Monday, January 30, 2012

Well, hello there ....

I just noticed that it's been two years, to the day, since I posted on this blog. That seems like an awfully long time.

It's been a busy two years, and the theme has been change -- professional, personal, geographic. Maybe I'll write about some of that here.

I'll think about it; consider which stories I want to tell. There are some doozies, from the past 24 months.

In the meantime ... howdy.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Old Friends

It's been a friendly week. Monday, an old college buddy arrived from South Africa, via Minneapolis, with her husband and as-yet-unborn son. That of course occassioned a mini-reunion of the UD Class of '91.

And even though not all of our lives have been unalloyed joy over the past nearly two decades, reconnecting was.

Wednesday, I drove to Austin and spent time with Patrick, and my sister, and met Jesse Sublett for coffee and Jon Dee for music; at the Continental Club I ran into more old friends.

Last night, Danny Paschall and his lovely partner Lindsey landed on our doorstep and we all drove down to Greenville for a Bob Schneider show, where we hung out with yet more old friends.

"Old," is, of course, relative. I've known Angela since 1972, and I'm so proud to call her a friend today. Carrie and I enjoyed (and I do mean enjoyed) our first date in 1984. Danny and I have adventured together in nearly a dozen different countries over the past ... gosh, 14 years now? We still can sit and talk until 5 a.m.

I've known Shannon and Il Duplicates more than half my life.

Other friends are of more recent vintage, but I have a feeling they'll stick: Sweet, stylish, smart Molly, for instance. She soldiered through the Jon Dee show Wed. and will be our houseguest next weekend. And Hermann, and not just because he's part and parcel of the Shannon experience.

One thing I've learned over the past four decades is that true friendship takes time, and it takes work, and because of that I've grown ever more discriminating in whom I attempt that with.

It might just be laziness.

But old friends, the ones with whom a connection -- 20 years or two years in the making -- is true and strong, make that work a pleasure.

And for that, today, I'm very grateful.

William Butler Yeats wrote this:

Though you are in your shining days,
Voices among the crowd
And new friends busy with your praise,
Be not unkind or proud,
But think about old friends the most:
Time's bitter flood will rise,
Your beauty perish and be lost
For all eyes but these eyes.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Pea-Eye, If you'll be my Mayberry, I'll be your Huckleberry

Patrick wasn’t really sure he wanted to go to Port Isabel to begin with; it was the seven-hour (from Austin) drive that gave him pause. It’s a long time for a 10-year-old to sit in a truck.

On the way home last night, he still thought it took far too long to drive to the southern tip of Texas but had decided it’s worth doing.

I agree.

Rockport, my hometown, has been my favorite place all my adult life. I called it “Mayberry-by-the-Sea.” Partly it’s the memories of a pretty good childhood there. Partly it’s the dozens of family members who still live there. Partly it’s the fishing.

Used to be, I’d make a trip at least once a month. Sometimes more often than that. Since last October, I’ve been home just three times. But in the same time I’ve made that seven-hour drive to Port Isabel five times.

Not as well-known as South Padre Island, its sister city across the causeway, Port Isabel maintains the charm and small-town friendliness I remember from 1980-era Rockport. With a population just under 6,000, it’s big enough to offer modern conveniences and small enough to easily navigate and meet the same people over and over again.

And the fishing can be phenomenal.

This weekend, Patrick out-fished both me and his Uncle John about five-to-one. He landed 18 fish of three different species and had a ball doing it. Our fishing guide Saturday, Capt. Carlos Garcia, has kids of his own the same age, and he was a patient and engaging teacher.

It was all about fun – feisty mangrove snapper, acrobatic ladyfish and hard-pulling jacks – and the promise of snook.

Port Isabel is ground zero for the Lower Laguna Madre’s burgeoning snook population. Anglers from around the world build multi-thousand dollar itineraries around the legendary game fish in South Florida, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Belize.

And despite the fact the Texas record for common snook is a couple of pounds heavier than the world record for the same species, robalo are not much more than a footnote for most Texas anglers.

My brother, John, jokes that it is all just a vast conspiracy; he has yet to see his first big snook for himself. That didn’t change over the weekend, when 30mph winds turned the bay to chocolate milk and made fishing a bit tougher than usual. But we’ll make a believer of him yet; snook are just now moving out of the refuge of the Brownsville Ship Channel and out into the shallow waters of South Bay, Mexiquita Flats and other areas heavy on structure and bait.

A big linesider would have just been lagniappe this trip, anyhow. My son wants to be a battlefield archeologist when he grows up. Fortunately for him, my friend Rod Bates of Rio Bravo Gallery is a passionate and expert chronicler of the Port Isabel area’s rich history.

He told us the story of the 9-mile running battle between Union and Confederate soldiers that resulted in a victory for the South, 149 years ago and more than a month after Gen. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

Then he presented Patrick with Minie balls and uniform buttons from the battlefield – items Rod discovered on private land the battle crossed. Rod dug deeper into his collection and into history and found a couple of musket balls – one had obviously impacted someone or something – from the nearby Palo Alto Battlefield.

Palo Alto was the first major engagement of the Mexican-American War. You know, the one that gave the United States New Mexico and Arizona and California, as well as settled lingering border issues from the Texas Revolution a dozen years earlier.

From even farther back in time, he produced a silver coin from a 1554 shipwreck on Padre Island. Three Spanish treasure ships went aground in a violent storm then.

It was the last year of Charles I of Spain (he was Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire), and the coin bears his coat-of-arms and personal motto: “Plus Ultra.” – further beyond. Charles ruled much of Europe at the time, and the motto suggests a sort of transcendence and wide-armed embrace of, well, everything.

Which brings me back to Port Isabel. Looking for the best Gulf beaches in Texas? They’re right there – just a couple of miles over the causeway.

Want to tangle with a tarpon or battle a snook? For the next six or seven months, they’ll be everywhere around the town.

If history is your thing, or birds and butterflies, or antiquing or the best blackened fish tacos you’re likely to taste, Port Isabel has all of that.

It’s a town with a lot of character, and a lot of characters, too. Sort of like Andy Griffith’s fictional Mayberry. Only, by the sea.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Fear of Falling

It’s not so much that I’m afraid of flying; I’m afraid of falling, rapidly, from a very great height.

It hasn’t always been that way. I love airplanes. As a young boy, I spent hours pouring over books about aircraft –Spitfires and Mustangs, Sopwiths and Electras. I thrilled to the Blue Angels at the annual air show in Corpus Christi.

And later, after those first nervous, tentative steps skyward, I remember the sheer joy of swooping through the skies with cousin John in his Mooney; the excitement of taking the controls of a Bell Jet Ranger bound for a super tanker anchored in the Gulf; the ease of those first hops on Southwest Airlines, and the fun David Robertson and I had cadging maintenance test flights off PHI pilots at the Aransas County Airport.

Youngsters just don’t know any better.

Later, after college, I took a part-time job with US Airways just so I could avail myself of the company’s generous travel benefits. For more than a year I made the D.C.-Austin roundtrip on an almost weekly basis, often in first class. Air travel was a mundane, unremarkable part of my life.

Somewhere along the way, something changed. It could have been the commuter flight from Chicago to La Crosse, Wisconsin in a blizzard. We circled and circled in the blinding snowstorm; laughably, the pilot told us we had an air traffic delay. Really, he was just dumping fuel. I could see the flashing blue and red of emergency vehicles lining the runway, and I remember feeling very calm, and slightly disgusted, that I was going to die with a bunch of very large, very white Wisconsinites all wearing polyester and barfing into little bags.

Or maybe it started with that engine fire on the ramp at McGuire AFB. A mechanic had left the oil fill cap off the number four engine of the C-141 we were taking to Germany. We left on the same plane the next morning.

In Bosnia, on a UH-60 Blackhawk with the Sergeant Major of the Army, we circled and marked an undeclared Serb surface-to-air radar site and lost an engine. It was a long, careful glide back to Tuzla Air Base.

On another trip to Bosnia, we lost the number two engine on a C-130H Hercules somewhere over the Czech Republic, forcing a return to Germany. When we finally did make it into Bosnian airspace that trip, the combat descent (think: falling, precipitously, from a very great height) was terrifying. A captain from Maryland suffered a ruptured dental abscess on the way down and was escorted sobbing from the aircraft.

Later, on a return flight from Ecuador to Howard AFB in Panama, the sturdy little C-27 “Spartan” in which I was the only passenger lost an engine high over the mountains of a particularly unfriendly portion of Columbia. On another flight, hopping back to Texas from Honduras aboard a C-23 Sherpa, an airliner smeared itself across the only runway at Phillip S.W. Goldson International Airport near Belize City minutes before we were to land. It was our mid-point fuel stop, and that was a problem: military aircraft can’t just put down at the nearest airstrip without causing a diplomatic hoo-ha.

Then there was the American Airlines flight from Austin to Miami, on the way back down to Panama. Somewhere over the swamps of southwestern Louisiana, we heard a sharp bang* from the rear of the plane. Suddenly the aircraft – an MD-80, or perhaps an MD-90 – began see-sawing through the air in the same way a boat would roll in heavy seas. Then the cabin suddenly depressurized and the masks dropped.

“Don’t worry,” I told the terrified spring breaker on my left, “I’m sure they’ll get us back down in one piece.” And they did, in New Orleans, and then tried to put me back on the same plane later that night. I declined.

Returning from that same trip aboard a brand-new Airbus A-300 which had just gone into service with American, in blue skies over the Caribbean, we suddenly dropped hundreds – perhaps even thousands -- of feet in just a few seconds. Food service carts hovered in the air. Unbuckled passengers and flight attendants shot to the ceiling. The pretty perfume buyer seated next to me dug her French-manicure into my left arm. It’s a phenomenon called “clear air turbulence,” and typically is caused by vertical wind shear.

It’s scary as hell, but somehow better with a pretty, tri-lingual brunette clinging to your arm.

Once, near Patuca, Ecuador, I volunteered for a flight into the disputed zone between Ecuador and Peru. It was Brazil’s turn to take the aviation part of the peacekeeping mission that year, and we flew aboard the $4 million version of the UH-60 Blackhawk. It was like the base model of a mid-sized SUV. Where I was used to seeing GPS and myriad other electronics, there were huge blank spaces in the cockpit dash.

We got weathered-in somewhere in the foothills of the Andes; it was the rainy season, and feathery cascades poured off the cliff faces and peaks around us as clouds enveloped the aircraft. The Brazilian pilot held the helicopter in a hover over a jungle river and waited for visibility to improve. As he did, I carefully watched the twin row of LEDs that indicated fuel levels blink down to almost nothing. But I did see a flock of macaws below us. That was cool.

I’ve taken steps to overcome what I know is an irrational fear of falling when I’m supposed to be flying. Despite frequent propulsion issues, I’ve always been more comfortable on military flights because I typically knew or got to meet the crews, even hang-out in the cockpit or at least listen-in to the chatter. When I discovered that United Airlines actually offered a channel with pilot-tower comms on their complimentary headsets, I jumped at the chance.

I remember well the day we took off from the airport in Boise, Idaho; a pall of dirty brown hung all around the city (fields were burning), and the 737 had to make a particularly steep climb to get over the mountains. In my cushioned headphones, I suddenly heard the TCAS (Traffic and Collision Avoidance System) alarm go off. I was familiar with the computer voice from military flights. The pilot queried air traffic control. ATC insisted the plane was fine and there was nothing in our way. The captain, though, wasn’t taking any chances, and stood that big jet on its wing. It was an exciting moment.

Look, I know the stats: only a one in 10 million chance of dying in an airline crash; five times as many people die in boating accidents, and the risk of travel by automobile is something like 20 times greater. And, indeed: I think many aircraft are beautiful; form follows function, and anything that harnesses lift in the atmosphere (planes, sails, windmills) is likely to be pretty to my eyes. And I still fly, because sometimes it’s the only way to get where I want to go.

But I don’t often fly sober.

*My boss at the time, USAF Maj. Gen. Danny James III, an experienced military and civil aviator, told me that was the sound of the “yaw damper” going out, and the cabin depressurization was unrelated. To see what the yaw damper is supposed to prevent, go here.