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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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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Marketing and the Octane Myth

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey

I admit it.  I fell for it.  I believed it, that myth that was promulgated by gasoline retailers about octane.  I thought that the higher the octane rating, the more power I'd get out of the engine, and when you're a teen-aged boy with a brain bathed in testosterone, power is everything.

Even as an adult, I persisted in my ignorance.  Now, age doesn't always make you smarter, but in my case the facts finally caught up with me.

In the 1950's and 1960's, gasoline retailers used to duel with each other in advertisements about the octane rating of their product.  The way the adverts were worded, it was easy for the consumer to misinterpret the meaning.  Also, since high octane gas was more costly, it did handsome things to the company's bottom line.  In the '70's, (especially after the oil embargo) smaller cars with smaller, less powerful engines began to hit the roads.  Now, the tune changed to miles per gallon, and eventually the value of detergent additives.  Even to this day, however, if you were to ask the average Joe/Josephine on the street what octane is for, you'd likely get the wrong answer 9 out of 10 times.

Octane is a chemical which is added to gasoline for specific reasons.  It's sole purpose is to raise the compression ratio, and therefore the ignition point (when it catches fire), of the fuel.  Car and truck engines are not the same.  The game little 4-banger in a Dodge Neon, for example, is vastly different than the 12-cylinder monster that Lamborghini drops into their cars.  One of the most basic differences is in compression.

Now, car engines are known as "four cycle" engines.  This refers to the up-and-down cycle that the piston makes inside the cylinder.  The cylinder is a metal tube and depending on the car, an engine will have 4, 6, 8, and sometimes 12 of them.  At the top of the cylinder are two valves, or openings, and a spark plug.  This is the sequence of what goes on inside as you motor down the freeway.

In the first cycle, or stroke, the piston starts at the top and is drawn downward.  At the same time, one of the valves opens and the vacuum created by the dropping piston draws in a very fine vaporous mixture of gas and air which was either pre-mixed in the carburetor or in the fuel injection system.  This is called the intake stroke.

In the second stroke, the intake valve closes and the piston begins to travel upwards.  This compresses the gas-air mixture, which as a natural function of the laws of physics, also makes it hot.  This is called the compression stroke.

When the piston has gone all the way up, and when the vapor is fully compressed, the spark plug generates a jolt of electricity which jumps across that gap between the little nub and the L-shaped piece of steel on the plug.  This ignites the vapor and the resulting explosion drives the piston back down.  This is the power stroke and is really what makes the car go.  

In the last cycle, another valve opens and as the piston travels back upwards in the cylinder, it pushes the ash and smoke from the explosion out of the cylinder and eventually out of the tailpipe.  This is called the exhaust stroke.

Inside your engine, this is a carefully coordinated symphony of movement among the pistons.  The power from the third stroke rotates a drive shaft (with a heavy metal spinning disk called a flywheel to smooth out the jolts, which connects to the transmission (gears) and then the wheels.  Anything that alters this process even a little can have really bad consequences.

People try to cheat both ways, using regular gas in high-performance engines designed for high octane, and using high octane in small engines.  Both choices are bad ideas.

If you have an engine that requires higher octane (your owners manual will state this with perfect clarity) and you try to save money by using the cheaper stuff, you will create a condition that is familiarly known as "knocking."  What is happening inside the cylinder is as the piston pushes into the compression stroke, the lower octane gasoline will ignite before the piston gets all the way to the top.  That early explosion sends a jolt through the entire engine.  Imagine trying to climb a set of stairs, and every time you lift your leg to the next step, someone whacks the top of your knee with a baseball bat.  That's what premature ignition, or knocking, is doing to your engine's innards.

At the other extreme is what happens when using higher octane to increase a smaller engine's power.

The piston will reach its full compression, but the pressure that the fuel-air mixture reaches is far less than it's designed for, which means it's not going to burn completely.  So, during the power stroke, the explosion is less, so the power sent to the engine is less.  If that doesn't make sense to you, then what happens next should be easy to understand.

When the piston pushes into the exhaust stroke, it's not only pushing out debris from the explosion, but also a lot of gasoline that didn't ignite.  And that unburned gas goes right out the tailpipe.  You may as well throw dollar bills out of your window as you go down the road.

Oh yeah, and it doesn't do the environment any favors either.

The consequences for the engine are serious.  Some of the unburned fuel and smoke collects on the spark plug, and eventually gunks it up to the point where it won't make the spark, which means that none of the fuel in the power cycle will explode.  It will instead blow out behind you.  If you're really unlucky, it may explode in the tail pipe, which is called a backfire, which can be dangerous.  The gunk will also collect on the piston and on the rings and gasket that keep the fuel and air mixture and explosion separate from the oil which lubricates the cylinder.

Also, your car will smoke.  Smoke, any kind of smoke, is simply unburned fuel.  A perfect fire, whether in your engine our under your S'mores, won't generate any smoke, because everything is consumed by the flames and converted to heat.

If you're driving behind someone and you detect a strong smell of gasoline in their car's exhaust, chances are that's a sign that they're using the wrong octane.

Car and truck (and motorcycle) manufacturers put a lot of thought and work into their owner's manuals.  Even if you don't understand mechanical things all that well, there are certain things you really do need to know about your car.  Like the recommended octane rating.  And the recommended tire pressures.  And the maintenance intervals. Yeah, I know...blah, blah, blah. 

Still, the money you put into the purchase of a car represents a significant portion of your livelihood.  If you really want to make your car last as long as possible (or at least until you're bored with it), then try to make the effort to understand how important your knowledge is to the life of your car.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Civil War: Events of May 1865

On May 3rd, Georgia Governor Joseph Brown called a meeting of the state legislature when word came through that Confederate General Joe Johnston had surrendered.

The next day, Confederate General Richard Taylor surrendered the remaining troops in Alabama and Mississippi.

A man named Phillip Henry Mulkey was arrested in Eugene, Oregon on May 6th after he publicly shouted "Hurrah for Jeff Davis!".  A pro-union mob stormed the jail, but Mulkey escaped.

After nearly a month of eluding U.S. soldiers, Jefferson Davis is captured near Irwinville, Georgia on May 10th.

Also on the 10th, the Confederate vessel CSS Imogene became the last known ship to successfully run the Union blockade.

Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens was arrested at his estate, Liberty Hall, in Crawfordville, Georgia by the 4th Iowa Cavalry.

May 12th and 13th was the last significant battle of the Civil War at Palmito Ranch along the Rio Grande river east of Brownsville, Texas.  Union Colonel Theodore Brown, perhaps grasping for one last shot at glory, attacked a Confederate camp near Fort Brown, despite the unofficial truce that had been observed between the two sides.  Confederate Colonel John Ford successfully resisted the attack and the battle is generally considered a Confederate victory.  Perhaps the most significant event to come of this battle was the recording of the death of Private John J. Williams of the 34th Indiana Regiment.  He was the last combat death of the war.

On May 12th, 8 co-conspirators in the assassination of President Lincoln pleaded not guilty.

Major General Oliver Otis Howard, who commanded the checkered 11th Corps, was appointed by President Andrew Johnson as head of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned lands, more familiarly known simply as the Freedmen's Bureau intended to aid distressed freed slaves in the south.  One of the Bureau's tasks was to try to re-unite slave families scattered throughout the south, and provide them with basic reading and writing skills.

President Johnson issued a conditional amnesty to all persons engaged in the rebellion on May 14th.

On May 22nd, Jefferson Davis was imprisoned at Fort Monroe, near Hampton, Virginia.

On May 23rd, a grateful Union fell out along a parade route honoring their soldiers as the Army of the Potomac conducted its grand review in Washington.  The next day, the 24th, a similar parade was held for Sherman's Army.

On the 29th, President Johnson granted a Presidential Pardon to those who directly or indirectly aided the Southern war effort.  He also restored property rights to the south, excepting slaves.

On that same day, Johnson appointed William Holden as provisional Governor of North Carolina.  Holden was instructed by Johnson to call a constitutional convention of men who had signed an oath of allegiance to the United States.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Civil War: Events of April 1865

On April 1st, a Union combined force under General Phil Sheridan met and defeated Confederate General George Pickett's combined force at the strategic Five Forks.  The Southern withdrawal left in jeopardy the Southside Railroad, one of the few remaining lifelines for the Army of Northern Virginia.

From April 2nd through the 9th, Union General Edward Canby led a successful attack on Fort Blakely in Baldwin County, Alabama.  The defeat opened the doors for the occupation of the vital port of Mobile on the 12th.

General Grant finally achieved his breakthrough at Petersburg on April 2nd.  The Confederate lines crumbled as Lee frantically sent the remnants of his Army of Northern Virginia in the direction of Appomattox.  Upon receiving word that Lee was abandoning his positions, President Jefferson Davis ordered the evacuation of the Confederate government.

Also on the 2nd, Selma, Alabama fell to Union forces under James H. Wilson, defeating Confederate legend Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Union troops occupied Petersburg and Richmond on April 3rd.  The next day, Union President Lincoln arrived in Richmond to the sounds of cheers from hundreds of freed slaves.  Lincoln went to the Southern White House and sat at the desk that had belonged to Jefferson Davis.

The Union army now in full pursuit of Lee's Army fought a series of engagements between the 4th and the 7th.  In the Battle of Saylor's Creek, 8,000 Confederate troops surrendered.

On the 7th, Grant and Lee began a series of communications history has called "The Surrender Letters" in which Grant attempted to convince Lee to end the war which was so clearly lost.

On the 8th, Sheridan's cavalry struck Appomattox Station, driving the Rebels back and capturing badly needed supplies from Lee's army which was now on the verge of starvation.

Lee made one last gallant attempt to break out of the Union encirclement, which failed.  There is a poignant scene in which Lee emerges from his tent to observe cooking fires on the hills around his Army, and then jolted to the realization that the fires were Union.

On April 9th, in the home of Wilmer McLean near Appomattox Court House.  McLean had been forced to evacuate his family from his home near Manassas during the epic first major battle of the war.  It is said that the Civil War began in his backyard and ended in his front parlor.

On April 12th, General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, personally selected to do so by General Grant received the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.  As the defeated Southerners passed between two lines of Union infantry, Chamberlain ordered "Carry Arms!" as a salute to the soldiers in grey.  General John B. Gordon was surprised by the gesture but acknowledged the salute, wheeling his horse gracefully while saluting Chamberlain with his sword.  Gordon later would describe Chamberlain as "the knightliest General in the Union Army."

Two days later, President Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford's Theater by John Wilkes Booth, an actor with strong southern sympathies.  The President died early the next day.

The surrender of Lee's Army triggered similar capitulations.  By the 26th, nearly all of the Confederate forces had surrendered.  The war, for all intents and purposes, was finally over.

Jefferson Davis continued to elude Union pursuers, withdrawing to North Carolina on the 11th.  Davis would not officially dissolve the Confederate government until May 5th in Irwinville, Georgia.

After a long and brutal pursuit, John Wilkes Booth is shot and killed on the 26th while fleeing from a hiding place in a barn that Union soldiers had set afire.

Shipping restrictions are lifted on all Southern ports on the 29th.

Between the moment when Confederate guns opened fire on Ft. Sumter on April 13, 1861 until the guns finally fell silent on April 9th, 1865 nearly four years of unspeakable violence and exquisite national agony had passed.  In it's wake, the American Civil War left over a million casualties from both sides.  Projected into modern terms, that percentage of the total population today would be 10.6 million dead and wounded.  Estimates of dead soldiers range from 620,000 up to 850,000, with some 50,000 civilian deaths.  One in thirteen veterans were amputees.  The bitterness of defeat in the south would persist for many decades, exploding into violence again during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's, when the check of freedom written by Abraham Lincoln would finally be cashed.

In retrospect, it is amazing the the United States survived this terrible tragedy.  But survive it did, to grow eventually into the economic, political, and military powerhouse it is today.

But on battlefields across the country are rows of tombstones marking the graves of those who fought and died, each one giving their lives for their particular ideal of freedom.  From their memory and sacrifice we should promise ourselves that they will not have died in vain.  That the Stars and Stripes will fly forever over a land and a people who, despite our differences, will always be United.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Hiking, Part 17

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
Pictures and written content.

The forecast called for sun and 70 degrees.  Of course, they lied.  Or guessed wrong.  At any rate, I squeezed a few hours out of my other duties to make my first official hike of the season.  I decided to jump in with both feet and tackle a section of the Appalachian Trail which runs between Virginia Route 7 on the north to US Route 50 to the south.  This section is familiarly known to local hikers as "The Roller Coaster."  For good reason, as the trail continually climbs and descends.  Rather than start at US 50, I decided to get on at a different place.  

I headed out about mid-morning bound for Ashby's Gap rolling down my window to luxuriate in air that seemed actually warm.  But about halfway out, the wind appeared with a vengeance.  I frowned, thinking I had not seen that in the forecast. I got to my turnoff, Blue Ridge Mountain Road, one of my favorite motorcycle rides, and headed north.

About halfway up Blue Ridge Mountain Road, their lies the infamous Mt. Weather FEMA facility, ensconced behind chain link, barbed wire, and an assumed host of sensors.  Directly across from the front gate is a dirt path carrying the grandiose name of Virginia Route 605.  About a mile or so down (and I do mean down) that road is where the AT crosses.  There is a shallow pullout on one side of the road, and on the other side an elevated sort of grassy road meant to service the power lines that snake alongside the road.  

I got out of the car, geared up, and faced the trailhead.  There was no warmup flat trail here.  The path became a rather stiff climb right off the bat.

The wind by this time was howling.  The forest, devoid of birdsong and leaves, was filled with the unnerving sound of trees creaking as they flexed back and forth.  It was an uncomfortable reminder of an incident that occurred in the Catoctin Mountain section of the trail in Maryland last Sunday.  The winds were blowing hard that day as well and a 36-year-old Philadelphia man was crushed when a large, heavy limb separated from a tree and fell.  The memory was never far from my mind today.

The woods in summer are a delightful place.  Life abounds, the air alive with birdsong.  But the woods in the winter, or in this case, almost spring, the forest is silent and lonely.  The wind gusted among the bare branches, causing them to sway and the trunks to creak in a very disturbing way.  Low gray clouds scudded above, blocking the sun and giving the landscape a creepy kind of noir patina.

But hey, it wasn't snowing and I was hiking.  So I put the dark thoughts away (while continuing to scan the trees) and started the climb.

Because of a stubborn hip problem, I had been very lax this winter with my workout regimen.  Only in the last three weeks had I gotten anything close to serious about exercise.  My slothful behavior began to pay me back.  The first half-mile was a dead climb, but I was working pretty hard, a lot harder than I remember on similar inclines last summer.  I crested the hill and headed into the first valley.  At about the 1 mile mark, I came upon a stream rambunctiously bounding down the hill.  To the left about 200 meters away, a pretty good waterfall shot from a cliff face.  

It was a noisy stream, but the sound of the wind was pretty good competition.  Climbing out of that particular valley, I headed uphill again, this time on a set of switchbacks which made the ascent a bit easier.  The trail then flattened out a bit (it's all relative, you know...) before starting another ambitious climb.

At this point, I encountered a set of ruins, what appeared to be a stone foundation for a structure, and the remains of a stone boundary fence.  

But before starting up, I heard the telltale sound of a hiker coming up behind me.  I turned to behold a young man who looked for all world like a leprechaun.  Red hair and beard, a short, stocky appearance and a ready smile.  But what impressed me was the size of the pack he was carrying.  It seemed almost as big as he was. I couldn't imagine that load weighing much south of 75 pounds.  I greeted him, remarking, "I think you need a larger pack."  He grinned and introduced himself as Aaron.  As it turned out, He was one of the first of the hardy breed of through hikers, those who started their journey at the AT's southern end in Georgia, intent on getting to its northern terminus in Maine by summer's end.  Aaron started his journey on January 1 and spoke of enduring snow, sleet, ice, and bitter cold on his trek to this point.  After hearing his story, I stopped grousing and hiked on.  Facing me (us) now was a really ugly climb. 

Carefully, I picked my way among the rocks, making sure I had good footing.  It turned out to be not as bad as it looked, and topping the ridge, I remembered the reason we endured such climbs was to enjoy vistas such as this:

And, of course, the obligatory selfie...

I stopped to rest and enjoy the view as Aaron continued on.  I wished him well.  At two-and-a-half months into his journey, he still hadn't reached the half-way point.  

The trail eased into an easier downhill slope at this point, and I swung along enjoyably.  I encountered four other hikers, a couple day-hiking like me, and two other more serious types toting impressive loads.  The only difficult point was where a tree had fallen across the trail, which required some unwelcome gymnastics to get past.  I reached the two-mile mark, looked at my watch and decided to head back to the car.  As much as I wanted to continue on, the memory of my other responsibilities began to throb unpleasantly in my brain.  The hike back was not as hard, as I was warmed up and loose.

I got back to the car in good shape, albeit a bit disappointed in the time it took to do this hike.  But it was the first of the season, and it was a very difficult stretch, so I'll look to those ameliorations to ease my disappointment.  

I have a several goals I want to accomplish this summer.  This was step one.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Godfather and the Secret Life of Men*

The Don and his sons.
(Paramount Pictures publicity still)

*Somerset, PA Daily American
May 29, 2010
as "A Great Man Movie"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey
Written content only

In 1972, a movie hit American theaters that had a defining effect on our culture. “The Godfather” chronicled the story of a Sicilian-American organized crime “family,” the Corleones.

The story captivated the public to be sure, but men especially were riveted by the story. The characters were larger than life, and in a twisted sort of way, became role models. Suddenly, the Mafia had become cool. And in the decades since, the Godfather Saga has become irretrievably etched into our lives, to the unending exasperation of Italian-Americans across the nation.

Women are almost universally repulsed by the movies, due mainly to the violence and the portrayal of the female role in that that culture. My wife bought me for my birthday, the latest DVD incarnation of all three movies with the proviso that I could only watch them when she was out of the house.

Men, on the other hand, embrace Godfather, as Tom Hanks put it in the movie “You’ve Got Mail,” “the I Ching of life.” He was referring to the ancient Chinese “Book of Changes,” that helped people deal with life changes by providing solutions and a measure of solace. The aphorisms that the film created have found their way into the daily lexicon from the Boardroom to the ballfield:

“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
“Go to the mattresses.”
“It’s not personal; it’s business.”
“Luca Brazi sleeps with the fishes.”
“I want you to see what he’s got under his fingernails.”
“I heard you were a serious man; to be treated with respect.”
“You have to answer for Santino, Carlo.”
“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”
“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

They’re great phrases, adaptable to any number of situations and because they’re so well known, the intended meaning is instantly clear.

As to why males find the story so fascinating, the answer to that question I believe lies in the culture of manhood.

Opportunity: Waste Not, Want Not

Winter.  Ugh.

© 2015 
By Ralph F. Couey

The hardest part -- okay, ONE of the hardest parts of winter is how the cold keeps a person from being able to enjoy outside activities. I really don't like being forced inside for my entertainment and exercise.  I have written extensively of my absolute detestation for treadmills, comparing them to an earthbound form of purgatory.  I can (and do) run or hike outside on days when the temps range into the upper 30's, but those gems are few and far between this year.  

Let me hasten to extend my sincerest condolences for the poor folks in Boston and New England who are, at this moment, watching another round of the snowiest year on record.  We here in the DMV (D.C., Maryland, and Virginia -- this is Washington, so acronyms are required) have amassed only around five inches total for the entire season.  Last week, Boston saw that in just one hour.  You-all have my sympathy and respect.  First the Red Sox, and now, snow.

But the persistent cold has been frustrating.  So earlier this week, we had a day when the thermometer soared into the upper 50's, almost spring by comparison.  I could have (should have) gone running, but standing in the garage, my attention was drawn to my other passion, my motorcycle.  Since late November, the bike has sat quietly, the battery percolating on the tender.  I've started and run it at least once a week, but the cold weather and the overly enthusiastic application of sand and salt by VDOT has kept me from riding.  But that day was an opportunity which, judging by the latest long-range forecast, would not come again for several weeks.  So I dug through the pile of stuff in the garage and managed to find all the parts to my riding gear, including the liners.  I cleared the accumulation of flotsam that had piled up around the bike, backed it out, fired up the engine, and for the first time in three months, I took a ride.

Getting out of the neighborhood was tricky because of the road treatment.  Once on the main drag, the heavier traffic had gradually squeegeed the loose stuff to the side.  I took my usual route, heading west on US50.  I had gone about 10 miles when I realized that the wind, despite the temperatures, still retained a bit of a bite.  I should note here that my age combined with diabetes has had a deleterious effect on my circulation, so I am far more sensitive to cold now.  But despite the discomfort, I began to smile, my spirit lifting.  Reaching Middleburg, I turned south towards The Plains, taking those gentle curves with an easy, rhythmic motion.  This is not to say that I wasn't rusty.  I turned a little wide on some of the curves, and my road instincts were slow in reawakening.  At the edge of The Plains, I turned on the narrow country road with the poetic name of Hopewell.  This is a road that has one of those slap-dash asphalt jobs that is meant merely to cover the gravel and keep the dust down.  It's the kind of surface that lends itself to frost heave, so I had to pay close attention to the road surface.  At Hopewell Gap, the road became Waterfall Road.  At this point, it passes through the edge of a forest on the left with a few of those massive horse farms the area is well-known for on the right, bordered by a well-maintained stacked-stone border fence.  I really enjoy this stretch, as it has a certain beauty, both natural and man-made.

Crossing US15, the road changed names again, becoming Sudley.  Civilization began to return as I reached the intersection with Gum Spring Road, and the last wavy stretch towards home.  Pulling into the driveway, I was pretty well chilled, but still happy.  A quick 40 miles had been stolen from Old Man Winter.

I know that seasons don't last forever, and that spring eventually will arrive, calendrically, if not meteorologically.  It's just a matter of holding out until those days of warm sunshine and fresh air laced with the smell of wildflowers return.

Until then, I will endure this year's round of PMS (Parked Motorcycle Syndrome) as well as the other outdoor restrictions until the earth decides winter is over.

Yes, Ralph...this too, shall end.


Friday, January 30, 2015

The Hunger Games, The Reaping, and Vietnamnesia

The Fictional Reaping...
(© Lionsgate Entertainment)

...And the Real One.
(© UPI 1969)

Copyright © 2015
By Ralph F. Couey
Written Content Only

In recent years, I have become increasingly aware of the disconnect between what young people today call "history" and what I clearly retain as memories.  Sometimes the difference is identifiable as a deliberate attempt to scrub the past.  Listening to how the Japanese teach their children about World War II leaves most westerners scratching their head and wondering if they're talking about the same war.  Other times, the passage of time, the loss of vital documents, and the death of participants make the reconstruction of past events something of a guessing game.  The intertwining tales of the Knights Templar, the Holy Grail, and the Ark of the Covenant have become a gaping collective hole that hundreds of years worth of investigation still haven't solved. 

I have a lot of DVD's and Blu-Rays, as I'm sure the same is true for many of you.  Most movies on disc now include the special features section that usually contain edited scenes and short documentaries about how that particular film was made.  I don't always take the time to watch those, but when I do there's always something interesting to discover that more often than not, improves the viewing experience of the movie itself.

I've had on my shelf for some time a standard DVD of the first Hunger Games film.   When it first came out, I initially dismissed it as a JATM (Just Another Teen Movie).  But one evening when we were imprisoned by an epic snowstorm, my son, who was visiting us in Pennsylvania, slipped the movie into the player.  Thus, I became a reluctant captive.  But as the story unfolded, I was able to find some themes that tickled the part of my brain where the knowledge gained during my quest for my Political Science degree is stored.  I actually went to the theater to see the second and third ones, and then ordered the trilogy of Ms. Collins' books for my Kindle.  The books were every bit as fascinating.  I basically read through all three of them in the space of about four days.   

By all accounts, I'm far from alone in the fascination for these tales.  The books are all best-sellers and the movies have been wildly successful.  And everyone is waiting with baited breath for the denouement when it hits theaters next year.

On this particular evening, however, I skipped the movie and went to the special features.  It was interesting to hear how the stories were transitioned from print to film, and how unselfish Ms. Collins' was with the inevitable compromises that must be made.  But as the interviews unwound, I heard one of the book's editors talk about how the story reminded him "...of the Bush years..." when mothers had to watch their children go off to fight.

That got my attention.  I backed up the disc and listened to his repeated comments.  Again I felt the slight disorientation that goes with the statement, "But that's not how I remember it."

I actually turned off the TV at that juncture and thought that through.  I had also seen an historical allegory, but mine went back to my childhood in the 1960's and the 20-year-long agony of Vietnam.

During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, troops were sent to Southeast Asia in ever-increasing numbers.  After the Gulf of Tonkin incident, when North Vietnamese fast patrol boats fired on a U.S. destroyer, the flow of men became a flood, peaking at 536,000 in 1968.  As the numbers of American dead and wounded piled up, and the numbers of young men willingly presenting themselves at recruiting offices slowed to a trickle, the government re-instituted the draft in 1969.  This served to make an already-unpopular war even more hated and some young men of draft age promptly began heading for Canada.

Then on December 1, 1969, the officials of the Selective Service Administration drew from a clear receptacle the capsules containing the birthdates which would determine the order in which the men would be drafted.  In looking at those images today, one can't escape making parallels with the Reaping scenes in The Hunger Games.  The only thing missing was Effie Trinket.

In both cases, young people would be sent against their will to fight in an arena of combat which would grow to become unpopular.  In the streets, people would fight each other, while government security forces stepped in to restore order, sometimes with violent results.  And death.

The problem with Vietnam as a war was that, first off, we had not been attacked.  The regime we had allied ourselves with was, in many respects, just as corrupt and repressive as those we called the enemy.  Americans came to the realization that we were not there to defend freedom, but to defend a geopolitical postulation called The Domino Theory.  In the clarity of hindsight, history has shown that the Domino Theory, the keystone of an entire generation of foreign policy was actually a prime piece of paranoid hogwash.  The leaders who perpetrated that fraud, Lyndon Johnson, Robert MacNamara, and Dean Rusk, were hated and reviled.

To make matters worse, the Left in this country seemed to forget that those soldiers who had to go to Vietnam were, in a very real sense, hauled there kicking and screaming, like the Hunger Games tributes.  When they returned, wounded, damaged, and broken by the experience, the protesters turned their vitriol upon them, saluting them with spit, garbage, and vials of fake blood.  They were called "baby killers" and worse.  The Left in their rage completely forgot that it was, in fact, their own Democrat Party to whom that war belonged.

The two wars fought during the Bush years, Iraq and Afghanistan, were undertaken as a direct result of the terror attacks on September 11, 2001.  In that case, a draft was not needed because Americans, both men and women this time, enlisted of their own free will.  Unlike Vietnam, the soldiers went to war because they wanted to, because America was in danger.

And this time, there was no Reaping Day.

Modern history has become something of a political battleground as both sides seek to...um..."steer" the narrative towards something that won't embarrass them.  This is no surprise, as the last thing politicians will ever do is take the blame for their mistakes.  Even when, or more to the point, especially when those mistakes needlessly cause the loss of human life.  Thus, it becomes incumbent upon us, the consumers of history, to insist on the truth; to "challenge authority" (to recall a phrase from the '60s) when their version of historical accounts begins to drift towards the never-never land of fantasy.

I don't blame the young editor for not remembering the agonizing national experience that was Vietnam; after all, those events far predate his historical purview.  But I hope at some point someone takes him aside, points to the glass containers of Panem's Reaping Day, and whispers, "That also happened here."

For on a dark and somber wall in Washington DC, 58,303 names stand today as tributes of a different kind.

And God help us if we ever forget them.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

An Airliner's Eye in the Sky: A Serious Proposal

Picking up the Pieces
From ZeeNewsIndia.com

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
written content only

Aircraft, both civilian and military, vanishing over the "trackless ocean" is not a new occurrence.  Vessels of the atmosphere ranging from balloons to jet bombers have a long history of failing to return from overwater flights.  The latest instance, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, remains missing as of this writing, and has become the most intriguing air mystery since Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan.  What made MH370 so hard to comprehend was the sudden realization that beyond a certain radius from land, radar is nonexistent.  Since it's invention by the British during World War II, it has provided a sense of security for airline passengers as well as nations seeking to guard their airspace against hostile intrusion.  As senses of security go, this one proved to be false.

Radar, an acronym for radio detection and ranging, works by sending out an electronic signal.  If there is an object within it's range, the signal "bounces" or more properly, reflects off the objects solid surface and is gathered in by the receiving antenna.  The difference in time between when the signal was sent and when the reflection was received provides data on distance.  There are literally hundreds of different types using different frequency ranges depending on the application.

But radar has it's limitations.  Some types are severely degraded by weather, since water in the form of cloud droplets and raindrops is largely opaque to radio signals.  Also, radar beams don't follow the curve of the earth.  Past a certain point, the beams continue out into space.  Range of a particular radar depends on a host of factors, both technological and meteorological, which would take too long to discuss here.  To make things easier to understand, think of a radar as a flashlight.  

When you turn on a flashlight, you send a beam out in front of you.  If the object you're trying to locate is there, the light reflects off its surface and is returned to your eyes.  But if the object is too far away, even if the beam hits it, there's not enough power remaining to reflect the light back to you. 

So even the most powerful shore-based radars can only reach out so far.  Elevating the transmitting antenna can "lower the horizon" enough to pick up objects much further away.

So, when an aircraft flies out over the ocean and leaves the umbrella of land-based radar coverage, it is essentially on it's own.  Normally this is not a problem, since modern navigational technology does a great job of keeping the aircraft on course and on time.

But as recent events have shown, that may not be enough to ensure the safety of the plane, crew, and passengers.

As the Cold War progressed, satellite technology improved by leaps and bounds.  Military and intelligence satellites kept watch over a good portion of the world, always looking for that sudden unexpected heat bloom that would indicate the launch of a missile, or that cluster of radar video that would reveal a formation of aircraft headed inbound with hostile intent.  In a very real sense, the presence of those "eyes in the sky" ensured that not only could a nation detect a surprise attack, the other nation well knew they couldn't launch one without anyone noticing.

Information about those satellites in use today is, of course, classified for very good reasons.  But the older technology, used in the '80s, is likely now available for civilian use.

Simply stated, in order to prevent another disappearance like MH370, the international aviation community needs to consider the option of putting that kind of capability into orbit over those vast ocean areas where radar simply doesn't work.  

Tracking an aircraft can be done in several ways.  Visually, if you have a imagery system sensitive enough, electronically through the aircraft's IFF transponder or any number of automated beacons, GPS, and infrared, which detects the heat sources of the aircraft's engines.  This is all doable with off-the-shelf unclassified tech.  Yes, the sats would be kinda expensive, well into the millions of dollars, but that's a cheap price to pay in order to keep track of a 300-million-dollar airliner and the priceless, precious lives of those onboard.

Why not use the military's existing satellites?  Understandably, part of what makes them work so well for national defense is that nobody outside knows exactly what their complete capabilities are, and it would be dangerous for a government to get too loose with that kind of information.  But you wouldn't need anything nearly that sophisticated for this task.  Airliners don't have stealth capabilities, nor do they spend a lot of time below 500 feet altitude, which is where you would find most of the kind of hostile targets.  And you wouldn't have to do real-time tracking.  If an airliner went missing, all you'd have to do is access the stored tracking data and zero in on the one you're looking for.  A good enough system could tell you a lot about the fate of the aircraft.  A sudden bloom of radar data would indicate that the aircraft came apart in the air.  A loss of infrared signal would show that the engines lost power.  Altitude data would show where the aircraft left it's assigned altitude.  And imagery of the ocean surface could probably detect the large splash when the plane impacted.  If the sky was cloudy, you would lose the visual data, but the infrared, radio beacons, and a certain amount of the radar signal would still get through.  If nothing else, you would have a very small circular area of probability with which to begin the search.

This is doable.  It's not pie-in-the-sky Star Trek stuff.  Such a cluster of satellites over the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Arctic oceans would provide a large measure of information which would pretty much eliminate the locational uncertainty of a lost aircraft, as well as a jump start on the process of finding out why it went down.  And the sats could be up and operational in as little as two years.

Sadly that's too late for the poor souls of MH370.

But it won't be too late for the next one.

An Exercise in Gullibility*

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
July 11, 2010
as "Humorous Lesson in Identity Theft Education"

One of the most effective of the email scams is the so-called "Nigerian Scam."  In it, the sender spins a tale of revolution and chaos, resulting in the need to relocate the subject nation's material wealth off-shore to keep it from being seized by whomever the enemy is.  This was a tactic primarily used by Nigerian criminal groups and has proven to be shockingly effective, as Americans, always eager for the quick buck, pass their vital information.  Of course, the criminals then drain acounts, flatten credit card accounts, as well as apply for other loans in that person's name.

As a joke, I posted a version of this on a website I belong to, and was amazed at how many took it seriously, despite the oh-so-obvious names in the "letter."  So here for your humorous enjoyment...

Dear Friend,

My name is Umaylme I. Robyu and I am the Undersecretary of the Treasury for the sovereign nation of Udumtu Antzer. Recently, our government has come under immense pressure from militant rebels led by the renegade General Yullbe Sahri, and a coup is imminent. Social order has broken down and our people are fleeing the capitol city, Baibai Cache, in hopes of finding refuge in the Yurpornow Mountains.

I have been directed by our President, Ushuda DeLeetthis, to disperse our governments assets to safe holding accounts in the United States, in order to keep our national wealth from falling into rebel hands.

Due to some unfortunate political decisions regarding support of recent American elections by our esteemed Ambassador, Wedrayne Akowntz, we find ourselves without official friends in the current U.S. administration. Since they have refused to assist us, I am making this personal appeal to you.

My Chief of Staff, Mr. DeNyle Ovzervyce and I have formulated a foolproof scenario. We have made arrangements with a local gemstone dealer in Chicago to receive our liquid funds which will be used to purchase quantities of Deesarfayke diamonds, our national gemstone. The dealer has given us a very good price and has assured us that subsequent re-sell should net the agent around 40% profit.

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?

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 100 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 for any length of time outside the body.

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

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


"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.

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.