Sunday, October 31, 2010

James MacArthur, 1937-2010

I turned on the computer this morning and came across a news item reporting the death of actor James MacArthur.

Years ago, when Hawaii 5-0 was being shot in and around Honolulu, I got to know Jimmy. His wife and mine were friends and we all hung out a bit together.

I had just started a small advertising agency and one of our clients was a very small bank. Just two branches. Nevertheless they had aspirations for expansion and we decided to produce a couple of 30-second television spots. I approached Jimmy to see if he would appear as the bank’s spokesman in the commercials. He agreed, as a personal favor to me, of course – he certainly didn’t need the money – and he showed up spot on time early one Saturday morning when the two branches were closed and we could do our production without disrupting things.

We shot one commercial at the downtown branch of the bank that morning, and moved on to the other branch that afternoon. Through it all, Jimmy MacArthur cheerfully endured all the re-takes and other delays for sound checks and lighting changes, apologized when he fluffed a line and chatted amiably with the crew during the catered lunch. He was, in a word, the consummate professional and a joy to be around.

We finally finished shooting at 3:30 that afternoon, and his wife came to pick him up. That’s when I learned that Jimmy had been skiing in Colorado the week before and, thanks to some bad weather throughout that whole area, had only arrived back in Honolulu at 5:00 that very morning. He had had just enough time to run home directly from the airport, shower and shave, and get to the bank for the filming of our two insignificant little commercials.

Ever since, whenever I read about the petulant, selfish, thoughtless behavior of some of these prima donnas in sports or theater or business, I think of James Gordon MacArthur … who shames them all.

Aloha, Jimmy.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Sled Dogs, Polar Bears, and Hardy People

Was the visit to Churchill, Manitoba, worth a full week, including a total of four nights on the train, and a pretty fair chunk of change?

Absolutely! It was an incredible experience and I couldn’t recommend it more enthusiastically.

The ride up and back on VIA Rail was very relaxed and enjoyable. I had my own compact room in a sleeping car and, as always, there were plenty of opportunities to meet some interesting people. For example, over one of the dinner meals I was seated with a Swiss man and his Austrian wife. He’s in the freight forwarding business and they now live in Toronto. The fourth member at the table was a burly farmer from Saskatchewan, who raises wheat, canola and peas, mostly for shipment to Asia. The two guys had a fascinating discussion about the problems of shipping grain and other bulk foodstuffs, and I chatted with the Austrian lady about the Lippenzahners, the famous performing white horses of Vienna. Tell me: When do you have a chance for something like that on an airplane?

Once in Churchill, I headed for the Bluesky Bed & Sled, a bed and breakfast run by Jenafor Azure, ably assisted in these busy days by her mother, who introduced herself to one and all as Grandma. Jenafor’s husband Gerald, is a famous musher and takes visitors on dog sled rides – or, if no snow, dog cart rides – pulled at a breakneck pace by eight of the 21 sled dogs they own. I have photos which I will post as soon as I get home and can sort them all out.

And on Thursday, out on the tundra in one of those ungainly buggies, we saw polar bears! Some at a distance, some up within a few feet of us, and – clearly the highlight of the day – two large male bears tumbling and tussling like to playful puppies … very, very big puppies. Again, I have photos and will post them shortly after I get back home.

Finally, one word about the weather up there on the shores of Hudson Bay: cold. No … for me, two words: damn cold! And yet, Jenafor and Gerald took it all in stride and went about their business without a second thought.

How cold was it, you ask? Well, when I boarded the VIA Rail train in Churchill on Thursday night for the trip back here to Winnipeg, the temperature was 16 degrees, there were snow flurries, and a 60 mph wind shrieking in off of Hudson Bay was driving that snow horizontally right down the length of the platform. I don’t even want to guess what the wind chill factor was!

Today, one of the VIA crew members received a radio message that over the past day-and-a-half, Churchill has been blanketed by one meter of snow! I’m pretty sure that means guests at the Bluesky B&B are getting rides on the sleds now instead of those carts.

Oh ... and it means Gerald Azure is a happy camper.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Welcome to Ch-Ch-Ch-Churchill!

VIA Rail train # 693 arrived in Churchill this morning at about 8:15, more than two hours behind schedule and that was fine with me. At 7:00 a.m., our scheduled arrival time, it would have been cold and dark. At 8:15, it was merely cold – 27 degrees with a 40 mph wind blowing in off Hudson Bay.

A young lady named Amanda from Tamarak Car Rentals was on the platform waiting for me and, after a brief bit with paperwork, she handed me the keys to my rental car … well, actually, to my rental truck: a 4-wheel-drive Ford 150 pickup. It drives beautifully, but it’s exterior provides eloquent testimony to driving conditions in this harsh climate.

Five minutes later, I arrived at the Bluesky Bed & Sled, the B&B where I’ll be staying for the next two nights. I was greeted at the door by a cheery woman who introduced herself as “Grandma”. She is the mother of Jenafor, who owns this place. In a trice, I was seated around a large table with a hot cup of coffee, feeling quite at home, and chatting with other guests and members of the household.

Tomorrow I am going to visit the Churchill Northern Studies Center, about 20 miles from here. When I mentioned that to Amanda, she pointed out the route I should follow on an area map, then added pointedly, that I should not venture beyond that facility because the roads were “a little rough”. For a 4-wheel-drive heavy-duty pickup??

Also tomorrow, I will offer some details on my ride up here from Winnipeg on VIA Rail.

And on Thursday I’ve scheduled an all-day excursion in a tundra buggy. Object: polar bears!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Heading North from Winnipeg.

In about an hour, I'll be leaving my comfortable hotel room here in Winnipeg to return my Avis car and head to the train station. VIA Rail train #693 will depart for Churchill, 1050 miles north-north-east, just after noon. It's a two-night trip and we'll arrive in Churchill at 7:00 a.m. Tuesday morning, before sun-up.

A minute or two ago, I checked the weather up there: current temperature is 28 degrees, with the overnight low pedicted to be 25. Tomorrow's forecast calls for a brisk 21 degrees, with snow flurries. Not to worry. I am prepared with newly-purchased slightly-used cold-weather clothing. All that remains is a mental adjustment which, I earnestly hope, will come before Tuesday morning.

There have been several reports of polar bears in the area and, if I'm truly lucky, there might even be a display of the Northern Lights on one of the two nights I will be there.

An interesting note: As some of you know, much of my professional career was spent running an advertising agency in Honolulu which specialized in, among other areas, political campaigns. I will be staying at a bed and breakfast in Churchill and it turns out that the husband of the woman who runs the place is a candidate for the Churchill City Council ... and the election will be held on Wednesday, my first full day there!

I have invited them to be my guests at dinner the following eveing. Let us hope we will be celebrating. Either way, I'm sure there will be plenty of liquid refreshment.

So ... I'm off!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Toronto-Winnipeg on VIA Train # 1, the Canadian

VIA Rail's Train # 1 operates with classic single-level equipment built back in the 50’s -- completely refurbished, of course –- and it’s always a thrill to walk out onto the platform and see those stainless steel beauties standing there, waiting for you.

I was in a roomette, which is compact, although a bit larger than comparable accommodations in an Amtrak Superliner, but very well laid out. There is a small wash basin, a toilet and one plush sofa-type seat. Unlike Amtrak roomettes, these compartments are designed for just one person. The bunk folds down from the wall behind the seat and pretty much fills the room, locking in place and making the little toilet inaccessible. (If, like me, you often need to use the facilities during the night, no big deal … it’s easy to simply release the latch and raise the bunk.)

Meals on board VIA’s train # 1 are very enjoyable. The food is excellent, the service is very good and, of course, each meal is an opportunity to meet interesting and delightful people.

* A Scottish couple from Edinburough, who offered their spare bedroom should I ever decide to visit

* A husband and wife who raise dairy cows in Switzerland

* A Danish man with hilarious stories about his hot-tempered Italian wife (safely back in Italy)

* A daughter and her elderly-but-feisty mother from Dawson Creek, 750 miles north of Vancouver in what I gather is a somewhat remote area, judging from the old lady’s story about indignantly fending off a marauding wolf with an axe handle

* And a stereotypical little old lady, in delightful good humor, who appeared for breakfast on both mornings in a pink bathrobe and fluffy bedroom slippers. Somehow, in the genial atmosphere of the dining car, it seemed perfectly acceptable.

Winnipeg – where I am at the moment – is quite chilly, although I have seen a number of the locals ambling around in short-sleeved shirts. My hotel is quite centrally located and I attended a hockey game last night at the local arena which is, happily, just a few blocks away. (The home-town Manitoba Moose defeated the Hamilton Bulldogs, 4-3 in overtime, before what can best be described as an "enthusiastic" crowd.)

At the other end of the cultural spectrum is the local art museum, which is also within walking distance from my hotel. That will have to wait until tomorrow, however. This afternoon I will be seeking out a used-clothing store called Value Village, where I will buy used and hopefully inexpensive heavy shirts, a parka, pants and boots to keep me warm during my three days in Churchill … 1050 miles by train almost due north from here and on the shores of Hudson Bay. The Swiss people I met on the train are also making the trip to Churchill, but they're flying – three hours over the tundra in a small plane. Thank you, no.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

And We Think Competition is Tough Today!

Many years ago – it was sometime in the mid-60s – I was working for an advertising agency that had several interesting tourism accounts, mostly in the Caribbean. The man who headed up that division was Vic Cheena. Vic was quite elderly at the time and was, in fact, the third employee ever hired by Pan American World Airway. Of course he had some wonderful stories about the early days of that venerable airline. I remember one in particular.

PanAm started service in 1927 and its first scheduled flights were between Key West, Florida, and Havana, Cuba. According to Vic, the one-way fare for that 90-mile flight was $26.

Back in those days, people traveled by train or by ship. They were usually away from home for weeks, not days, and they packed all the necessary clothing for trips of that length in huge steamer trunks.

Of course, baggage of that size and weight could not be accommodated on board PanAm’s airplanes of that day, so the heavy trunks we sent ahead of time on one of the steamships that ran back and forth between Florida to Cuba.

It didn’t take long for the steamship companies to realize that they were losing business to this new upstart airline and soon trunks belonging to PanAm passengers started to disappear – lost overboard en route to Havana under mysterious circumstances.

According to Vic, PanAm countered this tactic by hiring young Cuban boys to baby-sit every steamer trunk on its journey over to Havana and back. Thus, that airline ticket not only provided a seat on one of the early PanAm Clippers, it also bought steamship passage for one steamer trunk and one young Cuban boy … all for 26 dollars.

Pan American World Airways collapsed on December of 1991, and to this day I am saddened whenever I think about it.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Uh-oh! A Selfish New Ploy by Airline Passengers?

I don't know why I haven't noticed this before, but on my recent flight from LA to Chicago I realized that there is yet another thoughtless kind of traveler contributing to the lack of friendliness in the skies.

These selfish people had seats located in the back of the plane, so when general boarding began, they were sent onto the plane first. But I noticed several of them stopping on their way to the rear of the plane to reach up and shove their carry-on bags into the overhead bins much closer to the front of the plane, then walk on back to their assigned seats in the rear. When we arrived at Chicago, all they had to do was get up and head to the front of the plane, pluck their suitcase out of the bin at the very front of coach class, and be on their way.

The problem is, that screws the people assigned to those seats in the first few rows. By the time they boarded the plane back in LA, all the space in the overhead bins above their seats was taken and they had to find room for their bags in the back of the plane. When we got to Chicago and their turn came to exit the plane, they couldn't get to their bags ... couldn't possibly buck the flow of passengers coming at them up he aisle. They had no choice but to wait until the last people left, then head back to collect their bags. Meantime, the people who had caused all this inconvenience were long gone ... and probably first in line for a taxi to boot!

Has anyone else noticed this? Maybe it isn't a common practice. I certainly hope not. It would be just one more reason, added to the long list, to hate flying.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Four Hours of Torture, Courtesy of American Airlines

I've been a member of the American Airlines Aadvantage program for many years and, if I'm not flying Hawaiian Airlines (always my first choice), I'm usually on American. I've never kept track, but I'd guess I've probably logged more than a three-quarters of a million miles on American over the years. (That's what happens when you live in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, at least 2300 miles from anywhere.)

At the moment, I'm en route to a NARP board meeting and yesterday I flew from Maui to Los Angeles and from there on to Chicago, all on American. The 5-hour flight to LA was full, but OK. The nearly four-hour flight to Chicago was awful.

By luck of the draw, I was in a window seat in a row of three seats immediately in front of an exit row. Apparently for that reason, my seat wouldn't recline more than two or three inches. Worse -- much worse -- it's "full upright position" was almost perfectly vertical. Try that sometime. Your back starts aching and you cannot rest any of the weight of your head on the seat back. After just a half hour or so, it starts getting uncomfortable; after a couple of hours, it's torture.

Worse, when the guy in the seat in front of me reclined his seat, my "space" was further reduced to the point that my tray table -- remember, it's attached to the back of his seat -- was literally pressing against my chest. The conditions in our row were so cramped, I had to ask my two seat mates to get up and slide out into the aisle, so I could also struggle out into the aisle just to remove my sport coat.

No one should be forced to spend four hours under those conditions ... let alone pay for the "privilege". One more among many reasons to opt for the train if you have the time.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Amtrak Dining Cars - Making New Friends Three Times a Day

(Just a reminder that I will be off on Tuesday for an extended trip -- returning on November 6th -- and, yes, there will be a lot of train travel included.)

One of the things about train travel I always anticupate with pleasure is the dining car experience … in particular, never knowing who your tablemates will turn out to be. I've had some wonderful meals while meeting and getting to know people from all over the country and from many other parts of the world.

More than anything else, this is probably what makes train travel special. You almost never spend any time chatting with fellow passengers on a long plane ride. It’s a five-hour flight from here in Hawaii to the U.S. mainland and most of the time, if you say anything at all to the person next to you, it’s “Excuse me” when you have to step over them when making a trip to the lavatory.

I got to know this delightful family on board the Empire Builder. They were en route for a week of camping and sightseeing in Glacier National Park.

Not so on the train. I can’t begin to recall all the interesting and unusual people I’ve met during a meal in an Amtrak dining car over the years. There was, for instance, the Japanese doctor who had been studying organ transplants in Boston for two years. He had become an ardent Red Sox fan and the two of us gleefully exchanged high-fives across the table when we realized our common bond.

On another occasion, I was ushered to a seat across from a 300-pound gent wearing a tank top, presumably to better display a chest and arms covered with tattoos. I can’t remember how it came up, but it developed that he and I both shared a great admiration for the American humorist, James Thurber.

A number of years back, I was having lunch in the Empire Builder’s dining car with an English gentleman who was touring the U.S. by train. At the time, we were heading west somewhere in Montana when the conductor stopped by our table to inform us that because of work being done on the tracks and an unusual amount of freight traffic, we would probably be three to four hours late arriving in Seattle the next day.

“Jolly good!” exclaimed the Brit. “Then we really are getting our money’s worth, aren’t we!”

I've never forgotten that, because it's exactly the right way to approach any long-distance train journey: the more the better.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Ultimate Insult to Baseball Fans in Hawaii

Today was the final day of the 2010 baseball season and the San Francisco Giants, by defeating the San Diego Padres, became champions of their division.

The Giants have thousands of fans in Hawaii who were passionately interested in watching this winner-take-all game on television.

However, when they turned on their TV sets, this is what they saw:

Due to MLB Blackout Rules, tonight's game (Giants-Padres) is unavailable. Programming will resume at the end of the game.

The reason why this critical game was blacked out in Hawaii are many and complex, but can all be summed up thusly: A two-year-old argument over money between Comcast in the Bay Area and our local cable company.

For weeks now, our hope was that Major League Baseball would step in and demand resolution of the issue with the interests of the fans in mind.

That, of course, was assuming that Major Leage Baseball actually cares about the fans.

Silly us!