Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Long Journey Home

One of the last things someone wants deal with after finishing a night working third shift is taking their car back to the dealership for required warranty work. Worse yet is when it's a repair or modification that will take several hours pretty much forcing the owner to either get a ride home or somehow hang around the dealership waiting. You might think such a shared inconvenience would have a chance to draw strangers together and build a nascent solidarity between people having to deal with typical corporate crap these days, unfortunately no, not in this lifetime.

To be fair some automobile dealership waiting areas are better than others. Back when I drove a Toyota that dealership's waiting area during my first visit had several televisions, a real snack bar/grill complete with cook that made sandwiches and burgers, and fairly comfortable chairs and couches that made waiting tolerable. The only thing it lacked that would have made it perfect would have been a dimly lit and quiet room with recliners that would allow the customers to take a nap. I actually recommended such a room on the customer survey only to return six or seven months later to see the snack bar closed, all but one of the televisions removed, and even the comfortable chairs and couches replaced with plastic seats that looked like McDonald's surplus.

My current car is a Kia Rio, and for the most part it's okay but last year about this time, I received a letter from the company saying that while there was absolutely nothing to worry about I needed to call the dealership immediately to schedule an appointment to have a few “minor” things fixed. The letter further stated that if I didn't schedule an appointment by a certain date I would be libel if anything bad happened. With those kinds of warm fuzzies coming from a huge, faceless multinational corporation I called just a few minutes later to schedule an appointment for a Friday morning, which due to the peculiarities of working third shift is the start of my weekend.

While the letter I received didn't directly say these minor repairers might take several hours the dude playing the role of the dealership's service center concierge informed me of that fact in a casual, backhanded manner.

“Okay Mr. Johnson,” he said while looking at his computer screen and typing what I was beginning to believe might be a novel he was working on given that he had been doing it for almost ten minutes. “These repairs usually take about five hours to complete,” he said in a nonchalant way suggesting I should have already known that fact.

“Excuse me,” I replied, far more upset that I should have really should considering the situation I was dealing with. In this day and age, whenever some massive corporation is forced to spend money and time fixing something they did wrong, it is a given that they will do their best to make it as uncomfortable as possible for their customers.

The concierge then informed me that I was more than welcome to take advantage of their waiting area. Which had a television permanently tuned to a channel playing nothing but infomercials, the usual plastic seats, and a pot of coffee that I had already tried and whose contents tasted like used battery acid. Truthfully, their coffee was in a weird way quite the dubious achievement since I had spent several years drinking the rancid swill served by army cooks to soldiers in the field and had come to believe I was now immune to all forms of caustic liquids including drain cleaner. When you take into consideration how tired I was, the last thing I wanted to do was spend five hours waiting for stuff to be fixed on my car that shouldn't have needed to repaired in the first place.

The obvious answer was to call my attorney wife and have her take me home. But that would have required her to stop what she was doing, drive to the distance to the dealership to pick me up, then drive across town to drop me off, only to drive back to her work. That idea was a NO-GO right from the start, so I began mentally preparing myself to stay until my car was ready.

“You know Mr. Johnson,” the dapper concierge said probably seeing the fatigue on my face, “we have a free courtesy shuttle that will take you home. It won't leave for another hour but your welcome to climb inside and catch a nap until that time.”

As soon as the words left that man's mouth I about broke into an impromptu interpretive ballet to display my utter happiness that I wouldn't have to stay in that place. The concierge then walked with me to the shuttle, which was a high-end minivan and unlocked the door. Being the first person on site I called a perfunctory dibs and claimed the front passenger seat. I believe it took less than two minutes for me to doze off.

An hour later, three other passengers seeking transportation climbed aboard, and along with the driver and we soon pulled out of the dealership's parking lot. One of my traveling companions was a nurse who worked at a private practice that was somewhat located in the direction of my house. For that reason, after the driver dropped her off, he made the call to go ahead and take me home. A decision that did not sit well with the two other people in the van.

The first was a guy who, in my opinion, from the moment the driver opened the minivan's big sliding door to let them in seemed upset that I had already claimed the front passenger seat. He was a balding, middle-aged man dressed in a decent J.C. Penney-type suit and carrying a cheap briefcase, which he clutched like it carried the codes for the United States nuclear arsenal. While I am sure he would have about busted a nut had anyone asked if he was an attorney, to me the guy had the look of a second-rate insurance salesman desperate to make his quarterly commission.

The second was a forty-something lady decked out in a patented Hillary polyester paints suit complete with matching scarf and apparent bad attitude. From the moment she climbed aboard, her cell phone never broke contact with her left ear except to dial a new number. Of course, the conversations she engaged in while we were on the road were totally one-sided to the driver, insurance dude, and myself but it was made abundantly clear she hated her ex-husband and sister and didn't really think too kindly about her kids or the poor soul she was married to now. Thinking back on it now, had I been sharing the van's middle seat with her like the insurance guy was, I'd probably have clutched my briefcase tightly taking special care to position it over my tender male areas.

The only thing that united the two disgruntled people behind me were their chorus of deep sighs as the van we all rode moved further west on Interstate-20. I must admit, after a while their joint discomfort was beginning to bother me despite the fact that I had no real power determining the route we were taking. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a complete insensitive ass, I fully understood that their workday was just starting while my weekend was beginning. I'm sure they had tons of issues all demanding their immediate attention while, like me, they had been forced to take their cars in for repairs.

After what to my fellow passengers probably seemed like an eternity of back country roads after leaving the interstate the courtesy shuttle pulled into my driveway. Thrilled that I could now go inside get cleaned up, eat, and rest, I thanked the driver profusely with every intention of not looking back. However, there was this little nagging voice that said the people I was sharing the van with on that painful journey needed some acknowledgment.

“Hey,” I said politely the two after turning in my seat, “ I'm sorry this took you all so far out of your way, you guys have a good day.”

I'll give myself a point for trying to me a decent human being because my effort fell on totally deaf ears. Insurance dude was in a total daze, no he wasn't asleep, but had his eyes wide open and staring off into space. It was the kind of look men have when the daily shit they have to put up with gets so weird they mentally transport themselves to their personal and secret happy place. Paint suit lady broke away from her latest cell phone conversation to give me one of those hate-filled looks that suggested if she had a knife nearby my manhood would soon have resided in a zip lock bag inside her stylish pocketbook.
With my misplaced urge for human decency either ignore or rejected, I jumped out of the van and walked towards the front door of my house. I did catch of a glimpse of paint suit lady looking back my way as the van left my neighborhood. Till the day I die I will remember the cold, dead look in her eyes that would have easily put any supernaturally-inspired, insane killers portrayed in the movies to shame. At that moment I set aside my agnostic beliefs and said a small prayer for the driver and catatonic insurance dude.

Retrieving my car from the dealership later that afternoon was a breeze. My son came home from college for the weekend and after I bribed him and his girlfriend at that time with an offer to stop at local Mexican restaurant we loaded up, picked up my daughter from school and drove off into the metaphorical sunset while munching on chips and salsa.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Summer Storm

Saw this picture on the internet the other day and it reminded of a summer day during my childhood. Painting by Robert Henri (American; American Realism, The Eight, Ashcan School; 1865-1929): Storm Tide

 The neighborhood I spent a large part of childhood was first built in the late 1950's, probably out of a response to the growing affluence of white southerners brought on by businesses building new factories and relocating many from the northern states. They were all taking advantage of the relatively cheap labor that still paid wages far better than most Southerners had ever experienced.

For reasons I don't remember the neighborhood was named Kensington although I did hear a story once that the property was named for an antebellum plantation that existed at that location. I admit, when you consider that possibility that a working class housing development was built on land where slaves once lived and died is quite unnerving. At least to those of us who possess this curiously rare thing called a conscious.

Whatever the case, this neighborhood was located just a couple of miles outside the town limits of Georgetown, South Carolina. And it had what would today be considered the unusual features of having an elementary school and a couple of old fashioned mom-and-pop stores all within its boundaries. This allowed gangs of bicycle riding children a wide area to explore and play until the street lights came on forcing us all to rush back home for dinner. Today's carefully planned subdivisions all seem especially designed to make common chores require someone to get in a car and drive a short distance like dropping off the kids at school or buy a gallon of milk. That didn't mean self-contained communities like Kensington did not have some issues.

Sometime in the early 1970's there was a summer day where my mom pretty much issued the order that I go outside, find some friends, and play until the sun started to go down late in the afternoon. During this period she would have been taking care of the house and my two younger brothers, one barely a toddler and the other an infant. The last thing she needed would have been a bored six or seven year old bumping around the house all day.

So, I did what my mom said and started riding up and down the streets looking for some kids to hang out with until I could return home. I can't really speak for kids today with their in-home gaming systems and the tendency of parents to arrange most aspects of their children's lives, but once the kids in my neighborhood were let loose there was no telling where we would end up.

Surrounding the neighborhood were large sections of forested areas that were perfect for kids wanting to explore or play. These undeveloped parcels, being so near the coast, were quite swampy and inhabited with alligators, poisonous snakes, and even bears. The fact that I don't remember any of my fellow adventurers ending up as snacks for those wild inhabitants is a small miracle. Parents at that time just assumed that the kids would either stay away from the obviously dangerous areas or that they would think of some way to save themselves if they did stumble into trouble.

I don't remember the exact details of that day but I'm sure I spent a good deal of time in those woods playing soldier with the other kids whose moms had also kicked them out of the house. In one section located outside the neighborhood, there were unusual dirt mounds and, for the lack of a better word, trenches cut between those formations and we made full use them for cover and concealment while shooting each other with broken sticks we imagined were rifles. Before long all the shoot Em up bang-bang got boring and we kids would then ride off to some other location.

A few of us ended up at school with the intention of playing kickball in the softball field. This is where a kid's ability to ignore just about everything around then comes into play. It would be impossible to say how long when our hastily organized kickball game had gone on when one of us heard an adult voice scream a name of one of the kids in our group. We all turned and looked in the direction of that voice when we saw about ten adults quickly walking towards our location. At first all of us were puzzled but not concerned, none of us had done anything weird like destruction of property but when I saw the face of my mother in the crowd I instantly knew something had gone very wrong.

Long before the adults reached us, all the kids playing kickball began walking towards them all slightly wondering just what in the hell had we done wrong. Since the softball field was situated right against an east facing treeline of rather old and tall pine trees we didn't see the enormous change in the weather about to overtake the entire area of Georgetown. It was only when us kids stepped onto the neighborhood's main avenue that ran east-west did we see the clouds.

This wasn't a simple thunderstorm, which was quite common to the coastal area, but something far more menacing. I looked up towards the east and saw a massive and midnight black formation of clouds that was something straight from a nightmare. Those clouds seemed to be consuming the world and the brief but numerous flashes of lightning underneath them only made the scene more terrifying. Adding to the ominous sight about to overtake us all, it was at that moment the first clap of god-like thunder hit sending all of us quickly scurrying back to our homes.

Luckily, for my mom, her parents lived a couple of streets over and she was able to get my grandmother to walk over and watch my siblings while she joined the search for the missing kids. My mom and I got back to the house a couple of minutes after the squall line hit the neighborhood, yeah, we were both soaked. Except for the lightning, I thought the run back home through the rain was quite the fun experience. However, my mother totally failed in every possible way to think of the sudden change in weather as anything like fun.

Turns out a tropical storm had suddenly formed off the coast and began making a beeline for South Carolina. With our more advanced weather monitoring systems, I doubt such a system could form these days but one of my clearest memories was of old and respected Charleston weather guy, Charlie Hall scratching his gray hair and worriedly explaining what had happened and how the storm would affect the coast. It mostly went unsaid but at the time the memory of the near apocalyptic 1954 hurricane named Hazel was still on everyone's mind.

This tropical storm eventually passed us by leaving little in the way of damage. The next day it was business as usual for all the other kids and myself but the storm did spawn a good number of tall tales that lasted the rest of the summer.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Doug Tompkins--One of the best who will be sorely missed


All of us lucky enough to draw a breath makes a mark on this planet and the people we encounter. For better or worse the overall impact of the average person is blunted because individually we simply don't have the vision or the resources to do more. To put it nicely, there is a line from one of my favorite songs that says a person, “fills his page of history, dreams his dreams then is gone.” Don't miss understand me, there is nothing wrong living a honorable and simple life taking care of friends and family. God knows human history is almost overwhelmed with individuals who were somehow able to achieve the deadly combinations of power and money leaving nothing but death and destruction in their wake.

Humanity's one saving grace are those few individuals that for whatever reason use their money and power to try and preserve or enhance the existence of people and environments not directly connected to them. Unfortunately, many of these people slip by unnoticed to the general public leaving the impression that someone representing the better angels of our nature never existence at all.

I recently learned about the passing of one of those individuals who really didn't have to use his own fortune to work to preserve an area of the planet which he was not directly connected. His name was Doug Tompkins and I first learned of him watching the 2010 documentary, 180 Degrees South: Conquerors of the Useless.

Born in Ohio in 1943, Doug Tompkins moved west in the early 60's taking part in numerous rock climbing and ski racing event before he and his his wife at the time, Susie, in 1964 founded the outdoor company,The North Face. Later they founded, under the humblest of terms, another company by the name of Esprit. By 1978 sales from Esprit were topping over 100 million a year but concerns over the environmental impact of the fashion industry caused him to sell his share to his now ex-wife, Susie, and take up conservation projects in southern South America after moving to Chile.

Tompkins' first conservation project was Pumalin Park in the Palena Province of Chile consisting of an 800,000 acre region of the Valdivian temperate rain forest. From there he and others went on to purchase more land immediately turning these new parcels in national parks. Here's the rub, after becoming the largest private landowner on earth all these lands were first rehabilitated then turned over to the countries they were located. Tompkins other projects include developing sustainable agriculture techniques and promoting biodiversity.

He passed away on December 8 in southern Chile when heavy waves caused his kayak to capsize. After rescue he was flown to a hospital but eventually died of acute hypothermia.

What I find fascinating about the late Mr. Tompkins is that he kept his public presence extremely low key, even though had he actively sought the spotlight it might have drawn more attention to his environmental causes. When you take into the consideration all the medium-level rich publicity leeches and outright megalomaniacal millionaires and billionaires out to reshape the world in their narcissistic image, Mr. Tompkins' understated and unselfish efforts provides a welcome but brief renewal of hope for our species.

Jump over to the websites below to learn about his environmental efforts.

 Check out 180 Degrees South on Netflix. It's a fantastic documentary.


Sunday, January 3, 2016

Chasing the Ghost

The pounding rain of the tropical storm bouncing around the Gulf of Mexico like a hazy but powerful ball in a giant pinball machine had long since lulled me into a deep and restful sleep. During that time I have vague recollections of some amazingly vivid dreams that were always interrupted with the ringtone from my cell phone. During the blaring music, which in truth was designed to be irritating enough to wake someone out of a deep sleep, everything in my wonderful pseudo-reality would be thrown totally out of whack.

When the music stopped though, the dream pieces would reassemble and I would find myself in some other place and time. Only to have the music return and disrupt whatever wild adventure or intimate interlude I was having with some beautiful lady. Eventually my tortured subconscious mind gave up and kicked me out of dreamland, just in time for the cell phone to start freaking out again.

“Yeah,” I groggily said into the phone while nursing a child-like anger for having my threesome with two former Sports Illustrated cover models interrupted. “You've reached Samuel Archer, what can I do for you?”

“Sammy my friend,” the booming voice of Hector Belmontes said, “I need you to meet me at Lost Horizons as soon as you can either shake the cobwebs out of your head or break away from the woman you picked up here last night.”

“What woman...?” I said trying to make sense of his words until my brain rebooted. I soon remembered I had spent the better part of last evening smooth talking to a newly divorced lady, only to have her cruelly shoot me down. “Oh, yeah, you know Hector you can be a real dick sometimes. This better be about a job or I'll put my foot up your ass, of course only after I gain fifty pounds and can bench your weight.”

Hector thought my words were so funny I worried the guy might be having a heart attack from laughter. Hector was a linebacker for the Miami Dolphins for a couple of seasons back in the late 80's and still looked like a guy who could easily pinch off a regular guy's head from his neck with one of his thumbs and index fingers. “Listen Sam, just get down here before the city floods. This is good, easy money and I know you need every bit of help that comes your way.”

“Yeah, I'm on the way.” I said resigning myself to my dark financial reality.

During the time I spent rummaging around my spartan apartment for things like a clean pair of pants and my wallet I discovered it was almost one o'clock in the afternoon. At least that explained Hector picking the Lost Horizon instead of something sensible like the local IHOP or even Waffle House.

After making myself presentable, to my sorry standards, I stepped out of my apartment. The clouds from the annoying tropical storm had cast a seriously dark pall on the Tampa Bay area leaving the impression of that the world was about to end.

Luckily the drive to Lost Horizon was mostly uneventful. Putting it a better way, as I left the Bay Pines area of St. Petersburg heading towards the strip mall close to the Albert Whitted Airport where Lost Horizon was located, the area hadn't flooded to the point that sharks were cruising the streets. An event whose truth is a subject of intense debate by local residents but I saw one of the damn thing swim by me as I stood on the steps leading up my apartment during a previous storm. But then again, I had endured a meeting with my ex-wife hours earlier and was probably transferring my fear and anger to something other than an evil, supernatural being.

Lost Horizon sat between a tanning salon whose claim to fame was that some reality television star stopped by for an emergency session and a frozen yogurt store that seemed to be staffed with just one person. Every time I walked into Lost Horizon the same 40-something guy would be standing in the same exact spot next the counter with a blank expression on his face. Occasionally, I think about going inside to try and talk to the guy just to make sure that he is alive but in all honest he sort of scares me.

Despite its strip mall disadvantages, Lost Horizon does have an interesting feature, an outside tiki bar complete with a grass hut-like overhang that extends out far enough to shelter several patio tables. After parking my car, I ran up to the empty bar wondering where the hell Hector had gone. I sat at the bar alone for several minutes before the beautiful Gillian Altman decided to leave the warm and dry confines of the interior to take my order.

“What the hell do you want Archer,” she said in a clearly demeaning tone that reminded me of my lovely ex-wife. Gillian is a curious creature, she looks exactly like the actress from the famous television show, so much that when she started working at Lost Horizon most guys who frequented the place developed a crazy theory that she might be the Anderson-type researching a role. An allegation she denied so strongly that three guys who stupidly made a pass at her came back sporting various broken bones. Like the actress, Gillian Altman sports a shapely feminine body, but unlike her doppelganger she also possesses a temper along with enough muscle strength and fighting skill to emasculate the vast majority of men on the planet. The standing rumor now was that she was an ex-CIA agent living with a new face and fake identity while hiding from any number of enemies.

“Just a beer, please,” I responded meekly. “Any idea where Hector might be,” I also asked quickly instinctively lowering my body to partially hide behind the bar.

“He went out to get someone, told me to tell you sit and wait for him.” She said clearly annoyed before stepping back inside.

She returned so quickly with the beer that I almost wondered if she had poisoned the thing. But I shrugged off that idea because if she wanted me dead, her biggest concern would be how to dispose of my body.

Minutes ticked by as I sipped my beer and waited, the rain and occasional clap of thunder my only companions. During this alone time I pondered my relationship with Hector. See I repossess airplanes whose owners have, for whatever reason, failed to make the required payments. People like me don't wallow in the dirty reality show glamour like the chumps who repossess cars, our deadbeats are usually high-end types who wear suits and ties and have college degrees. Which often makes them far more difficult to track down and quite a bit more dangerous. I started tracking one pilot down in Mexico only to end up on an Alaskan island so far in the Bering sea that I could hear some punkass Russian talking on the radio as I flew the newly reacquired plane back to the lower forty-eight.

Because pilots like me are few and far between once you get involved in this racket you eventually develop a relationship with someone who acts as your agent. That turned out to be Hector, who I ran into as both of us were searching for a plane in Jamaica that the owner said had been stolen. He was tired of all the crap involved with the business but wanted to stay close and I was losing assignments because I couldn't juggle the paperwork and find the planes.

Just when I had begun to think Hector might have forgotten about me, a car suddenly pulls up close to the overhang allowing Hector and another guy quickly jump out. After going through the usual motions of introductions Hector, the new guy, and myself settle down to discuss business.

“Mr. Belmontes tells me that you're quite talented at repossessing aircraft.” The new guy said who Hector introduced as Mr. John Black. Right off the bat, Mr. Black had the smell of trouble. Dressed in a suit that looked stolen from one of the Men In Black movies, the guy also possessed such average characteristics of height, face, hair color, and build that if he suddenly walked away I definitely wouldn't recognize him upon his return. While Mr. Black said he worked for a simple aviation finance agency, he reeked of government or, more than likely, corporate espionage spook looking for some fool to do his dirty work.

“Yeah, I'm qualified to fly anything up to the high-end luxury jets, ” I said walking into this situation fully aware of the possible disaster it could end up. No, I'm not a complete fool, but if they guy was willing to pay my price I'm give it a go.

Mr. Black chuckled, “No, nothing that glamorous I'm afraid. I need you to repossess a simple Cessna Caravan seaplane whose owner owes the people I represent quite a bit of money.”

“Awesome,” I said, “I known Caravans like my ex-wife's inner thighs, just where is this bird?”

“Aren't you curious as to why my people are looking for someone like you to find this plane?” Mr. Black asked in a way that almost contorted his face to the point it had the hint of an expression.

“Look Mr. Black,” I said wanting to get past all the usual bullshit, “if you pay the amount I ask, I don't give a rat's rear end about the details. Hector can tell you I've dealt with Central American drug lords, guerrilla fighters, and totally sleazy exiled mafia types who just can't give up that last perk of their former power. You want this plane, all I need to know is the serial number on the engine block, the name of the deadbeat who has it, and his or her last location. The only questions is the price, and I'll be honest, if you've come to me I know you're desperate and that means my fees will be high.”

I guess Mr. Black liked my answer because he smiled, not like a normal human being would but in the way some undead zombie might after stumbling across a group of stupid teenagers in the woods at night. Now, I did get slightly concerned when I told Mr. Black how much I was going to charge him to find this plane and he just shrugged. His one condition was that I could not attract the attention of the press in any shape or fashion. It wasn't an uncommon consideration given the notoriety of some of the deadbeats so I agreed.

After that we all shook hands with Mr. Black giving me the folder holding all the information on the person who had the plane. I had just enough time to read the name of the deadbeat then to look up and see Hector and Mr. Black drive off in his car. Just as the car disappeared in the pouring rain I saw Black looking my way with a mysterious Cheshire cat smile on his face.

The person I had to find was one Singapore John Smalls, scientist, adventurer, inventor, and billionaire who by all accounts was supposed to have died ten years before. “Oh crap,” I said out loud to myself, “this is going to be fun.” 

End of part one