Friday, January 30, 2009

I Got My Ass Kicked by a Woman

After a bit less than five years of service, I left the Army in 1979, and began my career as a civilian offshore helicopter pilot. For the first three years of my new civilian life, I lived in Texas.

I discovered a local watering hole with a great country-rock band. The place became my second home--in those days, I wasn't much into sitting in a living room reading a book. I became friends with the bouncer, a huge bear of a man by the name of Curty. There were a few times that I, along with a couple of other of the larger regulars, would back Curty up when he had to throw someone out. Not that he needed help. Curty had studied Aikido while living in Japan, and he moved his 280 pounds around like a gymnast. Most of the time, though, Curty simply talked people down before the situations turned volcanic.

After a couple of months, Curty started asking me to fill in for him at the door. He wanted to spend more time with his girlfriend. I'd become friends with the owner, too, and I refused to take money, instead working for a beer tab. To this day, I feel guilty about taking advantage of him that way.

I didn't think of myself as Billy Bob Bad Ass. That's never been one of my problems. But, when I left the Army, I also left a relationship with a woman who'd tired of the fact that I'd been a poster boy for fear of commitment. I'd become mildly self-destructive. I didn't care, and belligerent bar patrons would usually read that as, "he's a bad ass."

One night the owner told me to eject a woman tucked back in the corner. She was on a "I hate men" rant, and had just thrown her drink on a guy sitting at the next table. I couldn't see her from my station, and when I rounded the corner, I stopped dead in my tracks: hate just poured from the woman. She couldn't have weighed more than 110 pounds, but I was afraid.

I took a deep breath, and walked to the woman's table. "Ma'am, I'm afraid you'll have to leave." She gave me a look, a look I half-expected her to follow with the spewing of pea soup. "Go f*ck yourself, asshole." "That's not physically possible, ma'am, at least not for me." Another look that could melt stone. "GET THE F*CK AWAY FROM ME!" Oh boy. "Ma'am, I'm not going anywhere. You have to leave, now." She stood up, and I felt momentarily relieved. Until, that is, she grabbed a drink at the next table and threw it in my face. I think it was a bourbon and coke. I don't even like bourbon and coke. I grabbed her by the upper arm, and that's when things really went to hell.

In a flash, she kneed me in the family jewels, raked her fingernails across my face, and punched me in the nose. Oh man, was I ever in trouble. She started throwing punches, and not just wild roundhouse type stuff: no, she was throwing combinations. A straight right connected with my Adam's apple. Great. Not only were my nuts screaming at me, and not only could I not see because of the punch to the nose: now, I couldn't breathe either.

I was in serious danger of falling to the floor. The little 110 pound woman was thrashing my ass. I still couldn't hit her, though. If my dad had found out I'd hit a woman, no matter the circumstances, he would have driven from California to kick my ass again.

I could feel blood dribbling down my face from my right eyelid--thank God I'd managed to close that eye before her fingernail ripped across it--but as her punches started to slow, I could see somewhat out of my left eye. I lunged and grabbed her by the the hair, and twirled her around. With her back to me, I could have choked her out, but that would also mean my dad driving from California to kick my ass. Instead, I got her in a full-nelson hold. That didn't work. She started back-kicking the shit out of my shins. I placed her feet on the floor, and transitioned to an old-fashioned bear hug. I squeezed for all I was worth, and started hobbling toward the exit. "OPEN THE F*CKING DOOR," I bellowed to a customer. I half-shoved, half-threw her out the door, slamed it shut, and locked it. She stood outside, pounding on the door, screaming stuff like "LET ME BACK IN, YOU F*CKING BASTARDS!" The owner called the police, but by the time they got there, the she-devil had departed. After the owner and I gave our accounts to the officer, I started laughing. I was laughing so hard that I sank to the floor on my butt. A 110 pound woman had just kicked my ass.

The owner walked up, stuck out his hand, and helped me to my feet. "Sit at the bar for a while," he said. He went back behind the bar and up to me. "She got you in the nuts, didn't she?" "Oh yeah," I answered. He poured me a double shot of tequila. "That'll help," he said. Sure enough, a few minutes after downing that double shot, the boys below quit complaining so much.

I never saw her in that bar again, thank God. But, one day I was in the produce section, when I felt a tap on my elbow.

When I turned around, it was her. I jumped back. I was looking at zucchinis when she approached, and I held one on front of me. I can't recall what I was thinking, holding up that zucchini. I can only presume that I thought something with a phallic appearance would ward her off, akin to the way a cross keeps a vampire at bay.

She laughed. The bitch had kicked my ass with a retired cop, an ex-NFL player, and a former Golden Gloves boxer in the audience, and the the evil wench was laughing.

"Could I buy you a cup of coffee?" WHAT? If Jeffery Dahmer invited you to a freakin' barbecue, would you go? The woman had come damn near blinding me, while assaulting Mr. Happy's twin cousins, and she was asking me out for coffee.

Well, curiosity trumped fear, and I met her for coffee. (I already mentioned that I was mildly self-destructive in those days.) "I'm sorry about that night," she began. She told me the rest of the story. She'd gone home early from work, feeling sick. She walked in on her husband and her best friend, in bed. They were making so much noise that they didn't even hear her until she started screaming at them. She'd called in sick for the rest of the week, and embarked upon a drinking binge. Thus, our little encounter.

"Have you had martial arts training?" I asked, thinking about those combinations she'd thrown. "My dad was an amateur boxer," she answered, "and I was a tomboy." Thanks a lot, Dad.

We ended up stretching coffee into lunch, and we had a great time. The Evil Wench who'd kicked my ass was nowhere in evidence. Instead, a charming, funny, attractive woman sat before me.

We exchanged phone numbers, and touched bases a couple of times. A few months went by, and she called. "I have some news for you," she began. A guy she'd had a crush on through junior high and the beginning of high school had moved back into town. His family had moved away during their freshman year, leaving her heartbroken. He was divorced, and they started dating. After two months, they decided to get married. He had a young daughter from his marriage, and the Formerly Evil Wench loved her.

I've always kind of sucked at keeping in touch. (I've found that if I avoid getting attached to people, I don't miss them as much. Lame, but effective.) I only talked to her one more time, and they'd set a date. She told me that her soon-to-be stepdaughter was ecstatic about having a new mom. She invited me to the wedding, but I was to be away at work in the Gulf of Mexico. Being me, I never called her again.

I still think about her, though. So do the family jewels, and not in a good way.

Monday, January 26, 2009


It was a lazy weekend day, and I was watching a movie with Dylan. Rhonda burst in: "Hal, two dogs have the llamas cornered!" I jumped into my shoes and grabbed a BB rifle to scare them away. I handed the BB rifle to Dylan, then unlocked a .22 rifle in case the BB rifle didn't work.

I thought about leaving Dylan in the house with Rhonda, but he's very protective of our animals, and besides, the day will come when he might have to deal with such a situation himself. We ran up to the barn and found the llamas huddled together. Looking across the brook to the far driveway, we could see the two dogs beating a retreat.

The llamas were agitated, and Felipe, the oldest, was actually trembling. We patrolled the area, Dylan gripping the BB gun with a fierce scowl on his face. No sign of the dogs.

We had trouble with predators during the first few years we lived here. Although we're only twenty-five minutes from town, we're in the foothills, living in nature. Raccoons have killed chickens, a pet turkey, and one of our cats. A black bear killed our two pygmy goats, and returned a few months later to attack one of our llamas. Mountain lions have been seen in our "neighborhood," and two or three times a week, we'll hear coyotes howling and yipping at night.

For the last few years, though, animal troubles have been few. More people have built houses, so there's more traffic, and I suppose the predators have made themselves more scarce. But with the visit by our dog intruders, I was reminded of something I learned soon after we brought our llamas home in '94: more llamas are killed in the United States by domestic dogs than any other animal.

I was relieved that I didn't have to shoot one or both of our canine intruders. I've never killed a dog, and I'll rather skip that experience.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


I took the first half of my hitch off on vacation. I went to a wedding down in southern California, putting twelve hundred miles on the rental car in two days. The wedding is a post in itself, and that'll come later.

I'll soon make my first helicopter flight since hearing of the deaths of two coworkers in an S-76 crash: Tom Ballenger, 63, and Vyarl Martin, 46. Vyarl was an acquaintance. I'd flown with him a couple of times, and we sometimes talked about guitar heroes. I once mentioned to him that I was thinking about taking up the bass guitar, and when I'd see him, the first thing out of his mouth would usually be, "Did you buy that bass yet?" He was an avid guitarist himself. He was a retired U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander. He smiled a lot.

Tom had been with PHI for well over thirty years. He wasn't a close friend, but he was more than an acquaintance. He could come across as a bit of a grump until you got beyond his shell, when he proved to be an engaging, funny guy. His laugh reminded me a little of a pirate.

They're gone now. I won't be seeing those guys anymore. I won't hear Tom's pirate laugh, and I won't hear Vyarl ask me when the hell I'm going to get off my ass and buy a bass guitar.

I feel off-center, and I have a childlike wish to just get on an airplane and go right back home to my wife and son. But I won't, because I'm a helicopter pilot, and because I've been through this before.

A while back, Bob Barbanes wrote a post titled "Hating the Helicopter Industry," and right now, his words explain the way I feel better than mine.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Gallant Gentleman

I wrote here about a camping trip to Lassen National Park in September. We camped next to Uncle E, his wife Sharyn, and their two adorable daughters.

Uncle E wrote a comment to that post: "I’m surprised you didn’t talk about my youngest falling into the lake (as she’s wont to do) and your chivalrous son offering my shivering little princess his shirt. What an absolute gentleman."

Sharyn sent some photos of the trip. Here's one of young Dylan and "his" two young ladies. Having already offered his shirt, he's shown here protecting his female charges from any further danger lurking in the wild.

Dylan really is one sweet, kind eight year-old, although lately, when I ask him for a hug--instead of just grabbing him--his response is to headbutt me in the abdomen. I'm glad he didn't start that when he was a foot shorter.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

One Flight Home

Bob Barbanes posted a comment to my "Merry Christmas" post: I know you always do, but fly extra safely today - and every day until the end of this hitch. You know what I'm saying.

And y'know, even though I've been flying for a living since the age of eighteen, this last hitch at work was a challenge. Distraction seemed to nibble on my ass as Christmas day approached, and that's pretty much what Bob was mentioning: in the flying game, distraction can get you hurt, or cost your employer a bunch of money, or at the very least, lead to acute professional embarrassment. I was glad to head home for more than just the usual reasons. Even after over thirty-three years, I had to remind myself to stay focused, and it had been more of a challenge than normal.


The United flight took off from New Orleans on my first leg homeward. As usual, I fell asleep soon after takeoff, and slept through most of the flight westbound.

Late in the flight, the captain announced that we could see Phoenix out the right side of the aircraft. Only then did I lower my window blind and look outside. The visibility at 36,000 feet was awesome: looking north, I could easily see 200 miles. At least. The air was so clear, it was nearly surreal.

I spotted Phoenix, and looked to the northeast, where I saw Lake Roosevelt, the Tonto Basin, and further north, one of the most beautiful areas of Arizona, the Mogollon Rim. I thought of my parents. They had a vacation home in the high desert setting of Tonto Basin. I felt sad for a bit, wishing that I still had my parents with me. My Dad died nine years before Dylan was born, while my Mom passed when he was just fifteen months old. But there were happy memories too, memories of hanging out with my parents on the patio, with a fire blazing in the outdoor fireplace, marveling at the sunsets over the mountains. I smiled.

I dozed again for a bit, until the captain announced that Palm Springs could be seen out the left side of the aircraft. Peering across the aisle, I couldn't see the city itself, but I could see Mount San Jacinto looming above. I remembered a backpacking trip I took to the San Jacinto mountains in 1979, shortly before I left the Army. I'd climbed up the aptly named Devil's Slide Trail from the town of Idlewild, spent a night in a campground below the peak, and climbed to the top of San Jacinto Peak the next day. When I write that I "climbed" it, it gives the wrong impression, since a trail leads nearly to the top of the peak; only about two hundred feet of hands and feet boulder scrambling is required at the very top. I watched the sunset from just under eleven thousand feet, then retired to my campsite, nestled in a little clearing between boulders about a hundred vertical feet below the peak. I bedded down in the open, with the stars for a roof.

I think I opened my eyes around one in the morning. A sound, distant. What was that? The stars were gone. Another rumble. I put on my boots, grabbed a flashlight, and scrambled in the darkness to the top of the peak. Off to the northeast, a light show of towering thunderheads illuminated by lighting, but the rumble of thunder no longer sounded so distant. I scurried back to my campsite, frantically stuffed everything into the backpack, and headed downhill.

A stone emergency shelter had been built below the peak in the 1930's, and I was hoping that in my rush, I wouldn't run past it. I turned left, and found the trail. I had run past it, since the trail ended at the shelter. I moved uphill, panting as much out of fear as the exertion of running uphill at nearly 11,000 feet. The approaching lightning was lighting up the trail so much that I almost didn't need the flashlight, and delay between the flashes and the thunder grew shorter.

I found the shelter about two minutes before the rain hit. Three minutes after that, all hell broke loose. The lighting seemed to target the stone hut: FLASH-BOOM FLASH-BOOM. I wondered if something was on fire in the hut, but then I realized what that burning-wire smell was: ozone. At one point, I put my fingers in my ears to block the boom of the thunder, wondering if God was mad at me.


I looked out the window to the north and spotted Mount San Gorgonio, across the desert valley from the San Jacinto peak, and smiled as I remembered the awe I felt that night, as the thunderstorm illuminated San Gorgonio before seeming to swallow it whole.

Approaching L.A., I spotted the Hollywood sign, and smiled as I thought of visits to Dylan's godfather, and how our little man had eaten up the L.A. Natural History Museum, the La Brea Tar Pits, and the L.A. Zoo.

Sitting in the terminal in L.A., I watched as a man and his teenage son sat across from me in the gate waiting area. They looked comfortable sitting together, and that made me smile. The kid was tall and lanky, with longish hair, and stealing glances at the two of them, I thought of what Dylan would look like at that age, and I smiled. There are no guarantees, but I expect that Dylan and I will be comfortable sitting together when he's that old. Expectations can be a good thing.

The mom walked up, rejoining the husband and son briefly. She then walked to get in line to talk to the gate agent. I decided I wanted coffee, and I passed close by the woman. I met her eye. "How old is your son?" She smiled. "He's seventeen." "I was watching your husband and son, and it struck me that one day, yes, my eight year-old will be his age." She chuckled, and said, "When he was five, I wanted to keep him that age forever, but I've kind of changed my mind." Her eyes had a mischievous twinkle to them, so I ventured, "He's a good-looking kid. You guys did well." She chuckled again. "Thanks." "It doesn't look like the mailman was involved, either." The kid looked so much like Dad, it was almost comical. She laughed, louder. "No, the mailman had a vasectomy," she offered. We both laughed, and I wished her a good trip home.


I caught the regional jet for Sacramento, where I picked up a rental car, and began the 160 mile drive home. Soon, I'd be reunited with the two people I loved most, and our Christmas after Christmas would begin.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

I'm Here

I can be a real idiot at times.

There was a fatal accident involving a helicopter operated by my employer today.

A couple of hours ago, Bob Barbanes sent me an email with the subject heading of "Are You There?" Only then did it occur to me that some folks could be wondering if I could have been one of the pilots in that helicopter. The accident has been reported on some national news outlets, so I'll be sending out a bunch of emails tonight to inform friends that I'm still on this earth.

This is one of those times that it really sucks to be a pilot.

I knew both of the pilots personally, and my heart and prayers go out to their families.