Friday, February 26, 2010

El Chivo del Santo Domingo

Depending on when you catch me, what shape I'm in and what I'm wearing my features have been likened to those of everyone from Kool Moe Dee to Darius Rucker (Hootie), Sam Cooke and a few others. While traveling in the Tampa Bay area, though, that was probably the first time in my life that someone actually thought I was from another country!

Growing up in Germany gave my sisters and I an advantage when it came to foreign languages and accents. We heard German everyday as spoken by German people and so were able to adapt the local accent as we picked up the language. Back in the United States when it came time for high school Spanish I was blessed with an American teacher who also had an ear for accents and was able to impart that extra flavoring in the lessons. In short, when I hear a language, dialect or even accented English I try to pick it up as a means of being understood as well as finding common ground with the other person.

Fast forward to Tampa and an evening out with friends from high school who now live in that part of the country. Being from Central America their accent is different from that of other Spanish-speaking parts of the world or so they tell me. I can pick out English accents from all over the world but still have a hard time with Spanish ones outside of how quickly it is spoken or whether or not some of the consonants are softer. Yes, those all add up to the "accent" except I haven't been able to identify the location of that difference like I can between Boston and Charlotte!

Anyway, we decide to go out clubbing for the evening and end up at a local watering hole in south St. Petersburg. A mixed entertainment place they have a performance stage, a dance floor, a pool area and a few bars and tables so it's a catch-all for that part of town, reaching out to as wide a clientele as possible.

By the end of the evening we had received the attention of a few lookers who weren't quite sure what to make of us but they were curious just the same. The bravest of the bunch strikes up an interesting conversation and before it is all said and done he decides to nickname me "El Chivo del Santo Domingo," the big goat from the Dominican Republic! Big goat?!

We're all having a good time and laughing but hasty explanations inform me that "goat" is to Spanish culture what "dog" is to Americans in that setting. It was a compliment to be called, in translation, "top dawg," the man in charge, the big kahuna, the cheese! Lesson laughingly learned.

I was still a bit curious about where the Santo Domingo angle came from, however. Our new friend who himself was from Argentina explained that when I spoke to him in Spanish my rapid fire pronunciation was right out of the Dominican Republic. That about put the icing on the cake for me because I've never been there!

Gotta go!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tsukiji, Tokyo

Tokyo used to be the largest city in the world. There is no denying upon first sight that the place defies both logic and the imagination. An ancient capital festooned with one-way streets to confuse the emperor's enemies, a third of it was destroyed in the war but to them the logical thing to do was to rebuild it exactly as it was before. There is no zoning in the city so it is not at all unusual to see a single-family home made of wood and cross beams directly across the street from some of the tallest office towers in the country.

What Tokyo does have is the largest wholesale fish market in the world and that is "Tsukiji (Skee-gee)." Under one massive room comes marine life from across the planet in volumes to provide some 95% of the seafood enjoyed by the nearly 13 million good people of Greater Tokyo. It's not for early riser or the squeamish and is certainly not a tourist attraction in any way, shape or form but it is tolerant of the curious who respect the rules and rhythm of the place, mainly to not touch the products and absolutely to stay out of the way of the trading.

The liveliest action is when the tuna catch arrives between 1AM and four in the morning. Massive flash-frozen carcasses are carted hither and yon to bidding rooms where the callers put any auctioneer in Britain or New York to complete shame. The Japanese language is tricky enough, usually spoken at a rapid and staccato clip but speed that up by a factor of 20 and throw in fish jargon on top of that? Oi.
After the buzz and sing-song of the tuna auction though there remains more than a million varieties of aquatic life to ogle, gag and gawk over. Most of the stalls are family owned and typically staffed by a husband-wife team, he doing the legwork and cleaning while she manages the till and keeps the books.
As can be expected many are handed down through the generations so there seems hardly a shortage of young and older sons learning the trade and, of course, doing the harder chores while the old man teaches and protects from the shadier traders on the floor.

The amount and variety of seafood passing through on a daily basis is beyond normal comprehension. Some are frozen, others are gutted on the spot while more than a few types are kept alive for transport to the display tanks of restaurants and retail markets around the city. It seems of all the varieties of squid in the ocean only the giant and the Humboldt squids are not served at the Japanese dinner table - seemingly every other type was there, waiting for the ginger and wasabi. As can be expected there are more than a few sushi bars and restaurants lining the road to the market where the freshest of the fresh can be sampled "day of catch."

All ya gotta do is get up at the crack of or before dawn, find your way to the "Hibiya" metro line and wear clothes that can be destroyed as soon as you leave the place. The smell of fish, fish guts and oils gets in to everything and everyone on the subway, in the streets and back at the hotel will smell you coming just as you can smell the market long before it comes in to view.

By all means stay out of the way. If you don't speak Japanese bring someone who does or at least has been before. They don't have time to deal with tourists and while they tolerate visitors are not there for your amusement or to serve as some kind of information counter. Whether or not you ever eat another piece of fish after that is entirely up to you!

Gotta go.

Monday, February 22, 2010

TV and the Fish Camp

I used to enjoy watching "Flipper" growing up in the late 60s and having never seen a dolphin outside of a zoo before but one show from the period that I really enjoyed was "Gentle Ben," another Florida based sitcom featuring a tame black bear living in the swamps with a park ranger and his young son, another kid my age. All of this was just too cool for words, growing up watching kids like me (I never saw color) having all kinds of adventures from simply skipping rocks (Opie Taylor) to swimming with dolphins to riding those fantastic air boats with a huge bear draped over the front. I've always been a city mouse but wondered even then what life in the country must really be like.

"You've got to go to Clark's," my co-workers sang out in chorus while on a recent trip to Jacksonville, Florida. In keeping with my desire to sample unique local restaurants the immediate recommendation was Clark's Fish Camp & Seafood towards the southern end of the city. The directions, they said, would appear to be misleading but to just stay on Hood Landing, the main road and it would pop up at the very end of the pavement.

Situated on a small inlet near Old Bull Cove of the St. Johns River the description was dead on as we pulled up in front of a building that looked for all the world to be one large boat shack. Clark's is weather worn with graying wood, some Christmas lights strung up to add color and a porch that extended in to a jetty where boats could tie up just as conveniently as any car pulling in to the dirt lot at the back. I witnessed just that as two young boys helped their father tie up their 15-footer in what to them was simply an everyday part of life on the water. It wasn't an air boat and Gentle Ben did not join the family but oh how close the whole scene was!

"This place looks like Porky's" I told my co-worker who came along for dinner. I started looking for the kids from Angel Beach High but didn't see anyone I recognized. No neon piglets frolicked above the door but inside was a virtual zoo of stuffed animals from every corner of the planet: kudus, gazelle, birds and baboons, snakes, gators, lions, tigers and bears, everywhere. All those years of nature programs paid off as we were led to our table by an almost hostile hostess whom our waitress later apologized for. She also explained that no, the animals were not hunted by the owner but merely collected to give the place atmosphere.

Sometimes the atmosphere masks the shortcomings of the food but in this case both were equally kitschy and over the top in terms of variety and size of the portions. I went with a very healthy rib-eye and shared shrimp appetizer while my colleague who eats like a bird ordered me to eat the third crab cake from her meal after she'd finished the first two with a salad. Behind me the Flintstones were enjoying a caveman's special as I watched the father who looked exactly like Fred in a blazer polish off the largest slab of prime rib I'd ever seen at a restaurant with nary a belch to highlight the effort. That, our waitress said, was only the "Joan's Cut," since they were already out of the larger "Jack's Cut." Sheesh!

My colleague was disappointed at not seeing any wild alligators although their presence was suggested through the "Do Not Feed the Gators" signs. For a Monday evening in January Clark's was doing a respectable business with a diverse clientele.

Maybe it was just too cold for the gators.

Gotta go.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Optimist Bucket List - Item 8

Having never bought my first house I guess I should say that that is the goal for Item #8 on my Optimist Bucket List. My adult life has included addresses in New England, the West Coast, the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and Southwest regions of the country. I know where I want to spend the rest of my working life but the question has always intrigued me as to where I would like to spend my retirement. More to the point, why wait until retirement? Why can't I have a second home to enjoy while I'm working as a vacation getaway and where would it be?

The first time I went to Greece I almost immediately wondered what it would be like to live or vacation there on a regular basis. I said the same thing about Scotland while right here in the United States I've considered Florida and Wyoming.

Then I went to New Zealand. I'd been traveling there for six years when I figured out that it would be a great investment if nothing else. I booked a flight down in March of that year and made appointments with local realtors to see suburban, ranch and undeveloped tracts of land. My head spun with questions as the plane roared on through the night to where I dreamed of making my second home.

The suburban home was no great shakes and while I loved the 13 acres and working barn that came with the country home I flat out told the realtor that no American would ever buy the house as it was built. The owner was a contractor who designed the place himself but with five bedrooms it only came with two full baths - and he was the father of four daughters!

The realtor and I sped north of Auckland for the last property on the list, undeveloped rural dairy land being sectioned and sold off by the family. Not even a paved road came with it but free use of a local quarry for all the stone I could use. Nice. What really sold me on the property though was the 85 acres of land which revolved around a natural amphitheater in the form of an extinct volcano cone.

Already terraced and facing west it was begging to be developed as a performance space, a vineyard or just a multi-level garden from which to enjoy the sunset.
Add on to that were three fresh water streams running through the land, one of which featured a 200-foot waterfall. A waterfall in my back yard!!! I'd have to build my own house on the land and ask the current owner to do something with the dairy cattle placidly grazing all around but the price, even in writing, was too good to be true. I had only two problems to figure out before I pulled the trigger: what the tax implications would be in owning foreign property and whether or not I could get the NFL package that far away!

I told them I would be back soon with a final decision on the entire idea if not that property in particular. That would have been September, 2001.

Gotta go.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Florida Forts and Follies

A few hours at the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine is worth the time. It included a couple of shows and a wide range of animals from the four corners, including South American caimans and macaws to Eastern Diamondback rattlesnakes and, of course, gators. Lots of them. Since the rain was trying to play us up and I only had the one afternoon to explore the oldest continuously inhabited city in America it was time to move on to el Castillo de San Marcos, the Spanish fort built to guard the new colony and the immediate intra-coastal waterway.

I had never known of a Spanish fort anywhere in the continental United States. And it was big, complete with a dry moat, cannons, some with a range of up to three miles, were mounted atop walls up to 60 feet thick at the base and a small museum in the rooms off of the central courtyard preserving artifacts and letters from the time. Each corner or "bastion" was diamond shaped to allow a withering crossfire against any enemy on land or out to sea. At the tip were these lonely sentry posts with peepholes through which any traffic of interest might be monitored.

In the days before radar, sat-com and AWAC there was simply no getting by this formidable redoubt which ironically guarded a settlement that even today barely tops 12,000 citizens. In the larger scheme of 16th and 17th century America, however, San Marcos anchored the Florida coastline for ships returning to Spain and maintaining a toehold on the continent for Spanish interests against English, French and Native American pressure.

Directly across the A1A coastal highway is the remains of the main north gate which protected the inner part of the colony while the fort guarded the sea approaches. Nearby and notably outside the city gates is the Huguenot Cemetery which, while not associated specifically with French Huguenots, was dedicated in 1821 as the burial place for non-Catholic victims of age, war and plague in the area. The cemetery closed to new burials only a few decades after it first opened but thanks to haunted ghost stories from some of the interred it remains as compelling a part of the local history as any other site.

I skipped the Fountain of Youth as the brochures made it look as appealing as a roadside carnival, loaded with kitsch and cotton candy but not much substance. Likewise the central part of the city was well preserved from the outside but inside was little more than a tourist mall of gift shops, high end clothiers and "local flavor" eateries, crass commercialism at its finest. The fort, however, silently said it all. It held vigil over a bygone era and truly brought home how hotly contested the New World had been.

Maybe to enhance the already impressive fort someone will find a way to anchor a Spanish galleon, a French frigate and a British ship-o'-the-line alongside to complete the picture.

Gotta go.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Old 100

If this were a television series this would be the benchmark required to go in to syndication and start looking forward to royalty checks for a considerable period of time later in life. Unfortunately this is nothing quite as grand as that. What it is, to me, is significant just the same in that this writing marks the 100th article posted on my blog since its creation last Summer.

When I started writing this I thought I might reflect on the journey thus far but thought, Naah, the world hasn't stopped turning and this is not about earth shattering news or ground-breaking journalism anyway. While the demands of keeping a website up and running have taught me a few basic things that I didn't know before this really is still just about writing about fun things for the fun of it and hoping that someone else takes equal value away from it in some form or other.

So it's my 100th "episode" and I guess I should consider whether I have a particular favorite or maybe outline what lies ahead? Can't and won't! It's hard to pick out one that I really enjoyed writing or remembering although some were perhaps a bit more difficult to write while others simply fell on the page with no trouble at all. I would say that the biggest challenge for me is to not write too much about places I haven't been; it would be torture for me and not fair to anyone else if the message here is only to share the things that I know about personally. That was the reasoning behind the Bucket List - to limit waxing poetic about places not traveled. Otherwise I would probably write something every day about some place I've always wanted to go or something I've always wanted to try!

Likewise, I don't want to show my hand about things to come. I do certainly hope that the writing is getting better as time goes on - I'm almost afraid to look back at some of the earlier stuff already! Plus, if I announce what lies ahead then it commits me to some things that I am currently planning but may ultimately not come to pass. Oh I have barely scratched the surface of the travel related experiences I've been through, believe you me, but new must also be mixed in with the old and each with as fresh an approach as possible, what?

Oh alright, stop badgering me! Some of y'all just don't like surprises, do ya? I'll share this much as far as things still on my list to do and discover, even outside of the Bucket List.... I'd like to ride on the Channel Tunnel! Better yet, maybe Gibraltar at sunset or hike the Torres del Paine National Park.

I'll let you look that last one up.

Gotta go!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Great Lakes Football

As the season wraps up I am led to reflect on the last four months of 2009 as they relate to football. I used to work in retail so early September meant the end of the "Back to School" buying season and the start of the all important "Opening Weekend" shopping binge by much of male America. In short that means big screen TVs are flying off the shelves for about 10 days at the beginning of the football season. "Oooo, shiny!" In September every team has a shot at the Superbowl so all hopes and dreams look that much better in 50-inch hi-def.

I'm so happy not to work in retail anymore but looking back again reminded me of a trip I took through the Upper Midwest and the Great Lakes States of the country. In a span of four days I made it from Dallas to Milwaukee, drove to Green Bay, flew to Rochester, New York via Cleveland and then, to cap it all off, down to Tampa, Florida on the fifth day by way of Baltimore. Football towns one and all!

Well, except Rochester but that merely illustrates the unique nature of this entire expedition. Living in Dallas over the past two years I was able to watch the new Cowboys Stadium being built and host the inaugural season. I drove to Green Bay specifically to pay my respects at Lambeau Field. On the flight to Rochester from Milwaukee we approached the connecting hub at Cleveland over Lake Erie and I was fortunate enough to be on the right hand side of the plane during the descent. The skyline appeared out of the haze and right on the waterfront was the new stadium for the Cleveland Browns.

There are family ties to the area but this is the first time I have laid eyes on the city. We flew over downtown on the way to the airport where my connecting flight waited to take me to Rochester. I wondered to myself if I would pull a hat trick on this trip, having seen Lambeau and now the Cleveland stadium already. The third would be Ralph Wilson Stadium in suburban Buffalo, home of the Bills. In maybe 40 minutes of flying I had my answer as we started our descent yet again over Lake Erie with me again on the right hand side of the small commuter jet.

I'm a lightweight NFL geek. I'm curious about other football cities and what their culture must be like compared to mine, what their rituals are and most importantly where their stadiums are located. It's not necessarily saying much in knowing where each of the 32 NFL stadiums are located but it was something unique, I felt, to see so many of them on one trip that was not specific to that purpose.

Off the edge of the wing Ralph Wilson Stadium appeared, blue seating clearly visible. Hat trick! And it only kept going from there as I saw M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, where I also used to live, and Raymond James Stadium in Tampa before heading back home to Texas.

Yea, seeing stadiums is one thing but how many have I actually visited...during regular season games? So far only six.

Gotta go!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Waiter, That's a Gator!

Sometimes it can be a huge warning sign when locals tell you first about things to do outside of their city as opposed to any attractions right in the middle of town. I had been called to Jacksonville on business for a couple of days and, being me, the first thing I asked was if there was anything unique or interesting in the city to explore. The first thing they mentioned was to go and see the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine, about 25 miles to the south.

My colleagues are not as in to historical discoveries as I am but I was intrigued at seeing live alligators and the other animals in the collection. What really perked me up, however, was the mention of St. Augustine, the oldest continually inhabited settlement in the continental United States. Whatever there was in Jacksonville itself could not compete for my attention on the one day I would have to myself which was Sunday afternoon before two days of meetings and conferences at the office.

Like a scalded rabbit I high-tailed it out of the airport in my rental car for the 35 minute drive around central Jacksonville on I-295 towards St. Augustine where I made a beeline to the Alligator Farm. I wanted to see the critters first as it was a bit overcast and wanted to save the "warm" hours of the late afternoon for any landmarks the city had to offer. I wasn't disappointed.

The largest 'gator at the park was just under 14 feet but we marveled more at the handler who hand-fed (tossed, to be precise) the varmints gutted rodents with her bare hands! What, like they wouldn't eat if she had been wearing protective gloves? Juvenile gators were in a separate area so's the moms and dads wouldn't snack on them. These future handbags, shoes and appetizers looked every bit as cute in the Jurassic Park kind of way that one would expect, pearly white teeth smiling wide as they bathed in what sunlight there was.

The story of Gomek the late massive Australian salt water crocodile was touching while his replacement, Maximo, more than lived up to his name. Big he certainly was, if somewhat bored, preferring to simply loll in the lagoon of his enclosure and not move a muscle for the better part of an hour. I know cuz I got bored and checked back with him later. Hadn't moved an inch.

The king cobra and komodo dragon both stared me straight in the face, sending not a little chill up my spine despite being pressed to the nose against the Plexiglas that separated us. My favorite, though, was the green tree python who coiled in his tree exactly as if posing for National Geographic. They and the other motionless creatures throughout the park prompted a few visiting skeptics to surmise that none of them were real. Until one of them moved.

For $50 one can take pictures with the biggest and more docile (docile?) of the alligators, standing at the tail of course and with a handler close by.

I saved my money.

Gotta go.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Ferraris and Fleming's

Tampa is my favorite city in Florida, let's just get that out of the way right up front. To me it offers the best style and comfort of living without trying to be something it's not. I've been visiting the Tampa area as far back as 1991 so it was with great anticipation that I was sent on a business trip there last August. I phoned up some friends who live in the area and made plans to enjoy a couple of days in the office followed by a weekend re-connecting and enjoying the city.

One friend of mine picked me up at my hotel for dinner that evening and while I said that I could still find my way around, he insisted it would be easier to just come and get me. We hadn't seen each other in a good while and I looked forward to a pleasant evening of catching up over good food. The Cuban community in and around Tampa is nearly as strong as that in Miami but roast pork was not on this evening's menu. Tonight would be my first experience at Fleming's Steakhouse, a favorite of his, along the lines of a Don Shula's or Morton's of Chicago.

I just love the look on the face of the doormen when they rush to open the car door for guests then turn back to look more closely at you to see if you're "somebody" or not. Here comes my chum tooling up in a red Spider, don'tcha know! The last Italian car I might have parked my backside in was a Fiat or an Alfa Romeo at best but nothing and I mean nothing this high on the food chain. The man is clearly doing well for himself I thought as the comical part of the evening started early. That would be watching Mr. Awkward, yours truly, trying to get in to this low-slung roadster with a smidgen of dignity.
It didn't work but by the time we got to the restaurant I'd at least figured out how to alight from the thing with the air of someone who was to the Ferrari born. The valets couldn't get to the car fast enough and where my buddy strode in as any high-profile regular would I turned and gawked right back at the gawkers trying to see if they were "somebody," too.

The maƮtre d' recognized my host and we were seated swiftly at a good table. Things on the celebrity spotting chart got off to a good start when my companion casually pointed out Raheem Morris, the new head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and another regular at this upscale beef emporium. While the steaks were good Mr. Ferrari was not impressed with our service this evening. The waiter seemed indifferent and pre-occupied and it showed. The manager made the necessary apologies after checking to see how things were going for us; it's always interesting how they always anticipate a positive response to their perfunctory inquiry. She got an ear full from my blunt buddy.

On the way out we got a repeat performance from other guests leaving and arriving. The valets were used to my host and had probably decided quickly enough that I couldn't be much more than a hanger-on. Still, how many times is the valet parked car waiting right outside the door, a mere flick of the keys away as we lowered our sated bellies in to the red beast for the ride back to the hotel?

I knew that much of the score: A Ferrari parked right outside of their front door? That's all any other visitor or pretender needs to see to wanna be seen!

Gotta go!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Earl, Ralph, Bert and Gavin

A group of friends wanted to go to Hawaii for the weekend so we all bunched up and flew off in to the setting sun for some waves in Waikiki.
Landing in Honolulu late on a Friday night pretty much leaves one option open for things to do and that is head out on the town. I've never been much of one for drinking but nobody was going to be driving so I let my guard down for an evening of blue fruity thingies with umbrellas and heaps of vodka. For a man with the dimensions of an NFL offensive linebacker I am a classic lightweight but at least I fall in to the category of being a happy drunk. It was all good. Mostly good.

It turned sad for a moment when we finally got back to the hotel where we flipped on the television in time to watch live feed from the Princess Diana funeral in London at Westminster Abbey. (What a surreal, out of body thing to deal with: drunk in Hawaii and watching a funeral!) Glad to be back safely in our rooms we, as over-indulged boozehounds sometimes manage, had plans to go sailing at dawn in barely four hours time.

The sailing started with me confidently announcing that I don't get sea sick and I was right for the entire outward bound cruise with a following wind. The setting couldn't have been better: it was a perfectly clear day to be on the waters around Hawaii. Diamond Head from offshore beats any view from the landside and I was riding in rhythm with the seas, enjoying a light chop and mild wind moving us along at a good clip towards the east. The only thing missing was "Southern Cross" by Crosby, Stills and Nash!

I surely could have used some kind of cross on the way back for all the praying I did over the side of that boat! They didn't tell a brother about having to tack against the wind going back the way we came. And the four friends no man ever wants to have went with me the whole way. First, there was Earl. "D'ye rrrememberrr mee?" he trilled in his whiskeyed brogue as he reacquainted me with all of the unfinished booze from the night before. The splashes hitting the water served as a call to order for all the fish in the depths below: they came rushing up to the surface with cracked ice and olives, and we were just getting started.

My second new best buddy Ralph decided he wanted a piece of the action and helped me pour a second round of drinks to the seafood below me who were by now swimming in the wake on their backs in really mellow lazy 8s. Ralph is the one who likes to torment to the point of not being able to come up for air and he was in rare form today. I couldn't stand any more of this bunch and careened from side to side to the hatchway where I went below to try and get away from the merrily bouncing horizon.

"And where do you think you're going," called out Bert, my third BFF, who fixed me with an evil smirk and promptly rushed me back up on deck to satisfy the demanding marine life who were by now slamming empty schooners against the sideboards looking for more. True to his reputation, Bert helped to prime the pump because more froth and gas was spouting from the tap than anything else. The fish were not amused while my companions and I seemed barely a furlong closer to the end of this agony. Diamondhead, once proud and majestic, now turned its nose up in scorn and derision.

"Leave him alone, boys, you've had enough." I looked to the sky to thank my benefactor only to feel the now blistering heat of the sun in my eyes as Gavin, the most sinister of them all, made his presence known. "I didn't say that I'd had enough," he oozed as I went once more chin first over the side, white-knuckled on the railing. Gavin is also known as the Dry One. He prodded and poked mercilessly at my sides and slapped me on the back causing me to hunch and churn in violent convulsions, salty tears now the only offerings for the liquored up fish below who slowly descended in to the depths, bubbling disgusted curses over last call.

We eventually made it back to port where I staggered off the boat, a sickly greenish-brown around the gills. Looking back to the sea I tried to remember the fun I had at first but only glimpsed my four fair weather buddies skittering off over the waves to find a new friend to go sailing with, the backstabbers.

The red-eye back to the mainland couldn't get there fast enough.

Gotta go!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Dah DAH Dah Duuuh Daaaaaah

The first time a movie ever compelled me to go and see a particular part of the planet was 1977. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" was an event movie in its scale and message. And what a finale! There is truly no visual effect I have seen in the 32 years since this film was released that takes the breath away as the unveiling of the Mother Ship from behind Devil's Tower in northeastern Wyoming.

I had to go and see this place. At 15 years of age I knew enough that the film was a work of fiction but appreciated its simple message that not all aliens come to Earth with dinner and conquest on their minds. What was real was the setting and I pledged then and there that I would one day make it to this unique natural wonder. Who'da thunk it would take one of the most tragic moments in American history for me to finally make the journey.

Following the furlough in Chicago caused by the attack on September 11th, I relocated to Baltimore before setting off on a lengthy road-trip to take stock of my present and future, hoping to purge my mind of all things related to my previous industry which remains in a tail spin to this day. One key stop on the list was Devil's Tower and it was no simple drive in getting there.

When you consider how locations are scouted for feature films, driving to Devil's Tower does not encourage one to believe that anyone actually went there first or simply stumbled across the place. They had to have seen a picture of the monument before deciding to deal with having to get there. State Highway #14 peels off of Interstate-90 in an arc pattern beginning at Moorcroft on the western end and Sundance, Wyoming, to the east, depending on your direction of travel. Somewhere towards the middle of this bulge in the highway is Wyoming Road #24, a crossroads to nowhere anchored by no settlement of any kind. It leads farther north in to the wilderness with only a signpost telling you where you are and what lies ahead.

What, indeed, lay ahead, was simply breath-taking. Several native American nations have cultural ties to what is called The Bear's Lodge in one indigenous language. A few legends ascribe the striation in the rock to the markings left by particularly large bear claws. Either way, it stands alone, rising some 800 feet out of a thick surrounding of forest, commanding everything in sight for miles around. There is no bad angle from which to view the monolith, though access to the top is prohibited. With #24 being the only road in or out I easily recreated some scenes from the film in my mind's eye. It wasn't difficult at all imagining the Mother Ship rising from behind this great natural wonder, either.

The journey was one of cleansing and healing after the trauma of September 11th and the uncertain future that lay ahead of us at the time. At Devil's Tower I found clarity, peace of mind and inspiration to go along with the feelings of joy at finally seeing something that had spoken to me in its way some 25 years before. "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters" would share a common genre, decade and, to some, insult, in being re-envisioned musically by disco producer extraordinaire Meco. Disco or not, each certainly left an indelible musical signature that one and all instantly recognize.

Too bad I can't find that five-tone signature from "Close Encounters" as a ring tone!

Gotta go.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Exit Row Excess

It can be really difficult for a grown man of any age or size to contain the child-like glee of finally going on vacation and being at the airport, just itching to get on the plane and get going. This was my frenetic state as I presented myself, the very first of what would be over 400 people flying to Auckland, New Zealand that night on Qantas from Los Angeles. I had purposely scheduled a whopping six-hours in Los Angeles between my connecting flights; I wanted a cushion for any delays but also to be as early as possible to see about getting a better seat.

I'd pre-reserved my preferred seat, a window, at the time of the reservation but it wasn't forward of the wing where I like to sit. I was hoping for better luck the day of departure at the airport but was told again that those seats were not only completely full but reserved for the "premium" economy customers. My current assignment was somewhere along the middle of the wing which didn't offer the best of views even if most of the flight was in the middle of the night. I politely asked what other options there might be for the flight.

They had barely opened for check-in when I arrived so there wasn't a line behind me; that gave the counter agent all the time in the world to indulge me with the all-important selection of a seat for the 12.5 hour flight. This American Airlines agent was professional, courteous and even shared in the infectious humor of the man-child fidgeting excitedly before him. He found the seat that, I thought, would do the trick: an exit row window. Yes!!

Exit rows are usually held until departure time by the airlines and I felt I had found Solomon's gold as he ran my boarding pass. I laughed at the absurdity of Qantas actually charging $130 for the "privilege" of the aisle or even the middle seat in the exit row, feeling they had missed the boat in giving this particular window seat away scot free. Why? There was reduced legroom at the window, the agent explained, because the over-wing door was right in front of it. The compartment attached to it that holds the evacuation slide bulged in enough, they felt, to impede any real comfort and thus "value" in sitting there. Having sat in such seating on other airlines I felt that the legroom was perfectly fine. I forgot that on those occasions I was in Business Class.

When boarding finally begins I race, as much as a crowded aisle will allow, to my coveted seat and promptly saw exactly what the agent was trying to explain from the cues on his computer screen. The slide pouch was about as far from my knees as any other seat in coach would have been. Worse, I didn't even have my own window. This close to the door I had a solid panel next to me with only a hint of the outside world from the window positioned one row behind me. Shhh-ucks!

The saving grace was that my right leg, at least, could stretch its full length in to the space between my seat and the crew jump seat facing towards me from the forward edge of the door. And the married couple seated next to me didn't seem to mind if my leg got a little too friendly with one of theirs during the flight. Or at least they didn't mind enough to say so.
I wonder if they paid the up charge.

Gotta go!