Monday, January 26, 2009

Biting Off More than You Can Chew

Last Friday Dar and I put about 12 miles on our bikes as we roamed around the Rockport area in search of things to photograph. It was a really nice day but bright mid-day sun isn’t real conducive to photography. The harshness of direct and somewhat hazy bright sunlight tends to wash out photos. Usually the best light is early morning and late afternoon — when the sun is lower in the sky and the light has a slightly warmer reddish tint. But since we were going stir-crazy and needed to get out on an excursion of some kind anyway… if any photos turned out good we’d have to Photoshop them to greatness.

At one point we rode up on a small group of people standing on the shoreline who appeared to be watching something out in the bay. As we slowly approached I saw it… a Great Blue Heron only 50 feet from the shore in shallow water — with a large fish in it’s beak. Cool! Well, at least it was cool for the Heron… not so cool for the fish!


Herons eat by catching small fish and swallowing them whole. They don’t, and they can’t, tear a fish apart into bite sized chunks like an eagle or osprey can. They can only swallow them in one piece… in one gulp. Well I don’t know a lot about a Heron’s capabilities in this regard but I severely doubted that this Heron would ever be able to get that fish down it’s long slender throat. It just seems there are certain laws of physics that can’t be broken. But not because the Heron didn’t try. Oh no! We stood there for 20 minutes watching the show and try as it might, the Heron just couldn’t open up far enough to get it in.


The fish was so large the Heron, a few times, got noticably tired of holding it up and slowly dropped it’s head to rest.


Eventually theory and reality collided. In theory: Heron’s eat fish and they eat them in one gulp… this is a fish… so this fish should be this Heron’s lunch. In reality: size matters. Eventually, the Heron, with great disappointment on his little face, gave up the fish. I swear I could see a tear running down his cheek. He put it down and slowly, deliberately, walked away… looking for a more reasonably sized lunch. You know there was going to be a fish story that evening at the Heron Happy Hour… about the one that got away.


There’s a lesson here for all of us.
T

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Drag Racing & Belt Sanders

written Saturday, January 24, 2009
Rockport, TX

I’m sure you’ve heard of drag racing. At some point you might have attended a drag race event. You may have even participated in unsanctioned drag races on the lonely back roads of rural America during your youth. Huh?? Com’on… tell the truth.

OK, I’ll come clean. I did. Once. It was during my high school years in the 60’s. In those days there were only a handful of kids who actually owned a car or even had one available for their regular use. Most families had just one car and, if you were lucky, it was made available to you when Dad or Mom didn’t need it — which usually meant only some weekend nights.

At the time in question our family had a 1964 Rambler Classic 660 Station Wagon. It was a good car in the realm of reliable but not very flashy transportation. It had a 6 cylinder motor and, while it was big enough for our small family, it was considered a small car in it’s day. I can only imagine the anguish my parents felt every time I left the driveway with the family’s only means of transportation. If this car had been disabled or damaged by my actions I’m sure my life would have turned out much differently — I’d probably still be working at the canning factory and making payments to my Dad.

I had a friend named Willard, whose Dad had a 1961 Plymouth 4 Door Sedan. It was a big car with enough room for a little league baseball team in the back seat and, I believe my memory is correct here, it could seat about 5 people across the big bench seat in the front too. Boy, that was some car. It had a V8 motor and something called push-button drive — want to put the transmission into “Drive”?… just push the “D” button… go into reverse?… just push the “R” button… Park?, well you get the idea. This feature was seen as an example of Chrysler Corporation’s finest engineering abilities. Willard claimed the car also had some special effect on girls but the reality was that almost any car driven by a halfway normal teenage boy was a chick magnet in those days.

Well, anyway, one time Willard and I, having too much idle time on our hands, decided to see what would happen if we drag raced these two family roadsters. We drove out to a deserted stretch of county road a few miles out of town with a few friends, lined the cars up next to each other, and made ready. Another friend, Gary, served as the official starter. A large old oak tree was the designated finish line, about a quarter mile up the road.

Willard was proud of the Plymouth and was convinced the race would be a simple dust-up. After all, he had a V8 motor and was heavily favored to win. I may have only had a “6″, but the Rambler was small and light whereas the Plymouth was heavy as a tank. Willard being Willard liked to make a show of things and liked revving the Plymouth’s motor in Neutral (the N button) in an attempt, I’m sure, to impress himself and the others that tagged along. I thought it would be tough to actually win but I was determined to make a race of it.

Gary dropped a T-shirt to signal a clean start. I put my foot to the floor, the little 6 cylinder motor purred to life, and the Rambler crawled to a start. At the same time, Willard put his foot to the floor and the Plymouth’s V8 motor revved up and literally screamed… it was still in Neutral (the “N” button). Yikes! Seeing the little Rambler starting to pull away and fearing failure Willard quickly tried to jab the “D” button (Drive) but somehow pushed both the “D” button (Drive) and the “R” button (Reverse) at the same time… while the motor was still screaming at about 5,000RPM. As I leisurely sauntered down the road in the Rambler all I heard was a loud bang and some fingernails-on-the-chalkboard squealing and then an even louder thud. Willard wasn’t going anywhere. Smoke billowed out from somewhere underneath the Plymouth and it was obvious something was badly wrong.

It turned out the drive shaft and part of the transmission were laying on the road — apparently unable to take the stress of being asked to go both directions with the motor screaming at maximum RPM. A while later I learned that Chrysler Corporation completely abandoned the push-button drive idea. After we graduated Willard and I more or less went our separate ways. I often wondered how long it took him to pay off the debt to his Dad. But I’ll always remember the night of triumph for the Rambler Classic 660 Station Wagon.

I told you all that to tell you this.

A week ago or so we caught wind of a racing event that was going to be held just up the road from Sandollar RV Park at a quaint little bar called the Pickled Pelican. We’re talking Belt Sander Drag Races kids… and not some unsanctioned late night back road races. No Sir! These are official Belt Sander Races sanctioned by none other than the Belt Sander Racing Association of America. This is a group of semi-normal people who take regular everyday belt sanders, run them down a track and race them against other belt sanders owned by other like-minded people.

Here’s how it works: First you’ll need a track. The track consists of two lanes and is made out of wood. Each lane is a “U” shaped — 11-1/4 inches wide with 4″ high “guard-rails” on both sides that keep the belt sanders in their lane. The track is 75 feet long. On the finish-line end of the track are large foam stop blocks that help stop the speeding belt sanders. A good track is elevated at about belly-level to minimize the amount of bending over the belt sander owners need to do — and some can’t do. The track has provisions for providing power to each racer for the full 75 feet by means of an extension cord that neatly follows along behind during each run. It’s also fitted with electronic starting switches and a timing device which has been successful in reducing fist fights between the owners. It should go without saying that these tracks are almost always outside.


The belt sanders are regular belt sanders, the most common being the cheap $50 model you can buy at Harbor Freight. There are two classes… stock and modified. Stock means stock — you can’t change anything. Modified means you change gearing, components, and just about anything else as long as what you end with remains a 120volt powered belt sander. Everyone must run standard production sanding belts. And some owners go to great lengths to decorate or re-paint their belt sander to make it stand out from the pack. It’s amazing what the mind will come up with when under the influence.

Being a keen observer of human behavior I saw one important difference between this and regular drag racing: in regular drag racing you put the alcohol in the dragster. In belt sander racing the alcohol goes in the owner. At least that’s my observation.

Unfortunately, the day we went the races were delayed and then finally called off due to rain. At 3:00pm, the precise scheduled start for the event, a shower hit the area. Although a number of belt sander owners were still willing to stand in rain puddles and accept the shocking consequences of 20amps of 120volt power through ungrounded cords, the bar owner wouldn’t take the risk. We hung around for a while and eventually it dried up enough so a couple guys ran their belt sanders just to show a few like us what it’s like. That’s when I got the pictures.

But we won’t be daunted in our efforts to see a full sanctioned event. The Pickled Pelican has races twice each month. So on the 7th of February we’ll be back there for another try.
T

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Naval Air Assault

written Monday, January 19, 2009
Rockport, TX

A virus of some sort is going through the area. What do they call it… a rhinovirus?? It’s cut a wide swath through the RV Park and about the middle of last week it finally hit the bus-house. Dar was it’s first and, hopefully, last victim. It’s not a bad cold, but it was bothersome she says. It settled into her chest and between a sore throat and occasional coughing fits it left her feeling a bit off kilter the past few days.

If you stay here at Sandollar Resort long enough you’ll eventually get used to being buzzed by the U.S. Navy. The Naval Air Station Corpus Christi is the place new pilots go for primary flight training. For some reason they use the Aransas County Airport, just down the road from Sandollar, to practice landings and other maneuvers. When they’re out in force there can be 6 or more planes in the pattern at the same time. For the most part they fly a plane called the T-34 Turbo Mentor, a plane built between 1975 and 1990 by Beech Aircraft. It’s a small, two seat, turbine powered craft that’s like the Energizer Bunny… it just keeps running and running and running. The newest one is almost 20 years old and still in daily use. Some of them are older than the pilots in training. In the next few years these old birds will be replaced by a new trainer, the T-6 Texan II.

From Fulton Day; Planes, Bikes & Birds

Having nothing else to do last Wednesday I took my bike and Canon Digital SLR over to the airport to get a closer look at what this Naval air assault was all about. It wasn’t hard to get where I wanted to go as there were no fences, gates, checkpoints, or anything to keep me from riding right onto the taxiway parallel to the runway they happened to be using. This is Texas after all, and here, in Texas, people pretty-much do whatever we want. There were a few people around and I half-expected someone to ask what the heck I was up to — but that never happened. There was this kinda-official looking pickup truck sprouting antennas with a military-looking driver parked in a way that suggested he had something to do with these planes — it had the letters RDO on the side.

During a lull in the action I walked over and struck up a conversation with the guy who I found out was the RDO — Runway Duty Officer — for the day. He indeed was there to keep an eye on these baby-pilots even though every trainer had an instructor on board as well. He watches for external problems with the planes, makes sure the landing gear is down for landing, and generally be that resource on the ground since they’re at an airport that’s not a Navy base.

He also told me the students that do the best in primary training are the ones that go into jets and aircraft carrier operations and all that glamorous stuff. The ones that don’t do as well are shunted off to drive bigger, slower patrol and cargo planes. I hope I didn’t mess up somebody’s scores by standing next to the runway with a big camera, They might be flying lonely patrol in Alaska instead of driving a sexy new jet fighter because they were distracted by some bozo in Rockport. Well, I hope not.

From Fulton Day; Planes, Bikes & Birds

Before heading back home I suggested to the RDO that if the Navy was looking for someone who’d take great care of a T-34 after it’s retired they could call and I’d make it easy for them. You see, I have a brother-in-law that flies and owns his own plane. And, best of all, he has a hanger that I think has just enough room to squeeze in a little ol’ T-34. We’d take great care of it, wouldn’t we Dave?

The day was clear and the wind was from the north which means they were using the runway approach closest to the RV Park. All that, coupled with the ease of getting onto the airport grounds, came together to allow me to catch a few neat shots of these old planes in action.

T

Friday, January 16, 2009

Terror From the North

written Friday, January 16, 2009
Rockport, TX

Commentary
Item: A US Airways A-320 airliner ditches in the Hudson River on Thursday after being struck by birds on take off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Due to the skill of the pilots and quick response from those on the ground everyone survived.

A later report stated that the plane flew through a flock of Canada Geese.

Alright, that’s it! This is the last straw! We were lucky this time… that may not be the case next time. If, in fact, it turns out these were Canada Geese let me be the first to call for prompt action against Canada — our seemingly friendly neighbor to the North. The people and the government of Canada have a long history of harboring these big birds… these terrorist turkeys… these weapons of mass defecation, and sending them on annual missions of destruction into the continental United States. This latest attack is a ratcheting-up of tactics with the introduction of “guided geese” — homing honkers willing to die for the cause. In the interest of harmonious international relations we’ve looked the other way and held our collective noses far too long while our parks are pooped and our shorelines are sullied — and now our airliners are being taken out of the skies. It’s become clear to me that Canada is engaged in a unilateral biological war against the U.S.A. that won’t stop until we take decisive action to protect the safety and security of our population. The solution is nothing short of invasion, taking control of this terrorist-fowl harboring state, and forcing a regime change as soon as possible. The world will be a much better place when we’re through.

Write your congressman and senators. Let’s not shrink from our responsibility to help keep America safe and clean.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Back to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

written Thursday, January 15, 2009
Rockport, TX

This past Monday, the 12th of January, was supposed to be a nice day so we loaded up the bikes and headed north to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. You may remember that we were there a couple times last January — once to visit and take photos; and again to ride our bikes around the 16 mile loop that threads its way through the Refuge. This year’s visit was as much about getting out on the bikes and working up a sweat as it was about the wildlife.

From Aransas Wildlife Refuge

The day was perfect for the ride… very low wind, bright sun, low dew point, and temps in the 60f’s. A Ranger we ran into said they get maybe 10 days like this all year. And maybe because it was a Monday there were very few visitors. It felt like we had all 115,000 acres and 16 miles of roadway to ourselves.

This part of South Texas has been in extreme drought. There’s been very little rain. San Antonio usually gets about 34 inches of rain in a normal year, but only 13 inches in all of 2008. The rain that San Antonio didn’t get didn’t fill the rivers that flow this way toward the Gulf, which didn’t recharge the wetlands and marshes and tidal areas along the coast with needed freshwater for the life that’s come to rely on it. As a result the whole place is under stress. The brackish salt marshes are now much saltier. Freshwater wetlands and ponds have dried up — almost completely. Birds can fly to find the water they need. But ground animals have only so much range and while they can be incredibly resourceful, this isn’t a good situation. Everybody’s hoping and praying for rain.

From Aransas Wildlife Refuge
Most of the road through the park is a paved narrow one-way roadway. Submitting to an iconoclastic urge we decided to ride the road backwards — go the wrong way. Why? Well we’d see things differently than we did last year — we’d get a different perspective. And we’d be able to more easily see cars coming toward us than if they were sneaking up behind us. The roadway is narrow enough that we usually stop riding and get right to the edge of the road when we encounter a car, so seeing them coming from the front means less element of surprise and a bit more time to prepare. The road is posted for 25mph and most people are going slower than that, so speed isn’t a problem regardless of the direction of travel. It wasn’t much of an issue anyway as there were very few cars.

During our ride we saw Whitetail Deer, Wild Pigs, Coyote, Armadillos, dozens of species of birds, and even a few Alligators — small ones in a little water hole that once was a large freshwater pond. From a platform built high above the trees overlooking the shoreline of the Gulf and Mustang Lake we could also see a pair of nesting Whooping Cranes. This Refuge is one of the key wintering areas in the U.S. for the endangered Whoopers. There’s been a steady increase in the number of them that show up here every year, and in December an aerial survey counted 266 birds. But the drought has been tough on them too as their main food source, blue crab, is also suffering from the lack of freshwater.

We had a great ride, got some cool photos, soaked up a dose of bright sun, and thoroughly enjoyed the day.

T

Friday, January 9, 2009

Exploring the Coastal Lifestyle

written Friday, January 09, 2009
Rockport, TX

The coastline here is made up of a series of large shallow bays. Corpus Christi Bay is south of us. Aransas Bay is where Rockport is situated, the bay we see from Sandollar Resort. Just to the north of us is Copano Bay, where we took the pictures of the dolphins the other day. To the north of that is San Antonio Bay. And then there’s Matagorda Bay. All these bays are behind a series of long, thin barrier islands, which tend to form along the coast after many years of tidal and flooding activity. These islands provide the area with some protection from the open waters of the Gulf during storms. It’s been many years since Rockport or Corpus Christi was hit by a major hurricane. People who live here know it’s only a matter of time but they also grow lax and begin to think about the future on the basis of the recent past. A lot of recent construction has been built too close to the water and will surely blow away when a Katrina or Ike happen along some day.

We took advantage of the first-class weather on Wednesday to make a driving exploration of the coast about 50 miles to the north along Matagorda Bay. The land here is flat, some of the flatest land I’ve ever seen. I don’t know how it could get any flatter. I’ve mentioned before that Texas is pretty much tilted toward the Southeast and almost all major rivers flow from the high-country in the north and west to the Gulf in the south and east. These rivers brought silt loaded with nutrients and deposited it here over many years. Today those nutrients are used to grow cotton and other crops on extremely large fields.

We stopped at the little communities of Seadrift, Port O’Connor, and Port Lavaca. There isn’t much to see in any of them but we did meet some interesting people along the way and generally added to our knowledge and feel for the area. There’s a nice bird sanctuary along the Formosa Wetlands Walkway in Port Lavaca but there weren’t many birds that day. The locals say there’s more during the summer.

There is a stark contrast in the way people live in these coastal communities. On the one hand there’s what might be called trashy squallor… the product of casual, laid back, coastal living in a moderate climate where being close to the water is more important than having a nice place to live. Because these dwellings are very small any stuff they have to augment their coastal lifestyle — boats, fishing gear, surfboards, appliances, and just about anything else you can think of — ends up outside in the yard. There are few jobs here that pay more than subsistance wages and if being here is important you’ll adjust your lifestyle to match your income.

On the other hand — the other extreme — there are newer up-scale areas with very nice and very large homes. These people have the same need to be near the water and to live the casual coastal experience, but with one big exception… they’ve already made their money and don’t have to work. There are retirees and there are the wealthy. Many of these homes are 2nd homes or vacation homes, so the owners are only here a few weeks a year. Others live here year ’round.

The contrast between the two groups is stark. And there’s not much in the middle. We did find a number of new up-scale housing developments in various stages of completion but with very little recent activity. Apparently the recession is having an effect on these people as well.

T

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Winter Warmth

written Tuesday, January 06, 2009
Rockport, TX

Last year we left Sandollar on January 8th and killed a week or so around San Antonio before heading west into the high country of West Texas. It didn’t take long to discover that winter in the high and dry west can be cold. I pulled out our charter, the document that guides our travels, and found right there in black and white: “Prime Directive #2 — Strive to find warmth and sun.” While the high country gets high marks for sun, in January and February it falls short on the warmth part. We were in clear violation of the charter.

There are really only three areas in the contiguous U.S.A. where you’ve got a good chance at warmth in the Winter — South Florida, South Texas, and parts of the extreme Southwest. I’ve been told that snowbirds and others fleeing Northern Winters tend to stay in their longitudinal area; that is, people from the New England States tend to winter in Florida, people from the Midwest go to Texas, and people from the West and Northwest go to Southwest Arizona and maybe, if they’re a little wacky, Southern California. I guess that all makes some sense which may be why we feel at home here in Rockport. We’re surrounded by many people from Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Nebraska.

I haven’t been a big fan of Florida and we haven’t been there with the bus-house yet. I’ve heard it can be very expensive and crowded — two big strikes against it right off the bat as far as I’m concerned. Likewise, we don’t have a lot of experience with the Southwest having spent only a few weeks near Tucson and Quartzsite last year. I’ve heard Yuma is nice but there are a lot of people crammed into a small area, meaning crowds again. All things considered we’re mostly satisfied and comfortable with the Rockport area of Texas.

This year our plan is to linger here in Rockport a bit longer. By staying South for most of December, January, and February, I’m hoping we’ll have the core of Winter behind us and we can start exploring new areas in relative warmth. When we do leave we’re thinking about going East this year, along the Gulf Coast to the Panhandle of Florida, then generally north into the Carolinas and other Mid-Atlantic States before bending West again to the Midwest. Of course, as always, this is just a plan and subject to change with any new whim.

T

Monday, January 5, 2009

Chapters and Parties

written Monday, January 05, 2009
Rockport, TX

Lives, like novels, are made up of chapters. But unlike novels, we, being the complex little creatures we are, have multiple chapters playing out at the same time. We might have a dozen or more separate and concurrent dramas going on, each with different starting and ending points. This is complicated stuff and often festers into lives so busy there’s no time to think.

But whether the subject of the chapter is “My College Years”, “My Life in the Fastening Business”, “Raising My Children”, or “My Years on Cedar Avenue”, there’s a point in time when it’s crystal clear that a particular chapter is over… you graduate or retire or move or watch your kids graduate. All that remains are memories. Those are the times I find myself getting a little pensive as I reflect on the past and wonder about the future — the next chapter.

We ended a big chapter when we sold the house and started this fulltiming lifestyle. There was a nearly 6 month period of adjustment as we prepared for the change, but when it finally arrived, when we closed the door of that house on Cedar Avenue for the last time, it sort-of took my breath away — the memories, the neighbors, the future, living fulltime in 300 sq. ft. with Dar — so much left behind yet so much still ahead.

January 1, New Years, can be like that if you let it. Although just an artificial chapter based on time alone, it does provide a nice neat opportunity to think about your life, to make resolutions based on shortcomings harvested from critical reflection… if you’re honest with yourself. Whether you keep them or not is less important than the process of thinking about your life, your relationships, your place in the world. This year, I resolve, to try, to use fewer, commas, as I write.

The past two years I’ve observed mature people in RV Parks on New Years Eve. Both years we’ve attended celebrations with food, booze, music, and dancing. This year the party was to start at 8pm, with the doors opening at 7:30. If the event doesn’t allow for advanced table reservations, like this year, each group sends an advanced scouting and raiding party that stands in line early, rushes the door as the bolt is retracted, and claims the best table they can find by making themselves appear as large as they can — hanging, laying, on as many as three or four chairs at the same time and drapping purses, coolers, coats, and medication bags all around. This is recognized by the others, and by AARP, as clear title to that table for the rest of the night.

During the next hour or so the advanced table-claiming party, usually all women, is joined by the rest of the contingent — the guys who have been talked into showing up on the basis of how much fun they’re going to have. Everyone starts to loosen up, laughs, eats, drinks and dances a little. Jokes are enjoyed. Conversations are light and fun.

About 9:00pm, if you’re astute, you begin to notice something. It usually starts with the guys… the clandestine furtive quick glances at their watches. Their faces begin to reveal what they’re thinking… “Oh God, three more hours… I don’t see how I’m going to make it… what were we thinking when we agreed to this?” Some begin making intricate plans to fake medical symptoms as a way out. Others can be seen nodding off. Still others, with stark resolve on their faces, hunker down, have another drink, and are determined to make it.

By 10:00pm, a sort of triage is beginning to happen. You’ve got the ones that wil clearly make it, those that clearly won’t, and a declining number in the middle that could go either way. At 11:00pm there’s usually a New Year countdown started by some guy who’s arm is aching and stiff from holding his watch in front of his face for the past two hours. He’s got a watch that’s synchronized every day with the atomic clock buried deep in some mountain in Colorado — and he becomes the authority of the moment. “Three… two… one… Happy New Year… well, at least in New York”. Kiss Kiss, Toast Toast, Yahoo!… let’s go Dear. About half of the party is left after the East Coast New Year.

The last hour passes quickly however. A lot of guys have gotten enough alcohol on board to actually brave the dance floor, and a lot of others are entertained watching them. There’s usually some new food or snacks that show up. And it’s easy to kill 10 minutes on every trip to the restroom. And then there’s that strange human reaction to a known diminishing time period… the closer you get to the end the faster time goes… like slamming on the brakes when you know you’re going over the cliff and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

As midnight nears, the band stops playing and starts the countdown… “Three… two… one… Happy New Year!” They play a few bars of Auld Lang Syne. And then it’s over. By 12:05am the band is packing up, tables are being cleared, coats are being put on. By 12:10am, everyone is gone and the place is dark, cold, and locked.

Happy New Year Everyone.
T