Friday, March 31, 2006

Boondocking 101

Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
August 2001

Last month my brother from St. George, Utah summoned me to assist him in relocating his household to Salmon, Idaho. This meant, I would have to drive from Powell, Wyoming to St. George, follow him to Salmon from St. George and than make the return from Salmon to Powell. As some may know, driving from Powell to St. George is a long, long one-day drive. The punishment of such a drive seemed inconceivable so, I decided to stretch it into two days and find out for myself what all the recent hoopla was regarding boondocking (overnight camping in a Walmart parking lot). I reckoned that the Walmarts in Rock Springs or Evanston would be the most likely "camps" depending on what time I left Powell.

While passing over the great expanses of Wyoming’s high desert, I wondered about my boondocking status—i.e., if I was good enough. There’s no silver bullet Airstream trailer parked in my backyard nor the big rig required to pull it. I don’t even have one of those pop-up tent/trailers. Nope, just a Mazda 626 equipped with a padded cot that folds up to fit in the boot and an old quilt for bedding. If rain came, the back seat of the Mazda and the little comfort offered there would have to do. And what if the Walmart authorities kicked me out of their lot for not having enough recreational mass according to their definition of a boondocker? What would they think of me—actually sleeping outside of my “rig” on my fold-out cot in the open air? Would that be taking the boondocking concept a wee bit too far?

Before reaching Evanston, I’d been contemplating my arrival under the cover of darkness. Would there be any signs of “camp” camaraderie and if so, would it be present at this late hour? I feared any social activity from the evening would have ceased in preparation for the various early departures in the morning. After all, who would really want to prolong the camping experience in a Walmart car park—as if the store’s staff would come by in the morning knocking on RVs and offering them a continental breakfast?

Some four hundred miles from Powell, I arrived at the Evanston, Wyoming Walmart—around 10:30 p.m. I stumbled into the Arby’s next door and treated myself to a meal of fine fast food; it seemed like the right thing to do after a day of nothing but bagels in my diet. This late arrival was not determined by fate alone. I had purposely chosen the later hour of arrival in Evanston over the earlier one in Rock Springs. If I had been so determined to check out the pre-camp atmosphere during the early evening, I could have opted for the Walmart at Rock Springs. But my fears of becoming a boondocker outcast outweighed all the other factors in my decision.

Simply put, I didn’t want to make my formal and obvious entrance into the fraternal order of boondockers with such a modest display of camping gear; I felt better about arriving at a later time and thus drawing less attention to my deprived recreational state. Perhaps on another day I would make a second entrance that included all the recreational stuff worthy of boondocker status.

Before I go any further, I just want to make sure that anyone who reads this drivel knows that I’m by no means partial to Walmart. Yeah, I shop there sometimes but I’d hardly consider myself a dedicated fan. Be assured, they haven’t made their mint from people like me.

So, there I was in the Evanston Walmart car park—plenty of campers to report, but there was no activity. To say that the parking lot was well lit would have been an understatement. I was wondering if anyone could sleep in this environment as it reminded me of the lighting that is used for interrogating a suspect in a crime. At this time, I started to rethink my idea of setting up the cot on the surface of the car park next to my Mazda. For one, it was noisy, thanks to the refrigerators and engines idling from the various semis parked there. I hadn’t counted on this strain of boondocker. Secondly, I decided it might be interpreted as disrespectful if a boondocker slept out on the deck of the car park. If someone else had set up a tent, or constructed a hammock between the lighting structures than surely I would have set up my old cot. Later that night, I pondered the rebel status directed at me from others as I considered my cowardliness in sleeping out on the asphalt. I felt unworthy of such character.

Nevertheless, I set up my bed by folding down the back seats in the 626, allowing my legs to expand into the boot. By midnight there were nine RV parties that I could identify and nine semi trucks. There may have been a few scant cars like myself but short of actually going up and looking in the windows to determine if they are camping or just local teenagers making out, I couldn’t be sure. For all I know, the scattering of sedans may only be those that have been left behind after a day of business. I’m sure Walmart  always has a car or two remaining everyday from those customers who return to their car following a shopping spree only to find it won’t start.

The Morning After
Well, it wasn’t exactly like a one-night stand where the involved parties feel guilty and slip out before the day’s light. For one, I couldn’t get myself out of the car before 7:00 a.m.; long after the sun had been trying to shine on me through my car windows. In a quick survey of the anticipated vacant lot, I discovered more RVs and semi trucks had arrived following my retire. From this perspective, it also appeared that no one had departed early as all the RVs that were present the night before when I made my survey were still present at this hour. So much for my theory of not wanting to hang around in a Walmart car park.

After restoring my “rig” back to it’s usual travel mode, I moseyed on over to McDonald’s for a light breakfast and most important, a strong cup of coffee. Walking across the “campgrounds,” I expected to see more rubbish and other discarded material left behind by the boondockers but, for the most part, it was minimal. I suppose the oil and radiator fluid leaking from the cars of Walmart shoppers on any given day is no better than the night’s refuse associated with a band of boondockers.

From a quiet booth in the McDonald's next door, it came to me like an epiphany; that the string of fast-food establishments near the Evanston Walmart and other stores like it must profit from the boondocker fallout in the same way Walmart profits—and they don’t even have to worry about cleaning up the car park. And what of the gas station/convenience store just down the road? Is their business deprived or blessed as a result of the boondocker factor? Further, what is the “break-even distance” from a Walmart for any given business? Does it matter what kind of business it is? Now I know what to write about for my dissertation if I ever seek out that illustrious Ph.D.

Butte, Montana
In my return trip from Salmon, Idaho, I decided to drum up a discussion or two with fellow boondockers about their views on the Cody Walmart boondocking controversy. I reckoned the more-seasoned boondocker might shed some light on the issue in ways I hadn’t thought about.

The new Butte, Montana Walmart Super Center turned out to be where I would make my second attempt at boondocking. My early arrival assured me that I would have plenty of daylight to seek out fellow boondockers for their viewpoints on why overnighting at a Walmart isn’t such a bad idea.

Admittedly, I was a bit uncomfortable when I walked up to the back of a pick-up with a full-size camper hailing plates from Ontario. I’m sure they found me a bit out of place at first and were likely a bit cautious as to why I was asking them questions about their camping choices—probably thought I might be from the IRS. Another couple were corralled in the car park as they were making their way toward their thirty-five footer with a trundle full of Walmart goods. They turned out to be from Rhode Island by way of Texas. From these two parties alone, I learned quite a bit about the everyday concerns of RVers as well as clearing up some theories in my mind. So, to those kind folks, I’m thankful for their time and consideration.

Here are a few things I learned about RVers and why they choose to overnight (boondock) in a Walmart parking lot.

• Walmarts aren’t the only businesses that offer free overnight parking to RVers. Several other stores around the U.S. and Canada encourage free camping as well including Fred Myers and Flying Js. Some even offer free dumping of an RV’s on-board waste.

• For the same reason that so many of us go to McDonald's when travelling across country, RVers stay at a Walmart and others like it. There won’t be any surprises. Think about it, how bad can one mess up a parking lot? Though their needs are minimal when they choose to overnight at in a store’s parking lot, they can be sure of a consistent experience (or lack thereof). Sometimes when they are pressed to find a place to stay, Walmart can be their safety net. One RVer told me about pulling into a Walmart, “Sometimes it’s like coming home.” (Yup I know, so sweet it hurts your teeth.)

• There are many variables to overnighting in a campground from the perspective of RVers. Besides paying for something that they may not really use much of—water, electricity and sewer (if they are just pulling in to get a night’s sleep), they are also paying for something that they are uncertain of until they claim their space.

Variables include: on-going conditions of toilets and showers from the time they pull in until they leave; space surrounding their RV to other RVs; noise from unruly neighbors such as their animals, children or partying; maneuverability (especially a concern for the bigger outfits); and access to other businesses such as supply stores and restaurants. One RVer told me, “This one campground we stayed at, the RVs were so tightly packed that my neighbor had to step over my sewer pipe when he walked out his door.”

• Some campgrounds may have nice settings but minimum provisions in their little on-site stores. Then you have Walmart with it’s base provisions as far as a space goes but you have this on-site store that has everything you would ever need and in the case of the Super Center stores, they’re open twenty-four hours. Keep in mind, all boondockers want is a safe place to camp. Ambiance isn’t a consideration, so any old parking space will do—especially if there is plenty of room.

At some point, even the biggest and most contained RVs have to pull up for the night in a campground and recharge their batteries, dump their sewage and take on more water. But as in the case of Bob and Carolyn and their 35-footer from Texas, they can go almost a whole week on their own provisions—that includes a washer and dryer on board! So what’s their incentive in staying in a campground every night if they really don’t need to? Are they really cheating the taxpayers in Cody and other communities in North America out of their rightful duty? If we ban boondocking in a car park, than why should RVers be permitted to park anywhere for free?

Here’s my opinion, for whatever it’s worth: If the various businesses that profit from the RV crowd object to boondocking, then perhaps they should offer more pricing choices based on the needs of the perspective RV customer. For example; offer a free or minimum rate for just a parking space—no electric, water or sewer. Even in this scenario, I suspect Walmart would still win out—having that big store with everything they need so close is simply too tempting to pass up.

No doubt it must be tough to be a campground owner these days. Not only do you have to fight the usual capitalistic fight with other campgrounds but you also have to contend with this growing trend in RV development that keeps on making them more self-reliant. And have you had a look inside the newest RV’s lately? Man, you’re gonna have to have a hell of a nice campground to make them want to stay with you when they have so much luxury on board. Perhaps today’s campgrounds and RV parks should concentrate on attracting “real” campers—those that still sleep out in tents and (God forbid) cots. Wouldn’t it be cool to be travelling up a road and come across a campground sign (in neon no less) that declared, “No RVs.” I’d go out of my way to stay there. Let’s face it, it’s hard to feel good about “living close to the earth” when your RVing neighbor in the next space is watching satellite TV in the comfort of his leather recliner with a bag of microwave popcorn making all that noise.

Nevertheless, I reckon Walmart and other stores have set a pretty good example for us to follow. What a better world it would be if all of us who had the extra space in our lives made it known to the RV folks that they were welcome to park at our place overnight—free. Reminds me of that song Louis Armstrong sang, “And I say to myself, what a wonderful world.” Face it, it’s just a good neighbor policy. Surely there are a handful of you out there right now saying to yourself, “All you’re doing Morgan is inviting trouble to show up at your front door.” But really, have you seen the people who typically drive around in RVs? It’s not like they’re going to show up, transform their RV into a meth lab and never leave your property. One RVer was telling me that it is almost an unwritten policy amongst the RV crowd that boondocking is only a one night stay in any given location.

So in Butte, Montana I did it—at the newly opened Walmart Super Center. I parked the Mazda on the perimeter and set up my cot between the curb and the car so I was hidden from the Walmart store. Like all the other Walmarts, it was extremely well lit, even on the outskirts of their parking area. I positioned the head of the cot in the shadow of my "rig" so no big, bright lights were raining down on me. It was cold that night. I still felt a bit “trashy” or cheap as I crawled out of my cot the following morning. Anyone who would have seen me, must of thought I was homeless—and a ten-year-old Mazda isn’t a far stretch for someone who is homeless. Regardless, I could really get this boondocking thing down over time. I started thinking about the other equipment I might have along in the future and how I’d outfit my 626 to make the most of space without becoming too cluttered. Than my mind took it a step further: I thought of a mini-van I could travel and camp in and then the next thing I knew, I projected myself in a full-blown 35-foot RV touring the country and writing about life on the road.

Quickly and quietly I gathered up my things early that morning and made my way to McDonald’s for a badly-needed cup of coffee; besides, I just love those little plastic coffee stirrers they provide for mixing the milk into your coffee.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

I choose Quark

Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
Most people in the graphic arts profession know of the page layout war between Adobe InDesign and QuarkXPress. In fact, most of us know the basic history of the page layout wars: In the beginning there was only Aldus Pagemaker. Then along came QuarkXPress as a competitor. A mass exodus to Quark followed its 3.0 version and Pagemaker never really recovered—not even after Adobe purchased it from Aldus and attempted to revamp it.

Well, to say that it "never really recovered" might be a bit misleading in that there were more licensed copies of Pagemaker than any other desktop publishing software. Even in Quark's zenith of success, they never matched the sales of Pagemaker. While most of the high-end operations were based in Quark, the small businesses, printers and publishers were content with Pagemaker—who were the lion's share of page layout users.

Nevertheless, in the end, not even mighty Adobe believed it could reconfigure the old codes of Pagemaker. So, they did the unthinkable—they built a completely new page layout "factory" from the ground up—enter InDesign.

And a better program InDesign was—even in the early stages. Now that it's in its third major edition, ask anyone in the "biz" today whether they prefer QuarkXPress or InDesign, and there's a good chance they'll answer, "InDesign. Quark is old school."

The tables have turned indeed. Like Pagemaker's early reign of desktop publishing, Quark is no longer king of the hill. Having been accused of customer service neglect and resting on its laurels, Quark is now in the battle of its life. A new upgrade is due out any day now that will better rival InDesign. Some say it's too little and too late. Perhaps.

War no more
Up until recently, another heated software war was constantly brewing in the industry, only this one had to do with the illustration/drawing programs of Adobe Illustrator and Macromedia FreeHand. Like the page layout wars, this one was another one of those great "Ford vs. Chevy" conflicts. Each side was adamant about the superiority of their illustration program over the other offering. And thanks to the heated status, both software products drove the other to greater performance levels.

But, this war took an odd turn when Adobe bought out Macromedia and its entire line of print and web-based publishing software which included FreeHand. And Adobe's response to the illustration prisoner of war? Kill it.

What an odd response to let an established program die on the vine (PageMaker) or to outright discontinue its offering after purchasing the rights to it (FreeHand). It's nothing new to hear of a particular desktop publishing application to be sold and revised under another company's name—that's what initially happened to Pagemaker when Adobe scooped it up from Aldus. And FreeHand was an Aldus product before it was purchased by Macromedia years ago.

But how is one gigantic software company suppose to behave if they already own one of the major illustration programs, and then acquire its major competition? What would happen if Coke acquired Pepsi? I'd like to believe that Coke would continue to produce Pepsi for all the faithful Pepsi drinkers. I'd be more than a bit pissed off if I was a Pepsi drinker and Coke announced to the world that they were discontinuing Pepsi simply because they owned it.

So, despite the volumes of FreeHand users throughout the world, Adobe chose to thumb their nose, and simply say, "It's Illustrator or nothing at all." (Ummm, that's if one doesn't consider Corel Draw a major player). I'm sure I know of at least one group of disgruntled FreeHand users in the world; the good folks of Christchurch, New Zealand. When I was there in 2001, FreeHand was everywhere and they used it for everything—page layout and imposition.

Then there is of course the swelling popularity of InDesign. Once again Adobe didn't do the page layout community any favors by eliminating PageMaker. One has to wonder how popular InDesign would be today if Adobe hadn't let Pagemaker die on the vine. Nevertheless, it was another one of those, "It's this or nothing at all" scenarios. In this case they said, "Well, it's InDesign or QuarkXPress, but we'll give you a sweet deal if you choose our product." At the same time, Quark's shelf price remained considerably higher. Quark's major blunder may have been that they didn't match Adobe's offer as everyone was abandoning the Pagemaker ship when they realized no upgrades would follow. Who can blame a page layout community if they are forced to move to another program—pick the one that's the cheapest because there will undoubtedly be some pain in any kind of transition.

At one time I had hoped that Pagemaker would resurface under another company's banner—Adobe would sell Pagemaker to someone like Corel or Macromedia after they felt everyone that could be lured to InDesign was hooked. Not so. Instead, they simply bought Macromedia. My crystal ball has grown dark.

Yet (and this is undoubtedly a stretch on my part), I still wonder if many of those Quark users who have now migrated to InDesign were simply moving back to Pagemaker (a.k.a. "Pagemaker on Steroids") because years ago they were forced to move, or felt compelled to move to Quark when they would have preferred to stay with the Pagemaker environment. Perhaps they've been waiting to jump off the Quark ship for a long time now, they were simply waiting for Adobe to build a decent rescue ship.

Adobe… the new Microsoft
I'm starting to think that the folks at Adobe are no different than any other money-hungry corporation. They're not too keen on competition especially if the competition is ahead of them or keeping up with them. If they have it their way, they'd just assume snuff out any formidable competitors (i.e., FreeHand) regardless of any ethical business considerations (i.e., the elimination of Pagemaker; desktop publishing's charter software).

However, things aren't as bad as I over-dramatize here. Thankfully, Adobe has a pretty decent record when it comes to the business of running a monopoly—consider Photoshop. Nothing comes close to this powerful image-editing software… not in donkey's years. And the application gets better with each revision. Let's just hope they do the same when it comes to Illustator—Adobe's newest monopoly.

By the way, let's not forget Adobe's other unchallenged powers. Most notable is Postscript itself. Every software company has an umbilical cord leading back to Adobe—yes, even Microsoft. You want to use Postscript in your application, you need to have a little chat with desktop publishing's godfather first. And don't forget, Acrobat is the king when it comes to anything to do with PDF (portable document format).

Be careful for what you wish, you might just get it.

I choose Quark
Some say the writing is on the wall. Quark is a very, very small company based in Denver, Colorado. They're no match for Adobe on Wall Street. It's only a matter of time before they buy out Quark as well. So some say.

If the unthinkable does unfold, the Adobe noose tightens a bit more as our options in desktop publishing software dwindle. In turn, Quark users will find plenty of comfort in the multitudes of former FreeHand users as they are forced to move into the trenches of InDesign.

In the meantime, I'm staying with Quark. I don't doubt that InDesign is a better program at this point in time. Yet, that's not enough to make me rule out Quark. Years ago when Quark had clearly beaten Pagemaker, some people still chose to stay with Pagemaker. Maybe they were lazy or maybe they truly liked the environment better. I never looked down on them for their decision regardless of their rationale. If Pagemaker melted their butter, who was I to say that they could be happier with something else. Besides, how fickle is that to jump to another program just because it has taken the lead. Talk about fair-weather fans. And mind you, I'm an active supporter of Adobe in so many other departments—Photoshop, Acrobat, Postscript (and now Illustrator I guess). They need nothing else from me.

As I see it, the decline of Quark's popularity will either lead to its demise or the company will become hungry again and meet InDesign's appeal. Hopefully it will be the latter scenario. Besides, with Quark still hanging around as that proverbial thorn in Adobe's side, we are all guaranteed two quality programs for years to come—and there's plenty of users out there to go around.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Three Years of Shame

KC Head On
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
The three year anniversary of the war in Iraq has come and gone and what have we to show for it? The first thing that comes to my mind is that over 2,000 of our own young men and women are dead along with a growing and uncountable number of Iraqi civilians who have also been claimed in the all-about-oil fiasco.

Many people believe Iraq was better off under the iron rule of Saddam. Well, at least it was stable. Nevertheless, I'm not from Iraq, so my opinion is pretty shallow on this subject. But wouldn't it be an interesting poll if we could get all the Iraqi citizens to tell us which country was better—the pre-war Saddam Iraq or the post-war Bush Iraq.

To put it lightly, I'm amused to know that the person who put us there (our President) keeps telling us to be patient and that "we are implementing a strategy that will lead to a victory in Iraq." As I consider his request for patience, I find myself considering the lies, half-truths and blunders of the man and his administration that have lead us to this point in time.

First there was the "axis of evil" Dubya coined regarding Iran, North Korea and Iraq. This proved to the President's best attribute as a leader—spreading fear among his own countrymen. I've never doubted the potential harm any of these countries could bring to the world, but I never saw them any worse than China, India, Pakistan, Israel, Russia, or other nuclear-armed states. His rhetoric (as usual) was simply over-the-top and unnecessary.

Next, Wyoming's very own, Dick Cheney, went on the record to say, "There is no doubt that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction" to use against the United States and its allies. "No doubt." Is that right, Dick? Don't people get fired for making such asinine claims in other occupations?

Then it was back to Dubya and Condoleeeeeezzzzzzza Rice and their visions of a smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud—no doubt their vision included the diabolical cloud lingering over a large metropolitan city of the United States. Terrorism, terrorism, terrorism! (Our leader's most popular and worn-out word.)

Our war-bent leader was next standing before the United Nations (because it wasn't enough to just tell us) claiming that Iraq was "a grave and gathering danger." Oooooooo! He went on to say that Saddam and al Qaeda were working together on bomb-making projects and developing poisonous gasses. The administration continued to insist that there was "solid evidence of al Qaeda in Baghdad"—training in chemical and biological weapons.

At the same time, United Nations weapons inspectors were coming up empty-handed and refuting some of the President's claims regarding Iraq attempting to purchase uranium in Africa. Dubya also concluded that a discovered cache of aluminum tubes was "suitable for nuclear weapons production." As it turned out the African uranium was based on forged documents and the tubes were only being used for a small rocket project. Still Bush insisted on Iraq's desire to obtain nuclear weapons. No one listened to the United Nations inspectors, everyone listened to our fire-breathing President.

As we prepared to invade Iraq, Dick Cheney told us that our troops would be welcomed in Iraq as "liberators." Ahhhh... excuse me Dick, did you mean the same kind of liberators that freed France and other European countries during WWII? Right...

Finally, I thought President Bush looked pretty dumb on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln after his fighter-jet-arrival with the "Mission Accomplished" banner waving in the background as he spoke. Looking back on it now, I think he looks even dumber. The man seems to redefine the term every time I turn on the news.

Two years later and several investigations and commissions (including one appointed by Dubya himself) we've learned two distinct things:

1. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
2. There was no relationship between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein

So, basically we went to war based on two false premises, and now we're stuck there. The ultimate quagmire. And we thought Vietnam was bad.

And things aren't getting any better in Iraq since our arrival no matter how much President Bush sugar-coats his anecdotal accounts. Consider the city of Basra: Many considered this to be the first major city of Iraq to get on its feet because it is mostly Shiites and there was very little conflict when the troops moved into this coastal town. Yet today, three years after the invasion, sewage runs freely in the streets, unemployment is catastrophic and electricity is still iffy at best.

Civil war in Iraq? This just in…

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Insurgents stormed a jail around dawn Tuesday in the Sunni Muslim heartland north of Baghdad, killing 19 police and a courthouse guard in a prison break that freed at least 33 prisoners and left 10 attackers dead, authorities said. As many as 100 insurgents armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades stormed the judicial compound in Muqdadiyah, about 60 miles northeast of the capital. The assault began after the attackers fired a mortar round into the police and court complex, said police Brig. Ali al-Jabouri. After burning the police station, the insurgents detonated roadside bombs as they fled, taking the bodies of many of their dead comrades with them, police said. At least 13 policemen and civilians and 15 gunmen were wounded.

In defending this accusation of civil war in Iraq, President Bush said that the country's army is still united and hasn't broken up into sectarian divisions. I'm not an expert on civil war, but if this isn't civil war, surely Iraq is only one step away.

Here's what gets me. People get fired from their jobs every day for a number of reasons—some of which are quite petty; reporters loose their jobs for getting the facts wrong, cashiers are turned loose for dipping into the till and lawyers are collecting unemployment because they can't win enough cases. So, it seems like a no-brainer to me that if someone starts a war that was based on lies and/or faulty intelligence they've collected, I'd say that's good enough reason to give them the pink slip. How is it that this bozo is still in charge?

I know one isn't suppose to say this, I suppose it's rather unpatriotic, but thanks to the country's leadership and dreadful foreign policy, I'm quite ashamed to be an American. There, I said it. Big deal, so what? Nevertheless, I haven't given up on America even if I gave up on George Bush and his cronies long ago.

Time and time again, George W. Bush props himself up on the target range—and what an easy mark to hit. Can anyone blame me or others who keep on returning to this colossal bull's-eye?

Friday, March 17, 2006

Coming to a Halt

Otto Unknown
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
2 April 2003

Yesterday was an eventful day in Powell history. The first combat casualty of the war with Iraq was laid to rest here in this small town of just under 6,000 residents. Of all the places to claim the first loss of life in the war, Powell’s name came to the top—what a lottery to win. Although the Lieutenant did not grow up here, his parents have been residents for several years and thus, Powell ended up in the nation’s headlines.

The funeral for 2nd Lt. Therrel Shane Childress was held in the college gymnasium with an estimated 1,200 in attendance. The town turned out like he was truly one of their own. The funeral was short and simple. Following the services, Lt. Childress’ remains were taken to Crown Hill Cemetery on the outskirts of town for burial including full military honours. I did not attend the burial due to an afternoon class commitment.

That evening after night class, I jumped on my bicycle and headed home while thinking of the Lieutenant. Every time someone is laid to rest that I know (or at least know beyond the news), I always find myself thinking about them on that first evening following their burial. A stark and blunt epiphany finds me, “This will be the first night of an eternity that he will spend in the cold, dark ground.” The idea or thought comes to me as if that person were still alive or aware of their surroundings. As if they were sentenced to an eternity of camping out in the same place and being totally self-supporting. Even in death, Lt. Childress’ body was cared for and watched over up until last night. Resources were consumed. I was told by one reporter at the funeral that a lone marine stands guard over another marine’s body twenty-four, seven until he is finally laid to rest.

And so yesterday afternoon, all the inertia related to this fine soldier came to a final and definite halt. While the dynamics of the world beyond his tomb continue to move about and change, nothing will change within that tiny, confined space of a coffin that is now the only world of what remains of Lt. Childress. And nothing is needed from beyond that tomb for the remainder of the soldier’s journey wherever it may lead—not even the basics of food, warmth or companionship. Barring the catastrophic destruction of the earth, relocation of the cemetery or some future law that will abolish and call for the destruction of cemeteries, what remains of Lt. Childress can and will always be found in the same place here in (of all places) Powell, Wyoming—you can count on it.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Gas Pump Blues

Joplin Pump & Bus
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
When I was growing up, one of the things my father instilled in me was how dangerous it is to play with matches and, worse yet, the dangers of including gasoline in such frivolity. Everyone gets that lecture. And rightly so, as anyone who has ever worked with gasoline can attest to this everyday fuel’s extreme volatility.

Naturally, this is the rationale for the warning signs posted at gas pumping facilities stating it is forbidden to smoke or leave your engine running while one is fueling. And as big, bold, and numerous as these signs are, that should be enough to discourage anyone from doing otherwise. However, a population amongst us appears to have anointed itself exempt in following such safety precautions.

In the past year, when filling my gas tank on three different occasions, I noticed someone who was smoking and/or running their engine as they fueled their vehicles. In fact, two of these incidents happened last summer on the same day—once in Evanston and the other, later that evening, in Riverton. To no surprise, the offenders were both young men (under 30) reeking with invincibility as if they were a super-hero comic book figure.

After the Riverton incident, I headed toward Powell in dismay, wondering if the laws had changed regarding the handling of gasoline or if the oil companies (unbeknownst to me) had recently changed the chemistry of gasoline so it was no longer flammable outside an internal combustion engine.

In the first two occasions, I pointed out their dangerous “oversight,” and asked them to quickly correct their action, without sounding too offensive (but really, who is offensive in this scenario?). I half-expected them to acknowledge my vigilance—if not outright thank me—but instead the young man in Evanston gave me a sly smirk as if to say, “Whatever old man,” and slowly leaned out of his rig and snuffed the fag out on the concrete of the petrol station. The young man in Riverton didn’t even acknowledge what I’d said, but walked away to the cashier’s box, flicking his cigarette to the concrete slab without snuffing it out.

Maybe it’s not that dangerous anymore to smoke while pumping gas. I thought it was. And what of the danger associated with running your engine while pumping gas? I reckon that’s just a bit of pump station hysteria. So then, what gives with the signs?

I decided to call around and talk with those who might know the truths and laws related to fuel handling and the dangers associated with the activity. My first calls went out to the local petrol stations in town to see if they could fill me in. Yes, they all reassured me that gasoline is indeed highly flammable and that the signs posted are not just there to make peoples’ lives more difficult. What struck me odd, however, was that no one really knew for sure if disobeying such signs was a violation of any law(s). One manager told me that if they see someone smoking, they’ll request them to put it out, while another said they were to shut off the pump immediately. None mentioned a course of action that would involve reporting such violations to law enforcement officials.

I decided to call law enforcement here in Powell to see what they knew about this. At first, no one had an answer for me, but they’d check into the matter and call me back. I called later in the day after not receiving a response. They seemed a bit annoyed, but I pressed them.

I asked, “What would happen if a police officer pulled up to a petrol station and observed someone pumping gas into their vehicle as they were smoking or their vehicle was idling away?” Both Powell and Cody officials (including one officer) “didn’t know of” or “didn’t believe” there was any law against such activity.

“Didn’t believe.” “Didn’t know of.” How’s that for getting it from the horse’s mouth?

One police official told me rather matter of factly, “If a person wants to have a cigarette while they fuel their car, I guess that’s their business.”

I questioned both departments about the consequences of discharging a .22 from my back porch into the blue yonder above. They didn’t have to do any research on that question. Without hesitation, I’d be ticketed and fined.

Am I the only one who finds all of this a bit odd—I can risk the lives of several people by simply ignoring safety notices at the pump and not be fined or ticketed? Yet, I’ll receive a fine for firing a tiny piece of lead into the air that won’t lead to anything catastrophic (unless it lands in the middle of a gas station where some careless individual has spilled gasoline all over the island). Better yet—how would speeding down Bent Street at 50 mph be any more dangerous to the general public than smoking while pumping gasoline?

If the gas station management is unsure about any laws that address negligence at the gas pump and local law enforcement “doesn’t know of any laws,” why are those annoying signs posted all over the place? What leg does some peon like me have to stand on if I wish to stop such careless actions?

Well, thankfully, I hooked up with an official at the state fire marshal’s office in Cheyenne. In that little phone call, I learned what all gas station owners, operators, employees, and law enforcement officials should already know: Those signs aren’t just for safety matters only. They are state law, according to the 2003 International Fire Code (IFC) which was adopted by the State of Wyoming and is considered law. Violations can be a misdemeanor and punishable by fines and/or jail time.

What was really disconcerting for me in our little visit was the laws regarding gas station attendants. You know the people who take your money, stock the shelves, clean the toilets, sweep the floor, make the coffee and all that. Section 2204 of the 2003 IFC spells out the following: “Attended self-service motor fuel-dispensing facilities shall have at least one qualified attendant on duty while the facility is open for business. The attendant’s primary function shall be to supervise, observe and control the dispensing of fuel.” From my experience, this primary function appears to be way down at the bottom of their list of job duties.

I also learned that all the regulations of the IFC are the result of someone seriously injured or killed related to the listed violations. In other words, we learned the hard way that smoking at the gas pump and leaving your engine running is has some serious consequences.

When I shared my findings with the fire marshal’s office regarding law enforcement’s ignorance on this topic, they showed no surprise in this lack of policing at the pump because local police do not deal with IFC violations very often.

Perhaps this local-level confusion regarding one particular state law explains and illustrates the series of intelligence blunders resulting at the federal level regarding the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

In defense of local law enforcement, we can’t expect them to stay up with every fire code that’s out there, but this particular one is directly related to the responsible operation of a vehicle and, in my mind, should be policed no less than violations for speeding or failure to stop at a controlled intersection.

Despite this ambiguous and apparently obscure law, I suppose if someone wants to flirt with exiting this world in a blaze of glory at the local gas pump, who am I to stop them, all I ask is that they not include me in their science project. Does anyone else object?

No doubt, some of you out there are probably saying to yourself, “So what? Who cares? I see this stuff all the time and nothing ever happens.” This is just another one of Morgan “Tyrade’s” rants.

Well, maybe we are all a bit lucky to date, but keep this in mind: If and when a gas station does go “poof,” I doubt the resulting injuries will be a little scratch or a bump on someone’s head. There is approximately one “gasoline incident” per month in the state of Wyoming alone. Not all of these lead to an ignition, but the potential outcome in these spills is considered hazardous enough to report.

If all of this isn’t enough, earlier this month, on my way out of town and topping off my tank at the Maverick Store, a late-model pickup truck attended by yet another young man pulled up and started pumping gasoline while his engine was chugging away. Surely he didn’t notice my family sitting in the car in his approach. In dismay, I looked around and sure enough, there were those darn signs about not smoking and turning off your engine while fueling.

What is it about these guys? Is showing a lack of caution while fueling your rig a part of proving one’s manhood now, or is it just dumb luck on my part that carelessness at the gas pump seems to be practiced by young men in pickup trucks? I suspect such wrecklessness extends beyond this demographic—for better or worse.

Like last summer’s incidents at the pump, I confronted this latest young man asking if he was aware that a vehicle’s engine is required to be off while fueling. He confidently looked at me and replied, “Yep.”

I sounded off again, “What then, do you think you’re better than everyone else around here?”

“Nope,” said the monosyllabic homo-habilis.

And that was it. He climbed into his daddy’s idling truck after the tank was filled and away he went.

I walked into the Maverick store and informed the cashier of the incident as he drove off. I’m sure nothing became of it because attendants are likely no better informed than law enforcement in this violation of fire code.

As I returned to my car, I reasoned that this was the ultimate rationalization for reinstating mandatory gas station attendants who work the pumps as well—as in Oregon. Maybe big government is the best thing for everyone because the masses can’t be trusted to be 100 percent responsible. Think Enron, think Columbine, think Halliburton. “Trickle down” is a great concept, but there will always be those who abuse its inherent lack of accountability—ruining it for everyone else.

Too bad I’m not more confrontational than my series of spineless questions. I recalled how my Uncle Earl would have handled this in his day. Nothing would have been said. No, my Uncle Earl would have walked over and simply punched the “homo-yungmanis” square in the chops and then reached into his truck and turned off the ignition. And that would have been the end of it.

Of course, that’s not how things work in this day and age. Assuming I didn’t get beat up for attempting such an act and actually succeeded in duplicating the feats of Uncle Earl, no doubt I would have ended up in jail for several days, fined and sued for over $100,000—and of course dismissed from my job.

Finally, here’s the irony of it all—anyone can fill up his vehicle while the engine idles and he has a smoke with the potential outcome of disintegrating any number of innocent folk along with him. Assuming nothing catastrophic unfolds in this gamble of lives, (at best) these offenders will likely only be reprimanded by schmoes like myself in such modest confrontations or editorials. Yet, there would be a stiff penalty to pay if someone had given him a deserving and—for the most part—harmless fat lip for his total wrecklessness and disregard of others.

One morning in the near or distant future, I’ll awaken to the news of some families cremated while they sat inside of their cars at a gasoline station. Surprise will unlikely overwhelm me.