About Me

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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 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.

Friday, December 31, 2010

The Creative Power of Optimism*

Popular Mechanics, February 1951
from  http://www.coverbrowser.com/covers/popular-mechanics/14

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
January 9, 2011
as "Optimism out of style, still a priceless tool"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

A few years ago, I came across a stack of old Popular Science and Popular Mechanics magazines from the 1950s and 1960s. The mere sight of those covers took me back to the days of my youth when both magazines would arrive in the mail every month.

Carefully, I opened the cover and flipped through the pages. The insides were literally stuffed with advertising, mainly work-at-home plans. The articles, once you found them, spoke in wondrous terms of advances in science, technology, and manufacturing.

There were also interesting little snippets of information, like “married men driving with their wives break fewer traffic laws than single men.”


Friday, December 24, 2010

Peace On Earth: A Personal Challenge*

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
January 2, 2011
as "A Plea For Peace"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

It’s become a running joke. A beauty pageant contestant in a beautiful, if somewhat generic gown stands before a row of penguin-like judges. In a voice ringing with conviction, she declares that, if selected, she would work tirelessly for world peace.


The human race has accomplished much in its relatively short 200,000 years. But despite the highest ideals and sacrifice, nothing has proven more elusive.

As far back as human history has been recorded, there has never been a time when all people lived in perfect harmony. Even when nations weren’t fighting amongst themselves, inside those borders conflicts raged, ranging from all out revolution and insurrection to struggles political and racial. As of this writing, the United Nations says there are 42 major and minor conflicts on planet earth right now. According to the website Global Security, 75% of those killed or wounded in those struggles are non-combatants.

As a young Navy sailor, I once asked a grizzled old Chief Petty Officer if he thought the world might ever find peace. He leaned back in his chair, looking at me with narrowed eyes through a blue cloud of cigar smoke. After a judicious pause, he said, “Nope. ‘Cause there’ll always be at least two guys who wanna fight.”

Decades later, with a degree in Political Science, I recognize the sad truth in the old Chief’s summary judgment.

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and the late and unlamented Soviet Union folded its cards and retired from the geopolitical table. For a few brief moments, there was hope. Then the deep-seated conflicts in the Balkans and the border states, long kept bottled up by the KGB and the Red Army, exploded into violence.

It is abundantly clear that the control and consistent avoidance of transnational conflict lies beyond the abilities of the human race, especially individuals like you and me.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

**The Healthy Pragmatism of Resolutionary Procrastination

The Treadmill: The Rubber-Belted Purgatory

*Chicago Tribune, December 29. 2011
as "Don't dwell on defeats"

*Somerset, PA Daily American
December 30, 2010
as "Don't Dwell On Defeats"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

If we had no winter,
Spring would not be so pleasant.
If we did not sometimes taste of adversity,
Prosperity would not be so welcome.
--Anne Bradstreet

The arrival of the New Year has become a time of reflection and hope for many. It is a moment when people make the effort to put the past behind and dwell on the unspoiled hope of the future.

The turning of the calendar has always been seen as a time of renewal and rebirth; a convenient chronological waypoint where we can rid ourselves of the accumulated baggage of old attitudes and bad habits.

The practice of crafting New Year’s Resolutions is a common, if somewhat cynical event framing the all-too-human practice of dwelling on the negative; namely, our mistakes and errors in judgment. Most resolutions revolve around attempt to fix perceived flaws through such activities as weight loss, or exercise programs. Also, making the effort to reduce or eliminate vices such as smoking, drinking, gambling, and other unhealthy habits.

The unfortunate reality is for us to make these solemn January promises to ourselves, only to see those oaths run out of steam during the February blizzards.

Gym Rats are familiar with the January surge of “Resolutionists” who show up with new memberships, anxious to begin the work of sculpting the “new them.” The club denizens are also familiar with the inevitable ebb of that crowd around mid-February. I’ve gone that route before, unsuccessfully, a casualty of my attitude.

I don’t think there’s anything more boringly soul-crushing than those endless hours on a treadmill. I’m a practical person. If I’m going to walk three miles, I want to see the world go by. Plus, walking outside means I don’t have to wait for someone else to get off the country road before I can start.

Studies indicate that about 50% of us make resolutions, but only 12% succeed. I think part of that has to do with the time of year.

Winter lies too long in country towns;
It hangs on until it is stale and shabby,
Old and sullen.
--Willa Cather

January, February, and at least part of March (months I call “the Long, Dark Tunnel”) are when I am the least motivated to much more than catch up on reading, writing, and contemplation. I do get exercise; you can’t live in an area that gets over 8 feet of snow every year and avoid it. The old instincts for hibernation, buried deep in my DNA, take over, demanding early to bed, fighting early to rise, and attempting to seduce me with afternoon naps.

Perhaps I am a bear, or some hibernating animal underneath
for the instinct to be half asleep all winter is so strong in me.
--Anne Morrow Lindbergh

I learned a long time ago that, for me, the best time to make resolutions is in the spring. For me, the return of pleasant weather, green grass, and warm sunshine imparts a surge of energy accompanied by the strong desire to flee the now-claustrophobic house.

"Spring won't let me stay in this house any longer!
I must get out and breathe the air deeply again. "
-- Gustav Mahler

Spring is the time when I’m forced into activity. The grass must be fertilized and mowed. The extensive garden we have requires soil preparation and the planting of annuals. The windows must be washed and flung open to lure the fresh breezes inside, the house must be cleaned and repaired, the boiler put to sleep for the year, and the accumulated layer of winter gunk washed out of the garage.

Then there are the more pleasant aspects, such as getting the motorcycle out of storage and getting it ready for another glorious riding season. We get out the baseball gloves, and carefully loosen up our stiff arms with a soul-satisfying game of catch.

It is a time when many people feel they are coming back to life, and therefore, the logical time to start building the new you. It’s harder to lose momentum in the light of the warm sun, especially where exercise is concerned.

If you feel defeated in February for not carrying out a New Year’s Resolution, don’t beat yourself up. Mentally and spiritually, it’s tough to do anything productive in the middle of winter. Hold off on your personal makeover until the glorious life-giving days of spring. Your success will be far easier to attain.

It is far better to savor victories, than dwell over defeats.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Myth of the Perfect Gift*

*Somerset, PA Daily American
December 18, 2010
as "The Search for the Perfect Gift"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

Well, here it is.  Late December and I still haven't bought my wife's Christmas present. And yes, I'm in deep trouble.

Buying for a female is quite possible the severest challenge that faces a man.  Anything you do for her involves a dangerous trek through an emotional minefield where the slightest misstep results in complete disaster.

With any gift, one has to strike a balance between “not enough,” “too much,” and “just plain wrong.”  Also, the selection of a particular item sends a message, whether intended or not.  A diamond necklace and a mushy card to one’s wife?  Right message.  The same gift to a casual relation-female co-worker?  WRONG message.  A gift card from Victoria’s Secret to your girlfriend?  GOOD message.  The same to your female boss?  Run and hide. 

The goal of every husband’s gift is, of course, to make her cry.  With joy, that is.  I know we already make them cry, but usually for all the wrong reasons.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The Perfect Husband

Several men are in the locker room of a golf club. A cell phone on a bench rings and one man turns, reaches down and engages the speakerpnone. Everyone else in the room listens in.

MAN: "Hello"

WOMAN'S VOICE: "Honey, it's me. Are you at the club?"

MAN: "Yes"

WOMAN'S VOICE: "I'm at the mall and found this beautiful leather coat. It's only $1,000.  Is it OK if I buy it?"

MAN: "Sure."

WOMAN'S VOICE: "I also stopped by the Mercedes dealership and saw the one I really liked."

MAN: "How much?"

WOMAN'S VOICE: "$160,000"

MAN: "OK, but get all the options."

WOMAN'S VOICE:  "Great! Oh, and one more thing.  The house we wanted last year is back on the market.  They're asking $990,000."

MAN: "Offer $900,000."

WOMAN'S VOICE:  Have you decided what we're doing for our anniversary?

MAN:  "Tahiti, First Class.  Order the tickets."

WOMAN'S VOICE: "Oh Honey, you're the perfect husband!  I love you!  Bye!"

MAN: "Bye."

The man hangs up, then notices that the other men are looking at Him in blank astonishment.  Glancing around, he asks:

"Anyone know whose phone this is?"

Christmas Eve Service

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey
Christmas Eve Celebration

Introit        “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming"                   Choir

Welcome and Setting

Today is Christmas Eve.
Tomorrow, we, along with the rest of the Christian world,
will celebrate the commemoration
of the birth of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

It is a celebration that touches every aspect
of our religious and secular lives.
It is a time traditionally when families come together,
especially for those families
whose members have scattered across the nation,
or the world.

Protecting Our Right to Ride*

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat
February 27, 2011
as "Motorcycle helmet law rages anew"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

All it took was three days of delightful weather, and the motorcycle part of my brain went from dormancy to full throttle.

Without a doubt the most controversial topic in the motorcycle community is the eternal debate over helmet laws. The two schools of thought are sharply divided. On one side is what I call the Freebirds.

Freebirds prize personal freedom above all, reasoning that if the individual is willing to undertake the risk and accept the responsibilities for that decision, then they should be allowed to go bare-headed.

On the other side are the Pragmatists. While this bunch embraces the freedom of the ride, they respect mortality. They understand that the road is not within their control, so they choose to wear the “Brain Bucket.”

Freebirds say that helmets restrict peripheral vision and add dangerous weight to the head, increasing the danger of cervical spinal injury.  (Actually, a study published last week now demonstrates that modern helmets actually help prevent cervical spinal injury.)

Pragmatists say that even a slow fall to the asphalt can bounce the head hard enough to do serious damage, and that road debris thrown up by cars and trucks towards the rider’s head is a real danger.
For the record, I’m a Pragmatist.

But for the motorcycle community as a whole, part of the frustration rises out of vacuous opinions put forward by talking heads who otherwise wouldn’t know a swing arm from a steering head bearing. They, and those who listen to them, remain convinced that all bikers are outlaws who traffic drugs, cause riots, and (gasp!) go weeks without bathing.

Over the last decade, many states relaxed helmet laws. In that time, there has been an increase in motorcycle fatalities with head injuries being the most common cause of death.
But the number of riders has also jumped. Some say that the large increase of rookie riders on bikes too big or fast for their skill level contributes to those numbers, as does the increase in the median age of riders. Older people have weaker eyesight and slower reaction times.

And, rightly or wrongly, others point to the increase in fatalities as a natural consequence of statistical density; more riders on the road equal more accidents.
Whatever the reason, the numbers have grown enough to grab the attention of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
NHTSA, for all its altruism, in the minds of many motorcyclists has apparently dedicated itself to running motorcycles off the road altogether.

NHTSA’s motivation comes from statistics.

In the years from 1994 through 2009, of all vehicle categories, motorcycles were the only group to show an increase in fatalities, even with an almost 18 percent drop from 2008 to 2009.

NHTSA held a news conference on Nov. 19, calling for all states to pass laws requiring the use of helmets.

Vice Chairman Christopher Hart declared, “People have to get outraged about this safety issue that is causing so many deaths needlessly.”

Well, gee.

Where has NHTSA been lo, these many years while riders were dying by the scores, victims of motorists who failed to yield the right of way?
Where was their advocacy when these careless drivers were taken to court and charged with simple moving violations instead of vehicular manslaughter? How can someone take a human life out of carelessness and walk away with a $100 fine?
(Taking a breath here.)
In my view, the Feds are taking the path of least resistance. They can’t find a way to force drivers to look more carefully before pulling out, turning left, or changing lanes, so they’re going after the easier target.
And by shifting the responsibility to riders, they’re contributing even more to the “us vs. them” mentality of the road.
However, to be fair and honest, there are riders in the community who aren’t aiding our public reputation. Speeding and weaving, pulling stunts in traffic, and riding impaired increases the risk to you and the danger to the rest of us. Riding safely and intelligently protects our lives on the road, and in court gives us a better chance for a fair shake from a jury.

The Constitution protects our right to the pursuit of happiness. But our riding community needs to be more proactive and responsible through our riding habits and attitudes to protect our right to ride from the bureaucrats.
Otherwise, the only pursuit will be them pulling us over, and eventually, off the road completely.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Christmas From Within*

Linus -- Frame grab from "A Charlie Brown Christmas"

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, December 8, 2009
as "A Charlie Brown Christmas is Still Touching Hearts"

Copyright © 2008 by Ralph Couey
Christmas time is here
Happiness and cheer
Fun for all that children call
Their favorite time of the year
--Vince Guaraldi, from "A Charlie Brown Christmas"

In 1965, an animated program debuted on CBS. It was a Christmas-themed show starring the characters of Charles Shulz’s wildly popular and generationally-defining comic strip “Peanuts.” The story was, on the surface, a familiar allegory about how the true spirit of Christmas had been hijacked by greed and materialism. The animation, while colorful, was relatively primitive, the soundtrack lacks the depth provided by modern technology.  And yet, 43 years later, the show continues to touch hearts and enlighten spirits. The obvious reason for its effect is the incipient air of greed that has inculcated itself in the season, an observation usually voiced while standing in line at Best Buy at Oh-Dark-Thirty on Black Friday.

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” is much more than a holiday cartoon.  It is a call to the conscience; a reminder that we must at some point in the head-long rush between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve stop, take a breath, and seriously consider the true motivation for the celebration: the birth of Jesus Christ.

We have somehow forgotten that the season is not about material gain. It is rather about hope, salvation, redemption, forgiveness, generosity, and love; the ideas that reflect not only Christmas, but the deepest needs inside us all, especially the search for meaning. The philosophy taught by Jesus gave us that sense of meaning; that regardless of our station or circumstances in life, we are valued – and loved.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

"When I was Your Age..."*

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
December 12, 2010
as "Appreciation for Progress"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

I like to read other columnists.   I do this for two reasons.  (1) It makes me a better writer, and (2) they’re fun to read.

One of my favorites is 83-years-young Bernice Couey Bishop, who writes for the Rome, Georgia News-Tribune.  I have to admit it was the name thing that initially got my attention, but it is the quality of her work that keeps me coming back.

In her latest effort, she wrote about the one thing for which she was most grateful:

Indoor plumbing.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Few Words of Peace

For those of you who are weak and heavily laden;
For those of you who consumed with worry, anger, and sadness;
For those of you who look to the world with dispair;
Know that you are never alone.

Isaiah 40: 28-31
The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.

He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall;

But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;
They will run and not grow weary,
They will walk and not be faint.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Gettysburg, the Address, and the Why*

Re-enactors at Gettysburg, 2009
*Somerset, PA Daily American
December 11, 2010
as "Gettysburg, the Address, and the Why"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

November 19th is just a date to most. I’m sure that somewhere a birthday or anniversary was being celebrated. But for the rest of us, it was just another Friday, five days until Thanksgiving.

But on one November 19th, an event occurred that truly defined this nation.

July 1, 1863 was an uncommonly hot and humid summer day. In another time, it might have been a day to spend in the shade with a glass of lemonade. But on that morning, two great armies met at a crossroads village named Gettysburg.

Strategists call it “a meeting engagement,” a battle where the location itself wasn’t the thing contested.

It was a key battle, one that in large part determined the outcome of the Civil War.  Although the war would last two more tragic years, Gettysburg set both sides irrevocably on the road that ended at Appomattox Court House.

The Friends of Flight 93**

"That's What Friends are For"
(Written for the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat)
Published December 4, 2010*
as "Help Preserve the Legacy of Flight 93"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

The most elaborate memorial ever constructed
can only be an empty vessel
unless it is filled with meaning,
by those with aching hearts;
Those who will Never Forget.

For the most important message to the ages
Is not how a memorial was built, or where, or when;
But why.

Friendship is vital to life.  It provides meaning and purpose, and most importantly, support.  It is just as important to a cause as it is to people.

Near Shanksville, a dream is rapidly becoming a reality.  What was the subject of plans and paintings is now taking shape upon the land.  This long and sometimes rocky journey walked by people of vision and dedication will end on September 11, 2011.  On that day, the Flight 93 Memorial will come alive.

9/11 shook the world and rocked America to its very soul.  Almost 3,000 people fell that day, victims to an inconceivable act of violence and hatred.  But in the skies over the Laurel Highlands, a light broke the darkness.  Aboard United Airlines Flight 93, a group of people, strangers all, made a decision.  They stood together and fought back.  Their courageous actions saved perhaps hundreds of lives, and spared us from the visage of our nation’s capitol building, the symbol of our government, reduced to rubble.

In the nine and a half years since, the memory of that event has manifested itself in the structure rising out of a reclaimed strip mine.  When the first phase of that memorial is dedicated on the tenth anniversary of the attacks, many will feel that a finish line of sorts will have been crossed.

But for the Friends of Flight 93, the work is just beginning.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Pain of Ex-Patness

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

I grew up in Independence, Missouri; which is to say I grew up in Kansas City. The Metro is one of those places that seems so delightfully homogeneous that you could hail from anywhere in the bi-state 5-county area and call yourself a Kansas Citian. A big part of that sense of ownership is the sometimes painful relationship with area sports teams.

The heartbreak of Chiefdom and Royaldom haunts everyone on either side of the Missouri River, but because we still love them even when they lose (or because we have developed a rather disturbing psychosis) we still treat each new season with that same ill-fated optimism. This affliction becomes even more acute for those of us who worship from afar.

I left the KC area for good thirty years ago this year. Since then, I've planted my feet in 48 other states and 22 foreign countries. I've walked the streets of Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo. I've motorcycled through the mountains of Colorado, the deserts of Arizona, and the forests of Pennsylvania. Yes, you could say I've lived an interesting life. Yet, for reasons I can't explain, nothing stirs my heart like the view of Arrowhead and Kaufman from the George Brett Freeway.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Warp Drive, Here We Come!

Image from CERN

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

In the northwest suburbs of Geneva, Switzerland lies a complex of buildings that constitute the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, or the European Council for Nuclear Research. The rest of the world knows it as CERN. With a name change, it is now the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire, making the new acronym OERN, but try to get that one past Robert Langdon. There, some 10,000 scientists, engineers and support staff are busily digging for the elusive secrets of the universe.

Since its inception in 1954, the facility has logged an impressive number of discoveries, mostly incomprehensible to the rest of us. In fact, I would venture to say that the only reason most us recognize CERN is because of Dan Brown’s novel “Angels and Demons.”

On November 18, 2010, the institute announced a startling breakthrough. For the first time in human history, they had not only created anti-matter, but kept it in existence for a period of time.

For once, this is a discovery even I can understand.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Holidays, Wish Lists, and the Bonds of Family*

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
November 25, 2010
as "Thanks for What Really Matters"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

Thanksgiving has rolled into our lives.  Right behind, Christmas approaches like a runaway truck.  This time of year, the days fly past.  The hours are filled by so much to do, so many plans to make, so many thoughts to think.

It still seems so weird to begin to think about Christmas already.  But this was a pattern established in our family when some of us have been overseas at different times, so the process of acquiring gifts and shipping them had to be done early.  Plus, these days looming just beyond Thanksgiving dinner, football, and the tryptophan coma is the shopping madness of Black Friday.

The email inbox is filling up with the lists containing the desires of kids, spouses, in-laws, and grandkids.  The lists are simpler this year, everyone mindful that my wife was laid off recently.

Monday, November 15, 2010


Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

Saturday morning dawns spectacularly and the road beckons.   Full of anticipation, I gear up and head for the garage.  Starting the bike, however, I’m startled by a sound that shouldn’t be there.  

Worried, I head to the bike shop, where the service manager identifies the sound as the stator. But he assures me that I should be okay for the weekend.

Relieved, I hit the road.  My instincts tell me that it’s probably prudent to stay fairly close to home.  I’ve learned to listen to those voices.

I head west on PA31, turning south at Trent Road, then west on County Line Road.  I weave along through the woods, spotting Alpine-themed cabins along the road. This is one of my favorite local rides, a tunnel through dense and picturesque woodlands.   I love forests, and this is a road that feeds my soul.

I pull into the mini-mart at the Champion crossroads to peruse the map.  While so engaged, I become aware the engine, normally purring at idle, is laboring and beginning to chug. Then with a sudden gasping finality, it stops.

Stealing a Day from Winter*

*Somerset, PA Daily American
November 20, 2010
as "One More Chance for a Long Ride"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

A person’s experience with a motorcycle is less about ownership than about relationship. When you ride, something happens inside and no matter how hard you resist, the darn thing just gets under your skin.

Western Pennsylvania was recently blessed with a string of incredibly beautiful days for mid-November. Daytime highs in the 50s and 60s and abundant sunshine gifted local motorcyclists with one last riding splurge.

Last Thursday was a holiday, and after I did a few chores around the house, I geared up, mounted up, and headed out for a long ride.

I decided to head up PA56 northeast out of Johnstown. The day was perfect, with just a little bite to the wind. With the deciduous trees now mostly bare-branched, details of the terrain that had been hidden behind a blanket of leaves now were revealed. Isolated houses were visible within the trees.  Up to now, the only clue to their existence was the end of the gravel driveways that snaked out of the woods.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Airbags and Bikes

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

Motorcycling is a dangerous pursuit.  Of this, nobody’s in disagreement.  Riders can try to protect themselves, but in that moment when a driver fails to yield and pulls in front of you, or a deer dashes out of the woods, there’s very little that a rider can do.

A lot of people, riders and safety advocates alike, have for years thought about that situation and felt that there had to be a way of providing better protection for the motorcycle rider and passenger in a frontal collision.  That diligent and daring thought process has now begun to produce.

In the last 15 years or so, a number of inventors and manufacturers have been developing wearable airbags.

The airbag was a new wrinkle when introduced into automobiles in 1973.  GM was the first to the marketplace with an airbag-equipped Olds Toronado.  Sensor-driven airbags had been part of the patent world since the 1950s, but until then nobody could come up with a system that inflated the bags fast enough.  Since then, perhaps tens of thousands of motorists owe their lives to that pillow erupting from their steering wheel.

While car airbags are proven technology, such devices for bikes have lagged behind.  This is primarily because of the differing dynamics between what happens inside a car/truck and what happens on the back of a motorcycle in a front-end collision.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Letter and the Spirit of the Law

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

The Kahuku High School football team will not be allowed to compete in the Oahu Interscholastic Association championship game, this despite going undefeated and ranking number one in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser Island-wide poll.  One of their players was ruled ineligible, so the team, according to OIA rules, must forfeit the games the ineligible player participated in.  .

“Wot, boddah you?” you inevitably ask.  I live in Pennsylvania, fully 5,000 miles and at least two climatological planets distant from Hawai’i.  Even though my wife is Waipahu class of ’72, we admittedly don’t have a dog in this fight.  And yet, this story touches me.

I’m not a lawyer, although I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express.  But I’ve been around enough to understand that the application of law consists of two parts:  the letter and the spirit.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Honor Their Sacrifice; Remember*

*Somerset, PA Daily American
November 13, 2011
as "Standing Our Ground"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

Shivering in the cold, the soldier grasps the steel of his musket.  Around him, his comrades hunch down in the boat as heavy wind-blown snow obscures their vision.  Slowly, their boat, along with many others, edges towards the New Jersey shore.  On the other side lies an encampment of Hessians, brutal barbarians known for their atrocities and their merciless treatment of captives.  The soldiers know that once they cross the Delaware on this cold night in 1776, the gates of hell await them.

A September morning in 1813 on Lake Erie is suddenly torn by the roar of combat.  American sailors man their posts while cannonballs tear into their ship.  The HMS Detroit, attempting to break through to Amherstburg, rakes the Americans with its longer-range guns.  The American crew bravely withstands the heavy fire for 20 long minutes until the USS Lawrence finally closes the range sufficiently to fight back.

South of Gettysburg, soldiers from Minnesota are rushed to the crest of a hill to meet an attack of 2,000 Rebels.  If the Confederates take this ridge, the Union loses the battle and perhaps, the war.   After a ferocious fight, the Minnesotans hold the ridge.   Of the original 262 soldiers, only 47 survive.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Memories and the End of the Season

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

The air has turned cold. Outside, the winds have a bite to them and even when standing in the sunshine, its warmth is barely felt. In the mornings, frost lies sparkling on the fallen leaves. It is a time of transition, when the warmth of summer and the comfortable cool of fall are behind us. Ahead lie long months of cold and snow.

For motorcyclists, it is time to place our bikes in hibernation.

For me, it’s also a time to look back on the riding season, replaying the memorable rides and savoring them one last time.

The first step is to give the bike a good cleaning. This removes any gunk I missed during the summer. It also makes it easier to note any leaks that may develop over the winter. It’s too cold to use water, so I’m left with a can of spray cleaner, a Q-tip, and a pile of old t-shirts.

Its always with great anticipation that I await the end of snow (usually mid-May here in the mountains). The winter of 2009-10 was particularly difficult. Here in Somerset, we logged fourteen-and-a-half feet of snow for the season. So when the last of the lake-effect streamers died and the temperatures rebounded, I joyfully trekked to Cernic’s where my bike spent a warm and dry, if lonely, winter. The sun was shining gloriously, the sky a soft blue. A few good days of rain had washed away the salt and sand. Brian, the Service Manager, had everything ready. The spring maintenance was done, and gleaming and lovely beyond words, it beckoned impatiently.

I punched the starter. The engine caught immediately, its throaty rumble filling the air. It was music to my ears, too long unheard.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Veteran's Day*

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
November 11, 2010
as "Remember to Thank a Veteran Today"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

But the freedom that they fought for,
and the country grand they wrought for,
Is their monument to-day.
~Thomas Dunn English

I see him on the sidewalk, his gait slow and uneven. His back is bent; his hands gnarled by arthritis and time. His face is wrinkled, the nose veined and crooked. But on his head he wears with great pride a blue ballcap. Emblazoned in gold on the front are the words, “U.S. Navy Veteran.”

I see him on his motorcycle. His beard, once richly black, is streaked with grey, as is the longish hair on the back of his head. He doesn’t say much, but in his eyes, I see the memories; days and places, faces and names. He, too wears a ballcap. Along with the globe-and-anchor of the Marine Corps are the words, “Vietnam Veteran.”

A young man jogs past, finishing his run. From the perspective of my years, he’s just a kid. His muscles are taut, his face smooth and unlined under the short-cropped hair. As I pass by, our eyes meet. Young though his body may be, his eyes have seen far too much for his years. As he strips off his sweatshirt, I understand. On his green t-shirt are the words, “3rd Infantry Division. Iraq.”

They walk among us every day, the old and grizzled, the young and quiet. They are mostly invisible to us, except for those ballcaps. Yet, our country is safe and our freedoms are intact because of them.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Few, The Proud, The Voters*

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
November 7, 2010
as "In America, Voting is More Than a Right"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

Americans squawk constantly about how the politically powerful control our lives. And yet, on Election Day, the candidates defer to us. All day, they huddle around televisions and exit pollers, desperate for any clue about our decision. Outwardly confident, but nervous inside.

That’s the way it should be.

This is a representative republic, operating under broadly democratic principles. In our system, the ultimate power lies not in the capitals and the legislatures. It lies not in special interest groups or PACS. The most powerful element of the American political system is the voter.

You and me.

Voting booths are the front lines of the Constitution. As long as we retain the right to vote, we retain power over our government. It is why the one thing that angers us the most is election fraud or disenfranchisement. We know that someone who steals a person’s vote has also stolen a piece of freedom from us all.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Journey*

*Somerset, PA Daily American
October 30, 2010
as "It's About the Journey"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

We humans are explorers, driven by our curiosity. The irresistible desire for knowledge and the thirst for experience drives us beyond ourselves, striving to make the unknown known, whether scaling a mountain, or a simple stroll around a new neighborhood.I’ve never been one to stay put. The desire to travel springs from the restlessness I feel. To stay in one place is to put down roots. I have no desire for roots, for I yearn to roam. In the open road and the perfect sky, I hear the siren song of freedom.

There’s a horizon out there.

On the far side are things I’ve never seen, places I’ve never been, people I’ve never met, experiences I’ve never had. To seek the horizon and all that lies beyond is to free the spirit and uncage the soul. To some, a horizon is a boundary, a rampart separating the risky and unknown from the safe and familiar. For me, the horizon is a gateway; the inviting door through which beckons the seductive hand of adventure and discovery.

Indulging my inner explorer, I have sought the horizon and all that lies beyond. I have stood in wonder before the multitudinous works of man; I have knelt in awe before the creative majesty of God, finding peace in a thousand moments from the beauty of a desert sunset, to the quiet joy of a grandchild's embrace.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Culture of a Furnace*

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
November 20, 2010
as "Steam Heat Takes Some Warming Up To"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

I grew up in the Midwest, Missouri specifically. Out there, temperature extremes are much broader than here in the delightfully temperate Laurel Highlands. Summers are hot and humid. It’s not unusual at all to have a week to ten days of 100+ degree heat, accompanied by humidity that has to be felt to be believed. At the other end of the spectrum, winter will bring the same week to ten days of below-zero cold.

This vast disparity in seasonal temperatures places a heavy load on climate control devices. Nearly everyone in Missouri has a forced-air furnace. Some of the more well-heeled will have a heat pump, the crème de la crème of home HVAC. Moving to Pennsylvania, however, I encountered a real culture shock: Steam heat

You must understand that I had never lived in a house with steam heat. I remember standing in the basement under a maze of pipes with the former owner while he patiently explained how everything worked.

The first thing I had to understand was proper pronunciation . I thought they were RAY-diators, so named because they RAY-diated heat. Not here. I quickly discovered that the proper way to say the word is RAT-iators. No one knows why the word is used this way; probably the same reason one of the bodies of water that flows through downtown is the Stoney-CRICK.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Halloween Traditions*

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
October 29, 2010
as "Carving Into Halloween History"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

I was thinking the other day about the upcoming observation of Halloween and remembering the traditions that are associated with this end of October event. Parties, pumpkin carving, costumes, and trick-or-treating, and of course, the haul of candy that kept me in a sustained sugar high for days afterwards. These were all  memories cast in the warm glow of childhood innocence.

But I became curious. Where did these traditions come from? What were their original purposes?

Halloween (or Hallowe’en) is a combination of the Celtic festival “Samhain” (“Summer’s End”) and the Christian holiday of All Saints Day. The name itself comes from Scotland of the 16th century and is a shortened version of “All Hallows Even.”

The Celts celebrated the festival as the end of the “Lighter Half” and the beginning of the “Darker Half” of the year and is sometimes called the Celtic New Year. They believed that on Samhain, the border between this life and the next became thin enough to allow spirits to pass through. Traditions welcomed family ancestors while warding off the evil spirits. The wearing of costumes, usually depicting one of the evil ones, was a disguise to protect one from the evil spirits by pretending to be one of them.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The "R" Word*

 *Somerset, PA Daily American
November 6, 2010
as "Working on 'The Plan'"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

I’ve always thought of myself as being young at heart. Even at 55, I never really think of myself as being “old.” Old is always someone with more years than I. I suppose that’s a form of relativistic rationalization, but hey; it keeps me warm at night.

Earlier this year, my wife started to mention the “R” word. And she wanted to talk about it. In the dream-like existence I exist in, such conversation was vastly premature. I won’t be eligible for the pasture until 67, twelve long years from now. Plus, I love my day job and have a genuine passion for the work. My freelance writing is beginning to get a tiny bit of traction. I’m just now hitting my stride and have no interest in contemplating the end of my career.

When she first asked my when I was planning to retire, I thought for a moment and replied, “When the Coroner calls and says they pulled my body out from behind my desk, you’ll know I’ve retired.” Instead of the expected chuckle, all I got was stony silence.

Sometimes, she really has no sense of humor.

Though being the free spirit in this family, I realize that the future is flying at us at breakneck speed, and we have to be ready, lest we end up living in a piano box and eating cat food.

Fall Riding: Joys and Risks

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

Fall is a joyous time of year for riding. For a few short weeks, our favorite roads become tunnels of riotous color, the sunlight providing a marvelous glow to the trees. The milky humidity-filled skies have cleared to a perfect cobalt blue and the air has lost its heavy summer feel to a cool freshness that engages the senses and enlivens the soul.

But in this beauty is an increased amount of risk for riders. This is the time of year when riders begin to disappear from the streets and highways. Because you are now a rarer sight, drivers will be less inclined to take notice of you. During the summer, humidity tends to soften the sunlight. But in the fall, the humidity disappears, leaving the air perfectly clear. This means that for anyone facing the sun, now at a lower angle in the sky, the light will be very bright, even blinding. Remember this, especially when you ride with the sun to your back. People coming towards you will be dazzled by the light and you will be very likely invisible to them, especially when it’s time for them to turn left across your path. Riding with your high beam on just may give you a little more visibility.

The fall storms drop rain and bring strong winds, blowing foliage off the trees. Remember that wet leaves are very slick and in the cool air, roads will take longer to dry. And as you ride down into deep valleys, there just might be a bit of ice or frost on the pavement, especially in the morning.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Autism and the Verdict of the Public Jury*

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
October 24, 2010
as "No Fault in Autism"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

I’m sure you’ve seen one. Maybe at the Galleria, a restaurant, or some other public place. A small child who yells, screams, or maybe collapses into a full-blown melt-down.

Do you remember your thoughts? Frustration, annoyance, judgmentalism. Perhaps you became angry enough to say something warm and supportive, like, “Can’t you control your kid?”

Chances are what you witnessed was not bad parenting or a lack of discipline, but one of a growing number of children afflicted with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

In the last 20 years, occurrence rates for Autism have increased rapidly. The latest round of statistics from the Centers for Disease Control shows that Autism is now the third most common developmental disability. It happens in 1 out of 110 births, more often than MS, Cystic Fibrosis, and childhood cancer, and seems to be increasing by as much as 17% per year.

The Autism Society of America defines Autism as “A neurological disorder that affects the functioning of the brain, impacting development in the areas of social interaction and communication.” Its cause is still a mystery, but growing evidence points to genetic disorders, particularly chromosome abnormalities such as deletion, duplication, and inversion. For a while, there was thought to be a connection to childhood vaccinations, mainly because that was about the age when the symptoms began to appear. However, recent scientific studies have completely discredited the connection.

The three hallmarks of Autism area:

The Days and Nights of Glitter Gulch*

Fremont Street

The Strip

"Oooh!  Aaah!"
Jaden drinks it all in.

*Somerset, PA Daily American
October 23, 2010
as "The Lights of Las Vegas"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

My wife’s family lives in Hawaii, and in case you ever wondered where people who live in paradise go for vacation, it’s Vegas. Every year around my mother-in-law’s birthday, the family gathers at America’s playground. Most times we go also, when the two elements of vacation time and available cash intersect.

Vegas, as you might expect, has an aura all its own. Even in the current tough economic climate (their unemployment rate hovers around 16%), the city works hard to keep its trademark diamond-studded smile. But behind the bright lights and glitter on the strip are the dark windows of too many empty rooms.

At the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard, the old downtown hotels are doing well. Our hotel, the California, was so busy that even arriving after midnight, we still had to wait two hours before our room was ready.

The downtown crowd is a mix of young folks, seeking the less-expensive rates, and the older folks who still listen to Dean, Sammy, and Frank while remembering the good old days when the brilliant neon on Fremont Street bequeathed its permanent nickname, “Glitter Gulch.”

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Folly of Borrowing Traditions*

*Somerset, PA Daily American
November 27, 2010
as "Creating Traditions"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

Holiday traditions are a part of every family’s history, many going back multiple generations. They grow out of the magic that happens when family gathers. But one thing I’ve learned is that you can’t adopt someone else’s traditions. You have to create them yourselves.

My wife’s family usually gets together before Thanksgiving to make pies. This is not your usual baking of two or three pies for the holiday feast. They go into mass-production mode, usually turning out in excess of 350 pies, which they then give away to family, friends, coworkers, and occasionally, perfect strangers. It’s an amazing thing to watch as my mother-in-law and two daughters work swiftly, happily, and with supreme organization in a small, stuffy non air-conditioned Honolulu kitchen. They make pumpkin and apple pies, all of them delicious. Seeing them work, my son and wife decided to export this island tradition to his spacious climate-controlled kitchen in Maryland.

The week before, we were tasked with locating and buying a certain brand of pie filling here in Pennsylvania. My son usually clears the shelves of every grocery store in his area, so it was necessary for us to patch in the remainder of the supply. Having obtained our quota of cases, we loaded the car and headed east. It was a joyful arrival, although humping all those groceries up the stairs did take some of the shine off that particular apple. That evening, we all pitched in to make the crust. Immediately, we ran into difficulties. What the Hawaii experts had made look so easy became a job fraught with exasperation and frustration. The dough kept sticking to the rolling pin, even with generous amounts of flour, tearing holes in the sheets. Cutting and lifting the crusts into the pie pans was even more difficult, eventually leading to a frantic trans-pacific phone call to find out how to get the dough from table to pan in one piece. Finally, about 1 AM, tired, frustrated, and looking like floury Yetis, we retired.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Freedom, The Constitution, and The Vote*

*Somerset, PA Daily American
October 16, 2010
as "The Right to Vote"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

On July 4, 1776 a group of British ex-patriots declared to the world the intent to become a sovereign nation. Twenty-one years later, after a year of vigorous debate and hard work, a remarkable document emerged, one of the most profound, influential, and far-reaching of any since the Magna Carta.

The Constitution of the United States embodies the supreme law of the United States. It was a model of a citizen-led government, the meaning, focus, and intent proudly stated at the top of the page: “We the People.” Over the 221 years since ratification, 27 amendments have been added to the original document, the most crucial of those being the Bill of Rights.

One of the most precious and vigorously guarded rights of our citizenry is the right to vote. But that particular right is not enumerated in the original Constitution or the Bill of Rights. In fact, it isn’t specifically addressed until Amendments 15, 19, 24, and 26. This nation operated on a system of free elections for 100 years without a Constitutional mandate. Granted, at first only free white male landowners were allowed to cast ballots, but over the years, restrictions on race, class, and wealth were removed. Today, any citizen of the United States, who hasn’t been convicted of a felony, is allowed to register and vote in any election, whether federal, state, or local.

The power of the popular vote has shaped our history. Significant changes in the philosophy and direction of the United States have been ordered through elections. While control of the congress by one party existed for some 40 years in the 20th century, since 1994 that control has shifted at least three times, on two of those occasions, granting the controlling party significant majorities in both houses. And by all accounts, the next two may also result in sweeping changes.

Friday, October 01, 2010

The Folly of Man* (or Why I'm Not Playing Football This Year)

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
October 17, 2010
as "Athletes Face One Foe They'll Never Beat: Age"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

In youth, man is brash, confident, full of inexhaustible energy, and consumed by an undaunting sense of immortality. There is nothing he cannot do; no task too large to attempt, save cleaning out the refrigerator. The display of strength and toughness is their stock in trade, their language, a silent articulation of challenge to each other and to the world.

It is this seemingly reckless sense of opportunistic animalism that drives the man into pursuits that prudent judgment may otherwise deem to be of unacceptable risk. Within man exists a contradiction. On the job and at home he is sane, rational, intelligent and skillful. Yet in an athletic endeavor, he is a man possessed, immune to pain inflicted or received; every injury is healed by the magic phrase, “Walk it off.” In this alternate universe, the highest compliment is, “Dude, he’s crazy!”

Man is inspired by visions of professional sports. In his mind, the images of athletes, their bodies cut like faceted diamonds throw themselves about their particular fields of endeavor with violent abandon. But their uniforms hide the cuts and bruises. Their skulls secreting the damaged brain matter held precariously within. Man knows not, nor cares not, that behind each of these star-crossed professional warriors is a battalion of medical miracle-workers armed with truckloads of diagnostic and treatment technology, all designed and purchased with the sole intent of getting that 8-figure contract back on the field as quickly as possible. However, for the ordinary man (alas, not ordinary in HIS mind!) what awaits his injured person is the neighborhood mediquick clinic and a couch where he will receive icepacks and derision from his dearly beloved.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Are We There Yet?*

*Somerset, PA Daily American
October 2, 2010
as "Destination and a Journey"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

In my youth, my father, on Saturday or Sunday afternoons, would pile us into the car and off we would go for a journey into the countryside. In the summer, we might visit a small town, or just drive to the airport to watch the planes take off and land. In the fall, we’d seek out the roadside stands where apples could be found, fresh picked and at the peak of taste and color. I will always remember the sweet taste of that fruit while watching the countryside flow past my window.

There were other times, other trips where we were governed by a destination, someplace we had to reach by a certain time. While I always found travel to be fun, I have to admit that having a destination took away some of the adventure.

At this point in my life, I understand that while travel is travel, there is a definitive difference between a destination and the journey.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Ride Versus the Destination*

*Pittsburgh, PA Post-Gazette
October 14, 2010
as "Pittsburgh Rides: Traveling or a Journey?"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

Years ago, I was bitten by the motorcycle bug and over time, it has grown into a passion. My wife has ridden her own bike in the past, but her view is far more practical. It’s transportation, nothing more. She tolerates my fervent single-mindedness about the bike and the ride, instinctively understanding how fundamental it is to my enjoyment of life.

I’m all about the journey. When I go on a joyride, it’s almost never with a specific destination in mind. She, on the other hand, is driven by destinations. If we go for a ride, we must stop someplace and do something, otherwise, why go?. Lately, I’ve tried to anticipate that requirement, but rarely successfully.

One Saturday, a glorious early fall afternoon, we rolled out of Somerset bound for my favorite destination, “Who-Knows-Whereburgh.” I went south, heading in a vague way towards Western Maryland. As the tree-lined road flashed past, the idea crystallized in my brain to go to Deep Creek Lake.

My wife was quiescent during these ruminations, occupied with her romance novel. Yes. She reads while we ride, which is better than falling asleep, which she used to do with disturbing regularity. When I felt the hard thump of her helmet between my shoulder blades, I put one hand on the bike, the other on her.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Rio Lobo and the Legend of John Wayne

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

I’m not an artist, especially where movies are concerned. When I think back to the movies I’ve enjoyed over the years, I suppose you could opine that my preferences are decidedly chauvinistic; perhaps even traditional. And where my favorite actor is concerned, there’s only one that stands out.

John Wayne was more than an actor. He was an American archetype; a symbol, if you will, of what we were in the eyes of the world. For men, especially adolescent boys, he had that commanding presence we all secretly desire; the ability to silence a room simply by entering it. Many say he lacked the depth of Jimmy Stewart, or the savoir-faire of Clark Gable. But to this day, when I surf the satellite and run across one of his movies, that choice takes precedence over everything else.

People complain that Wayne’s characters were all cut from the same bolt of cloth, so similar in personality, presence, and portrayal. I don’t think that’s necessarily so. His Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit” was unique, as was his role as Sergeant Striker in “The Sands of Iwo Jima.” Wayne once explained the genesis for his characters. In his young days as a strong-backed set worker on the early westerns, he met the legendary Wyatt Earp, who was working as a consultant to the directors. Wayne was deeply impressed by Earp, saying later that every character he ever created on screen was a reflection of the old lawman.

But even the bias I have for John Wayne doesn’t explain my inexplicable affection for one of the worst movies he ever made, “Rio Lobo.”

Thursday, September 09, 2010

The Innings and Frames of Our Lives**

*Chicago Tribune
February 8, 2011
as "Remember to recall"

*Somerset, PA Daily American
February 19, 2011
as "Remember to recall"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey
(Except for Bob Seger lyrics)

Bob Seger’s song, “Like a Rock,” is an anthem for middle-aged men. In the last verse, he sings:

“Twenty Years…where’d they go?
Twenty years…I just don’t know
I sit and I wonder sometimes
Where they’ve gone.”

There’s not a man anywhere in their 50’s or 60’s that hasn’t asked that most rhetorical of questions. But time is funny like that. Fun times flash by like summer lightning. Other times crawl by at the speed of a root canal. And then suddenly we wake up and discover that we’re old. I don’t really remember noticing the passage of my 20’s and 30’s. I did take note of my 40’s. And now in my 50’s, it’s hard not to think about it.

It’s funny in a way; the memories of those eras more often than not revolve around sports. In my early 20’s, I was a bowling fanatic. After years of consistent mediocrity, I had discovered something I was moderately good at. I carried a 180 average, bowling four nights a week.

Yes. I admit. I had no life.

Yet, it was in the Strike ‘n’ Spare that I met and fell hard for the girl who became my wife. The funny thing was that all her sisters met their husbands the same way. In a bowling alley. That is some clan. Once a month they have a family bowling league consisting of 32 5-person teams, all related. I just didn’t marry into a family; I married into a small country.

We continued bowling with our kids. Every Saturday morning, all of us went to the bowling center for Youth League, they as players, we as coaches. Even today, we go bowling together.

In my 30’s and 40’s, I turned to softball. Cheryl and I played nearly every year of the 14 we lived in Missouri. We also helped to coach our kids’ teams, furthering our family bonds.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Glory Days*

*Somerset Daily American
September 18, 2010
as "An Annual Love Affair with Autumn"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

September has arrived, and finally the heat, humidity, and haze has left the Laurel Highlands.  Over the weekend, Canada sent us our first mass of cool, dry air, presaging the best time of the year for riding in these mountains.

My favorite time of the year is that stretch of weeks from late September through early November.  Fall colors began to peek out here and there around the 4th week of September.  By mid-October, the season is usually in its full technicolor glory, the magnificent reds and golds against a sky of pure cobalt blue.

The Laurel Highlands is part of the Allegheny Range of the Appalachian Mountains.  Like most of the Appalachians, they are relatively low in elevation, less than 3,000 feet.  Unlike a lot of mountainous areas, the Laurels are covered in a rich population of leafy deciduous trees, rather than evergreen coniferous. Because of that, the hillsides at their peak can glow like the sun itself. 

There are dozens of roads that follow the hilly terrain, most gently curved, although you can find a few squigglies on the map.  There's no shortage of beautiful rides.  I've lived here six years, and I'm still not done.

Something marvelous happens inside on a fall ride.  The sky is crystal clear, the sun, angling towards the southern horizon, slants through the trees, giving the leaves a marvelous illumination.  The sunlight is warm but the air carries a refreshing coolness as it flows past.  Heat and humidity can make a summer ride uncomfortable, even laborious.  But for me, autumn is a time of new life.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

9/11: Remembering Together*

Members of Congress stand together in unity on September 11th, 2001
They spontaneously sang "God Bless America."

(This photo is on a lot of websites and I was unable to
track down the identity of the original photographer.)

*Somerset, PA Daily American
September 11, 2010
as "Remembering Together"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

Nine years ago today, the world changed before our very eyes. Our delusion of safety and security had been toppled and shattered. In New York City, Arlington, Virginia, and near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, 2,977 lives were lost.

Terrorism, up till that day, had been something foreign; always occurring far away in countries with hard-to-pronounce names. Even the deaths of 168 people in Oklahoma City failed to shake our complacency.

We live in a different world now. We walk through our days, glancing over our shoulders. When we travel, we are subjected to scans, pokes and prods; our suitcases are opened and our personal possessions pawed through. Once, we would’ve called this an invasion of privacy. Now, we passively accept such measures as necessary.

And yet, not all the change was bad.

Monday, September 06, 2010

9/11: The Real Memorial*

A memorial to an act of courage and sacrifice takes shape
behind a flag borne of courage and sacrifice.

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
September 11, 2010
as "Our Finest Memorial Would Be National Unity"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

9/11 was a deeply profound moment in our history; an event that utterly changed the attitude, and outlook of some 350 million Americans. No single event in the last 20 years has been written and commented upon more.

Nine years later, we still pause on this day to remember. We do this because we paid too high a price to forget.

Some may scoff and say that the passage of years has softened the event’s recollection. But think about the day that Air Force One did its low-level photo pass over Manhattan with two F-16 fighter jets in escort. That the huge jetliner was cloaked in that familiar white and blue motif with the words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA boldly printed on the side made no difference to those on the ground. Their immediate reaction was one of visceral horror and fear.

Clearly, we haven’t yet “moved on.”

Such events are deeply etched into the national memory. We regularly honor those anniversaries because deep inside, we know that freedom is our most valued possession, and there will always be those who desire to take it away. In the face of those attacks, our defense has always been successful. But while we celebrate victories, we will always remember the cost that was exacted.

While in the Navy during the 1980’s, I came to know some of the Pearl Harbor survivors. Though 45 years had passed, time had not dulled their emotions. They still shed tears over friends who died on that December 7th.

We can say that this is a different generation, one that doesn’t hold grudges. But regardless of what people might claim, I have seen enough of those passions to know that even on September 11, 2051 there will still be many who will pause; remember; and shed tears.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Weather and the Mystery of What's to Come*

*Somerset Daily American
September 25, 2010
as "One For the Muse of the Changing Seasons"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

Weather is the perfect conversation starter. It is without a doubt the most commonly shared element of human existence. And it doesn’t matter from where you come from, or the state of your finances, you can always talk about the weather.

Last summer, the topic was mainly about wondering when summer was going to start. This summer, we’re wondering when it’s going to finally end. There were several days in August when I wished that I could tell summer, “All right. You made your point. Now move along.” And last winter, (except for the Steelers and the Penguins) the weather was about all we ever did talk about.

There are usually three parts to that conversation:
1. What it’s like today
2. What it was like yesterday
3. What’s tomorrow going to be like?

One of the things we always try to do is outguess the forecast, usually by identifying the current trend as a precursor (or omen) of what’s to come. Thoughts of chest-deep snow and bitter cold were far, far away this summer as we staggered through the unusual heat and humidity. It was almost like we were afraid to bring it up for fear of jinxing the upcoming winter.

I’ve heard folks state with folksy certainty that a hot summer means a cold, snowy winter. And yet, these same folks were telling me last summer that because June, July, and August were so mild, the winter was going to mild. The most reliable estimate came, not from traditional lore or climate models, but from the fur on wooly-worms, which was unusually heavy and dark last year. I had another fellow tell me (with appropriate solemnity) that he’d never seen beaver lodges as thick and heavily-built as they were prior to last winter.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

An Evening at Kooser*

The Lake

The path through the forest

*Somerset, PA Daily American
September 4, 2010
as "Enjoying Local Scenery"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

We often become blind to the things we see everyday, familiarity turning them into a sort of wallpaper to us; always there, but rarely noticed.

We’ve lived in the Laurel Highlands for 6 years now, the last 5 in Somerset. Upon coming here, my attention was grabbed by the things that marked significant events in the region’s past, like the Johnstown Flood Memorial and Monument and the Quecreek Mine Disaster site. My involvement with the Friends of Flight 93 group has made that cause, and those wonderful, dedicated people a big part of our lives. And yet, there are things I now realize I’ve completely missed.

Part of the pattern of our lives involves taking an evening walk with our dog, Tweeter. Somerset is a nice place to walk in the evenings. The sun is going down, and the day has moved into that long, purple twilight. Other people are walking as well, and folks come out on their porches to enjoy the cool air. It’s a quiet, peaceful time; a time when the stresses of the day are allowed to flow freely away.

And yet, walking the same blocks year after year, part of me yearns for an occasional change of scenery.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Simple Pleasures in a Complicated World*

Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
September 19, 2010
as "Enjoying the Simple Things"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

We live in a complicated world, leading complicated lives, complicated by complicated events complicating our already complicated lives. Mired in such a complicated environment, the simple pleasures become even more pleasurable.

You know what I mean. Those activities that bequeath us those precious moments when we feel like life has taken us tenderly in its grasp and holds us close, warm, protected…and loved. We feel happy and content. And, for a few moments anyway, we can set aside a world that at times feels as if it’s spinning out of control, taking us, unwillingly, along for the ride.

There are some who do gardening. I heard a lady say once, “Yes, it’s hard work at times. But all that goes away when I can see that through planting and caring for a flower, I’ve brought life and color to a bare patch of dirt. Every morning after that, I can look out my window, see that flower and know that I made a difference.”

Our pets can bring us those moments, sharing their simple and unconditional love, especially that moment when we come through the door after a particularly bad day to be “embraced” with boundless joy by a simple being whose just delighted that we’re home. Walking the dog is another simple joy. It gets us out of the house and into the sunshine. We see and talk to our neighbors, while the fluffball gets the exercise, we enjoy the peace and solace of a summer’s evening.

Monday, August 23, 2010

My Weather Rant: Raving Thoughts From a Humidified Mind*

*Somerset, PA Daily American
August 28, 2010
as "Another Snowpocalypse?"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

I really like living here in the mountains. This is something that is far easier to state in August than February. Especially last February. The truth is, even as warm and uncomfortably muggy as this summer has been, it’s still a whole lot better than other places.

A couple of weeks ago, when things were really bad around here (“bad” being a purely subjective term), I was complaining about how uncomfortable it was in the house at night. All the windows were open, fans were blowing, but it still felt like Tampa.

Now we do have window air conditioners. Three, in fact. But they’re up in the attic and to be truthful, I’ve not been uncomfortable enough to motivate me to hump them down two long flights of stairs and install them. In previous summers (or at least the six we’ve been here) there just wasn’t any need. There were maybe two or three really uncomfortable days out of the whole summer, and it just didn’t seem worth all that work.

This year, its not been two or three days, it’s been two or three months of warm, sticky weather, the kind of icky air that caused us to flee Missouri and never look back. Speaking of the Show-Me State, on that day that I was griping, the heat index in St. Louis topped 115 degrees. Compared to them, this was arctic.

I’ve heard that the steady flow of moisture into the region that gave us that very forgettable winter is still in place, which is why its been so muggy. So, we have to ask ourselves if this winter, are we in for another snowpocalypse?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Really Rapid Transit*

MagLev Bullet Train in China
Yeah.  They did.

That's 267 miles per hour.

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
October 10, 2010
as "Basic Train-ing a Joy"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey
Written content only

Last year, I took a train ride to New York City. The trip was…well you might call it a transportational epiphany. Looking for an alternative to air travel, I discovered, or perhaps re-discovered a far more enjoyable way to travel.

Since then, I’ve taken a couple of shorter junkets, and joined the good people of Rockwood as they celebrated the possibility of a Amtrak stop in their small town. From there, you can be in Washington DC in about 3 hours, or roughly the same amount of time it takes to drive.

On Saturday, The History Channel ran a program on high-speed rail that captured my attention.

For an hour, images of lightning-fast trains flashed across the screen. I learned that Japan has a thousand miles of rail lines exclusively for their Bullet Trains. In Europe, France and Germany both have similar fast trains, and are looking at a MagLev, or magnetic levitation train, which would rocket across the countryside at speeds over 300 mph. Even China, a nation most westerners consider primitive, has high-speed rail lines, and is building more.

But despite their high speeds, the trains have a proven safety record. In all those countries that run these trains, there has never been a single fatality. And some have been running regular schedules since the ‘80s.

So, I’m wondering, why don’t we have them here?

Other than the Acela that runs between Washington DC, Boston and New York City, there aren’t any American high-speed rail lines anywhere.

It’s no revelation how bad air travel has become. Airports are crowded, aircraft are stuffed tight, and aircrews and passengers are rude to each other, and airlines are hostile to luggage. If a customer had the option of taking a high-speed train from, say, Pittsburgh to Chicago without the hassles of airport security, weather delays, over-worked aircrews, wait times in the terminals and on the taxiways, long, long walks from arrival gates to ground transportation, and waits for luggage (when it arrives at all), who wouldn’t consider it? Imagine riding on a 200-mph train in comfortable seats with legroom, Wi-Fi, space to work, outlets for your electronics, plus being able to use your cell phone while traveling. This will pose a serious marketing problem for the purveyors of the now-hostile skies.