Mutant Tractor Explosion

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Sharon Everman, a grandmother, gives the little old lady from Pasadena a run for her money. -Photo by Juliana Schatz

Now that winter has settled in, it’s nice to think of warmth; of summer. If cold doesn’t keep you indoors, chances are good that darkness will. But don’t fret. All of those beach days and long, warm evenings and fun, energetic summer activities are a mere half a year away!

The fairer season is also fair time. Rural agricultural fairs have graced the American landscape since Thomas Jefferson was president. But the champion of small farms and tranquil agrarian life never could’ve foreseen how fairs would evolve. Perfect tomatoes and prize goats still highlight agricultural ingenuity and a healthy spirit of competition. But the horse-drawn weight pulling matches created more than 200 years ago as a show of draft horse prowess are now a sideshow to the ear-splitting, smoke-belching, dirt-flinging main event: the tractor pull. You may not agree that the tractor pull is the most important or most interesting thing to see at a fair (after all, the dock-jumping dogs are cute, you can find anything under the sun battered and deep-fried, and for the fellas, there’s no shortage of Daisy Duke-clad young ladies running around) but it’s the first thing you hear when you arrive in the parking lot, and the only thing to reach your ears within a 300-yard radius of the track.

Someone's prize chicken; proof positive that agriculture can produce fine specimen. -Photo by Benjamin Preston

The reason why these souped-up tractors shake the earth as they scream by–dragging sleds that weigh several thousand pounds–is because of the incredible amount of power they put out. The object of the race is to drag a heavy sled farther than all the other drivers. There’s a variety of different weight and engine configurations grouped into classes: Super stock, super farm, and modified. Super stock and super farm entries still look like tractors and only have one engine each. The gas-powered models roar like small race cars, and the diesel rigs spew thick, aggressive clouds of black smoke into the air as their multiple-turbo-ed engines wind up for the big push, er pull. And yes, that’s right. I said only one engine each. Modified class machines–which don’t resemble tractors at all, but look like something a spiky-haired Road Warrior villain wearing nothing but chaps and a camo hunting vest would drive to steal a tanker truck–can have two, even three supercharged race car engines. The various arrangements include placing engines side by side, all in a row, crank to crank, or even pointing in different directions. I don’t have to tell you what three blown big blocks running simultaneously at wide open throttle sounds like. Your brains actually vibrate. Some racers have their rigs set up with gas turbines and V-12 Allison aircraft motors (there really are no restrictions other than the “tractor’s” weight), but those seem as quiet as tiptoeing church mice next to the multiple gas engine configurations.

One of Granny's blown Hemis done blowed up! -Photo by Juliana Schatz

All of these impressive machines turned up at the Hebron Harvest Fair in Central Connecticut last summer, courtesy of the New York Tractor Pullers Association. Most of the drivers were what you would expect: middle-aged guys, sponsored by family and friends (and, occasionally, race shops and farm implement supply houses) who built their tractors from scratch. But Wild Hare, an entry from the modified class kitted out with two supercharged 526 Hemis, was piloted by a housewife/grandmother named Sharon Everman. Go granny go! Well, granny went, making a very strong showing until a loud bang and a huge ball of flame sounded the death knell of the front Hemi. “That was not cheap folks,” the announcer said in his broad New England accent. But a 16 year-old trumped even the grandma. In his first ever race, Matt Ferry, a dairy farmer from Westport, Massachusetts, nearly beat everyone in the last modified run of the day. The crowd cheered hysterically, but behind the grins and screams of encouragement, there probably wasn’t a man there who didn’t wish his dad had been cool enough to buy him a racing tractor.

Just ‘Cause

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A USMC drill instructor supervises recruits on Chosin Range, Parris Island, S.C. 2006. DoD photo via WikiCommons

Summer had arrived, but without the promise of beach vacations and lazy days at my parents’ neighborhood pool. In all my 21-year-old wisdom, I’d signed up for a different kind of summer camp. Uncle Sam’s camouflage gun club, as the recruiters liked to call it; the United States Marine Corps. September 11, 2001, and consequently, any immediate concern about having to go to war, was still more than a year in the future. Bad guys were an abstract concept — a memory held by thirty-somethings who had served during that brief, victorious flash called Operation Desert Storm. Sweating quietly on the concrete floor between two long rows of steel bunk beds, 79 camouflage-clad bodies with awkwardly shorn heads waited for fate to emerge from behind a closed, red-painted steel door at the front of the room. An anxiety more paramount than the distant possibility of combat existed in the heavy, humid air; namely, how mean were these guys really going to be?

Thirty-six sleepless hours earlier, we had all stumbled through the muggy darkness along a set of yellow footprints painted on the sidewalk, moving though a gauntlet of screaming drill instructors into the world of Marine Corps recruits at Parris Island, South Carolina. As we were to learn, those particular screamers were only there to supervise the shaving of heads and the distribution of various olive drab-colored personal items. Now, beneath the glare of fluorescent lights, we all stared at the door, waiting to meet the men who would control our lives over the next three months.

September 11, 2001; the day everything changed. National Park Service image

June, a month known for relentless heat and humidity in South Carolina’s coastal region, had only just begun. From somewhere in the ceiling, a tired air conditioner belched unevenly but did little to counteract the heat generated by the musty mass of recruits assembled beneath it. Our processing sergeants glowered past us, uninterested in the pathetic green lumps seated on the floor. Just then, with an abrupt metallic shudder, the battered metal door of the office flew open, and four men in crisp khaki shirts, creased green trousers, and the obligatory Smokey Bear hats – canted forward at a pugnacious angle – strode into the room in single file. Stopping in front of us, they turned sharply on their heels, facing us with expressionless eyes staring at some fixed point above our heads and far, far away. A disgusted-looking young officer walked over from the office, exchanged salutes with them, said something to the effect of, “They’re yours now,” and disappeared.

The processing sergeants filed out of the room with excruciating slowness, their heels tapping the floor in unison as they marched out of our lives. Nothing happened for a solid minute. Without moving my head, I scrutinized the stony faces of our new drill instructors, looking for some little sign of what to expect. For the most part, their features told very little about who they were or what they thought of us. But one of them, a stocky, brown-skinned man about 5’7” tall, seemed a little different. Almost imperceptibly, his eyes dropped a little, scanning the rows of freshly shaved heads. I couldn’t be sure, but his dark eyes looked as if they were smiling. The amused, ghoulish glimmer I thought I saw reminded me of fellow pranksters from my recently-departed college days.

There wasn’t much time to dwell on that, though. The small, pink-skinned man in the middle of the group – the only one wearing a shiny black belt – stepped forward, relaying his first order to us in a low voice. His blue eyes were scarcely visible from beneath the brim of his campaign hat. He spoke carefully, deliberately, weaving suspense into his words. We were to get up, walk over to the footlockers at the end of our bunks, and pull out a pair of black socks.

“Ready…MOVE!”

Drill Instructor Staff Sgt. Kevin Zefina does what DI's do best. 2005. Photo by Cpl. Shawn Toussaint

The previous silence erupted into a din of shouting as stiff kneed drill instructors stalked briskly about the room, haphazardly attacking recruits with pointed index fingers and screams of displeasure. Utter chaos was accompanied by faces contorted into various masks of fear and misery. Mentally, I detached from my own body, as if I were floating above the other recruits who were scurrying around their bunks, ripping gear from footlockers and bumping into M16 rifles dangling from their slings on the bedposts. Nobody seemed able to put anything in the right place. Suddenly, a brown index finger poked between my eyes, popping my daydream bubble. The finger’s owner snarled commands at me faster than I could comprehend them. Spit flew from his mouth, some of it landing on my cheek, but I didn’t dare wipe it away. He wore the stripes of a buck sergeant. “Haney,” read the nameplate above his left shirt pocket.

Over the next week or so, we, the ever sweaty (and, since we only had three sets of uniforms, increasingly smelly) recruits of Platoon 2070, Hotel Company, 2nd Recruit Training Battalion, learned to figure out who was who in our quartet of martial trainers. Staff Sergeant Weeks, a tall, thin man with one eye always squinting was the sadist. There was nothing we could do to diminish his desire to make us feel pain. Sergeant Haney, the youngest of the four, and closest in age to us (the oldest guy in the platoon was 24), seemed to have the job of making people laugh so we could be hauled off to the sand pits for “developmental exercise” — getting smoked. A beefy blond staff sergeant named Tolley, who looked not unlike Biff from Back to the Future, occupied some sort of wild card role (no one ever really knew what he was up to, possibly not even him). Staff Sergeant Charles Grey — the one with the black patent leather belt — was the senior drill instructor. Grey, as we soon found out, was relatively lenient. But whenever he departed our presence, we found ourselves at Staff Sgt. Weeks’ mercy, face down on the concrete floor doing endless pushups, or holding our rifles out by the barrels until our arms shuddered with pain and weakness. Who knew 7.8-pounds of blued steel and plastic could be so heavy!

Of all of them, we spent the most time with Sgt. Haney. As the junior of the drill instructors, he usually herded us about to various mundane administrative appointments. One of his many jobs was to teach us about Marine Corps history, a responsibility in which he delighted.

“Any you mothafuckas know who Manuel Noriega was?” he asked as we stood in line for chow one afternoon. “He was a bad guy we got rid of with Operation Just Cause. Just ‘cause he’s an asshole – that’s how you remember it.”

For a few hours most mornings, we sat in a cavernous lecture hall called the Recruit Training Facility, trying to stay awake as some guy who looked like Beavis and Butthead’s gym teacher screamed at us about military history and traditions. Sgt Haney had little rhymes and acronyms for everything to help us remember facts and keep them straight. He quizzed us at every opportunity, encouraging us to shout answers louder and louder until our voices were hoarse. Kickin’ knowledge, he called it. Tun Tavern, 1776; Archibald Henderson, the grand old man of the Marine Corps; from the halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli; Okinawa; Hue City; Honor, Courage, Commitment, God, Country, Corps, Kill, Kill, Kill! All the things marines know.

“I’m like your big brother,” he told us one day during a history lesson. “I want you mothafuckas to learn this shit cold, else big brother’s gonna beat. Yo. Ass.”

Sgt. Haney was hilarious. It was difficult not to laugh at the things he did and said. His jokes were spontaneous; they were targets of opportunity. One day, as we stood in formation by the roadside, he stopped in his tracks. He’d just noticed that a member of our platoon bore an uncanny resemblance to Sylvester Stallone.

“This mothafucka looks like ROCKY.” His eyes narrowed and his lower lip protruded as his face lunged forward, scrutinizing the recruit’s features. “Lemme hear you say, ‘Adrian!’ mothafucka!”

It took a few tries, but on the third one, the poor bastard was wailing the woman’s name just as mournfully as Rocky Balboa himself. A handful of guys couldn’t help snickering and laughing out loud. They were promptly escorted to the sand box, the dreaded crotch of our H-shaped barracks where the disobedient and unlucky went to get smoked beneath relentless southern sunshine. Later, they returned covered head to toe with sand and dirt, sweating profusely, mouths agape on grotesque masks of agony, and walking with the drop-shouldered list of the utterly exhausted.

On another occasion, he asked a recruit – a really young guy – a question. The kid stuttered in reply.

“B-b-b-b-SHUT the fuck up!” he screamed. “If you was a machine gun, you’da wiped out the whole fuckin’ platoon by now!” More open laughter, albeit less this time.

The trick was learning to laugh without laughing – without even moving. Marines who lose their composure and laugh, sneeze, swat or scratch can get killed. Sgt. Haney kept cracking jokes, and we mastered our laughter. Eventually, mirth became hidden behind hard, impenetrable veneers.

Senior Drill Instructor Sgt. Kenneth Morgan inspects his squad bay. 2007. USMC photo by Cpl. Justin Shemanski

Sometimes, without even realizing it, Sgt. Haney was simply good entertainment. There was a large window between the office and the squad bay (the large room in which all 79 of us resided) that the drill instructors used to observe us. Usually, the steel blinds were closed, and from time to time, when we least expected it, they would snap open with a loud ZZHHHTT! Staff Sgt. Weeks was especially fond of that maneuver, as he liked to catch people slacking off in the corners where they thought no one could see. But little did the drill instructors know that we watched them through that window, too. It happened to be right next to my bunk, so until the drill instructor on duty for the night finally turned out the lights and went to bed, I was bathed in a filtered fluorescent glow as I lay there beneath my scratchy green wool blanket trying to imagine I was someplace else.

One of the nights when it was Sgt. Haney’s turn to babysit, I noticed that he had closed the blinds’ louvers the wrong way, and not tightly enough. They were tilted up on my side of the window, sloping down toward where he sat at the desk. Looking into the brightly lit room from the darkened squad bay, I could watch his every move through the gaps unobserved, like someone checking out a police lineup. I called over a few of my buddies, and we huddled around the window, giggling quietly and congratulating one another on our good luck. For a while, we watched him play a computer game. The screen faced us, but I don’t recall which game it was — some spaceship shooting game. As was usually the case, his lower lip was clenched between his teeth, lower jaw distended. Occasionally, he’d make a kill and wince, releasing his lip long enough to hiss, “Yeah!” or “Git some!” under his breath.

After a while, Haney lost interest in the game, and stared at the empty desktop for a minute before pulling open one of the desk’s side drawers. Shuffling through a stack of papers inside, he found what he was looking for, and slid it out of the drawer, placing it before himself gingerly. Porn. Not Playboy, not even Hustler, but one of those really raunchy ones you get in packs of three for five bucks at an adult store. He leafed carefully through the magazine’s pages, occasionally pausing to nod his approval of one of the ladies inside. Eventually, he made it to the middle, and picked up the magazine so that he could spread out the centerfold and get a good look. He held the extended picture vertically, one hand grasping the picture’s top edge and one holding onto the bottom, arms extended. In went the lower lip, out went the jaw. After another admiring nod, he released his lip long enough to mouth the words, “Aw yeah.” silently, almost reverently.

By this time, at least eight or ten guys crowded around the window to see what all the fun was, and those of us in the front row clutched our bellies and bit our lips to avoid laughing out loud and betraying our position. Seeing that the group had grown too large for safety — I didn’t even want to think about what would happen to us if we were caught spying on a drill instructor — I began swatting people away, ordering them back to their bunks as if I were the drill instructor.

Whether he was being funny or serious, Sgt. Haney clearly cared about the job of turning us into marines. Our lives could depend upon it someday. Although his jaw almost always jutted out, effecting a menacing, bulldog-like grimace, we knew where his heart lay. Platoon 2070 began kickin’ knowledge louder and more confidently. Sgt. Haney’s face remained hard, but you could feel him beaming and see his chest puff up with pride. As a group, we missed getting the highest history test score in the company by a few points. As the results were read, the guys at the front of the platoon later reported that they’d seen tears in his eyes. He’d expected us to win the first place trophy.

What Sgt. Haney wanted from us could be boiled down to a simple phrase: Do what the fuck you’re told. As we stood in a column of twos in the restroom one morning, waiting for the command to fill our canteens, he paced back and forth in front of us. He made contact with every single pair of eyes and spoke just loud enough for us to hear him.

“Make sure you mothafuckas fill that canteen ALL the way up. I don’t wanna hear no bubbles in the top when I shake it. I’ma check every one, and if I hear any space in the top, I’ma PUNCH you in your chest.”

We filled our canteens. Sgt. Haney grabbed the first one, tuning his head to the side as he raised it to his ear. Biting his lip in anticipation, he gave it a vigorous shake. No bubbles. He handed the canteen back, nodding his head slightly with approval. A few more recruits passed the canteen test without incident. Inevitably, one guy hadn’t filled his all the way. The sloshing water was audible from the back of the line as he turned to face the unfortunate recruit. Still biting his lower lip, his eyes widened, as if to say, “Oh yeah, mothafucka?” A brief pause, and then, BAM! Haney thrust the canteen into the guy’s chest, nearly knocking him over. The offender stepped back into line with a fit of wheezing and coughing.

“I TOL’ you mothafuckas – FULL!”

Marines in Al-Anbar Province, Iraq. 2005. USMC image by Sgt. Michael Blaha

Drill instructors are short on time and patience, and once, Sgt. Haney’s temper got the best of him. He was suspended from duty for a week after a recruit complained to the series commander (the disgusted-looking young officer) that Haney had slammed him into a wall locker or something. I didn’t see it happen. It was a plausible story, but I also had to wonder what the guy had done to deserve getting checked. Not getting on Haney’s bad side wasn’t rocket science, and most of us really didn’t want to disappoint him anyway.

I never got the chance to march across the parade deck with the rest of my platoon on graduation day. A weird nerve injury had incapacitated motor function on my right arm. The civilian doctors in Charleston said it was an obscure hereditary disease and the navy doctors on base said it wasn’t their problem. So, the military paperwork monster spit me out a month later. I was back at home, not quite sure what to do with myself. That didn’t stop me from driving the ten hours back to Parris Island to see my friends graduate a couple of weeks later, at the end of August.

Recruits marched stiffly across the parade deck in formation. The band played a march and the ceremony concluded. The column of khaki-shirted new marines dissolved into the open arms of mothers, fathers, siblings and girlfriends. Sgt. Haney stood off to one side, chatting with family members. I walked up to say hello, and his face cracked into a broad smile – the first time I’d ever seen him break character.

“Wassup dog?” he asked, pumping my hand like I was some long-lost buddy.

“I’m trying to come back, Drill Instructor Sgt. Haney.”

I’d kept my hair cut short, but the top had grown in. My fingernails were clean and I wore pressed khaki trousers and a starched polo shirt. The last time he’d seen me, my head had head was awkwardly fuzzy from one of those ten second recruit haircuts, and my sweaty body had been cloaked in a rumpled, stained camouflage uniform. Slowly, it dawned on him who I was, and the drill instructor facade returned. He squeezed my hand one last time before letting go.

“Alright.” His jaw thrust out as he nodded, and our eyes met one last time.

I never saw him again, and from what I heard from the one guy I maintained contact with, a lot of those guys ended up in Iraq little more than a year later. When we had signed on the dotted line, joining the military was just a job with few other implications. Even though we knew that joining the military meant that we could someday have to fight, it wasn’t immediate. War was something from history books; what fathers and grandfathers had done, but that probably wouldn’t happen to us. All that changed in a day. From that seemingly harmless summer, many young men and women unknowingly took the first step into one of the longest wars in American history.

Dispatches from a Manhattan Synagogue

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Coursework at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism has taken me a variety of places within New York City’s intricate cultural patchwork. One class in particular — Ari Goldman’s “Covering Religion” course — brings me closer to one of the most personal facets of peoples’ lives; worship. Here are some of my observations from an afternoon of Torah study and Hebrew songs.

Pointing at Parsha

It’s Saturday evening at the Manhattan Sephardic Congregation on the Upper East Side. The cantor, Marc Hazan, begins singing in Hebrew, marking the day with Minha and Arvit, the afternoon and evening prayers. His voice lilts in tones not unlike the Muslim muezzin who calls Islamic faithful to prayer. This is not surprising considering that for much of their history, Sephardic Jews inhabited parts of the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula dominated by Islamic cultures.

Congregants fill the long, narrow sanctuary as the last rays of sunshine disappear over the horizon outside. At certain points along the stream of singing and chanting, others join Hazan. Most of the men crowd around a heavy wooden lectern in the center of the room, facing toward the large, curtain-covered cabinet in which the Torah scrolls are housed — the hekhal, or ark. Now and again, fleeting glimpses of the tops of women’s heads can be seen over the high rail of the balcony overhead.

When the singing seems to have reached its critical mass, three men move toward the hekhal, pausing in front of it as the ornamental curtain covering its doors is pushed to the side. Singing continues. With the doors swung open, one of several velvet-caped, silver-crowned Torah scrolls is selected from inside the cabinet, and the trio of men slowly parade the sacred text around the room, giving everyone a change to kiss it, or reach out with a hand and touch it so that the hand may be kissed. More singing. After another brief pause in front of the desk facing the hekhal, there is a brief silence. The highlight of the service has arrived. Removing first the Torah’s crown and then its heavily embroidered cape, the scroll is unsheathed and held vertically in the air. What happens next only lasts for a few seconds, but time seems to stand still. The two ends of the scroll are rolled slightly to the side, revealing a long, narrow strip of intricately-penned Hebrew characters. One man from the processional trio extends his hand toward a specific point in the text, little finger extended toward the week’s portion, or parsha. Suddenly, everyone in the room has a pinkie finger zeroed in on the parsha. Feminine pinkie fingers, arms, and faces retreat from their hiding place behind the balcony’s rail. For a moment, the sanctuary resembles a picture of a magnet surrounded by long, slender iron filings.

Almost as soon as it happens, the moment disappears, but the image is indelible. With the Torah passage thus highlighted, reading begins in earnest, bookending another week’s Sabbath.

* * * * *


Judiac Judicial Wisdom

Saturday, the Sabbath, was jam-packed with opportunities to learn and pray. During the day, worshippers at the Manhattan Sephardic Synagogue — west of Central Park in New York City — pored over verses from the Torah, the Talmud, and various other scholarly works. Songs were sung and the Torah scroll read from. Now, sunset is long gone and the congregation has moved upstairs for the edible portion of this weekly celebration. Two long tables stretch the length of the narrow room, the men at one and the women at the other. Prayers are recited, bread is broken, and people break off into small, chatter-filled groups. This being a Sephardic group, some of the congregants are from Morocco, France, and even Iraq. There is no shortage of Francophone conversation. Some find a quiet corner in which to scour a prayer book alone.

Slowly, a distinguished-looking older gentleman disengages himself from a lively conversation and makes his way to a lectern at the front of the hall. He clears his throat, but much of the conversation continues. He begins speaking in a soft, patient voice, and eventually gets everyone’s attention. All eyes are on him as the room quiets down. This is retired New York Supreme Court Judge Jerome Hornblass, and he will deliver the D’var Torah, a talk connecting the week’s Torah portion to everyday life. The topic for this week, taken from the book of Exodus, is law and justice. Who better to discuss law and justice than a judge?

Hornblass zeroes in on the topic of capital punishment. Although not currently in vogue in New York State, the practice has made a resurgence in other states. The judge points out that in Jewish law, which the book of Exodus spells out in detail, capital punishment is only possible under certain conditions. There have to be two kosher (which is to say credible) eyewitnesses to the crime. The perpetrator must have been warned before he commits the punishable act, that what he is doing will lead to his conviction and execution. No circumstantial evidence is permitted. In this way, explains Hornblass, every reasonable doubt can be expunged. Otherwise, the death penalty is not allowed — under Jewish law.

Moving his narrative from the biblical world to the current one, Hornblass compares the Jewish law with the ones used in modern courts. Devices are in place to protect the innocent from wrongful conviction, but not to the extent seen in Jewish law as interpreted by Talmudic rabbis. Thus, he says, can Jews be a light unto the world, serving as an example to all its other people. Hornblass ends his lesson by comparing the Torah with the U.S. Constitution — an immutable framework upon which life is based.

With a slightly amused look on his face, the wise old judge retreats from the lectern, leaving congregants to resume munching and chatting. More singing and praying is in store before everyone retires to their homes for the evening. Hornblass will be back next week to share his wisdom of Torah and world.

* * * * *

Big BenjamaBrighton Blog

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A lovely Little Odessa scene on a bright Brighton Beach day. Photo by Benjamin Preston

My first day on the beat in Brighton Beach – an oceanfront chunk of South Brooklyn known primarily for its Russian population – was like something any outsider would expect from a movie scene. As I walked along the long row of colorful shops lining Brighton’s main thoroughfare, a steady downpour created rivulets several inches deep at every intersection. I had no choice but to succumb to being wet as I slogged on soggy shoes past block after block of Cyrillic-signed storefronts and broad-faced Russian men and women hunched forward as they too made their way through the heavy rain.

Other than the fact that I’d seen a movie called “Little Odessa” – a tale of Ukrainian mobsters set in Brighton Beach, which is called Little Odessa because of a supposedly striking resemblance to its Crimean namesake – I knew very little of the place. Imagining a cadre of Russian underworld foot soldiers guarding access to the juiciest stories the area had to offer, I wondered what I’d actually have a chance to report on.

The rain got heavier, and I could feel a few chilly tentacles of water as they found their way down the collar of my rain jacket. Then I saw the lights – the flashing red and blue kind that stay in one place. My experience as an ambulance driver told me that in this largely geriatric community, it was probably an ambulance, parked outside the house of some poor soul whose good health had given way to old age. But as I rounded the corner, I saw that the light show was coming from a group of police cars ringed by yellow plastic “Police: Do Not Cross” tape.

The scene was curious. About 15 feet away from the police cars, inside the yellow tape fence, was a big, shiny black Chevy Suburban, parallel parked in a rather tight spot. Despite the continuing deluge, the driver side door stood ajar. On the ground just next to the massive vehicle was what looked like a bloody T-shirt. Eventually, I caught the attention of the plastic poncho-clad police officer standing guard over the scene and asked him what was up.

Reasonably priced, if I do say so myself. Photo by Benjamin Preston

“Some guy got stabbed,” he said curtly in a thick Brooklyn accent. “They took the guy to the hospital, and he ain’t dead. I don’t know much more than that.”

All sorts of suppositions swam through my mind, but the most glaring of these was
that this could have been some kind of mafia hit. I mean, it was all there: the big, fancy car sitting next to a Russian food store; a tight lipped police officer standing sentry to a bloody T-shirt…

As I found out a few weeks later when the police finally released the results of a failed search for the puncture-wound perpetrator, the soggy crime scene I’d witnesses had nothing at all to the Russian mafia. It was an extension of a much more pedestrian problem. It was something that has been all the rage at community board meetings in the area over the past few years: parking shortage. According to the report, the guy driving the Suburban was a bit speedier getting into one of that particular street’s few available parking spaces than another guy. Somewhat offended, the shortchanged motorist then stepped out of his vehicle, stabbed his opponent, and drove off. That was all that ever came of it. Fortunately, the stabee lived, and life went on.

As this little vignette was to illustrate, while there may be some mobsters lurking in back room high stakes poker games here and there along Brighton’s teaming streets, most of the news that comes up on a regular basis is stuff that every place has to deal with; building heights, neighbor noise, petty crime, sidewalk encroachment. Perhaps if I stick around long enough I’ll be able to break a big Russian mafia story. It’ll probably be a while. Right now, they’re not talkin’.

In the Levee’s Shadow: A Tribute to the Crescent City

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In service since 1835, the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line sports coaches dating from the early 1920s

“This is a great place to be poor,” explained my friend Josh, who had moved to New Orleans several months earlier. Say no more, my friend. You have my ear. I listened as he listed all of the fun things there are to do in the Big Easy for little or no money, smiling as I paid the bartender $3.50 for a couple of beers. Deciding there were better things to behold than the contents of the seedy Marigny bar in which we were slouched, we drained the remainder of our beers into plastic cups and wandered outside to listen to a few of the street bands gathered at various corners around the neighborhood. This couldn’t be real. The police in most other places I’d been to generally frowned upon people enjoying libations out-of-doors.

New Orleans possesses an allure similar to the rest of Louisiana, with the distinction of being highly concentrated within a patchwork of streets that alternate between grimy and resplendent. It is bright, bawdy, and colorful, but with a dark, seething spirit. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Louisiana is the only bastion of Catholicism in the region — most of the rest of the Deep South being part of the relatively austere Protestant Bible Belt — but the Creole, Caribbean, and Cajun influences give the area a brand of mystique that can’t be found anywhere else. With its accompaniment of raucous laughter and dixieland jazz, the city defies you to find fault with its many shortcomings, thinly disguising the shady secrets that you probably already know about. There’s no choice but to love the place, though, making it possible to walk past fragrant piles of trash, stately Victorian mansions, and ancient, above-ground cemeteries with near equal enthusiasm.

Colorful shotgun houses, such as this row located in the Marigny neighborhood, can be found all over New Orleans

Conversations in New Orleans all revolve around “the storm” — Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing disaster response debacle — a turning point in the region’s history usually referred to with a downward casting of the eyes. Although the demographic has changed a bit since 2005 — reconstruction in the Lower Ninth Ward and other impoverished areas of the city has been slow, and many of the people displaced by the floods caused when the Mississippi River levee breached have remained in Houston, Atlanta, and other arbitrary evacuation debarkation points — the city maintains a vibrance that has been kept in check by a diverse population celebrating rich traditions. A strong, albeit largely poor African-American community is still the backbone of the city’s life, but there seem to be a lot more hipsters hanging around these days as well. Quite a few people look like they either got lost on the way to San Francisco after leaving Brooklyn (or vice versa), or they watched Easy Rider at some point, figuring the Big Easy for a crazy place to get caught up in for a while.

It is just that, in fact, and as luck would have it, a couple of old friends — one from my undergrad days at Mary Washington College and the other a guy I’d met through the first friend when we were all living in California — had moved to New Orleans to indulge in the unique life it has to offer. Paying no more than four or five hundred dollars a month for a nice apartment (sorry if that sounds like a lot, but in California, that’s unheard of unless you live in a bad part of town), these guys spend their days going to free music shows and other random events, winding though ancient streets from party to bar to party and back on bicycles, drinks suspended in homemade, handlebar-mounted cup holders.

NoLa's Young Fellaz Brass Band; doin' they thang in the Marigny...well, before the cops chased them away

The muggy paradise is not without its drawbacks, though. Recently, a few stuck-up stickybeats have taken it upon themselves to hassle New Orleans’ City Council into enforcing a hitherto little-known ordinance regulating street musicians. The city’s nighttime street music scene is world renowned, and the ordinance — prohibiting the playing of musical instruments from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m. — hasn’t been enforced. Perhaps some gentrification has occurred in the French Quarter and Marigny — the neighborhoods where the lively shows can be seen most nights — but my stance is that if you buy a house in a place like the French Quarter, you ought to know that you signed an invisible contract saying that you are OK with debauchery outside your window on a nightly basis. For example, after living in Isla Vista, California — a Mardi Gras-esque college town adjacent to UC Santa Barbara (often one of the nation’s top-ranked party schools) — I got really good at reading and sleeping through thunderous bass riffs and drunken screeches. So it seems silly to me that these people would expect everything around them to change just for the sake of self entitlement.

At any rate, I saw the enforcement go down before my very eyes. A crowd of people was assembled in front of the Young Fellaz Brass Band, and they were wailin’! Unfortunately, halfway through one of their livelier songs, a policeman rolled by in his cruiser, making the “wrap it up” sign with his finger. It was a party Thursday night there (maybe I’m a lush, but Thursday is a party night, right?), but the clock had already struck nine and that was that. A few nearby clubs, although virtually empty, were blasting electronic music and hip hop into the night air. Oh the irony.

Although I’ve been to them many times before, I never tire of visiting St. Charles, Carrollton, the Magazine, and Audubon Park. The stately Victorian mansions lining St. Charles Avenue near Audubon Park are almost too perfect to believe. Once, years ago, I managed to sneak into one of these titan homes, as it had been under renovation at the time and a workman had left a gap in the fence just wide enough for me to wriggle through. Although gutted in anticipation of what was sure to be a lavish refurbishment, the sheer expanse of its voluminous interior itself was mind-blowing. All of that for one family, I thought. A marble bathtub poked out from beneath a sheet of heavy plastic, and I knocked on it, verifying that it was indeed made from real marble. Stepping onto a balcony outside the house’s towering attic gable, I beheld the length of St. Charles Avenue from as commanding a perch as any oil tycoon could ever have had.

Located across the street from Audubon Park, this stately St. Charles Avenue mansion is one of many in the area

This time around, however, none of the old homes appeared so easily penetrable, so I contented myself with riding a bicycle around on side streets I’d never checked out until I reached Carrollton Avenue, where there are quite a few amazing restaurants.

So let’s talk about food. One can’t blather on about other facets of New Orleans culture without covering the fabulous, and often reasonably priced cuisine available in the city. One of my personal favorites is Cafe Nino, an almost shabby-looking Italian joint on Carrollton Avenue. I had stumbled upon it almost by accident, while taking a quality control training course at the nearby Army Corps of Engineers Headquarters a few blocks away. I don’t remember much about quality control, but I’ll never forget stuffing my face with a hearty portion of catfish parmesan, eaten off a styrofoam plate as Frank Sinatra songs played cheerily in the background on a battered stereo. Nino, it turns out, is from Sicily, and had a successful restaurant in New York before moving to New Orleans, where he’s become a fixture. After you enjoy one of his delicious creations, he’ll chat with you for a few minutes before pouring you a healthy slug of red wine into a styrofoam cup.

Ever wanted to try catfish parmesan? Go to Cafe Nino on Carrollton

“Take it witha you,” he’ll say in his classic Italian accent. “It’sa good for the digestion!” It’s a good thing the company truck I was driving at the time had cup holders, or the wine would have sloshed all over the place as I drove back to the Corps building.

On this trip, however, I was dismayed to find that Nino was on vacation for the summer, and wouldn’t be back until the next week. The Lebanese place next door was actually very good, too (although in my heart of hearts, Nino’s joint is the spot), with a delicious citrus tea garnished with sugared pine nuts to wash down a very tasty spicy falafel dish.

A few blocks away stands a legendary Creole restaurant — the French-sounding name of which escapes me — which I had the pleasure of eating at with a friend mere weeks before Hurricane Katrina meted its destructive fury upon the Crescent City. It was during Jazz Fest, and as we were seated, my friend nudged me.

“Psst! Look! The Neville Brothers are sitting right next to us!” he said with a giddy smile. They saw us gawking at them, so there was nothing to do but engage in some small talk. Nice guys. A few moments later, the waiter ushered in a familiar-looking man with long, scraggly, dark hair, along with his date, who could have been any number of recent playboy bunnies. It was none other than Tommy Lee, and the wait staff wasted no time seating him at a table that was slightly elevated, and in full view of the rest. In hindsight, they probably should have put him at a more private table — less for his sake than everyone else’s — because it wasn’t long before his silicone-bosomed companion was giggling as she leaned over and not-so-subtly slid her hand into his pants. Classic Tommy Lee, I thought.

One of the French Quarter's less raucous corners

The star of the night however, was not the famous blues duo, nor was it the glam rock drummer turned amateur porn star seated in the room’s spotlight. The crown jewel of my experience at that restaurant was none other than the bouillabaisse I had ordered, at the waiter’s recommendation. Having been distracted by the Motley Crue of interesting people in the room (c’mon, I had to), I didn’t even see the waiter bring it in. As he set the steaming dish of fish stew upon the table before me, the eyes of a group of rather portly diners the next aisle over locked onto it, and their conversation halted.

“Bouillabaisse…” they whispered to one another, as if speaking some sacred name. The largest man in the group, a napkin tucked into his shirt collar, lifted his eyes from my plate, his gaze meeting mine. “Bouillabaisse,” he whispered again, beckoning gently with his chin, as if inviting me to partake in the holy communion of boiled fish and crustaceans gleaming amidst its tomato base. Slowly, I skewered one of the choicest morsels, and brought it up to my lips. My chubby friends seemed to be holding their collective breath in anticipation. Their napkin bib-clad leader tipped his large head forward slightly, giving me the OK to take a bite.

As I bit into it, delicious juices flooded my mouth with a tempest of flavor. I closed my eyes slightly and let the feeling that only perfectly prepared food can bring take over. When I looked up, my new friends were all smiling, each adding their own, more emphatic, “Bouillabaisse!” as they returned to their own respective repasts.

Spanish moss adorns a quiet corner of Audubon Park

While the current trip had been more focused upon cheap bars and street music than on the city’s smorgasbord of restaurants, I did manage to make time for one last brush with good New Orleans cooking on my way out of town the day after my extended bicycle tour around the city. I hadn’t even been sure where I was going to eat, I just knew that it needed to be a cheap, dirty hole in the wall serving up great food. The Big Easy didn’t disappoint, and as I piloted my belongings-laden Subaru toward the freeway on Elysian Fields, I was rewarded with just such a place; Gene’s Po Boys (also a great place to get a ridiculously stiff, but delicious frozen daiquiri to go on hot summer nights). After forking over seven or eight bucks, I had the perfect hangover food to enjoy in the car as I drove through the sweltering flat hell of Mississippi and Alabama: A Louisiana hot links and American cheese po boy loaded up with lettuce and mayonnaise, replete with a huge styrofoam cup brimming with ice cold Pepsi.

I headed east on I-10, and a cool breeze wafted across Lake Ponchartrain as I bit into the sandwich. I was in heaven — at least until I crossed the state line.

Homage to the Fleur-de-lis

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One of Southern Louisianas many drawbridges. This one is located along Highway 27

Louisiana is one of those places that, for me at any rate, reaches deep into the depths of my soul. There is something at once bewitching and inviting about it that defies reason. It is one of the poorest states in the country, and I can attest from my recent, un-air conditioned drive through it that its summer weather is nearly the most brutal to be found anywhere. Common sense should dictate that it’s best to live life elsewhere, where the air isn’t so heavy and the mosquitos not so thick. But beneath the lush green surface of this watery wonderland is an alluring culture that beckons one to join its laissez-faire good times and laid back lifestyle.

Having tired of driving on the interstate, I opted instead to make a bee-line for the Gulf Coast, traveling along Highway 82. From Holly Beach, a flat, quiet collection of colorful vacation homes on a pleasant beach at the state’s west end, the road made a ferry crossing over a bayou before cutting back inland. Winding through gnarled oaks dripping with Spanish moss, most of the houses in the area were elevated on pilings — Hurricane storm surge protection — and many were of the French Colonial variety, with low, wide-brimmed roofs shading long windows and comfortable-looking porches. I pictured myself sitting on one, beneath a slowly-spnning ceiling fan, enjoying a cold beverage amidst the constant, musical hum of insects.

But I was consigned to hear only the din of an unmuffled Subaru boxer engine (the muffler rusted and fell off long ago, giving the car a rally car rumble, something I think is sporty, but that almost everyone else thinks sounds treif), and did the best I could to enjoy the scenery as I slowly but surely, melted into my seat.

An inhabitant of Southwest Lousiana's Sabine National Wildlife Refuge roosts on a wall at the visitor information center

Along the way, I saw the names of a few native Louisianans I know pop up here and there. A Stelly’s grocery in the middle of nowhere. A Toups general store next to a used tire shop (irony of ironies for me, personally). Babineaux for Parish supervisor, and so on. Eventually, I made my way out to Highway 90, stopping briefly in Morgan City, a picturesque little town on the Atchafalaya River where I’d spent a couple of months some years ago doing survey work in support of a channel maintenance project on the river for Weeks Marine, Inc. The little park in the center of town is…is… well, “darling” I think would be the best way to describe it. I’ve never seen too many people there, but it must have been a happening place at some point, if the bandstand, monumental statues, and red, white and blue-sashed buildings surrounding the park are any indication. I’m guessing that Morgan City reached its apogee more than half a century ago, and now seems consigned to post small-town America obscurity.

It’s interesting to note that while Morgan City and other towns in the area are protected by ring levees and other flood control devices, they are now so far below the water level of the river to be, as described by John McPhee in his book The Control of Nature, much like tumbler glasses set in a pan of water. As it turns out, those flood control devices have made it impossible for the natural sedimentation that occurs in alluvial flood plains such as this one to go about their natural business, so the elevation of the ground upon which Morgan City and like municipalities is built is actually sinking, as it is in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Also, if the Mississippi River had its way, it would forgo passing through Baton Rouge and New Orleans altogether, opting instead for the much easier route along the Atchafalaya Basin. But the Army Corps of Engineers, in all its wisdom, has seen fit to constrain the river to its present course over the past 50 years, in order to maintain the economic viability of one of America’s poorest urban centers — New Orleans. I’m not saying that’s wrong — I’m just saying.

Grand Isle doesn't have its usual crowds of vacationers this summer

The real reason I’d decided to drive across the South during the very worst time to drive across the South, though, was to snap some photos of the oil spill cleanup for Miller-McCune Magazine. What better place to observe such action, I reasoned, than Grand Isle, Louisiana, which has been the focus of so much media attention over the past several months. Even if there wasn’t much going on — there wasn’t — the drive down was rife with houseboats, drawbridges, friendly Cajun rednecks, and all of the other fine things that distinguish Louisiana so markedly from its neighboring states.

By the time I had waded through two lane road traffic and reached Grand Isle, most of the cleanup workers were changing shifts. There were people from everywhere: locals, guys from Houston, even workers from as far away as California had been enlisted in the task of removing the brown and black sludgy remnants of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe from the beaches there.

“Ay, ay, you come all the way from Cali?” a worker sitting in a white Caddy shouted as I stepped from the surfboard-laden Subie. I anwered in the affirmative and asked him where he and his tatooed friends were from. “Yo, we from H-town, boyeeee! I like yo car, magn!” he said as he and his friends drove off laughing.

The boys from H-town; rollin' like a big shot

Another worker I spoke with was employed by a tank cleaning company in Houma, but he had been diverted from his usual duties for the past couple of months to man a barge for 12 hours each day, scouring the water surface for oil slicks and helping suck the oil up with his company’s special equipment. He was on his way home, however, after BP decided it no longer needed his services. Everyone I talked to said that after Tropical Storm Bonnie hit the coast last week, there wasn’t much oil left to be seen. Apparently, the chemical dispersants and wind did more than thousands of cleanup workers and military personnel could accomplish.

However, I’m a little doubtful that chemical dispersants and bad weather did anything other than transfer the problem somewhere that won’t be seen until later, and then only subtly. But it seems to have been enough to placate most people. BP is stoked — they appear to be, for the time being, off the hot seat, and hopefully, have finally stopped the leak. When I stopped by their Houma, Louisiana training center on my way to Grand Isle, the Terrebonne Parish Sherrif’s Deputy guarding the front entrance would neither comment nor allow me to ask the State Police folks in a nearby command trailer if there had been any security issues at the site, but it seemed pretty quiet, all in all.

Sheriffs deputies sat out here all day guarding the entrance to Elmer's Island and other areas of Grand Isle

Security on Grand Isle was pretty mellow, although the Sheriff’s deputies were pretty strict on limiting beach access.

“The answer to your question is no,” one of them drawled as I approached his cruiser, camera in hand. “The military has millions of dollars worth of equipment down on the beach, and I don’t have the authority to let anyone down there.”

The beach is unequivocally closed for everyone, save people working on the cleanup efforts. Grand Isle, a vacation destination not unlike the Coastal Carolina beaches I frequented as a child, normally boasts a robust tourist population at this time of year. But now, aside from work crews, law enforcement officers, and National Guardsmen, the place is dead. So whether or not the oil spill has caused any lasting physical damage, it has left its mark economically temporarily lay moribund the spirit of a normally vibrant summer destination.

Don’t Mess With Texas!

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Remember the Alamo!

Driving all night takes its toll on the body and mind, but driving all day and all night and all day again through Texas is something quite else. While at first, you excitedly exclaim, in a proper Pee Wee Herman manner, “The stars are bright, and big at night!…” and wait for the clapping and response that inevitably does not follow. But then, after a few hours of open, featureless terrain, it really, really starts to wear thin. The initial excitement at having waded into John Wayne country fades into mild annoyance, followed by bitter shouting at no on in particular: “When the hell am I going to be out of Texas?!”

As if to add insult to injury, the rough, hot tarmac of the West Texas portion of Interstate 10 was apparently not to the liking of my left rear tire. The car began to shake enough to make my eyeballs rattle, and after I had determined that it was a wheel and not some catastrophic engine problem, I backed my speed down to about 65 and waited for the moment of impact. The words of Charlie Daniels’ Uneasy Rider floated though my mind for a few moments, and BOOM! That left rear tar (tire) went. I nearly lost control of the car, but managed to force it over onto the shoulder without causing any major disaster.

The tire wasn’t just flat, it had completely come apart. Chalk one up to my attempt to save money by purchasing used tires at Tijuana Tire in Goleta, California (cash only, ghetto as hell, amazing deals on new tires of indeterminate origin). As luck would have it, midday heat was at its worst, and the jack and tire iron were buried beneath more than a few heavy objects in the back of the car. Not wanting to go though the ordeal of unstrapping surfboards from the roof, I decided instead to perform a contortionist unloading procedure through a partially-opened back hatch. With a huge pile of crap still in the car, operating the painfully slow jacking mechanism was nothing short of torture. Though I worked with the all the alacrity of a recalcitrant slave, I finally got the bald spare on, and set out again across the sweltering desert.

Unfortunately, most of Texas lacks these cool-looking mountains

It was dark by the time I reached anything resembling civilization — in this case, a little town called Ozona — and there were no tire shops open for spare replacement. Although Ozona is a quaint little town — replete with a Nineteenth Century city hall building, bandstand, baseball diamond, Davy Crockett monument, and a really killer Mexican restaurant (they put bacon in their rancho beans!!), I decided that it was best to hit the road and continue my quest to escape the Lone Star State.

It was about 1:30 a.m. by the time I reached San Antonio, and the air’s relative humidity had taken a decided turn for the worse. Still, if I was to rescue my bike from the basement of the Alamo, there was little time to lose. Wait, my bike was affixed to the top of the car and I’m not Pee Wee Herman…

The Alamo was actually much prettier than I imagined it would have been, and that part of San Antonio charming as well. I think that had a lot to do with the fact that I was there at a time when the sun was not out, and there were no annoying tourists thronged around an attraction which has been described by many of my friends as fairly hackneyed. While the place was devoid of tourists, there was, however, one cowboy hat-clad park ranger pacing about in front of the chapel, there, as he explained, to discourage people from decorating the venerable piece of Texas history with grafitti. He was a pretty friendly guy, and very knowledgable about all of the characters involved in the Alamo’s drama. Of particular interest was that Santa Ana, the Mexican general who was the victor of the Battle of the Alamo — in which Davy Crockett and a number of his compadres met with an untimely end against scores of Mexican Army regulars — was eventually captured and brought back to Washington, D.C. for trial. As my new friend told it, the powers that be in our nation’s capital decided against executing Santa Ana because he was a Mason. He was given the option of the Nineteenth Century equivalent of the witness relocation program, and ended his life penniless in New Jersey. (I think I would’ve opted for the firing squad.) The official history of Santa Ana’s life differs somewhat from the ranger’s account, but hell, his version was funnier.

With the two o’clock hour fast approaching, I took leave of my new friend and beat a hasty retreat out of the city, determined to get the hell out of Texas before daybreak. The further east I went, the more humid it got, and the more annoying the regularly placed “Don’t Mess With Texas” signs became. My fingers and toes were slippery against one another, and my portable CD player began having problems functioning. By the time I got to Houston, the humidity seemed to have had a cumulative effect on the psyche of other drivers on the freeway. Apparently, the prevailing method of changing lanes in that city is to turn on the indicator (if at all) as the steering wheel is being jerked violently in the direction of the desired lane change. I almost wiped out several times, and began to wonder if my trip would be cut short 1,500 miles shy of its intended destination.

The sun attempts to pierce through the dense humidity of East Texas

Although it was well past daybreak when I reached the Louisiana state line, I made it. I was free from Texas, and set about to get my shredded tire replaced and find a place to sleep for the day. Even though I’d told myself that my only accomodations would be free camping and my only food trail mix, the temptation of a Chinese Buffet (in Sulphur, Louisiana, of all places) and an air conditioned hotel room were too much to resist, and I spent the next day resting in the dark, cool quiet of a $53 abode. I was pretty sure that the next day would be hotter than hell, so I took advantage of the comforts while I could.

Desert Flight

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A West Texas sunrise

Having driven all through the night, day two of driving dawned somewhere in West Texas, about 200 miles east of El Paso. From everything I’ve heard, El Paso is best gone through at night, being thoroughly underwhelming to behold by the light of day, so I don’t feel that I missed too much by speeding through on the freeway at five in the morning. I did however, see the lighted Tijuana-esque sprawl of North America’s most dangerous city — that’s Juarez, Mexico for those of you who don’t habla about the Mexican drug war — spread out across the Rio Grande.

As the sun came up over the vast green desert — I’m told it’s usually brown, but I lucked out and caught it during a wet year, giving view to some spectacular green mountains — I tried in vain to find a place to see, and maybe swim in, the mighty Rio Grande. Unfortunately, the Border Patrol guy I chatted with at Ft. Hancock (remember Shawshank Redemption? Yeah that’s the place. Say it…Zi-wa-teh-nay-oohhh…) informed me that if I wanted to catch a glimpse of the Rio, I’d have to cross the border. With a perfectly searchable car packed to the gills with all of my earthly belongings, I decided no-way-Jose was I going to do that.

“Besides,” he said, eyeing my bike and surfboard-laden beater car, “most of it is diverted into irrigation ditches on this side. It’s really only a trickle by the time it gets here.”

Oh well. Nothing to do but continue driving.

North America's most dangerous city -- Juarez, Mexico

In West Texas, there is nothing, and I mean nothing, for hundreds of miles in any direction. The only thing of interest I did encounter was a Border Patrol checkpoint — you know, the kind where they ask you where you’re going, where you’ve been, are you a red-blooded, card carrying American ready to spill your blood in the real or imagined war on terror, etc. Alright, they didn’t get that fancy, but the agents manning the stop weren’t particularly friendly, and I got a more thorough examination than the typical once-over I’ve encountered in Cali when they observe how obviously un-illegal my features are (although I really could be an illegal from somewhere in the Mediterranean — Greece is almost as poor as Mexico, or soon will be).

It might not look like much, but the scenery was great and there was a breeze blowing through. The yellow smudge is a butterfly

The plan of the day was to stop driving when I could no longer physically handle it. For me, that point came sometime in the mid-morning, and as luck would have it, I was smack dab in the middle of nowhere. I think that if I had measured the distance from any population center nearby, it could have been proven that this was, in fact, the actual center of Nowhere. I’d driven 900 miles — over more than 20 hours — without a major stopover. Luckily, my sharp, albeit tired eyes spotted a wash apron running under the freeway that looked a suitable place to hide from the sun for a few hours. It was perfect. Access from the freeway was pretty indirect, and I was able to pull the car underneath the freeway overpass to completely shade it from the sun.

With a tent set up next to the car and a cool breeze blowing through the little tunnel, I’d found an ideal place for a repose. After sleeping for several hours and listening to the rest of Pride and Prejudice, I was roused by a TxDOT worker performing a bridge inspection on my new home. We chatted for a bit and he wished me luck on my journey, and I was on my way, diving headlong into the surreal day two (that actually felt like day three) of driving.

The California Lag Factor

The view from The Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, California

I really dragged my heels regarding the impending cross-country drive. The lack of inaction could be attributed to two or three major reasons, including having had to perform a few last-minute fixes on my old Subaru, wanting to hang out with friends in San Diego, and the fact that the sun had finally come out at the beach (it’s been a weird, cold, foggy summer in Southern California for some reason). Lounging and surfing at the beach all day seemed a bit more enticing than sitting in a loud (unmuffled) car in 110+ degree desert heat.

On what was supposed to be my last day in town (but ended up being the second to last), my friend Jasmine and I had the opportunity to drop in on Dr. Walter Munk at his La Jolla home and grill him about the development of surf forecasting as we know it today. Before Dr. Munk came along, no one had ever considered making weather predictions prior to military amphibious landings. Up until World War II, the accepted method was to cluster men in rickety amphibious landing craft, send them ashore, and hope for the best. Needless to say, many people drowned.

The Scipps Institution of Oceanography, where Dr. Munk had began working in the late 1930s, was working closely with the US Navy to better understand ocean conditions as they related to naval warfare and shipping. Having watched a US Marine Corps training exercise along the North Carolina coast in 1941, Dr. Munk said that he noticed that the landing craft — which are essentially steel boxes without many of the attributes that one normally associates with good hull design — couldn’t really handle surf higher than about five feet. Often they would broach, and people got injured…in training. Imagine those conditions while being fired upon.

Dr. Munk said that a landing being planned in North Africa was to happen at a time of year when seas are regularly six feet and higher, and he remembers suggesting to one or more military planners that they ought to include a weather report into the attack plans to ensure that the landing craft didn’t broach leading to soldiers’ drowning deaths. He was, of course, dismissed with a “who the hell is this young upstart” response from the men in green (and blue and white and tan, depending upon the season and branch of the service), but a supervisor at Scripps found the merit in then young Munk’s train of thought, and used his more advanced position to push it forward. Needless to say, it flew, and changed the way amphibious landings were conducted from then on out, helping to ensure success at Normandy, Tarawa, Okinawa, and other campaigns.

Git 'er done! Beer cans and hose clamps make great exhaust patches

The 1950s and 1960s saw the development of ever improving ocean monitoring and forecasting technology at Scripps, and during his long tenure (which is by no means over), Dr. Munk saw the department’s numbers swell from a couple of dozen people to about 1,500 today. Scripps’ pier, in La Jolla, boasts an impressive array of instrumentation, and the Institute’s website has one of the best surf forecasting models to be found anywhere. That’s where my interest in the department’s activities came in so keenly.

While he was keen to fill me in on all of that history, Dr. Munk also wanted to know about my upcoming trip to New York, and the details of why I’d been late in coming to his house. He laughed as I related my story of having just cobbled together the Subaru — quite literally — with JB Weld, old beer cans, and duct tape — and told me of his cross country drive, in 1937, in an old La Salle he had purchased when he decided to leave New York and go to Cal Tech in Pasadena.

I guess this guy forgot to check his coolant level at the gas station

At last, however, I had to depart my beloved California coast, bidding farewell on as bright and sunny a day as one could ask for. The trip started uneventfully enough, but after only a few hours on the road, the air conditioning in my dilapidated ’86 Subaru — which until then had kept me close to shivering despite the intense heat outside — crapped out just after I gassed up in Yuma, Arizona leaving me to face the brutal reality of traveling across the desert in the summertime heat. Luckily, the desert cools down a lot at night, and I enjoyed a delicious cool draft as I sped through Eastern Arizona, New Mexico, and on through El Paso, listening to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice along the way.

Sand dunes just east of Yuma, Arizona on Interstate 8 in Eastern California.

There’s not much to tell about driving through the desert all night other than that the sunrise is enjoyable. But I guess that goes for pretty much anywhere. Oh yeah, my friend Melissa, who owns a motel in Yuma (which if you haven’t been there, is a fabulously trashy desert town with a few seedy bars, a muddy trickle of a river, and purportedly the best winter weather to be found anywhere), wanted me to mention that they’re having specials at the Yuma Cabana Motel. I’ve stayed there, and it’s a charming place indeed. A true reprieve from whatever it is that goes on outside on the mean streets of Yuma.

Queuing for the Journey East

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The morning after a California wildfire starts, you can expect some pretty intense colors in the sunrise.

For the past five years, I’ve lived the Golden Dream. Every day, I’ve taken in the mountains, the ocean, and — most days anyway, save this ususually foggy summer — have soaked up the rays of sunshine that bathe California’s coast for most of the year. Although I’ve enjoyed nearly every minute of it, something called me, at the age of 31, to do something grown up. Sure, I’ll always be more keen to go surfing or hiking than I will be to do anything that resembles work, but I’ve decided to leave my idyllic dreamland (temporarily) to receive a dose of East Coast reality via Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York City.

I swore off the East Coast years ago — during my childhood, actually — when I decided that it is, in fact, possible to live in a place that has nice weather and laid back people who don’t seem always bent on telling you how life is supposed to be lived. Enter Santa Barbara, California, my home for the past five years. It’s been a blur of pleasantness, and the place gave me a big, fat, wet kiss goodbye in the form of a pretty raging going away party. While leaving such a beautiful place and so many amazing people has been a bit of a drag, the native East Coaster in me feels that it’s time for that open-handed face slap that East Coast (especially New York City) culture invariably delivers. I suppose that’s what I love most about being a Californian who grew up back East; I can appreciate laid back, but can also remember the harshness of reality.

Firedancer? Check. It's a Santa Barbara backyard fiesta.

At any rate, I’ve left Santa Barbara after a week of beaches, mountains, revelry, and sad goodbyes, and am currently in the purgatory of Southern California, ready to make a reverse Dante Alighieri journey into the vast deserts that will no doubt mimick the Renaissance writer’s Inferno in many ways. Drifting from friend’s house to friend’s house around Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego reminds me of my first trips out here, and why I fell in love with this sunny paradise in the first place. A sunny summer day spent playing on Newport Beach does much to salve the soul.

As I face the long drive east, I am reminded that now, in the midst of summer, it is very hot in the areas I will be driving through. I’ve elected to take the southern route, so that I might see first hand some of the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The editor at Miller-McCune Magazine sounded interested in getting a few photos from out that way, and judging by the amount of attention the subject is still receiving, it’s probably not a bad idea to poke around a bit before heading to the Mecca of news media.

But right now, my mind is elsewhere. I’m in San Diego getting ready to go to the beach when I should be fixing a few last things on my 1986 Subaru station wagon, the trusty beast that shall bear me across the sweltering plains of the Southern United States over the next week (mine’s not nearly as nice as the one pictured in the link). I will leave at night, following in the footsteps of TE Lawrence as he prepared to cross the great Nefud Desert in 1917 in order to attack the Turks defending the port City of Aqaba. Perhaps this is my sneak attack on the port city of New Orleans. It won’t know what to expect…bwahaha!

More to come as I embark on what looks like an incredibly long and hot trans-continental drive. For now, I’m going to stick some parts onto my Subaru with JB Weld and old beer cans so that I can go to the beach and grab a few waves!

My cross-continent conveyance -- a 1986 Subaru GL

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