Sunday, December 28, 2008

On Being Away and Single

Sure, it's hard for guys with families to be away on the holidays, but it's too easy to lose sight of the fact that being away is difficult for single folks, too.

In the last several years, the average age of our pilot staff--now at about 660 pilots--has gone down a bunch. Ten years ago, the guy or gal holding the median spot on the seniority list had about ten years with the company. Now, that person has just a bit over three years with the company. PHI employs the most twenty-something pilots than since the years following the Vietnam War.

For a single guy or gal, being away from home, in a way, must be even harder than for a married guy. I feel connected to my home through my wife and son. I talk to them every day, and it gives me comfort to know that they'll be waiting for me when I go home.

Often, our single pilots have no one waiting at home, not even a dog or cat. (The critters don't like going without food for a week or two.) Their social networks are usually comprised of other single people, and often, contact with them ceases when the pilot is away. Being single as an offshore helicopter pilot carries its own burdens.

That's why I was happy to learn that my friend and coworker Eugene, who also had to work on Christmas Day, got a pleasant surprise from his girlfriend Ivy: she flew in from California to spend Christmas with him. It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.

Eugene and Ivy

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to everyone. Just so you'll know, Dylan is bummed that I won't be home today, but his sorrow is greatly mitigated by knowing that he'll have another Christmas day when I get home, and thus, more presents.

As for me, I'm simply thankful for all of the blessings in my life.

May your day be wonderful. If you're gonna have some eggnog, have one for me.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Bouncing Back

I decided at the end of the workday yesterday to drive to the West Bank area of New Orleans to buy groceries and stuff. It takes a bit over an hour to drive up there from PHI's Boothville, Louisiana base. I spent that hour in one damn sour mood. I always get the blues for a while when the short days of winter impose themselves, and the thought of being away from Rhonda and Dylan come Christmas Day didn't help.

I'd planned to grab a sandwich for dinner before going on to a supermarket, but I instead decided to treat myself to a "real" dinner at an Italian restaurant. I sat down with Chad Waterbury's new book and tried to avoid giving off the aura of a shaved sasquatch with hemorrhoids and a toothache.

Several tables over, four couples sat together. One of them had a baby girl, maybe a year old. Everyone was fawning over the little one, taking turns holding her. She was smiling and giggling and eating up being made to feel so special. It made me smile.

Later, the hostess seated a couple who appeared to be well into their seventies. They sat at a table big enough for six. They chose to sit together, on the same side of the table. They held hands while they waited for their food. It made me smile.

I drove back to Boothville in a much better mood.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sketchy Attendance

I may not be posting much for a bit. My laptop is belly-up. Friendly advice: if you must drop your laptop, try to avoid doing so while it's running.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Remembering Calvin & Hobbes

For seventeen years, my employer had a helicopter base at the Santa Barbara airport, less than an hour from where I was born and raised. I was lucky enough to work out of there for those seventeen years.

One day in the mid-eighties, I stepped out of the ops building for some air. I spotted a woman and a little boy, perhaps three years old, on the other side of the fence. They were watching one of our helicopters land to the parking ramp.

The passengers, eleven men who'd just spent a week offshore on an oil platform, disembarked and walked across the ramp. I walked to the gate, and told the woman and son that they could enter the ramp area. They did. Then the little guy saw his dad, a mountain of a guy with a big grin on his face. The little boy sprinted to his dad, joy pouring from him. Dad scooped him up, covered him with kisses, and held him close.

It hit me with a wallop. It was such a beautiful scene that it hurt. Tears welled in my eyes, and I walked away from the group to watch from afar.

I'd always enjoyed the company of friends' kids, but I was utterly convinced that I never wanted to become a father. I harbored all those standard "state of the world" reasons, yeah, but what it really came down to was a fear of loss: becoming a father seemed tantamount to putting your heart out there and daring the world to stomp on it. I just didn't think I could handle the risk that came with loving someone that much.

Coincidently or not, I discovered Calvin & Hobbes that Sunday in the newspaper funnies. I never read the funnies, but at the prompting of my friend and coworker Roger, I read the strip about the six-year-old boy and his imaginary, or not so imaginary, friend. Thus began my love affair with Calvin and his tiger. That little comic strip reawakened my appreciation for the magic of childhood, and planted the seeds of doubt in my mind and heart as to the "I don't want to be a father" thing.

Calvin & Hobbes had a ten year run, ending in 1995. I still miss it. I almost never look at the funnies anymore, unless it's with my son.

My son Dylan was born in 2000. Sometimes he reminds me of Calvin. He'll be getting a Calvin & Hobbes book for Christmas.

Sometimes I still wonder if I've put my heart out there and dared the world to stomp on it.

But that's okay. Give joy a chance, and most of the time, it'll thump the crap out of fear.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Cool Helicopter Photos

Some folks have an eye for photography. They don't just take pictures; they create art via a camera lens. My friend and occasional flying partner Eugene Chua is a guy blessed with such an eye. He's also a damn fine pilot, and a fun guy to have around the workplace.

So, he's a talented photographer, a damn fine pilot, and a fun guy to boot. Eugene obviously has more than his fair share of attributes, and that's starting to irritate the heck out of me.

The photos above are taken in a Sikorsky S-76C++. It carries two pilots, up to twelve passengers, and cruises at up to 170 miles per hour. It's the mainstay of PHI's offshore fleet.

You should really check out more of Eugene's photography on his website.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Hard Times Come Again No More

If you liked listening to Alison Krause sing "Slumber My Darling" on the Appalachian Journey performance, you'll likely enjoy James Taylor singing Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More," also from the Appalachian Journey broadcast.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Stephen Foster Song

I have a few music recordings in my collection that I don't listen to often, yet they're the ones I go to when I'm not in the mood to listen to music. Make sense? I don't blame ya.

Yo Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O'Connor recorded Appalachia Waltz in just three days in 1995. I bought it, and I quickly became one of my "desert island" CD's. Then the three released Appalachian Journey in 2000, and I thought they topped themselves.

Here, Alison Krause joins the three to sing Stephen Foster's "Slumber My Darling" during a live performance of Appalachian Journey, first broadcast on PBS.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


It's a funny thing about being away on a holiday associated with gatherings of loved ones. Yeah, I wish I were home. I wish that I could later drive Rhonda and Dylan to my sister-in-law's house, where the family dinner will be held. I wish I could watch Dylan interact with his only surviving grandparent, Rhonda's mom. Yep, I wish I could be there.

But the funny thing about being away is how a tinge of heartache can put an accent on that for which I feel thankful. The homesickness brings forth a heightened capacity to cherish, and it shines a spotlight on what's really important.

Today, I'm thankful that I make my living doing what I dreamed about as a kid. Today, I'm thankful for my health. Today, I'm thankful for my friends. Today, I'm thankful for those coworkers who make being away just a little more bearable.

Most of all, I'm thankful for my wife and son, who together give my life its sunlight. Soon, I'll hold them both again, and I'll feel thankful for that, too.

Happy Thanksgiving, my friends.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


Yesterday, I learned that a couple I knew when I lived in southern California is getting divorced. Even though I haven't kept in touch with them, even though it's been fifteen years since I've seen them, the news still shocked and dismayed me. Their marriage appeared bulletproof, and it seemed written in the stars that they'd adore each other forever. I wonder about the welfare of their son, who's now a teenager.

As in life, there are no guarantees in relationships. We have hope for ourselves and for others, and we cling to faith that we'll live happily ever after. It doesn't always happen.

I don't know what happened with my southern California friends. All that comes to me is that harmony in a relationship sometimes goes away, even while the love stays.

Singer-songwriter Hal Ketchum wrote lyrics that really struck me when I first heard them, and they still resonate every time I hear the song "Lonely Old Me."

Even love that is meant to be
is a garden that needs tending.

Even love that is for all time
cannot promise a happy ending.

On Annie's blog today, I clicked on one of her blog links to a Redding-area blogger by the name of Keith Stahr. Keith had a quote on his profile from novelist Tom Robbins that resonated much the same as "Lonely Old Me."

"When two people meet and fall in love, there's a sudden rush of magic. Magic is just naturally present then. We tend to feed on that gratuitous magic without striving to make any more. One day we wake up and find that the magic is gone. We hustle to get it back, but by then it's usually too late, we've used it up. What we have to do is work like hell at making additional magic right from the start. It's hard work, but if we can remember to do it, we greatly improve our chances of making love stay."

Maybe the message in those words hardly presents the whole answer. Is there a whole answer?

I dunno. If I figure that one out, I'll get back to you.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Remember Halloween?

Debby asked if I had any Halloween pics. I did, but I misplaced my card reader and the camera cable. Well, better late than never, I guess.

I found Dylan's werewolf costume a little disturbing, and I hope he'll want to be something else next year. He found Rhonda's appearance disturbing, and he doesn't want her to repeat it next year. Rhonda found my ghoul makeup disturbing, and she wants me to do something else next year.

We were one doggone disturbed family this Halloween.

Rhonda and I believe that parents should join in with the Halloween spirit, but should maintain a degree of parental decorum around the kids.

I asked Rhonda if she'd keep the wig around for, er, later. I asked her two or three times. She kept acting as if she didn't hear me.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Me Me Meme

Redlefty and Debby have both tagged me for this, so I guess it's about time I got off my duff. And, I mean golly, I just hate writing about myself.

Here are the rules.

  • Link to the person who tagged you, and post the rules on your blog.

  • Share 7 random and/or weird facts about yourself.

  • Tag 7 random people at the end of your post, and include links to their blogs.

  • Let people know they've been tagged by leaving comments on their blogs.
Okay, here goes.

1. I'm anti death penalty, but pro gun rights. If I were to go to a party populated equally by liberals and conservatives, I could antagonize most of the room in no time.

2. I believe in ghosts, because I lived with one for a time in the eighties.

3. I'm a Christian. Some people from the fundamentalist fold might argue that, should we share a conversation about belief, and that's okay. I'm a Christian, but I very much believe in reincarnation. Can you say "heresy"? Oh yeah, plus that ghost thing.

4. I fly helicopters. I have eleven thousand hours of flight time. But, I can't snap my fingers. My son could snap his fingers when he was five. More evidence that life ain't fair.

5. I've had good times, and I've had bad times, but I don't ever remember seriously considering killing myself. I've always had the capacity to remember that bad times would pass. It's been written that 92 percent of people who jumped off of the Golden Gate Bridge and survived changed their minds on the way down. Good thing to remember when times get tough.

6. I think it's quite likely that Moses, Jesus, Buddha, and Muhammad all worked for the same boss. Sorry if I left out your personal favorite.

7. I like exchanging emails, but I'd almost rather take a beating than chat online.

Special bonus: I'm one of the heirs to the Johnson & Johnson fortune.

Not really, and I stole that off Uncle E's blog anyway.

Okay, here are my tags:

Bob, the IABFNY Bob.
Bob, the Bob from Tennessee.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Second Sunday in November

I usually stay home as much as possible on the weekends. Weekends are our time to be together as a family. So, I do most errands during the weekdays, while Dylan is in school.

This morning, though, I felt like I just had to go to the gym. I'm working at getting a workout station set up in our garage, but it's not there yet. As I was backing up, Dylan came running out the front door. He asked me to stay. I told him I would be back soon, leaned out the window to hug him, and left anyway.

It's about a mile and a half to the "real" road into town, the first half being dirt. When I got to the road, I stopped. I thought about Dylan being eight, and about how things are changing. I thought about the real possibility that in a scant few years, he would no longer ask me to stay home. I thought about the day when he would move away, and I wondered if one particular morning would haunt me late in life: that morning when I decided to go to the gym instead of hang with my son.

I turned around to go home. I was a few hundred yards from our gate when our former neighbor and his son came up behind me in their car. They've recently bought a house in town, and will be renting the "old" one out. They'd come to burn some brush piles and do general cleanup outside. Brian, the son, asked if Dylan would be available to play. I knew Dylan would be overjoyed, both to see Brian again and to watch brush burning.

I told Brian that Dylan would love to come over. I smiled. Dylan wouldn't miss me in the least while he was hanging with Brian. I turned around and headed to the gym again. I pondered the passing of time. I thought of the day Dylan was born, and how, when I first set my eyes upon my son, it felt as if God had put a spotlight on him.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Sweetness and Light

My eight-year old is showing signs that he's leaving behind the last vestiges of his early-childhood sweetness.

I volunteered at his school yesterday. When I first showed up in his class, the teacher was showing the class how to properly fill out a check. (In third grade?) After she finished the teaching segment, she asked if I had any comments.

"Yep," I responded. "All of you need to do well in school, go on to college, and find good-paying careers so you can later write checks like these to your parents."

Dylan, my sweet eight year-old son, let go with a loud, dramatic faux-sneeze, expelling the words "NOTGONNAHAPPEN!" with it. His teacher looked shocked for a moment, but then started laughing. She looked at me with what I took to be a mixture of amusement and sympathy.

Last weekend, I stepped out of the shower, and found no towels in the bathroom. I stepped out of the bathroom to the linen closet, naked. Dylan happened to walk into the hallway at the same time. He let go with a blood-curdling scream: "OH MY EYES! OH MY EYES!" He staggered in place with his hands over his face. Oh yeah, some heavy drama going on there.

But that wasn't enough. No. He then collapsed, and began writhing on the floor. Yep, he was writhing on the floor, still screaming "OH MY EYES! OH MY EYES!"

Sheesh. Eight years-old, and the little rascal has the makings of a first-class wiseguy.

He got it from his mom, obviously.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Sometimes, the Real Sign of Hope Comes from Losers

Obama's victory speech was inspiring. I think he's the most charismatic politician to come upon the national scene since JFK.

But sometimes, the real sign of hope comes from the losing side. John McCain, George Bush, and Condoleezza Rice all impressed me when I heard them speak this morning. They all showed class, and they all showed themselves capable of rising to the occasion. They all acknowledged the historical importance of this election: for the first time, the United States has elected a man of color to the highest office in the land.

In 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. The opening sentence is perhaps the best-known of any American political document: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .

I can remember reading those words in junior high, and thinking that the beliefs and actions of so many made those words ring hollow. The words "all men are created equal" seemed tantamount to a cruel joke.

But not today. No, not today.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

My Evening with the Wino Posse

I lived in Austin, Texas for part of 1981 and 1982. Man, I loved it there. I've always loved live music, even mediocre live music, and Austin offered an amazing level of live entertainment for a town its size. Even on a Sunday or Monday night, a good band was easy to find.

One of the great sorrows of my life is that I didn't move to Austin in time to visit Armadillo World Headquarters, the focal point of Austin's Redneck Rock/Progressive Country/Texas Troubadour scene of the 1970's. I never made it to an Austin City Limits show either, but that's a secondary tragedy.

Sixth Street found the highest concentration of live music venues in the Hill Country. During my breaks away from working as an offshore helicopter pilot in the Gulf of Mexico, I spent many nights wandering about Sixth Street, drinking beer, listening to music, and avoiding anything resembling a productive life.

One night I exited a place called Steamboat Springs on Sixth Street, only to come upon a fight getting started. They were two big guys, and from their dress and age I guessed them to be University of Texas students.

Back in those days, when I hung out in bars and taverns a lot, I was what you'd call a happy drinker. Never once did I get in a bar fight. Stupidly, though, I seemed to feel that it was my mission in life to break up fights.

So there I was, standing on a sidewalk on Sixth Street, watching two guys fight, making mental transition from Mr. Good Times to doing something. I wasn't feeling at my most physically capable: I'd severely sprained an ankle and was encumbered with a walking cast. The guy with his back to me clocked the other one solidly. I yelled, "Yo man, hold on there," and lunged forward to restrain him. As I did, the guy drew back to punch his "friend" again, and his elbow caught me right between the eyes. Boom.

That stunned me, yeah. But what really got things going south for your would-be honky-tonk hero was tripping as I stumbled backward. Damn walking cast. I avoided falling down, which was good. However, I avoided falling down by smashing against the brick wall behind me with the back of my skull. That was bad.

Things went kind of gray, and I found my knees buckling. I slid down the wall to a sitting position.

The guy who'd kicked my ass with his elbow hit his friend again, and the friend went down. Then Elbow Guy kicked the other guy in the face.

"Hey!" I yelled. "HEY!" Elbow Guy paid me no mind. I told myself to stand up, but my legs weren't obeying me. Elbow Guy kicked the prone guy on the back of the head. "NO!" I yelled.

That's when things got a little surreal.

Five middle-aged men seemed to come out of nowhere. They swarmed Elbow Guy. "C'mon man, you got him down. He's all done," said one of the rescuers. "GET THE F*CK AWAY FROM ME," shouted Elbow Guy. He then hurled a series of racial epithets at the men. Seemingly unfazed, the five black men, slight and underfed looking, all began talking at once. "He's your friend, ain't he? Why you wanna hurt him more? C'mon, it's time to let him be and go home."

I continued to sit on the sidewalk, transfixed. The five men didn't need any help from me.

Anger fled the scene. Elbow Guy's face went slack, as if a certain realization had washed over him: he'd been about to seriously injure a friend. He muttered something to the men, then  simply wandered away. The men turned to the guy on the ground, now sitting up. "Hey man, you okay?" Kicked Guy's lip was bleeding, but he looked okay, considering. He answered, "Yeah. Got a loose tooth, but I'm okay. Thanks. You guys saved my ass." They all shook hands, and Kicked Guy wandered away too.

It was over. I was still sitting on my butt on the sidewalk, no doubt with mouth agape. The five guys turned to me. Two of them lifted me by the arms, struggling. My legs were working again, but still shaky.

"Thanks guys," I said. "Man, what you guys did was really something." One of them, the guy who seemed the spokesman, replied, "Ain't no thing, Cracker." The rest of the guys laughed. "We're the Wino Posse, out to rescue honky college students." They all laughed again. I laughed too. Mr. Spokesman had a comic's delivery. He had kind eyes. They all did.

I shook hands with the five of them. Since they looked impoverished, I expected them to ask me for money. They didn't. I started walking toward the all-night deli restaurant at the a few blocks away, as was my habit at the end of a night on Sixth Street. I turned back toward the guys. "Hey, can I buy you guys breakfast at the deli?" Mr. Spokesman, who looked a lot like Scatman Crothers, answered, "Thanks Brother Cracker, but we ain't exactly dressed for the place."

One of the other men spoke up. "But you know, if you wanted to thank us, you could buy us a couple bottles of Mad Dog." I smiled. "What, no Thunderbird?" There were snorts of derision, and comments like "that stuff'll rot your brain." "Okay," I said, "you guys gonna be here when I get back?" Mr. Spokesman answered, "Naw, Brother Cracker, we get too much attention around these high-class places. Look for us a few blocks east. And hey: if you go to that place a few blocks west, ask for some paper cups. These winos may be my brothers, but I ain't into sharin' spit with them." The guys laughed again.

I got in my car, drove to the nearest liquor store, and bought a few bottles of Mogen David 20/20, the low-end fortified wine of discriminating winos. I drove to the east on Sixth Street, and found the guys on one of the darker corners.

I jumped out and delivered the bottles. Only then did it strike me that they might need some food. "Hey guys, could I go get some burgers or something?" Mr. Spokesman piped up. "Naw, Brother Cracker, we've already had dinner. We're winos, but we ain't homeless." The other guys laughed. One of them asked, "Care to join us?"

So, for about an hour, I became a wino. I normally avoided mixing beer and wine, since that would usually lead to a volcanic stomach situation, but that night, the Mad Dog went down just fine. I decided then and there that if I ever became a wino, I'd stick to Mogen David.

Damn, those guys were funny. Stories flew about, as well as jokes and good-natured insults. I tried to find out more about the pasts of the five men, but they seemed kind of evasive. In fact, they gave me the impression that I was being rude. All I remember learning was that Mr. Spokesman had once been a teacher, and one of the other guys had once been a truck driver.

An hour or so went by, and it dawned on me that I was wearing out my welcome. I shook hands with the five of them, and they all joined in to promise that they wouldn't spread it around that I'd had my ass kicked by a wall. We all laughed one last time. I walked to my car while they all called out for me to be careful and to watch out for those ass-kicking walls on Sixth Street. I started the car and noticed Mr. Spokesman walking to the curb. I rolled down the passenger window, and he leaned down to speak to me. "Hal, steer your life. Don't let life steer you." I shook hands with him again, and drove away. When I got near the all-night deli, it suddenly hit me that I probably shouldn't be driving. I pulled over and went inside to have breakfast.

After eating, I called a cab to go home. It was only then that it hit me: Mr. Spokesman had called me "Hal," and I was almost sure that I'd never said my name. I'd been "Brother Cracker" to those guys. In fact, the etiquette of the evening seemed to involve avoiding the use of given names.

Over the following weeks, I looked for the five men while frequenting Sixth Street. I asked bartenders if they'd ever noticed them or heard from them. None of them had, until one evening, at a place called the Paradise Cafe, one bartender acted like he'd been slapped when I brought them up.

"The Wino Posse? Yeah, they got me out of a jam one night."

It would make a better story if I could tell you that the bartender guy related a detailed account of his encounter with those five men. But, he did no such thing. In fact, when I pressed him, he seemed irritated, and snorted, "Some things are better left unsaid."

I never saw the Wino Posse again. I never heard of them, either, except from that one bartender, who made it plain that he didn't want to elaborate.

I think about them often. I think about their kindness, their bravery, and about how they seemed to have a common desire to be winos with class. I think about how so many people in more fortunate circumstances could learn a lot about life from those five alcoholic street denizens.

I think it's likely that they're no longer walking upon this earth.

Funny thing: it's early morning, and I seldom drink at home, but I'd like to have a glass of Mogen David right now. I'd toast bravery, kindness, and the Wino Posse, as the words from the song "Midnight Choir" coursed through my head: "Will they have Mogen David in heaven?"

Friday, October 31, 2008

Little Gifts from the Night

I feel very connected to my past. I hope I'm not so connected that it's unhealthy, but in any case, I suspect a lot of creative people mine the past frequently.

Sometimes, I'll have dreams about something that happened with Dylan or Rhonda, almost like a video replay. They're almost always about happy times, and they usually happen when I'm away at work, sleeping alone.

Those dreams are usually brief, and they're like little gifts. When I have them, I wake up feeling happy. I've had dreams about the day Rhonda and I got married, or about when we met again after seventeen years apart, or about just walking in the woods, holding hands.

Our wedding day, 1994.

This last hitch at work, I had a replay dream about Dylan. He was three, and we'd just driven back from the park. I picked him up out of his car seat, held him close, and kissed his head. "Thank you Daddy," he said. "Will you still kiss me when I'm thirteen?" I laughed, surprised by the question. I answered, "Yeah, Punkin', but you know, some kids don't want to be kissed by Daddy anymore when they're thirteen. I might have to chase you down, tackle you and wrestle you before I can kiss you." Dylan giggled. "That sounds like fun."

I had to pick Dylan up from school yesterday because he came down with a mild fever. I carried him to our bed early to watch TV, and he ended up sleeping with us through the night. I woke up at four, like I often do. I watched Dylan and Rhonda sleep for a while, and I thought right then that if I have to wrestle him to the ground to kiss his head when he's thirteen, then I'll do just that. I guess I'd best keep working out.

Last night I had a dream about a particular day in the first grade. I was walking down the hallway when a group of older boys ran by. One of them intentionally swept my lunch box from my hands. It fell to the floor, and the contents spilled out. The boys stood laughing at me as I tried not to cry. I began to gather my lunch when a pair of girls' shoes appeared on the floor. A tall sixth-grade girl bent down and gathered my lunch for me, then carefully, almost tenderly, put in back in the lunchbox. "Your lunch is okay. Don't pay attention to those boys; they're just mean. Enjoy your lunch and stay away from those boys." She had a face like an angel. She patted me on the shoulder, then walked away.

I hadn't thought of that episode in many years. This morning, I sat in the dark sipping tea, wondering about how that sixth grade girl's life turned out. Had she kept her kindness? Had she had a happy life? Where is she now?

Forty-six years ago, she helped me gather the contents of my lunchbox. She comforted me, and helped me feel better about the day. Forty-six years after that morning, I sat in the dark, sipping tea, petting a dog and a cat. "Thank you," I said aloud, softly, and wondered if somehow, in some way, she could hear me.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Ifs of Og

After a few months on hiatus, Mike at Ifs of Og is back. Check him out, if you haven't already.

He's a great writer. He may also be somewhat twisted, but hey, I admire that in a person.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Welcome Irritation

A few days ago, I saw a coworker for the first time in a few years. I asked where he'd been, and he answered, "I had cancer." He told me about the special issuance process he went through with the FAA to get his medical certificate. We talked a few minutes, and then he walked away.

I've known the guy since the early eighties. I've always taken him to be a nice guy, but sheesh, he likes to talk. And talk. And talk. People have feigned having to pee to get away from him. Yep, me too. But that doesn't always work. When we worked at the same base in the eighties, he'd actually follow me into the bathroom. Yep. I'd be standing at the urinal, and he'd stand behind me, continuing his story.

The guy has been, safe to say, one of the most notorious motormouths in our company.

On the day I saw him again, though, he didn't have much to say. He walked around slowly, and didn't seem interested in starting a conversation. His motormouth spirit seemed severely dulled.

It made me sad to think cancer had done that to him. I wanted him to be a pain in the ass again, to drive folks crazy again, and to be the same ol' motormouth we'd all loved and avoided.

A couple of days ago, he sat down by me as I checked my email. Just like his old self, he seemed oblivious to the fact that I was engaged in something other than talking. Just like his old self, he went on and on and on. Just like his old self, he crammed a remarkable number of words into one breath.

And, just like before, that silly little smile of his was back.

After the better part of an hour had gone by, and I'd given up on the idea of doing anything involved on the computer, I decided that I needed to use the restroom.

He didn't follow me.

Walking to the restroom, I felt irritated as hell, and damned happy to feel that way.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Fourth Friday in October

I'm taking four days off on vacation, so I'll be home in time for Halloween. I think Rhonda and Dylan are happier about that then if I were to tell them I'll be home for Christmas. I won't be home for Christmas. But hey, it's easy for a family to have a make-up Christmas, while it ain't so easy to have a make-up Halloween. Folks would surely look at us funny if we went out trick or treating in November.

Maybe we could start a new tradition, and trick or treat the day after Thanksgiving. Think of all those unwanted leftovers. Best bring a cooler, though.
Damn. It seems that Debby's life has gone from dread to relief to uncertainty, and now, to top it off, her husband has to have his gall bladder removed. Sure, having a gall bladder out isn't as big a deal as cancer, but sheesh, couldn't the timing have been a little kinder?
In Algernon's blog, he writes that he's lately been asking his elementary school kids to hold hands because it challenges them. "It's amazing to see the aversion in some of them, as early as kindergarten," he writes.

Years ago, I was driving down Interstate 5 when an interview with a sociologist aired on NPR. She talked about how the United States has a "culture of isolation," and how an aversion to touching is a manifestation of that culture.

She talked about how touching is accepted differently in different cultures. For example, if two British acquaintances meet each other on the street, they'll touch each other an average of four times in a half-hour conversation. Americans? Eight times. Italians? One hundred and eleven.

If I'd heard that in my twenties, I might have made fun of those touchy-feely Italians. But now, I think of the Italian culture as, well, more natural. And, something else occurs to me: Italians have a low rate of alcoholism, despite having a high rate of alcohol consumption. I think it's safe to say that Italians aren't imbued with a culture of isolation. How many folks turn to alcohol abuse to fight feelings of isolation?

I could delve into this further, but I'd need a couple of beers to fuel the delving, and doggone it wouldn't ya know, I'm on flight duty. Besides, if I had a couple of beers, I might want to touch you a hundred and eleven times. (Not anywhere blatantly inappropriate, mind you.) I'm not Italian, but hey, I'm married to a half-Italian woman. I guess it just, y'know, rubs off.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

My Son, Our Sun

I tend to build on what I like about loved ones and friends, and minimize what I don't like. Nothing unique there, really. Holding to that habit is one key to having harmonious relationships.

I write about my son Dylan often. I was a late-in-life dad when he came into the world, and eight years later, he's still a fascinating little creature.

Dylan is a good kid. More than that, he has the makings of a guy who will be a good person as an adult. He's not perfect. He can't eat anything without ten percent of it ending up on the floor. Sometimes it's like pulling teeth to get him to do his homework. Sometimes he knees me in the privates when we're wrestling. I think it's accidental.

But yeah, in my heart and mind, Dylan shines in many ways. Still, Uncle E's post today in which he mentioned Dylan surprised me, and left me with a big lump in my throat. There's something about hearing or reading good things about my son from someone else--especially when that someone else is as thoughtful and perceptive as Uncle E--that just makes my heart swell anew.
I don't mention my wife Rhonda as often as I do Dylan. That largely has to do with Rhonda's desire for privacy. She's fairly well known in our community, and she doesn't like the idea of her life being an open book. So, I respect her feelings, although the woman has had a fascinating life: heck, someone should base a novel on her experiences.

The three of us went out boat camping on Lake Shasta on my last break at home before Dylan commenced going to school again. We had a wonderful time, but two days into the trip, Rhonda had pressing matters to attend to at her office, so Dylan and I dropped her off at the marina and headed back to camp. Dylan, at the age of eight, had spent a total of two nights away from Rhonda in his life. He was brave about the idea of two "dudes only" nights at the camp, but on the second morning without Mom, after we finished breakfast, I could tell that something was on his mind.

"Dad, if I tell you that I miss Mom, will it hurt your feelings?" I chuckled. "Of course not. I've had a great time with it being just the two of us, but I miss your mom too."

Dylan said, "I've had a great time too, until now. Now, it seems boring without Mom. She's always so cheerful and funny; she always makes me feel like every day is a special day. She's like the sun."

She's like the sun. Dylan's words, and the look on his face, hit me with a wallop. Dylan had offered a poetic essence of what I've always loved about Rhonda, from the day I first saw her and heard her talk in our high school cafeteria, thirty-six years ago.

She can show a tough-as-nails exterior, but inside lies a marshmallow heart. She has an irreverent, bawdy sense of humor, but a little girl's sense of wonder. She's one of the bravest, kindest, and most compassionate people I've ever known.

She's like the sun.

I'm one lucky dude.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Good News from Debby

From Debby's blog, Life's Funny Like That:

"We left the office with our good news: My cancer was moderately aggressive, stage II, had begun to affect the lymph ducts, but had not made it to the lymph nodes, which is why he removed a lot, a lot of tissue. He explained that if anything felt funny at all, he took it out, which explained how it came to be that he took 17 lymph nodes instead of the 'couple' he planned to. I don't care, really, I just want the cancer gone. I sure as heck was not going to be weeping over missing lymph nodes. But all of the lymph nodes biopsied 'clear'. The PET/CT scan showed no cancer anywhere else. I had cancer. They think they got it all. I will have chemo. I will have radiation. I will have estrogen suppression therapy, and the good doctor thinks that I have a very good chance that this will not recur. All good news."

Debby still has a battle ahead of her, but obviously the news could have been much worse. I'm really happy for Debby, her husband Tim, and the rest of her family. Also, since I'm a selfish bastard, I'm really glad to learn that she'll still be on this earth so I can read her writing. She seems to share her soul, that woman. Damn, I'm having a happy morning.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Dad Gets Stern

If you remember my post in May about our cat having five kittens, here's a little follow up.

I wrote, "Dad worries about whether he can convince Mom and Son to keep just one of the kittens."

There seemed to be a consensus from my dear blogging buddies in the comments: "Dad, you're screwed."

Well, sometimes a dad just has to put his foot down, however unpopular that might be for the rest of the family. Sometimes, a dad has to stand his ground for the greater good. Sometimes, a dad has to be tough, even in the face of tearful protest.

So, yep, when those kittens got old enough to leave the mama cat, I put my foot down.

We no longer have five kittens. Nope, now we only have four kittens. They sure want to eat a lot.

Okay, so apparently Rhonda and Dylan misunderstood my intentions: they thought I meant that we were only giving away one kitten, not keeping only one of 'em. But hey, sometimes, in the interest of family harmony, a dad has to show a little flexibility.

The one that got adopted lives close by, and Dylan has regular visitation rights.

Heh. Showed y'all, didn't I?

Monday, October 13, 2008


I took Dylan to a birthday party yesterday afternoon. The party was for two twin boys he goes to school with, and it was held at a gymnastic facility. I ran into Uncle E there, so naturally, we talked about music, writing, and stuff, while we watched the kids play down below. We never mentioned the election.

Uncle E invited me to an upcoming poker get together with a bunch of his former coworkers. He got a little gleam in his eye when I mentioned that I haven't played "real" poker in about twenty years. I just knew that guy had an evil streak in him. It figures, y'know: Uncle E is half Canadian. Have you seen what those people do to each other on the hockey rink?

Uncle E and I have planned to meet for a beer at a real-live tavern, but when we've had a beer together, it's always been with the families along. That's sort of the best of both worlds, since we enjoy talking about stuff, we both get much smarter with a couple of beers, and that way, we don't have to be away from our families. I have to be away from my family because of my job, so I'm not much inclined to get away from them during my breaks, except when Dylan jumps in my lap and knees me in the nuts.

Debby will be going in for a PET scan tomorrow, to find out if she has any remaining cancerous tissue. If you're into praying, or even just sending good thoughts, please remember her.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Two Cajuns and a Turtle

When I first started flying out of my employer's Louisiana bases in 1979, the Cajun culture enchanted me. As a southern California boy, it was a little like going to a different country. I attended a Cajun Music Festival at Girard Park, and had a great time. I dated a local schoolteacher, and was fascinated to learn that her grandmother did not speak English, only the Cajun dialect of French.

But the oil industry was booming in 1979, and that made for a bursting-at-the-seams atmosphere, and in some quarters--mainly bars and taverns, it seemed--outsiders experienced resentment from the natives.

In Morgan City, where I began my civilian flying career, it seemed that trash was everywhere. It was probably unfair of me to blame that on the locals, since so many outsiders were living and working in Morgan City, but I blamed the locals anyway.

I hung out in bars a lot during my time off, and it seemed that Cajun guys my age were awfully provincial in their outlook on life. They were suspicious of new ideas, judgmental of anyone deemed "different," and apparently interested in little besides hunting, fishing, drinking, and fighting. I suppose sex must have fit in there somewhere, but it seemed that most young Cajun guys were more interested in kicking another guy in the nuts out in the parking lot than making love with a woman.

My initial enchantment with Cajun folks became, well, tarnished.

I was driving to work at our Intracoastal City base one day when I came upon a pickup with two young Cajun guys in the cab. They were drinking beer--Louisiana had no open container law at that time--and throwing the empties back to the pickup bed. A couple of times, they missed. They were speeding up and slowing down, and had no stretch of road on which to pass. I was in a bad mood already, since a woman I'd been dating had broken off with me due to my "fear of commitment." (Smart girl, she.) The Cajun guys were pissing me off.

Then they came to a stop ahead of me. "Great," I thought, "they've seen my California plate in the front, and now they want to screw with me." The driver started to get out of the cab. The passenger didn't move. I got out and began walking toward the driver. If he felt determined to provoke a fight, I wanted to be standing.

Only the driver wasn't walking toward me. He was walking away, beyond the front of the pickup. Curious, I walked out into the other lane to see what was going on.

There was a turtle on the road, lying on his back, helpless. The guy picked him up.

One of the first things I heard from older pilots when I started working in the Gulf of Mexico was that Cajun folks didn't have much respect for Fish and Game regulations. They cited a statistic: a game warden in Louisiana had six times greater chance of being killed on duty than an FBI field agent.

"Great," I thought, "Mr. Cajun Stud's gonna eat the turtle."

But he didn't. Instead, he walked with the turtle to the bayou a few yards from the edge of the road. He was holding the turtle's face toward his, and speaking Cajun French to it. I had no idea what he was saying, but his tone made me think it was a gentle admonishment. He bent down at the bayou's edge, and set the turtle free.

I walked back to my car, then turned back toward the pickup as I reached the door. The driver said something to his passenger in French, and they both laughed. He reached into the cab to retrieve his beer, then looked at me.

"Hey Mr. California, ya wanna beer?" I chuckled. "I'd love one, but I gotta go talk to my boss in a few minutes." "That's a damn tragedy," he replied. "That silly turtle will live to see another day, huh?" "Yep," I replied, "maybe his family will have a dinner in your honor." We all laughed.

I drove the remaining fifteen minutes to Intracoastal City, laughing with a lump in my throat.

Sadly, evidence of the Cajun culture seems to have faded over the decades. Few kids grow up bilingual anymore, and seldom do I hear middle-aged folks speaking French in public.

In any case, I'm thankful that those two Cajuns and the turtle prompted me to abandon my budding cultural prejudice. I'm sorry I didn't have the chance to have a beer with the three of 'em.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Insomnia as a Gift

I woke at a quarter before three this morning. I tried to go back to sleep for a few minutes before deciding it was a lost cause. I got up, went outside, and was surprised that the temp was only 41F/5C. So far, we're not having much of an Indian Summer.

I had trouble getting to sleep big time throughout my childhood. I could seldom seem to stop my mind from racing. Often, I'd turn to reading. I discovered reading for pleasure in earnest during the third grade, thanks to Mrs. Goodrich, who helped me discover its joys.

My insomnia got better when I turned fifteen. It never went away entirely, but the torturous nights of my childhood were more or less left behind.

In recent years, I've had a different kind of insomnia now and then: I'll wake up early. That never happened during my childhood.

I've never liked getting up early in the morning, but I've always enjoyed being up before dawn. I sit here now at my laptop, while Rhonda and Dylan sleep away, and I feel like I'm watching over the world. I remember being eleven years old on Sunday mornings, delivering newspapers before dawn. I felt much the same way. I felt like I was watching over the world from a bicycle.

There is a spiritual feeling that comes over me when I'm awake before dawn, like I'm hooked into life more intensely. Life's secrets seem barely out of reach before dawn, instead of somewhere over the horizon. The joys of life crowd out the burdens and the sorrows. And always, there's the feeling that I've been tasked with, well, watching.

Maybe that spiritual mandate doesn't include watching over the trash. I was lazy last night, and didn't take the trash out all the way to the trailer. (We live kind of "out in the sticks," y'know.) The raccoons managed to tear into the trash between the time I first got up and now, and I didn't hear a thing. Maybe they have a spiritual mandate to punish me for being lazy.

Sneaky bastards.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Treading Water in a Sea of Sadness

I guess I'm known as a fairly upbeat, cheerful guy. I try to be an upbeat, cheerful guy. But lately, sadness seems to have me by the ass.

It seemed to start just before I flew off to work last time. My break at home had been abbreviated, because I'd stayed extra time in Louisiana to help out with the evacuations for hurricanes Gustav and Ike. I usually give Dylan two days warning before I leave for work, but we'd had a great time for the mere week I'd been home, and I suppose I was thinking that I didn't want to put a damper on the time we had left. The evening before I left--I had to start driving at two in the morning to make it to Sacramento--I told Dylan that I'd be leaving before he woke up.

Sheesh, I was an idiot. We were out by the barn, and Dylan and I were talking while I unloaded hay from the trailer.

"You're leaving tomorrow?" The look on his face stabbed me. "Yeah, Punkin', I have to leave tomorrow." Usually, Dylan is fairly stoic about my pending departures. He might get a little teary, or he might just give me a hug and calmly say, "I'm going to miss you, Dad," before going back to whatever he was doing. (Sometimes I chuckle when he's like that, and mentally finish his response with, "Don't let the door hit you on the ass, Dad.")

But this time, Dylan started crying, and crying hard. I sat on a hay bale with him in my arms, and held him for a good fifteen minutes while he cried.

It killed me. As a baby and a kid, Dylan has probably cried as often as any normal kid, but seldom has he ever cried for very long. It really shook me that he was so upset. When he finally quit crying, I looked in his eyes. "Dylan, when I'm away, I think about you and Mama from the time I wake up until the time I go to sleep. Do you feel it?" He took a deep breath. "I think so," he answered.

The drive to Sacramento the following morning really, really sucked.

And then I found out about Debby. Debby writes one of my very favorite blogs, Life's Funny Like That. She has a wonderful ability to relate the poignancy, tragedy, humor, and beauty of everyday life. She writes a newspaper column, and seldom misses a day of posting to her blog. She does that while holding down a job, taking care of her family, and being active in her church. I think she's a treasure.

Folks like Debby really make me feel humble. I mean, gosh, if I go to the bank and the supermarket in the same day, I need a nap.

Debby recently learned that she has breast cancer. I've often pondered the distinction between on online friend and the sort of friend that's actually seen and heard. If there is a distinction, it now seems meaningless. Debby's situation has shaken me no less than hearing such news about a seen-and-heard friend. I've never met her in person, but to me, she's a shining soul. I wish I could give her and her husband Tim a hug.

I want to be positive, I really do. But damn it, sometimes life really pisses me off.

I've focused on sadness a lot lately. I saw an obviously homeless man cross the street yesterday, as I took Dylan to school. We were singing along to "La Grange," by ZZ Top, waiting at a stoplight. I was pondering whether I'd go to hell. That is, I was wondering if I'd go to hell for singing along with a song about a whorehouse with my son.

Then I saw him crossing in front of us. He couldn't have been older than nineteen. He was someone's son, but he had no home. It stabbed me.

Sometimes I envy folks who seem to simply ignore sadness. I can't. I feel the need to face it. That way, it won't devour me. That way, I keep the hope alive that someday, somehow, it will all make sense.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Louisiana to Lassen

It was a little strange at the end of my last work hitch. We pilots had been sitting around for the day, our customers having been notified that we wouldn't be flying unless a life-or-death emergency came about. We weren't even required to show up at the flight line, but I got bored at the hotel room and went in anyway.

Before calling it a day, I went up to the advisory tower and took this shot of our helicopters sitting idle. The weather at the base was okay, but offshore, the wind was howling with the advance of Hurricane Ike, and seas were running more than twenty feet.

It was, er, interesting driving from Morgan City to New Orleans the next morning. Advance bands of rain and wind had moved ashore from Ike over the night, and I half expected to come upon a jackknifed big rig on Highway 90. I worried that my flight would be delayed, but the band of weather moved north before takeoff time, and the United flight got off the ground right on time.

I flew into Sacramento because it was much cheaper than flying into Redding. The drag about flying into Sacramento is the two-and-a-half hour drive to home from there. Once I got on Interstate 5 northbound, I called Rhonda on her cel phone to check up. She and Dylan were on the road to Lassen National Park for a campout sponsored by Dylan's school.

The plan was, once I'd arrived home, to change clothes, pack a bag, and head off to meet Rhonda and Dylan that night. Mind you, I'd been up since two in the morning California time. "Are you sure you shouldn't get a good night's sleep and join us tomorrow?" Rhonda asked. I told her that I was sure I could make it after stopping by the house for more clothes.

When I got home, though, I realized that I was exhausted. The nervous energy that had carried me through the hurricane evacuations and the commute home seemed to flow out of me once I walked through the door. I thought about driving on a mountain road at night, with too little sleep. I called Rhonda on her cel phone, but she had no coverage. Damn. I really didn't want Rhonda and Dylan to worry about me. I thought about dosing with a big-time hit of caffeine, and driving the hour-plus to Lassen anyway, but I decided that I'd rather Rhonda and Dylan worry about the possibility of me getting into an accident than learning the next morning that it had actually happened.

Just as I was ready for bed, Rhonda called. Sure enough, she had no cel phone coverage, so she'd driven to a campground store and used a pay phone. We chatted for a few minutes, and she mentioned a few extra camping items I could bring along. It was wonderful to hear her voice, and to know that she and Dylan could rest easy.

Usually, it takes me ten or fifteen minutes, at least, to fall asleep. That night, I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

I drove to Lassen the next day to reunite with my family at the campsite near Manzanita Lake.

Manzanita Lake and Mt. Lassen

I'd been away for three weeks, and Dylan hugged me around the neck so hard that I couldn't breathe. The little dude is sure getting strong. With a hug and a kiss from Rhonda next, I felt at home. Home is with my wife and son, whether it's at our own house, a motel room, or a campsite.

We camped next to Uncle E, his wife Sharyn, and their two daughters. Uncle E and and Sharyn are great folks to hang out with, and their kids are so doggone cute that it hurts to look at them.

Later on, Sharyn, Rhonda, and the kids went on a nature hike around Manzanita Lake. Uncle E and I considered going along, but we knew the kids wouldn't miss us much as long as they were together. Besides, we figured that the manly thing to do would be to hang around the campsites to protect them against dangerous predators. While the families were away, we felt the need to bolster our courage in the face of such a grave mission. Some Mexican beer seemed just the ticket. We maybe, just maybe, got a little too involved in conversation, as we discovered later that a Steller's Jay had made off with about half of a bag of peanuts in the shell. But hey, along with talking about music, politics, and religion, we solved about half of the world's problems. It should also be noted that our mission was by no means a complete failure: a golden-mantled ground squirrel tried to stare Uncle E down, but Uncle E steadfastly drove the potential offender away with his icy glare.

Don't mess with Uncle E when he's had a couple of Mexican beers. That said, Uncle E should use caution if he goes back to Lassen anytime soon. Word in the woods is that the golden-mantled ground squirrels have a bounty on him.

He'd better show up with an extra-large bag of peanuts.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Visiting Old Morgan City

Last night, I went to the old waterfront downtown of Morgan City, Louisiana to have dinner at one of my favorite places to eat in town, the Latin Corner. I remembered to take my camera with me this time, to take a couple of shots of the old Dixie Hotel across the road from the Latin Corner.

I'm sure it was built over a hundred years ago, but I don't know anything about its history. How many babies were born there? How many people died there? How many dreams were born there? How many dreams died? How many generations made the place their livelihood? I love old places. I wish they could talk.

It's still boarded up in the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav. I saw no signs of life other than the lights.

Here's the Latin Corner from the outside. The building was built in 1911.

It's a simple place, with a warm aura and great food. The owner is from Cuba; his wife is from Venezuela.

It's time to pack up and head for New Orleans airport. It's going to be a rainy, windy drive for seventy miles. I'm hoping Ike won't delay the flights. I'm also hoping that Michael and his family will be okay as Ike advances, as well as the rest of my friends and coworkers in the Houston/Galveston area.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Half Done with Ike

Hurricane Ike looks to be headed for the Texas coast. Here in Morgan City, Louisiana, my employer plans to stay put with the helicopters unless Ike takes an unexpected turn to the north.

Tomorrow marks 21 days at work. The area manager's instructions this afternoon were to stay in the quarters unless a maintenance run up was required in the aircraft to which we're assigned. Our oil company customers were informed earlier in the week that today would be our last day of flying offshore until Ike is no longer a danger.

The evacuation effort for Ike was easier than for Gustav because we hadn't taken that many passengers offshore when when the calls came to start pulling people back out.

The folks in our scheduling department told me today that they have things covered beginning Friday, so tomorrow will be my last day at work before I head home. Soon, I'll reunite with my wife and son.

Dylan was unhappy when I told him that I'd be at work for an entire extra week. It caught me by surprise. I know he's upset, or sleepy, when he calls me "Daddy" instead of "Dad."

I did what surely any thoughtful, conscientious dad would do: I bribed him out of his sadness.

"Dylan, I'll tell you what: when I get home, we'll go to the mall and I'll buy you two new games for your Wii." "Two games, Daddy?" "Yep, two games."

He'd been sounding like he was five again, but as my eight year-old son recited a list of games he'd choose from, his voice grew deeper. He sounded more like a ten year-old.

"Wow, thanks Dad."

I'll always miss being called "Daddy." But then, it's fun to watch my son grow up.

Oh yeah, sometimes I wish I could go back to holding him as a baby, on a warm summer night, while he points at the sky and announces, "Moon."

But then, I don't need a miracle to go back to those moments. They live on inside me.

Years will go by, and more moments will find a permanent home in my heart.

Really, a guy can't ask for much more than that.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Kelly Asks Questions About Offshore Helicopters

Kelly wrote, Okay... time for some possibly "dumb" questions. Do you always use the same helicopter during your 14 days on? If so, I assume there is someone else who uses it the other two weeks.

Kelly, those aren't dumb questions at all. In fact, I'm the dumb one for not explaining more of the basics of my job.

Many of our pilots are "on a contract." They're employed by PHI, but they fly for one particular oil company, and usually in the same aircraft. Pilots normally have an "opposite" who is on hitch while he or she is on break, flying the same helicopter. Others are in the "pool;" they roam around to where they're needed, replacing pilots on sick leave or vacation, or doing ad hoc flights. The pilots on a contract usually fly the same aircraft, whereas the pool pilots may fly a few different aircraft in one hitch.

I'm on a contract now, but I volunteered to stay past my normal hitch for the evacuation(s) and remobilization(s), so for this week, I'm in the pilot pool. I've flown three different aircraft since Friday, but they've all been S-76's like the one in the photo on the previous blog piece.

Is there always at least one person per helicopter at the base in order to get them all moved to safe ground after all the people have been evacuated?

There will normally be at least one pilot per aircraft at a base. Anything holding ten passengers or more must, by regulation, be crewed by two pilots when carrying passengers for hire. However, those aircraft can be flown by only one pilot when not operating for hire, such as during an evacuation of a Gulf Coast base, maintenance check flights, or ferry flights from one base to another.

Thanks for the questions, Kelly. I feel important!

I think we're all sitting on pins and needles waiting to see where Ike's headed!

You can say that again.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Gulf of Mexico: Remobilization Interrupted

The last two days have been very busy flying-wise. We flew seven hours yesterday, transporting folks out to inspect mobile drilling rigs evacuated in the face of Hurricane Gustav.

The last flight of the day involved two helicopters flying to the same rig, taking two groups of people out to decide whether the rig had suffered too much damage to house crews again. The rig had a huge helideck; it was easily large enough to park three of our twelve-passenger Sikorsky S-76 helicopters. Here's a shot of the second helicopter on the deck.

My employer, PHI, has an extensive flight-following network out in the Gulf of Mexico. It involves a series of radio repeaters connected to our communications center in Lafayette, Louisiana. Our Sikorsky S-76's and nineteen-passenger Sikorsky S-92's also have a system called "Outerlink" aboard which sends flight plans by satellite link, and can also send and receive text messages. That's comforting after a hurricane, when our radio flight following network is often put out of commission in a portion of the Gulf.

After two bust-ass days, I didn't get in the air today. The remobilization seems to be slowing markedly with news that Hurricane Ike will probably enter the Gulf of Mexico. It's looking likely that we'll soon be evacuating all those folks out of the Gulf that we've transported offshore in the last couple of days. Also, there's the very real possibility that we could again be forced to evacuate our bases, relocating the aircraft east and/or west out of harms way.

Mother nature, as usual, rules.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Hurricane Gustav and the Evacuation Fandango

For the offshore helicopter pilot, hurricane evacs can be strange. There's the intensity of the evacuation, with some pilots facing multiple flights and long hours. Then comes the evacuation of the helicopters. Then comes the waiting, in safe havens such as Tallahassee, Florida, or Dothan, Alabama. Then comes the remobilization, which tends to seem nearly as urgent as the evacuation, with more days of multiple flights and long hours.

I was working out of my employer's Boothville, Louisiana base when the evacuation started. Boothville happens to be the spot where Katrina made landfall three years ago. It's safe to say that during the Area Manager's briefing on the morning of the helicopter evacuation, there was tension in the air.

A portion of the Boothville heliport's parking lot, empty. All of our passengers offshore have been evacuated; all of the employee vehicles have been moved to safer ground north of New Orleans.

I snapped this shot shortly before we began our flight to the safe haven of Tallahassee. I wondered what the heliport would look like in a couple of days.

The first portion of our escape flight was over the Gulf of Mexico. Here, an offshore oil workboat is on the run to the east, away from Gustav's path.

The Tallahassee newspaper reported that PHI repositioned twenty-two aircraft to that city as a safe haven.

Tomorrow, we'll likely reposition to a base other than Boothville, perhaps in Alabama. The initial report we've heard is that Boothville did not suffer major damage, but that it will take time to clean it up and make it an operational base again. Oh yeah, and then there are little details like power, water, and sewage.

It was fun to get together with old friends for dinner, to swap stories and lies, to experience the camaraderie that comes with pulling off a hurricane evacuation. Soon, it will be time to fly the workers offshore, to get the oil flowing again. Soon, we'll be pilots again, facing the Gulf of Mexico every morning, instead of running from it.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Children's Hospital: Staying Open

There are many people to pray for today, as Gustav nears the Gulf Coast. I ask you to say one more for the patients and staff of the non-profit Children's Hospital in New Orleans. The hospital shut its doors because of Katrina, but it will remain open in the face of Gustav. There are eighty children there, eighty children who will remain in the hospital because it's too dangerous to move them. Half of them are in critical care.

The doctors, nurses, and other staff remaining at the hospital are all volunteers. God bless them.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Hurricane Gustav Evacuation: First Night

Three years ago, I flew the third to the last helicopter out of my employer's Boothville, Louisiana base as Hurricane Katrina advanced. We'd talked about the likely path of the storm the day before, and most of we pilots had a feeling that the storm would not spare our base. We were right. Katrina made landfall almost directly over Boothville.

As Gustav advances, the fatalistic feeling about the Boothville base isn't there this time. That said, I'm really concerned for the folks who live in Grand Isle, Louisiana. It's Louisiana's only inhabited barrier island, home of Grand Isle State Park, and the location of one of our bases. I personally know several Grand Isle natives, and I worry about what they'll find when they return from the evacuation.

All of our aircraft made it into Tallahassee without incident. Some of the pilots look a little weary, to be sure: after spending the last few days pulling offshore oil workers out of harm's way in the Gulf of Mexico, a certain letdown is unavoidable. But it's the maintenance folks who've really lived through a crunch, as they've moved equipment out of bases, prepared helicopters for evacuations, and in some cases, resolved last minute maintenance problems. The mainstay of our fleet, the Sikorsky S-76C++, costs nearly ten million dollars per aircraft. It would not be good to leave one of them on the ground in the face of an advancing hurricane.

Our licenced mechanics, by in large, are a great group of guys. After twenty-nine years working for the same employer, I'm still sometimes amazed with what they can pull off. Many of them have been burning the candle at both ends with Gustav's approach, but I hope they're all sleeping like babies tonight.

I talked with Rhonda and Dylan four times today: once in the morning before leaving Boothville, again during our fuel stop in Destin, and twice--so far--upon arriving in our "safe haven" of Tallahassee. I feel guilty because I can tell they were worrying, and I feel like I failed to explain what was going on adequately.

Tommorrow will likely involve just sitting and waiting, as we wonder where Gustav will land, and wonder whether any of our bases get pounded into oblivion. It's a waiting game from here, until we get word that it's time to remobilize. It's the calm before a different kind of storm.

Let the calm commence.

Katrina Again?

I'm in Boothville, Louisiana as I write this, southeast of New Orleans. We're evacuating the base. The smaller helicopters have already departed; the rest of us are staggered on our takeoff times so we won't overwhelm the folks at our refueling stop on the way to Tallahassee: Destin, Florida.

I feel so bad for our local employees, who are looking at losing their homes here AGAIN. Don't worry about me, pray for them. Heck, please pray for everyone living in south Louisiana.

More later--maybe tomorrow--when I get the chance to use a real keyboard again.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Last Break of Summer

The life of the offshore helicopter pilot is broken up into seven-day-on, seven-day-off chunks of time. Or, in my case, and an increasing number of offshore pilots, it's fourteen-days-on, fourteen-days-off. We call our stints at work "hitches," and our time off at home "breaks."

It's a strange life in many ways. And, while there are plenty of negatives involved with spending nearly half one's life away from loved ones and the "real life" at home, it isn't all bad. The fact is, offshore helicopter pilot dads have the opportunity to spend more hours in a month with their kids than does a "typical" dad who works five days a week, but goes home every night. That's particularly true in the summer, when the little ones are out of school.

Before I went home on break last time, Rhonda let me know that she and Dylan were anxious to go camping out on Shasta Lake off of our forty year-old Gregor patio boat. A few years ago, during a heavy snowfall, a falling oak tree put the boat out of commission. Other time and money priorities put fixing it on the back burner, but this summer, we got our boat going again.

So we loaded up the boat with food and camping equipment and towed it to the Jones Valley Marina. We camped on the McCloud arm of the lake, but before heading to the camp site, we saw this.

It's a Martin Mars, the largest flying boat ever to be put into production, and the second largest ever to be built, next to the Spruce Goose built by Howard Hughes. It's been stationed on Lake Shasta for a good portion of the summer due to the literally hundreds of northern California wildfires that have sprung up. The Navy used them between 1945 and 1956. There are only two left flying, both used as aerial tankers.

During our first evening in camp, we discovered these "designs" on a rock face above camp. There are many pictographs in the area left by the Wintu tribe of Native Americans, but we surmised that this design was by nature. Dunno.

The next day, we saw a young bald eagle that we thought might be in distress across the lake from our camp. He crashed into the lake, but instead of flying off with a fish, he floated in the water. We were about to start the boat to go check on him when he began swimming with his wings. Yes, you read that right. We didn't know that bald eagles did that either. I didn't catch him with the camera as he was in the water, but here he is after reaching the shore.

Yours truly and Dylan. Dylan is the one with more hair.

Flexibility in being self-employed only goes so far. After a couple of nights camping with us, Rhonda needed to go to her office. We'd planned to take Rhonda to the marina the evening before she went to work, but she decided that she was game to go in the following morning before dawn. Dylan was all for it, even if it meant I had to wake him up in the dark. Gomez, however, was kind of grumpy about losing the rack time, and didn't enjoy the early morning boat trip as much as the rest of the family.

We spent over half my break on Lake Shasta, and we had a great time swimming, cooking out, and exploring. I didn't get many home projects done during my time off. I could feel like an irresponsible adult, but I don't. My last break was about being together as a family. It was about having fun. It was about holding on to magic. The home projects will just have to wait.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Kids and Magic

It was a few years ago. I sat with a friend I've known for the better part of three decades. We were drinking beer in a tavern, catching up after not seeing much of each other for a couple of years.

He'd always been one of the funniest people I've ever known. I mean, the guy has had me falling-down laughing a bunch of times. But he suddenly got uncharacteristically serious.

"How old is your son?" "He's four," I answered. He locked eyes with me. "Kids live with magic, until adults take it away."

Wow. Where did that come from? I didn't know what to say.

I'd long known that my friend hadn't enjoyed an ideal childhood. He'd always been guarded about the details of his growing-up years, though. Until that night. That night, he told me stories.

There were parts of his childhood that could have come from a Stephen King novel. It was hard to avoid sitting there with my mouth hanging open.

He changed gears again. "But that's not my point. I didn't mean to tell a sob story about myself. (A "sob story"? It was an effin' horror story.) But Johnson (he almost never called me by my first name), you have to promise me one thing." "What's that?" "Johnson, grownups take their kids' magic away, little by little, and sometimes they don't even realize they're doing it. Don't take your son's magic from him."

"I won't," I replied. But that night, as I tossed and turned in bed, his words rang in my head: Sometimes they don't even realize they're doing it.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Ice Mac Sea

Michael McCrickard, aka Ice Mac Sea, calls his music “listenable, but downright weird alternative rocking country-techno pop.” If you’re the sort of listener who simply must put things in a category, that’ll do.

I discovered Ice Mac Sea at four in the morning while driving to Sacramento airport. The car rental company had apparently run short of cheap cars, because I got one with satellite radio. I tuned up the “Progressive Country” channel, and a half-hour down Interstate 5, Ice Mac Sea’s “Steve Earle” popped up.

Gram Parsons never died
You can hear him singing every night
They love the dead ones the best
They never disappoint you like the rest.

I liked “Steve Earle” right away. I pulled over at the next gas station, and wrote down the name of the artist. I was afraid to rely on my memory, since the sun hadn’t even shown a hint, and my caffeine level was dangerously low.

So, I decided that I had to have “Measure for Measure” in its entirety. It’s a leap of faith to buy an album based on one song, but that one song led me to believe that Ice Mac Sea had something special to offer. I wasn’t disappointed. Yeah, it is “downright weird,” but delightfully so. There is a techo-pop element to it, and a dash or two of hip-hop, combined with country-rock instrumental stylings, a goodly heaping of electronica, and McCrickard’s vocal phrasing, sometimes electronically altered. His voice would seem to be at home with Nashville-smooth country, alt-country, or the neotraditional fold. To me, his singing evokes the spirit of all three. Think Ronnie Milsap meets Junior Brown.

Does it sound like those elements would clash? Nope. They don’t. In fact, this “downright weird alternative rocking country-techo pop” has strong pop sensibilities, imbued with a spirit of artistic integrity, with sharp, witty lyrics. Yep, it’s weird, but infectiously so. Just ask my wife and son, who spent many mornings singing along with Ice Mac Sea on the way to my son’s kindergarten class.

One of the unfortunate things about belonging to the iPod Nation is that I tend to listen to artists as part of a mix, and I seldom listen to albums track by track anymore. That's a shame, because as a listener, I miss out on the tapestry of songs that the artist has put together. While flying to work this time, I pulled out the iPod, and played Ice Mac Sea's Measure for Measure in its entirety. Once again I was caught up in the catchy nature of "Measure for Measure" and "Steve Earle." Once again, I felt haunted by "Navy Pier." And, once again, I was reminded of why "Perfect Man," a song Michael wrote about his infant son, is my favorite song about fatherhood.

You are just the perfect man
Yeah, you've got perfect feet
When the band strikes up a tune
You dance a perfect beat

In your time upon the earth
You've never told a lie
You've disappointed no one
And made nobody cry

How strange and wonderful, then, that a few days later, I got an email with the title "Greetings from Ice Mac Sea."


It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that finding your blog post where you mentioned my song, Steve Earle, made my year. I’ve been very inactive musically since I did the CD, and I have no band, no label, no manager or anybody promoting my stuff. But somehow, at least one of my songs made it onto satellite radio and without you, I might not have ever known. And the fact that a total stranger has my songs on an iPod with the likes of Dave Matthews Band, John Prine and the Beatles, well, that’s about as big a compliment as I’ve ever gotten on my music.

So, of course I had to read the whole posting and parts of it were laugh-out loud funny. Yup, if I had an iPod, it would probably have the Monkees and the Carpenters on it, too. I have a feeling that we could have a lot of fun talking and sharing music if we ever get to meet. I live near Washington, D.C. and I don’t get out your way much, but I hope to when our boys get older. Please give me a call, if you are ever in the DC area. Take care and thanks so much again. And send me your snail mail address if you want a free copy of the CD. I’ve got a bunch of ‘em in my basement collecting dust!

Michael McCrickard

How strange and wonderful indeed, to get an email from the man who wrote my favorite song about fatherhood. Instead of taking him up on his offer of free CD's, I ordered two of 'em from CD Baby, a great place to find and buy indie music. (Uncle E, one of the copies is for you.) That said, though, I did ask Michael if he would mind sending Dylan an autographed copy.

Dylan's gonna like that.