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Yes, I really did meet Andre the Giant back in 1991…

July 26, 2022, 7:42 PM

Back in the summer of 1991, my life was quite different than it is now.  We lived in Rogers, Arkansas back then, and I had just completed fourth grade.  My father worked as a quality manager for Scott Nonwovens (now part of Berry Global following a series of acquisitions over the years).  My mother worked as a fitness instructor at the Walton Life Fitness Center (WLFC) in Bentonville, i.e. Walmart’s corporate fitness center.  That job of Mom’s provided a lot of benefits for the entire family, as we all got access to the fitness center facility, of which we made good use.  We were there so much that the fitness center almost felt like a second home at times, what with my taking swimming and Taekwondo classes there, as well as a little fitness camp called “Kids Kamp” during the summers.

One of the benefits that came with the fitness center as far as Mom was concerned was the Walmart employee stock purchase program.  I participated in it when I worked for Walmart in the mid 2000s, and as far as I know, the company still has this program.  Basically, you elected to set aside a certain amount of money per paycheck, which was then used to purchase shares of Walmart stock in your name.  As such, you were afforded all of the rights and privileges that came with being a shareholder, such as voting on issues presented to the shareholders, as well as attending the annual shareholders’ meeting.  Back then, Walmart was a much smaller company than it is now, so much of the annual shareholders’ meeting occurred at their corporate headquarters in Bentonville.

One part of the Walmart shareholders’ meeting, at least at that time, was a trade show.  A bunch of companies that you’ve probably heard of if you’ve ever shopped at Walmart had booths set up and they were showing off all of their new offerings.  In 1991, this was held at the Walmart corporate office (in 1992, it was held in a former Walmart store nearby that they had recently vacated following a relocation).  Among various things that we saw there, I got to take a Super Nintendo for a spin and play Super Mario World for the first time at the Nintendo booth, about two and a half months before it was released to the public.  I remember being surprised to see so many different buttons on the controller (six compared to two on the original Nintendo), and seeing Mario do two different kinds of jumps, i.e. the spin jump and the regular jump.

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Categories: Arkansas, Childhood, Walmart

A day up in Pennsylvania…

July 22, 2022, 8:30 AM

On July 15, Elyse and I went up to Pennsylvania to photograph a very specific target: the western portal of the Kittatinny Mountain Tunnel, which is one of four tunnels on the mainline Pennsylvania Turnpike.  I’ve been wanting to photograph a Pennsylvania Turnpike tunnel for a while, but distance plus operational challenges caused this to be back-burnered for a long time.

My first thought was to photograph the tunnels the old fashioned way: on the turnpike itself, from a vehicle.  I did this on my shoot from 16 years ago where I photographed Breezewood and then did the turnpike to Carlisle.  I do not recommend that anyone do this, at least not the way that I did, because I was driving with one hand and photographing with the other.  At the relatively young age of 24, though, I thought that I was good enough to handle it, but looking back, I’m fortunate that nothing went wrong.  If I had someone else with me doing the driving, this would have been a better option, but I didn’t have one.  Of course, even then, you really only have one shot at it.  The Pennsylvania Turnpike is a toll road, and a relatively expensive one at that, plus the exits are spaced fairly far apart.  Thus, in the case of Kittatinny Mountain (and the adjacent tunnel through Blue Mountain), having to go back to take another crack at it would require about 25 miles of extra driving, considering that the exits on either side are spaced about 12 miles apart, plus the distance to actually turn around at both ends.  Plus extra tolls and the fuel to do that round trip.  Pulling over and shooting some photos from the roadside is also not a viable option, because as I understand it, the PTC does not look favorably on that.  General rule of thumb is that outside of the service plazas, the PTC does not want you outside of your vehicle on their property at any time except if you absolutely have to, and will come check on you if you are outside somewhere that you’re not supposed to be.  So that led me to do some research on Google Maps in order see if there were off-turnpike places to photograph any of the tunnels.  Allegheny Mountain is too far west, being more than halfway to Pittsburgh, plus there’s no off-turnpike access.  Tuscarora also had no access.  No access at Blue Mountain, either.  But at Kittatinny Mountain, Route 641 goes over the turnpike just west of the tunnel portals.  Therefore, we have a winner.

Finding that, I then turned to Elyse and basically said, “Help me justify this outing by building a day,” and sent along a map of my target and the intended route there.  That’s how so many of our adventures happen: there’s something that one of us wants to do, but we can’t justify the time commitment or expense of a trip for it it all by itself.  So we add more stuff and make it into a full-on adventure that typically gets us home around midnight.  Elyse wanted to see a siren and some other stuff in Shippensburg and Chambersburg, so there was the rest of our adventure.

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Saying goodbye to the Orion V…

July 5, 2022, 11:15 AM

On Friday, July 1, Elyse and I went on a transit adventure, going down to Alexandria to attend the ceremonial final trip of the DASH Orion buses.  For those not familiar, DASH is one of the local transit agencies in the DC region, serving Alexandria, Virginia alongside Metrobus.  The Orion V is a model of high-floor transit bus manufactured by Orion Bus Industries from 1989 to 2009.  Orion itself went out of business in 2013 when parent company Daimler mostly exited the bus market in North America (save for selling Setra motorcoaches), and New Flyer, another bus manufacturer, bought Orion’s aftermarket parts business.  Long story short, Orion has been gone for a while, and even the newest high-floor buses are now reaching retirement age.  DASH, meanwhile, had been operating Orion buses since its founding in 1984, initially operating the Orion I model, and later the Orion V.  So this event marked the close of an era in DASH’s history, as these were their last Orion buses in service.  DASH’s fleet now consists mostly of Gillig and New Flyer vehicles.  DASH was also the last agency in the region that still operated the Orion V in service, which closes a chapter in the DC region in general as well.  Metro and Fairfax Connector still operate the later Orion VII model in revenue service, but that is a low-floor bus, and is a very different design than the Orion V.

As far as the Orion V itself goes, that is a pretty solid bus.  Most agencies in the area operated them at some point or other.  I’ve photographed Orion Vs operated by Metro, Ride On, DASH, and Fairfax Connector.  I’ve operated Orion Vs plenty of times, and they’re a lot of fun once you get the hang of them.  I found them to be very difficult to handle as a new operator in a training environment because they were a bit bouncier than the low-floor buses, as well as more sensitive in the steering, but once I was out of training and operating on my own, I was able to get the hang of driving them, and had tons of fun with them, to the point where I looked forward to being assigned one.  If the number started with a “21”, I was a happy guy.  I especially liked to take them on runs that had big deadheading (running without passengers) segments – especially on the freeway.  I remember doing a run a few times where the last revenue trip ended up at Prince George’s Plaza station, and I had to deadhead from there all the way back to Rockville, where the bus division was located.  I would take East-West Highway (MD 410) over to Baltimore Avenue (US 1), and then take that up to the Beltway.  Taking an Orion V on the Beltway late at night was a lot of fun.  I just had to remember to limit my enjoyment to about 60 mph in order to keep myself out of trouble.  After all, our buses had DriveCams on them, and those puppies were sensitive.  I was delighted when I got to take an Orion V out for a spin again in 2018 when a friend who helped run a bus museum was visiting.  I got settled in that seat, and it felt like old times again, after I had not operated an Orion V in a little more than two years at that point – ever since I left the bus in order to do trains.  I took my friend, along with Elyse, on a proper adventure in that bus, going over a few routes from my time as a bus operator, and showing it off a little bit.  A good time was definitely had by all.

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