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

Monday, June 17, 2019

A Grammar Interjection

The last months have been busy, so I fall back on my old friend, grammar.

Today, I give you interjections.

In one school of grammatical thought, interjections are a classification of English words, like nouns, verbs, pronouns, and the rest.  Interjections are words typically used in dialog or informal writing: well, eew, uh, um, yes, no, huh, aha, hey, wow, and lots of other words.  The point about interjections is they, well, interject into a sentence, usually with some emotion or emphasis.

Three interesting things about interjections.

1.  Interjections (in traditional writing) are always separated from the rest of a sentence with punctuation, usually a comma and sometimes an exclamation mark.
Well, yes!  I did know that the eggs were spoiled, but I didn't think that mother would mind eating them.
2.  The placement in the sentence does not really affect how we use interjections.  We still put commas around them.
That's the funny thing about cats, huh, you can only skin them one way, right?
3.  Like nouns and verbs and almost any other type of speech, interjections can be people, swear words, and more.
I don't want to walk through this horrible field, Randy!  Oh, hell!  It's been raining in Indiana for weeks, and, oh, drat, Mike, I have enough water in my boots to fill a bucket!
Here are a few more (remember, these can act as other parts of speech but can interject as interjections):
no way
oh, dear
any swear word
onomatopoeia, too?

What else you got, huh?

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Monte Carlo

“The knowledge lingered so that I would suffocate from it.
Sleep came so that I would wake breathless, anew.” When Knowing Eyes Meet

Monte Carlo had no issues crawling up Appalachia -- but she wasn’t quite sure why I drove her out here to these foreign lands at her old age. Getting down Appalachia felt more burdensome, and I did my best to keep from rolling us off the mountains. Monte Carlo drank a bunch of gas -- although not as badly as I had calculated before taking my first trip alone with just my 70s built car and my extraordinary naiveté beyond the Hoosier border. 

Turn the music up! Monte Carlo had a Sherwood stereo system in her, and we both rode the sounds of New Wave music and listened more closely to its uniquely relatable lyrics. Monte Carlo appreciated my singing, too; because it must have kept her occupied from the worry of us wrecking, or followed by a salivating serial killer, or stranded with bears and Bigfoot, or killed by a falling boulder-- or worse than all that: pulled over by a cop!

Like Monte Carlo, I appreciated the frequent gas stops. I needed to get out and walk around; to feel my independence and to make sure that I was still confident in executing this trip. Ah, a strange notion, Independence. I felt powerful knowing the ocean was really not too far away at all and that I would succeed in reaching that great wonder -- despite my original self-doubting and my parents excessive worry over Monte Carlo’s condition -- for she carried a lot of her burdens.

Wilmington had its own heaviness, too, with thick sea air and heat that could lull one to naptime. Still...I was ecstatic to have made it to my destination! I struggled to find the downtown, traveling many streets lined with huge, old and somewhat dilapidated mansions and dull, tired, and nearly exhausted shopping centers. Monte Carlo didn't care. She was more relieved to be back to civilization near some mechanics shops, if need be. When I finally found the village, Monte Carlo rolled her windows down to take in the sleepy air, and I cranked up the Eurythmics -- to share with the pedestrians my success at finding them. Monte Carlo and I drove up, down, over, and across that village like we were interested in purchasing the place. This, I asked myself, could be my new home? Sea gulls? Southern homes? Big porches? Faded signs and brick alleys? Old, Civil War monuments? Ocean?

And then Monte Carlo hit the brakes. What the heck?

We were witnessing an anomaly. I must have done a double-take, for Monte Carlo drove us by the scene real slow-like, to make sure what we were observing was accurate. Two men about my age were walking down the street...and they were clearly and undoubtedly, openly and uninhibitedly...holding hands.

Yes. Two young men were holding hands! And while the sun -- hung over them! Other pedestrians -- walking with them, behind them, ahead of them; they did not seem to flinch or recoil or miss a step. And stranger than all, the couple was...smiling?

So, it was true? 

I parked Monte Carlo – she and I needed to compute this scene.

So, it was true.

Interested in Oceanography at the time, I had picked UNC-Wilmington as a possibility due to their well-known science curricula. Texas A&M at Galveston would be my second choice. Actually, reverse that, because I put UNC at the top after reading in some Blue Boy magazine that Wilmington was outrageously gay friendly at that time. Texas, not so outrageously.

I had to know if what I read was true. Seemed awfully convenient that UNC at Wilmington was one of my picks....

That's why I really came to that seaside town in North Carolina. That's why I would eventually leave it. But, before I did leave, I momentarily grew a small spine at the moment. I felt compelled -- despite a truly terrifying sense to escape -- to look for more of this strange new openness.

I parked Monte Carlo up the street. She warned me not to go too far and, before I do just that, to keep her windows cracked so that she could cool off in the hellish heat. Businesses in the village appeared closed or shuttered but for a coffee shop a half-block down and a touristy looking one where Monte Carlo had soon wheezed to sleep. I went through the tourist store, walked down each aisle of trinkets, t-shirts, wind chimes, jewelry, and candles -- but with my eyes on any locals who might give way hints to their orientation. No one appeared to have the slightest urge to entangle each other by the hands like the two guys outside.

What about that coffee shop? I talked myself into checking it out - but not until I grabbed my college-ruled notebook from Monte Carlo where I had shoved stapled UNC information and outlined some forgettable story ideas. 

Everybody sat close together in the tiny coffee (and ice cream) shop. It looked uncomfortably close, frankly. I guessed that most of them were students: books opened, young faces glowing in calculations and absolution, and their young bodies clothed in made-to-look-old-but-really-new shirts and jean shorts. A sense of awareness among their kind was obvious to me in an instant. So, it was true after all. Yet, when eyes were eventually cast my way, I instantly crawled into my notebook and scribbled words meant to impress upon the viewer that I didn’t mind his looking -- but, I could take it or leave it because...because I didn't need anything in the world but this here iced tea and this mostly blank notebook. 

I appreciated his stare. I wanted him to stare. I wanted him to talk to me. How I would've died if he did!

Time to go. I couldn't do it. I suddenly realized that I opened myself up to receive information that I could not yet calculate in broad daylight, in a coffee shop serving ice cream to handsome men my age -- people more like me than I could ever have imagined existed. And in the daytime?

Monte Carlo knew, too, that I wasn’t ready for such openness. I wasn’t ready for such strange independence. She and I couldn’t escape Wilmington fast enough! What was meant to be a week’s stay became a 4-day trip all around. Monte Carlo and I had no issues flying over Appalachia - and that's about what we did. I returned home to Lafayette, thanks to Monte Carlo’s riding us to our safety and to that vast familiarity; returning us to greet surprised, yet relieved parents who said nothing more of the odd trip that I had planned for months, but in all honesty, failed to execute.

No harm done. 
I just decided Wilmington wasn’t right for me. 
I’ll try Galveston. 
A&M. … .

I was accepted, but my dad knew something, too. He knew that I wasn’t ready to live some place beyond Lafayette, Indiana. He knew I wasn’t ready to go to a big school like that way out there -- alone. He laid out a plan for me to go to Purdue - a mere four miles away -- to get on with my undergraduate. Sure, if I was still serious about Oceanography, then he would support me going to Galveston for further education. Only then. Only then.

So, I did what my dad wanted. I stayed. 
Yes, Lafayette: where I was born and where I was raised...and where I would remain. 
I went to Purdue. I didn't want to take Geology. Didn't they all work for oil companies? I chose a different major: Anthropology. I then chose a different major: Biology. Biology was more practical: Lilly. Industry. Paycheck. Anthropology? Adventurous. Humbling. Paycheck?

Eventually, I left Monte Carlo to a "friend" who abused her -- and to an extent, abused me. I had made a terrible mistake. The last I had heard, Monte Carlo was sold to someone who wanted to revive her. I would later leave for Indy to join my boyfriend who had just bought a house and was getting tired of driving back and forth -- and who was wanting to settle down. Twenty-eight years later, I am a Biologist working in Academia, as a cancer researcher...and a lab manager of both studies and students. I am a free, gay man partnered to that very same gentle man who beckoned me to stay with him in Barely-a-Ripple, Central Suburbia, Indianaville, living safely, predictably, and peacefully.

What of that younger me? No blame. I can still feel his desire to travel, search, and find. I can still feel his fear when discovering the thing he wanted most. I can still understand his reasoning to flee it.

Just the same, I don’t know what might have happened if I had actually moved to Wilmington and had become an Oceanographer…if Monte Carlo carried me back up and over Appalachia safely...if we survived the 90s and the death of New Wave so far from home...if we drank sweet tea and ate fresh seafood...if we monitored whale migrations and worked on research boats and if I had traded Purdue Pete for Tar Heel. 

I don't know if Monte Carlo and I could've survived that new kind independence; if she could've kept her metal from rusting all those years as I drove us deep into that Wilmington sea of strange.