Not an Avid Skier

Some winters I get up to the the ski slopes. Most winters not. You can tell from the picture that I'm a real professional. I enjoy skiing, but it usually seems too easy to say "not this weekend, maybe next." The ski slopes are only about fifteen miles from Boise. The road there is fairly slow and windy, but doesn't provide much excuse to not go. I can even see some of the ski trails from my apartment window.

Lately, I keep saying I want to try snowshoes again. I haven't used snowshoes since I lived in Alaska in the early eighties. Maybe next winter. There are plenty of areas not far from Boise where I could go. I just need to rent some shoes and head out.

Hmm. I've started looking older and put on some weight since these pictures.

A Bit of a Hiker

Sometimes I go hiking. Often times, it is just in the foothills north of town simply because they are convenient. They're nice, but it takes some effort to get high enough to be in the denser trees. Other times I travel a little farther. This picture is from a hike near Crouch, Idaho, which is north of Boise. I also like to hike along Crooked River, to the Northeast of Boise.

One time I was hiking near Crooked River in the Autumn. I heard some very loud scratching on a tree about fifty feet away and some crunching in the brush below it. Then I saw a dark colored bear running away. My first thought was "Aaah. That young bear learned that it has gotten too heavy to be climbing trees for protection." Then I heard some lighter scratching high in the tree. Instantly I realized: "This isn't Alaskan brown bear territory. That's not a young brown bear; that's an older black bear and it has a cub only fifty feet from me. I'm closer to the cub than its mother!" A bit of fear popped up, but I'm glad to say that it worked just like it is supposed to. With slightly heightened senses, I immediately sized up the situation and acted accordingly.

During my Fish and Game experience, I was around a lot of bears, both the large Alaskan coastal brown bears and smaller black bears. I don't claim to be an expert, but I developed what I think is a practical way to act when encountering a wild bear. Here is my reasoning: If the bear wants to eat me, it will. They're big, fast, and very good predators. Otherwise, the best I can do is not act scared. And perhaps a lack of obvious fear would give it a second thought about attacking. The same is true if the bear charges to chase me out of its territory. I don't want to look like prey. Likewise, I don't want to act aggressive. That may raise fear and defensiveness in the bear. If it feels trapped or protective of a cub (seen or unseen by me), I don't want it acting on that fear.

To implement that reasoning, I figure that my best action is to act casual. Me and the bear are just two critters crossing paths in the woods. We don't mean anything to each other. Staring at the bear might convey fear or aggression. So I just move on, neither directly toward nor away from the bear, as if nothing important is happening. That's what I did. Good or bad, I'm happy with that approach to bears. It fits with my experiences with them.

And if a bear actually attacks, I won't be able to tell whether it wants to eat me or just scare me into submission. So if it attacks, I'll fight back as best I can. I want it to change its mind.

So anyway, I continued walking, leaving the cub 50 feet away in the tree and the mother  about 50 yards away, standing on her back legs and pawing as high in the air as she could. Even though she had just run away, leaving me closer to her cub than me, I guess she was trying to look as formidable as possible. I estimate that she was about 300 pounds, maybe 350. It was less than a half mile later that I came across another, larger sow, but she had two cubs. She was lighter colored, more like a grizzly, but didn't have the shoulder hump, meaning that she was also a black bear. When she saw me, she started running away, cubs following. I was rather surprised to see mothers in such close proximity. I had assumed that they would keep their cubs as far from other bears as possible. I guess not. Seeing so many bears made me cautious enough to occasionally check that I wasn't being followed, but otherwise it was great to spot the wildlife.

I'll try to get around to writing up some of my bear stories and other adventures in Alaska. I have made an initial start on this page, Some Alaska Stories. No promises about how long it will take to write all of the ones worth telling.

Mission Accomplished  
In Dallas Texas, I had a house in an old neighborhood. It was one of a few non-descript houses that created a transition between the quaint Craftsman style houses to the south and the lovely Tudor homes to the north. The lots in that neighborhood were rather narrow – only fifty feet wide – so the lots and houses were also narrow but deep. Since our street had a little bit of a bend in it, plus several other reasons, my lot was particularly deep – 200 feet – and my house was over 100 feet from the street. Luke lived three houses down from me. He was Steve and Jana's third child but first son. When he got his bike with training wheels, my yard must have been at the end of his mother-mandated roaming range. That gave him 150 feet from home, but without crossing the street. Seems reasonable. Well, of course, he extended that as much as possible by including the 100 feet of my driveway. It was a narrow, one car wide driveway until it got close to the two car garage.

One morning, through an open window, I heard Luke coming up the driveway. The sounds of a bicycle alternating between one training wheel then the other is easily recognized. Well, even a two car wide driveway is difficult U-turn territory for a beginner. I heard the clatter of a bicycle falling over. No big deal; kids fall; they get scraped up; they cry. At that size, they usually don't even get scraped up. Besides, Luke always rode with a helmet. But I heard the FRAK! – that sound of open palms hitting against the concrete. I don't have lots of childhood memories, but just writing about this reminds me of that intense pain that both stings and tingles after catching a fall on concrete. All the nerves of the palm seem to fire, reload, and fire again as fast as possible. I wanted to keep to myself that day, but instead, I ran downstairs to help. People that age are not well equipped to suffer alone.

Poor Luke seemed more scared than anything. Instinctually, he probably understood that a lot of pain should be accompanied by adult evaluation, but he couldn't ride home to Mom with hands hurting that much. He was only crying a little and so managed to tell me that he fell. “I know. I heard you from all the way upstairs. That's why I came down, because I could hear your hands hitting the cement from way up there. I know how much it hurts when that happens.” I'm stalling now, knowing that a little time is all that's needed. “There's something about hands hitting the cement that just hurts a whole lot. But you know what? The good thing about that kind of pain is that it goes away fast.” Enough time had passed. Enough pain had dissipated. The light bulb went off in Luke's head: it doesn't hurt much anymore! He's OK. The fear is gone. So he picked up his bike and merrily went home. People that age are well equipped for quick recoveries.

Well my narrow, deep lot averaged about 15 trees, ranging from one to five decades old. I give an approximate average because during the 14 years I was there, a few trees came or went. I couldn't keep the driveway clear of twigs and debris (that's what rain is for), but I occasionally swept the uncovered front porch. One afternoon while doing so, I saw Luke pedaling down the sidewalk with determination. He seemed to be on a mission. I finished sweeping but pretended to do more because he had made the turn toward my house. Even on a bike, it takes awhile for short legs to traverse that uphill driveway. He's still using training wheels. So he gets to where I am pretending to sweep. “Are you taller than my Dad?” “Yes, but your Dad is stronger.” With satisfaction, he turns and pedals down the driveway and up the sidewalk to a home that now feels a wee bit safer. Mission accomplished.

Maybe I Shouldn't Do That

So I was walking from my home in Dallas to the local 7-11 for a Slurpee. Love the cold, sweetness going down the back of my throat. And with the over abundance of heat in Dallas, Slurpees were a welcome pleasure. (I have never tolerated heat well physically; cold is fine.) As I approached, two guys are arguing in front of the store. One was a well dressed yuppie-looking guy in his thirties. The other was a shirtless 20 something. Never gathered what the argument was about, but it looked like it was about to turn physical. I could have ignored it all, but several kids under 7 years old inside the store had their faces pressed against the glass, studying and hearing everything. They shouldn't have to see that.

About the time I get there, another guy, maybe 50 and Hispanic, is stepping in, trying to calm things down. I wouldn't know how to do that, but wanted to support his attempts. So while he's facing and talking to the rich, white guy, I act like I'm protecting them both by being between them and the Hispanic youth. It's working. The rich guy is backing off a bit. After a couple minutes, the youth seems to give up, turns and leaves. But then he changes his mind. He pulls and opens a pocket knife, heading back for who knows what. I take a step to the side to block his way, but he was close enough that all's he had to do was also take a step to the side to get around me. He slaps at me with some flip-flops in his non-knife hand. But by the time he was back in front of the store, the rich guy was in his BMW. The two blusterers exchanged several more insults, but the rich guy drove away. The mediator apparently had some skill.

So I drew a rather large Slurpee from the machine, paid, and walked home.

Licensed Pyro

In Dallas, I belonged to a social club. At one meeting there was a speaker who owned a fireworks company. It was an interesting talk. Seemed like it might be interesting to do, so I emailed him afterwards asking if he needed any part time help (I had a full time job). No reply. So I emailed again. Apparently by the second time he realized that it was Autumn of 1999 and he was going to need more help for all the work that would come for New Year's 2000.

So some training began for me along with others. My boss, Randy, was very safety conscious. He was a trainer to the local Fire Marshall's who oversaw any permitted fireworks activity. He was also involved in setting state regulations. He was congratulatory when I got a 92% on the Pyrotechnics Special Effects Operator License Exam (70% needed to pass) but mentioned that he got a 96% because he HELPED CREATE THE TEST! I watched part of an episode in a TV series about a Canadian fireworks company. Even to me, they seemed sloppy, unsafe, and put the crowd at risk with inadequately anchored mortars that could fall and shoot horizontally. The point being that Randy's safety rubbed off.

A couple times we had some all day training at the out of town site where the fireworks were stored and assembled – assembling meaning sorted into a show, fuses put on for the timed discharge, labeled and packed for loading mortars at the show site, etc. Assembling the racks of empty mortars on a flatbed and packing sand around them could be done in town at the office/warehouse. Randy would tell the surrounding neighbors when there was training so they could watch the fireworks show from the road that night. It was not a full fledged show with timed discharges, but more of a test of new equipment and new fireworks and new people. Aside from knowing whether a new “shell” was worth using, we had to know how long between ignition and actual explosion after reaching its apogee. Timing counts in professional shows. Randy was a true professional.

I've never been big into explosives, but I really enjoyed learning a new skill and its accompanying details. We had fast fuses that burned really fast. They were gunpowder impregnated string covered with a loose paper sheath. Oddly, the string burned much slower without the paper sheath. And “slow fuse,” which had a plastic like coating, burned a pretty consistent one foot per second. One electric signal, with an “electric match” could signal multiple discharges by using slow fuse of different lengths to separate them in time. And the room for assembling and fusing the fireworks was interesting. Firstly, the air conditioning was in a different nearby building 5 feet away so it could not cause sparks and explosions. The air was ducted over. The electric lights were outside the room and shone in through the windows, also to prevent extraneous sparks. The walls were made of styrofoam so that if something went wrong, you could run through the walls rather than look for the door. The fireworks were stored in shipping containers, but even then they had to have mounds of dirt around them in case they exploded. And the site had to be inspected by ATF. I suppose I was put on one of their lists at one point.

Some of the fireworks were for indoor shows and theatrical performances. One that I would have liked to see was a stage production where the actor playing the devil. During a soliloquy, he gets a cigar out of his suit pocket, unwraps it, and casually holds it out to the side. A three foot flame shoots out of the stage to light it. In training, I did such a flame – it is simply the modern “gunpowder” used in pistol ammunition ignited in an open cylinder. Fireballs were surprising. They are a ball of fire, a few feet wide,  rising from the floor. Ninety percent of its ingredients is wheat chaff! I grew up in Kansas and heard about wheat silo explosions, but didn't expect chaff as a pyrotechnic ingredient. Didn't need that effect outside of training either. There is one effect called “waterfall” because it produces a continuous waterfall of gold or silver sparks. I was amused by the manufacturer's specification sheet for it. Other products had a picture of the device, description of its use and what it produced. But for the “waterfall,” every other sentence in the spec sheet was literally “Waterfalls cause fires!” Those sparks burned hotter than anything else we worked with. We put on a show in Texas Stadium in Irving, where the Dallas Cowboys used to play. To protect the seats from the waterfalls, we covered them with professional fireproof tarps. The tarps got holes burned in them! Yep. I can see how waterfalls could cause fires.

That show in Texas Stadium was interesting. A drug company had rented the entire stadium for a party. The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders were hired to be there and so were a few famous ex-Cowboys. Must have cost a fortune, including our fireworks show at the end. Inside, including humongous stadiums, you can't shoot fireworks that go up and explode. You can shoot “comets” that go up leaving a trail of sparks, but if they were to go astray and explode, that could gravely injure someone. So we set up “comets” that went up and we had small explosives hanging from the ceiling that exploded. That way it looks like outdoors fireworks. The comets were demonstrated in the parking lot for the stadium manager and performed consistently and as labeled. However, they behaved differently during the show. Texas Stadium has an opening which created a bit of an updraft. The comets went too high and bounced around the rafters holding up the ceiling. It didn't detract from the comet/explosion effect, but it did ignite some of the sound deadening insulation on the ceiling. It was mostly just smoldering rather than burning, but that still ain't good. Since the fireworks were the end of the party anyway, the guests were sent away immediately without knowing about the ceiling and the fire department was called. The fire department was useless. They couldn't get their hoses to spray that high, even from the water access points at the top of the seating area. Only one of the firemen was even brave enough to go out on the catwalk that followed the rafters along the ceiling. So our guys (not me) put out the fire. I hauled many 5 gallon, portable, water based fire extinguishers to the top of the seating. Our guys, who had been on the catwalk before the show setting up the hanging explosive charges, pumped and sprayed until the insulation was out. Almost no one knew what happened. The fireworks show looked like a success and got applause. A news radio station reported that firetrucks were called to Texas Stadium (must have monitored the fire frequency) but never got any details. The stadium manager was more mad at the fire department than at our crew because 1) they drove their firetruck onto the turf! and 2) they were useless. We kept everything calm; we handled the problem.

Glen was the main guy up on the catwalk. He was a pro. He also had high explosives licenses for things like det cord and mining explosives. Major league stuff. And he did occasional explosives and weaponry work for a Chuck Norris series named “Walker, Texas Ranger.” One time he got a regular traffic stop on the highway with all kinds of realistic looking automatic weapons lying on the seats of the van. Officer requested backup. And at one time he had a tee shirt that made the rounds on the internet. It said something like: “I'm a professional pyrotechnician. If you see me running, try to keep up.”

For New Year's 2000, we put on several shows. All of them were at midnight, of course. One for the city and was quite big. Even pre-9/11, they were worried about security, so the police had snipers positioned around that downtown show. We also put on 3 or 4 backyard shows, about $12,000 - $16,000 each. Some folks have lots of money. In comparison, a 4th of July show paid for by a suburbs of Dallas, might cost $50,000 at that time. The show I worked on was in the most expensive part of town. The customer had bought 3 very expensive homes, tore them down and built his. It had an indoor swimming pool and squash court. It had a huge outside water garden. The gazebo was bigger than my house. And they had a baseball diamond, complete with an electric scoreboard. All on the most expensive land around. For their party, they had valet parking and it was catered by the most expensive restaurant in town. Amazing. When their neighbor heard about it, they had to have fireworks too. So we put on two shows, almost identical, at the same time, across the street from each other. That was almost a quarter mile away, but the idea is still baffling.

Asides from those shows and the three 4th of July shows (two in on summer), I helped twice with another indoor show. A local mall set up a huge Christmas tree on their indoor ice rink. On weekends, they put on a show for the shoppers that had Santa skating around doing acrobats on ice and fireworks from the tree and huge surrounding presents. With the impressive stunts and flips, Santa's skates had sparks shooting out the back. It was quite a show. Superficially, it was ironic that the fat, jolly, back-flipping Santa was actually a skinny, Jewish guy. Another show I helped with was the Cotton Bowl half time show. That must have been January 2001. I was on the field with a hard hat and an 8 foot pole with fireworks on it. Both for that and the mall ice rink, we used electronic infrared emitters/sensors to ignite the fireworks in a coordinated way. Dual tone pulses, like telephone number sounds, can be embedded in music and sensed by electronics as a signal to ignite fireworks, either through wires or across infrared emitters. And I helped with fireworks at one or two Dallas Cowboys games – they had some at the opening and some touchdowns. The halftime show was separate and a different organization.

It was a fun hobby/part time job for a couple years until I moved to Boise. As a volunteer I did help set up, shoot, monitor, and clean up a 4th of July fireworks show in Boise, but Idaho doesn't have the same licensing, permitting, and monitoring of fireworks. I just didn't get back into it. From some of the accidents I read about, especially by firemen, perhaps they could have used a trained pyrotechnician.