Eye Contact

Infants have no problem with eye contact. They zero in on you when you look at them, and though at some point you might look away, when you look back they are still locked on to you like a sidewinder missile.

At some point, this changes and most kids become wary of making eye contact. I had to work with my kids when they were young teenagers to look at me when we were talking. It did not come easy. There was one exception. I told them that when they received a compliment, to always look down at their feet, draw circles on the ground with one of their toes, and say “aww, shucks.” This was cruel on my part – the proper response being to look at the complimenter and say a simple “thank you” – and revealed that I had watched altogether too much of the Andy Griffith Show when I was a boy. “Aww shucks Aunt Bee,” Opie would so often say.

My parents moved a lot when I was young, and I never made a lot of friends since it seemed I was always in a new school. I didn’t think that people, as a rule, liked me. I was not depressed about that, it was just the way it was.

As a sophomore in high school, I began thinking about how to change that. I realized that walking around school, my gaze was usually down at the ground or up in the sky looking at airplanes, and my expression was less – as in expression-less. I decided I would start walking around with a smile on my face, just to see what happened. It was hard and awkward at first, but after a while it became my default expression. I also decided to say hi to people as they passed, and started learning the names of my classmates and committing them to memory. It is impossible to say hi to someone without looking at them, so I also began making eye contact. Over time, people would smile back, and occasionally remember my name.

It felt good, but it didn’t occur to me that a major alteration in my social life had taken place until someone told me: “Ken, everyone likes you.” I was floored. I had no idea. Looking at people, saying hi, and smiling worked.

As an adult, I still walk around with a smile on my face, looking at people as they pass by, often giving them an ever-so-slight additional lift of my cheeks that suggests that I see them, I acknowledge them, and want them to know I am smiling at them. In some towns, this might lead people to immediately avert their gaze, but in Portland, more often than not, I get an immediate, involuntary return smile back. “Made you smile,” I’ll say to myself.

But now we all wear masks when we go outside. It is a deeply depressing time, made more so, so I thought, because we can no longer smile at each other. But I was wrong. The best part of a smile is the smile that comes through the eyes. The slight squint, the lilt of the outer edges, the eyebrow lift, the eye contact.

So I started trying to make eye contact and smiling through my mask as I saw people in the elevator (maintaining 6′ separation) or while walking outside (maintaining at least 6′ separation). To my dismay, no return smiles, no acknowledgment, no eye contact. It was as if I didn’t exist, as if looking at someone else would expose them to the virus.

Somehow, physical separation has inculcated in us a perceived need for social isolation as well. “Social distancing” – a misnomer – has been taken too far, and we have become reluctant to talk to one another, and even acknowledge each other’s existence (except that wary look that says “are you sure you want to take this elevator, maybe you want to take the next one”).

Let me be the first to say this: you cannot catch Covid 19 through eye to eye contact! You cannot catch the Coronavirus through a smile. Acknowledging each other’s existence does not put any of us at risk.

So I am now back to smiling at people I come across, albeit through a mask, and watching in wonder at how much we are able to communicate through our eyes, and hoping against hope that I will get an involuntary smile back. And occasionally, even now, I do.

“Made you smile.”

 

A Humorous Look at Radiation Therapy

Since I had a recurrence of tongue cancer, I will be needing radiation therapy. There is no history of cancer in my family (sorry kids, there is now), so I don’t know much about it, but what from what I have learned so far, it is a riot!

I actually googled “radiation therapy humor” and got things like:

“Mammogramming your boobs is more important than Instagramming them.”

“You must be a photon, ’cause you just took me to an excited state.”

And, “It will make you look radiant!”

I then did some research and found that going through radiation is not all bad.

You lose your sense of taste so losing weight is snap.

They custom fit you for a mask that looks like chain-mail and use it to lock you down on the table so you cannot move. No more wondering what to wear for Halloween parties.

Radiation burns your skin and throat so even if you get a cold or other bug, you won’t notice.

In an era of hunkering down, staying at home, and sheltering in place, it gets you out of the house every day.

Want some Oxy? Noooo problem.

Eating becomes work, and most people lose up to 50 pounds on the radiation therapy diet. Don’t want to work that hard at eating? They’ll stick a feeding tube back in you, and you can lie back and let gravity do the hard part.

The first two weeks are apparently not too bad, but then exhaustion sets in and by the end of the 6 week run, it’s all you can do to go there, come back, and sleep, solving the problem of what to do during the Covid 19 crisis.

My initial appointment to get the mask of terror fitted and determine where to aim the death ray is April 2, and it should be all over by the end of May.

My goal is to finish this process with no feeding tube, no wires, no narcotics, no weight loss, no Coronavirus, and no funeral. As always, prayers and other good Karma gratefully accepted.

One last thing: after radiation comes the after-glow.

 

The Best Part of My Hospital Stay

The best part of my recent hospital stay was trying to get my doctors and nurses to smile. The worst part was everything else.

My mom taught me a lot about grace under difficult conditions. When she was in a nursing home, dying of ALS, she insisted that we always have a box of chocolates on her side table. She could no longer speak, and only had the use of two fingers on one hand, so we had to put the chocolates on her good side. The chocolates were not for her; she could no longer eat. But whenever anyone came into her room, whether a nurse, an aide, a doctor, or a visitor, she would motion them to the side table and silently offer a candy.

Although mom could no longer speak, she could type using her two good fingers on one hand. Speech synthesizers were $25,000, but the first iPads had just come on the market, and I found out that for $5 we could get her an app that would do the same thing. She got to pick her own voice, and she chose a boring, American voice despite my sister and I lobbying for a distinguished British voice.

It is interesting how things come around. As I was recovering from the surgical removal of half of my tongue and unable to speak for the first 3 or 4 days, I remembered what we did for my mom. I had brought my iPad to the hospital and downloaded the latest and best speech app, now $10. Trying out the different voices, I chose the distinguished British voice. I loaded some of the common phrases I would be needing, and every time someone came in I pushed the appropriate button: “Good morning and how ARE you today?” I would then feverishly type responses to all their questions, and my own questions of them, and when they were leaving I would hit “thank you SO very much” in my new Alec Guiness voice. Made them smile every time. Often they would come in just to hear my synthetic voice.

When my tracheostomy was blessedly removed and my voice returned, all the staff wondered if my own voice would sound like Alec Guiness. It did not. It sounded like me. They were only a little bit disappointed.

Chocolates did the trick too. My family brought boxes of them, and I would offer them to the nursing staff. “You know what nurses love!” more than one told me. They often do not have time to take a break or have a meal, but they always have time for a chocolate.

Nurses and aides often go from crisis to crisis, not having time to rest in between or even pee. There is a name for that: nurse’s bladder. They keep holding it in to the point that their bladder expands and they can no longer tell when their body wants them to relieve themselves. They were upset with me if I didn’t pee regularly, exhorting me not to get “nurse’s bladder.” I told them not to worry, I’ve always had long range tanks. “No you don’t,” they replied, “you have what we have.” We bonded over that.

Over the 8 days I was there, I made a point about learning their names, asking about themselves and their families, and when I was allowed to walk I’d smile and wave to them as I did my laps of the ward (11 laps = 1 mile). They’d usually smile and remark on how good I was doing. After one day post-op I was walking more than most patients after 5 days. I came up with names for them (Florence Nightingale, Angel of Mercy, SuperDoc, etc) and they called me SuperPatient or RockStar Patient and lobbied to have me included in their rounds.

My first room was freezing cold, and in fact gave me a cold. When you are struggling for every breath (thanks traecheostomy!) and unable to sleep, a cold is pretty much the worst thing that can happen to you. After a couple of days an engineer came and determined that the heater in my room did not work, and I was moved to another room. Actually, that is an understatement. I was upgraded to the Presidential Suite. The largest room, with the best view: Mt St Helens, Mt Hood, the Willamette River, the beautiful city of Portland.

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The view was staggeringly beautiful. There was even a day bed so that a family member could stay the night, and each of my kids did just that during the first few nights when I was in panic mode over the inability to breathe and could not sleep.

My daughter Kate stayed with me the first, and by far the most dreadful night.

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Did my nurses pull some strings to get me that room? I will never know, or at least, I will never tell.

By the time I left, many of the nursing staff and even one doctor sought me out to say good-bye and give me a hug.

That was the best part of my stay.

 

Home!

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No more feeding tube.

No more tracheotomy.

No more panic gasping for breath.

No more IV.

No more electronic tongue monitor.

No more waking up every hour for vitals.

Cleared to take food (liquids only at first) by mouth weeks before planned.

Able to talk.

No more having to communicate by pad and iPad.

Still waiting for pathology reports that will determine any need for radiation.

But..home!

I can see clearly now

My cancer buddy Ted, who had the same cancer as I but whose first surgery is so far his last, just wrote: “I’m at an event where this song was playing, and my heart went out to you.”

He knew it was my favorite song, my theme song, a song that sometimes reflects where I am in life but other times spurs my aspirations and gives me hope. He sent me this link:

Tomorrow I will be in the hands of the surgeons. I’m lucky to have a great medical team in whom I have complete confidence. About this time tomorrow it will be over, and I will already be healing. So no worries. And if you do think of me tomorrow, think of this song.

Ted, you brought a tear to my eye.

But a good tear.

Nightmares

A curious thing has happened. I don’t normally have nightmares, but I am getting nightmares.

I’ve already forgotten most of them, but one from a couple of days ago was so clear and so vivid, I still remember the details. I was watching a Piper Cherokee take off with full flaps. The nose kept going up and up, full power, an unsustainable angle, and the inevitable happened. The plane peeled over and headed straight for the ground…toward me. I watched as the inevitable crash was about to occur, except the plane did not hit me. It just glanced over me. I did not wake up. The crash happened, there was a loud noise, a hole in the ground, and the wreck came to rest a few hundred feet beyond. Then I woke up, my stomach in knots.

My daughter said that I should take an anti-anxiety pill before I go to bed, so I called the pre-op nurse and asked about it. She paused, measured her words, and said “Ken, it is perfectly normal for someone in your situation to have this kind of stress. You are about to go through a very rough procedure.” I thought for a moment. “Oh. Yeah. That makes sense. OK, no worries, and thanks.” That was all I needed, to know that it was natural, that I was OK, nothing was wrong, it’s just how we’re programmed.

I’ve been wondering if it was like this for pilots in WWII who knew a major raid was approaching. They would know that it could be bad, and they could well die or get seriously hurt or be captured, but on the other hand they might come back without a scratch. I know it’s going to be bad, but I also know I won’t die. So which is worse? The known which is bad, or the unknown which could be much worse, or not. I wonder which would generate bigger nightmares.

Of course, those steely eyed WWII movie heroes never had nightmares, although the privates and corporals they commanded certainly did. A good slap in the face seemed to do the trick. Maybe I need someone to come over at 6am every morning and give me a good slap. I’d make the offer except I’m afraid there would be too many takers.

Here is the interesting thing. Once I’m up and around, I accept that this is where I am and that this is what has to happen, and I can function. But in that foggy land between sleep and wake, the transition from the dreamy state where nothing bad can happen to me to the semi-awake condition where the worries of life are magnified, my mind roils at what is coming up. Sometimes it says “no, let’s not do this anymore, this is not fun, let’s go back to Arizona for the rest of the winter, we were having fun there.” And other times it’s just “NO!!!” My heart races, warmth is carried throughout my body, the covers are thrown, I move, I toss. And then – blessedly – I wake up, start focusing on the tasks that need to be done, work the problem.

And then I’m OK.

Note: A heart-felt thank you to all my well-wishers who have extended encouragement and requested that I keep wasting their time with updates now and then. I will keep updating the blog after surgery, although I’ll be under some pretty heavy medication. Come to think of it, the blog might actually be the better for it.

Cancer: Round Two

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This blog was never intended to be about me. It was about all the interesting people I met, and things I saw and experienced, while traveling around North America in a motorhome towing a Jeep. Unfortunately, cancer de tongue intervened last summer, and way, way too much of this blog since then has been about my cancer journey. When I was found to be cancer-free, I was looking forward to never having to write about me again.
Alas, as readers of my last post know, cancer-free does not always mean free of cancer. I am the proof.
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To those who read this blog to find out what fun things we have been doing lately, stop now. This post is not that.
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To those who know me and want to find out what is happening with my second round with cancer, here is more information than you could rationally want to know. Feel free to hit the delete key. I support your decision and, frankly, will never know.
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One week ago, a biopsy confirmed that I have tongue cancer once again. On March 5, one-half of my tongue will be removed (a hemispheric glossectomy), and replaced with tissue from my arm to fill in the part that is missing (a “free flap reconstruction”). The new portion will have no function other than to exist. It will not move on its own, there will be no muscles in it, no taste buds – it will simply go along for the ride, but there is a medical consensus that it is better to have it than not. They will also perform a neck section, basically removing the lymph nodes in the neck.
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The surgery will last about 8 hours and I will remain in the hospital about a week. The reconstruction will be done through the neck, and to avoid problems with swelling they will do a tracheotomy so I can breathe regardless. The trake will likely come out before I am released from the hospital. I will have a feeding tube for about a week or possibly more. A speech pathologist will be actively involved in my recovery, mostly to help learn how to swallow again. Speech comes later. I will have no voice for the first 2 or 3 days. After that, I should be able to mumble; within 2 or 3 weeks I should be able to communicate intelligibly. There is a lot of variability in how people recover from this, but I am hopeful that I will be able to articulate and enunciate almost as good as now, but there is no way to know. There is a separate recovery path for the arm since they will be removing not only skin but also an artery. Typing may be a one-handed process for a while, but ultimately it should heal well with some physical therapy.
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Radiation will likely be recommended, but that is a decision for later not now, in part depending on what they find during surgery. Based on the side effects, both during and after radiation (loss of taste and enjoyment of food and drink are among them), I will have to give that a lot of thought. Hopefully the surgery will be so successful, and the margins and lymphatic tissue so clear, that they will not recommend it.
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No question about it, this is not going to be fun. But the clock will continue to turn, the dates on the calendar will change, and by April or May life should be getting back to a new normal. In 2 or 3 months, my surgeon expects I will be healthy enough to get back on the road again. That was better than I was expecting.
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In the meantime, I still have a lot of notes from past trips, so who knows? Maybe I can still crank out a post every now and then about past trips until I can start traveling once again, writing stories about the fascinating people I have met and interesting things I have seen.
Good-bye for now, but not forever.
Ken
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Persistence

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My stupid cancer has returned. This picture has nothing to do with that. Just thought something beautiful would be appropriate here.
The good news is that after this next surgery, I should finally be able to talk and eat again without pain. Even Mexican food. Especially Mexican food!
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Cancer-free, it seems, does not mean free of cancer. It means a scan cannot detect it. The scans after the first surgery led to the magic words: “you are cancer-free.” Apparently though, some lingering cells, undetected by the scans, got busy and decided to throw another party in my tongue.
We caught this second cancer early. Re-excision (the next surgery) will involve removing the cancer and some additional tissue around it. They may need to do some reconstruction of my tongue by importing tissue from somewhere else. I was thinking about James Earl Jones – I wouldn’t mind sounding like him – but they say it has to be from my own body.

The lesson from all of this is the value of persistence. Never, never, never give up. (The actual quote from Churchill is “Never give in, never, never, never–never, in nothing, great or small, large or petty–never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.”) Take it from me or take it from Winston, the point is the same: persistence.
Persistence: First, of course, just because you have cancer (again), don’t throw in the towel. Just get busy and and do what has to be done. Work the problem, as they say in the flying business. But second, don’t take no for an answer. The first time around, after 5 health professionals had told me they didn’t know what it was but it was not cancer, the 6th took me more seriously and found it. This time around, a biopsy and scan in the Fall did not detect it. But as the symptoms started worsening in the last month (pain on contact with food or teeth, and sensitivity to spicy food) I pursued it relentlessly so that the people in masks with surgical knives in their hands can now go back in and kick all the remaining party-goers out of my mouth.
We have some logistical issues. Our home is in Portland, we and our motorhome are currently in Phoenix, and the potential places where I might have the surgery are in Portland, Tucson, and Houston. Time is of the essence; this is not a cancer that patiently waits until surgery is convenient. So, it is time to get busy. Work the problem.
But not to worry avid readers, I am fine. I was prepared either way. Disappointed yes, but not discouraged. After all, I have Mexican food to look forward to again when I get past all this.
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Dispatch from the Field: Searching for Aliens in Roswell, New Mexico

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I came to Roswell in search of aliens. If I was the head of tourism in Roswell, I would be inclined to promote the connection. This of course is where the little green men were taken after their flying saucer crashed in 1947. But to my surprise, Roswell instead prides itself on being the Dairy Capital of the Southwest.

I went to the local Starbucks to find out where the little green men were, and met Leah instead:

IMG_4682Leah works at the Electric Coop which supplies the power needed to keep the little green men refrigerated until the authorities can figure out what to do with them. Instead of Roswell, she encouraged me to go to Artesia instead. “They have statues all over the downtown, plus a great craft brewery.” I asked her where to find it and she replied “it’s half way between the aliens and Carlsbad Caverns.”

I asked her if people around here are getting tired of being known only for the UFO/alien connection. She said “kind of, but there are a lot of big companies that are leaving the area and we’re trying to focus on tourism to bring people in.” I told her they could sure do a better job of it, and told her about the decrepit sign coming into town that says “Welcome to Roswell – Dairy Capital of the Southwest.”

Instead of going to Artesia, I went to the Farmer’s Country Market (motto: “Better Meats And Produce Than Any Whole Foods”) where I met Richard. Playing guitar in front of the store is what he does; he especially likes it when kids come by and watch, and listen. He has schizophrenia, but he’s OK because of the meds he takes. I told him never stop taking them; I have heard too many horror stories from friends and clients about loved ones who did quit. He said he lives on his disability payments, and does this for beer and cigarette money. He agreed to let me take his photo and I gave him some money. “This is for beer not cigarettes” I told him.

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By mid-morning my search for aliens was unsuccessful, but I had worked up an appetite. At the Cowboy Cafe, they pride themselves on comfort food. My breakfast consisted of a bowl of gravy, a bowl of grits, scrambled eggs, a biscuit, chicken fried steak and – their specialty – chicken fried bacon. I am not kidding. Fry up some thick-sliced bacon, then dip it in batter, then deep fry it again. It’s in the upper right of the photo below.

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I did finally find aliens – at the UFO Museum in downtown Roswell.

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Proof positive that aliens exist:

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Proof positive that aliens visited ancient cultures and made doors for the inhabitants:

Proof positive that aliens prefer Coke:

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The museum actually contains a substantial number of fascinating exhibits, artifacts, and lore. They take no position on the existence or non-existence of extra-terrestrials, but present a lot of evidence that gave pause to my skeptical predisposition.

So, despite the wonderful resources in the museum, and my own personal search, which consisted of looking around the RV park, I never did find an actual extra-terrestrial in Roswell.

But I did find one back home in Oregon, where in McMinnville they host an annual UFO Festival (motto: “Second Only to the Roswell UFO Festival”). Judy, below, had recently adopted this baby alien, and everyone in the coffee shop took turns holding it. The next festival is May 14-16, 2020.

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Dispatch from the Field: Houston – art deco wonderland in a city with no planning, a graffiti artist paints a jet and the city pays him to do it, and what is a Kolache?

The 1940 Air Terminal Museum

Anything goes in Houston. You want a build a tractor dealership right next to a residential subdivision, go ahead. I know. I saw it. “Dear, will you pick up the kids from school today? I have to walk over and pick up the John Deere.”

Oddly, the same town that allows you to build anything anywhere has done a great job preserving its art deco buildings from the mass execution of which most communities are guilty. Preservation Houston has a website (http://www.houstondeco.org) and has published a book detailing over 100 examples that still remain.

Case in point: the original Houston Municipal Airport Terminal still exists as a museum dedicated to preserving its art deco architecture and commemorating aviation in Texas. It is named, appropriately, the “1940 Air Terminal Museum.”

When I walked in, there were three volunteers, which was exactly three times the number of visitors, including me, they had had all day. I thought I’d take a quick look around and then go grab a Kolache but volunteer John insisted on giving me a personal tour. John used to work in upper management at Continental, which had been based here, but retired when he found out they were merging with United. My retired airline pilot readers will understand.

He told me that the airport, actually just a field back then, was started in 1920. In the 1930’s Howard Hughes was based here, and had a number of hangars filled with the best and most modern airplanes. One of them was the plane he flew on a record-breaking flight around the world in 1938. The City was so proud of his accomplishment, and the fact that he built and paid for their first control tower, they named the airport after him. That lasted for less than a year. On learning that they would lose all their federal funding if they kept the name, they changed it back to Houston Municipal Airport.

The terminal building was completed in 1940, but almost died in the late 1970s when the new international airport was built about a hundred miles north of town. A small group of people worked hard to preserve the old terminal and use it to showcase things like a quilt made by Continental employees/spouses memorializing the airline before its death, err, I mean merger. Each quilter took a segment, and it was then sewed together. The flags represent each country where Continental had flown.

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The picture does not do it justice. It covers an entire wall.

My favorite artifact was a model of the Cessna 310 airplane flown by Sky King in the tv series of the same name. John said the 310 was actually Songbird 2; the original Songbird was a WW II Cessna T-50 that was used to train navigators. Made of wood and fabric it was derisively referred to as the Bamboo Bomber. John asked if I remembered the niece’s name on the show. “Sure, Penny. Do you remember the dog’s name?” I asked. He didn’t, but neither did I. I told John that I loved the show as a kid, but when I watched a DVD of it a few years ago I thought it was terminally lame.

When John agreed that I could take his photo, I told him I’d like to take it in front of his favorite artifact, and he chose the original rotating beacon from the control tower Howard Hughes built in 1929:

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I was puzzled why chose that until he told me why. He said you can tell it’s from Texas because there are two bullet holes in it.

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Ahh Texas, the land of concealed weapons and open carry. Yet, just about every building has a sign at the entrance that says you may NOT legally bring in a firearm even if you have a permit to do so. So it seems Texas is the land where you can bring a gun anywhere unless you can’t.

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As I was leaving, volunteer Larry asked if I wanted to see some things they have locked up in a hangar nearby. I jumped at the chance. On our way, he showed me one of the most interesting pieces of public art I had ever seen. This is Larry, the 1940 terminal building in the back, leaning on a painting that was created on a business jet:

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The story behind this amazing piece of art displays a hipness I had not expected from Houston. There is an artist around Houston, whose real name is Mario Figueroa Jr., but is better known as GONZO247, who “strives to educate communities through engagement, advocacy, and street art /mural tours in order to promote the positive aspects of the…art form.” Meaning, he’s a graffiti artist.

The museum acquired a decommissioned jet, and with a grant from the city, commissioned Gonzo to transform it. “When I first saw the jet, I couldn’t believe that it was going to be my canvas! I have transformed cars and even beer silos, but this is a project of a whole different scale.”

Here’s Gonzo in front of the canvas before painting began:

 

Gonzo at work:

Mario Figueroa Jr., aka GONZO247, has been busy painting a 1969 Hawker jet near the 1940 Air Terminal Museum.

Now if they commissioned Gonzo to paint the terminal building, well there you would have something.

Larry took me to an inauspicious building and opened the door to what turned out to be the oldest hangar on the field. There was a treasure trove of artifacts. He showed me air traffic control equipment that had been the state of the art when I was learning to fly but now looks like it was built by Thomas Edison. There was an old Model A fuel truck, simulators from decades ago, and other oddball items. He saved the best for last: Sky King’s original Songbird – a Cessna Bamboo Bomber. The real deal, not a model. If only the tv series wasn’t so dorky, I’d watch it all over again to see Sky King’s old airplanes.

One other thing Houston has preserved from its ethnic past – Kolaches. Never heard of them? Me neither, so off to the Kolache Factory I went.

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Kind of like a Beerock or a Calzone or a Verenika, if you took any of those and rolled it up in a ball. The dough was tasty just on its own, but you have your choice of any number of fillings. I had bacon, egg and cheese, but I was tempted by the Texas twist on a Czech specialty – the Brisket Kolache. Next time. Which might be tomorrow.

(11/14/19)