Fireworks from the Wine Train

Wine Train Dining Car with Mary

Wine Train Dining Car with Mary

For the Fourth of July this year, Mary and I decided to have dinner on the Napa Valley Wine Train once again. The photo above shows Mary in one of the train’s dining cars, just as it was getting dark and we were preparing to watch the firework display from the train.

The “Wine Train” is a tourist meal excursion that, since 1989, has operated from Napa to St. Helena and back on the tracks of the old Napa Valley Railroad. The line originally ran from Napa Junction to Calistoga, but had been cut back to St. Helena in 1960. In 1987, when the Southern Pacific Railroad decided to abandon the remaining tracks, a local business group stepped up to buy the line and operate it as a tourist railroad.

The Yountville Stop

Generally, the dinner trains run nightly up and down the line, but it’s simply a round trip with dinner, because you usually can’t disembark in St. Helena. Once a year, however, on the Fourth of July, the train makes an extra stop outside the Yountville Veterans’ Home, which provides a public firework show. Passengers can watch the fireworks from the comfort of the train, and it is perhaps a unique way to enjoy the display without the inconveniencies of sitting outdoors at night.

The photo below shows the Yountville Veterans’ Home before dark, taken from the northbound train.

Yountville Veterans' Home from the Wine Train

Yountville Veterans’ Home from the Wine Train

The photo below shows a typical vineyard view from the train. This is the V Sattui Winery. The roses at the end of each row of vines are intended to keep aphids off the grapes.

V Sattui Winery from the Wine Train

V Sattui Winery from the Wine Train

Turnaround in St. Helena

When the train reaches St. Helena, the locomotive must run around for the return journey. This year, for the first time since we’ve been taking trips on the Wine Train, our motive power was not a pair of Alco FPA-4s, but instead GP20 #48, on lease from the Sierra Railroad. Currently, the owners of the Wine Train are refurbishing much of the rolling stock, which has necessitated leasing stock from elsewhere.

Locomotive #48 is shown below as it ran past our carriage.

Sierra Railroad #48 at St. Helena

Sierra Railroad #48 at St. Helena

The photo below, taken at St. Helena during our 2016 visit, shows one of the FPA-4s more traditionally associated with the Wine Train.

Alco FPA-4 at St. Helena

Alco FPA-4 at St. Helena

Eventually we arrived back at Yountville after dark, the train halted, and we settled in to enjoy the fireworks. The photo below shows a typical scene, shot from inside the train.

Fireworks at Yountville, 2018

Fireworks at Yountville, 2018

I’d just bought a new Nikon camera, which features a “fireworks mode”, so this was an excellent opportunity to try that out. I was very pleased with the results.

An Excellent Dinner

I should add that our dinners on the train were excellent. In “special dining” situations such as this, the quality of food and service sometimes leaves something to be desired. In the early days of the Wine Train (during the 1990s), the food was not always outstanding, but our recent dinners on the trains have been perfect.

Independence Day for Kites

Juvenile White-Tailed Kite

Juvenile White-Tailed Kite

I took the photo above, showing a juvenile White-Tailed Kite, yesterday evening. I’d gone out for a short walk to take some test shots with a new Nikon superzoom camera. The results were better than I’d anticipated! Unfortunately, the only angle from which I could take the photos was against the sun, but nonetheless the results show good detail.

The White-Tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus, aka Black-Shouldered Kite) has apparently come back from the verge of extinction in California. It certainly seems to be an increasingly common bird here. When I first saw one, hovering over the old Naval airfield near our house a few years ago, I thought that it must be some kind of albino Kestrel, because that hovering behavior is very similar to that of the Eurasian and American Kestrels.

Until now, I’d only ever seen one kite at a time, but, yesterday evening, I eventually spotted no less than four kites flying around and screeching. They seemed to be fighting with each other, and sometimes with other birds of prey.

Eventually, and thanks to the detail revealed in the zoomed photographs, I realized that this must be a family of young kites, who were in the process of establishing their own territories. In the photo above, you can see brown plumage on the bird’s breast, which marks it as a juvenile.

The second photo below shows the plumage on the young kite’s back to better effect.

The same Juvenile White-Tailed Kite, showing its Black Shoulders

The same Juvenile White-Tailed Kite, showing its Black Shoulders

The birds were apparently disputing the prime rodent-hunting territory of the old airfield.

While all this was happening, nearby, perched on a power wire, was the Mourning Dove shown below. I’ve mentioned these birds, and their similarities to some species of Old World doves, in a previous article.

Mourning Dove, observing the Action

Mourning Dove, observing the Action

Normally I would expect such timid birds to go under cover when there are hawks around, but it seems that the dove had concluded that the kites were so preoccupied with each other that everyone else was safe!

I was considering what to write about for this year’s Fourth of July holiday, and it struck me that the independence battles of these young hawks made for an appropriate theme, despite being quite different from the Moggies cartoon that I posted for this holiday last year.

If you’ll be celebrating the Fourth of July, enjoy your holiday! Otherwise, have a good week anyway!

A Liberator visits Santa Rosa

B-24 Liberator at Sonoma County Airport

B-24 Liberator at Sonoma County Airport

My photo above shows the last flying Consolidated B-24 “Liberator” bomber, which I’d hoped to be flying in earlier this week. Unfortunately, the flight had to be canceled, due to an engine problem, but nonetheless I had a rare opportunity to examine the aircraft in detail. Alongside several other vintage aircraft, the B-24 was visiting Sonoma County Airport, as part of the annual Wings of Freedom Tour, organized by the Collings Foundation.

My interest in this particular type of aircraft stems from the fact that my father flew in them, as a Wireless Operator (W/O) for the RAF, during World War II. I mentioned in a previous article that he volunteered for the RAF on the outbreak of the war, because somebody had given him a “hot tip” that, by not waiting to be conscripted, he’d be able to choose which service he joined, and where he would serve. Unfortunately, that advice turned out to be only half-right, because he definitely did not want to serve in Aden, which was where he actually spent most of the war.

The Worst Place in the World

As reported in the book Wings of Empire, RAF personnel who served in Aden during the 1920s and 1930s described it as the “most repulsive place in the world”. It was from RAF Khormaksar air base that my father flew offensive missions against Italian forces, and also operated many ferry flights of aircraft being transferred from Britain to the Far East. Most of the ferry missions involved his flying between Aden and Malta.

As the war progressed, Britain took delivery of increasing numbers of American aircraft, under the Lend-Lease program. Thus, having started out flying British types such as the Blenheim and Vincent, he later found himself operating such American types as the Liberator and Hudson. (Incidentally, all the type names of the American aircraft were conferred by the RAF; in the US all the types were officially known only by numbers.)

Inside the B-24

My photo below shows the W/O’s position, behind the flight deck, as seen from the front of the bomb bay. This is where my father would have been sitting on those long flights.

B-24 Wireless Operator Station

B-24 Wireless Operator Station

The photo below, from a slightly different angle, shows the view through to the flight deck from the W/O station.

Looking towards the B-24 Flight Deck from the Bomb Bay

Looking towards the B-24 Flight Deck from the Bomb Bay

Warbirds Together

The B-24 wasn’t the only vintage aircraft visiting Santa Rosa. As shown below, a North American TF-51 trainer (2-seat version of the P-51 Mustang fighter) was just taxying in while I was inside the B-24.

TF-51 Taxying at Sonoma County Airport

TF-51 Taxying at Sonoma County Airport

Lined up alongside the B-24 was a North American B-25 Mitchell bomber, shown below in front of Sonoma Jet Center, who were hosting the visit.

B-25 Mitchell at Sonoma Jet Center

B-25 Mitchell at Sonoma Jet Center

Perhaps the most well-known of the visiting types was the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, shown below.

B-17 Flying Fortress at Sonoma Jet Center

B-17 Flying Fortress at Sonoma Jet Center

Gun Crazy

The US has become notorious for having too many guns, too freely available, but fortunately the realistic-looking machine gun shown below is just a dummy! It’s the waist gunner’s position inside the B-24.

Guns at the Airport!

Guns at the Airport!

As I was leaving, work continued to repair the B-24’s engine, as shown below. The aircraft were scheduled to leave the following day, so they had to get the airplane flying again.

Working on the B-24's Engine

Working on the B-24’s Engine

He Never Went Back

As a postscript to the description of my father’s wartime experience, I should mention that he never went back to Aden again (nor anywhere near it) after his military service, and I don’t think he was sorry about that!

I’ve described in earlier posts how the lives of both my parents were blighted by war, and how fortunate I feel that mine has not (so far). I think it’s important to remind ourselves every so often of the ordeals that our ancestors endured in order to maintain our freedoms.

The Egrets of Ninth Street

Egret Shock Wave, 2018

Egret Shock Wave, 2018

I just completed the drawing above, as an impressionistic depiction of Egrets in flight.

In the thirty-plus years that I’ve lived in California, I’ve become accustomed to seeing brilliant white egrets flying gracefully overhead, or else wading in pools and on moist ground. Before emigrating from England, I’d never seen any species of egret in the wild. Now, egrets are increasingly common in Britain, but when I was young, they were such rare visitors as to be included only in the “Rarest on Record” appendix of the Reader’s Digest Book of British Birds (which was our family’s major reference on the topic).

Shortly after my wife and I moved to Santa Rosa in 2005, we discovered a remarkable natural event that occurs annually in a built-up part of the city. Every year at around this time, significant numbers of wading birds start building nests in a few pine and eucalyptus trees in the center median of West Ninth Street, Santa Rosa. There are several species nesting in close proximity in this heronry: Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets, plus Black-crowned Night Herons. Although they don’t nest there, Green Herons and Great Blue Herons can also be seen in the vicinity. None of these species are rare in California, but it’s their proximity to human habitation in such large numbers that is unusual in this case.

My short video below shows both Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets in the treetops at West Ninth Street, then gives a brief general impression of the scene. The trees are surrounded by houses and apartments, and cars cruise by on either side of the street.

 

Volunteers from the Madrone Audubon Society have assumed responsibility for looking after the heronry. Every year they fence off a portion of the road and put down straw beneath the trees, to protect any baby birds that may fall from the nests.

As you can hear in the video, the birds are quite noisy, and can also create quite a smell on hot days, so I imagine that the local residents are less than enthusiastic about their presence!

Nonetheless, it’s an impressive and fascinating sight for visitors. The photo below is a closeup of a nesting Great Egret, which I took during our visit in 2007.

Great Egret in the Treetops

Great Egret in the Treetops

Egrets in the Park

As I mentioned above, I often see flocks of egrets flying in formation over our house, but they usually don’t land anywhere that’s visible to us. Occasionally, however, a flock decides to feed in the park in front of our house, as shown below in a through-the-window photo, taken one foggy morning in 2016.

Egrets Feeding in our Local Park

Egrets Feeding in our Local Park

Herons At Large

In a previous blog post, I featured a photo of a Black-crowned Night Heron that appeared unexpectedly by the swimming pool of the Z Hotel in Oakland while we were staying there.

My photo below shows a Great Blue Heron wading in the Napa River a few years ago, alongside a gull.

Great Blue Heron, Napa River

Great Blue Heron, Napa River

Technical Note

Incidentally, I’m already aware that the egrets in my drawing display features from several different species. I chose features for their artistic impact, rather than for technical accuracy.

Becoming American (in Oakland)

Stage of the Paramount Theatre, Oakland

Stage of the Paramount Theatre, Oakland

Last Thursday, I officially became a citizen of the United States of America, after living here for about 27 years as a legal Permanent Resident. The photo above shows the stage of the Paramount Theatre, in Oakland, which was where the swearing-in ceremony took place.

(I mentioned in a previous post that I had passed the US Citizenship test at the CIS offices in San Francisco, and was waiting to be called for this event.)

Given the number of new citizens being admitted, there was a large crowd at the event. There were 1,018 people being sworn in at that ceremony, and everyone had been invited to bring family and friends, so there were several thousand people in the theater.

Prior to the actual oath-taking, there were several speeches, videos, and even a choir! The photo below shows California Secretary of State, Alex Padilla, speaking to the audience. Padilla himself is an immigrant from Mexico.

Alex Padilla Speaking at the Ceremony

Alex Padilla Speaking at the Ceremony

At the end of the ceremony, everyone takes the Oath of Allegiance as a group, and then Certificates of Naturalization are distributed to each individual. After exiting the auditorium, we were invited to register to vote and to apply for a US passport. This turned out to be quite chaotic, so instead of trying to get a photograph of me in the theatre, we went to the coffee shop next door, where Mary took the photo below. The flag in my hand was given to me at the ceremony, but I’ve owned the tie for many years!

A New American!

A New American!

An Art Deco Masterpiece

The Paramount Theatre was built in 1931, by an affiliate of Paramount Pictures, and was constructed in an opulent Art Deco style. Thankfully, after decades of neglect, the building was saved and restored to its current condition.

The photo below shows the theater’s lobby, with soon-to-be citizens entering from the street in the background.

Lobby of the Paramount Theatre, Oakland

Lobby of the Paramount Theatre, Oakland

The exterior of the theater is equally impressive, as shown below.

Exterior of the Paramount Theatre, Oakland

Exterior of the Paramount Theatre, Oakland

Next door to the theater is another spectacular Art Deco survivor, the former I Magnin store, clad in beautiful green terracotta (and also built in 1931), now converted into offices and a coffee shop. This coffee shop was the one in which Mary took the photo of me, above.

In the photo below, the queue around the building is formed by people waiting to get into the theater for the next swearing-in ceremony, which began almost as soon as mine was over!

Former I Magnin Store, Oakland

Former I Magnin Store, Oakland

It’s a great credit to the City of Oakland that at least some of its architectural gems have been saved in this way, and their presence comes as quite a surprise in the midst of so much “urban blight”.

Hear that Lonesome Whistle Blow

The ceremony started quite early in the morning, so, to avoid the rush hour traffic, we decided to stay over in Oakland the night before. We stayed at the Z Hotel, Jack London Square. The photo below shows the hotel and its parking lot after dark.

The Z Hotel, Oakland

The Z Hotel, Oakland

As the song “Walk Like An Egyptian” goes; “If you want to find all the cops, They’re hanging out…” at this hotel, apparently. The Buttercup coffee shop at the hotel is open late, and the location is close to the Oakland Police Station, so it seems that this has become a regular meeting place. The “police presence” certainly made us feel safer while staying at the hotel!

The impressive floodlit building below is situated on the opposite side of 3rd Street from the hotel, but it took some time before I worked out what it actually is. It is the former depot of the Western Pacific railroad, whose trains stopped on street tracks in front of the depot until 1970.

Former Western Pacific Depot, Oakland

Former Western Pacific Depot, Oakland

This photo on Flickr shows a WP California Zephyr train waiting at the depot. You can see the depot building on the right, and on the left is the motel that is now the Z Hotel.

Although there are no longer any railroad tracks down 3rd Street, they are very much still in place on Embarcadero West, only about 2 blocks away from the hotel. This line is still heavily used by both passenger and freight trains. The photo below shows the tail end of a freight that had just passed the crossing on Broadway.

Freight Train on Embarcadero West, Oakland

Freight Train on Embarcadero West, Oakland

We could hear the train horns quite clearly from the hotel, although fortunately they do not sound in the middle of the night.

The Heron at the Pool

As mentioned above, the Z Hotel itself is a former motel, and still features a swimming pool. The following morning, while we were getting ready to take a shuttle bus up Broadway to the theater, the pool’s sole user was a Black-Crowned Night Heron, which was hoping in vain to catch its breakfast there! The photo below shows the pool area and a closeup of the bird.

Black-crowned Night Heron enjoying the Pool

Black-crowned Night Heron enjoying the Pool

When I open my wallet now, it seems strange not to see the Permanent Resident Card that I was required to carry for 27 years! This is due to a legal oddity; non-citizens are required to carry proof of their residency status, but citizens are not.

The Japanese Garden, San Mateo

JapaneseGarden1Cright

Japanese Garden, Central Park, San Mateo

On Sunday morning, I took the photo above of the Japanese Garden in San Mateo’s Central Park. At first glance, it would be easy to think that this garden must be in Japan, but the reality is that we’re fortunate to have it right here in California.

It is perhaps not surprising that the garden looks so authentically Japanese, because it was designed by Nagao Sakurai, who, in his younger days, had been Chief Gardener at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Nonetheless, all gardens require constant maintenance, and the City of San Mateo has done an amazing job in tending to this one since its creation in 1965.

I didn’t notice until I was editing the picture above just how well the trees behind the lake disguise the huge apartment building that would otherwise dominate the view.

The garden also features Japanese-style pavilions, as shown below.

JapaneseGarden2Cright

Pavilion at the Japanese Garden

I suspect that one reason why the garden stays in such pristine condition is because it can only be accessed via locked gates, as shown below from the outside. The gates are opened to the public between 10am and 4pm each day (11am – 4pm at weekends).

JapaneseGarden3Cright

The Gates of the Japanese Garden

When we lived in San Mateo, Mary and I would visit the Japanese Garden whenever we could. The beauty of this garden, along with others that we saw in Japan, inspired us to try to recreate our own much more modest version in our current home.

A Walk in the Park

It was a beautiful morning for a stroll in the park; sunny and calm, but still cool. Outside the walled-off Japanese Garden, wisteria bushes were blooming, as shown below.

CentralParkSanMateoCright

San Mateo Central Park

I also visited the nursery of the San Mateo Arboretum Society, which was holding a plant sale. The photo below is a general view of the nursery.

SanMateoArboretum1Cright

San Mateo Arboretum Society

The Annual Flight Crew Luncheon

The primary reason that Mary and I had traveled to the Peninsula was to attend the annual luncheon for United Airlines flight crew, which took place once again at the Westin Hotel (below) near San Francisco Airport.

WestinSFOCright

Westin Hotel, San Francisco Airport

While we were parking outside the hotel, the usual lineup of aircraft waiting for takeoff could be seen on the runways of SFO, just across the waters of the bay, as shown below. There are 2 United Airlines aircraft visible, plus an Air China Boeing 747 and a Virgin Airways Airbus.

Aircraft Queueing for Takeoff at SFO

Aircraft Queueing for Takeoff at SFO

Mary had once again volunteered to help organize the reunion luncheon, and she did a great job, which was much appreciated by all the attendees. For both of us, it was very pleasant to be able to meet up once again with old friends.

Thank you once again to all those who continue to make the annual reunion possible!

A Short Stay in San Francisco

Embarcadero Wharves, San Francisco

Embarcadero Wharves, San Francisco

The photo above shows part of San Francisco’s famous Embarcadero, which was once a busy docklands area (with rows of wharves on the right), and was a major embarkation port during World War II, but is now mainly a tourist attraction. My wife took the photo yesterday, while we were staying for a short time in the City. When I first visited this location, about 30 years ago, there was a railroad yard on the left (which had been part of the State Belt Railroad), but all that is now gone, and the only tracks are those for Muni streetcars.

Mary and I had gone to San Francisco so that I could attend my US Naturalization interview. I’ve been a US Permanent Resident (always legally, of course) since 1991, and, following many years’ procrastination, I decided that, instead of renewing my “Green Card” again, I’d apply to become a US citizen. Part of this process involves an interview with a CIS officer, who tests you on your English language skills and your knowledge of US history and government. In addition to passing an FBI background check, you have to undergo these tests to have your citizenship application accepted.

Given that my interview was scheduled for early morning, we decided that, rather than try to rush through the morning traffic, we’d stay overnight nearby the night before. We chose the Galleria Park Hotel, partly because it was close, but also because it’s pet-friendly, and we wanted to bring our cats with us! The photo below shows the hotel building, on the corner of Sutter and Kearny streets.

Galleria Park Hotel, San Francisco

Galleria Park Hotel, San Francisco

Whenever Mary and I arrive at a hotel, we try to remember to take a “selfie” on the bed in our room. The photo below shows us just settling in at the Galleria Park.

Arrival at Galleria Park Hotel

Arrival at Galleria Park Hotel

The hotel building dates back to 1911, but has recently been renovated, while retaining many of its Art Nouveau features. All of us (Mary, the cats, and I) had a very enjoyable stay there, and can recommend that hotel if you need to stay in San Francisco’s financial district.

The photo below shows a twilight view from the window of our room. The skyscraper in the center background is the former Bank of America building at 555 California Street.

View of the Bank of America Building at Twilight

View of the Bank of America Building at Twilight

Ginger in the City

The photo below, taken by Mary, shows one of our cats, Ginger Tom, arriving in style on his first visit to San Francisco.

He was riding along Van Ness Avenue in our car, and was intensely curious about everything around him.

Ginger in the City

Ginger in the City

Return to an Old Haunt

During our stay, we took the opportunity to revisit a very long-established restaurant that we last ate together at about 30 years ago, while we were dating.

Sam's Grill, San Francisco

Sam’s Grill, San Francisco

The restaurant in question is Sam’s Grill, which has what is, by California standards, a truly ancient history, all the way back to 1867. We had a very enjoyable meal there, sitting in one of the private booths. Many of the other eateries that we frequented when dating are long gone, so it’s nice to find one that is still going strong.

Status: Approved

Fortunately, I passed my citizenship test, and my application has been recommended for approval. I anticipate that the next step in the process will be that I’ll be called to a swearing-in ceremony, where I expect to receive my Certificate of Naturalization. I’ll write about that experience when it happens.