Friday, June 30, 2006

The Nebraska Navy

Everybody knows about Kentucky colonels (Sanders aside) ... but did you know that there's an imposing naval force within the heartland of the United States?

It's called the Nebraska Navy.

Why would a landlocked state need a navy, you ask? Because you never know when there will be a surprise incursion from Kansas. Kansas, you ask? Oh, they seem really friendly in Kansas, and like the U.S. and Canada, Nebraska and Kansas have a broad, unprotected border and a history of friendly relations, but these days it never hurts to be prepared. I'm sure that the Cornhusker State got its fair share of Homeland Security dollars to bolster the navy's defenses.

Like any government entity, however, the Nebraska Navy apparently is not immune to political maneuvering and patronage. It has more admirals per sailor than any other naval fleet on the planet Earth. Reportedly, it has become a gubernatorial tradition to grant admiralship to any just about Nebraskan who asks.

By the way, the Nebraska Navy should not be confused with the Cornfield Cruiser, or the USS Rancocas, which protects the farmland of southern New Jersey. That's a totally different story.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Cat Man

I used to work in the headquarters of an electric company, and when I first started working there, a co-worker told me about an employee who dressed up like Rum-Tug-Tugger from "Cats" for every employee event. I thought she was pulling my leg... but then I saw the Cat. It was Christmas Eve, the day that employees traditionally bring their kids to the office and put work aside for some holiday cameraderie. There was Leon, in the lobby, resplendent in his threadbare tights and fur that had seen better days, welcoming employees' children to the building. More than one kid shrank behind his/her parent's back, and I'm sure a few had nightmares about the pot-bellied, six foot feline who meowed at them and pawed at the air.

I never actually saw Leon without his costume and makeup on, but I did have one unfortunate encounter with him at a company-sponsored event. He sidled up to me and asked if I had a cat. I said no, but I'd been thinking about it. Bad move -- he replied, "Well, put a saucer of milk out on your doorstep, and maybe I'll stop by."

A few years later, after I left the company, "Cats" closed on Broadway and I heard that they were having a charity sale of all of the costumes and props. Somehow I had suspicions, and when I read the New York Times the next day, I found a picture of Leon, in costume, shopping for new fur among the used cast materials. He was quoted, "Sometimes you're having a bad day, you put on your fur and whiskers, and things turn for the better."

When you think about it, it's a shame Leon worked in the headquarters of the electric company. With his feline skills, he'd probably serve the company better working in the field and climbing poles.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Mystery Door

I live in an old building. It was built in 1940, on an old estate, with a beautiful English garden courtyard. After a two year wait, I finally got to the top of a list for a garage. The building has about 40 individual garages, all located on the ground floor around the outer perimeter of the building.

When I first opened my garage, I found that there's a door on the wall opposite the garage door. It's an old metal door, with trim and one of those big keyholes you can squint through. Hoping it was extra storage, I tried the doorknob; it was locked. Mystery!

Of course, I couldn't just let it be. My first theory was that the door originally led to an interior basement hallway leading to the building, so that you wouldn't have to walk outside after parking in the garage. I figured that at some point, they'd locked all the doors and walled them off to create more storage areas for all of the residents. But when I looked at the building floor plans I got when I moved in, I couldn't find a hallway. Then again, the floor plans were copied and copied and copied until they were very faint when I got them.

The other day, when I came into the garage to get the car out for work, I noticed a glimmer of light coming through the keyhole. Hearing that spooky slasher movie music in my head, I approached the door and bent down to peer through the keyhole. All I could see was a well-lit, painted cinderblock wall about six feet away, with a bundle of cables running along it about three feet above the floor.

That light has been on for a couple of days now. Maybe there's someone back there, pushing a button every 108 minutes to keep the world from ending. On the other hand, maybe it's Dick Cheney's undisclosed location. Or there's someone (probably Dick Cheney) on the other side, waiting to jab a sharp stick in my eye if I get too close.

I am considering buying a skeleton key (do those things work?) to see if I can get the door open. Of course, I could always just ask building management, but that wouldn't be any fun, would it?

Any idea what's behind the door? I'm kind of afraid to find out, but I'm also dying of curiosity. I guess if I disappear, you'll know where to send the police.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The northern New Jersey town of Edgewater has an interesting distinction: one of its neighborhoods is inhabited by a flock of monk parrots.

The jury is out on how exactly they got there -- the popular story is that they escaped from an incoming cargo shipment at Newark Airport. However, there's a similar story about a flock in Queens and JFK Airport, so who knows.

Every once in a while, the Edgewater parrots get evicted from their homes. You see, they tend to build huge nests of branches and twigs on or next to power transformers; the pole-top equipment provides a warm place for them. They raise the danger of creating outages, so the local utility, with the assistance of NJ Fish and Wildlife, breaks down the nests and makes the transformers safe again.

Despite the fact that the entire neighborhood could lose power -- and the nests could go up in flames -- if this work wasn't done, the neighbors complain when the birds are evicted. On the other hand, one or two local people have exploited the situation by catching the birds and attempting to sell them to exotic bird dealers. Monk parrots are protected by law, so the poachers generally are arrested and fined. (The utility and Fish & Wildlife don't harm the birds.)

The monk parrots don't seem to mind the eviction, as much as they might squawk about it. Undeterred, they return to rebuild their nests as soon as the coast is clear.

A quick utility joke: Why do transformers hum? Because they don't know the words.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Here's the shell pile at Shellpile. Or at least one of them. Shellpile, New Jersey, is part of Commercial Township in Gloucester County, as are Port Norris and Bivalve. Yes, there is not only a Shellpile, there's a Bivalve, both named for the oyster harvesting and processing industry that brought the towns to life back in the 19th century.

Now, the shellpile isn't as big as it once was. These communities are virtual ghost towns, since the bivalve disease MSX decimated the oyster industry in the Delaware Bay back in the 50's and 60's. As you see, there are still bivalves to be had, but they are carted in from other places and just processed there. The oyster industry is also coming back as the Bay gets healthier and healthier, though I'm hearing now that DuPont wants to dump some sort of previously-noxious chemical several miles out in the bay. As we know, nothing is ever "previously noxious." If it were, the corporate decision makers wouldn't mind having it in their own back yards.