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Thursday, May 31, 2018

Autobiography Chapter 12 - My Experience As A School Bus Driver

by Paul Pakusch

Prior to being a school bus driver, I spent nearly 39 years in the broadcasting business.  I started in radio at age 14 and progressed to working in the control room of a TV station, a job which lasted 32 years.  I had earned a BA in Communications, and later on earned a AAS in Accounting.  Along the way, I also earned a private pilot's license and dabbled in a few side business ventures.

In September, 2014, my position at the TV station was eliminated.  I quickly put the broadcasting business behind me and moved on.  Over the next few months, per union contract, I was recalled three times to the TV station but turned them all down.

Within a few weeks after being layed off, I decided to try school bus driving.  My wife was a teacher and the idea of us having vacations off together was appealing.  That was the initial attraction.  But once I got into driving, I discovered I truly enjoyed the job and kept it for that reason. Summers off became just a perk of the job.

There is a national shortage of school bus drivers.  I literally could pick whichever school district I wanted to work for.  I applied to four of them in my area and was called by all four for interviews.  I chose the district I lived in, which was my first choice anyways because it was a convenient commute for me.

I had to take a written test for my learner's permit.  In New York State, I needed the CDL, the passenger bus, and the school bus endorsements to my license.  Once I passed those written tests, the road training began.

I was assigned a trainer to teach me how to drive a school bus.  You begin with the "pre-trip" and "post-trip" inspections of the bus, which is a required routine for every single bus run.  The inside check consists of such things as checking all the buttons and switches around the dashboard, the interior lights, all the seat cushions and seat backs, the emergency doors, hatches and emergency windows.  The outside check consists of checking such things as all the exterior lights, reflectors, the tires and every single nut and bolt on them, all the windows for cracks, rubber seals around door windows, and more.

People have asked me if it's hard to drive a bus.  In my opinion, once you get used to the size of it, it's not a big deal.  I am as comfortable driving a school bus as I am my own personal vehicle.  You just have to be aware that you're taking up a lot more space, especially when going around corners.  If you follow the established procedures, you should have no problem driving a bus. You also have to learn how to use the air brake system.  Just about all school buses use automatic transmission these days.

I did learn quickly that I needed to get rid of a lot of bad driving habits.  Most drivers quite frankly suck.  The attitude of learning to drive as a teenager is to get your written test out of the way, learn to pass the road test, and then quickly adapt to all the bad habits you see everyone else doing. People are very impatient, which is what causes accidents.  People speed up to get through yellow lights before they turn red; CDL drivers are taught to slow down for "stale green" lights and be ready to stop when the light turns yellow.  People use road shoulders as turning lanes, or otherwise misuse turning lanes, especially the center lane. People drive either too fast or too slow in the left lane of a multi-lane highway.  People treat stop signs and right-on-reds as a yield sign, often hardly even slowing down.  People don't use turn signals properly, or don't use them at all.  People don't use hazard lights when they stop on the shoulder of the road.  People don't keep both hands on the wheel.  People text and/or use cell phones while driving; from high on my perch, it was very easy for me to see into people's cars and what they were doing.  I'm guilty of a lot of these.  Yup, it goes back to copying what everyone else was doing once I became a licensed driver, back in the day.   In training to drive a school bus, I found I needed to clean up my act.  Now I use my better driving habits in my personal vehicle as well as on the bus.

Once my trainer got me comfortable with driving a school bus, we spent a lot of time driving around the various neighborhoods of the school district.  I needed to see where all the cul de sacs and dead end streets were.  I needed to know the established procedures for turning the bus around in those areas.  We did practice runs so I could learn how to stay on schedule and find houses without driving past them and missing my stop.  The real challenge is finding houses on dark mornings when the house numbers are not lit up.  Hardly anyone thinks of lighting their house numbers.  Good luck when you need an ambulance.  And we're not allowed to use GPS.

When I got my own route, I got up early on a Sunday morning, at 0-dark-thirty, to drive the route and look for clues or landmarks to help me find certain houses in the dark. It might be a certain mailbox by the road with reflectors on it.  I might count driveways from an intersection or a light pole.  It might be a fire hydrant; I named it the "fire hydrant route" because so many of my stops were either just before or after a fire hydrant.  It might be a driveway just before or after a speed limit or duck crossing sign.  Landmarks of any kind that can be seen in the dark are a big help.  I wrote them all down in my route book so that a substitute driver could use the same landmarks if I wasn't there.

The day of my road test, my trainer and I showed up at Emerson & Glide in a school bus.  Of course, I was just a bucket of nerves.  I made a few mistakes on my test but passed.  Whew!  Then I did my initial driving of passengers with other drivers watching me.

My first solo driving experience was to take the high school hockey team to an ice rink.  I was happy to have the coach on board to keep the boys in line.  I chuckled over hearing some of them talk about girls.  Yep, back in high school!

Then one morning I was assigned to pick up an elementary girls' swim team from the high school and bring them back to their elementary school.  So the girls got on, and I looked around for an adult. Finally I said to them, "Do you have a teacher riding with you?"  They said no.  I looked back at the school building and saw an adult waving me on.  "Holy crap!"  I thought.  "I'm ALONE in a bus with a bunch of elementary school kids!"  So, awkwardly I drove them to their school and everything went fine.

I continued driving some more sub runs and then was told I'd be filling in on a regular run for a driver who was going on medical leave.  He ended up not coming back, so that run became mine for the rest of the year.

It's worth noting that my initial driving was in January and February of 2015, one of the coldest and snowiest winters on record in Rochester.  This brand new bus driver was cutting his teeth while plunging through snow drifts in nearly-zero visibility!  Don't I deserve some kind of an award for that? :-)  Anyways, once I got used to it, I was fine.  I much prefer driving a school bus through a blizzard than my own personal vehicle.

In March of 2015, I had my first bus emergency.  While driving middle-schoolers home, I suddenly saw some small amounts of smoke coming from my engine.  I pulled up to my next stop, which was only about 500 feet away, and told the kids we needed to evacuate.  They did wonderfully!  Everyone was off the bus in about 20 seconds, and they followed my instructions to stay together as a group.  I reported the situation to the dispatcher and they called 911.  Once the engine was checked, it turned out to be coolant leaking onto a hot part below it.  The whole thing was surreal; when I saw the smoke, I was in denial, thinking, "This can't really be happening."  Then I tried to wish the smoke away, but that doesn't work.  I didn't know what the cause was, so I took the safest course of action.

A lot of people tell me they don't know how I can stand having all those kids on the bus. To be honest, I was ok with it at first. I felt the kids really aren't that bad, overall. I'd have a few problem children that I dealt with individually.  Kids are a bundle of energy.  It's not natural for them to be sitting still for hours at a time.  So, I did the best I could at making sure they were in their seats and safe.  Many of them got loud; I dealt with it.  For most, they are only on the bus for about 15-20 minutes.  I probably spent more time alone in my bus than I do with kids in it.

Over time, it started getting to me. I was reaching my saturation point with certain kids who kept acting up and getting other kids riled up. A pet peeve of mine is school districts' policies of putting three kids in a seat.  I think the limit should be two to a seat, even for little kids.  They are restless and get on each other's nerves.  They elbow, poke and push each other. They've got big backpacks, and in colder weather, they're wearing thick winter outfits.  I think a lot of behavior problems would go away if districts would limit bus loads to no more than two passengers per seat.

Everything about school buses is designed around safety.  In New York State, riding a school bus is statistically the safest form of transportation.  Students are at far more risk of injury if they drive or are driven to school in a car.  I know people get annoyed at being stuck behind a school bus in traffic, or at having to stop for a bus's red lights, but you have to remember that kids are unpredictable.  Yes, they are taught how to cross a road in front of a bus and board or unload, but if they drop something or a sheet of paper starts blowing across a road, they're going to be impulsive and start chasing after it.

Cars going through a bus's red lights are a real problem. It happens to every single one of us drivers.  I've had as many as five cars go through my reds at a single stop.  Quite frankly, I don't think the drivers were even aware of what they did.  I could see their faces and they appeared to have "tunnel-vision;" they were driving on the opposite side of the road, looking straight ahead, and seemed oblivious to what was around them.  That's a dangerous practice even without a school bus in the environment; every driver should always be looking around, no matter where they are.

The worst busting a bus's red light situation I've seen is when a car tries to pass a stopped school bus on the right shoulder, by the door where kids are getting on or off.  Yes, it does happen! Even in my own school district! If you search Youtube, you can find some horrible examples of this.  I always checked my right mirror for cars that might be attempting to do this, and I reminded kids at those stops to watch for traffic before getting off.

A question I often get from people is whether they are required to stop for a school bus in the opposite direction on a divided highway.  In New York State, the answer is yes, you need to stop.  It's the law.  Why?  Remember what I said about an impulsive child chasing a paper across the road.

I hated holding up traffic and I'm sure many other bus drivers don't like it either.  The red lights don't come on until I open the door; I made sure no one was racing down the road before I opened the door.  If they were, I waited until they passed and then opened the door.  I'm not a cop, so I wasn't out to "get" anyone.  I'd write a license number down if I could see it and do it without jeopardizing the safety of kids.  But my primary responsibility was to make sure the kids got on and off the bus safely.  I was, however, very happy if I knew there was a cop following my bus!  Most people are nervous with a cop behind them, but I know I'm following all the road rules, so I have nothing to worry about; then I'm happy I've got someone watching out for idiots who pass a school bus's red lights.

So, what about those seat belts?  Well, yes, all school buses in New York State are required to have seat belts available for all the students.  They are not required to wear them unless it's a part of their IEP.  The high, cushioned seat backs are supposed to prevent injury if a bus comes to a quick stop.

The reason a lot of bus drivers are against the required use of seat belts is because a lot of valuable time would be lost if you needed to evacuate the bus quickly.  A bus with an engine fire is going to fill up with smoke quickly (again, search Youtube for some examples of how quickly this happens).  My bus can carry over 60 kids at once.  If I had 60 kids who were all wearing seat belts, imagine the confusion of a smoky bus, where 3/4 of the kids were able to get their seat belts off and get off the bus.  Meanwhile, they are in a panic, climbing over other kids who are struggling to get their belts off.  Chaos ensues in the smoky bus as kids head in different directions for the nearest exit, and I'm trying to get through with a seat belt cutter to get the remaining 15 kids out of their seat belts.  How much time has passed before I'm able to get to them all?  Two minutes?  Three minutes?  Maybe by then I'm either forced to get off the bus myself, or maybe I've passed out from smoke inhalation. Yet there might still be some kids on the bus, stuck in their seat belts. Remember what I said earlier: When I had an actual bus emergency last year, my un-seat belted middle schoolers were all off the bus in about 20 seconds.

What about possible injuries in a collision, when the kids are not wearing seat belts?  Yes, there are horrible examples of fatal school bus collisions, but in the vast majority of them, the kids are not going to be injured.  The padded seat backs will cushion the blow if they hit their heads.  If a bus is rear-ended, chances are there won't be anyone in the back seat because we try to keep the back seats unoccupied.  If the bus is hit on the side, the impact point will likely be below where they are sitting.

I really enjoyed the job.  I enjoy the feel of driving a big vehicle and I enjoy sitting up high in traffic so I can see everything.  I enjoy watching the sun rise.  I enjoy being out with the windows open on nice days.  I enjoy seeing the kids on a regular basis.  I especially appreciate the kids who seem to like me.  I got a bunch of really nice cards on my elementary school's bus driver appreciation day.  I was happily surprised when I saw how many of them wrote such things as "I love you," and "you're nice," and "thank you for keeping me safe."

I'm not alone in this being a major career change.  Other bus drivers I've met include drivers from other transportation jobs, people layed off from other jobs, retired cops, retired Kodak workers or factory jobs, business owners, empty nest mothers, volunteer firefighters, a church pastor, transfers from other school jobs, parents or grandparents of students in the district, and many other walks of life.  Everyone has their own reason for choosing this line of work, but we all pride ourselves on the safe transportation of students to and from school every day.

Although I had a lot of positive things to say about being a school bus driver, after 3 years I decided it was time to move on. The main source of frustration for me is that I get the feeling taxpayers are expecting too much of school bus drivers. There is a tremendous amount of responsibility and the  salary over the course of a year is not very much. A lot of emphasis is placed by the New York State DMV and the federal DOT about driver distraction. But they seem to forget that having 50 screaming kids in the back of the bus is a bigger distraction than anything else. If I had it my way, every single bus would have a monitor on it so the driver can pay attention to driving.

Subsequent entries to my autobiography series will be posted every Thursday morning until further notice.  If you wish to subscribe to notifications of my posts, please enter your e-mail address in the form at the right, under "Follow by e-mail."  If you wish to view previous blog posts of my autobiography, please click on the link under "blog categories" at the top right, "autobiography."

Thursday, May 24, 2018

My Autobiography, Chapter 11: Accounting and Tax Preparation

by Paul Pakusch

In 1986, the treasurer of my union, NABET Local 22 announced his retirement.  He had been treasurer for 30 years.  Nobody expressed any interest in taking the position.  Local 22’s by-laws had a provision for the Secretary to be a Secretary-Treasurer.  Since I was already Secretary, I was encouraged to take the position.  I did.

I learned how to do some basic bookkeeping by paper, since most computer software did not exist yet.  For that matter, it seemed like hardly anybody had a computer, either, but interest was growing.  It certainly was with me.  After a couple years of doing my work by paper, I made a proposal to the Local that we purchase a computer for me to keep membership records on and to do my bookkeeping.  It was approved and I entered the world of DOS. 

I don’t remember what the original software I had was.  But eventually, we picked up Quicken in its early stages.  I remember it seemed overwhelming because I had to use multiple floppy disks to install it.  CD-roms and pre-installed software on computers did not exist yet.  In any case, I was one of the early users of Quicken.

NABET became the bulk of my bookkeeping experience from 1986 to 2007.  In 2007, amidst strong rumors of layoffs at WHEC, I feared for my future and decided to go back to school and get a degree in Accounting.  I did it part time and graduated in 2011.

I had joined Excelsior Brigade Fife & Drum Corps in 2008 and became its treasurer not long after that.  In 2009, I picked up a volunteer position as bookkeeper for the Henrietta Foundation, a non-profit group that was dedicated to preserving green space in the town of Henrietta.  They had purchased a small golf course, so my bookkeeping duties included the golf course operation.  I stayed on for three years.

For the 2011 and 2013 tax seasons, I prepared taxes for pay.  I also did volunteer tax preparation for VITA at Rochester’s C.A.S.H. program.

After being layed off from WHEC in September, 2014, I rented some office space in Spencerport and included bookkeeping in my services.  I would have kept the bookkeeping and tax preparation venture, but I was having a lot more success as a wedding Officiant.  So, I closed up the office in May of 2015 to focus on my wedding venture.   I did dabble in tax preparation one more time now in 2018, but decided I'm better off sticking with weddings.

Subsequent entries to my autobiography series will be posted every Saturday morning until further notice.  If you wish to subscribe to notifications of my posts, please enter your e-mail address in the form at the right, under "Follow by e-mail."  If you wish to view previous blog posts of my autobiography, please click on the link under "blog categories" at the top right, "autobiography."

Thursday, May 17, 2018

My Autobiography, Chapter 10: Union Officer

by Paul Pakusch

When I first started working at WROC Channel 8 in May of 1982, I was required to join the union that represents engineers and news photographers at that station and at WHEC Channel 10.  The National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians (NABET) represented TV and radio stations all over the country and Canada, including the TV networks ABC and NBC.  At the time I joined, the international office was in Chicago.  Across the two countries, NABET was made up of Locals representing the TV and radio stations in their cities.

In Rochester, NABET Local 22 served Channels 8 and 10, and during the 1950’s and 60’s, WOKR Channel 13.  I joined at WROC and maintained my membership when my employment changed to WHEC.

The executive board was made up of a President, a Vice President, a Secretary, a Treasurer, and generally two shop stewards at each station.  In 1985, the office of Local Secretary was open and I was encouraged to run for it.  No competition, so I was voted in by acclamation. 

One of the first influences I had in how business was conducted was a simple suggestion. Local 22’s general meetings were usually held on Saturday mornings and were poorly attended.  They generally served coffee.  My suggestion was to change the meetings to weekday evenings, when the evening shifts at both stations were on their dinner break, open the bar and serve pizza.  Well, it worked!  Attendance at the general meetings shot up.

In 1986, this young whippersnapper had the opportunity to represent Local 22 at NABET’s International Convention in Fort Lauderdale.  I met broadcast employees and fellow NABET members from all over the U.S. and Canada.  I learned how TV and radio stations were all dealing with the same labor issues, and I learned how they dealt with them.  This became the pattern for the next 20 years as I frequently attended NABET Conventions, Conferences, Regional Advisory Meetings, and later CWA Conventions when NABET merged with and became a Sector of the Communication Workers of America.  I also got caught up in the internal politics of NABET-CWA. NABET merged with CWA in 1993.  By that time, NABET Canada had separated from NABET, so it was no longer an international union.

My time as a local union officer lasted for the better part of the years from 1985 to 2014.  There were a few times during those years when I was not an officer, but cumulatively, I was either treasurer, president or secretary for about 25 years.  We had some difficult contract negotiations during that period at both stations.  We never went on strike, but we had several instances of mobilization campaigns.  That’s where you go public; you get politicians involved in your cause, post billboards and bus signs, contact the station’s advertisers, etc.  I can remember one negotiating session where we were sitting in a conference room on Main Street in Rochester, and we watched buses go by with our signs on the side of them!

On the day I was layed off from channel 10, I resigned as a  NABET-CWA Local officer.  I have since considered myself retired from broadcasting and recently received my NABET-CWA Retired Member’s Gold Card.

Subsequent entries to my autobiography series will be posted every Saturday morning until further notice.  If you wish to subscribe to notifications of my posts, please enter your e-mail address in the form at the right, under "Follow by e-mail."  If you wish to view previous blog posts of my autobiography, please click on the link under "blog categories" at the top right, "autobiography."

Friday, May 11, 2018

Thursday, May 10, 2018

My Autobiography, Chapter 9: Out of a Job at Age 53 and Rebounding

by Paul Pakusch
In my previous chapter, I described how I was layed off from my job of 32 years in 2014.  I knew immediately that I was done with the broadcasting business.  Including the time I spent in high school radio starting at age 14, I had accumulated 39 years of working in radio and TV control rooms.  

While it was a lot of fun in the beginning, the nature of the business had changed so much that none of it was attractive to me anymore.  The truth is that, given a little bit of time, I could very easily have gone right back into it, and right back to my former employer.  Per union contract, I was recalled from layoff three times in the next four months.  I turned them all down.  I had moved on.

I had prepared myself for losing my job as far back as 2007, when there were rumors flying around of impending layoffs.  I survived that round, but decided to make myself ready for another career.  I decided to go back to school and get an accounting degree.  I enrolled in the Accounting program at Monroe Community College.  I already had my BA in Communications from SUNY Geneseo, so I was able to transfer in credits from core courses.  I attended school part time and finished with my AAS Degree in Accounting in 2011.

So, in 2014 when I was layed off, I was ready to jump right into an accounting job.  However, I was totally turned off by the idea of working in a corporate environment.  I found plenty of starting positions listed in the classifieds, but all the jobs that looked promising to me were in places I wanted nothing to do with. 

I recognized that I need to explore other options for me.  I went to some job hunting seminars at Rochester Works and got a counselor who was supposed to help guide me in my new job search.  It’s a fantastic program and it doesn’t cost anything.  I highly recommend it to anyone who is struggling with finding the right job for them.

As I mentioned at the end of my previous chapter, I booked a trip to Florida the day I was layed off.  I figured I had the time, some unused airline and hotel credit, and some car rental vouchers that were due to expire if I didn’t use them.  I had also learned that one of my favorite bands, the Spirit of America Fife & Drum Corps at Disney’s Epcot park, was being shut down.  So, I wanted one more opportunity to see them perform.  I travelled to Florida a couple weeks later and spent three nights there.  One day in the park, and two days at a poolside.  It gave me time to think about my career options.

Through the years, Mary and I had occasionally considered the possibility of my becoming a school bus driver upon retiring from Channel 10.  The idea was becoming more and more attractive to me.  We had always wanted to travel the world together.  Working on the school calendar would give me the same vacation time as her, which would give us the opportunity to travel together.

I knew that I would take a significant cut in my income by becoming a school bus driver.  I wanted to supplement my income by following my dream of opening my own bookkeeping service.  So, I rented some office space and opened up a bookkeeping and tax preparation business.  Since I had two rooms, I decided to also make one of the rooms a gallery for my photography.  Talk about diversification! 

I had a great open house event to show off my new photography gallery.  A lot of people attended and I sold some framed pictures.  But after that, attendance and sales plummeted.  I got a lot of compliments on my photography, but very few people were buying.  Bookkeeping was a tough start for me; in retrospect, I recognize that I did not do a good job marketing myself.  Tax preparation actually went quite well.  From the time I opened the office in November of 2014 to around May of 2015, when I moved out of the office, I had a pretty decent thing going with tax preparation.

The big surprise in all of this was a little side venture I had dabbled in that I never expected to get much out of:  Officiating weddings!

 I will devote upcoming chapters to my experience with Accounting & Tax Preparation, Photography, Officiating Weddings, being a Union officer, scholl bud dribing, and more.
Subsequent entries to my autobiography series will be posted every Saturday morning until further notice.  If you wish to subscribe to notifications of my posts, please enter your e-mail address in the form at the right, under "Follow by e-mail."  If you wish to view previous blog posts of my autobiography, please click on the link under "blog categories" at the top right, "autobiography."

Sunday, May 6, 2018


by Paul Pakusch

Lately I've been wanting to get into a rock band again.  For me, finding the right people for a band is like finding a good mate; we have to be good friends as well as compatible musicians.  The band I'd like to be in would not play out a lot; maybe half a dozen times a year.  I haven't found anyone yet.

In the meantime, I'm now enjoying being part of a Meet-up Group called Friends Who Jam.  They get together about every three weeks or so, just to play and enjoy each other's company.  Here's a clip of a jam session from a few days ago.

Friends Who Jam - Grapevine from Paul Pakusch on Vimeo.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Learning to Fly at Age 70

Guest Blog by Don Dick

Note:  Don was a pilot friend of mine who passed away several years ago.  Not long before he died, he forwarded to me the text of a speech he gave in 1999.  He gave me permission to publish it in my blog.  I miss him, the many hours we spent flying airplanes together, and the lunches we had together from time to time.

(Presented at the annual dinner meeting of the Rochester Flying Club on April 24, 1999)

When it was mentioned to me that we didn't have a speaker for our meeting tonight, I enthusiastically volunteered because I'd like to shout from the mountain tops that flying is not just for adventuresome young bucks. Some of us older folk do very well, thank you, and it is never too late to start. I was 70 when I took my first lesson, earned my private pilot's license just about a year later, and since then have been having a ball spending my kids' inheritance.

There are many choices of new things to do when one retires. I worked at an Eastman Kodak division where the General Manager each month met with employees about to retire. He always asked each what he or she was going to do. I was present when one responded, "I have this cottage down on Conesus Lake. It has a dock going out into the water. I've got this rocking chair, and I'm going to put it out on the end of the dock and sit in it. Then, maybe after about 6 weeks, I'm going to start to rock." The alternative is to find something that is totally captivating and challenging, something that makes it exciting to get up every morning. In my view, flying is one of those passions.

One of the other wives here tonight asked my wife, "What is it with these pilots? All they think about is flying. All they talk about is flying. It's like a disease. They're like "druggies," having to get their flying fixes." She may be right. There might just be something unique in our genes. Most of us have always been fascinated with airplanes and finally made that dream of flying come true.

In my case my dad came very close to building a glider when I was very young, intending to sail it from a nearby hill. Mother prevailed, however, and he put family responsibilities ahead of his dream. A few years later (I was about 6) we were visiting in Houghton, Michigan when Dad saw a sign advertising Ford Tri-Motor airplane rides for $5.00. $5.00 was a lot of money in those days, but he couldn't resist, and my older brother and I joined our parents in our first ever flight in an aircraft. I still vividly remember the inside of that airplane, the inclined cabin floor (tail wheel, of course), wicker seats, and that large steering wheel type yoke just visible through the opening to the cockpit. What a thrill when the airplane lifted off and the ground fell away. The flight was all too short for me, even at 6.

From where we lived in northern Wisconsin it was about 10 miles to the nearest airport. Now it is IWD, just north of Ironwood, Michigan with a 6,501'x150' paved runway. Back then it was just a large grass field. Only one aircraft, a Piper Cub, occupied the hangar. Most of the other aircraft were transient, open cockpit bi-planes. Whenever one flew over my house in the general direction of the airport, I'd jump on my bike, pedaling the 10 miles each way, hoping it would still be there. Usually it would not.

One of my dad's younger brothers was the first in our family to learn to fly. When I was about 10 we vacationed in Ann Arbor, Michigan where this uncle lived. He was taking flying lessons but had not yet received his pilot's license. However, he arranged with his instructor to take me up for a half-hour lesson in a Piper Cub. After a very cursory briefing about the stick and rudder pedals, what not to touch, and what hand signals he would use, I climbed into the back seat and we were off. It really wasn't much of a lesson, but he did let me move the stick and rudder pedals enough so I could later brag to my envious friends that I had actually flown an airplane.

When I was a senior in high school, our math and physics teacher volunteered to mentor an Aeronautics Club. About a dozen of us joined, including 2 girls as I recall, which surprised me that this interest was not just a guy thing. Our activities mostly dealt with the theory of flight although we did take an airport field trip near the end of the year, but the club helped keep my interest in flying alive.

During WWII, I was fortunate to attend the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland where summer of the second year included an aviation program at the Navy seaplane base across the Severn River. Again, it was mostly theory, but I did have two flights in a Navy OS2U, an observation/scout aircraft normally catapulted from the stern of battleships and cruisers. It had two open cockpits and a single large pontoon under the fuselage. The first flight, with me in the back as a passenger, was rather docile, consisting mainly of water take-offs and landings and water taxiing. However, in the second flight, the pilot climbed considerably higher and purposely stalled that sucker, kicking over the rudder putting it in a spin. I literally grabbed the edge of the cockpit opening and hung on for dear life. Up to that point I knew I wanted a flying career in the Navy. Right after that, I wasn't so sure. Even now I wonder how he recovered from the spin with that heavy float underneath swinging like a pendulum.

A short while later I had a ride in a Navy PBY amphibian patrol aircraft from Annapolis to the Naval Air Station at Chincoteague, Virginia. That convinced me that I really did want a Navy flying career and I submitted a formal request for flight training at Pensacola. At that time, though, there was about a 2-year waiting period, which time I spent as a line officer on an aircraft carrier operating out of Newport, Rhode Island. That was at the end of WWII, and the good mechanics were leaving the Navy in droves, resulting in numerous maintenance problems and an increased accident rate. Also during that interim, I married the girl of my dreams and even though the fire was still burning to fly, decided (like my dad) that my priorities should put a stable home and family first, and I left the Navy for a career at Eastman Kodak.

Now, fast forward through 6 children, teeth straightening, college education expenses, etc. to about 1994 when the kids had all left the nest. Our number 1 son, a dentist, started taking flying lessons at Ledgedale Air Park (Brockport, New York). The flying genes must have been passed along. He kept me informed of his progress, let me view his King videos, and unintentionally rekindled my passion, except that after having had open heart by-pass surgery, my new goal was just to be somewhat helpful in the right seat. I even bought myself an E6B calculator. He earned his private ticket just prior to my 70th birthday and said, "Dad, where would you like to go?" That was easy as I had long before planned a dream trip. We flew in a Cessna 150 from Ledgedale south to the Geneseo VOR, then east across the Finger Lakes (Conesus, Hemlock, Canadice, Honeoye, Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, Cayuga, and Owasko), landing at Skaneateles. Then we took off, heading north to Lake Ontario near Sodus Bay and followed the lake back to Rochester and Ledgedale. What a great ride! And what gorgeous countryside we are blessed with to fly over in this area. I was hooked.

On my 70th birthday the entire family assembled in my honor and presented me with a pot of money, suggesting that I splurge and spend it on something I wouldn't normally consider buying. That was the easiest decision of my life. I turned the money over to my son's instructor at Ledgedale and said, "Bob, I'd like to take flying lessons until this money runs out. Then I will stop. I don't expect to learn to fly, but I would like to sample of as much as possible of the training my son has gone through." He was agreeable, and that is exactly what we did for 6 lessons. I was flabbergasted at the first lesson, when after walking me through the preflight, he insisted that I sit in the left seat. From that point on we did just about every requirement, including stalls, at least once. He even had me taking off and trying to land the airplane. The last landing he said I did all by myself, but I'm suspicious that he may have helped a little bit.

After that I continued to fly right seat with my son, but as those occasions became less frequent, I realized I just had to get my "fix" on a more regular basis. So I called the instructor and found him agreeable to going up with me once a month. Even that wasn't enough, so we made it about every 2 weeks. By that time I was getting serious, passed the written, and somehow managed to get Oklahoma City to issue me a special 3rd class medical. Unfortunately, Ledgedale discontinued flight training and I had to switch to Cardinal Aviation at the Rochester airport, but flying Beech Skippers out of Class C airspace turned out to be a big plus in my training. I earned my private pilot license shortly after my 71st birthday, joined the Rochester Flying Club, and have since tried to fly at least once a week.

I often think of that retiree sitting out on the dock waiting to start rocking, and other acquaintances who are mainly glued to the boob tube most of every day. Some people play bridge, do crossword puzzles, read, or whatever, to keep mentally active. To me nothing beats flying for the motivation to keep studying and learning. It is a continual and exciting process which really keeps those brain cells jumping.

As demanding as flying is, it's not beyond what an older adult can do. In fact most of the normal limitations of aging are easily accommodated. For example:

* Flying is usually not physically demanding, except perhaps when I am alone and have to push the aircraft back into the tie-down spot. Thankfully, it has wheels and rolls pretty easily on a flat paved surface.

* As a retired person I have a lot more discretionary time for flying. If ceilings are a little low today, I'll fly tomorrow, or whenever. I can even afford to be generous and not fly evenings or weekends so the working club members can use the airplanes during those popular times. It also allows me to take on more flying club responsibilities. (My wife says I have to go to the airport nearly every day to powder the airplanes' noses.)

* Eyesight usually deteriorates with age but has not adversely affected my flying. My trifocals are perfect: upper lens for looking out the windows, middle lens for viewing the instruments, and lower lens for reading the charts. Made to order!

* I do have a minor hearing loss, but no problem. I just turn up the volume on the radios, intercom and headset.

* Of course there is always the concern that I may lose my medical, but that won't mean I can't fly. One can always go up with a CFI.

I will admit to one age-related problem, however, for which I haven't yet found a good work-around. My urologist tells me I have a tired, 70+ year-old bladder and an enlarged prostate that even surgery didn't completely fix. But looking on the bright side, I have a built-in timer and never have to worry about running out of fuel when flying. Also, when I have to get up in the middle of the night and have trouble getting back to sleep, I do better than counting sheep. I say the phonetic alphabet forwards and then backwards. After that comes the Morse code, alphabet and numerals (dit dah, dah dit dit dit, dah dit dah dit, dah dit dit, etc.). Did you know that we have 13 visual checkpoints around Rochester? I mentally recite these in order, clockwise from Webster around to Hilton. And can you recite the names of the 11 Finger Lakes from west to east (Conesus to Otisco)? If still awake I review FAA requirements for cloud clearance, transponder use, emergency procedures, etc. Somewhere in this litany I'll drop off to sleep.

There are friends who question my sanity, and some ask, "Aren't you afraid up there, especially with all those big airliners flying around?" My stock answer is that I'm not afraid until after the airplane is tied down and I get in the car and try to merge into the Scottsville Road traffic flow. It's even scarier trying to get on the I-390 expressway, competing with all those zooming zombie auto drivers.

I'd like to close with a favorite story. Back in the days of the 4-engine, piston-driven airliners like the Constellation, this guy (we'll call him Herman) came on board and sat next to a seat partner. Everything went well during the first part of the flight. Then the pilot came on the intercom. "We've just lost our outboard starboard engine. It's o.k. though. This airplane flies perfectly well on 3 engines, but it will take us an extra half hour to get to our destination." A little later the pilot made another announcement. "More bad news. We've just lost our outboard port engine. But don't worry. The airplane can fly on two engines but it will add another half hour to our trip." A short while later there was a third announcement by the pilot. "Sorry to have to tell you this. We just lost the inboard starboard engine, which means that our arrival will be delayed a bit more." At that point Herman turned to his seat partner and said, "I sure hope we don't lose our 4th engine - or we'll be up here FOREVER."

Being up there forever is an interesting thought. While none of us will be able to continue to fly forever, the potential is there for continued enjoyment and fulfillment well into our final "golden" years. I offer myself as evidence of that premise.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

My Autobiography, Chapter 8: Broadcasting Memories, Part 5: Memorable Highlights from 3 Decades at WHEC Channel 10

by Paul Pakusch

It’s tough to come up with details about every single event and every single person you met while working a job in one place for a long time.  My time at WHEC covers almost my entire adult life.  So, my goal with this chapter is to present some highlights; things that stand out in my mind for one reason or another.

When I started at WHEC in August of 1982, I was entering my senior year in college at SUNY Geneseo.  The job was part time on weekends.  I was engaged to my college sweetheart.  For 32 years, I always humorously told people it was a college job I never left.  By the time I did leave, I had three grown daughters.

One thing about broadcast technology is that it is always changing.  When I think of various significant news events or things that were happening on the job, my mind pictures the equipment that was in the control room at the time.  In 1982, TV stations were still showing some programs on 16 mm film, but it was on its way out.  Many of our programs were on 2” quad tape.  We used ¾’ videocassettes for ENG news.  1” reel to reel tape was on its way in.  Master Control was switched manually between sources, and the video switcher had no presets on it.  Every visual effect had to be set manually.  By the time I left, everything was computerized.

The control room positions at the time included a master control operator, a video switcher, an audio operator, two camera operators in the studio, a videotape operator, and a character generator operator.  I ultimate did all of these jobs.   All of this was tied together by a director, which was in a different Union.  Control room techs were NABET and directors were AFTRA.  We also still did some film operations; when 16 mm films of shows came in, they had to be spliced to fit our commercial schedule.

In my first year and a half of full-time work, I was the vacation relief guy.  I worked the schedule of whoever was on vacation that week, so I was all over the place.  It gave me a lot of valuable experience.

A typical weekday morning schedule at first had me coming in at 6:00 AM and getting out at 3:00 PM.  We’d come in to broadcast live 5-minute local inserts during the CBS Morning Show between 7:00 and 9:00.  At 9:00, we had a half-hour window to do some production work.  One a week, legendary Rochester newsman Dick Tobias would walk over from WVOR radio to record three commentaries that aired during the 6:00 PM news.  Warren Doremus did the same on another day.  Lunch hours were from 9:30 to 10:30 for the first group, then 10:30 to 11:30 for the second group.  We were also getting ready for the 12:00 news during that time.  After the noon show, we might have more production, such as recording the Sunday Mass for Shut-ins, or an interview show called Newsmaker.

I think it was around 1985 that we started recording a morning show with Warren Doremus hosting.  It was recorded at 9:00 AM and was played back at 6:30 three weekday mornings later.

The evening shift started at 3:00 PM and ended at 12:00 midnight.  The afternoon typically had some production time, and then we got ready for the 6:00 PM news.  We’d then have dinner breaks, followed by time to “cart commercials.”  That means we transferred videotape reels of commercials onto a videocassette that would be played in a legendary broadcast control room machine called a TCR-100.  It’s tough to explain this thing; you’d have to see it yourself!

There was time for more production in the evening, followed by short news updates during prime time TV programming and then the 11:00 news.

Weekends were more of the same, but at a much more relaxed pace.  During overnights and weekend mornings, generally there were two people in the control room and eventually just one, running master control.

Through the years, the basic structure of the workday remained the same.  Over time, there was a lot more emphasis on news production, less emphasis on commercial production, and earlier workshifts as the trend in local TV news grew to have morning news programs lasting two hours or more.  Technology changed as everything gradually transitioned from film and analog to digital.

We did a lot of interview shows, between Warren Doremus’ morning show, Newsmaker, and noon show guest segments.  I saw a lot of famous people come through our studio, including Marie Osmond, Richard Simmons, Chuck Mangione, Pat Sajak & Vanna White, Patti Page, Peter Noone, Graham Nash, Mitch Miller, and so many more that I’m forgetting as I write this.  One of my favorites was Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary.  He was in town for a children’s show and they were promoting it on the noon show interview segment.  I was on audio that day.  He was the most wonderful person to work with as we got his audio set up.  My only regret is that I did not save a videotape of that segment.

I remember sitting in master control through special reports of significant news events.  The biggest had to be Sept 11, 2001.  I was working the evening shift at the time, so I was home when the planes hit.  When I did arrive for my shift that afternoon, I was assigned to stay in Master Control for 9 hours straight.  We truly did not know what to expect; NBC was broadcasting from New York City, which everyone knows was under attack, so we received messages from NBC that they could not guarantee they would stay on the air.  At the time, we did not know who had hijacked the planes and no one knew whether buildings other than the World Trade Center would be targeted.  So, we, like all NBC affiliates had to be ready to go on the air with something if we lost our signal from NBC.  We stayed on the air with coverage from NBC and did local updates.   That night when I went to bed, visions of buildings collapsing kept playing over and over in my mind as I tried to get to sleep.

I recall coverage of political campaigns, conventions and election nights.  I recall sitting in Master Control, watching Presidents be sworn into office.  I remember sitting through the Oliver North hearings and the Iran-Contra hearings; the space shuttle launches and landings; Challenger exploding; both wars with Iraq; DOS and Windows; Chernobyl; the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union; Tiananmen Square; Exxon Valdez disaster; Nelson Mandela’s release from prison; the spread of AIDS; construction of the Chunnel; the fear of Y2K (which I laughed all the way through until nothing happened); and the birth of the internet.  I can remember being in Master Control during all of these events.

I spent a lot of time on weekends running Master Control for sports.  I was never much of a spectator for sports, but I grew to enjoy watching golf and auto racing from Master Control.  I was assigned to Master Control for one Super Bowl.  It was pretty cool, knowing that everyone in the city and beyond was watching my work.  And no, it never made me nervous.  Switching a program and commercials was the same, whether 50 people or 500,000 people were watching, or whether the commercials being played cost $10 or $10,000.

I spent a lot of time on audio during my early years at WHEC.  Eventually I transitioned to video switching for about a decade.  I was a videotape operator for my entire tenure until tape was finally abandoned.  Everyone on the crew did studio camera until operators were displaced by a remote control panel.  I was a character generator operator sporadically; sometimes I would do it for awhile, then I would not be assigned to it for several years.  CG eventually became a source of frustration for me because of the constant going back and forth, “You’re a CG operator; no, you’re not a CG operator.” It reached a point where I had trouble keeping up.

In 2007, I was unexpectedly handed a job that took me off the control room crew for a good chunk of the day in my remaining years at WHEC.  The perk was that my schedule was 7:30 AM to 4:30 PM Monday through Friday.  The job was what my boss and I called, “Program Media Coordinator.”  Essentially, I was in charge of making sure programs we needed were recorded, and then made ready to be played back at the scheduled time.  I enjoyed it, and it was enhanced when Channel 10 added a weather channel.  We were required by FCC law to air some children’s programming on it.  It was my job to make sure those programs got on the air.

Business is business, and the purpose is to make a profit.  In spite of the FCC’s declaration that broadcasters are public trustees and must “serve the public,” the reality is that they are businesses and are in it for the money.  Like any business, they want to keep their expenses down and their profits up.  By the spring of 2014, WHEC had finally come out of 1980’s style technology with the installation of automation equipment for its Master Control system.  When a company invests in automation, it wants to reduce salary expenses.  I get that.  I harbor no resentment for the company wanting to be state of the art while keeping expenses down.  That’s how you earn a profit. 

There were a bunch of us who were making “top scale” salaries and seemed to be targeted during lay-offs.  By mid-summer 2014, the signs that I would be the next one to go were glaringly obvious.  No offense, but my immediate management did a piss-poor job of hiding that fact from me.  Training for the new equipment was under way, work was being taken away from me, and the rumor mill was in high gear. My morale plunged.  In mid-August, I cleaned out my locker and took personal items out of my desk. 

On Friday, September 5, 2014, I was simply told that the new automation equipment was working as expected and that my “position was eliminated.”  Fine.  At that point, all I wanted was my severance pay.  Once it was confirmed that I would get it, I was ready to walk out of the building.  Escorted, of course, because I was no longer an employee.    

Since then, I’ve pondered the fact that when one spends decades on a job and leaves or retires on their own terms, they get cake and accolades.  But when you are forced out the door during a cost-reduction event, you are erased. 

I went home that late afternoon and spent a couple hours catching up on my NABET treasurer bookkeeping duties.  Then I sent an e-mail to the executive board to tell them that since I was no longer employed at WHEC, I was resigning as treasurer. 

Then I booked a trip to Florida. 

In my next chapter, I will discuss how I rebounded from losing my job in my early 50’s.

Subsequent entries to my autobiography series will be posted every Saturday morning until further notice.  If you wish to subscribe to notifications of my posts, please enter your e-mail address in the form at the right, under "Follow by e-mail."  If you wish to view previous blog posts of my autobiography, please click on the link under "blog categories" at the top right, "autobiography."

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Copengagen and Baltic Sea Cruise of Summer, 2017 on the Norwegian Getaway

by Paul Pakusch

I had my first experience as a solo cruiser while sailing on NCL Jade in March of 2016.  I met some other wonderful solo cruisers at the time.  I took advantage of a “future cruise” deal while on that cruise by booking a cruise on NCL Getaway on the Baltic Sea for August, 2017.  I let my fellow solo cruisers know of my future travel plans, with the hope that some of them would also join me on the Getaway.  Ultimately, one did; my new friend, Jean, from Chicago.  Jean and I stayed in touch over the next year and a half, finally making plans to meet up and stay at the same hotel in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The Getaway would sail from Copenhagen, Denmark, visiting ports in Warnemunde, Germany; Tallinn, Estonia; St. Petersburg, Russia; Helsinki, Finland; and Stockholm, Sweden.  My plan was to arrive in Copenhagen a couple days early to recover from jet lag and to see the sights of Copenhagen.

My favorite airline for international air travel is Air Canada, out of Toronto.  I watch the website like a hawk when I am anticipating future travel to keep track of trends in ticket prices and sales.  When I am able to afford it, I like to buy a ticket in Business Class for overnight flights.  Being 6’5” tall, it’s impossible for me to get comfortable enough in tight airline seats to sleep.  Air Canada’s business class seats lie out flat; after taking a sleeping pill, I’ve been able to rest comfortably enough to sleep a solid 4 ½ hours on an overnight flight. 

The drive from Rochester, New York to Toronto, Canada is a little over three hours if there are no delays at the border crossing.  It’s fairly common for people in Western New York to fly international flights out of Toronto.  The flights are often cheaper.  From Toronto, Air Canada has direct, non-stop flights to quite a few destinations that I am interested in flying to.  So, I’d rather drive 3 ½ hours to and from Toronto and not have to deal with changing flights somewhere along the way.  This way, I don’t worry about flight delays or missing a connecting flight.

Although I buy Business Class so I can lay out flat and sleep, I certainly enjoy the perks that come along with Business Class!  Toronto Airport has a wonderful Business Class waiting area with complimentary food, showers, and comfortable chairs in which to relax.  No crowds to deal with.  You get the short line for security and you get priority boarding.  On the plane, there are comparably fewer people in the Business Class section, so there is plenty of room to store carry-ons in the overhead bin.  I certainly enjoyed having my meals served on china with silverware.

I took a sleeping pill shortly after departure, as they usually take about an hour to be effective for me.  I had dinner and then settled down to sleep.  I woke up 4 ½ hours later, had breakfast, and then we landed in Copenhagen. Here are windmills along the coast of Copenhagen that I could see on final approach to the airport.

I took the train from the airport to the First Hotel Mayfair. The hotel is a 5-minute walk from the train station, meaning I didn't have to arrange any transportation. It's centrally located in the Vesterboro neighborhood, and close to Tivoli Gardens, Stroget, and the City Hall Square.  I thought it was a fine hotel, in a couple of buildings linked together around a courtyard.  The rooms varied in size and shape.  Even though it was morning, I was able to check in.  After that, I headed out for a walk around Copenhagen. 

I made my way to the National Museum of Denmark and spent a few hours there.  It comprises 14,000 years of Danish history, from the Reindeer-hunters of the Ice Age to modern times.  Exhibits include the Norwegian Vikings, art from the Middle Ages, the importance of church in Danish life, coins, remains of humans from older times, and examples of cultural items from other countries.

The restaurants around the area I stayed in were the usual assortment of chains, pizza shops, Asian food and more. My hotel restaurant had a Boston theme; why would I travel halfway across the world to eat in a Boston-themed restaurant?  I wanted a real Scandinavian dinner, so I walked into one place that I thought was Scandinavian, the Restaurant Ankara.  I later found out it was Turkish, but that was OK. It was small, cozy, and romantic if you had the right dinner partner.  The food was excellent and the prices reasonable.  They had a choice of a buffet or a meal prepared in the kitchen and served at your table.  Being alone, I had dinner with  myself. 

After that, I spent the rest of the evening in my hotel room.  I was entertained by the view of the Urban House, a large hostel across the street from me. I felt like Jimmy Stewart watching his neighbors in the movie “Rear Window.”

The way I get over jet lag is to stick to as normal a schedule as possible.  I stay active and do not allow myself to take a nap until bedtime.  Jet lag has a tendency to really mess up  my sleep schedule.  I might only sleep a couple hours and then wake up, even though I’m dead tired.  So I take a sleeping pill to help me stay asleep for a good, solid eight hours.  Then, when I wake up, I take a caffeine pill.  One caffeine pill equals one cup of coffee; I don’t drink coffee.  I’ve found doing this routine for the first night or two in a far-away time zone works well for me.

I spent some more time sightseeing the next day until Jean arrived from Chicago.  She checked into her room, freshened up, and we went to dinner at the Restaurant Ankara, where I had eaten the night before.  It had been a year and a half since we first met as solo cruisemates on the Jade, and we were missing some of our friends who could have met us on this trip.  While we ate dinner, a torrential downpour soaked the city outside our window. Fortunately, it cleared up before we finished and then we took a walk before heading back to the hotel and retiring to our rooms for the night.

The next morning, we met for breakfast in the hotel's restaurant and bought tickets to the Hop On Hop Off bus.  It’s a great way to get a narrated tour of the city, and to spend as little or as much time at stops that you’re interested in.

Our first stop was the area around Our Saviour’s Church.  It has a historic spire that offers a view that was voted the best by Copenhageners.  Our Saviour Himself stands on top of a golden globe.  I climbed the 400 steps to the top, including the last 150 on the outside that are a challenge!

Jean did not climb the stairs.  After I came back, we visited some of the shops in the area, including a glass shop and some bakeries with very tasty-looking Danish treats!

Our next stop was Nyhavn, with a view of the canal that has probably inspired more postcards than any other view in Copenhagen.  Historic old buildings line both sides of the water, where sailboats and tourboats are docked.  There are vendors selling everything from fur to pork on the grill. 

A particularly humbling view is the building whose windows are stuffed with hundreds if not thousands of life jackets retrieved from political refugees who risked their lives to cross unwelcome waters in their escape from war-torn countries.

We toured Amalienborg Palace, home of the Danish Royal Family.  We lucked out in our timing so that we were able to watch the changing of the guard.  Then we toured the castle.

Our next stop was Kastellet, a historic star-shaped fortress in an active military base.  There is a church and a windmill on the grounds as well. Construction of the fortress began in 1626.  It was part of the defense against England in 1807, and the Germans captured the fort in 1940.

We went to Rosenborg Palace.  I chose to not pay the entrance fee, so I toured the grounds while Jean toured the Palace. It’s a renaissance castle that was originally built as a country summerhouse in 1606.    She was thrilled with the experience and saw artifacts that once belonged to nobility and the aristocracy, including the Crown Jewels and the Danish Crown Regalia.

The next morning, we met for breakfast and then shared a cab to the cruise port to board the Norwegian Getaway.  It was launched in 2013 and carries 3,963 passengers with a crew of 1,646. The website says "Norwegian Getaway combines the most magnificent amenities Norwegian has to offer with unforgettable destinations. Stroll The Waterfront, an innovative, industry-first open-air promenade designed to connect guests with the ocean like no other cruise line. Indulge in more than 28 dining options, experience the thrill of five water slides, and three levels of action-packed activities in the sports complex. The excitement and entertainment continues with Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet. Get ready to explore the white sand beaches and deep-blue waters on a Bahamas or Caribbean cruise, or just relax at sea on a Transatlantic cruise. Miami’s Ultimate Ship is your ultimate getaway."

After boarding the ship, we had lunch, took a tour of the ship, and found our solo cabins in the Studio Complex.  These are cabins specifically designed and priced for solo travelers.  The cabins are clustered together in an interior section, taking up a part of two decks and share a private lounge for solo travelers.  Cruise ship cabins are notoriously smaller than their hotel room counterparts; these solo cabins are even smaller.  But they are designed in a way to use space efficiently.  This was my second time staying in one and Jean’s first.  Jean’s biggest concern ahead of time was whether she’d have room to store her big suitcase.  She did, under the queen-sized bed. 

After the required Muster Drill, I headed to the pool deck for the sail-away party.  They begin with a routine from the ship’s dancers, followed by the entertainment crew leading the passengers in line dances and other fun with a DJ.  This is where I made my first attempt to endear myself to the entertainment crew, as I knew they’d be seeing a lot of me over the next 9 nights.  After about a half hour of dancing, then watching the view as we sailed away from Copenhagen, I freshened up and met Jean in the Studio Lounge.

The Studio Lounge is a great place to meet and hang out with other solo travelers, have a drink or a snack, play games or watch TV together. We had a crew member assigned to us for the duration of the cruise.  Ours was Candice, from China.  Her job was to interact with solo cruisers, arrange for us to sit together for dinner if we wished, help with show tickets, and other duties. She had posted a time for us all to meet the first evening so we could get to know each other.  Then early each evening after that, she would meet with us to find out what we’d like to do together.

We grouped together in the Studio Lounge and began introducing ourselves to each other.  Right away, I started trying to pick out who the dancers were in this group, with the hope that we could arrange times and places to meet for dancing.

Candice is a member of the entertainment crew, which leads guests in dances, parties, contests, and games.  I told Candice about my previous solo cruiser experiences and the fact that I had entered into two Dance-off contests.  As an entertainment staff crew member, she said she could arrange it so she and I would be partners on this cruise for the contest, which would be held a few nights later.

A group of us solo cruisers followed Candice to the dining room so we could sit together. Of particular note about that dinner was that we could see a rainbow outside the ship!  What a nice way to start a cruise! Some in our group decided to see the show that evening.  I went to the ship’s disco the first evening with no particular arrangements to meet anyone.  It was a “first night” party, and the entertainment staff was there.  I had my first dances with Candice and then recognized another solo cruiser, Melina.  It turned out she loves to dance, too.  We spent about two hours dancing that evening and did quite a bit of dancing together the rest of the cruise. 

The next morning, we docked in Warnemunde, Germany. It’s a popular seaside resort town for locals that is in the old East Germany.  It’s the closest port to Berlin, about a two-hour train ride away.  Originally I was booked on an excursion to take the two-hour ride to Berlin, but then changed my mind and decided to postpone a trip to Berlin until 2018, when I could spend more than a few hours there.  I did take an excursion, “The Best of Rostock,”  which was a 20-minute tour bus ride away. We could see old, boring Soviet-style housing, which today makes for cheap apartments. Rostock is home to Germany’s oldest university and also has a top performing arts school.  The first stop on our tour was the area around the university.  Being a Sunday morning during school break, it was nearly deserted.  We were along Kropeliner Strasse, in the middle of town, which is a lively pedestrian street, lined with shops, restaurants and bakeries.

One notable stop in Rostock was Sankt Marien Kirche, where an impressive old astronomical clock from 1472 that still works. The year plate on the Astronomical Clock gets replaced every 140 years. It is was on the last one for this plate, 2017. The new one for the next 140 years went on in 2018.  The organ in this church has over 5,000 pipes.

After my excursion, I had time to walk around the area near the ship in Warnemunde.  A lighthouse and teapot building attract most of the attention for travel pictures, but a walk along the village streets, docks, and along the beach showed me where all the charm was.  It was not that warm, either.  This is northern Europe.  But that doesn’t stop the locals from going to the beach to lay in the sun and swim when the temperatures are in the 60’s Fahrenheit. 

Our ship did not depart Warnemunde until 10:00 PM, so we spent the evening in port, eating dinner, hanging out on the deck outside, and dancing.

The next day was a day at sea.  We spent the time enjoying shipboard life, including eating, lounging in the hot tubs, playing trivia games, and watching Candice doing a Chinese black tea demonstration for us.  I tried the tea. People who know me well know that I have never found a tea that I like. This was the most tolerable tea I have ever tried, so that is quite a compliment coming from me!

We had a magnificent view of a beautiful sunset at sea.  

After dancing, around 1:00 A.M., we went out on deck to see a MSC ship that was sailing nearby.  We could still see some light along the horizon, which was normal this time of year, being this far north.

The next day we docked in Tallin, the capital and largest city of Estonia, population around 450,000.  If you’re into medieval culture, the Old Town section is the place to be!  And that’s where most of my excursion took me. We stopped at a large outdoor concert venue.

Our bus drove through the modern sections to reach Old Town.  Of particular note is that they do not tear down old, historical buildings.  They leave the exterior standing and build modern skyscrapers right up from within them! Sorry, this is the best picture I could get from a moving tour bus.

I spent several hours walking around Old Town and having lunch.  There were street performers and people dressed in medieval garb. 

I took a selfie with a new friend!

On a personal note, I have to say at this point in my life, I had been overcoming a divorce and another relationship that did not work out.  Suffice to say, I had been feeling very mixed up about how I wanted to proceed with a new relationship.  There was no question that I was lonely and wanted someone in my life.  I had met Stacey earlier in the year. Over the summer, we had been growing closer as friends.  Just as I was starting my trip, Stacey had made it plain to me that she was definitely interested in a relationship.  So far on my trip, she had been sending me messages every day.  On this excursion in Tallin, I stopped for a short visit to Tammsaare Park, which features a statue known as the Kissing Sculpture.  It’s a tribute to love.  Well, I chuckled about it, took a few photos, and made a selfie post on my Facebook page with the caption, “Does this mean good fortunes for me?”  In retrospect, it was right after visiting the Kissing Sculpture that I started feeling like I should respond to Stacey’s gestures.  I felt that she was showing more interest in me than anyone else, and I should pay attention to that. I had learned from experience that you should not take it for granted when someone shows interest in you.  It could end up being a missed opportunity.  Near the end of my trip, Stacey sent me a message that she would meet me when I came home and give me a big hug and a kiss.  She did, and we have been together ever since.  I’d like to believe that the Kissing Sculpture was a magic charm to wake me up to Stacey!

For the remainder of the cruise, I continued my routine of hanging out with new friends in lounges, frequent visits to a hot tub, having dinner with solo cruisemates each evening, followed by dancing.  The dance themes included an 80’s night, a disco night, a "Norwegian Night Out," and a “white hot night” or Glow Party that included neon face-painting.  I’ve done a lot of dancing on cruises, but I think I expended more energy than ever on this particular cruise.  It was a tremendous cardio workout! Candice painted my face, including my name in Chinese, and otherwise was a great sport with some of my dancing shenanigans.

For the third time on a Norwegian Cruise Line cruise, I participated in a Dance-off contest.  Three crew men and three crew women each selected a dance partner from among the guests.  Three couples were voted off by judges, and the remaining three couples were voted on by the audience.  I was paired with Candice, and Melina was paired with another crew member, Jose.  Unlike my previous two cruises where we were expected to actually show a little bit of talent in the dance-off contest, this one was all about comedy.  The staff had been working up gags to do with their partners that would guarantee laughs from the audience.  Candice was new and still trying to come up with ideas that would help her win;  Jose was more experienced and had his gags down pat, and he easily won the audience with Melina, who was a great sport about everything. They came in first place.  I’ll never forget the surprised expressions Melina had during the dances; they were priceless!  As for Candice and me, we were voted off and ended up in the Loser’s Lounge, which turned into a hysterical TV interview showing the host, the three “losing” crew members, and me in a giant bed together!

I went to a show one night that was a one-hour version of the popular “Million Dollar Quartet” musical. The actors were very talented musicians.  Naturally, we had a hard time staying in our seats while the catchy music was playing!

We arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia one morning for a two day visit. From our docked position, we could see other cruise ships, a low skyline of apartment buildings, and bridges.  I remember thinking to myself, over and over, “Holy crap!  I’m in Russia!” Being here brought to mind the memories of being afraid of this country during the Cold War.  Even now, with the tension between the governments of the U.S. and Russia, I couldn’t help but wonder how much access we would continue to have to this country or whether we would ever be at war with them. After getting off the ship, I got to see the citizens of Russia’s faces up close; everyone just trying to live their lives like we are.  Aren’t all of us citizens just pawns in the selfish political games of government leaders?

In order for people on cruise ships to tour Russia, you have to have a visa.  To get a visa and go off on your own in the country requires months of paperwork.  If you purchase an excursion from a cruise ship, you automatically get a visa for the duration of time when you’re on the excursion.  You cannot leave the group; people are watching you to make sure you don’t wander off.

I bought an excursion to see some highlights of St. Petersburg.  Once I got off the ship, I stood in line for about an hour to get through Passport Control.  All they do is look at your passport, stamp it with a visa good for one day, and send you on your way.  When you return to the ship, you have to go through passport control again.  They do keep track of your comings and goings.

Compared to the large coach bus that I usually ride in for excursions, I was on a van that I think carried about 10 people.  We rode through St. Petersburg to see the sites and drove through the countryside until we reached Peterhof. These palaces and gardens are sometimes referred as the "Russian Versailles."  We toured the castle and had an opportunity to watch a spectacular water fountain show in the Grand Cascade. 

After that, we boarded a hydrofoil to cross the Gulf of Finland back to St. Petersburg.

We toured the city a bit more, making five-minute stops at various places to get out and take pictures. Then we were treated to a fine lunch at a fancy restaurant before going onto Peter and Paul Fortress and Cathedral.  We saw the graves inside the Cathedral where Peter and Great and his family are buried.

We arrived in Helsinki, Finland on a foggy morning, which didn't take long to burn off. I took an excursion that toured the streets of Helsinki, giving us opportunities to get out and walk around. 

From there, we travelled about 45 minutes to the picturesque, historical village of Porvoo.  Although it’s been around since the 13th century, most of its buildings are from the early 1800’s.  Tourists walk along cobblestone streets. 

This woman was part of a group in Porvoo that was having tourists draw pictures of trees to post on a large board.

After that, we had lunch in a luxurious mansion.

We visited a church that was created in a hillside by blasting rock away.

The final port on this Baltic Sea itinerary was to Stockholm, Sweden.  Compared to the other places we visited, I thought this stop was too short.  I would have liked having more time to see more than I did.  What I did see was the small village of Sigtuna.  It is the oldest town in Sweden, having been founded in 980. Sigtuna has a picturesque medieval town centre with restaurants, cafes and small shops. The old church ruins, runic stones and Stora gatan, the old main street, are popular attractions for tourists especially in the summertime. The small streets with the low built wooden houses lead up to several handicrafts shops and the old tiny town hall. There are restaurants and a hotel in the town centre.

We then headed to the Vasa Ship Museum. The Vasa ship capsized and sank in Stockholm 1628. After 333 years on the sea bed, it was salvaged and brought to the museum. Today Vasa is the world's only preserved 17th century ship and the most visited museum in Scandinavia. 

After that, we had time to walk around a touristy area of Stockholm before returning to the ship.

We had a final full day at sea before returning to Copenhagen, where I would spend one more night in a hotel before flying back to Toronto.  It was a chilly day, but we still spent time in the hot tub outdoors. Dinner that evening was a mix of sadness, as I’d be leaving new friends behind.  Candice had been an especially good host; she told me I was the first guest whom she had danced with every single night of the cruise.  I hope we meet again. 

The next morning, I said my goodbyes to Jean, Melina, Paal, Rena, and others as we left the ship.  I still had one more meal left with four cruisemates who were also spending another night in Copenhagen; we had agreed to meet for dinner that evening at the Restaurant Ankara, where Jean and I had had dinner before the cruise began. 

I had spent the last day in Copenhagen at Tivoli Gardens, an amusement park and garden. The park opened in1843 and is the second-oldest operating amusement park in the world.  The park’s website says, “Stepping through its arch, you step into a world of fairy tales, exotic lands and thrilling rides. You can sense that generations have walked its maze of things to see and do, including Hans Christian Andersen. For the brave, the park contains one of the world’s highest chain carousels and a number of exhilarating rollercoasters. 
At night, Tivoli takes on a whole different aura. With its lights and lamps dotted in trees and on pavements and its caf├ęs, restaurants and fairground attractions open for those taking a stroll after dark, Tivoli is a really romantic setting. Tivoli even offers occasional days where you can get married in one of the world’s most unusual settings.”

For my flight back to Toronto, it turned out Susan and I would be on the same plane, so we met at the airport before boarding the flight. 

I had the cozy Business Class seat for the 8 hour flight while Susan had to stay back in steerage, lol.  From Toronto, I drove home to Rochester and she continued on to California.