Roughing It, Too

DSC00139What is. . .
the star that guides
the scribe’s broken course
from inspiration’s fertile folds,
where visions in perfect phrases fly
generously off the flint of imagination
to the fearfully empty place
where his Huck Finn lingers. . .
abandoned.

And whose is. . .
the pen that plots
a man’s hopeful ascent
from shivering in warm company
to striding against gales of defeat
that rage yet through Aurora’s ruin. . .
the same rocky terrain
that Twain tested,
and by his own reckoning
failed.

Esmeralda,
there’s fortune
in your rugged place…
just underfoot they say.

Soon, the blinding stars
will rise above your barren slopes
and another writer
will pull on working clothes
and mine for words. . .
again.

Don Anslow, 11/13/14

Yes-No Neon – Part 1

IMG_2776The clerk at the Edgefield Motor Suites was trying to be patient. I leaned across the counter to focus on his computer screen, laboring to be polite. After half a century of lodging in all manner of motel, tourist court, travelers rest and motor inn, I was trying to maintain an unblemished record of civility with the cast of no-dozed, detached, curry scented but generally honest characters who have played host to my road-weary self on nights from Halifax to Huachuca. But this encounter challenged my decorum.

I fancy myself an ideal, road-tested motel patron. I sprint to the parking lot to recall my license plate number when demanded. I don’t pester the bored night man for blankets when I know if I don’t I will be sorry. And back in the land-line days, I was always first to point out any phone charges that I had accrued. But on this morning, after only nibbling on the breakfast buffet of cold cereal, boiled eggs, mini-donuts and mealy apples the management had laid out for its ‘honored guests’, my string was about to break.

“No, no. One hundred thirty-five dollars can not be right,” I declared with certainty. “It was eighty-nine bucks, before my AARP discount.” I reached for my wallet to extract proof of my advanced age, and to seal the deal, but as I did, the computer screen and the clerk’s printer came to life.

“So sorry sir, we are very rigorous about our accounting.” He yanked a document from the printer and slid it across the counter. “Please review the list of charges carefully. I’ll answer any questions…”

I blew. “List? How can there be a list?” I counted off what was surely was the obvious: “Room rate, less discount, plus taxes: ninety-two fifty. That’s hardly a list.”

The congenial mask fell from the fellow’s face the way the Rose Queen’s smile collapses after her float takes it final turn from Colorado Boulevard. He hardly uttered a word in response to my outburst. With the authority of the entire hospitality industry behind him, he dropped his forefinger to the printout and tapped the list of ‘extras’.

“Snacks,” he proclaimed.

“Snacks, hell. I never had a snack…not here. They’re too damned expensive. I know. I checked.”

The clerk raised his eyes imperceptibly.

I don’t think I was born yesterday, but sometimes I have my doubts. The nature of my work and my tastes in travel generally take me to destinations beyond the reach of most state-of-the-art lodging. This unfamiliarity left me blind to the depths technology had dipped in order to plunk an irresistible purchasing opportunity right under the nose of a hungry, vulnerable traveler. This should have been no revelation, we have all long-ago learned that one can access pay-per-view films with a click of the remote, and rack up endless bills. I am used to that, but I was unaware of the new snare hotel merchandising services had rigged for me. I recalled the tidy display of salted cashews, chocolates, espresso biscotti and other delights that occupied a crucially unavoidable space on my ‘desk’. And I recalled the prices.

“Seven fifty for a dinky can of peanuts. Are you kidding me…six bucks for junior mints? Forget about it.”

It was true. The goodies were far too steep. I could have strolled one block to a 7-11 and saved three bucks a pop. Like I said, I checked them all. My wife, who knows a few things about nutrition, has imprinted within me an involuntary reflex to read all ingredient labels. That evening I had stood before the AutoSnack-Rack, and scrutinized every item’s label. So I was well aware of the snacks’ daunting chemical complexities as well as the prices, but I never so much as broke a seal on a single Cappuccino Bon-Bon. Yet there they were, Bon-Bons and all, recorded on my bill and charged to my total.

“No, I never ate any of this crap.” My wife would have been proud, but the ascending volume in my voice gave the clerk a different view. I don’t know for sure, but I sensed his finger searching beneath the counter for the ‘Clerk Support’ button. Yet no beefy fellow in an Edgefield blazer ever arrived. It wasn’t necessary.

“Sir, you bought the snacks.”

I looked at him incredulously, but before another word could escape my lips, the clerk informed me of my error – of my naiveté – in a new world of load-cell purchasing technology. “You do not need to consume them to purchase them.” He looked at me with pity. “It’s no different than any store.” He pushed a pre-printed sheet explaining the operations and customer obligations pursuant to the AutoSnack-Rack systems. His logic escaped me, but I was comforted to realize I was not the first Luddite to be ensnared by the Rack. He continued with my enlightenment: “When you pick up an item you have 45 seconds to return it to the rack or the load cell confirms the item’s removal and records it as a purchase.”

Before I could raise further objection in the face of oppressive technology, he lowered the boom. “The rules are clearly marked on the rack. And they are described in your Rental Agreement.”

What could I say? I didn’t realize I had a Rental Agreement other than to refrain from stealing the linen or chasing the maids, and to get the hell out at 11:00am. But a full sheet of 5-point type on the back of my sign-in document testified otherwise. It was enough for me to throw up my hands in defeat. I suppressed a few select oaths and tossed down my credit card. I had nearly exited when I realized this obligation cuts both ways, and I returned to the desk with a determination the clerk could not challenge.

“If I bought ‘em, then let’s have ‘em.” I pulled the bill from my pocket and circled the extras list. “I’ll wait right here.”

Perhaps the clerk was irritated that he couldn’t slip upstairs to my room and claim the goodies before the maids arrived to make the bed and reset the Snack-Rack’s computer, but he never let on. He abandoned his post and his attitude long enough to return with a plastic sack of my accidental purchases. It was with some satisfaction – albeit costly – that I carefully checked his delivery against my inventory and stepped out into the clear southern Oregon morning. I still had about 700 miles to go to catch up with my brother in-law in Las Vegas. Things weren’t so bad, I thought. The ride to Sin City might be a little more tolerable with a bag of over-priced munchies to see me across the desolate stretches.

In a moment I was driving down motel row and all was forgotten. Despite the clerk or his snack trap, it would take a lot more than this blunder to shake my love affair with motels. My eyes darted involuntarily from motel sign to motel sign, utterly unnecessarily seeking an illuminated YES in the bright morning.

It is not that I am a cowering sycophant, but I recoil from the word NO. I don’t like to say it, hear it, and worse, I loathe the sight of it, especially when flashing, flickering or glaring in neon. A shrink, if he bothered to dip into the embarrassing depths of my psyche, would quickly recognize the red flags of a “complex” common in folks without a stable childhood home: aloofness, inability to commit, fear of denial or its sinister twin craving for approval. And he would be right. The root of my issues, my desire for YES – for blind acceptance – in the words of one particularly astute professional of the shrunken persuasion, “flashes like a neon sign declaring ‘gypsy.’” Well they sure got the neon part right.

They weren’t far off on the gypsy issue either.

My father was a severely disabled, indomitable veteran of WWII. For the better part of my childhood he wasn’t employed, but he was never despondent. Before the war he had been a bit of a hobo and a consummate storyteller. After his war came to a horrific end, and what wounds would heal healed, he picked up the pieces and resumed his rambling nature when his wife’s patience and his children’s schooling permitted. And sometimes not.

Caught up in dad’s restless nature, and the lure of an expanding interstate highway system, my family never stayed put for long. We children rarely saw the school year come and go from the same classroom. Our house always was, it seemed, in flux, and our belongings spent inordinate amounts of time in the guts green Mayflower vans barreling between Philly, LA, Nashville and Utah, or idling in the lot of a Howard-Johnson’s awaiting further instruction. Okay, that is a slight exaggeration, but between frequent moves and summer-long treks to dad’s home turf in the Maritimes of Canada, or to my mother’s people in Philadelphia, home for a large portion of my formative years truly was where our Ranch Wagon finally stopped for the night. In my father’s world, that choice was never easy. The decision was governed by a tedious vetting process involving cost, safety, accessibility, intuition, complex racial and social issues, and, of course, the whim of the neon vacancy sign.

img_2888-e1411448994350For a crucial spell in the fifties and sixties before lodging supply caught up with the demands of mobile ex-GI’s and their kin – before 8’s, 6’s, Quintas, Qualities and Comforts thrust their blazing standards into the threatening night skies – there was no certainty for the motorist in finding a bed. The tired family peering at the lights of an approaching town held their breaths in hopes that lodging would be revealed. With luck, the welcoming lights of a motor court emerged from the dark. As sure as flowers, in competition for insects’ attention, evolved intricate floral designs, so, too, did motel owners devise elaborate neon structures to captivate the sleepy traveler. Ever more competitive lists of amenities were shoehorned into the signs, testing the skill of designers and neon craftsmen.

Nowadays, a brand is sufficient to sway a motorist’s decision, but back in the glory days of the blue highways, the days my motel gestalt was forged, copy was king – lurid neon text: Air Conditioned, Free TV, Color TV, Steam Heat, AAA, Pets Welcome, No Pets, No Smoking, Smoking, Kitchenettes, Free Coffee, Heated Pool, Clean Bathrooms, Christian, No Coloreds..and of course, the kicker, the simple binary report of the facility’s availability. YES. NO.

To a weary family, bickering under the ravages of low blood sugar and lack of REM sleep, the report was crucial. Thumbs up promised relief. Thumbs down condemned them to fatigue and anxiety out on the dark, serpentine two-lanes, or on the main drags of remote, inhospitable towns whose police prowled the streets in hopes of picking off out-of-towners who might pay up on-the-spot rather than test the humor of a cranky traffic court judge in the wee hours.

YES. NO offered no grey area. To a sensitive youngster as was I, it seemed a harsh existential judgment that likely contributed to a life of pesky mood disorders (and the vindication of my shrink’s neon sign diagnosis). But to keep this in perspective, the signs are an obvious convenience and have saved many folk from squandering valuable time and effort on useless room shopping. History might have been written far differently if Joseph had been directed by a simple sign reading YES, to a decent room a few miles up the road from Bethlehem. Maybe it’s just as well. It is a bit of a stretch getting one’s imagination around the image of angels, wise men and camels parading up the hall of a cozy inn, than it is to picture them gathered beside a rustic manger.

Biblical considerations aside, I recall the keen anticipation of settling into a comfortable motel room – the chance to pull the ‘sanitized for your protection’ paper strip from the toilet seat, to slide into thin, Tide-scented sheets, to watch local TV hosts guffaw their way through the heavily censored evening movie, to eat Dinty Moore canned stew warmed over a hot plate, and with luck, to writhe with pleasure at the tips of a quarter’s worth of Magic Fingers.

Unfortunately, the promise of a room and an end to the tedious bladder bending hours on the road, did not similarly affect my father or his finely tuned frugality sensors. To him the YES could be ignored if displayed on a sign that indicated AAA approval (too expensive by his measure) or free color TV – also a costly extravagance. Pools, to my dad’s reckoning, were a significant strike against a motel’s surviving his cut, and a bitter pill for his children to accept – especially in August. Although he occasionally relented, and we boys were permitted to cavort in our skivvies after respectably attired children had yielded the pool for the evening.

My father, who suffered the loss of both arms to a land mine a dozen or so years earlier, often ambled out to these infrequent family gatherings by the chlorinated waters, a stout motel-issue tumbler of ginger ale and Old Granddad clamped in his hook. I never saw him swim, but he waded in to his knees and reveled in the extravagant comforts he had grudgingly approved. My mother might dangle a foot or two in the water but generally surveyed the scene for potential dangers when dad’s damaged eyes could not. Thanks to her, even though traveling without reservations or Yelp or a Mobile Guide to provide assistance, things usually worked out okay. But there were close calls when we passed up one too many rooms, a fact due largely to my parent’s brutal selection process.

In their system a motel displaying YES, and having survived the initial AAA/Color TV/Pool/Racial cut, was then subject to inspection by my mother. After some mumbling with my father, that in the confines of a Ford Ranch Wagon somehow escaped the comprehension of my brothers and I but was presumably a confidential review of today’s budget, she would disappear into the office, leaving us in the hush of anticipation.

We watched the pantomime of her body language as she bargained with the clerk. With luck, he would hand her a set of keys. This was only the beginning; she would then make a personal inspection of the proposed room. Sometimes she would review several. As she came and went between the office and the prospective rooms she often passed the car, but I never recall her letting an expression of hope – even an inkling as to the room’s suitability – slip from her determined face. Then, as until she drew her very last breath at St. Peters office door, she held her cards tightly.

* * *

It was a gloomy moment when we saw Mom pass the keys back across the counter and turn to go. She would climb back aboard issuing only the most cryptic justification for her rejection, then throw the car back into gear. My father, no matter how badly he might have had to pee, never challenged her judgment. To this day I can not fathom what imperfection might have triggered her rejection of what from the car appeared to be perfectly acceptable accommodations for the night. I suspect, however, that some of the bathrooms might have been equipped with rubber machines.

Suffering vast disappointment, we would swing through the parking lot in silence; past the parked cars of guests who had either more money, less taste, or a modicum of common sense. Wise, comfortably settled people peeked from the drapes in pity at the lights of the station wagon pulling eastbound back onto highway 40 in the dead of night. From behind their curtains they, like quivering townspeople watching two gunfighters squaring off in High-Noon, must have known the misery that lay dead ahead. They must have been aware that there wasn’t another chance at a motel for 80 miles of winding, god-awful highway.

In defense of my departed parents, I must confess that these horrific nights were an exception. And as uncomfortable as it must have been for them to ride out into what singer, John Koonce called, ‘The Octane Twilight’, they never grumbled or quarreled, and never reassessed their selection criteria, even if we habitually landed past dinner-time and the Honeymooners. We traveled in a bubble, a kind of grace generated by the whir of recaps on asphalt. Whatever it was, it seemed they saved their disagreements for home. Even though there was an increasing chance that the next town could leave us room less – homeless – and at the mercy of the drastic measures my ex-hobo father readily enumerated, such as waking the local priest, sleeping in a church, curling up in a post office, checking into jail, or bedding down in an emergency room lobby. They all seemed like reasonable but frightening possibilities to me – a far, dreadful cry from those hundreds of blissful evenings when in lowly American motel rooms, our family came together like nowhere else on earth…

Fence

Fence post removalThe fish-fry came a day early.
Friday, according to the weather icon on my digital assistant, was destined to be only partly sunny – or was that partly cloudy? I’ve never really understood or trusted the difference. If a meteorologist could assure me that I am less likely to get wet on a PC day than a PS day, I would be grateful. But one way or another, fish day looked to be iffy. Thursday was another story: Its weather was represented by a pure yellow ball blazing with such intensity from the PDA’s little screen that all room for “if” had been burned away. It was going to be hot. If I were to host a fish fry – an outdoor affair necessitated by the greasy nature of the beast – the Friday tradition, as well as the sensibilities of my catholic guests, would have to bow to mother nature. Sunny days here in the northwest are too rare to squander at the whim of superstition.

So on Monday, with sizzling cod and the company of friends on my mind, it was clear that the gorgeous day looming just three days ahead could not be forsaken. Thursday it would be.

I got the word out then got to work; this would be the first soiree on my grounds since October and I wanted the place to look good. After suffering a winter’s wear and tear on the lawn, shrubs, flower beds and our extensive gopher village, there was plenty to do. But by some cognitive malfunction developed in my brain during the long dark winter – fungus perhaps – I foolishly added removing the pasture fence to the “do” list. The fence wasn’t much good to me now anyhow, but in the distant past had contained milk goats, cattle, a pig or two, several congenial ponies and one regrettably psychopathic saddle horse that sent several hapless children to the emergency room before being retired to the rendering company.

Those careless, back-to-the-land days have faded like old tie-dye, and with some reluctance I have lately realized it’s high time to move on. For too long the little barn/milking shed I lovingly crafted has suffered under my growing disinterest, steadily decaying until last fall, when, while I was out of town, my wife took it upon herself to wipe all traces of the eyesore’s existence from the land. It was a good call, one that of nostalgia I might never have made. Several years before her intervention, the beautiful pasture gate – one of my finest examples of skill-saw woodcraft – was robbed for duty in another’s fence. Without a barn, a gate, or the motivation to build another, the fence which once partitioned off a third of our property, was rendered useless – forever to be without a population of four-legged prisoners.

So it was last week, about the time that I envisioned frying fish for my gang of gentrified friends, that I concluded the fence had to go. Its utility in the service of a whole-earth catalog agricultural dream had passed. Now, rather than picturing the mugs of herbivores happily chewing their cud, I pictured soothing expanses of lawn unbroken by strands of barbed wire, field mesh, posts and animal feces…er, manure. My vision for the land has matured. Where I once saw hungry animals gathering to feed at the hands of a winsome young wife, I now see a green canvas upon which might be placed artfully arranged groupings of rock, designer grasses or shrubs…or anything that doesn’t poop or require hay, straw, grain, vaccinations, combing, shearing, shoeing, milking or assisted birthing.

The dream, the young woman…all are gone now, only the fence remains. For the time being, it persists straight, true and taught, its posts plumb – held fast in the abandoned pasture’s soil like the teeth in a twenty year-old’s jaw. When not cursing the fence as a hazard and a nuisance for harboring weeds and blackberry shoots from the maw of my lawn tractor, I have admired it. After all, I built it. That it yet stands so true is a measure of me – of the energy and care I put into its construction, and of the durability of the vision I pursued when in cut-offs and a peasant shirt, I first dug the holes, manhandled the posts, and ratcheted the wire into winter tension. But as I resolved to complete its removal before Thursday’s fish-fry, I never guessed my creation would put up such a fight. I should have known. The memory of my eyes stinging with the potent sweat of a young man heaving on the come-along to jack every possible joule of life into the fence should have been a clue. Like a healthy young soldier, the fence wouldn’t die easily.

I was moved by vanity, too, I suppose. I wanted to show off the property’s new look. I wanted to demonstrate to my friends that I was free of out-dated ideals – that I was ready to move on. Clearly, the fence had other ideas.

As predicted, the temperature continued rising through the week. By Wednesday morning when I tackled the fence the sun was already warm by Oregon standards. I began by prying the fencing staples loose from the anchor posts to free the barbed wire on one end, then worked my way down the line. It was simple work: pulling staples from wooden posts and bending open the clips that held the wire fast to the metal stakes. If a person is bent on tidy, respectful deconstruction, they will remove and discard one wire at a time to avoid the maddening tangle formed by several lively strands, each seeking the memory of a coil latent in their molecules – a memory still fresh thirty-four years after the tug of the fence builder’s arm and exposure to all manner of weather.

My mind wandered easily as I worked my way along each wire. The fence was seven strands tall, twenty posts long; this would take a while. As benign and tedious as the task was, rivulets of sweat began to creep from my brow. I fell into a hypnotic routine: staple, staple, clip, clip…staple, and with it I began to slip back in time, to the days I worked to do what I now sought to undo. My nine-year-old daughter skipped happily down from the house to check the progress of the fence that would finally permit her – our – adoption of a friend’s forsaken horse (God forsaken as it turned out). As the sun beat down on my shoulders, I looked up from post number 9 at the sound of a voice, the faint accent of my ex-wife, calling me in for lunch: curried rice with egg.

At post number 16 I struggled to unravel a section of crudely bound wire I had spliced together to repair a break where a cottonwood branch had fallen the night before – the night of December 8, 1980. How could I forget? I remember shooing back the goats and mending the fence the following gloomy morning. It had been difficult to summon enthusiasm knowing that the person, who along with his three mates, was singularly most accountable for raising our spirits after JFK had been slain.

My thoughts were still on the pain of losing John Lennon, when upon releasing one of the staples so sloppily driven that bleak morning, the newly released wire sprung from its post into a scorpion-like form and stung me angrily on the side of my neck. I cursed and grabbed at the threatening wire…I couldn’t blame my fence for its defiance. Only four hours remained till the fish-fry aficionados would begin arriving. I left the fence – now only a line of perfectly aligned naked posts – and shuffled, sweaty, bloodied and punctured, back to the house to begin marinating the fish. The kitchen was quiet…not a trace of curry.

With five pounds of fish soaking up lemon and dry vermouth I returned to the demolition site where I faced 20 defiant fence posts. With the aid of a pickup truck, I struggled to remove nineteen and pile them in the pasture. After two hours only a single post remained: an 8” diameter corner behemoth I had sunk nearly 40” into the ground. Time was tight now. It would be reasonable to return on another day, a rainy one perhaps when the soil had softened its grip. But I was stubborn, there would be no stopping until the fence was history. Of course, I should have know that the fence wouldn’t let me proceed with my  gathering without putting up one final defensive rally.

I maneuvered the truck into position and bumped the post this way and that. The wheels spun steam up from the thick May grass. Eventually it appeared to give and I approached the recalcitrant post on foot and put my shoulder to it. I nudged it along the points of the compass, I twisted the stubborn thing in its hole, I placed my shoulder beneath a great spike that once supported a horizontal brace, and lifted with all my strength against the treated cedar. No mere rivulets of sweat glistened as I wrapped my thighs and arms around the obstacle, and with every muscle heaved against the very force that young man had hammered into the post. I found myself drenched in a deep, toxic sweat.

Splinters prickled my arms. Snippets of wire tacked to the posts tore my shirt and lacerated my chest and thighs. The battle against myself was on and I refused to lose. I strained up beneath the spike, pushing with the muscles in my legs and back against whatever friction still help the post to mother earth. I could feel my back beginning to give when the post finally yielded to its maker. Once it was free of the ground, its dead weight pulled me to my knees. I collected myself and dragged the post, like a carcass, to my pile. I turned back to the house for a shower and to whip up a savory batch of batter – beaten up but not defeated.

My wife had just returned from work when I arrived at the door. Her eyes widened at the sight of the blood. I waved her off: “Just prepping the fish, sweetheart.”

In an hour the party was under way. No first beer has ever tasted as good. When everyone was assembled, I fired up two pans of oil on a makeshift table. After drenching the fish in a buttermilk batter and rolling it in a bed of crushed crackers, voila…the fry was on. In the intensity of managing fish for 15 friends, I had forgotten my battle in the pasture; and against the heat of the afternoon had rolled up my sleeves to work magic with the cod and rockfish. As always happens when the cooking becomes animated and the odors irresistible, the party gravitates to the kitchen. In this case the kitchen was a sheet of plywood I had laid across two saw horses, located where the oil could safely fly, and where the chef maintained a view of the proceedings on the patio, the beautiful little creek and a peek through the cottonwoods out into the pasture – a view that without the distracting old fence was pristine.

Sure enough, I found myself cooking for an audience. The conversation on this first warm evening of the year was carefree, broken with laughter at almost anything. I listened as I worked – tossing in a word now and again to appear connected. I chuckled when I overheard my friend Steven telling another guest how he, with the assistance of Arturo and a six thousand dollar investment, had just completed a new fence…for his dogs.

I looked up, “Six grand to keep your dogs in?”

Steven grinned over his wine glass. “No, six thousand bucks so I don’t get into a gunfight with my neighbor.” I think he was serious.

Another friend, Monique, chimed in from the fish-fry gallery. “Don, what in hell’s name happened to your arms?”

Only then did I realize the cuts and bruises from my tussle with post number 20 had matured into impressive red and purple bruises and extensive abrasions up my exposed arms. It looked like I had taken a hit of buckshot from twenty yards.

“Well, I tore down the pasture fence today.” I waved the spatula at the point across the creek where the battle had played out – where the fence had been. The slope from the creek out to the pasture, now uninterrupted by rectilinear human intrusion, flowed like a smooth green river. I sensed pride in my voice.

“Fence? You had a pasture out there?” Monique looked puzzled.

I stared at Monique blankly. She is a psychologist, and I shouldn’t have expected her to be tuned to evidence of my agrarian pursuits, be they current or relics. I shrugged and turned my attention to the pile of posts and coiled wire. The lower ends of the cedar posts were still damp, like blood on a good tooth lost in a fight. They still had years left in them.

I looked again. The fence was pissed!

Gumbo Tours the Beast: Infamous B-Reactor At Hanford, Washington

The author at the control officer's station at the world's first full-scale plutonium production reactor.

The author at the control officer’s station at the world’s first full-scale plutonium production reactor – now accessible to the public at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

In the scale of human endeavor, we have virtually raced – stumbled perhaps – into the implementation of nuclear fission-based technologies, often at our peril. Having recently completed one of the Department of Energy’s remarkable tours of the B-Reactor at Hanford Nuclear Reservation, this observer was compelled to question where stands the technology which offers so much promise, yet, 70 years ago, consumed well over 300,000 lives in its convulsive birth and appalling entrance on the geopolitical stage.

From the perspective of Hanford’s concrete “coffins”, it is sobering to recall that the benefits of advancing mankind’s ability to power our endeavors from the forces locked within the atom were in many ways only the spin-off of a breakneck project dedicated to plutonium…to death. Shortly after the discovery of fission by Ds. Hahn, Strassman and Meitner in 1938, sketches of a bomb allegedly appeared on other nuclear physicists’ blackboards –  before a reactor concept, and long before a power generating scheme. The danger inherent in the newly discovered natural process was so obvious from the beginning, that two of the three discoverers disassociated themselves from the work and pledged to resist development of weapons which might be derived from fission or its products. Strassman and Meitner’s resistance was ultimately for naught; we know what ghastly devices soon followed their discovery.

The technology created around the fission phenomenon has justifiably been tainted by this deadly association, and from the well-documented gross failures at several notorious reactors. It is absolutely prudent to tread with extreme caution in the nuclear arena, but equally imprudent, in the face of mankind’s inexorable march toward greater energy consumption, to abandon the only known technology that offers the potential to replace dangerous fossil-fueled power generating systems on a scale large enough to make a difference in the headlong pace of carbon emissions.

As we have woefully seen, the consequences of a nuclear misstep can be catastrophic, but so, too, can getting fission-based power generation right be beneficial. The human family produces approximately 10% of its electricity from fission, the US about 20% and France generates 75% of its power from nuclear reactors. If those numbers rise with the successful engineering of quantitatively safer, more reliable reactor and waste containment technologies, then we and our environment will benefit. The creatures of this planet currently face the deterioration of their – our – atmosphere’s life-sustaining properties from oil, gas and coal emissions; not to mention a long list of major environmental dangers associated with solid, liquid and gas resource extraction, transportation and storage. If we refuse to accept alternative energy sources, including new fourth generation high temperature, low pressure, low fissile closed loop fuel reactors, then we must accept a far greater risk to the global environment than we will likely ever face from the failure of an intelligently designed fission reactor or allied systems.

Most rational people do not balk at stepping into the cabin of an aircraft which will soon carry them at fatal speeds, to fatal heights, in fatal temperatures. When we step aboard the airliner we balance the risk of a failure against the benefits of aerospace technology. The nature of engineering is to minimize such risks to insignificant levels. It is what we as a species do, and in the case of the fearsome power of fission, must continue to do even if the technical challenges intrinsic in the safe, responsible operation of reactors are daunting…or even if the legacy of the wastes, the failures, or even the ghosts of so many innocents in Hiroshima and Nagasaki threaten to haunt us into inaction. Indeed, those ghosts should goad us into an overwhelming effort to eliminate destructive nuclear devices and the mechanisms specific to their construction, to eliminate stockpiles of plutonium, and to restrict production and enrichment of nuclear isotopes beyond what is necessary only for peaceful purposes.

Leaving Hanford, it was difficult not to salute the pluck of our forbearers, who first faced the Hanford Reach with nothing but an impossible, incomprehensible dream in mind – no matter how disgusted one might be at the horrific nature of what they wrought or the filthy legacy of what they left behind. To paraphrase what Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer prize-winning author, said in his lecture at Richland the night before the tour: “We may never witness the trust, coördination and close coöperation of science, government, and industry that we witnessed here again.” Yet in a world calling for more, safer, and environmentally sound applications of power generating technologies descended from what they infamously pioneered there seven decades ago, we must.

If we are to responsibly slip a harness on this beast, we must add another line to Mr. Rhodes’s list of cooperating entities: an educated, open-minded populace.

On April 1st of this year, the Department of Energy resumed tours of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation including the historic B-Reactor and other facilities. A visitor there will not find an answer to the challenges facing the nuclear industry, but he/she will gain valuable insight into the nature – the feel, if you will – of the technology. The tour is  approximately four hours in length and includes two hours in the B-Reactor building and its control room. Tours continue through September 18. There is no fee for the tour, and there is absolutely no danger of exposure to radiation. Tickets may be obtained only by registering on http://www.hanford.gov. Or call 509 376-1647. While visiting the website you might want to review the link describing progress of the Manhattan Project waste clean-up program.

Heights…Why Do I Scare Myself?

There were far better things to do that morning last September en route to Oregon from work in New Mexico, than to climb over the railing of the O’Callaghan-Tillman Bridge, far, far – nearly 900 spectacular feet – above the Colorado River. I generally get woozy when I’ve ascended beyond the 6th rung of a ladder. As a matter of fact, Shara, or one of my phobia-free friends, usually get tapped into action when Christmas rolls around and lights need to be strung on our second story eaves. Embarrassingly, I have on occasion required ‘talking down’ from a point mid-ladder where, entangled in a cat’s-cradle of lighting, I had frozen in a spasm of vertigo.

Truly I, of all people, had better, wiser things to do that day. I could have – should have – been pulling into a casino in Boulder City for a cup of so-so coffee and a couple of passes through the breakfast buffet. But no, I chose to watch the sunrise from the apex of that marvelous, terrifying concrete arch. Nothing explains the lapse of reason that prompted this short-lived foolishness, except the seductive lure in bagging a video trophy, an enticement made all too accessible by the damned user-friendly video cameras built into our smart-phones. Anything for the Blog…for the Tube…for the 15 minutes.

I shiver when I look at this clip…then I get the urge for a short stack.

Prologue to Night Lessons – A Novel

Rolling HillsThe dust behind the mail carrier’s old Buick still curled into the late summer sky as the rattling six-cylinder disappeared down the lane from the Schwaang’s farm to the village of Othello, Washington. The sound of the postman’s rig was only a murmur, and fading fast as Hank Schwaang stepped from the shade of the front porch into the silence of the bright, rolling landscape. Its emptiness collapsed upon him like a wave.

The road from the Schwaangs stretched across fifteen miles and three hilltop horizons on its course back to town. When not churned by the vibration of pistons and the crunch of worn tires on gravel, the sonic signature along this lane was that of wind hissing through the hairy heads of mature wheat in summer, crying amongst lifeless stubble in autumn, and howling over the icy, broken fields in winter.

On the day the letter arrived, the hissing was just turning to tears.

The anxious nineteen year-old stepping into the hot September sun had always aspired to rise above this land–to fly. It was not just an expression. Not just a dream. It was a passion he had nurtured since boyhood–picturing himself content in no other endeavor. Finally, on July 5th, 1942, with the smell of gunpowder still fresh on the cardboard husks of last night’s fireworks, and with the molasses days of August threatening, he had resolved to put the wheels in motion by applying for ‘agricultural flight training’ at Duster Enterprises.

Two months and ten days had crawled by since that resolution. Today, as Hank looked out to the road, he could see that in the wake of the postman, the red tin flag on the mailbox had been lowered. The chances for mail were promising. Finches trilled from a roadside thistle at the scuffling of his boots along the stone path to the box, a path he had followed many times before while his imagination churned with ever-rising expectations at the arrival of the ‘Preflight Kit’ from Duster’s Sacramento office.

Hank had read and re-read their advertisement in Popular Mechanics: ‘Learn To Fly Them.’  The message leapt from magazine pages stacked like dry leaves out in the Schwaang privy. The ad’s crude lithograph depicted a Waco bi-plane suspended forever above the last row of some forgotten crop. Two plumes of white dust fell away like a rope cast from a ship, as the powerful aircraft swooped up to clear a cottonwood hedgerow by inches.

Three Weeks To A Career In Aeronautics,’ read the copy, and Hank dreamt it to be so. He knew he could not follow his father to the endless fields forever. His destiny would not allow it. The wind sweeping across his old man’s broken soil blew with gusts of fortune–bringing welcome wet weather from the west or arctic misery from the north. It could scour away the very soil on which families’ lives were founded. Its turbulence could even wear a young man’s dreams away. And with the sharp edges of his imagination blunted, a fellow might stop picturing any vision beyond what he already knows–beyond what he can lay his hand, his eyes, or a spade upon.

The whirlwinds dancing for no one across fields of freshly turned sod spoke of loneliness, but Hank was determined to step beyond the empty routines of the wheat lands; its open space was suffocating. The pre-destiny of his friends’ lives, like the cattle he and his father tended, seemed pointless. They never questioned their fates, but he would certainly question his. He knew that the farms over in Yakima Valley would soon demand crop dusters like those out in Texas and down in California. Soon as the war got over, he guessed, a whole crop of flyboys would be coming home and grabbing up those jobs. He was going to get in on the action while the getting was good.

It wasn’t only clever career strategy that inspired the young man walking out to the mailbox that afternoon. More than any other reason, passion fueled his desire to fly. A hundred times he had kicked his father’s tractor into neutral just to watch a hawk rising high on thermals swirling up from the baked fields. Over the soft chugging of the diesel, he imagined the sound of air moving through stiff feathers. And once, while deer hunting alone in the lee of a high ridge, he had nearly touched a Golden Eagle. The huge bird had ridden a wave along the ridge’s crest, and at the sight of prey, had dropped, passing only a few feet above Hank’s head. For a moment he heard the very sound of air supporting the great bird: the hiss through polished barb and the unexpected slapping of ragged, trailing feathers. The spellbound young hunter even thought he heard the tips of talons tearing at the sky itself.

At dusk on late summer days, with dew already settling on grateful growing things, swallows would patrol the air space immediately above his mother’s lush back yard. Hank would walk the lawn just to watch the little birds fly at impossibly slow speeds, only inches above the grass, to intercept invisible insects his feet had scared into the air. The swallows’ magical flight–so low and so close–and the hopeful advertisement still tucked in his wallet, had served to bring Hank’s dream within reach.

With his Duster Enterprises application sent, so began Hank’s sentry at the mailbox. Like a kid enduring the torturous ‘seven to ten weeks’ for a box-top prize to arrive from a cereal company, Hank’s wait stood at day 71 when fate finally rolled up to the box. With the mail carrier’s dust just settling back to earth, Hank felt his future might begin at any second.

The rusted steel latch on the gate squealed in protest as Hank stepped from the front yard out to the galvanized box teetering on its post. A tangle of Morning Glory clung to the box, and one curling tendril tried to block Hank’s access to the lid, but to no avail– the mail always got through.

Hank threw open the box and, sure enough, a single letter addressed to Mr. Henry Schwaang Jr. lay there like a thin white wafer in a hot oven. He had expected the ‘Preflight Kit’ to be much more substantial. Hank snatched the envelope from the box. Its white paper was almost blinding in the summer sun, so he held it in the shade. His young eyes quickly adjusted as he read the return address:

United States Government
Department of Defense

And so it was that the draft board got to Hank Schwaang before Duster Enterprises. Standing beside that empty road with a torn envelope dangling uselessly from one hand, and Uncle Sam’s greetings held up to questioning eyes with the other, Hank remained frozen at a juncture of possibilities. One hopeful route would have led him to buzzing the tops of tall hedgerows and scraping the bottom of drifting summer clouds; the other route to a less lofty place–one, that with a war raging in Europe, was far less certain in its destination.

After reading and re-reading his orders to report for induction in Yakima, Hank had guessed it was a safe bet he could kiss his flying dreams good-bye, but that would have been a bet lost. The arrival of his draft notice that distant morning had interrupted Hank’s soaring plans, but it had not robbed him of his opportunity to fly. In fact, eight months after being swept into the service, Corporal H. Schwaang had earned his wings, and fly he had, not swooping over looming summer hedgerows, but gliding helplessly over Normandy in the dead of a treacherous night–the pilot of thirteen doomed  participants in the silent airborne invasion of Europe. Their wars ended in a few terrible moments. Their pilot never considered himself so lucky.

 

First Love

IMG_0468

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here it was again,

the first blush of love

unfettered by doubts, or fears

or personal politics…

the wondrous sensation

so casually waved off as infatuation

by a world of jealous cynics

who should be so lucky

as to have such a reckless,

divine emotion

pulling their hearts

into foolish and joyful places.

 

D. Anslow

 

 

Tech Trials and Banana Mania

SlurryExcuse me, but as I peck away at these keys I must confess that I do so while suffering the closest thing to a hangover I’ve experienced in several years. Although I still love a good drink, my cocktail shaker languishes in semi-retirement, and my alcohol consumption has plummeted down to near Mormon levels. But last night, Valentines night, a couple of recent developments conspired to knock my wagon off its tracks. Neither of them had anything to do with cupid or a good drink.

Development number one: 4-hour wrangle with technology.

In an effort to master the promise of digital music systems, and to keep up with my pal, Milt, I have recently found myself a reluctant, late-blooming fan of the iPod, iTunes and all things “i”. My efforts are rooted in a foolish lust for an ever-enlarging music collection, a passion that goes damn near back to the wax cylinder era, and has led me of late to patching together chunks of my friends’ mpeg music libraries, digitizing my old vinyl records, downloading store-bought files, and, of course, ripping all my and most of my friends’ CDs into the computer. Not content with a preposterously large music library, I have further embraced a plan to set up the stereo with some kind of device so that I might remotely control the whole shebang using my phone or pad or glasses or sub-cranial implant. Whatever the means, the idea has always been to DJ the entire collection wirelessly while lounging on the sofa with a beer. And to be honest, to impress the crap out of my Luddite friends (there are still a few of them left…you know who you are).

This project might be business as usual, no big deal, for techies and maybe for you, but for me it has been the holy grail – well worth the anticipated acute frustration that I always knew lay ahead if I were ever to move up a notch in my iSkills. Of course, cajoling unyielding electronic gadgets and murky software is a challenge even to tech-savvy persons, but to those of us who labor under an innate aversion to all things tech, such encounters can rile us to road rage levels if not pacified by our spiritual advisor or an urgent visit to the liquor cabinet.

Earlier this week I finally completed the process of whipping my digital music library into shape and getting it onto a server. Yesterday I decided was the day to put the final piece of the puzzle into place: the remote control. That is, as it turns out, an app that resides on one’s phone or pad.  Of course, I was immediately stymied; the OS on my second-hand phone could not support the Remote app. It politely informed me that I would have to upgrade the phone’s OS. Okay, I got right on it, but the cursed phone told me, sorry Charlie, your memory is insufficient. I looked into it and discovered that my phone’s memory was consumed by all my trivial photos, clever videos and narcissistic music clips. So I had to sync, backup and purge all sorts of previously untouchable data from my phone. But another ever-so-earnest voice in my phone alerted me that before I could do that I had to upgrade the ancient iTunes software on my “business” computer where I keep my phone data so the sync would work properly. Okay got that done. The sofa beckoned.

Now I had room in the phone so I could upgrade the OS,  so I could download the app so I could control the software to control the computer which directs the stereo to play the music on the air on the frog on the bump on the log in the hole…. The OS download took about 45 minutes after about two hours of syncing and purging…sounds disgusting. Anyway, got that done.

Progress was gratifying but the new interface of the OS on phone was/is off-putting. I have already butt dialed several friends at socially unacceptable calling times due to my unfamiliarity with the OS’s “chic new look.” What the hell, their inconvenience was a small price to pay for my dream of fully reclined music surfing…but I still had a way to go.

Before proceeding, I tested the ability of the computer to play to the stereo wirelessly and discovered the AirPort Express software in the server computer was out of date and/or needed reconfiguring or re-something since I had recently installed a new router for our home Wi-Fi and in so doing had evidently messed with our electronic Mojo. Jesus! So I had to download new AirPort software, reinstall the damned utility and restart the computer just to be safe. Another twenty minutes. I was good with that.

Ten deep breaths. I ran a little test to see that the audio signal (We’re An American Band, Grand Funk Railroad) from the computer was getting through to the stereo…dead silence, no Mark Farmer to be heard. It took me twenty minutes to figure out that I had set the source selector on the stereo to the wrong input channel for my AirPort. Duh! Okay got that fixed: 5 seconds. “Feeling good, feeling right, it’s Saturday night.”

Now I was in business. Almost.

I fired up the new Remote app on the phone, and attempted to “pair” that device with iTunes using a pin number the Remote app had generated for me. Lo and behold, iTunes didn’t accept the number. Now what. This was out of my hands. The damn folks in Cupertino created Remote, they created the iTunes and they created the lousy phone. And it was their son of a bitching number…what could I do? What I could do was start all over again. Lord (or maybe Steve Jobs) knows why, but the second time was the charm.

I sat back on the couch per my old fantasy. I touched the app, touched “90’s music”, selected “You Bowed Down, Roger McGuinn” and boom, the living room was full of his glorious 12-string. Just like that. I forgot about the daunting technical goose chase I had just endured. Click: Brandenburg Concerto. Click: Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw. Click: Sketches of Spain. Click. Click. Click.

I used to dream about the ability to navigate my records so effortlessly. I always loved to spin platters for my friends, and got pretty good at organizing records, visualizing segues, locating grooves, cueing up and all those archaic skills. I was unbelievably stoked. I deserved a drink, which leads me to.

Development Number Two: banana slurries and Ringomania.

My part-time drinking buddy and full-time music appreciation pal, Milt (who is always about a generation ahead of me in things geek) walked in the door with his wife, Chris, just as I was in the throes of musical/technical Nirvana. As it turned out, I was also about halfway through a massive shot of an experimental banana split cocktail, the recipe for which I have been working on for about two years now. Never have got it right.

Milt is a musician, an amateur  ‘mixologist’, and a damn good sport who has happily attended me through many a misguided cocktail epiphany. With Roger’s Rickenbacker jangling the speakers, he and I got to work on some serious banana cocktail R&D while going nuts with the new sonic capabilities. We ended up with a mason jar of a brilliant approximation of the split’s elusive flavor and textural notes.  Attended by visions of accepting an award from the Willamette Valley Bartenders Association for best ‘new classic’ cocktail, we presented the first prototype cocktails to our wives, Chris and Shara. They clearly dug the music but were unimpressed with the towering, Matterhorn-like creations. Upon tasting the offering they delivered a withering critique and suggested that the creation didn’t resemble a banana split, but were more in the banana slurry vein. Milt and I apparently suffer from some kind of dysfunction of the taste buds or receptors deep in the brain, because we thought the slurry quite acceptable. Oh well, the girls moved to Tension Tamer tea. We tackled the Mason jar.

We song-surfed, slurped, and played coffee table games for several hilarious hours. Before the night was out, we had laid the chemical groundwork for the brain fog I am experiencing now. The girls rejection of Milt’s and my earnest mixological efforts notwithstanding, it was a great Valentines night.

It got better.

In the heights of musical/slurry ‘techstasy’ my phone chimed. It was a call from a friend, Steven, who had just discovered, and somehow impossibly finagled, the promotional codes that allowed him – and us, if we were interested – to purchase prime VIP seats for an upcoming concert by Ringo Starr and his All Starr Band in Bend, Oregon. Ringo! One of the fab four right in our neck of the woods! I had seen the mythical group in the heights of hysteria at the Hollywood Bowl back in August of 1965, and yet all these year later, the opportunity to watch fourth of the incredible quartet perform stirred dormant B-mania despite the dulling effects of half a lifetime, and the ravages of the slurry. In a flurry of musical nostalgia triggered by the magical device in hand, the overdose of banana-based stimulants, and the recent Beatles 50th anniversary hoopla, we fumbled our way on-line and into a website selling tickets to see Mr. Starkey – costly tickets I might add. But at this point in the evening no one seemed to care about the money, or even my nifty new gadget. 

It was February fourteenth and now all we needed was love.

Note in Mixology R&D Log – Feb 14, 2014: Banana cocktail produced no noticeable change in female behavior, but presented a  powerful effect on fiduciary restraint.

Note to Ringo Starr: If you read this post, we will be the group, center section/ fifteenth row, Bend, Oregon. You’ll recognize us: grey hair, Beatle haircuts…never mind. We will be the ones with the banana split cocktails.