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?

16 December 2015

The Trip Home - 2015 (Part One)

I write about my friend, Mike Nehring so often that you might think there’s something funny going on between us. Nope, sorry to disappoint you. We’re just really good friends…kind of like father/son but also not. Our friendship has had its ups and downs. But no matter where we are and what we’re doing, I’m there for him and I know he’s there for me, and it’ll always be so.

Case in point: Every year when I finish up my summer job in Brewster, Washington, Mikey asks me to stop by his place on the way home. Trouble is, Olympia, Washington is not exactly “on the way” home. In fact, since Olympia is over on the coast to the west, it’s in the exact opposite direction I need to be going, which is east.

But this past season was different. I wasn’t in a huge rush to get home and decided to take my time. First stop would be to see Mikey (finally!) and then down to California to see longtime friend, pilot and fellow blogger, Hal Johnson.

I had planned on leaving Brewster before noon on Sunday, November 15th, but you know how that goes. I didn’t get started on the four-hour trip to Mikey’s house until around two-thirty. Fortunately, the weather was clear for the trip across the Cascades through Steven’s Pass and I made good time.

When I got to his house much later than expected, I could tell Mike had been cooking. He’d whipped up some of his world-famous fried chicken. All joking aside, he is the fried chicken king. He’d also made a green bean casserole, which was awesome, and a batch of cornbread. Now, I think I make some pretty good cornbread. But Mikey’s recipe has forever changed how I’ll be making it from now on. (His secret ingredient? Sour cream. Yum!)

We ate and ate. I reflected on how generous and considerate Mikey is. I mean, we could have just gone out – there’s a Burger King right down the road and that would have been fine by me. But no, he had to cook up a big meal. So we chowed down and drank rum and watched football and talked - just the two of us, not the usual big crowd we always seem to be a part of. Quality time for sure. He had to fly the next morning so we didn’t make it one of our typical binges 'til the early hours of the morning.

He was gone when I woke up, but he’d told me where he’d be working. He'd be doing what we call “slinging Christmas trees.” This is where workers in a tree farm bundle up a bunch of living-room-size pine trees and then a helicopter hauls them over to a staging area for transport. Here is a YouTube video of such an operation. Mikey is not the pilot although the helicopter is owned by the same company. And while the pilot below is putting the bundles into a truck, Mikey was laying them in a pile on the ground.

Monday morning dawned rainy, windy and cold. The visibility was not quite as bad as in the above video, but it wasn't great. Despite this, when I got to the site, Mikey was hard at work. Other than a couple of field workers, nobody was around but an old guy in a beat-up pickup truck. I assumed he was the farm manager; turned out it was the farm owner. (You just never know who you’re talking to, right?) I introduced myself as another pilot who was with Mike so he didn’t think I was just some trespasser/lookyloo.

Together we watched Mikey shuttling the Bell 206 back and forth, back and forth, with no wasted motion, expertly dropping the trees off onto one big pile where they’d be individually run through a shaker (to get out the bugs, bird nests, etc.) and then another machine that bands them up with a tight netting so they’re more compact.

His flying is so smooth and precise…Mikey really is good at what he does and I admire him so much. The way he flies is inspiring. I’ve been privileged to watch him grow from an inexperienced newbie ten years ago to the consummate professional he is today. He’s never lost his enthusiasm and fascination for flying. He always tries to be better than he was yesterday - a characteristic of really good pilots. Watching him fly makes me intensely proud, even though I've had little to do with his development.

The farm owner had very nice things to say about Mikey’s work. He was impressed with his smoothness. After a while, he pointed at the JetRanger and asked, “So you do this too?”

I laughed and said, “Oh no, sir! That type of flying is for younger guys, not for me.”

He looked at me funny. I explained that such flying allows no room for error; it is a “right on the edge” kind of thing. One slip-up, one microsecond lapse of attention or concentration, one little mechanical glitch and you’re in the trees. (Around that same time this year, a helicopter in Oregon crashed slinging trees. The cause is so far unknown.) It’s not that I don’t have the skill to do it – I just prefer not to. Too risky for this pilot. (…Says the guy who hovers low over cherry trees for hours at a time in a 60 year-old helicopter.)

The weather got worse, and Mikey wisely decided to call it a day. He’d be headed northbound back up to Olympia, and I was going south. We said our good-byes the way we always do: not knowing if or when we’ll see each other again. It’s not that we think either one of us will crash. But in our line of work…

POSTSCRIPT: Mikey always bristles when he reads my blogposts about him. Some of the ground people he works with (non-aviators) google his name and of course my blog comes up…a lot. So Mike has asked me to not refer to him by name in the future. Because I want to cooperate, I’ll do what he wants. So this is my last post about Mike Nehring. From now on. he'll just be "Pilot X." But you and I will know. It'll be our little secret. ;-)

27 November 2015

Weighty Matters

It’s no secret that we all put on weight as we age. Most of us Americans don’t exactly have a really active lifestyle, especially me. Not only that, the older we get, the harder it is to lose weight. While I’ve never been what you would call fat, I’m not a skinny guy either. I’ve managed to grow a quite impressive beer-belly over the years courtesy of drinking a copious amount of, you know, beer. And no sit-ups, or exercise of any sort, thank you very much.

By the time I hit fifty my weight was getting up there. I wore size 34” waist jeans, but they were getting tight. By my mid-50’s I was up to a 36” waist, and I weighed 200 pounds.

Three years ago I started “eating right” and exercising. And by that I mean I cut out sodas and watched how many calories I took in. I have a pretty good exercise (stationary) bike right in my bedroom, and I began working with kettlebells. Right away the weight started dropping off. I got down to 180 in no time flat.

But then I went back up to my summer job in Washington State. Up there we eat waaaaayyy too much. And it’s hard to exercise when you live in an RV it’s 110 degrees outside. Quickly I was back up to 200.

When I came home I found that I now had three roommates (long story). Two of them were temporary, but nonetheless… We all like to eat, and since we all like to cook, we ate waaaaayyy too much in Pensacola. I did not lose any weight over the fall/winter of 2014/2015.

And so it was that I went back up to Washington this past season weighing 200. That ballooned to 215 by the time I came home. I could barely button my 36” jeans, and was more comfortable wearing a 38”. I felt…and looked…awful. I posted a picture of myself on Facebook and thought, “Who is that fat man!” My resting pulse and blood pressure are crazy high. Unacceptably high if I want to stick around on this planet for a few more years, which I do.

Although the flying part of my job in Washington is not strenuous, there is a lot of other physical work to do. And I found that I had no energy or stamina. I couldn’t even keep up with the owner of the company, and he’s 75!

With no roommates in Pensacola anymore, I can eat healthy again and get back on my exercise regimen. My Wii Fit says I “should” be at 148 pounds, but I think that’s not realistic. I’d like to see, and I think I can get down to 175, and I’d be very happy there. (Getting rid of the beer gut is going to be tough.) The question will be: Can I maintain whatever weight I get down to? Our lifestyle in Washington is pretty unhealthy.

The funny thing is how quickly the initial weight drops off. I’ve only been back in Florida for a week, and I’m down to 208. A loss of seven pounds! I’m back in my 36” jeans, and even they are starting to be loose. Hopefully I’ll be back in my 34’s soon. Can I dream about getting into 32’s again? Can I fantasize about 30’s?

Now, I know the weight will not keep dropping off at that rate, but it’s a good start. I try to limit my daily calorie intake to 1,000, with a maximum of 1,500. It’s not all that hard to do, especially when you’re cooking for yourself. When I get hunger pangs I drink a bottle of water.

I’m not going to promise to post regular updates, for that is not my intent. I guess my intent is a little good-for-the-soul confession…a little self-inflicted fat-shaming. We Americans are fat, no doubt about it. We don’t get enough exercise and we eat poorly. Oddly, we seem proud of that, like it’s our birthright. Personally, I vow to not drink any more sodas and not eat any more fast food. If we all did just that…

26 November 2015


Wow, so much to write about! I’ve been remiss in keeping the blog updated and for that I apologize.

It was a bummer of a summer. As I’ve mentioned, it hardly rained and nobody flew.

After the season was over and the pilots went back to their real world, I stuck around to help the owner of the company demobilize the equipment and get ready for next season. Well, that and we had to make three trips to North Dakota to pick up a bunch of helicopters and parts that we bought. Three pickup trucks with three big trailers; 1,200 miles one-way; six days on the road. We wanted to get it all done before the weather turned nasty, and we barely made it. The higher elevations in some of the passes we had to go over were getting snow by the end of our third trip.

There was also lots of work to do around the bases and airports from which we operate. We actually moved a hangar…that’s right, took it apart and moved it from one airport to another. That was fun. (And I say “we” but my participation involved just standing around with my hands in my pockets, “supervising” as usual.)

I told the boss I would stay until the end of October, and stuck around even after that. But it just got too damn cold and I am just not a cold-weather kind of guy. Plus, by the middle of November we were really running out of things to do. And so I left.

I was going to fly home, but I had some sort of flu bug that had me feeling poorly. So I decided to drive, and borrowed one of the company cars. I wanted to take my time and not be in any huge rush this time. It worked out great, because I got to visit pilot-friends at every stop on the way home, which was not even remotely a straight line. If I’d gone more or less direct it would’ve been 2,700 miles; it ended up being 3,500.

At one stop in Texas I got to fly a very rare Hiller helicopter! I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: I am blessed to have the very best friends.

So I’m back in Pensacola. And, I might add, walking around in short-sleeves. But my time here is short. I promised the boss I would be back up on Washington by the end of April. The time will go quickly, as it always does. Six months here, six months there.

I got home Sunday night. Two days later the boss sent me a picture of the first snowfall. So I left not a moment too soon! In life, timing is everything. And in this case my timing was pretty good.

20 October 2015

While We're On The Subject of Music...

Chris Erickson is a young pilot at our company up here in Washington. Easygoing and affable, he’s got an incredible sense of humor, which is probably why we get along as well as we do. But he’s not just a pilot: He’s a multi-talented guy who is handy with tools and can fix just about anything. (In fact, we lean on him a little too hard to be our general handyman.)

Chris is also an incredible musician who has taught me a lot about playing the guitar. We often “jam” together, which is really just playing the six or seven songs I know. Our intent is to polish our “act” enough that we eventually ambush karaoke night at the Bakery and take over with a surprise and impromptu duet set. We wanted to do it this past summer, but we’re “just not there yet.” Meaning I’m not good enough yet. Chris is plenty good enough. And I’m practicing.

We argue over certain songs. You know how, when there are different versions of the same song, it’s usually the one you heard first that’s the one you like best? Take “City of New Orleans,” for example. There have been so many versions of that great song over the years, from Willie Nelson to Judy Collins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Reed and John Denver. Even Steve Goodman, the guy who wrote the song did a version of it. I love ’em all but I, like you probably remember Arlo Guthrie’s as the definitive version.

Or “Me and Bobby McGee.” A number of people have done that one too. You might know that Kris Kristofferson wrote it and put it out as a single. But my introduction to the song was through Janis Joplin who’s version is definitive in my opinion. Chris begs to differ; he heard the Kristofferson version first and likes it best. I’m sensitive to that, so when we perform it, we make it a mashup of both Janis and Kris’s versions.

I like Janis’s version better because it’s more uptempo, more bluesy and has a key change in the middle. Kris Kristofferson’s version is kind of…I dunno…meh. It’s good, I guess, but maybe sometimes people who write songs aren’t always the best ones to interpret them. Wait, I take that back. On the other hand we have The Beatles: Has there ever been a remake or re-interpretation of a Beatles song by another artist that was worth a crap? No, there hasn’t. I’m sorry, there just hasn’t.

Then again… Chris and I do a version of “I Saw Her Standing There” that is killer. We’ll add it to our repertoire just as soon as we get the harmonies right and I perfect George Harrison’s mid-song guitar solo, which is proving to be troublesome. Nevertheless…I have no doubt that you will still prefer the Beatles version.

As I do.

18 October 2015

Odd Little Coincidences

It’s funny how things are connected in our lives in ways we cannot understand and don‘t even know.

In 2006 I began working in the town of Brewton, Alabama. Every time I’d drive up there from Pensacola I’d pass the “Welcome To Brewton!” sign which proudly notes that it was the home of William Lee Golden (singer with the really long hair in the Oak Ridge Boys) and Hank Locklin (also a country singer from an earlier period). I knew that Hank Locklin’s big hit was “Please Help Me, I’m Falling” but he had others as well.

Mr. Golden had long since departed Brewton. But Hank Locklin, who’d moved there in 1970 to be with his new wife who was from there, stayed. It was in Brewton in 2009 that he died at the age of 91. I remember the day; a lot of the locals knew him.

Flash-forward to 2015. My boss and I are in his brand-new Ford F-350 pickup truck, heading to North Dakota to pick up some helicopters and parts. As we drone along on the Interstate, the Sirius/XM radio is tuned to “Willie’s Roadhouse,” a station that plays lots of Country oldies from the 1950’s through the early ‘70s. And this song comes on…

Walking the floor
Feeling so blue
Smoke cigarettes
Drink coffee too
Honey, you’re the reason I don’t sleep at night…

Immediately I’m jolted out of my Interstate-induced slumber (apparently I have what they call “carcolepsy“). I know this song…love this song! But I haven‘t heard it in years - maybe not since the 1970’s. It’s a good song…catchy…the kind that stays with you, apparently for decades. I look at the radio. It‘s Hank Locklin: "You're The Reason (I Don't Sleep At Night)."

Well I’ll be damned. If I had only known. Or remembered. I would’ve gone to his house and talked to him. The guy had been a performing member of the Grand Ole Opry since 1960. His final appearance on the Opry was only two years before he died. The guy was a legend. We would have talked for hours, or until he called the cops to have me ejected.

It turns out that “You’re The Reason” was written by fellow Alabamian, Bobby Edwards who had a decent hit with it (but in a different key) on both the Country and Hot 100 music charts in 1961. But “You’re The Reason” was covered by a bunch of people, including (but not limited to) Hank Snow, Conway Twitty/Loretta Lynn (a duet), John Fogerty and Hank Williams III (“Hank III”). Hey, a good song is a good song.

Even Gerry and the Pacemakers, they of the original British Invasion covered the song although they did not release it as a single. It was at a faster tempo of course, but it's a nearly-identical remake, even in the same key as Hank Locklin’s version! Check out both Locklin and Gerry and the Pacemakers' versions below!

There are so many different versions of this song it’s not even funny. And they’re all great! Hank Locklin’s version did not chart as highly as Edwards’ original but oddly it is the one I remember.

When we got back to Brewster, my friend, guitar mentor, hell of a musician and fellow pilot, Chris Erickson and I set out to learn “You’re The Reason” on our guitars. It’s not a complicated song: E, A, B7, that’s it. It’s even in a key I can sing (sort of - if you call what I do “singing”). We could probably do a passable job of it at The Bakery if they ever institute an open-mic night.

And you better hope to God they don’t.

13 September 2015

An Embarrassment of Riches

I turned sixty the other day. Sixty! How on earth did that happen? I look in her mirror and still see that fresh-faced, innocent, um, 40 year-old I used to be. I have thankfully few wrinkles, owing to a fairly stress-free life but probably more to my “don’t give a shit” attitude than anything else. My hair is grayer (but not totally!), and there’s still lots of it in most places.

None of my other “milestone” birthdays (30, 40 or 50) were particularly upsetting, but for some reason this one is. I don’t like being sixty. I don’t even like the thought of it. But there you go.

Additionally, being born on September 11th is not great. It’s a somber day, not one of gleeful celebration. For my parent’s generation it’d be like being born on December 7th. So I was kind of hoping to keep this birthday low-key; let’s face it, I’m not ten. But you know…the more you want to not do something, the more your friends want to do it.

My Facebook wall filled with birthday greetings. From Atlanta to Florida to Washington state, all around the country and even around the world they came. The best comment was from my friend Daniel Speed: “Congrats on not dying for another year.” Gee, um, thanks Daniel!

My friend Mikey Nehring flies a firefighting helicopter for a company based out of Olympia, Washington. What with all the fires raging out here this summer he’s been bounced around quite a bit. But as luck (or something!) would have it he had gotten based up in Omak, Washington which is just a few miles up the road from Brewster where I’m at.

The big fires are all pretty much under control now, and Mikey’s ship got released on my birthday. Instead of going home, he came down to Brewster. We decided to not go out and get shit-faced drunk as we usually do and just did a big steak barbecue at our helicopter base.

Then our friend Nate Englund called. He dried cherries for another operator this past summer and because he's young and cool we got to know him. Great guy. He called from Missoula, Montana which is five hours away. “I’m inbound!” he said. What a nice gesture, coming over just for my birthday.

All of the other pilots have gone home or onto other gigs, but Lauren St. Romain is still around. She and Danny Smith (one of the owners) brought a big chocolate cake. Instead of 60 individual candles which surely would’ve elicited a visit from one of the Forest Service waterbombers she just got a six and a zero so I only had two to blow out instead of sixty. Thank you, Jesus.

So we had a nice party. No, there are no pictures. It was outside and mostly after dark.

I don’t want to get all mushy and sentimental. But I’ve said before and I’ll say again that I’m blessed with the best friends anyone could ever hope for. It is intensely gratifying and extremely humbling to know such good people. When it comes to friends, I have an embarrassment of riches. I thank you all.

02 September 2015

Malaysian Airlines MH370: Still Gone

How can a big plane like a Boeing 777 just disappear into thin air? Seems preposterous, doesn’t it? But that is apparently just what happened to that Malaysian Airlines jet back in March of 2014. Thin air. Gone.

Back in July of 2015 a control surface called a “flaperon” was discovered on Reunion Island which is (don’t Google it) in the Indian Ocean about halfway around the world from Malaysia. It appeared to be from a Boeing 777 of which exactly one is unaccounted for (guess which?). It was covered with barnacles.

A word about the flaperon. You might know that the little flipper thingees out on the end of an airplane wing are called ailerons. They move in opposite directions. One moves down and one moves up and the airplane banks toward the wing with the up-deflected aileron. Stick your hand out your car window at speed and you can simulate how an aileron works. We’ve all done this as kids.

Then there are wing flaps. These panels extend out of the wing, increasing the wing area and changing the curvature of the wing to lower the speed at which the wing will “stall” and lose lift.

Normally, ailerons and flaps are separate and operate independently. Flaperons are usually (but not always) located inboard toward the fuselage. They not only deflect with the ailerons but are also linked to droop with the flaps. Don’t ask me why jets have these control surfaces; it’s a complicated aerodynamic explanation I’m sure.

Anyway the flaperon was found. Initially it appeared to be from a 777. It was immediately sent to France of all places to be examined. Sure enough the French said it was from a 777 and the Malaysian government assured the world it was from MH370 (I guess using the “logic” that no other 777’s have crashed and therefore it must be from their plane. I mean, how could it not be?


Strangely, the French authorities stopped short of saying that the flaperon came from that Boeing 777...that being MH370. Boeing, who you’d think would have something to say about this matter, has been eerily quiet. You see, there is a little data plate that would normally be attached to the flaperon which would specify which airframe it went on. The data plate is not there. Nor are any other markings that would directly link the flaperon to MH370.


Let us realize that Boeing does not make every single part of their aircraft. Much of the plane is sub-contracted out to other manufacturers, many of which are in other states or even foreign countries. Spread the wealth, you know. It turns out that a Spanish manufacturer makes flaperons for the Boeing 777.

So the mystery deepens. We really don’t know any more than we did before, other than that a damaged, barnacle-encrusted flaperon from a 777 has been found. Putting on my tin-foil hat, I believe that whoever commandeered MH370 somehow obtained a flaperon and chucked it into the water someplace, hoping it would be found and assumed to be crash-damage. Only it wasn’t found. It stayed submerged for over a year before washing up on a beach thousands and thousands of miles from where it “should“ be.

Yes, I still think that MH370 was taken somewhere and landed, not crashed. What does this mean for the passengers? Probably not good things. But I'll bet that plane gets airborne again, and in it will be a bomb (slightly) larger than the latest Adam Sandler movie.

01 September 2015

Light At The End Of The Tunnel

Some of my friends…one Mike Nehring in particular have been grousing that I haven’t published anything on the blog lately, which is true. I think Mikey brought it up because I write about him a lot and he probably just wanted to see his name on the internet again. Well the joke’s on him because I won’t be mentioning him at all in this post.

One reason I haven’t posted anything is because it was such an uneventful summer. There was no rain to speak of. No. Rain. Up and down the Columbia River valley from the Canadian border down into Oregon, hardly anybody flew. This was great for the growers, but not so great for us. The helicopters (and we pilots) all get paid a “standby” fee whether we fly or not, but it’s better if we fly, obviously.

Since it was such a dry summer, the U.S. Forest Service was on high-alert. They did not want a repeat of last year’s devastating Carlton Complex Fire, the biggest fire in the history of Washington State. Everyone was on pins and needles, with (ground) fire crews and helicopters stationed everywhere “just in case.” As soon as a small fire would start, the crews hustled to put it out.

This worked well for a while. Eventually there were too many small fires all up and down the west coast. Resources got stretched thin…as thin as Deez Nuts’ chances of winning the presidential election. (I would’ve said “Donald Trump’s chances,” but in this bizarro-world of 2015 America, I suspect The Donald could actually win!)

And as we got into August, the air around Brewster filled with smoke…again! It was a time of perpetually foggy days. Step outside and you could taste smoke. It was relentless and depressing. The fire dominates our lives. Just like last year.

We evacuated to safer ground some helicopters of our own as well as a couple of airplanes owned by some friends. We got one out in just the nick of time: Another twelve hours and it would’ve burned to the ground. The owner was happy…and lucky…to save his house.

We own a little grass-strip airport up north on the river between the towns of Brewster and Omak. It’s out in the desert surrounded by sagebrush. If the fire, which was well north of us came south blown by the wind, the airport, a house, two hangars and a workshop would all be in serious peril.

The owner of the company and I were there, assessing the situation when the wind suddenly picked up directly out of the north. Suddenly we were enveloped in a thick cloud of smoke. We could not tell how close the fire was, but we knew it was coming. Thus began a mad dash to move as much stuff of value out of harm’s way. We left with the uneasy feeling that there wasn’t much more we could do. However fortune smiled on us - the wind died and shifted and the fire never came. You just never know…

Around us, small fires joined together. The end result is that in terms of acreage, for the second year in a row Washington State has its biggest fire in history: The Okanogan Complex.

While all of this was going on, we received a call from a cropduster in North Dakota. A long time ago he had operated Sikorsky S-55’s, the same kind of helicopter we use for drying cherries. We’d made some entreaties in the past, but he never would sell. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t sell anything. Finally, more than ten years after our first contact, he called. He’s getting old and wants to sell. He made us an offer; a deal was struck. It was six helicopters in all (non-flyable anymore) and a shit-ton of parts and equipment. It would take numerous trips with multiple pickup trucks/trailers. And it was 1,300 miles away - two full days of driving. The timing could not have been worse.

We wanted (and needed) to get these helicopters home before the weather and roads turn bad up here, which it will soon. Once we were sure that the company property in Brewster was as safe as could be, we reluctantly headed eastbound.

So far we’ve made two trips there and back. Each one was an adventure worthy of its own blogpost. Oh, the tales I could tell of overheating vehicles, a blown transfer case in one truck, an impending transmission failure in another, an alternator failure that boiled the juice out of both batteries, and a truck that would randomly go into “limp-home” mode and limit our speed to 45 mph. Great fun.

I think we can get all of the remaining parts and stuff in one more trip. If all goes well (hah!) I’ll finally be able to get out of here and go home around the middle of September, before it starts getting cold, which you know I‘m not looking forward to. So there's light at the end of the tunnel. It’s always fun to come up here for this gig, but it’s always nice to go home too.

25 May 2015

My Annual Washington Sojourn

I have an odd double-life. I live most of the time in Pensacola, Florida but spend my summers up in Washington State. This is my fifth year working for the helicopter company that does cherry tree drying up here in Brewster.

It’s about as far from Florida to Washington as you can get in the continental U.S. Diagonally from one corner of the country to the other it’s a little over 1,800 miles straight line. It’s a little more if you fly since you have to go past Brewster to Seattle and then come back on a little commuter plane. And if you drive it’s about 3,000 miles! There is no direct diagonal route; you have to “stair-step” your way northwestbound.

So getting here is not exactly easy. I’ve driven up twice (which took three full days), ridden up on my motorcycle once (which took the better part of a week), and flown twice on the airlines. It’s always an adventure.

This last trip up was thankfully the most uneventful. We had no weather delays or other issues, and all of my (three) flights were on time. Dave Sr., the owner of the joint met me at the Wenatchee Airport and drove me the rest of the way to Brewster. It was about as painless as air travel gets these days. Glory be! I still don’t like flying on the airlines and am seriously considering just buying a car and driving back when the season is over.

This past winter was very mild up here, so they tell me. That, combined with the warm Spring we’re having up here means that the cherries are “early,” perhaps by as much as two weeks. So we’re kind of scrambling to get everything ready in anticipation. Since I got here the weather has been simply gorgeous.

It would be easy to just move up here and stay year-round. The beauty of this part of the country is unbelievable. And I could almost see myself living here permanently…if not for the winters, even when they‘re “not so bad” as they coyly say. I just don’t like the cold. Plus, I really love Pensacola. It’s nice being here, but in a way I’m already kind of looking forward to getting back home. To my other home.

21 April 2015

Back To Washington This Year? Simply Irresistible.

I’m always ambivalent about going up to Washington State for three months in the summer to fly helicopters.  And it’s not that it’s not fun - of course it is!  But it takes a huge chunk out of my life in a time of year when I’d like to be doing stuff down here in Florida.  So the decision to pack up and leave is tough; it is never a done-deal. Especially this year.

Last year was bad.  There wasn’t much rain, so there wasn't much cherry-drying flying to do.  Plus, we had the Carlton Complex fire, the biggest in the history of Washington State.  It consumed nearly everything around us, sparing the town of Brewster itself for some reason.  It was crazy-stressful as we sat around on pins and needles wondering when we’d have to evacuate the helicopters to a safer place and how much of our ground facilities and equipment we’d lose to the fire.  You can’t save everything.

There were other, personal and personnel factors that caused it to be a bad year as well.  When I left, which I did at the first opportunity I promised myself it was my last year.  But…the inquiring phone calls began shortly after January 1st.  Just little, “Hi, how’s it going?  Hope to see you soon,” kinds of things.  I did not commit.

The deal they offer is very lucrative…and by itself it’s hard to say no to the money.

But the real trouble is that I like the guys who run the company so much.  The owner, Dave Smith Sr. is notoriously publicity-shy, and he doesn't like when I write about his operation in specific detail.  So I won’t.  But he and his son Danny are damn good people.  Dave’s been in the aviation business for over forty years, and he’s endured some incredible challenges and experiences along the way that make him a most interesting character.  I’ve been working for him for four summers so far and I’ll bet I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the stories he’s got to tell.

But not only that, my young friends Brandon, Lauren and Chris are coming back, all of whom are by now seasoned vets now…dependable and capable…fine pilots who know the ropes.  The chance to work side-by-side with them again is, to quote Robert Palmer, simply irresistible (1).

Plus my good friend and (platonic!) soulmate Mike Nehring, the guy who introduced me to this whole cherry-drying mess in the first place will be hanging around when he’s not stringing powerlines for the company he now works for in Olympia, WA.  Although we talk on the phone nearly every day, I haven’t seen Mikey since last year. It’s always a party when he comes to town.  The guy is just non-stop fun.  He reminds me of me when I was his age.

Our fleet of helicopters is more diversified now.  During my first season, we only had five Korean War-era Sikorsky S-55’s.  Four of them had old-school radial engines (the kind you see in those old documentaries of B-17 bombers); and one was a “turbine conversion” whereby the old radial was swapped out for a smooth, quiet, reliable turbine engine of similar horsepower.  This year the fleet has grown in size and type to eleven helicopters, with a couple of modern Bell helicopters added, as well as more turbine-conversion Sikorsky’s.

So I could - if I wanted to - fly a more modern, turbine-powered ship.  But I don’t.  I’ll stick with the piston-powered version.  They’re more…umm…challenging to fly, and certainly more fatiguing than the turbine birds which are sooooo much easier to fly.  But flying these old, loud, cranky, cantankerous beasts connects me with the past…and with my dad, I guess.  In 1954 he flew the USMC version of this very helicopter which they called the HRS when it was brand-new as I was being born.  I guess the draw is too strong.  (Plus, oh please, anyone can fly a turbine!)

Given all of the above, how can I refuse to go back up?  But this year will probably be my last, I swear!  Just like last year was.

(1) Typically obscure reference to a song called, “Simply Irresistable,” by musician Robert Palmer from 1988.

05 March 2015

What To Say and When To Say It... Or Not

I've had young helicopter pilots introduce themselves to me and try to come off as big experts because they have a thousand hours or so of flight time.  I met one who claimed to know everything about the Bell 206.  I asked him how much flight time he had?  “About 2,000 hours,” he said, which I knew was a lie…okay, an “exaggeration.”  And, I pressed a little further, how much time of that is in the 206?  “About 50 hours.”  Hmm.

I let him talk on and on for a while.  I did not mention that of my 11,000 hours of flight time, over 7,000 hours have been spent flying the various models of the Bell 206.  Does this make me the most knowledgeable 206 expert in the whole universe?  Hardly.  But you could say that I’m “familiar” enough with the type.  And I was familiar enough with the ship to know that this young pilot to whom I was talking didn’t know shit about the Bell 206.

The point is, you never know who you’re talking to.  Especially in my current line of work, you never know who’s getting in the cab.  I re-learned this just yesterday.  A guy hopped in at the airport and asked to be taken to Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville Hotel out on Pensacola Beach (a $35.00 fare).  Sure thing!  Off we went. 

I usually ask my passengers what brings them to Pensacola?  This guy tersely said he had a meeting, but didn’t offer any details.  “Well, you sure picked the right place to stay!” I offered.  “The Margaritaville is one of the nicest hotels on the beach, *and* it has a great restaurant, Frank and Lola’s right inside.” 

In the first place, both statements are true.  There are good and not-so-good hotels out on the beach; Margaritaville and the Hilton are two of the best.  But I'd never want to insult anyone about their choice of hotel.  Making people feel bad about themselves is never a good idea.  

It turned out that my passenger was in charge of all Margaritaville facilities worldwide, the number two man under Jimmy Buffet himself.  Yikes!

Knowing when to keep your mouth shut is important, obviously, but knowing what to say and what not to say when you do open your mouth is equally important.  It's a lesson it took me a very long time to learn.

22 February 2015

On Being Cheerful

When I was in high school I was hanging around with a guy named Lou Timolat who was a helicopter pilot/traffic reporter for a radio station in New York City.  He generously mentored me in the area of many things over many years.  I had a serious case of hero-worship, and perhaps I was the son he didn’t have.  Anyway, it worked out okay for both of us.

Lou owned two radio stations (an AM and an FM) in the small upstate New York town of Watkins Glen (pop. 2,500 at the time).  The AM was one of those small-town “day-time only” general-purpose radio stations with a format that changed during the day.  The FM was all-music, trying to compete with the big boys in Elmira and Corning and Binghamton.  Our FM format was “solid gold” during the day.  At night it switched over to what was called “progressive rock” at the time.

Since I aspired to be a traffic reporter, Lou thought it was a good idea that I work for his radio station to learn about broadcasting.  And so after graduating high school I did just that.

The staff at the two radio stations was mainly a bunch of inexperienced and enthusiastic young people like myself who were eager to learn about the business.  Someone procured a book entitled, “How To Be A Disk-Jockey” or some such.  Written by Marconi or one of his peers, I believe, it laid out the “rules” of broadcasting as of 1950 or so.  We all began sounding like the announcer for the old “Lone Ranger” radio series.

One of the pieces of advice in that book was to smile as you speak.  You don’t have to be fake about it – people can tell when you’re being insincere.  But it is amazing how the simple act of smiling affects how people hear you.  And remember what true communication is all about.  It’s not just what you say, but what people are hearing.  If your message comes across garbled, you might as well not transmit it at all.

I use this technique to this day.  When I talk to people on the phone, I make sure that I’m smiling.  I know they can hear it.  I believe that it helps getting people "on your side" when you need them to be.

Case in point:  Last year I was headed up on my annual pilgrimage to Washington State on American Airlines.  Our early-morning flight to Dallas got diverted into some airport in Mississippi due to weather.  We refueled and waited for the storms in Texas to clear.  By mid-afternoon when we eventually landed in Dallas, my connecting flight to Seattle had long left without me.

Settled into a comfy chair in the terminal, I called American’s reservation number to rebook my flight, steeling myself for the ordeal.  All around me harried, preoccupied-looking travelers hustled by, rushing from one gate to another.  Nobody looked like they were having any fun.

The bad news for me was that all of the flights for the rest of the day were over-full, and I’d have to go the next day.  I was not a happy camper as you can imagine.  Instead of getting angry, I took a deep breath and bit my lip while the nice woman on the other end of the line in American’s call center in Tucson, Arizona searched for a way of getting me northwestbound.  But things were not looking good.

"And how’s your weather today?” I asked during a pause.

“Oh, it’s beautiful here!” she chirped, perhaps forgetting for that instant that my weather certainly wasn't "beautiful."  In fact, it was still pretty horrible.  It made me wonder why American Airlines chose Dallas, Texas as their headquarters/hub in the first place.

“Well I’ll bet you’re getting a ton of calls from angry people in Texas!” I said with a laugh.

“Oh yes,” she admitted wryly.

I vowed to not be one of them.  “Well ma’am, if there’s any way you can help me out, I’d really appreciate it.”  I said it like I meant it, because I really did.

There was a pause and I could hear a clacking of computer keys in the background.  She sighed.  Another pause and some more key clacking.  Another sigh.  “It’s just not letting me do this,” she said grimly, frustration in her voice.

I figured I was sunk.  My one-day reunion with Mikey would be ruined.  But I didn’t say anything…not a peep…no word of complaint or even the slightest hint that my travel plans were damn well important and that I had to be in Seattle TONIGHT, by God!  Which is what I was thinking, you know.  But nope, for once I just kept my big mouth shut, which is unusual for me.

“These flights are all locked out,” she grumbled.  Finally something must have dawned on her. “Wait a minute, I've got an idea…” she said with a  kind of Lucy Ricardoesque tone to her voice.  I felt a little like Ethel Mertz, and I laughed to myself because I refer everything...and I mean everything to old TV shows.  There was some more key clacking.  “Aha!” she said triumphantly, “I got a seat for you!  She sounded pleased with herself.  I certainly was!  In the end, I made it to Seattle and Mikey picked me up and we had a great ride over the Cascades to Brewster in the middle of the night.

Now, I don’t know if all of American’s reservation agents are as helpful to stranded customers as she.  I would hope so.  And maybe this woman would’ve gone the extra mile for me or anyone else anyway, no matter how pissed-off and unpleasant they or I sounded over the phone.  Maybe my being nice had nothing to do with it.  But I like to think otherwise.

Smiling over the phone.  It’s a small thing, no?  My overall philosophy in dealing with people is, “Be cheerful.”  It is probably the basis of any success I have in interpersonal relationships and these random connections we make with other people during the course of our lives. 

Just be cheerful, dammit.

06 February 2015

Writing A Book? Not me, no!

People often suggest that I write a book.  They think I know stuff or something that should be shared.  I disagree.  Not only has my career been pretty unremarkable, but I’m not really that good a writer.  And that is no false modesty.  I know how to string words together…but I’m not so good at the imagery; I’m just not that creative.  I'm okay with the mechanics of writing.  I could be a pretty decent book editor.

On the other hand, my friend, poet and fellow cabdriver, Terry – he is actually writing a book!  It’s a fun process to watch.

Terry is an incredible guy.  He’s about my age and twice divorced.  Like me, he should exercise more and has already spent decades pursuing a career in his field – in his case the automotive service industry.  When cutbacks forced him out he bought a taxi.  Now he’s his own boss, and loves it.  So we have a lot in common.  He is also a very spiritual, church-going man whose faith and convictions are strong.  He takes the Bible a little too literally for me, but that’s a small quibble, I suppose. 

Terry’s book is tentatively titled, “Broken Earth.”  It is a historical novel set at the very end of The Civil War, using real places and events.  A Yankee, Thomas who is an emissary of President Lincoln meets up with John, a Confederate soldier left for dead under a pile of bodies after a vicious battle – one of the last of the war. 

The two young men who normally would be enemies for reasons they did not fully comprehend meet up and hit it off.  They form an unlikely alliance as Thomas heads north to deliver a message to the president.  They arrive in Washington D.C. on April 14, 1865 and check-in to the National Hotel where they bump into an actor named John Booth who happens to be appearing in a play later that night.  Booth gives them two tickets…

Terry has written over 100 pages so far.  He has expanded the story greatly in the manner of his literary heroes, Louis L’amour and Larry McMurtry.  Obviously, Terry loves those old west sagas.  And when I read his words they reflect the same style of writing, with the same level of character development and scene-setting as the established pros.  I’m interested to see where the story will go.  Terry hints that his characters will cross paths with Evangeline, she of Longfellow’s famous poem.

Terry has most of this already planned-out.  When he talks to me about the direction the book will take it is as if the characters are real people; he knows them that well.  And indeed, to him they are alive.

That’s the difference between Terry and me.  I can write about inanimate objects like helicopters, airplanes, cars and motorcycles.  I could write a pretty decent technical manual!  But I’m just not that good with people – either in person or in print, real or imagined.  I’m not that good at capturing moods, creating characters and their dialogue, and describing scenes that are easily visualized.  Those abilities are the mark of a real writer.  And Terry seems to have the knack, that gift of communication that transcends time and language.  I admit that I’m more than a little envious. 

Terry thinks I’ve “got a book” in me and constantly urges me to start writing it – just start!  But honest to God I don’t think I do.  I have no story burning inside of me waiting to be told.  They say that if you sat a monkey down at a typewriter for an infinite amount of time he’d eventually come up with “War and Peace.”  And those are the same odds as me writing a whole book.  I’m better at little blogposts and magazine articles.

I call myself a raconteur but I’m not, not really.  Not compared to guys like Terry, and Hal, and “other” Bob, and Debby who are really good writers who see things from a writer’s point of view and can easily translate that into words.  Me, I’m just a damn monkey flinging feces at a blank page in the misguided hope it results in something Tolstoyish.  I may never be him, just as I may never be Eric Clapton no matter how long I play and practice my guitar.  And I’m okay with that.

I will let you know how Terry’s book turns out.

20 January 2015

The Brotherhood of the Weed

I don’t smoke.  Not cigarettes and not weed.  The idea of lighting something on fire and then sucking the byproduct into your lungs seems so…I don’t know…insane.

If you do not smoke weed and you are friends with someone who does, you will find that your friendship with them is limited.  Because no matter how close you think you are, you’ll always be an outsider.

Potheads gravitate to other potheads.  Getting high is an important way of socializing.  Guys get together to hang out and smoke.  It’s a bonding ritual that brings guys much closer than they might otherwise get.

Full disclosure: I used to smoke weed, back in the day.  But not anymore.  And by “back in the day” I mean when I was in high school which was forty-five years ago.  But I knew that my future was in aviation, so by my senior year I had sworn off all drugs with the exception of alcohol of which I partook aplenty!

Nowadays, smoking weed is becoming more socially acceptable.  The states of Washington and Colorado have decriminalized personal use and allow it to be sold openly in sanctioned stores.  Other states will surely follow.  But back in 1970 pot was totally illegal, and there was more of a stigma associated with smoking pot than there is now.

Let me add here: Do I think weed is harmless?  Oh hell no, of course not.  I can run down the long list of negatives, just as you can.  Just as with alcohol.  But as I opined in this post, I think weed is far less harmful to society than alcohol.  And if you’re going to allow the use of one intoxicant, it might as well be the less harmful one.  Yes, yes, I know that in a perfect world people would not have a need for any intoxicants.  But I don’t live in that perfect world and neither do you.  People drink.  People smoke.  Get over it.

I remember back when I was a teenager.  We smokers would get together in some clandestine place to get high.  It was like being a member of a secret club.  Those who did not smoke were shut out.  If you weren’t part of the in-crowd (i.e. a smoker) you didn’t belong, simple as that.  We didn’t want non-smokers around because they were “buzz-kills.”  And they might rat us out.  The fear of arrest was strong.  As I got older I came to really dislike “clique-y” things like that.  I don’t like them in flying or motorcycling or any activity.  But you find them all over.

Many adult potheads still act the same as when they were teenagers.  They prefer to get high when they’re not doing anything else, and in general they prefer to be in the company of other potheads.  They go off together to get high and do things while they’re getting high.  Non-smokers need not apply.  They don’t want us around.

Gee, Bob, jealous much?  It does sound that way, doesn’t it?  And in a way, yeah, I guess I am.  But maybe “insulted” is a better word.  Because I want friendships to be about people, not a particular activity.  Now me, I don’t have friends that I only hang out with when and because I’m drinking.  If I hang out with someone it’s because I enjoy their company; and hopefully they enjoy mine.  And I don’t exclude people who don’t drink.

But every serious pothead I know always acts as if they have someplace else to be when we’re together.  They’re always checking their watch, trying to calculate when was the last time they got high or how long until they’ll be able to get with their other friends and light up.  When you’re with a pothead, you always feel like you’re intruding on their little world, a world you’re not part of.  It’s weird.  And it’s hurtful. 

They will of course deny it.  They will insist it’s not true.  But they’ll squirm as they say the words, knowing how unconvincing they’re sounding (maybe they’re trying to convince themselves?).  But it is true. 

I mentioned all of this to a friend of mine recently, a married guy in his 40’s who does not smoke cigarettes or weed and who hardly drinks.  I brought it up because I was feeling hurt at the time, snubbed by someone I thought was a good friend.  I bounced these ideas off him to see if I was just in one of my pissy, little-girl moods.  To my surprise he said that not only had he noticed it, he agreed whole-heartedly. 

A little surprised, I mentioned it to some of my other non-pot-smoking friends.  Indeed, they too related similar stories about being excluded from certain group activities because everyone else in the group smoked weed.  They too had felt slighted by people they considered friends.  So it wasn't just me.

As a non-pot-smoker I’m just not a member of The Brotherhood of the Weed. 
And I guess I never will be.

14 January 2015

From Air-Taxi Driver To Ground Taxi Driver

You might think that driving a taxi would be something of a let-down or come-down after a career flying helicopters.  After all, flying for a living seems so glamorous and exciting!  But at the end of the day (and at the end of a career) getting paid to fly is no more glamorous than doing anything else.  It is just a job.  A fun job, to be sure – but there are a whole lot of other considerations too.  

For instance there is always that risk of death.  We pilots don’t like to speak about it.  But it’s there.  Prior to each take-off we must pledge to ourselves that we’ll do our best to avoid making any dumb/fatal mistakes.  But yet every year many pilots do just that.  I know that I am not immune.  Luckily the mistakes that I have made so far haven't resulted in any crashes.  That’s not to say I haven't come very, very close. 

I truly hated my last flying job.  I worked for a rich entrepreneur who bought a helicopter to get around in his local business world.  But he also used it personally as well, and I became a sort of glorified chauffeur.  The pay was…okay, but just “okay”…for Pensacola, Florida but it was not by any means on a par with what pilots of similar experience in similar jobs flying similar equipment were getting elsewhere.  He felt that he was paying me a king’s ransom for doing very little though. 

And so he dreamed up non-flying “stuff” to do when I wasn’t needed to fly the helicopter.  Thirty years as a professional pilot and I was tasked with waxing his boat,  going grocery shopping for his hunting camp and running general errands.  Yeaaahhhh.  It was messing with my self-respect.

Neither were the perks all that great.  I had no health insurance coverage while I worked for him.  It would unreasonably raise the total premium that he paid for the whole company, he said.  So he gave me his word and handshake that he’d cover any medical expenses limited to injuries that happened on the job.  He thought that was pretty generous.

The kicker came when I had a minor motorcycle accident in which I broke my left arm.  The Boss had never liked the fact that I rode motorcycles, and he’d made it abundantly clear.  Right after the accident he called me up and told me he couldn’t have his only pilot taking these kinds of risks.  He threatened that if I didn’t sell the motorcycle he would have to “…make other plans.”  That’s when I quit.  Who needs that kind of crap?

So now I only fly part-time, doing that cherry-drying thing up in Washington State in the summertime.  That gig almost pays enough to carry me through the whole year, but I need something to keep me occupied for the other nine months.  Here at home, employers aren’t really keen on hiring some old guy who says he can’t work summers.  So I drive a taxi.  And it’s great.  I make my own schedule and don’t answer to anyone now.  The pay isn't quite what I was making as a pilot, but the demands on me are far fewer.  And I like myself a whole lot more.

Ironically, thirty-plus years of taking people from here and dropping them off there in helicopters has prepared me well for this line of work.  Not so ironically, I enjoy it immensely.