25 September 2007

Travelocity Sucks: Boycott Travelocity

In many ways, web-based travel reservation companies such as Expedia have proven to be a great advantage for people who book their own airline, hotel, and car rental arrangements. Of the many web-based travel agents, Travelocity is among the very worst. Graphic below from www.travelocitysucks.info )

After several minor screw-ups and one particularly egregious gouging, I join the ranks of those who say Travelocity Sucks and Boycott Travelocity.

On a recent trip to Bradford, Pennsylvania (for a family funeral), daughter Emily flew in from Boston to the closest major airport in Buffalo, New York. Because her flight back to Boston was to leave at the butt-crack of dawn, we decided to book a hotel near the airport on short notice. Finding a reservation was tough, but one Travelocity "near the airport" hotel had vacancies, and so I booked it. Yikes! My mistake, as I found when I tried to map directions--it was in Fort Erie, which to my surprise I found to be in Canada. With no passports, we could not stay there.

We immediately tried to cancel online and through Travelocity suck's "customer service" (Hah!) line. After being put on hold three times for a half hour or more at a time, and shuffled from operator to operator, we gave up. We called the hotel directly, but were told that since it was booked through Travelocity sucks we would need to deal with it through Travelocity sucks. After returning home, emails seeking a refund brought only automated, semi-anonymous replies (you can never speak or email with the same agent twice, it seems) that it was the hotel's fault and no refund was available.

What a bunch of weasels.

"Travelocity Sucks" cf. http://scribb.typepad.com/marketonomy/2005/12/customer_experi.html; http://www.aftertastebliss.com/archives/natelog/2006/01/travelocity_suc.php; and http://www.my3cents.com/showReview.cgi?id=17334)

"Boycott Travelocity" cf. http://www.scrapbook.com/blogs/36517/view/15035.html; http://www.epinions.com/content_369755065988/show_~allcom; and http://www.ripoffreport.com/reports/0/126/RipOff0126276.htm)

21 September 2007

Shotguns: Functional and Symbolic Objects in American Culture

I grew up in a culture where shotguns were important tools. Since deer season was only a week or two long, a deer rifle might get out of the house for a only few days each year. Shotguns, on the other hand, saw long and hard use on cottontails, black & gray squirrels, snowshoe "rabbits" (actually hares), grouse, turkey, pheasant, and the occasional duck. Hell, Uncle Charlie even used his beat up Model 12 (loaded with slugs) to trim oak limbs that grew too close to the eaves.

Still, a good shotgun cost a lot of money and so also had symbolic status--as what James Deetz (Small Things Forgotten, 1977) distinguished as socio-technic (i.e. a social function) and ideo-technic (i.e. ideological) contexts. To own a good shotgun did not mean you were a wealthy man. It meant you were a serious hunter and outdoorsman. The tool you chose said something about your values regarding technology and class, too. Also, since shotguns outlive their owners, they become a sort of fetish that connects us with memory.

The pump action shotgun was a uniquely American tool of the Industrial Age. Unlike Europeans, who had long favored elegant side-by-side ("double barreled") shotguns, Americans preferred something with an active operating mechanism that could quickly fire five or six shots. American inventiveness personified itself in the brothers Browning -- John M. and Matthew S. -- who designed a whole slough of ingeniousness rifles, shotguns, and pistlos operated by various sorts of lever, pump, and automatic actions.

My great-grandfather, a first generation American named John Eugene Munday, carried a Winchester Model 97 12-gauge pump-action shotgun. I don't know when exactly he bought it, but he was using its predecessor -- a Model 93 -- at the time Gramps was a young lad starting to pay attention to such things, c. 1910. According to Winchester's serial number records, his M 97 was made in 1914. It was a popular model of the time, with more than a million sold from when it was first manufactured in 1897 to its discontinuation in 1957.

John Munday made about a dollar a day as a roustabout, pumper, and driller in the Bradford Oil Field. He probably paid several week's wages for the M 97. But the gun was made expressly for the new smokeless powder, and it was a fast shooter that held one shell in the chamber and another five rounds in the magazine. At a time when all the clearcut Pennsylvania forests were full of brush, brambles, and birds (grouse), this was the shotgun to have. According to Gramps, his old man was a mean drunk, a bare-fisted competition boxer, and one overall sonofabitch. But he was also one hell of a wingshot, and that was his only trait I ever heard Gramps praise. Here's the M 97, which might or not be the one owned by old John. I bought it from a neighbor of Uncle Charlie's, who had supposedly bought it from John after his drunkard's life caught up with him and he became too ill to hunt:

Gramps would not shoot the M 97 and had a hearty disdain for it, having had an early misfortune with it (or perhaps the similar M 93) when the exposed hammer ripped into his thumb as he shucked back the action. You can't be sloppy with your grip when shooting one of these things, and the M 97 wasn't known as a "thumb buster" for nothing:

Gramps bitterly recalled this story to me many times, and it always provided a segue into the story of a shotgun he loved like a good dog, his two boys Gene Jr. & Jim, and his wife Beryl. He bought the little Model 12, 25 inch barrel, 20 gauge in 1926, the same year Dad was born. The M 12 is known as a reliable, well made, and very expensive shotgun. For a man who never bought a new car in his life, this was a special purchase:

It's nickel steel barrel was supposed to be stronger and lighter than conventional steels, and corrosion resistant too. I don't know if the gun didn't hold its bluing very well, or if Gramps wore it off from a lot of carrying. Probably the latter. At any rate, though I knew I was greatly reducing its collector's value, I had the barrel and receiver reblued when I was in high school. I wanted to use the shotgun, and there was already some light pitting on the receiver from Gramps' hands. For me, at least at that time, the gun would only have value if I could hunt with it:

I didn't need the M 12. In my first year of legal hunting, I used a "family gun"--a Model 37 single shot, 20 gauge, that then passed to my younger cousins. The summer I was to turn 13, Dad brought me to Ted Lundine's sport shop to choose a new shotgun as a birthday present. I owe this to Gramps, who was always quick to help Dad realize his fatherly obligations, especially when it came to encouraging my love of all things outdoors.

At Lundine's, Dad and Mr. L encouraged me to look at the Ithaca Model 37 pump action shotguns. This was the gun that -- thanks to cheaper production methods -- had largely taken over the Winchester M 12's market share. I wanted nothing to do with what I perceived to be a cheap, mass-produced rattletrap that cost about $100.

I had been ruined by a chance meeting with an old high school chum of Dad, a man who had become a regional salesman for the Browning Arms Company. Some combination of this man's ethos, and the many Hook & Bullet magazine articles and library books about firearms I had read convinced me that an automatic shotgun was the way to go. An automatic shotgun was to late twentieth century American industry and culture what the pumpgun had been to an earlier age. Unlike a manually operated pump action shotgun, an "automatic" uses the kinetic energy of recoil or a gas-operated piston to eject the spent shell and chamber a new round. After cursorily examining heavy, awkward feeling Remington Model 1100s and Winchester Model 1400s, my eyes fell upon a Browning A5 in "Light 20."

Per Mr. Lundine's instructions, I held the shotgun, looked at a stuffed grouse across the room, closed my eyes, and then mounted the shotgun as if I were to shoot the bird. Upon opening my eyes, the barrel pointed precisely at the target. The price tag read $187.50, but Mr. Lundine said "This kid has an eye for fine shotguns. I'll knock five bucks off the price and throw in a couple of boxes of shells."

Dad's attitude showed a confused mix of consternation that I had chosen an expensive gun and pride that I had an eye for quality. At any rate, he agreed to put the first $100 down, and I agreed to pay Mr. Lundine $5 a week from my paper-route and odd-job money until the additional $82.50 was paid off.

Every Saturday, I went to the family oil lease with Gramps to help pump the wells and tend the garden. On the way home, we would stop at Lundine's, I would hand over my five dollars, Mr. Lundine would write the payment on our duplicate receipts, and I would point the Browning at the stuffed grouse.

By October and the start of small game season, the A5 was mine:

I shot a lot of cottontails and gray squirrels that year, and missed more than a few grouse. The next summer, Gramps had me shooting cans that he pitched into the air to simulate live birds. This helped greately, though not until I took up skeet shooting at the age of eighteen or so did I become a proficient wingshot. While working at a particularly good co-op job one summer from Drexel University, I plunked down $1,000 to a widow for her husband's three fancy over-and-under (double barreled) skeet guns--Winchester Model 101s in 20 gauge, 28 gauge, and .410 bore. I developed a special fondness for the 28 gauge, and it was the only one I kept when I gave up competition shooting 25 years ago:

Still, when it comes to shooting birds, there is nothing like the little Browning. RTD will attest to that, seen here posing with a freshly plucked blue grouse:

18 September 2007

Montana Snipe Hunt

It is fall. Mornings are frosty. Bull elk are whistling. Aspen leaves are turning color, and the cool nights pull sugars to the surface of the leaves. You can taste the change of season.
Ranchers are moving their cattle down from the National Forest and State Game Ranges:

My friend Wayne Hadley gave me a gentle ass kicking because I had not been grouse hunting. In my years in Pennsylvania and New York, I could not have imagined going a year without hunting upland birds. The year we lived in Germany, I thought I would die of anguish as summer turned to fall and I walked the woods with no shotgun in my hands. No little Model 12 20 gauge pumpgun passed on to me by Gramps. No Browning A5 Light 20 autoloader, bought with a few hard-earned dollars each week taken out of my paper route money. No Winchester 101 28 gauge overunder, my favorite for skeet shooting and the only gun I kept from my competition days.

Here in Montana, though, I'll go several years at a time without grouse hunting. There just aren't many most years, it seems--at least not when compared with the lush, grown over, orchards and fields of abandoned farms in upstate New York, or the open meadow woodlands of the Allegheny Plateau. It was not unusual to flush a dozen or twenty birds in a morning's hunt, and to come home without grouse was almost unthinkable. The one hunting season I lived in West Virginia, it was even better. Spoiled rotten, those eastern grouse hunters.

But Wayne insisted this was an exceptional year, and he generously suggested that early morning grasshoppers and snowberries would mean blue grouse. I especially appreciated the tip about snowberries, since I had not known these were a gamefood:

Blues are much larger than ruffed grouse. When I see them among the white bark pines while elk hunting, my mind's eye flashes back to young turkeys in the Pennsylvania hardwoods. Well, they're not that large, but relative to ruffs they are giants. Luckily they tend to flush close (if they flush at all--I think they are born wearing sneakers), so I've never had any trouble killing them with #7-1/2 shot.

I found an area with snowberries, Oregon grape, aspen, Douglass fir, red osier dogwood, willows, and sarvis berries. But no grouse. On the way out, however, I made a loop around the lowlands and some beaver ponds, just to let RTD cool down from the mid-morning heat and long hike over the ridges and high meadows:What a pleasant surprise to flush and shoot a few Wilson's Snipe. Like their eastern cousin the Woodcock, these are among the tastiest of wild game. Unlike some dogs I've known, RTD showed no aversion to finding them in the tall grass. All day, I've been drooling over the appetizers for tonight's supper. Wished I'd shot six or eight, enough for a real meal. Of course, you are supposed to hang them until they are quite high, but that ain't likely to happen unless I become a bachelor and indeed could well cause me to become one should I ever try it.

13 September 2007

CFWEP: The Clark Fork Watershed Education Program

Here is a modified version of my radio commentary that aired on KUFM, Montana Public Radio, last week:

In the Upper Clark Fork River Basin, environmental remediation and restoration consume much of our time. There are environmental pollution and human health problems to understand, feasibility studies to wrestle with, remedies or clean-ups to be implemented, and restoration plans to be developed. With all these technical (and political) issues to deal with, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the social and cultural context of our environmental problems.

Restoration is a social as well as a technical process. The two forms of restoration can go hand-in-hand, so that we restore and renew social functions in ways that connect with and build on environmental restoration.

Biking and walking paths, natural areas protected as open space for public use, and streams rebuilt to enhance fishing opportunities are just a few simple examples of ways in which environmental and social restoration work together.

The Clark Fork Watershed Education Program – “CFWEP” for short – has taken social restoration a giant step further. CFWEP began in 2003 as a way of realizing the Natural Resource Damage Program’s commitment to education. It was a wise investment in our educational and social infrastructure. Since that time, more than 6,000 students and 100 teachers have directly benefited from CFWEP’s work.

The program’s core effort is with middle school kids. It begins with three presentations about what a watershed is, an overview of the Clark Fork watershed, and detailed information about how the activities of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company in Butte and Anaconda damaged the watershed. Kids then take field trips along Silver Bow Creek and the Clark Fork River to collect physical, chemical, and biological data. Using watershed science, this data is shaped into information that indicates pollution levels and measures the success of remediation and restoration.

At more advanced levels, CFWEP provides tremendous opportunities for students to engage in scientific research such as benthic invertebrate monitoring, bull trout studies, big horn sheep ecology, beaver dam mapping, and birds as indicators of habitat quality. CFWEP also works directly with teachers to expand their content knowledge of the environmental sciences and ways in which the Clark Fork can be used as a backyard laboratory.

In talking with Matt Vincent, the CFWEP Director and the program’s former Science Education Coordinator, I realized that CFWEP walks its talk. As Matt put it, “There is no better outdoor laboratory than the Clark Fork River.” And just as a watershed ecosystem is built of many closely integrated parts, so is CFWEP closely integrated with other organizations. Partners such as Trout Unlimited, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Blackfoot Challenge, the Butte-Silver Bow Arts Foundation, our former Senator Pat Williams’ Western Progress program, Governor Schweitzer’s Math-Science Initiative, the University of Montana’s Avian Science Center, and Missoula’s Watershed Education Network all help insure that CFWEP is a dynamic and resilient program that is woven into the social structure of our watershed.

Because of activities like these, the Clark Fork River watershed is becoming a national model for environmental and social restoration.

Like fish populations in the Clark Fork River, CFWEP will grow through environmental and social restoration. For example, there are plans for instituting the Upper Clark Fork Science League. As an extra-curricular program for individual students and teams, science coaches and mentors will guide students as they engage in scientific research.

In 1983, Butte, Anaconda, and Milltown were first declared Superfund sites. A child who was in the 8th grade at that time could be the parent of an 8th grader today. Imagine if we had begun educating children in 1983 about Superfund issues? Surely that would have had a profound effect on us as residents of the watershed today. And surely today we owe our children – and our communities – education about how these environmental and human health problems were caused, the damages that were done to our natural resources, and the ways that remedy and restoration are healing the wounds.

As an unreconstructed liberal, I still believe in education as the key to social progress. Contrary to clever corporate marketing, progress is not about more oil, bigger SUVs, and new consumer technology. Sometimes, progress is about restoring our environment and our society. Progress is about educating our children to be thoughtful citizens of the watershed.

For more information about the Clark Fork Watershed Education Program, see the website at http://www.cfwep.org.

It’s September. The kids are back in school, and it’s time for us to attend public meetings.

There is a series of public meeting on Milltown Park planning at the Bonner School throughout the month, culminating in workshops to design Milltown Park.

Also, please plan to attend the Warm Springs Ponds citizens’ public planning meeting at the Metcalf Center in Anaconda at 7 p.m., Wednesday, September 26th.

You can learn more about these meetings and other Superfund issues at CFRTAC’s website at http://www.cfrtac.org.

Ted Williams: Can We Save the Grayling?

Folks who care about Big Hole River grayling will want to read the article by conservationist and author Ted Williams in the November/December 2007 issue of Fly Rod & Reel. Williams is a fine writer, and I first became aware of his work in the essay, "Paying for It," in the collection, A Hunter's Heart: Honest Essays on Blood Sport (1996). Williams is a brutally honest, "take no prisoners," writer and conservationist who has no patience for wildlife groups that make unholy alliances with (or sell out to) those who cause environmental harm.

The new article is "Who Needs Grayling? A special fish struggles to hang on in the Lower 48." Williams describes his own deep relationship with and fondness for grayling, writing "Clearly God had made it last, after he'd practiced on all the other fishes." He then recounts the history of Big Hole River grayling and the Endangered Species Act, a process that culminates in the bad decision of evil Julie McDonald not to list them, thanks to her "brazen political meddling." He concludes by reviewing current efforts to save the last few precious grayling, including a trenchant quote from Jon Marvel, director of the Western Watersheds Project: "Livestock production is the culture of death and extinction in the arid West."

Surprisingly, the Big Hole Watershed Committee is not mentioned as playing a role in current efforts to recover the fish. Perhaps this is an indication that the group has simply become irrelevant.

Be sure to pick up a copy of Fly Rod & Reel and read this article. It is sure to set off a firestorm of comment. And be sure to check out Ted Williams' "Conservation Blog" at http://magazine.flyrodreel.com/index.php/page/blog.

07 September 2007

A Sense of Place: The Tosh Farm near Ligonier, Pennsylvania

Leaving Bradford, Pennsylvania, we brought Emily to Buffalo, New York, for her flight back to college in Boston. What visit to Buffalo is complete without a quick sidetrip to Niagra Falls:

Which Sam had not seen before:

In Montana, we think of a family as having deep roots if they are of the third or fourth generation in a place, having been there a hundred years or so. Certainly, even in that short time, people can come to feel a part of the land that they live in. I have long taught "sense of place" as a concept in my Technology & Society classes, using readings from authors such as Wendell Berry and Rene Dubos, and so I was sensitive to this issue after we left Niagra Falls and Bradford behind for a visit with my brother-in-law and his wife near Ligonier, Pennsylvania.

Carol's people -- the Tosh family -- have been on the land there since shortly after the Revolutionary War. Their family and the old Tosh farm played a role in the Whiskey Rebellion -- an early test of federal power -- which resulted from the US Congress whiskey tax of 1791 (blame Alexander Hamilton for this). The Scot-Irish farmers of Western Pennsylvania depended on distilling and selling a little rye (not corn) whiskey to supplement their income. In response to the new law, they formed a loosely-organized mob and attacked tax collectors.

In 1794, the feds (i.e. President Washington) sent a force of about 13,000 soldiers to put down the rebellion. About 150 rebels were arrested, farmers began paying the tax (many were probably forced out of business), and federal power became a cornerstone of the new nation.

There is lots of evidence of long habitation on the Tosh farm, such as this old spring box:

And this barn and corn crib:

And the family homestead:

Despite this intensive use over the past 200+ years, the ecosystem appears healthy. There are still a few corn fields under cultivation, but much of the land is a fantastically diverse hardwood forests. On a walk around the place, I spotted many native trees, including oaks (white and red or black, I wasn't sure), sugar maple, hickory (shagbark and pignut), white pine, hemlock, birch (yellow and black), butternut, walnut, basswood, poplar, black cherry, beech, ironwood, and tulip poplar (or cucumber tree, I wasn't sure). No wonder that turkey, deer, and other game abound. Oh yeah, and there seem to be a few snakes around, as indicated by this nice black snake shed skin the dog found:

My nephew Sam (the oldest of the three brothers) is interested in hunting and recently won a nice 20 gage shotgun from a Wild Turkey Federation banquet. Here's Sam busting a few clays, with his dad Bill on the Armstrong Thrower:

Speaking of throwing, my arm is still sore. Bill's oldest two boys, Sam and Alex, constantly have a baseball or football in the air. No wonder Bill says his elbow is shot. Sam and Bill are also avid golfers, and Sam has converted the spacious front yard into a driving range and several greens. He's currently negotiating with Dad on excavating & hauling sand for the bunkers. Good Dad. Oh yeah, there's a pool for those hot summer afternoons. Both Alex:

And Domenic (yeah, that's my foot flipping his raft over) love the water:

To cap off the visit, Bill & Sam built a big fire and we all sat late into the cool night toasting marshmallows, roasting hot dogs, and swapping stories. I'd forgotten how well hardwood burns and how sweet it smells.

04 September 2007

Bradford, Pennsylvania: Going "Home" Again

Under sad circumstances, we visited our hometown of Bradford, Pennsylvania, for my mother-in-law's funderal. Jan's mom, Jean G. Vigliotti, died rather unexpectedly at the age of 77. Though a sad occasion, it was also a chance to contemplate the place that Jan & I grew up.

A post-industrial city, Bradford shares a deep history with places such as our current home of Butte, Montana. With the crude oil craze of the late nineteenth century, Bradford's population soared to (perhaps) more than 25,000. When Jan & I graduated high school in the early 1970s, there were about 15,000 residents. Today fewer than 10,000 people remain, and the population decline correlated directly with industrial decline: Kendall Oil faded into history, Case knives were eclipsed by cheaper imports, and Zippo lighters suffered from the decline in smoking & rise of disposable butane lighters.

The Bradford Oil Field produced more than 600 million barrels from 1871 to 1967, and at its peak in 1881 supplied more than 80% of America's oil. The local newspaper -- The Bradford Era -- used to have a banner billing the town as "The High Grade Oil Metropolis of the World." Like Butte's still-operating copper mine, Bradford still has a few producing oilwells, with many pumping on city lots next to people's homes:

Like many shallow oil fields, there are numerous fossils in various area outcrops. A shale quarry in our old neighborhood along High Street is always good for a few hours of amateur paleontology with the kids. Watch out for potential rockfalls, though!

Lots of critters from the Devonian period:

Shale was dug from the fossil quarry by the Hanley Brick Company, and Bradford was truly a red brick town. Imagine a time when bricks (and labor!) were cheap enough to pave roads and sidewalks. They are durable (but also slick when wet or snowy) compared with asphalt:

Here's an interesting sidewalk brick pattern, laid a century ago, and with little or no maintenance over the past fifty years:

Brick was a sign of upward mobility, the rising commercial class, and the industrial & political might of a growing nation. Naturally it was used for public buildings such as City Hall (sorry for the weird angles introduced by PhotoStitch):

The US Post Office:

And also for public structures funded by private foundations, such as the Carnegie Public Library:

I wasted many hours of my youth here, and was viewed by my friends as a little peculiar because I would often stop by for an hour or two of reading on the way home from school. In a home that could not afford books, "Free to the People" really meant something:

Well, there was a time when "education" really meant something to American families and the politicians that represented them. Here are a couple of panels from the old Sixth Ward school--one of the last of the old (brick, of course) ward schools still standing, though it's abandoned and no doubt will soon be demolished. These fine old schools -- and the spirit they represented -- have largely been replaced by shopping mall crap:

The wealthy Bradfordians lived in brick houses, while the rest of us made do in cheap wooden frame homes that required considerable repair and maintenance in the very wet climate (45 to 50 inches of precipitation per year). They don't age particularly well:

With Bradford's decline in population and the suburban flight of younger families, I'll bet the old houses sell cheap:

Three of Grandma Jean's grandkids joined me for a walk through the old 'hood (the "Bloody Fifth," named for its many brawls) up on Rochester St:

Including a stop at the old Fifth Ward School Playground:

Where some local kids tried to talk Emily and cousin Katie into taking home a "free" kitten. That's Katie's brother, Danny, checking whether it's OK with Mom. Of course, in the days before cell phones, the kids would have taken the kitten home under the old "It's better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission" rule:

As I made plans to travel to Bradford, I dreamed about hikes to the many places that I rambled as a child of nature. But "time be time, Man," and there be only time enough for a quick hike up to Turkey Rock, between Kushequa and the former Kinzua Bridge, just above the old brick works at Gaffney. Jan, Emily, and nephew Sam joined me. What lush country, practically a rain forest. You usually can't see your feet for the ferns:

Turkey Rock is a rock shelter used by native peoples in Paleolithic times. It was always a sure place to call in a big gobbler or to shoot a whitetail buck. Here's Emily with a little rock art that she made on her last visit, at least five years ago:

Well, you can go home. But it ain't the home you left. Time changes all things, and with the American "century of progress" behind us, maybe we can do a little better when it comes time to end this one.