial shot of Bronson as he crosses the fog-shrouded Bixby Bridge as he starts his adventure. In the shot above, Gene is taking a Facebook "profile shot" of a seemingly happy young couple.

Everyone owes it to themself to rent a convertible and make a trek up or down the PCH at least once. I assumed that we'd have to stop "a couple of times" for photo-ops. That couple turned into a dozen or more. Every time you come around a curve you go, "STOP! I gotta get a picture of this!" At least I did. "Awesome" is the only word. I can't even count how many pictures we took like this. I'd post them, but you just have to go see for yourself. I mean it: GO!

Just north of San Luis Obispo we stopped on a beach right at sunset. With colors like these, how could you NOT take a picture? I will say this: The scenery in California is spectacular. I fully understand why everyone wants to live there. Trouble is, most of them already do. From San Francisco south, the crowds and traffic were horrendous.

Next morning we made it down to Santa Barbara before the road turned inland. Nice beach, eh? Not as nice as those we have in Pensacola...but hey, I'm a little prejudiced.

We didn't really want to get stuck driving around Los Angeles, so we made a bee-line for the observatory at Griffith Park. There, we had a great, sweeping view of the city (well, a lot of it anyway - L.A. is huge).

And of course you *have* to take a picture of the Hollywood sign, right?

From L.A. we finally started heading east, ending up in, well, you can see.

If you ever go to Vegas (and I don't suggest you do), you have to see the Fremont Street Experience. Basically they took the old downtown area and completely covered it with a four-block long arch of video screens. Then, at the top of every hour after sunset, all of the casinos and shops "go dark" and a 20-minute sound/movie presentation is shown. It's very psychedelic. And it's a WHOLE LOT more enjoyable if you're drunk or stoned (although this time I was neither). Those hippy kids from Haight-Ashbury should've moved here. They'd love it. It is pretty incredible. It almost makes Las Vegas (where they'd charge you for the air you breathe if they could figure out how) a place you'd actually want to visit.

This is EXACTLY the kind of weather I was trying to avoid. We'd caught up with Winter Storm Boreas, which we were trying to stay behind. Drat the luck. The low ceilings, low visibility and snow were so bad that we bypassed the Grand Canyon and decided to turn south on Interstate 17 to let the storm get further ahead of us, hoping in vain to find warmer weather. It was not to be; although we found clearer skies, aside from L.A. the temps never got up above the 40's for the entire trip, even back in Pensacola!

On our way southbound, my friend Matt suggested that we visit Montezuma's Castle National Monument. So we did. It was right on Interstate 17. It's this old, preserved Indian dwelling from the years 1100 to 1300, originally (and incorrectly) thought to be inhabited by Montezuma's people but who were actually a tribe called Sinagua. It was interesting that whoever occupied it built it so high up on that cliff. The only access was via a series of ladders. The dioramas and illustrations showed the Indians living a relatively pleasant, well-equipped life on the edge. Gene and I wondered how they got their furniture and stuff up there. Everybody likes a challenge, I guess.

In Casa Grande, AZ I was tasked to find a collection of 70 or so Sikorsky S-55s that belong to a company that thinks they're going to rebuild, modify, "improve" them and market them as a current, modern aircraft. It's a pipe dream, unfortunately. Nobody wants to fly in 60 year-old helicopters anymore. Further, agencies like the Forest Service don't want to use a 60 year-old helicopter, no matter how much lipstick you put on it. Yet the eccentric owner of the company holds onto these engine-less, transmission-less hulks, refusing to sell any of them to companies that still do have a viable use for them...like, ohhhhh, a certain company up in Washington State that uses them to dry cherries, perhaps?

After Phoenix (actually, since leaving Los Angeles) the scenery was like this. The desert is great...if you like that sort of thing...but it's kind of, well, monotonous. This was pretty much our view all the way to Houston, Texas where we finally caught up with W.S. Boreas. From there is was rain, rain and more rain all the way back to Pensacola.

It took me/us 4,000 miles over the course of six nights to get home. Cross-country road trips are wonderful. We're lucky to live in such a big country with such diverse topography and things to see/do. It's been a long time since I'd done a trip that wasn't one of those, banzai-let's-get-there-quick! fiascos. This one was far more enjoyable. Everyone ought to do it! And I hope you one day get the chance.