Wednesday, December 4, 2013

DC Gouge: Antietam Luminaries

Hey folks, Once a year in December, the National Park Service puts luminaries out across the Antietam National Battlefield - one luminary for each of the 23,000 soldiers killed at the battle. You stay in your car and just drive the tour route through the battlefield. It's happening this Saturday, 7 December. You can find out more information at the National Park Service website: http://www.nps.gov/anti/planyourvisit/luminary.htm

Friday, November 29, 2013

Cold Weather Gear

Happy Black Friday everyone!

Since it's shopping season and since it's 28 degrees outside and there's ice forming on the pond behind our house, I'll tell you about the cold weather gear I used for the past two years driving in and out of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Granted, being on the bridge of a submarine presents a unique set of circumstances - namely being stationary and exposed to the elements for several hours.  Someone on the bridge of some other type of surface ship would presumably be able to step inside the pilot house to get shelter from the wind, rain, and snow.  Other people who brave the cold for recreational activities like skiing tend to be physically active and generate extra body heat in the process, and they can always take a break and step inside the ski lodge for some coffee or hot cocoa.  When you sit or stand in one place on top of the submarine, you aren't doing any exertion to generate body heat, and there's no place to go for shelter.

Before going into the gear I've been using, I should offer a disclaimer on uniform regulations.  There are some differing opinions from one boat to the next, or rather from one CO and COB to the next, on what is allowed to be worn by personnel topside when getting the boat underway and returning to port.  During my JO tour on USS PROVIDENCE operating out of Groton, Connecticut, we absolutely needed good cold weather gear topside and on the bridge, and the Navy didn't sell uniform components that would adequately protect us.  The philosophy on the boat was go buy yourself some good cold weather gear (more specifically - to protect your hands and face) and as long as it's solid black or navy blue, nobody would have a problem with it not being an official part of "the uniform."  That philosophy made sense to me and has stuck with me ever since, much to the chagrin of some of my later COBs who were more insistent on not allowing guys topside to wear anything that wasn't 100% in compliance with the uniform regs.  (Sorry, COBs, no offense intended!)

Headsok

Soon after I reported aboard USS PROVIDENCE, one of the other JOs told me to go to the mall and find the kiosk where they sell headsokz.  It was absolutely essential being on an SSN operating out of Groton.  We drove in and out frequently enough that I had many opportunities either as a topside supervisor or as an OOD on the bridge to put it to use.  It was money very well spent.  Even during my department head tour out of SAN DIEGO, I was very glad I had my headsok and gloves from my JO tour in my locker for port calls in Bangor and Esquimalt and an unexpected surfacing near the Aleutian Islands.  As an XO, I used it supervising linehandlers topside getting the ship underway.  As a CO, I've used it every underway and return to port in Bangor.  Even returning to port in June last year, it was 50 degrees, howling wind and hailing as we drove down the Hood Canal.

Goggles

Initially I used ski goggles, but most ski goggles have some sort of shading like sunglasses to protect from the glare off the snow.  It's almost always overcast in the Pacific Northwest and there's no blanket of snow on the water to reflect the ambient light under the overcast.  I found that I needed something to shield my eyes from the wind, rain, hail, and snow, but I didn't like the light loss with the ski goggles.  I wanted clear lenses.  I tried a few models of ski goggles with clear lenses, but I just didn't like any of them.

Then it occurred to me... I said to myself, "Self, you probably need to check a store that sells motorcycle stuff."  Sure enough!  I stopped at the Harley Davidson shop on my way home one day and found exactly what I was looking for.  However, I also suspected they had a pretty high mark-up given the name brand of the store.  The goggles I wanted were $26 at the store, so I came home and searched for them on Amazon.

$6!  Cha-ching!  Cha-ching!  SCORE!  Now that I go back and look at them again, I see they raised the price, but it's still better than what they wanted at the HD store.  These goggles worked GREAT.  I wish I had thought of motorcycle riding goggles instead of ski goggles sooner so I could have used them from the outset.





Gloves

There are a ton of different styles of cold weather gloves out there.  I ended up making a spreadsheet to compare the thickness of insulation, the type of insulation, the cost, etc.  In the end, I bought the Outdoor Research Remote gloves.  They were pretty expensive, but I found them to be worth the money.  (Aside - the price has come down considerably since I purchased them.)  They have the most insulation and are rated for the coldest temperatures, but they use the Primaloft insulation (more insulating for less thickness, but also more expensive).  Now, they might be too warm for doing any sort of winter sports or outdoor activities where you're moving around and generating more body heat.  However, sitting-still on top of a submarine I found my hands quickly got numb from the cold, and I needed the extra insulation. These gloves did a great job.

If you were shopping around for some good gloves, here are some other features I liked about these gloves that I would recommend looking for:

Idiot Straps.  You fasten the "idiot straps" to your wrists so when you take your gloves off your hands, you don't drop or lose the gloves.  They will dangle from these strap fastened to your wrists.

Loops.  The big nylon-strap loops at the back of the glove make it a lot easier to pull the gloves on in the cold.

Easy-to-operate cinching cords.  The Outdoor Research gloves have a pretty clever system that makes it so you can very easily cinch or uncinch the wrists of your gloves.  Pull the plastic tab on one side, and it cinches them tight.  Pull the plastic tab on the other side, and it uncinches them.

Nose-wipe.  It might sound gross, but I was VERY glad to have this.  Yes, ideally, you would pull a tissue out of your pocket and blow your nose into a tissue.  There are those times when your face is uncovered and your nose starts to run, and you don't have time to dig a tissue out of your pocket before the snot goes rolling down your lip.  This soft material on the back of the thumb is perfectly positioned to do a quick swipe under your nose.



Heat Packs

These sure made the long hours on the bridge more bearable.  There are a dozen brands and sizes to choose from if you search for them online.  The ones I've linked to below aren't particularly noteworthy as being any better than the rest, so shop around and find the best deal.  I just included the link below as an example of what I am trying to describe.

These are very handy little pocket warmers though.  I found they make some for feet that have a peel-away sticky pad to keep them stuck in one place inside your boots.  My toes tended to get really numb after hours in the cold, but I found putting some of these warmers in my boots helped tremendously.  I also put one in each palm of my hand inside my gloves, and it made the surface transit much more comfortable. 




Now if I could just find what the movers did with my cold weather gear...

Mass Transit Benefits go DOWN in January

Heads-Up!

http://www.wmata.com/fares/smartrip/
One of the nice things about working for the federal government in the DC area is they pay you to use mass transit, and they automatically deposit it to your Metro SmarTrip Card each month.


If you're using the National Capital Region (NCR) Mass Transit Benefit Program (MTBP), then plan to pay more money out of your pocket since the benefits go DOWN in January.

One of my coworkers received this email warning from MTBP.  I'm not sure why I didn't receive it since I normally get the MTBP announcement emails, but here it is:

NOTICE: The maximum monthly statutory limit for transit benefits is set to decrease from $245 to $130 in 2014

Attention MTBP participants,

WHAT?
In January 2013, the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (H.R.8) temporarily raised the transit benefit statutory limit to $245 per month. This new amount was not intended to be permanent and expires at the end of 2013.

Unless a new statutory limit is approved by Congress, the statutory limit will decrease to $130 per month starting January 1, 2014. Source: IRS Revenue Procedures (rp-13-35)

Congress may still act to extend the limit above $130, but at this time agencies must proceed with what the law states as the maximum tax exempt mass transit subsidy limit. Any updates will be posted at the MTBP website ( http://www.whs.mil/MTBP/ )

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Ahh, Autumn... and Beer

Updated 29 Nov 2013

I'm so glad to be back on the East Coast an changing seasons.  My favorite season is autumn.  I love the crispness in the air, the trees changing color, and all the awesome butternut squash dishes at local restaurants.  I also love the ales of the season, and being close to Wegman's!

Back in Silverdale, if I wanted to try an assortment of new pumpkin ales, I would have to buy a six-pack of each.  Some were pretty nasty, and I poured out several bottles.

Here at Wegman's (awesomest grocery store on the planet!), you can mix-and-match your own six packs, and they have quite a wide variety of pumpkin ales to try.

Of course, if you happen to be in the Northern Virginia area, then I HIGHLY recommend going to Sweetwater Tavern both for their extraordinarily good food AND for their AWESOME pumpkin ale in the fall.  Take a growler to go! 

To help out those of you who AREN'T so conveniently located next to Sweetwater Tavern or a Wegman's, and in order to prevent you from having to buy whole six-packs of what might later get poured down the sink, here's my votes for the pumpkin ales on a thumbs-up / meh-so-so / thumbs-down rating scale.  I still have three more in the fridge to try, so I'll come back and add them to the list later, but for those of you who may be headed to the store soon and are looking for recommendations, here's what I've tried so far (listed in order from good to not-so-good):

New Holland Brewery's Ichabod - Two Thumbs-UP, still my favorite pumpkin ale.  Strong, bold and balanced flavor.  No weird initial or aftertastes.  I anxiously await its arrival on the shelves at Wegman's. 








Dogfish Head Punkin Ale - Thumb$ Up.  Quality and taste were very good - on-par with my favorite Ichabod listed above, but pricey.  It's very good if you don't mind spending the money on 4 bottles instead of a six-pack.

Sam Adams Harvest Pumpkin Ale - Thumbs-UP.  Sam Adams never disappoints with their seasonal ales.  Good flavor, not too strong, very enjoyable.








 
Red Hook Pumpkin Porter - Thumbs-UP.  Very tasty.  Didn't taste very much like pumpkin, but I still enjoyed it.  I'd buy it again.









Devil's Backbone Ichabod - Thumbs-UP.  Like the Red Hook, it didn't have a strong pumpkin flavor, but it was still very enjoyable.  I'd buy it again.








Traveler Jack-O Shandy - Thumbs-UP.  Added 13 Oct 2013, I liked this one a lot.  It was light and crisp, with a good balance between the lemon peel and pumpkin flavors.  There weren't any strong perfumy or heavy-spice flavors.  There weren't any detectable hops flavors either.  I bought this one as a mixed-up six-pack from Wegmans, but I enjoyed it enough that I went back and bought another full six-pack of this.

Saranac Pumpkin Ale - Thumbs-UP.  Flavor was good, although it did leave a slight after-taste.  I wouldn't turn away a bottle if offered, but if going to buy a six-pack for home, I'd look for one of the others listed above.








Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale - Thumbs-UP.  Added 13 Oct 2013.  The flavor in this one was pretty strong.  If you're not a pumpkin ale fan, then I would steer clear of this one.  It wasn't overpoweringly perfumy or spice-flavored, so I actually enjoyed it and finished the bottle.  Not much hops either.  Like the Saranac above, I wouldn't turn away a bottle if offered, and if you're picking out a mixed-up six-pack at someplace like Wegman's, then I'd include this in your sampler six pack.  Given how strong the flavor is, I'd be cautious about buying a full six-pack if you haven't tried it first.


 
Southern Tier - Imperial Pumpking Ale - Thumbs-Up.  Added 7 Nov 2013.  Very strong, nutty flavor, but not perfumy like some of the others.  Like the Weyerbacher, if you're not a pumpkin ale fan, then I would steer clear of this one.  Very light on the hops / not a strong hoppy flavor.  I enjoyed it though and finished the bottle.  It has a pretty high alcohol content - 8.9% by volume. 
Post Road Pumpkin Ale - Tough call.  Heavy hops, and I'm not a big fan of hoppy-beers.  If you like hops, you should probably give this a try.  As for me, I won't be going back for this one.  Also, flavor was better when I first opened the bottle.  As I got toward the bottom of the bottle, the taste of the pumpkin spices got pretty strong.  






Blue Moon Harvest Moon Pumpkin Ale - well...  not so much.  Although it has a picture of a pumpkin on the label and says "pumpkin" in small letters under the BIG "HARVEST MOON" label, there's no detectable taste of pumpkin here.  Now, that being said, it was a pretty tasty, standard Oktoberfest type of beer, so I listed it here above some of the "meh" rated beers with weird tastes.





Harpoon's Pumpkin UFO (unfiltered offering) -  Meh.  It was okay.  I finished the bottle at least, but tasted pretty perfumy.  Given the choice of other pumpkin ales on the shelf, I'd skip probably skip this one.
Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale.  Meh.  Fairly light in body. Definitely pumpkin flavored. Tasted a little weird but nothing I could put my finger on. Not something I'd rave about or buy again.



 




New Belgium Pump-Kick.  Meh.  Odd flavor.  It says something about pumpkin and cranberry on the label.  I finished the bottle, but I won't be going back for any more of this one.




 

Shipyard Pumpkinhead - Yech!  Thumbs-DOWN.  It has an amaretto taste to it, and I HATE amaretto.  That being said, if YOU like amaretto, then you might want to give it a try.








Elysian Night Owl Pumpkin Ale - Yech!  Thumbs-DOWN.  Waaaaay too perfumy and overpowering strong flavors.  I couldn't take more than a couple of sips.  Poured the rest of the bottle down the sink.  Poured the rest of the six-pack down the drain, too. 

Shock Top Pumpkin Wheat - Yech!  Thumbs-DOWN.  Similar to the Elysian - too perfumy and very strong flavor.  I did manage to finish about half a bottle of this before I gave up.  I poured the rest of the six pack down the drain. 

Jacques Au Lantern - Blech!  Thumbs-DOWN.  After one sip of this, I poured the rest of the bottle down the kitchen sink.  Like the Elysian and Shock Top - very perfumy and STRONG flavor.


Friday, September 13, 2013

DC Events and Pentagon Gouge Update


Here are a few upcoming events for the National Capital Region and some gouge on the uniform shop and ITT down below:

9/14 - Saturday (tomorrow!) - Dulles Day Plane Pull.  This is a FREE event and has lots of planes and helicopters on display, and you can watch the teams competing to pull a jumbo jet across the tarmac.  I first took my kids when they were like 5 and 3 years old, and we had a great time.  This year there's going to be a Sea Harrier doing a vertical landing and take-off - click the link for the map and the schedule.

9/20-9/22 - Friday-Sunday - DC Car Free DayS!  So, it used to be DC Car Free DAY (singular), and everyone who signed up agreed to not use or minimize use of their car.  Now they've expanded it to one weekday and a full weekend.  I'll at least do the Friday, not so sure about the weekend.

10/7 - Monday - Naval District Washington seasonal uniform shift to BLUES.

Navy Uniform Shop.  Speaking of uniforms, I just discovered that the old Navy Annex is GONE, flat, bulldozed, non-existent.  I asked around what happened to the uniform shop.  They've actually put the NAVY uniform shop in a trailer just inside the gate to Henderson Hall, and it's pretty darn convenient.  It used to be you had to fight for parking, walk all the way up to go through security to get into the Navy Annex, then go exploring waaaaaay down into the farthest reaches of the Navy Annex basement to get to the uniform shop.  Now, there's parking right smack in front of this stand-alone trailer, and no security to get through (other than showing your ID at the gate to Henderson Hall).

ITT.  Looking to buy tickets for something?  There are ITT offices at the Marine Corps Exchange, right next to the package store, and there is one at the Washington Navy Yard (WNY) inside where the food court is (across the street / behind Naval Reactors).  There is an Air Force ITT in the Pentagon on the 5th Deck, E-Ring...  It's over amongst all the cool Air Force paintings.  I think that's somewhere in the 9th to 10th corridor area.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Update on Pentagon Tours

This is an update to my previous post on Pentagon Tours.

Most hallways of the Pentagon have some sort of historic or current operations museum-type of exhibit.  Many of the A-ring hallways are museums in and of themselves.  Me being the type of person who likes to read each and every word of every display in a museum, it would take me a loooooooong time to get through all the Pentagon exhibits have to offer.

The official Pentagon tours are excellent, but you have to sign up weeks in advance, and they are only offered Monday through Friday.  Given there are about 25,000 people working in the Pentagon, chances are there are a few more people out there like me who want to give a tour to visiting family and friends on a weekend.  If you need to give a tour yourself, you can download a PDF of a self-guided tour from the Pentagon Tours website.

However, the official tour route doesn't go to a couple of spots I highly recommend like the Pentagon Building History (2nd corridor, 3rd floor) and the Army's Living History Exhibit (2nd floor, E-Ring between the 6th and 7th corridors).  Because the Metro entrance is closed on the weekends, you have to bring your weekend visitors in through North Parking or through the 2nd Corridor entrance.  As a result, I made my own tour-route, which I will list below for anybody else who is interested.

Before I describe the tour route, I want to tell you about two other things I did (and recommend doing) to prepare for a weekend tour.

First, go follow one of the official tour groups around on a weekday.  You don't have to sign up or anything - you've got a Pentagon badge, just loiter at the back of the official tour group.  The tour guides have a fairly set script they follow, but they have a LOT of interesting tidbits of information they use to keep people's interest as they walk their route, and they've put a lot of thought and effort into what sequence to cover what.  You will get a lot of useful ideas of things to talk about with your tour group that you wouldn't get from just reading the PDF file Self-Guided Tour brochure.

Second, I made a scavenger hunt list of things for the five kids in my tour group to find.  I told them they had to write down the first three digits of the nearest office address (like "3A5xx" for the 3rd floor A ring 5th corridor) for where they found each item, so I knew they really found it and didn't just cross it off the list. 
Scavenger Hunt List
Aside:  The hardest one for my group to find was a red lightning bolt.  If you need help finding anything on the list, send me an email.  There are at least two red lightning bolts, but they're very small and hidden in big paintings.

Since the Pentagon Gift Shop is also CLOSED on the weekends, I went to the gift shop ahead of time and got some little things like hats, magnets, stickers, or pins.  When we finished with the D-Day paintings, I had them turn in their scavenger hunt sheets to me, and I gave them an oral quiz on some facts about the Pentagon to see what they had learned.  In return for completing the scavenger hunt and passing "the quiz," I gave them each a "prize" (one of the things I had picked up in the Pentagon gift shop earlier that week).  From there, we headed back to the 2nd corridor entrance to go back out to South Parking.

In order to help plan my route and to be able to find specific exhibits quickly, I made my own map of the exhibits in each hallway.  I have NOT finished mapping it all yet, but I have all the A-ring hallways mapped plus a few of the interesting corridors and the Army Living History exhibit.

Click on image to enlarge.

Blunoz's Weekend Pentagon Tour Route
Given those constraints, I came up with my own tour path that went like this:
- Parked in South Parking, visited the Pentagon Memorial
- Enter 2nd Corridor Entrance (use restrooms there if necessary depending on how long your drive to the Pentagon was or how long you were at the Pentagon Memorial).
- Take elevator or stairs up to 3rd floor (remember - escalators are turned off on weekends)
- Pentagon Building History exhibit (3rd floor, 2nd corridor).  I put together some notes to talk about the history of how the Pentagon got its shape and comparing its size to other things.  I am happy to email you the powerpoint slides I made, just send me an email.
- At A-ring, turn right into NORAD hallway and go up escalator (walking up them like stairs) to 4th floor.
- USAF Aces exhibit (4th floor, A-ring between 1st and 10th corridor)
- USAF History and models (4th floor, A-ring between 9th and 8th corridor)
- U.S. Coast Guard history (4th floor, A-ring first half of hallway between 7th and 6th corridor)
- Naval Aviation history (4th floor, A-ring second half of hallway between 7th and 6th corridor)
- Down the stairs to 3rd floor.  Here at the 5-6 Apex you can take a side excursion down the POW/MIA hallway (3rd floor, A-ring from 6th to 7th corridor) and then back again, or continue onward.
- MacArthur exhibit (3rd floor, A-ring between 5th and 4th corridor)
- Down the stairs to the 2nd floor.
- Soldier Signers of the Declaration of Independence (2nd floor, 4th corridor)
- Out at the E-Ring, take the stairs or elevator down to the 1st floor.
- 9-11 Memorial Chapel (end of 4th corridor on 1st floor)
- 9-11 Memorial Quilts (1st floor, 4th corridor) back to the A-ring then left into
- Eisenhower Exhibit (1st floor, A-ring from 4th to 5th corridor).
- Women in the Military exhibit (1st floor, A-ring from 6th to 7th corridor)
- Up the stairs to the 2nd floor.
- Go out the 7th corridor to the E-ring.
- Army Living History Exhibit (2nd floor, E-ring from 7th to 6th corridor)
- Continue along the E-ring past the 6th corridor to see something pretty cool.  You can't miss it.
- Turn around, go back to the 6th corridor and out to the A-ring 
- Disaster Relief Exhibit (2nd floor, A-ring from 6th to 7th corridor)
- ANZUS exhibit (2nd floor, A-ring from 8th to 9th corridor)
- Out the 10th corridor and make a U-turn to the left by the Hall of Heroes in order to see the D-Day Paintings in the ramp going up to the 3rd floor.  

So you COULD take the route recommended in the Pentagon Self-Guided Tour brochure, and it would be shorter.  You COULD take the route I developed and listed above that'll go to more of the exhibits.  Or, you COULD make up your own route using my map up above.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Tubing on the Shenandoah River

Friends at my church asked me to organize another tubing trip on the Shenandoah River like I did back in 2009.  We went with River Riders again in Harpers Ferry.  They were VERY busy, but they have a large staff that has been doing this for a while and somehow manage to get everybody through in a pretty well-orchestrated and efficient manner.  For anyone else trying to organize this as a group activity, River Riders has put together a very useful group-leader packet with all their gouge and recommendations how to make things go smoothly.

.
It was a gorgeous, sunny day.  
75F air temp, 77F water temp.

I used my last blog post as a guide for what to expect.  This time we brought lunches with us to put in the cooler tubes.  River Riders advertises that they have tubes to rent that will carry a cooler to bring lunch and refreshments with you on the river.  I emailed them a couple of times asking for the size of the cooler, but they didn't respond.  At the River Riders compound, you have to pay for the cooler tube rental, but they didn't have one there to actually SEE how big it was or how many we would need for our small coolers.  So for anybody else heading out to River Riders, here's how big the cooler tubes are:

Note, they have a large and a small cooler tube, but both cost the same price to rent.  I recommend chipping in and getting the large tube and sharing.

River Riders upgraded their standard tubes.  The new tubes have a built-in cup-holder.  I liked that, although the cup holder wasn't big enough for a Camelbak bottle.

In addition to bringing a few footballs and tennis balls to toss back and forth on the water, we also brought along some water cannons.  I told the group if they brought water guns, they had to FLOAT because I didn't want someone dropping their toy plastic water gun in the river, then it sinks and becomes a piece of trash in the river. 

So we brought a few of the water cannons made out of those foam noodles.  They shoot pretty far, and they float if you drop them.

Our trip went a lot quicker this time than it did last time.  Last time, we had a 10:30 reservation, we got on the water at 12:10, got off the water at 1:30, waited for the bus back to River Riders, and got back to River Riders after 2 p.m.  This time, we had the same 10:30 reservation, but we got on the water at 11:30 and got off the water at 12:30.  So the operation at River Riders was a little more efficient and the river was moving a little faster - 1 hour instead of 1 hour 20 minutes. 

We could have gotten on the water even sooner if I had been on-the-ball about the liability forms.  When I handed them our liability forms, they audited the stack and found several where the second page hadn't been initialed, or a birthdate was missing, or the child hadn't signed (even though the adult had signed).  Next time, I will make more of an effort to get the liability waivers filled out in advance, and I will audit them to make sure EVERY blank is filled in before I try to turn them in. 

Also, I had two people who emailed me they were coming, but I didn't have a phone number for them, so we waited for them to show up.  Next time, I'm going to make sure I have a phone number for everybody who signed up, so if someone doesn't show, I can call and find out where they are or if they weren't going to make it.  

If I had done those two things above, then we would have gotten on the water another 30 minutes sooner (at 11 instead of 11:30).

Last time we didn't bring food with us, so we were forced to go back to River Riders because we were starving.  This time, we brought our lunches, so we could easily have gone back and gone down the river again.

Overall though, it was another fun and relaxing float trip down the Shenandoah River.  I hope we get to do this again next summer.