Not a Mormon, Thanks Anyway

About an hour’s drive north of Idaho Falls, off a nondescript two-lane road, you’ll find a US Navy installation. This surprises some – why a navy base out here hundreds of miles from water? Actually part of the Atomic Energy Commission’s Idaho National Engineering Laboratory (now run by the Department of Energy), the site also hosts the Naval Prototype Training Unit and is where some of the sailors slated to be the next generation of naval nuclear power operators come to train. There’s a similar facility somewhere out east – Groton, Connecticut, I think. The Idaho NPTU was the first, though.

INEL has a bit of history, at least from a nuclear reactor standpoint, if not from the exploits of the sailors who passed through. It was the site of an experiment to test the safety systems designed to control a full core meltdown. One of the test reactors was actually subjected to an intentional meltdown to see what would happen. We learned a lot from that, I suppose. A less happy incident took place not too long before I got there. Some workers mucking about with the SL1 reactor apparently tried to get one of the control rods unstuck by manually pulling it out from the top. They were successful, but a little too much so – the rapid extraction of the rod caused a local prompt criticality, the water in the rod channel flashed to steam and forcefully ejected the control rod out of the core, impaling one of the workers. He died, of course, as did a few others from radiation exposure. Or so they say.

 

I was stationed there in the winter of 1975 and ’76, having completed the classroom part of my nuclear training at the Mare Island Naval Base in Vallejo, California during the previous six months. Like the others sent to this frozen outpost, I would learn on a real reactor what they had taught me on paper at Mare Island. NPTU had three prototype reactors – actual, functioning power plants that were designed to simulate naval engineering spaces. Mine was called S1W: it was the first (1) submarine (S) prototype built by Westinghouse (W).

S1W was designed to resemble a fleet submarine power plant – it was housed in a ‘hull’ and was the same size and power as a real sub’s reactor. Kinda cool, actually. They also had one patterned after an aircraft carrier plant, the USS Enterprise’s, I believe. By the luck of the draw, I was slotted for S1W.

We lived in town, not on the base. I chose Idaho Falls for some reason long lost in my memory but could well have decided on Pocatello, Blackfoot or another nearby town if I wanted. Most of us lived in Idaho Falls – it was the biggest and the closest to the base. That was important because to get there, you had to ride the bus and the further away you lived, the longer the ride. Time was precious to us, we were later to learn.

Idaho Falls has enough Mormons in it that you’d think you were in Utah, which is not too far away. Weird place to live. We called it Idiot Flats. It was picturesque, though. Nice river running through town and the nearby mountains were great. But the best part was nearby Yellowstone National Park. I must have gone there half a dozen times in the six months I was in Idaho.

I stayed in a two bedroom apartment with Charlie, a friend from Mare Island. I forget his last name, it might have been Roberts. Nice guy, easy to get along with. Between him and Steve Roquemore, we were hanging-out buddies, although we had many other friends too. A close-knit group of guys, I guess, which was understandable because we had all just gone through a pretty grueling classroom phase at Mare Island. Steve was a qualified pilot and he and I went up once in a Cessna and flew around the Grand Tetons. I got to fly the plane some.

Idaho was a bit of a coming out for me. I was only 20 years old, although I had been in the navy two years now (we nukes got a LOT of training). When I arrived in Idaho, I was still a bit excited about being in the navy and being a nuke. I had the great adventure to look forward to. But by the time I left, I was disillusioned and regretted my enlistment. It wasn’t any single event that changed my attitude, and to be honest, I’m now not exactly sure why it changed. But change it did. There was that ‘incident’ at S1W, to be sure, but I’ll get to that.

Despite being a rather backwater town, Idiot Flats offered plenty of opportunity for us sailors to get into trouble. Lots of drinking, shooting pool, chasing women. Wait, did I just say chasing women? Me? Yep, it happened although not very successfully. One girl – a Mormon – wanted to marry me, but I knew it was just to get out of Idaho. Still, she was nice and I had fun with her for a while. Come to think of it, after I turned her down, so did Charlie and Steve. Poor girl was really desperate to get away.

It snows in Idaho. It snows a lot. During a period of a few weeks, I couldn’t even get into my car. Hell, I could hardly find it – it was just a vague mound in the parking lot and I wasn’t sure which mound. But some of the others had trucks and such that did better in the snow, so I didn’t really need the car. And, as I said, the bus took us to ‘work’. That bus trip was brutal some days, waiting at a busstop before sunrise when the temperature is minus 2000 Fahrenheit and the wind’s howling. Brrrr. Bad place for a lizard.

I had a 1972 Chevy Vega GT, which I bought in San Francisco after I got the idea in my head that my previous car, a 1967 four-door Chevelle, wasn’t reliable enough to make it in Idaho. Strange notion, because the Vega was notoriously unreliable, in general. Fortunately, mine wasn’t. It was a stick shift, though, and the Chevelle was an automatic. I learned to drive the stick on my own and on the streets of San Francisco.

The Chevelle was great. I bought it off a small lot during my previous time in SF when I was stationed at Treasure Island, located in the middle of SF bay. The car dealer probably saw me coming – another wet behind the ears sailor. Because it had bench seats, a bunch of us could pile into it to see games at Candlestick Park or the Oakland Coliseum. But the Vega did OK in Idaho, at least when it wasn’t under ten feet of snow. I took it to Hawaii where I eventually traded it in on a 1971 Datsun 240Z, which I often wax nostalgic over.

But the Idaho winter was really bad, especially for driving. I remember one time Charlie and me helping a guy (a fellow sailor but not one of my buddies) get his car unstuck in a virtual blizzard. He was grateful so we went to his place for a celebratory drink. Anti-freeze, he called it. We each were poured a glass of whiskey that must have been four inches tall. As I am today, I was a lightweight with alcohol and normally avoided hard liquor. But drink it I did, with the predictable result.

At the NPTU, we spent some time in classrooms, but the emphasis was on ‘qualifying’ on the reactor. I was a reactor operator, meaning that I was designated to operate the reactor control panel. But because we cross-trained on everything, I had to become proficient at the electrical and mechanical stuff, too. It was a bit of a competition. See, the promise was whoever qualified first would get their choice of duty station in the fleet when it was over. Quite an incentive, because the USS Eisenhower – an aircraft carrier – was due to be commissioned soon and our class would make up a lot of the crew. Nobody wanted to be on a carrier; there had been a lot of trouble on them since the end of the war. Violence, race riots, bad stuff – they were like floating depressed cities. I qualified first in my class and chose a ballistic missile submarine out of Guam. Had to pass the psyche evaluation for that first, though.

So we learned how to be good nukes – how to operate the plant during all sorts of conditions and disasters. We’d be assigned watches at the various stations along with an instructor and they’d throw all kinds of crap at us – things breaking, reactor freaking out, pipe ruptures, whatever. It wasn’t too bad, but some of the guys got a little behind in their quals. If you got too far, you found yourself restricted to base and on extended hours.

As I said, I qualified first, so along with my guaranteed choice of duty station, I was also the first guy in my class who could stand watch by himself without an instructor. One of the stations they put me on was one that trainees didn’t do because it wasn’t something that you’d find on a real submarine – the Water Brake, aka The Ocean.

A navy reactor plant performs two basic functions: it provides electric power for everything on board, and it turns the propeller. Because a submarine changes depth and goes into water that varies in temperature considerably, the density of the water is quite variable and that affects the propeller’s ability to drive the boat. One really big, negative effect is cavitation. The spinning propeller creates a zone of low pressure on the trailing edge of the blades. With enough blade velocity, that pressure can drop low enough such that the water forms vapor bubbles – it boils. After the blade passes, the pressure recovers and the bubbles collapse. This process is called cavitation and it is actually quite noisy and can be picked up on a sonar easily from a distance. Pumps experience this phenomenon as well and is one of the key design criteria for sizing fluid systems. Extended periods of cavitation can ruin a pump impeller.

The throttleman (the guy who controls the steam to the main engine turbines and thus the propeller shaft speed) on a boat is trained to avoid cavitation. Don’t want to give away the position of the submarine to the Commies, after all. Part of the training is knowing and sensing the water density. He will keep and eye on the water temperature and the boat’s depth (there’s an outside water temperature and a depth gauge right next to him on a submarine) and open the throttles more slowly if the water’s less dense. He can tell by a sudden increase in shaft speed if the prop cavitates. Also, the sonar operator will pick it up and relay it to the captain who will quickly call aft and scream at the engineering watch officer. Cavitation is bad news.

But in Idaho, there is no ocean, so what’s the big deal? The deal is that we needed to be trained to deal with an actual ocean so they designed and installed a contraption on the end of the propeller shaft that had the ability to simulate water density changes. Basically, it provided a variable drag on the shaft in place of where the propeller would be and would cavitate like a real propeller, too. The Water Brake operator kept track of the “depth” changes the watch officer ordered and adjusted the water density to suit. It was a cool watch station – not much to do (which was really good back then) and no pressure, so to speak. But mostly, I stood watches inside the plant, like on the RPCP (reactor plant control panel).

First watch on the RPCP, I’m handed a list of the day’s drills (planned ‘emergencies’). Before I was qualified, my instructor would get the list and I’d be in the dark. Now, I was basically just filling up a watch billet while the other guys not yet qualified still had to do their stuff. As RPCP operator, I still had to do what was required to respond to the drills. And I was expected to know what that was now.

One of the drills was a large coolant leak from one of the loops and we’d be isolating it and going to single loop operation. No problem, I could do that and I had time to look up the procedure to refresh myself anyway. It called for systematically isolating the various subsystems off the main coolant loop in hopes of isolating the leak. I knew of course that that wasn’t going to get it, because the ‘leak’ was in one of the big loop pipes and I’d end up shutting the main coolant cutout valves for that loop.

But what I didn’t know, and they didn’t tell me, was that there was a subtle difference between the actual coolant leak procedure and the one to be used for drills. The difference was the presence of what was called the Hot-Loop Test Facility. The HTF was something connected to one of the loops that sampled the coolant which was analyzed in ways we never were told or cared about. It was an AEC research facility. Because it wasn’t part of a real sub reactor plant, it was to be regarded as not existing. But, if there was an actual coolant leak, it had to be considered as a source of the leak, too. What I didn’t know was that isolating it ruined whatever experiments were running with it and the AEC scientists would get majorly pissed.

As I said, they didn’t tell me. So when the drill started, I followed procedure and began isolating systems. During an emergency, you don’t ask permission to do stuff – you just do what you’re trained to do. I got to the HTF, announced that I was isolating it and shut the valves. About then I noticed that every non-trainee except myself was looking horrified and the watch officer immediately canceled the drill and ordered me to open the HTF valves. It was too late, of course. There would be pissed off scientists showing up real soon.

I got to talk with the ‘black box’ right after that with a couple of mysterious naval investigators present. They wanted to crucify me. Nobody present stood up for the fact that I was just following procedure and wasn’t told not to shut the HTF valves. The watch officer, a total dickhead, was particularly slimy in shifting the blame to me.

Eventually, they realized they couldn’t pin the blame on me despite their best efforts, But that scarred my naval career, in my mind. What happened to standing up for your team members? What happened to accountability? I may not have realized it right then, but after that, I never entertained another thought of re-enlisting in the navy.

I left Idaho not long after, never to see most my classmates, like Charlie and Steve, again. I was off to new adventures in Guam, Pearl Harbor and the vast Pacific Ocean.

Making Turns for Six Knots

I wrote this a long while ago:

Making turns for six knots … running two slow, two slow … endlessly, it seems. Punching a hole in the Pacific, daring the commies to start something. Tave slowly creeps lower and lower … like watching grass grow. Wonder if I’ll have to bump rods before Lippy gets here, but I don’t really care. Behind me, the EOOW is babbling about something. No one is listening. Wonder what the movie is tonight? Lot of time to wonder stuff.

Briinngg!

WTF? Flank?

Four pairs of eyes stare at the bell in unison for a nanosecond, maybe three. Yep, flank. Guess we’re off patrol.

Controlled pandemonium follows.

Mike whips the mains open like his life depends on it. A little more calmly, Ed grabs the TG’s and starts running them up towards sixty-one. With my left, I give the pot a head start. With my right, I turn 2C to fast and pull. EOOW is on the 2MC.

‘Ahead flank, maneuvering, aye’

‘Going to two fast, two fast’, I mention, like it wasn’t obvious. Makes the EOOW feel useful. He isn’t.

Tave no longer creeping down. More like plummeting. That’s OK. Makes the neutrons happy.

Rapid succession … gotta keep up with power. 1A to fast, 2A to fast, 1C to fast. We’re good. 1B off.

Ninety percent. Ninety five.

‘Ease off, Mike.’ He does.

One hundred. One hundred and two. Crap. What was the cutback during the last weekly? One-oh-three and an RCH, I think. I shove the poles in a bit and power levels out. Tave’s green again. Gotta watch for overshoot, but no worries. Ed tweaks the TG’s to sixty. Boat is shaking something fierce. Hope the boots hold.

‘Answering ahead flank, reactor power one hundred percent’. He likes talking on the 2MC.

EWS leans in on the chain.

‘What the fuck’s the hurry? Making a lotta noise.’

Lifer. I reach for my logs, but the growler … growls. It’s Kent. ASW is running in fast speed. Okie dokie.

Hope this doesn’t fuck up the movie.

Bells on a BB

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.

USS Wisconsin

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.

Hatchway and ladder down to USS Alabama engine room.

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.

Engine room of USS Yorktown

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.

Engine room of USS Alabama

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.

USS Yorktown
USS Yorktown
USS Yorktown, steam pipes
USS Alabama, hydraulic lines
USS Alabama, cable trays
USS Alabama, steam trap
USS Clagamore
USS Clagamore
USS Clagamore
USS Clagamore
USS Drum
USS Drum
USS Drum

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.

USS Wisconsin boiler room. ‘Boiler Room Betty’
USS Wisconsin engine room

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.

USS Yorktown, engine order telegraph in the engine room. The red pointer indicates the ordered bell (speed) from the conn. The white pointer is turned by the throttleman – using a missing knob in the center – to acknowledge the ordered bell.

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.

USS Wisconsin engine room. The engine order telegraph is just to the left of the larger throttle wheel; steam pressure is indicated on the black faced gauge at the top right.

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.

USS Becuna and USS Olympia
USS Olympia
USS Olympia, with her forward 8″ guns trained on Moshula.

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.

5″ gun mount located in the wardroom
5″ guns on gun deck
5″ guns on gun deck
5″ gun
Smaller gun on top deck

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.

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On the deck of the USS New Jersey. The USS Olympia can be seen across the river.
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USS New Jersey

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.

Kangaroo Skin Seat Covers

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:

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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.

img_0001
Me on top of the FB before we left the Gold Coast

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.

img_0004
Karl (L) and Rob (R) by the FB at a campsite

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.

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At Mt. Isa, Karl (L) and Rob (R)

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.

 

Keeping the World Safe From the Evils of Nuclear Power

When people ask me what I do at work, I often pause to consider who’s asking the question. I have a selection of answers.

  • I’m an engineer
  • I’m an engineer in the electric power industry
  • I’m a nuclear engineer
  • I’m a control systems engineer in the nuclear industry
  • I work on safety analysis calculations in the nuclear industry
  • I do setpoint and uncertainty calculations for nuclear power plants
  • I keep the world safe from the evils of nuclear power

The first two are accurate; the third one isn’t but serves a purpose. A nuclear engineer is someone with a nuclear engineering degree and I don’t have one of those. The fourth one is accurate; the fifth isn’t but few people would know that. While the sixth is an accurate description of what I do, it’s not very accessible to most people. The last is also accurate, if a bit flippant. My work helps ensure a nuclear plant is operated safely.

Nuclear power plants have an array of automatic and semi-automatic controls systems designed to sense abnormal and potentially unsafe conditions and initiate actions to put the plant in a safe mode. These systems are separate from those that control the plant during normal power operation.

Every nuclear power plant also has a comprehensive array of analyses and calculations that demonstrate the plant can be safely shut down without releasing significant amounts of radiation to the public during postulated ‘accidents.’ In this context, an accident is a critical system failure, whether from equipment malfunction, design error or natural occurrences such as earthquakes. All credible accidents are analyzed with the results published in the plant’s Final Safety Analysis Report, a document that is submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Agency as part of the requirements necessary to secure a license to operate the plant. The FSAR, along with other engineering documents, details the design basis of the plant. In other words, the design features that allow it to operate safely. As long as the evolving design of the plant remains within the design basis, the safety analyses remain valid. The FSAR is a living document – it’s continually updated as upgrades and modifications are made.

A license issued by the NRC is not simply a go-ahead to operate. It’s not a piece of paper. Rather, it’s a lot of paper. The most significant part of the license is the Technical Specifications, a document that provides, in considerable detail, exactly how the plant must be operated, particularly what safety equipment must be operable. The Tech Specs, as they’re commonly referred to, also contains dozens of limiting conditions for various parameters.

For example, the primary system pressure must be maintained within specific limits – not too high and not too low – when the reactor is at power. There are instruments (electronic measuring and control devices) that monitor primary pressure and initiate actions if it goes too high or too low. How high or low? Well, that’s where I come in. It would not do to set the instruments to actuate right at the limits provided in the Tech Specs. All measurements contain some amount of uncertainty and that uncertainty must be calculated and accounted for in the actual plant setpoint. So, if the Tech Spec limit is 2250 psia increasing, the actual setpoint might need to be 2230 psi or lower after determining that there might be 20 psi uncertainty. The 20 psi figure would come out of one of my setpoint and uncertainty calculations.

Because some of the uncertainties inherent in a measurement aren’t in play when instrument setpoints are periodically checked by technicians, the Tech Spec limits themselves incorporate a certain amount of margin with respect to what the safety analysis calculation assumed in concluding the plant could be safely shutdown. To determine a safe setpoint, we start with the safety analysis assumption and work backwards, accounting for all uncertainties that might influence the measurement during any postulated plant conditions, including accidents. That ends up validating both the Tech Spec limit and the actual setpoint.

So, that’s what I do. But as you might imagine, the details are complicated. Determining instrument inaccuracies is a matter of skill and art, as one of my engineering managers once described it. I have to agree. After doing this for a couple of decades – and before that I was an instrument technician, one of the people charged with actually ‘setting’ the setpoints in the field – I’ve come to know a bit about how to apply skill and art to the matter.

We (setpoint calc people) don’t work in an unregulated vacuum. I can’t just apply my experience, add a bit of art, and come up with what I think the setpoint should be. As with all nuclear safety-related activities, there are procedures and regulations to follow. Every plant has a specific engineering procedure that details in varying degrees how to determine setpoints. Most derive from what the original reactor vendor provided as a basis for operating the plant. Some plants have kept a version of that methodology in place over the years while others have made changes to come up with their own, unique methodology.

In every case, the methodology must be approved by the NRC. To determine whether to grant approval, the NRC relies on the controlling federal regulations (found in 10CFR50) and on industry standards that have been previously endorsed by the agency. The prevailing industry standard for determining setpoints is the International Society of Automation’s (formerly the Instrument Society of America) 67.04 publication, which has been revised over the years. ISA 67.04 and its implementing standard, RP67.04, discuss in great detail what effects on instruments must be considered and provides the basis for statistically combining the effects to come up with an overall uncertainty that accounts for all required factors with the level of confidence mandated by the NRC.

In the course of my career, I’ve prepared setpoint calcs for dozens of plants. That experience has been wildly mixed in terms of personal and professional satisfaction. Frankly, most clients can be utter assholes. They demand results that cannot be achieved and schedules that cannot be met. They demand error-free calculations despite providing ambiguous, error-ridden design documents to me as inputs to the calcs and despite allowing much faultier calculations from their own engineers. Their comments are often pedantic, irrelevant, or mind-bogglingly stupid. I’ve had discussions with clients that left me speechless. I’ve many times just wanted to say “You have no idea what you’re talking about, so why don’t you do the rest of us a favor and just shut the fuck up.”

On the other hand, when you get a client who understands the process, understands the challenges and respects you as a professional and as someone whose goal is to help their plant with whatever engineering difficulty they’re currently involved with, it can almost be rewarding. Almost.

All through my career as a setpoint calc engineer, my focus has been client-oriented. I’ve tried to find a way to allow the plant to do whatever it is they had in mind, be it a power uprate, a switch to 24-month fuel or simply (often not so simple) responding to a directive from the NRC, all while maintaining the prime directive: protect the design basis of the plant. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work out so well.

Recently, I was asked to come into a project that had experienced some difficulties because the engineers my company had doing the calcs were inexperienced and were getting hard questions from the client they couldn’t answer. I agreed, but after re-doing the calculations, I had to conclude that the plant couldn’t do what they wanted to do. The numbers just weren’t working out. No one is happy with that outcome.

Perhaps the darkest time for me was after years of working calculations with a big client that was planning not one, but two major plant modifications in back-to-back refueling outages. My partner (whom I’ve worked with for almost two decades and who is awesome) and I just kept running into issues making a set of very critical calculations come out right. And by right, I mean they would demonstrate that the plant’s design basis would be protected even after the two modifications were performed. Our results kept coming out negative. The client grew increasingly unhappy and eventually said they would take over the calculations themselves if we didn’t agree to incorporate changes that we didn’t think were proper. Changes that would make the calcs work but weren’t supported by available data.

I’m not going to name the plant and I’m not going to discuss how it all finally resolved itself. But I will say that for the first and only time in my career, I felt obliged to inform the NRC of a significant safety concern. In other words, I blew the whistle. There’s a process for doing this and as with other whistleblowing involving the federal government, there are some protections. I gave them all my files and my analyses and told them that, in my expert opinion, the plant was planning on violating their license and that the NRC should step in.

As I said, my primary focus is maintaining the design basis and I will not compromise that principle. You know how we’ve prevented Fukushima here in the US? By vigilantly maintaining the design basis. That’s also why Three Mile Island wasn’t Fukushima – the plant’s defense-in-depth safety systems worked. The containment building held.

So, yeah, I keep the world safe from the evils of nuclear power.

In the final analysis (no pun intended), I’ve hated this job. I wanted to be a geologist with the  US Geological Survey. Or a tennis pro.

 

 

 

Do You Remember …

No, I don’t.

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.

 

 

Telescope Peak

Once again we meet.
How many more times?
A score? None?
None can say the future
save that the sun will
expire in as many days
as it has yet counted.
With your peak that
oversees the valley,
that summit which
drew me to its cold embrace,
your flattest of all places
on Earth.
Your terrible heart which
repels all but the few.
You call me back again and again.

At 29,029 feet above sea level, Mt. Everest gets most of the votes for highest mountain on Earth. And rightly so – that elevation is higher than any other referenced to mean sea level. But is height above sea level the only way to describe the height of a mountain? Of course not, you say. Everyone knows that Mauna Kea in Hawaii is the tallest if you measure from the base of the mountain to the summit. Again, quite right.

But there are other measures, such as the furthest from the center of the Earth. Chimborazo in Ecuador takes that honor, even though its height of 20,703 feet above sea level falls considerably short of Everest’s. Is that it? No.

Consider how a human perceives height. We look at a tall thing and judge how high it is from where we’re standing. You can’t see Mauna Kea’s full height, not even close. You’d have to drain the Pacific Ocean to do that. Similarly, where can you gaze at Mt. Everest and view its full vertical majesty? You can’t. You can stand at base camp and look up from 17,598 feet to the summit, a delta of about 11,431 feet. There’s no arguing how impressive that must be but it isn’t Everest’s full measure. Thing is, you don’t need to trek to Nepal to stand and look up to the summit of a tall mountain.

Telescope Peak in Death Valley National Park rises to 11,331 feet above sea level. It’s not even the highest peak in the area. Mt. Whitney, visible from the summit of Telescope Peak, is 14,505 feet. But Telescope Peak looks down its eastern face to the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, Badwater Basin, at −279 feet. The total relief is 11,610 feet, just short of Everest, at least from base camp. There are even lower points near the Everest massif which would provide even more vertical relief, but you get the picture. Telescope Peak offers a spectacular, world-class view down to the basin and looking up at it from Badwater is awe-inspiring. Photos from a 35 mm camera don’t do justice, particularly the view upwards from the basin.

Death Valley National Park is, to me, simply the best place on Earth. All national parks are freakin’ awesome to one degree or more, but DVNP tops them all. I know, I’m nuts for thinking a place that recently reclaimed the record for hottest recorded, verifiable temperature is somewhere you’d want to be, and I know everyone has their own special place or two. Yours probably doesn’t have weather that camps out in the 120’s every year. Yours maybe has, I don’t know, trees.

I’ve seen some spectacular trees in my lifetime – the redwoods, sequoias, bristlecone pines. There are no trees to speak of in Death Valley. Sure, the odd cottonwood grove has found a viable niche in some the few places where water exists, and Furnace Creek and Scotty’s Castle have a bunch of incredibly not natural palm trees that some people apparently thought would be nice. No, this place is about rocks. Glorious rocks, exposed in all their glorious majesty. There are no forests or grasslands or other biologics getting in the way of the rocks. Not many anyway. Death Valley, as with the entire Mojave Desert and Great Basin, is a geologists playground. Here, you can walk up and get personal with eons of planetary history. The mountains have undergone tremendous tectonic stresses, bending, faulting, folding and overturning rocks laid down in times when the region was quite unlike what it is today. Signs of relatively recent volcanism abound. I love it.

My introduction to Death Valley was back when it was still a national monument, having only been promoted to national park status in 1994. The US Navy had me stationed for a while on a ship out of 32nd Street Naval Station in San Diego and because we were in port quite a bit, I took the opportunity to explore Southern California. This was in 1974. My 1967 Chevelle and I ranged as far as San Francisco, Las Vegas, the Sierra Nevada and Death Valley National Monument. I don’t recall much about those times but I know that that was when I became entranced with the Mojave Desert, within which Death Valley lies. The exposed, rugged, utterly forbidding mountains called to me.

Since then, I’ve been back many times. When we lived in Mission Viejo, California, the desert was virtually in our backyard. Death Valley, the Owens Valley, the Sierra, all within a couple of hours.

It was during one of my several mid-life crises that my interest and knowledge of the desert mountains and valleys ramped up considerably. I enrolled in the geology program at Cal State Long Beach in the mid 90’s. As you might expect, with such a geologic wonderland nearby, my classes took me into the desert quite often. One field trip was exclusively about Death Valley. I began to know the rocks, and that makes a world of difference. It’s one thing to see a gnarly mountain with twisted rocks and a palette of colors; it’s much more to know how and when the rocks got twisted and what the colors mean. It’s much more to know why the mountains of the Great Basin trend north-south and are spaced apart with low valleys between. Why the marvelous Ubehebe craters are not impact craters or volcanic calderas. Why Badwater Basin is so low in elevation. Why the Racetrack is so incredibly flat and know the source of its mysterious moving rocks. Why so many valleys have great sand dunes on one end or the other. Knowing stuff makes life so much more enjoyable and I recommend everyone who likes the outdoors take a couple of geology classes.

The second thing which increased my interest in the desert and Death Valley was my wife Nancy becoming interested as well. She’s become not only interested, she once spent over a month living out of a tent in the park without me! (I was too busy with work). For the past decade and longer, we’ve made regular, almost annual trips to DVNP, usually staying in the Stovepipe Wells motel, which is centrally located and thus convenient to the whole park. We would do tent camping, and have on one occasion, but my back quickly deteriorates into a mass of pain after a night in a tent and that limits my ability to hike. And hiking is what DVNP is all about. Better to rent a room in Stovepipe and save the pain for the trail. Stovepipe Wells is a pretty neat place anyway. It’s a very small oasis in a vast park which has few signs of civilization other than roads. The motel is basic – a clean room, A/C, shower and not much more. There’s a gas station (one of only three in this huge park), a convenience store, a restaurant and most importantly, a bar, the Badwater Saloon. OK, the gas station is important, too. Driving to hiking destinations chews up a lot of gas. But post-hike beer is pretty important, too.

Death Valley’s (and by that I mean Death Valley National Park, not just DV proper) several mountain ranges – the Panamints, Grapevines, Funerals, Blacks, Last Chance and Cottonwoods – vary considerably in character once you get to know them, but one thing they do have in common is canyons. Lots of canyons. The canyons are where it’s at for hiking in Death Valley. While rain is infrequent, when it does come it can be torrential. With little vegetation to slow the runoff, and with the mountains being so steep, rain often brings flash floods. And as any neophyte geology student knows, water is what erodes mountains (as do glaciers, but there hasn’t been any of those critters in these parts for a while). Death Valley is a study in erosion. Deep, winding canyons are formed by the floodwater rushing downhill. When it gets to the base of the mountain, it tends to fan out, forming aptly named alluvial fans that grow over time with all the eroded material dumped on them. Death Valley’s alluvial fans are legendary. Take a look in Google Maps or Earth at the slopes of the Panamint, Cottonwood and Grapevine Mountains. You can see the huge dry rivers emanating from the canyons into the valley. If you see it in 3D, or better yet go there, you’ll see how the fans are not flat but gently slope from the valley floor to the base of the mountains. I say ‘gently’ but actually hiking across one of these fans can be quite challenging. They’re only smooth in macro view. The reality is endless mini-canyons of rock and sediment.

The experienced hiker does not challenge the alluvial fans unless required. Hiking across them just takes too much time and energy. Instead, what you need is a good – a very good – 4WD vehicle to take you into the canyons, where you want to be. Before leaving Southern California to live in Atlanta, I bought a new 1998 Nissan Pathfinder with a manual transmission and 4WD transfer case. It’s not a superstar off-road vehicle but is a very capable one that has the added benefit of being reasonable to drive on the road. Atlanta is far from Death Valley, you see. We drive the Pathfinder out west on our trips. It takes longer but typically what Nancy and I have done is have me drive the Pathfinder to Las Vegas and pick her up at the airport there. While we’ve been in Atlanta, she’s had less vacation time to use and I don’t mind cross-country driving. I really enjoy it, actually. So, for our DV adventures, we always have the Pathfinder to take us where we want to go. It’s outfitted with a second spare and extra gas, so almost all of the back roads are accessible to us.

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That’s Nancy driving. We make a good 4WD team.

We’ve been to so many of the park’s innumerable canyons, driven so many almost impassable roads, to places where there doesn’t appear to have been human activity since the mining boom, that I’ve taken to charting our ventures on a large D-size plot of the park topo map. It provides an easy visual to where we’ve been and where we still need to go. Because we need to go everywhere at least once.

The typical day’s adventure would be rise before dawn, wander over to the motel’s early morning coffee service and then check out the sunrise over the Funeral and on the Cottonwood Mountains …

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I can write a novel about our Death Valley adventures but let’s get back on track: Telescope Peak. That mountain in particular called to me. Most of the time I’d spent in the park had been at lower elevation or in the canyons with Telescope Peak pretty much lording over the place no matter where I was. So, I wanted to hike to the summit.

No problem, right? Well, for healthy people, it’s not. At least those with healthy knees. That leaves me out. My knees disintegrated when I was on the submarine but helped along considerably by two hikes to Kalalau Beach on Kauai. That’s a long hike – eleven miles one way – with a severe downhill at the end. Since those hikes, I’ve had trouble doing more than five miles before one or both knees break down, particularly on uneven terrain. The trail to Telescope Peak, which starts at a high-elevation camp site, is about fourteen miles round-trip and ascends 3,000 feet. In other words, well out of my range.

But, to paraphrase Henry Fonda in the great movie Midway, I wanted that summit. So, in the summer of 2010, a time of year when Nancy ordinarily would have nothing to do with Death Valley because of the ridiculous heat, we set off to conquer the top of the (local) world. Knees be damned.

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We made the drive up to Mahogany Flats campground early in the morning, passing by the Charcoal Kilns, which are pretty cool themselves. The road past the kilns is one of the few in the park that actually gets closed by snow during winter. Mahogany Flats is a good place for dark sky viewing and we saw a couple of telescopes set up.

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After gearing up, which included a ton of water each, we signed in on the register and headed up the trail. Water is key on this trail as it is on any in Death Valley. You don’t get the extreme heat experienced in the valley but high elevation hiking demands hydration, or you can suffer altitude sickness. It’s a thing even at this relatively modest elevation (we’re not climbing K2 here). Our plan was to cache water just before the switchbacks near the final ascent of the peak, which is a common thing to do on this trail.

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Hiking Telescope Peak is much more than the destination. The views of the valley below are incredible as the trail winds along the east side of the range. When the trail shifts over to the west side, you get views of the White-Inyo Mountains with the Sierra Nevada beyond. You walk among wildflowers, pines, and most rewardingly – ancient bristlecone pines. I love these trees. Nearby (sort of), there’s a great expanse of bristlecone pines on the slopes of the White Mountains, including what was until recently considered the oldest tree on Earth (Methuselah, ~4800 yo). In 2013, an even older tree was discovered there with an age just over 5000 years. The trees along the trail to Telescope Peak are not nearly so ancient but they’re still cool and are probably older than any you’ve seen if you haven’t been to the White Mountains.

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You can camp up here. The best, maybe only, spot is at Arcane Meadows, which is a wonderfully idyllic field about a third of the way along the trail in a saddle between the two peaks you hike around to get to Telescope (Rogers and Bennett peaks). It’s great place to stop and consider the majesty of where you are.

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After coursing around the two minor peaks, we eventually found ourselves getting close enough to sense the summit. And by sense, I mean we could see Telescope Peak ahead of us. We began to gain elevation more quickly. My knees were holding up so far, but I knew I could make the summit easily enough. To get off the mountain, however, I might need a medi-vac.

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The final bit of hiking is the most brutal as the trail gets steep and reverts to a seemingly endless string of switchbacks. It was here that that we cached our extra water – no point hauling that up to the top. As we switched back and forth, I really began to feel the elevation. I was getting winded easily and stopped often to let my heart stop racing. Nancy was not having any problems with elevation but had to stop for blister maintenance a couple of times. She hikes prepared, so had moleskin blister pads in her pack.

The switchbacks behind us, the final short piece to the top remained. Nancy, being a great hiking partner, knew that the peak was my goal, my challenge to conquer. A challenge that had seemed beyond my capabilities, but here we were. So she waved me ahead and took photos of me hiking up to the top, culminating in a Rocky-style celebration. Then she casually joined me, because, you know, it’s not like a difficult hike or anything.

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We spent some time at the summit, which is a small area with a good sitting rock, taking in the views and taking photos. The weather was great all along the hike with pleasant temperatures (keeping in mind that the valley below was maybe 115, 120 degrees). As I mentioned, you can see Mt. Whitney from the top of Telescope Peak. It’s really cool to stand in one spot and see the highest point in the continental US and with a turn of the head, see the lowest. There’s a log book inside an ammunition can, so we recorded our accomplishment and read some of the other entries.

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We had the summit to ourselves – this is a popular Death Valley hike but not so popular that you meet many people on the trail. At least we didn’t. And that’s the way it should be. When you accomplish one of your dreams, check off a major bucket list item, you need it to be the way you imagined. I imagined Nancy and I standing on top of the (local) world together, looking down on the park that has become an integral part of who we are. We are Death Valley hikers and we have been to the top of the mountain.

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*You’ll notice we’re both wearing long-sleeve white shirts and wide-brim hats. These two apparel items are key to surviving to a ripe old age if you spend a lot of time in Death Valley.

Hiking back to the Pathfinder was painful. As predicted, my knees failed, both of them. The last few miles I took very slowly, sometimes even turning backwards to step down off a rock (it’s easier on the knees). In all, it took over twelve hours to hike fourteen miles with a three thousand foot ascent/descent, way longer than most people manage.

After Telescope Peak, my knees now get damaged more quickly and take longer to recover. Summiting that mountain has had lasting effects on my ability to hike.

I don’t regret it. You only live once.