Monday, August 31, 2015

Willow, Judah, and Sebastian

by Pa Rock
Proud Grandpa

I spent yesterday with my Oregon grandchildren:  Willow, Judah, and Sebastian.  It marked the first time that I had gotten to see or spend time with them in more than a year.

Sebastian is eight and preparing to go into second grade.   His parents had to take the younger two children to an appointment in the morning, leaving Sebastian and I to our own devices for a couple of hours.  We explored his garden - his own project - and shoveled gravel off of the driveway.  Then we went for a walk, a long walk!  We explored several blocks of his neighborhood and Sebastian showed me where some of his friends lived.  On the way home we picked up some seed pods and pine cones and talked about gardening.

Sebastian and his daddy attended a birthday party in the afternoon, while Mommy Molly and I stayed home with Judah and Willow.  They are both very sweet children.  We played outside for awhile where Judah rode down a small hill - again and again - in his little wagon, and Willow and her mommy made bubbles that floated over the neighborhood.   Judah and Willow also enjoyed working together on a Lego project.  Judah, who is five, loves studying things and figuring out how they work.  Willow, aged three, is always busy and enjoys playing with their dog, Pixie.

I was amazed to see how busy the Files family was - even on a Sunday!  Molly and Scott have my admiration for working so hard to offer their children so many opportunities.  The kids are growing up in a very loving family!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

As Seen from the Train

by Pa Rock
Rail Rider

Yesterday while riding the train south from Seattle to Salem, Oregon, I made a few mental notes of things I observed along the way.  The trip began at the King Street Station which is in the city center of Seattle.   The station is a large, cavernous old-time train depot, the kind of place where everything echoes and it is almost impossible to understand the important announcements coming over the loudspeaker.

The first item of interest that we passed was almost in the shadow of the train station.  It was Safeco Staddium where the Seattle Mariners play baseball.  Safeco is one of those modern affairs that have a retractable roof allowing for play on wet or dry days.   It would appear to be easy for out-of-towners to ride the train to Seattle, walk to the stadium to see a game, and then catch a train for home - depending on arrival and departure times, of course.

As we worked our way out of Seattle, our train ran along side of lots of new construction and older and poorer housing, then into some open farming space, and finally through forested areas with and occasional small streams and creeks.   It was windy, and leaves were blowing by my coach window - a reminder that fall is not too far off.

The sea coast began appearing as we neared Tacoma, and it was about that time that the train came to an unexpected stop due to a large tree that had been blown down and fallen across the track.  We spent about half-an-hour waiting on the track to be cleared.  When the train finally did begin to roll again, it had to proceed slowly due to a high wind warning.  I did see several places where large limbs had broken from their trees.

We passed along the outskirts of Washington's capital, Olympia, getting to see some nice homes in the suburbs.  Most were square in shape and two stories tall.   Like suburbs in many communities, the overall effect was of settlements of housing that had been designed in cookie-cutter fashion.

There was an abundance of graffiti along the way south, on railroad cars, buildings, bridges, and retaining walls.  One individual had written a memorable plea for someone special that asked simply, "Will you marry me?" - a proposal that will probably outlast many marriages.  The quality of much of this spray paint art was truly amazing.   America, it would seem, harbors a talented underground of aspiring painters!

Somewhere south of Kelso we encountered the historic and famous Columbia River which the train followed, more or less in the shadow of Lewis and Clark, on to Portland, Oregon.  Seeing the Columbia always puts me in mind of the famous folksong by Woody Guthrie, "Roll On Columbia, Roll On."

And the river rolled on, and so did our train.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Riding the Rails from Seattle to Salem

by Pa Rock
Train Tramp

I boarded the AmTrak Coast Starlight this morning at the King Street Station in Seattle for what was scheduled to be a six-hour trip south to Salem, Oregon.  The trip actually took eight hours.  Part of the delay was due to some unusually high winds that developed in northern Washington, causing the need for the train to proceed slowly so that it would not get blown off of the track!  (I hate it when that happens - especially if I am on the train when it leaves the track!)

A good part of the trip was in view of the Pacific coastline, hence the name of that particular AmTrak line:  the Coast Starlight.  The line runs from Seattle to Los Angeles and back again.  The stops that the train made today on the portion that I rode included Tacoma, Olympia, Centralia, Kelso, and Vancouver in Washington, and Portland and Salem in Oregon.

(Kelso, Washington, is where my old high school classmate, Dan Abraham, has lived most of his adult life.  I looked for Dan as the train rambled through town, but he must have chosen today to sleep in!)

Train fares are a little higher than airline fares, though not by much - and trains offer much more opportunity for getting up and moving around.  I made two trips to the train's cafe where I sat and snacked and watched the world slowly roll by.

The purpose of my trip to Salem is to visit with my daughter, Molly, and her family.  We have just returned from dinner where the entire family was wearing the tee shirts that I sent from Skagway, Alaska - and they all fit!  We will find some kid-friendly activities to enjoy over the next three days that I am in  town.  The Oregon State Fair is occurring in Salem this week - and that might be fun!

The road warrior is on the verge of becoming road weary!

Friday, August 28, 2015

Celebrity Millennium Report Card

by Pa Rock
Disillusioned Seafarer

If my state lottery ever calls to say that I have won a free cruise on the Celebrity Millennium, I will demand my dollar back!

Should I run into Bill Gates during my too brief stay here in Seattle, I will recommend that he buy the Celebrity Millennium and sink it.  The ship might make an adequate sanctuary for little fish as they hide from bigger fish, but it clearly misses the mark as a luxury cruise experience.

It has been almost six years since my last cruise, and I knew that the world has taken on much more of a Walmart hue during that time – but I was shocked by how the concept of a cruise vacation has been cheapened over the years.

The Millennium offers one of the less expensive sailing packages in the industry.  The initial cost, of course, is just the hook.  Once they get you on the ship, all of the extra charges start to kick in.  The largest profit center on board has to be the Internet CafĂ© where hook-ups to cyber space are sold.  There are no internet or phone connections on the ship unless they are purchased from the cruise company.

First of all, the internet hook-up charges are outrageous.  The cost per minute is 79 cents.  Then there are the packages:  90 minutes for $59 (the one I bought), one day unlimited for $59, 240 minutes for $109, and unlimited access for the seven-day cruise for only $199. 

But it gets worse.

As soon as the minutes are purchased, the salespeople begin back-peddling and explaining how service on a ship is much slower than anywhere else.  It takes three to four times as long to do an internet task on a ship than it does on shore.  So, while a person sits nervously waiting for their site to appear, those expensive minutes just keep slipping away! 

(I got smart quickly and began searching out internet access sites on shore each day – and that saved me from having to buy additional minutes from the pirates at on board the Celebrity Millennium.)

Internet Service Grade:  Absolute and total “F”

Meals:  Shipboard dining used to be one of the best things about a cruise.  The meals were elegant and sumptuous.  They no longer are.  The food is average fare, something you could get at an Applebee’s, only the ship portions are smaller and tougher.  The vegetable side with almost every meal I ordered was green beans and carrots, usually undercooked.  The fancy dining rooms no longer have ice sculptures and food art to for the diners to gawk at as they wait for their tables.  Dining aboard the Celebrity Millennium was definitely a sad experience – regurgitated nightly.

Dining and Food Grade:  “D”

Entertainment:  As mentioned in this space yesterday, much of the entertainment was passable, and the shows featuring the ship’s singers and dancers were a bit above average.  An evening in the ship’s theatre always provided a good opportunity to sit and relax – and sometimes laugh and have fun as well.

Entertainment Grade:  “B”

Ports-of-Call:  Although the cruise ships dump their cargo (passengers) next to a ton of portside shops, many of which are owned by the cruise ship companies, it is possible to have a good port experience by getting away from the tourist shops and heading out into the real world.  I managed to do that at each stop, and was rewarded by meeting interesting people and getting to see things that the other old fat people on the cruise did not get to experience.   Our ports for this cruise – Juneau, Skagway, Hoonah, and Ketchikan – all proved to be memorable experiences, and much more satisfying than the sailing portion of the “adventure.”

Ports-of-Call Grade:  “A”

Housekeeping:  The young people who kept our cabin clean were very polite and efficient.  I could not have been happier with the service – except that we began the cruise with two small bars of soap, and they were never replaced throughout the cruise.  Shampoo must have also been at a premium, because our single tube was never replaced either.  I don’t blame the stewards for that, however.  It is more likely the result of a policy of the cruise ship company as it struggles to squeeze every loose penny out of every gullible tourist.

Housekeeping Grade:  “A-”

Casino:  Every cruise ship has a casino which is also a big profit center for the boats.   Being a natural born high-roller, I took five dollars of my social security money out of my wallet and sat down to play the slots.  I selected a “penny” slot which had a minimum bet of thirty pennies – and nearly lost the whole thing.  But then I rebounded and when my total hit $5.58, I cashed it in and pocketed my 58 cents profit.  Unfortunately, I bought a two-dollar ship’s lotto ticket on the way out the door – and lost that, making my gambling total a negative one dollar and forty-two cents.

Casino Grade:  “C.”  The experience was definitely nothing special.

Guest Relations:  There was a special area where a group of individuals worked to keep customers happy.  It also served as the ship’s lost-and-found department.  Unfortunately, I lost a couple of things on this cruise and had multiple dealings with those people.  Each time I tried to talk with them I was met with cold shoulders and patronizing attitudes.   One young man crossed a line when he snapped at me unnecessarily.  He didn’t do it a second time.

Guest Relations Grade:  “F”   (Only because my grading system doesn’t go any lower.)

Overall Cruise Grade:  “C-“

The cruise experience has cheapened across the industry over recent years, and Celebrity does not seem to have done anything to buck that trend.  Best advice:  When you’re planning your next cruise vacation, consider sailing on Greyhound. 

Doing the Cattle Call

by Pa Rock

The cruise is over and I am safely off of the Celebrity Millennium and holed up in a dive motel on the outskirts of Seattle.  Tomorrow I will board a train and head south to Salem, Oregon, where I will spend a few days visiting my daughter, Molly, and her family.

Gail said, as we were standing in a line one day on the ship, that her son-in-law, Jason Pfetcher, will often begin mooing when he is stuck in a people herd - and I must admit to having done the very same thing myself on occasion.  (Great minds really do think alike!)  However, being both a lover of music and a whistler extraordinaire, I have now set my act to music.

This morning as we were stuck in endless lines both on board The Millennium as well as at the Vancouver airport, I began whistling Eddie Arnold's classic "Cattle Call" - a song that I have long felt would be great theme music for the Miss America Pageant or some other televised meat market.  I was really getting into my canary act at the airport, amazed that so few people seemed to recognize the song, when I ran into someone even more rude than me.   A lady walking by in a line next to ours, one that was moving a bit faster than the one in which Gail and I were trapped, was singing the theme to "Rawhide" as she slogged through the crowd!

"Head 'em up, move 'em out, move 'em out, head 'em up,  
Keep them doggies movin', Rawhide!"

It's amazing just how uncouth some damned tourists can be! 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Thursday, At Sea

by Pa Rock

The sun is shining and the sea is calm.  We are sailing all day today.  Tomorrow we will be in Vancouver, British Columbia, our port of disembarkation. 

Tomorrow cannot come quickly enough.  I will issue a report card on the Celebrity Millennium experience sometime after crawling ashore.    It will not be pretty.

One thing I have enjoyed about this cruise, however, has been the shows.  Each evening there are performances in the ship’s theatre, and most have been what I would regard as “cruise-ship good.”  Last night’s show featured a young Russian married couple, Yulia and Alan Reva, who danced and performed some aerial acrobatics.  They were capable ballet performers, though certainly well below the skill level that I witnessed at the Bolshoi and Kirov while in Russia several years ago. 

Maybe my appreciation of the shipboard arts would be higher if I had not been exposed to so much high-quality entertainment in my lifetime.  Two nights ago the show featured an Elton John impersonator.  He was good, for a cruise ship act, but again, I had seen better.  Miss Susan and I were in New Orleans years ago when we stepped into a small, nondescript bar in the French Quarter – probably just to get out of the rain.  There was a piano player in the bar alternating between Elton John and Billy Joel.  He was terrific – and working for tips.  Susan kept me there until the place closed, and places tend to close very late in the French Quarter!

There is also a troupe of young singers and dancers who perform in the ship’s theatre every other night.  So far I have seen their productions of Boogie Wonderland and Simply Ballroom.  Tonight these very talented kids will be doing a tribute to Broadway and London’s West End called I, Broadway.   Their shows are fun – a bit like sitting in on a filming of Glee.  These kids are just starting out in their show business careers and have an upward trajectory, while some of the more established acts are definitely waning.

Bingo today with card packages ranging from $39.95 to $59.95.  Grand prize is a free Caribbean cruise on one of the Celebrity cruise ships.  I’m not playing because with my luck I would probably win the cruise!

Valerie, Nefredia, and Murphy – I’m thinking of you guys as I stare out across the steel gray Pacific Ocean – knowing that you are still out there, on the far edge of the ocean, and enjoying the Orient.  Color me green with envy!

And the ship sails on.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Ketchikan: Sunny and Sweet!

by Pa Rock
Traveling Fool

Yesterday in Hoonah my new friend, Gary Brown, told me that we would definitely encounter rain in Ketchikan.  He said that Ketchikan gets 200 inches of rain a year, and the sky precipitates almost every day.  Well, Gary was wrong.  It is a cloudless and gorgeous day in Ketchikan!

I got off the ship with a large bag containing my computer, dirty laundry, and a few souvenirs.  I was looking for the post office and some free wifi.  Two or three people directed me toward a free shuttle that would take me into town to a place called The Plaza.  There I was to visit Frontier Shipping, a place they assured me would do everything the post office would do - and quicker.

I missed the free shuttle and wound up on a city bus that only charged a dollar.  The driver explained to myself and another couple of tourists exactly how to get to Frontier Shipping.  She said that it was much better than the post office.  Eventually our little group found the  establishment, and I am pleased to say that it lived up to the high praise.

Everyone here is so helpful and friendly.  It is a very sweet city.

I mentioned my encounter with Hoonah's town dog in yesterday's post.   While I was out walking the town's few streets, I heard a tourist lady screeching "Look, here comes dinner now!"  She was pointing at a large, fat hen which was having a morning sip of water out of a puddle in the street.  Her friend, looking at the same hen, chimed in:  "Isn't he adorable!"  She was definitely in need of some farm therapy!  (I miss my chickens, too!)

Gail wanted me to mention that I am now an official little old man.  She got tired of me stopping every fourth step to pull up my pants - and bought me a gift of a pair of suspenders while we were in Skagway.   They really do help - and I really do feel older!  Thanks, Sis!

Now I'm headed back out to the street to see if I can find a bus or shuttle headed back to the port area.  Life continues to be an adventure!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Hoonah, Alaska!

by Pa Rock
Globe Trotter

Today's post is from the Cook House Restaurant in Icy Strait Point, Alaska - just a mile or so down the road from Hoonah.  I am holed up here having a cheeseburger ($9.97, please) and a bottled water ($3.50, please) in order to use their "free" wifi!  The bears aren't the only thing in Alaska that feast on tourists!

Gail and I took the shuttle into Hoonah earlier today ($5.00 please for a round-trip).  It is a small town of 650 cold-hardy souls who make their living off of fishing and curies ships.  A very nice native, Mr. Gary Brown, told me that Hoonah is extremely patriotic and nearly four hundred of its residents have served in the military.  Being recently employed by the military myself, I know that the high rate of service isn't strictly a reflection of patriotism.    It is also an indicator of the lack of availability of local jobs.

Besides Gary Brown, I found one other good friend in Hoonah - a large black dog who kept bringing me a stick to throw for him.  Usually I could get the stick to bounce when it landed, and he would catch it in the air!  (I miss my dogs!)

Hoonah is an impoverished little berg that reminded me somewhat of  Lanagan, Missouri.   It does have a nice harbor that is apparently inexpensive to access.  Mr. Brown said that John Wayne was a regular visitor back in the day and would spend months at a time in Hoonah because nobody would bother him there.  He said other celebrity visitors who came on a regular basis were Chuck Norris and Richard Pryor.

The town has a wood carving shop where a couple of native men were working on two enormous totem poles, and another shop that makes canoes out of logs.  We spent some time at a little cafe drinking hot chocolate and buying $5.00 tee shirts.

I really enjoyed the small town of Hoonah - it was what I expected Alaska to be like.  Gail, however, was not as impressed.

Last night while going through my pictures of Skagway, I noticed that I took one of the Morning Wood Hotel.  That sounds like the type of place where you might be able to rent a roommate - by the hour!

The trip continues to go well.  I plan to spend much of this evening relaxing in a hot tub among total strangers.  Tomorrow we will be in Ketchikan where I understand it rains almost every day - 200 or more inches a year!

The sun has been out all day here in Icy Strait Point and Hoonah!

Monday, August 24, 2015

"If Ya Wanna See the Other Leg, It's Gonna Cost Ya!"

by Pa Rock
Harbor Rat

Greetings from beautiful downtown Skagway, Alaska – and no, Sarah Palin’s picture is not on the town’s welcome sign!

I am sitting in a downtown electronics store blogging - at just five dollars and hour - a price which beats the hell out of the ship's wifi racket!

Skagway is in the Klondike National Park, and it also functions as a very colorful tourist trap with many shops and places to spend money.    Of the two hundred or so stores in town, at least three-quarters specialize in jewelry sales – and many of those are owned by the cruise ship companies.    The old ladies who spend their lives riding on cruise shops must have a thing about jewelry.

The cruise ships have to dock about a half-mile from town, and the best way to get from the ship to the shops is by shuttle – that will be two dollars please.  I bought the all day pass for five dollars, and by the end of this jaunt into town I will have ridden in six times.  What a deal!

One of my main stops today has been to the post office – three times to mail three packages including gifts for the kids and grandkids and my dirty clothes.  Gail gave me a lot of grief about buying tee-shirts for everyone, saying that she spends her money on herself – but as the day wore on I noticed she was beginning to look at clothes and souvenirs for grandkids.  She’s just an old softie at the core!

This morning there was a saloon gal in an upstairs window of one of the business establishments.  She had one of her legs hanging out the window and was enticing all of us old men staggering up and down the sidewalk with a promise of “If ya wanna see the other leg, it’s gonna cost ya!”  I had to pass because I didn’t figure that I could get up the stairs!

A note about the cruise.  I went to the ship’s show last night and was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the performance.  A group of very energetic young singers and dancers put on what they called  “Boogie Wonderland.”  It was mostly a tribute to the disco era.  “It’s fun to stay at the Y.. . . . M. . . . C. . . . A!!!”  Now, try and get that song out of your head!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Just Walking in the Rain

by Pa Rock
Globe Trotter

Today’s port-of-call was beautiful Juneau, Alaska.   Juneau, population 32,000, is the third largest city in Alaska and also the capital.  It is bordered on three sides by water and flanked on the inland side by a massive ice field, so the only way into Juneau is by plane or boat.    The big cruise ships dock at Juneau from May through October, dumping tourists by the thousands.

Gail and I walked through the tourist area close to the port today – in the mist and rain.   Her first priority was to buy an umbrella, which she was finally able to do.  We stopped at the semi-famous Red Dog Saloon for iced tea.    A saloon gal in an authentic saloon gal dress – the bodice of which was more of a display case than it actually was apparel - waited on us.   The floor of the establishment was covered in about an inch of sawdust.  One of the many displays on the walls was a genuine moose head that was about the size of my car.

Gail was desperate to locate the town’s Walmart, but that never happened.  She can only be away from a Walmart for about ten hours before she begins developing the shakes and withdrawal sets in.

We did a brief tour of the city in the afternoon.   The tour was in a small shuttle bus with regular windows – making it hard to see most of the sights because just about everything in Juneau clings to the hillsides.   We did see the capitol building and the governor’s house, and the driver showed us where the Palin spawn used to have their trampoline.  Our tour also took us across the bridge to Douglas Island for a panoramic view of the harbor and all of the cruise ships.

I have a large, framed photograph of Juneau Harbor hanging in my home in West Plains.    The photo, something that I found many years ago in an Ozark flea market, was obviously taken from Douglas Island.  So, although the twenty-five dollar bus tour was a generally crappy experience, I did appreciate getting to view Juneau Harbor through the same perspective as that photographer so many years ago.

Juneau is a lovely city.  I would like to come back and enjoy it again sometime when the sun is out.

I have been bothered with some serious shoulder pain since a couple of weeks before heading out on this cruise.  This afternoon I sat in one of the ship’s outdoor hot tubs for about an hour, and that provided some pain relief.    A hot tub is something I really need to invest in for the farm.  I’m sure Rosie and Thor Longmire would both love it, and I have one especially brassy little hen that would also probably give it a try.

Our ship, the Celebrity Millennium, will dock at Skagway early tomorrow morning.  If I can find the town’s post office, I plan to mail home some dirty clothes, a maneuver that will give me room in my minimal luggage for a few souvenirs and gifts for the grandkids.  Do I know how to travel, or what?