Saturday, August 25, 2007

Waikiki, Pearl Harbor, Mauna Kea, Keck!

My daughter Amanda was working a summer internship in Hawaii (after spending nearly a year in Japan), it seemed like a great time for Jane and I to take a first visit to that island paradise… but with me working on the business “re-startup” and Jane having several deadlines, and finances somewhat tight, we had pretty much decided it was not going to be possible. Then a free airline ticket fell into my hands, and that tipped the balance. So... off to Hawaii we went! Alas, Robert couldn't be there -- he had only recently started his job in San Jose (he's working as a Software Engineer for Adobe Software, makers of Acrobat, Photoshop, etc.).

I’d told Jane that the two things I really wanted to do if we ever went to Hawaii was to 1) Watch some grass skirts shaking and 2) See “that big telescope” on Mauna Kea.
I am an avid “science hobbyist” and I’d often read of what a great site that was for astronomy – situated on top of a 13,796 feet high mountain, unmarred by light pollution, and much closer to the equator, this is a science buff’s dream.

Well, Jane came through as always :-). She found out that (by coincidence) we’d be in Hawaii on the one day per month that a docent-lead tour of the Keck Observatory was open to the public! What’s more, at the Visitor’s center (at 8,000 feet) after the tour, there would be a group of amateur astronomers viewing the skies. She organized the whole sequence – we get to Oahu and stay
one night, take the short flight to the Big Island, rent a four-wheel-drive jeep in Hilo, and drive to the Visitor’s Center. From there, a group of about 10 vehicles caravanned to the top where we were ushered into several of the observatories, including the famous Keck I, itself!

While we were inside, the telescope started rotating (slewing), then pivoting in every direction… I asked what was going on (after all, the dome was closed) and the
guide (a graduate student at UH) said, “The guys in the back are just showing off, trying to impress you.”

Well, I was impressed!

The giant machine stopped swiveling in a position that was tipped so far to the side that we could actually see the face of the mirror! It is really a collection of 36 huge hexagonal mirrors each of which are like this (spread arms wide) fitted together to make a 10-meter reflective bowl (scale to visualize: Think of five tall men and a child laid head-to-toe -- and compare to the mere "hundred inches" of the telescope on Mt. Wilson ). The equipment that keeps the mirror segments stable is impressive – it adjusts each segment to an accuracy of a few nanometers, to offset the varying gravity as the position of the combined mirror slews. To clean the mirrors, they do not use squeegies! They blow liquid nitrogen on them and as it flakes off, it takes any dust or whatever with it.

The Keck is also famous for its “adaptive optics” – the main mirror reflects the light to the focusing mirrors, each of which has tiny pistons that make adjustments every few microseconds so that the light they focus on the CCD cameras (or eyepiece, as it were) is steady – the result is a rock-solid image where the stars do not “twinkle” (an unwanted affect caused by the earth’s atmosphere).

Remember, we were at an elevation of almost 14,000 feet – the air is very thin there. Almost any exertion, such as climbing stairs, is magnified to the extreme. At the last stop, there was a short trail to the very peak. Amanda and I hiked over to it, and though the summit was not much higher than the
parking lot, I’m here to tell you that we had to stop often to catch our breath. Here’s a picture of the bench mark at the top of Mauna Kea.

I can proudly say that I’ve now been on top of both Mt. Whitney (highest in California, highest in the “continental U.S” at 14,495 feet) and Mauna Kea (highest in Hawaii at 13,796 feet -- highest in the world, by one measure 33,000 from it’s “base” at the bottom of the ocean). I doubt if I'll ever bag Denali (Mt. Mckinley) in Alaska, but who knows... Maybe some day I’ll bag Mt. Elbert in Colorado and/or King’s Peak in Utah!

The USS Arizona Memorial and the submarine, USS Bowfin
One can hardly visit Hawaii without going to Pearl Harbor. We drove out and got in line for tickets on the shuttle boat that would take us to the Memorial floating above the sunken ship that is a tomb for the 1,177 sailors and marines who died inside her on that “Day of Infamy,” December 7, 1941.

While waiting for our turn to be shuttled to the Memorial, we had a couple of hours so we walked over to the USS Bowfin and took a self-guided tour. Submarines have always fascinated me – I think especially after seeing the movie Das Boot which somehow “made real” what it would be like to serve as a submariner. Though the Bowfin is larger than a U-boat (crew of 80 vs. 55), the “feel” is the same – tiny cramped corridors, three-level bunks, bunks in the torpedo rooms (imagine sleeping inches from tons of high explosive!). What most impressed me is that the ship had FOUR huge 16-cylinder diesel engines; each piston is NINE INCHES in diameter! Jane got rather peeved when I unscrewed a valve cover to take a closer look at the insides.

One cool thing in the sub was the “emergency procedures” booklet mounted on a wall. There was a series of diagrams showing instructions for the “back pressure-arm lift method” of saving a drowned man (IN with the good air, OUT with the bad (lol)). This is interesting since Jane has been a CPR instructor in the past. I asked her when the “modern” method was invented and she said she thought it was in the 1960’s. That triggered am intense memory for me:

When I was about 5 years old, living on a farm in Wyoming, my little sister fell into 10-foot deep hole partly filled with water. My brother and I ran up to the house yelling, “LoraLee fell in the well!!!!” My mother had just weeks before finished taking a class on the “new method” of rescue breathing. She ran down the hill and saw LoraLee’s 2-year-old body floating face down in the murky water. This is the part that I still find remarkable -- it makes me respect my mother more than I can say: With her baby in mortal danger, my mother did not panic and jump right into the well. She had the presence of mind to quickly grab up a long pole that was nearby and check the depth of the water (I’m certain that her training included a warning like “If you drown, then you can’t possibly save anyone.”) Then she jumped in, turned my sister face-up in the water, pulled her head back, cleared the airway, and breathed life into her.
It gives me chills to think of it.

Now… back to Pearl Harbor…
Our ticket number was called and we went into a theater to watch a 30-minute movie about the events of Dec 7, 1941. An interesting thing about the film was that all of the video was taken from archive footage of the era and of that day. We filed onto the boat and took the short voyage to the Memorial and walked around in the eerily silent hall, with the names of so many valiant soldiers carved into a marble wall. If you look down from one side, you see what’s left of a large smokestack. On the other side, you’ll see more of the outline of the ship though the water.

What fascinated me was that there is very small oil slick on that spot. As you watch, a droplet of oil floats to the surface and spreads out in a dazzling sheen of color in the bright sunlight. A few seconds later, another oily drop rises. I verified this, because I found it incredible: Those are, in fact, drops of diesel fuel still rising after 66 YEARS. That’s gotta be a very tiny puncture in an enormous fuel tank.

The trip “around” the island…
For one of our day trips, we decided to drive around the island of Oahu. There is a highway that appears to circle the entire island, so we grabbed some cold soda and started driving. It was a beautiful drive. We sidetracked briefly into BYU, Hawaii campus and looked around -- my cousin Brett went to school (and, I believe, met the beautiful Verna) there.

We stopped at a little food stand off the highway and had some ultra-spicy shrimp. It eventually occurred to me that all of those ponds we’d been driving past were shrimp ranches (visual image: tiny chap-clad shrimp wranglers on seahorses... "Eee--YHaaa! Move-em up! Head em out!").

After passing the North Beach area, we got to a stretch of road that I’d like to think of as the “real Hawaii” – a very rural area with beach houses – all on stilts, many with “For Sale” signs. I kept thinking… if they have Internet, I could live right there (Jane said it was too hot, and anyway, who wants to have their house blown away every time there’s a storm…). The road got narrower and up past Mokuleia (where we saw people surfing being pulled by these strange and beautiful gull-winged kites), the highway petered out into a dirt road, then a muddy track…and a closer look at the map made it clear that we’d need to turn back and cut through the middle of the island, past Wheeler Army Airfield. That little for feer (practice journey?) to yener ek velt (the corner of the world) made the drive all the more enjoyable.

And don’t forget the grass skirts…
I have this cousin-in law (yep, Bretty’s wife, Verna) who is an expert at Polynesian dances – she even teaches them. If you beg long enough, she’ll do a demo at a family reunion. There is something deeply erotic about the way a woman can sway her hips that way. It’s probably a subconscious, instinctive effect, but the male of the species is almost universally attracted to that uniquely feminine loose hip movement. Think of how many cultures promote a similar motion in their traditional dances (hmmmm... Bellydancers!)

So, one night we went to a luau on the western side of the island, a place called Paradise Cove (coincidentally, a name that the kids and I used to use when talking about a certain little-known, hard-to-reach spot where we've camped in the Angeles National Forest). The entertainment was everything I’d hoped for -- with about a dozen hula dancers skillfully (and vigorously) shaking booty. Jane and Amanda seemed more impressed with the fire dancer who had full-body tattoo covering his rippling, sculpted muscles (there’s no accounting for taste). The feast was great, including, you guessed it, hunks of meat from a pig that had roasted all day in a fire pit. The sunset over the water was spectacular.

Hike to Diamondhead
From our room in the hotel, we had a good view of Diamondhead, which is the highest point of a caldera left after an ancient volcanic explosion. There’s a trail up to the top that takes a couple of hours to hike. The “hike” includes long concrete stairways, and a long person-sized tunnel that cuts through from the inside of the caldera to the outside… you end up in a concrete bunker that was used as an artillery emplacement, as long ago as the early 1900s. The views from the top were spectacular.

There was a cute redhead in the parking lot.

Well, that's what I did on my summer vacation, 2007!
It was great to be able to spend time with Amanda who has been away in Japan for so long. She was just one week at home before winging off to her summer internship in Waikiki, then only one more week at home before heading East to Wittenberg for her senior year in college (my, how time flies!).


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