Friday, March 29th, 2013

Many many moons ago I drove my lemon yellow Volkswagen bus from Colorado to California to visit my brother. I drove south from Denver to Albuquerque and then, in spite of every lesson I learned from Bugs Bunny about taking a left turn there,* I turned right, drove all the way across Arizona on old Route 66, entered California through the Mojave Desert and kept on going until I got to the Pacific coast. The drive north up Highway One to Carmel remains one of the greatest behind-the-wheel trips of my life.

While I was waiting at a stoplight in Carmel, a kid who looked to be about fourteen or fifteen years old stepped up to the curb, looked up the street, then looked at me. I don’t know if you’ve ever been privileged to ride in the cab of a Volkswagen bus. If you have, then you know that you are not far away from whatever is going on just outside the car. You are, in fact, sitting in front of the front wheels. Your feet are inches from the front bumper. All this to say, when someone is standing just outside the window looking at you, you can’t pretend that you’re invisible because you’re in a car. You are so close to one another that it would be rude.

So when this kid looked at me, I figured he was waiting for me to give him some kind of sign that it was okay to cross in front of me, even though I was waiting for the light. California was like that. When I drove up Highway One, I must’ve passed dozens of Volkswagens going the other way. The driver of every single one of those Volkswagens waved at me as I went past. It was like finding out I was in a club that I didn’t even know about until I got there.

There I was, waiting at a corner in Carmel, California, for a green light, the kid on the corner looking at me expectantly, and me thinking that I ought to give him some kind of sign … or something. So I extended my right hand and swept it across the dashboard in a gesture that, from my point of view, meant, Go ahead, or Safe to cross, or maybe even, I won’t run over you until you get to the middle of the street. From where he stood, though, the gesture apparently meant, Going my way? because he stepped off the curb, opened the passenger door and jumped in.

I was so stunned that the only thing I could think to say was, “Where you going?”

“Just three or four blocks up,” he answered.

Green light.

“Well, okay then,” I said, put the bus in gear and drove on.

I don’t remember whether or not we talked about anything. If we did, it couldn’t have been much. He really didn’t want to go that far. About four blocks up the road he pointed at the corner, said, “Right here’s fine.” I pulled up at the curb, he said thanks and jumped out.

And that was the first time I gave a ride to a stranger.

*When I started to write the part about driving south to Albuquerque, the first thing that popped into my head was a quote from Bugs Bunny: “I knew I shoulda taken a left toin at Albakoikee!” It wasn’t until after I finished the story that I opened Google and typed “Bugs Bunny should have.” It autofilled “turned left.” bliss!

hop in | 6:03 am CST
Category: daily drivel, O'Folks, play, story time, The O-Mobile, travel | Tags:
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Thursday, March 28th, 2013

I suffered the biggest culture shock of my life when the Air Force transferred me from the peace and quiet of RAF Digby in northern England to the ear-shattering jet noise and chaos of Misawa Air Base in northern Japan. The culture of the Air Force in the two places, and the culture of the host countries, were so completely different from one another I was nearly catatonic.

There were about a half-dozen Air Force goobers stationed at Digby, most of them airmen. I was a technical sergeant. But the station and the base were so quiet, dare I say even sleepy, that I didn’t have much to do in the way of supervising anybody, as tech sergeants are expected to do in other places. I supervised a staff sergeant, and he supervised the airmen. Two years of that left me fat, dumb and happy, if a six-foot-tall guy who weighs 155 can even metaphorically be described as “fat.” (Sadly, there’s no question about the “fat” part.)

I don’t know how many Air Force goobers there were at Misawa but I was immediately put in a position where I was responsible for about two dozen of them, and by “responsible” I mean that I was the person whom the mission superintendent yelled at when one of my minions screwed up. My duties, I soon learned, were to then go and find out who screwed up and yell at him or her or them. The mission supe, you see, was too high up the food chain to yell at the underlings directly. It was a game of monkey in the middle, and I got to be the monkey. Also, I got to write everybody’s performance reports. Every single goddamn one. The sergeants who were supposed to do it couldn’t write a bathroom-stall limerick to save their lives, or so they said, and backed it up by not doing it.

And that was just the change in Air Force culture. Going from England, where I could read and write and speak to the local people, to Japan, where I couldn’t do any of that, very nearly drove me crazy. I was literally walking around in a daze for I don’t know how long. I’d been stationed before in foreign lands where I couldn’t speak the language, but I’d always been able to read. Give me a dictionary and I could figure things out. Being stationed in Japan, though, was the first time I’d been plopped down in a country where I couldn’t read. It was like being an infant again.

Culture shock | 5:59 am CST
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career, story time, travel, work | Tags: ,
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Friday, February 22nd, 2013

Mom took me to see the Wal-Mart shrine in Bentonville when I went down there to visit her. The front of the five-and-ten-cent store where Bill Walton founded his empire has been preserved and, not surprisingly, just inside the front door there’s a little pretend store filled with old-timey nick-knacks you can pick up as a souvenir of your visit.

The fake store out front is just the beginning, through. Stepping through it, we found ourselves in a museum devoted to the history of Wal-Mart. Mom pointed in awe at the maps posted along the walls that showed the number and location of Wal-Mart stores through the years with little clusters of dots that started in Arkansas and spread across the nation, looking not unlike botulism colonies spreading across a petri dish. I was more fascinated by the framed full-page newspaper ads. Did you know there was a time when you could buy a men’s button-down shirt for less than five bucks?

Bentonville | 6:02 am CST
Category: daily drivel, Mom, O'Folks, play, travel, vacation
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Thursday, February 21st, 2013

With Mom in front of the original Wal-Mart store in Bentonville, Arkansas.

walmart

cheese | 9:32 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, Mom, O'Folks, play, travel, vacation
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Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

I flew down to Arkansas last weekend to visit Mom. I used a web service to book my flight because I know bugger-all about that sort of thing. For instance, I was naive enough to think that I could simply call the airline on the phone and ask them to book a flight for me. They’ll do that, but they’ll also charge twice what an on-line agency charges without mentioning that teensy tiny little factoid.

I ended up booking a flight through a web service that helped me find the airport near the town where Mom lives. When I searched for flights into the nearest airport, it spat out a list of a couple dozen, showed how much they cost, where they had layovers and how long the flights took. Since the prices were all about the same, give or take ten dollars, I picked the ones that I would have to spend the shortest time on. The only way to fly is the quickest.

I flew down to Arkansas on American Airlines. That flight went very well. We boarded on time, we arrived at O’Hare on time with more than an hour between flights so I didn’t have to run from one end of the airport to the other to catch my connecting flight, which also boarded and landed on time.

I flew back from Arkansas on United Airlines. That flight did not go well AT ALL.

I got to the airport an hour and a half before I was supposed to board, leaving me plenty of time for a proper Wisconsin good-bye. Mom and I hung out in the terminal lobby chatting for a solid twenty minutes before we hugged and kissed and then talked a little longer about the next time I’d visit. Then we chatted a bit longer about how nice it was to see one another again. Then one final good-bye before I climbed the stairs to the security checkpoint to take off my coat and shoes, everything but my pants, although that’s probably coming soon.

After I was through the checkpoint and had put all my clothes back on, I consulted The Big Board to see which gate my flight was boarding at. The Big Board said Gate A6, so off I went. There were a few people already waiting when I got there but I snagged a seat near the desk, pulled out a book and settled in to read until they called for the first group.

They usually start boarding about a half-hour before the scheduled takeoff time but not only was there no boarding announcement then, there was nobody at the desk, the screen behind the desk was dark and, most crucially, there was no plane at the gate. Felling a tad nervous, I strolled down the hall a ways to double-check The Big Board. My flight was still listed as being at Gate A6 and departing at ten-thirty, right on time. I went back to my seat and tried to read some more, but the persistent lack of anybody at the desk or any information appearing on the screen made me so uneasy that I couldn’t concentrate. I eventually gave up and put the book away.

Fifteen minutes before my plane was supposed to leave, I still didn’t see an actual plane parked at the gate outside the window and there was still nobody at the desk to explain why. I went back to The Big Board: My flight was still scheduled to leave on time, still at Gate A6. Hmmm.

There did seem to be a lot of activity at Gate A5, right next door, where four airline representatives were working at the desk. I didn’t want to bother them, though, because a long line of people were waiting to talk to them. At one point, one of the representatives got on the PA to tell the people in line that they were working as fast as they could to re-book everyone.

When ten-thirty came and went without any further announcements, I went back to The Big Board one last time to check on the status of my flight. The Big Board said that it had departed. At that point I thought, To hell with worrying about bothering people. I stopped one of the representatives when she came over to A6 from A5 to use the computer.

“Excuse me, is this where the flight to Chicago will be boarding?” I asked, showing her my boarding pass.

“No, this is Houston,” she answered, glancing at my pass. “Chicago’s over there.” And she pointed at A5, where the long line of people where waiting.

Oh. Okay. Thanks for announcing that. Good thing I didn’t need to ask.

I went next door to Gate A5 and, flashing my boarding pass, asked the woman behind the counter if this would in fact be the gate where the flight to Madison would be boarding. She said yes, it would, so I stood to one side while she fiddled with the computer while answering questions from a bunch of other people.

When she announced that they would begin boarding the aircraft for the flight to Madison, she used a flight number that was not the flight number on my boarding pass. Marching back up to the desk with my boarding pass held out in front of me again I asked her, “Excuse me, you said this was the flight to Madison? Which flight is it?”

She looked at my boarding pass, then at her computer, and then she picked up the microphone again and announced that the flight to Madison – and here she said my flight number this time – would begin boarding.

Sweet Jesus.

We took off forty-five minutes later than we were supposed to, yet somehow we arrived in Chicago only twenty minutes late. I’m not sure how they pulled that off, but I’m not going to complain about that, especially considering what happened next.

The flight pulled up at Terminal F. I went straight off the plane up to The Big Board to find where my connecting flight was supposed to board. It said F12, right down the hall, but when I got there the screen behind the desk said that the flight was going to Frankfort, Kentucky, so once again I held out my boarding pass and asked the guy behind the counter where I could find the flight to Madison.

“Oh, yes, let me just check,” he said, tapping keys on his keyboard. “Ah, I don’t seem to have your name here … wait a minute … oh, yes, this is the flight to Frankfort. You’re on the flight to Madison. They’re a little different, Kentucky and Wisconsin.”

Oh! Hello! We have a comedian! Very funny! Hah! Hah! Hah!

“I get that, thanks. Where can I catch the flight to Madison?”

“Right over there,” he said, pointing to the next gate over.

“No, this flight’s going to Georgia,” the lady behind the desk at the next gate said. “To get to Madison you’ll have to catch the flight at Gate B1.”

Sweet Jesus Christ on a bicycle.

So, with less than twenty minutes to spare, thanks to the comedian, I had to run from Terminal F to Terminal B. I’m pretty sure they’re in separate counties because I barely arrived on time to catch my connecting flight to Madison, a flight so short that they didn’t serve drinks or I would have bought at least two and as many as six before getting into a fight with a flight attendant and ending up being led off the tarmac in handcuffs, so maybe that’s the one thing that went right on that whole trip.

flight risk | 9:20 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, Mom, O'Folks, play, travel, vacation, yet another rant | Tags: , ,
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Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

Look who I ran into at the museum!


rosie the riveter


Rosie | 6:16 am CST
Category: daily drivel, entertainment, play, travel, vacation
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Saturday, February 16th, 2013

I took a little trip this weekend to visit with Mom. As she lives in Arkansas, I had to choose between driving or flying. I’d rather be the subject of almost any kind of invasive strip search than be cooped up in a car for twelve hours, so I chose to fly.

And regretted it almost right off the bat, as I lined up behind a guy in the TSA strip-search-a-thon who decided to make a federal case right then and there about his rights. Buddy, I wanted to say, unless and until you get to the end of this line, you have no rights, and I’m stuck behind you, so can we please move this along?

But no, he wanted to argue his case. I never thought I’d be grateful to see someone pulled out of a line for special treatment by the TSA, but I was.

The flight was uneventful, which is about as good as commercial flying gets, although it almost got better when the steward announced there were complementary cocktails for military personnel. I had my military ID out and was ready to flash it when she finally rolled the cart up to my aisle, but it turned out the offer was only good for uniformed personnel. Even though I happened to be wearing my fatigue jacket, I didn’t argue the point, and just ponied up the six bucks for my tiny little bottle of Tanquerey and a can of tonic.

We landed after dark, so I didn’t get a chance to look much at the area as we descended. I found Mom waiting for me near the entrance of the terminal and, after making our hellos, we were on our way.

visiting | 7:27 am CST
Category: booze, daily drivel, food & drink, Mom, O'Folks, play, travel, vacation
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Monday, January 28th, 2013

We are exhausted after our long, long journey to the distant city of Stevens Point, where we stayed overnight after attending the 15th anniversary celebration of the Central Waters Brewing Company in Amherst. Really. I need a nap. Oh, wait, I already had a nap. Guess I’ll write some drivel, then.

If, for some reason, you glanced to the north as you drove along Highway Ten just outside Amherst and your eyes happened to fall on a certain plain white steel-walled utility building in the middle of a corn field, you would very probably never feel the slightest inkling that some of the finest beer in Wisconsin is brewed there. Last night, though, the long lineup of cars parked along both sides of the access road would have given you the idea that something rather important was going on there. That something was the fifteenth birthday party of the Central Waters Brewing Company.

My Darling B and I found out about it maybe a month ago when Paul, one of the brewery’s owners, was in Madison to host a beer tasting at Star Liquor on Willy Street. Star has one of these events almost every Friday. They’re a great opportunity to try new beers, or just enjoy the beers we’ve always enjoyed while chatting up the guys who make them. I mean, really, how can you not like talking to a guy who knows how to make great-tasting beer? It’s like meeting someone who can make happiness.

So while we were asking Paul a few nosy questions about his beer and how he made it, he mentioned that the brewery’s anniversary party was coming up, and that it was sort of a big deal. I was thinking maybe he meant it was a big deal on the scale of big deals in Amherst. I mean, the brewery has a tap room, a small place off to one side of the building where visitors can sit around a bar or at a few tables and partake of a few of whatever beers the brewery has on tap, and when I say small I mean maybe there are seats for twenty-five or thirty people. Sixty or seventy people might be able to get in there if they didn’t mind getting really friendly. How many more people could they get in there?

Paul said that for the party they didn’t confine people to the tasting room, but let them into the rest of the brewery to mingle around the fermenting tanks and brewing vats. I remember wondering then, and again last night, about the wisdom of allowing a hundred or more beer-drinkers to wander around amongst the plumbing and other delicate apparatus that he depended on for his livelihood, but then he’s been doing this for years, so he must have had some idea what he was getting himself in for.

Amherst is a drive of almost two hours from Our Humble O’Bode. There was no way in hell I could possibly have spent the afternoon drinking beer in any amount, then driven all the way back to Madison. As it turned out, I didn’t have to even consider it. The guys at Central Waters said on their Facebook page that they would be running a charter shuttle bus from Stevens Point to the brewery, so My Darling B did a little googling and found a B&B not far from the bus stop. We made reservations to stay the night.

It was a grand old Victorian house known as Dreams of Yesteryear. Check-in time was three but the owners let us in an hour early. That was so we could leave Madison at around noon, be in Stevens Point by two o’clock, and catch the first shuttle to the brewery at two-thirty. And it all went like clockwork, except for the last part.

Since we missed the first shuttle, we hung out in a bookstore downtown for a while where we discovered the new genre of books called “Urban Fantasy.” As near as we could figure them out by reading the jacket blurbs and looking at the cover illustrations, they were all variations on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer story. There were twice as many urban fantasy books as there were of almost any other subject in the store. People in Stevens Point really like their vampires.

I was completely wrong about how many people they could fit inside that building. There were hundreds of people buzzing around inside the brewery when we got there, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to find out that thousands of people came and went over the course of the evening. Chartered buses were bringing visitors in from far away, and the cars parked along both sides of the roads bore license plates from several states. This was a big deal.

We took turns standing in the long, long line for specialty beers. My Darling B was especially keen on trying to get hold of the anniversary brew, but we never did manage to get any. While she was standing in line, though, the guy behind her noticed her cup was empty and poured her a shot from the growler he was carrying. He was either being very generous, or he wanted to empty the bottle before he got to the front of the line. Or maybe a little of both.

I tried two brews I’d never heard of before, Exodus and Le Petit Mort, both very tasty, but by the time I got them I had already had enough of standing in line, so I didn’t go back to try anything else. We made do with a couple beers from the regular taps while we listened to the band, or wandered around the brewery to check it out.

Being a couple of lightweights, we didn’t stay late at all, heading back to town on the seven-thirty shuttle. If I remember, we were in bed by nine so we wouldn’t miss breakfast in the morning. A good thing, too, because the hostess cooked up breakfast burritos that were delicious. I’d consider going back to Stevens Point just for that.

fifteen | 6:27 am CST
Category: beer, daily drivel, festivals, food & drink, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, travel | Tags:
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Monday, January 21st, 2013

Pete e-mailed me the other day asking if I could remember any details about the vacations we took with our mom and dad in the mid 70s. I’ll bet he’s sorry he asked now, because the best I could do was vomit up random fragments of memories, and I mean ‘vomit’ in the best sense of the word, like if my brain could actually vomit. My answer to him was like word puke.

Like this: The first camping trip we made was in a pull-behind camper and I think we ended up in Kentucky, but really that’s just about all I remember. Pete says we visited places like Mammoth Cave and the Smokey Mountains, Memphis and maybe Louisiana. I remember going to those places on family camping trips, but if you put a gun to my head I couldn’t say that we did it on that first trip. If it came to that, all I’d be able to say under those circumstances would be, It’s just a vacation! Why are you putting a gun to my head? But if it didn’t, if you just asked me without the gunplay, I’d have to let my brain vomit all over you, then shrug my shoulders. Best I’d be able do. Sorry. The neurons that were responsible for tying all those memories together have either died or been recorded over.

There are a couple general impressions I could manage to piece together, though. For instance, the pull-behind camper was either a rental, or my parents borrowed it from a very generous family friend. For the next trip, we bought our own camper. Not a trailer, but the kind that rides on the back of a pickup truck. It was enormous, roughly the size of a Wal-Mart. It was so large that I don’t know how the rather ordinary-sized truck that came with it could carry it without breaking in two. The camper was wider than the truck, longer than the truck, and it was so top-heavy that it should have rolled over every time dad put the key in the ignition. I still don’t know how he drove it all those years and didn’t roll it. Pete and I used to ride in the part of the camper that hung over the cab of the truck, where every buck and sway was magnified in the worst way. There were plenty of times when dad went around a corner just a little too fast, or misjudged the depth of a pothole, and I would think, ‘This is it! We’re going full-turtle this time!’ And yet somehow it remained upright.

There was this one time I watched in stunned disbelief from the sidelines while he backed the truck, with camper still on top and a boat hitched to the back, down a boat launch that was so steep I was sure one of two things would happen: 1) the brakes would fade and the whole kit and caboodle would plow straight into the lake, or 2) the turnbuckles that kept the camper fastened to the truck would snap, the camper would slide out of the truck bed as if it were greased and it would steamroller over the boat and the boat trailer, then float about twenty yards into the lake before sinking to the bottom. I felt cheated when neither one of those things happened and he successfully launched the boat in spite of my warnings that it just wasn’t physically possible for him to do that. It was like he violated at least two of Newton’s laws of physics (inertia and, I believe, conservation of energy, or suchlike).

Then there was the frozen toilet incident. The camper had a chemical toilet in the back. Pretty cool, until you had to drain it. The first time we took the camper out, I think it was the trip we made to Florida to visit Disneyworld, we filled up the toilet and discovered that a valve or a pipe somewhere in the plumbing had cracked in the icy cold of the Wisconsin winter, spilling blue-tinted toilet water all over the floor of the camper. Dad spent a long, hellish night baling that nasty stuff out of the toilet, then mopping up the mess. To add insult to injury, on the drive down to Florida he stopped at a gas station with an overhang that, luckily, cleared the roof of the camper by an inch or two but, unluckily, did not clear the plastic bubble skylight. He scraped that sucker clean off the top. Weirdly, he wasn’t very pissed about it. He was just like, “Well, that figures.”

family camping | 9:50 pm CST
Category: O'Folks, play, story time, travel, vacation
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Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

image of County Clare Inn in Milwaukee WIJust a bit more drivel about Milwaukee and then I’m done for a while, I promise.

Almost as good as being in the audience for one of our favorite radio shows was having the great good luck to find a place to stay for the night as comfy and warm as the County Clare Inn. I could say good things about this place from now until the cows come home and, if I didn’t stop for breath and maybe a bite to eat, I might get them all said, but it would be close.

First off, the location is great: It’s right in the middle of old Milwaukee, a short walk from the river, a short taxi ride from the UW-Milwaukee campus. We might even be able to hoof it all the way to the Modern Art Museum from there if the weather was good and we were feeling our oats. If all we were looking for was a place to stay the night and maybe take a walk in the morning, though, the tree-lined streets around the inn are quiet and some of the houses and buildings are really very eye-catching.

Then, there’s the pub downstairs: Irish-themed, obviously. I don’t usually go for themed bars chock full ‘o kitschy knick-knacks, but they managed to keep the kitsch under control. It isn’t spilling out of every nook and cranny. We could hold a conversation without shouting at one another; the background music stayed in the background. That should always get high marks. There was just one television screen, it was off to the side and the sound was muted. More high marks.

And the service is wonderful. We came back from the taping a little after eleven o’clock and, because we hadn’t eaten since two, My Darling B was feeling a little peckish. I could’ve used a snack myself, but we figured the kitchen wasn’t serving any longer so I asked the bartender where we could get a bite to eat. He helpfully pointed out there was a place down the block, then added, “You could always order off our bar menu, too,” and handed me a copy. Smooth.

B got the hummus plate, figuring it would be a pita sliced into eighths with a dab of hummus and maybe a little couscous on the side. Wrong. It was enough pita and hummus to feed us both. Not knowing that, I ordered a plate of tater tots myself, figuring that would make up enough of a bedtime snack to hold us both over. Well, we both went to bed sufficiently serensified that night, I can assure you.

Saving the best for last, there’s the room. We’ve been to a few places in all corners of the world; fallen into fleabag flophouses and lucked into sumptuous suites with luxury amenities that were probably all but wasted on us. We weren’t expecting so very much from an inn smack in the middle of town that charged just a hundred fifty bucks a night, but I’m pleased to say the accommodations exceeded our expectations in every way. The room was much larger than it had any right to be. The bedroom and the bath were all together in the same room, but separated by a permanent screen with the toilet and sink off to one side, the shower and whirlpool bath off to the other. B cherished every minute of her Sunday-morning soak in that tub.

Finally, we got two tickets to breakfast with the price of our room, a nice little perk. They had an eye-popping spread laid out when we came down in the morning. Two short-order cooks were making omelets to order on a row of portable gas stoves. We put in our order with them, then grabbed a complimentary newspaper off the stack in the dining room as we went in to pick out a table by the window and whiled away the better part of two hours eating, sipping coffee and flipping through the news.

When the staff began to pack away the buffet and bus the tables, we thought we might have overstayed our welcome, but just then a guy came by with a pot of coffee and offered to warm up our cups. B asked how long the dining room was open.

“It’s the weekend,” he said. “Stay as long as you like.” Then he went off to see if anyone else wanted coffee.

How to see Milwaukee on just $500 a day – Part 3 | 12:54 pm CST
Category: coffee, daily drivel, entertainment, food & drink, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, radio, restaurants, travel, vacation | Tags:
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Monday, October 22nd, 2012

image of Art Smart's Dart Mart in Milwaukee WIWe went to Milwaukee to see a taping of one of our favorite radio shows, Says You! and then we almost didn’t make it to the show! It was an evening taping but we left Madison in the morning and got to Milwaukee around noon so we could have a wander around town. Then we went back to our room to clean up and catch a short nap. When we were ready to go, I called for a taxi to pick us up.

The driver called me from the curb outside the door of the inn when he got there and I very nearly didn’t answer because he had a New York phone number, so I assumed he was a telemarketer. I only decided to pick up so I could mess with him.

“Yessss?” I answered.

“Dave?”

That old dodge: Using my first name to get me to stay on the line. “Yessss?”

Pause. “Did you call a cab?”

“Oh! Yes, yes I did! Hang on, we’ll be right down!”

Then, as we stepped out the elevator into the lobby, a couple dressed to nines were looking out the window and saying something like, “I don’t know how he got here so quickly. Maybe it’s not ours.” But they went out anyway and stopped short of getting into the cab when we followed them as closely as a shadow all the way to the curb.

“Did you call a cab, too?” the woman asked me.

“Yes, I did,” I answered as My Darling B stuck her head in the door to make sure it was, in fact, our cab. It was. As I climbed in, B asked the driver to take us to the Helen Bader Theater on the UW-Milwaukee Campus, and then gave him the address: 2419 E. Kenwood Boulevard. “Right, right,” he said, and sped us to a faraway neighborhood of the city.

Let me just interrupt here to remind the reader that the only times we’ve been to Milwaukee before this have been on guided tours, or to pick someone up from the airport. We don’t know any of the streets or neighborhoods, but we assumed our driver did, and when he said, “Right, right,” and nodded, I don’t think we went out on a limb when we assumed he knew exactly where the Helen Bader theater was. Certainly, we expected him to know where the campus of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee was.

So when he dropped us off at the intersection of what looked like a shopping district, we didn’t say, “Where the hell are we?” We assumed he’d dropped us off maybe around the corner from the theater and we only had to walk to the corner and we’d see it. Call me foolishly naive, I deserve it. When we walked down to the corner to get our bearings, though, we discovered that the driver had dropped us off on Kenilworth Street, not Kenwood Boulevard! I ran back to the taxi with B yelling, “Stop him! Stop him!” behind me. Thank dog it took him so long to get his dispatcher on the phone.

On the upside, he didn’t charge us for the ride to the correct address, and we got there in plenty of time.

I was trying to describe Says You! to a friend the other day and rather ironically found myself at a loss for words. Ironic, because Says You! is, as the show’s host, Richard Sher, describes it, a game of words played by two teams. It’s alrways played in five rounds, each with its own peculiar quirk. They played one of my favorite rounds last night, a game I can play without making my brain explode. Richard Sher gives the name of an actor and asks a panelist to guess the movie he’s thinking of. It’s usually an almost unknown actor in a supporting role. With just one name, the guess is at best wild, of course, although sometimes they actually get it on the first try. If so, ten points! If not, another actor’s name gets added to the list, this one a little more well-known than the first.

With the choices narrowed down a bit it’s not a coin toss any more, but still just barely an educated guess. Sometimes Richard will go with the most popular movie featuring the actors in question, sometimes the most recent, but sometimes he’ll go for the obscure title. You never know. The last name added to the list is a giveaway, the name of whoever got star billing, and when it gets that far its announcement is followed by a lot of facepalming and oh-I-shoulda-got-that groaning.

Two of the rounds are Bluffing Rounds: the host gives one team a word so obscure that it sounds as though he made it up on the spot. The words they used the other night, for instance, were “callithump” and “corf.” Don’t ask me what they mean; I forgot already. Each of the team members gets a card, but only one of the cards has the definition of the word on it; the other two cards say, “Please Bluff.” Those two team members try to make up a definition that sounds plausible enough to fool the other team into picking one of the made-up definitions.

There’s always a musical guest to play a song during the introductions, and to provide a musical interlude during the bluffing rounds, to give the panelists enough time to come up with a good bluff. The musical guest was probably the most delightful surprise of the evening: they were The Squeezettes, the power-polka band we just happened to see last month at the Monroe Cheese Fest. I described them then as an all-girl accordion band but there was a guy drumming and another guy playing a sousaphone, so obviously I wasn’t paying close attention. And although there are three women playing accordion, calling them an all-girl accordion band doesn’t do them justice. They describe their style as “power polka,” which comes much closer to capturing the feel of their art. Have you ever thought of “Wooly Booly” as a polka? Me, neither, but to hear them belt it out is to experience a whole new level of polka that I frankly wouldn’t have thought possible. I didn’t hesitate to buy a CD from the guy selling them in the lobby.

There was just one thing, and I mean only one thing, I would have changed about the evening: If I’d known the six people behind us were going to jabber and shout through the whole performance, I would’ve eaten a brick of cheese right before we were ushered in. I’ll have to keep one in my man purse from now on for emergencies.

How to see Milwaukee on just $500 a day – Part 2 | 8:59 pm CST
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Sunday, October 21st, 2012

image of My Darling B drinking beer from a boot in a Milwaukee tavernWe’re back from Milwaukee! We went there to watch a taping of one of our favorite radio shows, Says You!, and ended up doing a sightseeing tour of a small slice of Milwaukee while stopping off at a couple of our favorite places.

Even as the number of things we wanted to do mounted up, it seemed like a good idea each time. Tickets to the show cost just $17.00 each, but the taping was scheduled to end sometime after 10:30 pm. I didn’t want to drive back to Madison that late at night, so we reserved a room at the County Clare Inn. That tacked a hundred fifty bucks on to the cost of our trip right away, but seemed like not only a good idea but a good deal: We’d be smack dab in the middle of Milwaukee. That’s how we decided to do some sightseeing while we were there. We had the time. We were in a good location. Why not?

We left Madison as early as we could Saturday morning, by which I mean ten o’clock. We were going to shoot for a much earlier departure time until we realized it’s not like there was a great big hurry to get there. I made a pot of coffee and we slowly drained it while we passed a couple hours Googling for information about interesting places to go and fun things to do while in Milwaukee. Don’t laugh. There really are some. The last time we were in Milwaukee, for instance, we stopped at a place called the Wisconsin Cheese Mart. Guess what they sell there? And not only can you snack on a selection of great Wisconsin cheese, you can take your plate of cheese to the tap room where you can ask them for one of the two-dozen great Wisconsin beers they have on tap. Tell me that’s not a place you’d want to visit.

And it was within walking distance of the inn, along with other sights we’d never seen before just because we hadn’t taken the time. So we pulled into town shortly after noon and, with more than a few hours before the show was scheduled to begin, started wandering the streets in the warm sunshine of an gorgeous autumn day in Milwaukee.

How to see Milwaukee on just $500 a day | 8:02 pm CST
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Sunday, October 14th, 2012

image of McSorely'sOne afternoon in New York City on our way back from a tour, My Darling B suggested we stop at McSorely’s, reputed to be the oldest continuously-operated tavern in America. From the moment we set foot on the sawdust-strewn floor of the place, I didn’t doubt it. The bar ran down one side of the narrow bar room and a scattered collection of wooden tables and hard chairs ran down the other. The walls were dark wood, but the wood was mostly covered with framed newspaper clippings of historic events, or photographs of well-known people. Teddy Roosevelt was featured prominently and repeatedly. I have to admit, I like the place immediately for that.

We took a seat at a table beside a pot-bellied stove, which took up a considerable amount of space in the middle of the room. There were four fire fighters from the Bronx at the next table over who started chatting us up even before we sat down. Their table was crowded with beer mugs, most of them empty, a half-dozen or so still full, two or three half-drunk. “Where you from?” they asked, and when we said Wisconsin the next dozen words out of their mouths included “cheese curds” and “Bret Favre.” Why didn’t Bret Favre stop while he was ahead? they wanted to know. What he did to himself and his career was just a tragedy. And so on.

Leaving B to keep up the conversation with the firemen, I sidled up to the bar and asked the bartender, after he was done welcoming a small crowd of regulars, what he had on tap. “We serve only McSorely’s ale here, light and dark,” he informed me. I asked for one each and he drew them off into small glass beer mugs. The beer had a rich, foamy head and a sweet, creamy taste, and went down very easily as we listened to the firemen bewail the fate of Bret Favre. I even went back to the bar and ordered another round after polishing off the first, the only time we did that at any bar we visited in New York City.

After McSorely’s we went to Pete’s Tavern, reputed to be the oldest continuously-operated tavern and restaurant in New York City, which is clearly not the case if McSorely’s is in fact the oldest continuously-operated bar in America. Is there a rivalry going on here? If so, McSorely’s has the edge in product, because they serve a better beer. The beer at Pete’s was okay, but not all that great. We ran into this a lot in New York City, where the bars tended to serve mainstream brands like Bud and Miller, and we saw very few locally-produced brews like Brooklyn Brewery and Six Point.

image of My Darling BThe only other place that was nearly as interesting as McSorely’s was The Tippler, a bar carved out of the spaces beneath the Chelsea Market, a retail mall in the reconditioned buildings of the old National Biscuit Company’s original manufactory. This was the birthplace of the Oreo!

My Darling B wanted awfully badly to visit, so we stopped in on Saturday, our first day in NYC, for an evening cocktail. If memory serves (and if it doesn’t, I’m sure she’ll find a way to let me know), B had a Booty Collins, a drink of vodka infused with tea and mixed with passion fruit, cayenne, lemon and yohimbe. I’ve never even heard of yohimbe, so it sounds like her kind of drink, but she didn’t enjoy it as much as I enjoyed my Gin and Chronic, a take on the classic gin and tonic with a little hops flavor thrown in.

We stayed for just one drink as it was getting late and we wanted to have enough time to visit the Empire State Building that night. Considering how that turned out, we probably should’ve stayed for another drink or two.

image of The Tippler in NYC

drinking in nyc | 5:56 pm CST
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Sunday, October 7th, 2012

image of B and I on Brooklyn BridgeCrossing the Brooklyn Bridge was one of the items on our Tourist To-Do List, but how to do it was up for grabs until the day we showed up at the South Street Seaport for a tour and spied Blazing Saddles, a vendor that rented bicycles by the hour. Each came equipped with a map that was marked up for a tour of the area, including a trip across the Brooklyn Bridge. Could it sound more perfect? I think not!

So on Friday morning, after stopping by the ticket booth on Fulton Street to see if there were any half-price tickets to the Broadway smash hit Book of Mormon and walking away sadly disappointed again, we headed down to the pier to rent bikes, or rather, a bike: they had a tandem Schwinn that looked to us like it might be a lot of fun. We’d never ridden a tandem together before, but how hard could it be, right? The guy renting the bikes showed us how it worked, took an impression of our credit card, strapped helmets on our heads and sent us on our way. Easy-peasy.

I’ve no doubt that, if we’d had a few days instead of two hours to practice riding a tandem together, we might’ve gotten good enough at it that we would’ve had the time to look around and enjoy ourselves, but here’s the thing: There were an awful lot of people on the bike path — walkers, skaters, bikers, people standing on their hands. On my own bike I would’ve felt confident enough to take a look around while easily threading my way between them, but that tandem steered like a cow. A twenty-foot-long cow.

Each time I lined up the bike to thread our way through a gap in the crowd, another pedestrian would wander into our way, or another bicyclist would whoosh past us and cut me off, or My Darling B would lean to one side to get a glimpse of something my head was blocking her view of. Any one of a dozen changes like this would require me to make a new adjustment to our trajectory, and very often all those things would happen simultaneously. I felt as though, if I took my attention off the people around us for even a second, I would probably hit every single one of them!

So the only time when I could look around and see any of the sights was when we stopped. That ended up happening more often than not, as it turned out. Like the time we had to stop so I could grab a stick off the ground and use it as a lever to get the chain around the gearwheel. It had jumped off when I shifted into the lowest gear. Luckily we were on a side street where there wasn’t a lot of traffic, and not a hundred yards further on, up the rather steep approach to the Manhattan Bridge, where suddenly losing the ability to crank the bike forward would have been about as bad as it could be. If you’re going to rent a bike from a vendor, by the way, take it for a spin. Ride it like you’re trying to break it. You don’t want to be a mile away from the vendor and find out that the shifter is crap or the tires are under-inflated. Voice of experience talking here.

As we rode away from the pier and under the Brooklyn Bridge, we were supposed to turn left and follow a side street to the on-ramp. We tried several times to do that but couldn’t find how to thread our way through the construction that was taking place along the road beside the bike path. Concrete barriers had been set up and, although there was one gap in them, it didn’t appear to line up with the street we were meant to take. The bike path continued along the East River toward the Manhattan Bridge, however, so we decided to do our trip ass-backwards and cross into Brooklyn on the Manhattan Bridge first, get a good look at the Brooklyn Bridge that way and maybe get the hang of riding together on the tandem.

Riding along the bike trail built our confidence a bit as there were only a few people walking or riding along it. Then we had to turn off the bike trail, ride through the neighborhood at the base of the bridge and thread our way up the entrance onto the walkway along the side of the bridge. I don’t even remember how we did that. It’s all sort of a blur of weaving through traffic while trying not to run any red lights. Other than that, I’m afraid I have to admit I suffered a sort of sensory overload and couldn’t even move my lips to answer B when she repeatedly asked me where I was going and what I was doing. Somehow, though, we ended up circling around a ramp up to the bridge and setting off across it.

We ended up on the upriver side of the bridge. Maybe there was a way to get to the walkway on the downriver side, which would’ve given us a great view of the Brooklyn Bridge, as I’d hoped, instead of the slightly less picturesque views of the electric power substations and abandoned docks of Brooklyn. Oh, well. At least there weren’t too many people on the walkway, although it would’ve been nice to have that low gear on the climb up to the middle of the bridge. We were able to pass the lady in the pink jogging outfit when we first got on the bridge but quickly got so tired and sweaty that she easily passed us halfway up the climb and we didn’t catch her again until we were coasting down the other side.

After we reached Brooklyn – chaos! We had only the dimmest notion about how to get to the Brooklyn Bridge. The map they’d given us was little help; not all the streets were labeled, and they’d intended for us to go from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Manhattan Bridge, not the other way around, so we had to find our own way through the back streets. Again, it’s a blur to me now, although I do remember that the traffic wasn’t too bad and that, once we’d made our way through the business district to a park at the base of the bridge, we were able to go slow and look around. Didn’t help, though. We looked at every map we had but couldn’t figure out how to bicycle up to the entrance to the bridge. Eventually we found a pedestrian stairway and carried the bike up. Several other bicyclists were doing it, and we were at our wit’s end, so B grabbed the back end of the bike and I grabbed the front and up we went.

When I thought of biking across the Brooklyn Bridge, I had a picture in my mind of a wide lane that we would easily go sailing along, without a care in the world, looking this way, looking that at the sights of the New York skyline. In actual fact, there’s a photo on the vendor’s web site showing two people doing exactly that. BUT: Bicyclists share a boardwalk with pedestrians that runs down the middle of the bridge above the traffic lanes and appears to be about ten or twelve feet wide. There’s a white line painted down the middle of the boardwalk, and on one side of the line there’s the classic stick figure of a walking man to indicate the pedestrian lane, while on the other side of the line there’s a stick figure on a bike to indicate the bike lane.

The pedestrians pay no attention whatever to the line. They only shy away from the bike lane when bikers whizzing by nearly run them down. And the New Yorkers making their way on bike across the bridge, as they probably do every day of the week, were flying fearlessly through the crowds of people, and around the dorky old slowpoke tourists like us, as effortlessly as you would sidestep a telephone pole. I don’t know how, but they did.

As for us, I don’t know how we crossed the bridge without hitting someone. It was difficult enough to pick our way through the people on the uphill side where there was a little room for error, but on the downhill side it was terrifying – or, as My Darling B put it, “exhilarating!” The bridge was in the middle of a multi-billion dollar refurbishment, so the walkway on the downhill side was a gauntlet of steel shutters that narrowed the walkway even more. B started yelling “On Your Right!” when a woman stopped, looked up to admire the view and began to step back into the bike lane in front of us. I had already put all our momentum behind zigging out of the way of another biker and really thought she was going down under the wheels of our bike until B yelled and the woman jumped out of the way.

When we finally got to the Manhattan side I pulled off into a park to regain some sense of composure and powow with B to plan for the next stage of our ride. We had been thinking about riding back down the East River bike path to Battery Park and, if we felt we could keep going, north along the Hudson River to visit the parks there, then double back to the pier to turn in our bike. B was still up for it, so off we went.

We had to ride past the South Street Seaport, which is where tourists buses stop and throngs of tourists off-load, gathering in the bike lane before marching off, in the bike lane, to whatever sights they’ve stopped to see along the river front. We had to dismount in order to cross through the streams of people, but once we were through we got back on the bike and shaved past them by yelling “On Your Right!” over and over while picking up speed. It worked on the Brooklyn Bridge, and it worked there, too. They jumped out of our way like scared mice.

Just past the pier there was a lot of construction that narrowed the bike lane to about three feet, and it was choked with pedestrians. No amount of yelling would make them jump out of our way – there was no place for them to jump to. We had to get off the bike again and walk it between the orange plastic fences, excusing ourselves as we poked each passing tourist with the handlebars. After walking maybe 50 yards there was room to one side to pull off the path. The construction and the narrowed path went on as far as we could see, so I proposed to B that we turn around while we were still close enough to the rental place and return the bikes now. That way we would have the rest of the afternoon to walk wherever we wanted without having to drag a tandem bicycle with us wherever we went. She agreed, and back we went.

To wrap up: A fun tour, an exhilarating ride across the Brooklyn Bridge, but riding a bike to Battery Park is not the way to go while all that construction is going on, and make sure your bike works before you leave.

Bicycling across the Brooklyn Bridge | 12:04 pm CST
Category: bicycling, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, story time, travel, vacation | Tags:
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Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

image of My Darling B in Brooklyn with PROOF!If you’re ever out this way and you’ve always wanted to do a little sight-seeing in Brooklyn, a good way to do it would be to book a tour with A Slice of Brooklyn. Not only do they make sure you have a lot of fun, they feed you some pretty good pizza, too.

We were about a half-hour early getting to the corner near Union Square where we were supposed to meet the bus on Monday morning, but the storefront across the street had big picture windows filled with crates and bottles of wine, so we wandered over there and looked over the labels, a very agreeable way to pass the time. When it got close to ten-thirty we drifted back across the street where a small crowd was gathering at the corner around a dark-haired young woman who introduced herself later as Paula, our guide.

Paula, it turned out, had a story for everything we saw, a patter that never let up and a delivery that was never boring. After we got on the bus and she did the head count, she explained as we headed toward Brooklyn that we would be crossing the Manhattan Bridge, and if it seemed somehow wrong that we weren’t crossing on the Brooklyn Bridge it was actually very right, because this way we’d get a really great view of the Brooklyn Bridge. She could’ve stopped there and let us think they were doing it all for us, but it turns out there’s a weight restriction on the Brooklyn Bridge, and she got the driver in trouble once for having him cross it. It was a story she couldn’t pass up telling.

Our first stop was the neighborhood under the Manhattan Bridge, called Dumbo by the people who live there – Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. Paula said it used to be old warehouses where artists found cheap loft space and, to keep the hoighty-toity types away, they gave their neighborhood what they thought was a stupid-sounding name. It backfired on them, because apartments there go for millions now that it’s been gentrified. But, there’s a great little park poking out into the East River where you can get an unmissable view of the Manhattan skyline and the Brooklyn Bridge.

Next stop, Grimaldi’s Pizza. We made two stops for pizza on the tour and this was the better of the two; thin-crust margherita pizza and a bottle of root beer to go with it. Paula said it was considered the best place to get coal-fired pizza in all of New York City and that people were often lined up around the block to get in. She had a pretty good story about the original owner selling out to somebody else, then opening a rival pizzeria next door, but I can’t remember it. If you want the details, you’ll have to sign up for the tour and make sure you’re on the bus with Paula.

Then we took a spin through the neighborhoods of Brooklyn. One of the fun things about the tour was the way they played scenes from well-known films like Goodfellas, Saturday Night Fever and Last Exit to Brooklyn as we drove through the city, matching scenes in the movies to landmarks that we were passing at the time. Most were, oddly, movies I’d only ever seen snippets of, never watched from start to finish. It turns out I could make a long To Be Watched list of movies set in Brooklyn.

Coney Island was the final stop before heading back to Manhattan. We didn’t stay long, only ten minutes or so, the only time I was disappointed with the tour.

A Slice of Brooklyn | 6:21 pm CST
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Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

image of B in front of a New York City ramen shopRAMEN! WE FOUND A RAMEN SHOP! JUST LIKE THE ONE IN MISAWA!

Well, except that the guys in the kitchen didn’t all yell “Irasshaimase!” when we walked in the door. Oh, and they didn’t have ebi ramen on the menu. But still! Except for that, it could’ve almost been exactly the same place!

Stepping through the front door of Menkui Tei was deja vu weird. A big, red curtain with “RAMEN” printed in white kana characters hung over the door, and when we opened it and walked in we were overwhelmed by the smell of fresh veggies, pork fat and boiling noodles. *bliss!*

The shop was built long and narrow, more like a wide hallway than a store. The kitchen was built up along the right-hand wall, tables and chairs ran down the left-hand wall, and a counter with low stools was set up between them. We decided not to sit at the counter and went for a table near the back. It was made out of Formica back when every table was made out of Formica, and was worn down to the white where people had been leaning on it.

B ordered her favorite, miso ramen, and I tried the tonkatsu ramen. We also ordered a plate of fried gyoza for old time’s sake, but they were rather disappointingly delivered after the ramen. And the ramen was good, but I have to admit that I’ve been spoiled by the tonkatsu ramen at Umami back in Madison, made with fresh noodles from RP Pasta right down the street, fresh pork from a farmer right outside town, and always served with a soy-infused egg, which I realized too late I’d have to order as an extra at Menkui Tei.

It was very cool finding a ramen shop that did everything but physically take us back to Japan. If we’d ducked in from a snowstorm, and if they’d had ebi ramen on the menu, I don’t think I could find it anywhere in my heart to say it was anything but the most wonderful ramen shop ever. Dammit, Umami, you’ve spoiled me! You’ve spoiled me forever!

ramen in NYC | 6:43 am CST
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Monday, September 3rd, 2012


View Our Epic Journey to the Taste Of Madison! in a larger map

I don’t know if you realize this, but a historic journey of heroic proportions was completed yesterday. I’m talking, of course, about the bike ride My Darling B took with me all the way around Lake Monona. This 12-mile trip is probably longer than she’s ever traveled on her bike in one day. I knew she could do it, but I was still amazed that she not only agreed to it, she also suggested it in the first place!

She surprised the hell out of me last week when she suggested we ride our bikes to the Orton Park festival. That trip was a breeze and she seemed to enjoy the ride quite a lot. So much, apparently, that she suggested, while we were making our plans to visit the Taste Of Madison this weekend, that we ride our bikes in and take a ride all the way around the lake at the same time. I didn’t raise my eyebrows and ask, “Are you sure?” I figured she knew what she was capable of.

The trip up Monona Drive is a good way to start: It’s mostly downhill, except for that one hump in front of the high school. We left the main road after we passed the intersection with Cottage Grove Road, weaving through the back streets of the neighborhood behind Olbrich Park until we met up with the Capitol City Trail and followed it into town. The trail runs along a railroad track so it’s almost flat as a board, a very easy ride, and it goes all the way to the end of Williamson Street.

At that point, though, we had to climb the ridge up to capitol square; not all the way, but about three blocks up King Street where we locked up our bikes to a post across from the Majestic Theater. B was just a teensy bit winded and looking a bit peaked from the steep climb so our first stop was the beer cart that was helpfully parked at the top of King Street. Seven bucks bought us a twenty-ounce cup of ice-cold Capital Amber to refresh us as we made our way around the square.

After sampling some of the foods at the festival, we saddled up and headed back down the hill, much to the delight of My Darling B, and rejoined the bike trail, turning to the south to follow it along John Nolen Drive. The cool breeze blowing off the lake was a blessing and a curse, giving us some relief from the heat but, dammit, it was a headwind, so we had to fight it all the way to Olin-Turville Park. I geared down as far as I could so we could enjoy the view without having to huff and puff all the way around the lake.

After fighting a headwind around the lake we had to run the gauntlet of Waunona Drive, a neighborhood of million-dollar homes along the lakefront and, not incidentally, more than a little hilly. Not terribly steep hills, but a lot of them. It was crank, crank, crank our way to the top of a hill, go “Wheeee!” all the way to the bottom, then crank, crank, crank our way to the top of the next hill again. Waunona Drive is only a mile or two long, but it seems to go on forever.

And the home stretch is a long, steep hill at the top of Bridge Street that I thought My Darling B would have to dismount for, but she stayed in the saddle and climbed it like a trooper. The road levels off at Bridge Road Park, then begins a shallow downhill that we took advantage of, mostly coasting all the way home.

According to The Mighty Google, it’s a 12.3 mile trip. B says she’s sure it’s more like twenty. I have to go with her estimate; she’s usually right.

epic journey! | 8:19 am CST
Category: bicycling, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, travel
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Sunday, August 19th, 2012

image of B&O at Brewer's gameMy Darling B and I took a little trip to Milwaukee yesterday afternoon to see our first Brewer’s game ever, courtesy of the good folks at Hop Head Beer Tours, who provided transportation and plenty of beer, which was not only freshly-brewed in the kettles at the Vintage Brewing Company but was poured by one of the brewers at Vintage! Sweet!

What I know about baseball is limited to a gist. If the guy hits the ball with the bat, he tries to run around the bases. There’s some other stuff that tumbles around in my head like trivia, but that’s about it, really. When other people start talking baseball, they might as well be talking about particle physics. Actually, I may know more about particle physics than baseball, but I don’t find myself in those conversations ever, and Hop Head Beer Tours won’t be tailgating at the next conference of particle physicists, so never mind.

On top of that, we knew that our seats were going to be somewhere between the sky and the clouds, and when we got there we discovered that our section seemed to be where they stuck all the drunk people and loud kids (check out the kid photobombing us in the snapshot). But we’d never been to a Brewer’s game and we’d been to Milwaukee just once before, and we really, really needed to take a day off, get out of Madison and to unwind as much as possible, and this sounded like a great way to do it.

image of Blatz beer signThe tour began at the Vintage brewpub, just off the beltline on the west side of town. I was already in such a relaxed mode that I wasn’t bothered in the least by the guy in the truck behind me who got all bunched up when I wouldn’t turn onto Whitney Way because the traffic light was still red. He honked his horn, he squealed his tires as he weaved around me, and he flipped me off as he left me in a cloud of his dust, but he didn’t push a single one of my buttons. I was in the zone.

We arrived at Vintage about forty minutes before the bus was scheduled to depart. B doesn’t like to be late for events like this, so when she asked, “When do you want to go?” I suggested that twelve-thirty ought to give us more than enough time to get across town, find a parking spot, check in and maybe even relax with a beer, and never feel rushed about it. I did not expect her to believe this would be the case, and she did not fail to meet my expectation. I then revised my suggestion: Noon. She was fully satisfied with that, and we left almost spot-on time. Ten minutes after backing out of the driveway of Our Humble O’Bode, we were exiting the beltway onto Whitney Way. Three minutes to park, five minutes to check in, two minutes to stop and say, “Well, what do you want to do now?” left us forty minutes to spare.

Since we had the time, and the idea had already been broached, we went into Vintage, settled onto a couple of comfortable bar stools and ordered beers to nurse until the bus started loading. I don’t know enough about Vintage to have learned the story about how they gathered up all the beer-themed kitsch from the 60s and 70s they could get their hands on. It’s everywhere, and the furnishings play up the time warp feeling to make the pub a very comfortable place to relax. I felt as though I was in the sort of Wisconsin supper club that my mom and dad used to take us to when we went out to eat dinner with friends.

I wasn’t quite finished with my beer when the bus began to load up, but no worries. We weren’t more than ten or fifteen minutes outside the city limits when Filipe pried the top off the cooler and Jeff, our helpful host from Vintage, began making his way down the aisle pouring samples of the brewery’s beer from a growler under his arm. It takes a lot of skill to pour beer into a teensy-tiny cup while rolling down the highway on a moving bus, and I’m happy to say that Jeff managed to keep all of the beer out of my lap until we were rolling through the streets of Milwaukee, where even a Shaolin monk wouldn’t have had enough self-control to pour beer without spilling.

image of B at Wisconsin Cheese MartOn our arrival in Milwaukee we made a short stop at the Wisconsin Cheese Mart. I’m not sure but I think that every time we’ve gone along on one of the Hop Head Beer Tours they stopped at a cheese store. I’m not sure why. Maybe they just like cheese a whole lot, or maybe they figure that, since we’re in Wisconsin, they should make sure they include cheese as part of the tour. I’m not complaining, and B is not only not complaining, she enjoys it very much. She brought a cooler along on this trip just to keep cheese in, and she filled it up with her favorite hard-to-find cheeses. We almost spent as much on cheese as we did for one of us to go on the tour! The girl does love her cheeses.

image of beer poster at Wisconsin Cheese MartWisconsin Cheese Mart serves beer as well as cheese, but we did not partake. B wanted to spend her time there shopping, and I didn’t want to chug a beer in the short time we had, so I wandered around looking at the architecture and the memorabilia on the walls. The cheese mart was in a gentrified section of Milwaukee where lots of buildings from the 1800s had been restored, and there were lots of photos on the walls depicting the neighborhood as it appeared back in the old days, but one of the most eye-catching, and not incidentally the most relevant mementos was a framed print of what looked like a page out of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel depicting 99 bottles of Wisconsin beers. Almost nobody took any notice of it, but B and I studied the old bottles for a while, and wondered where we could get a copy of it for ourselves. I’m still wondering. I must’ve wasted an hour and a half this morning poking around on the internet trying to find that thing and, although I found a low-rez reproduction of it on the designer’s web site, I can’t find it for sale anywhere! Great. Now I’ll have to make it my life’s purpose to track down that print.

image of tour at Lakefront BreweryOur last stop before the ball game was Lakefront Brewing for a tour, because it’s a Hop Head Beer Tours tour, so they should probably get at least one tour of a brewery into each trip, right? B and I have visited Lakefront once before and it was so much fun that we really didn’t mind going on the tour once again, although our time there did seem a little rushed. If we’d had maybe twenty minutes more to relax and soak up some suds after the tour it would’ve made for a slightly more enjoyable stop. Traffic conspired to make us about fifteen minutes late, though, and had to get to the game early enough to do the tailgating that the Hop Head guys promised us, so we had only enough time to grab some souvenirs before we got back on the bus and headed to Miller Field.

As I said before, I know nothing about baseball, but it seems to me that tailgating is just as important, maybe even more important, as watching the game. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to learn that a lot of people tailgating in the parking lots around the stadium never even enter the stadium to watch the game. In fact, on the way back from the game we passed a group sitting around a radio, listening to the play-by-play with beers in their hands. I didn’t ask, but I’m pretty sure they never got any closer to the game than that.

A very essential part of tailgating appears to be trying to make more noise and/or drink more beer, or both, than the people around you. Several busloads of people had set up high-powered stereo sound systems that blasted rock music loud enough to shatter granite. I swear I could feel the ground shake while I ate my dinner, but maybe that was just the power of suggestion. And they left behind garbage bags full of empty beer cans, but it was all crappy beer so, in the contest to drink more beer, I’m pretty sure we won. I didn’t drink much beer myself, but I’m a firm believer that quality trumps quantity.

We schlepped ourselves over to the stadium after we finished our dinner and slowly made our way up to the nosebleed section. The stadium is a steel and concrete contraption that looks a lot more like a factory or a blimp hangar than a stadium. Yeah, there’s a baseball diamond right in the middle of it, but that sort of looks accidental, or at least it did to me. The arched roof was open to the sky and a cool breeze played across the stands, even in the rarefied air of the stratosphere where we were seated. I kid. I thought we had pretty good seats, really. We weren’t right behind home plate or anything, but I could see everything that was going on, even if I couldn’t understand a lot of it.

Watching the game does not seem to be something that most people go to the park to do, however. There were quite a lot of people around us who didn’t go there to watch the game. The five young ladies in the row right below ours in particular appeared to be doing nothing but updating their Facebook status and texting their friends. The only time they might have noticed there was a baseball game going on was when they took pictures of each other. The stadium and some of the game could possibly have been in the background. I can’t say for certain that they knew it was there, though. so it’s only conjecture that they saw it.

We didn’t stay to the end. We left at the end of the seventh inning because a) the Brewers were losing 4-1, b) the game was boring, and c) I didn’t want to walk back in the middle of a throng of drunken people. B was with me on all three counts. It was a good call: The Brewers couldn’t pull it out at the last minute, so we didn’t miss anything.

Brewers vs Phillies | 4:40 pm CST
Category: beer, daily drivel, entertainment, food & drink, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, travel | Tags: , ,
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Saturday, July 21st, 2012

image of automated musical instrumentsI’ve been to House On The Rock once before we went on our family outing last week with Sean. Many, many moons ago, when I was just a dorky beanpole teenager instead of a dorky beanpole middle-aged guy, my mom and dad stopped there during a family vacation, probably a weekend camping trip, but to be perfectly honest I don’t remember much about it except a calliope that caught my interest and a room chock full of musical instruments that played themselves.

Comes to that, the self-playing musical instruments were just about the single most impressive thing about the House On The Rock that stuck in my memory all these years. I’m a gadget geek by nature, so that stuff was the cat’s ass from the moment I first laid eyes on it, and I was wowed all over again when I saw them this time around. I forgot exactly how many rooms were filled with stringed instruments or brass or woodwinds, each instrument festooned with pneumatically-activated fingers that jumped as they plied the keys. As it turns out, there are dozens of such rooms, each with a different theme: In one room, the violas, cellos and violins rest on the plush cushions of gilded chairs and play waltzes, while in another garishly-painted room, brass instruments blare out marches.

I’m not the only one to get a serious geek-on over this. The band 10,000 Maniacs recorded a music video for their song More Than This at House On The Rock against the backdrop of a room filled with automated strings and horns. The band members wear puppet strings and prosthetics, and turn their heads robotically to suggest that they’re automatons. Very nerdy stuff.

Because I’m such a geek about it, I wanted to find out more about how the automated instruments worked, so I asked The Mighty Google to tell me more and was crushed when I learned from Wikipedia that a lot of the instruments don’t really play themselves. Wait, what? According to a book by Doug Moe, a journalist who writes for Madison news media, a lot of the instruments only jerk back and forth while the sound comes from organ pipes. I have never been more disappointed. Seriously. The combined disillusionment I felt when I learned that the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny, Santa Claus and Batman were all just figments of the imagination did not let me down more than this.

image of doll house at House On The RockAs long as I’m sinking into the depths of disillusionment, here’s another thing I didn’t remember very clearly about The House On The Rock: In my dim memory, it was a place filled with a vast, wonderful collection of various and sundry trinkets and mementos gathered from around the world and assembled into an almost Smithsonian display of Americana.

It’s vast. I recalled that correctly. And there is some eye-popping stuff, but I wouldn’t call it exactly Smithsonian. I don’t think the Smithsonian would display a fiberglass whale that’s twice as big as any living whale and has shark’s teeth as big as tombstones. And I think the Smithsonian has doll houses, but not like House On The Rock. House On The Rock has doll houses like a mutt has fleas. They’ve hoarded what has got to be the largest number of dolls and doll houses amassed anywhere in the nation. If the powers that be added one more doll house to the massivity of their hoard, I’m pretty sure it would collapse into a black hole, it’s that impressively large. I wouldn’t call it a collection, though. A collection would be a thoughtful representation of doll houses displayed in a way that you could make sense out of. Their doll houses are piled up almost on top of one another in great big heaps, like old newspapers in a garage. Might be fun to look at a couple, but open up every one to see what’s in it? Nah.

Just one other thing I didn’t recall correctly, and then I’m done: I think the displayed mountains of stuff were meant to evoke a kind of wonder at how much there was, or how wildly crazy it was, or something big and fun, but it wasn’t what I would call wonderful, exactly. Maybe calling it a walk through someone’s nightmarish fever dream is too harsh, but it came awfully close to that. Almost every room was so badly lit that I staggered in and out of darkness, bumping into blind corners, and what lights there were seemed to highlight each display in ways that were straight out of a gotcha scene in a slasher movie. I often felt a little disoriented and often even repulsed by the strangely twisted sculptures that jumped out of the shadows at me. Nothing, for instance, could have prepared me for the sight of a hundred department store mannequins converted into angels by the addition of twelve-foot wings and gauzy toga-like garments so ill-fitting that about a dozen of them were flashing their nipples at us. Really? Nipples? They thought it was necessary to take the time to paint nipples on the mannequin angels? Wow.

image of nippled angels at House On The Rock

stoned2 | 1:52 pm CST
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Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

We went to Denver to visit Sean and visit our old, favorite haunts. What we ended up doing was eating almost non-stop. At least it felt that way, even though we ate just two meals each day. For all practical purposes there is an infinite number of restaurants and other places to eat in and around Denver, and at virtually every one of them they leave you with an indecently large serving and wait for you to eat every bite of it.

On Friday morning we stopped in at Sam’s No. 3 for breakfast. This is Sean’s favorite place to eat out, he says, because each serving is enough to feed Coxey’s Army and, on those rare occasions when he can’t finish his order, he takes the rest home and polishes it off later as a midnight snack. We had no fridge in our room so that wasn’t an option for us and, as a resut, I had to leave behind more than half the stack of pancakes I ordered. My Darling B ordered biscuits & gravy and also had to leave at least half of it behind. Sean ordered some kind of sausage & egg dish and managed to drill all the way down to the plate but, even so, even he had to leave behind some of his dish. If I had the time, I’d like to go back one morning, watch the customers to see who orders the pancakes and see if any of them can polish off all three. They weren’t literally the size of manhole covers, but they weren’t much smaller. Who eats that much for breakfast? Who even has that much room anywhere inside their bodies? It’s a question that I won’t be able to answer until later, sorry.

We had dinner on Friday at The Wynkoop Brewery. This was one of our very favorite places to eat back when we lived here. We loved it so much that we ate our final meal in Denver there on the night we left, so it was truly enjoyable to go back and revisit it.

On our second day in town we brunched at Le Central where they serve meals in the French tradition, which does not mean that the wait staff is a gaggle of French-speaking gastrosnots who tolerate your presence only because they don’t have anything else to do. The staff, in fact, were warm and chatty and just attentive enough to make sure your water glass never went dry (our barometer for good service). I asked for “Oeufs Norvegiennes,” but in English so I wouldn’t swallow my tongue. “I’ll have the salmon and eggs,” is what I said, to which the waitress replied, “Oofs Norwegian, very good.” If I’d known I could have gotten away with saying “Oofs Norwegian,” I would have happily said that.

Sunday morning we met some old friends at Hot Cakes Diner where we mostly drank from our bottomless cups of coffee (we had a very good waitress) while we exchanged stories and, from time to time, looked over the menu. Eventually we each ordered a plate of food so they would let us stay longer. They brought two plates of food out to me, each piled with an insanely large portion. By this time I was pretty sure every restaurant in Denver was trying to kill me.

The best place we visited for any meal, and I think I speak for all of us on this one, was Domo, a Japanese restaurant just outside the downtown area. Not only did they have the most delicious, most authentic Japanese food we’ve eaten since we left Japan six years ago, they also had the most eye-popping ambiance I’ve ever seen in a restaurant. Inside and out, the building was dressed up to look like a traditional Japanese country house, and it was so authentically done that you might almost believe it was built from scratch using rough-hewn lumber and hand tools. Although I couldn’t say where they sourced the ingredients, the food appeared to be truly authentic. My Darling B ordered ramen; Sean had the donburi; and I ordered salmon teriyaki. As in every other place we visited, we were stuffed silly by the time we left and had to take a long walk after we got back to the hotel.

Eating in Denver | 6:57 am CST
Category: daily drivel, entertainment, food & drink, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, restaurants, Seanster, travel, vacation | Tags:
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Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

We wanted to take a look around the old neighborhood, so Sean drove us to Aurora on Monday. After he parked out front of Lansing Middle School, we walked up and down the block, amazed at how little it had changed. It looked exactly the way it had back in the 90s, which was exactly the same way it looked in the 60s. Very comforting. Then we walked two blocks over and one block up to the cul de sac on Moline where we used to live and got our minds blown.

The old house did not look so hot, even from a distance. The guy we sold it to was a handyman with all kinds of plans to fix it up and he’d obviously done some of that, but in the time since he sold it, the next owner had let it go downhill fast. Water melting from the snow on the roof was dribbling from the corners of the gutters where the downspouts were supposed to be, but weren’t any more. The trim around the edge of the roof was falling off, rotten or the paint was peeling – all three, in some places. The roof itself hadn’t been replaced, and it was old when we bought the house twelve years ago, so it was looking pretty gnarly. I almost didn’t want to get any closer than the sidewalk but, like a train wreck, I felt compelled to take a good, long look.

I tried to peek in the windows but couldn’t really seen anything no matter how flat I plastered my big schnozz against the glass. There were some cutsie-pie white shutters in the living room window, blocking a clear view. The bedroom windows were too high, even for me, and nobody volunteered to give me a boost, so we moved around to the side where we found the gate into the back yard. It was open and, while we were wondering how much trouble we could get into if we went poking around back there, the neighbor pulled up in the driveway.

It turned out she was the daughter of the older couple who used to live there back when we were still living in the neighborhood. She gave us the short version of the house’s history since we’d left and said that it’s been on the market for quite a while. The agent was only asking $119,000 for it – same amount we paid for it back in 1997.

From the back yard we could see into quite a few windows. The kitchen was a godawful mess. Someone had put down gray linoleum floor tiles and over the years the corners had turned up. It looked like the floor was covered in a caked-on layer of gray muck that cracked into pieces under a blazing desert sun. The walls were patched in places but the patches weren’t painted, leaving white squares and blotches of raw spackle everywhere. And the bastards yanked out the intercom system! The kitchen used to be home to a genuine 1960s-era Nutone intercom base station that still worked when we lived there. Nothing left but a spackle square now. It had a radio built into it and I used it to pipe music from Boulder radio station KBCO to every room in the house while we were painting. Big hit that summer: “The Old Apartment” by Barenaked Ladies.

The view from the dining room was even more heartbreaking. The finish on the hardwood floors was worn completely away and the wood had gone gray. More spackle on the walls. Trim broken. Fixing up the place would take a ton of money. The kitchen alone would probably cost twenty thousand, or whatever amount you would need to completely gut it and start over. Too bad. It was such a nice house.

We got away from there and back toward town. I wanted to say hi to the T. Rex skeleton in the lobby of the Natural History Museum. The first time we went there, I put Sean up on my shoulders to get a good look at the T. Rex. He was so ga-ga for dinosaurs at that age, I knew he was totally geeking out about it. “I’ll bet you could touch him,” I suggested, so he did, only he wasn’t satisfied with only touching. He grabbed, and that skeleton isn’t as solid as it looks. The steel frame it’s mounted on is flexible, so the whole thing swayed back and forth when Sean let go, and I thought, Oh, Holy Shit! We broke the T. Rex! But we didn’t, it just shook for a while, then stopped.

The T. Rex is still there. I didn’t put Sean up on my shoulders to touch it this time.

memreeeeez | 6:21 am CST
Category: daily drivel, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, Seanster, travel, vacation | Tags:
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Saturday, October 29th, 2011

I went to visit Caboose Hobbies this afternoon while My Darling B joined The Seansterator in the Occupy Denver march through the downtown area. We split up for two reasons: One of us should have remained “on the outside” in the event, however unlikely, that it would become necessary to post bail and arrange for legal representation. Also, I really wanted to walk amongst the toy choo-choos once again.

A visit to Caboose Hobbies was one of my favorite ways to spend a Saturday morning back when we used to live in Aurora. Even if I didn’t buy anything, I still had so much fun wandering through the aisles of what is still the biggest model train store I’ve ever been in, and I’ve been in a lot of model train stores. Now that the hobby is mostly served by on-line sales, stores of any size are not at all common, but Caboose is still there, thank dog. I spent a happy ninety minutes poking at boxes, flipping through magazines and books, and making a long mental list of all the cars, engines and other neat-o stuff to search e-bay for after I got back home.

Then I rode the light rail back into town. Not only does Denver have the biggest, coolest toy train store in North America, the store is just a few blocks up the street from a station on the light rail line that goes right through the city center. I could hop on the train and be back at our hotel in about twenty minutes. I could have done that, if I had known enough to change trains at the Osage stop, but I didn’t, so I ended up at Union Station. No problem, I thought to myself, I’ll hop on the free shuttle that runs through town, a work-around that would have worked if the Occupy Denver protest march hadn’t disrupted all bus service in the downtown area. Small world.

occupied | 3:26 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, hobby, LoCo Rwy, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, Seanster, travel, vacation | Tags:
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Thursday, July 28th, 2011

I woke up with a need for pancakes yesterday morning. A need, as in, I had to have pancakes as much as I needed to breathe in and out. Has that ever happened to you? I don’t get that feeling often, but when it hits me I put on some pants, grab the car keys and head for the door. Like a robot homing in on a signal from its maker, I don’t have the power to resist the call.

I mentioned my desire to My Darling B, who suggested we go into Waupaca to eat a late breakfast at Cronie’s Cafe, our favorite place in town to grab a bite. It’s a small place, wedged in between Simpson’s and the Rosa Theater – only a counter, maybe a half-dozen booths along the walls and four or five tables in the front window, very cozy. If there’s a better place in town to linger over a cup of coffee, I can’t think of it. That they serve up a dandy plate of pancakes is a bonus.

It was still early enough in the morning that the rest of the crew hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, so I passed the word around and soon enough we were all climbing into our respective cars to start the drive into town. We met Mom there shortly after we arrived, managed to talk the staff into butting two tables together so we wouldn’t have to split up into two booths, ordered our pancakes, sat back with our coffee and waited for the goodies to arrive.

I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before I suggested that the whole crew head into cozy little Cronie’s for breakfast, but it’s a fact they’re not IHOP. A very happy fact, but a hard fact nonetheless. Other than that they serve breakfast, the only way you would compare the two would be to say that Cronie’s is the furthest thing from a fast-food breakfast chain with a kitchen that can turn out eleventy-million pancakes a day. Cronie’s is the anti-IHOP. So it took them a little while to crank out pancakes for eight people, but they did it like champs.

I ordered just two pancakes in spite of my burning need, because I knew the master of the kitchen poured pancakes bigger than my head. To get us our food as soon as possible they brought me and everyone else who ordered pancakes just one cake as a first course. I was finishing up mine when they brought me the second course, and I was starting to feel as though maybe my eyes were bigger than my stomach by then but I tucked into it anyway and finished every bite. Just one person at our table dared to order a stack of three pancakes. He buzzed through the first one like a pack of ravenous wolves and attacked the second and third with conviction, but in the end he was forces to leave the last few bites on his plate. All our sufficiencies were well and truly serensified by the time we got up from the table to return to the cabin.

hotcakes | 8:09 am CST
Category: daily drivel, food & drink, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, restaurants, travel, vacation | Tags: ,
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Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

On my emergency trip across the Atlantic during the Thanksgiving weekend I’d had to suffer two broken ATMs to make sure I had no money in my pocket, a lack of places to eat in O’Hare airport except for a tavern serving cold sandwiches, a seat with no floor space next to a guy who liked to talk with his elbows (and it was a pretty boring conversation; all he could say was, “Back off!”); a minor malfunction of the airplane’s control systems requiring a special procedure that was in no way an emergency even though the flight controllers at Heathrow cleared all the other planes from our flight path and reserved an entire runway for us to set down on, and finally an uncomfortable moment at the customs gate as I tried to explain why I had left the country and was trying to get back in without proper leave papers.

But all that was over. At long last, I was back. There was no more welcome sight I could imagine than My Darling B’s glowing face at the baggage claim. After all the weirdness I’d been through, I didn’t even care if my bags showed up on the carousel or not. B greeted me with hugs and kisses and other happiness, then listened as I told her about the non-emergency that delayed our flight while we waited for my suitcases to be vomited up by the stainless steel baggage mangler. We scooped them up the moment they appeared and bolted for the door. The claim area was surprisingly close to the parking garage and B had even managed to snag a spot on the bottom floor. And luckily for me, she agreed to take the wheel for the first leg of the drive out from London. My brains were still woolly from jet lag and sleep deprivation. I never could manage to sleep on a plane, only jerk and snort through periodic dozing that’s a lot of fun to watch when other people do it, but agony when it’s happening to me.

Dusk was falling as we left Heathrow but the airport, urban London and the six-lane M25 motorway were all brightly lit by a tall picket line of sodium lights bathing everything on the road in sepia tones. We turned off the M25 to the M1 and followed it north until we hooked up with the A1, also a well-lit highway. It probably wasn’t until we were in the neighborhood of Alconbury, were we knew the back roads well enough to make a few short cuts along country roads, that I noticed how difficult it became to see the road when B dimmed the headlights.

“Does it look to you as if one of the headlights could be burned out?” I tentatively asked B.

She flicked the lights from bright to dim a couple times. The high beams were fine, but when she switched back and forth it became obvious that the low beam on the driver’s side was out. That whole side of the road disappeared from view each time she flicked the switch.

“How about that?” B said, not at all as amazed as I was that another mechanical gremlin was messing around with me. “It worked fine yesterday.”

And the little bugger was just getting started. As B steered the car through a roundabout, she ran over something in the road. The sharp turn around the island, together with the blind spot she had to deal with while she used the low beam through the busy intersection, made it impossible for her to see whatever the piece of discarded junk was until she was almost on top of it, way too late to avoid it. She swerved in the hopes of maybe straddling it, but a telltale bump-clunk under the car announced she hadn’t quite managed a clean miss.

Right after that, our engine exploded, or sounded like it, anyway. If you’ve never heard a car that’s lost its muffler, that’s exactly what it sounds like. My Darling B looked at me with terror in her eyes. I looked right back at her with “I can’t believe this is happening to me” in my eyes. The roar was so deafening that I leaned over to make sure B would hear me when I shouted, “We lost the muffler!”

“Should we stop?” she shouted back.

“There’s nothing we can do about it,” I answered. “Keep on going!” She didn’t appear to be very happy with that answer, but there really wasn’t anything we could do about it. There was no chance we would find a garage anywhere along our route that would be open at such a late hour, and I would never have dreamed of attempting a roadside repair, which would have required lying on my back in the gravel while trying to fit together the hot exhaust pipes by touch as cars and trucks roared past us on the highway. The only thing to do was grin and bear it, which wasn’t too difficult for me at that point. All I wanted was to get home, pop open a beer, slouch back in a chair and flip the bird at the angry gods when this trip was finally over. No way the gods were going to let me off that easy.

On a stretch of back road that was just a half-hour’s drive from our house we came to a full stop behind a queue of three or four cars waiting at a signal light. Just beyond the light the opposite lane ended and an impressively deep trench took its place, snaking out of sight around a sharp corner. Road crews often dug up stretches of country roads this way and, when they knocked off at the end of the day, they left automatic signal lights standing sentinel over the yawning holes. The light would change in a few minutes and we’d be on our way.

B glanced into her rear-view mirror as a car slowed to a stop behind us, and again as the headlights of the next approaching car appeared in the distance. She didn’t look away from him, though, because he didn’t slow down at all until he was way too close to stop safely. I missed all of this, of course, and she had no time to warn me except to say, “Oh, shit,” as she fumbled for the gearshift.

I perked up. “What?”

She turned around just in time to see the oncoming car swerve into the open lane, the one that was dug up, trying to avoid the line of cars we were in. When he saw the yawning hole ahead of him he swerved back again, and somehow he missed us. The car that had stopped in line behind us left just enough room for his car to slip between our bumpers and, against all odds, he did exactly that. Not only did he manage to not hit us, his car didn’t even give our car a peck on the cheek as it went by, and to make it even more jaw-droppingly amazing, he even missed the car behind us. If you had seen it in a movie, you wouldn’t have believed it.

After making sure that Barb was all right I jumped out to see if I could help. So did almost everybody else waiting in line, and we all stared open-mouthed along the side of the road as the driver climbed out through the window of his overturned car, stood beside it for a moment with his hands on his hips, and looked over the situation wearing an expression that said, “Well, dammit! Now how am I going to get home?” Then he dug his cell phone out of his pocket, dialed a number, and held the phone to his ear as he climbed up the side of the ditch to get to the road.

Our small crowd gathered around, repeatedly asking if he he was okay and watching him to see if he would collapse in a heap, felled by an aortic aneurysm or, at the very lease, nervous exhaustion. He seemed a little shaken but there wasn’t a cut or bruise visible anywhere on him. In between dialing numbers on his cell phone he kept assuring us he was all right, and eventually the crowd broke up and drifted away when it became apparent he wasn’t going to topple over and die.

His cell phone appeared to be giving him quite a bit of trouble, though. “The battery’s going,” he said to no one in particular, sounding a bit lost.

B had joined us in the road by this time. “Here, use mine,” she said, digging her phone out of her purse.

“It’s a long-distance call,” he apologized.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, then turned and held the car keys out to me. She was looking a lot more shaken than he was. “Would you mind driving home from here?” she asked.

We waited by the side of the road for the driver’s friend to pick him up, making small talk as he chain-smoked. When his friend arrived he thanked us again for the use of our cell phone, then we climbed into our respective cars and drove off, his friend’s car purring quietly, ours rumbling like a dragster. We were less than a thirty-minute drive from home at that point and there was no chance I would fall asleep. I wasn’t even worried about jinxing myself by saying that aloud. At that point, so many other shoes had been dropped that the most outrageous thing I could think of that could have happened to us was, we would get home without another incident. And as crazy as it sounds, that’s just what happened.

heading home #3 | 2:15 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, My Darling B, My Glorious Air Force Career, O'Folks, story time, travel, work | Tags:
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Saturday, May 21st, 2011

A transatlantic flight in coach class has to be one of the most miserable ways to travel even under the best of circumstances. I count myself as damn lucky when I can wangle a seat on the aisle so I can hang over the edge a little bit to get some breathing room, and the few times I’ve been given the option of a seat at the very front of the coach section where my knees weren’t pressed against the back of a seat in front of mine, I’ve been as close to happy as I could ever hope to be on a commercial airliner.

But on this particular flight I didn’t find myself in either of those circumstances. I was stuck in the tail of the plane with Mister Pushy McElbows in the aisle seat making sure I stayed plastered up against the inner wall of the fuselage, which curved far enough into the cabin that it ate up most of the floor space under my seat, forcing me to sit crosslegged like a pretzel for twelve hours. I wouldn’t claim it was the very worst of circumstances – certainly somebody out there can come up with a story of a trip that was worse – but I will go so far as to claim that, when the engines began to wind down and my ears clogged up, signaling our descent as we crossed over the coast of the United Kingdom, I heaved a sigh of relief strong enough to muss the hair of people sitting in the first row.

Then the public address system switched on with a hollow pop and the captain made his “Welcome to England” announcement, with a few added comments that made my relief so short-lived it was over before I could finish that sigh.

“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please, ” he said. “As we begin our descent over the Welsh countryside, I’d like to take ten minutes of your time to inform you of a few special procedures we’ll be using for today’s landing at Heathrow.”

Special procedures? Yes, do go on, please.

“But before I say any more, I want you to know that we are not using these special procedures because of a state of emergency,” he continued, very casually, no emphasis at all on any word. It was almost as if he meant to imply that what he wanted to tell us was all in the way of making time-filling conversation, the way he would if he were pointing out a landmark we happened to be passing: “And if you can look out the left side of the plane you’ll see the Tower Bridge,” or somesuch. Instead, he was talking about special procedures and how they very definitely did not have anything to do with an emergency, or were unusual in any way at all, even though the fact that he even mentioned them was really pretty unusual.

“Shortly after we departed Chicago,” he went on, slowly, casually, “we detected a leak in one of the hydraulic systems. After an exhaustive analysis of the situation we were able to determine that, because the loss of fluid didn’t affect our ability to control plane, we could safely continue our journey.”

Oh. We sprang a leak. In the hydraulic system. But it was a small leak. So tiny that the flight crew, all experienced professionals with thousands of hours of flying time between them, and keenly aware that the lives of three hundred passengers were in their hands, found after reviewing the data that the leak was so insignificant as to make turning back unnecessary. Surely that’s what the captain was saying.

“The leak occurred in the hydraulic system that raises and lowers the main landing gear,” he went on, “and even though all the hydraulic fluid has been drained from the system, we will still be able to extend our landing gear by simply opening the doors that hold them in. The wheels will drop out under their own weight, and we’ll make sure they’re locked into place by rocking the wings just a bit. I’ll try to keep it to a gentle roll.”

Wait – all the hydraulic fluid leaked out? All of it? And the work-around for a jet that pees away all its hydraulic fluid is to let the landing gear fall out of the fuselage and trust that everything will get stuck in the down position? That works? Really?

But wait! There’s more! “The affected hydraulic system is also used to extend the flaps,” the captain went on, “but each one of them has an electric motor, to be used in situations just like this. The electric motors can only extend the flaps, though. After we put them down, we’ll be committed to making a landing because we can’t fly a circle around the airport with the flaps extended. So, to make sure we can land on the very first try, the flight controllers at Heathrow have closed a runway to every approaching plane but ours, and they’ve cleared all traffic from the air corridor we’re going to use on our approach to land.”

Like getting a pass to use the HOV lane on the highway through Chicago, we would have nobody in our way until we got to Heathrow! The pilot would take us straight in and ease us down to a smooth landing. It was almost enough to convince me that, for a no-fuss landing, losing all the hydraulic fluid was the best thing that could have happened to us.

There was just one more thing:

“The loss of this hydraulic system also affected our ability to steer the nose wheel and apply the brakes. After we touch down, we’ll keep on rolling straight ahead until we lose all our momentum and come to a stop, probably somewhere near the end of the runway. It’s miles long, so we’re in no danger of running off the end. A tug will be waiting there to tow us to the terminal.”

This far down the laundry list of broken things on our jumbo jet, adding “no steering” and “no brakes” didn’t make enough of a difference to worry me much.

The wheels came down with the usual bump-clunk and, just as he promised, the pilot did a slow, lazy wing-waggle, rolling the plane first to one side, then to the other. He must have been satisfied that the wheels were locked in place because he flew rock steady and straight as an arrow for miles and miles after that. There was no turbulence that I remember. I could hardly tell we were descending until the flaps whined down into place, causing the plane to nose over a bit.

Touchdown was smooth as silk. The plane’s wheels kissed the concrete so gently and with the tiniest of squeeks that I wasn’t sure when it had happened or even that we were on the ground until the rumble of the tires along the runway confirmed it. And, even after the thrust reversers kicked in, the plane didn’t go through the usual buck and weave it would have if he’d been able to jam on the brakes because, hey, no brakes!

After a long roll-out we came to a gentle stop near the end of the runway, where we added one more glitch to our list: The tug waiting for us had the wrong kind of hitch to pull our particular model 747. We had to hang out there for half an hour or so while a replacement tug was called up and it raced out to drag us off the runway. By that time it was too late to take our plane to its assigned gate. We’d lost our turn and had to be towed to a parking spot far off in a corner of the airfield where we were transferred to buses that converged on our plane to ferry us to the terminal.

They were the kind of buses that rose up on stilts and kissed the door of the plane so we could walk aboard. Each one was standing room only; there were no seats, only those floor-to-ceiling stainless steel poles you find on subway trains. I thought it would be a fairly short trip to the terminal – I could see it out the window – and yet somehow the ride went on forever. Honestly, I can’t remember that I’ve ever been on a bus ride between two places I could always see that lasted so long. And it wasn’t like the driver was taking his time, either. As he ducked through one darkened tunnel after another, arched over bridges and jackknifed around hairpin corners, he seemed to be living a roller-coaster fantasy. When we finally made it to the terminal I noticed I wasn’t the only one in hurry to get out the doors as soon as they opened.

We stepped off the bus into a high-ceilinged waiting area roughly as big as an elementary school gym. A row of chest-high desks, each with a uniformed customs official standing behind it, made a barrier along the far wall between me and the exit. Behind me, passengers were arriving in waves as one bus after another came to the door. And somewhere in Heathrow airport my darling wife was waiting for me – and had been waiting for hours longer than she expected to be.

I could only guess that she had been watching the arrivals board the whole time, only to see my arrival time delayed again and again, but I would have laid odds she would not have known anything about the reasons for my delay. It didn’t seem like the kind of thing they would announce to the crowds waiting to get aboard their long-distance flights. So she would have been sitting there, waiting, checking, sitting some more, checking again, waiting still longer, and on and on ad nauseum. There is no way to sit in an airport doing nothing for hours without getting tired, then desperately bored and finally cranky enough to want to kill somebody. And I would likely be the first person she spoke to.

It seemed vitally important that I call her right away to tell her what happened, to let her know I was off the plane and headed her way, and to arrange for a place to meet. As soon as I stepped off the bus into the customs area I headed straight for a payphone, dialed her number, then stood there counting the people who got off each bus as they came to the door. And holy cheese, there were a lot of people getting off thoses buses! How many people were on that plane, anyway?

Thankfully, she answered my call after just a couple rings. “Where are you?” she asked as soon as I said hi.

“Customs,” I told her, and gave her the short version of the leak and the landing and the wait and the roller coaster ride. “I’ve got to get in line before another bus pulls up,” I warned her, watching the stream of passengers queueing up to have their passports inspected and stamped. After we arranged a place to meet and a hurried good-bye, I sprinted away from the payphone to begin the hour-long snake-dance through the maze of ropes in the center of the room until I finally stood at the front of the line for the next uniformed officer who waved at me.

“Welcome to the U.K.,” he greeted me brightly. “Passport, please?” I slipped it across the desk. “Thank you. You’re on active duty?” he asked, when he saw my military ID sticking out of the centerfold.

“That’s right,” I nodded.

“May I see a copy of your orders, please?” he asked, and I slipped him a copy of my permanent party orders, but when he saw that the date of my assignment was months ago he asked, “You’re on leave, then?”

“Emergency leave, yes.”

“May I see your leave papers?”

“I don’t actually have any leave papers,” I confessed, and quickly tap-danced my way through the tune of trying to arrange emergency leave right before a significant American holiday that most British had never heard of. He seemed to understand my predicament but was unsure what do do about my lack of documentation and called his supervisor over so I could do my tap dance again for him, too. Then they had a short conference in hushed tones during which I tried not to look nervous at all about the fact that they still had my passport, ID and papers and I had no excuse at all for being out of the country without leave papers, other than an airman in the orderly room whose name I couldn’t remember said it would be okay. If I’d been in their shoes, I’m not sure I would have let me in, but for whatever reason they decided I was worth the risk, stamped my passport and sent me on my way.

heading home #2 | 10:29 pm CST
Category: My Darling B, My Glorious Air Force Career, O'Folks, story time, travel, work | Tags:
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Thursday, May 19th, 2011

The longest journey ever made in the history of humankind was a trip I took from the small town in Wisconsin where my mother lived to the small town in England where I lived with my family. It wasn’t the longest trip if it were measured in ordinary miles or hours, as most normal trips would be, but I don’t take “normal” trips and have consequently never been able to measure trips that way. For longer than I care to remember, I’ve measured trips using a Bizzare-O-Tron, a clever device of my own invention that registers every coincidence, catastrophe and just plain weird occurrence and calculates a Weirdness Rating between one and eleven. The Bizarre-O-Tron doesn’t have a zero, because that would imply I could take a trip on which nothing untoward would occur, and that simply never happens, so I didn’t even bother with zero. And the meter doesn’t stop at ten because there will, someday, be trip that will bury the needle, and I want to be ready for it. This particular trip came so very close. It could have been weirder only if Steve Martin and John Candy were in every scene.

It started with the timing: Just before the Thanksgiving Day weekend I found out my grandfather had passed away, so I calling around to see what I would have to do to take a few days’ leave to attend the funeral. I was an enlisted man in the Air Force at the time, and under normal circumstances I would report to the orderly room to see the first sergeant, who would give the thumbs-up to the commander, who would sign my leave papers and I’d be on my way. The post I was stationed at, though, was a very small unit, just ten or twelve guys maintaining some equipment out in the boonies. I had to drive an hour and a half just to visit the orderly room to get the ball rolling. This being the Thanksgiving weekend, the orderly room was virtually deserted when I got there. I found one lone airman to help process my papers, and there was no commander, or anybody with any rank at all, to sign them.

“Leave these with me,” the airman said nonchalantly, gathering up the leave forms. “I’ll get the commander to sign them as soon as he comes back, and I’ll forward a copy to you.”

That right there bumped the Bizarre-O-Tron up a notch, which was a faulty reading, now that I think about it. Coiled, robotic arms should have come shooting out both sides and an alarmed voice shouting, “Warning! Warning” was supposed to make me back away and think long and hard about the trapdoor I was about to fall through, but I wasn’t hit by the full impact of this weirdness until later. I guess I was in too much of a hurry. Instead, I only asked, “How am I supposed to travel without leave papers?”

“Just show them your ID when you get back,” he said. “As long as you’re permanent party there’ll be no problem.”

He meant that, because I was stationed in the U.K. the customs agent would let me just waltz in and out of the country by showing him my military ID card, and for some reason I bought that, even though I’d never done it that way before. It seems like such an obvious red flag now, but as I said, I was in a hurry and there was still a lot I had to do.

The trip to the States was mostly benign, probably because of the Thanksgiving weekend rush. My Darling B drove me to Heathrow where I boarded a jumbo jet for a transatlanic flight that went by in a blur. Everybody from the ground up worked feverishly to get passengers through the gate, loaded on to the plane, unloaded and back out the gate. Time passed in the usual mind-numbing way.

The details of the trip back, though – those are burned into my memory forever. For starters, by the time I got through security and into the terminal it was way past supper time and my stomach was growling. With a few hours to go before my flight started boarding, I figured I’d grab a bite in one of the many restaurants in the terminal, but first I had to find an ATM so I could reload my wallet with a few twenties. The first machine I found was broken; probably still reeling from the assault of hundreds of holiday travelers. No problem, I was in O’Hare airport, the largest, sprawlingest airport in the midwest. I should be able to find another machine in no time, right? But no. No matter how many times I walked the length of the terminal, I could find only one other ATM, and it was out of cash. Two machines in a terminal big enough to be its own country. Who thought that was a good idea?

By scrounging through every pocket in my jacket and carry-on bag, I managed to put together just enough loose change to buy a sandwich at one of the few taverns still open. That was another peg up on the Bizzarre-O-Tron. On the one holiday that’s legendary for the huge number of travelers jetting from Atlantic to Pacific and back, in an airport terminal where most of those travelers will find themselves waiting for many, many hours for a connecting flight, there were no restaurants open for dinner, just a couple taverns serving hot sandwiches and other bar food. I guess all the waiters went home for Thanksgiving, too.

My flight went non-stop from Chicago to London Heathrow, a leg that typically lasts a numbingly long twelve hours, so I usually try to snag an aisle seat or, better yet, a place by the bulkhead where I can stretch my legs. No such luck on this trip, though. I got herded so far back into the tail of the plane that the seat they shoehorned me into didn’t have a floor under it. The inner wall of the fuselage curled in under my feet. Honestly. There was just enough room for me to plant my right foot flat on a sliver of level carpeting, but my left foot had to either ride on the curve of the wall, or I could cross it over my knee. Or, I guess, I could have asked the steward to lend me a steak knife from the galley, sawed my left leg off, and stuffed it into the overhead bin. Would’ve been about as comfortable as the other two options.

But the crazy geometry of the seating arrangement became even more awkward when Mister Passive-Aggressive plunked himself in the aisle seat next to me. If you’ve ever flown coach, or ridden a Greyhound bus, you’ve sat beside this guy. Before we even pulled back from the gate he staked his claim on what he thought was his personal space by digging an issue of the Wall Street Journal out of his bag and holding it wide open in front of him, elbows out. There was no doubt in my mind that he stopped at a newsstand in the terminal just before he boarded the plane just so he could buy the biggest newspaper in the pile for this very purpose.

Supper time was more of the same: Fork in one hand, knife in the other, elbows out. When he started sawing pieces off his beef cutlet his arms flapped like a Canadian goose trying to get enough lift for takeoff. And when he wasn’t eating or reading, he had his laptop out and was pounding on the keys with the ferocity of a blacksmith forging a weapon of war. The only notice he took of me from the beginning to the end of the flight was to mutter “Excuse me” each time his elbow jabbed me in the ribs to remind me he was still there.

To this day, that one leg of the trip ranks as the longest transatlantic flight of my life.

heading home #1 | 8:37 am CST
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career, story time, travel, work | Tags:
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Saturday, April 16th, 2011

I drove a little Datsun coupe while I was stationed in the United Kingdom. I didn’t intend to get a car but, when I got the chance to move out of the dorms after living there a year I took it, and I would have to buy a car to commute. Riding the bus wasn’t an option; the base was way out in the countryside and the bus ran by it infrequently. So I found my little Datsun at a garage just down the road and paid about $750 for it.

They say you get what you pay for, but that little Datsun was worth way more than $750. I drove it all over England, and the guy I sold it to drove it even more. It never gave me any trouble at all, except for one night on the commute either to or from work, I’m not sure. It was late at night, that I can remember for sure. I was tooling down the road at fifty or sixty miles per, and even with loud music coming out of the cassette player I heard a bang! under the hood. That, and the fact that every warning light on the dashboard lit up made me quickly take the car out of gear and coast to a stop alongside the road. I even managed to make it as far as the intersection with a side road so I could pull off the main road a bit.

When the car came to a stop, smoke came billowing out from under the hood and around the fenders, not a good sign at all. I jumped out and waited a minute or two for the car to burst into flame, but when it didn’t I walked slowly around the front and popped the hood. The smoke turned out to be steam hissing from gashes slashed into the back of the radiator when the fan blades cut into it. When I had more light in the morning I could see that a bearing in the water pump had failed spectacularly, giving the fan enough of a wobble that the ends of the blades could chomp pieces out of the radiator big enough to spray coolant all over the engine block.

I couldn’t drive it without any coolant in the engine, so I had to either call a tow truck to have it taken back to a garage, or try to fix it myself by the side of the road. It seems outrageous to me now that I decided to fix it myself. I had a simple tool kit in the car and a bare minimum of experience fixing cars. At one point, after unbolting the water pump from the engine, I resorted to whacking it with a brick I found by the side of the road when it wouldn’t come unstuck any other way. My tool kit didn’t include a hammer, for some reason. I guess I didn’t think I’d be needing a hammer to work on a car. Why would I, right? Well, here’s why.

I bought a new water pump in town because I had to, but I found a garage that would patch up the radiator on the cheap, a stroke of luck except when I went back to pick it up it no longer had a radiator cap. Jumping off the bus at the edge of town, I walked through the front door of the auto parts store with a radiator under one arm. When the guy behind the counter looked up at me and asked, “How can I help you?” I couldn’t stop myself from holding up the radiator and asking, “Have you got a Datsun that would fit this radiator?” He didn’t think that was funny at all. I think I had to apologize to him before asking help to find a cap.

Back out on the B-road now with a patched radiator and a new water pump, I set to work with only the fuzziest idea how to fix this thing. The mechanic at the garage helped me out a bit: He made sure I had a clean gasket for the pump and a tube of sealant for the gasket, and gave me a big plastic jug full of water to pour into the radiator in the somewhat unlikely event that I should be able to patch the thing together and get it going again.

But you know what? I did it. the water pump was bolted to the engine in just three places. I was very careful to clean off all the gunk, slather lots of sealant on the gasket and turn the bolts tight but not too tight. The radiator was easy to mount and even easier to connect to the hoses. The fan blades were nicked up but still in good shape. After it was all put back together and the radiator was filled up, I took a deep breath and started the engine, ready to shut it town the minute it didn’t sound right or I saw smoke or steam or anything go wrong.

Nothing went wrong. It purred like a kitten and kept on purring. I drove back, stopping off at the garage to drop off the water jug and have the mechanic look over my handiwork, but he found nothing to fault me on, and that little Datsun and I traveled all over England in the year ahead without another hitch. Well, except for one, but that was pretty minor, an oil cap that popped off in the middle of a long trip to York and let the engine burp oil up all over itself. Makes lots of smoke, does no real damage. Not to the car, anyway. Sure frazzled my nerves, though.

Wait, two. Yeah. Just two. But that’s another story.

My Little Datsun | 5:33 pm CST
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career, O'Folks, story time, The O-Mobile, travel, work | Tags:
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Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

Sean called us as soon as he landed in Denver last night to let us know his trip went without a hitch and he was all right. What a good boy. I know B likes to get the all-clear from him whenever he flies home, same as she likes to use her laptop to check the progress of his flight every fifteen minutes when he’s on the way over. She’s a mommy; it’s what she does, although last night she was already in bed with a book and had crossed that line between reading and nodding off, so she probably wasn’t as attentive as she normally would be.

Sean seems to be one of the crowd that’s always calling somebody on his cell phone just to touch base and exchange hellos. I’ve wondered why I feel absolutely no inclination to do that. I’ve never cared much for chatting on the phone. I guess it just wasn’t gadgety enough. You’d think that now they’ve turned phones into hand-held computers I’d be a lot more into it, but no. It just never took.

I do tend to call B when I travel and let her know I’m okay, though, so in that one small respect I’m in the same league with Sean. And on a trip back from Washington D.C. I texted B to let her know I left the station on time. When she texted a little “pitty-pat” back to me to let me know her heart beat a little faster knowing I was on the way home, I texted the name of the next big city as I went through it (forget what it was) and kept on doing that all the way to Chicago so she could tell how close I was. It was a lot of fun but I’ve never done anything like that since.

Touchdown | 8:55 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, Seanster, travel
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Friday, December 24th, 2010

I don’t know why they puts goats in petting zoos, do you? Goats are pretty creepy-looking animals. They’re kind of skeletal with all those bony bumps, they’ve got demon eyes, and they’re always jerking around as if their own personal invisible devil is jabbing them up the behind with a sharpened, flaming stick. Yeh, let’s throw our children into a cage with hyperactive, scary-looking animals. Good idea.

But when we were a young couple, and we had a young boy who loved barnyard animals, we took a day trip to the Berlin zoo and stopped at the petting zoo filled with all kinds of cute little fluffy animal babies. Most of them were in small pens, but there was a large, open area in the middle filled with chickens and ducks and goats and other seemingly harmless livestock. Sean wanted to pet each and every one of them.

The goats had absolutely no interest in us. We tried to pet them and they just walked away, not like they were afraid of us, but like they had something better to do. But Sean really wanted to pet them, so when one of us spotted the coin-operated feed dispenser we figured maybe we could catch the attention of at least a few goats if we had some yummy green pellets to feed them. We led Sean over to the machine, showed him how to cup his hands under the chute, dropped ten pfennig into the slot, and turned the handle.

And that’s when the goats attacked.

Cranking the handle on that machine was like ringing a dinner bell. There were no goats anywhere near us when we stepped up to the dispenser, and then when we turned around, every darn goat in the petting zoo was rushing us like stoned teenagers trying to trample each other to the first through the gates at a rock concert. I tried to keep Sean calm by casually encouraging him to offer the goats his handful of food pellets.

Big mistake, bigger even than the idea of buying the pellets in the first place. Every one of those goats wanted to eat all the food in Sean’s outstretched hand, but the goat in the front stopped them all cold by sucking Sean’s entire hand into his mouth. Sean freaked and tried to pull his hand out of there, but of course the goat wasn’t letting go until he sucked down every last food pellet. Meanwhile, the other goats were climbing over one another trying to get at the goat who was hogging the little boy all to himself.

Barb and I both did what we could to get the goat to let go, but my brain was short-circuiting and I’m afraid I wasn’t much help. Great, I was thinking, It’ll take years of therapy and a keg of Zoloft to put this behind him, and even then he’ll be haunted by those weird eyes. Eventually the goat finished off the last of the food, at which point he became profoundly uninterested in Sean and let his hand go, and when the other goats realized there wasn’t any more food to be had, they instantly lost interest in him, too, and they all ran off to mob somebody else.

Goats Ate My Kid! | 11:17 am CST
Category: entertainment, O'Folks, play, Seanster, story time, travel
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Monday, December 20th, 2010

And the whole family’s home once again. I drove out to the airport with T-Dawg last night to pick up the Seanster, who somehow arrived so close to his originally scheduled time as to make no difference. I only mention that because the guy’s been haunted by a modern-day travel curse that makes it impossible for his flight to depart on time, ever.

But he was not only at the airport waiting for us, we were able to call him and ask him to wait at the curb for us to pick him up. I’ve always wondered how it’s possible for people to do that, probably because I’ve never picked up anybody on time at the airport. We didn’t even have to shut the engine off, just pull up to the curb and let him jump in. Amazing.

Once home, we crowded around the dinner table and gobbled up bowl after bowl of My Darling B’s delicious home-made chili while catching up, and then spent a couple hours discussing the woes of the world and how we would solve them all if we were in charge. I’m happy to report that, with all our powers combined, we can have it fixed in a jiffy.

Together again | 6:39 am CST
Category: daily drivel, food & drink, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, Seanster, T-Dawg, travel
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Sunday, November 28th, 2010

Get ready, I’m climbing up on my soapbox.

Manually searching people in airports is wrong first and foremost because it’s a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Not because it’s a health hazard, not because it’s demeaning, not because it’s worthless security theater. Those are valid concerns and I agree with them, but searching people who aren’t suspected of a crime is, at its core, a violation of a basic constitutional right. I don’t mean to belittle the fear of irradiation or the humiliation of being groped in public, but those are emotional appeals that sensationalize an argument that is already pretty sensational. Could we please stay focused on our basic Fourth Amendment rights?

At times like this I wish I’d gone into law so I’d have the education to back up my argument, but do I really need it? The Fourth Amendment is so straightforward, relying on none of the flowery language that makes some other articles and amendments of the constitution difficult to understand:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, papers, houses and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.

I am an American citizen, and unless the federal government suspects me of criminal activity, they have no cause to search me. If they have cause to search me, they must present a warrant issued by a judge that states the reason they have to search me and the things they expect to find. Citizens are presumed innocent, not guilty. It’s as plain as that.

As I understand it, the only hitch to the Fourth Amendment is you. You are the barometer that courts use when defining a reasonable search, and if you submit to being searched on the excuse that “this is for the security of everyone on the airplane,” or that “if you’re doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide,” you’re changing the definition. Scanning and groping becomes reasonable because that’s what you expect. That’s supremely important because, after the definition has shifted, we’re all stuck with it for quite a while.

Right now, the standard has been lowered to this: Whether or not you “opt out,” you have allowed that it’s reasonable for uniformed officers of the federal government to stick their gloved hands down your pants, up your bras, in your children’s crotches. I’m not trying to cast them in the role of sexually depraved monsters; they’re only doing as they were told. I’m just stating in plain language what you’re allowing them to do. You’ve allowed them to demand that citizens exhibit their feminine hygiene pads and their urostomy bags. You have even allowed them to take citizens aside to “privacy rooms” to be searched, as if that wasn’t scary at all. This is the current definition of “reasonable search” that you have all agreed to by obediently shuffling through their increasingly invasive security checkpoints.

I beg you not to let this go on because, if it does, then uniformed officers will soon be scanning and searching us before we’re allowed to get on trains and buses, using the same standards of reasonable search that will have been long established and accepted. And how long will it be after that that they’re stopping automobile traffic at checkpoints on the interstate, a federal highway system? You think that could never happen. Did you ever believe we’d have to submit to a full-body search just to travel freely inside our own country? We’re giving them our okay to do that just so we can catch our flight.

And I’m not asking you to make a big, loud show at the airport of standing on your rights. Civil disobedience doesn’t have to involve arguing with an officer who’s only doing his job, or going to jail or carrying a sign or wearing a tinfoil hat. I don’t travel by air because it would be pointless. I would never make my flight, because I won’t let them scan me and I won’t let them use their “enhanced pat-down techniques” on me. My brand of civil disobedience is as simple as that.

As long as I’m on my soap box anyway: The last time I flew, in June of 2005, I was appalled to have a uniformed officer swab my bags, searching for explosives. I was not only a citizen bearing the passport of the United States, I was traveling under the orders of the United States Air Force, a non-commissioned officer sworn to uphold the constitution. They had no probable cause to search my person or my bags, yet I was treated as if I were a criminal suspect.

Down off my soapbox now. Thanks for lending me your ear.

The Cheapening of the Fourth Amendment | 11:16 am CST
Category: current events, daily drivel, travel, yet another rant | Tags: ,
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Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

image of landing airliner

Sean’s flight from Denver to Minneapolis-Saint Paul was delayed, as if that surprised any of us. Practically every trip he makes to our neck of the woods starts with a telephone call from Denver International Airport that begins, “My flight’s been delayed …”

“I’m never flying anywhere with that boy,” My Darling B declared as we were on our way to the airport. “He’s an air travel jinx, is what he is.”

At least he’s not trying to connect through Chicago any longer. An immutable law of physics bends time and space every time he’s arrives at the O’Hare terminal. Last time, his flight was delayed and he arrived some time after midnight. Rather than spend the night at O’Hare, though, he gave some guy a couple hundred bucks to borrow the guy’s car and he drove himself up here. He’s resourceful, I’ll give him that. Cursed, but resourceful.

Last night’s delay wasn’t nearly as bad. He finally arrived at about ten-thirty and we whisked him back to Our Humble O’Bode with no other interfering snafus, so he was safely in bed at a decent hour. He’ll have a week to visit with us in which he won’t have to worry at all about his next delayed flight until next Tuesday.

Sean’s Curse | 2:55 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, Seanster, travel
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Sunday, January 17th, 2010

nasal astronautYes, that’s a posable astronaut doll and he is picking my nose.

The only explanation I can offer is that, when our family packed up our truck-top camper every Christmas to leave the frozen north on our annual vacation to southern climes, my brother and I would ride in the part of the camper over that hung over the front of the truck because there wasn’t enough room in the cab for all four of us. We were up there for days. We had to find some way to amuse ourselves.

nasal astronaut | 6:14 am CST
Category: daily drivel, play, random idiocy, travel
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Saturday, January 5th, 2002

Some people can strap on a pair of skis and learn to shuss down a hill with only a few minor spills that everybody can sit around and joke about later. Tim’s one of those people. He got on a snowboard and was shooting down the steeper slopes by mid-afternoon. My Darling B, I suspect, is not one of those people, although I feel it’s largely my fault. I said I’d help her learn, but I’m not a ski instructor, not by a long shot.

B hadn’t been skiing since the last time she was here, back in 1985 or something like that. She went with John and some of his buddies; their method of instruction was to take her to the top of the mountain and leave her to make her way down. I guess some people can learn like that; what B learned was that she didn’t want to ski with John and his buddies any more.

I wanted more than anything for her to enjoy it this time. We went to Moya, a resort about two hours from Misawa. It was our first family ski trip, and our first with the Mogul Mashers, a club on base. The trip started with bagels, doughnuts and juice on the bus ride out, and after a day on the slopes we had a wine and cheese party in the lodge. On the way home, we stopped at a local hot bath to clean up and soak. Pretty nice.

B and I started out on the bunny slope, which is where I found out that, while I can sort of figure out what to do by watching other people, and conduct experiments on myself, I’m not very good at explaining any of what little I’ve learned. I could explain how to snowplow, but she pretty much had to figure out the rest for herself. By about eleven thirty she had built up enough self-confidence to try the shortest, easiest run. The results were spectacular. She tumbled like a dervish, skis and poles flying everywhere.

I spent the early afternoon with Tim and Sean on the hills, and checked back with B on the bunny hill between runs. She was doing so well that she went back up the lift for another try at the hills, and ended up walking part of the way back down after her skis popped off again.

Sean has a snow board, and he won’t hesitate to tell you every one of the million reasons he think it’s the very best way to travel downhill on snow. We were thinking that, because he had so much praise for snowboards, he would have plenty to teach Tim, but Tim picked it up on his own while Sean was trying to get his gloves on just right. When it comes to snowboarding, Sean’s long on theory, but short on practice.

I haven’t been skiing since I went to Keystone in Colorado many, many moons ago with some guys from work, and that was only the second time in my life. It’s a good thing I spent so much time on the bunny hill with B in the morning this time around; if I’d gone straight up the slopes, I’m pretty sure I would’ve killed myself. The next day my muscles were aching in places where I didn’t have muscles.

The onsen is a Japanese tradition, a bath house where we went to clean up and relax after skiing. There was a big communal hot tub in a steamy room, and all around the wall there were wash basins and stools where we could scrub ourselves to get good and clean. The water was so hot I couldn’t stay in too long; a friend of mine told me to put a cool washrag on my head so I could stay in longer, so there I sat with a folded washcloth plopped on my head. I think all it did was keep me in the water long enough to get hard-boiled, and provide comic relief for the rest of the bathers.

I know you’re going to ask, so I’d point out that the women’s baths are separated from the men’s by a wall high enough for privacy. No peeking at the women at all, unless you count the little girl one of the guys brought in with him. Now there’s something you wouldn’t see anywhere in America.

shuss | 7:37 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, skiing, travel | Tags: , ,
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Saturday, November 10th, 2001

Picture a shallow pool filled with about 200 salmon, big ones, about ten-pounders. A siren sounds, and about a hundred people jump into the water and try to catch the salmon with their hands. That’s the Shimoda Salmon Festival, our latest cross-cultural experience.

Shimoda’s just a little way from here, so we figured if we bundled Tim up tight and brought along a change of clothes to keep him warm and dry, he’d be all right. The air was brisk all day, but when the sun came out it was toasty warm, and the Japanese had little fires going all over the site where you could stop and warm your hands or any other part of you that had gotten wet. There was also plenty of yummy festival food to warm you up from the inside.

Catching the fish was lots of fun. At least that’s the way we felt about it; I’m sure the salmon felt differently. They all crowded into the far side of the pool as we lined up along the edge, so they must’ve known something was up. When the crowd waded into the water, the salmon went absolutely batshit and took off in all directions, slamming into our feet hard enough that I thought somebody was kicking me. Sooner or later they stop for a breather, though, and that’s when you reach down and yank them out of the water. Grabbing them by the tail seemed to work best, although a couple people put the fish in a bear hug. You could spot the experienced fishermen in the crowd, hooking their fingers in salmon’s gill slits.

We left about ten in the morning and had such a good time we didn’t get home until about four that evening, when we were faced, of course, with CLEANING THE FISH. I’d paid about ten bucks to have some farmer’s wives clean them for me, but their idea of cleaning fish and mine are worlds apart. My method leaves behind neat, clean fillets prepared with tender loving care; theirs is a high-speed hacking, and the gore-smeared fillets look more like the victims of a sociopathic axe murderer than a meal. Barb and I spent about an hour cleaning and wrapping, after which we put a really big fillet under the broiler and sat down to salmon and rice at about supper time. Delicious stuff.

[Julie Arnzen wrote:] Oh you found the Salmon Festival. Isn’t it FUN! Have we ever told you about our trip? We went along with our lovely Japanese landlords who decided to treat us to lunch whilst we were there, you know those food stalls they have there, well they treated us to squid on a stick, the biggest tentacles you have ever seen too, and couldn’t possibly turn it down and be impolite, so we ate it, all except PJ who quite loud enough for our hosts to hear, said OH YUCK! PJ and I did the catching of the fish, or at least I attempted to, but fell in, tripping over a heap of bouncing fish, got completely soaked and a few days later was treated for pneumonia ha! but we did actually come home with a fish too, ours bit right through the plastic bag that it was placed in, they’re pretty tough fish! taste good though.


Shimoda Salmon | 6:41 am CST
Category: daily drivel, festivals, travel | Tags: , ,
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