Monday, June 26, 2017

Some bottomless pits I have known

The Bloo Nellie Mine, north of Wickenburg

By Tom Walker

Once upon a time, I was a serious mineshaft spelunker.
On our JV Bar ranch north of Wickenburg, Ariz., there were rich opportunities for this pastime. Hard-rock treasure hunters around the beginning of the last century had punched dozens of mineshafts into the mountains and valleys of our ranch. Then, when the gold or silver or whatever they were searching for played out, these miners packed up and left nothing behind, except for their spectacularly deep and dangerous and yet irresistibly inviting abandoned mineshafts.
Some of them really deep. Like 500, 800 – even a thousand feet deep. Some were vertical shafts, some were inclined. So it was a great adventure to sneak up on them, as though they were some slumbering dragon, and lob a good softball-sized rock into the darkness of their gaping mouths.
It was always a hazardous adventure. The ground around some of the old mineshafts was extremely unstable. Without warning, it could collapse under your feet, sending you plunging to a deep and terrible death. An awful way to die – but of course, so is skydiving with a bad parachute.
Even so, the lure of mineshafts was so powerful – almost sexual in its appeal to a kid in his early teens -- that even the possibility of dying in one couldn’t keep me away. I had to get up close enough to see what it was like to drop a rock in them.
To see gravity in action, the way Galileo did. The fall of the rock at 32 feet per second per second – the speed of free-falling objects. The hissing sound of the rock approaching terminal velocity, when air resistance and gravity equal out.
And the sound of the rock hitting a wall of the mineshaft, ricocheting into another wall, and then finally, the deep-in-the-earth crash when it hits bottom or the kersploosh if the mine is flooded. Either way, it’s always a held-breath, sweaty-palmed business, as the sounds echo back to the surface. And you stand in a kind of reverence until the dark silence returns to the mineshaft.
So exciting, exhilarating beyond description, to have done this, to have invaded that dark world below without falling into the thing yourself.

Montezuma's "bottomless" well
Unfortunately, my mineshaft spelunking days are over. Age and health problems have permanently sidelined me from that game. But I’m still involved in dropping rocks into deep holes.
The stones I’m lobbing these days are letters and phone calls to the senators and the representative who supposedly work "of" and “by” and “for” me in Congress.
“Supposedly” is the key word here. All three – Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, and Representative Martha McSally – are Republicans. And all three seem more interested in working for the Republican party and their collective lobbyists than for the people they represent.
I’ve been calling and writing to them about many issues in the past, but one issue right now is especially important to me. That’s the House and Senate measures to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.”
The Senate, working in secret, has cobbled together a piece of legislation called the Better Care Reconciliation Act, also known as “Trumpcare.” I call it a despicable piece of thievery that would steal health insurance coverage from millions of Americans and hand over a goldmine in tax cuts to people like Donald Trump who will only use it to get richer. Trump, needless to say, supports the bill wholeheartedly.
Now, I am very careful about my calls and emails to Congress, much as I was about tossing rocks into mineshafts. I don’t hurl insults, rants, or curses. I strictly follow the protocol outlined by people who actually have to answer the phones or read the emails for members of Congress.
“Hi,” I say. “My name is Tom Walker, and I’m a constituent from Tucson, zip code 85***. I don’t need a response. I am opposed to the Senate’s “Better Care Reconciliation Act” and I urge Senator Flake (or McCain) to please vote NO on the act. Thank you.”
And then I lob my message into the gaping hole in the ground known as Congress and listen as it disappears into the darkness. Without a sound, seemingly never hitting bottom.
When I was a child, my parents took us on a vacation trip to numerous attractions in northern Arizona, including the natural phenomenon known as Montezuma’s Well. What it was, was a big hole in the ground with a pool of water at the bottom.
My father described it as a “bottomless well.” Wikipedia describes it as a natural limestone sinkhole, fed by an underground spring that keeps it filled with water even during severe droughts. “The water,” it adds, “is highly carbonated and contains high levels of arsenic.”
Not unlike the bottomless pit of the U.S. Congress. You drop your rock into the chasm and you never hear it hit bottom. Except eventually, they take a vote, and you realize that no one was listening.
It was you falling into the mineshaft, tumbling helplessly through the deep, arsenic-tainted darkness that our government has become.  

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Hot enough for you? Well, it's gonna get even hotter

No one wants to go down to Tucson in the summer.
              -- Mel Tillis, “Send Me Down to Tucson”

By Tom Walker

Old Mel knew what he was talking about. Summers in Tucson are like hell, without the pitchforks (those are 90 miles north of here, in the land of the Arizona State University Sun Devils; but that, of course, is another story.)
 Yesterday the Tucson high was 115, the third straight day of 115 or higher temperatures – the  first time that has ever happened here. Tuesday’s high of 116 was one degree short of our all-time record. Could be worse, you say; you could be in Phoenix, where temperatures hit 120 yesterday. Or Death Valley, where it was 125 degrees. A little perspective helps, I guess.
Of course, the weather expert in the White House says climate change is a hoax. Of course, I think he doesn’t know an isobar from a piano bar. From where I am, it’s getting hotter and hotter.
Scientists agree. A team of researchers found that nearly one-third of the people worldwide now endure 20 days a year when the heat reaches deadly levels. By the end of the century, that level will rise to three-fourths of the world’s population if global warming continues  as it is, the study predicts.
Of course, I won’t be around to see that. But it’s a grim forecast for future generations. What will it be like in Arizona by then? What will it be like anywhere? “The United States is going to be an oven,” said Camilo Mora of the University of Hawaii, lead author of the study.
“Fake News!” tweets the eminent climatologist from his air conditioned White House perch.
Nevertheless, just one heat wave – in Europe in 2003 – killed more than 70,000 people. In late May, temperatures in Turbat, Pakistan, hit 128 degrees); if confirmed, that could be among the five hottest temperatures measured on Earth.
Now I grew up on a desert ranch in a home with no air conditioning – in fact, for the better part of my childhood, there was no electricity. In hot weather, we moved our beds either outside under the stars or later, onto a screened porch on the side of our adobe house. Both sleeping places gave the possibility of a cooling evening breeze, if there was one. If there was no breeze, we relied on the natural method of sweat and evaporation for cooling.
It was hot, there on the JV Bar Ranch. But I don’t think we ever saw anything like three straight days of 115 degree temperatures.
The high today (Thursday), was 109. Tomorrow the forecast is 107. Or it could be 109 again. It’s the time of year when weather forecasters are ambivalent.
On the JV Bar, we prayed for rain to give us a break from the heat. And in Tucson, we pray to St. John the Baptist for the beginning of the monsoon. El Dia de San Juan, the festival for the birth of St. John, has been celebrated here for 20 years to mark the return of the monsoon.
Tucson benefits from the northern march of the Mexican Monsoon. The often daily thunderstorms bring rain and cooler temperatures. Of course, it also brings much higher humidity, which renders evaporative coolers useless. Luckily, we have a heat pump air conditioner at our house. It's running all the time now, which is lucky for our utility company.
The San Juan festival, scheduled for Saturday, June 24, includes a procession in which a statue of St. John is carried to an irrigation ditch near the Santa Cruz River. A priest blesses the water in the ditch and children throw flowers into the water. There also are mariachis, dancing, games, food and refreshments.
People in Tucson know how to live large.

Bayville Shop-Rite Gets It Right

You may remember last week's rant about people who don't return shopping carts to the cart return.  Well, the Shop-Rite in Bayville, New Jersey knows how to deal with those deadbeats.  If you want one of their shopping carts, you put a quarter in a little gizmo on the handle, which releases a chain that holds it to the next cart in line.  You take your cart and do your shopping, and when you properly return the cart to the stand and replace the chain, your quarter pops back out.  I shopped there yesterday, and there was not a stray cart in the lot.  A quarter may not buy much these days, but apparently it's enough of a reward for people to return their carts.  And you may notice the ominous words at the top of the sign, "Surveillance cameras in use".  They aren't kidding around.  Bravo, Bayville Shop-Rite.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Father's Day, East and West

By Tom Walker

I got a Father’s Day email today from Elizabeth Warren. Now, I certainly am not Warren’s father. I am not even a constituent, since she represents the people of Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate and I live in Arizona. I greatly admire the work she does, however, and if I lived in Massachusetts, I’d vote for her re-election in 2018. And for president, if she ever decides to do that.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
The ignorant tweeter in the White House calls her “Pocohantas.” I call her “Wonder Woman.”
Which brings me back to the email Warren sent me today. Most of the political stuff I get goes into the deleted file. But Elizabeth Warren’s email is a keeper. Oh boy, is it ever a keeper.
In it, she told of a bad time in her life, when she was sixteen. Since childhood, she had wanted to be a teacher, but now found that her family “didn’t have the money for a college application, much less the money to send me off to school.” After a bitter fight with her mother, she decided to leave home.
Her father found her waiting for a bus ride out of town. What he did then is a textbook lesson in fatherhood. He didn’t upbraid her for upsetting her mother or try to talk her out of running away. He just asked if Elizabeth remembered what the family went through after his heart attack.
“I remembered,” Warren wrote. “I’d been 12 years old, and I’d seen how fast a family could be turned upside down.”
In just a short time, her family lost its car, and was threatened with foreclosure on their home.
“Sitting there on the bench in the bus station,” Warren wrote, “ he told me that he had failed and that the shame had nearly killed him. He wanted to die.”
What happened? Elizabeth asked.
“Daddy sat silently for a long time, caught somewhere in his memories of those awful days. He still didn’t look at me. Finally, he took my hand in both of his and held it tightly.”
Things got better, her father said. Her mother found work, they made some payments, and after a while her father went back to work. There was less money, but enough to get by. They caught up on the mortgage. Even surly Elizabeth seemed to do OK.
“Finally he turned and looked at me,” Warren wrote. ‘Life gets better, punkin.’”

Ira Walker
Warren’s story touched a spot in my heart, because I too had a father who went through a special kind of hell. It was in 1963, when he was forced to sell his ranch.
Ira Walker, my dad, was part owner of the Flying W Ranch, a 580-cow outfit in the Mogollon Rim country of central Arizona. He had to give up the ranch, not because of bad health or poor management, but because he couldn’t tolerate his business partner.
Despite constant interference, Daddy succeeded in paying off the $200,000 loan on the ranch in only six years, but at a heavy cost. He had been beaten up, worn down and defeated.
Mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had undergone a double mastectomy. She and my sister were living in Globe to be near her doctors. I was staying at the Flying W with Daddy. I had to drop out of college because capital gains taxes from the ranch sale had left my parents flat broke.
So I was staying up at the ranch, working on a team that was punching beryllium prospect holes all over the hills near the Flying W headquarters.
My father was still there, counting cattle for the ranch sale. At one time, Daddy would have been out there protecting his range with his trusty .25-.20 Winchester carbine. But now, he seemed resigned to it all. After all, it would be someone else’s ranch before long. Someone else’s headache.
But he went out every day, working the range, rounding up cattle to be counted and tagged. It was a job, and it was his as long as it lasted. Same with mine, as pointless as it seemed. None of the prospectors I worked with even knew what beryllium was or what it looked like.
Daddy wasn’t big on words, but if he had been he probably would have said something along the lines of Elizabeth Warren’s dad: “Life gets better, punkin.”
So, happy Father’s Day to all the fathers out there, in Massachusetts, or Arizona, or all the other places in this great country.
Things will get better, I'm sure. No amount of tweeting can stop that.

Here's How You Know It's Summer

Folks on the East Coast do summer.  It's not a casual thing.  Summer is serious stuff.  We go out for ice cream.  And we shop at the road side produce stands.  The farms for these produce stands are generally next to the stands themselves.  Laurino Farms and its stand are about ten minutes from our home.  We watch the stand like hawks as soon as the snow melts.  Of course it never opens until the farm has produce ripe to sell.  We were thrilled when we drove by and saw that they were selling strawberries and lettuce.  The strawberries were in plain view.  We didn't see any lettuce.  We stated, we believed rhetorically, that the lettuce didn't seem ready yet.  The man behind the counter overheard us and replied, "Of course it's ready.  I just have to go pick it for you.  What kind do you want?"  We briefly consulted and then said, "Romaine please."  "Red or green leaf?" he countered.  "Green," we replied and off he went into the field which is next to the farm stand.  As he was picking our lettuce another man came by and assured us that the kale would be ready in another couple of weeks.  Our man returned from the fields with two heads of Romaine lettuce.  "They're still pretty small so here are two for you.  No charge for the second head."  And that's how we know it is summer.  Now off for ice cream.

Friday, June 16, 2017

People Can Be At Their Best

"Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart."  Yesterday I saw proof of that famous Anne Frank quote with which she ended her diary.  My Mac Book Pro laptop computer needed repair.  Off I went yesterday to keep my appointment with a Mac Genius at the mall in Freehold, New Jersey.  Traffic entering and exiting the mall was heavy.  I had just made my right turn into the road which leads directly into the mall.  The next thing I saw was a man rolling down my lane while his motorcycle rolled in front of him.  I was about twenty feet from my right turn down the road.  I immediately activated my emergency flasher, shut off my engine, jumped out of the Jeep with my cell phone in hand.  I was already dialing 911 as I closed the Jeep door.  In a moment of disbelief I thought that perhaps an emergency call wouldn't be necessary.  Surely the man would just jump up, get back on his bike, and ride off.  He wasn't moving, though, so I tended to my call.  As I was waiting for a 911 response other people came running toward me and the man who appeared to be bleeding from a head wound.  One other person had his cell phone out.  People tried to comfort the man who did not appear to be responding.  A truck stopped in back of me to block the road and thus prevent the injured man from getting run over.  A woman began directing traffic.  It was a remarkable experience.  About ten people gathered around to do whatever was needed.  The common wisdom was to wait for the ambulance and not attempt any type of emergency medical treatment.  Within minutes, it seemed, police arrived and in the distance I could hear the ambulance siren.  It was a relief to have law enforcement who actually knew what to do in such a situation take over.  We were all thanked by the officers and, since none of us had witnessed the accident, encouraged to leave to make room for the ambulance.  Those of us who had stopped to help took a moment to look at each other with a combination of shock and appreciation before getting into our various vehicles to, with law enforcement guidance, leave the accident.  Yes, the accident itself was intense but more so was the unsolicited assistance and concern of those of us who did what we could to help.  

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Turn those wheels, New Jersey

I really like New Jersey.  We moved here three years ago from Southern California.  I like the seasons, I like the trees, I like the farm stand markets in spring and summer.  I like the people, too. However, there is one aspect in which New Jerseyans really need to pick up their game.  I refer to the common habit of leaving shopping carts all over supermarket parking lots.

Now, it isn't as if that behavior is unheard of in California, but it's worse here. And it isn't as if cart return stands weren't provided; they are.  People just ignore them.  They leave their cart wherever it lands.  If there's room, it will be shoved between two cars, so that when one of them pulls away the cart goes careening through the lot.  Or, they prop them up on a curb, or--my favorite--in the blue striped area next to a handicapped space which is meant to allow a disabled person room to exit their vehicle.

Okay, I know I'm on a soapbox about this shopping cart thing.  A few years ago I had major surgery, and while recovering, I started to go out to supermarkets, first accompanied and then alone. It was a huge effort for me, and when the day came that I could do it by myself, and return the cart to a cart return stand felt like a milestone.  So here's a suggestion to all, in New Jersey and California and everywhere else: As you wheel your cart across the parking lot to the cart return, be grateful that you are well and strong enough to do it.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The wet, slurpy blessings of dogs

By Tom Walker

For much too long, I’ve lived without the sound of toenails clicking on our tile floors, the sensual pleasure of cuddling up on the couch with a warm furry body, and the not-altogether unpleasant surprise of slurpy kisses on the ear.
Dog blessings.
Half a dozen dogs have lived with us over the years. Each of them became part of our family, and each left an aching void when they died. The death of our sweet old Molly hurt so much that Linda and I decided she would be our last dog.
We want to spare ourselves from that kind of pain, sure; but we also want to be fair to a dog. Health problems make it impossible for us to exercise a dog properly; we’d have to have a couch potato canine or a professional dog-walker, and those don’t appeal to us.
And neither of us is a cat person. So that’s out, too.

Buddy the Beagle
 Enter Buddy. He’s our grand-dog, an extremely cute little beagle belonging to our daughter, Christina Walker Rowden. We get to dog-sit Buddy when Christina’s away. This is an ideal way to briefly share our home with a dog, without actually owning one.
Buddy has stayed with us several times, and each time is an adventure. Once, he chewed up my i-Pod ear buds, but that was my fault; I left them lying on a table where he could reach them.
Mainly, though, he spends his time incessantly hunting for badgers (or whatever it is that his beagle DNA drives him to hunt) in our backyard. As far as I can tell, badgers take the shape of lizards, birds or whatever else is lurking in our trees and shrubs.
He also digs lots of holes, because obviously badgers must be hiding underground somewhere if they aren’t lurking in the trees or shrubs.
Other than getting up to let Buddy in or out of the backyard every ten minutes or so, taking care of him is no problem at all. At bedtime, we simply smear some peanut butter on the inside of his Kong dog toy, put it inside his cage and lock him up.
Then he’s good until about 5 a.m. That’s when the whining and crying started this morning. Hey, we had to get up sometime, anyway.

Donald Trump, I’ve read, does not care for dogs, cats or pets in general. As a result, for the first time in roughly 130 years, the White House is without the sound of clicking paws on its hardwood floors, the  joyful yips of a dog welcoming the Oval Office occupant back to the family residence.
It’s hard to imagine the place without a Fala or Millie or big, galumphing Bo. A Trump supporter once offered to give him a golden doodle, but he turned it down. Not enough time for something as frivolous as a dog with funny-looking hair, he said. Guess it might interfere with his twittering.
If ever a president could benefit from a friendly lick in the ear, it’s Trump. For one thing, medical studies have found that pets help lower their owners’ blood pressures – surely something that could help the orange-faced president as well as the nation. Now that Melania and Barron have moved into the White House, maybe Trump will decide to make room in his life for a dog, as well. After all, having a pet could provide a much-needed public relations boost for the embattled covfefe in chief.
   Someone who likes a dog is just, well, more likeable. Doggone it.

But alas, Christina came back from her trip to reclaim Buddy. He seems to like us well enough, but we are clearly no match for his mom. He curled up in her lap contentedly while she told us about her visit to the old mining town of Bisbee. Then he tugged at his leash, a dog on a mission, all the way out to the car for his trip back home.
And that’s the way it should be. Unlike Trump, we don’t have a staff of butlers, ushers and others to take care of walking a dog or cleaning up poop in the Rose Garden. (Maybe that’s a job Sean Spicer could handle after the demotion that’s surely on its way.)
But as for Linda and I, we have some memories of beloved dogs – Molly, Bonnie, Ed Beagley Jr., Oreo and She-She -- but no dogs of our own.
Other people’s dogs, however, are always welcome.