About Me

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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 61 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

Friday, December 19, 2008

How Did You Name Your Blog?

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

A friend of mine asked me today how I came up with the name "Race the Sunset" for my blog. I think for most of us blog folk there was that moment when we were registering our foray into the electronic universe when we had to assign a name to the undertaking. It's a telling moment. A blog is a reflection of ourselves, our electronic coming-out party and we want to make the right impression. Not too braggy, not too subtle, something people can understand quickly, and more importantly, enjoy. We want our blog to be liked in the same way that we want to be liked.

I had toured some blogs, looking for ideas. The names I read ran the gamut from the silly to the sublime and every shade in between. Some, I suspected, had to be pretty easy. These were the subject specific blogs, focusing on things like cooking, crafts, photography and other hobbies. Some were extensions of a person's professional life, offering insights on the ins-and-outs of their particular vocation, or avocation. For some, the blog title reflected a particular view on any one of a million different issues from all parts and angles of the political spectrum.

My problem was that I wasn't sure exactly what my blog was going to be. I have a few passions, motorcycling being a major one, along with freelance writing. In the end, I decided to start with motorcycles and just see where my heart would take me.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Roots...and Rootlessness*


An Autumn sunset over Lake Somerset in Pennsylvania

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, November 27, 2008

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

“Where are you from?”

This is a question that usually sparks an immediate response. For most of us, there is that one piece of geography from which we sprung, where family resides and memories lie thickly upon the land, like an autumn fog. It’s the place that when we think of it, brings a sense of joy; of belonging; of identity. This slightly abridged quote from George Eliot which appeared at the beginning of the Civil War epic “Gods and Generals” helps define the idea:

A human life, I think, should be well-rooted in some area of native land where it may get the love of tender kinship, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference. The best introduction to astronomy is to think of the nightly heavens as a little lot of stars belonging to one's own homestead.
- George Eliot


For Pennsylvanians, especially those around here, the crenellated terrain of the Laurel Highlands is home. Many who live around here can trace their familial lineage back several generations without leaving Cambria or Somerset Counties. For them, the old Mexican adage rings true: "Mis raíces estan aquí." Which roughly translates as, “My roots are buried here.”

Sunday, September 07, 2008

9/11: The Legacy of Sacrifice***



*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, September 7, 2008
*Rushville (IN) Republican, September 11, 2008

as "9/11: A tragedy but also a lesson"
*Pella, IA Chronicle
September 12, 2008
as "9/11: A tragedy but also a lesson"

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

Seven years ago this week, in the space of two hours, the world was changed. Our nation was changed. We were changed.

We were suddenly and brutally taken from a world of the familiar and plunged into another world. A world of dark uncertainty. A world dominated by shock, pain and horror.

At first, our senses refused to accept the reality of the images transmitted to us. Desperately, we were hoping that the disaster unfolding before our eyes was some Hollywood concoction, or perhaps just a bad dream.

But as time passed, we had to accept the fact that our worst nightmare had become reality.

This week, we remember.

We remember the shock, the sorrow and, yes, the anger we felt that morning.

We remember the horror we felt as we watched the deaths of innocent people.

But we also remember those moments on that terrible day when we reached out to each other and found comfort, discovering that for those linked by the common experience of a terrible tragedy, there is no such word as “stranger.”

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

***Adieu, la Saison de L'ete; Adieu, Doux Jours de la Jeunesse



*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, September 21, 2008
as "Carefree days of our youth"

*Waterbury, CT Republican-American, September 12, 2009

as "Farewell, the season of Summer;
Farewell, the Sweet Days of Youth"


*Little Rock, AR Democrat-Gazette
August 30, 2011
as "Summer Memories with Ralph Couey"

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

Youth is like a summer’s day. Seemingly endless in its passage, it is a curious mix of living in the moment and racing to the next. There are times of manic energy, and others of perfect indolence. Time has no meaning, for tomorrow is just another version of today. The only measuring stick is the number of days left until the clanging school bell once again makes the clock and calendar relevant and meaningful.

Youth, like summer, is a time for games. The rules are made up on the spot, and any infraction can be whisked away by the liberating words “do-over!” Interest in one game will wane, only to be quickly replaced with another. Alliances among friends shift constantly as the teams change. And in-between, the restful moments in the shade, sipping lemonade from glasses also sweating in the heat.

There is never a schedule, never a plan. The dawn of each day heralds a new adventure, one to be explored to its fullest. Maybe today it’s swimming, or ball, or fishing. We’ll play with our toys, and live for a few hours in a pretend world of our own making. Or just race aimlessly around the yard, if for no other reason than we’re young and we can.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Flight 93: Lead, Follow, Or Get Out of the Way*


*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, July 27, 2008

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

Contextual Note:  During the first half of 2008, a controversy developed over the sale of the last piece of land required for the construction of the permanent memorial to the passengers and crew of Flight 93 on 9/11. As the parties involved squabbled back and forth, public exasperation grew. This essay was an attempt to give voice to those feelings.

Many of us have watched, with no small amount of disgust, as the drama over the Flight 93 Memorial has played out on the airwaves and front pages of the region. What should have been a simple land purchase has taken on the drama of a soap opera. Both sides in the dispute have made pious proclamations to the rest of us through the media blaming each other for the apparent impasse. I'll not waste valuable column inches rehashing the issues here, except to voice my impression that nobody's being completely honest.

This is not terribly unique. We all remember the charges and counter-charges sailing through the air as New York City tried to reach a consensus on the design and execution of the memorial planned for Ground Zero. For some reason, these memorials have become focal points for clashing political views. The problem with that, of course, is through that process, the meaning and the point that lies behind the existence of such memorials becomes obscured, even tarnished.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Measure of a Man*


The Vitruvian Man, from the Da Vinci Code Research Guide

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, Sunday October 12, 2008
as "Expectations of a man are many"

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey
Written content only

What is the measure of a man?

A man is measured by his integrity. He tells the truth, even when the truth is painful. His word is his bond. When he makes a promise, there is never any doubt his promise is good. To quote Mahatma Ghandi, “I hold that a man, who deliberately and intelligently takes a pledge and breaks it, forfeits his manhood.”

A man is measured by his strength. Yes, he is strong, physically. But he is measured more by that strength that lies within. It is his resolution and courage, as Theodore Roosevelt said, “…of power to do without shrinking the rough work that must always be done.” In times of crisis and danger, when no one else dares to step forward and act, the man does this without hesitation. Especially when this act places his own safety in jeopardy.

A man is measured by his commitment. He takes his friendships seriously. He will support the good things, and not be afraid to call someone out who is doing wrong, even when he knows it may cost him that friendship. He treats women with respect and honor, but not obeisance. His love is not given cheaply, but must be earned. Once earned, that love will always be there, a rock to cling to no matter how terrible the storms of life. A man understands that fatherhood is the ultimate experience of manhood. He knows instinctively that he must lead, and be the unbending moral and ethical rudder for his offspring. And the clearest of all examples of what it means to be an adult. Mario Cuomo once said of his father, “I watched a small man with thick calluses on both hands work fifteen and sixteen hours a day. I saw him once literally bleed from the bottoms of his feet, a man who came here uneducated, alone, unable to speak the language, who taught me all I needed to know about faith and hard work by the simple eloquence of his example.”

Monday, June 30, 2008

Today, as History*


Four Immortals: Gehrig, Speaker, Cobb, and Ruth.
(Unable to locate original attribution, probably the New York Times.)

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, July 6, 2008
*Glasgow, KY Daily Times, July 3, 2008
as "Today, as a moment in history"

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

One of the limitations of perspective is our inability to recognized the passage of history. Over the weekend, my wife and I made a trip up to the Poconos to celebrate our 30th anniversary. This, of course, included the de rigueur trip to a casino for her, in this case the Mt. Airy facility near Mt. Pocono. While she was performing her usual brilliantly instinctive outwittery of the slot machines, I wandered around. I don’t gamble. The last lucky moment I had was the day I met her. As far is I’m concerned, she IS the jackpot. I’ll never be that lucky again.

In my wanderings, I happened across a spritely old man in a Yankees cap. I struck up a conversation with him about (what else?) baseball, although it wasn’t really much of a conversation. He yarned; I listened. Anyway, at one point, he talked about a magical day when his father took him to Yankee Stadium. He thinks it was 1927. He spoke of the thrill of watching his heroes, particularly Ruth and Gehrig, as they thoroughly thrashed their opponents, the Philadelphia A’s. On that magical day, he saw both men crank out enormous home runs and he talked about how he leapt from his seat, cheering lustily. He said, “I don’t have a really good memory for many things anymore (I’m 91, y’know) but I remember that day, and those home runs like it was 15 minutes ago.” He turned towards me, his eyes lighting up. “Y’know, Ty Cobb was in that game as well. He’d come over from Detroit. He was at the end of his career, but he was still a gladiator on the diamond.”

Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb.

Today, those names are mythic legends. For any baseball fan, the thought of being in the stands and seeing three players of that caliber on the same field on the same day enters the realm of daydreams.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Moto-Macho



Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

Two years ago, I sold my motorcycle. For those who don’t ride, I’m not sure I can clearly convey the emotional trauma of such an event. The years and miles that unroll ‘neath man and machine really aren’t “ownership” as much as “relationship.” As riders know full well, you may own the machine, but the machine possesses you.

So, you ask, why sell? Well, the bike had 95,000 miles and, truthfully, I was ready for a new machine. The plan was to wait until winter had subsided, then “spring” for a new ride. Unfortunately, some high-priority expenses laid claim to the meager resources allocated for the bike.

The realization that I would be bike-less for the summer hit hard. For me, riding is not an exercise in transportation. It is an experience of the heart and soul; a spirit freed from the mundane to fly free from horizon to horizon. The roar of an engine is the siren song of the open road, the call of freedom…

Yeah, I know. Blah, blah, blah….

So I did what most men in my situation do: I moped. I became a skilled professional moper. If there had been an Olympic Moping team going to Beijing, I would have been its captain. Predictably, this drove my poor wife bananas. Last June, she took pity on me, and in one of her extremely rare moments of rash decision-making, she suggested that we rent a motorcycle and take a trip together.

What followed was a marvelous 6-day adventure on a Honda Goldwing (bells and whistles included) through the mountains and seashores New England. We had a great time, although I learned that it was far better to have the world’s most vociferous driving critic at an arm’s length, rather than draped across my back. (That helmet slap really gets your attention.) I was ecstatic, thinking this was the thing to put the bike purchase over the top.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Males, Middle Age, and Motorcycles*


Livin' Large! The Author at Deal's Gap.
Photo by Darryl Cannon, Powerhead Productions

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat April 29, 2008
as "The final frontier:
In midlife, a man's fancy turns to motorcycles"

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

Spring is a wonderful time of year. The snow has finally gone, the sun is shining warm, and from the budding trees, we can hear the glorious sound of birds, the sounds of their songs reminding us how much they have been missed. If you listen carefully, you’ll also hear another sound of spring. The sound of a husband trying to convince his wife how much he needs a motorcycle.

There are obvious reasons. Economy, price, fun…but make no mistake; for the average middle aged American male, there is another motivation, the roots of which are buried deep within.

Middle-aged men are fighting a losing battle these days. In a society where feminists rage about equality and strength, we’re still called upon to deal with spiders, rodents, and strange noises in the night. We try to treat them with fairness and equality, only to get our heads torn off when we fail to open doors for them. Society denigrates the successful among us, then summarily equates our character with our job descriptions. (Think I’m exaggerating? Eavesdrop on a group of women sometime. When talking about men, one of the first two questions is always: “What does he do?”) Our culture, also obsessed with youth and the appearance of vitality, is ruthless in the effort to push us aside, out of sight. Even our points of view, borne out of decades of facing and defeating adversity, are dismissed as being out of step with the times.

Mainly though, it’s the age thing. We blossomed during the Woodstock era, when it was okay to lead with your glands and a sense of adventure. But then something terrible happened. We grew up. We had children. We acquired mortgages and responsibilities. We lost our hair. Now we find ourselves in our 50’s, squeezed out of the “wanna do’s” of life by the “have to do’s.” Everything hurts, especially in the morning. We find ourselves athletically outdone by the youngsters we used to “school” on the courts or in the fields. We begin to hear ourselves described as “that older guy.”

Monday, June 16, 2008

Deal's Gap*


"Yeah, baby!"
Photo by Darryl Cannon, Killboy.com; Powerhead Productions
*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat 7/30/2006

Copyright © 2006 by Ralph Couey

One of the best known (and most notorious) motorcycle destinations in this country is Deal’s Gap, North Carolina, more specifically, the 11-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 129 known as “The Dragon.” This road traces the southwest border of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park and consists of 318 curves in its tightly twisted length. It is considered by many to be the ultimate test of a street rider’s skill.

The Smoky Mountains, America’s most visited National Park, according to the National Park Service, is a scenic gem. Part of the central Appalachian chain, the Smokies stun the senses with beautiful mountains, dramatic overlooks, and dense cathedral-like forests. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Last of the Mohicans” with Daniel Day-Lewis, parts of which were filmed in the Park, than you know already about the abundant natural beauty to be found here. There aren’t a lot of resort or amusement park type properties in the region, but you can hike, bike, drive, canoe, raft, kayak, or indulge photographic passions to your heart’s content. The roads, although twisty to the extreme, are very well-cared for.

You can enter The Dragon at either end, but the “official” kickoff point is at the intersection of 129 and North Carolina route 28, the location of the Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort. This is not a luxury hotel, but simply a bare-bones place for the rider to sleep at night. The rooms are Spartan, but spacious, clean, and the owners have designed and developed services that cater to the motorcycle rider. For a more comfortable stay, there is the Fontana Village Resort, which is 11 miles away on NC Route 28.

The road itself is truly a challenge. Most of the 318 curves are of the hairpin and switchback variety, along with a few decreasing-radius turns that will take you by surprise. Although hundreds of riders navigate this road successfully, accidents do occur. The most common spill happens when a rider enters a curve too fast, or has their mind somewhere else. This is particularly bad for some cruisers, touring bikes and full-dressers, since their low profile severely limits the available lean angle. There are no shoulders to speak of, although there are a few gravel-covered pull-outs. If you find yourself in crisis corner, your options are usually limited to a sheer rock wall, or an unplanned tumble down a long, steep rock-and-tree-covered slope. At the Motorcycle resort is a monument to those who have been “bit by The Dragon” called “The Tree of Shame,” an otherwise unassuming Sycamore that has been liberally decorated with parts of motorcycles that failed to complete the route. You can always find a group of riders silently regarding the tree, a stark reminder that this is a serious road for serious riders.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Internet Remedies -- and One That Actually Worked



Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey


The Internet can be a tremendous resource, placing at our fingertips a flood of information from all types of authoritative sources. When I compare what I had to go through to research a term paper in the '70's to the ease of that same task today, I shake my head in wonder.

Of course, there's a lot of junk in with the gold, and you have to be very careful when assessing the accuracy of a potential source.

One of the common things you can find are alternatives to chemical-based cleaners, weeders, feeders, and many of the other common household and garden products we use. Which is where I found myself this past weekend deep in ponder.

The previous owners of our home performed a miracle of landscaping with the back yard. They put in a flower garden that circled the yard, along with a very attractive (and long) winding path made of paving stones. It was one of the major selling points for us, even when contemplating the enormous amount of work require to maintain it's zen-like qualities.

One of the labors required is to periodically remove the grass, weeds, and wildflowers that grow in the gaps between the stones. Up to now, that remedy has been applied through the use of a thin saw blade attached to a pole. The blade fits in the narrow spaces and is able to drill down deep enough to pull the offending plant up by the roots. Of course, this is a very time-consuming task, often taking an entire Saturday to accomplish. We've had a very wet and cool spring this year, followed by an oppressive period of hot and humid weather, with temps reaching close to the 90-degree range. (Please, no snickers from you Arizonans!) The combination of those two events brought an explosion of weed growth, the sheer ugliness of which I could ignore no longer.

Friday night, I was glumly anticipating my day in the heat and humidity. I thought briefly about using Roundup or some other commercially available weed-and-grass killer, but concern for my pets' health made that choice unacceptable.

Now, between my wife and I, I consider myself to be the more tech-savvy, so I was surprised when she suggested the obvious "check the internet" for alternatives.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Oil Emergency: Hard Times, Hard Choices

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

Over the years, I’ve come to understand a fundamental truth. People’s political attitudes are formed in the events and experiences that make up the chronology of their lives. These days, the foundations of those attitudes are, more often than not, based on deeply held emotions rather than critically evaluated information. Thus, there is no longer a widely held consensus of right and wrong. Everything is filtered through the prism of each individual's personal experiences. What seems incontrovertible truth to one is complete nonsense to another. This reality is a big part of the reason why politics is a subject considered verboten in polite conversation.

Our political attitudes have become tightly interwoven with our sense of self-identity and esteem. Consequently, when someone disagrees with us, we feel defensive, which then triggers emotional responses. And when emotion, by its nature an irrational state, enters into a debate, all hope of a calm, rational discussion is lost. My high school debate teacher once said, “You can debate conclusions; you can debate positions; you can debate policy. But you cannot debate emotion. Emotion listens only to its own version of truth, and refuses to entertain anything else.”

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Honda PC800 Pacific Coast


My '95 On Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

History, Design, and Mission

Riding a Honda Pacific Coast makes you a lightning rod for all kinds of questions and comments. Over the years, I’ve gotten used to the worst of them, realizing that any motorcyclist who utilizes the term “rolling porta-potty” has issues of their own.

The Pacific Coast, or PC800, was introduced by Honda in the 1989 model year. It was a revolutionary look back then, the bike completely sheathed in plastic body panels, and a spacious clamshell trunk in the place of traditional saddlebags. The appearance was pure Starfleet, sans phasers and warp drive. Had it arrived in ET's UFO, it could not have been more striking. The futuristic shape caught the eye of filmmakers, appearing in movies such as “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man,” “Back to the Future,” and “The Bourne Identity.”

Honda wanted a bike that would appeal to the suit-and-tie set; a bike one could ride to work without the risk of soiling the Armani. With that in mind, they purposely modeled the rear end after the very popular Honda Accord, the Yuppie flavor of the month for that era. But while the broad rear and long taillights looked good on the car, it was a decidedly odd look for a bike.

Honda produced the PC initially for two years, the ’89 in an ethereal Pacific Pearl White, and the ’90 in a magnificent Candy Glory Red. However, the marketing folks at Honda rolled consecutive gutter balls, choosing a soft, jazzy, avante-garde approach for their ads (a technique also used initially by Infiniti automobiles). The popular image of the motorcycle, all leather, do-rags, and sweaty biceps, completely clashed with this approach. Bikers snickered, and Yuppies remained confused. The price point was too high, and the flood of execu-commuters never materialized. With a ton of surplus machines on hand, Honda halted production.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

A Day of Remembrance*



*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, May 13, 2008
*Clinton, IA Herald, 5/12/2008

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

If you were to ask a stranger, particularly a younger one, the question “What is Memorial Day?” its likely you receive the answer, “The official beginning of summer.” It’s a natural answer, borne out of the timing of the holiday, since it coincides with the end of the school year in most parts of the country. The real meaning of Memorial Day has been somewhat lost in the shuffle, a victim of cultural amnesia, or perhaps just neglect.

In 1868, General John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization of Union Civil War Veterans, proclaimed May 30th as the day “…designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land.” Initially, it was known as “Decoration Day.” The first state to officially recognize the commemoration was New York in 1873, and by 1890 it was so recognized by all of the former Union states. The south, not surprisingly, refused to acknowledge the day, keeping to their own schedule for honoring the Confederate war dead, a tradition that continues to this day.

However, after World War I, the meaning of the day was changed to honor Americans who died fighting in all wars. Memorial Day was made official in 1971 by congress, adjusting the day to the last Monday in May.

On Memorial Day, we remember the fallen. For far too many families, there was no joyous homecoming; only the memories of the loved and the lost. There are no possible words, no magic phrases that could possibly ease their pain. For the husband or wife looking at a wedding ring through a veil of tears; for the parents who stood in the doorway of a silent, empty bedroom; for the child who struggled to understand why Daddy or Mommy didn’t come home; for the friends, the co-workers, the neighbors who have felt that aching void in their lives; for all of them, we as a nation have shared their grief. For some 4,000 very special reasons, this Memorial Day should be cherished by all.

Friday, May 02, 2008

The Future of Motorcycles

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

Motorcycles are one of my passions, I will readily admit, although at times, my wife has suggested the “O” word (obsession). I have written uncounted words about the emotions bikes have awakened in me, and while I am respectful of tradition, I am always looking for those designs that not only push the envelope, but change the paradigm altogether.

Engineers continue to push the limits with engine designs and suspension setups to enhance performance. But with gas prices continuing to climb, and environmental issues impacting transportation, the future will, by necessity, bring fundamental changes to the sport and the vehicles themselves.

New propulsion systems are being considered, but since many are still in their big-boned clunky stone-age era of development, their utility on a two-wheeled conveyance is still in the future. There are some prototype all-electric bikes, and hybrids can't be far behind. Ultimately, manufacturers will be forced to abandon oil altogether, which means the rise of the hydrogen fuel cell. A British firm has built such a bike, called the ENV, but it is small, short of range, and wouldn't work in the wide-open environment of American roads.


The ENV, from the Intelligent Energy website

Lately, there have been some intriguing developments that not only involve pushing development, but changing the basic machine as well.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Intel Geek


Chloe O'Brian. Frame capture from the Season 7 trailer of "24."

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey
Written content only

Working in the Intelligence profession is a challenge. We joined this happy community out of some well-placed motivations, such as patriotism, being an unknown soldier in a largely invisible war, or just having a Jack Ryan fixation. Or just enjoying the high pay and good benefits.

Yeah. Right.

An Intelligence Analyst, in most cases, works in an office, although we almost never call it that. In an attempt to sound cool and hip, we refer to it as “the shop.” “Yeah, I work the Intel Shop.” It sounds cool because it implies that (1) we have explainable skills, and (2) we can actually fix things. It makes us sound tool savvy as well, although I don’t ever remember asking any of my colleagues for a 3/8-inch hydraulic regression analyzer.

It is one of those rare jobs that you can’t brag about. Part of this has to do with constantly working with classified information, and the natural reticence resulting from being at war with an enemy that has a demonstrated predilection for sawing people’s heads off. The other reason has to do with practicality. For some reason, the public thinks that if we work intel, and have a high clearance, then we must be wired in to all the mysterious stuff that they’re convinced the government is hiding. In my earlier days, I actually got a kick out of telling people that I was an Intelligence Analyst. Then, I wised up. I wish I could tell you how many times I was asked about who killed Kennedy, or what was really going on up at Groom Lake. Now, older and wiser, when people ask me what I do, I simply say, “I work for the government.” For most, that’s total snooze material and the inquiries stop there. For the persistent ones, I explain, “I read reports, then write a report about the reports I read. Then, I pass my report to someone else, who writes a report about my report.” That works. By the time I get through the first sentence, they’re off looking for the Jell-O shots.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Johnstown Flood: An Open Letter to Hollywood*







Photos from the Johnstown Heritage Society Collection


*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, March 26, 2008
as "Story of 1889 flood should be basis of epic film"

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey
Written content only

May 31, 1889 had been a long, dreary day. For several days, rain had been falling, at times incomprehensibly heavy. The streets of Johnstown, Pennsylvania were flooded, with up to 3 feet of water. In some homes, families grimly abandoned the first floor, carrying their belongings up the stairs to safety. Flooded streets were not all that unusual, especially in the spring. You moved what you could, waited for the water to recede, and then you cleaned up. But shortly after 4 p.m., the people of this sodden southwestern Pennsylvania town heard a roar from the north. A forty-foot high wall of debris, followed by 20 million tons of water thundered out of the mountains and exploded on the unsuspecting city. The wave spread across the valley and in a matter of 10 minutes, a city of 20,000 people ceased to exist.

The story of the Johnstown Flood has been told numerous times in print, most notably by historian David McCullough. Within those words are tales of tragedy and destruction that wound the heart, but there also are accounts of courage, heroism, and the character of a community that, to this day, doesn’t know the meaning of the word “quit.”

As you have shown over the years, a filmmaker is a storyteller. While the story of the Johnstown Flood has been told in print, it has never been portrayed on the screen. Part of the reason for this would have to be the lack of special effects technology to accurately represent the magnitude of the disaster. With the advance in CGI technology, that is no longer the limiting factor.

This is a tale aching to be told. The mounting drama of the long afternoon as the dam weakened; the terrible moment when the earth yielded and the water exploded into the narrow gorge; the heroic efforts of those who did everything possible to alert people in the path of the deluge; the terror of those caught in the flood waters; the uncomprehending horror of those whose lives were spared by happenstance, only to watch helplessly the deaths of their families and neighbors. There were the heroic efforts to organize by the surviving townsfolk, attempting rescue after rescue through that long, dark first night in a cold plain of mud, debris, and death, completely cut off from the outside world.

People died in the narrow valleys as the water and debris cascaded down from the mountaintop. People died as town after town was swept clear. People died in the city, crushed by debris, and drowned in the swirling waters. And when a mountain of debris piled up against a stone railroad bridge caught fire, people trapped in the rubble burned to death, their terrified screams echoing through the darkness across a cold sea of mud.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

When God Goes Out of Business*


The iconic twin spires of St. Stephen's

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, March 15, 2008

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

Contextual Note: In March 2008, the Catholic Arch Diocese of Johnstown, PA announced the imminent closure of four parishes in the historic Cambria City section of Johnstown.
This was written in response to the announcement.

The Allegheny region is not an area prone to earthquakes, but the recent announcement of the Arch Diocese certainly carried the same impact. Four churches in Johnstown’s most iconic neighborhood, Cambria City, are due to be closed. Although in close proximity, the churches served their parishes for over 100 years, each one a reflection of Cambria City’s rich ethnic past. According to the “Explore PA History” website, as people streamed into the area from Europe to work in the coal mines and steel mills, parishes were established representing a variety of ethnic groups. Among them was the Irish (St. Columba’s), Hungarians (St. Emerich’s), Polish (St. Casimir’s), Slovakian (St. Stephen’s), Croatian (St. Rochus’), and German (Immaculate Conception). Each parish provided the anchor for immigrants making a home in a strange, new land; and giving a sense of community to what would become known as the Ellis Island of Johnstown.

But, times change. Johnstown, and America, has become more diverse, and ethnic enclaves don’t exist in the way they did a century ago. Since those enclaves were the element that gave those parishes life, the churches have, for several years now, been dying a slow death.

When I see a failed business, I feel a bit saddened. For me, a business represents someone’s dream and when that dream fails, I can’t help but feel empathy towards the person who rolled the dice and took that entrepreneurial chance. Businesses go under for a variety of reasons. Misreading the market, saturation of that good or service in a particular area, price structure, competition, or just plain poor management. Seeing a church close its doors is also disquieting, for altogether different reasons.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Choosing Not to Play*

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, February 14, 2008
as "Not a player in the power game"

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

“I love mankind! Its people I can’t stand!” This line from one of the many philosophical discussions from the “Peanuts” comic strip illustrates a common burden felt by just about all of us. It doesn’t really matter what we do with our day, whether spent at a job, at home, or school. At some point, we will encounter another human whose sole purpose in life seems to be spreading frustration and infuriation wherever they go. They might be a boss or co-worker, a teacher or fellow student, a stranger on the street, or that disembodied voice emanating from the fourth dimensional hell known universally as “customer service.” Whoever they are, whatever they do, or whatever they say leaves us shaking and red-faced, reduced to a state of primal rage more common to Neanderthal than human.

I became convinced that these are the people who just enjoy being difficult. They have a sadistic streak in them that creates a dark sort of joy when they’ve reduced one of us to a puddle of twitching protoplasm. Their evil is magnified by our apparent willingness to participate. They are perpetually unhappy, and will do everything they can to make sure everyone else is as unhappy as they are. They love to pick a fight and will raise the roof over the most insignificant of issues just so they can eventually walk away from the argument they created with the comfortable feeling that they are no longer alone in their self-imposed misery.

When we give in to people like this, we empower them. When we allow their misery to become our misery, we give them control. We become emotional slaves.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Standing On the Edge: A Near Death Experience



Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

Through the latter part of April of 2003, I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t feeling well. I was tired all the time and was experiencing some twinges of pain in my chest. Like so many others, I lived in a bubble of self-denial. I kept silent, even from my wife, Cheryl. The chest pains became even more acute, to the point where it was difficult to walk any distance at all.

I was working at Caterpillar, doing a job that regularly involved mixing chemicals. Two days after one such mix, I was struck by a really intense bout of pain, which essentially immobilized me. I finally had to acknowledge that something was very wrong. I was driven to Boone Hospital in Columbia, about 30 miles away.

At the Hospital, they did some tests, which turned up negative for chemical exposure. They gave me some steroids and sent me home. The next day, on my way to the company occupational health doctor, the short walk into his office from the parking lot left me collapsed in the waiting area, gasping that my lungs were on fire. I was taken back to the ER. This time, they contacted my regular Doctor, who ordered a CAT scan. The results revealed the presence of six blood clots in my left lung. I was immediately admitted.

After six very long days in the hospital, the medication broke up the clots and I was released We came home on a picture perfect spring afternoon. I remember sitting in a lawn chair in the back yard, while Cheryl puttered around caring for her flowers. The sky was blue, the sun was warm, the breeze soft and fragrant. I sat in the sun-dappled shadows of familiar trees feeling very lucky and thankful to be alive.

Over the next three weeks, however, the chest pain got worse. I suggested to the doctor that perhaps the pleura, the lining of the lung had become inflamed, but he wasn’t buying it. Growing more concerned, he scheduled me for a cardiac stress test.

A Blessing for a Cherokee Wedding


The flag of the Cherokee Nation from Cherokee.org

Now you will feel no rain
For each of you will be shelter to the other

Now you will feel no cold
For each of you will be warmth to the other

Now there is no loneliness for you
For each of you will be a companion to the other.

You are two persons
But there is only one life before you

Enter now into the day of your togetherness
And may your days be good and long together.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

This Family Named "Couey"

The de Coucy Coat of Arms



Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey
Written content only


Author's Note:
This posting contains all the information I've been able to collect about the Couey family history.  I update this post whenever new data is found.  At the end of the post is a list of the family members in my line going as far back as I have been able to locate.  As you will see, there is a significant gap in the history between roughly 1450 and 1704.  If any reader can help us close this gap, I would appreciate your sharing that information.
Thank you, and enjoy the Family History!

A few years ago, I began to take some interest in my family’s history. It began as idle curiosity, keyed by an argument between my sister and I as to whether we were French or Irish. She preferred France, I preferred Ireland. This idle interest eventually became a fascination. I think it’s perhaps a symptom of upper middle age, since this was about the same time my father began to do research. I guess the fascination lies in discovery, finding mentions of the family name in the oddest places, and reading about individuals interacting with some of the larger events of history.

Another reason lies with the wondrous appearance of grandchildren. While they are very young still, I have come to recognized the responsibility I have to pass along to them some information about their past. For me, discovering the past has help to provide context to my present, and meaning to some of the urges that have driven me through the years.

I realize that there’s nothing more boring than someone else’s family history, but I’ve noticed lately that this blog is getting hits from France and Ireland, where my family has a strong history. So in the interests of providing some information to them…

The earliest mention of my family was out of an obscure French history text written in the early 19th century. The brief item described someone named “de Couey” in northern France around 946 A.D. (or C.E., if you prefer). A few texts describe a fortress of some kind that existed between 900 and 950 A.D., but apparently was destroyed. A castle was built in 1225 on a piece of land overlooking the Ailette River about 17 km north of present-day Soissons. The castle survives today, although it bears the name "Coucy." 




The point at which the name changed is unclear, but different history texts describe men with identical first names and birth/death dates as either "Coucy" or "Couey."  The clan apparently rose to prominence because there are other mentions of various “de Couey’s” and “de Coucy’s” as Knights who led military actions in the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries. One of them, a youngster named Raoul de Couey, who also was known as “Chatelain” (perhaps a title of some kind), was a troubadour who also volunteered to fight with Richard the Lion Heart in the Third Crusade. He met a violent end in 1190 at the hands of Saracens during the Siege of Acre (what is now the port of Haifa, Israel). One of those interesting snippets of history comes from, of all places, a book entitled, “What We Hear in Music” A course of study in Music History, by Victor Talking Machine Company, Mrs. Anne Shaw Faulkner Oberndorfer, 1921:

"Among the twelfth century Troubadours was a French knight, Chatelain de Couey, whose tragic fate has been often a theme for poets, the Ballade of Uhland being founded on his history.

"He loved the wife of another, and realizing his duty, departed for the Crusades, where he lost his life. To comply with his dying request, his heart was embalmed and sent to the fair lady, whose husband intercepted the gift, and it is said caused it to be served to his wife for dinner. After she had unsuspectingly eaten of this gruesome dish, her lord informed her she had eaten the heart of her lover. To this, she bravely replied that as she had consumed that which she most dearly loved she would never again eat of any thing inferior, so she declined all food and shortly after died. The words are:

Thursday, January 10, 2008

"You're Eyes Can Deceive You; Don't Trust Them"


Cochise Head Peak, on the SW New Mexico border.   Look carefully.  See the face?

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey

Blanket condemnations are rarely useful. They are the root of prejudice and can be the conveyance by which bad feelings are transmitted widely. The ironic thing is that most times such condemnations are based on emotion and very little on objective fact. This is especially true of the public’s view of the motorcycling community.

It is thus with amusement that I read articles claiming how a rider’s legal choice to not wear a helmet limits the rights of the public at large. Journalists will throw a few carefully selected statistical findings into the article to give their conclusions an air of legitimacy and then fire that cannon into the air.

Now, I’m not a journalist. If you were to give a title to what I do for a living, I guess the closest description would be “research geek.” I’ve done this long enough to know that research has a very real and very dangerous trap. You can dig deep enough to substantiate a pre-conceived notion, or you can dig even deeper to find the truth. The trick is knowing which is which.