Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Another Country Road

Published in American Motorcyclist Magazine, April, 1983 - Copyright 1983© By Rick Ornberg 

Cruising along the highway with only the high stalks of corn to witness my passage, I looked at the sky and noticed how the clouds seemed to follow overhead, giving no hint of my speed. The Kawasaki 750 LTD hummed smoothly, sending subtle vibrations through my fingers as they lightly held the handlebar grips. The fairing pushed aside the wind and swirled it behind me, where it gently patted my back – seemingly propelling my body in unison with the bike. Tires on the smooth blacktop road made a barely audible hum as I rode.

Leaning back on a small duffle bag, I brought my feet up to the highway pegs and felt as if I were riding on a recliner. The road alternately rose and fell in front of me, with the bike hugging each contour as if on a track. The once gentle curves of the open country began to sharpen a bit, requiring a slower speed as I neared a small town. A small yellow “School Bus” sign signaled the small bit of civilization that lay ahead.

Around a final curve and I was on Main Street. Two pickup trucks and a ‘65 Chevy with a tattered bumper sticker that read, “Drink Milk-The Udder Un-Cola,” occupied the parking spaces in front of a small cafe. I glanced at my reflection in the cafe window as I rode past, and pondered the drifter on the black motorcycle who looked back.

Slowing to 25 mph and glancing down a side street I saw two children look up from their toy earth movers long enough to wave at a stranger passing through town. Well away from the main highways, with no notable tourist attractions nearby, this hamlet rarely saw any visitors. Usually, visitors pass through towns on roads that lead somewhere. This little town marked only a brief interruption in the sea of rolling hills and fields that surrounded it.

In barely the time it took to fully drop my speed for the town, I saw the 55 mph sign that announced the start of the next long stretch of highway. The town disappeared quickly in my mirrors, and the farmhouses grew farther apart as I piloted the bike through banked curves, over slowly rising hills and past old mill ponds.

The sun setting behind me created a long misshapen shadow ahead on the road. Soon, the shadow was replaced by the beam of my headlight as twilight turned to darkness. Reaching the top of a hill, miles from anywhere, I pulled over to the side of the road and killed the engine. Dropping the kickstand and leaning back with a cigarette, I noticed that even though there was no moon, I could still see the shadow of my right hand on the fuel tank. The Milky Way and the constellations were so bright I could have read by their light alone. Listening to the crickets and

frogs, I watched the night sky sporadically light up as meteoric sparklers cut across over my head.

This sky, miles from the nearest street light or neon sign, was much richer than the one I was accustomed to at home. There, the night sky shone with a yellowish-gray light against the silhouette of rooftops visible in every direction. There was no Milky Way at home.

Hearing a distant rumble, I looked to the west and saw a storm, still miles away, lumbering across the landscape on stilts of lightning.

Starting the engine again, and disturbing a small flock of birds, I moved the machine back onto the road and increased my speed. It was time to start heading for home. The night air carried the slight chill of day’s end and quickly shifted my mind back to the realities of home.

I tried to ignore the increasing traffic and decreasing quality of the roads, and thought instead about the next weekend and another brief escape. Pulling into the garage, I sat on the bike for a moment and gave the throttle one more twist in neutral to mark the end of the trip. Turning off the ignition, I listened to the muffled crackling of the engine as it cooled. First the sounds came rapidly, like a metallic popcorn maker. Then they grew further apart and lower in tone, gradually fading away. Even the engine was reluctant to rest.

Stopping at the garage door, I turned and almost projected my thoughts at the now-quiet machine. “Next week,” I thought. “Next week we’ll try another country road.”

Friday, May 29, 2020


   Recently there was a story on the wires concerning a fire department warning of the dangers of sealed bottles of hand sanitizers heating up and exploding inside a vehicle. Many of those carrying the story also included warnings about storing hand sanitizer in cars or RV’s as a result.
   Though it sounds logical to most, and for understandable conclusions that flammable products, confined and subjected to high heat can be BAD, the truth is a bit more complicated. 
   As a source for rapid combustion or explosion the hand sanitizer gets a bad rep. It’s not likely to happen, as internal vehicle temperatures, by one laboratory’s findings, would need to reach over 1,000 degrees F. Just about anything will burst into flames well before that point.
   OK, under the universal rule of “@%$& Happens”, it’s possible that an improperly sealed container, however, could potentially leak product thereby releasing flammable fumes that could be subject to ignition from a nearby source, but the same might be argued about some after shave lotions and other products.
   If a bottle of hand sanitizer is exposed to flames and subsequently ruptures, shure ‘nuff it will feed a fire with gusto. But then, so would other commonly stored products in an RV packed for travel.
   Now that we’re all in a world revolving around copious amounts of hand sanitizer, the best thing would not leave such products in a car or vehicle left in the sun for a long period of time — just in case. If I'm out of my RV when subject to high internal temps, I’ll leave it in a sealed, insulated cooler or — one of the most insulated parts of any vehicle or RV — inside the freezer compartment.
   And keep washing my hands, of course.

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Thursday, June 6, 2019

Judging Cowardice Is A Scary Thing

   I’ve watched recent news coverage of a Sheriff’s Deputy who now faces charges of failing to act during the Parkland School mass shooting.  On the surface, the problem seems clear as the officer is videotaped allegedly hesitating and avoiding entering a school with an active shooter on the rampage. The officer maintains he was following existing protocol.

   The rest of the story is widely known, as quick response by law enforcement and aggressive tactics took over, but sadly the end result was the tragic deaths of many students and school staff. I offer no defense for such inactivity by a sworn officer.

   But now the raw anger continues, and the officer could face a potential 99 years in prison for his alleged inactivity. The accusation of cowardice, whether specifically stated or not, is at the center of the anger.

   Without arguing the merits of this specific case it struck me that, within the charges of negligence, the core of the anger are accusations and declarations of cowardice. I wonder by what measure or yardstick do accusers and potential jurors measure bravery, or identify cowardice in someone other than themselves. Will jurors be made up of proven “heroes” wearing their medals of valor, Police or Fire personnel with their certificates of meritorious service, or others who — in eyes of others — have proven their own bravery?

   As combat soldiers leave the protection of their cover and progress across a battlefield, some are killed halfway, some drop for cover two-thirds of the way, others move further and are killed, and some even make it all the way.  Which group then, if any, can be labeled cowards? Which are brave and which were pinned down and could move no further? Are they cowards for not pushing ahead anyway?

   Medals and citations for bravery are easier to quantify and qualify because they can be measured by an end result.  Cowardice, on the other hand, is more difficult to assess objectively since it is based essentially on non-action. In the extreme or severe negative outcome final assessments can be clouded by emotion and become mostly subjective.

   “Warriors to the front, cowards to the rear,” was a war cry attributed to Sioux warriors leading the initial charge against Custers’ 7th Calvary. In that case, position rather than result was the only qualifier.

   There are ways to punish negligence or cowardice of those in public safety positions. Employment termination, loss of pay or pension benefits, etc. are often imposed and I’m sure may be appropriate in this case.

   Imprisonment, for any length of time however, seems wrong when the prosecutors, judges and jurors themselves most likely have never been similarly tested.  If those were my kids that were killed, perhaps I’d be calling for jail time too.

   That said, judging cowardice is still a scary thing.
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Thursday, November 15, 2018


 One of the goals of my book, 10-24: A Firefighter Looks Back, was to highlight some of the changes from when I first joined the department to when I retired. This month it’ll be 22 years since I hung up my helmet, and I’ve found that my images of the fire service today are still dominated by those in 1996. A bit dated, I was recently reminded.

    It struck me while having a conversation with my son who was an ER nurse in Dallas, now a Doctor of Nurse Practice. We were talking about how TV shows cast an unrealistic image of EMS procedures and challenges. “Like that one medical show showing the seriously injured patient on the bloody gurney in ER and the family members right there within the drawn curtains interrupting and questioning every move,” I said. “Ridiculous,” I added to punctuate my disbelief.

   “Actually, Dad, there have been studies showing…” he replied offering a well studied and reasoned approach to improving patient care with some relatives in the ER alcove during treatment. “Hmmmmm,” I said while reeling in my know-it-all, been-there-done-that attitude — at least for this conversation, that is. That’s when I did an updated recount of the date today, and dates back when I was in the trenches. It was now well over two decades since I was on an EMS call.

   Monitoring fire service blogs, Twitter feeds and related industry news feeds, I failed in some cases to realize that much of our futuristic equipment predictions, proposed treatment practice improvements and high tech resources are currently in use. What were previously “you know what they oughta do” wishes are now in use saving lives of citizens and first responders as well.  

   The thing that hasn’t changed in all these years since my first response in 1971, is that stuff changes. And like most things, the good changes survive and are built upon, and the bad changes eventually sentence themselves to obscurity.

   And old fire dogs like me continue to watch, judge, pontificate a bit and hopefully learn. 

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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Check for a key before using a fire axe

   A friend and I were having a discussion on management techniques and lifestyles and how they’ve changed over the past several decades and discovered that we both had distinctly different styles. He was a retired executive, having risen through the ranks of a successful business eventually reaching top management before retiring.  I had a slightly different path, ranging through a basically blue collar environment through the Army, 26 years as a career firefighter, topping off my work experience as a business association executive director and marketing business owner.

   He approached a potential obstacle or threat by first evaluating the situation, exploring possible actions and potential results, and perhaps trying to benefit by the input of a committee or task force before final implementation.

   I generally approached the problem by taking a fire axe to it.

   Both have their obvious good and bad results depending upon the urgency, scope of impact, and consequences after the fact. 

   In fact both methods have their place and best used as a combination of both when opportunity or necessity allowed or required. What we agreed upon finally though, was that only experience helps us make those choices, and only maturity and self confidence allow us to deal with the eventual success or failure. I've learned that I can accept a claim of “I told you so!” from anyone that is equally comfortable with admitting, “OK, I was wrong,” without pointing at mitigating causes or influences.

   We once responded to a report of smoke inside a building, finding the main doorway to the small six flat locked.  Just before my trusty axe completed the first half of a hefty swing a nearby civilian yelled out, “Wait! I have a key,” saving the door from destruction and me from a lot of embarrassment.  That’s when I learned to always quickly check for a key first, a practice that now serves me when dealing with business obstacles, lifes' speed bumps, politics, news reporting, and other challenges.

   Sometimes it turns out there is no key, or — sorry to stretch the metaphor a bit further — I find somebody must have changed the lock when I wasn’t looking.

   Besides, that axe is getting a lot heavier!

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Thursday, November 2, 2017

Earn your own hero “strutting rights”

It happens every year. Twice a year as a matter of fact. 
    Spring and Fall are great opportunities to take a few moments and replace all the batteries in the smoke detectors in your home.  Besides being the most safe way to keep you alerted in case of a fire, it also helps you avoid that irritating “beep” noise that drives you nuts when a battery gets low. — You know, the beep that has you standing in the middle of the room listening to determine its origin, only to reposition yourself elsewhere to catch the next mysterious beep? And then again, until you find the guilty detector, and so on.
    Changing the battery — for those of you who may not already be experienced — is as simple has untwisting the smoke detector from the mounting, opening or sliding open a little plastic door, and pulling out the existing 9 volt battery and replacing it with a new 9 volt battery.  (There’s only one way to plug it in.) Then replace the battery into it’s appointed area, and remount the detector. Press the Test button and that’s all there is to it.
    Well, afterwards you could also quietly strut around the house in your own “hero” mode for a bit, because you’ve actually earned the right. Especially if there’s a fire overnight and your freshly and full powered detector lets you know in time to get up, and to get out. Stand tall at the window with your fists on your hips gazing heroically out into the future and reflecting on your selfless act of heroism.  You can even say out loud, “It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it!” whether anybody hears it or not. Hey, it’s YOUR special time!

    Oh, and by the way, if you do it this weekend, (Nov 5, 2017) it’s a good time to set your clocks back an hour too!

Thursday, August 24, 2017

MY Total Eclipse of 2017

NASA/MSFC/Joseph Matus
   After months of pre-planning and a few last minute destination changes as the weather in some areas became  “iffy” at best, I eventually wound up in Glendo, Wyoming for an ideal viewing area.  "Ideal" for me was somewhere in the direct path of the eclipse that I could also stay overnight in my small van-sized RV the night before. I also avoided the historic traffic jams that followed later that night and the morning of August 21st.

   As mid-day approached and everyones’ cardboard viewing glasses appeared in hand, I was a solitary viewer in a cleared field populated by many other RV’s and tents.  I, along with many others, stood a half mile or so away from the larger concentration of other campers and day viewers lakeside along the large Glendo, WY reservoir.  The town of 205 swelled to an estimated crowd of 300,000 — all of whom united as one happy family to see what they could see. With well over two minutes of totality the only criteria was looking UP, so everyone had a front seat position.

   For me, Totality meant more than just full coverage of the sun by the moon. Totality included the entire on-site experience complete with my whole world going dark, temperature and wind dropping 20 degrees, a full 360 degree beautiful sunset along the entire horizon surrounding me, the appearance of a couple of planets and stars at mid-day, and the shared oohs and ahhhs and sporadic emotional outbursts of cheers and applause as each component of totality unfolded.

   The initial partial coverage included several minutes of a sunny day seemingly unaffected by the moons’ slow passage across the sun, beginning with a small bite which then grew to quarter, then one-half and then three-quarter crescent until only a small but bright sliver of light remained. Even at this point daylight, though dimmed slightly as if an overcast day, still ruled everything in sight.

   Then, with a bright instantaneous flash at about 7 or 8 o’clock position on the sun’s circumference, the sun was blotted out by the moon -- creating a black color I’d never seen before  -- just barely corralled by a bright corona of blazingly silver light with varying glowing streaks of linear solar plasma reaching out thousands, if not millions of miles into space. I noticed about a minute into full coverage, as I strained to adjust my aging eyes to better focus on the suns’ corona and watching for a prominence or two, that I started to see multiple images.  This, the sight I had driven over 1,000 miles to see unobstructed was now being slightly refracted by the beginnings of a tear welling up in each of my eyes.  A quick swipe across each with the upper sleeve on my polo shirt and I was back in business.

   I was surprised by the lack of colors, as I was expecting to see bright yellows along with the white light of the sun. Yet here and there along the outer edge, I noticed slight splashes of reddish orange as if the edge of the sun was bubbling.  This, I learned later, were prominences of solar plasma exploding out away from the sun, only to collapse downward again.

   Just an instant before the moon began to release the sun and return daylight to us all, a short ripple of light appeared at the suns’ 2 or 3 o’clock positioned revealing what has long been called “Baileys Beads” as a smattering of sunlight spilled through mountain ranges and canyons on the edge of the moon. Then a bright flash in the same area -- creating what's referred to as the “Diamond Ring” effect -- signaled the end of totality and a quick return to the safety glasses as the moon crept slowly across and away.

   Visually the experience far surpassed any of the professional and scientific images that I’ve seen since the event. There’s something they always miss compared to when the image gathered by the human eye works in harmony with the human heart and imagination.  I get goose bumps just typing this or explaining it, something I learned is shared by most who have experienced totality in person.

   Another total eclipse crosses several US states in 2024.  Whatever it takes, be there!