Monday, December 7, 2009

Rogues and Mavericks - Meeting Sarah Palin, the new Pegge Parker

Several days ago, Lisa Pelto, the CEO of Concierge Marketing said, "John, Sarah Palin is coming to Sioux City next Sunday for a book signing. Are you interested in going to see her and check out what a big book signing would entail?" I said, “Why not, even if we don't get to see her, we can talk to all the people who will be in line. Who knows, we may even get hlucky and see her (Hlucky is the name of my publishing company which publishes the memoirs of my family, which I call "ego trips.")

So, it was a plan. On a very cold Sunday morning, Lisa picked me up at 4:00 a.m. and after stopping for a very large cup of hot gas station coffee, we drove the 90 miles north to Sioux City. We arrived at 5:50 a.m. at the Barnes & Noble bookstore located in the Southern Hills Shopping Center of Sioux City, and joined the several hundred bundled people waiting for the 6 a.m. start of the distribution of the first-come, first-served tickets.

We were divided into brackets of 100 people. Lisa and I were in the "C" bracket so we knew there were at least 200 ahead of us, but it looked promising that we would at least get in the door. We stood in line outside for an hour and a half, stamping our feet and waving our arms to keep warm. At several intervals, courteous Barnes & Noble employees encouraged us by saying that we would soon be allowed into the mall where it was warm. They did a great job of communicating to the throng, which made the wait more pleasant, for certain, as did our newest friends.

At 7:00 a.m. we were brought in single file and positioned along the walls of the mall entry hall – much nicer, as it was brightly lit and WARM, with restrooms available. Soon we were given wristbands and told that if we used the buddy system we could leave the line. We were free to go to our cars to leave blankets and extra clothing in our cars. Some of our fellow "waiters" who had arrived the evening before were able to leave and check out of their hotels, run errands, etc.

As the minutes and hours went by, we soon were meeting and talking to our neighbors, and by 11:00 a.m. it was a fantastic "block party" with neighbors exchanging stories of why they were there, where they had come from - Omaha, Des Moines, Cleveland, and all over Iowa. We had such a great time, I suggested planning a reunion the following year. Soon, newsmen and women, television cameras and reporters arrived to record the pictures of the lines and interview random Sarah supporters.

I was greeted by a friend who was the videographer (they used to be called cameramen and women) for ABC News. ABC's Jesus Ayala and my friend interviewed me and asked why I was there and what I thought about Sarah Palin.(I said she was a very bright and friendly, good looking mother of five, with a very bright future – although I said I thought it was too early to be thinking about 2012.) ABC was only one of a number of national media present. Carl Cameron of the Fox News network was walking about the mall and talking with everyone. He and I chatted for about 10 minutes about Pakistan and what is happening in the region (I was there during the partition of India and Pakistan. I thought it was interesting that he had a line of people asking for his autograph and it was almost like a Fox News booksigning. Evidently, most of the people there to see Sarah were also viewers of the Fox network. We also talked to reporters from the BBC and CBS, as well as the local Sioux City television stations, newspapers and bloggers -- all very friendly and professional.

The signing was originally to begin at noon, but her plane from Washington was delayed by weather and it was after 1:30 that she arrived. At the time, the line wound throughout the store with lines of people in and around the shelves, and we were within the last 10 people allowed inside the store, leaving another 200 people outside of the store lined up from the entrance of Barnes and Noble to the Mall doors several hundred feet away.

About 1:30, the customer relations manager approached us and asked for Lisa, who had called two weeks prior to see if it was true that we would have to stand outside for six hours in the cold. (Up until we arrived at 5:50 a.m., that was the case.) She said they had arranged special accommodations for me, up in the front area. She explained that we would be “taken into the stream” after the people who had been camped outside since 10:00 p.m. the night before. We were happy they didn't put us before them, as they had endured a very cold night. She whisked us up with our books and away from our new friends (by that point in the day, it felt like we were leaving our beloved brethren behind to fend for themselves in the vast open sea), and took us past the people lined up among the aisles and sat us right in front of the black curtain that was to contain the booksigning and keep the press in check. (I heard later that our new friends were through the line 25 minutes later.)

Now, on to the actual big event. Everyone was told earlier that coats, bags, purses, cameras or cell phones were strictly prohibited; only what was “on your person” with a maximum of two books would be permitted. Sarah would be inside the enclosure of the store with black curtains. Each book was marked with a little green sticker with the person's initials and either a 1 or a 2. Thus, when a person enters, they hand their books to the aide who passes them down the line until they are opened to the page and passed to Sarah who shakes hands with the fan and then signs her name (not necessarily lining them up with their owners at that moment). The book is then to be passed down the line to an area where they match up the owners with those books.

When she arrived there was a loud cheer and rhythmic chants of “Sarah, Sarah,” and the anticipation from the crowd and the bookstore staff was palpable. We could see the action through the black curtains prior to her appearance -- the security, the staff, the quick straightening of a few of the books that served as her backdrop. Then the flurry of her arrival, items and people finding their place with quick efficiency and order. Then only seconds later, the first 50 or so people were hurried through the line to have only seconds to shake her hand and say a pleasantry or two. Mrs. Palin greeted each person with a sparkling smile and very little conversation other than “Hi. Glad to meet you. What’s your name?”

Soon, a representative from the bookstore told us it was time for me and Lisa to enter the curtained area, and they gracefully spliced us into the line. We dutifully handed over our books as instructed and when I was before Sarah, I told her that I had come because my late wife, Pegge Parker, was an “early Sarah.” I went on to tell her that Pegge had been a reporter on the Fairbanks Daily News Miner during World War II and that she had been a star reporter in Washington. I continued that after Alaska, Pegge moved on to become a foreign correspondent in China. I also added that she had married an American Vice Consul, Douglas Mackiernan, who was actually a CIA agent using the diplomatic office as a cover.

(Lisa told me later that while I was talking to her, Sarah laid her pen down in the book, which must have been a signal to the store personnel and security that she was okay with this because they let me talk and did not try to hurry me along. Lisa said that she had observed other people that had stopped to talk for a few more seconds than allowed, and that they had guided them politely away from the table.) I went on to briefly explain to Sarah that Mackiernan had been killed at the Tibetan border while exiting to safety, and his was the first star on the Wall of Honor at the CIA Headquarters. She seemed very interested and asked if she could personalize the book to Pegge; and then offered her condolences when I told her it was too late, that Pegge left us a year ago. I also told her I had left with her staff the book of Pegge’s life “The Slow Boat to China”, and asked her to read the chapter on Pegge’s time in Alaska. We shook hands again, and I left. Lisa, who was right behind me, listened to what I had said and she, I trust, will confirm the above remembrance. After the signing, we were shuffled into a holding area where the wristbands were cut off. (I had hoped to keep one for a souvenir but they were insistent that the bands be destroyed.)

As we were driving out of the parking lot we spotted Sarah's beautiful and brightly colored bus and dutifully had our pictures taken in front of it.

By 2:10, after over 10 hours of driving and waiting, sitting and talking, interviewing and running, we were in the car and we headed for home. At the halfway point the snow began to whirl over the highway, but we both agreed that we had “hlucked out.” We had experienced a big major celebrity booksigning, made many new friends, and I had talked to Sarah Palin and told her about my book. And, Lisa adds, for future reference, we gained some valuable hints on how to conduct my big booksignings and those of her stable of authors. ;-)

Lisa added the following comments: Ms. Palin must be pretty special, since John not only met, but became friends with, the likes of Ghandi, Nehru, Kennedy, Batista, Peron, the Dahli Lama, and countless other world leaders and celebrities. If Sarah gets any inkling of how special that moment in her life truly was, then it will have been worth the trip, the waiting and the exhaustion yesterday.

In a few days, we’ll be able to post pictures that the publisher shot during our moments at the booksigning with Mrs. Palin.

To view more photos of the book signing, click here.

Friday, July 31, 2009


Monday morning, July 20, I met David Godfrey at the airport in San Jose for the short flight to Tortuguero. Also on the flight was Dan Evans, the CCC's chief satellite tracking researcher, accompanied by his wife, Gayle, and six year old son, Noah. The Nature Air, 20 passenger Twin-Otter, made a smooth landing on the cement landing strip, so different from the Cessna's landing on the sand beach 50 years ago. There to meet us was Juan Carlos Barrantes, the manager of the research station. Our bags were carried to the small dock and into the station's outboard motor-powered boat. A 15 minute ride on the river and we were at the station, named for John H. Phipps, one of the original sponsors of the CCC. For me, what a change. Now I saw in the coconut grove, modern buildings with marked paths to the little museum, three dormitories, a dining hall, and an air conditioned building housing the library (named for Joshua Powers) and an office, complete with computer communications. We were met by Dr. Emma Harrison, the CCC Scientific Director and the Field Coordinator, Clare Atkinson, who carries out the daily work on the beach. I was taken to one of the dormitories for visiting scientists (me being upgraded). I had a room of my own with four bunks complete with a wash basin, FLUSH TOILET, and a HOT SHOWER. (What a change from a hammock and an outhouse over the river.) The research station has electricity and water piped in from the nearest city.

After a breakfast of scrambled (chicken) eggs, cereal, fruit and coffee, we met a number of the volunteers, young college graduates studying for advanced degrees.

Then Dan Evans gave a presentation about the transmitters which were to be attached to the backs of two turtles on the next two nights. One, which looked like a small, black laundry iron, was manufactured in Australia and, he added, cost $2,100. A second transmitter, manufactured in California, was smaller, and had a built-in GPS system, was $3,600. Dan explained how the two transmitters were to be attached with a special epoxy (a little more complicated than "Elmer's Glue").

After lunch we repaired for a little rest because we looked forward to a night of walking the black sand beach of Tortuguero. I had been advised (warned?) that I could expect as much as four hours each night.) The research station's volunteers patrol the five miles of beach each night, counting each turtle, and tagging it after it has made its nest, laid its eggs, and then lumbers back into the sea.

Tortuguero, of course, is now a bustling community on both sides of the CCC research station. To the south, a ten minute walk, is the community of Tortuguero, and another short walk is the Tortuguero National Park. Also along the river, are several new hotels and resort bungalows, as well as outboard motor boats plying the river. And to the north, just a ten minute walk, is the Mawamba Lodge, a five star hotel complete with swimming pool and a butterfly enclosure. All this means tourists, lots of them, and so there are rules now as to who and when persons can be on the beach. From eight p.m. to midnight, tourists with guides are allowed on the beach. There are two periods - one from eight to ten, and the second from ten to midnight. From midnight until four the beach is open only to the volunteers from the research station.

The capture of the turtle is now "politically correct." No longer is it flipped until morning. Now, the reasearch station has built boxes--roughly three feet by four and with a side that opens, no top. Once a turtle is spotted, the station is alerted and the box is carried to the beach, on long pipes, with six volunteers carrying it. That first night a turtle was found only 50 yards from the station in the first 15 minutes (so I didn't have to walk very far). And the volunteers were helpful, making sure I didn't fall in the dark. The volunteers carry small lights (like a miner's cap) with red and white bulbs. When the turtle has finished laying her eggs and has covered her nest, she is gently nudged into the box as she makes her way to the sea. She is then carried (like a casket at a funeral with pall bearers) to the research station where she stays for the night.

In the morning, Dan Evans brings out the transmitters and his cleaning utensils. The back of the turtle is scrubbed, and then Dan sand papers gently the shell before he applies the epoxy. It is a process which takes close to an hour to complete.

Meanwhile, tourists arrive. They have been alerted about the operation and they are taken in small groups to the box to observe the turtle and the transmitters. Once the demonstration is complete, the box with turtle is carried to the beach. A large sign advertising the CCC is erected and the box side is opened as the turtle flaps her way to the sea watched by swarms of tourists. It's a great show.

The second night, we were lucky again. A turtle was found close to the station, but when it was examined, it was found she had barnacles and thus the volunteers searched for a second turtle. Again, "hlucky", one was found close to the station. This one had a clean back and again, once it had finished its nesting, it was urged into the box and carried back to the station, a distance of some 200 yards. The next morning, more tourists arrived to watch Dan attach the transmitter. Among the visitors was a group from Merrit College in Oakland, California. On this morning there were about 200 watchers. Sabine Berneret, a French nature photographer, who has published her photos of animals in Africa, was with us both nights and has made her pictures available to the CCC. (When I figure out how to add pictures to this blog I will include some in future blogs.)

For those of you who are computer literate, you can follow the tracks of the turtles by accessing the CCC web site. I'm advised that the first transmitter was a product of a company called Sir Track, which uses the Argos wildlife tracking system to provide basic location data on the turtles' whereabouts. The second unit was produced by Wildlife Tracking and uses both GPS and the Argos system to provide location data. The GPS information is far more exact than the Argos data and lets us know exactly how the turtle is behaving and which habitats it is using.

Also the CCC has set up a website for the upcoming 50th anniversary Gala in New York CCC 50th Anniversary Gala.

Look for pix in future blogs, or visit My Photobucket.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Return to Tortuguero Personal Account

I first met Archie Carr when I was a freelance reporter living in Kingston, Jamaica. I noticed a story that he was conducting an experiment with loggerhead turtles -taking three of them from the west coast of Florida, trucking them to the east coast to see if they would make their way back to the east coast around the south end of Florida. I went to Gainesville and accompanied Archie and his grad students (and two of his own children). Balloons were attached to the shells of the turtles but the experiment, unfortunately was not successful. The turtles sounded and didn't go anywhere. I had hoped to get a story for TimeLife and/or NBC News. No story but Archie then invited me to join the Brotherhood in San Jose.

I arrived in San Jose, accompanied by an attractive young lady from Chicago, Liz Sears. She was the girlfriend of a friend of mine. She had learned of the Brotherhood, phoned Archie and he invited her to join the group.

At San Jose, I joined with the group that went by train from San Jose to Puerto Limon. At Limon, along with Mrs. Phipps, I went to the small zoo, and then to the Central Park to look up at the tall tree to see the two-toed sloths, hanging lazily in the top branches.

Arriving by the chartered Cessna, we walked to the camp (one shack) where the excellent cook, Sibella, had a lunch fixed for us. We then went to the beach where a number of turtles were "belly up." They had been flipped the night before after they had made their nests, laid their ping-pong ball sized eggs, and then covered their nests. Archie's grad students had marked the nests nests and then flipped them so they could be measured in daylight. After they were measured and tagged, they were "righted" and made their way to the sea. The eggs, meanwhile, were scooped up and transferred to new nests protected by wire enclosures.

Of course, one had to be initiated into the Brotherhood - swallowing a raw turtle egg. I have pictures of my own initiation which I will include when I figure out how to include pictures on this blog. (I am still in the instruction stage.)

I have recorded in my book, "Freelancing in Paradise" that we had fried turtle eggs for breakfast each morning. Also, before they were released, red balloons were attached to their shells with fishing line. Archie had hoped to follow their migration paths. also, the turtles were so large that we have pictures of some of the smaller guests riding them down to the shoreline.

Two months later, Archie alerted me that the hatchlings would be popping out of the nests and I flew to Tortuguero and filmed the little wigglers making their way to the sea. Thus, for me, it was a very successful, and profitable, story. I had been able to film at night, the arrival of the turtles as they emerged from the sea, labored like small tanks to their nests, filmed the actual laying eggs (once the turtle begins laying, nothing disturbs her) and the covering of the nests. And in the morning the measuring and attaching of the tags. I was able to film the complete story which was shown on the Today Show, then hosted by Dave Garroway.

That was THEN. Now - 50 years later - the experiments continue, but what a difference 50 years makes...

When I contacted the CCC (Caribbean Conservation Corporation) at Gainesville, David Godfrey, the Executive Director, to ask if there would be any observances, he advised me that a 50th anniversary gala was planned for later in the year in New York. He also advised that the CCC planned to deploy transmitters on two turtles at Tortuguero and invited me to come and watch the experiment.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Return to Tortuguero

It was July 23, 1959, when I joined a group of college professors and conservation supporters at the green turtle nesting beach at Tortuguero (Costa Rica) to the first official meeting of the Brotherhood of the Green Turtle.

And last week, 50 years later, I returned to the beach as a guest of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, the successor to the Brotherhood.
That first meeting was led by Professor Archie Carr, the herpetology professor at the University of Florida at Gainesville. Archie, in the 50's, had written "The Windward Road", which told of the decline in the population of the green sea turtle because of the "encroachment of civilization" (my term) upon the island beaches of the Caribbean. A New York book publisher, Joshua B. Powers, read the book. Impressed, he sent it to several friends and the result was a meeting of conservation enthusiasts where a decision was made to support Archie in his quest to protect the green sea turtle.

One result was a decision by the Government of Costa Rica to allocate a five mile beach at Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast which had been the nest area for the green turtle for thousands of years. The Brotherhood had the right to patrol the beach and set up a camp for studying the turtle and to protect the area from poachers -both four footed and two footed.
A decision was made to assemble in San Jose on July 23rd. I now quote from the Brotherhood Booklet which was published in July of 1961:

"The invitation to attend was general but not pressed because none of us knew what we should find, when or whether we should eat, or where or whether be sheltered. We assembled in San Jose as agreed - Directors John H. (Ben) Phipps with Mrs. Phipps, James A. Oliver, Archie Carr, and Joshua Powers, members Charles M Bogert, Ray E. Crist, Hugh Popenoe, Jack Fendell and Thomas Powers: Saturday Evening Post ace photographer Gus Pasquerella; Life and Time collaborator John M. Hlavacek, and Sports Illustrated staffer Jack Olson. Local members Ricardo Castro Beeche and Guillermo Cruz G. gave generous aid."

"The Board met and then adjourned to meet again at the beach. Some proceeded by air to Puerto Limon -quite a flight in the rainy season. Some went by train (I was in that party) on Sunday-a remarkable trip with great variety of mountain, jungle, rain forest, coffee, bananas, cacao, bread fruit and people.

At Puerto Limon a Cessna took three at a time, complete with bed rolls, mosquito tars, beer, soda pop, fishing gear and raincoats fifty miles up the beach to our camp in the coconut grove - the sea at our front door, a river at our back door, and thankfully, a snake-free Chick Saler on the river bank ten feet above the hyacinths. (I say thankfully, but snake catchers Phipps, Oliver and Bogert were not so happy to find not a single terciopelo.)
As we flew from Puerto Limon we saw our first fresh turtle tracks as we approached our protected area, and turtles in the sea. Finally as we flew over our camp we saw thirteen three-hundred pound mommas scattered along the beach, belly up, waiting for us to tag, each with his own silver tag bearing his initials (the tags were from Tiffany's). Fabulous, the whole thing.

This was the official account of the first meeting. My own personal experience will be continued in a future blog.