Monday, October 10, 2022

The Flight Engineer and the Nose Wheel

The 76th Troop Carrier Squadron, 435th Troop Carrier Wing, based at Miami International Air Depot, had the distinction of not only hauling our Civil Air Patrol drill teams around the state for drill competitions, but they also got to fly all the cadets from the Miami area to the two week long encampments held annually at different Air Force bases. The first CAP Summer Encampment I attended was at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle in July, 1959, and once again, we flew in a C-119G Flying Boxcar of the 76th Troop Carrier Squadron. With three cadet squadrons in Miami alone, one of which was the Miami All Girls Squadron, the competition between the drill teams was fierce, but this year, our Miami Composite Squadron II won not only the Florida state championship, but our regional drill competition held in Memphis as well. The summer encampment was scheduled just before we flew up to New York City for the National Drill Competition. Spending two weeks at the Air Force Air Proving Ground Center was a treat for all of us, watching, inspecting, and even sitting in practically everything flown by the US Air Force. Nothing, however prepared us for the flight home.

The long, droning flight from the Florida panhandle was uneventful. We never flew above ten thousand feet and most of the cadets took turns looking out the few windows that were not scratched or discolored, watching the Florida landscape slip slowly beneath us. The magnificent Florida thunderheads never interfered as we started the long approach from the Marco station on Florida’s west coast, approaching Miami over the Everglades. On the long, gradual descent into MIAD, the flight engineer climbed down out of the cockpit and casually looked out the window on one side, and then crossed over to the other side of the cavernous, square box of the troop compartment and leaned against a window to get a good look at the engine on the other side. The fabric troop seats mounted sideways along the fuselage walls were in the way, so he would lean between whoever was sitting there to see out the window. The flight engineers always checked for oil leaks from the powerful Pratt and Whitney radial engines on every flight, and sometimes before we started an approach to land. They always came down from the flight deck when the landing gear was lowered.

He was satisfied and climbed back up the short ladder on the left side of the front bulkhead and disappeared back into the flight deck. Not soon afterward, the huge wing flaps began to extend and the buffeting that accompanies their extension began in earnest. The huge main landing gear doors opened and the main landing gear began to noisily lower. The C-119 was unique as some of the passengers could watch as the huge landing gear assemblies extended downward right beside the passenger windows. Another unique feature of the C119 was it required almost full power to fly with all the drag of the wing flaps and exposed landing gear. Those who were in the Flying Boxcar for the first time always got quiet and you could usually see the whites of their eyes from anywhere inside the fuselage as the noise levels rose and power was applied to the big Pratt and Whitney engines. The whole plane would shake and vibrate. Us “old” cadets would usually talk heroically to the rookies but some you just couldn't console. Besides, you had to yell which didn't help matters.

The flight engineer, a dark haired young looking fellow, probably in his mid to late twenties, climbed back down into the troop compartment for a second time. The flight engineers usually came down to spot check the main landing gear, a routine task done for every landing. This time however, he couldn't mask his concern. He turned and squatted down looking at the center of the bulkhead in the very front of the compartment. The bulkhead had an access panel held in place with Dzus fasteners, the standard Air Force twist-lock type quick access fastener. In the center of the panel was a small inspection panel that allowed a quick check of the nose landing gear. When the landing gear was up, the huge double tires of the nose wheels were clearly visible from inside the cargo area. You could squat and look through the panel window and see the tread on the tires on the nose landing gear, folded compactly inside the fuselage just under the flight deck. That was the problem for our flight engineer: they weren't supposed to be there, at least, not when the pilot was trying to land. They should have been down and locked for landing. The adult members of our squadron began to look like the first timers. You could see the whites of their eyes in the dimly lighted compartment. We all had on the mandatory parachutes but only the cadets were excited about possibly having to bail out!

We hadn't changed course, still droning on directly toward Miami. We knew we were still over the Everglades west of Krome Avenue, but we knew we weren't too far out or the pilot wouldn't have lowered the landing gear. The flight engineer removed the panel and looked around inside the nose-wheel compartment. He backed out and stood up, grabbing a red painted D-Ring hanging just above the panel. The D-ring was on the end of a metal stranded cable which barely protruded into the troop area. It was the emergency gear release should the hydraulic system fail. He braced himself by putting one foot against the bulkhead and yanked the D-ring with all his might. He practically fell on the floor as the D-ring pulled off the cable, leaving our surprised flight engineer with a useless, red painted D-ring in his hand and the nose landing gear still firmly stowed inside the aircraft. He scrambled back up the ladder and almost immediately reappeared as if speed were of the utmost importance. We all watched, absolutely fascinated by the drama unfolding right before our eyes.

He had grabbed a pair of vise grip pliers from the flight deck, a type of locking pliers that can be adjusted for size and locking grip, and returned to the stubborn cable. Working to get a grip on the cable proved to be futile as attempt after attempt to pull the cable met with failure. Finally, with absolutely no recourse, he twisted the remaining Dzus fasteners and took off the main panel. He laid it off to the right side of the bulkhead. With the panel removed, we could all see into the wheel well from the troop compartment. The flight engineer took a deep breath and climbed into the wheel well, squeezing past the struts and braces that cluttered the opening. He disappeared from sight completely and all the cadets as well as the few adult members held their collective breaths.

It was a moment I will never forget. The flight engineer couldn't be seen, yet we knew he was struggling with no tools inside a dark, cramped compartment with absolutely no room. The droning was incredibly intense, yet none of us heard it. Suddenly, with an indescribable noise, the nose gear doors slammed open and the huge landing gear swung free. The inside of the fuselage was blasted by 150 mile an hour wind! Dress uniforms, carefully wrapped in plastic, hanging from the static jump lines that ran the length of the aircraft, blew all over the back of the airplane. I could see the landscape below with the nose gear fully extended, and our incredibly dedicated, unsung hero, bracing himself with one foot against the fuselage and the other foot against the other side of the bulkhead, inches from the gaping hole! Nothing below him but the Everglades some 2000 feet down. And he didn't have on a parachute! He couldn't fit in the wheel well with one on.

The young flight engineer slowly backed out of the wheel well, stood up and brushed off his pant legs. He climbed back up the short ladder while we sat in wind-blown awe. The landing was without further incident, even though we were followed back to Base Operations by an Air Force O1A fire truck.

He got a round of applause but I don’t think he heard it. We never even found out his name. We all disembarked from the aircraft, and waited on the apron, but we never got to meet him. He was probably busy filling out paperwork.

Friday, September 30, 2022

Ludwig and the Donkey

An image of the old farm just off the highway immediately popped into my mind as my wife and I turned sharply into the triangular courtyard at the bottom of the hill. The Bauernhof looked astonishingly familiar. The house was nestled between the highway and a small farmer’s access road that ran along the river. I drove past it every day for three years on my way to and from work in the early 1960's.

The farmhouse was just over a small bridge over the minuscule River Nims, which in North Carolina would probably be called a creek, but this is the Eifel region of Germany, and the small, innocuous river played havoc with the area just two years earlier with horrendous flooding. Luckily, our hosts for the next three weeks,  Ludwig and Walburga Pax, were spared any damage.

They were kind enough to let us stay with them as they had an empty apartment on the ground floor of the old, but completely refurbished farmhouse. The arrangements were made by other German friends of ours so we could spend time in Bitburg, Germany, my wife’s hometown. Bitburg Air Base was also home to the 36th Tactical Fighter Wing and the 71st Tactical Missile Squadron, my duty station for over five years during two separate assignments. Bitburg was made famous in May, 1985, by President Reagan's visit to a local cemetery that drew both praise and condemnation.

Our hosts were very cordial as my wife and I spent the first several days going and coming, shopping in town, sightseeing and catching up on old friendships. We also got to meet several people we had friended on-line, mainly through Facebook. Soon, Ludwig and Walburga invited us to join them in their garden patio for a glass of wine and we immediately accepted. They had just returned from Tirol in Northern Italy where they celebrated their Silver Wedding anniversary. They had arrived home the night before we got there. They were settling in as much as we were.

Even with my rusty German, bolstered by my wife’s translation skills, we were soon reminiscing about the old days when blue US Air Force trucks roared up the hill on their way to Bitburg Air Base, or further on to Idenheim, one of our two launch sites. The missile support area where I worked was several miles back up the highway in the other direction. The Pax farmhouse was directly adjacent to the two-lane highway that connected the areas. The traffic on the highway back then was sparse, usually local farmers headed toward Oberweis or the farming villages scattered in the area. Occasional Luxemburgers came across from nearby Vianden, but the parade of blue USAF trucks and transporters and the colorful big, American cars of the officers and sergeants who worked at MSA or the other launch site we had at nearby Rittersdorf were just as common as the black-on-white license plates of the local residents. In the several days we had been there, it was obvious things have changed.

The traffic was incessant up and down the hill. Trucks of all shapes and sizes from Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and even France were common, and the license plates of the continual flow of cars and SUVs reflected the economic state of the European Union, which seems to be doing quite well. The traffic at night slacked off little but the Pax’s newly rebuilt apartment had soundproof windows and window shades that insulated us completely from the outside world. While we were chatting about the differences between now and then, Ludwig laughed and told me about the day an Air Force truck brought him a donkey.

I sat up. Again, old memories began to stir. 

Sometime during the late 1950's, while the TM-61C Matador was the primary weapon system of the 585th Tactical Missile Group, MSA was developed as the off-base maintenance area and the nearby Site VII was then known as "B" pad. Ludwig’s parents rented the apartment on the ground floor of the farm house to an American missileman who often brought candy or gum for Ludwig. One afternoon the renter was talking with Ludwig's father and asked Ludwig, who was six or seven at the time, if he wanted a bunny, a chicken, or a donkey. Young Ludwig said he’d rather have a donkey. 

Several days later, a blue Air Force truck pulled into the farmyard towing a trailer. Several airmen opened the trailer and unloaded a donkey, complete with a box of feed and blankets. The American had asked Ludwig's father to house-keep the donkey for the Air Force, but Ludwig had no idea of how or why. Ludwig said he was very happy to get the Donkey.

I sat and listened to his story, my mind furiously spinning. I remembered posting a photograph on my web site of a donkey that had been brought back from Libya as a squadron mascot.  It was taken from a squadron newspaper clipping in the late fifties and I suddenly remembered where to find it. I went inside and logged on to Ludwig’s W-lan – it’s not called WiFi in Germany – and pulled up the photo of the donkey. When I showed it to Ludwig, he was speechless. He went inside and came back out with a photo of him sitting on the donkey! Now I was speechless.

Ludwig Pax, about 5 or 6 years old, with his mother
Photo courtesy of Ludwig Pax

A Martin Company civilian named Bill Baily accompanied the 71st Tactical Missile Squadron to Wheelus Air Base in Libya as a Technical Representative during a live-fire exercise done annually by all of the tactical missile squadrons assigned to NATO. The exercises, called AMLO, or Annual Missile Launch Operation, were done from 1954 through early 1959, with thirty-six Matador missiles launched annually at an area sixteen miles from the Wheelus flight line. While on the 1959 exercise, Bailey somehow acquired a burro from a Libyan local near the launch area outside of Tripoli and managed not only to get it on the C-119 flight back to Bitburg, but also got the Squadron to adopt the animal as its mascot. Renamed to Mahl Ish from whatever it was called before, the new name supposedly reflected the phrase “mox nix,” the military bastardization of the German phrase “machts nicht,” roughly translated as “doesn’t matter.” Someone even had a blanket made, probably in Libya, with the burro’s new name across the top and the squadron insignia proudly emblazoned in the center. It would be hard to imagine the 585th Tactical Missile Group commander, Col Fred Vetter, wasn’t in on the stunt as 1st Lt. Sherman J. Uchill was assigned as Mahl Ish’s custodian.

Ludwig did not remember the name of the American family his father rented to, but he remembered when the Air Police – since renamed to Security Police – knocked on the farm house door one afternoon asking to speak with the American renter. The tenant produced documents about the burro that satisfied the police and they left, leaving the burro with the Pax family.

Ludwig remembered having the burro for several years, with the Air Force coming by every once in a while to pick up the animal for special events, but they always brought the animal back to the farm. He also remembered the burro getting out of his pen more than once, one time going all the way to the main street in Bitburg before Ludwig's father found him.

Ludwig doesn't know the fate of the burro, only that one time the Air Force picked up the burro and that was the last time he saw it.

Not only does Ludwig still have the shears used on the burro...

...he also still has the original box it came in!

Both photos courtesy of Ludwig Pax

Determined to fill in the blanks after we were back home, I asked Russ Reston, webmaster for the TAC Missileers Association if he could put a blurb on their site asking anyone for information about the mysterious squadron mascot. He put my odd request on the Web page and the next morning I had an answer from Mike Fedrick, a missileer who served with the 585th TMG from 1959 until 1962, the year I arrived in the group.

Mike wrote “I was in the 71st TMS from 1959 to 1962. The donkey was brought to Germany from Libya in 1959 by the last group to go to Libya for combat ready launches. The rest of us went to Cape Canaveral for launches.

I got to know the donkey up close and personal. When the 585th Tac Missile Group had a summer picnic for dependent children, the group commander (Col. Vetter) had me pick it up from the German farmer that was taking care of it, load it into a weapons carrier, take it to the picnic, and lead it around with kids riding on it, load it back, and take it back to the German farmer. My memories of this event are unpleasant because the donkey did not want to get into the weapons carrier, both when I picked it up and when we had to load it to take it back. The German farmer got it loaded the first time, but it took several of us to load it to take it back.

I was told I was chosen for this onerous task because I’m from Texas. I’m actually good with horses, but never had to deal with a donkey before or after. As you know, Mox Nix means "makes no difference".

Best regards, Mike”

I have no idea what strange stories will pop up next time we visit Bitburg, but it will be hard to top meeting Ludwig and hearing about his donkey.


Ilse Mindling, Walburga Pax, Ludwig Pax, George Mindling
Steinebrücke, Bitburg, Germany, September 2022

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Moths to a Flame - Part 12, Rollin' Home


The trip back to the US from the lesser Antilles of the Caribbean is a solid two day voyage, and a great time to relax and enjoy cruising for what it really is: sanctuary.

It is about birds and flying fish. The wrong birds, it turns out but cool birds after all. I watched them on our way into San Juan as they flew alongside the ship into a strong, blustery headwind. They often flew close to the surface, between the cresting waves, flying in the toughs between the spray-capped peaks as flying fish, startled by the ship, would leap out of the water and soar along the wave line trying to escape the huge, blue hull that pursued them in the water. I saw the big, dark brown seabirds, with huge wing spans and long bright, beaks that looked like spears between the other islands as well, but not in the abundance we saw in the Atlantic north of San Juan. I watched them soar overhead, circle each other and then float easily, almost motionless alongside a cruise ship that was shoving its ninety-one thousand ton mass relentlessly through a protesting, cobalt-blue ocean.

I called them Albatrosses, not that I know what an Albatross really looks like, but it sounded right. I knew they weren’t forked-tailed Frigatebirds that soared overhead in every port. It was almost a given they were going to be Albatrosses, after all, that is what writers call them when writing about ships and the sea, right? The graceful birds would suddenly dive down into the ocean, just like on the television shows on PBS. The white, turbulent trail of bubbles and foam would dissipate before the birds reappeared on the ocean’s surface. They would take off immediately and rejoin the others in the hunt. Several of them would skim along the cresting waves and grab an occasional fish that leapt into the air. But they weren’t Albatrosses, they were Brown Boobies. Yes, Brown Boobies. Now you know why writers call them Albatrosses.

Perhaps one reason they’re so common north of Puerto Rico is because that’s the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean. Well, probably not, but when the captain announced the ocean we were passing through was over 16,000 feet deep just north of Puerto Rico, I had to research, why here?

This is what happens when I have two whole days without telephones and television and very limited Internet. With plenty of time to write whatever wanders through my mind, complete, coherent sentences would magically appear in my spiral notebook. I thought they were coherent at the time, but now I’m simply happy to have the abstract notes and tidbits that trigger memories all in one place. As I read them now, I often drift off in memories and unanswered questions. The second answer is the Puerto Rico Trench. It is the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean and full of long, floating patches of Sargasso sea weed.

I’ve often wondered why the land in our neck of the woods is flat. Florida, the Bahamas, even the parts of the Yucatan peninsulas are flat and featureless, while the islands south of us are typically mountainous, starting with Cuba, not all that far away. Except oddly enough, for the Cayman islands, which from what we saw, looks like Key Largo. Maybe the Puerto Rico Trench doesn’t have anything to with that either, but it does separate two major tectonic plates. Neat, huh? Just a few hundred miles further south and we could have earthquakes like Puerto Rico, and volcanoes such as the one on St. Vincent that erupted violently two years ago. Instead, we get flat, featureless, boring Florida.

Something else neat about the trench we can not see even when we pass over it. According to NASA, “beneath the trench is a mass so dense it has a gravitational pull on the surface of the ocean, causing it to dip somewhat. It also has a negative effect on the accuracy of navigational instruments.” Apparently it doesn’t bother the birds.

The weather was beautiful. Sunny, with the winds behind us in a following sea, the ship was perfectly at ease. We slept in, taking yet another tour of the boat after our late, late breakfast. 

Being fascinated by the open ocean, I stood on our balcony and watched the big birds flying alongside us for several hours and took hundreds of photographs. I deleted all but the few that weren’t blurry, keeping one or two that show they distinctly are not Albatrosses.

The telephone rang and we both looked at each other in surprise. It was Concierge services but the voice was broken and erratic. We could barely complete a sentence without popping noises and sporadic silence. She apologized and said she would send a technician to fix the phone. I know that’s what she said because ten minutes later, a technician knocked on our door with a new telephone set. The concierge called back on the new, working telephone because we had earlier asked for the room temperature to be raised a few degrees. The room controller didn’t work and couldn’t be adjusted by us, so again, they sent a technician to solve our problem. They were checking to see if the temperature was to our liking when they found out we had the telephone problem. We told her the room was fine. Thirty minutes later we had another knock on the door. The concierge sent us a complementary bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon for our inconvenience. The service from Celebrity is outstanding.

This was the second dress-up night for dining, and for the second evening in a row, we had the pleasure of meeting Dany and Seba for dinner. We had the option of dining at one of the upscale specialty restaurants, but we all agreed to dine in the main dining room again. 

Luh and David, great people and part of the memory

The service staff of the Millennium was without doubt, one of the best we have encountered, and that includes the SS Norway. David, our waiter, never missed a hint or gesture and by the second meal, had our quirks and tastes so well known we didn't have to ask for anything, it was already there, and Luh, our server, was even so comfortable with us she did the infamous dropped coffee cup routine not only on me, but on Seba as well. On our final night, Ilse asked them to "bend" the code a little bit and please remove the masks momentarily so we could finally see their faces and take a photograph. That is without doubt, one of the biggest drawbacks to the COVID procedures which Celebrity adheres to religiously; we don't get to see the faces of the people we meet.  

Tonight was lobster night, so once again, had a great dinner along with great company. We all retired to the lounge on the fantail where we were joined by several other musician friends of theirs, and their fiancées, and ended up listening to music and chatting until 1:30 in the morning. A really great day.

Our last day at sea was an indoor day. The weather turned rainy and windy, with one break long enough to hear a final pool-side performance by Dany and Seba, Supernova Duo. They performed “My Life is Going On,” the theme song from “The Money Heist.” the hit Netflix series, just for us. There could not have been a better note to end the vacation. Without a doubt, one of our best vacations ever.

Seba and Dany - SuperNova Duo - open our Home video, simply click on the photo!

As far as cruising? We’ve already started planning our next one.

Ft Lauderdale at sunrise - Welcome back to reality.

Monday, January 24, 2022

Moths to a Flame - Part 11, St Maarten


Philipsburg is our last port call of the cruise, and as usual, I wake up before daybreak. Instead of going up on deck to take photographs, I roll over and go back to sleep. This is our second visit to Philipsburg, St Maarten. We were here in 1992, long before they opened the Dr. A.C. Wathey Cruise Facility that facility allows four huge cruise ships to dock simultaneously just a mile down the beach from town. We arrived on the SS Norway back then and we went ashore on a tender, one of the smaller boats that ferried passengers between the off-shore anchored ship and the small dock at the edge of town. The costly, time strangling tenders are no longer required with the new facility.

SS Norway anchored at St Maarten - 1992 - The tender is alongside the ship.

I wake up to a barking dog. I roll over and groggily look at Ilse. She says “Is that a dog?” I opened the balcony slider part way and looked out at a hill just behind the cargo wharf. There are shipping containers stacked neatly the length of the dock. We are tied up just several hundred yards away from a small island-hopping freighter, the ones that are the life blood of all the Caribbean islands. A small, yellow tow boat idly motors between us. The dog barks again and I slowly focus on the top deck of the freighter I would have called a tramp steamer in the old days. I really don’t know what a tramp steamer is, but I imagine it would look something like this clunker that has a dog kennel just behind the bridge.

We dressed, went up top and ate breakfast, still not mustering the moxie to try coddled eggs, and returned to our cabin just as another less-than-pristine island freighter tried to negotiate the pilings between us and the wharf she had been tied to. Her anchor was still down as she tried to power away from the dock and I told Ilse there was a good chance the ship would ram the piling if he wasn’t careful. He wasn’t. The ship slammed against the huge concrete piling before the little yellow tow boat could push against his stern, and at full power, shove it around the stubborn, unforgiving piling. The anchor finally winched up and the boat eventually quit scraping noisily along the massive concrete pillar. I don’t know if the boat, on its way to some long lost pirate cove, would have actually collided with the mighty Celebrity Millennium, but I guarantee you the crew on our ship was watching closely, if somewhat helplessly, from the bridge.

Ilse and I walked down the dock toward security but I dawdled, taking photographs of a three-masted sailing ship, the Stad Amsterdam, tied up across the dock from us. A beautiful, nostalgic clipper ship geared to those who wistfully want to relive the golden age of sailing ships, she calls St, Maarten home-port. Most everyone stops to look at the beautiful ship as they head toward the security checkpoint.

A German cruise ship arrived earlier and docked at the other dock directly across from the black, magnificent sailing ship. It makes a great photograph as the new arrival, the huge German AIDA Sol, is painted with gaudy, goofy lips and extravagant eyes and eyelashes that go from the deck to the waterline, contrasts between a bygone era of primitive, survivalist exploration, and one of surrealistic entertainment that now dominates our coming future. A long, blue stripe representing hair, runs the length of the ship. It is quite a contrast to the sedate, serious schooner.

By the time we get through security, a second German ship, the AIDA Perla, has docked alongside her sister ship. They must be related, they are painted identically. The Perla, while quite a bit larger than the Sol, is to me, just as gaudy and quite honestly, goofy. Ilse and I walk across the concrete wharf to get a better photograph of the two ships and stop to talk with a couple walking slowly from the newly docked ship toward the port exit. They sailed from Hamburg, Germany, on a thirty-eight day cruise and will visit the Dominican Republic and Cuba before returning via Lisbon. We laugh and chat for ten minutes – mostly them, my German is not up to par these days – before saying goodbye. Everyone remarks what a small world we live in.

Ilse and I decide to catch a mini-van or jitney so not to wear ourselves out too early by walking the mile into town. There is a designated waiting area for vans and taxis in the cruise terminal, with passengers, most them looking at maps or guide books, from all three ships milling around. We join the queue at the port exit and find it is well organized. The vans are stacked up one behind the other, taxi cab style. When we have six people waiting, the honcho waves for the next van and asks our destination. He loads us so the closest people get off first. Ilse and I are in the very front.

All the other passengers are German from the same ship as the people we talked to on the pad. They are considerable younger than we are and we remember all other civilized nations except the US and Canada, get a basic thirty day vacation as a minimum so this is common everywhere else but here. We’re number One! We’re number One! Damned socialism! We end up chatting with them, masked of course, and exchange pleasantries before we get out of the van.

The fee for the interesting, toot-filled trip through town was seven and a half dollars. When I gave the driver fifteen dollars, he smiled and gave me back seven and a half dollars. “The fare is for you both,” he said. I begin to wonder if I’m dreaming about the way the world should be. It is a pleasant surprise.

We walked through the old dock area and the boardwalk, taking photos of the old landmarks we had seen many years before. Ilse haggles with a street vendor for a swimsuit cover-up, settling on a price less than half the original asking price but still twice as much as it was worth. When I asked her why she paid the price, Ilse smiled and said “They have to make a living, too.”

We stopped and asked for a local drug store as I needed band-aids for a nasty little whack on my shin from being careless on deck. I ran into a deckchair that had been pushed into the walkway and really banged the devil out of my shin. Blood running down to my shoe type stuff. I cleaned it up but we couldn’t stop the bleeding and we used up the meager supply of first aid stuff we brought with us within a few hours. I wouldn’t go to the ship’s medical center for attention unless it was imperative to do so. But, so far so good, and we found an Israeli-owned store – it is indeed a small world – a few blocks from the beach that had what we needed and two and a half dollars, we were good to go. We decided to walk back to the cruise center, enjoying the warmest day of the trip.

One of the shops caught Ilse's eye, especially since she's a yoga instructor. A store had a row of yoga pants mounted on mannequins on display on the sidewalk. The very first form-fitting pair of pants was one with snowflakes and reindeer. "Where did you get those?" "Why, in St. Maarten, of course!"

A cat was sitting in the walkway at the security checkpoint. It looked as if it was checking the ID cards as well as the several uniformed guards who leaned on turnstiles and waited for the few straggling passengers. I smiled at the guards, but instead of showing them my ship’s ID card, I bent over and presented it to the cat, which in perfect cat fashion, looked at the card, then slowly looked up at me and meowed. I said “thank you,” to the cat – and showed the card to the guard just to be safe.

The guard said, “You want a cat? Take this one.”

We went back to the cabin, ordered drinks, went out on the balcony and put our feet up. We were looking down into the almost clear water, it was almost a milky blue, when a huge sea turtle surfaced right beside the boat. I went inside grabbed a camera, and when I got back, there were two of them! They stayed beside us for several minutes before diving out of site. If we had been in St, Croix, we would have seen them underwater.  

The heliport is opened for the departure from St. Maarten, but Ilse passes and I went back up to see if I could catch any unusual shots. One single gentleman I had chatted with several times a day, older than me, was complaining bitterly to a steward that it really wasn’t much of a party. The steward, serving free drinks to the passengers watching the dock disappear as we pulled out, didn’t have an answer. The complainer was originally from Belgium but now resides in Florida, and was simply being petty. I couldn’t help but butt-in. “I didn’t even know there was a party, my friend,” I said, “Would you like to dance?” My grumpy friend put his empty margarita glass back on the server's tray and climbed back down the stairs. I glanced back at the steward. You could see the twinkle in his eyes above his face mask.

Our dinner was very special as this was the first evening we ate with Dany and Seba. We didn’t leave the dining room until 10:30 in the evening. A wonderful way to wrap up our final port call of the trip.

We have two glorious days at sea ahead of us on our return trip to Ft Lauderdale. A perfect vacation.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Moths to a Flame - Part 10, St Kitts


Not much I can say about St Kitts, we didn’t get off the boat. The incessant rain squalls made going ashore a real test, even for the die-hards who were determined to ride the old sugar mill train around the island. With the huge Celebrity Equinox docked next to us, we had created a wind tunnel that occasional roared down the pier, blowing umbrellas back over the heads of tenacious passengers headed toward the security gate at least several hundred yards away. Every time the wind-lashed rain subsided, people would make a mad dash for shore but many got caught between the ships by gusts that could almost knock them over. They were all soaked to the skin, regardless of what rain gear they had on. Many had absolutely nothing but the ship’s courtesy umbrellas. Many passengers just gave up on the umbrellas and plodded forward anyway, dragging their useless, collapsed umbrellas behind them. They looked like they had been sprayed with fire hoses. Ilse and I put our feet up and watched dryly from several stories above.

Several stories above us, several Frigatebirds soar easily, effortlessly, sometimes hovering motionless directly overhead in the stiff wind between the ships. I’m surprised as the five or six birds are obviously using the weather to their advantage, but I can’t help but wonder what it is. We’ve seen them in every port we’ve visited and they usually stay with us until we are well out of port. English sailors called them Man-O-War birds. Most passengers on our boat simply call them  “birds.”  

It had been a gray, dismal morning as we approached St Kitts at daybreak. Heavy rain showers were scattered across the entire horizon and the weather after breakfast did not improve. Two men sitting on the huge concrete, anchoring pillar, in the harbor fifty yards behind our boat, sat huddled together against the foul weather, waiting for the ship’s lines to be thrown to them. I lost track of them for a few minutes in one of the rain squalls even though they were wearing yellow raincoats. There was no way to get on or off the pillar except by boat, and with the waves crashing constantly against their open, concrete, man-made island, I couldn’t help but wonder if they had on life vests. They were out there for over an hour and were drenched three times.

Getting to St. Kitts was different from the other overnight cruises. I watched our position during the evening and noticed the Captain was just killing time. The distance from Antigua to St. Kitts is less than sixty-five miles, so we sailed away from St Kitts for several hours before we turned and sailed back toward the island. The first time I looked we were thirty two-miles away, then thirty-eight miles, then after we turned around, we were down to thirty-three miles from our second-to-last island visit. Secure in the knowledge we were finally headed toward the right island, I went to bed.

Our balcony was protected by the Celebrity Equinox moored across the pier from us. Our sister ship was taking the brunt of the tropical storm force winds blasting the other side of the ship, but also oddly creating a strange wind tunnel between us that relentlessly rain-whipped the passengers who tried to walk on the pier. A great time to read and write, and occasionally tour the boat to see if we had missed anything.

Reviewing my notes from our visit to Antigua the day before, I decided – don’t ask me why – to add up the population of the five cruise ships simultaneously docked yesterday in St Johns. The cumbersome Seaview can carry five thousand, two hundred passengers, which is quite an impact on a town with a population of only twenty-two thousand people. The rather small Grandeur of the Seas carries another one thousand, ninety two and the even smaller Saga Spirit of Adventure, another boutique cruiser, only carries nine hundred and ninety nine. The smallest was the Azamara Quest, the pinnacle of boutique cruising. She only carries six hundred, ninety passengers. Add that to our capacity of two thousand, two hundred and thirty one and you have well over half the population of this port city, which is larger than most ports. If we had been full, as is usually the non-COVID case, there would have been almost eleven thousand oddly dressed tourists wandering around the town falling off sidewalks or taking tours to a short-lived, prepaid trip to nirvana of some sort. Just a different view of the cruising industry and why it has become so important to certain Caribbean countries.

Ilse stops in front of a painting of a tree in winter in one of the main foyers. She doesn’t have to say a word. I take a photo of the artwork which is mounted upside down. We wonder how many people notice the playful exercise in observation. Even better, while strolling forward toward the heliport, we met a steward, busy rearranging his cart after servicing a cabin. I stopped to look at a large color photograph of a young girl wistfully, almost tearfully looking back to her left, hanging next to his cart.“

"Do you know what she is looking at?” asked the young steward.

“No, not really,” I answered. “What do you think she is looking at?”

“I know what she is looking at,” he replied. “Go to the other side of the ship, in the same position as this and you will see the answer.”

Ilse and I walked across the next passage and down the corridor to the same position, exactly across from where we were. A photograph of a young man, obviously by the same photographer, looking back remorsefully to his right hangs in the exact spot. 

We wonder if there are more Easter Eggs, as they are called, on the ship. We are not impressed with the art available in the ship’s art auction, but then again, we don’t cruise to buy art, but we are always curious as to how the ship’s decorators pick their choices for display. Most of the ship’s artwork and photographs are generally bland and unobtrusive, but there are some nice art pieces in the stairwells and foyers.

The rains subsided by late afternoon and by the time we cast off had drifted away completely. Staying aboard has been a relaxing, if uneventful, day and we decided to go top-side to watch our departure. A huge refueling barge that has been alongside us most of the day, casts off and slowly lumbers away from the docks.

Laughter and even plans about visiting echo between the two huge Celebrity ships. Crew members are yelling greetings to one another across the narrow gap that separates us. Many crew members have crewed together, and we found out later, there are even family members serving on several different Celebrity ships. We watch one young girl, dressed as a room steward, standing, talking on a cell phone as she vigorously waves to someone on the other ship.

As we silently move away, Ilse mentions we didn’t get to see any mountain tops while we were here, they were shrouded in clouds our entire stay. As if they were required by the tourist industry, a rainbow appeared just for our departure. Ilse takes a marvelous photo of Nevis Peak, on the nearby island of Nevis that sums up our memory here. Perhaps, some time in the future...  

After dinner, Ilse and I headed toward one of the normally mellow lounges amid-ships, and found people dancing in the lounge and corridor, but there was no music! A host slipped a headset on Ilse and one on me and gestured to dance, which we immediately did. We love to dance and the music was great. Once we had the headsets on, everything made sense and everyone was having a ball. The music played disco-style with no breaks or interruptions and finally after about the third or fourth song, I took off my headset and asked what the different colors beaming from the earpads meant. He explained the control knobs on the head set and showed me the volume and music selection options. There were different colors, one for each of the several different stations available. I laughed out loud, but no one heard me, they were all still dancing. Even Ilse, who had her headset set on blue, listening to oldie Rock and Roll. Mine was set on red. I was listening to Rhythm and Blues. We had been dancing for ten minutes to different music! We probably looked like idiots, but it didn’t matter, we were having a great time.