Archive for the ‘Miscellaneous’ Category

Orlean, Virginia: Witness to History

Tuesday, October 8th, 2019

Civil War histories invariably point to Gettysburg, and the famous battle fought there, as the high tide of the Confederacy.  The point at which the American South came closest to seizing its independence.

Only, those accounts are wrong.  By July 1863, notwithstanding the string of battlefield victories that Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had put together, the prospects of the Confederacy were already quickly waning.  The west was nearing collapse.  Food and forage – never abundant – were in critically short supply… enough so that that spring had already seen bread riots in Richmond and Lee dispatching half his army (Longstreet’s corps) into North Carolina to find sustenance.  And Stonewall Jackson, Lee’s battlefield soul mate, lay fresh in his grave.

No one understood those quickly narrowing odds better than Lee.  When he began crossing the Potomac in the summer of 1863, with destiny pulling him towards the sleepy, crossroads town of Gettysburg, it was more out of a sense of desperation than because it was an obvious denouement to the then two-year-long struggle.  Yes, Lee wished to give battle, as he knew the sands of time were working against him.  But more than that, he needed supplies… and he knew where they could be found.

A year earlier though?  1862 began with the Confederacy on the ropes in every theater.  It’s prospects seemed dim.  The Union was ascendant everywhere.  Confederate morale was at its nadir.  And by the time McClellan landed his huge Army of the Potomac at Fort Monroe and began the Peninsula campaign, the growing feeling everywhere – North and South – was that the war would soon be over.  In a few weeks time McClellan would be at the very gates of Richmond… and there seemed nothing the Confederacy could do to prevent its fall.

But, then, two things happened.  In March, even as McClellan embarked on his half-sea, half-land end-run to seize the Confederate capital, Stonewall Jackson – the selfsame young VMI professor who had gained a bit of minor fame in the first major battle of the war a year earlier… along with the moniker which would forever be attached to it – initiated what would later be known as the Valley Campaign.  Over in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Jackson and his small force again and again attacked and defeated much larger Union forces.  Marching what seemed impossible distances and shocking his foes by seemingly appearing out of nowhere, Jackson’s exploits electrified the entire Confederacy… even as they brought dismay to the North.  By spring’s end, the strange professor with the little bit of fame… was little-known no more.  The name “Jackson” was spoken in hushed whispers, with either excitement or dread appended depending upon one’s allegiance.

The second thing was the wounding of Joseph E. Johnston, the commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, on the afternoon of May 31st, outside Richmond.  This led Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, to appoint Robert E. Lee, his senior military advisor, as commander of that army.

It’s important to realize that in June of 1862 Robert E. Lee was not viewed anything like he is today.  As a career U.S. army officer – one who had spent some years as commandant of West Point – he was well-known amongst that small cadre of professional army officers, of course.  But the common soldier tended to a derisive scorn for their new commander.  His first nickname was “Granny Lee” because they thought he was too cautious and afraid to fight.  And that was soon followed by “King of Spades” because of his penchant for breastworks and “digging in.”  Even among the professional officer class Lee was often viewed as distant and staid and by-the-book.

They – and the world – would soon see the real Lee.  And nothing in the Civil War would ever again be quite the same.

Lee faced an extraordinary quandary.  Significantly outnumbered by McClellan in his front; his capital at risk; short of food, forage, and armaments; and another three-corps Union army quickly forming under John Pope a few days march to his north… what to do?

Lee’s answer wasn’t long in coming.  He first initiated the Seven Days’ battles, which drove McClellan from Richmond and prompted that Union commander to abandon his idea of seizing Richmond from its eastern approaches.  Retreating to the protection of his gunboats, McClellan suddenly decided that he had had enough of Bobby Lee.  He punted.

Then, the first of many times he would do so while commanding the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee divided that army, sending Jackson northwestward first to Gordonsville, and then to a place called Cedar Mountain.  There, Jackson defeated elements of Pope’s new army.

Soon, once he was confident McClellan was indeed disembarking for Northern Virginia, Lee moved swiftly to reunite his army.  By mid-August Richmond no longer faced imminent threat, the vast Union army that had come to seize it were on boats headed back in the direction of Washington, and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was… back in northern Virginia.  Rarely in history have military fortunes changed so completely and so profoundly, as they did during those ten weeks from June to August, 1862.

And thus was the die cast and the stage set for the true high tide of the Confederacy.  A lone, narrow chance that wound its way through the late summer of 1862.  A singular Southern hope that marched through the village of Orlean, on its way to destiny.

Despite his recent victories, Lee still faced a grave challenge…  McClellan’s grand Army of the Potomac was moving rapidly to combine with Pope’s Army of Virginia.  Lee knew that if that happened the already-difficult odds he faced would become impossible.  Engaging Pope, before McClellan and his army could unite with him, was his only hope.  But how to accomplish that?  Pope’s forces were aligned in a wide arc, along the northern bank of the Rappahannock River, and Lee’s initial efforts at crossing that river were repulsed.

The western anchor of Pope’s line held fast at Waterloo… a few miles south of Orlean on Leeds Manor, and a mile or so above present-day rt. 211… there was a different (wooden) bridge there then, but it was at the same location as the present Waterloo Bridge… down off Old Bridge Road (rt. 613) – the very bridge that has been closed to traffic for the last year or so.  (The present, closed-to-traffic, metal bridge was built in 1879).

What Lee conceived was startling both in its audacity and its risk.  He proposed dividing his army once again, sending Stonewall Jackson with half the army, and most the cavalry, on a long march around Pope’s right flank, forcing Pope to abandon the Rappahannock in order to deal with the Confederates in his rear.  He (Lee) would follow by a day or so and would reunite with Jackson before Pope could concentrate his forces.

Jackson always performed best, his eyes alight with excitement, when given broad autonomy and command discretion… and so this mission suited him to a tee.

The Confederate army was spread out in the fields around Jeffersonton, not far from where present-day rt. 229 joins rt. 211.  If you stand at the gas pumps at the Exxon station there at that intersection and gaze southwards, you can see where some of the brigades were encamped.

Jackson’s unit commanders were ordered to prepare three days rations and be ready to move at first light.  But the troops had hardly had time to light the fires to cook those rations before they were ordered to form up and move out.  Daylight of Monday, August 25 would find Jackson’s three divisions of 24,000 men already well on the march.

A word about the roads… western Fauquier County in 1862 was remarkably similar to what it is today.  It had the same rural character.  The same rolling hills.  The same interspersing mix of forest and field.  A person going back in time would be unsurprised by nearly everything… except for the roads.  The roads were generally pretty awful.

Although many of the roads we have today existed back then, they were of a very different character.  Think narrow, one-lane dirt tracts – dirt, not gravel – and you’ll be on the right track.  They were dusty when it was dry.  And quickly turned into difficult tracks of mud when it was wet.

The one exception were “macadamized” roads.  Macadam roads were invented in the early 19th century and were that era’s “hardtop” road.  They consisted of several layers of interlocking rock and gravel, graded and rolled to create a solid, stable surface. 

Macadam roads do not have any modern parallel.  Tarred, blacktop roads such as we have today did not come into existence until the automobile made its appearance in the early 20th century.  But macadam roads were much closer to the asphalt roads of today than they were to the otherwise dismal roads that existed during the Civil War era.  They were wide enough for easy two-way traffic, they featured engineered drainage, and they were little affected by weather. 

Alas, they were few and far between.  In 1862, the Valley Turnpike (present-day rt. 11) over in the Shenandoah Valley was macadamized; the Warrenton-to-New Market Turnpike (present-day rt. 211) was macadamized; and the Warrenton-Alexandria Turnpike (present-day rt. 29) was macadamized.  Pretty much everything else in the area was dirt.

The general lack of major, reliable roads in Virginia (and throughout the South) was one reason that railroads figured so prominently during the Civil War.  Sustaining armies of that era took prodigious quantities of material and the roads were simply not up to the task.

As if that wasn’t enough, maps were also almost non-existent.  Army cartographers and engineers on both sides largely documented their theaters of operations as they proceeded, based upon whatever scant intelligence they could find.

Speed was of the essence, so Jackson was travelling light.  From Jeffersonton, turning westward on present-day rt. 211, the long, snaking Confederate column had an advantage on this day.  They were led by Captain J. K. Boswell, Jackson’s 24-year-old Chief Engineer, along with members of Warrenton’s famed Black Horse Cavalry.  Boswell had a brother and two cousins in the Black Horse Troop and these young men all knew the local roads and countryside.

Within hours of dawn, Pope had reports that accurately sized the Confederate column moving west.  What he did not see or hear was that on the western outskirts of Amissville… that column suddenly turned north on Hinsons Ford Road (present-day rt. 643).  Then, as now, that road wends back towards the Rappahannock River.  Today the road dead-ends just below the river, with a private residence blocking passage.  In 1862, though, the road continued down to the water’s edge.  Along with the ford, there was a working mill and a post office there. 

Having already marched for several hours in the hot summer sun, one can imagine the Confederates were happy to wet their feet as they splashed across the cool waters of the Rappahannock.

But their relief was brief.  Once on the northern bank, their path was a long, hard pull, mostly uphill.  Their track put them largely on what is today Bear’s Den Road (rt. 743).

At Leeds Manor Road (rt. 688) they turned left, marching the mile north to where the citizens of Orlean were ready to be amazed.

Then, like today, war and rumors of war was usually a distant thing.  The people of western Fauquier County heard what was happening slowly, as newspapers and travelers made their way through the area.  Other than the occasional cavalry patrol, they had not personally witnessed much.

Pope’s General Orders 5 and 7, issued several weeks prior, had certainly made an impression, however.  Virginia’s citizens were outraged by his dictate that Union troops should “subsist upon the country” – a mantra that many Union troops took to mean they were free to steal and pillage; that Southern civilians living within five miles of guerilla attacks would be responsible for the damage from those attacks; and requiring oaths of allegiance to the United States.

And so with that anger as a backdrop, the citizens of Orlean had thrilled to the news… first from Richmond, and then from Cedar Mountain.  Standing at the intersection of Leeds Manor and John Barton Payne in the middle of the little village on that hot Monday in August, one can imagine the sudden shock of seeing the gray-clad column suddenly heave into view at midday.

The Confederates did not pause, but turned right from Leeds Manor onto John Barton Payne (rt. 732).  If you today stand on the rear deck of the Orlean Market and squinch your eyes, you can see them marching past, mere feet away.  They would have been younger and skinnier than the image we have of them today – Hollywood movies and present-day Civil War reenactors being well-fed middle-aged men, for the most part, while the real Southern soldier was mostly very young and almost always hungry.  But you’d have found them in fine spirits… cracking jokes and easily intuiting that this long march meant that Lee and Jackson were up to something special.

This, ladies and gentlemen – today and tomorrow and the day after – was the real high-tide of the Confederacy.  The singular moment during the Civil War when the South came closest to forcing the issue on the battlefield.  That it failed to do so turned on the narrowest of margins.

It would take a couple hours for Jackson’s corps to pass by the market.  After crossing the Rappahannock at Hinsons Ford, the Southern troops had become spread out in the fields and swales out along Bears Den.  But back on Leeds Manor and, now, John Barton Payne, they tightened up ranks again.  They marched in order, swiftly. 

They passed Thumb Run church on their left.  And when they reached present-day Wilson Road (rt. 738) they turned north once again.  It was just a quick, little dog-leg, before they turned eastward once again on Crest Hill Road (rt. 647).  They would pull up at Marshall (then called Salem), between 8 and 9pm (EST), exhausted, after having marched approximately 26 miles.

The afternoon brought more surprise to the citizens of Orlean.  Hardly had the tramping feet of Jackson’s men faded into the distance when came the sound of horses.  Thousands of them.  They were J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry and they, too, turned up John Barton Payne.

Meanwhile, back in Jeffersonton, where all this started lo those many hours ago… at Waterloo Bridge and various other points along the Rappahannock Lee directed Longstreet to make continued demonstrations – artillery barrages and cavalry feints and infantry movements – to hold Pope’s attention.  The ruse succeeded.  As Jackson’s exhausted Confederates finally fell out into the fields just outside Marshall as darkness fell, Pope believed the morning would see Lee trying to force his line along the Rappahannock.

Tuesday, August 26, 1862 was a remarkable day.  Jackson roused his men early, their exhausted sleep upon the hard ground outside Marshall not nearly enough.  But the fate of an army – of a nascent nation – hung in the balance, and Jackson knew it.

From Marshall, Jackson proceeded west on present-day rt. 55… through The Plains (incorrectly noted in most wartime reports as “White Plains”), through Thoroughfare Gap, through Haymarket, and, finally, to Gainesville.  There, he turned south along present-day rt. 619, to Bristoe Station.  And it was there, at dusk, when the telegraph line was cut and the trains stopped running, that Pope finally learned that Jackson was in his rear.  You can imagine his astonishment. 

Meanwhile, the good citizens of Orlean were not quite done as witnesses.  During the afternoon on this day Lee, with Longstreet and the other half of his army, left their positions south of the Rappahannock and began following the same route Jackson had taken a day earlier.  West on 211, north on Hinsons Ford, splashing across the Rappahannock, and the long walk up along Bears Den to Leeds Manor.  At dark, Longstreet’s men fell out into the fields just south of Orlean.  The residents of Orlean would go to sleep that night with nearly 30,000 sudden visitors.

Morning would see them depart, but not before one last bit of drama unfolded.

Lee, as was often customary at the time, dined that evening at a local home of standing.  In this case, he had dinner and stayed the night at Oak Hill, the home of Mrs. John Marshall, daughter-in-law of U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall, near Piedmont Station (present-day Delaplane).

Early Wednesday morning, August 27, 1862, Lee and his staff bid adieu to Mrs. Marshall, mounted up, and proceeded on horseback towards Marshall.  They were well in front of Longstreet’s corps, at that moment just arising from their camp at Orlean, when they were discovered by the 9th New York cavalry between Ada and Vernon Mills, who were screening Pope’s left flank.  Lee’s staffers drew up in a line, while Lee hurried towards the safety of Longstreet’s corps.  The Union cavalry, believing the gray-clad horsemen were part of a much larger Confederate cavalry unit, quickly retreated towards Warrenton.  It was probably the closest Lee ever came to being captured or killed during the entire Civil War.

And so ended the little village of Orlean’s witness to the momentous high-tide of the Confederacy.  Events would continue to unfold, of course… Lee’s narrow escape would be followed that day by the continued march of Longstreet to join Jackson.  Late the next day, Thursday, August 28, 1862 would see the Second Battle of Manassas joined.  Lee’s two corps were once again reunited.  And on Friday, August 29, 1862, Longstreet would hammer Pope with the greatest infantry assault ever seen in North America.  It was a crushing defeat for the Union commander.  That he escaped with his army at all was down to darkness… and the heroic, tenacious defense mounted on Chinn’s Ridge by subordinates who were far better at war than he was.

WKCW and AM Broadcast RFI

Friday, September 6th, 2019

I have three HF antennas at my QTH… a 40-meter OCF dipole, an 80-meter OCF dipole, and a 160-meter horizonal full-wave loop.  As a newly-licensed ham a few years ago, the 40-meter dipole was my first antenna and (thankfully!) performed largely like the books suggested a dipole ought to work.

Two months in, though, I hung the 80-meter dipole.  That antenna was not just longer than the first one, it was higher.  No surprise, it was (and is) a better antenna pretty much everywhere.

But it brought with it a strange curiosity… my MFJ 259C antenna analyzer rendered inconsistent numbers in some cases, and flat-out crazy ones in others.  Wonky enough that I wrote MFJ about what I was seeing.  They suggested I send the unit back to them so they could take a look at it.

But, then, on a hunch I took a set of readings from that first, 40-meter dipole… and those numbers were both in the range I expected as well as consistent with the spreadsheet of readings I made when I first hung the antenna.

More than a little confused, I put my 259C back in its box and put it on the shelf, fairly convinced it was an unreliable piece of gear.  (You can’t go long in the ham radio hobby without hearing all the disparaging remarks about MFJ – much of it justified – and so such conclusions aren’t terribly surprising).

Hint:  Those biases we too often wrap ourselves in rarely help us towards the truth!

Fast forward another couple of months and a much awaited box from Elecraft showed up.  You know those moments of anticipation when you first hook up a new rig, imagining all those people and all those places it might connect you with?  Yeah.  You can imagine my surprise when I first hooked up that glistening, new radio to my coax switch and slipped the headphones over my ears, only to find the bands were alive with… the sound of music!  Classic, 60’s and 70’s rock music to be precise.

Turns out the Elecraft KX3 has an astonishingly capable receiver.  The epiphany began to unfold.

On a hunch, I pulled out a little-used transistor radio and with the headphones to the KX3 still over my ears, punched up the AM broadcast band.  In a couple of seconds I had my answer.

WKCW.  1420 AM.  The radio station – or, at least its broadcast antenna – that I had driven past a million times.  Because it’s less than a mile from my house.

The good news is that a little dab of attenuation was all that was needed to extinguish Neil Diamond and The Beatles and Diana Ross whenever I wanted to operate HF.  But there was a larger story going on there.

A Sark-110 and, later, a Rig Expert AA-600 joined that unjustly-maligned MFJ 259C in the shack.  WKCW’s 22,000-watt daytime signal might easily be hidden simply by turning to the attenuation control on my rigs.  But the miniscule signals those antenna analyzers depended upon to suss out their data were completely overwhelmed.  A long conversation and a series of tests with Melchor Varela, EA4FRB – the Spanish designer of the Sark-110 – confirmed as much.

Elecraft’s panadapter for the KX3 – and, later, the bandscope on my Kenwood TS-890S – gave a visual reference to what was going on.  Without attenuation the displays light up with yellow and white RF energy, pulsing with the peculiar, strobe-like beat I’ve come to jokingly call “The Marching Band.”

The bottom line is that one simply cannot make accurate antenna measurements of physically long or tall antennas – the irony being that the better the antenna is, the more it is affected – at my QTH while WKCW is broadcasting its daytime signal.  You have to wait until darkness, when their signal drops to 60 watts.

It begs several interesting questions, including the degree to which even “reasonable” and expected SWR readings – like on that not-too-high 40-meter dipole of mine – might not actually reflect the true nature of things.

And although the mixing products of that commercial AM signal can easily be dialed out with an Attenuator button, that’s kind of like throwing the baby out with the bath water.  You lose more than just WKCW.

My survey of the literature found a lot of superficial references to “Broadcast AM interference,” mostly under the larger rubric of RFI in general, but not much in-depth dissection.  In particular, there wasn’t much on the actual mechanism of how AM interference does its thing.

Visit DX Engineering or Ham Radio Outlet or Palomar Engineers or even widely accepted subject matter experts like Jim Brown, K9YC, and you’re left with the inference that it’s a common mode current problem.  That the bouncing beat of Jefferson Airplane is riding down the outside shield of your coax.

A bunch of expensive Mix-75 ferrites will quickly disprove that notion, however.  WKCW is intent on taking a much more direct route into your shack.

Short of throwing your antenna up inside a gargantuan Faraday Cage – I think John, KX40, might be the only one around who might be able to do that – I don’t see there ever being a solution to the conventional put-a-miniscule-signal-out-on-the-wire-and-read-what-comes-back antenna analyzer problem.  But lighting up your antenna with 100 watts of RF and reading that with a Vector Network Analyzer gets around that nicely.

Or just wait until it’s dark.

As for sharing your receiver’s front end with all that wonderful classic rock… here’s a high-pass filter that works a treat…

Yeah, it’s pricey.  But it’s got a very sharp roll-off between 1.7 and 1.8 MHz, so if you’re wanting to work top band, you can.  And other than the very, very bottom of 160 meters, insertion loss at 0.1 dB is hardly noticeable. It’s limited to 200 watts, but if you put it between your rig and your amplifier, that’s not a problem.

It makes a profound difference.

I’d love to hear how others may have dealt with AM broadcast RFI in general, and WKCW in particular.  Especially if you’ve had any experience with wave traps, as they’ll probably be my next area to explore.

73, Jeff K4EI


Sunday, September 23rd, 2018

Twelve days ago my dad died.  He was the most remarkable man I ever knew, a man I looked up to more than any other.  It’s hard to imagine this world without him in it.

April 1st, 1945. Easter Sunday.

As dawn breaks in the western Pacific, an armada of 1300 American ships lies offshore Okinawa, poised to assault the first of the Japanese home islands. The ships have dodged a typhoon en-route and many of the sailors and soldiers and Marines are seasick. That’s in addition to the terrible anxiety of what lies ahead. The 36-day Iwo Jima campaign, conducted by their Marine brethren 855 miles east, just concluded a few days ago. That one cost more than 26,000 American casualties. No one, from the lowliest cook to the most seasoned general, can imagine what this one, this battle for Okinawa, will cost. But no one has any illusion that it will not be paid for very, very dearly.

April 1st. The pre-landing bombardment has been going on for two and a half hours, since just before light. The air literally buzzes with the sound of rockets and the duller, heavier reverberations of the huge ship gun shells as they impact. Every man, on every ship of this immense armada, hears and feels the air rent by the sounds. There is no closet, no corner, no wardroom, anywhere in this vast armada from which one can escape it. The leaden minutes tick by, pregnant with portent.

April 1st. As the landing craft begin moving towards the beaches shortly after 8am, it is a beautiful, clear day in the East China Sea. There is just a hint of breeze. It is not quite 75°

It is his 19th birthday.

Back here in Roseland, one imagines that his mom and sister are getting ready for church. Perhaps a sunrise service. It’s dry on this Easter Sunday. But clouds are moving in. Tomorrow will bring a light rain.

His mom doesn’t know, of course. Which is just as well. She has already lost her oldest boy, nine months ago, in the hedgerows of France. Her second son is in the Fifth Marine Division and has just survived that bloody, difficult campaign just finished on Iwo Jima. Here now comes the third son, in the First Marine Division, here on Okinawa. And the fourth son is just finishing high school and will soon be in the Navy.

It must have been an awfully hard time to be the parent of a young man.

We know now how the battle on Okinawa unfolded, of course. It took 82 days and cost 82,000 American casualties. Over 110,000 Japanese died and nearly a third of the civilian population were lost. Ninety percent of the buildings on the island were destroyed. Cases of what we today call PTSD were rampant.

The experience marked him. He liked being a Marine. He liked the Spartan, minimalist discipline it instilled, the stoic resolve to do the things that were necessary. But, like many of that era who experienced what he did, he afterwards rarely spoke of the war itself. I suspect he knew that only those who were there could ever truly understand.

There was an interlude after the war, a handful of years, when he came home and did the things that young people everywhere do, to enjoy themselves and find themselves and figure out what they’re going to do next. On the one hand, the men who had been overseas and experienced the adrenalin-high of combat must have found civilian life to be drab and mundane. On the other, all those young people of what we now call “The Greatest Generation,” having come out the other end of a terribly fraught time, must have felt an exhilarating joy at simply being alive. I expect it was something of a mix.

He spent some time in college. And when that didn’t prove stimulating enough, he, almost on a lark, got on the bus to Norfolk and enlisted in the merchant marines. A year back out on the ocean, plying the sea lanes to Europe, was enough adventure to bring the perspective he was searching for.

When he came home he did what most the young people of his generation were doing… he settled down. He got married. And he and Joyce moved to DC, because that’s where the jobs were. And then we, the children who would later be called the Baby Boomers began to come along.

In a lifetime filled with memories, where do you begin? I don’t know. I haven’t a clue, only knowing that it is a tapestry that fills the heart.

He grew up with the Civil War close to his side, embedded in his soul. How could he not? His grandfather, his namesake, was a young medic in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and was captured during Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. When that young man came home from his war, he, too, settled down. He finished his studies and became a doctor and got married and began having babies. To the end of his days, though, he didn’t have much truck for Yankees. Long years later he named his thirteenth child, a little girl – Pop’s mom – Virginia Secession. Everyone called her ‘Sece.’ And most everyone knew what it was short for. So, no, there was no forgetting. They may tear down the monuments everywhere else, but if you go visit his home at East Branch you’ll find there a fine, fitting memorial to Southern valor and Southern sacrifice.

He was the most rigorously honest man I ever knew. Not honest just in the sense of never telling a lie, though that’s important. Beyond that, though, he was honest in what it means to ever be true to something. To hold to the essential core of what something means. To honor the fidelity of being honest when no one can see it, when no one knows, but you.

Watchful of the world around him, he early on came to see that the truth is malleable. That history is written by the victors… and then frequently gets re-written as it suits. He hated that. He hated even more that so few saw it.

When he found something he liked, he kept it. Long years after it was no longer in fashion, he would still don the wool, navy-blue watch cap after his morning shower, pressing back his short, still-damp hair so that his flat-top haircut – a fashion statement so many decades out-of-date that few barbers even knew how to do it justice – would take the proper set.

His wife and daughters were ever aghast at the – to them – tattered, used-up shirts and shoes and vests that he wore. But he knew what he liked. And he understood that the utility of something doesn’t depend on what other people think. Looking pretty for other people was something that never mattered. And as he got older I think that actually got turned on its ear… he took genuine pleasure in tweaking societal expectations.

As a young child he was a picky eater. Picky enough that Sece would often prepare a special dish for him for supper. When he grew up, though, that reversed, and food became an immense pleasure. He’d often laugh and say “I’ll eat anything that doesn’t eat me first.” For many years, the earliest sounds in our house were the soft tinkle of dishes down in the kitchen and the distant hissing of the frying pan, as he made his breakfast of eggs, bacon, and toast. Later, for supper, nothing made him happier than homemade biscuits and gravy, something that became a staple when we were growing up. I think his favorite of all, though, was probably a big plate of steaming fried tomatoes. With more of those homemade biscuits.

Pop didn’t spend a lot of time in the kitchen, but when we were young he’d sometimes be found there baking corn pone. Small, rounded loaves of coarse, dry cornbread about the size of your hand. Perfect for sliding in your pocket when you went outside. As we grew older he eventually stopped doing that. I never knew why, but suspect it was because Snu and Mops had become such good cooks by then that he just didn’t feel the need to cook.

He was a smart kid. Something of a bookworm. And that smart kid turned into a thoughtful, observant man. He loved books. And although he greatly enjoyed many things – everything from golf, to gardening, to cutting the grass, to his famous Virginia boxwoods – I think he loved books best of all. From his earliest days, to his last, he ever had them at his side.

He wasn’t a particularly religious man, but, curiously, he always loved religious music. That wasn’t always a wonderful thing for the rest of us. When we were little, Susan, Martha, and I took accordion lessons. My two sisters really took to those. For me, the novelty wore off about five minutes into the first lesson… and after that lifting that heavy music box was just a tortured chore. But although the sounds that we made with that accordion may have had only a distant relation to what most would call ‘music’ – certainly, mine did – you would never know it from my father. He would lay down on the couch a few feet from where our daily practice was unfolding, close his eyes, and ask for a few of his favorite hymns. And so you’d dutifully turn the music book to the requested songs and play the pieces, periodically looking over at him lying in peaceful repose, praying he wouldn’t fall asleep, because that meant the practice session would just go on longer. Of course, he always fell asleep.

Which wasn’t a surprise. He loved his naps. And a nice, comfortable couch was always a prerequisite in every home he ever had.

There were tough times, too, of course. When he was 66, Holly Hill, his beloved home in Northern Virginia, burned down. He and my mother lost nearly everything they owned. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, what should have been a minor snafu with the insurance company turned into a major disaster… there would be no insurance payment to help rebuild.

For most of us, buying or building a home, and paying it off, is a herculean effort requiring most of a lifetime. So you’re 66 years old and one cold February morning the house you’ve spent thirty years paying for is suddenly gone, with everything in it, and there’s no insurance. What the heck do you do?

Well, he had to figure that out. And he did.

Probably more than anything, the thing that so many of us will remember was his sense of humor. It illuminated his entire life, from the time he was a mischievous little boy until he was, well, a still-mischievous old man. Rarely would you see him when his face wasn’t lit by a grin.

And, of course, we can’t talk about his sense of humor without also talking about the thing it was kin to… his epic storytelling. He loved a good story, and few had that intangible sense of timing and presence that make a tale truly come to life, as did he. You left an afternoon spent at East Branch with this sort of uplifted feeling, but one where your stomach hurt from laughing so hard.

He lived to be 92 years old. He would be the first to tell that’s a long time. I never asked him, but I’ve always imagined that must have been bittersweet. On the one hand is the great good fortune to see such a wonderful expanse of life. To see your children and grandchildren and great grandchildren make their appearance and begin making their own marks upon the world. But on the other… we all come into this world shaken and afraid. We cling to our moms and our dads, to our brothers and our sisters, our foils against the hurt and the heartbreak and the aloneness of the world. As we grow older that cast of humanity that abides us and holds us grows larger. First, friends and schoolmates; later, acquaintances from work. Our circle grows large.

At some point, though, it reverses. We begin to lose people from that circle. Slowly at first, but then with an accelerating impatience, the people we clung to when we were little begin heading for that distant shore. Our original circle grows smaller and smaller. Eventually, if we live long enough, all those souls who made up the world when we entered, all those loved ones who once were our rock and our foundation, are gone. How difficult that must be.

He never complained, though. He loved family more than anything. And even in his later years – especially in those later years – he took immense pleasure in having that family around him. He loved being the patriarch of such a large, extended brood.

He’d also be the first to tell you how lucky he was. For living as long as he did, sure. But more than that, for living that long with both his wits and his body intact. He knew, far more than most, how rare that was.

If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, he was flattered, indeed. I don’t know anyone he ever met who wasn’t influenced by him. I certainly was. You look around and you see his imprint everywhere.

The world may not be quite as bright as it was eleven days ago. But it is a vastly better place because he once lived in it.

And actually, that’s not quite right. Because Papa is here with us – present tense – in so many innumerable ways.

And always will be.

The End of Innocence

Wednesday, March 7th, 2018

The sound comes of a sudden. The first thought is it must be fireworks. Surely, it’s some wiseacre setting off firecrackers, isn’t it? Our mind grasps the sound, rolls it around in our head, calculating, the first certainty recoiling into hesitation. There’s something amiss in the noise, something we knew instinctively from the first pop. Disbelief comes next. Before the rest of it.

The guy walks down the hall, gun in hand. He turns this way and that, his very casualness a startling rebuke of a kind we don’t understand. How is it that such horror could ever be so random? How is it that a human being, any human being, could do such a thing, could inflict a miasma of terror so awful that there are no words?

Minutes later, after it’s over, the world is different. Who among us wakes our child in the morning’s rising light, sends them off to school – with the worst anxiety we or they can conjure being, perhaps, whether the homework they hastily prepared the night before is sufficient – ever considers we’ll never see them again? Who can even imagine such a thing?

Our mind will not even allow it.

The news travels swiftly, of course. Before it’s even over.

When we hear of it we instinctively recoil from it, even though we be distant and remote and safe. A pale, commiserating echo, a shared bereavement with those who were there.

It’s not the first time. If there’s a tragedy that can approach the horrific news we’ve just heard it’s that it has become so commonplace. That it has become woven into the tapestry of our existence. And so you’d think we’d be used to it. That we wouldn’t be so shocked by it.

But we are. We always are.

Please God, not again.

And then the other shoes begin to drop. The tragedies within the tragedy.

Full disclosure… although my political views are all over the map, disappointing, at turns, both my liberal friends and my conservative friends… I am, unreservedly, a “gun guy.” I’ve been a serious student of the shooting arts since I was a kid. I own firearms of all different types. I’ve been an NRA member for fifty-odd years.

I know. Some of you hate me already.

But even in your hate, know that I share in your repugnance at what has been going on. The shootings, malevolence made manifest, rocks my world as much as it does yours.

And I don’t know what the answer is. I’ll say that up front. I shake my head at the easy arm-the-teachers answers suggested my pro-gun friends as frequently as I do the knee-jerk ban-those-assault-rifles prescriptions of my anti-gun friends.

We got to where we are via a long, tortuously twisted path. It’s complicated. And although we’d all love for there to be a single, quick solution, I’m afraid that’s just not in the cards.

What I do know… it’s not the guns. And even as many of you shake your head in anger at that statement I’ll simply point out that the 300 million guns in this country didn’t all suddenly get built in the last couple of decades. We’ve been collecting them up for quite a long time.

Something else changed. I don’t know what it is, but I know we’re uncomfortable even talking about it.

We’re uncomfortable talking about how children are now raised from birth ‘til they are in their thirties constantly bombarded with the message that they are special.

We’re uncomfortable with the notion of disciplining children. You see it every day… young moms strolling the grocery store, cajoling their whining, manipulative young children to behave. Children who have never once felt a hand on their backside.

At dinner – a dinner where a grateful blessing to God is no longer uttered – we’re uncomfortable with any retreat from the idea that these entitled children are the centerpiece. The stars of the show.

We’re uncomfortable considering that the moral imperatives of behavior that once served as our ethical weathervanes are wholly missing. Stern expectations once imposed by parents, teachers, and the church down the street have been replaced by a carefree turpitude.

We’re uncomfortable contemplating that we might be overprotective. That instead of the hard, physical play that once was their treasure kids spend nearly the entirety of their time indoors, where we can keep an eye on them. Kids today have almost no time that is unstructured and unsupervised, time where they can explore things and make their own decisions and challenge the world. Time where they can make mistakes – mistakes appropriate to their station… and then learn from those mistakes. We’ve become terrified at the very thought of letting kids be kids.

Instead, we ply them with all manner of electronic devices. First as virtual babysitters – though we would never admit to such. Later as analogues to our own virtual world addictions.

They learn early that social media is both their foil and their bullhorn. We teach them that an abstract, virtual life is superior to the real kind. Instead of the complex, hours-long mental dynamics required to absorb a deep, detailed novel, we allow them to skate by with 140-character sound bites in their Twitter accounts. Instead of insisting that they learn to navigate the social minefield that is real life, we let them have Facebook.

We deny it, but we subject them to violence on a grand scale. From the television shows they watch, to the movies we send them off to, to the video games they play up in their bedroom… gratuitous, graphic violence is ever by their side. Uncounted hours immersed in the surreal violence of video games insulates and anesthetizes them from reality. Hollywood’s violent ethos – franchise after franchise built upon the compelling attraction of death and destruction – provides the leitmotif.

We teach them that everyone is a victim. And when they draw the inevitable conclusion, and a bunch of them end up with anxiety disorders, we medicate them into a stupor.

Everyone gets a trophy.

And later, when they head off to college – institutions suddenly devoid of intellectual vibrancy or discord – they’ll need their safe spaces and their trigger warnings.

I don’t mean to blame the kids. And I don’t mean to paint with such a broad brush. The headwinds in front of them aren’t of their doing. They’re put there by us, the adults, the parents. And most of them end up just fine, in spite of those things.

But then we wonder why the few there on the edge – for there always were and always will be a few on the edge – do what they do. I suspect at least part of it lies amongst those things. Somewhere in that mix of things that have changed.

And therein lies the problem. To even contemplate that any of these deeply entrenched and long-running social mores might have a hand in triggering the next mass shooting presents us with a dilemma: how do you solve it?

Isn’t it a lot easier to just ban the gun the shooter used? Especially if you come from a worldview that says that civilians ought not have that kind of gun anyway?

And so we come to the elephant in the room. The AR-15. The “assault rifle” that looks cool or evil or vicious, depending upon your viewpoint – but which with its black plastic stock and its Picatinny rail and its pistol grip and its flash hider… can never look anything less than provocative.

There are so many misconceptions surrounding this weapon that it’s hard to know where to start. Beyond noting that it’s been the bestselling long-gun in America for a long time, and that there are somewhere between five and ten million of them out there… I suppose I’ll start with what will come to many as a startling fact: the AR-15 is not a particularly lethal firearm.

I know. Many of you think that is simply preposterous. The U.S. military uses a full-auto version of this very same rifle as their main infantry weapon, after all. Surely there’s no way they would use a “not particularly lethal” firearm!

But, yes, they would. And they have.

The .223 Remington cartridge – which later morphed into the 5.56 NATO in its military designation – evolved from the earlier .222 Remington. And the .222 Remington, like the .22 Hornet, the .22-250, the .220 Swift – indeed, all the .22 centerfire rounds – was designed as a target and a “varmint” round.

Decades on, when the U.S. military adopted the .223/5.56 as its mainline battle round, the cartridge didn’t suddenly acquire some sort of magic. Indeed, it got worse… civilians using their .22 varmint rifles could at least avail themselves of any number of excellent hollow-point bullet designs that improved their chances against groundhogs and prairie dogs. The military was stuck with full-metal-jacket bullets. In essence, they bought into a round that shoots a very small, very light bullet – and which on larger animals, or human beings, has a far greater propensity to wound than to kill.

In many states, including my own state of Virginia, it is illegal to hunt deer with the .223/5.56. It simply does not have sufficient power to ensure humane kills.

Compared to the .30-06 the U.S. military predominantly used during World War II, the .223/5.56 is a stunningly inferior round. Indeed, in terms of its terminal ballistics – its ability to kill enemy combatants – it is arguably the most ineffective rifle round the U.S. military has ever used, going back to the days of black powder and muzzleloaders.

And that, of course, begs the question… why would they use it if its performance is so dismal?

The answer is simple: weight. A soldier can carry far more rounds of .223/5.56 ammunition than he could of a larger-caliber round. And when you combine a military doctrine that stoically acknowledges fewer and fewer recruits showing up at boot camp with previous rifle experience – and so puts less and less emphasis on aimed fire and instead has adopted a more-shots-is-better approach – with the reality that on the battlefield, wounding an enemy can be as good or better than killing him, as now his comrades must attend to him… and you can see the rationale.

There’s also a direct, linear relationship between a rifle round’s inherent power and the recoil that cartridge produces. Because it is such a small, low-powered round, the .223/5.56 produces a very gentle, soft recoil. That unintimidating quality is equally prized both by drill sergeants trying to teach recruits who may never have held a rifle before and by civilians who are simply shooting for fun. It’s a large part of the reason the AR-15 has become so popular.

None of which diminishes the horror when it is used in a mass shooting. The dead are just as dead. The wounded are just as wounded. I’m not at all trying to suggest that the AR-15 and the round that it fires aren’t lethal or aren’t dangerous.

But given that much of the emotion surrounding the AR-15 revolves around its supposedly mythic lethality, it’s important to understand the reality. Notwithstanding its aggressive, provocative looks, the AR-15 is quite simply not a very powerful rifle.

What it underscores is that any firearm, used indiscriminately or with evil intent, can be terribly dangerous. There’s a reason gun safety rules don’t exclude small or low-powered firearms. Even the lowly .22 rimfire can kill.

“Well, okay,” I can hear some of you saying… “maybe the round itself isn’t very powerful, but the AR-15 can shoot so many bullets, so quickly, that that is the problem. That’s why so many people end up being killed by it. And that’s why we need to ban them.”

I’ll simply point out that semi-auto rifles have been around a long time. They first appeared in the late 1800’s. Quite famous designs such as the M1 Garand and the M1 Carbine date back to the thirties. I’ll repeat what I said above… the guns have been here for years, many years before mass shootings became a thing. Something else changed.

Box magazines have likewise been around a long time. And whereas I can understand the seductive allure that limiting magazine capacity would somehow make a semi-auto firearm less lethal in a mass-shooting scenario, the truth is… not so much.

The singular benefit of a box magazine – the reason they are now used in virtually all military and police rifles and pistols – is because of how rapidly an empty one can be swapped out for one that is freshly loaded.

The sad reality is that it wouldn’t make much difference if a school shooter were roaming the halls with a pocketful of 5-round or 10-round magazines instead of the 20-rounders that everyone gets so spun up about.

And that really gets to the point. The reason these shootings become so casualty-laden is because they invariably happen in places where people are most vulnerable – “gun free” zones. And because of that the shooter has time. He’s free to slowly and methodically inflict his carnage upon people who have little ability to resist. When you’re talking about close-range, indiscriminate, execution-style shootings, the kind of weapon the shooter brings becomes almost immaterial. The Virginia Tech shooter killed 32 people and wounded 17 others… with a pistol.

Which brings us back to the question. What do we do?

I don’t know.

I shrink from the idea that we should just “arm the teachers” that my pro-gun friends think is the panacea. Count me in the camp that thinks there ought to be a place that is sacred… and that if there is such a place that’s where our kids ought to be.

Alas, it would seem there are no sacred places.

Equally, I shake my head at the naiveté of my anti-gun friends who so fervently believe that by banning a thing, they can somehow ameliorate the evil inside a person. Who think that by simply passing a law 300 million guns will suddenly disappear.

What I do know is that if it were piles of money inside those classrooms instead of our own flesh and blood, the problem would have long ago been solved.

What I know is that when school districts start to get serious about protecting our kids, there will be armed guards at every school. And, no, we won’t be calling them “school resource officers” or asking them to do presentations on drunk driving or mentoring kids or any of the other tomfoolery that currently enfolds their ranks. They’ll have one mission. You’ll know they’ve taken that to heart when you start seeing them ever with a long gun over their shoulder and plans in their office that lay out in excruciating detail every ingress and egress at the facility, every possible attack vector, how many seconds it takes to get from any one spot to any other spot, comprehensive communications and lockdown procedures, and documented simulations of how they would respond to any conceivable threat.

What I know is that individuals with mental health issues ought not have access to guns. I don’t know a single person who thinks they should. So why is it, in an age where the internet can so instantly dump so much mundane information upon us, that we can’t figure out how to alert the NICS database when the next wackjob-to-be is off his meds and is threatening people? Why is that so hard?

And, no, it’s not the NRA preventing that. The only thing the NRA insists upon is that there be quick and easy access to due process. Not all of us trust the bureaucratic bowels of government.

What I know is that we don’t need additional laws. What we need is for people to follow the laws that are already on the books.

What I know is that the reason we too often don’t see that is because people with the privilege of power are rarely held accountable. Oh, sure, there’s the odd high-profile case tossed up as an example… like Martha Stewart. Or the rare case that is so beyond the pale that its very publicity turns it into a public circus… like Bernie Madoff. But for the most part people in power remain startlingly immune to the consequences of their actions. When an FBI sniper can murder a woman holding not a weapon – but a baby; or his bosses back in Washington can serve up an unbelievable “shoot on sight” rule of engagement; and not a one of them ever sees a day of jail, you know you’re looking at a rigged system.

Who wants to take a bet that any of the many individuals who each received advance information on the shooter in the Parkland, Florida school tragedy will ever be disciplined? Any one of them, had they simply done their job, could have averted the disaster.

What I know is that until you start holding people accountable, nothing changes.

What I know is that symbolic acts may feel good emotionally, but they don’t move the dial a whit. They’re a distraction. Bump stocks, stupid gimmick that they are, are not the problem.

And the children continue to die.

Antennas and Trenches and Shovels, Oh My

Thursday, March 30th, 2017

“You never have enough antennas”



I’ve only been doing this ham radio thing a short while.  But I’ve already stumbled upon one of its veritable truths… hanging a wire antenna isn’t the hard part.

I mean, you spend however much time over however many days gazing up at your trees, estimating heights, and stepping off distances.  Then, after all that planning, you spend more time shooting lines – three of ‘em, one for the feedpoint and two more for each of the legs.  And then you pull up your wire and tie off the three parts.  And once all that’s done, you run back to the shack to see how it works.  Sitting there at the radio, you’ll be nodding your head happily.

A few minutes later you go back outside, look at that feed line strung out across your lawn… and cry a little bit.

First, a little sidebar… last summer I decided to run underground electric to the shed where I keep my motorcycles.  Since the building is about eighty feet from the house I elected to install a sub-panel at the entrance.  Having decided to do it that way, code required a separate, dedicated ground.

Now I was a telephone man back in the day.  Installing ground rods isn’t exactly new to me.  Alas, the tool the Bell System provided us with to achieve that notable task was something called a no-bounce hammer.  Think small sledge with a hollowed out head filled with a sand-like substance to deaden each blow – ergo, the “no-bounce.”  It truly was a great tool for many things.  But mounted atop its short, 15” wooden handle, it didn’t exactly impart a lot of leverage or momentum.

Driving a 5/8” 8-foot ground rod was the devils own work, in other words.  Something telephone men would go to great lengths to avoid.  And so as I stared at the nice new, shiny rod for my DIY shed project, I wondered how I might get it into the ground.  I could just go start pounding away, of course.  But in the intervening years I’ve come to appreciate the benefits of machinery.  Brains over brawn.

My first thought was the obvious one… buy or rent a hammer drill.  That’s what the construction guys use, after all.  Who would know better than them?

Alas, despite being very tempted – who wouldn’t want to own a hammer drill?! – the cheapskate inside me, the very one who insisted this be a DIY project in the first place, quickly overruled that option.

Having dismissed the obvious, I wondered if there was anything else – any sort of tool or device – that might help.

Well, Google and YouTube are your friends.  I did, in fact, come across a little-known technique for driving a ground rod with no tools and little effort, using only a small pail of water.  It was so simple I honestly didn’t think it would work.  But ten minutes later, a stunned but happy me was a believer.  A few months later when I was setting up my first ham shack and needed to drive yet another ground rod, the technique proved just as fast and easy.

It reinforced something I already knew… that we rarely know all the answers.  And that often there is an unconventional solution to the problem we face.

When I hung my first HF antenna – a 40-meter OCF dipole – I had about fifteen feet of ground where the feed line had to be buried.  I used the conventional approach to that effort – mattock and shovel.  Fifteen feet may not sound like much – and it’s not – but digging a 6” deep trench across that length of ground isn’t trivial.  The tools and the technique dictate that you’ll end up moving an astonishing amount of dirt just to get that wire down half a foot.  It took me a couple of hours.

Now, gazing up at my lovely, new second antenna – an 80-meter OCF dipole – and then down at the hundred-odd feet of feed line laying across my lawn, I blanche at the thought of trying to bury it.

I know what I need, of course.  One of these…

It’s never a good sign when the website doesn’t list the price, but instead says to “call.”  Nevertheless, those of you who can afford one should just stop reading now.  This is all you’ll ever need.

For the rest of us, there is something.  Something that takes that hundred-foot trenching project and turns it from a full weekend of back-breaking effort into a vastly easier, 2-3 hour, piece of work.  A couple of Ibuprofens, instead of the whole bottle.


Wilton Trenching Spade – A Tool That Really Works


It’s called the Wilton Thinline Trenching Spade and it’s made by a fellow named Dan Wilton, up in Michigan.  It works on the simple principle of pushing a large, flat blade straight into the ground, then pushing forward and backward a couple times such that the soil separates.  You end up with a very narrow trench – just an inch or so wide – perfect for getting that RG213 or LMR400 eight inches or so into the ground.

No, Dan Wilton doesn’t have a slick storefront or a fancy website.

What he does have is a tool that works.  Dan apparently works in the wire installation business, so it’s no surprise where he got his inspiration.

The tool has a broad cutting footprint.  And its large, rounded step works great for placing the bottom of your work boot – unlike a lot of similar, smaller implements your boot won’t keep sliding off.

Once pressed a few inches in the tool has enough “bite” to hold itself and your weight.  At that point you simply stand upon it and rock sideways back and forth a few times, letting the rounded cutting edge blade through soil.

No, it’s not perfect.  How well, how easily, and how quickly it works will depend very much on your soil.  If you hit a rock, or a very large root, there’s no magic to getting through them.  My experience, here in Virginia’s northern Piedmont, was that I could typically get three or four “clean” cuts before hitting one with a rock.  When that happens, you simply have to work patiently through the obstruction.  It certainly takes more time than those clean cuts, but usually not too long.

Once your trench is finished, you simply drop your wire down into the hole – I used a foot-long wooden dowel to gently press it to the bottom – and then use your boot to press the two lips of raised soil and grass back together.  When you’re done you can hardly tell there was a trench there.

A side benefit is that the whole process is much cleaner.  Using a mattock and shovel (or even a trenching machine) and you’ll soon have dirt everywhere and on everything.  And when you’re finished the dirt scar running along the ground will take months to heal.

Since the Wilton tool doesn’t actually excavate any dirt, you don’t have those issues.

Having finished my own 100’ bit of trench work, I’m a believer.  The Wilton Trenching Spade really does work.

I will offer a word of caution… there are other trenching spades out there.  Before discovering Dan Wilton’s brainchild, I saw a YouTube video that prompted me to buy this Kenyon spade.

You can see it in the picture here below next to the Wilton tool.


The Wilton Trenching Spade vs. the Kenyon


Unfortunately, it didn’t work.  It simply would not cut through the soil.  When you compare it to the Wilton spade, you can see why – the flat cutting surface of the Kenyon must push through the soil, whereas the rounded cutting surface of the Wilton will actually cut through the soil when rotated sideways.  The difference in effort is dramatic.

I did find a use for the Kenyon… used in a brute force fashion, it works tolerably well for breaking through rocks.

Here’s the thing.  It’s easy to convince yourself that this latest antenna and its needs-to-be-buried-feed-line is a one-off thing.  Just get this one last wire up and operational and you’ll be good to go.  Right?

Only, it’s never that way.  You might as well admit it.  You’re never going to be done.  There’s always going to be another antenna.

So you might as well go ahead and get the stuff you need to do it.  If you can afford that gas-powered trenching saw, by all means get it.  But if, like most of us, that seems like a bridge just a little too far, get the Wilton Thinline Trenching Spade.

Highly recommended.



Plenty Deep Enough



Trench Cuts are Clean and Minimally Disruptive







Reasonable Effort Gets It Done



The Heavy, Sharp, Curved Blade is the Secret








* I have no affiliation with Dan Wilton or his products.  Simply a very satisfied customer.










Recollections of a Rookie: The 2017 Virginia QSO Party

Monday, March 20th, 2017

Five minutes in and I’m already surprised.  I kind of went into it thinking 40m would just light up.  Not so much.  Activity emerges slowly, like individual stars at twilight. That isn’t the big problem, though.  The big problem is that I can only hear half of each of those contacts!  I can hear the Indiana or New York or Ohio end just fine – and the exchange makes it clear these are VaQSO Party contacts.  But the Virginia side is a murmuring, incoherent burble, surfing along the noise.

 So much for NVIS and short-skip.  I’m already regretting what I did with my antennas.

Tuning up and down the band.  Fourteen minutes in I finally stumble across a strong, readable Virginia signal.  It’s Arno W4AKO!  And he’s already up to number 14!  Wow.  Something about separating the wheat from the chaff…

With my first, virgin contact in the log, I settle in.  The buzz of anticipation is over.  This is going to be a lot harder than I thought.

Up and down forty.  Running to one end, then the other, like a disconsolate motorcyclist off his meds.  Over the next hour I make three more contacts.  Embarrassing.

In retrospect, letting go of a band that isn’t working seems obvious.  But it’s harder than it sounds.  Forty, for me, has always been the heavy hitter.  The one HF band that works when all the others have gone squirrely.   And all that got reinforced in the weeks leading up when I studied John KX4O’s Cabrillo stats from previous years’ VaQSO Parties.  I marked up a sheet of paper with which bands are open and “fat” on an hour-by-hour basis.  I figure propagation might be a little worse than last year, given where we are in the sunspot cycle, but the general characteristics should be about the same.  That paper now stares back at me from where I have it pinned at eye level.  Eighty comes and goes.  Twenty comes and goes.  Forty?  Forty is just simply always there.  Old reliable.

So, yeah, letting go is hard.

But if 40 has gone all drunk and messy, 80 is just the opposite… bright and clear-eyed!  Virginia stations dotted all over the band.  And so I bend to it and go to work.

It’s still slow.  But it’s steady.  After a few hours I’m ready to draw another conclusion… Search and Pounce is fine when working DX.  But it’s like a sniper carefully working a shot.  It’s laborious and slow and takes lots of patience.  It’s decidedly not the way to rack up points in a hurry.

This is my first contest, so it’s a work in progress.  Or, rather, I should say I’m the work in progress!  But I’m already getting an inkling.  My mind stretches back a couple months to when I was reading Contact Sport, J. K. George’s account of the 2014 World Radiosport Team Championship.  The boys and girls in that contest didn’t wander the bands, searching for quarry.  They set themselves up as bait and let the airwaves come to them.

I’ll pause here and confess.  There are elements to this Ham Radio thing that are fraught, at least for some of us.  Hearing, interpreting, and remembering call signs on the fly isn’t a skill I was born with (am I the only one who, for the first couple of months, kept a written-down copy of my own call sign there in front of me, lest I forgot?!).  Nor were phonetics – neither the standard ones nor the non-standard ones, much less the off-the-wall ones – any part of my lexicon before I started down the road with this hobby.

When I’m working DX, I can be that sniper.  I can take my time.  I can listen to however many contacts I need in order to get his call sign right, to get his cadence.  I can do a quick lookup on QRZ if I want.  I can move up five or down ten or wherever the nearest clear frequency is and tune up to within a gnat’s eyelash, before moving back.  I can get positioned just so before lifting my rod and casting the line.

And yet you can’t do all that and not forget, not appreciate, that that guy or gal on the other end has no such benefit.  What you might take two minutes to prepare for, thoughtfully and deliberately, he has but a couple of seconds… usually intermixed with a bunch of competing stations!  In a heartbeat he has to parse that babel of voices, interpret the phonetics, and pull something out of the morass of signals.

I listen to the radio and shake my head at the poise and presence that so many of you display.  I only hope that one day I can become half as competent.

All of which is to say, being on the receiving end of one of those dreaded pileups was something I had never experienced.  And so it’s with no little trepidation that I first venture out.

“CQ, CQ, CQ.  Virginia QSO Party.  This is Kilo-Four-Yankee-Whiskey-Zulu.  K-4-Y-W-Zed.  Listening.”


Again.  And again nothing.

One more time.  Once more, a fruitless pause.

And it’s not long before I conclude that I’ve done my duty.  It’s with a sense of quiet relief that I reach for the VFO knob.

I’m halfway up the band when I turn back to the computer.  Placing three fingers on the trackpad of the Mac, I swipe to the adjoining desktop.  The one with John’s spotting network up in my browser.  I’ve been watching it periodically since I began.

And now I’m staring at it in disbelief.  My own call sign sits there, beaming back at me.

Crikey!  It’s one thing to bail on your own.  But when someone has gone to the effort to spot you it creates… I dunno… kind of an obligation?

Spinning back to 3.829, I sigh with relief.  It’s still clear.  I begin once again.  “CQ, CQ, CQ…”

The words are hardly out of my mouth.  And here they come.

There’s a pregnant pause with the first one as I suddenly realize that our exchanges are reversed.  But then I’m into it and working them and after a few of ‘em I see, like most things, there’s a rhythm to it.  You just find that and go.

And boy is it fast!  An elation takes hold as I realize how quickly my contact and multiplier counts are growing.  This is the best thing since sliced bread!

It doesn’t last long.  A dozen or fifteen contacts and it’s over.  But not before I’ve experienced a little bit of magic.  Something I won’t soon forget.

Speaking of John’s spotting site… it was invaluable.  You’re sitting there with only one band working and all the stations you can hear are already in your log.   Sure, you’ll find the odd new one when it shows up by tuning up and down.  But it’s world’s easier when you see it show up on the spotting network.

MacLoggerDX, my logging software, worked fine.  One of the first things you learn is that determining if a station is a dupe is such a critical part to all this.  I can’t imagine doing it without software!

Most of the day Saturday I’ve gone back and forth between the desktop where I have MacLoggerDX up full-screen – and running my normal DX cluster – and the adjacent desktop where I have John’s spotting site.  Manually copying the call signs from the spotting network back to MacLoggerDX is a bit of a pain.  Too much swiping back and forth.  Too much getting half the call sign and having to go back to get the rest.  So late in the day I reverse that… I light up John’s spotting network as the telnet cluster within MacLoggerDX.

Much better!  Now it’s mostly Virginia stations showing up in the band map.  Now I can just click on them to populate the call sign box to see if they are a dupe.  And spotting them takes only a single click, versus filling out several fields on the web form.  I leave it like this for the rest of the weekend.

I discover radio contesting is a physically demanding sport.  Who knew?!  No surprise, really.  A lot of sitting and not a lot of moving.  Not all that different from a long motorcycle ride in that respect.  Late in the afternoon, my neck and shoulders sore, I start getting up more often.  Bringing in a load of wood for the woodstove helps.  As does walking the half-mile to get the mail.  And at the end of the day, Ibuprofen is your friend.

Saturday ends quietly.  I toast the day – my Spartan results rather a contrast to the rich experience I’ve enjoyed – with a big bowl of ice cream.  And then I head off to bed.

Sunday is a mix.  I wake up excited to get back at it.  Dreaming of more of those pileups and my score ratcheting up like Rapunzel’s hair.

But the bands remain diffident.  Eight O’Clock is lonely.  And 40m still has the flu.  It will prove a little better than yesterday.  But that’s not saying much.  Mostly it’s a day to stay on 80, with brief excursions elsewhere.

I rue not having 2 meters.  I’ve got the KX3 that can do that via the full-length J-pole outside my window.  But there’s a problem with the FTDI cable Elecraft shipped with it and I’m still waiting for the replacement.  Until they send that I’ve got no CAT control.  Probably wouldn’t much matter anyway.  Three watts out is fine for hitting our local repeater.  Maybe not so much for making it to Skyline Drive.  Still, there’s a twinge of regret every time I see one of those spots show up.  And I’m guessing it might be a key to band-hopping… something I still need to learn more about.

Speaking of Skyline Drive… I don’t hear Andy K1RA or Jason KJ4EOO the entire weekend.

There are some other big stations, though.  W4VA is ubiquitous, and I can’t help but smile every time I come across them.  And in one of my contacts the fellow asks me if I’m a member of the Fauquier Amateur Radio Association.  It’s with a sense of pride that I reply “Indeed, I am!”

K1RO out of New Hampshire had just the best signal all weekend.  He was something of an epiphany for me… emphasizing that an out-of-state station can often be in a fantastic situation to play a QSO party.  The propagation woes that bedeviled most of us in-state guys, and poked veritable holes in all the NVIS theories (kidding), was his strength.  Not that he didn’t leverage it with lots and lots of operating expertise – he surely did.  But he also made me realize that looking beyond your state’s borders for a QSO party can be handsomely rewarded.

Finally, I’ll just say that I marveled at many of you guys.  One of the interesting things about the exchange is that your pal on the other end knows instantly where you are; and you know exactly where s/he is.  I would just shake my head at some of the scores I heard.  No excuses.  No worrying about band conditions.  Just making it work.

My hat’s off to you.


What I wrote….


What I should have written….

















Musings on the 2016 BMW R1200GS Adventure

Saturday, January 21st, 2017

The descent down to the creek runs through dense woods.  A lonely road wending its way through a series of esses.  The trees brown, having lost their color, now holding hard to their last few leaves before giving up the ghost on yet another season.

Lifting my eyes, I scan for deer.  First, quickly, the edges.  Then deeper.

The first, quick right-hander emerges suddenly, like a jab from a boxer.

I smile.  I haven’t been here in awhile.  But it’s all the same.

The bike, now a few months old and with some thousands of miles on the clock, is no longer a stranger.  At my nudge, it responds instantly, eagerly.  Into the corner, it hews a perfect, clean line, slicing a razor-thin slice off the thing I hold in my head.

The remembrance of the road washing over me, trailing throttle as I think about the turn two curves ahead, I press down on the shift lever.  Third gear.  There’s the slightest judder as the engine’s computer matches the speed.

Past the one-lane bridge, the road opens up.  A quarter-mile, lifting ascent.  Dangerous because of the deer.  But I can never help myself.

When I roll out a few seconds later I’m at the top, fifth gear, and into triple digits.

That’s when I see them.  Just a flash, distant through the trees.  But enough.

My eyes narrow, my heart ratchets.  The old thing.  How long has it been?  How many months?  But today, once again, I can’t help myself.  Like a drunk falling off the wagon.


I already know, but like a pilot on approach I glance down anyway.  Dyna.  Solo rider.  Hard.  I downshift one gear, using the clutch this time.  Just for old time’s sake.

It doesn’t take long.  They’re running a good pace, but short of a Panigale… nah.

There are two of them and within a mile I’ve pulled up behind them.  Then it’s the three of us, two sportbikes and a big behemoth of something bringing up the rear, full of prejudice.  The lead rider bumps his pace, gapping his friend.

You can feel it, the indignation.  You can always feel it.

I don’t need much room.  Coming out of a corner and there’s the tiniest little piece of straight.  Both of us lifting out of the lean and accelerating hard.  I get him when he shifts, the tiny, little pause enough.  I have to shift too, of course.  But I stay hard into the throttle and just toe my boot up into the lever as I come around him.  As I duck back in front of him I can imagine him talking to his buddy later.  “You won’t believe how fast that fucker shifted!”  The thought of it makes me laugh.

It takes another half mile for the other guy.  On the tight, narrow, downhill slalom.  Probably the place he least expected it because it’s bumpy and narrow and you’ve got to use some brake and the suspension on most bikes gets packed through there.

The two bikes quickly slow and drop back.  As I come down off the high I shake my head, a sudden feeling of guilt washing over me.

Looking down the road, framed by that view I’ve loved for so long – the dash and handlebar of a fine motorcycle – I abide a moment of self beratement.  Then a grin slowly breaks out under my helmet.

The saddlebags.  They always hate the saddlebags.




On more than one occasion I have observed that the BMW GS-series of bikes are the ugliest on the planet.  The boys in Berlin definitely bought into form follows function when wrestling with that model.

But then you walk around the new liquid-cooled BMW R1200GS Adventure and you kind of shake your head.  It’s a handsome bike.

Now maybe that’s just my long familiarity taking hold.  Or a newly found appreciation for what has now become a very, very polished product.  Whatever.  I like it.

The visual perception differs, depending upon your angle.  From the front, walking slowly towards the back, the lines of the bike first are svelte, sure of themselves.  The curves and angles and lines melt into each other.  They integrate well.

But then you get back towards the seat and that huge tank emerges.  You can’t not see it.  And the sense of svelteness quickly begins to disappear.

Once that’s in your consciousness you can’t dismiss it.  And once you begin wheeling it around by hand, that only gets underlined further:  this is a big, heavy bike.  Beast is the word that comes to mind.

No question the GS Adventure can be an intimidating motorcycle.  It’s dense.  It’s bulky.  And it’s top heavy.  Even those of us who come from the world of 800-pound Harley’s can appreciate its gargantuan nature.

Out of the Fog…

Seated, your knees press upon the metal sides of that tank.  Yeah, it’s big.  But it feels good.

As your eyes drop further, you see that those engine jugs are not so apparent as they are on the Oilhead.  Not so naked.  Like a girl, seeing you look at her, who has self-consciously fastened another button on her blouse.

Dash layout is about as clean as one could expect, given the numerous control and information-rich elements that all beg for attention.

Notably, the left handlebar now sports a Japanese-style turn-signal switch.  Press left for left.  Press right for right.  And press in the center to cancel.   After literally decades of being panned by every magazine road test that ever got published, BMW has finally thrown in the towel.  That said, I kind of miss the old paddle switches.  I never quite saw the problem with ‘em that all those other journalists did.  But the new one works great.  Simple as it gets.

The lockable, factory-integrated GPS mount is very nice.  It attaches to a bar above the dash proper, affording a perfect sight line and easy access to the touch screen of your Sat Nav.  Along with the Wonder Wheel and the integrated communications between the bike and Sat Nav, it’s about as ideal a GPS solution as you could wish for.  More anon.

The analog speedometer looks nice, but isn’t very functional.  The lines and the numbers printed on the face are too numerous, too close together, and too small to make determining speed anything other than a several second, stare-hard-at-the-speedo-clock-face proposition.

Not that it much matters.  Both the information display LCD and the GPS can be configured to digitally display speed.  Easy peasy.

Climbing on doesn’t do anything to diminish the beastly gargantuan-ness of the bike.  It’s heavy.  It’s bulky.  And it’s tall.  You’re reminded every time you mount or dismount.  And you’ll laugh the first time you pull up next to a gas pump, hoist it up onto its center stand, and prepare to fill the tank.  I’m 6’ 2” and, standing next to it, the top of the tank comes to the middle of my chest.  This, for sure, ain’t your down-low Harley!  You have to reverse the gas pump handle in your hand – thumb pointing backwards up the hose, little finger pointing at the nozzle – and it’s all just a tiny bit techy.

But Lordy, Lordy, that tank!  It holds just a hair under eight gallons.  After a lifetime of riding bikes with a practical range upwards of two hundred miles – those of us who have stood there on the side of the road with an empty tank can attest to what practical means – suddenly having another hundred miles in the can is huge.  The first few tankful’s feel positively surreal.  It’s like a car… you just keep going.  And going.  And going.  And the pleasure of stopping, to pee or buy a bottle of water or take off some clothes, or whatever… is sharpened immeasurably by riding right on past the gas pumps.  I honestly didn’t think the fuel capacity would be that big a deal.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Thumbing the starter brings another surprise.  The engine sounds different than the boxers of old.  A little bit raspier, with a tiny bit less bass.  Not quite as macho.  Blip the throttle and the engine responds instantly.  It has very little flywheel effect.  And sitting there, stopped, there’s only a hint of that old sideways rocking couple that’s always been iconic to the boxer-twin.

Honestly, sitting out there in the parking lot preparing for my demo ride, I was disappointed.  Your first impression is that the engine isn’t a twin at all.  It feels more like a triple or an inline-four.  WTF?  And, crikey, the size of the bike!

But then you pull in the clutch and press down into first and you give it some gas and feel for the engagement point – all while the hangers-on there at the dealership are standing around watching you – and, as the bike begins to move, the first of several epiphanies begin to unfold.

The first, and probably most important, is that instantly – as soon as the wheels begin to turn – all that weight, all that bulk, all that tallness, all that intimidating gargantuan-ness… simply disappears.  Like flicking a switch, the bike becomes light as a feather.

I’ve experienced this phenomenon before, on other bikes.  How well-suspended rolling mass, carried by a good frame, can attenuate many of its sensory failings.  But nothing remotely like this.  The GSA performs a mystical sleight-of-hand that is akin to Clark Kent ducking into a phone booth.  The transformation is magical.

The clutch pull is very light.  The throttle pull is both very light and very short.  Extending two fingers to the front brake lever – just a caress, like gently wiping the tear from a woman’s cheek – and you can feel it down through the Telelever, bleeding off however much speed you want, however quickly you want it gone.  Amazing, great brakes.

The rear brake is the best I’ve ever felt.  You can feel the bite, in contrast to the wooden numbness most rear brakes exhibit.

Everything feels light.  All the controls.  The whole bike feels crisp, responsive, and alive.  After two miles, my first impression is one of ease.  That sensory conclusion is a profound irony, given how you start out thinking about this bike.  But it’s true.  There’s an elegant effortlessness to riding this motorcycle.

It’s when I turn off the big road and head into the first set of twisties that I know that I’m done.

I bought my ’05 GS on something of a hunch.  I had fallen in love with how a nice, torquey twin could comport itself when the road begins to dance.  And long after I had totaled that SV650 in a hard crash at VIR, I still remembered.  It occurred to me that a bigger, heavier twin – something with longer legs and good luggage – might make the perfect all-around bike.

What I didn’t expect is that it would make such a terrific sport bike.  After riding it for some time I wrote, “up to the last few percentiles of what could be considered reasonable on the street, this is the easiest-to-ride-fast bike I’ve ever been on.”  I ride with guys that are very good, very fast, and who show up on a wide variety of compelling, very serious machinery.  I never once, in all the years since, ever felt outgunned when I showed up with that GS.

The question in front of me, then – really, the urgent question at the heart of all this – is how much of that sporting prowess would I give up on this big, hulking GSA?

And having framed the question that way, I’m stunned when I have to flip it.

Steve has left the bike in Road mode and so that’s what I’m in when I lean gently into the first turn.  The bike follows my lead with what seems to be a casual little smile.  And as I feel that rush in my chest and hear the old swimming in my ears, my right hand reflexively brings up the throttle.  The bike goes faster and faster, but that early sense of ease and lightness never leaves it.  It paints the road with precise, clean lines.  Deft, narrow, and always meticulously correct.  Whatever I think, it does.

Like perfect sex.

My mind flashes back to the invoice.  How this is just an “I’m kinda curious” demo ride.

Fuck.  Fuck.  Fuck.  “How can I possibly do this?”

You sell three motorcycles, is how.  And thank God you got ‘em to sell.

There’s more, of course.  It’s not long before I’m in Dynamic mode.  And the perfect sex just gets perfecter.

Into the Mountains…

Turns out the new Wasserboxer motor isn’t worse than the old one – quite the contrary.  But while retaining traces of the old character, it is different.  Its free-revving nature lends to the bike’s overall precision, its ability to execute quickly.  It lays down a thick, unending layer of torque everywhere, just like its forbears.  Only more of it.  And that otherworldly quality of the old Oilhead – the one where when things get serious and the road is demanding and you feel for that perfect place in the motor where the berm is, you know, that place where the well of power lies but a hairbreadth’s away, so that when you call upon it it’s already there, already left on the road – that’s there, too.

The motor has perhaps the best fueling I’ve ever experienced in a fuel-injected bike.  Not all that far away from those nicely carbureted engines of yore.  It isn’t perfect – trailing throttle still flails around a bit, trying to find itself – but all things considered this is an exceptional motor.  The Oilhead, in all its variants, was and is a remarkable design.  This water-cooled version is just the next improvement on an already proven concept.

The ride modes are a revelation.  Road, Rain, Enduro, Enduro Pro, Dynamic… I’m not going to reprise what they do – that’s recounted in lots of places.  But they each transform the bike, softening this, sharpening that, in ways unique to its mission.

It’s no little irony that the quest that led me to the GSA started out with my looking for a lighter, more capable off-road bike.  After a particularly epic 19-mile off-road excursion last spring – a wet, sloppy down-the-old-creek-bed adventure that I wasn’t sure we were all going to come back from unscathed… I came looking for new answers.  Lighter, more agile answers.

One might ask how you get from there to a 78-pound wet weight heavier behemoth.  You get there with software, is how.

The electronic suspension is amazing.  Remember the days when you had to stop, pop the seat, pull out your tool kit, find the special tool, and then heave this way or that on the shoulder of your rear shock to change the preload?  And that that’s all there was – there being no compression damping or rebound damping or inverted cartridge forks or any other such exotica?  And how we thought we had left those primitive times behind when our bikes finally got better.  And how we were really in high cotton when we upgraded to Fox or Penske or Ohlin’s bits?

‘Tweren’t nothing.  ESA has stolen a march on everything.

The biggest problem with motorcycle suspension is that it’s arcane.  Even on those bikes that have decent shocks and forks – and simple dials to tweak them – most riders don’t understand the physics and the componentry well enough to set them.  So, mostly, motorcycle suspension has been a set-it-and-forget-it proposition.  Usually set badly, to boot.

A button on your dash, a few seconds, a simple user interface – rider, passenger, luggage (add ‘em up); soft, medium, hard – and, voila, all that changes.  Stupid simple.  And it works.

The quick shifter – Shift Assist Pro in BMW-speak – is another little option I thought would be a cute, nice-to-have.  What it does… is make you feel like Valentino Rossi.  You go balling the jack through a set of esses and as the road opens up those clutchless upshifts are just so… cool!  You want an instant grin?  Just dial up some throttle and toe up that lever.  The boys in the MotoGP paddock should thank their lucky stars you don’t have a ride.

Now, then, comes the guilt.  A bike that goes this well surely must make you pay, right?  My GSX-R1000, a straight razor if there ever was one, could dice up a curvy road with the best of ‘em.  But it never let you forget the price you were going to pay.  Ibuprofen was a standard part of the riding kit.  And after a little bit, even that wasn’t enough.

I’ve said for years that my Harley Road King is the most comfortable bike I’ve ever ridden.  Well, the GSA is very, very close.

I ended up fitting my ’05 GS with a nice Sargent seat.  On the GSA the stock seat works just fine.  Very comfortable.

The general ergonomics will vary from rider to rider, of course.  For me, this very big, very tall BMW is just about perfect.  The wide-set handlebar gives you lots of leverage.  It requires much less pressure and much less effort to steer than the clip-ons on a sportbike.  The upright seating position gives you great visibility.  And the tallness that might seem less than ideal when fueling or mounting and dismounting… becomes a great asset when big miles are in the mix.  You can drop your boot off the peg to stretch out your knee without having to spend the muscle energy keeping your foot off the pavement.  You just drop your leg down straight and rest for a few moments.  And the foot pegs make standing up very easy and comfortable, either to stretch during long pavement runs, or for serious off-road work.

Wind protection is well nigh perfect.  With the screen in its down, retracted position you get just enough spill around your shoulders and head to remind you you’re on a bike.  Come cold or rain and you just reach forward and twist the little knob.  The screen ratchets up and just as quick as that you’re in a mostly quiet cocoon of air.

The big tank and the cylinder heads sticking out form a seamless shield in front of your lower body.  For a bike that’s supposed to be more naked than not, you’d be forgiven for wondering why its protection is more akin to that of a full-boat tourer.

I promised more about the GPS.  Actually, it’s about information.

After bringing that demo bike back, after I knew I was done, I started looking into all the details.  One of them was that I had dropped a cool grand on a new Garmin 590LM little more than a year earlier.  I wasn’t exactly keen on paying the stiff premium for the BMW-branded Nav V.  Could I use the 590?  Alas, no, it didn’t take long to find that my 590LM was not compatible with the GSA.

What I didn’t know then, but would find out shortly, is that GPS navigation is the least of it.

The deal is this… the GSA is an information-dense motorcycle.  An incredible amount of data is being transmitted continuously, in real time, along its system bus.  The rider can access part of this information through the dual-screen Multi-function display on the dash.  The upper and lower sections of that display, toggled via a button on the left handlebar, display such things as fuel level, clock, regular odometer, several trip odometers, fuel range remaining, ambient temperature, engine temperature, oil level (only works when the bike is stopped), individual readouts for front and rear tire pressure (corrected for temperature), several fuel consumption readouts, current speed, average speed, alternator voltage, overall time, and driving time.

The Nav V functions exactly as you’d expect as far as GPS functions.  It seems to have the same (up to date) processing engine and interface as my 590LM.  It works great.

But it doesn’t stop there.  It also reads from the bike’s system bus and is able to display a whole host of other kinds of bike data.  Some of it – things like speed, tire pressures, etc., – are redundant to the Multi-function display just beneath it.  You can configure where you want that information to appear.  But it also contains lots of information unique to itself.

To make accessing all this information easy while underway, there’s a round wheel just inboard of the left handgrip.  This wheel – the wonder wheel – is rotated up or down, or is pressed, or is pulled.  Those four simple actions are sufficient to control most of the complexity of the Nav V.  It’s hard to describe.  And it’s brilliant.

That’s why, even if you already have another GPS, you’ll want the Nav V.  It was designed as an integral part of the bike.  It’s as much an information display, a portal into what’s going on within the bike, as it is a GPS.

The electronic cruise control is amazing.  Just like in your car.  And just that easy to use.

The heated grips are great.  It’s the feature I most miss on the Harley when out on a cool, crisp fall day.

The LED lighting is fabulous.  It looks uber cool.  But it also flat works.  You’ll want to search out dark roads at night just to be able to use it.


That includes the fog lamps, which are likewise LED.  When you’re up on the Blue Ridge Parkway heading towards Cherokee on a rainy, dense-with-fog day – your shoulders all tense because you can’t see shit – you’ll be glad you’ve got them.

Getting my ’05 GS on its center stand was awful.  Despite the extra weight it carries, this GSA’s center stand is world’s better.  It has a much better balance point.

The side stand holds the bike much closer to vertical.  I don’t know if that was a conscious design decision to ease the weight a rider has to deal with.  But it works well.

ABS Pro and ASC – Automatic Stability Control, BMW’s version of traction control – are your safety nets.  They both get tweaked depending upon which mode you’re in.  And they both, hopefully, will never be needed.  But it’s nice to know they’re there.  Having ABS that works while you’re leaned over seems especially crazy.  I don’t plan on testing it!

The OEM aluminum panniers are stunningly good.  They’re robust and have what appears to be a very solid mounting system.  They’re larger than the Vario boxes that were on my ’05 GS.  And the top-load design makes them so much handier.  The problem with side-load panniers is that stuff falls out.  With a top-load box, everything is an easy, one-handed operation.  And these are huge.  They hold an amazing amount of gear.

Aluminum does have a downside, beyond its extra weight… oxidation.  Depending upon how long you leave stuff in your bags, and how much it moves around, you’ll end up with grayish-black soot marks on everything.  BMW could have solved that by clear-coating the insides.  But they didn’t.

I ordered the BMW bag liners.  When they came in I was surprised to find they weren’t the zippered, cordura-type liners that came with my old Vario panniers.  Instead, they were expedition-style, canoe-type dry bags.  You know, those real tall urethane bags that you fold down a bunch of turns, and then buckle with straps?  They’re an obvious choice for a white water adventure.  Or maybe a weeks or months-long motorcycle journey into some remote place, where you want a second-level of moisture protection.  But for the more civilized adventures most of us do, most the time, they’re way too much hassle.

I ended up ordering a set of Kathy’s Liners.  Problem solved.

I’ve used tank bags on nearly every bike I’ve ever owned.  Decades ago, on my Japanese bikes, they were the only luggage I had.  I quickly learned to love them for their yeoman utility.

Long ago, BMW did tank bags better than anyone.  The OEM bag I had on my ’93 K1100RS seemed to have been designed in conjunction with the bike itself, just like its panniers.

Later, BMW lost its way, utilizing glued-on Velcro attachments and all sorts of other nonsense in its tank bags.  They clearly had become afterthoughts.  The OEM bag on my ’05 GS was abysmal.  I quickly replaced it.

After looking hard at the aftermarket, I took a flyer on the new GSA item and bought the OEM bag.  My first surprise was how diminutive it is.  For such a big bike, it’s positively tiny.  And its internal shape – following the steeply sloped angle of the tank – is slightly odd.  But it’s got a clean mounting system.  I tossed in a set of dividers and some padding on the bottom and it does its job of keeping my cameras (35mm rangefinders; big DSLRs or medium format need not apply), wallet, smartphone, and handgun all easily accessible.  I like it.

As good – no, as great – as this bike is, it’s not all peaches and cream.

The elephant that will always be in the room is its weight.  The 78-pound wet weight difference between it and my ’05 model actually understates the challenge, as I’m sure those measures were taken sans luggage.  When you consider the extra weight of the three aluminum boxes vs. their plastic counterparts, and you consider that many of us will be carrying somewhat more weight in them – in my case, I’m carrying a nicer, rather heavier, set of tools than I did with my ’05 model – you’re really looking at a 100+ pound weight difference.  And the old model wasn’t all that light to begin with.

The big GSA may do a Superman transformation once underway, but that doesn’t help when walking the bike around by hand.  You’re always conscious of it.  You always know how quickly it could get away from you.

The tool kit is a total joke.  A complete embarrassment.  One wonders why they even bothered.

The single, OEM Powerlet-style outlet is located in the dash.  Convenient for powering phones or whatnot.  Or for charging up something inside the tank bag.  But it still has the 5-amp Canbus limit.  Nowhere near enough juice to power electric clothing or an air compressor or anything else serious.  It’s just stupid.

My dealer, as a standard part of their bike prep, installs the optional “secondary” power outlet on the left side of the bike, just beneath the seat.  It’s wired directly to the battery and hence doesn’t suffer from the Canbus limit.  Pay for it if you have to.

And, finally, there’s the power output of the bike itself.  I’ve always been surprised that for a bike intended to travel across the great beyond – and thus had designed-in reserves to get a rider through whatever challenges might come his way – had such a marginal electrical system.  My ’05 GS came with a little 12Ah, 240-CCA battery and a 600-watt alternator.  I replaced batteries more frequently on that bike than any I have ever owned.

The big GSA is not any better… an 11Ah, 230-CCA battery and a 510-watt alternator.  Sure, the LED lighting requires less juice.  And all of the modern electric components are certainly more efficient.  But… and that’s really the deal… this bike has more electronic wizardry than a starship.  Alas, all that hocus-pocus goes south in a hurry once voltage drops beyond a certain, not-that-low threshold.  This bike needs its electric system.

Take good care of your battery.




I’m torn.  An hour before dawn, and it’s still pitch black up here on the Parkway.  I have the whole day in front of me and that always impels an anxious push to get going.  But I promised myself last night.  And as I debate the question the part of me that wants the pictures points out to the part of me that wants to get moving that this little trip of mine is open-ended.  I can take as many days as I want.

Even with my fog lights lit I almost miss the overlook.  But I’m not moving that fast and when the break in the pavement appears I get on the brakes in time.

Off the bike, my eyes peer east while I break out the tripod.  There’s a tiny, little bit of pink starting to bleed into the sky.  Pressing the Leica into place, the Arca-Swiss mount tight, it won’t be long.

How long’s it been?  My mind goes back to that trip, fourteen years ago, the year that I was unemployed and everything was awful.  I was shooting film then.  I remember how I headed into Boone afterwards, for breakfast at the Hardees, and was there when the rain came.  My camp down at Price was a soaking disaster by the time I got back.

I smile.  I’m reminded that the trips we remember most are those where there’s some drama.  Those where everything doesn’t go exactly according to plan.  The trips that we always hope for – perfect weather and perfect roads and perfect everything – just kind of merge into a pleasant nothingness after awhile.

While I wait for the light, I look at the bike, its features vague in the still-mostly-darkness.  I’ve been blessed with some great bikes in my time.  But nothing like this.  This one is special in ways I don’t have words for.  A month and a week in I still don’t know how I got so lucky.

What I do know is that being on the road, deep in the mountains, in that special darkness… and then to watch as the first tendrils of light leak towards you from the horizon, is maybe my favorite thing in the whole world.

God’s Grace…

A fast bike – the very best you’ve ever been on – a fine road, the whole day stretching in front of you.

And God’s grace in your pocket.


Boxing Day Ride

Friday, December 30th, 2016

 Inspired by Nick Diaz’ Facebook posting a couple days ago of his post-Christmas ride, I decided to offer up this little ditty of my own.  The Blue Ridge Beemer ‘Boxing Day’ ride, circa 1994.  Steve Coburn persuaded a small handful of intrepid buddies to spin a few miles on the day after Christmas.

RIP, Steve…


Dawn is beautiful.  A red slash rising in the East, illuminating a suddenly clear sky.  The kitchen window is cold to the touch as I review options.  I’ve been up for awhile already, drinking coffee and trying to recover data from my PC’s failing hard disk.  I really ought to keep working on that.  Or, then again, I could go for a ride.  It’s cold outside now, but the forecast is for sunshine and a high in the low fifties.  It should be a really nice day.  And Steve has dusted off a tradition from his days out in California.  He has scheduled  a Boxer’s day ride – whatever that is.  This morning, on the day after Christmas.  In Charlottesville.

I continue working on the hard disk and don’t really decide to go on the ride until, really, it’s too late.  Once decided, there’s a mad scramble to get dressed and packed.  Then there’s a false start down the driveway only to realize I have left my wallet on the desk.  Geez.  Stop.  Sidestand down.  Unplug the gloves.  Unplug the vest.  Walk back to retrieve the wallet.  Walk back down to the bike.  And I’m getting really warm in these clothes.  Sigh.  Finally, after much ado, I’m moving.  OK, let’s see now.  The clock in my cockpit shows 9:21 as I exit my driveway.  The guys will be leaving The Tavern, the Charlottesville restaurant where they are enjoying, I’m sure, a nice relaxing breakfast, at 10:00.  A normal ride from here to Charlottesville takes an hour and a quarter.  And, once I get there, I’m not even sure where The Tavern is.  Uh, something tells me there’s something very wrong with this picture.

Route 29, southbound.  My head tells me to give up this thing.  There’s just no chance I can catch the guys in Charlottesville.  Why not go west, instead – take 211 over the mountain, like on yesterday’s Christmas Day ride; and just ride down in the Shenandoah Valley for awhile?  But my heart says Charlottesville, and so the turnoff to Warrenton, and westbound 211, passes behind me.  OK.  So I’m committed.

The arithmetic is simple.  I’m running thirty-five minutes behind.  IF the guys are a few minutes late in suiting up to leave the restaurant.  And IF, on getting to Charlottesville, I can find the place in no more than, say, two minutes.  And IF I can shave twenty minutes or so off the normal travel time.  Then I might get to go on this ride.


The K1100RS is running smoothly.  As its coolant temperature approaches normal I give it a little more throttle.  Five thousand RPM gives me better than 8o mph.  Spin just a little more and I get an even 90.  OK.  So that’s my baseline.

Traffic is sparse.  The sky is clear blue and I squint against the brightness of the sun.  I have Ray Ban Aviator’s in the tank bag, but dare not slow the couple minutes it would take to put them on.  That would cost precious seconds.

The risks are not lost on me.  This stretch of 29 between Warrenton and Charlottesville is heavily patrolled.  Known for both it’s stationary and rolling radar enforcement.  And being nailed while doing as much as thirty-five over the 55 limit would be, well, a problem.  I try to think of some excuse that might sound even remotely reasonable.  Nothing comes to mind.

The route is one I normally eschew.  Partly because of the traffic enforcement.  But also because it’s mostly flat and, for the most part, straight.  About as exciting as watching winter grass grow.  Today is different, though.  The necessity to get there now has transformed the road.  I ride with a focused intensity normally reserved for fast work in the mountains.  There is a projected sixth sense.  And an intent peering for telltales in the flow of traffic – an unexpected brakelight; or flashed headlamp in the oncoming lanes.

Be smooth, I tell myself.  Be inconspicuous.  My movement around traffic is a swift, soft, steady  flow.  That’s cool.  Only I’m wearing a flaming red Aerostich Roadcrafter suit and riding a Mystic Red BMW sportbike.  Inconspicuous in my dreams.


Traffic stacks up as I enter Charlottesville.  It’s 10:15.  Working through the lights, I watch the oncoming lanes for riders.  Nothing.  There is no urgency now.  I’m just rolling with the flow of traffic.  I figure the boys must be long gone by now.

At 10:20, just after passing under the 250 bridge, I see the large sign on the left announcing The Tavern.  And, wonder of wonders, there are several riders – just pulling on helmets.  Steve, riding his K100RS; Boyd Anderson, on his R100RS, Last Edition; and Alex Dudley, on “GNOO,” his nearly-new R1100GS, are the contingent.  Another ninety seconds and I would have missed them.  I must be living right!

I stop only long enough for shouted greetings, and to finally put on my sunglasses.  Then we’re off.


Heading out of Charlottesville, we turn northwest, taking Barracks, then Garth roads.  I am amazed at how quickly any sense of urban environment is lost to us.  Almost immediately we are riding through a pleasantly rural landscape.  After several miles, Steve turns north on route 601, leading us towards the little crossroads junction of Free Union.

These roads are all new to me.  Steve had noted this would be a ride around the area, mostly in Albemarle County.  I’ve always associated Albemarle County with horse farms and the gently rolling countryside of the Virginia Piedmont, home of the landed gentry.  More home to Bimmers than to Beemers.  But these roads are good stuff.  And they continue to get better – windier, narrower, and more lonely, as we proceed.

The day remains brightly clear and is now beginning to become pleasantly warm.  I reach down and switch off my electric vest and gloves.  A few more miles, and we stop for a ten minute break at a tiny general store.

Past Free Union we continue north, carving our way towards the intersection of route 810, at Boonesville.  There we turn west, twisting through Blackwells Hollow, and then south, following the Browns Gap road back down to White Hall.  Route 810 continues south and we follow it’s path, passing near Crozet.  By now we have scribed a large, cone-shaped loop, and have passed through some of the prettiest countryside in central Virginia.  I make a mental note to come back in the Spring and do some more exploring around here.

At our rest stop, Steve had mentioned perhaps heading up on the Blue Ridge Parkway for a while.  “Anyone cold?” he asked.

“Nah,” we replied.  This crew’s in good shape.

So I’m not surprised now when we turn west towards Afton, and the beginning of the BRP.  I am a little taken aback, however, when we turn south off of 250 shortly before climbing the mountain to Afton.  Not to worry, though.  Steve leads us up and around this winding, narrow road.  Cool scenery.   We pass a tiny little stone house set hard by the roadside that could have been lifted from the Swiss Alps.  I grab hurried glances at the landscape.  They’re brief, though.  This is tight, slow, second-gear terrain that demands attention.

A hard, curling right-hander and, lo, we pop back out on 250.  Now up the mountain, and to the Parkway.


It’s noticeably cooler up on the Parkway.  I reach down and flip my electrics back on.  We roll south, and pass only a couple of cars.  We have the place almost to ourselves.  The road, as always, is wonderful.  We slice casually back and forth through the turns.  “What a treat,” I think, “to be riding the Blue Ridge Parkway on the day after Christmas!”

Along one section, in deep shade, we pass heavy ice floes where water has frozen as it has run down the rock face.  “It’ll be a long time before that melts,” I think, my chin aching from the cold.  The road itself remains, thankfully, clear.

At the 20-Minute Cliff overlook we pull in for another rest.  Amid the easy banter about BMW’s, VFR’s, and GS’s, Alex relates his satisfaction with his new ride.  He apparently has no-little experience in riding where the pavement ends.


Rest Stop Along the Blue Ridge Parkway


In the valley down below a light ribbon marks a small dirt road that wends it’s way along the forest floor.  Alex seems to know where it goes; and from whence it came.  He and Steve discuss plans for an off-road adventure.  Peering down, I shake my head.  Surely there are no fast sweepers down there.  Then again, a GS costs, um, how much?

Leaving, we continue south on the Parkway.  A few more miles and we exit at route 56.  We head east, into Nelson County.  This road is a favorite of mine, with memories stretching back into early childhood.  The route is a motorcycle classic, slicing it’s way back and forth down the mountain in a spastic dance.  Every October it is crowded with city folk, out to see the leaves.  Today, they’re all at home and we have the road to ourselves.  We take advantage of it.

Back and forth, down and around we fly, a smoothly flowing Beemer train.  In a tight left-hander, the ground comes up and gently bumps  my foot, like it was a friendly game of tag.  Whoosh, and a right-hander sticks me good, the ground lifting my foot off the peg.   Past the store and the pond at Montebello, down, ever down, we roll.  A quick sweep takes us around Crabtree Falls, the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi.  On our right, the trout waters of the Tye River flash bright sunlight.  On our left is just the rugged mountain fastness.    On through Tyro, and then on to Massie’s Mill, where things finally straighten out.  A big grin road.

Massie’s Mill.  Looking around as we pass through, I think to myself how little remains of the scars from twenty-five years ago.  If you didn’t know better, it would be hard to believe that here, on a humid August night in 1969, hurricane Camille unloaded thirty-one inches of rain – a years worth – in just six hours.  A hundred and thirty people died in Nelson County that night.  And Massie’s Mill mostly just disappeared, swept away by a raging Tye River.  But it’s back, and today so are we.

From Massie’s Mill we take route 666 over to 151, coming out at Jonesboro Baptist Church.  Then north on 151, through Bryant, snaking over Horseshoe Mountain, and through another set of switchbacks, at Brent’s Gap.   Past Wintergreen, rolling into Nellysford, we stop at the Blue Ridge Pig for lunch.  The place is kind of nondescript.  Just two rooms and a small kitchen attached to an adjoining general store.  Hard, unyielding wicker furniture unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  The place certainly has character.  And the barbecue is delicious.  This is one of those secret little places.  It’s always nice to travel with people who know where to eat!

Leaving, we continue north on 151, Alex now in the lead.  We’re only a couple of miles from Boyd’s place and he peels off as we roll past his driveway.  Oh, to live as close to the mountains as Boyd!

A few miles further and Alex takes a road to the right.  We’re heading back towards Charlottesville, and the end of the ride.  But the fun is not over.  Alex has chosen for us a twisting, circuitous, meandering set of roads that are the perfect capstone for this ride.  By the time we get back to Charlottesville, and The Tavern, I know that this ride has been worth all the risk in getting here.  And that riding was most definitely the right thing for me to be doing today.




Sunday, November 27th, 2016

Even the rankest of greenhorns gets caught up in expectation. You do a thing a handful of times, you figure out the patterns, and – voila – you’re suddenly bound to something. Even if you don’t know squat.

“Dave and I are running at eleven,” Ginny says.

“The battlefield?” I ask. She nods.

The slow-rolling morning has sharpened the tiniest, little bit. When she walks to the door a little bit later I smile. “An hour,” I tell myself.

I love hitting the switches. First the power supply. A modern, switching supply so it doesn’t really need to warm up. But I can pretend. Waiting a few pregnant moments before I hit the button on the radio. While I wait I remind myself that someday I’ll have an honest-to-God tube-type rig to go with the modern stuff. And I won’t have to pretend anymore.

After enjoying the momentary power-on display – does one ever get tired of seeing their call sign? – my hand reaches towards the coax switch. My mind abides for the most fleeting of moments… the wire strung up in the tree outside, just outside the window. And then just as quickly returns to the task at hand. As I flip this last switch the faint buzzing – the pure noise I can hear before even putting the earphones on – turns to something else.

Patterns, patterns. I bend towards the radio and with an ease which has already grown practiced, gently lay my finger upon the VFO knob. And begin the slow dance I have already fallen in love with.

On a motorcycle, soft hands might be the difference between living and dying. Here, it’s nothing nearly so dramatic. But, still, it’s important. It’s the difference between making the contact, or not. And the gearhead in me is deeply impressed with the weighted smoothness of the control, its delicacy, its lovely precision.

First, the tour from 14.350 down to 14.225, pausing a few times at the QSO’s in progress. Just like always.

Then a quick click down to 40 meters, and the same thing there.

I quickly debate calling CQ. And just as quickly decide against it. Partly because of the mic shyness which still holds sway. Partly because I want to try something else. Something new.

Turning to the laptop, I click a couple times. With the skimmer lit, the graphic of the globe rotates to North America, with the glowing dot of my own location in the mid-Atlantic superimposed with my call sign.

It only takes a few seconds. And then there’s the pinging sound and my radio changes frequency and the globe on my Mac rotates on around. We’re off to the races.

What I’ve already learned about Ham Radio is that people not in the hobby think it’s about talking. But they’re wrong. It’s about listening.

And so that’s what I do. Listening to the pings and watching the map roll around and hearing the voices. Lingering there.

For years I’ve gone into the November woods with rifle in hand, climbing the steep ridges behind camp in the dark. Emerging hours later in a different place. A place lit by desire and exultation and hope and excitement. Breathing the clean, sharp air and feeling for the patterns of the earth. Seeking to discern the endless, aching puzzle in front of me.

I don’t know much, but I already know that radio is like that. There’s something ethereal in it.

My heart ratchets when I hear a station in Puerto Rico. Fifteen hundred miles. Never worked. But although I’ve got him solid coming in, he never hears me. After ten minutes I reluctantly move on.

The minutes tick by. Skimming and tuning and adjusting this and tweaking that.

Changing bands once again, the clear, British accent catches my attention. Posting up his call sign, at first I don’t believe it. Surely I heard this wrong?

But, no. I listen as he works carefully through QSO after QSO. Soft spoken, unhurried, his cadence is polished and smooth. I envy his poise.

But I’m utterly gobsmacked that I can hear him. I think of my little barefoot rig and its 40-meter OCF dipole. That little strand of wire runs almost directly north-south, not nearly high enough. And although I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how its off-the-ends performance has been – north to Canada and south to Florida both seem a cakewalk – this is something totally beyond the ken.

The Falkland Islands!

Reaching for the mug off to the side, I take one last swallow of coffee. Then I grasp the boom on the Heil and pull it down. Turning to the radio, I hit the ‘VOX’ button. Waiting patiently, it doesn’t take long.

I make several calls. Nothing. And no surprise. I can’t imagine he can possibly hear me.

Glancing at the Kenwood, my eyes quickly scan the display. A touch verifies that I’m putting out every one of my hundred, precious watts. I think to adjust the pass band filter. But, no. At 1400 hertz I’m already narrower than I need to be. And I can hear him just fine.

I shake my head at the S-meter every time he comes through. Never higher than 5-3, but clear as can be. Just like on 6 meters yesterday. What a difference a low noise floor makes!

Thinking back to the spreadsheet I made the afternoon I hung my antenna, the one where I filled in the SWR readings for each of the bands, I remember that 10 meters was only okay. Reaching forward, I press the ‘AT’ button. It only takes a second to get the beep from the internal tuner.

Back in, it’s like false casting into the dying light at dusk. The rises felt and sensed more than seen. But then there’s that ineffable moment when you know. Even before the 3-weight line and 6x leader fall upon the water.

Back through the ether his reply comes. To me.


An Echo from Across the Years

Friday, May 6th, 2016

I know it’s in here somewhere, the old camera.  Gently moving aside a couple of bags, several straps, an old light meter, and a potpourri of other little-used-anymore photographic detritus, it only takes a minute.

Carrying it into the living room, I sit down and slowly turn it over in my hands, waiting for the flash of cognition that will remind me how everything works.  After a long minute, concluding that no such epiphany seems imminent, I turn to Google.  I’m not really surprised.  It’s been a long time.

No worries.  In a couple of seconds I have a badly Xeroxed PDF of the old owner’s manual in front of me.

Ah, so that’s where the battery-check button is!  The new lithium battery seems to work just fine.

Gently pressing the shutter release button, the metallic thwack is much louder than the thin, muted snick of my film Leica’s.  But it still brings a smile to my face.  This camera and I go back a long ways.

A Canon AE-1, it was given to me in January 1978 by my then-girlfriend.  And it sparked a passionate interest in photography that has never abated.  My first serious camera – an honest-to-God SLR – for years that Canon and I went everywhere together.  It accompanied me to work, sitting ever ready in the telephone truck that was my home away from home.  It ascended telephone poles.  It went on motorcycle rides, near and far.  It chronicled family and friends, weddings and parties and graduations.  And a few years later it captured the first images of my children.  Ever present, always at hand, that camera became part of my life.

Alas.  In 1987, right about when I was contemplating buying a new camera – some of ‘em now even had this neat feature called ‘Auto Focus’ – Canon abandoned the FD lens mount, instantly orphaning my little three-lens kit.   I was pissed.  And the new camera I eventually ended up with bore the Nikon label.

And so began the long, slow progression of steadily better cameras and gear, across the years.  A parade of Nikons – N8008, N8008s, F4s, F5 – later to be joined by Leica, Hasselblad, Bronica, and Voigtlander.  Storied names.

Film.  Then digital.  Then both, together.

I loved it all.  And my delight in capturing a good image remains as charged today as ever.

Still, on the odd occasion when I’d remember that old AE-1, sitting in the dark in that cabinet, unused now for decades, there’d be a twinge of guilt.  Like abandoning an old friend.

And so it was more than a lark that prompted me to order a new battery from Amazon a few days ago.

As the sound of the shutter recedes, my thumb is reflexively stroking the film advance lever.  There is a flash of surprise – even after all these years I know precisely how that stroke should feel.  Glancing quickly at the film counter window, I confirm what I already know.

There’s film in this camera.

My eye moves from the ‘20’ centered in the counter window to the ASA dial.  It’s set on ‘25.’  What the hell?

Turning to the bottom of the camera, I press the small rewind button and then unfold the rewind crank and slowly, gently begin winding the film back into its cassette.  I can hear, feel, and sense that the film is brittle.

With the film rewound, I pull up on the arm and the back pops open.  I reach in and extract the cassette.

Tech Pan.

Huh?!  My initial wonder at what this old film might hold – if anything – instantly changes to… not much.

Kodak’s Technical Pan was very much a niche film.  Originally developed for the military, its extreme high resolution and lack of grain lent itself to high altitude aerial reconnaissance – think U2 spy planes photographing Soviet military infrastructures.

Its use in normal pictorial photography was limited.  Very slow, with extended red sensitivity and a very thin base, the film was finicky.  Developed in a conventional black-and-white developer such as D-76, HC-110, or Rodinal, the resulting images were very high contrast.

But Kodak did provide a special developer – Technidol – which extracted a full tonal response from the film.  And it was that combination – the film and the developer together – that was of interest to photographers.  If you could live with the slow speed and the slightly odd spectral response, the combination gave the promise of hitting way above its weight: grain-free enlargements from a 35mm negative that were more akin to what one might expect from medium format, or even 4×5 large format.

At least that’s what the magazines said.  The enthusiast, amateur rags would periodically run an article on Tech Pan, extolling its benefits.  To a poor young man who couldn’t afford those larger formats, it was an enticing promise.

The sidebar here is that even in the heyday of film, when labs were literally around every corner, you couldn’t get Tech Pan developed.  I suppose there might have been the odd professional lab that did, but when, after deciding to give it a go myself sometime in the early 1990’s, I couldn’t find one.  It was Tech Pan that forced me to begin doing my own film development.

Still, I never shot more than a very few rolls of the stuff.  And I certainly don’t recall ever feeding a roll through that AE-1.  Hence my surprise.

The other side of the story is that Kodak stopped selling Tech Pan a dozen years ago.  There’s no fresh Technidol to be had.

But… walking into the other room, I rummage through my box of darkroom supplies.  Sure enough, after a moment I have my hands on it.  The yellow box still has five of its original six foil packets.

Technidol comes as a liquid.  I have no idea how long it’s good for.  And, unusual for Kodak, I can’t find any kind of expiration date, either on the foil packets themselves or on the yellow box they came in.

Calculating, I muss that this film could be thirty years old.  Base fog will have increased, perhaps by a lot.  And my packets of Technidol are probably fifteen years old.  They likely have lost some – if not all – of their potency.

Wrangling everything together, I decide on twelve minutes at 68 degrees.

Sitting down with the changing bag, I first select two unexposed, sacrificial rolls of Tri-X.  I still shoot a lot of film, but in the last couple of years it’s been almost exclusively medium format.

I pick up the first roll of Tri-X and, in the room light, practice putting it on the Hewes stainless steel reel.  Just reaching back for the old muscle memory.  It feels tiny, after such a long time of using the much larger roll film reels.

After a time or two I take the second roll of Tri-X and place it in the changing bag, along with the reel, tank, scissors, and can opener.  Full dress rehearsal.

Then the main act.   As I expect, as soon as the Tech Pan is released from its metal cassette, it blossoms in my palm, an unruly mess of reverse-curl.  After a moment of fighting it I just go with the flow and begin feeding it on the reel backwards.  I know there are no do-overs with this.  I breathe a sigh of relief when it’s done and safely within the confines of the tank.

Two-minutes of pre-wet.  Develop.  Water stop.  Four minutes of fix.  Water rinse.  A single drop of LFN wetting agent.  Done.

There’s a long, bated moment as I drop the washed reel into my hand and slowly begin unrolling the film.  Inches and then more inches unfold… blank, blank, blank.  But, then, there it is… an image!  And then there they come, rolling slowly into view.

Hanging the film to dry, I’m happily surprised to see images of people mixed in with other stuff.  Not of the kids when they were little – that’s the only disappointment in all of this.  But squinting at the negatives I can already tell what this is from:  Hunt Camp.

It’ll be the next day, when the film is dry and I can run it through my scanner, before I have the rest of the story.  Turns out the pictures are from November 1991 – a fact evident from the car license plates in one of the images.

The images are far from great.  But that’s not the point.

Even a mediocre image from twenty-five years ago has a special resonance.  Some of the people in the pictures are gone.  And even those who remain, still, are very different.  Different places.  Different circumstances.  With much gained, but also much lost, in the interim.

That’s the special magic of photography.  And especially of film.

That it can provide a glimpse into the past.  An echo from long ago.

Jim Stephenson


Craig Gleason, Jim Stephenson, John Rolfe Lester


Jim Gleason, Craig Gleason, Jim Stephenson, Ron Settle


The Old Hunt Camp


This is our old camp. We cooked and ate in the trailer; slept and otherwise hung out in the tent. The structure to the right is the old “officer’s quarters.”

A year or so after this we moved upscale… into a permanent cabin one hollow up.


Ben Stephenson


Stu Rhodes



Craig Gleason



Ron Settle