Category Archives: Personal

Running in the Family

When I was a child, I would occasionally spend the night with my Grandmother in Cabot, Arkansas and just after bed time, a large train would come rumbling by her house, as she lived less than 100 yards from a main line, and I would jump out of bed to watch the train go by. The night air was cool and the grass and pavement were lit by the moon and starlight and the one or two street lamps that ran along the road between the house and the train track. The lonesome whistle of the engine and the clickity clack of the train wheels on the steel tracks were the only sounds I heard as I watched the trains roll along. I wouldn’t budge from my perch until I saw the caboose roll along into the darkness. Some nights, I went to bed disappointed once the railroad companies stopped using cabooses.

Figure 1 My Granddad Standing next to a retired steam locomotive circa 1970.

My mother tells me that both of my Grandfathers worked for the Missouri Pacific railroad back in the forties, fifties and sixties; mom’s dad was an engineer and dad’s dad was a conductor, and both worked for the railroad until their respective deaths. Their company was eventually bought out by Union Pacific.

My father has always had an interest in model trains as long as I can remember. His preference was the large modern diesels that pulled America’s freight ( I surmise this was because of his career in transportation logistics) while I preferred the old steam locomotives of the 1800s.

My parents bought me a train when I was a child, one of those carpet trains with the oval shaped track that could be set up and taken down quickly. Of course, the problem with those train sets was that in designing them that way, the manufacturers guaranteed themselves repeat business as pieces would invariable get broken or lost in the process. Another problem with those sets was that running the train in a perpetual circle or oval got boring pretty quickly. The only way to alleviate that boredom was to actually build a model railroad with buildings and tunnels and bridges.

My father had a grand plan to set up a full scale model railroad on a large piece of plywood with miniature buildings, cars and trees; a small scale duplicate of a slice of America that we could control. Sadly, this model never reached fruition as we didn’t have room for it in the house and when we started it in the garage, it got pushed aside to make room for more practical matters. I hear from mom that he did eventually set it up after I moved out on my own.

Sometime around 1997 or 1998, my dad and I went to the Arkansas railroad museum in Pine Bluff. While we were there, I bought a small N-scale steam locomotive and a few cars and some track; enough pieces to build a small working electric train setup. I had no aspirations of building a large model train set, but I always like the wood-burning steam engine with its large bell-shaped smoke stack, and I wanted to have one that would run on my desk while I did my homework, since was attending college at UALR. I don’t remember ever getting it running, though, and that engine sat on a piece of track on my desk until I moved away. Then it sat in the hutch on my desk for another 16 years, doing nothing more than gathering dust.

In December, 2016, I took an assignment to write an article about a display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science called Trains over Texas. The museum had a large O-Scale model railroad built featuring natural and man-made landmarks of Texas. While researching the story, I watched the model trains run and talked to several museum docents, who were avid train modelers. This reignited my interest in model trains and I became interested in whether my old train would still run after all these years. Of course, this meant I would need track and transformer, which I did not have.

In trying to find one, I determined it would be cheaper to just buy a boxed railroad train set from Amazon, rather than piece the track together.

I got the train set, put it together and ran the n-scale coal-burning steam locomotive that came with the kit. It worked fine. I then put my old train on it. It sputtered and spun its tires and did its best to run, but it needed some TLC and maintenance before it was going to work. I knew nothing about maintaining a locomotive. I had to learn quick.

I quickly found out that model railroading is not a mainstream hobby, and the big box hobby stores are woefully inadequate to supply the model railroad hobbyist. Michael’s has absolutely nothing for trains and Hobby Lobby only stocks two or three boxed train sets, but no individual pieces or models. As a matter of fact, a Google search turned up only two hobby stores in the entire Houston metroplex that serves the train community.

G&G hobbies is a general purpose hobby shop in Rice Village that does have a few locomotives, track, models, and even some box sets. It even has parts to repair trains, so that’s good. It does have a very large selection of rolling stock (trainspeak for train cars). Sadly, the focus of the store is Remote Control (RC) toys and plastic models, and apparently only one employee knows anything about trains. As such, G&G was unable to help me service my little Jupiter.

Papa Ben’s is a train shop in the Montrose area which offers nothing but trains. Its entire focus is model railroading. They even have a “club room” with a huge N-scale layout setup where members of the local train club come and play. One employee, a tall man named Steve, not only was able to educate me on how to maintain my Jupiter, he even fixed the broken coupler on the tender for me. I was able to get several ideas for my train setup and all the part I need to complete it.

I also attended a train show in Stafford that had several stores from all over the country as well as many of the chapters of the model train club. I took my grandsons to this show and they had a ball controlling an HO switcher to put together all the cars needed to form a train.

An old high school friend of mine contacted me several months prior and offered me the chance to partner up with him in a hobby shop in New Hampshire. When he found out I like model railroading, he became very excited and declared I would be the train guy! Now, I am learning a lot about trains as a result of my efforts to fix my Jupiter, but I don’t know if I’m “the train guy.”

I learned about a new technology in model railroading that did not exist the last time I entertained the notion of trains. Digital Command Control equipped trains have a computer chip that allows the train master to run multiple trains on one track independently. With old DC technology, any train on the track would draw the current from the transformer and they would all run based on the amount of current. The train master couldn’t set independent speeds or stop a single train. It was all or nothing. Also, DCC allows the master to turn the train light on and off at will. Some trains even have a sound chip so it actually rings the bell, whistles and chugs along the track with realistic noises.

Now I have gotten the idea to retrofit my Jupiter with one of these DCC chips and an LED bulb to make it more realistic.

While I was in a train shop in New Hampshire, I found two flat bed cars with Army tanks on them. I thought they were clever so I bought them so I would have something more interesting than just plain old box cars or tanker cars. At a store in Austin, I found a surface to ground missile on a rail car. At a train show in New Braunfels, I found flat bed cars with other military vehicles and I got the idea of making an Army train. I bought two flat beds with a duce-n-half, two ¼ ton jeeps an M113 and an M577; all vehicles I drove in the my time in the Army. So now, I plan on having a Chessie System locomotive pull my Army train, my Union Pacific engine pull the box cars and I am thinking of getting some logging cars for my 0-6-0 steamer to pull. My Jupiter will pull my excursion train, which has a Pullman car and two open sided passenger cars.

All I had to do at this point was build a model train layout on which my trains could roll. I’m creating a new blog to document the development of my model. Have fun. I hope I will.

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A Good Reason for Change?

A man looks for a car. He has in his mind an image of what he wants; the type of motor, the body style, the make and model and the color. Most people who go to buy a car have these ideas in mind at the outset. A lot of people are lucky enough to not only find that car that matches their wish list, but at a price that they can afford too.

Others are not so lucky. Oh, they might find a car that checks off a couple of the boxes, but not all. Say it has the motor, but it is a four-door and they wanted a two-door, or, it doesn’t have a sun roof, or it is midnight blue and they had their heart on candy apple red, or they find the perfect car, but it is way too expensive.

What many people in this latter group do is settle. The go ahead and buy the car that comes close to what they want, figuring they will grow to love it anyway. Or maybe they can upgrade the car later on. Say, swap that V-six for a V-eight, or add a sun roof, or maybe just a paint job. If only they could change the car they settled on into the one they wanted in the first place, life would be good.

And there is no problem with that. Really, none.

What is a problem is when we apply that same kind of thinking to our romantic relationships. A woman goes looking for a husband. She has in her mind the perfect mate. She finds one that on first blush seems perfect, but after closer examination, say a few dates, she notices a few things that don’t line up with her expectations. This happens all the time. There is no perfect mate. Everybody has some kind of personality quirk that may vex someone else. So this woman has to decide: accept the quirks and be happy with the aspects of this man that do line up with her wish list, or cast him aside and keep looking. These are two viable and acceptable choices. All too often, however, the woman will get it into her head that if she could change this guy, tweak those pesky attributes into something more in line with her desires, then he would be perfect. And she sets out to do just that.

This is inherently dishonest, both to the man in question and to the woman herself. She is setting herself up for failure. It is not that the man can’t or won’t change. He may, he may not. The failure is that she sets the expectation that he will, which has at its core an inherent deadline that predicates failure. She may not even be consciously aware of it, but in her mind is the thought “if he doesn’t change by this time, I’m out of here.” She may even tell the guy that she wants him to change. He may even say, “Because I love you and I want this to work, I’ll change.” Change doesn’t really work that way.

A compass can change its orientation. By the laws of physics, a compass always points to the magnetic north, no matter how it is held, but place a powerful magnet near the compass, and it will reorient to point to the magnet. It does not do this because it wants to. It does not do this because the magnet asked it to. It does it by simply being in proximity to the magnet. It has no choice. The magnet has no choice. It just happens.

If a man is to change for a woman, he does not do so because the woman asks him to. He does not really do so because he consciously wants to. He simply has no choice. He IS changed merely by being in her presence.

Relationships are hard enough on their own, but to add the effect of an unrealistic expectation of change is to doom the relationship at the start. Better to just deal with the initial disappointment at the onset and move on than to spend years trying to change someone into the perfect mate. Love the one you’re with is the title of a song and it is also a good way to live love. If a person wants someone to change, they don’t really love them. They love the idea of what they could be if they change, and that is not the same thing.

In the end, after spending all the money and time converting the car he settled on into the perfect car, the man ends up spending more than he would have just buying the car he wanted in the first place and either winds up wrecking it, selling it or trading it in anyway. Maybe it’s better just to walk.

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The Only Thing To Fear…

When I first applied for a job with my company it had another name, and the interviewer’s first question was “how do you feel about attics in the summer,” not “are you afraid of heights.” Now, both are valid concerns for a technician because techs to spend a bit of time in attics even in the summer. Techs also spend a bit of time in an elevated work position, either on a pole, or against the steel cable running between poles (we call it the strand) up to twenty-eight feet off the ground. My answer to that first question was “No problem.” I spent a lot of time in the attic in my parents’ house growing up, so I didn’t think it would be a problem. To be honest, if he had asked about heights, I would probably been just as nonchalant about it as well, since I was a bit of a climber as a child. It turns out I was wrong to be so cavalier about it. Monkey bars, laundry poles, playhouses etc. are no more than five or six feet up. Twenty-eight is a whole different perspective and your perception changes at altitude.

Today I recertified to teach technicians to climb utility poles. This is not a new thing. I have been teaching this for eleven years quite successfully. The reason I mention it is that there are two ways to get a technician up a pole: using a ladder and using gaffs. Now most people can figure out how to climb a ladder on their own. The trick of training ladders is not training people to climb, but rather all aspects of how to handle a ladder from picking it up safely, to carrying it safely, to setting it up safely and then climbing it safely. This is why there is a re-certification requirement. The other way is more involved. Gaffs are steel spikes strapped to the leg that are kicked into the wood of the utility pole as the technician climbs. Sharp steel spikes? Safety is an issue. Twenty feet up a wooden pole with no support other than a quarter-inch steel spike? Safety is an issue. In order to teach technicians how to climb, we instructors have to demonstrate that we know how to do it safely.

I was trained how to gaff in my new hire technical training in 2001. I was younger then—thirty-six, if memory serves—and smaller too. When my instructor got us all geared up and showed us how to approach and address the pole, I was non-plussed. I was still good to go when we climbed up to six feet on the pole. However, when he instructed us to continue climbing passed ten feet, it was as if the air became molasses. Each movement of my hands and feet took great effort and focus. The ground looked really far away. There didn’t seem to be as much oxygen in the air. The pole felt a lot flimsier and seemed to move back and forth a lot more. I did manage to pass the test and I was certified to climb in the course of my job, which I did several times the first month. After that, I tended to use the ladder more frequently, as most techs seem to do. In fact, for several years, my gaffs stayed stowed in my truck, never seeing the light of day.

Until I became an instructor.

Since I would be training the new techs in all aspects of their job, I had to teach them how to climb both with ladders and gaffs, which necessitated being certified not only to climb, but to teach climbing. This meant my climbing had to be textbook perfect. In that molasses-thick, oxygen-thin, skinny-pole air above ten feet, I had to be perfect. Well, this required practice, so I did. I had to tell myself that the air wasn’t really molasses, and it had plenty of oxygen, and the pole was perfectly fine for climbing. After all, part of my training was how to evaluate a pole for climbing. My perceptions were entirely in my head. Fear had taken control and made me perceive these difficulties. Besides, I had done it hundreds of times. “I can do this,” I said to myself. So I did. And I achieved my qualified safety trainer certification for both ladders and pole, as well as other aspects of workplace safety.

A few months later, I was informed that some of us were going to be certified to be expert safety trainers in the various safety disciplines, included ladder and pole. The Expert Safety Trainer (EST) is the instructor that certifies other instructors so they can, in turn, certify the technicians. I volunteered to go to pole and ladder, even though I still struggled with the molasses above ten feet. I figured the best way to handle my fear was to face it head on. Every time I addressed the pole, I relied on my training and experience to get me through, but every time I approached the pole I still felt trepidation at clipping the belt on and off the pole at the molasses heights. But something happened today that helped me get past that. We are using a new technology for fall arrest protection (keeping a person from falling off the pole if the gaffs come out of the wood) which the company is trying to distribute across the market. Once I was elevated, it occurred to me that nothing was going to make me fall, no matter what. All of the sudden, the molasses thinned. The climb didn’t seem so daunting. The air was still thin because we’re testing in Colorado Springs—more than a mile above sea level—and the air really is thin here; headache-causing, nausea-inducing thin.

Once I first achieved my EST certification, I continued to teach ladder handling regularly. The company, however, decreed that new hire technicians no longer needed to climb with gaffs, so there was no need to train them to do so. Because of this, I have not trained a pole climbing class in six years, yet I still recertify every year, just in case. Now, twenty feet seems quite comfortable as I have realized it was fear itself that made the air into molasses.

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Go West Young Man

The morning sun shines down through the leaves of the aspen between the peaks of the Rockies and I marvel at the scenery and wish I could enjoy this kind of natural beauty every day. Driving in a rented Kia Sorrento is not doing the trip justice. I need my convertible Mustang or better yet, my Shadow Aero, since the mountains tower over the road and I have to crane my neck to see them, and the road is as curvy and winding as any I have navigated. My Mustang would love to test its suspension on these roads. I lean into each turn and revel in the feeling of being pulled this way and that as a new vista appears before me after each curve and I wish I was on my motorcycle. I have no schedule to keep, no pressing matters to attend to, so I can just wander down these mountain roads till my heart’s content. I have already written several years ago about how I feel drawn to the mountains, but it is more than that. In the 1800’s, as land was plentiful and jobs back east were scarce, there was a marketing push to entice people to move out to the newly opened west that said “Go West Young Man.” As my life has been changing and presenting more challenges, I’m hearing that slogan more and more lately.

For this year’s recertification trip to Colorado, I took some vacation time and came up ahead of time to have a little mini-vacation. I was originally thinking about spending time hiking near Pike’s Peak and Colorado Springs, but then I remembered something someone told me about the Elk bugling in Estes Park. I’ve been to Pike’s Peak twice already, so, when I left the airport in Denver, I drove north to Estes Park instead of south. I booked no reservations. I researched no activities. I just drove and allowed my mind some freedom. Of course, one drawback was that, without reservations, I had no place to spend the night and since I landed at eight PM and it takes at least an hour to get out of the Denver airport, it was after 10:30 when I reached Estes Park. No place was open. I was seriously worried I would be spending the night in the car. Fortunately, I found an Econolodge that, even though it was also closed, the owner lives in the office, so he booked me a room.

I woke up early and wandered the streets in Estes Park this morning before the town woke up. None of the stores were open and several people were setting up a farmer’s market in the town square. The skies were clear blue and the air clung to a chill that made me question my decision to not bring a jacket. As I walked along the quaint main street, I even heard the bugling of an Elk. I saw a couple of them as well. They walked right in front of me as I drove down the road, just like they fully believed they had the right of way. After the stores finally opened, the people came out in droves. The roads filled up quickly, jammed with all kinds of vehicles from Jags to Beemers to motorcycles to Vespas. I figured it was time to get out of town, so I drove along one of the roads leading out of town and once I cleared all the touristy places and found nature, I was blown away by the scenery. If I never before made the connection as to why these were called the Rocky Mountains, it became clear today. The mountains are full of jagged slabs of granite, limestone and dolomite interspersed with the aspen, oak and evergreen forests. Large boulders are everywhere as are spills of smaller boulders, rocks and pebbles. It is a plethora of rocks.

Since it was getting close to lunch time, I decided to turn around and head back. I was hoping to find another hotel or B&B that was not too expensive, but the only ones I found were twice what the Econolodge charged. It seems Estes Park is a tourist town. It also seems that there is an Irish festival in town this weekend, which accounts for the scarcity of rooms and the higher rates. So I booked another night in the same place. Definitely not the nicest hotel I have stayed in, but since I only plan on sleeping there, I thought “eh.” I have to get up and out early to hike the trails if I want to see the moose and squirrel. And bear. And elk. And whatever other creature I can find.

After securing the room for another evening, I decided to tool around a little and saw a sign that said “Devil’s Gulch” and thought, hey! That sounds like a grand idea! So I drove down the road, fully expecting to see perhaps an old mining town, or a ghost town or something. I saw Glenhaven. It seems there is not a specific place called Devil’s Gulch, rather, it is an area that includes Glenhaven, which was essentially a road nestled in the mountains with about four buildings. The largest one was a B&B that I thought would be an even better place to stay than the Econolodge, but it was closed for renovation. Upon closer examination, it needed some serious renovation. Across the street was the general store offering coffee for a quarter. It was really not much more than a convenience store with a tiny deli counter. Outside the store was a large box on a pole. Inside the glass-fronted box were several books; about twelve. Above it was a sign that said Glenhaven Library. That says pretty much everything about Glenhaven. I would live there though, just for the views. Spectacular.
As I left Glenhaven it occurred to me. I hate crowds. I hate traffic. I hate the hustle and bustle of city life. I have lived in Houston for fifteen years now and the only reason I moved there was to be closer to my kids. In that time, Houston has only gotten bigger and more crowded. I want to live out where one can drive for an hour without seeing another person. I want to live where the only people I see are close friends and family, and then only on occasion. Even Estes Park is too crowded for me. It is a tourist town. I know many people come here on vacation all the time. These people book the resorts and the B&Bs and the luxury hotels. I never really appreciated that kind of vacation. When I go places, I want to immerse myself in the culture and history of the area. I want to experience the place the way the residents do, not the tourists. I want to see the natural beauty, the history, the life of a town, not some contrived entertainment designed to appeal to tourists that don’t really know the area. This is why I leave the town and drive. On that curvy little road, I spotted dozens of log cabins, ranch houses and even some mini-mansions. This made me think that maybe there are no more wide open places anymore, but these houses are spread out, so it’s not like they’re a subdivision. I could live in one.

A small creek runs alongside that road out of Estes Park and at one point, there was a small waterfall. I stopped there to get some photographs, which necessitated climbing down to the creek from the
road across a bed of large chunks of granite and limestone to get to the creek. After I shot my pics, I took several moments to just sit there and let myself be open to nature, open to God, open to whatever thoughts would come. People don’t commune with nature enough and people certainly don’t pray enough. I did both and I felt at peace there, in that moment. Perhaps the mountains are indeed calling for me to head west.

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Driving the Dream

There aren’t many things that are more satisfying than making the final payment on a car note. The last car I bought was a 2009 Ford Escape and I made sure to pay a little more than the scheduled payment each month so it would be paid off as quickly as possible. When I issued that final payment in 2013, I was ecstatic. No more car note! The car was still new enough that maintenance wasn’t an issue. No need to keep a tool box in the trunk just in case the car broke down. I have had cars where that was a requirement. I remember spending a scorching afternoon on the side of the road swapping out an alternator in a 1994 Chevy Corsica while my girlfriend sat on the curb and that toolbox got a workout. As I have gotten older, I appreciate not having to do my own mechanic work on my vehicles, so it was a relief to have a car I owned free and clear that didn’t need a toolbox. Well, I managed to make it three years with no car note, but circumstances dictated it was time to get a new car, no matter how badly I didn’t want to have to pay for one.

Of course, there is no way—in the strictest sense of the word legal—to obtain a new car without paying for it, so I had to consider if I wanted to go cheap and buy a used car or commit to a payment schedule demanded of a new car. New, or used: that was the question, and it was a question to which I didn’t like the answer. Sure I could buy some beater vehicle. I could pull some money out of savings and own the vehicle free and clear without getting under a payment schedule. But then, I would probably have to start toting a toolbox around again. I hated that option. It’s not that I can’t do the work; I just don’t want to. I looked through Craig’s List and a few other websites at the vehicles listed and the one’s that looked more mechanically trustworthy were almost as expensive as a new car. Unfortunately, the only ones I was willing to pay for looked like they would need a toolbox insurance policy.

I had a conversation last night with a friend of mine about do-it-yourself work after he had spent the afternoon repairing a water pipe feeding his house. He takes great pride in that he saved so much money by not having a plumber come out to fix it. I have done plenty of do-it-yourself jobs over the years. Most recently, I fixed my air conditioner. I can do most mechanical or electrical work if needs be, but, as I said, at my age, it is more satisfying to have someone else do it, particularly if that work is under warrantee. If someone else fixes it and it breaks, it doesn’t cost any more to fix it again. Warrantees are wonderful things like that. Know what comes with a warrantee? A new car!

So, I decided to go the route of a new car, even though it meant a car note. Now the question becomes one of “which car” as I looked through the dealer’s websites. Now, before I go into how I picked my car, let me say this: I was doing this car shopping right after my marriage broke up, so I was not in the best frame of mind to make a decision that comes with a huge financial commitment. Remember how, in high school, they told you never to go to the grocery store hungry? If you did, you’d buy all this food you didn’t need and pay a lot more than you should have. Right? Well, let me add this: Never buy a car when you’re emotionally compromised.

I am a practical person. I buy practical vehicles. I have had two SUVs, a sedan, and a station wagon. The sportiest vehicle I have ever bought was a 1994 Dodge Shadow and technically, that was my wife’s car as I was driving it’s more practical sister, the Plymouth Sundance. Even my motorcycle is a cruiser instead of a sport bike. I am not a “sporty” guy. But inside of each of us is that hidden, secret, sporty streak. We look at Camaros and Corvettes and Chargers and Challengers and wish we could have one. Since I am not a big fan of GM or Dodge, I like Ford. So my secret wish was the one sports car that has been in constant production since its inception in 1964—the year of my birth—the one car that is as old as I am: the Mustang.

In 1984, I was home on leave from the Army and I wondered into Frontier Ford in Humble. Now, as a private in the Army I had no money to buy any car, much less a sports car. But the salesman took a look at me in my uniform and walked me right up to the convertible Boss Mustang sitting front and center on the showroom floor and with a big sweep of his arm, opened the door and told me to sit in it and give it a try. Now, even though I knew there was no way I was going home with this dream machine, I sat in it. I didn’t even say no when he asked if I wanted to test drive it. He opened the big doors of the showroom, drove it out to the lot and offered me the driver’s seat. What would you do? Of course, I took it! I drove that baby up and down the freeway at speeds that I can’t confess to so I am not admitting to any crime. I had a ball, but I knew it was only going to be that one time. I would not be able to own such a fine machine.

It’s funny how at times when your emotions are all in flux, frustrations from years ago percolate up and get mixed up in your decision making process. There, as I was looking through the available cars on my computer screen, was a cherry 2016 convertible Mustang calling to me. It was as if my 1984 self was being given a second chance. I had already looked at the Fusion and the Escape and the Explorer, and the rational, reasoning part of my brain knew I was going to test drive those more practical options, but I wrote down the VIN number for the Mustang just to see it. Perhaps I would test drive it and relive the memory of my last drive.

The next day my friend came over and ferried me to the lot. That was how sure I was going to be driving home in a new car, I didn’t even ride my bike so I wouldn’t have to figure out how to get it home. We started walking the lot, heading straight for the Fusions. As we walked along, I saw a pretty Explorer that I hadn’t seen on the website, So I made a mental note to look at it later. Before we found the Fusion, however, I saw her.

Ruby Red is what Ford calls it, but any Arkansas fan knows it as Razorback red. The sun was glimmering off its finish as she sat on the line, with her nose sticking out just enough to make her stand out. It was as though she was calling to me. She was the puppy in the window that dances against the glass while all the other puppies play in the back of the pen. I was just staring at her when the salesman came up. I think he saw the look on my face because we kept coming back around to the Mustang.

Now, I did test drive the Fusion and the Explorer, but I also tested the Mustang—with the top down, of course. The rational, reasonable part of my brain was arguing for the Fusion. It was making cogent, logical points. It won the argument on its merits, but lost it in the end. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the Boss 5.0 V-8 engine, but that was another ten grand. I just couldn’t do that. My rational and reasonable brain won that argument. Despite the fact that the Mustang was out of my budget, didn’t have a back seat to speak of, and was a bit difficult to get into and out of, several hours later I was signing the contract.

Now I am on the hook for 60 months of loan payments and insurance payments. I still am bummed about having to get under a car note again, but my Mustang is fun to drive, when I drive her. I still ride my bike to commute to work because the gas mileage is better and I get to ride in the managed lanes which saves time. But on the weekends and rainy days, I get to drive my Sally. Yes, Mustang Sally. Sue me. And on nice days, you know the top is down. My youngest son calls it my “mid-life crisis” car. I’ll own that. I am 52 and single, after all. What better excuse does one need to live out a dream and buy the car he’s always wanted?

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Into the Swarm

Last night’s exercise was originally scheduled to be swimming and walking, but with the rains we’ve endured this past week, circumstances differed…in more ways than one. I already wrote about catching the drizzle between cloud bursts of the storm on Tuesday, but the storm raged all day yesterday, making the regularly scheduled bike ride ill advised. It rained a little today as well, but fortunately, it stopped in time to do some kind of exercise, so my son and I decided to ride bikes rather than swim. One other effect of all the rain was an increase in a certain insect population.

For our ride, my son and I cranked out to what I think is a good cruising speed. My speedometer called it about 14 Mph, though my phone insists that it is 12.7 to 13. Either way, that is a good speed to maintain for 10 miles, which I have set as a daily target. Since DJ’s bike is not a road bike, he has to work a little harder to keep pace. We were riding along and the phone announced that we had just hit the six mile mark when it hit me.

I was peddling along when the first one entered my mouth. Now the phrase, “keep your trap shut” takes on a whole new meaning when you are spitting and hacking up some poor unfortunate flying creature before you gag. I remember Mr. Miyagi admonishing young Daniel-san “breathe in through the nose, out the mouth. These are words to live by when riding a bicycle at 14 miles an hour (OK, ok maybe 12.7 but still). And this one was while I was still in the neighborhood. Once we entered the park with the detention pond, things got real.

It was dark as we started along the recently paved path. New park benches, recently mounted to the paved pads, were still wrapped in wet paint tape, but just barely visible in the twilight. The attack squadrons of mosquitoes were lined up and ready to start their offensive to reclaim the park from the human interlopers who invaded their wetlands to do nothing more than spend their time running in circles. The first wave hit rather timidly, as if feeling out our defenses. The impacts on my arms and face were not much more than nuisances, easily ignored. But once we finished the first loop, we started on the second. This wave was much more aggressive and must have had some kamikaze bugs. These insects were not simple little mosquitoes. No, these bugs had heft to them. When they hit, I felt it. They almost knocked me off the bike when one hit my square in the forehead. This was no easy feat as I was wearing a bike helmet so the bug had to pilot his way past my visor in order to hit his target.

Despite being outnumbered a million to two, we rode on, knowing our goal was still within reach. Thousands of bugs gave their life in their futile assault. I think the bug high command realized their plan was failing so they regrouped. They took a couple of their best pilots and had them swarm us at the end of the loop where they dove straight for our eyes. One hit me right in the tear duct and stuck there like an unexploded bomb. When I reached up to wipe it away, some of it got into my eye almost making me fall off the bike. I was lucky that I managed to unclip my shoe from the pedal to keep myself upright while I tried to clear my vision and deal with the sting. My son had a similar experience at the same time. Once we got back into the neighborhood, the attack was over. We only had to deal with a few pockets of resistance fighters.

I felt so many bugs’ impact, I would not have been surprised if I looked like the front end of a car after driving through the Atchafalaya swamp during love bug season when I got home. I had to shower just to get the feeling of all those bugs off of me.

Thankfully, tonight is not bike night. I plan on swimming my 10 laps and walking my 10,000 steps and calling it a day. Hopefully by my ride Saturday morning, the bugs will have abandoned their plan to retake the park and they can just live their little bug lives and let us live ours. Even so, I do plan on keeping my trap shut when I ride from now on.

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Pacing the Storm

The rain was falling not particularly hard and the wind was not blowing as I walked. There was no thunder or lightning or anything usually associated with a storm, particularly a storm that had been dumping rain on the city all day. The rain had ostensibly started Sunday night, cancelling our planned walk that night and the storm continued through Monday and Tuesday, similarly cancelling exercise plans again. I had not missed three days of walking since I began this quest, and I was not about to do it now, so when the rain seemed to stop, I laced up my walking shoes and hit the street.

I made almost two-thirds of the way when the drizzle started back up. I was walking at a brisk pace, figuring I would not have much time before the storm resumed, and trying to get home before I got soaked. As I stepped, I remembered a time when I was trying to beat another walking deadline.081716_0200_1.png

“I’m Delirious!” My partner hollered as we marched along on that warm summer day in 1986. We were in Germany, Bad Kreuznach, if memory serves, doing a 12-mile force march as part of the Expert Field Medical Badge test. We both were wearing battle-dress uniform (BDU) with Kevlar helmets and load-bearing equipment (LBE) and carrying a fully loaded ruck sack and trying to make it back to the testing site before the timer expired. We were not in bad shape, the Army was nothing if not all about keeping soldiers in shape, but I was not particularly speedy in my marching.

I knew many of my compatriots were going to try to beat the record and they took off at a dead run when the march began, each hoping to be the one to get the fastest time. I had a different strategy: just finish in time. Kind of like that joke that goes “what do you call a man who passes his medical boards with the lowest passing score? Doctor.” Well, as long as I crossed the finish line before the timer counted down to zero from three hours, I was golden.

In order to facilitate the march, the testing site employed pace setters to march along the route. They had marched the route before and knew just how fast to go to make it in three hours. As long as I stayed in front of them, I knew I would make the time requirement. Easy peasy.

“I’m Delirious,” I answered. We had been repeating this to each other since the half-way point as a way to rally our strength. It had been just over two hours into our march when the load on our backs began to take its toll. Since we started out at a measured pace, we paced many of the younger medics who had started out running, but then ran out of steam. I understand several had to be carried to the aid station having exhausted themselves trying to run.

The test was designed to be taxing. A 100-question written exam started the week-long process which also included marksmanship testing, a litter obstacle course, land navigation (day and night), nuclear-biological-chemical safety testing (Gas masks and MOPP suits), combat medical scenario lanes and, of course, the 12-mile force march. I was doing rather well in the test so far. I had passed the written test, the NBC test, land navigation and the marksmanship test. All that was left was the lanes and the march (I think anyway, it was more than 25 years ago). They call it the Expert Field Medical Badge for a reason. They don’t just give the award away. It was worth a boatload of points come the promotion boards, so you really had to earn it.

So as we marched, the weight of the rucks dug into our already tired shoulders, sinking into our weary bodies. We had to reach deep down to pull out the reserves to finish this test. We had started the march talking between ourselves, but by this time, we were saving our strength. Even chit chat was exhausting.

“I’m delirious!” he hollered again. I was about to echo his call when I saw them. The pace setters were coming up from behind us. If we let them pass, that meant we were not going to cross the finish line in time.

“Be delirious in front of them,” I countered thumbing over my shoulder.

We redoubled our efforts to stay in front for the last couple of miles. I saw the finish line ahead of us as we rounded a curve. There on a table to one side of the path was a large digital clock counting down the time. It read just a few minutes left, but those minutes seemed like seconds as we stepped up our pace and the finish line never seemed to get any closer.

We almost broke into a jog for the last couple of hundred feet as the seconds ticked off. The pace setters were still behind us, but it didn’t matter. The final reading of zero was already glowing at me as my foot crossed the line. We were less than one second too late. So were the pace setters, but then they were not competing for the badge. Even though we had outrun the pacesetters, we had not outrun the clock.

I never did go back to take the test again, so I finished my Army career never having earned that badge. It is one of the regrets I carry from my military days, but I have many more positive memories and experiences that the Army instilled in me, such as always finish what you start. Charlie Mike: Complete the Mission.

So tonight as I walked home with the drizzle incessantly dripping on me, never really amounting to a rain, I walked myself along the path getting slowly more and more soaked. Of course, it doesn’t matter if it never really rained. I didn’t outrun the storm. I got wet just the same. Some things you just can’t outrun.

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