1. The Long Way Home

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I belong to the New Pony Express – I make U.S. mail runs from LA to Texas and Idaho. The original Pony Express riders would load the mail pouches into their saddlebags and ride at full speed until the next mail station, where they would change horses, maybe have a quick bite to eat, and then ride on again at full speed.  That’s what we do, too (except we usually don’t change horses). The work can be exhausting and dangerous at times, usually thanks to the weather, but for me it’s a noble occupation. There is an almost patriotic sense about it. It’s expressed in the postman’s motto:  “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”  

So “saddle up!” and we will take a ride together. Along the way I’ll also share some stories about my flying adventures and some stories about this adventure called Life. When we look closely we find wonder in the mundane.

“Puddle” by M.C.Escher

Doug Peck

Acton, CA

praisebells@yahoo.com

You can view all the stories in the pages that follow or you can click on the links below to go directly to those sections.

Trucking: https://trucker1954.wordpress.com

Flying:  https://vaportrailz.wordpress.com

Life:  https://liveyosemite.wordpress.com

 

Click here to listen to the stories with music and sound effects:

https://soundcloud.com/user-794506410/sets/the-long-way-home

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Great Smoky Mountains

The sun has risen behind me as I drive northwest from Atlanta to Nashville. I’m in the Great Smoky Mountains. The gentle rise and fall of the ancient hills offers frequent vistas along my journey. When I look out over the dense cover of trees I can barely imagine the great number of people, not to mention dogs and cats and horses and cows and pigs and chickens and every other kind of creature, who inhabit the peaceful scene below the canopy of green.

Pulling Doubles

I had some trepidation when it came time to pull my first double trailers (like the first time you jump off the high dive). I have heard stories of doubles tipping over when a driver went around a curve too fast or swerved to avoid an animal (which you should never do) and it caused the rear trailer to whiplash, then momentum takes over and over you go. One thing they tell you is to always put the lighter trailer in the rear.

The rig felt very stable on the highway, no wobbling or swaying (although I’ve seen Fedex doubles sway six inches to either side) and the additional length of the rig was no problem on corners.

The hardest part was hooking up the doubles. The dolly is very heavy and you have to move it around manually to hook it to the lead trailer and to position it in front of the rear trailer. There are six air brake valves that have to be set properly or the trailers won’t move, because the air brakes will be locked. After I got everything hooked up in the yard I had one of the other double drivers look it over and he said, “Good to go.” It was very exciting and a great sense of accomplishment.

Here is a YouTube on hooking up doubles:

At the Loves Truck Stop

It’s sunny but a little frosty this morning at the Loves Travel Center in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.

“Man, it’s cold out there!” exclaims a short-sleeved customer as we step up to the self-service coffee counter.

“Yes,” I say, “it’s a chilly one.” He finishes preparing his coffee and moves around to the donut counter, the next station in this familiar routine.

“I’ll bet he hasn’t been to South Dakota in December,” I say to a fellow trucker at the coffee dispenser. He’s obviously a veteran of many cold winters.

“Not to mention North Dakota,” he replies without looking up from the dispenser.

“Michigan,” he says laconically. “Twenty below. Snow up to your axles.”

I nod in agreement. “Oh yeah,” I say, “I’ve been there.” I give him a friendly wave and head to the rest room.

Guys are washing up at the sinks, some of them are shaving. A young father stands next to his wide-eyed little boy at the urinals.

“Step right up there, buddy,” he says with affection. The little guy focuses on his task for a moment. Then all the activity distracts him. As he leans back and looks around he sprays an arc across the wall.

“Whoa, buddy, watch what yer doin’,” says dad, with a grin.

One day when Dad has to reach up to put his arm around his “little boy” maybe he will remember this moment.

I’m revived by the coffee and the brisk morning air as I return to my rig. I call my wife and let her know I expect to be home on time.

Music on the Road

Here are two of my favorite Jackson Browne songs:

From The Pretender, where he sings about the working man and other things:

“Gonna pack my lunch in the morning

And go to work each day

And when the evening rolls around

I’ll go on home and lay my body down

And when the morning light comes streaming in

I’ll get up and do it again, Amen.”

It reminds of when I had the good fortune to capture my dream job early in my career, 43 years ago. I rented a tiny $300/month apartment near the airplane factory in Burbank. I went to work on the first day all bright-eyed and eager to please. What a thrill it was to be part of that industry and for 35 years it never went away.

From The Load Out, where he thanks his crew, the hard-working low-paid roadies who set up and take down his show on the road:

“Now the seats are all empty

Let the roadies take the stage

Pack it up and tear it down

They’re the first to come and the last to leave

Working for that minimum wage

They’ll set it up in another town.”

The Pretender:

The Load Out:

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Most long haul truck drivers will probably tell you that the best part of a long run (aside from the paycheck) is coming home!  I look forward to things that I used to take for granted in my former nine-to-five life, before I retired and started trucking:  the company of my family, a home-cooked meal, clean sheets on a full-sized bed… Long trips month after month can take a toll on a driver and on his family.

freighter

Many years ago my father confided to me that when he was a young man he wanted to travel around the world working on a freighter.  That was a surprising revelation.  But as time would tell, his career and community and family obligations kept him close to home.  He had a long and fulfilling life, but he never fulfilled that wish. Maybe in a way I’m fulfilling it for him.

On the way home from one of my Houston runs I stopped in the middle of the night at a rest area in the desert east of Tucson.  I sat down at a picnic table, and as I gazed at the canopy of stars that filled the night sky I thought about my dad.  I wondered what he would think about my mostly solitary life on the road, often far from home.  Across the ageless ether of space I heard him say, “It takes time and effort to be selfless and caring toward others.  For some of us it’s  not our natural inclination.  But we are obliged to make the effort.”  I promised to myself that I would try to follow his advice.

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A few weeks later I made the decision to quit the Over the Road business, the long runs that usually go 2-3 weeks on the road.  I would find a driving job that allowed more home time.  For my last long cross-country tour I went from California to Washington to Wisconsin and back to California.  After my last delivery I called my wife and said, “Turn on the crock pot, dear, I’m coming home.”  It was a long way home.

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2. A New Career

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“Some times ya just gotta throw a loaf of bread in a sack and jump over the back fence.” – Septuagenarian Appalachian Trail hiker Bill Bryson in “A Walk in the Woods”

Two months before my retirement date at Lockheed Martin I enrolled in an 8-weekend truck driving school in Los Angeles.  Truck driving school was a challenging experience.  I had never even sat in a big rig, before I showed up for my first class.  We had a 2008 Freightliner truck with a 53-foot box trailer.  It had a 9-speed manual transmission.  The student sat in the drivers seat and the instructor sat in the passenger seat.  Three other students sat in individual seats behind us, in the area that would normally be the sleeper berth.

You might think that this would be a setup for lots of snickering and teasing from the peanut gallery.  But after we had our first sobering lesson behind the wheel we quickly became more humble and sympathetic toward each other.  After one of us would screw up on shifting or backing or some other unfamiliar task, the rest of us would think to ourselves, “I hope I don’t do that!”  We watched each others’ performance and learned from their mistakes.

We split our time between classroom training, practice in the yard, which was mostly backing maneuvers, and driving around the streets and freeways of Fontana.  There were many exasperating and embarrassing moments over the next eight weekends as I struggled to master the basic skills.

My first attempt at backing in a straight line in the practice yard was a disaster.  The other students were standing outside the truck waiting for their turn.  My instructor said, “Put it in reverse, let the clutch out slowly, and let it roll backwards in idle .”  I put it in reverse and started rolling backwards.  It felt like I was going too fast so I stepped on the brake.  But I forgot to put in the clutch first.  Ohhhhh….that was a mistake.  Now the powerful engine and transmission were fighting against the powerful brake.  The truck started bouncing up and down.  I think the front wheels were actually leaving the ground. 
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My instructor was standing on the doorstep so that he could talk me through things.  His right arm was holding onto the door frame and his left arm was waving in the air like a cowboy on a bucking bronco.  The other students were rolling with laughter.  Finally he yelled “Push in the clutch!”  I did that and the truck stopped bouncing and came to a stop.  When the dust cleared I gave him an embarrassed look and said “Sorry ‘bout that.”  He rolled his eyes and climbed down and said “Next!”

I completed the course and then passed the DMV written and driving tests and received my Class A license.  My instructors recommended Schneider National as a good company for new drivers.  I submitted an application and they said, “Come on down!”

Schneider

On the first day of my New Driver Orientation class at Schneider National they asked all the students to say something about their backgrounds.  I was surprised to learn that truckers come in all ages and from all walks of life.  A few of the students were young guys who were just starting out on their first job.  A lot of them were middle-aged men and women who were making ends meet as best they could after their real estate or contractor or other businesses went south, and some of them, like me, were recently retired people who were looking for “…a sea change, to something strange and rich”.

We had to consume a fire hose of new information and procedures, plus there was the stress of successfully completing the course so that we could start earning a paycheck and not disappoint our families.

The Schneider  instructors made sure that everything was done “by the book” – the Schneider book. They made an example of anyone who didn’t display the right attitude, such as wearing sneakers to class when we were told over and over that we had to wear work boots. One of the instructors told me candidly that “Some of this stuff is a bunch of politically correct BS”. He advised me to just grin and bear it.

The instructors were also good at spotting the welfare scammers – the ones who had no intention of passing the course. They would make the same mistakes again and again and seem to be unable to follow simple instructions.  The instructors would get in their face and berate them like a Marine Corp drill instructor. The welfare scammers just shrugged it off.

Every class of a dozen or so students always had two or three washouts. Some couldn’t pass the physical tests, like lifting a 50-pound box from the floor to a table, or climbing without assistance into the open end of a trailer. Some were found to have skeletons in their closet, such as a felony conviction. And some were unable to demonstrate that they could safely handle a big rig. I ran into one of the washouts from my class several months later at a truck stop in Sacramento. He was working for another company as a team driver. We exchanged a surprised wave as he rolled past me in the parking lot. I wondered if his partner slept peacefully.

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The orientation training was followed by two weeks of actual team driving with a Schneider instructor.   I did most of the driving and that is how I acquired the basic skills – learn by doing.  There were times when it was reassuring to have an experienced driver in the passenger seat, like the first time I climbed and descended a steep grade with a heavy load (the infamous Grapevine on I-5 north of LA).  By the end of the two weeks I was very ready to say “Thank you” and “So long” to my instructor.  Sharing a small metal box with another man just ain’t natural.  And the truck seemed to perform much better with an empty passenger seat.  I can be sociable enough when I have to, but generally I prefer solitude when I’m driving.

So that’s how I found myself driving around the country in a big rig.

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I’m currently driving a 2011 Freightliner Cascadia.  I make U.S. mail runs once a week between LA and Dallas – two days over and two days back.  The Cascadia is a fine machine.  It has a 425 HP diesel engine and a 13-speed automatic transmission.  Up until this truck I’ve always had 9- or 13-speed manuals.  I miss the satisfying feeling of shifting through the gears.  But the automatic is nice, too, especially in stop and go traffic.

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Over the past five years my trailers have hauled almost everything you can imagine, from Walmart merchandise, to huge bales of hay delivered to the Port of Los Angeles for shipment to China, to raw potatoes loaded onto the truck by conveyor belt in a field in Nebraska.  Nowadays I only haul mail.  It’s a familiar 4-day run, out and back, through Phoenix, Tucson, and El Paso.  Mail is a lightweight load, which saves big-time on fuel and on wear and tear on the engine, transmission, tires, and brakes.

It’s not all footloose and fancy free, like some people think.  Truck drivers are usually continuously monitored by their employers when they are on the job, not to mention the Highway Patrol and the government regulating agencies and the always vigilant general public. You have to endure the pain of saying goodbye week after week and the dangers and aggravations of the road and the grit and grime of hauling freight for a living.  They say that Over The Road trucking is a sweatshop industry. There’s a lot of truth in that, including long hours and low pay and no health benefits for many drivers .  It may not be the best career choice for a young person who is just starting out (I wouldn’t recommend it to my son).  But for some of us the the view from the drivers seat of a big rig, and the freedom and adventure of the open road, can be irresistible.

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I started work at Lockheed 35 years ago as a technical writer. I did that for several years. Then I took classes at UCLA Extension and transferred into the IT department as a network technician. That’s where I made my fortune.  When you’re an IT Tech working on classified projects for a defense contractor you spend a lot of time in basement data centers and windowless buildings.  Now, when I am on the road, I am my own boss most of the time, navigating through cities and towns, cruising across mountains and deserts and prairies in rain and snow and bright sunshine,  solving equipment and schedule problems, and getting the job done with very few “people problems”.

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There are two main types of truck driving:  local driving, where you make pickups and deliveries in a local area all day or all night and then go home; and Over the Road driving, where you go from one pickup and delivery to the next for one to three weeks or more and eventually end up back at home.  You may drive all 48 states or you may drive a smaller region of the country, such as “western 11” or “southwest region”.

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For most new drivers who are fresh out of truck driving school and who don’t have any connections, such as an uncle in the trucking business, Over the Road driving is their only choice until they gain more experience.  After six months or so, if they have kept a clean driving record, they can pick and choose what they want to do.  They often decide to look for a local driving job.  For me it was an easy decision – I wanted to go Over the Road and see the country.

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3. Stories for All Ages

  1. Old Trucks
  2. Truck Stops
  3. First Coast-to-Coast Tour
  4. Queen of the Shipping Dept
  5. At the Loading Dock
  6. Low Bridges
  7. Truck Routes
  8. Desert Dawn
  9. Riding with the Rugrats
  10. Snowbound at Eisenhower Tunnel
  11. The New Pony Express
  12. A Typical Mail Run
  13. A 130-degree Backing Pivot
  14. My Favorite Trucks
  15. Tucson Sunrise
  16. Driving with Daniel
  17. The Lighter Side
  18. Ghosts at the Getty
  19. The Warehouse Rooster
  20. Highway Patrol
  21. Listening to Music
  22. Elevation Sensitive Loads
  23. Emergency Road Service
  24. Houston Storm
  25. Through Yellowstone
  26. Concert in the Park
  27. An American Aristocrat
  28. Navajo Country
  29. Driving US 395
  30. Snowstorm in Iowa
  31. Nebraska Potato Run
  32. Roadside Inspections
  33. Revisiting Gravel Pond
  34. Into the Heartland
  35. Time Travelers
  36. Detroit Trucks
  37. Sliding the Tandems
  38. Out of Cash and Out of Luck
  39. CB Radios
  40. Gators
  41. Away for Thanksgiving
  42. Idaho Beer Run
  43. American Commerce
  44. Pacific Northwest
  45. Timber Country
  46. The Heart of Darkness
  47. A Nice Little Business
  48. Monument Valley
  49. Hay Fields – In Arizona?
  50. East of El Paso
  51. Laredo
  52. A Kicked Dog
  53. Driving the Queen Mary
  54. Highways and Byways
  55. Road Warrior
  56. Truck Driving Instructor
  57. The Misadventures of Nelson Newbie
  58. Flying Stories
  59. Elusive Wings
  60. Almost Perfect People
  61. Stunt Pilot
  62. Flying with the Doors Off
  63. The Skycoupe
  64. Lost in His Own Back Yard
  65. Too Close for Comfort
  66. Scud Running
  67. Fuel Exhaustion
  68. Property of Norman Crum
  69. Edwards Aero Club
  70. Aerobatics
  71. Dr. Edgar Mitchell, Astronaut/Physicist
  72. The Long View
  73. Antimatter Propulsion
  74. The Remarkable Flying Career of Thomas E. Stryker
  75. Stories from Life
  76. Fathers and Sons
  77. Men of the Soil
  78. Uncle Harry and Robert
  79. God Exists But Gawd Does Not
  80. Travels with Charley
  81. The Bombay Clipper
  82. Three Men in a Boat
  83. Weekend Sailors
  84. 9/11 Truth
  85. The Devil’s Liberty
  86. Summer Job in Switzerland
  87. Visiting My Home Town
  88. Our Finland Friends
  89. The Ignoramus
  90. The “Merry Christmas!” Argument
  91. New Years Eve
  92. Life on the Moon
  93. Windy Day on Lake Eufaula
  94. Home Time
  95. Conversations with God
  96. Grandpa’s Cowboy Wisdom
  97. Jersey Boys – Growing Up in the 50’s
  98. The Skunk Works Joins the Internet
  99. The Amazing SR-71
  100. Fixing Capitalism
  101. Coast to Coast in a Semi Truck
  102. We Are Fields of Energy
  103. No War with Iran!
  104. My Retirement Luncheon
  105. Breakfast at McDonalds
  106. Tall Trees
  107. Miles to Go
  108. YouTube Videos
  109. Team Drivers (roof!…roof!)
  110. A Wandering Star
  111. Ghost Rider
  112. The Rusty Lugnut Cartoons
  113. At the Truck Wash

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1. Old Trucks

My first truck driving run was a load of Walmart merchandise from Los Angeles to Denver.  I was assigned to one of the oldest trucks in the yard at Schneider National in Fontana, CA.  The ancient Freightliner had more than 850,000 miles on it. The 425 HP Detroit Diesel roared like a freight train when pulling a heavy load up a steep grade. The front bumper and side skirts had scrapes and dents from a dozen encounters in truck stops and customer yards. The relief valves in the brake system would let out a blast of air every now and then, like El Toro in the bull ring. The air blasts kicked up swirls of dust on the side of the road as we went by.  I remember pulling over to the shoulder on a deserted stretch of highway in Colorado.  I got out and stood in front of the truck and looked around and thought, “Wow! I’m really doing it!”

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A lot of guys will buy an older model truck that’s in good condition and then spend thousands of dollars on upgrades like chrome bumpers and exhaust stacks and major interior upgrades.   Inside it’s all about comfort and entertainment. They are personalized to the taste of their owners:  some are like the red velvet corner booth at the Lady Luck casino, with neon lighting and lots of creature comforts. Others are as Spartan and tidy as a Marine barracks.

These proud owners will spend 20-30 hours or more before a truck show cleaning and polishing every square inch of exposed metal – on the truck, under the hood, and anyplace else that a judge might look. My son and I watched an owner and his son preparing their rig for a show at the Iowa 80 Truck Stop last summer. They were polishing when we pulled into our space around dinner time, they were polishing when I stepped out to answer the call of nature in the middle of the night, and they were still polishing when we went to breakfast in the morning.

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I have thought about buying my own truck many times over the years. It’s always in the back of my mind, like a little devil on one shoulder fighting with a little angel on the other shoulder.  When I’m cruising down the interstate I daydream about a nicely refurbished old Kenworth or Peterbuilt. They have a special quality, more character and charisma than the newer trucks. They’re the kind of truck that guys give affectionate names to.  A gorgeous old Kenworth passed me the other day in Tennessee.  On the back of the cab I saw that the owner had  painted a name in gothic gold letters: “Jezebel”.  She was the evil queen of Israel who led her king away from the true religion.  Songwriter Wayne Shanklin penned these words in 1951 (maybe he had owned an old truck):
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“If ever the Devil was born
Without a pair of horns

It was you, Jezebel, it was you.

If ever an angel fell

It was you, Jezebel, it was you!”

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You don’t see names like that written on Freightliner Cascadias.  My Jezebel would have chrome stacks and a chrome bumper and a leather interior and all the latest electronics and creature comforts.  Then I consider the high insurance costs and fuel costs and tires and oil changes and licensing fees and taxes, and most of all the unexpected repair bills that can easily wipe out a month of profits. I don’t want to go through what Ernie went through…

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There once was a trucker named Ernie

Who wanted to own his own rig.

He saw all the others

They’re called ‘band of brothers’

And thought to himself ‘That’s for me!’

He searched through the papers

And found a good deal

On a Kenworth with shiny chrome stacks

He paid them with cash

Without looking back

And parked it with pride by his shack.

First it was tires,

Then it was diesel

And then it was all kinds of taxes.

Inspectors pursued him

And emptied his pockets

And breakdowns took all of his profits.

He started to wonder

“I’m gonna go under!

They’ll say it was Ernie’s big folly”.

Now he’s feelin’ just fine

‘Cuz he put up a sign

In his window: “For Sale”

By golly!

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2. Truck Stops

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When I started driving I was a truck stop wimp. I parked in the remotest corner of the lot and avoided backing at all costs. I would much rather take a long walk to the restaurant than scrape another driver’s truck or bend a light pole. Experienced drivers maneuver skillfully around the truck stop and back up nonchalantly into a tight parking space and think nothing of it. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.  After a few months and a lot of practice I began to feel more confident.  But I still usually park at the far corner of the truck stop where it’s quiet and peaceful.

The truck stop in this photo is in downtown Las Vegas, as you can see.  It’s a short walk to the big name casinos along the Vegas Strip.  I’m sure that some drivers are attracted to the casino games, but I’ll bet that a lot more of them (including me) are attracted to the outstanding but moderately priced buffets.

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3. First Coast-to-Coast Tour

From Fontana, CA, to Charleston, SC, on a two-week run.

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4.Queen of the Shipping Dept

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It isn’t hard to get a smile from the Queen of the Shipping Dept when you check in for your pickup – you just need to have the right numbers.  Sometimes it is a P.O. number, or a Bill of Lading number, or some other number.  The conversation at the check-in desk might go like this:  She says, “What is your Pickup Number?”  You say, “They didn’t give me a Pickup Number, but I have a Bill of Lading Number” and you read off the number.  She says,  “No, it needs to start with a six.  Call your company.”  After you call your dispatcher you go back to the Queen of the Shipping Dept.  “Ok, here’s the Pickup Number.”  Finally, she smiles and says “Put it in Dock 3.  Go down that way and turn left…you’ll see the numbers.”  Checking in is all about the numbers.

At a family-owned produce business in Imperial, Nebraska, the front office was run by three generations from one family:  grandma, young momma, and The Boss.  Big corporations may be the economic engine of our country but small businesses are the heart.

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5. At the Loading Dock

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I like the feeling when I’m sitting in my truck and they are loading the trailer.   It’s like when I’m in the barber chair at Supercuts.  I think it is the satisfaction of having people attend to you and all you have to do is sit there.  Once I arrived at a customer location with a scheduled loading time of 1am.  I got there on time, but they said it was going to take awhile to complete the loading – they were short-handed tonight.  I snuggled into my bunk and looked forward to a nice short nap.  Just as I started to nod off they started loading.  For the next two hours I heard the SCREECH!… RUMBLE!…and BOOM!…as the forklift entered and exited my trailer.   I didn’t get much sleep that night.

Your pickup or delivery location is usually a large warehouse.  You first usually check in at the gate and then park and walk inside to the shipping office where you check in again for a dock door assignment for loading or unloading.   A typical warehouse will have a hundred or more dock doors.  When it’s busy it can be a challenge to maneuver in the congested and confined space.  In downtown locations the maneuvering area for backing in and out of the dock is often very tight – every square foot of real estate is carefully measured off to use the bare minimum of wasted space, and the maneuvering area is often taken up by parked vehicles and stacks of pallets and landscaping “features” like boulders and bushes and boundary markers.  Many a landscaping boulder has been given a new location by the bumper of an exasperated truck driver who is just trying to get up to the dock.

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6. Low Bridges

There are a lot of bridges around the country that are too low for the standard semi trailer, which is 13’6″ tall. They’re often railroad bridges. I’ve encountered them in Fresno, Las Vegas, Memphis…all over. I found one this morning in Globe, Arizona, east of Phoenix. It was 13’5”. I spotted it about 200 feet to my right on the cross street as I went through an intersection.

When it’s truck vs. bridge the bridge always wins – the tractor stays connected to the trailer and the trailer gets crumpled like a soda can. The kingpin and trailer hitch are extremely strong. You better be wearing your seatbelt because you’re going to be thrown violently forward. The airbags won’t deploy – the sensors won’t be activated because you didn’t hit anything on the tractor. Usually the trailer absorbs the impact and the driver walks away. Now that’s a bad day at work.

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7. Truck Routes

“Truck Route” is another sign we are always on the lookout for when we leave the relative safety of the freeway.  Before I started truck driving, I never noticed these “Truck Route” signs.  Now I see that they are very common.  If you go down a street that is off the truck route, you are likely to be reported to the police by the local residents or get stopped by a police car – you could end up with a ticket and a large fine.   And when you wander away from the approved truck routes you could easily find yourself on a dead end street where you can’t turn around, or you might come upon a curve that is too tight for your long trailer, or other unfortunate surprises.

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8. Desert Dawn

tucson sunrise

Purple desert dawn.

Saguaro sentinels stretch.

Night thoughts disappear.

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“What’s that!?” she asks.

“It’s called ‘haiku’,” I said. “It’s a traditional Japanese form of poetry:  there are three lines – first one five syllables, second one seven syllables, and third one five syllables.”

“Haiku shmaiku,” she pretends to scoff, “just make ’em rhyme.”

“OK,” I say. (But I knew she liked it.)

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9. Riding with the Rugrats
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As I pulled off the interstate for our lunch break my two little pint-sized copilots, my temporary companions on this run, spotted a familiar sight on the corner. “Uncle Doug,” said the older and bolder one, “can we go to Cracker Barrel?” “Sure,” I said, and I pulled the rig into the generous parking area behind the restaurant. The cool air inside the restaurant defeated the humid summer heat as we settled into our booth. The two rugrats across the table from me squirmed impatiently as I studied the menu. I made my selection and handed them the menu. “The first one who finds a grammar or spelling error gets a free ice cream soda,” I said. They looked at each other for a moment and then their faces broadened into grins as they let out a “Psssh!” and dove into their task, leaning over the menu on their elbows with their butts waving in the air and their fingers tracing the lines of the menu. “I found one!” exclaimed David (he was always the first one to win our little game).

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10. Snowbound  at Eisenhower Tunnel 

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All the trucks had to chain-up at Silverthorne, Colorado, a few hours ago to be allowed to go up the hill to Eisenhower Tunnel.  As I was chaining up I saw that some drivers didn’t have chains but they tried to go up anyway. The highway patrol gave them  tickets.  There were two highway patrol cars working the storm.  I don’t know how those trucks got out of there since there was no exit and they weren’t letting anybody park on the shoulder. 

While I was chaining up a highway patrol officer came by to see how it was going.  He said I only had to put on one set of chains, on the rear drive axle, so I did that.  It is critical to get the chains on tight using the cam lock tool that comes with a new set of chains. It rotates three curve-shaped cam locks, which takes up the slack in the chain.  After the chains are on you have to drive slowly, to make sure that the chains don’t come off.  I had to drive five miles like that.  I would not have made it up the hill without the chains.

chains.jpg

It also helped greatly, when starting up the hill from a dead stop, to turn on the Differential Lock switch, which makes both wheels on the drive axle turn together in lock mode instead of turning separately which is required for turns under normal conditions.    Before I did that, when I gave it some gas to start out, the wheels just spun on the icy snow and the rig started to slide backwards a little (whoa!).  As soon as I turned on the Diff Lock the wheels dug in and I started moving forward.

When I got to the tunnel entrance I found that they had just closed it due to an accident in the tunnel. I pulled in to the chain-up area near the tunnel entrance so that I would be able to see when they re-opened the tunnel. There were a dozen trucks there with me, waiting for the tunnel to re-open.

eis3

The snowplow  driver at the tunnel entrance told me that if I didn’t want to wait for the tunnel to open I could go back to Silverthorne and take Loveland Pass instead of Eisenhower Tunnel, like the Hazmat trucks have to do.  But I asked a former gasoline truck driver who was waiting with me at the tunnel entrance what he thought about that and he said “Don’t do it – Loveland Pass has a lot of curves with no guard rails”.  (If you Google Earth “Loveland Pass Colorado” you’ll see how curvy it is.)  As a matter of fact I passed a semi today on I-70 in Utah that had slid off the snow-covered road on a curve and slammed into the guard rail.  I thought to myself, “No thanks, I won’t be taking Loveland Pass!”

loveland pass

After two hours I was still waiting for the tunnel to re-open along with all the other trucks in the chain-up area at the tunnel entrance.  I’m glad I had topped off my tanks a few hours earlier – it was 20 degrees with light snow flurries outside, but it was nice and comfy in my warm cozy cab.

The light on the Eastbound Eisenhower Tunnel finally turned from red to green. I waited a few minutes for the line of trucks in front of me on the shoulder to move forward but nobody moved.  I guess they were asleep.  I pulled out onto the road and went to the head of the line and entered the tunnel.  It was pretty cool to be the only vehicle in the long, straight tunnel – all the other traffic was still at the bottom of the hill.  I maintained 20 mph – I didn’t want a chain to come off in the tunnel and have to stop and walk back for it in the traffic.  A little further on I noticed a chain on the shoulder from an earlier truck – he probably didn’t know it came off,  until he started sliding.

I made it to the chain-down area about five miles down the mountain and removed my chains.  Note: be sure you unhook both the outside chain hook and the inside chain hook, otherwise the chain will wrap around the wheel hub between the dualies when you pull forward a little to get the chain out from under the tire (don’t ask me how I know that).

So now you know why a lot of companies don’t require their drivers to chain-up and keep rolling in a snowstorm.     Some truckers and some freight dispatchers like to say “real men chain-up and keep rolling”.  Well, when you consider the risk of sliding off the road, even with chains, and the danger of having your butt hanging out in the traffic when you’re putting them on, and the ungodly ordeal of putting them on and taking them off, usually in miserable weather conditions, I think the smart money is on the guys and gals who wait out the storm in their warm cozy cab, or take an alternate route.

I skinned the knuckles of my right hand while removing one of the chains. I had my gloves off for a few minutes because I needed my fingers.  It’s no big deal, just a little souvenir (haha), my “red badge of courage” from my Eisenhower Tunnel adventure.

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11. The New Pony Express

mail truck

For the past two years I have had the privilege of making deliveries for the U.S. Postal Service.  For me it is not an overstatement to say that it’s a privilege to make these mail runs.  There is an almost patriotic sense about it. It’s expressed in the postman’s motto:  “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

package

As I watched them loading my truck at the LA post office the other night I saw that most of the packages were brown boxes of different sizes with computer-printed labels and bar codes.  But every now and then I spotted one of those special packages, usually clumsily wrapped and addressed by hand, that might contain a present for someone special on the other side of the country.  It’s easy to spot them among the other packages – they glow.

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12. A Typical Mail Run

I give her a hug and say, “Thanks, dear.” She blinks a smile and goes back home after dropping me off at the truck. I throw my duffel bag into the truck and settle into the familiar drivers seat (I could find all the essential switches and levers in total darkness if I had to). I start the engine and let the brake pressure build to 120 PSI.The pressure relief valve goes “Pssshhh!” and kicks up some dust under the truck.  I shift into gear and head to my first mail pickup.

It’s 2 am in the mostly sleeping town of Castaic, north of Los Angeles. I left the house several hours early so that I wouldn’t have to wake her up.  I park in a quiet corner of the post office yard until my pickup time.  Lying on my bunk I can hear the loading operations through the closed windows of my cab. The “boom…boom… boom” of the forklifts going in and out of the trailers sounds like distant bombs falling in a war zone.

At the appointed hour I open my trailer doors and back up to dock door 8 as usual.  The dock supervisor, a slow-moving graybeard with a weary manner, finishes his smoke break outside the building and then shuffles back to his station.  He calls for a forklift operator to load 10 large cardboard boxes filled with different sized packages into my trailer. He’ll be retiring within a couple of months.  A younger Oriental man will replace him.

post office dock

A female forklift driver with short-cropped black hair and baggy blue jeans and too many tattoos (for my old guy taste) pulls up to the loading dock.  She greets me with a surprisingly polite announcement:  “Beg your indulgence, sir – I’m gonna digress for one trip (finish another truck), then I’ll be back for you.”  You never know when you’ll encounter a diamond in the rough.

She returns a little while later as promised and completes the loading in 10 minutes.  The dock supervisor makes a sweeping motion with his hand.  The simple wordless gesture tells me:  “The loading is finished.  Install your straps to secure the load, retract the loading ramp, close the dock door, and then pull forward and close the trailer doors and install the padlock.  I’ll be out to seal it in a minute.”

He meets me at the rear of the trailer and installs the seal on the door latch.  He glances up  at me and says, with the slightest smile, “Drive safe.”  I say, “OK, thanks” and depart for my second and final pickup, at the Central Avenue post office in Los Angeles. Then I’ll leave for Dallas.

I stop at the 24-hour McDonalds on Lyons Ave in Santa Clarita, strategically chosen for easy parking.I get a sausage and cheese muffin and coffee to go.  It’s a proven fact that McDonalds has the best coffee, the tastiest fast food, the cleanest bathrooms, and the lowest prices on the interstate.

The freeway traffic is light at 4am. I take the Florence Ave exit on I-110 in downtown LA.I could take Gage Ave and save a couple of minutes but it’s not worth the aggravation and risk of the narrow street.

The gate guard at the LA post office signs me in.I pull up to my usual loading dock and repeat the loading procedure, which is similar to Castaic. There are some differences at every post office.It’s part of “learning the ropes.”It separates the clumsy and excitable new guys from the practiced and patient experienced drivers.

I depart with a full load of mail for Dallas (they send a full load of mail to Dallas every day).I take I-10 to Blythe, maintaining 60 MPH in California, and then I-10 and I-20 to Dallas, maintaining 70 MPH all the way to Dallas.  I could legally maintain 80 MPH for long stretches of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas but, like most of the trucks, I maintain  65-70.

I fill up at the Arco truck stop in Quartzsite.The friendly and courteous young attendant doesn’t ask for my drivers license any more.  John, the nighttime attendant, has lots of interesting stories from his former careers and hobbies. 

I stop for a mandatory rest break at Deming, NM, near El Paso.  I fall asleep immediately, after 11 hours behind the wheel.  In the summer I keep the engine running during my rest break  to stay cool.In the winter my sleeping bag keeps me warm.  A lot of drivers have TV’s in their cab and most have laptops and like to watch movies or surf the web on their breaks.  I like to sleep, and usually my tight schedule requires it – I like it that way.

I fill up at my usual no-name truck stop east of El Paso.  The fuel at the many no-name truck stops along the interstate is much cheaper than the national chains like Pilot and Flying J and Petro, but there’s no TV lounge or trucker store or sit-down restaurant.  The large trucking companies always use the big-name truck stops.  The small companies and owner operators are usually trying to save every penny – they use the no-name truck stops and save 20-30 cents per gallon.

I stop at the Border Patrol Check Point near Van Horn, TX.They have sensors that can see the warm bodies hiding in my trailer, and German shepherds that can smell the drugs.

border patrol

I stop at the Weigh Station in Lordsburg, NM.  Mail is a lightweight load, so I’m not worried about being overweight.But I do have to keep the tires, brakes, permits, etc. in good condition or they could put me out of service.(Weigh stations provide a steady income for the mobile repair guys.)

Delivery at the post office near the Dallas-Ft.Worth Airport.I back up to my usual dock. An energetic young female Expediter with long brown hair pinned up on top of her head  gives me a wave and a big smile from the dock (she’s one of those precious souls who give everyone a big smile).   She’s wearing a Tee shirt and shorts and work boots.  She cuts my seal and then I remove the padlock and open the trailer doors.I wait in the drivers seat until she gives me another wave to let me know they are finished unloading, then I’m on my way.

A relaxing late lunch at El Phenix Mexican restaurant, a few blocks from the post office, then a movie at the nearby movie theater, and then I park overnight at the back of the post office.

At 5am the next morning I pick up the mail for Los Angeles and Santa Clarita and head home.At the outskirts of Ft. Worth there’s a spot where the GPS says “Next exit Las Cruces/Deming 641 miles”.  I’ll be there in ten hours for my midway break.   I‘ll be home for three to four days, then do it all again.

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13. A 130-degree Backing Pivot 

When I checked in for my delivery at the LA post office they assigned me to Dock 38. I thought to myself, wearily, “Oh boy”. It’s the hardest dock to get into with a 53-foot trailer. It’s at the end of the building, so there’s no room for the normal docking maneuver where you pull forward past the dock alley and then make an easy 90-degree backing pivot into the dock. For Dock 38 you have to pull forward past the alley and then a little further around the corner and then pivot the trailer a full 130 degrees as you back up, while avoiding the pedestrian railing on one side and the fence on the other side. With great relief and satisfaction I managed to get it into the dock. I told Jerry, the shift supervisor, “They should give me a bonus for getting it into 38 (wink).” He flashed a toothy grin and said, “Oh yeah, they should! Some guys refuse that dock.” I said, “I know the trick.”  (It’s the 130-degree pivot.)
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14. My Favorite Trucks

trucks

My favorite trucks are the International Lonestar and the narrow nose Kenworth. When they pass by in the opposite direction on the freeway I start to salivate. The Freightliner that I drive is comfortable and it’s one of the most popular trucks on the road, but it’s not sexy like those two.

I also like a well-done customized rig. They’re usually an older Freightliner or Peterbilt with huge chrome bumpers and chrome exhaust stacks and chrome sun visors, and probably chrome cup holders.  Inside they are customized to the tastes of the owner.  Some are plush and luxurious, like a corner booth at the Lady Luck Casino.  Others are as spartan and tidy as a Marine barracks.  I would love to own a good looking custom rig like those, but it’s a huge investment and lots of headaches – it’s not for everybody. God bless ‘em.

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15. Tucson Sunrise

tucson sunrise

Desert highways seem to be made for the early morning hours before sunrise. Today I’m driving in a purple twilight toward a golden horizon.  When the sun comes up the shadows and wandering thoughts of the night evaporate.  I’m filled with the promise of a new day.

retired trains

On my mail runs from LA to San Antonio or Houston or Dallas I always would pass by  this unusual stationary train.  It was comprised entirely of retired Union Pacific locomotives.  It was about two miles long!  For years they pushed and pulled thousands of tons of freight all over the country.  Now they were collecting dust in the dry desert air east of Tucson.

Driving past this location about a year later I discovered that all the locomotives were gone!  Maybe they were just in storage until they could be refurbished and put back into service and now they are pushing and pulling again with a big smile on their noses like Thomas the Tank Engine, or maybe they were parted out and sold for scrap metal to China.

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16. Driving with Daniel

One summer I invited my nephew, Daniel, to go with me for a weekend run to Phoenix.  Along the way we visited one of my favorite truck stops, in Tonopah, AZ.  There is a little desert resort nearby, called Tonopah Hot Springs.  Just inside the entrance gate and off  to the side there is a quiet, peaceful desert garden. The garden is underneath an  old wooden water tower. In the quietness you can hear the tinkling sound of dripping water. Birds flutter in and out of the surrounding bushes. Soft breezes caress the tops of the reeds and acacia branches. The whole effect is mesmerizing. It’s a fine place for a Sunday morning meditation.

I sat down on a stone bench and Daniel sat down next to me. We let the peacefulness of the place sink in. After a few delicious minutes I felt a tug on my sleeve and heard someone say, “Uncle Doug?” I opened my eyes and smiled at Daniel and said “Ready to go?” He looked like he was relieved that I hadn’t fallen asleep, like I tend to do when I watch him play his video games. We returned to our magnificent white machine and pressed on.

Around noon I pulled into the McDonald’s in Blythe, California, for our lunch break. After shutting down the engine, we sat in the quiet cab for a few moments while I changed my duty status on the QualComm terminal. I noticed that Daniel had already logged into the McDonalds WiFi on his laptop. He was intently watching a YouTube video.

buly

“What’s that about?” I asked. “Bullies,” he said, still staring at the screen. “Bullies?” I asked. Daniel looked at me and said “You know, bullies. They’re putting up posters about bullies at this school. “ He showed me the picture on the screen. “Are you having a problem with a bully?” I asked. “No, “ said Daniel, “I’m just watching a video.” It seemed like a good opportunity so I told Daniel my bullying story.

“ When I was 14 our family moved to a new town halfway across the country.  It was a big change for all of us.  It was my first year in a new high school and I didn’t know any of the kids yet. There was a bully in one of my classes – another boy who was a little bigger than me, but not that much bigger. He sat behind me, and every once in a while he would start tapping on the back of my head with his pencil.

When I turned around to see what he wanted he just glared at me and then he grinned at the other kids when he realized that I wasn’t going to do anything about it. I saw the other kids out of the corner of my eyes – they stared at me without any expression. Being a new kid in the school, I guess I felt like I was on my own.  But that’s no excuse for not doing anything about it.” Daniel perked up a little when I said that. Maybe he had seen something like that happen to one of his friends, or maybe it had happened to him.

“Daniel, there are moments in a boy’s life that demand a courageous action. Well, I’m sorry to tell you that on that day I didn’t rise to the occasion. If I had known then what was at stake I would have stood up to that bully.

But I didn’t. I just silently endured the pencil tapping.” Daniel was listening intently now. “I began to dread going to school. One day I felt so demoralized that I walked off the school grounds at lunch time and wandered down to the gas station and hung around there until it was time for school to get out and then I walked the rest of the way home. The school officials didn’t come after me and I don’t think my parents ever found out. I eventually completed the school year without any further incidents, but I never participated in any sports or other after-school activities. I think things would have been much different if I had stood up to that bully.”

Daniel nodded his head slightly and gave me an understanding look. “Daniel, if you ever find yourself in a situation like that, here is what I want you to do…” Daniel maintained his steady gaze on me. “…Wait until the teacher is in the room and then stand up straight and turn around and put on your angry face and shout at him in your loudest voice,  “Knock it off!”. I paused for a moment and said, “Will you do that?” Daniel looked shyly at the ground and then he looked up at me and said, “OK, Uncle Doug.”

I put my hand on the shoulder of the little boy with the fawn-like temperament and said, “Don’t worry about getting in trouble – all the loving moms and dads and teachers and all the angels in heaven will be standing right behind you, whatever happens.” I looked at the floor for a moment to compose myself because I was shaking a little with emotion, and then I looked at Daniel.  After a moment I said, “Well, let’s go have lunch.”

jackrabbit

Just then I noticed something move across the grass just outside the truck. It was a big old Jack Rabbit. They are much taller than your typical bunny rabbit. They have a haggard Abe Lincoln look about them, all bone and gristle. Daniel followed my gaze and spotted the rabbit, and in the next instant he flung open the passenger-side door and jumped down from the top step and started chasing the rabbit.

They zigged and zagged for several moments at top speed all around the picnic tables. Finally the rabbit took an unbelievably huge leap into some bushes and disappeared. Daniel turned and looked at me with a big smile and raised his arms in a disarming shrug. I shrugged back at him and climbed down from the cab and we walked together into McDonalds.

stoney2

We stopped for a break at a Rest Area near Palm Springs. Daniel noticed a truck driver giving his driving companion, a curly haired terrier, a drink of water at the fountain. He asked, “Uncle Doug, have you ever had a pet with you?”

I said, “No, my company doesn’t allow pets. It’s because we don’t always drive the same truck. So it’s important to keep the cabs as clean as we can.  And that’s kind of hard to do with a pet.” Daniel nodded his understanding. “But one time I did have a little dog with me for awhile.”

Daniel perked up when I said that. “He was a little black and white puppy,” I said.  “I found him one evening just before sunset at a rest area in Arizona. He was nosing around the trash cans.”

Now Daniel was listening intently. “He came over to me when I offered him some fresh water in a cereal bowl.  I hung around for two hours at the rest area to see if his owners might return for him but nobody came around. I called the Highway Patrol to see if anybody had reported a lost puppy. They said ‘No’. So I told them that I was going to take him to the local animal shelter. I knew that if I left him at the rest area he would be coyote food before morning.”

Daniel asked, “Why would somebody leave a little puppy there like that?” I said, “I don’t know, Daniel. We don’t know what really happened. Maybe it was an accident.” Daniel looked concerned.   I said, “I made a little bed for him on the passenger seat with a blanket. He seemed to be a real happy passenger.  He would have been a good road dog – he never whined or got restless.”

“When we got to the shelter I carried him inside and turned him over to the people there. I checked back with them about a week later.  They said he was adopted right away by a nice family with a little boy about your age.” Daniel stared at me for a long moment and then smiled. We headed back to the truck and continued on our trip.

t3

After awhile I turned on the NPR radio program (it’s one of our favorites).   Several scientists were talking about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).  They were saying that since there are billions of stars in the universe, and since there are probably some planets like ours orbiting some of those stars, there’s a good chance that there is life on some of those planets, and some of those life forms might be intelligent – in other words, able to communicate with language and express thoughts and emotions.

radio telescope

I said to Daniel, “They’re saying that there is probably other intelligent life in the universe?  What do you think about that?”

Daniel said, “If they’re  like ET then they’re OK with me.”  I smiled and reached over and gave Daniel a High Five.

Daniel said, “But how come we haven’t heard from them?”

“Well,” I said, “That’s a puzzle that the scientists haven’t figured out yet.  I’ve heard some possible reasons, like maybe they are so far away that even if they are transmitting directly toward us our receiving antennas can’t hear them, or maybe we’re not listening to the right location in space.”

Daniel looked at me for a moment and then stared straight ahead.

“Here’s what I think,” I said.  “I think there’s a whole range of other life forms out there, from simple single-cell creatures – that’s how life began here on Earth, you know – all the way up to various forms of intelligent life.  And I think one day we’ll figure out how to communicate with them, and then it’s just a matter of time until we have the First Interplanetary Science Conference, at a space station in outer space.”

Daniel looked at me with a wonder-filled expression.  I said, “You could become one of the scientists who makes the first contact!”  Daniel stared at me for a moment and smiled.

“But if they’ve been watching us on The History Channel,” I said with a wink, “then they may not want anything to do with us!”  (I was  making a joke, but really, that may be the reason that we seem to be alone in the universe.)

*

It was beginning to get dark as we approached the outskirts of Phoenix.  I checked to make sure that my headlights were on.  Just then a little bunny rabbit sprinted across the road in front of us.  It must be the flash of light that scares them out of the bushes by the side of the road.  He ran across just in time for a fateful meeting with the tires of my second axle.  I was thinking, “Another bunny spirit ascends to bunny heaven.”  He would soon be dinner for a winged or four-footed scavenger.  Daniel twisted around in his seat and looked behind us in the large mirror outside his window.  He said, in a concerned voice, “Did we hit him, Uncle Doug?”  I said, “I don’t think so.  They’re pretty quick.”  Daniel was relieved.  And the circle of life rolled on.

It was almost 8 pm now, too late to do anything special like go to a movie, so we headed for the Pilot Truck Stop a few miles away near the Interstate. It’s one of my regular stops (I like their Church’s Chicken Tenders). I was lucky to find an easy pull-through parking spot. I parked the rig, did my post-trip inspection, and shut it down for the night. Daniel and I went inside and had a nice sit-down chicken dinner.

pilot

After dinner I showed Daniel around. “Here’s the Trucker Lounge,” I said, pointing to a mini-movie theater with several rows of cushioned chairs. There were several drivers lounging in the comfortable chairs. “This is where drivers seem to be watching TV shows and movies but they’re usually just thinking about their load assignments or their family or some other concern.” On the screen was one of those depressing crime shows, so we didn’t linger there. “This is the Trucker Store,” I said, pointing to the rows of truck accessories, road atlases, DVD’s, cigarettes, and grocery items. “Those are the showers,” I said. “For $ 10 you get a warm shower in a nice private bathroom with clean fluffy towels. After a week of 16-hour days on the road it can almost make you feel human again.” Daniel smiled at that. Then it was time to go to bed.

We returned to the truck, changed into our pajamas, and climbed into our bunks.  Daniel sat silently in his bunk for a few moments and then he asked me if he could use my iPhone. He wanted to watch YouTubes for awhile. I said, “Sure.”  I handed him the phone and said, “Good night, Daniel.” He said, “Good night, Uncle Doug.”  I slipped under the covers and fell asleep almost immediately, as usual after a long drive.

The muffled sound of my iPhone alarm woke me up the next morning at 6am. I almost didn’t hear it – it was under Daniel’s pillow. Daniel merely rolled over as I gently  retrieved the phone.  I got dressed and started the engine and turned on the heater to warm up the cab, and then started making breakfast for us. I heated water for my instant coffee on my single-burner camp stove (the little ring of eager blue flames always cheers up a chilly morning). I spoke a command to my iPhone, “Play playlist 1” and it started playing a tender melody by Simon and Garfunkel, ‘… in my little town…”

Now I heard rustling of covers from the top bunk. I said, “Good morning” and Daniel responded with a sleepy “Good morning.” I placed ten saltine crackers on a paper towel and spread them with peanut butter and put a dollop of strawberry jam in the middle of each one and covered them with another cracker. I retrieved the two bananas and the two Geyser Spring waters from Ellen’s picnic sack. Daniel climbed down and sat next to me on my bunk and we enjoyed our breakfast.

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bart and homer

(Homer read about how the early observers first realized that the world was round by the way, for example, you see a ship’s mast before you see the rest of the ship,  as it approaches you on the horizon…)

“You know, Bart, you can learn a lot from readin’ books.  Like, when you’re climbin’ a hill and you see a truck comin’ over the top of the hill in the other direction, and first you see the top of the truck, and then you see the middle of the truck, and then you see the whole truck?  That’s how we know that the world is round!”

“Uh…OK, Dad…..Whata ya think, Sis?”

little miss dubious

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17. THE LIGHTER SIDE

There are several important skills you have to use when you’re driving a big rig, such as checking your mirrors during turns, always knowing what is around you, and being familiar with your equipment.   When you forget these things it often results in a serious or even tragic situation.  But sometimes there is a lighter side.

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There She Blows!
We're going to need a bigger wrench
He was going to make a right turn around a corner in Long Beach but then he realized the turn was too tight for his 53-foot-long  trailer.  So he changed his mind and continued straight ahead.  Unfortunately his right-side trailer wheels were slightly up on the curb as he approached a fire  hydrant on the edge of the sidewalk.  His trailer tire caught the hose nipple on the fire hydrant and snapped off the hydrant like a pretzel stick.  The geyser went 50 feet in the air.  Shopkeepers and customers came out of the surrounding businesses and stared in amazement at the spectacle.  Some of them were applauding!  A fire department crew arrived within five minutes.  They turned  off the water and installed a new hydrant.  The driver had pulled over about a block up the street.  He watched all the excitement in his rear view mirror and then went on his way.  (True story, told to me by another driver who shall be nameless.)
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Don’t Look Now, But…
christmas lights
He made a late night delivery around Christmas time at a small town in central California.  On his way out he made a wrong turn and found himself driving down the cheerfully decorated Main Street, passing under strings of Christmas lights from one end of town to the other.  At the edge of town his  13’6″ trailer barely squeaked under a 13’8″ railroad bridge.  He breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that he had made it through the gauntlet.  Unfortunately when he looked in his rear view mirror he discovered to his horror that he was trailing a long string of Christmas lights!  He quietly pulled over to the shoulder and unhooked the lights and laid them by the side of the road and went on his way.  

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What’s That Smell?

sewage truck

He pulled into the sewage treatment plant with a full load of raw sewage in his tanker.  He was a new tanker driver fresh out of truck driving school.  He figured tankers would be better than dry vans or flat beds.  For one thing he wasn’t very good at backing.  That’s what you do all day with a dry van.  He almost never had to back his tanker.  And tarping and untarping a flatbed looked like a heck of a lot of work:  get out the heavy tarps, lift them up on top of the load (imagine that in an icy cold rain), strap them down from end to end…over and over.  No thanks, he thought, I’ll drive this nice, easy tanker truck.   He pulled up to the sewage facility tank and got ready to hook up his hose.  Unfortunately he forgot to open the pressure relief valve first.  When he opened the flow valve high pressure sewage sprayed everywhere – all over the tank, all over the tanker, and especially all over himself.  After taking a long hot shower and changing into a new set of clothes he laid down on his bunk and did some serious thinking about maybe taking some backing lessons.  (True story, told to me by my truck driving instructor in CDL school.)

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Billboard on I-35 in Oklahoma:
lawless
(Jason Lawless.  For Sheriff.  Really?)
Billboard on I-10 Freeway in Los Angeles:
rose hills
(They should have added:  “We haven’t heard any complaints.)”
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18. Ghosts at the Getty
 IMG_0663
Whenever I pick up and deliver mail at the central post office in Los Angeles I drive past the magnificent Getty Museum on I-405 near Sunset Boulevard.   There’s a rumor among the guards at the Getty that after the last guest has gone home and the gates have closed and the garden lights have gone out a gathering of ghostly characters appears in the galleries, dressed in painter’s smocks and sculptor’s aprons. They gaze intently at the works of art and then press into them with their painter’s brushes and sculptor’s tools, but to no effect (because they are ghosts). If you ask the guards what they make of this they will tell you, “We guess they are the restless spirits of the artists, who just want to add one more little improvement, one more heartfelt expression, to their masterpieces.”

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19. The Warehouse Rooster

rooster

When I arrived at the Houston post office to pick up my “Number 6” load  I thought I heard a rooster crowing inside the warehouse: “Eh…uh eh…uh ehhhhh.” Some of the post offices play recordings of screeching birds of prey to discourage birds from nesting in the rafters.  But a rooster?  So I went looking for the source of the sound.  It was one of the  postal workers!  She was yelling to a co-worker on the other side of the warehouse in a shrill high-pitched voice: “Get…dee…num…buh…seeekssss”.

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20. Highway Patrol

red ferrari

Those distinctive red and blue flashing  lights came into view on the shoulder up ahead.  Muscle memory directed my foot to the brake pedal as I merged over to the left lane.  My previous train of thought moved obligingly to a side track in the back of my mind as I dealt with the slowing traffic.  It came to the front again after we passed the incident  and the normal traffic flow resumed.  It was just another guy (it’s always a guy) in another red Ferrari  (it’s always red) getting another speeding ticket.

Those distinctive red and blue flashing  lights came into view on the shoulder up ahead.  Muscle memory directed my foot to the brake pedal as I merged over to the left lane.  My previous train of thought moved obligingly to a side track in the back of my mind as I dealt with the slowing traffic.  It came to the front again after we passed the incident  and the normal traffic flow resumed.  It was just another guy (it’s always a guy) in another red Ferrari  (it’s always red) getting another speeding ticket.

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21. Listening to Music  

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Here are two of my favorite Jackson Browne songs:

From The Pretender, where he sings about the working man and other things:

“Gonna pack my lunch in the morning

And go to work each day

And when the evening rolls around

I’ll go on home and lay my body down

And when the morning light comes streaming in

I’ll get up and do it again, Amen.”

It reminds of when I had the good fortune to capture my dream job early in my career, 43 years ago. I rented a tiny $300/month apartment near the airplane factory in Burbank. I went to work on the first day all bright-eyed and eager to please. What a thrill it was to be part of that industry, and for 35 years it never went away.

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The Pretender:

 

From The Load Out, where he thanks his crew, the hard-working low-paid roadies who set up and take down his show on the road:

“Now the seats are all empty

Let the roadies take the stage

Pack it up and tear it down

They’re the first to come and the last to leave

Working for that minimum wage

They’ll set it up in another town.”

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The Load Out:

 

 

Here is a charming version of Paul McCartney’s “ Blackbird”, sung in the native American Mi’kmaq language by high school student Emma Stevens from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada. When her Native American father heard her perform it, in his own language, he was moved to tears:
http://www.youtube.com/watch…

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I like to listen to  reviews of new musical artists  on NPR’s “Fresh Air” radio program (often they are not “new” artists, they are just not yet well-known) .  Here are three of my favorites, with some of their intriguing and moving lyrics.

handsome

“Green Willow Valley” by The Handsome Family:

“There are rivers underground rushing cold and wild,

And I am calling out to you across the lonely night:

Come back to the valley, the Green Willow Valley”

YouTube:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yc1hJYodg7A

sara

“Tenderhearted” by Sara Watkins:

“God bless the tenderhearted,

Who love us face to face,

They share the love and kindness

They’ve been given on the way…”

queens.JPG

“Like Clockwork” by Queens of the Stone Age:

“Most of what you see, my dear,

Is purely for show,

Because not everything that goes around

Comes back around, you know.”

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22. Elevation-Sensitive Loads

cheetos

Inflated bag of Cheetos at Deming NM (elev 4,500 ft)

I picked up a load of snack chips at a factory in eastern Oregon and took them to Los Angeles.  The shipper said “Don’t go over 7,000 feet or the bags will pop.”  The bags expand as you go higher because there is less air pressure as you go higher.  The bags are sealed to keep the chips fresh, so eventually they will pop if you go too high.  I Googled the elevations of the mountain passes along the route, which was mostly along I-15.  Everything was fine until I came upon an  accident scene with a long backup near Salt Lake City.  I didn’t want to wait, possibly for hours, and be late for my delivery so I chose an alternate route that looked like it would be OK as far as elevations.  I went through two passes that turned out to be close to 7,000 feet and one that was 7,100.  I was really sweating it, imagining that I would start hearing ‘pop…pop…pop’ from behind the cab at any moment.  I guess I lucked out, because I completed the delivery in Los Angeles and never heard anything further about it.

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23. Emergency Road Service

 truck-repair

I finished backing into my overnight parking spot at the post office in Dallas and pushed the button to move the Freightliner’s automatic transmission from Reverse to Neutral.  But to my dismay the transmission stayed in Reverse!  I turned the engine off and then turned the master battery switch off and back on.  This has fixed glitches like this in the past, but no luck this time.  And now the engine wouldn’t even re-start.  I slumped in my seat and groaned as I realized that I was stuck with a truck that wouldn’t start or shift gears – and I have a mail pickup in eight hours.

I like my automatic transmission, especially in stop and go traffic, but occasionally it gives me exasperating problems like this one. The dashboard display said “ECU 1”, which Google said was a “problem with the Engine Comtrol Module (ECM) – check wiring.”  The ECM is the truck’s computer brain.  I raised the hood and checked the wiring in several locations and found no obvious problems.  That was the limit of my electrical troubleshooting skills.  So I called the “trucker’s best friend” – the Emergency Road Service.

The mechanic  arrived an hour later and hooked up his laptop to the diagnostic connection under the steering wheel.  After a few minutes he said he had managed to clear several ECM faults but he couldn’t clear the one that was keeping the engine from starting. He said it would have to be towed to the shop.  That meant I would miss my pickup appointment and lose my $650 driver pay, and I would have a $200 towing charge and a big repair bill at a strange shop.  I asked the mechanic, “Is there any way you can bypass the ECM and just get it started?”  For a moment he seemed surprised at the suggestion, then he walked around to the right side of the engine and took a little thingamajig  out of his pocket and touched the wires to the starter.  There was a small spark and then the 425 HP Detroit Diesel roared to life.  I gave him a Texas-sized smile.  He said, “You’ll need to keep it runnin’ to wherever you’re goin’ – it aint gonna re-start”.  I said, “I know, it’s ok.”  Later he showed me the “secret” thingamajig:  it was just a piece of insulated wire about a foot long with the insulation removed on each end!  He showed me where to place the ends of the wire – two terminals on the starter and frame.  Now I know how to hot wire a Freightliner!  The ignition switch must be on, so you still need the key.

I paid him $325 (seems outrageous, doesn’t it) and said “Thanks” and he drove off into the sunset.  Then I went to sleep in the truck.  I kept the engine running continuously through the night and through my pickup the next morning and the 1,400 miles back to LA and  my two deliveries and then to our repair shop in LA.  Marathon engine runs like this are not unusual in the long-haul trucking business, especially in the winter when it’s often the only way to stay warm in the sleeper berth.

24. Houston Storm

houston storm

I completed my mail delivery at the Post Office facility on Aldine Bender Road on the north side of Houston and then parked for the night at the Express Fuel truck stop.  It was pouring rain with thunder and lightning.  I love to sleep in the cab in the rain.  The steady patter of the raindrops on the metal roof is Mother Nature’s lullaby.  This is a photo of the building storm as I entered the Houston area.   It was a deadly storm.  Earlier in the day nine Army soldiers at nearby Fort Hood drowned when their military vehicle overturned in the flood waters of the Brasos River during a training exercise.

 

A street vendor came to my table in the Mexican restaurant where I was eating dinner after my mail delivery. She was selling flavored popcorn balls on a stick for a couple of dollars. I politely said, “No thank you”. She moved quietly from table to table and then stopped at the cashier’s counter where the store owner, a middle aged Hispanic woman, purchased one of the popcorn balls with a gracious smile. Then the street vendor continued her rounds further down the street. I asked my waitress about it, because I haven’t seen this before, and she said, “Oh yes, we know her. She supports her family selling those. She just bought a car.” (It was an interesting glimpse into another culture right here in the good old USA.)

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25. Through Yellowstone 

I delivered a nice light load from Ogden, Utah, to Billings, Montana.  (A light load is much better than a heavy load because you don’t have to constantly shift and brake to negotiate the climbs and descents. You get paid the same either way.)  My company-specified route took me through part of Yellowstone National Park along U.S. 191.  This highway is usually busy with vacationers, tour busses, and semi’s.  But at 6am on September 25 I had it all to myself for long stretches, as you will see in the photos.  I didn’t get to see Old Faithful or the other attractions of the park due to my tight delivery schedule, but I had the good fortune to see them several years ago on a vacation with my family.

After my delivery in Billings, I picked up a load in Missoula, Montana, near the headwaters of I-15, and delivered it in Saint Joseph, Minnesota.  This run took me through The Badlands of North Dakota.  It is an awesome place, too.  It’s like a mini Grand Canyon, with more trees and bushes.  My amateur photos don’t do justice to the scenery that I see on the road.

A few days ago I picked up a load in Casa Grande, AZ, to deliver to a location in Southern California. I started to head toward the I-17 freeway entrance, which joins up with I-10 in Phoenix, and then I thought to myself, why don’t I take AZ 84 instead of the freeway for awhile, and bypass the traffic of metro Phoenix. It was a good decision. A few miles west of Casa Grande I was delighted to have to pull over and watch for a few minutes while a team of shepherds in blue jeans and cowboy hats, and two very skillful and commanding sheep dogs, led a herd of several hundred sheep across the highway from one pasture to another.

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26. Concert in the Park

55 cub scouts Parade.jpg

My wife and I attended a Concert in the Park on Sunday night. An acquaintance named John spotted me from a distance and waved and I waved back. We have been friendly like that ever since we sat next to each other at a cub scout campfire several years ago. John was throwing a football around with his youngest son who I think is about 10. Before each throw the boy would run up to John and eagerly wait for the next play, such as “cut left, then right, then turn for the catch”. As soon as John said the play the boy would grin from ear to ear and take off running. He missed most of the throws. Then he would run after the tumbling ball and scoop it up and throw it back in the general direction of his dad. One time his throw went way to the side. As John started walking to retrieve the ball the boy raced over to it and picked it up and handed it to John. He looked up at his dad with adoring eyes that said “Sorry for the bad throw” and “Thanks for playing with me, Dad.” I’m gonna find our old football when I get home from this run. I know it’s somewhere in the garage.

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27. An American Aristocrat

Like most drivers I have always preferred to drive solo, but one time when I had to drive with someone else I was rewarded with a remarkable story.

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My new team driver, Bob Franklin, and I pulled in to Denny’s for a quick breakfast. We sat down at the counter and Bob grabbed a menu from the holder while I fumbled for my reading glasses. I started to reach for a menu but Bob, having already made his selection, handed me his menu and said, “Be my guest, Sir Douglas.”

I joined in the joke and said, “Why thank you, Sir Robert!”

Bob grinned and leaned toward me and said, in a confidential tone, “You know, when they were reading the roster this morning I didn’t wanna make a fuss or nuthin’ but they didn’t say my name exactly right.”

“Oh?” I said. “How’s that?”

“They shoulda said “Sir Robert Franklin,” said Bob, emphasizing the “Sir”.

I stared at the somewhat ragged-looking man with the grease-stained hands, trying to size up what kind of lunatic I was dealing with.  Then Bob said, “You see, I’m a direct descendant of Benjamin Franklin.”

I lowered my reading glasses to the bridge of my nose and continued staring at Bob.

“Dr. Franklin was a diplomat to England, among other things.  To reward him for his great contributions to American and British diplomacy the British gave him the honorary title of “Sir Benjamin Franklin, Duke of Bridgewater”. (I wasn’t sure if that was true, but it sounded faintly believable from what I recall from my high school days so I kept quiet and Sir Robert went on.)

“And since I’m his direct descendant I figure that by rights I’ve inherited that title, too.”

I gave Bob a skeptical look and started to say that I didn’t think it worked that way, but I decided to hold my tongue (that is often the wisest course of action).  If it was true then he would be deeply offended if I questioned his veracity.  If he was just making up a story then why not go along for the fun of it.  I said, “That’s very interesting, Sir Robert!”

As we rolled along Sir Robert described the historical locations and activities of the Franklin family who inhabited parts of Pennsylvania and Delaware, two of the first American colonies.  He was justly proud of his connection with the Franklins, especially their most famous son, Benjamin.

I never saw Bob again after that trip. That’s how it goes some times.  But I’ve come to appreciate how fortunate I am for having briefly known Sir Robert Franklin, a true (I think) American aristocrat.

 

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28. Navajo Country

Click here to listen to a Navajo radio station in Gallup, New Mexico –http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nx32-1RGFlc

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29. Driving US 395 in California

 

canyons

I delivered a Walmart load from Los Angeles to Reno via US 395. This is a very scenic route through the high desert and mountains of the Eastern Sierra Nevada. When you’re winding through the narrow canyons on this route you have to be mindful of “trailer cheating.” That’s when the rear end of your 53-foot trailer tracks further to the inside of the curve than the front end. You have to steer towards the outside of the curve (without crossing the center line), otherwise an outcropping of rock might rip into the side of your trailer, like the iceberg that sank the Titanic.

Another potential problem with trailer cheating is the twisting effect that can occur when you are going around a down-sloping freeway on ramp.  If you aren’t careful to keep your trailer wheels on the paved surface of the on ramp as you go around the curve you may end up with a slight twist between the tractor and the trailer when you reach the flat part of the on ramp at the bottom of the curve.  This can raise the left or right-side tractor drive wheels just enough to make them lose all their traction.  You will be stuck there, unable to move forward or backward, unless you are able to extricate yourself using the differential lock switch, or if that fails, by placing boards or a broken piece of concrete or whatever you can find at hand to jam under the drive tires.  (Been there, done that.)

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30. Snowstorm in Iowa

 

snow jacknife

It started snowing shortly after sunset as I drove through farm country on I-29 in western Iowa.  I was heading towards my fuel stop and rest break in Council Bluffs.  I slowed to 40 mph in 9th gear and pressed on in spite of the snow, anxious to avoid being stuck in the boonies with low fuel in the middle of an Iowa winter.  There were no steep grades or mountain passes on this stretch so I didn’t have to chain-up, thankfully.   After about an hour I reached my destination – a small truck stop with a Subway restaurant and a 24-hour gas station.  Fortunately there were still two truck parking spaces open.

When there are no spaces left at the truck stop (it’s almost always first come-first served for truck parking) my next choice is usually a Walmart Supercenter because they are open 24 hours and they have clean bathrooms and they often have a McDonalds or Starbucks inside.  If there are no truck stops or Walmarts I look for a Home Depot or Lowes – they will usually let you park overnight if you don’t get in the way of their store operations and there are usually fast-food or Denny’s restaurants nearby.  Last choice is a freeway Rest Area – they fill up fast with trucks after 8 pm and there are no restaurants.

Parked for the night at a Walmart

I slept soundly with the engine running to stay warm in the sub-freezing temperatures.  I had planned to continue driving at 4 am the next morning to try and make my delivery on time, but when I pulled back the cab curtain I saw an all-white parking lot and snow was still swirling under the streetlights.  I sent a message to the planners to let them know I would wait until daylight and then assess the driving situation.  They were OK with that.  At daylight I fired up the rig and proceeded slowly out of the parking lot.  The streets were plowed and I had no trouble making my way to the I-29 on-ramp.  I pressed on towards my delivery in Sioux City, Iowa, holding my speed down to 40 mph.

Most of the other big rigs proceeded cautiously like me, but a few of them blew past in the left lane.  I passed three abandoned cars and two big rigs that had skidded off the highway during the night.  They were stuck in the deep snow and muddy ground at the center of the grassy median. Both of  the big rigs were jackknifed.  The drivers were probably going too fast and had made some unfortunate driving error, such as a sudden lane change, that might have been forgiven on a clear day.  But on the slippery road last night it ended up with the trailer trying to pass the tractor.  There didn’t appear to be any other vehicles involved.  They will have an expensive towing bill and there may be more serious consequences for their truck driving careers.  After two plodding hours I arrived at my destination and completed my delivery.

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31. Nebraska Potato Run

I picked up a load of potatoes right out in the potato field in the small farm town of Imperial, Nebraska.  They loaded the freshly dug potatoes  into the end of my trailer with a system of conveyor belts on wheels.  The operator moved it deep into the trailer as they started loading and backed it out toward the end of the trailer as the loading proceeded.  When it was full I drove to a nearby potato processing plant and parked the truck and trailer on a hydraulically-driven inclined platform.  They raised the whole truck and trailer to a 45-degree angle and the potatoes tumbled into the hopper while I stood and watched from outside.  Cuts and bruises were not a problem – these were destined to become mashed potatoes!

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32. Roadside Inspections
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A few days ago I was pulled in for a random one-hour safety inspection at a Weigh Station near Fargo, North Dakota.  These are performed by the Commercial Enforcement officers of the Highway Patrol.  They inspect your lights, brakes, tires, and a dozen other items on the tractor and trailer, as well as check the expiration date on your Commercial Drivers License, medical certificate, tractor registration, trailer registration, and a bunch of permits that you carry for certain types of cargo.  It is a real nail-biting time for drivers, because they can put you out of service on the spot for not passing any one of the many inspection items.

About six months ago I failed one of these inspections in Reno.  The officer found that my trailer brake lights were not working.  That is a common item to “forget” on your pre-trip inspection, because if you are by yourself you cannot easily check it – you have to apply the brake inside the cab and at the same time go to the back of the trailer and see if the brake lights go on.  (I have since learned that the trick is to put something heavy, like a gallon jug of water, against the brake pedal to hold it On while you go back and check the brake lights.)  The inspector put me out of service.  Ordinarily I would not have been able to move the truck until it was repaired.  But this officer was nice enough to offer to escort me to my customer location, which I told him was only about a mile down the road.  I completed my delivery on time, and then I called our emergency repair service and they came over from our terminal in Reno and fixed the brake light problem.

On this occasion in Fargo, North Dakota, I passed all the inspection items. I sent a message to my Driver Leader informing him that I passed the inspection and that I would be making my delivery on time.  My Driver Leader sent a message back, “Great job, Douglas. Keep up the good work.”  (He calls me Douglas, like my wife.)  It’s a great day when you pass a safety inspection.

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33. Revisiting Gravel Pond

 

gravel pond

I was filled with anxious anticipation as I approached the freeway exit.  Childhood memories of small family farms and patches of forest and rolling hills on the far horizon played like a silent movie through my windshield.  I could almost hear my little brother and sister calling me,  “Let’s play hide and seek!”

I was on one of my first runs, which took me through the hills of northeastern Pennsylvania.  It reminded me of summer vacation trips many years ago.  Our family and two of my uncles’ families shared a rustic two-story cottage on Gravel Pond near Scranton, PA. We went there several weekends each year and sometimes for a whole week, when my brother and sister and I were young kids.

The cottage had no running water – we pumped water from a well using a big pump handle in the kitchen. There were no bathrooms – we used an outhouse in the back yard. There was no TV and no movie theaters or fast food restaurants or swimming beaches or any other type of entertainment. We splashed in the pond and played Hide and Seek and Tag during the day and we played board games for hours and hours in the evenings. We captured dozens of fireflies in Mason jars and put them on the mantle and then turned out all the lights. We caught crawdads – little crab-like creatures that lived among the stones at the edge of the pond. We would run in to the house with them wriggling in our fingers and show them to Mom and Dad.  Mom would scream, “Ewww!”. Then we would laugh and run back and throw them in the pond. The crawdads loved it

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34. Into the Heartland 

david at truck museum

Our son, David, is with me for this three-week tour.  Leaving from Los Angeles we have gone as far east as Lake Michigan and as far south as the Gulf of Mexico.  We have made pickups and deliveries or overnight stops in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Arkansas.  One of my favorite places was the Flint Hills of Kansas near Witchita.  It is a rolling sea of green prairie grass from horizon to horizon, dotted with fat happy cows.  We had a wonderful visit with my sister Ellen, brother John, and brother-in-law Kevin in Janesville, Wisconsin.  We sleep in the truck in bunk beds (like summer camp).  For breakfast we have toasted bagels with peanut butter, bananas, and mango pineapple juice.  I toast the bagels and heat water for my instant coffee on a small Coleman camp stove.  For lunch and dinner (usually just one or the other because of my irregular driving schedule), we go to the truck stops.  They usually have MacDonald’s, Wendy’s, or Subway.

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35. Time Travelers

time-traveler

I listened to an excellent audio book this week on my mail run to Houston:  “The Joy of Science” by Dr. Robert Hazen.  It is a series of easy-to-follow lectures that summarize many of the most important ideas in biology, chemistry, geology, astronomy and other scientific subjects.  One of the topics, for example, is Time Travel.  Dr. Hazen explained that thanks to discoveries by Albert Einstein and others we now know that time travel is in fact quite possible. There’s just one hitch – you have to travel at close to the speed of light (186,000 miles per second)!  So far, for humans at least, that is still quite impossible.
A couple of months ago I managed to locate and contact several of my cousins through Facebook.  For some of them it was our first contact in more than 40 years!  In that span of years we have lived half a lifetime – careers, marriages, children, and all the rest – oblivious to each others’ personal journeys. I suppose that is a common scenario for many families that end up dispersed all over the country.  In my mind there was a great gap, from memories of our youth to (blink) our grey-haired present.  Time seems to pass so quickly some times.  I felt like the time traveler who journeys to outer space and returns a month later and finds that everyone else is now 40 years older!
10-doug-age-19 1976       138-doug-trucking-2016 2016
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36. Detroit Trucks

What is different about this truck?

w12

Answer: it has a lot of extra wheels.  I spotted this one while driving through Detroit. According to an anonymous Internet expert, “Henry Ford fought for and won the right to increase the weight of the shipments of steel that was needed in his factories. In order to support the extra weight there needed to be more axles.” These “Michigan Rigs” are also allowed in the northern most sections of Ohio and Indiana, near the Michigan border.

t3

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37. Sliding the Tandems

One of the things you do frequently is slide your trailer box back and forth on the slider rails to distribute the weight of your load over the three sets of axles. For some unknown reason they chose to call this “sliding the tandems” even though the tandem axles never actually move – it’s the trailer box that moves back and forth on the slider rails, which are located above the tandem axles at the rear of the trailer. When you slide the tandems forward (push the trailer box back), you move weight to the tandem axles at the rear end of the trailer. When you slide the tandems backward (pull the box forward), you move weight to the drive axles behind the tractor. Each hole on the slider rails counts for about 250 pounds, so to move 500 pounds, for example, from the drive axles to the tandem axles you would lock the trailer brakes, pull out the tandem slider release handle, and then push the trailer box backward two holes. If you don’t do this you could get a ticket when you go through the weigh station, which could cost you any where from 50 bucks to thousands of dollars.

weigh station

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38. Out of Cash and Out of Luck

houston storm

I once helped a young driver at a truck stop in Houston who was in that predicament – out of cash and out of luck. I gave him a few dollars when he came to my door. As I watched him go around to the other trucks at the truck stop I wondered what other calamities he might get himself into…a door left unlocked…a load too heavy…a turn too tight…a curve too fast…a bridge too low…

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39. CB Radios

CB radios are no longer as popular as they used to be.  One experienced driver told me, “In the old days we used them all the time, to check on traffic up ahead, watch out for Smokeys (Smokey Bears,  aka Highway Patrol officers)… but now I hardly ever use it – it’s just a paperweight.  Half the time you can’t get anybody to answer you, and the rest of the time it’s just trash talk.”  I have never had a CB in my truck, and I haven’t missed it.  Occasionally you will arrive at a customer location and you’ll see a sign that says something like “Drivers call on CB 12 for instructions”.  But when you pull up to the gate and tell them you don’t have a CB they just ask you for your cell phone number, or they say “Wait over there”, and then they wave at you or come get you when it’s your turn to go in.

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40. Gators

gator

We call those cast-off tire treads that you see along the shoulder “gators”, because if you run over them they could slap up and bite off your flexible brake lines under the trailer. If that happens you won’t lose all your brake pressure immediately – you will have time to get off the road onto the shoulder – but you will soon be dead in the water with a locked set of brakes until the repair truck arrives.

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41. Away for Thanksgiving

turkey

Things don’t always go as planned when you’re on the road.  You may have changes in your load assignment, or mechanical problems, or weather problems, among other things. Once I had to call my wife and tell her I wouldn’t be home on time for our usual Thanksgiving dinner. “But I did see a wild turkey!” I told her.  I was just outside of Cantonville, near Scatter Creek, in northeast Texas. The big bird was strutting around by the side of the road.

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42. Idaho Beer Run

beer truck

I delivered a truckload of beer in cans and kegs from a brewery in Los Angeles to Twin Falls, Idaho. It was a long hot grind up Highway 93, one of the loneliest roads in the west but the mountain scenery was magnificent.  When I rolled into town on a scorching August day I imagined the townspeople would be lining the streets, cheering wildly and shouting “The beer is here! The beer is here!”

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43. American Commerce

recycling center

When I’m driving I often have the satisfying feeling that I’m part of the great organism known as American Commerce. Yesterday I delivered a load of merchandise from a Walmart distribution center in Los Angeles to a Walmart distribution center in Loveland, Colorado. In the process I crossed the Mojave Desert on I-15 and the Rocky Mountains on I-70. Today on this bright November morning I’m picking up a load of waste paper at a recycling center in Boulder, Colorado. I’ll be taking it to a paper plant in Prewitt, New Mexico, near the Navajo Reservation. Tomorrow I’ll deliver 1000-pound rolls of paper from the paper plant to a manufacturer in Los Angeles.

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44. Pacific Northwest

One of my favorite regions of the country is the Pacific Northwest.  It has a personality as distinct as the barren wide-open spaces of the southwest and the concrete canyons of the industrial northeast. On a hot July afternoon, I checked out my assigned truck at the company yard in Mira Loma, CA, and then sent this message to my Driver Manager:  “Tractor 308578 is OK.  Ready to go. Open to all 48 (north would be nice).” He responded right away with a load to Ridgefield, WA, just north of Portland, to begin my two-week road trip.

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45. Timber Country

The second-most most unusual pickup that I have made so far (after the hay pickup in a field in Arizona) was the load of bagged sawdust that I picked up at a wood products company near Portland, Oregon. They loaded the bags of sawdust on pallets into my truck with a forklift.  I had to back up to a portable loading ramp across a wet and icy dirt yard which was covered with crushed stone where the trucks operate. The loading ramp was narrower than the rear end of my trailer, so after I started backing toward it at some point I could no longer see the ramp in my mirrors – I had to rely on the forklift driver to spot me.  He let me back all the way to the ramp, and then gave me hand signals that said “move a foot to the right”.  I don’t have a switch on my dashboard for that, so I pulled forward about fifty feet to get some maneuvering room, turned the steering wheel to the left (to move the trailer to the right) and backed up to the ramp again.  This time he was happy with the alignment and he proceeded with the loading.

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46. The Heart of Darkness

oregon sawmill

I picked up a load of wood chips at a saw mill in northwest Oregon.  I arrived the night before and parked in the yard behind the mill.  In the morning I made coffee in the cab with my single-burner camp stove.  The little ring of blue flames always takes the chill off a cold morning.  I had saltine crackers with Skippy peanut butter and cheddar cheese (a taste I inherited from my father) and then I backed up to the dock.  My tires made 18 fresh tracks in the light snowfall that fell during the night.  After loading, I headed south on Highway 30 towards Scapoose, Oregon. Smoke from a saw mill went up straight and white in the morning air. The highway followed close by the Columbia River on my left. Under the dark clouds the river was a dull mirror reflecting the barges and houseboats along its banks.

columbia barge

I drove through the Columbia River Gorge to my pickup in Boardman, Oregon.  I admired the eagles and hawks that I would see sitting by themselves in the high branches of the trees along the road.  For long periods they look out over the land and water from their high perch – silent, solitary, and self-possessed.  I have seen eagles like these swoop down and snatch a fish out of the water with their talons.

eagle2

Toward sunset I was heading south on I-5 in northern California when something happened that ended the monotony of the drive.  Near Mount Shasta I came to a fork in the road, both on the map and in my mind.  The GPS said to turn left and take Highway 89 through the forests of northern California, to join up with Highway 395 south.  I was surprised because I thought up to that point that I would be taking I-5 all the way to Los Angeles.  I had to stop and think about this.  On one hand, it was an approved truck route that was heavily traveled by 18-wheelers, and it would be much more interesting than I-5.  On the other hand, it would be 150 miles at nighttime through dense forests on a deserted road that I’ve never been on before.  After a few moments I made up my mind – I doubled back about six miles to the Pilot truck stop and topped off my tanks, and then I turned left into the Heart of Darkness.

For many miles there were no other travelers on the highway, either in front or in back of me.  The moonlight illuminated the tops of the pine trees on either side of the road and the black ribbon of highway in front of me.  The music on the radio matched my mood as I made my way apprehensively through the forest:  an exhilarating rock song, a regretful country music song, a mystical fog-shrouded Irish folk song.

Oregon rest stop

After about two hours I came to a good-sized turnout near Feather Lake where two other trucks were parked for the night.  I parked well off the road and shut down. The temperature was 18 degrees Fahrenheit.  The cab heater and my sleeping bag kept me comfortable and I enjoyed a sound sleep.    In the morning I was treated to a light snow shower which dusted the road just enough to make it picturesque but not enough to cause any driving problems.

Parking in isolated places like this always reminds me of the story that John Steinbeck told in Travels with Charley.  He described how camping alone at night in a desolate location would make him imagine that ghosts and other “spirits of the night” might be lurking in the shadows.  But he had a special charm that would ward off evil spirits.  He said that years ago there was an old Filipino man who worked on his family’s ranch in California.  He said he wondered if being a Filipino, a distant and unknown culture to him, perhaps gave the old man some mysterious knowledge of how to ward off evil spirits, so he asked him about it.

The old Filipino man said he had a special charm that was given to him by a Filipino witch doctor.  John asked him to show him the charm, thinking that it must be some kind of object, but the Filipino man said it was a “word charm”, and then with great solemnity he looked upward and dramatically spoke the words:  “In nomine Patris et Fillii et Spiritus Sancti.”  The words are in Latin, from the ending of a Catholic liturgy.  It means “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  John was deeply moved and impressed by the old man’s earnest demeanor.  He suspected that the Filipino witch doctor who told the word charm to the old man had probably heard the words spoken by the Catholic priests in their church services, without knowing what the Latin words meant, and the witch doctor had attributed special powers to the mysterious words.  The witch doctor offered them to the old Filipino man and to the rest of his tribal “congregation” as a charm against evil spirits, and for him, and for the rest of the believers, no doubt they were.  John thanked the old Filipino man for his special charm.  In his travels John always slept soundly through the night, and so do I.

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47. A Nice Little Business

cozy-cab

Imagine you are in the passenger seat of my Freightliner truck. You have a fresh cup of coffee in one hand and a jelly donut in the other. We are at the Petro Truck Stop in Spokane WA. It’s 18 degrees outside and there’s snow on the ground, but it’s warm and cozy in the truck. We’re getting ready to start our mail run back to Los Angeles. Here is our route:

spokane-to-la

Hey, wait a minute. This could be a nice little business: “Ride Along in a Big Rig. 4-Day Adventures Leaving Weekly from Los Angeles.” What should I charge? Maybe $49 per day (it’s like a Motel 6 on wheels). Price includes light conversation.  I’ll need to check with my truck owner. I think he would go along with it. He’ll add you to the insurance. I’ll give him half the proceeds – after all, none of this would be possible without him and his wonderful trucks. Should I allow women? Why not. I’ll need to check with Raili. She’ll probably say ‘No!’ Wait, she doesn’t have to know (she doesn’t follow Facebook). I wonder what David would think . I’ll bet he would say ‘Go for it!’

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48. Monument Valley

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I drove through Monument Valley in southern Arizona two days ago.  It was late afternoon and the sun made the rock formations look really pretty.    This is Navajo country.  There are hundreds of small trailers and adobe huts scattered across the desert landscape. Many of the houses and huts have no electrical lines running to them, and I suppose they have no plumbing.  It’s an austere life.  Tribal casinos are prevalent throughout the southwestern states.  I hope the profits from the tribal casinos are helping to improve the lives of the native Americans.

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49.  Hay Fields – in Arizona?

I picked up a load of hay bales at a huge corporate dairy farm near Gila Bend, Arizona, in the Mojave Desert.  They loaded six 1000-pound hay bales into my trailer with an offroad forklift right out there in the field.  I delivered this load to a warehouse at the Port of Los Angeles.  They said it will be going to China.

Many of the large cattle ranches in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Texas and other states also have large hay fields as part of their cattle operation.  They sell the surplus hay to China and other customers.  We are given an address to pick up a load of hay bales in a remote section of Utah, for example.  Once we get to the general location we usually have to drive on dirt roads to the place where the farmer will load the hay bales into our trailer.  In snow or rainy conditions it can be a real challenge just to get to the location.  I once had to back up half a mile on a narrow muddy dirt road to get to the loading location.  When you get there, the farmer jabs each of the 1000-pound hay bales with the fork attachment on his tractor and then places the bale at the end of the trailer, and then pushes the preceding bales all the way to the front of the trailer with each new bale as the loading proceeds.

Loading hay bales in Arizona

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50. East of El Paso  

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A half hour ago I saw a huge white thundercloud on the horizon in front of me as I crossed the west Texas desert heading to San Antonio. For a while before the sun went down behind me the cloud glowed red and yellow. Now it’s purple and gray and flashes of lightning are lighting up the inside of the cloud. The rest of the sky is clear and dark blue. The desert scrub that fills this area like an ocean is dark green in the twilight. There’s a silvery white full moon. The Man in the Moon seems to be watching the lightning show with an open mouth saying “Ohhh!!”

 

South central Texas is called “brush country”.  There are cattle ranches with dense brush as far as you can see in every direction.  I asked a local resident how they keep track of the cattle.  He said they use helicopters, pickup trucks and cowboys on horseback.   I was puzzled about the helicopters because I had been driving through this area for most of the day and didn’t see any.  Then a dusty well-used pickup truck passed me, pulling a trailer with a small white Robinson R22 two-person helicopter on it.  I know the model because I was interested in them years ago when I was active in private flying.  The R22 is very nimble and economical to operate – perfect for chasing down wayward cattle.

 

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51. Laredo

Laredo, Texas, is a rough town. It’s a major shipping hub for trucks and trains. From the freeway it looks like it’s all warehouses and strip malls and truck stops. You have to get closer to see the diamonds in the rough.

Legend has it that a lot of trucks get stolen in Laredo. The driver gets tossed out and then the truck and trailer, with high-value and easy to sell loads like tires (no serial numbers), or electronics, or cigarettes, or liquor or high-priced agricultural chemicals are driven across the border and are never seen again. Nowadays that’s mostly legend. Modern trucks have excellent anti-theft devices like satellite GPS tracking with remote engine shutdown. Trailers aren’t as well-protected, though. A trailer with no tractor attached and no kingpin lock is easy pickings. They tell us to park in well-lighted security-patrolled parking places and always stay attached.

The flat terrain that surrounds Laredo is covered by dense scrub brush for thousands of square miles, from the hill country of San Antonio and Austin to the sprawling suburbs of Houston to the placid waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

From an occasional rise on the freeway you can see past the arched gateways, some of them simple and some of them preposterously fancy, into the widely spaced ranches on either side. You catch a glimpse of another way of life: cattle pens and ranch houses and broken-down jalopies by the shed that were once objects of great affection or great utility and horse trailers and pickup trucks carrying hay bales and kids on backyard swing sets.

The scrub brush is high enough to hide thousands of cattle, and to hide thousands of whitetail deer which attracts thousands of hunters. They hunker down in little hunting shacks that stick up above the scrub brush. They get around in knobby-tired off-road buggies that bounce easily through the mud puddles and sandy spots.

Today I’m parked at a Walmart Supercenter waiting for my load back to LA. Walmart is trucker friendly – they won’t knock on your door in the middle of the night and ask you to leave. Many of them are open 24 hours and have a McDonalds inside and they all have clean bathrooms. They’re a lot nicer place to hang out than most truck stops with their constant truck noise and diesel fumes.

On either side of me are a few other trucks and some campers and a couple of cars with people sleeping inside. Occasionally you see a guy or a gal brush back their hair and throw on a jacket and climb down from their rig and make their way inside. We’re “the Walmart people.”

Through the windshield I see a mom and her young adult son waiting at a bus stop. The son notices a Walmart shopping cart with a child’s seat attached to it. He climbs awkwardly into the child’s seat and grins at his mom, maybe re-creating a fond childhood memory. She rolls her eyes and moves next to him affectionately. They stand and sit silently together, shoulder to shoulder, waiting for the bus.

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52. A Kicked Dog
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highway
When I met Lewis he was sitting by himself at one of the tables in the driver’s lounge of the Swift terminal in El Paso, Texas, typing on his laptop. There were no other tables open so I asked if I could join him. Lewis shrugged without looking up. I took it as an indifferent “OK” and sat down.
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We both worked silently on our laptops for a long time, absorbed in our private digital worlds while other men and women played with their phones and watched the big screen TV and read magazines and engaged in conversations at the other tables. Everyone was passing time while waiting for a load assignment or a truck repair or some other reason to be stuck here at the El Paso terminal.
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Lewis heaved a heavy sigh and closed the cover of his laptop. He looked at me for the first time and I saw an opportunity for some light conversation.
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“My name’s Doug,” I said, extending my hand. Lewis shook my hand with a firm grip. He looked at me directly without a smile and said “Lewis” and continued to stare at me without smiling. I could see that he preferred to dispense with small talk, which was OK with me.
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Lewis was wearing the long-haul truck driver uniform – loose fitting sweat pants, ketchup-stained tee shirt, and slip-on sneakers. Sometimes a driver will swagger in to the truck stop wearing tight-fitting jeans and cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. He probably thinks he’s John Wayne. The rest of us are thinking, as they say in Texas, “he’s all hat and no cows”. When he gets back to his truck he’ll change into his sweats and kick off those uncomfortable boots and the hat will go on the shelf.
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I said, ”I couldn’t help noticing – it looks like you have a blog.”
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“Uh huh,” replied Lewis.
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“I would enjoy reading it, I mean, if it’s OK.”
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Lewis looked down at his laptop and then up at me. He opened the laptop cover and brought up the first page of his blog and slid the laptop over to me.
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Lewis is a large man. As he would say, “I’m a little over wuh wuh weight” (he stutters). I suppose his overweight condition is because of a sedentary lifestyle and a steady diet of fast food. I know that sounds presumptuous – there can be other factors, of course – but it’s a common pattern for many truck drivers. Lewis stuttered whenever he had to speak more than a few words. They tumbled and sputtered from his lips, one word bouncing over another.  When he finally completed a thought you sighed with sympathetic relief. That is the ponderous but endearing manner in which he eventually related to me some of his experiences on the road.  I was thrilled that I had earned Lewis’s confidence.
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New drivers and even some experienced drivers have to endure the demoralizing experience from time to time of being asked to leave a No Truck Parking location, such as a shopping mall parking lot or a freeway off ramp, where they have been forced to park for their mandatory rest break, usually because they have run out of driving hours. No matter how polite or sympathetic the security officer may be, when you’re asked to leave like that you feel like a kicked dog.
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Lewis told me that he had that experience a few nights ago. He accidentally ran out of driving hours and there were no truck stops nearby, so he took a chance and parked at the far edge of a Sears parking lot in Los Angeles. A couple of hours after he fell asleep he was awakened by an insistent banging on his door. He put on his sweats and slid sleepily into the driver’s seat. He lowered his window and looked down at an agitated middle-aged man in a blue uniform in a white Ford Ranger mini-pickup truck with a rotating yellow beacon.
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Lewis knew the routine. Before the mall cop had a chance to speak, Lewis said, “Suh suh sorry, officer, I’ll muh muh move.” The officer was relieved – sometimes these confrontations get nasty. But not with Lewis. He had been kicked so many times by the hardships of a life on the road that his apologetic retreat had become a reflex:
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“Suh suh sorry, officer, I’ll muh muh move.”
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“Suh suh sorry, duh duh dear, I’ll fix it when I guh guh get home.” (That was when the downstairs toilet stopped working. Now they would have to use the upstairs toilet.  They sure weren’t going to call an expensive plumber. “You should be here!” she told him in frustration.)
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“Suh suh sorry, buh buh buddy, I’ll make the nuh nuh next one. I puh puh promise.” (That was when he had to miss his son’s baseball game, again, because his truck broke down in Dallas.)
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I looked at Lewis’ first blog post. It was a picture of snow-covered mountains behind the Home Depot in Ogden Utah.
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I looked at his second post. It was a picture of a lively mountain stream running alongside a rest area in Colorado.
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His third post was an empty Arizona highway that stretched to a vanishing point on the far horizon.
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There were no pictures of the hustle and bustle of big cities, no passing snapshots of cheesy roadside attractions, and, most noticeably, no people. All of his posts were serene scenes of nature.
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It occurred to me that Lewis’ blog is his place of refuge. It’s a good place to have when you spend a lot of time in the dog house.

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53. Driving the Queen Mary

I have only had to haul heavy loads a few times but each time it was a memorable experience.  A heavy load is one that’s more than about 40,000 pounds, up to the limit of 45,000. The truck feels much different. You have to start out in a lower gear. It accelerates slowly, taking its time while the cars line up impatiently behind you. You have to slow down more for the curves and you start braking earlier when coming to a stop. There’s a kind of ponderous dignified stateliness about it. When I’m driving slowly through a small town with a heavy load I have an urge to wave to people on the street, who often stop and watch me go by.  Some times I even give them a toot on the air horn, especially the kids. A heavy load feels like you’re driving the Queen Mary.

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54. Highways and Byways

union baptist

One of the things that I like about long haul trucking is the opportunity it provides for reflection.  You have a lot of time to think about things without any distractions.  As the German poet Johann Goethe observed,  “We can be instructed within society but inspiration requires solitude.”  I don’t know how inspired my musings are but they do flow more freely when I’m alone on the open road.  My eyes are on the road but my thoughts are usually somewhere else.

Like most truck drivers I usually take the freeways between my long haul pickups and deliveries.  When the schedule allows, I sometimes take the highways and byways.  It works best in the Western Eleven and not as well in the Midwest and East, where there are too many small towns and slow roads.  On the highways and byways the appealing things in the passing landscape feel closer and more accessible, like the small church that I passed on a Sunday morning on Hwy 180 in west Texas.  There were two big rigs among the freshly washed cars and pickup trucks in the gravel parking lot.  As I rolled slowly by I heard the delightful sound of a favorite hymn through the open church doors:  “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…”

guest speaker

 (Telling stories to the American Truckers Convention during a rest break via Skype. ) 

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55. Road Warrior

view from the cab

You might wonder if I get drowsy or bored on long stretches. Usually I don’t. The 12-foot high cab and the huge windshield give you a commanding view. There is a scene in one of the Batman movies where the dark knight perches on top of the highest building in Gotham and looks out over the city, as if he owns it. That’s me. (If I let some air out of my seat and drop down about six inches it completely dispels the illusion.)

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56. Truck Driving Instructor

truck driving school

After I quit the Over the Road business I got a job as an instructor in a new truck driving program at a local vocational college.  I was hired to put together and teach the classroom material to help the students pass the DMV written tests, and conduct behind-the-wheel training in the yard and on the road.  Another man was hired as general manager, and a third man was hired to focus on recruiting students.

They purchased two used Freightliner trucks with sleeper berths and two 53-foot box trailers.  The new general manager persuaded them to spend $35,000 to wrap the trailers in a beautiful paint scheme.  Our name and phone number and web address were superimposed on a huge photo of a smiling truck driver waving at you from the cab.  It looked really sharp.

Our first class had a grand total of three students, which was far less than their projections, but we pressed on, confident that the advertising and recruiting efforts  would generate a lot more students.

One thing that surprised me as I sat at my desk preparing the lessons was how often I heard the recruiter say to a prospective student, “I see you have a felony.  I’m sorry but we can’t admit you.”  Usually it was a drug-related offense that caused them to fall victim to California’s Three Strikes law.  Our recruiter would explain to the applicant, who must have felt extremely dejected, that it wasn’t the school’s preference – we would be glad to have him as a student.  It was because the college had to show a good record of placing its graduates, and virtually no trucking company will hire someone who has a felony.

I enjoyed being an instructor, both in the classroom and on the road.  I mapped out a driving route that included city driving and highway driving. I carefully avoided streets with difficult turns that could get my novice students into serious trouble, like tight right turns where you have to swing into the adjacent lane to get turning clearance for the end of your trailer.

Many of my students had a lot of trouble at first with shifting. One poor fellow in particular was slower than the others. His efforts usually produced terrible grinding noises as he struggled to get through the gears. One day after we pulled out of the yard he managed to get it from second to third and, with more struggling, from third to fourth, but then he just left it there. He stared straight ahead over the steering wheel like everything was fine instead of going the rest of the way to ninth gear. We crawled down the boulevard at 20 MPH as traffic backed up behind us. I asked him, “Why aren’t you shifting?” With a sigh of exasperation he replied, “I figured I’d quit while I was ahead.”

We got along well in the office, but we discovered that the general manager had a volatile temper. We had to be careful not to set him off.

One day one of the students was driving too fast in the gravel yard, kicking up clouds of dust. The general manager stormed out of his office and practically ran up to the truck as the student brought it to a stop.  The general manager swung open the student’s door and screamed, “What the !&@$! do you think you’re doing!! Slow it down or I’ll kick your !&@$! out of here!!”

The mortified student didn’t say anything, but I could see that he was extremely shocked and embarrassed.  The general manager went back to his office.  We changed drivers and continued the lesson.  Later I was relieved to see  that the student didn’t quit the program – we needed him.

On another occasion we had just returned from some road work when the general manager came out to the yard with that furious look on his face.  He had noticed a small swath of green on the top left corner of the trailer.  One of the students had brushed against some overhanging tree branches during the roadwork.

As I started to enter the office he pointed at the swath of green and said, “Don’t let that happen again, or it’ll be your job.”

Something deep inside me snapped.  I spun around on the high doorstep and looked down at him and shouted, “Don’t you threaten me about my job !&@$!  I don’t want to hear that !&@$! anymore!!”

He rocked back on his heels, with his head and shoulders thrown back and his hands dangling at his sides.   In a single moment  his demeanor went from angry and threatening to stunned silence.  After he recovered his balance he said, weakly, “Well, just be careful” and went back to his office.  One of my students happened to come around the corner as this was happening and saw the whole thing.  As he passed by he grinned and gave me a discrete thumbs up.

As the months went on, most of the students passed the DMV tests and got their licenses. But we couldn’t get enough students to make it profitable.  Finally, after nine months, they informed us that they were closing the school.

There was a silver lining:  one of my students discovered that his neighbor was starting a trucking business.  It led to the best truck driving job I’ve ever had, including, most important of all,  plenty of home time.

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57. The Misadventures of Nelson Newbie

Here are some stories which I used in my classroom when I was a truck driving instructor. You might wanna grab a cup of coffee (or a No Doz!) – a lotta years generates a lotta stories. It’s called “The Misadventures of Nelson Newbie.”
This is Nelson Newbie.  He’s 58 years old, recently retired, and a loving husband and father, and he’s beginning a new second career as a long haul truck driver.  As with any new career there is a lot to learn and sometimes the only way to learn is to make mistakes.
“How Come I’m Not Moving?”

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Rookie driver Nelson Newbie pulled out of his parking space at the Pilot Truck Stop and turned to the right toward the freeway on ramp.  After his rest break he was in a hurry to get back on the freeway and make some progress toward his destination.  It was going to be another great day on his run from Los Angeles to Denver…or so he thought.  All of a sudden Nelson heard the sound of steel scraping on concrete, and he felt an unusual resistance to his forward movement.  He looked in his right-side mirror (for the first time this morning) and saw the end of his trailer suspended in the air on a 2-foot high K-rail that marked the beginning of a construction zone.  As the dust settled, several drivers walked over from the truck stop with their iPhones in hand.  Nelson sank down in his seat as he realized he had just become today’s featured attraction on Twisted Truckers, the Facebook page that features embarrassing mistakes made by truck drivers.  Nelson called Ernie, his dispatcher, and confessed his predicament.  Ernie was an exceptionally helpful and sympathetic dispatcher.  He gave Nelson the following advice:

“Don’t feel too bad, Nelson.  It’s a common mistake of new drivers – dragging their trailer wheels across the corner as they make a right turn. It happens a lot, even though all approved truck routes are designed to accommodate long trailers.”

Ernie talked Nelson through a backing maneuver that extricated Nelson from the K rail.  There was some minor damage to the aerodynamic skirt, otherwise Nelson got away lucky on this one.  Ernie explained about right turns:

“The secret for safe right turns  (there’s no magic here) is to pull well forward before you start the turn and check your right-side mirror as you approach the corner.  To get more clearance from the right-side curb you may have to move part way into the left lane as you approach the corner, or you can move a little further into the cross traffic lanes as you enter the cross traffic lanes.”

“There are times when it’s not safe or even possible to make a right turn with a long trailer.  You may need to go past the intersection and then go around the block to the left, to avoid having to make a dangerous right turn.”

“Holy S__T!  I Can’t Get Into Gear!”

As Nelson crested the hill he saw the signs that warned “Descend In Low Gear”, but he figured that with his light load he didn’t need to downshift.  His speed increased rapidly as he descended the steep grade.  He tried to downshift but he got flustered and couldn’t get it into gear.  Within a few moments he was going really fast and he was applying the brakes heavily.  Smoke started coming from his trailer brakes.  Now he was almost frantic.  He spotted the Runaway Truck Ramp up ahead and thought to himself, “I can’t believe this is happening to me!”  He braced himself tor the impact with the gravel pit.  He had the strange thought, for such a desperate moment, “I won’t be making my delivery on time.”

When his front tires hit the deep gravel he was thrown  forward against his seat belt.  He had to grip the steering wheel firmly to keep the wheels straight.  The truck came to a stop quickly in a cloud of dust.  He turned off the engine and looked around him, somewhat in shock at what had just happened.  As the dust settled he felt relieved and thankful that the frightening ordeal was over.  He called Ernie and Ernie said he would call a tow service to pull him out of the gravel pit.  Eventually he stopped shaking as he sat in his truck for the long wait for the tow truck.  Ernie called Nelson back after he scheduled the tow truck and then he explained to Nelson about descending a steep grade:

“When descending a steep grade it’s important to get into a lower gear at the top of the grade, before you start the descent.  Otherwise you might not be able to get into a lower gear.  When that happens your speed increases rapidly, which requires you to brake heavily to slow down.  You could then overheat your brakes, which can make them much less effective or even useless.”

“The best way to avoid overheating your brakes on a downgrade, in addition to being in a lower gear, is to use the Jake Brake.  This is a clever invention that uses engine compression to slow the truck.  It has been around for many years.  There is usually an on/off switch and a compression strength switch (high, medium, or low).  On your truck it’s on automatically in low compression mode which you would use for a light load, and you can push a toggle switch on the dash to  put it in high compression mode when you have a heavy load.”

Our recommended Jake Brake technique for descending a steep grade is to shift to 9th gear at the top of the grade and set your cruise control to 45 mph.  When the speed gets to about 50 mph the Jake Brake turns on and keeps you below 50 mph without having to use the  brakes.  If you need to apply the brakes to bring your speed down, apply them heavily and get the speed about 10 mph below your target speed, then let the Jake Brake take over.

“My Drive Wheels Are Spinning”

stuck on downsloping curve

Nelson followed the sharp spiral curve of the freeway on ramp.  He didn’t notice that his right side trailer wheels were going further and further onto the soft shoulder on the inside of the curve.  At the end of the curve he came to a stop to wait for traffic.  When he tried to start out again, the truck wouldn’t move – his left side drive wheels were spinning!  He got out of the truck and discovered to his dismay that the twist in his trailer, because of the down-sloping curve, had lifted his left side drive wheels slightly off the ground – enough to cause them to lose all their traction.

If your drive wheels are spinning because of ice, snow, or mud, or due to an uneven road surface, you may be able to regain traction by engaging the Differential Lock Switch.  This locks the differential so that both sets of drive wheels are locked together.

If the Differential Lock Switch doesn’t fix the problem you may have to find some material such as wooden boards or a long flat rock to wedge under the spinning drive wheels to try and regain traction.

“There’s No Way I Can Fit…”

Badly designed customer yards are common in downtown locations where every square foot is claimed and contested. Carelessly parked vehicles, thoughtlessly placed fire hydrants, and towering stacks of pallets limit the maneuvering area to the bare minimum. Making deliveries in these locations is a challenge for any driver, let alone a newbie like Nelson.

Nelson’s co-driver was in the passenger seat. With the weary patience of age, the old gearjammer silently endured Nelson’s exasperated cussing and ranting as he bounced from one landscaping boulder to the next, leaving paint on the rocks and dents in the bumper. He finally got the distant end of the trailer up to the dock. The building shook and the truck shuddered as he banged the dock so hard that workers stopped their movements and stared with indignation. Nelson set the brakes and slumped in his seat.  He wiped the sweat from his brow and turned off the engine, too exhausted and too embarrassed to look at his companion.

The best advice for situations like this is “take it slow”.  Sometimes you have to park outside the location and walk the yard to figure out how you’re going to get around the obstacles.  On one of my deliveries I had to move a whole stack of wooden pallets out of the way, one by one, to make room to maneuver.  Walking the yard also allows you to check in without blocking other traffic, locate your assigned dock, and determine how you will exit the location when you’re done so that you don’t get caught in a dead end.

“Oh No…I’m Over Weight”

weigh station open

Nelson pulled out of the Kroger loading dock in Phoenix with a full load of Gatorade.  He knew that a heavy load, like this one, required checking his axle weights at the CAT scale before he left for Los Angeles. He  pulled onto the CAT Scale at the Pilot Truck Stop, and sure enough, his scale receipt said he was 500 pounds over the weight limits on his trailer axles.  “Now what,” he thought.  His so-called “driver trainer” had never showed him how to slide the tandems to redistribute the weight over his axles.  With a heavy sigh he called his dispatcher and confessed his predicament.

If your scale receipt says you weigh more than 12,300 pounds on the steer axle or more than 34,300 pounds on the drive or trailer axles you will have to “slide the tandems” (which means move the trailer box forward or backward).

His dispatcher told him, “When you’re over weight on the trailer axles you have to lock the trailer brakes, release the tandem locking lever, and then drive forward to pull the trailer box forward.  This will move weight off the trailer axles.”

Nelson said, “OK, I get it.  What if you’re over weight on the drive axles?” His dispatcher said, “If you’re over weight on the drive axles you have to lock the trailer brakes, release the tandem locking lever, and then back up, to push the trailer box back. This will move weight off of the drive axles.”

The dispatcher explained, “Each hole on the slide rail counts for about 250 pounds on trailers with 4” spacing between the holes – that’s what we have on our trailers.  There are some trailers with 6” spacing between the holes.  Those are about 400 pounds per hole.”  If you weigh more than 12,300 on the steer axle, and you can’t get it legal by moving the trailer box back, then you will have to slide the fifth wheel.

To slide the fifth wheel you will lock the trailer brakes, lower the landing gear to take the weight off the fifth wheel, and then hold down the Fifth Wheel Slide switch on the dashboard while you gently move forward or backward.  Then re-weigh to make sure you are now legal.

If you ever pick up a load and the CAT scale says you’re over the 80,000 pound gross weight limit, go back to the shipper and show them your scale receipt.  They’re gonna have to offload some pallets.”

Nelson thanked him again.  The dispatcher said, “This is a tricky calculation even for veterans sometimes.  Always re-weigh after sliding to make sure that you’re legal.”

fifth wheel

To slide the fifth wheel:
– set the trailer brakes
– lower the landing gear to take the weight off the fifth wheel
– hold down the Fifth Wheel Slide switch on the dashboard while you gently move forward or backward

Then re-weigh to make sure you are now legal. If you are still over weight, call your dispatcher and explain that you are not able to get all the axles legal. They may ask you to return to the shipper to have it re-loaded.

If the scale receipt says you are over the maximum gross weight of 80,000 pounds, you would have to go back to the shipper with your scale receipt in hand and ask them to offload some cargo.

overloaded truck

“My #@!#% Trailer Box Won’t Slide”

sliding tandems

The dock supervisor at the Walmart Distribution Center in Buckeye, Arizona, was getting impatient.  He had already assigned Nelson to a door and instructed Nelson to slide his trailer wheels to the rear of the trailer (which makes it safer for loading and unloading with a forklift).  But now it was 15 minutes later and Nelson was still fooling around with his trailer, and he wasn’t up to the dock yet.  The dock supervisor yelled, “Let’s go!  I’ve got trucks waiting!”  Once again Nelson had to swallow his pride and call his dispatcher for advice.  He told him he couldn’t get the tandem slider locking pins to retract.

His dispatcher told him to set the trailer brakes and then back up firmly against the kingpin.  He said, “Then set the parking brake and go back and try to pull the release arm again.”

Nelson performed the maneuver as he was told, and then he was able to pull out the tandem release arm and slide the trailer box all the way forward.  He backed up to the dock and they proceeded with the loading.

He called his dispatcher back and thanked him for his help.  The dispatcher said, “Here’s another little tip I learned when I was a newbie:  There’s supposed to be a catch on the tandem release arm for locking it in the “out” position, but sometimes the catch doesn’t hold.  You have to give it a little help.  A pair of vise grips does the job nicely.  That’s one of the essential items for your toolbox.”

Nelson said, “Thanks, again, I really appreciate it.”  He realized he was lucky to have such a helpful and knowledgeable dispatcher.

“Hey, Pal, Do You Have A Pair of Vise Grips?”

There is a latch for the “out” position on the tandem slider release arm but it often doesn’t work without a little help.  A pair of vise grips does the job, as shown in the photo.  After you lock the release arm in the “out” position with the vise grips, you can get back in the cab and slide the tandems to the position you want.

“No Fridge?  Get Some Non-Refrigerated Milk Substitutes”

I like to have cereal with bananas for breakfast but I don’t want to buy a truck refrigerator to keep the milk cold.  I found that non-refrigerated milk substitutes such as Soy Milk, Rice Milk, and Almond Milk are delicious with my cereal.  Walmart carries all three of these, including individual serving sizes.  Here is what the Walmart web site says about the non-refrigerated aspect:  “Shelf-stable containers are sterile and hermetically sealed, much like canned foods. This allows them to be kept in storage without refrigeration. Once opened, shelf-stable products should be kept refrigerated.”

“I Can’t Get Under the Trailer”

trailer dropped in low spot

Sometimes a careless driver will drop a trailer in a bad location (such as a dirt yard with an uneven surface) and the landing gear feet drop down into a low spot when he pulls out from under the trailer. When this happens, the front of the trailer makes a loud bang when it slides off the fifth wheel and crashes down onto the rear end of the tractor frame, but the driver ignores it and goes on his way, leaving the next driver with a difficult situation.

If you are able to get the rear end of your tractor frame under the front of the trailer, you may be able to support the front end of the trailer in this manner and then crank up the landing gear a few inches so that you can put some boards or large flat rocks under the landing gear feet, and then crank down the landing gear all the way to raise up the front end of the trailer. This may raise the front end of the trailer enough so that you back the rest of the way under the trailer.

“I Just Lost My Trailer!”

trailer on tractor frame

Nelson was the center of attention, and not in a good way.  He had just picked up a loaded trailer at the Lowes store in Tucson, Arizona.  Now he was stopped in the middle of the street, and traffic was backing up quickly.  His tractor was separated from his trailer, and his trailer was sitting nose-down on its retracted landing gear legs.  He heard a police siren in the distance and it was getting louder.

Nelson had forgotten to do a tug test to make sure the trailer kingpin was locked after picking up a new trailer.   You set the trailer brakes and then carefully give it a little gas to try and pull forward – if the kingpin is locked, the trailer won’t move.

As he pulled into the street everything seemed fine and then Bang! – the trailer slid off the fifth wheel and crashed down onto the street on the retracted landing gear legs. Nelson was lucky in this case –  he managed to stop the truck before the air and electrical lines broke away from the trailer.  Nelson cranked the landing gear down  to raise the front end of the trailer and then he backed under the trailer, just as the police officer arrived.  Nelson explained what happened.  The officer said, “Well, OK, just get moving.”  Nelson climbed into his truck and went on his way.

“My Landing Gear Won’t Go Up or Down”

old trailer3

Nelson arrived at his pickup location and backed under the tired-looking old trailer.  Now all he had to do was crank up the landing gear.  But no matter how hard he pushed or pulled on the landing gear handle it wouldn’t move.  He was out of patience, out of strength, and out of time.  Fortunately another driver saw what was happening and came over to help.

Some trucking companies are notorious for operating old worn out trailers – the landing gear won’t go up or down, doors won’t latch properly, and tandems won’t slide. The helpful driver watched Nelson try to turn the landing gear handle and saw that Nelson wasn’t using it properly.  He showed Nelson how to make sure he was starting out with the lowest gear – pull the handle all the way out (or in some cases push the handle all the way in).  Nelson managed to get the handle into the low gear position, and then he was able to crank up the landing gear.

The other driver also gave Nelson a tip that could help in the future.  He said, ‘You can slide the tandems all the way to the front (in other words, push the trailer box all the way back).  It will take some weight off the landing gear.”  Nelson thanked the helpful driver and went on his way.

“I’m Stranded in No Name, Arizona, and I’m Out of Hours”

remote location

Nelson pushed hard all day  and managed to make his delivery on time at the Walmart Distribution Center in Buckeye, Arizona.  But now he was out of driving hours, and he was 10 miles from the closest truck stop.

Nelson didn’t want to drive beyond the 11-hour limit and have to endure an annoying and embarrassing lecture from the Safety Department.  So he found a wide shoulder just outside the Walmart gate and stoically spent his mandatory 10-hour break there, by the side of the road – no food, no bathroom, and no truck stop movie theater.   He was lucky that the local police or highway patrol didn’t make him move.

A few days later he confessed his trip planning mistake to another driver.  The other driver exclaimed, “Don’t you know about PC?”  “What’s that?” said Nelson.  “Personal Conveyance – when you’re empty and you’re in a situation like that you can drive to a truck stop and log it as “Off Duty.”  Nelson slapped his forehead and said, “Oh, OK, next time.  Thanks, pal.”

“My Fifth Wheel Release Handle Won’t Unlatch”

fifth wheel

If you are pulling as hard as you can on the fifth wheel release handle and it won’t budge, you should set the trailer brakes, back up gently against the kingpin, and then set the parking brake. This may relieve the tension between the kingpin and the fifth wheel locking jaws.

“There’s No Parking Spaces Left and I’m Out of Hours”

truck stop full

Nelson was very relieved when he pulled into the busy truck stop near St.George, Utah.  He was down to his last half hour of driving time.  If he went over the 11-hour limit he would probably get an annoying and embarrassing phone call from his Safety Department.  But his relief turned to dismay when he discovered there were no open parking spaces – the truck stop was completely full.

Nelson thought, “Now what am I gonna do?”  He wondered if he should just wait it out – a space might open up within a few hours.  But you can’t go to sleep while you’re waiting for a space to open up.  Reluctantly he called his dispatcher.

His dispatcher told him that there was a Home Depot nearby.  They usually allow truck parking.  He said that if Home Depot didn’t work out he could also do a Google search for nearby rest areas, Lowes, or Walmarts.

Nelson drove to the Home Depot.  He was greatly relieved to find a good parking spot behind their building.  He had a good rest break and nobody bothered him.

“My Kingpin Is Stuck in Front of My Fifth Wheel”

kingpin stuck

Nelson arrived at the Kmart Distribution Center in Fontana and dropped his empty trailer at the assigned spot, and then he backed under the loaded trailer that was waiting for him at another spot in the yard.  As he was backing under the trailer, something didn’t sound right – he didn’t hear the usual heavy scraping sound as the bottom of the trailer rubbed across the top of the fifth wheel.  But he shrugged it off and kept going.

Then he heard a metallic CLUNK and he knew that something was definitely wrong.  He had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach as he climbed down from the cab.  He immediately saw to his dismay that the kingpin had gone right over the top of his fifth wheel as he backed under the trailer.  Now the kingpin was stuck in front of the fifth wheel.  Nelson had no idea how to handle this predicament, so once again he reluctantly called his dispatcher.

Luckily his dispatcher was a former driver and he knew what to do.  He told Nelson,  “You’re gonna have to wiggle your way out of it by making small turns to the left and right as you back up and pull forward.  You won’t be able to move forward or back very far, so make sure you turn the wheel all the way to the left or right before you move forward or back.”

Nelson did as he was told.  With great relief he finally managed to wiggle free.  He called his dispatcher and thanked him for his help.  His dispatcher said, “No problem, but you’re not done yet.  Now use the landing gear handle and lower the trailer a little so it’s the right height for the fifth wheel.”

Nelson lowered the trailer about two inches and then he was able to back under it successfully. He called his dispatcher and thanked him again.  His dispatcher said, “You’re welcome.”  His dispatcher could hear the relief and gratitude in Nelson’s voice.  He told Nelson, “Here’s a tip:  Always be sure that the trailer lifts up a little when you back under it.  You should  see the front end of the trailer lift up as you go under it, and the landing gear feet should be a little bit off the ground.”  Nelson said,  “Thanks again” and went on his way.

“My Trailer Doors Won’t Latch”

trailer doors

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can’t get the trailer doors to latch. Sometimes it is due to old worn out equipment and there is not much you can do about it. But sometimes it is due to the trailer resting on an uneven surface, which prevents the doors and latches from lining up properly. Try to reposition the trailer onto a flatter
surface if possible.

“I’m Stuck on a Dead End Street”

When you accidentally find yourself on a dead end street, the first urge may be to try and do an immediate U-turn. Before doing that you need to Get Out And Look to make sure there is enough room for the turn, including any obstacles such as power lines, signs, trees, and vehicles that may be in the swing radius of the trailer.

u-turn1 Trailer hits tree…

If there is not enough room for a U-turn, you should back up to a place where you can safely do a U-turn or turn off onto a side street. If there is any traffic around and if you cannot find someone to stop traffic for you, you should call for police assistance while you are backing up.

u-turn2  …tree hits parked vehicle.

“My DPF Filter Is Clogged and I’m Stuck in Traffic”

dpf clogged

You should not ignore the Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF) warning light if it flashes on your dashboard – it will eventually lead to engine shutdown. As soon as the warning light appears, begin looking for a safe place to pull over and then do a Parked Regen to burn the soot out of the exhaust system.  That will take about half an hour.

“I’m Trying To Get To The Dock and I Can’t See S__T”

Most customer yards and distribution centers are designed so that they do not require blind side backing. But if you do find yourself in this situation, try to get someone to spot for you and then proceed very slowly. Get Out And Look as many times as it takes to avoid hitting anything.

blind side backing

Some drivers have mounted a mirror on the passenger-side sun visor to give them a better view when blind side backing. You can find these on the Internet. You may be able to find a suitable mirror yourself and attach it with Velcro strips.

backing mirror

Anything that will help you avoid a backing accident is well worth it.

backing error

“There’s No Place to Park Except This Parallel Parking Spot”

parallel park2

Occasionally you will find yourself in a situation where you have to parallel park, such as alongside a building, because there is not enough room to just pull straight into the parking space. To parallel park in a space on your left, for example, position the end of your trailer at the beginning of the parking space, turn right to begin entering the space, then turn left to swing the front of your tractor and trailer into the space.

“I Got A Ticket For Headlight Out”

You should not continue to drive when you know that a headlight or taillight is out. Aside from the hazard to other drivers, it will be a point on your CSA record if you get a ticket. Always carry spare bulbs for your truck’s headlights and tail lights. They are available at most truck stops.  Many truck models allow easy bulb replacement without requiring tools.

bulb

“My Trailer Tire Is Flat – Should I Keep Going?”

Tire blowouts are fairly common. They usually do not cause an emergency if you handle them correctly. To maintain control of your rig when a tire blowout occurs, especially a steer tire, you should step on the accelerator to counteract the side force that results from the blowout until you are sure you have steering control, then gradually slow down and pull to the side of the road.

tire blowout

A flat tire on your steer tires or drive tires should be repaired or replaced immediately by pulling to a safe spot on the shoulder or freeway off ramp and then calling a roadside repair service. Be sure and pull well off the roadway and put out your reflective triangles.

If you have a blowout on a single dualie tire on your trailer it is generally safe to proceed to the nearest truck stop.

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“Essentials for Long Haul Truck Driving”

No Doz caffeine pills. For that little extra push at 4am between El Paso and Dallas. “One pill equals 1-2 cups of coffee.” Beware: you might find yourself offering to unload your truck for free with a pallet jack.

Spare glad hand seals. They seal the air connection between the two parts of the glad hand connector on the brake lines (the two parts join firmly together, like a Texas handshake). They’re called glad hands because when there’s no air leaking from the brake system you feel glad.

Baling wire. It holds the broken corner of your bumper in place when some idiot drags the end of his trailer across your front corner when pulling out of his parking spot.

Wet wipes. Real handy when there’s no running water around, like taking a “trucker shower” to refresh yourself for the next 11-hour driving shift.

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58. FLYING STORIES

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59. Stunt Pilot
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In the summer of ‘82 Henry Vanderwendt competed in an amateur aerobatics competition at Thermal Airport near Palm Springs. He was flying his Monnett Sonerai, a mid-wing bubble canopy tail dragger with a 90 HP Volkswagen engine. That was just enough horsepower to enable him to perform all the required stunts in the Sportsman category including loops and rolls and Immelmann turns and Split S’s and Cuban 8’s.

Aresti Diagram of an Aerobatic Routine

Most of the competitors had powerful, expensive Pitts and Extra 300 planes but that didn’t worry the dashing young lieutenant – he knew that flying skill was more important than the airplane in these competitions. His favorite maneuver, when he wasn’t practicing the competition routine, was the vertical half roll, where he would lower the nose a little and accelerate at full throttle to 150 mph and then pull up to a vertical climb and execute a half roll with left or right aileron. He loved to watch the wingtip track across the horizon during the roll. And he loved that moment at the top of a loop when you’re upside down and you’re pressed into your seat by centrifugal force and you tip your head back to capture the horizon behind you through the bubble canopy to orient yourself for the next maneuver. You get an exquisite sense of being in control of the moment.

The competitors were a mixed bag of feckless playboys and overachiever professionals and sometimes just everyday people who had a passion for flying and were willing to spend all of their disposable income on airplanes and flying lessons (that was Henry in 1982).

One of the competitors was the young scion of a famous wine-making family. He had long brown hair and a quiet cultivated manner and a Mediterranean tan. He was always surrounded by an admiring entourage, like Paris Hilton. The young heir was flying his $40,000 Pitts. That was a lot of money back then.

Another competitor was Lee Manelski, a United Airlines pilot. Lee escaped the confinement of airline flying on weekends in his beloved Pitts. He flew out of Santa Paula airport near Los Angeles. There is an aerobatic practice zone a few miles south of the field above the Santa Clara River valley. Lee gave us a thrill one day when he flew down the runway at 50 feet with his smoke on. He zoomed up at the end of the runway in a graceful wingover, then he turned off his smoke and entered the downwind leg of the landing pattern. As we admired the display we were thinking, “There goes Lee!” He was killed one day while taking off from Santa Paula airport. He collided with a helicopter that was lifting off next to the runway. The helicopter was carrying the actor Kirk Douglas. Mr. Douglas and his pilot both survived. The bi-winged Pitts is notorious for poor forward visibility.

On this day the three of them walked confidently shoulder to shoulder towards their airplanes which were lined up along the runway, their streamlined surfaces glistening in the early morning sun. The attention of each of the pilots was focused on his airplane, the object of his greatest affection. (Sorry ladies. But for at least one of them that would change.)  Henry noticed that they were all coincidentally wearing the uniform of the day – blue jeans and a white T-shirt and white lace-up sneakers. He imagined that to an onlooker it must have looked like a scene from a movie.

Henry completed a careful walk-around of his aircraft, inside and out. As his aerobatics instructor had taught him, he looked for any loose objects, like pens and sunglasses, that might begin floating around during negative G while the aircraft was inverted and then get lodged in a bad spot when the aircraft returned to positive G. That could be disastrous. He removed one of his Air Force-issue Nomex flight gloves (a souvenir from a bittersweet episode in his life a few years earlier) and dragged his finger tips along the smooth fuselage. The visceral sensation was more thrilling than the silky curves of his latest girlfriend.

He climbed into the cockpit and strapped on the lightweight sport parachute that was already in place in the seat. He turned on the VHF radio and tuned it to the Unicom frequency, 122.8, and listened for the controller in the temporary competition control tower to call his name.

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60. Elusive Wings
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The colonel welcomed Lt. Henry Vanderwendt into his office and asked him to sit down in the chair in front of his desk.

“The reason I called you in, Lieutenant…” began the colonel, with Air Force formality, “is because…” He paused for a moment and relaxed a little in his posture and then went on, with more kindness in his voice, “…we have observed some deficiencies in your flying performance.”

The soft-spoken young lieutenant didn’t say anything.  He anticipated this meeting, because of his instructor’s stiffening demeanor and his increasingly critical comments about his flying performance over the previous few weeks.

The colonel continued, “We’re going to have you fly with your Flight Leader and then with me, and then we’ll see where we stand.”

It was the beginning of the end of Lt. Henry Vanderwendt’s Air Force pilot training.  It was an experience for which he has always been grateful.  It seemed like a devastating personal failure to the young officer at the time, but he eventually managed to get over it and move on.  It was some consolation to know that about a third of the candidates who enter Air Force pilot training don’t complete the training for one reason or another.

Lt. Vanderwendt was in the middle of the Instrument Flying phase of the program.  He had previously completed the Takeoff and Landing, Cross Country Navigation, and Aerobatics phases of the program.

Early in his dual training flights his instructor complimented Lt. Vanderwendt on his “abnormal attitude recoveries.”  That’s where the instructor tells the student to close his eyes, then the instructor rolls the aircraft inverted or points the aircraft straight up, or some other unusual attitude, and then he tells the student to “open your eyes and recover.”  You have to quickly determine your attitude with respect to the horizon and apply the correct control inputs to recover to level flight without building up excessive airspeed which can over-stress the aircraft and cause the student and instructor to black out from excessive G force (the instructor keeps a close eye on the situation during these maneuvers).

Lt. Vanderwendt also received high marks on his spin recoveries.  That’s where the instructor tells the student to level off at about 120 MPH and then pull the nose up to about ten degrees above the horizon and then reduce the throttle to idle.  The aircraft  then loses airspeed quickly and within a few moments the aircraft loses aerodynamic lift and “stalls” – one wing or the other drops downward, followed by the nose of the aircraft, and the aircraft starts spinning, nose down.  It can be very disorienting to see your world spinning around like that with your nose pointing toward the ground at about a 60 degree angle.  Many pilot trainees and even experienced pilots have lost their lives because they accidentally entered a spin, which is more likely to occur in instrument weather conditions where you don’t have ground references.  To recover from a spin you have to apply opposite rudder in the correct direction, left or right, to stop the spin, and then pull the nose up gradually to avoid blacking out or over-stressing the aircraft from excessive G force, and then recover to level flight by adding throttle.

Each training flight lasted about one and a half hours.  For takeoff and landing practice they flew to Florence Airport, a small airfield about 10 minutes south of Williams Air Base.  They did touch-and-go landings where the student learned the critical nature of airspeed and the wing’s angle of attack.  The T-37, although it was a twin-engine jet, accelerated slowly and if you got too slow on short final it could be disastrous.  On one of his training flights Lt. Vanderwendt allowed the jet to get a little slow on final approach and his instructor decided his student was taking a little too long to correct his error.  The instructor grabbed his control stick (side-by-side seating with dual controls) and slammed the control stick quickly forward and then back.  This threw Lt. Vanderwendt abruptly forward and his helmet bounced off the instrument panel – Hello!   Lt. Vanderwendt never made the mistake again of getting a little too slow on final approach.

Aerobatics was by far Lt. Vanderwendt’s favorite phase of training.  For each of his five solo aerobatic flights he was handed the keys to a 400 MPH twin-engine jet and told, in effect, “Take it up to 25,000 feet and fly the wings off it.”  They did loops and rolls and other aerobatic maneuvers among the towering cumulonimbus clouds that formed in the afternoons above the Arizona desert.

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After his first solo aerobatic flight his instructor told him that the controllers were joking that “Lt. Vanderwendt mostly just flew the fences.”  That meant that he was flying like a timid novice along the borders of the air space and not using the whole airspace like the bolder and more experienced pilots.  After he heard that, Lt. Vanderwendt made a point on his subsequent flights of using the whole air space and really wringing out the airplane.  He would do Immelman reversals where you start in level flight at about 300 MPH and then pull back on the stick until you are inverted and then maintain level inverted flight for a few moments and then roll right side up with a quick aileron roll; and he would do Split-S’s where you start in level flight at about 300 MPH and then roll inverted and push the nose up about ten degrees above the horizon and then climb while inverted for a few moments and then pull the nose down and level off at the same altitude that you started.  And he would do barrel rolls where you start in level flight at about 300 MPH and then apply left or right aileron with coordinated left or right rudder and trace a large graceful “barrel” in the sky – like a victorious fighter pilot after a “kill”.

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Their aircraft and their flying gear such as helmet, parachute, and oxygen equipment were expertly maintained by the squadron’s maintenance and support personnel.  It was rare to have any serious problems with the aircraft or equipment.  But he did experience an incident one day that could have ended badly.

After taking off for one of his solo aerobatic flights, where he would be climbing to 25,000 feet, he discovered that his oxygen regulator said zero PSI!  This was a boldface item on the Takeoff Checklist.  When you’re above about 12,000 feet, if you don’t have supplemental oxygen (or a pressurized cabin like an airliner) you will experience the effects of hypoxia – that’s oxygen deprivation – which could cause you to black out.  When that happens to a solo pilot it usually doesn’t end well.

Lt. Vanderwendt called the tower and said, “Williams Tower, Hook 5-2” (that was his assigned call sign for that flight).  The tower controller said, “Go ahead, Hook 5-2”.  He said, “My O2 gage says zero. Request RTB”  (Return To Base). The tower controller said, “Hook 5-2, you’re cleared to land, Three Zero Left, make left traffic.”  After landing they gave him a new airplane and he went on with his aerobatic training flight.

(A few years later he asked his department manager at Lockheed, Colonel Dick Gerard, who was a former SR-71 Blackbird pilot, if he ever had an in-flight emergency.  He realized right away that it was a silly question – the colonel had probably handled many in-flight emergencies in his long military flying career.  Colonel Gerard chuckled and said, “Yeah, I’ve had a few.”  He thought for a moment and began, “One time I had an engine fire in the SR” (the SR-71 Blackbird).  Henry eagerly asked, “What did you do?”   The colonel said, “I shut it down and pulled the fire extinguisher handle.  It put out the fire, and we got back to base on one engine without any problems.”  Then the colonel asked Henry, “How about you?”  Henry told him his oxygen regulator story.  Colonel Gerard listened with great interest.)

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They practiced simulated parachute bailouts.  They took the trainees in a bus out to the desert, and then laid their parachute on the ground behind them, and then attached one end of a long nylon rope to their parachute harness and the other end to the rear bumper of a jeep.  The jeep then started out slowly across the desert as the trainee trotted to keep up, then the parachute inflated and lifted them off the ground.  As the jeep went faster and faster they went up higher and higher, up to about 200 feet above the desert.  Then they unhooked the rope and the trainee floated down to the ground.  The trainees were told to bend their knees slightly and keep their feet together and fall over on their side when they hit the ground.  Somehow all the trainees in Lt. Vanderwendt’s class managed to survive without any injuries, although there may have been a few sets of soiled underwear that day.

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They were introduced to the effects of oxygen deprivation in a visit to the Altitude Chamber.  They put on oxygen masks and then the airmen in charge of the physiological unit pumped the air out of the room to simulate high altitude.  Then the trainees were told to take off their masks.  After a few minutes they had them try to perform some simple math problems and other tests.  They were all shocked at how stupid they had suddenly become (and how bad the room smelled).

For his cross country training flight Lt. Vanderwendt and his instructor took off from Williams AFB, climbed to 18,000 feet, and cruised at 400 MPH to Edwards AFB north of Los Angeles.  Then they continued on to March AFB in Riverside, CA, and slept overnight at the Visiting Officers Quarters, and then they flew back to Williams AFB.  Each landing was done as an instrument approach, simulating that they were flying in weather and couldn’t see any ground references.  In those conditions you have to rely strictly on your instruments to tell you your attitude, position, airspeed, and altitude.

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At the beginning of their training most of the trainees were thinking “I’m gonna be a hotshot fighter pilot.”  But as the weeks went on and the rigors of training sorted them out some of the young men and women began thinking maybe a transport or tanker wouldn’t be so bad, and some of them were thinking, “I just hope I can make it through.”

The Instrument Flying phase turned out to be Lt. Vanderwendt’s nemesis.  The tolerances are strict – small errors add up quickly at 400 MPH.  A number of students and instructors are killed every year in training accidents.  After a series of failed approaches his instructor summed it up with the devastating words, “You’re not keeping up with the aircraft.”

If he had completed the Instrument Flying phase Lt. Vanderwendt would have gone on to the last phase of Basic Training – Formation Flying.   Then he would advance from the subsonic (400 MPH) T-37 to the supersonic (800 MPH) T-38.  Then he would be assigned to an operational squadron, flying either fighters (where the highest scoring graduates usually went), or transports, or tankers.

After he was eliminated Lt. Vanderwendt returned to his job as a technical writer at the Lockheed aircraft factory in Burbank, CA.  He was assigned to write technical manuals on one of their most top secret projects.  It would later be revealed to the world as the F-117 Stealth Fighter.  

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Several years after he returned to Lockheed Henry enrolled in an instrument flying course at a civilian flight school and obtained his instrument rating, flying Cessna 152’s (top speed 120 MPH).  In his 25 years as a private pilot, instrument flying has turned out to be his favorite type of flying.

cessna-pilot

Henry is encouraged, along with many others who have stumbled on the field of heroic endeavor, by these poignant words by President Theodore Roosevelt:
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“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

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61. Almost Perfect People
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f117 pilot
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Henry Vanderwendt is grateful that he has had the pleasure of working with several almost perfect people – those rare souls who inspire us with their brilliance and leadership and goodness and yet have a shortcoming or two that allows us to identify with them.  As time goes by their memory endures like a lighthouse in a storm.
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Whether or not we have people like these in our lives depends on our circle of acquaintances.  So it is important to cultivate a good circle of acquaintances, in particular people who you look up to and admire, so that you will end up with a treasure trove of almost perfect people, as Henry did.
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Many of Henry’s almost perfect people turned out to be military and civilian test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base where Henry worked as a network technician for many years, as well as engineers and IT professionals and project managers at the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works where Henry worked for 33 years until he retired.  Other people might find their almost perfect people within the medical profession or the construction industry or their religious associations, and so on.
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Henry noticed that the almost perfect people in his life tend to have the following qualities:
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1) They are very smart  – they possess a combination of common sense, good judgment, and advanced education, training and experience;
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2) They are very brave – they know that bravery is not the lack of fear but the ability to overcome fear in the face of danger;
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3) They are very humble – they know that their special talents and intelligence are a gift from God, and from those to whom much has been given, much is demanded;
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4) They are very likable – their sense of humor is always lighthearted or mischievous, never dark or cynical or sarcastic;
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5) They are very honest – you know that you can trust them.  They identify with Mark Twain’s witty observation: “If you tell the truth you never have to remember anything.” They always look you in the eye when you talk to them. When you shake their hand they have a strong, firm grip and they look at you and smile.
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Colonel Gerard
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When Henry got out of the Air Force in 1981 he returned to his job as a technical writer at the Lockheed aircraft factory in Burbank, CA.  His first assignment was writing technical manuals for the F-117 Stealth  Fighter.  It was still a top secret program then. Very few people knew that a revolutionary aircraft was being built in the small collection of buildings at Burbank airport that had painted-over windows and armed security guards at the gate.  Once a week, as they came off the assembly line, the planes were partially disassembled and crated and flown to a secret air base in the Nevada desert where they were re-assembled and flight tested.
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Henry’s boss was  Colonel Dick Gerard.  He was a former SR-71 Blackbird pilot.  That made him a member of the Air Force’s most elite fraternity of fighter pilots.  Colonel Gerard lead by example – when the pressure was on to produce essential technical  data on short notice for development and flight testing requirements Colonel Gerard was right there with Henry and his coworkers on many late nights and weekends.
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In spite of his accomplishments Colonel Gerard would be the first one to admit that he isn’t perfect.  For one thing he knows that he smokes too much, but he just doesn’t want to quit.
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John R.
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John R. was a flight test engineer on Lockheed’s F-117 Program.  One day as John entered the cafeteria line at a secret air base in Nevada he found that he was standing behind Henry.  He said “Hi, Henry” and Henry responded ,  “Hi, John!” with an excited handshake. Henry was there to help plan the F-117 Program Network, which would connect half a dozen air bases and contractor facilities around the country with high speed encrypted voice and data links.  Henry and John filled their trays and sat down at one of the long banquet-style tables which were filling up fast with other flight test team members.
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Henry was a big flight simulator fan. He asked John what airspeed he should maintain on final for the F-4 Phantom in the flight simulator program on his home computer.  A young flight test engineer across the table, who was known to be obnoxiously arrogant, overheard Henry’s question and snickered to his table mates.   Henry suspected that the young flight test engineer assumed that Henry had never been closer to an aircraft control than the joystick on his home computer.  John saw what was going on and replied to Henry’s question, “135 knots.” Then he added, loudly, “So, Henry, how long have you had your instrument rating?” Henry replied proudly, “Two years.” That shut up the arrogant young flight test engineer.
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John is a wonderful person but he would also be the first one to admit that he isn’t perfect.  For one thing he knows that he spends too much time at work at the expense of his family. John can see that his teenage son is beginning to see him now as he really is and not as the hero that little boys imagine their fathers to be. At dinner one evening John tried to explain why he can’t always be there for his games. Alex looked at his dad and didn’t say anything. John was pleased to see a hint of forgiveness.
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Commander Jim
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Henry and two other members of the network support team were assigned to design and install the F-35 flight test network at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland.  After months of preparation everyone gathered at the hangar, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the first test aircraft.  When it taxied up to the hangar, right on schedule, the Navy ground crew rolled a metal staircase up to the aircraft and helped the pilot climb out of the cockpit.
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Commander Jim, U.S. Navy Test Pilot, greeted the ground crew who assisted him out of the cockpit.  Then he strolled nonchalantly down the metal staircase.  When he got to the bottom step he paused for a moment and let out a happy sigh to relieve some of the tension after his long cross country flight in a brand new irreplaceable test aircraft.  He waved briefly to Henry and the other familiar members of the flight test team.  Henry and the others waved back with proper military dignity but inside they were bursting with pride.  Then Commander Jim turned his attention to the Lockheed and Navy brass who had gathered for the big occasion.  He flashed his signature grin and made a two-footed bunny hop from the bottom step of the staircase to the pavement, to everyone’s hearty applause.
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As far as being humble, Henry suspects that Commander Jim will never admit that he is anything less than completely perfect.  In fact we are sure he is convinced that he is far more than a mere mortal.
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62. Flying with the Doors Off
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36 flying Stits Skycoupe (2)
Vandenberg AFB 1981
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I used to own a small two-seat home-built airplane called the Stits Skycoupe. I purchased it for $2,500 from the man who built it, when I was stationed at Williams AFB in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1980.  Home-built airplanes have to be built to strict FAA standards but sometimes a poor design can slip through and the unwary pilot might pay the price (as in my “Fuel Exhaustion” story).  I flew the Skycoupe all around the southwestern deserts and later all around southern California when I was stationed at Vandenberg AFB near Santa Barbara. One day I decided to go for a sightseeing flight with the doors off.  I had done it with a friend once in his Citabria, a slow-speed two-seater similar to my Skycoupe.  It was really fun.  Everything looks so much more vivid and immediate and personal.  You can smell the aromas of the earth below, like when riding a motorcycle through the countryside.

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63. The Skycoupe

36 flying Vandenberg AFB

When I purchased the Skycoupe it had not flown for several years, since the builder could no longer pass the FAA’s biannual medical exam for private pilots.  It was in excellent condition as far as airworthiness but its appearance after several years of outside storage in the Arizona desert was a little weary-looking.  I washed it thoroughly inside and out and then I touched up the paint with cans of appliance white and sky blue spray paint and reupholstered the seat with a material that looked and felt like black leather.  

I flew it all over southern Arizona and California for two glorious years.  I would remove the doors, as shown in the photo, and fly low over the alfalfa fields of the Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles and savor the aroma.  I’d buzz the beaches between Oxnard and Santa Barbara, annoying the sea lions.  I’d climb to 7,000 feet above the Palmdale Pass and wait for an unsuspecting victim and then swoop down like a bird of prey and slide along side, a little in front so he could clearly see me (that’s not allowed, you know).  The other pilot’s startled expression usually changed to good-natured amusement.  Then I’d wave and break off and climb up again for my next victim.  (With those big red letters on the side of my plane I could have been easily identified and reported to the FAA but I never heard anything about it.  I think they didn’t report me because it’s a great thrill to see another plane flying along beside you, like two fighter pilots on dawn patrol, but most pilots only get to dream about it.)

I made a chart of the airport tower frequencies for all the airports in the Los Angeles area and taped it to the ceiling above my windshield. Hopping from airport to airport like a big butterfly I visited a dozen airports on a Saturday or Sunday, using my handheld VHF radio to call for takeoff and landing clearances. This was before 9/11 when things were much more casual.

It was a very basic design. The 65 HP Continental engine gave it a comparatively slow top speed of about 90 MPH. It had no electrical system or starter like most small planes. But it had one essential redeeming virtue: it was within the modest budget of a young Second Lieutenant.

The photo is in front of the control tower at Vandenberg AFB, near Santa Barbara, California. I was stationed there for awhile in 1981.   One of the colonels who ran things at the base would sometimes visit the Aero Club where I helped out in the evenings. When I told him that I owned a Skycoupe he invited me to keep my plane in the huge empty Air Force hangar where he kept his own Mooney aircraft.

On weekends I was allowed to do takeoffs and landings from the 3-mille long runway where the Space Shuttles landed after  polar orbit flights, placing spy satellites in orbit or other missions. And I was allowed to fly around in the highly restricted airspace, and up and down the Vandenberg AFB coastline. It was a rare privilege.

In order to start the plane when I was by myself I had to tie it down, turn on the ignition, set the throttle at Idle, and then stand at the front right side of the plane, behind the propeller and facing forward, and reach up with both hands and pull the propeller down briskly while taking a step backward (a crucial step!). It’s called “hand propping”.

Some practitioners of the art like to swing a leg forward on the up reach and then swing the leg behind them on the down pull, for extra oomph in the throw. I like to keep both feet on the ground. Usually the engine would start. Then I would untie it and climb in and take off.  I eventually became weary of all that and sold the plane to a dentist.

His checkout flight included a takeoff and landing and a flight around the area, with me in the passenger seat. After we landed he climbed in by himself for his first solo flight. He waved to his wife and me as he taxied to the runway.

Then the unthinkable happened…

         “There once was a dentist from Downey;

         Who wanted to own his own plane;

         He started to taxi and flipped on his backsy;

         And never went flying again.”

He was OK but the plane was a wreck. He had veered off the taxiway and plowed into a ditch by the side of the runway, collapsing the nose wheel strut and going up on his nose like a dog trying to get into a gopher hole. The left wing was bent backwards and the wingtip was crushed.

His wife and I stared, dumbfounded, as he climbed out of the plane and walked toward us out of the settling dust cloud.

It was probably a blessing that he didn’t get into the air by himself that day. I heard that he sold the pieces and took up sailing.

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FRIGHTENING SKIES

It has been said, “Flying is mostly long stretches of boredom interrupted by occasional moments of sheer terror.”  Four of the situations that pilots fear most are:  getting lost, midair collision, flying into clouds accidentally (if not instrument-rated), and running out of fuel.  

64. Lost in His Own Back Yard

He took off from Rockford Municipal Airport in northern Illinois for a solo training flight in his beloved little Cessna 150. His instructor signed him off to solo just one week earlier. On that day he successfully completed three takeoffs and landings all by himself and then celebrated with his instructor and the other students at the flight school. Now he was eager to get far enough away from the airport to use his new navigation skills. He had good weather, full fuel, and lots of confidence. What could go wrong?

It was a simple flight plan: fly 10 miles north along the Rock River to Beloit and then turn around and fly back to Rockford. He followed the river and found the little town of Beloit right where it was supposed to be. He circled the town a few times and then turned south to head back to Rockford. But along the way he lost sight of the river and then he discovered with dismay that the landmarks on the aeronautical chart didn’t seem to match the scenery in front of him. That was frightening.

His instructor had drilled into him that the first rule in a situation like this is “Fly the airplane”. He concentrated on maintaining a safe altitude and airspeed as he struggled to regain his bearings.

Finally he spotted an airport up ahead. But in his confused and agitated state he couldn’t find it on the chart. He circled and circled with increasing anxiety as he tried in vain to figure out where he was. He began to imagine that the fuel gages were dropping quickly toward Empty. And the engine sure seemed to be running kind of rough all of a sudden. He wanted desperately to just get back on the ground.

Normally he would call the tower and request landing clearance. But he didn’t know what airport he was above! So he decided to use the No Radio procedure: he checked for other traffic and then entered the pattern and flew past the tower at 500 feet above the ground.

He was tremendously relieved when the tower gave him a green light, which means “Proceed to Land.” He taxied up to the fuel pump and climbed out. He resisted the impulse to drop to his knees and kiss the tarmac. Then he read the name on the fuel pump: “Rockford Municipal Airport”.

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65. Too Close for Comfort

midair

Ernie pulled up the zipper on his genuine leather pilot jacket and flipped up the luxurious wool collar. It was cold in the drafty cockpit of the Cessna Skyhawk, 4,000 feet above Los Angeles.

Ernie leaned forward and adjusted the radios for his student’s practice approach at Chino airport. His student also had his eyes inside the cockpit – he was intently studying his instruments in preparation for the approach.

In the next instant they both experienced the extraordinary sensation that a huge winged creature had pounced on them from above. The great descending shadow made them reflexively scrunch down and look up. The landing gear and bottom surfaces of another airplane filled their windshield as it passed over them less than 20 feet above their heads. They watched, transfixed, as the rapidly diminishing image of the airplane disappeared into the murky darkness below them.

“Holy Smoke!” exclaimed Ernie (but he didn’t say ‘smoke’).

“Did you see that!?” exclaimed his student unnecessarily.

They stared at each other in shocked silence as it sunk in on them that they had just survived a near-midair collision, which almost certainly would have been fatal for everyone in both aircraft.

Ernie was thinking, “That was too close for comfort.”

His student was thinking, “I’m moving to Fox Field (60 miles north of LA on the edge of the Mohave Desert) for the rest of my training.”

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66. Scud Running

cloudy flight

Do you want to be really frightened? Then try this: accidentally fly into a cloud (assuming you aren’t trained for that sort of thing).

When you’re inside a cloud you can’t see the earth below or the blue sky above, or objects in your path like mountains and radio towers and skyscrapers. When you don’t have these outside visual references you absolutely must refer to your instruments – you can’t depend on your body’s inner equilibrium for spatial orientation. Your body might tell you that you’re level when in fact you are climbing or descending, and that can lead to the infamous “death spiral,” like John F. Kennedy, Jr. and thousands of other unfortunate pilots have experienced.

Scud running is flying below a low cloud deck, one that is no more than about 500 feet above the ground. The problem with scud running is that it’s easy to accidentally find yourself inside the cloud. Also, you could get suckered into a tempting mountain pass that looks OK at first and then you discover further into the pass that the cloud is now close to the ground and there’s no room to turn around in the narrow pass. Now that’s frightening.

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67. Fuel Exhaustion

36 flying Vandenberg AFB

He loved the simple design of his Stits Skycoupe homebuilt airplane. It didn’t even have an electrical system. That meant no lights, no radio, and hand propping the propeller to start the engine (which was no problem once you mastered the technique).

But it also meant there was no electric fuel gauge. That little detail bit him in the butt one day on a sightseeing flight over Chandler, Arizona. In those days it was a dusty little town on the southeast side of Phoenix. He was putt-putting along at about 5,000 feet when all of a sudden there was no more putt putt – he had run out of fuel. Now that’s frightening.

The mechanical fuel gauge was a tiny paper flag glued to a piece of coat hanger wire that was stuck into a wine bottle cork that floated on top of the gasoline in the fuel tank, which was positioned in front of the windshield so that you could see the flag during flight. On this unlucky day the coat hanger wire had become bent and was stuck inside the tube inside the fuel tank. The little flag at the end of the wire was gaily announcing a full tank when in fact the tank was completely dry.

When the engine stopped, everything immediately became silent except for the whistling wind, and the propeller stood still (which really gets your attention). He felt like he was dropping to Earth on the back of a huge dead insect.

All the flight controls still functioned, of course. He trimmed for best glide speed by pulling back slightly on the stick and holding it there. Then he started looking for a place to put it down. Lo and behold there was a nice straight stretch of dirt road right below him, with no power lines, telephone poles or other obstacles.

He brought his little silent craft around to Downwind, then Left Base, then Final – just like a normal landing – and dusted it gently onto the dirt road. Observant neighbors at the Desert Sunset retirement community probably thought, “That’s odd.” Then he walked to town, bought a 5-gallon can, filled it up at the gas station, put it in the plane, and took off again from the dirt road.

As he cruised back to his home airfield he thought to himself, “Thank God for small desert towns and dirt roads.”

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68. Property of Norman Crum

Ever since he was a little boy Norman Crum loved airplanes. To be more precise, he loved the idea of airplanes, especially the dramatic full-color photos and paintings in the monthly issues of Life magazine and National Geographic that his mother kept on their coffee table. It didn’t matter if the airplane was in flight or on the ground; the graceful curves gave him goosebumps and excited his imagination. He would slump into the cushions of the living room sofa with a stack of magazines and daydream for hours.

Norman’s instinct for self-preservation limited his enjoyment of these wonderful inventions to flights of his imagination. He had a fear of flying and throughout his life he always traveled by other means, except for one time when his grandmother passed away and his family flew to Seattle for the funeral. On that occasion Norman quietly suppressed his anxiety by immersing himself in the Western Wings in-flight magazine, and in that way he managed to endure the trip. Norman was also drawn to something else about airplanes that was harder to describe but it had to do with the understated glamour of the airplane business – modern factories and teams of engineers and technicians and flight testing and world maps crisscrossed by airline routes.

When I met Norman he was working as a Technical Librarian in the Engineering Library of the Lockheed California Company in Burbank. It was 1978, before the merger with Martin Marietta and the move to Palmdale. Norman was in his late fifties and I was 26. I visited the Engineering Library frequently to do research for my technical writing assignments. Back then we still used the hardbound reference books and trade publications and scientific journals that had to be continually refreshed in order to satisfy the voracious appetites of the library patrons. Now it’s almost all available online, but there are still shelves filled with expensive hardbound reference books on many subjects.

Norman was usually at his desk near the library entrance when I would come in. He would invite me to have a seat in the chair next to his desk and then ask me to describe what I was looking for. In the course of our conversations in the hush and solemnity of the usually empty library I came to appreciate that life can be an orderly business where satisfying and practical answers await the patient and persistent searcher.

I also noticed during my conversations with Norman that he and I shared a trait that I had assumed was distinctly my own: he labeled all of his personal office objects. As any cubicle dweller knows, these objects tend to grow legs and a personal label sends a clear message: “Hands Off!” This was the decade when a clever new invention called The Labelmaker was sweeping the country. It pressed the letters and numbers into a strip of plastic that came out the bottom of The Labelmaker. Then you peeled off the backing paper and stuck the label on your object. For some people labeling became a compulsion. I shudder to think how many attractive unsuspecting kitchen, bathroom and hallway cabinets were utterly defaced by those labels. The only problem with The Labelmaker was that the glue would eventually lose its grip and the label would raise up in the middle like an inchworm and pop off your object. So I continued to label my personal objects the old-fashioned way, and I observed that Norman did, too: we would type our label on a sheet of white paper and cut it out with scissors, carefully trimming it close to the letters, and then apply it to our object with a piece of Scotch tape. In this manner Norman had labeled his stapler and his movable pencil sharpener (which attached with a suction cup to any smooth surface) and who knows what other objects that were not visible beyond Norman’s desktop.

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69. Edwards Aero Club

eafb

Before I retired and started trucking I was a network technician for Lockheed Martin.  One of my jobs was supporting our computer networks at Edwards AFB, in the desert north of Los Angeles.  One day after work I stopped by the Edwards Aero Club, just to check it out. The Aero Club offers civilian flight training and rental of several types of aircraft for Air Force members and their families.  I had been a private pilot for many years by then.  I asked the manager if they allowed contractors to be members, not really expecting a positive response. To my surprise and delight he said, “yes.”

The monthly Aero Club meetings were held in the auditorium of the Edwards Test Pilot School. I often rubbed shoulders with Air Force test pilots who were members of the Aero Club.  Flight testing is still a dangerous business.  Many of the streets of Edwards are named after test pilots who made the ultimate sacrifice.  One thing that I admired about the test pilots, aside from their bravery and aeronautical knowledge and flying skill, was their sense of humor – it was always uplifting, lighthearted, or mischievous, never dark or vulgar or cynical –  the “right stuff.”

After  a rigorous qualification process that included written tests on aircraft systems, radio procedures and airfield operations, and a check ride with an Aero Club flight instructor, I was turned loose to fly in the Edwards airspace and beyond. I usually flew their brand new 4-seat Cessna 172’s, often with one or two friends or co-workers. We took off and landed from the Edwards Auxiliary Field, an 8,000-foot runway on the south side of the 15,000-foot main runway.  The Edwards Auxiliary Field is also used for flight testing of unmanned aircraft such as the Global Hawk.

global hawk

There are two ways for Aero Club aircraft to leave and enter the strictly controlled Edwards airspace – the Lancaster Departure which goes south and the Rosamond Departure which goes west.  One morning I lined up on the numbers at the end of the runway and called the tower: “Cessna 3-4-5 Delta Papa ready for takeoff on 2-4, request Lancaster Departure.”  The tower controller replied, “Cessna 3-4-5 Delta Papa, Lancaster Departure is closed.  Alpha Corridor is hot.  Do you want Rosamond?”  He was telling me that the Edwards bombing range, which crosses the Lancaster Departure path in a block of airspace called the Alpha Corridor, was currently active!  I said, “Yes, please, Rosamond Departure.”  As I ascended above the airfield,  off my left wing I saw an F-16 Falcon fighter screaming across the desert at 500 mph, down low, intent on his target.  I gained an instant respect for the Alpha Corridor.

f16

Another  day I was on the downwind leg of the landing pattern, preparing to make my left turn to base leg and then another left turn to final.  The Edwards tower controller called me on the radio and said. “Cessna 3-4-5 Delta Papa, extend your downwind for two fast movers inbound at your 10-o”clock.”  I said, “Roger, traffic in sight, 3-4-5 Delta Papa.”  Off my left wing at my altitude I saw two F-15 Eagle fighters fly directly over the main runway in close formation at high speed.  I watched them pass by my left shoulder.  Then the flight leader, and a moment later his wingman, broke suddenly to the left in a steeply banked 180-degree turn.  It’s a maneuver used by fighter jets to quickly reverse course and reduce airspeed for landing.  They rolled wings level on downwind and then lowered their landing gear and flaps. They were well behind me and lower.  They completed their left turn to base leg and then to final in a sweeping descending turn – it was poetry in motion.

f22

I had my instrument rating at this time and I often requested a practice instrument approach to the Edwards main runway when returning from a flight.  I would say,  “Edwards Approach, Cessna 3-4-5 Delta Papa, 10 miles north, request ILS (Instrument Landing System) runway 2-2, touch and go.”  The approach controller would almost always say, “Cessna 3-4-5 Delta Papa, approved ILS 2-2,  report 5-mile final.”  Then I would descend from cruise altitude to 5,000 feet over the huge Edwards dry lake, using my ILS indicator and other instruments to maintain the required heading and glide slope all the way to the runway.

As I scanned for other air traffic I would often  be thrilled to see that I shared the Edwards airspace with one or more of the legendary aircraft that hung on the walls of my cubicle, such as  B-1 and B-52 bombers, C-5, C-130, and C-141 transports, Chinook and Huey  helicopters, and F-15, F-16, and F-22 fighters.  On the ground  the taxiways and hangar areas were usually busy with many types of aircraft, helicopters, and support vehicles.

One of the Edwards tower controllers once told me that they actually like to have Aero Club aircraft fly approaches to the main runway because it gives them dissimilar aircraft training. Occasionally a special activity precluded practice approaches, like the time the airfield was closed temporarily because a space capsule was being recovered by parachute onto the Edwards dry lake – just another day at Edwards Air Force Base.

70. Aerobatics

stunt-plane

Whenever I made deliveries to the Colgate-Palmolive plant at Oxnard, CA, my route passed under the aerobatic practice area near Santa Paula.  It’s a block of airspace designated for aerobatic flying, away from populated areas and busy airways. On a sunny day you will often see a Citabria or Pitts or other aerobatic aircraft doing loops and rolls, sometimes with their smoke on.

Many people dream of experiencing the sensation of aerobatic flight. Nowadays it is easy to realize that dream and you don’t even need a pilot license.  There are many flight schools and aerial adventure companies around the country where you can purchase an aerobatic thrill ride, and they will let you do a lot of the flying.

If you have a pilot license you can take a formal aerobatic course offered by many flight schools.  That will cost a couple of thousand dollars or more.  You will almost definitely have the assurance of high quality training in a certified safe aircraft.  Another option is to go up with a pilot friend who has aerobatic skills. My pilot friend was Alex.  He called himself “The Crazy Mexican” but he was actually a great guy and a careful pilot.  He invited me to go with him one day in a rented Citabria.  He was eager to teach me some of his new skills and I was eager to learn.

On the big day, Alex and I met at Van Nuys airport.  He showed me how to put on and operate the lightweight parachute, which is required for aerobatic flights.    Then he did a careful pre-flight inspection.  Then he put on his parachute and we climbed into the Citabria.  We took off and flew about 15 minutes to the Santa Paula aerobatic box.

citabria

Alex made a clearing turn to the left and then to the right, then he called me on the intercom and said, “We’ll start with a loop.”  He pushed the stick forward to lower the nose a little to gain airspeed.  Then he pulled the stick back and held it there.  The nose came smoothly up…and up…and up, way past any climb angle that I had ever experienced before.  Alex said, “Throw your head back and pick up the horizon behind us as we go over the top.”  I did as he said and the reassuring horizon came into view behind us.

Now we were upside down but we were held in our seats by the centrifugal force of the loop.  Alex pulled the throttle back and let the stick go forward a little for the back side of the loop, then he pulled smoothly back again on the stick to complete the bottom of the loop.  As he was pulling the nose up I felt the G force pulling down on my face and arms and butt.  The G meter on the instrument panel recorded 2 G’s, which was well within the -2 to +6 stress limits of the Citabria.

I shouted to Alex, “That was great!  Alex gave me a thumbs up and said, “Ok, your turn.”  I performed the steps as he had shown me and completed my first loop.  I realized later that that moment – when I was upside down at the top of the loop, and I tilted my head back and saw the horizon behind me, and I knew my position in space and felt in control – was one of those moments when flying approaches the sublime.

Over the next hour Alex showed me how to do an Aileron Roll, Lazy 8, Hammerhead Turn, Immelmann Turn, and Split S.  These are the basic maneuvers that you see at most air shows.  The maneuvers are drawn on a card using a series of diagrams called the Aresti System.  The pilot sticks the card on his instrument panel for reference during his airshow routine.  Stunt pilots often include advanced maneuvers like knife edge flight where the side of the plane acts like a wing, and the startling Lomcevak where the pilot causes the plane to tumble end over end completely out of control for a few heart-stopping moments and then makes a smooth recovery, as if to say, “Nothing to it!”

arestiAresti Aerobatic Diagrams

For the next year I rented the Citabria a couple of times a month, sometimes sharing the cost with other aerobatic students.  I also took a demo flight in a Pitts S2, which is probably the most well-known aerobatic aircraft since it is flown by many airshow performers and aerobatic competitors. The rate of climb and the roll rate (how quickly you can complete a 360-degree roll) of the Pitts were both amazing compared to the lumbering lower-powered Citabria.  But the outside visibility of the Pitts was severely limited by the biplane wing design.  I didn’t feel comfortable in it.

pitts

Eventually I had the pleasure and privilege of owning an aerobatic aircraft – a mid wing tail dragger with a bubble canopy, called the Monnett Sonerai.  I purchased it for $6,700 in 1981 from an ad in Trade-A-Plane magazine.  I rigged up a small boat trailer to fit the landing gear and tail skid dimensions and drove to Iowa and brought it home to Los Angeles.  It had a Volkswagen engine and a cruise speed of 140 MPH.  That gave me enough energy to perform my favorite aerobatic maneuver:  a vertical half roll followed by a hammerhead turn (it’s fun to watch the wingtip track across the horizon after you pull the nose up to vertical and start the vertical aileron roll).

sonerai

I took a long break from flying after our son David was born.  Lately I’ve been thinking about getting back into non-competitive aerobatics.  I would rent an Extra 300 that’s available at a nearby flight school. The Extra 300 is like a Sonerai on steroids – mid wing taildragger with a bubble canopy and a 300 HP engine.  What do you think – should I go for it?  On the other hand, now that I am too old to die young, and I have somehow managed to survive more close calls in the cockpit than I deserve, I am finally realizing that every day is a gift and I should let others have their turn at “pushing the envelope”.

extra

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71. Dr. Edgar Mitchell, Astronaut/Physicist

Driving a big rig gives me the opportunity to enjoy many excellent audio books. I recently listened to one called Paradigm Shift by Dr. Edgar Mitchell. In fact I listened to it twice. Dr. Mitchell, who died in 2016, was a physicist and philosopher and Navy test pilot and Apollo astronaut. In the later years of his brilliant career Dr. Mitchell offered some profound insights into the nature of the universe and reality and consciousness. Maybe you, too, have pondered some of these questions:

What do you mean by ‘Paradigm Shift’?

“For example, the Copernican Revolution was a paradigm shift when Copernicus declared that the Earth and planets revolve around the sun and the universe does not revolve around the Earth. In the last 70 years the shift from Newtonian mechanics to quantum mechanics is a paradigm shift within the scientific community. We are now entering another paradigm shift as we begin to understand the role of human intention and consciousness in the universe.”

“In virtually all of the systems of the past we have expressed ourselves as physical beings yearning for a spiritual experience. If we turn that around, and say that we are eternal conscious beings creating a physical experience, I think we are closer to being right. The problem is that most of us have become captive to the idea that we are physical first and spiritual second, but it’s really the other way around. When you learn to break that idea the world will start to change for you. You will start to perceive things in a totally different way.”

Could you describe what it’s like to see the Earth as a globe from outer space?

“Virtually all of the humans who have been into space have come back somewhat altered in their perspective. We went into space technicians, we came back humanitarians. You gain an instant global consciousness when you see Earth from this perspective.”

“I recognized in a flash of insight that our scientific description of ourselves, of how we got here, where we’re going, who we are, is incomplete and flawed, and all of our religious cosmologies are archaic and flawed as well, and that the task of we humans at this point is to pull ourselves together and to create a new understanding. It was a powerful experience, one that pushed me in a different direction for the next 20 years.”

If we assume that the Big Bang created the universe, then who created the Big Bang?

“The universe is an expanding bubble of physical reality, now roughly 30 billion light years across, of which we are a part. If our presence in this universe was intended then The Big Bang wasn’t simply a random accident or quantum fluctuation in the early primordial void (as some scientists propose) – it was indeed an intended fluctuation.”

“Our total cosmology is being restructured. Physics is resistant to the notion that consciousness is the fundamental stuff, the organizing principle by which all of this has come about. And religion is having to give up the notion that there was a fundamental original design and we’re just following the plan – that isn’t the evidence either. The evidence is that we are in an evolving, creating, self-organizing, learning universe and the consciousness that is us is a part of the consciousness that is creating it all along.”

(For years after The Big Bang theory gained acceptance I was content with a cosmology that I summed up as follows: God created the rules of nature and those rules led naturally to things like The Big Bang and the formation of our solar system and the origin of life and evolution. After reading Paradigm Shift I’m beginning to realize that I need to think beyond simply “God created”. A few years after he wrote Paradigm Shift Dr. Mitchell said that he and other scientists are now beginning to think that some version of the Steady State model, where energy is continuously becoming matter, is closer to the truth than the Big Bang model. So I guess the message to the faithful is “Stay tuned.”)

What do you mean when you say energy is matter?

“Einstein taught us, with his Theory of Relativity, that there is an energy equivalent to all matter: E=MC^2. It turns out that energy is the fundamental stuff of the universe, not matter. That is a very abstract concept. We can’t reach out and grab energy. It’s very abstract. Except, when energy gets compact enough we perceive it as matter.”

What do you think about things like telepathy – people who can makes things move without any physical contact?

“We’re dealing with information and energy, which are actually the fundamental components of the universe. Things like telepathy and remote reviewing (seeing a scene at a distant location as it is happening) and reincarnation are information transfer phenomena. The question is how is it being done, and those answers we don’t know, but we do know it’s being done. There is an ability to tune into specific information in other people’s energy fields.”

Why do you not believe that this is just a random accidental universe, like some scientists believe?

“In the scientific way of looking at things information and matter are simply patterns of energy. But what created the patterns of energy? If it’s just a random accidental universe can patterns of intelligent energy (like us?) arrive out of randomness? I don’t think so. What takes information and turns it into meaning? It is consciousness, it is mind that gives information meaning. So, simply by saying that our universe is structured out of information and energy we are implying that there is a consciousness, an observer, in the midst of that.”

Is there other intelligent life in the universe?

“I tend to think, as opposed to previous thinking about the nature of our reality, that life is ubiquitous in the universe, that the ingredients and the process by which we were created is a universal process.” (Dr. Mitchell stated in a UFO conference shortly before his death that he had become convinced that extraterrestrials have been and still are visiting the Earth based on what he believes is credible eye witness testimony and other evidence. If you ask me, if they are really here then it’s time for them to address the United Nations!)

“What do you mean by ‘experience is the only learning’?

“What we read in books is someone else’s learning. When we believe it, it becomes a part of our belief system, but it doesn’t become a part of our knowledge. When we experience it, we know it. What we have been relying upon in our scientific systems and our religious systems throughout all time is somebody else’s knowledge, and we have bought into it.”

Is there such a thing as “the true religion”?

“I like to say, regarding the divine experience, if you had Lao Tse, Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed all in the same room they would have no disagreement on the nature of the divine experience. They might express it differently because they were of different cultures and slightly different time periods, and their metaphors would be different, but their experience would be the same. The divine experience is inexpressible. It is that state where you are tapped in to pure consciousness. It’s what the mystics and the yogis are always talking about trying to get to. I disagree with them in part of their interpretation: they tend to call it the final state, or where you want to end up. I suggest to you that it’s the state that you want to begin with. Then you can start to be a creative being.”

Has quantum physics replaced Newtonian physics?

“We have structured our entire civilization on the notions of Newtonian physics. We now know that that isn’t the way the universe is put together. Two fundamental notions have changed and this has all come about just in the last fifty years: First, we have firmly established evolution as the process by which the universe is constructing itself. Up until only recently virtually all scientists and philosophers have thought of the universe as a static creation that is essentially fixed in time and space, like a giant machine, as Newton said, that was set in motion by God and was going along inexorably toward whatever end God had in mind. We now know, since the acceptance of The Big Bang, that that isn’t true.”

“The second notion that is radically different from all historical thought is the role of human intention – intentionality. In a Newtonian system human or godly intention is an illusion – it doesn’t count. In that system of thinking the beginning of the universe was an accident, a result of random organizing and chance, and consciousness and intention were either secondary or an illusion.”

“In all of the religious systems human intention didn’t count either. You could pray to God to change unpleasant conditions but if God chose not to do it you were stuck. And God has chosen to do it so infrequently that we call it a miracle when it does happen. But we can witness just in this century the role of human intention in creating what’s happening in this planet (such asthe huge disparity between the haves and the have nots, overpopulation, nuclear proliferation, global warming, holes in the ozone layer, etc.). Official wisdom from either the scientific side or the religious side of the house hasn’t acknowledged the role of human intention up until recently.”

What else is wrong with Newtonian physics?

“The old Newtonian reality is totally built on sense perception, but our senses are very limited. For example our most powerful sensory mechanism is our vision, but we can see roughly only one billionth of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. And our other senses – taste, touch, hearing, and smell – are even less broad spectrum than our visual sense. So our senses are giving us only about one billionth of the information that is available to us.”

“The second new understanding is that what we allow to come in to our mind is shaped by our belief system. We used to say “seeing is believing” but now we know that actually “believing is seeing”. We see what we believe we see. We form and focus and categorize what we perceive according to what we believe.”

“In the Newtonian concept only the things we see around us are the hard, real, physical stuff and what is inside our mind is the abstract, ethereal, mystical stuff. We now realize that this has been turned quite around: the real solid stuff is in our mind and the abstract stuff is what we see around us.”

“The Newtonian concept has been very good at describing what we can perceive with our limited senses. But when we get beyond that limited perception – the very large, the very tiny, the very fast, the very hot, the very cold – the universe doesn’t obey Newtonian physics.”

“What quantum mechanics is telling us now, without doubt, is that all the matter in the universe is still connected in some way.” (He went on to explain that this is because all of the matter in the universe existed together at the moment of the creation.)

“At these limits, beyond our normal sensory world, the universe exhibits quite different properties than we have ever experienced before. But the quantum mechanical rules by which scientists understand that behavior – that’s the real world.”

Are we physical beings, or spiritual beings, or both?

“In virtually all of the systems of the past we have expressed ourselves as physical beings yearning for a spiritual experience. If we turn that around, and say that we are eternal conscious beings creating a physical experience, I think we are closer to being right. The problem is that most of us have become captive to the idea that we are physical first and spiritual second, but it’s really the other way around. When you learn to break that idea the world will start to change for you. You will start to perceive things in a totally different way.”

(The idea that we are eternal spiritual beings who are having a temporary physical experience isn’t new. Dr. Mitchell acknowledges, for example, that Father Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher and Jesuit priest who died in 1955, described this philosophy, of spirit being forever and physical experience being only temporary. It is a tremendously reassuring notion.)

What is consciousness?

“We have considered consciousness only as a property of sentient self-aware beings like ourselves. If you really think that’s true, look your pet in the eye! Go out in nature and watch the animals play and you will see virtually all the characteristics – emotional characteristics, understanding, problem solving, empathy, playfulness, altruism – that we see in humans. The difference? Their mentality – their ability to process information – is not as evolved as ours.”

Our consciousness is beyond space-time, more than likely. We are eternal beings dwelling in that ‘beyond space-time’ realm, only manifesting in the physical.”

What do you see as the coming crisis that is confronting mankind?

“The underprivileged world is trying to emulate the lessons of the western world, all trying to come our way because of our freedom and affluence. But we’re finding that our system is in trouble. Because if we have a 9-12 billion population 50 years from now, as we’re very likely to have, that level of affluence for everybody just cannot be – there’s not enough to share. But they will not be denied. As a result there has got to be a total re-thinking of how civilization is structured.”

Dr. Mitchell, how should we approach this new world?

“Anyone who is seriously looking inside for a new awareness and is willing to understand that we’re dealing in a rapidly changing and accelerating time, but finding that spirituality, that new awareness within themselves, and hanging in there, is doing the right things. It’s really the person-to-person contact that’s making the difference. It’s saying, ‘I care for you. You’re connected to me. You’re worthwhile. I’m willing to help. Let’s make this work together.’ How can you go wrong with that approach?”

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72. The Long View

From studying Dr.Mitchell’s works I believe he is saying that we are spiritual beings first and forever and we are physical beings only temporarily during our short span on Earth. We are part of a universal consciousness which includes God and all of his creatures (when you look into the eyes of your pet can you deny that it is as conscious as you?).  I like the idea that we have an eternal spirit. It is a tremendously reassuring notion. After this physical journey we all will resume our eternal spiritual journey, with perfect souls immersed in and projecting pure love.

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73. Antimatter Propulsion

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Scientists recently discovered that there is a planet circling Alpha Centauri, the closest star system in our galaxy. These two intriguing neighbors of ours are only 4.3 light years away (a mere 25 trillion miles). The planet is in Alpha Centauri’s habitable zone. That means it may have water, which means it may have life. That’s a very compelling reason to go there some day. After all, human beings need to explore.  And some day we may need to escape from Mother Earth.

The problem is that with our most powerful current rocket engines it would take more than 30,000 years to get there. The best candidate on the drawing board for a revolutionary new propulsion system is antimatter propulsion. The starship Enterprise has an imaginary antimatter propulsion system. You can learn about it here: https://www.space.com/21201-star-trek-technology-explained-…

The concept of antimatter began to be discussed by physicists over a hundred years ago. It was finally described mathematically by the physicist Paul Dirac in 1928 and three years later the first antimatter particles were actually produced in a laboratory.

The neat thing about antimatter is that when it contacts normal matter the two types of matter are instantly “annihilated” and in the process they release a tremendous amount of energy. A gram of antimatter (about the size of an M&M) has the equivalent energy of an 80 megaton nuclear bomb.

The biggest challenges with antimatter propulsion are:

– It takes a tremendous amount of energy to generate antimatter particles. So far scientists have produced only small amounts of antimatter, nowhere near enough to propel a spaceship, assuming you have solved the other big problems.

– It’s extremely difficult to store antimatter, because of that little annihilation problem. In 2010 an international scientific team successfully created and briefly stored a tiny amount of antimatter, using hydrogen atoms as the source and using a magnetic field to isolate the antimatter from the walls of the container. A later experiment in 2015 managed to store an antimatter particle for an astounding 400 days.

– It’s difficult to direct the energy out the tail end of the spacecraft, in order to move it forward. To get to Mars, for example, the antimatter engine will have to push positrons (antimatter particles) out the back end of the spacecraft at a rate of 10 to the 15th power per second.

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Dr. Ryan Weed

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A small company called Positron Dynamics in Livermore, California, believes they have solved these problems. They are on the verge of building the first antimatter space propulsion system. The company is led by Dr. Ryan Weed, a PhD physicist and a former Air Force test pilot. They are building a miniature spacecraft about the size of a shoe box. Here is a description of their approach, from their web site: “Our core innovation is the ability to generate intense beams of cold positrons using proprietary array moderators combined with compact radioisotope sources of positrons.”

They are part of a revolutionary change that’s occurring in the space business. It’s called Cube Sats – miniature spacecraft about the size of a Rubik’s Cube and larger. This new approach is providing affordable access to space for developers of space applications all over the world including hundreds of small innovative companies and university teams.

Cube Sats are so small that they can piggyback on a larger satellite launch. After the larger satellite is in orbit a little door opens and out pops the Cube Sat. Then it unfolds its paper-thin solar panels and goes online. Cube Sats can also be launched into space by one of several private space launch companies around the world that are now operating routinely at a much lower cost than traditional large government-funded rockets. The business of space access has been transformed by Cube Sats and low cost launch services.

Some of the initial low Earth orbit applications for Cube Sats are Internet access for remote and less developed populations (only about half of the world’s population has Internet access), Earth imaging (such as monitoring crops and tracking trucks and ships), and various military applications. Future applications include mining asteroids for water and minerals (yup, we’re gonna need that). You can learn more about Cube Sats here: https://youtu.be/Z2wWgedLBk4

During my time in the IT department at the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works I learned that great ideas come from inspired individuals and great accomplishments come from inspired teams. Dr. Weed, like Kelly Johnson and Ben Rich and other great Skunk Works leaders, is one of those inspired individuals and his company, Positron Dynamics, like the Skunk Works, is one of those inspired teams.

You can listen to Dr. Weed describe his dream here: https://youtu.be/EBebWBjpWIQ

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74. The Remarkable Flying Career of Thomas E. Stryker

Prologue

“The mood among the small group of fighter pilots was alert, focused attention as they listened to the weather forecast for the border region between North and South Korea. They had heard that they might be going “across the river” tonight into heavily defended territory. They knew what that would mean: deadly anti-aircraft fire, and a new threat called “surface-to-air missiles” or SAM’s, that could blow them out of the sky and send them crashing to earth in a thousand pieces. They had all seen the gun camera footage of their departed comrades. The images were always there, unspoken, in the back of their minds. But these were brave and courageous fighter pilots. Their training and their God-given talents had prepared them to be “the tip of the sword”. When their commander entered the room they saw a fierce warrior in front of them, intent on his mission. They were not afraid now- every one of them was eager to follow their leader into battle.”

Lt. Col. Tom Stryker, USAF, Ret., put down his pen and reclined on the red leather sofa in his study. He heard the familiar sounds of his wife heating water for her afternoon cup of tea. As the shadows closed in for another well-deserved nap he thought to himself, “the words are sleeping now, but one of these days something will wake them up and they will march again onto the page – fierce, proud, and joyful.”

A Dream Takes Flight

Tommie Stryker’s father looked out the living room window and saw his teenage son standing in the front yard of their home on the edge of the Mojave desert north of Los Angeles.  Tommie was intently watching something in the sky. His father came up beside him and put a hand on his shoulder and asked, “What do you see, Tommie?” Without shifting his gaze Tommie said, “It’s one of the new Lockheed Shooting Stars that they’re testing at Muroc Dry Lake.”  He directed his father’s attention to the shiny silver object that was streaking across the sky.  “It just took off from Plant 42.  He’s probably gonna turn north to Muroc in a minute.”  A few moments later they watched the aircraft make a sweeping turn to the north.  “Dad,” said Tommie, “That’s gonna be me someday.”  His father squeezed his shoulder and said, “I’m sure it will, Tommie.  I’m sure it will.”

It was the summer of 1944.  Thomas E. Stryker was 18 years old. In a few months he would begin a four-year appointment to West Point.  He would graduate with honors and immediately begin the Aviation Cadet Training program.  It was the beginning of an epic adventure and a glorious flying career – the stuff of dreams.

The Aviation Cadet program was tremendously challenging and exciting for the talented young cadet.  Aerobatics was his favorite phase.  For each of their solo aerobatic flights the cadets were handed the keys to a powerful, fast T-6 Texan, and later the even more powerful and faster T-28 Trojan, and told,  “Take it up to 25,000 feet and fly the wings off it.”  Stryker would recall, “On those flights we were literally in heaven.  We did loops and rolls and other aerobatic maneuvers all around the huge cumulonimbus clouds.  They formed almost every afternoon above the desert.”

“We practiced simulated parachute bailouts.  They took us in a bus out to the desert, and then laid our parachute on the ground behind us, and then attached one end of a  long nylon rope to our parachute harness and the other end to the rear bumper of a jeep.  The jeep then started out slowly across the desert as we trotted to keep up, then the parachute inflated and lifted us off the ground.  As the jeep went faster and faster we went up higher and higher, up to about 200 feet above the desert.  Then they unhooked the rope and we floated down to the ground.  We were told to bend our knees slightly and keep our feet together and fall over on our side when we hit the ground.  Somehow we all managed to survive without any injuries, although there may have been a few sets of soiled underwear.”

“We were introduced to the effects of oxygen deprivation in a visit to the Altitude Chamber.  We put on oxygen masks and then they pumped the air out of the room to simulate high altitude and then told us to take off our masks.  After a few minutes they had us try to perform some simple math problems and other tests and everybody was shocked at how stupid they had suddenly become, and how bad the room smelled.”

Their  aircraft, and their flying gear such as helmet, parachute, and oxygen equipment, were expertly maintained by the squadron’s  maintenance and support personnel.  It was rare to have any serious problems with the aircraft or equipment.  But Stryker recalled an incident one day that could have ended badly:

After taking off for one of his solo aerobatic flights, where he would be climbing to 25,000 feet, he discovered that his oxygen regulator said zero PSI!  This was a boldface item on the Takeoff  Checklist.  When you’re above about 12,000 feet, if you don’t have supplemental oxygen (or a pressurized cabin like an airliner) you will experience the effects of hypoxia – that’s oxygen deprivation – which could cause you to black out.  When that happens to a solo pilot it usually doesn’t end well.

Lieutenant Stryker called the tower and said, “Tower, Hook 5-2” (that was his assigned call sign for that flight).  The tower controller said, “Go ahead, Hook 5-2”.  He said, “My O2 gage says zero. Request RTB”  (Return To Base). The tower controller said, “Hook 5-2, you’re cleared to land, Three Zero Left, make left traffic.”  After landing  they gave him a new airplane and he went on with his aerobatic training flight.  The young lieutenant’s cool handling of this potentially deadly incident did not go unnoticed by Stryker’s instructors and commanding officers.

Throughout his flying career Stryker would often have the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. Just as he was graduating from the Aviation Cadet program a revolution was occurring in the field of aviation – we were entering the jet age.  Stryker and all of his classmates were on fire with the anticipation of flying the Air Force’s first operational jet fighter – the Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star.

At the beginning of the program most of the confident young cadets were thinking “I’m gonna be a hotshot fighter pilot.”  But as the weeks went on and the rigors of training sorted them out some of them began thinking maybe a transport or tanker wouldn’t be so bad, and some of them were thinking, “I just hope I can make it through.” By the end of the nine-month program a third of the class would be eliminated. They would usually be sent to some other non-flying assignment. In their private thoughts they would wonder if they had only done this or had only done that maybe they would have succeeded. They would eventually get over their mortifying failure and move on with their young lives.

Lieutenant Stryker graduated at the top of his class, which earned him the privilege of choosing the type of aircraft he wanted to fly.  There was no hesitation in his response – he wanted to fly fighters!  He was assigned to Luke AFB in Glendale, Arizona, and successfully completed the nine-month program, flying the T-6 Texan and P-51 Mustang. The jets would come later.

P-51 Mustang

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First Combat Tour

F-80 Shooting Star

“Hello, little friends.” That’s what the brave but frightened bomber crews, many of them only 18 or 19 years old, would whisper when they spotted their fighter escorts, usually above and to the side of their bomber, as they approached enemy territory. For some of the boys it was their first mission. If they came back they would return as men.

As the big bomber droned along high above the sea one of the young crew members was thinking about that night just a few months earlier when he was doing donuts in his first car in the empty snow-covered parking lot behind the high school. After the fourth donut he noticed a police car on the far side of the lot, sitting there with the engine running and his lights off. He guessed they were watching him, but they didn’t do anything. Now he sat grimly at his station, wondering what would happen if his plane got hit by the silver flashing jet fighters that tore through the formation. If his plane was hit he knew he’d be one of the lucky ones who would bail out and make it home. He was sure of it.

In the last war, which seemed like only yesterday, the escorts were propeller-driven planes like the P-38 Lightning, P-47 Thunderbolt, and P-51 Mustang. Now there was a new type of fighter in the skies over North and South Korea. In addition to the Russian-built propeller-driven fighters like the Illyushin II-10’s there were jet-powered MiG-15’s and MiG-17’s. On our side we still had the legendary Mustang, but now we also had the new jet-powered Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star and the Grumman F-9 Panther.

When Lieutenant Stryker arrived at the flight line for his first inspection of the Shooting Star he was completely floored by the streamlined beauty that was finally right in front of him. He removed a glove and dragged his fingertips across the smooth contours of the jet. The visceral feeling was as thrilling to him as the silky contours of his latest girlfriend.

He knew that the vixen also had some bad qualities. She drank fuel like a thirsty elephant. And you had to keep your eye on the tailpipe temp gage so it wouldn’t overheat and ruin the engine, and on the engine percent gage, which would increase as you climbed so you had to throttle back to keep the engine speed within limits. Hot starts were a common problem. They swapped out the tailpipe every 12 hours of flight and the engine every 25 hours.

Initially the graceful but deadly Shooting Star was plagued by accidents – 61 in the first two years, many of them fatal. Most of the accidents were attributed to errors made by the pilots who were learning to fly a new type of plane, not to any basic design flaws.

The Fluid Four formation was used heavily in the Korean air war. It consisted of a low element (lead and wingman) and a high element (lead and wingman). The high element would be about 2,000 feet above and 5,000 feet to the side of the low element. This allows the high element to defend the low element when the low element attacks the enemy.

Air combat losses were heavy at first, especially when fighting the faster swept-wing MiG-15 and MiG-17. The MiGs were usually flown by highly-experienced Russian pilots. The straight-wing F-80, with a top speed of about 585 MPH, was slower than the 668-MPH swept-wing MiGs. The MiGs incorporated German research that showed that swept wings delayed the onset of compressibility problems, and enabled speeds much closer to the speed of sound.

But on June 26, 1950, four Shooting Stars intercepted eight North Korean Ilyushin II-10 aircraft and shot down four of them. These were the first combat victories for the new American jet fighter. Lieutenant Stryker, flying with the 8th Fighter-Bomber Wing out of Japan, was one of those pilots.

illyushin

Illyushin II-10 Fighter

Stryker and his wingman peeled off from the rest of the flight and ruthlessly engaged their slower-moving target. Stryker describes the action:

“As I came up behind him and to his left he spotted us over his left shoulder and broke hard left and down, desperate to avoid my fire. I followed to the left and down, staying inside his left turn. I flew the pipper slowly through his fuselage, trying to get a lead. I pulled the trigger in a short burst and watched the strikes move down his fuselage. The canopy flew off in pieces and the engine started trailing black smoke. The machine gunner in the back seat lifted himself onto the canopy rails and jumped, followed by the pilot. Their arms and legs flailed like rag dolls. We saw their chutes open. Their aircraft nosed over and dived into the ground.”

Stryker was elated. Back at the squadron he and his wingman celebrated in true fighter pilot fashion in the squadron bar with the other victors and the rest of their squadron mates.

Second Combat Tour

F-86 Sabrejet

Lt. Joseph “Mojo” Slocum was scheduled to be Major Francis “Gabby” Gabreski’s wingman that day but the hapless young lieutenant slipped in the shower just before the flight and broke his big toe. He couldn’t push a rudder pedal to save his life, let alone fly a Sabrejet. Another young Lieutenant named Thomas E. Stryker was there and he was ready, so he got to go in his place.

The young lieutenant recalled the first time he set eyes on the new jet. “We could tell immediately just by looking at it that the Sabrejet was a whole new class of fighter jet. It was the swept wing and tail surfaces and the big air intake in the nose. And then we saw it fly…it was so fast!”

The electrically-operated bubble canopy opened with the push of a button, sliding smoothly to the rear. Inside there was a daunting array of new instruments and controls. It was a big change from the relatively simple stick and rudder cockpits of earlier fighters.

The reason the Sabrejet and the MiG-15 look so much alike is because they are based on the revolutionary design of the Messerschmidt ME-262, which the Germans introduced toward the end of WWII. The Russians and the allies obtained the ME-262 design at the end of the war.

Messerschmidt ME-262

We got a leg up on the competition when a North Korean pilot landed at Kinpo Airfield in South Korea in September, 1953. He had accepted the $100,000 reward that was offered to North Korean pilots if they would defect with their planes. It gave us a great advantage to be able to study the swept-wing airframe and gun system and other innovations of this outstanding fighter.

MiG-15 Fighter

For machine gun and cannon attacks, pilots were taught to approach their enemy not directly from behind, but from behind and to the side, which offered a larger fuselage area to hit. The cannons had greater impact than the machine guns but it was usually the machine guns with their high rate of fire that brought down the MiGs.

Another good feature of the Sabrejet was its heavy armor. Stryker said, “It brought back many pilots that would not have made it in other lighter-armored planes. We were surrounded by steel, and that felt very very good.”

Stryker describes the action on a B-29 bomber escort mission into North Korea in June, 1953:

“We were in a gentle turn at 27,000 feet. Major Gabreski called out, ‘We’ve got bandits at five o’clock.’ We reversed our turn and pulled hard, right straight at ‘em. So we went head on right straight through ‘em. The four MiGs turned to the left and we turned in behind ‘em, all of us turning left.”

Stryker held out his hands, one in front of the other, as he talked.

“We went around and around like in a circle, for two circles. We were gaining on ‘em and we figure they saw that, so they rolled out and headed straight back toward North Korea. Then one of the MiGs pulled straight up, away from the others. The major says to me, ‘We’re going after that climbing MiG’ “.

The two Sabrejets entered a vertical climb, chasing after the MiG. They kept climbing straight up. It was only a matter of moments before all three planes would stall out and start falling backwards like a box of rocks. They were still on his tail when the MiG rolled slowly over and down to his left. The MiG filled Gabreski’s windshield and he started firing his six 50-caliber machine guns.

“The bullets made bright flashes across the side of the MiG, from the nose to behind the wing. It started trailing thick black smoke. It kept rolling til it was upside down and then it dove straight toward the ground. They said it kept going like that all the way to the ground. There was no parachute.”

They rejoined the flight and continued the mission. By the end of the Korean War the Sabrejet to MiG kill ratio was 10:1.

Third Combat Tour

F-4 Phantom II

Air Force Gen. Robin Olds was one of our most decorated and admired fighter pilots and Air Force leaders during the Vietnam war. Gen. Olds told a story about how he got to fly combat in Vietnam:

After flying a desk at the Pentagon for several years he heard that he was in line for promotion to general. It would be a prestigious job at the Pentagon. Much to the consternation of his wife, he didn’t want it – it would mean the end of his flying career. He cooked up a scheme that would get him thrown off the promotion list – an unauthorized airshow with formation aerobatics in the F-101 Voodoo. That is a plane that was designed for supersonic intercept. It was dangerously ill-suited for formation aerobatics. The plan worked. After the airshow he was called onto the carpet by his commanding officer who informed him that he would never be promoted again, and concluded with “You, Olds, are exactly the kind of officer who should be in Southeast Asia!” That was exactly what Olds wanted.

Captain Tom Stryker was a great admirer of Col. Olds, his wing commander at Ubon Air Base in Thailand. Soon after Olds arrived at Ubon he discovered that some of the pilots were making an unnecessary detour into the lightly-defended Route Pack 1 in the southern end of North Vietnam and then proceeding to their assigned target in Laos, and logging it as a “counter” – a mission into North Vietnam. Col. Olds put a stop to it. He told them, “From now on you log where you drop. I want you to leave this place tall, and I want you to be proud of yourselves.”

Stryker recalled, “We studied the MiG tactics from our intel and learned that they were avoiding our F-4’s and instead were engaging our Thuds (slower and less capable F-105 Thunderchiefs). So we adopted the tactic of mimicking the Thud call signs, routes and timings. When they showed up expecting only Thuds armed for ground attack we were there with our F-4’s, armed for air-to-air with Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles. It was an effective ruse and we often got MiG kills.”

Stryker was part of Operation Bolo, as Col. Olds’ wingman. It was the first offensive fighter sweep of the Vietnamese conflict. It was designed by Col. Olds. It involved F-4 and F-105 fighters for the strike force and for Surface-to-Air (SAM) missile suppression, an EN-66 aircraft for Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) support, an EC-121 battle monitor aircraft, a C-130 Airborne Command Post, Search and Rescue support, and 25 KC-135 air refueling tankers. They would be going to Route Pack 6, the heavily defended region around Hanoi. They called it “going downtown.”

The operation was delayed for a day due to weather. Then on January 2 Col. Olds came in to the squadron ready room and said, “It’s on. Let’s go get ‘em, Wolf Pack!”. Then Col. Olds climbed into his F-4 and led them into battle. Stryker described the action:

“I sat in the bird with my GIB (the often unheralded F-4 weapons officer, or Guy In Back). We waited along with many other crews for the minutes to pass until Start Engines time. Far away, tankers were already climbing away to await our arrival. We sweated in our flight suits. The howl and fumes of the Dash 60 engine starting carts added to the discomfort.”

“Our crew chiefs went through the start checklist, talking to us through our headsets:

‘Intakes and exhaust, clear (airmen have been accidentally sucked into intakes and roasted by invisible exhaust flames); external power, checked; steps, up; fire bottle, manned; air pressure for number 2, green. You’re clear to start number 2, Sir.’ ”

“I pressed the start button for number 2 and watched the RPM build, oil pressure rise, and generators check out OK. I threw the throttle out of idle, fuel pressure responding. The growl of the engine grew to an ear-shattering scream. System checks were completed quickly and then the other engine was started in similar fashion. Inertial Nav system was checked, flight controls were checked and we were ready to go.”

The Phantoms were unbelievably heavy with bombs, missiles, and fuel, grossing over 56,000 pounds. They completed the last checks for arming, leaks, loose panels, or loose weapons, then they pulled the chocks and the Phantom taxied to the runway. They taxied slowly – a blown tire or an overheated brake could spell disaster.

“One by one we released brakes and accelerated for takeoff, following the jet ahead. As it climbed out we intercepted its curve and fell into formation. We assembled into flights of four and headed toward the waiting tankers.”

Hanoi was heavily defended with anti-aircraft batteries and surface to air missiles. Anti-aircraft fire accounted for many aircraft that were shot down and SAMs were also greatly feared. During the Vietnam war 1,100 fixed wing aircraft were shot down by SAMs and anti-aircraft fire. 77 were shot down by MiGs.

To evade a SAM you first had to see them coming toward you, at Mach 2.5. Stryker describes the technique for evading SAM’s:

“Wait, wait, not yet, let it track…watch, watch…hold it…it’s tracking. Hard down! Now pull up. OK, it’s passed.” Then, if they were lucky, the missile would explode behind them.

The sky ahead was filled with black smoke from explosions. They fought their way to the target, twisting and turning between the flak bursts. Col. Olds would later say, “Nothing I had experienced in World War II matched it. Missiles streaked past. Flak blackened the sky. Tracers flashed past my canopy, and then, capping the day, MiGs would suddenly appear, small sleek sharks, cutting and slashing, evading their own flak, firing missiles and guns. God, if we only had guns.” (The first F-4’s only had missiles, no machine guns or cannon. They were later added back after the demand of combat pilots like Olds.)

Stryker passed under Olds’ jet, looking for damage or leaks. He saw nothing serious, just some loose fasteners. Olds did the same for Stryker’s aircraft.

Col. Olds. continued the story:

“I spotted a Mig-21 coming out of the cloud deck, right in front of us. I broke hard right. We were set up for radar missiles and the MiG was right at min range (minimum radar homing range). Clifton (Olds’ Guy In Back) heard my call and aimed the radar that way and it locked on almost immediately. I squeezed the trigger and launched one and then another Sparrow. They zoomed away but apparently weren’t guiding.”

“I slapped down at the missile switch by my left knee and heard the growl of my first Sidewinder (one of his heat-seeking missiles) and I fired again. Nothing! It headed abruptly towards the undercast. MiGs were now popping out of the cloud deck everywhere. I got a growl on another 21 and fired. As the missile left the rail the next Sidewinder was already howling. I fired again…Splash! The MiG’s right wing came off and he snapped right and down. My wingman had slid behind a second MiG that had been attacking us and he fired off two Sparrows, which hit. That was three down.” (Note 1)

In 10 minutes they killed seven MiGs. The mission took a huge toll on the enemy’s small fleet of MiG-21’s and proved the abilities of the F-4.

One of Olds’ buddies back at Davis-Monthan AFB called to congratulate him. He said, “OK, you’ve got yours, now save one for me.”

Test Pilot

Edwards AFB, CA

Toward the end of his third combat tour Stryker applied and was accepted to the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB in California.

On January 7, 1980, he drove his silver Corvette Stingray to the top of the treeless hill that overlooks the base, parked next to the signal tower, and retracted the convertible top. To the east he saw the immense white expanse of Rogers Dry Lake, twelve miles long and seven miles wide. The lake bed is billiard table flat and rock hard, except when it rains (as Chuck Yeager discovered after one of his many emergency landings on the lake bed, as he slipped and skidded to a stop in the slimy mud).

Stryker saw that runway lines were laid out on the west side of the lake bed on eight different compass headings, like a wagon wheel. But on that day all the takeoffs and landings were taking place not on the lake bed but on the adjacent 15,000-foot concrete main runway, which blended smoothly into the 04-22 lake bed runway.

Hangars and office buildings lined both sides of the main runway from one end to the other. The hangars contained military aircraft of every size and type, from F-16 and F-15 fighters to Beechcraft KingAir turboprop planes to KC-10 and KC-135 tankers and C-17, C-130, C-141, and C-5 transports, and a Marine Corp Chinook helicopter squadron. The flight line was bustling with tanker trucks and utility and security vehicles. (Note 2)

At the north end of the lake bed was the NASA Dryden Flight Research Facility, home of the X-15 rocket plane and the Space Shuttle and other aerospace icons. Beyond the lake   bed was the barren expanse of the Mohave Desert with its rocky treeless plains and sand dunes and Joshua trees.

Above all this was the restricted airspace of the Edwards Military Operations Area which covers 8,000 square miles and extends from the surface to outer space. There are also electronic bombing and gunnery ranges. On any given day you’re likely to see an F-15 or F-16 skimming across the desert floor at 500 MPH, intent on his electronic target. It is a perfect environment for experimental test flying. Stryker thought to himself, “Lord Almighty, this is Pilot Heaven!”

The class consisted of 48 intensive weeks of classroom and flight training. There were 19 other students in Stryker’s class. They came from the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps and from the air forces of Germany, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea.

Stryker’s academic classes included the following topics:

– Performance

– Flying Qualities

– Systems

– Test Management

– Electronic Warfare

– Equations of Motion

– Propulsion

He participated in 100 airborne laboratories over the course of the year, which gave him the rare privilege and enormous educational benefit of flying more than 30 different types of aircraft from sailplanes to a Russian-built MiG-15 fighter to the B-52 bomber. (Note 3)

Lockheed Martin Skunk Works

After graduating from test pilot school Major Stryker was assigned to join the contractor team at the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, in Palmdale, CA. His job was to provide “human factors” expertise to the engineering development and flight test teams. He gave presentations on topics such as how pilots handle task management and G forces and communications under very stressful conditions, like combat and in-flight emergencies.

His experience and reputation and his advanced studies at the Air War College also qualified him to participate in designing a wide range of war gaming scenarios. For example in one scenario he noticed that they had grossly under-estimated the fuel consumption of an F-4 Phantom. He told them that the scenario required in-flight refueling, which was a significant logistic task. And they would have to make sure the scenario pilots were tanker qualified. He told them, “It’s not like pulling in to the local Shell station.”

These meetings often included representatives from other agencies of the U.S. government and our allies, and expert guest speakers from government think tanks like The Rand Corporation and Lawrence-Livermore Labs. Modern air warfare is highly technical, highly resourced, and highly connected.

Since it was the Skunk Works his special talents were often called upon to support highly classified projects ranging from the newest stealth aircraft to hypersonic aircraft (4,000+ MPH) to advanced unmanned aircraft.

In the flight test planning meetings the discussions between the contractor team and the customer review team sometimes got quite contentious. The review team was making demands that the engineers just couldn’t stomach. One morning we found a card table set up outside the conference room entrance. There was a coloring book and a box of crayons at each place and a placard in the middle that said “REVIEW TEAM”.

Stryker could see that it was time to try and reduce the growing tension. The next morning Stryker lingered outside the conference room for a few minutes, talking confidentially to the flight test manager. He waited while the contractor team and the customer review team took their seats on their respective sides of the conference room. Then he strode up to his privileged seat in the front row and turned to face the somewhat gloomy-looking group of project managers, engineers, computer programmers, logistics specialists, and other technical professionals and the small team of reviewers.

All eyes were on the dashing young officer with a mischievous sense of humor who stood before them in his Air Force flight suit. Stryker flashed his trademark grin. With his hands on his hips he thrust his pelvis forward so that no one could fail to see the prominent bulge in the zipper area of his flight suit. The green Nomex material was poking outward like a little Pikes Peak. “Well, Major Stryker,” said the flight test manager, “it looks like you’re excited to hear my presentation!”

Both sides of the room erupted with laughter. Stryker smiled triumphantly at the success of his joke and winked conspiratorially at the flight test manager. As Stryker settled into his seat he discretely reached into an opening in his flight suit and pulled out a carefully shaped wad of paper towels and tossed it into a nearby trash can. After the laughter subsided the team turned to the serious business of flight testing the world’s first stealth fighter.

F-117 Air Refueling

The wheels of the Boeing 737 chirped just once as Stryker’s old flying buddy, now retired from military service, greased another one onto the 10,000-foot concrete runway at the top secret base somewhere in the Nevada desert. The plane was white with a red stripe. It had no name on it. It ferried contractor and military personnel from sin city to the top secret base, two flights every day for the past year. There would be many more flights to go until they completed their flight testing mission.

Major Stryker climbed into an Air Force crew van that was waiting for him at the terminal building as the rest of the passengers filed onto a big blue Air Force bus. The crew van dropped him off at the pilots quarters, which consisted of several double-wide trailers at the edge of the main residential complex on the north side of the base. The pilots quarters were located away from the hustle and bustle of the main base and the often ear-splitting noise of the flight line. They would be flying almost exclusively at night, so they needed their rest during the day. Stryker placed his flight bag and travel bag on the bed, washed up a little, and then walked to the mess hall for dinner.

F-117 Nighthawk

At this unusual base everyone shared the same mess hall, both military and civilians, from Privates to Generals and from contract cafeteria workers to Program Managers. The food was served cafeteria style – top quality steaks, seafood, chicken, salad bar, omelettes, waffles – you name it, as much as you wanted and all free. Not surprisingly there was an unusually high level of morale for such a desolate location (the best way to an airman’s heart is through his stomach). Another factor, no doubt, was that everyone was incredibly proud to be part of the Stealth Fighter program.

As Stryker entered the cafeteria line he recognized a young IT guy in front of him, named Doug. Stryker said “Hi!” and Doug responded with an excited handshake. Doug was there to help plan the new F-117 Program Network which would connect six air bases and contractor locations with high-speed encrypted voice and data links.

They both filled their trays and sat down at one of the long picnic-style tables, which were filling up fast with other team members.  Doug was a big flight simulator fan. He asked Stryker what airspeed he should maintain on final approach in an F-4 Phantom. An obnoxiously arrogant young flight test engineer across the table overheard Doug’s question and snickered to his table mates. He assumed that this IT guy had probably never been closer to an aircraft control than the joystick on his home computer. Stryker saw what was going on and replied to Doug’s question, “135 knots.” Then he added, loudly, “So, Doug, how long have you had your instrument rating?” Doug replied proudly, “Two years.” That shut up the flight test engineer.

The flight test program manager, seated at another table, spotted Stryker and came over to say “Hi”. He informed Stryker that ship 795 would be arriving the next night at 2am. 795 would be Stryker’s baby for the next six months. They were bringing it out in several pieces on a C-5 Galaxy transport from the contractor facility at Burbank Airport. Years later, after the cloak of secrecy was removed from the Stealth Fighter program, the citizens of Burbank and the rest of the world were amazed to learn that more than 60 of these remarkable Top Secret airplanes were manufactured right under their noses in a hangar at Burbank Airport.

The next morning Stryker stopped by the Physiological Unit, where they keep the pilots’ personal flying equipment. He met a competent-looking young airman who turned out to be the crew chief (the maintenance boss) for his aircraft. The airman greeted Stryker with a crisp salute and said, “Good morning, sir!” Stryker returned the salute, leaned forward to read the airman’s name badge, and said, “Good morning, Sergeant Roberts.” Like the rest of his teammates Sergeant Roberts was hand-picked for this assignment – one of the “best of the best.” The sergeant led Stryker to the room full of cabinets that securely stored each pilot’s helmet, oxygen mask, parachute, G suit, and several other items that were required to integrate the pilot into the F-117 Weapon System.

The system was actually a lot more than just the pilot and the aircraft. For every test flight there was a darkened room full of flight test engineers sitting at computer consoles monitoring over a hundred parameters for aircraft performance, position, and condition, as well as watching everything the pilot saw through his windshield on a big monitor in the control room. And there was the Airborne Warning and Control (AWACS) aircraft, a modified Boeing 707 jet with 24 crew members onboard that orbited high above during war games, orchestrating the actions of Stryker’s F-117 and half a dozen or more other airborne assets that might be required for various scenarios. And there were the airmen and civilian contractors sitting at radar scopes in darkened rooms and control towers, directing Stryker in and out of the airfield and around the thousands of square miles of restricted military airspace that surrounded the airfield, from the surface up to outer space.

Stryker said “Thanks for the tour” to Sergeant Roberts and made his way toward the hangar that would house ship 795. Each F-117 had its own hangar and maintenance crew. As Stryker approached the open-doored hangar the maintenance crew dropped what they were doing and snapped to attention. Stryker returned their salutes and said “At ease” and then proceeded to introduce himself to each of the beaming airmen.

F-117 Nighthawk

Just then the screeching roar of three jet fighters destroyed the desert silence. They all instinctively ducked and looked up as the three aircraft passed directly overhead. In the lead was an A-7 Corsair, a rather dated subsonic fighter that nevertheless resembled the flying characteristics of the (surprisingly) subsonic F-117. Stryker would spend many hours in the A-7 for proficiency training, rather than the somewhat fragile and highly guarded F-117, which was reserved for specific training and flight test missions only at night. The DOD could not risk having an F-117 go down and possibly let the then super-secret stealth technology get into the wrong hands. (An F-117 actually did go down once at night in the foothills north of Bakersfield, CA. The crash site was quickly surrounded by soldiers who had orders to “shoot to kill” until every tiny piece of wreckage was recovered.)

A-7 Corsair

Stryker was startled to see that the other two aircraft flying with the A-7 were a Russian-built MiG-21 single-engine supersonic fighter (the most produced supersonic fighter in the world, serving in over 60 countries) and a Russian-built MiG-19 twin-engine supersonic fighter (the first Russian-built supersonic fighter, comparable to the F-100 SuperSabre). Nobody knew much, or was willing to say much, about these two aircraft but the rumor was that they had been captured during foreign conflicts and were being used for dissimilar air combat training, as part of the Aggressor Squadron. Today this squadron of elite fighter pilots is based at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas, NV. They mainly fly F-16 Falcons and F-15 Eagles which are painted in the colors of various foreign air forces.

Mig-21 Aggressor

That night Stryker joined the ship 795 maintenance team at the hangar and they all watched with great anticipation as the huge (“Aluminum Overcast”) C-5 Galaxy appeared out of the desert darkness on short final, right on time. For the next week the team of Air Force and contractor specialists labored around the clock to re-assemble the aircraft and prepare it for its first flight by an Air Force test pilot.

Finally the contractor’s Engineering Program Manager and Air Force brass signed off on the first flight. It was scheduled for midnight on a cloudless moonless night in the frigid winter air of the high desert. On the designated night Stryker climbed in to the cockpit, communicated with crew chief Roberts with hand signals that everything was ready for engine start, and methodically went through every item on the takeoff checklist in coordination with his handlers in the flight test control room. All systems were “Go!” He saluted to the observers surrounding the aircraft, which indicated that he was ready to taxi out of the hangar. He received a transmission from the tower, “Nighthawk 795, you’re cleared for taxi and takeoff at your discretion”. For the next half hour he would have the whole airport to himself. Crash trucks were in position at both ends of the runway. The red, white and blue runway and taxi lights were turned up to the takeoff and landing setting.

The unusual faceted shape of the F-117 was part of the reason for its tiny radar cross section. This gave it great survivability against enemy air defenses but the unusual shape also made it aerodynamically unstable. Without the help of its flight control computer which made continuous adjustments to the flight control surfaces and propulsion system it would simply fall out of the sky. One of the first F-117s crashed during takeoff due to an accidental error during installation of part of the fly-by-wire flight control system. The test pilot wasn’t able to bail out and was badly injured in the crash, and it ended his flying career. During the early development phase someone gave it the unofficial nickname “wobblin’ goblin”. These were some of the thoughts in the back of Stryker’s mind as he prepared to make his first flight in the F-117.

Stryker advanced the throttles slowly and taxied up to the numbers at the end of the runway. Like Neil Armstrong after the first moon landing he felt the urge to say something for this important moment, something spiritual he supposed, just to himself, not to the whole world. This didn’t come easily to him but sometimes it just felt right. Like most of his fighter pilot buddies he believed in God but he wasn’t overly religious. Whenever he was prodded about his faith he would say something like, “If there’s a creation then there must be a Creator – it’s logical, right?” He figured that was as much as any mortal should speculate. He spoke the following words softly to himself, “God bless Raili and David” and then he added, “and God bless crew chief Roberts.” Then Stryker advanced both throttles to Full Military Power and sat back for the ride.

The Nighthawk accelerated briskly, not as powerful as that hulking afterburning monster, the F-4 Phantom, which Stryker flew for six years in Vietnam, and more powerful than the sleek stubby-wing “stiletto of the skies”, the T-38 Talon, which he flew as an Instructor Pilot at Williams AFB near Phoenix in the mid ’80’s.

T-38 Talon

Stryker made three uneventful circuits of the landing pattern at 1,000 feet, with a full-stop landing and taxi back on each circuit, as stipulated in the flight plan for this initial test flight. After the last landing he taxied up to the hangar, completed the engine shutdown, opened the canopy and climbed down the steps of the aircrew ladder, facing forward with his hands on the rails. On the bottom step he stopped and flashed his signature grin and hopped from the bottom step down to the tarmac on both feet, like a bunny rabbit in a G suit. Only a guy like Stryker could pull off a move like that with manly panache. Stryker announced, “She was smooth and predictable. This bird is no “wobblin’ goblin”. The elated group erupted with cheers and high fives. (Note 4)

F-117 Nighthawk

Last Combat Tour

F-16 Wild Weasel

“SAM-hunting is the most dangerous mission faced by today’s fighter pilots.”

– Lt. Col. Dan Hampton, “Viper Pilot”

“Wild Weasels” is the name of an elite group of fighter pilots who fly into a combat zone ahead of a strike or bombing mission and draw the enemy’s Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) to themselves, then they try to evade the missiles using skillful flying techniques and electronic countermeasures, and then they use their own radar-homing missiles and other air-to-ground weapons to destroy the SAM site or mobile SAM launcher. (The Weasel is a fierce animal when it’s hungry, even going into the den of its prey, looking for a meal.)

The Air Force began developing the Wild Weasel mission in 1965 in response to heavy losses of strike and bomber aircraft from Russian-built surface-to-air missiles early in the Vietnam War. The Navy called their SAM killer mission “Iron Hand” and they employed similar tactics.

The early SAM radars couldn’t detect targets close to the ground because the target blended in with the clutter of the earth. Later models didn’t have this weakness. Later models also added tracking capability using TV cameras and they made the SAM sites mobile instead of fixed. The SAMs still defended high-value locations but now they also moved around with the troops. There were lots of them and they could be anywhere.

SA-7 SAM Site

The Weasels initially flew the F-100 SuperSabres and F-105 Thunderchiefs. When the much faster and more capable F-4 Phantom entered service they changed to that aircraft, which had a pilot in front and a weapons officer in back. They usually flew out of Korat Air Base in Thailand. Wild Weasel squadrons are deployed to wherever they are needed around the world.

F-105 Thunderchief

In 1989 Major Tom Stryker was assigned to a Wild Weasel squadron at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany. A Wild Weasel element consisted of a two-seat F-4G Phantom flying as Lead and a single-seat F-16C Falcon (which everyone in the fighter community called Viper) flying as wingman. Stryker flew the Viper.

Stryker’s call sign was “Two Dogs”. Usually a pilot’s call sign was given to him for something noteworthy that he had done, like landing gear-up (“Slider”) or scratching the belly of the aircraft on a low-level flight (“Scratch”) or inadvertently breaking the sound barrier (“Boomer”). If you carried a name into combat it could never be reassigned to someone else – it was yours for life.

The squadron would deploy to Sardinia, an island near Italy in the Mediterranean Sea, for air-to-air training, and to England or Spain for air-to-ground training. Squadron pilots had to maintain certain currencies – so many bomb drops, missile firings, night landings, etc., per month. They learned how to positively identify a bogey that had entered the training space. After it was identified and confirmed as hostile they called it a bandit. They learned how to evade a SAM by deploying chaff, which created a false target behind them. If they were lucky the SAM radar would guide the SAM to the chaff instead of to their aircraft. They learned from the pilots who had been in combat what it meant “to see the elephant” – the moment you realize that other men are actively trying to kill you. They said, “You never really know about a guy til he sees the elephant.”

For the first two years in an operational squadron the new pilots would only fly as wingman as they progressed through the levels of qualification, called upgrades. Like all the other wingmen Stryker aspired to become a Lead.

Modern fighters have three main weapons for air-to-air combat: heat-seeking missiles like the Sidewinder, radar-homing missiles like the Sparrow, and guns, either machine guns or cannons or both. The newest fighter, the F-35 Lightning II, has all three, plus an array of bombs and precision-guided munitions, all carried inside the stealthy supersonic VTOL aircraft.

F-35 Lightning II

Stryker summed it up like this: “To defend against guns you have to change your plane of motion, like roll 80 degrees and pull. To attack with guns you have to lead the target. To defend against missiles you have to put them on the beam (at 9 o’clock or 3 o’clock). To attack with missiles you just flip a switch and watch the show.”

Lt.Col. Dan Hampton, another F-16 pilot in Stryker’s squadron who would soon be accompanying Stryker into combat over Mosul, said, “Attacking a target in a modern tactical fighter is a bit like playing several musical instruments at the same time. My left hand constantly adjusts the throttle. My left fingers work the radar and the speed brakes and manage my electronic countermeasures and change radio frequencies and manage the functions of the up front control head. I fly with my right hand using the side stick on the right side of the cockpit. My right fingers work the Display Management and Target Management switches on the stick. I also drop bombs, launch missiles, and fire the cannon with my right hand. I never have to take my hands off the throttle and stick to do practically everything. It’s a very VERY well-designed cockpit. The engineers call it “HOTAS” – Hands On Throttle And Stick.”

F-16 Cockpit

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCFMX5z-ed4&sns=em )

It was January 10, 1991, over Mosul in northern Iraq. About a mile to the left of Stryker’s F-16 was the flight leader and his Guy-in-Back, in an F-4 Phantom II. About a mile further was the second F-16, piloted by Lt.Col. Hampton, and the second F-4 in their four-ship Weasel flight. They were in a fluid four formation. This allowed plenty of room for maneuvering and made it difficult for the enemy to see all of them at once. They were part of the first combat strike package into Iraq. The strike aircraft were F-15 and F-16 fighter/bombers carrying gravity bombs and precision-guided munitions.

Lt.Col. Hampton describes the action as his Wild Weasel flight is attacked by one of the Iraqi SAM sites that they are trying to destroy:

“The audible warning was screeching in my helmet. We rolled in the direction the missiles had to be coming from. More chaff spit out behind us and the SAMs went to the chaff. So far three SAMs had been shot at us and we had survived. Those were three SAMs that wouldn’t be shot at the strikers.”

The flight leader in the first F-4 called to Stryker, “Two Dogs, slap shot SA-2, bearing zero five”.

He was telling Stryker to fire two of his HARM missiles on the zero five degree bearing of an incoming SA-2 SAM. It was called a slap shot. It might make the SAM site go off the air, which temporarily eliminated the threat, or if the SAM site stayed on the air the HARMs would theoretically guide to the SAM site and kill it.

Stryker recalls, “I mashed down on the red pickle button and held it. After a long half second the jet shook violently. As I looked out at my left wing the HARM snaked off the rail.”

“The strike leader called, “Laser 1 rolling in from the north”. Off to his left Stryker saw a whole flock of F-16’s flip over on their backs and dive toward their target, Mosul Air Base. A few moments later he saw them come off the target, twin vapor trails streaming from their wing tips. Huge clouds of dust and smoke appeared, as dozens of 2,000-pound Mark 84 bombs exploded.

One of the strikers hadn’t dropped his bombs and was going in again. The Weasels would provide cover.

Stryker turned, refined his aim, and hosed off his remaining HARM. “We were making the Iraqi’s shoot at us instead of the striker. We were weaseling,” said Lt.Col. Hampton after the fight.

The strike leader called, ‘Laser’s off target, north for the egress.’ “ The strikers were done and they were heading home.

Stryker’s Lead did a big barrel roll over the smoking airfield and Stryker followed suit, then they joined up on Lt. Col. Hampton and their flight leader. As they headed north Stryker realized they were probably the last fighters heading north for the border. The Weasels have another motto: “First in, last out.” (Note 5)

Deception on 9/11

Lt. Col. Tom Stryker leaned across the coffee table and showed a magazine photo of Princess Diana to his wingman, Major Bob Johnson. They were serving a 72-hour intercept alert at Stewart Air National Guard base near New York City.

The intercept protocol specified that if any private aircraft entered the 200-mile radius alert zone without an IFR flight plan, or if any commercial airliner deviated from its approved air route or ceased communications with Air Traffic Control their two F-15 fighters would be “scrambled”. They would launch immediately and then their supersonic missile-carrying fighters would be directed by radar to intercept the presumed attacker. They would form up on the attacker and await further orders, up to and including shooting it down. That is the established NORAD (North American Air Defense) protocol which they practiced over and over many times, but today it was going to be different, a lot different.

Air National Guard F-15 Eagles

“She was some doll, huh?” said Stryker. “Too bad she had to put up with that jerk, Charles.” Major Johnson was a little surprised by Stryker’s blunt comment but he saw the unvarnished truth in it and scoffed in agreement.

Suddenly the alert siren sounded. The two pilots grabbed their flight gear, ran to their aircraft and fired them up. Their crew chiefs removed the safety flags from their missiles and removed the wheel chocks and then gave their pilots the hand signals to indicate that the aircraft were ready to launch. Only two minutes had passed since the alert siren had sounded. Normally they would have received the launch order by now and would be roaring down the runway in full afterburner. But today, September 11, 2001, they were still sitting at the end of the runway waiting for the launch order from their commander.

Ten miles to the south a remotely-piloted Air Force C-32 aircraft, a militarized version of the Boeing 757 airliner, was ten minutes away from impacting the south tower of the World Trade Center. The world would be told that it was a hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 with 65 passengers and crew members and five Al Queda terrorists on board.

After the airplanes hit the towers a rapid series of controlled demolition explosions inside the buildings would cause the complete collapse of both towers, as well as WTC Building 7 which was not hit by aircraft. Nearly 3,000 office workers, firemen, and policemen would be killed in the collapse.

Several months later Lt. Col. Stryker and his close friend Major Bob Johnson sat in Stryker’s living room reminiscing about their service together. Inevitably the conversation came around to 9/11. The enormity of the apparent crime had gnawed away at Stryker’s psyche as he exhaustively researched the abundant evidence. He finally was convinced that it was an inside job, with foreknowledge and participation and cover-up at the very highest levels of the U.S. government – what the military historians call a “false flag operation.” It was carried out to get the American people and political leaders behind a long term “War on Terror”. Multiple agencies of the U.S. government and the Israeli Mossad military intelligence and wealthy powerful Zionist supporters in the U.S. and other countries were complicit in the crime.

After their third round of Jack Daniels Stryker emptied his heart to his close friend: “Bob, we were held back that morning on purpose. Our government has deceived us and they’re getting away with it. Every one of those bastards – military, government, and civilians – who knew about the 9/11 plan and didn’t blow the whistle should be charged with treason against the United States. They oughta rot in prison for the rest of their days.”

This was too hard to think about. The two old friends agreed to meet again next week, same time, same place, and then they called it a night. Over the coming months the colonel and his wingman searched their souls about 9/11. Both of them finally concluded, ruefully, that they were compelled to maintain a semblance of normalcy for the sake of their families and for their own sanity, even in the presence of a horrible hidden truth.

Lt. Col. Thomas E. Stryker retired from the Air Force on January 2, 2002, at age 73. To this date he remains the world’s oldest operational fighter pilot.

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Retirement?

Inevitably Stryker became bored with the casual pace of retirement and began thinking about options for a more adventurous but still relatively safe and sane retirement activity, something that would allow him to keep engaged with his family and would give him time to really explore his reading and writing passions.

He wanted some advice on this so he called on two of his trusted friends, Sharon and Ben, and made plans for lunch with them at Red Robin. He wanted to include two other longtime friends whose advice and judgment he greatly respected, but Keith was teaching a computer networking seminar in San Jose and Mickey was touring the Grand Canyon in his motorhome.

At the Red Robin Sharon opened the conversation with a question that turned out to be prophetic. She removed her glasses and looked at Stryker intently and asked, “Have you ever been in a big rig?”

Epilogue

Lt. Col. Stryker was asked by a reporter for Aviation Today, on the anniversary of 9/11, what he thinks about that event after all these years. He replied, “9/11 was a terrible crime and a terrible tragedy. The perpetrators are still among us, influencing our government and our daily lives.” Stryker stared coldly into the eyes of the reporter and then he relaxed a little and continued, “If it wasn’t for the expressions of basic human goodness that we see all around us every day we would throw up our hands in despair.”

Stryker paused in a moment of rising emotion to collect himself. He continued, “There will always be wars and we’ll always need warriors. It’s in our belligerent nature. But each of us has a duty to speak up if we ever hear of a plan or even a suggestion that innocent lives are expendable in the name of so-called “national interest”. (Note 6)

Notes

1. The F-4 combat scenes are from “Fighter Pilot” by Gen. Robin Olds.

2. The bustling activity of Edwards AFB, in the air and on the ground, is especially impressive when you’re sliding down the glide slope over Rogers Dry Lake on the ILS approach for Runway 22 in an Edwards Aero Club Cessna 172. Through my windshield I was always thrilled to see one or more of the legendary Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corp aircraft that hung on the walls of my cubicle at the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works in Palmdale.

3. The monthly meetings of the Edwards Aero Club were held in the auditorium of the Edwards Test Pilot School. I often rubbed shoulders with Air Force test pilots who were members of the Aero Club.  Flight testing is still a dangerous business.  Many of the streets of Edwards are named after test pilots who made the ultimate sacrifice.  One thing that I admired about the test pilots, aside from their bravery and aeronautical knowledge and flying skill, was their sense of humor – it was always uplifting, lighthearted, or mischievous, never dark or vulgar or cynical –  the “right stuff.”

4. A couple of my fellow network technicians and I were among a group of flight test team members at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland when a Navy test pilot (who happened to have many of the same charming qualities as Stryker) taxied up to the hangar and exited his brand new F-35 Lightning II. He walked down the metal aircrew stairs, facing forward, and paused on the bottom step and then made a two-footed hop to the tarmac, like a “bunny rabbit in a G suit.”

5. The F-16 air combat scenes are from “Viper Pilot” by Lt. Col. Dan Hampton, USAF.

6. Sixteen years after 9/11 polls are showing that more than 80 percent of the American people doubt the findings of the 9/11 official report. Hundreds of scientists, engineers, and researchers believe that the above scenario is what really happened on 9/11, in contrast to the ludicrous scenario in the 9/11 official report. If you would like to investigate what happened on September 11, 2001, a good place to start is http://ae911truth.org

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75. STORIES FROM LIFE

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76. Fathers and Sons

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Is there any relationship that moves us and shapes us more than that of fathers and sons (or mothers and daughters)?

When I was about ten years old I overheard my father say “Doug is a good organizer.” For the rest of my life either consciously or unconsciously I tried to live up to that. I’m sure it influenced my developing character and personality.

This is how one of Ernest Hemingway’s characters, Nick Adams, described how he remembered his father in his short story “Fathers and Sons”:

“His father came back to him in the fall of the year, or in the early spring when there had been jacksnipe on the prairie, or when he saw shocks of corn, or when he saw a lake, or if he ever saw a horse and buggy, or when he saw, or heard, wild geese, or in a duck blind; remembering the time an eagle dropped through the whirling snow to strike a canvas-covered decoy, rising, his wings beating, the talons caught in the canvas. His father was with him, suddenly, in deserted orchards and in new-plowed fields, in thickets, on small hills, or when going through dead grass, whenever splitting wood or hauling water, by grist mills, cider mills and dams and always with open fires.”

At his bedside a few days before my father passed away he told me a story that he apparently had recalled in his mind many times throughout his life and now he wanted to share it finally with a beloved son. He pulled me close and began the story:

“When I was a little boy I helped my dad repair a broken sidewalk in front of our house. I handed him tools and so forth. He was a skillful craftsman. When it was finished it looked as good as new.”

My father took a labored breath and then continued:

“I decided to impress my dad.  I would do the next section of the sidewalk all by myself while he was at work. I collected all the materials and tools and completed the job. It wasn’t perfect like his but to me it looked OK.”

My father gave me half a smile and then continued:

“When dad came home he surveyed my crooked lines and uneven surfaces and said, ‘Nice job, bud!’ I was delighted and proud as we stood there admiring our father and son sidewalk.”

After a pause my father looked at me with an expression of deepest conviction and said, “Doug, don’t ever forget how powerful your words and actions are to those you love.”

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77. Men of the Soil
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My father had an affinity for farmers. I didn’t know how he acquired this until last year when my cousin Virginia filled me in on some family history. As far as I knew until then no one in my father’s family was in the farming business.  Then Virginia read a first draft of my story and informed me that my father had an Uncle named Harry Sampson who was a professor of agriculture at Rutgers University. I remembered that dad told me that he was close friends and frequent traveling companions with an uncle named Harry when dad was a boy.  Uncle Harry no doubt inspired my father’s attraction to agriculture.

After my father graduated from Penn State University with a degree in vocational agriculture he became a VoAg teacher at the high school in Allentown, New Jersey – he taught young men how to be smart farmers. Later he became general manager of a business that dried and treated corn and soybean seeds for farmers in the region. He enjoyed visiting their farms and sometimes he would join them for lunch at the local diner. They were his customers but they were also his friends.

Our family attended social functions that were held in the community center and church halls in our small town in central New Jersey. Often they were potluck dinners where each family brought a casserole or salad or dessert to share with others. The ladies put platefuls of fried chicken or pot roast or baked ham in the center of each table. I remember the white tablecloths and the silver gravy boats placed next to white porcelain dishes full of mashed potatoes and the warm and cheerful mood of the gathering and the loud murmur of dozens of conversations.

When I was growing up I often heard dad on the phone with other community leaders arranging Boy Scout outings and Lions Club broom sales and discussing community issues. One winter night we had more than a foot of snow which shut down all the roads in town. Dad grabbed my brother and me and we trudged a half mile down the middle of the main highway to the fire house where dad helped organize the snow removal efforts so that all the essential city services could keep going.

Sometimes dad took me with him in a large cargo truck that he called Big Red, delivering loads of treated corn or soybeans to his customers sometimes as far away as Pennsylvania or Maryland or Delaware. I loved those trips, driving through the countryside and cities and small towns, eating in diners, and sometimes staying in a motel. (Maybe it’s why I like truck driving.)

One fateful day a corn dryer at his company caught on fire and ignited the surrounding wooden structures. In minutes it became a raging inferno and in less than half an hour the whole facility burned to the ground. Thank God everyone got out safely. I don’t know why but for some reason they were not able to rebuild it. My father never showed any distress or anxiety over the situation. He simply informed us one day that he had obtained a new job as general manager of a similar type of agricultural services business in Illinois. My mother told us that we would be moving to Chicago. Mom was sometimes somewhat geographically challenged – it turned out we were moving to a small farm town in southern Illinois at the other end of the state. Or it may have been wishful thinking. She had left her small fishing village in the cold and remote town of Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, when she was 18 and got a job as a waitress in New York City. I think she dreamed about living a big city lifestyle. Dad sold our house and bought a new one in our new town, St. Jacob, population 400. He sold our old Pontiac and bought a new 1965 Ford Country Squire station wagon, black with simulated wood trim on the sides and a red vinyl interior. The five of us and our small black and white dog, Laddie, were off to our new home in the agricultural heartland.

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78. Uncle Harry and Robert
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My father told me many years ago that when he was a boy he used go camping and fishing in the Pocono mountains in northeastern Pennsylvania with a favorite uncle named Harry. Uncle Harry was a professor of agriculture at Rutgers University. This is a conversation between Uncle Harry and his 15-year old nephew on one of their road trips.

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The rays of the sun made a majestic pattern through the clouds in front of them as Robert and his Uncle Harry drove toward Gravel Pond in the cool morning air. Harry supposed that the magnificent display prompted Robert’s question, or maybe it was one of those billboards, like “Do you know where you will spend eternity?” Robert looked at Harry with a thoughtful expression and asked, “Uncle Harry, do you believe in God?”

Harry mirrored his nephew’s earnest expression and said, “Yes, I do, Robert. I believe that God is the transcendent being who created the universe.”

Robert sat up in his seat and stared at Harry.

Harry said, “By ‘transcendent’ I mean beyond our understanding of time and space.”

Robert was listening intently so Harry went on.

“I believe God designed the laws of nature, and those laws of nature naturally led to things like The Big Bang…and the formation of the planets…and the origin of life…and evolution…and finally to mankind’s crowning achievement.”

“What’s that?” asked Robert.

“Pepperoni pizza,” Harry replied, with a wink. Robert smiled.

Then Harry shared with Robert the transforming miracle of faith: “And I believe God loves you and me and when we need to talk to Him, He’s always there.”

Robert said, “I know, I mean that’s sort of what mom says, too – without the science stuff.” Harry gave him a thumbs up. He was relieved that his words aligned at least somewhat with those of his mom.

Robert asked, “Do you believe everything it says in the Bible?”

“Well, ” Harry replied, “every word in the Bible was written by the hand of a human being. That’s obvious, right?”

Robert nodded.

“I believe some of those words were inspired by The Holy Spirit. But some of them are just the ignorant words of some people who lived 2,000 years ago.”

Harry could see from Robert’s smile that he got his point.

Robert asked, “What about those stories about Jesus being born of a virgin and changing water into wine and walking on the water and feeding 5,000 people with a few “loaves and fishes”. I know Jesus was a good guy and everything but weren’t they just making up lies in order to get people to follow him?”

“ ‘Lies’ is a strong word,” said Harry. “Some times good people make up stories for good reasons. Like Moses – would you say Moses was lying when he gave his people The Ten Commandments and told them they were from God?”

Robert looked at Harry with the piercing gaze of the innocent and didn’t say anything.

Harry said, “Robert, I’m proud of you for questioning the so-called “sacred beliefs”. That’s why God gave you a brain. You should respect your elders but don’t be afraid to question them. All human beings are fallible – even me!”

Robert said, “OK, Uncle Harry” and a moment later he said, “Uncle Harry, is there really a Devil?”

Harry took the bull by the horns and said something that he usually didn’t say openly because it tends to provoke dogmatic religious people: “No, Robert, there is no Devil. Fear-based religions created the idea of a Devil. They even dreamed up the idea that God is at war with the Devil, thinking that God solves problems the way man does. The evil in the world isn’t caused by a Devil, it’s the result of man’s freedom to choose between good and evil, between right and wrong.”

Robert asked, “Is there a real place called Heaven and a real place called Hell?”

Harry replied, “There is no physical place called Heaven and there is no physical place called Hell. These are just more imaginary constructions of fear-based religions. Heaven is right here, right now, for those who are living an enlightened life. Hell is right here, right now, for those who are suffering the consequences of their wrong choices.”

Robert went on, “What about all the different religions. They all say, ‘We have the truth.’ Robert said this with a tone of earnest skepticism. Harry gave him a nod to let him know they were on the same wavelength. Harry saw his younger self in Robert’s questioning eyes. Robert asked, “How do you know which religion is really true?”

Harry was tempted to make a wisecrack, like “Oh just pick one and follow The Golden Rule. You’ll be fine.” But he could see that Robert was counting on a more thoughtful response from his favorite uncle (he told Harry that he was his favorite). And Harry knew that he shouldn’t let his own peanut-sized faith be a stumbling block for others. After all, maybe our eternal salvation really does depend on what we choose to believe with our feeble brains on any given day (that didn’t seem logical or likely to Harry) and maybe a real heavenly home does await our return (God’s house may indeed have many mansions).

Harry let his gaze rest on Robert’s shining face for a moment. He savored their conversations and he was grateful for Robert’s trust in him. To try and answer his question he said, “We’re talking about Faith. Your parents gave you your faith, so to speak, when you were little, by taking you to church with them and saying grace at dinner time and maybe saying a prayer with you at bedtime, to get you started on a good path. It was like wading into a cool, refreshing, and powerful stream on a warm day. It felt good to be enveloped in the comforting water, but at some point maybe you weren’t satisfied to only go downstream. So God gave us the precious gift of free will. As you get older you decide for yourself what to believe. That’s where you are now.”

Robert looked at Harry intently as Harry concluded his thought: “Your enduring faith will come to you from God when you yourself are ready to receive it.”

Robert was quiet for a few moments and then he said, “Uncle Harry, what happens to us when we die?”

Harry said, “I believe our physical body passes away and our spirit being goes on to live forever with God”.

“I know,” said Robert, “but then what?”

Harry took a moment to gather the words and then he said, with poignant emotion, “I believe that when we die God will receive our spirit, the spirit that God gave us in the beginning as a helper during our earthly life, the spirit that we share with God and all of his creatures. Then I believe we will find ourselves in a timeless dimensionless realm completely surrounded by God’s unconditional everlasting love.”

Robert leaned back in his seat. They drove on in silence for a long time, each of them staring straight ahead, absorbed in their private thoughts.

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79. God Exists But Gawd Does Not

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I enjoyed reading “God Exists But Gawd Does Not” by Dr. David Ray Griffin. It goes a long way toward an answer to one of my deepest questions – how to reconcile belief in God with belief in Science. Dr. Griffin concludes that The Creator’s influence in this world, beyond the creation, is one of benevolent persuasion (“God”), not controlling omnipotence (“Gawd”). This statement resonates with me. It seems self-evident from our woeful history that God is not micromanaging his creation. This view gives meaning to our existence. We are not merely a result of random events, or creatures with a destiny that is beyond our control. We have a purpose: to assure the continuing existence of intelligent life. And it makes it possible to at least be hopeful for the future even if at times our future seems doubtful. The future is in our own hands. Thank you, Dr. Griffin!

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Bart was in a reflective mood one day:

“Dad, what do you think it will be like after we, uh, you know…after ‘The Big Chill’?”

“I don’t know, Bart. Nobody knows. Even Pastor Ken doesn’t know. I guess mostly I hope that when my spirit being resumes its ethereal journey I will still have the tantalizing sense of discovery and ever-expanding awareness that we enjoy from moment to moment during our physical journey.”

“Yeah, that’s what I was thinkin’.”

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80. Travels with Charley

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On one of my home times my wife asked me to read “Travels with Charley” by John Steinbeck and make some notes, to help our son with a homework assignment.  It was a great pleasure to re-read this classic story, which many of us “had to read” in high school.  I identified with the author and with his story in many ways.  I hope you will enjoy my notes.

Part One

He said he has never gotten over the urge “to be some place else” from time to time.  A ship’s whistle, as it leaves port, still “raises the hair on his neck” with longing to go along.

He chose to take the dog Charley with him just for the companionship.  It wasn’t for protection, although he had that concern.  But Charley turned out to be a good watch dog when unknown visitors approached his camper at night out of the darkness.

He described how he rescued his boat from a hurricane.  It had gotten pulled from its anchorage by two other improperly anchored boats that broke loose and dragged his boat up against a pier.  He walked out on the pier in the middle of the hurricane and cut the ropes and drove his boat back to its anchorage and then swam to shore in the fierce wind and waves.  (This passage established his manly, courageous personality and it favored me toward his observations in the rest of the story.)

Part Two

He said that one of the motivations for the journey was that he felt driven to live his later years with the same passion and adventurous spirit that drove him in his younger years. He said this urge didn’t have to be spoken of with his wife because he knew that she understood it.

His first guest in the camper was a farmer in New Hampshire.  He asked the farmer for permission to camp for the night beside his stream and then invited the farmer to join him for a cup of coffee.  (This pattern repeated itself frequently, and usually the cup of coffee was spiked with whiskey and then the conversation flowed more freely.  But he almost never drinks alone.)

He described how camping alone at night in a desolate location would make him imagine that ghosts and other “spirits of the night” might be lurking in the shadows, but he had a special charm that would ward off evil spirits.  He said that years ago there was an old Filipino man who worked on his family’s ranch in California.  He said he wondered if being a Filipino, a distant and unknown culture to him, perhaps gave the old man some mysterious knowledge of how to ward off evil spirits, so he asked him about it.

The Filipino man said he had a special charm that was given to him by a Filipino witch doctor.  John asked him to show him the charm, thinking that it must be some kind of object, but the Filipino man said it was a “word charm”, and then with great solemnity he looked upward and dramatically spoke the words:  “In nomine Patris et Fillii et Spiritus Sancti.”  The words are in Latin, from the ending of a Catholic liturgy.  It means “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  John was deeply moved and impressed by the old man’s earnest demeanor.  He suspected that the Filipino witch doctor who told the word charm to the old man had probably heard the words spoken by the Catholic priests in their church services and the witch doctor had attributed special powers to the mysterious words.  The witch doctor offered them to the old Filipino man and to the rest of his tribal “congregation” as a charm against evil spirits, and for him, and for the rest of the believers, no doubt they were.  John thanked the old Filipino man for his special charm.  In his travels John always slept soundly through the night, and so do I.

John described the time he invited a whole family of French-Canadian migrant workers in Maine, who were there for the season to harvest potatoes, to join him in his little camper for a meal one evening.  The family displayed fine manners and they had a warm conversation.

He attended a church service one Sunday morning in Vermont.  He said he was sure that the preacher’s “fire and brimstone” sermon was pointed directly at his sinful self.  He said he felt so “revived” afterward that he put $5 in the collection plate and shook hands warmly with the preacher and members of the little congregation as he was leaving the church.

He usually took the less-traveled roads and avoided the freeways.  He found the restaurants and motels and service stations of the freeways to be too sterile and plastic and unwelcoming, compared to those of the back roads.

Part Three

He made frequent phone calls to his wife (she was one of the three wives that he had in his lifetime), and once she came out to Chicago for a rendezvous with him.  (This helped  to establish his good character as a faithful husband, which endeared me to him.)

He described how he spent a night in a hotel in Chicago and he was able to tell, from a collection of clues left behind in the room, that the previous occupant was a married man on a business trip who entertained a female guest who wasn’t his wife (he could tell all this from the clues that he described).  He said he felt sad about the business man.

After leaving Chicago he talked about the idea of being alone.  He was in the tiny town of Alice on the Maple River in Illinois.  He said he found a note that he had written to himself:  “Relationship of Time to Aloneness”.  It was attached to his ketchup bottle with a rubber band.  He said it served to remind him about an idea that he wanted to develop. He found another one of his notes on the idea of “aloneness” titled “Reversion to pleasure-pain basis”.  He said that that note was based on an experience he had years ago when he was a winter caretaker, where he was all by himself for months at a closed summer resort.  He said the experience led him to the conclusion that “delicate shades of feeling, or reaction, are the result of communication, and without such communication they tend to disappear.”  (It was interesting to me to see how a great writer goes about his craft.  He referred to the notes as one of the ways he develops his stories, using his experiences with people and places along his journey to put flesh on the bones of his stories and illustrate the ideas that he wants to develop, like the one about “aloneness.”)

He described how he is “in love” with Montana:  “For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love…”  He said, “Montana is a great splash of grandeur.”  (Personally I have found several states that are just as magnificent as Montana, including California, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado.  And Montana has one of the highest suicide rates of all the states.)

He described the awe-inspiring redwood trees in California.  He joked that Charley must be very impressed by trees, from the way he always approaches every tree in his path and raises his hind leg in a salute.  So he figured that Charley would be really impressed by his first giant redwood tree.  But he was surprised that Charley seemed to pay barely any attention to it.  He had to lead Charley right up to the base of the great tree to induce him to raise a salute.

Part Four

The last part of the book describes his travels through the southern states.  He talked about the problem of race relations in the south and all over the United States.  I was especially moved and saddened by the incident that he described about the group of women that the townspeople called “the cheerleaders” – it was a group of white women protesters who gathered every morning to shout filthy racist remarks when the police officers escorted the young black students up the steps to a school that was being de-segregated against the wishes of many local white people.

It has been said that scientists and artists have the special talent of seeing things that the rest of us usually don’t notice.  I thought about this when he said that one of the young black students, a little girl, probably usually didn’t take more than ten steps without one or two little skips, just out of childish joy, but as she was escorted up those steps, holding the hands of  the two large police officers in the midst of the strange noisy crowd, her joy-filled steps changed into “a curious hop” as the weight and tension of the moment settled on her innocent awareness, and she began to walk hesitantly up the steps to the school.  In fact it made me cry.

The last guest who rode along with him in Rocinante was a young black man in Mississippi.  He learned from their conversation that he was “a passionate and articulate young man with anxiety and fierceness just below the surface.”  They talked about the tense race relations that still exist in the south and in the whole country (this was in 1962 and it is still true).  He listened to the young man with courtesy and respect.  I think one of the things that makes great writers great is their ability to illustrate the things that make us civilized.  John Steinbeck received a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

81. The Bombay Clipper

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One of my runs took me to the Colgate-Palmolive plant in Oxnard on the California coast.  I have spent many happy hours there sailing around the Channel Islands.  I started sailing by renting boats as a member of a sailing club.  After a few years I bought a 33-foot sailboat called the Bombay Clipper.  It was a fun weekend getaway for Raili and David and me.  We made short cruises up and down the coast. Dolphins would swim alongside and under the boat, jumping in and out of the bow wave. David made a charming watercolor painting of the experience.

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We ventured out to the offshore oil platforms.  When the wind picked up we enjoyed the excitement of slicing through the waves, heeled over at top speed with full sails. The problem was, soon after I tied it up for the first time to our dock at Channel Islands Harbor the bills started coming in. First it needed a new ignition switch, then parts of the rigging had to be replaced, and on and on.  Then David got seasick on one of our outings and he refused go sailing again (it truly is a miserable experience, and he was just a little guy then). Raili was losing interest, too. I found myself going out by myself most of the time, which I didn’t mind but it wasn’t the original plan. I started thinking about selling the boat. Then one night, out of the blue, the man who sold me the boat called me and asked if I would consider selling it back to him! He said he had become homesick for his old boat after searching unsuccessfully for two months for a suitable replacement. I thought about it for a few seconds and replied “OK”.  In the years that  followed I haven’t regretted that decision.  As they say, the two happiest days in a boat owner’s life are the day he buys it and the day he sells it.

82. Three Men in a Boat

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What compels a man to abandon the comforts of home on his day off, and then, risking life and limb, cast off across a vast brooding ocean with two of his mates in a little plastic teacup? Is it for adventure? Is it to test his mettle against the forces of Nature? (Or is it just an excuse to avoid domestic chores.)

We were sailing a 36-foot sloop from Long Beach to Oceanside, about 80 nautical miles on the Great Circle Route (down the California coastline). “Hold 130 degrees”, commanded Capt Ben. “Aye, aye, sir”, replied First Mate Joe, at the wheel. For my part I was skillfully asserting every ounce of my considerable weight to keep the aft corner seat cushion firmly in place.

All hands kept their eyes peeled for the oil freighters and container ships that frequented these waters.  The life saving rule for small boats in the shipping lanes is “see and avoid”.  We passed a dozen of the floating behemoths as we were leaving Long Beach harbor, hanging on their bow chains and pointing into the freshening breeze.

Suddenly a massive gust of wind blasted across the boat from the starboard side. The tremendous force grabbed the blossoming jib sail with invisible fingers and plucked the port side jib line out of its fitting in the aft cockpit. The jib sail and line flapped wildly in the blustery breeze, threatening to break loose and abandon ship. Capt Ben sprang into action. In an instant he donned his life vest and secured his safety lanyard to the port side lifeline. He crawled on all fours across the slippery wave-splashed foredeck toward the flapping jib sail. With one hand holding tightly onto the lifeline he managed with the other hand to catch the flailing jib line and pull the sail back under control and reattach the jib line in its fitting. Capt Ben’s heroic effort was rewarded with a hearty roar of approval from the crew.

pelicans

But our happy moment was short-lived. Four huge grey pelicans, so awkward and clumsy on the ground and so graceful and commanding in flight, flew past us in formation on the starboard side, then wheeled around in a tight combat turn and flew ominously down our port side. As if on command, the four evil pelicans sliced downward together toward our boat in a perfectly coordinated wingover. Capt Ben yelled “Take cover!”, but it was too late: Splat! Splat! Splat! Splat! Four filthy white gobs of pelican poo splattered across the foredeck. First Mate Joe and I managed to dive under the Bimini sun shade just in time. But Capt Ben, who was fully exposed on the foredeck, didn’t make it – he was sprayed horribly by one of the disgusting gooey projectiles. The four revolting pelicans bobbed their heads up and down and screeched triumphantly as they departed the field of battle.

For seven exhausting hours we zig-zagged through the foaming whitecaps and heaving rollers, tacking alternately to the southeast and then to the west, and then coming about and running wing-on-wing, with the hastening wind behind us, in a precipitous rush toward the coastline.

As darkness settled on the inscrutable deep we finally spotted the Oceanside harbor entrance among the twinkling shore lights.  The headlights and tail lights of semi trucks on I-5 sparkled like a diamond and ruby necklace draped across the coastal hills.  A lover’s arms were never more welcoming than the blinking green and red lights that guided us safely between the rocky jetties on either side of the entrance.

The little harbor was peaceful and quiet as we motored in slowly and tied up at the dock. We collapsed onto our bunks and slept soundly through the night, rocked to sleep by the gentle harbor swells.

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83. Weekend Sailors   

sailboat

To feel the motion of the ocean waves

When you’re miles offshore on a windy day;

To wrestle the sails in the salty spray

and see porpoises and whales as they hunt and play;

To jibe and tack or just lie back

And let wispy clouds point the way;

When skies are fair we’ll sail all day

In our little white boat on the bright blue bay.

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84. 9/11 Truth

I have listened to more than a dozen 9/11 Truth presentations and read several books by reputable authors including journalist Christopher Bollyn, Dr. David Ray Griffin, Dr. Webster Tarpley, and Dr. Judy Wood, after my cousin Virginia opened my eyes to some of the shocking facts about 9/11:

  • the overwhelming evidence for controlled demolition explosions that moved progressively and rapidly down the towers from the higher floors to the lower floors at all three World Trade Center buildings at the moment of the airplane impacts
  • the evidence compiled very thoroughly and scientifically by Dr. Judy Wood that some type of directed energy weapon was used to cause molecular disintegration of the tower structures,resulting in the “dustification” of the tower structures that everyone observed and is documented on videos as the towers collapsed, with no huge pile of steel and concrete debris and building contents debris at the base of the towers which would normally be present after a building collapse
  • the absence of air intercept by the National Guard and Air Force, when these types of intercepts were standard operating procedure and were practiced regularly
  • the foreknowledge of the attacks by certain parties, indicated among other things by stock market transactions that favored anticipated declining stock prices for the airlines involved in the attack
  • the five Israeli’s with ties to the Israeli Mossad intelligience organization who were photographed watching and cheering the burning towers
  • the dozens of eyewitnesses who heard tremendously loud explosions in the ground floor and other floors of the towers
  • the very unusual immediate disposal of the building wreckage which prevented forensic analysis and a proper on-site investigation.
  • These facts are suspiciously not mentioned in the “official” 9/11 investigation report.

Mr. Bollyn says that recent polls show that more than 80 percent of the American people now doubt the conclusions of the original 9/11 “investigation”. He makes a persuasive case that 9/11, and the “war on terror” that we have waged since then, were masterminded in part by Israeli military intelligence leaders including Netanyahu, Begin, and Perez (who all have long terrorist histories), to generate support for US actions against the enemies of Israel, and their strategic goals have been fostered by a powerful network of Zionist supporters in the US govt including Bush, Cheney, the Clinton’s, and McCain, and by Zionist supporters in the US media and banking and other industries. He maintains that the hidden long term goal of the “war on terror” is to destroy or diminish the enemies of Israel (mainly the Arab nations in the Middle East), and that the US and our “war on terror” allies have been duped by these criminal Israeli terrorist leaders into supporting their Zionist goals.

In addition to the Israeli intelligence involvement there was also a group of powerful American politicians and foreign policy strategists who had developed a plan called the Project for a New American Century to assert America’s power around the world following the collapse of the Soviet Union. A key part of that plan was invasion and disruption of the Middle East countries. It says in that plan that in order to get congressional and public support for this plan would require “a new Pearl Harbor”.

Highly respected authors, historians, and scientists have made a very persuasive case that 9/11 was a false flag operation that was carried out with the support and participation of  the highest levels of our government, even though it seems unbelievable to many Americans.

 

The whole subject has been a revelation to me – it just wasn’t on my radar. I’m beginning to see that because of this deliberate deception, so many innocent lives have been taken, so many brave soldiers have died, and so much of our national treasure has been thrown away when it could have gone toward noble causes for the past 16 years. The same strategy of deception, and an even larger scale of loss, applies to our escalated involvement in Vietnam and our entry into WWII after Pearl Harbor and other military actions throughout our history.

If it were not for the reassuring expressions of basic human goodness that we see all around us every day we would throw up our hands in despair. Anyway, thank you again, Virginia, for your continuing enlightenment.

To learn more about this subject, a good place to start is https://ae911truth.org

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85. The Devil’s Liberty

the devil falls

When I was 19 I submitted a poem for a writing assignment in my freshman English class at Fort Hays Kansas State College. I was inspired by the poem Paradise Lost by John Milton (it’s the origin of such memorable lines as “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven”) and by the ancient myths that I learned about in my History of Western Civilization class.  At first my professor, Dr. Beth Hodges, didn’t believe I wrote it.  With a dubious expression she pointed to phrases like “headlong o’er the ramparts…”  Later she apologized for doubting me, and she gave me an A for the class! As you read it you, too, might wonder, ‘Could this be written by a naive 19-year old from a small country college?’  I think it is one of the marvelous mysteries of the muse who inhabits us all.

The Devil’s Liberty

Before the Earth bore mortal fruit

(Though bitter it would be)

There issued from the hand of God

A host of angels free.

The land was pure, a prime creation

Endless bliss their home

But rebel spirits blemished Heaven

Pure minds were caused to roam.

For by The Serpent’s guileful speech

To God’s child on that day

The lives of men, eternal stained in sin

Became groveling misery.

As pitchy clouds of locusts come

The Devil’s host was seen

Headlong o’er the ramparts cast

By God from Heaven’s domain.

Condemned to all-consuming gloom

In darkness though ablaze

The fiery gulf of Hades

Scorched its prisoners for nine days.

Confounded at The Maker’s power

Was Satan and his crew

Thus in conference met upon the gulf

A wretched plan to brew.

The hollow deep resounded

At the voice of its addresser:

“Are we to be the lesson

The world’s despised few?”

Reply burst forth in earnest

For the crew was made of kings!

Idols of a sinful orb

Where God not always reigned.

First Moloch, stained with infants’ blood

And parents tears besmeared

For human sacrifice was due

To calm the pagans’ fears.

Then Chemos, God of Moab’s sons

Of southmost Abarim

And Baalim, Thamuz, Ashtaroth –

All gods of highest sin.

A sea of devils rose to meet

Their leader on the plain

They cried to Satan, “Free us

From this land of eternal pain!”

Thus The Lord’s appointed keeper

At the gates of Hell’s domain

Was met by Satan face to face

His purpose to proclaim.

The keeper of the gate stood fast

The Devil took his aim

And likewise did the keeper

To defend The Holy Name.

Then interposed a scowling figure

Portress of the Gate

To calm the furor in her midst

Amazing speech did make:

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”So, Satan, now you come to me

Forgetting what you’ve done

And dare spill common blood today –

Yes! Satan, here’s your son!”

The two stood dazed, a hush prevailed

Their hatred cast aside

His rage dispelled, The Devil spoke:

“My son, my wife, confide

By whose command do you man these gates

Above the flaming sea?

Release his hold, rejoin your clan

With Satan dare to flee!

And then the keepers turned the key

That opened up the gate

And turning it, replied to Satan:

“With you we share our fate!”

The keepers of the gates of Hell

Have set the Devil free

Hereafter all on Earth shall dread

The Devil’s liberty.

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86. Summer Job in Switzerland 

It was the summer of 1973. I was working as a train steward in Switzerland during the break after my freshman year in college.  I responded to a poster on the wall in my dormitory.  The company in Switzerland arranged the job and found a room for me in the home of a nice elderly woman in Berne near the train station. She only spoke a little English and I only spoke a little German.  We didn’t have much conversation other than “Guten Morgen” and “Guten Abend” but she always smiled as I came and went. She would linger on her greeting, anticipating maybe something more but accepting just a simple greeting nonetheless. I think she understood what makes young men and some young women leave home and cross oceans and then sometimes long for home.

For three months I was busy every day serving refreshments on the trains which traveled throughout Switzerland and also a couple of stops in northern Italy.  I made friends with other stewards who were mostly young people from many other countries.  We would gather each morning in the office of Enk Stewardesse Dienst at the train station in Berne to receive our route for the day and to receive any special instructions from the managers. We greeted our comrades, male and female, and updated each other on our adventures. It was a daily cacophony of excited young voices speaking and gesturing in half a dozen languages.

After the meeting we each went individually to the baggage car of our assigned train. Sometimes we had to wait awhile for our train to arrive. In the baggage car we located our pre-loaded serving cart and a larger wagon-type cart that was loaded with additional items for re-stocking our serving cart during the day. Every item was carefully accounted for and the difference between our starting tally and our return tally was the basis for our pay.

We often had to change trains two or three times a day.  When our train arrived at the station we had to roll our serving cart and wagon cart onto the loading platform and then wait for our next train to arrive. Then we would load them onto our new train. One day I left the wagon cart too close to the edge of the platform. When the train came in the protruding doorstep of the first passenger car caught the end of my wagon cart and spun it around like a top. Fortunately there was no one standing near the wagon cart. The cart wasn’t damaged but candy bars and bags of chips and styrofoam cups were scattered all over the empty platform. Without any fanfare I simply collected all the scattered items and rolled the wagon onto the baggage car and proceeded with my day. A little while later as I was serving the customers on the train I noticed that a young woman wearing the blue Supervisor vest of Enk Stewardesse Dienst was watching me with a look of approval. I suppose she was relieved and maybe surprised that the young American was able to recover from the minor catastrophe and carry on with his duties without any interruption in service.

Two of my fellow stewards were two sisters from Boston. They always worked as a pair. The older one watched out for her younger sister, who was very pretty, and I developed a huge crush on her. Whenever our paths crossed I would hurry over to say hello. I suppose I babbled like a smitten schoolboy as she smiled demurely and her older sister looked on with a skeptical protective eye. Our trains happened to arrive at the same time one day in Lucerne, in the mostly French-speaking part of Switzerland. I invited them to join me for coffee at the station cafe. The older sister said “OK” and we sat down at an outdoor table that faced the busy station entrance. A waiter came to our table. The older sister, always in charge, started to speak but I held up a finger and gave her a wink and then addressed the waiter: “Trois cafe au lait, s’il vous plait,” (three coffees, please) I said with a ninth-grade French accent. The younger sister smiled and the older sister and the waiter rolled their eyes. The older sister said to the waiter, in English, “I’ll have a Coke.” As we sipped our coffees and Coke a freshening breeze swept through the plaza and made the younger sister shiver. I gallantly took off my jacket and bent over her from behind her chair to place it around her shoulders. She smiled with delight and leaned her face delicately toward me as I brushed her cheek with mine.  I straightened up and returned buoyantly to my chair. As the weeks went on I looked for the two sisters every day but they never appeared. I asked a supervisor and she said they had finished their tour and returned to “The States.”

One day I met a lanky young man who turned out to be from Arizona. He had long blond hair and wore a rugged brown leather hat and a bright red warm outer shirt over his light blue inner shirt and a pair of well-traveled blue jeans. It was an outfit and appearance that made people smile admiringly. He was reading a paperback when I entered the compartment with my cart. Many of us carried paperbacks with us. It was how we filled our idle hours, innocents seeking wisdom and enlightenment. When you saw another young person reading a paperback, I mean some work of good literature, not a travel guide, even if they were of a different nationality you felt a kinship. He ordered an orange soda and I struck up a conversation. He had been hitch-hiking and train-tramping and staying in youth hostels all over Europe.  When my run ended we went for a hike along a trail that led into the mountains above Berne.  Halfway up the mountain we came to a farmer’s cow shed and made our camp there for the night.  The farmers allow hikers to take refuge in their cow sheds when they take their cows further up to the high pastures.  We had a cold dinner of crackers and little sausages in a can and candy bars. Then we slept on piles of hay under the heavy wooden rafters. We hiked back down the mountain the next morning.  My friend said he would be meeting his girlfriend soon and they were going to Israel to live and work in a kibbutz, a communal farm.

On another run I met a troop of Swiss Boy Scouts who were going camping in the nearby mountains. I met their scoutmaster, Herr Gygax, and told him that my brother and I had both been Eagle Scouts back in America. He invited me to go with them on their next outing. They were going to explore a local cave called Seefeldhole. We met about a week later and hiked up to the cave. It was very narrow and damp and completely dark inside the cave except for our tiny helmet lamps.  I became claustrophobic and felt almost panicky in the confined space but I managed to avoid showing it in front of the boys.  I was greatly relieved to get out of that miserable hole.  The sun was setting as we climbed out of the cave. We gathered among the boulders on the side of the mountain and made a fire. I sang some American songs to them and the boys and Herr Gygax  sang some songs in German.

For my last week in Switzerland I spent every day lying in the sun by the river in Zurich with hundreds of other sunbathers.   When I flew back to The States my parents and Uncle Doug and Aunt Phyllis met me at the airport.  I was so deeply tanned that they didn’t recognize me at first and they couldn’t find me in the bustling crowd.  We probably passed by each other several times.  There were lots of hugs and kisses when we finally connected.

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87. Visiting My Home Town 

grandma grandpa

One of my tours took me close to my home town in Allentown, NJ.  It brought back many memories.

On my stroll through town I walked past the secluded picnic area along the shoreline of Allentown Pond where I had my first “making out” experience. My girlfriend was a schoolmate named Susan Szymanski. We were in the 7th grade at Allentown Elementary School.

She had chestnut blond hair and creamy tanned skin and her favorite color was blue, same as me.  We were walking home from school with my friend Jackie Morrissey and his girlfriend, Janet Plesnovitch. We sat down on a park bench in the shade of a spreading maple tree. It was Doug-Susan-Janet-Jackie. Jackie and Janet immediately started kissing. Susan and I stared at them. Susan glanced at me and then looked straight ahead again. I leaned toward Susan and she noticed my advance and leaned toward me, a little too eagerly, and we bumped foreheads. I retreated slightly and we gathered ourselves for another pass. This time we were on target. Everything around us disappeared for a few magical moments as Susan’s lips and my lips came together. I thought, “What a delicious sensation!” – soft and squishy and sweet – and an incredible new feminine aroma. I’m pretty sure that Susan was thinking the same thing because we stayed in that embrace for several moments until finally we had to come up for air. Susan smiled with delight and I felt like the King of Allentown.

Jackie pulled out a pack of Winston cigarettes from the pocket of his jeans and passed it around. It was one of those things we did once in a while to copy “the big kids.” Susan and Janet each took one from the pack. Jackie lighted them one after the other with two separate matches as the girls held them firmly in place between their puckered lips with a thumb and forefinger, the cigarettes poking straight out from their faces. They both coughed when they drew in the cigarette smoke. I took one of the Winstons and lit it with my own match and then took a long drag and exhaled the smoke through my nostrils. I immediately felt green, but I didn’t cough. After a few more puffs we snuffed out our cigarettes in the dirt at our feet and leaned back on the park bench, swinging our legs and admiring our majestically grown-up selves in our reflections in the pond.

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After school I would often ride my bike downtown looking for adventure.  More often than not I would run into one of my friends along the way and we would meander over toward the park where the high school kids played basketball. We would seem to be absentmindedly tracing circles in the dust at the edge of the court, but really we were watching how “the big kids” talked and behaved. We came to know the ones to admire and emulate, as well as the ones to avoid if you knew what was good for you.

We watched with fascination when fist fights and wrestling matches would sometimes erupt during the course of the game, and then we would see the opponents a little while later laughing and carrying on again like best friends. We heard them exchange taunts and insults with mock contempt, using those words that were never allowed at home or in the classroom. We saw them trip and fall and smash a knee or an elbow on the concrete and then get up and shake it off and continue playing. We learned what it meant to be a boy.

As soon as the weather warmed up in the spring we would get out our bicycles. From then on until it became too cold and snowy again in the fall we would be on our bikes almost constantly, from the time we were let out of school until dinner time, then out again until it was time for homework or time to watch Bonanza, or Gunsmoke, or I Love Lucy. The mostly level terrain of greater Allentown in central New Jersey was conducive to bike riding. You could hop on your bike and within fifteen minutes you would be at the playing field behind the grade school, or at the soda shop downtown, or at the park near the Allentown pond.

We usually didn’t intentionally set out to meet anyone in particular when we left the house on our bikes. We would just head for a favorite location and often as not we would find one or more of our friends there. It was spontaneous.

One day as I rode my bike past the little deli and candy store in the center of town I spotted a dollar bill on the sidewalk in front of me!  I scooped it up and marveled at the treasure in my hand and then without a second thought I was inside the candy store standing in front of the glass case full of all types of candy.  I purchased twenty purple gum balls.  Even before I was back outside I had at least three of them in my mouth, chomping and chewing with purple happiness.

Our bikes enabled us to socialize with friends without having to ask a parent to shuttle us around. In many towns across America that just isn’t possible – there are too many steep hills, or there is too much traffic, or it’s too far to ride between home and wherever you want to go. Kids today who don’t have a network of safe neighborhood streets for bike riding find other ways to socialize, like Facebook and Instagram and multi-player video games over the Internet. But it’s the same thing – hanging out with other kids outside of a family or school setting.

My brother and I and all our friends had single-speed 20-inch bikes. Nobody had multi-speed “mountain bikes” with fancy suspension systems or expensive 10-speed racing bikes back then. I painted my bike dark red – maroon was my favorite color. I painted it with a paint brush, not a spray can. It didn’t look professional, but it sure enough made it “mine”.

Boys bikes all had high-rise handlebars, like customized Harley motorcycles, and they had long thin banana seats instead of the normal small seats. The banana seats allowed you to slide back on the seat and then adroitly pull back on the handlebars and raise the front wheel off the ground – called “popping a wheelie.” Once you were good at it you could ride a whole block with the front wheel in the air.

Boys would customize their bikes by installing headlights and taillights that ran off a little generator that rubbed against the side of the tire. We also attached folded baseball cards with a clothespin to the front and rear forks – they went “pat…pat..pat…pat…pat…pat” against the spokes as we sped down the street.

Girls bikes usually had a wicker or wire basket up front and sometimes they would have streamers dangling from the handlebar grips, and they were missing that tube between the handlebars and the seat so that girls could mount their bikes with lady-like modesty. Boys wouldn’t be caught dead on a girls bike, unless it turned out that your little sister’s bike was real good for doing jumps or popping wheelies, and then it didn’t matter – you just cut off the streamers.

One of our favorite things in the whole world was snow days (no school) , which usually happened at least a couple of times during a typical New Jersey winter. The wind created four-foot high drifts along the fence line at the edge of the field across the street from our house. We would bundle up like Eskimos and grab our shovels and spend hours building snow forts in the drifts. Then the snowballs would start flying.

I remember sending a snowball across the field of battle once, just as a neighbor was driving by. The snowball exploded harmlessly in the center of his windshield. But I suppose it really startled my neighbor because he skidded to a stop and jumped out of his car and started chasing us. I must have gotten away with my misdeed on that occasion because I don’t remember any further consequences. Sometimes the top of the snow drifts would melt a little in the late afternoon sun and then freeze during the night. The next morning if you were shorter than a fence post you could prance and slide across the top of the snow drifts like an exuberant snowshoe rabbit.

On the way out of town I parked for a few minutes behind Sensi’s Grocery Store on Main Street and took a sentimental stroll to the top of the sledding hill behind the Presbyterian Church.  I looked out one last time over my old home town.  John Steinbeck once wrote, “You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.”  That may be true, but I had a warm feeling inside as I walked back down the hill and climbed in my truck and went on my way.

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88. Our Finland Friends

46 Raili and Doug in Kuopio

Our Finland trips and friendships have  been a wonderful experience for Raili and me over the years, and later for David, too.  It all started with a chance encounter on a Sierra Club hike in the Santa Monica mountains in the summer of ‘86.  Raili and I were married in her home town, Kuopio, less than a year later.  When Raili is on the phone with a Finnish relative or long-time friend it fills the house with a wonderful European aroma.  Her watercolor paintings that grace our walls show scenes of Finnish forests and snowy villages.  We have made many trips back to Kuopio over the years to visit her father and her brother Esko and his wife Senja and many other relatives and friends.  Our trips when David was little were especially fun and delightful.

38 Dads at Wedding

Robert and Eemeli

My father flew with me to Kuopio for the wedding.  Raili had gone ahead of us two weeks earlier. I think it was my father’s first time outside the U.S.  When we landed at Helsinki Airport I could see that he was experiencing culture shock, just as I had experienced it during my first foreign travels. It is not surprising since all the announcements on the loudspeaker were in Finnish and all of the people and architecture and everything else suddenly  looked so…European.  And I know that he was still deeply grieving the passing of my mother only a few months before. But for the most part he bravely concealed his distress and grief, as you can see by the photo.

During the wedding reception Raili and I sat by ourselves at a table in front, facing the tables of the guests. The pastor who conducted our wedding at the Lutheran Church in Kuopio sat next to my father.    The pastor was the only one in the room who spoke English besides Raili and me.  I noticed that my father and the pastor had long conversations during the dinner.

At the end of the meal the pastor gave a speech in Finnish.  He must have told some jokes because the Finnish guests erupted several times with laughter.  But at one point I was surprised and confused to see that all the guests were sobbing and wiping away tears! I looked at Raili, who whispered to me that the pastor had mentioned the recent passing of our mothers, as a poignant illustration of the “circle of life”.  I explained this later to my father, who had been as mystified by the outburst of tears as me, and my father was very moved.

47 Finland Relatives 2004

Most  Finnish people have a characteristic civility and reservedness in their speech and behavior, unlike Americans who tend to be less restrained in their behavior and more blunt in their speech. It is one of the qualities that endears Raili and her relatives to me and to others.

Finnish people tend to be very thrifty.  There’s a Finnish joke:  How do you tell the difference between a Finnish person and a canoe?  A canoe will sometimes tip.

The most persistent myth about Finnish people, and other people of the Nordic persuasion, is that they are unsentimental.  The myth is encouraged by their usually emotionless demeanor, and by stories like this:

A Finnish man died.  His wife of 40 years was urged by her relatives to put a notice in the local newspaper obituaries.  Reluctantly she went to the newspaper office and told the clerk, “Just put ‘Erkki died.’ “ The surprised clerk said,  “Surely there must be something more you would like to add.”  She replied, “OK, put ‘Erkki died. Boat for sale.’ ”

Raili’s father’s house and the house of her brother and sister-in-law are next to each other on a small lake in Kuopio (koy-pee-o).  There  are thousands of lakes in Finland.   In fact most of the country is covered by forests and lakes.

During our visits we often rowed around the lake in their row boat.  When Raili was growing up they often rowed out to an island in the middle of the lake for picnics.

Esko and Senja also have a very attractive and comfortable getaway cottage on another small lake a couple of hours from Kuopio.  Many Finnish families have a little getaway cottage like this.  Esko took us out in their row boat once to see the beaver dam at the far end of the lake.

On one trip, when David was about 10 years old, Esko and David went fishing on the end of the dock and Raili (or maybe Senja) snapped this photo.

48b David and Esko

Raili and I made two road trips with her father to the rugged and sparsely populated region of northern Finland called Lapland.   Much of the region is above the Arctic Circle.  It’s the land of the midnight sun and reindeer and the Aurora Borealis.

On one of the trips I treated everyone to an elegant dinner at a fancy restaurant in Hammerfest, Norway, at the northern tip of Finland.  Eemili wasn’t impressed.  Raili confided to me later that he grumbled, “I’d rather eat at the train station in Kuopio”.

48a David and Uki 2004

Eemili was always very fit, right up until his last days.  He rode his bicycle almost everywhere he went, including regular trips to downtown Kuopio which was several miles away.  Whenever he left the house he pedaled past the  Nissan sedan that was dutifully waiting for him in the garage.

I suspect that another secret to his good health and humor was his daily sauna.  He and Esko built the sauna room next to the bathroom.  Almost every Finnish home has a sauna.  In Eemili’s sauna a metal box contains some large stones that are heated by an electric coil.  You pour cupfuls of water over the hot stones to make steam.  The little room quickly becomes very hot but it is also very relaxing, for as long as you can stand it.

One summer Raili’s cousins Antti and Sirkka and their three daughters visited us in Upland, CA.  They were very excited about their first visit to the U.S.  We went to Disneyland and SeaWorld and other Southern California attractions that they had heard about.

Their adorable seven-year old, Marie, was clearly the star of the family.  Her mother delighted in telling the story of the time that she served a grand meal at her home, with lots of invited relatives, and at the end of the meal Marie began to walk away from the table with the rest of the guests.  One of her young  cousins noticed this and said, “Shouldn’t you help clear the table?”  Marie replied, “No no…The Staff will take care of it.”

(Sirkka, I might have messed up some of the details due to bad memory but Marie’s comment is unforgettable and priceless.)

On the last day of their visit, Sirkka, who is admired by everyone for her refreshing directness and adventurous spirit, asked me to take her for a ride in my airplane.   It was a little two-seater called the Grumman Yankee.  I said, Sure!”  We all piled into our cars and drove to the nearby airport.  Sirkka was thrilled with her sightseeing flight.  Antti and his three daughters were each invited to have their turn but they all smiled politely and said “No, thank you.”

It was always a special treat to visit our cousin Ritva in Nurmes and her husband Erkki. Ritva’s delicious meals and tasty treats were the stuff of dreams.  Erkki’s funny jokes and delightful personality made our visits fun.  And they had a motor boat.

I’m looking forward to our next trip to Finland. If it’s a summer trip we will go hiking on the forest trails that beckon from Eemeli’s backyard. We will feast once again on Senja’s delicious pastries. And we will relax at the lakeside beach in Kuopio.  For David’s sake especially, we will try to attend a Finnish car show, where we are likely to see a good number of American muscle cars and American antique cars, which are very popular in Finland.

If it’s a winter trip we will go cross country skiing on the snow-covered bike paths and forest trails around Kuopio. We will cap off the strenuous day with a relaxing sauna.  And we will attend a nostalgic Christmas Eve service in the old stone church in Kuopio where Raili and I were married.

kuopio church

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89. The Ignoramus

On a winter run to the Midwest I visited one of my childhood homes, the small farm town of St. Jacob in southern Illinois.  It was a good place for a young boy to grow up, and it was a good place to get into trouble from time to time.

oil pumpjack

There was an oil pump jack in the soybean field behind our house.  It rocked up and down all day and night when the market for crude oil was good.  It provided a modest side income for our farmer neighbor, and it conferred on the owner the evocative title of Oil Man – picture Rock Hudson in a white Stetson hat in front of a vast field of oil wells.

I’m not admitting to anything, but I might have sneaked out there and rode that oil pump like a bucking bronco once or twice.  It would be irresistible to a boy with any spunk.  I have a vague recollection of swinging my arm in the air on the upswing and gleefully yelling “Yahoo!!!” and then being pitched forward violently on the downswing and smashing my nose on the cold hard steel.  Thankfully there was no permanent damage.

Our 8th-grade science teacher, Mr. Korte, was proud of his insect and butterfly collection. They were mounted on pins inside a glass case. The centerpiece of the collection was four large irridescent beetles. Each one had a name tag underneath: “John”, “Paul”, “George”, and “Ringo”.

beetles

I got in trouble one day in the classroom along with two other boys for throwing erasers when the teacher was out of the room. They were soft spongy chalkboard erasers, and they let out a nice puff of chalk dust when you hit your target. Mr. Korte walked in and caught us red-handed. He lined us up in front of the class, told us to bend over, and then swatted each of us  on the butt with a long paddle board that he kept behind his desk.

The smack of the paddle  definitely had a sting to it, but we gritted our teeth,  closed our eyes, and scrunched our noses and managed to absorb the punishment without any outbursts of unmanly emotion.  The other students watched with quietly amused satisfaction. Then we sat down, tenderly, in our seats and went on with our day.

big bill

There was a boy in our class who we called Big Bill.  He was two feet taller than the rest of us.  He had been held back from advancing two times, maybe three.  One day our math teacher, Mr. Anderson, got exasperated with Bill’s slow progress on a math problem and called Bill an “ignoramus.”  We giggled as Bill once again shrunk down in his seat in humiliation.  We didn’t know what the word meant but we were used to hearing it from Mr. Anderson whenever one of us made a dumb mistake.

Some time later my brother and sister and I were talking around the dinner table about school and Mr. Anderson’s name came up.  I think most people are somewhat in awe of math teachers in general, I suppose because they seem to have a gift of seeing patterns and making sense out of abstract numbers and symbols.  Anyway I said, “He’s really smart.”  My father had been listening silently to our conversation up until then.  He said, “No, he isn’t.”  Then he went on eating.  We stopped talking and looked at my father.  We were surprised because my father always spoke respectfully about our teachers, and adults in general.  But he didn’t say anything else so we went on with our conversation.  I didn’t understand until years later what he was saying.

At the end of his high school year Big Bill served as an assistant editor for our yearbook, which contained stories and photos about the students and teachers and administrators. It went to all the teachers and administrators for review before publication.  Under one photo there was a short-lived but widely circulated caption: “George Ignoramus Anderson”.

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90. The “Merry Christmas!” Argument

bart and homer

“Ya know, Bart, I don’t like this “Merry Christmas!” argument they’re havin’. Should ya say ‘Merry Christmas’ or should ya say ‘Happy Holidays’.  People are sayin’ ‘Merry Christmas!’ like it’s a challenge or sumpin’.  I think God wants us to love and respect all of his creatures, no matter what religion they’ve dreamed up.  The way I see it, we’re all just plain human beans.”

“Human beans? That’s funny, dad.”

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91. New Year’s Eve

firework

On the way home from my Austin, Texas, mail run I happened to pass by a Dairy Queen in the desert on I-10 right at the stroke of midnight on New Years Eve. There was nothing around for 50 miles in either direction. As I passed by, a single firework ascended above the Dairy Queen and briefly lit up the sky (accompanied by sacred classical music on my Sirius XM).

What are you grateful for this New Years Eve?

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92. Life on the Moon

0800 Nov 15, 2024:  The Silence of Space

life on the moon

“Whenever I take Rover for his moon walk I’m surprised that it isn’t perfectly silent in space, like I think it should be. I hear a hissing sound in my head and – get this – I think I hear a babbling brook!”

“Relax, dear. The hissing sound is the firing of the neurons in your brain, and the babbling brook is the blood flowing in your arteries and veins.”

“Oh. Fascinating.”

 

0800 Dec 15, 2024:  Opposable Thumbs

 

life on the moon 2

“Look, dear, a young Facebook follower wants to know, “Are you robots?”  I explained, “We’re cyborgs – robots with human brains.  We are one of the revolutionary achievements of The Human Brain Project.”

“We are retired astronauts.  We volunteered to live on the moon and on Mars.  NASA decided that for these long-term missions it would be best to have husband and wife teams, and to bring along our cyborg pets, like Rover.”

Loving Rover

“Our arms and legs have superhuman strength and agility. Our hands have a complement of foldout tools, like a Swiss army knife, which we control with our thoughts. We have pressure- and heat-sensitive fingers, and we have opposable thumbs, like regular humans.  (Opposable thumbs are nature’s greatest gift to homo sapiens – The Toolmasters.)”

Attachment-1

Jesse Sullivan and Claudia Mitchell holding hands.  Their bionic arms are controlled by their thoughts.

0800 Jan 15, 2025:  Silly Old Robot

life on the moon 2

“When people on Earth read my reports do you think they sometimes say, ‘He’s really smart!’?  I would like that.”

“Well of course you would, dear, and of course they do, you silly old robot.”

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93. Windy Day at Lake Eufaula

It’s a windy day on Lake Eufaula in Oklahoma, with whitecaps and one- to two-foot waves. Birds are doing their thing in the gusty wind: they hover above the freeway then dive into the wind with their wings tucked in and then spread their wings and soar upward, doing wing-overs and barrel rolls.  They are masters of the air.  Like the windsurfers when the wind kicks up at Malibu.  They launch off the crest of a wave into the wind and soar for 30 feet – living in the moment, like those birds. Tomorrow my mail run will take me back to LA.

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94. Home Time

exercise

Toaster waffle with butter and maple syrup, topped with vanilla ice cream.  Yummy.  Someone is doing her morning exercises along with the instructor on the laptop on the kitchen counter:  “Ok!” chirps the instructor, “let’s Push the Piano”.  They lean against the kitchen counter with outstretched arms and lower themselves to the counter.  “Good!” says the instructor, and they keep going like that for awhile.

“Ok!” says the instructor, “now let’s Reach for the Stars”.  Together they reach one hand way up toward the ceiling and pull down the North Star to their bosoms and then another star with the other hand and they keep going like that, hand after hand, until the imaginary sun comes up and all the stars in Heaven are safely back inside their hearts.

“Ok!” says the instructor, “now let’s Ride the Donkey” and they climb onto the back of the imaginary donkey and reach forward and grab the donkey’s ears and pull, and as the donkey lurches forward they  start to squat up…down…up…down…up…down… in rhythm with the reluctant but obedient donkey.  Yeehaw!

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95. Conversations with God

On my Mail run from LA to San Antonio I listened to an audiobook called “Conversations with God” by Neale Donald Walsh. It was enlightening and inspiring. The actors Ed Asner and Ellen Burstyn take turns playing the part of God. Mr. Walsch has a self-effacing and playful sense of humor. Some people who are heavily invested in Christian theology might be offended by some of the statements which challenge some of the tenets of Christianity. But if you yearn for a belief system that integrates modern science, classical philosophy, and multiple traditional and non-traditional religions, and you want to go directly to God and you bristle at those who claim to know the one true way, I think you would enjoy this book. (Did you know that Socrates, the father of the Socratic method of inquiry, one of the pillars of classical philosophy, began his career as a stonemason in Athens? Later he spent most of his time in the Acropolis debating philosophy with his cronies. His wife would tell him, “When are you going to get a real job, you old fool! Your children need new shoes!”  And did you know that there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches of Earth and many of those stars are likely to have planets that could support intelligent life? I wonder if the ET’s are asking the same questions as the ones in the story below?)

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In the winter of his 50th year Neale Donald Walsh was beginning to feel like he had finally come to the end of his rope. He had been struggling for years with health issues and career issues and relationship issues. Many times he had asked himself ‘Why is my life so difficult?’

Neale was consumed by frustration. He received no satisfying answers from priests or professors or doctors. Then one night he had an experience that changed his life: Neale claims that in the dark silence of his living room he had an actual full-on conversation with God! Many of us are in the habit of praying to God and hoping for answers, especially in our more desperate moments, but I suspect that rarely do we actually hear God speak to us directly.

According to Neale, God explained the answers to questions that Neale had wondered about all of his life, including these:

What is our purpose?

“The highest purpose of every soul is to declare and experience the best expression of itself.”

How do I ‘declare and experience the best expression of myself’?

“Begin by saying these things to yourself over and over:

‘I see myself as being unconditionally loving;

I see myself as being kind and caring and giving;

I see myself as being patient and understanding and compassionate;

I see myself as being supportive and empowering and encouraging.’

Always remember that I made you in my image. Your every thought and action should reflect me.

Ask yourself, ‘How does this thought, this circumstance, this action that I’m about to take, support the best expression of my soul?’ Turn away from those thoughts and actions and circumstances that don’t reflect me.”

But the world says ‘It’s all about winning’.

“You have been told about ‘survival of the fittest’ and victory of the strongest and success of the cleverest. Precious little is said about the glory of the most loving. I tell you this: when you choose the action that is motivated by love then you will experience more than winning, more than succeeding, and more than surviving. You will experience the full glory of who you really are: a child of God.”

Is the evil in this world the work of the Devil?

“There is no Devil. Fear-based religions created the idea of a Devil. They even dreamed up the idea that I am at war with the Devil, thinking that I solve problems in the way that man does. The evil in the world isn’t caused by a Devil, it’s the result of man’s freedom to choose between good and evil, between right and wrong.”

Is there a Heaven and a Hell?

“There is no physical place called Heaven and there is no physical place called Hell. These are just more imaginary constructions of fear-based religions. Heaven is right here, right now, for those who are living an enlightened life. Hell is right here, right now, for those who are suffering the consequences of their wrong choices.”

I have done many things in my life that religious people would call sinful. Should I not be afraid of dying?

“There is no need to fear death regardless if you are a sinner or a saint. Every living thing is part of a single universal consciousness that we share with God. We are on a journey home from the moment of our birth. You cannot fail to arrive there.”

Why does it seem like my prayers are never answered?

“When you say words like ‘I want to be healed’ you are simply reinforcing your condition of wanting. Rather than saying that you want this or that you should say, ‘Thank you, God, for the blessings you have given me.’ And rather than asking for relief from pain or disease or anxiety you should say, ‘Thank you, God, for the energy and confidence that you have given to me to overcome my afflictions.’ “

Why do so many innocent people experience pain and suffering? How can that be the work of a perfect loving God?

“This question has always troubled men and women more than any other question. It has even caused many to turn away from me. The answer lies in two profound concepts: free will and relativity.

If I had not given you the freedom to choose between right and wrong and between good and evil it would be impossible for you to experience the glory of human existence – you would be mere robots.

Every war that has brought death and suffering could have been avoided if you had chosen to settle your differences peacefully. Every death from starvation could have been avoided if you had chosen to control your population and manage your resources more wisely. Many of the diseases that afflict mankind could have been ameliorated, maybe even cured, if pharmaceutical companies didn’t suppress medical breakthroughs for financial gain.

But it is not as if I don’t care about your pain and suffering. Some of you have learned to transcend pain and suffering, because you know that you possess an eternal spirit.

And the concept of relativity dictates that in order to see something as “good” we must also be able to see something as “bad”. If there was no sadness there could be no laughter, if there was nothing hot then there could be nothing cold, if nothing ugly then nothing beautiful. Each of these things exists in relation to the other.”

When we were married I felt like my spouse “completed me”, as they say. But now my spouse often complains about my shortcomings. It really hurts, even though my spouse tries to do it in a loving way.

“The purpose of a relationship is not to have another who might “complete” you, but to have another with whom you might share your journey toward spiritual completeness. It may seem backwards but your first priority in a relationship is not the development of the other, it’s the development of yourself.”

There are so many obnoxious and wrong-headed and just plain bad people on this Earth. How am I to treat people like these?

Every thing on Earth is precious to God and every thing possesses a spirit that we share with God. When you look at a beautiful flower or the beautiful face of a child you should say, “That’s me.” And when you look at your obnoxious neighbor or the homeless person on the street or the prisoner in jail or the threatened rain forest you should say, “That’s me.” In this way you can begin to love your neighbor as yourself and you can begin to be a steward of my creation.”

These revelations led Neale to produce a book called “Conversations with God.” It was the beginning of a lifelong quest and a series of books and teaching experiences that continues to this day at locations all around the world. He says that people all over the world are experiencing a new spiritual awakening. He believes the new spirituality will move us finally away from religious dogma and away from the attitude that most religions have of ‘We’re right and you’re wrong.’ Thousands of people have been inspired by Neale’s teachings.

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96. Grandpa’s Cowboy Wisdom

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In the opening scene of the movie “River’s End” a 16-year old high school basketball player is about to make the game-winning shot as the last seconds tick down on the clock. His coach and teammates and the cheering crowd are shouting “Shoot! Shoot!” as he lines up the shot.  But he delays a half-second too long. The shot is good but it’s too late. His coach and teammates and the cheering crowd are devastated. He has caused them to lose the championship.

(I had a similar experience when I was in 8th grade at a small town in southern Illinois. I let three good pitches go past me in the bottom of the ninth inning with bases loaded. The other team was up by one point. After the last pitch went by I started to jog toward first base, sure that it was a walk. Then I heard the umpire shout “Strike three, you’re out!” We had just lost the game. The expressions on the faces of my team members and coach and the cheering crowd went from shock to anger to disgust as I walked back to the dugout. That day, at the tender age of 13, I would learn that even infallible adults can sometimes be real a-holes. I already knew that about some of my schoolmates.)

The buoyant young basketball player was now an object of scorn and contempt in his high school and throughout the small Texas town. He became sullen, and angry at himself and the world. To help his grandson recover from this devastating “failure” his grandpa persuaded him to make a solo three-day journey by canoe on a local river, as grandpa had done many years before. That journey had greatly bolstered grandpa’s self-confidence and grandpa figured it was just what his grandson needed.

Grandpa made a cassette recording to help his grandson overcome the obstacles and hazards of the journey, like how to pack the canoe so it wouldn’t tip over in the rapids, and how to avoid the scorpions and poisonous centipedes and rattlesnakes that inhabit the Texas desert.

The young man successfully completed the canoe trip. As it had done for his grandpa, the journey renewed the young man’s self-confidence. He went back to school with a new attitude. Eventually the small-minded schoolmates and townspeople forgot about the “great loss” and the young man went on with his life in good spirits, a bit older and wiser from the experience.

Here is some of the old cowboy wisdom that grandpa recorded on that cassette for his grandson:

“First you put all your heavy things on the very bottom towards the front.  That’ll give you a low center of gravity and help offset your weight in the back.  It’ll be easier to steer.  Never set anything heavy, like an ice chest, on one of the seats – it’ll cause you to flip over.”  (He ignored this advice and, sure enough, he flipped over twice,

until the advice finally sunk in.)

“Be careful.  Use your head.  If you get hurt you’ll have to keep going forward to get help – the water’s too swift to go back.”  (He had to endure lots of bangs and bruises from encounters with tree branches and submerged rocks and falling out of the canoe, but his only choice was to keep going downstream.)

“Don’t get in one of them caves down by the water’s edge.  A flash flood might sweep you away.”  (After he listened to that he hastily moved out of his comfortable cave to higher ground, just ahead of a big thunderstorm and flash flood.)

“Bear down.  This world is full of starters.  Whether it’s a job or a game or a project of some kind, there’s very few finishers.  You be one of the few.” (He took this advice to heart and resisted the urge to give up.)

“If you’re havin’ a hard time catching fish, try using a lighter line.  The water’s clear.  If they see the line, they won’t bite.”  (He changed to a lighter line and finally began catching fish.)

“Be a Good Samaritan.  If you see a fellar that needs a hand, help him out.”

“Look people in the eye when you talk to ‘em.  When you shake a man’s hand do it with a strong, firm grip.  Look at him and smile.”

“Be respectful to women.  Open doors for ‘em if they’ll let you.  Find one that’s honest.  If she loves you, and you can talk to her and she loves you back, marry her.”

“About your mom.  She’s a wonderful woman.  Show her some respect.  Boys have a way of takin’ their mothers for granted.  They quit listenin’ and start rollin’ their eyes and talkin’ back.  They forget that she gave birth to ‘em, that she loved ‘em and fed ‘em and clothed ‘em, day in and day out.  Have you forgotten how she took care of you when you were sick?  What about all your clothes she’s washed, meals she’s cooked? Have you forgotten how involved she’s been in your life?”  (This part made him stop and think.  He was beginning to grow up.)

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97. Jersey Boys – Growing Up in the 50’s
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grandma grandpaellen doug david john/>

(A visit to the old home town inspired this story. I took a vacation from trucking a while back so that my son and I could deliver a rowing boat, strapped on top of the car, from our home in California to its new owner in New Jersey, where I was born and raised for the first 12 years.)

1 mom and dad 1946

We lived in a two-story three-bedroom house on Waker Avenue in Allentown, New Jersey, population 2,100. My father had placed a three-foot high brown letter “P”, in an attractive script style, in the center of the triangular peak on the front of the house. It made ours stand out from the rest of the houses on the street. I imagine that people driving by may have sometimes remarked “See the P? That’s where the mayor lives.”

NJ Road Trip5

Our father served on the city council for many years and then he was elected mayor. From time to time this distinction garnered special treatment of my brother and sister and me from neighbors, friends, and store keepers, similar to that of preacher’s kids. One thing that impressed me was that Dad’s letters in the stack of mail on the kitchen table were often addressed “Honorable Robert S. Peck”. I think my brother and sister were as proud of our father as I was.

My mother was an attractive, loving and kindhearted person. Aside from the much too taken for granted title of Mom, she had no honorifics in front of her name. She cooked our meals, washed our clothes and performed all the other home-making and child-raising duties of a typical 1950’s housewife. She left her home in Newfoundland, Canada, when she was 18, all by herself, and got a job in New York City. A little while later she met my father and before long they were married. They moved to Allentown and began raising their family.

14 mom and dad 1976

My earliest memory of the house on Waker Avenue was playing with my brother and sister and neighborhood friends on the metal swing set in the side yard next to our gravel driveway. There was a typical one-person swing seat suspended from two chains as well as a two-person swing seat with handlebars where you sat facing each other. You swung back and forth by leaning in on the down swing and leaning back on the back swing. You could really get that thing going if you swung with abandon like my brother and me. Fortunately my father had sunk the feet of the swing set in concrete shoes so that it wouldn’t tip over. I remember one painful day when I pinched my finger badly in one of the mechanisms of the swing set. I’m sure that Mom came running from the house and tended to the emergency with love and kisses and bandaids.

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One apparently slow afternoon I thought it would be fun to burn up some ants that had made an ant hill by the side of the house.  I filled an empty soup can with some gas from the garden shed and poured it onto the ant hill and then lit it with a match.  It went “woomph”.  The short-lived but impressive fireball pushed me back onto my butt.

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Then the bush next to the ant hill caught on fire.  That got Mom’s attention.  She came running out of the kitchen with a bucket of water and threw it on the fire, extinguishing the flames immediately.  Then she grabbed me by the back of my shirt collar and dragged me into the house, where I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the floor of my room facing the corner and ruefully contemplating my misdeed.

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My brother and I shared a bedroom on the second floor. Dad made a two-station desk with a long plywood counter top that went from one wall to the other along the south wall. That was where we did our homework and assembled dozens of model cars and boats and airplanes. The aroma of Testor’s Model Glue wafted through the house on many rainy Saturday mornings. Ellen had her own room on the second floor, including her own bathroom. I don’t remember ever using that bathroom – I suppose it was off limits to “the boys”. But I do remember that it was very clean and tidy, and pink.

Snow Days

One of our favorite things in the whole world was snow days (no school) , which usually happened at least a couple of times during a typical New Jersey winter. The wind created four-foot high drifts along the fence line at the edge of the field across the street from our house. We would bundle up like Eskimos and grab our shovels and spend hours building snow forts in the drifts. Then the snowballs would start flying. I remember sending a snowball across the field of battle once, just as a neighbor was driving by. The snowball exploded harmlessly in the center of his windshield. But I suppose it really startled my neighbor because he skidded to a stop and jumped out of his car and started chasing us. I must have gotten away with my misdeed on that occasion because I don’t remember any further consequences. Sometimes the top of the snow drifts would melt a little in the late afternoon sun and then freeze during the night. The next morning if you were shorter than a fence post you could prance and slide across the top of the snow drifts like an exuberant snowshoe rabbit.

The best place for sledding was behind the Presbyterian Church on Cemetery Hill. We would take a running start at the top of the hill, holding our steel-runner sleds in front of us. Then we would plop down on our bellies and fly down the hill, bouncing over snow bumps and half-covered rocks. If we were lucky and completed the turn at the bottom we ended with a long glide across the ice-covered Allentown Pond.

sledding

On one of my runs I crashed at the bottom of the hill and somehow managed to slice open the palm of my hand (I still have the scar). With the impeccable judgment of a 10-year old I decided it would be better to walk to Grandma and Grandpa’s house (two miles) rather than walk back to our house (one mile). I think it was because from the top of Cemetery Hill I could see Grandma and Grandpa’s house on the other side of a farmer’s field, but I couldn’t see our house which was behind some woods at the far side of the pond. With my little sister in tow we trudged across the field, pulling our sleds behind us.

Grandpa washed my hand under warm water in the bathroom sink. I heard Grandma on the phone in the kitchen, talking to Mom. Grandpa pulled back the little flap of torn skin on my hand and daubed it with mercurochrome. Ohhhh….did that ever sting. But I loved and trusted my Grandpa so I endured the treatment without a whimper or complaint. Grandpa smoked a pipe and wore sweaters and sometimes he would read to us by the fire. He made things for us in his wood shop…a birdhouse…a footstool…and one special time (a secret between Grandpa and me) a slingshot. I had a lot of fun with my slingshot until it was taken away from me one day for shattering a window in a neighbor’s barn. “It was an accident!” Grandpa finished bandaging my hand. He gave each of us a white peppermint Lifesaver from a roll that he always carried in his pocket. Then he and Grandma drove us home in their dark blue Plymouth with the tan-colored seats that smelled like cherry pipe tobacco.

Riding Bikes

As soon as the weather warmed up in the spring we would get out our bicycles. From then on until it became too cold and snowy again in the fall we would be on our bikes almost constantly, from the time we were let out of school until dinner time, then out again until it was time for homework or time to watch Bonanza, or Gunsmoke, or I Love Lucy. The mostly level terrain of greater Allentown in central New Jersey was conducive to bike riding. You could hop on your bike and within fifteen minutes be at the playing field behind the grade school, or at the soda shop downtown, or at the park near the Allentown pond.

boys with bikes 1950

Our bikes enabled us to hang out with friends without having to ask a parent to shuttle us around. In many towns across America that just isn’t possible – there are too many steep hills, or there is too much traffic, or it’s too far to ride between home and wherever you want to go. Kids today who don’t have a network of safe neighborhood streets for bike riding find other ways to socialize, like texting and sharing photos and multi-player video games over the Internet. But it’s the same thing – hanging out with other kids outside of a family or school setting. This is where we learned things about the world that they didn’t teach us in school and didn’t talk about at the dinner table.

I would ride my bike downtown, for example, and more often than not I would run into one of my friends along the way and we would meander over toward the park where the high school kids played basketball. We would seem to be absent-mindedly tracing circles in the dust at the edge of the court, but really we were tuned into the banter and behavior of the big kids.

We came to know the ones to admire and emulate, as well as the ones to avoid if you knew what was good for you. We watched with fascination as fist fights and wrestling matches frequently erupted during the course of the game, and then we would see the opponents laughing and carrying on again like best friends a little while later. We heard them exchange taunts and insults with mock contempt, using those words that were never allowed at home or in the classroom. We saw them trip and fall and smash a knee or an elbow on the concrete and then get up and shake it off and continue playing. We learned what it meant to be a boy.

50s kids

My brother and I and all our friends had single-speed 20-inch bikes. Nobody had multi-speed “mountain bikes” with fancy suspension systems back then. I painted my bike dark red – maroon was my favorite color. I painted it with a paint brush, not a spray can. It didn’t look professional, but it sure enough made it “mine”.

Boys bikes all had high-rise handlebars, like customized Harleys, and they had long thin banana seats instead of the normal round seats. The banana seats allowed you to slide back on the seat and then adroitly pull back on the handlebars and raise the front wheel off the ground – called “popping a wheelie.” Once you were good at it you could ride a whole block with the front wheel in the air. Boys would customize their bikes by installing headlights and taillights that ran off a little generator that rubbed against the side of the tire. We also attached folded baseball cards with a clothespin to the front and rear forks – they went “pat…pat..pat…pat…pat…pat” against the spokes as we sped down the street.

Girls bikes usually had a wicker or wire basket up front and sometimes they would have streamers dangling from the handlebar grips, and they were missing that tube between the handlebars and the seat so that girls could mount their bikes with lady-like modesty. Boys wouldn’t be caught dead on a girls bike, unless it was one that happened to be real good for doing jumps or popping wheelies, and then it didn’t matter – you would just cut off the streamers.

We usually didn’t intentionally set out to meet anyone in particular when we left the house on our bikes. We would just head for a favorite location and often as not we would find one or more of our friends there. It was spontaneous.

“Bill Bailey”

My parents encouraged my brother and me to play a musical instrument. My brother chose guitar and I chose accordion. We took lessons together at a music store in the next town. Every year the students of the music store would have a recital in a large public auditorium in Trenton. For our performance my brother and I played “Bill Bailey” (“Won’t you come home, Bill Bailey, won’t you come home? Won’t you come home to meeee?”). If you can imagine two small boys on a large stage under the spotlights in a darkened auditorium, and the “oom pah pah” beat of my accordion mixed with the “strum strum strum” of my brother’s electric guitar, you can appreciate the discordant charm of our performance.

It must have been a gratifying night for my parents. On the way home we had a celebration dinner at a pizza restaurant. One of my favorite songs on the accordion was “Home on the Range”. Almost fifty years later I played that song for a singalong at a Cub Scout campfire with our son, David. I still enjoy dusting off my accordion now and then and playing “Home on the Range”. It’s the only song I remember.

Boy Scouts

My brother and I were Boy Scouts. It was a family tradition. My father and his two brothers were all Eagle scouts. There was never any question whether we would participate. My father was not a uniformed scout leader. He worked in the background, such as recruiting men to serve as scout leaders, arranging a place to hold our troop meetings, arranging guest speakers for our troop meetings, and shuttling us to dozens of campouts and scout events. He made sure we made steady progress on our ranks.

My brother and I both achieved Eagle rank and received our Eagle pins in a ceremony at the First Church of Christ in St. Jacob, Illinois. One of my favorite scout events was called “Winter Olympics.” Each scout patrol (six to eight boys) had to build a dog sled out of one-by-fours and clothes line. My father showed us how to bend up the tips of the sled runners by making a dozen cross cuts about a foot from the end of the sled runners and then soaking the ends in water overnight. The boys would act like sled dogs with one boy mushing at the back of the sled. We had races against the other dog sled teams.

4 doug boy scout

Our campouts were usually fairly close to home. There were lots of campgrounds in the pine forests of southern New Jersey and in the Pocono Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. One year our troop took a bus all the way to the national Boy Scout camp in New Mexico. It was two weeks of strenuous hiking with full packs. We had to carry all of our food and water and supplies for two weeks. I remember one afternoon we heard something large moving through the brush at the edge of the camp. Several of us crept cautiously towards the sound and found a brown bear standing on its hind legs with one paw leaning against a tree trunk and the other paw swatting at our bag of food that we had strung up in the branches about 10 feet off the ground. When he spotted us he ran into the woods. None of us at the time understood what a dangerous situation it might have been if the bear had not run away.

I am proud of the fact that I was able to continue the scouting tradition with our son, David, although it was in Cub Scouts, not Boy Scouts. We had many wonderful campouts and field trips. I served as a den leader for four years and then as Cub Master for the final year.

51 cub scouts david and dad.JPG

St. Jacob

Before we moved to St. Jacob, Illinois, in 1967 my father was the general manager of a grain storage and treating business in Allentown, New Jersey. The local farmers would bring in their corn and other seeds in bulk trailers. The workers would dry it and treat it for insects and then bag it and store it in the warehouse until it was sold.
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One day a corn dryer caught on fire. The fire spread quickly in the wooden warehouse. The whole place burned down in about half an hour. A few months later my father informed us that we would be moving to Illinois.  Mom told us, “We’re moving to Chicago!” Mom would sometimes have a loose grasp on the details of a thing, which would irritate my father, but he was never impatient and never lost his temper as far as I knew. We soon learned that the little town of St. Jacob was nowhere near Chicago – it was at the other end of the state, in farm country.
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As I got older I saw little hints from time to time that my mother would have preferred a more cosmopolitan lifestyle than the series of nondescript small towns that we inhabited, one after another, over a span of years after the fire. But she never complained. She had come so far from the rather primitive surroundings and lifestyle of the New Foundland fishing village where she grew up. She left home at 18 and followed her dream to New York City. On my visits home from college I would tell her, “Mom, this house is an oasis of good taste”. It never failed to bring a smile.
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My father traded in our old Pontiac and bought a new Ford Country Squire station wagon for the trip west. It was black with fake wood grain accents on the sides and had a red vinyl interior. We were all very excited about the new car and the big trip. We arrived several days later at our new home in St. Jacob, Illinois, population 550.
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The new house was much larger than our former house in New Jersey. In fact it was one of the largest houses in town. There was a detached one-car garage that looked like it was designed more for a Model A than for a Ford station wagon – we never used it, except for storage. There was a magnificent tall pine tree in the front yard. Behind the house there was a metal cow barn that belonged to a local farmer and beyond that were soybean fields. The best feature of the house to us kids was that you could climb up an attic staircase and open a trap door and stand on the roof of the house.
7 our St Jacob house
We moved in just before school started in the fall of 1967. My younger sister and I walked about six blocks each day to the grade school in St. Jacob. I reveled in the new-kid attention. I played third base on the eighth grade baseball team and I was the star of the school play, “Egbert, the Soft-hearted Ghost”. My little sister eventually blended in ok, too, but I remember days when she came home from school in tears because the kids had teased her about her “city slicker” hair style or clothing style or “New Joysey” accent. (What wretched creatures we can be.)
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My brother rode the bus to the high school about five miles away. It was called Triad High School because it served three towns that were located close together. My brother had a hard time in the new high school.  He tried out for the football team.  That was the big thing for most of the people in the local farming communities.  But he injured his ankle during a practice game and it didn’t heal quickly so he had to drop out.  The other kids teased him mercilessly.  They called him a “pansy” and a quitter.  He responded by becoming a tough guy, always ready to sock anybody who gave him any trouble.  It was out of character for the kindhearted and protective older brother that I knew.  The years flew by. He never married, but he adored his nieces and nephews.  When he passed away a few years ago his cat – his long-time companion and faithful friend – passed away just one week later.  Can a cat die from a broken heart?
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oil pumpjack

St. Jacob was a good place for a boy to get into trouble from time to time.  There was an oil pump jack in the soybean field behind our house.  It rocked up and down all day and night when  the market for crude oil was good.  It provided a modest side income for our farmer neighbor, and it conferred on the owner the evocative title of Oil Man – picture Rock Hudson in a white Stetson hat in front of a vast field of oil wells.

I’m not admitting to anything, but I might have sneaked out there and rode that oil pump like a bucking bronco once or twice.  It would be irresistible to a boy with any spunk.  I have a vague recollection of swinging my arm in the air on the upswing and gleefully yelling “Yahoo!!!” and then being pitched forward violently on the downswing and smashing my nose on the cold hard steel.  Thankfully there was no permanent damage.

beetles

Our science teacher, Mr. Korte, was proud of his insect and butterfly collection.  They were attached to pins under a glass case.  The centerpiece of the collection was four large brightly-colored iridescent beetles.  There was a name tag under each beetle:  “John”, “Paul”, “George”, and “Ringo”.

I got in trouble one day in the classroom along with two other boys for throwing erasers when the teacher was out of the room. They were soft spongy chalkboard erasers, and they let out a nice puff of chalk dust when you hit your target.  Mr. Korte walked in and caught us red-handed. He lined us up in front of the class, told us to bend over, and then swatted each of us  on the butt with a long paddle board that he kept behind his desk.

The smack of the paddle  definitely had a sting to it, but we gritted our teet,  closed our eyes, and scrunched our noses and managed to absorb the punishment without any outbursts of unmanly emotion.  The other students watched with quietly amused satisfaction. Then we sat down, tenderly, in our seats and went on with our day.

big bill

There was a boy in our class who we called Big Bill.  He was two feet taller than the rest of us.  He had been held back from advancing two times, maybe three.  One day our math teacher, Mr. Anderson, got exasperated with Bill’s slow progress on a math problem and called Bill an “ignoramus.”  We giggled as Bill once again shrunk down in his seat in humiliation.  We didn’t know what the word meant but we were used to hearing it from Mr. Anderson whenever one of us made a dumb mistake.

Some time later my brother and sister and I were talking around the dinner table about school and Mr. Anderson’s name came up.  I think most people are somewhat in awe of math teachers in general, I suppose because they seem to have a gift of seeing patterns and making sense out of abstract numbers and symbols.  Anyway I said, “He’s really smart.”  My father had been listening silently to our conversation up until then.  He said, “No, he isn’t.”  Then he went on eating.  We stopped talking and looked at my father.  We were surprised because my father always spoke respectfully about our teachers, and adults in general.  But he didn’t say anything else so we went on with our conversation.  I didn’t understand until years later what he was saying.

At the end of his high school year Big Bill served as an assistant editor for our yearbook, which contained stories and photos about the students and teachers and administrators. It went to all the teachers and administrators for review before publication.  Under one photo there was a short-lived but widely circulated caption: “George Ignoramus Anderson”.

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The years to come would have many highs and a few of the heartbreaking lows that come with everyone’s life, I suppose.   I’ve always been grateful for the innocent charm of those early years.

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98. The Skunk Works Joins the Internet

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skw

When I was a young network technician at the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works a few of my co-workers including Keith Robison, Mickey Ryan, Doug Craig, and Bryan Dana and I set up a computer network consisting of switches, routers, a web server, a Domain Name Server, and a mail server so that a group of young engineers who we worked with could access a new thing called the World Wide Web, aka The Internet. These forward-thinking engineers were Joe Vadyak, Ken Vanderhouten, Laslo Takacs, Joel Roush, and Gene Bouchard. They knew they would need “The Web” to help them design some of the world’s most remarkable aircraft.
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Doug Craig, a brilliant software programmer who later became our department manager, applied for an IP address space and received the Class B network 144.197.0.0, which would provide more than enough IP addresses for our workstation addressing requirements for the foreseeable future.  The IP addresses were assigned to each workstation, server, router, and other networked devices.  Each IP address was associated with a plain English name for that device to make connections more user friendly.  I made a dozen trips to the O’Reilly technical bookstore in Santa Monica to purchase books on how to set up domain name servers and configure Cisco routers and other networking skills.  The bookshelf in my cubicle was the envy of the office.
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I prepared a list of the first 10 workstations that were assigned IP addresses at the Skunk Works and their associated names and displayed it proudly on my cubicle wall for many years.  Eventually thousands of names and IP addresses would be assigned.  I was asked to choose a name for our Web server and selected the name “Magellan”, one of the great world explorers in history.  We also assigned an IP address for our IBM mainframe and connected it to the network.  We chose the name “KFROG” because its IP address was 144.197.95.1 and one of the local rock stations in Los Angeles was KFROG – FM 95.1.  Doug Craig told me that when the name KFROG was proposed he checked out the KFROG radio station to make sure that its music content and reputation would not reflect badly on the department.
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The killer apps at that time were email, and a Unix-based program called X-windows which allowed you to browse web sites and view text and graphics in multiple windows, and database search programs like Gopher where you could search the archives of the Library of Congress, for example.  Killer apps like Google and YouTube and Facebook were still years away.  The Internet is now recognized as a revolutionary achievement which has enabled great advancements in science, education, medicine, and social progress all around the world.  It was a great privilege to be able to contribute to that development.
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99. The Amazing SR-71
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When Kelly Johnson and his Skunk Works team (where I worked for 33 years) were beginning to build the SR-71 they found that no one could supply the required quantity and quality of titanium, a material that is stronger and half the weight of stainless steel. So they contacted the CIA who set up a series of dummy companies to hide the fact that they would be obtaining the titanium from an unlikely source – the Soviet Union, our arch adversary at the time. They had to design a new type of jet fuel because they knew that normal jet fuel would explode from friction heating when the SR-71 reached its operational speed – 3,000 MPH. The new fuel had such a low flash point that it could not be ignited by the usual methods, so they designed a new jet fuel igniter – triethyl borine, a material that spontaneously combusts when it contacts the air. It produces the bright green color shown in the photo.
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100. Fixing Capitalism
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Dr. Richard Wolff explains in the following presentations why he believes the American economic system is about to enter a very challenging period due to tragically bad economic practices over the previous four decades. And he explains how we can avoid this calamity by implementing more socially responsible economic practices.

Today each of us can use a computer or smartphone and quickly gather enough information to sound like an expert on any subject. I’m not an expert on economics. But this information resonated deeply with me, so I would like to share it with you.

Dr. Wolff observed that “real wages” – wages adjusted for the price of goods – stopped rising in the early 1970s. Real wages had risen steadily for the previous 150 years. They have stayed flat for the last four decades! This was a key to Dr. Wolff’s subsequent understandings.

Real wages stopped rising in the early 1970s for four main reasons:

⁃ computerization eliminated many jobs;
⁃ many companies moved production outside of the US in order to use cheap labor;
⁃ many women began entering the workforce and they were usually paid less than men;
⁃ many immigrants entered the workforce and they were happy to accept low wages.

As a result employers discovered that they no longer had to provide genuinely increasing wages year after year. Their employees were grateful just to have a job.

Sadly, instead of understanding the economic injustice that was occurring and rising up as members of an organized group, in most cases the isolated and powerless workers blamed themselves for falling further and further behind. To try and keep up, they worked longer hours and extra jobs and max’d out their credit cards. They sought solace in drugs and alcohol and escapist entertainment. Families disintegrated.

Because real wages remained flat, corporations have enjoyed steadily increasing profits for the past four decades. They have kept the profits mostly for themselves and their shareholders and they have not shared them with their employees. They followed the “profit above all” dictate of our soulless economic system and moved production outside the US when that was more profitable, and mostly ignored the devastation that this abandonment has caused to many of our cities (look at Detroit and Camden and many other cities that were once thriving and are now crumbling).

Many corporations have also adopted the practice of moving their operations to states where unions are less entrenched and less powerful, such as Texas, so that they can pay lower wages and provide fewer benefits.

In his book “Don’t Wait for the Next War,” General Wesley Clark, former Supreme Allied Commander for Europe and former presidential candidate, says that a friend at Goldman Sachs told him, “We give the CEO’s of the companies we buy as much of their compensation as possible in stock, so their interests and the shareholders’ interests are as closely aligned as possible.” As a result the executives are motivated to focus on stock price and short-term profits.

General Clarke also said: “There is a widespread belief that the US economic model simply doesn’t work very well anymore. High rates of joblessness, long-term and chronic unemployment, high youth unemployment, rising income inequality, lack of significant investment in many sectors of the economy, undistributed and unused piles of corporate cash, declining levels of new business formation, and uncharacteristically low rates of economic growth, along with high annual budget deficits, all combine to give the impression abroad that something is systemically wrong in the US economy.”

Dr. Wolff points out that after the passage of the tax bill at the end of 2017, 60 of the Fortune 500 companies paid zero taxes in 2018. The companies include Amazon, General Motors, John Deere, Chevron, and Delta Airlines for examples. Many corporations used their tax cut to buy back shares of their own stock to further enrich their shareholders and not to benefit their employees.

Under a more socially responsible economic system corporations would be required to have a fiduciary responsibility to their employees and their local community. That means they would be required by law to operate in the best interest of both of these groups, and this requirement would take priority over maximizing short term profits and shareholder value.

It never occurred to us that the problem was our economic system, the only economic system that was taught in our high schools and universities and business schools, the one that created thousands of millionaires and millions of poor people and supposedly made America “a shining city on a hill”.

The lack of real wage growth for four decades produced a huge income gap between The Haves (the very wealthy) and The Have Nots (the very poor). It led to our current situation: “the one percent versus the 99 percent”.

Dr. Wolff and others believe that this situation will lead to an economic revolution, possibly a violent revolution, as it has done over and over in many countries around the world, like Boston in 1770, and Paris in 1789, and Moscow in 1917, and Cuba in 1953, and…

Poverty in America

Who are the poor in America? The US Census declared that in 2014 14.8% of the general population lived in poverty. This is comprised of: 10.1% of all white non-Hispanic persons; 12.0% of all Asian persons; 23.6% of all Hispanic persons (of any race); 26.2% of all African American persons; and 28.3% of Native Americans.

The Census Bureau uses a set of money income thresholds that vary by family size and composition to determine who is in poverty. For example the figure for a family of 4 with 2 children under 18 is $22,162.

The Urban Institute reported in August 2018 that nearly half of Americans, or 4 in 10, are struggling to afford basic needs, such as housing, utilities, groceries and health care.

According to the US Census, in 2007 26.6% of all persons in single parent households lived in poverty. More than 75% of all poor households are headed by women (2012). This is a consequence of the disintegration of the American family over the last four decades because of a socially irresponsible economic system.

Economics:

Income Inequality
https://youtu.be/JJ01nLBFWV4

Bill Moyers and Dr. Wolff
Pt.1 https://youtu.be/5qwOvEUbMBo
Pt.2 https://youtu.be/lpTOXKHRJlU

Dem. Bernie Sanders in 2020
https://youtu.be/zfNP_z8unGU

Rep. Gov. Bill Weld in 2020
https://youtu.be/dYHYa0nJTb4

Social Responsibility
https://youtu.be/a1WUKahMm1s

Dr.Wolff and Chris Hedges:
https://youtu.be/60FrsWm9OAc

Poverty:

47% Can’t handle $400 emergency:
https://youtu.be/tamC-M8TxtY

“The middle class is being hollowed out”:
https://youtu.be/qyPW9Z5_jsk

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101. Coast to Coast in a Semi Truck
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When I arrived at my pickup location in Los Angeles the local dispatcher said that I had a choice of taking a double trailer load from LA to San Antonio or a single trailer load from LA to Atlanta. Before I checked with my truck owner I would have to think about this. Eight years ago I had studied the manual and passed the DMV written test for the doubles endorsement but I have never actually hauled a double trailer.

I would have more load options if I added doubles to my skill set. I figured I could do some practicing in the yard with another doubles driver and then take it nice and easy on the road. But the situation changed and I was asked to take the single trailer load to Atlanta. I hooked up to my assigned trailer and hit the road. But I resolved to take a double the next time it’s offered.

As I approached El Paso the afternoon sun was pouring in through the side window and it was just burning me up, so I pushed the side curtain forward a little. I was careful not to move the curtain too far forward – I knew what could happen if you obstruct your side or rear view in a commercial truck:

“Sorry, officer, the sun was so hot.”

“License and registration.”

“And ya know, officer, my mama’s not well…and my dawg, well, he died!…and this old truck, it’s one repair bill after another and…”

“You say your mama’s not well?”

“That’s right, officer.”

Now I had to think fast (which I’m not accustomed to). I blurted out the first thing that came to mind, and immediately I regretted it. I said, “it’s malaria.”

The officer looked away (I think it was to hide a grin). Then he looked up at me and said, “Just keep that curtain pulled back.” He returned to his patrol car and drove away.

When driving on I-20 from Texas to Florida the scenery is pretty much the same for hundreds of miles: dense trees on both sides and the rear end of the cars and trucks in front of you.

Louisiana
Mississippi
Alabama

If I had to live in this region of the country I’d get a small fishing boat or pontoon boat (there’s lots of nice rivers and lakes). And I’d have to renew my pilot license or take up sky diving or hot air ballooning to get above the claustrophobia-inducing trees once in a while. I suspect there may be a few open spaces between Dallas and Atlanta but I didn’t see any.

Georgia is more scenic than the others, because it’s at the tail end of the Great Smoky Mountains (out west we call them The Great Smoky Hills).

Florida is also interesting because of the alligators and the beaches. You have to be careful whenever you walk around outside of the truck, especially near a swamp. The vegetation changes from endless forests of ordinary deciduous trees to lots of exotic Spanish Moss-covered trees and of course the ubiquitous palm trees.
I backed up to the dock at my delivery location in Atlanta and watched them unload for awhile. I realized that my trailer load was actually made up of a lot of separate smaller loads. The Bill of Lading said they would be going to a dozen different locations on the east coast. It was a glimpse into the complex world of the shipping business.
My dispatcher asked me if I would like to make a short run to Orlando, about six hours southeast of Atlanta, before returning to LA. I said, “Yes!” It would put another $400 in my pocket and I was excited about seeing the white sandy beaches again. But I arrived in the middle of the night, so I got to see the beaches only in my imagination. Maybe next trip.
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102. We Are Fields of Energy
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I enjoy listening to audio books on many different subjects on my long haul runs. These brilliant authors remind me of the witty remark of William F. Buckley: “Sometimes it’s hard for me to stand up under the weight of all that I know!”

According to quantum physics we should think of ourselves not as a collection of solid matter but as a condensed field of energy. The solid-looking matter that we see all around us and in the mirror is actually made up of energy that is vibrating at a certain frequency, which gives matter its various properties like shape, size, and texture.

Einstein described the relationship between energy and matter with his famous equation E=MC^2 (energy equals mass times the speed of light squared). One of the confounding properties of energy and matter is that they can neither be created nor destroyed, they can only be changed from one form to another. It’s like the Transporter on Star Trek, which was science fiction, but maybe some day it will enable us to travel to other galaxies. I would not be surprised if the folks at DARPA (the government’s research and development agency) or the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works (where I used to work) are developing weapons or power plants or defensive shields or other technologies based on these principles.

The various subatomic particles such as protons and neutrons and electrons and quarks and Higgs bosons are as distant from each other, relatively speaking, as the spaces between the stars. In fact objects consist of mostly empty space! A rock, a tree, a table or your hand appear to be solid but they are really just clouds of tiny particles held together and repelled from other clouds of tiny particles by powerful electrical forces. That’s why you can’t put your hand through a wall, unless you really want to.

The universe was formed about 13.7 billion years ago with The Big Bang. The Earth was formed about 4.5 billion years ago when some of the matter from The Big Bang coalesced under the force of gravity. The other planets in our solar system also formed at about the same time, probably over several million years according to the latest theories.

Life has been evolving on Earth for 3.5 billion years, starting with simple single-cell organisms. Scientists are unanimous about the fact of evolution as a process, and most scientists believe that the first life appeared as the inevitable result of a natural process that occurs wherever the necessary chemical and environmental conditions are present. However scientists are not able to rule out the possibility that the first appearance of life could have been the result of a miraculous event, such as the biblical creation story.

(Personally I believe that God created the laws of nature, and those laws led naturally to the Big Bang and the formation of the planets and the origin of life and evolution, and finally to mankind’s crowning achievement – pepperoni pizza.)

The most compelling evidence that life evolved over millions of years, versus a singular creation event for each type of organism, includes:

– the fossil record (the primary evidence),

– comparative anatomy (similar anatomical structures across species, such as arms, wings, and flippers),

– vestigial organs (organs that no longer serve a useful purpose, like our vestigial tail muscles and our appendix),

– the structural unity of life including cells and molecules,

– and the shared genetic code (all organisms have some of the same components within their genetic material).

There is a thread of similarity in all organisms, from an amoeba to a man – they all share basic similarities in cell structure, for example, which is another corroboration of evolution.

The first life probably originated near geothermal vents under the ocean, which would have been a good environment for the formation of the types of molecular compounds that are required for life.

The first human-like creatures appeared in the fossil record in eastern Africa about six million years ago after millions of years of evolution. Their age was determined by carbon dating the surrounding soil. The characteristics that distinguished the early humans from our ape ancestors were a larger brain, walking upright, and tool making. Their greatly increased mental ability enabled them to transcend brute instincts and respond to situations in a cooperative and rational way (on their good days).

The human creatures were able to communicate with language based on symbols and build complex tools. This was far beyond the mental abilities of the other creatures. The other creatures shared the same consciousness as us, the same sensations of pain and pleasure and excitement and boredom and togetherness and loneliness and all the other sensations except for complex thought.

All organisms are comprised of trillions of cells. Cells are the fundamental building blocks of life. All cells arise from previous cells, usually through a process of cell division.
There are single cell organisms such as bacteria (which are the most prolific organisms on Earth and will probably inherit the Earth after World War III) and multi-cell organisms such as the animals and plants. In the higher organisms cells are differentiated to perform specific functions such as organs, blood, and skin cells.
In the early 1950s two scientists named Watson and Crick discovered the DNA molecule – one of the most important discoveries in science. They described it as a double helix, like a spiral staircase. They won a Nobel Prize for their discovery.
The DNA molecule provides a template that enables cells to copy themselves and thereby pass on their genetic information from one generation to the next. The acclaimed biologist (and strident atheist) Dr. Richard Dawkins maintains that passing on its genetic information is in fact the highest purpose of every organism.

The same processes and characteristics described above have very likely occurred on many other planets throughout the universe. There are probably many other life forms throughout the universe.

Thanks to this knowledge I feel a stronger sense of connection to all of my fellow creatures (in spite of how atrociously we might sometimes treat each other and our planet).  We are all the same in a way:  we are all vibrating fields of energy that are forever changing from one form to another over the vast span of time.  I wonder if one day my field of energy will rejoin those of my mom and dad and sister and brother, and my brother’s cat (which died a week after its loving master, from loneliness, they say).

Sources:

The Joy of Science, Dr. Robert M. Hazen (audio book, Amazon.com)

Paradigm Shift, Dr. Edgar Mitchell (audio book, Amazon.com)

The Great Courses: The Origins of Life (audio book, Amazon.com)

Quantum Fields
https://youtu.be/zNVQfWC_evg

The Secrets of Quantum Physics https://youtu.be/ISdBAf-ysI0

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103. No War with Iran! 
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Every war that has ever been fought has been recognized in hindsight as a great shame and a great tragedy. Don’t be deceived again like we were about these deceptions by our politicians and government leaders:

  • Tonkin Gulf  – the deception that got the public to support the escalation of the Vietnam War
  • “Evil Empire” – the deception that falsely depicted the Soviet Union as a super-powerful peace-threatening rogue state to get the public to go along with the Reagan administration and subsequent administrations in the largest military industrial buildup since WWII
  • 9/11 – the deception that got the public to support an ongoing War on Terror that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, devastated thousands of US soldiers and their families (22 soldiers commit suicide every day), and cost trillions of dollars that have been thrown away on weapons and military expeditions instead of going for noble causes
  • the invasion of Iraq – the worst war crime by the US in American history.

The War on Terror is part of the tragic US foreign policy that our soldiers and our fellow human beings in the Middle East have suffered under for the last 18 years.

Read and listen to Christopher Bollyn, Dr. David Ray Griffin, Dr. Webster Tarpley, General Wesley Clark, and Dr. Judy Wood among others to be more fully informed. Do your research and vote your conscience, not your party.

Gen. Wesley Clark
https://youtu.be/TY2DKzastu8

Christopher Bollyn
https://youtu.be/qOq-LbQ4erM
https://youtu.be/mimUJoSyUT4

John Lear
https://youtu.be/h939n9etTO0
(The hologram theory for the planes of 9/11 is controversial, but I’m convinced that the Israeli Mossad involvement in 9/11 and other aspects of the video are right on target.)

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104.  Breakfast at McDonalds
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As I consume my Egg McMuffin this morning in Atlanta the dining area gradually fills with half a dozen senior citizens, both black and white, in singles and pairs. They casually enjoy their breakfasts and conversations, sometimes greeting each other across the tables. The kindness and civility of their manners almost brings a tear.
“Good morning, Mr. Johnson. How are you feeling today?” asks a white-haired lady in front of me.
Mr. Johnson, at another table, replies, “Fine, thank you.  So far.”
“It was my seventy-fourth birthday yesterday,” says the lady in front of me.
“Oh! Good for you!” says Mr. Johnson. He smiles as he asks, “Did your son give you a birthday gift?”
The lady in front of me shakes her head and says, wistfully, “No.” After a pause she adds, “He didn’t even call me.”
Mr. Johnson replies, “Well, maybe it’s time to kick dat boy to da curb!”
The lady in front of me shakes her head and says, softly, “Nah…nah.”
A toddler and his momma step up to the counter. The grandma counter person beams at the little boy. She points a playful finger and says, “You’re so cute.” The little boy mischievously responds, “No, YOU’RE so cute!” The grandma giggles with delight and says, “No, YOU’RE so cute!” The little boy immediately responds, “No, YOU’RE so cute! …
A seven-year old stands all loose-jointed with one foot on top of the other, pressed up against the display case full of Star Wars characters. He whispers the name of each character as he touches the case in a circle with his finger.  He’s completely transported to another galaxy. “Whatcha want, baby?” asks his momma at the counter. No answer. “James!” He hurries over to her. “You want chicken nuggets?” His eyes get big and he nods his head up and down with his lips pressed together in a grin. He throws his arms around momma’s hips and presses his face sideways against her belly and shakes up and down. Momma’s irritated expression melts away instantly. She instinctively pulls him to herself and presses the side of her face against the top of his head with unbounded affection. The moment passes. She turns to the impatient young counter person and completes their order. “Momma, can I have a Star Wars?”
A grizzled old truck driver with grease-stained hands and frumpy clothes from miles and miles shuffles in. He says these unexpected words to the cute young counter person, with a wink: “I’ll be right there, sweetie. I just need to freshen up.”
After breakfast I walk over to the adjacent Walmart to get some disposable shavers. Searching… searching… I capture a 20-something Walmart Associate in a blue vest and ask my question. She points vaguely and says, “They’re in Health and Beauty, over there.” Searching… searching… I capture another Walmart Associate in a blue vest, this time a senior citizen (they’re easier to catch). “Excuse me, I’m looking for Health and Beauty.” She says, “Aren’t we all, honey. Follow me.”
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102. My Retirement Luncheon
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lockheed martin
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After the delicious dinner, my long-time co-workers gave me a beautiful wooden plaque that expressed appreciation for 33 years of service, as well as a large glass-framed photograph of the F-35 surrounded by the signatures of more than 40 co-workers, and an exquisitely detailed model of the F-35. Then they gave me the opportunity to say a few words.
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“For the last few weeks I’ve been noticing little things that I’m probably doing for the last time…a door that I open, a stair that I climb, people that I see…”
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“When I started with Lockheed in 1978 they were just beginning the transition from IBM’s proprietary SNA networks to standards-based Ethernet and TCP/IP networks.  It was the beginning of the Internet Age.”
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“I remember there was a young network technician who the managers would go to when they wanted to be sure their facts were correct for an important presentation or cost estimate or network design.  That was Keith Robison.” I looked at Keith, who was notorious for his writing errors on office memos, and said with a pretend expression of confusion, “But they never went to you for help with grammar or spelling?” Everyone laughed including Keith.
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“Also about that time, out in Palmdale, another young network technician was working in the comm rooms and hangars and tunnels, usually working alone – he was very self-directed – and always coming up with smarter ways to do things.  Who was that?” Several people shouted out, “Mickey Ryan!”
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“When our son David was born I was with my wife Raili in the hospital when  a serious  network problem came up back at the plant.  There were some people in the office who wanted me to come in and help with the problem.  My supervisor at the time refused to let them call me at the hospital.  That was Bryan Dana.”
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“In 2001 when they asked me to lead the Pax River flight test network project they were taking a big risk, because I had not led such an important project before.  It was extremely challenging but we managed to get the job done.  Afterwards they sent Mike Cronin and me, and our families, to the Disneyland Resort to receive a Pinnacle Award on behalf of the team.  The manager who gave me that opportunity was Doug Craig.” I looked at Doug and said, “I have only worn a tuxedo two times in my life – my sister’s wedding and the Pinnacle Award night.” Doug smiled appreciatively.
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I concluded by saying, “I wish I had time to name all the people that I have felt very lucky to work with over the years.  My career at Lockheed introduced me to the finest people I have ever known.”
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The audience responded with applause and several of my closest associates gathered around me afterwards to offer their congratulations and best wishes.
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103. Tall Trees

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tall trees

Toward the end of my run I called my wife and let her know what time I would be home. She always picks me up at the place where I park the truck.  On the way home I told her about driving through the dusty small towns in west Texas and southern New Mexico, when I took the highways and byways instead of the freeway between Dallas and El Paso.

I told her that when I was growing up I had the impression, although she never complained, that my mother would have preferred a more cosmopolitan lifestyle than what she ended up with – a series of nondescript small towns, like the ones in west Texas.

When we got home I looked at her lovingly maintained rose garden, and our always immaculate home, and the delightful oil and watercolor paintings that grace our walls – her impressions of childhood memories and family outings and scenes from nature. Then I told her the same thing that I used to tell my mother when I came home on school breaks:  “This house is an oasis of good taste.”  That made her smile.

She came over to me the other night while I was reading and showed me what she was holding in her hand.  It was a fuzzy green pipe cleaner, squished into a little ball.  She said she found it tucked into a small opening in the door frame of her bedroom closet.  I looked up at her and we exchanged a tender smile.  We both knew right away whose little hands had put it there, so secretly and mischievously, many years ago.

She went back to her office.  After a moment I was overcome with a flood of emotion.  When your little boy grows up it’s almost like a loss, even though you adore the kind and thoughtful young man that he has grown into.  He is 18 now.  On one of my mail runs to Oregon not long ago, as I drove through a forest of tall trees this thought came to me:  “he has grown up straight and true.”  It’s immensely satisfying to a father when he has to reach up to put his arm around the shoulder of his “little boy”.

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104. Miles To Go

cobra

When I was shopping for a sports car I seriously considered a Dodge Viper. It is one of the coolest-looking cars on the planet.  Then I read the driver reviews. One of them was the nail in the coffin. After describing a long list of faults like poor visibility from the driver’s seat, poor interior fit and finish, and hard to get in and out of, he concluded:  “I would never be able to stand being in it for long enough to get to that winding mountain road.”  For me a sports car also has to be practical and reliable.  But I understand why the impractical Viper has a lot of fans in spite of its faults:  if practicality ruled our choices, cowboys would ride side saddle.

z06

My car expert son steered me toward the Z06 model of the Corvette. We are both very happy with it.  The Corvette has all the requirements for a comfortable ride to Walmart including creature comforts and mechanical reliability as well as outrageous horsepower and excellent road-handling for a thrilling ride on the Angeles Crest Highway.

The Corvette is the fighter jet that I might have had.  It has a Head Up Display, with a G meter.   Like an F-16 it has a reclining pilot seat.  I could take the sweeping homestretch curve at Willow Springs at 180 MPH and not black out.  Like an F-15 it has a positive thrust-to-weight ratio – it accelerates going straight up.  And it growls.

f-15 straight up

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While I was on my Dallas run David asked me if he could borrow the Corvette for a few hours for a sunset photo shoot with one of his car enthusiast friends who is a talented photographer and shares some of his tips with David. Here is one of David’s awesome photos. The location is Mount Wilson Observatory in the mountains above Los Angeles.

c3

139 David 17 with M3

IMG_2651 (2)

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105. YOUTUBE VIDEOS

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106. Team Drivers

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQJsc3m5pXk 

team

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107. A Wandering Star

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQ6-Ji8fhcU 

wandering

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108. Ghost Rider

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MLPywoz4RtY

ghost rider

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109. The Rusty Lugnut Cartoons