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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, March 29, 2012

Drive Into the Danger Zone

Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey

There was a time in America when there were no traffic laws, mainly because encountering a fellow traveler in the great trackless wilderness was actually an event of some note.  As time went on, the population, and its density, increased.  Roads evolved from forest trails to dirt paths and from there to gravel, brick, and stone.  Eventually the advent of the motor vehicle made necessary the paving of roads.  To avoid collisions, carelessness, and needless bloodshed, laws were enacted governing our behaviors on the roads and highways.  We sometimes chafe over the restrictions of speed limits and ill-timed traffic signals, but by and large we recognize that those laws are there to keep us safe, and so we heed them.
Unfortunately, there are areas where people seem to think traffic laws don’t exist.  One of those areas is the parking lot.
American frontiersman used to say “There ain’t no law west of St. Louie, and there ain’t no God west of Ft. Smith.”  It was a fairly accurate statement describing the relatively lawless nature of the west in those years.  We have come far since those days, but there are times when the “frontier” of the mall parking lot is as dangerous a place as Allen Street was in Old Tombstone, Arizona.
Parking lots are areas of high density, both vehicles and people.  And yet there are those of us who drive through them as if they were the only ones within miles.  We’ve all seen the daredevil who cuts perpendicularly across the parking lanes, and those who roar through those lots at dangerous speeds.  It doesn’t help that parking lots are generally considered private property and therefore not the purview of the local gendarmerie.  Lots have rules, but the only ones around to enforce them are the Mall Cops, and I’ve never seen them give anyone a ticket.  Not that such a ticket would be taken seriously.  I’ve never seen a galleria traffic court.  But the thing that most puzzles me are the actions of pedestrians.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Civil War: Events of April 1862

On April 4th, as part of the peninsula campaign, Federal troops under General George McClellan began to move from Fort Monroe towards the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia.  The next day, McClellan invested Yorktown, but refused to attack remaining in place until the Confederate forces under Joseph Johnston completed their withdrawal on May 4th.

April 6th and 7th saw one of the bloodiest battles of the war when Union General Grant attacked Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston at Shiloh.  Grant had utilized the Federal Navy to move his forces deep into Tennessee via the Tennessee River, camping at Pittsburg Landing.  Rather than wait for Grant to attack, Confederate forces took the initiative and attacked the Federal camp, aiming to push the Yankees into Owl Creek Swamp to the west.  But during the fighting, the Rebel lines became tangled and confused and the Yankees fell back to the northeast instead.  The Federals made their stand at a sunken road, which became known as the Hornet’s Nest.  General Johnston was killed that day and General Beauregard assume command of the Southern troops.  During the night, Federal reinforcements arrived in the person of General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio.  On the morning of the 7th, the combined Union troops counterattacked, forcing the Confederates to retreat.  The battle, the costliest in U.S. history up to that time, ended Confederate hopes that they could keep the Union out of Northern Mississippi  Grant was vilified by the press for the loss of Union troops, and actually lost his command to General Henry Halleck for a time.
Also on April 7th, Union forces in south Missouri captured Island No. 10 in the vital Mississippi River downstream from New Madrid.  More than 5,000 Rebels were taken prisoner.
April 8th saw Confederate survivors of Shiloh fall back to Corinth, Mississippi.
As part of the strategic plan to blockade southern ports, Union gunners began firing on Ft. Pulaski on April 10th.  The fort, built in 1830 by, among others, a young Army engineer named Robert E. Lee, formed a barrier at the mouth of the Savannah River, protecting the port of Savannah.  It was thought at the time that cannons alone could not reduce such a structure, but for the first time, the Union was using a Parrott Gun, a cannon with a rifled barrel that was more powerful and accurate than smooth bores.  Over two days, the Union pounded the fort until the Confederate’s powder supply was threatened.  The Rebel commander surrendered April 11th, making unnecessary what would have been a very bloody fight.
April 11th saw a close call for Union General Fitz-John Porter.  The new observation balloon, invented by Thaddeus Lowe, was supposed to go up, but Lowe had become ill overnight and was unable to make the flight.  Porter, instead, made the ascent.  But the balloon’s tether snapped and the balloon with the General aboard began to drift towards the Confederate lines.  A last-minute shift in the winds blew the balloon back into friendly territory.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

How Much More Can We Ask?

Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Couey
World War II was a watershed event in American history.  16.5 million American troops served in theaters across the globe, from the bitter cold and snow at Bastogne to the heat-blasted coral island of Peleliu in the Pacific.  416,837 died, 683,846 were wounded.  But for those who survived physically, the specter of war remained.  What was then called “combat fatigue” is now widely known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD became the silent ghost that haunted veterans decades after the war ended.  A study in 1992 estimated that as many as 56% of combat soldiers who came home carried with them the effects of too many bombs and bullets, and too many memories of good friends torn to pieces on the battlefield. 
The American participation in the war, from Pearl Harbor in December 1941 to Tokyo Bay in September 1945, lasted 3 years and 9 months.
Our modern-day soldiers fought in Iraq from March 2003 until December 2011, 8 years and 9 months.  They have been fighting in Afghanistan for over 10 years.  With the Army seemingly running out of soldiers, some veterans have been ordered back for their fourth year-long deployment.
Staff Sergeant Robert Bales was one such soldier.  By all accounts, he was a great guy, a devoted family man, and the quintessential “Sgt. Rock” to the soldiers he led.    We may never know what prompted his alleged act.  But one thing is certain.  The good man, the loving father and husband, the superb leader he was will now be forgotten.
He will be remembered instead as a killer who took the lives of 16 Afghani civilians.
I ache for those who died and for their families.  But I also ache for SSGT Bales and his family.  He should never have been there.
Humans are not perfect, and soldiers are not invulnerable.  There is only so much violence and stress someone can endure before their mind fails them.
After 9/11, we went to war in the Middle East.  Since then, Iraq’s government has changed and while the road ahead still looks rocky and strewn with potholes, it would appear that their future is a good deal brighter.  Afghanistan, though, is harder to quantify.
The Taliban were almost defeated, but seem to have mounted a bit of a comeback.  Now that the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces has a firm date, the Jihadists can now await our departure before resuming their drive towards victory.  Nobody seems to know whether the government of Hamid Karzai will be able to resist the inevitable attacks.
America has, to date, sacrificed some 1,800 dead and 10,000 wounded in Afghanistan in the hopes that the Afghani people could hold their own destiny firmly in hand.  If the Karzai government loses that fight, then that cost will have been paid in vain.
While combat may end next year, for those who suffer from PTSD, the war will go on for the rest of their lives.  Yes, we’ve expended billions of dollars in that conflict.  But the value of our soldiers goes beyond mere currency.  We sent them, and they have been used up.  Because of that cost, it’s time for us, We The People, to begin to ask the hard questions. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Old Virginia

Copyright 2012 by Ralph Couey

Change is a concept that is at the same time glorious opportunity and seemingly endless adversity.  It rarely goes smoothly, not unlike a drive down a pitted and rocky backroad.  You know the eventual destination, but around each  curve and behind every hill a hundred different predators lie in wait, crouched and ready to spring. 
Change can be brought on by either choice or necessity.  In our case, it was the latter.  Because of downsizing, my day job in was eliminated and I was transferred from a small town in the mountains of Pennsylvania to the crowded and bustling suburban nexus of Northern Virginia.
I’ve lived in a lot of places in my life, both big cities and small towns.  In fact, I’ve moved so often that when people ask me where home is, I reply, “Wherever the motorcycle’s parked.”  To which my wife often grumbles, “What am I?  Chopped liver?”
But that’s me.  I’ve always been fascinated by the possibilities of what lay beyond the horizon.  My chronically itchy foot has taken me to 49 states and 28 other countries in my lifetime.  I do understand the emotional need of some to put down roots in a place where the story of their family lies on the landscape like an autumn fog.  But I don't do well with roots.  I am the proverbial rolling stone, quick to throw off even the smallest strand of moss.
Each state, each region has its own collection of qualities that take possession of the human heart and create that unique sense of belonging we call “home.”  Californians have their ocean, Coloradans their mountains.  Midwesterners look to their mighty rivers, the highways of another age.  Even Kansans are inspired by the simple beauty of the endless prairie.
I’ve always known of the affection that bonds native Virginians to their commonwealth.  But it wasn’t until I read the Civil War epic “Gods and Generals” that I really began to understand the depth of that emotion.  Now, I know that the ante-bellum Virginia of the Civil War years no longer exists.  But for those born and raised here, that passion still lives.  For them, Virginia is home.
Virginia has always been something to fight for, from the struggling settlement at Jamestown, through the stormy colonial era, the revolution, and the difficult birth of the United States, the final arguments of which were not settled until the end of the Civil War. In fact, it seems that nearly every vital story about America carries Virginia as its byline.
Last fall, I took a ride out US 50 to the Shenandoah Valley.  It was a sparkling autumn day, the leaves just past peak.  As my motorcycle glided along, I was embraced by the rolling hills, the mountains, and the still-verdant valley of the Shenandoah.  As the landscape rolled past, I finally understood what it was that drove the Virginians of that day and time to so vigorously defend this beautiful land. 
Around here, native Virginians seem to be rare. This has become a gathering place, drawing people from across the country and the world. They are a transient people, having stopped here for a time before moving on, riding other dreams to other places.
Times have certainly changed.  Once upon a time, Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia rolled like a juggernaut through the countryside. Today, the only “Army of Northern Virginia” is the hundreds of thousands who daily invade and take possession of the nation’s capital, only to surrender it again each afternoon.  None march in formation, dine on hardtack, or carry muskets.  But they all come from places which still bear the names Lee, Jackson, and Mosby.  The Potomac is no longer the barrier between two warring nations, merely just another river to cross on the way to work. 
I don’t know how long I will live here. But my strong sense of history will send me in search of those places that reflect the proud history of a great nation.  It is here that I know I will re-discover the dreams that carried them to these shores, brought them defiantly to their feet in independence, and healed a people torn by war.  The history of the Commonwealth of Virginia is inextricably intertwined with that of the United States.  You can’t tell the story of one without the other.  That, by itself, makes this a pretty special place.