Training at Home #1 or “How to Connect a Wedding Gift for The Best Reception.”

About six or eight years ago, I performed the wedding ceremony for two of my close friends and coworkers out in Los Angeles. A little known law allows anyone to perform wedding ceremonies for 24 hours upon the appropriate training and certification. Anyhow, I flew out to LA, got trained, did the ceremony and of course, a large party ensued. Shortly thereafter, I got a package from Max, the groom and coworker with whom I had worked on the same shift for many years. Now Max has always had an aviation interest, and we always thought it would be fun to take flight lessons together. Then I moved here. Anyway, after the wedding, I get this package. I open it, and it’s a quite expensive hand held aviation radio – a walkie talkie for coordinating flight instructions with the tower!

I was quite taken aback by the lavishness of this generous gift. Unfortunately, it has been sitting at home underutilized all these years, except when I pull it out to see what I can pick up. With the renewed interest and my enrollment in flight school, I pulled it out a few days ago and looked it over. The battery’s shot. I can fix that. Otherwise, it works great! So yesterday, I bring it to work with me and try to listen to the chatter from the aircraft while I am going by National Airport. I didn’t get shit in the morning, so last night, I stopped in the cell phone waiting area, shut down the car and tried again. Lo and behold, I can read the aviation chart (it has the appropriate frequencies on it) correctly – sorta – and I started to hear the 737’s, 757’s and other airliners coming and going from National. I sat there for about 20-30 minutes figuring it out, and then booted up the Prius and headed down the road.

Now being the former physics geek I am, it occurred to me that this radio – this little radio my pal Max gave me in 2003 – operated in the VHF band, defined as 30 – 300 mHz. I just put a new TV antenna up on the roof which is ALSO a VHF antenna as well as a UHF antenna. Hmmmm…. I sez to myself. I wonder if I would be able to pick up the area airports if I hook the highly amplified TV antenna to the aviation walkie talkie?

So I dash over to Radio Shack (now rebranding as “The Shack.” Dumbest. Change. Ever.) and bought the right connecter, BNC, to be specific and headed home. I made a 3-foot cable which would interface with both the TV antenna on the roof AND my aviation radio.

Voila! I can hear much of the tower chatter from Dulles Airport and a little from National! Howzabout that? All that damned college finally paid off!

So now I can listen in and learn the right radio procedures from the folks who do it every day.

All for about two bucks.

Flight Lesson #1 or “The Hand Grenade”

More news about my education in aviation, for both of you keeping score at home. lol…

Today was the first honest-to-goodness, up-in-the-air flight lesson. It started with a significantly long class and briefing. Then the instructor took me out to the little Cessna 172 and did the pre-flight. I learned a TON just during the pre-flight, but the real learning experience came when just as we started the take off roll, the instructor said “Ok, you take off.”

Initially, I thought me meant “take off” like in “Oh, take off, hoser!” ya know, like Bob and Doug MacKenzie? But nope. He actually expected me to pull back gently on the yoke so I did. And the little plane lifted effortlessly into the clear afternoon.

I’ve told a few people already that the sensation was a little like one I experienced in my early Army training. We were on the grenade course, and had been playing with grenade simulators all day. Finally, they take you into the real range, hand you a live grenade and tell you to pull the pin. At that instant, you realize that, uh oh!, there’s a friggin’ LIVE hand grenade in my hand!

It’s kind of like that.

Screwing up in either case would be an eventful proposition, so in today’s case, I tried to concentrate on what I was doing.

The big lesson from today was that there’s an AWFUL lot going on, and I am at the moment, incapable of handling all the sensory input, the instruments, comm and all of that. It’s really quite overwhelming and intimidating. I kept thinking to myself “I’ll never be able to process all this AND have fun at the same time.” But like anything else, it’s a matter of practice and more practice.

I really enjoy the academic part of the training. I suppose that’s because failure in the classroom has such a lesser consequence. I definitely learned that it’s serious business when you’re actually in the air.

It was a most challenging day in that regard. So far, so good, though.

I have LOTS of homework to do!

By the way, I also had the chance to attend their customer appreciation day picnic on Saturday and got to interact with a number of pilots at various stages of their training. All of them made the same recommendation.

I am doing ground school and flight training at the same FBO. So there’s a great deal of continuity of training between the two.

And I am VERY glad that I chose to do the ground school as a classroom option rather than self study. I would recommend taking a class as opposed to computer based study ANY day!

And thanks to y’all for the feedback and advice!

I did the high wing today. Cessna 172S (I believe!) Fuel injected not carburetor.

September 11, 2001

“So, do you think the Army’s going to call you up because of this?”

“I sure as hell hope so.”

That was the big question my supervisor at the E! Channel asked me on 9/11. While I did eventually get called up, I’d gladly give up all the financial and professional gains which resulted if it had never happened. But that’s not what these words are going to be about.

I was awakened that morning by a phone call from my mother-in-law who told us in frantic, disjointed words that something bad was happening. As a native New Yorker, she was understandably shaken at learning that Manhattan was under attack. The message was related to me by my spouse at the time who slammed into the bedroom and shook me awake and said “Wake up! The Pentagon’s under attack!”

I got up, rushed to the TV in a groggy stupor and saw the story as it was still in chaos. Information was rolling into news agencies willy-nilly and much of what was heard and reported was unconfirmed. I dressed and hurried to work in the Wilshire District in LA, near the La Brea Tar Pits. The streets of Los Angeles were relatively deserted – not empty as they were during the LA riots in 1992. But it was clear that people were staying home. Businesses closed for the day and many more operated on essential staff only. Which is why I was going to work.

When I arrived at E!, I could see that many of the national cable networks which shared our satellite space had either gone dark or were carrying coverage from one of the big three networks. It was at that moment that the enormity and the immediate practical impact of this event on this Nation became apparent. Even commerce stopped for a time – shopping networks were carrying round the clock news coverage. Sports channels and others had full-screen graphics up telling people to tune to a network broadcast and follow the news.

One of the positive things about working at a TV network with all measure of high-tech TV equipment is that we could monitor as many TV stations as we had monitors. And we had plenty. CNN, Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC all raced to get pictures and firsthand accounts of the unfolding tragedy on the air. I flipped back and forth from moment to moment and channel to channel trying to find the best pictures. No one had a lock on the best, so it was back and forth from channel to channel.

As for what I was doing in between times, E! was trying to decide whether to take coverage from a major news network or stay with the on-air schedule without regard to the situation. My job was to design on-screen graphics in support of either option. Ultimately, E! chose to stay with their own programming rather than switch to one of the majors. I will not debate that decision, but I will observe on my own behalf that I had no interest in entertainment fluff at that point, and I couldn’t imagine anyone else feeling differently.

From the moment it sank in just what was going on, my heart was heavy, but my fists clenched in preparation. When my terrific boss, Ken Mason, asked me if I was going to get called up, not only did I hope so, but I was hoping it would be within the hour. For the rest of the day, most of us sat in network control going about our business with about as much feeling as the machines supporting us. It was quiet and the sounds of our air signal were mixed with the sounds of the coverage coming from ancillary equipment racks where the carnage of the day was being replayed over and over.

I would be many months before I actually got called up and reported here to Washington, D.C. in January, 2002. I spent the next 71 months assigned to the Pentagon in various assignments, some 9/11 related and others not.

A year after the attacks, our office moved into the rebuilt section of the Pentagon and shortly thereafter, the small indoor memorial and chapel was opened. Whenever I thought I was being unfairly put upon, I’d stroll the 30 seconds down the E-ring to the 9/11 memorial and stand for a minute or two.

It gave me perspective in two profound ways. It made me recognize that getting picked on that day wasn’t really so bad, and that any one of these people whose biography and photo were in one of two books would give anything to be in my predicament. Alive. Within reach of those about whom they cared. And it humbled me. Standing there for only a moment made me remember why I was there and that I had better do the best job I could.

Eight years have passed since the attack on our Nation. Today, while driving into my civilian job, I listened to replays of the coverage from that day and remember what it felt like that day. How shocked and horrified. How angry. How resolute. I suspect that will never change. I suspect that I’ll always feel the intense mix of emotions on this day. And I’ll fight back the tears on this day just as I did on this day eight years ago.

For many, the feelings we experienced that day have already escaped us, relegating the horror of the day to a collection of historical facts, figures and stately memorials to those who perished. It is right that we recall the facts and honor those who were murdered that day. However, it is my wish that somehow the shock, horror, anger and resolution I felt – that most everyone felt that morning – stay with us and unite us as it did on 9/11 and in the shadows of that day.

Eight years hence, we find ourselves a divided Nation when in truth, there’s so very much more about us that is alike than those things which divide us.

I wish we weren’t so divided and I have no solution as to how to unite us. I just know that we have it in us. The days following September 11, 2001 were some of America’s finest.

Remember what that was like. Not just today on this horrific anniversary. But every day.

It would serve us all well.

Ground School Lesson #1 or “Once More Unto The Breach, Dear Friends, Once More”

Last night was the first night of ground school classes.

I arrived to the class early, which is as rare as burning bushes that talk to you. If you could survey all my teachers and college professors you’d get a consensus that early to class isn’t part of my skill set. I promptly made friends with the guy with the iPhone, Jim. Jim is a gregarious guy who has already flown two lessons in the aircraft. I didn’t know you could do the actual flight training before you finished ground school, so I was there 20 minutes early and already learned something. Seems like a good value for time spent in the classroom, and I hadn’t even met the instructor yet.

One by one, the other student pilots arrived making for a total of 14 students. I noticed an unusually diverse crowd. Granted, they were mostly men. There’s one wisp of a woman who was very nice and we only spoke briefly, but she’d already taken a couple of lessons so was ahead of the game.

The next three hours was a thorough overview of aviation in general and what to expect from the training. The instructor knew the material, and while he was long winded, he did a fine job of leading the class through the material in chapter one.

I left after hearty farewells to some of my more gregarious classmates and headed home.

I am excited about undergoing the training and even more anxious to by some flight hours and get started with the practical application. I think it will also be almost therapeutic for me to engage in something which I can get excited about. If the rest of this is as positive an experience for me as last night was, it’s going to be a helluva transformative nine weeks.

But I won’t jinx it. We’ll see how tomorrow’s class goes.

How I spent my Alumni Weekend

The trip began innocuously enough. I headed out on schedule, stopped by the Safeway to get some soda, beer, condiments and chips for the Saturday party I was hosting. I picked up my seven long-sleeved business shirts from the cleaners, light starch. I climbed into the RV and proceeded northbound on I-95 happy as the proverbial clam. Traffic was a little heavy for what one would expect from a Thursday night, and as I got closer and close to Maryland, things slowed and slowed. Once on the northernmost part of the Washington Beltway, things slowed to a crawl with stop-and-go traffic being somewhat the norm.

At one point, I had to stop short. You know how that works, you’re behind some guy and yeah, I was probably going a tad faster than I should have, and he slams on his brakes. Well, I had never had to perform such a maneuver with a 31-foot long big rolling turd.

I slammed on the brakes and it wasn’t enough. I pushed harder and still the inertia of the RV and all the liquid in the water tanks propelled me forward. I stood on the brakes with both feet and only THEN did I feel the BRT begin to slow. That’s good. Very good.

However, anything in the RV that WASN’T stowed came crashing forward. In fact, so short was the stop that the cabinet drawer with all the pots and pans in it ejected itself from the cabinet and ran screaming along the floor finally coming to rest because of the friction of the carpet it encountered along the way.

Relieved to have avoided a collision with the car ahead of me, and yet surprisingly calmly, I continued up 95 toward Baltimore stopping once along the highway to put everything away that had come flying out in the near miss. (Didn’t George Carlin do a bit about “near-misses”? A near miss constitutes a hit, he says and I’d agree! A near-miss should technically be called a “near hit.”)

Anyway for the next oh, I dunno, thirty miles or so, everything was just fine.

Until I got to the Harbor Tunnel in Baltimore.

Was at the toll booth just about to pay my $2.00 or whatever it was to head through when I saw it. A sign, lord a sign! “Recreational Vehicles exit at Such-And-Such Street Before Tunnel.”

Shit. Damn. Oh, crap, my GPS battery is dead!

So I get to the toll booth and talk to the young and rather attractive toll collector asking her how I get where I am supposed to go. She tells me that there are signs (A sign, lord, a sign!) that will instruct me in the proper route to get back to a more appropriate crossing place. I sigh, and thank the comely young toll collector and proceed to the exit for Such-And-Such Street. I make a rolling stop at a stop sign and realize that there’s a big truck facing me down attempting to make a turn onto the street from which I am turning.

Like dogs at a dog park, when the bigger, less fragile Peterbuilt wants the road, my meager Tioga does precisely what’s expected. The RV equivalent of rolling on your back and surrendering. I backed up, shot the trucker a rather sheepish smile and a wave and allowed him to pass first. I am sure that if he would have had one hand free, I would have received a greeting in return, but I suspect it would have been a lot less friendly in nature than my poor attempt at an apologetic gesture.

Onward.

I follow the alternate route signs, but they quickly disappear. But in their place, a regular sign for I-95 appears and so I get in line with the rest of my Thursday night travelers and head towards Delaware.

Not so fast, kemosabe.

Yeah, THIS line is the line for the Fort Mc Henry Tunnel along I-95. Sigh. Shit! Sigh. (Verb. Expletive. Verb. Just to clarify the middle one is NOT a verb.)

No toll booth in sight. No one to remind me that I can’t go through the tunnel with propane in my tanks until I get to the other side. Hmmmm… Yeah, the fuel trucks go through this tunnel all the time! What’s the big deal? I am already stressed out, feeling wary of travelling without the benefit of the TomTom GPS software on my phone, I decide to brave the elements, damn the torpedoes, and remember the Alamo and proceed. And proceed I did.

Without incident.

Paid my couple o’ bucks at the toll booth on the other side of the tunnel and accelerate toward Delaware confident that the worst is over.

Not so fast, kemosabe.

I get about 50 or so miles – without a GPS how the hell would I know – and make it to Maryland House service plaza. I pull off, pull up to the gas pump and fill up with around 20 gallons or so of fuel and proceed. Just not very far.

The Susquehanna River ran very close to my neighborhood when I lived in Harrisburg, PA back in the late 60’s and early 70’s. So I know it’s a really big river at its best, and thank goodness the State of Maryland saw fit to put a bridge across its part of the river on I-95. What was unfortunate is that the State of Maryland chose my Thursday night to perform some sort of maintenance on the span. So traffic was slimmed down to one lane from the usual 3. That also created a commensurate increase in travel time from the bridge to ME from about 12 minutes to… Well, it was about an hour, but it seems as though it was already Labor day.

Sigh. Shit! Sigh. Repeat, PRN.

Finally get through all that and it’s an uneventful trip to Radnor, PA, just another hour and eleven minutes from the Susquehanna River Bridge.

Radnor? I was going to Wayne, not Radnor. So yeah, you have probably already figured out that, just like in the Star Trek movies, the adventure continues.

I zip through Delaware and on into Pennsylvania and up the Blue Route about 12 miles through the western ‘burbs of Philadelphia. By this time, I have successfully recharged my cell phone (Technically found an extension cord to I could run it off AC from the RV’s on board generator.) TomTom tells me to get off at Route 30, Lancaster Avenue and proceed straight under the railroad bridge and on to the school a couple miles away.

For those of you in the audience who are from Philadelphia, you’ll already know that the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad was built roughly straight west from Philadelphia. Over the decades, this area has become known as the Main Line. My school, Valley Forge Military Academy is located on the Main Line. But to get to the ol’ Alma Mater, I have to cross the main line of the Pennsylvania Rail Road.

There are multiple bridges which carry the former PRR, now probably part of CSX or Conrail or AMTRAK or God only know who knows what government-subsidized conglomerate owns the right of way that used to be the main line of the Pennsylvania Rail Road. Those bridges are old. VERY old. And not much clearance for taller vehicles to get through. I had anticipated this and figured that one of them would be just fine for my nearly 12-foot RV to pass underneath without incident.

Just not the one in Radnor.

A sign, lord a sign!

“10 feet , 7 inches.” As usual, that wasn’t the exact response I was hoping for with my little impromptu appeal to whatever gods there might be.

I make a hard right into an alley of some sort which services the Radnor station of the commuter train and just as the wheel is spinning back to the straight ahead position, I realize there’s no way to pull through. I’m trapped with my only possible exit strategy to back out onto the street unguided and risk getting plowed into from someone less cognizant of their surroundings screaming under the bridge from the blind approach on the other side.

I slowly begin to back down the alley past the parked car without a problem.

“Hey, I am getting pretty good at this!” I said to myself and here’s where I made the significant error in judgment.

I stop the car, still VERY wary about backing out into traffic and inspect the situation. The alley is really fairly wide with a low curb on the right. No obstructions. Hmmmm. I’ll bet I can make a “K” turn here and if I am careful, set myself up to nose-out of the alley none the worse for wear.

Good initiative. Bad decision.

I hop back in, swing the wheel right and begin moving the tail of the vehicle over toward the open area ever so slowly. Gently. Listening for every little peep of a sound which would indicate some obstacle to the swift and safe completion of my task. Or a curb. A curb would be good.

Awright. I can now start to go the other way. The “K” turn evolves into a “ * ” turn. I am making progress, though, just like Austin Powers did in his golf cart in one of his movies. It’s just really slow progress. Ok. I am all set. The next time, I will be clear up front. Then I can swing the steering wheel hard left and pull out and find another bridge. Gently I accelerate. Veeeerrrrrryyyyy gently.

Not so fast, kemosabe.

Crunch!

Sigh. Shit! Sigh. Repeat. Yeah, now’s the time. It’s definitely necessary.

A longer vehicle such as an RV does not have the rear wheels at the very end. So when you turn the front end to the left the back end turns to the right commensurately. In this particular case, against one of those old, creosote covered telephone poles.

Sigh. Shit! Sigh. Repeat.

I’m suddenly feeling less like the confident RV owner I am and more like Will Smith in “I Am Legend” when he keeps saying “I can still fix this!” Matter of fact, I think in between the fortieth “Sigh.” and the twentieth “Shit!” I actually said it out loud, though I successfully expressed the urge to shout “HELL no!” as Will does in just about each of the movies in which I have ever seen him.

Assess damage. Shoot, I am already scuffed up where the pole rubbed against the back right corner of the RV. I almost made it, too – just a couple of inches more and I’d already be parked with a cold beer soothing my deflating ego. (Think the Hindenburg’s legendary deflation, here, and you’ll get a sense of it.)

Sit in driver’s seat. Ease her forward until she’s loose, then cut ‘er hard left and we’ll be good to go. In gear. Inch forward. Endure horrendous scraping sounds as the telephone pole eliminates any surface imperfections on the last few inches of the RV’s right side.

Boing! Pop! I’m clear! Woo Hoo.

I turn the wheel hard to the left ready make my exit. Touch the accelerator ever go gently. No resistance. Good. Moves forward an inch or two.

Not so fast, kemosabe.

Meeting a little resistance, but I am by golly fully committed to this obviously dubious course of action.

Boing! Pop! I’m clear! Woo Hoo.

This time, I really AM clear and roll the RV ahead in the shadows of the furiously swinging power lines which were attached to my opponent, the telephone pole.

I find a suitable crossing point, hold my breath, drive underneath with no collision whatsoever and make it to my destination where I finally set up camp and went to bed.

Next morning, I discover that the second little bit of resistance that I encountered as I wrenched myself free was the pole catching on the passing rear bumper, which now presented a subtle but definite misshapen appearance. Eh, what are you gonna do?

The rest of the weekend continued without incident, except for one other time when my fellow alum and I broke a metal piece to the support structure of the awning we were trying to stow. But to offset that little gaffe, which took about fifteen minutes to fix, I DID get the automatic retractable step working again by tapping ever so gently on the actuator switch causing it to un-stick and begin performing its designed mission again. I told myself that’s like offsetting penalties in football, so really there was only one incident not two as you’d think from casual observance of the weekend.

Oh there was ONE more little thing. It didn’t involve the RV, or contracting some strange disease or anything truly tragic. But people will be talking about it for a long time, I hear.

Fridays of homecoming weekend, the alumni are encouraged to line up and march with their respective organization at second mess formation. (Second mess is lunch, for the uninitiated.) Former Bandsmen are invited to play with the band and march along for old time’s sake. I was the drum major, so I politely asked the Bandmaster and the current drum major if I would be able to lead the band and they all agreed this would be cool.

So at the appropriate time, I position myself in front of the band, the regimental commander orders “Forward, March!” and off we go.

One thing about being the band’s drum major is that your routine is so well practiced and you do it so often, you remember precisely how to do it all, just as everyone allegedly remembers how to ride a bike. I start out with what we called curling, moving the mace in time with the beat of the march. As I approached the reviewing stand I started to spin the mace, stopping it with a satisfying snap into the vertical position, grab it at the top near the ball of the mace and execute a salute as if I had been doing it every day for the last 35 years:

DanMaceWebSpin out of it. Take a few paces. Stroll. That’s where you walk with the mace using it more like a walking stick than anything else, I guess. Next, two column lefts bring the band back around just as we should so that they can reposition themselves in front of Wheeler Hall as the rest of the Corps passes the reviewing stand. Kind of like the marching version of a legal U-turn. After this second column left, we always gave the mace signal for a “forward march” and the band stepped off in unison to their final destination.

Not so fast, kemosabe.

I knew that the mace manual that we did back in my day was very different from what the bandsmen now know. What I DIDN’T know was that our old signal for “forward march” was the current band’s signal to “halt.”

And halt they did.

I’m doing my thing, executing the forward march just as perfectly as I had back in 1975 or so. I’m out there curling away keeping time with the music, just having a grand old time. But the music is suddenly getting quieter. That’s odd.

I sneak a look over my right shoulder to see what was going on and it was at this point that it became apparent that somewhere along I had goofed. Well, actually, no one had goofed. I did what I was supposed to do. Precisely. Magnificently, if I may brag a bit. I just wasn’t speaking their language.

I had signaled forward march and the band stopped right where they were, leaving me to lead oblivious to the fact that the bad had jumped ship about 50 feet behind me. No one was more surprised than I. The bandmaster, a fine Englishman by the name of Phil Evans explained to me that the band had followed my command not knowing that I meant something else. You say “tomato.” I say “tomahhhhto.” That sort of thing.

Anyway, it was all that anyone talked about when they saw me for the rest of the weekend. It was an honor to be able to be in front of the VFMA band again after 30-some years away. And even though I screwed it up, I think people will remember that alumni drum major who lost his band for years to come.

All in all, it was a fabulous weekend filled with friends, fond reminiscences and fantastic camaraderie. I saw people I haven’t even thought about in 35+ years, and bringing up all of that was just absolutely delightful.

We had a tailgate party Saturday night at the RV, and even though the weather was cold and damp, the spirits were anything but.