Thursday, December 13, 2007

Is Chicago Going to the Birds?

By Alan Burkhart

While it hardly seems newsworthy in a time of strife and chaos both at home and abroad, I believe recent events in the Windy City merit further thought. According to a recent AP article, the Chicago City Council is considering a ban on pet chickens.

This little tidbit of news is indicative (to me, at least) of just how shallow we've become as a nation. Too many of us expect the world to adjust to our every whim and desire. “Grin and bear it” is forever gone from the national lexicon. As a nation, we complain over just about everything.

I realize that under certain circumstances it may be prudent to regulate or even ban certain pets. One can make a case for potentially dangerous breeds of dogs, poisonous snakes and other unconventional pets. It has however been proven over the years that in most cases it is the animal's handler, not the animal itself, that leads to problems.

Chicago City Alderman Lona Lane states in the AP article that the city has received over 700 complaints this year related to pet chickens. Most of these are over foul odors, droppings and the rodents that feed on chicken droppings. A number of complaints also stem from the noise of crowing roosters. As I stated above, it nearly always goes back to the owner of the pet. If one does not take proper care with a pet, problems will ensue. Ask my former neighbor about my low tolerance for the little surprises his collie left for me in my backyard.

First, if you own a pet you should always make sure that it is not creating a problem for your neighbors. Keep your pet on your own property. Keep your pet's area clean and free of odor. This isn't just for the sake of your neighbors, either. It's also a health issue for your pets and for your family.

The flip side of the coin is equally important - be considerate of your neighbors and their pets. If Rover barks at the moon all night, that's a legitimate reason for complaint. If Fluffy leaves little kitty paw prints on your car every night, that's also a genuine problem. But you shouldn’t complain just because you don't approve of your neighbor's choice of pet.

Consider this tidbit from the AP article:
What may doom them in Chicago, say chicken supporters, is that for all the talk about noise, smell and disease, chickens simply do not look like they belong in today's modern city. "It's a gentrification issue," said Erika Allen of Growing Power, a nonprofit group that promotes urban gardening around the country. "People move in and they don't want chickens next to their house so they go and complain."
There was a time when chickens in the back yard were a common sight. During WWII, many people kept poultry on their property right along with their victory gardens. It was a matter of survival. Chickens were cheap to maintain and served as a double food source: eggs and meat. Nowadays, those who support the notion of raising chickens at home point to the freshness of the eggs and the way they aerate the soil in gardens, among other benefits.

Chickens in the back yard are also reminiscent of simpler, friendlier times. When I was a boy, I grew up across from the Richards family. These good folks operated a small game hen facility right in the middle of town. No one gave it a second thought. The place was clean and neat and the birds were kept inside a fenced-in area. Never heard one complaint, but then again people weren’t as bratty back then as they are in current times. The sound of all those little banny roosters in the morning was just another part of the day.

Not to be outdone, at the ripe old age of ten years I got my first chickens: Two little chicks from the local farm co-op. They were prolific laying hens, and I was of course insufferably proud when I could provide the eggs at breakfast time. The two birds had the run of the back yard, and I had the responsibility of making sure no bird poop showed up on Mom’s shiny new ‘68 Pontiac.

About a year later, I got a rooster, whom I promptly named “Brewster.” In retrospect, the only reason I can think of for naming him thusly is that “Brewster” rhymes with “rooster.” He was therefore referred to as “Brewster the Rooster.” Yes, I was rather weird as a child.

Brewster turned out to be an extremely personable guy. He’d come running up to me whenever I ventured into the back yard and follow me around like a faithful dog. When I’d sit on the back steps he’d hop up on my leg and stare at me while making various chicken-noises and stretching his wings. We had some clucking-good conversations on many a hot summer day, and to my surprise he enjoyed being petted and spoken to as much as any dog or cat.

I of course would always make sure his tail feathers were positioned off the side of my leg since chickens aren’t too picky about where they let go. One afternoon I was sitting there with Brewster when my father came home from work. Dad sat down beside me and Brewster hopped over onto his leg. Dad didn’t turn the bird, and I didn’t think about the possible consequences. A few moments later, the laces in Dad’s work shoes had been fouled (fowled?) rather severely.

Had I not scooped up the bird and ran like hell for the back fence we might have had broiled Brewster for dinner that evening. By the time he’d hosed off his shoe he’d pretty much forgiven the bird, and Brewster never had a clue he’d almost become a chicken salad.

The bottom line? Good neighborhoods start with good neighbors, and being a good neighbor starts in your own back yard. Please take good care of your pets, and please also realize that you do not live in a bubble. If your neighbor has a dog, you’re going to hear it bark from time to time. Likewise, if your neighbor has a rooster, he will doubtlessly engage in the roosterly practice of crowing in the morning. Come on, people... if that is the worst thing that happens to you all day, you’ve had a good day.
Related Reading:

Pet chickens may be plucked from owners?

Growing Power

Victory Gardens

Feather Site

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Creativity or Chicanery?

By Alan Burkhart

Cass County, ND Sheriff Paul D. Laney recently used a rather creative sting operation to nab 3 dozen non-violent fugitives. Okay, good for him. Get the crooks off the street. It is important however, to note exactly how he went about it. In a society that believes in and (usually) practices the principle of "equal protection under the law," the means is of equal importance to the end result in law enforcement. One can't help but wonder if the good Sheriff hasn't broken a few laws himself.

Setting the stage...
Shock rock legend Ozzy Osbourne was scheduled to do a concert in Fargo, ND on October 29th. Sheriff Laney took advantage of the opportunity by mailing fake “VIP tour packages” to forty non-violent fugitives. The packages, similar to Ozzy’s actual VIP tour packages, were sent under the name “PDL Productions.” Thirty-six of the forty invited fugitives showed up for the pre-concert party and were promptly arrested.

At first glance, one might simply think that Laney had pulled a smart and effective trick on a bunch of low-level scofflaws. A deeper look, however, reveals much more. It’s doubtful that any criminal charges will be brought against Sheriff Laney. But one cannot help but to call his character into question.

For starters, he grossly misused Ozzy Osbourne’s name. No one asked his permission to use his name in a sting operation of which he had no knowledge. Also consider the possibility that Laney committed forgery by sending out the fake VIP tour invitations. Adding to the insult, Laney held a televised press conference to pat himself on the back for his cleverness.

And Ozzy ain’t happy about it.

Says Ozzy...
"Sheriff Laney went out of his way to tarnish my reputation by implying that I somehow attract a criminal element, which is certainly not true. My audiences are good hard-working people who have been hugely supportive of my music for nearly four decades. They have also been very supportive of my wife Sharon's colon cancer charity by raising over a million dollars (partly through VIP ticket sales) at my shows. It's obvious to me that this sheriff has an agenda and is just trying to make a name for himself on my back." (A-Z Heavy Metal)

And this brings me to a question. First consider this quote from Sheriff Laney:
"Why did we do this? The criminals are creative, so we had to get creative too...'' "They give us fake addresses, fake phone numbers, sometimes their families cover for them, sometimes their employees cover for them." (ABC News)

But Sheriff, if you knew where to send the invitations, why did you need to engage in the misuse of someone’s name to pick these losers up? Could you not have simply gone after them instead of descending into such chicanery? I could perhaps understand his actions had he been pursuing a dangerous and violent felon - and chances are Ozzy would have applauded his actions. But no, these fugitives were dead beat dads, people who didn’t show for court on minor offenses, and other such losers, who while in violation of the law presented no danger to society.

Says Ozzy...
"Instead of holding a press conference to pat himself on the back, Sheriff Laney should be apologizing to me for using my name in connection with these arrests," Osbourne said in a statement released by his publicist. "It's insulting to me and to my audience, and it shows how lazy this particular sheriff is when it comes to doing his job." (ABC News)

I’m not defending Ozzy. The guy has nothing positive to contribute to society and is well-known for his gross and disrespectful behavior. But I do insist upon the proper treatment of all citizens by law enforcement. An out-of-control sheriff is a far larger hazard to society than an over-aged degenerate like Ozzy. And given the apparent size of Laney’s ego, he may well step farther across the line if he’s not put on a short leash.

We The People have every right to hold law enforcement to at least the same standard of conduct expected of the rest of us. To unnecessarily engage in such a deception, and to steal the name of a public figure is simply unacceptable. Shame on you Sheriff Laney, for failing to meet the standards of the uniform and badge the people of Cass County allow you to wear.


Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Cars, Trucks, Friends and Family

By Alan Burkhart

A few friends have been e-mailing me to ask where and how I've been and why I haven't been writing my column. Quick answer: I've been buried in work and the state of our nation has reached a point that I get sick every time I read the news.

As such, my column is on hold until I can actually sit down and write without getting an ulcer. Maybe I'll just write about something besides politics and societal woes.

As to what I've been doing: I've been taking a pretty good stab at learning to program in Visual Basic. I will in fact have a small line of freeware out in the near future. It'll be available for download on my old site ( I'll announce it here when it all comes together. A way-cool text editor, image batch-processor and a couple of slick utilities are in the works.

Blew the motor in my Eagle Talon. Been wanting a bigger car anyway so I parked the Eagle and went out in search of a deal. Found one, too. My nephew is service manager at one of the larger Chrysler dealers in the DFW area. The mother of one of his mechanics is no longer able to drive and her car had been in storage two years. He said he'd sell it for $400.00. I was understandably skeptical in regards to the condition of the car, given the price. My nephew and his dad checked out the car (I was nowhere near Ft Worth) and informed me that it was an absolute cream puff.

Long story made short, I bought the car - a 1983 Chrysler New Yorker with just about every option one can imagine and only 71,000 miles. I gave my nephew an additional $500 and he applied massive amounts of TLC to the car (new belts, hoses, wheel cylinders, all fluids replaced, a/c reworked, new tires, etc). There is definitely an advantage to having a family member in charge of a repair shop. Lord only knows what all that stuff would have cost me otherwise.

One of my trucking buddies pulls a step-deck trailer and he volunteered his services to get the car from Texas to Mississippi. I didn't want a 500-mile shakedown cruise for a 24 year-old car and gladly accepted his offer. Below are some pics of the car from last Saturday when it arrived where I work.

Here she is just as she arrived on the trailer.

Backing the car off the trailer

A smooth landing

Moral of the Story...
Never underestimate the value of friends and family. Due to various circumstances my money has been uncomfortably tight for about a year. No way I could have come up with a car this nice (and in such good condition) without going deeper in debt than I already am - which ain't an option at this point.

Always think of your best friends as part of your family. And always be proud of your friends who actually are your family.

See ya'll on the road - Alan

Monday, October 01, 2007

Early Expectations

By Alan Burkhart

The so-called "NFL experts" love to make early-season predictions. Mike Klis of the Denver Post is already pointing to the October 14th match-up between the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots as a preview of the next Super Bowl. Others are referring to the Cowboys as the best team in the NFC and the Patriots as the best in all of football.

Excuse me, but we're only four weeks into a 16-game season. Sure, the Cowboys are 4-0 and the Patriots are 3-0 with Monday night's contest against the Bengals likely to be yet another Patriot victory. But, let's not overlook the fact that both the Packers and Colts also stand at 4-0, and that four other teams currently stand at 3-1.

The season is still quite young.

Both Dallas and New England have posted impressive stats, but neither team has faced an opponent with a winning record. And both teams still have another game to play before the Patriots visit Texas Stadium.

Dallas will almost certainly manhandle the Bills in Buffalo, and it's a good bet New England will defeat the Browns. That, if my own early predictions are correct (keep in mind I'm not an expert) will see both teams standing at 5-0 on October 14th.

On that day in Texas, both teams will be subjected to their first contest against an opponent with a record above .500. A number of questions will be answered:

1. First and foremost - how good is Tony Romo? The Cowboys likeable new QB has torn up the likes of the Giants, Dolphins, Bears and Rams, but how will he fare against the Pats stingy defense? And please don't point to his performance against the Bears. This is this year, not last year. And the Bears are SO last year.

2. And how will the Cowboys' defense stack up against Tom Brady's powerful offense? Can the Cowboys' somewhat suspect defensive backfield continue to improve and slow the Pats' offense while the slow-starting Cowboy offense gets its collective act together during the first half? In spite of leading the league in scoring, the Boyz have yet to score a first-quarter touchdown.

3. Can the Pats' defense contain hard-charging Marion Barber? Terrell Owens? Jason Witten and Patrick Crayton? I remain unimpressed with Julius Jones.

4. Do the Pats have a defensive lineman capable of getting past Leonard Marshall?

5. New Cowboys coach Wade Phillips has out-coached the brain trusts of 4 losing teams. But can he stay a step ahead of Pats coach Bill Belichick?

Neither team has faced a real test thus far in the season, and assuming that the Pats handle the Bengals Monday night, both teams will start next week undefeated. And they'll probably still be undefeated when they finally clash in Dallas. Each team promises to be the acid test for the other. Two explosive offenses, one with an established veteran QB and the other with a young gunslinger who will likely be the next "great" NFL passer. Keep in mind that "likely" means he hasn't done it yet.

The Pats' defense through three games is allowing just over ten points per game. The Cowboys defense started out awful but has improved a bit each week. Neither defense has faced an offense comparable to what they'll face when they play each other.

If it comes down to a defensive contest, the Pats will likely be the winner. In an offensive shootout, I'd give the edge to Dallas, but only barely and only because the game will be on Dallas' home turf. Tony Romo is a gem of a QB, and he has a multitude of tools at his disposal, but he hasn't reached the lofty plateau of Tom Brady. And whether it's fair or not, Romo will be judged by how he compares with Brady on that day.

As a diehard Cowboy fan, I'm waiting for this game to see just how good this latest incarnation of the team will be. So far, all anyone really knows is that they're better than NFL's absolute worst. Any realistic Patriot fan will also be looking to this game as the first true measurement of the character of the 2007 Pats.

When the dust has settled, it will doubtlessly have been one helluva ballgame. Super Bowl preview? Maybe. Maybe not. The season is young.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Keep It Simple, Keep It Close

By Alan Burkhart

We've all seen how the Internet and other forms of networking can make the world a smaller place. With e-mail, we can share images and other files with friends and family all across the globe in a matter of seconds. Internet-based video conferencing makes it possible for folks thousands of miles apart to see and hear each other in real time, and to do it affordably. The wonders of technology have enriched the lives of millions of people. Leave it to me to be on the short end of the stick not once, but twice in a twenty-four hour period.

Yesterday I was at the Pilot Travel Center in Ft. Worth, TX. My master plan was to have a nice easy evening and reload the following morning. Like many of the modern "travel centers" around the country, Pilot provides WiFi Internet access for its customers. Before buying 24 hours worth of time from Pilot's service provider, I logged into the service to check the signal and connectivity. Strong signal, excellent speed. I spent $6.95 via my Visa and logged on to the WWW.

Thirty minutes later I still had a strong signal, but nothing would load. I called the customer service line and inquired as to what the problem might be. The customer service professional informed me that there was a thunderstorm in Atlanta, GA.

While I wouldn't wish bad weather on anyone, I told the guy that I failed to see how a thunder-banger 800 miles away in Atlanta could keep me from accessing the Internet in Fort Worth. He replied that the main satellite for the entire network was in Atlanta, and that if it went down, everything went down. He did at least give me a day's credit so I can log on again sometime... after I check the weather in North Georgia.

Today I had a 12 Noon appointment in Dallas at a Dr. Pepper warehouse to pick up a load headed to Aspers, PA. I arrived about 10:30 and the shipping clerk immediately gave me a dock and said they'd load me early. Feeling a torrent of those positive waves rolling over me, I hit dock #84 and waited patiently for first "bump" when the forklift enters the trailer. And waited... and waited... and waited...

At 1:30 PM, an hour and a half past my appointment, I inquired as to what was causing the delay. The shipping clerk, who wasn't nearly as cheery this time, told me they were having "paperwork problems."

Long story made short, I finally got loaded about 4:30 PM - just in time to catch the Dallas evening rush hour traffic. It seems that when the shipping clerk tried to print the bill of lading, the computer informed him that a "credit hold" had been placed on the receiver in Pennsylvania. This wouldn't be so unusual, except for the fact that the load was bound for the southern PA distribution center of Cadbury Schweppes - the company that owns Dr. Pepper. How does one tell his boss that his credit sucks?

According to the freight broker who graced me with the load, Dallas called the regional office in Plano, TX to see about finding the "glitch" that caused the problem. Plano couldn't fix it, so they called the US headquarters for Cadbury Schweppes which according to the freight broker is somewhere in New Jersey. They were clueless as well, which shouldn't surprise anyone. If they had a clue, they wouldn't live in New Jersey.

Finally, someone in Dallas, Plano or New Jersey called Cadbury Schweppes' main office. Yep, we had to go all the way to the United Kingdom to solve a paperwork glitch in Dallas, TX. What the hell, at least I got loaded.

I wonder if anyone else has considered the possibility that globalizing everything from soft drinks to chewing gum (Cadbury Schweppes owns Dentyne, too) is a bad idea? Or maybe that depending upon something too far away to be influenced locally could lead to local problems? Is it a good idea to put all your eggs in one basket when that basket is so damnably far away?

My latest invention: The Toast-o-meterAnother truck stop chain I frequent has begun (mis)managing its restaurants across the country from their home office in Salt Lake City, UT. The result? The restaurants are constantly running out of various menu items. Just try operating a restaurant at breakfast time when there's no bread for making toast. I've encountered this twice in the last few weeks because I love their omelets. The servers spent as much time apologizing as taking orders. Truckers tend to be cranky when we don’t get our breakfast (I am of course an exception - I’m always cheerful and patient). One restaurant manager actually went to Wal-Mart and bought bread out of his own pocket to properly serve his customers.

And how many times have you called customer support for help with an American product and ended up talking to someone in Outer Mongolia? Wouldn't it be nice to speak with someone you can actually understand, instead of someone whose name requires a tanker load of phlegm to pronounce? US companies should employ US citizens in US cities to speak with other US citizens. Period.

Yes, you can call me an arrogant American. I'll just stand here and wave my flag.

Bottom line: In the rush to cut costs, companies are frustrating customers. Local managers should be able to actually manage their facilities, and that includes managing the local inventory. This nation's economy was founded upon successful small businesses. Locally owned. Locally operated. Faceless corporations, obsessed with micromanaging every aspect of every local facility, are forgetting the most basic and essential tool for success: Good service to the customer.

See ya on the road. - Alan :-)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


By Alan Burkhart

OK folks... here's your pictorial tutorial on how NOT to drive:
(Click an image to see a larger version)

This little mishap occurred in Birmingham, AL at the northern junction of I-59 and I-459 (the Birmingham bypass). What puzzles me here is that there's no way the guy overturned due to swinging around the ramp too fast. If he had, he'd have flipped to the left instead of the right. I never found out what caused the crash. Whatever caused it, the result was a trailer load of new fire hydrants spilled on the end of the ramp.

This incident occurred on I-20 near Longview, TX. How? Damifno. It blocked the westbound side of I-20 for about an hour.

This happened today (Aug. 21 '07) on I-10 in Louisiana. Judging from the skid marks, this driver must've dodged one potential accident and ended up in another. It's jack-knifed as tight as any I've seen.

This little car met its demise on I-81 in Tennessee. Probably an electrical fire. Years ago I drove a tow truck, and I can vouch for the fact that nothing stinks like a burnt car. Don't know if the fire department got it extinguished before the gas tank blew.

Lastly, I shot this in an Alabama paper mill. The truck on the ramp hauls wood chips which are used to make the paper. The back of the "chip trailer" is opened before the trucker drives onto the ramp. The driver exits the vehicle, the truck and trailer are secured to the ramp, and then a massively powerful hydraulic lift raises the ramp to dump the contents of the trailer.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Trucking Underground

By Alan Burkhart

The other day I picked up a load of powdered milk in Longview, TX bound for Wampum, PA. Wampum is a little town northwest of Pittsburgh. I was not aware that the place in Wampum (Gateway Commerce Center) is an underground facility. I turned onto their private road and headed into the woods, and suddenly found myself staring at a tunnel entrance. How cool is that?!

Actually, it was very cool. A uniform 55 degrees year-round. A bit damp for my taste, but otherwise quite pleasant. It had been at least 10 years since my last visit to an underground facility. My previous trip below ground was in the well-known (to truckers, at least) tunnel system in Kansas City, MO.

Gateway Commerce Center is an old limestone mine converted to commercial use. Mining operations here began in the late 1800's and ended sometime in the 1940's. The 2.5 million square foot mine has been used for storage since that time.

Those unfamiliar with the trucking industry probably wouldn't think of sending an 18-wheeler into an old mine. The practice is fairly common however, in areas where limestone mining is widespread. I've visited such facilities (truckers just call them caves) in both Kansas City, MO and Carthage, MO (near Joplin).

As you might imagine, getting around inside a cave whilst dragging a 53-foot trailer requires a bit of extra caution. As you can see from the questionable quality of my cell phone photos, the lighting isn't exactly top notch. Making turns within the cave is challenging at best. The pillars are generally wider at the top than at the bottom. Because of this, it's possible to be watching the trailer during a tight turn and believing that you've got plenty room - and then gashing the top of the trailer against a pillar. We can't see the top couple of feet of the trailer in the mirror. If I have any doubts, I set the brakes and walk back to take a look. My boss is a good guy, but I don't want to have to explain how I destroyed one of his expensive trailers.

I've always admired how the builders of these places manage to build a warehouse and docks right into the stone. Lots of hard work, both physical and mental. Inside, the place looks like any other warehouse except for the occasional stone pillar growing out of the floor. Air conditioning is of course unnecessary. It's chilly underground, even in the heat of summer. Standing outside the entrance you can feel a cool breeze emanating from the depths.

I've been in a few of these places in which one must jack-knife the trailer into a dock. Gateway's planners placed the docks across from other
tunnels so that drivers can nose into the tunnel and then back straight to the door. For this I'm grateful. Getting around the corner into the adjoining tunnel is still tight, but it's a lot easier than backing around a pillar to a dock you can't see. My only complaint was that the adjoining tunnel wasn't lighted. The darkness was so complete my high beams barely penetrated it. The tunnel walls and ceiling are painted white to help the florescent lights chase away the shadows. In the above photo, I'm standing in a well-lit tunnel - with the docks directly behind me. Note how the light just stops a few feet inside the "get straight" tunnel.

Here's a parting shot. Note the difference in the light as I approach the exit. After spending an hour in Mother Earth's cool and comfortable innards, I was loathe to return to the summer heat. All of my windows and mirrors fogged when I pulled outside ( 55 degrees underground and 90 degrees outside). I had to stop and wipe everything off to see where I was going. OK, the laptop's battery is getting low and I gotta get to work.

Best to all
Alan :-)

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Flying Cigars

By Alan Burkhart

Yet another busy news week. As I write this, Fox News is breaking (ahead of CNN, ABC and USA Today) the news that Bobby Cutts has been taken into custody for the murder of Jessie Davis. The man who lost his family in a violent Illinois shooting has been charged with their murder. A pair of naked twenty-somethings plummeted to their deaths from a roof top. The US and North Korea are again engaged in talks regarding North Korea's nuclear program. Iran still has a president who fancies himself the Bringer of the Apocalypse and Syria is still his willing puppet. George W. Bush is still the second-worst president in the last 100 years (and the worst Republican president), and Iraq is still a mess.

And, "The Evening Standard" is reporting that a mile-wide, cigar-shaped UFO was spotted over the English Channel. I'll let the other guys write about nukes, terrorists and murderers. I'm not passing up the chance to expound upon one of my favorite subjects.

First, the details:
The object was spotted by Captain Ray Bowyer of Aurigny Airlines while flying over the Channel Islands. Bowyer first thought the object to be about 10 miles distant but then realized it was as much as forty miles away. An experienced pilot, Bowyer judged the object to be at least a mile wide. Bowyer later spotted a second UFO, though it was much farther from his position.

An unnamed pilot with Blue Islands airline also spotted one of the objects, and two passengers aboard Bowyer's flight confirmed seeing the first one.

"The Evening Standard" quotes Captain Bowyer as saying, "I'm certainly not saying that it was something of another world. All I'm saying is that I have never seen anything like it before in all my years of flying."

Okay, so what was it?

The term "Unidentified Flying Object" does not automatically mean it's a visitor from Planet Zebes. The term simply means that it's flying and no one has a clue what it is. It's a safe bet however, that those of you who recognize the name "Zebes" doubtlessly share my view that we don't want any visitors from that particular planet. Call me a Zebephobe if you wish.

The object could have been a bit of freakish weather, glowing gasses (from where?) in the atmosphere or yet another top-secret government project gone awry. It could, of course, have also been an extraterrestrial visitor.

These incidents are generally swept under the governmental rug or explained away as weather balloons, mass hysteria or failed satellites reentering the atmosphere. And, I'm sure that at least some of those explanations are true. But, neither weather balloons nor satellites are a mile wide. Failed satellites don't maneuver, as some UFO's have been known to do.

So, do I believe we're occasionally visited by people from other worlds? Yes, I do. I find it impossible to believe that in all the vastness of the Creation, we could be the only inhabitants. When I was a kid, my fascination with UFO's (exacerbated by Star Trek reruns) often drew my mother's irritation. Mom would tell me that "It's silly to think there could be life in outer space." And, I would always reply, "But Mom, WE are in outer space."

Stumped her every time with that.

My UFO Sighting:
When I was a small boy, my dad and I would often sit on the front steps at night just before bedtime. He'd let me ramble on about whatever was on my young mind and treat it as if it were the most profound bit of wisdom he'd ever heard. One summer night, we were sitting there on the steps when a huge glowing disk passed low over our home (no, I'm not making this up). It made no sound, but it was clearly visible overhead and I had the impression that it was rotating. It simply flew straight over us and disappeared over the tree tops. The whole thing lasted maybe five seconds. Dad scooped me up and hauled me inside.

I was of course full of questions, but for once my father had no answers. He gently but firmly told me to drop the subject and go to bed. We never spoke of it after that night, but I'll never forget it. The incident genuinely spooked him, and dad didn't spook easily.

Much has been made over the years regarding the possibility of an elaborate government cover-up where UFO's are concerned. Let's face it, folks: Our government can't keep a secret. Whether it's Bill Clinton selling us out to the Chinese or some disgruntled government employee spilling secrets to the media, nothing stays secret in this country very long. I'm betting that if our government had knowledge of the existence of extraterrestrials, or actual dealings with them, we'd know about it by now. I'm not into conspiracy theory, alien abductions or crop circles.

As to what the occasional alien visitor might be doing here, who knows? I've never been one to speculate and most supposed UFO sightings turn out to be hoaxes. It is therefore impossible to deduce from visual observation what they might be doing, since we can't be sure we're observing the real thing.

UFO hoaxers don't help the credibility of people who have actually witnessed unexplained aerial phenomena. Some fraudulent sightings turn out to be no more than a hubcap tossed into the air like a Frisbee and photographed in flight. Others are more elaborate and take time to refute. Claims of seeing a UFO become equated to sightings of Bigfoot, Chupacabra or Elvis.

Still, believing in "Flying Saucer Men" allows me a sense of boyish wonder when I gaze up at a starry night sky. It allows me to dwell upon the possibility that while I'm admiring the twinkling lights above, someone else in the vastness of space may be staring back with a sense of wonder equal to my own. If an alien spacecraft should ever land in my town, I'll be first in line asking for a ride.

Related Reading:

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Python Pictures

By Alan Burkhart

My buddy Dave in Australia passed along these pics of a rather angry python. Originally, we believed the python was photographed in Australia. According to however, the pics were shot in Africa. Anyway, it's a big frigging snake.

The big guy had evidently just dined, and he was so large he got caught under an electric fence. That HAD to hurt. :p

Be sure to visit Dave's Australian trucking website.

Monday, June 04, 2007

A Visit to Vernonia, OR

By Alan Burkhart

Vernonia, Oregon sits comfortably in the rocky hills northwest of Portland. My first impression was that it's a quiet and friendly little town, and from all appearances I gather it has a rich history. I delivered a load of transformers today to the local electric cooperative there, and while things went relatively smoothly, the road into the co-op was a bit more adventuresome than usual, as you'll see in the photos below.

I arrived in town before daylight and parked in front of the coop's office. I had been informed previously that someone would take me to the "pole yard" to unload the transformers around 9:00 AM. With a bit of time to kill, I waited until the local businesses began to open, and then struck out on foot in search of a cup of coffee. A local out for her morning jog was glad to point me to a small coffee shop in the next block. The little place was already busy, and the smell of fresh coffee mixed with the soft jazz floating from the hidden speakers almost caused me to be late returning to the truck.

I'd been back in the truck only a few minutes when a co-op employee showed up and I followed him to the pole yard. When the guy turned off SR 47 onto the little gravel driveway, I thought at first he'd taken a wrong turn. The hill was about as nearly straight up as I would want to try in an 18-wheeler. I engaged the "differential lock" (a semi's equivalent of 4-wheel drive) and crawled up the hill. You'll note the images here show me going down the hill, not up. I didn't have the time or inclination to grab the cell phone and take pics on the way in.

In places, I had to hug the left side of the road to the point that the trees were shoving the left mirror out of adjustment. By the time I got to the top, there were small limbs hanging all over the front of the truck. And since the road is cut into a hillside, I had a dirt wall on one side and steep drop-off on the other. I did at least manage to get a couple of pics on the way out.

At the pole yard, there was no dock and no fork lift. The guys used a "boom truck" to reach into the trailer and drag the transformers out, then swing'em around and set them on the ground. This method of unloading is fairly common in both rural areas and job sites, although it had been awhile since I'd unloaded this way.

Vernonia is located on SR 47 about 15 miles north of US Hwy 26, west of Portland. It's a pretty drive from Portland, especially after exiting from 26 onto 47. If you're traveling in the Portland area, I heartily recommend a side trip to Vernonia. Nice folks, nice town (and great coffee).

See you on the road...

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Who Owns Your Life?

By Alan Burkhart

With the pending release of Jack "Doctor Death" Kevorkian from prison, I found myself thinking back to a movie from the early 80's titled "Whose Life is it, Anyway?" The film starred Richard Dreyfuss as a sculptor who was paralyzed from the neck down in an auto accident. In the movie, Dreyfuss' character is faced with the prospect of a life of dependency, unable to pursue his dreams or live with even a shred of dignity.

Dreyfuss requests that his life support be switched off, and a dramatic court battle ensues. He has both allies and opponents, including a doctor who is determined to stop him from ending his life. In the event that you haven’t seen the movie, I won’t spoil it for you by telling you how it ends. It’ll tug the strings of the coldest heart.

Dr. Kevorkian, during his heyday as both an advocate and a facilitator of physician - assisted suicide, stirred the nation’s emotional stew pot to the boiling point. Hounded like Frankenstein’s monster by some and heralded as a hero by others, Jack Kevorkian left his mark on society before being sent off to prison for the death of Thomas Youk of Michigan.

Unfortunately, Kevorkian may be his own worst enemy as well as that of those who seek to legalize assisted suicide. While he is passionate and sincere in his beliefs, he appears a bit unbalanced. The man promised “death with dignity.” But he repeatedly dumped the bodies of his customers at hospitals and morgues, and sometimes left them in the motel rooms where he performed the procedure. His actions made him appear to be less an angel of mercy than a dangerously eccentric old man with a penchant for playing doctor.

While he has promised not to perform any more assisted suicides, he’s also plainly stated that he intends to busy himself as an advocate for the procedure. If he succeeds again in bringing the issue to the front burner, it should be an interesting debate. As Dreyfuss’ character asks in the movie: “Whose life is it?”

Whose indeed?

Oregon is presently the only state that allows physician-assisted suicide, and there is much red tape involved. I can see why it’d be that way. Death is after all, rather final. Opponents have struck down attempts to legalize assisted suicide in several states, including Hawaii, Wisconsin, Washington, California, Michigan and Maine.

In the USA, unassisted suicide is technically legal, although you're subject to being locked away for your own protection if you try to off yourself and fail. Assisted suicide however, is another can of worms altogether. During the reign of former Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Bush Administration sought to overturn Oregon's assisted suicide law. The argument, in a nutshell, was that the prescribing of controlled substances (prescription drugs) to cause death is not a legitimate medical procedure. Ashcroft's goal was to revoke the license of any Oregon physician who prescribed drugs to end a life. So much for states' rights.

The battle continued when Alberto Gonzales replaced Ashcroft, and finally ended (for the moment, at least) in 2006 when the US Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the state of Oregon. This is one of the few times I have agreed with the liberal side of the SCOTUS - Thomas, Scalia and Roberts were the three dissenters. The decision to legalize assisted suicide is now up to each state, and that is as it should be.

Legal issues aside, there are two sides to the debate: The humanist view that assisted suicide is a personal decision, and the moralistic view that any form of suicide is (ahem) dead wrong.

From a purely humanist standpoint, one might conclude that each person owns his or her life. We create living wills so that a family member has the power to “pull the plug” if we become permanently incapacitated. How is it then, that a doctor can be authorized to disable a life support device when I’m a vegetable, but cannot enable a device to stop my heart under other circumstances? In both cases, it is a matter of a physician flipping a switch or prescribing a drug to end a life.

From a moralistic standpoint, the Christian Bible speaks clearly in the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill.” It doesn’t differentiate between killing yourself and killing someone else. Christians are taught that life is a gift from God, and our lives and bodies are not our own, but God’s. To end that life against God’s design is therefore a violation of God’s will.

Contrary to the misconceptions of many Christians, suicide is not an automatic trip to Hell. According to the Scriptures, there are two unpardonable sins: Rejecting Christ as Savior and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. So, while one would doubtlessly have to answer for ending one's life outside of God's will, it is still possible to be a "client" of Dr. Kevorkian and enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Unlikely perhaps, but possible.

Islam on the other hand encourages one to kill himself and others in the name of Allah. Suicide bombers are supposedly rewarded with 72 virgins for all eternity. I can’t help but wonder; now that Islam is encouraging females to become suicide bombers, does this mean they need more virgins in Mohammed’s version of paradise? Just curious.

But whose life is it?

Should someone decide that life is unbearable, that person can end his life in any number of ways. Whether or not one carries through with a death wish depends largely upon one's ideology. Christians believe that a worse fate (Hell) is likely if one commits suicide. Atheists see death as the gateway to oblivion ("we're just mammals"). Radical Islam thinks it’s a free pass to a heavenly whore house, provided that you take a few infidels with you when you explode.

In a free society, the decision to live or die should rest with the individual. Only then can a person suffering from a terminal illness be assured of the right to make a decision based upon his or her own convictions. Personally, I feel that we should have the legal right to end our lives with the assistance of a licensed physician. How I live, or end, my life is my business. I must therefore extend that courtesy to those who do not share my beliefs, and I expect the same courtesy in return.

Related Reading:

Cool Pics - May '07

Here are some pics I shot in late May of '07. The first 3 are from a Pilot Travel Center in Hayti, MO. I don't know exactly how one accomplishes the total destruction of a chunk of concrete several feet thick. But, someone got'er done. At least he didn't destroy the diesel pump in the process (which is what the concrete is for).
I am assuming that someone backed into the concrete. Had to have jarred the driver somewhat severely. Gives me a case of whiplash just thinking about it.
The next two pics are of I-90 in Montana on Memorial Day. A weak front was moving through, and the light snow and cloud cover reduced everything to shades of gray. I'm especially fond of the second image. Click it to see a larger version.
Before the day was over, I'd seen lightning during a snow storm, and it also hailed on me just a bit. Not sleet. Hail. During a snow storm. Toto, I don't think we're in Mississippi anymore.

Friday, May 25, 2007

A Day (or Two) in the Life of Me

By Alan Burkhart

I occasionally run into someone who believes that cross-country trucking must be absolutely the easiest way in the world to make a paycheck. If you're reading this and you share that opinion, please do enroll at the nearest driving school and get back to me in about a year. I'm betting your feelings will have changed significantly by then.

Mind you, I like what I do. I've been doing it almost thirty years and still enjoy the feel of being in control of seventy feet of steel with 500 horses (and 1700 ft-lbs of torque) under the hood. And while things usually rock along reasonably free of major problems, every now and again we all have one of "those" loads. A load where absolutely everything that can screw up, does screw up; often dramatically. Allow me to share with you the events of the last few days (daze?).

On Thursday of last week, I picked up a load of rolled paper in West Linn, Oregon (near Portland) bound for Dallas, TX. I like hauling the giant rolls of paper. They're generally 4 to 7 feet tall and about 6 feet in diameter. They're loaded standing upright and are stable inside the trailer when properly loaded and secured. And the load itself was about the only thing that went right from that point forward.

It was late in the day by the time I was loaded, so I drove out to La Grand, OR (on I-84) and parked at the Flying J Travel Plaza. After a hot shower, I visited the restaurant and filled my belly with some seriously comfortable comfort food. I took my evening walk whilst jabbering on the cell phone with my elder brother, then climbed in the truck with every intention of closing the curtains and hitting the mattress.

As soon as I switched on the air conditioner, I heard the unmistakable shriek of a loose belt on the engine. I opened the hood and discovered that the double-width belt that spins the alternator and the a/c was loose. The reason: The bolt that secures the alternator to the adjustment arm was missing. Neither I nor the truck stop had a bolt that would fit, and in any event I had also managed to leave my tool box at home.

I drove across the street to a Freightliner dealership and the nice folks there "installed" a bolt for me and tightened the belt. Took about 10 minutes; and cost ninety-three dollars. Feeling slightly screwed but glad to have the problem solved, I returned to the truck stop and called it a day.

I arose the following morning with the goal of reaching Albuquerque, NM by evening time. My route took me down US Hwy 6 in Utah, which involves climbing over a fairly steep and winding grade known as "Soldier Summit." The climb ranges anywhere from 5 to 7 percent.

About two-thirds of the way up, I almost jumped out of my seat when a loud "bang and hiss" sounded from under the hood. The immediate loss of horsepower left no doubt as to what had happened. A component of the engine's "air to air" system (pdf) had blown loose. This instantly robs the truck of about 90% of its horsepower. I managed to crawl to the top of Soldier Summit and found a wide spot off the road. A quick inspection revealed that I'd lost the clamp that secures one of the short hoses to the engine's turbocharger. The hose was there (still fastened at the other end), but the clamp was long gone.

In my box of various spare parts and related junk (which all truckers carry in the truck's side compartment), I had a hose, but no clamp, which led to much cursing and kicking of small defenseless stones and roadside litter. Feeling slightly more severely screwed than before, I got on the CB radio to see if anyone had an extra clamp. After a few minutes, a tanker driver responded that yes, he had a clamp and would stop when he reached the summit. Five minutes after he stopped, the new clamp was installed and we pulled out of the parking area and started the long descent down the mountain.

Later that afternoon, I stopped at a small truck stop in Monticello, UT with the intent of grabbing a bite to go. As I eased through the parking lot, I again heard the sound of a loose engine belt. At this point I was starting to wonder if perhaps some higher power was seeking to prevent me from reaching Dallas.

I opened the hood and discovered that the ear on the alternator through which the aforementioned $93 bolt had been inserted had broken off the alternator. It was dangling there off the end of the adjustment arm, taunting me for my run of bad luck. After spending a few minutes doing yet more cursing and kicking of stones, I decided that perhaps I should address the problem.

The nearest Detroit Diesel dealer was sixty miles away in Cortez, CO. To make matters worse the place was closed for the day so I'd have to pay an extra fee for someone to come in and repair the truck. My boss and I spoke by phone (I always ask first when spending other people's money), and decided to engage in a bit of Southern Ingenuity.

Using a cargo strap, I secured the alternator to the truck's frame. By the time I’d figured out how to get it all wound up and tied down it resembled some sort of nightmare necktie from Hell. This didn't tighten the belt enough to use the air conditioner, but it did at least keep the alternator spinning. Our little band-aid job held together while I drove the remaining 300 or so miles down to Albuquerque. A new alternator cost $419 installed. Some of you truckers are doubtlessly wondering why I didn’t just wedge a chunk of wood between the a/c compressor and the alternator to keep the belt tight. If I could have found one that fit, I would have. It was that kind of day.

Did I mention that during all this time I had also been keeping an eye on a tiny leak on the back of the water pump? Didn't think so. Not a big leak, by any means, but it was putting a few drops on the ground. I left Albuquerque and traveled as far as Moriarty, NM, then called it a day.

The following morning I hit the ground running and made it to Wichita Falls, TX. The weather had turned foul, and on the north end of town I drove into a raging thunderstorm on US Hwy 287. It was one of those classic North Texas thunder-bangers that just lights up the sky with constant lightning and the thunder is so loud you can feel it down in your bones. The wind was brutal, and visibility was reduced to maybe a tenth of a mile. I had two cars on my left and a narrow shoulder and a guardrail on the right. No wiggle room whatsoever. And that moment was when someone's hound dog ran out into the road. The storm had evidently spooked the poor guy, as he was running in circles and obviously frightened. Couldn't move over. Couldn't stop. Dead dog.

Most of the mutt spun out from under the left side of the truck, but a significant portion of the dog remained under the hood. I pulled into a small truck stop in Wichita Falls, stepped out into the lessening but still-pouring rain and pulled open the hood. Blood, hair, teeth and doggy doo all over the under carriage and even splashed up onto the engine. Hm... Perhaps that was an indelicate description. Oh well, too late now.

I drove across the lot, found a water hose and began washing the gore off the frame and engine. Yep, there I was, standing in the rain, soaking wet, hosing down an eighteen-wheeler. Hopefully no one in possession of a digital camera saw me. I'd hate for that image to make it to the internet. Given the solemn nature of the occasion (I really love dogs), I refrained from kicking stones and cursing.

I left out early the next morning and rolled into Big D without incident. But my leaky water pump was still leaking, and my boss and I decided to bring it in to our terminal in Mississippi for repair. Those of you familiar with the Detroit Diesel 60 Series engine will know about the plate on the back of the water pump. It's secured by a snap-ring, and beneath the plate is a large o-ring. That's where she was leaking.

I picked up a load in Dallas bound for Vicksburg, MS and delivered it the next morning (by now it‘s Wednesday, May 23). I arrived at our shop, and we spent the afternoon on other items - changing the oil, fixing a tire, and a few other minor issues that needed attention. Our plan was to address the water pump the following morning. My dispatcher had already booked a multi-drop load for me, the first drop being in St Louis, MO. I'd need to leave Mississippi by early afternoon to reach St Louis on time.

The next morning I drove to the local Detroit Diesel shop (we just call it "Jerry's") and good old Jerry just about killed himself replacing the o-ring and plate. I never knew one damn snap-ring could be this much trouble. It ate up the whole day, and when I fired up the truck to test it for leaks, it poured. A bit of banging and hammering slowed the leak but didn't stop it.

By now it's 4:45 PM. St Louis is 530 miles away and I've been up since 6:00 AM. We're coming up on the Memorial Day weekend. None of our customers will be open after Friday. My second drop after St Louis is Billings, MT which is 1300 miles from St Louis. I am really needing to be in St Louis on Friday so I can be in Billings on the following Tuesday after the holiday.

Jerry was dead-tired and it was closing time. I returned to our shop, and our mechanic, Mike, and I began the pain-in-the-ass process of changing the water pump... without waiting for the hot engine to cool. We were already tired and irritable, and nothing was working as it should. Every bolt rusted solid, every hose almost welded to its fitting, it seemed that the truck itself was bound and determined to prevent us from succeeding. Can't imagine why. I feed and wash her regularly and always tell her what a pretty truck she is. The old bitch just doesn't appreciate me anymore.

Finally, I rolled out of the shop at just after 11:00 PM. I was filthy, hungry and bone-tired. I do however, know my limits and knew I still had a few hours left in this battered old body. Long story made short, I rolled as far as Batesville, MS (near Memphis, TN) and slept all of three hours, then called the customer as soon as I woke and talked them into taking the drop a bit outside of their normal receiving hours. I made it to St Louis just in time.

As I said earlier, my next stop is in Billings, MT on Tuesday. Lots of time, provided nothing else goes haywire. Now I'm kicked back in the sleeper with another belly-full from a Flying J buffet (in Pontoon Beach, IL - just across the river from St Louis). And the only place I'm going tonight is to bed.

See you on the road.