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?

20 August 2014

The 2014 Cherry Drying Wrap-up

As many of you know, I live in Florida but spend my summers up in Washington State where I do the odd job of drying cherries by helicopter after it rains.  Thing is, it doesn’t rain much in the interior of Washington State, which makes it a good place to grow cherries.  But when it does rain, the farmers freak-out because too much rain is bad for their crop. (They can always add moisture if needed via irrigation.)   Cherries absorb moisture, and if they absorb too much they’ll split open and be rejected by the packing plant.  We helicopter pilots (and there are dozens of us from Oregon north to the Canadian border) sit around on “stand-by” waiting for it to rain so we can go out and do our thing.

Some years it rains a lot.  This past summer was particularly dry; we hardly flew at all.  Plus it was blisteringly hot – over 100 degrees nearly every day in July.  So we sat around…inside mostly, trying to keep cool.  There was not any relief in the evenings – most days it wouldn’t get below 90 until after nine p.m.!  So much for lazy, evening barbecues.

The season started early, and for some reason it caught us by surprise although it shouldn’t have.  Normally the growers want their stand-by charges to start in mid- to late-June.  This year the spring was unseasonably warm which accelerated the cherry growth.  Thus, when we got some rain in early June the farmers all hit the Panic! button.  It nearly caught us with our pants down.

After that initial spate of flying, the probability of precipitation dropped to zero and stayed that way in the forecast through Christmas.  Oh occasionally a little stray shower would make it’s way across the Cascades and into our orchards.  I flew a little in the middle of June, a little at the 24th of June, and then not again until July 27th.  Can you say, “boring?”  I knew you could.

Then there was The Fire.  Officially it is called The Carlton Complex Fire.  It started on Monday, June 14th near the little town of Carlton which is northwest of us in Brewster.  So far it has consumed over 250,000 acres and more than 300 structures.  It is being called the biggest fire in the history of Washington State!  Although it is pretty much contained (98%), it still burns today, August 20th. Some say that it won't be completely out until the first snowfall.

By Wednesday we knew the fire was serious – the smoke was really heavy.  And since the smoke was right over us, we knew that we were downwind of the fire – not a good place to be.  By Thursday it was approaching the towns of Pateros and Brewster.  We went out to eat at the local Mexican restaurant, and watched the fire come over the hill and down into town.  People were racing around, evacuating the hospital, trying to save homes in its path while we calmly (blithely?) munched on burritos and drank Dos Equis (although I don’t always drink beer, but when I do…).  It was kind of surprising to see.  The area around Brewster is mostly sagebrush and fruit orchards, so we didn’t think it would get as bad as it did.  But it did!

Brewster was spared, but Pateros got hit hard.  Many homes were burned to the ground, including the topless mayor’s.  Power was out because the fire burned the wooden power poles which took down the lines as they fell.  All in all it was pretty hairy.

Fortunately our beloved SweetRiver Bakery was spared.  But the whole town was out of commission for about a week due to the smoke/ash damage and no power.

The Washinton DNR’s (Department of Natural Resources) response to the fire had been…uhh…“late and inadequate” are the only terms that can be kindly used.  They really could have put the fire out while it was still small (all fires start small).  But they did not; their efforts were apparently directed more at containing it, which they could not do because the weather started getting really windy.  One morning we awoke to find that the management of the fire had been taken over by crews from California.  Suddenly we were seeing many more aircraft of all type fighting the fire as well as a more concerted effort on the ground.

The fire threatened the three locations at which we keep our aircraft, but thankfully it never came too close although we did move aircraft out of harm’s way a couple of times just to be safe.  I am assigned to a job at a remote orchard north of Brewster up near the town of Okanogan.  With my helicopter moved to a safer location, I sat in my RV one night watching the fire approaching…cresting and then descending a nearby hill as it made its way down toward “my” orchards.  I stayed up, ready to leave at a moment’s notice.  But by morning we saw that the fire stopped at the edge of the orchard, as it usually does.  There’s lots of moisture in those cherry and apple trees.

Then the fire just…sort of…went away.  The winds shifted/died, everything burnable around us had already burned, and we got a little rain.  Suddenly we were out of danger.  But the fire had put a damper on everything, stifled our ability to have “fun” when so many people had lost so much.  You’d be in a restaurant and overhear people talking about their house had burned to the ground and they’d lost everything.  It was heartbreaking. It was not enjoyable. Usually I stick around after the cherries are all picked, but this year as soon as my contract was over I left.

It’s still summer down here in Florida, with daily temperatures in the mid-90s.  I walked out of my house the other day and was suddenly hit by the heavy, humid air.  So different than the dry 100-degree heat of interior Washington.  Different, but…I don’t know…comfortable in an inexplicable way. Familiar, maybe.   And I thought to myself, “Gee, it’s good to be home!” I've done four summers up in Washington; I'm not sure whether there will be a fifth season for me.

Above is a shot of downtown Brewster on July 17th, 2014 as we'd just come out of the restaurant. The fire is coming down the hills just north of town. We're starting to think, "Hmm, maybe this fire is more serious than we thought?" How or why it didn't burn right into the town is beyond me.

The shot above is of the fuel truck at my LZ (landing zone) near Okanogan. The fire had come down the hill in the background and is right at the edge of the orchard (covered in the white bird netting). With the naked eye you could clearly see flames in the sagebrush but they did not show up in the shot.

Fire is a curious thing. See here how it burned the sagebrush right up to one post of the sign for the Alta Lake Campground near Pateros. But if that leg of the sign happened to be part of your house...the house would probably be gone.

16 August 2014


I am, I have to admit, a hugger. It is not my nature to be. I was raised in a family that was not especially physically demonstrative. Not that my parents were cold and/or distant; they just weren’t the huggy/kissy kind. The preferred show of affection was a swift slap on the back of your head. And so I grew up to be just a little awkward with affectionate human contact. It is what it is. But somewhere along the line it changed. I hug people now. It sometimes makes my friends uncomfortable. Oh well.

As a pilot for so many years, I’ve seen more than my share of people who’ve died. It happens unexpectedly, obviously. You never assume that people are going to crash and die. But they do. One day they’re here; next day they’re not. Boom – gone, just like that.

Crashing is one thing.  But people depart suddenly in other ways too.  When I was with Petroleum Helicopters (PHI), I spent a lot of my time with the company contracted to oil companies and flying ships that were based offshore. I worked a week-on / week-off schedule. On Friday morning, a mechanic and I would grab our helicopter at a shore base and leave, staying offshore for our seven-day “hitch.” We usually wouldn’t return to the base until Thursday evening when we’d leave for our seven-day “break.”

For four years the mechanic assigned to me was a guy named Jim Kedziora. We started out, both new to the company, assigned to Tenneco Oil, which was eventually absorbed into Chevron. When I transferred over to Shell Oil, Jim came with me. We both lived in Pensacola, Florida and were friends off the job as well. In fact, we were the closest of friends. We were both single, and we both rode motorcycles. Jim also had a bike and we took many great road- and camping trips together. Life was good. …At least for me.

We in our little circle of friends knew that Jim was depressed. He was taking Lithium to help him deal with his mood swings, and it helped. Sadly, we did not know the depths of Jim’s depression. And all of us were stunned when he committed suicide just shy of his twenty-sixth birthday. None of us saw it coming. In fact, that break week was totally unremarkable. There was no hint that anything was amiss with Jim.

As you can probably imagine, you go through a lot of shit when someone so close to you commits suicide. There are questions that can never be adequately answered, yet you ask them anyway. They gnaw at you: Why did he do this? Could I have seen this coming? Why didn’t I see this coming? Could I have prevented it? Could I have been a better friend? On and on and on, it never ends.

Our little circle of friends disintegrated. Just being with each other was painful. Jim’s girlfriend, Darlene was devastated and went through her own hell. Chuck (a coworker with whom Jim had been living) sold his house and moved away…as did PHI pilot Greg and his wife Thelia. I moved away too, although I stayed in the Pensacola area.

It took me about a year to get over it, to be honest - to get to the point where I stopped beating myself up for not being more attentive and sensitive. If there was something positive to come out of Jim’s death, it was that it made me appreciate people more. And so I hug them. You can communicate a lot of things with a hug – more than the words can convey. I hug my friends even if I know we'll see each other "soon," in case I’m never going to see them again. Morbid, I know. But people are important and I never, ever again want to feel like I didn’t have a chance to say good-bye and tell people how I feel.

The suicide death this past week of Robin Willliams brought all of these memories back, opened old wounds. I guess you never completely get over something like that.  It’s hard to believe it’s been twenty years now since Jim's death. The time has sped by.

Jim in happier times offshore on the Shell Oil platform on which we worked. He's wearing a t-shirt he got at an Oyster Bar in Key West during one of our epic motorcycle trips.

A much-younger (and slimmer) me and Jim in front of N5001P, a Bell 206B

12 August 2014

Weight Loss...and Gain

When I left for Washington State this past May I weighed 180 pounds, down from 203. I held a futile hope that I wouldn’t gain “too much” back while doing my summer job, which consists of me sitting around doing nothing but overeating during my on-duty time and drinking to excess while off-duty.

When I got home the other day I weighed-in at 197. Clearly there is work to do.

And so it’s back on the “diet” and by that I mean cutting out the red meat and fried foods and keeping my total calorie intake to 1,500 or less. It’s not all that difficult; I did it before. It’s just hard to do up in Washington where the boss likes to take everyone out and buy them breakfast and/or lunch. Restaurants rarely have really healthy choices. Plus, while I was up there I was living in an RV which had limited cooking facilities. The inclination to overeat is tremendous.

Losing weight must be a combination of diet and exercise, we all know that. And I wasn’t exercising at all up in Washington. So it’ll be back onto the exercise bike and working with the kettlebells. I know I’ll never be buff, but I’d like to get down to a weight where I won’t be embarrassed to have my picture taken in a bathing suit. I stopped in Atlanta to visit my friend Matt on my way home from Washington last week. We went kayaking. We took the usual camera on a rock with the timer set selfie of us in the river. I made him promise not to post the photos though because I look so…well there’s no other word for it…fat.

Maybe I better keep the total calories down to 1,000 or less…