Thursday, December 29, 2011

Christmas past?

This December was more like a warm Fall.
Last year we had snow, and more came almost every day.
The snow was thin in this picture, but it got much deeper!

Camp Connell, CA -- The Christmas season has been different, mostly for good reasons.
The weather has been unseasonably mild and dry. For those of you who recall last year's winter-from-Hell, that is quite a change.
My memory is that we spent most of the days between Christmas and New Years without power while snow came down and down and down. A couple of pictures will illustrate what it looked like last December.

Then this year we had an early snow, but less than a foot, and then it went away.
This week the nearby state park is crowded with visitors in shirtsleeves and tennis shoes, and there is not a sign of snow anywhere.

Another change is that this year Pat and I encouraged, and our family cooperated, giving gifts to people most in need. So while the family still exchanged small gifts, money went to the local Food Bank, and another family gift went to buy 50 meals for people somewhere in the world who are hungry. This is a good year for that.
And this year Pat and I were blessed to have Zack and Ruth and Brian and Katie and Delaney and Connor all here together.

This year we did not have to travel any further than Ruth and Brian's home 20 miles away, in sharp contrast to years past when we went from Florida to Atlanta, or the farm in Alabama, or some other distant point. Nothing can spoil a holiday quicker than sitting in an airport watching the rain, sleet and snow fall while waiting for a delayed flight.

I recall just a few years ago (40 or so) when I traveled to Birmingham to spend Christmas with my sister's family. Her husband got his first set of golf clubs, so we immediately took off that morning, found a golf course, and played a round in the snow.

Then there was a Christmas in Florida (1968) when an Apollo spacecraft was circling the moon and Pat and I were both working every day and night. Our tree was up, and partially decorated, and we never finished because we had to run off for work. We did have the pleasure of hosting Louis DeRoche of Agence France Presse as a dinner guest, a brief respite before we all went back t0 work. But our work that year included listening to Astronaut Frank Borman reading the Bible while circling the moon, something we will never forget.

Other Christmases were quieter and more normal. We went to my sister's Alabama farm a few times. Her house was always warm and welcoming, the food good and plentiful, and the children excited beyond all hope. Santa always made it, and one year my nephew taught me how to pay a new game on the television set, an astonishing invention called Mario Brothers.

Several years were spent in Florida, where Christmas weather was always a curiosity. Some years we went fishing on Christmas day, or just for a ride in the boat. Other years we watched our first child crawl around the carpet while the grandparents watched.

In later years we adapted to Ohio Christmases (stay indoors due to icy roads) and California Christmases (anything from fog to warm sunshine).

Our children's grandparents are missing now, as is my sister and any number of friends, but we were lucky enough this year to hear good news from friends all over the place and to be surrounded by all our children and grandchildren.

You can't beat that for good weather and good memories.

I said "Grin!" and they did!

Monday, December 5, 2011

No snow -- Losta wind

The entrance station is no more....
One of the biggest pieces of equipment -- a snow plow/front end loader -- took a tree.

Park,. Supt/Ranger Gary Olson, who is well over 6 feet tall, stands by a root tangle where trees went down in the campground...

The good news is when this tree crushed part of the maintenance supervisor's home in the park, they were in another part of the house. They have moved.

Camp Connell, Ca -- We are just fine thank you for asking, but some of our neighborhood did not fare so well.
In the past week we've experienced the severest winds in memory.
The steady winds were around 40-50 mph with gusts up to 60 or 70. At the ski resort where our son works winds at the crest were around 100 mph.

Power was out for four days, an cable for five, but we managed reasonably well with the wood-burning stove and a small generator to keep the freezer, a light or two, and Zack's video games going.

Within a mile of our home at least a half dozen houses/cabins were destroyed by falling trees, but no one was hurt thanks to the fact most are weekend second homes and no one was foolish enough to come listen to the wind blow. e live in an area of very large trees, mostly Incense Cedar, Fir, Sugar Pine and Ponderosa. On our lot alone we have 30 or so trees taller than 150 feet.
But we also live in a creek bottom, protected somewhat from high winds, but watching the tops dance and sway was pretty darned interesting. And hearing branches and cones rattle off the roof for two days was tiresome.
At our house the acre was covered with broken limbs and branches, but no real damage to anything. One branch small fell so far (150 feet or so) it gouged a cut in the deck railing, and stuck into the wooden deck surface like an arrow. It is still sticking up an inch or two.
I have not had a chance to get out to take pictures, but a friend took photos of the state park where we volunteer two miles away. You'll get an idea of the force of the storm.
We were lucky, and have agreed the next time the weather forecast calls for this sort of wind -- if it ever happens again -- we will go find a motel at a lower elevation, or move in with friends for a day or so.
Incidentally, even though the damage within ten miles of our home probably will total over $10 million, no news organization gave it much attention. Cities and Lake Tahoe are more interesting to the news media.
Rural life has some interesting aspects.

Monday, November 7, 2011

How we spent our summer (Which was way too short)

Hanging out in a waterfront pub in Oakland

Camp Connell, Ca- As I write this blog, there is new snow on the ground at our cabin home in the mountains, and a bit more in the forecast.
Summer was not very long, but it was busy, and I have been remiss at posting blogs so here comes a recap.

We jumped the season a bit in the Spring by going off to the desert near the Mexican border for an adventure with our friends Gary and Jeri in their BARV (Big-Assed-RV). Here we are sitting and eating after roaming the country in their Jeep, admiring wildflowers and rocks and stuff.Enjoying mild weather at Anza-Borrego State Park

As soon as the snow went away at home, which I recall was June, I started working on The Road Project. Our lane has been so damaged by snow and runoff that we had to have the road repaired, which took a lot longer ($$$$) than you would expect to arrange. I started getting bids in May and the job was finished in September.Zack was one of the laborers hired for the road crew

We managed to squeeze in a few sailing days on San Francisco Bay, after having the boat hauled out of the water at Berkeley Marine and bottom paint applied, and the electrical system worked on. Sailing on a near-perfect day
Me talking.
Pat working.

We also ran down the hill a couple of times to house-and-horse sit for Ruth and Brian and family so they could travel. Pat loves communing with the horses and chickens.Pat, Rocky and Teddi Jackson talking horse talk

Zack's daughter Katie visited her mom in the summer, than came back looking even more grown up than ever and ready for her eighth grade year at Junior High. Ruth's boy Connor is now attending the same school, which is neat, and his sister Delaney is now a High School Freshman at Brett Harte High School. It is great to have all our grandchildren so nearby. Here's some fun with the family.Zack looking good!
Connor, me and Brian at White Pines Lake
Ruth does not like wormsKatie at home during a photo session

We spent a lot of time this summer at Big Trees State Park, and even more time getting over the last hard winter (cleaning up downed trees, etc.) and getting firewood ready for the coming cold season.
A favorite spot along the North Grove Trail

So now Fall is here, the wood is stacked, and the snow has started. So Pat and I are house-sitting for a friend who has gone off to Mexico, at what we thought was below the snow line.

Guess what.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Florida Before Mickey Mouse

Sunrise off Cocoa Beach

I miss a Florida that—maybe—never was. But I have distinct memories of days before the state was swallowed by Mickey Mouse, when the Keys were a place to get away from it all, and no one knew what a condominium was.
My family’s Florida roots go deep. My grandfather discovered Florida’s beaches and fishing around 1900. The family had a place, more of a camp than a home, on Perdido Bay where Florida meets Alabama. His photo albums reflect men with their pants rolled up to the knees with very long strings of large trout.
He loved Florida, and started a weekly newspaper out of a print shop in Molina, near Pensacola. It didn’t last, but he stuck with Florida for the rest of his life.
As a young adult my father visited him, almost always for the fishing and the interesting people who hung out in the bays and bayous. One of his old photos shows him standing on the pier at Pensacola looking at a bay filled with working sailing vessels.
He told stories of a beachcomber who wore dresses. People thought it odd at the time, but he was just one of the local beach characters. The year was 1910.
He had to take a boat to get to Pensacola Beach, as there were no bridges then.
Later, when a massive hurricane destroyed the railroad bridge into the keys in the 1920s, my father went down on a rescue boat. He saw a man’s body impaled on a telephone pole and never forgot it.
By the 1920s my grandfather moved to Miami to work for the Herald as a proofreader. He had a heart attack there and died, and is buried in a cemetery just off the TaMiami Trail—back then the only road to the west coast.
My first visits came in the 1940s as a child to the Gulf Coast beaches, and then to central Florida where my aunt and uncle lived in an old farm house in a citrus grove near Ocala. It was the year Hank Williams’ record “Honky Tonkin’” was a big hit. There was a packing house on the railroad and a general store.
I accompanied my father as he traveled Florida on business. He would reward me for not being a pest by taking me to any tourist attraction we passed on our way to his appointments. I became an expert on Silver Springs, then the biggest attraction in the state, and particularly on Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute where I watched amazed as the man milked rattlesnakes and water moccasins, and the Seminoles wrestled alligators. I loved the mermaids at Weeki Watchie Springs.

My mother father in the 1930s near Daytona Beach
We took day-long drives down very straight two-lane roads, often surrounded by orange groves. On hot days (this was before air conditioning) we would stop at the Suwanee River and take a swim. In fact, any good creek crossing was an excuse to stop and get wet in rural interior Florida in the summer.
Eventually my father moved to Coral Gables and I would spend every summer there. Hanging out with my father in the early 1950's at Crandon Park in Miami
Our idea of a big deal vacation was to go to North Miami Beach and spend the Fourth of July in a cheap motel right on the ocean. If my dad had a few more days off he would take me down to Islamorada and we would fish off the bridges, hanging over the side and being careful not to step back into the path of the few automobiles that passed us by.
Coral Gables was a great place for a twelve-year-old. I could ride a city bus to the best swimming pool in the state—the Venetian Pool—or walk to the Coliseum where I learned to ice skate.
I finally moved to Florida to live as an adult, to work for the same newspaper my grandfather had worked for four decades earlier, but assigned to a bureau office in Cocoa.
The highway from Orlando still had oyster shell shoulders in 1965, but the space program was booming and it was an exciting time to live on the beach and watch the world change.
Cocoa Beach was a party town, just suited to an ex-Army guy looking for a good time with late dinners at Wolfie’s and dancing to the bands at the Carnival Club.
I found a treasure on the beach, married her, and started a family from our first home—three bedrooms on a canal on Merritt Island purchased at a premium price of $21,000.
Once the bridge was built across Sebastian Inlet I would take off at night to fish with friends, hanging from the bumpers as the tide ripped along underneath us, trying to catch a snook, any snook. Never did.
We were there when Walt Disney began to build his dream in the Palmetto scrub, changing the state forever.
Our Florida days were numbered, but we managed to stay a few more years, moving from Cape Canaveral to Tallahassee, a different kind of Florida, and then to Fort Myers. At that time there was one condo on the beach, and lots of small motels and rental cottages.
We left the state when new opportunities came up, and have returned periodically to see how the place manages to survive.
Most of the things we enjoyed are gone.
The funky beach towns now are polished and expensive.
The Florida Keys have been so urbanized you can’t tell where Miami stops.
Cocoa Beach has been through so many boom and bust cycles no one remembers where the astronauts used to drink late at night, or which car dealer loaned them red, white and blue Corvettes when they were assigned to fly into space.
The beaches no longer allow driving, which is probably a good thing.
The manatees are making a comeback which is definitely a good thing.
The broad expanse of open beaches has been walled off by condominiums that sit empty most of the time.
Tingley’s Fish Camp on the Intra Coastal Waterway no longer is a hangout for fishermen, and doesn’t serve great seafood the way it once did. The mega-yachts have taken over.
But the old fish camp in the mangrove along the Indian River just south of Melbourne Beach is still there, with the weird chickens and the dog that retrieves conch shells from deep in the water.
And if you take a long enough walk along the beach after high tide near Sebastian Inlet you can still smell Florida as it once was, and feel the wind blow, and not hear anything but the cry of the gulls.
In Florida Bay off the Everglades in 2005

(Credit for this article, and the editing that helped it, go to Florence Poor of Melbourne, Florida, who publishes "The Contributor" a quarterly. She recently celebrated a big birthday among friends, and threatens to retire. I hope she won't.)

Friday, July 8, 2011

Goodby Shuttle, Hello ???

Camp Connell, Ca -- The first time I watched a man fly into space from the sands of Cape Canaveral, in 1965, I thought it was the most exciting thing I had ever seen in my life.
I managed to calm down long enough to write a story for the Miami Herald about the adventures the crew of Gemini 4, including America's first spacewalker Ed White.
But I will never forget the experience.
Any more than I will forget the excitement surrounding the world's first landing of human beings on another body in space -- the moon -- in 1969. I was working at my temporary desk at Mission Control's press center in Houston.
My good friend Louis DeRoche, correspondent for the French Press Agency, popped open a bottle of vermouth (awful stuff) and toasted the event even as he was filing bulletins to the people of Europe and Asia.
"You Americans," he said, "have no idea how important this is to the world."
Alas, Louie was correct.
We really don't get it, and now America's exploring years are behind us.
We can afford wars, and we can afford Wall Street institutional financial rescues, but we have forgotten how to explore. Just can't afford it.
Back when space was big news the television networks would start coverage in the middle of the night and stay live on the air until the flights ended. Gradually they backed off, of course, but they still reported constantly on the dangerous adventure of the men flying in space, carrying the American flag as the world leader in exploration.
Today the main networks devoted about five minutes or air time after liftoff, and cut away to commercials and other programs (including cooking shows) before the shuttle reached earth orbit.
Good things never last forever, but there is something very sad about a nation that seeks instant gratification from news of a murder trial in Florida, or a celebrity's drug problems, and doesn't care about exploring the universe.
I am reasonably optimistic that my grandchildren will live to see the United States send men and women into space again. I am sure a later generation will have the will and the means.
But I think the prediction the next manned space flight from the U.S. might happen in ten years or so is way off.
I do not expect to live long enough to see another U.S. manned space flight.
And that ticks me off.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Friends, sailing and music

Pat showing our guests the sites on San Francisco Bay.

Gary and Jeri just south of the Bay Bridge.

Jeri hauling on the staysail sheet, trimming the sail.

Alameda, Ca -- Pat and I looked hard last week at all the chores we needed to tackle after a hard winter, and immediately left the cabin and headed for San Francisco Bay to go sailing.
It wasn't difficult to talk our friends Gary and Jeri into joining us.
They arrived at our marina on Wednesday afternoon, just in time to watch the Beer Can Race Series from the upper deck at the Oakland Yacht Club.
We got very lucky and ran into an expert on racing -- he got there too late to join a crew -- and he explained the complexities of the races to us. I can't remember it all, but I know there were four different races, numerous types of boats, and a shotgun or horn going off every few minutes.
The wind was light but that made the race into a slow motion dance. We didn't know or care who won, but it was a pretty event followed by a good meal with friends.
Thursday morning we were up at the crack of dawn (about 9 a.m.) after proving four adults actually can sleep on our boat, ate muffin's Gary had cooked, and left the dock in time to catch the outgoing tide. (I always wanted to be able to say that. It sounds so darned nautical.)

We showed them the usual sights, like the port of Oakland cranes loading containers, and a very pretty schooner taking tourists along the cityfront;

And more unusual sites, like the workers building the new Bay Bridge high above the water, Japanese Navy ship tied up at the city docks, and an amphibious "Duck" that takes tourist into McCovey Cove at the baseball stadium.

And a special treat appeared as we approached Alcatraz. One of the Oracle catamarans built for races leading up to the America's Cup was practicing. You might remember the catamaran from the evening news. Two days earlier the twin to this boat flipped over, throwing the skipper through the wing (they have wings, not sails) and dumping everybody into the chilly bay on national television. Undaunted, the crew was back and we watched her fly along for quite awhile, moving at least four times faster than we were, and appearing to outrun her chase boat.

And we wrapped up a perfect day at Quinn's Lighthouse Restaurant for an evening of Chanty music in the pub, one of the best shows on the waterfront. I knew it was going to be good when the very first song was "Eddystone Light," a tune I learned 30 years ago, and then the rest of the set was all familiar from our visit to Mystic Seaport a few years ago.
A birthday party at the next table made it festive for everyone in the room.
Skip Henderson and the Starboard Watch entertain every Thursday at Quinn's
Jeri and Gary feeling mellow.

Sanders (after a pint) and Pat (after a dinner) also feeling mellow.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Martin Caidin remembered

Camp Connell, Ca -- Back in the days when Pat and I were newlyweds living the good life on the beach in Florida, we had an unlikely neighbor named Martin Caidin.
We all lived in a beachfront apartment on Cocoa Beach, next door to Cape Canaveral. The Twin Towers was close to everything: the beach was a hundred yards away; the pool was outside our window; the NASA office where Pat worked was next door, and there were a half dozen bars and clubs within easy distance.
And Martin lived just above us.
He was hard to ignore, a man who worked hard at being colorful. He was loud, profane, funny and very entertaining. And smart.Martin at the broadcast console

Once when Martin saw someone trying to break into a car in the parking lot three stories below his balcony, he grabbed a pistol loaded with blanks, shouted "STOP THIEF!" and proceeded to blast away. The apartment was in an uproar, but the neighbors agreed the thief probably would never bother us again.
One night we heard Martin's voice, yelling at everybody, but it seemed to be coming from up in the air outside. It turned out he was flying his bi-plane that night, decided to cut the engine and float between the six-story towers and wake up his neighbors. He thought that was really funny.
Another time when Pat and I walked into Wolfie's, the local eating and drinking spot, Martin stood up and shouted to everyone that Pat -- who had great posture and a dancer's body --had "the best-looking damned legs in the state of Florida." He also climbed up on a table to yell for service when the waiter failed to show up.
According to Martin he had written and published over 60 books at the time, mostly non-fiction military and aviation books, as of the mid 1960s.
He was always working on a new novel. He was not rich at the time, churning out books that sold a few but not a lot, but he managed to keep a junky old car running and his alimony paid. And his airplane.
Junkers JU52 restored by Martin, who claimed it was used by Hitler

Martin worked for various news agencies, mostly doing broadcasting during launches of manned space missions. He was the "color" expert, rattling off personal tales of encounters with astronauts or technical details of giant rocket systems with ease. When I was drafted into doing radio broadcasts by my newspaper he offered me great advice: "Act like you know what you are talking about and everyone will believe you."
He was successful enough at the time to rent two one-bedroom apartments, knock out a wall between them, and created a living work space.
Martin's background was a little fuzzy. Everyone knew he was a pilot, and he let people think he had flown in the war (WW 2 or Korea was never clear). When I pressed him one time, prompted by a picture of him in fatigue uniform in the Pacific, he said he had been a sergeant in the Army Air Corps.
In later years he became recognized as an expert on warfare, aviation, nuclear weapons (including a stint on the Tonight Show), biomedical research, and a world of other stuff. He could sell himself to anyone, and even if you suspected some of it might be BS you enjoyed every moment.
He was extremely smart, and his expertise came from a mind like a sponge. He read everything he could get his hands on, and used his great memory and work ethic to develop a writing technique I'd never seen before. In his home/office he had a giant wall unit with cubbyholes, maybe fifty of them, filled with technical papers, notes, government handouts, clippings. Once he decided on a plot for a novel, he began collecting everything he could find on the subject and popped it into a cubbyhole with a chapter number.
For a novel involving terrorists building a nuclear weapon, he collected government handouts from a wide range of agencies.

For a science-fiction novel about a man with artificial parts ("Cyborg," the basis for the TV series The "Six Million Dollar Man") he collected all the biomedical and technical data he could find on bionics.
When he had enough data collected, and the plot in his brain, he would sit down at the typewriter and start pounding out the book. He said he could type 20,000 words in one day, but I never had a chance to test that. I know he could write a novel in about six weeks, particularly if he was broke.
His system worked. The books were not great art, but he told good stories well.
I treasure one novel where he gave me credit in the foreword for a description of the wilderness surrounding the Cape Canaveral launch pads, based on a magazine article I had written. He didn't ask permission, of course, but he gave me credit.
By the time Martin died he had written at least 80 books, including "Marooned," made into a movie with Gregory Peck, Gene Hackman and Richard Crenna. The money from movie rights was enough to improve his situation financially, and then he did "Cyborg" the television rights and royalties made him wealthy for the first time. He was even hired to write two books in the Indiana Jones series.
After we left Florida Martin married the young daughter of a British witch, and eventually moved to the University of Florida as a writer in residence. He died there of cancer shortly after finishing the Indiana Jones books.
Not a bad ending for a hard-working orphan boy from New York City.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Boat People

"Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."
— Kenneth Grahame (The Wind in the Willows)

Berkeley Marine Center, Berkeley, CA -- Kenneth Grahame knew what he was talking about.

Pat and I just spent the better part of two and one-half weeks working on our boat "Good News." And we are not done yet.

It is currently sitting on the hard in the boat yard, a nautical term for dry land, while a final few chores are being done by experts(a nautical term for "bring money").

A boat is a very personal thing, and we feel very attached to ours. Even the name has personal, professional and spiritual meaning to us. More important, it was named in a group effort with four good sailing friends and a bottle of champagne on a New Year's Eve in San Diego's harbor.

For various reasons the boat has been somewhat neglected for the past year, and as everyone knows, you always pay the price for deferred maintenance, and things do break on old boats.

Every four years or so we pay to have the boat hauled out of the water by a giant crane. The bottom is cleaned and sanded and then painted with a creepy-critter-and-grassy-stuff repellent paint .

We always have a few other chores taken care of at the same time, just so we can spend some more money.
"BOAT" stands for "Bring Out Another Thousand."

This year we began the process by beginning our personal chore list first. That always involves cleaning, painting and varnishing.

This year it also entailed a plumbing job (almost four days standing on my head swearing), lying flat on my stomach and/or face to reach down and check the bilge pump, building a rack for a propane tank, greasing the valves in the through-hulls, repairing a broken drawer (it probably has a nautical name I can't remember), painting a cabinet, installing new batteries (black wires go to black, red to red), repairing and re-repairing a reading light that mysteriously turns off in the middle of an exciting chapter of a murder mystery. And still does.

I changed the oil which is a really big deal on a boat with a diesel engine, for me at least, and started cleaning up clamps and hoses and stuff -- until part of the engine broke off in my hand.
Sometimes things are better left alone.

Pat spent a lot of time sanding and varnishing, the re-sanding and re-varnishing.
Anyway, after ten days or so of that sort of thing we finally got the boat to the boatyard. But even that was an adventure. I was single-handing from Alameda to Berkeley across San Francisco Bay, about ten miles, when the engine started going flaky on me, smoke appeared to be coming from the engine compartment, RPM dropping, and the electrical system threatened to fry my new batteries.

I made it to the boat yard, an hour or so late, fire extinguisher in hand, and just added the new mechanical/electrical mysteries to the list for the experts to deal with.

I am now on a first-name basis with my new-best-friend Howard the certified marine electrician, who discovered a potentially serious problem with the dock connection (as in OMG it is a FIRE HAZARD!), fixed that, and then diagnosed the source of four years worth of electrical weirdness, and fixed that with a new alternator/regulator. Bless him.

Then Carl, the wonder worker yard boss, cleaned up the heat exchanger (think radiator on a car), repaired the device that actually makes the engine stop, and pointed out various worn hoses and clamps and valves and thingys that needed replacing.

Meanwhile Dave (in the framed photo) finished off the detailed work on the hull while Omar watched Dave with an amused grin and polished our propeller and consulted expertly with Pat on the proper cleaning materials for waxing and polishing.

Pat and I spent what seemed like a month putting wax on, taking wax off, putting wax on, taking wax off. Very labor intensive, but worth it when you consider it costs about $700 to have an expert do it.

Pat is now an expert.

After one week in the boatyard we came home to take care of some other business.
Carl, Dave, Omar and the rest are still doing things to the boat. Howard the electrician, smarter than average, took off for Zihuatanejo (my favorite town in Mexico) to go sailing.

Pat and I are now at home watching the snow melt, and planning the trip back down the hill to retrieve the boat when we get the call that it is ready. We may have to rent a trailer to carry the money to give to the yard, but what the heck, it's our boat and we love her.

"Good News" is a 1979 Hunter sailboat, 37 feet long and 8 tons, cutter-rigged and designed by John Cherubini. It is solid, easy to sail, and comfortable. Our boat was the first of this model in San Francisco Bay back in '79. There are still several around.

The original owner was an anal engineer, which tells you all you need to know about the quality of workmanship he applied to every chore. (I was a liberal arts major, which says a lot about my mechanical skill level.)