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“Driver training in a claustrophobic, Plexiglas coffin”, might be one way to describe the experience of learning to pilot an experimental one-person deep diving submarine. Another way to describe it would be, “a thrilling adventure into the unknown”, especially when your driving instructor is world-renowned ocean scientist, Dr. Sylvia Earle. I was with Sylvia a few years ago in the National Maine Sanctuary off the coast of Washington State where she was testing “Deep Worker”, a one person sub to be used in her “Sustainable Seas” project to study and inform people about the health of the world’s oceans.
The advantage of the sub is it’s ability to take researchers down 2,000 feet to visit parts of the ocean that can’t be accessed on scuba. It also makes it possible for air breathing humans to remain underwater for extended periods of time, far longer than would be possible on scuba, and of course being in the sub means the diver can stay dry and avoid the wrinkled prune like appearance that comes from sitting too long in the bath. The down side being, if something goes wrong, you spring a leak, the sub fills with water and wrinkled skin is the least of your worries.
I though about this story and some of my other adventures in tiny submarines this week when National Geographic and James Cameron teamed up to dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot on the planet. It was a historic event. Cameron’s dive was the first manned solo trip down more than 35,000 feet beneath the ocean. And it was only the second manned visit to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in history. Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh made the first trip 51 years ago. Walsh was on board the support ship this week to welcome Cameron back to the surface and into membership in a very exclusive club of people who’ve been to the deepest part of the ocean.
This story reviews some of Sylvia Earle’s pioneering work in deep sea exploration, as well as showing what it’s like to squeeze into a one person sub, especially for someone my size. It may also leave you with the question, “If I had a $500,000 submarine, would I let Boyd drive it?”
Does this strike you as a good idea, going on an adventure riding dirt bikes in Patagonia when you’ve never been on a dirt bike in your life? I know, I know, but back in the 90’s when given the chance to do just that, I jumped at it. Of course what really made it tempting was the cast of characters I would be riding with on the trip. The two main riders were singer Lyle Lovett and off-road racing legend Malcolm Smith.
With Lyle and I being fellow Texans I was envisioning a kid of buddy film, sort of a, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” on dirt bikes. Lyle had a lot of experience on dirt bikes, even racing them as a kid, I of course had none, although for several years in California I had owned and ridden street bikes. I was about to find out there is a difference.
I also relearned another lesson, one my mother had attempted to instill in me from the beginning. She would always, “Never leave the house wearing dirty underwear, because you might get in a accident and have to go to the hospital where they will see you’re wearing dirty underwear. I don’t know why that was such a major concern for moms back in the day, but most of my friends were given the same lecture by their mothers as well.
When I arrived in Chile for the trip, my luggage did not. For two days while we hung out in Santiago I had to wear the same clothes I’d worn on the plane ride, including the same underwear. My wife located my luggage and arranged to have the bags meet me in Patagonia on the day we were beginning the ride. That meant I got my dirt bike gear in time to put in on before we got on the bikes, but I didn’t have time to find or change my underwear. It should have been a warning.
Sure enough five hours into what was to be a seven day ride, I hi a big rock buried in the sand, flipped the bike, and when I put my arm down to break the fall, dislocated my elbow. The pain was so intense I though I must have broken a few bones as well. Holding my arm to steady my dislocated elbow I climbed in the back of a pickup for a five hour bumpy ride to the hospital where they reset the elbow, put the arm in a cast, and the next day I got on a plane back to the States. The rest of the group went on with the dream trip.
It all just proves mom was right about what happens when you wear dirty underwear. I tell the story of what happened this week on my radio show, “National Geographic Weekend.” Here’s a part of the original story about our bike trip in Patagonia that we filmed for my show at the time, “National Geographic Explorer.”
This being a big election year, and with one party having trouble falling in love with a candidate, I thought it would be fun to look back at one of my favorite candidates for public office. Kinky Friedman ran for Governor of Texas a few years ago in one of the most entertaining campaigns ever staged by someone who was serious about getting elected. He had bumper stickers that read, “He Ain’t Kinky, He’s my Governor” and “Kinky for Governor, How hard Can It Be?” For the record he was campaigning against the incumbent Governor of Texas, Rick Perry.
I’ve known Kinky since the mid seventies. When we first met he was writing and performing country music with a satirical social message. Satire and irreverent humor don’t usually translate into elected office. Of course in those days he wasn’t running for anything, although he may have been running from a few things. He had one band called the “Exxon Brothers”, but correspondence from Exxon’s legal department forced a name change and the group became “Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jew Boys.” For the benefit of the concerned politically correct, members of the JDL were some of his biggest supporters. They got the joke and the message.
In 1986 he ran as a Republican for Justice of the Peace in Kerrville, Texas. He lost that election, an outcome he would duplicate as an independent running for Governor in 2006. In between his two runs for office, Kinky was still singing some but primarily he became a novelist, writing mystery novels staring himself as a country singer / private detective. It was during this time in the late 80’s that I drove my red Cadillac down to Kerrville to do a story about Kinky for the TV Show, “USA Today on TV”.
By the way, the red ’63 Cadillac, which still runs and was the car used in all my “Flying the Coupe” stories is now in my driveway and it’s For Sale. It comes with a copy of all the “Flying the Coupe” stories if anyone is interested.
This video in which Kinky sings some, reads a few lines from one of his novels, and shares a bit of the Kinkster’s philosophy will give you a glimpse of the colorful character that later tried to be Governor. It may also explain why his campaign got a lot of coverage from the press, but not enough votes from the public. I say his not winning was a big loss for Texas. And who knows, had he won, this year Kinky might be the front-runner in the Republican primaries.
One of the best perks of working for the Today Show in the eighties was their willingness to let me do stories about almost anything that interested me. I didn’t have to ask, “Is this story the stuff of front page headline news?” I just had to bring them compelling stories that were factually correct and well crafted. I worked under the assumption that if it was interesting to me, then there must be other people who would be equally fascinated with the topic as well.
That philosophy is how I got the show to let me start a weekly series called, “On the Record.” News organizations for the most part in those days ignored stories about the music business unless it involved a rock star getting arrested or overdosing. We had a Hollywood segment on the show and a movie review segment, but no regular music coverage. Being of a generation that considered rock and roll a soundtrack for life, I thought by ignoring music stories we were failing to report on an area of interest to a big chunk of our audience.
The Today Show agreed to let me cover music, in addition to my other stories, and I used that platform to meet and film artists whose music appealed to me, whether or not they happened to be at the top of the charts. And that’s how in 1981 I ended up in Louisiana spending a few days with some of the pioneers of Cajun music.
Dennis McGee, Dewey Balfa, and Sady Courville, fiddle players and singers all had a big influence on 20th century Cajun music. I had heard some of their early recordings and decided it was a music genre whose story needed to be told and documented for a larger audience. I spend a few days hanging out with the guys and their family and friends, listening to music, hearing their life stories, and sharing some great meals. This is the Today Show piece that came from my time in Cajun country.
Davy Jones of “The Monkees” died today of a heart attack. The group was created to be a fictional band on a TV show, but in a case of life imitating art, The Monkees became one of the biggest selling bands in the country in the late 60’s. In the 80’s I did this “where are they now?” story about the group for the Today Show.
They were hired for their looks and ability to act. The show concept was about a group of guys in an out of work band. They were supposed to a kind of spoof on the Beatles, but they were also to be a safe band, one that wouldn’t frighten parents. They fact they all had a little musical ability and three of the guys played instruments probably helped Peter, Davy, Michael, and Micky get the gig. It wasn’t that the producers wanted them to really play their instruments in the show, but it would add to the believability if it looked as if they were really playing. They were really singing, but after a couple of hit records they also wanted to be the guys they were pretending to be, they wanted to play the instruments on their records and have more creative imput into the music.
Michael Nesmith, the most accomplished musician and song writer in the group, led the fight for the change. Eventually the boys got their way and became the musicians playing on their own albums. By the time I did this, where are they now, story the guys were mostly dabbling in music part time while making their living in other ways. But over the years there was always enough of a demand for “The Monkees” that they would occasionally reunite for short projects. Nesmith continued to perform, as a solo artist and in a group called First National Band. He also produced some movies, wrote a couple of novels, and is credited with thinking of the concept that would eventually become MTV.
Upon hear of the death of Davy Jones today, Nesmith posted these wonderful thoughts on his facebook page which I’m reposting here.
“All the lovely people. Where do they all come from?
So many lovely and heartfelt messages of condolence and sympathy, I don’t know what to say, except my sincere thank you to all. I share and appreciate your feelings.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.
While it is jarring, and sometimes seems unjust, or strange, this transition we call dying and death is a constant in the mortal experience that we know almost nothing about. I am of the mind that it is a transition and I carry with me a certainty of the continuity of existence. While I don’t exactly know what happens in these times, there is an ongoing sense of life that reaches in my mind out far beyond the near horizons of mortality and into the reaches of infinity.
That David has stepped beyond my view causes me the sadness that it does many of you. I will miss him, but I won’t abandon him to mortality. I will think of him as existing within the animating life that insures existence. I will think of him and his family with that gentle regard in spite of all the contrary appearances on the mortal plane.
David’s spirit and soul live well in my heart, among all the lovely people, who remember with me the good times, and the healing times, that were created for so many, including us.
I have fond memories. I wish him safe travels.”
Can you speak monkey? Well if you hang out with them long enough you’re bound to pick up a few words. After more than thirty years in the Amazon, Dr. Sara Bennett can talk some monkey, which, with a little encouragement on my part, she demonstrated for me one sweltering morning on Mocagua Island in the Colombian Amazon. One wooly monkey in particular also had a lot to say to Sara. I’m sure what he was saying was the same thing most of the monkeys on this island adjacent to Amacayacu National Park probably say to her, “Thank you. Thank you for saving us and for starting the rescue center that takes in orphaned and captive monkeys in this part of the Amazon.
Dr. Sara Bennett got a grant from National Geographic to study trees when she first went to the Amazon, but she soon fell in love with the creatures that live in the trees, and began working with local tribes helping them understand the importance of altering their hunting and fishing practices so they would be more sustainable. On Mocagua Island which is shared by four different tribes she got them to agree to stop the hunting of wooly monkeys which were in danger of being wiped out. It was here that she also helped establish Maikuchiga, a small non-profit that operates a rescue center for orphaned animals.
Most of the rescued animals are monkeys that were in either in captivity or were orphaned after hunters killed their mothers. Sara now uses the rescued monkeys as educational ambassadors. This video shows Sara and some of her rescued monkeys jumping in her arms and climbing on her head. It also shows some of the monkeys trying to help me with the filming.
We wanted to get close to black rhinos, we just hadn’t planned on getting this close. I was in Zimbabwe at the Malilangwe Wildlife reserve working on a story about African rhinos for National Geographic when we decided it would add a nice visual element to the piece if we tracked some black rhinos on foot. My guide, Brad Forchet, our tracker, Difficult, from Singita’s Pamushana Lodge and I set out on the trail of two rhinos early one morning but we were having little success in catching up to our quarry. They were just moving too fast.
After a couple of hours we gave up on the rhinos and decided to kill time and hopefully get some good ground level video of a big bull elephant. But when we were within fifty yards of the elephant, Difficult spotted a black rhino in the bushes behind us. We changed courses again and began trying to sneak up close to the rhino. Once we were fairly close, Brad started making rhino calls hoping to get our rhino to stick her head out of the bushes for better pictures.
As you’ll see in this video she not only stuck her head out, but her whole body, and then decided to come in for a really close look at us. That’s a nice way of saying, “she charged us.” Yes I have now been charged by a black rhino and lived to tell about it. It does make for an entertaining video, but the real story here is what’s happening to Africa’s rhinos and we tell that story this week on my radio show, “National Geographic Weekend”. We also talk about the success of the Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve in protecting rhinos in Zimbabwe at the same time record numbers are being killed in South Africa.
Motown Records was started by Barry Gordy to give black artists in the Detroit area a shot at making hit records, but what he ended up creating was a company that provided a soundtrack for life during much of the 60’s and 70’s. On the 20th anniversary of Motown, the company was headquartered in Los Angeles, their first million selling singer, Smokey Robinson, was still recording, but he was also a vice-president at Motown.
This video is a story I did for the Today Show looking back at Motown’s success on their 20th anniversary. At the end of the story after filming the Temptations in a rehearsal the guys were sitting around and sang a little song especially for the Today Show.
Since most people are thinking about that great American institution the Super Bowl today, I though before the game begins you could use a little break and enjoy a few moments of pleasure from another American institution, Motown Records.
Leaving the comforts of home and the security of the familiar to explore the unknown deep in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, where encounters with cannibals were all but assured, was once a common plot line in adventure movies. The believability of these fictional tales was enhanced by the occasional true story of an explorer or missionary killed by some isolated tribe that was previously unknown to the outside world. But the real source of suspense for any journey into the highlands of New Guinea was the documented evidence of tribes practicing cannibalism well into the second half of the 20th century.
I first visited Papua New Guinea in 1986. By then the outside world had penetrated most regions of this island nation. But in some places the 20th century had only the slightest toehold. In one village I saw a man wearing a Michael Jackson tee shirt standing next to another man wearing a penis gourd. Traditions versus modernity, a story that’s played out again and again in many cultures, but one that in New Guinea seemed to cover a great chasm in a shorter time frame than in most other places.
This video shows the conflict between old and new. It’s part one of a five part series I did for the Today Show in ’86. I would phrase some of my commentary a little differently today, but back then we called it a Primitive Portrait. I though of that trip this week when interviewing Mark Jenkins for my radio show, “National Geographic Weekend.” Mark wrote the article in the current issue of “National Geographic Magazine” about one of the last nomadic, cave dwelling tribes in new Guinea and their struggle to survive as traditional hunter gatherers.
In another twenty-five years will anyone in Papua New Guinea still be living the way they were when I was there twenty-five years ago, other than in villages setup to entertain tourists? Should they be? Should we expect any group of people to remain frozen in time, isolated from the schools and clinics, and tools, and conveniences’ that make life easier, and healthier? No, I think change has come and will continue to come even to the last isolated holdouts. The real question is, will it happen too fast, will they be overwhelmed and lose any sense of who they are and their sense of place in their world?
If digital camers had been around when I was in college, and if they were as inexpensive and available as they are today, then I suspect there would be endless hours of incriminating video that I would would be trying to collect and destroy. There were film cameras and I did have one, 8mm silent, and use it occasionally to film my roommates and our friends.
Film and processing cost money, and I was also concerned that the person processing the footage might look at it and I didn’t want that kind of attention focused on my private behavior, especially in the 60′s. So filming was limited, but I did record my roommates and some of our friends hanging out being college kids.
This video is for them. I can’t imagine it being of interest to anyone who didn’t go to college with me. I’m posting it because that’s the easiest way to get it out to the people who’ve asked if I still had any of the films I took while in school.
I’ve put music behind the video, but the original film is silent, which is good news for everyone because you won’t have to listen to my bad sax playing. However, it’s also unfortunate because you won’t be able to hear the guitar playing and singing of Rod Ruthrauff or the trombone playing of Byron Fisher. In addition to Rod, Byron, and me, there are also scenes with our roomates,Chuck Seymore, and Richard Mixon, as well as some young ladies whom I will not embarrass by naming.
For some reason we’re all rather clean cut in these pictures. The beards and really long hair will apparently live only in our memories.