Stephen W. Browne | Rants and Raves

CAT | Adventure

Jul/16

10

My America

Finally it happened, the twice delayed road trip with my children, re-planed and expanded better than ever!

First day to the panhandle of Oklahoma. This year it looked greener than I’ve ever seen it due to an unusually wet year.

Our plan was to cruise the back highways through the panhandle and cross over to New Mexico to see Capulin Volcano National Park. My son saw it when he was five years old and his little sister was all of three weeks old carried around the rim of the ancient cinder cone in a sling by her mother.

My son is by now heartily sick of the story of that first trip, but it’s still a fave with his little sister. How we made the decision on the fly to drive from Black Mesa to see the volcano – and how we made the mistake of telling him what we were going to see.

So for two-and-a-half hours we listened to, “Are we there yet? Is that the volcano?”

“No! It’s two hours. Now be quiet!”

“OK… Is THAT the volcano?”

As we approached the volcano we began to fear he’d be terribly disappointed it wasn’t spewing fire.

No worries, he loved it. Just as nine years later his sister loved it, scampering up the path around the rim as Daddy and Big Brother labored to climb breathing the air available at 8,200 feet.

From Capulin to Colorado to have lunch with a friend who’ll be important in their lives in time to come. From Colorado to Wyoming to bathe in the hot spring pools of Thermopolis, a perennial favorite of ours from when we lived in Wyoming.

After picking up a tinge of pink because of course we’d forgotten that sunlight in high altitudes reflected off water equals burn, we went on to Devil’s Tower, which I’d visited once years before. We took a mile hike around the base and marveled at the climbers we could barely see high above us.

From Devil’s Tower to Deadwood, South Dakota. Took daughter for a walk downtown while my son settled a quarrel on an online gamer group. And how odd is it that he can pursue personal relationships with a group of people, some old friends and some he’s never met in person, while traveling thousands of miles around the country?

Took Little Bit to a sandwich place in an old gas station that also features a glass blowing studio.

“I like Deadwood,” she announced after looking around.

Fetched son, showed the kids the saloon where Wild Bill Hickock was murdered. Kids agreed this was major cool.

A kindly local directed us to Miss Kitty’s for pizza. Kids greatly amused aged Daddy misheard “Poor House Pizza.”

“You named a pizza for a bordello?” I said.

“No, POOR house.”

“Well it is Deadwood,” I said defensively.

Made the hand-off to their mother next day and left the two old Deadwood hands to show her around.

I love traveling. Maybe it’s in the blood. Family genealogies show no generations have been buried in the place they were born for centuries now.

Or maybe I picked up the wanderlust as a Navy brat. I’d made two Atlantic crossings by the time I entered first grade.

I’ve traveled all over Eastern Europe by train, and long stretches of the Arabian Peninsula by car.

But best of all I love to travel in my country by car, especially the Midwest and West. I love to take the old US Highways rather than the Interstates. I love to take my kids to eat in local restaurants where the food is best and the people always ready to chat.

I love to take them to places we’re familiar with, and new places we’ll become familiar with.

I have not been able to provide a lot of stability for my children in many ways. They live in a rental house with an eccentric single father. We’ve moved a lot, and I fear not for the last time. Their closest relatives are far away and hard to visit.

But I can do this for them. I can take them around the vast spaces of this big lucky country of ours, visiting favorite places and discovering new ones. Meeting people with skills and stories.

This is how I tell my children however far they roam and wherever they live, “This is your country, here you will always be home.”

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Nov/11

21

Another reason I love this job

Note: Cross-posted from my newspaper blog.

Friday morning I got to climb up one of the two interior ladders of the wind tower simulator at the Minnesota Emergency and Response Industrial Training (MERIT) Center in Marshall. Very cool.

That evening I went to a wine tasting for the United Way. Also very cool. Very glad it was in that order though.

The excuse was to take photos of the preliminary informal dedication of the tower simulator, which will be used to train maintenance and rescue workers. There will be a more formal dedication in the Spring.

The climb was made in the company of several city officials and members of the MERIT advisory board. We strapped into safety harnesses, got a quick orientation from professional instructors, and up we went two-by-two on the two interior ladders. That’s about 70 feet to the nacelle simulator, then from there you get to climb up onto the roof and take in the view.

I stress we were attached to the ladder all the way up, and clamped onto the tower at all times on the roof. These guys do take safety seriously.

Of course, with all the guys and ladies around, nobody was about to chicken out in front of everybody else. Though heights are not my favorite thing I did it hand over hand, foot over foot, staring fixedly at the wall opposite me and never looking up or down.

When I got down my arms were aching slightly from clinging to the ladder with more force than was strictly necessary. I then reminded my boss of a little-known rule in journalism: whenever you climb a 70-foot tower for an assignment you get to take the afternoon off.

But all in all, it was an exhilarating experience, one I’ll not soon forget.

The irony of it was though, we didn’t use any of the pictures I took from the top. So here’s one for you, loyal readers.

UPDATE: Some months later I covered a meeting of a regional economic development group in Lamberton, Minn. The meeting started with a Powerpoint presentation highlighting accomplishments of the year – and there was this very picture up there twice and big as life.

I shouted, “Hey! Let’s see that handsome guy on the tower again.” As we say in Oklahoma, “I know it’s wrong – but I’m weak.”

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Oct/11

11

Skydivers and other crazy people like me

Note: My personal blog is on indefinite hiatus, but I am cross-posting from my newspaper blog at the Marshall Independent.

Q: What’s the difference between a golfer and a skydiver?

A: A golfer goes, “Whack, DAMN!” A skydiver goes, “Damn, WHACK!”

I’ve just read about the tragic death of a skydiving instructor and student in a tandem jump in Nevada. Evidently the main chute failed to deploy, and the reserve chute tangled. It makes you wonder why people do things like that.

Interestingly the student was a 71-year-old woman, the instructor a man in his 60s with nearly 11,000 jumps.

That’s the nature of skydiving, kind of like Russian Roulette. That is, you can win and win, but if you keep it up…

The comparison I sometimes make is with SCUBA diving. When I was in high school I lived on the Atlantic coast and used to SCUBA dive. Like skydiving it counts as an extreme sport, requiring rigorous training, great attention to detail, and some fairly expensive equipment.

But unlike skydiving, if your SCUBA gear fails you make what’s called a free ascent. In skydiving if your parachute fails you will of course make a free descent, but the outcome is different.

Nonetheless, I have actually jumped out of a perfectly good airplane in operating condition, about 30-odd years ago.

I hurt myself. I didn’t think that happened. I thought you lived or you died, nothing in between.

Back then they didn’t have the tandem jumping equipment, where the instructor and student are strapped into one harness. We trained with military paratrooper-style chutes with a static line, or “idiot cord” attached to the plane that pulled open the parachute as we jumped – so technically it wasn’t “skydiving” but just a parachute jump.

Since I was last in the plane, I was first out the door and couldn’t chicken out without aborting the whole flight. The drill was, you climbed out and put one foot on the wheel of the plane, holding on to the wing strut with two hands. Then you push off.

I flinched.

Because I hesitated as I pushed off, I tumbled as I fell and felt the shrouds of the chute slap me across the face. Then when I felt I was hanging under the chute I looked up to see the shrouds a tangled mess.

“Time to pull the quick releases and go to the reserve chute,” was what I thought, though to be sure not quite that coherently. I think this was probably the most terrifying two seconds of my life.

As I grabbed the quick releases I regained enough composure to look up at the shrouds.

“Hmm,” I thought. “I’m going down at a reasonable rate of descent, I just can’t steer.”

So I reached up with both hands and parted the shrouds. I spun around as the shrouds untangled and I was fine. Just what seemed to be a slow descent, until the last ten feet or so in which the ground starts rushing at you like a freight train and you have to make yourself look at the horizon, not the ground, so you’ll be prepared to collapse and roll with the shock (which I didn’t.)

Even then the real skydivers had fancy chutes with something like brakes that enabled them to land nonchalantly upright without having to do that bone-shaking roll.

Instead of rolling, I sat down hard on my heels and felt my knees go POP! After that my knees weren’t in good enough shape to do it again soon, and I figured, “OK, now I can say I’ve done that.”

Since then I have gone parasailing behind a boat on a vacation in Tunisia, been a passenger in a plane doing acrobatic flying, but I haven’t hit the silk since.

However lately I’ve been having dreams about jumping again. I’ve been thinking about hang gliding, or ultralights.

Why do people do things like this? Durned if I know, but maybe I’ll be one of them again some day.

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Note: a shorter version of this article appeared a few years back in Liberty magazine.

Five and twenty ponies
Trotting through the dark-
Brandy for the Parson’
“Baccy for the Clerk.
Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie-
Watch the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen go by!

A Smuggler’s Song
Rudyard Kipling

It occurs to me, that as I get older the most cherished dreams of my boyhood and early youth are becoming fulfilled. Much of this I will immodestly attribute to boldness and persistence.

It is very satisfying to see years of work bear fruit, especially when nobody else really believed in you, and you yourself were frequently racked by self-doubt and discouragement. I got my Master’s degree in Anthropology after going to grad school part-time for six years while working relief shift in the city sewage treatment plant.

I attained my boyhood dream of getting black belts in a few different well-respected arts from distinguished teachers.

I’ve been taken seriously as an academic in a few Eastern European universities and institutions – something that could never have happened at that point in my life in America. I’ve even achieved modest success as a writer.

I’ve participated in some small way in the rebuilding of society on the ruins of the Soviet Empire and have been welcomed as a comrade by heroes of the struggle against tyranny. I’ve had travel, adventure and the honorable chance for a good scrap from time to time.

These are the fruits of persistence and the willingness to move halfway around the world to seek my fortune.

Then there are the rewards deserved but un-hoped for, those you long for but have given up hope of ever achieving. For me it was meeting the woman who became my wife and the birth of our son, events which happened at precisely the time I had given up all hope that I would ever have a family of my own.

These are not the rewards of virtue but happen as a special grace. If they don’t happen for you, you must learn to be content with the rewards that living the virtuous life as best as you can bring.

But I must confess, the rewards of virtue pale when compared to the rewards that are undeserved, unworthy, accidental and un-hoped for.

Remember the time you nobly succeeded in giving up a desire for revenge after much inner struggle – and then got it anyway? Say, the time you ran into the girl that dumped you and the guy she dumped you for – and you had an even better looking girl on your arm? Remember the look on both their faces?

Did you ever get to do something that you really wanted to as a kid? I mean something that adults are supposed to have grown out of? If you’re a cowboy or a fireman, you know exactly what I mean.

Well, let me tell you how it happened for me, the dream I’d had since I was twelve years old and my favorite book was a story called Jim Davis by the poet John Masefield. It is a marvelous tale of a young boy in England during the time of the Napoleonic wars, who goes off with the smugglers and has all kinds of adventures.

Though I won’t say I’ve never taken anything illegal across an international border, I strongly advise you against doing so. (Though if you should choose to do so on trains, put it under the towel waste in the wastebasket of the toilet. Even customs agents find it distasteful to go through that stuff and if they do find it, it’s not in your possession.)

Nonetheless, the drug war made smuggling just too hard-core for my taste. With profits and penalties so high, the racket is now run by murderously ruthless thugs not at all like the jolly smugglers of tobacco and French wines and lace that once made England “a small body of land entirely surrounded by smugglers”. Good idea to grow out of that particular dream.

But it happened for me! I did it. I ran away from home and joined the smugglers.

Well, OK, I didn’t run away from home exactly, my wife let me go off for a few days to attend the 13th American Studies Conference in Minsk, Belarus. Prof. Ivan Burylka of the University of Grodno and I were to do a joint presentation on American vs. Belarusian humor and I was going to talk about American utopian communities of the 19th century. My wife would have liked to have come, but work and the baby limited travel those days. She’s an awful good sport about these things, particularly given the expense involved and the fact that it doesn’t pay a thing.

The journey to Belarus was uneventful and the conference was fun, even alone. I got to sound out the reaction towards America on the heels of Gulf War II. (Among most of the Balts and Belarusians, largely pro-American and pro-Bush. George dubbya evidently made a speech in Vilnius promising, “There will be no more Yaltas.” To say the least, it played well.)

I also had my ear bent by a crusty but charming lady professor from Lithuania about how could we Americans have let the lunatic Left dominate the humanities in American universities? And how it had made her sick when she was there.

“What is this gender nonsense? Tell me what gender is!”

I tried to tell her I was on her side but she just had to rant to somebody about how damn stupid we were to have let this happen.

I attended a concert of traditional folk music and saw the ballet Spartacus at a theater in Minsk, festooned with the hammer and sickle all over the walls. This contained the most unintentionally hilarious moment in high culture I’ve ever seen. Imagine if you will, several dozen pairs of ballet dancers acting out a mass rape, buttocks rising and falling in unison…

Later we went to an embassy party held for an American professor of literature from the Midwest on her first trip to Eastern Europe. (Though somebody had to gently tell her that rhapsodizing about Liberation Theology and the “bearded Christ-like figures” of Castro and Che doesn’t play at all well in Eastern Europe.)

But the real treat of my little holiday came on the trip back. I fortunately had a sleeping compartment all to myself. The conductor came by and asked me if I had any tobacco or alcohol.

“No.” I replied.

“Well then, may I put some in your compartment?” he asked. “It won’t cost you anything.”

Ah-ha. “OK, no problem.”

He brought a carton of Pall Malls and a bottle of Belarusian vodka and put them in the cabinet above the sink. So, the conductor is running a little business of his own across the border. Enterprising fellow, I thought.

Now usually the customs inspections at the borders are rather perfunctory affairs. I think I’ve been asked to open my baggage twice in over ten years – and when they see you aren’t nervous about doing so, they usually stop you before you’ve unloaded much. Generally they ask you to step outside the compartment while they look under the mattresses and that’s about it.

Well this time was different. After the hour and a half at the Belarusian side of the border to change the undercarriage of the cars (the territory of the old Soviet Union has a different track gauge) we were held for more than two hours on the Polish side while customs went through the train with a thoroughness I’d never seen before. They looked in everybody’s baggage, in the spaces above the ceiling, in the radiator covers and took screwdrivers to several panels. Afterwards I saw them walk off the train, one of them carrying a big sack full of cartons of cigarettes. I’d never seen that happen before. My wife said they must have had a tip off.

Fortunately my little stash was well within the duty-free limit and caused no comment, not even a request for an explanation. As we pulled out of the station I asked the conductor if he’d like his stuff back and he thanked me nicely.

So as I stood in the corridor, I saw one of my neighbors with a screwdriver, taking off a panel next to the car door. He removed the panel and took out several cartons of cigarettes.

“They didn’t find them!” I exclaimed.

“Yeah but they got the rest of my stuff” he shrugged philosophically.

Hey you win some you lose some. You meet a better class of people smuggling tobacco and alcohol, and the nice thing is that they don’t arrest you when they catch you, they just take your stuff or give you the option of paying the duty.

So that’s how I ran away from home, joined the smugglers and lived my boyhood dream. Now I think I’ll try and find a copy of Jim Davis to read again and give to my son when he’s twelve.

To be drowned or be shot
Is our natural lot,
Why should we moreover, be hanged in the end –
After all our great pains
For to dangle in chains
As though we were smugglers, not poor honest men?

Poor Honest Men
Rudyard Kipling

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