A Giant Step Backwards

American history is rife with examples of the blue collar worker being exploited by corporate bullying. The companies crafted situations where their employee base and the ancillary businesses supporting them were essentially owned by the corporations. Their very existence was subordinate to the whim of the company’s aims. This led, of course, to catastrophes that took hundreds of American lives and left much more than that to suffer shortened lives as armies of disabled and diseased.

This brought the advent of the union and empowered the individual as part of a force that at last created a more level playing field and the inception of collective bargaining. That’s not to say that this warring came to an end, companies have never stopped trying to get more from their employees while trying to curb employee costs, nor have employees ever stopped trying to get compensated for their labors at what they believe are fairer levels. However, both sides became more aware of the challenges each side endured and both sides were more willing to negotiate compromise that permitted each side to get some of what they felt were important concessions. All in all, a much better situation than club wielding mobs slugging it out in violent melees.

Globalization though, has given corporations a greater edge over the employee pool. Able to reach into labor pools across the planet where living wages are a fraction of the very minimum, companies have a a virtual nuclear arms capability when stacked against the virtual bows and arrows of the labor pool. Not only does reaching across the world for its labor bring down the costs of labor for the companies, it also eliminates jobs in America, making jobs harder to get, and forces the acceptance of a lower wage. As well, it allows companies to demand greater labor from its employees. Things like off-clock overtime are gaining more than a foothold on the workers while ridiculous volumes of policies constantly delay promotions. An employee with stellar performance finds themselves laid off just before they qualify for full pensions. The level playing field in becoming less balanced all the time and corporate abuses are growing like a snowball rolling down a mountainside gaining more and more mass as it goes.

The college graduates we need to drive our technological advances, and therefore the economy, are starting to apply to and going to work for foreign businesses because the base compensation packages can be twice or more than a similar position in the US. Meanwhile, the laws created as a result of the hard won efforts of the American labor pool are being short circuited as lobbies woo the Congress and Senate away from a dedication to the people to focus on the desires (not needs) of corporate plans.

Our sole defense against such contamination, the vote, has become a wasted tool as apathy keeps people from the polls and corporate interests promulgate gerrymandering and voter restriction laws to shackle those who do want to vote. Sadly, the voters that make it to the voting booth simply check the name they recognize, the incumbent, and thus jut continue the death spiral of America’s only method of forcing government to represent their interests.

Joseph de Maistre, a social commentator among other things, is quoted as saying that a society gets the government it deserves. I have to admit that I find it difficult, especially in cases of first and second world nations, to be an accurate assessment. In the case of the US, I think it’s especially true because were are a literate and tooled society with the ability to vote. Certainly the Electoral College has dulled the sharpened point of the popular vote, but the ballot still has enough power, both in state and federal elections, to permit us to make the needed reforms to give ourselves back a representative government.

Vote.

 

 

War School

Another school shooting. This time it was fairly close to home, if you can call across the state as being close. It was five hours behind the wheel close, which is close enough for me. Sandy Hook was far, but it still caused me to feel depressed. The shooting in Marysville hit a little harder because it happened twenty minutes from where my daughter and my grandson live. That is close enough that one gets the sense that the violence could spill easily to her neighborhood and touch my family.

The shooter, Jaylen Fryberg, was described as a happy and popular young man. He didn’t fit the profile of the outcast with a grudge against the school’s elite. He was a part of it. And there will be tons of discussions where people will discuss the incident and dissect it into nearly atom level segments and experts will pronounce their opinions.

The thing is, no one’s ever going to know what caused him to go into the school cafeteria and open up on a table of his fellow students with a small caliber handgun, firing randomly until he hit and killed one, wounded four others and then turned the gun on himself.

Violence has become a medium of communication in the world today. Statesmanship and cooperative negotiation appears to be receding and brutality taking its place.  Granted, some aspects of people seem more prone to violence than others, but people in general seem to be a lot more accepting of violence -so long as it doesn’t touch them personally.

Islam is a religion of peace according to the tenets of the Koran; at least, that’s how it’s been represented to me. Yet it is also currently the greatest purveyor of violence. Ergo, I can’t help but believe that the system of beliefs is one of peace at all, not as long as its members directly or tacitly support the mayhem being levied as a political tool that even kills its own kind. That’s indiscriminate violence which sees none as innocent save the purveyors of the killings themselves.

In third world nations we read with blase interest about the genocide inflicted by one tribe or faction against others. Even baldfaced on the world stage we see violence as Russia floods troops into the Ukraine.  Plus, we see a much higher margin of African Americans dying from police action, although the greatest number of murders are black on black. It’s all crazy. Violence is the medium but what’s the message? I don’t think anyone knows.

Here in the US is it the fault of the NRA or extremely violent video games that we have youth killing classmates? Sure, it’s easy to say that it is, yet there’s no connective tissue to prove it.  I believe that the American preoccupation with guns was a slowly built propensity based in a history of the need to use violence to protect and better our lives as unions developed and forced collective bargaining on unreceptive management. The thing is, the application of violence was successful, just as was the shedding of blood to form the US in the first place. The Second Amendment was placed in the Constitution for good reason, although it would appear that the need for it has been made obsolete by the gains of rights and the swerve to the genteel by our society. But, some people are asking, what about the future? At the moment there is no overwhelming need for the defensive ownership of weapons but what about the future. I look at the way government has become the servant to industry rather than the people the members of government all swore an oath to protect and elevate.

I won’t be here too much longer and won’t live to see if the apathy towards the government continues to drive our youth and middle aged people from the vote. So I won’t get to see whether the country dodges the bullet or is once again driven to use violence to convey a low opinion of its leadership. I do believe that the people, if it does come to blows, will be more accepting of violence, but hopefully it won’t be so randomly applied as it is today, and the reasons for it easier to understand than it is now.

Bloodthirsty

       Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her father forty whacks.        When the job was nicely done she gave her mother forty-             one.

We have a fascination with the gruesome. Zombies, murderers, paranormal hauntings and all of it, …well, gruesome. The more blood that sprays into the 3D audiences or splatters against the wall, the better. It makes me wonder whether people have become so removed from one another that our empathy level has decayed.

We can watch the television or have YouTube show us visions of the wars or the sick minded lunatics cutting off people’s heads and the audience numbers are remarkably high. We even flock to see stories of medieval battles between hundreds of sword and ax bearing behemoths and the more blood the better. Even scenes of naval battles What is it about horror that’s so attracting to us?

I wonder if maybe it’s because pain isn’t very well represented. The handsome Navy seal overcomes the bullet holes in his leg and abdomen to limp into position to support his team. As if his body might allow that. Sure, there can be a honeymoon period of a few minutes where the trauma of the wounds short circuits the pain. But then there is little a person can do besides lay there, trying not to move because to do so is too excruciating to describe. Many can only lay there and scream until someone injects them with morphine.

I know that the pain I have experienced because of my cancer has been bad enough to scramble my thoughts and freeze me in place because any motion in any direction flares the pain. Think about having an abscessed  tooth drilled  through the nerves without benefit of anesthetic and then multiply the agony. Pain is nothing like the way that it’s portrayed. A man suffer a battlefield amputation of an arm and then take up his weapon in the other hand to finish off his opponent.  Those with pain tolerance may lay with gritted teeth, growling. But the others lay there screaming until they bleed out or the pain knocks them unconscious.

And we flock to screens to watch this. I grant that I have watched some of these movies, but the more time goes by and the more I have my own pain to deal with, the less tolerance I have to watch people suffering. I would guess that my own experience has raised my level of empathy to the point I will get nauseous watching blood spraying injuries inflicted on people.

The thing is, I can’t understand the fascination in general. I can watch a thriller in which people get shot. Somewhere there is a limit to what I can experience before I’m ready to move on to something more pleasant. I didn’t feel like this when Die Hard came out. But my stomach crawled as Bruce Willis moved barefoot through the broken glass strewn across the floor leaving bloody footprints. I guess it’s natural to try and raise the bar so that newer films don’t suffer from desensitizing and keep the audience coming.

I can still be wowed by violent movies. It’s just that there is a line they can’t cross before it’s just too grotesque or just too fake to keep my attention.  And zombies. Wasn’t their being killed once enough we have to kill them again, and in horrific ways?

As it is, there is tremendous suffering all over the world. It takes many faces and perhaps those faces are too bland to be attractive or exciting. Or perhaps we are becoming desensitized to suffering and that’s why millions get invested in the depiction of agony and real life pain goes begging.

Veterans Day Festivities

The Concert for Valor is happening on Veterans Day, and all star extravaganza that’s sure to attract millions of viewers and generate millions in revenues for the sponsors. The veterans get honored, the companies get cash.

Now, far be it from me to denigrate anything that benefits veterans, and especially so for vets who’ve been disabled or suffer untold pain for years as they fight cancers and other incurable ailments that result from exposure to the contaminants of war. Everything from solvents to depleted uranium ammunition poses risks that may not appear for decades before they blossom into hell’s own gift. The pressure, sights and losses experienced by soldiers leaves a deep mark in the emotional health of veterans.  War is a kind of Hotel California; you can check in any time you like but you can never leave.

It always struck me as foolish that when Congress is approached for a war budget that it includes the transportation of soldiers, weapons, materiel, and sundry costs like food and entertainment. The budgets really don’t entail the whole picture, like extending past the expected deadline, equipment losses, and the expansion of the war bureaucracy. But most alarming is the failure to predict the costs of the wounded warriors. The ones that come home with missing limps, deep psychological scars, or the delayed reaction of cancer.

VA presumes the following diseases to be service-connected for such exposed Veterans: AL amyloidosis, chloracne or other acneform disease similar to chloracne, porphyria cutanea tarda, soft-tissue sarcoma (other than osteosarcoma, chondrosarcoma, Kaposi’s sarcoma or mesothelioma), Hodgkin’s disease, multiple myeloma, respiratory cancers (lung, bronchus, larynx, trachea), non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate cancer, acute and sub-acute peripheral neuropathy, diabetes mellitus (Type 2), all chronic B-cell leukemias (including, but not limited to, hairy-cell leukemia and chronic lymphocytic leukemia), Parkinson’s disease, and ischemic heart disease.

For Veterans who participated in radiation risk activities as defined in VA regulations while on active duty, active duty for training, or inactive duty training, the following conditions are presumed to be service connected: all forms of leukemia (except for chronic lymphocytic leukemia); cancer of the thyroid, breast, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, pancreas, bile ducts, gall bladder, salivary gland, urinary tract (renal pelvis, ureter, urinary bladder and urethra), brain, bone, lung, colon, and ovary; bronchiolo-alveolar carcinoma; multiple myeloma; lymphomas (other than Hodgkin’s disease), and primary liver cancer (except if cirrhosis or hepatitis B is indicated).

Some Veterans may receive disability compensation for chronic disabilities resulting from undiagnosed illnesses and/or medically unexplained chronic multi-symptom illnesses defined by a cluster of signs or symptoms. A disability is considered chronic if it has existed for at least six months.

The undiagnosed illness must have appeared either during active service in the Southwest Asia theater of operations during the Gulf War period of Aug. 2, 1990, to July 31, 1991, or to a degree of at least 10 percent at any time since then through Dec.31, 2016. This theater of operations includes Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the neutral zone between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, and the airspace above these locations.

Examples of symptoms of an undiagnosed illness and medically unexplained chronic multi-symptom illness defined by a cluster of signs and symptoms include: chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, functional gastrointestinal disorders, fatigue, signs or symptoms involving the skin, headache, muscle pain, joint pain, neurological signs or symptoms, neuropsychological signs or symptoms, signs or symptoms involving the respiratory system (upper or lower), sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal signs or symptoms, cardiovascular signs or symptoms, abnormal weight loss, and menstrual disorders. Presumptive service connection may be granted for the following infectious diseases if found compensable within a specific time period: Brucellosis, Campylobacter jejuni, Coxiella burnetti (Q fever), Malaria, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, non-typhoid Salmonella, Shigella, Visceral leishmaniasis, and West Nile virus. Qualifying periods of service for these infectious diseases include active military, naval, or air service in the above stated Southwest Asia theater of operations during the Gulf War period of Aug. 2, 1990, until such time as the Gulf War is ended by Congressional action or Presidential proclamation; and active military, naval, or air service on or after Sept. 19, 2001, in Afghanistan.

Excerpted from VA Chapter 2 Service Connected Disabilities

That’s quite a list. It helps to understand the huge volume of patients the VA medical system is weighted with and with that in mind, the astronomical costs of that care. Of course, inefficiencies within the administration create a healthy amount of waste dollars. Then again, for a percentage of vets like me, the care we get is top tier. Sadly it’s not 100% as the many reports and studies (both governmental and private sector) show. A lot of this stems from empire building and ridiculous policies. The VA as an organization should be a centrally governed and distributed processing system.  The computers should be  private to the extent of providing patient privacy while existing in a shared environment. Veterans who require sudden medical care should be able to visit any medical center and have their records available to the attending physicians so doctors can make informed choices in the care they provide. And the patient’s primary physician needs to be able to see the care provided off-site for the same reasons. When I was set to a different VA medical center for radiation treatment, they were blocked from seeing my records. As a result, there was a two day delay in my treatments as a whole menu of tests had to be run in order to know enough about my case to proceed. I always wondered what that cost and how many times it happened across the 152 medical centers and 1400 community based clinics in the US. The very people working to help us do so in an environment that can be awfully frustrating.

So, while I really appreciate the thought of a Concert for Valor, I think I’d just as soon see the monies changing hands be directed to the necessary programs that help fill in those areas of assistance that aren’t directly addressed by the VA.  There should be no such thing as a homeless or hungry veteran and so the outreach programs could use the help to seek out and help the vets who won’t do anything that looks like taking a handout. They must be found and convinced they’re qualified and deserve these services. Agencies like the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), the American Legion, and the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) could use some serious donations to provide the wonderful care and services they do.

Veterans are worth honoring and I’m glad it happens. But it sticks in my throat that people profit from their honoring efforts, it’s hard to find the line dividing honor from profit.

Step Right Up

Caesar’s Palace was quite a place. Everywhere one looked there were activities, all gambling related of course. I was there gambling that my presence at a wireless convention would raise my customer list and make me some inroads for better deals from the vendors I bought from.  My work for the week entailed sitting in a booth with our wares arranged tastefully to look like an android’s living room with equipment stacked on black velvet covered tables basking in spotlights and different types of antennas looking like they were engaged in a serious discussion with a space station out near Tau Ceti.

People would wander over and ask questions, some looking to contract for a system build, some looking to get wholesale pricing from us, and manufacturers touted their products trying to get us to carry them. So far, the gamble was paying off. I had signed up an ISP in California to add wifi to their offered services. They wanted to expand their customer base and wireless was their only alternative. I managed to convince them that our people and our favored equipment was their best bet. Of course, I had to agree to come and direct the team myself because they felt they had a relationship with me, rather than the company in general. We signed the contract and I sent them off to acquire space on radio and water towers, and on mountainside property with good, wide angle coverage. They already had a tower of their own that sat atop a mountain with microwave on it. Not only were they an ISP, but they also offered phone and cable services.

Other than that, I signed up a couple of point to point contracts to install microwave for a trucking company and a logging company wanting to create a network connection between operation locations. I also managed to sell about a hundred grand worth of equipment with a profit of twenty percent. One of the things that made us popular was our equipment prices. We didn’t try to milk every possible nickel out of our sales, but to achieve a high sales volume. This got us a lot more new customers than advertising as word of mouth spread through the market niche that we had the good stuff for great pricing.

There was also plenty of time for me to wander the aisles and collect the giveaways all of us vendors used for promotion, knowing full well that way more competitors collected up the frisbies, LED balls, squeeze balls and other do dads than customers did. We were more competitive with each other in junk promotional items than we were in the marketplace. “You’re giving out pens? Hahahahaha! We’re giving out stress balls that look like Bill Clinton!”  Next year they’d show up with a ball that lit up an LED when it bounced and we showed up with a ball that lit up different colors with each bounce. However, we all bowed in awe to the company that gave out skimpy bras with their logo on the cups.

The one thing I didn’t do between my arrival on Sunday night and my last day at the convention was gamble. A thing which drove my business partner insane. “How can you be in Las Vegas at Caesar’s Palace and not gamble? I mean, people plan vacations to come here and play the slots and tables.”

“They come for the entertainment too. Myself, I went to a Rita Rudner show at New York New York and spent lots of time walking the strip looking at all the different casinos. The Luxor, Paris, Treasure Island and the Bellagio with its water show. That water show had me standing there for over an hour, not just watching the actual show but the random water cannon choreography too.  Did you know that something like two thousand gallons of water is lost to evaporation every day? That’s what some guy told me while I was standing there. It’s a ridiculous waste of water, especially since Vegas is predicted to be a ghost town in under thirty years due to lack of water. But it’s a hell of a beautiful way to waste it.”

“Okay, I give you the entertainment value of Las Vegas,” said my partner, “but for crying out loud, this city was built on gambling.”

“Yeah, I know the story of Mo Green and Bugsy Segal, Robert De Niro and all of them. They turned a dusty spot with a gas station into a gambler’s paradise only to be bought out by big companies like Bally and MGM who turned it into a gambler’s paradise with daycare.”

“So, how can you be here and not gamble?”

“The only reason people build casinos is because of the math which always favors the house. The occasional win tugs at people’s hope and makes them believe they can make a fortune. So they play and play and they get big winnings and then keep playing and come away with less than they started with.  With the exception of a very few, there really aren’t any winners.”

“Look, I’ll give you twenty bucks. Go play the slots. If you lose, it wasn’t your money so you really have nothing to lose. But you can’t spend a week in Las Vegas and not gamble once.”

“You’ll give me twenty bucks just to see me play?”

“Yeah, here.” He pulled a fold of bills from his pocket and peeled off a twenty. I took it and walked over to the closest one armed bandit and fed it into the machine. It flashed and played awful music and told me I had twenty dollars credit so play, play, play. To get the right feel, I used the lever on the side, although you can just press a button to spin. It’s not actually spinning anything, it’s a video display driven by a computer running special software. The machine imitated the spin of an old time slot machine and when it stopped, I had $19.75. I managed to lose twenty five cents. I ignored the lever and pressed the button and lost another quarter. Two turns and I was already getting bored. I changed my twenty five cent bet to a dollar and pressed the button. When the machine finished the spin I was a buck poorer. I set my bet to five dollars and pressed the button. The machine flashed and whooped and showed my balance as sixty dollars. “There you go!” yelled my partner. “You’re on the glory trail!”

I smiled at him and hit the cash out button. The machine dutifully printed a card I could trade to a cashier for its face value and I walked over towards the window. My partner followed me, begging me not to stop. “You’re winning now. You have sixty bucks. You could double or triple it, maybe even more!” I handed my chit to the cashier and she handed me three twenty dollar bills and clapper her hands and showed them to me, palm up and then down. I guessed that little maneuver wasn’t for me, but the security watching everything from the zillions of cameras all over the place and the panels of dark one-way glass set high above the floor. I handed my partner a twenty.

“There’s your money back.” I said. “Best deal you’re gonna get here.”

“Nah, I’m down a few hundred but I expect to make it back tonight. I think my luck will change because it’s the last night.” He said. I shook my head and strolled off to get a burger, wondering if I would have a new partner in the morning, Caesars owning his share.

That night I went and watched the Bellagio’s water show again and then ate dinner at some place called Three Irishmen or something like that. They had good food and the servers wore celtic costumes and did a show mid evening with authentic dancing and music. I might be Irish, but I have no idea what authentic celtic dance and music is like. Actually, I found it a bit annoying, especially the male tenor ballads. I went to bed at eleven thirty. I checked out after a light breakfast of berries and cream, a danish and a glass of orange juice.

I met my partner at the airport, both of us on the same flight. I asked him how he did and he got a frumpy look on his face and didn’t answer me. There were slot machines in the airport and we had an hour and a half wait for our flight after going through security. I pulled out a J.A. Jance novel and killed time reading about the efforts of Seattle detective Beau Beaumont, my partner hit the slots. He cashed out when our flight was called and smiling, he fed his chit into a cash out machine that dispensed a hundred dollar bill, a ten and some change. I somehow felt he was saved from himself by the flight being called. He confirmed it on the flight back to Spokane, revealing he’d lost over a thousand dollars during the week, but the final payout brought his losses to just under a grand. I asked him if he wanted the forty dollars I won with his twenty dollar seed.He told me to keep the forty but wondered if I’d be interested in coming to dinner and be there when he told her about the dent in their bank account. He said she’d probably be more civil if they had company.

I told him no thanks and went back to reading my book.

 

Attack on Paradise

I’ve been watching these reality shows about people who live off grid up in Alaska. A couple of the families focused on have some pretty well developed farms, developed over three generations of hard effort and sacrifice. The rest of them appear to be the kind of people who, while pleasant enough, are dumber than a box of rocks.

They all seem to share an innate cabin building skill. Watching them assemble their primary residence is actually pretty impressive. Starting with nothing but a few tools and way too few clothes and housewares, they barter for the wood it takes to frame, side and roof their homes. They go to a lumber mill and can usually barter some specific full trees for the wood they need to build their structure. So off they go into the woods and very selectively cut down trees with an eye towards forest maintenance and giving the mill what they asked for. At time, a huge mass of knots that looks like junk brings the highest value because of the number of people who use it for wood sculpting or making attractive grained furniture. Happy with a couple of loads of 2x6s, 4x6s, 4x12s and some outdoor grade plywood, these families make their way through miles and miles of brush to their homesite, and using the long, long days of summer, work a week of 16-18 hour days and just like that, they have a house. Then they might have to go fishing and catch a bunch of salmon or other desirable food fish to trade for used window sashes and windows, doors, and maybe a generator (that they will need to repair.)

Everybody works and there seems to be a closeness to these families that you don’t experience elsewhere. Perhaps that’s from piling 8 people into a single room 16 x 20 foot cabin. Their inventiveness is remarkable. Their skills turn metal junk into wood burning stoves that are efficient and easily maintained. They use the scraps from building as kindling for the first year while locating standing dead trees to fell and split into fuel wood. Their inventiveness also often will bring reasonably fresh water to their homestead, giving them potable water filtered using natures provisions like sand, gravel and water loving flora. The image many have of the smelly outdoorsman that bathes in summer creeks and smells like camel dung is the exception. Many of these people brave lower temperatures than I would to use a cobbled up shower that’s little more than a tub to stand in, a privacy curtain (or not) and a hose with a sprinkler head that gets gravity fed water from their uphill source. They’re a rugged bunch, but especially the teenagers have an interest in the opposite sex that motivates them to put their best foot forward.

The most of these folks are caring and neighbor conscious. If they haven’t heard from someone in a week, they will go visit, often toting along some food, wood, hay if they have animals and a show of concern. I’d like to think I’d get along great with their simple approaches to the black and white palette of their lives.  Up in the far north, a person’s word is their bond, and if they break it they can face people turning their backs on them, a sure ticket to fall prey to the endless dangers. The only thing they can do is go elsewhere, far enough the CB radio networks and AM radio stations can’t reach in order to start anew.

Alaska is becoming the new Seattle, with property prices skyrocketing along with the prices of everything else. You find two worlds where urbanism is taking root. One is occupied by the long time settlers and homesteaders, the other for the nouveau pioneers. Life stays similar for the long time residents and gets mighty expensive for the interlopers. Economics is really the only weapon available to try and maintain a wall against clear cut forests, new roads carved that destroy game routes, and the pollution that the consumer nature always brings along like Typhoid Mary’s that foul the water table and believe that wolves, moose and deer are a problem rather than salvation from starvation.

Back when I lived in Portland, one of my fantasies was to buy a Cessna 180 with amphibious floats and go carve a living as a bush pilot. A couple of my friends did just that, and make it just under the wire to get established before any idiot with six hours of flight time in a tail dragger came bursting in with a hundred more just like them. It was a bittersweet entertainment to see many of these quasi-intrepid people scamper back to the lower forty eight with an empty bank account and their tails between their legs. The firmly entrenched were able to build up their fleets with the fire sale aircraft auctions with pennies on the dollar. While I may have missed out on an adventure likely to make me happy to rise every morning, I did just fine keeping the home fires lit and made a few bucks on the side flying the abandoned customers to their destinations. Since I found my bride and raised three magnificent children here, I’m glad that this was the path I chose. If I wanted to feel like I lived in Alaska, I could fly around wearing a t shirt and disabling the plane heaters. But I’m not a masochist, nor do I have anything to prove to myself, and I admit to the contentment of life as it is. Although I’m hoping that global warming will shorten our winters to a week of piling 50 feet of snow on the surrounding mountains (to keep the rivers, creeks and lakes filled) and to generate hydropower we sell to waterless states at exorbitant prices.

Alaska is a land of adventure, and it is also one of hardship and continual self-challenge, but it can also be a beautiful place to live so long as we don’t let the newbies screw it up.

 

Fishin’

“Camping’s some good fun.” I told my friend Greg. He nodded as he pulled his tent out of its carry bag. It was one of those pop up jobs that you were supposed to be able to shake and it suddenly pops itself into a kind of dome looking thing. I had a conventional tent I bought at an Army Surplus store. It had two wood poles, each in two 4 foot pieces that fit together. I spread the tent out and crawled inside with the assembled poles. I found the grommets that the poles fit into and stood up one pole and then the other. I went back outside to stake off the side ties to find Greg shaking his pop up tent like a pit bull with a chicken. “I thought those were automatic.” I said.

“Shut up.” he replied. I walked over and took the tent from him and looked it over. I found a little placard that said hold here. I grabbed it where it said to and shook the tent. It made a sort of ploomp noise and magically turned into a dome. I dropped it on the ground. Greg said something rude and went to fetch his backpack from the car.

Back at my tent, I used a hammer to drive some stakes into the ground and soon had myself a nice big tent that I opened an army cot in. I unpacked my rucksack and made up my cot with an air mattress and my sleeping bag. I don’t mind roughing it, so long as it isn’t all that rough. I came out and Greg was looking from my tent to his and back. “My sleeping bag can’t fully unroll.” he said.

“Well, at least your tent is easy to set up.” I replied, ignoring his obvious wish for an invitation to share my tent which was more than large enough to hold two cots with plenty of room to spare. “Let’s get a fire built, keep the bug population down.” Greg looked at his tent a second, sighed, and moved off in search of firewood. I did the same. Soon we had a nice fire going and I set up my little grille over it to let the fire burn off the leavings from its last use. I’d brought some finger steaks and whole potatoes for first night’s supper. I figured we’d eat the fish we were sure to catch tomorrow. Throwing the steaks on the grille, I wrapped the potatoes in tin foil and snuggled them next to the coals to cook. We had a couple of coolers filled with ice and soft drinks, neither of us much on beer. We had a pint of R&R in case of rain and we took a chill, but it stayed in the trunk still sealed up.

In spite of the fire and the smoke it put off, the mosquito population was huge and we spent a lot of time slapping ourselves while we tried to hold a conversation. At around 11pm we gave up and decided to crash for the night and get an early start on the lake. We were only about 50 feet from the shoreline, probably why we had to deal with so many bugs. The good news was that we were alone at the lake, as best as we could tell.

Walking into my tent I immediately felt a big drop in the temperature. Sitting close to the fire had hidden how chilly it had become in the darkness. I tied the mosquito curtain off, shutting the buzzing bastards outside and took off my jeans and shirt. I slipped into a set of long underwear and crawled into my ultra thick sleeping bag. My mother had bought it for me to take on a trip into the backwoods of Quebec when I was fifteen, and it was still as snug and comfortable as the day I first used it.

I could hear Greg rustling around in his tent, the silvery plastic sides making a lot of racket, punctuated by him slapping himself against the bevy of freeloading fliers that followed him into his tent. He settled down for a bit, but after a while I heard him rustling and slapping again, along with some well chose epithets. “What are you doing, man?” I called out.

“I’m freezing and the damn bugs are killing me. I’m moving my tent closer to the fire and putting it where the smoke will flow over and around it. See if it keeps the bugs away.” He made a little more noise and then quieted down.

I was on the verge of sleep when Greg yelled “Holy Shit!” followed my a few “ow” noises. “Dammit! My tent melted!” This I had to see.

I crawled out of my nest and stuck my head through the wind flap but kept the mosquito net closed. Sure enough, a huge hole was melted into the side of Greg’s tent. He’d put it too close to the fire and after a bit the heat had caused the plastic tent side to virtually evaporate. He had some burns on his hands from touching the hot plastic. “Okay,” I said, “get your stuff and bring it in here. But if you let any mosquitoes in I swear I’ll pour a canteen of water in your sleeping bag.” Greg gathered his stuff and, in a move much faster than I thought him capable of, whipped it into the tent with him right behind it. He laid his stuff out and we both crawled into our sleeping bags again. Minutes later we were both asleep.

Waking up I looked at my watch. It was 6:30 in the morning and I could hear Greg moving about the camp and I caught a whiff of bacon. I climbed out of my sleeping bag and dragged on a pair of jeans and a shirt. Stepping out, Greg pointed at the grille where a frying pan sat with eggs frying and bacon sizzling away. “Ta da!” he said. I fetched a couple of little bottles of orange juice from the cooler and tossed him one. He caught it one handed while he shove the bacon around with a fork. Breakfast always tastes especially good out in the woods, made over a fire. We finished up and took our dishes and stuff to the edge of the lake and cleaned up.

It took both of us to pull the canoe off the roof of the car. Greg had built the canoe from a kit he bought at a Spokane outdoor store. I have to admit it was a neat looking thing that was essentially a framework of metal tubing with a wooden gunwale. Canvass was wetted and stretched over the frame in a repeated process until finally being tacked to the gunwale. We carried it down to the lake and pushed it into the water. I got in and moved to the bow and Greg gave us a shove and hopped into the back. We each had a tackle box and a freshwater rod, and we’d bought some worms from a bait shop on the way into the hills. We decided to fish in the middle of the lake, what with it being pretty shallow. At the deepest point it was fifteen feet and the little lake was just one step above a pond. It was maybe a distorted circle 800 feet across.

Greg got his line in first and immediately got a bite. He reeled in a beautiful 15 inch rainbow trout. I got my line in and had the same luck. With such an auspicious beginning, we could see ourselves catching our limit in no time flat. Two hours later we were both still waiting on our second fish. “I think we caught the only two fish in the lake.” Greg grumbled.

“You might be right.” I answered. Both of us noticed that we had a couple of inches of water in the canoe. It was almost simultaneous. “I think we have a leak.”

“How could that be?” asked Greg. “It’s not like we’ve hit anything. We’re just floating here.” Still, there was water in the canoe and it was starting to fill faster. The water was maybe three inches deep. We looked at each other and then grabbed our paddles and started toward the shore. About 50 feet from the shoreline, the canoe skidded on the muddy bottom and stopped. Both of our tackled boxes were floating and the only reason we hadn’t foundered and sunk was the shallow bottom of the lake.

We got out of the canoe and wrestled it upside down, dumping the water out of it. We righted it, retrieved our gear and our two fish and dragged it all to the shore, our steps making sucking sounds in the muck of the bottom. When we listed the canoe, it weighed a ton. It was a lot heavier than when we carried it to the lake. We leaned it against a fallen log and stared at it a while. “I think I should have painted it.” said Greg.

“You didn’t paint it? I thought you used urethane or something to let the canvass show through.”

“No, I thought canvass was waterproof. I mean, your tent is canvass and it sheds water.” said Greg.

“My tent is saturated with waterproofing and other chemicals. Can’t you tell by the way it smells?” I asked, astonished.

“Well, I thought that was you and didn’t want to say anything, what with you letting me stay in it.”

We spent the afternoon trying to cast from the shoreline and Greg caught two fish and I got zip. When we cooked dinner in the late afternoon, water was still running off of the canoe. The fish tasted pretty good, all fried up with more potato and some cooked canned corn.  As we ate, we decided that maybe instead of staying out for four nights as we originally planned, we load up and go home in the morning.

A visit too short

My daughter and my grandson have been visiting me for the last week. They were originally going to stay for three days, but decided to make it a full week. Since my kids all live far from me I don’t get much chance to see them, and although they stay in touch there’s nothing like sitting face to face and being able to reach out and give and get hugs.

We spent the week talking about the days of their youth, being reminded of things forgotten and reliving the remembered moments. To make each other laugh so hard we can’t breathe as we revisit events and to become somber over the memories of unhappy moments. To celebrate and re-celebrate my daughter’s and my grandson’s accomplishments. This made more rich through her recent graduation as she became a biologist.

While my girl is an avid woods-person, hiking and camping all through the Cascade Mountains, she also shares my interest in drones and looks for ways to use her skills flying to make her studies of the plantlife and animals that populate her specialties. She also lobbies other scientists to look at unmanned aerial vehicles and to have their oversight press for regulations that allow their use for research, management, and the other tasks involved in gaining understanding of the ecosphere -particularly for the Pacific Northwest.

My grandson thinks I’m a genius because of all the things he’s seen that I built, be it robots, aircraft or tools. I’ll wait and let time show him that I only know what many, many people know. He talks a mile a minute about his hobbies and projects and I listen avidly as he explains ventriloquism, magic tricks, making cartoons on the computer and complains at the volume of gas the family dog, Cletus, is able to generate and appears to expel mostly in his room.

I like that he is coming to know my wife and seeing her as grandma. The distance that separates us most of the time makes it difficult to come to know each other. An extended visit fills so many gaps and strengthens their relationship. The more people a child can have in their lives that love them, the better, and I can see the interplay between them as they develop their own relationships and develop their own little secrets as they start to develop that wordless language that closeness produces.

It’s fun to sit with my grandson and let him watch as I assemble or modify some device or other, encouraging him to participate and tell me what he thinks the next move should be. Congratulating him when he’s right and explaining the function when he’s not, invariably he gets it right the next time. Our family members all have a foot in technology, some genetic deviation that seems to drive us to understand how and why things work the way they do, and give us a leg up when it comes to technical subjects. All of my children are scientists; computer hardware and software development, physical sciences like biology and engineering, and my grandson is, it would seem, following in those footsteps. I met my wife working for a technology company and so she fits right in, and I think that helps her relate to my children better than she might otherwise.

I felt a deep sadness as my little girl and her 11 year old son pulled out of the driveway to make the five or six hour drive back to her home in the hills outside of Everett. Each time I get to spend an extended period of time with my kids I feel a piece of my happiness wrenched away from me, a replay of their reaching adulthood and setting out to create their own lives in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Lives I am incredibly proud of. Tonight I have been sitting quietly and going over the events of the last week, sometimes smiling at the recollection of a passed moment, then frowning as I remember the car’s taillights moving down the street on its way to the freeway.

Where are they today?

The young Vietnamese men were lined up on the beach looking nervous. It’s like they They were awaiting a machine gun to pop out of the sand and mow them down. We had to issue the command numerous times: strip to you skivvies and go play in the water. They lightened up after we tossed a few balls into the water and a boogie board or two. “Go on, you dip stick. Go play!”

Still looking paranoid, they moved into the water but kept a wary eye on the shoreline. It was a test though, we wanted to find out which ones could swim and therefore be sent to fill out a ranger-like company made up of all Vietnamese guys. We ended up with a few on the beach, choking up salt water from beautiful Nha Trang bay. We let them play for the rest of the afternoon, but loaded them onto the ‘special’ truck at the end of the day.

The remainder were loaded on the really cool bus and were hauled off to get training in Vietnam and Laos that would probably kill them.   but they showed up and threw themselves into the training with failure not an option. The ranger guys we’d never seen again.

The thing is though, that some of them would really need water skills to sneak up on enemy locations at times, executing a fast movement attack on the enemy and having surprise effectively multiply their numbers by the quantity of enemy they caught off guard. After watching the Vietnamese soldiers in the water, I wondered how much of a surprise they’d be paddling across a river coughing up water and shouting in terror as their equipment loaded them down.

But many of the South Vietnamese soldiers were hard core fighters. Sure, some were not, having family and friendship ties to the north. Of special note were the Vietnamese Air Force; the men who supplied close air support to troops in contact with the enemy on the ground. Their wingtips cutting off the tops of trees, they were frighteningly accurate and seemed to have no fear. They flew when American policy grounded US fast movers. High explosive, white phospherous, and napalm would rain from their wings wherever the Forward Air Controllers told them to put it.

The infantry was almost as ferocious, digging in like ticks on the back of some NVA camp and literally fighting to the last man. Some of the things I saw were mesmerizingly awesome. I would think back to working with newly minted troops, embedded with us as a facet of their basic training and think of the names we called them, making fun of their ineptitude and inexperience. And now I was watching them fight with the tenacity of a psychotic pit bull and piling up enemy casualties like so much cordwood.  Never judge a book by its cover, I concluded as my time at was finally expired.

I wonder how many of those dog paddlers made it through the war and what they might be doing now. I look around me at my fellow Vietnam vets and see how normal many of their lives turned out, and how it is for those in WWII and Korea. War always leaves its fighters changed in ways that aren’t particularly obvious, but war takes a toll even if it leaves no visible scars. I know that when the NVA swept into north Saigon and we beat feat out of the south, they stood up anyone in a South Vietnamese uniform and executed them. And executed many sympathizers who were proven (or not) to be sympathetic to democracy. So I have good reason to think about those people, and about the guys we sent swimming in Nha Trang Bay while we played Beach Boys on tape recorders, and where they might be now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bowzer Barbecue

We were out back cooking chicken halves on my superduper BBQ that I made from a couple of 55 gallon drum. I’s cut one barrel in half the long way and welded feet to it so it was like a tub. I cut a slot in the other one, also longwise and welded it so that it made a sort of hood that caught the smoke and routed it to a little chimney I’d welded in the middle of what was now the top. Cutting a shopping cart apart, I made a grill for the bottom and a smoking shelf in the top. It worked great and people came from miles around to experience my barbeque chicken. Okay, they came from the neighborhood and it was just my friends, but the chicken was pretty good. Much of that had to do with the marinate my friend Greg made. He also made a really great BBQ sauce with molasses, soy sauce, ground peppers, Tobasco and some other ingredients I don’t remember but wish I did.

Anyway, we were out soaking up the last rays of afternoon along with some Coors beer. Coors was the beer of choice in the Portland/Vancouver area at the time. The problem was that it wasn’t sold anywhere in the state os of Washington or Oregon. The  Portland area had yet to become a nest of microbrews it is now and so the choices were pretty much what you found in the grocery store. Unless, of course, you made a run for the Idaho border and picked up a few cases of Coors, which we had. It’s not like Coors was really better, it’s that we couldn’t get it that made us want it.

The dogs, Ellwood, Snark and Foos were all playing with each other, playing tug o’ rope with what looked like it might have been a jacket at one time. The point here is that it was a great day and we were all enjoying ourselves. Someone threw a softball and hit Ben in the back. It wasn’t thrown hard, just enough to get his attention. He picked it up and threw it at Craig who made a nice one handed surprise catch and whipped it to me. I was turning the chicken and it caused me to flip one of the halves onto the ground.

As though some quantum message was passed between them, the dogs transported themselves to the barbecue and snatched up the chicken before I could reach down to fetch it. I landed on the grass and a quick rinse and a dip in the BBQ sauce would have it good as new. No way for that to happen as three dog snouts each took and equal grip on the meat and pulled, separating the chicken half into three chunks which were pretty much inhaled by the dogs. They all stood, tails wagging in some synchronized swim movement, their tongues flapping out and wrapping around their noses to get every last molecule of chicken and sauce consumed. They stood attentively now, as if they stood some kind of chance they were getting more chicken.

Dogs are very smart. Dogs are also dumber than rocks. Chicken bones are the last thing a dog should eat because they break off sharply and can block up the bowels pretty good. We were going to have to keep a close eye on the dogs. If they bloated or had blood coming out, they would have to go to the vet. This we found out by going in and calling the veterinary clinic up the road. When we all came out, we also found out that the dogs had taken the opportunity to score the remaining three chicken halves. We came out to find the grill empty, soot and grease on the dog’s paws and all of them licking their chops and looking paranoid.

After we all got done insulting the separate canine family trees, we strolled up the road to Dick’s to get a bag o burger. 10 little burgers for a buck. We bought a few bags and came back to the house.

The next day, my dog, Papoon, was making whining noises and dragging his butt like he had worms. Fearing the worst, I took him up to the vet to find out that A) my friends had been there with their dogs, and B) that xrays showed bones in my dog’s lower GI tract. The vet gave him something that was supposed to soften up the bones and some antibiotics and told to wait it out. A surgery to remove the bones would be expensive and dangerous. But after two days all of our dogs managed to ‘move’ the problem out. We all concluded that dogs could be a lot like little kids and that they needed an eye kept on them. Still, they would manage to chew your favorite pair of boots or gnaw on furniture legs in the night because they got bored. But like kids, it always somehow turns out worth it in the end.

We planned a new barbecue but the weather turned and we ended up with two weeks of rain. (It was the Portland area after all). The barbecue got dragged over next to the house and covered with a tarp until the next season. We did make a couple of beer runs to Idaho though.