Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Christmas Cruise - 2014 - Part One: Smuggler's Blues


I stepped off my bathroom scale and stared at the digital readout. It had to be wrong, so I tried again. It was exactly the same weight as it was five days before, the morning we left on our four-day Caribbean cruise. The scale must be broken. My wife tried it and was astonished to see her weight, obviously quite different from mine, was also the same as before we left on our holiday cruise. We were both within ounces of what we weighed before embarking on a four-day holiday cruise to the Bahamas. Unheard of; cruising and not gaining weight! 

My wife and I decided to do a nostalgic holiday cruise exactly twenty-five years after our first, memorable first cruise on board the MS Sunward II. The cruise was to be exactly the same itinerary as our original venture, but this would be aboard the on the MS Norwegian Sky, also on Norwegian Cruise Line. We anticipated a memorable cruise revisiting fond memories. We also expected to gain weight, something we've done every cruise we've taken, but we didn't gain a pound this time because, quite frankly, for the first cruise ever, the food just wasn't very good. In fact, it was awful!



We give names to our cruises, such as the cruise aboard the Star Princess when we silently, surreptitiously, sailed out of San Juan at midnight while the adjacent Carnival ship was in the midst of a lively, raucous departure party. We called that one the "Geritol" cruise. When we last sailed on NCL aboard the Seaward, they ran out of sugar packets as we left Cozumel headed back to Miami with a full day at sea ahead of us. We called that one the "Sugar" cruise. We'll call this one the "French Onion Soup" cruise. The French Onion Soup served as the precursor to our first evening meal in the Palace Dining Room was a real eye opener. It set the tone for the rest of the cruise. 

Departing Miami on the M/S Sunward II - November 1989

All cruise ships we've sailed on had a buffet lunch for arriving passengers as they boarded the ship. Boarding goes on for several hours and rooms are rarely ready for occupancy until later in the day, so it's easier just to grab a quick lunch and sit on the deck with your carry-on luggage as the ship fills up. The lunch buffet on the Sky reminded me more of my high school cafeteria than of a cruise ship. 


Departing Miami on the M/S Norwegian Sky - December 2014
This arrival buffet was limited to French fries, hot dogs, rolls, and a pressed meat patty of some kind. There were a few unappetizing pieces of melon scattered around one tray and I bravely picked the best looking pieces. I let the tasteless pressed meat patty that passed for a hamburger/meatloaf go without comment. I didn't eat all of it, or the stale bun that came with it, even though I was hungry. I did eat the melon. The French fries were only luke-warm and limp, bland and unappetizing. They were nothing, however, compared to what waited for us in the main dining room later for our first dinner. I devote the next chapter to that eye-opening experience. To say cruising has changed since we first started is an understatement. Concierge has been renamed to Customer Services, and that in itself explains where the cruise business is going.

It was a very memorable cruise, but not for the right reasons. I could judge the overall quality of the food served this entire cruise by describing my lunch on the second day, which was a cold tuna salad sandwich. The roll was quite cold and very stale, but the tuna salad wasn't bad. So, I scraped the tuna off and ate it with a fork. If I judge the cruise by the tuna salad, it really wasn't too bad, but if I judge it by the roll, I'd say I wasted my $1938.31.

I knew the MS Norwegian Sky was an older ship, she is sixteen years old, built in 1999, and sailed for four years as the Pride of Aloha during the 2000's before becoming the prime hauler for the Nassau/Freeport, Stirrup Cay itinerary of three and four day cruises for Norwegian Cruise Lines sailing from Miami, but we were unprepared for rust on the balcony or on railings around the ship. 

The cabin was clean, and the complimentary bar was well stocked, but at their unreasonable prices it wouldn't be touched for the duration of the cruise. However, under the new concept of cheap cruising, all shampoo and sink and shower soap is now in mounted dispensers, with no conditioner, and a message asking passengers to help with the environment by possibly reusing their towels! Reusing their towels was voluntary, of course.

The other side of Dodge Island at the Port of Miami
The mandatory lifeboat drill was no different. It was the first lifeboat drill we've attended where we were asked not to bring life jackets. We thought, "Well, this should go quickly!" Another assumption that proved to be wrong. After half an hour of shoving and shuffling passengers – tallest to the rear, move over please, no, he's taller, please step behind her, please don't block the short ones, move to the back, everyone get closer together please, closer, closer! – we heard an announcement on the ship's PA system that the ship had just had a minor fire down by the incinerator. Nothing to worry about, though, the Captain said. Most of the sweaty, agitated passengers simply rolled their eyes at the fire announcement, while some, quite baffled, wondered whether or not they should stay outside and prepare to abandon ship. It would have been easier to do then as we were still moored to the dock. To think adrenaline-fired passengers are going to line up according to height when trying to get off a sinking ship boggles the mind.  Today's cruising has lost contact with reality.  

We have friends we have been trying to get on cruise ships for years, I'm afraid they would have abandoned ship before we even cast off. 

But then again, they probably wouldn't have traveled with us if they had known we were smugglers. 

We checked two suitcases on boarding, Ilse's smaller one and mine, which had a box of wine wrapped in plastic placed in the bottom. It's against the rules to bring your own alcohol or wine on board ship on Norwegian Cruise Lines. We were allowed to bring one bottle of wine per person on board when embarked on the M/S Crown Princess only two years earlier. The “Corkage Fee” was $18 on that cruise, so either bring your own corkscrew as many do, or do as we have learned and simply pack a wine box, carefully wrapped in leak-proof plastic so as not to spoil your vacation in case of dropped luggage. Easy to open, and easy to lock back up in the suitcase away from the maid when you are out of the room. The wine box actually exceeds the one bottle limit but no one checks the volume. Anything to help alleviate the pain. But this was Norwegian Cruise Lines with different rules.

Getting caught was only fair as we were warned by the brochure beforehand. We tried it anyway but knew something was up when Ilse's suitcase was delivered to the room shortly after the life boat drill, but not mine. Not a good sign as they were turned in together. 

My suitcase was standing in front of our cabin door when we returned from dinner later in the evening, with a piece of red tape labeled "Liquor" wrapped around the bottom. On the bed was a letter that stated if I wanted to reclaim my confiscated liquor, I could go to a specific location at a specified time to pick it up. 

So, with letter in hand, we went to retrieve our $16 dollar box of Cabernet Sauvignon at the designated time. The confused steward who took my letter looked through no less than five bins of confiscated alcohol looking for our wine. He had never seen wine in a box before. We told him it comes in handy when traveling, but all we got was a blank stare. 

When he finally retrieved our wine, he informed us we could have it to take to our room if we paid the $45 corking fee, or we could wait to claim it when we got off the ship at the end of the cruise. We bid adieu to our wine until Friday when would carry it home.


Our infamous, and confiscated, $16 box of wine


We may rename this cruise Smuggler's Blues cruise.



Sunday, November 23, 2014

West Lake - January 2nd,1987

I've put several of my first articles in blog format. One of my first, and definitely one of my favorites, is about my daughter, Monica, and a canoe trip we took on January 2nd, 1987. She was 15. 

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Monica and I arrived at the West Lake boat ramp in the Everglades National Park over an hour later than planned. We were late getting up having spent the day before, New Year's Day, eating and watching football. Even though we packed my pickup truck the night before, we didn't get to the park office until well after sunrise. 

My daughter and I usually headed south to Everglades National Park every Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, while many of our friends crowded to Dadeland Mall for the annual shopping frenzy, but not this year. The day after New Year's was our first opportunity to canoe the park and camp overnight. We hoped we would have the vast National Park to ourselves once again.
Loading the canoe at West Lake Boat Ramp

The park ranger at the main gate advised us our destination, the primitive campsite at Alligator Creek, might be awash and probably not usable. He called the park office to check and they advised us not to plan on camping due to recent incredibly high tides. They had not issued any permits for over a week because lunar and solar alignment had caused serious problems as far north as the Carolina coast. The high tides had receded in the last several days however, and the rainy weather that spoiled everyone's Orange Bowl parade had finally dissipated. Bad weather wasn't due again until Sunday, two days away, so it was go now, or wait until my next time off in April. I convinced the ranger we could arrive at the campsite and have time to return to the facility at West Lake if indeed the site proved "uncampable." Everyone liked that idea and we were given the permit with the ominous warning, "WARNED OF HIGH WATER AT CAMPSITE" printed across the space for destination.

We wanted calm water to cross the first three open miles of water at West Lake in our fully loaded canoe. The first mile was no problem and we enjoyed the quiet lake taking time to just adjust to our cramped canoe. The calm air lasted until we were exposed in the center of the lake. The first ominous "cat's paws", the innocuous and slight changes in water color caused by the first minute ripples, the first gentle hint of wind, were beginning to scatter around us from the north. At first I was glad they weren't coming out of the east as I have no great love for paddling into the wind. It only took fifteen minutes and the waves were rolling against us, almost as high as our gunwale. We timed our strokes so the crest of the waves arrived as we had the port side as high as we could manage without rolling the canoe. For once I wished the wind were head on instead of dead abeam, or broadside. Luckily, the wind didn't get worse, and the waves held at less than white caps. Monica started facetiously singing about it being a pirate's life for her as we worked toward the far side of the lake.

Entering Long Lake
As we took our first breather and coasted up to the white plastic PVC pipe used to mark the trail at the end of West Lake, we noticed the old wooden marker was still in place. We had canoed West Lake before and knew the marker was the beginning of a short, twisty creek through the mangroves that leads to Long Lake. We usually turned around here on our day trips, this would be our first paddle all the way to the end of the trail

Heading into the shade of the mangrove canopy meant break out the industrial strength bug repellent. This is one routine we have down pat. We always wear long sleeve shirts, light cotton ones as much for the sun as for the bugs. We cover everything plastic we ever want to use again, from plastic sun-glass lenses to watch crystals, because the insect repellent will destroy most plastics. Then we spray each other down, buddy style. It doesn't pay to have your buddy upset with you or he or she may leave insidious gaps in your chemical armor. Today, however we are pleased by the comparative lack of mosquitoes. We have been here in the summertime, called the "off season", and paid dearly for it. Not just with mosquitoes but also horse flies and what we used to call deer flies. I'm sure they have a different name down here. Probably alligator flies.

We took it easy through the first creek and I checked the time. It was 10:35 a.m. We had shoved off shortly after 9:00 o'clock and had worked hard the last hour. We paddled the creek slowly, waiting for the hordes of insects we knew were waiting for us. We broke out into the northwest corner of Long Lake and searched down the lake with our binoculars for the next marker. The marker sits ominously in the middle of the next section of the trail. We picked up the pace again and watched a lone egret off against the western shore of the lake. The wind didn't effect the narrower, more protected lake as much as the first one, and we paddled without the constant fear of being swamped. We were between being quiet for the sake of seeing wildlife and the need to be as quick as possible with a full canoe.

We were startled by a Great Blue Heron that made great squawks as it jumped from the overhanging foliage just a few feet from our port bow as we passed to the right of the first mangrove island. We saw no more wildlife for the next hour as we worked our way down an appropriately named lake. The mangrove islands make it a little more interesting than the first lake. The National Park Service has done a well thought out job and there is no need to take any maps at all as long as you follow the trail markers. Anyone could canoe this trail without any serious detours into never-never land. They might complain about the endless mangroves, perhaps, and maybe about the lack of convenience stores for beer or soft-drinks. They would most certainly complain about their bladders. There is no solid ground on this 8 and a 1/2 mile trail and endurance here is a necessity. We carried bottled water as we stay away from soft drinks especially in the sun.
Red Mangroves at Long Lake

As we approached the end of Long Lake we were startled by the sudden and dramatic change of water color; It turned red. Not clay red or just reddish, but blood red. Monica suggested it was probably from 'gator feeding. The color was from decaying red mangrove leaves. It is startling, none the less. Oddly enough, it was the only place on the trail that was that color. By the time we had paddled on another five minutes, the opaque water again turned a brownish color.

After a short, wide creek came a sharp left that skirted the edge of a wide pond that is actually Long Lake. The turn takes you into a mangrove canopy that is so thick the overhead foliage does not belie the presence of the shallow, wandering trail. If it weren't for an occasional tree limb obviously cut with a saw you would think you had made a wrong turn at the last pond. We startled a small green heron into flight. It flew down the creek with nowhere else to go but along the creek.

We took another breather, this time a little more seriously, and in the silence we're soon startled by voices coming from further down the trail. As we emerged out into the next lake, called the Lungs, we surprised two men fishing from a blue canoe tied to the trail marker. They appeared as startled as we were. We exchanged small talk. While we were talking one caught a salt water catfish. The other held up a stringer of what appeared to be good sized drum. When we told them we were going to Alligator Creek campsite they told us it was muddy, but usable. I was relieved to hear we would be able to pitch our tent but I was still concerned about conditions.
  
Monica made another crack about a pirate's life for her and we started across the last long stretch of open water. There are three markers in the Lungs, one at each end to mark the creeks, and one where the trail bends to the west about halfway across the lake. The wind was at our backs for the first time since we started. We talked about the return trip and decided this would be the hardest part of the return trip if the wind didn't clock around on us.

We started the next creek surprised by how much wider it was than the earlier ones. The foliage changed, too. Buttonwoods and hardwoods covered the banks as we realized this was more than just mangroves. We startled flocks of tri-color herons and egrets of all sizes as we worked slowly into the narrowing creek. As the noisy herons settled down it got quieter and quieter. Soon, not a sound could be heard. Not even our paddles softly pushing us further and further into the overhang made any sound. After five minutes or so, we stopped paddling altogether just to marvel at the stillness. We glided silently along the creek, neither of us paddling. My ears began to ring as I looked around the creek. Monica sat motionless. Our creek had become an environment neither of us expected.

There are times in your life when you forget what quiet is. Really quiet, absolute stillness, when your visual senses become so heightened you think you've lost your hearing. When you experience it again you are amazed by the impact of silence, a feeling of almost deafness. Our incredible stillness exploded when a large alligator crashed through the creek overgrowth inches from our bow and crashed heavily into the water almost hitting the side of canoe. The spray from the splash got Monica more wet than me. She sucked her breath and pulled her paddle tightly across her chest. We sat motionless for a few moments as the entire experience slowly evaporated back to the silence that allowed us to hear our own heartbeats.

Monica finally exhaled, still clutching her paddle across her chest. We watched the trail of bubbles that marked the alligator's path through the brown, murky water. After a few moments we paddled on, neither saying a word. I noticed Monica wasn't taking a full bite with her paddle. The gator was at the bottom, below us somewhere, waiting for us to leave. We have startled alligators completely out of the water with our paddles before, and seeing the size of this one, I didn't blame her. I hit one in the back with a paddle accidentally while pushing through a slough at Noble Hammock and scared it as badly as it did us when it jumped high out of the water alongside our canoe. Monica had been sitting in the middle of the canoe between my brother and me and got to see the white underbelly as the gator flopped back into the water.

This was our first 'gator on the trip but not our last. We paddled another hundred yards and scared three more sunning gators off the creek bank. They dove into the water one after another as if choreographed. It was like someone throwing refrigerators in the water one after another. I have been around alligators since I caught my first one in a shrimp net when I was twelve. I don't fear them but I certainly don't get careless either. They can be very dangerous, and can cause serious damage or injury even accidentally. I hadn't envisioned a startled gator crashing into the canoe, or worse yet, in it. I was curious about the size of these guys, though. Usually we see smaller ones in greater numbers than the big ones, but not here. We have seen only fairly big alligators. None of the four we scared off the bank were under nine or ten feet. We thought we had been observant before, but now we were really observant! 
The famous Noble Hammock trip with Dean & Monica
 Taking a break after accidentally hitting an alligator. 1979

The largest of the three arrogantly surfaced not six feet off Monica's left shoulder. Monica started to raise her paddle and the 'gator slipped quickly back beneath the surface. I told her he was looking for a peanut butter sandwich. I'm sure that as remote as this seems, the trail is very popular and I'm sure it had been fed before. Sort of an odd comparison to the bears out in the western parks I suppose, but the effect of free food can cause problems with any creature.

We start around the very next bend, and because we are tense and nervous, make a big mistake. We run up on one of the submerged logs that are plentiful in this one section of the creek. Stranded! We were stuck with our canoe bow wedged tightly in a submerged dead tree. We paddled backwards, at first normally, then almost frantically, but to no avail. Without speaking we stopped trying to free ourselves. We sat quietly watching the tidal flow. Watching the tidal flow for telltale bubbles. We finally spoke to each other and decided to backstroke hard on the left side while we both leaned to the stern of the canoe. One! Two! Three! and we were free. Traveling quickly backwards, we shot into the overgrowth on the creek bank behind us. After a few quick references to my canoeing ability, Monica leaned forward and started her Mark Twain act and called out the few logs and limbs we encountered as we slowly continued paddling down the trail. We scared one more alligator off the bank before we finally broke into a wide pond.

All the breaks we took before were simply for sore arms and tired backs. This break ranks in the Guinness Book of Records for total relief. We were both exhausted, as much from the tension as from the physical paddling. I checked my watch. It was almost one o'clock. We had paddled almost four hours. If we couldn't stay at the campsite, we would have to be back at West Lake ramp by sunset at 5:45 pm.  I checked my chart and was positive we were close to the campsite. We decided to press on.

As we started across the pond, I noticed a blotch of pink in a buttonwood tree at the far end. I talked Monica into a short detour to take a look. I managed several photos before the most beautifully plumaged bird I have ever seen in the wild flew off giving the appropriate noisy protests. It was a Roseate Spoonbill in full courting colors. It circled the pond several times, and as we left the pond, returned to the branch it rested on before we disturbed it. They are beautifully plumaged birds with an incredibly ironic twist; Nature gave them heads that would make a buzzard wince.


We pass a small island and start into the second half of Alligator creek. It is narrower than the first part but still wide enough for two canoes. We come across another large 'gator on the bank but this one doesn't move. We watch it at eye level as we glide past not six feet away. The lower branches of the overgrowth have eelgrass hanging from them. The water had been recently very high here as the eelgrass hanging at eye level had only started to dry out. We pass a clearing on the north bank. Camp site? No, no markers. We passed the remnants of an old wooden bridge, left over from the cotton days back at the turn of the century. It is at the end of the hiking trail that follows the old logging road.

Alligator Creek Campsite



The camp site lays just a little west. It is not a primitive campsite, it is a wilderness campsite. There is no chickee. There is no platform. You can see Florida Bay from the landing. You can also see the alligator lying not ten feet from the landing.
 
A ten foot alligator quietly watches from across the creek. Its head is directly above the bow of the canoe.

 
This campsite has a Macho Factor of 10. I was under the impression Alligator Creek was a primitive campsite with a chickee, a chickee being nothing more than a raised platform with a thatched, palm frond roof cover, it isn't; it is a wide spot in the mud.

Obviously, there is no decision to be made. We will be back at West Lake as soon as possible. We will walk out carrying the canoe, if necessary. We may even walk out without it at all! Monica states firmly that she does not like being watched while she eats. We had to land the canoe. I had to stand up and walk around. We landed the canoe and cautiously stepped out into the wet grey marl that looks amazingly like someone backed up a dump truck and unloaded several tons of modeler's clay. Everything was wet. There was nothing to use as firewood. The twelve footer had slowly turned itself for a better view of the newcomers to what is without a doubt, his domain. We knew we were being watched as we checked out what is really a great campsite.



We checked the time. It was twenty minutes after one pm. We gave ourselves ten minutes to stretch and eat. The eating didn't take long as Monica never took her eyes off our host. The thought of sleeping in the wet mud with no fire, separated from the inhabitants of Alligator Creek by only the thickness of tent fabric was not particularly appealing. I could have stayed home and watched Penn State and the University of Miami go at it in the Fiesta Bowl. It was time to go.

Monica knew the return trip would not be fun. We have been canoeing for several years and know when to switch sides, strokes, and even when to swap insults. She starts singing jokingly but we are soon saving our energy for the hard part. We are tired but not yet sore. The spoonbill watched cautiously, but since we didn't come close this time, decided not to fly off. I was sternly warned of logs in the second half of the creek and we avoided any problems. We scared only one gator off the bank during the return trip.

 We met two young men in a rented empty, aluminum canoe going toward the campsite just before we broke out into the Lungs. They were German tourists and naively wore only shorts. From what we could see, they had nothing with them except one bottle of water. They asked us politely if we had seen any alligators as they hadn't seen any. Not one! They were unimpressed with our experiences, so we smiled, wished them the best and pressed on. They probably paddled all the way to Flamingo without seeing anything. I didn't know what their plans were but ours included paddling hard for the next four hours.

Our worst fears were confirmed when we broke out into the Lungs. We were dead on the wind. It wasn't quite a mile but we couldn't pause even slightly as the wind was causing us more grief than expected. The blessed relief of the next creek, the overgrown one, was an opportunity to catch our breath. The fishermen were gone. We had our second wind as we started Long Lake, No jokes about the water color. No jokes about how the lake got it's name. Just plain, hard work. The wind was off our starboard quarter and while not helping any, it wasn't as bad as the Lungs. We pulled up into the lee of one of the small mangrove islands and broke out the drinking water. Our planned ten minute stay lasted only a couple and we were again under way. Monica had settled into the repetitious state similar to long distance swimming. Stroke after stroke after stroke. As we passed the last marker leading to the last creek before West Lake, we sighed with relief. Just through the crooked path was West Lake and finally, the ramp. Just three more miles to the ramp! We had been paddling hard for over two and a half hours, but the knowledge of only one last challenge, I believe the motivational books call it, brought back the humor and the feeling of accomplishment.
West Lake 

We headed into the lake with the wind from the north and still very brisk. We stayed closer to the north shore and avoided the problem we suffered when caught in the middle of the lake earlier in the day. Pain had set in long, long ago, but if we knew if we kept up a constant pace we would be back at the ramp well before dark. We knew we didn't want to be in the canoe in the dark. We were in the lake for an hour and ten minutes.

Making the final right turn into the short, narrow channel to the boat ramp was quiet satisfaction for both of us. After several hard strokes, we silently coasted toward a group of tourists standing on the modern concrete dock, intently watching a medium size alligator floating in the water at the foot of the boat ramp.  
He too, is looking for a handout. The startled gator quickly disappeared and the surprised tourists watched us in awe as we tied up and unloaded at the dock.

I am immensely proud of my daughter. She hasn't complained once. Well, other than commenting on my canoeing skills. Nor has she quit. Monica put in more than a full day's work, and she still smiles, helping pack away the gear and tie the canoe down on the truck. By 5:00pm we were headed down the highway toward the campground at Flamingo. The last time we camped there we suffered one of Florida's coldest, windy April nights to watch Halley's comet at 4:00 a.m. But that is a different story.

The Coleman stove and lantern worked just fine. The tent was pitched and no sooner was dinner finished and the gear washed than we were both in the tent. Dry and somewhat warmer, we tuned a portable radio to the station that would carry the National Championship football game. Could Vinny Testaverde and the Hurricanes do it again? It didn't matter. By halftime we were both sound asleep.




© 1996, 2014 George Mindling





Saturday, September 6, 2014

Go, Crackers!

Go, Crackers!

We're Number One! We're Number One...


After the recent hype about how really noble and regal Florida crackers were, elevating a maligned, economically deprived segment of Florida's past inhabitants to a new level of admiration and respectability, I propose a change for the University of Florida mascot, currently a poor, disparaged alligator. Let's face it, "Gator" just doesn't cut it in today's market. 

Alligators are protected by law and somehow it doesn't seem fair in the area of "knock 'em silly" football for a team to be viewed as the sissies of the Southeast Conference by hiding behind legal shield of a protected animal. Besides, sometime, somewhere, someone is sure to file a lawsuit because they believe the name "Gator" defames alligators. After watching several recent football games, they may be have a point. Something needs to be done to bolster the UF football program in the post-Tim Tebow football era at University of Florida. I believe a name change just may do the trick. National greatness may once again lie ahead if they just change the name. What could possibly be more appropriate than Crackers!  Go, Crackers! Wow! I'm already excited!

Rival Florida State University has manipulated the "Tomahawk Chop," while murderous in its symbolic form, into an addictive power to synchronize not only a stadium full of 90,000 fans who will buy anything painted garnet and gold, but actually induce normally sedate adults sitting thousands of miles away into babbling idiots through the medium of television. Even certain ESPN commentators televising the game fall victim to its hypnotic power. Ever hear of garnet? FSU can sell anything painted that color as fast as it comes off the boat. Florida State University was way ahead of the politically astute curve by asking the Seminole Tribe of Florida to endorse their Seminole mascot and his pre-game spear tossing. I'm sure the benefits of that agreement are not for public consumption.

While seductive as the native American theme might be, the fact is they lost. That fact is also lost on the fans and the media. The newcomers won. The Seminoles, and the Calusas and Miccosukees all lost. Well, technically the Seminoles didn't lose the war as they famously never signed any formal cessation of war treaty. but, one the other hand, who owns Miami Beach? Remember, the University of Florida plays in the "swamp," better known as the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, not Chief Osceola's Stadium.  Like it or not, the crackers won. Well, until the casinos came in, at least. 

The nickname University of Florida Crackers has a distinctive, erudite, superior connotation to it. Seriously and carefully developed and nurtured by a movement to elevate Florida's distinctive group of settlers who in reality, didn't have a pot to pee in, to a revered level normally reserved for "Daughters of the Mayflower." Real Florida Crackers couldn't afford bullwhips, much less use one. But, hey, to the victor go the spoils. The winners get to rewrite history and Erskine Caldwell book sales fall away as Tobacco Road gets paved over with modern history's rewrites. It's exactly what UF football needs...

 Go Crackers! We're Number One, We're Number One...




Friday, June 27, 2014

Vacation?


I could always sleep anywhere at any time, regardless of location or background noise. Ilse simply couldn't understand how I did it, but after three days of six, high-powered industrial fans and two industrial strength dehumidifiers running 24 hours a day in our house, she's beginning to catch on. She actually sat in a living room chair today watching her favorite show on Netflix on her Kindle Fire, oblivious to the incessant noise. She had on earphones, of course, but they didn't muffle the background noise, they only made it possible to overpower the roar of the fans. The noise level where she was sitting, two rooms away from the nearest high-powered fan, was running a solid 48dB, about the same level as sitting next to a vacuum cleaner. A quiet room runs less than 30dB, you know, where you can talk without yelling. The room currently being treated is running a solid 80dB constant noise. She sat through the whole show as if the background noise wasn't there.
One of six fans

The incessant noise simply becomes mind-numbing. It's even hard to hear the plumbers cutting apart our drywall to replace our defective plumbing. They've been at that for two days now and are no longer a nuisance. We barely hear their saws. My wife says it is like living in an aircraft hangar with the jets running. Funny, that's where I worked for six or seven years while I was in the Air Force. Except they weren't airplanes, they were missile nose sections – you know, the pointy end with the temperamental guidance system – being tended to 24 hours a day by constantly running power stations and air conditioning systems. Those constantly running systems were actually loader than what we are living with at the moment while our house dries out. How did we get here, you ask?

Ilse stepped into our second bedroom closet Thursday evening a week ago (the 19th) and wondered why her feet were wet while standing on my painstakingly installed wood laminate flooring. Turns out it is the lowest place on that side of the house and of course, water flows downhill. Then it seeps up through the laminate flooring – last time it was carpet – and waits for someone to step in it. I went up in the attic to make sure it wasn't coming down an inside wall – that was the day we had that 3 inch rain – and found everything everything overhead was dry, so we decided to call Sleuth water detection. We used them once before 5 years ago to find a leak. Sleuth came in first thing Friday morning and found a pin-hole leak under the TV room slab, about two feet into the room under the tile. That pipe supplies cold water to the guest bathroom and the outside bib on the lanai wall, and they guaranteed the leak was between the spot they marked on the floor and the manifold in the drywall in the utility room.

Apparently the leak has been flowing for quite some time, even though they couldn't say exactly where the water was coming up and entering the house. They assumed it was coming up and running along the 2X4 that is the plate for the wall. Water ran along the edge of the utility room behind the garage to the corner where it meets the family room, then turned and ran all the way down to the guest bedroom
X marks the spot, or in this case, the water leak

So the options were: Jack hammer up the slab and break up the tile to access the defective 24 year old copper tubing (replacement tile not available, so all tiles would have to be replaced) or go overhead with the new PEX plumbing and bypass the slab leak. Here is where we called the insurance company and thankfully got them involved. The rough estimate for the tile work alone was between $5000 to $8000. The insurance company immediately set up an appointment with the water mitigation people at Rytech, and incidentally, they bill them directly for water mitigation services so we are completely out of that loop. Rytech scheduled to be at the house first thing Monday, but we needed to stop the water flow in the mean time. Sleuth suggested cutting and capping the supply line under the cold water manifold in the utility room with what is known as a Shark Bite cap. It was either that or shut off the house water, so I went up to Home Depot and bought a $6.20 Shark Bite plug and a $10 pipe cutter. No problem, line plugged OK, just no water to back bathroom. We called a recommended plumbing firm who came out Friday afternoon and gave us an estimate of $1700 for the single run from the already once repaired cold water manifold to the guest bathroom. He also gave us an estimate to re-plumb the whole house overhead for $6000, but his solution included running new water pipes OUTSIDE the CBS block walls and just painting them the color of the house. Scratch the recommended firm for the whole house job.

The water detection people from Rytech showed up Monday with 6 huge industrial fans and 2 of the biggest dehumidifiers I've seen on wheels. They measured water moisture in the dry wall and cut out sections along the utility room and the TV room. They stuck meters everywhere to find out the full extent of the water damage. Their main job is to prevent mold from water leaks, and in the process ripped out all the flooring in the guest bedroom and that closet. Rytech is meticulous and requested we immediately bring in a plumber as they found a single drop of moisture on the previously repaired cold water manifold (not the plug!). We were told either fix the manifold or shut off the house water. So we called the recommended firm back, but they couldn't get to us until Friday, the 27th. We would have been without water for a week, so we called ABC Southwest plumbing and they responded by saying they could get to us that afternoon.

Rytech was satisfied and left. They weren't gone 20 minutes when I noticed I had a new pool of water forming on the base behind where they had cut out the drywall in the garage, and sure enough, I found another pinhole leak behind the water heater. When ABC Southwest got here, the manifold was dry and they didn't want to duplicate work if we were going to put in new plumbing anyway, but they fixed the leak behind the heater. ABC gave us an estimate of around $1540 for the drop and could start on Tuesday morning. We said go ahead, and we canceled the recommended firm. Ilse and I talked it over and decided two leaks at the same time were grounds to do the whole house, and ABC came in at a little under $5000, considerably cheaper than the other estimate. To make things worse, the manifold failed completely while they were here, so we had to shut the water off anyway. ABC started Tuesday afternoon with the prep work and will finish Monday afternoon. They are doing a PEX backbone system so I won't have the control box and individual water pipes you find on the Manabloc system, but everything is PEX and above ground. And it has a lifetime warranty. We should have partial water this afternoon, and the fans and dehumidifiers we have been living with for the last three days were pulled out this morning.
We can hear! We can hear!
The vacation we were scheduled to start on Thursday has been postponed for awhile, probably until after the new floor goes in, that shouldn't be more than a couple of weeks. We told our daughter we will get there eventually, we just don't know when. Trust me, it will be a great vacation!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Stoned

The writers for American soap operas such as “As the World Turns” would have to really, really dig deep to come up with a script built on unrequited love to beat the primitive, tribal family in Pakistan that recently stoned their pregnant daughter to death. She wanted to marry the man she was in love with, not the man Papa arranged, and Papa and the boys - her brothers - took offense at her insolence. So they stoned her to death. And they did it in front of the Lahore, courthouse!

According to a news report from CBS/AP:

“May 27, 2014. (Yes, 2014!) LAHORE, Pakistan- A woman was stoned to death by her own family in front of a Pakistani high court on Tuesday for marrying the man she loved, police and a defense lawyer said.
Nearly 20 members of the woman's family, including her father and brothers, attacked her and her husband with batons and bricks in broad daylight before a crowd of onlookers in front of the high court of Lahore, said police official Naseem Butt. He said Farzana Parveen, 25, had married Mohammad Iqbal, with whom she had been engaged for years in opposition to her family.”
The article continues:
"...Parveen's relatives waited outside the court, which is located on a main downtown thoroughfare. As the couple walked up to the court's main gate, the family members fired shots in the air and tried to snatch her from Iqbal, he said.
When she resisted, her father, brothers and other relatives started beating her, eventually pelting her with bricks from a nearby construction site, Iqbal said.
Iqbal, 45, said he started seeing Parveen after the death of his first wife, with whom he had five children.
"We were in love," he told The Associated Press. He alleged that the woman's family wanted to fleece money from him before marrying her off.
"I simply took her to court and registered a marriage," infuriating the family, he said.
Butt, the police official, said Parveen's father surrendered after the incident and called the murder an "honor killing."
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a private organization, said in a report last month that some 869 women were murdered in so-called honor killings in 2013.”

Wow, top that scenario, you writers at As the World Turns, or the writers at General Hospital, or any of the remaining soap operas on American television where true love and marital infidelity are the core reason millions of American women, and a few men as well, watch television every day. I bet American, or Spanish and Latin American soaps for that matter, aren't broadcast on Arabian or Farsi TV systems. Erika Kane, and three or four thousand other characters, would never have made it out of Pine Valley alive.

The entire world mobilized in protest to save 230 young Nigerian women kidnapped by Boco Haram Islamic radicals in Borno State on April 15, 2014. Where is the anger over 869 women killed by husbands and fathers in Pakistan in 2013 alone because of religious grounds? Professional courtesy among religions? You don't comment on our brutality and sexual aberrations and we won't comment on yours?

In any other civilized country, murder charges would normally be filed against the killers. But we are talking about a civilization mired in its religion of almost two thousand years ago. It was cruel then, it is cruel now. If there were a god, he would cry at the loss of his daughter and grandchild.

The airline terminal at LaHore is actually a time warp civilized people pass through to get to that primitive, medieval partition of planet Earth where you could easily get killed if you believe in the wrong god, while the ones who kill their own daughters are considered honorable men.

Can I make it worse? Yes, I can! Remember, the Pakistanis have nuclear weapons.

[Update: May 31st, 2014.  Bowing to International Pressure, the murderers have been arrested, and the police who stood by and watched as they killed her are under investigation.  The updated story at:
http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/31/world/asia/pakistan-honor-murder/index.html]

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Anonymous

Would that mean you would move to the east or learn to coexist with the west state?

The anonymous comment awaiting moderation about The Case for Two Floridas – Revisited blog caught my attention. I don't usually respond to anonymous comments, you know who I am, so return the favor and let me know who you are.  I usually just delete them, but this time, however, I'll try to qualify my position and explain why it appears I parachuted behind enemy lines.

I was raised in Miami, and left what was really just a seasonal tourist town when I joined the Air Force way back in December, 1960. You know, off to see the world and that kind of stuff. Eight years later, – five and a half of which were spent in Germany – recently discharged and married, ready to raise a family, I returned to Miami and was surprised by the city that was on the verge of International big-time. Working in downtown Miami for thirty years, watching Miami win a couple of Super Bowls and later become the backdrop for a popular, modern television show that soon became the most watched show in America, I saw Miami evolve into a unique, International city unmatched by any other in the United States. When I retired, family, finances, and physics dictated our reluctant relocation from Miami so we moved through the time warp that separates the east coast from the west coast and settled in Port Charlotte. It's on the map, trust me.

We were fooled by the north/south rhetoric that pervaded Florida's politics. I was raised knowing the “porkchoppers” as the state legislature was known by everyone in South Florida, treated Miamians as foreigners way before any Cuban refugees arrived. What I got wrong was Tallahassee, Capitol of Florida, holding pen of the porkchoppers, isn't just in the north half, it is in the western half as well. And that is what I missed. We had dear friends who left Miami and relocated in Hernando County in a beautiful waterfront home with Gulf of Mexico access. Still, within several years, they were back on the east coast. I assumed it was because they were north of I-4 and their visa expired, but in retrospect I now know it was because they were west of I-75!

There are pockets of resistance in either of the two proposed new Floridas. I know for certain there are people still stuck in the fifties tonight in Fort Lauderdale! There is no doubt in my mind the Villages will rise up in anger, as far up as they can at least, for being on the wrong side of the Interstate. They won't be able to fight after nine at night and they certainly aren't going to hire anyone to do it for them, so they just may be stuck. But then again, they might get a lot accomplished before tee-time. They do tend to get up early there. They'll have a golf-cart strike and cripple the industry if they don't get their way.

The sixteen years we have lived here in west Florida, not far from a John Birch Retirement Center, gives me an insight to the two Floridas many politicians don't have. Living with people who are terrified of driving to Miami, who have never been there and who will never in their lives drive south of Disney World except down I-4 to I-75, gives me an analytical edge here. I don't just coexist in west Florida, no coexist isn't the right word. I've become a guerilla fighter. A stealth influence on the unsuspecting retirees who still keep Lawrence Welk alive on PBS. Some of them even now listen occasionally to Jimmy Buffet. Well, not often, but maybe every once in a while. We have found an underground network of like-minded people here who sweeten their own tea. And that is progress.




Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Case for Two Floridas – Revisited

[Author's note: This blog was updated Jan 17th, 2015, after a Federal Court ruled Florida's ban on gay marriage unconstitutional, but regardless of Federal law, several Florida counties found a way to disobey the court and the law of the land.]
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 A recent attempt to split Florida into two separate states drew scant serious coverage from the news media. Supporters of the proposal wanted to amplify the more modern, international influence of the southern half of the state, represented by a line drawn roughly from Tampa to Daytona Beach, or, the route of Interstate 4, as opposed to the “redneck” rural, northern part of the state.

The disproportionate amount of taxes paid by the southern counties supposedly spent needlessly in the northern half of the state, as the supporters want everyone to believe, is reason the proposal just won't go away. The proposal to split Florida floats up every couple of years for other reasons as well, but always fails to gain serious support. I think I know why it fails. The proponents of the split have the demarcation line in the wrong place. In fact, it even runs the wrong direction.

It should go north and south, down I-75 from the Florida-Georgia state line to Wildwood, jump over to U.S. 27 and follow Krome Avenue right down to Florida City. From there down U.S. 1 to Jewfish Creek would also be a boundary, but everything in the Keys would be in East Florida. Flamingo would be in West Florida, along with Monroe Station, Ochopee, Everglades City, and every other place where the deluded inhabitants consider Miamians as foreigners. I think anywhere waiters ask if you want sweet tea for lunch should be in its own state. Jacksonville? They'll just have to suck it up and learn to put in their own sugar in their iced tea. Either that or they will be traded to Georgia for a future draft pick.

The small enclave of counties in the extreme northeast part of the state, Clay, Baker, and Duval Counties, which includes the unfortunate city of Jacksonville, have all cancelled courthouse weddings as a way to protest a recent Federal judge's ruling that allows gay marriage. Perhaps we should consider moving those three Florida counties to Georgia, or just put the Georgia/Florida state boundaries back where they should be if Georgia hadn't lost its Supreme court case in 1854. That way the anomaly would be resolved as the other backwards counties that sidestepped the law of the land  - Calhoun, Liberty (which now needs to be renamed), Franklin, Wakulla, Holmes, Jackson, Washington, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa - are all in the western half of the state, including the odd county of Pasco, located just far enough north of Tampa to be disconnected from reality.

We could split the time zone if the new state line runs north and south. East Florida would be in the 21st century while the west half of Florida wouldn't have to worry about leaving the 19th century, where they obviously feel right at home. The two states would be as different as New Jersey is from Indiana. As a matter of fact, that pretty much follows the cultural split that already exists, so no big changes there.

We could rename the states, like Floridana, or Poinciana for East Florida, while the west half could be Gulforama or Teapartyland. The logo for west Florida could be a boomerang, as the west state silhouette would pretty much resemble the stick that just won't go away. Florida east? I don't know, maybe they could have a twitter or Facebook naming contest for the new, oddly shaped state. A slice of Key Lime pie, perhaps?

There will be pockets of residents who will find themselves out of place in either state, such as the Villages who will demand a new survey, but the north-south split fits better than the east-west split along I-4. Either way, while Tallahassee would remain the state capitol of West Florida, Disney World should be the new, undisputed Capitol of Florida East.

George

Thursday, March 27, 2014

New Memories


By the time I pulled into the parking lot at the Holiday Inn Express in Cocoa, Florida, the Marines were up to their armpits in the battle of Peleliu. Traveling the two hundred miles alone from Port Charlotte to the TAC Missileer mini-reunion in Cocoa allowed me to indulge myself in music I normally do not crank up at home, and I relished the opportunity to play all of Richard Rodger's Victory at Sea on my iPod from start to to finish without interruption. Through the car's stereo, of course. And as loud as I wanted! Peleliu, by the way, is the 3rd cut on the “B” side of volume 2 in the set, or about 150 miles or so into the whole playlist. I won’t listen to Victory at Sea on the return trip, but it was a blast listening to it once again after all these years! Just like the tour of old memories at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. I was in Cocoa, Florida, to attend a TAC Missileer mini-reunion conceived and planned by Max Butler, Membership Director/Treasurer of the TAC Missileers Association. It was all put together in about six weeks.  
Dave Cooper, Max Butler, Len Calkins, George Mindling

Max did another one of his bang-up jobs putting the mini-reunion together. Having a get-together for dinner is something many of us missileers who live in Florida, especially during the winter months, have talked about off and on for several years. Max finally said “Let's do it,” so we did. Originally planned as an informal get-together for those who would make a day trip for the meeting, it soon became clear most wanted more than just dinner, and soon the mini-reunion was open to all TAC missileers.

Max arranged a very special tour of the Air Force Space and Missile Museum located at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to be held on Friday, March 21st. Max also arranged an air-conditioned tour bus to pick up our 35 or so members and guests at the Holiday Inn Express in Cocoa at nine am. Collecting names and license numbers, and some other info required ahead of time, made access to the normally restricted facility easy.

An informal dinner was held Thursday evening at a local Barbeque restaurant for those out-of-towners who arrived a day early. The restaurant cordially handled the unexpected twenty guests with aplomb. Most of Thursday's arrivals stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Cocoa, also arranged by Max. Jim and Susan Cagle from Atlanta may have traveled the furthest of the attendees, while many missileers lived in the surrounding area and drove to the hotel on Friday morning. Several missileers brought wives and their grown children, and even grandkids for the tour. Everyone met at the hotel Friday morning to board the big, white bus for a tour of the area, where for some of us TAC Missileers, it all started.

We were soon craning our necks trying to remember where Camp Happiness was located as we drove into the area many of us had only seen from blue Air Force school buses when we toured the facility back in the late 50's and early 60's. Port Canaveral has altered beyond any recognition, and will continue to do so as it grows to its planned facility as the largest cruise ship port in the United States. The old days are long gone.
Inside the Blockhouse at Pad 26

We stopped by the entrance to the Space and Missile Museum to pick up our tour guide, Jim Hale. Jim, a retired Air Force veteran, had a clear, resonant voice and an in-depth knowledge of the museum that captured everyone’s attention. Our first stop at the Blockhouse on pad 26, launch place of Explorer, the US's first satellite, displayed Jim's astonishing knowledge and familiarity with the Cape and its history. The Blockhouse was the first stop on our four and half hour tour, and gave Roger St. Germain the honor of “launching” a missile. From there we toured the open display area known as the “Missile Garden” and the adjacent Exhibit Hall. Again, Jim's fascinating explanations and descriptions brought special meaning to the displays.
Jim Hale explains a rocket motor on display in the Exhibit Hall

The bus tour eventually led to an area many of us have seen in the past, the old maintenance area, and just a few yards beyond, Pads 21 and 22, the Mace B launch pads that have recently been restored. While we didn't get to walk the area, it was still impressive to see the old launch pads. They looked like they had just been vacated.
The Exhibit Hall

The next stop at Complex 14 on  ICBM Road allowed us a look at the pad where not only the first American ICBM was launched, but where John Glenn hurtled into space aboard an Atlas LV-3B carrying a Mercury capsule known as Friendship 7, putting an American astronaut in orbit for the first time. 
Pads 21 & 22 - Mace "B" launch pads

The next stop was Complex 34, site of the accident that killed astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White II, and Roger Chaffee. The massive complex remains as a silent monument to all those who served and gave their lives in service to our country. We dismounted the bus for an extensive walking tour of the pad.

Hangar “R” was our last stop of the day, and for many of us, was a nostalgic moment. Hangar R has a unique collection of early missiles and rockets, including the original Matador named “Florida Ranger” that graced the entrance to Orlando Air Force Base. Orlando Air Force Base is where almost everyone who served in the Matador or Mace missile programs was trained. Also in the Hangar “R” collection is a Mace sitting on a beautifully restored translauncher. 
John Gibbs, 1st PBS, Bitburg
One of the amazing, delightful, memories of this tour was meeting John Gibbs, a former member of the 1st Pilotless Bomber Squadron. The 1st PBS, the very first operational, combat ready missile squadron in the United States Air Force, trained at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station before its deployment to Bitburg, Germany, in March of 1954. John contributed many details and stories used in Bob Bolton's and my book, U.S. Air Force Tactical Missiles 1949 -1969 The Pioneers, including the incident when a Matador dumped nose-first over its launcher in an aborted launch. John was in the detail sent into the palmetto scrub to find the missing hold-back bolt. John is also one of the few people we have a photograph of while on duty with a tactical missile. In the section on Wheelus, figure 18, page 138, John is the airman on the far left with his elbow up. It was a very special moment meeting John and his beautiful wife of 51 years, Dianne. They are tentatively planning on attending the reunion in Boston next year.While every missile in the collection has been painstakingly restored, both the Matador and the Mace missiles have been restored to astonishing condition. A group photo was taken in front of the Mace, and of course I had to get a photo of John Gibbs in front of the Matador.

George Mindling with Jim Hale, tour guide extraodinaire.
I had another highlight of the trip that I hadn't expected: Jim Hale asked me to sign his copy of our book! That was an honor for me. I certainly appreciate the time and patience Jim took with our diverse group, answering every question and handling every comment with professionalism and charm. Anyone who gets Jim as a guide of the Space and Missile Museum will have a special insight to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and its history.
Bobby Williams shows a Kadena memento

The Space and Missile Museum web page at http://afspacemuseum.org/ has details on tours and visiting the museum, as well as a virtual tour that can be taken from your PC. They also maintain a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/afspacemuseum. Visit both pages, and be sure to like the Facebook page.