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Itchy: Moving On

When my sweet Itchy cat passed away several weeks ago, I was completely overcome with grief and felt like writing what ended up becoming my previous posting.  I was still sitting at home after returning from the vet with an empty cat carrier and a couple of hair laden blankets.  In the days following her death I was consumed by memories and thoughts of her and the things we used to do to interact.  Every time I thought of her it nearly choked me up and it felt very hard to hold back tears.  For someone like me who rarely cries, it was very unusual.  I thought…maybe this is what it feels like to be a woman; always on the brink of tears and just waiting for someone to say something wrong and unleash the floodgates.

After about a week it began to get easier.  I still thought about her, and our final moments together, but I was not weeping and wallowing in self pity over my loss.  Life returned to normal, and it was just something that I tucked into my belt.  A loss, like everyone else must endure at some point in life.  It’s okay to hurt, but it’s not okay to fall apart.

A week after she was put to sleep, the clinic phoned me to tell me her ashes were ready.  I drove over after work and picked up a white gift bag with itchy’s name written on it, and inside was a mahogany box containing her remains, along with a sympathy card and a paw print of her little foot pressed into a foam disc which was hand painted and decorated.  I brought the ashes home and set them on the bed to see if there would be any kind of sentimental detection from Scratchy that his partner was near.  He sat next to the box of ashes on the bed and laid down, but it might have been coincidence.  He didn’t persist.  But one thing I noticed was that Scratchy began making more noise than usual.  While he was always a loner who just slept all day and moseyed around the food dish, he suddenly became very much in my face.

I realized that while he lacked the complex thought process to understand a death, he was sure that Itchy was missing and was concerned.  I felt bad for him.  Like an old man who just lost his wife of forever with no warning.  I knew that it was going to be him and me, and I was going to have to remember to give him a lot of love and affection, to make his life interesting.  As I have no plans to replace Itchy at this time, it’s just me and the fat cat sharing the house for the forseeable future.

So I am very much aware that the tides of time are changing things around me.  I lost my Itchy cat, my brother just got married, and during the wedding my grandpa Rich had a seizure, and created quite a scare for everyone.  There is a strong realization of mortality hanging over my head this month, and I can’t wait for it to subside.  I know we all lose pets in our life time, but I have never lost one whom I considered to be so close with and for so long.  I literally felt like she was my daughter.  To see her rot away and have to be put to sleep in 8 weeks time just broke my heart.  But I know I will heal, and move on.

I placed her ashes in the mahogany box atop an old turntable cabinet and surrounded it with some photos of her, and a couple of candles.  I laid the flower pin-on from my brother’s wedding on the box as a gesture of love and to link the two major events that affected me in March of 2016.  I went through my little brother’s wedding while grieving the loss of a dearly loved pet, and still managed to have a great time and pull off my best-man duties.  If life is driving a highway, things like these are like stops along the way.  Weeks come and go.  Working, doing grown-up stuff.  It’s just cruise control.  But when important things come up, it’s like a stop on the road.  Pulling over for a moment and leaving with a different point of view.

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Itchy “Beats” Williams 2003-2016

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Today I had to do one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, and say goodbye to my beloved female cat Itchy.  She was 13 years old, and had been a part of my life for the past nine of those years.  I loved her as much as a father would love his daughter, and had formed a strong bond with her that I never really fully understood until I knew she had to go.

Growing up, I had some pets come in and out of my life, but none have ever affected me so badly.  This is the first time I have had to make the decision to put one down, and to be present when the actual euthanasia is being administered.  Itchy was a remaining artifact of my previous marriage to Victoria, and was not always my cat, but I always loved her and she loved me too.  Itchy lived with another cat named Scratchy, a male, at Victoria’s father’s house.  In November 2007 when she and I got our first apartment together, Itchy became a part of my everyday life.  Scratchy stayed behind for a couple years because I also had a cat I was bringing into our apartment named Thor.  She and I agreed that three cats was too many for an apartment without it becoming one of those cat-smelling apartments that nobody wants to visit.  Itchy was always a whiny little cat, who would meow persistently when she was locked out of any room, or when she was ready to eat.  You could have conversations with her and she would meow back, a different meow each time.  But you grow to learn their different meows and relatively what they are trying to express.

When I came home from work, Itchy was always at the door to greet me, and somehow I started making a routine out of gently beating her rear haunches with my open palms in a fluttering motion.  Not hard enough to hurt her, just enough to get her all hyper and worked up.  After a while she began to expect and insist on having her flanks smacked when I would greet her, and it became like a reward for doing something good.

I would sometimes refer to her not as Itchy, but as “Beatin’ Flanks”. Over time the moniker mutated into Flankin-Cat, then just Flanks, and finally the one that stuck was “Beats”.  So if anyone never understood the meaning behind the nickname, there you have it.  I’m a firm believer that no matter what you name your pet, you will always refer to him/her by some other name or nickname if you own them long enough.

In 2009, we moved Scratchy into the apartment anyway, so it was 3 cats for a while.  Eventually I had to get rid of Thor because he was part feral, and was shitting on the floor everywhere.  By early 2010 we were back down to two cats, Itchy & Scratchy.

Itchy was such a cool cat because she was not your typical cat in terms of attitude.  She liked to be where the people were, and didn’t go hide under the bed or run away from visitors.  Every time we had a gathering at our house, Itchy would greet them with a serenade of meows, demanding to have her flanks beaten.  This would often rile her up, and she would go into her “sod hour”, that 5 minutes or so when the cat tucks its ears straight back and begins darting around the house at lightning speed and doing parkour moves off your furniture.

One thing about Itchy is that she was a high energy killing machine under the guise of a sweet and gentle female cat.  She had tons of energy, and wanted so badly to go outside and kill rodents and birds.  Back when she lived with Victoria’s dad, she would come in and out of a cat door, often bringing in dead or living mutilated animals for a bloodbath.  From rats to birds and even snakes, Itchy always believed in bringing home gifts as well as slaughtering them in the living room or somewhere in the house.  Fortunately in our third floor apartment, Itchy was unable to bring us such gifts, so her killing days were over. She was now one of those cats that sat in the window sill and made clicking noises and chirps whenever she saw something outside she wanted to kill.  But there were also many gentle things about her that I think dominated or prevailed as her personality.

She loved to be held like a baby, cradled in your arms.  She didn’t like it for too long, but she was so happy rocking in my arms or Victoria’s.  She put her little rabbit-looking feet straight up and purred her little heart out.  In this position she also enjoyed having her chin scratched.  When it came to bed time, she always wanted to be in the bed with you, but would never sit still.  More times than not, Victoria and I had to eject her from the bedroom for not settling down, but other times we let her stay.  Especially if we had been away on vacation.  She also had some weird quirks that we knew her well for.  She didn’t like her tail touched.  She liked to play and roll around in dirty, sweaty socks.  When she would fall asleep sometimes her jaw would twitch up and down involuntarily, as if she were chewing gum. If you were wearing cologne, perfume, or any kind of body lotion with fragrant oils, Itchy would begin licking it repeatedly.   She was afraid of vacuums, and just about every time you ran the vacuum, the cat would vomit.

Itchy’s major affliction was barfing.  She barfed a lot, usually as a result of gorging herself on food, but sometimes she just had a weak stomach and couldn’t hold her food down.  Itchy vomited on a fairly regular basis.  There was always a cycle of vomit either freshly cleaned up or curing on the carpet in several areas.  Seldom did two weeks go by without a cat vomit.  We tried changing her diet as well as keeping her on a steady diet and nothing seemed to be the cure-all, she was just a chronic vomiter.  She also had some respiratory issues that would cause her to sneeze rapidly, sometimes 20-30 times in a row.  She sometimes sneezed to the point where she tried to run away from herself sneezing but was powerless to escape.

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So when Victoria and I separated in March of 2015, she left the cats Itchy and Scratchy to stay with me, because they were both beginning to grow old, and it seemed cruel to move them from a large house they had grown accustomed to, to a tiny apartment for the rest of their days.  It was better on the cats, and also helped me to deal with the sudden separation effects.  Their presence provided a sense of normalcy to an otherwise very weird time in my life.  Nearly a year later, Itchy began to decline in health.  She went from weighing 10 pounds to 6.5 pounds in January 2016.

One weekend I seemed to notice it all of a sudden.  She had become very bony and frail looking, and became very lethargic in a short period of time.  I kept an eye on her and she seemed “out of it”, so I brought her to the vet for a senior wellness exam, which included several tests to determine what was causing her health to decline.  All the tests came back clean, and the doctor noted that she had become severely dehydrated.  We put her on IV fluids and electrolytes and brought her back up to normal levels, and the doctor gave me some medicine for her in case she had any type of infection.  She carried on this way for a few weeks, and then I began to notice Itchy was not drinking water.  She was sniffing at it, and pawing at it, but would not start lapping the water.  By suggestion, I tried running a faucet and placing her by it.  She began drinking from that, and nothing else.  If it were standing water, she didn’t want it, filtered or straight from the tap.

A short while later, she began avoiding even the faucet water and toilets.  Her weight continued to decrease and she became unsteady, her feet sliding out from underneath her, and occasionally stumbling while she walked.  You couldn’t beat her flanks anymore.  There was simply nothing left to cushion her bones.  Her eyes became sunken and empty, and her mouth became dry and almost scabby looking from being chapped dry.  The doctor told me that although she did not show any signs of kidney disease or failure, she was clearly declining and there was not much to do except wait for her natural time to go.  He didn’t give me a time line.  I wanted Itchy to pass away in the comfort of her home, without having to take her to be put down, but it just wasn’t happening.  Every day I would come home from work wondering if I would find her dead on the bedroom floor or in the kitchen perhaps.

But every day there she was…still hanging in there, and happy to see her daddy, even if there was no more flank-beating.  She refused to drink water but was still eating her food, and that’s probably the only moisture that kept her going as long as she did.  Unfortunately, it just wasn’t enough to keep her fully hydrated, and her body just got weaker and weaker until the pain began.  She went from being very quiet to being very noisy again.  She was wailing repeatedly as if she were lost, or looking for someone.  That’s when I knew she was not feeling good at all anymore.  I had waited long enough, and now she was entering a world of pain instead of passing away quietly.  I called up Victoria and told her that we probably needed to put her down.  She agreed, and I set up an appointment to have her put to sleep.

On her final weekend with me, Itchy was wailing and meowing a lot, and she even got out by accident on Saturday night, which I guess ended up being her last romp with nature.  On Sunday evening, my last night with her, I began crying uncontrollably on and off.  I am not a person who cries or even gets choked up very easily, and when I do, I almost have to coax myself into letting it happen, but this time it was nothing like that.  The tears would come suddenly and unexpectedly as it dawned on me what was just around the corner.

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She slept in the bed with me on a decorative pillow right beside my own pillow, and for much of the night she was right beside me, with her head resting on my hand.  I took the day off work to bring her to the vet, which allowed me to spend some extra time lying beside her, and just speaking to her softly.  I served Itchy her final meal at 8:00AM, half a can of tuna fish, and she ate every bit of it.  Tuna was always her weakness.  At 9:00AM, I had to go.  I cradled her for a moment, put her in the carrier box, and let Scratchy come and say goodbye to his sister.  Of course he didn’t seem interested but also had no idea where she was going or that she wouldn’t be coming back .

Victoria met me at the vet at 9:30, and she and I said our final goodbyes to our beloved little Itchy.  She was now reduced to 4.5 pounds, and was just a weak little thing cradled in my arms for those last few minutes.  The doctor installed a catheter on her arm and gave us some time with her, and then came in to administer the injections that would send our little girl to the big sleep.  The first injection he gave her made her go limp immediately, and then the second shot worked so fast I didn’t even realize she was gone.  He put the blanket over her and I kissed her forehead one last time. And that was the end.  I already miss her terribly, and it’s only been a few hours.  I keep thinking I hear her meows in the house but I know it’s just noises from the tv that catch my attention, because I am used to hearing her noises ever so often.  When I look at all the places she used to sit and the stains on the carpet that were hers, it’s hard to believe she will never ever be here with me again.  All those little things I’ll never be able to do again, like cradle her in my arms and pet her tiny skull with my fingers, or feel her walking all over the bed at night.  I know now that this is going to hurt me for a long time.  Rest in peace, little girl.

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10 Automotive Features They Should Have Never Stopped Making

In today’s era of automotive technology, the focus has shifted from creating an icon of comfort and freedom to adhering to strict government imposed regulations.  For every feature you will find on a brand new car, there is a law behind it.  Safety has become paramount, and form follows function.  Additionally, technology has been carefully crafted to provide automotive manufacturers with a firm upper hand when it comes to profits from post-sale repairs and maintenance.

Did you lose or break your key fob to your Chrysler minivan?  Well guess what?  Your only option is to visit the dealership and pay several hundred dollars for a replacement key and having it programmed.  Do you get tired of that pesky low-tire warning light coming on every time the outside temperature drops 10 degrees?  Well guess what?  Federal law requires that light to be present in all cars made after 2006.

Do you ever wish we could roll back the hands of time and do things a little differently?  Providing safety and comfort while still allowing motorists to express their freedom of preference when it comes to certain options and features?  Well for those of you who think like me, I have compiled a list of some of the greatest automotive technologies that you no longer find on cars built these days.  But these aren’t simply antiquated or obsolete features, these are simple down-to-earth things that made the cars of yesterday so great.  Things that were on the side of the owner, not that of the cash-hungry dealership service department.

1.) SKINNY STEERING WHEELS

steeringwheel

Some time around the early 1990’s, the thin-rimmed steering wheel began to vanish from cars both domestic and foreign.  What we got in exchange was a new era of fat, chubby steering wheels that took after the European sports cars like BMW and Porsche.  Supposedly, these allowed for better grip and control, but in my experience, the fatter rimmed steering wheels are harder to keep a hold of when making turns, and begin to grow tiresome after long period of time behind the wheel.

I suppose this is a matter of preference, but I never understood why there was not an option for choosing what type of steering wheel will be fitted onto your new vehicle.  No matter what you buy off the showroom floor today, there is zero flexibility in choosing what type of wheel you get.  This is the thing you touch the most throughout the entire time you own the vehicle, and yet you have no say in the matter.  There are all types of hands and all types of conditions that affect comfort in steering.  Arthritis, missing fingers, or simple familiarity with the large-circumference wheels of yesterday.  It would sure be nice to be able to have choices when it comes to this matter.

2.) MANUAL TRANSMISSION OPTION

manualshifter

Manually-shifted transmissions started the whole game.  Shortly thereafter, automobile engineers invented the automatic transmission.  The automatic transmission was considered a luxury item, and was not made mainstream until the late 1960’s for passenger cars, and even later for pickup trucks.  By the late 1980’s, the column-shifted manual transmission had vanished from production, and nearly every vehicle produced was being offered with an automatic transmission as standard equipment, except for some base model compact cars and trucks.

Today, you can still get a manual transmission on performance cars and special interest vehicles, but your average run of the mill family vehicle, car or truck, will not come with a manual transmission.  Not even as optional equipment.  Of course, from a comfort standpoint, automatic is great.  One less thing you have to do while trying to drive.  And given today’s caliber of highly distracted and generally less-aware drivers, the automatic shift seems like the logical choice.  However, there are factors that make having a manual transmission preferable to an automatic, and it would be great to still have the ability to make that choice in any car you decide to buy.  For one, manual transmissions are much simpler, mechanically speaking, and aside from clutch replacement, the likelihood of having to rebuild a manual gearbox is far lower than the almost guaranteed overhauling of an automatic transmission at the 100,000 mile mark (or sooner).

In addition to that, manual transmissions have some other attributes that make them handy to have.  They possess the capability of kickstarting the engine in the event of a battery or starter failure by means of “popping the clutch”, a phrase and skill that will slowly die out with future generations.  Manual transmissions are also better for controlling the performance attributes of the vehicle.  It gives the driver the ability to choose when they shift up or down, which can add tons of power when needed, and also to slow the vehicle down while saving wear and tear on brake hardware.  Because the manual shifting transmission is able to be manipulated based on driving conditions, it is also highly fuel efficient for the driver who knows how to use it properly.  Yet, if you decide you want a brand new Silverado farm truck, you won’t be given the choice of one of these timeless gearboxes.  You’re getting an automatic, and you’re going to have to deal with an overhaul at some point.

3.) FLOOR MOUNTED DIMMER SWITCHES

dimmerswitch

Yet another simple, old-world technology that has gone the way of the dinosaur is the floor-mounted dimmer switch button.  Until around 1980, you would find these on the floorboards of most passenger cars, and until around 1990 you would also see them on truck models.  This pre-dated the current high-beam dimmer switch, which is now placed on the turn signal switch by industry standard.  The current design works well, but I never saw the reason for the elimination of the floor switch.  With one swift tap from the left foot, motorists could quickly turn their high beams off as a courtesy to oncoming traffic, or turn them back on when entering poorly lit roads in the dark.  It was just one simple task for the left foot, which today sits completely unused throughout the duration of the drive.

4.) PLAIN IGNITION & DOOR KEYS

keys

Who remembers these?  You typically got two keys for a vehicle back in the old days.  One for the ignition and one for the door locks or trunk.  The keys were made of solid brass or other metals, and could easily be duplicated at your local hardware store for a buck or two.  Want an extra set of keys for your son or daughter?  No problem.  These were simple keys to a lock cylinder that could be easily and cheaply serviced or replaced.  Today, this is no longer an option.

No matter what you drive, you will be getting a huge plastic key fob with all sorts of buttons on it, and it will be very expensive to replace if you lose it, break it, or submerge it in water.  You can’t simply go to the hardware store and make infinite copies, and each one must be programmed by the dealership or a certified locksmith in order to be used.  Is the technology great?  Absolutely!  It is a great theft deterrent, and also makes a very convenient entry as you can simply push a button to unlock the door without having to actually put the key in the lock cylinder and turn it (with your hands full).  But this new way of making keys puts an incredible burden of responsibility on the owner, and yet he/she has no power to choose to accept this responsibility.  If you want to keep things simple and have a plain jane brass key for your car, you are out of luck, my friend.  You just better hope to God you never lose or break that new key fob!

5.) FRESH AIR VENTS

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1968 PLYMOUTH FURY FRESH AIR SYSTEM

A lot of younger folks don’t even know about this extinct technology.  In the days before air conditioning became standard equipment, automotive engineers tried all sorts of ways to improve air flow through the cabin of a hot car interior.  One of these ways was a fresh-air ventilation system, a manually operated set of vent doors in the kick panels that could be opened to allow outside air to pass through the cabin, which was a great substitute for having no climate control.

The fresh air systems were typically cable operated slider-controls on either side of the steering column.  One for the left side, and one for the right.  They could be opened all the way, or just a little, depending on the desire of the driver and passengers.  Although it was not pre-cooled air, it was very effective at keeping the cabin air flowing, and in the springtime, it was almost as good as having a/c.  For some reason, this technology vanished from the industry shortly after the 1960’s, and cars became increasingly dependent on a functional air conditioner to provide comfort for passengers.  In today’s cars, there is little to no relief from the summer heat when your air conditioner goes out, and having one of these fresh air systems would make a world of difference for a lot of people.

6.) VENT WINDOWS

ventglass

Also referred to as “cigarette windows” by some, these handy triangular windows would be found on most cars and trucks as recently as the 1980’s.  Today, this feature is basically non-existent.  Back in the days when nearly everybody smoked cigarettes, in their cars, in their homes, and everywhere in between, this was a convenient way of driving with a lit cigarette.  It also doubled as a great fresh air feature, as the window vane could be positioned at various angles, directing air into the cabin towards the driver, or towards the dashboard where lots of greenhouse heat would build up.  For those who smoked, it was a great way to dispose of ashes without using the car’s ashtray.  Rolling the door glass down was not only annoying to passengers in the back seat, but it also sent ashes and dust flying throughout the cabin.

Using these vent windows in conjunction with fresh floor-air systems provided enough adequate airflow to make driving without air conditioning less taxing, but you will not find this handy little feature on any of today’s cars or trucks.

7.) HARDTOP SEDANS

4dhardtop

Of all the various body styles that have come and gone over the decades, one of the coolest was undoubtedly the hardtop sedan.  This was defined as a car that did not have a pillar or post between the front and rear door, and gave the impression of being a coupe, as the picture above illustrates.  The typical passenger car consists of three posts or pillars, the A, B, and C pillar.  The B-pillar was not present on hardtops, giving a much more open look to the interior, and cleverly disguising the fact that it was a family car, and not a sportsman’s cruiser.

Hardtop sedans are also devoid of window frames on the side glass, something you typically would only see on sports cars and convertibles.  The absence of door glass frames is still seen on some cars today, such as the Subaru Outback, and various German makes, but the open-air hardtop sedan is one work of automotive art that has vanished from showroom floors in the United States.

8.) 1157 BULBS

1157bulb

For those of you who are not mechanically inclined and have no idea how to replace a tail light or turn signal bulb, this one might mean jack squat to you, but for the car person, I think a lot of us miss the general long-term reliability of the brass-bodied 1156 and 1157 bulbs.  These were eliminated from mainstream production in most cars by the 1990’s, and replaced by a cheaper, plastic bodied bulb known as the 3157, or variants thereof.  The 3157 bulb is just as universal as the 1157, but for some reason they just don’t have the lifespan of the old 1157’s.  You may notice today when sitting at a red light that a lot of the vehicles around you have burnt out brake lights.  In some cases, the whole set doesn’t work.  This is a combination of two factors…decreased lifespan of the bulb, and decreased awareness and accountability of the motorist, who never thinks to check things like that on their own.  A lot of people go months or years without checking bulbs, posing a safety hazard for themselves and others.  I could go on a rant about how people today just don’t know jack about their own cars, but for now I’m going to stick the blame to this little fellow, the bulb itself.  The 1157 bulb was far more superior, and would often last the entire life of the vehicle.  In fact, some cars may have gone two or three decades with the same bulb in one socket.  Today, you’re likely to have a burnt out turn signal or brake lamp by your first oil change or safety inspection.

9.) SEALED BEAM HALOGENS

sealedbeam

In addition to those miniature bulbs, another great automotive technology of the past was the sealed beam halogen headlamp.  Cheap, abundant, universal, and easy to install, these were the standard for domestic and foreign vehicles up until the 1980’s, when they were slowly phased out for the European-inspired headlamps that contoured the body of the car.

These sealed beams were either round or rectangular, and operated in sets of two or four.  You could buy a replacement at the auto parts store for five dollars, and any average Joe with a Philips screwdriver could change one.  Today, headlamp replacement has become an enigma.  Some cars aren’t so bad, but a lot of cars have become so complicated that a simple bulb replacement warrants taking the entire front nose panel apart just to insert a new bulb.  And those bulbs can be anywhere from $25.00-$500.00, depending on what you drive.  A lot of cars today also use LED and Xenon technology for headlamps, and this only adds an extra burden of cost on the motorist, and a nuisance to oncoming traffic.  They’ve spent all this time and money figuring out how to light the road better, but hardly any effort has been placed on ease of installation, universal fitting parts, or consideration for the vision of oncoming traffic in the dark.  I miss the days when everyone used these.  They lit the road well enough, and we could have done just fine using these up to today.

10.) SMALL DIAMETER WHEELS

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What the automotive industry has done to the wheel is nothing short of frustrating to me.  For decades, the car wheel (or rim) adhered to a very simple standard.  14-15 inches, a simple valve stem, no tire pressure monitoring system, no overly complicated center caps, and you could interchange wheels with all sorts of other cars without having to reprogram the tire monitors, or worry about scratching a delicate designer wheel on the tire machine.

Perhaps the biggest headscratcher for me is how difficult it has become in the last decade or so to find a 14 or 15 inch tires to fit these simple wheels.  No matter where you go, if you come in asking for a 15 inch tire, they’re going to look at you like you’re crazy.  Without even checking their inventory, they will tell you they don’t have any in stock, and would have to special order them.  Really?  The road is filled with millions of vehicles that still use these wheel sizes, but because of the trend to larger diameter rims (17″ or higher), we can’t even get a simple tire replacement without placing a special order?  It makes me want to punch a brick wall.  With my head.  Why is it so hard to keep tires like this on hand?  And for that matter, why are we as car owners forced to own cars with such large wheels that a tire replacement will cost us upwards of a thousand dollars?  To me, that is ridiculous.  Maybe I don’t want 20 inch wheels.  And maybe, just maybe, I don’t feel like dropping two hundred dollars on a single tire!

Then there is a whole other aspect to consider…the ride itself.  It is well known that tires with low profiles (sidewalls) do not offer as smooth of a ride as tires with a lot more sidewall flexibility.  The reason all of us reminisce about how old cars used to ride like a cloud is almost entirely based on the type of wheels and tires it used.  The 15 inch rim was a perfect idea.  It filled up the wheelhouse while still providing enough room for a standard profile tire that would offer a great ride at a great price.  I still don’t understand why people spend thousands of dollars upgrading to 24″ rims, only to cut down the comfort and versatility of their brand new vehicle by more than 50%.  You see them slow down to a halt before crossing a pothole.  Heaven forbid you should put a ding in that $2000 chrome wheel.  How practical is that?  Paying five figures to drive this handicapped, delicate little flower of a vehicle on the roadway?

On The Wings of a Mighty Dragon

For as long as I can remember, I have recognized the unmistakable look of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress.  The iconic World War II four-engine bomber that earned fame thanks to the “Memphis Belle”, the first crew in the Eighth Air Force to complete a tour of duty and go home (25 missions).

In 1990, they made a movie about the Memphis Belle, which I would watch repeatedly with my best friend Jason Smith, and we both built model airplanes and had various toys of B-17 Flying Fortresses.  I always imagined what it might be like to ride in such a monstrous and primitive machine, compounded by the fear of being thrust into combat over foreign skies.

In 2013, my dream became a reality as I was offered a chance to ride on the Commemorative Air Force’s B-17G, known as “Texas Raiders”.  My dad and I had always been into WWII aircraft and early military aviation in general, and it was his idea that we buy ourselves a couple of seats on Texas Raiders, which offers rides to the public (for a more than nominal fee) in order to finance its maintenance and continued survival.  We’re talking about a 70 year old airplane that must still receive a regular certificate of airworthiness, just the same as any modern jet on which we might ride.

Texas Raiders is based out of David Wayne Hooks Airport in Tomball, TX, and it typically does it’s tour flights from there.  However, due to runway maintenance, the location for this day’s tour was out of Conroe.  My dad, who has an airplane of his own, flew the both of us up to Lone Star Airport in Conroe where we met up with Texas Raiders, which was parked out on the tarmac with all the other regular private planes.  I was no stranger to the plane, I had been to dozens of airshows and probably taken at least a half-dozen walk-through tours of the bomber when it was parked at these airshows.

The one thing I had not done up until now was remain inside the aircraft when the hatches were sealed and the engines were started.  After a short briefing from the crew of retired airmen that were operating the B-17, my dad and I boarded the plane with six other guests and a crew of four, which made up ten.  Ten was the number of crewmen that would actually ride on the plane during combat, so the factor of estimated weight was most likely in play here.

The engines on the B-17 are really old school technology. Four Wright-Cyclone 9-cylinder radial engines with superchargers.  They start them one at a time, from left to right (as gauged from the pilot seat).  When these old engines start up, the smell pouring through the cabin is one of poorly burnt gasoline; the kind of smell you would expect from the puff of smoke emitted from your lawnmower after its first start of the season.  The vibration of the four engines churning away rattles the entire cabin, but not in a frantic way, more of a tuned pitch.  You feel the vibration throughout the airframe but it doesn’t bother you.  You just know there is a lot of horsepower at work around you.

As we taxied down the tarmac to prepare for takeoff, I took my seat in the waist-gunner’s seat, which is just past the halfway point in the fuselage of the plane.  There is an actual chair, but it’s more or less two reinforced pads protruding from the radio room bulkhead.  With a seatbelt.  About six feet beyond my chair were two wide open portals which were waist-gunner positions on both sides of the fuselage.  It was basically just open air.  One could have easily jumped out of this opening if they chose to.  Because this was in September, it was still pretty hot outside, so having these open portholes in a hot steel airplane was a nice breath of fresh air, not to mention it sucked away the gasoline-rich exhaust fumes that the engines were generating.

It didn’t take long for Texas Raiders to get lift once it began rolling down the runway.  Before I knew it, we were airborne after what sounded like a fairly minimal effort from those four engines.  Just a mid-range thrust of power and about 15-20 seconds along the runway.  So here I was, riding on board a B-17 Flying Fortress for the first time in my life.  It was a very primitive experience in flight.  I was used to riding on jet powered airliners and small engine aircraft like Cessna 172’s, but this was something entirely different.  This flight represented what the pinnacle of technology allowed in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s.  It was kind of like using an antique appliance, such as a stove or a vintage record player, only on a much grander scale.

While in flight, my dad was seated in the radio room, which was the middle section of the fuselage.  In that room was an overhead window opening that, on occasion, was fitted with a Browning .50 Caliber machine gun.  In this instance, it was just another open portal, which we were allowed to step up and look out of.  I took a turn standing on the radio room floor and sticking my head out of the open radio room skylight, where I was able to catch a 360 degree view of everything around us, including the tail section of the plane.  It was pretty surreal, being able to stick your head out of an airplane cruising at 200 something knots.  It was almost like riding in a hot rod with the windows down and the breeze in your hair, only this was an airplane, and about 2000 feet off the ground.

This must be what it would feel like to ride on the wings of a mighty dragon, I thought.  The feeling of weightlessness although you are seated within some 50 tons of steel moving effortless across the sky.  This experience was definitely worth the price.  The 45 minute flight seemed to be over in about 20 minutes, and we finally landed back at Lone Star Airport,   It felt great to be able to say I’ve taken a ride on a 70 year old B-17 bomber, and to know that feeling you get from the ride if you are an aviation enthusiast.   Hopefully one day soon I will get another opportunity to ride the wings of the dragon once again.

Weiser Airpark: An Endangered Landmark

Over the last century, many local airports have come and gone within the Greater Houston area.  Due to land development and other factors, many of these smaller airfields have vanished completely from existence.   Andrau Airpark, which was located on the south side of Westheimer near Kirkwood, vanished shortly after the turn of the 21st century, and is now a residential community.  Aside from a small strip of asphalt situated on the shoulder of Kirkwood that was once an entry drive to the airpark, you’d never know there was ever one there.

Further to the north, at the northeast corner of I-10 and Eldridge Parkway, there was once a small airfield labeled Crutcher-Rolfs-Cummings listed on local maps.  I never saw any photographs of it, but historic aerial imagery from the mid-20th century confirmed the presence of some type of small recreational airfield on that tract of land.  Sometime in the 1970’s, the airfield vanished and was eventually replaced with office buildings, as well as an extension of Dairy-Ashford Road that tied into Eldridge Parkway.

With all the new construction and changes going on around the Northwest Freeway (US 290) these days, it makes me wonder about the future of Weiser Airpark (KEYQ), a small recreational airport located on the north side of the freeway just a few blocks east of Telge Rd. in Cypress, TX.  Weiser has been a local landmark for as long as I can remember, and is now finding itself to be an aging airfield on a very valuable piece of land that developers would love to get their hands on.

To give you a little history on Weiser, it was first established in the 1950’s as F.H. Jackson Airport, which was an addition to a 165 acre dairy farm owned by Robert and Cecil Weiser.  In 1963 the airport was renamed Weiser, and they added several rows of hangars which still exist today.

I first discovered Weiser as a child, when my dad used to fly small planes out of there.  He was a young pilot in training at the time, and would rent out whatever plane they had available, but I recall him using the same one most of the time.  As a child, I thought it was his airplane.  Not until I grew older did I realize the arrangement for a person of limited financial means to gain access to a private aircraft through matters of rental and plane loyalty.

I have many memories of various flying excursions based out of Weiser, and growing up in the area has made me accustomed to the presence of small aircraft buzzing around all day long.  When I was about 14, during the summer between my freshman and sophomore year, I would wake up early and ride my bike around with my headphones on, and would often ride up 290 to Weiser to watch some of the early morning pilots getting started.  I had nothing better to do, and I was kind of in this aircraft phase of life where I wanted to fly a plane of my own some day.

Fast forward to 2015.  I am now 35 years old and enrolled in The Flight School at Weiser.  I am actually going through the motions of getting my private pilot’s license and knowing how to fly a plane.  At this time I am still a beginner, but as I have grown familiar with every vehicle I have ever operated, I am confident I will learn to do it well, and I will have completed training to an advantage because Weiser is one of the more difficult runways to make.  Those who graduate from Weiser graduate…wiser….(ok pun intended).

But in all seriousness, the whole reconstruction of the 290 freeway has me worried, because not only is the freeway changing, but businesses are changing too.  Huge tracts of land are being sold to build warehouses and retail strips, frontage roads are being widened, and little airstrips like Weiser posed beside a massive freeway will soon find themselves in danger of being bought out.

Currently, the airport is still owned by the Weiser family, but when the last member passes away, there is a high likelihood of the land being sold off, and the airport closing forever.  I don’t have anything to back that up, but history has shown that places like this don’t last forever.  Houston is not a city known for preserving it’s architectural history, and when development is in, history is out.  Weiser is a single, narrow runway and a string of rusty hangars sitting on the side of what is about to be a supermassive freeway like I-10.  As warm of an environment as it may be for family and those who have kept the place alive, I just have a lingering fear that Houston will eventually lose this airport to development, and all the familiarity of having it there will be gone forever.  I have a very clear image in my mind of driving past 290 and Telge and telling some children “yeah there used to be an airport there.  It’s where I learned to fly.”  Only there will be a new apartment complex sitting over what used to be Runway 09-27.

There is not much we can do to change this reality, but we can prepare for it by appreciating Weiser while we still have it.  I will remember every lesson I take there, and all the hundreds of times I’ve passed through those gates in various cars and trucks (or bikes).  And should the day come that it does close, I know I will have memories that no history lesson could ever duplicate.

The New Christmas

You know, just when I think about making a comment about how the Christmas spirit just isn’t what it used to be in America, I see families who are going to great lengths to have a wonderful Christmas.  They set up yard decorations and lights, they take their children to see extravagant neighborhood displays like Prestonwood Forest, and they do all sorts of baking and mall shopping to really get into the holiday.   There is definitely a valiant effort made by a fairly good cross section of Americans to have the best Christmas possible while adhering to classic traditions.

This proves that Christmas is done differently all over the country.  Some people do it big, some people do it small, some people do it with barely any money at all.  The spirit of Christmas is always there, ready to be embraced, but it’s what people put into it that makes the difference.  Yes there is a war on Christmas by the anti-religious movements and those who wish to dilute the flavor of our great nation into a neutral, tepid state, but there is also a strong defense to keep it alive that will probably remain for many more decades.

The main thing that has changed is us.  When I look outside my window and down my street, I am very aware that the majority of my neighborhood has “mailed it in” this Christmas.  I see only one house decorated for the season within my line of sight.  Just one.  And you know what, it isn’t my house.  This year, I find myself among the rest of the busybodies who just found themselves suddenly thrust into the Christmas season once again, totally unprepared.  The idea of hauling out tons of lights and tacking them to the house once again, only to rip it all down three weeks later just doesn’t seem like something I want to bother with this year.  I guess 90% of my block felt the same way.

And shopping is another thing.  Since the start of December, my attitude towards Christmas shopping on foot has changed.  I used to love going out to stores or malls to shop around and see what I can find, maybe get some random ideas for gifts to give my loved ones.  But now, the thing on my mind as Thanksgiving yields to the Christmas season is staying away from crowded madhouses like the mall, or Wal-Mart.  Why?  Because all I can expect now is to see the very worst of humanity.  Overcrowded parking lots with people driving like maniacs, cutting corners and breaking traffic laws.  Huge crowds of people clustered together to break down a door and stomp their fellow man to get their hands on some new gadget…or a stupid pair of Air Jordans.

Ages ago, people used to take this opportunity to put aside all the greed and introversion, and “be merry” to one another.  Singing carols, bringing the neighbors a bottle of wine and a fresh killed goose or turkey as a token of generosity and good will.  These days, maybe that does go on in smaller towns, but there isn’t a soul who has knocked on my door from the neighborhood wishing me a damned thing.  Just a big lot of people kept to themselves and shuddered inside dark houses while UPS trucks hustle and bustle through the neighborhood, dropping off all the packages ordered from a laptop.  Don’t get me wrong, shopping on the internet is THE way to go now, but it feels like we lost something in our hasty quest for Christmas.  It’s like “Christmas: The Express Version”, only for some reason we now drag it out for three months.

I guess my point is that everything changes, very little stays the same.  The Christmas experience I had as a young child is something I thought would always be around.  I am perhaps a little bitter that it has become something else, so commercialized, but then again, people from the sixties said the exact same thing.  Even Charlie Brown was bummed out during the classic Peanuts Christmas special episode, because Christmas had become over-commercialized, and that was over forty years ago.

The children of today, in our eyes, are missing out on all the things we experienced as kids, but in their eyes, it is still magical.  The legend of Santa Claus is one that has managed to stay strong, and it plays well even today.  This new generation of kids will grow up with a slightly different interpretation of Christmas than people my age did, but it’s all relative.  In another thirty years, they will be the ones blogging about how commercialized Christmas has become, and how they just can’t seem to get in the spirit like they used to.  I am still hoping that a night will come and shine a light on me, and the warmth of the Christmas season will fill me once again, but I am also aware that it may not happen that way.  And you know what, for the first time, that’s okay with me.  I realize not every Christmas is going to pack the exact same level of energy as the previous one, but that’s just part of growing up.  All those vivid memories of Christmas from your childhood only grow richer with age.  It doesn’t mean you have to match or top them, it just means you have to ask yourself every once in a while what Christmas means to you, and what you intend to do to make the best of the season.  If not for yourself, for those you care about, and who care about you.  So while I feel like I have really kinda mailed-it-in this year, it doesn’t mean that I don’t wish each and everyone of you a Merry Christmas.

Thanksgivings Past

In Southeast Texas, the weeks surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday are not always cold and wintry like they are further north, but sometimes we get that cold spell just in time to make it feel more like the holidays depicted in 1980’s John Hughes films like Home Alone, or Planes, Trains, & Automobiles.  

This year, we happened to find ourselves staring down the barrel of a hard overnight freeze a week or so before Thanksgiving, and for some reason it made me think about Thanksgivings growing up as a child of the 1980’s and early 90’s.  On some years, we would stay in Houston and have Thanksgiving dinner with my dad’s folks, but most of the time, my family traveled to Lafayette, Louisiana.  This was the town where my parents met and got married, the town of my birth, and the town where my mom’s folks decided to settle down.

Part of what inspired me to write this down is the realization that the very early 1990’s is now more than twenty years ago.  Many of the young adults I know today weren’t even born yet.  So, this is kind of my painting of a portrait.  Thanksgiving in the early 1990’s, in a small town called Lafayette.

It was usually the day before Thanksgiving when my mom would load up the station wagon and haul my younger brother and I off to Lafayette for a few days.  At one point it was a silver ’84 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser, and later it was a white ’91 Oldsmobile Silhouette minivan, but my mom always drove Oldsmobiles.  This was a time when a brand new GM car still ruled in the American market.  A lot of people owned Japanese cars, but domestic was still riding high.  All my family owned domestics, and I loved riding in my grandparents’ car when we were in town because it always smelled and looked like the day it rolled off the showroom floor.  That unbeatable smell of a brand…new…1991 Pontiac Bonneville.   But I digress…

We would roll into town on Wednesday evening, and most years it was much colder in Lafayette than it had been in Houston when we left town.  My grandmother would welcome us in, and usually serve us homemade lasagna for dinner.  My God, that lady could cook a serious meal.  Nothing was done half-assed in her house.  It was homemade cuisine that could only have come from a Georgia upbringing.  After dinner, my brother and I would haul out our bag of toys, and play quietly in our room, or watch a movie with the rest of the family.  On Thanksgiving holiday, the networks really shine when it comes to feelgood movies.  But you know something?  There was no mention of Black Friday.  It was all about Thanksgiving and maybe a little bit of Christmas too.  Black Friday was not the focus of the media during the Thanksgiving holiday.  People on the news weren’t talking about which stores were going to be open Thanksgiving Day, and filming mobs of rabid consumers being held back from a Walmart entrance by police officers and a barricade.  They were talking about tomorrow’s parade, and giving updates on inclement weather for travelers, and then getting back to that movie!

That first night in the house, trying to sleep, was always the most difficult.  One of two things would happen.  My brother and I would keep each other awake by farting and laughing our asses off, or I would sit and listen to the sounds of a quiet town in the cold midnight air.  The railyard to the north where train cars were linked with a loud “bang”, the coming and going of dozens of freight trains in the night, and watching the flashing red beacon on the radio antenna across the street from my grandparents’ neighborhood.  The moonlight would cast spooky glows over the old framed photos on the wall.  Photos of my grandfather in his World War II days.  Photos of old weddings and distant family members.  On those really old prints, when the light hits them just right, they have this blue shine where the darkest coloration is.

Thanksgiving morning, my brother and I would awaken to the smell of bacon and eggs, and the sound of conversation coming from the breakfast nook.  My grandparents were always up by dawn, and my mom would get up and have coffee with them until we were awake.  In retrospect this was probably her most productive quality visitation time with her parents…while my brother and I weren’t bouncing off the walls.  After breakfast, the countdown to turkey time began immediately.  Two brothers with no other kids to play with, and nothing to do but smell all these wonderful smells coming from the kitchen while we sat in the den.  I can remember watching that old VHS copy of E.T: Extra Terrestrial until the tape was probably worn out.  If the weather was nice, my brother and I would wrestle in the front yard, ride bikes around the neighborhood, or walk around the area.  Pretty much anywhere you went was safe.  If the weather was nasty, we pretty much bounced off the walls, walking aimlessly from room to room, occasionally dipping into the kitchen to check the status and ETA on the turkey.  And oh yes, a whole lot of farting.

Finally, we would eat our turkey dinner around 2:00 in the afternoon.  Sometimes my uncle Tom and aunt Mary would join us, and occasionally we got to see one or both of our cousins.  The spread of food at this table set the standard for which I have always based Thanksgiving dinner.  I won’t go into details, because every family has their own mix and match of traditional Thanksgiving dishes, but I will say this.  Although my grandma always had homemade food at the table, nobody had any problem with the can-shaped log of Ocean Spray cranberry jelly.  I would usually devour the entire thing if nobody else touched it.  But it had to be on its own separate plate.  I didn’t want it touching my savory items.  And to this day, that remains a practice.  The cranberry can’t be touching the mashed potatoes and stuffing or anything else.  We always had yams with marshmallow topping, but I never got into that stuff.  I saved what room I had for that chocolate pie dessert.

After a satisfying meal, the family would gather in the main den and actually visit.  I know it seems weird, but in the days before cell phones were smart phones, people actually kept them in their pockets and had real conversations with people.  Sometimes the neighbors would drop by and visit for a while.  As kids, the only thing on your mind is the fact that you can’t hear the tv above their conversation, but looking back as an adult, I realize the importance of genuine conversation, and understand why they never would quiet down for us.  We were being spoiled little brats.

That evening there usually wasn’t much going on, but the movie theaters were always open.  My mom would take me and my brother to the local cinema to go catch a movie (this is where I first saw Back to the Future II).  After the movie, a quick turkey sandwich before bed, and we were out cold.  The Friday after Thanksgiving, we would either stay in town and do some Christmas shopping at the local mall and shopping district, or head home, depending on the weather and everyone’s schedule.  Now this was a time when Black Friday was still the first big day of the Christmas shopping season, but it wasn’t referred to as Black Friday in every household.  It wasn’t its own holiday.  We could still go into a store and walk around shopping like civilized human beings, and pay for our purchases with ease.  Every parking lot was filled with American cars, and while you still had to lock your doors, you didn’t see all these scammers and tricksters infiltrating crowded parking lots trying to bum money and rip people off.  We left Lafayette with a good start on the Christmas shopping season, and a carton full of Christmas music on cassette tape to play on the drive home.

This tradition carried on all the way up to 2005 (maybe 2006), but after my grandmother passed on, there really wasn’t a huge meal to look forward to anymore, so the Thanksgiving torch was passed, and new traditions began for all of the family.  The older I get, sometimes I wonder if I appreciate Thanksgiving more than Christmas…because I really am truly thankful for the family I have, and the privelege of being with them during the holidays when so many others can’t be with theirs.  Maybe they’re serving our country.  Maybe they’ve burned some bridges.  Maybe their job just has them offshore and away from loved ones.  But the weight and significance of having a family Thanksgiving is something you just can’t explain to a child.  You don’t even realize how special it was until the memory has aged twenty or more years.  You remember that food.  You remember sleeping in that guest bedroom on a cold night.  You remember family members chatting over coffee.  You remember popping Christmas cassette tapes in and out of that Oldsmobile tape deck the whole ride home, totally amped that it’s now officially Christmas time.

But despite all those memories, I look forward to each and every Thanksgiving that comes our way in the future, because I have found a way to celebrate it with family that is every bit as satisfying as it used to be.  Great food by a great couple of cooks (Rebecca & Steve), and being surrounded by family in a warm setting.  Only in recent years, we have added campfires, beer, wine and scotch to the festivities.  Enough that the shame of Black Friday won’t weigh heavy on our heads while we sit on our asses Friday ordering things off Amazon for dirt cheap.