My First Published Work

March 12, 2012

I had to resort to cyberspace to get it done, but it’s working. People are buying one of my books. If you’ve ever considered publishing your writings you know that most publishers won’t consider you unless you have an agent, and most agents won’t consider you unless you’ve been published.

Only the experienced need apply – unless you’ve already made a name for yourself as an actor, athlete, or politician. Then you can get published even if you don’t know how to write.

As Yakov Smirnoff would say, “What a country!”

In any case, here it is!

My travel tips for the tyro.

It is currently available from Amazon.com and is a steal at $2.99. It explains most, if not all, aspects of travel. It begins by talking about documents you might need – depending on your destination, Then it examines how to pick the best times to take the trip – to avoid crowds and high prices.

Many of the trips my bride and I have taken were bargain basement deals; so I explain the steps we take to find those specials. Then we look at how to make the good deals even better, by choosing less expensive travel methods and meals and expanding the itinerary set by a travel agent.

The thing that sets my book apart is that it covers so many aspects of travel. There are many books written by folks like Rick Steves, Fodors, Frommer’s, DK, Eyewitness Travel, Footprint, Lonely Planet, and Moon. They, and the books like them, do a nice job of telling you about various destinations – they just don’t tell you a lot about how to get there.

Clark Howard, a consumer advocate based in Atlanta, provides lots of travel advice, but many things you should know are scattered throughout his website and books, or simply assumed.

Much of the information in my book might be considered common sense. I simply attempt to present a formula for taking a trip – from planning to packing.

Using the information I’m sharing, I’ve saved hundreds of dollars on a single trip! And my bride and I have taken at least one dream vacation every year for the past several years. For three bucks, I think you’ll be able to pack your carry-on and have the same sort of good fortune we’re enjoying. If you buy a copy of the book, come back here and let me know what you think. Thanks.


Moving to Mexico

May 22, 2010

I’m amazed by the uproar that has resulted from Arizona creating a law – modeled directly after the Federal law concerning immigration – in an attempt to save their state from unbelievable crimes and a complete drain on their limited tax revenues.

It’s also interesting that our Director of Home Land Security, the former Governor of Arizona, Janet Napolitano, who flooded President George Bush with letters and phone calls expressing the same concerns now sees the law as inappropriate. Perhaps when she finally gets around to reading the law, she’ll recognize the problems she once saw so clearly.

I recently received a letter addressed to President Obama. Without a doubt, it was written with tongue firmly planted in the political cheek, but I see it as a very insightful way of helping people wake up to see the truth behind the problem. As with so many things flying around in cyberspace, I have no idea who deserves the credit. In any case, here it is.

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Dear President Obama:

I’m planning to move my family and extended family into Mexico for my health, and I would like to ask you to assist me.
We’re planning to simply walk across the border from the U.S. into Mexico , and we’ll need your help to make a few arrangements. We plan to skip all the legal stuff like visas, passports, immigration quotas and laws. I’m sure they handle those things the same way you do here. So, would you mind telling your buddy, President Calderon, that I’m on my way over?

Please let him know that I will be expecting the following:
1. Free medical care for my entire family.
2. English-speaking government bureaucrats for all services I might need, whether I use them or not.
3. Please print all Mexican government forms in English.
4. I want my grandkids to be taught Spanish by English-speaking (bi-lingual) teachers.
5. Tell their schools they need to include classes on American culture and history.
6. I want my grandkids to see the American flag on one of the flag poles at their school.
7. Please plan to feed my grandkids at school for both breakfast and lunch.
8. I will need a local Mexican driver’s license so I can get easy access to government services.
9. I do plan to get a car and drive in   Mexico but I don’t plan to purchase car insurance, and I probably won’t make any special effort to learn local traffic laws.
10. In case one of the Mexican police officers does not get the memo from their president to leave me alone, please be sure that every patrol car has at least one English-speaking officer.
11. I plan to fly the   U.S. flag from my house top, put   U. S. flag decals on my car, and have a gigantic celebration on July 4th. I do not want any complaints or negative comments from the locals.
12. I would also like to have a nice job without paying any taxes, or have any labor or tax laws enforced on any business I may start.
13. Please have the president tell all the Mexican people to be extremely nice and never say critical things about me or my family, or about the strain we might place on their economy.
14. I want to receive free food stamps.
15. Naturally, I’ll expect free rent subsidies.
16. I’ll need Income tax credits so although I don’t pay Mexican Taxes, I’ll receive money from the government.
17. Please arrange it so that the Mexican Gov’t pays $4,500 to help me buy a new car.
18. Oh yes, I almost forgot, please enroll me free into the Mexican Social Security program so that I’ll get a monthly income in retirement.

I know this is an easy request because you already do all these things for all his people who walk over to the U.S. from Mexico . I am sure that President Calderon won’t mind returning the favor if you ask him nicely.

Thank you so much for your kind help. You’re the man!!!

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Perhaps someone should take a poll of immigrants who entered our country the old-fashioned way and ask how they feel about those who sneak in.

There is no doubt our immigration laws need to be re-written. A lot of good people are kept out because we have quotas for numerous countries. But why should those quotas be furthered reduced to allow for those who see no reason to obey our laws?

Let’s fix the problem, but not by granting amnesty to the law breakers.


A Tribute to an Unsung Hero

October 27, 2008

In 1936, George Washington Vanderbilt III sailed his yacht, Cressida, to the Far East. His expedition is best known for a visit to Sumatra where he, with the aid of one of his passengers, was able to identify a number of new species of reptiles. Eventually they made their way to Tokyo and in 1939 were sailing out of Tokyo Harbor – beginning their return trip to the United States.

It was then that Vanderbilt’s passenger decided to take some pictures of the harbor. Within minutes, a Japanese military vessel pulled along side and forced the Vanderbilt vessel to stop. They demanded that the man surrender his camera and film. Because the roll of film also contained photographs of a zoological nature, the man refused. It wasn’t until Vanderbilt convinced the military of his close relationship with the Emperor that they relented and allowed the Cressida to resume its journey.

The photographer and zoologist was a man named Frederick Ulmer – the unsung hero who is being featured in this story.

The remainder of their trip home was relatively uneventful. They filed their scientific reports and life returned to normal until December 7, 1941. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, the FBI appeared at Mr. Ulmer’s door. They asked to see the photos he’d taken of Tokyo Harbor. Those photographs, taken innocently by a zoologist who was acting as any tourist would in 1939, were instrumental in the first bombing raid of Tokyo on April 18, 1942. Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle and his pilots used those pictures to help them zero in on important targets.

Frederick Ulmer, who was more interested in wildlife than anything else, continued to work in the field he loved. Shortly after the war, he received another call from a governmental agency enlisting his help.

This time it was the State of Pennsylvania. They were planning to build the country’s first turnpike and were facing a major problem that could only be solved by someone with Frederick’s background.

Speaking of background, it would help if you had some.

In the late 1800’s, Andrew Carnegie decided that the railroads were charging him too much to haul his steel. He issued an ultimatum – either lower your prices, or “I’ll build my own railroad!”

The railroad men didn’t take him seriously until they realized he had enlisted the aid of William Vanderbilt and they were building a railroad from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh. They had over one-half of the road-bed built and seven tunnels bored through the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania.

Although Vanderbilt went broke in 1885, the railroad barons got the message. Not surprisingly, the prices charged to Carnegie were soon significantly lowered and Carnegie halted construction of his own rail line.

Those tunnels that sat unused for more than fifty years had suddenly become the key elements of the planned Pennsylvania Turnpike. However, there was one major problem. The tunnels had become the homes for millions of bats.

For the next year or so, Frederick Ulmer and his crew captured the bats and sent them to zoos throughout the world. Many were released in other parts of the country, but the net result was seven tunnels that could then be used for automobile, bus, and truck traffic.

Frederick Ulmer later became the Curator of the Philadelphia Zoo and wrote many articles on various forms of wildlife.

There’s not much written about the man. In fact, this is the only place you’ll find that tells about his photos of Tokyo Harbor.

In case you’re wondering the source of my information, I had known about the turnpike tunnels for most of my life. My father told me that story while we were driving through one of the tunnels… about fifty or sixty years ago.

As for the Tokyo part, Ruth Morris told me all about it when I visited her in 2006. How did she know? Her maiden name is Ulmer and Frederick was her brother. Frederick passed away in September of 1995, at the age of seventy-nine.

Frederick and Ruth, as well as their brother Leeds, were the children of my Aunt Gertrude. So, this story is one of those family history tales.

It makes me wonder if I can find a way to rub elbows with someone named Vanderbilt. Perhaps my visit to the Biltmore mansion is as close as I’ll ever get.


El Gringo de Norte Americano es Ugly

September 17, 2008
Hotel El Camino in Mexico City

Hotel El Camino in Mexico City

By beginning this post with the above photo, I’m failing to save the best for last. However, I couldn’t find a picture of the worst, so this will have to do.

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In an earlier post I explained how our group of friends, who were expecting to arrive in Mexico City for the International Lions Club Convention, wound up being dumped in a ‘no tell’ motel in Toluca – about forty miles from Mexico City.

In order to attend the activities of the convention and take tours of Mexico City, we either had to ride the local buses – along with the locals and their livestock – or rent a car. I opted for the rental car so we could more easily transport our friend who was confined to a wheelchair.

On the second day of the convention, we learned that there were rooms available at the Hotel Maria Isabela – the main hotel hosting the convention. I took my Spanish/English dictionary and went to the registration desk to see if the rumors were true. Sure enough, there was one three-room suite available. We had about eleven people in our group representing the Beechview Club from Pittsburgh, so I took it. Of course, I was told that we could have no more than eight people occupying the rooms.

I believe my wife, at twenty-six, may have been the youngest member of our party. Other members of our group were in their fifties and sixties; it was unlikely that we would trash the place. So, we returned to Toluca for our luggage and moved all eleven of us into the three rooms.

One other thing I was told at the time I registered was that we could only have the rooms for two nights. We needed three more nights in Mexico prior to returning to Pittsburgh, but figured we’d cross that bridge when we got there.

On the day we were supposed to check out, I went to the desk and asked if we could stay one more night. I was hoping the hotel would have many roooms available since the convention had ended the previous night. The clerk checked whatever a clerk checks for such matters and said, “No problemo!” I said, “Muchas Gracias!” and returned to the suite to spread the good news. In a short time, we were all off to do some more sightseeing.

When we returned to the hotel around six in the evening, the telephone indicated we had a message. When I called the front desk to learn what it was about, the hombre – I refuse to call him a gentleman – told us we had to vacate immediately. Rather than argue over the phone, I went down to confront him face to face.

I explained how we’d been told there was no problem for us to stay an additional night and was informed that the other desk clerk didn’t know what he was talking about. The hombre than told me he would have to charge us an extra half-night since we failed to check out at the proper time. That’s when I told him to go ahead and charge us an extra full night.

“Why should I do that?” he innocently asked. “Because we’re not leaving!” I informed him.

We argued back and forth for several minutes until the glass window that stood between us got fogged up. My guess is he was just trying to get me to slip him a bribe. I was too stubborn to do that. Finally, he said, “You don’t pay extra – you just leave!”

Seeing how I’d just won round one, I began round two by saying, “Before we leave, you must find us another hotel.” By this time, the hombre knew he was staring at the ugliest American he’d ever want to see. He turned and started making phone calls. For all I knew, he was calling the police.

In a short time, he came back to the window and told me he’d made reservations for us at the Hotel El Camino Real. I immediately had a warm feeling. The title of my high school Spanish book was “El Camino Real” – the Royal Road.

Finishing off the encounter with a flourish, I told the desk clerk to call us three taxis.

If you’re going to be pushy, you might as well go all the way!

Within an hour, we were on our way. When we arrived at the Hotel El Camino Real, the entrance and lobby were much more inviting – newer, cleaner, and more luxurious. I was glad some members of our group were much better off financially than I.

After filling out the registration form, the clerk asked me to supply the name of my company. I told him we were here strictly for pleasure, but he wanted the name of the compnay anyway. I wrote down “IBM” and asked if it qualified me for a discount.

“Absolutely!” was the response. The clerk knocked off a third of the room charges and erased the charges for the roll-away beds.

We spent a wonderful night at that hotel and wished we had discovered it sooner. I’m fairly sure the Hotel Maria-Isabela is history – it may be operating under a new name, but I can’t tell anyone anything more about it. The Hotel El Camino Real is still there and although I haven’t been back in more than thirty years, I’d bet it’s still a good place to stay.

If my bride and I ever decide to take another trip south of the border, I’d begin by making reservations at the Hotel El Camino Real. They certainly made the end of my first trip memorable!


Bartering in Mexico

September 16, 2008
Treasures from Mexico

Treasures from Mexico

Before we left for Mexico in the early 1970s, we were told that we should never pay the asking price for any souvenirs – merchants artificially inflate the price of their wares because they expect to barter.  For people who had been raised by parents who thought nothing of walking back and forth between multiple stores until they found a price they were willing to pay, bartering was a bizarre concept.

We were raised to pay whatever the price tag said we should pay. While some people find arguing over the price to be as much fun as a sporting event, others are afraid of insulting the seller and would rather just close the deal and get on with life.

Giving the subject a little more thought I realize that there are two markets in the U.S. that do allow negotiation: Car sales and real estate. While the buyer has every right to offer the seller less than the asking price, many of us are uncomfortable doing so.

I had no idea how different things were in Mexico until we were concluding our visit to the pyramids.

When we returned to the rental car – and our wheelchair-bound friend who wanted his wife to see the sights even if he couldn’t – we found him being pestered by a merchant with a whole bag of artifacts he claimed to have either made, or dug up himself.

As we watched the man present one item after another, the onyx moon god in the above photograph caught my attention. I tried not to show any emotion. I continued to look at the other items and waited for him to give up trying to sell something to my friend.

Finally he turned to me and asked if I saw anything I liked. “How much do you want for that moon god?” I asked. Without hesitation he replied, “Seventy-five American dollars.”

I took a deep breath and said, “I’ll give you one dollar for it.”

Back in the states, such an offer might have earned me a punch in the nose; at the very least, the vendor would have asked me to go away. This Mexican vendor instead said, “O senor! You break my heart!” He then went into a long dissertation about how many hours it took him to carve it. Finally, he said, “I’ll let you have it for twenty-five.”

“Two.” I coldly answered.

That was followed by an even longer dissertation about how many children he had and the other members of the community who counted on him for support. That speech concluded with “Ten dollars.”

“Five.” I replied.

“Seven fifty.” he quickly responded.

“Sold!” I said as I reached into my pocket for the cash. I felt a small twinge of guilt, but then realized the man might still be making a profit on the sale. I then asked myself how many times the man sold his wares for an amount much closer to the original asking price. I was paying ten percent of what he wanted. If I’d eagerly accepted his first offer, he would have been making out like a bandit – or should I say ‘bandito’!

The copper mug next to the moon god was bought at a store in Mexico City. For whatever reason, it didn’t feel right to barter in an emporium. While I had little trouble negotiating a price with a vendor in a parking lot, I was uncomfortable doing likewise in a large retail outlet. I don’t know if that would have been acceptable behavior or not. But the price was around twelve dollars, so I just paid it and left.

I would wait until later to turn into a really ugly American!


Mexican Memories

September 13, 2008

A while ago I wrote about my experiences in Acapulco. I should have mentioned that we had a number of tour guides who were supposed to stay with us during our entire visit to Mexico. The one man I vividly remember was Gorge Adams, whose mother was from Mexico and father from Chicago.

We left Acapulco by bus; we were supposedly headed for Mexico City, which is where the Lions Club International Convention was being held.

When we boarded the bus, we couldn’t help but notice that the entire dashboard and driver’s area appeared to be a miniature shrine. There were statues of various saints, rosary beads, a crucifix or two, and a number of other religious icons.

After all the passengers were boarded, the driver got on and knelt before his makeshift altar. After several minutes of fervent prayer, he finally got behind the wheel and we began the trip. It seemed as though the first half hour of the trip was all uphill. Acapulco is at sea level, but we were soon high in the mountains.

That’s when we realized why our driver was so serious about his prayer life. The roads through the mountains were narrow and winding… and guardrails were non-existent. Those of us on the right side of the bus often felt as though we were in an aircraft flying precariously close to the mountains. The drop-off was frighteningly steep and seemed even more frightening when our bus had to pass a vehicle coming in the other direction.

The scariest part of the ride came while we were slowly winding our way up a hill. That’s when the driver of the trailer truck that had been following closely behind lost his patience and decided to pass us. For the next few miles, we were traveling side by side. Our driver wasn’t about to slow down to let the trucker get by and the trucker was just as determined to keep going until he got in front of us. All this time we are going around one blind bend after another.

The trucker finally made it past us and we all breathed a sigh of relief.

After traveling for a couple of hours, we arrived in the town of Taxco. Taxco is a town known for its silversmiths. We were given an hour or so to find the banos, grab something to eat, and spend money with the local merchants. Finally, we all re-boarded the bus and headed for Mexico City. Unfortunately, we never arrived in the capitol city.

Instead, the bus driver pulled in front of a hotel in the industrial town of Toluca… about forty miles west of Mexico City. That’s when we realized Gorge, and the other tour-guides, were no longer with us. They may have jumped ship in Taxco – knowing our travel agent had been unable to book hotel rooms in Mexico City. We were literally dumped at a “no tell” motel.

We had no choice but to check in. That’s when we discovered that none of the rooms had any furniture into which we could place our clothes. There was nothing except a few hooks on the walls. Obviously, these rooms could have been rented by the hour.

In case anyone is wondering, the restaurant at this ‘hotel’ is where I made the fuax pas of ordering a glass of orange gravy. None of the employees spoke English very well. At one point I went into the kitchen with my Spanish/English dictionary and rewrote the menu in English so that members of our group could have some idea of what they were ordering.

I wish I could say it helped, but this eatery would never have made it on the “Fine Dining” Tour.

One member of our group was confined to a wheel chair, which made it difficult getting him on and off buses, so we rented a car. One side benefit of that move was that we were able to take a side trip to the pyramids in Teotihuacan.

The city of Teotihuacan, which was built long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, was much larger than any other city in the world at that time.  It included the Pyramid of the Sun, Pyramid of the Moon, and the Temple of the Feathered Serpent… as well as a number of other magnificent structures.

Being a fairly young man at the time, I decided to climb to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun and take some pictures. I soon learned something interesting about pyramids… the higher one goes, the steeper the steps.

It took me close to forty-five minutes to reach the top, but before I could take any pride in my accomplishment, I was met with a chorus of voices. The loudest came from a man asking, “Would you like a nice cold Coca-Cola, Senior?” I looked around and saw a miniature mercado. I could have bought silver bracelets and other trinkets, various snack food items, and lots of ice-cold soft drinks. These vendors had climbed that same hill as I, but they brought coolers filled with ice and soda, and all the other items they were hoping to sell.

I’d say they definitely lessened my feeling of accomplishment and severely damaged my ego. I refused a cold drink and returned to the ground to continue exploring the area with the other mere mortals.

I’m sorry I have no photographs to share with you on this article. I’m afraid they have been misplaced.


Acapulco Adventures

July 29, 2008

Sometime in the early 1970’s, my first wife and I attended a Lions Club convention in Mexico. We were accompanied by her parents, Jim and Eleanor Kammerer, and a number of other couples from the Beechview Lions Club. My father-in-law was the one who got me interested in joining the Lions Club and we attended a number of conventions together.

The Lions Clubs of the Pittsburgh area had arranged a tour, which started in Acapulco. We spent three or four days enjoying one of Mexico’s most famous resorts prior to moving on to the convention in Mexico City.

On the evening of our arrival, we were invited to attend a welcoming party on the veranda adjoining our hotel. They served a wonderfully refreshing beverage made with pineapple juice and a few other ingredients. We later learned that those other ingredients included a liberal amount of rum and creme de menthe.

Sometime later that evening I was trying to answer nature’s call when I stumbled upon a number of hotel employees celebrating the end of their work day. They directed me to the necessary room. Upon returning, I struck up a conversation with the men. I must admit that their English was far superior to my Spanish, but we hit it off and were having a very nice conversation when they invited me to have a shot of Teguila. They instructed me on the finer points of the ritual – squeezing the lime, getting the salt on my hand and taking the drink.

Tracy Byrd sings a song about having shots of Jose Cuervo. The punch line of the song is based on Tracy’s losing track of the number of shots he has had. Having been there, I can easily identify with his cloudy memory. I’m sure the earlier glasses of that wonderfully refreshing beverage didn’t help.

The next morning I joked about how fortunate it was that I did not have to drive back to the hotel. I simply had to crawl to the elevator and hope to press the correct button.

The next few days in Acapulco were a whirlwind of taking a yacht ride to an island for a tropical lunch, going on a glass-bottomed boat to see the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, attending a Roman Catholic Mass that included a first Communion ceremony as well as an elderly lady’s confession.

To this day, I’m left wondering what she had done. She looked to be about eighty and was crying like a baby. There was no confessional booth. She was sitting on one side of a screen and the priest on the other… out in the open as the worshipers walked by.

The grand finale of our time in Acapulco was a bus trip to a restaurant overlooking the cliffs used by the world famous cliff divers. I had hoped to find a video of a man making a dive. Not only did I find such a video on You Tube, I found one that perfectly fits the experience.

Let me forewarn you, this video is very graphic and realistic. We were probably sitting in the same restaurant from which this video was shot. We were looking down at the diver who seemed to take forever to take the leap. The man we saw spent quite a bit of time praying at the shrine seen in the background. Finally, he took his place and… well you can see for yourself.

Yes. He finally jumped into the water. The person who filmed this experience was obviously growing impatient as he waited, and waited, and waited. As soon as the diver hit the water, we were told the show was over and it was time to leave… so the next group could be seated.

Hopefully the video gave you some idea of the height of the cliff. It was a long way down to the water, and from where we were sitting, it was a long way down to the top of the cliff from which the man dived. So you can imagine our surprise when, as we were leaving the restaurant, a soaking wet man in a swim suit was standing there with an extended hand asking, “How much you like my dive, Senor?”

At the time, I guessed that this man may have been one of the cliff divers, but not the one we had just seen. Looking back, I realize there were a number of establishments lining the cliffs. I wouldn’t be at all surprised that the diver had cloned himself and was standing at the exit of multiple locations asking the same question.

It was a once in a lifetime experience, and if I ever return to Acapulco, it is one I will gladly bypass. You can see the action much better on the Wide World of Sports.

How much you like my story, Senor? Feel free to leave a comment. I’ll gladly accept any and all ‘tips’. Muchas gracias.