Sonoma County Fires 2017: Ryan the Police Volunteer

sonoma strongIt’s a strange experience for your hometown to be the site of a nationally known natural disaster.  Such is life now for those of us in Sonoma County.  The wildfires which began late Sunday, October 8, 2017 have touched the lives of all of us in one way or another.  Through the tragedy of 1000’s of lost homes and tens of lives, there are stories, many of them, of people acting in selfless and heroic ways.  I am aware of a few, and, perhaps as a kind of therapy, will be sharing some of them here.

Late Sunday night, October 8, 2017, I was on patrol in my town during what I hoped would be another sleepy Sunday night graveyard shift.  Sunday is my Friday, and is usually pretty chill in my town of just under 8,000 people.  Our three bars and 2.2 square miles of streets are mostly empty, as people head to bed early, ready to start their normal work week on Monday.  When my shift started at 2100 hours (9 PM), it was unusually warm and very windy.  It was weird.  As I loaded up my patrol car, I thought and almost said aloud to Ryan, the police volunteer that would be riding with me that night, “It feels like something bad is going to happen.”  Little did I know how right I was and how Ryan would end up in the middle of it all.

Despite being a volunteer and only 21, Ryan had been with the department longer than most of the officers.  Starting out as a police explorer when he was 14, Ryan had served the department well for seven years.  With aspirations of being a cop himself, Ryan had more than proved himself in his role as a volunteer, time and time again.  He would be tested the night of the fire like never before.

Within a half hour of starting our shift, we started hearing word on the scanner of various fires in different parts of the county.  With the wind and dry conditions, it wasn’t surprising.  I radioed to dispatch I had heard of a fire about a mile and a half south of town.  The dispatcher stated he was aware of it and advised there were several reports of fires throughout the county.  We started hearing those reports come over the scanner.  A fire near the freeway in Windsor.  A structure fire near downtown Santa Rosa.  A fire in Kenwood.  The wind had died down in town and the fires were all miles away, so we weren’t too concerned.

That soon changed.  We first learned of the Tubbs fire, as it would come to be called, sometime before 2300 hours I think.  The Sheriff’s Office dispatcher advised her sergeant that Calistoga was requesting mutual aid for a fire burning on Highway 128, northeast of Santa Rosa.  Minutes later she advised a county-wide fire call-out was in effect and evacuation orders were sent out.  For the next hour or so, Ryan, my partners, and I listened to deputies go house to house to evacuate residents in the Mark West Springs area.  With each passing minute, as updates of the fires ferocity and movement crackled over the radio, it became clear this was no ordinary wildfire.  Before long we realized it was headed right toward the area where our K9 officer and a sergeant lived.

We immediately started calling.  But by this time it was 1 AM and no one was answering.  We continued calling, as the fire moved through the forest and started assaulting residential areas.  Finally, I got through to the K9, but the sergeant wouldn’t answer.

Meanwhile, as the fires began to burn their way further into more densely populated neighborhoods, Ryan asked to go to home and pack up some of his things.  The on-duty sergeant sent him on his way in an unmarked department vehicle.  While he was en route, we continued to call our sergeant in the fire’s path, still with no luck.  The on-duty sergeant radioed to Ryan and asked him to divert from his house to bang on the door of our sergeant in danger.  Without hesitation, Ryan agreed and headed in the direction of the approaching inferno.

Minutes after sending Ryan on his mission, we finally reached the sarge.  His family was packed up and he was dousing the last bit of water onto his roof when he saw the approaching flames.  We radioed Ryan he could cancel and get to safety.  Moments later, I heard a deputy on the scanner advise the freeway was on fire near our officers’ homes.  I radioed to Ryan the freeway was burning and to avoid that area.  He was already in it.

Perhaps a minute later Ryan advised there were vehicles driving the wrong direction on the freeway.  A moment after that Ryan transmitted his radio identifier, Victor 4.  His voice was elevated.  Something was wrong.  The dispatcher told him to go ahead.  Silence.  A long, deafening silence.  “Go head,” the dispatcher said again.  Still nothing.  A third attempt to raise him.  The silences only lasted seconds, but felt like agonizing hours.  Finally, a response–more chilling than the silences.  Was that static or wind or the sound of flames?  Was he yelling?  Calling for help?  We feared the worst.

The sergeant looked at me, his voice trembling, “Go get him.”

I ran to my car, threw on the lights and siren and headed for ground zero.  I raced at over 100 miles per hour toward Ryan and the fire.  Even though they were almost 10 miles away, the ash coming down made it feel like driving through a blizzard.  When I left I didn’t know where exactly I was going.

As I ran to my car, the dispatcher was able to raise Ryan again.  Another transmission, garbled but clearer than the last.  He was panting, but seemed alright.  A collective, yet cautious sigh of relief.  Ryan had been in an accident, forced to abandon the vehicle in the center median.  He was now on foot, making his way across the freeway and away from the fire.  He was okay.  He was able to give me a rendezvous point I would be able to access while avoiding traffic jams and flames.  Several harrowing minutes later and I was able to pick him up.

Just before we advised Ryan he could cancel his mission to alert the sergeant, Ryan had reached the sergeant’s street.  He got back onto the freeway, southbound, to head back to the station and soon found himself in the heart of the fire zone.  The freeway was burning.  The freeway northbound was gridlocked with panicked residents fleeing to safety.  Cornered and in fear for their lives, drivers started driving northbound in the southbound lanes.  Ryan was able to avoid a head-on collision at first, as he traveled in the fast lane and most of the wrong-way drivers stuck to the slow lane.  But suddenly the windshield was completely obscured by a cloud of black smoke.  Visibility was zero.  The next thing Ryan saw were headlights coming directly at him.  He jerked the wheel to the left to avoid a catastrophic accident and plowed into the center median.  The car now disabled in the middle of the fire, Ryan had no choice but to abandon the vehicle, flames licking at its sides.  He jumped out of the driver’s seat and ran, literally for dear life.  His department baseball cap caught on fire and he knocked it off his head.  He used his flashlight to flag down a passing vehicle, which actually stopped and picked him up.  The terrified driver, seeing Ryan’s police volunteer uniform begged Ryan to drive.  “Just go!” said Ryan.  They drove north in the southbound lanes until they were far enough from the flames for Ryan to get out and make his way to the rendezvous point.  He climbed in the passenger seat, panting and smelling like a cigarette butt.  But safe.

As the title of volunteer suggests, Ryan is not paid for the service he renders to the police department.  He is paid in experience and exposure to the career he hopes will soon be his own.  Many police officers will go their entire careers without experiencing the crucible Ryan experienced as an unpaid helper that night.  Without a second thought, he willingly put himself in a dangerous situation to assure one of our own would be safe.  Of all the employees of my department working during the night of the worst fires in the history of California, the one who saw them face to face, did so without even the thought of  paycheck.

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Sonoma County Fires 2017: Pete the Facilities Manager

It’s a strange experience for your hometown to be the site of a nationally known natural disaster.  Such is life now for those of us in Sonoma County.  The wildfires which began late Sunday, October 8th, 2017 have touched the lives of all of us in one way or another.  Through the tragedy of 1000’s of lost homes and tens of lives, there are stories, many of them, of people acting in selfless and heroic ways.  A few of these people I have the privilege of knowing personally, and, perhaps as a kind of therapy and to offer something positive from all this, I will be sharing some of their stories here.  These are written from memory, pieced together from conversations with these folks and others, social media posts, and direct experience, but as we all know in times of stress, things aren’t always remembered exactly as they happened.  I’ve done my best to be as accurate as possible, without embellishing anything.  Just keep that in mind.

I first met Pete several years ago when his family moved into the house directly next to the church property.  They began attending our church and right away Pete struck me as one of the friendliest people I’d ever met.  We got to know each other over the years, through pick-up basketball games, church functions, and a missions trip to Ecuador.  A few years ago, Pete became the facilities manager for the church.  He was a great guy for the job, and he could never beat that commute: open the back gate, and he’s at work.  As someone who also once worked at the church and lived on the other side of the fence from the property, I could attest to the convenience.  I had long since moved from that close of proximity, but not by much; I still lived less than a quarter-mile from the church campus.

The night of October 8th, I was on graveyard patrol in the town where I work, miles away from home and the fires.  Listening to the fire’s progress on the scanner, I grew more and more concerned as they burned with unsettling swiftness toward the city.  I called my wife and parents–who lived even closer to the church and fire than we did–and told them to pack and go.  They came to my work for safety.  As night turned to morning and the fires swept through town in shocking fashion, we began to get reports the church had burned.  We were told a house on our street was on fire.  The fields across the street from my parents house were burning.  We feared the worst.  Later that afternoon we got visual confirmation that neither the church, nor my neighborhood, nor my parents house had burned.  But how?

With the fire rapidly approaching, Pete, his wife, and one of his sons, loaded up three cars and headed out.  Before they made it even a couple blocks, the engine in the car Pete was driving, an older Volkswagen (I think) he was working to restore, began to knock.  As evacuation is no time to deal with an unreliable vehicle, Pete abandoned the VW on the road.  When he did, he suddenly remembered his 79 year old neighbor.  Unsure if the neighbor was aware of what was happening, he went back to check on him.  Once he determined the neighbor was safe, Pete went back to the house.

That’s when the embers began to fall into Pete’s backyard.  Because of the severe winds earlier in the night, the yard was covered with a blanket of dry redwood needles.  Pete put out spot fires in the yard ignited by the flying embers.  He promised his wife he would not risk his lift to save property, but as the embers continued to drop and the fire burned ever closer, now visible on the ridge north of the house, it was a promise that was getting harder to keep.  Finally, it was time to go.

But before he could, a feeling came over Pete.  A calm that told him he was supposed to be there at that moment.  He felt he had to check on the church.  He crossed the parking lot to the church building and began checking things out.  On the northern end of the campus, closest to the fire, Pete saw a fire burning behind the maintenance shop.  Besides the threat to the shop itself, the area behind the shop was a storage area for all sorts of combustible materials.  Pete emptied six fire extinguishers putting out the fire.

While battling the flames, he encountered two men wearing backpacks skulking behind the shop.  Surprised to see any body else in the area in the face of an impending inferno in the middle of the night, Pete asked who they were.  After a brief hesitation, they said they were there to help.  Pete didn’t hesitate and put them to work.  He had them attach hoses to the spigots and help him move vehicles away from the fence line where it appeared the houses directly on the other side were already engulfed.  Pete asked them to help him hook a trailer up to a truck to pull it away from the fence.  The two men kept saying they had to leave.  Pete yelled, “No! You need to help me move this trailer!”  The two stayed and helped before fleeing.

It wasn’t until later, when things calmed down that Pete realized what he hadn’t during the tension of the moment.  The two men were probably looters who already in those early moments of the tragedy had been out preying on the victims.  Thanks to Pete, the cowards were forced into service for something good.  If they survived, perhaps they’ll rethink their life choices (not likely).

With the fire behind the shop extinguished, no other buildings on the campus were in immediate harm.  Fires burned portions of the neighborhood on three sides, but never made it across any of the streets onto the property.  If the shop had ignited, with it containing fuel and chemicals for the various vehicles and tools used to maintain the grounds, it is entirely conceivable the rest of the church would have burned.  If the church had caught fire, there is the very real possibility it would have spread to the houses and many trees in the surrounding neighborhoods, including mine.  It could have pulled fire fighting resources away from the fire that was stopped less than 500 feet from my parents house, allowing that fire to spread further.

It is not a stretch for me say that thanks to Pete, my church, my home, my parents home, and maybe my entire neighborhood was saved.

Hiking Half Dome

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Half Dome, taken 11/2006

A week from today, I will be standing atop Yosemite’s Half Dome.  At least that is the plan.  Yosemite National Park is one of my favorite places.  I’ve only been twice, which is not nearly enough, and haven’t been since 2009, which is far too long.  For years I’ve wanted to hike Half Dome, but it just hasn’t happened.  I turn 40 in November and decided at this year’s outset that before I hit that dreaded number, I was going to reach the top of that famous mass of granite about which Josiah Whitney said, “was perfectly inaccessible, being probably the only one of all the prominent points about Yosemite which has never been and will never be trodden by human foot.”

Half Dome rests at 8,839 feet above sea level.  The hike, from the Yosemite Valley floor, is about 16 miles round trip with 4,800 of elevation gain and takes between 10 to 14 hours, depending on your fitness level and how often you stop to gawk and photograph the waterfalls and granite you pass along the way.  The last 400 feet to the top of the dome are part hike and part mountaineering, as you hoist yourself up cables held in place by poles set a few inches deep in the granite.  Many thousands of people have ascended the dome since Mr. Whitney made his perfectly wrong “perfectly inaccessible” statement, but given those statistics, we can forgive him for thinking so.  While it is literally a walk in the park, it’s no walk in the park.

I had always hoped to gather a group of like-minded hikers to tackle the challenge along with me.  But, organizing an undertaking of that magnitude could prove as challenging as the hike itself.  So to ensure the least number of complications and increase the likelihood of it actually happening, I decided I would do it solo.  I would drive up the day before, find some place to camp/sleep, hit the trail early the next morning, conquer the dome, and drive home.

From the jump, it seemed my quest was doomed to fail.  A permit is required to scale those cables up the final 400 feet. Permit’s are not so easy to come by.  Once spring hits the National Park Service opens a lottery online.  You choose the date you want, a few backup dates, and the number of permits you need, then cross your fingers.  My plan was to go on a weekday in the fall, after the summer rush had subsided.  I figured that would give me a pretty fair chance of scoring a permit.  The problem was I thought he lottery opened in April when it really opened in March.  When I finally realized my mistake, I was over a week behind the eight ball.  All of my requested dates were unavailable.

As luck would have it, my good friend Sandy had also entered the lottery, but at the very beginning.  She got four passes for late June and offered Jen and me two of them.  Perfect!  Now not only would I be able to accomplish my goal, but would actually have some company after all.

Even with the permits, I knew the shape I was in was no shape at all for a 16 mile hike, much less one with thousands of feet of elevation gain.  Jen and I took to the trails to get ourselves in hiking shape.  We’d been up the trail about halfway before, and knew it’s rigors.

We were two days from our trip.  The hotel was booked, arrangements for the kids to stay with grandparents were made, I was starting to get excited.  We were enjoying a day at the beach, when I got a phone call.  Our dogs, Mac and Boomer, had escaped our yard.  Mac was hit by a car and had a severely broken leg.  The trip was off.  Mac is doing fine now, by the way.

Disappointed, but undeterred, I activated Plan B.  While the main permit lottery is held in March, the Park Service holds back a smaller number of permits it grants through out the season to last minute hikers.  Two days before the day the permit is valid you can apply online and find out the next afternoon if you’ve won.  There was still hope!

Now, you might be thinking, “If you can only get a permit the day before, and you’re going in a week, how do you know for sure you’ll be able to get a permit?”  The answer is, I don’t.  I’ll be logging on at the stroke of midnight Sunday morning, hoping to get a permit for next Tuesday.  Because it isn’t easy to get a place to stay in or near Yosemite at the last minute, I booked the first campsite I could find with availability a few weeks ago.  If I don’t get a permit, I’m still going.  On Sandy’s hike, she met a couple people that didn’t have permits that she gave hers to.  I’m hoping someone will do the same for me.

It’s back to a solo trip, though now I’ll be spending a second night after the hike.  I found a campsite that was actually available for two nights, and figured it might be a good idea to get a decent night’s rest after the 16 mile trek.  I don’t want my muscles to seize up and/or fall asleep trying to drive home the same day and end up at the bottom of some ravine in the Sierra foothills.  Jen and the kids were possibly going to come along, but it just isn’t going to work out.

Though it would have been nice to do the hike with company, I’m kind of looking forward to going it alone.  I’m not really a “commune with nature” guy, but I do think there is value to being alone in the woods.  All my training hikes since Mac’s injury have been alone, save a few with Boomer, and it’s kind of nice to be alone with your thoughts.

I’m leaving for Yosemite on Monday morning, hoping to arrive at my campsite by early afternoon.  I want to be on the trail by 4:30 AM at the latest.  I’ll probably skip the Vernal Falls portion of the Mist Trail on the way up since it will be dark on those steps will be slippery and precarious.  I’ll take the John Muir Trail toward Nevada falls, which should get me to Clark Point in time to watch the sunrise over Liberty Cap, Nevada Falls, and the backside of Half Dome.  From there it’s Nevada Falls, to Little Yosemite Valley, to the Sub Dome, and finally to the cables.  After making the hike back down, this time going past Vernal Falls, I’ll hit up dinner in the Valley, get my “I Climbed Half Dome” t-shirt, and head back to camp.  The next day I’ll probably drive up Tioga Road and see the sights up that way.  Then the drive home.

So that is the plan.  So far, it seems like maybe it isn’t meant to be.  But it it all works out, at about his time next week I’ll be on the trail, permit in hand, the sun just staring to peak over the Sierra, Half Dome still several miles off in the distance.  And when I reach it I’ll be just the latest to ascend that magnificent granite ridge and say, “In your face Josiah Whitney.”

The 500

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Me, trying to figure out how this happened

I was in the middle of writing the next installment of my Israel travelogue, when I noticed my next post would be my 500th!  Do you know how many hours of my life I have wasted writing 500 posts for this blog that virtually no one reads?  Thousands!  I mean, there probably isn’t anyone even reading this right now.  But as I once said in one of these unread gems, I write here for no one but myself.  If others stumble upon this humble space (or have it thrust upon them in a link on my Facebook page) and find it mildly enjoyable, so much the better.

So in all these posts, both read and unread, what have I said?  With no clear theme, other than what happens to be kicking around that average sized brain of mine at any given time, the subjects have been eclectic.  I’ve written about things that entertain me, sports for instance (usually baseball).  I Wednesday Reviewed movies, music, TV, the occasional book.  I’ve ranted about the inconsequential, like the tragedy of the diminishing size of Cadbury eggs (um, twice) or why there are so many varieties of toothpaste.  I’ve written about salad dressing, ant poison, and that time I emailed Nabisco because they put less cream in their Oreos than they used to (again, twice).  I once wrote nearly 1000 words on if one can claim to have visited a state or country if they were only inside an airport on a layover.  In the old days I had more time to ponder such things, apparently.

The posts I’m most proud of are about my family.  My lovely wife, my dad, my daughter, my grandma.

I got serious every once in a while.  Other times I wrote about what odd combinations of things I saw people buy at the grocery store.

For over 10 years I have kept up this nonsense.  Much less frequently in recent years. Who knows how long the virtual Life of Ando will stumble along and what further silliness lies in store?

Israel: Ruined Roman Toilets

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Don’t mind me.

Having never been outside the New World, I had never seen actual ancient ruins before in person.  What constitutes a “ruin” in my neck of the woods, is usually half a mud hut from 150 years ago or something (yes, I know there are ancient ruins in the Americas, but not on nearly the same scale as the Old World).  In Israel, it seems you can’t throw a rock in any direction without hitting some ancient, crumbling stone building with real archaeological significance, and the rock you threw is probably an ancient relic too.  But, so long as it doesn’t have an inscription on it, you can still take it home.

We saw some new (to us) ruin pretty much everyday, each one more impressive than the last.  That might not sound exciting to everyone, and after a week or so even us history buffs can get a little ruin fatigue.  But for the most part, each one was fascinating in its own right, made more so by our guide Roman’s extensive knowledge and knack for storytelling.  These weren’t just piles of old rocks or windswept foundations.  They were palaces and fortresses.  Vibrant villages and houses of worship.  Biblical people walked along some of these very roads, looked upon some of these very walls, entered through these very gates.  Not to mention how incredible it was that these structures and tunnels were built almost entirely with only the most ancient technology: human muscle.

Our first official stop on our Holy Land tour were the ruins of Caeseria Maritima.  Built by Herod the Great, the same Herod who built the Second Temple and ordered the infants of Judea killed after the birth of Jesus.  He was the Roman appointed ruler of Judea but was not actually a big fan of the Judeans (Israelites).  So he built himself a nice little seaside palace, harbor, and city to rule them from afar.  It was a Roman town for the most part, not a lot of Israelites hanging around.  It was extremely prosperous and was the largest city in Israel in the time of Jesus.  It’s also the place where Herod’s grandson, Herod Agripa, would be struck down by worms after accepting adulation from his subjects when they declared him a god.  Whoops.

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Caesaria Maritima

Of archeological significance, Caesaeria Maritima is where the Pilate Stone was located.  The Pilate Stone, unearthed in 1961, is a limestone block inscribed with the name of Pontius Pilate (yes, that, Pontius Pilate), and hails him as a Roman governor in those parts.  This is significant because prior to its discovery there was no archeological evidence for Pilate’s existence, only the written words of the Bible and ancient Jewish historian Josephus.

aqueduct1It wasn’t hard to see why Herod picked the spot, with its beautiful views of the Mediterranean.  He even had an aqueduct built to bring water to the city from a spring at the foot of Mt. Carmel, 20 miles away.  We saw what was left of the aqueduct.  Pretty impressive stuff.  But perhaps most impressive were the ancient Roman…toilets.  Ok, that’s a joke.  The toilets themselves weren’t that impressive, it was their location.  Right along the entryway to the hippodrome (stadium)!  Imagine walking into AT&T Park and locking eyes with someone in full grimace doing their dirty business.  I think that would hurt season ticket sales.

From Caesaeria it was on to Mt. Carmel and the possible site of Elijah’s battle against the prophets of Baal from the Old Testament.  From atop the mountain, which is really a very long ridge, we had a fantastic view of the Jezreel Valley below.  The Jezreel Valley is a wide flat valley, used primarily for agricultural purposes these days.  But over the centuries, it has been a battlefield fought on by Biblical warriors, Egyptian pharaohs, Napoleon (who called it the perfect battlefield), and, as recently as 1918, the British and the Ottoman Turks.  It’s no surprise then that this will be the location of the Battle of Armageddon spoken of in the book of Revelation.  The word Armageddon is derived from the nearby ancient town of Megiddo, incidentally our next stop on the tour.

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Jezreel Valley from Nazareth
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Down the shaft to the water tunnel

Megiddo nowadays is an archeological mound, or a “tel.”  A tel is a mound or hill which is not naturally occurring, but built up of layer upon layer of human civilization.  One city built on the remains of another over the course of centuries, forming a little mountain.  The really cool thing about Tel Megiddo is the water system.  Built by King Ahab (I think) to allow the citizens to gather water from the nearby spring without leaving the city’s fortified walls, it’s a shaft and tunnel system still intact today.  And we got to explore it!

Our last major stop of the day was Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus.  We went to a high point near there which overlooked the Jezreel Valley from the other side for another stunning view.  Then it was on to Galilee where we would spend our next few nights.  You know, on the Sea of Galilee.  Unreal.

Next up:  Mount Arbel, the Jordan River, St. Peter’s fish, and sailing the Sea of Galilee

Other observations:

  • You can buy  wedding wine in the First Miracle Souvenir Store in Cana, the town where Jesus turned water into wine.  No, seriously.
  • Traffic in Nazareth is terrible. Maybe worse than in Jesus’ time.
  • I saw a mongoose!
  • Falafels are the Israeli fast food equivalent of cheeseburgers.  And they are amazing.

Checkpoints:  0

Israel: Land of Cats?

Snapchat-265181827About nine months ago, my dad announced he would be leading a group to Israel for a tour of the Holy Land.  He had lead a few such tours before, most recently in 2010, and I always hoped one day to join him.  But, as you can imagine, a 12 day tour of the land of the Israelites doesn’t come cheap.  So when he made the announcement I thought, “That would be a great trip, but I just don’t think I can afford it right now.  Maybe someday.”

Not long after the announcement, dad came to me and said as the leader of the tour, he was able to bring along one person, free of charge.  Would I like to go?  I’m pretty sure I asked Jen first if I could leave her alone with two kids and two crazy dogs for 12 days, but I may not have before answering a resounding “YES!”  It’s not too often you can walk where Jesus walked for the price of lunches and souvenirs.  Jen, because she is the World’s Most Amazing Woman, of course agreed to let me go on what I thought at the time, but hopefully won’t be, was a once in a lifetime journey.

Before continuing, let me make this disclaimer.  While this certainly was a pilgrimage of sorts, no one in our group of 19, all from the same church, was expecting to curry any sort of special favor with God for having made the trek.  While visiting sites significant to our faith and walking along some of the very streets Jesus walked was certainly inspirational, there was no expectation of special blessing or revelation for having done so.  In a way perhaps equally shallow and significant, being in those places did makes the Bible come alive, and yet we know that the importance is the what, not the where.  I guess what I’m trying to say is, we weren’t there to worship the relics and ruins.  But being in that place, you can’t help but feel your faith strengthen and deepen.

Our group of 19, ranging in age from mid-teens to mid-seventies, launched from San Francisco International Airport at approximately 8 PM on a Tuesday evening.  Our Boeing 787 Dreamliner touched down at David Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel at approximately 8 PM on Wednesday evening.  No, it’s not a 24 hour flight.  It was a solid 13, plus the 10 hours ahead time difference.  Plenty of time in the air to watch three movies (Anthropoid, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, and Young Frankenstein) and several TV episodes and still have time to spare.

After making our way through customs–an easier task than expected–and collecting our luggage, we  were met by our tour guide for the duration, Roman Tyutnev.  We had an hour long bus ride ahead of us to our hotel in the resort town of Netanya, which is right on the Mediterranean Sea.  Right from the get-go, Roman was on, pointing out this and that as we drove through Tel Aviv in the dark toward our destination.

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Josh looking a little beat at the hotel

We arrived at our hotel, the Leonardo Plaza Hotel, a tired and bedraggled mob.  It may not have been a 24 flight, but between leaving for San Francisco six hours before our flight departed and then the hour bus ride after our arrival, we were pushing a 24 hour travel day.  Roman distributed our room keys and we all went to crash, anticipating our first glimpse of the Holy Land in the next day’s sunshine.

I think most of us woke up before that sunshine would appear, as our bodies tried to adjust to our new timezone.  With plenty of time to spare before breakfast and our early touring start, several of us made our way out of the hotel and down to the Mediterranean Sea, which was literally across the street.  There wasn’t time for a proper swim, but I put my hands in it just to say I did.

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Mediterranean Sea beach

I haven’t traveled much internationally.  The only two other countries I’ve visited are Ecuador (once) and Mexico (several times).  Both to Ecuador and once to Mexico I was with my brother-from-another-mother Josh, who made the trip to Israel as well and was my roommate.  That brought the total number of international trips with Josh to three, and total number of international trips with my wife to….zero.  Should probably fix that soon.  One of the first things we did was head up to the roof of our hotel and take a bromantic selfie with the Med in the background.  If Jen could not be with me on this trip, it wasn’t too much of a step down to experience the Holy Land with Josh and my dad.

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The freshest honey
We made our way to breakfast in the hotel and were treated to a pretty extensive buffet.  This would be par for the course on the trip.  A few interesting things about the food in Israel, specifically breakfast.  Since most places we went were Kosher, there was rarely any meat at breakfast.  Not only is pork not on the OK list, but milk and meat are not to be served together.  So at breakfast there may be cream for the coffee and milk for your cereal, but that meant no bacon (pork or otherwise) for your eggs.  There was plenty of other good stuff though.  Eggs, pastries, cheeses, fruit, yogurt, and at least at the Leonardo, honey dripping from an actual honeycomb.

After breakfast we loaded up the bus and began our touring in earnest.  Our destinations that first day were the ruins of Caeseria Maritima on the Mediterranean coast, Mt. Carmel, Tel Meggido, Nazareth, and the Sea of Galilee.

Other observations:

  • Israel has a TON of feral cats.  They’re everywhere.
  • Almost every building in Israel is off white.
  • There are rocks EVERYWHERE.  So many in fact, you are allowed to take them from national parks and ancient ruins.  Unless they have an inscription on them.
  • There is an IKEA in Tel Aviv.

Checkpoints:  3 (all in airports)

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Netanya. Our hotel on the right.
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Our rooftop selfie.

Top 10 Christmas Movies #2: White Christmas

white-christmas-movie-poster-1954-1020143863I’ve written about White Christmas in this space a couple of times, and truth be told, could probably fill a substantial volume writing about all it’s awesome sauce.  It’s one of those movies I’ve seen so many times I don’t even really pay attention to the plot anymore.  I spend my time looking in the background for all the little things I missed on the previous 100 viewings.  And boy is there some great stuff in the background.  Whether you’ve seen it dozens of times like I have or if this is the first time you’ve ever heard of it, do yourself a favor and watch the backup dancers during the Mandy routine.  It’s solid gold.

For the ones that somehow aren’t familiar with this Christmas gem, White Christmas is the story of army buddies Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) who team up after WWII to become a “boffo” song and dance act.  Doing a favor for an old pal from the Army, they meet the Haynes sisters, Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy (Vera-Ellen), another song and dance duo.  Phil, scheming to get Bob a wife and kids, and therefore some time away from the show biz grind for himself, conspires with Judy, looking for some freedom from Betty, to get Bob and Betty together.  The four travel to Vermont for a little R&R, where they run into Bob and Phil’s old commander, General Waverly (Dean Jagger), who now runs an inn.  Times are tough for the General (who prefers not to be called general, but everyone calls him that anyway).  The lack of snow has been bad for business and the inn housekeeper Emma (Mary Wickes) let’s Bob and Phil in on the secret that the General is in over his head.  Bob and Phil, look to their show business sway to find a way to save the inn and show the General he hasn’t been forgotten.

Song and dance hijinx ensue.  Also, occasional cross-dressing.

Like Holiday InnWhite Christmas has tremendous music penned by Irving Berlin, including of course the eponymous title track.  In a similar fashion, it centers around show biz folks, so most of the song and dance numbers appear like natural performances or rehearsals, not just people randomly bursting into elaborate musical numbers on the street.  There are exceptions, most notably The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing number.  The silliness in which that particular routine ends and abruptly returns to reality only adds to the movie’s charm.  Oh, and this chestnut.

Lovely as it is corny.  I can’t get enough of it.

If you’re the kind of person that enjoys musicals, then you will love White Christmas.  If you’re not that person, you will probably still enjoy it.  It’s a good story on it’s own and Bing and company are impossible not to love.  It’s a funny and sweet movie, and you might just get a little misty at the ending.

If you’re a White Christmas veteran but have never taken the time to appreciate all that’s happening on the margins, do yourself a favor this year and keep an eye on the scenery.  It’s more than just spotting the miscues and continuity mistakes.  There is actually a lot going on outside the main action that  will enhance your viewing experience.

A few clues to help you out:

  • Watch modest Bing in the dressing room after Blue Skies
  • The aforementioned backup dancers during Mandy
  • Watch the coffee pot in the Haynes sister’s dressing room
  • Bing’s wardrobe in the Army hospital tent

There’s just a few to get you started.

Not only is White Christmas one of my favorite Christmas movies, it’s one of my favorite movies period.