Sunday, August 31, 2008

On Behalf of the Lowly Campaign Worker

A Little-Known Fact: The political campaign tactic known as “sign waving” actually started here in Hawaii, probably 30 years go. Candidates with little or no name recognition would stand at intersections during rush hour with their names on a sign and wave at the passing motorists. One elderly Hawaiian gentleman, a perennial candidate, greeted drivers during the morning rush hour from an aluminum lawn chair perched on the back of his battered pickup truck. On more than one occasion, he had dozed off by the time I went by.

His laid back approach was atypical, however, and folks who have never been involved in a political campaign can’t begin to appreciate how much work it is, whether the race is for a seat on the town council or for President of the United States.

That said, it’s also true that no single campaign activity is worth the effort that goes into it. You have to do it anyway, however, because your opponent is doing it. If he or she knocked on Mr. Smith’s door and you didn’t, guess who’ll probably get the Smith family vote!

Door-to-door canvassing is hard work and is not without its perils. Many campaigns ago, I was working my way through a residential neighborhood in Honolulu, passing out brochures for our former mayor, Frank Fasi. I had just started walking down a short driveway when an ugly black dog emerged from under a bush in the far corner of the yard and started coming at me. A long chain was fastened to his collar and I figured that any second he would reach the end and be pulled up short. A logical thought, but unfortunately the other end of the chain wasn’t fastened to anything. That damn dog dragged his chain all the way across the yard and nipped my okole … my butt!

Anyway, my only point here is to suggest that when campaign volunteers come a-knocking at our doors or call us on the phone, let’s remember that this is our democracy at work and at its best. No matter who their candidate may be, treat these folks with a modicum of patience and respect, OK?

And make sure the dog is tied up.

In Search of Shoeless Joe – Part 3

Don Lansing maintains the diamond himself and pays for the cost of its upkeep with proceeds from the sale of caps, T-shirts and other Field of Dreams items at a busy souvenir stand.

The community of Dyersville has also benefited from all the activity generated by the ball field on Don Lansing’s farm. Two new motels have sprung up in recent years and the ripple affect has been a boon for the local restaurants, gas stations and other retailers.

Once again our conversation is interrupted, this time by two couples who approach the fence and politely ask to have their photos taken with the farm house in the background. Lansing says that would be fine and ends up taking the pictures for them. One of the two men asks Lansing for an autograph, then fumbles awkwardly through his wife’s purse for a pen and any scrap of paper. Lansing scribbles his name and the man thanks him profusely.

“No problem,” says Lansing. “Thanks for coming by.”

“It was an honor,” the man said, and all four back away down the grassy slope, almost like courtiers withdrawing from a monarch’s presence.

A tour bus comes slowly down the driveway, stops and two-dozen people begin climbing out. There are a lot more people here now than there were an hour ago.

Because there is no admission charged at the Field of Dreams, no one knows for sure how many visitors come here every year. But from the number of names in the guest book he has placed on a stand behind the backstop, Lansing estimates that 60,000 people visited last year alone. What’s more, he says the number of visitors is actually increasing every year.

The people in the tour group drift over to watch the activity on the baseball field where a whole new line of youngsters is now waiting to bat. Kids and adults both are scattered around the field fielding balls and tossing them back into the infield. There’s no yelling, no horseplay. And, as Don Lansing points out, there’s not a speck of trash anywhere in sight.

“If all this was a problem, I’d give it up in a New York minute,” he says. “But everyone respects the place. They just figure it’s their own little piece of heaven.”

Is this heaven?

Well, no, it’s Iowa … but there's a 10-year-old about to step up to the plate who would almost certainly disagree.

And, on this particular day, so would I.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

See? God Really Does Answer Prayers

The Democratic Party’s convention in Denver concluded with a crowd estimated at some 85,000 people gathered in the open-air football stadium used by the Denver Broncos.

It was a key moment in the Obama campaign, of course, because it gave both Barak Obama and Joe Biden a chance to be seen and heard by a nationwide audience the TV ratings people now say totaled almost 40 million people.

But it turns out that some people were hoping the big spectacle would be a flop. If fact, they were praying it would be a flop. A right-wing “Christian” organization (quote marks are mine), Focus on the Family, actually put out a video asking their members to pray for “rain of biblical proportions” to ruin the Obama event.

Well, God, in His infinite wisdom, answered their prayers.

He said, “No.”

Friday, August 29, 2008

In Search of Shoeless Joe – Part 2

The Lansing family has owned this farm for a hundred years. Don Lansing, born and raised in Dyersville and the current owner of the property, surveys the activity going on all around him and smiles. “Pretty typical for a summer day,” he says.

Lansing has long since become accustomed to having people around his place most of the time, but he still shakes his head when he talks about the knock on his front door during the winter of 1987 that changed his life.

“There was snow on the ground,” he says. “It was a lady from Dubuque. The Iowa Film Office hired her to look for a farm with a two-story house that would be right for a movie.”

Dozens of farms in several counties were considered and there were three or four more visits to the Lansing farm over the next few months before it made the final cut. And how did Lansing feel when he got the news? “It was an honor to have my farm chosen,” he says simply.

Once the final decision had been made, things happened fast. The baseball field was finished within a matter of days. A crew of carpenters descended on the 100-year-old farmhouse and began remodeling the interior, all under Don Lansing’s watchful eye. A new stairway to the second floor was installed and several walls on the first floor were knocked out to give cameras more room to follow Kevin Costner and other cast members as they moved from kitchen to living room and back.

Outside there was another problem, one that couldn’t be fixed with hammer and nails. There was very little rain during that spring and summer in 1988, and by late May the film’s producers were starting to worry.

“They came to me saying the corn wasn’t tall enough,” Lansing says. “I told them, ‘Well, it’s the drought.’ So we dammed up the stream over there and pumped water on the corn around the outfield until it was tall enough so the actors could go in and out.” He stares out at the cornfield, remembering. “That was a real dry summer.” Then he brightens. “But we’ve had rain every year since.”

The filming was completed on the 15th of August. Almost 18 years later to the day, as we sit and chat on the same porch swing seen in the movie, a man and woman hesitantly approach the white picket fence that separates the house from the baseball field. The man calls out. “Are you Mr. Lansing?”

Lansing gets up off the swing and walks across the lawn to the picket fence. “Yes, I am.”

“I’d just like to thank you for keeping all this going,” the man says. Then he adds, almost sheepishly, “This is my sixth visit here.”

Lansing nods, clearly not surprised. “What keeps you coming back?”

The man pauses, glances at his wife, then shakes his head. “I really don’t know,” he says.

They politely ask for and get permission to take Don Lansing’s photo, thank him again and head back to the field where their son is shagging balls in the outfield

A Hawaiian Lei for Judy

Along with millions of other folks, we've been following a lot of the Democratic National Convention on PBS over the past several nights.

Perhaps you noticed that Judy Woodruff was wearing an orchid lei during her reports from the convention floor the other night. It was presented to her by someone in the Hawaii delegation shortly before Judy interviewed a member of the group. It suits her, don't you think?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Water, Water Everywhere … And Counting On It

Yesterday afternoon, we developed a leak in the line that brings water back to our house from the main out on the road. What a headache!

Call a guy with a back hoe, dig a big hole in the middle of our gravel driveway, locate the crack in the pipe, fill every available bucket then shut off all the water and call a plumber, repair the pipe, fill in the hole … Ugh! Big hassle, big expense, and who knows how much water we’ve been wasting.

But it reminded me of the time, some years ago, when we rented a lovely little cottage for a week in charming French village -- aren’t they all? -- a few miles south of Falaise in Normandy. The owner of the property met us there and showed us through the place.

During the orientation, Madame asked us not to use too much water because, she said, her water bill was computed by the liter.

I remember it struck me at the time that, by contrast, the minimum unit used to compute our water bill is a thousand gallons.

Seems to me that's a wonderful little example of how differently we in America think about and treat our natural resources compared to the rest of the world.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

In Search of Shoeless Joe – Part 1

Dyersville, Iowa, with a population of just over 4,000 souls, lies in the eastern part of the state some 30 miles from Dubuque and well off the beaten path. Of course, some people would probably consider Dubuque to be pretty far from that beaten path, too.

But Dyersville is where a baseball field was carved out of a cornfield and became the setting for Kevin Costner's film, Field of Dreams, in which the ghosts of Shoeless Joe Jackson and his teammates from the 1919 Chicago White Sox come back to play ball again.

The field is still here and, for reasons few are fully able to explain, every year thousands of people from all over the country are drawn to this little Iowa town to see it.

Approaching the Field of Dreams down a dusty dirt road from the east, my first glimpse is from the far side of a cornfield. But it’s not just any cornfield … this is the very cornfield into which the ghost players disappeared after their games. Remember? “I’m melting! I’m melting!”

Everything is here, exactly as it appears in the movie: the weathered white farmhouse with the wrap-around verandah, the red barns in the background and, of course, the baseball diamond.

It’s late morning on a sunny summer day and there are more than 20 cars in the gravel parking area. Nearby, a dozen or so kids are patiently waiting in line for the chance to step up to the plate and swing at soft pitches being tossed by a man wearing a Red Sox cap.

Out in right field, a father and son are throwing a ball back and forth. After a while, they tuck the baseball gloves under their arms and begin walking in and out of the corn stalks that border the entire outfield.

In the shade of a large tree just off the corner of the farmhouse, a family of five has spread a blanket and is in the middle of a picnic lunch.

(More to come)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Two Politicians ... Each One-of-a-Kind

I’ve known quite a few politicians over the years and they are all fascinating people. No exceptions.

I have two big favorites – the former Mayor of Honolulu, Frank Fasi, and one of our two current members of Congress, Neil Abercrombie.

Frank has retired from politics now, but is a legend in Hawaii. A former marine, he settled in Honolulu after World War 2 and inevitably became involved in politics. Frank was smart, tough and a maverick. Most people loved the guy, witness the fact that he served as Honolulu’s mayor for a total of 22 years.

In one of his re-election campaigns, his polls and also those taken by the daily newspapers indicated that he would win by a very large margin. He did win, but only by 7,500 votes. It was a whole lot closer than anyone had predicted.

So Mayor Frank Fasi, the clear winner, demanded a recount. State election officials refused to do a full-on re-tabulation, but they did hand count several randomly selected precincts. There were no discrepancies and Frank was officially re-elected … by 7,500 votes.

Neil Abercrombie has served in the U. S. House for 18 years. He’s hard-working, highly intelligent, very articulate, and he’s passionate about public service. He’s also a very, very funny guy.

Several years ago, Neil was challenged in his bid for re-election by a Republican state senator named Gene Ward. The finale to the campaign was a heavily-promoted televised debate. During the telecast, poor Gene made a number of gaffs and came out with several statements that were way, way off the wall. It was no contest.

On the way out of the studio after it was over, I remarked to Neil that Gene had not done well.

“That always happens,” said Neil, “when Gene forgets to put the aluminum foil lining in his hat.”

I mean, you gotta love a couple of guys like that!

Monday, August 25, 2008

VIA Rail Knows How to Treat the Troops

Earlier this summer, Canada’s VIA Rail – that's their equivalent to Amtrak – offered free unlimited transportation for the month of July to all members of the Canadian armed forces. And the offer was also made available to retirees as well as active duty personnel.

Wow!

Furthermore, during the promotion, VIA allowed the service personnel traveling free to bring as many as five guests along with them at a 50% discount off the regular fare.

Double-wow!

So was the promotion a success? I’ll say! Members of the Canadian armed services took more than 60,000 trips on VIA in July. Furthermore, all those discounted tickets generated nearly $800,000 in revenues during what is normally the railroad’s slow season.

VIA Rail: Doing well by doing good … eh?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Hawaii No Ka Oe! (Hawaii Is The Best!)

It's a helluva long way in many ways from Waipio on O'ahu to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, but ...


... for the second time in four years, a team from Hawaii has won the Little League World Series! The photo is from the Honolulu Advertiser and features Pikai Winchester carrying the Hawaiian flag and leading his teammates in a victory lap.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Travel light. It’s the only way to go.

Here’s a universal truth about European train travel: No one will help you with your luggage.

The only practical answer is to travel light. It's also the best way to go in this country, too.

On Amtrak's long-distance trains, both the bi-level Superliner sleepers and coaches have a common luggage storage area on the lower level. There are luggage racks above the coach seats that will handle a small suitcase and a carry-on bag, but the roomettes and bedrooms are another matter.

You can bring one small – and I mean small – carry-on bag into your roomette. You can get away with two such bags in one of the Superliner bedrooms. Anything more or bigger than that and you’ll be climbing over your stuff for the whole trip.

I travel with one small carry-on bag and a briefcase-size canvas tote bag. That’s it … and I can be away and on the road for two to three weeks with no problem. The secret – for me, anyway – is shirts. Wrinkle-resistant knit polo shirts are best. I pack one for every day I’ll be gone, plus a couple of extras. And I make sure that every shirt will go with the one pair of slacks and the one pair of jeans I bring.


If you really think things through
and plan carefully, you’ll be amazed
how little you really need to carry with you.

Remember ...
there are only two kinds of travelers:
Those traveling light,
and those who wish they were.



Friday, August 22, 2008

John McCain vs. Amtrak

Anyone who drops in here even occasionally knows that I am an advocate of a national passenger rail system. The timing is certainly right, with gas well over $4.00 a gallon, the airlines in chaos, and traffic congestion on our streets approaching the unbearable. As icing on the cake, there are also all the environmental benefits. And the traveling public gets it: Amtrak ridership is way, way up for the 5th year in a row and is expected to hit 28 million this year.

So, with an expanded and improved passenger rail system such an obvious way to go, I must once again point to John McCain’s abysmal record with respect to Amtrak. Why isn’t it more of an issue? It sure as hell ought to be! Consider:

* When he was chair of the Senate Science, Commerce and Transportation Committee in 2000, McCain killed $10 billion in funding for Amtrak.

* Two years later, McCain introduced legislation that would have phased Amtrak out of business.

(When David Gunn, Amtrak’s president at the time, appeared before a congressional hearing, McCain demanded that all federal support of Amtrak be eliminated. Gunn’s response was classic. He asked McCain if he would also demand the same of the commuter airlines … an excellent question, because McCain’s constituents, the people of Arizona, depend on those small airlines to get around their state. The record shows that McCain did not reply.)

* More recently, McCain said if he’s elected president he’ll try again to eliminate federal subsidy for Amtrak which would shut the railroad down almost overnight. Seriously? ‘Fraid so, and he's said that position is “non-negotiable.”

Probably the best way to determine how much importance a candidate gives to any given issue is to look at his/her campaign web site. Check McCain’s. I could find nothing when searching for the words transportation, transit, rail or Amtrak. Zero, zip, nada.

Here’s a reasonably good summary of John McCain’s record on Amtrak.

Read it and weep.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Around the U.S. by Train - Final Part

I awaken the next morning just as the Coast Starlight begins slowing for its arrival in Sacramento. Propped up on an elbow, I peer out of my window as we roll past a homeless village – a dozen or more makeshift shelters fashioned from blue tarps, sheets of plastic and an old carpet. A few of the people in this miserable encampment are up and moving around, but no one looks up as we slowly pass by. A few minutes later, we arrive in California’s capital city.

The stop here is brief and we’re off again just a few minutes later, headed now into the Bay Area where the train stops in Emeryville and Amtrak buses take people across the bay into San Francisco. Today, however, Emeryville is gray and foggy and San Francisco is barely visible in the distance.

Underway again, the Coast Starlight dodges through non-stop light industrial areas, stopping in Oakland (above) and San Jose, then begins a long run down through an amazing stretch of farmland – great broad fields of strawberries, lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes and who knows what else. Oh, yes … artichokes. As we rattle through Castroville, a sign proclaims this town the Artichoke Capital of the World, so that must be what all the low green plants are in all these fields we’re passing.

Seated across from me at lunch today is a rather glamorous woman about 40 and her daughter. The woman is "very L.A." which, as a matter of fact, is where they're from. We start talking about travel and she begins a monologue about all the exotic places she has been … evidently a serious world traveler. Then again, maybe not … not when she tells me what she enjoyed most about Paris was her visit to the Bastille. Either she’s making that up or she’s a whole lot older than she looks. The Bastille, you see, was demolished in 1789.

By mid-afternoon, we’re winding our way slowly through a labyrinth of brown hills, twisting left, then right and at one point descending through a horseshoe curve. For a half minute or so, folks in the rear coaches, heading south, could stare out the window at us up front in the sleepers, heading north.

Descending down through these hills, we look down at the California Mens Colony, both a minimum and a medium-security prison. Immediate first impression? It’s big! Ten minutes later, we roll to a stop in San Luis Obispo which, in addition to the prison, is home to California Polytechnic State University.

Soon we’re running along the coast with the Pacific Ocean just off to our right, a bit gray today. We pass Vandenberg Air Force Base, where both military and civilian satellites have been launched. Hills behind the base are partly obscured by low-handing clouds and the very top of a giant gantry a mile or so inland from the train is blurred by mist.

An hour later, we reach our next station stop at Santa Barbara and from here it’s a three-hour run into Los Angeles. Thanks to Union Pacific giving priority to their freight trains, the Coast Starlight has had a pretty awful on-time record for the past year or so.

Happily, that has been improving and today we’re actually on time, coming to a stop with a sigh at Los Angeles Union Station just a few minutes past our scheduled arrival time of 9:00 p.m.

So I’m back where I started. In the past two weeks, I’ve traveled 8200 miles by train, had 20 meals in five dining cars, spent seven nights sleeping in my private roomettes … all on six different Amtrak trains. I’ve met and chatted with interesting people while gazing out at deserts and mountains, oceans and rivers, trailer parks, high-rise apartments and tar-paper shacks. It's been a rewarding journey and once again I realize that the very best way to truly appreciate the size and scope of this country, the diversity of its landscapes and its people, is to see it all by train.

So whadaya say? Want to go ‘round again?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Something About Sugar

Once sugar was king here in Hawaii, with plantations on all of the main islands. Today? It's a much different story. There are just two left, one on Kauai and the other here on Maui, run by Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar with 35,000 acres in sugar cane. Ever use one of those little brown packets, Sugar in the Raw? That’s all Maui sugar. (Keep using it … please!)

Since Day One, the traditional harvesting method for sugar cane includes burning sections of a field before the cane itself is cut and taken to the mill for processing. The sugar is in the stalk, you see, and the burning is the easiest and most efficient way to remove the leaves. There are other methods, but they are far more expensive and sugar, unfortunately, is a marginal operation as it is.

I took this photo as we were having breakfast on our deck yesterday morning. That’s not a huge low cloud, it’s smoke from a cane field. There were very light winds yesterday and HC&S was burning one of their fields halfway between here and town.

If conditions are right – meaning no wind or a very light breeze – the smoke goes straight up and is carried off by upper level winds. But sometimes conditions change and some of the smoke blows into residential areas.

When that happens, local folks close their windows and turn on the ceiling fans for a couple of hours. But malihini, newcomers who have moved to Maui from somewhere else, scream bloody murder. Of course, when they bought their house or their condo, they signed a paper acknowledging that there were cane fields nearby and they would likely be affected by cane burning. It’s all spelled out in those documents and printed in BIG, BOLD, BLACK TYPE.

Ah, yes ... but that’s all forgotton when it gets smoky. There are outraged letters-to-the-editor demanding that HC&S stop burning the cane. So what if it would put the company out of business?

It all reminds me a lot of the people who buy homes near an airport, then complain about the noise. Pretty classic, isn't it?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Clowns … In the Eye of the Beholder

Maui attracts quite a lot of European visitors, especially in the latter part of the summer when people in France and Italy and some of the other countries traditionally take their vacations.

The other night my wife and I were at an informal party hosted by an Italian couple we’ve known for the past dozen years. Both husband and wife are avid windsurfers and they make the long trip here from Milan every year because of the ideal wind and wave conditions Maui offers. They are worldly, intelligent, all-'round delightful people.

At any rate, four or five other Italian couples were also at the party, which was loud and animated and fun. There was plenty of good food and lots of wine, and the conversations were interesting and hilarious and serious. Sometimes all at the same time.

For instance, at one point a local Maui resident said, “I feel uncomfortable, as an American, traveling in Europe.”

“But why?” exclaimed one of the Italians.

“Well, nobody likes Americans these days. And I’m embarrassed because our president is a clown.”

“Pfff,” said the Italian, with a dismissive wave of his hand, “Don’t worry, our president is also a clown.”

(Big laugh from the rest of the Italians.)

“Of course,” he added quietly, “your clown is dangerous.”

Monday, August 18, 2008

Riding in the Head End of the ‘Builder’ - Part 2

Engineer Bob Kolkman was constantly tugging at a lever that blows the whistle. Even though this was a rural area, there were a lot of grade crossings, some paved, but mostly dirt roads crossing the tracks. He blew the whistle -- the traditional long-long-short-long -- at each and every one even though, from our elevated vantage point we could all see that there were no cars or trucks anywhere in sight. “You do it every time,” he said. “No exceptions, ever.”

Every engineer worries about hitting someone at one of these crossings. Kolkman said it hadn’t happened to him, but many of his buddies have had to deal with it. It’s a terrible experience, he said, and there’s almost nothing an engineer can do to prevent it. It simply takes too damn long to stop a train. And an automobile doesn’t stand a chance in a collision with a moving train. “It’s like running over a mailbox with your family car,” he said.

Another hour went by quickly and we were rattling along through farming country, with the pungent odor of manure coming and going as we passed fields that had recently been fertilized. After one particularly fragrant moment, Kolkman grinned and said, “Around here we say that’s the smell of money.”

Leaving Wisconsin Dells, the Empire Builder swung more toward the west, heading almost into the setting sun. Next came Tomah and La Crosse. Then we were in Minnesota, running along the Mississippi River in the gathering darkness.

A freight train approached and Kolkman switched off the Builder’s powerful headlight until the two engines passed, then flipped it on again so he could visually inspect our side of the freight, looking for any sign of dragging equipment, or a wheel or bearing problem. The radio in the cab crackled and we heard the voice of the freight train’s engineer: “Looking good this side, Amtrak.” “Thank you, sir,” Kolkman responded, “Good run-by for you, too. Have a safe trip.”

Twenty minutes later, the Empire Builder eased to a stop at Winona, Minnesota, and my head end ride was over. Bob Kolkman would continue to St. Paul where the next engineer would be boarding. Craig Willett was unsure how Amtrak planned to get him back to Milwaukee, but seemed unconcerned.

We shook hands, and I extracted a promise that they should let me know if either of them ever got to Hawaii, and climbed down out of the cab. The twin diesels were well off the Winona station’s platform and my shoes crunched on the gravel ballast as I headed back to my sleeping car.

Later, after dinner and a hot shower, I remember lying in bed as the black outlines of trees flashed by outside the darkened compartment. We’d left Bob Kolkman behind us at St. Paul, but the new engineer was methodically performing the same routine. And, in my mind’s eye, I was now able to visualize very clearly what was going on up there in the lead locomotive.

I don't know if it was true of girls at the time, but when I was growing up -- probably 10 years old or so -- most boys my age wanted to be a locomotive engineer when we grew up. Next to being a big league ballplayer, we thought that would be the best job in the world ... the most glamorous and the most fun.

And I'll tell you what ... we were right.

Riding in the Head End of the ‘Builder’

Back in the mid-90s, I was working on a book about train travel and had gotten a lot of help from Amtrak. I met with several of their key people in Washington, the guys in charge of maintenance and food preparation, for example. And during a number of my train trips I had spent time talking to a lot of the on-board crews - conductors and train attendants and dining car staffs.

The one crew member I hadn’t been able to spend any time with was an engineer. To that end, I had asked for a ride in a locomotive, but those requests are rarely granted and I had little expectation that it could be arranged. So you can imagine my delight when I was told arrangements had been made for me to spend some time in the head end during a trip to Seattle I had scheduled a month or so later on the Empire Builder.

In Chicago before our departure, I was instructed to hop off when the train reached Milwaukee and head up to the locomotive where an Amtrak employee would be expecting me.

We left Chicago on time and rolled into Milwaukee just before 4:00 p.m., right on schedule. As I left my sleeper, I told the car attendant that I would be riding in the head end for a while and he whistled appreciatively. “Wow,” he said, “they never let people go up there.”

Up by the lead unit (there were two pulling the Builder), I met Craig Willett, an Amtrak road foreman, who was going to be my escort and guide. He gestured to the metal ladder running up the side of the locomotive and said, “OK, let’s go.” I shoved my note pad into my hip pocket, clambered up the metal rungs and climbed into the cab. The engineer himself, Bob Kolkman, swung around in his chair, grinned, and said, “This must be the writer.”

The assistant engineer had already taken a seat in the second unit and I was ushered into his vacated chair on the left side of the locomotive cab. The first thing I noticed was that there were no controls in front of me. The assistant engineer is there to provide a second pair of eyes and relief for the engineer if and when he needs it. When that happens, they just swap chairs.

My head end ride was in a vintage F40 diesel-electric locomotive, a brutish workhorse machine that has since been replaced by newer, more powerful engines. The F40 had few of the features now found on the new locomotives. For example, air conditioning in the F40 cab was accomplished by opening the windows. After we got underway, I also noticed that the ride up there in the locomotive was rougher - maybe "stiffer" is a better word - than in the coaches or sleepers.

Railroad engineers sit on the right side of the cab because track-side signs and signals are on that side. Most laymen don’t realize that, however, and assume that the engineer is the person sitting in the left-hand chair.

An hour after leaving Milwaukee, we pulled into the little town of Columbus, Wisconsin, and there on the platform, right out of a Norman Rockwell painting, stood a father with two little boys, both waving enthusiastically … at me, the guy in the left-hand seat! Bob Kolkman laughed and said, “They think you’re driving. Better wave back or you’ll give us all a bad name.” I did and I must say that, before or since, I never felt so puffed up and so foolish at the same time.

As you can imagine, the visibility is wonderful from the locomotive cab – you’re quite high, of course, and have a panoramic view, 180 degrees to the front and both sides.

As a safety feature, there is a device called an alerter in every locomotive cab. If the engineer doesn’t adjust the speed or touch the brakes or blow the whistle for a period of 20-25 seconds, a strobe light flashes and a horn sounds. Once that happens, the engineer must press a button on the instrument panel or the train will automatically come to a stop.

There are lots of grade crossings and the whistle blows constantly. In those open air cabs, the noise was deafening. I was given ear plugs for that reason, but discarded them after 10 or 15 minutes because I had trouble hearing what Willett and Kolkman were saying.

Another hour passed and I found myself settling into a more comfortable routine. Willett and Kolkman were relaxed and friendly and I no longer felt like an intruder in their exclusive domain. Willett had taken the initiative and steered the conversation, but Kolkman joined in with an occasional comment. He was clearly focused on his job, however, and I also noticed that Willett managed to be facing forward most of the time with his eyes on the track ahead, even when chatting with me.

(More about this rare experience tomorrow)

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Around the U.S. by train - Part 15

Thirty minutes ahead of the Coast Starlight’s departure time, those of us booked in sleepers file out onto the platform and head down toward our cars. Just ahead of me is a young mother with two small children who are hopping up and down with anticipation. One of them, a little boy about seven, somehow drops his backpack and they stop to reorganize. The woman looks up as I pass and, shaking her head, says, “Their first train ride.”

At 9:45, exactly on time, we depart Seattle, passing directly behind right field of Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners baseball team. The ballpark has a retractable roof which, as you can see here, extends out over the tracks when the roof is open.

A few minutes later, on the right side of the train and across an interstate, we pass Boeing’s private airfield. This is where the passenger jets are built and take their first test flights. Parked around the runway are a dozen or so planes painted with the logos of airlines from around the world.

After leaving Tacoma, I head into the parlor car and there, off to the left and standing out in relief against a hazy blue sky is Mount Rainier, still dazzling white with snow.

The Coast Starlight passes through two state capitals in the first several hours of its journey down the length of the Pacific Coast -- first comes Olympia, Washington, followed by Salem, Oregon, three hours later. We pass lumber mills, lots of them, with many thousands of freshly-milled 2x4’s and 4x4s, banded and stacked, ready to be loaded on flatcars and shipped by rail all over the country.

By late afternoon, we’re heading into some of the most beautiful country anywhere – a single track, for the most part, through heavily timbered forests, along ridges overlooking vast valleys and numerous lakes … picture-postcard stuff, mile after mile.

It was along here, near the town of Oakridge, Oregon (between Eugene and Chemult), that a massive landslide wiped out several miles of track this past January. It literally took Union Pacific months to dig out, regrade and lay new track and there are stretches along here where the earth is still scraped bare, the aftermath of work by hundreds of pieces of heavy equipment.

Night falls and after quite a good steak dinner, complimented by a half-bottle of wine, I head back to my roomette. The bed has been prepared while I was in the dining car and, as I turn in, I remember that we don’t get to see Mount Shasta on the Coast Starlight’s southbound trip because it comes and goes long after dark. It is really something to see, however, and it’s one reason I recommend taking the northbound version of this train.

And so to sleep. Tomorrow this 'round the country train trip will end ... back in Los Angeles where I started nearly two weeks ago.

Up, up and away … Hopefully ALL the way.

The cost of fuel is causing problems for everyone, especially here in Hawaii where just about everything has to be shipped in. Shipped a long way, too, because we’re 2300 miles from anywhere.

Everyone is trying to use as little fuel as possible. My wife and I are much more careful about where and when we drive, combining errands wherever possible.

The airlines have been affected big time, of course, because jet planes guzzle huge quantities of fuel, especially on take-off and climbing to cruising altitude.

According to FAA regulations, commercial jets are required to carry enough fuel to get them to their scheduled destination plus enough reserve for an additional 45 minutes of flying, obviously a prudent margin of safety because of possible delays caused by bad weather or air traffic congestion.

But jet fuel is heavy and apparently the airlines are taking advantage of a section in the FAA regulations that says it’s OK to use less than the required amount of extra fuel if they file what is called a “minimum fuel declaration.” And they’re doing exactly that in order to reduce the weight of the plane on take-off, which burns less fuel and saves money.

The question, of course, is how close are they going to figure it?

Evidently, sometimes it’s too close. Passengers on a recent Continental flight destined for Newark were surprised to find their plane landing at a National Guard airbase in New York state, less than 100 miles from Newark … for refueling.

So far, there’s only anecdotal evidence, but there has apparently been a significant increase in the number of incidents where airline pilots have had to request priority for landing because they are running low on fuel.

Traveling anytime soon? Enjoy your flight.

Friday, August 15, 2008

When In Doubt, Trash The Other Guy

When it comes to politics or public policy issues, it seems that these days the most common strategy employed to achieve a goal is to attack and if possible destroy any credibility on the other side of the issue. Whatever happened to gathering support by promoting the positives of your position?

God knows we’re seeing this in the current presidential campaign. All we’re getting from the McCain side is “Vote for me because the other guy is a celebrity.” Oh, puh-LEEZE! The electorate -- and that means all of us -- deserves a helluva lot better than that.

This shallow tactic – divert and distract -- has been around for 15-20 years and, most unfortunately, it seems to be spilling over into non-political community issues.

For instance, here on Maui there is a vociferous group on the west side of the island that wants to have a full-service hospital built closer to where they live.

That’s all well and good, but to accomplish that goal, their strategy seems to be based on bashing Maui Memorial Medical Center, the island’s existing hospital which is, by all objective accounts, quite a good facility.

This organized campaign is being waged in part with letters-to-the-editor that are all highly critical of MMMC. One that appeared recently said West Maui should get a new hospital because Maui Memorial provides “third-world medicine.”

Ridiculous. And ironic, too, because many so-called third world countries have quite a long list of health statistics that are better than ours in the U.S. … in obesity, longevity, infant mortality, cancer rate, etc., etc. Not to mention the cost of health care.

Think that’s not so? Well, as Casey Stengel famously said, “You could look it up!”

Thursday, August 14, 2008

There’s Good News and There’s Bad News

As I’ve mentioned on several other occasions, Amtrak’s ridership is up. Way up. In July of this year, Amtrak carried 2,750,278 people. That’s more people than the railroad has carried in a single month ever – Ever! – and it was a 14 percent increase over July of last year.

What accounts for this rush to rail? “Increasing [gas] prices, highway congestion, airline issues and environmental awareness ... ,” says Alex Kummant, President and CEO of Amtrak.

Here are the figures for some of the routes most affected:

Acela – up 5.5 percent
Northeast regional service – up 8.8 percent
The Downeaster – up 33.6 percent
The Keystone Service – up 19.9 percent.
The Piedmont – up 43 percent
The Heartland Flyer – up 40.2 percent
The Hiawatha Service – up 37.7 percent
The San Joaquins – up 32.1 percent
The Coast Starlight – up 27.7 percent
The Silver Meteor – up 14.7
The Silver Star – up 17.8 percent

Revenue from tickets is up by more than 14 percent. And Amtrak is projecting a total ridership of 28 million people by the end of this year. Wow! That really is good news!

But – and there’s always a “but” isn’t there? – all these new riders mean Amtrak trains are crowded … to the point that people have to stand for extended periods on some routes. What should be relaxing travel is becoming a less than pleasant experience for an ever-growing number of passengers.

The trouble is, Amtrak can’t just add more trains because it simply doesn’t have the extra rail cars or the locomotives to haul them. In fact, there are more than 100 coaches and sleeping cars sitting in storage and all it would take to get them back in service is for Amtrak to perform required maintenance on some and do minor repairs on the rest. So why hasn’t this been done? Because there is no money to do it.

So the traveling and commuting public is paying the price for the short-sightedness of a federal government which has thrown money into roads and the airlines, and deliberately tried to starve Amtrak to death over the past 20-plus years.

Maybe it’s time for a change in Washington’s approach to passenger rail service.

Ya think??

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Nightmare On the Orient Express

In a post the other day, I mentioned that South Africa's Blue Train is on my list of must-do train rides. Inexplicably, I failed to mention the Simplon Orient Express, also near the top of that list, and which features wonderfully restored sleeping cars from the 1920s and 1930s. What a way to travel across Europe!

I had a friend in Honolulu -- a very distinguished Hawaiian guy who is, regrettably, now deceased -- who swore that one day he too would ride that train. He finally took the financial plunge, booked it, and arrived in London several days before his departure date.

It was then that he had a moment of inspiration: Hang the expense! He would go to Harrods and get himself a full-on formal outfit -- a tuxedo and all the trimmings -- to wear to the dining car for dinner the first night out. He supposed everyone would stare and think he was putting on airs, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience ... so what the hell.

And he did. Bought the tux, the formal shirt, the cummerbund, the works -- right down to the cuff links and the patent leather shoes. He boarded the train and at the appointed hour donned his new finery and, feeling very grand indeed, entered the dining car where ...

... everyone was wearing formal attire -- except, of course, for a few who were elaborately costumed appropriate to the 1920s.

"Just imagine," he said with a shudder, "if I had gone to dinner as I'd originally planned, wearing my one and only sports coat over an aloha shirt!"

He swore that for years afterwards, he would often dream about that evening and wake up in a cold sweat.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Arguing About the Really, Really Important Stuff.

This whole “celebrity” issue is quite interesting. And the Republicans may have a point. Just because someone …

… is a celebrity …

… doesn’t mean …

… he’s competent to serve in elected office.

And someone who has only served in statewide office and just a couple of years in Washington doesn’t have the experience …

… to be an inspirational leader.

It’s so much better to spend our time arguing about "celebrity" than to talk about people losing their jobs, or the 47 million Americans who have no health care, or the deficit, or dependence on foreign oil, or global warming, the price of gasoline, or …