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

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Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Hiking, Part 31

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey

Autumn is my favorite time of year, and October is for me the best month.  Regular readers of this blog are undoubtedly heartily sick of reading those words, but repetition doesn't make them less true.

Today was a gorgeous picture-perfect early fall day. The sun, after a solid week of clouds, wind, and rain made a return appearance and brought with it a soul-satisfying 70 degrees.  My wife and I had intended to hike together, but a last-minute obligation kept her otherwise occupied.  She asked me to stay fairly close, so I made the short trip down the road to the Manassas Battlefield National Park.  The park contains some 5,000 unsullied acres preserving the sites of the first two major Civil War Battles in 1861 and 1862.  There are two trails, one of them a 5.5 mile loop on the east side of Sudley Road, and the other a 6.5 mile loop on the other side.  The character of the topography has been preserved, and where there were woods and fields in 1861/1862, woods and fields remain today, one of the best preserved of the battlefields from that war.  The two trails are loops, and if I had to return home early, there was the ability to cut cross-country back to the parking lot.

I arrived mid-morning, and the air which had been distinctly chilly had begun to warm nicely.  The sun's angle was notably lower in the sky, even as noontime approached and those low slanting rays gave the light that distinctive autumn feel.  The grass had begun to acquire that tawny look that so characterizes this time of year and while the leaves are still largely green, there were isolated patches of color to catch the eye.

After paying the $3 fee at the Visitor's Center (my annual NPS pass having expired) I headed back behind the statue where General Jackson stands like a...bronze statue and headed into the woods.  The trail here varies from dirt and rocks to wider pea gravel-covered paths to accommodate the Park's vehicles and equipment.  Either way, the walking is easy. The birds, after a week of bad weather, were in good voice and filled the forest with their songs.  Wildlife was active as well, a few white tail deer, tons of squirrels, and a couple of foxes.

At one point, the trail split, one side going to the Stone Bridge, the other heading towards a place called "Portici."  Curious, I headed that way.  

Portici was the name for a plantation owned by the Lewis family.  Described as a "middling" plantation, it covered about 770 acres.  During the first battle, it was the headquarters for Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston.  After the fighting ended, it became a Confederate hospital. It was here that a very nervous Jefferson Davis, riding from Richmond, met a victorious Stonewall Jackson, who proclaimed, "They're running like dogs!  Give me 10,000 men and I'll go to Washington!"  Today, looking at the homesite, it is easy to see why the Lewis' picked this spot for their house.  It set upon one of the higher hills in the area and thus had a commanding view of the area.

Now, one can see how the modern world has closed in around the battlefield. To the south, I could see traffic passing on a busy I-66 and through the thinning trees, modern commercial buildings that make up the northern part of Manassas are visible.  Still, it is good to see that the battlefield itself remains inviolate, jealously guarded by people who are committed to keeping our history alive, and not buried under asphalt.  

I headed back north, passing the split and making for the Stone Bridge, one of the critical places of the first battle. But as I got to the point where the trail turned sharply towards the bridge, I got a text indicating that my presence was required at home.  I pulled out the map, got my bearings, and left the trail, heading southwest.  I cut across a couple of fields, thankfully freshly mowed as the NPS has been harvesting hay.  I crossed Young's Branch, a small stream, and carefully crossed US29.  Here, I got into a field of neck-high grass.  I used my trekking poles to help push through, being thankful that tick season was at an end. After ascending the back side of Henry House Hill, I caught sight of Jackson's statue, eventually returning to the parking lot.

It was a perfect day, even though the hike was cut short.  Still, I managed just under 4.5 miles on day of absolute perfection.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Life and Disaster

Joaquin stalkin' across the Caribbean
© 2015 NOAA

It looked like it would be an interesting week. Last Monday, two rather grim forecasts began to approach a disturbing symmetry. First, an epic Nor'easter, one of those legendary Atlantic coast storms, would slam into the local area bringing tropical rainfall, high winds and certain flooding. Then, the day after, a full-fledged hurricane, at one point a vicious Cat 4, would storm ashore, making landfall right over the nation's capitol region. And after the Nor'easter's 6 to 10 inches of rain, the hurricane would dump an additional 10 to 20 inches along with a 10-foot storm surge into the Chesapeake, up the Potomac River, and into downtown Washington DC. Historic communities like Georgetown and Alexandria, cities with an almost 300-year history, would be inundated and destroyed. Freeways, bridges, roads, and the Metro light rail would be washed away, effectively paralyzing the entire region. Government would be forced into Continuity of Operations mode, shifting control and authority to remote scattered classified sites. First responders, overwhelmed by the disaster, would require the military to regain and maintain control. Hundreds of thousands would be made homeless; hundreds would die. The entire area would never be the same

No, this wasn't the script for a new disaster movie. This was the actual forecast faced by the six million people who live in the DMV, local shorthand for DC, Maryland, and Virginia.

But as time unfolded, both events turned out to be pretty much a local fizzle. The Nor'easter was far milder than forecasted. Don't get me wrong, we still got a ton of rain, up to 6 inches in some places, and pretty good winds. Trees were knocked down, some power was lost in the region, and there was some road damage. The beach areas along the Eastern Shore were beat up some and shoreside communities had some flooding. The hurricane, responding to a couple of pressure systems in the atmosphere, peeled off to the northeast and is headed steadily into the colder waters of the North Atlantic where it will meet its eventual demise.

All things considered, we were lucky. Some areas in the Carolinas took up to 11 inches of rain from those systems, and a lot of damage was done there. But it could have been much, much worse.

It's interesting that in the face of impending disaster, that insulating sense of disconnect fostered by our dependence on media is torn away as we are confronted with the very real possibility that the disasters we've watched happen to other places, could happen here. Streets and homes would be recognizable as being parts of our own neighborhood. Suddenly, it becomes very personal.

In terms of media saturation, both on the broadcasting and receiving ends, we are pretty much inundated all the time. We don't have to be home to watch television anymore. Computers, tablets, and smartphones bring the world, literally, to our fingertips. We have become accustomed to viewing tragedies associated with natural events (such as weather and earthquakes) and human-caused disasters (wars, riots, starvation, epidemics) with a certain amount of detachment. They always happen far away, safely remote from the mall, the grocery store, and Starbucks. People die every day in such events, and we may take a moment to grimace and shake our heads...but go on with our lives.

But one day, out of the blue, a disaster, instead of happening continents away, lands right on our doorstep.

“Far-stretching, endless Time 
Brings forth all hidden things, 
And buries that which once did shine. 
The firm resolve falters, the sacred oath is shattered; 
And let none say, "It cannot happen here". ” 

In 1993, we were living in central Missouri, a few miles from the Missouri River. Between April 1 and August 31, nearly 50 inches of rain fell on land already saturated from record winter snows. The water turned quiet country streams into raging torrents, dumping it all into the Missouri-Mississippi River system. In Kansas City and St. Louis, waters reached nearly 50 feet and some communities near the confluence of those two great rivers were underwater for over six months.

Many of those rainstorms were biblical. It was like standing under a firehose. I remember many a night spent in the backyard of our home, frantically using shovel and large squeegee to keep water from pooling around the foundation. I ended up digging a three-foot deep trench across the middle of the yard and out through the fence. But on some nights, even that was not enough. The thunder and lightning was continuous, flashing and roaring like some over-budgeted Hollywood film. And of course, there were tornados. When it wasn't raining, the temperatures soared into triple digits, with dew points well into the 70's. I don't know when I've ever been more miserable.

At the time, we were living in Columbia, halfway between KC and St. Louis. I was working in Boonville, which meant a 20-mile drive along Interstate 70. At one point, just west of Rocheport, the road dips down into the Missouri River bottoms, resting atop of a 25-foot tall levee. This is actually the ancient riverbed, some three miles across. For most of that summer, that entire three miles was flooded, and on a couple of days, the Interstate was closed as the waters came, literally, within inches of covering the roadway. On one day, I had to go to Jefferson City, the state capitol. But I never made it. I was stopped at the top of a hill and watched in slack-jawed amazement as the river claimed the road, eventually submerging an overpass. I could see the dome of the capitol building, some 7 miles away. There was nothing but water in between.

I learned quickly that there was a huge difference between seeing a flood on television, and witnessing one in person. We volunteered to sandbag some of the smaller river towns in a vain attempt to save them, and saw close up the frantic emotions of those residents as they feared for their homes.

I suspect that is the way for most people. You never appreciate the magnitude of a disaster, and it's effect on human lives, unless you live it yourself. Some of my Federal co-workers were among the volunteers who went to the areas stricken by Hurricane Katrina to coordinate and deliver disaster aid. They were forever changed by the experience. I had spoken with a person who had gone with a team to Chile after a major earthquake to search for human remains, and perhaps, survivors. They were reluctant to talk about the experience. I have a very dear friend who was part of another rescue team that worked The Pile, as the rubble of ground zero in New York after 9/11 was called. To this day, he refuses to talk about what he saw.

It's a little like the anxiety a soldier feels on the eve of his first battle, knowing that the only way he will know how he will react is to be there when it happens. Such events are overpowering, beyond the limits of comprehension. Those of us who are lucky enough to only see such things electronically will never know just how lucky we are. We offer condolences and support to those who have suffered, but it never feels like enough, because we can't take away the floodwaters, and we can't, by ourselves, restore lives thus torn apart.

But we can try to be there for one another. As lucky as we in the DMV were this week, our thoughts will not stray from those folks in the Carolinas who got what we missed. We will send relief supplies, some of us will go there and volunteer, because that's what we do. But we can never truly feel what they feel. Because our homes still stand.

Nature is capricious and implacable. It cares little for the damage it wreaks on the fragile human souls who cling so precariously to the dirt and clay. It is some days quiet, somnolent. Other days, violent beyond description. That is what it does. But when the rage is spent, and the storm dissipates, we humans will clean up and go on. For those who survive, hearts will ache for those who were lost, but the human spirit demands that we rise, plant our feet defiantly and rebuild everything we can, if for no other reason than to prove that in even the face of disaster, we will not be defeated.

Because that is what we do.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Hiking, Part 30

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey

Today we went back to Harpers Ferry, but instead of tackling the precipitous ascents of either Loudoun or Maryland Heights, we decided on a much easier trek, the C & O Canal Tow Path.

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was one of several projects envisioned by George Washington as a way to connect the east coast with the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley.  The C&O, or "Grand Old Ditch" as it came to be called, was built for the express purpose of transporting coal from the Allegheny Mountains eastward.  It was started in 1828 and completed in 1850, stretching 184 miles from what is now the Georgetown area of DC to Cumberland, Maryland and operated until 1924.  The route resulted in elevation changes totaling 605 feet, requiring some 74 locks and 11 aqueducts.  The boats were long and narrow, usually around 60 feet long and 7 to 10 feet wide, and could carry up to 130 tons of cargo. The unpowered boats were moved up and down river attached to teams of mules who were led along the towpath alongside the Canal.  

Floods were the bane of the Canal's existence and it was a major inundation in 1924 and the onset of the Great Depression of 1929 that put the final nail into the coffin of the Canal.  It languished for a number of years until 1938 when it was acquired by the National Park Service.  Eventually, some 22 mile of the canal from Georgetown was restored and in the 1940's, passenger boats were plying the waters north of Georgetown.  In 1961, President Eisenhower designated the Canal a National Monument, and by 1971, Richard Nixon signed into law the act creating the C & O Canal National Park. The canal's zero mile marker is on the Potomac River directly opposite the historically infamous Watergate Complex, a name that probably came from the opening gate to the canal, literally a "water gate."  This is especially ironic when you consider that it was Nixon who signed the law that created the Canal park.

Today, the canal is mostly dewatered, but the tow path remains, providing a wonderful hiking and biking trail that connects the entire original 184-mile length from Georgetown to Cumberland.  Also, at Cumberland, the tow path trail connects to the Great Allegheny Passage trail that continues on into downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

We parked in the historic part of Harpers Ferry, considered the psychological mid-point of the Appalachian Trail.  The AT shares part of the C&O, running from the town to the base of Weverton Cliff.  We geared up and headed across the pedestrian bridge over the Potomac River at the point where it is joined by the Shenandoah.  

One of the reasons you need a canal.  This makes for really iffy navigation.

The bridge.

Couple of Kayakers floating on the Potomac.

Once across the bridge, we descended a steel staircase and found ourselves on the Tow Path, facing the remains of the house where the local canal manager lived and did business.  Here also, you see one of the locks that raised and lowered the boats to follow the elevation of the terrain.

We turned left and headed northwest.  The towpath is one of the most easily-walkable long distance trails you'll ever find.  It is wide and covered by pea gravel, which makes for a very comfortable, and fast, pathway.  Most of the trail users use bicycles, but they're a friendly and accommodating lot, not the bad-tempered racing gear nazis you find on the urban trails throughout the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia).

The trail is a picturesque place, following the river and passing through beautiful riverside forests.  It was a cool and comfortable day which made the hike a very enjoyable experience.  As you trek along, you pass the old locks.  One of the amazing things about places like this is marveling at how heavy construction like this was done successfully without powertools.  The walls of the locks were precisely straight, something you wouldn't expect from purely manual labor.  

Opposite the river, is the canal itself, now pretty much a ditch, again a remarkable achievement that 184 miles of this ditch was dug using only strong backs and shovels.  

Some of the landforms were interesting.

The trail is deceptively easy, and you feel like you could go forever, but Cheryl's foot was acting up and we ended up turning around at the 3-mile mark and heading back.  But it was a nice hike, 6 miles through some of the most remarkable American history.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

9/11 and The Inevitable Fade of Memory

Photo © 2011 by Ralph F. Couey

"Time moves in one direction;
Memory in another."
--William Gibson

Copyright © 2015
By Ralph F. Couey

Tomorrow marks the 14th anniversary of the events which transpired on September 11th, 2001.  On that bright, beautiful late-summer morning, terrorists took command of four airliners.  Two were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.  A third crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and the fourth dove into a old strip mine near Shanksville, Pennsylvania after passengers and crew, alerted by what had already occurred, assaulted the terrorists, nearly reclaiming control of the aircraft.

As the images of the disaster poured out of our televisions, America was stunned.  We knew that terrorists did attacks, but they were always far away; Europe, Africa, the Middle East.  Surely, this couldn't happen here.  But on that day, the shock, sorrow, and anger that had been felt by others was brought home and deposited squarely in our laps.

America has been surprised before, most notably at Pearl Harbor in 1941, and again in Korea in 1950, and the question of "how?" is always asked.  The answer is usually tied to failures of intelligence or training and leadership.  But there's something larger at work, from a purely philosophical context.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Hiking, Part 29

 Harpers Ferry south
Elevation Profile

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

Today was hot.  Today was humid.  Today was not a good day to hike.  But I was feeling very restless, and decided, perhaps rashly, to hit the trail, rationalizing that I would be in the shade for most of it.  So I got my hiking stuff together and hit the road.

I had been eyeing the Harpers Ferry area for some time.  The area has a lot of trails, even if you don't necessarily want to do the AT.  Loudoun Heights and Maryland Heights, where Stonewall Jackson's men hauled their artillery during the first Civil War battle fought here in September 1862.  It wouldn't be the last, as the town changed hands eight times by the time the war ended in 1865

Harpers Ferry sits at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers which meant that the area was always fated to be important both economically and strategically.  Quaker colonist Robert Harper received a patent in 1734, giving him control of 125 acres between the rivers.  He established a ferry across the Potomac, making the location the gateway to the agricultural treasure of the Shenandoah Valley.  Settlers who intended to carve out a plot of land in the valley rode the ferry across the river.  In 1763, the Virginia General Assembly officialized the settlement under the name, "Shenandoah Falls at Mr. Harper's Ferry."  Thomas Jefferson, when he visited in 1783, was awed by the sight.  He called it, "...perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature."

Monday, August 31, 2015

Loving the Enemy We Don't Want to Think About

From Wajahat Kazmi

Copyright © 2015
By Ralph F. Couey
Written content only,
except quoted and cited passages.

"You have heard that it was said
'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'
But I say to you, love your enemies;
Bless those who curse you;
Do good to those that hate you,
And pray for those that spitefully use you
and persecute you."
--Jesus Christ

Over the past few weeks, I've been engaged in what is called a "Life Audit."  It has been an interesting journey, to say the least.  In this process, I've been confronted with questions that required a deep, introspective, and sometimes troubling exploration of the innermost parts of my attitudes and personality.  This is not an exercise for the faint of heart, or for those who lack courage.  An honest question requires an honest answer, even when that honesty is distinctly painful.

The list of questions posed required me to spend quite a bit of time poking into some of the darker places of my mind and heart, and that is difficult, for it required me to dredge up and face aspects of my heart that I would have been much more comfortable ignoring.

One of the things I found was that when I get angry, frustrated, or just grumpy my zone of awareness shrinks down to a small circle which more often than not is occupied only by me.  In that state, I am unable to acknowledge, or even see anything pleasant or positive.  I become very sensitive to those things that I already know will upset me even further.  The result of that being that I isolate myself away from others because I already know that in that state I am not pleasant company.

I was asked what, during the day, motivates me to be positive, and what I look forward to each day.  I was also asked what constituted a perfect day, and a perfect week.  I took this seriously, and in the deep contemplation of those questions, I found some things which I nicknamed my "inner uglies."

Once I dragged them out, it was very uncomfortable to look at them.  I had thought that those kinds of things were not a part of my makeup, but there they were, red-eyed and snarling, staring me down.  It was kind of like biting into a slice of bread and tasting mold.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Hiking, Part 28

Copyright © 2015 
by Ralph F. Couey

We went back to a put-in from two weeks ago, mainly because the time restrictions from that day meant only a limited foray down that particular segment. We drove to the small parking area located at VA route 55 and route 725, about 40 minutes from home. We geared up and set out, finding the trail about 10 yards to the west of the parking area. It was a spectacular day. The overnight passage of a cold front left a sky of brilliant blue and an cooler atmosphere almost bereft of humidity. The forecast called for highs in the mid-80's but very comfortable.

We headed down the path to a small wetlands, helpfully bridged by a plank walkway. Once through the fen, we crossed a set of railroad tracks and began the first ascent. Now just because it was less humid didn't mean we wouldn't sweat. That first climb ascended some 650 feet in about a mile. The trail helpfully switchbacked, but it was still a daunting climb. About three-quarters of the way up, we entered a very rocky and bouldered area. It was here that I had mistakenly gone off-trail on the last visit, so today I paid close attention to the white blazes on the trees. The path zigged twice through this area, so rubbled that the trail, at least from the ground perspective, seemed to vanish.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Dumb Things We Do

Yep.  Dead.

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey

Doesn't matter how smart one is.  Or how educated.  Or incisive.  Experience, wisdom, whatever else a person may have, it will never save us from that one stupid act.

Monday was a brutally hot and humid day here in Virginia.  The temperature was in the mid-90's and with the humidity, the heat index was into triple digits.  So after running a couple of errands, we decided to spend the balance of the afternoon in the neighborhood pool.  We changed, slathered on some sunscreen, gathered a couple necessary items, and headed out in high anticipation of cool waters.

Once there, I put on my reef walkers, remembered to take my ID wallet out of my pocket, and walked into the water.  It was, as anticipated, a glorious feeling.  After stretching my legs, I started swimming some slow laps.  My mind was happily empty of any worry or burden, and I had thus enjoyed myself for about 30 minutes and on one return lap, my vision fell on the table where we had placed our stuff.  Suddenly my brain went on high alert.  As I neared the wall, I reached for my waistband, and sure enough, my trustworthy, advanced, and very expensive Note 3 was hanging there.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Hiking, Part 27

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey

"Come by the hills to the land where legend remains.
The stories of old fill the heart and may yet come again.
Where the past has been lost
And the future is still to be won,
And the cares of tomorrow can wait 
'till this day is done."
--W.Gordon Smith

We pass our days consumed by the pressures of commitment and requirement.  Our vision becomes restricted to the time between now and the next place we have to be.  Thus chained, the hours pass unnoticed; life goes by unheralded, until the moment when we stop, look around, and mourn the waste of the gift of time.

That was me.  I was trapped on that treadmill.  I watched the days slide by, frantic to lose them, but utterly unable to stop them from their inevitable fade.  But I found a way to pause time.  I found a place where clocks were irrelevant, where the very air carried the scent of serenity.

Last year, I took a walk in the woods.  It wasn't very far or ambitious, but I found that in that relatively short space of life, I was able to let go...and just be.

Virginia is full of such places, but my best days have been spent on parts of the Appalachian Trail that passes through this Commonwealth.  From Harper's Ferry in the north to Damascus in the south lies 550 miles of meandering trail lined with dense forest, bright meadows, imposing rocks, and wildlife.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Alex Gordon, Len Dawson, and Defeating Adversity

© 2015/ Jamie Squire, Getty Images. 
Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
It was a Wednesday night, the 8th of July, just before the All Star break.  The Royals were in first place in their division, proud owners of the best record in the American League, and the second-best in baseball behind only that other team from Missouri.  But in the space of less than a minute, everything went sideways.  Tampa Bay Rays' Logan Forsythe launched a drive to deep left field.  Alex Gordon, as he has done so many times before, took off in pursuit.  Usually such a play ends with the ball in Gordon's glove as he slams into the wall.  But this time, as he approached the wall, he tried to pull up.  And then he went down.  I, along with a few tens of thousands of other Royals' fans listened, quite fearfully, as it appeared at the moment he may have suffered a season-ending, if not a career-ending injury.  Later, we were told that what we initially thought might be a blown knee or broken leg, has been diagnosed as a grade-2 strained groin muscle. This is a painful and serious injury to be sure, but one that has a better and brighter light at the end of the dark tunnel of his absence from the lineup.
In the hours following that moment, I endured my worst fears. But out of the depths of the past came a memory of September 1969. The Chiefs were off and running on what every instinct in your body knew was going to be The Year. Then Len Dawson went down with a knee injury.   All the hopes and dreams for a season of glory seemed to have collapsed.  At least for the fans.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Hiking, Part 26

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey

It was a typical Virginia summer day.  Which is to say very hot, oppressively humid, not usually a good day for hiking.  But there was no severe weather in the forecast, which has not been the case in the two-and-a-half weeks since we returned from Paris.  After perusing some options, we decided to go east instead of west, heading into, or at least close to D.C. to tackle the Mount Vernon Trail

The Trail is a paved multi-use path running from Alexandria down to George Washington's Mt. Vernon estate.  Usually, a trail like this includes the risk of running afoul bicyclists who, in their minds, believe they're on part of the Tour de France.  I've run into (or more accurately, been run into) by users of this ilk while running the W&OD trail through Vienna. With this in mind, I decided to put in at Fort Hunt Park, a good 14 miles south of DC proper.  I'm not the only one who shares this opinion.  Websites like Yelp are full of caustic and vitriolic comments about the few racers who frequent this trail, all of whom are universally described by a rather earthy word that begins with D.

Friday, July 03, 2015


Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey

The overcast which had been persistent all morning was reluctantly giving way.  The sun pierced the clouds occasionally, the light giving color to the land.  It was cool and breezy, but this was June.  And this was Normandy.

Places where violent death has occurred have the same feel.  There is a quiet that is somber, yet meaningful.  The same atmosphere exists in places like Gettysburg, Antietam, and Shanksville, PA, where a group of airline passengers fought the first battle in the War on Terror.  These are places where heroism was defined; where violence and valor defined the day.

We stood atop the windy bluff, my wife and I, looking down onto what, on another June day, had been designated Beach Easy Green.  It was a bit of a misnomer, "Easy" being the phonetic expression for the letter "E".  In truth, there was nothing easy about that beach on June 6, 1944.  Today, we stood and watched as the waters of the English Channel whispered across the sand.  In the quiet, we contemplated the meaning of courage.

71 years and 13 days previous, the quiet morning was rent by the roar of tens of thousands of guns, from officers' pistols to the giant naval rifles of the battleships.  By the hundreds, landing craft hit the beaches, dropped their ramps, and for the first time in that war, Allied soldiers poured into Europe.  

Superbly trained thought they were, only a few were professional soldiers.  They were coal miners and cab drivers; farmers and financial managers; college students and cowboys.  Also present in abundance were the boys fresh out of high school who would today lose their lives before they had even started. Some were cut down inside the landing craft, sawed by German automatic weapons before their boots even touched the sand.  Some died on the sprint across the beach, others as they courageously fought to open the beach exits.  Still others would die on  the uplands behind the wall of pillboxes and emplacements, including the Airborne troopers who had jumped in the night before, some of them executed in their chutes as they mistakenly dropped into the charnel house of Ste. Mer Eglise.  

But others -- many, many others -- would survive.  They would cross the beaches, climb the hills, kill the enemy and start that long, bloody march that would end 10 months later in a ruined city called Berlin.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Day 4 -- Paris Again

 Eglise du Dome Church

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey

This was our first day on our own, with the departure of our son's family for Korea.  It's always sad to be away from grandchildren when you've gotten used to having them around.  But, this was vacation, so we soldiered on, albeit with slightly empty hearts.

We decided to take a bus tour, as it would be the best way to see the most sites in the least amount of time.  We went online and bought tickets, which we printed out at the computer in the hotel lobby.  Taking the train in, we debarked at the station nearest the Notre Dame Cathedral.  According to the map we had, it should have only been a block to where we could pick up the GO-GO (Get On, Get Off) bus.  Easier said than done.  It took the better part of an hour to locate the stop.  It didn't help that neither the website or the flyer off the website showed what signs to look for.  After chasing those yellow busses up and down the streets, criss-crossing the Seine several times, we finally found the proper signage.  After a few minutes, the bus came by.  We presented our vouchers to the driver, who gave us back our tickets, a very informational flyer, and--lo and behold--a map of all the stops.  It would have been nice if that had been on the website.

We were issued earphones, those rock-hard earbuds that simply don't fit my ears.  The plug-ins were against the outer wall of the bus, which meant the cord (never long enough) had to stretch across my seat-mate, an elderly lady who regarded me with barely concealed contempt.  An American, of course.

Once settled on the upper deck, I was able to sit back and enjoy the city as it rolled past.  The heavy traffic meant that the bus was going slow enough to make picture-taking a fairly easy task.  The day was picture perfect, the sky a clear and beautiful blue and the sun pleasantly warm.  As much as I enjoyed the ride, the earphones made it difficult to understand much of what was being said.  Still, Paris is a beautiful thing to behold, even if you don't know what you're looking at.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Day 3 -- Paris Disneyland

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey

This would be my fourth Disney park, after Anaheim, Orlando, and Tokyo, so I didn't expect any real mysteries in our visit.  But I discovered that there are differences, enough to make the day interesting and fun.  We went with our son and his family, and at our age, the fun is not so much us riding rides, but watching our grandchildren have the time of their lives.

It began as Euro Disney, but eventually became its current moniker, Paris Disneyland.  The park opened in 1992 to less than rave reviews.  Attendance was very low, but in all fairness opening something like this in the middle of one of the biggest recessions in recent history didn't help.  In 1995, the park opened Space Mountain, that iconic roller coaster ride.  It was an immediate hit, and by the end of that year, the park showed a profit for the first time.  By 2006, Disney Paris was the leading tourist draw in France, outselling the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.  The French, at least the intellectual community, had little good to say about the place until the government announced that the park had generated over 37 billion Euros in economic benefits to France.  After that, smiles all around.

Still on US east coast time, we didn't get up until almost 11am.  But fortunately, the shuttle bus picked us up right outside the hotel, and in about 10 minutes, we were at the park.

There are two facilities, Disneyland itself, and Disney Studios.  The Studios portion is vaguely like the California Adventure part of the Anaheim park, although somewhat truncated.  But it was the first place to visit, since it had shorter operating hours than the main park.  We found Robbie and family eating a late lunch.  We visited the Studios, and then crossed over to the main park.

The park entrance is styled after the palace from Beauty and the Beast, which as you recall did take place in France, so it was an appropriate way to entre vous, as it were.  Once inside, we passed under the trestle for the train, and found ourselves on Main Street, USA.  Same...but still somehow different.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Paris - First Two Days

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey

I am, what you might call well-traveled. Circumstance has provided me with the opportunities to visit far-flung places on this planet and in the process the experience has broadened my horizons and altered my view of life.

My Dad was a professional minister who usually had a heavy schedule of church camps throughout the summer. I spent a couple of summers traveling with him and in the process managed to pass through some 30 states before I turned 16. At 25, married with a young child and with the nation was mired in the last throes of the Carter economy, I enlisted in the Navy.

Through the next 10 years, I planted my foot in the soil of 18 different countries, and in the years since have added another 8. I’ve never lost that itchy foot and the curiosity that drives my desire to travel refuses to wane.

Earlier this year, the opportunity to visit France arose. Our daughter-in-law was going to take the kids to Korea for the summer to spend time with her family. The airline routing they chose sent them east instead of west, with a layover in Paris. She discovered that she could extend that layover into a week with no additional charge. After some discussion, my wife and I decided to go along.

All my globetrotting to this point has been confined to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. When you spend a certain amount of time in a region, you develop knowledge and expectations which remain level regardless of which country you visit. Neither of us had ever been to Europe, so we really were at a loss even as to how to prepare.

Fortunately, the Internet is an inexhaustible source of information and we assiduously plumbed the depths of travel websites, learning and preparing.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The Call...And the Truth

The Play...and The Call
From Matt Weeks' Hubpages
No attribution listed, but I suspect Sports Illustrated

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
Written material only

Tuesday night (June 2nd) at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, the Royals and Indians were entangled in a tight game, tied 1-1 going into the 8th inning.  The tribe got men on base, but with one out, Jose Ramirez grounded into what should have been a double play, and a ticket out of a tough inning against one of the dominant relief pitchers in baseball, Wade Davis.  On the throw to first, the first base umpire started to call Ramirez out, but switched his call almost in mid-motion to call him safe.  The replay, played in super-slo-mo for the benefit of Royals' fans seemed to show definitively that Ramirez was out.  But after a long review, the word came back from New York:  Safe.

After that, second baseman Omar Infante muffed another sure double play ball, and eventually Michael Brantley's base hit scored what would prove to be the winning run.

The incident brought immediate memories of another memorable blown call 30 years ago, as several of my friends who are St. Louis Cardinal fans eagerly reminded me.  They took delight in sending emails and texts, all essentially of the same theme:  "How does it feel?"

They say that time heals all wounds.  

Not this one, apparently

Monday, May 25, 2015

Time, Tides, and the Big 6-0

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey

A few days ago, I passed a sort of a birthday milestone, number 60.  We spent the day driving through the Valley of Fire state park about an hour north of Las Vegas.  It was a useful retrospective, since while 60 years is a pretty good hike for a human, it's less than a flash of light to rocks whose ages are measured in tens of millions of years.

There was a time when I thought 60 was ancient; right up there with the rocks.  I couldn't imagine myself being that far along.  And as I over-ate my way through my 40's, there was a time when I frankly assumed I would have boarded the bus before that point. But there was an intervention, a massive weight loss, and here I still am.

One of my favorite original aphorisms is that while ageing is inevitable, being old is a choice.  My experience in life has brought me into conversation with two types of old men.  One is the type who reaches a certain point -- different for each man -- where the infirmities of age have filled the conscious mind, when mortality has become painfully apparent.  This is the man who sits around, groaning about his aches and pains and is simply waiting to die.  The other is the man who, while suffering from the same maladies, refuses to allow them to imprison him.  He stays active, both mentally and physically, and enthusiastically lives life, as they say, like there was no tomorrow.  I've wanted to be that second guy.  

Many of my friends tell me that I don't act my age.  I take that as a compliment.  I ride a motorcycle, I run 20 miles every week, and I hike at least one of those days.  I remain a voracious reader, and delve into crossword puzzles whenever I can.  I write, pursuing that dream of freelance writing.  I have promised myself that I will have a book published before I depart this life.  I do look forward to retiring in six years, but not because I'm that interested in not working, but because I want to have the free time to pursue all these interests.  And travel.

I do struggle.  I am neck-deep in the prostate years.  Arthritis affects my hands.  Every morning, it takes 10 to 15 minutes of dedicated exercise to loosen up the lumbar muscles so that I can stand fully upright.  There are times when my conversation halts in midstream while I search frantically for a word, or try to keep my train of thought from disappearing over the hill.  My intake of sugars and carbs has to be strictly monitored.  Appointments are sometimes hard to remember.  And then there are those 5 stents in my heart.  But I work through those because I don't want those things to control what I can and cannot do.  

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Hiking, Parts 23, 24, and 25

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
Words and pictures

My wife and I make at least one trip to Las Vegas every year, sometimes more than one.  Usually those trips are co-scheduled with her family who fly in from Hawaii.  In case you ever wondered where people who live in paradise go on vacation, it's Vegas.  The clientele is so large that three of the local hotels, the California, the Main Street Station, and the Fremont have discovered a very fruitful revenue stream catering to vacationers from the Islands.

Normally, we engage in the usual Vegas-ish types of activities, gambling, entertainment, gambling, eating, gambling, sight-seeing, gambling... well, you get the picture.  Until I discovered hiking this past two years, it never entered my mind that there was anything else to do.  In preparation for this trip, which we coordinated with our middle daughter and her family, I searched for and found a book called "Hiking Las Vegas."  The author, Branch Whitney, researched, hiked, and described over 80 different hiking routes in three areas, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area about 18 miles to the southwest, Mount Charleston about 40 miles due west, and Lake Mead about 35 miles due east.  The hikes range from easy one-milers suitable for young children, all the way to double-digit highly technical Class 5's which usually involve ropes and pitons.  

We arrived a day early and did the first hike by ourselves.  This 4-mile out-and-back is called "The Muffins," named for a group of conglomerate rocks that somehow ended up atop Blue Diamond Hill. Since conglomerates always form at the bottom of things, their placement there is something of a geological mystery.  To get to the trailhead, we drove out Charleston Road, which becomes Red Rock Canyon Road, past the Visitors Center to the Cowboy Trail Rides stables.  I should have parked in the dirt area just off the highway, but instead drove on up to another parking area near the corral.  This would later prove to be a mistake.

We got out of the car, geared up, and started out.  This particular area is criss-crossed with abundant mountain biking trails, which carry quaint names such as "Boneshaker" and "Bob Gnarly."  Hence, for the first-timer finding and staying on the correct path can be a bit difficult.  I missed a trail fork just past a dry wash and we ended up walking, not towards the clearly visible goal, but into a deep box canyon.  
 Looked pretty simple at this point.