Saturday, 22 October 2011

Ten things

One of my fellow followers belongs to a Coffee Klatch group and has been given the tasks of listing ten things done, like to have done, not done etc, which prompted more followers  (link  another link) of both our blogs to do a similar thing which in turn has prompted me to follow on with another copy cat post.

Ten things not too many other people will have done.
1. Met Julius Caesar – two of them actually, both related.
  One lived on my dad’s little caravan site in the 1950s. The other was a Major in the army, who attended some of my ICT classes when I taught at The Royal Military College of Science.
2. Played with Norman Wisdom’s dog Buttons as a child.
  He too lived in a caravan on my dad’s caravan site, just before making his first movie, Trouble in Store. He then became rich and famous and moved into a posh bungalow nearby.
3. Helped discover Jupiter’s magnetic field.
  For a short time I worked as a technician for a UK astronomy team funded by Florida University.
4. Been shot in the stomach around 1945, just after the outbreak of peace.
 A stray bullet managed to find me half a mile away from an Army rifle range.
5. Had a cabin cruiser fall on me and lived.
 Someone had removed the trestles just before I crawled underneath it to help my dad insert a bung in the bottom of the hull. As he walked across to my side it fell over trapping me underneath it and crushing one leg. No permanent damage, but I have been left with an irrational fear of crawling underneath large cabin cruisers ever since.
6. Been mobbed by teenage fans when working for a pop group they all fancied.
 Had to do some service work on some equipment for Amen Corner just after they had a number one hit. Their house was surrounded by screaming teeny boppers and it was OK going in but they mobbed me when I came out.
7. Knew the actor Trevor Howard, who wanted me to play Oliver in the 1948 version of the movie Oliver Twist.
 I was too shy to even try, so who knows what may have happened if I had. The kid who did play the part has an uncanny resemblance to me when you see photos of us both.
8. Had a grandfather who invented chipboard and then sold the rights, to raise capital for his core business. Which is why I am not a millionaire member of a business dynasty.
9. Been arrested in what was once Yugoslavia.
 Two very large seeming armed men took me into a back room at Ljubljana airport and tried hard to convince themselves I was someone they were looking for. It affected my wife more than me because she was just left outside to worry and no one would tell her what was happening. After about two hours I was released.
10. Invented the Frisbee around 1952, but did not think to market the idea.
  I discovered that a used clutch plate from my dad’s garage could be made to soar across the field behind the garage, which Buttons ( see no 2) chased after like a greyhound.
11. Independently discovered wireless and blotted out all radio reception in our village until asked to stop by an irate neighbour.
 My cousin and I discovered that using headphones you could pick up the sound of a high voltage spark we had been producing. We had an ignition coil out of a Spitfire that we had bought in a surplus shop; we bought the coil not the aircraft. This when connected to a car battery produced a spark about an inch and a half long. We then started sending Morse code to each other. Unknown to us, our spark transmitter was so powerful it drowned out any other radio signal for about half a mile radius.
12. Been inside the crater of a live volcano.
 Vesuvius has tours that go into the crater, or they did about thirty years ago, which was venting smoke.
13. Found an unexploded bomb on a beach and with some friends took it up to show my dad. He was not too delighted.
 Fortunately it was a simple type, with a contact detonator, so we survived because we did not actually drop it or throw it away.
OK so that is ten things within an accuracy of plus or minus 33%

Things I have achieved at least once
1. Walked up Snowdon. Doesn’t sound like much but it was like climbing a mountain for me.
2. Stood on the rim of the Grand Canyon
3. Been up in a balloon
4. Retired whilst still alive
5. Crossed the Rockies
6. Flown a light plane.
7. Toured Europe.
8. Discovered a lost relative or two or ten, well to be honest, they discovered me.
9. Sailed around the Hebrides
10. Seen Niagara Falls.

Things I have never done but would like to
1. Visited Australia or New Zealand for that matter, although I have friends and relatives in Australia
2. Flown in a helicopter
3. Won any kind of race
4. Travelled at or above Mach 1
5. Ridden a Camel
6. Found out where odd socks go
7. Owned a sea going vessel and hold a Skippers ticket
8. Got down to my correct Body Mass Index
9. Been any good at sports
10. Learned English grammar

Things I am happy to have avoided
1. Death, or as the local man replied to the tourist’s question, ‘Have you lived here all your life?’ ‘No not yet.’
2. Spending more than a week in hospital.
3. Becoming senile and forgetting things and oh yes, becoming senile and forgetting things.
4. Going to a football match.
5. Having to send good men out to die horribly.
6. Meeting royalty.
7. Living in the East End or Coronation Street.
8. Eating cabbage.
 Well ever since I left school and could make my own choices about the horrible stuff.
9. Being horribly totally skint, although the present government are working on it. 
 I have starved, but that was because my whole family came down with Influenza all at once and we were unable to feed ourselves for about a week.
10. Conscription, or was that constipation? No matter either will do.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Christmas presents and balloons

This post is about something that occurred more than a month ago. I have intended to post it, but up until now more immediate events have pushed it onto the back burner. The date of this event is significant because it happened on the 31st of August. Not a special date for many, but nonetheless significant.
Last Christmas, The Better Half (TBH) gave me an 'experience' gift for Christmas, this time a balloon flight. We had been trying to book a flight since April and each time we had a date that fitted into our busy schedule, the weather was always too bad on the day of the flight.  So each flight was cancelled one after the other until we started to despair that I would never get to go up. Eventually after eight months of trying, the day arrived when the weather was perfect and I was able to get my Christmas balloon ride and it was brilliant but had a strange ending.

There is an RAF air base near here called Lyneham and that is where they have been repatriating military fatalities for about four years, flying them in from the various theatres of war by Hercules aircraft where they are received with proper ceremony by their fellow servicemen . Their coffins are then transported to Oxford by road, to the Coroner’s office in Oxford where they process each arrival which are then passed on to the relatives for burial. However, RAF Lyneham has been marked for closure for some time as a part of a military spending revue.
The early part of this route passed through the small town of Wootton Bassett and although the arrivals were given military honours at the airfield, the people of Wootton Bassett started to show their own respect quite spontaneously as the hearses passed along their High Street. This entirely unofficial and genuine response, made each funeral procession something special for the bereaved, by doing something no one in officialdom had thought to do publicly.
There are a number of web pages which are all about the amazing response of the local townspeople, who created a tradition which has received a great deal of attention throughout Great Britain. To see this story, follow this link

It started quietly and entirely spontaneously by some local members of the British Legion, an organisation that supports retired members of the armed forces. Learning of the repatriation of casualties through their military connections, some of them decided to honour the dead by simply standing respectfully on the curb side of the route through their town and dipping their British Legion flags as the cars passed.

As a result of their presence, ordinary people going about their normal business in the town would also stop and show their respect too as the coffins passed through. This began during the Iraq wars and over the years grew into a regular ceremony soon becoming the central focus in Britain for showing the public’s support for the armed forces. This unique and spontaneous display of loyalty eventually attracted so much attention from the rest of the country that Wootton Bassett is to be re-named Royal Wootton Bassett by order of Her Majesty the Queen this Sunday. Link to this news story

Prior to this, on August the 31, a ceremony had been arranged, to pass the flag from Wootton Bassett to Brize Norton, to acknowledge what the townspeople had done and to mark the end of the use of Lyneham for this purpose.  New repatriations now take place at RAF Brize Norton, a few miles away near Oxford, where the show of loyalty to the military has continued by members of the public who line the procession path there.  Here is a link to this event.

My balloon flight was also set for the 31st of August and about an hour before the time of the Wootton Bassett ceremony.
TBH and I arrived in good time and as a passenger on the flight and whilst TBH watched, I was roped in along with several of the other passengers, to help get the balloon ready for the flight.
The huge envelope stretched out ready to be unfolded

Everyone helping open it out
 We spread out the envelope and then I was given some thick gloves so that I could help hold the envelope open whilst some other passengers were shown how to fill the envelope with air using a pair of petrol driven fans.  My job was to make sure the opening was wide enough for the fans to start the inflation process.
Helping to keep the envelope open
 Once the balloon had started to expand, the burner was lit and the inflation continued with hot air. I then found out why I had been given gloves, the flames were very hot and quite close to my hands.

Inside the partially inflated balloon

Getting bigger

And bigger
Soon we were able to climb into the basket and suddenly we were several dozen feet up in the air.

Lift off!

Up up and away

TBH's view
It was a marvellous experience, I felt no sense of vertigo or any other sensation, other than a serene feeling of soaring up and away.
Our shadow glides across the park
 We gently rose to a height of about three thousand feet and then started to drift away from the town. After a while, some Champagne was served and we toasted the pilot and each other as we floated along and a communal picture was taken by means of a remote controlled camera which had been hauled out on a line by the pilot.
Although the flight was silent, every now and again the pilot would ignite the burners and for the first  dozen or so times I jumped badly at the sudden roaring noise so close to my ear.
The burner is very hot as well as noisy, and although I was as far away as you can get in the basket, it still felt uncomfortably  close and I was glad I was wearing a hat

Unaware of being watched from above

The M4 motorway, west is to the right

Swindon town
Balloon flights are notoriously difficult to control where and when you come down and require fairly calm conditions, which are most favourable a short time before twilight or shortly after dawn. This was an evening fight, so the time for safe flying comes to an end a little before it is too dark and so you have to come down whilst it is still daylight wherever you happen to be. Where you come down is determined by the speed and direction of the wind. The pilot has a certain amount of control over this, but rather limited choices when he is responsible for the safety of his passengers.

Of all the suitable days for the flight I could have been on with the necessary good weather, the wind that evening was south-west-ish, so our balloon, after taking off from a local park near Swindon, unerringly set out for Lyneham and after passing over Wootton Bassett and then Lyneham Village, unable to go any further safely, our balloon came down in Lyneham airfield.
Wooten Bassett High Street, scene of the ceremony 

Getting low over Lyneham village

Our passing balloon spooked these horses
Ministry Of Defence (MOD) property is not somewhere you should enter without permission, since it normally requires some form of security checking before being allowed inside and even then you have several levels of passes handed out to identified visitors, ranging from an escorted pass, to complete clearance. As far as I know no one on board had security clearance, and although I once held a pass that let me into many secure places in the MOD, but on retirement a few years ago, I had to hand it back.
Some of the the duty staff on the airfield saw the balloon passing by and disappear from view. Thinking it would soon reappear and pass on by, they became concerned when we did not and eventually came to the conclusion that we had landed.
On these trips, the support team in a truck and a small bus follow the balloon so that the paying passengers can be collected from the landing site and bussed back to the launching site and the balloon can be loaded on the truck. The pilot keeps in contact with them and had been able to tell them where we were and so in due course, they arrived at Lyneham’s main gate.  Of course, the guards on duty there would not allow them to enter due to the normal restrictions on access to MOD property and were naturally suspicious since they did not know a balloon had landed on the airfield.
Meanwhile, a Land Rover with two RAF personnel and a patrol car with the MOD Plod (military police) had arrived at the balloon.
The pilot then explained at some length that he had not been able to go any further and had made a forced landing in the biggest open space he could reach. He then went on to ask if our two support vehicles could come in to fetch us. This took a little while and eventually the support vehicles were given passes and allowed in.
During the negotiations we, the passengers, as a part of the ballooning experience had been packing up the balloon and it was ready to be loaded on the truck by the time it arrived.
The sun was almost set by the time the support vehicles arrived, the balloon was loaded and we were escorted off MOD property by the RAF and the military police. After leaving the air base, we were then driven back to Swindon right through Wooten Bassett High Street just after the ceremony there came to an end. The streets were crowded with people leaving the ceremony and we were held up for a while as the police directed the extra traffic into some sort of order. TBH had been getting a little concerned since it was by now pitch dark and was nervous about staying in the park alone in her car, so phoning me to find out what had happened and get an ETA for my return, went off to Sainsbury’s, a local supermarket and had a coffee. By the time our bus had arrived back at the park, she had returned and I was able to tell her all about the flight.

By landing in Lyneham I had followed the exact route that each of the casualties had taken whenever there was repatriation. Any other day, or landing anywhere else and going through Wooten Bassett it would have seemed quite normal but it made me feel rather uncomfortable on that special day, particularly since there were still a lot of people lining the route.
So having been repatriated and returned to TBH, by which time, it was quite late, we bought some fish and chips on our way home and had a late supper.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Trip - part the last - honestly

I know you all thought it was all over, done and dusted, but I have this last episode to add as an end to the long saga of our trip to the USA. I realise that it seems to have gone on forever, but it has taken a great deal longer to write up than it took to happen. Many other things have taken up my time and this posting is sliding between the cracks of the rest of my life.
The final leg of our trip was the least eventful since once over the Rocky Mountains we were passing through the least interesting parts of Colorado and Kansas, both of which are flat and not very picturesque.

The road home
Cattle cooling off in a pond

A lot of farms in Kansas have a second income from oil

The new wind power dwarfs the old

An irrigation rig stretches out to the horizon

Interesting strata

We spent a few more days with the family and then made a tearful farewell at Kansas City airport.
We were flying home via Toronto having used Canada Airlines for the simple reason that we had visited family in Toronto on the way through, see part one. There are no direct flights from Kansas City to home so we always need to take a flight to another airport anyway and Toronto is as good as anywhere else on the way home. Our flight was due to board at 15:45 local time and we got there in good time.
The weather was quite warm, being in the mid 90s Fahrenheit. Inside the airport all was cool as we waited for our flight. An announcement told us our flight was delayed and we were going to have to wait another forty minutes. This was not a problem, since our connecting flight was not until 20:40 after a little over a 2 hour flight, so we had plenty of time to spare.
The little Jazz plane eventually arrived and after a further short delay we boarded and took our seats.
The aircraft then sat on the concrete for thirty minutes in the hot sunshine. It started to get warm inside and after a while we were told that the cause of the delay was that the air circulation system had packed up and the maintenance crew were on to it and we would be leaving shortly.
After a further, increasingly hotter wait, we were given the slightly disturbing announcement that we would be taking off without the air circulation system but because of this would have to fly to Toronto at a lower altitude than normal to maintain air pressure. Another thirty suffocating minutes inside the baking aircraft went by and we were asked to disembark. The flight would not be taking off until the air problem was fixed. By now we were definitely going to miss our connection, so asking the Air Canada staff what we could do about our connecting flight, we were told that we must phone Air Canada’s help desk because they only worked for the company and knew nothing.
When I go to the USA, I take an AT&T cell phone which I top up with a month’s worth of calls to use internally. This had just expired, so TBH went out through customs to the only pay phone in reach and attempted to get some sense from Air Canada. About fifteen minutes later she returned frustrated, saying we will have to do it in Toronto.

Eventually the aircraft was fixed, we were re boarded and it took off for Toronto. We arrived at that airport nearly an hour after our connecting flight had left. We now had to find out where and how we could get on a later flight. This meant passing through customs and going back into Canadian territory. We found a desk which seemed to be the right place to book which had a huge queue, potentially so long we would miss the last flight of the day, so whilst I waited in the queue to keep our place, TBH went to a nearby phone booth and was able to contact Air Canada and find out if we were doing the right thing. To give them their due, from this point on, Air Canada were very helpful and on the phone TBH got us onto the last flight of the day, which left at 22:20 that night, or 23:20PM by my Kansas set watch and my body clock. Tickets were then collected from the normal check in desk and we were able to board normally.
We arrived at Heathrow almost eight hours later just after 10AM the next day local time and now about 7:30AM by my body clock. After the slow queue through Customs and Immigration, we got to the baggage carousel, where we waited and waited for our baggage, but no baggage arrived. After seeing all the passengers from three flights retrieve their bags, I realised something had gone wrong and buttonholed an Air Canada employee who had been standing by the carousel and asked him what to do about no baggage. He too was very helpful and took a lot of trouble, checking other baggage areas around the airport to see if our bags had arrived anywhere else, but to no avail. So off we went to find the what-to-do-about-lost-baggage department and filled in a form. We were assured that the bags were probably on a later flight, probably because the flight we boarded had already had its baggage loaded before we turned up. We had caught the last flight of the day so the next flight would be the following day, so no chance it would turn up whilst we waited. Air Canada scored again in our estimation, since they then told us the baggage would be couriered to us, free of charge, as soon as they received it, probably within the next two days. We hoped they were right.
Of course, we had missed the original 10:15 coach that we had booked to take us home well before this new delay and now had to re-book on a later coach. This cost us a small re-booking fee, but we were able to obtain seats on a reasonably early coach and finally around lunch time local time, after a breakfast/lunch snack at a Café Nero, we were heading down the M4 towards our home, both utterly drained and jet lagged beyond belief.
For some reason, neither I nor TBH are able to sleep on an aircraft, so we were both quite tired and this leg of the journey seemed to take forever. The very last bit of travel was to grab a taxi and after 30 plus hours of being awake and anxious and frustrated, we were finally back home.
After unpacking the minimum necessary from our hand baggage, doing all the necessary tasks and eating a light supper, around eight PM we collapsed into bed. Over the next couple of days we gradually un-jet-lagged and started to feel more human and at the end of that time, a man arrived outside our house in a small van and unloaded our three missing suitcases from the back. He told us cheerfully that he often came to this street, since one of our neighbours travelled a lot and he was often couriering his luggage to his house and it made a change to meet new customers. Obviously delayed luggage is a regular occurrence.
So now it was really all over and all I had to do was to sort through the thousands of photos I had taken and write up our adventures for my blog.
And it is done, over and here are a few more pictures from all parts of the trip.

A seemingly endless train

Feed me Mamma!

A flying set-square

A giant's foot

Trees provide shade for hot summers for many houses in Kamsas but must add to insurance costs when in tornado country

Not Yorkshire, Canada

Special wheels allow this maintenance truck to drive along the railroad track

The rocks of Damocles, I would think twice about living there

The Rockies

Toronto must have some very small vehicles

An unusual house outside Denver
 But as a final word, I must sincerely thank both our hostesses in Canada for making that first part of our trip so interesting and TS without whose indefatigable driving, the trip through the USA would have been much shorter and considerably less interesting.