A week in Belgium

Two days ago, I flew home from a week-long business trip to Belgium.  Today, it’s 2:00 AM, and I’m wide awake listening to a thunderstorm pass by and eating a piece of chocolate I purchased while on the other side of the Atlantic.  Jet Lag sucks!

While I was in Belgium to work, we did have a few opportunities to see the sights, including on the 30 minute drive from where we were staying out in the country to where the meetings were being held .  The Belgian countryside is beautiful.  Even though it was February and below freezing most of the time, the grass was thick and green — unlike here where the grass all dies and turns brown at the first frost.   The towns we drove through all were charming little hamlets with cobblestone streets, narrow roads, and plenty of of personality.

The streets of Mons, Belgium about 10:00 Friday Morning

Dining was a challenge on this trip.  Just about every place that served food closed between 2:00 and 6:30 or so, only seated a handful of people, and expected/required that you essentially spend the whole evening there since it would take at least an hour to get your food, and they wouldn’t come by with the check until you had digested your food for another hour.  Over-all, I was under-impressed with the much renowned fine dining.  It might have been better if it had been less expensive and I had spoken French.  Since most of the waiters didn’t speak any more English than I did French, we ended up playing menu roulette.  A few of the results were quite disappointing.

Among the stranger things we did was stop at a “Tex-Mex” restaurant that was on the road to Mons (the nearest “town” of any sort).   I will admit it was more out of morbid curiosity than any real desire to eat the food.  These low expectations proved to be a good thing.  Had I gone there expecting good food or Texas-style service, I would have been sadly disappointed.  In appearances, the food nominally looked at least something like it should, but that is where the semblance ended.    The chips were stale, salsa more like ketchup than anything you’d find here in Texas, the guacamole probably had more food coloring than avocado, the cheese wasn’t even close to the right kind, the meat was from the wrong cut, there was only a small pile fancy curly greens instead of lettuce,  there were about a million onions with just one or two slices of bell pepper (completely raw), British-style fried tomatoes for “garnish”, and to top it all off, whatever they used to season it, it wasn’t even close to anything you’d find near the US-Mexico border.  The sour cream was about the only part of the meal that tasted like what I get here at home.

“Fajitas” at a Belgian Tex-Mex restaurant. My travelling companion and I decided we would have to host the next round of meetings to teach them what real Tex-Mex tastes like.

Other than the scenery along the commute, we didn’t have much time programmed in for sight-seeing, but fortunately, we were able to wrap up the meetings a day early and spend Friday sight-seeing.  My traveling companion and I decided we’d spend it looking at downtown Mons and driving down through the Ardennes to Bastogne.   After hitting a few museums and wandering the market district, we came to the conclusion that we’d need a few more days to see what there was in that town.  It was rather neat, and my favorite part of the whole trip.

The cathedral at Bastogne. The national museum for the Battle of Bastogne (part of the Battle of the Bulge) is across the street behind where I was standing to take this picture.
One of my favorite displays from the museum. For those who don’t speak German, the banknotes visible are DM 100,000,000,000.00, and DM 500,000,000,000.00. How’s that for inflation…

The last thing we did before heading back to Brussels for the flight home the next morning was to drive by Waterloo.  By the time we got there, the museums were closing so all we could do was look at the “Lion’s Mound” built by the Belgians to commemorate the battle that took place there.  I’d like to go back and spend more time there at some point.

The Lion’s Mound at sunset. The mound was built by hand using earth dug up from the revetments and other earthworks. The figure atop the mound is a huge bronze-cast lion.

Storytime: VICA Nationals

As with any of my stories based in reality, it is true and accurate only to the extent that my memory is correct.  This is an account of things as I remember them.

Vica Nationals

When I was in High School, I had a rather patient, kind, and understanding electronics teacher named Ralph Dammann who went out of his way to give me opportunities to explore that subject and “color outside the lines” that conventional educational programs draw.  He allowed me to skip other classes to work on projects, supported me as I cooked up various new things, and was generally an excellent mentor and facilitator. Under his watchful eye, I worked on a wide variety of projects that ranged from assembling kits that made lights sequence or goofy buzzing noises to designing and building custom circuit boards and electronic “toys” that did fun things like jam television signals, shock unsuspecting victims, trigger an alarm if a sink flooded, and other things like that.

Mr Dammann and his beautiful bride at the VICA Nationals closing ceremonies. I owe that man more than he can ever know.

As an example of the kind of things I ended up dong, my school had an annual Christmas tree decorating contest.  The wood-shop and electronics teachers decided they were tired of letting the home-economics classes have all the glory and recruited a few of us to “decorate” a tree that would stand out in a crowd.  We decided to build a “tree” out of a helical spiraling tower of lights and set them up on a sequencer to run in various patterns.  The wood-shop built the frame, a bunch of us built the light balls (Christmas lights stuck through the back of small plastic cups, and the cups glued together to form balls), and I designed and built the sequencer.

Me standing next to the first “Christmas Tree” the shop-classes built. I built the sequencer that would flash the light-balls in a variety of patterns.

We won the voting hands-down.  In fact, after two years of wiping out the competition, the rules were changed to require a real tree.  As a result, my brother and his cohorts were forced to integrate a small Charley Brown style tree into the display they built.  In the end, modified rules only made people more creative and the shop classes still won…

As a result of Mr Dammann’s efforts, I became rather adept at working with electronics and was invited to participate in an annual state-wide electronics competition sponsored by the Vocational Industrial Clubs of America (VICA) my Junior year in High School.  With no idea what I was doing, I entered the competition and won the state championship.   I was off to the national competition in Kansas City.  I was pretty sure I wouldn’t win, but the prospect of flying on a plane for the first time and having the opportunity to experience a bunch of other new things made the trip quite a pleasure.

While I didn’t place the first year, I won State the next and returned to Kansas City the summer after I graduated.   Our class also decided to enter a display competition with something as unconventional as our flashing Christmas tree, so a team of us got together to see what we could do.   We decided to put a custom-built clock up on a pedestal over a table that would act as the display surface.  We hung a pendulum with a magnet in the base of it under the clock, embedded magnets in the display surface to make the pendulum swing in a rather random motion, and I built a custom “exciter” that would put out a strong magnetic pulse when the pendulum swung over the center of the display to keep it going.

The graphics shop printed the logos and other display materials, we recruited someone to sew the skirts together, the wood-shop built the clock cabinet and the display structure, and I took the lead developing the electronics to make it all work.  For the clock, Mr Dammann and I decided to build something unconventional by essentially integrating three light sequencers with a disciplined clock… one for the seconds, one for minutes, and one for hours.  The graphics shop printed a pattern on the surface of a sheet of plastic and I drilled out the holes, inserted the LEDs, and wired it all together with the custom circuit board that ran the thing.  Just for effect, we put a red light bulb in the clock cabinet just to add that special touch.

The control board for the clock. It consists of a clock-generation section and three multiplexed counters that would recycle after twelve or sixty counts.
The Completed electronics for the clock. The whole thing was designed from the ground up using basic cad tools to draw out both the schematic and the circuit board.
There are 132 lights set into the face of the clock. The inner ring shows the hour, middle ring the minute, and outer ring ticks off the seconds.

One of the funnier aspects of the clock was the reaction I got when we tried to pack it up and take it on the plane with us.  We were concerned it might get broken if we checked it in baggage or shipped it with the rest of the display, so we opted to bring it as a piece of carry-on luggage.  You should have seen the face of the security screener when he saw a box full of wires and circuit boards go through the x-ray machine.  They made me take the back off of it and show them there were no explosives inside it and show them how it worked before they would let me through.  That was before 9/11 when you could still bring pocket knives on a plane.  I doubt they’d let me take that thing on a plane today.

Jason and Tyler (who’s last names I forget) watching over the display in the Kansas City convention center. I built the electronics, others built everything else.

While we didn’t win anything for the display, the clock design was the coolest and most complex thing I’d done in the shop.  Years later, I reached out to Mr Dammann to see how he was doing and let him know how much I appreciated what he had done for me, only to find out that several years after he retired he had hunted down that clock and acquired it from the school.  He has it hanging in his house to this day.

In addition to the display team and me, we had another team from our school that had won the state competition.  This team happened to include a bunch of girls, most of which I had dated at one point or another.  Being stupid teenage boys, a few of us thought it would be fun to harass them in an unconventional way.  One of the more popular projects to build in the electronics shop was what we call the “annoyatron” – a little box that was easily hidden and would emit a high-pitched scream periodically.  We decided it would be fun to modify one with a light-sensor so that it would only turn on when the lights went out and hide it in the girl’s hotel room.  I honestly don’t remember how we managed, but we were successful at placing it.  About two thirty the next morning, Mr Dammann knocked on our door to tell us he didn’t care who did it (I’m sure he knew) but that we needed to go get it and turn it off so the girls could get some sleep.  The girls got even the next day by filling our room with silly string and stuff like that.  They took our prank in the right spirit, and everyone had a good time in the end.

I had more luck with my competition.  I felt I had done pretty well, but didn’t expect to place in the top three.  However, when they announced the winners, I came out second place.  I was ecstatic.  Aside from the accolades, I was awarded with a range of stuff donated by various companies that included a Snap-On tool kit, Kenwood oscilloscope, and a digital multimeter that would ultimately pay my way through college while I used them to fix televisions, radios, computers, monitors, and anything else that would pay.  I still have and regularly use those three items over 20 years after the fact.

Me, the night of the awards ceremony. I think I smiled almost continuously until after the plane landed that brought me home.

Jolly Green

Middle of nowhere, not a soul is in sight,
I'm alone far from help in a terrible fright,
Marooned yesterday and all through the night.
Weakened and failing, dealt a heavy hard blow,
Then a thumping and rumbling rattling low, 
Creeps through the quiet and steadily grows.

Now the feet of a giant appear overhead,
With a deafening roar beating down latent dread,
Tells me help is at hand, and safety ahead.
The jolly green giant called out to assist,
Searching the morn' that frost's icy lips kissed,
Pararescueman watching ensures nothing's missed. 
He sees me and motions to show me he knows,
Then out of the doorway he rapidly goes,
Down a cable to meet me while rotor-wash blows.
A rapid assessment - thinks I'm stable and then,
He straps me in harness and upwards I spin,
While twisting in air I am pulled safely in.  

Just a minute, no more, and my rescuer's back,
From a hover we drop to a zig-zagging track,
Dodging through treetops to avoid an attack.
Back to safety and comfort and a happier time,
Relieved and or'whelmed I wipe tears from my eye,
So grateful for giants that fly through the sky.

In case there are any experts out there who want to critique this picture… it isn’t of a rescue operation. The helicopter is from the 210RQS from the Alaska Air National Guard. It is a rescue craft and crew, however in this case it was rigged up to carry a sling-load of batteries and other equipment to a remote instrumentation site in the Alaskan bush – hence no guns on the mount and the exposed cargo hook. Thankfully, I never ended up in a situation where the helicopter had to fight it’s way in.