July 22, 2007

Winding down our week at the beach….

Growing up, our family would vacation at North Carolina’s Outer Banks – Nags Head, Duck, Avon.  My earliest beach memories are of staying at one of the many modest oceanfront motels along Route 12.  Typically family owned, weather-worn and showing their age, these accommodations were nondescript at best – but they rated 5 stars to my little brother and me.  Come on, we were at the beach.  What’s more, we were on the beach!  What could be better than that?

I found out a few years later, when our vacation lodging changed to a pop-up Starcraft camper.  This made a good thing even better.  Not only were we at the beach, we were camping at the beach!  Sometimes, if our campsite was close enough to the ocean, we could even hear the crashing of the waves through the screen windows of the camper.  I remember walking past the fancy motor homes and hearing the hum of their air conditioners, and wondering why people would want to seal themselves off from the smell of the salt air.

These were wonderful times.  My brother and I would stay in the water as much as possible, riding the waves on our canvas rafts until our nipples were worn raw.  I suppose there was probably a television in the motel rooms, but I don’t remember watching it.  We had no tv or air conditioning in the camper, so it wasn’t much of a refuge, apart from shading us from the sun, and we weren’t interested in being shaded.  This was the 1970’s, after all, and stores sold a lot more baby oil than sun block.  We would compete to see who looked the most Indian-like at the end of the week.    

Fishing was another favorite activity, especially as I started to get a bit older.  I worked hard to emulate the studied yet casual pose of my Dad and my Granddaddy C., holding my surf rod with one hand, with the butt of the rod resting on my hip, tracing with squinting eyes the clear monofilament line as it left the tip of my rod and disappeared into the ocean past the breakers.  I learned to tell the difference between the sharp tug of a fish on the line and the gentle pull of the current against my rig.  I learned how to clean what I caught, and reveled in the morbid fascination of little kids as they would watch me go through the process of turning fish into fillet.  The year that my Dad took me deep-sea fishing and someone on the dock mistook me for a deck hand had me flying high for days.      

My brother and I would collect other prizes from the sea as well – shells, skate egg cases, jagged tails from horseshoe crabs.  One year I made a special find that stayed in my room for several years – an old liquor bottle that still had its screw-on cap.  I filled it with worn sea-glass, colorful shells and ocean water and pretended that the colorful kaleidoscope was pirate booty.

I was enamored with ocean lore in general and the legends of the Outer Banks in particular.  Tales of Blackbeard the Pirate, the mystery of the Lost Colony, and stories of the many shipwrecks that gave the Outer Banks its nickname of “Graveyard of the Atlantic” were fodder for my active imagination. I was convinced that one day I was destined to discover a shipwreck – either that or a trunk full of buried treasure.

As a teenager my beach interests began to change.  I started to spend more time eying the bikini laying three towels down from me on the beach than I did scanning the horizon for pirate ships.  I stopped wearing my old fishing hat when I learned that putting lemon juice in my hair would turn it blond and hopefully attract the interest of the aforesaid bikini.  However, my love for the beach remained constant, and I remained just as excited about opening the car window to get that first lungful of ocean air as we crossed the bridge over from the mainland as I had been as a little boy.  I was just careful not to show it.

My college beach trips were a bit different.  My fraternity (and seemingly most of the others in the southeast) would head down to Myrtle Beach for a post-exam week of … well, you know.  The highlight of the week was our Momba Suiti party, featuring plastic trash cans full of the namesake beverage.  I don’t remember what was in it other than grain alcohol and fruit punch, but I do remember the strict rule that it had to be stirred with a 9-iron.  These beach trips were fun, certainly, but featured little in the way of actual beach activities.    

The years since having left me older and hopefully somewhat wiser, things have come full circle.  We now pack up our minivan and take our own kids to vacation at the beach.  It is wonderful to relive childhood beach experiences through them.  Seeing their eyes wide with excitement after they have ridden a wave into shore, hearing them giggle as they dig up sand fiddlers and let them scuttle around in their cupped hands, watching them jump up and down as they realize that the tug on the end of their line really is a fish, and maybe a big one – these are all moments that I remember from my own childhood, and I hope that they will become fond memories for them as well.

My parents retired the Starcraft camper many years ago, and have taken to renting a beach house at at Emerald Isle.  This has allowed our kids to have the special blessing of being able to share their formative beach experiences with their Grandmama and Granddaddy, as we join them for a week every summer.   

This year, we have had an embarrassment of beach riches as we have also been able to join two other families for a week in Duck.  Three families with a total of 11 kids sharing one house could have made for a very long week, but it’s been great.  The kids have all enjoyed having non-sibling playmates, and the adults have all been easy-going and family-focused.  We are fortunate to have friends such as these.   

It may be true that a bad day at the beach is better than a good day at the office, but I wouldn’t know – I’ve never had a bad day at the beach.   


Gauley Season 2007 – Trip Planning

July 18, 2007

Every year about this time, I send out an email to friends and acquaintances soliciting interest in a 2-day rafting adventure on the Gauley River in West Virginia. Things are shaping up well for Gauley Season 2007.  At this writing I have 12 confirmations, with another couple who I’m still hunting down. It’s looking like a good and diverse group – several friends from church, a couple of guys from work, a fellow parent at my kids’ school, and a fraternity brother from college. Most have done this trip with me before, and those who haven’t are looking forward to it.  By the way – if you are reading this and received an invite but haven’t responded, please do so.  If I know you and you did not receive an invite but would like to go, let me know. 

The outfitter that we use on this trip requires that rafters be at least 16 and recommends previous rafting experience. The only requirement that I add is that rafters have a good attitude – I want everyone to have some idea of what they are getting into, to be able to put up with some temporary tension and discomfort, and to invite challenge.   

The responses that I have received to my rafting invite email this year have varied from “I AM IN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” to “I’m not one to crap in the woods and roll around in the dirt at night,” with everything in between.  I’m excited that the former will be joining us again this year, and as for the latter, as much as I’d like to get him off of the golf course and into the woods, I respect his honesty.  Rafting a Class V+ river isn’t for everyone.  

But I sure like it.    

Kayaking in Duck

July 17, 2007

Still flush with whitewater adrenaline after a fall rafting weekend a couple of years ago, I came home determined to get a kayak.  A weekend spent rafting a Class IV-V river packs in more excitement than many see in a lifetime.  Still, once I had been rafting enough times to become relatively confident that I would in fact survive each trip to see my wife and kids again,  I wanted to ramp it up a notch.  Even while rafting I would find myself casting wistful sidelong glances at the kayakers zipping through the rapids, seeming at one with their boat and the water. 

I love rafting, but in a raft, you are are on top of the rapids.  In a kayak, you are in the rapids.  In a raft, you are one of 8 paddlers – while everyone has a role to play, you can generally miss a stroke or two and still be OK thanks to the efforts of your fellow paddlers.  In a kayak, you are it.  I wanted that experience.  So, I found a decent used whitewater kayak for sale, got a paddle, helmet, spray skirt and PFD, and I was ready. 

That was two years ago, and the kayak still hasn’t seen a river.  Life tends to get in the way.

It was understandable, therefore, when my wife looked at me a bit skeptically the other day when I told her that I was taking my kayak on our beach vacation.  Not to be deterred, I took the boat down from the storage rack that I had built underneath our back deck, knocked the old wasp nests out from inside the cockpit, and spent the next hour figuring out how to make enough room on the roof of our minivan to accommodate both the kayak and the rooftop carrier that was bulging with boogie boards, sand toys and the other unnecessary necessities that accompany a family of 6 on a week at the beach.  The boat would have looked more at home lashed to the top of a jeep or laid in the bed of a pickup than it did strapped to our minivan’s luggage carrier, but I eventually got it loaded and ready for the road.       

We made it to the beach, and yesterday I hoisted the kayak over my shoulder and headed down to the ocean.  I had flippantly told Jennifer before I left that she should call the Coast Guard if I wasn’t back by suppertime, but I was only half joking.  I had never taken the boat out in the ocean.  The waves were relatively calm, but even so I knew that there was a decent chance that I would flip.  The eskimo roll lessons that I had taken soon after I bought the kayak seemed long ago and far away.  Given that they had taken place in an indoor swimming pool and not in the Atlantic ocean, I guess they were. 

My first challenge, though, was getting the thing in the water.  The kayakers that you typically see at the ocean are usually in stable”sit on top” boats made for the ocean.  You launch these in much the same way that you launch a surfboard – push through the first few waves and hop on top.  My kayak, on the other hand, is a whitewater river boat.  It has a rounded bottom and no keel, so it is easy to roll.  Complicating the situation is the need to squeeze the lower half of your body into the cockpit, and then attach the spray skirt around the edges of the cockpit so the water will stay where it belongs – outside the boat.  

My plan was to take the kayak out beyond the breaking waves, hoist myself on top, slide my legs into the cockpit, fit the sprayskirt, and be on my way.  It made sense at the time, but it was totally unworkable.  Hoisting myself on top of the boat was easy enough, but this technique had me laying on top with my stomach over the cockpit.  The only way that I could pull my legs up under me and slide them into the cockpit was to grab onto the cockpit edges and do a gymnastics-type move where I’d push up with my arms, fully extend and lock my elbows, do a crunch as I brought knees up to my chest, and then slide my feet inside.

This would have been hard for me to do on parallel bars.  Doing it on a tippy kayak floating in a calm lake or swimming pool would have been extremely difficult.  Doing it in the ocean with waves rolling in every 5-10 seconds was impossible.  I’d get up on top, and as soon as I started to bring my legs up, I’d flip to one side or the other.  Or, a wave would come in and deposit a couple gallons of ocean in the cockpit.  Or both. 

After repeated failed attempts, I decided to try a new approach.  Maybe I was on the wrong side of the boat.  I moved around to the other side and tried again.  That was worse.  Then, having tried everything else, I tried again facing the stern instead of the bow.  I got up on top, and this technique did result in my feet pointing forward, the right direction.  The only problem was that I was on my stomach, and needed to be on my back in order for my feet to go in the cockpit.  Imagine laying on a log floating in the water, then trying to flip over on your back.  Add in some waves and you get the idea.

By this time my arms were starting to tremble with exhaustion, and I was yet to paddle the first stroke.  I became resigned to the fact that it wasn’t going to happen – not this way, at least.  I grabbed the tow rope and headed back toward the beach. 

While all of this was going on, I had been vaguely aware that I was accumulating an audience onshore.  All of my crowd was back at the beachhouse and missing the entertainment, but there were a lot of strangers who getting quite a chuckle at my expense.  The older I get the less I care about that sort of thing, but I wasn’t excited about getting so close that I could hear the snickers, be they real or imagined.  I had no choice, though, so I trudged on in, directly toward several young women who had put their beach chairs on the water’s edge to as to get a better look. 

One of them got up and walked toward me as I was still making my way to the beach.  I put on a forced smile.  “Y’all enjoying the entertainment?”

She smiled and looked a bit sheepish.  “We were laughing a bit,” she admitted.  “Do you need any help?”

She was obviously an athlete, with shoulders as broad as mine.  I figured her offer was a serious one, but I wasn’t sure what she could do.  I didn’t see how I could launch from the shore and get through the waves.

She continued.  “I think if you go ahead and get in the cockpit and put the sprayskirt on, I could give you a push and you could get through the waves.”

Her terminology was significant.  Cockpit.  Sprayskirt.  Oh, no.  I’ve been embarrassing myself in front of a kayaker.

“Do you paddle?”I asked, knowing the answer.

“Yeah, I run a kayaking club at my college.”

Now it was my turn to laugh.  “I didn’t realize that I was getting laughed at by an expert!  Sure, it would be great if you could give me a push.”  I got in, attached the spray skirt, and with the help of a good push and a few hard strokes, I was on my way.

And that was that.  I made it back in to shore about an hour later, with nary a flip or Coast Guard rescue, looking forward to paddling again another day.

Gilmore Drops Out

July 14, 2007

Gilmore’s out.

Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe et al. can stop rolling in their graves.

Why is it OK?

July 6, 2007

A headline on our local news yesterday was a report that the police broke up a house party and charged 25 people with Underage Possession of Alcohol. Fifteen of those charged were adults over the age of 18 but under the legal drinking age of 21. Commenting on the bust, our local prosecutor explained that “[t]he lesson here is it is illegal for children to drink. The lesson is the one that I don’t want them to ever have to learn is going to the funeral of one of their friends; that’s the lesson I don’t want them to learn.”

Speaking of funerals, a review of U.S. casualties in Iraq as of July 4, 2007 reflects the following:

A 20 year old from Charlottesville, Virginia died as result of enemy action in Anbar province, Iraq.

A 19 year old from Grottoes, Virginia was killed by small-arms fire during combat operations against enemy forces in Ar Rutbah, Iraq.

A 20 year old from Coeburn, Virginia was killed by a non-combat weapon discharge in Kuwait.

A 19 year old from Falls Church, Virginia died as a result of hostile action in Anbar province, Iraq.

A 19 year old from Richmond, Virginia died of wounds sustained when his dismounted patrol came under enemy small arms fire during combat operations in Hit, Iraq.

A 19 year old from Hampton, Virginia died of wounds suffered when his mounted patrol came in contact with enemy forces using small-arms fire and a roadside bomb in Baghdad, Iraq.

An 18 year old from Richmond, Virginia was killed when her military vehicle hit a roadside bomb as it was returning to Camp Eagle in Baghdad, Iraq.

A 20 year old from Fairfax Station, Virginia died of injuries sustained during combat operations in Anbar province, Iraq.

A 20 year old from Alexandria, Virginia died from injuries received as result of enemy action in Anbar province, Iraq.

A 20 year old from Chesterfield, Virginia died of wounds received as result of enemy action in Anbar province, Iraq.

A 20 year old from King George, Virginia was killed when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive inside the mess hall at Camp Marez in Mosul, Iraq.

A 20 year old from Woodbridge, Virginia died as the result of enemy action in Anbar province, Iraq.

A 19 year old from Crimora, Virginia died while conducting combat operations in Anbar province, Iraq.

A 20 year old from Winchester, Virginia died of wounds received in action in central Iraq.

A 19 year old from Stuarts Draft, Virginia died as a result of hostile action in Babil Province, Iraq.

A 20 year old from Stafford, Virginia was killed when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive inside the mess hall at Camp Marez in Mosul, Iraq.

A 20 year old from Lynchburg, Virginia died of non-combat related injuries in Muqdadiya, Iraq.

An 18 year old from Manassas, Virginia was killed during combat operations in Anbar province, Iraq.

Why is it OK for 18, 19 and 20-year old Virginians to fight and die for their country, but illegal for them to have a beer?

Special K

July 4, 2007

made-it.jpgMy youngest daughter, along with her two sisters, is in her second week of a two-week session of summer camp.  It’s a wonderful camp, the girls love it, we love it, and we consider it a blessing all the way around.

But today is her birthday.

Happy Birthday, Special K. We’ll have fireworks for you when you get home.

Which Bear’s Chair?

July 3, 2007

I have not followed the Scooter Libby/Valerie Plame saga closely enough to render a fully informed and considered judgment on President Bush’s decision to commute Libby’s 30-month prison term for his four felony convictions. Not that I don’t have an opinion, mind you, but I won’t claim that it rises to the level of a fully informed and considered judgment.

Today’s opinion pieces in the three national newspapers that I try to follow aren’t much help. They remind me of Goldilocks’ opinion as to the 3 bears’ chairs – one is too hard, one is too soft, and one is somewhere in between.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Bush should have granted Scooter Libby a full pardon and was “evading responsibility” by not doing so.  A pardon certainly would have been consistent with the hard-right conservative viewpoint.  However, I wonder whether the likes of Limbaugh and Coulter will be able to grasp fully the fact that the WSJ argues for a pardon not because of Libby’s innocence, but because of the White House’s complicity in the affair.

On the other extreme was the New York Times, asserting that Bush’s decision to commute Libby’s sentence was a “baldly political act” aimed at “mollifying the tiny slice of right-wing Americans left in his political base.”  ‘Nuff said there.

Wandering around somewhere in the middle we find the Washington Post.  It suggests that Bush was on the right track with his decision, as a pardon “would have been inappropriate and … the prison sentence of 30 months was excessive.”  In the end, though, the Post concludes that Bush’s decision to commute the full commutation too lenient.  Not too hard, not too soft….

President Bush doesn’t (and shouldn’t) make his decisions by reading newspaper opinion pieces. Indeed, some might argue that he doesn’t make his decisions with the benefit of having read anything at all.  However, for the rest of us who are trying to sort out the various issues by absorbing opinion pieces as well as factual data, this is a classic example of how dangerous it is to get all of one’s news from a single source.  They can’t all be right.