Guest Post: V is for Vino

Yet another installment from my favorite ghostwriter.  I have a feeling this one may sound as familiar to you as it did to me.  Enjoy!

We take so much for granted these days. Turn on the switch and you get light, twist the handle and you get hot water, walk into any kitchen and find a corkscrew.

I grew up camping. Partly for the tradition, partly because it makes for a cheap vacation, and partly because it makes you appreciate modern conveniences. When you have to cut the wood and make a fire to heat water so that you can wash your dishes, that becomes a great reminder to turn off the hot water at home when you’re not using it.

Last week, I found myself “camping out” in yet another hotel room. In many ways, hotels aren’t that different from camping. You have a suitcase instead of a backpack, and a microwave instead of a fire; but it’s still a version of “you” with a handful of “your things” in a foreign environment.

I had a full 24 hours off, so for dinner I elected to go buy a can of almonds, some cheese, and a bottle of wine. The one thing I did not have – and did not think to purchase – was a corkscrew.

I should probably set the stage in a little more detail. On this trip, I didn’t have a car. This meant a two-mile walk to the nearest Chevron, which took over an hour and involved two trips across a four-lane highway, which is tantamount to playing “Frogger” but with one’s self as the frog. Therefore, going back to the gas station in hopes that they might have a corkscrew was not an option.

I am a trained aviator. In flight school, they drill in the edict to “use your resources”. But unfortunately, the front desk, the housekeeping staff, and the maintenance department didn’t have one corkscrew between them. And let’s be honest here, you can only ask for a corkscrew so many times before people start offering you 800 numbers.

If you’ve never Google’d the phrase “open a wine bottle without a corkscrew,” I highly recommend it. Mankind is an ingenious – and largely alcoholic – species.

The first option was simplicity itself. I don’t know if it actually works, but apparently if you strike the wine bottle firmly and repeatedly against a wall the sloshing will gradually work the cork out.  Since I was in a hotel room, several hours of slowly and rhythmically pounding a wine bottle against the wall seemed an inconsiderate choice.  Amusing, but inconsiderate.  All those years in Boy Scouts I carried a Swiss Army knife with what I thought was a completely useless corkscrew on it, and now here I am.

Another option involved converting a wire coat hanger into a pair of tiny claws.  I also found detailed instructions on creating a six inch long, ½ inch diameter dowel, and tapping it with a hammer until you drive the cork into the bottle. Then you “up-end” the bottle so the cork will float away from the neck while pouring the entire bottle of wine into the decanter.  But this begs the question: who has – or can fabricate –  a six inch dowel, a hammer, and a decanter; but no cork screw?

I swear I’m not making this up.

There were ideas involving shoe horns, butter knives, and drills, but the one that caught my attention was “the screw method” – pure genius. The individual behind this must have been as desperate as the guy who ate the first lobster.

Now this method assumes you have a Leatherman Multi-Tool, which I do.  In a nutshell you find a screw, twist it into the cork, and use the pliers to pull it out. The hard part is finding the right screw. You obviously need one with a pointy tip and large threads. But in a hotel room you’re only option is to “borrow” a screw from something else, and unfortunately, you don’t know what kind of screw it is until it’s out.

Take the humble outlet cover. No good. Every one of them, it turns out, has a flat end.  And the “screw” that holds the handles onto the dresser drawers? Also a bust – those are actually bolts.  I’d also say that 75% of the screws in the window frame, air conditioner and bed are either decorative, or have that stupid little swale (the window frames in particular) to prevent removal.  The majority of the screws in the phone, TV, and fridge are either plastic, or too short to be worth a shit. And the ceramic bastards that hold the commode to the floor break REALLY easily.  The little gold balls on the lamps aren’t screws at all, they’re nuts. But whatever that metallic thing is that falls off inside the lamp when you remove the nuts sounds a lot like a screw. We’ll never know.  The fire detectors don’t make use of screws at all. They largely use epoxy to hold them to the ceiling.

BUT… If you look under the coffee table, those things are held together with good old wood screws.

Cheers!

Next time I might try tapping it on the wall for a few minutes just to see. If nothing else whomever comes to the door to complain might have a corkscrew.

Guest Post: “Ustedes Me trae de papel”, Uncle Bill…

A dear friend of mine has offered to “ghost write” my U – Z posts for the A to Z Blogging Challenge so that I can take my time to get back into the swing of things. I don’t feel comfortable accepting credit for another’s work, so I decided to present this to you as a guest post. Enjoy!
 

 I’ve always wanted to learn a foreign language. Of course, I haven’t wanted it enough to actually do it, I’ve just coasted through the past 15 years saying,“I want to learn a foreign language,” so that I could forestall the actual task of doing it.

I did take one semester of Spanish in college, but that was primarily because the T.A. was incredibly cute. Consequently I paid attention to entirely the wrong things. One thing I do remember is that without “context or need”, learning progresses slowly.

Fast forward 12 years. I find myself in the unlikely position of flying to and from Chihuahua, Mexico on a weekly basis. And when I say “weekly,” I mean that I’m flying down on Monday, staying the week, and flying home on Friday. Chihuahua has become my home away from home.

As the corporate pilot I have little to do in Chihuahua except wait. The best corporate pilot resume I ever saw listed 12,000 hours of flying experience and 36,000 hours of waiting for passengers. At the end of the day, we’re paid for readiness, not productivity. An airline pilot (like a city bus driver) can take the number of miles multiplied by the number passengers and come up with a value that approximates their contribution for that year. But a corporate pilot is valued more like an ambulance driver or EMT. As far as I know, no city out there judges the worth of their rescue-squad by the number of passenger-miles logged in a given year. We’re paid for readiness. Consequently, I find myself with hours and days to pass in Chihuahua, Mexico.

To many people and all-expense paid week in Mexico sounds like the prize of a lifetime, and in Cabo, San Lucas or Belize it might be. But Chihuahua is not a resort town. Chihuahua is a gritty, industrial city in the high desert of the central highlands of north-eastern Mexico. It’s the Allentown, Pennsylvania of Mexico. Working class and working poor side by side in a utilitarian march to produce cement, auto parts, and grain. That said, Chihuahua is also the state capital, and home to most of the history between the U.S. and Mexico.

But for now, my concern is the Hampton Inn, Chihuahua. This could be any Hampton Inn anywhere in the world until you call the front desk. Given that Chihuahua is not a tourist-town, there’s not impetus for the general population to lean English. In other words, I’ve finally found the “context” within which to learn Spanish. And I’m determined.

Now, before I finish, I need to tell you a quick story about my late Uncle Bill. Once back in 1963, he went to Paris on business. He was as determined to learn and speak French as I am determined to learn and speak Spanish. In those days, most European restaurants did not bring a glass of ice water to the table as is now the custom. Uncle Bill thus found himself with the opportunity to practice his French by ordering “oeuf de la glace,”which he thought was “water with ice.”

Unfortunately for Uncle Bill, he’d missed the subtle but important difference between “eau” (which is water) and “oeuf” (which is egg). After several insistent exchanges, the waiter retreated to the kitchen, and 15 minutes later, my uncle received a bowl full of ice with a boiled egg on top. “Oeuf de la glace” instead of “eau de la glace.” His attempt to become a suave and debonair, cross-cultural attaché’… had instead made him that guy.

Now, if you recall, I’m on day number two of my first week-long stay in Chihuahua. The lady responsible for room service is at the door, and I’m confronted with my first attempt to communicate in Spanish.

“No necesito el servicio de cuarto,” I fumble out. This means “I don’t need room service.”

“Si,’” she replies.

“¿Dos botellas de agua?” I add, hoping to get one bottle to use for brushing my teeth and one to use for coffee.

“Si,” she replies and hands me two bottles of water. Victory!

As she starts to push her trolley down the hall, it occurs to me that they give you microwave popcorn at this hotel – which I like – and that I’ve already eaten my one bag. Maybe she has more!

“Un Momento Senoria…” I blurt out.

She stops.

“¿Puedo tener un bolso de…” I can’t remember the name for “popcorn,” most likely because I never bothered to look up “popcorn.”Honestly, when have you ever seen “popcorn” on a “most used list” for foreign language training?

She’s waiting…

I punt, “Papel?” That sounds like popcorn right? Surely she’ll figure it out.

She looks confused.

I start to pantomime the many tiny explosions of popcorn.

She looks more confused.

I add the over-exaggerated grin of a clown, somehow hoping that “overt happiness” will somehow convey “popcorn.” I try again, this time with grin, handgestures, and a few small jumps in the air. I add, “Puedo tener unbolso de papel?” followed by numerous small popping sounds with my mouth. Pop. Pop. Pop

Suddenly, her eyes widen. The moment of comprehension – we’ve communicated! I’m very happy. She turns and runs down the hall. She’s yelling to a co-worker, “Papel del armario… Papel del armario!!”

I can’t imagine why the request for popcorn is so urgent, but I’m pleased that I was able to communicate my desires. A minute later she comes rushing back with… six rolls of toilet paper and a look that says “you poor man”.

I’m now that guy.

Instantly, I realize that I’ve managed to get the words for “popcorn” and “paper” mixed up. All I can see is Uncle Bill’s bowl of ice with an egg on top. As I recall the hand-gestures, the little jumps, and the enormous grin, I am mortified. I don’t dare try to fix it now. All I can do is take the arm-full of toilet paper, and offer “Gracias” with a look of relief. What must she think is going on in that room?

Part of me chooses to believe that Uncle Bill is looking down on me, smiling. Part of me knows the room-service staff is shaking their heads and smiling at me (while they laugh uncontrollably).

And so the family tradition continues, “The crazy American wants what?!” Every trip since then, that one particular room service lady always gives me a look that can only be described as a knowing glance. (eye roll)

——

Epilogue: Its two months later, my Spanish is better. I’m again trying to sally-forth with confidence. Today we arrived very early, so early that our rooms were not ready yet, so we retreated to the Applebees across the street for breakfast to pass the time. I ordered eggs, beans, and tortillas and my partner ordered French toast.

After the food arrived, I wanted to ask for a bottle of Tabasco. I know that “salsa” means “sauce,” that “caliente” means “hot,” and that in Spanish the modifier precedes the noun- instead or “Red Truck” you have “Truck, Red”. So in my most confident tone possible I asked: “Tiene salsa Caliente?”.

To which the waiter replied: “…que’? “

I repeated my request until he relented.

Several minutes later, I was presented with a bowl of ketchup that had been heated nearly to boiling in the microwave. It turns out that in Spanish, “hot, spicy” and “hot, temperature” have entirely different nouns. (“The crazy American wants what?!” Uncle Bill, where are you!?)

My partner looked up from his French toast; “This is like the popcorn thing, isn’t it?”

I raised the bowl of hot ketchup, “Cheers”.

U Through Z is for Unscheduled Vacation from Writing due to X-ray Yield Zzzzz…

Well, it was a good run.

I’m very proud that I managed to make it to the letter “T” on the “A to Z Challenge” with only a hiccup or two along the way.  I’ve enjoyed sharing my aviation stories with you, and gained new insights into the ebb and flow of my creativity in relation to my work habits, distraction responses, and alcoholic stockpile level.  However, it seems that I’m going to have to cry “uncle” for now and begin training so that I can, once again, take up the gauntlet next year.  But before I tell you why, I want to share one last aviation story with you.

I have diverticulosis.  It is a condition in which, for some reason, small pockets form in my intestines.  Once they form, they are there forever unless I have that portion of my intestines surgically removed, which is something the doctors recommend for someone who has been afflicted as young as I am.  Occasionally, these pockets become infected, and I experience symptoms very much like appendicitis, only on the left side of my abdomen.  This is called diverticulitis, something I have had several times.

During one episode of diverticulitis, I was hospitalized for a few days.  This occurred, of course, when I was scheduled to pilot a trip to the Bahamas the next day.  It was also New Year’s Eve.  I remember that because I was trying to convince the hospital staff that champagne qualified as part of the “clear liquid diet” imposed for my recovery.  I almost had them convinced, until I decided morphine would be better.

I contacted Dispatch at my company as soon as I left for the Emergency Room so they could have as much time as possible to find a replacement for me for my trip the following day.  I also kept them informed of when I would be able to return to work, which, as it turned out, wouldn’t be for almost a week.

When I did return, I was greeted by the company’s head honcho, who told me, “Don’t ever do that again.  Don’t ever work yourself so hard that you end up in the hospital.”  It was a bit disconcerting to hear that from someone so high up on the totem pole, but it was advice that I have never forgotten.  It is also advice that I intend to follow.

For the past few months, I have been feeling symptoms similar to what I would feel if I had another case of diverticulitis.  The pain had been gradually intensifying despite the regimen suggested by my doctor, so shortly after completing my “T” post, I made the decision to go to the Emergency Room for an evaluation.  I know from experience that diverticulitis is diagnosed with a CT scan.  This equipment is readily available in the ER – as opposed to my doctor’s office – and when it comes to abdominal pain, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

The good news is that I do not have diverticulitis.  The not-quite-as-good news is that the scan shows that there is something – probably a cyst – located next to my stomach causing all of my symptoms.

The pilot in me is gratified to find the cause of my issues and is eager to find the solution.  The writer in me is distracted by the possibilities and unable to compose properly while hopped up on Vicodin.  While I manage to come up with some good stuff, I tend to fall asleep and forget what I wanted to write.

So, there you have it.  I’m going to concentrate on my health and try this again next year.  I am so grateful for all the new friends I have met, the opportunity to grow and mature as a writer, the chance to rub elbows with so many creative and talented people, and simply the excuse to share my experiences with you.

Stay healthy, my friends, and thank you for reading!

UPDATE:  I wanted to thank everyone for the wishing me well and let you know that, as Arnold would say in “Kindergarten Cop”: It’s not a tumor.  😉  It seems that it’s just some fluid that has accumulated since a surgery last year, and the doctor believes it couldn’t be causing me any distress.  Although, what is causing my symptoms is still under investigation.  Hopefully, it’s nothing more serious than stress.

That being said, I’m still planning to concentrate more on my health by walking more often, eating less processed junk, and stressing out less.  That should get me back on track soon enough.  Oh yeah, and patience.  I gotta work on that one, too.

T is for Training

As the pilot of a jet, I was required to pass a competency check every six months.  Some of the maneuvers I needed to perform were less expensive and much safer to do in a flight simulator.

It may not look like much from the outside, but inside it’s better than Disney World.

These simulators are incredibly advanced, offering full motion and exceptional graphics which are capable of giving the pilot a very realistic experience.  The instructors also have the God-like powers to place you at any airport, in any time of weather conditions, with whatever broken aircraft systems that floats their boat.

For this reason, many a pilot has woken up in a cold sweat at the prospect of simulator training.  Not me.  I loved it.  Where else can you test the very limits of your flying expertise and not run the risk of dying?

My freight dog brethren understood.

Great. Where’s the flashlight?

A night time approach in a half mile of freezing fog with clear ice building on the unprotected surfaces of your aircraft was not a far fetched scenario, it was common.  Losing your interior lights may not even be noticed during the day when most pilots are working, but it could be a giant pain in the ass for a freight pilot at 2:00 in the morning.

Some of the instructors particularly enjoyed the freight dog “bring it on” attitude.  Once, after a particularly difficult approach and embarrassingly ugly landing in the Learjet 35 simulator, I had angrily asked my instructor what I did wrong.  He just laughed and said, “I loaded you up with about 3000 pounds of ice.  I can’t believe you didn’t crash.”

Asking one of these folks for a zero visibility approach and landing must have been like manna from Heaven.  How horrible would it be to have omnipotent powers that you could only use when some adventurous and arguably masochistic soul said, “pretty please?”

Call me crazy – you wouldn’t be the first or the last – but I never wanted to be the pilot caught by surprise in a dangerous situation for the first time in an actual aircraft.  I wanted to experience everything in a training environment first where I could explore different solutions, have the luxury of stopping time, and review what worked and what didn’t.

All the fun with none of the risk.  What could be better than that?

S is for Snow

Image

This slacker looks familiar…

There were occasions during my flying career where snow and aviation collided.

Ages ago, when I eked out a living as a flight instructor, I was able to earn more money clearing the runways with the owner’s decrepit, underpowered, pickup truck rigged with an oversized plow blade and minimal heat, than the way-below-poverty-level income guaranteed to me for actually teaching.

Once, to save money, the owner decided to dig out his airport himself and it turned into an unpaid, compulsory, two week “vacation” for me.  That’s how long it took him to get the airport unburied without assistance.  I think it was his way of cutting costs, but it seems to me that it would have been better to have at least a minimal revenue stream during those two weeks.  After all, even though he didn’t have to pay any of his staff, he still had utilities and other fixed expenses.  Either way, I was stuck at home eating Ramen Noodles.  Some vacation.  I didn’t even get a lousy t-shirt.

Things changed significantly when I worked as a freight dog, though.  I actually did have one snow day during my 5 years of employment.  I was flying a route out of Midway airport that started around 4:00 p.m. and ended at midnight.  I arrived on time, despite the fact that the airport was closed and no one was going anywhere, to find the first of our 3 Beech Barons in the hangar awaiting some TLC from maintenance.  The second was also parked in the hangar, which, as it turned out, could not be opened because the door had been sealed shut by drifting snow.  The third aircraft was almost completely buried outside on the ramp, with only a single propeller blade protruding from its frozen shroud.

Dispatch insisted that I wait to see if the airport would open.  I believe their plan was for me and my colleagues to simultaneously fly the single usable – but trapped – Baron to complete our routes.  Instead, we passed the time engaged in a snowball warfare on the ramp. After about six hours of goofing off, not including my numerous calls to Dispatch begging them to give up the ghost and let me go home, coffee breaks, and time spent checking the weather radar, they finally relented and let me – and only me – go home an hour before my shift would have ended anyway.

It took three guys to push my car, snugly encased in six hours of relentless snowfall, out of its parking spot and into the deserted street, but it was worth it.  That hour of snow-related freedom was immensely better than the two weeks I suffered through as a flight instructor.  Mostly because there was no Ramen involved.

R is for Rock

Freight pilots really are a different breed.  Perhaps it has something to do with the demands of a constantly fluctuating  circadian rhythm or the stress “on time performance” places firmly upon the pilot’s shoulders despite the line of  60,000 foot level 5 thunderstorms stubbornly raging on final approach, but a sense of humor seems to be a common denominator in a vast majority of freight dogs.  And in my observations, this sense of humor usually manifests itself as a fierce love of practical jokes.

These practical jokes run the gamut from casually turning off a co-worker’s unattended microwave causing him to believe that his meal is still frozen solid after 10 minutes on high to clandestinely placing tire valve stem caps on a co-worker’s vehicle which illuminate a lovely shade of hot pink when the wheels are in motion.  But the most beloved and time honored freight dog practical joke tradition is covertly placing a large, heavy rock in another pilot’s flight bag.

To fully appreciate this joke, you need to understand that a freight pilot changes aircraft several times a night and must therefore transfer the flight bag containing all of the required charts and manuals to whatever aircraft currently being operated.  But he may only go to five different airports in the span of a year, so digging too deeply in the flight bag for information is a rare occurrence.  Additionally, a pilot schlepping around a “Travel Rock” is usually the only one who is unaware of it’s presence, so the rock is periodically removed by other pilots, aircraft loaders, shift supervisors, or late night pizza delivery drivers, updated with a date and location in permanent marker and then lovingly placed back in the bag for the clueless pilot to transfer to his next aircraft.

When the offending hitchhiker is finally discovered, the embarrassed mule will proudly display his Travel Rock as a trophy declaring not only his stature as a recipient but also his acceptance into the illustrious ranks of freight dogs.  He probably wants to keep an eye on it, too, so that it doesn’t end up back in his flight bag.  This logical escalation of the original practical joke has, to my knowledge, only been pulled off once when a clever photocopied Travel Rock forgery allowed a genuine Travel Rock an opportunity to collect a substantial amount of additional flight hours and autographs before once again being discovered.  Quite an honor.

There are times that I look back fondly on my experiences as a freight pilot.  Then I remember that I have yet to figure out who put the “I hate truckers” bumper sticker on my car.  Rest assured, when I finally do uncover the culprit, revenge will be swift.  I have a rock picked out just for you, Joker.

Q is for Quick

I’m having difficulty keeping up with my A to Z Blogging Challenge, so I figured I could get away with re-telling a little story from my freight pilot days.  Nothing incriminating, mind you, because aviation is a little bit like Vegas – what happens in the airplane, stays in the airplane.  This is especially true when flying night freight and the only one you could possibly scare with your antics is yourself.  If no one saw you do it, it simply didn’t happen.

I was flying a small twin engine aircraft stuffed to the brim with freight four nights a week on a set schedule.  When you fly in and out of the same airports using the same call sign at the same time each night, the controllers recognize you and are able to get a sense of your capabilities as a pilot.  One early morning toward the end of my shift, I was flying into my home base and had to be set up for an instrument approach due to reduced visibility from fog.  It was not unusual for me to have to do several instrument approaches in a night during the course of my 12 hour shift, so I was prepared and following ATC instructions which would put me on my final approach course.

Standard procedure for approach and landing for a freight operation can be vastly different than that of a passenger operation.  The most notable difference is the speed of the final approach.  An aircraft flying passengers will commonly be completely set up for landing approximately five miles from the runway and will therefore maintain a consistent speed throughout the entire final approach.  My company’s standard procedure called for a decelerating approach in which I changed configuration at specific points during my approach and only became fully set up for landing a short distance from the runway, something that this controller had seen me do on several occasions.

So, as I’m waiting for ATC to direct me toward my final course and clear me for the approach, another aircraft checked on, a small 8-passenger jet.  When the jet pilot discovered he was being routed behind a much smaller aircraft for the approach, he attempted to remind the controller that he was flying a bigger, faster (and presumably more important) aircraft and should be cleared for the approach in front of me.  The controller’s response?  “Don’t worry.  You’ll never catch her.”

The resulting silence from the jet pilot had me laughing so hard I had to wipe the tears from my eyes to see the runway lights as I landed a full five minutes ahead of him.  I never found out whether he was more embarrassed that a light twin could best his approach speed or the fact that the light twin in question was flown by a girl.  But I do know that this story still makes me smile and I hope it did the same for you.