Beyond The Campfire was created to encourage readers to explore the great outdoors and to observe it close up. Get out and take a hike, go fishing or canoeing, or simply stretch out on a blanket under a summer sky...and take your camera along. We'll talk about combining outdoor activities with photography. We'll look at everything from improving your understanding of the basics of photography to more advanced techniques including things like how to see photographically and capturing the light. We'll explore the night sky, location shoots, using off camera speedlights along with nature and landscape. Grab your camera...strap on your hiking boots...and join me. I think you will enjoy the adventure.

The Dark Horse Region

The Dark Horse Region
A View into the center of the Milky Way

Monday, November 28, 2011

Bad Means Good...

For a photographer...bad weather usually means good shooting.  Now don't get me wrong, I shoot in all kinds of weather and lighting conditions, but some kinds of light are better than others for certain kinds of shots.  Today was a good example.  Three days ago it was bright and sunny and rather pleasant out for this time of year.  Being off for the holidays opened up an opportunity to sneak in a photo shoot so I headed over to Shanty Hollow to see if I could capture some early winter atmosphere shots around the falls for my long term project.  I managed to get a few shots in spite of the harsh lighting, and there was some water coming off the falls but nothing spectacular.  Overall the light just was not right.  The day was perfect, but not for shooting. Three days later, everything changed.  It started to rain and it rained rather hard for most of the night.  Monday morning it was ugly out...cold, rainy, overcast, and gray...a perfect day for a photo shoot. Combined with previous rains earlier in the week I figured there would be more water coming off the falls.

There are actually three or four falls around Shanty Hollow Lake...I've only found three...I hear there are others but I don't know where they are.  The three I know of are all on the same trail that leads to the main falls.  The other two only flow during times of prolonged rain like I had on this hike.  The main falls is roughly 60 feet or so high from it's highest point...with about a 50 foot drop from the edge of the bluff and except in mid summer and even early fall when it is dry, it will usually have some water flowing over it depending on rainfall amounts.

When I left around 8:00 am, it was still raining, but I was ready for that having packed rain gear for not only myself, but for the camera gear as well.  By the time I arrived about 40 minutes later, the rain had tapered off to a light sprinkle.

Overcast skies are best for photographing waterfalls.  The reason being is that you want soft diffused light at low intensity levels to allow for long exposures.  The soft light casts a smooth even light even through heavy cover and the long exposures allow for softening of the flowing waters.  The hike to the falls is moderately rough, a bit slippery when wet, but doable by most people.  It took about 20 maybe 25 minutes as I stopped a time or two along the way.  I wasn't disappointed...the falls was flowing as hard as I've ever seen it flow and it was generating a lot of energy.

I took several short video sequences and about a hundred still photos.  Wished I could have stayed all day, but by noon, I was beginning to get wet even with the rain gear and my camera gear was also getting a bit too wet for comfort so I packed it up and headed in.  On this particularly bad weather day, the photo shooting was pretty good as all the elements were there...light, drama, scenery, and me.

Here's a short video from the shoot.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Boys, Pocket Knives, Scars and Other Saga's of Growing Up

Seems there is a trend now days of people cutting themselves on purpose for whoever knows why.  I don't mean to sound insensitive or anything, but cutting myself growing up came natural to me...none of it was on just came with being a kid as part of growing up. Over the years I’ve managed to slash, smash, puncture, burn, scrape, cut, and split open various good layers of skin and other assorted body parts using a variety of sharp and blunt objects including but not exclusive to razor blades, broken glass, rusty nails, wire, hot coals, wooden splinters, metal splinters, various types of hammers, saws, thumbtacks, car doors, hot objects, briar patches, rocks, camera tripods, and lest we forget that staple of every young boy…the pocket knife.  Being right handed, my left hand has bore the brunt of that abuse and today I carry numerous scars as a result.  Each scar carries with it a gripping story of which over the years I have bored untold people to death telling and retelling of the ghastly details of how one scar or the other came into existence.   Now that I have raised your interest level, allow me  to fill you in on some of the more ghastly saga’s of these painful events before you move on to other less interesting agendas. 

Remember the days when you were a kid and you went through that phase of constructing model cars or airplanes?  Yeah…me too.  One of the more traumatic of the scars I received was the result of building a model car.  I was about eight maybe nine years old and was considered by many a veteran model car builder by then.  I was also considered a veteran at getting injured by then as well.  The two just seemed to go together…being eight or nine and getting injured that is.  Well, being the veteran model builder that I was, I decided to do an extra special job of putting this particular model together.  Most of the time I’d just twist off the plastic part from the assorted parts stick holder and squeeze out two or three times the amount of glue required and slap the part where it was suppose to go.  Never mind those annoying little plastic edges that remained where it broke off the stick…odds are it would not matter anyway once I blew up the model with a firecracker or cherry bomb. 

On this occasion, I decided I would actually try to put the model together according to the instructions and asked my mom for a razor blade.  Now…most ordinary mom’s troubles-a-brewing radar would start buzzing when their eight year old asked for a razor blade…but my mom was different.  I suppose her philosophy was …whatever he was going to do… it probably would not kill him…so she gave me one.  My intent was to use the razor to shave off all those annoying little flange’s that stuck out from where it broke off the parts stick.  What I managed to do was slice the end of my ring finger on the left hand clear to the bone. The first words out of my mouth were…you guessed it…’Mom!’

She coaxed me into the bathroom and started to clean and wrap it.  All went well until the floor slammed into the back pf my head. I woke up a few seconds later lying between the sink and the commode with my mom hovering over me yelling for my dad.  I suppose all that blood and the gaping end of my finger didn’t settle to well with my constitution.  Shortly thereafter the razorblade was confiscated not to be redistributed until I was around thirteen…at which time I promptly sliced open another part of my left hand.

Other than the occasional need for a tetanus booster shot I managed to survive several scaring events like slicing my hand open on the jagged edge of a broken bottle that was strategically placed in the sand at the local swimming hole, stepping on assorted rusty nails, smashing a thumb trying to hammer rusty nails, embedding various sizes of fishhooks into assorted body parts, or dripping melting plastic onto my barefoot while firebombing a fire ant mound using a burning plastic army soldier.  You can throw in a few hundred ant, tick, and chigger bites along with numerous wasp stings as well.  But to avoid boring you with those trivial incidents, let’s fast forward a few years toward some really gruesome and memorable skin slicing events.

When I was 12 years old, we lived in Delano, California and I attended the local junior high school seventh grade class.  The school building was fairly new at the time, single story modular in design with these cast iron hand crank windows that opened outward at a 90 degree angle from the outside wall.  On one memorable lunch period I was hanging out with a friend and we just happened to be sitting between some bushes that lined the area around the perimeter of the building.   Where we were sitting was also directly under one of those cast iron windows that just happened to be opened all the way out.  Two other friends came running by and yelled at us to join them for something obviously more important and fun than just sitting on the mulch.  We jumped to our feet…well, my friend jumped to his feet, I didn't quite make it all the way to my feet.  Seems the back corner of the top of my head managed to collide with the outer edge of that cast iron window frame that was sticking out.  Yeah…you’re right… it really hurt and I instinctively grabbed the top of my head.  My friend’s eyes grew about three times larger than normal as he sympathetically and very calmly yelled out, ‘Man…your heads bleeding all over the place!’

Sure enough I brought my hand down and it was covered with blood which started running down my face and neck and dripped off my ear.  Well, the nurse’s office was around the corner in the next building and so not knowing anything else better to do, we took off running in that direction.  When we came to the corner we simply cut across the grass as it was a short cut and reduced considerably the distance required to get there.  By this time I was getting somewhat light headed and didn’t feel too well.  We were about halfway across the grass and a few dozen yards from the nurse’s office, when the librarian stepped out of the library…which was next to the nurse’s office…and saw us cutting across the grass, a criminal offense that apparently carried some big time reprocussions for students that did such things. Schools back then seemed to frown on students running across grass...probably not so much to prevent us from exercising, but they figured if we were running it was probably because we had done something wrong and were trying to get away. She stopped us and started chewing us out for breaking the rules and told us to turn around and walk back to the sidewalk, stay on the sidewalk walking slowly all the way to the corner then proceed to where ever we were heading.

In our excitement, we both blurted out at the same time, ‘But (he’s/I’m) bleeding to death!’…which was quite obvious by this time as my face, neck, and shirt were covered in blood and I was turning quite pale as well.  She didn’t seem too concerned about my plight and ordered us to do what she said…which we, being from that generation that always obeyed their elders, obediently did. As a result, I almost didn’t make it to nurse’s office and had to stop a time or two because I felt like throwing up.  The librarian stood in a silent disgruntled stance the whole time, arms crossed with a stern expression on her face monitoring the situation to make sure we followed the rules all the way to the corner…the fact that I was about to pass out, was on the verge of hoarking up my recently eaten lunch, and was dripping blood all over the sidewalk had little if any influence on her determination to enforce school policy.

Having to backtrack like that almost tripled the distance and time required to reach the nurse’s office…but somehow I managed to make it without passing out and fortunately, the nurse was genuinely more sympathetic to my plight than the librarian was, and called my mom calmly telling her over the phone, 'Your son has split his head open and needs to have some stitches.'

It took a trip to the emergency room and indeed a few stitches to patch up the gash almost good as new.  I managed to get out of school for the rest of the day as a result.  The next day I was back at school romping and stomping like nothing had happened, although I became the center of attention at show and tell time as most of the kids had never actually seen real stitches before…at least not attached to someone’s head. By this time in my life I had already had various parts of my anatomy sewed up a few times and thought nothing of it.

Some 20 years later I retold this story to my dad…who happened to be a high school teacher himself at the time of the incident…and mentioned the part about how the librarian made us stop and backtrack in spite of the blood gushing from my head.  It’s not often I see my dad get angry, but he actually got angry upon hearing that and said he would have had that librarians job on the chopping block for having done such a fool thing.  Oh well…I lived through it none the worse for the wear, and managed to stay within the rules doing so...sort of.

By the time I was twenty six years old, I was a truly seasoned veteran at getting injured having perfected various techniques of self inflicted mayhem. By this time in my life I had spent four years in the military, was going back to college, and fishing had become a real pastime and I would take off as much as I could in pursuit of it. All three of those endeavors contributed to various other scars and scrapes…fishing being, if not the most hazardous then the most reoccurring, of the three.

As part of my fishing agenda, one thing I wanted to do was to use marker buoys so I could mark any submerged break lines where the big daddy’s hung out.  I was also very poor and consequently cheap and instead of coughing up the $3.95 it would take to purchase three or four of them, I decided I would make my own.  Seems there was this old plastic spool of $2.00 fishing line I had that was about four inches across and five inches deep.  It would make a perfect marker buoy…all I had to do was remove the old fishing line and attach some braided line with a weight…waahlah! 

Problem was, not only was I poor and cheap, I was also impatient and instead of taking the time to manually unroll the three or four hundred yards of monofilament, I decided I would simply cut it off.  Thus I pulled out the razor sharp Buck hunting knife I kept around for such occasions.  I held the spool in my soon to be unfortunate left hand spreading the fingers across one of the rounded ends and inserted the knife blade under the line on the other end…gave it a bit of push…and waahlah!  I managed to drive the end of the blade clean into the fleshy part of my hand that stretches between the index finger and the thumb.  Of course the first thing I did was stare at it in disbelief and what I saw was a gaping slice about an inch wide and two inches deep.  Just before the gash filled with blood, I noticed the bone being exposed in various locations along the slice.  The second thing I did was fill the air with various phrases and explicative’s that would have embarrassed the most hardened sailor…of which I used to be one thus I was well versed in that particular type of vocabulary.  That incident resulted in another emergency room visit…that cost considerably more than the $3.95 it would have cost to buy the marker buoys.

Speaking of sailor language…that brings up another…I promise the last…incident that generated another bout of colorful vocabulary.  During the four years I was in the U.S. Coast Guard I spent the majority of that time at the Umpqua River Lifeboat Station in Winchester Bay, Oregon as part of a search and rescue team.  We operated two of the venerable 44 foot motor lifeboats…CG44303 and CG44331…two of the best surf boats ever to grace the Pacific.  It was during my last summer at the unit at the time when hundreds of pleasure boaters, trailer sailors we called them, would invade this quiet little coastal community and mix with the couple dozen commercial and charter rigs that operated out of the harbor year round. 

On this particular day, the weather was moderate but overcast, and we had several hundred boats that had crossed the bar all hoping to tie into the salmon that migrated along these waters.  I along with two other crewmen were on a routine bar-patrol aboard the CG44331 when we received a call from the station indicating that someone had suffered a heart attack aboard the fishing vessel Poky…a twenty-five maybe thirty foot double ender that had a long history of being old. 

We jumped into action and started to track them down amongst all the other traffic out that day.  After several minutes we found them and pulled alongside.  It was my duty to board the other vessel and checkout the situation.  I found an older man well into his 70’s who was unconscious and not breathing…and three other adults and one child on the boat.  The deck space was very cramped so I instructed a young man onboard to help me reposition the victim so we could begin CPR.  It took a few seconds to make the adjustment and as I stood up to reposition myself so I could start CPR, a large swell rolled the boat to port (that’s to the left) and I almost lost my balance.  Instinctively I reached up and grabbed the nearest thing I could to keep from falling over the side…unfortunately it turned out to be the extremely hot exposed engine exhaust pipe that extended straight up from the engine cowling.  Not being familiar with the vessel, I didn’t realize what I was doing until it was too late.

My right hand was severely burned and the skin smoked as the hot metal seared the flesh.  I cried out from the pain using various sailor-language explicative’s (I’m not particularly proud of that fact…but it happened).  I grabbed my hand which had curled inward from the shock of the burn…all but useless.  From all the times I’ve injured myself, never had I experienced such a painful situation.  I looked with shocked eyes into the fearful eyes of the other passengers and none of them knew what to do…they were depending on me to take control of the situation.  The 331 had moved off and was positioned ahead of us. In spite of the pain, I began CPR as best as I could…eventually after about 15 minutes, we transferred the victim onto the CG44331 which was a faster boat and headed back into the harbor. Even so, it took close to another fifteen minutes to make it back in, all the while myself and one of the other crewmen on the 331 performed CPR.

An ambulance awaited us…I went with the ambulance to the emergency room and assisted the EMT on the way.  Once there and under a doctor’s care, the old man began to breathe on his own.  After all the excitement had died down my burned hand was eventually treated, and although it took several weeks, it healed completely with no scarring.  Myself and the other two crewmen on the 331 that day were credited with sustaining the life of this man until professional medical help could be implemented.  We received commendations for our efforts.  Unfortunately, a few days later the old man suffered another setback and did not make it…one in a series of setbacks he had apparently suffered over the last few years of his life.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is this.   Growing up and suffering through various cuts, scrapes and burns, proved valuable lessons as I learned how to deal with the negative effects and keep going.  As a result, when faced with a very traumatic and difficult situation I was able to shake off the shock suffered from a damaging and painful burn, and focus on what had to be done.  It became the defining moment of my young adult life.  Growing up experiencing such traumatic things like getting cut tended to toughen that accident prone young boy, and in the long run…it paid off when it counted the most.  So a word of wisdom to all you young parents out there…especially those with boys…let them suffer a scrape or two as they grow up…it will help them learn how to deal with difficult and even painful situations…they will be better for it when they get older. A great Christmas present for any boy is to receive a pocket knife from his dad…when they eventually cut themselves for the first time using it, well…that’s one of life’s little pleasures to know that your son is taking his first steps toward becoming a man.

As I have grown older, I’ve mostly, but not entirely, managed to replace cutting, stabbing, and burning myself...with slipping, tripping and falling off things… especially ladders.  I have become quite adept at doing so scoring in the high 9’s and sometimes even perfect 10’s as I perform those acrobatic maneuvers with grace and style…but that’s another gripping saga better saved for another time.


Sunday, November 20, 2011

For the Fun of it...

I take my photography way too seriously at times...concentrating so much on what I'm doing, that I don't always simply enjoy being there.  It's a bad habit to fall into.  Looking back over the tens of thousands of images I've captured over the years, the ones that hold the most importance are the ones I took when I was simply having fun doing what I was doing.

I've had a number of occasions over the years to talk about photography to not only groups of people but individuals.  One question that comes up quite often is...'How many good ones do you normally get on a photo shoot?'  At one time I tried to come up with some kind of profound words of wisdom on the subject and most of the time tended to say all the wrong things..."10 out of a hundred maybe...2 or 3 normally...depends on how many shots I take..." when in reality the way I should answer is like this..."It really doesn't matter as long as I get the shot or shots I wanted and had fun doing it."

Photography should be exactly that...a way to have fun and express that creative instinct we all have.  I've often had the desire to actually make a living at photography. Many people have indicated that might be a good idea and that I should pursue it.  But, when I think about it, trying to make a living at it just might be the wrong way to go about it, for then it becomes a job filled with all the job-like responsibilities and problems.  I'd think that would remove all the fun out of it.  I'd rather keep on doing what I'm doing...earning a little here and there...but having fun at it and taking joy and excitement in seeing for the first time that new amazing moment of light come to life as captured through the lens.

I suppose if I were to provide a bit of insight for new photographers on how to improve their photography...the best advise I could offer is to simply encourage them to approach their photography from the concept of simply having fun with it.  Not to get all caught up in the whistles and bells and technical jargon that goes along with it.  All that stuff will come in time if one continues to read and learn about the craft...but, it is far more important to begin at the beginning...and simply have fun learning about a fascinating hobby.  You might be amazed at just how amazing your pictures will turnout.  Always remember...there is no such thing as a bad photograph as long as you like enjoy!


Thursday, November 17, 2011

Top Ten Murphy's Law's of Photography

It happened again recently...there it absolutely amazing photographic moment...the light was right...the angle was right...the composition elements were all there...everything was present except my camera.  It was safe at home, and I missed a great opportunity for a potentially amazing photograph.  That got me to thinking about how that always seems to happen to me...sometimes I wonder if Father Murphy of Murphy's Law fame takes entirely too much delight in my I thought I'd write out a list of the top ten Murphy's Law's of Photography so I'd know better myself what to look for and expect next time.

Murphy's Photography Law number one:  Read the opening paragraph...nuff said.

Murphy's Photography Law number two:  An early rise, an hour's drive, great sunrise...dead batteries in the camera...and you forgot to recharge the spare from the last time it was used.

Murphy's Photography Law number three:  If the shot calls for a zoom will have a wide angle lens on the camera...if it calls for a wide angle lens, you will have a zoom lens attached.

Murphy's Photography Law number four:  If you need calm winds for a reflection shot, it will be windy.

Murphy's Photography Law number five:  Great view...amazing landscape...beautiful scenery...and a power line runs through it.

Murphy's Photography Law number six:  You wait and wait for that final few minutes before sundown to capture that anticipated sunset...and it never develops because overcast settles in...two minutes after you pack up and leave, the sun breaks free and lights up the horizon with a fire red sky.

Murphy's Photography Law number seven:  For three weeks in a row you've been seeing geese and ducks settle into the fields you drive past every morning.  The one day you get up early and are there ready to photograph them they don't show.

Murphy's Photography Law number eight:  When you want bright and cheery skies, or fluffy white cloud skies, or drama in the clouds, you'll get dull gray flat skies.

Murphy's Photography Law number nine:  You plan vacation time for a year in advance to capture those amazing fall colors...only this year you are either a week to late or a week to early than the peak.
Murphy's Photography Law number nine-A:  The fall colors are absolutely amazing, and you plan for a Saturday morning photo shoot.  That night a storm blows in and by the next morning almost all the leaves are on the ground.

Murphy's Photography Law number ten:  That amazingly dramatic photograph you worked for years to find and capture is entered into the local state fair photography contest expecting at least a blue ribbon and the winner selected goes to a snap shot of some toddler sitting on potty training pot. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

" third general order is..."

With Friday being veterans day, I'd like to express my gratitude to all our veterans past and present for their courage and commitment.  Thirty seven years ago I found myself beginning one of the grandest adventures of my life....the first nine weeks were spent at the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center in Alameda, California...boot camp.  Hope you enjoy this nostalgic look back...


Boot camp for recruits often becomes that first time in a young mans life when he realizes the world no longer revolves solely around him.  In fact, it may very well be the first time most of the kids who experience it actually experience someone yelling and holding them accountable for what they do or don’t do.  It’s where a sheet tucked too loosely can illicit an irrational violent reaction from the stone faced company commander whose responsibility it is to turn these peach-fuzz young pups into confident and capable young Coasties. 

                “Why is he yelling at me,” goes through your mind over and over as you vainly try to maintain a sense of calm in the midst of the chaos being thrown at, and spit upon, your person by this hard core individual whose life history in the Guard is probably longer than you are old. 

                Somehow or another we survived…most of us that is and in the end, we began to understand what all the toughness was all about.  We still didn’t exactly enjoy it…anyone who says they did is telling a whopper of whale story.  It wasn’t supposed to be pleasant.  It was supposed to toughen your character and create fear and panic inside of you under controlled conditions so when you really did face something to be fearful of or panic for, you would be better able to handle it.

                I do remember those nine weeks beginning in September 1973…oh to well…almost too well really…with a certain degree of fondness…I didn’t say nostalgia.  There wasn’t much to become nostalgic about as part of Company Alpha 93 at the Alameda Training Center.

                We were certainly a rag-tag bunch of knuckle-heads.  I’ve never seen the likes of it before or since.  The oldest guy in our outfit, of around forty recruits, was about twenty-four.  I had just turned twenty-one with three years of college behind me and I quickly began wondering what in the world I had gotten myself into.  The two of us had been around the ropes a time or two, or so we thought, but almost everyone else was right out of high school and very wet behind the ears which by the way, became very prominent appendages once they shaved off our hair.  Afterwards we all became a bunch of knuckle headed skinheads who barely knew our left foot from our right foot.  This fact was much to the chagrin of our company commander who had to teach us how to march and perform close order drill and the manual of arms.  I figure we must have done thirty or forty thousand pushups and ran seven or eight hundred miles as a result during those nine weeks because someone forgot which was his right or left foot.  We were the original ‘Crank Kings’ as our plight became common knowledge that spread throughout the other companies in which we endured our incarceration.  Drills were the bane of our crew.  We must have messed up fourteen eleven times everyday…with the usual consequences…down and give me twenty-five you scumbags! 

                We were the last company if I remember correctly to receive a full issue of the old Donald Duck uniform…dress blues…undress blues…whites…Dixie Cup hats…the entire array of the old wool and cotton uniform wardrobe.  After us, from what I heard anyway, every other company only received a partial issue of the old stuff until the Coast Guard transitioned to the new blazer type of uniform.

                I was given the role of company yeoman and was held responsible to make sure all of our laundry was bundled and turned in at Gus’s place.  We veterans of that era surly remember Gus (I won’t use the name we actually called him as it not printable but it refers to the how much we were…uh… lets just leave it at that).  The first time I was suppose to take our bundled laundry in, for some dumb reason…I didn’t.  Our company commander wasn’t too happy about it either and I got an ear full and had to run all the way back to the barracks while the rest of the company stood at attention until I got back with all the bundled laundry.  It was quite heavy and took three of us to tote it all.  I never let that happen again.
I also had the misfortune of reporting to the officer of the day every Monday morning to endure an audit of our company books.  I was dutifully told to make sure the coffee was ready before the OD arrived or he’d be in a grumpy mood and start looking for discrepancies that weren’t there.  On that first meeting, being that I had never made coffee before as I wasn’t a coffee drinker handicapped me tremendously, so my first attempt at using the stagnant water that dribbled from the outside water hose as the liquid and adding enough coffee grains that thickened the concoction to approximately the texture of pancake batter elicited a rather strangled, choking response in the OD.  I really do believe his socks rolled up and down a couple of times when he took that first gulp.  I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or fear for my life, but the sneer across my face just couldn’t be hidden.  After tossing a disgusted look in my direction, he took pity on me and even laughed himself after he dumped the contents into the sink.  I received my first lesson on how to make a decent cup of coffee.  My books were perfectly in sync on that first occasion, and we got along just fine after that.  Never once did he find or even look for any discrepancies in my accounting skills, but he did tend to take a closer look at and a smaller first sip from the coffee I made each time.

I’ve long forgotten how to recite them now, but those eleven general orders we were suppose to know more often than not we didn’t.  It only took one time to get the message across that we better know them.  During our first inspection, this one poor sap just got raked over the coals for stuttering and stammering through a series of recital attempts.  It wasn’t pretty.  That evening and for several evening thereafter I drilled myself on not just knowing them in order, but front wards, backwards, and inside out.  The diligence paid off.

Several weeks into our nine week incarceration we were finally beginning to get into a routine and most of us had learned our left foot from our right foot by then and could march and turn with a reasonable degree of accuracy.  At least anyway, we weren’t doing nearly as many punitive adjustment exercises as a result.  Fridays were inspection day and we scrambled around preparing ourselves and help each other get suited up.  One thing we had to do was lace up these white leggings which had to be lined up a certain way.  It was impossible to do it yourself, so two people would lift you up onto a table and then commence to lace up the leggings for you…and then you returned the favor.  We also had to wear these wide white belts with brass buttons and they had to be snow white and spit polished or else.  Well, while I was helping lace up some leggings for one of the guys, I tossed my immaculate belt across my rack so it wouldn’t get soiled and where I could quickly pick it up on the way out to line up.  We finished lacing the last of the leggings and we had at best one minute to assemble outside.  I waddled over to my rack, so as not to break the crease in my inspection shoes or mess up the leggings, to get my belt and discovered that it was gone.  Some lowdown had swiped it for his own use as it was pristine in nature…I worked hard on that belt.  But, I had no option but to grab a spare belt out of the box we kept in a closet.  To say this belt was filthy would be an understatement.  I was out of time though, and slapped it on hoping that the Brass Head making the inspection wouldn’t notice.

He noticed.  For several minutes I became the brunt of every kind of foul comment that could spit out of the foul mouth of an inspection day Brass Head.  In his eyes I was the most worthless scumbag that ever disgraced the grinder.  He yanked my belt from around my waist and threw on the ground then kicked it three or four times about ten yards each time ranting and raving and in general having a hussy fit.  Then he stood nose to nose with me…yeah…really nose to nose.  I was too scared to notice just how bad his breath was, but I was prepared for what I knew was to come.  Over the next three or four minutes he drilled me on every one of the eleven general orders…inside out…and right side up…making me repeat over and over several of them.  With each vile command of ‘What is your third or fourth or ninth general order,’ I without hesitation blared back in his face as loud as I could, word for word every one of them…never missing beat.

‘Sir…my third general order is…blah…blah…blah’.
‘Sir…my sixth general order is…blah…blah…blah’.
And so it went on and on.

I don’t know if he simply got tired of trying to break me, or if he was simply impressed that I wouldn’t break, but he finally backed off grumbling all the while about how disgusting I was then stepped on to the next poor sap who by now was trembling in his spit shined shoes.  As my company commander passed by me, he hesitated for a few seconds and looked me straight in the eye with an odd smirk on his face.  He ever so slightly shook his head in disgust…and winked.  It was his way of saying…well done.  He knew I had endured a tough moment and stymied our inspector’s attempts at breaking me.  And, the belt thing…he knew something was not right for that to happen…and was probably relieved that I didn’t complain or blame the situation on one of my crewmates which would have gotten the whole unit in trouble.  I never did find out who took my belt…but I did let it be known afterwards that I took one for the company because of it and it wasn’t going to happen again…if you get my drift.  I never had another issue with it.

Every morning we lined up on the grinder before breakfast for our morning workout.  Oscar (Honor Guard) Company was always first out and had to lead the battalion out onto the grinder…they had to …or else.  We determined to beat them one morning and everyone got up and ready before reveille and lined up outside before Oscar Company ever began stirring.  When the time came, we burst out ahead of them in perfect unison marking time with…’Up we got good and ready…Today we beat…Oscar Come pany’!  It was great…as the cocky, great and powerful Oscar Company Honor Guard…got bested by lowly Alpha 93.  They got in some kind of trouble…and so did we as we weren’t suppose to do that…make Oscar look bad.

Somewhere along those nine weeks…the rag-tag group of kids that made up Alpha 93…became men.  We became so good at close order drill that in our sixth week we were allowed to march in a parade in Hayward along with Oscar Company and all of the honor guard units of the other military branches…Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines…and us.

By the way…Oscar Company were the best of the best often out performing even the U.S. Marines Honor Gurad at functions like this, and for us to be selected from all the other companies to join them, well…it was quite an honor.  How fun it was to have all the young ladies lining the streets waving and making all kinds of comments about our manhood…I think we marched about as well as we ever had…our heads held a bit higher…our lines and steps a bit crisper as a result.  We were good, and we knew it and for the first time felt we had finally arrived.  Our company commander chided us afterwards at just how crooked our lines were and how we were out of step and we looked awful…yeah...yeah...yeah…we knew better.  Afterwards he let have run of the town for a few hours before we had to load the bus for our re-incarceration, but we darn well better show up sober...most of us did.  We were like school kids let out for summer break.

Perez was his name…one of the characters from our company who had a voice like an angle…but who looked tougher than Joe Lewis.  He became the one single voice of our weekly graduation ceremonies.  ‘Battalion…’ he would sing out in such a powerful…angelic voice as all the various companies snapped to attention.  Man…he was great at the role…but almost didn’t graduate himself because he couldn’t swim a lick.  Jumping from the tall tower into the deep end of the pool was just too much for him.  During our final swim test, he froze on the edge of the tower as the swimming instructor yelled obscenities at him about coming up there and throwing him off if he didn’t jump.  It took several minutes and more obscenities, but he finally took the plunge screaming all the way down and hit the water hard with both arms outstretched to his side…whack!  After thrashing around attempting to get oriented and gasping for air, he finally made it to the side of the pool…and passed his swim test...and graduated.

My memory fails me, but our recruit company commander’s name leaves me.  That’s what happens after thirty-seven years, but he was a character in his own right.  Often during meal time, with the radio blaring in the background he would step on stage and put on a show miming the words to the best of Motown, songs like ‘Tears of Clown’, ‘My Girl’…spinning and do-wopping like a pro.  It was great fun and broke much of the tension we often had to endure.

 I was lucky being the company yeoman as I didn’t have go through KP week, instead I and a couple others got to lounge around the barracks that week doing some cleaning and relaxing and taking care of administrative stuff that I was suppose to take care of.  We took full advantage of it mostly reading and napping.  Even so, our barracks floor did have an inspection surface that was checked every Friday.  Myself and a couple of other guys spent that week polishing and buffing that surface until it shined like a mirror, then roped it off so no one could walk across it.  Come our next inspection, the comment we receive from the inspection Brass Head was...’that’s the best I’ve ever seen...’  You could ice skate on that surface.

Firefighting school was the highlight of boot camp.  For a full week we were indoctrinated in the methods of preventing and fighting fires onboard ship.  I’ll never forget the first time we lined up to fight the training fire inside the mockup ship interior concrete building.  I was lead on one of the three hoses.  When the instructors fired off the electrically ignited fire and those flames shot ten feet like a blow torch out those hatches, all of us looked at each other with this…’we gotta go in there’ fear across our faces.  The instructor shouted at me to charge the hose, at which point I popped the handle upright…a second later the instructor yelled at me to shut it down.  I didn’t understand why.  A moment later our backup hose went in ahead of us and everyone was yelling at me at what happened.  I shrugged my shoulders, then, another instructor came over and told me to replace the nozzle.  It seems the nozzle had malfunctioned and the spray attachment had blown completely off generating a sluggish blob of water that would not fight any fire much less what we were supposed to fight.  It took a minute or so to replace the nozzle, and by then the first team came out.  A few minutes later it was our turn again and in we went facing that wall of flame not knowing for sure what we were doing.  It was amazing how the high pressure spray simply shoved the flame back inside and in unison with the other hose teams we isolated and extinguished the fire in quick order.  When we first went inside, we were scared to death.  When we came out, we could conquer anything.

Those nine weeks of boot camp were the worst and best nine weeks of my life.  Nothing before or since can compare.  We saw ourselves evolve from fuzz faced cherubs who didn’t know up from down or left from right, into confident young men ready for our duty stations wherever they may be.  We still had a lot to learn…more challenges to face…but it was in boot camp where we learned how to face those challenges and understand that we were capable of doing more than we thought we could.  The undisciplined long haired kids all of us were became well groomed, strong and confident.  Some of us lost weight and gained endurance…some of us gained weight and strength.  The scared unsure faces we had on the first day of fire fighting school…became self-confident destroyers of smoke and flames.  In the end, I received one of the best honors that can be bestowed on a fellow crewmate in boot camp…Alpha 93 voted me ‘Best Shipmate’ and unknown to me at the time, I received the honor during our graduation ceremonies.  

All of us received a score during our nine weeks that determined our selection number when it came time to choose our next duty assignment from the selection billets.  I was number six out of 40 on the list. The guy who had the number one overall score received the highest score up to that time ever assigned to a recruit coming through Alameda.  Three of those ahead of me already had schools assigned, so I ended up with the number three pick out of forty.  Umpqua River Lifeboat Station at Winchester Bay, Oregon was my selection.  It was to eventually lead to the defining moment of my Coast Guard career with grand adventures that still affect my life today...adventures where the tough discipline that was imparted during boot camp proved its worth.  

 From the unsettled often awkward and stumbling group known as Alpha 93, we became one of the most decorated and successful companies ever to come through the Alameda Training Center. Our company banner was festooned with ribbons and awards.  Some of the highest scores ever recorded for personal achievement were recorded by Alpha 93.  From there we spread out across the country and served with distinction. We were no longer individual knuckleheads…we were Alpha 93…we were the best…we knew our eleven general orders, and they served us well.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Good-bye Sadie

Some years ago I told of a story about a heartbreaking experience with a new pup I had just purchased who died three days later from the Parvo Virus.  It was a gut wrenching time difficult to endure, but because of that experience I became a better person with a kinder heart.

This week my family had to face another difficult situation with a pet.  Our sweet and even-tempered Sadie...a predominantly golden retriever and chow mix had to be put down.  To this day we're not for sure how old she was as we didn't bring her into our home until she was at least two maybe three years old...but she must have been at least fifteen.

We rescued her from People and Pets when my boys were quite young...Christopher was maybe three or four and Tim was nine or ten.  She took to our home right away and on the first night she picked up a package of unopened treats and carried it into the living room to let us know she would like to have one.  I knew right away she was a smart dog.

Never once did she ever show any aggression...always happy...always loving and excited to see us and to greet new strangers who might drop by.  She had this odd sort of snarly smile she always showed when she greeted someone.  That smile became her signature expression that everyone commented of many she had.

When we moved to Kentucky eight years ago, her life changed a lot as we moved to the country where she could roam freely.  It took her a little while to get use to it, but over time she adapted and her temperament changed some...not quite as hyper...more laid back.  Most of the time she simply stayed on the porch occasionally barking at passing farm equipment that made too much noise.  She seemed to take great joy in barking at trucks towing a trailer for some reason...I never could figure out why she did that.

Our neighbor has two dogs. a much younger half wild black female Lab who tends to cause more trouble than any single dog should...but she and Sadie seemed to get along pretty well.  Bella developed a bad tendency to chase cars there for a while, and one day a few years back when Sadie still had the energy to do so she decided she would start chasing cars too.  Seemed like a good thing to do I suppose to a dog.  I yelled at her numerous times to no avail until one day she took off after a car coming in one direction and didn't see another car coming from the other direction and was rolled  under the full length of the second car.  Boy, did she ever yelp...thought we had lost her for sure...but by some miracle she only sustained some bruises..and a short lived limp...oh...and by the way...she never chased another car after that.

I guess the favorite thing she liked to do was run with me when I hiked out to the pond on the back of the field behind the house.  She always took off way out front and ran at full throttle.  In the fall and winter we would sometimes bust a covey of quail and she'd get all excited...but she enjoyed chasing rabbits the most.  I always knew when she was onto one because she'd start in with this high pitched half bark half yelp.  She never caught one, but she sure liked to chase after them.

For all those years she seemed just fine...strong and healthy and full of life, but last spring she showed a noticeable slowing down...seemed to want to lay around more...didn't run as hard on our pond walks...seemed to always end up walking the last couple hundred yards home.  She didn't appear to be sick or anything, just tired.  As the next few months passed, she slowed more and more...stopped eating as much and began to lose that healthy muscular fit body she had.  She became more and more lethargic and had trouble walking on slick surfaces like the wood floors and climbing the stairs to the deck.  A few weeks ago she followed us out to the pond on what proved to be her last trip out there.  She almost didn't make it back and spent the rest of the day just laying around and when we called her, she would just look up at us.

Over the next few days she got to where she could barely walk at all...she stopped eating and rapidly lost weight.  Her once strong body became thin and emaciated.  When we looked into her eyes we knew that age was catching up to her and it was just a matter of time.  By this time Sadie couldn't even stand and refused to eat.

As hard as it was, we knew the right thing to do was to let her go and not prolong the inevitable.  I was okay with that...until we actually took her to the vet.  My wife Kris started blubbering when the veterinarian shaved Sadie's front paw to expose the vein for the injection that would put her down. That blasted old lump returned to my throat again when she did that.  As I wrote years ago about the loss of that other little pup...I realized once again that over the years I had become more softhearted than I wanted to admit to...but that's okay.  For to look at ones self through the eyes of a trusting pet that retained complete and total trust in you to the very end...well, I can't help but somehow feel like I betrayed that trust by having to end her life the way we did.  I suppose that is what makes me feel sad the most...but I know it was the best thing for her.  She deserved more out of life than what was happening to her.

We buried Sadie outback in an area near where she always enjoyed sitting in the shade.  Its a nice place surround by a small white picket fence facing toward the fields where she lived out her favorite activities.  Yeah...we're gonna miss that old dog...but I suppose the world was a better place for having her in it while she only regret is...I wish I would have been as good of an owner as she was a pet...and I hope I have become a better person for having had her around, this newly rediscovered old softhearted heart of mine thinks so anyway.