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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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Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Ultimate Action Flick: Bauer v. Bourne


Jason and Jack
The Knights of the 9mm




Picture credits -- 
Universal for Jason and Fox for Jack

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
Except quoted and cited portions

"I regret every decision or mistake that I might have made 
which resulted in the loss of a single innocent life.  
But do you know what I regret the most?  
That this world needs people like me."
--Jack Bauer.

"Do you even know why you're supposed to kill me?
Look at us.  Look at what they make you give."
--Jason Bourne

I've long been a fan of the action adventure movie, especially those that involved in some form the dark shadowy world of covert action.  Being a guy, I guess that preference is kinda written into my DNA.  From "Man From U.N.C.L.E." and Mission: Impossible in the '60's through the library of Jack Ryan movies, and Tom Cruise's re-invention of the MI story, those releases have consistently drawn me like a magnet.

In the last 10 years, two series, one of movies, the other of television, have captured my imagination.

In November of 2001, Fox Television launched a novel new programming concept.  Called "24", it followed the work of a federal counter-terrorism agent named Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland.  Instead of the usual format, the series would follow in real time the minute-by-minute travails of Bauer through a single 24-hour day.  The tension was magnified by the ticking of the clock, a constant reminder of the passage of irretrievable time.  Although burdened with a certain amount of filler, and that Jack seemed to never be more than 15 minutes away from anyplace in the vast expanse of Southern California, the show was nevertheless an instant hit.  Although not intended to, it circumstantially fell into those dark, angry days following 9/11 when America at some level seethed with vengeance against the terrorists who had so brazenly attacked us and killed our people.  Americans saw in Bauer someone who would doggedly pursue and bring to justice, usually by death, of those who had sworn to do us harm.  "24" gave us a hero, albeit a fictional one, when we needed it the most.  

The series lasted nine seasons, each time with Bauer seemingly vanishing from sight only to reappear for the next "day."  The show not only glorified the agents of the Counter Terrorist Unit, but also made heroes out of some of the most unlikely of characters, particularly the very geeky Chloe O'Brien, underscoring that in the modern version of that secret world, a computer and a good operator can be every bit as dangerous as bombs and bullets.

In the summer of 2002, another action adventure franchise debuted with the "Bourne Identity," an adaptation of the Robert Ludlum novels.  I say "adaptation" with a certain irony because the movies resembled the books in the same way that a zebra resembles a parking meter.  That opener was followed by "Bourne Supremacy" in 2004 and "Bourne Ultimatum" in 2007.  All three movies follow Jason Bourne, a brain-trained CIA assassin, really a human killing machine, as he recovers from a bout of amnesia while trying to grasp the meaning and purpose behind his life and what he has been turned into.  Bourne and those who pursue him literally span the globe from New York to Tangiers, giving the films a rich locational canvas on which the action unfolds.

There are similarities in the two characters, beyond their common initials.  Both have done some difficult and dangerous things for the U.S. government, and both have been damaged because of that. Both find themselves largely on the outside looking in as their sponsors and supporters continually find new ways to betray and abandon them.  The question begs, is there enough of a link to join the two stories?

Universal has moved on to the next iteration, casting Jeremy Renner as an upgraded version (Bourne 2.0, if you will) and although you see bits of news from time to time that Matt Damon will return to reprise his character, it now appears that Jason has been left behind for good, first by the CIA, and now by Universal Studios.

"24" has apparently run its course as well.  The days of fear following America's personal introduction to terrorism have been replaced by a good deal more cynicism and a certain squeamishness where interrogation techniques are concerned.  After 9/11, nobody complained when Bauer would shoot a terrorist in the kneecap to get an answer to his questions.  Now, everyone complains.  Americans, apparently, now feel they have other things to worry about.  

But those two franchises were successful, both in their own way, stories that I thoroughly enjoyed when they were new, and continue to watch from my DVD library.  

This being the middle of winter when I find myself on long winter evenings allowing my brain to free range a bit, I've been thinking that there may be one more gasp for Jason and Jack.

Consider this possibility.

The government retrieves Jack Bauer back from the Russians, mainly because both governments now live in deathly fear of Jason Bourne, and someone in the U.S. has convinced the Russians that the only person on this planet who has a fighting chance against the Treadstone Terror is, in fact, Jack Bauer.

Bauer takes some convincing.  Having been imprisoned, tortured, and just plain wrung out, now he is being asked by the very instruments of all the tragedies in his life to save their butts one more time.  Bauer, still ruled by his strong sense of duty, finally agrees to take up the chase.

The story follows the two as Bauer closes in on Bourne.  Both are aided by their respective femme fatales, cantankerous Chloe O'Brien and the mysterious Nicky Parsons. Jason, of course, instinctively becomes aware that he's being pursued.  What gets his full, complete, and undivided attention is the discovery of the name and reputation of his pursuer.  In a series of near-misses and inconclusive fights, both men begin to realize that they have far more in common with each other.  Both have lived lives filled with violence and tragic loss, and have seen the idealism of national service turn to the ashes of betrayal.  Finally, Bauer catches up to, and corners Bourne in some suitably exotic place like Hong Kong, Bosnia, Tombstone, Arizona, or the Tyson's Corner Galleria in Northern Virginia.  They beat each other to exhaustion, neither gaining enough of an edge to do the other one in.  Then, they begin to talk, a conversation something like the scene in "Heat" between Pacino and DeNiro.  Only then do they realize who the real enemy is, sort of a Katniss Everdeen-Finnick Odair moment.  They vow to join together and either destroy the CIA or die trying.  And to make sure this is the last time we see this, they do, in fact, die trying. But they do end up hurting the Agency to the point that the whole idea of covert rendition gets a good review by some as-yet-to-be-identified competent authority.  The movie ends with the CIA's ship righted and finally steaming in the right (moral) direction, headed by Chloe O'Brien and Nicky Parsons.  

Okay, that last one is a bit of a stretch...

This idea is tantalizing to me, something of a 21st century version of Josey Wales, with Bauer playing the part of the Redleg Captain.  But sadly the legal end of the film business would probably not allow the mixing of franchises and copyrights to get this done.  

Besides, I'm not sure there's a screen big enough to hold Kiefer Sutherland and Matt Damon together in full-blown secret agent mode.

There are other screen pairings we never saw that would have been intriguing, such as John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, as the Duke passed just as Clint was getting up his head of cinematic steam.  But both Damon and Sutherland are still very much alive and in good health, save Matt's retreating hairline, and such a movie would be at the very least, a rousing good time.

And certainly a fitting denouement to two of the most fascinating film/TV characters of the last half-century.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Opening the Gate: Measles and The Irrational Fear of Vaccines


The Measles Virus
From Science.com

An infected patient.
From Healthnet.com

People do not believe lies because they have to, 
but because they want to.
--Malcom Muggeridge

A delusion is something that people believe in 
despite a total lack of evidence.
 –Richard Dawkins.

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
except quoted and cited portions

In the year 165 AD an epidemic broke out in Rome.  Called the Antonine Plague, it claimed nearly 5 million lives.  Modern research suggests that the cause of this plague was a virus that would eventually come to be called Measles.  Highly contagious, the disease has touched nearly all of humanity at some point in time, killing over 200 million since 1855.

However, in 1963, Dr. Thomas Peebles and Dr. John Enders, who also pioneered the polio vaccine, produced the first Measles vaccine.  In 1971, the Measles vaccine was combined with other specifics for Mumps and Rubella, and since 2005 the shot included specifics for Varicella.  Once the vaccines were put into use, Measles cases fell from the hundreds of thousands per year until 2005 when the illness was judged no longer endemic to the United States.

Late in 2014, however, an outbreak of Measles occurred in Southern California, tied to exposures to infected people at two Disney theme parks.  As of this writing, the total number of victims has risen to 59 and will continue to grow.

How could this happen?

Part of the reason is the large influx of people into the United States from countries which still struggle with Measles, among other serious diseases.  Vaccinations are not widely used in many of these countries, allowing diseases to gain a foothold among the human population.  It doesn't help that Measles is a tough little bugger, as viruses go.  An infected person could sneeze a cloud of virus into the open air, and the virus would continue to live for up to two hours.  Most viruses don’t survive well outside the body.

But the real villain in this piece is a con man with a PhD by the name of Andrew Wakefield.

Wakefield led a group of researchers who in 1998 published a paper in the highly-respected British medical journal, The Lancet.  The paper described a link between the MMR vaccine and the onset of symptoms related to autism spectrum disorder.  The controversy gained momentum in 2001 and 2002, until parents in the UK and in the United States began withholding the vaccinations from their children. 

The London Sunday Times investigative reporter Brian Deer discovered that Wakefield had, prior to submitting his paper to The Lancet received a significant amount of money from a group of lawyers who wanted to sue the vaccine producers.  This created a conflict of interest, the existence of which Wakefield hid from his research team and British authorities.

Deer reported in 2009 that Wakefield had fixed results and manipulated patient data in the original study, thereby creating a false link to autism.  The case was then investigated by the General Medical Council, the body which licenses doctors and supervises medical ethics in the UK.  The GMC released its findings in 2010 stating that Wakefield had acted dishonestly and irresponsibly, acting with callous disregard for his patients.  The study had been conducted without the required approval of any independent ethics committee.  They also found that normal test results were changed to appear abnormal.  They also found sloppy lab technique with study samples having been contaminated.  The GMC found Wakefield guilty of serious professional misconduct involving four counts of dishonesty and 12 counts of abusing developmentally challenged children.  His medical license was revoked.  The Lancet took the unprecedented step of fully retracting Wakefield’s paper from their published record.

Later, it was discovered that Wakefield had partnered with a father of one of the boys in the study to launch an MMR vaccination scare campaign.  Wakefield and the parent would profit from medical testing and the production of test kits to the tune of over $43 million per year.

The media’s role in spreading fear of the vaccine was also put under the microscope.  Other subsequent studies which clearly showed not one shred of evidence for the MMR vaccine as a causal factor in autism were downplayed, dismissed, and ignored by the media who were far more interested in exploiting people’s fear than in actually getting to the truth.

There has been a steady increase in autism since the 1990s, but this has been attributed to changes in diagnostic practices which enabled doctors to better identify and diagnose children so afflicted, and not because the disorder has actually spread.  Japan halted MMR immunizations in 1993, but found in 2005 that autism cases had continued to increase, further disproving any link.  As research into autism has expanded, a growing consensus points to random genetic mutations in DNA as the cause of autism.

But despite the fact that Wakefield, his research, his paper, and his reputation has been thoroughly and repeatedly discredited through solid research, his lie about the vaccines continues to have life.  This was not helped by the advocacy of American actress Jenny McCarthy, who blamed the MMR vaccinations for disorders in her son Evan.  Experts have since identified Evan’s symptoms as being consistent with Landau-Kleffner Syndrome, which is often misdiagnosed as autism. 

John Adams once said, “Facts are stubborn things.”  And while it is generally true that while lies run fast they are eventually overtaken by the truth, the false vaccine-autism link is one that just will not go away.  Because of that, there are hordes of otherwise rational American mothers who refuse to get their children vaccinated, not only for MMR, but all diseases, including the deadly polio.  This became a ticking time bomb that was bound to explode. 

And explode it did.

All the cases in California, according to health officials, involve people who were either never vaccinated, or never got the follow-on booster shot.  Now, this highly virulent and potentially deadly disease has roared back to prominence in a country where Measles had been all but eradicated just a few short years ago.

Vaccines are one of the miracles of science.  Humans are now protected from the ravages of diseases that have killed millions in the past.  All we have to do is get the shots.  But the sad characteristic of too many people to believe in torrid conspiracies despite not having a single fact to stand on, and despite those conspiracies being utterly disproved and discredited, has led us to a new medical crisis.  

The crazy thing is that the same people who would never miss their annual flu shot will refuse to protect their children by making sure they get their immunizations.  It’s helpful that schools and universities are now requiring proof that potential students have been vaccinated before allowing them entry, but there are isolated cases where people have tried to sue those institutions, claiming that somehow their civil rights have been violated.

Or as one wag put it, “Behind every cause is a lawyer banking millions.”  A judgement in England netted $15.9 million of which $8 million went to the lawyers, and $4.5 million to "expert" witnesses.

The worst part of this whole mess is that the consequences are not limited to one individual.  Diseases such as these can and will affect (and infect) neighborhoods, cities, counties, and even states.

In 2004, there was an outbreak of Measles in Iowa traced to an unvaccinated student who visited India.

In 2006, a Mumps outbreak in Chicago got its start from a group of people who had been poorly immunized.

In 2008, an outbreak of Measles in San Diego started with a child, whose parents refused to vaccinate him, who traveled to Europe and brought the disease home with him.  In that case, 839 people were exposed.

In that same year, a full-fledged Measles epidemic exploded in Europe, with thousands of victims in Austria, Italy, and Switzerland.

The facts on vaccinations are clear.  They have saved, and will continue to save the lives of millions.  They are completely safe. 


The only threat, in this case, is the one to children of parents who choose to believe the lies of a proven con man rather than the incontrovertible truth.

We like to imagine there are walls and gates that protect us and keep us safe.  But refusing to immunize opens those gates and tears down those walls, leading us all wide open to an invasion that could only be described as medieval.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Civil War: Events of March 1865

On February 28th, Brigadier General George A. Custer, after crossing the north fork of the Shenandoah River, encountered 300 Confederate cavalry under Thomas Rosser guarding the Middle River near the village of Mount Crawford.  Rosser set fire to a long covered bridge in an attempt to delay Custer's advance, but Custer ordered two of his regiments to swim the river while other units stormed the burning bridge.  Rosser's force was driven off and Custer advanced to Staunton and joined Phil Sheridan's force the next day.  Originally, it was Sheridan's intent to join Sherman in South Carolina, but decided to turn east instead to eliminate the remnants of Jubal Early's Army of the Valley.  On March 2nd, Sheridan encountered Early's forces at Waynesboro.  Early had a good defensive position, but had left his left flank exposed abutting some dense woods.  A determined Federal attack turned, and then rolled up Early's flank.  More than 1,500 southerners surrendered, although Early and his staff evaded capture.

The U.S. government established the Freedman's Bureau on March 3rd.

Also on the 3rd, President Lincoln issued surrender instructions to General Grant.  Grant was given wide-ranging powers concerning Army matters, but reserved political issues to himself.

On March 4th, Lincoln gave his inaugural address, speaking directly to the Confederate people, saying, "...with malice toward none; with charity for all."

Also on March 4th, Tennessee elects its first post-war Governor Parson Brownlow.

On March 10, Sherman's army continues its march through North Carolina, although slowed by spring rains.  He captures Fayetteville on the 11th.

On March 13th, the Confederacy enlisted its first black soldiers with the tacit understanding that those who fought would be freed.

On the 16th, Sherman, advancing towards Goldsboro was attacked by Confederate General William Hardee's corps, assaulting the left wing under General Slocum near Averasborough, attempting to slow Sherman's advance.  The Union XX Corps was driven back by the assault.  Reinforcements arrived and the Union counterattacked, driving back two of the Confederate lines, but repulsed by the third.  The XIV Corps arrived, forcing Hardee's forces to withdraw.  Three days later, Hardee, along with D. H. Hill and A. P. Stewart combined to attack Slocum's column again near Bentonville. Over the two-day battle, Hardee made early gains, but was repulsed.  Sherman reinforced Slocum on the 20th, and on the 21st, Hardee's force made a harrowing escape, as they barely escaped envelopment by Slocum.

Union General James Wilson began a raid on Selma, AL on the 22nd.

On the 23rd, Lincoln left Washington for Grant's Headquarters at City Point.

In an event similar to the World War II Battle of the Bulge, Confederate General John B. Gordon attacked and captured Fort Stedman, a Union outpost on the Petersburg siege line..  Gordon's forces managed to punch a hole 3/4 of a mile wide in the Union lines, making a desperate thrust towards the Union supply base and headquarters at City Point, VA.  But the Union had numbers on their side and managed to stop and then turn back the Confederate advance, eventually recapturing Fort Stedman.  The defeat, although unrealized at the time, essentially sealed the eventual fate of the Army of Northern Virginia.  Weakened by irreplaceable losses of men and material, this was their last offensive effort of the war.

On March 27th, Union forces under Edward Canby lay siege to the heavily fortified Spanish Fort, the eastern defense of Mobile, AL, and the vital port of Mobile Bay.  On that same day, Lincoln held an important council of war at City Point with Grant and Admiral David Porter.

General Grant continued to extend his lines around the besieged city of Petersburg, VA, forcing Lee to thin out his lines in order to face the deployments.  On March 30th, Sheridan's cavalry attacked the Confederate right flank at Dinwiddie Court House, VA.   Grant had ordered a major offensive against the remaining Confederate supply lines along the Boydton Plank Road, the Richmond and Danville Railroad, and the Southside Railroad.  Grant wanted the Southerners to be forced out of their fortifications.  On the morning of the 29th, Warren and Humphrey's corps' moved south and west towards the Confederate right.  Up the Quaker Road came Warren's Corps, led by the brigade of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a hero of Gettysburg.  Chamberlain's brigade took on three brigades of Johnson's division.  The Union force eventually forced the Confederates back, Chamberlain collecting another of his 6 wounds suffered in the war, and was nearly captured.  The bullet that struck Chamberlain had passed through the neck of his horse, spraying blood onto Chamberlain's face.  The round was deflected by a picture of his wife which he kept in his coat pocket, but still traveled just under the skin around his ribs and exited out the back.  To all observers on both sides, Chamberlain had apparently suffered a fatal wound.  Indeed, General Griffin, seeing his subordinate, declared, "Chamberlain,you are dead!"  Chamberlain instead rose to his feet, grabbed another horse and rallied his fading troops.  Atop the horse, covered in blood and waving his sword, Chamberlain inspired not only his troops, but the Confederates as well.  At the end of the day, Warren's corps captured and held a portion of the Boydton Plank Road at Quaker Road.  Later, Sheridan occupied Dinwiddie Courthouse, completely severing the road.  The Union forces then prepared to attack the Confederates at the important road junction of Five Forks.

On March 31st, Confederate General George Pickett attacked and drove back Sheridan's cavalry.  It was merely a tactical victory, as the Union advance was unhindered.


Civil War: Events of February 1865

William T. Sherman entered South Carolina on February 1st.

On February 3rd, President Lincoln along with Secretary of State William Seward met on the steamboat River Queen with Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, accompanied bu John Campbell and RMT Hunter to discuss possible peace terms.  The conference failed.

On February 4th, Robert E. Lee was named General in Chief of all Confederate forces.

From February 5th through the 7th one of a series of Union offensives during the Siege of Petersburg occurred at Hatcher's Run.  These actions were intended to cut off Confederate supply traffic on two vital roads west of Petersburg.  General Gregg's cavalry was sent to the Boydton Plank Road looking to locate and destroy Confederate supply wagons.  The Union V Corps under the command of General Gouverneur Warren marched southwest towards Dinwiddie Courthouse, taking up a blocking position on the Vaughn Road to protect Gregg's right flank.  The II Corps under Andrew Humphreys marched to Armstrong's Mill to cover Warren's right flank.  Late on the 5th, Confederate General John B. Gordon attacked II Corps from the north but was repulsed.  Overnight, II Corps was reinforced by elements of V Corps and Gregg's cavalry, having returned after not finding any of the supply train.
On the 6th, Confederate General John Pegram sent his division against the V Corps lines. The Southerners were driven back until General Clement Evans' soldiers piled in and halted the Northern advance.  Later on the 6th, Pegram and William Mahone's divisions attacked the center of the Union position near Dabney's Mill.  The Union line collapsed and fell back to reform north of the mill.  The next day, Warren sent his Union soldiers against the Confederate lines, recapturing the areas around Dabney's Mill which had been lost on the 6th.  The Union advance was halted, but at the same time extended their siegeworks to the Vaughn Road.  The Confederates were able to keep the Boydton Plank Road open, but with the extension of the Union lines, were forced to spread their already thin lines even further.

John C. Breckinridge became Confederate Secretary of War on the 6th.

The Union army appointed the first black Major, Martin Robison Delany, on the 8th.  Four days later, Henry Highland Garnet became the first black to speak in the U.S. House of Representatives.

William T. Sherman captured Columbia, SC on the 17th.  The city was burned, although the exact cause of the blaze remains to this day disputed.

The vital port of Charleston, SC was evacuated on the 17th, and surrendered to the Union Army the next day.  Fort Sumter, where the Civil War started, once again flew the stars and stripes.

On February 22nd, Robert E. Lee, exercising his new authority as Commanding General of all Confederate forces, appointed Joe Johnston as the commander of the only other effective fighting army of the CSA in North Carolina.

On that same day, voters in Tennessee approved a new constitution which included the abolition of slavery.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2015


"For last year's words 
belong to last year's language;
Next year's words 
await a different voice."
--T. S. Eliot

Copyright © 2014
by Ralph F. Couey
image and written content
except quoted and cited passages.

This day we call New Year's is at its essence an arbitrary point, a mere pixel in the vast expanse of time.  Yet, we have assigned this day as the first one in that annual road map we call the calendar.  And because we humans are all about fresh starts, we mark this day as a beginning; a clear slate, if you will.

Behind us lies 365 days of epic achievement and utter failure; of boundless joy and complete devastation.  Of dreams realized and dreams broken.  One of our unfortunate tendencies is to focus on what went wrong during that time and vow to fix them.  These promises, that which we call "resolutions," are usually anything but.  "Resolve" as we have discovered is ephemeral; that ship upon which we confidently set sail, only to find out that its full of holes and gravitates towards the rocks.  And rather than fix the holes and alter the course, we abandon the ship.

I"ve always felt that part of the problem is that we make these vows in the time of year when the cold, snow, and ice drive us indoors; the short days make doing anything extra or different difficult.  Let's face it; when the sun goes down, we get sleepy.  My resolutions don't get made until spring.  When the warm sun shines, and the earth springs forth in new life, I am touched by that spirit of rebirth and renewal.  I find my plans easier to fulfill, and my dreams far more likely to become reality.  The next two months I have come to call "The Long, Dark Tunnel" for a good reason.  In the winter, I don't feel like doing anything.  In the spring, I feel like doing everything.

But that's just me.  I understand those who mark their new beginnings by that elegantly simple "1" that sits at the head of January.  I am patient when the gym population swells in January, because I know most of them will be gone by the end of the month.  I am empathetic with those who make those grand pronouncements on that day, knowing that head of steam will have fizzled before Valentine's Day.  

The problem is that we have a tendency to set our goals at unrealistic levels.  It's hard to lose 50 pounds in one year.  It's much more doable to lose it 5 pounds at a time.  One can proclaim their intent to run in a marathon, but really should first aim for a 5K.  Don't promise to be completely debt-free by December 31st, but vow to pay off the two biggest credit cards.  (And then cut them up.)  By setting realistic intermediate achievements, the larger, more significant hurdles tend to sneak closer to fruition without you even realizing.

Life can teach us certain things, if we are willing to stay awake in class.  Wisdom, the nexus of knowledge, mistakes, and experience, is acquired, usually with significant pain.  But it is in those times we learn that adversity can only be vanquished by standing up and fighting our way through.  Problems will not go away by themselves.  Ignoring or surrendering only compounds things.  Blaming conditions or other people for problems will only serve to blind us to solutions, and keep us from cleaning up the mess.  At some point, we need to go to the mirror, look that face dead in the eye, and say, "YOU are my biggest problem.  YOU I can fix."  

That moment is the beginning of redemption.

2014 was, by most accounts, a hot mess.  But the time has come to close the door on the past, and turn resolutely toward the future with the promise that destiny is something we can control.

Life is neither good nor bad.  It is indifferent.  What establishes the quality is the amount of effort we put into it.  Our problems await our solutions.  Our plans await our implementation.  And our dreams will be waiting patiently for us as we traverse the rocky, hilly, yet beautiful trail that the year 2015 can be.

Happy New Year!  

And live the journey.


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Hiking: Part 16


Copyright © 2014
By Ralph F. Couey



Just before my wife left for her biennial trip to Hawaii to visit her family, she told me that she'd be interested in going hiking again when she got back, despite the cold.  This was a fairly significant revelation, since my impression of her trips with me this summer were something close to boredom.  I was hiking by myself until I had that bear encounter on the AT.  Since then, she has accompanied me.  I'm not sure if those two are related, but even if it wasn't as interesting to her as it was to me, I was happy to have her company.

She fractured her foot in October and since it took a distressingly long time to heal, she has been laid up, at least for hiking since then.  Now that she is showing interest again, I decided to take a practice cold weather hike today.

I went to a familiar place, the Manassas Battlefield, about 15 minutes south of home.  After checking in with the Ranger, I decided to take the long path, the 6.5-mile loop that hits mostly sites related to the second battle of the two that were fought on this same ground.

The temperatures would struggle to reach 40 (f) despite the brilliant sunshine.  I bundled up accordingly, layering a long-sleeve t-shirt under a thick hoodie topped with a lined jacket.  I had a knit stocking cap, the kind that covers cheeks and chin.  I wavered on the base layer, then decided that hiking would keep my legs warm.  I started out with gloves and liners, but the liners came off about an hour in, and the gloves alternately came off and on as conditions warranted.  Since it was so cold, I decided not to fill the Camelbak reservoir, but just take a few bottles of water.  

The longer of the two trails leaves the visitors center down the main driveway and then crosses Sudley road as you make your way up towards Chinn Ridge.  For the first mile, it's an asphalt roadway, which kinda doesn't really feel like hiking.  But eventually I got up to Chinn Ridge, make a left out of the parking area and headed into the woods.

Monday, December 22, 2014

A Season of Hope*



*Johnstown (PA) Tribune-Democrat December 20, 2007
as "This season of hope"

Copyright © 2007 by Ralph Couey

About 15 years ago, I received a phone call from a friend who owned an ad agency. It seemed that a local hospital board was in need of a Santa to hand out the Christmas bonuses at their meeting. I had nothing scheduled that night, and my friend had access to a Santa suit, so I accepted the offer. Since then, I’ve been privileged to wear that distinctive red and white outfit many times each season. The gigs have been many and diverse, parties, downtown festivals, meetings, conferences, and leading a motorcycle Toy Ride for the Salvation Army.

Over the years, I’ve talked to around a thousand children and adults around this time of year, basking in the glow of that special sense of joy which seems to permeate the Christmas season. In recent years, the increasingly diverse nature of our nation has led to a more secular cross-cultural kind of celebration of this “holiday” season. Whatever you choose to call it though, there is one element that is present in all celebrations: Hope.

On a cold, snowy December night, I was ensconced in the Santa chair at a local bank in Columbia, Missouri. The line of children and parents snaked across the expansive lobby and out onto the sidewalk. Mindful of how miserable it was for those waiting outside, I was doing my best to keep the line moving, trying to balance expediency against the need to make every child feel special in that brief time we had together. At one point, a man brought up his three children. Their eyes were lit with excitement and our conversations were animated as they related their wish lists. At one point, I glanced up at the father and was surprised to see on his face a look of sadness. While his kid’s eyes danced with joy, his eyes were haunted, dark orbs above gaunt cheeks. He obviously hadn’t slept well, if at all, and as I watched him, I could sense the pain of his burden.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Fourth Sunday of Advent: Peace!

From Delta College Global Peace Studies
University Center, Michigan

Copyright © 2014
By Ralph F. Couey
Written Content Only.

The word “Peace” has a multitude of meanings and contexts from the cessation of conflict to those rare golden hours at home when the kids have gone to sleep. It is a word that is used most widely during the Christmas season.

In Hebrew, the word is Shalom, which covers quite a bit of ground. Wholeness, joy, freedom, harmony – both physical and spiritual. It can also mean community, reconciliation, as well as truth, justice, and humanity.

Christians have always associated this word with this particular season, mainly because of the story as it is told in the scriptures. Nobody will ever forget that moment in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” when Linus stands on the stage and recites the passage from the second chapter of Luke…

“And there were in the same country shepherds, 
abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.
And lo, the Angel of the Lord came upon them, 
and the Glory of the Lord shown round about them, 
and they were sore afraid.
But the Angel said unto them, “Fear not! 
For behold I bring you good tidings of great joy 
which shall be to all people. 
For unto you this day is born in the City of David, 
a Savior who is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you: 
Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes 
and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was with the Angel 
a multitude of the heavenly host, 
praising God and saying, 
“Glory to God in the highest! 
And on earth, Peace; good will toward men!”

…and his stunningly simple denouement, 

“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

And on earth, Peace.

Peace has so many meanings that it can be difficult to tie it down to one thing. I'm sure it means, at least in part, the end of war; conflict between nations.

As of this week, there are 43 armed conflicts occurring in the world. Some are familiar, thanks to the media coverage. Most though, are either unknown or ignored by most people. Whether known or unknown, acknowledged or ignored, these conflicts have resulted so far in 2014 in the deaths of nearly 120,000 humans.

Some of these conflicts, wars actually, are recent, starting just this year. Others have been raging for decades. The human toll is a staggering 6.8 million. That total only includes current ongoing conflicts, not the few hundred million or so who perished over the last 5,000 years.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Going Home*****

*Chicago Tribune
December 21, 2010
as "Time to go home"

KWGN TV/CW 2 Denver, CO
December 21, 2010
as "Time to go home"

*Somerset, PA Daily American 
as "Time to Go Home"
December 23, 2010

*Pittsburgh, PA Post-Gazette
December 23, 2010
as "Going Home for Christmas: 
Our Men and Women in Uniform are On Their Way"

*Waterbury, CT Republican-American
December 24, 2010
as "Wartime Songs Live on for the Holidays"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

It was October 1943, and the United States was almost two years into World War II.  The immediate dangers of 1942 had passed and some significant victories had been won.  But everyone knew that a lot of hard slogging still lay ahead before victory could be declared. 

Every day, those dreaded yellow telegrams kept coming.  And in those windows, a blue star turned to gold.

The coming Christmas season would be bittersweet.  Families would gather, their celebrations muted by the gaping absence of a son who was far away in a strange place, facing danger.  Sons who were still home would be leaving soon to join the fight.  And as the holidays approached, hearts separated by 10,000 miles would all feel the same wistful ache.

The world of popular music has a way of articulating the latent emotions of a particular time and place.  That October, a crooner named Bing Crosby released a song that put words to those tender feelings and dark fears.  “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was a wartime song, to be sure.  But the words have touched every generation since.

I am dreaming tonight of a place I love
Even more than I usually do
And although I know it's a long road back
I promise you

Monday, December 08, 2014

Third Sunday of Advent: Joy!

Copyright © 2014
by Ralph F. Couey

This time of the year is commonly referred to as “the season of joy.” There are so many things that shape that context. Nature has shed the riotous colors of autumn and gone into dormancy, covering the landscape in dreary browns and bare branches. Thus we await with great excitement the first snows of winter that return to the world a delightful artistry. The weather has turned colder, so we are not outside very often. So we make a special effort to spend time with friends under the guise of holiday parties. Mostly, though, we know we are approaching a time when our families will once again gather from across town, across the state, across the country, or across the oceans. For a precious few days, our houses will be crowded with laughter while the mists of memory drift among us.

A tree has been set up and decorated. As the days go by, brightly-colored packages begin to populate the once-empty space at the bottom. There is a happiness, yes. But there is also a growing sense of anticipation towards that early morning when children will race from their slumbers, impatiently urging grownups, still brushing sleep from their eyes and bravely understanding that today, at least, the coffee’s gonna have to wait.

To watch children opening presents on Christmas morning is to see joy. It can be a difficult thing to define, much like love. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Occasionally in life there are those moments of unutterable fulfillment which cannot be completely explained by those symbols called words. Their meanings can only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart.”

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Second Sunday of Advent: Love

Copyright © 2014
by Ralph F.Couey

Why does love hurt?

How can it be that something so good, which feels so wonderful can become a knife to the heart?

Love is not a thing that begins suddenly. It is a journey, one that begins slowly and subtly, sometimes one doesn’t even realize that the journey has begun.

It is a journey less defined as an afternoon walk, and more like a long, sustained hike. Sometimes the way is easy, flat, level, the sun shining and the air comfortable. Other times, it becomes a steep climb, the trail strewn with large, sharp rocks. At times, the trail appears to split into multiple paths, forcing a choice which will define the remainder of the hike.

But whatever else it may seem, love means that whatever the conditions, the journey is never made alone.

We walk together, we climb together; together we ford the rapid streams. Together, we inch along precipitous cliffs, and persevere under storms, cold, or severe heat.

Always ahead is the destination. No one never knows exactly what or where that may be. This trail is not drawn clearly on any map. It must be made in faith.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Ian

Copyright © 2014
by Ralph F. Couey

Someone once described being a Grandparent as "all the joys of parenting with (almost) none of the responsibility."  That statement generally draws smiles, both from parents and grandparents alike.  Kidding aside, there is an indescribable joy about the relationship that grows and develops between grampas and grammas and those wonderful children.

My wife and I now can count 10 grandkids, a total which include one given up for adoption, and another, beset with multiple serious genetic problems, whom God decided was better off with Him.  Like many who share our situation, our adult children (why does that sound like such a oxymoron?) are scattered across the landscape, from Maryland to Colorado and California.  Still, we're better off than my parents were when I was in the Navy and my sister was teaching in Australia.  At least ours are all on the same continent.

Our son and his family are closest to us by distance, so by default we see more of his kids than the others.  And yes, we do feel badly about those whose distance means we only get to see them on Skype.  Still, retirement is almost upon us, and we intend to become road warriors.  Still it is a great joy to be able to have these three around quite often.  Diana, whom I've written of before, is, at age 8 growing into a lovely young lady.  She is smart (yeah, I know; nobody has a dumb grandchild) and lovely (all right, already!) and blessed with a heart full of sharing and love.  She makes friends easily and charms the socks off of everyone she meets.  Sophie, at 6 months,the newest model, is beginning to show off a delightful personality.  Ian is in the middle, three years old.  He is very much his father's son, his behaviors echoing that earlier edition to a degree that is kinda spooky.  He is lively and full of energy, not terribly unusual for a boy, but the thing that amazes and at times, stuns us is the remarkable things that come out of his mouth.

First Sunday of Advent: Hope

Copyright © 2014
by Ralph F. Couey
Written content only

The wind blows cold across a world torn in grief and weeping in sadness. Everywhere, the demons of anger and hate stalk among us, feeding the dark side within us all, urging us into conflict. Everywhere, the hungry, the homeless, and the hopeless lie in despair. From the huddled masses, the question drifts like a fog: “Is this the end?”

But, wait!

 Look! 


Do you see what I see?

In the east, a new star, dancing in the night! See how it lights up the sky? It beckons us to follow! Could this be the miracle we have all been waiting for?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Case for Space*

Photo from Apollo 8, NASA

"The Case for Space"
A plea for freeing the human spirit
By Ralph F. Couey
Somerset, PA

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, March 30, 2010
as "Unshackle Human Spirit From Earthbound Cage"

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

For uncounted generations, humans have looked to the night sky, pondering what lies beyond our planetary cradle. That stubborn curiosity has forever marked the human species. Even today we remain fascinated by what lies Out There. Such contemplation is profound, especially when one considers that humanity is the only intelligent technological species known to exist within the 154 billion light years that defines the known universe.

And that Earth is the only known cradle of life.

The universe calls to the explorer inside all of us. That desire defines our natures; to explore; to touch the unknown and make it known.

During the 1960’s, the drive to the moon was undertaken in a blizzard of emotion and wartime urgency. However, that frenetic momentum faded after Project Apollo. We still launch shuttles and send robot probes to the planets with spectacular results.

But no one can ignore the fact that humans haven’t left earth orbit in 40 years.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Civil War: Events of January 1865

On January 12th, Francis P. Blair, the man who had unsuccessfully communicated President Lincoln's offer to Robert E. Lee to command all United States Forces, arrived in Richmond, Virginia to meet with Confederate leaders with a proposal for a peace conference.

From January 13-16, Union and Confederate forces battled over the strategically vital Fort Fisher, the guardian of the port of Wilmington, North Carolina.  Using a combined force of soldiers and Navy ships, the Union captured the fort, ending the Confederates use of the port for blockade runners which were supplying the embattled Army of Northern Virginia.

After a month regrouping in Savannah, William T. Sherman put his troops again on the advance, marching northwards into South Carolina.

On the 31st, Jefferson Davis appointed Robert E. Lee to the command of all remaining Confederate forces.  Also on that day, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the 13th amendment to the Constitution, outlawing slavery.


Civil War: Events of December 1864

On December 4th near Waynesboro, Georgia Union cavalry under Judson Kilpatrick set out to attack Joseph Wheeler's Confederate cavalry, after Wheeler had engaged the Bluecoats several times over the previous two weeks.  Kilpatrick attacked Wheeler.  The Confederates met the attacks, and fell back through three prepared positions leading into Waynesboro.  After a final desperate fight, Wheeler withdrew.  The Union victory helped open the road for Sherman to close on the vital port city of Savannah.

Salmon P. Chase was named Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court on December 6th.

On December 13th, Union forces under Sherman overwhelmed a small Confederate force defending Fort McAllister, a strategic redoubt on the Ogeechee River, a direct avenue from Savannah to the sea.  4,000 troops under William Hazen stormed the fort, defended by just 230 soldiers under George Anderson.  The fort fell in just 15 minutes.

Over December 15-16, Union forces under George Thomas met Confederates under John Bell Hood at Nashville, Tennessee.  Thomas combined a diversionary attack on the Confederate right with his main assault on the left.  Union troops overran two redoubts and very nearly routed the Confederates, the day saved by strong rear guard actions.  The next day, Thomas repeated his tactics, breaking and putting to flight the Confederates, who escaped eventually into Alabama.  The battle, however, destroyed Hood's force, losing some 20,000 of his 38,000 soldiers.  Hood later resigned his command and never held a post of major importance again.

On December 21st, Sherman occupied Savannah.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

The Blessings of Autumn



Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Except quoted and cited portions.

"I'm so glad we live in a world where there are Octobers!"
--Lucy Maud Montgomery
"Anne of Green Gables"

October has always been, for me, the best of times.  There are a multitude of reasons, cool weather, football, the leaves, and that indefinable yet familiar snap in the air.  I think that I only endure the other eleven months just to get to that special one.  The worst part is that once it has arrived, it never stays around long enough.  October is that houseguest who will never outstay their welcome.

I try to spend as much time as I can outdoors in that month.  In the first days, there are subtle patches of color here and there.  As the days pass, those patches meld into a chorus of bright, vivid colors lit by the rays of the bright butter-colored sun, under a sky of spectacular cobalt blue.  True, the days are growing shorter, but the nights respond with their own kind of magic.  As the haze of summer vanishes, the stars appear, far more numerous even in the city.  Each one shines with a sharp light, giving a soft, silvery touch to the landscape.

October is when I feel most alive.  I wish I could better articulate what I mean by that statement.  Suffice it to say that fall in general and October in particular stirs the passions within that often as not lie dormant during the rest of the year.

Last week, Cheryl and I took a day and drove out to Shenandoah National Park.  We timed this visit perfectly, as the leaves were at or near-peak.  We entered the Park at Thornton Gap, where US 211 crosses Skyline Drive, the main road through the park.

The colors were pretty enough, but as we traveled north, the colors got even more intense.  The view from the overlooks were spectacular, the valley floor bright with reds and golds.





Friday, October 31, 2014

The Morning After

© 2014 KansasCity.com

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Written Content Only

"Faith may be able to move mountains, but it can't by itself move a man 90 feet."
--Ralph Couey

I've always felt that the dawn, the bright herald of a new day, was the gift of a clean slate, with yesterday's sorrows completely erased.  Whatever the previous night brought, all was made good and right with the dawn.

I guess it depends on the event.

The Kansas City Royals finished the 2014 baseball season with a soul-crushing 3-2 loss to the newly-crowned repeat champion San Francisco Giants.  The game was close, and there was one toe-curling piece of hope and excitement right at the end.  But as Salvador Perez's foul pop settled into the glove of the Panda, I felt the light inside me dim and go dark.

The excitement, the impossible wins, the incredible realization of the impossible which had driven Royals' fans for the past six months all ended with all the traumatic shock of a car accident.  The season, with all its ups and downs, streaks and stops, wins and losses, was over.  The World Series was lost.

But out of the silence that enveloped Kaufman Stadium, a chant began to grow.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

I Believe


Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Written content only

For every human, our view of life revolves around two perspectives. That which we know, and that which we believe. The difference is obvious. That which we know would be otherwise classified as “facts,” statements backed by irrefutable evidence. Belief, however, is different.

Belief is, I believe, based on either conditions we would desperately like to exist, or something we know, but lack the solid proof. Call it a gut feel, if you will

People who adhere to a particular religious tradition are familiar with the latter. A deity, in whatever form one happens to be drawn to, doesn’t exist in a form we can readily see, touch, or otherwise prove. But in the heart, however, the belief is more certainty than conjecture.

Segueing from the celestial to the terrestrial, here we find ourselves, as fans of the amazing Kansas City Royals, hanging with them on the brink of elimination after two losses in which the boys in blue were, quite simply, dominated. True, the series shifts to the friendly, if frenetic confines of the K for the final two tilts of this year’s Fall Classic, but will the familiar environment of “home” be enough to divert the momentum of the Giants?

Before we drown ourselves in doubt, let’s take a quick reality check.

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.  

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

Jack Bauer sleeps with a night light because 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.

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 and 146 million Russians 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.

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.

Influenza has to get a Jack Bauer shot.

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

Jason Bourne fears nothing.  Except Jack Bauer.

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 120 hours, Jack Bauer survived exposure to radiation, a weaponized virus, and nerve gas, took down two corrupt U.S. Presidents, killed 309 terrorists and saved the world eight times.

What will 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.