Friday, August 29, 2008

Have You Ever Seen A Mongoose?

When I was a kid our neighbor across the street was an avid Detroit Red Wing Hockey fan. Every year he would buy season tickets. He didn't have children so he would often ask my brother or I if we would like to go with him to Olympia Stadium to see a game. It was the days of ink and octopus. Seafood-slinging was so popular that Detroit fish markets were hauling in the eight-legged mollusks by the truckload to keep up with fan demand.

The Superior Fish Company in Royal Oak, Michigan even sold an Octo-Kit, featuring a cooked octopus (which didn't stain the ice with ink and jiggled better than the raw variety), two latex gloves and two wet napkins in a sealed bag. Call it superstition if you want but it makes the Red Wings win. Between flying octopi the "Production Line," as they were known—Gordie Howe, Sid Abel and Ted Lindsay, were helping Detroit win seven consecutive regular-season titles—still an NHL record— and four Stanley Cups during those years.

The first octopus landed on the ice during the Red Wings' 1952 Stanley Cup run, courtesy of a couple of lads from a local fish shop. If you know your cephalopods, you will know that an octopus has eight tentacles. In those days it took eight playoff wins to claim the Cup, hence the supposed symbolism of the gesture. One night before the game got underway, someone tried to start a new tradition—throwing a guinea pig out on the ice from the balcony seats.

I saw Gordie Howe sweep by on his magic skates and swoop the guinea up in one hand. He took it over near the penalty box and seemed to be looking it over. I wasn't in to hockey much but I always wondered what happened to that guinea pig.

Years later I met a guy who had taken a job at the local bank as a new loan officer. Russ came to town with a bang. His first morning at the bank he brought in a large chicken wire cage with a small wooden enclosure placed in the middle. In the enclosure you could see two bright eyes peering out from the darkness. As people came into his office to introduce themselves he would ask them if they had ever seen a mongoose. "No," was the standard answer, which is exactly what he was hoping for. He would have them peer into the cage, comforting them with the thought that the mongoose is as cute as a koala bear. The mongoose would not come out of the enclosure so Russ would encourage the onlooker to get down and scratch a bit on the chicken wire to coax the shy little mongoose out. When everything was set and the victim in place, innocently scratching and talking baby talk to the mongoose, Russ would trip a lever which would activate a spring-loaded arm with a muskrat pelt nailed to it. The muskrat would stop right up against the chicken wire where the baby talk had turned to frantic screaming.

Many of the bank employees fell for Russ' little prank—except one. Another loan officer had been on vacation. He returned on a weekend and had heard all the stories about the new guy and his mongoose. He showed up for work bright and early on Monday morning and immediately went in to introduce himself to Russ. Russ introduced himself with, "Say, have you ever seen a mongoose? "Russ' newest victim said, "No, I never have." "Well, scratch on the wire there and meet my pet mongoose—he's harmless," Russ assured him. As the loan officer bent down to scratch on the wire, Russ hit the trip lever. In a flash the loan officer jumped back, pulling a starting pistol from his coat pocket and emptied the rounds at the cage. Russ almost had heart failure.

A few years later I ran into Gordie Howe. He had moved to my town and I would often see him at the local copy shop. The first few times we were in line together I never bothered him. I figured people probably pestered him all the time. But one day the guinea pig question got the best of me and I had to ask. I began, "When I was a kid. . . "Gordie stopped me in mid-sentence— "You're not going to give me that—when I was a kid shit are you?" I could tell by his smile that in fact I could give him exactly that. I had a long conversation with him and found out that he had taken the guinea pig home and it had lived for six weeks. Outside in the parking lot was Gordie's full size Chevy Van—is wife waiting in the front seat. Before I had finished my business I heard Gordie say to the girls who were waiting on him, "Have you girls ever seen a Mongoose?" I knew immediately that Gordie must have Mongoose Russ's cage.

Soon they were all out behind the van scratching on the chicken wire and Gordie seemed to be having as much fun as he did scoring goals at Olympia back in the old days—When I was just a kid. —Keep Smilin', Dick E. Bird/

"Dyn-O-mite" How Not To Use Dynamite!

After mustering out of the Marine Corps the first thing I did was get a job in a pie factory. I baked pecan pies and strawberry shortcakes—millions of them, I saved my money bought a Jeep and then 10 acres of woods. I wanted to build a small house in the very middle of the land, deep in the woods. After inquiring about the cost of excavating work I knew I couldn’ t afford the heavy equipment it would take to put a drive into my woods. Many people discover this cost and decide to build closer to the property line—but not an ex-Marine. They don’t call us "jarheads" for nothing.
I knew I would find a solution so I went ahead and cut trees down at chest height all the way to my building site. Not long after that I met a guy at work who had been a powderboy in the coal mines of West Virginia. The light bulb went on inside my head and I started quizzing him on how explosives worked. He assured me that they were not all that dangerous if you were careful and knew what you were doing. I should have stopped right then, knowing I didn’t qualify in either category. I’m almost sure he said, "That dynamite can’t go off unless you light that fuse!"
It sounded like a plan to me. I could blow those darned trees off my land. I went to the local hardware and found out that first I had to get a permit from the State Police. After fingerprinting me and asking me a few basic questions I was a certified dynamite technician. I went back to the hardware and said, "I need some dynamite!"
The clerk looked at me a little suspiciously and said, "You want wire or cap and fuse?"
I said, not so confidently, "What would you use?"
He yelled to the back of the store, "Charlie, we got a dynamite buyer who doesn’t know the difference between wire and fuse."
Charlie came out and looked me over. I thought for sure he was going to refuse to sell me dynamite but instead he said, "Ya want 40 percent or 80 percent?" I was feeling lucky—I said 80.
He said, "I have forty in the basement but I keep the eighty in a bunker outside of town." I decided forty would do just fine. I bought a whole case, a hundred feet of black powder fuse and twice as many caps as dynamite sticks.
I threw it all in the back of my Jeep and headed for the woods. I wasn’t quite sure how many sticks it would take to blow each tree. I had to experiment. My only reference was how many sticks the bad guys used to blow up railroad bridges before the Lone Ranger caught up with them. I decided to start with three sticks. I taped them all together, used an ice pick to create a nesting hole for the aluminum cap and then attached about ten feet of fuse to the cap. Again, I was going by what the Lone Ranger would use. I remember he would shoot the black powder with one of his silver bullets and it would burn quickly all the way to the explosives. So I lit that fuse and ran like the wind until I was behind my Jeep. I waited with anticipation, knowing there was going to be an explosion any second. I waited, and waited, and waited. NOTHING!
I thought, "Must have been a dud."
I just couldn’t figure it out, but I wasn’t about to go look. After several minutes I decided I would leave.If it didn’t blow by morning I would go check it out. About halfway out of the property I heard an explosionand a tree went off like a failed Air Force missile heading down range. I decided maybe I should try lessdynamite and a shorter fuse. Actually, I lit a piece of fuse and discovered it was slow burning. Nothingas exciting as the Lone Ranger used. .
Eventually, I whittled that TNT down to quarter sticks and it would blast those tree stumps right out of the ground. Mistakenly confident that dynamite could not explode unless lit, I would make up a stick with cap and fuse and just toss it aside while I used an ice spud to make a hole beneath the stump I intended to blast next. It wasn’t until I had used the whole case of dynamite and removed every stump on my right-of-way that I discovered otherwise. I ended up with three aluminum caps left over. I tossed them on my work bench and one of them exploded. I learned—a little late—that the caps contained nitro and any of my careless tosses could have set the charge off. When I told the hardware guys, they wouldn’t sell me stuff that might hurt me anymore—even plumbing supplies they said!
—Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird

Thursday, August 28, 2008


I learned a new word recently that described me perfectly—SHUNPIKING. That’s right, I’m a shunpiker. The term shunpiking comes from the word "shun", meaning to avoid, and "pike," a term referring to turnpikes. Gaila and I spent years traveling Blue Highways long before William Lest Heatmoon ever published his 1983 journal. Blue highways, dotted highways and dirt roads is where you really find adventure. Shunpiking does come with its challenges. I can remember several times wishing I would have stayed on the hard road.
One memorable adventure started innocently enough. I was sitting in our trailer parked along the Okalawaha River outside of Ocala, Florida, reading an article in Trailer Life magazine about a road to Snow Lake in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. It sounded so interesting I told Gaila we should go there. The trouble started when she said, "Okay, lets go!"
We arrived in May and started up the road on a gorgeous day. The sun was shining, birds were singing, flowers were growing—picture perfect. It was a logging road for the first 20 miles or so and we would get a thrill when massive trees on wheels would come barreling around blind corners. Truckers looked at us like we were nuts for pulling our trailer up the mountain. Our next road block was a sea of livestock across the road in a beautiful meadow. I eased in thinking they would scatter but it didn’t work that way. They surrounded the car and trailer and just stared at us through the windows. They must have thought we were bringing feed. They wouldn’t move. We sat there for an hour bordered by beef.
By late in the afternoon we finally arrived at the lake. The primitive campsites were not well marked and the loop road into the campground became narrow with no way to turn around. The trailer bottomed out on a hairpin switch-back and our land yacht was stuck on the mountain equivalent of a sandbar. Gaila has a term for these occasions. She calls them Pre-Dick-a-ments.
I dug out the tires, jacked up the axles, stuffed boards under my wheels and adjusted my hitch weight to throw more onto the rear axle of the truck. When I finally got forward momentum I knew I couldn’t stop until I made it back to the main road. Around the next bend sat a large boulder. I made a quick decision to take the whole rig off-road and cut through to where the road straightened out once more. I gambled on not taking my oil pan out on a hidden rock or dropping into a hole. It was really a stupid move but it worked. So far the adventure wasn’t working out as nicely as the article.
We found a site and parked the trailer in a calendar setting that was covered with two feet of wet snow by morning. I said to Gaila, "When does spring come to New Mexico, anyway?"
We sat in the trailer and watched it snow for two days, knowing we were going nowhere until it all melted away. It wasn’t boring. We were nestled into a beautiful setting, had books to read, plenty of propane for heat and cooking, and a cat to doctor. We aren’t animal doctors, but my wife likes to pretend she’s a veterinarian. Our cat, Jogger, had a large abscess taking over his chin. It looked like it needed cutting. Gaila consulted with me and I agreed. The patient was not all that cooperative. As we prepared for this back-country operation it had to be decided who was going to hold the cat and who was going to lance the abscess. Because Gaila holds a pretend DVM degree, I was designated the holder. Holding a cat during a simple office procedure like this actually involves a lot of wrestling. I felt really bad when I saw all the blood—knowing most of it was my own. Soon it was over and successful, although the cat did not warm up to either one of us for several days I was sure he would someday appreciate the fact that we were looking out for his best interest.
A couple days of snow and the sun came once again and turned the mountain meadows into glorious spring splendor. Although we enjoyed our unscheduled extended stay we decided to head for lower elevation in case the weather decided to do winter again.
Now here comes the strangest part of this whole story. I’m not saying we had a spiritual encounter or a peek into the past. I am just going to describe what we both saw coming down the mountain at about 40 m.p.h. Not far off to the right side of the logging road, up in the boulders, mounted on a Paint horse, was Geronimo. I don’t mean it was really Geronimo but the rider was Native American, short headdress, holding a spear in an oil canvas pose. We went by so quickly I thought I must have been mistaken. I looked at Gaila and she said, "Did you see the Indian on the horse?" We couldn’t stop if we wanted to. The road was muddy and we were heading down the mountain in second gear. If I had to do it over I would have stopped the rig and walked back up the road to see what this guy was all about. It has been a mystery for thirty years that we often recollect. Just part of the adventure when you go SHUNPIKING. —Dick E. Bird

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Kayakin' and Kayukin'

During the years that Gaila and I lived full time on the road in our Airstream, we stopped one fall in Connecticut to visit friends. They were a professional couple we had met on a hike through Mammoth Cave National Park. Nancy was a teacher and George a lawyer, but they really wanted to be professional kayakers. I had never been in a kayak, so George took me out on the Farmington River and tried to drown me.

He was a very good teacher; I was just a lousy student. I had my helmet on, got all tucked into this porthole with a boat under it, adjusted the spray skirt and told Gaila where to spread my ashes. George said it was very easy. He had tied a practice golfball on the spray skirt, then he told me to lean downstream and let the water run under the craft. If I rolled the kayak all I had to do was grab the golfball which would make me lean forward, pull the spray skirt off the boat and roll out. That sounded easy enough.

He pushed me out from behind my secure boulder and into the current. I immediately forgot everything he told me, leaned upstream and flipped over. As my helmet bumped along the bottom of the river, I tried desperately to climb out of the boat. A few rocks, later I finally remembered the golfball. I reached up for it and rolled right out. It wasn't long before I was an expert at getting out of a kayak. I rolled that thing, without exaggeration, at least 40 times in the first hour. But finally I learned the body English for staying afloat in a boat with no bottom, and it was fantastic the rest of the day. George tried to teach me to roll. That way, when you go over, you don't have to come out of the boat. You just roll back over. Heaven knows I could get a lot of benefit from a move like that, but no matter how great a teacher George was, I never did learn to roll, but I could really rock!

They were very gracious hosts. While they were working, we would explore; on weekends we traveled together. They have a cabin in Skowhegan, Maine, so over Labor Day weekend we headed north. Our first stop was L. L. Bean in Freeport, Maine, about midnight. Bean is open 24 hours a day, all year except Christmas. It's even crowded at midnight. I love outdoor gear, and I could have dropped a bag of money there. Lucky for me I didn't have any!

Every body of water in Maine is a pond and their cottage was situated on beautiful Oak Pond. From there we headed out to Acadia National Park. We love national parks and so do Nancy and George. Just ask their kids, Acacia and Bryce. We always figured that if they had a boy they would name him Smoky or Oly.

Acadia was a wonderful place. I met a seasonal ranger in the Everglades who spent his summers working there. He told us not to miss it in our travels and now we could see why. The reason I remember this particular ranger is that during his park transition, he had just a few days to travel from Acadia and report for duty in the Everglades. He and his wife had a pickup camper, and they were taking turns driving down the East Coast. His wife was driving late one night while he slept in the camper when, somewhere in North Carolina, she almost hit a deer. Slamming on the brakes, she rolled him right out of bed. By the time he got up and opened the backdoor to see what was going on, she had accelerated and he fell clean out of the camper—stark naked!
He had to use every ranger trick he ever knew to convince the sheriff what happened. The highway patrol finally caught up with his wife in South Carolina, or she would have been in Florida without him. And Gaila thinks we have all the pre-Dick-aments.

During our stay near Acadia, we stopped for a lobster dinner. It was one of those places along the Coast where you pick out your own lobster and they boil it up for you. We were all looking forward to a lobster dinner, but Gaila was not sure she wanted to have one sacrificed for her. So, she asked the owner if it hurt the lobster to be placed into the boiling water. He very patiently explained to her that the lobster would not feel a thing. He gave her a five-minute explanation that made her confident her meal would not squeal, and we picked out our lobsters. As we walked back toward the building, the guy dropped the lobster into the water and let out a bloodcurdling scream. I'm sure Gaila was not his first skeptic. His timing was too perfect!
---Keep Smilin', Dick E. Bird

Keep Your Hotdog Out of the Sand

Do kids build forts anymore? During the 50s, when I was a kid, we built forts everyday. Every kid in my neighborhood should have grown up to pursue a career in architectural engineering. When I think back about it, we were very innovative. It took a lot of creative planning to build forts out of perfectly good junk people would throw away.
We were lucky. We had a lot of commercial buildings nearby. We used to go on scavenger hunts to the back of the local carpet store and find 1 and 2 inch diameter bamboo poles that carpet was rolled up on for shipping. They also threw out carpet remnants, so our forts were always well carpeted, ceiling, floors, walls, it didn’t matter, we had plenty. The hardware threw away all kinds of things we needed—nails, screws, latches, wooden crates and wire. We would drag pallets home for tree forts, carpet and bamboo to cover our underground forts, and large refrigerator boxes for cardboard mansions.
We did not have OSHA inspections back then. They would surely have put us out of business in a hurry. The only bad accident I remember was Caroline Rudloff catching a hammer in the head while trying to help build a tree fort. She ended up with a few stitches and Billy Kennerly got yelled at. Poor Caroline was the only girl and I guess a tempting target for pranks.
We would build long tunnels from our main underground compounds and roof them with roof struts of board and bamboo. We would then cover them with cardboard and carpet and put dirt back on the top. The field behind our house was littered with these tunnels and covered fox holes. I can’t remember how many times we beat the Germans and the Japs with our cap guns a blazin’. Everyday was a pitched battle.
One day somebody put a garter snake in the tunnel Caroline was crawling through. That was the last time that ever happened. She came screaming, straight up through the dirt roof like a gopher going for a grub. One heck of a fight broke out. To top it all off, Caroline’s mother came over and told us we were all going to someplace we would surely hit if we dug deep enough.
We didn’t always build tree forts in trees. If we didn’t have a suitable tree for a building site we would build a stand out of old lumber. One day we were all eating lunch in our fort on stilts when it began to lean. Before we could bail the whole thing fell over and crashed to the ground. One stilt had sunk into the sand, we hadn’t built it on a solid foundation. We all finished lunch but we had sand on our hot dogs.
Behind our neighborhood was a sand pit where we could always find adventure. They hauled tons of sand out during all the years I was growing up. One rainy season a small lake formed on one of the higher levels of the pit. We all decided we would dig a small canal a couple hundred feet over to the edge of the cliff that dropped into the next level of the pit. We didn’t realize that once the canal started flowing it would quickly begin eroding the sand and turn into a torrent. Before we knew what was taking place we had a giant waterfall, powered by a quickly emptying lake, flooding the pit below. It roared. Mr. Stonewall was coming across the pit and we all hauled the mail for home. The only reason I admit to this stupidity today is that I think the statute of limitations has run out.
My concern is that kids today do not realize the power of erosion and the importance of a good foundation. They have never built an underground fort so how do they learn excavation techniques?
There’s a lot of cool stuff on the computer, but there is no substitute for learning the hard knocks of life, like toppling over in a stilt fort and gettin’ your hotdogs in the dirt.
—Keep Smilin’, Dick E. Bird

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Mahala Ashley Dickerson

Rosa Parks and Mahala
During ten years of traveling around North America, my wife, Gaila, and I had the opportunity to meet some of the nicest people on the planet. One that we stayed in touch with was Mahala Ashley Dickerson. Gaila met her at the college swimming pool the summer we worked in Anchorage, Alaska. She was an Alaskan Pioneer. She had come to Alaska with her young triplet sons in 1958. She was Alaska’s first African-American lawyer and practiced until she was 91. She told us the story of land grant officials telling her there was no land available where she wanted to homestead. She said a man from Tennessee spoke up and said, "Why don’t you show her the land you just showed me up in Wasilla?" She wondered if that was a blessing or a curse while she was trying to raise her boys and meet the criteria of the homestead act. To claim your land you had to build a cabin and be growing your own food on the land within two years. She not only did that but also started her law practice in 1959 in Anchorage and became known as an advocate for the poor and took on many cases involving discrimination.
Every December for 25 years we would recieve an invitation to Mahala’s Office Christmas Party. In December of 2006 it did not arrive. On Febuary 27th, 2007 Governor Sarah Palin ordered state flags to be lowered to half-staff, in honor of Mahala Ashley Dickerson. She died on her land in Wasilla at the age of 94. Alaska has lost a true pioneer," said Governor Palin.
I loved to listen to Mahala’s stories. She was a firebrand when action was called for, yet soft spoken, sweet and very smart. In the explosive years leading up to the Civil Rights Era, Mahala seemed to be everywhere history was being made. She was raised in the South before the era of civil rights. She grew up in Alabama on a plantation owned by her father. She attended a private school, Miss White’s School, where she began a lifelong friendship with Rosa Parks, who would become a hero of the civil rights movement.
Mahala was the first African American female to be admitted to the Alabama State Bar, the second African American female admitted in Indiana and the first African American admitted in Alaska. She spent the war years at the Tuskekee Air Base.
Dickerson often took clients who didn’t have the means to pay, said Leroy Barker, the historian for the Alaska State Bar Association, who practiced law with Dickerson in the 1960s.
"I don’t think anybody thought of her as a black woman lawyer; she was just a lawyer," he said. "I think she worked very hard to get where she was, and she was a strong personality."
Joshua Wright, an Anchorage dentist, was a friend of Dickerson from the time she moved to Alaska. He remembered her as "a fighter."
"When she was younger, oh, God, when she got on a roll, you better clear out the room," he said, laughing. One lawyer was qouted as saying, "Rex, you see those mountains out there? Those mountains are littered with the bones of lawyers who underestimated M. Ashley Dickerson."
In 1995, she was awarded the Margaret Brent Award from the American Bar Association, an honor also given to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor.
Her son Chris said their mother encouraged them to follow whatever dream they might have."She said, ‘Follow it. Be a poet if you want to be a poet.’ That was her philosophy," Chris said.
Chris, however, did not become a poet. He became the first African American Mr. America in 1970 and Mr. Olympia in 1982, at the age of 43, he became the oldest winner of the sport’s most prestigious title.
I can remember getting a bottle of ketchup out of Mahala’s pantry at the homestead one day and spying this large bottle of vitamins with a picture of this black body builder on the label. The guy had a V-shaped body that rippled with muscle. I said, "Mahala, who’s this guy?" She said, "Oh, that’s my son, he’s Mr. America."
Mahala wanted us to spend the winter at her cabin on the homestead property. If I had to do it all over again I would have agreed. At the time I was thinking it would be dark all winter and I would go stir crazy with not much to do. I convinced Gaila we should head out of Alaska and spend the winter in Arizona, which is what we did. Mahala’s property was beautiful, we left on a gorgeous September, Indian summer day. The two-track roads leading into her property were signed "Hollywood and Vine."
The world is full of extraordinary people. Mahala lived life to the fullest and inspired many others to do the same. They say adversity builds character. In Mahala’s case that could not be more true.
Mahala’s life story can be found between the pages of her autobiography "Delayed Justice for Sale".

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Guerrilla warfare with Telemarketers

Just Say "NO" to Telemarketers

Guerrilla warfare with Telemarketers I thought I might lose the annoying telemarketers when I discontinued my land line phone and went strictly to a cell phone. It didn’t work out that way at all. I signed up on the “No Call” list and I think it doubled my calls. Most telemarketing firms use a tactic called “predictive dialing” so as not to waste the telemarketers’ “valuable” time while waiting for you to pick up? Their computer auto-dials your number, assuming it’ll take you an average 2-3 rings to pick up, and switches you over to the next available telemarketer when you do. Instant hang-ups and the delayed response typical of a telemarketing call result from this predictive dialing. My favorite call lately is a womans voice recording that says (for the 100th time), “This is your last chance. The warranty is running out on your car!” No kiddin’ lady. I’m driving a 1994 Buick LaSabre with 225,000 miles on it. Sign me up for this one—and bolt that satellite TV dish to the roof. A common practice of these low-life telemarketers is to call the elderly repeatedly and establish a relationship with them. The telemarketer will become a “friend” to a lonely old person, using this “friendship” as leverage in high-pressure sales.Here are a couple of tactics that will help you fight back when attacked at dinner hour by aggressive telemarketing companies. • Act interested, but slowly turn down the volume on the phone as you talk (or, failing that, back slowly away from the receiver). The telemarketer will probably turn up his/her headset volume to compensate. Then, when you return to full volume and asked to be taken off their call list you’re sure to come in LOUD AND CLEAR.• My personal favorite ploy is to fight fire with fire. It is not hard in this day and age to track down the owner or CEO of a large company. With a little detective work you can actually find their home phone numbers online. You can often kill two birds with one stone. Find out the name of the company that is calling you (usually a telemarketing firm). After you hear the shpiel you know the name of the company they represent. Do your homework and find a phone number for the highest ranking official you can. Worst case scenario, call the company and demand to talk to the CEO. Explain that you are going to be calling them several times for every call you receive. I guarantee they will do an extra scrub on their computer database just to make absolutely sure they are rid of you. My last target was the CEO of Sprint (at the time, Gary Forsee). Sprint was aggressively after the guy who had my telephone number before it was assigned to me. I tried explaining the situation to every knucklehead that called. I was getting three calls a day. I never did get Gary’s home phone number, but I was able to reach his secretary. A short conversation with her and the calls stopped immediately. If you have a lot of time on your hands and you just want to mess with telemarketers, I suggest you buy “Revenge On The Telemarketers: Round 1” CD by Tom Mabe. You can pick up a lot of pointers listening to Tom’s recordings. If you do all the above and begin to enjoy yourself, please be warned that when the phone stops ringing you can get very lonely and bored. -Keep Smilin', Dick E. Bird

Sunday, August 10, 2008


"Could you at least go the speed limit?" "We’re going to be late." "You could have made that light!"
These are just a few of the suggestions my wife often makes when we are in the car together. I always counter with, "I stand on my record. I haven’t had a traffic ticket in 35 years."
In the past five years she has failed to see a very large, green, garbage truck stop in front of her in a mall parking lot. It turned our nice little Saturn into garbage. The insurance company totalled it. I bought the car back from the insurance company and replaced under $200 worth of plastic parts which reattached with only ten screws and the car was brand new—in case you are wondering why your insurance rates are so high.
My wife thinks 25 m.p.h. speed zones are stupid. "Cars were not made to go that slow." Unfortunately the local County Mounty’s don’t feel the same way. She cries every time she watches "Little House on the Prairie" but can’t seem to generate a tear when the police pull her over. She has become very proficient at reducing her speeding fines. She goes to the courthouse and offers to work it off doing clerical work. The first time the court said, "That will be fine. When can you start?" She said, "Well, it’s our busy season right now. How about next month." The court said, "No, that’s not how it works." But, they did cut the price of her ticket in half. It was still a money maker for the county. That was the time she racked up five tickets with one pull over. The officer started with rolling stop, speeding, and not wearing a seat belt. Then he noticed the address on her license was not current and that our van windows looked too tinted for Michigan vehicles.
Being pulled over is such a common experience for her that now she just confesses as soon as the authorities walk up to the car. The last time she said, "I’m sorry. I know I was speeding but I’m in a hurry—I have to pick up my daughter." The cop said, "I pulled you over because your taillight is out."
It’s not that I’m completely innocent. One day I pulled out of the post office in beautiful downtown Acme and the sheriff pulled me over a mile up the road. I knew immediately what I had done wrong. I didn’t have my seat belt buckled. Since I have a two belt system in my old car I buckled the bottom half in a stealth move that would not look obvious as I rolled down my window. The sheriff asked if I knew why I was being pulled over. Even though the local paper had a big article on a week-long seat belt sting, with a straight face I said, "I have no idea." He pointed out my unattached upper belt. "Do you usually wear your belt?" This was my wife’s perfect opportunity to blacken my untarnished record and silence my usual comeback about "Standing on my record."
At the same moment I was saying to the officer, "Yes, I always wear my belt"—my wife was saying, "No, he never wears it. Our daughter is always reminding him to buckle up.’"
As he slowly returned to his cruiser I said to my wife, "That was a great answer—it probably cost us about ninety bucks." He came back to the vehicle, gave me my license, registration and a stern warning. I explained it this way to my wife: "He went back to his computer, checked my record and found out just what I have been telling you for so long—I haven’t had a ticket in 35 years. Then he checked your record and found out you are a regularly convicted traffic felon. Now who do you think he is going to believe? Besides, I did everything right—I cried, said thank you a lot, and always answered his questions with ‘yes officer.’"
Since my official record is spotless, my wife will bring up now and then my unofficial record. I had to take a mountain of bird feeder sawdust and wood chips to the dump one afternoon. I borrowed an old utility trailer from my Uncle Vic. Vic had taken the trailer in on a car trade and it seemed good and solid. I also borrowed a hitch bar and ball from him. Everything looked fine, but I never checked to see if the ball was tightened onto the bar. Half way to the dump I saw something pass me on the right. Since that is my blind eye it didn’t quite register with my brain what it was. My first thought was a ball-bearing from the trailer axle. But when the trailer passed me I knew it was the nut from the ball. The trailer didn’t go far. When it hit the big telephone substation it stopped on a dime and a large, sawdust, mushroom cloud appeared. A lady came out of her house and said she would call someone, but her phone didn’t work anymore. That’s right, when you’re in trouble, the first thing you want to do is cut communications.
I knew I was going to do hard time for this one. Not only had I wiped out local phone service, I had put the license plate from my Airstream travel trailer on the utility trailer because I was only going up the road five miles to the dump. As Murphy’s law would have it, the sheriff showed up just when we didn’t need him. Lucky for me, when the sheriff found out the trailer belonged to my uncle Vic, I didn’t get a ticket. How did he find out? I knew they were friends, so I made sure I used my uncle’s name in every sentence, unless I could somehow fit it in twice without sounding to repetitive.
A year or so later I was looking over my insurance coverage and noticed the cost had jumped significantly. Knowing I had such a good driving record I called the agent. She said, "I don’t know why the sharp increase Dick, let me check out your account on the computer." Seconds later she said, "Does a telephone substation ring any bells? They are very expensive to replace." Sorry I asked!
Current technology now allows authorities to monitor roadways with sensor cameras that check speed and tag numbers and automatically ticket speeding drivers. You will not even know you’ve been busted until the postal service delivers your ticket in the mail. Soon my wife will be looking over her shoulder for mail trucks instead of police cruisers.
Seriously, traffic tickets are not all bad. Paying tickets is actually your civic duty. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry. It creates jobs, heavily funds most court systems, justifies the existence of entire police agencies like state highway patrols, and virtually funds numerous local governments.
When you begin to grasp the full magnitude of the public and private good that depend on ticket taxing motorists, you begin to understand why my wife continues to contribute so heavily every year. No one knows how many traffic tickets are actually issued to her annually. Many local units of government deliberately hide this information so they don’t have to split her revenue with the state. No other class of "crime" is as profitable for state and local governments as is that of traffic tickets. They rely heavily on these people who contribute regularly.
Traffic fines are a seven billion dollar a year business. That explains why they can give a 50% off deal to regulars like my wife and still make good money!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Uncle Vic

I recently attended an 80th birthday party for my Uncle Vic. Milestones make you reminisce and there is plenty of reminiscing when it comes to Uncle Vic. There is not an intersection in my life that doesn’t have him standing in the middle of it directing traffic. Our first dog, Duke, came from Uncle Vic. I don’t think my mom was crazy about the idea, but Duke became one of her kids and she loved him for 15 years. We were also going to get a horse from Uncle Vic. Actually, I’m still waiting. When we were preschool age he would tell us tales of annual horse roundups on some island. He knew people and thought he might be able to get us a pony off that island. We didn’t know whether to believe him or not, but then in grandma’s National Geographic came a story about small ponies on islands off the coast of Maryland—that is where Uncle Vic came from.
The legend is that these ponies swam ashore from a Spanish vessel, a galleon, named the Santo Cristo, which had capsized off the coast, around the century 1600. The ship had been headed to Panama but never made it. It’s cargo of horses was to go to the Viceroy of Peru and help in the gold mines. The horses, lost at sea, swam to the nearby island. A famous annual "Pony Roundup" and "Pony Swim" was held each year during the month of July and had been going on since 1927. I told my brother, "Oh my gosh, we are getting ponies!"
Uncle Vic was a super car salesman, and still is. He worked for Buick in Flint, Michigan when the factory had it’s own sales lot. My grandfather often told me stories about Uncle Vic’s sales secrets. He would set a doctor’s appointment. When he showed up the doctor would say, "What’s wrong with you?" Uncle Vic would say, "Nothing, I want to sell you a Buick." Half the doctors would throw him out the front door, but the other half bought Buicks. So he kept setting those appointments.
When I was young I thought he made the cars. Everyone I knew that had a car got it from Uncle Vic. I was confident that his deal making expertise was going to somehow roundup a pony on a Maryland Island and get it to my backyard.
As we grew more and more impatient with the island roundup deal, Uncle Vic switched tactics. Whenever we were at my grandfather’s cabin in rural northern Michigan, Uncle Vic would take my brother and I out driving around the countryside looking for horses for sale. He would slow down and say, "This looks like a place that might have a few for sale." He would then pull into a farmhouse driveway and tell us to wait in the car while he went up to the house. With two wide-eyed kids in the front seat watching his every move, Uncle Vic would knock on the door several times. When there was no answer, he would pull one of his cards out of his pocket and pinch it between the screen door jam. This would happen several times a day. It wasn’t until years later that we discovered we were only stopping at abandoned farm houses.
There was always some excitement when visiting Uncle Vic. He would get a hundred silver dollars every time he sold a Buick Roadmaster. He’d let us reach in and grab as many as we could with one hand. He was always coming home with something he took in on a car deal. He had the first snowmobile we ever saw. He would come home with St. Bernards, Llamas, Myna birds and televisions with remote controls. He was told to feed the Myna dog food. They didn’t tell him "dry" dog food. He was feeding the bird "wet" dog food. That made the myna very regular and increased its trajectory to across the room on a regular basis. I think that bird went with the next car deal. Then there was Leonard, the parrot that could sing "I’m Popeye the Sailor Man," but only when the vacuum cleaner was running. Gaila and I were married in his home. I remember asking him politely if he would move the fish tank full of piranhas out of the living room where we would be saying our vows. After the ceremony someone shot off the miniature-to-scale cannon in the backyard—both cannon and piranhas I’m sure were from car deals.
I learned the art of the deal from my Uncle Vic. I somehow inherited a small outboard fishing motor when I was seven years old. My Uncle Vic wanted to buy it from me and he didn’t even fish. He offered me a check for six dollars or five dollars cash. I took the cash. I always remembered him saying, "Cash is King."
"No Problem" and "Keep Smilin’" are two sayings people associate with me. I got both of these sayings from my Uncle Vic.
When I mustered out of the Marine Corps, Uncle Vic was selling Jeeps. He arranged a great deal for me on a new CJ5 and told me it would go anywhere. He was almost right. Whenever I needed some accessory like a hitch or winch, he would find a customer that needed something towed or pushed or pulled and tell them if they bought the parts I would do the deed.
One time the car dealership burned to the ground. Uncle Vic had three suits he had just picked up from the dry cleaners hanging in his office. As they all ran from the burning building a mechanic grabbed the suits as he went by. Vic saw him with the suits and made him run back in and hang them back up— "That’s what insurance is for."
He can sell ice cubes to Eskimos. One day three migrant workers came in and wanted to buy a car that would get them back to Texas. According to Uncle Vic, he told them he had a great deal on a car, but it had no reverse. They said, "that’s okay, we’re not coming back." In reality, Uncle Vic probably gave them a car. He would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.
So the moral of the story is this: If you need a dog, or a car, or a good friend that makes you laugh every time you’re with him—go see Uncle Vic.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Mr. Bush, tear down that wall!

Opinions are often molded by which side of the fence you are on. When I listen to the debate over desperate people trying to reach America to work, it conjures up a lot of memories for me.
When Gaila and I travelled, full-time, in the late 70s and early 80s we worked with wonderful migrant families in the orange groves of Florida and the blossoming desert subdivisions of Phoenix. I often worked constructions jobs in Arizona when I was the only English speaking dirt pusher. I knew when it was lunch, everybody sat down. I knew when it was quitting time, everybody went home. In between I just kept shovelling and kicking myself for not paying more attention to my Spanish teacher in High School. Even with the language barrier we had no problem working along side these migrants. I shouldn’t say no problem. On guy I worked with kept saying, “Pool Turn You,” while we were folding ground cloth. But as soon as I learned his unique vocabulary I knew he meant, “Pull Toward You.” Within a week we had our own new language constructed. They could have used us in the army as code talking radio men.
Working with the migrants in the fruit orchards in Florida convinced us that the conditions were close to slavery. There are few Americans that are more than a couple generations from new citizenship. Most of them have no historical connections to the problems that faced their ancestors when they arrived. Let the first stone be thrown by someone who has spent a few weeks walking in the bare soles of a migrant, working in a hot agricultural field. Maybe “Grapes of Wrath” should be required reading for those who show apathy in the plight of those willing to take the jobs Americans do not seem to want and smart enough to understand the blind-eye system we have set up to allow them to enter our country illegally.
The United States government does a great job of monitoring our borders. They capture just enough illegal migrants to make it look like they are really trying—letting enough squeeze through to keep an abundant supply of unskilled labor available for the millions of low-paying industry positions. I have spent a lot of time in the high desert. Hiking from our border with Mexico, north into Arizona and New Mexico you can see for miles on end. There is very little to hide behind in the sparse landscape that borders our two countries. By commanding the high ground it would not take a huge observation force to patrol and control illegal traffic. The question here is, “Have we ever really wanted to?”
During several birding trips in Arizona we have been stopped numerous times at Border Patrol check points and chased down in the early morning hours along desolate Arizona roads to have our van searched for passengers that might not be birding with us. As it turns out, birders get up before sunrise and so do human trafficers. In the wilds of Fort Huachuca I once had a drug sniffing dog pee on the front tire of my van. I said to the handler, “Is this four-legged tire squirter George Bush’s first line of defense?” He did not appreciate my attempt at a little late afternoon humor.
Often these workers get their money from a third party. That way the actual employer is insulated from illegal contractual dealings. We live in the shadow of a large Midwestern golf resort. A hundred yards from our home is the resorts housing unit for housekeeping workers they hire from out of the country. These are friendly, quiet neighbors. We have helped many of them with transportation and car problems. They seem squared away, polite and responsible. Last year the complex was raided and the majority of those living in the housing unit were hauled away to jail. Most likely they were involved in something as subversive as trying to make a decent living under working conditions designed to manipulate them and take advantage of their questionable status. After doing a fine job for years they were rounded up and processed for removal from the United States. It was discovered that the company that rented these people to the resort had not paid them their overtime pay and in some cases, not even paid the federal minimum wage.
With all the terror threats this nation is facing, it is no wonder that we must mount raids to round up a quiet, complacent work force, hell-bent on our cleanliness. Is Bin Laden really so important? What about the guy cleaning your bathroom or picking your asparagus?
Few can understand the desperation that triggers the decision to risk so much for so little. Many die just trying to reach the land of opportunity. But it is not an opportunity for many. It is a life of living under the radar, being taken advantage of, and not having the knowledge, money or direction to obtain the proper work permits. The constant fear of being discovered, being deported, possibly being separated from family who have earned citizenship through birthright, is enough to keep many workers from attempting to get a legal work permit.
Getting the proper documents is not easy, which is why many workers end up working for companies that specialize in contracting undocumented workers. Employers are required to check that these documents are in hand, but not verify their authenticity.
In Guatemala last year I learned that many people leaving Central America never reach our borders. If stopped in Mexico they are often jailed for long periods of time before being sent home. The toll to try is devastating. Just documented cases in this country add up to almost 4,000 horrible deaths among the legions of hopefuls that cross the border on foot, or are trucked in by human smugglers. As dark as drug trafficing is, human trafficing is worse.
It is obvious that the system we have is not working. It hasn’t worked for a long time. We have let it continue from a sense of greed and a lack of compassion. Now that the problem has matured to a point that can no longer be ignored we spend all of our time trying to convince ourselves we didn’t realize it was happening, instead of approaching it honestly and responsibly.
I would never judge the efforts of those who are willing to gamble everything to make it to “The Land of Milk and Honey.” I’m a hiker. If my kids were starving in Mexico you would find us with our backpacks—Comin’ Over the Horizon!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Social security—isn’t that an oxymoron?

by Dick E. Bird
George Burns said, "Retirement at sixty-five is ridiculous. When I was sixty-five I still had pimples." The government is trying to convince all the baby-boomers that they are too young to retire—that they are going to live as long as George Burns, and they won’t need much in the way of medical coverage. There are several reasons for this attempted psychological adjustment. The Geritol Posse is growing, the money is going and no one is sowing.
I’m 10 years away from retirement age and I already get three mailings a day pitching financial management. Those are the people that want to help you bury your nuts while they gather their own. If they were honest they would start the conversation with something like this, "I’ve reviewed your portfolio, and if we manage your stocks properly, there should be plenty of money for both of us."

What I am hearing mostly is, "Invest for the long-term." That usually means a short term investment that failed. Every one of these experts will tell you to give up your morning coffee and invest the money in the market. At a 10% annual rate of return you will be worth more than Bill Gates by the time you are ready to retire. Then they help you invest your money in schemes that return 3%, which is 1% less than inflation. If it was so easy to earn a guaranteed 10% return—wouldn’t that be the place to invest the social security lock-box. Remember the "lock-box?" That was all they talked about back in the Bush-Gore campaign. The box has been missing ever since.
Social security—isn’t that an oxymoron? At least reforming Social Security is a start. The government is finally admitting that it can’t be trusted with our money, and corporate America jumped right on that bandwagon. Did you notice as soon as the feds started making excuses about missing money the airlines and automakers climbed right into the saddle with them?
Is it a tax or just plain slight-of-hand when Social Security and so-called retirement accounts are raided with new rules? When I entered the work force and began feeding the fund, the age to begin drawing it out was 65. Now they changed the rules, and I can’t draw until 66. I would call that a huge tax on my money. If I draw at 62 they whack me for 30% the rest of my life. What do you suppose they are going to do in the next 10 years as I approach 66 and I disappoint the government and live?
Jean Baptiste Colbert, finance minister to Louis XIV, summed up his views on taxation, which seem very similar to this governments: "The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the least possible amount of hissing."
You could use the same example against the money managers who keep plucking large management fees from the pockets of mismanaged portfolios.
Have you ever had a financial manager tell you about tomorrow? They all tell you about yesterday. I already know what I should have bought last year, it’s this year I’m interested in. They say you have to know if it’s a bull market or a bear market. Actually, you have to be more careful that the bull your financial advisor gave you isn’t eaten by a bear he didn’t tell you about. If beating the market was as easy as wildlife watching, I’d become a financial planner myself.
Let’s look at the truth about investing your beverage money. Instead of using the example most financial planners are using—you know, the fancy, fattening latte specials everyday on the way to work and the chocolate chip muffin to savor along with it. Let’s use beer instead. Say you gave up half your beer for a year. You invested it in Enron and Worldcom because that’s where the smart money was growing the fastest and you quadrupled your money. Now, both stocks are worthless. Had you continued to buy your beer, turned in all your cans for the 10 cent deposit, you would now be worth over $200.00. So a financial planner worth his salt would advise you to drink heavy and recycle.
So don’t be confused by the theories of diversification and asset allocation. If you put your hard earned money in a passive managed index fund and let it grow, even during the coming trickle-down, voodoo economic, hostile take-over of your funds, you will be further ahead. Though new government regulations are designed to make what you have left last longer—you can still leverage ahead of the masses that give their millions to the stranger that manages to misappropriate a large portion of the portfolio pie into his own pocket.
I was born in 1949, the same year "Silly Putty" was introduced. If I would have invested in "Silly Putty" when I first heard of it, what an impression it could have left on my balance sheet. Had I moved into "Hoola Hoops" when they first started going around, my portfolio would be swinging today. The sad fact is you never know. Instead of "Silly Putty" and Hoola Hoops" I could just as easily ended up with "" or "Kmart."
If I could figure out how some young guy took bankrupt Kmart and bought Sears with billions in leveraged stock I could probably afford to buy one of those expensive, new Diehard batteries—which is all Kmart sells, now that Sears owns them!
Maybe we should get this Sears guy to jump start Social Security. He could leverage it into the black with all the red ink in Washington! —Dick E. Bird