Who Am I?

My photo
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?

24 July 2017

Depressingly Good Weather

Generally, helicopter pilots get frustrated when the weather is so bad that it keeps us grounded. It's simple: Pilots want to fly. It's why we become pilots. It's why we become professional pilots – so we can get paid to fly! When you can turn a hobby into a job that pays the bills, well...isn't that the best of both worlds?

Well, sure!


I've been “lucky” in that I've been a professional pilot for most of my life. I've never once woken up in the morning angry that I had to go to “work.” Just the opposite! I've always leaped out of bed knowing that I'm going to get to do something that I really enjoy. Okay, maybe not leaped, but I've never gotten up thinking, “Dammit, I have to go to work today. Grrrr.”


Now that I'm thirty-something years down the road in this field and semi-retired, things have changed slightly. Now my idea of the perfect flying job is one where I get to sit around with my feet up and get paid to not fly. Which is what I've got this summer.


Did I mention how dry it's been here in cherryland? Since the beginning of the season we have had exactly one day of rain. And it was not an all-day soaker; most of us only got a couple of hours before the cherries were all dry. And since June 15th there's been...nothing. No rain. Not even a cloud in the sky to give us the faint hope of rain. In the seven seasons I've been coming up here, it's been the most severe-clear, dry summer.  Even the temperatures have been moderate, with fewer days above 100 degrees than usual.


The absolutely clear weather is good for me but bad for the pilots I hired. They're all fairly young and eager, thirsty for flying. But they're all sitting around with long faces because the weather has been so good. Ironic, isn't it?


I won't bore you with what I've been doing all summer. You really don't want to know. My life isn't any more exciting or interesting than yours other than I (sometimes) fly a helicopter that's as old as I am, and I'm 61.


The boss is not happy. Then again, we've had no maintenance problems; these are old helicopters after all. We didn't crash anything; these are young pilots with very little time in this specific model of helicopter. And we haven't used any fuel or oil. So there are always trade-offs. Not a great year; not a horrible year.  Most people who live up here would tell you that this summer weather has been great!  For us it's been depressingly good.


We do still have a few helicopters on contract, one of which is “mine.” The grower to whom I'm assigned told us he'll be keeping one ship around until sometimes in August. And there are two other guys covering cherry orchards that don't ripen until later. So I guess I'll stick around for a while.  But not for too long...


I'm hoping that I can get out of here and back to Florida while there's still some good motorcycle-riding weather left.  I've got my "new" Harley Sportster down there and I'm itching to put some miles on it.  Unlike tropical Miami, Pensacola is sub-tropical, which means our winter temperatures can be fairly cool. And when we go back to Central Standard Time the days get short.  Call me a wuss, but I don't like to ride when it's less than 60 degrees out, or at night.

18 June 2017

Fun

I do the hiring and firing for the company I work for here in Washington. Each year we hire a half-dozen or so pilots. Oddly, the ad for our little two-month, temporary summer gig garners a lot of resumes (dozens this year!), which tells me that there are a lot of unemployed pilots out there looking for work...any work.

If I'm going to ask a pilot to come all the way up to the Middle Of Nowhere, Washington (on his own dime!) for an interview, I want to make pretty darn sure that he'll work out. I don't want to waste anyone's money and I certainly don't want to waste my boss's money and time.

A couple of years ago, I brought a relatively low-time guy up. He was in his 30's and had enough time/experience to meet our minimum qualifications. We had a good conversation on the phone, and I was optimistic that he'd be okay. He lived in northern California and elected to fly up instead of drive. The closest airport with airline service is in the city of Wenatchee, about 70 miles south of Brewster. I drove down to pick him up.

On the hour-plus ride back up to Brewster, we talked. Everything seemed okay. I took him for a “pre-employment” ride in our helicopter and I knew right away that I could make a cherry-dryer out of him. Good pilot.  But then...

It happened to be a weekend, and that night we went to the SweetRiver Bakery, of which I write so much about. My friends Mikey and Brandon were there, as usual. We were sitting outside in the back. There was a band, and the music was loud, so the three of us sat on the same side of a big, round outdoor table that could seat eight or ten - you know the type. The prospective pilot sat on the exact opposite side, making it difficult for us to communicate. He seemed deliberately aloof and distant. Some of this is natural, considering he was immersed in a situation where everyone knew each other and he was the new guy. I get it.  Believe it or not, even I can be shy and reserved in a new group of people too.  

But then he made a Big Deal about not being a drinker. We drink. Sometimes we drink a lot. But it's okay if you don't drink. Have a soda! WE DON'T CARE. But there's no need to make a big issue out of it. Which he did.

At one point Mikey, knowing the guy lived near San Francisco, asked him what he did for fun in the big city? 

 ”I don't have fun,” the guy replied somberly. 

Oh man...talk about crickets...the ultimate record-scratch.  Even the band stopped and turned their heads our way in disbelief.  Mikey, Brandon and I looked at each other with three raised eyebrows. He doesn't have fun? What? Seemed kind of weird to be honest. All helicopter pilots are a little peculiar...but there are limits.

The guy could have said, “Hey, I fly helicopters, what's more fun than that?” And we would've laughed and agreed and moved on. Actually, I would've. But not Mikey. He would've pressed the issue. And he did. Because we humans are not one-dimensional. Yeah, we pilots love to fly above everything else. But I ride motorcycles and play the guitar (badly). I like to drink with my friends and go camping and drive too fast on winding roads.  Mikey and Brandon ride their motorcycles and do all sorts of other crazy shit...young guy stuff which we won't talk about. Our lives are, if nothing else, fun.  Incessantly, unendingly fun.

But this prospective pilot guy maintained that he simply had no fun...had no life.  No other explanation or expansion was offered. Wow. At that point I had serious misgivings but decided to keep him around anyway...just to see.  Maybe he had other, more redeeming qualities?

The next day I continued the interview process and was giving the guy a check-out in the S-55 helicopter. It's a tall machine, and to do a proper preflight inspection of the transmission and rotor head you have to climb up and stand on the side of the airframe – about ten feet off the ground. I climbed up one side. The guy sort of climbed up on the other side of the ship and clung onto the handles on the fuselage, but would not join me up top.

What's the matter, you got a fear of heights?”
I joked.

Well, I don't...but my legs do,”
the guy replied with a weak smile. He wasn't joking.

Okay! Game over. If I can't depend on you to preflight the rotors (the tail rotor also has to be inspected by standing on a tall ladder), then I don't want you. I drove him back down to Wenatchee to catch a flight home....home to where he had no fun.

The fear of heights thing was the clincher, but honestly the not-having-fun thing was almost as troubling. It seemed...I don't know...fake? Like he was hiding something? I mean, come on, we all have fun. Who doesn't like to have fun?

Unemployed pilots, that's who.

09 June 2017

Cluttered Brain

There are people on the planet who crave every detail of things. Their brains are cluttered with mostly useless facts, some of which are even true. Given the opportunity they will gladly spout off a ton of crap in an attempt, I suppose, to display how intelligent they are.

I am not so afflicted. And anyway, no one would be fooled.

For the thirteen years that I worked as a pilot in the Gulf of Mexico, I specifically avoided learning much about what the oil company guys did. It's not that the process of extracting oil and natural gas from the ground wasn't interesting to me. (Well...it wasn't, really.) I did learn the basics of what happens to the oil/gas between the time it comes out of the ground and goes into the pipeline to an onshore refinery. But I didn't want to know a lot about their jobs because I didn't want them to know a lot about my job. “Stick to what you know and do best,” is my motto. I just made that up.

And so up here in Washington State I am in my seventh year as a cherry-drying pilot, hovering over the wet stone-fruit to keep them from splitting after a rain event. And this morning while driving to work I realized that if you held a gun to my head and asked me to point out the differences between the leaf of a cherry tree and the leaf of an apple tree (often planted right next to each other) I would have to say, “Pull the trigger.” Old-timers up here give me a look of incredulity and wonder how I could not know? “It's so easy to tell!” they say. Uhh, yeah...right. For you, maybe. Because you care. I don't.

I hate admitting things like that. But I grew up in The Bronx, NYC. To us, a tree was a tree was a tree. They were rare. Some were green. There were pine trees that had needles and sticky trunks. And then there were shade trees; don't ask me to tell them apart. Oak? Elm? Poplar? Beats me. I'm not a farmer or a tree surgeon – I don't need to know that kind of stuff although it may be interesting or even fascinating to others.

I learned the hard way, rather late in life, that in the wintertime a dead tree looks exactly like a live tree. And when you're climbing a dead tree to rescue a cat, the branches of said dead tree can crumble like a loaf of stale Italian bread. (Or is it French bread? Which is the kind with the hard crust?). And when the bough breaks, the Bobby will fall. And down will come Bobby, injuring himself so badly he got an ambulance ride to the hospital (with lights and siren!) and had to spend a week in bed recovering from his injuries and nearly missing an epic cross-country ferry flight in a helicopter. (I should add that the cat eventually came down by himself.)

Now here we are, in the age of the internet, where any fact about any subject is immediately available at our fingertips. And we don't even have to trouble our fingertips! There are voice-recognition apps that don't even require that you touch the “phone” to ask it a question. I say, "Hello computer!” (a nod to the Star Trek movie, “The Voyage Home”) and my phone wakes up.

”GTS!” someone in the group will shout when a disputable subject comes up. Google that shit. And then someone (or a couple of someones) will whip out their smarter-than-us-phones and start regaling us with useless crap that I could really and happily live without knowing.

It's hard for me to not echo out loud the words of...ohh, who was that actor who played Lt. Samuel (not Philip!) Gerard in the movie-remake of The Fugitive? That guy. He had the drop on Harrison Ford's Richard Kimble character, who insisted that he did not kill his wife. Lt. Gerard says, ”I don't care!” See, Lt. Gerard was just a cop doing his job. And his job was to capture that escaped prisoner. The nuances of the case did not concern him.


I know about cars and motorcycles and airplanes and helicopters. Those are the things that occupy my time and imagination. Politics? Oh no! The mysteries of life? Nah. Why dwell on that stuff?  My brain is cluttered enough as it is.

30 April 2017

Back To Washington - So Soon?

Damn, that was fast. The winter, I mean. My...vacation from my temporary summer gig in Washington State. My time in Florida seemed awfully short, and indeed it was – I didn't get home until the middle of December. And now it's the end of April and I'm already on the way back to the Pacific Northwest. In fact, I'm writing this in a hotel room in Butte, Montana.

My plan, as always is to leave Washington when the cherries are all picked and the helicopters are all put away. But there are always...things that conspire to keep me up there well past my intended date of departure. The very first vestiges of those “things” are forming now, even as we speak, like the little wisps of fog you sometimes see just before the visibility goes to zero. I suspect that I'll get coerced into staying longer, as usual.

So we'll see.

18 April 2017

My Summer Vacations...

When I posted that last installment of Jacob and my trip last year from Washington State to Florida, it was with the realization that in a very short time I’ll be leaving again to go back north. While my summer job generally lasts from May to September, I was coerced last year until staying longer. The boss picked up a big cropdusting contract, and he needed my help. So I stayed…much, much longer than expected. I left in mid-December. It was cold and snowy, two conditions I'd hoped to never again experience.

So my time here in Florida this year amounts to nothing more than a visit. I had rented-out one bedroom out last year before I left. And as soon as I did that, a family member also needed a place to stay. So I’ve got two people/tenants. They each have their way of arranging things in the kitchen and such. Consequently I feel like a stranger in my own house. And now I’m leaving again in less than a week.

Every year, my friends make fun of me because I say that each season in Washington will be my last. They know I’ll go back…and I always have. This summer will mark my seventh year. And it really will be my last…for a while, anyway.

It’s not that the summer job isn’t fun – it is! But there’s no free time. It’s a continuous duty job with no days off. Even when the forecast calls for a zero percent chance of rain for the next thirty days…even when there’s not a cloud between us and Hawaii…it could still rain. It’s weird. A little shower will form over the Cascade Mountains, mosey down into the Okanogan Valley, and boom…some grower’s cherries will get wet. The farmers pay us a lot of money just to sit on “standby,” so we can’t take the chance of not being there, even if that chance of rain is miniscule.

Occasionally, a group of us will take off and go tubing down the Methow River, or swimming up at Soap Lake. But cell phone service at such remote places is still spotty and/or nonexistent. If one or more of us needed to fly, we’d be out of touch. That, of course is unacceptable. And so even though I have gone down the river and up to the lake, I always feel guilty and tense; it’s hard to relax.

Shortly after I got back, I bought a another motorcycle – another Harley Sportster, my third. My other two Harleys were great, but this 1996 model is closer to my idea of a perfect Sportster, having things like spoke wheels. My last two Sportsters had Harley’s “mag” wheels, which look great, but I think a proper motorcycle just should have spokes. I have some other changes planned for it, but they are minor and will be fairly inexpensive. I’ve got a ton of spare parts in stock that will bolt right on this new bike.

Here I am with the "new" Sportster just after purchase. The seat has already been changed. The handlebars, exhaust system and air cleaner and a few other things are next. I initially wanted a red one, but I have to say I love the blue color.

So, life being what it is, I didn’t get to ride the bike much over the winter. First of all, the bike sat for a while before I bought it and the carburetor needs to be rebuilt, which I never got around to doing. The custom, aftermarket exhaust system the previous owner installed is WAY TOO DAMN LOUD and I need to find a suitable, quieter replacement, which I so far have not. I want to change the handlebars. So let’s just say this bike is a work-in-progress at the moment. Which is okay.

When I get back to Florida in September I want to make the detail changes to the Harley to make it “mine” and more rideable. By next spring, I want to take some trips on the Harley…while I still have time.

Going down that long, lonesome highway
Bound for the mountains and the plains
Sure ain’t nothing here gonna tie me
And I’ve got some friends I’d like to see again

12 April 2017

Washington State to Florida - 2016: The Grand Canyon

The final installment, at last!


When we last met up with our intrepid travelers, Jacob and I had just hit Los Angeles, California. This was back in December of 2016.  Upon leaving Washington, my plan to go south and get quickly into warmer weather had worked. Southern California was as beautiful...and crowded...as we all know it is - I don't have to tell you that. It's nice, but you couldn't pay me to live there.

We made a mandatory stop for lunch at In-N-Out, the burger joint with which every other burger joint on the planet is compared, apparently. Meh- it was okay. I don't know why Californians rave so enthusiastically about In-N-Out. I guess I don't get all that excited about hamburgers anymore.

Jacob had never been to the Grand Canyon, and I've only been there once when I was very young. So there was no question that it, like the Pacific Coast Highway was on our itinerary.  Instead of taking I-10 eastbound, we took I-15 to Barstow and then hooked off onto I-40 east. Once past Williams, Arizona you take Highway 64 north a long way up into the Grand Canyon National Park.

You know how things get smaller as you get older...your childhood bedroom, for instance? Well I'm happy to report that it's not the case with the Grand Canyon. It remains impressively, impossibly huge.  If you haven't experienced it, you should.  It should be on everybody's bucket list. We took a bazillion pictures, of course.  But pictures on a blogpost simply don't do it justice. When it comes to some of the places in this country, you just have to go. The Grand Canyon is one of them.

Jacob and I started at the main visitor's center, taking the rim trail down to Grand Canyon Village. It's an easy hike with plenty of overlooks. And, just like on our canoe trips, we took our time and didn't rush. This is a place where you really need to slow down and drink in the majesty and grandeur of it all.

Obviously, a 2D picture just can't do the Grand Canyon justice

Here's a view looking across toward the north rim.  But wait...what's that little speck down on that outcropping of rock?

Yep, it's Mr. Jacob "I'll do anything for a good selfie" Speed.  I think he's peeing.

At Grand Canyon Village visited the historic El Tovar Hotel which opened in 1905.  I would have loved to stay there, but my last name ain't Trump.  We settled for a (pricey) lunch in their fancy restaurant.  Hey, anything with cloth tablecloths qualifies as "fancy" in my book. I'll say this: The food was better than at In-N-Out.  But then, the whole Grand Canyon experience was so incredible that they could've served us dog poop on a platter and I would've loved it.

As with everything on this trip, I wished we'd had more time at the Grand Canyon. But both Jacob and I needed to get back to our respective homes, and admittedly we'd been dawdling. The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful...ohhh, other than breaking down in Clinton, Oklahoma when the ignition switch in the Buick decided to fry itself at a gas stop...at night, of course. We actually had plenty of gas, but thank Jesus I decided to stop a little "early" at the Love's Truck Stop instead of waiting until we really needed it and would be out in the middle of nowhere between towns. Sometimes you have to trust your intuition.

Jacob and I tried everything we knew to get the car started, but it was hopeless.  And dark. However, good fortune smiled on us when I asked the manager of the truck stop if he could recommend a company that could tow our dead car to a shop. He said he knew a trustworthy local mechanic who lived nearby. Sure enough, two guys in a beat-up work truck soon arrived and set about diagnosing the problem.  A new ignition switch would have to be ordered, which would mean it wouldn't even arrive until around noon of the next day. With no other choice, Jacob and I punched up Hotels.com. Happily, I was eligible for a free night stay, so that was good.

I was skeptical that things would work out - it must be the helicopter pilot in me. But sure enough, the new switch came in and the mechanic worked feverishly to get us going. Three hundred dollars later, we were on the road by four p.m.

After dropping off some aircraft parts in Arkansas we drove through the night, and arrived in Pensacola early the next morning (Sunday). We'd spent six days on the road. I, for one, was happy to be "home." However that feeling was tempered somewhat by the knowledge that in just four months I'd be heading back up to Washington.

09 February 2017

Washington State To Florida - 2016: The PCH

Ah, the famous Pacific Coast Highway.



Let me admit this right up front: I don’t much like Southern California.  Oh, I get it… I understand what everyone sees in the place and why everyone wants to live there.  Trouble is, everyone already does.  It’s just way too crowded for this boy. I myself would have avoided it, but Jacob wanted to drive down the Pacific Coast Highway, and the boss wanted me to stop in Riverside (within the L.A. area) to look at a helicopter.  So California was unavoidably on our route. 

There is one problem with going down the Pacific Coast Highway…well, two problems, actually.  The first is that you see stunning vistas at every curve in the road! that make you want to stop and take a picture.  The second is that you end up with a gazillion pictures and have to choose only a couple of them to put up on Facebook or in a blogpost.  The day Jacob and I drove the PCH it was cloudy and hazy.  Since this is the Time Of The Internet you can Google much prettier photos of the road than the crappy ones I took. 

California State Route 1 (the PCH) from San Francisco down to San Luis Obispo is an incredible road; one that everyone should drive in their lifetime.  It's one of my all-time favorite roads.  The scenery is simply breathtaking, even on a scuzzy day.  (There is a northern extension of the PCH that goes up the coast out of San Francisco.  I’ll have to explore that one later – maybe when I drive back up to Washington in the spring!)


The PCH is a fun road.  It pretty much hugs the coastline, rising and dipping with the terrain but generally high above the water so you get dramatic, sensational views of the Pacific Ocean and the bluffs between you and it.  But it also passes through forests and farmland.  It's really pretty incredible.  There are turnouts and parking areas aplenty where you can stop and get photographs that'll bring back fond memories for years to come.

Unfortunately, the PCH is a victim of its own beauty.  It can be crowded!  You have to be careful, for there is usually a parade of cars racing from one scenic overlook to the next.  At each one people scramble out and rush to take snapshots and selfies, then jump back in and hurry on.  If you get caught in such a clump of tourists it can be very frustrating.  The key is to pace yourself and not go with the herd, stay between them.  Take the time to drink in the scenery.


Here's Jacob, somewhere along the Pacific Coast Highway, doing what he does best. 

A long, long time ago my mom was living in Los Angeles.  My youngest sister, Eleanor (who we for some reason always called Susie which we later learned she hated) planned to be married at a place in the hills north of San Francisco.  Beautiful setting.  I flew out to L.A. from Florida and rented a Ford Mustang Convertible.  Mom and I took “the 5” northbound, but a couple of days later when we headed back south I opted for the PCH.  It was a great ride…sunny day, top down…perfect!  There wasn’t much traffic and I was, ahem, enjoying the curviness and hilliness of the road.  The mood was spoiled however by my mom’s constant shrieking, ”BOBBY, YOU’RE GOING TO KILL US!  SLOW DOWN!!”

Moms can be such a buzzkill.  I had to turn the radio up really loud to drown out her screams.  She hasn't driven with me since then, come to think about it.  Hmm.

These days I no longer have the need to see how fast I can go around every corner.  And the big, ol’ overloaded Buick crew car just has no such sporty-car pretentions.  Did I mention that the boss asked me to carry 500 pounds of aircraft parts to an overhaul facility in Oklahoma?  Plus all of my crap, and Jacob's bags.  Our ass was dragging...well, the Buick's ass was.  It most definitely did not want to be hurried.  Driving it on a winding, hilly road like the Pacific Coast Highway was like dancing with a fat chick: You have to plan those changes of direction well in advance.  And she’d run out of steam fast.  And getting slowed and/or stopped took some anticipation as well.  It was a lot more fun in the svelte Mustang, let me tell you! 

Just before sunset Jacob and I stopped for supper at a place called the Whale Watchers CafĂ© in the Big Sur town of Gorda.  Nice, side-of-the-road joint like you’d hope to find on a road trip like this.  We were the only customers.  The place has gotten some really mixed reviews online.  The waitress/owner said that the mushrooms in the dish I ordered were picked that day by her husband.  We ate a decent, if unremarkable and overpriced meal in a very peaceful setting.  However, the clam chowder in a breadbowl was pretty good, actually.  It was too cloudy/hazy to see the sunset though.  But we sat and ate and watched the Pacific Ocean roll in as daylight faded.  It would've been romantic if I hadn't been with Jacob.  Still, quite enjoyable.  And no, we did not see any whales.

We made it all the way down to Pismo Beach, where we found a nice motel with a heated outdoor pool and hot tub.  This was becoming something of a prerequisite.  So far, we weren’t exactly making good time.  This would come back to haunt us as the trip progressed.  

Next morning we continued southbound.  Once you hit Santa Barbara you realize that you're in southern California now: Everything is more crowded.  At Ventura we went inland for a while on the 101.  Then we cut across the Malibu Canyon Road to get to the coast again.  While it was a gorgeous drive, we were locked in a never-ending conga line of traffic, and all of the turnouts had "No Parking" signs so you couldn't even stop to take pictures.  Bummer.  Malibu itself is a huge disappointment - way overcrowded and congested.  This ain't the California that the Beach Boys sang about.

We made it all the way to the Santa Monica pier, stuck in gridlock traffic.  It was not fun.  Finally I found I-10 and we beat feet toward Riverside.

I wish that we'd had better weather for the trip down the PCH.  I wish I took better pictures.  And I wish that we'd had more time.  It is not a trip that should be rushed.  Still, it was worth the diversion.