Sunday, November 25, 2007

Seeing is believing...or is it?

In my life, I have seen a lot of really cool things. Anytime I want, I can close my eyes and see each one of them as they happened...they were that memorable.

Take the day I was sitting on the edge of a cliff near Thule AB, Greenland with several friends. The view of the ice over Baffin Bay with Saunders Island in the distance was nice enough. But then someone pointed out a small, dark, moving dot on the ice to the south. All of us sat there, keeping an eye on the dot as it got larger and larger. It wasn't long before we realized we were watching an Inuit Eskimo on his dog sled heading home after a hunt. We watched him pass by in total silence. When he then became a small, dark, moving dot on the ice to the north, we left. No one said a word. It was an amazing sight.

Months later, I was down near the docks at Thule when a sound from North Star Bay (the small bay Thule was near) drew my attention. I looked up and at that moment, watched an iceberg roll over in the water. I continued to watch as waves of water moved out from around the berg and washed onto a nearby shore. Between the sound the rolling iceberg, it was an amazing sight.

A couple of years earlier, I was at Fairchild AFB, Washington. It was the day of the annual air show at the base, May 18, 1980. But I never saw the air show. No one did. That morning, Mt. St. Helens, a volcano 300 miles west of where I was, erupted. By the time I got to the show, there was a massive, black cloud of ash on the western horizon growing larger and larger. By 2 pm that formerly beautiful Saturday, it was pitch black outside. I watched it get darker and darker and watched as the sun turned blue in color. I watched as lightning in the colors of pink, green, orange, red and other colors, streaked through the dark sky. And I watched as gray flakes of ash fell around me. In the end, five inches of ash lay on the ground. It was an amazing sight.

Two years before that, I was stationed at Aviano AB, Italy. The base was located at the foot of the Dolomite Mountains, part of the Italian Alps. It was a great place to be stationed. One evening, after I had finished working on the base newspaper (my job was editor of the paper), I was returning from Pordenone, where the paper was printed, when I noticed a thunderstorm forming about midway up the mountains. After I had arrived at a bar I frequented, I went in and found my friends sitting in a booth near the door. I took a seat with them which had a good view out the window of the storm in the mountains. Now, if you know anything about me, you know I love a good storm. So I sat there and watched as lightning strikes flashed, and listened as the thunder echoed through the area. Then I saw something I had never seen before. I saw ball lightning. It wasn't little eight inch balls of glowing plasma or anything like that. It was lightning rolled into a ball. And it wasn't just was three balls. They slowly fell from the sky looking like glowing spaghetti rolled into a loose ball. When the three objects landed, they bounced once or twice then sat on the ground. Because they landed almost on top of a nearby car, I could estimate their sizes. Two were maybe four feet in diameter, possibly three, and the third was twice their size. I was frozen to what I was seeing out the window. For maybe 10 seconds, the three balls sat on the ground, sparkling. I don't know any other way to describe it, but they crackled and sparkled, and suddenly, they exploded. The lights in the bar dimmed, the sound of massive thunder echoed through the land and the balls of lightning were gone. It was an amazing sight.

In October 1973, I was nearing the end of my first term of service in the US Air Force and was stationed at Kincheloe AFB, in the upper peninsula of Michigan. The base was situated in the middle of the northern woods not far from Interstate 75. On a particularly, windy day, I was outside with some friends. We were trying to toss a football around, when a sound was heard in the trees. At first, no one knew what the sound was. But our confusion was short-lived as suddenly, millions of brown, dry leaves, being pushed by the wind, came out of the trees and covered the open area we were standing in. The leaves were 12-18 inches deep and moving as fast as the wind, maybe 25 mph. The leaves flowed all around us and continued for a good 10 minutes. When I would look down at my feet, I would get dizzy looking at the movement of the leaves. I squatted down and put my hands in the path of the oncoming leaves and they would flow up my arms and over my shoulders and continue their journey to the other side of the open area. One of my friends said it looked like I was a lump of leaves in the middle of an ocean of leaves. And as quickly as the leaves arrived, they were gone, back into the trees on the other side. A look around the area we were in showed not a leaf to be seen. It was one of the most amazing sights I had ever experienced.

These are but a few of the wonders I have seen. I have been through earthquakes which did strange things, I was less than 10 miles away from one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions of the 20th Century, I have watched some of the most amazing meteor showers ever seen and I have seen animals do some of the strangest things.

Most of what I have seen is hard to believe. But they happened and they happened to me.

I am just soooo glad I was in the right place, at the right time, to see all the amazing things I have seen.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Where is the thrill?

If you have read my previous posts, you know I am a Cubs fan. I do like the Chicago Cubs. I went to my first ballgame in Wrigley Field so long ago, I don't remember when it was. But I remember seeing a lot of games there after that first one.

I remember going to Stan Musial's last away game before he retired. I remember seeing Maury Wills steal two bases in one at bat. I remember seeing Lou Brock play in his first game before he was traded. I remember watching Kenny Holtzman take a no-hitter into the ninth and watched as Maury Wills spoiled it with a single. I remember a lot of games Wrigley Field.

It's been a long time since I watched a game live at Wrigley. Twelve years ago, I spent six weeks in a brownstone only three blocks away from Wrigley. It was during the hottest summer Chicago ever had. Temperatures rose to 105 or more and with the humidity, felt like 125 or more. Coming from a desert climate, I could take the heat, but that humidity I couldn't. More than 500 people passed away during the heat spell.

One day when the Cubs were in town, I decided I would walk up to Wrigley, buy myself a ticket and watch a game. I never made it. I got halfway there and the heat and humidity had drained me. I stopped in at a bar I passed by and since they were showing the game, I ordered myself a Fosters, leaned back in booth I was sitting in and enjoyed not only the game, but the beautiful waitress taking care of the area I was sitting. The Cubs lost the game, but I didn't care. Cubs fans get over losses quickly. It's simple...there's always tomorrow in their mind.

Earlier this evening, I watched a movie called Fever Pitch. The male lead in the movie was an out-of-the-envelope Boston Red Sox fan. His apartment was wall-to-wall Red Sox. I've seen that before in other sports fans. They let anyone and everyone know who they root for. Walk into my place, and you'd wonder if I was a sports fan of anything. Hanging on my wall is a laminated poster a friend gave me back around 1988. It's an outrageous depiction of a Cubs game in Wrigley Field. Look closely and you'll see Dorothy and Toto...the Tinman and Scarecrow...Waldo...and many other characters. I'm sure the Cowardly Lion is in the crowd somewhere, but I haven't found him yet.

And on top of my desk you'll see a Jimmie Johnson pad of paper.

That's it. Two of the three sports I really and NASCAR racing. The third sport is air racing, especially the Red Bull World Series of Air Racing. I don't have a particular favorite pilot, but if I did, I think it would be Peter "The Hungarian" Besenyei.

What about other sports, you ask? There aren't any other sports in my mind. Everything else is a timed - 60 minutes; basketball - 48 minutes; ice hockey - 60 minutes...and other so-called sporting events. Baseball and racing...those are sports.

A baseball game can theoretically last forever. As long as the home team ties the game in the bottom of the inning, it goes on. It's a team sport where nine players do their best to overcome the capabilities of nine other players. There is no clock for the teams to watch, and use...just a scoreboard. And to top it all off, the offense is one person facing nine others with a wooden to speak. There could be as many as three more offensive players involved, but the main thrust is the one man in the box waiting for the pitch. The team will live or die by his actions. Now that's a sporting competition. The goal, of course, is to win the game.

Racing, though not really "timed," does have specific goal. That goal is to be the first person across the finish line at the end of a set amount of laps around the track. For the most part, the only time a clock comes in to play is when a driver goes to his (or her) pit for fueling or fixing bad parts. A clock is also used to check how fast a driver is going, but that information has very little to do with the actual race. Auto racing is another sport where one team does their best to overcome the capabilities of another team. A pit crew can win or lose for a driver just as easily as a driver can win or lose the race himself. It's the driver's skill in negotiating his vehicle around the track, combined with the pit crew's ability to quickly refuel, change tires and in some cases, make minor adjustments to the vehicle, that make a winner. And if either one is not at the top of their game, someone else will cross the finish line first.

Red Bull Air Racing also uses a clock. But it pits each pilot against each other using the clock as a means to determine the best. In previous years, eight pilots would qualify to fly the final day and each one would be put up against the seven other pilots. When all qualifying pilots have flown their final time around the course, the one with the best would be the winner. This year is a bit different. The pilots with the eight best qualifying times are in the final day of racing. Based on their times in their final qualifying run, they are seeded against each other. The fastest pilot is seeded against the eighth fastest, the second fastest against the seventh and so on. As each seeded race in finished, the pilot with the fastest time goes on to the next level. In the final race, it's the two pilots with the best times in their previous races against each other for the top spot on the podium. It's skill versus skill in the end.

I haven't been to the Reno Air Races, but I have seen the race on television. It's the pilot's ability for the most part which wins the race, but the people behind the scene who fix the aircraft, tune the engine, wax the surfaces and generally make sure the bird is ready to fly at it's peak performance have a lot to do with it also. There, heat races are held with a number of aircraft flying a circuit with the first to cross the finish line advancing and in the end, winning.

Those are real sports in my eyes. They get my blood pumping and my heart pounding. Not football or any of the other timed competitions. If one team gets ahead and the clock is close to the end, there is very little chance for the other team to win. Not like in baseball where the home team could go to their final inning on offense 12 runs behind the other team and still win the game.

Look at it this way...there are nine innings in each baseball game. Divide that into the 60 minutes of a football game and you get just over six and a half minutes. Take those minutes and divide it in half again and you get just under three and a half. This represents the time in football equal to one team's offensive action in baseball...or a half inning. In those roughly three and a half minutes, might be able to score a game tying or game winning touchdown...they might even be able to score two touchdowns to win the game. But it would be very difficult for them to score 12 times in those three or so minutes if they have to give the other team a chance after they score. The team which is ahead will always have the advantage in a timed event when the clock is close to the finish line.

Not so in baseball and not so in racing. It is skill and ability from beginning to end.

I know some will argue that those limitations were fixed with play clocks and the like, but those only make sure an offensive play is run quickly. Get to 23 seconds on the clock in a football and basically the game is over. The team ahead and with the ball only need "spike" the ball and everyone is walking on the field congratulating each other while the clock is clicking down the final seconds. Basketball games, some will argue, have been won "at the buzzer," but that only happens when the "winning" team works the clock in their favor to place them in the position to win the game if the buzzer beating shot goes through the hoop.

Don't get me wrong players, basketball players, hockey players and all the other timed competition team members are great athletes. They have to be, to do what they do. But what they do just doesn't thrill me as much as the home team coming from 12 runs down in the bottom of the ninth to win the game, or a home team batter hitting a walk-off homerun in the bottom of the 22nd inning to win game. Nor does it thrill me as much as watching two drivers side-by-side heading towards the finish line and one of them winning by two thousandth of a second, or watching one pilot fly three hundredths of a second faster than another pilot over a closed course. Those are exciting.

Payton Manning tossing a "Hail Mary" pass in the final seconds of a football game in the hopes his team will win, just doesn't thrill me at all.