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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

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Skyline Drive and the Perfect Day

 
The delicate palette of an evening's colors cloak the Shenandoah.
Copyright 2012 © by Ralph Couey

A perfect day is hard to come by. For one to happen, you really need three things to synch up.

First, it has to be a day off. Yes, we can have rewarding days at work. But perfect? Secondly, it has to be a day on which you have nothing scheduled, nor any errands to run, and an empty honey-do list. Thirdly, it has to be a perfect weather day. Partly cloudy is great, but nothing’s better than that clear blue dome above. Oh yes, and the temperature has to be right. Not too hot, not too cold, like baby bear, just right.

During the last week of June, I had one of those days, a Tuesday. It was a day off, with my somewhat unusual work schedule, my “weekend” runs from Sunday morning through about Wednesday noon, when the walls of work once again enfold me. The weather couldn’t have been any better if I had special ordered it on Amazon.com. The sky was clear of anything resembling a cloud, and the temperatures were forecasted to be in the low 70’s, a rare day indeed for Northern Virginia in late June.

I had but one mark on my calendar, a short appointment that was done by mid-morning. My honey-do list was clear for the first time since we moved into our new home in April. With the appointment done, I gleefully headed home, geared up, climbed aboard my motorcycle, and headed west.

Still new to this part of the country, I’m in the process of finding out where all the good roads are. This day, with all its beauty and freedom, was written for the Blue Ridge.

Leaving Chantilly, I headed west on VA 234, Sudley Road, which assumes a number of identities as it meanders through the Virginia countryside. After crossing US 15 at Woolsey, it becomes Waterfall Road. The path is mixed open and forest at first, but once on the Waterfall segment, it becomes mostly forest.

9/11: Where Do We Go From Here?


The Flight 93 National Memorial

Copyright © 2012 by Ralph F. Couey
 
We made it through the 10th anniversary commemorations.  Memorials now exist at Ground Zero in Manhattan, at the Pentagon in Arlington, and in that field near Shanksville.  The enemy who planned and carried out the attacks, in the opinion of some experts, is on the ropes, their founding leader dead, courtesy of the U.S. Navy SEALS.  Other terror groups are discovering how hard it is to hide from drones.
 
The United States is a far different place than it was on September 10, 2001.  The changes, far too many to enumerate here, have for the most part become second nature, part of the background of our daily lives.  People are far more vigilant.  In fact, several terror attacks have been discovered before they were carried out simply because someone somewhere saw something, and said something.  Higher security measures are in place, but like an old man with a limp, we’ve all learned to live with them.  Instead of constantly looking over our shoulders, we’re focused instead on the depth of our economic rut, and the spinning wheels of the government bus that only makes the hole deeper.  The election campaign has done more to spotlight our divisions instead of our unity.  None of us know when we’ll get our national feet under us again.  Some are quietly suggesting we may never come back; that the chapter of world history entitled “America” is coming to a close.
 
There hasn’t been a successful attack on our soil since 9/11.  That success is attributable to the unceasing efforts of thousands of unsung heroes, ranging from soldiers humping through the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan, to the deskbound intelligence analysts relentlessly digging and sifting, looking for that one nugget of data that could stop a potential attack in its tracks.  But make no mistake, an important part of that success is due to the actions of ordinary citizens who notice things that don’t look right, and report them.
 
But I think it important to pause and ask ourselves a very important question:
 
Where do we go from here?
 

Civil War: Events of September 1862


Union General John Pope, apparently broken by his defeat at Second Manassas, planned to retreat to the defenses of Washington.  But  General Halleck instead ordered Pope to attack Lee’s forces at Manassas. But Lee had already begun to move.  He sent Stonewall Jackson’s corps around the Union right flank while Longstreet stayed in place to deceive Pope.  Jackson marched north and east and near the intersection of modern-day US 50 and US 29.  Union cavalry sighted Jackson’s forces and alerted Pope, who canceled the attack and began the retreat from Centreville.  On the morning of September 1st, Pope sent two brigades under Isaac Stevens to block Jackson’s march.  Phillip Kearny’s division followed in the afternoon.  Jackson’s men, exhausted, made camp on Ox Hill.  About 3 p.m., Stevens’ Union brigades arrived at Ox Hill.  Despite being outnumbered, Stevens immediately attacked across a field towards the Confederate center.  The attack was initially successful, but a counter-attack by Jubal Early drove them back.  General Stevens died during this fight.  Kearny arrived about 5 p.m., along with a raging thunderstorm that soaked ammunition and eliminated visibility so much that at one point, Kearny rode into the Confederate line.  He realized his mistake and turned back but was shot and killed.  The Union troops then withdrew from the field.  Although tactically inconclusive, it is counted a southern victory because the battle neutralized any threat from the Union Army and allowed Lee to begin his Maryland campaign.  Pope was fired by Lincoln and replaced by Ambrose Burnside.
 
Also on September 1st, in Madison County, Tennessee, Union and Confederate cavalry clashed at Britton’s Lane.  The fight resulted in a southern victory and helped the larger strategy of trying to keep Grant from reinforcing Buell in Tennessee.
 
On September 2nd, southern forces under Kirby Smith began their invasion of Kentucky.  Two days later, they captured the state capital Frankfurt.
 
Robert E. Lee led the Army of Northern Virginia into Maryland on September 5th, taking Frederick on the 6th.  As they moved north, the southern troops destroyed the Baltimore and Ohio railroad bridge over the Monocacy River.
 
On September 9th, Lee drafted Special Order 191, which described how he would divide the army, and what routes they would take into Maryland.  That same day Samuel Heintzelman takes command of the defenses on the south side of Washington.
 
The Battle of Harpers Ferry was fought from September 12-15.  Jackson attacked the town, location of the Federal Arsenal, from three sides.  The Union commander, Dixon Miles, although knowing of Jackson’s approach, declined to post troops to the strategically important heights surrounding the town.  When Jackson’s forces arrived, they set up artillery on the heights and began a systematic bombardment of the town.  Miles realized that his situation was hopeless and surrendered, making more than 12,000 Union soldiers prisoners.
 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Paradigm Shifts in Personal Transportation


Delivery, Korean style

Copyright 2012 © by Ralph F. Couey
 
This summer has seemed interminable.  Record-breaking heat, coupled with some violent storms and drought that hasn’t been seen since the Dust Bowl days of the thirties.  The weather has dealt a direct blow to an already-creaky economy, driving up utility usage, damaging infrastructure, and with a slim harvest approaching, food prices will likely spike and stay high through the winter. 
For a while, gas prices were headed in the right direction.  But in the last few weeks, the gains have been lost to an uncertain supply situation in a market where fuel usage continues to rise.
For motorcyclists, this has been a dangerous season.  Most states are reporting increases in crash-related injuries and fatalities.  In addition, there have been many accidents that involved the motorcycle simply driving off the road for unknown reasons in broad daylight.  You have to wonder if extended exposure to the triple-digit heat and high humidity is not taking a hidden toll.
But the increases in crashes has been readily apparent to anyone who has followed the news.  For a few years I carried an updated post on my motorcycle blog, Soul of a Motorcyclist, in which I posted brief summaries of motorcycle accidents culled from the news courtesy of Google news alerts.  Normally, updating the blog involved an hour or so a couple times per week, but this summer the accidents were coming so quick and fast that I finally abandoned the task. 
A large majority of the accidents involved the rider being the victim of a failure to yield by a car or truck driver.  The second-most often cause involved riders losing control of the bike for various reasons.  But drunk riders really made the news this summer, in crashes that more often than not involved very high speeds. 

Monday, August 06, 2012

This Vacant Room*

Photo by Michelle Perich

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat, August 12, 2012
as "NDIC: Memories permeate the silence"
 
Copyright © 2012 by Ralph F. Couey

The room is empty, and somehow seems much larger.  The lights are off and the only illumination is the late afternoon sunlight streaming through the windows.  But the most profound impression is the lifeless silence that permeates the space.

There was once life here, the noise of machinery and the hum of electronics.  Mostly, though, it was the sound of voices.  In this now-silent space, the delightful sound of laughter was heard.  There were low voices engaged in earnest discussion, louder ones raised in passionate debate.  It was the orchestra of dedicated people engaged in work that was important and vital. 

A building is…just a building.  It is an amalgamation of concrete and steel, plastic and fabric, wiring and piping.  Some are grand and glorious designs, others decidedly pedestrian.  But the building itself is never as important as what goes on inside.  

People give it life.

The floors bear the constant tread of footsteps, hurrying to and fro.  Walls echo with the vibrant sounds of human activity.  The building now has an identity; a name that presents to the world the nature of the work that goes on inside.  

But it wasn’t just the work.

Life went on here as well.  People came, some from far away and became part of a larger family.  Friendships were forged, love was found.  People married, had children, and shared the drama of their lives together.

And for some, this building was the last place before they passed on to another more glorious life.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

The Will to Win



Gabby Douglass, Olympic Champion
Photo by Dylan Martinez/Reuters



Copyright © 2012 by Ralph F. Couey 

America now has a new crop of heroes. Gabby, Michael, Missy, and others have performed their way into our national heart. This is not the first time this has happened. Remember Mary Lou in 1984? And who can forget Kerri Strug in ’96? That sprint down the runway, slamming into the catapult, soaring into the air , and sticking the landing, all on a leg with two torn ligaments. There was the “miracle” U.S. hockey team who, against all odds, beat the Soviets in 1980.

And we will never forget Jesse Owens running through Hitler’s delusional wall of  Aryan supremacy in 1936.

Over the years, we have watched, utterly enthralled as our Olympians inspired us through their efforts, and their victories. They honored our country, and made us all proud to be Americans.

And yet, there is a curious myopia at work. We cheer them lustily when they win, and groan when they fall short. But in reality, we only see them during this two-week window.

An Olympic athlete is a rare human. Of course, they’re gifted with extraordinary ability. But the most impressive thing about them is the one invisible element that sets them apart from the rest of us.

Will.

The path to the games is long and tortuous. It is an endless procession of years in a gym, on a track, or in a fieldhouse. It is enduring the frustration of trying to get muscles to precisely obey the demands of the mind. It is working through injuries, fighting fatigue. It is pushing aside their anger at the end of a very long day, muscles burning with utter exhaustion, facing a hard-nosed coach who demands, “It’s not good enough. Do it again.” We never see that part of their life, and why we will never really comprehend the tears on the medal stand, and also the more private tears of the defeated. This is something we can never understand because most of the rest of us don’t live a life of excellence. We are mired instead in a culture of “good enough.”