Wednesday, February 18, 2009

COOPERSTOWN AND A PLACE CALLED ROTTERDAM

This was to be a pilgrimage to the Baseball Hall of Fame. When I was very young my equally fanatic father had taken my brother and me there. I always said I would go back. Life and geography had gotten in the way. Despite my absolute passion for the game, I had never found the time. On this trip there were no such constraints so I forged up from Pennsylvania into New York State on I-88 to bow my head in the cathedral of baseball to the greatest to have played the game.

The rain that had followed for days continued. For an Interstate, this was not a great road. However, the farm country it passed was lovely. One could easily imagine sitting in front of a fire in one of the many old farmhouses that have been nestled in this valley for at least a century. The towns are small, lived in, and lovely. There are few roads here that will take you through them, no remnants of U.S. highways as in other places. The Interstate follows the old routes, and going through town seems a great deal out of my way on a rainy day when getting out and looking around isn’t likely.

Cooperstown, where the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is found, is such a small town. It is in the middle of downtown where parking is at a premium, particularly for a camper. There have been many, much heralded attempts to move it elsewhere. They have all failed, since the game of baseball, as we know it was once believed to have been invented by Abner Doubleday. He was born in Balston Spa New York and educated in here in Cooperstown. He was a Civil Engineer and a West Point graduate who served in the Civil War. He pointed the first gun of the War at Fort Sumter, and was a Major General when he fought at Gettysburg. He went on to be President of the company that built the San Francisco Cable Car system. It was alleged, in a spare moment here in western New York, that he drew the first “baseball” field which was then built here. Thus Baseball chose it for the hallowed shrine to the greatest moments of the game. Doubleday and baseball were for at least a century inextricably linked to this place and it was embraced by the scions of the game as the “home” of American baseball, with Abner as its father. He was, of course, no such thing. It was not invented here and certainly not by Abner Doubleday based on any empirical evidence. There were many games played at the time that involved a bat and a ball. They served as the wellspring of the modern game well before Doubleday could have been old enough to invent it. Yet this myth that the field at Cooperstown was one that he laid out as a young Civil Engineer remained fixed in the lore of Baseball because it served the purpose of the game. In later years it has been proved wholly unlikely since he was at West Point on the date in question, the “drawing” has never been produced, and Doubleday himself never mentioned it. None of his friends remembered him as claiming the game as his own, or even mentioning it more than in passing in his later life.

A number of games were played in the northeastern United States that resemble American baseball. “Rounders,” is well documented has having come from England with the New World settlers. Additionally, there is substantial evidence that one Alexander Cartwright wrote the first formal rules for this game know as “base” and “Town ball,” as well as “baseball” some of which survive in the game today. Since Cartwright lay out the first field the distance between the bases and that from the pitchers mound to home plate has never changed. It remains the same symmetrical diamond it was in the 1800’s. There were teams in and around New York City playing the game before the Civil War. The first known formal game was played in 1846 by two amateur teams in Hoboken, New Jersey. Yet, Abner remained the symbol of the game because baseball wanted it that way. One historian says he is the historical equivalent of the game’s grandfather figure. He is useful for baseball, but to scholars is as the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. That is all in way of explanation of how “The Hall,” as it is reverentially referred by the games most ardent and passionate fans, was built at Cooperstown and remains there still. The game wanted an image like this. Pastoral surrounding in a small town setting evokes thoughts of young lads in knickerbockers playing on the village greens of the bucolic America we wanted it to be and not some dusty place like the Elysian Field in Hoboken. It is what baseball wanted, so it is what baseball had us believe.

There is something to be said for this remoteness. It requires work to get here. Like pilgrims going to Mecca, the Wailing Wall, and Bethlehem, you must want to come here since getting to this village on the one two-lane road in the valley southwest of Albany New York is hard. I wondered as I rolled into town how they managed to get all those people here for the Induction Ceremony every year. The living Members of the Hall who come to greet the new inductees are hardly youngsters, and many of the inductees aren’t either. There is no airport here. One must assume there are a lot of limousine rentals that week in Albany and Boston.

It was too late to go to the Hall the day I arrived. That was just as well since downtown was full and it was raining, which was enough to discourage a hunt for fringe parking and finding a way back to the “Cathedral of Baseball” that day. I thought I might have a better chance at parking somewhere near it, or finding out where more parking was in the morning. Cooperstown is quaint, although overrun by souvenir shops, bars, and restaurants all with far too cute baseball related names like “The Dugout” (a basement restaurant) and “the Upper Deck” (a memorabilia shop). Having decided to call it a day, the search began for “Glimmerglass” state park.

The Hudson River valley produced a number of famous authors. They were the very first Americans able to make a living from only their writings as the new country emerged after the Revolutionary War. The most prolific of these and perhaps best known was Washington Irving. He wrote under his own name and the pseudonym Geoffrey Crayon. He is most famous for his short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and “Rip Van Winkle.” His contemporary, James Fenimore Cooper wrote the “Leatherstocking Tales.” His father founded Cooperstown. James gave the name “Glimmerglass” to Lake Otsego in this work of historical fiction. It borders the town and, I am sure, when it is not hidden in a fog bank as it was when I was there, is as lovely as Mr. Cooper describes. The campsite is eight miles from town on the other side of the lake. The signs through town are clear, but the directions seem less so the closer you get. I expect they assume either local knowledge, or that you would be smart enough ask someone, or not come in a downpour on a darkening afternoon. The road that follows the far side of the lake is narrow and winding. It has many of those signs we all see and ignore, “Caution Falling Rock.” Well folks, I can tell you they do fall, particularly in the rain. They also land in the road. They can be run over and do real damage. I know that now as a certain fact.

La Coachasita continued to run normally after the encounter. I was later to discover the sewage release pipe was mangled beyond reason. Until then, I could only imagine what broke in all that noise when the rock hit the undercarriage. I figured this out on the cement drive near the Ranger’s office when the Park and I finally crossed paths. A cursory inspection told me that I had serious damage that needed repair but that the van would continue to run fine and probably hold used water since the damage was on the outflow side of the valves. Plastic pipe was all that seemed to be broken from what I could see without laying on the wet ground. Given my location and the fact that it was now after four o’clock, nearly dark, and raining heavily, it seemed best to stay the night. Everything seemed to be still attached to the camper. What looked like it might not remain was wrapped with duct tape which, as we all know, will hold most things up to at least the speed of sound.

The semi-friendly ranger that greeted me said all but two campsites were available and as far as she was concerned, any of the other 148 sites were fine with her. She seemed mildly interested in my woes when I asked if there were any repair facilities in the area, but mumbled something about Albany as she headed out the door, shift done, dinner no doubt yet to be.

It is a self-contained park, which means no electric or other service except what you bring or make. It was cold. It rained most of the evening. Given the correct state of mind and reasonable weather, it would be quite lovely here. Since my next stop was due to be the Boston area for the Memorial Day Weekend the repairs had to be made somewhere and before then. Leaking used water was not an option for the rest of the trip. I spent the cold gray evening trying to make a plan.

There is a line in a Willie Nelson song that good times are any time you’re not tired, not cold, and not hungry. We could colors these as good times, then I suppose. I had gas heat and a generator for lights and I was dry and ate dinner. Priorities get reordered in these situations. With a shrug to quell my compulsive nature which screamed for a solution to the problem beyond such homilies, as “God will provide,” I took to my bed after dinner, read, and listened to music. Somehow, the lack of a phone, radio, and television reception seemed appropriate for the place. I wanted to know what I would do in the morning. I did not want to have to figure it all out. I convinced myself that it would all be clearer then and slept, secure only in the knowledge that the van would start, and that Willie was right.

The morning was nearly as gloomy as the day before. There were two more campers in the park, no doubt late arrivals. Since there was little I could do for my companion, La Coachasita, until the factory opened two time zones away, I took the time to make a quick sweep of the Hall as I passed through Cooperstown. I remembered it as a considerably smaller place that we had come to visit to see the mementos of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Cy Young, “Pee Wee” Rieser and Tinkers and Evers and Chance and so many others. There is much more to see now. That makes it a more daunting a task. The place is lovely. The main lobby makes some luxury hotels look like fleabags. The relics of the game, from the scorecards to the equipment and the plaques are the kind of thing a fanatic like me could spend a week looking at and still not see it all. I left now after too short a time and I went to try to solve my problems and continue the trip to my relatives for the holiday weekend. I did not want to spend the Memorial Day weekend in a motel by the side of the road. I had two days to fix the van and get to Massachusetts. I also knew that RV repair people would be especially busy right now before the weekend. Other than knowing I would be able to reach the factory now, I had only a vague idea what I would do next. I left town on the two-lane road I came in on for Interstate 88 and headed toward Albany in the belief that if there was help, it would likely be there.

The next stop was not on the original itinerary. It was, as someone said, “just part of the trip.” For reasons that are only clear to my personal god and serendipity, I got off Interstate 88 here and found a lot of very nice people.

I drove generally east on I-88. In a moment of blinding realization, I concluded it was about to become the New York Thruway and I would pay a toll and then be hermetically sealed on a toll road I had no plans to use and would offer no surcease for my camper’s difficulties. I needed fuel and was desperate to eat something since the cereal of early morning was wearing very thin. For all these not very essential reasons, I dove for the infamous “Last Exit Before Toll.” I had no idea where I was. There was a gas station and a Dunkin’ Donuts next to each other at the bottom of the ramp. That, and the fact that the day was brightening despite the continued drizzle, was enough for the moment.

After fueling the van and me, I asked a friendly faced woman behind the counter if she knew anyone who might be able to at least crawl under my van and tell me how bad things really were. She took an immediate, somewhat alarming interest and said she would call her mechanic who was five miles down the road and ask him. When done, she said he had agreed to look at it. He did once I got there. He said it was a “mess” but also admitted he had no idea how to fix it and knew very little about “these RVs.” He thought Jack White at his RV place a few more miles on might be able to fix it. I thanked him for looking and left to find this Jack White’s place.

White’s RV Repair, when I finally found it, turned out to be a very large warehouse structure far down at the end of a very muddy dirt road. Jack wandered out after a time and said he was just finishing a job and would look at mine in about ten minutes. This seemed luck enough, since at least I would know whether anything was about to fall off and whether the camping part of this trip was going to continue. Once I knew that, perhaps a plan could be made.

He looked. He groaned, but to my amazement said it wasn’t much really, just a hole in two pipes and he thought he could fix it. He searched for appropriate parts and started to pull it apart. As is always the case with luck like this, it could not last. There was a part peculiar to my van that he didn’t have and could not find in the parts books. I knew this was not good news, but he seemed to know what he was talking about, which encouraged me. I called the Canadian company that built the camper and spoke to another Jack, the Service Manager. I explained. He talked to the Jack in front of me and he explained. They agreed that Canada had all the correct parts and would Express them overnight. Perhaps my luck was better than I thought.
Now all I needed was a place to live until they could fix it. Jack and his helper gave me some motel names, recommended a few, and ruled some out. On the first call “Debbie” at the Rotterdam Inn found space for me said I could have it in the next hour. That was good since there was nothing particular I could accomplish until the parts arrived and it was better than plugging in to Jack’s building and sitting it out in the rain overnight which had been Jack’s first invitation. I had lots of e-mail to catch up on and the phone was working now, so indoors and some one else’s cooking seemed a better idea. I could let people know where I was (although it remained unclear to me at that moment) and when I would likely get to my destination, if the parts showed up and Jack was as good a mechanic as I hoped.

The motel was not the first I would have chosen had I been doing it on looks alone. I was to find that much in Rotterdam was not as it appeared on the surface. I was glad it wasn’t as soon as I went inside. The proprietors and most of the help were part of the Peloso family. “Debbie,” who was still at the desk when I got there, greeted me warmly and with great sympathy for my plight. The rest of the people, help and guests, over the next two days, could not have been nicer. Everyone noticed the license plates and felt a little sorry for the Californian stuck here in the rain and seemed to be rooting for me to make it out by the weekend. I settled in for a wait and tried to stay amused. I was sustained by the Italian take-out or eat in place next door, which the Peloso family also owned and which had the same baker as when Grandfather Peloso came from Italy. Their motto was “Watch Pizza Made by Imported Hands.” The food was fantastic.

At mid-day on Thursday, my new best friend Jack hadn’t called, so I drove there. He had the parts but was in the midst of an emergency repair on a huge “fifth wheel” trailer that was likely worth more than my house. Many people prefer them because you can unhitch the truck for local trips. Jack said he would be a couple of hours so I said I would get something to eat and come back around three.

I went back down the road to the huge truck stop and spent a couple of hours talking with many of the over the road truckers who were pulling in at this hour for a hot meal, sometimes a shower, a little relaxation, and a willingness to talk to other strangers. They keep strange hours, these road warriors. By dinnertime for the rest of the world, they are off the road resting for the long night ahead. They eat either an early dinner or a late lunch, depending on your point of view and will eat again later as they drive on into the night while you sleep. It is hard to tell from the food, since they are just as likely to eat a steak now as at ten tonight. None wants to participate in the office worker’s quaint ritual nightmare of rush hour, so they eat now and then rest while the rest of the world is fighting their way home. Then they will drive well into the night, as far as their logbooks and the inspectors will allow. Twelve hours a day or more behind the wheel. It comes with sleep rest stops like these in between. There are the crazy ones, who push a load as fast as they can and then catch a load headed back where they came from. They do caffeine, cigarettes, energy drinks, and whatever pills it takes. Most don’t work that way and those that do don’t last long. Many now drive in family pairs. There are a few woman drivers out here solo, but not many and they still have issues with some of the men who see their domain being violated. The large, over the road vehicles that are privately owned have cabs that are longer than my van now and behind the driver’s seat there are mini-condos. They have everything I have in the camper and more and can cost as much as an oversized motor home. Yet somehow they haul enough to make the payments, and in recent years family run “rigs” have become more plentiful simply because they are more comfortable. Some couples stay on the road nine or ten months a year.

When I was finished eating, talking, and watching, I went back and waited. Jack had found more trouble with the big rig than he had hoped. He started on mine about six o’clock. I was beginning to feel much better. While he was wandering around (he had a habit of forgetting where he put a tool down) putting me back together as it were, I learned he only did this part time. He had only been in this building for a short time, was, in real life, a police officer in Schenectady, which is the next town and was planning on taking retirement next year to do this full time. I was sure he would do well. He had a way with people that allowed him to hear you but not get too involved and to thank you but refuse things offered without offending. My latest new friend Fred, the owner of the fifth wheeler, had pulled out, plugged into the power of the building and was making dinner (or “the wife” was). He had come back to introduce himself and apologize for how long it had taken to get fixed. He offered Jack and I some of the stew being cooked in his palace as we spoke. Jack declined because his wife had brought him dinner, and I did because I had already eaten. It is amazing, that these huge rigs, which are truly houses on wheels, could sit in a muddy field full of repaired, abandoned, and rusted RVs in the dark and that once inside, you never knew the difference.

My van was declared well at about 8:30 PM, I was effusive in my thanks to Jack, and I headed back to the hotel. There seemed a new spring in the step of La Coachasita. It was dark when I got in, but one more trip to the Peloso’s restaurant netted me the dinner special of stuffed shells as good as they get and kudos from the staff that I would be able to leave in the morning . One shower later, I was in bed and ready for my trip to Massachusetts the next day, content.

Such are the ways of the solo traveler who at times relies on the random acts of kindness of perfect strangers. One finds good people and a willingness to be of assistance, mostly. La Coachasita and I are always grateful for that, and in this case, glad to have met some of the citizens of Rotterdam and now know where it is.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Ninety Days in Margaritaville

Before Jimmy Buffet and the Parrot People, his ubiquitous song, his search for his lost jigger of salt, and blown out flip flops, I spent a summer in the southernmost place in the United States—Key West Florida. We blew out our flip-flops and lost our salt before it was fashionable but mostly we flew air-to-air exercises over Dry Tortugas and the exquisite coral reefs that surround the Keys.

Key West was then and is now a beautiful place. It was as funky then and it is now. More so then perhaps, since it was true funk and not some invented anarchistic southern imitation of New Orleans to attract the tourists. Hemingway’s favorite bar was still in operation. A few came just to see it, but most to do serious drinking in it. President Truman’s “summer White House,” was not a tourist site as it has become but rather a modest compound on the Naval Base with a few signs to let you know that was what it was. It was a town of fisherman, artists, retirees, crazy people, and a lot of the Navy. The crazy people were represented in each of the other groups.The main base at Key West hosted submarines, destroyers, frigates and other ships of the Sixth Fleet. Cuba was 90 miles away, still considered a military threat that the Navy took seriously. The Cuban Missile Crisis was well before our time, but some of the older base personnel remembered when foxholes and missile launchers had bristled on the beaches of the main island next to the conch shells and the place was under Martial Law.

The only remnant that remained in my time there were the two fully armed “hot pad” planes on 24 hour “two minutes from launch” status which would launch periodically when some unknown radar blip (usually an airliner without the proper code displayed) came through Cuban airspace and headed in our direction. In an oddity one supposes explainable only by the Pentagon, this “hot pad” was manned by Air Force pilots and occasionally Marines on “vacation” from up the coast at the Marine Air Station Cherry Point in South Carolina, but never by the Navy. Boca Chica Key is one north of Key West in the chain of Keys and the Naval Air Station was located there and went by that name. We did our flying in the Replacement Air Group, or “The RAG” as it was colloquially known.

The RAG was where the young and the inexperienced in a type of aircraft learned how to fly it before being deployed to an operational squadron. Pilots coming out of older aircraft or returning to full flight status after a staff job reentered flight status there as well. We were there after initial training in smaller less powerful aircraft. The Marine pilots had left us and went directly to operational squadrons to be taught the fine points of the aircraft they would spend the next year flying. The Navy preferred this more centralized version, since it made the training the point. They disliked having to train and be operational at the same time. This was, for the newly minted aviator, the last stop before going “to the fleet.” For the older transitioning aviators it was a required stop before returning to operational flying.

Our time then was spent in classrooms or flying reasonably low risk, high excitement flights in good weather. We were now “in type,” flying the aircraft we would fly in the Fleet. In some ways it was the best of times since we knew where we had finished on the ladder of Naval Aviator success and we were flying as much as three times a day to finish a brutal three-month syllabus. Unless we did something incredibly stupid at this point, we had only to worry about surviving the experience to assume what we believed, in the egotism reserved for the young, to be our rightful place. In all, it was a pleasant time. We were young, mostly, I the youngest, most still single with money for the first time in our young lives and except for the insidious heat and the lack of regular female companions anywhere south of Miami, we enjoyed our 50 hours a week of ground school and day and night flying.

We were a mixed group of young and old now, of experienced pilots of other aircraft types and the “newbie” kids getting the first taste of this heady times in our lives. Most of us found our first heroes here among these crusty veterans with their 300 hours of flight time. They were only their late twenties or early thirties, but had already flown many times from carrier decks on earlier deployments, knew wonderful and scary stories, tricks to make it all easier, smoked cigars, and drank with both hands.

My first such hero graduated the Naval Academy. He was several years my senior and many years wiser. He was an extraordinarily cheerful man from Los Angeles California with an infectious laugh and the improbable middle name of “Flak.” It was his grandmother’s family name. His first name was Charles but few knew that since he was known as Flak in our world had been, apparently, since boyhood. It seems improbable that a boy with the given names of Charles Flak would go to a military Academy and end up flying high performance aircraft, but here he was transitioning from an older one to the newest one in the fleet.

He introduced me to a number of wonderful things, not the least of which was how to have a wonderful time while working a 50-hour week and how to be much focused when it was time to do that. He induced a life long passion for the ugly but delicious avocado, which he claimed he used as butter growing up since they had an avocado tree in the back yard. I also met through him the strange looking vegetable that one boiled to death, peeled the leaves, dipped in butter, and then sort of ripped them through your teeth. I still find the artichoke a little strange. Last, since I was the junior officer of the house, he taught me the art of making frozen daiquiris and the now infamous margarita in mason jars. When I came home on Friday nights that was my task, which befit my junior status, so that they would be ready for the others.

There were five of us living in a rented a house in the Old Town section of Key West near the beach. It was a lovely rambling place which was not air conditioned, yet was pleasant enough because of the broad windows, and shutters that regulated the sun and the breeze.

The house was below and slightly to the right of the flight path to Air Station’s most used runway. When making radar controlled approaches to it--and we did nearly all the time, even in good weather, simply for the practice of doing it when we would be required to do in the bad weather places to come--we passed over the house. Flak discovered that if you counted to three after you passed over the coastline of Key West, reduced the throttles to zero, and then ran them back up, the aircraft made a distinct and peculiar noise we described as that of a sneezing elephant. He also calculated that it took 30 minutes from that moment to land, debrief, change clothes, and drive home. Whenever one of us flew near time for dinner on a weekend night, someone in the house would note the time of the noise and put steak or chicken on the charcoal grill at the appropriate time. When the flier came through the door, he could be confident his dinner would be ready.

One hot Saturday morning, I helped Flak assemble a scooter in the yard of the house. The scooter had come from his family when he told them how incredibly boring a place Key West could be in summer. It arrived in a box and about ten paper bags and had about a one horsepower engine. My minor mechanical expertise learned in all the service stations I had worked through college help us get it running to Flak’s everlasting gratitude.

Once assembled and tested driven by all of us, we planned a household competition to see who could ride it the farthest without getting stopped by the police. It stood about three feet off the ground so it takes some imagination to picture a grown man (physically grown, that is), in a bathing suit and flip flops, knees out to the side, arms akimbo, roaring down the sidewalk or street on this contraption at it's top speed of 6 mph. It had neither a muffler to quiet the din or the blue smoke from its two-stroke lawnmower engine. We found that afternoons and late evening were best for rides. The scooter was named “Mach 1.” Its trips were usually three blocks to the beach and back and no one much cared. In this funky town, this was tame stuff. Flak, who was about five eight and built like a cinderblock, would don fins and a snorkel mask for the trip. The neighbors found the sight as funny as we did .

There was a group of Peace Corps volunteers training that summer at a school some blocks away. They were to be assigned to islands in Micronesia . Obviously, the Florida Keys was a good venue to approximate the eventual destination. The climate was right and there are many small Keys accessed only by water. Unfortunately in one of its few lapses in judgment now near the end of its heyday, the Peace Corps took about anyone who volunteered into this group without the much screening. At least that is how the Navy people heard it. In truth, this was one of the last groups of the original Peace Corps. They were true “hippies” who may or may not have felt volunteer service was a useful way to spend two years after college, but an excellent way to stay undrafted. Living mere blocks from each other then here in this small island paradise were steely-eyed fighter pilots and weapons officers, and a group of unscreened young folks with peace tattoos and long stringy hair who did not think much of warriors and we not much of them. Few academics could have dreamt up a better experiment in the reaction of oil to water.

Since they moved about and worked in groups nearly all the time, and we were often home at odd hours because of dispirit flying schedules, our opportunities to annoy them were abundant. "Mach 1” was used to make regular afternoon or early evening “low passes” through the schoolyard where classes were in session on the way to or from the beach. Flak had started this ritual because he thought it was funny. He was genuinely astonished that they were not amused. Our association with him branded the rest of us who lived in the house as sociopathic so far as they were concerned. Socialization became out of the question. Flak had thought the scooter a great joke that he only wished to share. Attempts even to say hello were often rebuffed after that. That was too bad. The single men outnumbered single women (if young military dependents were not counted) by a factor of three or more during the months when the contract schoolteachers were not on the island. That number was at least reversed among the volunteer trainees.

Harassing volunteers was not something any of us ordinarily would consider a sport. Some of us had friends who had been in the Peace Corps. This group was strange, however, and we were so wrapped up in the “cause of freedom’ doctrine we were living everyday that we reacted to each other in the worst possible way. Nothing truly serious ever happened. Occasionally a stream of truly ugly words with which we were quite familiar came from a classroom window when a "low pass" was performed. Sometimes a group on the street would yell at us when we passed and we would return the favor. It all seems quite tame now, but our friend had started it so we felt compelled to defend the his right to ride an unregistered, un-muffled midget scooter anywhere he pleased, and were sufficiently annoyed with them that we did it when he wasn’t there to do it himself.

One evening, in the haze of a night spent with margaritas, the five of us were discussing the aerodynamic properties (or lack thereof) and fuel capacity of Mach 1. We decided that whoever amongst us managed to drive the scooter to the bar in town we usually hung out in and back to the house--which was what we believed about the limit of the fuel on board--would be awarded the “The Order of the Scooter, with Combat Cluster.” It had to be done when it was dark to make it more of a challenge. Police contact also had to be avoided. Our RAG Commander didn’t like talking to the police about his charges. If you have ever participated in a group decision made in that state, you know how right and just it can seem at the time.

Flak came home late from a cross-country flight one Friday evening some weeks later annoyed that the plane had broken and he had to land in Pensacola to get it fixed. Hungry and thirsty, he discovered the margaritas, food, and us gone. He had been scheduled to go to Miami that afternoon to spend the weekend in the company of the opposite sex and had missed the trip.

When he found "Mach 1” propped up against the steps of the house, he decided to go to the aforementioned bar where he assumed he would find us. We had all vaguely sketched a route one afternoon which we thought the most likely to get us there and back without police assistance. None of us had been scheduled for the Miami run that weekend so the bar was usually where we ended up to ogle the few available local ladies. Despite the clarity of thought in his sobriety, but likely because of his utter disgust with being stuck one more warm and humid weekend on the island at the bottom of the United States, Flak decided to take the honors offered by his noble scooter.

Over sidewalks, through shrubbery and backyards down a substantial part of Roosevelt Avenue he went astride his three foot high unlighted steed sounding like a broken lawnmower and looking as a turtle. He said later that he achieved the parking lot and, as luck would have it, someone opened the bar door just then. Without further thought and to get a "confirmed sighting” to assure his status as the Scooter Ace, he went through the door spewing blue smoke and horrific noise. He made a circuit of the dance floor--to a standing ovation--and headed home on a different street. He told us on his return later that he dropped the scooter near the house before sprinting to the beach just to be elsewhere when the Key West police inevitably showed up. They did, but no one was home and the scooter wasn’t found.

Some days later, in a much less sober state, he was awarded the Order of the Scooter" with appropriate ceremony. He became a folk hero in the squadron. There was some grumbling about the fact that he had done the deed while sober. Yet his sense of whimsy and the driving competitive spirit we all possessed at the time allowed him to dismiss such criticism. To anyone in earshot, he proclaimed that now he was not only The Greatest Naval Aviator Who Absolutely Ever Lived, but also The Best Scooter Driver in The Free World. Humility does not find fertile ground in the minds of the young men who spend a good part of their day driving jet aircraft. Hyperbole does and thus flourishes. If they are very lucky, they survive to learn that such a virtue has merit.

Most of us from the house were scheduled to go to a squadron on the East Coast. The vagaries of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, however, sent some one way and some the other. I got orders to go to a West coast base and my hero and scooter building friend stayed in the East. We lost contact with each other in the conventional sense although the community of Naval Aviation is small enough always to know in some vague way where we all are. I found new heroes. Flak found a career, new friends to laugh with, and then a family with which he did the same. When it was over for him, he retired as a Captain (the same as a full Colonel for those who do not translate ranks from the arcane Navy to the "uniform services") after commanding an aircraft carrier and a distinguished, even heroic career.

I saw him once after I was done. We had dinner when I visited Pensacola where he and many other Navy personnel retire and we laughed and shook our heads over the days of youthful exuberance. Flak was his usual ebullient self and produced the cheesy piece of tin that is The Order of the Scooter. He gave it to me saying only that he wanted me to have it so that I would remember all that was good about our times in Margaritaville.

It hangs here in a frame just over my shoulder.