Sunday, February 05, 2012


Everything’s Coming Up Roses…

In The Rose City, Portland, Oregon, that is. “What are you talking about, Unk?” I am talking about my recent visit with Portland’s Rose City Astronomers astronomy club. I never did figure out why Portland is called “The Rose City,” but I did find out it is a beautiful and progressive place, and that it has one heck of a good astronomy club filled with the nicest astronomers you can imagine.

It all began late last summer, I reckon, when Chaos Manor South’s kitchen workstation computer blooped the bleep that means Outlook has received a new email message. I halted my progress toward the Rebel Yell locker and had a look. It was from a dude named Mark Martin, and the gist of it was that he and his colleagues in the Rose City Astronomers, the RCA, were inviting me up to give a presentation for ‘em. Well doggies…

I was not unfamiliar with the RCA, having read several issues of their excellent newsletter the last time I was on a classic telescope jag. One of their members had written a series of outstanding articles on 1960s Tasco telescopes, those good Tascos. I still wasn’t sure where Rose City was, though, and before I told Mark “yes,” I figgered I’d at least better determine that.

A quick Google said “Portland, Oregon.” Hmmm... I’d enjoyed my last trip to the Pacific Northwest in 2006 to speak at Anacortes Telescope and Wild Bird’s Astro-expo near Seattle, Washington. I’d had a great time, in fact, but, like Seattle, Portland is long, long ways away, and I was now busier at work than I have been in years and years. So, I’m afraid I strung Mark and company along for a while, till I decided: “Everybody else takes a vacation, why shouldn’t I? I NEVER take off!” The shipyard and my beloved NAVSSI would just have to get along without me for a stinking week.

Once I’d made up my mind the trip was a go, Mark and I set things up. I’d fly into Portland on Sunday, give my talk Monday, and fly out on Tuesday. Why would I take a week off from work, then? I’d already decided the Portland jaunt would be immediately followed by five days at the Chiefland Astronomy Village. I’d fly home, load up the 4Runner, and head south early Wednesday morning. Miss Dorothy was a little skeptical, worrying that I’d be too tired after enduring the monumental trip from The Swamp to Oregon and back, but my mind, such as it is, was indeed made up.

Quite a step up from the Chiefland Days Inn.
Resolved to go, the only thing left to do was get the Chiefland gear down to the front parlor so I could load the truck post haste Tuesday evening when I returned home. I didn’t want any surprises when we got down to CAV, and since I’d be awful weary Tuesday night, I triple checked the equipment, running it by my latest iteration of my gear checklist, but not relying on just that. I went over everything I knew I’d need in my head, and made sure that was there no matter what the checklist said.

One of the headaches associated with traveling by air from Possum Swamp is that your options are limited. There are few flights out of here, and you have to take what you can take in order to make the connections for your eventual destination. There are no direct flights to distant locations, you see. You will stop-off in Atlanta or Dallas-Fort Worth or Houston or Memphis. Bottom line was that I’d have to get up at 3:30 in the fracking a.m. to make my 6 a.m. flight out of the Swamp to DFW so I could catch a plane to Portland. Dang.

I was up at oh-dark-thirty Sunday morning, kissed Miss D. goodbye, and headed off to Possum Swamp Regional for my flight on American. Thankfully, for once my flight was on time and I drowsed my way to DFW aboard an American Airlines mini-jet. American Airlines? They deserve notice for one thing and one thing only: they are in this old boy’s opinion the legitimate heirs of Aeroflot, the notorious Soviet airline. I just heard on CNN that they have declared bankruptcy, and all I can say is, “they deserve it.”

Their personnel on the ground and in the air were abrupt to the point of rudeness, their planes incredibly cramped, and the most basic amenities non-existent. Just as the smell of breakfast wafted out of First Class and into the cabin, the flight attendants announced we galley slaves would be allowed to PURCHASE bags of peanuts. For four dollars a pop. Sheesh! Give me the days of Pan Am’s Champagne Clipper flights to the west coast.

After a fairly brief layover in Dallas, I was shoehorned into a sardine can of an overloaded jet with my fellow sufferers and delivered to the pretty city of Portland, Oregon. Flying in over the mighty Columbia River, my impression, which was to remain with me throughout my stay, was “Nice, real nice. Like Seattle, just a wee bit smaller.”

I gathered up my netbook and camera and eventually managed to get off the consarned plane, which was equipped with five rows of seats in a cabin that should have accommodated four. Free at last, I was impressed by Portland’s uber clean and modern airport. Not too small, not too large. I liked it and prefer it to Seattle’s humongous Sea-Tac, which is actually a nice one, too. Naturally, after I deplaned I headed off in precisely the opposite direction of baggage claim, and missed Mark who was waiting for me at the gate.

I got my bag, which didn’t look too much the worse for wear despite the best efforts of American, and hooked up with Mark via cell phone. Soon I was meeting him, his lovely wife, Dawn, and their cute little daughter. It was a little chilly, so I was thankful the whole walk from the terminal to the parking garage was under cover. Mark and Dawn told me it was indeed colder than normal for Portland, down in the 30s, and that snow flurries were predicted, though the flakes were not falling at the moment. I just hoped the cotton picking weather wouldn’t wreck my presentation or the flight home Tuesday.

A few pleasant minutes on the Interstate, with me scoping out and admiring the lay of the land, and we were in downtown Portland, on the main drag, Broadway, where my hotel, The Heathman, was situated. While the hostelry was relatively small, it was upscale to the max, and I was greeted by a very attentive staff. The nice lady manning the desk said “We will take care of you,” and that summed up this excellent hotel’s attitude and attention to detail. I told Mark and Dawn I’d be fine on my own till supper, when they planned to take me out to an Italian restaurant, they said. I’d just go up to my room and get a little r-e-s-t. Despite the clock claiming it was barely afternoon, I was all in—I’d lost two hours crossing time zones.

My room was danged cool. Elegant even. Unk ain’t exactly an elegant kinda guy; he’s more a Day’s Inn type than a Plaza Suite type, but I do appreciate gracious service and amenities after a punishing trip. I pulled on the Heathman terrycloth robe, slipped on the slippers, turned on the LED TV, opened the bottle of wine that had been sent up, and let the tender ministrations of the dadgum airline melt into the past.

Mindful of what Mark and Dawn had told me about snow, I flipped on The Weather Channel. Rut-roh. Who should I see there but storm crow Jim Cantore, who was broadcasting from nearby Seattle. According to him, the theme for the next several days would be “bad to worse,” with snow predicted for Portland on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. I peeped out the window, but nary a flake did I see. With several hours still to go before supper, I thought I’d get out and see a little of downtown Portland before the white stuff began to fall, if it did begin to fall. I love The Weather Channel, but at times they seem a mite prone to exaggeration if’n you ask me.

I hit the streets, and I liked what I saw even if I didn’t get far. Lots of panhandlers, but also an abundance of friendly folks. The drivers were scrupulously, almost absurdly, polite to pedestrians and cyclists, and the shopkeepers were as friendly as could be. I got a bite and a cuppa at the nearby Starbucks, and, warmed up a little, trotted back toward the hotel. I was particularly impressed by the old, restored Portland Theatre next door to the Heathman. This venue, now officially known as “The Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall,” was hosting the Oregon Symphony with guest artist Joshua Bell.

I would have liked to have strolled around Portland’s upscale/historic downtown a bit more, but too soon was driven inside by intermittent cold rain and, yes, flurries of big, wet, nasty snowflakes. Snug back in my room, I turned on TWC again, and, with the dire predictions of Local on the Eights in the background, drifted off to sleep for a couple of hours.

By seven o’clock I had revived, and was happy to accompany Mark and Dawn on a road-trip to one of Portland’s restaurant/entertainment districts, to a splendid Italian restaurant, Ciao Vito. The company, some of Mark and Dawn’s fellow RCA members, was great, the pork polenta delicious, and the Oregon wine surprisingly good. Honestly, y’all, I didn’t even know they made wine in Oregon—I woulda thought it would be too damp—but they do, and it is pretty impressive. Your old Uncle ain’t exactly a wine connoisseur, but the bottle I shared with my new friends tasted awful good. We had a lot of laughs, but by the time the festivities broke up a little before ten I was ready for some extended shuteye.

Next morning, but not early the next morning, I was up with the intention of exploring more of downtown Portland. I’d be on my own until seven p.m., when Mark would pick me up for the journey to the RCA meeting. I especially wanted to see that Mecca for bibliophiles, Powell’s books. I had heard of the place before, and knew it is one of the largest brick and mortar bookstores left in the country, but that did not prepare me for the reality of Powell’s.

While I could have called a cab, I reckon, a glance at a Google map on my trusty Asus netbook revealed Powell’s was “only” ten or twelve blocks from the hotel, and I figured that as long as the weather held, that would be doable. I stopped off at Subway for a quick sandwich, picked up another mega-coffee from Starbucks’ (Unk had managed to halfway figure out the French press in the room, but only halfway) and set out.

It’s not too hard to find your way around in downtown Portland. For the most part, it’s laid out in a grid pattern, and I got to Powell’s without too much head scratching and wrong turns. There it was: a freaking city block of books. No fooling; the bookstore’s enormous building does indeed cover a full block. Even that is not enough, with them having had to expand out to a nearby satellite store.

I hit the science fiction stacks, and was in heaven. They had more than I have ever seen in any non-virtual bookstore. Not just the new stuff, either, but the older stuff and even the out of print stuff. They don’t have everything, though; Unk was stymied in his efforts to replace his lost copy of Dean Ing’s post-apocalytic novel, Pulling Through, but, yeah, they have a lot. I settled on one of my favorite SF books from the 1970s, Piers Anthony’s Macroscope, which is inexplicably out of print and has been for a long while. Downchecks for Powell’s? They have many older, used books, which is cool, but they charge nearly new prices for them. Oh, well.

Powell's Books.
‘Course I couldn’t leave Powell’s without a stroll through the astronomy section. The math, science, computer, and engineering books were in the building across the street, so that’s where I headed next. The selection of astronomy tomes was good, but hardly great, not nearly as extensive as their science fiction holdings. Not even close. One thing did catch my eye: the entire set of The Webb Society’s Deep Sky Observing Handbooks. My first thought? “Buy ‘em all, Rod! Who cares much they cost?” I snatched up Clusters of Galaxies. Sadly, a minute or two of browsing and I put the book back on the shelf. The Webb handbooks are still pretty good books, but with SkyTools 3, N.E.D, Simbad, and Aladin at my beck and call these days, I would just never use ‘em.

While Portland ain’t that hard to navigate, poor Unk got turned around coming out of the bookstore and was lost for half an hour. I tried bringing up a GPS enabled map on my phone, but it could not get a cotton-picking fix. Then and there I resolved to turn my dumb-phone in for a smart-phone, like an iPhone 4s with Siri, “Siri, take me back to the hotel.” As it was, I did things the old-fashioned way; I asked a couple of nice young women running a shop for directions.

By the time I got back to the Heathman, I was foot sore and wet. The rain-mixed-with-snow had begun again. Went straight up to my room and collapsed for a couple of hours. Tried to start Macroscope, but my derned eyes kept a-closing. I basically zoned out until it was time to get ready to go to the RCA gig.

Mark was down in the lobby at the appointed time, and off we headed for the Rose City Astronomers’ meeting place, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) planetarium, the Kendall Planetarium. I gotta tell y’all, I was impressed from the get go. How could I not be? The Kendall is starkly beautiful in an industrial-design sort of way, sitting not far from the banks of the Columbia. It had been a long time since I’d been to a major planetarium, and this was clearly one of those.

Portland’s planetarium has been around for quite a while, since the fifties as a matter of fact, when it started with a venerable Spitz Model A projector. This was a modest start for the first planetarium in the Pacific Northwest, but The Kendall didn’t stay modest long. Shortly, they moved up to a Goto projector in a 32-foot dome. By the 80s, that was replaced with a 52-foot dome. As the 90s dawned, really big changes were afoot as they, like many planetariums, shifted to digital projection; in their case the Evans and Sutherland Digistar system. Today, the beautiful facility is equipped with the Digistar III, the latest and the greatest.

I know a little about current planetarium technology, I suppose, but I was still shocked when Mark and I walked into the lobby and I peered through the open doors of the dome (where the Junior/Novice section of the RCA was having its meeting before the meeting). There was no “dumbbell” in the middle of the floor. All the projectors are out of sight in a cove area around the periphery of the dome. I’m sure it works very well, but… I gotta say, give me a vintage Zeiss any time. I’ve enjoyed looking at those projectors and their wondrous control consoles as much as I have the planetarium shows generated with them.

The Rose City Astronomers is a large club as I judge such things. Down here, it’s a good meeting if the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society has 15 members in attendance. The RCA? They probably had that many folks manning the tables where they sold books and t-shirts and other astro-gear before the meeting (great idea). They were even kind enough to sell my humble works. Thanks guys, I need all the help I can get!

After a bit of chit-chat in the lobby, where I met tons of awful nice folks whose names I wish I could remember—y’all know me—it was meeting time. The RCA usually holds it proceedings in the museum auditorium, but that was in use this evening, so the meeting would be in the planetarium dome. Which was cool by me. It was quite a trip to see my PowerPoint slides projected giant-size.

As for my presentation, “The Past, Present, and Future of the SCT,” I thought it went purty well. It really isn’t much of a challenge to do a good job with it, since I’ve been giving it for the last eight years, since ALCON 2003. I have updated it continuously in the intervening years, of course, but I know it well and can always do a credible job, even if conditions aren’t great. On this night, conditions were great. I was rested and ready and my audience was enthusiastic. Mark opined that their numbers were down a little due to the worsening weather, but you coulda fooled me, looking out over the sea of faces in the big dome. I had a ball.

It seemed like I’d only been talking for a few minutes, but over an hour had passed. I finished taking the last couple of a horde of questions, and adjourned to a table in the lobby where I signed copies of my books for my kind readers. That went on for a while, and, when I’d finished with the last person, the RCAers invited me out for after-meeting drinks. That was awful tempting, but I needed to be up by 6 a.m. for my flight to Dallas. It was back to the room, a couple of glasses of wine and a little TV to wind down, and night-night big time.

Despite not hitting the hay till well after 11, I was up and dressed early. The Weather Channel was making even more dire predictions for the Pacific Northwest Tuesday morning; the weather dude acted like he was about to have a litter of kittens on national TV over the CRITICAL SITUATION. But, looking out my window, I could see traffic was flowing and it was not snowing, so I felt pretty good—till my cell phone rang. I expected it to be Mark, but it was Miss Dorothy. In her (as usual) kind concern, she’d got up early and checked my flight’s status. The bad news was that it was delayed.

What to do? I headed down to the lobby, checked out, and waited for Mr. Mark, who, when he arrived, asked me what I wanted to do. I told him that in these situations I generally prefer just to go to the airport, get set, and wait things out. Which is what I did. Cleared security—where I had to be patted down because I’d forgot and left my wallet in my back pocket when I entered the scanner. Oh, well. Not a big deal, I reckon. After that semi-excitement, I adjourned to the Wendy’s stand where I had an OK sausage biscuit and a few of their barely edible tater-tots-cum-hashbrowns.

It had been snowing off and on during the drive to the airport, and it was snowing even harder by the time I got there, but jets were still coming and going. My flight, it turned out, was not delayed because of weather, but due to CR2 (Crew Rest) restrictions—they had flown in too late the previous evening to meet the FAA’s rest requirements by the time of our early morning flight. The delay was not overly long, but it meant I missed my connection in DFW. By a mere 15-minutes. Which meant I had to cool my heels for over four hours. What did I do? Strolled about the shops. Had some snacks. Sat down with Macroscope, which I’d nearly finished by the time I boarded the plane.

The flight back home was just as cramped as the flight out to DFW had been, and the American cabin personnel just as surly and uninterested in their passengers, but at least I was on my way. It would be well after 9 p.m. before I walked into the Old Manse, but I thought I’d load the truck up for Chiefland, anyway. That idea lasted until we were landing in Possum Swamp. I was tired. Weary. Exhausted, even. There was no way I was doing anything other than drinking some rather large portions of the ‘Yell, watching a little cable TV, and checking the insides of my eyelids for light leaks.

It is a long and arduous trip from The Swamp to the Pacific Northwest under the best of circumstances, and even though those circumstances were not the best this time, it had for sure been worth it. I had a wonderful time doing the gig, and I hope the RCA was as happy with me as I was with them. My thanks to all those wonderful folk up yonder and especially to Mark and his family for going to so much trouble to make me feel welcome.

Next Time: The Herschel Project Nights 29 and 30…

I wish that the OCA could bankroll one of your talks. But I hear through the grapevine taht the OCA is booked on speakers for the next 15 months or so.
Portland is a great town. Spent a few years up there going to school. You definitally hit some of the highlights. I remember going to the planetarium back in the early 80s. It was good then, I can just imagine what it's like now.

As for snow, it doesn't snow often there, but when it does, usually the traffic is horrible. Although they are use to rain, the extra slippyness of snow throws them for a loop.

Glad you had a good time there.
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