Wednesday, August 20, 2014

JACK, THE TRUCK DRIVING MAN




It was late April, 2014. I stood on the cusp of my truck driving career, bags in hand, google-eyed. And, with a wooosh, the Kansas City Airport doors opened to the outside world and the great American Midwest came at me like a bum’s rush.  Invisible curtains parted, imaginary gates lifted.  With my first step I was enveloped into that wide, flat openness of big-domed sky. A prairie wind tugged and yanked me in.  I was here, ready to get going with my company training. 

I had taken a job as a driver with TransRam, a large, over-the-road trucking company.  Later I would find out that they were the biggest hauler of meat – beef and pork – in the country.  So I would be driving “reefers,” refrigerated trailers. 

Company training consisted of filling out forms, getting piss-tested, plodding through their driver manual, and making a fair showing of driving and back-up skills. (I was still suffering from a major inferiority complex concerning my backing abilities.  I dreaded doing the back-up exercises – and it showed.  Still, they waved me in.) 

Following this, there were 10 days of one-on-one, over-the-road training with an experienced driver.  Yes, we were to bunk with a total stranger in the truck’s double deck sleeping berth and hope everything would go swimmingly.  For me, it went fine; for others, it was not so good. Of course we had already been assigned roommates (other trainees) while staying at the hotel during the initial 10-day training, so we were getting used to this sort of thing.  

In my case, I was assigned to a Brit with a Liverpool (actually, Manchester) accent  who had over 20 years of experience driving “lorries.”  Besides being a seasoned vet, Larry was a good man and a fine instructor.  He showed me how to read various features on the GPS; how to send in my messages to the company; how to make sure I enter the proper status on the electronic “Treq” system, depending on what I was doing (driving, not driving, fueling, sleeping).  I learned to preserve as much driving time as I could by going into “Off” status as soon as the truck came to a stop.  He taught me that you can stay in “Off” status as long as you don’t exceed 15 mph.  This is helpful when you get to your destination and are only puttering around to the staging area or dock of a freight yard – or around a truck stop. Before each day’s driving, you need to do a “Pre-trip” (essentially an electronic ‘trance-dance’). And at the end of a day’s driving you must do a “Post-trip,” another ‘dance electronique’ (but this one has to last 10 minutes). Theoretically, in both instances you do a visual inspection of all the systems of your entire truck. But in practice, unless the gauges indicate something’s amiss, it’s a pro forma exercise.

Though he did not have to, Larry paid for all of my meals.  He, in turn, got credit for all of the miles I drove. (The company paid me $50 per day during training.)  It was essentially team driving, with him getting little sleep as he monitored my driving and parking.  I must say, Larry was a hardy and resilient fellow.  He taught me to ‘aim high in steering,’ to always be aware of where the trailer is by checking the mirrors, particularly on turns and exit ramps.  He taught me how to approach a long-standing green light – i.e., moderate my speed and keep my foot just over the brake pedal in the event the light suddenly turned. 

To fuel up, we stopped at the mainstream truck stops: TA, Flying J, Pilot, Love’s and Sapp Bros. The company gives you a fuel card and you swipe this along with your loyalty card for the particular truck stop.  You enter what you want to purchase – tractor fuel only, reefer fuel only, or both, and possibly, DEF (‘diesel exhaust fluid,’ which controls emissions and has to be filled about every third fill-up). Next, you enter your tractor number, trailer number and trip number.  Then, making sure to wear some heavy duty gloves, you fill the tanks on either side of your tractor. (There’s another pump on the other side that is activated by the main pump.)  While fueling you normally pick up a long-handled squeegee that sits nearby in a 5-gallon bucket of soapy water and clean your windshield.  After you top off your tanks and screw the caps back on, you pull out another hose to fill your DEF tank, if you need that.  The pump remains on for a few minutes, ready for you to fill your reefer.  If you need reefer fuel, you replace the diesel nozzle, pull the truck up about ten feet, and then get back out and fill the reefer tank with that same diesel nozzle.  The convention is that once you are done, you can pull your truck up to a line painted on the ground and park it here temporarily. There is enough room for the next trucker to get to the pump, while you run in quickly to use the restroom, fax in your paperwork, grab a snack or whatever. 

Each time you fuel up, you accumulate shower credits and points on your loyalty card.  Showers usually cost about $13.  But you invariably have shower credits, so your showers are free. (Points can be redeemed for food or other merchandise.)  The shower system is pretty ingenious.  You get a ticket with a number.  Usually right away the number holder is directed to a designated shower.  This is a private room with a sink and toilet.  You are provided with a fresh, clean towel, wash cloth and bath mat.  There is even a soap dispenser if you have no soap.  These truck stops have personnel who go right in afterwards, clean up the shower room and prepare it for the next patron.  Yes, this bit of well-oiled efficiency really epitomizes the great American trucking system. 

Truck stop food is another matter.  Suffice it to say, “it varies,” within the fairly strict, generally unhealthy parameters of typical American ‘food.’  It may be worth mentioning that Love’s often has large, fresh fruit cups of cold pineapple, watermelon, grapes, etc., sitting out on ice, $2.99 each or two for $5.  To economize and eat more healthfully, I try to bring as much food as I can with me and prepare it myself.  But one might occasionally get seduced by a Wendy’s ‘Baconator,’ a Burger King shake, or a bag of Lay’s Kettle chips.  But I digress… 

Larry showed me the finer points of hooking to a trailer.  That flat, saddle-looking thing on the back of the tractor is called “the fifth wheel.”  When hooking, you want to make sure your tractor is lined up straight to the trailer. You want to check to see that the landing gear isn’t sunk into the dirt or whatever, so that your trailer is at the right height to allow the tractor to get under it.  (Also, the wheel and the locking mechanism have to be sufficiently greased.) You want to back up with just enough force to cause the kingpin on the trailer to engage the slot in the fifth wheel so that the locking jaws will wrap securely around the kingpin shank. To verify that you are hooked, get out and look at the latch handle, located on the side of the fifth wheel; if it’s not still sticking out, then it is in the closed and locked position – and if there is no daylight between the fifth wheel and the trailer plate – you are hooked.  Of course you can always climb under the trailer and take a look, just to make sure. 

Next, you attach your electrical line and both brake lines.  Then you raise your landing gear by turning the crank counter-clockwise (or as Larry would say, “ante-up” <= i.e., ‘anti-clockwise,’ a clever pneumonic device to remember which way is up) and secure the crank.  Once hooked, turn on your lights and flashers.  Make sure the trailer lights are all working.  Inspect the tires, trailer door latches, mud flaps, etc., then send in your trailer form message and you are good to go. 

When hooking, the biggest thing that can go wrong is if the kingpin misses the fifth wheel slot and somehow ends up in front of the fifth wheel.  If this happens, you need to crank the trailer up as high as you can, then have another person pry up the fifth wheel (with a load-lock, for example) while you try to back the tractor up and get that kingpin back behind the fifth wheel – a royal pain, to say the least. 

To unhook from a trailer, put both air brakes on, unhook your lines, use your grab-bar hook to pull open the latch handle on the side of the fifth wheel, then lower your landing gear by cranking it clockwise.  Stop cranking just before the landing gear feet touch the ground and secure the crank.  Now you are ready to unhook from the trailer.  Just get in and drive forward.  The trailer will drop a bit and off you go (bob-tailing but remembering to stay below 15 mph). 

Larry also touched upon the fine art of adjusting the tandem axles.  When loading or unloading you are often asked to put the tandems all the way back.  When loaded, you’ll need to adjust the tandems so that there is no more than 34,000 lbs. on either the front or rear axles.  To do this, you put both air brakes on, then get out and push in a button located on the tandem frame.  The air pressure will cause two big, steel pins to recess.  Then you go back to the cab and release only the tractor brake.  Going in reverse will cause the tandems to slide forward; going forward will move the tandems toward the rear.  There are holes along this sliding tandem platform.  There is usually one hole marked with paint around its circumference.  This is referred to as “the meat hole” (or as Larry the Brit would say, “the love hole” – in any event it’s not a “bung hole”). In general, this is the hole into which you’ll want the forward pin to lock.  You get that pin as near to the meat hole as possible and then pull the button back out.  The air pressure will push the pins back out.  You then return to the truck and release only the tractor brake and go forward or reverse, as the case may be.  The steel pins will automatically go into the nearest holes.  Each hole will shift about 250 lbs. of weight, forward or back.  Usually you’ll want to be in the meat hole, or in a hole or two in front or behind the meat hole.  The art of knowing, with a fair degree of certainty, which hole it is likely to be, is based upon experience; a function of the total weight and how far forward the freight is loaded on the trailer.  It can be trial and error, having to weigh and perhaps re-weigh at a certified Cat Scale, until you get the tandems just right. 

Most truck stops have a Cat Scale.  As Larry showed me, you weigh out by getting the truck onto the scale, then pressing the intercom button.  You say “first weigh” and give your truck number (or “re-weigh” and the special code on your ticket, as the case may be), then go inside and give them your company name and trailer number.  They present you with a signed, certified weigh ticket.  It usually costs $10 for a first weigh and $2 for a re-weigh.  At TransRam, if you are a lease driver you must pay for all weigh-outs. 

In sum, Larry took very good care of me.  I felt that I learned a lot (even from just observing his own driving habits) and we had some laughs.  One night we managed to park at the nation’s only downtown truck stop, located in Nashville, TN.  Only a short walk over a bridge from the truck stop and you find yourself in the bustling downtown Nashville bar scene.  In fact, as luck would have it, this was the night of my 60th birthday, so Larry treated me a steak dinner.  I was tempted to let my hair down and have a few beers, but I stuck to my ‘sobriety-of-the-road rule’.  Larry was partial to Michelob Light. 

The day soon came when I was given the key to my very own (leased) truck: an electric blue, 2014 Kenworth T-680.  It had 20,000 miles on it when I got it.  Overall it was sweet. It had an automatic transmission and a state-of-the-art engine and in-cab technology.  It was outfitted with an APU that ran on diesel from the fuel tanks (a generator that keeps the cab cool in the summer and warm in the winter).  All I really knew was that it was new and everything worked.  But, as they mentioned in one of the last training sessions, when you are finally alone in the driver’s seat you are overcome with a sense of sheer terror, knowing that it is only you (in this case a rookie who is not-so-good at backing up) controlling this 65-foot long, 13’ 4” high, near 80,000 pound (when fully loaded) behemoth. 

Over the first three weeks I had lessons to learn. These lessons mostly revolved around one thing: maximizing driving time.  To do this, proposed trips that are sent for you to accept or reject have to be scrutinized very carefully.  By this I mean – you first consider how long will it take to get from point A to point B and how that jives with the load and unload appointment times?  A TransRam driver gets no pay for waiting at each end of a trip, unless it’s for more than 24 hours (a mere $115). That can really eat up a driver’s paycheck. 

Your calculations must be tempered by knowing how much driving time is available to you.  Yes, you can drive up to 11 hours per day (or 14 hours of driving + non-driving time, whichever comes first) – but you can only drive up to 70 hours in a given 7-day period.  On first blush, simple math tells you that you can really drive only 10 hours per day. But this is not necessarily so, either; after your seventh day your hours get re-set as you are credited for the hours you drove on the last day of your previous week. Thus it is that in this way you squeeze out more driving time and need not wait a day or so to let your clock re-set.  I’m still trying to figure this one out.  The bottom line is, on most days you shouldn’t drive more than 8 or 9 hours and don’t accept trips with obvious down time, where you are waiting and waiting. A driver only makes money when moving. The number of miles driven + time management = $$. 

Over my first three-week period I had to wait 30 hours at one place, 29 hours at another – even waiting 5 or 6 hours to load or unload can easily mess up your driving time and drastically decrease your pay for the week.  Granted, the company will pay you $115 if you have to wait more than 24 hours, and this mitigates the loss somewhat. But a driver could be making a whole lot more money by not having to hurry-up-and-wait like that. 

Regardless, as a lease driver you always have your fixed costs: the lease payment, three different insurance payments and a host of smaller deductions, all of which add up to quite a chunk of change.  You have to drive close to 3,000 miles per week to earn around $1,000 per week.  And this is being in the truck 24-hours a day, 7-days a week.  If you value solitude, it’s an OK life.  If you read and research and write, as I do, it can be tolerably enjoyable too.  After all, it’s as if you have an office-on-wheels and nobody to hassle you (except of course the company, from time-to-time ). 

If you run down your 70-hours-per-week clock, you can also find yourself sleeping a lot more than your mandatory 10 hours in the sleeping berth within any 24-hour period. The 70-hour clock gives you back your pick-up hours at midnight. I found that out the hard way, my clock re-setting at midnight three days in a row, giving me only 6 hours of driving time per day. Imagine that!  You can drive for six hours, a bit over 300 miles, and then you need to shut down, and then sleep for well over 10 hours, while you wait for the midnight hour to pass. That’s a colossal waste of time and a big loss of money.  Believe me, it really sucks. 

So what’s it actually like, driving a tractor-trailer? 

Well, it’s not like driving a car.  You can’t just go anywhere. When fully loaded you weigh almost 40 tons.  The thing is so big, you have to think twice about how and where you can turn.  All turns have to be WIDE so the trailer has enough space to clear whatever you are turning around.  The right is your blind side.  When turning you have to use your mirrors to see where your trailer is. 

On my very first night on the road I turned off the Ohio interstate to get some fuel at an oddball-type truck stop.  When I missed the truck entrance, I attempted to turn around by turning left on a street I should never have turned onto, then another left down a street with a “No Trucks” sign.  I didn’t see it; visibility was not so good; it was 3:00 AM, raining, and I was nervous as hell.  To my horror I found that it was impossible to make my third left turn and I suppose I woke up the whole neighborhood trying.  Soon a state trooper was on the scene.  He guided me as I backed up for about two blocks down a narrow, residential street.  Then he gave me a ticket for going down the wrong street. (My Legal Shield attorney was able to get the citation reduced to an equipment violation. This carried no points, but the fine and court costs were $85. Oh, and the attorney cost me $300 because I had procrastinated about joining Legal Shield until I actually needed some legal representation.) 

It doesn’t take much of an impact for that weight to crush or scrape whatever is around you – and you sure don’t want any dents and scrapes on the tractor or the trailer.  So, it’s stressful, especially on narrow, residential-type streets and in tight spaces.  And don’t forget to consider what’s above you.  If it’s lower than 13’4” you’ll hit it, whether it’s a bridge, tree branches, low-hanging wires – or, as in my case, glass light covers in an overhead canopy as I was trying to navigate out of an auto fueling area.  These rigs need lots of space, to the left and the right and above to maneuver.  Breaking those two, 12”x12” glass covers cost me my entire deductible of $500; the total casualty was estimated to be $1,000, despite the fact that these glass covers probably cost no more than about $10 apiece.  My company took $100 per week out of five successive paychecks. I wrote them a letter, saying I was paying under protest, and copied the Pilot fueling station. I asked for the basis upon which the estimate was calculated and for copies of the invoices for the actual repair. Neither TransRam nor Pilot ever responded. 

Because you are sitting up high in an air-cushioned seat, traveling long distances over long periods of time is easier than it is in a car.  You are king of the road around you.  But you better be vigilant about watching the road ahead – way down the road ahead – so you’ll know what’s coming and you’ll know where you need to be when you are supposed to be there.  And you better check your mirrors and signal when it’s safe to change lanes.  Missing a turn, especially after getting off the interstate system, can be extremely vexing; you don’t know what is ahead of you and you need to turn around – you may have to drive for miles and miles before you find a spot where you can safely do that, all the while being on the lookout for signs indicating “no trucks” or “caution: low clearance.”  Unless you are on the interstate, at a truck stop, rest area or freight yard, you are an alien truck in a car world. 

During my first six weeks, everything that I was warned about in CDL school seemed to happen to me: I drove almost an hour beyond my legal driving time after getting caught in the Atlanta rush hour traffic with no truck stop or rest area in sight for miles; at a weigh station one of my axles was 1,000 lbs. overweight (an oversight with extenuating circumstances) and this caused a full-blown inspection (I passed) and, thankfully, only a warning ticket that had to be forwarded to the company; I dropped a trailer pulling out of a dock at a freight yard (luckily it landed on my tires and I was able to extricate myself out of this embarrassment relatively quickly; when attempting to hook onto a trailer, the kingpin ended up behind the fifth wheel – twice.  There were a few other close calls, but nothing too traumatic (only close enough to put my heart in my throat). 

So, is it fun to drive an eighteen-wheeler?  Fun is hardly the word for it.  It’s a tough life.  It takes its toll on the bodies (and I imagine, the minds) of truckers.  Most just don’t look right.  Many have grossly distended bellies and seem to walk a little funny.  Surely, not being in the sun, eating poorly nutritious food, and getting little, if any, exercise takes its toll.  Sometimes I feel a comradery with other truckers and at other times they seem like a bunch of ill-mannered hyenas, even some of the guys from my own company.  Still, from time-to-time I meet a kindred soul out here on the road, like the mechanic-turned-truck-driver with the Filipina wife back at home who took the time to give me some pointers on greasing up my fifth wheel and checking the air in my tires and polishing up the chrome.  And we shared some food and hung out together waiting for the shipper to send us on our way.  Or the drivers who have volunteered to guide me into docking doors who can see that I am struggling to back-in my rig.  Or the occasional kind and well-tempered fellow in a freight yard willing to engage in a friendly chat. Interludes like these make trucking worthwhile. 

So far I’ve been to a lot of places across the country, from the little hamlet in New Hampshire where Stonyfield Farms yogurt comes from, to out in Cheyenne, Wyoming and down in the old cowboy town of Dodge City, Kansas and the high plains around Marietta, Oklahoma. I’ve driven the back roads of Mississippi and Alabama and gotten the frenetic stress of runs to New Jersey and New York.  Mostly, as I plod along, I’m getting a feel for the topography of the country and the different flora native to places like Nebraska, or Michigan, or upstate New York, the flat Florida Everglades, the hills of Pennsylvania and West Virginia.  I know the south from the dead armadillos and the north from the dead deer along the roadsides.  

I’m in my fourth month of over-the-road trucking.  And I guess I’m a pretty good trucker because I haven’t been late yet, picking up or delivering; I haven’t gotten another moving violation; in fact, I’ve been rated as a Top Performer in safety by my company every week for the past two months.  I’m still not much good at backing up, but doggone it – I’M GETTING BETTER (in spite of myself)!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

PROGRAMMING COMMITTEE WOES

NOTE: This editorial is solely the opinion of the author, who is vice president, board member and a programming committee member of the Chesapeake Film Festival. 
                   CHESAPEAKE FILM FESTIVAL
This year there is a new Programming Committee screening films for the upcoming 2014 Chesapeake Film Festival.  The new committee is under the very able leadership of Tracy Beckett.  Tracy has worked in the White House as Director of Communications for Clinton administration Chief of Staff, Leon Panetta.  She has also worked in the private sector as Vice President of Development and Regional Production for the National Geographic Channels International in Washington, D.C., and has worked as a consultant for All Roads Film Festival Tour, Gospel Music Channel, Wag TV, and as a US representative for a UK-based production company.
 
The Programming Committee plays the pivotal role in determining which films make the final slate to be shown in our annual Chesapeake Film Festival.  The idea is for each of the committee members to screen all films, share their opinions with other members, and ultimately to vote on which films we accept.  Discussion is had and votes are tallied at monthly meetings.  It is a more democratic process than in the past.  Formerly, the committee would go through the motions and then the director would exercise what were essentially dictatorial powers to accept or reject the will of the committee as a whole.  So now, whereas there used to be one “decider” with the façade of democracy, the new Programming Committee is more of an exercise of democracy-in-action – or is it?
 
This year’s Programming Committee is made up of ten members.  Unfortunately, of these ten members there are only a handful who actively screen films; of these, hardly any report their reviews back to the other committee members; and only three or four turn up for meetings.  The problem, of course, is getting volunteer committee members to abide by their commitments to actually do what they have each agreed to do; one cannot easily chastise a volunteer.  And so, what began as a revamp for more democracy-in-action seems to have reverted, due to the apathy and inaction of uncooperative members, into a kind of oligarchical clique who now decides on the final acceptance/rejection of films.  
 
Moreover, the Programming Committee also determines critical policy as to whether to establish rigid acceptance criteria for the submission of any film being proposed.  The acceptance criteria issues, which led up to a canvassing of the Programming Committee members, are two: 1) whether films should be limited to only recent ones that have premiered only in the past two years, and 2) whether a film should be excluded from consideration if it can be watched for free online.  Tracy was in favor of initiating such rules.  Programming Committee member Kurt Kolaja, a Chestertown filmmaker (and also a board member) agreed.  Of course, the inactive members were sought out for their vote on policy too.  But these folks either fell in line by sheepishly siding with the clique-in-charge or offered a non-committal response.  And so the imperfect democratic system slogs on. 
 
Now, it seems, films which have fallen through the cracks and are discovered too late are perpetually doomed as no-go festival material.  Thus, films such as Resonance: Beings of Frequency (2009), a British exposé that educates the public about the toxic microwave environment that has been created all around us, have been relegated to the dustbin for being too old and available for free online.  Similarly, films that are not a part of the corporate distribution machine and just want to educate people to the truth of what is happening to their constitutional rights, such as Molon Labe (2013), are excluded from consideration because they can be watched for free online.  Molon Labe is the definitive treatment on the Second Amendment right to bear arms and the treachery of gun control.  In other words, films that challenge the status quo, whether due to corporate profits that trump the well-being of people, or the mad rush by New World Order types to disarm the citizenry, are first marginalized by the mainstream, only to then get sidelined because of the CFF’s new “acceptance criteria rules” proposal.
 
One board member, against showing films that are more than two years old, suggested an exception: “No to older films with exception of something unique.  Sophia Loren attends CFF to give a talk and show a film.  No rules apply in such a situation.”  OK, to this board member Sophia Loren constitutes “something unique.”  Sounds awfully subjective to me.  
 
Another board member who seemed equally opposed to films over two years old also tried to carve out an exception: “In the "old days" we had a one year shelf life policy. We wanted to keep the programming fresh. This is even more important with UTube. [sic] Take them some place they have never been. We made exceptions for arty classics like Cassavetes.”  Then comes a further exception qualifier:  “That said, if there is an amazing package that draws a great speaker or community tie in, then think about how big a splash you can make.”  This was the same Programming Committee member who, some four years ago, sponsored Ashes and Diamonds, a 1958 film from Polish director Andrzej Wajda (1958). 
 
Two other committee members stayed on the fence on the issue, one willing to “go along with whatever the consensus is.”  Another suggested that we offer a “guided presentation using video material available on the Internet” of online free films (as part of the mini-treatise emailed on the subject).  Another disjointed email by that same member discussed Molon Labe via such a schizoid analysis I wondered whether this contribution was the result of multiple martinis. 
 
If this were a democratic election process, a referendum that seeks the vote of our movie-watching constituency would be a better way to accept or reject such rules.  Ah, the democratic process! – it’s clumsy but it works, I suppose.  
 
The bottom line is this – if a film is germane to a current issue, even if that film is five years old – and this film does a good job educating the public, it is a worthy film.  The CFF cannot and should not be a rubber stamp for the mainstream media or mainstream culture.  Even if a film can be viewed for free online, viewing a film with others in a theater format is different, especially if experts are on hand to offer a stimulating panel discussion following the showing of that film.  This is the rationale for charging a fee to view a film that is otherwise free online. 
 
Certainly a film festival should premier new-ish films.  But a film festival is more than just a showcase for new releases.  Its festiveness is all about the wonders of film, truth, and new dimensions of reality they impart to us.  Classic films have timeless qualities and much to teach.  Documentaries too.  So why not leave the acceptance criteria open a crack?  That’s all this is about and it seems the consensus is moving in this direction.  That is, no absurd rules to hamstring us! 
 
Therefore, I argue that to establish rigid rules on acceptance criteria, as has been proposed, does nothing but bind ourselves and the Chesapeake Film Festival into a straight jacket of our own design; it is a form of self-censorship that rivals modern politics in its ability to shun the past and the lessons of the past in favor of something “new and improved!”  And to this I, for one, exclaim, just as Gerard Depardieu did in the film Cyrano, “No, merci!”

Sunday, April 13, 2014

ECUADOR DENTÁL



The weird thing about the winter of 2014 was that once-in-a-while there would be a day or two of magnificent Spring weather.  Overall, though, that winter was bitterly cold, snowy and endless.  Even the last week of March, as I hurried to pack my bag, the US East Coast was being pummeled yet again with snow.   A good day to disappear, I thought, to a sunnier clime.

We had to sit in the aircraft while they sprayed de-icer on the wings.  But soon we were aloft above the gray mucky clouds and on our way to the pit stop in Atlanta.  It was a Tuesday.  Tuesdays and Wednesdays were good flying days because fewer passengers fly on those days.  I had an aisle seat.  There was a frumpy blonde gum-chewer sitting at the window, and no one sat between us.  The rest of the passengers seemed like the usual crowd of self-absorbed wannabes who can be found anywhere and at any time around the Washington, DC area.

Ah, Atlanta!  I felt a better vibe right away as I exited the landing terminal and picked up on the people around me.  There was that same American slovenliness going on, but with less pretension.  And looking into the bearded faces of some of the men, I pictured them wearing Johnny reb caps, invisible of course, except to me as I called up in my mind that certain Southern something radiating from the Anglo-stock faces that are so common down South.  And I sensed the same, national, hyper-consumerist sensibility in the finely accessorized women – even with the tattooed-and-pierced crowd – they want to be pretty and desirable.  Were there more blondes down here or was it my imagination?  Many of the black folk also seemed to have a fanatic attraction to consumerism; I judge this by the faddishness of their clothing and their loud gaming with consumer electronic gadgets.
 
Besides the gaming throng, as I marched along to the international departure terminal of the airport I was treated to a history lesson on the City of Atlanta.  This being the home turf of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., there was an abrupt change in that history starting in the post-war years.  From that point on it appeared as though African-American history became the history of Atlanta. This was topped off by a large photo of a proudly beaming black mayor as I came to the end of my long march.  The city was doing what cities do – taking particular pride in all of its development and in how many big businesses it has attracted to its flashy-new bosom.  I was convinced now, more than ever, that the movements for black civil rights and gender equality had devolved into a striving for money and materialism; a buying into a system that co-opts and absorbs the spirit of all who aspire to its power and privilege.  But enough with the over-analysis and introspection – definite markers that a vacation is surely in order.
 
This trek to Ecuador was no vacation in the ordinary sense.  Some call it “dental tourism.”   Sure, it was a chance to get my teeth fixed by a knowledgeable dentist, but just as important, it was a chance to explore and investigate the Cuenca area as a possible retirement location.  It was a working vacation of only one week to accomplish both objectives.
 
The reason I was heading for Ecuador was because of Dr. Robert Dowling.  Dr. Dowling is the founder of the North Carolina Institute of Technology.  He estimates that 95% of people have oral pathology.  What this means is the presence of a root canal, wisdom teeth that were improperly removed, or a tooth that has been improperly capped.  Oral pathology can be suggested by a thermal image (which can find tumors in women’s breasts 10 years before a mammogram can).  However, the prefatory step to actual dental extraction is to have a CAT-scan of one’s mouth.  Is this a stride forward from the old dental X-ray technique?  That depends upon who you ask.  Standard X-rays offer more detail, but a CAT-scan is supposed to show “cavitations.”  One gets a whole panorama of the mouth, top and bottom, in one large X-ray-like glance.  According to Dr. Dowling, removal of the dead tooth (i.e., root canal tooth) from the jaw will put an end to the neurotoxins that fester here and that spread throughout the body.  These are the cause of many degenerative diseases, e.g., cancer, Lou Gehrig’s disease, etc.  This, together with Dr. Dowling's proprietary enzyme liquid supplement and bio-ablation of any tumor(s), offers hope to those who would otherwise be slashed, burned, and poisoned by the traditional treatment.  As a result of his work, Dr. Dowling had been harassed and threatened, and he finally relocated to Ecuador in order to continue his research into healing otherwise hopeless cases.  Do the research yourself; read the testimonials from many, many people who have been cured after the medical cartel (using surgery, radiation and chemotherapy) gave up on them.
http://www.amazon.com/Am-Dead-just-feel-like/dp/B000QFWFV6
http://www.ncresearch.org/
http://www.breastcancercured.com/

In thermal imaging, areas that are hotter than others are likely indicators of infection and show up as white or red.  I went to see Dr. Dowling in order to take a thermal image of my whole body.  There were two hot-spot areas in my mouth, and other hot spots on my neck and upper chest area.  The images were sent out to team of medical doctors who interpreted the thermography.  I received the results about two weeks later.  Their analysis was that there was something going on with my endocrine system and the right leg showed excessive heat. (I have only one root canal: on the lower, right side.)  I understood the report to indicate that inflammation was present.  According to their interpretation, there was no particular disease, per se, but I still wanted to remove my root canal and change out my mercury fillings.
Bob Dowling was back in the states at this time and was not able to meet me in Ecuador.  Instead, my point of contact when I arrived in Cuenca was an associate of his, Mason Connors who met me at the airport.  He was tall, well-groomed, and sported a chin beard tied up with a rubber band.  We set off immediately via bus.  There is a serendipitous synchronicity that occurs with purposeful travel and I was about to rediscover that once again…
 
Mason directed me to a hostal he knew of.  The AlterNative Hostal is a clean and simple hostel run by a young couple, Javier and Nicole.  It is situated on Avenida Huayna Capac at Calle Largo (or just where Calle Largo turns into Cacique Duma) and cost me $11 per night.  Calle Largo turns into the happening strip in downtown Cuenca.

 

Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecuador.  They use the U.S. dollar here. Though they have their own coins you can also use American coins.  It costs 25 cents to ride any bus and $2 for a taxi to take you to just about any place in the city.  There are four rivers that transect the city, but one main river raged in a torrent through the center of town and this is what oriented me to the landscape. Mason gave me a map of the city and invited me over to his apartment to have lunch later that day.
 
Finding sustenance was easy.  I asked where I might buy some provisions and Nicole, who had spent time in Canada and spoke English, told me there was a SuperMaxi supermarket about a ten-minute walk across the river.  I checked it out since it was closer to the hostel.  As I tend to do, I got a little lost looking for it, but finally found it.  And yes, it was the typical, Western industrial food store.  (Soon I was making trips to the big Mercado down at the other end of Calle Largo.)

That first day I schlepped over to Mason’s apartment.  Here I met his wife, Marietta, who works from her home fabricating dentures.  They have a five-month old baby boy, Dylan.  There was also an American, Claude Whalen, who was staying with them temporarily and who was also having his teeth worked on by the same dentist.

It wasn’t until I got to Cuenca and was hanging around in Mason’s apartment, that I heard about the odyssey of Bob’s clinic.  It turned out that Mason had built this clinic for Bob.  It was out of town a bit, along the PanAmerican Highway.

Apparently, unbeknownst to Bob, all of the land surrounding the clinic was owned by some big local strongman who didn’t like having this interloper so close by.  As time went by, the clinic was broken into twice and Bob had also been intimidated by a gun-toting carabaneri.  He ultimately decided it would be best to sell the property and to start over in a more propitious location.  So his new clinic was now only a fading memory.  It was due to be sold right around the time I arrived and Mason was scouting for a location to build a new clinic.

The only thing I was able to do on my first full day in Cuenca, was to go to a radiology office to get a CAT-scan of my teeth.  Mason and his wife brought me over there.  I stood perfectly still while the machine did a circle around my head.  It cost me only $20.  And, after waiting just a few minutes, I was presented with a large x-ray-looking sheet in an envelope.  It showed a panoramic view of my jaw and all the teeth in my mouth.  It looked pretty impressive.

It turned out that the dental clinic was about three miles from my hostel.  It was a pleasant walk along the river, for the most part.  I managed to get two appointments for the next day, Thursday, at 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM.

I set out walking the next morning, and of course I walked the wrong way.  Totally confused and time running out, I decided to hop into a taxi.  He drove a long way.  (I had not yet determined that I had walked the wrong way along the river.)

Soon I arrived and met my dentist, Dr. A.V. Clermo.  The only gripe I have is that Clermo had no idea I was coming until about a week before I arrived.  He had to cancel quite a few appointments to accommodate me.  I felt bad for those folks who had to wait (Claude was one of them) but I also felt fortunate that he was able to fit me in.  Here it was, the last week of March and I thought Bob had already set up my appointments after I called him in early February, but I suppose he didn’t get around to it until I called about a week before my departure.  It was now clear to me that Bob was an absent-minded professor type who seems to have trouble following through on things.  No matter.  The dentist was very accommodating under the circumstances, knowing that I had flown all this way to see him and that I had less than a week now to complete the work.  In the end it all worked out.

In any event, Dr. Clermo was gracious.  He looked at the CAT-scan and we talked about what I wanted done.  The scan showed only one root canal but also ten mercury fillings.   First, he said he would extract the big, dead molar (root canal) on the right side of my mouth.  This required surgery.  He injected lots of local anesthetic.  Then proceeded to do some cutting and tugging.  The tooth was brittle and broke into many pieces but it finally came out.  I felt no pain.

From Clermo’s office I walked over to a Farmacia he recommended to buy my prescriptions: some antibiotics, some pain pills and powder, and some antiseptic mouthwash.  I also bought some vitamin-C tablets.  My 2-3 years of high school Spanish started to kick-in.  I still wonder at my ability to remember some of the vocabulary and a little grammar after so many years.  But it only takes a day or two of immersion and I do pretty darn well in present tense!

I returned that afternoon (after noting my directional error and correcting for that).  It took about 50 minutes to walk there.  He immediately proceeded to install a rubber dam and remove two mercury fillings and replace them with a non-toxic, composite material.  It was harrowing at times.   No anesthetic was used.  As he got a bit too close to the nerve endings there was some sharp, jolting pain.  And while this drama played out, the Turkish Rondo suddenly sounded (somebody’s ringtone). This lent an air of comedy or a sort of keystone cops sensibility to the scene.  Soon he finished and now there were two down and eight to go.  My third appointment was the next day, Friday at 11:30 AM.

Friday’s appointment was spent on the two teeth with the deepest fillings.  These needed to be replaced with in-lays.  A silicone mold was taken and sent off to the local lab.  There, zirconia in-lays (partial crowns) were fabricated and, I suppose, were returned the same day because I had an early appointment the next day, Saturday, at 8:00 AM, and they were ready.  (However, Clermo was not satisfied. “I want them to fit perfectly,” he said.  He took another silicone mold and sent this off for them to be fabricated over again – on a Saturday!)  My final appointment would be on Monday at 3:30 PM.

After my Friday appointment, I went over to Mason’s apartment.  I had been pestering him to show me around Cuenca and maybe some outlying towns.  After lounging around at his place for a bit, he asked if I wanted to take a walk.  Off we went.  We headed down Gran Columbia to Av. Huayna Capac and right by my hostel, heading down toward the river.  Almost from the start of our little meandering we got into a far-ranging dialogue about life that went from the philosophical to the metaphysical.  Mason was 35-years old.  I noticed back at the apartment he was reading a book entitled J. Krishnamurti in Conversation with David Bohm.  He is a spiritual seeker, but unlike many such seekers, Mason is intensely focused, with a knowing certitude that is slightly disarming.  As we walked, I listened to his life story.

His childhood and that of his siblings sounded pretty grim.  He had a brother in jail who remains unrepentant.  In fact, Mason had done a stretch himself for assault and attempted murder.  But, unlike his brother, Mason had come around during his confinement; he had opened to some universal truths and was actively working to overcome his former demons. I believe he said his father was an alcoholic and porno addict.  His sister had been murdered.  There was a lot of early drug use.  It all sounded so intensely debased that it was remarkable Mason was able to transcend it all.  He had given up drinking alcohol about six months prior and he appeared to be devoutly dedicated to his new path of righteousness.  Speaking of which, Mason had even studied to be a Christian preacher.  Part of that training was to present lectures around various parts of the country.  This familiarized him with the Bible and strengthened what seemed like very natural public speaking abilities.  In short, I liked Mason.  He was a man of both contemplation and action.  He articulated his stance on various things with strength and conviction.  He had a ready smile and a no-nonsense approach to most things.  Though young, I sensed an old soul as we walked and talked and hung out at the city park, a massive lot of green where the central river melded with the southern branch.  Here, we rested a bit while talking about whether the use of violence is ever appropriate.  It was a fine, sunny day and our conversation took us places.  Slowly, we made our way back toward my hostel.

There we parted ways.  I went to take a nap.  We agreed to meet a few hours later at the symphony hall, just a block from where I was staying.  And we did just that – we attended the symphony that evening with his business partner and that partner’s lovely Ecuadorian wife.  It wasn’t half bad, as symphonies go, starting off with Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4, by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos.  But we all got a little bored and took off after about two-thirds of the way into the program, and called it a night.

Hostel life, especially on the weekend, was more than a little raucous.  The one window of my small room overlooked the kitchen area.  There were some Dutch girls and some Germans too, with a sprinkling of Aussies and Americans and who-knows-who – all gathered around in the kitchen and the TV lounge area.  It was one loud party Friday night.  I was holed up in my room, alternately screening films and trying to get some shut-eye.  The party would take up again Saturday afternoon.  Lots of drinking and loud talking and kids being kids.  Still, it was manageable.

At my 8:00 AM appointment on Saturday Clermo removed the remaining mercury fillings and replaced them with non-toxic composite material.  I was out by 10:15 and headed toward the market to investigate how things went on the weekend.  The “hill ladies” were there with their trademark hats and colorful peasant dresses.  Vegetables and fruits were overflowing from the lines of stands; meats were hanging or sitting in platters and folks were cruising up and down the aisles, gawking and sometimes buying.  In the back of the market there were lots of shoes for sale.  Closer to the town square I had been eyeing a pair of high top dress shoes like my grandfather used to wear.  But here the shoes looked like cheap China knock-offs and nothing appealed to me.  There were lots of other things too, hardware and tools and stuff you find in markets worldwide.

I went up to the second floor and got some just-made carrot and alfalfa juice, followed by a cup of freshly-squeezed orange juice.  Then I wandered over to the prepared food section.  Stalls were lined up in a horse-shoe.  Each stall featured a whole roast pig and potatoes and salad. A portion of each pig was gone, to one extent or another, having been carved up and served.  There were tables and chairs within the horse-shoe where families were gathered with their plates of food.  I got some potatoes and salad, then moved on to shop for grapes and bananas and apples and such.

The mornings, like the evenings, were cool, but now it was warming up.  I made my way down Calle Largo with my bags, heading for my little hostel refuge.  When I got there I noticed there was not much activity.  Most were still sleeping off the antics of the night before.  The rest of the day was spent lollygagging around.  I decided I needed a mental health day of doing nothing but resting up without much mucking about.  After all, I had really been on the move since arriving.

Sunday, March 30, was a balmy day with blue skies interrupted now and again by cloud banks. At mid-morning I set off for Mason’s apartment and ended up taking a walk with Claude. It was his birthday. He was 63. We again headed for the same park.

Claude was from Seattle but had also lived in California.  He told me his father had grown up in Berlin, MD.  On this walk, and another one we took later, we talked of many things – mineral supplements, the JFK assassination, the New World Order, Zionism, fractional reserve banking, even extraterrestrials.  Claude knew a lot about “Billy” Meier and I asked him to tell me what he knew about this modern-day, quasi-Gurdjieff-like character.  He had some startling revelations about this deeply spiritual man, now living in Switzerland, and I made up my mind to pick up some of his books soon.

We were getting hungry and by pure chance ended up at a place called the Inca Bar & Bistro that overlooked the river.  It turned out to be what I would call a gringo bar. The American owner, Mike, was in and he introduced himself.  He seemed like a nice guy.  I soon regaled him with stories of Stubby Knuckles and, after telling him he ought to have some live music in here, was told that he had live music in there all the time.  He said he has a PA and even has an electric piano with weighted keys.  It was definitely a serendipitous synchronicity.  I made sure to give him my card and told him that I would return and play here when I did.  He seemed pleased to hear that and I had that good feeling of having found a gig in a special place.  (This was not the place I have seen in a “prophetic” vision, but it was close enough and I already long to return and to play here.)

Monday arrived too soon.   I was down in the kitchen early, washing and cutting up some vegetables and fruit.  A charming and lovely young lady strolled in just then and I offered her some of my bounty.  Her name was Emma.  We hit it off immediately and ended up going out onto the veranda, where we got into a very spirited conversation while sharing some grapes.  It turned out she was close to graduating from law school when she suddenly experienced a phase of extreme ennui.  And so she was off to travel around for some months to chase away this demon.  She looked strikingly like my sister, Jane.  In fact, her father was Algerian and her mother was French.  She was from southern France.  She had just arrived at the hostel the night before. She spoke English rather well and I invited her downtown to "show her everything that I had already discovered." She eagerly accepted my invitation.  She was just 25 years old.  I felt fatherly (brotherly, actually) toward her and I just really enjoyed being with her.

We went to the juice bar at the Mercado.  There were some huge eggs on display at this stall.  She inquired about them.  They were ostrich eggs.  She wanted some of that in her juice.  She was an adventurous lass to say the least and we traded contact info.  Soon we returned to the hostel.  Although I invited her to lunch, she went to take a nap and ended up sleeping for hours, way beyond lunchtime.  I saw her later, briefly, and in my mind I lamented that I would soon be leaving...    

It would be my last full day in Cuenca and I decided to buy some gifts for the family on this day.   I had been eyeing some woolen goods at a tiny shop along my usual route to the downtown area.  So I went there and bought a lovely white wool sweater with a hood ($22) and a pink poncho made from a mixture of lamb’s wool and llama wool with a stylish, pink woolen watch cap/beret ($33).  Marietta dragged me to a souvenir market where I picked up a pair of maracas with “Ecuador” carved into them.

My final appointment was on Monday at 3:30 PM.  This time the inlays fit perfectly and they were put in place.  Clermo offered to give me a periodontal cleaning for $100.  This was the finishing touch.  The total I paid was about $1750 (for surgery to remove the root canal tooth, ten mercury fillings removed and replaced, including two molar inlays, and a cleaning).  This was probably about one-third what I would have had to pay in the states.  As for replacing the tooth that had been extracted, Marietta took a look and quoted me a special price of $120 to fabricate a removable denture.  There was a waiting period of at least six weeks before that can be attempted.  My regular dentist has agreed to provide her with a silicone mold or whatever is needed for her to do the job when the time comes.

On Tuesday I came for a final visit to Mason’s apartment.  Somehow, Dr. Hulda Clark came up in the conversation.  She was a pioneer in vibrational healing frequencies with her “zapper.”  And wouldn’t you know it, Claude knew all about her work and even had a zapper with him.  He offered to hook me up for an hour and a half treatment and I gladly accepted.  It was all too much, really – synchronicity beyond serendipity!
 
 
 
The cultural mutant finds some friends


I feel that I have new friends down in Cuenca.  Clermo is a knowledgeable, soft-spoken, skillful and gentle dentist who gets things done.  Mason Connors is a good man.  His wife, too, is helpful and charming.  The other dental patient, Claude Whalen, turned out to be a fine companion as well.  It was refreshing to spend time with folks who are familiar with more subtle and esoteric subject areas, not to mention society’s artificial constructs and the cryptocracy (and all that that entails).  Especially around the East Coast (and in particular the DC area), people are so asleep – even friends and family – it is not so easy living and being here.  But I felt none of that alienation and separation when I arrived way south of the border.  In fact, Mason estimates that about 60% of the estimated 5,000 American expats down in Cuenca “see through the world,” i.e., are hip to the way it really works and can sense how absolutely corrupt and wrong-headed things have become.  I guess that’s a big part of the reason why they made the move to Cuenca – to get outta Dodge.

Cuenca is not a perfect place – what place is?  But it is quite a nice spot – it’s on the equator, but, being 8,000 feet above sea level, the temperature stays at about seventy degrees all year round – eternal Spring.  And if you can prove you receive at least $800 in income each month, you can immigrate to Ecuador and even obtain dual citizenship.  I’ve concluded that it would make an excellent retirement refuge.  I’ve just got to work hard for a few more years in order to build up my monthly retirement allowance and save a bit.  I turn 60 in early May, 2014 and I’m happy to bow out early, at 62.  I just hope the system doesn’t completely implode so the expected monthly check disappears. 

In any event, I’d like to keep in touch with my new Cuenca allies over the coming years. (I’m only sorry that Claude won’t be down there.  He’s relocating to New Zealand.)  Between gigs at the Inca Bar & Bistro and social security checks I might be able to eke out a fairly decent living.  I could conceivably do some teaching also – English or law, for example – or perhaps even assist somehow in the operation of Bob Dowling’s new clinic. 

And so, despite having to get used to the high altitude, being on antibiotics and pain meds, and undergoing an excessive amount of teeth trauma over a six-day period, I really did enjoy my little adventure.  I’m likely going to make a return trip well-before two years goes by.  I’d like to bring my wife so that she can start musing on a move, something she is absolutely not inclined to do at the moment. 

I am now worry-free concerning my teeth.  I could never have afforded to have the work done here and I was quite impressed with Clermo.  I went online and gave Clermo two rousing endorsements.  I am already receiving eager follow-up questions from interested parties. (I respond and blind-copy Mason and Clermo.)

At some point it would be interesting to have a follow-up thermal imaging done to see if the former hot spots in my body have cooled down.  It turned out that there were three or more cavities forming under one of the deep amalgam fillings.  Now that the dead tooth is gone, and the cavities have been attended to, I imagine there will be less inflammation present.  It would be great to be able to check that.  I only wish that I had checked my C-reactive protein and homocysteine levels before having the dental work done to have a chemical benchmark for comparison.  Bob Dowling had promised to send me some of his latest enzyme solution.  I await that as soon as he gets around to following through. 
 
Battling for good health is becoming standard in a nation that has adulterated its soil and food and the environment generally.  Cuenca offers an alternative to the New World Order’s Agenda 21 and its depopulation plan.  If nothing else it is a refuge (at least for the time being).