Thursday, May 31, 2007

1981 Trip, Day 4: Hangin' with the Greys

June 9, 1981: After a full day on Soldier Summit and the desert east of Helper, today's objective was to more fully explore Utah Railway's mine run operation. At the time, most weekdays would find two morning runs of empties leaving Martin yard, south for mines on the Utah's "mainline" towards Mohrland. The tipple at Wattis would see a train nearly every day; the rest of the loadings would be split between Hiawatha and Mohrland. By late afternoon, Utah would assemble a full 84-car train of loads at Martin, call a road crew and a helper crew, and shove the train up Price River Canyon. Utah would try to segregate the older RSD4/5's from the RSD12's and 15's; one mine run would often operate with the "grey" RSD4/5's, another with the "blues," the 12/15's. By late afternoon, the two trains would be reassembled at Martin for the trip west up Soldier Summit. The Blues would be assembled into a four unit helper set, with an single grey thrown in for good measure. At this time, leased Union Pacific SD's would constitute the road power, increasing speed on the hill as well as reducing time swapping power at Provo before taking the train west towards power plants in Nevada or export out of the LA Basin.

Not too bad a shot for being completely lost. . .

On this sunny morning, I wanted to get a shot of the "greys" on the signature structure of the Utah Railway: its large steel trestle at Gordon Creek, the largest remaining steel railroad bridge in the state. Rather than ask a Utah employee the obvious--how do you drive to this obscure location?--I decided to consult USGS topo maps, which showed a dirt road taking off from near Helper west into the boonies. . . towards the general vicinity of Gordon Creek. True, the road did generally head right towards the tracks. . .but it was anything but direct, and anything but a very good road. After quite a while of driving in and out of washes and into a small canyon or two, we emerged trackside. I'll say this about the Corolla: it was a stout off-road machine. The bridge was nowhere to be seen, but, it appeared, we were still ahead of the train, so we waited and before long were rewarded with a nice 3/4 action view of "greys" 304/305/307/306 headed southbound towards Wattis Junction. . .which was somewhere, hopefully not too far, to our south.

Like West Virginia, only without trees. . .

We plodded along dirt roads, occasionally losing sight of the tracks, and eventually emerged at Wattis Junction, where a short branch diverged from the mainline on a 4% climb to the mine. Trains shoved back north from the Junction switch, winding around hillsides and after a couple of miles, reached the mine, which was a classic metal tipple structure--a little bit of West Virginia right here in Utah!

The RSD's were already spotting their empties and getting their loaded train together. We trespassed at will--this was back in 1981, remember--and then followed the train back to Wattis Junction, where the four RSD's were hard pressed coming off the 4% downgrade to shove all the train south of the junction switch, where the mainline was still climbing at nearly 2% up to Hiawatha. The RSD's erupted in sound and smoke as they inched their train upgrade to clear the switch, then departed nearly silently downgrade. It would've made for some great photos, except it was dreadful high-noon light in early June. Ugh.

Returning to Martin: high elevation trumps high sunlight. . .

We had plenty of time to beat the train back to Martin. A paved highway took us right from Wattis down to Highway 6, then north to Martin. We climbed a few dozen feet up the hillside above Tunnel 1, where we'd photographed the empties the day before, to get a vertical shot of the RSD's on their 49 car train at Milepost 2 at Spring Canyon. The train wouldn't depart for Provo until a second mine run returned in the late afternoon. We made a few photographs of Utah's locomotives at the Martin engine house and. . . .well, I'd like to tell you that we made some incredible photographs later that afternoon, but photo coverage for the day just ends. I can't recall how the rest of the day was spent. Probably smoking crack and spending our hard-earned $$$ on hookers and whiskey. Or taking a tour of Temple Square. But I haven't the slightest clue.

One of the "blues" awaits its call on the Martin Helper. . . after dark, unfortunately!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

1981 Trip, Day 3: Soldier Summit and some Utah Alcos

Employees called it the "FART". . .

June 8, 1981: We spent the night in sleeping bags near the east switch at Gilluly, the roar of trains blasting up the 2.2% grade waking us up repeatedly. With sunrise, we headed up to the top of 7440' Soldier Summit to catch the first rays of the sun on two eastbound trains, junk manifest #136 with 3 big SD's powering 54 cars over the summit at 7am, followed a half hour later by #134, the empty Ford Auto Return Trip train out of Milpitas, California, off the Western Pacific at Roper, behind three GP40/-2's on 41 autoracks and 85' high cube boxcars. We followed this train down Price River canyon until it met an upgrade manifest train, #195 with a catalogue of Rio Grande's turbocharged B-B power: GP30s, 35's and 40's. We followed this train over the top to Gilluly, where it met another eastbound. It was a busy morning on the Mainline Through The Rockies, and Mark the Rio Grande Fan was bouncing off the walls, he was so happy.

Ripping off the classic "Donald Sims Gilluly shot". . .

We then drove up the access road to the "middle" horseshoe curve at Gilluly (there's three of em: the lower one, under US Highway 6; the middle one, where the railroad turns back eastward; and upper one at the old location of Scenic, which dips into Davidson Canyon) and waited for the "classic" shot of the head-end wrapped around the curve with the power in the foreground and train in the background. We were soon blessed by train #747, four tunnel motors on 87 loads of coal. Right behind him was the hottest train on the railroad, #101, the Chicago-Oakland trailer train for the Southern Pacific at Ogden, and behind him, one more westbound led by an SD45 on a long manifest train.

At Martin: The 'greys' switch their train. . .

Satisfied with what we had, we headed down the other side of the Summit, stopping off in Martin, just outside Helper, where Utah Railway's small yard is carved into the hillside. A set of four grey RSD4's and 5's were assembling their train of empties bound for loading down the shortline's rugged branch to mines at Wattis, Hiawatha and Mohrland. We were hungry, so we grabbed a quick lunch outside of Helper (photographing a Rio Grande coal empty through the window of the diner) and finished in time to catch the afternoon Utah train blasting out of the railroad's only tunnel leaving Martin yard at 2:45pm. Then it was time to get back to the Grande.

Four RSD's blast out of Martin on a mine run. . .

The desert lay ahead. I'd ridden the Rio Grande Zephyr between Grand Junction and Helper, but had never driven this stretch of the railroad. This was all new territory for Mark, and it might as well had been for me, too. Our No. 1 priority was photographing the westbound Rio Grande Zephyr with its classic F9's and round-end observation car. I had an idea for a photo between Grassy and Cedar, a ways east of Helper, so we drove out with plenty of time ahead of him and waited. And waited. And waited some more. Finally, the "Silver Lady" appeared. What a disappointment! The train had its usual four dome cars, all right, but the round-end observation car "Silver Sky" apparently was in the shops at Denver, subbed by the less-desirable blunt-end lounge "Silver Shop." Insult to injury was the lead locomotive: F9A 5771 was also bad-ordered, and Burnham added GP40-2 3103 in its place. Our enthusiasm for this bastardized train showed in our photographic efforts, which sucked.

This shot of the RGZ really sucked. . .
. . .but we made up for it with the shot of #187!

We heard on our scanner of a following westbound, and decided to blow off the RGZ for more great freight action. We bagged a great shot of westbound #187, manifest and trailers, above Grassy siding, 2 GP40-2's on 28 cars against a wonderful Utah desert backdrop. We followed him back to Helper, photographing train #146 departing town with seven clean locomotive in great afternoon light.

#146 leaves Helper in perfect light. . .

Price Canyon was in shadows, but the lowering sun created a wonderful "glint alley" of high contrast, golden backlighting above Kyune, where we photographed #187 one more time (with a single-unit helper shoving on the rear). The 187 had run around a loaded coal train on the two-main track CTC, and soon came the train of the day: 84-cars of coal out of Carbondale, Colorado for Geneva Steel, with four SD40T-2's up front, and a six unit helper (2 tunnel motors 3 GP40s and an SD45) cut in 60 deep. A silhouette of the train's caboose against the deep blue sky at dusk at the Summit was a great way to end the day. I'm sure we must've had huge smiles on our faces and celebrated the day's good fortune. But how we ended the night or where we slept is a detail lost in 26 years of other road trips.

Up through Kyune comes the Geneva coal loads. . .

84 loads with six motors cut in 60 deep. . .

and a proper Rio Grande caboose on the rear!

Sunset on Soldier Summit. What a great day of trains!

Friday, May 25, 2007

Movie Must-See: The Queen

God Save this woman.

Check this film out, by all means: "The Queen," director Steven Frears' ("Dangerous Liasons") docudrama of the tension that developed between new British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Royal Family following the death of Princess Diana in 1987.

Blair had just been elected PM, promising a "modernization" of England; to those in the Royal Family, this was seen as another attempt to marginalize the monarchy. Diana's death in a Paris traffic accident becomes the jumping off point to examine the "new England" of Blair's generation with the old, stiff-upper-lip era embodied by Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Phillip and the Queen Mother.

The Royals, who never much cared for Diana (Princess Margaret reportedly said she was "more irritating dead than alive"), aren't shedding too many tears over her death; the Queen balks at Prince Charles' request to use one of the Royals' jets to fly to Paris in the immediate confusing moments following the accident, suggesting Charles book a commercial flight instead to save face with the public, critical of the huge sums of money to support the Monarchy. Days pass following Diana's death, and the public outpouring of grief is unprecedented; flowers from well-wishers are making it difficult for the honor guard to make their ritualistic change outside Buckingham Palace. Blair, attuned to modern British society, knows Diana's death to be a huge deal, a fact lost on the Royal Family. Strangely, no public statement or show of sympathy is forthcoming from Royal Family. They're holed up in their Scottish castle at Balmoral, knitting, watching the tele, walking their dogs and hunting, not wanting their vacation interrupted by what they feel is a private affiar--and no longer a matter to concern the Monarchy, anyway, since Diana is no longer an "HRH." "I think the less attention we draw to it, the better," she sniffs.

While committed to modernizing England, Blair sees the value of retaining the Monarchy for the psyche of the British; he sees the aloofness of the Royals regarding Diana's death as particularly exasperating, further proof that they are out of touch with modern England. Prince Phillip huffs that a planned public funeral for Diana will feature--rather than Lords and Members of Parliment--movie actors, clothing designers and homosexual singers, for God's sake! The Queen repeatedly rebuffs Blair's suggestions to make a public appearance and statement about Diana's death, finally capitulating when she realizes that saying nothing may do lasting damage to a Monarchy already seen by many as an anachronism. She comes to this decision, it seems, after encountering a stately big buck deer while alone in the Balmoral wilderness. The animal becomes a metaphor for the monarchy and its handling of Diana's death when it appears in a later scene.

The screenplay by Peter Morgan ("Last King of Scotland")is first rate, as are the actors, including James Cromwell as a prickly Prince Phillip and Michael Sheen as Blair, who's made a career in the U.K. with his uncanny resemblance of the Labor Party PM. Helen Mirren won the Best Actress Oscar for her understated portrayal of Queen Elizabeth, bringing life and humor to a character known mostly by her untouchable public persona.

It's out on DVD as we speak.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

1981 Trip, Day 2: Ogden, SLC and Provo

Check out the funky black numbers on the 412 at Ogden!

June 7, 1981: After twenty six years, the details are a little fuzzy, but I think Marc and I spend the night on the ground at the rest stop near the mouth of Weber Canyon, east of Ogden. What a drive that must've been, straight through from Seattle in a day. But, we were young then, and there might have been artifical stimulants involved. Morning was cloudy; this day we'd visit the three largest cities in Utah, Ogden, Salt Lake City, and Provo.

A classic hack at Ogden Transfer. . .

We drove through the UP, SP and Rio Grande facilities in Ogden, old hat from me, having lived there just a few years prior, but for Mark it was all new. UP still switched Riverdale Yard with SD24's, one of which, 412, was wearing the short-lived black numbers on its cab. Classic Rio Grande gold and silver caboose 01490 was at Transfer yard along with GP40-2s.

Interesting power in storage at Salt Lake. . .

Then it was on to Salt Lake City, where we discovered the recession that killed off the Alcos and F-units on our hometown BN in Seattle had also laid waste to UP's GP30B's, U30C's and Centennials, examples of which were in storage near the Salt Lake depot. We then made a quick blitz of Rio Grande's Roper Yard, long considered "hot" with railroad bulls. We scored a few of the freshly-rebuilt Morrison-Knudsen Western Pacific GP35's in "new image" paint as well as more Rio Grande cabooses and a GP9.

Newly-rebuilt WP GP35's face to face at Roper. . .

Old EMD's earn their keep for Rio Grande at Roper. . .

Provo, the final city of the day, was quiet except for former C&O RSD12 600, originally purchased for use in the West Virginia coal fields, still shuffling black diamonds as Utah Railway's yard switcher. Mark, a hard-core Rio Grande-or-Nothing modeler, made an exception in photographing a non-Rio Grande, non-EMD locomotve, something that he was reminded of for many years afterward.

A long way from West Virginia: ex-C&O RSD12 at Provo. . .

Ya Can't Get Away From Em: UP SD's on Utah empty. . .

Our enthusiasm for photographing Utah Railway coal trains on the Rio Grande mainline was tempered by the sight of four UP units--instead of ex-Santa Fe "Alligator" RSD15's-- leading an empty up Soldier Summit; this recently had become standard practice, their fleet of original RSD4/5's used on mine runs, the second-hand RSD12's and RSD15's toiling as helpers on the mainline out of Martin. Sufficently uninspired to chase this train up the canyon, we returned to Provo, visited the city's only hobby shop, then photographed two pairs of rare TR5's used by UP on transfer drags to US Steel's Geneva works.

Rare on anyone's railroad: TR5s at Provo. . .

Coal empty on Provo Subdivision. . .

By then, the skies were clouding up, and the daily coal load off the Utah was ready to depart Provo for a trip down UP's Provo Subdivision. The four SD40-2's for power were hardly inspring, either, but Wasatch range made for a nice backdrop and the chase south gave us an opportunity to explore this seldom-photographed portion of the UP, years before CTC and heavy export coal and IPP coal traffic raised its profile. We ended the evening driving to Soldier Summit, where we camped trackside.

The Big 1981 Road Trip: Day 1

New GP39-2 "Wagon Killers" leave Pasco. . .

It felt so good to post that 26 year-old photo from Wymore yesterday that I got inspired to dig into the Logan boxes and share images from a road trip from Seattle to the Missouri River I took in June 1981.

I convinced friend Marc Hills to come along with me, to see such curiosities as the Rio Grande, Utah Railway, US Steel F-units and Burlington Northern U-Boats. I was 21 years old; Marc was probably only a couple of years older. This was my first big photographic trip halfway across the country by automobile. To put the date in perspective, Ronald Reagan was in his first six months of his presidency, gas prices were among the highest ever, I was attending community college and working full-time at the Journal-American newspaper in Bellevue. The Milwaukee Road had shut down the year before, and a recession had sidelined most of BN's F-units and Alcos in the Pacific Northwest; they'd all be stored by the end of summer.

GP30's bracket CPRail SD's on Canadian run-through. . .

DAY ONE: June 6, 1981: We loaded up my brown Toyota Corolla hatchback for a dawn departure, stopping near Kittitas to photograph the remains of the freshly-salvaged Milwaukee Road: stacks of ties were everywhere, and block signals were tipped over, as if vanquished warriors who'd given up. By noon, we were in Pasco, which was infinately less interesting without those Fs and Alcos of years past, but we did manage to photograph train #393 near Hover with two-month-old GP39-2's 2724/2700--the locomotives that had killed off the F-units and Alcos on the coast. Then, it was over to the Snake River to follow the UP "Washy" line to Hinkle yard, where we lucked onto train #2-120 (scheduled in the timetable!) with snowplow-equipped GP30's 800 and 802 bracketing three CPRail "Candystripe" SD40-2's on the train bound for Eastport (one of the early examples of runthrough power between Canada and the US) near Juniper.

Not what, but how many: New SD40-2 in the Blues. . .

Finally, eastward, over the Blue Mountains, where we bagged a westbound UP freight heavy with woodchips with four SD40-2's up front. . .standard power of the era. Noteworthy was the 3806 leading the train, the third-to-last of nearly 700 SD40-2's acquired by the railroad. Check out the yellow handrails! DD35s and Centennials from years before had vanished due to retirement and recession storage, so there was little other reason to tarry on the trip east to Utah. We put it in hyper drive and headed east through the darkness. . .

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

1981: High Gas Prices and BN U-Boats!

American Steel: Wymore, Nebraska, summer 1981

Speaking of high gas prices, prior to the current price run-up, the historical high price for gasoline in the United States occurred in the summer of 1981. Where was I in the summer of 1981? Halfway across the country from my Seattle home, off on a wild-hair vacation to photograph, among other things, US Steel F-units in Wyoming, Utah Railway Alcos in Utah, and the last of Burlington Northern's U25B's in the midwest.

So, somehow, I ended up one morning in Wymore, Nebraska, a couple dozen miles south of Lincoln. Wymore was once a division point on the Chicago Burlington & Quincy railroad, the crossroads of a number of branchlines and secondary mainlines connecting McCook, St. Joseph, Lincoln and Superior. A number of local trains still operated out of here, and the railroad maintained a pretty extensive crew base here as well. This being 1981, local trains operated with a yummy mix of SD9's, GP7s and 9's, and a smorgasborg of BN's four-axle General Electric "U-Boats"--U25B, U28B, U30B. All these GE's had one foot in the grave at this point, but I was most interested in the U25B's, so east from Colorado we drove with a computer print-out from the Denver diesel shop pinpointing the location of the half-dozen or so U25B's still operating (1981 was a recession year, and many of these expensive to operate diesels had already been stored or stricken from the roster). We bagged a couple of 'em south of Lincoln the next day, dodging tornado warnings on the radio (crazy stuff for a Northwesterner), and eventually would up in Wymore, where GP7's and a U28B were departing on one local while U25B 5402, an ex-Great Northern unit, was being readied at the roundhouse for a run to St. Joseph. I chased the train to St. Joseph, clueless in navigating the backroads east of Wymore. I even got high centered on a farm road near the tracks, and the crew stopped the train and push me back onto the shoulder of the road, leaving me in their dust. I barely got ahead of them again before they arrived in St. Joseph.

But my favorite shot from the day was outside the Wymore roundhouse, where an early 1960's General Electric locomotive traded war stories with other relics from the same era: a Chevy, and Oldsmobile, and a Ford. Sho' nuff, Everything Turns To Shit: everything in this photograph is now gone, including the railroad.

Gas Bag

WTF, indeed!

Today I paid $2.99 for a gallon of gasoline.

And lately, that's been a bargain. Instead of filling my tank each time I run out, I instead take out a small signature loan. I once marveled that it took $30 to fill my tank, but that's just half a tank these days.

But you won't find me bitching and moaning about these prices, despite my not liking it. I feel that high gasoline prices are long overdue in this country. What galls me is that the prices aren't the result of government taxing, but due to the "free market." Which is probably the case.

I drive an SUV, so I have no room to point fingers at others who do and then complain that these prices are crimping their lifestyles. I don't drive much, as it is, mostly from home to work and back (7 miles) five days a week and otherwise mostly within a 15 mile radius of our home for shopping and other errands.

Actually, that $2.99 I paid today was cause for celebration, as I've seen prices in the past week as high as $3.19 for a gallon of regular, so I'm getting a helluva deal. But so are the rest of us in the United States. Don't believe me? Check out this Christian Science Monitor article and from CNN Money from a couple of years ago where the average cost of a gallon of gasoline in Amsterdam was $7. I bet you don't find any gas-guzzlers over there! The government taxes a huge amount of the cost of European gasoline to fund transportation projects, something governments are loathe to do so in the United States. The high taxes temper demand for fuel, lowering its market value. This could be done in the US--higher taxes on gasoline at the pump, resulting in similar prices for fuel, driving down demand, and providing needed $$ for infrastructure repairs, new road construction, and, just maybe, additional public transportation systems.

In the middle east and in several African and South American countries (namely Venezuela, home to madman Hugo Chavez), governments highly subsidize the oil industry, resulting in amazingly low prices for consumers.

It's no secret that the US is way behind the rest of the "civilized" world in mass transportation. Only on the east coast do transit systems begin to equal those found in Europe, largely because only on the east coast do population densities support such systems. Across the rest of the country, much of the settlement and population of areas occurred after the time of railroads and early automobiles, allowing for a more dispersed populace. Even in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, from where I blog, it's nearly 100 miles from one corner of the metropolitian area to the other. . .with such a large population, so dispersed, commuting to such a wide range of locations, it's really tough for mass transit to take hold. I don't have the answers, but I DO know it takes money, and private money isn't going to do it.

I'm sure that $2.99 I paid a gallon today--and gas prices in the US, adjusted for inflation, are at their highest rate EVER--will someday look as quaint as the 19.9 cents a gallon my dad paid for a gallon of Ethyl when I was a kid (and got the windshield cleaned, green stamps, and a Sinclair Dino drinking glass as well). I don't see prices abating anytime soon, if at all. There's more pressure for what oil the world does produce, and with India, Pakistan, and China modernizing and become bigger consumers for oil, there will be more customers and less oil in the future. I'm not naieve about our chances of weaning our oil dependency, either. Wind and solar nuclear and ethanol can only go so far--even if we didn't burn a gallon of oil in our vehicles, it would still be needed for a thousand other uses in an industrial society.

The world is undergoing a substantial change, as drastic as the change that accompanied the iron age or the industrial age. Wars will be fought in the future with our rivals for that black gold; who can blame the US government for attempting to become part of the middle eastern landscape ahead of our other oil-consuming rivals.

In the meantime, I'm waiting for that low-cost Iraqi oil to make our lives a living paradise in the United States. That's after the flow of oil pays for the war and reconstruction, of course.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

A Monkey with a Camera. . . .

Milwaukee Road helpers, L St. bridge,
Tacoma, Washington, April 1978

I suppose everyone has heard the old adage that if you put a million monkeys in front of a million typewiters, eventually one of them will write an award-winning novel.

Lately I've been making high-resolution scans of many of my favorite photographs, largely Kodachrome slides dating back to the late 1970s. What a nostalgia trip that has been! Back then, I was just a teenager, obsessed with photography and railroads and looking to make my mark on the world of railroad journalism with my efforts. Definately a kid with far more ambition than talent, eventually I learned to take a good railroad photograph now and then, and on very rare occasions, this teenaged monkey might just happen to hit the keys in the correct manner and come out with a winner.

Here's one of 'em.

It was pouring rain in Tacoma, Washington on a spring afternoon of 1978, and I was following the Milwaukee Road's Tacoma Hill helper locomotives up and down the steep grade south of town, shooting mostly black and white for what would eventually become an article in TRAINS magazine (one of my first, IIRC). Somehow, I decided to put Kodachrome 25 in the camera, and despite the miserable weather, the sun dropped under the clouds at just the right time, bathing the scene in the most wonderful, sun-drenched, saturated light. In the past 30 years, there have been few times I'd been so lucky and had such amazing light. But as an 18-year-old, I suppose I was oblivious to how beautiful the scene was, and in retrospect, how fleeting the future of the Milwaukee Road was as well.

Life rarely gives you the chance for a "do over," so once in a while, it's nice to have gotten something right the first time. . . even by accident. And that will make any monkey pretty happy.

A Minor League Town

Just got back from a thrilling outing to the Fort Worth Cats, our little town's minor league baseball team. These guys aren't affiliated with no one, and their league, the American Association, is somewhere between A and AA in quality of play, often a stop on the way up or down for those who dream of some day making the big leagues. I'm sure the pay is crappy, and the prospects for having a major league scout see you play is pretty slim.

Still, they're our own beloved Cats, playing at a little gem of a ball park, LaGrave Field, the location of which on the north fringe of downtown Fort Worth was a ballpark from 1925-1964, largely a part of the Brooklyn (and later LA) Dodgers farm organization. After that, the place just kinda fell into disrepair until the site was revived and restored in 2002. It's a great place to see a game, and the place expands, little by little, each year. And, you can purchase actual CRACKERJACK there. . .something you can't in the Ballpark. . er, Ameriques--er, The Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

Last night's game was against the Lincoln Salt Dogs. Don't know what a salt dog is, but the team's website apparently does. I guess I didn't know how important salt was to the people of Lincoln before now. Anyway, we had the kids along, and they were a bundle of restless energy, and somehow Lincoln got up 5-1 by the late innings of the game. Thankfully, LaGrave has a kid's area (big sandbox/swing set) we let the kids play at for a bit; M watched the boys and I watched the 9th inning as the Cats amazingly rallied back and tied the game--poor coaching on the part of the Sand Dogs opened the door for the Cats. With runners at 2nd and 3rd with one out, Lincoln elected to pitch to Terrence "T-Dog" Green, who singled in two runs to tie the game. Shoulda walked him to load the bases and set up a double play.

We had to leave at that point--sleepy kids--and by the time we got into the car and fired up AM1640 for the Play By Play, Lincoln got a run in top of the 10th to lead 6-5. Alas, the Cats, with runners at 1st and 2nd in the bottom of the 10th executed a double steal on a 3-2 pitch, moving the runners to 2nd and 3rd; the next batter up hit in the game-winner. Quite a finish.

The last Cats game we went to last year finished much the same way. Given the nose-dive our "professional" Texas Rangers are in, I much prefer this low-rent ball played in our own little hometown. And it is considerably cheaper for a famly of four to attend as well.

I've got one beef, though: Since when did minor-minor-minor league players, unsigned to a major league contract, deserve their own "theme music" when coming up to bat? And what's with the nickname, Mr. Terrence "T-Dog" Green? Sure, your numbers are nice, but until you're in the "show", shouldn't humility keep one from slapping a nickname on themselves?

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The System Works

A quick comment about the horrific F5 tornado that hit little Greenburg, Kansas last week, killing 11.

This was the first F5 tornado in the United States since the Oklahoma City storm of May 3, 1999, which I witnessed first hand while chasing that storm. It is truly a testament to the effectiveness of the warning system developed and refined over the years by the National Weather Service, local communities, and media outlets that only 11 were killed in this town of 1,600.

This storm didn't "just appear." It wasn't out of the blue, out of nowhere, a surprise. The storm had been warned for nearly 40 minutes as it made its way northeast from the Sitka area. There was ample time to take tornado precautions, be that fleeing the community entirely or taking cover from the storm.

Hats off to the professionals at the NWS office in Dodge City that were issuing the warnings, and in particular to Mike Umsheid, who was interpreting the radar that afternoon and took it upon himself to issue an urgent "Tornado Emergency" message as the storm bore down on Greenburg. This is his story. It is estimated that the tornado was nearly 2 miles wide and took between 15 and 20 minutes to blend this once beautiful little town on the Kansas prairie into a mulch of lumber, automobiles, aluminum siding and fiberglass insulation. Twenty Minutes! Can you imagine being trapped inside such a beast?

I can't imagine how different the death toll had been had this storm hit the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Sure, the population density is quite a bit higher, but folks here are often oblivious to severe weather until it is well upon them. The forecasters can warn of impending bad weather for days, but it still catches many by surprise. . . they're usually just too busy in their lives to pay attention.

Contrast Greenburg with the much smaller tornado that hit Eagle Pass, TX a few weeks earlier--in this case, the town had no tornado siren, no access to NOAA weather radio, and no local media outlet to disseminate the tornado warnings. A much smaller tornado--and seven died (three more died across the border in Piedras Niegras, Mexico).

Not much--nothing, really--is left of Greenburg. The business district is all gone, the neat little streets with big trees, the town's famous large meteorite--all gone. But nearly all of its citizens are still around, and hopefully, they'll rebuild the place. But it won't be the same for a long, long time--not my lifetime, certainly--and I wouldn't blame them for making new lives elsewhere. But something tells me these people are tough and will bounce back. I'd guess there's pioneer blood in most of em, at least a lineage that can go back to the hard-luck years of the Dust Bowl, and they look at this as a setback to their lives but not an end to it.

God bless the people of Greenburg, Kansas.

How To Succeed In T-Ball

Ya can't expect the kids to pay attention at all times. . . .

The spring season of son E's T-ball league is just about done. This is the third year he's played t-ball, starting out in a summer YMCA league that stressed touchy-feely goodness above everything else (in 100 degree heat--never again), then a fall "developmental league" stint in our local "Youth Baseball Association," followed by this spring's full-blown schedule in the same organization where scores and statistics are maintained and even posted on their website for all to see. Folks are very intent about baseball in these parts.

I never fancied myself as an athlete, and don't wish to impose what I missed out on to my kids. I hope I never become one of those parents who yell at the coaches and wrap myself too tightly into the notion that perhaps this t-ball league is the springboard to a future Major League career for my sons. I played two years of pee wee football when I was a kid, and looking back 35 years I remember mostly the stomach crunches, the endless laps around the field, and what assholes the coaches were. And what an inept player I was. Even back then, my expectations were being dashed, setting me up for an early realization of what life really will be like. Who says sports doesn't prepare one for adulthood?

So, now we're into three cycles of t-ball. The organization E is playing in is pretty well established, has a big complex of fields and a regimented organizational structure with bylaws, officer elections, and a fundraising structure. Never being one to enjoy the spectacle of parents whoring candy bars and cases of soda to coworkers in order to raise money for their kid's sporting leagues, I opted to just pay an addtional $25 bucks up front to be done with any expectations that I'd make an effort to participate in a fund-raiser (teams that don't contribute 100% to the fundraising are docked victories, essentially punishing the kids and coaches for the failures of the parents).

One has to get comfortable. .

E's team is a make-up first-year team, with mostly first-time players and coaches (when we registered E and I mentioned I'd be interested in "helping out" the coaches if needed, I was called by the league the next day and asked if I wanted to coach. HA! I wouldn't dare subject myself on these kids. . . I'd ruin them for life--see:Walter Mattheau in "Bad News Bears."). The established teams and coaches from previous years "draft" the players they want; the new teams are filled out with first-timers to the league. Thus, E's team, the Tigers, has a first-time coach and lots of newbie kids. It took E's team a while to get their stride. As a first-year team, the Tigers got last choice on where to practice, so instead of using the nice groomed fields of the Organization's complex, we're practicing on bumpy, weedy school lot. And coach was still feeling his way around how to get this bunch of 12 4- to 6-year-olds interested, engaged, and motivated to learn this wonderful game of baseball.

Now, baseball is mostly a mental game. Concentration is key--there's long moments with nothing going on and then a few seconds of furious activity. Positioning defense, the strategy involved with baserunning--this raises the game head-and-shoulders above games like Soccer, where there is constant activity. . . and unfortunately makes Baseball a much harder game to learn than soccer, which is why soccer is idea for little kids: just roll a ball onto a field and watch em all chase after it. With t-ball, the kids out in the field pass the time until the ball comes rolling by them, kicking dirt, turning cartwheels, picking dandelions. . . But baseball requires thinking, and most kids t-ball age just don't "get it." Thus, fielded balls are wildly chucked towards bases where no baseman exists; kids watch the ball roll right by them with curiosity instead of fielding it; and once the ball has passed their location, they're on to the next thing, regardless that play is still on-going and the ball is coming back to them to try to put out the runner.

After 11 games, the Tigers are sitting at 3-7-1. There's one undefeated team at 11-0; there's two hapless teams at 0-12 (life must suck down there in the Cellar). But the kids are definately having fun, and after two practices and sometimes three games a week, they're starting to catch on. We lost a game last weekend to a 9-0 team by only two runs; we then came back and beat the 0-9 Royals 20-7.

I'm no baseball expert, but I have detected a few trends in t-ball that are necessary to win games:

1. You HAVE TO make outs. This is most important. Teams are limited to 5 runs an inning, and with this level of play, it is often a given that each team will score 5 runs each time up. The only way you can win is to get three outs and hold your opponent to less than five runs. That 11-0 team, for instance, has scored 185 runs and allowed only 104; the 0-12 team has scored 109 and allowed 190.

2. You HAVE TO have a good infield-to-first-base combination. This can be a pitcher or charging third-baseman who can get the little dribbler hit (most common) and wing the ball to first base. This is the easiest way to get outs, and the team who can come up with a couple of good fielders-throwers-catcher combinations will get the outs, and thus, the win. (Usually the first baseman and/or third baseman is the coach's son, and probably gets plenty of practice outside of usual team practices)

3. You MUST HAVE enough players to play! It isn't enough to merely forefit a game by not having at least 8 players; if you have only 8 players, you get an automatic "out" every nine at bats. If you're playing a team with a modicum of success in making outs, you're going to be sunk.

4. MAKE THE PLAY AT HOME. Best way to get the outs is to get the out against a runner going home. That way, you get the out and eliminate the run. This requires the fielders to know what's going on. So a third baseman or pitcher who is cognizant of what is going on and can charge the hit and make the play at home will make a big difference in a game.

CYNICAL REALIST SPEAKING: If a coach can emphasize these four things in creating his team, he'll be on his way to having a winner. That means recognizing the physical as well as mental skills of his team. As in life, there's a "lifeboat theory" at work--put your effort into those who can help the team, and let the others just exist on the perhiphery. Though everyone is supposed to get a chance to play every position throughout the year, the wiley coach who can best use his fielders and those who can catch to make the outs will do best. The kids who don't pay much attention or whose heads aren't in the game can be relegated to the outfield where they will do the least amount of damage.

Hell yeah, the game is all about letting the kids have fun. But adults want to win, dammit, and for the kids at this age, they really could give a shit about winning; might as well put em out there let them have fun while us failed jocks sit there in the stands, yelling "Throw it to THIRD, Jeremy!!!!! THIRD!!!" and put the stress on ourselves.

One more weekend, and it'll be over. . . .and we can look forward to doing it again next year (when E moves up into "coach pitch" and likely a whole new set of winning strategies)

E fields the ball in practice. . . .