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.

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Types of Street Motorcycles

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

Scooters: Small to medium engines (80 to 650 cc), excellent mpg, comfortable to ride, step through frames, smaller wheels, some luggage space.  But, they are smaller in size, harder for other motorists to see.  The smaller scooters may not be powerful enough for the highway, particularly when carrying heavy loads.  Because of their small size and light weight, they are also prone to high crosswinds and gusts by passing semis and dump trucks.  Honda Elite, Suzuki Burgman.
Standards:  Also called “naked bikes” because they have no fairings or body panels.  Small to very large displacement (250 to 2300 cc), good to excellent mpg, mostly comfortable, no luggage space, although some may have cargo racks.  The smaller types of this class are good for all-around general duty.  They are relatively inexpensive and cheap to maintain.  The larger types are heavy, fast, and can be a real handful for the novice rider.  Honda Rebel and Nighthawk, Suzuki GS550, Ducati Monster, Suzuki SV650, Triumph Rocket III.
Cruisers:  The most popular class, characterized by V-twin engines, deep rumbly sounds, big tires, dished seats, lots of chrome, and a feet-forward seating position, and reasonable mpg.  Again, displacement can vary from 250 cc up to 2000 cc.  Some have fairings and small saddle bags, but not much else.  Cruisers can feel top-heavy in comparison to other bikes, but they have large frames, big head and tail lights, and are more visible.  They do tend to be heavier, but not prohibitively so.  They don’t handle as precise as others, but tend to be reliable commuter bikes.  Honda Shadow, most of the Harley line, Kawasaki Vulcan, Suzuki Boulevard, Yamaha Star, Victory.

Motorcycles: Choosing Wisely**

*Chicago Tribune
April 8, 2011
as "Word of caution to potential riders"

*Somerset, PA Daily American
April 9, 2011
as "Word of caution to potential riders"
Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

Gas prices have soared once again, and show no signs of abating.  This latest spike has driven cost of operating a car or truck for personal use high enough to be of real concern to household and business budgets.  As you search for ways to cut those costs, you may be considering a motorcycle or scooter.
But is it really that much cheaper?
For those of you considering two-wheel transportation, there are some things you need to seriously think about as you make this decision.
First of all, why are you buying the bike?
Odd question, but stay with me, here.  There are nine different types, or classes of street-legal motorcycles.  Scooters, standards, cruisers, dual sports, sport bikes, sport-tourers, tourers, trikes, and customs.  If you’re commuting a short distance and you don’t intend to ride to Glacier National Park this summer, you don’t need a $30,000 Harley full-dresser.  You can do just as well with a large scooter, or a medium-sized standard.  Also, while you’re in learning mode, those less-expensive bikes are cheaper to repair.
How will you use it?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Civil War: Events of April 1861

April 1861.  At Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, the first shots are fired.  The Civil War begins.
On April 4, the first vote in the Virginia Secessionist Convention results in an almost 2-to-1 margin against leaving the Union.
Two days later, President Lincoln sent a message to the Governor of South Carolina saying that the U.S would provision the fort, and if that effort was resisted, reinforcements would be sent.  The next day, April 7th, Confederate General Beauregard cut off all shipping traffic to the fort.  And on April 11th, a formal demand of surrender was sent from Beauregard to the Fort’s commander.  At 4:30 the next morning, April 12th, Confederate batteries opened fire on  Fort Sumter, a barrage that would continue until the morning of the 13th.  On the 14th, the Fort surrendered.  Union Private Daniel Hough, while loading his cannon for a 100-gun salute to the U.S. flag, was killed when his cannon exploded. He was the first man killed in the war.
On April 15th, President Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 troops for a three-month term of service.  Tennessee Governor Isham Harris rejected the call, ordering a special session of the state legislature to consider secession.  On that same day, Confederate General Braxton Bragg, the commander of the Alabama and West Florida Department, arrested Union Lt. John Worden, making him the first POW.
The Confederate Congress passed a Conscription Act on April 16th.  On the 17th, the steamer Star of the West was seized by confederates off the coast of Indianola, Texas.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Pioneers, Voyagers, and the Question**

*Chicago Tribune
March 31, 2011
as "Pioneers, voyagers, and the question"

*Somerset, PA  Daily American
April 1, 2011
as "Pioneers and the question"

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

The news lately has been very bad. There is another shooting war in the Middle East, Japan and the earthquake, tsunami, and leaking radiation, and the ongoing soap opera in Washington. But in outer space, far from the din of humanity’s crises, a remarkable story continues.

In the 1970s, the United States launched four space probes. Their mission was the exploration of the sun’s family of planets. All four fulfilled their intended tasks flawlessly, returning stunning pictures and gigabytes of valuable data about the planets and the space between them. At the end of those missions, they were put on trajectories that would take them out of the solar system entirely; the first messengers of mankind.

Pioneer 10 was launched in March of 1972. Pioneer 11 left earth in April of 1973. Voyager 1 departed in 1977 and its brother, Voyager 2 roared away in 1978.

All four spacecraft, along with the usual retinue of scientific sensors, carry messages.

Pioneer 10 and 11 carry plaques made of gold anodized aluminum. The plaques carry pictures and symbols intended to educate extraterrestrials on where the probes came from, as well as something about the creatures that launched them.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Cartoons*

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
April 4, 2011
as "Saturday morning memories"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

One of the warmest memories of my childhood was Saturday mornings. I could sleep as late as I wanted and I didn’t have school, so the day was full of possibilities. But before I ran out the door to whatever boyhood adventures awaited, there was the happy tradition of Saturday morning cartoons.

Television back then was predictable. Cable wasn’t even a distant dream and we were all limited to three channels or four if your town had one of those maverick independent UHF stations. It was the 60s and animation ruled the day. Disney was King, but his products were rarely seen on network TV. So my attention was captured by Mighty Mouse, Popeye, Space Ranger, Magilla Gorilla, Yogi Bear, Quick Draw McGraw, Deputy Dawg, Huckleberry Hound and others.  They flitted across the small black-and-white television screen as I watched engrossed while my bowl of Cheerios or Alphabets grew soggy. Wile E. Coyote pursued the Roadrunner, aided by a remarkable collection of mechanical marvels, courtesy of the ACME Corporation. Adam Ant and Secret Squirrel fought the bad guys, along with Rocky and Bullwinkle who took on the evil Boris Badinov and his slinky partner Natasha.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Hybrids and the Future of Motorcycles*

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
April 17, 2011
 as "Raise a cheer for big electric bikes"

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

The concept by which your car’s engine works has been around, at least as an idea, for over 800 years.  The first concept of an internal combustion engine was done by a Mesopotamian named Al-Jazari in 1206.  The Chinese, Mongols, and Arabs developed a working model in the 13th century.  Da Vinci produced a design in 1509.  In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a single inventor, but a long roster of contributing inventors and engineers.  But even with all the improvements, it’s still the same basic principal.
But now, in the 21st century, the internal combustion engine is living on borrowed time.  Gas and diesel fuel are proving too vulnerable to political and environmental pressures that make its supply and price unstable.  There is also a question of how long the current reserves will last in the face of ever-rising demand.  In response to these conditions, electric vehicles are attempting to move to the mainstream. But high cost, limited range and the fact that electricity still flows mostly from coal-fired power plants still, in the minds of most consumers, make them novelty items.
Hybrids have been a good compromise, combining the emission-less value of electric motors with the range of a traditional engine.  This development is encouraging, although no one has yet given me a satisfactory answer to the question of what happens to the toxic battery packs after they wear out. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

True Human Diversity

Copyright © 1997 by Ralph Couey
except for quoted and cited passages.

Mark 13:36
Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself;
Matthew 26:36-41
 
And the King shall say unto them,
"Verily I say unto you,
inasmuch as ye have done it
unto one of the least of these my brethren,
ye have done it unto me.”

The duty of Christ’s disciples throughout history has never been an easy one. The challenges have been many and daunting. Even today, we, as disciples, face tremendous challenges in our efforts to minister to others. But it is the task that we have been assigned. We live in a world that is writhing in agony and pain. And just as a surgeon finds it difficult to perform an operation without a tray of specialized instruments, so does the Lord rely on us as his instruments for the healing of tortured lives. And it is incumbent upon us that we do not back away from that challenge.

I have heard that the simplest commands are often the most difficult to follow. Having been on both the giving and receiving end of orders in the Navy, I can attest to the truth of such a statement. God has given us a wealth of wisdom and instruction in scripture clearly stated without any interpretational confusion. The Ten Commandments are a good example. They’re all plainly stated. And yet, when we analyze the ills of humankind and the attendant misery brought upon all people, we see pretty much the same laundry list of sins and errors at the root of these problems.

Speech: "A People of Freedom and Destiny"

Copyright © 2003 by Ralph Couey

This is a very special night. We have all gathered here as one to welcome home America’s truest heroes. As special as this moment is for us, I know this moment is even more precious and priceless for you who have returned from the theater of war. For tonight, the stars shine in friendly skies; the wind blows gently down familiar streets; the sun has cast a familiar shadow upon the doorstep; and tonight, we who have stood safely behind the protective wall of your courageous service hold you in a warm, affectionate, and mutual embrace. Tonight we as a family, we as a community, we as a nation say to you: Welcome Home.

Tonight we also remember the fallen. For far too many families, there will be no joyous homecoming; only the memories of the loved and the lost. There are no possible words, no magic phrases that could possibly ease the pain they feel. For the husband or wife looking at a wedding ring through a veil of tears; for the parents who stand in the doorway of a silent, empty bedroom; for the child who struggles to understand why Daddy or Mommy aren’t coming home; for the friends, the co-workers, the neighbors who now feel that aching void in their lives; for all of them, we as a nation share this grief. In time, hopefully, understanding will come. Meaning will be revealed.

Never have the words of Abraham Lincoln been more poignant:

“That from these honored dead, we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Hardest Farewell**


Samantha
Copyright © 2007, 2011 by Ralph Couey
*Chicago Tribune
March 26, 2011
as "Loss of a true friend"

*Somerset, PA  Daily American
March 26, 2011
as "Loss of a true friend"

Ten years ago, we said goodbye to Samantha. 
It was a time of great sorrow for us,
as anyone who has ever loved and lost a pet can attest. 
This week, two friends had to say goodbye to their beloved pets,
and in sharing their sorrow, the memories of that day long ago came back. 
This is for all those who have everhad to say that hardest farewell.

The morning was bright and clear, but the sun mocked me as I finished my walk. This was a day heavy with decision; celebration had left for the next county. Opening the door, I heard you struggle to your feet to greet me like you always had. All those years, you met me with shining eyes, a happy tail, and a joyful bark. Now I saw the pain in your eyes as you tried to make arthritic bones obey the commands of your heart.

I took your beautiful head in my hands and buried my face in the softness of your fur. I sensed you contentment, but all last night I had heard whimpers of pain as you tried to sleep.

I took your brush out and one last time you stood patiently while I arranged every hair. At last, I finished my work.  For a moment, you looked as you once did; powerful, graceful, and heart-breakingly beautiful. Then with a quivering sigh your legs settled to the floor and you rested your head on my leg, exhausted by the effort.

I was flooded by sweet memories. Long walks, playing ball in the park, the drives through the country, watching you destroy my leaf piles in the fall while I collapse in helpless laughter. The simple companionship of a long winter’s eve.

It was time.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Motorcycles and the Statistics of Death**

*Chicago Tribune
April 15, 2011
as "Motorcycles and statistics"

*Somerset, PA  Daily American
April 16, 2011
as "Motorcycles and statistics"

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

Since my accident two years ago, my colleagues have taken a sincere interest in my safety. This past week, out of that concern, they deposited the latest edition of the Journal of Forensic Science on my desk. One might characterize this publication as the pinup magazine for Coroners.

Three articles were bookmarked. One was entitled, “Massive Lesions Owing to Motorcyclist Impact Against Guardrail Posts.” Another article was “Traumatic Testicular Displacement in Motorcycle Drivers.”

Ouch.

The third one, however, was the most interesting. “Death by Motorcycle: Background, Behavioral, and Situational Correlates of Fatal Motorcycle Collisions.” This was an impressive statistical study done by Dr. Samuel Nunn, Professor of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs and Director of the Center for Criminal Justice Research, part of the Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis.

Like many professional journal articles, this one needed to be read with a dictionary and thesaurus close at hand. And while the science of statistics is still a bit of a mystery to me, there were enough plain-language findings in the paper to get my attention.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Fear Not!

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

Do not be afraid.
The Lord will fight for you;
You need only to be still. (Exodus 14:13a,14)

I’m a worrier.  I come by it honestly because my Dad was one as well.  I worry about the usual things, family, money, taxes, debt, job security…all shared by most, I would imagine.  But I also find myself at times in deep concern about things over which I have absolutely no control or influence.  The weather, for instance; or the political situation in Mexico.   Lately, I’ve been very worried about my job, even though the decisions made on that issue are well beyond my paygrade.  There’s absolutely nothing I can do to influence that process.  Yet, I still worry. 

Luckily, I’m married to a very practical person who files her concerns into two slots:  those she can control and those she can’t.  She works on the things she can, and ignores the rest.  When she spots me carrying some burden around, she immediately morphs into her best Gandalf imitation, thundering, “Where is your faith?”

And she’s right.

General Ulysses S. Grant had a similar issue when he took command of the Army of the Potomac.  Robert E. Lee had acquired a reputation of invincibility.  Despite the southern Army of Northern Virginia being outnumbered in almost every battle, Lee’s tactical genius produced stunning victories. 

One night, after listening to his staff voice their fears, Grant roared, “I’m getting tired of hearing about all the possible things Lee could do to this Army.  From now on, we’re only going to focus on what this Army is going to do to General Lee.”

Friday, March 11, 2011

"C'mon, Spring!"

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey
This is a tough time of year for a motorcyclist.  Winter has been long and unrelenting.  Even today, approaching mid-March, as I look outside, the hill a half-mile away has gone opaque, shrouded in yet one more snowstorm.  Below my window, the Little Conemaugh River runs deep and rapid, fed by the almost constant rainfall and melting snow.  I am anxiously, even impatiently waiting for the wintry mess to give way to clear skies and relatively warmer temperatures.  Out in the garage, my bike sits.  I sense Wyatt is also feeling frustrated.  I can almost hear him whisper an exasperated “C’mon, man!”
But these are feelings grown familiar.  They happen every year about this time, especially since I moved from Missouri to the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania almost seven years ago.  In my memory, I remember March as the start of the riding season.  Temperatures were still on the cool side, but snow and ice had become a forgotten memory.  Here in the mountains, however, climate plots against me.  Every year, the last time snow fell from the sky was as late as mid-May.  The riding season is short, but tempered by the almost complete lack of uncomfortably hot days. 
Over the winter, I bought a new tire, a new crash bar, a new luggage rack, a new stator, and had my seat sent out to be re-done.  The Kawasaki VN900 is a marvelous machine.  It is a mid-size bike that comes off looking much bigger than it actually is.  Obviously, some skilled and experienced engineers were involved in its concept and design. 
I just wish they hadn’t given the seat design to the intern.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

History's Harsh Lessons*

*Pittsburgh, PA Post-Gazette
April 3, 2011
as "Lessons from the depression"

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey


On March 8th, Pennsylvania’s newly-minted Governor stood in front of the State Assembly to present his proposal for a state budget.  Like many states, Pennsylvania has spent itself almost to the brink of insolvency.  And like so many of us in this recession, it became time for cuts and reductions.  The Governor said something that, as a Pennsylvanian, I found compelling:

“A nation that once produced wealth beyond calculation
has now produced debt beyond reckoning.
The day of reckoning has come.”

In listening to the rhetoric of the past few months, an interesting dichotomy has emerged.  It seems that while everyone realizes that sacrifices must be made, we all seem to think that someone else should bear that burden.

This is the myopia of hard times.  The boil on our own back is the largest one in existence; nobody’s pain is worse than our own.  There’s always someone else who can afford to do with less.

Many of us grew up during the wildly materialistic 1980s and 1990s.  Due to that cultural conditioning, we find it hard now to separate true need from want.  Cable/satellite TV, broadband Internet, Smart Phones, and other expensive electronics are just a few of those things that not too long ago would have been considered luxury items.  Now, we have a lot of trouble even imagining life without them.  We felt that even if we weren’t rich, we could at least acquire some of those trappings, thereby building insulating barriers between the life we wanted, and the one we actually had.  This act of reaching beyond our means has left many of us in serious credit trouble, a hole it may take years to climb from.

82 years ago, the country was plunged into the depths of what became known as The Great Depression.  Wall Street collapsed, in part because people were trading with credit instead of hard currency.  Businesses closed, banks failed and almost overnight a quarter of the workforce was unemployed. 

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

My Lap-Band Life: Two Months In

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

This past month has been a revelation for me, in terms of understanding what my relationship to food has been over my lifetime.
First things first, however.  I feel fine.  There have been no incidents of pain or discomfort.  I’m perfectly happy with the small ration of food I consume, and I feel better than I have for years.
My weight loss has slowed, in fact I’ve been stuck at 258 for two weeks.  The Doctor’s office tells me that this is not unusual and not to get discouraged.  I have to remember how far I’ve come since January.  Before my pre-op diet, I had ballooned to 298, so I’ve lost 40 pounds in a little over two months.  Meanwhile, I’ve picked up my exercise considerably.  I walk for 30 minutes at lunch (1.8 miles) and then do some calisthenics and 50 minutes on a treadmill at 5% grade and 3.7 to 4.0 miles per hour after work.  I have my semi-annual cardiac stress test in April, so I guess you could say I’m studying for that test.  I got a little too ambitious, borrowing my son’s P90X DVD set.  This is a fitness regimen that makes Marine Corps boot camp look easy.  Anyway, three nights into it, I did some damage to my left shoulder.  At some point when I work up the courage (and the pain becomes too much to ignore) I’ll confess to the Doctor.  Hopefully, it’s something that time will heal.  I’ve cut back on the P90X stuff, doing only those things that don’t involve my left shoulder.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Revolution and the Beard*

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
March 21, 2011
as "Life without wife soon grows into hairy experience"

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey
For most of a man’s married life, he exists in a happy state of domestication.  He may at times wax nostalgic about those early years when was led around by his hormones and a nose for mischief, and there might be one or two attempts to re-enact those years.  But for the most part, men willingly accept the structures and limits of matrimony because we realize that the “other” reason we get married is that we need someone around to keep us out of trouble.
There are times, however when we might stage a minor revolution, for no other reason than impulse.  One of those revolts involves facial hair.
Two things spawned my little insurrection.  My wife was out of town on a job search expedition and I had entertained the idea going shaveless.  But the decision point was reached when I stood in the shaving aisle at the store and saw that my blades would cost over $30.  I could have just bought disposables but I have a bad combination of sensitive skin and tough whiskers.  The wrong blade can leave me looking like the scarred victim of a shattered window in the morning or a swarthy underworld thug by 3 in the afternoon.
So squeezed by economics and lacking anyone to say “no,” I decided to grow a beard.
My wife was not thrilled by this decision, but as she put it, “As long as I don’t have to look at it, I guess it’s okay.”
Growing a beard is a gradual process.  You simply can’t go from bare-faced to Santa Claus overnight.  The first few days, it looks like you were too lazy to shave.  It’s not uniform and the bristles stick out at weird angles.  After about a week, you don’t look lazy anymore.  Something’s definitely happening.  Unfortunately it’s during this phase that people at work start with the snide comments, like, “How long were you lost up in the mountains?” 

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Vaya con Dios, Zoe

On April 2, 2010, our precious granddaughter, Zoe Arianny Villon, passed from this life at the tender age of 5 months.  In her brief time with us, she had been burdened with some serious health problems, the worst of which was Cri du Chat syndrome.  I performed the funeral service, simply the most difficult thing I have ever done as a minister. 

In the months since, I have come to know many who also lost children.  We have shared the pain of loss and the tears of healing.  I offer this, the funeral sermon I prepared and delivered that day, as an offering of healing peace and solace to those are similarly suffering.


During the past few days as each of us considered the tragic and untimely death of baby Zoe, our hearts have been full of questions – chief amongst them being the simplest one, “Why?” Even if we knew the answers to those questions, there still would be no adequate explanation for this loss. Our hearts are grieved beyond measure.

We are not here today to answer those questions, even if we could. Rather, we are here to mourn and to commend the spirit of Zoe into God’s loving embrace. And also to ask God to help us heal.

Those of us who tend gardens are familiar with the occasional rose that may bud but never bloom. The flower isn’t any different than the others, but for some reason we can never fathom, rather than bursting forth in beauty and color, it simply fades away.

In the garden that is humanity, this also happens. A baby comes into the world, full of life and beauty, but never unfolds into the life that was supposed to be. We mourn those times, but at the same time we know that the baby’s soul has been gathered back into the arms of Jesus, where love, joy, justice, and perfection awaits.

Today, we mourn the loss of a child. We weep, just as Jesus wept. And yet, I have seen already the work of God’s healing spirit. In one of our many conversations, Nikki said to me of Zoe’s passing, “Jesus came in the middle of the night when she was at peace and took her home.” It was the most courageous, most faithful statement I have ever heard.