Life Stories-Updated August 15, 2014
15. Mid-air Collision . Thought I should relate the story of an incident that happened in the 70’s. I wasn’t a participant exactly but a witness to a tragic event. It was 1973 and I was working for a small company in Mountain View, CA. Our building was right next to a golf course and just across the 101 freeway from Moffett Field Naval Air Station. We were quite used to hearing airplanes landing at Moffett because they came in low over the golf course. One morning I was in my office chatting with another engineer when we heard an airplane piston engine winding up tight, very unusual. I remarked to my buddy that it sounds like an airplane struggling. A huge “thump” shook our building and we ran out the back. My God, two huge aircraft were lying on the golf course amidst smoke and flames. A P3 Orion submarine chaser and a NASA Convair 990 9 had collided over the golf course at very low altitude. Moffett had two parallel runways and they had both mistakenly been assigned to the same one. The story was that the air traffic controller was very new on the job. It seems one plane was flying level and the other was higher and turning to the right, each one unable to see the other. I think it was the DC-9 that hit the tail section of the P3, causing the Orion to rotate vertically and wind up on its back on the ground. We debated running over to the site of the wreck but couldn’t imagine how we could have helped. The truth was, several golfers tried to smash the windscreen of one of the airplanes because they saw movement inside. They couldn’t break the window. Just a few minutes later, a huge firetruck from the Air Station approached the 12-ft high chain-link fence that surrounded the golf course and one man jumped out with bolt cutters to cut the chain holding a gate closed. Just as the man neared the fence, the fire truck driver honked his horn and accelerated toward the fence, flattening it. He drove over the flat fence, right across a green, plowed through a bunker, knocked down some medium-sized trees and headed STRAIGHT for the crash. We learned later that 16 people had died and one person survived, only to be run over by a fire truck and left in a wheelchair. Again, I wasn’t a participant (a good thing) but I’ll never forget the sight.
14. Golf Stories. Since I retired, I frequently play golf with people I meet at the golf course, strangers, young or old, good or bad. As a result, I collect stories about these (usually very nice) people. Here are some of my favorites.
The Italians. I joined up with two guys in their early 30’s at the Mission Trails Golf Course in San Diego. As we played the first few holes, they mostly talked with each other in Italian and a bit with me in perfect English. As usual, I told them some golf trivia (like Ben Hogan hated putting. He thought putts should be worth half a stroke). After a few more holes, on the tee box, I said “My only connection with Italy is having been there once on a business trip and because my great-grandfather came from Livorno, Italy” At this point, one of the golfers said excitedly “Livorno…..Livorno….I’m from Livorno!! He came over to me and gave me a great big bear hug and we slapped each other on the back and danced around. We all really loosened up and had a great round of golf.
The Marines. At the Hemet 4-Seasons golf course, I ran into three marines and played with them. It appeared that two of them were still in the Marine Corps. The guy in my golf cart, however, had been medically retired from the Corps. He seemed physically quite fit so I asked him why he mustered out medically. He proceeded to tell me he was a helicopter gunner in the first Gulf War. He was flying over the Gulf when his helicopter was apparently hit by enemy fire and went down. With no possibility of bailing out, he and his flight crew hit the water pretty hard and went down very fast. He told me he broke both arms and a leg and found himself about 70 feet underwater when he managed to get out of the aircraft. He doesn’t completely remember how he did it but he reached the surface. He was the only survivor. Of course, I shook his hand and thanked him for being a soldier and serving his country.
The Cancer Survivor. One day I found myself playing with only one guy at the Hemet 4-Seasons. He played pretty good golf and seemed to be really enjoying himself. We were in the same golf cart and talked like golfers usually do. Half way through the round he told me that he had been in a clinical trial for a very rare form of cancer. I don’t recall the specific cancer except that it was in his leg and probably ended in “oma”. He said there were 40 patients “enrolled” in the trial. He was the only survivor. It had been ten years ago so it looked like he had a pretty good chance of beating it. I congratulated him for being, well, lucky and determined. Who knows? He remembers the other patients as well. After a while, he pulled a little religious book out of his golf bag that he kept with him everywhere. I couldn’t argue with that.
The Jerk. I played with three other guys in Escondido once. Two of them were pretty good and I managed to stay with them most of the time. The fourth guy, however, was very, very good. He was an excellent golfer, hitting the fairways and greens in regulation most of the time. On the second hole he had a birdie putt of about 15 feet. He missed it by three inches. He stomped up to the hole, slapped his putt in the hole and started cursing. Now I don’t mind cursing…..I do it. But you don’t curse over a barely missed birdie putt. Well, as we played each hole, he got angrier. He barely talked with the other guys and never talked to me. He would hit the ground with his club and curse some more on almost every hole. He continued to play very well and wound up with shooting a 73, a great score. I shook hands with the other two guys but not him. I just walked off. But here’s what I was thinking: “Mister, you play a game of golf that the rest of us can only aspire to. But if I have to be like you and have your character, I’ll just continue with the game I have.”
The Golf Joke(?) Actually, my favorite golf story has to be when Arlyne flew from San Diego to the San Francisco Bay Area to visit friends. I was going to be by myself for the weekend. That night, however, she called to say she had an infection in her arm and was in the emergency room. She had had this before a few times, a result of lymphedema. I told her I was coming up to be with her but she said no, she had all her friends with her and someone was going to stay with her during the night. It wasn’t necessary for me to come up. OK, I guess. The next day I went out to play golf. About 3 or 4 holes into the round, I told the guys with me that I had a story to tell. “You know where my wife is right now?” Well, no we don’t, they said. “She’s in the emergency room.” They were stunned and asked me what the hell I was doing here. “It’s like a golf joke, but my wife is in the Bay Area with an infection in her arm and has a group of her friends with her. She told me I didn’t have to come. She’s doing fine so here I am.”
13. The Two Falls. I was single and in Alaska on my first and only solitary vacation. It seemed like a neat thing to do. I had saved money for the trip. I flew to Vancouver and shipped out on a freighter that rented cabins to 7 passengers. We tooled up the Canadian coast, stopping at Ketchikan and other little ports to off-load roofing materials, small tractors and other stuff. I had fun for the three days we spent in the inside passage, watching killer whales swim around us. I met a Canadian man on the boat who told me that British Columbia was only rocks, Christmas trees and water. We arrived in Prince Rupert and I took a seaplane to Juneau, the capital. I stayed in a downtown hotel and had no real plans. I did notice a sign for a trail to a nice waterfall. It was a seven mile hike and I started walking the trail by myself the next morning. I was a young man, had no trouble doing the hike and had told no one that I was going. Part of the trail was wood slats but further up it was dirt. I arrived at the falls which were actually pretty nice. I stood up on a moss-covered fallen log to get a better look, immediately slipped, fell backward and hit my head on another big log, knocking myself out. I don’t know how long I was out but as soon as I regained my senses, I started thinking about how far away I was from town in a strange forest and my head hurting. Walking back down the trail, I thought about not handling the hike that well. At the hotel, I took it easy for a bit, thinking about how this could have turned out. I’ve hiked hundreds of miles since that day and I treat every hike with respect. Have you ever done something that on second thought could have been handled better?
12. The Good ‘Ol Boys in Louisiana. My company was bidding on a large combat training system at Ft. Polk, Louisiana, called the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC). A few other engineers and I visited the area to perform some studies for placing communication towers and buildings. I had checked in with base security at HQ the previous day and they told me I would be fine driving around Ft. Polk except in the Horse’s Head area where there were often poachers. If I encountered one, I was to just get in my car and leave the area. These guys didn’t like unexpected guests. The next day I was driving my rental car through the heavily wooded Ft. Polk base. The entire area was covered with closely spaced loblolly pines, most of them over 50 feet high. Even with the help of my map it was difficult to determine exactly where I was. Eventually I got lost. Sometime later, I came into a very small town that only had a gas station and a combination restaurant/bar/store. The little town wasn’t indicated on my map. I stopped at the store and asked for some help finding out where I was and how to get back to the main base. The lady said I should go into the bar and ask some of the boys. Entering the bar and pool hall, I spotted four guys with their feet up on the table having beers and announced I was lost and could they help me. There were rough characters, all with baseball hats and accents and most of their teeth. They showed me on my map where I was and told me it was real easy. They said I should go that way and turn at the second left about 2 or 3 miles down the road and then go straight for about 5 miles. I thanked them and left, heading down the road. I took a look back at the first curve and saw all four of the boys running to a pickup truck, piling into it and whipping it around, heading my way. I imagined everything, including visions of the Deliverance movie or being robbed at rifle point. As I drove, their pickup caught up to me and stayed right behind me. I decided to pull over and stop. The guys pulled alongside me, rolled down their window and said “We just wanted to make sure you were on the right track. Turn left right up there at the stop sign.” Well, well……I thanked them for being so kind and they turned around and went back to town. Good ‘ol small town America.
11. The College English Class. In 1958, my brother Rich and I were entering Arizona State University as freshmen. I had briefly worked for ASU, actually, to help other students get through the matriculation process. I manned a table in the gymnasium and helped students get the classes they wanted at the time they wanted. A few days later, I went to class for the first time. I think it was second period when I went to English 101, a required class every student had to take. When we were all seated, the instructor announced that we were to complete a 500 word essay and hand it in during this first class. The subject I chose was integration of schools since this was a major topic at that time in our country’s history. I don’t recall exactly what I wrote but I was in favor of integration. Growing up on a farm in a small town, I just thought it was a good thing. When we all came back to the next English 101 class a couple of days later, the instructor stood up and said “Would Robert Draper and (a girl in the class) please stand up?” We did and the instructor said “You’ve passed this class. You can go over to the English 102 class.” We left the class, with everybody looking at us. I guess the two of us had been paying attention during English classes in high school. It doesn’t seem like a big deal now, 50-some years later, but it was a big deal at the time.
10. The Flippin’ Scooter Accident. It was Halloween morning in 1984. Arlyne had left early. I usually drove my old VW bus to work but discovered I couldn’t find the keys. I was the Program Manager (PM) of a major Air Force project and that morning was the first day of the Preliminary Design Review (PDR). A PDR is a big, big deal for a Government program. It was my meeting and I couldn’t miss it. I was dressed in my best suit, ready to address 20 Air Force people and talk about our progress. The other vehicle available to me was David’s scooter, a large P1800. It looked like my only option. I looked long and hard at the crash helmet, thinking I wouldn’t need it for only 10 miles…….then I put it on and stashed a hair brush in my suit pocket. I took off for work, avoiding the freeway and taking the old highway. I was going about 45 miles per hour on a nearly empty road when suddenly the engine seized up. The rear wheel froze and smoke started coming out of the tire as I laid rubber. Before I could even think what to do, the scooter started to fishtail back and forth faster and faster. I remember the scooter falling to the left. I protectively tucked my left arm into my side and closed my eyes. I woke up on the side of the road as a man in a car stopped. The scooter was on its side, still running. The young man breathlessly asked me if I was OK and I actually said to him “Just leave the scooter here and take me to work.” As I brushed the dirt off my suit, I noticed that the left sleeve of my coat had ripped at the shoulder seam and was hanging off my elbow. I took the coat off. I felt fine otherwise. He drove me a couple of miles and I told him to just take me to a phone so I could call my office. He told me he had seen the accident and I had flipped over three times in the air before landing on side of the road. We drove another mile or so and I said “You know, take me to Sharp Hospital, I don’t feel so hot.” I was going into shock. I was admitted into the hospital and x-rays showed I had seven broken ribs and a broken collarbone, all on my left side. I was feeling pretty clammy and crappy about then. I called Arlyne and told her where I was and she came right over. I also called my office. My deputy PM took over the meeting, which turned out, by the way, to be a near disaster without me there.
While recuperating on a lounge chair my first day home, Arlyne didn’t think anything of it when she opened the back door and let our 72 pound golden retriever in. Toby saw me, took a little run and leaped right on my chest! OOOOWWWW!!!!
I didn’t go back to work for several days. When I finally got back to my office, my project team had filled my entire room with balloons three feet deep. This was to ensure that I would have a soft landing if I fell out of my chair.
9. The Great Antenna Fiasco. I was assigned to Nellis AFB outside of Las Vegas for about two years from 1969 to 1971. (Daughter Alec was born there) I installed and maintained electronic warfare equipment on jets such as F-4s and F-105’s. I had a small shop located in a hangar next to the flight line and my friend (even as I write this over 40 years later) Archie Kingsbury worked with me. As a side note, the Air Force Thunderbirds were based at Nellis and we got to see them take off in a group every once in a while, always with one of them going inverted as they lifted off. One day my partner and I were troubleshooting equipment on an F-4 and realized we needed to replace two small antennas in the nose cone of the jet. Each antenna was not much bigger than a computer mouse. I went to the supply office on the base, told the supply clerk what we needed and gave him the part numbers. No problem, he said. Archie and I waited maybe a month for our antennas. One morning I heard a large truck backing up in the little parking lot near our office and went outside. A huge truck was there with a long low-boy trailer. Chained to the trailer were two huge crates, each of which probably 8 feet on a side. The driver said “Where do you want these?” I got two antennas at least, but these monsters were probably used to probe deep space or track incoming ballistic missiles. Each antenna was painted all white and probably weighed half a ton! I ran over to the supply office and told them what was out in the parking lot. The problem was eventually traced to a couple of digits being messed up in the order, somewhere up the line. The supply office told the truck driver to just turn around and go back. We had ordered the right antennas and the supply office wasn’t that surprised about the error, although it was a big one. He told me about an incident a few years earlier in Vietnam when a soldier had ordered two locomotive engines, just for fun. The engines were built and shipped to Vietnam, just as ordered. Talk about fraud, waste and abuse.
8. A Business Trip to Israel. As I recall, it was winter of 2002, approximately. Cubic was delivering a combat training system to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) training center near Beersheba, not far from the Gaza strip. We had a crew of about 10 software and computer engineers installing computer consoles and cables and loading and testing software functions. Several of us were staying at a kibbutz near Beersheba where we each had a Spartan little cabin. We ate breakfast there each morning which consisted of a couple of eggs, some toast and some tomatoes, as I recall. It was quite the adventure. A few days after we arrived, I was fast asleep at 3:00 am when Arlyne called me from San Diego. She said “Did you hear about the bombing in Jerusalem?” “Heck no,” I said. “What bombing?” Terrorists had set off a bomb near an outdoor restaurant in Jerusalem, killing several people. When the police and medical people arrived, another bomb was set off, killing and wounding several of them as well. I had no idea this had happened. It apparently occurred about 8:00 pm the previous evening. For the rest of the night, I imagined groups of terrorists swarming through our kibbutz, shooting and kidnapping everyone. The next day, we drove to the IDF training center, called MATBAT. All the officers at the post, including the guys we were working with, were now wearing side arms, tucked in their belts behind their back. They had all been ordered to arm themselves. Everyone was talking about the bombing. Sometime in the late morning, we all went outside and looked across the approximately 30 miles toward Gaza. The IDF was strafing Gaza with F-16s, shooting rockets into the city. They would make diving runs, shoot some rockets and circle around for another pass. I seem to remember three or four planes. Black smoke rose out of Gaza City and increased in the afternoon. We were surrounded by hundreds of armed soldiers at the training center, most of whom were young women. We weren’t sure if the weapons they all carried had ammunition or not but I was pretty sure they did. We felt quite safe.
One of my favorite stories about Israel: Earlier on the same trip the IDF soldiers took a few of us to the outskirts of Beersheba to see one of several communication towers that another contractor had recently erected. We were going to have some of our equipment installed in a concrete shelter located at the base of the tower. Next to the shelter was a concrete slab surrounded by a chain link fence with barbed wire on top. There was nothing inside this fenced area except several very large nuts and bolts and the gate was locked. One of the officers explained that a large 35 kilowatt generator had been installed and bolted down on this concrete pad. A very large crane had been used to put the heavy generator in place. The very next day, when the workers who had installed the crane came back to finish the job, the generator was gone and only the bolts were left. One man recalled that a Bedouin woman had been watching them the previous day from a hundred yards away. Apparently, the Bedouins had somehow (no one knows how) lifted the generator out of the enclosed area and spirited it away during the night. I imagined that one night in the near future a Bedouin village out in the desert would suddenly light up, with every tent having lights and radios. Google Bedouin if you have to. They are very interesting nomadic (almost romantic) people who live in tents and roam Negev desert, although some have made semi-permanent settlements. The recipe for Bedouin coffee by the way is: Black as the night and hot as hell.
7. The Football Game. I was in the 6th grade. My brothers and I went to school in Gilbert, Arizona. At that time, our school was listed as a Class C school, a rating system that is now a thing of the past. It meant that we took all comers I suppose, including 15 and 16 year old kids that were nearly illiterate being placed in the 6th grade. Our family had only moved back to Arizona two years before. My two brothers and I were getting used to living in a small house on a farm with our “next door” neighbors nearly a quarter mile away. At school there were Navajo kids, a few black kids, lots of Mexican kids, farm kids that had no shoes and many who were functionally illiterate. We mingled with the next grade up where the kids were starting to get bigger and tougher. Even the girls were tough. I once saw a girl take a metal-tipped top, the kind with a string wound around it, and drive the spike completely through the cheek of another girl. Even I had fights with some of the kids, usually about nothing at all or because we just didn’t look like each other.
Even in the 6th grade, we had a football team with uniforms and the works. That very year the state funded a movie that demonstrated how to convert 6-man football teams to 11-man teams. Our little team was used for the film. The 11-man plays were quite different from what we had been running.
Because we were way out in farm country and were a Class C school, our sports teams only played one other school; we played against the team from Sacaton Apache Indian Reservation. We alternated home and away and had both JV and varsity squads. I played JV for a while then moved up to “varsity”. Our JV team won every game against Sacaton. I had scored one touchdown in JV but on varsity I was third string. In our first ever varsity night home game against Sacaton, a lot of parents were there watching. We were losing big time against the Apaches, who we never spoke with. The coach called my name “Draper, get your helmet on.” I played right end or what today is called wide receiver. I was not a fast runner but I was beginning to get a little taller than the other kids. Our quarterback was used to throwing to a very, very fast Mexican kid by the name of Gonzalo Torres. I ran out in a buttonhook pattern, turned inside and looked for the ball. I saw it sail 15 feet over my head into the waiting arms of the biggest Apache Indian I had ever seen. He must have been one of the 16 year olds. I became a tackler but he ran right through me, knocking me down. I saw him flatten another of our defenders as he ran down the sideline for a standup touchdown. Right after that play, Coach called me off the field. That’s pretty much how the game went but at least it was memorable. Pretty soon I changed my sports to tennis and swimming.
6. My Ancestor’s Grave. On one of my many enjoyable business trips to England, I had a Saturday off after briefing project people at the Ministry of Defence. I knew that one of my ancestors was buried in a cemetery north of London. My brother had done an enormous amount of work on our family genealogy and gave me sufficient information such that I could at least find the place. I took a train about an hour north of London to Peterborough and hired a cab to the suburb of Longthorpe. The cabbie took me to the cemetery and let me off. Being a Saturday, there was no staff on site and I was pretty overwhelmed looking at two acres with a thousand gravesites. My plan was simple. I started at one corner and walked down the rows, looking carefully at each headstone. Some had fallen over and many were unreadable due to age and weathering. I trudged on, hoping to get lucky. I was looking for William Sebright, my great, great grandfather. He had been the hounds-man, among other things I’m sure, for a castle owner in this area in the middle 1800s. In those days, hounds were quite the rage, what with fox hunts going on. I have to ask my brother but I recall that Sebright wrangled some 50 or 60 hounds. Our family has a painting of him on horseback, surrounded by his hounds. It was a pleasant day and I walked for more than an hour with no luck. I looked up at one point and saw a young boy in the cemetery holding a large drawing. He was at least 250 graves away from me by my estimate if I continued to walk the rows. I went across to see him and asked if his drawing was a map of the cemetery and what he was doing. He said he was doing a project for the Duke of Edinburgh that required him to check the cemetery records with the actual graves. I discovered later that his “Project” was part of a program for wayward boys. They were given tasks to do to keep them out of trouble. I asked him “Can you find the Sebright grave?” He looked at the drawing for a bit and said “Yes, it’s right over there” pointing to a spot a few rows over.
We walked over and found the three headstones for William Sebright, his wife, and his son. I knew that Sebright’s daughter wouldn’t be there because she had married a man named Robinson and moved to the United Stated, settling in Utah. She became my mother’s grandmother. I had the young man take my picture next to the headstones and thanked him very much. What a wonderful coincidence that brought us both here. The most fascinating part is that the graveyard’s drawing had an error. They had misspelled my great, great grandfather’s name as Sibright instead of Sebright. We both hovered over the drawing as he made the correction. I imagine even he got a charge out of that, especially since I was an American, possibly the first one he had ever met.
5. A Personal Story: The U.S. Army Scout. When I was 14, I was invited over to the neighbor’s house across the street to meet someone. My friend’s mother Betty introduced me to a gentleman who was 92 years old. He was quite tall, maybe 6’ 5”, very distinguished and although thin and lanky, didn’t look that old. I recall that Betty knew him from years ago because they had both lived in the Douglas, Arizona area. I sat down next to him and he started talking. As a young man he had been a scout for the Army back when the famous Indian chief Geronimo was still “running free” as they used to say. He and several soldiers and other scouts (were these General Crook’s men?) sat in a pow-wow with Geronimo and his Apache warrior band to negotiate some treaty or promise. This had to be earlier than 1886 (when Geronimo was finally captured for good) and could have been the early 1880s’ when the scout was just over 20 years old. Even as a 14 year old, I was impressed. I was looking at history and I knew it. Hard to imagine as I stand here today that I spoke to a man who was born in 1863, almost 150 years ago!
4. A Personal Story: The Chinese Restaurant. It was sometime in the late eighties. One day I left my job in San Diego during lunch to get my watch fixed. After I left the watch store, I walked over to a nearby Chinese restaurant to have lunch. There were several people there, probably 20 customers and a staff of waiters. I had ordered my food and was just starting to dig in when a woman started yelling. “Help, help….she’s choking!!” I saw two women at a booth, one sitting and the other standing and screaming. I took just one 3 second look around the restaurant and no one was moving. Not really knowing what I was getting into, I ran over to the couple. My daughter Alec had put up a poster in our laundry room several years before, explaining how to perform the Heimlich maneuver and one day I had paused to look it over.
I sat down right next to the seated woman who was choking. She was probably late 60’s or early 70’s, the same as her friend. I got as close as I could next to her, put my arms around her midsection and clasped my hands together. I gave her a big squeeze and pulled upwards just below her ribcage. Nothing happened. She was struggling to breathe. A waiter came over and stood back a bit, seeming to be totally confused. The next time, I took a deep breath and gave that lady the biggest goddamn squeeze I could and I didn’t care if I hurt her or not. A little piece of food popped out of her mouth and landed on the table. She was instantly better, just like that. I asked her if she was OK. She turned to me and said “Oh yes, thank you, thank you.” Her friend, standing next to the table, came over to me as I got up, gave me a gigantic hug and said “Thank you, you saved her life!” I told them I hoped she would be fine and just went back to my table. It was over, just like that.
3. This is supposed to be a “life story” section. However, just a small comment on guns and ammunition. Mostly, I’m OK with gun ownership but I’m not OK with lead ammunition. At great expense and with sweeping changes, we are getting rid of lead-based paint, leaded gasoline, lead toys and other lead in cars and machinery. Why are we doing this? Because lead is bad for the environment and it’s dangerous for everyone, including birds. Why do we still have lead ammunition? Are lead slugs good lead and other lead is bad lead? Birds that are shot have been shown to have lead dust far from the entry wound.
Did you know that the “engineer” behind putting lead in gasoline was the same guy that spearheaded the effort to introduce fluorocarbons into the environment? We are trying to ban both.
2. A Personal Life Story: The Extinct Bird. Arlyne and I lived in New Zealand for over a year when my employer in San Diego purchased a small electronics company in Auckland. When they won a large contract with the Australian Commonwealth for a mobile training system, they needed an experienced project engineer for the first year of the contract. The work was demanding but Arlyne and I took every opportunity to do some birding in New Zealand, perhaps the Holy Grail of birdwatching or at least one of them. We were even able to go to Australia on a couple of trips and picked up a few birds over there. We covered most of the North Island and quite a bit of the South Island. In NZ, people living in the South Island call it the Mainland. New Zealanders call Australia the West Island. We planned a pelagic trip out on the Hauraki Gulf for January, which is summer down there. Just a month earlier the New Zealand Herald had an article about someone who thought he saw a New Zealand Storm Petrel, which has been extinct for 150 years. The only remaining evidence of this little bird was a skin and some feathers in a museum in France. The article included a fuzzy picture of the bird flying over the Gulf. We never thought we would see one but we certainly saw some marvelous birds. We saw flesh-footed shearwater, grey ternlets, an arctic skua, a White-faced storm petrel, a Cook’s petrel and Pycroft’s petrel. It’s believed that the term “petrel” is derived from “St. Peter” because of the behavior of these little sea birds to touch down lightly and skip along on the surface, seeming to walk on water.
Our boat was a converted fishing boat with a dozen birders on board, a couple of them, like us, hoping to see the now famous “extinct” bird. We got a little sea sick from looking through a long lens and binoculars while moving in all three dimensions at the same time. Smelling the chum the Captain was throwing overboard periodically didn’t help. But we persevered. About three hours into the trip, out of sight of land, someone shouted “There they are!” We all looked to see two very small birds circling our boat. Every camera clicked as we attempted to track the birds as they flew at high speed around us. I managed to get a couple of decent shots and we all agreed that this was the bird. It remained for scientists and ornithologists to confirm the
identity. Various websites now, several years later, indicate that the bird is indeed still around. It’s believed that a colony of about 50 New Zealand Storm Petrels nest on a small, predator-free, barrier island way out in the Hauraki Gulf. It’s a sea bird and normally feeds at night, which accounts for it not being recognized. It looks very much like other petrels but with the advent of digital cameras and the rapidly growing army of birdwatchers around the world, it was finally found. We feel very lucky that we were out on the Gulf that day. We are among a fortunate few that got to see an extinct bird.
1. A Personal Life Story: The Bulgarian Bird(s). One day a few months before I retired, my boss came to me and said “Draper, I need you to take another trip.” He wanted me to go to Bulgaria with some international marketing guys. I’ve always liked to travel so…….sure. Three of us flew through London and on to Sofia, the Capitol. The ride from the airport was interesting because of the old Soviet-style apartment buildings, drab, unpainted and with unreadable signs. The Hotel, on the other hand was quite beautiful, fronted by a cobblestone street with doormen to handle your every need. I had a spacious and well-appointed room as well.
We met with our representatives the next day to prepare for the presentation I was to give about our combat training system. The Bulgarian Government was planning to convert a former Soviet Army base into a training area and was interested in our system. I won’t discuss the meeting except to say that I would speak a few words followed by a Bulgarian Army officer who would translate.
The next day was a Saturday and the secretary at the rep’s office had been told that I was interested in birds. She first took me in a cab to a ski lift that took us high above Sofia and offered us a gorgeous view of the city and surrounding countryside. While we were waiting for another cab to pick us up, a woman nearby was speaking to her small son. She pointed out to a field and I didn’t really notice what they were looking at. As we drove away in the cab, I asked the secretary what the woman had said. She told me the woman had said “Look at the storks.” I said “Can we go back?” We did but didn’t see any storks.
Our next stop was in the city where we entered a small building. Inside was a museum of stuffed birds. There were a lot of birds nicely displayed and I didn’t recognize most of them. I didn’t offend her by saying that I wanted to see live, wild birds. Later that afternoon, back at the hotel, I wandered into the large city park surrounding the hotel. I saw a few birds flitting around but couldn’t see them very well. Finally, I spotted two unusual black and white birds in the grass. I took a few pictures with my primitive digital camera and presented the pictures to the young lady at the hotel front desk. She had to ask another woman. It’s a vrana they told me. Do you know what a vrana is in English? Well, no, they said.
After I got back home I did some research on the internet and finally located the bird in question. A vrana is a hooded crow. I had a new bird for my list. Too bad about the museum birds.