Tag Archives: Vacaville

Keep your eyes to the ground

I re-learned a lesson over the weekend – when hiking in Northern California in warmer weather, it’s always good to keep your eyes to the ground around you.

I was hiking with a friend in Lagoon Valley Regional Park south of Vacaville just off Interstate 80 and we had climbed the hill overlooking the park and the freeway. We followed a trail on the ridge to a marker there remembering early settlers of the area.

We had just moved beyond the marker and were on the ridge trail as I gazed at a vulture gliding on the warm air above the park. As I turned to resume the hike, I glanced down and very nearly stepped on a fairly young rattlesnake – just four or five rattles and perhaps 16 inches long. They say the venom from younger snakes is more potent than that of older snakes, but I had no intension of finding out.

I just barely kept from stepping forward – and onto the snake – and was able to step back to give it a bit more room. It glided across the trail and into the tall grass on the other side.

It was the first time my friend had seen a rattlesnake in the wild and it startled her a bit. And the last time I had seen one in the wild was while firefighting during my college years; it was a threat to my crew and the snake was dispatched with the sharpened end of a shovel.

We continued the hike, warning another group of hikers that we had seen a rattlesnake and that they should keep a sharp eye out. Well, we warned them and then let them walk on the trial in front of us. … Hey, we warned ’em.

Lagoon Valley Regional Park is a lovely multi-use green area between Vacaville and Fairfield along Interstate 80. There is hiking, running, biking, picnicking, birding, archery, model aircrafts, fishing and more. It is not far from the Pena Adobe, the restored home of one of the founding settlers.

And the rattlesnake was not the only bit of wildlife we spotted along the rest of the hike – birds, horses, turtles and a beaver. Actually, the beaver had succumbed to some illness or attacker so wildlife is not exactly accurate.

But it was a very lovely day, despite the startling encounter with the rattlesnake. And a lesson learned. Again.

All rights reserved by Keith Michaud ©

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Coffeehouse observation No. 312 – It’s worth a conversation about, well, conversations!

I’ve hit onto something, um, different. At Empresso, the coffeehouse I frequent most often in Stockton, I’m among the older patrons. But at my temporary coffeehouse, not so much.

Sure, there are a few who are older at Empresso, no doubt. But it’s pretty obvious to those who see me that I’m graying and balding on top and a bit broader than I once was in the middle.

I’m a middle-age guy. There! I’ve admitted it! Now everyone get off my back! And while you’re at it, off my lawn!

Whew! I better cut back on the caffeine. … Ya, sure, as if that’s gonna happen!

Anyway, I’m away from Stockton for a while and I had to find a temporary port of call to satisfy my caffeine cravings. Actually, I had to re-find this particular port of call.

Pure Grain Café has been around Vacaville for years, but it wasn’t until shortly before I left for Stockton that they opened a coffeehouse in historic downtown Vacaville – coffee, pastries, sandwiches, soup and salads. It is that now-familiar morph between straight coffeehouse and luncheon deli.

It’s a sunny and bright place. The Vacaville city seal is a sun shining down brightly on the golden rolling hills around and outside the city. Pure Grain Café’s interior is painted yellow to match the sun. And many of the patrons are in their sunny golden years.

That means I’m not so much “the old guy” anymore. A couple of times so far this week, I was among the youngest patrons in the coffeehouse!

It was great to sit there enjoying a cup of coffee and a blueberry muffin, surfing the Web, and watching a few of Vacaville’s long-time residents. Like many coffeehouses, Pure Grain Café is a place where old friends wave and call out to each other and then plop down beside each other at a table to spend the next few hours talking. Just talking about this and that and the other thing. Talking about everything and simply nothing at all.

It is difficult in this electronic age where lives can change – fortunes forged, fortunes pissed away, careers made, careers decimated, friendships solidified, friendships destroyed, loves gained, loves lost – all in the click of a mouse or in the sending of a text. We seem to have lost the art of conversation. Sad. We miss so much by failing to carry out one of the most human of activities – conversation.

We all should take the time to have long, meandering conversations that seem to go nowhere and everywhere at the same time, conversations that solve the world’s problems, great and small, and conversations in which recipes for “the world’s best chili” or “the world’s best burger” are exchanged with impunity.

We should return to those conversations in which words spoken are as important as the words left unspoken. We should return to those conversations carried out under willow trees dancing in the wind, on boats with water slowly lapping against the hull, in hushed tones of conspiracy or love or both, and conversations accompanied by boisterous laughter.

Conversations should be lively, animated and meaningful. If not, why not just text the person.

I did not eavesdrop – at least, not much – but it was clear that the conversations among old friends going on at the tables in Pure Grain Café were lively, animated … and very meaningful. My table was the only one on which there was an electronic device. Those conversations – those meaningful conversations – required no email, instant messaging or texting. No electronics at all were used to carry out the actual conversations.

Don’t get me wrong! Electronics and the amazing Internet are vital to our world and they will be essential to bringing this country more economic stability. But personal conversations are just as vital.

Let’s talk about it, at least.

All rights reserved by Keith Michaud ©

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Coffeehouse observation No. 311 – Hot, steamy coffee on a rainy day

The weather in California has been, well, to say the least, weird this year. It’s raining on the first day of June. By now we normally would have experienced a couple of 90-degree days, but I cannott recall even one so far.

It’s been gray, cloudy, rainy and windy today. It truly feels like fall or winter in Northern California.

It’s just the right weather for a hot, steamy cup of coffee enjoyed in an inviting coffeehouse. I’m sucking down the house blend at Pure Grain Café, my temporary coffeehouse headquarters for the week that I am in Vacaville cat-, house- and mansion-sitting. Nothing quite like a hot, steamy cup of coffee – or tea, in a pinch – to chase away the chill of foul weather.

Go to Coffeehouse Observer for more coffeehouse observations.

All rights reserved by Keith Michaud ©

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Coffeehouse observation No. 310 – Temporary coffeehouse is pure as the grain

Taking a break from musty, dusty, crusty Stockton is always great thing.

This week I am getting away from Stockton by doing a bit of house-sitting, cat-sitting, and mansion-sitting.

You read that last bit correctly – mansion-sitting.

A friend is the estate manager for a property important to the history of Vacaville, the Solano County city where I worked for more than 13 years before moving to Stockton.

She and her boyfriend – along with his guitar, his bows, her clothing, her books (to be donated to a library), her camera equipment, and a refrigerator-sized telescope – crammed into a Nissan Sentra and headed out of the Sacramento Valley, over the Sierra Nevada, and across a good portion of the state of Nevada for a vacation.

My friend, beside having a grueling workload at the mansion, has been involved in the care and morale for a couple of friends who over the past few months have been battling cancer. One of them seems to be kicking it; we buried the other a couple of weeks ago. Being there for those friends – and the subsequent death of one of them – has taken its toll on her and this is a much-needed vacation.

So I will be here to feed the four or five cats she has welcomed into her home, the boyfriend’s slightly skittish cat, two gold fish (including one who apparently has a problem digesting food), and two turtles in the fish pond that really doesn’t have any fish. I’ll be picking up mail, accepting packages from UPS and FedEx drivers, checking the exterior of the yard and mansion to make sure security is OK, being onsite to make sure security is OK, and doing pretty much what I can around the place to make sure security is OK. The mansion is fairly grand – for the city and for the time period during which it was built – and the grounds are spectacular and a joy simply to visit.

And historic downtown Vacaville is only a few blocks away – it is a perfect morning stroll for a cup of coffee.

Yes, coffee. I will be drinking coffee while here in Vacaville. Was there any doubt?

I used to live and work in Vacaville before I started working in Stockton. I’ve always liked Vacaville and wish now I could afford to live here. I’ve been out of work for so long now that soon I may not be able to afford anything but a Maytag box.

Not too long before I left, the city used redevelopment funds to spruce up things in the downtown – fantastic new buildings, new plazas, new walkway along the creek downtown, and more.

And in one of those new buildings on one of those new plazas is the expanded Pure Grain Café. The coffee is just OK, but the pastries and muffins are fantastic. They have WiFi and a lunch menu, too, complete with sandwiches, paninis, soups and salads. If I didn’t have responsibilities as a temporary assistant estate manager (actually, I don’t think I have a job title at all), I could spend quite a bit of time and money in Pure Grain Café.

I’ll be checking in from here throughout the week. This is my temporary home-away-from Empresso, the coffeehouse I most frequent in Stockton. The other is Exotic Java.

Empresso is fun because it is located in the lobby of an old movie theater, so it’s a bit quirky and on the dark side unless you sit near the floor-to-ceiling windows.

Pure Grain Café is different. It has floor-to-ceiling windows on two walls that open up to Vacaville’s Maine Street and an adjacent plaza. The interior walls are yellow and the high ceiling white, giving it a much more open, lighter feel. The display cases are crowded with cakes, pastries and muffins on one side, and luncheon offerings – sandwiches and salads – along the other side of the counter. The whole place has much more the feel of a contemporary deli than a typical coffeehouse.

It is a nice change.

Apparently, this is the place for old friends to meet, read the newspaper and catch up on the latest gossip. More than half the tables inside are filled. The outside tables have been used since I sat down, but there is a bit of a chill in the air so it is not particularly comfortable to side outside.

Beside facing Main Street and the plaza, the building in which Pure Grain Café is located is just a short walk from the local senior center, county library, a wine and gift shop, and the Ulatis Creekwalk.

OK, time to move along. I’ve gotta get back to the mansion.

Go to Coffeehouse Observer for more coffeehouse observations.

All rights reserved by Keith Michaud ©

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Visiting a much-missed home away from home

While I have lived in Stockton the past couple of years, the place I miss – not quite as much as Maine, of course – is Vacaville.

It is the closest thing to home that I have known since moving to California. I spent more than 13 years living and working in Vacaville, positioned along Interstate 80 between Sacramento and San Francisco. That location has made Vacaville a fine commuter community.

But Vacaville – a farming and ranching community and home to two state prisons long before it was a commuter town – is more than a wide spot along the freeway. It is a family-friendly city with parks and events. A fine selection of retail shops are here, too, mostly because of the freeway access. It is not far from recreational opportunities, including Lake Berryessa and Lagoon Valley Regional Park; it is not that far from the Napa wine region, either.

And the city is nestled at the base of California’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Or, at least, I believe they are part of California’s Blue Ridge Mountains. They are beautiful most of the year and when they are not spotted with brush fire.

Vacaville is a place I regretted leaving. I did so for career opportunities, which since have soured and dried up. Vacaville is a place where I would live again if I had the opportunity.

I ventured to Vacaville today, however, not out of nostalgia, but out of desperation. I have run through my Unemployment Insurance benefits and there will not be more coming unless Congress does something to ease the suffering of the 99ers, the long-term unemployed Americans who have gone through their 99 weeks of Unemployment Insurance.

I came to do the unthinkable – cash out an IRA to pay my bills for the next couple of months. I hated doing it; it is just one more sign of personal failure, I suppose. I calculate I will have enough to pay my basic expenses for the next two or three months and still have enough to cover a complete retreat out of California if I still have not found a job in that time.

But at this very moment, I am sitting at a table in the Solano County Library’s Vacaville Town Square branch in the heart of downtown Vacaville. Outside the grand floor-to-ceiling windows are Andrews Park and the CreekWalk. A gray squirrel just ran up the embankment along the walk and jumped into a redwood tree. Just a short distance away, two blue jays swept up the creek and into a conifer. People have been walking back and forth since I sat down and up on the hill at Great Wonders Playground, children are playing.

Great Wonders was built many years ago with volunteer labor and donations. It was burned down a short time later due to negligence. Volunteers rebuilt the place even better than it was before.

That sort of community spirit – building a playground and then rebuilding it just short few weeks later – is what I miss about Maine and what I miss about Vacaville.

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Libra purchases potato company in Mars Hill | The Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram

[It’s a small world, goes the cliche, but this story proves it once again. The Basic American Foods company that sold this to the local Maine investors was started in Vacaville, Calif., where I lived for about 13 years. It’s a wonderful city with a small-town feel. It’s situated on Interstate 80 between Sacramento and San Francisco. The Humes, who started Basic American Foods, did much to feed World War II servicemen with the techniques they developed. — KM]

Libra purchases potato company in Mars Hill | The Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram.

Once-young journalist traveled to Africa to cover humanitarian mission

[There are few opportunities for young newspaper journalists to work abroad, especially in this economy. Newspapers simply do not have the wherewithal to pay a journalist and provide them with all that is necessary to live and work in a foreign country. Wire services usually gather news from foreign lands.  I was working for The Reporter, the newspaper in Vacaville, Calif., in the summer of 1994 when I received one of those rare – albeit very brief – opportunities. Vacaville is not far from Travis Air Force Base and the Air Force – especially prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks – allowed journalists to travel with crews on humanitarian missions, training flights, and other exercises. It was a way for the Air Force to connect via journalists with local residents, many of whom were retired servicemen and women or family members of active and reserve servicemen and women. Reporter photographer Joel Rosenbaum and I traveled that summer with Air Force reserves crews transporting water purification equipment to help combat cholera and famine among the refugees spilling into Zaire because of ethnic cleansing in nearby Rwanda. Here are two stories and a column I wrote about that experience. The stories originally were published in The Reporter with photographs by Joel, but here I have included my own photos taken during our very brief stay in Goma. Also, the editor’s note at the top of the first story indicates that there would be more stories the following weekend. That did not happen, because of interrupted travel plans. Joel and I ended up in Europe for a few days longer than we expected with nothing about which to write or shoot photos. The next story was not published until the following week. The first story, by the way, was transcribed over phone lines from the airport in Mombasa, Kenya, to Stacy Wells, then a staff writer at The Reporter. Today, I could have transmitted the story in an instant via the Internet. – Keith Michaud] 

Residents of nearby makeshift villages gather as a U.S. Air Force Reserve crew based at Travis Air Force Base begins unloading water purification equipment in Goma, Zaire. The photo was taken in the summer of 1994 by Keith Michaud, a journalist covering the mission.

Residents of nearby makeshift villages gather as the C-5 Galaxy is unloaded. The transport was based at Travis Air Force Base in Northern California. Photo by Keith Michaud.

July 28, 1994 

Clashing with cholera

Travis delivery helps refugees in Zaire

(Reporter staff writer Keith Michaud and photographer Joel Rosenbaum accompanied Travis (Air Force Base) crews on their mission of mercy to Africa. Look for more of their reports this weekend in The Reporter. – Editor) 

 By Keith Michaud 

Staff Writer 

A C-5A Galaxy transport plane from Travis Air Force base delivered much-needed water purification equipment to Zaire on Tuesday, helping Rwandan refugees battle a deadly outbreak of cholera. 

By Wednesday, the equipment was working and delivering purified lake water to thousands of refugees in camps near the border town of Goma. 

The relief effort, however, was hampered by a lack of trucks to deliver water. United Nations officials were able to round up only two leaking, half-busted tanker trucks. 

U.N. organizers, overwhelmed by the crisis, said they were searching for tanker trucks in Zaire and shipping in about 10 tankers from Uganda and Croatia, but were able to rent only a few from gasoline shipping companies Wednesday. 

The Travis transport, manned by reserves from the 349the Airlift Mobility Wing, traveled for nearly 24 hours with at least three mid-air refuelings to deliver the water purification equipment and the seven-man crew from Portable Water Supply Systems. The Redwood City company set up an above-ground water system to pump 100,200 gallons of lake water every minute to eight water purifiers. 

Company owner Frank Blackburn said he and his crew will use two miles of hose to bring water from Lake Kibu, near Goma. Water there has been fouled by dead bodies and human excrement, worsening the cholera epidemic. 

Blackburn, a former San Francisco Fire Department assistant chief with 34 years experience in firefighting and disaster planning, said his company helped provide water during the Loma Prieta earthquake and the Oakland Hills firestorm. 

“This one is different because there’s a lot of people dying over here,” he said, aboard the C-5A. 

Blackburn’s son, Matthew, is with the crew. 

“For him, it’s a workshop,” Blackburn said of his son, a University of California, Davis, student studying international relations. 

Hundreds of refugees, French airmen, and U.N. representatives greeted the transport when it landed at the now-busy airport in Goma. Children scattered from the runway as the huge jet touched down. 

Not far away from where the plane was unloaded were two bodies and piles of rocks some said where graves. A member of the U.S. military assessment team said bodies also were outside the airport entrance, mostly because the airport is between the contaminated lake and a refugee camp. 

“Every day, a thousand more dead,” said French Air Force Capt. Jacques Albert Roussel. “It is terrible. In front of the (airport) there are dead.” 

Roussel and other French airmen have been in Zaire for a month. Roussel said the relief effort was a good thing. 

“It’s difficult, but a beautiful mission because we do it for them,” said Roussel, pointing to the hundreds of refugees gathering to see the transport. 

As the crew finished unloading equipment, a funeral procession moved from nearby huts, along the edge of the runway, behind palm trees. Children begged for money, business cards, to have their photograph taken, or anything American. 

U.S. Army Maj. Guy Shields, part of the military assessment team at Goma, said the purification equipment delivered Tuesday is much needed. “Those are going to make a big dent.” 

Shields said the local government and humanitarian groups were cooperating with the advance assessment team. He said one of the early problems was getting aircraft unloaded at the airport; at first planes were unloaded by hand. 

“The biggest thing here was to ease up on the congestion at the air field,” said Shields. “And the next thing was to bring in water.” 

U.S. Air Force Capt. David Burgess was helping deliver Red Cross supplies to Nairobi, Kenya, when he asked if someone was needed to assess the airport in Goma. That was seven days ago. 

After unloading the C-5A with a forklift, Burgess estimated he had unloaded 300 tons during the previous 30 hours from all sorts of aircraft arriving from different countries. 

A tired Burgess said, “I’ve seen the refugee camps. I’ve seen the mass graves. I’ve seen funeral processions like the one we just saw. We need more help here. 

“The bodies stacked like cord wood. … It really gets to you.” 

Two children from the nearby makeshift villages ham it up for a couple of journalists from the United States. In the background are what locals said were burial mounds. The children were playing on the mounds. Photo by Keith Michaud.

A funeral procession makes it way not far from a C-5 Galaxy transport jet being unloaded of water purification equipment at the Goma, Zaire, airstrip in the summer of 1994. Photo by Keith Michaud.

August 2, 1994 

Grim images of refugees haunt helpers

(Today’s edition of The Reporter features the efforts of staff writer Keith Michaud and photographer Joel Rosenbaum. The pair accompanied Travis (Air Force Base) crews on a mission of mercy as they delivered water purification equipment to a Rwandan refugee camp in Goma, Zaire. – Editor) 

By Keith Michaud 

Staff Writer 

The images of Goma, Zaire, go beyond frightening. The go beyond haunting. 

On a hill overlooking the airstrip, two small bodies lay side-by-side, their faces and most of their thin bodies covered with a cloth. 

A small child – perhaps 5 years old – sat on one of the nearby rock piles in a makeshift graveyard with graves of all sizes, from adult to small child. 

As the first of the U.S. Air Force transports finished unloading water purification equipment a week ago for thousands of Rwandans dying from cholera and other diseases, a funeral procession came from behind a dirt berm nearly concealing shanty huts. 

The procession, complete with 100 or more singing mourners, made its way around one end of the runway where the C-5A Galaxy jet from Travis Air Base in Fairfield was being unloaded. It then moved into a grove of nearby palm trees. 

Despite the muggy haze, Mount Kilimanjaro could be seen from miles away, a backdrop to the airport, the camps and the horror. 

Relief workers said bodies of more dead were along the road just outside the airport gate, the same road used by refugees to travel from the camps to Lake Kivu, which is contaminated by dead bodies and human waste. 

These, by far, are not the worst scenes from the tragedy that has come from a Rwandan civil war that has already killed hundreds of thousands and left tens of thousands dying in refugee camps. 

But each image of death, each image of suffering, each image of the atrocities in Rwanda and surrounding countries adds to a pile of horrific woes stacked far higher than stones piled on top of the graves. 

Air Force Capt. David Burgess arrived in Goma, Zaire, five days before the Travis jet. 

Flying humanitarian aid to Nairobi, Kenya, Burgess volunteered to fly to the tiny airstrip to assess the airport for the expected flights bring aid to the ravaged countries. 

I’ve seen the refugee camps. I’ve seen the mass graves. I’ve seen funeral processions like the one we just saw. We need more help here,” said Burgess, weary from nearly single-handedly unloading transport aircraft early last week with a lone forklift. 

Other transports, he said, were unloaded by hand. 

“The bodies stacked like cordwood. … It really gets to you,” he added. 

Hundreds of refugees gathered around the Travis jet, making it difficult for Burgess to unload. The onlookers, mostly small boys and men, crowded in on the jet, its Air Force reserve crew and media representatives accompanying the humanitarian mission. 

The men, speaking broken English and passable French, asked for help, any help. The mostly begged for money. 

The children also begged for money, but some were happy just to have their photograph taken. Some children wearing little more than rags walked arm-in-arm, apparently with no surviving adults to supervise them. 

It is estimated that some 2 million Rwandans left their homes and their crops to flee to Zaire, and hundreds of thousands of others fled to Tanzania, Burundi and Uganda. 

By the end of the week, many refugees began returning to their homes despite the continued threat of violence there. Relief workers were trying to set up food stations along the road back to Rwanda to encourage refugees to return home and away from the deadly camps. 

The suffering prompted a U.S.-led rescue effort on a massive scale. The U.S. military called upon reserves – its “weekend warriors” – for a peaceful mission. 

The C-5A Galaxy carrying water purification equipment from a Redwood City company, Portable Water Supply System, was flown nearly 24 hours straight from Travis Air Force Base to the airport in Goma, Zaire. The flight, because of its length, required twice the normal crew from the 349th Air Mobility Wing and three mid-air refuelings. 

Now flights are taking off from military bases in Europe on their way to Africa. 

One of the pilots, Lt. Col. John Jackson of Benicia, has been in the reserves at Travis the past 15 years, with 10 years active duty before that. Jackson has flown scores of humanitarian and emergency missions, but delivering the water purification equipment had a special meaning. 

“You couldn’t get much more humanitarian than that,” said Jackson. “We want to help provide a safe water supply.” 

Portable Water Supply System was up and running within 24 hours, helping provide hundreds of thousands of gallons of drinking water. With more equipment expected, the water was but a fraction of what was needed and relief workers were unable to get much of the water to the refugees because of leaky tankers. 

“It’s much more satisfying to do these types of missions,” said Jackson, who is a Hawaiian Airlines pilot away from the reserves. “It’s nicer to try to save somebody than it is to go to war with somebody.” 

Jackson’s co-pilot, 1st Lt. Greg Chrisman of Burlingame said, “From a personal level, it’s pretty easy to read a newspaper or watch TV and see what’s happening. … I don’t even think we can imagine the severity of the situation. 

“When they called and said they needed people, that was part of my commitment (to the Reserves). I wanted to go,” said Chrisman, who flies for Southwest Airlines. 

Jackson and Chrisman over the years have flown missions to Desert Storm and Somalia, and have helped relief efforts after hurricanes and other natural disasters. 

Tech. Sgt. Alice Munoz, of Vacaville, has more than 14 years in active and reserve duty. A correctional officer at California State Prison, Solano in Vacaville, Munoz is a flight engineer. 

Except for the flight surgeon, she was the only woman on the reserve crew flying the equipment to Goma. 

“I’m very patriotic,” said Munoz, “so whatever the Air Force has for me, I’m willing to help out. 

I treat all missions the same way because you never know what’s going to happen.” 

Munoz was not the only crew member from Vacaville. Lt. Col. Phillip P. Blackburn, Mast Sgt. Wendell K. Asato, and Staff Sgt. Roderick J. Rodda, all of Vacaville, were also on the crew, with Staff Sgt. Robert T. Selmer of Fairfield. 

The crew members mentioned that their employers willingly allowed them to take off time for the mission, mostly because of the images shown over the past weeks. 

“I think they were more excited about it than I was,” Munoz said of her supervisors at the prison. “I think they know what’s going on over (in Rwanda and Zaire).” 

[The following is a column I was allowed to write at The Reporter after I returned. I believe it was published on or about the same time as the story immediately above, but I cannot find the date on the clipping I have of the column. This column was written prior to being given a regular weekly column at The Reporter. – KM] 

Two children from a nearby makeshift village play and ham it up for journalists as water purification equipment is unloaded from a C-5 Galaxy transport based at Travis Air Force Base in the summer of 1994. Children from the villages near the Goma, Zaire, airstrip made a game out of running into jet wash as a plane landed. The force of the wash would lift them into the air. Photo by Keith Michaud

Unshakeable images

 It’s hard to shake the things you see in Goma, Zaire. 

A week back from the trip with an Air Force Reserve flight to a tiny airstrip to deliver water purification equipment, I still don’t sleep as well, eat as well or think as well as I did before visiting that place. 

Maybe it’s jet lag. Maybe it’s the malaria pills I must take for another couple of weeks. Maybe it’s just what I saw there. 

Even though it was just an African airport and not the disease plagued refugee camps, it changed my perspective on the world and what’s important. 

We Americans are quick – too quick – to complain about the very little of things. We complain if we don’t have clean underwear. We complain if a flight home is not on time. We complain about being a couple bucks sort. 

What do Rwandan refugees have to complain about? 

They have life and death. Lately, they’ve had mostly death. 

When all the bodies are totaled, there could be 750,000 to 1 million dead between the civil war in Rwanda and the disease in refugee camps in neighboring countries. Many of those camps are around Goma. 

There’s a surreal quality to the Goma airstrip. As the C-5A Galaxy from Travis Air Force Base came in low for the landing, young children scurried out of the jet’s path, many knocked over by the wash. It’s a little game they play in Goma. 

A fence of rolled barbed wire goes around a least part of the airfield. But there are large holes in the fence and it’s fairly easy for refugees camped not far away to make it to the end of the runway to see the big jet as it is being unloaded. 

Americans complain about being overweight and being unable to stick to diets. There were no overweight people at the Goma airstrip. There were a few bloated stomachs, though. 

The airstrip there is in a bit of a basin with patches of green and lush hills nearby. Mount Kilimanjaro from miles away peers down through the thick, hazy African sky. 

Just beyond the rolled barbed wire were two thin bodies, barely covered with a cloth. Refugees from nearby shanty camps walked by with bundles heaped high on their heads; most barely looked at the bodies. To them, the bodies were just two more of so many. 

And just beyond were more signs of death in Goma: stones piled up for graves of all sizes. Children play among the piled stones. 

As the crew finished unloading the huge jet, a funeral procession went by. More death. 

It’s not difficult to imagine the bodies. U.S. and French military officers talked about the road just outside the airport. Men hardened by training, expectations and experience, they still become choked up when they talked about bodies stacked like cordwood. 

But among the images of death, there are still those glimmers of hope. The water purification equipment was up and running within 24 hours. It was enough to give only a small portion of the refugees clean water, but it was a start. 

Two children walk down the runway at the Goma, Zaire, airstrip in the summer of 1994.

And children still play in Africa. They still walk arm-in-arm. They still mug it up for a camera. Children die in the refugee camps, but children are children and they play until they are too ill to play. 

It’s not the Africa I saw as a kid in Tarzan movies. It’s an Africa that likely will continue tearing itself apart with tribal wars – wars that will continue to leave hundreds of thousands of people vulnerable. 

News stories compared the death and living conditions to hell and the first days of the Apocalypse. That seems close to the truth. 

The author was a staff writer for The Reporter when this column was published. 

Maine stuff in my California apartment No. 5

These to Maine magnets hang on my Caifornia refrigerator.

This is an occasional multipart series of photos of things related to Maine that can be found in my California apartment. Today’s photo is of two refrigerator magnets. (Hey, they can’t all be grand.)

The one on the left is a miniature potato bag. (Fear not, no potatoes were harmed in the making of this blog.)

Potato farming is big in Maine. It was even bigger when I was a kid, I believe. I’m pretty sure farmers have moved to other crops such as sugar beats and soybeans over the years. My Mom sent me the potato bag magnet years and years ago in a Christmas or birthday package.

The other magnet is of Nubble Light in York, Maine. I know I didn’t visit Nubble Light or purchase the magnet and have no idea how I came to have the magnet. I have had it for years; it used to hang from a metal light shade above my desk when I worked at The Reporter in Vacaville, Calif. Not sure why I keep it around; it has no sentimental value, except perhaps because it is something from Maine. Well, something made in China from Maine.

This is an occasional multipart series of photos of things related to Maine that can be found in Keith Michaud’s California apartment. Keith Michaud shot today’s photos

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Keith’s ride, Part 7: V-6 under the hood and ready to ride

[This is the sixth of eight or so blog entries on the cars and other vehicles I have driven. It may or may not be of interest. Enjoy. Or not. It’s your choice. – KM]

The Suzuki Sidekick was so underpowered that I called it my golf cart. All it needed was a rack on the back for golf bags and a plastic plate on the steering wheel to hold a score card!

Sure, it was a fairly dependable vehicle, but it was small, the doors sounded hollow when closed, and passengers did not sit high enough when going down the road. And I always had an uncomfortable feeling passing or meeting larger vehicles on the road and occasionally the Sidekick was moved by the gust of wind caused by the passing larger vehicle.

Anyway, I wanted something more. And bigger.

My friend Rick knew this, but he had known me long enough to know of my procrastinating nature – there are times when I put off making a decision to the point that a decision is made for me. Options are limited or eliminated with the passage of time. And I know this. It is not a great characteristic to have, but it is one of mine and I own it.

One weekend day, Rick called me from a local sports bar where his daughter worked and where we occasionally frequented after work. He called me on the ruse of buying me a beer and lunch.

After a couple of burgers and beers, he said something like: “Come on, let’s go get you a new car.”

There was another tent sale going on, this time in the parking lot of the sports bar.

But newspaper jobs, especially those at smaller newspapers, are notorious for paying poorly. The newspaper in Vacaville was no different, so I had little in the way of saved cash that I could use for a down payment and I knew there was not much value in the Sidekick to be used as a trade-in.

But Rick convinced me that we should at least take a look. We wandered around the parking lot for a bit and I kept coming back to a golden 2000 Isuzu Rodeo – the same vehicle as a Honda Passport, but with the Isuzu nameplates instead of Honda emblems. (Isuzu and Honda had made the vehicles in a joint venture, much as were the Suzuki Sidekick and Geo/Chevrolet Tracker.)

A salesman came around and told us that the Rodeo had been used as a commuter vehicle and had quite a few miles, but was in pretty good shape. It was a V-6, such a step up from the Suzuki that I was lured in. But in a pleasant way.

The Rodeo had a V-6, power windows, a nice stereo, AC, power ports in the dash and rear cargo area, and plenty of other features that I never had before in a vehicle.

But paying for it weighed heavily on my mind as we continued to wander around the lot.

Rick and the salesman were able to convince me to have my credit rating checked to see if I qualified for any breaks for financing the vehicle.

I suppose working in a low-paying profession has a way of forcing a person to be frugal and I had worked hard to pay credit card bills on time, even if I could not make much of a dent in the total balance.

Apparently, that diligence had nudged my credit rating up over the years.

“Dude! Do you know what your credit rating is?!” Rick asked me, as the figures started coming in from the major ranking agencies. I didn’t so he told me.

“Is that good?” I replied.

The sales manager and Rick both looked up smiling. Apparently, it was really, really good.

“Man, oh, yeah! It’s good!” Rick said with a bit of excitement.

So, I worked out a payment plan, traded in the Sidekick, and drove away in the Rodeo.

Going from a “golf cart” to a V-6 – the first V-6 I had owned since the Caprice Classic – was an enlightening and enjoyable experience. I no longer had to worry so much about merging into traffic or making it up hills. Driving in the Sierra was a pleasure!

I don’t recall having buyer’s remorse when I bought the Rodeo. If I did, it must have been short-lived and I enjoyed driving around for years in the Rodeo, especially with Hawaiian-print seat covers, as I had in the Suzuki. Driving with Hawaiian-print seat covers is always, always better than driving without them. (If you have to ask “why?” then you simply would not get it.)

Besides being much more comfortable and powerful and enjoyable to drive, the Rodeo also gave me quite a bit more safety. It was larger and heavier, of course, and there were more airbags and other safety gear. A gust of wind from a passing vehicle no longer moved the vehicle.

The Rodeo was my ride when I left The Reporter in Vacaville and started working for The Record in Stockton. I was the opinion page editor at The Reporter when I was hired at The Record to be one of three assistant city editors.

I did not move to Stockton right away; I commuted from Vacaville. I drove on state Highways 113 and 12, both roads notorious for the traffic wrecks – many of them fatal – and a short distance on Interstate 5. Initially, I worked a night shift at The Record, supervising reporters, monitoring the police scanner, dispatching reporters and photographers, and making sure stories were read and flowed to paginators – the people who design and put together the electronic versions of newspaper pages. It was a stressful job when things went hectically and boring otherwise.

Many times I left The Record, lighted a cigar, and drove up I-5 to the Lodi cutoff onto westbound Highway 12, turning off east of Fairfield and Suisun City to northbound Highway 113. The drive home at times was more stressful than the job. Driving on Highways 113 and 12 meant narrow lanes, undulating pavement, semi-blind curves, impatient motorists, and the occasional loose cattle.

After about six months or so, Rick and his wife, Michele, and another former Reporter coworker, James, helped me load a moving van and Rick and I headed eastward with the bulk of my belongings to the apartment I had rented in Stockton.

Stockton has a reputation for being a rough and tumble city. And rightfully so. It is on an inland port, the gateway of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, and at the heart of the California Central Valley’s agricultural industry. Stockton is the county seat of San Joaquin County; county seats tend to draw a wide spectrum of people, some for the economic and political opportunities and others for county and state social services.

But I had not enjoyed commuting an hour each way from and to Vacaville. In late 2006, I found an apartment in central Stockton near the University of the Pacific. The apartment had an underground garage in which to park my ride, which made things more comfortable for me on several levels – I no longer needed to commute, which was putting wear and tear on me and the Rodeo, and I could park in a protected garage.

For the next couple of years working for The Record, I generally drove a couple of miles from the underground garage at my apartment to a fenced and patrolled parking lot across the street from The Record. It was a much better situation than commuting from Vacaville.

Along the way, the newspaper industry began to spiral out of control. In an effort to cut costs, there was a newsroom reorganization in which I was essentially demoted. (My feeling about this is not new or unknown; at the time, I told the managing editor that there was no other way to look at what was being done to me except that it was a demotion. He did not offer arguments to the contrary.)

Instead of working nights or days, which I also had done, I was working a modified shift in which I started at 6 a.m. updating the newspaper website content from overnight news, posted business, traffic and weather, went out on spot news, and help out inputting other information for the print and web versions of the newspaper. I also monitored comments left on stories posted on the website.

Driving to work one morning in 2008, I was stopped at a light at an intersection a half block from the parking lot I used when working at The Record. A Chevrolet Tahoe coming in the opposite direction did not stop at the red light, was T-boned by a vehicle that had the right-of-way, and the Tahoe was spun into my Rodeo.

I remember stiffening and yelling “No, no, no!” as the Tahoe spun around and into my vehicle.

The impact was not severe enough to cause me injury – other than a stiff back – or even to cause the airbags to deploy, but it was enough to destroy my front tire, front bumper, the radiator, and more. It was totaled.

The Tahoe’s driver, who was accompanied by a teen boy and teen girl who I presumed were his children, tried to say that the other vehicle had blown the red light, probably because the other vehicle was a beat up pickup with two passengers who appeared as they had lived a rough life. But I told him no, no, no, that he had blown the red light. He didn’t argue too hard and his insurance eventually more than paid off my Rodeo.

With a little help from a former Reporter coworker, I was able to get a lease on a 2008 Honda CRV, the first ever brand new vehicle I have ever owner/leased.

 Rides of My Life … so far

Part 1: Jeep Commando

Part 2: VW Bug

Part 3: Dodge Duster

Part 4: Chevrolet Caprice Classic

Part 5: Nissan pickup

Part 6: Suzuki Sidekick

Part 7: Isuzu Rodeo

Part 8: Honda CRV

 

Keith’s rides, Part 6: Riding a golf cart and being splattered by pig doo

[This is the sixth of eight or so blog entries on the cars and other vehicles I have driven. It may or may not be of interest. Enjoy. Or not. It’s your choice. – KM]

Working at smaller newspapers usually means – besides not making a lot of money – that you mingle with people in other departments and you develop relationships throughout the newspaper building. Reporters and editors become friends – and more – with photographers, advertising representatives, graphic artists, circulation workers, and the press crew.

That was the case when I worked at The Reporter in Vacaville. Some of my best friends were from outside the newsroom, especially the ad department.

And knowing that my Nissan was on its last legs, several advertising representatives were on the lookout on my behalf for a vehicle. One day I received a call and on the other end of the line was an ad rep telling me that I should get down to a nearby auto tent sale, which I did. That is where I picked up my Suzuki Sidekick.

A Sidekick was a poor-guy’s option for a sport utility vehicle. It was red, small, boxy, somewhat under-built, and very underpowered – I seem to recall that the horsepower was at sub-100, which is not very much. It was fine on the flatlands, but was no fun to drive into the Sierra Nevada. I joked that it was so small and underpowered that it was much like driving a golf cart, which my friends readily – too readily in some cases – accepted as the true name of my ride.

The Suzuki built the Sidekick as part of a joint venture with Geo – remember Geo? – and later Chevrolet. The Sidekick was the same as the Geo Tracker – later, Chevrolet Tracker – except for different emblems used by the carmakers.

I don’t hear about carmakers working jointly with competitors like that anymore, but it is a bit ironic that my next vehicle, a 2000 Isuzu Rodeo, was a joint-venture vehicle. The Rodeo is the same as the Honda Passport. More on that later.

As I think back on the Sidekick, I don’t recall very many stunning moments with the vehicle. It was an OK vehicle and I suffered a bit of buyers’ remorse, but it eventually passed.

I was having dinner at friends Rick and Michele’s home in Vacaville about two weeks after purchasing the Sidekick. Our friend and co-worker Cliff was there, too. Cliff’s vehicle – I think he was in the red Dodge pickup by then – was parked near mine. A lovely evening was marred by the fact someone had keyed both our vehicles, which we discovered later. I hate that! Why does anyone have to do something like that? (It’s a rhetorical question. I don’t really expect an answer.)

The Sidekick was convenient for when I house- and dog-sat for Rick and Michele and Cliff. The backseats folded down and Lucy, a German shorthaired hound, and Lexe, a Springer spaniel, fit nicely in the back. The dogs – collectively known as Da Girls, Goombahs, and other assorted names – did not seem to mind the low horsepower of the Sidekick. All they wanted to do was be along for a ride and to plaster the inside of my car windows with dog slobber.

The other animal-related thing I recall about the Sidekick is that I was driving back to the office one day after lunch and I was following too closely a cattle trailer carrying pigs. Um, yeah, it was a mistake and required plenty of quarters at the local self-serve car wash.

And I changed out a starter motor on the Sidekick, just as I had a couple of times in the Nissan pickup. But in the Sidekick, the engine compartment was so much smaller and the starter motor jammed in so very tight that it took me several hours and several scuffed knuckles to complete the task. It was a miserable experience and it may have contributed to me developing the urge for a new ride, which turned out to be the Rodeo.

 Rides of My Life … so far

Part 1: Jeep Commando

Part 2: VW Bug

Part 3: Dodge Duster

Part 4: Chevrolet Caprice Classic

Part 5: Nissan pickup

Part 6: Suzuki Sidekick

Part 7: Isuzu Rodeo

Part 8: Honda CRV

Keith’s rides Part 5: Driving a Nissan pickup into the ground to end up with a Sidekick

[This is the fifth of seven eight or so blog entries on the cars and other vehicles I have driven. It may or may not be of interest. Enjoy. Or not. It’s your choice. – KM]

I was hired in February 1988 to be the editor of The Mendocino Beacon, a small weekly newspaper on the famed California North Coast. It was my first job after having graduated from California State University in Chico and I was pretty excited about it.

By the way, that month between graduating and being hired by publisher Joe Edwards is the longest I have ever been without a job up until this past year.

What I needed for the job was a set of dependable wheels. A college buddy drove me around to a couple of the used car lots in Chico and I finally settled on a white Nissan unibody pickup. I mention the unibody only because it was the first half-model year in which the unibody was featured, or so the salesman told me.

The pickup was a repo – there was a cigarette scar on a floorboard and the owner’s manual was missing – and there was no radio, air conditioning, or power steering. It also had manual transmission, but it would be perfect for getting around for the time being.

I used the pickup to make several trips between Chico and Fort Bragg, where I lived the first few months I worked at The Mendocino Beacon. There are some very winding roads between Interstate 5 and the coast and it required quite a bit of wrangling to get the pickup with no power steering between the two cities. My hands were swollen and my shoulders achy by the time I was done moving from Chico to Fort Bragg.

My tiny studio apartment was in an old former hospital on the hill east of the lumbering and tourist community of Fort Bragg. I could see the Pacific Ocean from my apartment, which was fantastic.

When I say The Mendocino Beacon was small, I mean small. I seem to recall that the weekly circulation was about 2,300 readers, mostly locals, former locals, tourists, and people considering a move to the North Coast. (The region, also called the Redwood Empire or the Redwood Coast, is generally made up of Marin, Sonoma, Mendocino, Humboldt, and Del Norte counties. The marijuana-growing part of that area is known as the Emerald Triangle.)

And when I say I was the editor, what I really mean to say is that I did pretty much everything. I wrote news, sports and features stories, I wrote the editorials, took photos, wrote headlines and cutlines, I edited the copy coming in from a handful of columnists, designed and laid out the pages, everything. I even sold classified ads if I was the only one in the office.

But a very lovely perk of the job was that I could stand up at my desk and see the Mendocino Bay and beyond that the Pacific Ocean. Perfection.

I used the pickup to commute from Fort Bragg to Mendocino for a while, but eventually moved into a studio apartment in Mendocino above the barn/garage of an elderly couple from France. They had the same last name as mine, but with a slightly different spelling. He had been in a concentration camp during World War II.

The yard was lovely with apple trees, flowers, and a fish pond. I did yard work to work off some of the rent and I sometimes used the pickup for that work.

[Fun story not related to one of Keith’s rides: I worked at The Mendocino Beacon when the Rev. Jesse Jackson was running for president, and some local Democratic Party leaders somehow had been able to arrange for Jackson to be at a rally on the Mendocino Headlands. As I recall, Jackson was quite a bit behind the frontrunners and I think the rally was to help gain support among environmentalists and the gay community. Anyway, I had the story that Jackson was coming on the front page on the third week from the week of the rally and the second week from the rally, but put the story on Page 3 the week before the rally. The story had not changed and there was other news happening. So, on the day of the rally, one of the local Democratic Party leaders leads the 3,000 to 5,000 people at the rally in booing me and The Mendocino Beacon because I had put the story on Page 3 the week before the rally. That was pretty humiliating for me given this was my first experience with that sort of thing. That was tempered a bit, however, because fog kept Jackson from landing at the Little River Airport. And by the time they had come up with a plan to bus him in, it was too late. Jackson never made the rally. Well, not until some months later when the rally could be rescheduled. And when he arrived, I stood within 50 feet of him … with heavy armed Secret Service agents between me and him, of course. Say what you will about Jesse Jackson, he is a moving orator.]

I stayed at The Mendocino Beacon for less than a year. The 70-hour weeks were taking their toil and I felt it was time to move onto something else. I was hired at The Daily Journal in Ukiah, Calif., where I covered crime, police and fire departments, county government, courts, the wine industry, and some environmental news. The pickup was great for moving from Fort Bragg to Ukiah, where I stayed for a couple of years.

On one day off I was driving into nearby Anderson Valley to pick up mill ends – the pieces trimmed off at sawmills to make various board lengths – for my then girlfriend to use in her fireplace. I was driving too fast, I admit it, when I came to a bridge. It was winter and the bridge was slicker than the regular pavement and I lost control.

The pickup skidded a bit – I recall that the pickup nearly hit a station wagon going in the opposition direction – and spun out of control. The pickup ended up perched on the edge of a stream bed with a sapling the only thing holding it – and me – from tumbling in to stream. I was able to climb out and the woman driving the station wagon was nice enough to stop, check on my wellbeing, and offer to call for a tow truck. I thanked her.

I also thanked that sapling for holding on long enough for the AAA tow truck to arrive and pull the pickup back on to the road shoulder.

I was driving the pickup on a rough city street in Ukiah just as the Loma Prieta quake Oct. 17, 1989. I was on my way home to watch the World Series on TV, but the earthquake put a hold on that. Many people in Ukiah felt the quake, but I didn’t. The pickup was a rough ride no matter what and on a rough city street I didn’t feel a little bit of shaking.

The pickup was used in moving to jobs in Woodland – where I lived and work when I paid off the pickup – and later Vacaville. Trust me when I say this – the summer heat of Ukiah, Woodland and Vacaville make you regret not having air conditioning. There were more than a few times when I thought I would melt into the pickup seat.

The pickup also help me stretched my incredibly limited mechanic skills. Apparently, Nissan at the time was known for having crappy starter motors. The first one I traded out took me about three hours. I got that down to about 20 or 30 minutes by the time I traded out my last starter motor on the pickup.

One other notable event with the Nissan happened while I was covering crime in Vacaville. I went out to a TC – traffic collision – and was gathering information about the crash and the person hurt in the crash. The victim was loaded into the ambulance and the ambulance driver – a fire captain for the Vacaville city department – promptly backed the city ambulance into the pickup, crushing the fender and flattening a tire.

The city of Vacaville paid to have that fixed.

It wasn’t too much later that I noticed that the pickup was not as peppy as it once was – I had driven it pretty hard for the time that I had it – and, besides, I started yearning for a new ride.

Of course, the problem was finances. A person does not get rich working for a newspaper.

Several friends in the newspaper’s advertising department knew that I was looking for a new vehicle. That’s how I ended up at a used car tent sale at the parking lot of the Nut Tree Restaurant. Vacaville and Interstate 80 landmark had been closed for a year or so, if I recall correctly. That’s how I ended up with the Suzuki Sidekick.

Rides of My Life … so far

Part 1: Jeep Commando

Part 2: VW Bug

Part 3: Dodge Duster

Part 4: Chevrolet Caprice Classic

Part 5: Nissan pickup

Part 6: Suzuki Sidekick

Part 7: Isuzu Rodeo

Part 8: Honda CRV

Remembering a friend and colleague 9 years later

Cliff Polland

Cliff Polland in a photo shot by Rick Roach.

A Facebook post reminded me that today is the ninth anniversary of the passing of a friend and former colleague – Cliff Polland.

He had been ill, but far too young to die. He left behind many family and friends who continue to miss him to this day.

I recall that day quite clearly. Cliff had failed to come in to work at The Reporter in Vacaville, Calif., where he had been a photographer for years and years. His boss and a close friend of mine, Reporter photo editor Rick Roach, was concerned. He had tried to call Cliff, but with no reply. Rick wanted me to go with him to nearby Winters where Cliff lived with a German shorthaired pointer named Lucy. They lived in a cool two-bedroom home a couple of blocks from downtown Winters.

We drove there in Rick’s pickup barely saying a word to one another. We knew that Cliff had been ill – in-and-out of the hospital ill – for a while and we knew there could be too many terrible reasons why he didn’t make it in to work or answer Rick’s calls.

We each had a key to Cliff’s house – I would house- and dog-sit when Cliff was out of town and Rick had one because they were buds and also checked on things if Cliff was away.

I still carry my key on my keychain to this day.

We arrived, knocked on the door, and Rick used a key to let us in when there was no reply. But he immediately backed out of the house.

“He’s in there. He’s dead,” I seem to recall Rick saying as he struggled to catch his breath.

I had him repeat it, because I wasn’t sure I had heard him correctly. I asked where exactly. He was in a living room chair he had crafted.

We could hear Lucy inside and we knew it would be better to get her out of the house and into Rick’s pickup before police and other officials arrived. Dogs, of course, can be protective of their people and homes and we didn’t want her to react in a way that would cause officers to pull their weapons, as we had reported upon before in other circumstances.

She wouldn’t come out the front door, the one next to where Cliff sat in his chair. So, I went around to the back to a garage door I knew would be either unlocked or rickety enough for me to bust open. I was able to call Lucy through her dog door leading to the kitchen of Cliff’s house and ran my belt through her collar to fashion a leash to lead her to the front and to Rick’s pickup.

Rick called the local police to report the death and not long afterward two officers and an ambulance arrived.

We left a short time later to begin letting the world know that Cliff was dead. Those phone calls over the next day or so were difficult and I wouldn’t wish any of it on anyone.

As the assistant news editor in charge of special sections at The Reporter at the time, I wrote about Cliff in my next column a few days later. That was not an easy thing, either, writing about the death of a friend and colleague. A few months later I wrote another column in which I mentioned Cliff’s death. Below are those columns.

(I believe I also wrote another column, one on his memorial service a few months later – Hawaiian shirts, good stories, cigars and more. It was a great way to remember Cliff. I cannot for the life me find that column. – KM)

 Never good time for this

I hate writing these kinds of columns. I’ll never become accustom to it. Never.

I spent the better part of Monday helping in a very unpleasant task.

Longtime Reporter photographer Cliff Polland died over the weekend and I helped notify former Reporter employees and friends of the sad news.

Cliff’s obituary on Tuesday made mention of his professional achievements and gave a rundown of his career as a photographer.

But Cliff was more than a photographer.

He was restoring an old Porsche, piece by piece. Some of the parts, no longer available elsewhere, had to be sought out over the ’Net; some had to be manufactured. He was a mechanic, automobile historian and sports car restorer.

He loved music – jazz and blues – and could play guitar. He owned a couple of electric guitars and not long ago he picked up an acoustic guitar. So he was a music enthusiast and guitarist.

He loved fishing. He loved camping. There were fishing rods in nearly every corner of his Yolo County home. Camping gear in the remaining corners. So he was a fisherman and camper.

He loved making wines and beer. So he was a winemaker and brewmaster.

He liked tequila. So he was a tequila drinker, too.

He had a dog, Lucy. Lucy is energetic, to say the least, but a sweet dog.

She stayed by Cliff’s side after he died and had to be coaxed out of the house. I believe the joy he received in owning Lucy added years to his life.

He was a dog owner.

Cigars were another of his joys. Cheap ones, expensive ones. It didn’t matter much. He loved them while fishing or camping or just sitting around his home reading. So he was a cigar enthusiast.

He painted with watercolors. He painted fish – trout. So he was a painter.

He built furniture. He died sitting in a chair he made a few years ago. He was a furniture maker.

Friends gathered Monday night to reminisce. We poured Cliff a shotglass of tequila and lighted a cigar for him. We kept it burning until it was gone.

Then we lighted another. More than once during the evening, someone said Cliff was probably looking down at us shaking his head at the carryings-on.

He was modest, too.

He was more than a photographer. He was a friend.

The author, a former Vacaville resident, was the assistant news editor in charge of special sections for The Reporter when this column first appeared in The Reporter on March 21, 2001.

My ‘Gone fishin’ sign is out

By the time most of you read this, I will be long gone.

Oh, I hear the minstrels tuning their harps and people rushing to dance in the streets.

But don’t be so quick to rejoice. I’m only on vacation; I’ll be back next week.

By the time most of you have rubbed the sleep from your eyes, have caught the first refreshing whiffs of coffee, and made your way outdoors to fetch The Reporter from the bushes, I’ll be on my way to a piece of heaven in the Sierra Nevada.

My chariot this fine day is a forest green Chevy pickup loaded with camping gear and towing a fishing boat, also loaded with camping gear. My companions this fine day are my best friend for the past decade or so – who happens to be married to another of my best friends – and a German shorthaired pointer named Lucy.

We are running point for a biannual camping excursion that dates back 12 years. Some 30 or so others will follow, but we will be the first to take in the mountain air, the first to set up camp and the first to dip our lines in the upper of two very fine trout lakes with grand, glacier-capped mountains looking down on our every move.

And at night, with all of us gathered around a roaring campfire and mesmerized by its flickering orange, red and blue dance, we’ll renew friendships, partake in camping traditions better not discussed in a family newspaper, and each of us will at some point wish that the moment would stand still for all eternity. “Strangers” come along with us on these camping trips, but leave lifelong friends. It’s the way it’s been for a dozen years or so.

The bittersweetness, however, is that for the first time in a half-decade we’ll be without our friend, Cliff Polland. Lucy is – was – his dog. Now she stays with my best friends and their family, but I think, at least a little, she belongs to all of Cliff’s friends.

Cliff’s birthday would have been on Monday. We would have celebrated while camping, giving him goofy gifts, like a camouflaged baseball batting cap with dual beer can holder mounted on top with drinking tube.

We’re brewing some beer to bring with us, using some of the equipment Cliff once used. It’ll be a fine brew for a fine camping trip.

He’ll be there in spirit, at least, and having a good ol’ time along with us.

The author, a former Vacaville resident, was the assistant news editor in charge of special sections for The Reporter when this column first appeared in The Reporter on May 23, 2001.

 

Saddling up for a ride with American Western literature

I haven’t taken much time to read for the enjoyment of reading in the past couple of months. I’ve been so focused on trying to find a job that my reading has been limited to job-hunt advice – everyone has an opinion, especially so-called job experts – and the Facebook status updates of my friends, which has helped me maintain a certain degree of sanity while hunting up a job.

But the other evening I picked from my bookshelves a volume of Louis L’Amour novels and other tales. I am enjoying the stories.

As I recall, I picked up the two-volume set at a biannual yard sale that took place just down the street from where I was living on Alamo Drive in Vacaville, Calif. An elderly couple and their son – and I have to assume a legion of their family and friends – cleaned out closets, garages and storage facilities to provide a yard sale known to all Vacans. (Vacan is what a Vacaville resident calls him- or herself.)

Anyway, one year I walked by the book table and spotted the two-volume set and did a double-take. One was brown leather with gold lettering and gold on the edges of the pages. The second volume was green leather with the golden lettering and page edges. I had never read Louis L’Amour, but I figured I couldn’t go wrong with a leather-bound set that put me back less than $8.

The brown volume contains “The Tall Stranger,” “Kilkenny,” “Hondo” and “Showdown at Yellow Butte,” and had an inscription written on the inside of the front cover: “Michel – Happy 19th Birthday 9-27-88.” And it was signed, “Love, Diane & Dad.”

The second volume, the one that I am reading now, contains, “Crossfire Trail,” “Utah Blaine,” “Heller With a Gun,” “Last Stand at Papago Wells,” and “To Tame a Land.”

I had read Zane Grey and Larry McMurtry before, but not Louis L’Amour. Of course, I was familiar with some of his work that had been made into movies for TV or cinema, most notably “Hondo,” “How the West Was Won,” “Crossfire Trail,” the Sackett movies and “Conagher.”

I read the first volume years ago, but have been carrying around the other for some time waiting for a gap in other reading to crack it open. I’m glad I did, because I am enjoying the stories – right-vs.-evil-boy-gets-the-girl-in-the-end stories – and it is proving a nice diversion from the job hunt.

I don’t think the stories are for everyone. The stories are told in a pretty simple fashion, but that’s OK.

Besides, cowboy was one of the things I wanted to be when I grew up … when I was 6 or 7. Forest ranger and truck driver were two other jobs I thought when I was 6 or 7 I’d like to have when I got to be an adult.

Ah, well, a writer-editor-columnist-blogger will have to do for now.

Christmas Past Part 1: ‘Holiday spirit takes off’

Truly the most satisfying part of being a journalist is coming up with timely, meaningful topics about which to write passionately. Journalists take great pride in finding an issue – homelessness, hunger, corruption, for examples – and writing or producing a product that sheds light on that issue and positively affects the people in their audience.

This is not one of those instances.

Instead, this is a case of a journalist recycling a handful of holiday columns, because, well, he can. Over the next couple of days I will present those holiday columns I wrote years ago. These are not particularly poignant tales of redemption or reunion. For the most part, these were columns I wrote on deadline to fill a hole on a page. (There! I admitted it!)

But there may be nuggets of wit here and there, so I urge you to read on just for fun.

Holiday spirit takes off

Editor’s note: The author was the opinion page editor of The Reporter in Vacaville, Calif., when this column was first published on Dec. 10, 2003.

By Keith Michaud

It’s beginning to look a bit like Christmas around Vacaville – the Christmas tree downtown and garland on the lampposts, holiday decorations at every turn, and the throng of holiday shoppers have arrived from parts far and wide.

Yep, there’s nothing quite like seeing grown folks wrestling in the aisles of local department stores pitted in battle over an $8.99 toy or a $2.99 Christmas ribbon.

Ah, even I’m beginning to feel that holiday spirit growin’ inside me. Or it could be heartburn from my breakfast burrito.

At any rate, I’m thinking about perhaps possibly beginning my holiday shopping list to be checked not once, but twice. And I might actually get to the actual shopping by, say, Christmas Eve. Boxing Day at the latest.

I’m not one to rush into such things. After all, I’ve had all year to plot my holiday shopping strategy. I don’t want to blow it now by rushing it at the end.

Of course, first on my holiday shopping list will be my Mom and sister and her family. Shipping packages back to the Deep Dark North Woods of Maine requires planning and timing. It also requires knowing plane, train and stagecoach schedules in order to get the packages there on time. But after living in California for the past 20 years, I think I may have mastered the technique. I think.

More on that later …

 * * *

California lawmakers should feel fortunate. They only have to deal with a state budget that looks much like Swiss cheese and a governor the size of a Swiss, er, Austrian mountain. They don’t have to deal with a Christmas tree scandal.

The speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, Tom Craddick, put up a plastic, made-in-China Christmas tree in the House and now has the state’s Christmas tree farmers up in arms, according to a Reuters story.

“I think people can deduce for themselves about what it means to have a plastic Christmas tree from China in the Texas State House,” the story quoted Lanny Dreesen, a Texas Christmas Tree Growers Association spokesman.

Hm, Mr. Dreesen seems to have a Texas-size temper.

I’ve been in this business a while now and I deduced a couple of things – don’t mess with Texas, and don’t mess with Texas Christmas tree farmers.

If I had my choices, I’d want to deal with budget woes over fending off an attack by Christmas tree growers. Imagine the political clout these growers have, especially at this time of the year. Imagine the lawsuits they could bring.

Yep, I’m getting that holiday spirit.

Columns on Maine visit revisited

A friend not long ago suggested I go to Maine for a visit and write a few “Letters From Maine,” rather than “Letters From Away.”

I had done that years ago as a newspaper columnist and promised her I would try to post a couple of the columns here.

For several years I was the opinion page editor at The Reporter, the daily newspaper in Vacaville, Calif. I was responsible for the daily comment and opinion pages and the Sunday Forum section. Besides editing local and wire commentary and shepherding the page production, I also wrote a weekly column.

Because of the size of the operation, there was no option for columnists but to write commentary in advance or to e-mail columns when on vacation.

That is what I did in 2005 when I returned to Maine for a visit. I had done the same a few years earlier.

Here are the 2005 columns. It is not my best writing. I blame that on the stress of preparing for a cross-country trip and then the relaxing effects of having arrived. Enjoy!

If it all goes as it should

By Keith Michaud

If all goes as it should, I fully expect to be awakened this morning by a tousle-haired 5-year-old and his precocious 3-year-old sister.

If all goes as it should, I should wake to the smell of coffee, pancakes, fresh paint, and air freshened by pine, fir, spruce and the White Mountains.

If all goes as it should, I will be towed to the kitchen table by those toddler-alarm clocks, and I will drink that coffee, eat those pancakes, tour again the new home in which I will be a guest. And then be guided by the tousle-haired 5-year-old and his precocious 3-year-old sister on a tour of the grounds where they will point out the various features of their new home.

You see, if all goes as it should, I landed at the Portland International Jetport Tuesday evening and was greeted by my mother. And from the Portland, Maine, airport, we should have traveled to my sister’s new home in the quintessential New England community of Fryeburg, just on the border with New Hampshire.

This is where my sister, her husband and their two children call home. It is where they hope the children will attend some of the finest schools in New England, including Fryeburg Academy founded in 1792. Yeah, 1792. New England has a lot of old in it, too.

After a day or two in Fryeburg, my mother and I will travel the seven hours north to the Deep Dark North Woods of Maine to the tiny town where I grew up, Portage, situated on the southeast corner of Portage Lake. I am guessing that not a lot will have changed since the last time I visited three years ago. The ribbon of state Route 11 will come over a rise and into a clearing, and after an easy curve and descent down the other side of the hill, Portage will come into view.

If the weather holds – it is New England, after all, and it rains nearly every week and the humidity is always suffocating – the sky will be a hazy blue, the lake will be dark and spotted with white caps, and the surrounding hills will be emerald green and lush. It will be lovely. Homes are sometimes separated from neighboring homes by hundreds of feet, not mere inches as they are in California.

If all goes as it should, I will settle into a natural, comfortable routine that will involve mostly reading from a perch on the deck of my mother’s cottage, chatting with my mother, cooking for her, and playfully taunting her two Pomeranians I dubbed Fat Boy and Devil Dog. I will golf on the course where I learned to play the game many years ago.

If all goes as it should, I will be reminded of my youth. I will recall friends and events. For two short weeks, I will be in one of the most peaceful places I know. If all goes as it should. And it should.

(The author was the opinion page editor at The Reporter in Vacaville, Calif., when this column was first printed on June 29, 2005.)

Sharing a place of peace

By Keith Michaud

There is no arguing about the grandeur and spectacular beauty throughout California and the West, from the coastline to the Sacramento Valley to the Sierra.

That beauty has been recorded in words and images for all to enjoy.

But it is impossible with mere words to describe the haunting beauty of Maine sunset over a glassy flat lake – the blinding orange of citrus fruit afire, the red of pomegranate, the muddy purples of the coming night, the pastel greens of the tropics grown into the Northern sky, and the deep blue of childhood dreams.

I am vacationing in my childhood home – Portage, Maine. My apologies, but I must subject those who have never been to New England to a travel column on perhaps the most peaceful place on earth.

This peaceful place puts most people’s definition of “casual” in the same category as frantic, where the pace of life is, as they say here, the way it should be.

On an evening just days ago, there was the most spectacular sunset and the pace of life here dictated that a moment be taken to appreciate it. There is no gauge for measuring the beauty of a sunset, but this one ranked among the best. And the beauty of it, the grandeur of it, was made so as much by the people with whom it was shared as the influences of nature and God.

I have lived in California longer than I lived in Maine and I have not been back to visit here in a few years. But this place, this soil, these trees, this air, these people, these sunsets, make up what I am. In many ways, they are me. They are my blood.

I love this place. I wish with all my soul that I could visit more often, but I cannot. My life is across the nation in Vacaville for now.

It is perhaps that distance and that separation that makes me think of this place nearly every day. It is those things that make me wish I could somehow transport it to where I am, or that I could transport all that is important to me in California to this spot in the Deep Dark North Woods of Maine so the best of the two worlds could collide here with me in the middle.

There are good people wherever you travel. Trust me on this. And if you have lived a half-decent life, finding those people will never be a problem. They will find you.

It will not be long before I will have to return to Vacaville and the routine and obligations that are my life. But for a few moments, the tranquility of this boyhood home provides the comfort of a lifetime.

(The author was the opinion page editor at The Reporter in Vacaville, Calif., when this column was first printed on July 6, 2005.)