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Old Squid (6)

The Old Squid rides a motorcyle and shares his observations.

The Beach Trip, Part 1: Friends Best, New, and Old

Avatar_GregHertel Those of you who know me, know that I've been a motorcycle bum for some years now. I work as little as possible and get most of my exercise jumping to conclusions and ducking responsibilities. This has allowed me time to travel and many of my (mis)adventures have been documented in this column. Sometimes, my Fearless Wife went with me but many times she was working and had to stay behind. Partly that's due to the fact that she's a saver and I'm as spender. I say that makes us the perfect couple. She says... well. I won't repeat what she says because this column may be read by children or others with delicate sensibilities and I don't want to offend them.

I do want her to travel with me though and for years I kept suggesting that she join me in retirement. She would roll her eyes and get on her bicycle to ride to work. Still, despite my addiction to fast motorcycles and my frequent contributions to various traffic enforcement funds we are surprisingly well off. Did I mention that me wife is a very thrifty person?

This year though, I finally convinced her to retire. Well, that's not completely correct. She finally achieved an age that allowed her to collect Social Security. I will take some credit for that though because I'm sure that it was my skilled driving that allowed her to live this long. Oh, there had been a couple of false starts, promises to retire in the past that she had backed out of so this time, I devised a cunning plan to lock her into the Grand Scheme: I booked her on a non-refundable air flightJ
"Honey, what would you like to do when you retire?"

"I'd like top visit my Mom in Portland and then take my sister to the Sisters Oregon quilt show."

"But if you were to take a trip, what would you really like to see."

"Well, you always get to take you Boy Dog trips to the races in California and ride down the Oregon coast to get there and I'm jealous of that. I've never seen the whole coast in one trip. I'd love to do that.

Exactly five minutes later, due to the wonders of the Internet, my Fearless Wife is booked on a Wednesday flight out of Friday Harbor through to Portland. The credit card is charged and the flight is not refundable. To seal the deal, there's not enough time to change her mind and ask work to change "retirement" to "vacation" so she's locked in now. She has to retire! She'll visit with family and go to the quilt show and I'll show up on Monday and we'll head for the coast on the BMW touring bike. Wednesday comes and she's packed and ready and at the exact time that she would be walking into work, instead, she's getting in a Kenmore plane to head into a clear blue sky. I love it when a plan comes together!

I putter around for a couple days and get packed to head down and meet her. I'll stay the weekend before I pick her up with my best friend who lives in Vancouver. We get together two or three times a year and it's always good to see him. We'll hang out and get to do guy things while the FW is doing girl things in Bend.

I'm set to leave on Friday but it's a long grind down I-5 on a motorcycle so I contact a friend in the Centralia area to see if she wants to meet for lunch. I'll need a break there anyway and lunch with a friend is better than lunch among strangers. She claims that she knows just the spot and we agree to meet at 12:00. I know it'll be a tight schedule leaving on the 8 AM boat but I'll be heading though Seattle at mid-day so traffic should be OK. "Seattle", "traffic", "OK" in the same sentence. You're all laughing right?

Well, it was OK at first, only a little behind by Everett but I knew that I could catch the Express Lanes going south so I wasn't worried. I would make up the time by zipping through the downtown core and pull in to Centralia just in the nick of time. I was doing fine, really. My radar detector was on and chirping at me to alert me to potential tickets. I was weaving and dodging along and feeling pretty smug.

I slid over to the left as I went by the downtown ready to pop out into the Portland bound sunlight. One problem. In most civilized parts of North America the left lane is the "through lane". In Seattle, it's the "Gotcha!" lane.

I suddenly realized that I was on a "5th Ave exit only lane". Notification of this occurs long after a concrete barrier prevents lane changes and instead of sunshine on the Espresso lanes, I'm in the multi-storied shadows of downtown Seattle and it's noon and everybody is going to get a latte!

I make a snap decision and turn left towards the stadiums figuring to get back on the I-90 ramp. Oops! They're staging equipment for the viaduct replacement tunnel and I'm shunted farther on to surface streets in the SoDo district. I keep going towards a distant sign indicating the freeway "on" ramp. Then the view is blocked as a train crosses in front of me and slows down and stops!!!

25 minutes after I was shunted into the city core I finally merged back onto I-5 but the Practical Joke Department wasn't done with me yet.

There is a new law on Washington highways. In the interest of safety, if an officer has pulled a car off onto the shoulder on the freeway you are supposed to vacate the right-hand lane and move left to give them a cushion. A well-intended law but on a busy day it turns a simple traffic stop into An Event as three lanes suddenly try to become two.

This happened several times during the trip and as people suddenly dove to the left, chaos reigned and traffic crawled! I know the law looks good on paper but the frantic shuffling around seemed dangerous and I wouldn't be surprised if it causes accidents

Just north of Tacoma, I realized that I was going to be even later than I had supposed so I left a message on my friends cell to expect me at 12:30. Many delays later, I rolled into Centralia at 1:15 fully expecting to be eating by myself. I followed the instructions I had folded into the tank bag, turned a corner and found out that I had a pretty good friend indeed.

Mandy was waiting. She'd been patiently sitting on the steps like a lost waif, enjoying the nice day. Still, 45 minutes is a long wait and a damn good friend. I hope that it was worth the wait for her. It was for me. The Berry Fields café was as good as promised and an hour later I was motoring on to Vancouver looking forward to a week with my buddy in the Big City of Vancouver.

I need to back track at this point though and recount one odd occurrence that happened on the ferry coming over. I was sitting in a booth on the ferry reading when a man about my age stopped and looked at me and said, "Do I know you?" I'd been getting this all week because for the first time in 25 years I had shaved my beard off. I did this for the 4th of July parade to walk with the Community theater group. All week long, people had been looking at me with a puzzled expression, sure that I was familiar but not quite recognizing my freshly exposed face.

I stuck my hand out and said my name, "**** *****" and started to launch into an explanation about how I had recently shaved when he replied, "Keith Davies". Wow! That stopped me cold. Talk about a blast from the past.! Keith was one of my best friends from well over four decades ago. We'd lost track of each other when I'd moved to San Juan Island back in 74. Of all the people on the ferry, he was the only one who'd know what I looked like without a beard!

"I saw you walking around earlier", he said, "and you were the right height and walked the same way."

"Really? The way I walk?

"Yeah, most people have a distinctive walk. You especially and we spent a lot of time wandering all over the Willamette valley together when we were at OSU."

I sat there with my mouth open. "I'll be damned!" We traded contact numbers and a couple of days later I met him at his house in Portland and we caught up on some of the missing years with a promise to do it again soon.

Chance meetings with an old friend from the past. Late arrivals with a new friend. All these things were on my mind as I rolled into the parking structure at my best friend's apartment in downtown Vancouver.

"A lot of excitement for a simple drive down the freeway!" I thought. "It'll probably be dull as ditch water from here on." Famous last thoughts!

Next, Part 2: Pole Dancing lessons and flaming Rust Rods!

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ENERGY Or A Few Words In Defense Of The Gasoline Engine Part 1

Avatar_GregHertel Happy birthday gasoline engine! You're 135 years old today! OK, I made that up.

The internal combustion engine, where the fuel burns inside the cylinder as opposed to the external combustion engine, where the fuel burns outside under a boiler had been around as a concept or poorly working model some time before.

As early as 1678 there was a design proposing an engine that used gunpowder to power a pump to lift water. A few were made but they were inefficient and most likely dangerous.

In 1794 a gas engine was built that actually worked though the inefficient and unreliable design still left much to be desired. Notice that I said "gas", not gasoline.

For the first 50 years of their existence, these early engines burned either natural gas or the illuminating gas used in street lamps. Liquid fuels would require as little more work.

These early engines were an attempt to replace the heavy steam engines that were then powering industry. A steam engine requires not only the power cylinder that does the work but also a massive boiler and firebox to burn the fuel and turn water into steam. Of course the real work was done by the energy locked up in the wood or coal the engine burned and all the mechanical contraption did was allow that energy to be harnessed. Simple idea, complicated execution!

In 1864, a German named N. A. Otto teamed up with some investors to form a company to build gas engines to power industry. Enough innovations had occurred and the new efficiency that made it profitable. That company is still in existence today as Deutz AG and they build heavy-duty industrial engines. That's an amazingly long time for a single business model to succeed!

Back to my original quote of 135 years, that's when Otto patented the 4-stroke engine that most modern engines trace back to. One of Otto's original partners an engineer named Gottlieb Daimler wanted to build transportation wagons. Otto's interest lay in engines to power pumps and stationary agricultural equipment. Otto wasn't interested in transportation so Daimler quit and started a company with another backer named Karl Benz.

Their first creation was a wooden framed, .5 horsepower motorcycle called the Einspur. Built in 1885, it could do all of 12 mph but was impractical and only a stepping-stone to the transportation wagon concept, so they then concentrated on 4-wheel vehicles. Still in business today, many Mercedes Benz transport wagons still cruise the island roads. This is really where I want to start this story.

Right now, the automobile's star is in decline. Machinea Non Grata with environmentalists, it is the root of all evil, the fount of greenhouse gases. Cars are supposed to have changed humanity for the worse, removed us from a more natural and purer state. We would be so much better off if not for the car... or so the rant goes. And electrics will soon take over and a battery-powered hearse will carry the last internal combustion vehicle to a rusty grave. Really?

Let's look at some of the assumptions. Take Greenhouse gases... please! Cars and trucks burn gasoline and diesel and they contribute 14% to the total. That's right, only 14% now it could be argued that the lifestyle that cars encourage drives much of the rest of the total and I won't argue that. I also won't argue that manmade greenhouse gases contribute to global warming though to what extent and to what end is still open to interpretation, but what is the alternative?

We live in the Oil Age. We use petroleum to move things, lift things, pump things, and grow things. What will replace oil? Petroleum represents stored sunlight. For many millions of years, ocean plankton settled to the bottom of prehistoric seas. Covered with silt and mud, heated by the earth, it slowly changed to the mix of chemicals we call crude oil. In some places it was trapped and we are able to tap into it and pump it out of the ground for our own use.

Over the last century we have been making massive withdrawals from that petroleum account. When we do this, we are really drawing on prehistoric sunshine. In fact, in the past century, we've used about a million years worth of this stored sunshine!

OK, build all the windmills you want, lay out solar panels over every sunny square foot of land, and grow massive amounts of corn all over what's left. You still can't make up for all the energy contained in the oil we use.

Let me state that a different way: there is not enough sunlight falling on the earth in a given year to furnish all of the energy we need to run our current worldwide economy. Now this is a "really bad thing" because it's not just a matter of taking fewer trips in the SUV or buying a bicycle. These are minor inconveniences that we could adjust to.

The major problem is hunger. We can't grow, harvest, or transport enough crops using wind, solar, and bio-fuels to feed the world. We need petroleum for fuel AND fertilizer. If the oil is gone then people will starve. When people are starving, they don't act rationally and they don't play well with others!

We'll come back to the energy problem in a later column, but for now, let's continue with our birthday celebration. the charge is that cars have changed society. Yup.

They've done it rapidly too. We are so cock sure of how cool and modern we are, of how fast things change in the digital age yet 1900 to 1920 makes us look like we are stuck in molasses.

In 1900, New York City had 2 million pounds of horse manure dumped in its streets every day. In the summer, a fine brown dust contaminated every surface including the lungs of the cities residents.

By 1920, cars replaced the horses and pollution, while still present, was in a different and less deadly form. In 1900 cities were compact and if you wanted to go anywhere, you went where the captains of industry decreed that mass transit would take you... on their schedule, not yours!

Consider social mores. In 1900 most dates were chaperoned affairs at local churches or civic clubs. By 1920, the backseat was replacing the front porch. Now just among friends here, really, which would you prefer, the front porch with Mom looking out the window or the back seat of your buddy's Model T? Yeah, thought so.

The profound change in our moral values starts right here in the back seat. Roaring 20s flappers to hip hop raves, it's a straight-line folks. Meanwhile, cars allowed suburbs, sprawl, and individual interstate travel.

On the farm, changes were even more profound. In 1900, one farmer could feed 2 or 3 people. Today, one farmer feeds 50 to 75 people. We romanticize rural life but the actual work of farming was long and hard and today we want the Norman Rockwell part of life in the past, not the sweaty, dirty part. Now, internal combustion engines do that hard work and if it weren't for those tireless engines chugging away, billions would be hungry and the world would be a meaner and far more uncertain place.

Finally, cars, and of course, motorcycles are the perfect expression of the American spirit. You can go when you want, where you want. You are free to "do your own thing in your own time! Far out man!" as the old Hippy bikers used to say.

Cars and bikes have reshaped our landscape. Sure, I hate a freeway tangle but can you travel Chuckanut Drive and not love it? I love my road trips across the West. I love to hike the wilderness but I get there by car and enjoy that trip too.

So happy birthday my V-8 friend. Keep on pulling V-twin buddy. I'm a lucky man and have lived in a special time when freedom was sold by the gallon. I am a credit card carrying member of the Oil Age. The road ahead may be bumpy and a little uncertain but it's been a great ride so far.

There are challengers around but the 4-stroke engine's got legs... or in this case wheels. New improvements, new innovations make it more efficient than ever. I think that the gasoline engine will be around in some form for at least a century more. Gasoline will be a different mix, certainly more expensive but there will be filling stations of some sort available.

One of my motorcycles is a 1947 Harley. I bought it in 1969 and was tickled that it was the same age as me. On our 100th birthday, I intend to fire it up and go for a ride. I bet I'll still be able to buy gasoline.

Maybe I'll head up Chuckanut, maybe Mt. Baker. As I twist the throttle, the old Harley's internal fire will push me down the road just as it's done for much of my adult life. I'll go where I want. I'll do my own thing in my own time. Far out man:-)

The Old Squid

 

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The Trouble with Travel - Part II

Avatar_GregHertel The problem with superstition is that it's so egocentric. The assumption is that the whole Universe cares so much about one individual that it changes the order of nature just to spite them. I have a hard time with that. I've even told friends who were convinced that the weather was their fault to get over themselves... please! Yet here I was with a nagging suspicion that that I had a special black cloud following me! This is not a good thought for a man with a science background. Proof? How about rain on the Kona coast?

You want more proof? OK, how about the trip to the World Superbike Races Memorial Day weekend this year. They are held in Utah and I was looking forward to the dry drive across eastern Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada. I took the Blackbird sport bike and got ready for a fast, fun ride with a best friend from college who had just bought a new motorcycle at my urging. I rode to his place in Vancouver on a Tuesday and got doused as I pulled in but it was west of the mountains so to be expected. Wednesday it poured so we waited it out. Thursday it showered on us in the Columbia River Gorge but we looked forward to a dry ride once we got east of the Cascades. What we got monsoonal rain!

We rode 250 miles through the hardest rain I've ever ridden in. A submarine would have made more sense than the motorcycles we were on. 20 miles out of Pendleton we are headed up the crest of the Blue Mountains, so called because of the color of the bikers riding on I - 84, when disaster strikes. An oil line on my buddies normally reliable Honda cracks and coats his front tire. As we pull over at a rest stop his wheel skates and he goes down! He's shaken and a little bruised but the bike is down for the count. A guy in a following pickup truck sees it happen and stops to offer help. Eventually, he hauls my friend and his bike 70 miles to Baker City. He's out of the ride and the races so he takes a bus home the next day and I press on through the looming rain. The weather at the races was OK but the ride home was a repeat of the ride over.

Then there was the time in mid - June I took my geology - loving friend on the back of my bike to LaPine Oregon so she could buy a motorcycle. I promised to show her Mt. St. Helens and some other volcanoes along the way. We saw fog, clouds, and of course the ubiquitous rain!

There's a volcano back there somewhere!

Not giving up, I took my fearless wife to the Olympic peninsula to achieve her dream of seeing Hurricane Ridge. We saw vampires in Forks, werewolves in La Push. But going up the ridge we saw the thickest fog I've ever seen. Visibility was 100' and we had to feel our way along the road.

Our view of the Olympics!

And then there was our trip to Tucson Arizona. This was in April but all the climate data said to expect mid 80's temperature. This would be guaranteed to warm us up after the winter following the Winter of Snowmagedon. I packed my little used tubes of sunscreen and then started looking for things to do in the Tucson area. There were desert hikes, air museums, and of course there was Tombstone. I have a pair of Colt .45 revolvers that deserved good holsters and what better place to find a set than Tombstone! I investigated and found that it wouldn't be a problem to fly the pistols down with me. You use special locks on hard cases that allow TSA to open check the firearms. You tell the agent as you check your bags that you are traveling with firearms and they give you a small form to fill out and away you go. If anything, your bags are safer with guns in them than without. The last thing TSA wants are baggage handlers stealing firearms. Sometimes at the trips end they even bring your bag out to you rather than putting it on the carousel. You may fly coach but your bags fly first class and all for no extra fee.

The month before we left, I pushed to get a few jobs done at home. One was installing the trim on a friend's house and on a windy day, I got some of the cedar sawdust in my eye. At least, that's what I thought. Day by day my right eye was more and more irritated. I went to the clinic on a weekend, and then my own doctor and he sent me to an ophthalmologist in Anacortes. A through exam revealed no obvious splinters so the possibility of a viral infection called shingles was raised. Yikes! That's a long term and painful condition. In Anacortes my eyes had been dilated for the exam and of course on the way home the sun came out. I was almost incapacitated. The next day I went back to my doctor and after some more exams and research he told me I didn't have a case of shingles coming on.

"Don't start celebrating," he said. "You may have a nerve condition called trigeminal neuralgia. It's very painful and it's life long."

"And the good news is?" I ask.

"It may be treatable but not for a few months until it stabilizes." This is sobering indeed.

I go to the drug store and get my new meds. One is an anti - convulsion that will make me very sensitive to the sun. The other is a powerful narcotic that makes oxycontin look like baby aspirin. We leave for Tucson, sunny, sunny Tucson the next week. Did I mention that bright lights give me shooting pains in my head like the worst migraine? Of course the tickets are non - refundable.

My Fearless Wife and I discuss it and decide that I can be drugged up and miserable in Arizona as well as Friday Harbor so let's just go. I told her, "If I want to see the desert, I'll just hike it at night." I figured that she could visit the quilt shops by day and that I could hike at night. We wouldn't see much of each other but with the meds, it didn't matter!

In fact, there is this about flying when high on prescription narcotics, nothing matters! Crying baby? No problem. Tight legroom? Who cares? We arrived in Phoenix on a warm afternoon, rented a car and headed out. Me as the passenger of course. I was way too medicated to drive. Everything had gone smoothly so far. Even the guns had come through TSA without any hassles.

As we drove along we listened to local radio to get the flavor of the place. We had arrived in interesting times! The Arizona immigration bill had been passed by the state legislature and was awaiting the governor's signature. The state was overwhelmingly in favor of it. Even the Hispanic population of the state favored the bill. There was a real disconnect between what we were hearing locally and how the national media was portraying the bill. We got to Tucson, checked in and started touring.

Tombstone was interesting for a visit. A single gunfight in 1881 sealed the town's history. Everything revolves around the OK corral now. Reading the reprint of the Tombstone Epitaph newspaper published the month following the gunfight, I was struck by how political the whole affair was and how murky the real truth can be. It's worth a day to dig and really try to understand, to get by all the tourist stuff.

Of course I had other errands beyond western history. I had the pistols with me. In fact, I was wearing them because Arizona is an "open carry" state and any law - abiding citizen can simply strap on his shootin iron and walk down the street. Not only that, but people do. There are exceptions posted by some restaurants but I wouldn't eat in those cowardly joints.

We looked around and I did find a great holster maker and had a classic two - gun holster set made for the old Colts. Of course then the next step was to find a place to shoot them. Of course the TGN was still with me so a night walk was going to be my only option.

Locals did warn about the real danger of running into a Mexican smuggling gang in the desert at night but I figured that an old desert rat like me could handle them. After all, I had TWO guns so those dang nabbed outlaws just better steer clear of me if they valued their hides!

"Let me get this straight," my Fearless Wife said. "you are high on prescription narcotics, you have a condition called the Suicide Disease because the pain is so intense people used to kill themselves to be over it, you have two .45 revolvers, there may be Mexican drug smugglers in the area, and you want to go wander around the desert at night?"

"Yup." I was in my John Wayne mode of speaking so I kept it simple. Besides, she pretty well had the situation nailed.

"Is your life insurance paid up?"

"Yup."

"OK, but close the door when you leave and try not to wake me when you come back."

As evening approached, I checked the guns and made sure I had all the ammo I might need. I pulled on my boots and said a prayer for the poor bandits that might be unlucky enough to blunder into me.

It was almost dark when I left the condo and started hiking south. The spring had been wet and the cacti were blooming so there were lots of new odors in the air. As nice as they smell though, the cactus still needs to be treated with respect! One in particular is truly the plant from Hell. It's called the Jumping Cholla. The name comes from its seeming ability to leap out and skewer you with barbed spines. I encountered one with my ankle and jumped back thinking a rattlesnake had bit me. As I jumped, a branch on a shrub flicked my glasses off and I was immediately in the dark, blind and dancing on one foot yelling my head off.

Suddenly I stopped. There were shapes looming in the darkness! A Mexican gang had surrounded me. Like lightning I drew my trusty Colts and yelled, "Reach for the sky!" And they did!

Now what? It was the classic Mexican standoff. I had the drop on 'em but there were too many for me to try to tie them up. I could give them my meds and drug them but they might be used to drugs and besides, I didn't know if I had enough pills. I couldn't see very well because of the missing glasses but I could see well enough to know that I was in serious trouble. Still, they waited, probably recognizing my superior firepower and the moral superiority I had as an armed American.

We waited... and we waited. I wondered how long before me Fearless Wife would come looking for me. Even if I had been killed she needed to find my body to collect the insurance.

After a long night - .45 Colts weigh 2 ½ pounds and get heavier by the hour - the eastern sky started to lighten up. As the day came on I realized how tight a spot I was truly in. I was badly outnumbered and to top it off, the bandits were huge. Suddenly I heard a car coming. I must have been closer to a road than I thought! More bandits, police, or just tourists? Rather than take my eyes off the gang, I decided to chance it and hoping for the best, I just waited.

"Are you ready to come back for breakfast?" a familiar voice said. Hot damn! Of all people, it was my Fearless Wife.

"Quick, take a picture of these Mexican bandits so we can turn it over to the Border Patrol then let's get out of here." I shouted.

"OK." She said with a chuckle. I couldn't see the humor she was seeing but then I didn't have my glasses and she hadn't stayed up all night holding two pistols on a well-armed Mexican drug gang.

"Alright, got it. Let's go," she said.

I dove for the car and said, "Quick, get us out of here before they can get to their guns."

"How are you feeling?" she asked.

"Very tired and my head hurts."

"Well, take your meds and I'll drive us back but there is a surprise INS sweep up ahead so we may get stopped and delayed for a bit."

"Good, we can tell them about the bandits and maybe get a reward for helping to capture them."

She started to answer but sure enough, we topped a rise and there was the border patrol check station. I rolled down the window as we pulled up, "Buenos dios amigo," I said.

I figured that if they were Border Patrol they would speak Spanish so I pulled up all I that I had picked up from B-Westerns, Mexican restaurants, and border bars I had spent some of my misspent youth in. "Por favor senor, banditos el real."

The patrolmen looked puzzled so I figured that he was hard of hearing like many foreigners so I spoke louder and slower. Finally he said, "Sir, are you a U.S. citizen?"

Ha, he was trying to trick me! "No hablo anglesh," I replied.

Then he noticed my pistols and suddenly he demanded that I get out of the car. My meds were kicking in pretty good and I must have been slow to comply because he and a couple of buddies helped me out and onto the ground. I kept trying to explain that I wasn't the bandito but by now my Mexican had devolved into only the more colorful phrases I had picked up in the bars. These I thought were complimenting his sister and mother but he, in his ignorance of Spanish mistook my attempts to break the ice and I was rudely handcuffed and my Fearless Wife had to go in to the office and explain what was happening.

After awhile she came out. She was laughing pretty hard but things must have gone well because I was allowed to stand up and the plastic cuffs were cut off. We were allowed to leave. Then and in a friendly spirit I shouted, "Via con hueavos!" out the window as we drove away. The next day, the governor signed the immigration bill and I felt bad that the border problem would be solved and the nice officers would now be out of work.

There was one really good thing that came out of my long night in the desert though. I attribute it to me sleepless showdown and the time spent staring down the Mexican bandits in the cool night air. The head pains I had been experiencing started to ease. By the end of the trip I was down from taking meds four times a day to twice, then once, and I finally, I stopped completely. A trip to a neurologist in the week following our return gave me a new diagnosis, I had simply suffered from a severe migraine.

"A month long?" I asked.

"Yup," he replied. He must have watched those John Wayne movies too.

"So what caused it, Doc?"

"I can't say. There was no obvious organic cause. It could have been something in the environment. Hell, I don't know, maybe you were just unlucky, maybe you were just jinxed but you probably don't believe in those old superstitions."

"Oh, you'd be surprised Doc, you'd be surprised."

The Old Squid fearlessly holds off the Mexican bandits (well, they looked like bandits... at night... without my glasses.)

The Old Squid

 

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The Trouble with Travel - Part I

Are you superstitious? Do you worry about walking under a ladder? Do you believe in being jinxed? I always considered myself to be the consummate scientist, logical, skeptical. Immune to rank superstition! Mr. Spock would be proud. Then I found out that I was afflicted with a travel jinx.

Like many people, I have dreamed of traveling. Sunny shores, warm, calm seas, trouble free days… yes, trouble free. None of these travel dreams ever mention trouble do they? Oh sure, there are funny movies about troubles while traveling. Think of the Chevy Chase "Vacation" series, troubles yes, but they are always funny troubles and the troubles are always solved.

For me, the travel dream was Hawaii. I had visions of drinking mai tais out of hollowed out pineapples, warm sun, gentle surf. On the other hand, my Fearless Wife dreamed of being rescued by Tom Selleck in his Magnum PI guise. Of course that TV series took place on Oahu so I booked our trip to the big island of Hawaii. Heh, heh, he who controls the keyboard, controls the itineraryJ Besides; I wanted to see the volcanoes. I started out life as a geologist and it was about time to see the red rock in motion. The other reason was the weather. This had been the winter of Snowmaggedon. I wanted a change so I booked on the Kona coast, Hawaii's desert, and home of the original Iron Man Triathlon. Less rain here than any place on any of the islands, more sun too. After a cold, gloomy winter, lot's of sun was sounding good.

To prepare for the trip, I bought snorkeling gear and taught myself to swim with it. I practiced in the Club pool and started to get into shape. I made lists. I packed and repacked. I had a dandy selection of waterproof sunscreen on the advice of several friends who warned about back of the leg sunburns due to swimming in the tropical seas around the islands. There were a few glitches getting packed and ready, but I attributed them to my inexperience, not a Travel Jinx.

For instance, I had used the air-mile points on my credit card to book a flight. Of course, the company looks for the cheapest flights possible, meaning multiple legs to fill empty spots. Seattle to Portland to LAX to Kona takes a long time, especially when LAX involves a looooong layover. On the other hand, time spent in LAX is like being stranded in a very poor third world country so it really qualifies as a foreign adventure! It's a real disconnect though to look out the dirty windows in the terminal and see the famous Hollywood sign on the distant hill. 12 hours after we started, we finally landed at Kailua International and walked out into a warm tropical sunset. Little did we know that it was the last of the sun that we would see for many days.

The next day it was cloudy but still warm by NW standards (above 60). The natives were shivering but we took the rental car out and hit the roads. We did the tourist things, hiked, looked, and swam. I made friends with the sea turtles in a small park where we went snorkeling. I discovered that a properly made My Tai has enough fresh fruit in it to qualify as a meal and so is healthyJ We also dodged showers but again, it was warm and the up side of all the clouds was that I didn't need to worry about sunburn. The sunscreen went unused. I still didn't think of it as a jinx yet but that was quickly coming.

Now how many of you have heard of Madam Pele? She is the Hawaiian deity who is personified by the volcano and a powerful and vindictive goddess. It is wise not cross her. According to legend, she appears as a beautiful young woman near the volcano but as an old lady near the shore. One must always address old women respectfully near the shore because you never know who your talking to and you sure as hell don't want to piss off a deity with a bad attitude and the ability to do something about it. At least that's how the stories go. Old ladies of course tell these stories. How convenient. Pass on the tribal culture and get a little respect all at the same time.

Another story that is even used by the National Parks is that Pele jealously guards her island and curses anyone who takes even the smallest sample home. A ranger with a straight face told us this and recounted stories of visitors mailing boxes of rocks back from Kansas after bad luck befell them when they got home. OK, I know you're not supposed to take samples from National Parks but resorting to rank superstition? Really! A simple sign instructing us to leave nature in place would seem to be adequate.

One night, my Fearless Wife and I are filling out the day's quota of postcards. We love to send cards and have a list of friends that get regular samples. My wife likes the old classic scenic ones. I look for local humor. Jackalopes and giant trout on log trucks are more my style. If I can't find humor, then I'll make it up. I was writing a card to a friend who is a geology major at WWU. She'd wanted a sample of lava and I had promised one though I had joked with her about Pele's curse and told her that it might be bad luck for both of us.

I decided to write a shaggy dog story and string it on for several cards. On her first card I told her that I had her rocks but that the car had a flat but not to worry, we were back and all was well. In card #2, her samples were safe in the trunk but the rental car had completely broken down and I sprained an ankle trying to hike out of the isolated area we were in. Another day later recounted a steadily escalating litany of disasters and on card #4 the microwave right above the counter where her lava samples were allegedly sitting catches fire and almost burns down the condo we are in! Of course my wife and I are chuckling over these small pieces of fiction as we send them out. After #4 goes out I decide that my buddy really deserves a sample so I go down to the yard and pick out a couple small chunks of basaltic lava. I set them in the middle of the table and my Fearless Wife arranges a lei around them to 'protect us from evil curses' and we laugh and head out for another day snorkeling in the rain in the nearby park.

At the park, the surf was up a bit though and it was difficult to get in the water and get the fins on. I was still a bit awkward with this because I hadn't practiced getting fins off and on in the water. I tried to put them on while on shore but walking through the small surf, even walking backwards felt like an accident waiting to happen. To make things even more interesting there was a ton of kids boogie boarding. A boogie board is a much-shortened version of a surfboard and is meant to be laid on in small surf. They seem to have no directional control and the helpful advice of the kids to anyone in the way was "Look out dude!" I was a large, slowly moving target and felt like I'd stumbled into a swarm of aquatic suicidal bees, as every wave seemed to have a crest of manic spongers (a surfers derogatory name for boogie boarders) aimed right at me! I kept trying to get fins and mask on and every time I'd get one in place, I'd get knocked back by a wave or have to dodge another crazed sponger. I kept thinking about Pele's curse but dismissively. What I was experiencing was simply too many kids and too much wave action. I finally decided to head in to shallower water and sit and put the fins on. I turned and was waist deep when I heard a yell from some kids off to the sides. I then committed the sin of "not keeping an eye on the Ocean"! I turned my back to the waves and headed to shore but a sudden noise made me look over my shoulder. A wave that had been shoulder high had suddenly reared up above my head and was poised to break right on top of me. I wasn't worried. It was what, a three foot wave top to bottom?

Boom! It broke on me and the next thing I knew I was driven into the bottom and dumped into the spin cycle. I dropped my fins and my mask was ripped off my face. I stood up as soon as I was able and started looking for my lost gear. The water was all foam and sand so nothing showed at first but suddenly a fin tumbled up a few feet ahead of me. Now I know why the gear is all fluorescent colors! Heading for it, I stepped on the other fin and soon had both in hand. But not the mask! My $150 mask with corrective lenses was clear, no color and even though I searched for 30 minutes and even went back the next day, it was trully lost.

OK, maybe Pele's curse is just superstition but driving back to the condo, I made a decision, I went in, grabbed the lava and a bottle of gin and went back to the yard where the samples came from and carefully placed them back on the ground. Then, out loud, not caring who heard, I apologized to Pele for taking a piece of her island and then I poured some gin around the rocks. Madame Pele is supposed to be quite fond of gin. It was only a start. Pele still wasn't satisfied and she had one more test to see if I was truly worthy.

That night, I was restless. 2AM and I'm suddenly wide awake. I could sit in the living room and read but I can do that at home so I decided to take a tropical night walk instead. The condo was across the street from the shore and I could still hear the waves breaking on the rocks. I walked out in shorts and one of my Hawaiian shirts and headed for a small park with beach access a half a block away. As I reached the middle of the road I saw a small child cross towards the rocky shore just up the street. I was surprised at this considering the hour and even more surprised when she, I could now see that she was a small girl, came out of the brush by the shore and seemed confused. I started ambling down to see if she was lost or in trouble.

As I approached I said "Hi" from a ways away so that I wouldn't startle her. She turned and I could see that instead of a young girl, she was a very short, very slender, very old Asian woman. I asked if she needed help and she replied, "I have a doctors appointment I have to get to."

It was 2:30AM by now. "Where is your doctors office? There's only ocean the way you were going."

She gave me the name of a street a block down but the address was a mile up the hill. She seemed confused so I asked her name and she replied "Mrs. Lee"

"Mrs. Lee, I have a car back at the condo, why don't you sit on that bench across the street and I'll go get it."

I escorted her to the bench in front of a closed up dive shop and I asked again if she would wait and made sure that she was comfortable. She was tired from her previous walk. I kept her talking and found out that she was a retired public health RN. As near as I could tell, she had walked well over two miles trying to keep an appointment that was for the middle of the next day. She promised me that she would wait for me and I hustled back and instead of the car, picked up my cell phone and dialed 911 and asked for EMT's to meet me. When I got back to Mrs. Lee she asked about the car but I told her that I had called some "friends" instead. Within 5 minutes my friends showed up in their big red and white van and they started talking to Mrs. Lee. One of the EMT's even knew her. She had indeed been a nurse, and a well respected one at that, when he was a young boy. They respectfully asked her to sit with them in the ambulance and told me that they would see that she got home to her family. I went over and wished her good night and told her that I was happy to meet her and they drove away.

As I walked back towards the condo I remembered what the old Hawaiian women say about Pele: a beautiful young woman in the mountains but an old woman by the shore. I laughed, "Mrs. Lee my achin' back! That was Pele testing me."

Silly superstition? Maybe but the next day, the sun came out and it stayed out every day for the rest of the trip. Even going home the good luck lasted. We transferred to a cramped 737 at LAX for the final leg home and sitting in 2 of the 3 seats in our row, we looked down the aisle and wondered who our row mate would be for the crowded flight. In walks the UW basketball team fresh from a game with UCLA. They all have to duck just to clear the ceiling and on top of that they are big! I have visions of a 6'3", 230# point guard trying to occupy the small space that a window seat allows. The team comes down the aisle looking at tickets and seat numbers. One sits in front of us, one behind. They keep coming and still no one in the window seat next to us. There are only two hulking giants left in the aisle and as they approach us, I know that we are doomed. They draw abreast of us and suddenly, a small clear voice from between the giants calls the number of our row and Pele be praised! A tiny Asian coed headed back to Seattle appears from between the players and points at the window seat with a smile. Our flight back would not be crowded.

OK, so silly superstition? Maybe, but I was glad that I put those rocks back and glad that I'd passed the test the next night with Mrs. Lee. Of course the travel jinx wasn't over yet but at least this trip ended better than it began.

(To be continued)

The Old Squid

 

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SAE

Avatar_GregHertel When I was 14, I started buying tools in anticipation of my 16th birthday. My father was a carpenter and the motley collection of war surplus monkey wrenches he owned wouldn't fit in the spaces I was finding under the hoods of the cars I was trying to fix up so I knew that it was time to buy my own tools. His tools were literally Old Navy, designed to fit in the engine room of a WW2 Destroyer, not a Chevy 6. I knew from reading Hot Rod magazine that Snap-On tools were the best but just try and find some!! They were sold only to "the trade". If you weren't a working mechanic, the Snap-On salesman wouldn't talk to you. Seems weird now in this day of optimizing every sales niche but that's the way the game was played then. I wasn't impressed by the stuff sold at the local hardware store so I went to Sears for my first full set of sockets and wrenches. My Mom pushed for this as she was a dedicated shopper and loved going to Sears. She told me that her best friend Ann said that her husband said that his cousin said that Sears' tools were great. Yeah, right! Then I asked our local mechanical guru what he thought and surprisingly, he agreed! Chuck-the-mechanic was a legend among the local hot rod set. He lived in the back of his shop, every car crazed boys dream. He owned a 49 Mercury flathead V-8 and a cherry model A coupe that we all wanted to customize. He also owned at least two dozen cats but we forgave him that because he had more knowledge about anything mechanical than anyone we knew. If he said that the Sears Craftsman line was good, it must be so.

The day after my 14th birthday we headed to Sears and using all of my gift money I bought "the basic set". This consists of a 1/2" ratchet drive, a 4" extension, and seven sockets ranging from 7/16" to 7/8". I also bought a set of wrenches spanning the same sizes. As for quality, well, almost 50 years later I still have most of the tools and they are still in top shape. The few that broke were replaced without question under the lifetime warranty that the Craftsman line was sold under. The warranty say's "will be replaced free of charge if broken under normal use". I assumed that a 4' cheater bar on a 3/4" socket counts as normal. It was normal for a farm boy trying to undo the head bolt on a 41 Chevy flat bed truck that hadn't been run in decades.

That basic set worked fine until I was 16 and I got a Vespa scooter. Suddenly, my tools didn't fit! They were loose and didn't seem to match well. I was cursing the perfidy of foreign manufactures one day while talking to Chuck and he laughed and told me about the plot to bankrupt America by the metric conspiracy. It turned out that they didn't use good ol American inches in those ferrin countries, they used something called the metric system and this would put American mechanics out of business because they couldn't afford all of the duplicate tools needed to work on the cheap cars and motorcycles flooding the market from sinister forces across the ocean. Well, Chuck was a conspiracy buff and quite frankly, I hadn't seen these legions of foreign mechanics lurking behind ever lamppost waiting to take over so I decided I'd decline joining the resistance movement and buy a set of metric sockets. Sears had em of course. Over the years, the metric set got used more and more. First on the BMW's and Hondas I owned and then on the Volkswagens I drove. Finally even American cars used first a confusing mix of SAE and metric and finally just metric fasteners. The SAE tool drawer on my toolbox stayed closed for days, weeks, months… finally, it just stayed closed.

Lately though, I've been trying to catch up on my own mechanical work. I finished the garage I started last spring and now I have a place to park motorcycles not getting worked on. Slowly I've been going through the mechanical herd, changing oil, replacing filters, and charging batteries. It's a large herd too, at least a dozen bikes and scooters and most of them even run now. Yesterday it was finally the Old Harley's turn on the lift. I've owned this bike since 1969. A tune up and oil change were needed and the brakes were so bad its nickname should be "The Toyota"! Built in 1947 (same as me so it's not an antique, we're both "classics") and assembled with at least a five gallon bucket full of fasteners… good, solid, SAE, American fastenersJ I finally opened up the "inch drawer" and laid out the old craftsman wrenches. These wrenches saw use most recently… well maybe not very recently, but when I owned a commercial fishing boat back in the late 70's and early 80's. One summer, the Chrysler Crown marine engine in the little gillnetter died! I tried to find another Crown but they had long been out of production. Finally, I did a transplant using the motor from my wife's 1950 Chrysler sedan. The block on the car engine was the same block as the Crown in the boat! My wife was out of town that weekend and I didn't have any way to call her. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. I'm not sure that she's ever forgiven me though. That was a comfortable car on long trips with room for several families! Of course it was all American and the inch tools were the go-to drawer. In one long weekend the old motor was out and swapped into the gill-netter.

When she came home it was "Why is the hood off my old car?"

"It's a long story dear."

"It better be a good one!"

Well, it was good enough and that summer was one of the few good runs of salmon and I bought her a new sewing machine. 150 sockeye salon equals one really nice sewing machine and a happy… or at least grudgingly accepting wife.

As I worked with these tools now, they aren't pristine. A few have rust from trips to the bilges and the sockets aren't all the same age due to various failures under 'normal use'. They don't have that Cadillac feel that the few Snap-on tools I finally acquired do but they still work quite well. They give me that tactile connection to work that is missing from so many jobs today. I feel the movement of the nut as I tighten it and the increasing resistance as it comes up against the bolt. If I go to far, twist too hard, there will be that sickening give as the bolt fails or the threads strip. As a kid I learned about too much leverage the hard way! Stripped threads taught me about helicoil repairs and the magic of torque wrenches. This feel for the work is missing from too many jobs today. Does an investment banker ever feel money? If they did, then maybe as the stack got shorter due to a bad investment, they would change the game plan sooner. Maybe simple numbers on the screen don't have the impact of a suddenly thinner wallet. How many of you have ever wiped out work on a computer with one casual touch of a key? The resistance of the key is the same whether it's "save" or "delete". No feedback to tell you that disaster looms!

As a teacher I didn't have the kind of feedback that a mechanic has. Clerks, accountants also work without physical feedback. As we move to more computer screens in our lives we become more isolated from the tactile world except in experiential ways. We only feel because we seek out an experience not because the job gives it to us. We are central heated and filtered from the real world. Sun blocked, cushioned, we rarely repair; instead, we replace or buy the latest model with more features.

I know that I sound like a Luddite but I'm not. I know that my little computerized, electronically fuel injected Vespa is far better that the old mix-the-oil-with-the-gas, kick it to start it scooter I owned 45+ years ago. The new one always runs and will do so far longer, using less gas, going way faster than the old one. My motorcycles with the carefully monitored fuel injection will last 200,000 miles before needing rebuilding versus maybe 50,000 for the old carbureted ones. Life is better in this digital age in some ways but I miss that feel from the objects at hand. Oh yeah, I'm also a littler out of practice. I cross-threaded a bolt on the Harley putting the clutch back in. Some lessons of the mechanical gods need repeating and the tuition just keeps going up but it's worth itJ

*SAE Society of Automotive Engineers. Founded in 1905 and dedicated to developing standards for common tools and parts for American cars.

The Old Squid

 

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Death and Taxes

Avatar_GregHertel Suppose that I said that I had a new County tax scheme that would increase taxes to middle class and working families. Also suppose that my program would achieve this by benefiting large landholders and trusts. As a final incentive to get you to adopt this tax scheme, it would drive up the cost of housing at the 'affordable' end of the spectrum and make large estates less costly. Would you support this plan? Does it sound like a good idea? A fair deal?

Guess what, you already have this plan! In a classic example of the law of unintended consequences, the county's open space plans have achieved all of the goals I've outlined in the first paragraph. If you own land in San Juan County and it is not part of one of the various Open Space programs, your taxes are significantly higher than they would be if those programs did not exist. I'll use my own land as an example and then compare it to some other properties on San Juan Island. You decide if you think our current tax system is equitable.

First, to put this in context, I moved to the island in 1974 as a schoolteacher. In 1976, I sold a small house in the Portland area and used the $1000 profit to make a down payment on 5 acres in the Wold Rd. area. The land was unimproved and we rented closer to town until 1987 when with my Dad's help and hiring some parts of the construction I built a 3 bedroom house under the County's owner/builder permit. The house is ~1700 sq. ft. It's not fancy but it's home. Over the years, the value of the house has appreciated and last years statement from the County tells me that the house was assessed at $333,710 and my 5.05 acres of land was valued at $179,280. I will pay about $2866 in taxes on this. Now let's compare my house and land to some parcels that are in the various reduced tax categories.

Near the airport there is a 93-acre parcel that is in the Timber category. It has a small building valued at $74,090 while the land is assessed at $24,440! Taxes are around $600 per year. Another 68 acre parcel nearby has no buildings and its value is set at $4550. Taxes will be about $28 per year! These are huge savings over what a parcel assessed at fair market rates would pay. The rest of us make up the difference in higher taxes.

A 31-acre waterfront parcel owned by county council member's family trust is assessed at $125,270, a fraction of its market value. In one of the largest transfers in the county, the owners of Spieden Island save $90,000 every year in property taxes. The rest of us make up that money. None of this affects the county's budget. There is no loss here because the money saved by one land owner is paid by all the rest. Unless your land is in one of the various reduced categories, your taxes are higher to make up for all the land that is reduced.

It's with the best of intentions that all of this is done. The Agriculture classification is meant to give farmers a break though there are fewer farmers in the County than land parcels in this category. The Timber category is meant to allow for the long periods between harvests. The Open Space is meant to preserve the rural feel of the land that we all love.

Unfortunately, all of this comes with a price and the end result is a higher tax on smaller, less scenic parcels. Now the county council is considering yet another category to give a break to land that might be used for agriculture. The net effect of this will be to drive the rest of our taxes up even higher.

I would like to suggest instead that they revisit the whole structure that we've gradually slipped into. In these times, we don't need higher taxes and even more unaffordable housing. I would be happy to see the whole program simply go away. Tax every one equally at the same rate.

Some properties may have to be sold but I don't think that we'll see wholesale development as a result. The density categories already exist to prevent that. I don't expect that Spieden Island will suddenly be sub-divided into ranks of tract housing nor do I expect to see the San Juan Valley Mall spring up. It would require adjustment in some family's budgets and maybe it should be phased in gradually. But it should be talked about, revisited to see if the code is giving us what we want.

The public benefit that is supposed to accompany the tax breaks seems limited and difficult to determine on a parcel-by-parcel case. Public access is very limited and obscure sometimes only allowing a very limited number of groups access on a couple of dates a year. Meanwhile, there have been several levies passed recently that we've been asked to support and while I've supported my share, after examining the current County tax structure and it's inherent unfairness, it will be hard for me to vote "yes" at any time in the future. The middle-class and workers of the county have been shouldering more than their fair share for too many years. It's time to change the way taxes are assessed!

--Greg Hertel
(former freeholder and current Commissioner for the Port of Friday Harbor)

 

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