Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Just For (OTHER) Men

Today is the first day of 2020, and what’s the first action I commit? I dye my hair.

Now mind you, I dyed my hair just a little, unlike other men my age who probably need to dye their hair more.

Sure, I am getting older. And, just like other men my age, I do see some gray under some shades of light on some parts of my hair...but certainly not most of my hair! Only the temples, to be exact. And, just like other men my age, the gray is unwelcomed, right? No doubt they feel the same way that I feel in preferring not to see a reflection in the mirror each morning that claims to be the exact opposite image of our current, graying state.


So, on the first day of the year, I fooled the mirror and returned my reflected image back to an earlier operating system. No, not to Microsoft Windows 3.1; I don’t care to look younger...just circa early 2000s attractiveness. I like Randy circa early 2000s. I'm familiar with that guy. He's a handsome guy, too...with not a single gray hair on his handsome little head. What harm is there in wanting to look familiar? No harm at all. Thus, I used my partner’s Just For Men light brown hair dye to help me get back to, oh, Windows XP or maybe Windows 7.

Thankfully, I don’t need much of the stuff to do it, unlike other men my age. Heck! I don’t even need to buy it. I just have to borrow it, you understand. I am quite proud that I don’t have to walk into a Walgreens or a Kroger and publically state that I “need” Just For Men, because I need only a ‘wittle splatter of the stuff along my temples...maybe a bit further towards the back, too, if I could be assured that I won’t stain my neck in the process without realizing it. But no. I’m not assured. I’ll leave that small, incy-wincy spot of gray alone. For now.

However, I have recently discovered in a moment's glance while at work or taking selfies, and while at restaurants or taking selfies, and while shaving or taking selfies; I have discovered that I am not very good at applying Just For Men. Sometimes, my hair is too dark -- as in 'black sharpie' dark. Or, my hair has not taken in the color stain at all. I either leave the dye set too long or I don’t leave it set long enough. For someone like me who doesn’t really need to use the stuff anyway, unlike other guys my age, I'd still like to have a successful staining experience for once!

Eventually, I'm hoping to get this dye thing timed just right, so then I could start seeing a less graying man staring back at me and someone who I recognize as ME.

One small problem. I seemed to have used all of my partner's dye. I’ll have to figure out how often the Just For Men is stocked...if I can deduce a regularity to its magically showing up in the bathroom cupboard. Such a bother, isn’t it? Which brings me to this one question….

Do you think the Gen Y or Z inventors of tomorrow will create a dye that will last an entire year? Like, an annual application, Just For Men and Just Once A Year Formula? A Windows Infinity_Plus of hair dyes?

Because, that would be swell. I’d definitely be scrounging around the bathroom cabinet for a box of that stuff!

...Not that I really need the stuff.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Knee-High 55-Gal Drums

Stepping off the bus onto the city sidewalk, Evan was unsure exactly where he was.  He turned around to watch the bus doors slowly slide together shut.  The grumble of the engine became more audible as the bus started to drive away.
Evan looked to his left then to his right, examining his surroundings.  

It was a gray chilly day, high overcast clouds.  A biting wind blew gently against his left cheek.  

People walking by spoke some kind of Asian language.   Not knowing for sure if he was in Chinatown of some city or if he was in some far off distant city somewhere in Asia, he continued to walk.  

Evan had no idea how he got there... wherever there was.   He thought to himself, Am I dreaming? Or am I having a real Quantum Leap moment? 

No worries, Evan thought to himself.  I’ll figure this out.  But first I need to use the bathroom.  

Evan started walking down the sidewalk in search of a public restroom.  

Above the street was a large steel track system.   Some kind of a train or public transit system, Even thought to himself.

The people passing by were all Asian, all dressed in really nice, dark-colored business attire.  Some had briefcases. Some had accenting scarves around their necks.  Very well put together people.  I must be in some kind of business district, Evan thought.

He continued walking. Taking in the environment.  

Evan came to a large, beautiful courtyard.  A fountain was in the middle.   A wide semi-circle of cement stairs was on each side of the fountain, making a perfect circle around the fountain when looking at the whole courtyard.

At the top of the semi-circle stairs was the entrance to what looked like a really nice business sky scrapper. 

Evan proceeded to go into the building in search of a restroom.  The urgency was increasing.  

Once inside the lobby of the building, Evan found a security officer sitting at a large stone desk, dark jade green in color.

Evan asked, “Where are the restrooms?”

The security guard looked at Evan with a puzzled expression.  The guard responded in some Asian language that Evan could not understand. 

Evan started to communicate with the guard using hand signals and speaking really slowly.
Somehow, Evan and the guard were able to understand each other.  The guard pointed to the elevators and held up 4 fingers.  

Evan said thank you and headed for the elevators.   

He was able to get into an elevator just before the door closed.  There were 3 other people in the elevator with him.  

The door opened at the 4thfloor.  A man next to Evan stepped out of the elevator.   Evan followed.  

As soon as Evan cleared the elevator door, he saw something very confusing.  

On ether side of the elevator door was what looked like 55-gallon drums, only they were about knee high.  

Evan stepped towards one of them thinking it was some kind of art exhibit.   He confirmed that they were just 55-gallon drums cut in half.  

He counted 8 of them. He thought to himself maybe these drums are just trash or different recycling containers.  

He turned around.  

The man that walked out of the elevator with him, walked to one of the drums.  Evan watched the man proceed to unfasten his belt, unbutton his pants, and pull down his zipper.  

Evan was dumbfounded at what he was watching.  The man was pissing into the knee-high drum.  Right there in the open lobby.  Hearing the man’s urine splatter into the drum triggered Evan’s urge to urinate even more.  

Evan was still dumbfounded with the knee-high drums and watching a stranger pee into them.  

Just then the elevator door opened, and a lady sharply dressed exited from the elevator.  She walked passed Even, gave him a pleasant smile as she passed.   She then went to the far knee-high drum, proceeded to lower her skirt, and squatted over the drum. 

The sound of the splatter inside the drum sent Evan into desperation.  The urge to pee was over whelming him.  

Clenching his muscles tight and looking around in hope to find some sign of a traditional restroom, he was becoming desperate.   He was thinking to himself, I hope this not the restroom area.  I don’t want to pee in front of this lady.  I hope this is just a dream.

And just like that.  I opened my eyes to my dark bedroom.  I crawled out of bed and bee-lined for the bathroom.  Looking down at the toilet, I made sure I was peeing into a real toilet, not a knee-high 55-gallon drum.  I thought to myself, That was a strange dream.   I guess I really had to go.

I have been having very strong and vivid dreams the last month or so.   Some of the dreams I remember strongly.  Some of them I remember long enough only to forget about a few hours after my day starts. 

The above story is one of those dreams that I’ve held onto for whatever reason.      



Sunday, October 27, 2019

A Vlog to lighten the mood

Things here at Fiction Forge have been a little depressing lately, so I'm sharing a video that made me laugh.

Here is a vlog I discovered six moths ago.  Yes, Randy and Mike, this is the one I intended to share with you a long time ago and never did.

Language alert: Jenna swears a bit.

Jenna's vlog has some insightful, amusing rants.  This specific one made me laugh out loud a few times.


Thursday, October 24, 2019

My Ode to Gold

We had to put our Lady Lucy to sleep late last night. We discovered she had cancer that metastasized to her lungs (probably osteosarcoma). She was a 12 year old Golden Retriever whom we boarded for many years and then had a golden opportunity to keep permanently when her first daddy had to uproot to Dallas.
Lucy was quite a lady. A brilliant lady. Classy. Upper-crust. Quite the intellectual, too. She hated the whistle and bangs of human activities such as the 4th of July because they made no sense. She was concerned and sought shelter whenever thunder shook the world, grabbing her favorite toy from her toy box because safety from the coming storm was due diligence. She appreciated us leaving the TV on when we left the house, because it was tolerable human background noise that confirmed to her our return. She warned us of visitors with a bark that could crack the ceiling, yet she always welcomed a generous belly rub and a warm kiss on her large, white snout...and her lovely, soft face...and on the very top of her truly genius head.
Yes, it’s true she never lacked a good appetite – often pretending to go potty outside just to get a treat (like we couldn’t see her run down the porch, turn on a dime, and run back up?). Also, it’s true she barked at rowdy puppies who got too close to her bed — but who could blame her? Puppies can't deduce!
Lucy loved her home on Ivy Hill, hanging out with us at the side yard while everyone else was taking in nature -- or getting out our cell phones to take pictures of her, rolling in the grass or hopping- yes, hopping -- like a giant, furry, golden rabbit. She was even hopping around yesterday outside, though we had noticed her breathing had become very labored and coupled with coughing spells. When Lucy became lethargic as the evening progressed, we decided to take her in.
Of course, many of us have been here at this transition, when a soul whom we have shared our lives and know so incredibly thoroughly is to be released from our hold, from our protection. No matter how often we have been at this juncture, each companion of ours was unique and special and full of personality. In those strange hours when time moves - differently, Lucy was uniquely 'Lucy'. She had her four daddies to keep her company with a lifetime of kisses and belly rubs and I love yous. She enjoyed her favorite treat that she kindly shared with her sister, Daisy. She had her latest favorite toy too, Purple Stegosaurus, to keep safe as our love on her blessed and peaceful journey to Heaven.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Winter Will Fail and Spring Will Come

Life has crashed upon me in unyielding waves lately, dear readers. I have spent the better part  of an entire evening re-creating my eulogy for my recently departed father, only to have the digital gods take it all away. I cannot bring myself to go through that again, so I will leave you with a bit of my writing for now in hopes that I may be strong enough to try again at some later time.

Excerpt from "The Wild Man of Winter Wood"

             Shortly, six more squirrels glided out and fell in behind the first. Three more squadrons sailed in from different directions pelting the wolves with acorns and rocks as they flew over. One, grey with a black stripe down its side, hurled an acorn straight into the open mouth of a wolf as it leapt upwards towards them. The wolf fell to the ground gasping for air.
            It was then that creatures of the forest of all kinds came bounding, hopping, running and flying into the meadow. All set to harrying the wolves with teeth, stone, stick and claw. One in particular, a badger with a patch over one eye, ran into a cluster of wolves who had circled around Ralph. With a terrible ferocity, the badger began biting the wolves’ legs and muzzles, causing them to yelp and howl as they scurried away.
            A jagged black rock pelted down, striking Spur across the flat of his snout. The wolf growled fiercely as he leapt away from the Wild Man, snapping his jaws at the retreating squirrel completely ignoring the shrieks of rage from the tiny figure on his back. The Wild Man rolled to his feet, chucking handfuls of snow and sod at the wolf as he steadied himself.
            “Sparky!” he cried. He thrust both arms into the air waving them enthusiastically at the squirrel. A flutter of red scarf and the muted glint of the failing light off his goggles were all that the Wild Man saw of Leftenent Sparky McWingnut before he glided back to his squadron, but not before the squirrel nodded towards him and offered a brief salute. The Wild Man laughed and returned the salute as they banked to the left, gliding back into the trees.
            A banshee screech startled him around. He spun quickly to see Francis standing in front of the Flower, her back arched and her tail at full bristle. A low rumbling hiss came from her. The dark of her eyes had narrowed to mere slits as she glowered at Havelock. He stood a scant foot away from her and was creeping slowly forward.
            A single flake of snow drifted downward, coming to rest on a petal of the Flower. Havelock grinned wickedly. The Wild Man shouted. Francis hissed. Snow began to fill the air.
            And then, the snow stopped.
It was not that the storm had passed, but rather that the snow simply stopped falling. It hung in the air. Each and every creature within the clearing paused. And in the stillness, a woman’s voice was heard singing.
            Still, still, still we are;
            Still, Still, Still we must be;
            The world without, the world within;
            All must be still, as still as can be.
            A woman, dressed in russet and orange, stepped from the trees at the far side of the meadow. Tall and thin, with hair the color of loam, she crossed to the stone to stand facing the Wild Man. She held a wand of curled witch hazel, which she twirled in lazy circles as she sang.
            The Wild Man looked about. Nothing stirred, not even a mouse…except for him. The woman crossed the glade with barely a whisper. Snowflakes parted around her and swirled in her wake as she passed. She drew near the stone and paused opposite the Wild Man.
“Ever here, ever there;” she chanted. “I find you, ever here, ever there.”
The Wild Man began to circle the stone, holding his staff close to him. The woman did not lower her wand, but began to move around the stone in the same direction.
            "Time and Tide wait for no man.” He said as they circled.
Stopping suddenly, he looked around and said, “Survey says! Agatha le Fey!”
He blew his breath at a snowflake that hung in the air before him. “No man is a failure who has friends.”
A smile quirked Agatha’s lips as she also stopped. She lowered her wand and said,
Known to you
And known to me,
I know you of old.
And me to you.”
And in that frozen time, the two stood across from one another unaware that they were not the only ones untouched by Agatha’s spell. Havelock cowered where he had stopped, crouched and ready to spring away. His black eyes darted between them daring not to move for fear of being noticed. After moments when only the frost of their breath stirred the air, Havelock leapt forward. He reached out, but had his hand swatted by Francis’ claws. Black blood oozed from the scratches on his hand.
Agatha whirled towards the darkling creature, pointing her wand directly between his eyes.
 “You have no power here, elf,” she said calmly. “The Flower will bloom soon and you will be returned to the Darkness. When you return next season, you will not remember any of today. No memory of this grove will remain to you when you return. You will begin this fruitless endeavor all again to the very same end. You are doomed for your sins to continue chasing Spring until Time itself perishes. In what’s left of your soul, you know this to be true.”

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

First Trip to Red Dog

Having spent the past eight hours flying from Indianapolis I was more then ready to get up and move around.  Landing in Anchorage International Airport, the plane slowly taxied from the runway to the gate.  I did my best to look out the window from the aisle seat.  

Mountains.  I could see mountains.  A gentle calm came over me.  I was back in my home state of Alaska.  

As soon I was off the plane and on the jet way connecting the plane to the terminal, I felt the cool Alaska air all over my body.  Inhaling it in, I smiled to myself.  I can breathe.  No more humid Midwest air. 

I found my bags at the baggage claim.  Made my way to the hotel.  Check in, dropped my bags off in my room.  Immediately, went right back outside to go for a walk.  

It was about 8pm.  It was a gorgeous evening for a walk, sunny and clear.  The temperature was in the low 60s.  Perfect weather.

After an hour or so, I returned to the hotel bar.  Sat out on the deck.  Ordered a Reuben sandwich and a cold Rainier Beer.  Returning to my room a little before 11pm, the sun was still out.  I guessed it would be another 2 hours before it would go below the horizon.  Land of the midnight sun.

The next morning was an early one.  I had a 7am flight to catch.  Fly Alaska Air to the village of Kotzebue.  My first time flying so far north.

Landing in Kotzebue was a trip.  The runway is not all that long.  The pilot did a very good job stopping the Boeing 737 before running out of runway.  

Kotzebue is a few miles south of the Arctic Circle.  Tundra country.  A permafrost landscape.  No trees. Just shrubs and small bushes.  Treeless mountains in the distance still covered in snow. 

Getting off the plane in Kotzebue was comical.  No jet way to the airport terminal.  Steps were rolled up to the plane, and I had to walk about 50 yard across the tarmac to get inside the terminal.  

I noticed immediately the air temperature was about 10-15 degrees cooler than Anchorage.  It was cool enough for me to want my hoodie that was inside my backpack but no time to dig it out.  The TSA agent that was at the bottom of the stairs was waving a few of us passengers to get off the plane.  About halfway to the terminal, another TSA agent stopped a group of us.  He said to wait and let these people pass.  I didn’t see anyone.  Then I saw about 6 or 8 people walking towards us from the terminal.  It was some of the boarding passengers heading out to get on the plane.  I didn’t understand what was going on.  Don’t they normally let all the passengers off the plane first before they start to re-board the plane?

Not in Kotzebue.

After another stop by a TSA agent to wait for the next group of boarding passengers, I finally got inside the terminal.  And what a madhouse it was.  The Kotzebue airport terminal was super tiny--one room, not much bigger than a 3-car garage.  And all the normal things that you see at an airport were in this one room.  On one side was a small ticketing check in counter. The other side was a small miniature luggage carousel with luggage making its short round and round.  A front door went out to the parking lot, and a back door led to the tarmac.  TSA had their outdated, walk-through, metal detector at the back door.  You had to walk through the metal detector getting off the plane.  People trying to clear through security had to wait for those getting off the plane, vice versa.  

And on this day, it seemed like half the village was in that very small airport terminal.  The place was packed.  Standing room only.  People tried to get through security one direction or another.  People tried to get to their luggage on the very small luggage carousel. Then there were those in line trying to get checked in at the ticket counter.  Families hugging and kissing loved ones.  It was a zoo.

After getting to the luggage carousel to collect my bags, I headed for the front door of the airport.  

Kotzebue Airport Alaska Air terminal

I walked down the street.  I was looking for Kotzebue Air, a small regional airline, which would be my final flight to get to Red Dog.
Noticing the local houses, it seemed like every other house had dogs in the yards.  Some had lots.  Dog sled teams.

Dog Sled team

Kotzebue house
Being the start of the summer months, the snow was gone revealing all the clutter in people’s yards.  

I found Kotzebue Air and checked in.  I gave the gal behind the counter my bags.  She put them on a cart and said that I had 4 hours until the plane departed.  Looking at the Kotzebue Air waiting area, which was not much bigger than your average living room, I knew it was going to be a long 4 hours.  

I decided to go explore the village of Kotzebue.  It only took about 15 minutes to walk around the village.  I went to the local grocery store to get a snack.  I was blown away by the outrageous prices--over $4.00 for a liter of Coca-Cola.  

It cost a lot to get things flown into the Arctic

Kotzebue Main Drag

Arctic Church

Caribou racks 
After seeing the sites, I went back to Kotzebue Air.  I pulled out a book from my backpack and got comfortable in a chair.  

It became more entertaining to people watch.  Locals would come in to catch a flight to wherever. Or they would drop off packages with whatever to have flown out to whatever remote part of the artic.  About every 5 or 10 minutes someone would come in.

Not every family uses cars to get around
One man, an old-timer native with a thick native drawl, came in with two 5-gallon buckets in hand. He told the gal that he needed these buckets flown out to his brother to whatever village.  

She nicely asked, “What’s inside the buckets?”

“Seal oil,” the old timer responded.

She kindly told him that they could not fly open buckets full of seal oil.  It was at that point that I could smell the stench of seal oil filling the waiting area. The smell was indescribable, like a fishy sting, metallic almost.

The man turned and walked out with his buckets of seal oil. 

About an hour later, a man walked into the waiting area with a clipboard.  He called out 3 names, mine being one of them.  He introduced himself and said that he was going to fly us to Red Dog. We followed him through the door behind the check in counter that lead out to a hanger.  Passing through the hanger, the pilot stopped at a cart with luggage on it.  He said that if we saw our bags grab them.  We picked up our bags and followed the pilot out of the hanger and onto the tarmac. He pointed towards three Cesenas that were parked together.  “Our plane is over there.”  He climbed up into one of the Cesenas and told us to hand him our bags.  

After loading the plane, he got out and looked around and said, “Well, I don’t see Greg.  He must still be at lunch.  We’re a little short staffed today.  We need to back this plane up about 40 feet.  Let's push this plane back.  Two of us on each wing should get the job done.”

The four of us pushed until the pilot said, “That should do it.  Let's get in.”

Pilot from Kotzebue Air
I sat just behind the pilot.  He fired up the twin engine Cesena and taxied out to the runway. He pushed the throttles down and the engine roared.  

We climbed to about 500ft and started to turn to the left. Looking out the window, I watched the village of Kotzebue pass by until it was out of view.  Still climbing and flying over Kotzebue Sound, I felt the plane make a hard bank to the left.  I looked at the pilot.  He was shaking his head and adjusting the flaps on the plane.  

Village of Kotzebue 

We circled back and lined up with the runway and landed. Taxing back to the hanger, the pilot shut one engine off so that we could hear him better.  

He yelled out, “Weather.  The weather at Red Dog is not good.  The runway is fogged in.”

We made our way back towards the waiting area of Kotzebue Air. Greg was back.  He waved as we passed by him.  “Bad weather?” he asked.  The pilot nodded.
I grabbed a cup of coffee from the coffee pot that was behind the check in counter and went back to my book.

About an hour later the pilot came back in and said, “Let’s try it.”  

We took off again.  

I looked out the window, enjoying the barren landscape below--nothing but tundra wilderness.

The pilot weaved the plane around the mountains throughout the 45-minute flight.  He kept the plane low in elevation, no more the 800ft up.  The cloud ceiling was low.  I watched him throttle back the engines and start to adjust the flaps. Looking out the front window, I could start to just barely see a runway. 

Red Dog Runway

Landing was smooth and effortless.  

It was starting to drizzle rain and the fog was still present but lifting.  

I made it to Red Dog.      



Sunday, August 11, 2019

Playing at Writing

Steven Pinker, a rockstar linguist (and yes, this example is a few years old) writes,
Now our grammar is recursive.  The rules create an entity that can contain an example of itself.  In this case, a Sentence contains a Verb Phrase which in turn can contain a sentence....
For example, I think I'll tell you that I just read a news story that recounts that Stephen Brill reports that the press uncritically believed Kenneth Starr's announcement that Linda Tripp testified to him that Monica Lewinsky told Tripp that Bill Clinton told Vernon Jordan to advise Lewinsky not to testify Starr that she had had a sexual relationship with Clinton.  That sentence is a Russian doll with thirteen sentences inside sentences inside sentences.  A recursive grammar can generate sentences of any length and thus can generate an infinite number of sentences (Words and Rules, 8-9).

This is the wonder and magic of writing and language.  We can create uncountable, diverse, unique,  amazing sentences.

Sometimes, as we write, the marvel of this becomes diluted.  Barbara Baig says, "writing is a dance between content and craft, between the content mind and the word mind" (Spellbinding Sentences, 25).  The plot and the characters can outweigh the language.  The lovely alliteration wanes.

And we sometimes fall into our patterns.  I see this in other writers, and I know this pitfall traps me.  The same sentences show up on my screen.  The same words repeat themselves.  The patterns of speech sound like a dull, monotonous rhythm.

I once loved words and language with a fiery thirst.  Reading those writers and theories gives me more excitement about language than I have had in some years.  The exercises in Elizabeth Berg's Escaping into the Open are excellent--I've been going through them a little at a time.

Yes, journalling and writing exercises can seem a waste of time.  Finding the words and exercising the language to become a better writer... these are the things that seem most enjoyable when I can't quite force myself to write anything else.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

St. Elizabeth's

When I was 5 or 6 years old, I had the worst asthma attack to date. I remember Dad carrying me to his truck as I grasped what air I could steal from the crisp night. Dad settled me in the front seat of that cold cab and wrapped his jacket around me like a blanket. I remember curling on the seat like a puppy, half asleep and dazed and jerking back and forth with the truck on our way to St. Elizabeth’s, my lungs gasping for air in the crack of the seat cushions and Dad’s strong hand patting my back and rubbing my shoulders. As an ornery boy and the family’s black sheep, Dad’s soothing was more alien to me than it probably should have been. I was becoming familiar to the battle of filling lungs, but I was not used to Dad being so kind. I can remember feeling calmed.

Dad parked at the Emergency Room entrance in the back. I remember the gloomy lamps spilling over us and the rows and rows of dark cars as Dad carried me in his massive arms. I don’t know how events unfolded once inside the ER, but somehow I ended up in an oxygen tent on some other wing where I clearly recall watching the nurses build the tent around me and seeing through the thick plastic my mother sitting in a chair next to the door, her hands clasped on her lap and smiling at me. 

Sometime, Mom must have arrived at St. Elizabeth’s to take Dad’s place.

I vaguely remember my crying fits. I do remember the exhaustion from them and my temper cooling as I had transitioned from anger to pleading -- a strategy I thought better to employ. All I wanted her to do was to come to the tent. I needed her to then reach down and open the thick, vertical zipper bisecting the side of the tent that the nurses used to tend to me. Finally, I needed her to grab me and take me back home. If Mom ever did come to the tent, then I don’t recall. My memory of her at that moment was only this: Mom sitting on a chair by the door; smiling at me. At some point, Mom must have told me that she was not going to leave me; that she was going to stay the rest of the night. I don’t remember the conversation, but I can clearly remember the promise.

I must have fallen asleep peacefully thinking as long as Mom was there on the other side of my plastic barrier, then the worst that could ever happen was if she left. When I woke up and discovered that she did leave, I must have decided to do the same.

From the inside of the tent, I could see the large, oblong zipper handle through the gap at the end of the zipper. I opened the gap wider and stuck my hand through and simply unzipped myself from my plastic prison. I found my red lunch pail (candy from the hospital) and I’m pretty sure I put on my shoes. I then opened the door and took a left down the hall for the nearest exit to my home on Connie Drive! 

I didn’t get far. I remember walking down the shiny corridor and heading towards the end of the hallway (to a room where I had gotten my pail of goods) when a tall nurse wearing white stockings came around the corner and stared right at me - slowing her pace to take in what she was witnessing and even bending down to my level to get a good look. She called out to me and started to run towards me, but I was too quick. I opened a door on my left and hid in the Ladies restroom!

Somewhere in the logs of the Catholic Hospitals of America and in the memories of nurses and nuns the antics of Randall Scott Wireman are recorded and recalled, respectively (and regretfully).

I was either carried, dragged, or thrown back to my tent. I remember the nurses, perhaps six of them, not only checking their gerryrigged zipper but also the areas where the tent met the bed searching for gaps that I could breach. Eventually, through the plastic, sitting on a chair next to the door, I could see Mom. She may or may not have been smiling - maybe it's best.

Today, St. Elizabeth’s of Lafayette has been handed over to another Saint, though my asthma has decided to stay with me and, quite possibly, to die with me. We are inseparable. So are the memories associated with our infamous battles; the weekly and biweekly clinic visits for allergy shots until I was 17, the lonely hours spent indoors while the rest of the world played like Earthlings under the sun and in the autumn woods and on fallen snow. Eventually, asthma and I would spend more of our time outdoors like Earthlings; asthma would just steal a few hours here and there and tell me when it was time to head home and get back to residing alone in our lonely space, together.

Yet, the memory of St. Elizabeth’s is most definitive. Looking back, I - and so clearly I do -- see my beautiful mother and her dark brown hair, her Irish brown eyes, her bright red lipstick; and, yes...smiling. She must have been terrified. I realize now that she was smiling for me.

I can clearly see my father, too, from that night. I can feel his mighty hand patting my back. I can feel his jacket around me. If the jacket was blue and had a thin, red lining; if it’s white patch read Lafayette Frame & Alignment in red, cursive letters -- I do not recall. Yet, I can feel his jacket and his concern and his love. Even if I had died that night on my way to St. Elizabeth’s, I was in the safest hands in all the world.


My struggles with asthma is and was by no means unique. Millions have similar memories, I am certain. Still, I have been writing a story - a Western story - from time to time with characters personifying my parents love and also providing a starring role for my nemesis. I have written about the story before (and yes; I am current writing more chapters -- would be nice to finish it). Please see an earlier Prologue draft here: B Street, Virginia City, Nevada

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Mulberry Trees

There is a duality to my work life that I have alluded to in the past. On the one hand, I spend my days trying to save the flora and fauna of this landlocked state of ours by pushing back against the tide of progress. On the other hand, I am helping pave over creation by ensuring that the aforementioned progress is built correctly. This dichotomy makes for an unstable taijitu in my soul and mind and, quite frankly, leaves me exhausted.

Tonight, though, I would like to focus on the yin side of this couplet. Trying to hold back the onslaught of development (especially in a conservative state such as Indiana) is rather like tilting at windmills. The goal is to preserve something of the heritage and function of the natural places in the state. As part of that process, it is my job to identify the flora I find as I do my surveys. Now, it;s not enough to just wander into a field or woods and say, "Well, yes, this is a wetland." No, I must identify as many of the plants I find and label them as per their Latin name. Tree species are usually the easiest, though I do get the random transplanted species or escaped species that puts a wrench in the works. Asian Pears (Pyrus sp.) I'm looking at you. One of the species that I run into frequently is the Mulberry (Morus rubra or Morus alba) with the red mulberry being the most common.

Why do I bring up this innocuous tree, you may ask? I shall tell you. I do not like Mulberry trees. I do not like them, Sam I Am. No, not in the least.

My dislike of these trees has less to do with my professional assessment than from a personal bias. The trees do show frequently in my field surveys, however, all they truly mean to me is that I am on the dry side if things. It is only when I am home and tending to my own gardens that my disdain for these trees comes out. It's not that they are particularly unattractive trees as their glossy leaves are uniquely shaped and Morus rubra has a sort of orange bark. I don't even mind the prolific fruit that they bear as they are fruit for any number of wildlife. No, my loathing of these trees comes from the simple fact that they will grow anywhere and truly they will grow anywhere. Any crack in the concrete or split in the asphalt, you will find one of these trees growing.

No matter how bad the soil or steep the incline the mulberry will be the first to grow. Of course, once the tree has established itself, there is little anyone can do to remove it as it's tap root reaches all the way to the molten core of the planet. This means that I am forever battling against these colonizers in my flower beds and tree rows in a desperate attempt to preserve my vision of this tiny patch of the world intact.

Much like my professional attempts to keep the developers of the world from paving over everything in existence.

Now, as a biologist, I know that Morus rubra and species like it (Don't you look away Green Ash - Fraxinus pennsylvanica) are merely doing what they are meant to do. Colonize disturbed areas, stabilize the soil, and provide shelter for slower growing species such as Beech (Fagus grandifolia) and Red Oak (Quercus rubra). Their vigor and tenacity are part of their genetic make up. In short, this is the way they are meant to be and no amount of pruning or chemical deterrent is going to alter that fact. I rather view developers in much the same way.

So what is to be done?

It won't do to have mulberry trees growing ad nauseum throughout the garden, but neither am I likely to keep them all from growing. Thus, in the spirit of the taijitu, I have decided to try to change my views on the matter. Instead of reaching immediately for my pruners or my spray tank of weedkiller, I will try to see if I can tolerate the tree where it is. The three trying to grow next to my house will obviously have to die, but the three or four growing inside the White Pine (Pinus strobus) windbreak planted by the developer of the subdivision next to us...well, perhaps those can stay. And perhaps, not every proposed development needs to be opposed quite so vigorously.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Intro To Red Dog 5443

At one point, Red Dog Mine was the world’s largest Zinc-producing mine by volume.  In the recent years, it fell to second place.  Rampura Agucha in India is now the world’s largest Zinc mine.

Red Dog Mine is located on the western edge of the Brooks Mountain Range in North West Alaska about 90 miles north of the village, Kotzebue, which is just north of the Arctic Circle.

The only way to get to the mine is by plane.  A runway, large enough to handle a Boeing 737 aircraft, is the lifeline that supports the mine.  Alaska Airlines has a contract with the mine.  Every Tuesday and Saturday weather permitting,Alaska Air flies in a 737 from Anchorage, filled with whatever supplies and people.  

A typical work stint is 2 weeks on, 1 week off, 12-hour workdays the whole 2 weeks.  No days off unless you are sick.  No stores or shopping center.  No alcohol allowed. No way to drive off to a store because the only road at Red Dog takes you to the shipping port about 60 miles west of the mine.  

So for those workers at the end of their 2-week work stint, they are more then ready to fly out.

The mine operates year round.  They mine the raw zinc and lead from the earth, then process it to its rawest form and load the raw mineral onto large dump tracks.  The trucks drive down the only road out of the mine to what they call Port Side.  At Port Side, there are 2 massive buildings--storage buildings, 250 feet wide and about a ¼ mile long.  The dump trucks fill these building up during the off-season. 

Port Side is about 60 miles west of the mine.  It sits at the edge of the Chukchi Sea.  This is where the mine exports its yield, via cargo ship. 

During the summer season, Port Side is hopping with workers. About 80–90 people work Port Side for the shipping season.  The Chukchi Sea freezes over starting late October through early June.  The window of time for the cargo ships to get close to Red Dog Port Side is when there is no ice, July-October.      

The coastal edge of the Chukchi Sea is rather shallow, not deep enough water to dock a cargo ship on a traditional pier or dockside.  The ships can safely get just 3 miles off the coast and have enough water under it once they are fully loaded with zinc or lead. 

The ships get loaded 3 miles off the coast of Alaska in open ocean via barge.  
Foss Tug Boat Company built 2 custom barges, designed to be loaded with raw zinc and lead and with the ability to offload the product using conveyor belts into the cargo hatches of cargo ships.

Red Dog Port Side loads the barges, 5443 metric tons of zinc or lead per barge load.   Foss Tug boats drag the barges 3 miles out to the ship and tie the barge alongside the anchored ship.  The barge crew cranks up the conveyor belt system on the barge and begins to offload the 5443 tons product into the cargo ship.  

This cycle continues around the clock until the ship is loaded.   

Two different classes of ships come to Red Dog Port: the Handymax class with 5 cargo hatches and the larger Panamax class with 7 cargo hatches.  Handymax ships hold 9 barge loads where as the Panamax can take as many as 16 barge loads. 

When I worked at Port Side my job or part for this operation was Ship Agent--more or less liaison between the Port Side operation, Barge operation, and Ship operation, overseeing and being the communicator for the loading process.  My role required me to stay on the ship while it was being loaded: help tie off the barges when they came along side and help the ship’s crew with the documentation of the loading sequence and the amount of product that got loaded onto the ship. 

My contract had me working 3 week on 10 days off.  
A relatively easy job, though some eyes.  Really, it was more of an endurance test.   

When we were loading a ship, it was a 24/7 operation. Weather permitting.

When a ship came in to be loaded, one of the Tugboats would run me out to the ship.  The tug would pull alongside the ship while it was still moving toward the anchor area. I would climb up the rope ladder that the ship's crew hung down.  Once aboard, I would send down a rope to the tugboat so I could hoist up my bag of personal effects to live out of during my stay on the ship.  

Once the ship was anchored, one of the loading barges would be making its approach to come alongside the ship.

I would help tie off the barge to the ship.  The barge would start its 3.5-hour long offload. By the time the barge was done with its offload the second barge would be coming towards the ship.  Around the clock this process would go until the ship was loaded.

I would have about 3 hours of downtime once a barge started its offloading.  It was during those 3 hours that I would sleep, eat, get caught up on paperwork.  

Get 3 hours of sleep, wake up to get the empty barge untied from the ship.  Tie up the next barge.  Go back in and get another 3 hours of sleep.  About an hour of work, then 3 hours of down time to sleep, the cycle would go. 

It took 2 days to get the smaller Handymaxes loaded.  A Panamax would take 3 days.   

Panamax. Hatch 1 being loaded.  

I can still hear the barge chief make his calls over the radio.
“Commencing offload at whatever time. 5443 tons to offload.” He would do the same once he was done offloading.  “ 5443 tons offload complete at….”
The number 5443 will be stuck in my head forever.        

Standing on the highest mast of the one Panamax.
The next Panamax in the distance, anchored waiting to be loaded

Once a ship was loaded, the next ship would be anchored nearby waiting to be loaded.  We would not stop the loading operation unless weather conditions where too bad for safe loading.  Onto the next ship it would be.  

Standing on Top of the the Mast.
Tugboat Sidney Foss in the background 
I once went 14 days without touching land.  Load one ship, go to the next.  All the while getting 3-hour catnaps at a time for sleep. 

That was the hard part of the job--enduring lack of good solid sleep.  

The best part of the job was living and working on the ships. Meeting the ships’ crews.  Eating their food.  Trying to have conversations and learn about their culture, families or towns.  Most of the time the crews either didn’t speak English, or they had one or two that had limited English skills. 

It was a very interesting way to work.  

The majority of the time, the ships’ crews were Filipino or Chinese, but I was on ships with crews from Greece, Turkey, Russia, Poland, Myanmar, Indonesia, and India.  
I always looked forward to working on the ships with Indian crew.  The food was amazing.  

The best and most memorable ship was the ship with an all-Turkish crew.  Only the Captain and Chief officer spoke English.  The second officer travelled with his wife and 2-year-old daughter on the ship with him, which was unusual.  

It was very strange to see a little 2-year-old running around a cargo ship in open ocean off the coast of Alaska.  

That ship had the most amazing cook on board.  I have no idea what it was he made for us.  But each meal was over the top.  Turkish food was outstanding.  The best part was the cook pulled me into the ship’s kitchen, and he made it clear to me that his kitchen was welcome to me.  

He opened the refrigerator and pointed to all types to various Mediterranean cheeses, prosciuttos, salamis, cucumbers, and the best olives that I have ever eaten.  He said to me the best he could in broken English.  ‘Help yourself, for whenever you get hungry…midnight snacks.’   

And snacked I did.  Those olives… 

I worked at Red Dog Port for 3 loading seasons.  I helped with loading about 64 ships during my time. That was some time ago.  About 10 years.  I miss it.  

I’ve been thinking about Red Dog this passed week. They always start the loading Season July 1st.

Perhaps, some day, I’ll get to go back. 

So many stories to tell from my time working at Red Dog. Watching Brown Bear meander over the arctic tundra just a few hundred yards from Port Side camp.  Strolling the beach and coming across a washed up Walrus carcass.
Many crew member stories from the many ships that I was on. Getting told by a 20 something year old Indian nationality crewmember, that my English isn’t proper.  And many stories of friends that I made at Port Side. One of them, the legend of Portside, is Maxine.  She is one of the cooks at Port Side and is in a way a mother figure for the Port.  She and I still stay in contact through social media. I hope to reconnect with her in person to kick her ass in cribbage. She is one dirty player with a big heart.    

Standing on the forward Mast looking down at crew spooling in ship line

Three of the four Foes Tugboats huddled together alongside one of the ships