Dispatch from the Field: Ike and Nikita Fly to Camp David in Igor’s Helicopter

S-58 on White House lawn

A true story.

In September of 1959, Premier Nikita Khrushchev met with President Eisenhower in Washington DC, the first visit by any Soviet leader to the US. It was the height of the Cold War, tensions were high, and so were suspicions. After days of largely unproductive meetings, Ike suggested going to the Presidential retreat at Camp David to relax for a few days. “Dah” Khrushchev replied, assuming that “nearby” meant a short drive.

Arrangements were made by staff, but when Ike led Niki across the South Lawn to a couple of waiting helicopters, Nikita refused to board. He was terrified of helicopters. And for good reason. There is a saying that helicopters are thousands of parts all trying to fly apart from each other. Harry Reasoner once wrote:

“The thing is, helicopters are different from planes. An airplane by it’s nature wants to fly, and if not interfered with too strongly by unusual events or by a deliberately incompetent pilot, it will fly. A helicopter does not want to fly. It is maintained in the air by a variety of forces and controls working in opposition to each other, and if there is any disturbance in this delicate balance the helicopter stops flying; immediately and disastrously…

“This is why being a helicopter pilot is so different from being an airplane pilot, and why in generality, airplane pilots are open, clear-eyed, buoyant extroverts and helicopter pilots are brooding introspective anticipators of trouble. They know if something bad has not happened it is about to.”

Khrushchev thought it might be an assassination plot, and that his chopper might be shot down. Ike assured him that it was safe, and when Ike told him that they would both go in the same helicopter, Khrushchev agreed. Ike let him sit in the Presidential seat, with a commanding view out the oversized window. While Niki fidgeted and squirmed, Ike and others explained to him what they were seeing as they flew over the Maryland suburbs. Someone explained that the helicopter, a Sikorsky S-58, was made by a company founded by a Russian-born designer, Igor Sikorsky.

In time, Khrushchev became comfortable and even enjoyed the flight. When Ike asked how he liked the flight, Niki confronted Ike with his famous wagging finger that he waved one millimeter from Ike’s nose and said “Of course it is a good and safe aircraft, it was designed by a Russian!”

“Yes,” Ike replied. “A Russian who was smart enough to get the hell out of Russia.”

Sergei

As told to me by Sergei Sikorsky (left), whose father Igor immigrated to the US in 1919 following the Bolshevik revolution. Sergei retired as VP of Special Projects for the company.

Dispatch from the Field: My NY Times Buddy in Phoenix

Tammie and I go way back – well, about three years.

On the first Sunday of our first trip to Phoenix for Spring Training back in 2016, I headed to the Starbucks on Happy Valley Road so I could buy the NY Times, and read it over a vanilla latte (cliche, I know, but I really enjoy them). I arrived at the store and was reaching for the paper just as another woman also came to the newsstand. It became obvious she also wanted the Times, but there was only one left.

“You got the last one,” she said with evident disappointment.

“Oh,” I replied, “you wanted it too?”

“Just the crossword puzzle. I like to work on it all week, but it’s ok, you take the paper.” Well, what else was she going to say? It turned out that her name was Tammie and she was the store manager. It would not do for her to swipe it from me, the customer.

So I bought the paper and a latte, and sat down to enjoy a Sunday morning ritual that I have been unable to pass on to my children or grandchildren. It’s clear that getting news in print will not survive another generation. Here in Phoenix, the Arizona Republic, a once-towering force in Arizona, has become more of a leaflet than a newspaper, and survives almost entirely to support the delivery of ads for groceries, mattresses, hearing aids, and treatments for male…dysfunction.

And what a shame it is. A true loss. Not just for me and my joy in reading the local paper wherever we go, but also for society. While newspapers surely have always had a political point of view, they also employed trained journalists who were committed to journalistic ethics. Reporting required back-up, and errors were acknowledged and published. Political spin was largely reserved for the opinion pages. News analysis was so identified. And most important, we all read the same paper, whether it was the Fresno Bee (which was criticized by liberals as being too conservative and by conservatives as being too liberal), or the LA Times, or the Podunk News-Dispatch. We had a common frame of reference even though we might interpret it in vastly different ways.

Now, many of us get our news largely (or solely) from cable news outlets with a point of view of our own choosing, and from social media with an almost limitless potential for abuse. We start and end in vastly different places, rarely meeting in the middle or even the fringes.

And so, I willingly incur the expense of a Monday – Sunday subscription to the NY Times back home, and STILL spend $6 for a Sunday edition while we are on the road. I consider it my little contribution to the survival of an institution that is vital to our democracy, and that is rapidly taking on water.

As I was reading the paper in the Happy Valley Starbucks three years ago, I carefully cut out the crossword puzzle, took it up to the cashier and asked her to give it to the manager, Tammie. A few minutes later, Tammie came bounding out from her office, thanked me and gave me a big hug. She said she would buy the paper the next Sunday, keep the crossword puzzle, and give me the rest.

So began our tradition. Whenever I am in Phoenix, I buy the Times one Sunday, she the next. When she’s not too busy, we visit. I tell her about our travels. She tells me about her and her husband’s plans for what would to do when they retire.

Until last Sunday.

We had just arrived in Phoenix for our annual Spring Training visit. I went to the Happy Valley Starbucks and asked if Tammie was around. “No,” said Kailee, “she’s not at this store anymore; she’s opening a new one in Dove Valley.” I had no idea where Dove Valley was, so I bought the paper and a latte, sat down and started reading. But it was not the same.

Today, after consulting with Mr. Google Maps, I showed up at the Dove Valley Starbucks, saw Tammie, and said “Hi! Who’s buying the NY Times today?”

“You tracked me down!” she beamed, and gave me a big hug.

And so our tradition continues. I’m buying today, she will buy next week, and I will return to our motorhome in a couple of hours with the Sunday edition, minus the crossword puzzle.

Dispatch from the Field: A Man of Visions

John Man of Visions

John sits at his usual table in the Kreuzeberg Coffee Shop, in downtown San Luis Obispo. It is the last night of October. His table is on the far end of a long row of tables, close to the windows which during these days of seemingly unending summer are still open.

It is usually easy to find a seat at the table next to his, since his appearance causes many to avoid getting too close for fear that he might ask for a dollar for another cup of coffee or a bite of food. But he does not ask, he has enough money to earn him his seat at this table for hours upon hours, day upon day.

A journal is laid out, carefully centered in front of him.

He writes from the bottom up. The pages on which he is now working are blank for the top 2/3, with intricate, almost microscopic writing below. It is his diary he explains, but not in the usual sense. It contains a record not of what he has done, but of what he has dreamed. His visions. That is what now occupies his time – envisioning.

Two stones, one laid on each page, keep the light breeze from turning the pages. For John, the stones have a more important role. They are made from basalt, derived from volcanos, the beating heart of the earth. They give him a spiritual connection to the earth. I ask do they work? He says sometimes too well. He has had stones vaporize before him.

I note that his writing appears to be meticulous. He replies that he was an architectural designer, a Cal Poly alum, in good stead with many of the faculty still there.

He writes. Then he waits, envisioning. What do you envision? “These days it is mostly visions from my dreams.”

It is Halloween today, and that is interfering with his visions. To the extent he sees visions at all on this day, he says, they are visions of his own death. He does not seem concerned about death, only that its contemplation is interfering with his visions of other things. I observe “Death comes early enough, no need to see it now.” He smiles softly, and agrees.

After a time, he purchases a small item of food. He carefully moves the journal an inch forward, rearranging his two vessels of water and one of coffee. All remains in perfect order. He looks down reverently, taking his muffin to his mouth with the same care he devotes to his writings.

He is nearing the end of this journal. I ask what he will do when it is complete. “Start a new one. I have over 300 of them already.”

I extend my hand as I introduce myself. He does the same. I tell him of my travels and ask if I may take his photograph. He agrees, and as I leave he says “safe travels Ken.”

Safe travels to you too John, wherever your journeys may take you while you sit at your table in downtown San Luis Obispo.

Some Thoughts on Hair

beatles mop top

Hair was the source of many of the biggest battles I had with my mom. The Beatles had just landed in America, and I wanted to be them. My parents bought me a guitar, but my hair grew faster than my talent.

My mom was ill one time, nothing serious, but my dad used it as an opportunity: “Ken, you would make your mother very happy if you would go to the barbershop and get your hair cut; she does so much for you and she is not feeling well.” This was my introduction to Fransen guilt. More lessons would follow.

rightstuff quaid

In high school, my aspirations shifted from wanting to be a rock star to hoping to fly fighter jets. Accordingly, my hair-length went from being too long to bordering on excessively short. As a young kid I had been known as brush-cut Charlie, but I never quite developed the courage to go full buzz in high school. Somewhere along the years that followed, I just became normal hair-wise.

I started growing my mustache the day I left high school. It took two years before anyone could notice. It took 5 or 10 years for it to be worthy of the name. Now, I cannot get rid of it. My wife and kids, and most everyone I know, have never seen me without it.

There are a lot of things I don’t remember about my hair.

For example, I don’t remember when I started to grow hair out of my ears; I just know that we older men can push out more hair out our ears than the domes of many of our heads. I don’t get the feeling this affects women – if it did there would be ads about it on tv. Of all the things women have to worry about, ear hair apparently is not one of them. Likewise nose hair. And bushy eyebrows. Some hormonal defect causes us men to move our hair-growing capacity from our heads to our nose and ear and eyebrow regions.

Speaking of eyebrows, I don’t remember when mine got out of control. I think it started quite innocently while on the phone – I realized that one of my eyebrow hairs was longer than the rest, and I just pulled it out. It became a nervous habit whenever I was one the phone. At some point I was not making enough phone calls to be able to keep up with them all so my barber asked if she could trim them. Now it’s mandatory and if she doesn’t offer, I ask.

let me fix your hair

I also don’t remember when I first noticed I was going gray but my wife noticed about 10 years before I did. “Oh look,” she’d say, “you are getting gray!” I didn’t see a thing. One day, all of a sudden, I was gray. An attorney I had worked with years before but hadn’t seen in the meantime, invited me to lunch one day. When we met, he extended his hand and loudly blurted “you’re gray!” “Yeah,” I replied, “and you’re bald!” Pleasantries ensued.

My hair is now completely gray, although I prefer the term silver. Gray is drab, silver has a certain chicness, maybe even sexiness, about it. A handsome older man with gray hair used to be called a “silver fox.” I have not personally heard that term in my presence. I do not know why.

I’m proud of my gray hair. I’ve earned every one of them. When I go to a theatre, I don’t ask for the senior rate, I ask for the gray hair discount. When I go to an event that serves alcohol, my gray hair saves me the trouble of having to pull out my driver’s license. If the person at the registration desk is zoned out and asks anyway, I just smile and point to my hair, and I am then cleared right on through.

I often choose my sports teams based on hair color. When I got to the point in life when I had time to watch football, I noticed that one of the stellar and well-seasoned quarterbacks had gray hair – Brett Favre. He was still with the Green Bay Packers then, so I decided to root for his team. (It didn’t hurt that good friend and avid reader Neil was a big Wisconsin-bred fan of the Pack who told me the endearing history of the team and its place in Wisconsin culture.)

Similarly, with the departure of the last wave of true redneck Nascar drivers – those who cut their driving teeth running moonshine through the backroads of the South and who sometimes engaged in fistfights when a hotly contested race ended – I found a ‘gray hair’ to root for. Mark Martin was the oldest guy then driving, and he became my driver. I also thought it was cool that he owned and flew his own jet between his hangar home and the various race-tracks. Mark had a great career, and though he came close, never quite made it to a Nascar championship. In his final years as a driver, his sponsor was Viagra, the obviousness of which bordered on elegance. I rooted proudly for Mark, but never had the guts to wear an official “Mark Martin Viagra” jacket.

mark-martin-portrait-viagra-hat-and-sunglasses-hand-on-hip

Once, a long time ago, I started growing a beard. It was truly awful and only lasted a few months. Ironically, many of our most prominent family photographs were taken during that brief period, causing me to make a gagging sound whenever they are pulled out of the family photo box. A number of years ago, I wondered if my beard would grow out silver (ok, gray) if I tried to grow it again. I decided that if it came out solidly the color of my now gray hair, I’d keep it, otherwise I’d just forget about the whole beard thing. Uniform gray-ness followed. The beard’s a keeper.

cut your own hair

Women do not seem to love their own hair. Those with fine hair wish they had thick hair so they would be able to do something with it. Those with thick hair envy those with fine hair because fine hair dries so much quicker. Women with curly hair straighten it. Those with straight hair curl it. When you google “bad hair day photos,” the results are almost entirely of women.

Some women even prefer men’s hair. When my wife (we’ll call her “Carol”) sees a man with a long wavy tress, she turns to me and says “don’t you just love his hair? Mine just hangs.” Of course it hangs – what else is there for it to do? Gravity, after all, is rather insistent. Her point, though, was simple. She does not love her own hair and would trade it for some guy’s if she had the chance.

When we had just gotten married, Carol decided to get an Afro – being a popular hair style in the mid-1970’s. It did not last long – she looked just like the poster from the musical Hair! Except for the fact that she was blonde and northern European. A short hair style quickly followed.

Speaking of Hair!, Carol spent the last half of the 1960’s in San Francisco, lived in Haight-Ashbury, and hung around with theatre types. Hair! was a popular and controversial rock musical at that time. Extras and audience members came on stage at one point in the performance and during a particularly controversial part of the play, some on stage removed all of their clothing and simply stood there nude. She had always told me she was briefly in the cast of Hair! but we never discussed the details. I recently asked her if she was one of the people on stage who doffed their clothes and stood there nude. She said she is not sure, but for some reason I love the fact that I married a hippie-chick who might have.

Hair!

Dispatch from the Field: A Big Damn Country

tr-panorama.jpg

I just returned from a three week 5,000 mile solo trip across the northern plains to Oshkosh WI and back, and it seemed to take forever.

The purpose of this trip was to attend the world’s largest aviation gathering that you’ve never heard of and do not care about (EAA.org/AirVenture). Please note that I am NOT providing dispatches about my experiences at this gathering because I know that NONE of my readers care about airplanes. For those who pretend that they DO, see my other website: www.ohcomeonyoudontthinkIamreallythatgullibleastobelieveyouactuallywanttoseeairplanephotos.com

Two years ago I went on a similar road trip. Not much has changed.

Teddy Roosevelt National Park is still a jewel with incredible geology. Not a rock hound? OK, how about this? Hills made of various layers including a thin layer of coal. When lighting strikes every 10,000 years or so, the coal layer will light up and burn inside the mountain for years until it is all gone and the hill goes poof and crumbles down on top of the now empty space with orange residue sprinkled around.

burning hills

Is it just me or is that really amazing?

I went into the historic town of Medora, where Joe Reid performs in character as Teddy Roosevelt. It was masterful, and made me long for the days when Presidents were towering figures who commanded – and deserved – respect and loved their country more than themselves. Yet even he raged against the press, calling them “yellow journalists.” joe-reid-as-tr.jpg

Buffalo still roam freely around the Park’s visitor center, and their butts still make my grandkids erupt in gleeful laughter, so here you go kids: buffalo butt

Sign of the Day in Miles City, ND: “Live every day so you can look any man in the eye and tell him to go straight to hell.” I still do not know what that means.

Missoula, Montana, it turns out, is a hip town. Weary after days of driving across the country and half way back, I stopped at the Missoula KOA. This was considered by KOA to be an RV Resort, meaning they have a pool and playground and therefore can charge an additional 10 bucks a night. No matter that I needed neither, it had power and water so I cranked up the air conditioning, took a much needed shower, changed into business casual, and decided to check out the town. It reminded me of Fresno: hot and hazy. Lots of vacant lots and old buildings that had seen their best days, yet there was obviously new vitality, with hip new shops and restaurants sprouting up.

I plonked myself down in a restaurant called, appropriately, Plonk! My travel guide said it was the best place in town. I sought and received ordering advice from Helen, who told me I had indeed found the best place in town, partly because her daughter Anika worked there. Helen writes screenplays from Missoula now, to be close to her daughter, but once lived the fast lane life in LA. Her friend Jeri joined her to celebrate Anika’s birthday. Jeri has had an illustrious life. Though slight of build she once ran cattle with her ex-husband, and broke wild horses, before becoming a public servant in the employ of the US Forest Service. Now retired, she serves as editor of Helen’s manuscripts, and landlord to Anika. We sang Happy Birthday to Anika, and I took a photo of the three of them (Jeri on the left, Helen in the middle, and Anika, well, you know):

Jeri Helen Anika

On their advice, I had brunch the next morning at Catalyst, just down the street. Both Plonk! and Catalyst could easily be airlifted into the Portland foodie scene and thrive. My server, Cameron, cameron.jpgcould not have been nicer, and took great care of me though the place was packed and bustling. She asked where I was from. “Portland” I responded. “Oh,” she replied, “my step-mom is from there. I go there all the time.” We discussed Portland and other things, and then she asked where in Portland I lived. “Do you know where South Waterfront is?” I asked. “Yes!” she replied, “my step-mom lives in the John Ross Building.” “That’s my building!” “On the 19th floor.” “That’s my floor too – we must be neighbors!”

I am not kidding about this. Having now returned home, I just walked down the hall and introduced myself to Cameron’s step-mom, my neighbor and new friend. Things like this make long distance travel worth it, even though it is one big damn country – and you have to wait for a lot of trains.

BNSF

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My Jealous Mistress

Nicola at the window

After many years, I decided to call it quits with Lexi. On January 1 of 2016 I said I was done. I moved away. But after a few months, she and I planned a renewal. Fate intervened (I broke my hand), and a rapprochement was not to be. I thought it was over.

But late last year, I thought ‘what could it hurt to see if the old magic is still there?’ Things went slow at first, then it kind of got out of hand, and before I knew it Lexi was starting to take hold of me again. I yielded to the siren call, but then said  ‘no I can’t,’ then ‘oh geez,’ then ‘I really can’t.’ I promised myself that it was over. I thought I was safe.

Then, two hours before I planned to make my final escape, she said “not so fast!” I was at her mercy, knowing it was wrong, but unable to unleash myself from her jealous grip. The back and forth continued for many weeks. We had a fling in Hood River, a couple of more in downtown Portland, even a couple of short trysts in Johns Landing. She would not let go.

Any of you who have gone through something like this knows that it is at once tantalizing and depressing. How can logic fail us at a time when we need it most? Why does sensibility fade as the need for it becomes profound? Where is willpower?

Lexi, you see, is a jealous mistress.

I am not the first to have known this. In fact, it was Judge Joseph Story in 1829 who first coined the phrase: “The Law is  jealous mistress.”

Lexi, you see, is the Law.

Some readers may recall my commitment to abide by the Brett Favre Rule: Go out on top, and then stay gone. (Don’t do what Brett Favre did.) After passing the Oregon Bar exam at age 65, however, I couldn’t resist going ahead and getting sworn in, but promised myself – and my readers – that I would file for retired status promptly thereafter. I confess my weakness. I did not do that. You see, a good friend of mine and avid reader, attorney Steve, emailed me two hours before the swearing-in saying “Not so fast! I wanted to talk to you about helping me with my Hood River clients…” Well, there followed a month of back and forth before I finally – finally! – did what I needed to do.

brett favre hero

Lexi and I are done now. Really. It’s over. And it should have been done long ago. Because going back into law would have seriously interfered with my ability to travel.

And goof off.

And write posts for this ridiculous blog.

Portland Drivers and the I-5 Parking Lot

(photo copyright KGW-TV)

It is wise in Portland to check GPS even if you well know the way to your destination, and even if the distance is short. A  flood of people have descended upon the town, and truck traffic has skyrocketed due to the closing of the Port of Portland to ship traffic, yet not a lane-mile has been added to the freeway system. Even in the best of times (Sunday afternoon? Weekday mid-morning?) traffic can come to a crawl. Best to know that before getting on the freeway. 

After a lovely Father’s Day dinner out this evening, wisdom did not prevail. GPS was not consulted, and we arrived on the freeway just in time to note that (a) traffic was virtually at a standstill and (b) there was no way out.

The “virtually” part is important. When a major road closes due to an accident ahead, many cars come to a stop with a few extra feet ahead of them. At some point, the drivers become anxious, and they move a few feet forward. The car behind them sees movement and does the same. Someone in the next lane sees this movement and tries to dart in. The jockeying begins. 

But then inevitably there is no room left. The accordion is out of air. The freeway has become a parking lot.

Such is what happened this evening. We got on the freeway with plans to take the very next exit about a mile hence. At 7:30pm, movement came to a crawl, and then I-5 North became a parking lot.

I-5 Parking Lot

An interesting thing happens when traffic comes to an absolute halt. After the realization that nothing is moving or will be likely to move, resignation sets in. At some point a door opens, then someone comes out of their car, someone else jumps over the barrier at the edge of the road to relive himself or allow his dog to do the same. And faceless drivers become people again.

Two lovely women, Hayden and Mallie, realized after about 45 minutes that they had some water bottles and small refreshment packs in their trunk. They gathered them all up, and began going up and down the line of stopped cars handing out their supplies. They generously gave us a pack of refreshments:

gift bag

After giving them a hug, I took their picture:

Malley and Hayden

By this time, I had checked KGW-TV.com and found that the cause of this traffic disaster was a multi-car series of accidents just ahead of us that happened when a thunder storm had passed through the area. I shared this information with Hayden, Mallie, and some of our other new neighbors, and all expressed concern that the people involved would be ok. According to KGW, four were taken to the hospital, two having been pinned in their car, all expected to survive. People I spoke with were relieved.

Finally, after about an hour and a half, brake lights could be seen in the distance, people ran back to their cars, doors closed, engines started. Once there was the slightest movement, an interesting thing happened. The jockeying began anew. We were no longer neighbors, we were not people with a shared experience; rather, we immediately become faceless drivers, not people, not neighbors.

In the rear view mirror I saw someone, who we will refer to for convenience as “the asshole,” flying down the right lane that quite clearly was coming a close where the accident was still clearing, at not less than 60 mph while the rest of us were barely doing 3mph. It was a big black BMW. Why is it always a big, black something?? Someday this blog will need to do an anthropological study of drivers of big black vehicles. Except for avid reader Randy who has (or at least had) a big black pickup but who is the absolute nicest guy.

Three lanes of backed up traffic many miles long slowly found their way into a single lane as we approached the accident site. As we passed, I had reason to question the KGW report. There was very little left of one car – just the remnants of a wrecked chassis, and what little remained of that was covered with white ash. We’ll tune in to KGW in a while and see what the latest is.

But for one brief hour and a half, the random assortment of truckers, families coming home from the weekend away, workers having to work their Sunday jobs and coming home, and fathers celebrating Father’s Day, came together to become not vehicles and faceless drivers, but people – neighbors – who were all in it together. 

 

Riding the Coast Starlight With Veronica

 

Image 8-15-17 at 10.50 AM

The Coast Starlight is the only Amtrak line with a Parlor Car. Made by Budd in the 1940’s, they are classic examples of the streamline era, beautiful constructed of stainless steel and handcrafted mahogany. Veronica was the attendant on this trip. A dark-haired Latina with a constant smile and comfortable manner beyond her young years, she seemed vaguely familiar. But I had not travelled by train for a couple of years, the last trip cloaked in tragedy, and so we spoke only briefly between meal orders and her other duties.

After a while, I asked if William was still working the Parlor Cars. William is a most distinguished gentleman with a basso profundo James Earl Jones voice, an aristocratic manner, and a vast knowledge of railroading, all prominently contrasting with his Rastafarian dreadlocks and Bob Marley knit cap. The Parlor Car offers wine and cheese tastings every afternoon, and passengers would hang on William’s every word as he described in glorious detail each tasting. And if you could spark his sense of humor, he would beam and bellow with deep, rumbling laughter. Veronica brightened when I said his name. “Yes! He’s still working the Parlor Car. And he’s my best friend. In fact, we’re going to be working together in a few days.” I asked her to give William my best, and she took a selfie of the two of us so she could show him.

She said I looked familiar, had we perhaps travelled the Coast Starlight together before? I told her I’d travelled it many times, but that it had taken a couple of years to be ready to take a train trip again. The last time I was aboard, I related, we were pulling out of the San Luis Obispo station and within a mile the emergency brakes were triggered. Even at 30 mph, a trainset of only 8 cars and 2 locomotives takes a long time to come to a stop, by which time our car was at the RR crossing the locomotive had already crossed. Looking out the windows of the Parlor Car I saw a young man sitting on a bike, looking at the train, looking down, shaking his head, looking back, looking down, shaking. All activity had come to a stop. No one was moving outside. Just looking at the train. It was hushed in the Parlor Car. No more clatter of rails, no more horn blaring, no conversation, and then someone looked out the other side of the Parlor Car and gasped. A young man lay lifeless, wrapped around a steel post, half of his clothing ripped from his body, his backpack sprawled nearby, his headphones still hanging across his neck, and the ground below his head growing increasingly red.

The first person who jumped out of the train to help was a young Amtrak employee who stayed there with him, gently placing towels where he was bleeding, covering his partially naked body, and simply being there, doing what little she could do until Fire and Rescue came and took over. After a long but fruitless lifesaving effort, his body was taken away and the train backed up the mile to the San Luis station where we waited for a replacement operating crew.

“I was on that train!” she said. “Now I remember you. I was the dining car manager and served you. When the accident happened that night, I was the first one on the scene.” She told me the young man’s name. He had been walking with friends on the railroad right of way, on their way to a birthday party. He was leading the way down the tracks, with his headphones on, and never heard the train’s blaring horn. His friends yelled out at him. He did not hear them either.

“That was my first” she said somberly, it being obvious that it will not be her last. It is an inevitable part of railroading – pedestrians walk in the right of way, and cars and trucks ignore warning lights and crossing guards. She now has over 4 years as a railroad woman, and will no doubt continue for a while. On this trip, the dining car manager, the conductor, and of course Veronica the Parlor Car attendant were women. Having two daughters and five grand-daughters, I was pleased. Perhaps the crew in the locomotive were women too.

This trip ended with no drama. I will travel Amtrak again, hoping to see William and enjoy his Parlor Car discourse, and perhaps finding that Veronica will be the conductor. Or maybe even the engineer. And despite the odds, I am hoping that her first will be her last.

[This was one of my first posts, when few were following this blog. I am re-publishing it now for those who did not see it the first time.]

Dispatch from the Field: An Anthropological Study Of Modern Day Cowboys

cowboys at the bar

Tehama County is cattle country, and Red Bluff is its center of gravity. The Green Barn is the steakhouse of choice here, and when the cowboys come to town, this is where they congregate. You can tell a lot about modern cowboys by watching them at the bar.

Older cowboys lead with their stomachs, wear long sleeve check shirts and cowboy hats, and drink Crown Royal Whiskey. Younger cowboys work too hard to put on much of a gut, wear t-shirts or even hawaiian shirts, don baseball caps, and drink beer. I asked  Jake Bunting why the difference.

jake bunting

He said “we’re just different generations.” I got the feeling that his own kids’ generation might go back to cowboy hats just to be different from their dads. Jake was nice enough to offer to buy me a beer.

The occasion for this gathering was a video livestock auction taking place the next day. Kind of like the Barret-Jackson auto auction except if you win, you can’t just stick what you bought in a garage, you have to feed it. A bankruptcy judge once told me that when a big rancher or farmer files bankruptcy, he makes them sell anything that has to be fed or uses aviation fuel. A Ferrari may be more expensive, but you wouldn’t believe what a 2000 lb cow eats every day.

Jen and Ellington

Bulls are another thing altogether, and Jen (on the left, above) is Queen of the Bulls. Our server said she is the bravest person around here. The only woman among the 20 or so cowboys at the bar, she was the demarcation between the old cowboys and the young ones, as if holding court, or keeping the peace between the two factions. In addition to selling Bulls, she does the book-keeping for the auction, so she was everyone’s best friend. It’s been a long time since she has had to buy her own drink.

Ellington (on the right, above) runs the show, and invited us to attend the next day. We declined since I sometimes get an itch and rub my nose, and our 19th floor condo would not hold many head.

cowboy John

John (above) runs cattle and operates a Christmas tree farm. He tried to sell me a truckload of trees that I could then sell, thinking that would be a good way to cover the cost of diesel fuel to get our RV back home. Once again, I politely declined.

Server Anne

Anne was our server. She said the cowboys come every month, and she’d love to take care of them every time but in fairness she and the other server alternate who gets to serve them. She said they are really nice people.

It was somehow comforting to talk to these cowboys and watch them as they talked about the gamble that is their livelihood. I had the feeling that if I had been here 50 or 100 years ago, it would all seem about the same.

They talked about the relative benefits of red Angus, the cost of feed, and what June calves were going for. Politics? This is Trump country, but I never heard them say anything about politics. It’s just assumed. “Oh we love him,” one cowboy said. “But our wives don’t.” Are you worried about a trade war? “No, it will all work out.” Everything will work out. To be a rancher, you have to believe that.

There are signs along the freeway as you come into Tehama County: “Coming Soon – the State of Jefferson.” You begin to wonder who the yahoos are who want to break off into their own state. It was reassuring to know that these cowboys weren’t trying to secede or start a new state or other movement. They just want to run cattle, get enough money from selling them to cover their costs and put a little away, raise their families, and buy a beer for a gray-haired writer who happens to show up at the Green Barn when the auction comes to town.

The Brett Favre Rule

I always root for the gray-haired guy.

Mark Martin in Nascar (even though his sponsor was Viagra and their logo was splashed all over his car and merchandise – geez!). mark martin 2Chase Utley in baseball. And in football Brett Favre, which is how I backed into becoming a Green Bay Packer fan.

Brett had an amazing career, but when it was time to hang up his jockstrap for good he was enticed by another team to come back. It was not the come-back he had hoped for. That was a life lesson for me that I call the Brett Favre Rule: know when it is time to go. And then stay gone.

And the best time to go is when you are at the top of your game. Don’t wait until you feel nudges from your co-workers, clients, and others.

I’ve thought a lot about the Brett Favre Rule since I passed the Oregon Bar exam, especially with the swearing-in taking place tomorrow. Will I return to active practice? Oh, it is so enticing. Memories of past victories and satisfied clients cascade through my brain. Do I still have something to offer? Can I return to past glories?

But I retired for a reason. Actually many of them. Travel. Writing. Photography. And about a three and a half dozen other passions and pursuits.

To help figure all this out, I headed to the mountains this last weekend, all by myself. Sitting alone in the forests of the Cascades it all became clear. I needed to go back to practicing law. Until about 5 minutes later, when it became equally clear that going back would be folly. This continued, back and forth, the entire day and night.

Finally, watching the sun rise the next morning through the mottled pattern of green above and surrounding me, I recalled the Brett Favre Rule. The career I loved for 38 years had come to a right and proper conclusion. No nudges needed. A dignified end. Let it go.

cascade lake

Brett Favre could have chosen a different path. He could have used his skills and hard-fought experience to help younger players. But trying to be 30 or 35 again, at the height of his career? Not happening.

I think I still have something to offer. I have been told I would be great at mediating conflicts among and within families who are struggling with their businesses. I have done some of that work, and it is rewarding to me. It allows me to use the skills and experience I acquired as a lawyer to benefit others, without returning to the grind of practicing law. And I can take on limited projects here and there, without giving up the prime time of my life to travel, write drivel like this, and generally goof off. Along with pursuing those three and a half dozen other things I want to do. This makes sense to me.

So tomorrow, at 1:30pm in Salem, Oregon, I will raise my right hand and take the oath of office as an Oregon attorney, and promptly thereafter I will elect inactive status and retire – the shortest Oregon legal career on record. My Bar Admission certificate will find a hallowed place in a closet somewhere, along with my other dusty diplomas and certificates, a reminder of the 2-1/2 months of intense study of which I had thought I was no longer capable.

But on my wall, in a place of honor, I will hang something even more important: a photograph of Brett Favre at the height of his career.

brett favre hero.jpg