Cruise 2022: Episode 3. En Route to Iceland: Is a Cruise for You?

Embry and I have been on several cruises starting in 2015.  This post is directed to those who have not had this experience.

Picture this: You are now taking your first cruise. Your cruise ship is motoring at 19 knots en route to Iceland from Norway. It is foggy, rainy and 45 degrees outside with plenty of sea motion as the vessel plows through six to 10-foot icy seas in the Norwegian Sea. No stopping in port until tomorrow morning around ten. But will that affect any of the 1,600 happy passengers aboard your Holland America vessel, the Nieuw Stantendam?


Why not?

Because there is so much to do and so much going on aboard ship. This will be your activity for today:

Your first activity will be breakfast, a huge, scrumptious feast on the Leido deck on the ninth level, where it takes up almost all of that level of the giant ship except for the two swimming pools, more accurately described as “splashing pools,” one covered, one not, each with a bar and three hot tubs  and in use 24/7. On your way to breakfast, every ship crew member you pass greets you warmly with what would be a broad smile if you could see it below his covid mask, and wishes you a great day. Some—and you have no idea how—will even know your name. All will have Filipino or Indonesian accents, which remarkably you can actually understand most of the time. How can they be so happy and courteous, you wonder? You silently wish everyone could be like that.

Your first decision will be what to have for breakfast. There are over a dozen dining venues on the ship, only two of which are included in the fee, the main dining room and the informal, massive Leido Deck dining, which is set up like an upscale food court. That choice makes the most sense since the food is terrific and already paid for. The ship’s “food court” on the Leido Deck must have more than a dozen food stations serving the most delicious breakfast food you have ever seen. So many choices. You decide to go easy this morning and order from the chef behind the glass Eggs Benedict, two Danish, freshly baked pastries, a bowl of fresh fruit, bacon, sausage, and a side order of blue berry pancakes. Once you find an open table, your waiter appears immediately with juice, coffee, and if you like, a Bloody Mary, which you may order for an extra charge, but it does not seem extra because only ship cards are used, not credit cards. The view out the window is usually magnificent though in the fog, today you can’t see much.

You consider going back for seconds but rule it out because the first activity of the morning is about to start. You rush to the main auditorium called “Millennium Stage” just in time to hear the cruise social director talk about all the fun things you can do today—a lecture about “diamond basics,” a pottery class, several jewelry presentations by the ship’s jewelry shop vendors, spa appointments that are still available, special skin treatment options, perfume testing, dance classes, music recitals,  ping pong and pickle ball tournaments, wine tasting, whisky tasting, or a workout in the world class fitness center. These are just the starters. So many things and so little time. Morning concerts, afternoon concerts, evening concerts, lectures, and affinity group gatherings. Good heavens, how to choose? You scan the activities flier and count the options. There are 81 possibilities.

So you decide to start off with the lecture, “How to Eat More and Weigh Less,” which you believe is timely as you pause at one of the ships dozen or so coffee spots where you can pick up a quick latte and muffin. You pass by an abs class and a stress-and-release class before changing your mind and deciding to take the Tai Chi class, which turns out to be fine. So now it is time for your morning break and for another latte and pastry. Then you pass by the “bridge play” area, another group playing  Mahgong, a large group playing a trivia  game, and you decide to catch a little of a talk on acupuncture before settling on the jewelry auction preview and how to tell a good diamond from a bad one. Unfortunately, there is not enough time for the fitness center. That will be an afternoon activity. It is now time for lunch. My, how time flies!

You could choose between a dozen options but decide on the Leido again because the breakfast was so good. The lunch choices offered in the food stations are even more appealing than breakfasts—salads of all types, fresh fruit, quiche, sushi, pizza, several kinds of stew, lamb, roast beef, tempura, fried chicken, and more kinds of sandwiches than you knew existed. You settle for a cheese burgher with fries with a pecan pie and vanilla ice cream for dessert.

Now it is time to go up to the observation deck for a short rest before attending your favorite afternoon activity. On the way you are tempted to join a bingo event or a class on mixing Old Fashions and Mai Tais, cost only $15. You pass by Rye Whisky tasting, but the cost is more, $35, and the sun is not even up above the yard arm. You note that the class is SRO and conclude there could be some on the ship with a drinking problem. You decide to go to the observation deck instead.

You reach one of the ships 20 high speed elevators, punch in floor 12 where you stroll into the observation lounge and bar where over a hundred relaxed passengers are sitting in easy chairs looking out the windows where they are watching the clouds lift and sipping cappuccinos or white wine. You find the perfect chair, order your white wine and think about going to the World Class Fitness Center.  Just as you are about to doze off after finishing your wine, you glance at your watch and realize that High Tea is about to start. Oh, my goodness!  You can’t miss that, so you charge off, pass by the fitness center and after passing the diamond, apparel, and perfume shops arrive at the elegant main dining room as about a dozen groups are sitting around large tables where waiters in suits and wearing white gloves are serving petite sandwiches, tea, and sparkling wine. A string trio is playing in the background.

The elegant tea lasts a couple of hours with a lot more sparkling wine served than tea, but, hey, how often do you get to take a cruise?

You look around and notice that almost everyone sipping tea and sparkling wine seems to be pretty old, lots of white hair, wrinkles, some canes and a walker or two. If you didn’t know better, you would think you were in a retirement community. As you think more about it, most of the other passengers on the ship are not spring chicks either. It figures, you conclude, old folks have the time and the money. Also, pretty neat, you conclude. We humans keep on trying to squeeze the last drops out of the lemon.

And what else about the passengers? Most seem to be Americans but not all. However, you realize that you have seen few persons of color. A family or two from Asia and one  African American. What is that all about? Time or money? Something wrong here.

Finally, you make a mental note of the large number of overweight people, many actually quite obese, and wonder what that could be all about. You think about all that you have already consumed. Frequent cruisers?

The balance of your afternoon is a mirror image of the earlier part of the day but on steroids. A blues band is playing here, then a rock band there, and there are several dance venues going on.  Bars are open around every corner, many with music and entertainment. There is just enough time to take a dip in the pool and warm up in a hot tub, then head back to your stateroom for a brief nap, shower and to get dressed for the evening.

The highlight of the evening is a delicious, three course dinner in the elegant main dining room. The service is terrific, and it is nice to see everyone all dressed up. You heard that only a few years ago, black ties were required for men and evening gowns for women, but nowadays that has loosened up though ties and jackets for men are encouraged.

To finish off your day, you take in the magic show on the Millennium Stage, stroll through the jam-packed casino watching people play the slots, blackjack, and poker. You have just enough time to stop for a nightcap and second desert at the piano bar and get back to your cabin around eleven where your bed has been turned down and chocolate candy has been placed on your pillow.

“Tomorrow,” you softly tell yourself, “Tomorrow, I will get to the World Class Fitness Center.”

You call it a day.


While this scenario makes the assumption that you are alone, this is rarely the case. You will probably be traveling with a companion, spouse, or a family group. But there are those who do travel alone: former frequent cruiser widows, who love the experience and do not want to give it up even after losing their husband. On this cruise there are several groups of four or five elderly women who appear to be traveling together. There are also opportunities for singles to become part of affinity groups. A singles group meets every afternoon at cocktail hour time; and in the main dining room, a single diner will be asked if he or she would like to be seated at a table with others. “Friends of Bill” meetings and “Pride Gatherings” also happen every day.

And, of course, no one does every activity. Embry and I actually participate in very few of the activities, spending our time reading (Embry) and blogging (me) and alternating eating in the main dining room with a meal at the casual Leido Deck. We tried one of the dozen other restaurants once but did not think it was worth the extra cost. We take walks around the deck—three laps to the mile—and when the weather permits spend time on deck or on our balcony just taking in the natural beauty. Embry always gets in her daily swim. And there are plenty of land excursions along the way, which, of course, are the major reason for choosing a cruise in the first place.

And a taboo about discussing politics appears to be an unwritten rule. Not one word about the abortion Supreme Court decision, which if allowed to leave Pandora’s box, would surely alter the mood of the experience. You have paid your money. Let the controversial stuff rest until you get home.

(And, no, we do not devour food quite to the extreme as suggested here though a lot of passengers appear to. Even with trying to avoid excess, however, I know will have to lose five or so pounds when we return home.)

When all is said and done, in my view, what helps make a cruise special is the exceptional service and what surely feels like genuine friendliness from the people who do the cleaning, the heavy lifting, and fix stuff. All of them. No exceptions. You are treated like royalty, and, boy, does that feel good! I do not know how Holland America does it. Maybe it has something to do with the Asian temperament, since the cabin and wait crews are all from Indonesia or the Philippines. Maybe after two years of covid cancellations, these folks are just glad to be back to work.

Also note that with 1,600 passengers served by 1,300 crew comes out to .8 crew for each passenger! That has got to make a difference.

After a day or two of receiving warm greetings by the crew, passengers find themselves greeting each other with pleasant smiles. Why can’t we continue to be nice to one another  when we return home?  Why is this limited to a short voyage on a cruise ship sailing on the North Atlantic on one of the longest days of the year?

Cruise 2022: Episode 2, Norway, June 24-25

Our flight landed almost a half hour early; but after retrieving our bags and working our way through customs, we stumbled into the waiting area exactly at the bewitching hour of 1:30 where the first person we saw was a guy holding up a Holland America sign. Victory!

A Holland America bus took us and about 50 others on the flight through quaint, historic downtown Copenhagen to the commercial pier, a ride of about 45 minutes. The vessel, The Nieuw   Statendam, is a clone of the two Holland America cruise ships we had traveled on before, except newer, a bit fancier and small by today’s cruise ship standards—”only” 1,600 passengers and 1,300 crew, 15 stories high and over two football fields long. The mega cruise ships like the ones used by Disney, Carnival or Celebrity accommodate well over 4,000 passengers.

We ghosted through the early morning mist to the Bergen harbor at around six in the morning, which normally would seem early except today sunrise was a tad after four in the morning if you could even call it a sunrise. When I poked my head out of on our balcony around midnight, it  still seemed like twilight.

Bergen, a coastal town of around 290,000 is Norway’s second largest city. Most towns of any size in Norway are coastal since the country is  mountainous, with many mountains over 7,000 feet, the tallest over 8,000 feet. The only places where there is enough flat land to construct buildings is at the base of the mountains. Though it is already summer, lots of snow remains on the taller peaks, and Norway—at least the part we experienced during our two days there—for me was a dreamland. The towering mountains with snowcapped peaks go straight up from the water’s edge. Spring wildflowers were abundant, and everything around you except for the small towns and tiny villages seemed green—the lower part of the mountains, the water, the trees and grass. The two days we were there the sky was mostly blue with white cloud puffs, and the high temperature was in mid  70s with low humidity, conditions which caused me to conclude that surely this extraordinary country had to be one of the most beautiful places on earth—and Embry and I have seen a lot of beautiful countries on  our many travels.   

Our excellent guide leading us on our day-long tourist bus drive that day put things in perspective when she commented on how fortunate we were since in Bergan it rains on average around 250 days a year or over 70% of the time , the reason why plants flourish and everything is so green.  Many tourists fail to get even a glimpse of the tall peaks since much of the time the coastal towns are enshrouded in a cloud bank. We lucked out.

There are several  things I learned about Norway. First, it is a relatively small country, sparsely populated. It is about the same size of New Mexico and has a population of only around 5.3 million, about a million fewer people than live in the Washington Metro Area of 6.4 million. There is only one real city, Oslo, with a population of 634,000, half the size of Charlotte, NC.

Second, mountains (over 300 above 6,500 feet), lakes (over 400,000), islands (over 240,000) and fjords (deep coastal estuaries, which number more than 1,700) make it  paradise for those who love the out of doors and explains why so many younger people looked to me to be healthy and athletic. There is really no other country quite like Norway on the planet Earth.

Third, the Norwegians put us Americans to shame in many  things that count. Looking out my window as our tour bus drove us gawking tourists through Bergan and then through green valleys with tiny villages alongside gurgling brooks, placid lakes, and bottomless fjords, I kept wondering where all the rundown houses were. Where was all the poverty? Well, they were nowhere to be seen. Family incomes in Norway average over $78,000 compared to $64,000 in the U.S. There is nowhere near the income disparity, an absence of anything resembling one of our over-the-top McMansions, and nothing resembling one of  our many low income neighborhoods, which we used to call slums. Health care is universal but private, and the country ranks ahead of us in most health care measures. Life expectancy in Norway for men is 82 compared to our 75, 85 for women compared to our 80. The number of doctors per capita is much higher. The list is long.

Norway is closer to the U.S. where almost a third of the population owns guns and gun ownership is  part of the Norwegian culture. They rank in  the top ten with 31 guns per 100 residents. Its gun laws, however, are among the strongest in the world, requiring licensing, and training, and the Norwegian gun death rate is one of the lowest in the world. Two people were murdered by guns in 2020.

One of the great values of traveling is that you get glimpses of the way other countries do things and how we compare. In the case of poverty, disparity, health care, and gun laws, it is hard not to let out a primal scream: “What is wrong with our country!”

Yes, I know, there are extenuating circumstances.  Norway is much smaller, very wealthy due to oil and gas revenues, and not very diverse—only around 5% minorities and immigrants. And its past is mixed. The Norwegian Vikings were not nice people.

But still.

We had two typical tourist bus tours while we were there. Besides the Bergan, full day tour which took us deep into the lush green valleys nestled below the peaks and then some 25 or 30 miles alongside of one of the longer Fjords in the area, we took a “town tour” the following day  of Molde, a charming port town of about twenty thousand, which afforded extraordinary views of the town, port, fjord, and snow covered peaks.

Great two days to begin the cruise!  Now en route to Iceland, cruising at 19 knots, in mist, fog, and  drizzle in six foot seas and swells. More on life aboard a cruise ship in the next blog post.




Cruise to Norway, Iceland and Scotland: Episode 1

Hey, getting there is half the fun, right? Nope, not this time. “There” refers to Copenhagen where we were headed on Wednesday, June 22, to begin a cruise to Norway, Iceland, and Scotland. In 2019 before Covid hit, Embry had booked a cruise for the summer of 2020, which was cancelled  because of Covid the last two summers and then canceled again this spring. Embry had found a bargain with a small, British cruise company, which  notified us in late April of the bad news, which required threats by Embry of bodily harm to them in order to get her money back. Rather than throw in the towel, Embry scrambled for options and managed to get the last remaining reservation on a Holland America cruise ship, leaving Copenhagen on June 22 and returning two weeks later. Lucky break for us since no other options were available and since our previous two cruises with Holland America had been enjoyable.

On June 22, the morning of our flight on Icelandair, I was completing packing when I heard Embry raising her voice on the phone in the bedroom, “That will not work, we have to be in Copenhagen by 1:30 or we will miss our cruise!”

 Icelandair had sent Embry an email informing her all of  six hours before the scheduled takeoff that the flight had been cancelled. The email  noted they were “sorry for the inconvenience.”

There were no other options, the agent said, except a British Air flight, which Embry pointed out would not arrive in Copenhagen until after the ship had departed. Before the conversation concluded 30 minutes later, Embry’s raised voice had  elevated to a shout with threats to report the incident to the Washington Post (which runs a column about the worst travel experience ever), as if that would make any difference. What had really ticked her off was the agent’s insistence that since they had offered us an alternative flight, they did not have to give her money back. He argued that it was not their fault that the alternate flight would arrive after the cruise ship had departed. She slammed down the phone and stared into space.

By this time it was almost one in the afternoon. We had to arrive in Copenhagen in 12 hours. What to do? I immediately called the emergency number at Holland America and talked to an agent, who confirmed what had been explained in the materials about the cruise: If a flight arrived in Copenhagen by 1:30 P.M., they would honor the reservation and would not leave without that passenger, anything after that would be problematic. Furthermore, there were no refunds for no-shows.

 “But,” I argued, “we are not a no show!”

She replied, “You are a no show to us if you are not there when the ship leaves. By the way, there are 1,600 passengers on the ship. We can’t hold the ship indefinitely for two passengers.”

The challenge was to book another flight which would get us to the Copenhagen airport by 1:30 P.M., the magic hour when the chariot would turn into a pumpkin. How difficult would that be?

After regaining her composure, Embry was on it, desperately searching the web. In less than a half hour she reported back, “Got one! United to Chicago, SAS to Copenhagen. Only option available. Arrives in Copenhagen at 1:20. We got the last two seats on the plane!”

“So that means we have all of 10 minutes to spare.”

I immediately called back the emergency Holland America number and after a 15-minute wait, got another Holland America agent, who after a brief pause followed by a long sigh confirmed that we had a margin of error that was shorter than the phone call I was having with her.

“Good luck!” she said, “Should be an adventure.”

“There is one other problem,” Embry said. The Chicago flight takes off from National in about two hours!”

I threw what I could into my suitcase, crammed it shut as we charged out the door to call an Uber. Embry had packed the night before. I recall noting on the reservation that checking in now must be completed within 90 minutes of departure, which at the time struck me as wishful thinking. “Whoever gets to the airport with an hour and a half to spare, for goodness sake? Ridiculous.” I muttered under my breadth, “Give me a break!”

The wait time for an Uber was less than five minutes; and with light traffic, we made it to National Airport at 2:20 for a 4:00 P.M. departure. I could finally relax, having made to the airport with about an hour and  40 minutes to spare, plenty  of time.

National Airport, however, was jam packed with passengers waiting at the United check in. In about 15 minutes we had managed to work our way to the front of the line where we were met by a no-nonsense, female agent, who after taking our passports, returned to give us the bad news: “We are not checking your bags, and you are not getting your boarding passes. It is 2:35. Your time requirement for checking in  has passed. You can rebook for tomorrow.”

“What?” I exclaimed. “Surely, you are not serious!”

I do not recall exactly what I said next, but whatever it was caused the agent to abruptly leave to be replaced by a slightly older woman, whom I presumed was her supervisor. This lady looked at me, then looked at Embry, shook her head and handed me the boarding passes.

“Have a good trip,” she replied, smiling.

“Thank you, Jesus!” I replied, “I mean, thank you very much!”

We then bolted toward the security check point, only to witness why the new restrictions on  checking in were in effect. Several hundred people were in a line that was so long it could  not fit into to the labyrinth employed to get people through security. Even worse, the line did not appear to be moving. I looked at my watch. We had just over an hour to get through security and make it to the gate. I could not see any way we could do it.

Doomed again!

“What on Earth is going on at National Airport?” I commented to Embry. I had never seen a line this long at National Airport or just about anywhere else for that matter.

For the first 30 minutes our prospects for getting to the gate before it closed seemed borderline hopeless. Then when a very serious, stressed out, older guy in a suit showed up and barked out some orders, ever so slowly the line began to start to move, then moved faster. A lot of people were moved to the “Pre” line; and in another 15 minutes we were in, racing to the gate, arriving with 15 minutes to spare. The takeoff was delayed for 20 minutes to accommodate a handful of other distressed passengers, who I presumed were farther back in the line. Maybe they would have held the flight for us too, but who knows? There was not an empty seat on the plane. We had squeaked in.

At this point we had cleared three major hurdles. Embry had been able to book a replacement flight for both legs of the flight, which before she booked were totally full except for two empty seats on each plane. We had gotten boarding passes and checked bags in violation of the new policies and procedures of United Airlines, and an airport executive had appeared out of nowhere to speed up getting passengers  through security. If any one of these factors had gone against us, we would not have  made it.

The last major hurdle was getting from Chicago to Copenhagen. Would the flight land by 1:30? The flight took off on time and with a strong tailwind, landed a half hour early. Eureka!

 It turned out that on the flight from Chicago, about 50 passengers were also on the cruise. We were not the only ones worried about getting to the ship on time.

I thought, “Embry’s Guardian Angel is working overtime.”

So here we are  on the cruise ship, en route to Norway under cloudy skies and 12-knot breezes. More to follow….








Off on Another Adventure

With fear and trembling Embry and I got our required covid tests today—the ones that are supposed to be accurate and are done by health care providers and cost a fortune—and passed. We do not have covid! At least not now, so that means we can board an Iceland Air flight from Dulles Airport to Copenhagen where we will board a Holland America cruise ship the afternoon of our arrival and begin our trip to explore the coasts of Norway, Iceland, and Scotland, then visit our friends, the Wikeleys, in Edinburgh.

Maybe you have read some of the blog posts from our past journeys.

Starting in 2015, when I turned 73 and Embry was in her late 60s, we began our cruise experience—first, a transit cruise on a Holland America ship from Fort Lauderdale to Spain, the first leg of our journey around the world without flying. Then the “cruise” across the Pacific from Shanghai to Seattle on a container ship, which was the last leg of that 4-month adventure. Following that we did a 10-day Mediterranean cruise with Embry’s bother and sister-in-law on a 60-passenger ship as part of a University of North Carolina sponsored event called the “Adventures of the Apostle Paul,” complete with lectures by the heralded atheist professor of Christian Studies at UNC Chapel Hill, Bart Ehrman. Then a Viking cruise from New Zealand to Australia in 2017 and finally in 2019, just before the dreaded covid struck, another Holland America cruise from Fort Lauderdale through the Panama Canal, around Cape Horn, and finishing in Rio with a dozen stops along the way in Panama, Peru, Chili, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. This cruise to Norway, Iceland, and Scotland was supposed to happen in the summer of 2020, then in the summer of 2021. Both were covid casualties.

All were great in their own way, although you miss a lot on cruises—especially eating local food and hanging out in parks and street benches and trying to talk to local folks, though we have stretched these cruises out a bit spending the last week or so on shore and on our own. So cruises aren’t perfect, but, hey, at our age –I am now 80–cruises are sure a lot easier.

There are three points of anxiety on this one. The first was getting a negative covid test. We passed that one today. The second is making the connection to the cruise ship in Copenhagen. We have only three hours to get from the airport to the ship, and the third, of course, is escaping covid along the way.

So here we go again. Stay tuned…

“Whew, That Was a Close One!”

Last Saturday, June 5, I came close to getting seriously injured or killed. Not only me, however, but Embry and the three immigrant children whom we were driving home from a concert in a neighboring suburb of Washington and who were riding in the back seat of our car. But Saturday was only one of many close calls that I have had over my 80 years on the planet Earth. I suspect other 80-year-olds can recall  many close calls as well.

The decision I had to make was whether to turn right or left out of a narrow side street onto a busy, four-lane highway. No traffic was coming from the left, and I preferred to make a left turn to take the kids home. We were near the top of a hill, however, and on a partially blind curve, which did not allow a good view of vehicles approaching from the other side of the hill. When Embry reported that the cars coming from the right would soon clear, I glanced to the left, saw no cars, and made an instant decision to choose the left turn. I stepped on the gas. Almost immediately I heard a loud car horn blast. To my horror a white car was headed right towards us and going very fast. Where did he come from? I slammed on the brakes. The white car swerved in front of us, horn still blowing, and cleared us by inches. Trembling, I completed the left turn. Embry commented, “Whew, that was a close one!”

And if any of those children in the back seat had been injured or worse….Oh, my goodness! The very thought of it is unbearable.

We were lucky. Very lucky.

This close call prompted my memory about several other close calls I have had over the years. In the summer of 1981, when I had just started my consulting practice in affordable and seniors housing, the head of a community development corporation in the Bronx, which I was assisting, had volunteered to give me ride to a convenient spot where I could take the subway to LaGuardia Airport to catch a flight home. She had a small Toyota. I was seated in the front beside her, and three of her employees were squeezed into the back seat. As we drove along a 12-lane expressway through the Bronx, the skies suddenly opened, and rain began to pour down so hard that it was close to impossible to see the road ahead of us. Nevertheless, she persisted, maintaining a speed of 65-70 miles an hour, passing other cars right and left. My heart started to beat fast, and I clutched the seat as we sped by one car after another.

Then it happened. The car spun out of control as it started to hydroplane. We were on the inside lane of six lanes. The vehicle made a full 360 degree turn, putting us in middle lane as cars continued to speed past us on both sides. How could they have missed us? It was at this point that I was convinced that I was going to die. I was certain that there was no way we could keep from getting hit. I remember seeing a mystical picture of my entire life swirl before me. Everything was in slow motion. It was as if I were having an out of body experience, viewing the experience as a spectator. The time it took for the car to complete a second 360-degree turn seemed like an eternity. Then suddenly, bang! We came to an abrupt stop. The car hit the guardrail on the outer edge of the expressway. We had crossed five lanes of heavy traffic in a deluge, made two complete 360-degree turns and had not been hit by another car. No one said a word.

The driver then turned off the expressway at the next exit, ordered everyone out of the car and, trembling, said she was driving home. I was able to get a cab to the airport. The others headed for the subway.

The third close call was on a U.S. Airways flight headed to San Diego in 1986 where I was attending a seniors housing conference. As we approached San Diego, the voice of the pilot announced that there was a “slight problem” with the landing gear and that the landing would be delayed by a few minutes. That got everyone’s attention as concerned passengers gave each other puzzled looks. About fifteen minutes later, his voice came on the loudspeaker again and provided the details: The landing gear was stuck and would not come down.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced, “We will be circling San Diego until we deplete our fuel supply to avoid an unfortunate situation when we land.” I interpreted this as meaning he did not want the plane to blow up when we crashed.

Suddenly a chill came over the cabin. I heard a female voice moan “Oh, my God!” Flight attendants then moved in to take the seats of all the passengers seated by the exits. All passengers remained silent. Everyone, that is, except the age 50-something lady, who was a realtor seated next to me by the window. As we circled the city for about 30 minutes, she nervously pointed out the roofs of every house she could identify that she had sold in the last 20 years.

Then the captain’s voice came on again. “Well, folks, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that finally we got the landing gear deployed. The bad news is that our instrument panel shows that it is not secured. If the instrument indicators are working, that means the wheels will collapse, so you will want to hold on tight. Could be a bumpy landing. We are going to make one more circle, this time flying very low, past the control tower, and I have asked them to look at the landing gear and tell me if they think the wheels are locked in. Then we will do one more circle and land the aircraft.”

As we flew past the control tower, I counted six fire engines, over a dozen ambulances, and several trucks with local TV crews. The runway was covered with foam.

The realtor asked, “Well, since the plane is running out of fuel, it probably won’t blow up, right?”

We were then instructed to go into the tuck position.

As we approached the runway, I counted down the seconds until we would land, wondering if these would be my last. Five, four, three, then bang, our wheels hit. I held my breath. The wheels held! Thunderous applause!

The last close call I will describe here was a sailing incident, and I have had several sailing close calls. This one, however, was the most serious.

In the early 1990s I was on a long cruise from the Chesapeake Bay up to New England and back. I was skippering our Alberg 30, “Amazing Grace,” as we reached the Chesapeake Bay Canal, connecting the Chesapeake Bay with the Delaware Bay, around three in the morning. My son, Andrew, and his friend, Adam, were asleep, and my friend, Kenton, was on watch. A dense fog had set in as we approached what I assumed to be the first bridge over the canal. All we could see were the lights on the bridge which we could barely make out as we motored toward it. (This was before anyone had a GPS, requiring a good bit of guessing as to where you were.)

Suddenly, we heard the first of five thundering horn blasts. What we thought was a bridge was actually a giant container ship! When you hear five blasts that means get the hell out of the way. They see you, but they can’t stop or maneuver. But which way to turn? Right or left? I turned right. Another horn blast. Wrong way! Sharp turn back to the left as the giant ship ghosted past us, with no more than a few yards between us. If it had hit us head on, there is no telling what would have happened, but it would not have been pretty.

Life is indeed a matter of inches. A few inches closer and the white car would have collided with our car on the driver’s side going probably 50 miles an hour. An inch or two closer on the Bronx Expressway would surely have meant a collision with one or more cars. And an inch or two on the landing gear apparatus would have meant we would be landing without wheels. Surely, a few inches closer to the giant container ship would have destroyed our boat—and probably us.

Every now and then I think about guardian angels. Embry is sure she has one. I think I must too. How else do you explain escaping these close calls? Some would say that it is all luck. Maybe so, but why are some people lucky and some are not? And if there are guardian angels, why are some so much better doing their job than others? Another one of life’s unanswerable questions.  I am just grateful that after 80 years of close calls (most due to my own mistakes) I am still alive and kicking.

Thanks, Guardian Angel!




And About Those Guns

So here we go again.

Massacres of innocent people in schools, hospitals, grocery stores, churches, and synagogues– or anywhere else for that matter– should not happen. Period. Yet in the United States they are increasing. In no other country on this planet are there countries where massacres of innocent people happen like they do here. With the Buffalo and Uvalde mass shootings happening two weeks apart, you would think this might have a chance of waking us up. A couple of days later came Tulsa, which  is described as “not as bad as it could have been” because the police arrived before the shooter was able to kill more than four people including his doctor, an orthopedic surgeon, because of lingering back pain following his back operation performed a couple of weeks before. These events involved what the FBI calls “active shooter incidents.” They have increased every year from three incidents in 2000 when they first started being counted by the FBI to 40 in 2020 and 61 last year, more than one per week. Will these recent “active shooter incidents” make a difference in getting stronger gun laws?

This year so far there have also been 231 mass shootings (where four or more people have been murdered or injured not counting the shooter), which rarely make it into the front pages of newspapers. As of June 2, 2022, mass shooting this year have resulted in over 1,200 killed or injured.

Then there are “routine” deaths by guns.  The last official statistic for gun deaths in the U.S. published by the CDC for 2020 was over 45 thousand gun deaths  that year, including over 24 thousand suicides (54%)— and over 19 thousand (43%) murders. They have gone up every year since the early 2000s. Deaths by guns are 25% higher than they were five years earlier and 43% higher than a decade earlier.

What is going on here?

One reason that these “routine” deaths by guns have not gotten more attention by the American public is that except for active shooter incidents, typical mass shootings and gun deaths often tend to involve poor people and people of color. Overall, according to KFF “State Health Facts,” the gun death rate in the U.S. in 2020 was 13.6 per 100,000 people. For Whites it was 11.6. For Blacks 31.8, about three times as high. The majority are young, African American men living in poverty. Considering income, the rates are likely to be even higher for poor people. “Hey,” the typical response is likely to be, “if those people want to kill each other, so what.” 

Now the skeptics will argue that since active shooter, mass killings like those in Uvalde and Buffalo and Tulsa are relatively rare, the bleeding heart, crybabies (like me) are trying to make a mountain out of a mole hill. In the U.S. while our gun death rate is increasing, it is still “only” 13.6 per 100,000 people. We rank 20th in the world in this notorious category behind El Salvador (39.2 gun deaths per thousand, the world’s highest), along with several Latin, Central American and undeveloped countries, which average over 20 gun deaths per 100.000. So what’s the big deal?

Yes, we are better off than many Latin American and undeveloped countries in gun death rates, but compared to other developed nations, we don’t come close. France had 2.7 gun deaths per 100,000 in 2020, Canada was 2.1, Australia was 1.0, Germany 0.9, Spain 0.6, and the U.K. 0.2. Japan was less than 0.1.

OK, readers. Below is a list of 10 countries. All ten are advanced, wealthy nations. All have similar demographics. All have strict gun laws and regulations, except one. Guess which country  might be the one without strict gun laws. The statistic is the number of gun deaths per 100,000 population.

  1. 0.88
  2. 1.40
  3. 1.94
  4. 0.91
  5. 13.6
  6. 1.04
  7. 0.02
  8. 1.24
  9. 1.48
  10. 0.57

You got it. Number Five: The United States of America. The average of the nine countries not including the U.S is 1.05 gun deaths per 100,000 people per year. We are 13.6. (Note that various sources list our gun death rate slightly differently, but all range from 12.5-13.6 gun deaths per 100,000.) Is there any further evidence required to suggest that perhaps, just perhaps gun regulations might have something to do with it? Check out Wikipedia: “Overview of Gun Laws by Nation.” Laws tend to vary by country, and the comparisons are complex and tricky. But still, it is crystal clear that among developed nations we are an outlier. The answer to reducing gun death rates is tougher gun regulation.

(The countries in order are Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, the United States, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Norway and Spain.)

By the way, did you know that we now have over 400 million guns in the U.S., an increase of over  100 million from what it was in the Obama years? Check out “Gun Facts” from the 2021 “National Gun Survey.” There is also a lot of information on line from Gallup polls and from Pew Research. While the percentage of adults who own guns has remained fairly steady over the years at around 32% of all adults (about five guns per gun owner), the number of guns per owner is increasing. 

 President Biden made an impassioned plea yesterday for banning assault weapons, increasing the age for buying guns, background checks, and red flag laws.  Few believe that any of these will pass. I would like to see much more: enforced buybacks of all assault weapons and most handguns, registration of all ammunition, making “ghost guns” illegal and more mental health services. This is what Canada is doing, and their gun death rate is minuscule compared to ours.

I would allow for people to own guns suitable for hunting but would require gun registration and gun ownership licenses like we require in order to drive a car, and no, I do not interpret Article Two of the U.S. Constitution as an absolute right for any American to own a gun.

So why are we in the mess we are in today? You could ask the same question regarding climate change, abortion, racism and other controversial issues—all of which have been politicized. Historians have pointed out that we are more divided now than at any time since the Civil War. 

David Brooks made an insightful comment on the Friday News Hour this week. He lamented that we are in a totally divided country where Democrats and Republicans agree on very little. More important we have become tribal. To be part of the tribe you have to stay with the program. The Republican program supports gun freedom and minimal gun  regulations. To object would jeopardize ones place in the tribe. And in this instance the tribe is financed in part by the NRA. For a Republican politician to go against the NRA would mean a big loss of  campaign money. For someone trying to get elected or reelected, it would mean suicide.  And given the filibuster, there is slim chance of Democrats finding enough Republicans to get a strong gun safety law passed. It all goes back to the system, and our system is broken.

 And the stalemate is not just about guns. It is about abortion, vaccines, masks, books, climate change, “black  lives matter,” immigration, taxes, and a host of other social/cultural issues. This is the world we find ourselves in today, which keeps our country from doing the right thing to reduce gun violence and tackling the problems that could drastically affect our lives. Someday perhaps we will learn and will be able to work together, but if we don’t, the future looks bleak.