Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Blob

During one of their diving trips up North my parents found something that still makes me smile to think about. The Madeira wreck that I wrote about here had been worked for salvage in the late 1950's and early '60s. The salvagers weren't really interested in the hull per se but rather in some of the more valuable deck machinery and winches and what not.  The salvagers used enormous pontoon floats which were buoyed by what were essentially big rubber bags.

My dad found one of those stray floats washed up on shore. It's hard to describe it exactly other than as a big oblate-shaped rubber bag. Now as a five or six year old kid, everything seemed bigger than it actually was but I suppose it must have been about a body length in diameter, maybe four or five feet. But as I said, it wasn't exactly circular; it was longer and wider than it was high. Imagine an enormous jelly donut only black. It had no dangerous buckles or straps. It was shiny black and it smelled like rubber. I can still smell it-like the rubber of a bike inner tube. It could be soft and squishy or hard and bouncy depending on how much air was inside it. We kids named it "The Blob."

The Blob was one of those neighborhood things that made you instantly popular. The fun thing for us kids with the Blob was our discovery that if one of us sat on one end of the thing and another jumped onto or quickly kneeled on the other side, the first kid would get displaced or be given a "lift-off."  We soon discovered that by jumping from various heights, we could actually launch each other.  Endless fun. We must have spent a week just doing variations on the same theme.  Word got around, and "The Blob" gained quite a reputation.   In those days, everybody seemed to have kids or had had kids. Some families had kids way older than me (I turned 50 today). Anyway, it was easy to round up a dozen kids in those days, and that was really just in about a two or three block circle.

The fun escalated that summer without much adult supervision until we discovered that jumping off a garden shed roof would really send a smaller kid flying--I mean several feet in the air!  One poor kid landed wrong and we heard about it after he ran home in tears.

The Blob had a tough thick skin and seemed indestructible. We also played games of running each other over--getting swallowed and eaten by the Blob. We gave it our all for what must have been a good solid month until school started in September. One night, somebody snuck into our backyard and slashed the Blob with what looked like a sharp knife according to my dad.  We never did figure that one out.

Urban Reclamation

     Cleveland Flats (1984)

Suburban Reclamation

Taken somewhere in Cleveland (1984)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Il Ponte Rotto (Cleveland)

A photo I took of a broken bridge across (or near) the Cuyahoga river in 1984:

A photo of the original Ponte Rotto in Rome along with its history can be found here.

Update:  I found some recent photographs of the Jefferson Avenue Bridge here and here

And: This is my favorite photo of the Ponte Rotto:

Notice how close the modern trastevere travesity comes to the old Ponte Rotto.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Bringing Up Bacon

Heat and cold are nature's two hands by which she chiefly worketh.
--Francis Bacon (1627)

Bacon got it right for his time and place even though he didn't understand how heat and work interrelated.

How nature really works (at a chemical level) is polarization followed by attack followed by depolarization.

Sound familiar?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Friday, March 19, 2010

Together (Again) and R.I.P. Uncle J

My uncle J died today--he was 81.  I wrote about him in my "Letters Home" series here.  He was in Korea while my dad went through basic training and did his Army service in Germany. Uncle J lived a good long time and died suddenly at home this morning. He had a wife (they were married 58 years), four children, and four grandchildren.

There he is together with my father in a photo dated 1960 (the year I was born) at a place named Long Lake, WI.  I don't recognize those yellow wetsuits (they look too baggy to be wetsuits).  My mother always teased my dad that he was "the best dressed man underwater"; this was meant to (ahem) compensate for a certain nonchalance on land shall we say?  Anyway, those wetsuits might be early Dunlop suits which appeared in the early '60's before every wet suit became--to paraphrase Henry Ford--available in every color so long as it was black.  I can tell them apart by the stances. Uncle J was always heavier set than my dad.

To be the oldest in a family, especially a larger family, must be akin to being a parent (but what would I know: I'm the youngest in a very small family).  I looked up some family history tonight: Uncle J. was the oldest in a family of eight. My father was third-born and the second boy out of five. I think that older siblings make a lot of mistakes which the younger ones can avoid just by observing. I know my dad looked up to him his whole life and maybe now they are both together again, looking down at me--at least I hope so.  R.I.P Uncle J.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Split Rock Lighthouse

Years before my dad took me and my brother diving up North, he took friends and diving students, and once or twice he took my mother.  She was determined not to be a SCUBA widow and she had an "if you can't beat 'em join 'em" attitude about the whole thing.

He took her to the Madeira wreck that I described back here. That is Gold Rock and the rocky beach in the upper right corner of the photo above. The wreck was only accessible then from the roadside shoulder of Highway 61 but access has improved since those days.  Back then there was no proper place to change clothes at the dive site. My uninhibited dad had no problem stripping down nude in semi-public places, but my mother was a different story.
"Nobody will see you" he reassured her after they had carried all their gear down to the beach.
She nervously glanced up at the lighthouse. She saw that the lighthouse had an unobstructed view of her (you can see her point of view here--the lighthouse is in the upper right background).  Throwing caution to the wind, she undressed and changed into her bathing suit and wet suit.
Later that evening after the dive, they met some friends for dinner in Two Harbors. After dinner, they drove back up Highway 61 and stopped at the lighthouse, which had only recently opened to the public. To my mother's shock and horror, the lighthouse had one of those telescopic, coin-operated viewfinders, and it clearly looked down on the beach where she had undressed earlier that afternoon.

Added: this photo:

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

It's Amino World

The sky overhead is an ocean of nitrogen. Around 4,000 trillion tons of nitrogen (N2) float trapped up there because it's too light to sink back to earth and yet too heavy to float away into space (it's gravity shackled-unlike helium-the next lightest gaseous element). That enormous enveloping ocean has storms too. Nitrogen, and to a lesser extent oxygen, once set into motion, are essentially wind.

I once naively thought that azote, the French term for nitrogen, was etymologically related to the azure of a blue sky. Wrong! The aptly named azote literally means "no life" and that name was acquired shortly after oxygen and nitrogen were distinguished as the essential components of air: one gas supported life and one did not. The Germans call nitrogen Stickstoff, which literally means "suffocating-stuff". We call nitrogen "nitrogen" because it engenders "nitro" (nitro being an older word for saltpeter) which is an essential ingredient of gunpowder and plant fertilizer.

Despite the name azote, nitrogen compounds are quite lively and have a long and interesting history of blowing things up: gunpowder, dynamite, nitromethane racing fuel, TNT, and even airbags. In a very real sense, nitrogen's instability (chemical reactivity) under those circumstances is ultimately related to the stability of N2 and the element's propensity to get back to that elemental state, serenely floating above the fray.

Nitrogen is essential for all living organisms, which have tamed its volatility.  Organic nitrogen is of course a constituent element of amino acids and thus of proteins, and also presents in nucleic acids (DNA and RNA). I wrote earlier about boron being fundamentally electron-poor with respect to carbon. Nitrogen, which sits on the right hand side of queen carbon, is the converse-electron rich with respect to the queen. That's really why nitrogen is an organic base.

Relatively little usable nitrogen is found in the earth. The amount in the air is about one million times larger than the total nitrogen contained in living organisms. Nitrogen availability is often the limiting factor in plant growth.  Plants make organic nitrogen from air and we get usable nitrogen from plants (actually bacteria within the roots of some plants "fix" nitrogen to usable forms). 

We no longer depend exclusively upon plants to make ammonia from the sky.  During the First World War, Imperial Germany was cutoff from its sources of fixed nitrogen (mainly Chilean saltpeter and bat guano). Fritz Haber, the father of chemical warfare, developed the direct conversion nitrogen (N2) to ammonia (NH3) using hydrogen gas.  Haber won the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this feat, despite Germany losing the war and despite his wartime culpabilty in making things like chlorine and phosgene gases for trench warfare. The commercial Haber-Bosch process literally allowed the subsequent population bloom known as the Green Revolution. The process is still used today, highly refined, but essentially unchanged.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Nothing Is Cooler Than Ice Diving

A favorite old family photo of mine.  My wife had it framed and gave it to me several years ago. That is my late father (seated) and a dive buddy of his getting ready to go under the ice in Lake Monona in Madison sometime during the '60s.

I remember the guy standing. My dad taught him how to dive. He was deaf and mute and he worked as a printer with my dad at the newspaper. He'd come over to hang out and they'd communicate using sign language. That guy might had been deaf and mute but he sure wasn't dumb. And sign language was obviously handy underwater.

Wish I knew who took the photo and what year it was from but there it is.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Letters Home: Tax Time

March 9, 1952
Fort Knox, KY

Dear Mom and Dad and All,

We finally got in off the field. We got in Fri. afternoon so I got a little time to write today. We had a lot of cleaning up to do this weekend, so we didn’t get any passes. It rained most of the week so it wasn’t too good out there.  It was around 20 above in the mornings.
2 more weeks and you can be looking at me. I suppose Dad is too busy to drive down? I might get a ride to Chicago and hitch hike from there or else take a train. [1]  It's hard to make good time between here and Chicago on a train.
If you want to you can take the money and pay my taxes.  I hope I don’t have to pay too much extra.
Tell R_ not to get a car till I get home if he was thinking about getting one. [2]
[handwriting changes from pencil to pen]
I had to change pencils. I think we get more shots. Shoot a .45 machine gun and go through a gas chamber this week.
I thought sure Jr. would be home by April 1st. He wrote and told me he made Sgt. [3]  I guess there’s not too much to write about. Maybe I will write again before the weeks out.

[1] A buddy and I once hitchhiked from Madison to Gainesville FL and back during college (blogpost alert).
[2]  I wonder if his brother R ever got those fender skirts painted and put back on.  :)

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Wreck Of The Madeira

We arrived at the first wreck site by car on August 4, 1975 and got suited up and in the water by around 10 AM. The air temperature was 78o, and the water temperature was 42oF.  No, I don't have that good of a memory -- I'm reading from a logbook that I kept at the time. My actual memories are visual and not at all numerically factual like that. 

Unfortunately, I have been unable to locate the negatives or even prints from a roll of film that I shot on that first trip. I know I didn't throw them out -- I just can't find them right now. I'll have to rely on my memory, the Internet, and some shots my dad took at different times.

Madeira was the name of a vessel that went down in a huge storm of 1905. There's a harrowing story about her last hour that you can read about here. She broke in two against Gold Rock, less than a mile "up-lake" from the present day Split Rock Lighthouse.  Of course the lighthouse wasn't there then--it was built a few years later after the owners of ships that went down that night banded together and persuaded Congress to build one (I have a separate story about the lighthouse that I'm saving, but I should say that the lighthouse is the most iconic image of the North Shore, having been painted and photographed to death).

In those days one had to park alongside Highway 61 and carry the gear through a beautiful birch forest (one of the photos I'm missing) down to a small rocky beach. Here's an aerial view of the lay of the land: Link
The rocky beach was as close as one could get to the wreck site on land.  Here's an older photo of my dad (standing) heading out to the Madeira wreck site. The photo was taken sometime in the early 1960's:

photographer unknown circa 1960s

That's Gold Rock in the background, the rock that battered the Madeira to death that November when the skies turned gloomy.  On a clear sunny day when the water is still, it is possible to look down into the water from the edge of that cliff and see a bit of the wreck.

Madeira was my dad's favorite wreck. It wasn't the most photogenic, being too deep for natural light. But it was the most challenging and is still typical when one thinks of a shipwreck. The wreck lies in two big pieces. I'll never forget how her bow points straight up towards the surface and the steel of her hull where she broke looked peeled back like a banana skin. You can more easily imagine what I'm talking about with the help of this sketch:

The bow section is in the upper left.  [added: here is a photo of her bow taken by my father sometime in the '60's]:

Obviously tremendous forces clashed that night back in 1905. Her stern lies in deeper water and the pilothouse lies even deeper, completely detached from the rest (in the very foreground in the sketch). My dad's friend salvaged the ship's wheel and other artifacts which can now be seen in a museum in Duluth. The other parts of the wreck are unrecognizable as a ship- just twisted bulkheads. The vessel had long since lost its coating of paint, but incredibly, the iron hull is remarkably well preserved--a combination of freshwater, cold, and depth.

The Madeira wreck is cold and deep.  I recall experiencing a little bit of nitrogen narcosis that first time when we plunged to the wheelhouse. I remember signaling my dad that we needed to go up a little. I still remember slowly crawling back up that pile of rocks towards the cliff.  In those days (1975) before the widespread advent of buoyancy compensators (BC's), I had an orange inflatable vest that required me to wrap my lips around the inflation tube and blow (nowadays, those things are hooked-up directly to one's air supply and one can adjust buoyancy with a push button). Although we were covered head-to-toe in 3/8 wet suits, there was this little gap between my face mask and the opening in the hood which exposed my face and lips. Now those body parts are pretty resilient to cold, but after mouthing a regulator for about 45 minutes in 42 degree water, my lips and mouth were frozen and I still recall the difficulty of getting my mouth around that smaller tube in order to re-inflate my vest--the sheer will to live overcame and triumphed.

There is a major treasure trove of Madeira photos here: Link

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

First Stop,Two Harbors

After breaking camp outside of Duluth, we sometimes stopped on the main drag (Highway 61) through Two Harbors for a breakfast. If you go through there, it's impossible to miss the 8 foot chicken by the side of the road. Link. Two Harbors is also famous as the birthplace of 3M.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Pail And Shovel Party

Sorting through old negatives the other day, I came across this one.  That is Leon Varjian (l) and Jim Mallon (r), VP and President of the Wisconsin Student Association, posing for me ca. 1979-80.  Varjian and Mallon were the clowns who first brought the Statue of Liberty to Madison and also the pink flamingos to Bascom Hill.

On Bivouac; Going Up The Country

March 1, 1952
Fort Knox, KY

Dear Mom and Dad and All,

Here it is March 1st and I am 15 miles south of Knox on Bivouac. [1]  We left about 6:00 Monday morning and our first camp was 8 miles out. It sure was cold that first night and I thought I would freeze. I know water froze ice in our canteens that night. [2]  Two of us sleep in a tent. We have sleeping bags, 3 blankets and a poncho. We put leaves on the ground and then a poncho to keep dry from the damp ground.
Today is Sat. and we all went in for 2 hrs, for a shower. We also got candy bars and flashlight batteries, or any thing we needed. We got most of our field clothes with us so we can change when some get dirty. It gets real warm around noon so that’s when I shave and brush my teeth.
We can only have fires on weekends. I had 3 cans of heat I burnt the first 3 nights. [3] It rained yesterday afternoon, but we was off for the weekend so I wasn’t out in it. Stayed in the tent. We got 5 days left so I guess I will make it. After the first night most of us were used to the cold.
Billie won’t get home for 18 weeks, maybe 20. I haven’t seen Lowell for quite a while. He must be done training by now.
I still weigh about the same. 175 lbs. The pictures were good. Has dad said any more about coming down April 1st. I might call home before I come.
We traded our old horse blanket overcoats in today for a $60.00 dress overcoat. Are they ever sharp. I will have it next time home. I won’t get to go to church this Sunday. It is getting late in the afternoon so will sign off for now.


P.S. Starting today we get a 9 dollar raise. For being in the Army 4 mo.
[1] Bivouac sounds so French. I don't recall ever hearing my father utter the word. Actually, the word bivouac comes from a gallification of a Swiss German term beiwacht, and refers to night watch at an army encampment.
[2] The expression "water froze ice" is utter vernacular, frozen in time.
[2]  Heat is Sterno.  The iconic '60's band Canned Heat took their name from this product.