Last Saturday around noon I was about to fire up the lawn mower and mow my lawn for what I hoped was the last time.  Unbeknownst to me, fate had other ideas.  It had pretty much decided I was going to spend my day under a car in the middle of nowhere.

My youngest son is a struggling musician.  He had decided to travel over the mountain to the “Treasure Mountain Festival” in Franklin, West Virginia.  He was going to meet a friend of his and they were going to seek their fortune by casting their musical pearls before the crowds.

The phone rang, I picked it up, “Dad, the brakes went out on the van, don’t worry the van is ok.”

“But are you OK?” I asked in my most fatherly tone, calm, considered.

“Yes, it’s in the church parking lot across from Snowy Mountain Road.”

Turns out he was about as far from anything as he could be on this trip.  Luckily, there was a parking lot across from the stop sign he blew when his brakes stopped working.  It doesn’t behoove a parent to think too much about close calls.  Either you would end up constantly stressed up like a violin string, with the accompanying squawks of a novice fiddler, or you just keep your kids at home, safe and underfoot.

My initial inclination was to tell him to wait there, I would come and WE would fix it.  Before I could say anything, he said that he had called someone and they were coming to get him.  He and that someone have been having a rough patch lately so I figured what the heck, I can fix it.

Now this is a ’91 Astrovan.  I swear that in the night, the nuts and bolts in these things swap between metric and English.  When I work on these things I can never remember which bit is metric and which bit is not so out to the garage and load ALL my tools in the car, wrenches, sockets, a jackstand, big hammer, little hammer, pry bar, flashlight (in hopes on not needing it), and a piece of cardboard, because you never can tell where the boy has parked (and hence what you have to lay in).

An hour later I arrive.  I quickly find where the line has ruptured, which as it turns out is not too bad a place.  I don’t think it will be too bad to fix.  I even get it apart with less difficulty than I have any right to expect.  Fate is toying with me.

The part off, I drive 20 minutes to Franklin, site of the ongoing Treasure Mountain Festival; food, music, Civil War reenactment, and a great parade.  A lot of towns in West Virginia are built in a wide spot along a river.  A lot of them have one road in, one road out, and no good way around.  From the direction I was coming, Franklin was like that.  I pulled up to the parade route just as it started.  The Treasure Mountain parade is something to behold, bands, dance school exhibitions, civil war characters, politicians, and tractors.  There was probably 20 minutes of John Deere tractors alone, and I got to see them all, because all the stores in Franklin were closed for the festival anyway.

The parade clear, I head up the road another 40 minutes to the next town, Petersburg.  Sure enough, I see a good sized part store.  They should have just what I need.  I pull up to a dark store and see that they had closed 20 minutes ago, that would have been about when I saw the Indians in the parade.  Well, the Indians were cool, the all shot their guns and I wouldn’t have wanted to miss them.  Besides, this gave me an opportunity to practice my organic language skills.

The next town is Moorefield, another 30 minutes or so.  There was indeed an open parts store with everything I needed, tubing, tubing flair tool, tubing bender, tubing cutter. I left the store considerably less weighed down by negotiable worldly assets.

The road back was beautiful.  It runs a good bit along the river, and with the leaves turning, and the sunset was worth the cost of having to work in the dark, and dark it was.  With the help of my blazer’s headlights and a variable brightness flashlight (you could adjust the brightness by banging it), everything went pretty well.  For those of you who don’t do auto or house repairs this translates as, I didn’t break anything else while I fixed this.

With everything back together, I put the tire back on and lowered the car.  I put away my tools and took it for a test drive.  The brakes still need bleeding but they work well enough.  I have to leave the van for him to pick up since he’s spending the night with a friend so I threw in the keys and head home, it’s about 10pm.  About half way home I remember that I went from letting the van down to putting the jack in the back.  I had skipped an important step; I hadn’t tightened up the lug nuts.  So, back I go hoping that he hadn’t come to get it, not because the wheel would fall off.  I knew where he was spending the night and it wasn’t far, but because I didn’t want to have to tighten the lug nuts in his friends yard.  As luck would have it, it was still there and I got away with it.

I finally got home around 11:30, my wife was a little worried since I told her it would only take a couple of hours.  I was gratefully wrong.  What kind of story would that have been?


Capt’n Randy


Every since I was a kid watching Flipper, I’ve always wanted to ride in on of those air boats in the everglades. Last week, while visiting my brother in Ft. Lauderdale, six of us went out into the everglades with Capt’n Randy. We drove out to a landing in the everglades and met him beside the water. This was a guy that would be hard not to like, friendly, funny and we found out he knew a lot about the ‘glades.

The first thing he says to me is, “you look just like a friend of mine, JD Gator. I sure hope you’re a lot smarter’n him though.”

We loaded up, the six of us and the capt’n. My dad was up in the highest seat beside the Capt’n. These things really fly, and it doesn’t necessarily need any water either. Mud or grass will do just fine. With a Corvette big block and a composite four blade prop this tourist boat (a little bigger than you would use for fishing or hunting) could do 50mph with virtually no wake.

p2080119We saw a lot of wildlife, mostly gators and birds. The gators didn’t care about us but most of the birds we saw from behind. Capt’n Randy told us about his Grandfather who, in the ‘60s, was changed from an alligator hunter to an alligator poacher. Well, I’ll testify to the fact that there is no shortage of gators out there. They are everywhere. I’d say there are more gators in the everglades than there are deer here in West Virginia where I live.

He showed us some of the camps that have been in the everglades for generations. You can almost hear the parties that some of them must have had, there were very few railings so you know someone got wet.

Randy told us about going out at night. He says the moon is enough light to ride with only your nav lights on. He did say that you needed goggles and a bandanna over your mouth to keep from getting “redneck drive through,” a euphemism for a bug lunch, but he says it’s beautiful, and in the summertime, it’s cool after the heat of the hot Florida sun.p2080127

p2080133On the way back my dad got a turn at driving this beautiful machine. It had dual steering controls; you push the lever down to go one way and pull it up to go the other. He’s good with machines and he did really well. Then my brother took a turn and even though he started out in a narrow little channel he got the hang of it quick. Unfortunately we got back to the landing before any of the rest of us had a chance to drive but I guarantee I’m going back, I gotta get me one of those things.

Day 7 A Dumas nearly causes a riot

chateau d'if

We stayed and extra day so we could see some of the local sites. One of Marseille’s really interesting places to see is the Chateau D’If, the setting of “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexaner Dumas. I knew I wanted to visit it when I saw it from the Notre Dame de la Garde, the cathedral high above Marseille.

Four of us took the metro down to the old harbor to catch the ferry. The day was hot, the line was long, and tempers were short. Things were going alright until suddenly, without warning, they opened another window. For some reason the people from the back of the line were able to best capitalize on this development. There was some grumbling but we were pretty far along the line so most near us just shrugged it off. After about a half an hour, they closed the window again and all the people from the back of the line started to shift into the line we were in. No one was happy, there was a lot of muttering but no physical threats. Some time and some ticklish merging later, we were at the ticket window. We asked the girl at the window, “what was the deal with closing the window.” She said, “I have no idea, I’m from Germany.”

With our tickets in hand we went over to the mob waiting to board the boat. This was another long wait. Finally the boat arrived, the gate was about to open, and some guy wearing a motorcycle helmet jumped the fence and ran for the boat. The ticket guy threw his clipboard down and ran after him. We never saw the guy with the helmet again, even though there was only one way off the pier, well actually two, but only one dry one.

The ticket man came back looking angry, he milled around near the gate a bit, then did a surprising thing. He went over to another side gate and opened it. At this point the crowd thought he was punishing them for…letting the helmeted man go? I have not idea, but when he opened the gate, the crowd got really ugly. I really thought they were going to take apart the gate. What I think the guy was really doing was letting the locals and a school group board first, but now he started shouting too. I was glad we were kind of on the side where we could kind of step out and enjoy the show cause it would be hard to pick a side and participate. Eventually he opened the main gate and we all boarded. Before we left the ticket guy came on and apologized…I think.

Off we went to the island If, home of the Chateau D’if. It was well worth the trip. The place was sometimes used for a prison, and sometimes for a home for royal hostages. There was grafitii in some of these rooms hundreds of years old. It looked pretty gloomy but when you think that it’s usually really hot so the thick walls would be cool. Add candles and tapestries to the walls and the bigger rooms could be pretty comfortable, if you weren’t there against your will. One big difference between the real thing and the Chateau D’if you see in the “Count of Monte Cristo” movies is that there is no vast series of underground dungeons. This place is built on top of a rock. There is nothing underground, just rock. It’s big, but only big up. This place reminded me of and expression I heard once, “in Europe a hundred years is a short time and a hundred miles a long trip, in the US a hundred years is a long time and a hundred miles is a short trip.”

Day 5 Bouillabaisse

One of Marseille’s signature dishes is bouillabaisse, a bunch of us decided we needed to try it. Armed with a reservation at what was recommended by the hotel as a good place for bouillabaisse we headed off after the conference, which happened to be the rush hour in Marseille. It really didn’t matter because the metro had plenty of capacity, but there were more people, and there was a lot more security.

One thing I never get used to is automatic weapons in airports. I don’t know if you travel much but lately in US airports there are a lot more machine gun toting security guards. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind them there, I just can’t get used to them.

In Europe these security guards are pretty much everywhere. At rush hour on the metro there were two rows of them watching everyone coming down the stairs and into the station. We had to wait because one of our party had trouble with her ticket. While I waited I noticed something odd. The first row of security was unarmed, the SECOND row of security had automatic weapons. My question was, what was the first row for, to slow down the bad guys?

We got to the restaurant and sat down outside overlooking the old harbor. It was a beautiful night, and a beautiful setting.

Since we were on a bouillabaisse mission, let me describe bouillabaisse. It’s fish soup. Yup, fish soup, good fish soup mind you, but fish soup all the same. So it came as a bit of a surprise that this was going to cost more than any meal on the whole trip. I think of the 5 of us, 4 had the soup. I really liked it. With a curry-like stock and three kinds of fish it was what you would expect a fishing city’s people to make when times were tough. I find it interesting that time and time again, local “poor food” becomes the expensive tourist cuisine.

This restaurant was also where we learned never to ask a French waiter to hurry with the check. We said one of our party had to catch the bus so would you please bring the check. It took a good forty minutes! I like that they don’t hurry you out, but when you have to make a bus you’d think they would accommodate you. In the end we had to use the metro and a taxi because we did miss the last bus. It was no big deal but it was an important lesson in French behavior. I wonder if the restaurants have a deal with the taxis.

Day 5 Cathedral

I had some time today so I went to the old part of town to look for presents for the family. I had thought I had this pretty much handled when I was walking and found a guitar shop near my hotel. All my kids play guitar so I thought some nice French straps or picks or something. No chance, there was not a single thing in that store that was French. There was not even a pick that had French writing on it. So down town I headed.

I had similar problems shopping down town. There are really very few “French” things. Oh, there is wine and cheese but I was surprised that there are so few French products. I finally settled on some local soap made with lavender and some local chocolate made with olive oil.

Shopping done it was time for a look around. I am kind of nut about old buildings, so I walked to every old fort and church I could find. There was a lot of beautiful Romanesque architecture down around the old harbor, but there was a big cathedral way up on the hill called “Notre Dame de la Garde that I had to get to. The long bus ride to a church that already looked big should have been a clue to how really really huge this church was. This place was awesome. It was built like a fortress. The church proper was on a rock about 40 feet tall. To get in there was a staircase to a drawbridge, a thick studded door, a portcullis, and another door. If they say they are closed, they are closed! There were paintings of local ships lost at sea, paintings of WWI and WWII planes down nearby. There were other paintings of these pilots being helped and hidden by the nuns and priests. The painted vaulted ceilings were incredible, and the church is topped by a truly huge statue of Mary. The stone work was beautiful, colored stone and incredible workmanship. I’m an engineer and am impressed by such things so I could go on for ever, but I won’t. But if you go, it’s worth the trip. Outside there were shell marks earned in the liberation of Marseille and you could see the countryside for miles around. As I walked back to the bus stop I had an excellent view of the Chateau d’if, the lodging of the Alexander Dumas’s Count of Monte-Cristo. I promised myself I would try to get out there.

I sat down at the bus stop that I shared with about 10 other people, old people, families, just regular people. I was on the end next to the curb, and a young guy and girl sat down there just outside the bus stop. I sat looking out over the city and saw them take out a couple of cigarettes. She lit hers but he took his apart. This caught my attention. He set the tobacco aside and took out a small bit of what looked like a bullion cube, but it wasn’t a bullion cube. He started heating it up with his lighter and crumbling bits of it into his hand. I thought, “he’s going to smoke some hash right here in front of all these people.” Nobody but me seemed to notice but I was fascinated by his audacity. He mixed the hash in with the tobacco and was about to re-roll the cigarette when the bus came. Not to worry, he just moved about 10 feet down the curb and finished up and got on the bus with the rest of us.

A 900 year old church and hash at a bus stop, this is definitely not America.

Day 3 What a Meal

Following the…less than stellar choices I made at the last dinner I nonetheless looked forward to another try at French cuisine. Tonight I was the fifth wheel to two couples (two of our happy travelers troupe had brought their wives). We picked a restaurant from the map provided by the conference organizers that was within walking distance from our hotels. Our inability to notice the three stars next to the “word” budget led us to believe that this was a budget restaurant. As it turns out it had three stars out of four on the budget scale so the Euros flowed freely. This was not really a surprise since we were asked if we had a reservation when we came to the door. Luckily she took us in anyway.

Let me take a moment to talk about Euros. It is impossible to think of them as anything but dollars. Unfortunately, they aren’t, they are about $1.56. So when you are shopping for trinkets to bring home to the fam and you find a nice bit of jewelry for say $25, you say “Self, that’s not too bad,” then, as you ride home on the metro you realize you have actually spent closer to $40. By far the hardest to get used to is that the little quarter looking things, which come in one and two Euro flavors are actually worth $1.55 or $3.10. They are very pretty money though with a silver center and a gold band around the outside. Every country in the EU has a different back and it’s fun to guess where they have come from.

So it was much easier to tell myself that we had an excellent meal for $40 instead of 40 Euros and I am happy in my delusion.

This most excellent meal started with a round of truffles on toast. These are the special mushrooms that they hunt with specially trained pigs. I love mushrooms and I heartily enjoyed them. I felt guilty about not being overwhelmed by the awesome taste though. I have read about truffles my whole life and I expected something, I don’t know, remarkable. They were good mushrooms but…maybe part of what makes one appreciate the overwhelming worth of truffles is to have a hand in the training and handling of the hunting pigs.

There was a salad with a wonderful mix of different greens, the bitter and the sweet made a subtle blend of tastes. This was followed but excellent salmon, (ok I was playing a little safe).

We had the house wine and I discovered something that I personally found no exception to throughout the trip, even the house wine in France is better than most of the wine I buy at home.

For dessert, a caramel flan, simple but nicely done.

In France you will never get the bill until you ask for it. If you sit there for 3 hours no one will be leaning on you to leave. So you have to ask for the check, but never, never, never ask them to hurry. We did this once later in the week when we wanted to catch the last bus. That waiter took a good 40 minutes to get the check. Anyway this check came with a shot of aperitif, we had melon or apple to chose from. A little booze always makes a bill taste better. Our waiter, and I suspect our cook, helped us tourists with our menu throughout the meal because he spoke the best English in the place, and even had a shot with us.

In my whole trip the only place I saw the legendary French surliness was at the bank. Maybe what some American tourists see as surliness is really that the French don’t suffer jerks, and they don’t take if for granted that you not a jerk until you prove otherwise.


We arrived having breezed through customs. Via bus, and metro (subway) we got to our hotels. Our first big surprise is that Marseille pretty much rolls up its sidewalks on Sunday. There were a few sidewalk cafés open but most everything was closed. As luck would have it, one of the open cafés was just outside of one of our hotels. We sat down to an good meal and mostly stared into space. We were majorly jet lagged. Once fed, it was time for a nap, exciting times!

A couple of hours later we went met up again and decided to walk down to the Mediterranean Sea. I can vouch for the fact that it is indeed there. So, our geography verified we were hungry again. We headed back.

Standing on a corner we took turns saying, “I don’t know, where do you want to eat?” Right in front of me one of the ubiquitous mopeds wrecked into the curb and another moped. I lifted the bike off of this kid and tried to do the first aid thing, but he didn’t understand a word. “Stay down, stay down, don’t get up, well at least don’t get up fast, are you hurt, you’re laughing at me, so I guess not.” He gathered up the pieces of his moped and left, apparently unscathed.

After much deferential discussion, “you decide, no you decide,” we went to the same café where we ate lunch. Now at lunch I learned the French word for lamb, which I have since forgotten. But at this meal I was destined to learn a French word that I will never forget. I asked the waiter what andouillete was. He answered “pork,” so I, with visions of a pork chop, or roast pork, said, exercising the full extent of my French language skills, “andouillette por favor.” In the fullness of time it arrived. I was a little disappointed to see that it was a sausage, but I like pork sausage so it was still all good. As a rule, I TRY not to pay too much attention to what’s in exotic food till after I taste it. Without looking too close I cut off a piece of the sausage and popped it into my mouth. This sausage rates as one of the worst tasting, worst smelling things I have ever seen passed as food. It’s made from parts of a pig that never should be eaten. I had unsuspectingly stumbled upon the French “betcha can’t eat this food.” All societies have one of these, Mexican menudo, Scottish haggis, and French andouillete. (

So I did the only thing I could, I offered some to everyone else, I had 3 takers. One even managed to put a little in his mouth, but not for long.