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.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Worst Fear*

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
July 10, 2011
as "Speak your mind, share your heart"

It’s called Glossaphobia.  No, it’s not about your brand of car wax or furniture polish. It’s the technical term for the fear of public speaking.  Countless surveys and public researches have listed this particular dread as number one above all others.  It leads fear of death, spiders, darkness, heights, people, flying, open spaces, thunder and lightning, and confined spaces. 
Kinda strange when you think about it. 
If someone walked up to you in the dark and put a black widow spider in your face in the middle of a crowd of people standing at the edge of the Incline Plane lookout platform during a thunderstorm and demanded that you give a speech or die, I don’t think anyone would quibble over the choice. 
But according to the researchers, 3 out of every 4 people suffer from some form of speech anxiety, so you’re not alone.  It doesn’t seem to matter whether the audience is a few friends at a dinner party, or an auditorium full of hostile politicians, the fear is the same. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Civil War: Events of July 1861

With the two sides firmly in place, the fighting starts in earnest with a graduate education in the inhumanity of war at Bull Run.
On July 2, Union Major General Robert Patterson took his division across the Potomac under vaguely-worded orders to re-take Harper’s Ferry.  Patterson had been slow to move which gave the Rebels time to deploy.  He ran into the troops of Colonel Thomas Jackson (soon to be nicknamed “Stonewall”) near Hoke’s Run.  He began to push Jackson’s troops back, but Jackson was under orders to only delay the Union advance, not to stop them.  Patterson got as far as Martinsburg, but stopped there on the 3rd.  This inactivity allowed Confederates to bring up reinforcements which defeated the Union forces at Bull Run.
On July 4th, Leonidas Polk, first cousin to President James K. Polk, a political general who possessed no combat experience, but had a close friendship with President Jefferson Davis, was commissioned a Major General and given command of Department Number 2, roughly the area between the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

July 4th: A Birthday of Hope**

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey
Berbera, Somalia
Photo by Ralph Couey

*Somerset, PA Daily American
July 2, 2011
as "A Birthday for hope"

*Chicago Tribune
July 1, 2011
as "A birthday for hope"

Some thirty years ago, I was walking the dry, hot, dusty streets of Berbera, Somalia.  I was a young U.S. Navy sailor and our ship had pulled in to meet a destroyer tender for some essential repairs.  We had been given a few precious hours of liberty, a gift after 7 weeks at sea.

It was a brutally hot day, around 115 degrees.  Clad in my white doubleknit uniform, I was rapidly boiling over.  But the experience that awaited me quickly eliminated any thoughts of my personal discomfort. 

The signs of poverty and hunger were everywhere.  People lived in hovels I wouldn’t have stored my lawnmower in. And when we looked at each other, I saw in their eyes, the emptiness of despair. 

Americans who complain about being poor obviously haven't been to Africa yet.

Independence: Declaration and Perpetuation*

"The Declaration of Independence
by John Trumbull
The U.S. National Archives

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
July 3, 2011
as "Independence Day: A celebration for us all"
On a hot July day in 1776, a document was approved by the representative congress of an upstart group of colonies; a document boldly declaring to the world that they were now a separate nation.

The Declaration of Independence represented the height of temerity, and possibly folly, since the document’s target was only the most powerful empire on planet earth at the time.

The document opened with a strong and forthright statement:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,
that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Few governments at that time had ever been based on such fundamental human rights and trust in its citizens.  The Declaration went even further, stating:

"That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men,
deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

In that statement the United States placed the power of their government, not in the leaders, but squarely in the hands of the people.  Thus, ordinary Americans would always be the ultimate check-and-balance of their leaders.

At the end of the long list of complaints against the King, America took its stand:

Friday, June 17, 2011

Decide to be Happy**

Smilin' Al Lovin' the Sun

Copyright © 2009 by Ralph Couey

*Chicago Tribune
July 8, 2011
as "Worry, yes; but try to be happy"
*Somerset, PA Daily American
July 9, 2011
as "Worry, yes; but try to be happy"

“Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” --Abraham Lincoln.

It was a beautiful day. The sun bright in a clear blue sky, the breeze was soft and almost warm. The hillsides lushly alive with trees and flowers from which came the delightful chorus of birdsong.

I took the occasion to leave the office and take a stroll around downtown.  It was one of those days where the world seemed to rise up and dance in the sunlight. I dusted the attic of my mind, pushing aside the darksome worries that seem to be so much a part of our modern lives.  People were full of smiles and laughter. Friends were talking animatedly, and even complete strangers exchanged warm greetings. I stopped several times to speak to friends, our conversations light and joyful. We talked of many things, but mostly we reveled in the joy of being alive. 

One friend said, “You know, I feel so much better today than last night. I watched the news for a while, but everything was so negative that I finally turned it off.”  She paused for a moment, as a brief shadow dimmed her features. “I know the news needs to be reported, but why can’t we hear about the good stuff more often?”

Good Question.

Everyone’s heard the oft-spoken stone cold criteria for news: “If it bleeds, it leads.”  In these times especially, the media has a responsibility to bring to our attention the information we need to have, and with the economy teetering on the very brink, and yet another war to think about, most of that news tends to be bad.   

I watch WJAC-TV news most often, since channels 10 and 23 tend to be more Altoona- and State College-centric. To be fair, on a typical newscast, they do make the effort to bring several stories that involve news that is good, even uplifting.  But they only have 22 minutes in which to squeeze news, weather, and sports, so some things just can’t get covered.  Actually, when I look at the condition of the world, I think they do an admirable job bringing a fair balance of both the good and bad.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Throttle Back and Live**

Copyright© 2011 by Ralph Couey

*WTKR Norfolk, VA
June 17, 2011
as "Throttle back, live"

*Somerset, PA  Daily American
June 18, 2011
as "Throttle back, live"
“Write me up for 125
Post my face, wanted dead or alive
Take my license and all that jive
--Sammy Hagar

Motorcycling, for all of its joys is an inherently dangerous activity. The most common of those hazards are well-known to riders: 
·        Failure to yield:  When another vehicle turns left across a rider’s path, pulling out from a side street or driveway, or changing lanes.
·        Sudden Stops:  A vehicle slows or stops suddenly in the traffic lane in response to a traffic jam or to execute a left turn.  The rider is unable to react in time.
·        Single-bike accidents: Usually a catastrophic loss of control for a variety of reasons, such as road conditions, debris, animals, or a medical incident with the rider or a mechanical problem with the bike.
·        Excessive speed, carelessness, distracted or impaired riding. 
It doesn’t help that many riders are woefully ill-informed with regards to proper braking technique.  Experts now say 90% of a bike’s stopping power is in the front brake.  In an emergency stop, the bike’s weight shifts forward, taking weight and therefore frictional coefficient from the back tire.  Riders who primarily use the rear brake will find their stopping distances increased significantly. 
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in 2009 there were 106,000 motorcycle accidents in the United States in which 4,092 riders were killed and some 90,000 were injured.  50% of those accidents involved frontal impacts; almost 30% involved riders with a blood alcohol content in excess of .08.
But law enforcement agencies nationwide are now seeing a much higher incidence of speeding.  I’m not referring to the nominal 10 mph most of us add to the posted limit, but riders who use the highways for their personal race courses, flying along at speeds topping 100 mph.  In response, municipalities are enacting new laws.  When riders are caught racing and/or executing stunts on public roads, their bikes are seized. 
Not impounded.  Seized.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Thunder in the Valley 2011: The Dream that Roared*

Copyright© 2011 by Ralph Couey

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
June 23, 2011
as "Motorcycle rally has become something special"

Summer is rally season for the motorcycle community.  Every weekend throughout these hazy crazy days somewhere motorcyclists are gathering. 
Every June since 1998, this valley has resonated with the thunder of motorcycles.  In the years since, Thunder in the Valley© has become one of the premier events of motorcycling.  From across the country, riders stream into the Johnstown area for four days of fun, food, and fellowship.  Scheduled the week after Laconia, New Hampshire’s Bike Week, it provides a nice segue for east coast riders and a great way to polish off a two-week two-wheeled vacation. 

Every rally has its separate attractions and charms.  But this one, “The Little Rally That Could…And Did” has become something special.   

Thunder in the Valley© combines the best elements of a motorcycle rally.  In the fellowship of 200,000 riders are people who instinctively know why we own these machines.  Vendors provide a plethora of items to shower upon our bikes and ourselves.  Music is always present in several venues, so that you’re never out of earshot of entertainment from the toe-tappin’ to the foot stompin’.  Food is present in abundance, from traditional rally fare to regular restaurant cuisine.  Manufacturers provide the opportunity to take their bikes for test rides, and offer good deals should your heart be captured.  And outside of town lie dozens of roads that twist and turn through the heart-melting beauty of the Laurel Highlands, providing many hours of what could only be termed perfect rides. 

Head Lice and the Parental Freak-Out*

Copyright© 2011 by Ralph Couey

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
June 14, 2011
as "Freaking out over tiny invaders"

The other day I arrived at work to find one of my co-workers in full freak-out mode.  This is not an unusual state of mind for her, as she is a person about whom one could say, “She is such a Mom.”  When Sarah Palin uses the term “Mama Grizzly” she is describing my friend to a “T.”
Anyway, the subject of that particular day’s rant was news of a head lice outbreak in one of the classrooms at her daughter’s school.  (To avoid a full-scale wide-spread Mama Grizzly freak-out, I will leave the identity of that school to the administrators.)
Raising children at times can be a process of moving from freak-out to freak-out over any number of causes.  Flu outbreaks, bullies, food recalls, pollution, poison ivy, bee and wasp stings, allergies, emergency room visits, are all part of the parenting experience.  We get exasperated when they’re bouncing off the walls and constantly getting into trouble…you know, “acting normal.”  But if a threat emerges, no matter how large or small, parents, especially Moms, go into crazy protective mode.  That’s a good thing, generally speaking, especially when a child sees to what extent their parents are willing to go on their behalf. 
Of all the calamities of childhood, head lice is by far the most exasperating.  The sheer amount of work involved in ridding the child and the home of an infestation is daunting.  Back in our parenting days 25 years ago, this meant, pulling every single thing made of fabric out of the house and washing them all for multiple cycles in very hot water and bleach.  Then, doing a thorough cleaning of the house (real knees-on-the-floor scrub brush-in-hand work).  Then, the process of cleaning the child’s (or children’s) scalp.  This involves a trip to the drug store, surreptitiously removing the popular brand from the shelf, and waiting for an empty cashier line so nobody knows, covering yourself with a muttered, “this is for a friend.”  Once safely home, you put on plastic gloves, applied the shampoo, grabbed the fine-toothed comb and commenced to prospecting. Then and only then could a parent feel they had rescued their home from that army of foreign invaders.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Love and Marriage*

Cheryl and Ralph Couey

Copyright © 2009 by Ralph Couey

*Chicago Tribune
January 14, 2011
as "Voyage for two"

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
Sunday June 12, 2011
as "Couples should enter marriage with their eyes wide open"

June 17, 1978, a brutally hot and humid Missouri day, a couple of hundred people gathered for a wedding. Inside the church, which we belatedly discovered lacked air conditioning, the decorations had begun to wilt.  Behind the scenes, things were frantic.  The best man’s tuxedo coat had to be flown in from Omaha; there was a mighty struggle to locate enough large fans to cool the sluggishly oppressive atmosphere. Oh yes, and the last minute scramble to locate the marriage license.

Despite the ado, the ceremony went off without a hitch and after my Dad pronounced us husband and wife, Cheryl and I gleefully strode down the aisle and into our new life together. I was on top of the world. I was now a husband, convinced I had arrived as a man, and there was nothing else the world could teach me.

Now, 31 years later, I realize how foolishly naïve I was! I thought I knew it all.

In fact, I knew nothing.

Irresponsibility and The End of Days**

Copyright© 2011 by Ralph Couey

*Chicago Tribune
June 10, 2011

*Somerset, PA Daily American
June 11, 2011

A few weeks ago, a Christian radio broadcaster and numerologist Harold Camping announced that the world would end on May 21, 2011.  This kind of thing is not all that unusual.  For Camping, this was the third such prediction.  All three dates have come and gone, and yet the world ticks on. 

Most of us laugh when we hear about such predictions, but there still remains a shred of anticipation when the designated day arrives.  Even now, most of us eye December 21, 2012, the date of the so-called Mayan Prophecy with a sort of nervous twitch.  

But there were many who took Camping seriously.  One woman in Antelope Valley, California, was so distraught, that she attempted to kill her two daughters and herself to spare them from the end of the world.  A concerned friend discovered the plot and called 911.  Police and paramedics were able to save their lives.

I won’t try to divine the motivations behind those who make such pronouncements, or attempt to diagnose their failures.  I will however mourn the human wreckage that inevitably lies strewn in their wake.  I only know that in Matthew 24:36 we are told:

Sunday, June 05, 2011

My Lap-Band Life: Five Months In

As we pick up this month's saga, you remember that my weight loss had slowed.  I lost 4 pounds in April and 3 pounds in May, and I noticed that the amount of food I needed had increased.  So, I scheduled myself with the Doctor for a fill.

As you might remember, the lap-band is a plastic frame with a soft plastic bladder that wraps around the upper part of the stomach, just below the esophagus.  A small tube connects the band with a rubber-domed port that attaches below the skin of the stomach.  It's through that port that saline is added or subtracted which makes the band tighter or looser.  In my case, the band was too big, which means the food, instead of staying in the pouch and staving off hunger, was instead falling through too quickly.  Instead of going 4-6 hours before feeling hungry again, I found that I was hungry 2-3 hours after meals. 

After a consult with the PA, we went down to radiology to the flouroscope room.  There, I pulled up my shirt and stood in front of the machine.  A tech gave me a dixie cup full of chalky white fluid, the radioactive barium.  The PA then took a syringe with a large bore needle (gulp!) and after locating the port, inserted the needle.  Initially it did hurt a bit, but once in was painless.  At first he put in 4 cc of saline, then had me take a sip of barium.  On the screen, the barium hit the band...and stopped.  I could feel that familiar discomfort.  He then began to take saline out, a little at a time.  In between these adjustments, the syringe stuck out of my belly looking a lot like a dart on a dart board.  It didn't hurt, but it did look decidedly odd.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Civil War: Events of June 1861

On June 3, 1861, Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s opponent in the 1860 presidential campaign, died of typhoid fever.
On that same day, the first land engagement between the Union and the Confederacy was fought, called the Battle of Philippi.   A relatively bloodless encounter, Union General George B. McClellan sent several regiments to attempt a double envelopment of a Confederate force at Philippi, Virginia (eventually West Virginia).  The attack was prematurely launched with a pistol shot by a Southern sympathizer, a mother who had sent her son to warn the Confederates, saw her son captured by Union troops.  The attack was started before the Union troops were completely in place, which gave the Southerners a chance to flee, which they did, most in their bedclothes.  The battle, more of a race really, launched the short Civil War career of McClellan, who was eventually named to command the Army of the Potomac.
On June 8th,  Tennessee voters decided to secede from the Union.  The vote margin was better than 2-to-1.  Also that day, the Commonwealth of Virginia turned their troops over to the CSA.
June 10th saw the Battle of Big Bethel.  A larger affair than Phillippi, The Union attacked Confederate outposts near the present-day village of Tabb, Virginia.  Initially successful, the Union troops were eventually repulsed.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Being in the Crosshairs**

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

*Chicago Tribune
June 24, 2011
as "In the crosshairs"

*Somerset, PA Daily American
June 25, 2011
as "Being in the crosshairs"

Humans have a great capacity for insecurity.  It is a sad trait, debasing and abusing others for the purpose of making one’s self feel superior.
In middle-and high-school, the “beautiful” people, athletes, cheerleaders, those with popular personalities and those blessed with good looks act against the plain, the dull, the fat -- anyone deemed to be different.  Such shunning amongst teenagers was always thought normal; par for the course of growing up.  But in recent years, the Internet and the proliferation of mobile communications has made things much worse. 
When I was that age, I was the fat, pimply-faced kid with thick glasses and no social skills and hence, the target for abuse of many of my classmates.  Yet, at the end of the day, I could return home, close the door, and feel safe.  And loved.  Today, there is no such sanctuary.  Through social networking, Twitter, and email, those insults follow the child home, hidden out of shame from clueless parents. 
This abuse has cost lives.  Children, emotionally crushed beyond rescue, have committed suicide. Others have turned to violence themselves, taking guns to school and turning them on other children.  But despite those tragedies, the anonymous cruelty continues unabated.