About Me

My Photo

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.

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Sacred Trust and the Poison of Paranoia

A Sacred Trust

Copyright © 2014 by 
Ralph F. Couey

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

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

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

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

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

The fear has gotten worse.  Recently a journalist summarized recent events by intoning, "It is a dark and dangerous world."  Now parents not only have to be hyper-vigilant in public places, but also must closely monitor their child's internet activity.  And smart phone activity.

Our children are grown, most with kids of their own.  And yes, we worry about their safety as well.  So I understand the fear, having executed The Big Search on three separate occasions successfully, Thank God.  It would seem, however, that most pedophiles seem to occupy one particular demographic, white males.  This has the effect of chastening our interactions with children we don't know or are members of our family.  It also has the effect of making any white male, in the eyes of some, a potential abuser.

Monday is a day off shared by both my wife and myself.  Over the summer, we used that day to go to a movie, taking advantage of the lower prices of the late morning - early afternoon shows.  Also, we found that if we go in the evening, we usually fall asleep during the movie.  This week, we went to see the Robert Duvall - Robert Downey, Jr vehicle, "The Judge."  Great show, by the way.  We highly recommend it.  It was a great spot for Ironman and Michael's Consiglieri.

After the show, we made the trip to the restrooms, necessitated by the shared consumption of a huge diet soda.  Cheryl went in, and I turned to enter the Men's side.  

There was a mother with a pre-teen son also heading for the door.  As they got there, she cracked open the door, peered in, and asked, "Anyone in there?"  Getting no reply, she opened the door and let him in.  I headed for the door, intending to go about my business, but she turned towards me.  She wasn't necessarily blocking the door, but it was obvious from her body language she wasn't going to let me by if she could help it.  Her face was concerned, but gentle.  But I have become a student of the eyes, and hers stared me down, glinting in a way instantly understood by any son.  Or husband.

I wasn't the only one affected.  Two other men arrived during this time.  Puzzled, one of them asked me, "What's up?"  I nodded in her direction.  "Her kid's in there."  He nodded, understanding immediately.  "Oh.  Okay."  The other guy, younger than us headed towards the door like a man on a mission, which he undoubtedly was, if he had also consumed a large drink.  As he drew near, she shifted her position ever so slightly, interposing herself between him and the door.  It looked like he was going to maneuver around her, but then she turned those glinty mother-on-duty eyes on him, and he stopped dead in his tracks.  

So there we stood.  Three adult males, barred from entry to the restroom by this diminutive, but nevertheless very imposing mother.

After a few minutes, her son came out and they left.  With him and her out of the way, we three went in, sighing in relief.

In another context, this would be humorous, perhaps worthy of a anecdote told and repeated far and wide.  But in this context, it was a sobering and disturbing incident.

One of the basic tenets of American law is the idea that all are innocent until proven guilty.  And that proof must be strong and unimpeachable.  This is especially true in sex crimes.  But society has decided, en masse, to convict those accused of such crimes without the benefit of a trial.  Simply stated, if the accusation appears in the news, it must be true.

In her protective zeal, this mother had convicted all three of us of being at least potential pedophiles.  This bothers me.  And part of that bother is the moral quandary.  I don't want to be in a position to criticize a mother's care and concern, but does that mean you can keep people out of a public restroom in order to indulge your fears?

Parenting is a sacred trust.  Of that there can be no denying.  It means a lifetime of entertaining at times our worst fears; living our worst nightmares.

Clearly, this woman was reacting to the dangers she has perceived through the media.  And maybe, just maybe, there's a backstory to her life as well.

This raises a compelling possibility.  Have we, as a society, as a culture, surrendered to our fears to the degree that we can't treat anyone with the semblance of normality?  Has society become so dangerous, so risky, that we all feel we need to convict every stranger with a laundry list of criminal activity just on the basis of seeing them on the street?

Have we lost our grip?  Or do we need to get a grip?

We can all be safe if we stay in our bedrooms with the covers pulled over our heads.  But that's not living.  That's not life.  Yes there are risks out there.  But the moment we let those risks change our behavior, change who and what we are, then we have surrendered.

And they....win.

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.

Quickly, the trail disappeared into the forest, as most of them do around here.  But its fall and the leaves are beginning to change.  If the sun had been out, it would have been nice.  As a result, it was kind of a drab and dreary kind of day, which put the forest into a bit of a mood.

The trails were easy to walk on, and well-maintained.  It was a bit muddy from the overnight rain, but the carpet of fallen leaves helped to improve the footing.  This is an area that is well-known to birders, protected by ownership and encouraged by improved habitat, both natural and man-made.  The woods were pretty quiet today, however, with only the raucous sound of crows to break the silence.  We didn't see any wildlife, but we could see abundant places through the woods which the deer had made familiar.  

A previous hiker had mapped out a 6.5-mile loop, but about 2 miles in, the rain began to fall.  Had I been alone, I would have kept on going, but in deference to my bride, we cut the loop short.  But even on this shorter route, we saw some ruins, the remains of stone fences and house foundations.  There were also two old homes, marked off-limits, but seemingly well fit into the landscape.

Just outside the edges of the woods are a couple of lovely meadows flanked by low mountains.  It makes for a startling transition, from close-set woods to wide-open space.

It was an interesting, if too short hike.  We did the Farmstead Loop, the Piney Run Spur, and the Derry Loop, which totaled out to 3.6 miles.

But as you can see, there is more, much more to this site.  We'll be back.

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.

Back on the road, we finally reached the New York city of Niagara Falls.  Following the signs, we crossed the Rainbow Bridge and reached the Canadian border.  We waited for our turn for the terse conversation with the icy-eyed border official, and then were allowed in.

No matter how many times I've done it, and no matter which country I went to, I've never lost that slight sense of foreboding that I was no longer in America.  But we were here on vacation, so I firmly shoved those feelings out of the way and prepared to enjoy myself.  We checked in to our hotel, the Marriott Fallsview.  Since this trip was in a real sense the honeymoon we never took over the past 36 years, we splurged for a room with a view of the falls.  The look out of the window said it all.

After stowing our luggage, we went out and found the funicular which we rode down to the Table Rock Visitor's Center.

We walked through the center and exited out the rear doors and found ourselves standing at a rail looking over the lip of the falls.

The current was fast and it was something to stand there and just watch the water slide over the edge.  The mist was rising out of the gorge, and even though the temperature was a balmy 78 degrees, the mist still added a chill.  

We signed up for a package that got us four different attractions.  The first one involved descending down to a tunnel dug through the cliff face where we could look out of an archway at the back side of the falls.  The din was unbelievable, certainly the closest thing to the sound of a tornado that I've ever heard.

We then descended down to the river level to look up at the Falls.  If the sight of the water going over the edge was impressive, it was even more awesome being down at the bottom.

I had read that at full volume, some 2 million gallons per minute pour over this cliff.  Seeing that volume in person took that figure from the academic to the real.

It was interesting to read the displays and learn that the line of the falls has actually retreated some 7 miles down the gorge as the water has steadily worn away at the limestone and slate that makes up the geology of the area over the past 11,000 years.  In order to slow the erosion rate and maintain the natural beauty of the area, some engineering projects have been completed over the past 40 years to shore up the underlying rocks.  The river itself was part of the Great Lakes complex formed during the last ice age.  The river carries water from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie down a channel lined with hydro electric plants, using the force of the water to spin turbines, generating an enormous amount of clean energy.  
Part of the escarpment.

The next day, we took the boat ride into the tidal pool at the foot of the Horseshoe Falls.  On the way we passed the more modest, but still impressive, American Falls, and the much smaller Bridal Veil Fall.

Probably should have brought a baggie for the camera.

Now, I spent more than a few years at sea, and I had to struggle with my perceptions.  I could appreciate the skill of the helmsman as he steered the boat into the maelstrom.  The water was entering the pool from three widely separated angles.  As a result, the confused currents roiled the waters into a pot-boiling madness.  As the water slid past the bow of the boat, my instincts were telling me that we were making at least 20 knots.  But looking at the headlands on either side, we were actually just treading water.  The noise, I might add, was tremendous.  After spending several minutes, the Skipper executed a neat rudder pivot and neatly as you please, the boat was headed downstream and back to the pier.  We had been issued ponchos, but we still managed to get quite wet.  But the sun was up, the air was warm, and we were quick to dry off.  

Afterwards, we boarded the bus and headed for Clifton Hill, a street of fun, games, and food where we found a cute little Italian place and dug into some great pasta.

After lunch, we walked over to a Jurassic-themed mini-golf place.  The course was really nice, the dinosaurs in pretty good shape, with hidden speakers spewing what Steven Spielberg thought the thunder lizards should have sounded like.  

This far north, the trees were becoming beautiful.

This being Monday night, and the fact that the Kansas City Chiefs were on to play the New England Patriots, we were bound and determined to get back to the hotel in time to watch.  In the meantime, we managed to hit both local casinos to allow Cheryl to joust and parry with the slots.  I kept my activity to a minimum, putting in $20 and stopping when I got to $36.50.  We did get back in time for kickoff, and watched with great pleasure the Chiefs put a 41-14 butt-whuppin' on the Pats.

As the sun went down, the interplay of the autumn light, the mist, and the sun provided a thoughtful sunset.

I should mention that at night, the local authorities light up the falls from behind and in front.  The resulting sight is enchanting.

Tuesday morning it was time to go home, since we both had to be back at work on Wednesday.  We had some confusion trying to get back to America, since the GPS insisted on taking the long way around.  But we eventually got it straightened out, and after another terse convo with an American border officer, we returned to the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.

We took our time going home, again choosing the minor roads instead of the Interstates.  The change in the foliage in just those few days was dramatic, as we made our way through New York and into Pennsylvania.  

Finally, we arrived home.  Our granddaughter Diana left us a piece of driveway art to welcome us home.

It had been a fine trip, a great time for us to reconnect.  As time has passed, we have come to treasure these times when we can put everything else aside and just be us.  Together.

And we got home in time to watch our third team, the Kansas City Royals, win the first game of their playoff run.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Jack Bauer Jokes

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

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

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

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

Jack Bauer is the only reason why Waldo is hiding.

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

Jack Bauer is what Willis was talkin' about.

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

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

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

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

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

The Boogie man checks his closet for Jack Bauer.

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

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

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

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

Superman has Jack Bauer pajamas.

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

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

Jack Bauer can talk about fight club.

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Jack Bauer cuts onions, the onions cry.

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

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

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

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

Bullet-proof vests wear Jack Bauer for protection.

Jack Bauer delivered himself via C-section.

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

And finally, a little something for a motivational poster:

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

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Football and the First Amendment

Praising Allah
Copyright 2014 ABC News

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

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

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

But something else happened that night.  

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

Friday, September 26, 2014

Learning How to Wait

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 22, 2014

Hiking, Part 12

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Questions, Answers...and Patience

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

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

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

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

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

Thursday, September 18, 2014

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Hiking, Part 11

Bull Run Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Justice, Mercy, and Grace: Defining Discipleship

Louis Zamperini, Olympic Champion
and Disciple of Jesus

Copyright © 2014 
by Ralph F. Couey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

--Matthew 18:21-35

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Hiking, Part 10

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

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

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

Okay.  I admit it.  I was wrong.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Age and the Shifting of Circadian Rhythms

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

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

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

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The Changing Seasons

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

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

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

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