Golf Courses: How Not To Be a Good Neighbor

Golf has become my post-retirement passion. I’ve written about it here. Now that I’m a registered Bendite (Bend, Oregon that is), I’ve been hitting up some of Central Oregon’s courses. Five so far: Juniper up the road in Redmond, Widgi Creek in Bend on the road to Mt Bachelor (the nearest volcano), Meadow Lakes – a muni in Prineville, Crooked River Ranch near Terrebonne and the one I’ve adopted as my ‘home’ course, River’s Edge in bend.

River’s Edge – so named because it nestles up to the Deschutes River – features some fairly spectacular scenery owing to its location on the side of Awbrey Butte. While the scenery off the butte is far better on the west side where you can see a string on Cascades volcanoes – Mt Bachelor, Broken Top, the Three Sisters and Mt Jefferson – the east side where the golf course is located offers expansive views of Central Oregon. It’s quite impressive, I think.

My house is at the base of Awbrey Butte, so River’s Edge is almost walking distance, were it not for the up and down elevation change created by the butte. Five minutes in a car, tops, gets me from my garage to the golf course parking lot. So, it’s natural that I want River’s Edge to be my home course. You don’t really need a ‘home course’ – you can just just play wherever you want, whenever you want. But golf courses almost always offer membership discounts and I bought one at River’s Edge.

One of the problems with my choice is that River’s Edge is extraordinarily difficult for average, short hitters like myself. With many shots, if you’re a bit off, you’re in big trouble. I’m not accurate enough to be comfortable hitting those shots.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about how golf courses co-exist with their community and River’s Edge has a huge, glaring problem in that regard. Bend is an outdoor paradise, with the city, county and state offering lots of parks, trails and other recreational outlets. I love it. One of the more popular is the Deschutes River Trail, a developed path that runs a long way along the Deschutes River. The scenery is great, it’s accessible along its route at many places, and it of course runs along the river.

It also runs through River’s Edge Golf Course. The interaction between the two is short but significant. Really, it’s just one hole. You can see it on Google Maps:

https://www.google.com/maps/place/River’s+Edge+Golf+Course/@44.0809676,-121.3123452,295m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x54b8c8b80ae5f25b:0x7ed515357dee6a06!8m2!3d44.0767498!4d-121.3166817?hl=en

(I apologize for the lengthy link – I suppose I could use tinyurl but I’m not space limited here, so why bother)

If you look at the bottom center of that view, a little to the left, you will see a set of tee boxes for the 3rd hole of the course, located to the right of NW Fairway Heights Dr (tee boxes are small, grassy areas where golfers start a hole, where they hit their first shot of the hole). They are to the left of the Deschutes River Trail, which is labeled on Google Maps. Looking NNE, you will see the fairway for the 3rd hole. It is on the other side of the trail, meaning golfers must hit across the trail from the tee box to the fairway. Not only that, note that because the 3rd green is located a fair distance up at the end of the fairway (the 3rd is a par 4), the proper line for the tee shot is not that far off the line of the trail. It doesn’t take much of a mishit to send a golf ball straight up the trail, where people are walking.

I’ve played this hole from the tee box three times now and it has scared the shit out of me each time. There are no warning signs for the golfer, nothing to say ‘beware of people on the path in front of you’. There are warning signs for the trail users but they are inadequate. Imagine you are out with the kids, the family, the dog, walking the Deschutes River Trail. You see a sign saying to watch out for golf balls. Really? What are you, a trail user, going to do to minimize the danger? Run as fast as you can through the area? That actually would be a good idea but how many people will? And if the golfer hits an errant shot that heads down the trail? What is he or she going to do? The traditional warning is to yell FORE!, but that really only is effective for people on a golf course who are, or should be, cognizant of what it means. For non-golfers who aren’t really expecting it (despite the signs), I think a common inclination would be to turn your head towards the sound of the person yelling FORE! and thus get hit directly in the face by a high speed golf ball.

It’s not safe. The last round I played using that tee box, I waited for a woman, two kids and a dog to make their way far enough up the trail to be what I thought was safe. They weren’t. Probably because of my anxiety, I blasted a shot that hooked and headed straight for them, or where I feared they would be (they were out of sight). Horrified, I still thought to refrain from calling out a warning, hoping no one would get hit, but not wanting to risk a face shot. Fortunately, no one was hit, but I found my ball on the left side of the trail, meaning it traveled along and across the trail and really could have hurt someone.

It’s not safe. With warm weather, more and more people flock to the Deschutes River Trail. Golfers will not be able to wait for the trail to clear.

The solution is to redesign the hole. Make it a par three by putting the tee box on the other side of the trail, maybe halfway up the fairway. That won’t eliminate the danger, but a mid-iron shot that isn’t aimed across the trail is far less dangerous to bystanders than a ball coming off the face of a full-force driver, as it is now.

For myself, I now play the hole by dropping my ball on the fairway (on the other side of the trail) at a distance I figure would be right for my average tee shot.

Anyone Here Know How to Drive This Thing?

As we stumble further along our post-Cold War path, the United States of America, defender of democracy, conqueror of the Third Reich, bane of Tojo, ruler of the high seas, the Greatest Military Power Ever Seen On Earth, seems to need people who can drive warships. And by drive, I mean so as to not hit things you shouldn’t be hitting. I wonder if the US Navy has taken out an ad on USAJOBS: Wanted, anyone who can steer a ship without killing people. Enquire within.

Hyperbole. Sarcasm. I’m kidding.

Sort of.

Maybe – no, assuredly – it’s a symptom of the mass information age. We hear about two Arleigh Burke class navy destroyers – greyhounds of the sea – getting run over by big lumbering cargo ships and we lose our minds. The US Navy is currently operating a 270-ship fleet. Back when we fielded Reagan’s 600-ship navy, before Facebook and Twitter, warships were probably slamming into each other and everyone else daily, right? We just didn’t hear about it.

Well, no.

Sure, there were incidents. Big ones. Kennedy/Belknap comes to mind, as does Greeneville/Ehime Maru. HMAS Melbourne did a number on a couple of ships including a US Navy destroyer. There were others. But the latest incidents involving cargo ships ramming and seriously damaging the USS Fitzgerald and USS McCain in the crowded seaways near Tokyo and Singapore have sounded the alarm – the collision alarm if you will. Both incidents resulted in loss of life – the Fitzgerald almost sunk and would have were it not for the heroic efforts of its crew.

How well can the US Navy operate its ships and why are we even having this conversation? The US 7th Fleet, of which both the Fitzgerald and the McCain are part, seems to be the poster child for bad driving. There was also a recent incident in the 7th where the cruiser USS Antietam ran aground. Less serious, but still troubling. One has to wonder if the entire fleet is at risk.

So, what happened? Let’s take the McCain incident first as it’s, I believe, more indicative of the underlying problem.

Short answer: key watchstanders on the bridge of the McCain didn’t know how to operate the equipment they were manning, resulting in a loss of steering control.

Longer answer: the bridge of a warship – any warship – is where a group of on-duty sailors and officers control the movement and other functions of the ship. Their duties are defined as watchstations and each watchstander has certain specific responsibilities. The Officer of the Deck is the on-duty person in charge of the bridge (the whole ship, actually, but he or she is on the bridge). The captain of the ship may at any time issue orders to the OOD or even ‘assume the deck’, meaning take personal control of the ship.

To perform duties on the bridge (or at any number of watchstations on the ship, but this is about the bridge), a person must either be ‘qualified’ to stand that specific watchstation or be under the direct, close tutelage of a person qualified for that specific watchstation. In other words, be a trainee.

To be qualified means that person has demonstrated an acceptable knowledge of how to operate the equipment associated with the watchstation and is very familiar with normal operating and emergency procedures, which define how to operate the equipment during particular evolutions, including emergencies or even combat conditions.

The incident with the McCain can be traced to mishandling of two watchstations, or more if you include the OOD and even the captain. The captain was on the bridge (but had not assumed the deck) and noticed the helmsman struggling to control both the throttles and steering of the ship, which are normal functions of that watchstation. The helmsman is ‘driving’ the ship, just as you do when you drive a car: your basic actions are to steer and accelerate/brake. Unlike you driving your car, a navy helmsman does not make any decisions on which way to steer or how fast to go – the OOD does that. So, when the captain noticed the helmsman’s problems, he ordered the OOD to ‘split the watch’, which means transfer one of the two functions (throttles, in this case) from the helmsman to a nearby station called the lee helmsman. For clarity, understand that key US Navy warship functions such as steering, throttles and others can be accomplished at several places, including off the bridge (steering can be done back in the engine room by taking manual control of the hydraulic actuators that move the rudders, for example). A warship like the McCain has redundant helm consoles right on the bridge.

Here’s where the incident starts to go bad. The helmsman was poorly trained and did not actually know how to transfer throttle control to the lee helmsman. As it turns out, basically no one on the bridge that mattered knew how to do it properly, including the OOD. The helmsman actually unknowingly transferred BOTH steering and throttles to lee helm. Shortly, thereafter, the helmsman, who thought he still had control of the rudders, announced that he had ‘lost steering control’.

Chaos ensued. In their attempts to regain steering, the OOD and other watchstanders tried transferring helm controls between stations five times and ended up not only not regaining steering control but also splitting the throttle control between stations (the McCain has two propellers that can be controlled independently). So the watchstander who thought he had control of both propellers actually had control of only one. Here, it is key to note that you can actually steer the ship by varying the speed differential between the propellers. If you increase the speed on the starboard prop while backing off the port prop, the ship will turn to port.

And that’s what happened. Mismanagement of the steering control as well as the propellers caused the McCain to veer into the path of the cargo ship they had just passed and ten sailors died.

The navy’s report on the incidents finds specific fault with the McCain’s training regimen. I already mentioned how no one knew how to transfer helm control properly, but there also were two people on the bridge who were not even officially qualified to stand watch. Moreover, three sailors on the bridge were temporary transfers from another ship, sent to the McCain to gain training, ironically, while their ship was being repaired after running aground (the third recent US warship incident). Although qualified on the other ship, two of them had not qualified on the McCain’s watchstations and the control systems between the ships are different.

To say this is unacceptable is not only obvious but way too kind. My touchstone is personal experience on a nuclear submarine during the Cold War. The concept of watchstanders – many watchstanders! – not knowing how to do basic watch functions is unbelievable. It did not happen on the submarine. Once qualified, we knew our equipment and knew the procedures. Sure, mistakes were made but nothing of this magnitude. Not even close.

The navy report on the collisions is scathing. The McCain’s captain and executive officer have already been fired as have people up in the chain of command, including the vice-admiral in charge of the 7th Fleet (in the military, that means they have been reassigned to posts where they’re less likely to kill people). I’m not privy to all the details, of course, and tend not to prejudge, which is why I waited for this report while some other people were blaming Russian hacking.

And the Fitzgerald incident? The report provides some details of what happened there as well. Such as the radar operators didn’t know how to work the damned radar! But the principal cause of the incident seems to be a failure by the OOD to do his job properly. Most egregiously, he failed to notify the captain when the ship came within close range of other ship traffic, as is required by the captain’s standing orders. Standing orders are sort of permanent rules of conduct and procedure imposed by the captain. It is common for captains to require their OODs to notify them when the ship comes within a certain distance of other ships.

If we distill the incidents to root cause, underlying all the shiphandling failures is a lack of training, a lack of competence. Too many people charged with operating navy ships simply aren’t trained well enough to do their jobs without  unduly endangering their ships, their shipmates, and other ships that cross their paths. It takes a tremendous amount of time and dedication to competently operate a US Navy warship. It’s not really something that you can learn easily.

I’ve never driven a ship and probably would be a hazard of the first order if I had to do it in a crowded seaway. But I have operated a submarine nuclear reactor and stood other watches in a submarine engine room, duties which required a similar military standard of competence to ensure I could perform my part of the ship’s mission while not being a danger to my shipmates and the ship itself. Before I could become qualified, I had to demonstrate an extraordinary amount of knowledge and competence to my superiors, including the captain, who was ultimately responsible for my performance. It wasn’t easy and I can say that I really could not have done it without extensive, focused training.

Training. You just can’t get around it. No matter how brilliant or innately suited a person is for a role in operating a navy warship, that person will be a danger to everyone around them if they’re not trained to a high standard. So why the catastrophic training failures on the McCain, in particular? It’s not like the navy didn’t know there was a training deficiency well before these incidents.

How did they know? They knew because this latest hasn’t been the first report of fleet readiness. Less than a decade ago, Vice Admiral Phillip Balisle (retired) was asked by the Chief of Naval Operations (the navy’s representative on the Joint Chiefs of Staff) to conduct a comprehensive review of surface fleet readiness in 2009. Adm. Balisle is a former destroyer, cruiser and carrier strike force commander and is considered well qualified in areas of force readiness. In his report (issued in 2010), he identified several weaknesses, some quite serious, that seemed to require remediation and also seem to address issues that were in play with the McCain and Fitzgerald incidents. In other words, these collisions were forecast. Among the most serious were training failures, particularly those involving training of surface warfare division officers. These are the folks who qualify as OODs.  You can read the report here:

https://www.scribd.com/document/43245136/Balisle-Report-on-FRP-of-Surface-Force-Readiness

In 2003, the school that prepared officers for surface fleet sea duty was closed and a new program implemented that relied on self-study and shipboard training. The young officers reported to their first ship with a packet of CDs and were expected to learn their trade that way, along with ‘on-the-job’ training from experienced officers. The trouble is, as Adm. Balisle uncovered, it didn’t work. Not only were the junior officers over-worked with regular duties (a common theme in the navy and a contributor to the collisions, according to the recent report) to the point where they had little time for those CDs, but the already qualified officers similarly had little time to devote to training. The navy’s plan to pass on basic ship-handling training to the fleet commands was a failure, as evidenced by the McCain and Fitzgerald incidents, in particular. And probably the Antietam grounding as well.

The US military, like most large government agencies, is very bureaucratic with a lot of institutional and historical inertia, so it’s hard to change course. It’s hard for the navy to not only take a good look at how they do business (which they have done at least twice recently) but to implement meaningful changes based on that introspection. Change has been done before – the shift during WWII from the primacy of battleships to aircraft carriers being a solid example. The acceptance of nuclear power for submarines another. But perhaps the best example that I have good experience with is the implementation of the Sub Safe program following the loss of the nuclear submarine USS Thresher. After that incident, the navy became acutely aware that standards for quality control, procedural compliance and other aspects relating to safe operation of naval nuclear reactors was sorely lacking. Through the guidance of Admiral Hyman Rickover (more like arm-twisting), the navy quickly transformed its nuclear program into what it became in the 1970’s and still is today: an example how to do difficult things right and still perform the mission. In part, they did that by implementing rigorous training requirements.

Maybe the surface fleet needs their own Adm. Rickover.

 

Obligatory Traffic Rant

Everybody does it. Everybody who drives, that is. Rant about the drivers where they live. It’s obligatory, part of being American.

“The drivers in my city suck! Worst I have ever seen!”

Well, no. Atlanta drivers are not the worst ever. If asked to pick a place with the crappiest drivers, I’d demur. I’ve lived in a lot of places and driven a car in many more. LA, Chicago, Boston, Houston, Dallas, Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, DC, Baltimore. Roads, congestion and basic human crappyness pretty much guarantee that every major city will evoke cries of “worst ever!” from locals, many of whom are the ones causing the problems. No one thinks they are a bad driver. Almost no one.

Me, I’m not the best driver. I occasionally make mistakes, thankfully rarely resulting in metal-to-metal contact. What I am, however, is observant and conscientious. When I drive, I drive. My attention is focused on the task at hand, which necessarily includes observing the behavior of my fellow drivers. So along with piloting my own car I find myself judging all the drivers around me. No, I’m not a road rager. I judge silently, although maybe with the occasional flipping of the bird.

And I at least try to be considerate of others on the road, which I think might separate me from the masses. Most people it seems don’t think about others while driving. I do. I let people in; I park between the lines; I hardly ever use high beams in the city and always dim when cars approach. You know, considerate stuff.

So this is my rant. Why aren’t people more considerate? It’s as if when they encase themselves in a mobile, metal ‘safe house’, that gives them license to let their inner asshole take control. Why? People aren’t that rude in person, generally. It’s not just blatant assholes that I’m ranting about. More benign expressions of a lack of consideration are much more frequent. Parking might be the best example of this. The people who don’t take care to park between the lines, making it difficult for others to squeeze into a space or maybe even taking two spaces (although that might be deliberate assholiness).

The parking lot itself is a cesspool of assholes. How many times have you had to back out of a space but couldn’t see past the adjacent cars? A lot, right? So you back out slowly to give unseen approaching cars a chance to see you. Do people pause and let you back out? No. They lay on their horn and glare at you angrily for attempting to pre-empt their parking lot priority. Assholes.

Anyway, I don’t need to elaborate. Everyone has experienced the phenomenon. I have no answer for the question, either. I’m sure there’s some psychological explanation for why people’s asshole quotient rises once behind the wheel. I just wish it weren’t so.

Par For The Course – Therein Lies Madness

20161222_094934For those living on the precipice of madness, I cannot recommend the game of golf, for it will surely push you into the abyss. Only those firmly rooted in self awareness should make any serious attempts at mastering the sport.

Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying (paraphrasing) that ‘insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ He probably didn’t say that but the notion is a good one. A corollary to that maxim might be ‘doing the same thing over and over again and getting different results may drive you insane.’

And that sums up golf pretty well. Swinging a three and half foot long club in an attempt to propel an inch and half diameter ball in such a way to cause it to move a significant distance through the air in a direction close to intended and in a repeatable fashion is maddening. Even after you have learned and somewhat mastered (a relative term, to be sure) the key elements of the golf swing, making that ball do what you want is a very dicey proposition. You may think you are recreating the swing that just deposited the ball on the green on the last hole, but no. This time it flies off on a wholly unintended path, leaving you utterly perplexed and exasperated.

I’m vain enough to think I can play golf reasonably well despite not engaging the sport in any significant manner for most of my adult life. It was just two years ago that I took up the game seriously. Prior to that, I called myself a tennis player, if anything. Tennis is a sport I got pretty good at, especially on an intellectual level. I know the game and have taught others to play with some success. Tennis, like other sports where the idea is to hit something and make that something go where you want it to (baseball is another), requires hand-eye coordination and an awareness of what your body is doing. You can’t reliably hit a topspin backhand unless you know what your racket hand, your feet, your torso and the ball are doing in time and space. Although the golf ball is not moving when you strike it, the speed of the clubhead at impact and the relatively small area of contact ‘sweetspot’ make hitting a driver every bit as challenging as that backhand, or hitting a curveball. It requires precision of movement, something gained only through experience and repetition. I was convinced that my tennis skills would translate well to golf. Not so much, as it turns out.

The main issue is that, unlike with a tennis racket, I have no good way of knowing what I am doing with a golf club during a swing, at least not well enough to self-diagnose problems. It is very hard to know how you are presenting the clubface to a golf ball at impact, what the swing path through the impact zone is and whether you have hit the sweet spot. The last part is probably the easiest – if you hit off center, you can feel it. But not as well as with a tennis racket. Video helps, as does engaging an instructor.

Case in point. Last week, I played my ‘home’ course. It’s just a 9-hole, par 3 and 4 course but it’s actually quite challenging. Most of the holes are veritable death traps with only small target areas where you can hope to score well. Hitting the ball outside those areas often results in disaster. I’ve played the course many times, so I know where to hit the ball on each hole. Easier said than done. On one short par 3, a smooth lofted iron will put you on the green. Birdie or par is yours for the taking. Easy peasy, right? But if you hit it slightly left, long or right, well, you’ll be lucky to escape with double bogie. It’s an elevated green and the terrain around the green is horrible. After numerous adventures trying to get the ball on the green on my second shot – usually unsuccessfully – I’ve taken to not even trying for the green off the tee. Hitting short of the green and hoping for a good chip and putt for par is the way to go. Other holes are similarly treacherous.

My goal is to shoot less than bogie for the round. It’s a par 31 course so that means less than 40. On a recent Monday, I had a great round but managed just 40, which was still my best. I played well, for me anyway. Energized by that round, I played again on Wednesday, convinced I had a good shot at 39. Nope. Despite feeling good about my game, I played horribly. Couldn’t hit a thing and was constantly in the deep rough, which is brutal at this course. I actually ended up hurting my left arm from all the shots out of deep grass and quit after seven holes, a million over par. What a disappointment. Makes you think there’s no use trying to get better.

After staying away from the game so my arm could recover, I return to the home course a week later and shoot a cool 37. All through the round, I felt no different with my swing and actually was more than a bit worried about when disaster would return. Almost every shot I expected to shank into the trees. Nope. I even made a birdie on one hole, a rare thing for me.

It’s maddening, I tell you. It’s as if there’s no skill involved – it’s all luck, the mood of the gods, phase of the moon, whatever.

Tennis never did this to me.

 

Nazis

Nazis. I hate ’em. My father fought against them in WWII. We won, so why are they still here? Why?

Trump not only tolerates white supremacists (Nazis), he actively courted them in his campaign. One of his chief advisors is a fucking Nazi. That makes Trump a Nazi sympathizer.

Republicans knew what he was but still elected Trump and the GOP Congress are nothing but petty, immoral facilitators of Trump’s agenda. McConnell and Ryan are scum.

Fuck them, fuck Trump, fuck anyone who voted for him.

Cops Who Are Fearful

Too often lately I read about someone getting killed by a police officer in circumstances where the cop claims to have feared for his/her own safety. The incidents are numerous and I don’t need to detail any of them here.

My point is this: police officers face dangerous situations where ordinary people might become fearful. But cops are not ordinary people. I’m not saying they are superhuman or inhuman. I’m saying they are in a job where their overarching duty is to go into dangerous situations and protect the public from harm. Protect them, not shoot them.

If a cop claims to have feared for his life because he thought the person in from of him was pulling a gun, then that cop should not be on the force. As a citizen, I require cops to have a much higher threshold of fear than that before using deadly force.

We need to change the law that allows the defense of a reasonable fear for safety to justify use of deadly force. Police should be required to encounter actual deadly circumstances – not just perceived ones – before firing a weapon at someone. Police training needs to change, too.

Better laws, better training, better cops. Better pay, too.

10% Disabled

When I got out of the US Navy in 1979, I had it my mind that I was done with Uncle Sam’s Canoe Club and its affiliates. After six years, I’d had enough. So it was with some surprise and not a small bit of trepidation when a few months later I received a letter from one of the those affiliates, the Veterans Administration. Seems I was required to appear at the local regional VA hospital at a specific time and date. No option, be there. Huh.

Not wanting to incur the bureaucratic wrath of the US government, I showed up at the appointed time, clueless as to why I was summoned. During the next several hours, I was essentially given a full physical examination. The doctors and nurses were unhelpful as to what it was all about – perhaps they didn’t know. The system had deemed I be examined, so that’s what they did. I left the hospital with hardly more of clue than when I entered.

Making the whole thing even odder was the fact that, like everyone who is discharged from military service, I was given pretty much a full physical examination just prior to leaving the navy. Why the VA wanted to do it all over again was a mystery.

A few months later, the answer arrived in the form of another letter from the VA. Using arithmetic only a government agency can comprehend, they had determined that I was 10% disabled. I was officially a disabled veteran.

Which 10%? Well, anyone who knew me back then would have sworn it was my mental faculties, particularly the two psychiatrists who examined me at the behest of Metropolitan Edison Company, operators of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant where I had just applied for a job. I wasn’t entirely right in the head. Call it PSSD (Post-Submarine Stress Disorder). But no, the VA had determined that I had bad knees and it was all the navy’s fault. I was entitled to what amounts to beer money for the rest of my life.

Two things about that. One, I’m pretty sure the VA doctor and nurses hadn’t done squat in terms of examining my knees. They did the usual physical exam stuff – EKG, chest X-ray (?), blood work, turn your head and cough. I think there might have been a rudimentary stress test, too. Maybe not. But definitely no examination of the knees beyond the usual reflex test. So, why the physical? The only thing I can think of besides medical routine is that the VA wanted to make sure there wasn’t something else wrong with me. There was, you know. I developed bad tinnitus from the horrendous din in the sub’s engine room. I mean, seriously, it was fucking loud back between the mains, which is why I didn’t hang out there all that much. Anyway, I blame the navy for my hearing, too.

The second thing is that they were 100% right. I did have bad knees and it was all the navy’s fault. Sort of.

Here’s the thing about that. I busted up both knees while I was in. Chondromalacia patella they called it, although the VA decades later said – “no way it’s chondro mal. More like osteo mal.” Whatever, the damn knees have been crappy since about 1977. And I remember exactly, to the moment, with GPS accuracy, when and where it happened. One of the few clear memories I have of … well, anything.

On the north shore of Kauai, there’s a long hiking trail to a secluded beach. It’s right out of the movie South Pacific. Kalalau Beach. One of the most scenic and peaceful places I have ever been. Back in the day, the only way you got to the beach was via the eleven mile (one-way) trail along the ocean cliffs. Nowadays, I understand you can drop in by Zodiac boat although maybe they’re restricting that, too. But in 1977, it was the trail. During one off-crew period, three shipmates and I decided to do Kalalau.

Wow. Gorgeous waterfalls, ocean views, perilous drop-offs from the trail to certain death, the Kalalau trail is wonderful, magical. As a bonus, towards the end, once you lose the tourists, the trail becomes clothing-optional. Kalalau Beach itself was more like clothing-discouraged and everyone one there seemed to abide by that.

For most of the trail, once you gain the 800 feet or so of elevation, you wind in and out following the contour of the ‘finger’ cliffs along the coast. When it veers inland, you get tropical vegetation and extreme humidity. Veering seaward, it dries out and you get those perilous dropoffs I mentioned. But mostly, not a lot of elevation change along the bulk of the trail.

Until you get to the end, near Kalalau Beach. Then – and I remember this clearly even if it isn’t true (it is) – the trail descends a ridiculously steep grade down to sea level. So steep that you may lose your footing. Which I did. Rather than fall over in a heap, I did what most people would do – I went with gravity and more or less ran down the slope, avoiding an unseemly wipeout. This with a full back pack.

I may not be describing it all that well, but the point is that what I did was incredibly hard on my knees and after gaining the beach, I knew I had done something terribly bad. My knees hurt. So what, right? I’ll be fine the next day. Right?

Not so much. Although I limped around and explored that incredible beach for the rest of the day and the next, I was hurting. When we headed out, I actually needed help from my buddies to get back. They took some load off my pack, which eased the pain a bit.

The knees were never right after that. “But wait!”, you say. “How is that the navy’s fault? You were on a fricking hiking trip!”

Well, there’s this seemingly weird but actually understandable concept that the military owns you and your body. Whatever happens to you while you’re in, the military deals with it. Basically, they had the responsibility to discharge me in the same condition I was in when I joined, which was physically fit. So, they owned the knees no matter what happened to them. Mind you, this arrangement was not a one-way street. I had no right to refuse medical care, for example. As an example, prior to every patrol, we had to see the dentist and if the dentist said we needed work, it was done. We had no input into the matter. The navy can’t have sailors with impacted wisdom teeth or whatever while under water in the middle of the Pacific. Similarly, I got the notorious swine flu injection without my consent.

Hiking the Kalalau – twice, I went back the next year (I know, don’t yell at me.) – wasn’t the only activity that was hard on my knees. This might be a little hard to explain, but part of my job as a nuclear electronics technician/reactor operator was to maintain the reactor controls equipment on the sub. As you might imagine, submarines are a bit cramped. Most of the electronics panels I worked on were in narrow alleyways. Every week, we had to calibrate the various panels, which involved hours of squatting in front of them while we operated the test equipment and adjusted the channels. That is very hard on the knees even if your knees are in good shape. Every one of us would groan after a weekly on the PPIPs. The back hurt; the knees hurt; the ankles even hurt. I doubt everyone sustained permanent damage to their knees but chronic injuries are not uncommon in such occupations.

Since becoming a ‘disabled veteran’, I’ve tried my best to not act like one. Before the disability got too bad, I ran 5K and 10K races, played an obscene amount of tennis and hiked hundreds of miles. Other than running road races, which I wasn’t in love with anyway, the difficulty with hiking has been the biggest challenge to my preferred lifestyle. I like to hike and I like to hike terrain with significant elevation changes, which are the toughest on my knees. Going downhill in particular is quite damaging.

Which brings me back to Telescope Peak. I wrote a blog post on that epic hike earlier. Summiting Death Valley’s ultimate peak is perhaps my greatest post-Kalalau hike and I’m still suffering the effects years later. It was really hard on the knees.

Totally worth it.

I do not have a ‘Disabled Veteran’ plate and will never have one even if I’m eligible (which I’m not – there’s a 25% disabled threshold for that). Although I am eligible for VA health care and Atlanta has a fine VA hospital and outlying clinics, I rarely take advantage of it. I have my own private insurance and, frankly, it bothers me to use the VA because it’s so underfunded. There are many, many veterans who need their services way more than I do.

So, beer money for life.