Friday, April 22, 2011

Changes Along the Blue Ridge

Hiking in Shenandoah National Park, thirty years ago, we came upon a graduate student doing air quality testing. It was above a pristine valley that would soon become home to a new brewery. The testing was to establish air quality parameters so that future graduate students could gauge the degradation. That might be a cynical view of what was going on, but a fair assessment. Thirty years later we hike the same area and progress has shortened our focal point. Spring mountain clarity is gone, shrouding the growth curse that obviously is the cause.
The National Park System, as the Ken Burns film points out, “Is America’s greatest idea.” As amazing as these units are, as vital as their mission to protect, and as important it is to preserve them for future generations, the reality is clear. They are minute conservation islands surrounded by the stranglehold of development. They are pounded by impact until frayed, cracked and breached.
“The Times They Are a Changing.” Dylan had it right, but I guess times are constantly changing. I’m thinking my perspective is heavily influenced by my old age. I have so much history stored up in my hard drive I’m beginning to assimilate truth from fiction much more efficiently than I did in my younger years. After Howard Zinn so eloquently portrayed the truth in The People’s History of the United States, I now question everything I was ever taught in school. I’m beginning to think that daydreaming through most of high school might have saved me from a tremendous amount of brainwashing.
From a environmental, social or economic standpoint it always boils down to my simple little equation: multiple numbers/divide resources. Until the lemming population crashes, the little rodent hordes devour everything in sight; almost as devastating as a swarm of locust. The ever growing, exponential human population is the global lemming.
I am a destructive little lemming. I’ve contributed to peak oil, global warming, poor air quality and depleted fresh water supply just by driving down to the jiffy store for a six pack.
They say you can run, but you cannot hide. I’ve spent much of my life running. I have been aware of the impact since my teens and have spent a lifetime looking for wild places to hike and explore. But even these reaches have now been over-trodden by numerous people just like me--looking for the scraps of wilderness that still exist in some diluted form. Are these sacred places that should be off-limits? I realize I am part of the problem, not part of the solution. Should I feel guilty hiking deep into these sanctuaries? Should I give up driving, drinking beer and having babies? I don’t think that will have much impact as I race ahead of the lemming horde, stampeding close behind me. I am willing to stop having babies, but driving, drinking and hiking into every wild corner I can find will most likely fill out my life’s daily planner.
I have no solution for over population. Like the country western song says, “Everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” I’m runnin’ as fast as I can, trying to stay ahead of the lemming stampede, but, I am aware that up ahead of me somewhere is the proverbial cliff.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Village People

I discovered where boomers go to live out their youthful dreams. When they were young they couldn’t afford a Corvette or a ’57 Chevy. When they finally started making a little money they had five kids to feed and a mortgage. Then they bought a few toys, like boats and campers, to make life interesting and keep the kids entertained. Soon it was college tuition, the tech bubble and the great recession. But, a chosen few feel like they made it to boomer paradise. It’s the Disney World of senior living. They call it “The Villages.” It actually sits a hundred miles north of Disney World. It stretches on for miles and miles and keeps growing. It consists of theme villages. It’s almost surreal. Lots of people are driving around in that Corvette or ’57 Chevy they always dreamed about. Most are driving around in golf carts that just looks like a Corvette, a ’57 Chevy as well as any other dream vehicle you can think of. I didn’t see any shuffle board courts. I did hear about something called “Pickleball.” Not sure what that is all about. I was afraid to ask once I heard sexually transmitted diseases among seniors at “The Villages” are running rampant. A doctor blamed Viagra, a lack of sex education and no risk for pregnancy. I’m guessing there is a link to “Pickleball.”
It looks like something you would only find in America. Small downtown squares lined with golf carts shrouded in the false facade of vintage vehicles. Streets named after all the things that used to live where cookie cutter houses now crowd together. Shopping, dining and entertainment at every compass reading, and the constant temptation to pop a blue pill and rock the night away with some dreamboat with brand new knees.
We strolled into a plaza crowded with line dancers stepping to a band from Alabama that was a little pitchy. The sound wasn’t that important. It was Happy Hour and the booze concession was all set up on the corner. Anyone who wasn’t feeling groovy already just needed to get in line and go with the flow.
With my Pina Colada in hand I sat down to listen to the pitchy band. A friendly guy in front of me turned and asked if I golfed. I said, “never.” He said, “How about Pickleball?” I moved on before he asked me to dance.
There is nothing wrong with “The Villages.” It almost seems an appropriate place for many boomers. From what I could see nothing much had changed with this generation. They were still enjoying their sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.
--Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird

Saturday, December 20, 2008

National Landfill

Photo taken during our visit in Spring of 1979

As we looked out along the moon’s pathway to the Gulf’s horizon, we could see the multiple silhouettes of oil rig platforms anchored to the sea. We were camping on Padre Island along the Texas Gulf coast in 1979.
We wanted to take a few days to explore Padre Island National Seashore, and it looked as though everyone just drove out onto the beach with their rig and camped wherever the wind blew. We only paid $4,000 for our Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser (largest frame automobile every built) and a 28 ft. Avion Travel Trailer, but it happened to be the only thing in the whole world we owned. So it was going to take a lot of convincing to get me to drive it out on some beach and sacrifice it to the sand dollar gods. But after a day of walking the beach and witnessing other fools with $100,000 rigs along the shore, we decided to go for it. The secret was to stay on the hard-packed sand and out of the water. By evening we were five miles down the beach, parked near a calm sea, within eyesight of others who looked as though they too would spend the night. Was this sucking the juice out of life or what? Sipping wine with our feet in the waves and our hind-ends in the warm Gulf sand. Not a worry in the world, and our only responsibility was to make sure we didn’t track too much sand into the trailer. It was an incredibly beautiful beach. For miles we had walked and discovered something new with every step. Gaila and I both agreed it was the most beautiful beach we had yet discovered along the Gulf coast. The calm evening was a perfect end to a perfect day, and we went to sleep lulled by the rhythmic sounds of the Gulf’s water ending its journey just yards away.
We were rudely awakened at midnight by Mother Nature in a rage. The wind shook the trailer in violent gusts. I can only compare it to the bombers in movies about World War II as they took flack from heavy, land-based guns. The wind-driven rain was well past the drop stage. It was as though we were parked under Niagara Falls. I jumped out of the trailer to put the fiberglass window awnings down, but the wind and rain were so ferocious, I could not keep my eyes dry enough to see. I left the awnings and went back into the trailer soaked to the bone. Then in an instant of horror I began to wonder if the tide was in or out when I parked. Did everybody else leave after dark? Is this some kind of spring hurricane? I raced back out into the storm and worked my way to both ends of the rig, trying to focus up and down the beach in search of another rig and a little assurance that we were not the only fools left out here to be flushed into the Gulf of Mexico. I could not see ten feet in either direction. The water’s edge was much closer, but perhaps it was just the storm and not the rising tide. I went back into the trailer and we rode out the storm without another wink of sleep until dawn broke in a eerie calm that made the whole episode seem like only a bad dream. I made some coffee and we walked down the beach. In the distance I could see that there were a few rigs still on the beach, but the storm had thinned out the smart and the timid. It had also transformed our beautiful pristine beach into a common landfill. Along this sand-strewn stretch that just yesterday held only nature’s treasures, today would yield anything one would hope to find in any landfill. The storm had rooted up, from the bowels of the Gulf, debris of every type and laid it out for a hundred miles in a display of natural decadence. Our feet became heavy and our pace slow, not only from despair, but from the fact that our shoes had become caked with a thick black tar that was compacted in yesterday’s pure virgin sand. We had seen enough and decided to cut our Padre Island visit short and head further west.
We pulled up off the beach, and it felt good to be back on hard ground again. I was never much of a sailor and, after a night of standing watch against the waves breaking up against my land yacht, I was a born-again land-lover.
An hour out of Corpus Cristi on Highway 441 I was about to rethink that status.
We passed through Alice, Texas, and it was 110 degrees in the shade—had there been any shade! I had seen plenty of pickup trucks with rifles in the back windows. In fact, I thought General Motors and Ford had made it a standard feature on pickups shipped to Texas. An option would have been a fishing pole in place of the rifle. In the middle of my gun thoughts, I heard one go off. It turned out to be a Michigan trailer tire that just couldn’t take Texas heat. It blew the rubber right off the inside of the tire. Our trailer was a 28-foot, 1963 Avion. In 1963 they could make a 28-foot trailer with one axle, and that’s exactly what they did when they built ours. To keep the wheel from hitting the ground in case of a flat tire, they installed an axle guard. This was a small piece of angle iron that attached to the trailer axle and hung lower than the wheel. It worked like a skid to protect the wheel—which was great unless you were in Alice, Texas and the asphalt road was as soft as warm margarine! By the time I got that rig stopped, we had cut a slice in the heart of Texas 50 yards long. Figuring they still hung people for less than road destruction, I wanted to get that tire changed and put Alice in the rearview mirror just as quickly as possible.
I was in such a hurry I forgot to unhook the equalizing hitch that distributes the weight between the car and trailer. I couldn’t seem to get the trailer tire jacked up off the ground. Sweating like a thief in church I soon discovered my error and released the hitch. At the same moment a 1963 Chevy low-rider sped by, noticed my dilemma and turned around to offer help. The kid in the Chevy turned out to be a nice Alician who wanted to help me. It was a small town. I imagined his dad was the road commissioner and I would soon be on a chain gang patching Texas back roads.
I never went back to see but I assume it gets so hot in Texas the road eventually melts back into place—just as my tire tracks along Padre Island melt into the sand.
—Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ole Ern

Oil Portrait of Ernie Mallery by Michele Warner Smith

My parents will always be my heroes. I did not realize how fortunate I was to have perfect parents until I reached adulthood. We reap what we sow. Life came full circle for me the December my father Ernie (Ole Ern) passed away. All the memories of happy times come flooding back to me with such deep resonance and significance now that he is gone and I find myself so often reflecting on his life— comparing his parenting skills to my own.
I do not throw the word perfect around loosely in remembrance of my father’s passing. I can truly only hope to measure up to my parents’ uncommon knack of successfully raising a happy family.
Life is an adventure and my dad made sure we had plenty of adventures to glean experience from. He was full of life’s excitement and subtly injected that enthusiasm into everyone he met.
When I was about seven years old he took me to an open house at the Michigan Bell Telephone Company where he was a construction foreman. There were bucket trucks to ride, equipment to sit in and lots of refreshments. What I remember most was my dad explaining to me how to greet people. He said, "When I introduce you to someone, stick out your arm and while you shake their hand look them straight in the eye." Everyone who said peep to me that day got my hand and my stare. They still do today.
About that same time my dad bought an airstream travel trailer. It was the late 50s and there were few RVs on the road. We were like a band of gypsies as we traveled the country during long vacations each year. Most of our campsites were root beer stands or gas stations where they would let us hook up to electricity. Long before everyone had a CB radio in their vehicle my dad had built one the size of a small suitcase from a Heath Kit. I can picture him late at night at his desk soldering small transistors on to a board and adding thin crystals. In those days you were a mobile HAM operator and had to have call numbers. Our number and that of another family we often traveled with are forever branded into my gray matter. 19Q0166 calling 19Q1408. We had to say those numbers dozens of times a day to call the car ahead and make plans to stop for another coffee break and let six kids explore and let off enough steam to go another 50 miles or so.
My dad would always build the excitement prior to a trip. We went to the Seattle World’s Fair when I was in 5th grade. On the way West he said we would all get ten gallon cowboy hats, ride horses, go to rodeos, climb the Space Needle and jump in the Pacific Ocean. We did all that. He forgot to mention watching park rangers catch a bear, feeding wild burros and showing us how to make trains blow their whistles as we drove alongside with the car top down and a posse of kids mimicking an engineer pulling an imaginary air horn cord.
My dad never laid a hand on me as a child. I guess that is why he was in management. He would give us several fair warnings to straighten up and then send my mother with the belt. When my dad was giving instructions on such life lessons as picking up your rake and not laying it about where someone might step on it, he used a subtle approach. If you didn’t catch on right away, and he found your rake laying in the yard, he would discuss it quietly with you as he slowly pinched your arm. By the time you got to your tiptoes you were all ears!
Seldom did my dad walk through the door of a church, yet he possessed, and lived by values that few people master in their lifetime. Never a word of gossip, always encouragement. A bright side to every dark event. A blessing for every need. He had an infectious smile that garnished his wonderful sense of humor. When the doctors told him he was going to die and needed to arrange for Hospice he waited until he reached the car and jokingly said, "Well, that was encouraging."
If we could take his spirit of life, his generous compassion for friends, and the tolerance in which he judged others, and inject it into the world population instead of the smallpox vaccine, the planet would be the Utopia we all pray for. The world will miss his humor and his genuine concern for everyone he touched.
I will be able to laugh and cry for the rest of my years reflecting on all the good times I have shared with my father. I asked him once to route me a wooden sign for my fledgling bird feeder business. He was a great wood worker. He suggested I learn to do it myself. I gave it a shot, but the letters in our last name were crooked and the sign not centered. He grabbed another piece of wood and said, "If you had gone to college you would know how to do this." I couldn’t figure that. He hadn’t gone to college, and yet he could make beautiful signs. Over his shoulder I watched him skillfully create a handsome sign from raw wood. Midway through the operation I was chuckling but I never let on why. The finished sign read, "The Malery Construction Co." I could hardly contain myself. He held it up with great pride and said, "There, is that so hard?" I was quick to respond, "You know, if you had gone to college, you would know there are two ‘L’s’ in Mallery." He chased me out of the garage with that newly minted sign board and we laughed until it hurt.
I miss ya Dad.
—Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Before "Blue Highways"

During the spring of 1968 I set out in a 1964 suburban that I had converted into a camper. I had just graduated from high school and had been planning my "Travels With Charley" for three years. It may have been the first hippie van, as hippies were still hitchhiking in 1968. When they saw me go by on the "Blue Highways" of America the thought finally struck them that a set of wheels was not a bad idea. "Far Out". I lived in that old truck all summer and national park hopped all the way across the country and back through Canada. I searched out birds, and other wildlife, through swamps, up mountains, up and down beaches, and across the Badlands.
It was a time in history when gas station attendants would fill your tank and check your oil. I remember this because, I cooked on my engine block. The guy would say, "Check your oil?" and I would say, "Yea, and see if my meat loaf is done will ya?" They would always laugh until they reached in for the dip stick. Then I would hear, "Holy cow, he does have meat loaf in here." It was not only an easy way to cook lunch and dinner, but it was always good for a laugh.
I don’t know if 1968 was a special time in history, or if it was just because I was 18 and the biggest concern I had was dry socks and clean underwear. All these years later I still feel 18, but the world seems to have grown much older. It was so fresh and new then, and today it seems somehow used and a bit tattered. I met my first trumpeter swans that summer in Yellowstone’s Hayden Valley. I spent several days with them and remember wondering if I was looking at the new generation that would stock tomorrow’s skies, or the last of the wild trumpet callers. I sat against a Doug Fir in the shadow of Washington’s Hurricane Ridge and listened to a spotted owl. Had I known he was going to become such a celebrity, I may have pushed my way through the dense morning fog and introduced myself.
I backpacked hundreds of miles that summer with heavy gear. I couldn’t afford what little high tech gear was available. Everything I carried I bought with S & H green stamps, and measured in pounds not ounces. A few months later the Marine Corps was a cake walk compared to what I had been carrying. Except I didn’t have some guy that looked like a bulldog screaming in my face, and it was easier to talk to marmots than drill instructors.
I remember trying to get a picture of a ptarmigan in Glacier National Park, and every time I looked into the view finder I would see a roasted chicken. It wasn’t that I was getting tired of peanut butter and rice crispy treats, but my mind would constantly drift back to mom’s home cookin’. All through high school I had worked with the best bunch of people you could possibly assemble. They are the ones that started calling me Dick E. Bird, and quite often egghead. It was an Airstream travel trailer dealership and I knew I wasn’t going to wait until I retired to try this traveling life-style. Before I left they had a big party for me and everyone brought canned goods. I ate like a king for months.
That trip was my first formal education in ecology, vastness, splendor, conservation, wilderness, and limited resources. Even my young untrained eye (my good one) could see that Bob Dylan was right, the times they were a’changin’! I could see then the future battles over these resources were going to become more fierce and that it was a no-win situation. We were trying to manage nature’s pantry by slowly doling out her stores without restocking her shelves. We studied the forestry methods of Gifford Pinchot, and listened to his prophecy of doom if we didn’t put them into practice—but this was not Europe, this was America, and our natural resources could never be depleted.
I met a ranger on Kalaloch Beach in Olympia National Park. He was a seasonal that had worked the park for many years. I have seen him since and perhaps he is still teaching summer visitors to that part of the world about the mysteries of Kalaloch. On our walk in ’68, we talked of the old growth forests of the region and that one day they would all be whittled away by the slow process of politics. We talked about the life forms that depend on what is left, and the order in which they would disappear. We are now into the environmental battles that he described to me as "fall on your sword and die" issues. If we cannot come to grips with our needs and necessities now, our destiny will be one of less not more.
I can never have 1968 back, but I’m not looking back, I’m looking ahead to a time when the majority face reality and make judgements that include the feelings of nature, the wellspring of life.
—Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Passing Conversations

Conversations are born in the quiet moments between words. It is a space in time where thoughts develop into prepared speech. Instead of listening to what other’s have to say, we are busy locking and loading our next volley of verbs. Life’s knowledge is passed along by all of us in a huge global game of "Telephone," where you whisper into one person’s ear and pass the message along until it comes out totally twisted. We love to share what we think we know, and what we know is only enhanced by the amount of mutual ignorance we can gather around us.
Along the Oregon coast one evening we camped at a roadside viewpoint. We knew that was illegal, but we were fortunate enough to run into several people willing to share their ignorance on the subject and convince us that the "no camping" rule was not enforced.
We had a great evening watching the sun slowly drop, setting the ocean ablaze in broken color. Suddenly, we could see a man running toward us yelling and pointing off shore. He pointed out to us the whales sounding just off the beach, unselfishly shared with us his entire, yet limited, ignorance on whale watching, then continued down the beach to share his enthusiastic ignorance with others. Eventually, he worked his way back up the beach, gave us a few more tidbits of whale knowledge he had just gleaned from his latest conversations of shared ignorance along the beach, mounted his Harley, and headed home to Oklahoma. As the sun died and the rolling ocean before us flattened, we sat at the viewpoint alone. Everyone had taken his share of ignorance and moved on. We continued to look out at the sounding whales that had now become, once again, jutting rocks. But we knew in the morning the water would again turn them into splash points of sounding whales and it was up to us to point the whales out to another chain reaction of travelers so that ignorance would not die on a lonely stretch of Oregon beach.
An Oregon State Park ranger stopped to tell us we could not park overnight at the viewpoint. We would have to stay in the state park, but it was full. We told him if we didn’t stay to point out the whales to the morning’s visitors a great chain of ignorance could be broken and Oregon would be dropped from millions of conversations hatched from hearsay.
He could see the significant benefit to the state and wisely decided to become ignorant of the fact that we were camping. He said we could night view the ocean until morning, and left us to guard ignorance for the evening.
Our ignorance often shines through when observing nature. Even those who think they grasp the fine details of nature’s mechanisms fall far short of assembling a full understanding of her infinite system of connectivity. One morning while waiting for my coffee to perk I stood and watched a ruby throated hummingbird perched below my nectar feeder on a long strand of vine. The wind was gusting heavily and I thought the bird might be trapped, clinging to the vine for dear life while swinging wildly to the whim of the wind and the trumpet vine. It also occurred to me that perhaps the bird enjoyed this jostling. The trumpet vine may be the hummingbird’s equivalent of a Six Flags amusement park ride like the "Corkscrew Upchucker."
I watched the bird for several minutes. He never attempted to fly. He was hunkered down riding it out— no less spectacular than watching a skilled bull rider hang on with sheer determination. In an instant the bird untethered himself from the vine and at the velocity of a bullet shot himself across the yard to a Beauty bush in complete control.
Many conclusions could be drawn as to how this bird, who weighs less than the wind, can master its movements against such a foe. But I’m satisfied in the belief that it is just another example of a miracle of nature and the awesome power of life itself.
—Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Hardcore Birding

Working a bird count in the early 90s in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula Hiawatha National Forest, I had the opportunity to go into the Seney Wildlife Refuge at night to look for yellow rail. It was a small group of about eight people, some from New Jersey, Boston, California and Michigan. To add some birds to your life list it takes a little adventure. We left the refuge headquarters about 11 p.m. then headed out on the motor trail with Richard Urbanek, refuge biologist. When we arrived at the marsh Richard began striking two rocks together in hopes of calling a yellow rail in. When you use Morse code to call a rail, it is two short and then three short repeated clicks. Soon, on the far side of the marsh, a rail clicked back. This one was not in a traveling mood, so we finally decided to drive to the other side of the marsh and find a closer location to the rail’s position.
Once we made our move, we reestablished communications with our targeted rail and prepared to move into the marsh since he was not coming to us. I had no idea when I signed up to work the bird count that I would be going out chasing yellow rail, so I did not bring any waders. I was prepared to get wet. The roads in the refuge were developed by the CCC, and the construction method was to excavate material from both sides, pile it in the middle, and form a dike which also acts as the road system. Therefore, both sides of the road are always the deepest holes as you enter a marsh. As we plunged into the dark, my hiking boots and blue jeans turned swamp brown up to the knees very quickly. A few folks also filled their short waders, which tends to get your attention. I heard one lady in the darkness behind me tell her husband, "You go, Honey, and get the bird for your life list and I will just tell people I know you." The three ladies decided to stay back, and six of us followed Richard out about 50 yards and stopped to click again. The bird responded but would not come in to us. We cautiously moved forward again like a platoon on night patrol in a mined rice field.
A professional wildlife biologist is defined as "patient." That is also the definition of Richard Urbanek. He kept up his constant rock striking call but the bird would not come in. Finally, we moved in closer and the rail flushed. We all spotted and followed the bird with our lights, watching an hour’s worth of stalking effort take flight.
We then moved in the direction of flight and again began to communicate with the rail. Richard said this was going to be a difficult bird and moved up ahead of the group on his own. He said he would trap the bird and then bring it back for observation. As we all stood quietly in a foot or two of water for an hour, Richard clicked away and the rail clicked back, but neither moved. The silence broke with whispers as I heard one man say, "I’m satisfied. We saw the bird fly. We can list it." Another answered, "Yes, we can list it as ‘BVD,’ Better View Desired." But Richard kept clicking and cautiously moving in on the bird with his light and net. His patience finally paid off as we all heard the bird drop into the darkness nearer to Richard’s position. He advanced on the rail’s call and was able to net the bird. We all moved in as Richard banded the bird and one gentleman photographed it. Richard then took the rail in to show the ladies as we waited in the marsh for him to return and release the bird.
As unfortunate as Murphy’s Law is, it is always consistent. The photographer’s camera jammed after just a couple pictures during release. Richard slowly recaptured the bird and everyone killed their lights while the guy wrestled with his camera under his shirt. He knew what he was doing because, using the "Ensel Adams’ Braille Camera Repair Method," he had it working again in minutes. The yellow rail, however, was not so cooperative. Richard set the bird back down, and it flushed after just a couple flashes of the camera.
The whole show was well worth the effort. I had an hour’s drive back to camp and would have two hours sleep before I had to slide back into my wet boots and slosh off to the next morning’s bird count. Sometime during that short sleep period I dreamed there was a porcupine in my van. I drove a Chevy Astro Mini Van with no seats in the back. I often slept in the back on the floor as I did this night. It was a warm spring night so I left the double-doors wide open. Dreams are a mysterious thing that I do not fully understand. This one seemed so real and as I cracked the lid on my good eye I was staring a big, fat porcupine in the face. I knew it wasn’t a dream when he bolted for the door and I bolted upright. Before I was actually awake I had yelled for him to get out of my van and kicked him in the behind as he bailed out across the back bumper. Shocked fully awake and sitting up looking out the back of my van I didn’t know if I had dreamed the whole thing or not. I grabbed my flashlight and jumped out to see a disgruntled porcupine standing there like a indignant pin cushion staring into my flashlight and then turning in a huff and marching off. I apologized and went back to bed.
—Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird

Monday, December 15, 2008


Our 1994 Buick LeSabre

I thought I was going to spend a nice quiet night in Wekiwa Springs State Park just outside Orlando, Florida—WRONG!
We decided to escape the long Michigan winter and spend several days along the Atlantic coastline in Florida snorkeling, hiking and camping. The only stipulation was that we needed to spend a lot of time near a beach so my daughter and her friend could tan.
The girls flew down and I drove. The night before picking them up at the Orlando airport I had a reservation at Wekiwa State Park. I knew I was going to arrive late, so my wife called the park and secured me a confirmation number for my site and a combination to the park gate.
I pulled in after dark, quietly found my site, then walked a few laps around the campground. It was lightly raining so I decided to forgo the tent and just sleep in the back seat of my Buick. After driving hard all day it didn’t take long to start cutting Z’s. My sleep was rudely interrupted with a bright light in my face.
"Did you pay for this site?," the flashlight voice demanded.
I sat up pawing for my glasses and searching for my confirmation number. I was explaining my situation but the flashlight kept interrupting me— "You gotta have a sticker on the front of your car."
"I don’t have a sticker because I arrived late. I have a confirmation number showing I paid for the site and a gate combination."
"You gotta have a sticker on the front of your car."
"So let me see if I understand you. Even if I find my confirmation number you’re still not going to be happy."
"No, You gotta have a sticker on the front of your car."
"Well, there was no one at the gate to issue me a sticker. If I give you my confirmation number can’t you issue me a sticker?"
"I’m the camp host. I can’t give you a sticker."
"So how do we solve this huge dilemma so I can get back to sleep?"
"I don’t know but you gotta have a sticker on the front of your car."
So then I lost it. Barney Fife of the ranger world had finally pushed my Irish over the edge.
"Look Barney, just go get a real ranger and have him bring me a refund or a sticker. I’m going back to bed."
"Well, you don’t have to get all grumpy about it!"
I thought he would think about it and realize there was no reason to rouse the ranger out of bed to look at an obviously legitimate campsite confirmation number. It wasn’t until two flashlights showed up that I realized where Jeff Foxworthy gets all his great material. These two would have made him proud. "Where’s Your Sign?"
The second flashlight was much bigger. I am assuming he was the ranger although he never officially identified himself. He was still in his night clothes unless Florida rangers have redesigned their uniforms to conform with Casual Friday.
"Do you have a site confirmation sir?"
I handed him my paperwork.
"Can I see some ID?"
I handed him my drivers license.
I mistakenly thought this was going to be the end of the camping crisis now that all my credentials were in order. He looked over all my paperwork, then slowly handed it back to me and said, "You can’t sleep in your car sir."
"Why is that?"
"Park rules sir. They should have told you that when you paid for your site."
"There are people in the next site sleeping in that van."
"You can sleep in a van sir. You can’t sleep in a Buick."
The van was not a camping van, it was a passenger van with windows all around and seats. This was vehicular prejudice. I needed a lawyer. I was a Yankee in the deep south being hassled by Boss Hog and Barney Fife. I wonder if General Motors know this is happening. It might be the reason Oldsmobile failed. I bet Florida singled Oldsmobile out first.
"Okay, I just want to get some sleep. I’ll sleep out here on the ground."
"You have to sleep in a tent sir."
The Irish was beginning to creep into my attitude again. Cowboys slept on the ground. Davey Crockett didn’t carry a tent. Lewis and Clark didn’t have a Coleman pop-up. I have hiked from Mexico to Canada along the Continental Divide sleeping on the ground without a tent many nights. I thought I was "CAMPING."
When did Florida redefine camping. I knew they redefined voting, and now they have moved on to destroy another of our inalienable rights—CAMPING!
"Okay, I have a tent. I will put up my tent. Is there anything else I need to do to make you two go away? Have you noticed—I don’t have a sticker on the front of my car!
It made me think of how a black man must have felt before the dawn of civil rights. You know youhave done everything right, followed all the rules and regulations, made calls to assure the authorities youwere going to arrive late and secured all the information you would need to comply with the campingregulations. Yet here was the law West of the Wekiwa standing outside of my Buick. Common sensewas playing no part in this conversation. It was a fixed chess game. They could change the rules as fastas I could question them.
I thought back to 1968. After high school I camped all across America for several months. My dad and I had turned a 1964 suburban into a camper. Kids today would have a hard time doing that. In Florida they wouldn’t be able to camp in a Suburban. They would have to get a passenger van or a tent.
Don’t let this story keep you from camping at Wekiwa Springs State Park in Florida. It is a beautiful place. I was up and hiking before the sun came up. Even though the park is surrounded by development it is a wildlife haven and a wonderful place to explore and enjoy—just leave your Buick at home.
—Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Pie Pressure

The first time I went to Isle Royale National Park, I was on the run. It was not the law that was after me, it was life. I was twenty-two years old and already questioning the path my life seemed to be charging down. I was the sole personnel department for a fruit pie company with just under a thousand employees. My days consisted of nearly round the clock refereeing. It was a giant food fight in a way. Pie line workers vying for position on dough covered Colburn® machines that pumped out two pies per second if everything was running smoothly. I ran three shifts with product managers calling for more production at daily meetings, pressured foremen speeding up the pie lines, and the Chief Steward of the Union pressuring the company to slow them down.
I can still hear the many voices in my head over three decades later. "On Monday we need an additional fifty people. We’re cranking up the cream pie and apple dumpling lines." "We have word the third shift freezer supervisor has a pie route and is filling orders late at night when no one is looking." "Someone left the corn syrup spigot opened all night and the bakery is carpeted three inches deep in corn syrup." "Karl has been drinking again and all the pecan pies are burnt." "You can take this job and shove it, I’m going deer hunting." "We’re three guys short on Sunday’s loading crew in the freezer." "Someone stole two freezer suits, you might want to see who just bought a new snowmobile." "There’s a car parked in the boss’s reserved parking space." "Did you hire this guy? He’s a convicted felon." "The Hi-Lo drivers need to be retested, we just had one drive through the back wall of the freezer." Libby® just sent us four railcars full of pumpkin mix. The bad news is, it’s in 8 oz. cans instead of 30# tins." "Someone is putting their pocket change in the pies on second shift." "The eight hour college boys are all sneaking out early when the six hour girls leave." "Herb swore at the packaging line again. They are all headed for your office." "You can’t promote him for doing a good job, he doesn’t have the seniority." "Your new hire just had an epileptic fit in the bakery and fell in the strawberries."
I was beginning to have flashbacks. Not from all the action I saw in the Marines in Hawaii but from my high school days working for an Airstream dealer. Many of our customers were auto executives with high stress, good paying jobs. I remember they all died at about 50. Was this my destiny—to work 18 hours a day for 30 years and one day be found face down in the banana cream pie filling?
Fate stepped in. Top management all left for the Olympic games in Munich, Germany. That left one engineer in charge who considered people as mere machines to be turned on and off daily. He wasn’t going to have much time to drive the train so he decided to reorganize the whole personnel department while he had the chance. Being the youngest member of the management team seemed to mean I was insubordinate if I had any constructive criticism. Had they reviewed my application they would have known better than to push me too far. They would have seen: Male, Caucasian, IRISH.
After two days of not making any personnel changes the cow pie (always thought that would be a big seller) hit the fan. I went home, grabbed my backpack, drove late into the night across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and caught the last boat to Isle Royale. They had squads of people out looking for me because they found out playing personnel manager wasn’t as fun as it looked. But it was too late. I was already immersed in the solitude of a northwoods wilderness paradise with no boats leaving for several days. They contacted my mother who said, "Well, his backpack is gone. That’s not a good sign."
Did I go back? Yes, eventually. I gave proper notice. In fact, I worked several months until a new labor contract was hammered out. I left the status and financial security of a corporate career to pursue life at a much slower pace. To paraphrase Robert Frost: "Two roads diverged in a wood. I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference."
I’m not suggesting everyone should run off and catch the last boat to Isle Royale National Park—but it worked for me.
—Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Swim Like a Cat

Stan Simmons and I, the day he threw me into the lake

Life goes by like a lightening bolt heading for ground. I have a new perspective as I look back over my aging shoulder and reminisce about friends, places, good times and bad. I have a lot of wonderful memories about colorful characters. I was thinking about one of them recently that I met before I could swim. I was six or seven years old. My parents had a boat—a small cabin cruiser we could sleep on. My dad worked at the phone company with a man who lived on a small lake near our home. His name was Stan Simmons and he let us moor the boat in front of his house. We spent every weekend on the boat and barbecuing with Stan and his family.
Stan knew I couldn’t swim. One day he said to me, "Everyone can swim, it comes natural." He said, "Even my cat can swim." At that moment he picked up his cat and threw it off the end of the dock. That cat came out of the water like an Indy car with no brakes. I never did see it stop running. It wasn’t the kind of swimming lessons I had in mind.
One piece of lawn furniture in the yard was a metal sofa designed to swing. The adults were often gathered there talking. That afternoon I happened to be behind the swing making cat noises. It seemed to annoy Stan so I continued my "meowing." I was getting tremendous enjoyment from the fact that my cat imitation was irritating Stan. Finally he said, "If you meow one more time I’m going to throw you off the end of the dock just like I did the cat.
I didn’t believe him for a minute. Besides, my mother was sitting right there. She would never let him do that to me. "Meow" no more than crossed my lips and I was sucking water. I can still see the underwater scene to this day. I didn’t close my eyes. And just like that cat I learned to swim in seconds. It happened so fast I think my mother was still in shock by the time I passed her moving as fast and in the same direction as that cat.
I ended up in our 1950 Buick Road Master. Because it was all black the sun had turned it into an oven. I sat in the front seat crying and drying. I think it was my first lesson in calling someone’s bluff. I would be careful with that tactic in the future. I completely forgot about my traumatic event when I discovered a fifty-cent piece lodged down behind the seat. It must have fallen from my dad’s pocket. Instantly I was rich. My fortunes had changed from sorrow to elation in the blink of an eye.
Simple actions impact children in ways you may never understand. I can remember Stan and everyone laughing at me when I finally gathered enough courage to climb out of the car and confront him. First I showed everyone my Lady Liberty half dollar. Then I told Stan, "I’ll get you for that." My mother laughed and warned him that I was Irish so he had better listen to what I was saying.
We were good friends for over 40 years. Stan was a jovial fellow who could make everyone laugh just being around him. Near the end of his life he had a stroke and ended up in a hospital near my home in northern Michigan. I went to visit him and found him down the hallway from his room eating his dinner looking out the big picture window. Although the right side of his body was slumped from the stoke he still had his sense of humor. We talked and laughed for an hour. When we were getting ready to leave he asked me if I could help him back to his room. He wasn’t used to his walker and needed someone to take him by the arm and steady his balance. I was honored to help him.
The stroke rendered his right leg almost useless and Stan would take a step with his left leg then drag the right around in front of him. Just as we neared his room, his right foot caught the back of his left heel and he tumbled to the floor. Stan was a big guy and I couldn’t stop his fall. I let him down as easy as I could and ended up almost on top of him, my face right at his left ear. I said the first thing that came to my mind. "That’s what you get for throwing me in the lake you old goat."
We were both laughing so hard it took three nurses to get us off the floor. That comment brought him so much joy he told anyone that would listen to him the whole story.
I’ll never forget Stan. He’s part of my history. His teaching methods came from the old school—get your feet wet—sink or swim. Some would call it crude but I can recall many occasions in later years when I made decisions based on the lesson I learned the afternoon Stan taught me to swim like a cat.
—Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Maggie May

If you look into your children’s eyes you will often see your ancestors. Such is the case with our daughter, Maggie. She resembles her great grandmother when she was eighteen nearly a hundred years ago. It was 1908 and millions of people were coming to America. Margaret (Maggie) Walsh from Tipperary, Ireland was one of those people. When my great grandfather said good-bye to his daughter he told her he knew in his heart that he would never see her again and indeed he never did. It was over sixty years before she returned home again. By that time everyone she had known had passed away except for her sister Hannah.
It is a little ironic that at the same age her great grandmother was when she came to America from Ireland, Maggie visited Ireland. It wasn’ t planned that way. My 85 year old mother always had a desire to visit her parent’s homeland but it just never seemed the right time for her. She lost her twin sister to cancer and days later found out that she too had lymphoma. It seems she had lost her whole generation in just a few short years—my father, her sisters and many close friends. One day she told our family, "If I beat this cancer I’m going to spend your inheritance and take all of you to Ireland." Being the tough little Irish woman she was, six months of treatments sent her into remission. We booked the trip and the whole clan was headed across the pond to invade Ireland and visit our roots.
Maggie even sang in the pubs. She has always had a beautiful voice and several years in a row won the local "Danny Boy" singing contest held on St. Patrick’s Day.
It wasn’t until we began to study old pictures and tried to discover more about the Walsh and O’ Connor side of our family that I began to see more and more of my grandmother in my daughter. She has the same sense of adventure it must have taken for my grandmother to leave Ireland in search of her new life in America. We used to call Grandma O’Connor, "Sweetheart Grandma," and Maggie seems to have that gene too. The reddish hair, fair complexion, quick smile and a twinkle in each ey e. She has that Irish sense of humor that just seems to spill out of her, and the compassion of a saint. If she ever cleaned her room she would be darned near perfect!
She is a grown woman now. It seems like such a short time ago she was in kindergarten sitting at the breakfast table ready to leave for school without a care in the world. It had been the Easter holiday followed by National Heritage week. She would be sharing her heritage with her class at school so we explained to her about her great grandma coming to America from Ireland. Before she started out the door we tested her, "Maggie, where did grandma O’Connor come from?" She paused and thought for a moment and then very confidently said, "She arose from the dead." I said, "We’re a great family, but we aren’t that great!"
One of the stories my grandmother would tell us was about a young man she dated before she left Ireland. John Scanlon was a groundskeeper at Lismore Castle and took her dancing there just before she left for America. Her stories are the only clues we have of where she might have lived. She actually inherited the family farm when she was nearly 100 years old. She was the last surviving of thirteen children. She had a nephew who was a retired Judge in Utica, NY who helped her sell the farm and settle the estate. She used some of the money to make sure everyone of her family in Ireland had a proper headstone. Everyone has small pieces of information about the family but the world was a much larger place at that time. Communications were slow and families who came to America were often fragmented. Centuries of family history has been lost. But what did it really matter. Part of our adventure was to visit County Tipperary where Maggie Walsh was raised and County Cork where my grandfather, Micheal O’Connor was raised and use our imagination as to how these two, who grew up so close to one another, moved halfway around the world to meet and fall in love.
As for our Maggie. I’m not planning on any good-byes. No matter where her life’s adventures take her, travel time has been reduced to hours not weeks.
—Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird