Monday, March 31, 2014

My Friend the New York Jet.

Here's his last flight in the F-16, January, 2010 over upstate New York.

Welcome to the first episode of "Amazing People I've Known, but This is the First Person I've Actually Showered With."

Today, I'd like to relate the story of Christian Peloza, a guy I've known since 1970, right around the time Vietnam was raging, the Beatles were breaking up and a half hour of Roadrunner contained more amusing violence than Pulp Fiction.

He ate the same hamburger gravy school lunches, wore the same Sears Toughskins and drank from the same neighborhood garden hoses as the rest of us.

Which is why a lot of the kids from Forest Villa have those lip sores that flare up occasionally.

Christian lived on the street behind me. He was the new kid in second grade, and even though he was a year younger than everyone else after skipping a grade in California, he was big, smart and athletic.

I remember watching him play soccer at noon recess, booting the ball forty yards with his mens' size nine Red Wing boots. Together, we inhabited the white middle-class suburban terrarium known as Auburn, Washington. 

We rode the pine together on the junior high basketball team. After a few games, I decided playing in the game would be okay, but cracking jokes with Christian down at the end of the bench was more fun and significantly less stressful.

Finally in June of 1981, after growing up together through an era of Watergate, Farrah Fawcett, Steve Martin and the Miracle on Ice, the whole"parallel paths" thing screeched to a halt. Here's Christian's story, with my comments italicized.

Why did you apply to the Air Force Academy? 

The whole thing happened by accident. A friend of my dad's happened to be a liaison for the Air Force Academy and when I was sixteen he asked me where I was going to college. Like most teenagers I just shrugged my shoulders. He produced a catalog that made it look like a pretty good deal (as most catalogs do) and I decided to apply.

I really had no desire to fly; I just thought it would be good way to get a free education. Once I got there, I found out that the catalog made it look a lot better than it really was, but I was too stubborn to quit. I'm glad I stuck it out because getting to fly fighters turned out to be my calling. I can't imagine doing anything else.

You finished high school at seventeen and a couple of weeks after graduation, found yourself reporting to Colorado Springs. Talk about the first couple of days.

Needless to say, it was quit the culture shock (think John Candy in Stripes)—trying to acclimate to the seven thousand foot altitude, getting my clothes taken away, my hair shaved off and everyone yelling at me for anything you can think of. 

It was challenging mentally and physically that first summer, but at least we outnumbered the upperclassmen that were training us. When the rest of the Cadet Corps showed up for school, we were greatly outnumbered, but the academics turned out to be the most challenging aspect of all with seven classes each of my first two semesters. Trying to manage all that in between the yelling, mandatory military training, athletics and meals was a huge challenge to say the least.

I don't know, that doesn't sound too hard compared to my college experience. Try dragging yourself out of bed at nine-thirty  in the morning after a late night draining the spodyody with the Gamma Phis. I willed myself through some brutal hangovers and still made it to 1:20 Geology at least half the time, tough guy.

Anyway, at the Academy if you decided you couldn't take it anymore, you could still withdraw consequence-free until your junior year, right?

Yeah, if I had decided to quit in my junior or senior year, it would have resulted in a two year enlistment.

Meaning you would have had to serve two years as a non-commissioned officer?

Yes. I did briefly think about quitting my second year but changed my mind.

Wow, imagine if you had. We wouldn't be talking about this next part of your life. In May 1985, you graduated from the Air Force Academy and received your commission as a Second Lieutenant.

Yeah, then I drove to Del Rio, Texas and spent a year training on the T-37 and T-38 aircraft. I discovered I really enjoyed flying, did well and received an F-16 as my follow-on aircraft. I continued on to Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico for fighter lead-In training, where I flew AT-38s and learned the art of tactical flying. From there I went to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida and trained on F-16s for six months.

And before you knew it, you found yourself in the middle of Operation Desert Storm.

Desert Storm was the first air combat the United States had been involved with since Vietnam, and as such, we didn't have anyone with combat experience. It was quite nerve-racking leading up to those days before Jan 15, 1991, not knowing what to expect. Well, it turned out that we didn't have a lot to worry about. I think the Iraqis expected us to come in at low altitude which would have been suicide with all the Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) they had.

They were shooting Surface to Air missiles (SAMs) at us, but we had a lot of time to react at higher altitudes and they rarely had the desire to guide them all the way through intercept for fear of our Anti-Radiation Missiles from the F-4Gs guiding on them.

In the earlier stages of the war, a few American planes were shot down, right?

A couple of units decided to fly low those first few days and a few of them were shot down and taken as POWs. And then on the last day of the war, Bill Andrews, a pilot from our unit, was captured on the last day of the war during the retreat of the Iraqis from Kuwait City, along the "Highway to Basrah". He took an ill-advised dip below the weather to check things out and was met by a barrage of AAA and Shoulder fired SAMs. He jumped out, was captured and released a couple of weeks later.

The lowest point of the war for me happened one night as we flew back to the United Arab Emirates. We'd flown three combat missions that day, and my dedicated wingman Dale, the guy who had been on every combat flight with me, flew into the ground. Apparently, he became disoriented when I made a turn away from him to start our approach, and he flew right into the ground thinking he was doing fine.

Just a couple of weeks prior, Dale had helped me find an air refueling tanker when we were both about to run out of gas. The nearest base was fogged in and we didn't have the fuel to make it to another one. Dale gave me the initial heading to reach the only available tanker, and I got on the refueling boom with about five minutes of gas left. This gave us just enough to get to a base without fog.

I can't imagine what it must have felt like to lose someone like that. You were stationed with the New York Air National Guard on September 11, 2001, correct? Describe your experience that day.

Yes, my unit was based in Syracuse, but half of us weren't in New York at the time. We were deployed to Saudi Arabia to Prince Sultan Air Base, located on land owned by Osama Bin Laden's father--a wealthy Saudi businessman. Like everyone else, I watched it in horror on the television after returning from work that afternoon.

I knew that an act of war had just occurred and we would be going to war in Afghanistan. Four days later, our replacements arrived and we flew home. It was really eerie on the radio because there was no other chatter from the usual airliners--only us and the FAA. They let us fly wherever we wanted because we were the only planes in the area. 

We found out that for the portion of our unit still in Syracuse on September 11, things were a little more exciting. The Eastern Air Defense Unit tried to scramble our jets against the airliner that eventually crashed in Pennsylvania. But since we weren't an "alert unit" and the base held no live ordnance, it took time to get unscheduled jets ready to fly. By the time they got airborne, the airliner had already gone down.

At any time during your career did you find yourself in a bona fide dogfight or near-one-on-one battle with an enemy fighter? Don't worry, I'm not going to say "Like Top Gun," because no one could ever kick Commie ass like Maverick.

Air-to-air engagements have been a rare event in the past 25 years, sort of like winning the lottery in my business. I spent a lot of years after Desert Storm enforcing the no-fly zones north and south of central Iraq. I would occasionally get an Iraqi aircraft on my radar but none of them ever crossed the line.

How many tours did you complete in Iraq and Afghanistan?

I deployed to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey many times in support of the Northern Watch (enforcing northern Iraq no-fly zone) and Prince Sultan, Air Base in Saudi a couple of time in support of Operations Southern Watch. I went to Qatar twice in support of operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan). 

We could fly to both Iraq and Afghanistan from this location. My last deployment to Iraq was in country at Balad Air Base. Daily insurgent artillery attacks from outside the base were commonplace. It happened the first day I was there; someone was killed as I was diving into the nearest shelter wondering what was going on. 

By the time your career wound down, how long had you spent flying?

I retired a Lieutenant Colonel on February 1, 2010 after 25 years in the Air Force. I'd accumulated 4300 hours in the F-16, which still is ranked sixteenth all time among the several thousand pilots worldwide who have flown it. 

Here you are with your daughter after that last flight. What a fantastic shot. Your kids are now twenty-three (twin boy and girl) and eleven. How did they feel about their dad's occupation?

My older kids were very aware of what I did for a living. The military forced us to move frequently so it affected their lives quite a bit.

Let's shift gears and talk about another remarkable event in your life—reuniting with your birth parents ten years ago. 

Were you ever curious about it as a kid, or was it something you gravitated toward in adulthood?

I knew I was adopted from as long I as I can remember, but it didn't mean a lot to me since I was busy being a kid, and I never really waned to find out who my birth parents were. The curiosity kicked in during my late thirties,and finally decided to pursue it when I turned forty. 

Washington State had recently passed a law that allowed an intermediary to open my birth records and approach the biological parents to find out if they wanted to meet me. Both of them did, and after that it didn't take long. 

I was very surprised to find out that they were both Canadians living in British Columbia. My mom had given me up for adoption in Seattle when she was nineteen, went to college in Vancouver and eventually married my dad. They divorced eighteen years later, but each remained living in the same town.

We agreed to meet in Everett, Washington at my mom's sister house. It was really strange seeing my biological roots for the first time--features that belonged to all of us and then the slow discovery of why I was the way I was. I really think that genetics are stronger than environment in determining who you are. 

I met my dad later that day back at my hotel. My newly-found cousin happened to be getting married in nearby the next day, and  I remember walking into the room with my mom and watching everyone stare and compare the two of us. 

It was a fun night, and we've kept in touch ever since.

I'm glad we've kept in touch, too. Thanks, Christian.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Field Trip Actually Did Include a Field.

I spent yesterday with my wife's fifth grade class, chaperoning a field trip to the Mountain to Sound Greenway at Lake Sammamish State Park. As the culmination of a science unit on ecosystems, three classes of ten- and eleven-year-olds boarded one school bus and one King County Metro coach (thanks to the King County Metro Field Trip Program). 

Half the kids, some of whom had never been on public transportation, rode the articulated bus to our destination and the other half rode back.

I've got to say I preferred the school bus. The upholstered brown cocoons were like sitting on an old friend.

Originally, the trip was scheduled for Tiger Mountain, but the roads were impassable after one of the Seattle's clammiest winters ever.

Before I go on, I've got a question, especially for you Northwest natives:

What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think Lake Sammamish Park and Tiger Mountain?

Ted Bundy, right? Whose sick idea was it to have a fall-back Bundy crime scene for the kids to tour in case the first one fell through? 

My wife. And that's why I love her so very much.

Seriously, what a great age these kids are. Another dad and I were in charge of seven students, including his daughter. Every once in a while, she'd come over and take his arm for a little while and then take off again. It tugged at my heart.

And each time I glanced at her selfless show of affection toward her father, all I could think was, wait till she's thirteen, Brad.

We saw some cool animals—a bald eagle, a red tailed hawk—but the find of the day was a small garter snake that had slithered up through a fresh mole hill as we walked by. Four boys swooped in, sticking their faces closer to the snake than any toothbrush they've ever held.

Kid 1: "I've got a garden snake. At home. And a cobra."

Kid 2: "My cousin has a shoebox filled with snakes."

Kid 1: "They alive?"

Kid 2: "Yeah."

It rained all day and the constant standing left a lot of kids and adults pretty worn out. When two boys smacked their heads together while simultaneously stepping over a short fence, it was time to go. One boy walloped the top of the other kid's head right above the eyebrow, and he was hurting bad. I couldn't help but remember, forty years ago on a trip to the Woodland Park Zoo, running toward the bus, tripping and gashing my knee so painfully, the shock and burn brought on a wave of seasickness and cold sweat I wouldn’t again experience until college. 

The searing red pain of that spring day in 1974 haunts me even today, every time I shave my legs. 

Some kids fell asleep on the way back, while others were just as hyper as when we'd left, singing and shouting for the duration. 

And Holy Sweet Mother of Camp Auburn, when's the last time you heard singing on a school bus?

The ride to prison doesn't count.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Let's Dance.

Hallelujah, March Madness is back! The Big Dance—a showdown of Davids and Goliaths that has served up some pretty dramatic stuff over the years—Magic vs. Bird  Part I, Chris Webber's meltdown, Christian Laettner's turn-around buzzer beater off Grant Hill's laser throw from seventy feet away.

It's usually my favorite annual sporting event—and if something kind of sweet hadn't happened six weeks ago in New Jersey, the "Road to North Texas" would be a lead pipe cinch to be my favorite spectator sport shindig again this year. 

By the way, what's the deal with "Road to North Texas"? Shouldn't it be a road to Abilene or Lubbock or some actual town? I'll try to give it some context:

"You goin' to the kegger? 

"Dunno. War is it?"

"Road to north Texas. Couple mahls in. Take a left at the class boulder."

"Yammo be there thiin." 

Time to nestle into the La-Z Boy with the granddaddy of sporting theater. Wait, now I'm cuddling with someone's grandpa. Let's move over to the barcalounger and bear witness—the game winners from forty feet, the double-digit underdogs plunking the Dukes and Kentuckys and Kansaseseses right in their pompous pie holes.

By the way, this year's "I've never heard of them" award goes Wofford College, a liberal arts institution of fifteen hundred students in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Their nickname is the "Terriers," and they'll be facing some Wolverines in the first round. Prediction? Too close to call:

But while these tremendously skilled eighteen- to twenty-two-year-old athletes are the actors in the drama, it's the coaches who provide the improvisational human element in their roles as directors. They glide, they stomp, they crouch.

They cry.

And these fellas dress nicely—always have.

For generations, hoop coaches have exhibited sartorial splendor, sacrificing the more casual looks enjoyed by their managerial brethren on America's diamonds and gridirons.

"Hi, I'm Jim Harbaugh, and when I have a tantrum, nothing says comfort and confidence like Wal-Mart khakis. They can even handle a little poop when I really snap. Wal-Mart khakis. Tell 'em The Harbro sent ya."

If anyone shouldn't have to wear a tie, it's the basketball coach. Imagine the stuffy environs these guys played in. 

I'm picturing a dark smokey airplane hangar that smells of stiff sock and musky virgin pine.

For a while, some coaches tried sweaters. 

Imagine the juices these guys were basting in after three quarters. I've heard Bobby Knight emitted a homey pork roast fragrance.

But eventually, they found a way to keep it classy, many tromping down the GQ trail blazed by Pat Riley.

And going all in with the school colors. Go Dawgs.

Of course, sometimes the team color thing looks a little better on paper.

Let's dance.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Beer, Biscuits and Bastards.

Ah, Portland—a town of big beards and bike riders, of blazers and Blazers.

Portland, Oregon—best frenemies forever with her bitchy but fun cousin, Seattle, two hours to the north.

And this past weekend, it's where my bride chose to celebrate a substantial milestone of which one of the following is true:
  1. It's the anniversary of the first time we talked about getting a cat.
  2. She turned fifty.
  3. It was the day in 1988 we unknowingly received identical perms, thus at last realizing our shared destiny.
Of course the answer is number two. Number one didn't happen until March 11 and number three was a body wave, not a perm. 

So yeah, to celebrate my wife's 600-month birthday, she found a place on the southwest hill of Portland. Getting to the bottom floor of the three-story house nestled into the mossy hillside was like the beginning of Get Smart, requiring a key code to open a garage door, followed by an elevator ride to the rental unit. 

To repeat, these people put an elevator in their freaking house—just for the guests. I expected to see Mitt Romney out trimming the hedge in his mom jeans and red bandana.

Hanging from the high ceilings were reclaimed lights; the interior walls were huge windows of leaded glass. Paintings, sculptures and art supplies filled the Livingstone area. Very cool.

March is"Dining Month" in downtown Portland, where tons of restaurants offer three-course meals for $29. Although neither of us owns a smart phone and our Australian-voiced GPS "Stanley" is permanently down under, we nevertheless found a restaurant. 

Channeling the poorly bathed spirits of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, we utilized crude but effective navigational methods—iPad screen captures, yellow pages*—I even briefly wrote some stuff down with a pen.

*For those under twenty, the yellow pages is a large book** with addresses and phone numbers on yellow pages.

**For those under twenty, a book is a stack of printed pages attached together and protected by a sturdy cover.

Still a couple of hours early for our dinner reservation, we decided to walk the two-mile distance to the restaurant. The weather was moist and misty, my jacket slowly trapping enough heat to steam a paper pouch of hum bows. I fantasized of peeling off my coat and wearing only the hood, the rest of the jacket swinging like Batman's cape during recess. By the time we hit the city, I looked like Gosling at the end of The Notebook, but without his face, hair, body or carpentry skills.

After slogging through puddles for half an hour. the legs of my outdated boot cut jeans had stubbornly pasted themselves to my heels. We ducked into the Westin Hotel lounge, a pleasing lobby bar with comfortable chairs and disturbing paintings of sad people with babies. 

The area teemed with well dressed young men—dudes for days—yet my bride courageously clung to the moisture-stretched arm of my cable knit sweater. I mumbled a silent prayer of gratitude for her as she gingerly knitted back into place my renegade eyebrow fibers. Bless her heart.

Two pints and some good conversation later, I excused myself to use the men's room, one floor up. Exiting on the second floor, I noticed yet another well-dressed young man sitting in one of those chairs by the elevator that no one ever sits in. 

"The restroom is over there," he said. He mumbled something else, but when a 51-year-old guy is hellbent on using the commode, idle banter is discouraged.

He was still there when I returned. A woman stood already waiting for the elevator, and his eyes zig-zagged over her. "Are you from L.A.?" he asked.

"No, but I love L.A.," she said. 

"Well, honey, I love how you work that outfit to cover your lower half," he offered.

"Um, thanks," she replied.

Then he looked at me again, his finger on a swivel. "Are you with him?"

She glanced at me nicely. "Nope."

He scowled at me and scanned my sodden jeans and soaked PF Flyers."Where are you from?" 


"I can tell." 

That's when my FU Meter blew its alarm, and the two pints I'd just knocked back helped hack up the words of my inner Don Rickles: "Does the hotel pay you to sit by the elevator and judge people, or do you do that for free?" 

The woman barked out a quick laugh, then swallowed.

He looked a little startled. "No." 

Good comeback, you skinny-jeaned halfwit. Thankfully, the elevator arrived and as the doors closed the woman and I looked at each other and proclaimed in unison, "Wow."

"He's an idiot," she said. "You look good."

"Thanks," I said, feeling grateful for her kindness, yet pissed at the preemptive attack on my personal appearance.

I won't burden you with each detail of our Portland trip, but I do want to show you one more thing. This is what I had for breakfast Sunday. It's called a Reggie:

It's a homemade biscuit containing fried chicken, bacon and cheese, and topped with gravy. Next time you're in Portland, stop by Pine State Biscuits—you might not see Jesus but you could at least bump into Mary Magdalene or Doubting Thomas mawing some fried green tomatoes—it's nearly that religious.

Just don't let the guy by the elevator see you eating the stuff.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The "This Day in History" Poetry Challenge.

Remember Schoolhouse Rock? Sure you do. 

I'm just a bill,
Yes, I'm only a bill,
And I'm sitting here on Capital Hill…

Conjunction Junction, what's your function…?

And so many more. But this stuff hasn't been on Saturday morning TV since the Seventies, and let's face it, we're so much smarter than our children because of such civic-minded programming. 

Oh, yeah, and due to our ability to discern subtle social cues stymied by overuse of hand-held electronic devices. 

These days, your average eleven-year-old probably doesn't know that interjections show excitement or emotion. How many current fourth graders can rattle off "three six nine…twelve fifteen eighteen…twenty-one twenty-four twenty-seven…thirty"?

Bam, this one can.

Today's youth have no idea how magic a number three is or how a bill becomes a law, nor do they care. I've decided to propose a radical exercise for our overstimulated, standardized-test-driven youth— a way to transform them into sturdy, studly students of social studies. It's the "This Day in History" poetry challenge. 

Simply watch in wonder as your cherub drives his or her pick into that golden internet vein and pries out a wheelbarrow-full of raw historical nuggets. At that point, it's merely a matter of smelting everything into verse. Ouch, that's hot!

On March the Fourth Seventeen-Ninety-One,
Vermont at last became a state.
I've been told it was cold,
All the men were quite old,
And they smelled of intestinal freight.

On March the Fourth  Nineteen-Hundred-and-Eight,
New York students finally stopped getting cuffed.
Instead of a slap,
The belt or the strap,
The kids wore a Donald Trump tuft.

On March the Fourth Nineteen-and-Fifty-Two,
Ronnie Reagan and Nancy were hitched.
Did she just say "no"?
Oh, no, not that night, bro,
Okay, gross, the subject needs to be switched.

On March the Fourth Nineteen-and-Thirty-Three,
FDR first came onto the scene.
We had nothing to fear but fear itself,
Still not really sure what that means.

On March the Fourth Nineteen-and-Seventy-Four,
People Magazine first peeled its wrapper.
My mom read it first,
And usually at worst,
It ended up on the floor by the crapper.

On March the Fourth Nineteen-and-Ninety-Nine,
Lewinsky's book dished on old Bill.
She wore the same dress,
To talk to the press,
Best dry cleaner on Capital Hill.

See what I mean? It's easy, fun and your child will be a little less—well, stupid—than yesterday.