Friday, June 30, 2017

Visiting the War Museum in Belgrade




In the Serbian capital of Belgrade, the military museum is in the ruins of a castle on top of the highest point in the city. It overlooks the place where the Sava and Danube rivers flow together. To the north of the confluence is an old Roman tower that marks the only other hill in an otherwise flat landscape--flat for a hundred miles in almost any direction.




 
From the walls of the old fortress, it is easy to see why Belgrade is among the most conquered cities in the world. In the museum on the property, you see how many times Serbia and Belgrade have been rolled over by conquerors from antiquity to now.

The first room in the museum has artifacts of Alexander the Great and the Greek Army from 2,300 years ago. The Romans, then various barbarian tribes took over Serbia.  They had a run of sovereignty in the middle ages, followed by the Turkish conquest in the late 1400s. The Ottoman Empire remained in charge until its collapse at the end of World War I. Belgrade's independence lasted only until Nazi tanks rolled in at the beginning of World War II. The Russians defeat the Nazis and formed Yugoslavia from a group of countries and peoples that hated each other. Marshall Tito kept a lid on that mess until the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Then the Serbs started years long slaughter of Bosnian Muslims and Croats that only stopped when American bombers attacked Belgrade.

Outside the museum is a display armor and cannons from World Wars I and II.  Some of them are here.  While I was near the tanks, I overheard a French group talking about the German tanks on display as early models. We ended up talking about the invasion of France and how the French and British tanks were in many ways better and that the Allied forces outnumbered the Germans 3000 to 2000 in tanks. The difference was that the French and British spread their tanks from Dunkirk to Switzerland and the Germans put nearly all their tanks on a 20-mile front through the Ardennes Forest and into France.

In the lead of that formation was General Erwin Rommel, the best tank commander in the German Army. The lightly armed and armored German Panzer I and II tanks were stopped several times when they faced a formation of heavier Allied tanks. Even the Panzer IIIs were outmatched by the much bigger British Matilda tanks. But the German light tanks were supported by large-caliber towed guns with well trained crews that would take out the opposing tanks so the Germans could move forward.
On paper, the French and British had the numbers and the equipment to stop the Wehrmacht, but the greatest and most storied victories in military history occur when brilliant tactics  overcome sheer numbers. The Fall of France in 1940 was one of those victories.


Thursday, June 29, 2017

Hybrid Days: 3 Days Driving the Bike and Riding Short Trips

Three days into the trip after trying and failing to ride from Belgrade to Croatia and Belgrade to Romania, I decided to rent a car for three days. That way, I could drive to a half-dozen countries and ride while I was in them. I also got to see places I would never be able to ride.  It turns out even some of the places I rode, I would not choose to ride again. One story is HERE.

As with almost everything about this trip, I decided on the spur of the moment to get a car, so I had to find an agency in Belgrade with a car ready to go and a good rate.  I need a hatchback for the bike.  The cheapest car was a Toyota Auris hybrid, "Like the Prius," the clerk said. The car was the size of a current Prius, a big car to me since I drive a 2001 original Prius. Since it was new, it had iPhone ports, digital display and cruise control, none of which is in my Prius.  It clearly has a bigger engine too. On a motorway south of Belgrade, I was obeying the 75mph speed limit when an Audi A6 shot past me. I followed. The Prius easliy hit 120mph.  I backed off to set my phone to call my oldest daughter Lauren and waited for the next speeder.

When I traveled overseas every month for business in the late 90s, I would sometimes rent a car, usually a Ford or Opel. But if I was in Germany, I would pay the upgrade, usually only $10, and get an Audi A6 Turbo or, once, a BMW 750--a big sedan with a 5-liter V12 engine. I would go out on the A5 at night when there was no traffic and on a stretch with no speed limit, go 155mph (rental cars were governed at 155) and call my oldest daughter Lauren.  The walls and ceiling of her room was covered with pictures of cars. She wanted to know when Dad went 150. So I would call her and tell my speed on speaker then call back later.

Even though Lauren is now 28, when a BMW shot past me, I set the phone to call Lauren and hit send when I reached 125mph.

In three days with the car, I drove to Skopje, Macedonia, then took my ill-fated ride to the Kosovo border. The next day went to the bay in Thessaloniki, Greece. In late afternoon I drove back to Belgrade through Bulgaria. At a half-hour before sundown, I drove through thirteen tunnels on a ten-mile stretch of two-lane highway just over the border from Bulgaria. Bikes are not allowed on this road, so I could not have seen it without a car.

On pure fun grounds, this little Toyota had the fast acceleration only electric motors have, plus the battery on the back makes the car more balanced end to end than most modern front-wheel drive cars.  Going fast on narrow streets this car is stable and exciting. I haven't driven a car in Europe for 15 years. This was a great car to zip through city streets, reach occasional 3-digit speeds on motorways and twist through mountain roads.

I got to Belgrade at midnight. The next day I drove to Croatia then up and down some hills near the border.  Later I drove across the border to Bosnia. Until dark I rode along the Sava River. Sometimes I would ride into a roundabout and see a sign for a town 10 or 20 miles away. I recognized the name as a massacre site from the 1990s.  After riding in this country full of ghosts, I returned to Belgrade. The next day I returned the car and got on a train to Budapest, Hungary.

Since that first week, I have only ridden in trains or on the bike. But it was fun to drive again on the narrow roads of Europe.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

South African Couple Riding in Germany


On the platform waiting for the first of the eight trains that would take me from Berlin to Darmstadt was a young couple with bicycles. We boarded the train in the car with the big bicycle painted on the side, hooked our bikes in the rack and asked where were going to ride and had been riding.

Craig and Sarah were from South Africa. Sarah was in Annecy, France, the week before for what she said was the biggest animation conference in the world. Then from Annecy they came to Berlin for a meeting. Now they were taking a train to Wittenberg then riding to Heidelberg. Craig was just following Sarah, riding and sightseeing while she worked.

Sarah works compiling video shows. She and a team of 100 mostly animators in Capetown are working on a Christmas special for Great Britain, the third year they created a half-hour program for the Brits for Christmas. She said, "The weather is always bad so they watch a lot of Telly." Craig said, "We barbecue. Christmas is the beginning of summer for us."

Craig and Sarah were riding mountain bikes on the road so they would be going even slower than I had been. Craig's bike was had three big bags, one on each side and one on top of the rear rack. He was talking about getting a front rack to spread out the weight. They will be riding for a week before flying back to South Africa.

We all agreed Berlin was a lovely city and we wanted to comeback. When I told them where I had visited--particularly the Soviet War Memorial and the Holocaust Memorial--we started talking about the history of Berlin and of Europe.

Since they are in their 30s, they were born under Apartheid, but it ended around the time they went to school.  Both of their fathers served in the military and hated it. I had read news reports about South Africa returning to conscription, which ended with the end of Apartheid in 1994. Craig knew very well about that news and was glad he is too old for the draft.

We went from the draft to politics. Craig thought it was very strange that we elected a draft dodger who calls himself a patriot. "If there's a draft, you go," he said. Up to this point he had been the bearded picture of fit, unflappable "chill" guy, but the draft made him animated. "My Dad thinks of his service as a total waste of time. Just smoking, drinking and boredom. But he went." Sarah said, "Trump admires dictators. That is strange to hear from a U.S. President."

Then we went back to talking about bikes and riding and wondered aloud if there is any place better to tour on a bike than in Germany.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Germany Gave Me Back Bike Mojo


For the first two weeks of the trip, riding with bags hanging off both sides of the rear rack on my bicycle made me feel I was riding a Mack truck rather than a bike.

Travel is about discovery and I discovered I don't like riding a 60-pound bike.  In the process of discovering what I don't like gave me clarity about what I do like about riding.

The toughest day on the trip was riding from Bratislava, Slovakia, to the border of the Czech Republic. I started at 3 p.m. thinking I could easily ride 60 miles to Brno in the Czech Republic. Sundown was 9:30 p.m. The weather was clear. The wind, sadly, was 15-20 mph in my face, but I only had to average 10 mph to make by dark.

Four hours later, I had covered 34 miles. I stopped a mile up the road, got dinner and started riding the next day.

Yesterday, I rode to Wiesbaden from where I am staying in Darmstadt, Germany. When I got back from the 65-mile ride, I rode up to Frankenstein's Castle. The steep 1.5 mile climb made me happy. Without the bags, it was tough, but I was not crawling. And on the way down, I was flying through three switchbacks and a dozen sweeping turns.

Today I spent the day on a trip to a museum in a car, but when I got back, I went up and down both roads to Frankenstein, then did the steep road again.  For the rest of the trip, I will be riding without the bags.  I like that much better.

Monday, June 26, 2017

A Delightfully Odd Guy from Alabama Flying to Serbia


On the plane from Paris to Belgrade, I sat next to an American couple from Alabama. Glenn Snyder introduced himself when he heard me speak English to the Flight Attendant.  Glenn is three years older than I am. He and his wife were on the way to visit friends from home who had been living in Belgrade for almost two years.  They went just to see the country and decided to stay. Glenn had never been to Europe and decided to visit his old friend.

A guy from Alabama with friends outside the country or who even travels outside the country is unusual. Alabama is third lowest in the nation of citizens with passports--just 22% of Alabamans have a passport.  Only Mississippi and West Virginia are lower.  Also, Glenn never served in the military. He said he had a high draft number and just never wanted to be in the military. Most of his family and the majority of the boys he grew up with served in the military.  He knew many people who had been to Viet Nam, Thailand, West Germany, or South Korea with the military, but never had passports, because soldiers on orders or on leave don't need them.

Then we talked about C.S. Lewis.  He had read Narnia and Mere Christianity. We talked about faith and books. He did not know about most of Lewis' other books. I told him about Screwtape. He thought portraying demons as bureaucrats in Hell would be fun to read.

And if Glenn wasn't already odd enough, he still cannot understand how people in the Baptist Church he grew up in could vote for Trump.  "They told us sex, drugs, rock and roll, smoking, dancing, were all of the devil....They vote for a guy who brags about doing everything they said was bad, and more those old Baptists didn't even think of!"

Wild Dogs and Angry Truckers, My Options in Macedonia


Now that I am done riding in Eastern Europe, I can say the scariest ride so far this trip was on a state highway that had no parallel superhighway. It was a twisty twelve-mile climb from Skopje, Macedonia, to the pass that marks the border with Kosovo. On the way up the mountain, two Semis got so close I was off the road and onto the foot-wide sand strip that constitutes a shoulder in Europe.  The second time the air from the truck pushed me far enough off the road that I had to stop.  I got right back on the road. Adrenaline. I really wanted to get to Kosovo.

When I got within sight of the border, I looked across the road and saw warning signs that drivers should watch for bicycles on the roadway on the way down. There were no signs on the way up. Maybe the truckers thought it meant open season on the climb.

The border was jammed with cars and trucks which could mean the bike/pedestrian crossing would be jammed also. Usually the bike crossing was better, but in Ukraine it was worse. I did not have enough time to cross and re-cross the border, so I turned around and rode as fast as I could down the mountain. After eight miles descending, I saw a sign pointing for bikes to take that road. The empty parallel road had weeds growing out of it.  At 27 mph (40 feet per second) I thought about taking the lumpy route the last four miles until I saw three dogs walking along the edge of the empty road.

Dog dinner or ride with Semis?

The lead dog had his head down and his tail seemed to be dragging. He looked hungry enough to eat an old bicyclist. Two days before on the ride toward Romania a dog shot out from under a bridge and sprinted at me. I sprinted and growled back. He gave up. These dogs looked more determined.

Given the choice between wild dogs and Semis, I stayed on the main road until I got back into the city. Then I pulled into a gas station and sat on the curb drinking a bottle of juice and calmed myself down.  I rolled back into Skopje on sidewalks and bike lanes.  The next day I could try to find a different route into Kosovo or go south toward Greece.  I went to Greece. Since that day, I only rode on state highways that have a parallel motorway. Otherwise I am on a narrow road with Semi after Semi.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Documentary Filmmaker at an Asian Restaurant in Berlin



In Berlin, I ate dinner at an Asian restaurant near the laundromat I used earlier in the day. I was going to ride back to my room and eat where I had a good internet signal. But it was a nice night so I sat at one of the two tables in front of the restaurant. A woman in her 50s was eating at the other table. She heard me speaking English and asked where I was riding.  We talked about traveling on a bike and about how bicycles were everywhere in Berlin and in Germany.  She is a documentary filmmaker. She asked about my job. I told her I am retired, but my last job was at a museum of the history of chemistry.
 
She really brightened up at that! It turns out she made a documentary about the history of plastic chairs--polyethylene chairs that are very common in Germany, especially the former East Germany. Sybelle said, "The chairs themselves were boring. Just blocks of plastic. So I researched the history. That was fascinating!" She was able to interview one of the two chemists who discovered the process for making polyethylene and polypropylene. She learned a lot about chemisty and polymer chemistry.  She knew of the existence of polyvinylidene fluoride, but did not know how it differed from Teflon. I could explain the difference in the two molecules.
Outside of a professional chemistry setting, I never met anyone on the street in the U.S. who knew or cared about polymer chemistry, of for that matter who had ever heard of polyvinylidene fluoride.

We also talked about politics. When she grew up, she was told people like me, the American Army in Germany, were occupying West Germany, but since she lived in Berlin, she knew very well that the wall was to keep East Germans in, more than to keep the rest of the world out.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Cold War Soldier Visits Eastern Europe



Forty years after I looked across the East-West German border from the turret of an M60A1 tank. Now I am visiting the Warsaw Pact countries that sent soldiers to the other side of that border.  Every country I have been to is better off than the 1970s, at least for ordinary citizens.  It was relatively better to be a leader in a Soviet, or Soviet-dominated country, but the well-stocked stores and bright-colored clothes everywhere say life is much better now.

But in the former Yugoslavia I had the same feeling of being haunted by ghosts that I had when I first walked the streets of Wiesbaden in the 1970s. When I first walked around Cold War West Germany, I passed people in the streets who were old enough to have been adults during World War II, I thought `Were you a Nazi, were you part of the Holocaust, did you know?'  The beautiful city surrounded by a lush countryside stood in contrast to the horrors of its recent history.  

I had that same kind of moment hit me in Bosnia. I was riding my bicycle just over the border from Croatia. I came to a roundabout and pulled off the road halfway around. The first road I passed had a sign pointing to Banja-Luka, the second to Tuzla. I remembered these names as sites of massacres of Bosnians by Serbs.  That was two decades ago.  Everyone middle-aged and older was either a perpetrator or the relative of a victim.  That feeling stayed with me until I left the Balkans and was in Slovakia.

When we waited for war on the East-West border, most of the men on the other side were not there by choice. I wonder how many of them wished Patton had kept going and pushed the Soviet empire back out of Eastern Europe.

Certainly, the victims of the slaughter in the Balkans would have wanted the Russians to leave Yugoslavia with their guns instead of leaving the weapons with Serbs and death to the neighbors they hated.

I understood the hatred in Tito's wake only too well.  In 1980, the year after I left the Army, I took a Russian Lit. course at Penn State with a gruff, chain-smoking Serbian named Prof. Djorjevic. He escaped Yugoslavia in 1956 and end up in Central Pennsylvania. At the end of the course, the Prof. invited us to his house for dinner. I remember his mantelpiece over the fireplace vividly. He displayed two 8X10 black and white pictures. One was of a Serbian officer on a white horse, his grandfather. the picture was from the late 1800s. The other was of two Croatians with Nazi armbands sawing a Serbian woodsman in half with his own saw.  If Prof. Djorjevic could have killed a Croat and died doing it, he would have died happy.

Except for the Yugoslav mess, NATO has helped to keep the peace in Europe for 70 years. That has not happened for a millennia before that. Every place I visited in the former Yugoslavia is at peace now.  May it stay that way!

Monday, June 19, 2017

Auschwitz: Industrial Genocide



Yesterday, I left Prague on the morning train heading for Warsaw to go from there to the Baltic Republics. I thought my planned visit to Auschwitz would have to be on the way back from Russia instead of on the way.  Then the sign on the train that announces stations said the next stop would be Katowice, Poland, just 30 miles from Auschwitz.  We were still 160 miles from Warsaw. If I got off the train, there would be no way to get to St. Petersburg by the date on my Visa.

I got off the train. In a moment like Lot's wife, I looked back at the train, but did not turn to a pillar of salt. So I changed money, got coffee, found a place to stay, then headed for Auschwitz.  The ride was south on rolling hills through beautiful forests and villages.  I crossed a railroad bridge then entered the city of Oswiecim, where the Auschwitz museum and the Birkenau camp are located.  The Holocaust sites are on the north side of town so as soon as I entered the town, I was close.

I went to Birkenau first. The site is largely preserved, still ringed with barbed wire fences and guard towers and many of the buildings are still standing. The camp is a square kilometer in a flat field with a narrow road running next to the fence.  The buses park at a museum 300 meters from the camp gate so streams of people in randomly colored tourists clothes are walking back and forth from the parking lot to camp.  It is odd to see tourists trooping in lines through a place of so much suffering and death.  It was odder still to see life being so normal around the camp.

To get the size of the place I rode the perimeter. So many hundreds of barracks meant so much suffering, but the entire place was not that big.  The Auschwitz and Birkenau camps are about a mile apart. Inmates marched between them to work and then back to suffer the tortures of the night. The two camps and the road between them brought back many images from Primo Levi's book "Survival in Auschwitz." I think most often of the World War I veteran Levi wrote about. He won an Iron Cross for gallantry under fire and probably thought decorated veterans would not be despised by the Nazis who claimed to value courage and patriotism.  But racism eclipsed nationalism and even a man who earned the nation's highest honor in war was killed for being a Jew.

Between the two camps was, for me, the saddest site.  A small sign on the road between Birkenau and Auschwitz pointed to the "Judenrampe." The tiny road through a residential neighborhood was too narrow for buses, to VW bugs could not pass on this road.  With no bus traffic there were almost no tourists.  As I rode up I saw someone pushing a wheelchair back to the road.

The site is two old boxcars on a rusty rail siding. Two signs explain the site.  This rail siding is where Jews were unloaded from the boxcars and sorted into groups for work, death, medical experiments, and whatever other horrors their captors could inflict.  As I read the signs and looked at the boxcars wondering how horrible it was to be stuffed inside them, I heard kids laughing.  Behind me was a row a fir trees and a fence that separated a gated house from the Judenrampe. Kids were playing in a pool from the sounds.

It made me think how horrible it was for the people of Oswiecim that the Nazis chose their town to inflict this stain on all of humanity.  Hotels grow up around the site and people make money providing tours and selling stuff to tourists.  And the laughing kids grow up next to those boxcars.

Just as the American form of slavery was the worst of its kind in the history of the world, Auschwitz represents the impersonal extreme of genocide. The Nazis did everything they could to take every shred of humanity from the inmates before killing them, especially extinguishing hope. American slavery, unlike slavery in the ancient world or indentured servitude, also took away hope.  Slaves could never get out except through escape or death. Nor could Auschwitz inmates until the Nazis were defeated.

My next stop, if possible, will be Lviv, Ukraine.  For me, Auschwitz and Lviv have been the extremes of the Nazi genocide horror.  Auschwitz was the most industrial,
Lviv is the most personal. The people of the city joined with the Nazis, abetted the Nazis and killed their neighbors on the streets and in their homes.

Racism can begin with words, like the horrible Birther lie that was the basis of the Donald Trump's ascent to power. But when racism goes past words into action Auschwitz, Birkenau, Lviv, Sarjevo, Rwanda, and the slave market of New Orleans is the result.



Thursday, June 15, 2017

My Top Shelf Trip to Budapest

   I am on the train from Belgrade to Budapest. When I walked up to the platform the conductor gave me The Look. The universal FU look that says "Not on my train!"  

He motioned that I had to fold the bike and put it in the luggage rack. My bike is a Surly so I could. In five minutes I had the bike in pieces. Then the conductor said "Dva!"  And pointed to the next car. He let me take the bike apart before telling me I needed to go to the next car. So I carried the pieces to the next car and loaded them in the upper luggage rack. 


Ten minutes later he collected my ticket. He just said "Dobrey" and moved on. 


Nice to know I can quickly break down the bike. I will now know to break it down at the correct car. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Trip Begins with Errors





This trip began with joy, sleep deprivation and a $500 error.  I booked the trip as if I were immune to making mistakes flying. Over decades of flying on business, I have never missed a flight, so why would I start now?

Jet lag is different at 64, at least for me.

Instead of booking a direct flight, I took the cheaper route of booking a flight to Paris, then a second flight to Belgrade. I worried that my bike would not make it, but the bike arrived in the Paris baggage claim before my bag.  All I had to do was check in, wait six hours and fly to Belgrade.

My flight had a layover in Amsterdam. There were two flights to Amsterdam at 6:30 p.m. from Terminal 2 at Charles DeGaulle Airport.  I went to the wrong gate and fell asleep. When I woke up, my bike had been removed from the correct flight.  And the cheap ticket was cancelled. I could get a flight through Frankfort for $1100 or wait and book on Air Serbia--where I should have booked anyway.

So I arrived in Belgrade at 1 p.m. a day later.  I planned to put the bike together in the airport and ride to the hotel.  But I was missing a skewer nut, so I put my partially assembled bike in a cab, went the hotel then went on a walking search for a skewer.  A previous post tells that very happy tale, but the day which was to be a ride to Romania was a walk around town.

I did get the bike put together, rode in Belgrade then succumbed to jet lag.  It turns out I cannot push myself as hard as I could 20 years ago. This should not be a surprise.  But it was.

So I was a day behind schedule and the next day would be the shorter of the trips to neighboring countries: Croatia, and maybe Bosnia.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Bike Trip Became a Trip with a Bike


In the next few days as I have time I will write more about my trip so far: the people I have met, the places I have been, the things I have seen, and the mistakes I have made.

When I first thought about this trip it was going to be the kind of head down trip I have made riding to NYC in a day or to Canada in two.  I was going to ride from Odessa to Helsinki in honor of my paternal grandfather. He walked from Odessa to Finland in 1914-15 to avoid being killed by the Tsar's army.

The original route I dreamed up three years ago was more or less straight north, assuming grandpa had no way to navigate except the north star.  Then the political situation along the straight north route got bad.  Civil war in Eastern Ukraine included artillery duels. Artillery is very bad for bicycles. Then the political situation in Belarus got worse.  So my route moved further and further west into Poland and the Baltic states.

Then the trip got bigger.  I decided I could start in the Balkans and maybe ride in 20 countries on the way and even add a side trip to Israel.  As I added stops and changed the route, I did not make the trip longer.  My wife has math conferences in late July and early August, so I had to be back to take care of the boys while she travels for her real joy in life.

Today is June 13. My Russian visa says June 22-24. I have to get to St. Petersburg in nine days. So yesterday I got a car. For three days I will drive to and ride in several Balkan states, maybe Greece, then go back to Serbia and take trains north to the Baltic states, then Russia.  I am planning to ride in Poland and the Baltics on the way to Russia. I am also planning to ride some on the way back to Darmstadt, Germany, where I will visit my friend Cliff on June 29.

The 1,500 miles I was planning to ride will surely be less than a thousand.

But instead of riding past everything and making maximum mileage per day, I have visited two museums, eaten in lovely restaurants, walked and rode slowly in the cities I visited, and talked to people.

And finally, as I travel the former Yugoslavia, every country I ride in has been conquered by the Nazis the subjugated by the Soviets.  With freedom came the slaughter of the mid 1990s.  Everywhere along this route, racism led to mass slaughter and death.  Grandpa escaped Russia the first time when the Cossacks were killing Jews at the turn of the 20th Century. He escaped the second time when the Russian Army was using Jews to clear minefields and provide targets for German machine guns.

So the trip I am taking now will not be anywhere near my grandfather's route, but will take me to the places where racism used to hold sway, but for now civilization has come back.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Missing Nuts

 
Top: Skewers with and without nuts
Above: Vladimir 


I am starting small in the story of my bike trip. Smallest! A missing nut. When I arrived in Belgrade I took the bike out of the box to ride it to my hotel in the city. 
Except I couldn't. Somewhere on the trip the nut on the Skewer fell off and out of the box. The skewer holds the front wheel on. So I put the bike mostly together then got a cab. 
I walked to the nearest bike shop, but it was actually a bike tour company. No parts. But the owner, Vladimir, walked me over to a shop that sold me a new skewer. As we walked we talked about touring.  He has ridden from St. Petersburg to Barcelona!  And he is hoping to join a group riding from Cairo to Cape Town! Wow!
Thanks to Vladimir my front wheel is attached to my bike!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Riding in Fog: Every Sound Grabs My Ears


On the eve of my bicycle trip across Easter Europe, I was thinking about riding in fog. Of all the places I have ridden in the world, the thickest fog I ever rode through was on Mount Tamalpais, just across the bay from San Francisco in Marin County.

I was at a conference in San Francisco. Every morning for four days, I got up at 0530 and rode to the top of Mt. Tam and back. The 50-mile, 3-hour round trip from downtown to the peak began on city streets, then bayshore, then across the Golden Gate, through Sausalito and Marin, then the 11-mile climb up the mountain.

The third morning the legendary San Francisco fog was everywhere. It was thickest on the slopes of Mt. Tam. By five miles up I was starting to think I could grab the fog. Wisps of clouds clung to me. I was soaked. The air felt weirdly thick. I saw ghosts rush past as the white wisps took shape in the air. But the strangest sensation was sound. Since I could barely see two bike lengths in front of me, I heard everything. A chipmunk ran across the road. I would swear I heard his claws grip the pavement. Was that a pine cone dropping on the road? The climb is not steep so I was not breathing hard enough to wipe out other sounds. I felt water drip down my neck as the fog condensed on me. Did I hear it drip off me?

Then the sun blazed everywhere. One moment I could barely see. The next I was on an arid mountain in hot sun drying as I climbed the long grade.  After the next switchback I was facing south, looking where the city should be. San Francisco disappeared under a thick, white quilt of clouds. The piers of the Golden Gate raised their red arms through the fog, as did the radio tower on Mount Bruno. Nothing else was visible.

By the time I got to the top of Mt. Tam, turned around and rode down, the fog was thinner and lower. By the time I was back in the ground-level cloud I could see 100 meters ahead, important at downhill speeds.


Thursday, June 1, 2017

Tanks are Symphony of Roars and Rattles


The M60A1 Patton tank that was my home and weapon in Colorado and West Germany was a symphony of sound I could never quite describe in prose, so I tried poetry:


M60A1, Fulda 1976

Growling, howling, eighteen hundred cubic inches
Of diesel engine roars, belches smoke and launches
Fifty-seven tons steel and rubber and flesh across a
German field.

While the engine roars, end connectors grind in the
Sprockets, center guides screech as they scrape
Aluminum road wheels lined with steel. Ammo racks
Rattle, White Phosphorus rounds in the Ready Rack shake.

Torsion bars creak, flexing over rocks and ruts. 
Ratchets, wrenches, track tools, clasps,
Hinges, and locks jangle and ring on the fenders.
Jerry cans clang in their tie downs on side of the turret

Hydraulic motor screams as the commander swings the
Turret over the driver. A cacophony of track blocks,
Bolts, rack handles, the coax ammo box,  
Cupola ammo doors, the tanker bar and Little Joe,

Assails the ears of the crew as they scan the horizon.
Across the fence, squat Soviet T-70s track the
Trundling Pattons as they parade north, roaring,
Rattling and ready to rain ruin in a moment.