Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Perfect (Snow) Storm

Pennsylvania has four distinct seasons, each of approximately 3 months duration. Around here, March generally conforms to the old maxim "in like a lion, out like a lamb" - and was showing every sign of doing just that. Until yesterday...

What if a mass of moist air came up from the southwest? What if it chilled down to around the freezing point, right where ice cream keeps the best? What if every area meteorologist mistakenly forecast it as an afternoon rain shower?

What if it descended as a wet blizzard - AT RUSH HOUR?

Here the trailer fades to black for a moment, then the first clip hits for maximum impact - oh, say, a semi truck toppling sideways over an embankment. That scene, and many like it, were part of my drive home from work yesterday. I've been doing the same 15-mile commute since 1997, and I have never seen such a godawful mess on the roads.

The precipitation started as sleet and freezing rain, then changed to
fat, wet snowflakes, falling at the rate of 2 inches an hour. It coated the roads with an inch-thick sheet of ice, overlaid with slush, about the same as driving on axle grease. I left my office at 4:00, stopped at the store for a few items, then set about the grim task of picking my way home - along with ten thousand or so of my fellow commuters. What follows is an exercise in winter motoring survival.

My first choice was Interstate 81, my normal route and the most direct. The traffic report on my favorite FM station is no help: the reporter just made the blanket statement "Every road in the area is awful". Great. I tried anyway, but as I turned up the long ramp to the interstate, I saw a line of parked traffic over a mile long; I wheeled around and headed towards the mid-valley. It took me over thirty minutes just to go around the mall and hospital, about half a mile; in front of me was a logjam of cars, including two ambulances with their lights and sirens going; they were stuck fast, and I hoped there weren't critical patients on board.

At last moving away from the mall, I had to choose between the local Route 11 which runs along the river, and Route 315 which parallels I-81 and leads to the turnpike. Still no help from the radio; after five tries I get a cellphone call through to tell Gail not to wait for dinner. I briefly considered checking into a nearby freeway motel, while there were still rooms to be had; but hell, I'm a northerner - I resolved to push on. I chose 315, since in four miles it would reach a junction with the PA Turnpike and I-81; the 'pike is generally better-maintained than the Interstates, so I would have at least two choices.

315 rises and falls over the hills like a rollercoaster, was slick as Teflon, and bumper-to-bumper. Snow was falling at whiteout-rate. At every uphill stretch, we lost a few more vehicles - first, someone in a New Bug gave up. Then a two-wheel-drive pickup with an empty bed could go no farther. A new Lexus slid off the right shoulder - don't those things have traction control? Then the damnedest one, a big brand-new semi rig going the other direction. The trucker was sliding left and right, desperately trying to keep moving; then he dropped the outboard wheels over the shoulder, and the whole truck toppled sideways into the ditch like an oak. I boggled, wondering why he didn't prudently park his rig in the center and wait it out, as many of the other drivers did.

Amazingly, my little front-drive Ford Focus wagon continued to scrabble up the hills. It took almost exactly an hour to go those four miles. When I reached the highway exchange I saw that traffic was stopped going southbound, but creeping steadily north on 81. I joined the parade and made good progress, although at anything over 25 m.p.h. the car began fishtailing in the heavy ice and slush - the median and shoulders were littered with vehicles driven by the less prudent. I didn't see anyone stranded or injured, though; those who ditched were being picked up by the next vehicle along. I also didn't see any snowplows or PennDOT trucks!

Eventually I arrived at my exit and stood at the bottom of my hill, the last steep half-mile to my abode. There is another way to reach my neighborhood by circling around Lake Scranton, but it too was a stopped line of cars, so I shifted into low gear and pointed the Focus upslope. Following a minivan, we weaved around two more mired vehicles, and I managed to make it to my block! With a grin I skidded askew into my garage and switched off the ignition.

At ten-to-seven. Two hours and fifty minutes, for a drive that takes 20 minutes on a dry day. Phew! I've had some tough commutes, but this one deserves a folk song.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Beware the Ides of March

"I knew I should have listened to Artemidorus. Cassius is watching me like a hawk, and Brutus says I scratched his new Portia. And I can't decide to have roast chicken for lunch, or just a salad. If only I could combine them somehow..."

- Julius Caesar

Well, the ides of March are here, and I believe there are forces conspiring against me too. Gail and I had a nice weekend, watched the St. Pat's parade downtown and went for a short flight Saturday. Sunday evening things started to fall apart, though, starting with me. Hungry after our walk around Lake Scranton, I dipped into a dish of very old hard candy, and broke a tooth. No pain, since I had had a root canal on that one; but a sharp kick in the checkbook, as I will have to get a porcelain crown. Damn. This on top of car, garage and fridge repairs over the last few weeks.

And yesterday my mother went in for a minor surgery. So I took the day off from work to take her to the hospital and get her checked in, and Gail and I and my mother's friend Dave waited there until she was out of surgery. I slipped out for an hour to get my tooth looked at, since I had a dentist appointment scheduled anyway. I'm happy to report that the surgery went well and that Mom is recovering; today I'm at work trying to chip away at the backlog of projects on my desk.

Tonight I will be on the treadmill again - race up to my mother's place to feed her cat, swing by the hospital, then go home and change into my uniform for the CAP meeting. I'll have to wear my dress blues, because we are having a change of command ceremony; my squadron commander is stepping down after six years due to career considerations. Who's the lucky stiff to take his place on the hot-seat?

Yes, that's right, me. I have successfully fended off two previous attempts to install me as a squadron commander, but this time there is no escaping it. (Gads, didn't Caesar refuse the crown three times? This metaphor is getting scary.) I'll take the reins and do my best to keep the squadron running, but it's just awful timing what with everything else I'm trying to juggle. I expect to do a lot of delegating! Hopefully the officers won't slip me the shiv straight away; ambition should be made of sterner stuff, indeed.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Enter the Haggis!

Rockin' the bagpipes
Originally uploaded by AviatorDave.
Last night, Gail and I went to see a concert at the Scranton Cultural Center: Enter the Haggis*, a Celtic/Rock/Bluegrass fusion band. It was a last-minute decision, but tickets were available and inexpensive. It was a great show! The band played in the ballroom rather than the theatre, so seating was informal - around tables with refreshments available. (Bubbly, brewed refreshments - it is St. Pat's weekend, after all.)

Gail stayed up late to post the pictures and write about the show, I fell asleep - TGIF!

* Haggis is a Scottish dish consisting of a mixture of the minced heart, lungs, and liver of a sheep or calf mixed with suet, onions, oatmeal, and seasonings and boiled in the stomach of the slaughtered animal. This is considered by Scots to be not only a proud tradition, but actually edible.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Hugh the Cat

Originally uploaded by AviatorDave.
I've had Hugh since he was a newborn kitten, just a handful of snoozing fur. I got him from a farmer friend of mine in the springtime; his mother was a little black barn cat, and his father was a "travelin' man". Despite having a tiny mother, Hugh grew to over 18 musclebound pounds.

In his salad days he was quite an athlete - he could snatch a flying toy mouse out of the air, four feet off the ground, in a vertical 360. Nowadays he's not so quick and lithe, although he's still playful for his age. He's sprained his back a few times, his right ear is withered from an old injury, and to my chagrin he has become incontinent - he pees in his sleep. This has resulted in his being evicted from our new bed, poor chap.

He has always been friendly and social, with everyone except toddlers and dogs. All his life he has followed me around the house like my shadow, and still parks himself on my person for naps at every opportunity. In every way, a most agreeable little companion.

Gail and Hugh have been getting to know each other, over the past few months. It's going well so far; it's a novelty for him to have someone around during the day to complain to when he's hungry (always) and to allow him a foray outside to blink at the sun, when the weather is fair. (He's declawed in the front, so I can't let him run free; he couldn't fight a fully-armed cat, if the need arose.) I'm glad to report that Gail likes him too, and has been kind and patient with the old bean.

He has certainly never been photographed so much! And Gail has really been able to capture his personality; Her Flickr album of his pictures is hilarious, and has drawn many comments; he is easily the most popular subject among my photos too. Last night Gail posted a photo of Hugh sitting at the table, looking at her Powerbook; within hours someone posted this picture of their cat, watching Hugh's picture on their laptop! Gail and I were in stitches.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Man's Quest for Wings

When the skies turned up clear and blue Saturday morning, Gail and I knew we were going flying. But where to, today? I had been telling her about the places that small-plane pilots congregate; airports with good restaurants! One of my favorite stops in past seasons had been the "Wild Wings Cafe" at the airport in Reading, Pennsylvania. They had over a dozen varieties of chicken wings, and offered a five-way sampler... mmm! Reading is a nice short jaunt, around eighty miles from here; about a 45-minute flight.

So after chipping the plane out of the hangar (another big snowfall had blanketed Cherry Ridge) we were soon aloft and turning southwest. Gail filmed my takeoffs and landings; I can't sweep it under the rug if I bounce one now, she's got evidence! The day was perfect for flying, the air was calm and far warmer than our last trip to upstate New York.

Cleared to land at Reading, and as it turned out I didn't bounce this one. Rather good, actually. As we slowed and rolled out towards the taxiway, the tower controller called and said "Nice paint job, zero-two papa. Looks good." The sunny day was showing the garish colors of my plane to good effect; I enjoy it, it's fun to have something other than white-with-a-stripe. But then he called again with bad news - the Cafe had closed last fall, what were our intentions? Drat. Well, not a total loss; I turned around on the taxiway (try that in a Learjet!) and obtained clearance to cross the runway to the north end of the field. There, in the airport's older hangars, is the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum. They have a nice collection of vintage aircraft, including a few WWII birds and some classic airliners from the 1950s. We parked 02P on the vast ramp, tied her down and wandered over to the static displays.

The ramp was almost deserted, although the airport was fairly busy with transient traffic. But as we approached a museum guide came out with a small tour group; an Amish family, of all things. A husband and wife and a bunch of kids, all dressed in the characteristic style of the Pennsylvania Dutch. (Since one of the tenets of their way of life is a rejection of the modern world and its technology, it was rather incongruous to encounter them here -- boggling curiously at sleek silver airliners!) We gave in to curiosity too, presumably with less shame, and began exploring the old birds mellowing in the sun.

She's macro, I'm candid
Originally uploaded by AviatorDave.
Airplanes are real expressions of engineering, and an opportunity to examine them closely reveals many interesting details. The materials and structures, and the shapes of things dictated by flowing air; and the added visual excitement of the weathering and age on these old machines, and the colorful paint schemes both military and civilian. So Gail and I both started photographing in earnest, tucking away the sights in the memory cards of our cameras.

Eventually we toured the inside of the big main hangar, for a nominal fee, and looked at the work progressing in the restoration shop. They are restoring a very rare WWII aircraft, a P-61 "Black Widow"; the first radar-equipped night fighter, which was built in small numbers near the end of the war. It's an enormous plane for a fighter, twin-engined and the size of a medium bomber. Their job really amounts to remanufacturing, since all they had to start with was a weathered wreck; but when complete it will be the only flying example in the world. The rest of the hangar houses some smaller static displays and the other flying aircraft of the collection, including the same B-25 "Mitchell" bomber that I got a ride in when I was 14.

We maintained our tradition of getting kicked out of museums at closing time, and wandered over to the stage set for the WWII reenactment that takes place every June. It's a clever plywood replica of a bombed-out French village, complete with tacked-on German signs and many other details. Gail found unique perspectives all over the ville faux, especially where the sun and weather had worked on the various surfaces. And while we were outside we saw a unique sight - hundreds, likely thousands, of geese were migrating overhead! In long, undulating lines and vees they were crossing from south to north, heading back to their Canadian summer homes. Apparently the Reading airport is right on their migratory route, something I filed away for the flight back home. I managed a few interesting views with my powerful zoom lens, and Gail caught some nice formations.

Eventually, in hunger, I had to pull Gail away and back to the plane; I decided that the best course would be to fly back home by nightfall and have dinner back north. The flight back was slightly longer, with a light headwind, but we were treated to a handsome sunset just five minutes from home. I actually watched the last sliver of sun disappear over the mountains and wink out.

Driving back home, we stopped at an Irish pub and restaurant: "Molly Maguires" tucked away in the timelost hamlet of Olyphant, PA. (If you ever get the urge to shoot a period film set in a mid-1960s small town, this is your place. Call me for directions.) The menu there is long, pages and pages, and includes many traditional Irish dishes. We finally got our chicken wings, and lots of other things combining potatoes, onions, butter, sausage and beer in various combinations; we ate until we were sated, and well beyond. (*burp*)