Friday, April 13, 2007

America is not at war

I really should be in bed, but . . . some random thoughts first.

I attended a Holocaust remembrance today after work. Two really outstanding features of that. The first was the narrative presented by the speaker, one of the first four Americans to breach the wire at Buchenwald. I suppose he's in his 80's now. His gentleness was striking. His memories heartbreaking. His outrage at what he found there still fresh. His bride of 60 years was there with him--that says enough. Very small group of us there to hear him. And I'm glad I went. Second treat of that event was the trio that played before, in the middle, and after. Violin, accordion, bass. Worth going to hear either one.

And seeing the 3-star there reminded me of something he said the other day that I could write about for a long time, but won't tonight. "America is not at war. America's military is." And is, and is, and is. In more places than any of my civilian friends even know. And against some of the same evils that today's speaker fought. The great failure of the current campaign is not so much that it exists, but that people have forgotten why it exists, and that forgetting has enabled or necessitated, depending on how you look at it, its half-hearted prosecution. So it goes.

Lastly, I was having lunch with my daughter the other day. I picked her up at school and we made a quick trip to Panera Bread. Because I came from work and had to return to work, I was dressed for work. As we were leaving, an older gentleman and his wife said simply, "Thanks for your service." It's my honor to serve, but it still touches my heart every time I hear that. How is it that we're getting that right this time around? Whatever a civilian's position on the Global War on Terror, the troops are still embraced. An all volunteer force this time, yet we get thanked for prosecuting a less and less "popular" (an odd word to apply to that which follows, no matter how you cut it) war; whereas, a largely draftee and reluctant force was spat upon when they returned from an endeavor they had little choice in. Don't misunderstand--I am always grateful and touched by the acknowledgement. But it always makes me want to find one of those guys with the Vietnam campaign ribbon on a jacket, or in a car window, or on a license tag and hand that acknowledgement over to him with interest. Those men and women are overdue.


If I'd had time to really write anything today, it would have been something about the passing of Kurt Vonnegut, complete with links to an obit, bio, etc. But life's been busy, and it would be hard to improve on the recollections over at Enrevanche.

In Vonnegut's case, "passing" may be a rather ironic euphemism.

As a college student, I had to read Slaughterhouse Five. As a college professor, I taught that and Cat's Cradle.

As a blogger, I'm going to shut up now and just say, pay Barry a visit, and you can press on from there.

So long Kurt.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


I forget, from time to time, just how much I love live entertainment over something digitized and mass re-produced. Then I attend a play, a comedy bar, a symphony, a benefit concert, a reading, or, as tonight, a chamber series, and I vow anew to do a better job of scanning the campus newspaper and the entertainment section to find those live settings that allow a human connection impossible when the artist is a two-dimensional re-presentation. But I never do, do that better job. It's almost always accidental, but always a good thing. Tonight, it was on purpose.

I won't bother to review the concert. I'll say it was outstanding and leave it at that. The purpose of this entry is to pass on a recommendation. Whenever I've had the good fortune to interview authors, one question I always ask is, "Whom are you reading now?" Should I ever interview a musician whose work I like, I should ask, "To whom are you listening these days?" Tonight, I didn't have to ask. In the course of introducing a piece, one of the musicians put in a plug for a collection he'd lately found inspirational.

In the realm of books, I've never had a bum steer from an author I respected; so, I stopped on the way home and bought the album. I think we've started something. (I should probably have picked up a little Amy Winehouse while I was there, based on another recent recommendation, but I'm still smarting from Idiocracy.) At any rate, the recommendation was for Herbie Hancock's, Possibilities, an album which includes work with Sting, Santana, Annie Lennox, John Mayer, Paul Simon, Damien Rice & Lisa Hannigan to name a few. I am always fascinated and seldom disappointed by the result when musical artists make appearances in one anothers' works. (Ponder for a moment, what that might look like if artists in the written word were to try it.)

So far, the whole thing goes really, really well with Woodford Reserve on the rocks.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Children of Men

Back in January, my inspiration for this exercise in self-indulgence (who writes a blog others actually read) posted an entry on the movie Idiocracy. It inspired me to rent the movie--an act I regretted ten minutes into it and that my wife and daughters are likely to ensure I regret through the ages. Nonetheless, it popped to mind tonight.

Children of Men is nothing like Idiocracy. It doesn't bother to poke fun at what we're likely to do to ourselves as we press obliviously forward. I found the movie an interesting diversion, bleak, and not too thought provoking, and certainly not capable of sustaining any really deep analysis. The special features (that is, the extra stuff on the DVD; not the FX) though, are a different story. In fact, I recommend renting the DVD, skipping the movie (which you know you won't do) and going straight to the featurette titled, "The Possibility of Hope" (or something like that). Lots of futurists with lots to say. Some a bit of a stretch, but all far more thought provoking than the movie itself. And all very relevant to Thomas L. Friedman's The Lexus and the Olive Tree (a riff on globalization interesting enough in its own right), which I finally finished this very afternoon.

But most particularly, for you fans of Idiocracy, if you watch that vignette to the end, you'll be rewarded with a closing line that, had it come first, might well have served as the kernel that germinated into the more farcical film on mankind's ultimate fate. Same messages, more or less--open to debate about which is better suited for the audience that might be able to effect change. If you really want to give your brain a cramp, see them both and then ponder that question for a while.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

"That Old Guy Tried to Fight Me"

I mentioned in yesterday’s entry that I had “facilitated” in another DWI arrest once upon a time. Here’s that story.

Hard to believe that it was over two decades ago now. After over two years of living across the street from one another as the two most notably confirmed bachelor aviators in our squadron, my best friend of over 25 years now and I had finally managed to be assigned to the same crew. No longer being on opposing alert and flying schedules made all kinds of things possible. Like our St Patrick’s Day trip to Savannah, and our spring break in Ft Lauderdale. Two single captains on flying status. Need I say more?

Toward the end of our final summer in eastern North Carolina, we were making a trip from Goldsboro over to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point to pick up my buddy’s car, which he had loaned to a friend who needed to catch a hop out of Cherry Point. We’re cruising along eastbound on four-lane NC Hwy 70 with barely another car on the road in the middle of flat, down-east North Carolina. At some point, it becomes clear that we’re gaining pretty fast on a small pickup truck about a quarter-mile ahead. No sweat. I change to the left lane. The pickup moves to the left lane. I move back to the right. The pick up moves back to the right. All of this as we’re closing that quarter mile or more, rather quickly. Off the accelerator, I coast into a position behind this pickup. At least, occasionally behind it. I stayed in the right lane. The pickup swerved, while creeping along at about 20 mph, from the right shoulder to the left, and back again. Through the back window (remember, this was in the day before window tint was the norm), we could see a white-haired male, swaying with the swerves. Also in that back window, and giving an irony to the moment that persists to this day, was a sticker for the Retired Sheriff’s Association.

I looked over at my friend. “I believe he’s drunk.” I said. “What was your first clue? The way he’s driving or the way he nearly falls over every time he swerves to the left?” “Do you suppose he’s sober enough to be able to tell the difference between an unmarked Mustang (car of choice for the NC Highway Patrol in that era) and a charcoal grey Camaro?” I asked. “I doubt it.” “Let’s find out.”

So, tucked in behind him, I turned on my emergency flashers and my headlights and flashed them from bright to dim. The driver pulled well off the road and onto the shoulder and stopped. “Now what?” Remember this was also in the day before cell phones—even those the size of a shoe box—had been invented. “We need to be very careful.”

So, I got out the driver’s side, and my friend got out on the passenger’s side, and we walked slowly toward the pickup. As I did, the driver’s side door opened. We stopped. Out came a pair of legs in jeans. The driver leaned out, made one attempt to stand up, and then fell over backwards into the driver’s seat. I’m thinking the truck must have been a Toyota or a Chevy Luv, or something like that, because he was able to sit there on the seat, facing out the door, with his feet on the ground and his hands on his knees as I approached. He seemed pretty harmless. Your average southern good ole boy. Ball cap, white hair, an empty bottle of Crown Royal laying atop its velvet sack on the passenger’s seat beside him.

“How you doin?” I asked?

“Whaaaa?” he looked up, bleary-eyed.

“Had a little to drink?” I asked.

“Whaaaa?” he said again.

“Tell you what. If you’ll give me a name and phone number to call, we’ll have somebody come out here and drive you home, buddy. You’re in no shape to be driving.”

“Whaaaa?” he said a third time.

“Never mind.” And with that, I reached past him and pulled the keys from the ignition. No resistance, no awareness, just a continuing effort to balance himself in an upright sitting position, hands on knees, feet on the ground, facing out the driver’s side door. “You just sit tight pal. Somebody will be along to get you.” I looked across the bed of the truck at my friend on the other side. “Let’s go.”

We got in the Camaro, pulled out, and headed down the highway, leaving him in the same position he’d been in since his first attempt to stand up out of the truck. “You took his keys?” my buddy said. “Yep.” “Now what?” “We go to the next exit and call the Highway Patrol.”

And so we did. From a pay phone at gas station on a crossroad a few miles down the road, I had the operator connect me to the nearest Highway Patrol office. I remember having to explain a couple of times exactly what was going on. Eventually, we gave the dispatcher a description of our own vehicle and arranged to have a trooper meet us on the overpass of the road we were on, and then we went back to the bridge where the road crossed Hwy 70, parked, got out and waited. Fifteen or twenty minutes later, we watched as a NC State Highway Patrol cruiser exited Hwy 70 from the east, came to the top of the off ramp, drove past us and then did a U turn to pull in behind.

The officer got out, walked up, and asked, “You the guys that called?”

We spent the next five minutes basically telling the story above and then handing him the keys from the other vehicle. “Now let me get this straight . . . you just leaned in and took the keys?”


“And he didn’t try to stop you?”

“Officer, he couldn’t have told you what country he was in, let alone notice that I was taking his keys.”

“Well, I’ll be danged. I been doin’ this for quite a while, but this is a first. Where’d you leave him?”

We estimated the distance west of us where he would find at least the vehicle if not the driver, gave him our names, addresses, and phone numbers in case he needed any more information. He said thanks, still not sure whether that was the right thing to be saying or not, and then he took off, heading down the on ramp west with a little more urgency than he’d arrived from the east, and my buddy and I hit the road eastbound again toward Cherry Point.

We’d not been driving for ten minutes before we saw, across the median, two more State Troopers hauling the mail westbound with lights and sirens. We made it to Cherry Point, picked up his Saab, and then drove back to Goldsboro, arriving late in the afternoon. The first thing we did was to call the State Highway Patrol and ask to be connected to the dispatcher for the area east of Kinston. After explaining who we were, the arresting officer eventually came on the line.

“We saw a couple of cruisers headed your way in a hurry after we got back on the road,” I said. “I hope everything was okay.”

“I’ll tell you what,” came the reply. “By the time I got there, that son of a gun had sobered up enough to figure out what you’d done to him and I’m gonna tell you, he was hoppin’ mad. That old guy tried to fight me! I had to call for backup! You probably don’t need to worry about going to court for the drunken driving charge. Public drunkenness, resisting arrest, and assaulting an officer ought to be enough. You probably saved somebody’s life by getting him off the road. Probably not the safest thing to have done, but thanks for doing it. We’ll call you if we need you.”

We never heard another thing about it, but to this day, we still laugh at the mental images that come to mind of an old man, too drunk to even stand, trying to take on a State Trooper because he’s figured out he’s stranded by the highway, without his keys, and nothing left in his bottle of Crown Royal but the backwash.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

The Closest I Came to Dying . . .

. . . during two weeks away from home, at a spring training deployment where I made 85 skydives and logged over an hour and seventeen minutes of freefall time, was on I-25 in New Mexico on the way back home.

This narrative is overdue, in part because I promised to write it and have it properly certified as an affidavit and then mail it to the New Mexico State Police, whose praises I can’t sing loudly enough.

One brief piece of back-story first: The trip home from a remote airfield in Arizona took a couple hours longer than originally planned because just after crossing the Arizona/New Mexico border on I-40, I apparently shredded 5th gear. I drive a Jeep Wrangler with a soft top (a remnant of my southern California days when I could put down the top in April and leave it down until October because some songs are true, at least part of the year). I wear earplugs on long trips because the road noise rivals the twin turbines of my favorite jump platform. Even through the earplugs I noticed a strange overtone developing for about five minutes before the RPMs suddenly redlined and the power dropped to nothing just as I was passing a camper. I signaled and coasted to the shoulder in the middle of nowhere, thinking, as I was still about two hours west of Albuquerque, that I probably wasn’t going to be seeing the family until the first part of the next week. A quick trip around and under the vehicle didn’t reveal anything missing, so I got back in, put it in first gear and everything seemed okay. Second was okay. Third and fourth seemed fine. Then I tried fifth—one big gaping quadrant newly assigned to neutral. It being Saturday, I expected that if I stopped in Grants or Albuquerque I would be there for a couple of days at best, so I decided to try getting home at a somewhat lesser speed and higher RPM and expected some really lousy gas mileage.

So, one more unnecessary but surprising detail of back-story, then back to my closest call: as it turns out, aerodynamics (or the lack thereof) are a greater factor than RPMs in gas mileage with Jeep Wranglers. As a skydiver, I understand very well the concept of terminal velocity. If you rolled a Wrangler out the back end of a C-130 (Skydive Arizona may have tried this by now) I’m convinced gravity would meet its match at around 80 miles per hour. It turns out that my gas mileage went from around 13-14 mpg at 75 mph in 5th gear, to 19-20 mpg at 60-65 mph in 4th gear. That’s about the same rpm range. I suspect that on a graph of wind resistance versus mph, the line transitions from sloped to near vertical as you pass 70 mph. Interesting. At least if you own a 4-cylinder Wrangler.

I tell you all of that in order to tell you this. Being an aviator, I’m pretty cognizant of what’s at my six most of the time anyway, but for the second half of this trip, now firmly ensconced in the slower 50% of traffic on the interstate rather than the faster 50%, I was hyper-aware of traffic approaching from the rear. This fact, together with the long sight distances on the plateau south of Raton, New Mexico, explains why I had plenty of time to wonder whether I was about to die or, at a minimum, take another of the E-ticket rides that seem to be a hallmark of my life.

I was something like 10 miles south of the Shell station at Highway 58 and I-25, near Springer, NM, when I noticed a small, silver car gaining fast from behind. The overtake though, which had to be at least 30 mph (meaning this guy was doing every bit of 95 and probably better than 100 mph) wasn’t nearly as riveting as his position in the road, or rather, partly in the road and partly on the shoulder. That is, he was straddling the white line on the right side, actually more off than on the road—so much so, even, that I actually thought he was going to pass me on the shoulder. That would have been a little odd, as there were no other cars even in sight besides the two of us. There was a nice smooth passing lane wide open to my left, and I was pretty sure that I had the pre-eminent claim to the lane I was in, having been there first, and being, at that point, most decidedly, “slower traffic,” even at a good solid 65 mph. With less than a hundred feet to go, and with the driver now visible and leaned into the center of the car (in that attitude that some drivers with attitude assume), I pondered moving to the left lane to clear a path, but detecting a slight veer in that direction from the vehicle at my six, instead, I just braced for impact.

If impact had come, a good 30+ mph tap on the left rear bumper ring, I don’t think all the counter-steering in the world would have prevented a fully operational test of the roll bar on the Wrangler. If I had swerved an inch, or even let off the gas, I think I’d be telling a different story. But impact didn’t come. The silver bullet came zinging by my left side, swerving so hard himself that the trajectory carried him all the way to the center median shoulder on the left side before he corrected to the right, all the way back across both lanes to his position centering the solid white line on the right shoulder as he disappeared into the distance, again half on the highway and half on the shoulder, receding now as rapidly as he approached.

Now, in my day, I’ve called in at least four obviously drunk drivers to 911 in various states and cities. Only once has it resulted in an arrest, and that story I’ll tell in another entry. Skeptical as I was of its efficacy, my civic duty here seemed pretty clear. If I called, at least when the next call about the inevitable crash came into the system, the operator wouldn’t be surprised. Cell reception was poor where I was, but I got a 911 operator on the line, gave her my location, and let her know that a silver missile with a malfunctioning guidance system was headed for Raton. And that was about all I could do. I’m sure the log contains my position in terms of mile markers, but as for a make of vehicle or license tag, the best I could do was, “Some kind of small car like a Kia or Neon or something like that, silver, as much off the road as on, and traveling at around 100 mph or better, northbound on I-25. He barely missed me.”

As 911 calls go, that’s the sketchiest information I’ve ever given them. In at least two previous instances I’ve given them everything but the suspect’s social security number and fingerprints and even given them a running location for five or ten minutes, all to no avail, so I didn't expect much to come of this. Less than ten minutes after I made the call, I coasted into my fuel stop, just hoping the vehicle would be there. The few of you who read this blog know me well enough to know that I’d have made an impromptu breath analysis on the spot, and if my suspicions were confirmed, taken his keys and locked him in his own trunk until the cavalry could arrive. (I promise to tell the story of the other DWI arrest I “facilitated” in another blog entry some other day.) No such luck.

Ten minutes later, I was on the road again. It was dusk as I rolled by Raton, NM, and started up the pass. As I’d come into town, I received a voice mail on the cell from the New Mexico State Police. The message was that they hadn’t found the silver missile yet, and they wondered if I still had the driver in sight. I called back with the intention of telling them that I didn’t have him in sight for more than a minute—he was moving that fast. When I called back, I identified myself and the young woman who answered asked if I could hold. “Sure.” And I was on hold as I left Raton in the rear view and began the climb up the mountain. I had only rounded a curve or two when I saw the thing that made my day. A New Mexico cruiser was parked on the right shoulder, lights flashing. In front of the cruiser was the silver missile. On the roof of the silver missile, for the world to see, was what looked like a fifth of Smirnoff or something like it. SWEET!!

Still on hold, I lost the cell signal as I entered the pass, but as I came into Trinidad on the Colorado side, I called again. “You got him!” “Yes sir! He’s under arrest for DWI. Thank you so very much for calling.”

In the 85 jumps during the previous two weeks, I was never closer than 10 seconds from impact (about 1800 ft) before getting a canopy over my head. And I jump with an Automated Activation Device (AAD) that would have fired my reserve canopy if I had ever failed to deploy the main before half the remaining distance had closed. I tell my friends and family that they are nearly always at more risk driving to the grocery store than I am jumping out of airplanes. The distance by which this guy missed me was inches, and fewer than 12 of them I’m sure. Change the timing by tenths of a second—the start of his swerve, a twitch or release of the throttle on my part—and someone would have been in a world of hurt or dead. It wasn’t my day to go, nor his.

The arresting officer called the next day to thank me for making the call and to let me know that they might need to subpoena me if the driver challenged their probable cause for stopping him. I promised them I’d get with our JAG and draw up an affidavit just in case, but I also let them know I’d be happy to make the trip to Raton if necessary. I’ve spent four years in two different volunteer fire departments responding to crashes where uninjured drunks watched from the back seat of a police cruiser while we used the jaws of life to cut their victims from what was left of the other car. I’m glad it wasn’t me this time. I pray it’s never anyone I know.

Bottom line: if you see a drunk driver, make the call. Sometimes it works. The road up until the point they stopped this guy was as straight as it gets—not so his ground track. I have a hard time imagining him making it through the pass in one piece. A single-car crash is about the best he could have hoped for. That trooper probably saved the driver’s life, and maybe someone else’s.

And, hey, that whole thing with setting the bottle on top of the car is way cool. The officer (whose name I’m leaving out on purpose) said it was so that the video cameras in their cruisers could record it as evidence. But it has another benefit as well: every car that passed them by the side of the road had no doubt what that was all about. If every DWI arrest included that as procedure, maybe one or two more drivers would think twice about getting behind the wheel with a bottle as a copilot. Just a thought.

Don’t drink and drive. If you need a rush, go skydiving. It’s far safer, and there’s no hangover the next day.

Blue skies, Doc.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Back in the world

Spring Training Deployment complete: 85 jumps; 1 hr, 17 min, 49 seconds of freefall. This is the one time during the year when I truly feel proficient at everything I do in the realm of parachuting, from video, to instruction, to relative work, big ways, and demos. Best demo moment from this trip: 2 seconds out the door for a demo to Earth Day at the Phoenix International Raceway (which turned out to be to the parking lot across the highway for a crowd of about 10,000, give or take 9,980 or so) I broke 10 hours of total freefall time and finished the jump by dead centering the T. Accuracy inversely proportional to the size of the crowd. :-)

Over a hundred e-mails to sort through at home. Probably three or four times that many at work. Tomorrow will largely be dedicated to sorting through that mess. And to finding someone to repair the transmission in the Jeep, which lost fifth gear and reverse as I crossed the New Mexico border yesterday. Drove the rest of the way home in 4th gear. Took two extra hours at the lower speed, but increased my gas mileage by 25%. Turns out the wind resistance was a bigger factor than RPMs in fuel efficiency for what has to be one of the most un-aerodynamic vehicles on the road.

And last but not least, added a bottle icon to the door frame below the driver's side window as I logged my second confirmed assist in a DWI arrest. More on that in a separate post to follow. Meanwhile, glad to be home.