Monday, July 31, 2017

Old Movie

After several years I viewed DRAGONSLAYER again. This is a 1981 film that I saw during its initial release. It was also the first monster movie I watched that employed a primitive version of CGI that we have come to accept as the norm.

This movie is excellent in every way. Cast. Direction. Cinematography. FX. Art design. Etc.

This is also the film that famously made Ray Harryhausen retire. Over Go-Motion. Even though they used a stop-motion figure for the dragon, they enhanced it with inter-frame blurring. The FX guys gave Harryhausen a preview and he knew then that his days were done--that computers were going to do it all and that his career as an artisan were over.

I love this film. I can't really find anything at all to criticize when it comes to this movie. It's almost perfect. As such, I should hold it in higher esteem, but for some reason I don't list it among my favorite films. Perhaps there is something subconsciously bugging me about it that I'll have to find on a future viewing. Or maybe I'm just a critical curmudgeon.

I've seen it now probably five or six times (I don't keep count). But pretty much the casting is perfect. Ralph Richardson is spot-on as Ulrich, the last remaining wizard. I think the movie was Albert Salmi's final performance before he committed suicide. The fact is that I can't think of anyone in the movie who turned in a less than excellent performance and for which they were not effectively cast.

Also, the monster, Vermithrax pejorative, is the most perfectly designed dragon that I have ever seen for the movie screen. Anatomically the creature looks right and moves logically and remains both awe-inspiring and terrifying. When it attacks a village it looks like some kind of organic fighter jet spewing napalm. 

I'll probably give it a few more viewings before I get tired of seeing it. If there is a flaw that keeps me from placing the movie higher in my esteem, maybe I'll find it.

Ralph Richardson as Ulrich, the Wizard.

Peter MacNicol and Vermithrax pejorative.
The late Caitlin Clarke as Valerian.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017


I read about another alligator-on-human attack in Florida today.

For all of my reading life and note-taking in my many outdoor adventures (you can better believe I always have done my freaking research when I go out into the wild) I would read that alligators are essentially harmless to humans. Over and over and over. Time after time I would read this and hear this. To the point that several times in my trips on Florida and south Georgia creeks and ponds I would go swimming with alligators nearby.

I was misinformed, for sure. And I was lucky that I was never attacked (I did have a close encounter with a big alligator that taught me that all of the "facts" I'd read about how they were harmless to people were so much bullshit). But why would anyone say this about an apex predator that can kill and dismember and eat large prey up to the size of horses?

It was because from the 19th Century until relatively recent years the alligator was actually a threatened species. Their numbers had dwindled so much due to over-hunting that they were approaching dangerous levels for the species. Then, in the 1960s they were protected. Harvesting was limited and ecosystems were put into parks and wilderness.

Alligator populations rebounded. With a vengeance. And, more importantly, they were allowed to live to be old. In the days when they were under threat there were almost no older, larger alligators. That is, there were very few gators who could seriously look at a human being as a prey animal--and those few were safely tucked away inside wildernesses where they were unlikely to ever see a human.

Not now. Now I see enormous alligators almost everywhere I go in Florida. 8-foot alligators are now routine. And we've all seen the film of the monster alligator on that golf course. You can better believe predators of that size would look at a 200-pound human being as nothing more than something good to eat.

These days I do not go swimming in rivers or creeks or springs in Florida unless I am DAMNED sure that there are no large alligators around.

It ain't worth the risk.

And, yes, I'm sure everyone has seen this video. I've heard it said that this alligator is between 16-17 feet in length. Keep in mind this is nowhere near the largest recorded gator which was almost 20 feet long. It's time to be careful when you go swimming in the deep South.

Be careful out there.

One of the largest alligators I have seen in Florida. He was at Wakulla Springs State Park. Very fat. Very healthy. Very damned intimidating. I would not swim around this animal.

I've heard it said the alligator in this video is 16-17 feet long. That is not as long as the largest on record (over 19 feet). It would look at you as something to eat.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

In the Trenches. First in a Series.

"In the Wake of the Bottles."
By James Robert Smith.

In one of my jobs as a laborer I knew a guy named Jimmy. Jimmy had a lot of good stories and I used to enjoy hearing them. Some of them seemed outlandish, but others were more down to earth. One that straddled the territory between the two was his yarn of cleaning gasoline storage tanks.

For years and years--decades, really--Jimmy spent his life as an itinerant drunk. He was rarely unemployed for long periods of time and always seemed to be able to not only find steady work, but to hold it until he felt like relinquishing it due to boredom or the itch to move on. But wherever he was and wherever he worked were in the wake of the bottles.

However, I don't think Jimmy was an alcoholic in the classic sense. That is, he didn't drink because of addiction, but merely because it was a way to pass the time. Mainly, he told me, he drank only beer. And not just beer, but shitty American beer. Occasionally he would drink bourbon, but that cost too much and he saved that for special occasions or moments when he was flush with cash.

To back up my impression that he was not an alcoholic, he told me of the day his wife finally managed to get through to him with her pleading that he stop drinking. "As long as you drink we will never have anything and we will never go anywhere."

That simple moment of pleading seemed to hit home and...he stopped drinking. Just like that. He said he tossed out the last case of shitty beer and never drank again, and never missed it. Frankly, that doesn't sound like an alcoholic. At least one that I've ever heard of.

As for the story, he said that during one of the stretches when he wasn't working but was mainly drinking, he walked out of a bar one evening--drunk, of course--and sat down on the curb with his feet in the gutter. A big, shiny sedan drove up. It stopped. The window went down. Not a roll down, but an electric window, which was pretty rare in those days.

"Hey, buddy," a guy inside said.

Jimmy looked up. It was hot out, even though the sun was going down.

"Yeah?" he asked.

"You look like a guy who needs a job. You want a good job?"

Jimmy stood up and erased the one foot separating him from the car. He put his hands on the dark, glossy door of the new car and leaned in. It was cool inside. Air conditioned. Also not a given back in those days. The guy inside was well dressed. Suit. Coat. Tie. Not cheap shit, either. The real stuff, from a tailor. Jimmy knew how to spot that kind of suit because his brother had made it as a businessman and wore those sorts of duds.

"What kind of job?"

The guy reached into a coat pocket and produced a card. He handed it to Jimmy.

Jimmy looked at it. The guy's name and an address. The card stock was pretty nice, with sunken lettering and raised outline in black ink. He ran his finger across it. "Getty Oil?"

"Yeah. I have a contract with them. We always need people who are willing to work. Good wages."

"What kind of work?" Jimmy blinked in the failing light and glanced again at the card. He had been at this bender for a while and had been drinking mainly and not eating. His face had a good two days growth of whiskers. His clothes were okay, but wrinkled and dirty. He was not penniless, but he knew that he sure didn't look like someone a general employer would think of for a job. Especially not when he had been sitting on the curb with his feet in the gutter.

"You got transportation to that office? If you don't, I can pick you up tomorrow. Too late today. But we can explain the work to you and give you a run through tomorrow morning. Good pay," he reiterated. "You interested?"

Jimmy nodded, his greasy black hair falling down across his high forehead. Someone told him once that he looked like a skinny Frankenstein monster. Even Jimmy had to admit the smartass had been close to the mark.

"Sure, yeah. I can get there."

"What's your name?"

"Jimmy Macy," he told him.

"See you tomorrow, Jimmy. Ten in the morning."

And the guy drove off.

So here we were, twenty years later, me and Jimmy working in a shop that made pool covers. We were on lunch break. The room was full of smoke. I was the only person in the joint who did not smoke. Jimmy might not have been an alcoholic, but he was one serious nicotine addict. He could not go more than fifteen minutes or so without a lit cigarette in his face. Through a cloud of Camel smoke Jimmy asked me if I'd ever put gasoline in a milk jug. "You know, for your lawnmower or any kind of small engine?"

"Yeah, sure," I told him.

"Well, have you ever left it sitting in a tool shed or storage building for a long time?"

"No. I always use it right away. Maybe a week or so. Why?"

"Well, if you leave it in there for a while--say a month, and you go back to get it and look at the jug, you will see a layer of crap at the bottom of the jug."

"What? In gasoline? Does it react with the plastic jug?"

"Naw. It doesn't matter what you put it in. Glass. Metal. Plastic. There will be a layer of brown sludge at the bottom of the container."

"What is it?"

"Well, gas has solids in it. Suspended in solution. You let it sit long enough and that stuff settles out. It sinks to the bottom."

"Okay. What's that got to do with the job the guy was offering you."

The next day Jimmy did as he was supposed to do. He showed up at the address listed on the card. A nice office in an industrial area near a tank farm. Those big areas where they have the enormous above-ground tanks where they store gasoline.

Once there the guy with the nice suit and the new sedan with electric windows and air-conditioning ran through the offer with Jimmy and three other guys. After the presentation two of the other guys got up and left. Only Jimmy and one other remained.

"What was the job?" I asked.

Jimmy and the others had watched a film. The job for the tank farm was to suit up like a fireman covered from head to foot in some kind of rubber. Boots, pants, coat, hood. All of the parts were sealed together so that when you were in it you were protected from liquids and gases. There was a very long hose attached to the hood (which had a glass mask so you could see out). The hose fed you air. Not oxygen, but air. A re-breather kicked out your breath so that the suit wouldn't fill up with CO2.

What then happened was that a pair of workers would go up there with another guy--a safety tech. The tech would suit up the other two and connect the hoses and start the air pump and keep watch on it. Then the two workers would open the same number of man-sized lids on the top of the tank and descend a ridiculously long metal ladder to the bottom of the tank. The tank would have been drained of all of the liquid gasoline. On the floor of that tank was about two feet thick of gasoline sludge--that solid shit that they can never quite get out of the gasoline that you buy at the pump. It had to be suctioned out before the tank was refilled with new gasoline.

Once down in the hold, Jimmy and the other guy would be fed a suction hose and they would basically walk around the floor of the tank vacuuming up the annoying brown sludge. The job paid $14 an hour, which was a shitload of money in those days. Especially for a guy like Jimmy.

"Fuck," I told him. "That sounds like a horrible freaking job."

Jimmy just shrugged. "It didn't bother me for a while. We would just go down there and suck that shit up until almost all of it was gone, then we'd climb out. When they took the suit off of us you couldn't even smell gasoline. You'd think some of it would go home with you, but my wife never smelled it on me."

"How long did you work it?"

"About three months."

"Why'd you quit?"

One day Jimmy and one of the other guys got to a tank. They suited up and went down just like always. They siphoned up all of the sludge and it was time to go back up. The other guy was a few steps faster that day than Jimmy. But Jimmy didn't notice. He just climbed up and got to the top and crawled out of the small opening up there so high above the floor.

The guy who suited them up was standing at the manhole gesturing for Jimmy to hurry. So Jimmy hustled up the last few rungs and as he stuck his arms out, the worker pointed to the other side of the tank.

Jimmy's co-worker in the tank was lodged halfway out of the manhole. He was covered in flames which were shooting out like jets. Blue flames. The guy was a cinder. That quick, surrounded by the blue fire. The safety guy helped Jimmy peel the suit off in double time and they scurried across the roof and descended the tank.

"Goddamn. It didn't blow?"

Jimmy shook his head. "Naw. It kind of burned itself out. Killed that guy pretty much instantly. They told me some kind of static charge set it off when he was climbing out."

Both of us sat there in silence for a while.

Jimmy smiled. "I never went back. They sent me my last paycheck in the mail."

"I never went back."

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Karl Edward Wagner.

I rarely meet anyone these days who even knows who Karl Edward Wagner was. I knew him and exchanged letters with him and spoke to him a number of times at various conventions and writer gatherings. He was one of the most brilliant fantasists who ever lived. And he was from the South and part of Everywhere, and it's sad that so much of his work is forgotten. Wagner was a giant personality, but terribly flawed.

I say I knew him, but not really...and I don't want to give the impression that we were in any way close. But we would exchange letters from time to time. He even critiqued my work occasionally, for which I have always been grateful. But almost every time we would meet I would have to remind him who I was. Yes, this could have been partially because he was always drunk; but also because I am not a shining, glowing personality who is easy to remember.

I met Karl at least a dozen times. I always had to reintroduce myself. The only time he recalled who I am was when I saw him at an sf show in Atlanta not long before he died. He noticed me across the room and came over to chat. And although I said nothing, he could see the pure horror on my face and he stopped what he was talking about and said: "I have Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever." Then he showed me red spots on his pale, emaciated arm. "That's why I look the way I do." I later found it was a story he had concocted to tell people who were similarly horrified at his physical state. He didn't have the Fever, of course, and was just dying of a liver that had ceased to operate due to his chronic alcoholism. But I could not hide the shock that was painted over my face. The last time I'd seen him he was his hale, hearty, vibrant Viking self. And then I see this sick, wizened, obviously dying old man. Noting that horror on my face, he had to say something.

Now...damn. It seems no one recalls him. Until recently his books were out of print in any affordable way. I had seen his novels and stories appear in the past decade or so, but in very expensive limited edition books far beyond the affordability of casual readers. This giant of fantasy and horror is completely out of the view of the reading public.

These days, I think you can land his fiction courtesy of the company who seems to have inherited the rights of the works that he published under the old Warner imprint.

I recommend his fiction as highly as I possibly can.

Karl Wagner during his healthier days.
Wagner and a rendition of his alter-ego, Kane, the Mystic Swordsman.

This is how most people became familiar with his work--through the Warner books paperbacks with those amazing Frank Frazetta covers.

Nihilism Pays.

Not too long ago I posted a review of the first season of the nihilistic TV show PREACHER. Although I found large sections of the production to be actually offensive, there were enough bright and humorous touches for me to like it as a whole. Part of that had to do with the very simple (and selfish) fact that I find Ruth Negga to be extremely attractive, and another part of it was that I saw so much comedy and humanity in the way Jackie Earle Hailey portrayed the character of Odin Quinncannon.

Last week--because I had enjoyed the previous season--I tuned in for the first episode. I wish I had not done so.

For me, all of the humor was gone. The nihilism was still there--in great abundance--but the humor was missing. What they were trying to pass off as humor was just a kind of sick arrogance that I found merely disgusting. When one of the heroes casually murders the pet of an innocent man, and that same innocent man in hunting for the lost pet has his tongue pulled from his living can see where I might be just a little bit put off. That's the point where I stopped watching, and that's the point where I decided that I won't bother with the show anymore.

Sorry, Ruth. Not even your presence can get me to watch another episode of PREACHER.
But nihilism these days seems to really pay in great dividends. All around the world of novels, comics, TV, and film, the worst of the worst seems to be in great demand. Novels that are nothing but racist gun-porn sell like mad. Movies that feature one inhuman murder after another are tops. I know this is nothing truly new, but the unrestrained excess of it has reached a point where I just cannot tolerate it.

Hell. Blame it on my age. Or on the point where my own level of tolerance has been saturated. Whatever it is, I've had enough.

Apparently the most popular cable TV show in the history of the medium is now embroiled in a vast legal battle over the billions (yes, you read that right--billions) of dollars it has generated for the network that aired it. I am, of course, talking about that Queen of Nihilism: THE WALKING DEAD.

That THE WALKING DEAD was copped from the work of George A Romero without remuneration to said fellow is beside the point. The fact of the matter is that while Romero's work was social commentary, the TV show gleaned from the vision of Romero and John Russo is just simple, nasty, violence-infused grue. But my how that shit sells! It has sold to tunes so vast that it has created its own self-perpetuating industries. Starting as a comic trimmed from Romero & Russo's zombie vision, it branched out into collected graphic novels, a TV series, video games, T-shirts, media conventions, etc. and so on. If there's a way to squeeze a dollar out of it, they have done so.

And enter now the original director and show-runner Frank Darabont who was chased away from the series and is now suing. There is something extremely satisfying in watching these Hollywood folk fighting over the steaming corpse of a visual property the way the rotting zombies struggle to get their piece of a recently murdered human.

I have to laugh.

There's still some actual humor to be found in the nihilism of true life.

For what it's worth, Mr. Darabont--I hope you win.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Where are the critters?

One thing that I am beginning to find especially disturbing these days is the almost complete lack of wildlife I am seeing when I go hiking and backpacking here in NC. Yes, I tend to go to very wild places where the animals are not accustomed to humans. And such animals are likely to be far more shy than critters who regularly encounter people.

However, I do a lot of exploring in wilderness areas and National Forest lands far off the beaten path. In years past I would see a fair number of wild animals. Over the past couple of years I am seeing almost none.

Take my backpacking trip last week into the Linville Gorge Wilderness. Now, that's a heavily visited wild area, but it wasn't what I would call crowded while I was there. My hike out I saw only a couple of people, and I didn't see one other person camping on Shortoff Mountain the night I stayed there.

Keep in mind that the title for my YouTube channel is "the Quiet Hiker" for a reason. I hike and backpack alone. I don't even talk to myself. If my sinuses are bothering me a lot I might breathe heavily, but that's about the only sound I make. Because of my quiet behavior I should see a fair number of wild animals. But...nothin'.

On my trip from Table Rock to Shortoff and back (about 12 miles round-trip) I saw one toad, one fence lizard...and nothing else. I didn't even see any birds. I heard some birds calling, but didn't see any. Not one. Not even a buzzard or a raven or a junco--birds that are pretty common when I go into the forests.

By this time, it can't just be the luck of the draw. I'm not seeing wildlife because populations are diminishing. It's very disturbing.

Lots of scenery. No animals.

The Black Mountains. Two days, one night. I saw zero wildlife, despite seeing no other humans.

The last time I encountered an animal of note while hiking--a grouse in Virginia over a year ago. Many, many miles hiked and backpacked since then.

A wilderness landscape absent animals.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Spacey Pipe Dreams.

I see once again news of the fact that the entire surface of Mars is not just dry, not only only barren, not merely bombarded with radiation, but also completely and utterly poisonous to life.

Enough with the fantasies and insanity that humans will go out into space and to alien worlds to live.

Colonization of other planets and points in deep space are nice ideas, but that's all they are. Getting there and creating a living environment is prohibitively expensive now and always will be. You cannot reduce the toxicity of a planet's entire surface. Humans did not evolve to live in zero G or even low G environments. We would die in either. The litany of dangers to colonizing space and planets with environments completely inimical to life is a sad pipe dream fit only for fiction. All very nice, but it ain't gonna happen. Not now. Not fifty years from now. Not ever.

We can't even stop ourselves from poisoning the planet that gave birth to us. How are we supposed to make a home out of locations that want only to destroy not just us, but Life itself? We aren't supposed to, and we can't do so.

What we need to do is forget about our greed, collectively reduce the human population in a sane manner, and stop consuming the planet that is the only place in the Universe where we are safe and relatively secure.

We're not going anywhere. Humans haven't even been beyond low Earth orbit in many decades; and we aren't going anywhere like that ever again. It's not just that it's too expensive, it's also that the world's collective wealth has been transferred from governments to individuals; and those richies ain't going to give any of it up.

So stop sucking on that pipe filled with opium dreams.

Mars. A dead planet. Dead in every way. You can't fix it. You can't live on it. Forget about it. It ain't gonna happen.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Dehydration in Linville Gorge!

I might not have made it a full week past my 60th birthday:

Maybe the most physically exhausting day of backpacking of my life. It started out okay as I left camp at exactly 7:00 am. Maybe an hour and a half later I missed the main trail and ended up hiking down an unnamed spur trail. By the time I realized that I was not on the right trail I had descended a good 800 feet into the gorge, which meant that I had to turn around and climb back out! When I left camp I had what I figured was enough water to get me back to my truck. But climbing up the very steep trail in sweltering heat and humidity caused me to consume most of my water. Within a mile after returning to the point that put me once more on the main trail all of my water was gone. And I still had quite a ways to backpack. The forests in that side of the wilderness were completely wiped out by the drought-induced wildfire in 2007. So not only was I carrying my pack with no water and in hot weather, there was almost ZERO shelter from the sun.

I quickly began to become dehydrated. The only thing that I could do (since finding water was not an option) was to hike a hundred or so feet at a time and then rest for ten or fifteen minutes, hiding behind low shrubs for shade. A hike that should have taken two hours at most ended up taking me six hours. A nice couple from Tallahassee Florida gave me a liter of water that maybe saved me from passing out. As it is, drying out like that did something to my vocal chords. I can talk, but my voice sounds like I'm talking with sandpaper.

More later.

I love the National Forest Service signs for Wilderness Areas.

Approaching The Chimneys, one of my favorite areas of the Gorge.

Hiking down into Chimney Gorge on the way back up to Shortoff Mountain.

My campsite on Shortoff Mountain.

The whippoorwill in the night.