30 October 2012

It's Over

My area of Virginia (usually known as Central Virginia) escaped the worst of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Sandy. Sandy thankfully took a more northerly route before turning inland and all of us should send our thoughts, prayers, and positive energy towards New York and New Jersey where the damage is pretty damn awful. Many people have died (I'll touch a little more on that in a bit). NYC will be more or less shut down for days thanks to flooded subways, flooded electrical systems, damaged roads and buildings, and a construction crane that fell over. The engineers had to climb 74 flights of stairs to get to where they could even evaluate the situation. Good luck with that one, folks. My blogger friends here in VA also seem to have escaped more than some seeping water and some driveway flooding. After a four day weekend, it will be back to work tomorrow.

Time for some Periodic Rants:

1) My employer has for the entire time I have worked there, used plain English to communicate closings to students and employees. For employees, they would just say "Central office and 12 month employees do not report", or "Central office employees and 12 months employees report". For the most part, employees who work less than 12 months (teachers, some support personnel, etc.) don't report unless students report. Here is the notice that was first put on the website telling us we were closed on Monday:
This is in plain English, and makes so much sense. Later on, the website was changed to this:
Now if we see a closure notice on TV, we're going to have to go online (or carry a cheat sheet with us - maybe the county will cover cheat tattooes) to see if any particular class of employee has to come to work. Code 0 is "no employees report". I like Class 0. But leave it to a bureaucracy to make a simple system complicated.

2) Many people died during the storm. Up and down the coast, people lost their lives, many times through their own stupidity. I noted earlier on my Facebook page that "...Two storm-related traffic fatalities have been confirmed by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner." Here's my rant: Why in the heck does it matter that two traffic fatalities are attributed to the storm? Every fricking time it rains around here, at least two people die in traffic-related accidents, but they don't get an official attribution in the VDEM press releases. No one can drive in the rain in Virginia. It's like the roads turn to ice and all brakes fail.

End of rants. Must get sleep so I can get in early tomorrow to avert the almost certain disaster that will await us as we try to bring 23 schools back online and functioning within about an hour before the bell rings!

28 October 2012


Due to the storm approaching our area, and Governor Bob McDonnell's declaration of an emergency in Virginia, the Dept. of Emergency Management (VDEM) has activated the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), and they have also activated the Amateur Radio Communications Auxiliary (ARCA). This is preparation for the likelihood that some locality's EOCs could lose normal communications routes and need Amateur Radio to communicate their needs to the EOC and their vast resources (even FEMA has a table in the EOC).

I spent ten hours operating the ARCA amateur station at the EOC on Saturday. It was fairly boring since nothing had hit the state by then, but it was nice to be able to get familiar with the equipment again without a lot of pressure. I also discovered that although I was able to access the Internet using the internal WiFi network, I could not access the WebEOC system which is a web-based system used statewide by all EOCs to communicate needs back to the VDEM EOC (which is conveniently located about 3 miles from my house in the basement of the State Police headquarters on Midlothian Turnpike). I emailed the support folks, one gentleman came down and confirmed the problem. A little while later, when the second ham showed up to work, he found them clustered around the servers that host WebEOC (sound familiar?). I happen to glance over at one of the screens and there it is! All loaded up and ready to go. But, now we have no Internet access. And it's affecting everyone who is using the WiFi network. This time, they get the networking folks involved, and within about 20 minutes, everything is working again.

About 11PM, I headed home, as did the other ham. Several others showed up early this morning to cover until 7AM Monday when four more of us (me included) will return for another 12 hour shift (or longer, partially depending on what happens at work on Tuesday). At least they feed us!

22 October 2012

And what a weekend it was!

I went off last weekend to the Fall RASSFest. RASS is short for the Richmond Area Speleological Society - note: cavers and caving...not spelunkers and spelunking...as our bumper stickers say, "Cavers Rescue Spelunkers" - whom we consider to the t-shirted, tennis-shoed crowd with a single flashlight apiece and way too much booze in them to be safe in any cave! I've been a member of this particular grotto (chapter) of the National Speleological Society since 1986. I spent about 12 years on the board of directors. One of the more contentious issues was the idea of buying some property to be used as a base camp, somewhere west of the Blue Ridge Mountains where caving country starts in Virginia. Finally, in about 1993, we found Eden in the Virginia mountains. In a place called Green Valley, we discovered 26+/- acres, and a motivated seller who did NOT want the property going to the adjacent landowner so he could expand his hunting guide business. We bought the property for next to nothing and set out to improve it.
The house the lady lived in needed extensive repair. We re-roofed it, put on a front porch that wasn't rotten, repaired the stoops, chimneys, and floors, and built bunks in all the rooms other than the kitchen. Upgraded the electrical service. The bunk house was born. We repaired the well, and beefed it up to provide water to the newly constructed bath house that included two flush toilets each for the men and women, and two shower heads for each gender. Hot showers are a godsend after a wet, muddy cave trip. Later on, some electricity was added for campers, and a pavilion was built for our gatherings to have a central spot. We have an official bon fire pit (since moved once we bothered to look UP and see that it was directly under the power lines serving the bath house). We are very careful with fire, and all campfires are required to be in metal rings, plus, we comply with all county fire bans, etc. After about 20 years of using this property, I posted this to the group's Facebook page yesterday:
An Open Letter to the members of RASS:
I admit I haven't been as active as I once was, but I was on the Board at the time we decided to look into purchasing some property in caving country. There were months of back and forth, pros and cons, and finally, we bought the RASS Field Station. 
The reason I write is to make sure one of those "forths" and "cons" has been put to bed:
I was thrilled to see the condition of the Field Station this weekend. WOW! RASS members and their guests have done an exceptional job of maintaining this property in pretty much pristine condition. I would like to say THANK YOU to everyone who has helped maintain the buildings and systems, and to everyone who has been so careful with maintaining the roads and camping areas, and have left it in better than they found it condition after visiting. It would be hard to uphold the old argument that "it'll just get trashed and ruined" after seeing the property after nearly 20 years of continuous use by RASS, VAR, members and guests, and so many others! It's GREAT to be a member of an organization that cares so much about the things they have that make their caving and camping and socializing and everything else so much easier. You all deserve the highest praise for that accomplishment!
NSS #####RL FE (I blanked my membership number because that can lead to some very personal information...RL means I am a Regular Life Member of the National Speleological Society, the FE means I am a Fellow of the {National Speleological} Society)
It really was great to be in this pristine spot in Green Valley camping with some of the nicest people I know.
As you read above, I haven't been particularly active with the cavers - and haven't been underground in a lot longer, but once a caver, always a caver.

One thing that my long absence from camping allowed me to realize was that there were four basic reasons why, as an Official Olde Farte (OOF), camping wasn't as attractive to me as it once was. The first of those reasons was that I am tired of sleeping on the ground. I don't care how expensive your "ground pad" is, if it is 7/16" of an inch thick, it will NOT be a comfortable thing to sleep on if you are a bony old man like me (even though I am pretty well padded). The second is that I have to, as an OOF, get up to pee more times than I care to count in the night. As a younger Olde Farte, I used a pee bottle - camp with me, never drink out of a square Nalgene bottle! Sleeping in a tent makes the use of a pee bottle almost mandatory in the winter - even the late fall months in the mountains. Number three..."Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three"...I am tired or dressing and undressing in a structure that is 36" high. Even my high dollar, top notch, best of the best mountaineering tent that I used in snowstorms with 50MPH winds and 12-15 inches of snow being dropped overnight, is only 44" high in the center. Getting dressed as an OOF in a freaking tent sucks in those conditions. And then there is the whole crawling out of a tent thing. Nothing like starting out the day officially damp...you get to crawl out through the dew/rain/snow. In any case, you are wet before you even start the day. Ugh. When I was young, OK, I could cope, deal with it, whatever. Now, not so much fun.
 So I went out and I bought a tent! But a different kind of tent. It attaches to the back of my Xterra. Now I can sleep in the back of the truck, off the ground, on a nice fat air mattress. I can slide out, and stand up to get dressed. Here's a  picture of my "spaceship":

The exterior
The interior (the mattress isn't pushed fully
into the truck)


My LED headlamps are hanging from the hooks at the top. The sleeping bag is a down filled, zero degree bag. I sleep on the mattress, and use the bag as a blanket. COMFY!!! I like comfy. And warm.
Dinner on Saturday was a real treat. I helped cook since I'm still not in any shape to go caving. Big, round and oddly shaped is a disaster waiting to happen in a cave. The cooking crew started at 11AM chopping vegetables, and threw it all into a 20 gallon cast iron cauldron over the fire.
This is the pavilion as we started dinner prep at 11AM.
Everything is so nicely laid out!
I chopped about 50 full cloves of garlic, 20 onions, lots of
celery, a bunch of yellow, green, red and orange peppers,
then about 10 pounds of smoked sausage.

Here's the veggies softening.
This turned into 10 gallons of spaghetti sauce! Here, the smoked
sausage and the 140 meatballs have been added to the mix.
Stirring is an art, so you bring out the flavors of the eye of newt
and tail of dragon!
This is the bread topping...they are slicing the tops off about
50 full cloves of garlic, which are then soaked in olive oil and
slow cooked for about 3 hours...then the garlic is squeezed to
get the meat into the dish, mixed with butter and some Italian
seasoning, and spread over Italian Pugliese bread. 
Here, Bob, John and Rich pour out the last
of the 20 pounds of spaghetti into serving
pans, the garlic bread is in the foreground. 
One of RASS' younger members ladling out
some of the ten gallons of spaghetti sauce.
There was none left after the line had gone through.
Remember that empty pavilion? Here it is at about 7:15PM as
80-85 people chow down on spaghetti, sauce, bread, salad (36
quarts worth) and...yeah...just wait...
Dessert was four "dump cakes"! 
Top to bottom: Apple and Pineapple with
Coconut topping, Apple and Pineapple with
Nuts and Coconut topping, Apple and Pineapple
with Nut topping, and Apple and Pineapple with
no topping! These were heavenly!!!
After the dinner, we gathered around the fire. It's a big fire. Ten feet in diameter, and soooo warm. 
The fire. 
Some of the crowd. 
We have some professional musicians in the club, and
they entertained us around the fire. 
And I leave you with this:
My feet. The bottle of Evan Williams is just out of sight to
my right! 

06 October 2012

A Bus Ride

I'm going to start out by asking you, no matter what your religious beliefs may be, to start this playlist while you read this post. I think you will understand the post a lot more if you do. I typed this through the tears of joy at remembering a seminal event in my life. One that solidified my religious beliefs and also contributed more to my movement from kid to adult than almost anything else ever in my life. And it revolved around a bus ride.

I used to be a very active religious kid. I was at church two or three nights a week. When I was in the sixth grade, I discovered youth choir. The music program at the church I attended had a very charismatic director, and he pulled us kids in right and left, and made learning music and performance fun. The next summer, between the seventh and eighth grades - 1972, we were encouraged to go to a Southern Baptist music camp. This camp was held at some neglected summer camp facility somewhere in the middle of nowhere. I didn't much like the camp. I am sure a lot of that was due to the fact that my voice picked that very week to crack for the first time. OH NO!!!! All the other boys were either not at that stage, or enough past it that it didn't matter. So I stuck out like a sore thumb. Other than that, it was a wonderful experience, and on Friday night, we performed the musical we had worked on all week for our families  then packed up and went home on Saturday morning. I decided I was going back the next year, come hell or high water, because I had something to prove - that my voice had settled down.
Of course, fate has a way of intervening in the best laid plans of mice and men. December 1972 saw my family moving from South Carolina to West-by-God-say-it-with-a-smile-Virginia. I was devastated in more ways than one. But I had no choice, and off to West Virginia I went. That's where I discovered the Fifth Avenue Baptist Singers, known as the FAB Singers (not "fab" but F-A-B). They also performed what were called folk musicals, and I fit right in.
Image being 14 and realizing you would be performing on this stage in
6 days!!! To a guaranteed full house!!!! Part of the pipe organ is
visible in the upper left. That's about a fourth of it.

When it was time to register for camp, I got mom on the job. By early spring, I was registered and looking for a way to get to South Carolina and back. What mom sort of neglected to tell me was that I wasn't going back to that awful summer camp facility, I was going to Furman University to the HIGH SCHOOL camp! Since I'd jumped from the 8th grade to the 9th grade because of the move, and the camp groups were based on school grade, not age. So  I was headed to a university to spend a week on campus, living in a dorm, and performing on Friday night in a 2000 seat auditorium with a HUGE pipe organ! Furman is located in the northwest corner of South Carolina in Greenville, and is a private Baptist school.

More interesting to me was that my mode of transportation was to be by Trailways bus! Excuse me? No roadtrip with mom and dad behind the wheel??? Oh. My. God. I was elated. And so scared I felt it in my balls.
I can remember surrendering my suitcase to the bottom
of this monstrosity, and having to manhandle my guitar
on board and overhead. 
Mom took me down to the bus station and we bought a roundtrip ticket from Huntington, WV to Greenville, SC. The trip down sucked. The bus was on a milk route. Meaning...it stopped at every damn crossroads between WV and SC. The 330-odd mile trip took nearly 24 hours. The worst part was that we didn't drive over the West Virginia Turnpike (back then the WV Turnpike was said to control the excess population of WV so maybe it was better we detoured around it). However, the "nearly parallel" road was far worse. Barely two lanes wide, and having no improvements like wide turns, it was a sea sick nightmare, though I did manage to avoid throwing up. Unlike several others on this train wreck of a bus ride. Most of them made it to the toilet located in the right rear of the coach. Note I said "most". Ugh. Route 16 in West Virginia should be demolished. Actually, now that the West Virginia Turnpike has been upgraded to almost-Interstate-grade, it is used by the few buses that traverse the state. It has to be easier riding. And driving. And far less sickness inducing.

Mom had arranged for a ride from the bus station to the university campus. I honestly don't remember how I got from the station to the campus, but I do remember having to drag my stuff what felt like halfway across the damn state to my dormitory. This stuff included clothes and my guitar. My roommate was a cool dude, and we hit it off immediately. Saturday night was an introduction to the week. We'd have various music classes in the mornings, then some lunchtime/early afternoon down time, then 3 to 5 hours of intensive rehearsal of the musical. (If you didn't start the YouTube playlist at the top, here it is again so you'll know what we were up against. We had a band, but in the recording the parts played by the orchestra were covered by the organ and band.) In the evenings there were social activities, more rehearsals, and bedtime. The next day, we'd get back at it. It was intense, to say the least, but I was loving every second of it. I had a classical guitar class. Totally awesome. Voice class. Music theory. Then the mass rehearsals. There were about 200 of us. Professional actors provided what you hear as the narration in the playlist. Soloists were selected from our midst. Our guitar class played our guitars for several pieces.

I just got to the Lord's Prayer part. Pardon me while I pray.
"Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done on earth,
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
The power, and the glory,
For ever and ever.

Friday night arrived. Unfortunately mom and dad couldn't make the trip down. I had 3 siblings that needed tending, and dad was busy at work. But that was OK with me. I saw how so many of the others were stressing out because their parents would be there. I was just scared my voice would crack again (it had once in a while on particularly high or low notes), or that I'd forget the guitar chords, or that I'd pass out from fright or I'd just somehow screw up what was, up to now, the largest performance I'd ever been a part of. And as predicted, the house was full. Every seat. Our entrance was down the aisles, the guitars playing, everyone singing, the organ going full tilt. It was so emotional, but we managed to keep it together and the whole ensemble assembled onstage. Then it got intense.

It came off tremendously.

But now the week was over. As the postlude to this post, if you haven't listened to the whole thing, at least click on this link and listen to the postlude of Celebrate Life! We all hung out in and around the auditorium until we were chased away. It was a bittersweet time. I made my way back across the campus to my dorm room and sadly stuffed my clothes back into my suitcase, cased up my guitar, and undressed for bed. Sleep was fitful.

One reason I had trouble sleeping was that I had no idea how I was getting back to the bus station the next morning. I finally got a few minutes, or hours (maybe) of sleep. Saturday dawned much too early. I was up, dressed, and out of the dorm. I had breakfast and started pulling my stuff back towards the auditorium, still unsure how I'd get back to the bus station in Greenville. Imagine my surprise when a van pulled up beside me and asked if I needed a ride. It was obviously a church van, with 5 or 6 of my fellow campers already in it (none of whom I knew). I explained my situation, and within a couple of minutes we were headed towards the Continental Trailways bus station in Greenville. I waved goodbye to my new found friends as they pulled away, and went into the bus station. It was a rather depressing cinder block building with a parking area much too small for many buses, as far as I could tell. I went up to the counter with my (round trip) ticket that had been purchased at the Trailways bus station in Huntington. The clerk looked at it. Then he looked at me. Then he handed me my ticket and said "I don't know where you got this, but we don't have a bus to Huntington". I was stunned. I asked what the heck I was supposed to do. I explained that I had bought the ticket in Huntington, as a round trip. His response was that Continental Trailways did not have a bus traveling to Huntington, WV and that basically, I was shit-out-of-luck. I suppose that I teared up, and started to cry. I might have been 14 years old, but I was a scared kid, 300+ miles from home, and I had just been told that I wasn't getting home by the prescribed route set out a few weeks earlier. The man looked at me, and said "Greyhound runs a bus up there". I asked what I was supposed to do about that. He said "Greyhound will accept your ticket from us and get you there." My next question was "how the {fuck} was I supposed to get to the Greyhound bus terminal?" His response was "take a taxi". I didn't know much about travelling by taxi, but I knew I had about two or three dollars in my pocket. Maybe a bit more. Back then, spending money for teenagers was a lot less than it is these days, and I (as planned, I guess) had little need for money.

But I didn't care. I got into a taxi out front. Told him to take me to the Greyhound bus terminal. So he did. I paid him with whatever cash I had. Then I confronted the man at the counter. There was some argument, and probably a few adolescent tears, but soon I had a ticket to Huntington, WV! Via Charleston, WV (40 miles from Huntington), with a 4 hour layover there.

I called mom collect. For those of you who might not know what a collect telephone call is, go read this. She was pretty upset that things had changed, but my distress actually calmed her, and she said "OK, we'll see you when you get here". I got on the bus. It was another long trip, but nothing like the milk run I'd endured coming down. The bus, a Greyhound this time, arrived in Charleston, WV at 2:00AM.

I called home again (collect), waking everyone up (I'm not sure I cared at that point). The connection didn't leave until something like 7:45AM. I could get home in 3 hours instead of something like 8 hours. Mom sent dad to get me. He wasn't particularly pleased, but I got home a lot sooner!

I grew up a lot during this adventure. I learned that my parents trusted me a lot. I know that my God looked out for me a lot. I was on my own, and overcame a fair number of obstacles. And I know that my God loves me! Thank you, God.

01 October 2012

Business To Take Care Of

I have a business account with Bank of America (BoA). It is free as long as I use my business debit card once a month. Weird requirement for a tiny business like mine. I can spend $2.00 and BoA makes about 70¢ on that transaction (taken out of the merchant's revenue). But if I forget to buy a biscuit on the way to a shoot (or on the way to my day job), it costs me $15!!!

Last month, I got a Text Alert from BoA!!!! A Balance Alert!!!! I admit I don't keep a lot of money in my business account; I tend to transfer money in when I need it to cover business expenses, and with the trip to England I let the balance drop a bit. But a Balance Alert? WTF?

I stormed into the local branch at lunch time. A very nice "Personal Banker" takes me into his cubicle and lets me rant. He (almost) instantly reminds me that I have to use the card monthly. I explained I was out of the country and simply forgot.

He leaves and gets another man, a manager. This gentleman also listens to my rant, and indicates that they will refund my fees. For this month. And August. I am happy when I leave, but I figure that I will have to go back to the bank this month to get the other $15 back.

SURPRISE SURPRISE!!!! My Online Statement reminder comes. I hit my account. Amazingly, BoA (probably my "Personal Banker") has refunded the $15 taken out the day before. Could it be that BoA has figured it out and decided that their customers are more important than their bottom line?

NAH, NO WAY! I just got lucky that my "Personal Banker" found whatever Post-It note he wrote last month. But I'm happy to have my $15 back, and to say thanks, I bought a $2 biscuit the other morning so BoA would get their 70¢ and thank ME! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

Oh, and as a side note on financial matters...I saw a TV ad that offers a personal signature loan of $10,000. Just go online and apply. Here's the APR notice: 89.68%. HOLY FUCK ME!!! 68 monthly payments of $752.93!!!! For those if you un-inclined to launch calculator.exe, that equates to a total repayment of $51,199.24!!!! How desperate can you be? I guess if I needed to get out of jail and had Internet access while under arrest, this might work. But of course, then I'd disappear and never repay these thieves. Good heavens, is the economy that bad that corporations made to help people who need help are ripping off everyone ELSE???