March 20, 2014: There was a time more than a century ago when tall sailing ships would have been a common sight running along the San Joaquin River, their hulls laden with cargo bound from San Francisco for inland seaports or vice versa. What would have been less common was seeing them engaged in a fire fight, flinging cannon balls at each other like something out of Pirates of the Caribbean. But history be damned, because when it comes entertaining paying passengers on a rainy weekend cruise, history gets the deep-six and theater begins.
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We were expecting such drama when Roni signed on to cover a visit of two tall ships to the Antioch waterfront on March 2. The Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain were in town from Grays Harbor, Wash., and Roni had a pair of complimentary tickets to go aboard and take part in a so-called battle sail. For three hours, the ships would skirmish in the middle of the Delta. There would be crews aboard hoisting and lowering the sails, climbing about the riggings, answering questions for the passengers. And most important, there would be the roar of thundering cannons as the two boats exchanged fire amid the tules.
It all sounded like fun — on a pleasant spring day. But March 2 was not a pleasant spring day, nor was it dry. The idea of being a captive audience on a boat in the rain for three hours might be fun to some (the crew of Gilligan's Island comes to mind), but Roni was covering the cruise for the newspaper and it was a big chunk of what is normally our weekend. She would be out on the water alone unless we shelled out another $50 or so for a ticket for Glenn. Yes, she had two comp tickets, but the second one was for the paper's staff photographer, and you couldn't not have the staff photog on the boat when the cannons started going off. Or could you?
As it turned out, the photographer, Sue, was as hesitant about the three-hour ride as we were, although not enough to turn down an opportunity for close-up photos aboard the ships. She reluctantly decided to put her name on the passenger list, but was much more excited when she saw the man from San Jose strolling up the dock dressed in full pirate attire and learned soon after that he would be riding on the same boat, the Hawaiian Chieftain.
With the two comp tickets spoken for, Glenn had no problem playing the role of landlubber. He'd brought all his camera gear and was looking forward to taking some shots from shore as the ships conducted their maneuvers. Besides, if the threatening rain clouds did their thing again, he could always run back to the car at the Antioch Marina parking lot. He pulled out the GoPro, then offered it to Roni after figuring that she'd have better luck using its wide-angle lens aboard the boat than he would from land.
The two ships boarded at 1:30 p.m. Roni and Sue's boat was double parked near the Lady Washington, so they had to cross it to get to their seats on the port railing. As soon as it was full the ship cast off from the pier, turned west and headed up the river. The Lady Washington followed a few minutes later, both ships on outboard engine power to hurry them through the channel to their rendezvous point somewhere near Pittsburg. The small crowd on shore didn't realize how far they would travel away from Antioch until the ships became small dots to the unaided eye and digitally enhanced blobs to all but those with the most expensive camera lenses.
That was the point when most of the watchers gave up and returned to the parking lot. Glenn toughed it out for a bit, challenging the limits of his camera's digital zoom to get pictures of the boats in full sail, but eventually he too decided it was too much trouble to get the shots he really wanted, fighting against poor weather and the interloping smaller boats that were sailing into his shots in the process of getting their own photos. Tired of taking snapshots and getting chilly, Glenn retreated to the shelter of the car to read and write until Roni texted him awhile later to let him know that the mock battle had begun.
"Did you hear the boom?" she asked? Yes, Glenn had heard it, all the way down the river and inside the car with closed windows. Probably everyone in the neighboring two counties had also heard it. She said they would be firing the cannons some more, so Glenn decided to head back to the waterfront to see the smoke and — he hoped — flames. Even at that great distance he was able to take some shots with cannon smoke drifting over the water, but it was Roni who had the front row view. With the GoPro running, she followed the action as one of the Chieftain's crewmen loaded the barrel and touched off the gunpowder with a deafening boom. She was excited that she even caught the muzzle flash.
Although both ships got off their rounds, the Chieftain clearly had the upper hand. Roni said the Lady Washington's crew barely put up a fight, and if this had been an actual battle the Washington would have been a pile of kindling at the bottom of Davy Jones's Locker. So what if the ships were only firing blanks? They made a lot of noise and the kiddies loved it.
What they might have loved less was the time it took to return to port. Back at the car, Glenn was typing away when Roni texted again to say the boats were heading back to the dock. He hoped he still had time to photograph them again up close, especially since the rain had stopped, the clouds had parted, and now sun was casting its beautiful late afternoon glow over everything. He needn't have worried. The ships were very slow to dock, and the old rule of "first one out, last one in" applied. By the time the Hawaiian Chieftain had tied up and its passengers were safely ashore, the three-hour tour had turned into more than four. It was close to 6 p.m., but no one was complaining.
Roni got plenty of fodder for her article, Sue had come up with lots of good material for her part of the assignment, and Glenn had enjoyed the day playing tag with the weather in search of unusual photos he could take on land. The ships are scheduled to return in July, but next time perhaps we'll all be content to watch them from the shore.
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THERE WAS NOTHING but shore to watch from the following day, which found us in downtown Isleton for a dedication ceremony to mark the start of a $600,000 renovation project on the historical Bing Kong Tong building (say that 10 times fast!) It was the second day in a row that Roni drew an interesting assignment for the newspaper, and unlike the battle cruise, Glenn found himself on the hook for the photos.
The Tong, in Chinese culture, has long been a gathering place for community events, entertainment, education, immigration assistance, and other critical functions. Isleton's Tong was established more than a century ago and was loosely affiliated with a Tong of the same name in San Francisco. But a fire in the mid-1920s that destroyed most of Isleton's Main Street took the Tong with it, and after a period of reconstruction, the Tong reopened briefly until it closed for good during the 1940s. It has sat vacant and neglected ever since, its corrugated metal siding rusting away through the hot Delta summers and rainy winters. Colonies of honey bees set up camp in its walls.
Fortunately the County of Sacramento came through with the funds to restore the building, and now work is under way to turn the narrow, two-story Tong into a museum. On the overcast morning we arrived for the news event, a metal fence had already been erected around the building and the exterior walls had been stripped to their wood lap boards. A peek inside the front door (as far as we were allowed to go) revealed two large posts anchored to the center of the bottom floor and propping up opposite walls. Without the posts, we were told, the building would have undoubtedly crumbled into a pile of kindling already.
We've spent a lot of time visiting Walnut Grove and Rio Vista on our numerous Delta treks, but seldom do we hang out in Isleton. The towns are all roughly the same age, having been established during the construction of the levees and once thrived on the extension of the railroad that transported asparagus, hay and various fruit crops to the larger markets. But Isleton has sort of become the poor stepchild of those other towns, consisting mostly of small cottages and apartments and a struggling business district. Several folks at the ceremony talked about how restoration of the Tong building would be a key to Isleton's revival and the Delta's historical identity. We hope so.
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AFTER MONTHS OF LOOKING without success, Ben finally has a part-time job. Thanks to an arrangement with his Aunt Jacki, he is going through the arduous task of becoming an In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) aide so he can help her out at her home and get paid in the process. Jacki had suggested this as a possibility more than a year ago, but the circumstances didn't fall into place until just recently.
The IHSS aides provide such services as housekeeping, preparing meals, driving patients to doctor appointments and the like. Ben is still working on getting his driver's license, so for now he is limited to the in-home work, but he hopes that eventually he too will be able to drive people to appointments if he continues with the IHSS program. We'd just be happy if he could drive himself to and from work. While it is convenient that he is working for a family member, Jacki lives in a section of Antioch that is difficult to get to via public transportation. Ben was disappointed to find that it takes three buses and a long walk to get there from our home in Oakley. She may be moving closer soon, however, so perhaps this inconvenience won't last long.
Getting to and from work so far has been the least of Ben's challenges with the job. We learned pretty quickly that he had to register with the county to become an IHSS provider, and part of that process requires a background check and a 1-hour training course. He was able to download the application online, but it took us a lot of effort to figure out where and how he had to submit the completed form. We stopped by the county welfare department in Antioch, only to discover that first we were in the wrong building, and second that the right building didn't accept the paperwork there; he would have to go all the way to Pleasant Hill to submit his form. A very nice worker at the Antioch office gave Ben three phone numbers of people in Pleasant Hill he could speak with, and of course none of those numbers connected to a live person. He left messages with only a promise they would call him back within 48 hours. Being that we went in on a Friday, that meant he wouldn't hear anything more until the following Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Ben started his job on Monday, March 10. From the way he described it, it was four hours of mostly low-intensity work — the same type that, if we asked him to do it around our home, he'd probably look for an excuse not to do. We have to laugh at that, but we are hopeful he'll get some experience out of this and do a good job so he can use Jacki as a reference for his next position.
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SPRING IS JUST about upon us, and once again business is starting to pick up for Roni at the Delta Science Center. First up has been the Trout in the Classroom program that DSC sponsors with the state Department of Fish & Wildlife. The program gets teachers to set up aquariums in their classrooms where they raise trout eggs so the kids can watch them hatch and grow before releasing the tiny fish into the river.
Roni attended a workshop in Berkeley a couple of months ago to learn how to set up the fish tanks and how to grow the young trout. The tanks have to be insulated from light and heat, and participants received some materials lists for building the enclosures, but very little in the way of directions. So it was up to Roni to track down the supplies and assemble them.
The instructions called for wrapping a 10-gallon aquarium in 1.5"-thick foam, the kind you can usually buy in large sheets from places like Home Depot. You can buy it there, yes, but getting it cut to the proper size is more of a challenge since they flatly refused to cut it for us. Seems they have no problem with piles of sawdust blowing through the store, but drifts of polystyrene beads are more of an issue. They can't saw it, and they don't help you cut it. We thought that would mean we would have to carve up our own 4x8-foot sheet in order to fit it in Roni's car. Fortunately we found 2x4-foot sheets on the shelf, so Glenn didn't have to whip out his concealed box cutter while in the store. The only problem was that the smaller sheets only came in 3/4-inch thickness, so we'd have to double them to reach the required 1.5 inches.
At home, Glenn sketched out all the pieces and made the proper cuts in the foam board, leaving enough foam beads behind to fill several dozen Christmas snow globes. Through some elaborate engineering, he came up with a box with interlocking edges that more or less fit the dimensions of the tank. Roni piled the foam boards along with all her other materials into one of the empty tanks and took it to her office where she and a committee volunteer assembled everything. They filled the tank with water and checked the temperature for a few days to make sure the water stayed at the required 54 degrees.
The fish eggs arrived March 5. Even though Roni's tank at the office was good to go, a few of the teachers in the program had difficulties getting things set up, including one school that didn't receive any eggs at all. Roni wound up having to drive to Napa the following day so she could collect another batch of eggs for them from the Fish & Wildlife office there. The eggs were so close to hatching that a couple of the fry emerged while she was transporting them home. They all survived the trip, fortunately.
The eggs in the office tank have all hatched now, and as of this writing the baby trout are hanging out in the gravel near the bottom, where they will remain for a few days until they start moving closer to the surface in search of food. In a few weeks they will be big enough to release at Contra Loma reservoir in Antioch, where the hope is they will avoid becoming food themselves and grow to produce more trout.
The second major DSC activity coming up is the second year of the AFRI rice growing project. The committee is currently in the process of drying out its plot of land on Jersey Island and looking into materials needed to build new greenhouses at the site. Last year's PVC greenhouses were a lot of trouble to maintain, so Roni and her volunteers decided to refine their construction plans. Right now the hope is to present a shopping list to one of the home improvement stores to see if they will donate the materials to build a 12-by-80-foot greenhouse. We're confident that this one will be more durable than the six smaller ones from last year. She has to have it built by early April, so we should know soon.
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GLENN HAS BEEN fairly involved in the arts these days, recently developing an interest in Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs and learning a little cartooning. It was on a whim one afternoon when we were shopping at Michael's craft store and looking at paints that he picked up an introduction book to cartoon drawing basics along with a pack of pencils and some graphic pens. He has been spending his evenings and idle hours before work practicing such techniques as cross-hatching and shading. Don't expect to be seeing the next Charles Schulz or Scott Adams in your local newspaper anytime soon, but Glenn hopes he'll eventually be able to draw some simple characters that he can play with in Photoshop and Illustrator.
The hex signs are a different matter. Glenn has been painting wood cutouts and other signs for the past couple of years, and had long wanted to try his hand at the very colorful folk art found on barns in Amish country. The book he picked up from Amazon — "Hex Signs: Tips, Tools, and Techniques for Learning the Craft" by Ivan Hoyt — provides a good tutorial and an extensive materials list that we have been shopping for piecemeal in recent weeks. On separate trips to Home Depot, Michael's and Hobby Lobby we bought primer, tubes of oil-based paints, brushes, and an 18-inch round table top (because we are too lazy to cut out our own circle!) Because he couldn't find a compass large enough to scribe 18-inch arcs, Glenn built his own out of some scrap wood. It's clunky, but it makes perfect circles. Now Glenn just has to finish a design and transfer it to the wood.
Our house is starting to resemble a sign shop, minus the blobs of spilled paint on the carpets. Glenn has been saying that he wants to create a workshop so he'll have a place to keep all his projects, but until he builds the shed he's long wanted to make, it looks like the kitchen table will have to serve as a workbench for the time being. The other solution may be cleaning the garage, and if that happens you won't hear any complaints from Roni, who has been trying to get him to do just that for several years. Maybe when we get in the mood to tackle our spring cleaning.
...But don't hold your breath.