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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 58 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Hiking, Part 15

Bull Run Occoquan Trail

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

Research yielded yet another surprise, this time very close to home.  The Bull Run-Occoquan Trail runs 18 miles along Bull Run Creek and the Occoquan River from southern Chantilly, Virginia to Fountainhead Regional Park near Fairfax Station,  The trail is a surprise because it winds through some of the most densely populated areas of Fairfax and Prince William counties.  

The area of this trail is rich in history, dating back to the time when the Taux and Doag tribes roamed the area, rich in wildlife.  During the early years of European exploration, the rivers served as a wilderness highway and surveying landmark.  During the Civil War, two major battles were fought over the same ground north of this area, and the streams formed part of the Confederate defensive line.  

The Bull Run-Occoquan park area encompasses some 5,000 acres adjacent to the streams.  Bull Run's headwaters are located in the Bull Run Mountains and is fed by various streams along its way.  From Bull Run Marina onwards, the stream is named the Occoquan, which translates to "End of Waters."

The trail itself is a real pleasure.  I started at the northwestern trail head, part of Bull Run Regional Park, located south of US 29 and Bull Run Post Office Road.  


It was a perfect fall day, albeit a bit on the cool side, convincing me to add a fleece jacket to my hiking gear.  The leaves were turning, although the colors were patchy.  I think another five to seven days and the leaves will be at their peak.


The trail follows the mostly placid waters of Bull Run Creek.  Being in close proximity to civilization, you can't escape the occasional sounds of traffic, but for the most part, it is a peaceful and contemplative walk.  And a relatively easy one.  In the first three miles, there are only two elevation changes of any note, bluffs which must be climbed at those points.  I'm told that the further southeast one goes, the more hilly it gets.  There are signs around that talk about the springtime, which is apparently the time of year to visit.  BROT is home to the largest acreage of Bluebell flowers in this part of Virginia.  Having seen some of these beauties along the trail near Great Falls, I know what a lovely site they are.  Along the way is a bench with a plaque which says, "For Mary, who loved the Bluebells."  I'll be back in April.




This is supposed to be a deer conservation management area, but the only wildlife I saw were a few birds and a lot of grey squirrels.  There are places where the path takes you into some marshy and boggy areas, signs that this stream does flood from time to time.  But the good folks who manage this area have erected some helpful boardwalks to get the hiker over the worst parts.



The trail is like so many other places in Northern Virginia, a dirt track meandering through a thick forest  rendering that special peace that comes with spending some quality time with our cousins, the trees.







One of the great things about this trail are the access points.  The AT, while a challenge and an absolute gas to hike, is somewhat handicapped by the limited access points for the day hiker.  The BROT, on the other hand is easily accessible at several places, making a good option for section hikers.  

A nice 6.6-mile out-and-back on a glorious autumn day.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Sacred Trust and the Poison of Paranoia

A Sacred Trust

Copyright © 2014 by 
Ralph F. Couey

It was early in the school year, and the young lady decided to go out and meet some friends at a local beer bistro.  After imbibing, she apparently tried to walk back to campus but got lost, not unusual for a student new to the area.  On footage from a security camera, she was seen walking through a downtown shopping mall, apparently befriended by a man.  It would be the last time anyone saw Heather Graham.

On  a fall day, an 11-year-old got on his bike and started the familiar ride to his friend's house.  He never made it.  Four agonizing years later, he was found with his abductor when the man tried to kidnap another young boy, who police were able to find four days after his abduction.

A mother went into the department store with her 6-year-old in tow.  Passing a video game, he begged her to play it.  Since she was only going to be a few aisles away, she consented.  The boy disappeared.  His severed head was later found in a ditch.

At a large amusement park, a young mother suddenly lost track of her 5-year-old, as he had wandered off as they will do.  Frantically she searched and notified park security.  Armed with a photo, a sharp-eyed guard caught the child as he was leaving the park with his kidnapper -- after the criminal had cut the boy's hair and changed his clothes.

A parent's worst nightmare.  Your child has vanished, and you have no idea where they are.  No matter how careful, or cautious, or paranoid, it will happen at least once.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Hiking, Part...um..."14"


Copyright © 2014
by Ralph F. Couey

I regularly search hiking-oriented websites in my quest to uncover places to trek.  This past week, I found one I hadn't seen before.  It's called the Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship, and they control about 900 acres of Loudoun Valley into which they have established some 10 miles of hiking trails, as well as a vibrant program of  natural and environmental awareness.

The center is located off Harper's Ferry Road near Purcellville, Virginia, pretty easy to find compared to some of the parking access areas adjacent to the AT.

The day was supposed to be sunny and cool, but the clouds which brought overnight showers refused to yield.  But the temperature, in the low 60's, was pleasant enough.  We arrived about noon, stopping at the education center to tend to some pre-hiking necessities.  The trailhead was down the road about 50 yards, fronted by a barred gate.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

The Falls in Fall


Copyright © 2014
by Ralph F. Couey
Images and written content

I have been fortunate in my lifetime to have been widely traveled, 49 states and 28 countries.  In that process it has been my privilege to lay an eyeball on some of the more wondrous natural sites on this planet.  But one place I had yet to go was that iconic precipice on the Niagara River, Niagara Falls.

We had a few days with nothing scheduled, a rare thing for both of us, and true to form, we decided pretty much at the last minute to make the trip.  Cheryl had visited the American Falls before, but this would be my first time for both.

We had to teach at a church retreat on Saturday, which ended about mid-afternoon.  Having packed already, we left from the retreat site, a wondrously peaceful spot along the Potomac River called Algonkian Park.


The drive north was really nice.  We took a couple of detours off the main highway, while still heading generally north, which took us through many of the quaint towns and villages that populate the rolling landscape of northern Pennsylvania and upstate New York.  The leaves were beginning to turn and it was a real treat to spot those patches of brilliant color among the trees.  We stopped for the night in Corning, New York, arriving in time to watch the Mizzou Tigers put up three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to stun South Carolina, and were back on the road early the next day.  We took another detour to Palmyra, New York where we visited a site important to our faith.  The site was mostly forested with several trails leading through the trees.  A very peaceful stop.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Jack Bauer Jokes



The television show "24" was enormously popular during its run and made a star out of Kiefer Sutherland, playing the lead character Jack Bauer. The character's iron-like toughness and utter ruthlessness has spawned hundreds of jokes. These are some of my favorites:

If Jack Bauer was a Spartan, the movie "300" would have been called "1."

If everyone listened to Jack Bauer the first time, the show would be called "12."

Jack Bauer sleeps with a night light, not because he's afraid of the dark. The dark is afraid of Jack Bauer.

Jack Bauer is the only reason why Waldo is hiding.

When Jack Bauer goes to a blood drive, he doesn't use a needle. He asks for a gun and a bucket.

Jack Bauer is what Willis was talkin' about.

There was no best man at Jack Bauer's wedding. Jack Bauer is always the best man.

If Jack Bauer took a gun and two bullets into a room with Hitler, Stalin, and Nina Myers, he'd shoot Nina twice.

1.6 billion Chinese are mad at Jack Bauer. Sounds like a fair fight.

Don't even ask what Jack Bauer would do for a Kondike bar.

The only reason you're conscious right now is because Jack Bauer doesn't want to carry you.

The Boogie man checks his closet for Jack Bauer.

The Four Horseman of the Apocolypse weren't alone. Jack Bauer drove.

Jack Bauer doesn't sleep with a gun under his pillow. He doesn't need to. He can kill you with the pillow.

When Jack Bauer runs out of ammo in a gunfight, he steps into the line of fire, takes three rounds to the chest, then digs out the bullets and reloads.

Jack Bauer doesn't eat honey. He chews bees.

Superman has Jack Bauer pajamas.

Jack Bauer doesn't read a book. He tortures it until it gives up the information.

If Jack Bauer and MacGyver were locked in a room, Jack Bauer would make a bomb out of MacGyver.

Jack Bauer can talk about fight club.

Jack Bauer was never addicted to heroin. Heroin was addicted to Jack Bauer.

Jack Bauer wears sunglasses as a courtesy so the Sun doesn't have to look him in the eye.

Jack Bauer doesn't follow protocol. Protocol follows Jack Bauer.

When Jack Bauer looks at a mirror, his reflection has to turn away.

If you ever tried to tell Jack Bauer to "go to Hell," Satan would silence you before you finished the sentence.

Jack Bauer doesn't have nightmares. Nightmares have Jack Bauers.

When Jack Bauer cuts onions, the onions cry.

Jack Bauer can unscramble an egg just by staring at it.

Popeye eats spinach and throws away the can. Jack Bauer just eats the can.

James Bond has a collection of Jack Bauer posters in his room.

When Jack Bauer does a pushup, the earth is forced out of its orbit.

Bullet-proof vests wear Jack Bauer for protection.

Jack Bauer delivered himself via C-section.

Jack Bauer is not scared of death. Death is scared of Jack Bauer.



And finally, a little something for a motivational poster:



In 96 hours, Jack Bauer saved the world four times and killed 93 terrorists. What did you accomplish this week?
 

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Football and the First Amendment

Praising Allah
Copyright 2014 ABC News

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

The Monday Night Football game between the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs on September 29th ended up as a 41-14 blowout in favor of the Chiefs.  It was for me and evening of deep satisfaction since I've been a Chiefs fan as long as there has been a Kansas City Chiefs.  

The next morning, the press coverage was, predictably all about how the Pats had lost the game rather than how Kansas City had won.  Not surprising since Tom Brady has long been that All-American media darling.  Who has also been to four Super Bowls.  Amongst the reporting was speculation that perhaps Brady's spectacular career was coming to an end.

But something else happened that night.  

In the 4th quarter, Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah, a devout practicing Muslim, dropped into zone coverage, locked on Brady's eyes.  He broke hard, jumped the route and intercepted the pass, galloping 39 yards to the endzone.  What happened then has folks in a bit of a dither, and may just be a 1st Amendment issue.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Learning How to Wait

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

I'm sitting here this evening with my eyes on the computer, but my ears pegged to the broadcast of a baseball game.

Baseball has had a huge influence on my life, in ways both substantial and subtle.  While I've always been a fan of "the game," my loyalties have been tied like heartstrings to the fate of the Kansas City Royals. 

Tonight, hopefully, will be special.  If the Royals can hang on to their 3-0 lead over the Chicago White Sox for nine more outs, they will gain entry to that post-season tournament we call "the playoffs."  Before you sigh and intone "so what?", let me explain.

In 1985, the Royals made the playoffs.  No real surprise, since they had been there in 1976, 1977, 1978, and 1980.  But this time, they survived all the way to the World Series, a memorable seven-game dogfight against their cross-state rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals.  After a controversial play in game 6 gave the Royals one more desperate breath, they absolutely destroyed the Redbirds in game 7 to bring home the World's Championship of Major League Baseball.

The Royals were a dominant team, combining airtight defense, superior pitching and enough offense to do the job.  They remained competitive through the rest of the '80's, but beginning in the '90's and on into the first decade of the 21st century, the team sank as far as a team can go.  There were several 100-loss seasons in that time, and the tight-fisted owners pedaled away star players in favor of keeping the salaries under control.  Fans grew disillusioned and began staying away in droves.

A change in leadership and a re-invigoration of the farm system (including a heavy investment in culling talent from the Dominican Republic) began to show dividends.  This year was the year everyone talked about as the season when their impressive talent would mature into championship material.  And that has finally been the case.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Hiking, Part 12



Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

Today we went back to the Potomac River, a place I haven't hiked since spring.  I remember how enchanting it was, the paths lined with bluebells, and those wonderful sunny days after a winter that just wouldn't go away.  I decided to start a bit upstream from Great Falls Park, another park called Riverbend.  Using the GPS, we located the visitors center, a modernish-looking structure set on a low rise overlooking the river.  We picked up the trail and headed north.  

This particular stretch is part of the Potomac Heritage Trail, a system of trails that stretch from Stafford County, Virginia, south of Washington DC, all the way to the Conemaugh Gorge near Johnstown, PA.  Added together, the primary and secondary trails add up to a whopping 830 miles.  If you were to stay on the main trail itself, you would pile up some 425 miles, if I've done the math right.  The section we were on today is actually two trails, one on each side of the Potomac.  The trail on the east side is called the C&O Towpath, which provided mule power to haul flat boats up and down the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

You would think that walking along a river might be a pretty easy, flat path.  In truth, the trail does have it's easy portions, but then it meanders inland and you end up climbing and descending the bluffs, some of which are pretty doggone steep.  So it ends up being a mixed bag, which is a good thing especially if you have a new hiker along with you.

The first mile or so was flat and in some places, pretty sandy, deposits from frequent flooding.  This is a section easy on the eyes, with the forest to your left, and to your right the waters of the Potomac River, today a vivid blue under flawless early autumn skies.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Questions, Answers...and Patience

"We are often confronted by questions
which we cannot answer
because the time for answering them
has not yet come."
-- Thomas Merton

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

Recently, a friend lost his dear wife to cancer.  My friend is a man of science and is thus a pragmatist by nature.  There are many others like him who look at the world as a technical problem awaiting a technical solution.  Within them, there is a gnawing frustration that science could develop the technology to travel to other planets and map the human genome, but has yet to find a solution to cancer.  The knowledge that evidence is mounting towards an eventual cure is cold comfort to someone who is dealing with the acute pain of  the loss of the most important person in their life.

Scientific knowledge is a progression of sorts.  Each discovery is added to and enhanced by succeeding generations gifted with much better technology and improved processes, and in some cases, better brains.  Leonardo Da Vinci was a brilliant scientist.  Unfortunately, he was trapped in the 15th century.  It is reasonably stunning to project what his accomplishments might be if he were brought forward in time and equipped with even your average desktop computer and cad software.  If any of the physicians who struggled against the Black Plague of the 14th century knew as much as the average Mom today about infectious bacteria the plague might have been slowed or even halted.

There are about a hundred thousand questions we ask today that future generations will look back upon, shake their heads, and say sadly, "If only they knew..."  We have to have patience, dedication, and a firm belief in the premise that there are no unanswerable questions, given enough time.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Star-Spangled Banner, and the People Who Still Make it Wave


Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
 
 
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
 
 
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
 
 
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
--Francis Scott Key
Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

The words are familiar to every American, a song we’ve sung countless times and listened to even more often.  Most people don’t know that, even though the words were penned on a British ship in Baltimore Harbor in September of 1814, the song did not become the anthem of our nation until a congressional resolution was passed on March 3, 1931, and signed by President Hoover.
That’s an interesting tale in itself, as it wasn’t until Robert Ripley (Ripley’s Believe It or Not) pointed out that the United States as yet had no national anthem.  The tune came from John Stafford Smith, who originally composed it as “To Anacreon in Heaven” for the Anacreontic Society, a men’s social club in London.
It is a difficult song to sing, covering a musical span of one note over an octave and a half, as countless singers can attest.  But it is the history behind the words themselves that give the song it’s powerful meaning, and subsequent national status.
Of late, the anthem has come under fire from some, saying that the song glorifies war.  Maybe its time to take a closer look.
By 1814, Britain had defeated Napoleon in Europe, and was now free to send the bulk of her now-veteran troops across the Atlantic to deal with those pesky former colonials. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Hiking, Part 11





Bull Run Mountain

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Photos and written content

It couldn't have been a more perfect day.  Clear sky, low humidity, temperatures in the low 70's, and a day off to boot.  If Amazon sold days like this, their site would crash and burn.  The first hint of fall weather has arrived after summer threw one last high hard one at us last week.

Following Cheryl's instructions, I picked a place we hadn't gone yet.  About 15 minutes west of Manassas right off I-66 is a real treasure.  The Bull Run Mountains are a 15-mile stretch of peaks which form the easternmost range of the Blue Ridge.  The two are separated by the beautiful Loudoun Valley, an Eden of streams, hills, forests, and fields that stretch gently across the landscape.  The mountains connect with the Catoctin range in Maryland (home of Camp David) and the Pond Mountains south of I-66.  

Like many similar areas of Virginia, there is a great deal of interest in preserving it as much as possible in it's natural state.  To that end, the Bull Run Mountain Conservancy was formed in 1995, and took custodial care of a 15,000 acre tract starting just north of I-66 in Thoroughfare Gap and running north along and either side of the three parallel ridges.  Today, the "headquarters" sits at the end of Beverly Mill Road which is where the trail head is located. The area was an important part of local history, starting with the establishment of a mill along Broad Run in 1750.  The mill operated, under several families, until 1951.  The shell of the original mill building still stands, an impressive 7-story structure with walls made of native stone.  This was a remarkable feat of engineering, since rock walls tended to fall over if built too high.  

The location of the mill, sitting in a convenient gap in the mountain range, became an important location during the Civil War.  The South used the mill as a place to store beef for the Army of Northern Virginia.  In August 1862, opposing forces were gathering for the Second Battle of Manassas.  The Union sent  two brigades to block the gap and keep Southern General James Longstreet's corps on the west side of the mountains.  Longstreet eventually came up with a plan to take possession of the heights on either side of the gap and forced the Union forces to retreat.  This opened up the way for Longstreet to march for Manassas where he was able to land the crucial blow that gave the South the victory.  Later on, when it became apparent that the North would take possession of Thoroughfare Gap, the Confederates burned the mill and the enormous supply of beef before departing.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Justice, Mercy, and Grace: Defining Discipleship

Louis Zamperini, Olympic Champion
and Disciple of Jesus


Copyright © 2014 
by Ralph F. Couey

Then came Peter to him and said, "Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?  Seven times?

Jesus saith unto him, "I say not unto thee until seven times, but until seventy times seven.  Therefore is the kingdom of Heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought before him which owed him ten thousand talents.  But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.

The servant therefore fell down and worshipped him, saying, "Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all!"

The lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt.  But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellow servants which owed him a hundred pence, and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, "Pay me that thou owest!"

His fellow servant fell down at his feet and besought him, saying, "Have patience with me and I will pay thee all!"  But he would not and when and cast him into prison till he should pay the debt.

His fellow servants saw what was done, they were very sorry anc came and told their king all that was done.  Then his lord, after he called him, said, "Oh, thou wicked servant!  I forgave thee all that debt because you desired my mercy.  Shouldst thou not also have had compassion on they fellow servant, even as I had pity on thee?"

"The king had the servant delivered to the tormentors until he could pay all that was due unto him.  So likewise shall my Heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one their trespasses."

--Matthew 18:21-35

This scripture tells an interesting story.  A servant had somehow encumbered himself with a debt of 10,000 talents.  This was a sum of currency that would require at least a lifetime to repay, and actually may have been the kind of debt that was never meant to be paid back, only as a way to bind a servant to master. The modern equivalent might be called a student loan.  But the king called in the debt.  The servant, realizing he was facing an impossible burden, went to the king and begged for relief.  The King was moved by his plea and forgave the entire debt.

But this was not the only debt of this story.  As it happens, the servant held the debt of another servant, in the sum of 100 Denari, a much more humble sum, although it still represented about three months wages.  The forgiven servant then did something that qualified him to be on the list of the dumbest people in the Bible. He went to the servant, grabbed him by the throat and demanded full payment of the debt.  Of course, the second servant could not pay, so the forgiven servant had him thrown in prison.

But this was a secret that would not be kept.  Other servants who witnessed the incident, went to the King and told him what happened.  Angry, he summoned the servant.  When the man appeared in his presence, the King thundered, "Should not you have shown the same mercy to this man as I showed to you?"  The King turned the wicked servant over to be tortured until his debt was repayed.

Some might call this  by that familiar phrase, "poetic justice."  But there are two other concepts in play here:  Mercy and Grace.

In my day job, I work for the Department of Justice, the symbol of which is a set of scales.  In order for justice to be served, the scales must be balanced.  As long as one side hangs lower than the other, justice cannot exist.  The scales can only be balanced when force is applied.  In the literal sense, that means add weight to the higher side until the force of gravity evens the scales.  In practice, it means that when someone commits a crime, justice means they are arrested, arraigned, indicted, tried, convicted and either imprisoned or in the case of capitol crimes, put to death.  If someone has been wrongly accused and found not guilty, they are set free.  These days, the use of DNA evidence has helped to free people who were wrongly convicted.  More prosaically, when on the freeway we are victimized by a speeder weaving in and out of traffic, and we later see that same driver parked on the shoulder with a State Trooper behind, we like to say that justice was done.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Hiking, Part 10


Copyright © 2014
by Ralph F. Couey
Pictures and written content

In 1936 during the worst years of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt ordered that land be set aside for the purpose of giving inner city children and their families a place to go where they could discover nature outside the grim habitat of the city.  This area, originally called Chopawamsic Recreational Demonstration Area, was established as a summer camp, with the buildings and infrastructure constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of the Works Progress Administration as a way of providing employment as well as teaching valuable skills to young men.  Using locally harvested materials, the CCC built camping cabins, trails, and bridges.  People started coming to the area in 1936, spending as many as 5 weeks in the woods.  When World War II broke out, public access was halted and the area turned over to the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, as an area for training covert operatives for the war effort.  After the war, the land reverted to public use.  Today, the original area was split, with Quantico Marine Corps Base on the south and the now-named Prince William Forest Park on the north.  The park, operated by the National Park Service, occupies some 19,000 acres, the largest preserved forest tract in the DC area.  It is considered to be the finest example of Eastern Piedmont Forest existing.  It contains some 37 miles of hiking trails and tantalizing bits of history.  The park has the most original CCC building inventory in the U.S., some 153 buildings, all of which are still in use.  The park is located south of DC near the intersection of VA-234 and I-95.

This area had been on my "oughta-visit-there-sometime" list for awhile, but in planning my hiking ventures, I stayed to the west, thinking that anything closer to DC would be too urbanized for my taste.

Okay.  I admit it.  I was wrong.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Age and the Shifting of Circadian Rhythms

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

As long as I can remember, I've been a nightowl.  My perfect day was defined by a mid-morning wakeup and a bedtime that lay beyond the boundary between yesterday and tomorrow.  Of course, life has a way of not bending to one's druthers, hence every job I've had up to this one has forced me out of bed as early as 4 a.m. (still the middle of the night by any measure).   

A decade ago, the bosses at the factory where I was gainfully employed insisted on rotating us to an off-shift once a month. Usually because of staffing levels, that meant working third shift.  Having children at home, that was for me the shift from hell.  Circadian rhythms mandate that when it's dark outside, humans should sleep.  Daylight was a time to be up and active.  Our children were of the active type (if you hear silence, better go investigate) so it was nearly impossible for me to be able to sleep during the day.  So when I returned to work that night, I was already tired and ended up fighting sleep all night long.  When you're working around machinery, that's a dangerous state to be in.  As the week wore on, I got even more fatigued.  The last night I worked that schedule, I actually fell asleep driving a forklift with a one-ton load of steel.  I remember entering the drive lane at one end of the plant, and then suddenly I was at the other end.  I was  danger to myself, my co-workers, and the plant's equipment.  I parked the truck, shut down and cleaned the presses I was running and went home, leaving a note for the day supervisor.  Back on day shift the next week, I had a long talk with the leadership who agreed that it would be best for me to rotate to 2nd shift, which they were willing to do.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The Changing Seasons



Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Pictures and written content

It's been an odd summer, at least here in Virginia.  While there have been some hot miserable days, most of the season has been comparatively temperate.  Not that anybody is complaining.  After the awful summer of 2012, this year was positively wonderful.  Two weeks ago, I read that in Western Pennsylvania that the summer has been so cool that leaves were beginning to turn in mid-August, the earliest anyone can remember that happening.

I enjoy the changing seasons.  Every three months, the world changes in so many remarkable ways.  As they cycle through their assigned three month span, they drive the clock of my life.

Each season has its charms, and we fill that time with the events that give them meaning for us.  But everyone has a favorite time of the year, and we are approaching the season that makes my year.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Hiking, Part 9

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

I had been looking forward to this day, since circumstance and responsibility kept me off the hiking trails for the last two weeks.  It has been a stressful period and I needed some time in the woods.

After perusing the maps, I chose an AT access along US 522 southeast of Front Royal.  A check of Google Maps Streetview confirmed the presence of a pullout there large enough to park a few cars.  As I left home early in the morning, I noted with satisfaction that it would be a spectacular late-summer day for Virginia.  Temps would stay in the low 80's with low humidity, a great day for hiking.

I found the pullout and after parking and gearing up, I headed south.  There was a lot of up- and down-hill to this section, but I had picked it because 4.2 miles in I would meet Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park.  During the initial ascent, I saw to my right a really nice overlook off a beautiful meadow, the view somewhat restricted by a tall chain link fence, which would accompany me for nearly the whole way.  I'm not sure who owns that property, but they sure wanted it protected.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Civil War: Events of November 1864

On November 4th and 5th, Rebel cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest along with two captured Union boats attacked the Union supply depot at Johnsonville, Tennessee, causing major damage.

Abraham Lincoln defeated his former commanding general of the Army of the Potomac and was awarded his second term as President of the United States.

William T. Sherman began his march to the sea on November 10th. Two days later, he sends a message to General Thomas at Nashville.  It would be the last communication from Sherman until December 13th.

On the 14th, Sherman divided his army into two columns of 30,000 men each, providing a left and right wing to his march.  By the 16th, he had marched almost 100 miles, destroying the cities of Rome, Cartersville, and Marietta.

At Griswoldville on the 22nd, a cavalry action took place, after which Sherman's troops pushed back two regiments of Georgia militia, continuing the Union march.

Another action took place at Buckhead Creek on the 28th when Federal cavalry defeated a Confederate attempt to halt Sherman's advance.

On November 30th, Confederate forces under General Hood attempted to assault the fixed fortifications at Franklin, Tennessee.  He had a brief success penetrating the center of the Federal line, but a heroic counterattack pushed his forces back.  Hood sent his army into the stout defenses repeatedly, essentially destroying his men in the effort.  The Union Commander, John Schofield, was able to extricate his soldiers and pull back to Nashville where he joined up with George Thomas.  Hood lost 14 of his generals either killed, wounded or captured in this battle.


Civil War: Events of October 1864

On the 2nd, Jefferson Davis gives P. G. T. Beauregard command of the Department of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.

On the 4th, Confederate General Hood moved north along the Western and Atlantic Railroad, attempting to sever Sherman's supply line, attacking blockhouses and encampments at Acworth and Moon's Station.

Confederate forces under Samuel French attacked Union troops in entrenched positions protecting the W & A Railroad in the Allatoona Pass on the 5th.  Despite fierce fighting, the Federals under John Corse held their ground.

In the Battle of Tom's Brook on October 9th, Sheridan ordered his cavalry to attack Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry which had been harassing his rear.  The Union troopers chased the Southerners for 10 miles, capturing 300 Confederates.  The battle was nicknamed "The Woodstock Races" for the speed of the Confederate withdrawal.  Having burned everything of value in the Valley all the way to Staunton, Virginia, Sheridan withdrew.

On October 13, Maryland voters ratified a new constitution abolishing slavery.

In what was undoubtedly delightful news for General Lee, his old warhorse General Longstreet returned to action after recovering from a friendly fire wound at The Wilderness.

Civil War: Events of September, 1864

On the 1st, Confederates, in the face of Sherman's advancing army, began evacuating the key city of Atlanta.  The next day, the city was surrendered by Mayor James Calhoun.

John Hunt Morgan, the Confederate General who in 1863 undertaken a highly successful raid into Indiana and Southern Ohio, was surprised and killed by Union cavalry on September 4th.

The state of Louisiana took a big step towards re-admittance to the Union when, on September 5th, voters who had taken the oath of loyalty to the United States, voted to ratify a new state constitution which abolished slavery.  On that same day, Unionists in Tennessee met in Nashville with the aim of re-starting the state government, as well as participating in the national elections in the fall.

On the 7th, the USS Wachusett captured the Confederate warship CSS Florida at Bahia, Brazil.

Confederate General Joe Wheeler completed his raid into North Georgia, returning to Southern lines on the 10th.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Has Enough Been Given?

Order of the Purple Heart
Photo from the United States Marine Corps

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Written content only

In recent months, yet another Middle Eastern crisis erupted when a band of Sunni militants calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria -- ISIS -- formed themselves an army and began taking back the nation of Iraq.  For a stateless group, they have been shockingly successful.  But they have proven themselves to be singularly sadistic conquerors.  So intractably brutal are they that even al-Qa'ida cut ties with them in February of this year.  ISIS is a hard-line jihadist group with the aim of establishing an Islamic Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, rigidly enforcing Sharia Law.  In the cities they have conquered, civilians have been brutally executed for no other reason than being Shia Muslims or Christians.  This murder has included the beheading of children, according to the United Nations.  What is just as shocking has been their treatment of women, kidnapping, torturing, raping, and killing them.

The United States expended the lives of over 4,000 soldiers removing a dictator from power and turning the country over to it's people.  Included in that effort was the training and equipping of some 65,000 Iraqi soldiers to defend their country, allowing US combat troops to be withdrawn by December 2011.  

ISIS, consisting of an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 soldiers should have been overwhelmed by the Iraqis armor, artillery, and soldiers.  But in what anyone in the west would consider an act of cowardly betrayal, the Iraqi Army melted away, the individual soldiers whispering "Insha'Allah", literally, "If Allah wills it" as they ran.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

My 500th Post

Copyright © 2014 By Ralph F. Couey

November 3, 2006.  That was the day I went to the Blogger website and officially opened "Race the Sunset" with a post about Ben Rothlesberger's motorcycle accident.  Tonight, some 7 years and 9 months later, I am penning the 500th post on this blog.

Writing was, in my youth, something I avoided with every trick of deception I could muster.  But as I grew older, I realized that in my life's experiences I had acquired a voice, and something to say.  We were living in Somerset, Pennsylvania at the time, a place where winter generally begins in mid-October and doesn't relinquish it's grip until mid-May, with an average of 100 inches of snow hitting the ground in between.  That leaves a lot of long winter evenings in which to explore the inner reaches of the mind and soul.  I began to write in fits and starts, learning a lot about content and how to construct a sentence along the way.  And how to self-edit.  Eventually, I acquired enough confidence to submit some pieces to the local newspaper.  The first thing published was an entire page devoted to the beginning of motorcycle season.  I still have the aluminum print plate, although it's faded quite a bit.  

My foray into becoming a columnist began with a strict ration of one piece per month.  Eventually that increased to once per week.  I remember with great joy and pride the day when the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat editor told me, "You were just too good to keep out of the paper."

A few months later, I began to submit to the other local paper in Somerset.  I was told that due to the close proximity of the two papers that I would have to write separate columns for each.  Now I had gone from writing one piece per month to writing two per week.  In addition, I picked up an occasional column in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette and a few other smaller papers in the northeast.  I was having the time of my life. I was an honest-to-God newspaper columnist with a loyal following.  

But the only consistent thing in life is change. My day job, a small federal agency, was shut down, my co-workers scattered to the four winds.  I ended up in Virginia, after cutting my ties to the two Pennsylvania papers.  After all, I reasoned, how could I be a "local columnist" from 200 miles away?  I had, by this time also acquired a bit of an ego with regards to my writing and blithely assumed that I could pick up another columnist slot there.  Things however came crashing down to reality.  My submissions to the many local papers were completely ignored.  In a short period of time, I went from being a columnist to just another free lancer with a dream.

Hiking, Part 8

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Words and pictures

Watching the weather forecasts approaching my hiking day gave me some cause for concern.  After a couple of weeks of delightful October-in-July, summer came back.  It was going to sunny and H3 (Hot, Humid, and Hazy) with temps reaching into the low 90's.  I normally don't do well in this kind of weather, but I sucked it up and went ahead.

Today's target was a stretch of the AT (Appalachian Trail) from US 50 southward into two really interesting areas, Sky Meadows State Park and the and the G.R. Thompson Wildlife Management Area.  The designated place to park when tackling this stretch is a parking area which can be accessed via a kinda scary driveway off Blue Ridge Mountain Road.  I touched on this in an earlier post, remarking that the driveway drops off so suddenly that when you first pull off the road, you literally can't see where you're going.  Pulling back out is an adventure because you can't see the traffic coming south until your front end is well out onto the roadway.  Looking for an alternative, I spied, via Google Maps, Liberty Hill Lane, a gravel road that leads off into the woods.  There appeared to be room for one or two cars to park there, and it was in close proximity to where the trail picks up on the south side of the highway.  Arriving there, I found a sufficient space to park my vehicle (in the shade, no less) and was pleased to discover and access path leading to the AT.  I geared up and headed south.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Hiking, Part 7

Jagged edges

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey


I've been saving this one for one of those rare days off when I actually had nearly the whole day available to me.  So after I dropped my granddaughter off at day camp, I turned northward and made the 90-minute drive to Gathland State Park near Burkittsville, Maryland.  

The park is named for George Alfred Townsend who was a Civil War press correspondent, one of the youngest to report on the war from the front lines.  He also covered the assassination of President Lincoln, and the subsequent pursuit of the killer, actor John Wilkes Booth.  He was a well-known and prodigious writer, at one point penning some 18,000 words per day.  In a time when inkpens had to be dipped in ink and written on foolscap, this was an amazing level of output.  After the war, he remained one of the most popular of Washington correspondents, having gathered a huge audience.  

When he was 47, he began building an estate on land he purchased in Crampton's Gap, a wind gap cutting through the otherwise contiguous South Mountain.  This land was also the site where the Battle of South Mountain was fought in September 1862.  Among the structures that he had built out the abundant native stone was an arch dedicated to war correspondents who were killed while covering wars.





The Memorial Arch.

What remains of his mansion.

After his death, the land was given to the state for a park, which is known not by Townsend's name, but his pen name, "Gath."

The AT (Appalachian Trail) passes right through this property, descending from the northern part of South Mountain, across the gap, and back up onto the southern ridge.  Last week, I hiked the southern ridge, part of it anyway, from Weverton, north of Harper's Ferry.  It was a brutal climb, and looking at the topo map I saw that the part starting from Gathland was a much gentler ascent, so I decided to give this one a try.

Traffic being what it is, it took me almost two hours to get there.  But upon arrival, I saw the beautiful property, and two parking lots.  I pulled in, geared up, and headed south.


There are two access points for the trail, one being a path that begins right off the upper driveway.  But if you want a bit of a ceremony (and don't mind the rocks) you can pass through an arch that was meant to be part of Townsend's mausoleum, although he didn't use it.   Once on the trail, the climbout is much gentler than it's southern counterpart.  Part of that is because the elevation at the gap is 400 feet higher that the point just off the Potomac River.  But the path is still strewn with rocks.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Hiking, Part 6

The Potomac River Near Harper's Ferry from Weverton Cliff

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Pictures and written content

I managed to free up a few hours today and went to a location that has been on my anticipation list.

Harper's Ferry, West Virginia is one of those places where history rises from the dry pages of textbook into dazzling reality.  The town sits at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers and was from its beginnings a busy location for river commerce and industry.  Today, the National Parks Service has preserved the historical part of the town in an interactive historic park.  The town would, by itself, be a very interesting visit, but the view of the two rivers from the point of land where they meet is breathtaking.

The AT (Appalachian Trail) passes through the town, in fact the Conservancy has an office there.  From there, you can trek southwards along the crest of Short Hill Mountain as it meanders towards Shenandoah National Park.  I chose to go northwards today.

I left my vehicle in the Park n' Ride lot near Weverton and was able to jump right on the trail, as it passes right behind the lot.  Having consulted the topo map, I knew I was in for a challenge.  South Mountain begins on the north bank of the Potomac and rises precipitately to nearly 1,200 feet.  The initial climb is a series of switchbacks as the trail ascends about 600 feet in the first half-mile.  It's not just the steep climb that makes this one so challenging.  The path is well strewn with rocks which requires careful consideration as to where to plant one's foot.  Fortunately, I remembered my trekking poles this time.  There were three occasions when I stumbled, slipped, and tripped on the rocks.  Only those poles kept me from executing an epic face-plant.


At about 900 feet elevation, the way began to flatten out, but the rocks were still there.  It seems as if that end of the mountain is slowly falling apart, dumping rocks down the slopes ranging from pocket-sized to house-sized.  I saw several places where the dedicated volunteers had cleared some good sized rock slides from the trail.  This climb took me awhile, about an hour and 15 minutes, but once I got to the 1,200 foot level, the trail became a lovely, soft springy loam that felt really great on the feet.  I encountered two other hikers, both male, who were fully geared up, their packs topped by foam bed pads.  I don't know if they were through hiking or just spending a night or two, but it was nice to see other people out doing the trail.

When you get near the top of the ridge, there is an overlook called Weverton Cliff that provides a lung-sucking panorama of the rivers and the town below.

 Yup.  I clumb it.


The day was very humid, but not extremely hot, so while I shed a couple of gallons of sweat, I never felt dangerously overheated.  I did take the opportunity to try out a couple of new items.  One was a belt-mounted device from the OFF company, which sprayed a fine mist of insect repellent into the air while I was walking.  It seemed to work pretty well.  The bugs would get close to my face, but never touch it, and I survived the day without a single insect bite, and it was a very buggy day.  The other thing was a huge floppy bucket hat that I found at Costco.  Kind of odd-looking, the brim was large and oval shaped, so it gave good coverage of my face and the back of my neck.  Partway uphill though, I had to flip the front brim up, as I found it difficult to see ahead of me.  The other think I liked was how well it kept the sweat out of my eyes.  Ballcaps (my usual choice) do a fairly good job, but this hat, as ugly as it looks was way more effective.  And had I been caught out in the rain, it would have kept my face and eyes clear.  

 Not quite Indiana Jones...

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Redskins in the Crosshairs -- Chiefs Next?


Copyright © 2014 by Ralph Couey
Written content only.

In 1988, the National Football League franchise located in Washington DC won Super Bowl XXII, thumping the Denver Broncos 42-10.  Washington was quarterbacked by Doug Williams, the first African-American QB to not only play in, but win the Big Game.  It was also the first of what would be countless public demonstrations and protests concerning the team's nickname, "Redskins."

The nickname, many believe, is a word born out of racism dating back to the first time white Europeans pushed into the tribal frontier.  The issue is rapidly coming to a head, with the National Patent Office stripping the team of their copyright on the name.  Across the country, two sets of voices are being raised, one which demands that this term be banned from not only the NFL, but all teams in all sports.  The other set of voices contends that in the modern context, the term is much more closely related to the team and not to that group of people who have come to be called "Native Americans."

Football aside, I have a bit of a problem with that term.  Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a native American because human life did not arise here spontaneously as it did in Africa some 200,000 years ago.  Over the millennia continents have drifted, and sea levels have fallen and risen.  This created pathways of migration.  Everyone here on these three continents (North, Central, and South America, respectively) came here from someplace else, mainly across the Bering land bridge beginning about 16,000 years ago, by the latest estimate.  I prefer the term "First Americans."  It is more accurate, plus it retains the honorific of them being the first to take possession of these lands.


 Team owner Dan Snyder has planted his foot firmly in the rich soil of tradition, vowing to never change the team's name.  But protests are gathering momentum and there seems little doubt that at some point in the near future a Waterloo -- or Little Big Horn -- will be reached when irrevocable action will be taken.

This is not the first time that politics has impacted a team name.  In the 1950's during the virulent anti-communist Joe McCarthy era, the Cincinnati Major League Baseball team, in trying to steer clear of any ideological taint changed their name from the "Reds" to the "Redlegs."  Apparently nobody knew that the original Redlegs referred to the roving bands of anti-slavery terrorists who roamed the border states before, during, and after the Civil War.

There are a lot of other teams closely monitoring this controversy, namely every team that carries a name even remotely associated with First Americans.  The likely next target will be the Kansas City Chiefs.

While the team and it's passionate fanbase have used the name in its First American context, the name actually refers to Kansas City Mayor H. Roe Bartle, whose nickname was "Chief", and the one primarily responsible for bringing the team from Dallas to KC.  The original team logo...




...portrayed a First American in ceremonial headdress racing across six midwestern states with a football in one hand and a tomahawk in the other.  This was a quick and dirty adaptation of the original Dallas Texans logo which showed a cowboy, complete with 6-guns, racing across the state of Texas.


After 1963, however, the First American logo disappeared from official team use and was replaced by the simple arrowhead...


...familiar to all football fans now.  The logo, interestingly enough, was an adaptation by Chief's owner Lamar Hunt of the San Francisco 49'er logo, with the interlocking letters inside an arrowhead instead of an oval.  The arrowhead itself, by the way, has been dated back to Europe, Africa, and Asia as much as 60,000 years ago, a part of the armory which included bone knives and stone axes.  So the current logo is more reflective of the legacy of homo sapiens in general and not a single iteration of it.