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Merry Christmas From North Carolina

Christmas everybody! Ashley decided she wanted to assemble a Christmas card this year so we thumbed through our phones to find a photo of both of us with real smiles doing something new since moving to North Carolina last Christmas. We found a shot we both liked from our first, and so far only, trip to the beach.

The drive wasn't bad at all and we were pleasantly surprised when we got there. Fort Macon is right on the point and set up as a museum. We walked through most of the exhibits and took some photos there as well. The sand was real, beach sand. I had forgotten how fine it can be. It's not like that playground, sandbox sand. More than anything, it reminded me of visiting the beach when I was a kid. I have been to Hawaii many times since, but Hawaii sand is not the same. This was Pacific Northwest, Seattle, Oregon sand and as I discovered, also your North Carolina sand.

Anyway, it was a great day. We stopped and had lunch, what else but seafood for a beach day, then took some homemade fudge to go. We broke that open on the beach, found a nice collection of shells and I was thrilled when a flight of V-22's flew over on the way back to New River MCAS, just down the coast.

The photo we found of Ladybird is one I took early on, right after we moved to North Carolina last Christmas. Ladybird loves to look out the window and watch the birds and squirrels and something she never saw in Texas, deer. This is her having a good time for sure.

We all hope you enjoy the card, have a very merry Christmas and take time to remember the reason for the season.

Merry Christmas From North Carolina

Beginning Of Bowl-Bound

Right now, Duke's football team is preparing for a meeting with Arizona State in the Sun Bowl December 27. Head coach David Cutcliffe took this program and made some serious noise with it, ending an 18-year bowl drought in 2012 with a Belk Bowl bid against Cincinnati and followed that with a huge game against Texas A&M in the 2013 Chick-fil-A bowl -- a game the Blue Devis nearly won and led at half by a wide margin.

So here they are again, in 2014, looking as strong as ever and prepping for a difficult PAC-12 opponent, but this season began in Wallace Wade Stadium on the Duke University campus, several weeks ago, against an opponent from just up the road -- Elon. I was hired to photograph that game and decided it would be appropriate to share a few photos. Go Duke!

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Courage Unmasked

This is such an interesting idea. Several patients who underwent radiation treatment at Randolph Cancer Center donated their radiation masks to Randolph County artists who then made meaningful pieces of art from them. The idea was to turn something ugly into something beautiful. Mission accomplished. I photographed a couple of my favorites. Note the detail highlighted in the final photo.

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George Preddy

One of Carolina's biggest war heroes is George Preddy, from Greensboro, N.C. He was a storied fighter pilot who served in World War II and was the leading ace in the P-51 Mustang. He finished sixth on the all-time ace list and may have pushed beyond that if not for a tragic friendly-fire accident that resulted in his death. His planes bore a succession of names beginning with Cripes A'Mighty. There is a good story behind that name. I read his biography while living in Austin and I had hoped to come across his name in Carolina. As luck would have it, I did, at the North Carolina Museum of History. There wasn't much, but I took a good, long look at what was on display in the World War II section.

I strongly recommend his biography, George Preddy, Top Mustang Ace. If you're looking for other books along those lines worth a read, I also recommend Robin Olds' biography, Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds, Greg "Pappy" Boyington's biography, Baa Baa Black Sheep, and Jimmy Doolittle's biography, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again.

NOTE: These are cell phone pictures.

George Preddy

U.S.S. North Carolina -- Battleship -- BB55 -- Wilmington, N.C.

I mentioned in my last post part of our plan during my mom's visit was to tour the U.S.S. North Carolina which was docked in Wilmington, N.C. I was sure I could do anything at that point in the day, and if you don't know why, just read the previous post below. We wandered up the ship's gangplank and poked around on deck for a while. It was a cloudy, humid, spring day on the Carolina coast and most of the deck was wet. It was also raining off and on so we didn't spend too much time in the open. Most of the stairs and handholds were metal and wet so everything was slippery. I knew my mom had a fresh new knee and didn't want to take too many chances sliding around on the compromising metal surfaces, but we saw what we could then found an entrance to the guts of this behemoth.

As it turns out, there were a few entrances and exits available to us, but we entered in such a way that the engine room was one of our first stops. We could see the huge engines that powered the ship and read about how many sailors it took to run them. It seems nothing on that ship could operate with just one person's input. Everything took a crew. Just one of the huge turrets alone took a football team or two of men to operate. I learned those turrets were fed from large storage rooms below which used chains and pulleys to resupply the guns up top.

This was not the coolest of days, though humidity was in full effect, but it was getting really warm in that sucker. We were all sweating after a while, but pressed on regardless. I couldn't believe how many times we had to take another set of stairs down. There must have been 100 decks on that boat. Sometimes we'd hit a new deck, locate a sign with an arrow meant to guide the tour, step toward it and discover yet another deck waiting below for us. I'd say it must have taken forever for a sailor to learn his away around, but I realized he'd spend 100 percent of his time on that ship while deployed and that had to shrink it in a hurry.

We weaved our way throughout the halls of the ship, laughing at some of the sights, shaking our heads at others and we all made inquisitive, disbelieving faces as we explored the medical section, perusing the dental equipment and surgical provisions.

We eventually made our way to the bridge. We took turns sitting in the captain's chair and posed for pictures. We came across a periscope at one point as well and looked all around Wilmington. A tour such as that can really provide perspective. I can't believe so many men lived like that during World War II, but they did. As far as I'm concerned, it just adds to their reputation for being the greatest generation.

We debriefed our eventful day over some fantastic seafood nearby at The Pilot House before the fourish-hour drive back to our 'boro.

NOTE: These are cell phone pictures.

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Oak Island Lighthouse

My mom came to visit us in North Carolina. I'm glad she did because it turned out to be one of the best weeks we spent in the state. We, as a rule, don't really take "vacation" lightly. We never have. I've traveled to many places, domestically and abroad, and I've hardly set one foot out of the box compared to the places the rest of my family has been, especially my mom. I can scarcely remember a trip we took as a family where we didn't cram as much fun and adventure as possible into the days and nights. Sleep was only available as an activity between activities and I loved it that way. For this reason, I knew my mom would understand when we presented her with a high-intensity itinerary and like a champ, she never missed a beat. In fact, I had to give her the red light a time or two. The most notable instance was during our early morning visit to Oak Island, where I nearly gave myself the red light as well.

My mom loves lighthouses. She always has. North Carolina is famous for its lighthouses and we thought it would be fun to select one to visit while she was in town. We all agreed Cape Hatteras was the best and would be ideal, but it was way out there and would have taken us forever to reach. If I recall correctly, the tour schedule for Hatteras wasn't gelling with our plans either. There were a few other options that wouldn't require us to spend the entire day traveling to and from a lighthouse, but the best one, and a last-minute decision, was Oak Island not far from Wilmington. We decided we'd tour the lighthouse, then tour the U.S.S. North Carolina, a retired battleship-turned museum docked there as well, then have lunch and come home. Hatteras not working out was looking like a blessing in disguise. And then, the lighthouse!

As is always the case, we learned a lot about the Oak Island Lighthouse. Turns out, this particular lighthouse was built by the Coast Guard and as a result, did not utilize the traditional spiral staircase design, but rather stuffed the cylinder with a series of ship ladders. For those of you not familiar with a ship ladder, it is a steep, metal ladder with metal steps and a row of thin metal piping to grab tightly for dear life. On floor one, that grip is fairly loose. As one approaches the top of the 153-foot structure (131 steps), that grip turns crushing. Who knew climbing a lighthouse would be such a forearm workout. Luckily there was a landing after the second flight of stairs and that's where I told my mom, and her brand new knee, she could hang out. I should have done the same. One can see plenty from there. For climbing the rest of the way, one only gains the view of his life passing before his eyes, the feeling of his heart in this throat and a pulse like a hummingbird's.

Before I completely sissify myself, let me explain a little further. This was the coast, in Carolina, in the morning, in spring and it was cloudy. The result: really high humidity. Everything was wet and it had recently rained. The website instructed us to wear sneakers, I guess as opposed to sandals, but they should have said shoes that grip well on metal in the rain. We all walked over the wet ground to get to the concrete and metal lighthouse and our shoes were not in a hurry to dry. We had a fairly full tour. No more than 20 at a time were allowed, but we came close. I'd guess maybe 15. We all climbed the ladders one-after-the-other with no form of safety harness or fall prevention or really any safety measure whatsoever. Our shoes squeaked and the ladders creaked and we tried not to look down. There is something rather unsettling about climbing a ladder while the feet of the person ahead of one are literally a foot from one's face, distinctly failing to grip each and every step.

So we all slipped and slid our way up roughly two-thirds of the stairs before I heard a loud, echoing, metal bang, followed closely by a woman's shrieking. I guess it had scared her. I was certain someone was about to fly down the middle of the cylinder and past me, smacking and twirling the occasional metal pipe along the way as I had visualized about 100 times by that point. But nobody tumbled after all. The bang was the sound the door at the top made when it was opened. Sure would have appreciated a warning for that one, but that's neither here nor there.

Once at the top, my wife, completely devoid of fear, stepped out on the ledge and proceeded to bounce around the lighthouse taking photos and pointing out various landmarks. I poked my head out once or twice, but mainly spent my time at the top wondering how in God's name we were going to get our tired, terrified and yet undried asses back down that 153-foot coffin. I must have been perspiring fear because the little old lady who was helping lead the tour gave me one of those sideways looks and asked if I was ready to go back down. I answered with determined clarity, "Yes!"

Somehow I figured God was with my wife, had sent and angel to stip her of what should have been crippling fear and had a plan to bring her back down safely and took what I was sure was a life-saving head start back down. As off-putting as climbing was, descending was without question worse. Literally one slip and there was nothing between me and the solid foundation below. I did my best to focus, repeating to myself, "left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot," remembering to tell my hands to slide down with every step.

I eventually reached the bottom, as did my wife and we reunited with my mom at the bottom. I don't usually hit the gift shop, but I'll be damned if I was walking away from that little near-death experience without some kind of trophy. I bought a mug. I see it every morning when I reach in the cabinet for something to pour my coffee in and every time I see it, I get a little chill. I should have been happy just to walk away with my life, but I earned that mug and if it ever breaks, I plan to replace it immediately.

NOTE: These are cell phone pictures.

Oak Island

Jordan Lake

Ashley and I live in Colorado now. We moved after a couple years so she could accept a position with the University of Colorado at Boulder's BioFrontiers Institute. We've been here for a few months now and I thought it would be a good time to fill in some of the gaps on the blog. I had intentionally left it idle for a period of time, but am back to updating it again. So here come a few Carolina posts followed by a couple Colorado ones.

One of our favorite places to go in Carolina was Jordan Lake. It's of decent size and sits very near where we lived in Pittsboro, just south of Chapel Hill. There was tremendous wildlife, including bald eagles, which more than once we saw swooping down from overhead to track down a meal. It was incredible to see those birds, but even more special to see them from such a close distance and in their natural habitat. We also learned to love the loon and saw many of them lining the brushy shores. They sit very still, move very slowly and blend in extremely well. Eventually we learned where they like to hang out and could spot them without much effort, but they sure do make it tricky for the untrained eye. They were also a sight to see once they decided to move on, launching on the deck and hugging the water while flapping their large wings to build up speed and eventually altitude. We usually forced them into the trees overhead where they were much more visible, but clear from danger.

We kayaked on the lake. It was always pretty, even when the winded kicked up and the thunderclouds began to roll in. Thunderstorms hit us regularly and they hover so close to the ground. I felt as if I could reach up and touch the storm clouds. We knew all too well what wind meant for kayakers after a somewhat ill-timed excursion we booked on a cruise to Mexico which plopped us in a two-person kayak off the coast of Costa Maya plowing all ahead full into a massive headwind with sizeable ocean waves. Though Jordan Lake had nothing for us compared to what Costa Maya threw our way, we were still aware of the way paddling into a stiff wind would replace our next upper body, back and core workouts. I loved to fish from the kayak and became furious when the wind decided to huff and puff because it mean impossible fishing. It didn't necessarily mean the fish weren't interested. More than anything, it meant I wasn't. No matter which way I was facing when I traded my paddle for my pole, the wind would reposition me so I was inevitably facing the wind with my broadside and drifting as a sailboat toward the shore. There was also no direction in which I could cast my bait which wouldn't have it either rocketing back toward me or me chasing it like a destroyer hunting for a submarine.

I know Ashley got a kick out of it, but also remain relatively cautious while I was flipping out with a boat full of brand new fish hooks. Thank God for beer or who knows across which stretch of lake bed myself and my boat might be stretch at this very moment.

NOTE: These are cell phone pictures. I was never brave enough to take any of my DSLR's on the water, but I decided these stories were worth posting even without top-notch images. I think I'm going to mix in cell phone photos from now on because I won't always have my camera(s) with me when noteworthy events present themselves, but I do plan to get my camera(s) back out and take some good quality shots of Colorado to post in the near future.

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