Category Archives: Random Musings

Mongolia

Not your run-of-the-mill country. I have long been fascinated by Mongolia and actually routed my characters in my latest thriller, Chita Quest, through Mongolia in order to justify all the research that I wanted to do. This will be only the first of several posts about Mongolia.

Why should you be even the slightest bit interested in Mongolia? Well for one, there is a high probability that nobody you know has any idea about the country—more likely, what they do “know” is wrong. Imagine how you could make major points in a trivia contest…For example, the name of the capital is a Jeopardy question (Ulaan Bataar)…

Here’s a map:

http://www.worldatlas.com/webimage/countrys/asia/lgcolor/mncolor.htm

I have never been to Mongolia but it is high on my bucket list. In the meantime, I trolled the internet, interviewed (grilled, actually) the few people I could find who had been there, and read several books, the most notable is Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford http://www.amazon.com/Genghis-Khan-Making-Modern-World/dp/0609809644

A couple tidbits about the great Genghis directly from Professor Weatherford: In twenty five years, the Mongols conquered more territory than the Romans managed in four hundred; whether measured by the number of people defeated, the number of countries annexed, or the total area of land, Genghis conquered more than twice as much as any other man in history. From Mongolia and on a horse, which he apparently hardly ever dismounted, being busy conquering and all…His empire lasted over 150 years—Kublai Khan of Marco Polo fame was his grandson. His blood line was nearly obliterated by the Soviets—yes those Soviets—in the 1920s, nearly 700 years later. His contributions to today’s world are clearly laid out in Weatherford’s wonderful book, which by the way, reads like a novel. And, yes, I realize Genghis was not Mr. Congeniality. 

Mongolia is a large landlocked country between two larger countries—Russia and China. A tad smaller than Alaska, it’s located on mountains and plateaus and is one of the world’s highest countries with an average elevation of 1,580 meters (5,180 feet). Mongolia suffers temperature extremes (Ulaan Bataar is the coldest capital city in the world…the only one with an average temperature of less than 32 degrees F—another Jeopardy question), and southern Mongolia is dominated by the Gobi desert.

Apart from all the history associated with Mongolia and the Mongols, what is crucial to us today is what is going on in this undeveloped country of just less than three million people. Mongolia is the site of probably the last great mineral rush in history. It is jammed packed with oil, gas, copper, gold, silver, coal, you name it. It is estimated that Mongolia’s economy will be the second fastest growing economy in the world in 2014. Not surprising, the surge of investment money threatens the agrarian, nomadic culture and landscape with corruption and pollution, not to mention the chaos from the influx of foreigners. Nearly half the nation’s people have moved to Ulaan Bataar in order to join the rush to riches, effectively de-populating the rest of the already sparsely populated country. http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2014/03/23/mongolias-economic-prospects-and-challenges/

As usual, the National Geographic has a wonderful site on Mongolia:

http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/countries/mongolia-photos/

Here’s another with more pictures of Ulaan Bataar: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/10/ulaanbaatar/leong-photography#/01-models-child-acrobat-concert-670.jpg 

I’ll get back to Mongolia in a future post, after I take a swing around the other Asian countries featured in Chita Quest.

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My Sons Almost Died Yesterday

This was originally written in August 2005

My sons almost died yesterday.

Boys at the time of the accident

Boys at the time of the accident

On a routine drive through the Taos canyon to our home, Grandma missed a turn and totaled our car. If not for a barbed wire fence, they would have flipped over and rolled down a bank. The gas tank was ruptured and only because the engine quit, there was no explosion. Lots of shattered glass, twisted metal, and bruised boys. Seat belts and the grace of God saved my kids.

I was called to the site. I collected the boys and calmed their fears. I was Dad and I fixed everything, like Dad is supposed to do.

Last night at midnight, I lost all vestiges of self control. As I stared into the darkness, my over-active imagination kicked in. In my mind, I buried my young sons over and over, just as I had in reality buried my own father two months before. All the details were gone over, down to the clothing they were buried in. Jake wore his precious soccer shoes. Josh had his science books. Cameron couldn’t sleep for eternity without his stuffed Froggy.

Sleep was impossible. I went downstairs and watched my sons sleeping. I sat on their beds and talked to each one, stroking his head and telling him how much he meant to me. I could see them all in my mind’s eye. Jake, with his delightfully crooked smile and flashing black eyes. Mister Work Ethic, struggling through fifth grade with tutors and late night homework. I remembered the pride in his face when he brought home his final report card: four A’s and four B’s.

Josh, the scientist who aced second grade and was reading at the fifth grade level. I remembered having to drag him to ski team practice two years ago. This past season, Josh and I raced head-to-head in a timed race in front of the entire team and spectators. He beat me by a gate and a half.

Cameron. Irrepressible Cameron, the happiest person I have ever known. Three times state snowboard champion, nationally ranked. The kid who called me at the office every afternoon during the summer to ask if I could pleeease take him golfing. The boy who still thinks his dad is a hero.

I talked to them all. I wondered if my father had come into my room and sat on my bed after one of my near-death experiences. After the time I fell out of our moving car. Or the time we were night fishing when I fell off the dock and he had to dive in to save me. Or the time I climbed out of a pickup truck, caught my sleeve in the tailgate and was dragged blocks before my shirt ripped. Or the time at Niagara Falls when I climbed up the fence and fell over on the Falls’ side. Now I can never talk with him again.

I cried. I cried a lot. About what could have been, what I almost lost.

I’m a strict father, determined to raise responsible, capable boys to adulthood. Sometimes strictness runs into over-seriousness. Not enough jokes, not enough hugs.

In the words of the famous American philosopher, James Taylor, “Shower the ones that you love with love. Show them the way that you care.” Now. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Now. I will not be too serious, I will smile more. I will be silly. I will love them out loud, not just in my heart.

Boyz in 2010-- Still Alive!

Da Boyz in 2010– Still Alive!

Author’s Note: This article originally appeared in Tyler Hayden’s wonderful anthology “Father’s Message in a Bottle,” which you can find on his website at www.tylerhayden.com 

Spring Break at USAFA

Spring Break 1970 at the U.S. Air Force Academy

Brinn2-2For our Third Class Spring Break, Porter Nelson and I caught an early Saturday morning hop from Pete Field destined for Wright-Patterson AFB. The plan was to meet some girls that Porter had met the previous summer on the Zone of the Interior (ZI) field trip and had corresponded with throughout the year. We arrived and tried for ten hours to contact the girls who, it turned out, were not as eager to see us as Porter had believed. We were stuck in Ohio in March, all alone.

With the carpe diem mentality of the typical cadet, on Sunday morning we went to Base Ops to see how we could make something happen. Carpe diem, of course, is Latin for “let’s do something else really dumb.” We needed to catch a hop, somewhere, anywhere. There were two flights that day: one to Andrews AFB where we could spend some guaranteed good times at my sister’s house in DC; or a KC-135 direct to Torrejon, Spain.

We decided that this international opportunity was an obvious sign of Divine Intervention and jumped on the plane to Spain, figuring that we could catch a Navy plane to Naples to see my parents—my father being a Navy Captain at Sixth Fleet Headquarters. We arrived in Spain Monday at about 0700 only to find that the Navy desk in the Passenger Terminal was closed until further notice…uh-oh…reality struck–there we were in Spain with no passports, no leave orders, no shot records, no permission to leave the CONUS. Yikes! When we tried to sign up for a return flight to the States, an officious transportation sergeant informed us that there was absolutely no way we would be allowed on a USAF aircraft without the aforementioned documents… and we had six days to get back to the Academy…oops…

It was clear that we had made a very bad decision. Let me say that again– A Very Bad Decision. We recognized that if we ever made it back to dear old USAFA, we would be the guests of honor at a Commandant’s Disciplinary Board and probably be given more demerits/confinements and/or tours in the history of the Academy. If we were lucky, we would, at the very least, be full-time residents of the tour pad for a very long time, probably marching tours until graduation morning 1972. We sat in Base Ops, dejected and scared. Eventually, a captain in a flight suit noticed our unhappy demeanor, and stopped to ask us where we were trying to go. We popped to attention and chorused…”Naples, sir.” He asked if Pisa would be close enough…

Hey, Italy was Italy and a heck of a lot better than where we were. Never mind that it was in the wrong direction. The captain informed the sergeant that we would be riding in his plane and waved off all his objections. We rode the crew bus out to his C-121 Super Constellation which turned out to be a National Guard medevac aircraft on an European familiarization flight. We were welcomed on board by the nurses and doctors and made to feel right at home. It turned out that after the C-121 spent two days in Pisa, it was scheduled for an overnight in Germany, a stopover in the Azores, then McGuire AFB, New Jersey and return to home base on Sunday. The base? Cheyenne, Wyoming! And, would we like to accompany the crew for the entire trip?

Upon landing in Pisa, Porter and I hopped a train to Naples where my parents fussed over us for two days, showed us the sights, and most importantly, fed us and bought us first-class return train fares to Pisa.

Our evening enjoying the bars in Frankfurt remain a blur and all I remember of the Azores is being introduced to (many) bottles of Mateus wine. I cannot even bear the smell of Mateus to this day.

We landed in Cheyenne on Sunday at noon. One of the nurses lived in Denver and offered to drive us down to the Aurora cutoff, the standard location for cadets needing a ride back to the Academy. We stood at the on-ramp to I-25 for about ten minutes and got a ride all the way back to the entrance to our dormitory, signing in off leave with two whole hours to spare.

We calculated that of the eight days that we were gone, we had spent more than three of them seated in an airplane, almost enough time to validate Pilot Training. But it made for a good tale. Good thing about the Honor Code—nobody would have believed us otherwise…!

Musings on Costa Rica

A Quick Trip To Costa Rica – June 2013

A few observations are in order;

1. Costa Rica is a beautiful country;
2. Ticos are lovely people;
3. There are great opportunities here for retired or retiring people;
4. There seems to be a dearth of tennis courts.

Shortly after our arrival, we made a spectacularly great, momentous even, decision by deciding to spend the extra eight dollars per day to rent a GPS…it has saved us numerous times, including helping to find our hotel right after leaving the rent-a-car place…I was totally lost driving out the gate and would have gone 180 degrees in the wrong direction…good save… We have to program it in Spanish…my spelling is a bit cumbersome but adequate. We will also buy a GPS when we return to the States…I learned my lesson.

We named the GPS “Rita,” after our hostess who squired us around San Jose and environs the first two days…the human Rita is knowledgeable, fun and vivacious.

Rita the GPS is knowledgeable and imperious.

Linda and the Human Rita

Linda and the Human Rita

It is the rainy season, hot and muggy except when it is pouring down rain. In the tropics, a downpour can be so intense it almost drops you to your knees. Umbrellas are great except the rain can be so fierce that nylon is too flimsy—what you need is an umbrella made of cloth the thickness of a circus tent. You have to stand straight up and down—if you tilt, the weight of the water will tip you over, knock you to your knees, and pound you into the pavement.

IMG_0814

Wandering the rain forest

I remember flying in storms while in Bolivia where the noise level in the cockpit was so loud as to be nearly maddening. I put one of those episodes in my book but it happened a lot in the summer storms in January and February.

Water is not much of an issue down here—certainly not like it is in drought-ridden New Mexico and Colorado. On the roads that have shoulders, the Ticos build concrete slabs that direct water run-off into concrete ditches. The ditches effectively sluice the excess away to prevent cars hydroplaning on the roads. In only a few places were these ditches overwhelmed by the rain. House driveways are four inch-thick concrete slabs over the ditch. The problem is that if you drive off the road, you drop into a concrete ditch eighteen inches deep or smash into concrete driveway slab. We did not see any such accidents but we weren’t here on many Saturday  mornings after Friday night blow-outs.

It is also cicada season down here. The cicadas try to mate in the early evening—even a massive tropical thunderstorm doesn’t seem to abate the lust of these horny little bugs…I guess seventeen years is long enough to wait…

IMG_0829We spent three days in and around the Lake Arenal, the largest artificial lake in Central America. It runs northwest to southeast with the Arenal volcano at the southeast end. National forests/parks (jungles actually) wrap around the southeast section of the lake. During our time here, we have glimpsed the entire volcano through its shroud of clouds one time. When we visited here in 1998, the volcano was burping all night; the boys were fascinated by the lava “fireworks” show. We stayed in a small town called Tilaran on the west side of the lake. The volcano is on the southeast side near a town named La Fortuna where we stayed in 1968. The owner of our B&B says that it rain two meters per year at his place; on the eastern shore of the lake in the village of Arenal it rains four meters/year; and at La Fortuna it rains six meters a year. That’s over eighteen feet of rain in twelve months, though concentrated in the five month rainy season! Taos averages twelve inches of rain/year. I guess that’s why the climate in Taos is classified as semi-arid instead of tropical rain forest.

All decked out

All decked out

We did a zip line through the jungle near the volcano. It was great! We had six separate lines, five of which were longer than the longest one in Angel Fire as well as much higher. Zip lines are a real kick—if you are searching for a rush and come across a zip line opportunity, try it.

This may not be news to you but Costa Rican coffee is superb! I normally only drink coffee in the morning but after sampling the local fresh beverage, I made excuses all day to stop in one of the local coffee shops that seemed to be everywhere.

 

Coffee fincas were all over the place!

Coffee fincas were all over the place!

This is a great country with wonderful people!

Johnny Depp and Me

I spent two days this week working as an extra on the set of the new movie version of  The Lone Ranger. The movie is largely being filmed in New Mexico on a special western town built just west of Albuquerque. Some scenes were filmed near Durango, Colorado, and some in the Angel Fire area…actually, some scenes will be filmed this coming week within walking distance of our house here in Angel Fire! Tonight is the cast and crew party—the company rented the entire country club…apparently, Johnny Depp’s band will play as well…somehow, my invitation seems to have been lost. I am deeply troubled by that…however, my son, Cameron, is working as a waiter at the Sunset Grille, the closest restaurant to the Resort Hotel which is crammed full of crew—all good tippers, I am informed…

The ad soliciting extras was sent out through our local chamber of commerce…picture, height, weight, shirt and pants size…plus picture. I sent the best picture I ever took—my campaign poster photo. Two days later I got a call from casting asking me to show the next day in Albuquerque for fitting…when I walked in the costume warehouse, the two casting reps welcomed me by name (told you that was a good photo). After filling out the inevitable paperwork, I was escorted into a fitting room where my period clothing was hanging. Everything fit—nearly perfectly…even the shoes! Everyone was so nice. The clothing lady told me how distinguished I Iooked in my outfit as she led me to makeup. There I was fitted for side whiskers and sent back to the fitting room for a snapshot for their files.

IMG_0611Another amazing thing about this burgeoning adventure is how quickly everybody in Angel Fire seemed to know about it. When I drove back from my fitting in Albuquerque,  son Jake and a friend rolled into my office and positively interrogated me about the process. I stopped at the grocery store and the check out lady knew where I had been. Even my wife, Linda, and Cameron seemed entranced. On Friday, I visited Village Hall and was promptly surrounded by most of the ladies who worked there. Small town, big news.

On Monday, I drove to the (very) small town of Ute Park, halfway between Eagle Nest and Cimarron on NM State Highway 64 arriving fifteen minutes before my scheduled 7 am show, checked in with costumes, and was told to go eat breakfast. Oh my goodness…the food! The sheer amount of the food was impressive but the quality was incredible. My two favorite breakfasts are huevos rancheros and eggs benedict…well, I had them both. Plus fresh salmon. Plus some of the most gorgeous fruits on the planet–organic, of course! Stunning. This was just the beginning. Food was everywhere all the time. Amazing. I was so impressed that I got up at 4:20 the next morning to get to the set earlier so I could take my time and eat a good—and extensive breakfast. Remember that breakfast is the most important meal of the day…! Linda thought I was crazy but then she didn’t get to see, much less, taste the on-set food…lots better than my normal granola bar and a Yoplait…

The people were so nice! Professional, energetic and polite. Extras are at the bottom of the talent totem pole and yet everyone was so friendly to us. The director is Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean 1-3; Rango). He took pains to welcome us and explain in short sentences with little words exactly what emotions he wanted from us. He was quite encouraging during each of the multiple takes. I was impressed by his decisiveness, ability to express his vision, and the way he handled people. He is also handsome and rich so you want to hate the guy…but he was so nice

Ebeneezer Scrooge?

Ebenezer Scrooge?

I got into period costume (long sleeve shirt, stiff collar, cravat, suspenders, and itchy herringbone wool pants and long tailed coat). Had to run by make up who put grease in my hair, then sent me over to the facial hair experts for my side whiskers. When I walked in the trailer, I recognized the guy in the other chair as Armie Hammer, who plays the Lone Ranger. Very pleasant chap. Big, tall, handsome. Quite bright…we chatted a bit. He thanked me for my service in the military! Same thing on Tuesday morning…he walked in while I was in the chair and he was gracious enough to pretend he recognized me. Good actor! We talked about Bolivia and the effects of high altitude on humans (Ute Park is a little lower than we are here in Angel Fire, about 7800 feet, I think).  With my Abraham Lincoln top hat, I looked like Ebenezer Scrooge. The facial hair lady decided to curl my moustache, changing me from a distinguished gentleman into a distinguished looking roué.

The part of the movie that I am supposed to be in is dated May 1869. All the extras are clothed for the period. The kids dressed out wonderfully—their attire reminded me more of a Charles Dickens movie than a western. The adults looked right out of the era. One of the jarring moments of the two days was to see another of the extras sitting out in the sun, dressed to kill in a hoop skirt and flowered hat, reading her Kindle Fire.

The most overwhelming memory is of the size of the logistics. Hundreds of people milled about, dozens of parked trailers, semi trucks and vans; golf carts zipped through a tent village crammed into a small area. The tiny village of Ute Park, a former stagecoach stop, had never seen such activity. Reminded me of some of my Air Force deployments.

Another similarity to deployments is the classic “hurry up and wait” orientation. We sat around all dressed up for hours…then we were placed in our (classified) location on set where we stood around waiting for the crew/director/stars to get ready. Our job was to scream in terror on cue, beseeching the Lone Ranger to save us…pretty hard for me since I was having the time of my life. But I screamed along with everybody else during repeated rehearsals and, ultimately, repeated takes. So many that my throat was sore and almost raw by the end of the day. Most of our work was done on a cool and rainy Monday; Tuesday was hot with less work. And more sitting around. After almost every scene, all of us hairy guys were directed to the facial hair people for adjustments. They were very concerned about authenticity, obsessed really.

We worked on Monday with Armie and Johnny Depp’s stand-in. On Tuesday morning we worked with both stand-ins. In the afternoon, Johnny showed up. There was a ripple through the crew as Johnny got out of his black Chevy Tahoe in costume and make-up.  The energy level went up. It was quite interesting to see everybody’s reaction, all of them positive–Mr. Depp seems to be iconic even within the Hollywood community of icons. Johnny is pretty buff. I suppose he decided to work out knowing that he was going to star in this movie without a shirt.  He also went out of his way to be nice to us pond scum…as I said, this was a wonderful experience for me. I am now a solid movie fan, especially of the three principals in this movie—Johnny, Armie and Gore.

See you at the Academy Awards!

Author’s note: Since this this was written, the movie has been released to not-so-good reviews…balderdash! I saw the movie (and my part in it) and it was an excellent show. The scenery is magnificent, almost a reason to go itself. Please disregard the %$#!@ critics and go see it.