Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A Mountain Lake Supper

The tent was securely staked down, the fly zipped, and my backpack was safely stored inside. The only piece of extraneous equipment was my whisper light stove, a frying pan, and some butter. I picked up my fly rod, a knapsack with some extra tippet and flies, and walked about fifty feet behind my camp on a small peninsula to the edge of a lake nestled high above tree line in a cirque of mountains in the Wind River range of western Wyoming. It was almost suppertime.

As I approached the lake, I crouched down low to the ground to keep as much of an oblique angle as I could between myself and any cutthroat trout lurking along the shoreline. I spotted a large bolder partially in the lake with a nice gravel bar next to it and decided that would be my target. Still crouching down, I drop the knapsack at my feet, unhook the fly and strip out about ten feet of line. Looking behind me to make sure I wouldn’t snag anything, I start the rhythmic count of fly-fishing.

On count one, the fly rod is cast forward and held out in front of you. More line is fed out at this point. You pause holding the fly rod out until you reach count two to allow the line to unroll in front of you. On count three, the fly rod is cast behind you while your free hand gathers up more line. You pause once again, holding the fly rod until you reach count four to allow the line and the fly to catch up and unroll behind you. You have reached count one and once again you cast the fly rod forward. One, two, three, four. One, two three, four. Rhythmic.

With one arm raised high trying to keep the fly and line off the ground, always working the count, I duck walk up behind the bolder and look over the top for potential targets. The water is crystal clear and the shore falls off dramatically so it takes me a few seconds to spot him nearly fifteen feet below the surface and twenty-five feet out. But the large cutthroat trout is cruising from my right to my left paralleling shore, in no hurry but ever vigilant. I reach one in my count, strip out a few extra feet of line, and roll cast my line about fifteen feet in front of my prey, the last few feet composed of translucent line all but invisible in water allowing my dry fly to land on the water’s surface, seemingly unattached to anything on land.

I freeze motionless and continue to watch the large trout continue on a path that will intersect my fly but fifteen feet below it. Ten feet… five feet…. is he going to see it, is he even hungry? With a quick shift of the tail, the large trout suddenly shifts and starts swimming upwards at a sharp angle, my fly now directly in his crosshairs. I watch him swim up from the depths, sharply flipping his tail back and forth as he picks up speed. Three feet, two feet, one… splash. I see the silvery sheen of the trout's belly for an instant before it disappears and all I am left with are ripples hiding the trout now in full dive mode.

I pull back on the fly rod with my right hand as my left hand presses against the reel to apply friction as I set the hook. The rod bends nearly double and I know the fish is on but it is by no means on for good. When fly fishing in the mountains, I always debarb my hooks on the flies. Fly fishing with fragile line means wearing out your opponent and reel him in gently so not to exceed the tippet tensile strength. For the tippet is weak compared to regular fishing line which gives it the invisibility necessary to fish in water almost as clear as air. Because this wears out the fish and I often catch more than I can eat, I want the release to be painless so not to add more stress to a worn out fish. I want the fish to live for another day and for another fisherman to catch. A barbless fly comes out easily with minimal damage to the lip of the trout and it can be held in the water where you gently move water across the gills by moving it back and forth until it recovers and swims off. Fishing with barbless flies also means that you must constantly keep tension on your line so not to allow dinner to slip off. It is all about finding balance of keeping supper on the line while not breaking it. It is all about giving supper a fighting chance to take themselves off the menu.

For the next twenty minutes, the fish and I practiced give and take. He would swim off and I would allow line to strip out while I kept resistance on the reel with my left hand. He would tire and I would gently reel him back in only to have him recover and take off once again. Back and forth, giving and taking, the battle went on until exhausted the cutthroat trout finally gave up and allowed me to pull him to the gravel shallows to the left of the boulder that I had been crouched behind earlier. Careful not to slip in myself, I reach into the very cold water, chilled by a small glacier on the opposite shore in the shadow of a mountain, and gripping the lower jaw, I lifted the trout out of the water.

By fishing standards, the trout was small but by dinner standards he was quite large. About two pounds and a little over twenty inches in length with large vertical blood red gills giving him his name, the silvery body was plump and in very good health. I said a quick prayer of thanks as I removed the fly from the mouth and carefully set my fly rod aside getting ready to exercise the domain over all animals given to us by God. I hit the head of the fish against the bolder stunning him and with a knife that I pulled from my pants pocket, made three quick cuts, one on each side of the gills and one up the belly cutting it from anus to my gill cuts. Holding the trout in my left hand, I stick two fingers into the belly near the anus and start separating the guts of the fish from the belly meat, dragging it up towards the gills. Once my fingers reach the gills, I grab the head and with a quick twist, the head and all the guts come off leaving behind a perfectly cleaned fish.

Not wanting to attract bears, I toss the head and guts out into the water where the birds will eat what floats and the rest will be eaten or decompose naturally beneath the surface. I quickly rinse the fish, my knife and picking up my fly rod, walk quickly back to camp fifty feet inland. I set the fish on a flat rock near my stove which I had previously primed and had ready to go. Within about thirty seconds, it is hissing and my pan is sitting on top with a pat of butter already beginning to melt and slide around. Within five minutes of having pulled the trout out of the lake, it hisses and pops as I lay it in the pan with the tail draping over the edge. I sear the trout quickly on one side and then the other, checking the inside to make sure it was just done, perfect. I turn the stove off, grab my spoon and knife (never bring a fork to save weight) and start eating, now about fifteen minutes from the moment I pulled the fish from the lake.

I quickly ate one half of the trout, flipped it over and consumed the other half leaving behind just an empty skeleton of bones lying in the bottom of the fry pan. Because I had caught the fish almost immediately, I was able to do the dishes, walk back out to the bolder, this time making no attempt to hide this time, and sit on top as the sun sank behind the mountains. The sky quickly fades of light, there aren't many places to see a sunset in the mountains, and with the last of twilight, I walk back to camp, well fed and happy.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Fiercely Patriotic

Saturday in southeast Iowa was a very joyous affair. People flocked to line roads decorated with balloons, signs and ribbons only to later cram auditoriums and other public spaces. Smiles, laughter, tears and hugging were the currency of the day as our sons and daughters of the Iowa 224th Engineers came home from Iraq.

I had planned to join in on the celebration to express my gratitude for these people who fought on my behalf even if I disagreed with the reasons our commander in chief sent them to Iraq. They were doing their job, laying their lives of the line and because they like me, were fiercely patriotic towards their country. But with my impending trip to the Philippines, the only time that I could make it to the bank was during their homecoming.

I looked for their buses as we drove the twenty miles to the neighboring larger town where we bank but our timing was off and our paths didn’t cross. My wife and I did our banking and shopped for a few odds and ends before wrapping up and getting ready to head home. It was now almost one and we decided to grab a late lunch at the local Applebee's before driving home. It is always full but today it seemed especially full for that late on a Saturday and upon stepping inside the restaurant I saw why. There were perhaps a dozen soldiers and their families in their celebrating their return along with the normal crowd.

We had to wait a few minutes before being seated but for once I did not mind. As we waited, I contented myself to watching the families catching up on each others lives and never once taking their eyes off their children in uniform. I was living the happiness of others vicariously and it was rubbing off on me. By coincidence, a table for us opened up right next to a family of four, a mother, father, daughter and son who was dressed in his desert fatigues and boots. While we ordered and waited for our food, I couldn’t help but secretly glance at the family.

The son seemed only a child and much too young to be fighting in wars but yet there he was back from fighting one during the last year and a half. The parents were excited and like everyone else, couldn’t keep their eyes off their son, which gave me plenty of opportunity to watch them. Their clothes were thread bare and a little ragged in places and by their demeanor, I could see that they probably fairly poor. This part of Iowa is not a wealthy place and these fine folks seemed like they were on the bottom end of the financial ladder. Yet their son was back and they were taking him out to eat at one of the more expensive places to eat in town in celebration. Money was not a concern today as they lived in the currency of togetherness and being a family once again.

While the waitress was distracting the family, I quickly ceased the opportunity and asked my wife is she would allow me to do a good deed. She instantly knew what I wanted to do and gave me permission. I excused myself telling her I needed to visit the restroom and walked back towards the cashiers. The waitress was ringing up the bill for the family and I politely asked her if she could ring it up on my credit card instead and give the money back to the family. She instantly knew why I wanted to do this and accepted my card. I asked her to just tell the family thanks and that I wished to remain anonymous. I asked her to just bring the receipt to sign with my bill later after the family had left.

Sometimes, well-intentioned plans don’t go off exactly as planned and as I walked back to my seat after visiting the restrooms, I could see the waitress talking to the family and then pointing in my direction as I sat down to resume my meal. She handed me the receipt and walked off. I was instantly hoping that this family wouldn’t take this act of charity the wrong way but the father looked into my eyes from across the aisle and said thanks to which I replied, “No, thank you.” We both went back to our meals and I was happy to know that everything was going to work out after all.

As the family finished their drinks and stood up from the table, the father again came over to shake my hand and tell me thanks. His son, the soldier also came over to thank me. I shook the sons hand and told him thanks for serving his country and I told him sincerely that I was happy he was back home. I told the family to have a happy holiday season as a whole family. I fought hard to retain my composure as tears of gratitude started to well up in my eyes and fortunately they didn’t dwell long and headed outside.

As we finished up our lunch, I couldn’t help but feel blessed. My wife and I both have good jobs, a new child on the way, a nice home and everything we could ask for. This family didn’t have as much and yet they allowed their son to fight for our country which allowed us the right to live our lives with the freedoms we possessed. Whether the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, or any war for whatever the reason, these brave men and women joined the military for one reason, to serve their country. For that, I am thankful.

Friday, December 9, 2005

Return to the Womb

I huddle close to the fire, much too close but if I put my gloved hands over my knees, the intense heat can become bearable. Funny how a fire in the winter can be too hot on one side of you but in less than a foot on the other side of you, it is icicle cold. The snow is falling quietly in large wet flakes but none penetrate the dome above the roaring cedar fire. The pine trees all around groan lightly in the slight breeze carrying their heavy burden of snow on all their branches. The silence is deafening. Beside the occasional snap, crackle or pop, all that can be heard are the trees whispering in the darkness behind me as the wind tickles their tops. Blissful.

For a time, I sit there trying to absorb as much heat as possible while watching the yellow flames consuming the twisted cedar logs and reducing it into a pile or orange coals. It is a chain of life. The log gets consumed, the flames get smaller, the cold gets colder and I huddle closer until I am practically crouched in the fire. My mind starts drifting back behind the pines to a dome shaped piece of ripstop nylon now coated with perhaps an inch of new snow. A down filled sleeping bag welcomes my mind and begs it to convince the rest of me to come, sleep.

I stand up, turn around and back right up to the very edge of the fire. In fact, I partially straddle one side and let the heat penetrate into my backside. The key is quickly because the front side is already losing the stored heat and I want to retain some of it. An intense burning sensation in the lower calves signal it is time to go. I step outside the ring of light; the cold begins to chase the heat out from my body. By the time I am at the tent and gently shaking the snow from the zippered door, shivers are already starting to arrive and I quickly crawl inside careful to leave the snow outside where it belongs.

I quickly arrange all my gear in case a hasty exit is required, because you just never know and finally crawl into the down sleeping bag. The nylon is cold, like slipping into cold sheets on a bed only much colder. But heat returns rapidly and by the time I have zipped my cocoon up until only a small air hole remains, it is warm. Some say that newborn babies sleep better when swaddled to simulate the life it just left behind in the womb. I think we never fully forget. Huddled in my swaddling clothes, enclosed in my womb protecting me from the snowstorm outside, I drift off to sleep, protected and warm.

Monday, December 5, 2005

Listening To the Sweetest Sound I Have Ever Heard

The sound coming from the small hand held speaker was full of scratches and static. I held my breath as I listened for any sign of organized sound but couldn't. It sounded random, chaotic. My breath was stuck; my heart started beating faster and faster. Would we hear anything? Why weren't we hearing anything? Then I heard it. The strong steady beat of a heart in perfect rhythm. Tha-dub, tha-dub, tha-dub or as my wife heard, whirsh, whirsh, whirsh. Although we disagree on what the heart sounded like, we both experienced the same reaction on hearing the sound of our first child's heart beat only twelve weeks old in the womb, pure joy.

I have known my wife was pregnant for over two months now. I know what that means and yet, it really didn't sink in fully until I heard the heart beating steadily over that little hand held speaker and microphone pressed to my wife's lower abdomen. I had created life. I am going to be a father. Sitting there listening to someone else's heart beat now totally dependent on my wife, but soon dependent on both of us, tears started welling up in my eyes and I felt a huge smile of joy engulf my face, so much so, I thought my head my just split at the mouth and topple over backwards. All too soon, the probe was removed, the sound stopped and the real world came crashing back in. I suspect I could have sat there the rest of the week listening to that sound and never getting tired of it.

All day long at work, the sound keeps replaying through my mind overtaking all thoughts and sounding sweeter than a symphony. My mind unable to focus on anything else so I'm happy that it is Friday. The doctor confirmed what we already had guessed, we are twelve weeks along and tomorrow will be day one of the second trimester. My wife has a superstition that says she can't spread the news until she has reached the second trimester and I can understand why since the first trimester is where more things can go wrong. Other than her mother, she had done well in keeping it a secret. Until today, only my parents and a co-worker who also recently gave birth for the first time knew, excluding my readership who is largely anonymous to me. The co-worker knew only because I wanted to find out who their OB-GYN doctor was and it turned out to be my mom's doctor as well. But today, I am officially pulling the cork out of the bottle. I've told my boss and another co-worker but because the gossip hound is out sick today, it hasn't spread beyond that yet. That is okay though. I'll enjoy the silence and listen to the sweetest sound I have ever heard, my child's heartbeat.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Joe Philippines - 11: Third World Shopping 101

One of the things I plan to do more of when visiting the Philippines this Christmas is to buy more. During my last visit, before my wife had ever been to the United States, she would often veto my desires to purchase a particular object saying that it was too expensive. By her standards, she was right but by my standards, it was dirt cheap. Now that she has seen what the price of some of her native things go for at Pier 1 Imports or like places, I think she will be siding with me more often on this trip.

In America, most prices are non-negotiable. You either pay it or you walk away. There are a few exceptions to this rule but not many in low volume purchases. In the Philippines, everything is negotiable. When shopping outside of the regular tourist haunts, very few objects have prices and for a very good reason. This allows the seller to adjust prices according to their perceived notion of the wealth of the buyer. If my native Filipina mother-in-law were to walk into a store, she would probably get a pretty reasonable price. If I were to walk in alone, I would probably get quoted two or three times a reasonable price by my mother-in-law's standards. If we were both to walk in together, she would probably get a price somewhere in-between and would be able to negotiate it to a closer to reasonable price albeit still a little higher than had she walked in alone. These are the facts of life and I find nothing wrong with it.

I am not going to buy anything that I don't think is worth the price. The native seller may think he is pulling one over on me by charging me more than he would a native Filipino but most likely, it is still dirt cheap compared to what I would have to pay for it back in the states. I give the seller a little extra money for the object in question and we both walk away happy customers. Nothing wrong with that. I could probably negotiate it for much the same price as my mother-in-law should I take the time to speak their tongue and live among them long enough to fully understand their economy. I'm very slowly working on learning the language but I'll never be there long enough to fully understand the economy and so I am happy for slightly over local retail.

My wife taught me how to ask for the price and almost all vendors say the number of pesos in English so I can usually wheel and deal from there. Sometimes the English numbers are so accented that I need my wife to interpret but most of the time I understood. On my last trip to the Philippines, I bought very few things in my wife's presence for the above mentioned reason. However, I did sneak out when she wasn't around and bought several of the better things I found in my travels and managed to do all right with the negotiations. The sellers all love to see me walk into their store because in their eyes, all white westerners are rich and they will practically run over all local customers in their haste to show me their goods. It also helps in the sense that they just hate the thought of me spending my money at another shop so they will quickly reduce their prices at the first sense that I am going to walk. That is step one. Step two is when I have to tell them how much I am willing to pay for the item. They will inevitably say they can't accept that much or more than likely give you a third price. If it is what I feel is fair, I usually pay the third price otherwise I go to step three and start to walk out. Sometimes you get the low price and sometimes you walk away with nothing but your pesos still burning a hole in your pocket. If I really want to pull out all the stops, I will at this point, contract my mother-in-law to buy it on my behalf on another day. She is guaranteed to get it for the lowest possible price.

What fascinates me and what I want to purchase are considered by most Filipinos to be just their everyday ordinary items. All the tourist spots and souvenir shops sell little knick knacks that you would never find in a Filipino household. Little stick men and women figures with a barrel around them that when removed, expose extremely exaggerated sexual anatomy are everywhere in stores but never in a Filipino house. On the last trip, I bought handmade brooms that they use to sweep their floors, a couple small hand carved statues and masks. All very unique to the United States and very common to the average Filipino. What I would like to buy is a whole bunch of solid mahogany furniture that locals carve and try to peddle along major highways from a nippa hut camp but I haven't worked out the logistics or the cost of getting it home. Again very average there but extremely unique and probably very pricey if you could find them here.

So this time when I head to the Philippines in a little over a month, I plan on taking a little more spending money, more bags to haul some of it back, and maybe depending on the prices, ship some of it back on a slow boat from China, or at least from that vicinity. Knowing how practical and frugal my wife is, I still will probably have to sneak out to buy some of it.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Joe Philippines - 10: A Culinary Experience

Going grocery shopping in the Philippines is about as unique of an experience as you can get. Being a westerner, I am used to going into large box like grocery stores full of foods of all kinds stacked neatly on shelves and categorized into aisles. It is the definition of order, which starkly contrasts to the controlled chaos of the Filipino markets. The Filipino market in Baguio is more of a district or several block area in town. Sidewalks crammed filled with smiling natives standing among a sea of baskets and containers holding a wide array of fruits and vegetables. Some look vaguely familiar to ones that I buy in the United States but most look like they were grown out back behind the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. My wife, mother-in-law and her sister, would walk through the sea of produce with nostrils flaring smelling various fruits for ripeness and pinching various things for firmness. I for the most part tried to hang back and act like I was not with them because the venders always would try taking advantage by charging a higher price assuming that I was rich as they believe all westerners are. But my mother-in-law is no slouch when it comes to haggling and she would let them know that she wasn't about to be fooled. After a few lashes of my mother-in-law's sharp tongue, even the most recalcitrant vender would back down to a more reasonable price.

As we accumulated food in various plastic bags, it was an on going game the entire trip to have me "try" various foods. I could always tell when I was biting into something a little bit dubious by watching the eyes of my wife's family and gauging how intently they were looking for my reaction. I humored them by trying it anyway but mostly I ate it for the experience of trying something out of my realm of what I consider normal dining fare. Over the course of my stay I would bite into things sour enough to almost make me swallow my lips and bitter enough to make even the worst enemies appear sweet, always chased by a heaping dose of amused laughter from my in-laws. It is bad enough when I know that I am about to bite into something like that but my in-laws wouldn't make it easy for me and would cook it up in food when I got back to their house. Sometimes I was supposed to eat it and other times it was merely added for flavor though I rarely knew which until after it was swallowed. I finally was able to convince my wife to show me examples of things hidden in the food that I was not supposed to eat and for the most part she did a good job. But every once in awhile, one piece of ginger root would look like a piece potato, and I would treat the table to a whole array of face making as I tried to cleanse my mouth of the taste amidst their chuckles.

Down one narrow alley between tall buildings, we entered into the meat market, very obvious to the casual passerby by the strong odor of blood and flesh drifting out. My wife suggested I stay behind but I wanted to experience everything and so followed them into the dank shadows of the alley. Various racks lined both sides of the alley with meats hung out in the open air, sometimes in whole albeit skinned form and other times in large cuts. All were fresh and had probably been butchered that morning of the night before judging from the pools of blood here and there. The air was thick with flies. We found a vendor with various large cuts of hog lying on a bloody board in front and after studiously inspecting them all, my in-laws selected one with a pointing of their hand and a few words in their native tongue. The vendor picked up the pork and stepped back to a large wooden stump soaked in blood, fat and flies, where he had just chopped the head off a chicken, and proceeded to dice up the meat and put into an empty plastic shopping bag. I must admit, that my stomach roiled a little bit at the thought of eating that later tonight but when it came, I ate it without hesitation and with gusto. To use one of my favorite saying, "Columbus took a chance," and so did I. I never got sick from the food during my entire time there as it was all very well cooked and done so in various strong preservatives like vinegar and soy sauce. To westerners used to the cleanliness of grocery stores, it might seem horrible to deal with meat like that but I rationalized it by thinking of how it had been recently butchered and cooked in comparison to the cuts in the grocery store which were probably a couple weeks old by the time it ever reached our mouths.

Our last stop of the day was in a wide covered alley where numerous stalls containing more varieties of rice than I had ever seen in all my life, lined both sides. I stood around for five minutes as my in-laws wandered here and there, sticking their hands into various open sacks of rice, feeling and smelling for heaven knows what. I finally decided that this was going to take awhile so I found a seat at a bench in the middle of it all and watched as people went about their shopping. It didn't take long for two drunken Filipino men to sidle up and sit beside me on the bench and start talking in an English that between the alcohol and accent was only barely recognizable as such. I started out pretending that I hadn't heard them but they only got louder so then I took to pretending I didn't understand so they leaned in closer and shouted even louder, their breath almost making me drunk. Finally after twenty minutes, my in-laws had finally selected a couple pounds of rice and rescued me from the two drunken men who to their credit, never gave up trying to communicate with me.

Back home, knives clattered in a flurry of chopping, dicing, mincing and slicing of the days haul and shortly it was transferred to various hot woks and pots on the stove. Most perishable food in the Philippines, at least with my in-laws, is bought on a daily basis because cold storage in very limited. Not only was their refrigerator about a third of the size of it's American cousin, it was mostly filled with bottled water and soda. Soon the table would be loaded with a nice pork and vegetable stir fry, a soup with what appeared to be seaweed floating in it, another vegetable medley with whole squid laying limply on top and a blackened fish with blackened eyeballs laying on a platter and staring blankly back at me. Of course, no meal would be complete without a huge pot of rice and the one on our table could have fed the entire state of Iowa with ease even if it was barely enough to feed this family in the Philippines. I did not fight for one of the eyeballs, which are highly prized around a Filipino dining table, nor did I try a squid though I have since eaten many, but I ate my share of everything else. It was tasty, just as long as I was able to avoid eating the flavor garnishes hidden here and there by my in-laws who were intently watching my face for any sort of taste bud reaction.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Finding Sweetness In Carving Big Air

One of the outdoor activities that my parents taught me as a youth was downhill skiing. Now here in southeastern Iowa, there aren't any hills worth skiing and not enough snow to ski on most years should you find a hill. So for a couple years, my skiing was confined to the occasional trip to nearby (within a few hundred miles) ski slopes that don't even qualify as bunny slopes by Colorado standards. But somewhere during my early high school career, they got me out of school for an extra week over Thanksgiving and we headed out to Winter Park ski resort in Colorado. I took three days of ski lessons and by the end of the week, I had skied down every run in the resort albeit with many falls on the more difficult ones like The Outhouse! Since that trip, I have never been back out west and have only occasionally skied the surrounding bunny slopes. For the most part it would be terribly dull if not for the company of friends but every once in awhile, it does get exciting and one such time is what I am going to blog about today.

On this particular trip, I was skiing with some friend in central Minnesota one Saturday evening and we were making our last run down the mountain. One of my friends who was skiing in front of me had a terrible wreck with skiing, hats, gloves, etc., flying in all directions or what skiers term as "having a yard sale." I helped him retrieve his lost gear and then we decided to race down the mountain so that we could catch up with the rest of our friends before hitting the bar. I pointed my skis downhill, crouched down as aerodynamic as possible and off I went with Jason my friend close behind. We had the option of several runs and I noticed that Jason had veered off behind me onto a different run. Now all alone, I zoomed down a run that I had been down before earlier in the day but hadn't for several hours. I went flying around a sharp corner sending up a rooster tail of ice as my skis skittered across the now hardened slush that the day's sun had turned the trail into and refocused on my path. Up ahead I saw two groups of snowboarders, one on each side of the run looking up the slope at me with a curious expression. I aimed to split the run in-between the two groups and hurtled on down the slope unseeing of the obstacle that lay ahead in poor light of early darkness. It wasn't until the ground disappeared that I finally understood what they had been looking at.

Over the years, I had tried doing small jumps with my skis only to have horrible yard sales on the slopes beneath the jumps. I just had a terrible sense of balance and had learned that I needed to keep both skis on the ground at all times in order to not horribly die in some tragic skiing accident at an early age. So as I flew off this massive ski jump that these snowboards had constructed in the snow, I knew I was dead. The ground fell away at an alarming rate until I was nearly twenty feet up in the air and hurtling down the mountain at jet speeds. I wildly windmilled my arms attempting to keep my balance and only was only able to succeed about half way. I hit the slope some sixty feet down slope from the ramp on one foot and way off balance. The impact caused one ski pole to jam between the snow pack and my upper torso, preventing me from collapsing in a heap and amazingly keeping me upright. As I regained my balance and kept on going down the hill at a still very rapid pace, I heard a voice yell after me, "Sweet dude!" As I skied on down the mountain and rejoined my friends, I couldn't help but think at how sweet it was carving some big time air. I don't think I will do it again.

Friday, November 4, 2005

Extreme Ecstatic Excitement and Bone Liquefying Terror!

Have you ever been absolutely terrified and yet excited beyond all belief? I never thought that was possible until Wednesday morning when my wife gave me a second confirmation "gift." I opened it up and out slid a pregnancy tester showing that my wife is pregnant with our first child. My first thought was, "I'm going to be a father!" followed by the second thought of "Oh my God, I'm going to be a father!" Extreme excitement and bone liquefying terror all in one package in the form of a piece of plastic, some litmus material and two horizontal lines. Needless to say, my mind hasn't been into work all week long.

We both want kids and after a year long "lets just focus on us and our marriage for awhile and not have children right away" period, we decided to let nature take it's course at the beginning of summer. We both want children and since we married later than many of my peers, the window of opportunity to get the kids out of the nest before retirement isn't as wide for us as others . I was happy to learn the news and can't be more excited. So excited, blogging about any other topic just doesn't seem interesting at the moment.

The terrifying part is being a parent for the first time. Sure my parents were awesome examples to live up to. Sure I turned out to be a well-adjusted person... I think. But does that necessarily make me a good parent too? Can I provide for my child everything that they need to succeed in life and be happy? I hope so, I pray so, but having never done this before, I can't know until the results have been verified. So many, many years down the road when my child is where I am now, I guess I'll have to report back to you on the results of my parenthood test. I hope I don't fail!

Both of us have a lot of science in our educational background and so we both wanted to verify the initial test results that she had actually taken a week ago. I made a trip to the local drug store to buy one of those EPT test kits that contained two tests. I read the instructions, which said a minus, or horizontal line is negative and a plus with both horizontal and vertical lines is positive. So when my wife took the test and produced one vertical line, we were a little stumped. The second one produced the same results. The instructions detailed all kinds of color variations but didn't say anything about one vertical line. So we made another trip to the store to buy a third type of tester, this one digital. Definitely positive on that one. So with the other signs of a missed monthly cycle several weeks ago, a slightly elevated temperature all this time and a little bit of nausea, I guess I am convinced. By my estimate, I'm guessing the new Abbey should arrive sometime around the end of June or the first of July. Hopefully a subsequent doctor's appointment will give a more precise date.

We have decided to keep all this news to ourselves for the time being until parents are notified around Thanksgiving but in an attempt to free up brain thinking capacity, I am telling the entire blogging world. Since to my knowledge, everyone but Gidget, Mikey and Jeri are clueless as to my true identity (I kind of feel like a superhero but without powers), there is no harm. I ask those three to keep it under their hats for the time being but the rest of you are free to shout it out. Although I will probably be blogging about this in the future, by letting my secret out to a largely anonymous crowd, I hope it will allow me to focus on blogging business as usual.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Dealing In Orange Colored Gold

It all started rather innocently when my brother and I planted a few hills of pumpkins for our Halloween carving pleasure and had a bumper crop. So we loaded up a half pickup load of "extra" pumpkins and drove to the nearest grocery store some thirty miles away. Without hesitating, they paid us in cash (what at the time I thought was an obscene amount of money) for the pumpkins and asked us if we would raise more for them next year. We agreed. The following year we planted about twenty hills of pumpkins and the year after that three times the number. By then, we had several people from the neighboring counties who ran roadside stands who were buying our pumpkins. We also expanded into sweet corn and ornamentals like Indian corn and gourds but they never brought in the cash revenue like the pumpkins did.

Growing and selling pumpkins was a lot of work. Spring began with the planting of the seeds into leftover pieces of ground that didn't fit into our father's farm program plan. At first it was done by hand but within four years we had expanded to planting five acres and we did it with the farm planter after all the other rows crops had been planted. The first month or so were spent in the futile job of weeding. Back then before Walkmans were an everyday item, I would strap a battery operated ghetto blaster to my back and my brother and I would head out for the day with a pair of long handled hoes. It was hard work but we never minded too much because we knew that it would be worth it in the fall. Weeding season ended when the vines covered the ground and we could no longer easily walk between the rows. Later on when we had expanded to just around ten acres of pumpkins, we took to spraying and using more conventional tillage equipment but even these didn't eliminate the weeds. Pumpkins are broadleaf plants along with most common weeds and so the chemicals couldn't rid the patch of them. Fortunately, Mother Nature always unleashed her most effective weed control method, frost, in the fall and the weeds would all shrivel up and die before harvest season got under full swing.

In the early days, harvest time meant picking the pumpkins, cleaning them off with a garden hose and burlap sacks and taking them into town. But as we got bigger and known for our quality pumpkins, buyers were driving to us. We would usually head out the afternoon before a vendor arrived and would windrow pumpkins. I would take a twenty-foot swath on one side and my brother the same amount on the other and we would pick all good pumpkins and pile them in a heaped row in the middle. We would continue down through the patch until we had enough to fill whatever trailer the buyer would bring. So when the buyer arrived the next day, all they would have to do is drive down along the windrow of pumpkins as they were loaded. Unlike the early days, we changed our pricing structure so that are pumpkins were priced by the pound and not each. We charged one price for cleaned pumpkins and another for as they were straight out of the field. Most people took them straight out of the field and as with all customers, my brother and I offered our services for loading up the pumpkins included in the price. Towards the end of our ten year business, we were selling pumpkins by the semi load which was way more than two kids could get ready for after getting home from school and doing all our homework. We made deals with local clubs at school looking to raise money for trips or uniforms, etc. We would give them a couple hundred dollars if a certain number of kids would show up after school and help windrow pumpkins for several hours or another amount of money if they helped load a semi. It was cheaper than hiring grownup individuals and the school clubs were always thankful for the money.

The only reason that we were able to expand from a half pickup load a pumpkins a years to selling them by the semi load was because we kept our quality high. My brother and I quickly learned that big thick stems or jack-o-lantern handles were very desirable. From our first years, we quickly learned which varieties had this desired characteristic and which didn't and only planted those that had them. That variety also had thick shells and was deep orange in color, which made them a classic pumpkin for carving. The one drawback was that the seeds were more expensive but in the long run the payout more than compensated. Because the pumpkins had to survive a long bumpy ride to the store with their handles intact so that they could be sold, we developed a technique of stacking them so that they didn't shift so much and shear them off. Several suppliers requested that either my brother or I be the ones to actually stack them in the trailer or semi because they could expect more undamaged product reaching their final destination. Who wants to buy a pumpkin without a nice handle? We also through careful monitoring and a little bit of luck, were able to control the squash beetles which like to eat the skins of pumpkins and squash leaving behind a rough looking ugly scar across the face. Because our pumpkins were blemish free, we were able to attract a large client base.

All vehicles had to make a mandatory stop at the local scales in town before coming out to the farm and get their vehicle weighed empty. After they were loaded, my brother and I would follow them into town and after they were weighed full, write up a bill and settle it, mostly in cash. We would drive back home with obscene wads of cash in our pockets and promptly deposit it in a bag that our mother kept for that purpose. The first wads always went to my parents to pay for the loan that we would take every spring for seeds and chemicals. We traded our labor for ground and equipment rental so that never had to come out of the till. When all our debts were paid and we were in the black, our mother would take the money with her when she went into town and divide it between our two savings accounts. Every six months, that money would be rolled into maturing Certificates of Deposit drawing interest to be used to pay for our eventual college education. It never really hit me how important that money way until the day I graduated from college with not a dime owed and around $140 and change left over in the CD. My brother did the same. With the majority of my peers (who also had to pay their way through college) graduating with huge debt loads, I felt very fortunate indeed.

The tenth and final year was the only year we lost money. It had been a dry summer causing the pumpkins to ripen prematurely and by early August, they were all ready to be picked. Unfortunately by the first of October when everyone wanted to buy them, most had turned into circles of orange mush. We were able to salvage enough for the Forest Craft Festival that year and the proceeds from that paid for the lion’s share of our debt. We didn't quite raising pumpkins because of that crop failure but because I was almost eighteen at the time and would be heading off to college in the fall a couple months before harvest season would begin. I wanted to put my hard earned dollars to use by studying hard at college and I knew that I wouldn't be able to focus and run a business at the same time. My brother also opted out knowing that running it was a lot of work for two people and for one it would be almost impossible. As our customers came to scavenge what they could from our ruined crop, we thanked them for the business and told them that it would be our last year. In a way, the crop failure and the beginning of college was a blessing in disguise. The owner of the scales, who always witnessed the cash transactions of our business, decided that he was going to get in the pumpkin business along with others in the nearby community. Where we were the only grower in a large several county area, the following years would have a surplus of growers that flooded the market.

This story wouldn't be complete without one additional splurb that I kept secret from my parents and even my brother (and business partner) all these years. My parents always worried that the location of our pumpkin patch would fall into the wrong hands and that the hoodlums of our school would loot it. We did see evidence a couple times of people who had been into the patch and dropped one or two while climbing over the fence, but never any mass thefts of merchandise. The reason for this was because early on, I made a deal. I passed the word on that if they respected our patch, a few days before Halloween when most of our sales had stopped, I would give them the patch location, how to get there and what times to best avoid my parents attention. On one occasion, I even snuck out of the house and help them load up several stock trailers full of pumpkins. Most of the pumpkins ended up in the lawns of the high school teachers or smashed to bits on Main Street of Milton where we went to high school. Once, the sheriffs deputy at the time asked me if I was missing any pumpkins to which I honestly told him that I hadn't seen or heard a thing in our patch but did see some tire tracks that weren't ours. (Fortunately it wasn't the same year that I helped!) I told him that I wouldn't be pressing charges should he catch the culprits since our selling season was pretty much over anyway. The one year I did help load them up (aiding and abetting criminals), I also hitched a ride into town and helped.... er.... unload them onto some lawns of the teaching type, the lawn of the parents of a girl whom at the time I had a crush on, (I know, what a weird way to display affection) and also applied a very liberal coating (about five trailer loads) to main street of Milton. After about an hour of running over them and doing multi-circle donuts in the greasy slime left behind, the same sheriff's deputy who had questioned me the year before chased us off (fortunately he didn't identify me) and then proceeded, much to our hidden-from-view amusement, to do multi-circle donuts with the patrol car. It took a front-end loader, a dump truck and lots of passes with the street cleaner to clean up the mess and to this day, it has never been repeated. Coincidently, mass quantities of pumpkins stopped appearing in town the same time we quit raising pumpkins.

Friday, October 7, 2005

The Education of a Pumpkin Saleman

I paid for five and a half years of college tuition by growing and selling pumpkins. I started off slowly by just raising several pickup loads but by the time I retired from the business ten years later (to attend college) I was selling them by the semi load to places as far away as Chicago and St. Louis. But one constant from the humble beginnings to the ten acres of pumpkins grown annually in the end was the Forest Craft Festival in Keosauqua, Iowa.

The Forest Craft Festival (FCF) is a county wide celebration of fall and most of the towns host some kind of event with the largest and most widely attended one being the craft flea market held along the river in Keosauqua. If you read my blog a week ago called Time Travel At the Hotel Manning, the pictures show a bridge and a large bed and breakfast that bracket a small city park along the river where the heart of the craft flea market is located. Under a large tree with golden leaves, my pumpkin stand was located for about ten years.

The FCF weekend for me began on Friday night after school when my brother and I would load up my parent's pickup bed with the nicest pumpkins we could find until it was overflowing. Long before the crack of dawn the next morning, we would be on our was usually shivering in the early morning chill as we made our way along the 30 miles of rural blacktop road to the county seat of Keosauqua. Most stands were not allowed to drive their vehicles into the park but since we sold pumpkins, we were given an exception. Our location was always that big tree with the golden leaves.
As dawn broke, we would unload our pumpkins and line them up in rows according to size (and thus price) creating an awesome palette of color with the oranges of the pumpkins, yellows of the leaves and the greens of the grass. My mom would sell honey at her stand right alongside ours providing some colors of gold as well. The early hours are always a battle trying to stay warm while waiting for the first customers to show up but soon they would arrive. My brother and I also provided the service of carrying the pumpkins to customers vehicles since they often would be parked four or five blocks away and didn't want to carry them that far themselves. Heaving a large pumpkin onto my shoulder and feeling the way my muscles warmed with exertion after three blocks always made me feel good, like I was a real contribution to society.

I enjoyed the selling part almost more than the money I received. Everyone was always in a good mood with large smiles on their faces. Mostly because fall Iowa weather just can't be beat in early October but because another year was drawing to a close and everyone was in the mood to celebrate. Whether buying a pumpkin to make into a warm pie or carve a spooky face in for Halloween or some comb honey to sweeten up the hot homemade biscuits just taken out of the oven. Sales were always brisk and just about every evening we would ride home in the now empty pickup but with a full moneybag.

About five miles north of town where I live today, there is a pumpkin farm where locals can go and pick their own pumpkins or select them from an assortment arranged on hayracks along the road. There are no humans monitoring the stand and there is just a cigar box where you can pay or make change on the honor system. I still buy my pumpkins there (if I don't grow a hill or two back home on the farm) because I like to support the independent guy versus buying them from a large box store but it just doesn't feel the same. I miss having the young lad with the cheerful banter selling the wares or commenting on the fine choice that I made in my pumpkin selection. I miss the thank you sirs and the thank you ma'ams and the offers to carry the pumpkin to my car parked blocks away. I miss the colorful splashes of orange, yellow and green underneath that large tree with the river in the background, the bridge to the west and a large old bed and breakfast to the east. I saved every penny I made during those weekends of selling pumpkins and like I said before, paid for my expensive education. But perhaps the best education I received was selling pumpkins out of the back of a pickup at the Forest Craft Festival under that large tree of yellow fire.

Wednesday, October 5, 2005

I've Got Five, Will You Give Me Ten

A rural public auction is nothing like a Sotheby's auction in which the auctioneer speaks in a precise, well pronounced English. A rural auctioneer prides himself or herself on how fast they can speak letting prices roll off their tongues faster than a bell clapper in a goose's ass. Pretty darn fast in other words. For someone not used to them, I imagine it is almost as if it were a foreign language but once you get the hang of it, you're good. My foreign born wife for whom English is her second language, was able to pick it up very fast and at her second auction was already buying things much to my amazement. There are many types of bidders at auctions and that is what I wish to elaborate a little more in this blog today.

The bidder that I hate to get into a bidding war the most is the no-holds-barred-take-no-prisoners bidder. They are a bidder who has it set in their mind that the object of their affection is being bid on right that moment and they were going to bid whatever it takes to get that object even if it breaks the bank. Whether they can buy a brand new one for a cheaper price never seems to enter their minds. Mostly the demographics of this group falls under the female persuasion especially when it comes to jewelries, glass, china and other fine things like that but not always. I once saw a man drop around fifteen grand at an auction buying up antique furniture of his grandmother who evidently decided to stave off sibling arguments by selling the works after her death. Just this past weekend, another fellow just held up his bidding card like a credit card as the auctioneer counted higher until he was the last bidder standing at $700 for an old table in much need of repair. But these men seem to be a rarity in this category.

Junk dealers and the occasional auction obsessed individual make up another category. In this group, they are the ones who buy up large quantities of junk in boxes that nobody in interested, usually for a token bid of one dollar. The junk dealers will them find a couple pieces that they can sell to someone who just has to have "one" or needs "one" to complete their collection for a lot higher price. If they buy a box that contains thirty items for only a dollar, they only need to sell one item for a dollar to break even. There must be some moneymaking occurring judging by their numbers but I've never seen a really rich looking one. Occasionally you see someone who is just obsessed at the notion of getting an entire box of anything for a dollar and they can be seen hauling away their prizes to a groaningly overweight vehicle.

There are the prize hunters who search the auctions for that one highly collectible item that they know they can turn around and sell for big bucks. Because there are usually more than two of these people at any given auction, they have to resort to simple tricks in order to get their prize for a cheap price. The most common trick is to "stack" a box. They get to the auction well in advance and hide their prize in the bottom of a box of junk that will most likely sell for a buck. Then once they have one the bid, they will excitedly dump all the junk out, retrieve the prize and leave the rest lay. I like to bid them up just for sport when I can spot them just so they have to pay more than they would have and ruin their profit margin. Sometimes it doesn't even have to be for something valuable but merely just because they really want the item and don't want to have to bid against it. I once saw a woman sort through a pile of cookbooks and pick out an old Betty Crocker one that usually go for a good price. She carried it around for a while as if studying it before the auctioneer got to it and then slipped it into a box of stuff that she had already bought. I was going to call her on it but when I got over to where she was, she had slipped through the crowd and disappeared. These are the most detestable people at an auction.

There is another group that is quite common at an auction for which I cannot come up with a good description. They will excitedly jump into bidding on a newly presented item only to bow out quickly when their maximum bidding limit has been reached. They are similar to the obsessed bidders but their bidding limits are slightly higher. The key difference is that the obsessed bidder bids on absolutely everything.

I am a background kind of bidder. I have looked over the object that I intend to bid on before the auction or at least before the auctioneer gets to that wagon of stuff. I have a mental price in my head of how high my limit is and I always try to stick with it. So when the object is up for bid, I am not one of the people standing really close to the auctioneer. I stand in the background on the periphery of the sales ring but in full view of the auctioneer. There are two things that happen at the beginning of the bid. The auctioneer starts at a high price and works the crowd gradually lowering the bid until someone jumps in or he starts it low and a bunch of people jump in immediately. If the latter happens, I just sit and watch until the bidding is slowing down before jumping in, only if it is still in my price range. If not, I just let it go and start focusing on the next item. If the former happens, it takes a little bit more finesse.

If you wait until he gets down too low, the auctioneer may lump that item with more items to get the desired bid. You either end up purchasing a pile of stuff you didn't want just to get the item you wanted or if you are unlucky, he throws in an item that someone else wants for more money than the object you wanted. For example, at one auction, I once bought a couch just to get the real desire of my wife, a pair of leather suitcases. Having no way to haul a couch or a desire for that particular style, we simply picked up the suitcases and left the couch. If your item gets lumped into a group of items and you get outbid, you can always try asking the winning bidder if they would sell you your item of desire. Sometime they will, sometimes they won't. It's a crapshoot. If you jump into the bidding too soon, sometimes you can get stuck with an item for an opening bid and perhaps could have gotten it cheaper had you waited for the auctioneer to come down.

A bidding circle is much like a poker game in that reading faces can save you a lot of money or missed opportunities. Stand in the circle and everyone can see who is bidding and can maybe read your face. Stand outside the circle like I do and they don't know who they are bidding against nor can they read your limits. For me, most people at an auction suck at maintaining a "poker face." I can tell that they are at their limit and no that if I were to raise the bid a time or two that it would most likely be mine. You can tell the opposing bidder is most likely past their mental limit by pauses as the contemplate raising the bid or not. I bid rapid fire until reaching my limit so that they never know where that might be and it also prevents people from raising the bid and dumping out at the end just to make you pay a higher price for the item.

Finally, everyone has his or her own style of bidding. To jump into a bid, you must be more aggressive unless the auctioneer knows you would be interested in the object ahead of time either by experience or directly expressed. Some people hold their bidding cards in the air, others make a shooting gesture with their hand and others like me simply wait until the auctioneer's gaze is in my direction and give a hand gesture. Once you are in the bidding, the auctioneer will direct his attention back towards you whenever your bid is now "out" or now lower than another one. In this case, a simple nod will get you back into the top bid or a shake of the head to let them know that you aren't interested in it anymore. Some people merely wink, others will give another hand gesture and yet others will hold up their bidding number. I prefer to keep my number hidden in the case of multiple bidding circles going on at once so that someone else doesn't purchase items using it.

I love going to auctions on a late fall early winter day and spending my time looking for some oddball thing that would be nice to own cheaply. It is very relaxing falling into the cadence of the auctioneers call and exciting to win a bid knowing you just saved yourself some money for something maybe slightly used, or maybe find that knick knack that would look good in your collection. And once in awhile, you strike it rich and find something almost priceless in your eyes. Just don't let me catch you getting it by stacking a box or I just might bid you up for the hell of it.

Friday, September 9, 2005

Staying At the Best Westernsky

We arrived in our destination of a northern suburb of Chicago and pulled into the motel where we had reservations. On the outside, the Best Western looked like all the others but on the inside, something was a little bit strange. The clerk manning the reservation desk was dressed to the nines and spoke to us in an extremely thick Russian accident that was very hard to understand. But we got our keys and went back to the car to drive around the building to our door. It was then that I noticed things were a little off.

It was a little after seven in the evening and yet there wasn't another car in sight in front of the building. We drove around the building to our room and there weren't any cars there either. Even though it was a Wednesday night, we were right by the airport and I would have expected slightly more people staying there. I have never been the sole guest at a motel before. We dropped our bags off in our rooms and went out for a bite to eat. When we got back, it was pouring rain so we decided to hit the bar in the motel rather than going out to find other places. We left our room and headed to the right down the hallway and after a long time of walking, we came to a bowling alley. It is the first bowling alley and probably the last one I will ever see built into the middle of a motel. The four lanes were well lighted and there were a supply of bowling balls and shoes to choose from so one of the co-workers with me grabbed a ball and knocked nine pins down. He was prevented however, from rolling a spare because the gate came down and then stopped. We looked around for a few minutes trying to find a switch to turn the setting equipment on but were unsuccessful. We gave up and walked back to our rooms and then on down the hall in the other direction.

After walking through a maze of corridors, we ended up by the main desk where the well-dressed Russian told us that the bowling alley wasn't working because they had no attendants to watch it. So we wandered across the atrium and into the bar. The bar was empty except for another man sitting in a booth in the very back smoking a cigarette and talking in Russian on a cellphone. We wandered up to the deserted bar and waited for someone to come and serve us. We eventually walked around the bar and started opening the coolers looking for a beer assuming that the man speaking in Russian on the cellphone was the bartender. There were perhaps a half dozen large coolers and as we opened up various sliding doors, we found perhaps ten bottles of beer, half of them with Russian names, scattered among them. Just as we were debating whether to get some Russian beer or select from the handful of others, Natalia (pronounced Nah-tall'-i-a) entered the scene.

In a thick Russian accent and very poor English, she made it known that just grabbing a beer was unacceptable and that she was supposed to get the beer for us. After several failed attempts to order beers that they didn't have, we were served a Miller Lite coated with about a half inch of dust, a German import beer of some sort and I ended up with a Mexican beer. As she set them down on the little napkins she places before us, she told us to just call her when we needed something. I asked for her number to call her and she told me to just yell her name and she would come. At this point, we didn't know her name so we asked her what her name was and she told us Natalia. She turned to us and asked if we would yell Natalia when we needed a beer and not grab one for ourselves. I couldn't resist and responded with a "Da!" Failing to tickle her humor bone, she merely scowled and disappeared into the darkened hallways outside the bar.

We stayed in the bar until almost ten and never saw another human. Even the man speaking Russian on the cellphone slipped out leaving the entire place to ourselves. As I sipped my beer, I started to notice all the liquor bottles stacked in the massive display of perhaps 100 bottles in the center of the bar. Every single one of them was some sort of Vodka and no two were the same. I could identify at least six or so brands common to the United States but most looked imported and had Russian looking names. Although we didn't share the bar with any other humans, we did share it with a mouse that joined us at the bar. He evidently wasn't a Russian mouse because the Vodka didn't interest him and so instead of joining us for a beer, he merely scurried around a bit and disappeared into a crack at the base of the bar.

After seeing the mouse to bed, we yelled out for Natalia who reappeared out of the darkness and paid our tab before disappearing ourselves. The next morning, we looked for the free continental breakfast the Russian desk clerk had mentioned and eventually found it in the bar. The bar itself had been converted into a buffet and it was loaded with sweet rolls, fruits, cereals, bagels, juice, milk, a huge bubbling vat of oatmeal and a bushel basket full of hard boiled eggs. It was seven o'clock as I helped myself to some hard-boiled eggs, a sweet roll and a banana. I looked around for a place to sit but didn't have to search very long because we were still the only three people around. Not being in a hurry, we ate a leisurely breakfast, read the newspaper, watched the morning news and only saw the Russian speaking cellphone guy once as he came in to replenish the orange juice container which was barely a fourth empty.

We grabbed our bags, settled the bill, dropped off our room keys and walked out into the parking lot where are car was sitting in a concrete sea of emptiness. We drove around to the front of the building equally deserted and I suddenly started wishing that this wasn't the sung about Hotel California where you can check in anytime you like but can never leave. But leave we did and as we pulled onto the frontage road, no gate barred our progress and we didn't see any guard house manned by a Russian soldier holding an AK-47 and wearing military fatigues. As we drove away, I couldn't help but look back just to make sure the sign hadn't actually read "Best Westernsky."

Monday, August 29, 2005

A Riverside Visit With My Great-Great-Great Grandfather

On our way back from the wedding a little over a week ago, our route took us right by Charles City, Iowa where my great-great-great-grandfather John Kuck eventually immigrated to from Bremen, Prussia (now Germany), married and raised his family, all of whom died within two weeks of each other to some unknown disease except for himself and two sons. John went on to remarry and live until 1916, but until recently, I hadn't known where he was buried or even if he was buried in one of the cemeteries of Charles City. But with a little bit of luck, I ran across his name in a cemetery listing for Riverside Cemetery in Charles City and I thought it would be great to stop there, visit his grave and take a picture to give to my grandfather, John's great grandson.

I had done some research to try and locate the actual plot or block number of the grave over the internet but had been unsuccessful. All I had found were some stories about the cemetery being haunted. According to rumors, dark figures have been seen walking around and standing over graves and a few people have been attacked or approached by figures that refused to step into the light. Even an Indian has been seen out there and people claim that they always feel as if they were being watched at all times, especially near the mausoleum or along the riverbank. But driving on the freeway south of town, I couldn't resist the urge to check the cemetery out just in case it wasn't very big or I just got lucky and stumbled upon John's grave.

It was nearly seven in the evening when we pulled into the town of nearly 7500 residents and I pulled into a gas station to inquire about the location of the cemetery, which I imagined to be a neglected one somewhere along the Cedar River that runs through town. The young female clerk didn't know but the older lady working the pizza counter (Casey's is an Iowa gas station that always has a pizza counter in case you need a full tank and a slice or two for the road) knew of the cemetery and was able to give me rudimentary directions that included turning left at the bar named Sherm's. I was glad I had stopped right away and asked instead of just cruising the town in hopes of finding it like I had originally planned because it was a long ways off the beaten path and literally on the other side of the train tracks as the rest of town.

As we approached the cemetery main gate along the river, the cemetery appeared to be kept up in decent shape although by looking at the stones, it was plain to see that it was on old cemetery and probably no longer getting new residents if you know what I mean. We drove through the cemetery squinting at stones against the light of a setting sun shining low over the horizon, mainly looking for dates around the early 1900's when John died and the town was just turning fifty years old. Along the river, we came to a section of cemetery where there were lots of older stones, including some laying on the grass and others missing altogether. We parked the car along the road and each set off through the graves in opposite directions looking for my great-great-great-grandfather.

Although the shadows were getting long, I never did see any shadowy figures other than a family way off on another hill standing around a grave in a newer part of the cemetery. In fact, instead of feeling eerie, I felt very peaceful walking through the graves along the Cedar River nestled in a grove of ancient oak and other hardwood trees in the mild evening air. I walked in silence for about an hour among the graves looking for a stone that had Kuck written on it and wondering what I would do or say should I find it. How does one pay homage to an ancestor one has never met but has enormous respect for due to the fact that they left their home country to begin again in a new and foreign land, leaving all their relatives behind? I never got to answer that question because the sun had gone down and darkness was rapidly approaching when we gave up and walked back through the cemetery to our car. As we made one last pass with the car hoping for some luck that never came, I told my great-great-great grandfather John that I would come back again someday and spend a little bit more time telling him about my life and introduce him to my wife. As we exited the cemetery gates and started towards home still four hours of driving to the south, I told him simply, "Thanks."

Story postscript:
Upon leaving, we saw a building across the road from the cemetery with the words Riverside Cemetery Association written on it along with office hours and a phone number. I called the number up and inquired if they could help me out. The lady looked up my great-great-great grandfather's record there and told me he was indeed buried there. Not only is the lady send me a map showing the exact location of the grave but she is checked it out personally to see if there is a headstone and if so, what kind of condition it is in. (Large gravestone with some lettering hard to read.) As a bonus, she also sent me the internment records of all the Kucks buried there, including four whom I never new existed. Someday soon, I will make another trip up there and spend some time with my great-great-great grandfather John Kuck. I can't wait

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Even the Deaf Break Wind

It sounded like a long rusty ring-shanked nail giving way to a crowbar and releasing a decades old grip from a well-seasoned piece of timber... only wetter. Despite being in the middle of a crowd of talking people one evening well past sunset at my parents farm, I heard the noise clearly somewhere in the dark behind me and I now turned to seek out the source. It didn't take me long to realize that the noise had been a magnificent specimen of a farm and that the fartee had been none other than grandpa.

As I stared into the darkness in disbelief at where he was standing about a half dozen paces away from everything, I suddenly hoped that nobody else had heard it mostly because this was mixed company, half family and half neighbors and friends. As I turned to rejoin the conversation taking place on all sides, people seemed to be so engrossed in their conversations that they hadn't heard what had just taken place or they were being polite by pretending to be engrossed in their respective conversations.

I didn't think much about the incident until some of the neighbors were leaving a little bit later and we had all walked around to the front of the house to see them off. As we were standing around in a circle saying last minutes words of wisdom, I saw grandpa slink off about a half dozen steps into the darkness and let another loud ripping buzz cut sounding fart only a little wetter sounding. Suddenly it hit me. My grandfather not only had a bad case of gas but he had taken his hearing aid out earlier because the loud croaking sounds of the crickets were too loud for him when amplified. He thought he was politely and silently farting out of ear shot of all the guests but in reality, they were louder than he knew, way louder.

This time, I knew I wasn't the only one who heard him because several heads noticeably jerked when the fart broke through the cool night air. I swallowed a burst of laughter as I suddenly realized the humor in a deaf man farting and thinking he had done it out of earshot of everyone else. I was able to regain my composure briefly but no sooner than my grandfather had rejoined the group, he was almost half trotting out into the darkness again. Another fart ripped through the conversation and suddenly my stomach doubled up with peals of laughter just dying to escape. The guests were doing their best to pretend they hadn't heard but suddenly they were stepping up the pace in the goodbyes as they made their way to their vehicles. I think all of us were praying that the wind didn't suddenly shift and put us downwind of grandpa. As the guests got into their cars and slammed the doors, I bit my lower lip in an effort to keep the laughter silent not wanting to embarrass my grandfather who had once again rejoined the group. I wasn't doing a good job and had to turn my head away from his gaze as tears of laughter streamed down my face and I kept a firm grip on my lower lip with my teeth. My grandparents said goodnight as they made their way out to their RV parked out by the shop and I swear as they disappeared into the darkness, grandpa was in the lead at a fast trot.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Things Were Not Peaceful at the Monastery

My stomach nestled firmly high up in my throat near where my tonsils would have been had I not had them taken out as a kid. My testicles crawled up inside my body and had my bladder been full it would have emptied. I was floating in my small yellow kayak about fifty feet upstream of Monastery Falls where a boy had drowned fishing not five days before and I was terrified. The water bunched up from the normally wide expanse of the river and pounded its way through the two large granite rocks at the head of the falls not five feet apart. The river was up and the hole at the base of the upper seven-foot drop was a monster. It was one of those that would swallow me whole and spit me out a couple hours later like a stale burp.

Random blobs of foam flew up from beyond the brink as the roar of the rapids approached. My instructor was standing near the top of the upper drop eyeing my approach and form that right now was desperately feeling like it belonged on a nice couch back in Iowa instead of wedged into a whitewater kayak above the biggest falls on the Red River. The other classmates were scattered all along the right side of the falls all perched at a point where they thought they could see me bite the big one as best as possible. The current sucked harder at my boat pulling me towards the throat of the angry beast and I knew there was no backing out now. There would be no room to paddle until below the first drop because the rocks on either side were too close together. The instructor had informed me that I should paddle like hell to gain enough momentum to make it through the huge sucking hole at the bottom and to be sure and turn the paddle so it wouldn't behead me if it got caught on the rocks. My legs started turning into jelly as I paddled like hell toward what was certain death and drowning number two within a week but damn if I was going without a fight. I gave two final pulls on the paddle, folded it along side the boat and closed my eyes as the water fell away from the boat and it yawed down directly towards the gaping jaws of the monster hole.

The water slammed my chest as I brought my paddle back out and desperately went through the motions trying to find some solid water somewhere in the aerated foam that engulfed me. I couldn't tell if I was going forward or being pulled back but I felt the blade of my paddle sink into some dense water somewhere beneath the foam and I pulled with all my might launching my boat forward and into the bright sunlight on the far side of the standing wave beneath the hole. However, I was slightly askew and my boat surfed right down the backside of the wave and into the shore right at the base of one of my fellow students feet. The nose of the boat slid along the face of the granite boulder with a loud scraping noise before wedging firmly into a crack and stopping me so hard that the momentum of my upper torso kept going slamming my thankfully helmet head against the deck of the kayak. Dazed but still clutching my paddle, I tried for an upper brace as my boat slowly rolled over but it was weak and the boat kept going. Just as my head was about to disappear under the foamy water, the paddle blade hit bottom and pushing up I was able to right the boat.

The boat was upright and I fought to regain my composure as my kayak now hurdles over a couple intermediate drops towards the lower larger drop of ten feet, backwards. This was back when white water kayaking was in its infancy and the short stubby models of today weren't even a thought. The channel was to narrow for me to be able to turn my boat around in time to meet the lower falls head on and so I straightened it up slightly as I went over the lip, backwards. I hit the much shallower and less dangerous hole at the bottom of the lower drop and was immediately flushed downstream. My kayak sickenly tried to roll as the various eddies piled water on the deck but the adrenaline was kicking in and several almost savage braces kept it upright until I finally eddied out in the large eddy along the shore of the manicured lawns of the monastery for which the falls is named after.

My stomach and testicles both assumed their rightful positions within my body and the pounding adrenalin gave way to shaking in my hands and arms as I realized that I had made it through the falls and more importantly, lived to tell about it. I floated there for a couple minutes soaking in the peaceful surrounding below such a violent section of the river and listen to the sounds of my cheering classmates. I regained my composure and with a few strokes, punched out of the eddy right below the lower hole at the base of the falls doing a peel out while surfing the wave to the other side of the river where they were all waiting. The classmate whom legs the bow of my boat almost pinched beneath the upper falls joking told me how large my eyes were as my boat turned backwards and almost upside down. I hid the quivering in my arms, legs and voice and as bravely as I could said, "Oh that's nothing, you should have seen the size of your eyes!"

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Catching a Rainbow Dream

We were on our way to a lake buried underneath the Cirque of Towers in the Wind River Mountains of western Wyoming and were fly-fishing some of the streams exiting the Cirque along the way. My brother had a massive knot that he was trying to untangle, my father was putting some new tippet on his fly rod and so I continued on up over the natural bulge that formed the dam for the lake until the lake spread out before me. It wasn't a large lake but it made up for its lack in size with shear beauty. Steep vertical cliffs lined the three other sides only punctuated occasionally by a deep cleft that was home to a small glacier. To top it off, it was a cloudless blue-sky day with nary a wind so that the surface formed a perfect mirror.

I loosen up my fly and stripped a generous coil of line at my feet before beginning my rhythmic casting with the fly rod, while keeping a large boulder between myself and my intended casting spot. Grip the line, cast forward, wait for the line to unreel out straight, cast backwards, letting some line slip between the fingers of my free hand and add some more length to my cast, grip the line and cast forward, repeating until the fly was getting out to the right distance from shore at the mouth of stream that the rest of my family were sitting along down below some two or three hundred yards.

The cotton like dry fly hung over the water on the forward cast waiting for a backward tug that this time never came. I allowed the fly to settle on the water ever so gently and crouched down further behind the rock so that it was barely in sight. The water is so clear in the lakes of these mountains that you can spot fish swimming down in twenty and thirty feet of water and yet they appear to be near the surface. But as a result of your being able to see them, they can also see you and since humans rarely visit this corner of the earth, they become easily spooked and will take off leaving your dry fly to slowly take on water and sink beneath the surface.

I was about to cast my fly through the air a few times to dry it out before setting it back on the surface when I saw it. At my oblique angle, I could only see a shadow but I knew that it was a large torpedo like fish and it was swimming towards my fly. Every nerve and fiber in my body suddenly tensed up like hard granite as I kept my eyes glued to the fly. A splash of water and the flash of a silvery tail all within a split instant, unlocked my mind and muscles, setting them into action and setting the hook. The fly rod bent double as all slack flew from my hands and started stripping itself from the reel. Fly rods don't have tensioning devices and so I placed the palm of my hand along the spinning reel to provide the tension and prevent the fish on the other end from taking it all out. Nothing left to do but to let out the mandatory war whoop to let my family below know that I had one on and the fight was on.

Sensing the applied tension, the fish doubled back and leapt clear of the surface allowing me for the first time to see that it was a very large rainbow on the other end. Hitting the surface with a splash, I stumbled backwards taking in line and trying to keep the end of the rod up so that tension remained on the line. Three times more in quick succession, the large trout leapt clear of the surface trying desperately to gain its freedom but I kept the rod up and never released the tension. Back below the surface, the fish swam this way and that alternately stripping out line and allowing me to gingerly reel it back in trying never to exceed the one-pound limit on the thin tippet material at the very end which allows the line to be nearly invisibly attached to the fly.

By the time the rainbow had worn itself down, my brother and father were along side and helped me land the tired fish. With a firm grasp of its lower lip, I pulled the trout free of the water and held it clear for everyone to see. Having backpacked for two days carrying all our gear on our back, we had left such non-essential equipment like tape measures and fish scales at home so we could only guess at the size which we deemed to be around 24รข€? and about six pounds in weight. It was enormous, too big for the frying pan and too big of a fish for me to want to eat it.

I gently lowered the trout into the water and while holding it be the tail, gently moved it back and forth to bring much needed oxygenated water past its gills and bring new life and energy back into the muscular body. After about two minutes, the fish had recouped sufficient strength and with a quick thrust of its tail, launched itself into the lake and set itself into dive mode. I watched it swim down into the depths and slip into the shadows of a large boulder some twenty feet down beneath the surface. My dream of catching a big rainbow had finally come true and hopefully someone else would come along in a year or two and catch an even bigger dream.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Them Boots Were Made For Kicking

Inevitably, I was one of the last ones to be picked for the kickball game at recess. Standing a full foot taller than most of my classmate due to a large growth spurt, I was tall, gangly and not very coordinated. I could do well fielding the ball but I could never seem to kick it out of the infield and very rarely made it to first base without getting nailed with the ball and thus getting "out." Today was no exception. It was a cold, muddy day and despite all the snow having melted the day before, my mom had forced me to wear my big sorrel boots to school to keep my feet warm. They did that job well but with the heavy weights at the end of very long and very thin legs, made me very slow.

Our team was in the outfield first and due to my drastically reduced speed, several balls that I normally would have caught or at least stopped got past allowing the other team to score much to the displeasure of my teammates. Our team seemed to be kicking line drives or floaters that were easily caught and so it was deep into the third inning before my turn to be "at bat" had arrived. The pitched sent the ball rolling towards me and I started churning my weighted down legs as I ran towards the plate and the point of impact with the ball. The speed of my kick was slow to say the least but what I later learned as the physics law of momentum took over and the toe of my large sorrel boot planted firmly into the side of the ball sending it streaking into the outfield and over the heads of the opposing team.

I slogged around first as I watched the ball roll and disappear over the far hill and out of sight. I rounded second and looked back as I made my way towards third seeing one of the other team chasing the ball across the street. Never in the sport of kickball at our grade school had someone kicked the ball over the hill much less the street at the bottom of it. As I rounded third and headed for home, I could hear the unmistakable sound of a soccer ball thudding on the ground somewhere in the vicinity of second base but as momentum helped me launch the ball, it helped my feet continue pounding along the worn path between the bases and across home plate which I stomped on loudly as I sailed past and into the throng of my cheering teammates. Home run!

Although I was never picked first and whenever the weather was nice out and I wore my tennis shoes to school, I was still picked last, the kids kept an eye out on days with nasty cold weather. If they saw me rounding the building corner at recess and making my way out to the kickball diamond with my giant sorrels on, I got picked third or fourth from last instead of dead last. It was an improvement and I took it happily.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Riding RAGBRAI and Carbohydrate Induced Comas

The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa or RAGBRAI for short began on Sunday accompanied with temperatures over one hundred degrees for the ten thousand registered riders and assorted five thousand who crash the party. The ride is traditionally held during the last full week of July and goes from Missouri River to Mississippi River, which is an average of 500 miles. Iowa gets a bad rap for being a flat state and unless you have ridden across on a bicycle, you would probably agree. Those of us, who have ridden across on a bicycle, know that this isn't even close to the truth.

I have ridden on every mile of two RAGBRAI's in the past and it really isn't as hard as it seems riding anywhere from 60 to 100 miles a day. We usually get up at the crack of dawn to get some miles under our belt before the heat of morning sets in for good. After five or ten miles, we usually stop at a roadside stand for a stack of pancakes and then it is back on the road. All around us, in front of us and behind us are hundreds of riders stretching from horizon to horizon so there is plenty of company and entertainment. It is these people who keep your mind away from the agony located in your butt and legs as you peddle along talking and taking in the sights.

All along the route, food tents liberally dot the roadsides and about every ten miles or so, there is another town where some sort of entertainment is playing and plenty of libations are sold to cool the thirst. Roadside ditches are lined with sheets of plastic and turned into pools for soaking tired bodies. Huge stock tanks full of ice are loaded to the gills with watermelons, sodas and beers. Some towns graciously open up their public pools to the general masses for what always ends up in plenty of nudity and belly flop contests or both. There are always the ever-present beer gardens set up in drifts of plastic cups of those who have been there before you. There is always live music, talent shows, and plenty of water related activities design to keep you wet and cool. Nobody rides through these towns without stopping and nobody rides slowly. The standard procedure is to stop, get off and walk your bike through town so that you don't wreck while gawking at the carnival like atmosphere.

If we had timed things right, we would get into the overnight host town by about one o'clock to beat the worst of the heat. The group I rode with usually wrote the town's chamber of commerce ahead of time looking for host families who would allow us to sleep in their back yards or better yet, spare air conditioned rooms. This would help us avoid the overcrowded general campground and better suited our early morning bicycling farmer lifestyle. We would set up our gear and then set out to find the all you can eat pasta dinner that some church group always seemed to be serving out of a church basement. There, we would eat mountainous plates of spaghetti chased with loaves of French bread until our spandex biking shorts were stretched to the limit. Then it was back to the shaded tent or air condition room floor to take a siesta and to wait out the heat of the day in a carbohydrate induced coma.

In the evenings, we would usually hop on our bikes and ride around town checking out the entertainment and sometimes partake in it. Up to fifteen thousand bikers and a few thousand onlookers would also have the same idea so it was usually a wild time. Sometimes you would find a nude slip and slide set up on some grassy hill, dancing going on in the park or a pie-eating contest going down on main street. For some, usually the people who didn't get started riding that morning until around noon, the party is just getting started. For those who started early, when the sun goes down and the coolness of the evening begins, we disappear to our shelters in preparation for the next day.

For seven days, these same scenes are repeated over and over. Riding, pancakes, more riding, punctuated by frequent stops for food and water, more riding, bicycling nudist sighting, more riding and finally pulling into the overnight town, spandex busting spaghetti dinners, carbohydrate induced comas, more walking around town, more fun and libations, sleep of the dead, and repeat. Five hundred miles later, you coast down the final hill to the Mississippi River to dip the front tire of the bicycle into the river completing a journey that began with a rear wheel dipped into the Missouri River. Day two was yesterday and as you read this, day three is almost over for some and just starting for others. So if you are driving through and get stopped for several hours while thousands of bicyclists ride by in the hundred-degree heat, it isn't that all of Iowa has gone crazy, it is only RAGBRAI.

Friday, July 8, 2005

Joe Philippines - 9: Going Back Home

Typhoon Harurot was the worst typhoon to hit the Philippines in the last five years and the outer bands of it as it departed for Hong Kong were still lashing out at us as I made my way to the airport. Huge rollers coming in from the South China Sea would hit the barrier wall separating the ocean from the van I was riding in not twenty feet away. The resulting twenty-foot wave carried on heavy winds would engulf the road, our van and all other traffic even just a few feet away, giving the illusion that we were just a bubble in a washing machine. Though we were underwater about once every ten seconds, are driver kept going and only turned the windshield wipers up to medium speed as if it were all a mere annoyance. Such is life on a typhoon prone island.

I felt lucky to even be in Manila because the storm started lashing out in earnest just as we were leaving Sagada in the northern mountains of the Philippines for the long (through the night nonetheless) journey to the Manila airport. Once in lower elevations, while stopped for a breather, we would learn that Sagada, Baguio City, and other towns we had just passed through were now flooded and most of the roads, including the very one we were on, were shut down due to mudslides. Based off the time estimates, I figured that I had made it through with an hour to spare. For once, I was glad that we had set off in the middle of the night.

During the last few days of my stay in the Philippines, I had caught a monster of a cold. The shock to my body of living in a completely foreign land than what I was used to and being exposed to new and apparently very virulent strains of the cold virus had weakened my immune system and I was now starting to pay for it. My head felt like it contained roughly twenty pounds of snot and it was all backed up in my sinus cavities muting my hearing, making my eyes water, and my throat feel like I had just swallowed some hot coals. My body was chilled so I knew I was running a low grade fever and this really worried me. Hong Kong was now in the midst of the SARS epidemic and I had to fly right through it on my way home. If a fever flushed man sweating bullets and running a fever walked up to you the security officer in the airport, would you let him go or quarantine him like what they had been doing?

We arrived at the airport and I got my luggage out of the car as I made my goodbyes. My wife was catching a later flight to London and I was going to America so I was going solo. I handed all of my remaining pesos and most of my dollars to my mother-in-law and told her to spend if frivousely on herself and made my way to the first security checkpoint. Earlier during my trip, I had commented on how beautiful the handmade brooms or walis of Baguio City were and my wife's family had responded by buying me a half dozen of them. Having no other way to transport them back, I had bought a roll of duct tape and had wrapped them completely from business end to handle so that the end result looked like two or three rifles that had been taped together with some foreigners name and address written in magic marker. At the time it had looked good but now standing in front of some security guards who looked as if they would rather do a full rectal cavity search as look at you, I was having second thoughts. But an hour later and two searches, the non-invasive kind, I was at my gate and waiting to board my plane but not without having to stop a pay an official 'leaving tax' that the airport charges that completely wiped out my money leaving me penniless.

Not long after, I find myself sitting in the plane at the end of the runway looking out the window and seeing nothing but lots of rain blowing sideways to the ground. The plane was shaking in the strong gusts and I figured I was going to be stranded here for the night, now with no money. But after an hour, the winds paused and the rains slackened enough that our pilot lost no time. Almost a full three seconds after he told us to prepare for takeoff, it was full throttle as we launched the plane out over the sea and the departing Typhoon Harurot. We flew right over it since we were both making our way towards Hong Kong and it was a rough flight, the roughest in my lifetime of flying. Almost as soon as we cleared the typhoon and the flight leveled out, it was time to descend down into Hong Kong for a smooth landing. I was positive it would be smooth sailing from here.

The Manila ticket agent had only issued me the ticket to Hong Kong saying that I had to get the rest of my flight tickets issued when I arrived there. I thought this was odd and when I was standing there trying to explain it to a Hong Kong help desk lady who was telling me that I should have gotten my tickets in Manila, I knew I had been right. The women of Hong Kong are very demur and it is unbecoming of a lady to talk loudly so with my ears plugged with snot, I was having to strain to hear her speak through the thick glass window separating us. To make matters worse, the day before I had left for the Philippines, my direct flight from Chicago, O'Hare to Hong Kong had been canceled and rescheduled on two flights meeting in Los Angles and I had nothing to show this other than my original itinerary number from my e-ticket. After almost two hours of trying to explain things and the clerk leaving twice to walk all the way across the airport through customs and security to talk with the ticketing agents, she finally came back with my tickets and I was free to proceed.

My flight had been delayed an hour, so my three hour and twenty minute layover had now been reduced to only twenty minutes. I thought about having to spend the night without money in the Hong Kong airport and began to run. Then I came to a screeching stop. There was another checkpoint up ahead where security was taking everyone's temperature with forehead thermometers to look for fevers that indicate a possible SARS infection. Crap. Frantically I look around and see an empty glass of ice sitting at a nearby table and I grab a few ice cubes from it and smear them across my forehead. I wipe the melted water and feverish sweat from my forehead and walk up to the guard with my coolest, I'm completely normal and feeling good smile that I could muster as he checked my temperature and waved me on. Not looking a gift horse in the mouth, I took off running and made the last and final boarding to my flight.

The cabin of the airplane was like a sauna when I walked in and the pilot was saying something over the intercom about the air conditioning wasn't working properly but please bear with them. As the attendants went through their speech on safety, I started popping pills and dosing myself with cold medicine in an effort to make the fourteen-hour flight somewhat bearable to my flying companions sitting around me. The plane soon took off and once again, flew right over the incoming Typhoon Harurot in a worse bought of turbulence yet. Within minutes, six people in a five-seat vicinity of where I was sitting had filled up their airsickness bags and the sweltering air reeked of puke. I however, with my head banging against the side of the cabin in my window seat, was now within the power of the cold medication and drugs and was feeling just fine. So fine in fact, that I slept the next twelve hours without even waking to wipe the drool from my chin. The rest of the flight went smoothly including the eight hour layover in the middle of the night at O'Hare in Chicago thanks to the earlier mentioned rescheduled flights, which meant that I missed the last flight out and had to wait until morning and the next flight. I spent that time sometimes wandering the vast (and empty) terminals of O'Hare and alternately trying to get some more sleep on the chairs at a vacant gate while an automated voice came on the intercom every fifteen minutes and told me to keep track of my luggage at all times.