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.