I’m interested in how things work, how humans interact with themselves and machines, how humans design stuff. How nature works intrigues me less, although that can be fascinating too. Observation of human-created environment chews up a lot of my time, although frankly, my powers of observation can fail miserably at times. That’s another conversation.
Perhaps there is no better arena for observation than our roads and highways. Here, humans mix it up with each other in a semi-ordered/ordained fashion using machines and infrastructure. It’s also an environment where, as a driver, you’re acutely aware of what other people around you are doing. Or at least you should be. So it’s no wonder that driving habits provide many insights into how humans get along with each other.
My thoughts along these lines started recently as I came to a four-way stop. Each of the other directions already had a car stopped, waiting. As I was the last one there, custom dictated that I would go through the intersection last. It’s a good rule but it’s often not efficient. With heavy traffic, having one car cross the intersection at a time is a bit daft and I see it happen a lot. Better to have the opposing cars cross together, with the left turners working their way across in the usual order. So, my thought was that as I came to the intersection, if the car opposite me moved first, I should immediately go too, even if I was going ‘out of order’. It wouldn’t hold up the cross-traffic cars – they had to wait for the one car anyway. It would be more efficient. The problem would be that the other drivers might not see it that way and would not love me for it. But it got me thinking about how we drive and how we can do it more efficiently. Later, another situation put that together with a related concept – timing. Timing promotes – or can destroy – efficiency.
Question: You’re stopped at an intersection intending to make a right turn. You have a stop sign, the cross-traffic does not. Hence you must yield and wait for an opening. A gap in traffic appears and you anticipate moving out. When do you start to move? When do you release pressure on the brake pedal and press down on the accelerator?
It’s a question of efficiency and awareness of your car’s response characteristics. It’s a question of timing. If you answered the question by saying you’d wait until that last car had completely gone by before releasing the brake pedal, you’re not doing it right.
Consider. It takes a finite amount of time to move your foot from the brake to the accelerator. It takes a finite amount of time before the car actually moves forward significantly (granted, most cars with an automatic transmission will creep forward after the brake is released but not very quickly). In that time, the car that passed by, which is moving at the speed of traffic, will have traveled a good distance down the road before your car even nudges forward, much less enters the traffic lane. You will thus need a considerable gap to safely make that right turn.
Efficiency suggests that you can do better. It’s all about the timing. Specifically, you should start the turning process well before the car passes by. Release the brake just before it gets to you and press the accelerator just as the rear end of the car is in front of you. Your car will take some time to speed up and move into the lane, so there’s little chance you’ll collide. You’ll end up with a not-very-large gap between you and the other car and the drivers waiting behind you at the intersection will love you for it. Efficient. And safe. With the other car already at speed, if for some reason that driver suddenly decided to stop right when you started your turn, there’s still little chance of a collision. Cars don’t stop instantaneously so it will be past you anyway and you will have plenty of time to back off or even abort the turn.
When stopped in your lane to make a left turn across opposing traffic, you will also need to wait for a gap. In this case, it’s a little more serious because if you screw up badly, you’ll get broadsided. Your passenger in particular will not love you for that. But you can nevertheless use the concept of efficient timing. The first thing you will need to have done is not stop so far along the lane that you have to make a sharp left turn. Stop several meters before that point. This will do two things: it will allow you to make a gentler turn and more importantly it will allow you to start your acceleration into the turn with your wheels pointed forward, i.e., not immediately into the opposing traffic lane. (By the way, not turning your wheels while you wait is basic safe driving. You don’t want to get rear-ended into opposing traffic.) With your car already having gained a little forward momentum, you will need a smaller gap to turn and get across the lane safely. It takes very little time for a moving car to cross one lane of traffic. Hence, you will improve traffic flow. The drivers behind you will love you. And if your car is an old clunker, that initial forward movement will allow the engine a chance to stumble before you commit to the turn.
A final example, one not involving potential collision situations. In my town, we have a lot of roundabouts, traffic circles. They help with efficient traffic flow. As a matter of courtesy (and state law, I believe), to help the roundabout operate efficiently, you must put on your right turn signal before exiting. That allows the driver entering the circle at that point to anticipate a gap. So when do you actually reach for the turn signal lever? Right before your exit? No. The process of activating the turn signal involves, again, a finite amount of time. Even if you have your hand ready on the lever, the electrical relay that operates the blinker takes time to do its thing. And there isn’t a lot of time – you’re typically not in a roundabout but for a few seconds. If you wait too long, the driver in that car waiting to see if you’re exiting won’t see your blinker until too late. She’ll first see your car actually starting to exit and will not love you for it, potentially missing the gap. Instead, activate your signal as you pass by the exit before the one you intend to use. The blinker won’t blink in time to confuse anyone about that earlier exit point but will indicate your actual intention in time to be useful, and courteous. Everyone in town will love you.
Timing. Efficiency. These are concepts we can all love if handled properly, especially on the roadways.
It may be a curse but I have a tendency to observe my surroundings with an eye towards whether things are working well or are designed badly. Some might say it’s the engineer in me but I think it more likely derives from my training as a navy technician. On a ship or a submarine, it is imperative that things work well and if they don’t, someone needs to notice.
Or maybe I’m a touch OCD, I don’t know.
We have a Safeway grocery store here in Bend that I like to patronize. It’s big, new, not far from home and offers most of what I buy at a fair price. Like most big grocery stores, this Safeway has two entrance-exits, one at each end of the store as you walk towards it from the expansive parking lot. I use the one on the left because that’s the direction I typically enter the parking lot from. Each entrance-exit has two automatic doors for entry and two for exiting. Additionally, because Bend gets cold in the winter, they are double doors with a space in between to keep the cold air out. That is, you walk through one of the exterior doors and then though an interior door a few feet beyond with the exterior door closing behind you.
It’s a familiar and simple setup that should work well. Except it doesn’t. There is a huge flaw in the design that I have trouble grasping why the building designers didn’t recognize.
Let’s examine three key aspects of the door and building layout. First, as you walk towards the building, the entry doors are on the right, the exit doors on the left. Second, in the space between the exterior and interior doors is where the carts are kept. They are stashed to your left as you walk in. Finally, as you walk through the interior door, you’ll see the bank of checkout stations on your right.
So here’s what happens when you go in to shop. You approach the entrance doors on the right and one or both open as you get close. You walk through and turn left to grab a cart. As you’re doing that, someone exiting the store may be coming through and you’ll cross paths, either while you’re reaching for a cart or as you back one out. Also, as you go to grab a cart, because you’re stepping right past the exterior exit doors, the sensor for those doors will detect your presence and will open both doors.
Once you navigate that bit of design stupidity, you push a cart through an interior door (which is to the right of the exit doors, recall) into the store to shop. Yay! Except also recall that the checkout stations are on your right and as is typical with grocery stores, there is a alley between the stations and the back wall (where they keep various stuff like bank branches, maybe the pharmacy, a lot of vending type machines, etc.). As people complete the checkout process, they head for the door down this alley. They head for the exit doors. Which are on the other side of the door you just came in through. So more crossed paths, this time with both of you pushing carts.
Why aren’t the entrance doors on the left and the exit doors on the right? How does a building designer not think of that? I can imagine the possibility that there might be some confounding building code that demands it but I don’t think so. There’s no reason for that and I’ve seen entry-exit doors reversed in other places.
So I notice that every time I shop there. And it bugs me.
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.
Probably because of my experiences in a nuclear submarine engine room and nuclear power plants, I’m fascinated by engine rooms in general. And there are no better examples than the various WWII era warships parked as museums around the country. Mostly battleships, but also submarines, destroyers and aircraft carriers, these warships are open to the public and some allow access to their engine rooms.
Going down (or back, if in a submarine) to the engine room requires a bit of dexterity that some can’t manage. Ladders are often near vertical and often have very hard head-level obstructions poised to open up a wound on your scalp if you’re not careful in a way most people aren’t accustomed to. One doesn’t expect going down a ‘staircase’ might involve having to duck your head around or under various metal protrusions seemingly placed just so to cause injury.
But if you do enter a WWII-era engine room, you’ll find yourself immersed in a steel jungle filled with heavy duty machinery, pipes, valves, cables (wires), gauges, switches and other things less easily categorized. Drain tanks, steam turbines wrapped in insulation, reduction gears, sightglasses. Trying to figure out how it all comes together to form a propulsion train capable of moving a massive ship is a challenge even for the initiated.
The boilers burn bunker oil to boil water into steam; steam flows through large insulated pipes to the high pressure turbine and then to the low pressure turbine; the spent saturated steam is converted by the seawater-cooled condenser to water and then pumped back to the boliers to be reheated. Meanwhile, the turbines turn giant shafts that feed into reduction gears which convert the high speed rotation of the turbines to the much lower speed required for efficient operation of the propellors, which are at the end of long shafts that penetrate the ship’s hull. A battleship has four propellors. Myriad accessory equipment supports this basic operation – lube oil pumps to ensure bearings don’t fail; cooling systems to ensure parts don’t overheat; instruments to monitor all sorts of parameters such as pressure, temperature, shaft speed, tank level; electrical systems to supply pump motors, instruments, relays, etc. And much more.
The engine room also contains the turbine generators that produce electric power for the entire ship, evaporators to supply fresh water and refrigerant units for chilled water to keep the spaces cool. All this is stuffed into the four engine and boiler rooms of a battleship. One of the things that surely must come to mind while touring these spaces is how much design effort went into building one of these ships in such a way that it not only works, but works well enough to allow the ship to perform its primary mission: fight. Everything in the engine room is designed to serve the ship’s weapons systems and the crew that operates them, plus get the ship where it needs to be to fight the battles. Large warships are marvels of engineering.
I’ve toured five battleships: USS Alabama, USS North Carolina, USS New Jersey, USS Texas, USS Wisconsin
One cruiser: USS Olympia
One aircraft carrier: USS Yorktown
Three submarines: USS Drum, USS Clagamore, USS Becuna
Of all the WWII ships and boats (submarines should be referred to as boats, not ships), I like the Alabama and the Yorktown best, simply because their engine rooms were open to unescorted visitors. All but ignoring the rest of the ship, I’ve spent hours in each engine room, contemplating, taking photos of stuff no one but me photographs. Down on my knees looking for steam traps, peering around corners along cable trays, up close to equipment label plates, tracing steam lines, flipping switches, staring at valve operator gauges, I’m interested in the unglamorous details. The things, actually, that bring back memories of my time on the submarine. You’d be surprised how much similarity there is between a nuclear sub built in the ’60s and a WWII battleship.
Contrast that sort of experience with ships where engine room access is restricted or non-existent. Such as my recent visit to the USS Wisconsin in Norfolk, Virginia. An Iowa class ship, the Wisconsin is apparently slightly larger than her sisters and thus has the distinction of being the largest battleship ever built by the US. Some increased length may be due to the transplanted bow that was attached after the original was severely damaged in a collision with a destroyer in the 1950’s. The donor bow came from the USS Kentucky, still being constructed in Newport News Shipyard (the Kentucky was never completed).
If you want to see the Wisconsin’s engine room, you must purchase a guided tour ticket. The Nauticus museum, where the battleship magnificently resides in downtown Norfolk and which also boasts other exhibits such as the excellent Hampton Roads Naval Museum, offers two guided tours – one to the engine room and one to the command and control centers. The extra price is worth it if you haven’t seen either. As it happened, on the day I visited I was the only one to sign up for the morning engine room tour, so it was just me, the navy veteran tour guide and his much younger assistant.
Any time two navy veterans get together in a setting like this, both have to establish their bonafides. His were evident by the fact that he was a docent on a battleship engine room tour but I learned that he was a boilerman, so would know his stuff. I volunteered that I was a reactor operator on a cold war era nuclear submarine and thus knew quite a bit about naval engine rooms. A nuclear reactor is just a high-tech way to boil water into steam. After that, the other stuff is pretty much the same. Plus I’d been on several of these older warships.
Then he called me a snipe.
Hmmph. Snipe is not a term of derision, I knew, but I was not a snipe. Sailors who worked in nuclear submarine engine rooms – ‘nukes’ – were not snipes. That was either a surface ship term or a non-nuke term for engine room folk (I have no idea whether nukes on aircraft carriers called themselves snipes, but I doubt it). I told him I had never heard that term applied to a navy nuke. Ever.
Part of the reason for referring to me as a snipe was undoubtedly because he could then relate the story of how engine room sailors got to being called snipes. Seems in the early days of steam ships, the ‘engineers’ who ran the engines on navy ships were looked down upon by regular sailors and abused accordingly. Until John Snipes demanded respect for his men, didn’t get it and then proceeded to have them shut down the boilers. Steam ships don’t operate well when the boiler is cold. Respect ensued.
I’m a nuke. Not a snipe.
Anyway, after we did the bona fides thing, he launched into the tour, thankfully leaving out a lot of basic stuff he knew I knew. The three of us – him in the lead, me following, she closing doors after us – descended into one of the boiler rooms. He stuck with his script – pointing out the big pieces and running a short video next to one of the boilers. All this while I really wanted to just go off on my own. I already knew what all the big pieces were and could identify most of the little ones, too. After the boiler room tour, we went up, over and down to the engine room. The two compartment did not have direct connection, something I hadn’t realized. That’s a damage control thing – if a boiler blows or floods, it doesn’t take out the corresponding engines, which can be crossfed from another boiler thus maintaining maximum speed capability for the ship.
I did get to see some boiler room and engine room art, though. None of it seemed to date back to WWII.
The guide told me two interesting things – one I already knew but had forgotten and one I didn’t. Right next to the boiler feed area – where the ‘snipes’ work to fire the boilers according to how fast the captain or OOD wants to go (communicated via engine order telegraph from the bridge or conn and is called ‘answering bells’) , are a couple of periscopes. These scopes run all the way up to the top of the ship’s exhaust stacks and are used to gauge the proper mixture of air and oil in the furnaces. If the mix is off, the ship will be blowing black or white smoke, depending. That’s not good for boiler efficiency and it’s not good for stealth (yes, even battleships pay attention to stealth). You can see a plume of black smoke a long way off. So the snipes use the periscopes to adjust the mix to optimum. Cool.
The other thing, which I’m sure he didn’t relate to everyone because few people would grasp the concept, was how the engine room throttleman and the boiler men coordinated their efforts to answer bells despite being in different compartments. If you’ve read my post on Keeping T ave in the Green Band, you’ll recall that with a nuclear-powered engine room, such as on a submarine, answering bells was a fairly straightforward process – the throttleman opened the throttles until the shaft speed was correct for whatever bell the OOD ordered. The reactor, with a little help from the reactor operator, ramped up or down in power automatically. In a oil-fired boiler engine room, it’s not so easy. If the conn, for example, orders a speed increase from ahead 1/3 to ahead full, the boilerman sees the order come in on the engine order telegraph and must crank up the boiler using various oil nozzles so the fires burn hotter and produce more steam. That takes a while. Meanwhile, the throttleman, who also sees the ordered bell on his engine order telegraph, wants to open the main engine throttles to increase shaft and propeller speed. But he can’t do so until the boiler produces more steam – the main engine turbines want the stem at a particular pressure at all times. So how does he know when to open the throttles? He looks at the main steam pressure gauge in front of him. As the boiler ramps up, pressure goes up. As pressure goes up, he can open the throttles more, which increases turbine speed but also lowers pressure. It’s a coordinated dance between boilerman and throttleman, who are in separate compartments. They communicate by the language of steam pressure. To me, that is cool.
I mentioned above that I had visited a cruiser but it’s not a WWII era warship: the USS Olympia, Commodore Dewey’s flagship during the Battle of Manila Bay, which took place in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. The Olympia is a ‘protected cruiser’, which mean s it has an armored deck. Moored in Philadelphia next to a WWII submarine (USS Becuna) and a gorgeous 4-master (the Moshulu), the Olympia is a national treasure and a must-see experience for anyone interested in old warships.
While the engine room was not open to visitors when I toured Olympia, the rest of the ship is quite impressive and in great shape. If you visit, you’ll see ornate fittings, lots of wood and some really spectacular 5″ guns on full display on the gun deck. The 8″ gun turrets unfortunately were also closed off.
One of my favorite photos taken on the Olympia isn’t pretty like those above. It’s a shot seeming to show one of the ship’s smaller guns (2.24 inch, according to Wikipedia) trained on an enemy warship across the river. That ship is the USS New Jersey, another of the WWII-era big battleships.
Many of the old warship museums in the US are in financial trouble, including the Independence Seaport Museum, which owns the USS Olympia and at last information was looking for a buyer. Without more money, these important relics of our past will fall into even worse disrepair than many already are, or will be abandoned for scrap. That can’t happen. I encourage everyone to support the ships – go visit them. You won’t regret it.
One of my favorite songs is Summer of 69 by Bryan Adams. I don’t know, it just hits a chord with me.
In the summer of 1969, my parents were planning to take us from the United States to our new home somewhere yet to be found in Australia, something that ended up happening (I think, maybe it didn’t) later that year on my younger elder sister’s birthday. Because we crossed the International Date Line, Jaina lost her birthday.
Brave new world, eh? My father had just retired from a rather fun-filled career in the US Army which included tours in three major wars and he and my mother were apparently ready for something completely different. My memory of that time is worse than spotty but I vaguely recall being bummed because I thought I had a shot at the junior varsity basketball team. My older elder sister would not be going with us. Cory was too busy being a San Francisco hippie. And who could blame her – San Francisco in the late ’60s? Groovy.
Sadly, another family would also not be going – Snowball, our cat, who had been with us since Virginia. Australia’s pet immigration policy was too restrictive. Snowball, I’m told, remained in place with the new owners of our house in Albuquerque.
This be Snowball:
Sorry, I get carried away with kitty photos.
So, in the fall of 1969, we hopped a MAC transport across the Pacific, making a stop in Hawaii, which itself was to play a big part in our lives later on. I think the plane refueled in Pago Pago (pronounced, oddly enough, ‘Pango Pango’) on the way to Sydney so I can say I’ve been there. (Note: Jaina says it was Nadi in Fiji – pronounced Nandi – where we refueled, not Pago Pago in American Samoa, but I may have stopped in PP on a subsequent trip.)
There may have been a grand plan for this whole living in Australia thing but I don’t think it was evident, at least to my sister and I. Australia had granted us permanent resident status, so we could live anywhere we liked. Getting resident visas was at the time not easy for a lot of people. But white Americans with a guaranteed retirement income from the US military? Come on in! Aussies may be the model of friendly, carefree people but they certainly were protective of their borders. Still are.
We hung around Sydney for a while before heading up north to Queensland’s Gold Coast, taking a flat in Burleigh Heads (the Gold Coast comprised the beach towns from Southport in the north down to Coolangatta on the border with New South Wales). We lived in what passed for a high-rise apartment building located on the headland. I imagine the view was spectacular, what with the world-class beach right at our doorstep, and one that would cost some serious coin today, I would imagine. Right next to the building on the side our balcony faced was a large tree which drew hundreds of kookaburras. They would chatter up a storm with their distinctive call. Kookaburras are carnivores. We got to enticing them to fly to our balcony rail with bits of raw meat. They would queue up on the rail with the one on the end grabbing a morsel and flying off while the others in turn hopped closer.
In 1969, the Gold Coast was still undiscovered territory. The larger towns of Coolangatta, Surfer’s Paradise and Southport were still small, and the stretches in between were downright rural. The beaches were the focus, so most people lived pretty close to the ocean with many rather run down but quaint homes right on the beach. It should have been an idyllic place to grow up. I was fourteen by the time we got to the Gold Coast; my sister a year older.
Idyllic, that is, if you weren’t an American teenager.
While our parents thrived – building a nice canal-side house on the Isle of Capri in Surfer’s Paradise, buying a swimwear factory (in which we kids occasionally toiled), mixing in with the other American ex-pats – my sister and I took paths unlike what our parents had in mind for us. I’ll leave it for Jaina to tell her story if she cares to.
Jaina and I went to Miami High School, which resembled an English school with mandatory uniforms, inspections and corporal punishment. I actually did well at first. Miami High excelled in academics, which suited me. I had lots of friends and got into the usual amount of trouble without it being too serious. My transition to Australian life was helped by having Richard Jones as a friend. Richard was a Yank, too, and he had been there longer. I remember we also had a friend by the name of David Brown and Richard, David and I once took a bus to Brisbane (the nearest big city about 50 miles away) probably for a concert. At the bus station in Southport or wherever, we booked tickets in the names of Smith, Jones and Brown. I like to think we got a raised eyebrow or two over that.
I still have a good friend to this day from my Miami High days – John Cork. No finer fellow exists.
But with all that seeming high school normality, there was continual underlying tension. Unlike the adults, Australian teenagers were relentless in harassing us Yanks. They had some kind of inferiority complex and I was always being challenged because of stupid stuff, like Aussie cars were better than Yank cars. More than one fight resulted. Later on in my time in Australia away from high school I took to claiming I was Canadian just to avoid the harrassment.
Thinking back, the ‘trouble’, if I want to call it that, began when I started hanging out with a different group, particularly Karl McKlintock, Rob Duncanson and Gordon (forgot his last name). Rob and Gordon were Canadians and Karl was Aussie. All were about a year older than me. None were the type that conformed to the rules. Soon, my activities included beer drinking, pot-smoking and even petty crimes. At least once, I stole my parent’s car for the group. Not sure where the parents were.
All that would have been fine – actually better than fine, I think – but Rob in particular had a bigger, more substantial influence on me. You see, Rob wanted to go back to Canada and he convinced me that I needed to go with him. As an Australian, Karl wasn’t going anywhere and Gordon was – well, I don’t know what Gordon thought. Gordon remains mysterious to me. I know he had a serious heart problem that threatened his life. I sometimes wonder how he got along.
Under Rob’s plan, we would book passage on a ship to Vancouver. To pay for the tickets – because neither of us had any money at the time – we would spend a few months in the outback mining town of Mt. Isa working whatever jobs we could find. Karl would go, too. Rob and Karl had already graduated 10th grade high school (all that was required) and I was scheduled to do so just before we left for Mt. Isa. Except not quite – we ended up leaving after classes ended but before exams.
My parents were none the wiser. I told them we were going to Mt Isa for summer work and that the school year was over. What parent wouldn’t want their sixteen year old, supposedly responsible kid, to go off to with his friends to work through the summer break?
To get there, Karl somehow obtained a Holden FB panel van in dubious condition. I think we had to get Karl’s dad to pony up money for a brake job and between the three of us (mainly Rob) we had the expertise to get the engine and other vitals working reasonably well. We outfitted the interior with a mattress and drive-in speakers.
So, late 1971, off we went, traveling up the coast to Townsville before heading in to the interior, the outback. Accommodations were the most basic – sleeping on the beach in the company of whomever we encountered. We didn’t know what we were doing and had no schedule. Our sights were set on Mt. Isa and we had no clear idea what it took to get there or really what we would do once we arrived.
Townsville was a mess when we went through, having just a few days prior taken a direct hit by Cyclone Althea, one of the most powerful storms ever to hit Queensland. The roads were littered with debris – the area still very much in recovery mode. We didn’t stay on the beach here but managed to score a motel room. This being late December in northern Queensland, the weather was hot and humid. I recall trying to cool off in the motel pool while it was raining.
Driving west towards Mt. Isa on the Flinders Highway (I had to look up the name) is an exercise in nothingness, particularly between Hughenden and Cloncurry where the road stretches for as far as the eye can see. Looking left or right doesn’t get you much more in the way of scenery although I could see herds of the enormous red kangaroos hopping near the horizon (It would not be the last we saw of these kangaroos). While not the deep, desolate outback, we were definitely in the middle of nowhere.
Two things happened on the road to Mt. Isa. First, we got a flat tire and after unloading the FB, we discovered we had no jack. That was when I became most aware of the desolation surrounding us. There we were on the side of the road, belongings strewn out the back and absolutely nothing but a dead straight road in front and back to suggest that humans ever came this way. So, we waited. Eventually, someone else drove by and offered the use of their jack.
The second thing that happened, either before or after the flat tire incident (and I want hope it was before because if it was after, my buddy Karl’s behavior becomes even more stupid), was an off-road excursion. Recall that we were on a single lane, asphalt road in nowheresville. The ground on either side of the road was not firm at all – more like loose dirt. In other words, unless you had a 4WD vehicle, you really wanted to stay on the asphalt (or bitumen, as it’s called down under).
Karl was driving, I was in the passenger seat with Rob in the back and as happened occasionally I think, some of the big kangaroos hopped alongside as we drove, or hopped out of the way as we approached. Karl decided that the FB needed kangaroo skin seat covers, or at least that’s what he said. So he veers off the road straight for one of the big roos. And hits it. He actually hit the fucking kangaroo. I was aghast and Rob was perplexed, having no idea what happened.
You know how you don’t want to hit a big deer or a cow because of the damage the critter will do to your car? Well, same with seven foot kangaroos. The impact caved in the grill and almost destroyed the radiator. We were fortunate not to be stranded with a broken car. And also fortunate to be able to make it back to the road what with the tires now half buried.
The roo? I think we pissed it off. It got up and hopped away. Like Karl was going to skin the fucking thing and make seat covers. Stupid.
Somehow, we made it to Mt. Isa. Not knowing what to do or where to go once we arrived, I’m not sure how things went down at this point but we ended up in a tent campground. Our new home. Now, the hard part – get a job to earn money for passage to Canada.
Australia at the time, maybe still, had a pretty good system for getting temp jobs – you went to the unemployment office, filled out the forms with your ‘qualifications’ (we had none) and basically waited until someone wanted manual labor. And manual labor jobs we got – my scrawny self loaded cement bags onto train flatcars, literally dug ditches for a new gas station and other equally appealing forms of physical abuse that passed for employment. But there were also times of unemployment. To get money for the next meal during these, we actually trolled the streets looking for loose change. A rough time.
Rob was in the same boat as Karl and I at first but managed to score a job with the mining company in town (Mt. Isa is and was then known for mines). He made enough money to buy a motorcycle – one of the new Honda CB500 four cylinder bikes. I don’t recall thinking much about that purchase at the time, but we were here to make money to leave the country, weren’t we?
Life went on this way for a while. We were in Mt. Isa for at least two months, maybe longer. While there, I managed to have my first car accident. I swear it wasn’t my fault but the guy I hit tried to take advantage of the fact that I was unlicensed and demanded money. After talking with Karl and Rob, we decided to tell the guy to take a hike, which apparently he did. The FB was mostly undamaged, at least not much further damaged.
One other notable incident happened while in Mt. Isa – we were arrested by the local police and threatened with charges of possession of cocaine. As if we could afford pot, much less cocaine. The three of us were hauled into the police station and held overnight for questioning while the FB was torn apart in a search for drugs. The let us go the next day after finding nothing but I think they made it plain that us long-haired hippie types were not welcome in their town. We had to put the FB back together ourselves.
All the while in Mt. Isa, I exchanged letters with my parents and at some point wrote that Rob and I were leaving. I think I asked them to sell my surfboard. Parents being parents – and my parents were good people – they were having none of it. They did, however, conclude that their Australian experiment was a failure with both their younger two kids so far off the straight and narrow. So they decided to uproot and return to the US. I would come back to the Gold Coast and enter the 11th grade while plans were put into motion. Jaina? Well, her situation was even more dysfunctional than mine, but again, that’s her story to tell.
My memory is foggier than usual about what happened in the ensuing months but I do know that I didn’t stay in school but instead traveled south to Melbourne with Karl to stay with his sister, BIL and two rugrats. After a few months there (a story for another blog post), my parents and I indeed headed back to the US and settled in Hawaii, which is where I graduated from high school. Jaina remained in Australia.
Looking back to this time in my life is difficult and not just because I can’t remember much of it (most of the above is based on fragmented memories and help from my sisters). No, it’s difficult because of what I did to my parents. They had moved to Australia to retire and had put the four of us in a pretty sweet situation. Had I not done what I did, they would have lived out their lives after, probably, many years of relative bliss. My father was a veteran of three major wars and my mother did the military spouse thing for decades. They deserved their retirement and the Gold Coast of Australia is a damn fine place to retire, especially back then. Me, I would have graduated 12th grade at Miami, probably got into one of the better universities and probably become an Australian citizen.
But no. Mind you, Hawaii wasn’t so bad either and both my parents thrived there, too. But it wasn’t their dream.
More than for any other reason, I decided to write this blog as a way of preserving memories. Sure, there will be some posts concerning things going on right now or recently, but it’s mostly about my past. And I don’t remember much of it. Having photos helps.
The other day I was thinking about where I’ve lived in my lifetime and it was more difficult than it should be, more difficult than it is for most people, I’d wager. When exactly was my family in Germany? Were we in Mannheim before Munich? Did we even live in both of those cities? I have no memory of either, but then, I was a small child at the time. It gets more troubling after that. I know – because I’ve been told so – that my family subsequently moved to Virginia, Tehran and Albuquerque. Or was it Tehran, Virginia and then Albuquerque? I know Albuquerque was the third stop of those three but I’m not entirely sure about the first two.
The only memory I have of living in Virginia is being in the driveway when my dad got home. After getting out of the car (no idea what kind of car), he tossed a baseball to me. Rolled it up the driveway to where I was standing. When I say I remember, I actually just remember remembering. It may never have happened – I have no details. Was my dad in uniform? Was anyone else there? Was it a sunny summer day or cloudy winter day? No idea. I don’t actually haven image in mind, just a vague notion that it happened.
Tehran carries a few memories, but none so vivid that I can’t be sure they aren’t manufactured out of what I’ve been told over the years. President Kennedy was shot while we were in Tehran but I no longer remember learning of what happened that day. We lived in two houses in the city, one an older castle-like affair with a big back yard and the other a more modern house, but I don’t remember which was first. I like to think that my parents took me and my sisters to various places in Iran but other than an excursion to some place on the Caspian Sea, I’ve got nothing. It may be that I experienced very little of the country of Iran outside Tehran. The Caspian Sea trip itself is a blank except a vague recollection of us kids being tasked with picking chads out of plastic place mats, which is a weird thing to remember. We had a couple of dogs. One died under the wheels of our driver’s car and one broke his (her?) front legs, although I have no image of either pet. Two or three cats, although I’m hazy on which ones. Snowball and Tiger were there but I don’t think Tiger came back with us. I have pictures of Snowball in Albuquerque but none of Tiger, so I don’t know what he (she?) looked like. Was there a third cat?
A friend of mine told me that he had sailed on a ship from somewhere in the world to another place, I don’t remember where. Croatia to Australia perhaps. I looked up the ship’s name and it turned out to be a later incarnation of the SS America, a ship I sailed on either going to Germany or coming back. Or was it Iran? I have no memories of the ship. I only know I was on it from being told so by family members. Which is a real shame, because the SS America apparently was quite a ship – sister to the more famous SS United States. By the way, the America stills exists but only as a wreck off the coast of the Canary Islands, an unworthy fate.
My time in Albuquerque is less fuzzy, although not by a great deal. In the past couple of decades, I’ve visited our house there while I was driving across country, something I’ve done a number of times. It’s been interesting to see it change over the years – going from a nice neighborhood house, to rather dumpy, then to fairly upscale. On one visit, I decided to find something else that exists in my memory. In 1968 or so (guessing – that’s about midway of our time in Albuquerque), I had an acquaintance in junior high who was shot and killed. I think it was determined to be an accident but, as I ‘recall’, negligent homicide would have fit the facts better. In any case, the school erected a small memorial to the kid, a water fountain in the courtyard with a plaque. I went to the school – Wilson Junior High (now Wilson Middle School) – and checked in at the office during a class period so no kids would be around. The people at the school were a bit suspicious but gave me a pass anyway, telling me to be gone by the time the period was over.
I could not find the fountain. The courtyard isn’t very big so there’s no chance I missed it. On my way out, I asked the people in the office. None of them had knowledge of such a fountain ever existing.
What had I remembered? Was it a real memory or something fabricated over time? Does the water fountain exist but in a different place, such as the elementary school I attended prior to Wilson JH? Maybe. I gave up, having been reasonably certain I’d find it in that courtyard.
I could go on. As the time between events and the present decreases, I do, of course, remember more and more. But even recent times are full of holes. The Telescope Peak story I posted earlier occurred in 2010, six years ago. In order to relate that tale, I had to study a lot of photographs and some maps. Even then, when I wanted to include the photo of me pointing to Telescope Peak from Badwater, I couldn’t find it at first so I asked Nancy what year we had done that. The next year? Two years later? No, she said. We did it right after the hike, maybe the next day. Oy.
It’s disconcerting to me to have lost so much of who I am. My time on the submarine, on the ship in San Diego, in Australia, Three Mile Island. I’ve been to a lot of cool places and done things that should be memorable. But perhaps the best indicator of what I’m missing is professional. I’ve worked for an engineering company for eighteen years or so. During that time, I was part of dozens of projects. It’s the nature of this kind of engineering that you rely on prior project experience to minimize costs and mistakes. During many project proposal meetings – where key players would gather to discuss the specifics of what a client wanted and how best to approach our response – I listened to person after person describe past projects in great detail. I’d normally just sit there and take notes. I couldn’t even remember the relevant projects much less the details that other people recalled so easily. Knowing this about myself, I kept just about everything from my projects – calculations, notes, drawings, everything. It’s the only way I could hope to remember doing things which my company was relying on me to be an expert about.
Earlier this week, I was talking with Nancy about our house here in Atlanta, specifically about the roof. When was it last re-done? My memory told me not since we moved in twenty years ago, although it was added on to during a renovation twelve or so years ago. Or so. No, she said. We had the roof re-shingled about seven or eight years ago. What!? I got nuthin’ on that.
On it goes. My life is not my own. It belongs to some fictional Robin whom I know little about. I’d like to meet that guy and swap stories. Maybe over a beer if I can remember where the pub is.