Who Am I?

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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

18 April 2018

Cab Driver Stories: Good Hands

There are approximately 4,000 students in the NATTC (Naval Air Technical Training Command) here on NAS Pensacola. Virtually all of them want to be off the base on the weekend. Very few of them have cars. Some make the long walk off base to catch an Uber. But the vast majority of them rely on taxis, of which there is a veritable fleet of independents like myself who cater to the military and eschew the civilian market.

When liberty is called and they're allowed to leave base, they're not supposed to go out alone. They check-out with “libo-buddies” and they stick together until they check back in. So they come to the taxi queue in groups of between two and six, which is the maximum that most van-cabs can seat.

As I've said, we call them “the kids” because they seem so very, very young. And they are – most of them are basically just beyond high school age, and that's how a lot of them act: like rambunctious teenagers; they can be rowdy. This is not a bad thing, at least not for me. Their enthusiasm and lust-for-life is as infectious as it is entertaining. The stern-parent side of me might want to say, “You kids settle down or I'm gonna turn this cab around!” The still-a-teenager side of me says, “Party on, guys!” As long as they're well-behaved when we pass through the main gate, I don't care what they do in the cab. (Oh, and the military girls can be just as rowdy, if not more so than military boys.)

Since they always travel in pairs or groups, I get to witness some peculiar group dynamics.  After seven years of carting these fine young examples of American youth around, I've made some observations: some surprising, some not. 

Primarily they are, to a man, extremely proud of joining the military and serving their country.  They all have an admirable sense of duty and purpose and patriotism. They love this country. In addition, they are all incredibly close; their comradeship and dedication to each other is inspiring. They have a level of platonic intimacy that is quite startling when you first observe it. It's odd to hear straight guys profess love for each other, which we hear often (and not always when they're drunk). Each of these guys would absolutely lay down his or her life for the other, which is a profound thing.

The Marines are funny though. As close as they are, the Marines are all so incredibly competitive. They're always “one-upping” each other. If one guy says that the pickup truck he had in high school had 500 horsepower, the next guy will say his had 600 horsepower. By the time we get to the mall I'll be convinced that they all drove "monster" trucks to school, won every drag race, and out-ran the police every weekend.

The most bizarre example of this need to top each other was when I heard a Marine say that he got pinkeye in boot camp (apparently a non-uncommon malady). Another Marine quickly added, “Well I got pinkeye in both eyes!”

It's hard not to laugh sometimes.

Sometimes they talk to me, but just as often they're off in their own little worlds. I try not to eavesdrop, but really you can't avoid it. I had a car full of Marines coming back from the beach one day.  The conversation among them was loud and I really wasn't involved when I overheard, “Oh, you'd jump on a nuclear grenade for me, but you won't take a shower with me?” (I'm not sure of the context, because I only caught that snippet of that conversation. But I am certain it wasn't said in a sexual way.) The other Marines all laughed – not about taking a shower together (I guess that happens sometimes?), but because of the description: not just any grenade, “a nuclear grenade.”

Sometimes I just shake my head.

All cabdrivers have “regulars” – customers who ride with them more or less exclusively. We make sure they get rides when they need them, especially on a late weekend night when the cabs are all booked and they need to be back by curfew.  And we give our regulars good discounts. We get to know these kids...know where they're from and a little about their lives. Older drivers, like my friend Terry and myself...we unavoidably get to feeling somewhat paternal about them.

There is a group of Navy kids I carry around a lot. Age-wise, they are all over twenty-one (some only by a month or two), and they like to drink. Oh boy, do they like to drink! They are extremely close friends – you can just tell. Each one is a strong personality in his own right. They are all prototypical alpha males, let's face it. But there is one who is their ringleader: the one they call “Scott.”

Scott always sits up front. He is loud, boisterous, obnoxious (in a funny, good way), and he's usually drunk. He instantly takes command of the taxi – mostly the conversation but especially the music, which he likes LOUD. He's not a big, tough, macho kind of guy, although like all of them he can be. But he is the life of their party. This charismatic man-boy just dominates.  Oddly, the others defer to him in a not-so-subtle way. Scott is the alpha-alpha male, and they know it.  He is just a natural leader. He's the kind of guy (we all know the type) who walks into a room and owns the place.

My friend Terry and I feel honored to transport these “kids” around. We tell them that they made a wise and smart decision to join the military...that they are embarking on the greatest adventure of their lives, and that no one knows what's in store for them once they leave Pensacola, only that it will be awesome and they better enjoy it!

When their time here is done and we finally, and sadly, drop them off at the airport on their way to their next duty station, neither Terry nor I know where these guys and gals will ultimately end up. Some surely will be deployed to some of the “hot spots” in which we are currently embroiled. We always wish them well, we thank them for their service, and we earnestly hope that they'll never have to see the kind of situations for which they are all trained and ready. It's comforting to know that our country is defended by such fine young men and women.  Don't worry: We're in good hands.

If we only had such faith in our civilian leadership.

11 April 2018

Getting Organized

I'm ecstatic. Not just figuratively ecstatic, but literally ecstatic too. In fact I'm beyond ecstatic: I'm overjoyed. The reason, you ask? Well I finally did it – I finally broke down and bought myself a three-box rolling tool chest. I cannot tell you what a relief this is.

The new box

I have worked on cars and motorcycles all my life. And over the years I've acquired a bunch of tools. But I never had an organized place to keep them, so they ended up in plastic totes and tool bags. This was mostly because when I'd go to the junkyard I'd need to bring certain tools. The totes just kept getting fuller and fuller. Oh, and heavier, by the way.

My garage was a holy mess, with tools all over the place. “Where'd I put my power drill?” God only knows. And he's not telling. This kicker was just recently when my friend Jacob was over. We were doing...something...and we needed a Torx bit. (A Torx bit is a star-shaped tool that manufacturers favor in place of Phillips head screws. They come in various sizes from very small to very big.) I was certain that I had said Torx bit, and I did, but it took forever to find it. And let's not talk about all the motorcycle parts I've collected over the years...

I have two old motorcycles that I'm going to restore, and I need workspace...that is, space that's not covered with various loose sockets and crap.

With my nomadic lifestyle I never really had a garage to work in. Now I do. And even though I've lived in this joint for seven years, it's never truly felt like home – mostly because I spend about half the year up in Washington State. But now that that's over, and now that I'm finally buying this house, I want to...how you say...settle down. Remodeling the bathrooms? That can wait – I need a workshop!

I've been looking for a tool box for a while. The stuff that was advertised on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace was just junk. After a fruitless search, I decided to shift gears. Sears had a three-box thirteen-drawer tool chest bundle on sale for not a lot of money. But I was hesitant, thinking: Do I really need thirteen drawers? I went, I looked, I bought. I got it home and put it together. And guess what? Those thirteen drawers are filling up awfully fast! I may need another, supplemental box.

Now, is my garage suddenly well-organized? Oh, hell no. But we're on the right track. It's a very small thing, I know, but it's amazing how satisfying it is to put your tools away where they're supposed to be...where you'll be able to find them again when you need them. Now if I could just do something about all these motorcycle parts!

04 April 2018

Southern Living

There are things about living in the south that northerners might find peculiar.  For one thing, we do say, Y'all.  It is a perfectly fine contraction of the words "you" and "all." But yankees seem to find it amusing. When I go back up and visit my family, if I say y'all they look at me funny.

If you walk into a restaurant down here, the waitress will hand you a menu and before you can even sit down she will ask you what you'd like to drink?  You can merely say sweet or unsweet.  You don't have to say anything else.  She will bring you a glass of your specified iced tea - which we drink year-round down here, by the way. Restaurants always have it on hand. Iced tea usually comes in huge, bladder-busting tumblers which they will gladly keep filled as often as you like.

Sometimes the sweet tea at a particular restaurant is known to be way too sugary/syrupy and I'll ask for half-and-half.  They always know what I mean.  I've never been asked for clarification, even at the Chow Tyme buffet restaurant with the Chinese waitresses.

And while we're at it, you can call a waitress hon' down here and she won't be offended.  But you only call someone "Missy" if you're angry or displeased.

When I was growing up we always said grace before every meal at home.  We thanked God or the food we were about to eat.  I still do it now.  In the South it is not unusual to say grace before eating in a restaurant, something that's pretty much unthinkable up north.  Down here, sometimes a group of diners will bow their heads and say it silently and individually, but just as often it is said aloud. Nobody makes a big deal about it, and nobody else stares or makes fun.  Nobody ridicules.  People are not ashamed of their faith down here. Nor should they be.

We stop for funeral processions out of respect down here.  No matter which direction the procession is going, everyone just..stops...and lets it go by. Ironically, on the other hand people down here do not always stop, pull over for or get out of the way of emergency vehicles with lights and sireens.  It's quite bizarre.

I grew up in New York City, and I was skeptical that I would enjoy living in the South. New Yorkers generally consider everyone else in the country (with a few exceptions) to be uneducated, unsophisticated boobs.  But in the course of the thirty years that I've been living down here I have become quite comfortable, and have adapted nicely to the slower pace of life.  Yeah, people might be less-sophisticated down here, but not everyone has to be William F. Buckley.

Just don't screw up my breakfast order!  "Missy, I said I wanted cheese grits with these eggs!  And bring me some more unsweet while you're at it, willya hon?"

28 March 2018

2018: The Summer of Bob

Usually around this time of year I make a boring post about getting ready to leave Pensacola, Florida for my summer job flying helicopters up in Washington. I've been doing that job every year since 2010. It's incredibly fun, and I always look forward to going up there and working with a great bunch of people.

Not this year. It's time to take a break.

I turned 62 this year, and became eligible for Social Security. While this does not weigh heavily on me, it is a number than I cannot ignore. I still think of myself as a fun, young guy. But the image in the mirror tells the real story. I don't feel 62...at least I don't have the various aches and pains that sometimes trouble people my age. I'm not on any medications and I don't have a doctor that I see regularly (other than my flight surgeon every year, briefly). In fact, since I broke my arm in that motorcycle accident back in 2010, I haven't seen the inside of a hospital since.

At 195 pounds I'm not in the best physical shape of my life but I can still ride my motorcycle, and if my buddy Matt and I would get off our asses, I could probably still hike down into Tallulah Gorge - and back up - without the assistance of a medevac helicopter. Or I could paddle a canoe down a slow river.

I used to do a lot of those outdoorsy things. Not so much though in the past seven years. That stupid summer job has meant that I'm away from Florida during the best part of the year. And yeah, it's the best part of the year in Washington too, but I'm committed to at least 120 days (and usually more) of continuous-duty work during the cherry season. Aside from that, there's just not a whole lot to do up there, believe it or not. The people up there are more into winter sports like skiing, hunting and playing on snowmobiles than summer sports like hiking and canoe-camping. (Also, there are bears.)

Last summer, my friend Chris and I wanted to kayak down the beautiful Okanogan River. Trouble was, there were few put-in and take-out points. We scouted all up and down the river, but were unable to find good enough locations to make for a nice long day trip. It was pretty frustrating. We ended up not going.

Plus, I love the beach! I like to cruise to the beach on my motorcycle. I'll find a nice secluded stretch somewhere in the National Seashore, and lay out in the sun. And yes, there are still stretches of Pensacola Beach where you can do that - during the week at least.

And so, before I get too old to do the things I like, I'm going to take this coming summer off. There was a "Seinfeld" episode in which George found himself unemployed but with three months of severance pay. He decides that he's going to be really active – that it will be “The Summer of George!”

Welcome to The Summer of Bob.

20 March 2018

Cab Driver Stories: A Very Strange Encounter

And how's your day going? How's your life? Most people, when you ask them how they're doing, they'll give you answer like, "Oh, I can't complain - nobody listens anyway."  I'm never sure if they really do want to complain and want me to probe further. I usually don't. I hate long-winded stories.

(Unless I'm writing them, of course.)

I got a call to go pick up a woman on Monday morning out on Pensacola Beach. The driver who gave me the trip knew this woman; she was evidently a frequent visitor to our town. She was traveling by herself, which is kind of odd. People who come to Pensacola on business usually don't stay out on the beach, especially in the winter.

The weekend had been blah weather-wise. It had rained on Friday; Saturday was “okay,” but Sunday started off foggy-foggy and later turned rainy.  Then on the way to the beach on Monday morning, I ran through some of the thickest fog I've ever seen. Visibility could only have been 500 feet or so.

I arrived early, well prior to the scheduled 0930 pickup time, and was surprised to see her walk right out of the hotel to my cab. She seemed preoccupied. She was holding her phone (doesn't everyone these days?) and already had her headphones on. Her general attitude was one of, “don't bother me.” And in fact she seemed kind of surly as we greeted each other.

On the way to the airport I asked, as I always do, where she was headed back to?

"Allentown, Pennsylvania,” she replied without much enthusiasm.

I sympathized. It's been a weird winter for most of the country. She said that they'd just got dumped on with snow...in March!...and that she was tired of it.

I asked what brought her to Pensacola Beach of all places?

”Ohhh, vacation,” she replied flatly. ”I needed to get away from my job. Things were pretty crazy. If I didn't leave I probably would've gotten fired.”

Well damn! Since she brought it up, I asked what she did for a living?

”I'm a nurse.”

When I asked about the stress at work, she just stared out the window into the nothingness beyond the guardrail where Pensacola Bay should have been.

”I don't want to get into it,” she said quietly but firmly.

Fair enough. You can't force people to talk.

However I did feel it necessary to mention that I envied her and all those like her. “People who work in the medical field are special,” I said, which I really do believe. I truly admire doctors, EMT's nurses...cops - everyone who deals with the public when they are not exactly at their best.  

I went on, “You guys see people at their worst. People never go to a hospital when they feel good. When they get to you they're usually in some dire situation.”  I was taking a stab, trying to make her feel good about herself and her chosen profession.

”Thanks,” she said weakly.

I added that I couldn't do what she does...didn't know how she did...how she dealt with that day after day. Finally I said that if society depended on people like me to care for the sick and the hurt, a whole lot of people would die.

”Well, some people deserve to die,” she remarked with an iciness that sent a chill down my spine.


What do you say to something like that? Honestly I did not know how to respond. I figured I'd better not say anything for the rest of the trip. And I didn't.

At the airport, I told her that I hoped everything would work out, job-wise, and said optimistically that the winter would be over soon. As I watched her walk into the terminal, I thought about the life to which she was returning. Surely the same problems would still be there that have made her so bitter and depressed.

And I drove away, reflecting as I do after such encounters. I thought about how blessed I am and how sometimes I feel a little guilty that my life is so great right now. I am debt-free (no credit card debt and all my cars and motorcycles are paid-off); I work when I want; and I'm healthy. For me, life could not be better if I were Donald J. Trump.  But it sure is not for everybody!

06 March 2018

Cab Driver Stories: ...Drunker Than A Sailor

I was sitting on the taxi stand on a Friday night in downtown Pensacola some years ago. It was getting late and I was about to call it a night when two drunk Navy kids piled in. I mean, they were, as my friends up in Washington like to say, “drunker than ten Indians” whatever that means. Really drunk, I guess. And these two were.

The drunker of the two was a white kid. He immediately slumped in his seat, nearly unconscious. His black friend at least did not look like he was going to puke. The white one did. Other than that, they seemed like nice kids.

”Take us back to base!” the black kid said.

Before even moving the car, I turned around and looked at them for a bit. They seemed very, very young.

“How old are you guys?” I asked. “You guys 21 yet?”

There was an awkward silence: No answer.

Over the years, the Navy has had...varying...policies regarding underage drinking of their students at the NATTC (Naval Air Technical Training Command). Now, I hear that there that it's “zero-tolerance.” Underage drinking gets you “separated,” which means “kicked out.” But back then you might get away with it with just NJP (non-judicial punishment) or a visit to the “Captain's Mast” which is more serious and probably career-ending but might result in you staying in.

Back at the base, the boys would have to sign-in and get across the “Quarterdeck,” which is a reception desk of sorts where people monitor the comings and goings of their sailors. And these two never would've gotten away with it.

I told them that I wasn't taking them back to base. I said I'd take them to a fairly inexpensive hotel near the base so they could sleep it off and sober up, and that I'd pick them up and take them to base for free in the morning. I told them that if they could not afford the $70 for the room, I'd spring for it. After the usual macho bluster subsided, they agreed. I handed the white kid my puke bucket and we departed.

When I started driving a taxi, I'd work downtown on the weekends. This was before Uber came and pretty much put taxis out of business in Pensacola. Because of the fear of drunks getting sick in the cab, I bought some large plastic child's beach pails. They were, like, a buck at Walmart. I put some plastic bags in them and...voila! they look like little garbage pails. But they're not ;)

The black kid kept telling me about how the white kid was out partying with some older sailors (who could obviously hold their liquor better and) who'd abandoned him at some point in the night's festivities. The black kid took the white kid under his wing and assured him that he'd get them both back to base. He was very proud of himself for sticking up for his buddy and being The Protector. He was equally dissatisfied with the older guys.

We got to the Ashton Inn and Suites. The black kid went in to register. Then he disappeared (ostensibly somewhere to relieve himself, I'm sure). The receptionist, a woman about my age came outside to smoke a cigarette. She looked into the cab and saw my comatose young passenger, who was leaning forward in his seat, face buried in my emergency Bodily Fluid Ejection Device.

”He been that way for long?” she asked with a chuckle.

”All the way here from downtown,” I replied.

I gave the kids my number. I told them I'd pick them up whenever they wanted. With that, they stumbled away. I got up early the next morning, figuring that they'd call, but they never did. I assume they found their own way back to base.

22 February 2018

Cab Driver Stories: Speaking Of Service...

Pensacola is not exactly known as a “college town” although we do have the University of West Florida and Pensacola Christian College. It's nice having PCC here because the kids who attend it are universally clean-cut, well-dressed and well-mannered. We see them at Walmart and at the mall, instantly recognizable. Along with all the Navy and Marine kids from the Navy Base, our little town has a different look and feel than, say, Berkeley, CA. No scruffy hippies here!

I happened to be in my taxi, working the airport one Friday afternoon in January. The PCC kids were returning from their winter break. The college sends shuttle vans to pick them up (they are not free).  But many eschew them and opt for the $11.00 taxi ride to school. Don't ask me why.

This young, clean-cut kid walks up to my cab. His luggage is non-military (which is distinctive) and I know immediately where he's going. We exchange pleasantries, load up and take off.

It's not a long ride to the college, so I knew that my time with this passenger will be brief. I have to make the most of it. I asked and he told me that his major is Pre-Med.

ME: Sooooo...you want to be a doctor?”

HIM: Yeah, I guess...” he replied with a surprising lack of conviction. ”Trouble is, it's not going very well. My grades aren't very good.”

Hey, maybe the kid is only trying to be a doctor because his father wants him to be one. Who knows. But this opens the door for me. 

ME: “Well, you're a Christian, right?  We Christians believe that God has a plan for all of us. Perhaps God's plan for you is that you not be a doctor.” I add,”But that's the problem with God's plan – it's usually not revealed to us in advance. Sometimes you just have to pray on it and trust in the Holy Spirit to guide you to where you're supposed to be.”

Big mistake. Now, as I've said I'm not afraid of talking about religion and/or spirituality.  It opened the door for him, too.

Do you believe in God?" he asked.

I told him that I do. 

HIM: "Well, if everything in your life went completely wrong...if your cab died and your house burned down...if everything that could go wrong did go wrong...would you still believe in God?”

It was such a strange, yet innocent and naive question that I actually laughed. Trying hard to not be or sound condescending, I said, “Son, you're too young to know this yet...but by the time you get to be my age you will have had some very good and some very bad times. Sometimes things go horribly wrong and you start to think that there's no way out. Life can be pretty scary sometimes.

But the bad times do not challenge my faith in God. If anything, they strengthen it.  Because through both the good times and bad, God has always been there with me – even when it seemed that no one else was. He has given me the strength to get through whatever was happening. And He has never let me down.”

The conversation got even more intense. The boy was evidently going through a struggle of faith. He was obviously trying to refine and develop his own beliefs. And he quite clearly needed someone to talk to.

The problem was that we'd gotten to his college. It was a Friday afternoon and that's when it gets busy for us cabdrivers. I needed to get out and make some money. But I also didn't want to just kick this kid out of the car. And so we talked. He kept asking me philosophical questions...questions without one single, absolute or even simple answer. Some things we just have to take on...you know...faith! He'd quote Scripture, especially the Old Testament; I'd dismiss it out of hand.

Finally, I said, Look, we Catholics focus more on the New Testament...on the life of Christ. Our Bible tells us to not take Scripture literally. The Bible is not God's word as dictated by a boss to his secretary. It is the 'inspired' word of God. We can't even be sure that Christ said all of the things that are attributed to him!  Once you wrap your head around that concept, it makes things a whole lot easier.”

Still, it's hard for many Christians to move away from thinking that the Bible is God's actual Word with a capital W. That belief is pounded into their heads from an early age.

Eventually we got out of the cab and I retrieved the kid's luggage from the trunk.  He held his hand out, looked me right in the eye and gave me a firm handshake.  Someone had taught him well.

"Thank you for your service," he said.

I wasn't sure how to take that.  Did he mean my service driving people around who don't have access to cars?  Or did he mean my service of talking to people about spirituality?  I hoped it was the latter...but you never know.