September 2020 Archives

One of the gratifying aspects of blogging is hearing from people who want to know more about something I've written. And nothing has generated more such contacts than the posts I've made about Atlantic Richfield Company's corporate art collection. It's been twenty years since ARCO was swallowed up by BP Amoco (now just BP), and five years since I first blogged about ARCO's extensive collection of artwork, but I regularly get email from people who are seeking additional information about pieces that they believe were once in that collection -- or, even better, offering additional information about that artwork.

If you're just now tuning in, you can find the original articles about the artwork here (May, 2015) and here (October, 2016).

Last week I received an email from someone that fell into that latter category. I have that person's permission to share it.

Hi Eric-

I commented on one of your blog posts, but I thought I should email you as well.

I have some photographs you may be interested in.  After I earned my photography degree in 1983, I worked as a darkroom tech in Schaumburg, Illinois, processing film and producing prints for corporations and pro photographers.

One of our clients was ARCO.  I spent a -lot- of time producing 8x10 prints and duplicate transparencies of pieces in their collection.  I saved every proof of every piece I liked.

I still have them.  

I suspect you may be interested in seeing them!  Mostly sculptures -- I don't recall doing any two dimensional pieces, but it was a long time ago.  I'll dig the boxes out today.

Thank you for the illuminating blog posts!.  I was always curious about ARCO's collection -- and its disposition.  Thanks goes to the synchronicity of the Internet- I only found your blog because I learned that a friend, Arthur Ganson, sold a number of his sculptures to William Louis-Dreyfus (Julia's dad), who was a huge outsider art collector.

At that moment, I realized that I had never Googled the term "ARCO art collection"- well!  Here we are.  

John Lovaas
Woodstock, Illinois

Well, as you might expect, my curiosity was piqued and I was indeed interested in running down this new trail. John and I exchanged a series of emails and a few days ago ten high resolution scans of artwork photography appeared in my inbox. John had done what he promised; it was time for me to get to work.

The first item of business was to nail down the nature of the ARCO location where the artwork resided. I knew nothing about any offices in the Chicago area, and I came up empty trying to find a reference to a Chicago-based operation. So I crowd-sourced the research. 

There's a Facebook group composed of former ARCO employees who worked in the Dallas headquarters of what eventually became ARCO Oil and Gas Company. I posed the question to that group, and one of my former co-workers (supervisor, to be exact) came up with a link to this 1984 notice from UPI. The announcement of the move of Anaconda Industries, which ARCO acquired, to Rolling Meadows, Illinois. This seemed to answer the question...except...

John's work on the photos took place in 1983, before the above-referenced move to Rolling Meadows. Plus -- and this is the biggie -- Rolling Meadows is northwest of Chicago, and John clearly remembers the ARCO client being located on the south side. So much for crowd sourcing.

Fortunately, John came up with his own research in the form of this 1987 Chicago Tribune article documenting the reopening of an ARCO research facility in Harvey, Illinois. That in turn led me to this FOIA request that references the former location of an ARCO Chemical research facility in Harvey. In addition, a couple of other former ARCO employees chimed in with firsthand knowledge regarding the Harvey facility. So, absent any additional information to the contrary, I'm going to assume that the artwork shown below was at one time located at that facility. 

Sure, it's not important in the grand scheme of things, but we're all about accuracy here at the Gazette, even if we have to make it up.

Having established the "where," I then set out to try to clarify the "what"...i.e. the backgrounds of the pieces for which John has provided the images shown below. Because of the nature of his work -- making prints and duplicate transparencies from the original transparencies provided by ARCO -- there was no identifying information. Of course, the artwork speaks for itself, but I suspect many of us find our enjoyment enhanced by knowing something about the piece and its creator.

I turned first to the Tineye reverse image search service. If you're unfamiliar with this fascinating (and free) resource, it allows you to upload an image and then it searches to see where else it might appear online. As of this writing, it's cataloged 42 billion images. I've used it sparingly in the past to see if anyone has "borrowed" photos that I've used in my blog posts.

I used Tineye to search for matches on the ten images provided by John. I wasn't optimistic...and my realism paid off, as there were only two matches. But both of those matches led to resources that helped me learn more about the artwork.

For the remainder, I did sleuthing based on the artist's name, where I could make it out. I also reviewed literally hundreds of images associated with each artist via Google searches. In the end, only three of the ten pieces remain unidentified. My hope is that someone someday might run across this post, recognize one of the mystery pieces, and share some information about it.

Based on my research, it would not be an exaggeration to say that most if not all of these nine pieces are historically significant examples of American folk art and it was a privilege to be able to "handle" them and to learn more about the artists. I hope I've done them justice.

I think that's enough context. Let's get down to the really interesting stuff: the artwork itself. Along with a JPG of each piece, I've provided all the information about the artist and the artwork I could find, along with a blurb highlighting a bit of biographical information about the creator. You can follow the links I provide if you want to know more.

Also, a mild disclaimer about the color accuracy of these images is in order. Most of the images I was given did not have color reference cards, so I didn't have a baseline to know what adjustments might be needed to approximate the look of the original piece. So, I offer my apologies to any art critics (or owners) who are familiar with the artwork. For the rest of you...just assume they're perfect representations!



Photo - 'Wrestling' - Painting by George W White
Photo - 'Wrestling' - Painting by George W White - Closeup of label with artist's description of painting
Photo - 'Wrestling' - Painting by George W White

Title: Wrestling (1968)
Media: Oil on panels with carved relief and collage
Dimensions: 27 3/8" x 29 7/8" x 6 ¼" (mounted on board)
Artist: George W. White, Jr. (1903-1970) [Bio via Texas State Historical Association]
Born: Cedar Creek, Texas
Comments: "Wrestling" (1968) has a hinged panel mounted in the center: when the panel is turned to the left the fight is represented in progress, and when turned to the right the winner is shown standing above his knocked-out opponent. (Via Texas State Historical Association website)

As a native Texan and former resident of the Dallas area, I was fascinated by this artwork. The  artist's comments on the label attached to the piece refer to a very famous wrestler, Fritz von Erich, patriarch of an equally [in]famous wrestling family living in the north Texas area. Mr. White was obviously a big fan not only of von Erich but of professional wrestling in general. This piece is practically a wrestling documentary. Killer Karl KoxGary Hart, and Spoiler #2 were all wrestling contemporaries of von Erich, and Marvin Jones was a well-known referee of the time.


Photo - 'Bull Dog' - Sculpture by Jesse Aaron

Title: Bull Dog (1969)
Media: Mixed media sculpture
Dimensions: Unknown
Artist: Jesse Aaron (1887-1979)
Born: Lake City, Florida
Comments: In 1968, while Aaron and his wife were living in the house he had built on N W Seventh A venue in Gainesville, he discovered that Lee Anna was losing her sight. He realized in desperation that without a steady job, he would have no money for her cataract- removal operations. As he told it to me, one morning he awoke at 3 A.M. with the voice of the Lord still reverberating in his ears, saying "Jesse, Carve Wood!" He immediately arose from his bed, went into his small workshop, and carved the first of his small wooden sculptures. (Via Souls Grown Deep website)

Jesse Aaron was a prolific folk artist and the web is chock full of examples of his work. This particular piece, however, is something of a ghost. I could locate no additional information about it. The Souls Grown Deep website linked above has a lot more information about Aaron.



Photo - Unknown sculptures

Title: Unknown
Media: Mixed media sculptures
Dimensions: Unknown
Artist: Unknown

I could locate no information about these pieces. I even tried doing Tineye searches on the individual figures, to no avail.



Photo - 'This Is It' - Painting by Luster Willis

Title: This Is It (date unknown)
Media: Unknown
Dimensions: Unknown
Artist: Luster Willis (1913-1991)
Born: Terry, Mississippi
CommentsWillis's paintings are made form a variety of paper and materials. He tries to achieve subtle, three-dimensional shifts by painting on different kinds of paper with various thicknesses and collaging them together on the same canvas. Willis refers to this product as a "set-in" because the different materials are set together like puzzle pieces. Willis used primarily watercolors and acrylic paints on paper, pasteboard, cardboard, and plywood. Occasionally, to achieve more depth, he would add shoe polish or gold or silver glitter to the edges of the "set-in" pieces. (Via Wikipedia)

Luster Willis was another prolific folk artist, and created many paintings entitled "This Is It." However, this particular version didn't appear in any of the searches I did.



Photo - Unknown mixed media painting

Title: Unknown
Media: Mixed media
Dimensions: Unknown
Artist: Unknown

I would love to know more about this piece. The red star on the airplanes might indicate that this was a reference to the Cold War.



Photo - Unknown sculpture

Title: Unknown
Media: Mixed media sculpture
Dimensions: Unknown
Artist: Unknown

Once again, I struck out in my efforts to identify this sculpture of a horse race.



Photo - 'Pig on Expressway' - Artwork by Nellie Mae Rowe

Title: Pig on Expressway (1980)
Media: Crayon on paper
Dimensions: 17 3/4" x 23 3/4"
Artist: Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-1982)
Born: Fayette County, Georgia
Comments: Throughout her two-dimensional works, she incorporated common religious imagery, like the cross, or faith-based texts. A member of the African Methodist Church, Rowe was a deeply spiritual and religious Christian. Across some of her canvas she wrote, "Beleave in God and He Will Make A Way Far You" or "God Bless My House." She said, "Drawing is the only thing I think is good for the Lord" and attributed her artistic talent to God. Additionally, some scholars have located her depiction of "haints" or spirits in broader African-American spiritual traditions, which accepted the presence of voodoo spirits. (Via Wikipedia website)

Nellie Mae Rowe is one of the most important American folk artists, working in multiple media. Her art is on display in some of the most prestigioius museums in the country.



Photo - 'G.H. McNEAL THIS IS FISH BOAT BACK IN YEAR 1929 RUN BY StEAM' - Sculpture by Leslie J. Payne

Title: G.H. McNEAL THIS IS FISH BOAT BACK IN YEAR 1929 RUN BY StEAM (ca 1970-74)
Media: Wood/plastic/fabric/metal
Dimensions: 32 5/8" x 52 1/8" x 12 1/2"
Artist: Leslie J. "Airplane" Payne (1907-1981)
Born: Airport, Virginia
Comments: After living in New Jersey and Baltimore during his early adult life, Payne returned at forty to his native Virginia, where he made a living as a handyman while devoting much of his spare time to building large- and small-scale airplane models from found materials. They were displayed in an elaborate yard show that included model boats, hand-painted commemorative signs, and whirligigs. Payne was deeply interested in machinery of flight, but he also loved ornament.(Via Smithsonian American Art Museum website)

According to this piece's entry on the SAAM website, it was donated to the museum by Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr., (1929-1998), an artist and collector of American folk art. The sculpture appears to not currently be on display...except here, albeit in two dimensions.



Photo - Painting by Inez Nathaniel-Walker

Title: Unknown
Media: Unknown
Dimensions: Unknown
Artist: Inez Nathaniel-Walker (1911-1990)
Born: Sumter, South Carolina
Comments: Inez Nathaniel went north to Philadelphia during the Great Migration of the 1930s to escape the harsh realities of farm work in the rural South. Convicted of the manslaughter of an abusive male acquaintance, she served time in the Bedford Hills, New York, Correctional Facility from 1971 to 1972, where she began to draw to isolate herself from the "bad girls" in the facility. When she remarried in1975, she took her new husband's name, Walker. Walker's drawings are almost exclusively single or paired portraits of females. In most of her works, the heads are drawn much larger and more expressively than the rest of the figures and dominate thecomposition. Though Walker never felt she was able to capture a likeness, and she relied on her imagination to develop the faces, she created clearly recognizable characters. Some recur frequently. Elements of self-portraiture are also evident in her figures, many of whom wear clothing, especially hats, based on the artist's own.(Via Smithsonian American Art Museum website)

Walker's style is consistently recognizable, and the example shown here is one of scores, if not hundreds of similar variations. Again, however, this specific piece doesn't show up in a Google image search. There is a website devoted to her life and work that goes well beyond the typical Wikipedia summary.



Acknowledgements

I want to thank the folks who provided valuable input to this article, beginning of course with John Lovaas. John had no real incentive to go to the trouble of contacting me and then working to provide high quality images of the artwork discussed herein, other than a desire to help maintain the historical record, as it were.

I also greatly appreciate the help of my former ARCO colleagues -- most but not all of whom I knew in a former life -- in nailing down the probable location of the artwork. These folks include Joe "Accounting" Watson, Ben Kawakami, Art Hughes, Jim Sluder, and Steve Molina.

Missing the HIPPA Mark
September 20, 2020 9:21 AM | Posted in: ,

I apologize for being unable to come up with my usual pithy yet insightful yet whimsical alliterative title for this post. If you can find a relevant alliteration to go along with "HIPPA," I'd love to hear it.

Here's an equation that I recently developed while sitting in a medical waiting room. See if you can solve it.

LTP + LTR + WRT + PI = X,

where LT is "Loud Talker", WR is "Waiting Room," and PI is "Patient Interview."

You've probably guessed already that the sum of those variables somehow relates to HIPAA*, the wonderful legislation that has resulted in the untimely deaths of millions of trees and trillions of pixels since its passage in 1996. I haven't the slightest idea of everything contained in HIPAA**, but if you're like me, you basically view it as something which is supposed to protect the privacy of our health information <cynicism>by making it inaccessible to everyone who really needs it.</cynicism>

Anyway, back to the amusing [to me] incident that led to this post. In the equation above, X is HIPPAv∞ or if you prefer, a violation of all known and unknown HIPAA privacy-related provisions. [Note: IANAL]

This equation may be used in a number of situations, but it was particularly applicable last week when, instead of taking the patient back to an office or exam room, a receptionist interviewed him in the 12'x12' waiting room full of other people in order to complete the medical information forms that should have been done ahead of the appointment. They were both loud talkers and there was no apparent reason for this approach as the patient was of sound mind as evidenced by an earlier cell phone call he took. He did try to do us a favor by turning to face the wall while he shouted into his phone, but the consequence was an amplification phenomenon that yielded the opposite result of what I assume he intended.

As a result, I (and everyone else in the room) had access to the following information about this patient:

  • his marital status
  • his medication list
  • his medical history, including recent surgeries
  • his symptoms for current visit to the clinic
  • his insurance.
Now, realistically, no harm was done. I don't know the guy, I can't remember his name, nor can I remember the details of any of the preceding data. It's really just the principle of the thing.

If you're ever in this situation, as the interviewee, I suggest developing a baby-is-sleeping-next-to-us inside voice, or asking that the conversation move to another room away from eavesdropping ears. Better yet, just do the dang paperwork before you arrive at the office. Otherwise, you might end up in a Seinfeld episode***.



*In doing my usual extensive research for this article, i.e. looking at one Wikipedia listing, I learned that the acronym I'm accustomed to using -- HIPPA -- is technically inaccurate and its usage really ticks off some of the bureaucrats. So, keep on using it.

**If you'd like to read it, here's the 349 page PDF in all of its inscrutable glory.

***I know, they're not still making Seinfeld eps. Just work with me here, OK?

Our Neighborhood Bobcat
September 15, 2020 3:24 PM | Posted in: ,

Alert Gazette readers will recall that I've previously written about the bobcat that frequents our neighborhood [see here and here]. Both of those reports arose from images captured on my trail camera, all of which were taken at night. I have never seen the bobcat during the day, although certain of our neighbors have reported seeing it in the early morning hours just before or right around sunrise.

That changed last Sunday. Debbie and I had returned home from eating lunch at a restaurant after church and had driven into the countryside a ways to release an armadillo that I trapped overnight (number 77, if you're keeping count). It shortly after 1:00 and I had just returned the trap to its spot in the back yard when a movement across the creek caught my eye.

I initially thought to myself whose pit bull is running loose over there? No one in the neighborhood has a pit bull. The animal disappeared momentarily, hidden by the trees lining the creek, but when it reappeared I instantly recognized it as a bobcat. And, of course, I pulled out my phone and started videoing.

Photo - Bobcat in our neighborhood

There are no other houses across the creek from our back yard, just a large green space bordered by the walking trail. The nearest structure is our neighborhood amenities center: a workout room, indoor pool, and a meeting room. The cat was meandering toward that structure.

I scurried out of the back yard, through the vacant lot next door, and across the low water crossing, hoping that I was right about the route the bobcat was taking. Sure enough, when I next caught sight of it, it was peering into the workout room. I couldn't see anyone inside through the tinted windows, but the cat was seemingly attracted to something (perhaps its own reflection?). At one point I could hear it yowl.

[And speaking of hearing things, the squirrels and birds in the trees above where the cat was strolling were extremely vocal in expressing their disapproval of its presence. The bobcat, for its part, paid them no heed. I was wishing for a dive-bombing mockingbird to enliven the scene.]

The feline continued its saunter along the perimeter of the building, stopping briefly to paw at a window. It eventually rounded a corner and laid down in the concealing shade of some shrubs.

As this scene unfolded, it occurred to me that I was pretty close to a wild animal not famous for its soft and cuddly nature. It could run faster than me; it could climb better than me; it had sharper teeth and claws than me. All I had was my superior intellect...the same intellect that brought me within spitting distance of a bobcat. So much for superior intellect. At the same time, it wasn't acting strange -- other than wandering around in the middle of the day* -- and other than giving me a glance or two, didn't seem to care about my presence one way or another. I decided I wasn't taking much of a risk after all.

My wildlife observation episode came to an end when a pickup drove by and startled the cat, which hightailed it back toward the creek where it disappeared into the grass. I suspect the bobcat has a den somewhere along the creek bed, and will continue to prowl the neighborhood. My only concern is when a wild animal like this gets too comfortable being in the presence of people, something bad will eventually happen...and it will be the bobcat on the losing end.

Well, anyway. I did splice together some of the video that I took, and you can watch it here in this relatively short (<2 minutes) clip. You can ignore the captions if you like; they pretty much are summaries of what I've written here.



*Bobcats are crepuscular animals, meaning that they're generally most active during the twilight hours -- around dawn and dusk. However, it's not terribly unusual for them to be active during the day, although that is more likely to be the case during the fall and winter months.

The $5,000 Meatloaf
September 12, 2020 7:51 AM | Posted in:

Graphic - Mock MPAA rating for this post

You know, before we retired and moved to the Texas Hill Country a few years ago, I saw only two medical professionals on a semi-regular basis: a dentist and an optometrist. However, now that I'm living a healthier, more stress-free life in a much slower-paced community, I have -- along with a different dentist and optometrist -- the following:

  • A primary care physician
  • A cardiologist
  • An electrophysiologist
  • An endocrinologist
  • An orthopedic specialist
  • A pharmacist that knows me by name
  • A periodontist/oral surgeon
  • A chiropractor.
Each of these new medical professionals have entered my world due to specific (and occasionally semi-serious) health issues. IOW, I'm not just filling out a doctor bingo card. I hate to say anything is inevitable, even if I sometimes (often?) do, but perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that the inexorable advance of age is accompanied by the soothing pastime of lounging in sterile waiting rooms with bad artwork and old magazines, and nowadays with the additional enhancement of glasses-fogging masks.

I have greeted most of these new acquaintances with relative equanimity, perhaps by putting equal emphasis on the first third of the Serenity Prayer and the realization that some of the stuff is self-inflicted. But it's that last interaction that really grates my grits*.

Here's the deal. A couple of weeks ago, on a Friday evening, I was happily noshing on a slab of precooked meatloaf purchased earlier in the day from the market down the road. The market's name isn't important although any resident of the town we're living in will know exactly who I'm talking about. 

Halfway through the meatloaf -- which was quite tasty, by the way -- I bit down on what was probably a tiny piece of bone and split a tooth from top to bottom. 

For you dental aficionados reading this, it was the first bicuspid on the upper right, aka #4 in the UTNS [Universal Tooth Numbering System...which I just made up, but which totally should be a thing. Uh, OK. I just googled tooth numbering systems and there's at least three of them, and the most commonly used one in the US is the UNS or Universal Numbering System. I find the lack of specificity as to what, exactly, is being numbered to be distressing, as it could apply to everything from cheese to crescent wrenches. There's also a bit of hubris involved with dentists appropriating a Universal anything; it's not unlike we Earthlings crowning a Miss Universe when it's highly unlikely there are any other galaxies represented in the competition.] But I digress.

I knew immediately that a Very Not Good Thing had just occurred, even without prior experience in the area of devastated dental appendages. I also knew instinctively that my life would be very different AML (After Meat Loaf) than BML. And -- curse my unfailing perceptiveness -- I was right.

A broken tooth on a Friday evening doesn't really warrant a call to the emergency line at our dentist's office, even if I am freaked out about it. I go through the uncomfortable weekend self-medicating and chewing on the opposite side of my mouth, and call the office as soon as it opens Monday morning. They can see me that morning around 10:00 a.m., which would normally be miraculous but of course 10:00 a.m. also happens to be the time at which I can visit my mom in person at the locked-down assisted living facility for the first time in almost six months. Mom, I picked you.

They then offered an appointment for early afternoon the following day, which I readily accepted. The dentist confirmed the split, which interestingly runs parallel to the gum line. She is able to tease out half of the tooth but says the other half will require more of a surgical procedure, especially if I want to replace the resulting hole with an implant. The dentist recommended it as the best long-term solution with the least potential complications, other than a ruptured wallet.

Debbie and I had already discussed that possibility -- she's had one and recommended it -- so I was comfortable in agreeing with that approach. The office was then able to get me into see a well-regarded periodontist in Austin on short notice. My dentist told me that there was a possibility of getting the remainder of the tooth extracted AND the implant done in the same day, which sounded like an ideal solution.

Two days later, we drove to Austin for that appointment. Our trip coincided with a record-setting downpour -- the first significant rainfall in the area in two months -- which threatened to delay our arrival. However, we made it on time and I checked in at the front desk. It was there I got the news that my glass-half-empty perspective had prepared me for: they would not do the implant that day. In fact, they would not do the implant for four months.

As it turns out, an implant replacement of an upper tooth is quite problematic because the proximity to the sinus cavity means that there may not be enough bone mass in which to sink the anchor for the implant. So the periodontist performs a bone graft where the extracted tooth was, and gives it four months to bulk up by doing Crossfit or something. (I sorta got lost in the technicalities at that point.) And, actually, things could get worse. If my bone graft proves to be a lazy slacker, the surgeon will have to perform a "sinus lift" which I assume is like a face lift except more expensive and less likely to elicit insincere compliments. I won't describe how a sinus lift works because it's gross and we hope to avoid it.

After that somewhat depressing news, I sat in the waiting room fulfilling its intended purpose. Suddenly, a tremendous crack of thunder shook the building and the lights flickered off then came back on. I heard someone say that the backup generator had kicked in. Well, that's just great. Not only was the implant not going to happen today, but now there was a chance I would have to return to even get the extraction done.

That was not to be the case, as the storm passed quickly and I was escorted into the examination room and prepped by a very efficient dental assistant. A few minutes later, the periodontist arrived and immediately did his best to put me at ease. (For the record, this was my first dental surgery. I do have good teeth. But apparently not bone-crunching good.) He explained in detail the process he was about to undertake, and assured me that they would do everything in their power to not hurt me, and I gave him the same assurance.

"But first," he said, "I want to get a picture." I assumed that he meant an x-ray, but then he stuck a mirror in my mouth and holding it there with one hand, snapped an actual photograph with a digital SLR camera** in the other. He then got to work, enthusiastically describing what he was doing each step of the way. (For the record, in case you're reading this, doc, I wasn't fooled by your euphemistic reference to pain-killing injections as "dots.")

The extraction and bone graft was relatively quick and definitely non-traumatic, and I departed about an hour after arrival with a wad of gauze plugging the new hole in my mouth, but with nothing to plug the four digit hole in our bank account. Debbie drove home -- the rain had returned but let up pretty soon after we left -- and I tried to make sense of the several pages of post-op instructions.

During the past week, while I've had some discomfort, it's never devolved into outright pain. I'm was on a restricted diet of primarily soup and cottage cheese and scrambled eggs and other lukewarm/cold and mushy food, and the inability to drink hot coffee in the mornings was the worst part. However, I found that three lukewarm cups of espresso are an effective substitute, at least from a caffeination standpoint. And I'm still avoiding chewing anything on the right side of my mouth.

All things considered, this could have been much worse. Quick access to excellent healthcare, and the ability to pay for it are blessings that I don't take for granted. I'm very thankful for them.

However, I'm afraid it will be a long time before I can bring myself to forgive that meatloaf.

By the way, I really haven't given the oral surgeon and his staff the credit they deserve. Besides doing an excellent job, they were extraordinarily solicitous of my physical and emotional well-being. I actually got a phone call at home from the surgeon a few hours later to check on my status, and a couple of days later received a get-well-soon card signed by the entire staff. If you're in the Hill Country and need a good periodontist, I'll be happy to provide you with an unqualified recommendation.

*Don't ask me; I don't know what it means either.

**OK, sure...it could have been a mirrorless camera instead of an SLR. I wasn't exactly focused on that detail.

Speedo in Saba -or- Island Exposure
September 7, 2020 9:15 AM | Posted in: ,

In an earlier post I alluded to an episode in my life involving a Speedo swim suit and an embarrassing situation. Looking back, I realize that, when considered together, those two references are redundant but it's too late to undo history.

Sitting at home with little to do other than recuperate from minor oral surgery -- another story for another time -- I figure now is as good a time as any to share the details of one of the more traumatic episodes in my life. And that's saying something given that I once watched a wheel roll past down the street past my car, only to realize that it was MY wheel.

In 1986, Debbie and I, along with two other couples, rented a house on Jamaica, in a town called Runaway Bay, situated between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. I mention these details not because they're relevant to the story, but only to give you the impression that I'm a seasoned and sophisticated traveler.

Actually, I'm mentioning this particular trip because it was the first time for us to snorkel in the ocean and that experience eventually led to scuba training. It was also the first time for me to wear a Speedo swim suit. I can't recall why I decided to do this, nor whether anyone else in my household thought it was a good idea. But I did, and it was a liberating experience...at least when no one else was around.

For those of you who have met me in person, I apologize for the mental images.

By the way, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred during our trip; I should have taken that as a sign.

Fast forward to 1989. Debbie and I are now certified scuba divers and have been on dive trips to the islands of Cozumel and Bonaire. That year, in early July, we found ourselves diving off the coast of the volcanic Caribbean island that could have inspired the King Kong movies: Saba.

If you're not a diver there are few reasons you should know about Saba (pronounced Say-bah). The nearby islands of Saint Martin/Sint Maarten and Saints Kitts and Nevis are more popular tourist destinations than the five-square-mile Saba, whose primary attractions are the abundant and varied sea life and underwater pinnacles surrounding it.

The island has only one main road, imaginatively referred to as "The Road," the construction of which was a feat of engineering so impressive that it warrants its own Wikipedia page. It connects the airport on the northeast end of the island to the port on the southwest end, and even though that's a distance of less than 3 miles, The Road is almost nine miles in length, which gives you an idea of the windiness of the drive. Very few residents now own vehicles, and car rentals weren't an option when we visited. So, we relied on the inexpensive and efficient taxi services for transportation.

We were assigned an affable driver named Anthony (Debbie remembers; I don't) who would be our guy for the week. He would be responsible for getting three of us and our gear from our guest house in the village of Windwardside down to the port near the capital city of The Bottoms where the dive boats departed, and back again, as well as any other day trips we wanted to take. 

Now, scuba diving is a gear intensive undertaking and the taxi minuscule and so Anthony sometimes had to make two trips each way, one to transport our stuff and another to take us. It was only about five miles from the port to Windwardside, but it took almost an hour for the round trip. These details are important; you might want to take some notes.

I think it was the first full day we were there -- and I know it was a Sunday -- we finished our second dive and were ready to return to our lodging. It was mid-afternoon and after dropping some of our gear in the boat for the next day's dive, we waited for Anthony to arrive and take us home. 

We waited...and we waited...and...

We never learned why Anthony was late. Perhaps the logistics weren't not yet worked out that early in our stay. It would be years before we had a cell phone so we couldn't call anyone, even if we had a number to call, which we didn't. In any event, several hours elapsed before he and his little taxi appeared.

If this doesn't sound like an awkward situation, it's only because I've omitted a few details. To wit...

When I dive in water warm enough that a wetsuit isn't necessary, I wear a swimsuit underneath what's called a dive skin, which is basically a thin lycra jumpsuit. Dive skins provide a bit of warmth -- not as much as a wetsuit, but they're much less bulky -- and also protect against coral scrapes and jellyfish stings. Because they're tight-fitting, I elected to wear a Speedo under mine that day. When we got off the boat, we let the dive guides have everything that needed to be rinsed before the next day...and that included my dive skin. And since we were told our ride would be waiting for us at the dock, I didn't even have a shirt, just a pair of flip-flops. I might have also had a cap.

So, we're hanging around the dock, and I'm not feeling too out of place yet, because after all, this is a popular dive destination and while I might look ridiculous in my own right, I'm still not incongruous. That was to change.

After a while, we grew weary of standing around, and we walked a short distance toward town and sat at the edge of a large open paved area...sort of a public square kind of place, where we could watch a few passers-by.

We soon noticed that the "few" were becoming the "not so few," and growing toward "the many." Crowds of people seemed to be meandering in from the town and congregating in that open area where we sat. Even worse, they were a very well-dressed crowd, almost as if they'd all come from church services. Also, the majority of Sabans are Black; some have ancestors who were brought to the island from Africa as slaves.

It's about then that the live music begins, and many in the crowd begin to dance. 

So, let's recap, shall we? There's a large gathering of well-dressed Black people gathering for a dance a few feet from where an almost-naked, terribly white guy is sitting. Did you ever have that dream where you find yourself in the crowded hall of your high school and you realize you have on nothing but underwear? Well, this was worse, because it was really happening.

As it turned out, this was a weekly event on Saba, and we just happened to be hapless party crashers. Fortunately, Sabans are a friendly and hospitable lot, and while nobody offered me a suit jacket, neither did they report me to the authorities. At least the music was catchy.

Anthony finally showed up a few hours after we expected him, and we made it back to our lodging in time for supper. I don't recall the fate of the Speedo, but I'm pretty sure I never wore it unaccompanied again.

Despite all of this, if you ever have the opportunity to visit Saba, I recommend you do so. It's a beautiful and fascinating place, and not at all the clichéd and hedonistic Caribbean resort destination. Also, you'll be able to say that you flew into one of the ten scariest airports in the world. (Debbie and I have actually flown into three of the ten and lived to tell about them.)

Photo - My safari look; no speedo
Me on the return trip home, taken on the island of Sint Maarten. I know it's a temptation,
but don't bother undressing me with your eyes; there's no Speedo.
Note: As I was typing the title of this post, I began to doubt that I actually knew how to spell "eager," because it looked weird. In my defense, we just got a new Nespresso machine and I'm trying out a fortissio lungo, which is Italian for "guaranteed to make you not sleep for two days and to question the spelling of common English language words."

My buen amigo and his fetching wife have a beautiful home on South Padre Island (that's at the southern tip of the Texas Gulf Coast for you non-Texans), mere footsteps away from Laguna Madre, aka "the Bay" for purposes of this post. I could spend a lot of words on Laguna Madre because it's one of the true natural wonders of Texas; suffice it to say that it's >100 miles in length, not very wide, and is quite shallow. It's also a sail- and kite-boarder's paradise, thanks to its flat waters and generally reliable and ample winds.

If you stroll down the street where my friend lives, and peer into the open garages along the way, you might see a car parked inside...but it's more likely that the garages are packed with sailboards and sails and all the gear that go along with this equipment-intensive sport. And, as far as I can tell, most of the owners of said garages and equipment appear to be my age or older. Don't read anything into that observation, at least not for a while.

My friend and I have been trading texts about the latest sailing conditions in the Bay, which he describes as epic. Yesterday, for example, winds were sustained at around 30 mph, gusting to almost 40 (or, as we used to say in West Texas, mildly breezy). Of course, he speaks in terms of knots, only resorting to miles per hour when conversing with folks of childlike understanding, like me.

Aside: Surely you're aware that a sailboat, sailboard, iceboat, etc. can glide at speeds exceeding the actual wind speed. It's all due to physics, calculus, angle of momentum, angels' wings, and the dark arts, but it's true. Feel free to look it up.

His excitement about those conditions and desire to share them with me brought back memories from last year when we visited SPI and I got back on a board for the first time in decades. And therein lies the tale.

But first, some context.

Debbie and I learned to windsurf in the mid-1980s at a small body of water called Moss Creek Lake, near the West Texas burg of Big Spring (only tobacco-chewing residents with missing teeth are allowed to un-ironically refer to it as "Big Springs"). We enjoyed it enough to eventually buy our own boards, and when record-setting rainfall a few years later filled a big playa lake between Stanton and Big Spring, we were able to do quite a bit of sailing before evaporation made the water too yucky. I've previously written about an adventure on that body of water.

Once that playa lake became un-sailable, the boards and sails went into storage and came out only once in the ensuing decades. However, as with falling off a bicycle, once one learns to windsurf, one never forgets how competent one believed oneself to be, despite all facts to the contrary.

So it was with completely unwarranted confidence that I agreed to let my friend rig up a board for me to try out on the Bay. 

The wind that afternoon was less than 20 mph which, if my calculations are correct, made it still in excess of my capabilities. The sail my guru chose for me was postage stamp-size, the sailboard equivalent of training wheels on a quadracycle. IOW, no one could possibly fail to handle such a sail, even in gale force winds. 

The board itself was a floater, meaning that it was designed to accommodate a hippopotamus without submerging. Between the teensy sail and the huge board, only a consummate screwup could, you know, screw it up.

We hauled the gear to the water's edge and I climbed aboard. As I hauled the sail up for the first time since Reagan was president, I was overcome by that old familiar feeling: "I'm gonna die out here!" Keenly aware of my friend's watchful eye, I nevertheless pulled the boom toward the wind and the board leapt into action, like a stallion too long in the pen.

Miraculously, I managed to remain upright as I raced across the Bay. I leaned back against the wind, trying to balance my body weight against the pull of the wind-filled sail, and skimmed the  surface of the water until I grudgingly deemed it time to turn around. (This is what sailing on flat water is, basically...back and forth, back and forth, back and...well, you get the picture. It is more exciting than it sounds, though.)

Now, try to stay with me here, because I'm going to move pretty fast. There are two methods to turning a sailboard. One is called "tacking" and the other is called "jibing" (or "gybing" if you're snooty). I'm not going to explain the differences between the two techniques, primarily because I don't know what they are. I do know that tacking is much easier than jibing. So, of course, I try a jib. I immediately succeed in falling. And not just falling, but falling so that the sail is on the wrong side of the board and the board is still pointed the wrong direction and the wind seems to be getting stronger.

Against my better judgment -- and, really, I have no better judgment -- I insist on trying to do things the right way, by getting back on the board and hauling up the sail and attempting another tack. The results are the same, and I repeat this insanity multiple times before resorting to the ultimate windsurfing ignominy: standing in the water (it's only chest deep) and manually turning the board around and putting the sail where it should be and just starting over. I now remember that I've always hated windsurfing.

But now I'm ready to head back to shore, and this is where the fun really begins. I realize that despite my mental reminder to do so when I first got on the water, I neglected to memorize exactly the spot that I departed from. I was far enough from the shore that everything looked the same. Also, I had somehow drifted downwind from where I thought I needed to be. I know, I know; how is it possible that someone with such considerable sailing skills could end up in this situation? What can I say? I have a gift.

I finally pick out a spot on the horizon that looks vaguely familiar -- I'm guessing I'm about forty miles from shore (later I learned it was more like 400 yards, but that's still a really long way, and I'm not wearing my glasses) -- and start heading that way. 

I'm fighting the wind the whole way, and it's taking its toll on my strength. I finally get close enough to the shore to recognize...nothing. Except I recognize enough to know that I have no idea where I am, relative to where I need to be. I could be north of it. I could be south of it. I could be in another time zone. But, guess what? I'm too tired to care anymore. I let the wind carry me close to shore, where I drop the sail and paddle the rig to a dock in back of a home where I hope I can get my bearings.

I'm floating in the water like a bedraggled lily pad after a hurricane (sorry), unrigging the sail so I can try to get everything onto the dock and then try to figure out where I am, when a man comes out of the house and warily approaches me.

"Uh...are you OK?" he asks, obviously knowing the answer. "Can I help?"

"Well, I've managed to get lost and there's no way I'll ever be able to get found by getting back on this board so, yeah, I sorta need some help."

With his assistance, I get the rig up onto the dock. At that point, I notice several people on a balcony next door watching me with barely concealed mirth. I mentally run back through my extensive list of embarrassing moments and thereby take comfort in knowing that at least I'm not wearing a speedo and nothing else. (That's another story for another time. And perhaps something stronger than an espresso.)

"Uh...my friends have no idea where I am and I don't have a way to contact them. Do you mind if I borrow your phone?"

The Good Samaritan produces a cell phone and I dial Debbie's number. And, of course, not recognizing the number, she doesn't answer. I don't remember anyone else's number. I'm totally, absolutely alone, and will have to survive on my wits and skills. 

I do remember the street where our friends live, and when I tell the man that, he says "oh, you're only about five or six blocks away from there." Well, so much for my wilderness experience.

I get his permission to leave the rig in his front lawn and start the Windsurfing Walk of Shame back to where my friends are living it up with tea and crumpets, completely oblivious to my desperate situation. After what seems like an hours-long trek -- sure, it's only six blocks, but they're long blocks, plus there's no straight shot to where I'm going, so it's the equivalent of like, ten blocks or even more. It's horrible! -- I drag myself up to the front of the house where everyone makes a big deal over my ordeal by laughing only behind my back.

We pile into my pickup and make the two minute drive back to where I had landed, and load everything up. Everything after that is a haze, although I do remember not being able to move the next day. It was quite an adventure.

I can't wait to do it again.


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This page is an archive of entries from September 2020 listed from newest to oldest.

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