Skip navigation

Category Archives: mental meanderings

A few years ago I was in San Antonio for a festival and, as I usually do, I set up my tent at the KOA on the east side and caught the bus into town. (I got into the habit of riding Via when I was in college there; it’s still one of my personal touchpoints for what a public transit system ought to be.)

And I noticed something, and as I pulled out my camera thinking it was a special bus, the other passengers and the driver all told me that no, this is standard – the front row left seat of all the Via buses have this.

61 years ago today… and although it definitely feels as though we’re moving backwards, we’re still not quite at this level again. Yet.

61 years ago.

If you look at the last post, I lost a good friend earlier this month.

Well, I didn’t “lose” him exactly, we know exactly what happened… but talking with him is a little harder now, and I’m spending a fair bit of time trying to remember and write down what I can of the Pittman stories I heard or was part of, because what’s left is all there will be, and remembering them seems important. I just wish I’d written a great many of them down when they happened.

(Lesson for those of you with crazy friends – take good notes. You’ll want them later. I’m SURE there was a great story here, but while it _was_ a night to remember, well… I don’t.)

Anyway I spent a couple of days driving out to Alpine for the official “sending friends on ahead” rituals, which, in theory at least, make the situation just a bit more bearable. I suppose it was a “good” trip, for some value of the term. Andromeda the 4runner purred like a kitten all the way, we didn’t run out of gas, water, or food, and although the air mattress did blow out the truck’s quite comfortable to sleep in.

But, all things considered, I wasn’t really that much “there” in terms of looking for photographs. A quick stop at the historical site and Texas Tourism Office at Langtry to soak up a bit of myth and a BUNCH of brochures and maps and travel literature ended with me holding down the bar at Judge Roy Bean’s Jersey Lilly Saloon…

(I’m not big on writing saloon reviews, but the service WAS somewhat slow. This might be because the saloonkeeper has been dead for over a century now. I wouldn’t complain, though… I’m not entirely sure just how dead he might be, and even as a ghost the judge is probably still a man to reckon with….)

Not too many miles later I got into memory-land and I’m going to quietly draw the curtain on the next day or two…

But Davis Mountains is a pretty state park and the people there are both friendly and efficient. I highly recommend reservations, especially on pleasant weekends. There was a sign on the door: “We’re Full. All campsites in the park are taken or reserved. If you don’t have a reservation you’re probably out of luck.” I HAD a reservation and still wound up with a “go to the end of the world and take the second left” campsite, not that I minded. There were signs posted that the park now features Brown Bears, Mountain Lions, and Javelina, but the only dangerous wildlife I encountered was a troop of New Mexico Boy Scouts one campsite over. Good kids, mostly.

I’ll have to go back and wander, because I never even got the cameras out of the truck. I wasn’t feeling it and I wasn’t on anyone’s clock, so I took a couple of days off, mentally.

But after the memorial service and the scattering, I started pulling myself back into the here and now of things…

This is sunset, the night of the scattering, from more or less Pittman’s Point, which isn’t on the map but IS on SH 170 just west of Terlingua, on the west edge of Long Draw…

I curled up in the driver’s seat and slept there that night, owing largely to the late hour, an unwillingness to shell out a lot for a hotel, and a weird vibe from the campsite I’d reserved. The next morning at first light I headed east into the park, stopping for a shot of the entry sign…

and a conveniently placed tree…

and a few mountains.

After which I stopped for water and book shopping at Panther Junction, the Big Bend park headquarters. It’s one of the best places to find information about the history and geology of the park, although Jean Hardy-Pittman’s Front Street Books in Alpine has a decent selection too. (Full Disclosure: The “Pittman” on the end isn’t coincidental. Jean was Blair’s wife and, arguably, better half for the last several years of his life, and she DOES run a good bookshop.)

There were several books in the store that looked worth reading, but given that I’m prepping for a major move the idea of buying more books was a bit unappetizing, so… I filled the water bottles (Desert safety protocol 1: NEVER pass up the chance to refill your water supplies… ) and headed north.

A few miles up the road from PJ is an exhibit called “Fossil Bone,” dealing with the geology and paleontology of the Chihuahua desert, which long before any of us existed was covered with water and inhabited by several kinds of interesting critters, at least one of which was the size of a flying Greyhound bus. They don’t come around much any more, though. Anyway there’s a whole new exhibit being put in now, but it won’t be ready for several weeks or months yet. So with no exhibit I wandered around, looking at the sandstone formations in the area, and before long I drifted into an Irwin Allen-esque moonscape world where everything slipped out of scale and I could almost see the little models climbing the cliffs and fighting off invaders and dinosaurs and spaceships…

(I probably spent too much of my youth in my own and other writer-types’ imaginary worlds, but they knew me there and I had friends…)

By then it was getting on towards 1100 and starting to warm up. I’ve been in Big Bend when it gets several steps past warm, and as I don’t generally like hot weather, I didn’t want to wait for that, so… time to leave. I made one more stop for a nice tall yucca, still in bloom for some reason…

and then I put my foot down and headed back to Houston, because no matter how much I love wandering the back parts of the planet, I’m still stuck needing to make a living. For now.

In that connection, please read the Obligatory Commercial Note.

(Obligatory Commercial Note: Prints of most of the pictures here (in fact, most of the pictures on this blog) are or can become available for purchase through my space at Fine Art America. If it should happen that you’re more interested in photos printed on shirts, tote bags, pillows, shower curtains, or other strange kitschy stuff, they do that too… and some of the stuff (by no means all, but some – usually I don’t judge but even pigs gots to have SOME standards) is available in that format too. If you’re looking for something and it’s not on the FAA site, drop me an email. Yes, it’s a commercial enterprise, but (a) they take plastic, which I’m not otherwise able to do, and (b) I, and therefore you, get _far_ better prices than I can offer if I have to do all the back end stuff myself. Thank you for your patronage. Yes, I’m trying to turn some of this into a money-making enterprise, or at least pay FAA’s far-from-exorbitant fees.)

Discovered about midnight last night that for some reason the blog wasn’t coming up. I’d been backing up the archives a couple of days ago so I know it wasn’t down long, but nonetheless it WAS down. I don’t know what happened or why, but when I contacted the tech support guys I heard bullwhips and vacuum cleaners in the background and a couple of fading screams that sounded like dustbunnies dying horribly, and the blog came back up again. So here we are.

I got nothing.

But, by way of apology, one of my neighbors has a kitten.

His name is Francisco and he’s very very cute.


I must get back to copying the archives. Only about three more years to go.

Been camped in Mom’s back room for a few days doing the stuff you do when your elders get elderlier, and woke up this morning to find Fort Worth gone all winter wonderland and whatnot….





That’s not actually snow, it’s ice – we had a sleet storm come in about weird o’clock. Something over a hundred crashes this morning around the area, and my truck has neither studs nor chains. Looks like I’m here for a while.

I have food, coffee, running water, and crossword puzzles to work with Mom (one of our long-term hobbies). And intermittent Net access. All life is suffering.


Well, except when it’s not.

Last week I was wandering around at Bastrop, looking at fire damage and getting depressed. Then I found these guys, and they reminded me that there’s nothing to be sad about. It’s just the Wheel turning.

Sometimes you’re on top of the world, and sometimes things just run right over you…. but the Wheel keeps turning, either way.

Let’s hope 2015 has more up than down.

So the batteries are charging and we’ve got a bunch of blank cards; it’s a new year and time to hit the road.

Little-known and totally useless aviation factoid: I have a great liking for the old Douglas DC-3, the “Gooney Bird.” (I actually have a great liking for almost ANY old machine that just keeps going and going and going, year in and year out, far past any reasonable life expectancy. But even in that class, the old Douglas masterpieces stand out.) So when I read that the Bluebonnet Belle, a gorgeously restored and maintained 1944-vintage C-47 which belongs to the Highland Lakes Squadron of the CAF, was scheduled to make an appearance at the 1940 Air Terminal Museum down at Hobby Airport, I ditched my previous plan, “drink coffee and catch up on reading,” and headed down to see her. As with the majority of Gooneys, the Belle is designated “C-47” because she was built for the military. The “DC-3” (Douglas Commercial) is the civilian version (of which only a few were built before production was switched over to the war effort); it’s the same plane with a different badge.

Couple years ago the museum had offered a “quick hop in a C47” (which was actually a C-49, a slightly later variant) as a promotional deal at one of their monthly Wings & Wheels events, and I went for that like a cat on a mouse. Sadly, when I got to the airport it turned out that the weather between D-FW, where the plane was based, and Houston, where the riders were, was bad (hail and funnel clouds) and they’d had to cancel – the turbulence was making the CREW queasy and hail and tornadoes aren’t really good for vintage aircraft. So I was hoping they’d offer a similar deal yesterday, which I could have (barely) afforded. But that plane wasn’t the Belle and yesterday wasn’t a promo deal – the price for rides was up where it needs to be, and my inner adult said “you don’t have it to spare today.” (Meanwhile, of course, the inner child was screaming, turning blue, and banging his head on the floor, but believe it or not he doesn’t always win.)

Understand, I have no problem with a $200 fee, any more than I do with the price of a Leica. I simply can’t spare the money. Old aircraft are terrifically expensive to fly and maintain, and the CAF folks are mostly “ordinary folks” with ordinary incomes, many of them retired and with virtually NO incomes. And officially, the Belle costs almost $600 an hour to fly, just in gas and oil. Tires, other consumables, maintenance, and all the thousands of other things are extra.

These old radials shove a lot of oil out the exhaust in a hurry when you start them up. (They also have “new engines someday” on the “gotta do” list – at 180 grand for the pair. Ouch.)

So I settled for the ground tour, courtesy of John Long, who knows his C47s AND the Belle.

The Belle, in her current role as an educator, is fitted out in a unique pattern to show four of the major roles filled by the C-47 during the war. There’s a cargo section (bare floor with lots of tiedown points), a passenger section (coach class or less), a patient transport section (stretchers hung on the walls), and a paratroop section (hard metal seats along the sides).

(Patient Transport Configuration)

The Gooney Bird was basically the Swiss Army Knife of aircraft – does anything, anywhere, anytime. There was even an early fork off the predecessor DC-2 design which became the B-18 “Bolo” medium bomber. Those were used primarily as trainers, though some were used for offshore patrol and one is credited with sinking a German U-boat in the Caribbean during the early days of the war. (The things I learn doing this…)

C-47s were also used heavily for towing gliders and ferrying troops and cargo (including jeeps and field artillery!). Over in the Pacific, they were the backbone of the India-China route, the fabled “Burma Hump,” where they kept the war effort in China alive, and paid for it as they and their crews died by the hundreds.

Aside from learning historical stuff, the best part of the tour was being able to climb (yeah, there’s quite a bit of slant to the floor when she’s on the ground – old taildraggers are like that…) right up to the cockpit. Not quite so complex as the Space Shuttle, no, but there’s a family resemblance.

As fascinating as the wartime history of the DC-3 is, for me it’s much simpler: This is what an airplane should look like.



Happy 70th, Beautiful Belle.

A good museum never stops. There’s something else around every corner, behind every door. When you crawl out of one exhibit there’s another one right there waiting for you. You find yourself opening everything, peeking into every corner, reading every word to see what’s new and what’s next. Eventually, when they turn off the lights and push you out the front door, you’re not halfway to your transport before you’re fishing out a notebook and a pen, making a list of all the things you want to make sure not to miss on your next trip.

Space Center Houston is a good museum. I’ve just spent a couple of hours crawling up, down, over, under, and around their “Facing Mars” exhibit, taking pictures (not enough) and making notes (never enough…), and dealing in a very limited way with some of the questions involved in “should we go to Mars?” (I’ll get back to you on that one.)

Read More »

The note on the negative sleeve says 1967. My sister, very stylish and pretty in a white summer dress, and I, defiantly anti-stylish in a blue shirt (buttoned all the way up, thank you.) and black slacks, stand in front of a tipped-over Mercury Redstone rocket and an oddly shaped unmarked white cone with a shape that would later become very familiar – an early model of the Apollo capsule. I was six or seven years old – I still had hair. Mom or Grandpa would have made the picture. Probably Mom.

It’s been a while since I went to NASA.

Read More »

One of the wonderful things about my job is I never know quite what I’m going to learn from day to day, but almost every time I go out looking at an interesting story I learn something else odd, usually totally unrelated and almost always totally useless to me. But that’s half the fun of it. The other half is finding out, years down the road and without warning, that that strange thing I learned somewhere between idiocy and insanity is going to be worth its weight in several kinds of survival skills.

So in the middle of the San Jacinto Battle Reenactment, it turns out that today’s lesson was “how to make a baggywrinkle.”

Rachael Protas, who’s the Maritime Education / Museum Programs Coordinator for the Texas Seaport Museum (these are the Elissa folks, for them as don’t know…) demonstrates tying a “baggywrinkle.”

This lesson was quickly followed by lesson 2: “What in the name of all that’s unholy is a baggywrinkle?” and lesson 3: “Why would you want a baggywrinkle and what do you DO with it when you’ve got it?”

(Generic apology in advance: “Nautical” is a separate language from English, and it’s fiercely defended by those who speak it well. I don’t speak it at all, so when I get it wrong there’s no malice involved. If I blow it intolerably, drop me an email (or leave a note in the comments) and I’ll be more than happy to correct the post…)

Lesson 1 is the easy part. Lessons 2 and 3 aren’t much harder but they are sort of interesting, so we’ll get to them first. According to Rachael, a “baggywrinkle” is anti-chafing gear… It’s a strange fluffy thing you wrap around the mast stays (which in a ship like the Elissa are probably steel cable) where they come into contact with the face of a sail. See, if you don’t have baggywrinkles on your cable, the sail will press against the cable and vibrate, which will wear a thin spot in the fabric of the sail along the pressure line. That’s a bad thing because come a hard blow the sail might well tear or split at that weak spot. This does several things, possibly, and not one of them is good.

So, lesson 1. Rachael showed me that you make a baggywrinkle by cutting a worn line (recycling, we call this) into pieces a few inches to a foot long (Look in the box) and then splitting those down into the component strands of the rope (called “yarns”). Then you stretch two lengths of fairly thin tarred cord, or marlines, and loop a piece of yarn around and between them, and then pull it tight and snug it down against the previous yarn. And then you do this again, again, and again and again until you have a very long bit of baggywrinkle, which looks like a VERY fuzzy rope. Then, when you run your lines, when you see where the sheet will press against the line, you wrap the baggywrinkle around and around the line and pull it tight, which causes the yarns to stand out away from the line, and that makes the rub patch big and soft. That way it won’t wear on the sheet and, you hope, your sails don’t split.

It’s actually very simple to do.

Teaching isn’t too hard, either.

I did actually take the opportunity to bend a couple of yarns onto the marline because the opportunity was there… and someday I’m sure that’ll be useful knowledge.

Just don’t ask me when or what for. I don’t know that.

Gonna take a stroll into the stone age by way of the Houston Museum of Natural Science. C’mon. Ride along. (“It’ll be fun, he said…”)

Our journey back begins at the top of the stairs. Big fan of stairs. Gotta get exercise. We turn right and start walking backwards through the calendar… past the Hall of the Americas, which is back some 5-700 years or more, past the Maya, past the Aztec, past the Inca (all of which are normally good for a stop, but today we have deeper destinations in mind), past the new old Egyptians (few thousand years here, we’ll have to check these guys soon)… we’re crossing centuries with each step now… and here we are, 17 or maybe 20 thousand years ago, back to the Paleolithic, looking for limestone caves lit by flickering grease lamps…

The first part of the exhibit (This IS a museum, not an actual time portal. Nothing’s perfect.) is standard “historical era” museum exhibit – displays of old photographs, enlarged, with extended captions with basic information about the history of what we’ll be seeing. I read them all quickly, getting some background about the discovery of Lascaux, making photographs instead of writing notes, and carry on past the entryway.

On the left, here, a display explains the negative effects of human visitors on the cave ecosystem – increased water vapor, carbon dioxide, heat – and some sort of gee-whiz metering system displays, on an odd 3-axis readout, how much of each the individual visitor creates. The display does change as I step up to the metering point, but as I’ve no idea how to interpret the screen, it’s of limited interest. No matter, I’ve spent enough time around cavers to be aware that human explorers and tourists aren’t really good for caves. Onward.

Staying against the left wall, we come to a small room with a 3D video loop running, and a basket of glasses. They’re an awkward fit, at best, over my own, but good enough. Graphics show the “virtual Lascaux” – showing virtual artists working on virtual art in the virtual cave, showing also some of the walls (from the inside AND outside, as though the walls of the cave were transparent) so we can see what’s where in the cave. It’s a fantastic bit of work, complete with 3D bats zooming out of the screen. Cute.

The video lasts only a few minutes, then we’re back to the main room to check out the main part of the room display, a scale model of the cave complex. These are fiberglass molds, plain white, mounted on plywood-covered stands showing the relative size and location of rooms with art.

One room, the Hall of the Bulls, also includes a human figure for scale.

Each also includes a caption label and a monochrome rendering of the art found in the room. I found it much more useful than the virtual cave for developing a mental picture of the entire site, though I would have preferred to have the rooms connected. Being able to see into the rooms was, I think, less significant than having the entire complex appear as a single model. It’s still very helpful.

Against the far wall is a well-photographed display explaining the construction of “Lascaux II,” a replica of the original cave built by the French a few hundred meters away when it became apparent that the original cave couldn’t sustain significant visitor traffic without permanent damage. It’s titled “Seeing without damaging” – fitting, since that’s the entire point here.

Another exhibit, just in the corner, describes the artistic process involved in the creation of Lascaux I and II, with samples.

There’s also another “gee whiz” machine – a laser scanner which creates a 3-dimensional rendering of a small mockup of a wall section at the press of a button. (In theory, at least.) It’s slightly interesting except that I couldn’t see how the contours of the rendering matched the actual mockup right in front of me. The theory’s sound, though, so again, no matter.

A small dark hallway leads off here; as an old cave-gamer I can’t help but follow it. (But it wasn’t a twisty little passage, no fear.) There are exhibits here of artifacts (and replicas of artifacts) found and gathered in the early days of the cave, where proper archaeological protocols were frequently overridden by the need to salvage something from the flood of visitors. Tools, bone fragments, painting and engraving gear… all gathered in a hurry without proper records. It’s always a problem when archaeological sites become objects of public interest before they can be properly conserved.

Another display explains the process of recording and duplicating the artwork by various means and the work that was done in the early days. Available dark photography, redefined.

Back through the hallway to the model, and now there’s only one passage left: The Cave.

(deep breath)

WOW. Just WOW.

It’s dark in here, except for the low lights on the cave walls and comparatively brighter spots on the four human figures. Immediately to my left, on a panel from the Hall of the Bulls, a small herd of bulls splits, moving left and right. It doesn’t take much imagination to hear their breathing and the stamp of hooves and… wait, did that last bull just toss his head? Perhaps? But no, that’s just the light and shadow playing with my head. (Not too hard to do here.)

Just past the first panel, a young woman (who could make a good living as a model) in what appears to be a reindeer-hide onesie (with the fur in) and a beautiful beaded headpiece is pointing across the cave, apparently talking with an older man who sits beside her with a spear in his hand. I can’t help but notice that the old hunter resembles a prehistoric Liam Neeson – perhaps his next starring vehicle? He’s getting on up there now….

Beside them is the Black Cow in all its glory; if I’m careful I can just fit the cave denizens and the black cow panel into a frame, and with a little balancing work on the lighting (very glad for digital camera here…) I can get the whole thing.

As I turn around so I can grab a rail and stand up, a herd of stags files by behind me in spooky silence.

Beyond the stags, a model of a woman draped in a fur robe and beads paints designs on the face of a small child.

Beyond them again is the endpiece of the replica, the shaft scene.

This is the only human figure in Lascaux; with him are a bird, (Officially it’s a bird on a stick but I want to say it’s a bird with very long legs, the right one not actually attached to the body.) a speared bull or bison, and what I’m told is a rhinoceros at left. (I have a hard time seeing a rhinoceros in France, ice age or no ice age.) The man, the bird, and the rhino are unique to this scene. This panel is an odd duck; it doesn’t feel like a match with the rest of the paintings, and the rhino is painted in a different technique. There’s speculation that a different artist did this scene, possibly coming in to the cave from a different entrance that hasn’t been found yet (and which may not exist any longer.)

Across the exit is one last panel, The Crossed Bison, which is interesting in that it appears to me that the proper viewpoint can be had only by sitting on the floor looking up. Oh well, anything to get the shot.

It’s good for me that this is the end of the cave replica, because by now my eyes and visual sense are so thoroughly overwhelmed that I’m needing to sit somewhere for a few minutes just to decompress. I walk over to check out another video theatre and perch on a stool. The video is all about the artistic and symbolic approach to the Black Cow. (that would be this guy, again:)

I’m sure the film is magnificently done, but I’m not really in condition to remember most of it, and the only part of my notes that I can make sense of says “The Black Cow was necessarily a cooperative effort. Several people would likely be needed to do all the tasks involved in putting it there. The amount of time and effort needed makes it probable that this was an image of great symbolic meaning.” The artist would have been perched on a small ledge several feet above the floor. There would have been someone else, probably, mixing his paint, filling and moving the lamps, and possibly helping hold the artist on the ledge. There’s more about the “shield” or geometric pattern at the base of the figure; it’s thought to be perhaps a caption of some sort or possibly the artists’ signature symbol. As with most such things, many questions, few answers.

In the center of this second room is a stand of displays relating to the artistic techniques – the use of moving lights (flickering grease lamps) to suggest animation (and for an example of the theory, there’s an honest-to-goodness zoetrope wheel!), a discussion of the possibility that the stags are swimming since only their heads are visible … but, the question remains, was this meant to be five stags swimming a river, or one stag swimming five times? We don’t know.

The most interesting part of this little kiosk is a discussion of anamorphic perspective – paintings crafted to be seen from a different point of view than that of the artist. Several of the bulls and bison are high on the walls, but are distorted slightly so that they’ll appear correct from the view of a person standing on the floor of the cave. There’s a helpful drawing of a bison next to the discussion, complete with a distorted mirror to make it look more or less right…

Fortunately I have artists in the immediate family, and perspective distortion is part of the technique of photography, so it’s easier to understand from a technical viewpoint, but this is high-level artistry, folks. Perspective disappeared from two-dimensional art at some point after this and if memory serves didn’t reappear until sometime in the early Renaissance…

Off in a corner is much of the standard paleo-anthropology “life and times in the paleolithic” exhibit with some pretty examples of spear points, lamps, and flintwork, and a large display pointing up that Cro-Magnon were modern humans, very much like us. Same brainpower, same intelligence, same physical structure. Put them in modern clothes and they could move in next door.

And on the last wall is one more large part of the exhibit – and the only major disappointment. It’s a wall of monitors showing clips of various significant personages in the modern history of Lascaux, with recorded comments from each. But the original recordings were in French and the English overdubs were done at a low volume compared to the original playback, so they’re very hard to hear and understand. One, a philosopher musing about something, was set at such a low volume that it was completely inaudible. As he was probably considering the meanings of the art, it was probably quite interesting, if I could have heard it. The second main issue was that the speakers were filmed looking around, but not speaking. Listening to their voices while their mouths weren’t moving was a somewhat surreal experience. We’re not used to that. I wound up ignoring the monitors and just trying to make enough sense of what was said to take notes. Most of the comments repeated or reinforced things already mentioned in the exhibit; the summary would be “This is magnificent and important, but we don’t know that much about it.”

Which means I’m in good company.

There will be more later; this is a preliminary part of a larger Rock Art story for my somewhat more serious blogzine, The Other Texas. I’ll post a link here when it’s ready but there’s a significant amount of research, learning, and field reporting to be done first. I just wanted to write up my impressions and notes on the Lascaux exhibit before I lost them.. And after writing this it seems kind of a shame not to post it. Thanks for riding along to the end here, and I hope it was a tenth as interesting for you as it was for me.

”Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux” will be at HMNS for another week or so if you feel so inclined. Tickets for members are $12; for non-members they’re $25.

(I have to throw in a totally unpaid plug for museum membership, here, too. Been a member for several years now and in a city with a significant number of major museums this is one of the jewels. Support as many as you can, of course, but if you can only afford one this would be it.)