Thursday, August 26, 2010

Customer (Dis)Service

Everyone has their own version of "dealing with the cable company" story. Here's mine.

We have the Comcast trifecta - cable TV, internet, and telephone. It kills me each month to see the amount of hard earned money going down the rathole to that company.

To their credit, the VOIP phone rollout in our market has gone well. We weren't sure what to expect with sound quality, availability, interaction with alarm system, etc., but its all gone well.

Our internet uptime and speed has been pretty good too. At times, its runs a bit slow. But I've rationalized it thinking (1) maybe I have too many services running on my PC that slows it down (2) everyone on my block also has it which chokes our bandwidth and (3) I still remember 26.4K dial-up.

But the TV package is still the offering that drives me crazy as a loon. Charging for DVRs, charging extra for additional TVs, charging for channels I care absolutely ZERO about, etc. Yet the check gets written every month, and my insanity deepens as I expect something different with each payment.

About 10 days ago - Monday, August 16 - I learned about a show I'd like to watch via Twitter. I wished at that moment for an addressable DVR box where I could queue shows to record via the web. Folks who have Tivo have told me they can do it. I double-checked and was pleasantly surprised to learn that very feature is now available. Great, right? Well, not so fast...

Our DVR had to be activated to use it via the web. What? I've got phone, e-mail, internet, digital cable, HD, and a DVR - yet the information isn't all tied together to already have it enabled? Fine. So I activated it. The confirmation screen then said to allow up to 24 hours for the activation to process. TWENTY-FOUR HOURS??? So much for my show - and so much for the theory of better-faster-cheaper with the use of Comcast's technology.

While I wasn't able to remotely record the show I wanteed, at least I could begin doing so the next day, right? ERRRRRR. Wrong. The activation wasn't processed on Tuesday. Nor on Wednesday.

At the 48 hour mark Wednesday, I headed to Comcast's tech support chat room during my lunch hour in hopes of resolving the issue. What follows is the transcript of the chat session with the resident tech support moron, Jaymark.

Because of the length of the transcript, I'll highlight a few of the more compelling nuggets - at least to me.

user TMC has entered room

TMC: Requested activation of MyDVR Manager Monday. Was told it would take 24 hrs. 48 hrs later and its STILL not done.

analyst Jaymark has entered room

Jaymark: Hello TMC, Thank you for contacting Comcast Live Chat Support. My name is Jaymark. Please give me one moment to review your information. How are you? I hope you are fine.

TMC: fine

Jaymark: That is good to know TMC. I see here that you have a concern or problem with your MyDVR Manager, I understand the trouble that this has caused you and I want you to know how sorry I am for the inconvenience (note: empathy #1 and apology #1). As your service representative today, I want you to know that your satisfaction is of my topmost priority and I assure you that we can resolve this issue together on this chat, TMC.

TMC: activating it on-line is convenient - I did my part
. comcast has not done their part by activating it w/in 24 hrs. i shouldn't have to come to a chat room to resolve such a ridiculously simple request

Jaymark: I completely understand how frustrated you must feel.(empathy #2)
When I am not at work, I am a customer myself; I completely understand how frustrating it feels when things are not working the way they should be. (empathy #3)

just activate it so I can get back to work jaymark

Jaymark: No problem TMC.
I will need to pull your account first to provide you proper informations on your issue today, is that okay? I am glad to be able to assist you. To ensure the integrity of your account information. Can I please have the following information:
1) Account Number.
2) Full Account Name.

TMC: jaymark - you must be kidding me. I logged in to this web service and chat room with my user name and password. now you are telling me you can't view my account info from where you are? i don't have my a/c number w/me

Jaymark: No TMC. Just provide me your Account Holder Name.
Thank you so much for that information. Please give me 2 minutes to access your account.

TMC: i can find a/c number though - but that's ridiculous you have to ask for it
. forgive my hostility but its crap like this that gives cable a bad rep

Jaymark: Sorry for that TMC. (apology #2) I cannot see your username and password for myDVR, can you please provide me this information.

TMC: i just gave you my a/c number and name
. i don't have a username and pw for myDVR

Jaymark: I see TMC. For that you need to log-in to check you MyDVR Manager on our Site so you can see if it has already been activated.

TMC: jaymark - i'm going to pretend like you didn't just ask me to ck if myDVR has been activated. BECAUSE THAT WAS MY OPENING LINE TO THIS SESSION!!!!!!!!!! IT HASN'T BEEN ACTIVATED JAYMARK

Jaymark: I will try to look for your primary username TMC to be able to log-in to Fancast for myDVR Manager. However I do not have the password information. I can see here that this is your primary username for your account.

TMC: correct

Jaymark: But I will need a password for this.

TMC: no way.
i don't give out my passwords. why would you need my password anyway?

Jaymark: So that I can check in the status of your MyDVR activation.(with a link) You can try that link TMC to see the update on your MyDVR status.

TMC: this is ridiculous. that link takes me to a 'page expired' page. i see that MyDVR has not been activated Jaymark and you want me to cough up my password

Jaymark: Click sign-in mydvr

TMC: guess what - it tells me what I've been telling you for the last 15 min. NOT ACTIVATED

Jaymark: Try it there TMC. Sorry for the inconvenience.(apology #3)

TMC: i'm getting nowhere - how can it be that much trouble? don't customers activate MyDVR daily?

Jaymark: No TMC. You only need to activate it once. However the span time for that is with 24 to 48 hours, However I can see here in your issue that it hasn't been activated yet.

Jaymark: I am very sorry for the inconvenience.(apology #4) I completely understand how frustrated you must feel.(empathy #4) TMC, for a follow-up I will send a signal to your dvr, may I know the serial number, just in case this will work.

TMC: once again, i don't understand how a tech/customer support function can't view serial numbers of equipment leased to me

Jaymark: Sorry for that TMC.(apology #5) I am just double checking the right equipment.
Okay after I send the signal, can you please turn it off for awhile. I am now done sending the signal TMC. You can now check it.

TMC: as I've mentioned already, I'm not at my DVR. can't turn it off here -will have to ck this evening. but on-line it STILL says MyDVR manager not activated

Jaymark: I understamd TMC.
(empathy #5) You can check it after when you get home.
I see TMC sorry for the inconvenience. (apology #6) I am here to help you and provide you support with your Comcast Services.

TMC: this has been frustrating beyond belief. just spent 30 or more minutes on this problem. the goal - even as you stated - was to resolve my problem in this session

Jaymark: When I am not at work, I am a customer myself; I completely understand how frustrating it feels when things are not working the way they should be. (empathy #6)

TMC: yet MyDVR manager still says it isn't activated

Jaymark: I am sorry TMC, (apology #7) Honestly I have no total control of the activation of your MyDVR activation, due to this is automated by a system to be activated.

TMC: apologies and empathy aren't needed - problem resolution was needed

Jaymark: The only assistance I can provide you is the check-up of the activation and setting up of it and the signal to your Cable boxes.

TMC: u could have saved both of us time if you'd told me you couldn't resolve the problem from the beginning!!!!

Jaymark: I understand TMC. (empathy #7) I do apologize for the incovenience. (apology #8) I hope you understand.

TMC: ok. i've had enough.

About two-thirds of the way through this time-wasting, mind-numbing exercise, I fired up Twitter and blasted off a few shots across the bow of @comcastcares.
Tweet #1: @comcastcares Is it really that difficult to activate MyDVR? Isn't 24 hours less than 48 hrs and counting?

Tweet #2: @comcastcares Is it too much to ask your chat techs to actually read & respond to my inquiry vs. asking me stupid and repeat questions?

Tweet #3: @comcastcares I'd like 40 minutes of my life back. Back & forth w/your tech. Prob still unresolved. Apologies/empathy but no solution.
Perhaps as an example of companies using social media such as Twitter to enhance customer service, someone from Comcast was trolling - either the account of @comcastcares or maybe just the keyword "comcast".

Bonnie replied and asked what was wrong. I was happy someone picked up on it. I suggested we move my complaining to a private conversation so my followers wouldn't be subjected to the rantings of a frustrated DVR user and dissatisfied Comcast customer.

She then asked for my phone number on the account so she could look up the situation. So I provided it. And then...


Yep, I was right back where I started.

I waited a few hours and tweeted her again with "was it something I said?". She responded soon to say they were looking at the problem on their end. Was it too much to ask her or someone to let me know that?

Finally, on Thursday evening - almost 80 hours after my original request - my DVR was activated. I queued a show to record. Sure enough, it worked just as designed. And for the record, I tweeted a "thank you" to Bonnie. Even though she nor anyone else communicated with me about the status, I communicated with them when it worked.

But now I've been too dadgum busy and tired to even care to watch what I've recorded.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Nashville's Floods: 100 days later

Has it really been 100 days? From May 1-3, 2010, over 13 inches of rain fell on Nashville, TN and neighboring communities. Once the rains stopped, then the trouble really began. Rainwater ran to the streams and rivers. Lakes had to be lowered through dams adding to the surging river waters.

Many homes and businesses were lost. Some have returned. Some were destroyed and will likely not return. The damage has been well documented - even if it wasn't well covered by media outside of Tennessee.

A friend of mine, Denny Rudolph, was inspired to write a song not only by the stunning events of the flood but more important by the amazing ways in which folks from the mid-state rallied to help one another.

Middle Tennessee has been my home for all but 9 years of my life. Its a spectacular place to call home with spectacular people to call family, friends, and neighbors.


Monday, August 9, 2010

Sea kayaking entry 6: Headed for home

Sixth and last in a series...

To paddle backwards...
With a 10:30 AM ferry departure, the crew was finally able to awaken on their own terms. However, with the rising sun and quickly rising temperatures, most were up shortly after dawn. The adults took shifts walking about a half-mile to a nice coffee shop for a hot cup of premium coffee and toasted bagel. Ahhhhh.

Mid-morning, everyone hoisted their gear on their shoulders and into their hands and trekked back to the ferry dock. We were not as rushed on the return trip as we were going to Ocracoke.

Upon reaching mainland again two hours later, the base camp vans arrived to greet us ... and assign us chores. All kayaks, boat gear, personal gear, and crew gear we'd left behind a day earlier had to be loaded and secured. Most folks pitched in to quickly load the gear. A few decided they wanted to sit in the shade or in the vans until we were ready to go - or so they thought. A few "tough love" words of "GET OUT HERE AND WORK LIKE THE REST OF US!" was about all it took to get their priorities back in order. In short order, we were on our way for a return trip to base camp. Most caught up on some much-needed and much-deserved rest.

Upon arriving at base camp, all gear had to be unloaded, cleaned, and hung to dry so it could be re-deployed to other crews the next week.. The camp staff estimated 2 hours would be needed to complete the cleaning. Instead, it only took 45 minutes with the 3 troops working cooperatively and efficiently. All troops were congratulated by the staff for the collective hard work.

The troops had a final grilled chicken dinner together. The other two troops showed great scout spirit by deferring their showers until our troop could eat, clean up and hit the road.

After a final group photo and some t-shirt purchases, we were on our way. The captains of the troop armada were headed westward away from the coast. We arrived around midnight at the National Guard armory in Lexington, NC for a night's rest.

As all awoke Saturday morning to head for Charlotte, NC, I caught sight of an STP cap in a display case along the wall. Sure enough, it was autographed by my NASCAR hero - The King Richard Petty. I wished someone had been there to convince them the hat would be much safer in my custody, but that wasn't the case. So all that went with me was a photo.

We boarded the vans for breakfast and a 90 minute ride to Carowinds theme park near Charlotte, NC. While we thought the heat was challenging on the coast, at least we had wind. Inside the concrete jungle of Carowinds, there was little relief from the heat except on roller coasters and constant drinking of water.

The newest ride for the season was The Intimidator - a roller coaster whose theme was based on the late NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, Sr. One of our dads donned the Intimidator cap and my sunglasses to create our own version of...


After a full, draining day at Carowinds, the crew had dinner in Asheville, NC. A phone call was placed to the Clyde Police Department officer whose name we were given a week earlier. Fortunately, the right connections were made and we were back in Clyde City Hall again for the night. It was almost like coming home. Almost.

We got an early start on Sunday morning and stopped for breakfast. My son led a crew prayer to give thanks for the meal, give thanks for a fun and safe week, and ask for a safe journey the remainder of the trip home.

Shortly after noon, the captains returned home. Captains - of boats with christened names such as:

  • SS Minnow
  • The Titanic
  • Flying Dutchman
  • Red October
  • Cornelia Marie
  • The Wizard
  • El Diablo and the Magic Man
  • the destroyer (for our scout who could destroy a buffet or fast food menu)
  • the cruiser (for our girl-ogling scout for all the coolness he *tried* to exude)
  • the carrier (for our smallest scout who hauled 3 bags of gear plus his tent while wearing blue jeans the half-mile from the Ocracoke Ferry to Teeter's Campground and back)
Sure enough, when I got home there it was. The six pack promised me via a text from "the carrier's" dad our first day on the water. A sixer of Italian Peroni - chilled. Plus, the dad gave our family a gift card to our favorite Mexican restaurant.

While the gifts were genuinely appreciated, I did feel a bit sheepish about accepting gifts for a trip on which I had so much fun personally.

Thus endeth the series. Finis.


Sunday, August 8, 2010

Sea kayaking entry 5: You must be Bubby

Fifth in a series...

For those starting here but needing a U-turn to the beginning:
Following the attack of the skeeters Wednesday night, a huge thunderstorm moved in right over the top of our camp area. Thunder booms made it seem as if our camp area was being shelled by bombs. I endured about 90 minutes of laying in a half-collapsed tent enduring the drip-drip-drip Chinese water torture from a rain fly struggling to survive.

After the rains moved through and avoiding direct lightning hits, sleep returned and suddenly it was morning again. Everyone knew what was still out there though. Them. Those...those...THINGS. Skeeters.

The shout-out to rise was sounded at 5:00 AM. The departure from the marina ferry slip was the most efficient and quickest of the week. Everyone quickly disassembled their tents, packed their gear, donned their life jackets, swatted at a few more mosquitoes, and paddled away - all in about 30 minutes. We paddled to a safe distance away and then took a short rest to eat our breakfast.

This was our final day of kayaking. From our breakfast stop around 5:30, we paddled pretty much non-stop several miles to the mouth of Cedar Island Bay with the wind favoring us. We re-grouped around 10:30. Our guides told us we were "home free" - that we only had about 3 to 4 miles up the bay to our take-out point. He was wrong. The row up the bay included headwinds and tidal flow working against us.

One scout finally ran out of gas from the week of rowing and could paddle no more. He could dip each end of his oar in the water, but he had zero forward movement. My son stepped up and showed true scouting and teamwork spirit by towing his fellow scout and friend about 3 miles. He finally needed help from a dad to help him bring the two of them to the end of the bay and takeout point at Cedars Island on mainland near the Cedars Island Ferry. It was great camaraderie amongst kayaks of the the armada, and I could not have been prouder of my son for his extra effort.

Finally - boat by boat - we all reached the take-out point. Land Ho! We'd made it. Approximately 40 miles of rowing were complete. But we still had work to do. All boats had to be moved approximately 200 yards to a storage area. Life jackets, spray skirts, and paddles had to be stowed. Personal gear had to be re-consolidated into as few bags as possible. And then we had to hustle to catch the ferry for a 2 hour ride to Ocracoke Island for a final night of camping.

Our ferry to Ocracoke: The Silver Lake


The license plate on this car succinctly summarized what we looked and smelled like: A Mess. Many passengers on the ferry asked about our trip. But within a matter of moments of any of us beginning to tell the story, our smells would waft their way. It didn't take long for folks to find another place on the boat to enjoy the ride.


With two hours of nothing to do, scouts and adults found different ways to pass the time. For some, it was time to catch up on soft drinks. Dr. Pepper, Ginger Ale, and Coca-Cola were dispensed with regularity. Some gathered at a table for card games. Some caught a nice two-hour nap.

And some still had enough gas in the tank to hang along the rail, enjoy the sun and nice breeze, look cool, and troll for girls. I laughed at a couple of our guys who simply didn't realize all the coolness they tried to exude was no match for their overpowering stench from a week without a meaningful shower.

Upon arrival at the Ocracoke ferry stop, we hauled our gear to Teeter's Campground managed by Bubby. None of us are sure if Bubby has a last name - or if Bubby is even his true first name. But he was hospitable, lets scout crews camp for free, and allowed us to use the campground's showers and bathrooms.


The only charge for the boys to spend the night at the campground was a 12 pack of Silver Bullets. With three troops camping at Teeter's, Bubby cleaned up a case and a half of beer. Not a bad return for an otherwise unused parcel of grass.

Bubby wandered over looking just like his name would suggest. Shirtless, shoeless, NASCAR cap, a Coors Light in one hand, and a cig in the other. As soon as he strolled up and without knowing who he was, I extended my hand and said "Well, you must be Bubby."

The guides had told us Bubby had an accent - one that was a bit odd and maybe a bit old English style. They paid him his Coors Light but otherwise didn't have a lot of interaction with him. But once I got to talking to him about NASCAR and beer, we got along just fine. He didn't speak old English. He just spoke redneck, that's all!

I thanked him for letting us stay at the campground. His response was "Aww, no worries man." He then took a long drag on his cig and a long pour of his beer and said "Well, I was corrupting them girl scouts when I was fifteen. Figured it was 'bout time to start corrupting them boy scouts too."

My new Coors Light swilling and NASCAR following friend, Bubby. He was kind enough to park his cigarette for this photo rather than taking the chance of burning my ear.

While the scouts worked hard to learn kayaking and other skills such as camping and outdoor cooking, it was clear Bubby had already successfully earned his Redneck merit badge.

During the previous nights, the crew battled strong winds, sand, and thunderstorms. The night on Ocracoke would require us to challenge different foes: hot temperatures, high humidity, and zero breeze.


The crew prepared a final camp dinner. About half the crew ate the chicken and undercooked rice dinner. The other half hit the tourist town of Ocracoke early for dinners of Thai food, hamburgers, chicken fingers, etc.

After dinner and clean-up, it didn't take long for the crew to find ways to pass the evening hours - homemade ice cream, freshly squeeze lemonade, souvenir and surf shops, walks along the main drag, sitting in beach chairs under an old oak tree listening to reggae music, etc. There was seemingly no shortage of ways to pass the time until 9PM.

I stopped with the other dads to get some ice cream and lemonade. Taking a break under a big oak tree was wonderfully relaxing. But one of the dads and I already had developed an understanding to use coded body language like a baseball manager signaling a base runner to steal.

Once we knew the kids were on one end of the street snacking and shopping and the three other dads were collapsed under the tree, the two of us sighed deeply and suggested we might stroll the street much like Sheriff Taylor and Deputy Fife checking the streets of Mayberry at dusk.

We found a small open-air bar with live music. He and I found a high top table pretty much out of view from the street and quickly ordered two Yuenglings. Before they could be served, however, two scouts unbelievably walked to the entrance seemingly appearing out of nowhere. My partner-in-crime quickly met them at the door with a stiff palm to the chest suggesting they go back down the street. He returned laughing saying the two of them wanted to come in because they smelled french fries. He told them to get fries elsewhere.

As soon as the brews were set before us, we killed 'em. We didn't plan to drink all night or get in a chugging contest. But after a week on the water, it went down so quickly and tasty. Immediately, we held up two fingers to the waitress to bring us a second one.

But once again, we had visitors. This time it was two dads vs. more scouts. But still... of all the places... and after we deliberately tried to slip away. One of them plopped down and asked for a cold Coke. The other just glared at us - clearly upset with our breaking of protocol. I didn't care because I now had my second brew to his zero.

Upon returning to the campground, I asked the dad who ordered the Coke if he was cool with everything. He said absolutely and that he used to sip on Mountain Dew and vodka after long days of some of his scout backpack trips. We got a good laugh out of that.

No more was said from prude dad. I was ready if he did. Sure, I had a couple of cold brews - but we didn't do so in front of the kids. Nor did we get out of control. Meanwhile, he didn't want me to take a photo of him eating ICE CREAM because his wife would see him eating empty calories. Are you kidding me? I certainly realized I wasn't the one with the bigger issue.

Once all returned to Teeter's, everyone attempted to sleep in the hot, humid, windless conditions. My trick of using baby powder as I had in previous nights backfired. I didn't have sand to shed, but I thought another heavy dousing of powder might help cool me. Instead, the powder coagulated with my sweat. I felt like a big pile of self-rising biscuit dough as I laid in my crockpot of a tent.


Saturday, August 7, 2010

Sea kayaking entry 4: Burgers and Skeeters

Fourth in a series...

For those starting here but needing to backstroke to the beginning:
The crew rose at 6 AM, and we were on the water by 7AM to be greeted by a stunning sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean waters.


We stopped at a duck blind after a few miles to re-group and ensure all were together as a crew. Someone spotted a good-sized crab in the shallows. Right away, the crab took his defensive posture with open claws ready to snag anyone who came near him. One of our clown scouts came near him - and yes, he got snagged. He got a lesson - the rest of us got a laugh. Someone then had a good idea to lift the crab on a paddle where everyone could get a better look at him.


During the row, many kayakers were mesmerized by the dozens of pelicans who often flew in single-file groups of 3 or 4. They floated seemingly without effort and gracefully just inches above the water surface as they searched for a meal in the water. Also, a few scouts and their dads had the good fortune of having porpoises surface and swim right by their kayaks.

The main objective of the day was to row several miles back across the Pamlico Sound with crosswinds and beach for a rest on the U.S. mainland - or so all but one scout understood.

On Tuesday evening, the idea was discussed of stopping briefly at an island apparently known to locals as ... um ... uh... ahem ... Bird Shit Island. Our guides tried to clean up the name for the boys by calling it Bird Crap Island. As a compromise, we all agreed to call it BSI.

Once we began rowing, however, our guides realized the waters near BSI were very shallow. They suggested we stay in deeper waters, bypass the Island, and row hard to reach a beach area at mainland.

After a hard, extended row in crosswinds and choppy waters, we all landed at mainland. Well all but one. One of the scouts still thought we were stopping at BSI. He made it there first - only to realize no one else stopped!. One of our guides rallied a local man to use his boat to go search for him. It didn't take long to find him, and he returned to a hero's welcome by his fellow scouts. He was promptly nicknamed "Gilligan", and his kayak was re-christened as the SS Minnow.


Once he re-joined the group, we were ready to head for our Wednesday night stop. Our guide knew a local marina/ferry slip where we could camp. More important, he knew the marina had an air-conditioned diner! We paddled another mile or so to the ferry slip and beached our gear.

What an oasis the marina restaurant was! The place was air-conditioned, and we got a great meal of burgers, fries, and cold drinks. We drank the place out of iced tea and lemonade, and several scouts put a serious dent in the Mountain Dew inventory. Having a nice place to relax, eat a fun, hot meal, wash our hands in a legitimate bathroom, play cards and shoot some pool was a nice break from the hard 3 days up to that point.

The woman who ran the place told us her life story. She wanted a car when she turned 16. Instead, her dad gave her a shrimp boat and told her to earn a living so she could buy her own car. She told us about her ex. She told us about her teenage son who now has three boats of his own - a shrimper and two others for group fishing and duck hunting trips.

Because most of her customers are fishermen, shrimpers, or just boaters, we guessed she rarely got to tell the stories because everyone in that area has lived basically the same life. Having fresh ears in the restaurant was good for burger revenue and good for story telling.

The restaurant closed around 3:30 which left us several more hours to deal with the sun. Fortunately, the manager allowed us to hang out on the deck of the restaurant overlooking the sound. We were also allowed to pitch our tents on the knob of land between the restaurant and the ferry slip. The building also acted as a nice wind block so we could easily use our camp stoves to prepare dinner.

As relaxing as the afternoon and dusk were, things suddenly took a turn for the bizarre as soon as it got dark. Seemingly out of nowhere, swarms of mosquitoes immediately made their presence known. Folks were running around trying to avoid them, sprinting to the bathrooms and back to tents, SMACKing their hands inside and outside of tents, and shouting OUCH! GET OUT! STOP IT! WHERE'D THEY COME FROM? and QUICK-GET IN THE TENT!


There was absolutely no problem in ensuring everyone was quickly settled in their tent for the night. But the fun wasn't over. The last thing I saw as I zipped my tent was lots of lightning bolts to the west. They were headed our way.


Friday, August 6, 2010

Sea kayaking entry 3: On to fish camp

3rd in a series...

To catch up those who may just now be starting here:
The crew planned to rise at 5 AM on Tuesday and hit the water by 6 AM. However, a big thunderstorm served as our alarm clock in the early morning hours delaying our departure by about an hour. The tents took a pounding from the wind, sand, and rain - but they withstood all their challengers.

The crew quickly learned about multi-tasking: haul personal gear a couple of hundred yards back to the sound side, load it in the kayaks, dress in life jacket and spray skirt, and re-assemble paddles - all while trying to eat breakfast on the go with the occasional free hand.

We spent much of the day hopping from one duck blind to another up the sound to ensure everyone was doing OK and keeping up.

During one rest stop, I stepped out of my kayak in shallow water to drag it to marshy grasses. Almost immediately after exiting the boat, I sunk in silty muck up to my mid-calf. The muck decided it wanted my right sandal more than I did. The muck immediately snatched it off my foot and carried it below the murky waters. The sea bottom re-settled itself, and the shoe was never heard from again.

The armada paddled almost 10 more miles to land at Davis Ferry Fish Camp - including a row through a "shortcut". As it turns out, the waters in the shortcut were so shallow many scouts and adults had to tow their kayaks during a long stretch of it. The trip was a bit more scenic because of the twists and bends and the tall grasses, but it was strenuous to navigate.


Once again, we secured our kayaks on the sound side and hauled personal and crew gear several hundred yards to the beach side for another night of camping. The heat was searing, and the winds and sand were as bad or worse than the first day's stop. But... this stop had an unexpected and welcome addition - a bath house with showers! Everyone took at least one shower, some took a couple, and one of our scouts set the crew record with SIX SHOWERS in a 10 hour span.

The camp also had potable water. Just because it was potable, however, doesn't mean it was tasty. No one could quite put their finger on the taste, but almost all agreed it had a certain non-desirable "twang" taste to it. Because we needed fresh water to replenish our sources for the next day, everyone made the best of it. Many tried lemonade or fruit punch powder packets to help mask the taste.

Shelter to avoid the sun was at a premium. A few scouts and dads took turns hanging out on the porch of the shower house with two other troops kayaking near us. In addition, the screened-in porches of a couple of fish cabins were made available to us. This gave us relief not only from the direct heat but also from the incessant attack of green-headed biting flies.

The crew elected to prepare and serve dinner on the sound side under a small pavilion cover. Not only did it provide shelter, but much of the high winds and blowing sand were avoided as well. Our meatballs and pasta marinara dinner was superb.


A fellow dad and I made cups of coffee by experimenting with a couple of different, portable, brewing systems. Despite the heat, the hot cup of caffeinated joe tasted tremendous after a long 2 days without it.


One of the kids used beef jerky in a bag to catch some small fish. He and a couple of his buds then used the jerky to catch an eel about 10" long. While that slimy thing looked pretty nasty, it was pretty cool they were able to catch it. And here I thought you could only catch hypertension on beef jerky.

The boy and his old man - its crazy how fast he's growing up.

We watched the sun set on the western horizon of the sound side.


As the sun set, many of us once again powdered down in our tents to shed as much sand as possible. For me after two days of this ritual of using a ton of the stuff inside my tent, I began to feel like a white doughnut trapped in a cellophane bag!


Thursday, August 5, 2010

Sea kayaking entry 2: First day on the water

2nd in a series...

The hospitality shown by the church we stayed in Saturday night was raised another notch Sunday morning. Instead of eating a heat-lamp biscuit at yet another fast food restaurant, several scouts and leaders from the church's troop prepared a pancake breakfast for our crew – regular and blueberry pancakes, sausage, fresh fruit, milk, juice, and hot coffee. What a great send off for our crew as headed for Pamlico!

For reasons still unclear to me, we were unable to do our pre-arranged self-guided tour at USMC Camp LeJeune. A visitor desk woman pleasantly suggested we should have arranged our visit with public affairs. I told her we'd been directed to a coordinator for youth activities, got parking passes from her, secured mess hall privileges for 2 meals, and was told we could take a self-guided tour of the base.

Her response? "Umm, well we haven't offered maps for the self-guided tour since September 11, 2001." Yes - 9/11 - nine years have passed and apparently someone hasn't bothered to update what visitors can/can't see while on base. Oh well, I guess their hands have been full taking care of things in parts of the world I have no desire to visit much less defend.

Instead, we moved on to a moving, walking tour of USMC memorials near LeJeune. The stop included memorials for those lost in Vietnam, September 11 terrorist attacks, and the 1983 USMC barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon.

"The other wall"

And the poem for it.

A beam from the fallen World Trade Center in New York City


Names of the dead etched in glass at the Vietnam War Memorial.

One of our older scouts was clearly bored. He thought he was too cool for anything, slurped from his 2 liter of Mountain Dew, and ass-dragged in and out of the vans wherever we'd been the last 48 hours. Rather than appreciate the memorials or try to develop any level of comprehension for the sacrifices they represented, he instead bitched about the heat and his general boredom. He quipped as we re-loaded the vans: "So where do we have to go next to dilly-dally around?"

You ever had one of those conscience-crisis moments where you really want to backhand someone but know you'll have hell to pay if you do? So I took a slightly higher road, glared at him and retorted "Well I'm sorry you are so bored friend. Perhaps you should complain a bit louder so all these Marines can awake from their graves and fight a little bit harder for your freedom to utter such crap." He looked at me with his half-closed eyes and yet a fully-opened jaw. I think he got my point.

Our base parking passes allowed us to visit other nearby USMC bases. We stopped at Camp Geiger Marine Corps Air Station to see if they would allow us to look around. An MP in a visitor office told us we could drive around the base provided we didn't get out of our vans. Once we got back in the vans we realized we weren't sure which security gate to pass through (there were several). I put the van in park and walked towards a guard shack while wearing my scout uniform. A Marine exited his post and walked towards me at a quicker pace than I was approaching him. He had his M16 machine gun across his chest. My encounter with Booger in Clyde NC suddenly didn't seem so bad.

But he didn't shoot me, I lived to see another day, and we passed through security just fine. We got to see several Ospreys parked on the tarmac and stopped at the airstrip fire station where the attending Marines gave the scouts an overview of their equipment and procedures for fighting fires involving burning aircraft.

A couple of hours later, we arrived at Pamlico Seabase. We were shown our tents where we'd camp our first night and were assigned our boating gear – kayak, paddle, splash skirt, and dry bags. Within an hour, we were at water’s edge to learn kayaking basics. We paddled for approximately 90 minutes rowing together, rolling over, exiting the kayaks, and re-entering them.

Later in the evening, our troop gathered additional supplies: breakfast and lunch items for the days at sea, group meal supplies for evening dinners, cook gear, tents, stakes, and fresh water containers. Only the most nutritious ... Tasty offerings were available for breakfast and lunch - Pop-Tarts, Cheez-Its, Honey Buns, Slim Jims, etc.


After breakfast Monday morning, the scouts loaded the kayaks onto trailers and boarded vans for a 2 hour trip to put-in at Harkers Island at the Camp Lookout National Seashore.


Here is Tony - a member of the Pamlico staff, van-driving / kayak-hauling / head-banging madman, and dreadlock-grower extraordinaire. That's 10 years worth of dread growing folks.


Right before we launched, everyone took a chance for a final bathroom stop in the cleanest restrooms we'd find for the next five days. As we were making our way back to our gear, one scout - my son's best friend - wanted to tell me something. He stopped me to say his dad texted him telling me thanks for taking him on the trip. He said his dad also mentioned he had a six-pack of beer as a gift for me when we returned. The first comment humbled me. The second part provided a tangible goal for me to get through the week successfully.

The crew launched in a ferry slip at Harkers Island. We rowed about one mile to a shallow, muck-filled marsh for a lunch break of summer sausage, Ritz crackers, hunks of cheddar cheese, bags of Cheez-Its, and Nutter Butter cookies. Junk food never tasted so good it seemed.

We rowed another couple of miles to our first camp stop for the day - Pavilion. The boats were secured with rope and various knots to dock pilings on the Pamlico Sound side of the island, and everyone hauled their individual gear to the other side of the island facing the Atlantic Ocean.

The beach front winds were remarkable, and sand strafed everyone's arms, legs, back, and face.

Once camp was set, most scouts played in the surf for about 4 hours until it was time to prepare dinner. The winds and rip tide currents were remarkable. The kids hit the ocean and within a matter of about 10 minutes were carried 300-400 yards northward.

My son and another couple of scouts prepared a hot dinner of chicken and rice in two cook pots over small propane burners with metal shields to minimize the risk of the wind blowing out the flame of the burners. Other than unintentionally but unavoidable sand seasoning, the hot meal was fantastic.

The scouts were then introduced to a game called Crazy Stick. Each player raised an oar over their head, looked straight up, turned around quickly 20 times, dropped the oar in the sand, and then attempted to jump over it. One of our boys jumped; however, he jumped sideways and corkscrewed headfirst into the beach filling his hair with sand. Everyone roared.

Many others took their turn - some falling before 20 turns, some missing the oar, and some completing it successfully. In the back of my mind I was thinking: This clearly didn't originate as a scout game. It had all the makings of a freshman fraternity rush event played with prodigious amounts of beer.


As the sun set, everyone headed for their tents. I took Tony's advice and patted down with generous amounts of baby powder - something I hadn't used I'm guessing since my mother used it on me when my age was stated in months rather than years. The powder had the great quality of shedding sand from the day. It worked!


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Sea kayaking entry 1: the trip to NC

First in a series...

Today starts a series of blog entries recapping a sea kayaking scout trip I organized. Thirteen boy scouts (including my son) and five adults left for the coast of North Carolina for a 10-day trip on Friday, July 16. We were headed for Pamlico Seabase.

Leaving middle Tennessee, we had good driving weather…until. Monstrous thunderstorms greeted us as we hit the North Carolina state line. Rain was pounding as we approached the National Guard armory in Clyde, NC where we were scheduled to spend the night. The parking lot was full of cars. All doors were locked, however, and no one seemed to be in the armory. I left voice messages on every number I could reach but still no luck. We were in a tough spot - in the rain - 10:30 at night - 2 vans loaded with teenagers - without a planned alternate place to stay.

We drove to a local gas station to ask for suggestions. Employees were as nice as they could be (I love small towns). They suggested we try the local fire hall a few doors down and offered us a hot cup of coffee as we pondered our situation.

The hall was an unmanned volunteer department so a Plan C evolved. We found Clyde Municipal Building – home to city hall and the police department - another block or so down from the fire hall. Once again - and as expected I guess at 11:00 PM on a Friday night - no one was in the building.

My co-pilot in the van spotted the end of a cigarette on a porch behind city hall. The rain had begun to taper off a good bit, and he jogged over to talk to them. Turns out Chuck and Margaret were enjoying the evening with a cig and late night beer. They knew the police captain personally, called him on his cell phone, and then told stories about doing maintenance and repair work on the police department's vehicles.

Within a few minutes, Captain Mike arrived. After telling him our dilemma, he phoned the Clyde Chief of Police and received permission for us to stay in city hall.


Captain Mike had his K9 dog with him who answers to the name of “Booger”. He brought the dog into the room with the scouts where he wagged his tail, panted, and enjoyed everyone scratching behind his ears and patting his back.

The Captain then took him into the hall to show us how well trained he was. Booger is trained to respond to single word commands spoken in Dutch. With just a single word, Booger immediately was before me barking fiercely, snarling, and seemingly on the edge of ripping me to shreds. I tried to remain as calm and collected as a Ken doll. Inwardly, however, I was quivering and on the verge of forming a puddle around my shoes. I can't exactly remember, but its possible I may have even uttered "mommy!" under my breath.

One additional command and the intimidation was over. Immediately, Booger came to me, wagged his tail, pranced full of life, and wanted me to pet him once again. Captain Mike and Booger left us, and the crew settled in for the night. We had a long drive facing us Saturday.

The next morning I couldn't help but be amused by the mayor's name.

Luchenbach. Clyde. They're probably both about the same, right? Considering the thunderstorms we'd endured Friday night in the rolling Appalachian mountains of eastern North Carolina and looking at the name plate of the town's chief executive, Hill Country Rain by Jerry Jeff just seemed right.

Saturday brought a lot more road miles including a stop for a barbeque lunch at The Pit in Raleigh. The place was recommended to me a day or two before we left. I found the restaurant on Twitter, told them our crew size, and asked if they were ready. The manager soon tweeted back with "Yeah bring it on."

So we did. The service was great, and everyone enjoyed their meal – ribs, pulled pork, Carolina Q, turkey, etc. Our server told us he too was a scout when he was a teenager.


Our initial dinner plan for Saturday evening was to eat in the mess hall at Camp LeJeune US Marine Corps base. However, we arrived in Jacksonville, NC too late, too tired, and too full from lunch to go to the base. So we settled in at a local church, played a bit of frisbee, rested a bit in the A/C, unpacked gear, etc. A couple of hours, the kids who were then hungry again demolished a buffet of food at Golden Corral and earned hundreds of tickets on video games at Chuck E. Cheese.

Shortly after entering the GC, it was apparent the place was a popular Saturday night dining experience for many Marines. Suddenly, I noticed one wearing a Schaefer beer shirt! For those who read Bench Racing from the Volunteer State, my racing-themed blog, you know I'm a founding member of the Schaefer Racing Hall of Fame. I approached the Marine (mindful of my experience with Booger the night before) and told him I was proud of him - both for his service and for supporting Schaefer.

I clearly caught him off guard. This Marine who is trained to be a fighting machine wasn't quite sure how to react when I complimented him on the shirt. I asked him to sit tight for a moment so I could get my camera. A picture of a US Marine in a Schaefer shirt - it was as good as posted on my Bench Racing blog. By the time I got back though, he and his buds were already gone!

Not to worry. Life is lived in Plan B - we were reminded of that truism just 24 hours earlier. After dinner while the kids were racking up skee-ball tickets at the Mouse House, I made a trip to Wal-Mart for a couple of last minute supplies.

And there I found it. My own Schaefer shirt! God bless the United States Marine Corps. I'm so grateful for the protection and defense they provide. But when it comes to Schaefer swag, it was comforting to know I was in control of my own destiny.

Next: on to Pamlico and our first day on the water.