Sunday, July 15, 2012

Say Hello to my Toad...

...and say farewell to my faithful truck.

Ranger Rudy has served me well for eight years. It runs beautifully, looks great, and aside from a faint odor of cat urine seems almost new. It has less than 50 thousand miles and best of all, it’s paid for. I remember exactly why I bought a pick-up truck back in 2004 – I was annoyed at the delivery charge for bringing mulch to my house each spring. So I decided I’d haul it myself. As it turns out, not a single shovel of mulch even soiled Rudy’s dark emerald green bed. It did haul a lot of plywood in my model railroading days and more recently it pulled Penelope Pop-Up to various campgrounds in the Northeast.

Ranger Rudy was named after a beloved cat who kept me company for fifteen years and Penelope Pop-Up was named after another departed feline friend.
Ranger Rudy was very good at towing. It is rated to tow 500 pounds more than my behemoth motorhome, the vehicle with the powerful V-10 engine which gets all of seven miles to the gallon. But Rudy isn’t so good at being towed. In fact, unless you load it on a trailer it can’t be flat towed at all. (That’s with all four wheels on the ground, the preferred method for pulling something behind a motorhome.)

It was inconvenient not having something smaller to drive around after setting up the motorhome in a park. I worked around it as best I could. In both Savannah and Nashville I stayed at campgrounds where the narrated tour bus comes to pick you up. In the suburbs of Atlanta, I stayed in a campground that was a short walk to the city express bus stop. In Fort Lauderdale I rented a car. But often I felt stuck in the campground. There were nearby attractions I wanted to see but not so badly that I was willing to break camp – stowing everything in a motion-safe place, bring the slides in, the jacks up, disconnecting the hoses and electrical cables, and then driving around in a 35 foot long, 12 and a half foot tall tank.

I needed a dinghy that I could tow behind the motorhome. Some people call a dinghy a “toad” presumably because they are “towed” behind the coach. RVer’s have such a sense of humor.

So Ranger Rudy had to go. Yesterday I traded her for a Suzuki something-or-the-other SUV, a car that ranks on the automotive sexiness scale in a tie for last place with the Ford Pinto. I really wanted a Jeep. Now that’s a sexy car. It conjures up images of macho men in the outback, surfers enroute to the beach, the studly older brother of my childhood best friend.

I weighed the pros and cons. The Jeep is fun. The Jeep is heavy, expensive, lacking in cargo space, cold in the winter, hot in the summer, noisy, rough, gets terrible gas milage and has a nasty tendency to roll over. The Suzuki is practical. Both are four wheel drive vehicles that can be flat towed. Seemed like a dead heat.

In the end it all came down to money. Whatever I decided to get, it would be have to be a used vehicle. Let someone else pay all the initial depreciation. The Suzuki dealer made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. He would take Ranger Rudy in exchange for the something-or-other and give me a check for $500. That’s right, he paid me to take it off his hands.

I haven’t named the something-or-other yet. I haven’t even decided if I like it. It’s kind of fun, has a ton of room inside, a sunroof, and lots of other gadgets. Oh yes, it can be towed. It’s a silver blue color that matches the motorhome.  It isn’t very sexy but then again, neither are toads.

The unnamed coach and the unnamed something-or-other, i.e., the toad.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Tumble Bug

When I was a boy, amusement parks were smaller and simpler than they are today. The rides may not have subjected you to as many G forces but they were thrilling none the less. They were bumpier, louder, and more raw. You could smell the grease in the gears and the ozone created by electrical arcs in the big unshielded motors.

One of my favorites, aside from the wooden coasters, was the Tumble Bug. It was manufactured by Traver Engineering and its successor, R. E. Chambers of Beaver Falls, PA, from 1925 until the mid-1950’s and could be found in amusements parks across the nation, indeed, around the world.

The name varied from park to park – Tumble Bug, Turtle Ride, or just the Bug. It consisted of five or six cars shaped like turtles, some versions even had metallic heads and tails. The shell was hollowed out to allow riders to sit inside on a circular bench and there was a chrome wheel mounted like a horizontal steering wheel in the center to hang on to. These cars rode around an undulating circular monorail. They were held to the track by spokes radiating from a post at the center of the ride.

One of the unique aspects of the Tumble Bug was that it needed a little coaxing to get rolling out of the station. The operator, usually a teenager not much older than the riders, would start the train moving slowly forward until it stalled on the first hill. Then he would throw the motors into reverse to back the train through the station until it stalled on the hill behind it. Again he would throw the motors into forward and this time the train would almost make it over the hill, at least the first turtle would. One more back up and we were ready to rock and roll.

The train of turtles then went around the track, three hills in all, raced through the station and around again. That’s it. Even so, you got tossed around pretty good and if you didn’t hang on, you could find yourself halfway out the opening where you get in and out of the car. They didn’t have safety restraints or legal departments in those days. We kids used to stand in line for 20 minutes to go around a circle for 3 minutes and we loved every second of it. As soon as the ride ended, we would rush down the exit ramp, turn, and get right back on line to ride again.

There are only two operating Tumble Bugs left in the world and they are both in western Pennsylvania – one in Kennywood Park and one in a little park on Conneaut Lake. I made a pilgrimage to the latter to ride the Tumble Bug.

I had been to Conneaut Lake Park once before, in my twenties. I was working at a state psychiatric hospital in Pittsburgh at the time and several of the social workers arranged a weekend trip for some of our more “presentable” patients. The park was a magical place reminding me of West View Park, north of Pittsburgh, where my school district held its annual picnic. It was a busy, happy place with lots of excited kids and adults rushing from ride to ride, spilling cotton candy along the way, punctuated with the shrieks from riders on the Blue Streak coaster as it thundered overhead. There were long lines for many of the popular rides, including the Tumble Bug.

When I began planning the itinerary for my three-month RV road trip, there were two places that I absolutely had to go: Key West to see Dominique Lefort and his performing house cats and Conneaut Lake Park to ride the Tumble Bug. I arrived on a Saturday afternoon in June and while I set up the motor home in Camperland (which was once Fantasy Forest) I was thrilled to hear the unmistakable rattle of the anti-rollback safety ratchets on the wooden roller coaster across the street. I thought it was odd that I didn’t hear it again for almost 15 minutes, but at least it was running and I would soon be inside the park.

Time has been unkind to Conneaut. The park has limped along for the past decade, always on the verge of closing, torn apart by warring factions on its board, and generally ignored by today’s thrill seekers who prefer super parks like Cedar Point which is only three hours away. The parking lot was nearly empty, the paint is peeling from the signs which proudly proclaim “Since 1892”. There were no staff at the entrance, but the gates were open. There is no admittance charge.

As you enter the sweeping curve of the walkway, the first ride you pass isn’t even a ride. It’s just a few crumbling concrete footers, and a circular picket fence. Next to it is an abandoned Tilt-a-Whirl with trees growing up through the track. The park appeared nearly empty.

Further along were several working rides which were sitting idle due to lack of customers. I rounded another curve and there it was – the Tumble Bug! And it was open for business. I almost ran over to it, except my knees don’t allow me to run anymore. I watched as it started forward and stalled on the first hill. It rocked back and forth, as it always has, until it had worked up enough momentum to get out of the station and on its way – all two passengers shrieking in delight. It sounded more metallic, more strained, than I remembered but, after all, I was witnessing an eighty-year old mechanical device that had somehow been kept patched and cobbled together enough to still operate.

After buying tickets at the kiosk, I returned to ride the beast myself. As it turned out, I was the only rider and the young man at the controls gave me an extra-long ride, too long actually. It got boring in a hurry. But who cares? I was on the Tumble Bug. I was the only one on the Tumble Bug on a perfect summer day, one of the only two such rides in the world. Where were the people?

I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the park, or what was left of it. The Pavilion had burned to the ground several years ago; the midway was a sad glimpse of a forgotten past. The carousel, which was a classical beauty, had one dad and his daughter riding. About the only place that had a crowd was a loud beach bar on the lake that was overrun with bikers.

So I decided to brave the Blue Streak. It’s an out and back wooden coaster built in 1937 and designed by Ed Vettel, who also designed the Big Dips at West View Park. I had the na├»ve idea that I would shoot video with my cell phone as I hurdled along the track. Instead I hung onto my phone desperately with one hand, while I kept my other hand over my eyes, not because I didn’t want to see the ride, but because I had lost my hat on the first hill and I didn’t want to lose my sunglasses as well. That left me with no hands to hold on. It was the ride from hell. Strange wailing moans came from somewhere, and since I was the only person on the coaster, they must have been coming from me.

As I left the park, I walked past the Tumble Bug one last time. It was closed. A maintenance truck was parked in front and several workers were huddled over the train. I asked the operator what happened. He told me that the hydraulic brakes had sprung a leak and that the ride would be out of commission for the rest of the day, maybe all weekend. (Maybe forever, I thought.)

West View Park closed decades ago and was bulldozed to make way for a shopping mall. I have a feeling Conneaut may not be around much longer either. Why does that make me sad? Is it true that you can never really go back?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Cat Man

I don’t have an official bucket list. That’s mostly because my contrarian nature would never allow me to have anything that recently exploded into popular cultural as a result of a movie designed to appeal to mass audiences. We are refined, don’t you know? But let’s face it – we all have a few things we would like to do before we die.

One of my greatest wishes for many years has been to see Dominique Lefort and his famous cats perform at sunset on Mallory Square in Key West. Every day at sunset, crowds assemble at Mallory Square to watch various performers such as one man bands, jugglers, unicyclists, and tight rope walkers but mostly they come for the spectacular sunsets. If it’s a good one, it is rewarded with a round of applause from the onlookers.

Dominique has trained domestic cats, household kitty cats, to perform circus acts just like the big cats. He has cats that walk tight ropes, jump through hoops of fire, leap across great distances between platforms far above the ground and generally do things that cats aren’t supposed to do, or at least not on command and not with apparent enthusiasm.

I have something of a history with Dominique. I first saw his act in Key West some thirty years ago. I was amazed and delighted. About ten years later, I was watching a National Geographic special about cats and there was Dominique and his cats in a featured segment. I still remember his response to the interviewer’s question on how he managed to train his cats to do such daunting tricks. “With love,” he said.

When a friend of mine returned from a vacation in Key West last winter, the first thing I asked him was whether the Cat Man still performed at sunset. I didn’t expect he did. I wasn’t even  sure he was still alive. “Yes!” my friend told me. “He and the cats are still there.” (It isn’t actually the same cats; they’ve been replaced over the years with new recruits.)

I knew I had to get down to Key West as soon as I could. Who knew how much longer the show would go on?

I arrived today with forecasts of dire weather threatening to make the trip a disappointment. But in the late afternoon the skies cleared and the sun came out. And so did Dominique and his amazing cats.
Scratch one item from my bucket list,  I mean, the things I want to do before I go.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Cat Trouble

Osito on my lap
These are entries from my journal as I travel the east coast with two cats in a motor home. I am on day 14 of a three-month journey.

Tuesday, 10 April, Skidaway State Park, GA
This is an absolutely beautiful campground. Each site is huge and separated by stands of tall trees and bushy palmettos. My site had to be close to half an acre. Osito was out enjoying nature on his cat run but poor little Brindie was stuck inside the coach. I felt so bad that she, who I had rescued from a campground two years ago where she had free run of the place, was now confined. To add insult to injury, she sat looking out the window enviously at Osito enjoying the outdoors. I decided to try her on her harness one more time. She allowed me to “saddle her up” without objection, but when I carried her outside she began to shiver. I should have quit then, but no. I set her on the ground. She sat still at my feet for a moment then tried to walk away. As soon as she felt the tug of the leash, she went crazy. She was flailing around, literally doing back flips, snarling and growling. In the chaos I dropped the leash and she took off into the woods.

I searched and searched to no avail. I was worried sick that the leash might snag on something and she would be trapped. Although I recalled that most of the times I tried putting her in a harness she pulled a Houdini-like escape maneuver and got free. Not only had she escaped but my cell phone flipped out of my pocket and was lost.

I enlisted the help of my neighboring campers. One woman came over with her phone and kept calling my number but we never heard my phone ring. (It turned out it fell out of my pocket inside the coach, where I found it on the floor next to the sofa. So much for clear recall in a crisis.)

Everyone was very concerned and promised to keep a lookout for Brindie. I spent the next 12 hours searching for her. At 10 PM, I got a call from a couple in a pop-up telling me that they heard a cat cry in the woods behind their site. I thought Brindie may go to them because in the past she has always gone camping with me in a popup. I took a flashlight and searched in the woods, stopping to listen frequently, scraping up my arms and legs, but nothing. I gave up for the night.

Then at 11 PM, I got another call from the popup people wanting to know if Brindie had a white patch on  her chest. There was a cat sitting at the edge of the woods looking at them. Well, Brindie does not have any white fur so I said it wasn’t her.

Thirty minutes later I heard a shy little meow outside my coach. I saw something move underneath. When I shined my flashlight there, I saw Brindie who in that light, actually did appear to have a white patch. I called her, and in a moment, she came to the door, hopped up the steps, looked at her food bowl, and demanded to be fed. There was no trace of the harness or leash. Which is fine, because I’m never trying that foolishness again.

Sunday, 15 April. Sawmill Camping Resort, FL
I took Osito for a walk on his leash this afternoon. He walked beautifully along the trail through the woods, up to the pond, and around one side of the pond. I marveled at how good he is at walking, just like a dog. Well, maybe a little slower and with a lot more stops for sniffing. As we returned by one of the campground driveways something spooked him and he went berserk  -- thrashing around at the end of the leash, spitting and growling, desperately trying to get away. I tried my best to restrain him, not certain that he would find his way back to the coach if he got loose. (Why do I always make the same mistakes?) In the ensuing struggle he scratched me up pretty good and apparently bit my hand. He cowered up against a stone railing where he continued to spit at me. He was panting heavily, actually gasping for air. The harness strap under his belly had come undone but the neck strap was still holding him.

I moved closer to him and sat down trying to talk to him in soft, comforting tones. He didn’t run away but he did hiss at me a few more times. Eventually he seemed settled enough that I could try to fasten the other harness strap and to my relief he allowed me to do so. I waited a while longer, all the time praising him in as calming a manner as I knew. When he seemed approachable, I picked him up, still gasping, but he allowed me to carry him back to the camper. As soon as we were inside, he flopped on the floor, still hyperventilating, while I washed the blood from my arms and hands and bandaged myself up.

Still feeling sick from earlier in the day, I lay down on the bed for a while. I was awakened by Osito, who had jumped up on the bed and was nuzzling my face. All was forgotten and back to normal. Forgotten by him, that is. The puncture wound on my hand was throbbing with pain and half of my hand was swollen into a big puffy mess.

I worried that the wound was infected. Once before when I was bitten by a cat I ended up staying for 5 nights in the hospital on an intravenous antibiotic drip while the hand surgeon puzzled over my x-rays trying to determine if my hand would have to be amputated. (It wasn’t.)

What would I do if this bite required hospitalization ? I had no transportation other than the motorhome and how would I care for Osito and Brindie while I was in hospital? I decided to monitor the situation closely and make a decision the next day.

Monday, 16 April, Sawmill Camping Resort.
Had a rough night. The pain in my hand kept waking me up even though I was popping two Ibuprofen  every couple of hours. I also felt physically sick, something that may or may not have been related to the bite. There was something even more troubling. A red trace had developed from the wound site up the back of my forearm all the way to the elbow. I knew what that meant. Infection, big time.

Still, it was laundry day and I managed to do three loads while I puzzled what to do. I asked at the office for the location of the nearest medical facility and information on taxi service. The man at the counter called a clinic about 12 miles away and told them I was coming. As I walked back to the coach, Chuck, a man I just met in the laundry, asked what I had decided to do. I told him I was going to the clinic and that I was calling a taxi to come collect me.

“Oh, don’t do that,” he said. “I’ll drive you there.”

I really didn’t want to impose on anybody but he insisted.

“I’m retired,” he explained. “I have nothing better to do and all day to do it. Besides, we all look out for each other here.”

So with that, he drove me to the clinic, waited there for me, then drove me to the pharmacy and finally back to the campground. What a saint. I invited him to dinner the next night.

The nurse practitioner who saw me verified that I had a serious infection and that it was a good thing I had come so soon. She gave me a tetanus shot in the arm, and a penicillin shot in the butt, and a prescription for antibiotics. She felt certain that I wouldn’t need hospitalization this time. Thank heavens for that.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Leaving New York

Well, the U-Haul is packed and my two cats and I are on our way. Leaving New York. It has been an enjoyable six year experiment but now it’s time to move on. For the next three months we will be travelling through the eastern states in a 35 foot motorhome. We won’t exactly be roughing it; In fact the kitchen in the motorhome is an improvement over what I had in the New York apartment. The motorhome (I haven’t come up with a good name for it yet) will be my only home. I will have no permanent address. I’m going off the grid. At least as far off the grid as one can get while still having continuous internet access and satellite television. It’s still kind of scary though, this voluntary homelessness.

During my travels I will keep a journal which I will periodically post here. Several friends have suggested, demanded actually, that I change the name of this blog. They don’t think I am a bitter old queen. They think I should change the name to something more upbeat, something more optimistic. I don’t know. I’m kind of fond of the name of this little blog and it has acquired a small but dedicated following. It’s a minor miracle that someone else hadn’t already taken the name when I first started blogging. So I’m leaning towards staying with “The Bitter Old Queen.”

In a few days I fire up the big V-10 engine and head for exotic destinations far from New York. As far as my meager savings will take me at 8 miles to the gallon of ever more expensive gasoline. If we (I’m not being royal, I count the cats as part of my family) find some oasis along the way, I might just shut off the engine and stay.

Next stop, Savannah.