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?

24 December 2016


It used to be that in the olden (read: pre-internet) days if you were headed cross-country, and didn’t know exactly where you’d be stopping for the night, finding a place to stay was an iffy proposition.  Sometimes all you needed was a cheap place to grab a shower and a few hours of sleep before hitting the road again at dawn – nothing fancy.  There was no need to stay in a big traditional hotel.

We all knew the inexpensive motels: Motel 6, Days Inn, etc.  But the chances of finding one at exactly the point where you wanted to stop driving were slim.  Not to mention that the low price you paid for that cheap motel came with some…uhh, additions.  Most of the time the motel was located right next to the Interstate, or a railroad, or close to a truckstop.  Or maybe it was in a not-so-nice area.  Maybe all of the above.

I digress: The word “motel” itself is what they call a portmanteau.  It is derived from “motor hotel.”  Back in the 1920’s, some guy in California couldn’t fit, “motor hotel” onto his sign so he made it into a contraction.  Voila! - an industry was born.  (I wonder if “IHOP” would qualify as a portmanteau?)  Anyway, it’s interesting to punch up “motel” on Wikipedia and read about the origins and evolution of the concept. 

Sometimes motels would put their nightly rate up on a billboard along the highway, alerting you to what was available up the road.  And that was good.  Or maybe they just had a big neon sign at the exit.  If you saw something you liked (or were just desperate), you’d stop and hope they actually had a room at that rate.  “Ohhhh, that’s the rate for a single,” you’d be told.  And the rate for two people would be considerably higher.

Fast-forward to today and our indispensible smartphones.  Now we have the internet and a website called Hotels.com.  You can find a hotel or motel anywhere along your route.  Most (but not all) of them are listed.  You can see their amenities and rates, read reviews of the place, and of course book and pay for a room.  You can even pull up a satellite image of the property in order to decide in advance if it’s someplace you’d rather not stay.  I’ve done that a time or two.

Hotels.com makes traveling sooooo easy.  On our trip from Washington State back to Florida, Jacob and I used it for every stop.  At some point in the afternoon we’d decide where we wanted to shut it down for the night, and then start looking for hotels in that area.  We wanted a half-way decent place with an indoor pool, a hot tub, and breakfast for under $100 per night.  Bingo!  No problemo.  Lots of times were able to snag rooms for around $55/night.  Decent rooms too, surprisingly. not fleabag dumps.

And while we’re on the subject of breakfast…  Apparently, Americans assume that every dinky motel in the country should provide a full hot breakfast with the price of the room.  And we seem to be obsessed with waffles!  Every damn motel now has a waffle maker, as well as a steam table with cooked eggs, sausage, biscuits and gravy…I mean…  Some of the spreads these motels put out are really extensive!  What started off being a “Continental Breakfast” has morphed into a serious buffet!  (I don’t think Americans ever really grasped the concept of “Continental Breakfast” anyway.)

Me, I’m not picky.  I’m happy with a cup of coffee, some juice and a bowl of cereal…maybe a muffin of some kind.  I don’t want to spend a lot of daylight eating.  I’d rather be on the road, and I’d rather not have to poop halfway between here and wherever we’re headed.

Anyway, I’m sold on Hotels.com when I travel.  It’s pretty cool.

22 December 2016

Washington To Florida - 2016: Day One

That right thar is my smiling friend Jacob and me. I was giving him the grand tour of the Brewster area. He seemed to be enjoying the cold weather and snow. Me, not so much.

Brewster, Washington sits just east of and in the shadow of the Cascade Mountains.  Go west and you're into them pretty quick. East of us is a desert-y bit until you get through the almost-twin-cities of Spokane and Couer d’Alene, Idaho. From there you start going over the north end of the Rocky Mountains. They're not not hugely tall up here, but the passes are typically way above the snow line. And there's lots of them.

Heading south is no better. You can go down some back roads, and eventually you hit Interstate 84 where you can (and should!) turn east or west. You could keep going south on Highway 97 I suppose, but that’s a secondary road that takes you through some pretty high country - not a good route in the winter. And the whole area was under a Winter Snow Warning.

Going east on I-84 takes you down through Boise, Idaho and eventually Salt Lake City. Also not a great way to go in the winter. Heading west on I-84 takes you through the Cascades – there’s no getting around them! Whether you cross them on I-84 in Oregon or I-90 in Washington, you’ll have to deal with the snow. The plows will be out, trying to keep the roadway clear, but there’s only so much they can do.

Getting a late start, Jacob and I headed east out of Brewster. I figured we’d hit the Grand Coulee Dam (which is an awesome “must see” even in winter) and then turn south. Which we did. As we passed through the town of Soap Lake, Jacob checked Google Maps. ”Hey, it looks like I-84 is closed!” I said no way, that never happens. But it did, and it was. I-84 *CLOSED* in both directions for the foreseeable future, no estimate of when it might be reopened. Damn.

Jacob worked out a reroute: “Well, we can take I-90 to Seattle…” Which is just what I did not want to do in the first place because that would take us over Snoqualmie Pass, which is notoriously treacherous. I mean, at only 3,015 feet of elevation it’s not like crossing the Himalayas. But Snoqualmie gets *lots* of snow, and it’s not fun when it does.

And so that’s the way we went, passing sign after sign that cautioned: “TRACTION TIRES RECOMMENDED.” And us in a car with no snows (studded or otherwise), no chains…no nothing. If the signs changed to “Traction Tires Required” we would’ve been screwed.

It was snowing like crazy as we ascended the pass. I tried following in the ruts left by 18-wheelers, but traffic was so light (and the trucks were going so slowly) that we were often blazing our own trail through a couple of inches of freshly-fallen snow. We kept seeing the plows going the other way, wondering why they didn’t dispatch some to the westbound side? We saw plenty of spin-outs, crashes and cars that just slid off the road. It was kind of disheartening, and kind of stressful. Because as careful as I was being, I knew that some idiot could come slamming into us. Then it would be game-over.

It’s stressful because not only are you driving through blinding snow, but you’re up in the clouds as well. So visibility really sucks. You can’t see anything and you can’t use your brights. Your whole world becomes that little bit of road that your low-beams illuminate. You hope that there isn’t a car spun-out and sideways to the road and that you’re not going too fast to avoid hitting him. And you can’t go too slowly, for the idiots in the big four-wheel drive pickup trucks speed along as if they’re on dry ground.

(Even as I write this on Wednesday morning, I see that I-90 is closed eastbound though the pass due to a jackknifed tractor-trailer.)

Eventually we made it without incident over the high point of the pass. Gradually we began descending to lower terrain. Then, all at once, in the blink of an eye the precipitation turned to rain and the snow disappeared. I breathed a sigh of relief. We got off on Highway 18 toward Auburn, then hooked up with I-5 southbound. Compared to Snoqualmie, driving in the rain was a piece of cake.

Hotels.com found us a Best Western with an indoor pool and hot tub just north of Portland, Oregon. Even though we’d only covered a short distance I was ready. If we’d just gone west from Brewster across I-90 to being with it would have been about 340 miles. Instead, our little sightseeing trip turned it into 415 miles.

Ah well. At least we were out of the snow.

20 December 2016

Washington to Florida - 2016: The Plan

Guys love road trips! We live for them. Most of us will eagerly jump at the chance to get in the car or on a motorcycle and take off for parts known or unknown.

So I was greatly looking forward to driving back to Florida from Washington State. But I did not want to do the trip alone. Road trips are always more fun if you have someone along to share the experience.

I have a lot of friends with whom I’d like to make the trip. Unfortunately not all of them could be available. However my friend Jacob and I have been on many trips together: motorcycle, car, camping/canoeing. He is an affable travel buddy. And – good news! - he was free to take a week “or so” off and come with me.

The schedule for the trip had to be flexible. There was a helicopter the boss wanted me to look at in Los Angeles. Going south through California always adds miles to the trip. Plus, the boss wanted me to drop off some engine parts at an aircraft overhaul shop in Arkansas. ”It’s right on your way!” he said cheerfully, not knowing whether it was or not. It wasn’t.

Heading east from Brewster is the easiest/shortest way home. There is no diagonal route from the northwest corner of the country to the Gulf Coast. You have to “stair-step” your way down. It ends up being about 2,600 miles, and you stay north (i.e. in the cold) for a long, long time. Going south to Los Angeles and then east puts you in warmer weather sooner, but it’s the long way. Figure around 3,500 miles.

Even though the calendar did not technically say “winter,” it was close enough. The weather in the northern part of the country was bad: cold and snowy. I was not looking forward to driving east through Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota in a car with no snow tires. Heading east and then south through Denver would have been worse.

Jacob had never been down the Pacific Coast Highway, nor had he ever been to the Grand Canyon. He asked if we could we put those on the itinerary? Why, sure! Even with that routing I figured that if we averaged 800 miles per day we could be home in five days…six if we dawdled…seven if we had any, um, “issues.” Well we did dawdle and we did have issues and we didn’t quite do 800 miles per day.

The trip took seven days. And it was 4,000 miles, total. It was quite the adventure, as I’d hoped.

The vehicle for this trip would be the venerable 1998 Buick LeSabre crew car. It’s owned by the company but I’ve sort of adopted it. The old "La Sob" and I have made numerous trips back and forth to Florida, contributing to the 200,000 miles on the odometer. It’s been well-maintained, and I figured it would do the trip with no problems. Nevertheless, I brought along as many tools as I could. You never know…

The Buick is a great road-trip car. In fact, it’s about perfect for a week-long trip along our country’s Interstate highways. Roomy and comfortable, it’s like sitting in your living room. You can set the cruise control on 80, kick the seat back and ease on down the road with just two fingers on the wheel. It’s as close to a self-driving car as you can get.

The Buick is the epitome of the stereotypical “big, floaty American car” which draws disdain and scorn from those who believe that we all should be driving flimsy, efficient shitboxes like the Prius, Honda Fit and Smart ForTwo…or maybe sporty BMW’s with seats that hold you in position firmly in case you ever stumble upon a racetrack and want to do a couple of hot laps. Our Buick turned in close to 30 mpg for the trip. It was a pleasant way to spend 4,000 miles.

Before leaving Brewster, we put on new front struts, new rear hubs (which were making an awful howl), and new tires all around (with a wheel alignment). The brakes were checked and good. We put on a new alternator and a new thermostat. We did not, however, change out the power steering pump, which was starting to groan a bit, or the water pump which also was making a noise I did not like. Ever the optimist (or idiot, your choice), I figured those items would make the trip.

Jacob arrived on Friday, December 9th. His plane was due to get into Wenatchee just before midnight. At 12:30 he finally landed. Because of a snowstorm, it took us two hours to traverse the 70 miles upriver to Brewster. So our plans for leaving early on Saturday morning were messed-up. I hoped that wasn’t a bad omen for the rest of the trip.

19 December 2016

Loader Boy

When the cherry-drying season ended in Brewster, Washington, I agreed to stay on as ground crew to help with a big cropdusting job the boss picked up. A customer wanted us to spray 10,000 acres of apple and cherry trees with a nutrient called boron.

With all of the summer pilots gone, there were only three of us left to help Dave, the owner of the joint. First was Dave’s son Danny (who is 49), who’s been working with him all his life. Then we had another helicopter pilot, jack-of-all-trades, great guy named Chris who’s in his 30’s and who happens to live in the area. Chris is a God-send. He’s been a “loader-boy” before and knows the business well.  Finally there was me.

When a cropduster lands, it must be reloaded with product and refueled. Since the plane always flies low, it picks up a bunch of bugs and the windscreen must be cleaned each time. There is a “flagger” on the wing that must also be reloaded. The flagger is a device that shoots off toilet paper-like streamers that land and mark the row the plane just dusted, letting the pilot know where to come back into the field.

ABOVE: Here's our Grumman AgCat spray plane. Yes, it looks and sounds like something from WWII. It's a biplane with a big, honking 600 horsepower radial engine on the front. It can carry an amazing load and do an incredible amount of work in a day.

Between flights, all of these things must be done. It’s not exactly a NASCAR-style pit-stop, but as we get into Fall and the days get shorter we try to keep our ground-time to a minimum. Once the plane is gone out again for another run, there is a big metal hopper that must be reloaded with boron from 2,000-pound sacks. The tank has a chute that sticks out the bottom through which we transfer the boron to the plane.

Here we see our "extend-a-fork" loading a 2,000 pound bag of boron into the ground hopper which is itself held up by another forklift.

Finally, this front shot shows the chute. With the forklift, we raise the whole shebang high enough to position the chute above the plane's hopper. Then we pull that bucket off the bottom of the chute and let the boron drop.

Although there is a lot going on during the ground stops, it can be handled by just one person and the pilot. But the job goes MUCH easier and faster if there are at least two ground guys. Having three is an absolute luxury. And during the course of the job we did have three many times. But also sometimes it was just the boss and me.

I won’t lie: There is a lot going on with a spray job such as this. It can be hard work. There’s a lot of climbing on ladders, and climbing up on the airplane, lifting and carrying this or that. It’s fatiguing for an old guy like me who’s spent his life avoiding exactly this type of work. There is a reason that the job is called “loader-boy” and not “loader-old-guy” for it is really better done by young, strapping, energetic guys with strong backs. Not me, in other words for I am none of those things and my back has the strength of a string of warm Twizzler (or Red Vine if you prefer).

But hey, you do what has to be done and you don’t complain, right? When it was Danny, Chris and me, I was quite happy to let them handle the climbing and heavy-lifting if they chose (and they did). Not that I shirked those responsibilities mind you, but being the oldest of the group does get some slack cut, as it should. I act like one, but I’m not a kid anymore.

By the time the first snow fell we had sprayed about 9,000 acres with boron (which looks very much like white kitty litter). It all went very smoothly (surprisingly smoothly!), which is always good. We didn’t break anything and no blood was spilled. All in all, the boss was quite pleased.

While we were spraying, Fall progressed beautifully. The days never got really cold and/or windy. I thought to myself, “This isn’t so bad!” But then the bottom fell out of the thermometer. And the wind picked up. It got COLD, man. Then the snow came. And once it did, the white boron blended in with the white snow in the orchards making it impossible for the pilot to determine where he’d already sprayed. The flag markers are also white, so they’re no help. So with a little over 1,000 acres to go, we were done.

The spraying was over until Spring when the snow melts, and so it was time for me to go “home.” But I had waited just a teensy bit too long. There was a lot of snow on the ground, AND we were under another winter storm warning. My ride home was a company car with no snow tires. There is no way out of Brewster, Washington that does not involve going over some very high, very snowy passes. I was not looking forward to the start of the trip.

24 October 2016


It seems strange; this year I will have spent more time up here in Washington State than in my own home in Florida. Next year looks to be about the same. I've taken on a lot more work than just piloting. It's kind of turned from a cool little summer gig into a full-time job.

I "plan" on leaving Washington in early December, God willing, hopefully before it snows too much at any rate. But there's a lot of work yet to do, so I'll be back up in April of 2017 to prepare for the upcoming cherry-drying season. So that's, like, maybe four months at home in Florida.

But what is "home?" In my case, home is wherever I'm at, I guess. I have no real roots. My boss here keeps tossing out suggestions that I just move to Brewster permanently, and in some ways that makes a lot of sense. But I resist. For one thing I like Florida, especially Pensacola which I consider my home town. I have friends there, not to mention a house (and attic, and two-car garage) full of my crap. I mean, how does one person accumulate SO MUCH CRAP in his lifetime?? Ugh.

But there's more.

This climate up here just does not suit me. I know it sounds crazy - most people would think that this low-humidity, desert-like environment would be would be agreeable. But it's not for me. Maybe it's the dust or something. Maybe it's just too dry - daytime humidity in July is usually in the low teens. My throat is always raw and I have a persistent cough that I can't shake.

One year I rode my motorcycle home. I left Washington fairly early, in August while the weather was still hot. Coming south through Mississippi, just south of Jackson I went through some sort of weather front. All of a sudden the air changed from just "warm" to warm and muggy. I was instantly bathed in that gulf coast high humidity. It felt good. I smiled and immediately thought to myself, "I'm home!" even though there was still 250 miles between me and the house on Southpointe Lane.

Me, I like the humidity of the south, or at least I've grown accustomed to it. It's comfortable. And it doesn't take long at home for my cough to go away and I feel better. So I think the chances of me moving to Washington State permanently are pretty slim.

Don't tell my boss.

07 September 2016

The 2016 Cherry Season Wrap-Up

So another Washington State cherry-drying season is in the bag! All our ships are off contract and safely back. Now it’s a matter of getting them all inspected and worked on and then put away for the winter. There are some small items to repair, but no major maintenance to do aside from one engine change on what would have been a spare ship this year. Oh well.

Next year we’ll have, God willing, eleven Sikorsky S-55s, a Bell UH-1B and a Bell 206 available. (We don’t like using the small 206 though because we don’t like messing around with the smaller growers.)

It was a busy, rainy year! I won’t tell you how much our fleet flew, but I will say that by the end of the season our boss was walking around like one of those cartoon characters with big dollar signs where his eyes ought to be. He was happy. Our customers? Not so much. They had to write some pretty big checks. Then again they got off really easy in 2014 and 2015 which were very dry years in which hardly anybody flew.

I did the hiring and firing this year - and yes, there was some of each. It’s tough being an HR person. The job is so stressful. In the first place you agonize over whether you’re hiring the right person for the job. Then, if it turns out that you were wrong, you agonize about letting them go. At least I do.

This year we had one guy who looked really good on paper. But people sometimes “massage” their resumes, and they can fool you into hiring them when you otherwise might not. This particular guy was a really good guy and not a bad pilot… but he just couldn’t get with our program. I gave him more than double the amount of training we usually allot, and he still was struggling. He knew it too. When I pulled up at his quarters to give him the bad news he was already packed. Still, I felt badly.

Another (fairly young, single) pilot met a local girl with whom he struck up a…umm...err…relationship. Thinking that it would not rain overnight, this pilot stayed at her place. Of course it did rain, requiring us to fly at sunrise, which by the way was five a.m. The pilot didn't show up for the launch, and we couldn't get a hold of him. They had to call the Boss out to cover his ship. The pilot finally showed up around nine a.m. He was miffed when I let him go, but he had no one to blame but himself.

I am finally pretty comfortable in the Sikorsky S-55. Even though I have quite a lot of flight time and it’s my sixth season on this particular job, I haven't been super-comfortable in it. Because I usually don’t fly all that much. Whenever I’m with another pilot I try to let them fly as much as possible. Hell, I don’t need to build flight time, but the ones I often fly with usually do.

Still, I felt really good this year. When that aforementioned pilot missed the launch that morning, they called me to come down and fly with the Boss. I was happy that I acquitted myself well…at least…I hope so. I act like I know what I’m doing, which is 50% of making people think you do. Maybe more.

In addition to operating helicopters, my boss is also a cropduster. He mostly utilizes airplanes to do this, but we do have a helicopter set up for spraying. Late in the season we got a contract to drop Boron on 10,000 acres of orchards. For that we'll use a plane...a big plane. Since I'm not an "ag-pilot" (and have no desire to be) this means ol' Bob is going to be a Loader Boy - one of the guys who humps the 50-pound bags of Boron into the hopper of the spray plane. Oh, and I refuel it too and wash the windows. Oh what fun it shall be! Until I throw my back out.

So in the end it was a safe, fun, productive cherry season. And now, if we can get done with this big spray job soon, I might just be back to Florida by Christmas. Fingers crossed!

24 July 2016

First Times If Not Fast Times

The first time I went to The SweetRiver Bakery was the very first day I arrived in Brewster back in 2011. It had been an arduous journey on my motorcycle. The last 1,000 miles were rainy and cold, a challenge to even the most stalwart, dedicated motorcyclist, which I’m not. I was tired and wet and, frankly, just happy to be somewhere.

Shortly after parking the bike at our company headquarters which were then at the Brewster Airport, before I even had a chance to unpack, Mikey showed up and hijacked me. “Come on!” he said, ushering me out to his truck. We hightailed it down to the Bakery, which he had been telling me about for the past couple of years that he’d been coming to Brewster.

As soon as we walked in, they greeted Mikey the way the people at Cheers did to Norm on that old t.v. show (i.e. like a celebrity). Before he even said anything they were already making him a large “Carne” (meat lovers) pizza. He introduced me to the employees and I felt warmly accepted simply for being Mikey’s friend. We sat outside…had the place to ourselves since the weather was so dismal. We ate pizza and drank wine until our stomachs were full and we were both good and drunk. It was awesome.

Welcome to Brewster!

And even though it was an otherwise-unremarkable day, it was still a magical experience in that I was with an old friend in a new place, meeting new people, embarking on a new job flying a new (to me) helicopter in an area of the country that was strikingly beautiful in spite of the dreary, low-overcast weather conditions.

I sat there with Mikey, thinking about how strange my life is…how I do all these weird-ass things and how I’m in grave danger of fulfilling my parent’s biggest fear and never growing up. (I get pensive when I drink wine.) It might not have been the most exciting moment of my life, but it definitely was one of the most sublime. It ranks right up there.

Since that fateful day I’ve been to the Bakery countless times. Alex, Donna, Barb and the rest of their crew have become like an extended family.

Last week one of my closest friends, Matt, my partner-in-grime, who I’ve known forever and who’s been on so many adventures with me both in the air and on the ground, came up to Brewster. Of course he wanted to see the sights. Of course we went to The Bakery. And thankfully it was jam-packed.

It might not have been the same kind of experience for Matt as it was for me at first, but hey, at least he got to see what I’ve been writing about for the last six years. The beauty of this area is it’s nothingness. It really is the middle of nowhere. And so places like The Bakery stand out, maybe more than they would in a city like Seattle. Or Atlanta. Or even Pensacola.

But that doesn’t make it any less special.

10 July 2016

The Bakery Experience

I write a lot about the fun we have at great places like The SweetRiver Bakery, Smallwood Farms and The Club Sports Bar. And I try not to embellish any of the things that happen. But sometimes visitors will come up to Brewster and they specifically want to see this bakery that I keep blathering on and on about. They want the “bakery experience.”

So we’ll go there…

And sure enough, it’ll be an “off” night. There won’t be a band, there won’t be much of a crowd, and Alex isn’t up there being his usual goofball self and cajoling people into singing karaoke. We’ll sit at one of the outside tables, just chilling and drinking beer, and I can tell that the visitor is, well, less than impressed. The expression on their face is one of, “Ho-hum, so this is it, eh? Meh. I could‘ve had more fun if I‘d stayed home and watched my Chia pet grow.” Sometimes they say that out loud. It is perhaps not the magical, thrill-a-minute, exciting time they expected…that I make it out to be.

Because that’s just life. This is, after all, Brewster, Washington. It’s about as far off the beaten track as you can get. It’s halfway between Middle of Nowhere and Bumphuck, Egypt. There are no…as in zero bars in Brewster. “The” bar (Kodi’s) is six miles downriver in Pateros. In Brewster, there are three restaurants, and they all have “Mexican” in their name. (Although having said that, our McDonalds is fixing to reopen after being closed for two years due to a, ahem, “fire.”)

We go to The Bakery because it's basically the only place around where people can congregate and eat and have a good time. But that doesn’t mean it’s Times Square on New Year’s Eve every weekend. It ain’t Bourbon Street. Sometimes these places are pretty boring. Sometimes we are pretty boring.

And so for every night that somebody gets up and drunkenly karaokes “I’m On A Boat” (Note below) at The Bakery there might be two nights that we’ll just sit around with nothing happening. I like it when things are jumping, but I happen to enjoy the off nights too. And when it’s “lit” (as the kids say), we have an incredibly good time.

But it could go either way.

NOTE: “I’m On A Boat” is a…ahhhh…I guess you could say it’s a parody of a rap/hip-hop song by a couple of white guys. I won't post the video here, but I’ve put a link to the YouTube video. But be warned: it's raunchy - definitely something you don’t want your kids to hear. (And yeah, someone really did karaoke it at the Bakery. It's a long story. And it was perhaps not our finest moment.)

18 June 2016

The Cherry Season: 2016

I got back up here to Brewster on May 6th. This year the area had a mild winter and an early spring. Each growing season seems to get earlier and earlier. Normally the contract to which I’m assigned begins around the second week of June and runs for a minimum of 45 days or until all the cherries are picked. This year, the grower put my ship on standby on May 20th. All of the growers in the area were in a panic as well, wanting their ships on contract early. This meant that we were scrambling to have the helicopters ready. So it was kind of hectic from the day I arrived.

I was in charge of hiring and training the new pilots this year. Even that didn't go smoothly. One guy, barely two weeks into his training suddenly left for a better job. That kind of put is in a bind; if he'd told me that he had other hot irons in the fire I probably wouldn't have hired him. Another, an older guy who we thought would be good turned out not to be. I had to let him go.

I've hired and fired a lot of people in the course of my various jobs over the years. Neither part of that process is easy. You agonize over resumes and interviews, never knowing if the people you hire are really going to work out. If they do it’s great! But when they don’t, it’s not easy to let them go. But it must be done.

Things have kind of calmed down now. We've got a bunch of good, mostly new pilots. And we've got the right people in the right places...I think (knock on wood). Which is good because it's been a wet year so far, and we've all been flying a lot. Many growers have already started picking, trying to get their cherries to market before the Big Dog in the area floods the market with his. I imagine that everyone will be done picking a couple of weeks sooner than last year. And then we can relax. So far...so good.

13 June 2016

Blue Highways

Yes, yes, I know I’ve been remiss in my blogging duties lately. Mostly it’s because of a lack of things to write about. I used to think that I had something important! to say. Not so much anymore. Not that my life isn’t interesting and fun…to me it is. But we all have lives. The more people I meet…the more lives I get to hear about, the more arrogant I am to think that mine is any more important or special than anyone else’s. For it’s not.

Plus, I seem to have run out of stories. And without stories a blog is…well…pretty boring. “Today, I woke up and…” Zzzzzzz.

I often write about my trips back and forth between Florida and Washington State. This last time I drove up and it was the most uneventful cross-country trip ever. I’d get in the car, set the cruise control for “+9” and just sit back until I ran out of fuel or had to pee, two things I tried hard to get to coincide - not always successfully.

(And I’ve long wondered why gas stations don’t put urinals out at the pumps? And a soda machine. It would be so convenient if I didn’t have to go inside at all. Just defuel while I‘m refueling, grab a cold soda and I‘m off for the next 400 miles.)

Whatever romance Kerouac and H.S. Thompson found on the American road is gone, replaced by an endless, boring ribbon of Interstate highways, where moronic drivers doing the speed limit sanctimoniously guard the left lane as though their ultimate purpose in life depended on not letting dangerous law-breakers pass. I’m often reminded of comedian George Carlin’s insightful routine about drivers: Everybody who’s slower than you is an idiot, and everyone driving faster is a maniac. I’m usually the maniac.

The title of this post refers to a book of the same name by a writer named William Least Heat-Moon. He made a cross-country trip by staying off the Interstates and travelling only on secondary roads, those that are depicted in blue on most maps. It's an epic adventure, one still worth reading if you have not.

Cross-country travel has changed so much in my lifetime. The Interstate highways didn't always go where you needed to be. And the Interstate usually bypassed the town itself. You had to get off and go into the town to get something to eat or fuel up. It took a while, but now virtually every exit on the Interstate has food and fuel and every motel chain imaginable.

The Interstates offer a level of sameness and predictability. You know that the McDonalds at the next exit will have the same Quarter Pounder with Cheese as the last one. There’s comfort in that. It takes the chance out of stopping at a sketchy place with bad food, especially when you’ve got a car full of wife and kids with delicate digestive systems.

It was different in the 1960’s and early ’70s. You’d drive along, looking up ahead for the big, red “DINER” sign. The joke was that a lot of trucks parked outside meant the food was good. Sometimes that worked, sometimes not. On the Interstate, you might not see the sign until you passed the exit - D'OH!

Then the federal government started putting up signs prior to the exit alerting you that there was “Gas, Food and Lodging” ahead. Sometimes they’d add “Phone” back when there weren’t at least four phones in every family car (five if you include GM’s OnStar). Eventually they actually started putting signs up telling you which brands of fuel, which motels and which restaurants were at the next exit. Now, if you don’t see the McDonalds sign you just keep driving until you do. We make our overnight room reservations on the go with Hotels.com.

I’d like to say that I miss the old days…but I don’t. When you have to be 3,000 miles thataway in a couple of days, our modern Interstate system can‘t be beat. If you’re not in such a hurry you can always eschew the big road and take the “blue highways.”

I had driven a company car home from Washington last year. The boss cleverly gave it to me to use, knowing I’d feel compelled to bring it back for one more season. But this year I don’t yet know how I’m getting home. I could fly (but I won’t). Or I could buy a car (or maybe a motorcycle!) and take the long way home.

28 April 2016

The Road To Nowhere

It's the end of April. And already it's time to go back up to Washington State. I leave in a couple of days. Funny, it's been six months but it seems like I just got home.

How does the time go by so quickly? I don't like that. It's one of the reasons I quit flying for Petroleum Helicopters Inc (PHI) back in 2001. What had started as a stint of "maybe six months" turned into thirteen years. The week-on/week-off schedule makes time literally fly. The years went by in the snap of a finger. And it was an enjoyable job for the most part - never drudgery. There wasn't any real reason to quit.

I had started with the PHI in 1987 at the age of thirty-three. The company had around 500 pilots, many of whom had been there since the mid-1970s when they came home from Viet Nam. I used to look at some of the "old-timers" (guys in their 50's) and think to myself, "Gee, I don't want to become them." I mean, no offense, but many of them considered flying in the Gulf of Mexico to be just any old job - nothing special about it. They'd show up at the beginning of the "hitch," do their seven days and then go home. Their interest in aviation outside of the company seemed to be zero. Very few of them considered it a hobby. Some acted as if they didn't even like flying. It was kind of dispiriting.

I lasted as long as I could. By 1995 I was ready to move on. But momentum is a funny thing. I was making "okay" money (for a single guy). I owned an airplane and a motorcycle. And as I said there was no real reason to quit. Plus, there wasn't anything else in aviation that I was burning to do, except maybe to go back and give sightseeing tours. I always enjoyed doing that.

Then I got wrapped up in a union organizational drive. Coming from New York City and seeing union abuses first-hand, I was at first leery and skeptical of a pilot's union. It's a long story, but eventually I came to believe that the PHI pilots needed and deserved a professional union (a view I still hold to this day). I thought that the pilots would want it...would want to run it and make it thrive and succeed. I didn't hate the company - I just wanted representation. I wanted a union like the successful one the pilots at Southwest Airlines Pilots had. And I felt we could achieve it. As usual, I was wrong.

It turned out that there were a number of PHI pilots who'd been there for a long time, who felt they'd been wronged by the company over the years and wanted revenge. There was a lot of sympathy among young and old pilots alike; we did get the union voted-in. Sadly, the resulting negotiations were not so much about crafting the best possible deal for both the pilots and the company, but rather a way of redressing all of the pay cuts, lost benefits and perceived slights that had occurred over the years. And yeah, we have to admit that there were many. We were so-called "at-will" employees who could...and often were...fired without good reason.

There were four of us on the Negotiating Committee. The prime mover/main guy had been involved in two other failed union "pushes" over the years. He found another disgruntled cohort in one of the other members of our committee. Together their attitude in creating and negotiating the contract was, "Screw the company." Let's just say there was dissension among our ranks. We did finally hammer out a contract with the company, but it was a painful and slow process. The company challenged every single item we proposed.

The two de facto leaders then ran together for President and Vice President. Of course they won. I had put my name in for Vice President but my heart was not in it. One night I received a testy phone call from one of the union head honchos in Washington D.C. "Are you running for Vice President or not?" he asked. I said I was. "Don't you want to win?"he asked snidely. Then gave me the details of what the other two guys were doing. Theirs was a platform of taking a hard-line with the company. It resonated with other pilots, many of whom were just as angry and bitter. I was more conciliatory and wanted to foster a good relationship with the company. I guess that's not possible for helicopter pilots. I realized that I had no chance against the two main guys.

But to be honest I did not care. By this time it was 2001. I had been with the company for thirteen years. I was forty-five years old, and I was tired of all the union bullshit. The flying was still fun but the job was not. I'd always promised myself that if it got to that point I'd quit. So I did. At the end of one "hitch" in January, I turned in my Operations Manual and ID card. "I'm done," I told my Area Manager, who was neither a union member or supporter. He weakly tried to talk me out of leaving, but we both knew it was for the best.

I didn't know what I was going to do, actually. I had some money saved up. I didn't know if I wanted to be a pilot for a living anymore. Strangely enough, other opportunities came along that I could not have predicted or even dreamed about. I've documented some of them in this blog. I don't know if I should have quit PHI sooner, but it has not worked out badly since. I reflect on this as I pack and take care of the final details of closing out this part of my life in advance of getting back on the road. It seems that I'm always on the road to somewhere.


The union muddled along for the term of the first contract. As I'd predicted, relations with the company were poor. PHI had been sold, and for the contract renegotiation the new owner decided to play hardball. Talks broke down and came to an impasse, and finally a federal mediator was called-in. Things got bad. The union president took a strike vote which returned a positive result. But instead of calling the strike right then he waited for six months, "for the right time." Well during that time, the company made other plans for covering their flights. They worked with customers and even competitors, and arranged for contract pilots to fly the ships. When the strike was finally called, the effect was minimal. Eventually the union gave in and called it off. Afterward, having "won," the company was not required to rehire the strikers if they had been replaced as most of them were. Some good pilots lost their jobs for nothing. In the end I felt vindicated, but hardly victorious.

18 March 2016

How Much I Hate Flying On The Airlines

As you know, I officially live in Florida but spend half my time in Washington State. I prefer to drive up and back when I can.  But it’s a 3,000-mile, four-day road trip and sometimes circumstances dictate that, as much as I hate to, I fly. 

Heading up for the 2014 season two years ago I had to fly.  Grudgingly I booked passage on American Airlines.  Of course you have to connect through a hub on any airline flight these days; in my case the routing was PNS – DFW – SEA – EAT.  (KEAT being the code for Wenatchee, Washington, the closest airport to Brewster.) 

The flight left at a reasonable eight a.m.  The recommendation is that you arrive at our conveniently-located, hilariously-named Pensacola International Airport two hours in advance of your flight, which I thought was excessive.  I mean, come on, our little dinky airport is hardly JFK.  No, me being Mr. Smart Guy, I thought that one-hour would be sufficient.  I was almost very, very wrong.

The day of my departure turned out to also be the day when American did an “equipment change,” meaning that they because of the demand they put a bigger airplane on that flight.  Instead of a horribly-uncomfortable 90-seat regional jet, I’d be traveling to Dallas in style in an MD-88 which is actually just the latest/greatest version of the venerable Douglas DC-9. 

And here’s where we all made our mistake: Instead of just 90 passengers, the MD-88 holds 149.  And of course the flight was full.  American had not counted on the time it would take to check-in another sixty passengers and had not put on any extra counter staffing that morning.  Oops!  But neither did I account for such a possibility.  Second oops!

I got to the terminal a full hour before departure.  I had checked-in online but because our printer was out of ink (big surprise, right?) I had not printed my boarding pass.  I figured I’d do that at one of the little kiosks that the airlines so thoughtfully provide. 

To my dismay I saw that the check-in line was literally out the door.  I tried to get my boarding pass from one of the kiosks, but for some reason it would not work (I don’t remember why).  I had a big suitcase I could not carry on, so I got on/in line – and I was last.  And it was moving slowly; there was no curbside check-in for bags and everyone in front of me had tons of luggage.  As the line inched forward I felt every tick of the clock echoing like a sonic boom.

Finally up to the front, the CSR (customer service representative) punched my name in and hit “Enter.”  My boarding pass began printing.

“Oooh,” he said as he examined the document before handing it to me. “That was close!”

“Why’s that?” I asked, puzzled.

“The TSA mandates that we close-out the flight thirty minutes prior to departure,” he said.  “You made it with about a minute to spare.  If you came up to me..."
he looked at his computer screen, "...right...now I wouldn’t be able to check you in.”

Wow.  The gravity of that sank in: thirty minutes prior to departure, the flight gets locked-out.  I was relieved.  But given how screwed up airline travel is these days, I didn’t give it too much thought.  I just thanked my lucky stars and headed for the gate, filing that bit of knowledge in my brain for next time, if there is one, which I hope there is not.

Recently, Brian Fung, a writer for the Washington Post newspaper got caught up in a similar situation as me, only he wasn't as lucky.  He’d booked a flight on American and had actually checked-in online but neglected to print his boarding pass.  He got to the airport less than thirty minutes prior to departure and they denied him boarding.  He was so steamed about this policy that he decided to write an article about it.

My advice if you absolutely, positively have to travel by airline?  PRINT YOUR BOARDING PASS!  That way, even if you have to stand in line and check a bag you won’t be locked out of your flight.

You can read Brian Fung’s whiny article HERE.

This year, in a little over one month, thank Jesus, I am driving up to Washington.

08 March 2016

The Trip Home, 2015 (Part Four - Even More Texas!)

In my last installment, I was in Texas visiting with my friend and presidential hopeful, Russell Madden who owns (among other things) an immaculate Hiller UH-12E helicopter. Unbeknownst to me, his friend, Pat Pockrus (who owns Ft. Wolters Helicopters) keeps a very rare four-seat model UH-12E4 in one of Russell’s hangars. When we started talking about going flying, I assumed it would be in the 12E.  But the question was posed: Did I want to fly the three-seater or the four-seater? Whaaaaaat? This was intriguing and tantalizing! It kind of caught me by surprise. To explain why, you’ll have to indulge me in a little helicopter history.

Beginning in 1948, Stanley Hiller’s company in Palo Alto, California produced a tough, durable piston-engine helicopter called the model UH-12 (military model OH-23). He sold thousands of them to the U.S. military (mainly the Army), used it mainly as a trainer, but also as an observation/medical evacuation helicopter in Korea and beyond.

By the late 1950s and into the 1960s the military contracts for Hiller’s basic model trainer were coming to an end.  However the UH-12 was also popular as a civilian helicopter too. In the Utility sector, the latest model, the 12E was earning a solid reputation as a real tough workhorse, rivaling the iconic Bell 47 in terms of durability and lifting capability.  Over 3,000 Hiller model 12's have been built.

The Hiller UH-12E is a three-seater. Needing a bigger, four-seat model for the civilian market, Hiller stretched the cabin and stuck the pilot out in front-center, leaving the bench for three passengers behind. Initially, the model UH-12E4 as it was called looked very much like a regular mode 12E but with a double-bubble.  It was kind of awkward and ungainly looking.  I'll stop short of calling it ugly, but you decide.

 photo 12E_zpscitzx1ro.jpg
Here's a standard Hiller 12E

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And here's the original UH-12E4 coming in for a landing. Like I said...odd-looking

Stanley Hiller sold his company in 1964. Production of the civilian model 12 continued on for a while, but the new owners of the model line struggled to compete with the ubiquitous Bell 47 (Bell had a better marketing/sales force). In the mid-1960s, Hiller engineers introduced the improved model UH-12L4 with a more modern cabin for the four-seat machine. Very, very few of these still exist. Pat Pockrus has three. One of them is based in Russell’s hangar. So did I want to fly it? Hell, yeah!

 photo 8aebe978-0303-4f19-a528-f416babb3a0c_zpscdgxxj0k.jpg
Here's the newer, improved-er 12L4. Much more attractive to my eye

Late in the afternoon we went out to the Possum Kingdom airport. It was clear but very blustery. Not a great day to make friends with an unfamiliar helicopter. I worried that it might be too gusty for me to get a true feel for the ship. It’s not fun to be in a new-to-me aircraft when you have to fight the controls all the time. I didn't want to look bad.  Nevertheless, Russell and Pat assured me it’d be fine.

N501HA is a beautiful machine. It looks brand-new. As sometimes happens with old helicopters, this one has been modified over the years. It started life as a UH-12E4, was used as a factory testbed for certain things, and ended up in the UH-12L4 cabin configuration.

We preflighted the ship and pulled it out onto the ramp. Pat guided me through the starting procedure. I was trying to concentrate, but in my excited mind I felt like a kid getting to drive dad’s vintage Corvette for the first time - the one with the big block engine and four-speed tranny and I've never driven a clutch before.  And dad's sitting right next to me.

Hiller helicopters are…strange. Different. Helicopters have no built-in stability like a fixed-wing aircraft does. If you take your hands off the controls of a helicopter, it will quickly try to turn itself upside down. Stanley Hiller tried hard to remedy that.  But in doing so he created another problem.

Without getting overly technical, Hiller’s solution was to design a rotor which was controlled by small paddles. Instead of a direct linkage from the control stick to the rotor blades (as in the Bell, Sikorsky and virtually every other helicopter in existence), the control stick in the Hiller was connected to small paddles that stuck out from the rotor hub at a ninety degree angle to the blades. The pilot controls the paddles and the paddles control the rotor.

The theory was that the short, fat paddles were more stable than those long, skinny and slender rotor blades. Which was mostly true. The Hiller 12 is a marvelously stable helicopter in both the hover and forward flight. There is a (in)famous picture – an air-to-air shot of an early model Hiller flying along high over San Francisco Bay. Both pilots are outside of the helicopter, crouching on the engine deck and there is nobody at the controls! Bigger balls than I’ve got!

 photo Hiller_360_1_01_zpsajsuc5vr.jpg
Look ma, no hands! And if you look closely, no pilots either.

However, as stable as the Hiller is, there’s this other problem I mentioned. All helicopter rotors act like a big gyroscope. A force acting at any given point on a gyro ring result in the gyroscope tilting 90-degrees “later” in the rotation. If you apply an upward force to a spinning rotor disk *here*, the disk tilts up over *there*. So to tilt the rotor down-in-front/up-in-back in order to go forward, the pitch of the blades must be increased and decreased while they are passing on the side of the helicopter. Simple, huh? We call this “gyroscopic precession” and it’s all accounted for in the control rigging so the pilot need only push the stick forward to go forward and such.

What this means though is that in most helicopters there is a short lag between the pilot’s control input and the reaction of the rotor. It’s as if while you were driving down the Interstate you turned the steering wheel and the car had to think about it for a moment before anything happened. It would be very difficult to drive such a car, no? Welcome to my world.

Helicopter pilots understand this lag and know that their rotors usually don’t respond as “smartly” or crisply as a airplane wing will. We get used to it. We adapt. We learn how to deal with it.

In the Hiller, the small paddles respond the same way, with a 90-degree “lag” of their own.  So if we combine the usual 90-degree lag of the rotor blades with the “extra” lag of the paddles, we get a total lag of 180 degrees. Thus, the controls of a Hiller respond even more slowly than those of a “regular” helicopter with direct control of their blades…like the ones I’ve flown all my life.  In a Hiller you make a control input and then…wait, wait, wait…for it to take effect. Patience is a virtue here, because if nothing happens immediately you might be tempted to make an extra, this time even bigger control movement. Which will require an opposite control movement to counter because what you put in was too much. Back and forth you’ll go in what we call a “PIO” or pilot-induced-oscillation. Hillers take some getting used to.

And it was with this foreknowledge that I approached flying the Hiller. Russell stood off to the side, camera in hand, ready to record the inevitable crash.

I ran it up to operating r.p.m. and lifted up a little on the collective control on the left side of my seat. The helicopter began to get “light on the skids” as we say. I held it there for a moment getting the controls neutralized, and then tried to smoothly lift into the air. It was not pretty. Despite my internal admonitions, I still over-controlled like crazy. As we wobbled around in a very unstable hover, I keyed the intercom and said to Pat, “You know, I really am a helicopter pilot.” He just laughed and let me struggle. Eventually I relaxed and was able to hold it…more or less…stable. Happy enough up to that point, we went flying.

 photo 12E4 hovering_zps61vktad6.jpg
Finally, here's me flying Pat's beautiful UH-12E4

 photo 12E4 Profile_zpssezivx9q.jpg

Pat assumed I wanted to just fly around a bit, but any monkey can fly straight and level. I wanted to do takeoffs and landings as that’s where the fun is. Pat said fine, and ‘round and ‘round we went. I did a few…then Pat did a couple…then I did some more. I won’t say that I became a master of the Hiller, but I got to a point where I was…ohhh…proficient enough to maybe pass a checkride. But I was sweating when we got done, I’ll tell ya.  Eventually we got to a point where we were just wasting gas so we called it quits.  Not that wasting gas is a very bad thing for a pilot, but it wasn't my gas and I felt kind of guilty.

All in all it was an amazing, tremendous experience.  I'm glad I finally stopped in to see Russell and Joy, and got to meet Pat.  I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to hang out with them, to bask and share in their love of all things aviation.  I've said many times before that I am blessed with the very best friends, and there was no better demonstration of that then those I met up with on the trip home from Washington State this past fall.  Ironically the winter has gone by in a flash and in less than two months I'll be heading back up again.

02 March 2016

The Trip Home - 2015 (Part Three - TEXAS!)

At the conclusion of my last blogpost, I'd just left my friend Johnny in Albuquerque, New Mexico, headed east. My fun drive home from Washington State this past season was about to get cranked up a notch. I was on my way to Texas, to visit Russell Madden, another pilot friend whom I’ve been forever promising I’d stop by and see. He and his lovely wife, Joy hosted me at their beautiful house on Possum Kingdom Lake.

Self-employed Russell is a genuine aviation addict. He owns…I won’t even go into how many aircraft (and cars, and motorcycles) he owns, spread out in two hangars at the bucolic Possum Kingdom Airport. And everything is gorgeous, of course. Of great interest to me however is his pristine Hiller model 12E. I mean, it’s immaculate, like it just left the factory. I thought I'd taken some pictures of it, but when I get around helicopters I get kind of excited and I guess my camera is the last thing on my mind. I really wanted to fly Russell's ship. But he had something else up his sleeve…maybe something even better? I’ll get to that in a bit.

Russell is an interesting guy. Fed up with the current political state of affairs (and who isn’t?), he has come with his own ideas about how the country should be run. He is waging a semi-faux campaign for president. Knowing his own suggestions would never be implemented, he calls himself, “the future shortest-term president ever.” He’s even had bumper stickers made up. The "campaign" started out as a joke. But considering the cast of characters we have running for president this time around, I'd seriously consider casting my vote for Russell as a write-in!

While I was there, Russell and I made a trip over to an airport in the town of Breckenridge, to Ezell Aviation. Nelson Ezell and his sons rebuild “warbirds”…ex-military aircraft, usually fighters from WWII but also some from the Korean era. The work they do in their huge, eat-off-the-floor hangar as is meticulous as it is incredible. They turn out show-planes, pure and simple - but show-planes that fly! A lot of parts for these old airplanes are simply not available anymore, so the Ezell’s have to fabricate them, often from scratch, in-house. I walked around with my mouth agape. Their facility simply has to be seen to be believed. Man, I was already in aviation overload!

Russell hobnobs with some luminaries in the air-racing and aerobatic demonstration communities, including the recently-retired helicopter legend, Chuck Aaron, whose work you can see in the latest James Bond film. Russell is also friends with Pat Pockrus of Fort Wolters Helicopters which rebuilds and maintains Hiller helicopters in nearby Mineral Wells. Pat’s facility is actually located on the very site that used to be Ft. Wolters, a U.S. Army airfield where, from 1957 to 1973 over 40,000 military helicopter pilots were trained…mostly in Hiller helicopters!

Eventually Ft. Wolters was closed and the Army’s training was moved to Ft. Rucker in Alabama. Today the Texas site is a sparsely developed industrial park. Many of the old Army buildings remain. As you drive around, the history of the place is palpable. For helicopter pilots, this is hallowed ground - as hallowed as the Ellison Industrial Park here in Pensacola, where my dad learned to fly helicopters in 1954 when it was Ellison Field and belonged to the U.S. Navy. I literally get chills walking around at such places.

Pat’s facility is incredible. Hiller helicopters of all models - some of them historic - are crammed into the place. You can't turn around without tripping over something and going, "Heyyyy, I've read about this ship!" To a helicopter nut like me it is the best candy store ever.

It happened that Pat has his personal helicopter stashed in Russell's hangar out at Possum Kingdom. It is a Hiller model 12E-4. Would I like to fly it? Well, you know the answer to that question... And so off we went. It's funny that I still get so excited about flying helicopters even after all these years. You'd think by now I'd be bored with it. But as we drove back out to Russell's airport I thought I was going to pee my pants. Which may be a little more than you wanted to know.

10 February 2016

The Trip Home - 2015 (Part Two)

Down Through California, Arizona and New Mexico

I don’t like writing travelogues. There is a woman helicopter pilot/blogger who does so and they are incredibly boring. (I can say with confidence that she does not read my blog.) I read her stories with the fervent hope that she’ll write something even remotely interesting…but no, she prattles on and on about the mundane stuff of life - you know, the usual crap that we all encounter in our daily lives. After reading her posts I always ask myself, “Why did I just do that?” I guess I’m a glutton for punishment. As are you, evidently.

And so here I sit, wanting to tell you about my own yawn-worthy trip home from Washington State this past November. It was not a boring trip for me - far from it! I managed to stop and meet up with helicopter pilot friends all across the country. To me, nothing is more fun than hanging out with pilots and talking about the thing we love. To you…well, you might react as I do when reading that other blog I mentioned. Let’s find out.

After I left Mik…errr, Pilot X in Washington, I headed down I-5 to Redding, California. My friend and neglectful blogger Hal Johnson and I used to fly together at Petroleum Helicopters a million years ago or so it seems. We met a couple of times in the mid-1990s during the union organizational push of which I was a key player. Now retired, Hal is a fallen-away Harley rider, and a musician who not only promotes the burgeoning music scene in Redding but also plays gigs with his friend Joe Blythe. Their band is called – you won’t believe this – Johnson Blythe.

I got into town on a Monday night. Nothing happens on Monday nights, anywhere. It was too late to do supper, so we agreed to meet for breakfast at a place downtown called the Déjà vu Café. It seemed pretty hip and trendy. We spent hours in our feeble attempt to solve the problems of the world. It’s nice to hang around with someone with whom you have so much in common. Hal is a great guy…a great husband and father. I promised to stop in on my way back to Washington next Spring so I could hear Johnson Blythe play.

From there it was further south to Los Angeles and then east to Tucson, Arizona to see my friend Zaron Welch. Like Pilot X, Zaron is an incredibly gifted pilot - one of the few in this country who’s qualified for HEC…human external cargo (carrying people on a line underneath the helicopter). The standards of accuracy to attain such approval are unbelievably high; I’m not sure that even I could pass the test. I think I possess the necessary skill, although maybe I don’t! It would be tough given the degradation of my depth perception as I’ve gotten older. Over lunch Zaron filled me in on the interesting things he does for a living. Between him and Pilot X they really make Utility flying seem like a lot of fun. Makes me wish...ehhh, nah it doesn't.

After Tucson I continued heading east to New Mexico to see Johnny Harris who flew with us doing cherry-drying last season. He’s working as a flight instructor now for a school in Albuquerque. Johnny, an accomplished pilot needed the least amount of training of any pilot we’ve hired in the past five seasons. He quickly and easily adapted to the job of flying that peculiar old Sikorsky S-55 helicopter.

Affable and funny, Johnny got along with everyone. He’s one of those pilots we hope will come back next year but in our hearts know that he’s destined for bigger and better things. Not many pilots with full-time jobs can take the summer off to come play with us.

On a stunningly gorgeous afternoon there in Albuquerque, Johnny gave me a tour of his school. They have a super-clean hangar full of Robinson R-44 helicopters, a popular trainer/personal ship that despite my years in the business I’d never even been up close to. So we climbed into one and talked helicopters (what else?). We watched out the open door to the ramp as other ships came and went.

Pilots are weird - we like watching helicopters fly, even when it’s not us flying them. Not only that, but like pre-teens in their father’s car we sometimes just sit at the controls, imagining the incredible flights to come. Hey, don’t judge.

I left Johnny and headed for Dallas, Texas and my friend Russell Madden. Little did I know what was in store for me there!

05 January 2016

Breakfast With Terry: Angry Old White Guys

Like a lot of guys our age, every Tuesday my friend Terry and I have breakfast at different restaurants. Since we’re both cabdrivers we talk all the time on the job. But our Tuesday breakfasts are a way of taking time out to talk about other, more important things than business.

I’ve told you about Terry before (HERE). He’s deeply spiritual, and he lets his unwavering faith guide his life. He’s actually something of an inspiration to me; I worry about stuff a lot more than he does. But rather than trying to micromanage things, Terry just goes with the flow, confident in the knowledge that God will provide. And in Terry’s experience, He always does.

Listening to Terry speak, it’s hard to argue the point. We talk about faith a lot, what it means to us in our daily lives, and how we can be better Christians. We’ve both been the happy recipient of what some people might call “luck” but we call Divine Intervention. And no, before you ask, neither one of us is rich, at least not money-wise. Nor is that a goal for either of us.

Terry has already published a book of poetry, and he’s finishing up what he hopes will be his first novel. So we talk about writing a lot too. It’s interesting to see how we approach the subject. Terry writes like an artist’s paints: delicately and carefully choosing just the right word or phrase to set and color the scene. I pound the keys into submission like an engineer cranking out a tech manual. In the end, we both get our stories out.

Since he lived in New Orleans for a long time, much of Terry’s novel takes place there. He is enamored of the rich culture and the history of the city. Personally, I never liked “NOLA” all that much. It was always just a seedy, industrial place I had to pass through on my way to and from the coastal helicopter bases at which I worked. I hung out in the French Quarter a bit, but wasn’t all that impressed. Remember, I grew up in New York City in the 1960s and ‘70s, before Times Square got cleaned up and Disney-ized. So I’m not sold on all that Creole voodoo mumbo-jumbo.

Getting back to our different approaches to writing, I cracked about New Orleans, “You’ve got to love a city that has a college named Tulane University.” I pronounced it with the accent on the first syllable. Terry looked at me blankly, not getting my (apparently) bad joke.

“It’s a play on words,” I explained. “Tulane University…Two-Lane University?” When you have to explain a joke it is not a joke anymore.

“I thought it was of French origin,” he said, still not getting it, “like Toulouse Street in the French Quarter.”

For him the name evoked certain imagery while I merely heard it phonetically. It's French?

In fact, in 1884 Tulane University was named after a wealthy New Orleans businessman and philanthropist, Paul Tulane who was the son of French immigrant parents. But who knows? Maybe Paul’s father was born on a two-lane road in France, hence the surname. More mundane things have been known to happen.

And such are the things that old cabdrivers talk about when we’re not behind the wheel.