About Me

My photo

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.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

From Behind the Beard*

The author...um...behind the beard!

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
December 25, 2010
as "Santa Memories Always Special"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

For 17 years, I've been privileged to be a Santa. What started out as a favor to a friend has become an unforgettable part of Christmas.

It is safe to say that there is no more recognizable symbol anywhere in America, perhaps the world, than the bearded jolly old elf in red and white. From the youngest toddler, to the oldest centenarian, all recognize Santa for who he is and what he represents. For kids, he is unconditional love, and perhaps a moral and ethical rudder.  That hearty "Ho! Ho! Ho!" never fails to lift spirits and bring smiles.  He always brings gifts. You never know what it'll be, but like the Wells Fargo Wagon from "The Music Man," "..it could be somethin' very special just for me!"

One of my special Santa memories occurred, oddly enough, in the middle of summer.

It was a hot, humid miserable Missouri July afternoon.  I was cruising the aisles of Target, searching for a few items when I saw them.  

Friday, December 20, 2013

Christmas Prayer for the Bruised and the Broken-Hearted

Kind and Loving Father,

It is with joy that we celebrate
the miracle of your Son's birth.

In this season, we often find ourselves safely
within the loving arms of our family.

But even in this time of joy,
we know there are many who are alone.

There are those whose family has disintegrated
and scattered to the winds.

There are those who have lost loved ones
to accident, disease, or time.

There are those who, for whatever reason,
are completely alone in this world.

Santa's Prayer for the Children

Our Father in Heaven,
I kneel before you as your humble servant.

It has been my honor to serve you these many years,
sharing the message of unconditional love, generosity, and acceptance,
which is, after all, your blessing to us all.

I bring presents to children the world over,
but no gift I can carry equals the gift
that you gave to us all:

The life of your Son, Jesus.

I want to express my thanks for this gift,
but also to share my burden.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Veering Off the Path of Hate

Copyright © 2013 by Ralph F. Couey
Except for quoted and cited portions
People must learn to hate,
and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.
For love comes more naturally to the human heart.
 –Nelson Mandela 

It was a moment that has happened all too frequently.  Regular programming was interrupted and in that familiar stentorian tone, we were told of yet another school shooting.  This one in Colorado, only 8 miles from the scene of that tragedy in 1999 that forever changed our lives.  A student had walked into his high school armed with a shotgun and opened fire.  This one, however, ended quickly.  The teacher who was the student’s intended target left the school.  The 18-year-old, seeing the approach of an armed deputy sheriff, turned the gun on himself.  But not before shooting a young girl in the head, a girl who now lies in a coma, her survival unknown.
Most Americans inwardly moaned, “Not again!”  Faces became grim, heads were shaken, and people of faith offered prayers.
The political response was entirely predictable.  Those on the left demonstrated for stricter gun control laws.  Those on the right blamed the culture of casual violence in television, music, and video games.  They were both wrong.  The right’s claim on violence in entertainment, while disturbing, seems to fail on the fact that tens of millions of kids play those games for hours on end and nearly all of them will go through their lives without committing a single act of violence.  The left’s position on gun control also collides with the fact that this was a legal gun purchase by an 18-year-old adult (in the eyes of the law, anyway) who had no history of police involvement, violent behavior, or mental or emotional problems that would have shown up on even the most stringent background check.
But the media attention, curiously, was rather short this time.  Cynics have suggested that this was because the only death was the shooter, and the incident, unlike Columbine and Newtown, only lasted a few minutes, or perhaps the revelation from his classmates that he was a committed socialist, wearing shirts regaling the former Soviet Union. 

Monday, December 09, 2013

The Warmth of Victory on a Cold, Cold Day

Copyright © 2013 by Ralph Couey
It can be difficult to be an NFL ex-pat fan, to live away, sometimes far away from the team of your passion.  Such is the situation with me.
The path of my life has taken me to many places; 49 states and 28 countries.  My formative years, however, were spent in the Kansas City area, Independence specifically.  I was an A's fan when my heroes were players like Rocky Colavito, Mike Hershberger, "Hawk" Harrelson, Ed Charles, and Dick Green.  Baseball was my passion then.  However, when the Chiefs arrived in 1963, my interest in football began to grow.  1966 was fun. 1969 was exhilarating, setting the bar of excellence that hasn't been repeated in a time span approaching a half-century.
Like a good father, I passed this passion on to my son.  Although he hasn't lived in the KC area since he was two years old, he is unmatched in his ardent support for the Chiefs.
We now live in Virginia, he a Navy Chief Warrant Officer, and myself a federal employee.  We still follow the Chiefs online and on television when the opportunity presents.  So it was with glee that my wife announced in mid-October that she had scored tickets for the Chief's visit to Washington DC. 
The Redskins have fallen on hard times, and it is difficult not to feel sympathy.  As the Kansas City Star columnist Mr. Mellinger so poignantly articulated, only a year separates the Chiefs disastrous past from the 'Skins awful present.  The only thing missing over FedEx field has been an airplane-towed banner.  In fact, the unwanted attention brought on by the two teams' nicknames only adds to the shared empathy.
Game Day dawned cold, wet, and miserable.  The forecast was the dreaded 4-bagger, snow, sleet, rain, and freezing rain. But being Midwesterners by experience and attitude, we just shrugged and bundled a few more layers.  DC freeways being a hot mess on a good day, we took the Metro, the area's light rail.  Any new arrival to the Capitol region quickly learns that the only good way to get around is the Metro.  Even as crowded as it gets during rush, it still beats crawling on the freeway for 25 miles at 10 mph.  We boarded at the Vienna station, surprised to see several people in Chiefs gear waiting on the platform.  But the real shocker came when we passed through the Metro Center stop. There, a horde, yes a horde, of Chiefs fans boarded.  The car was already well-populated with Redskins supporters, so the good-natured trash-talk was immediate and loud.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

The Civil War: Events of January 1864

On January 2nd, the Confederate Congress confirmed the appointment of George Davis to the post of Attorney General.

On the 11th, Missouri Senator John B. Henderson proposed the 13th Amendment, ending slavery in the United States.

Union commander of Arkansas, Frederick Steele, was instructed by President Lincoln on January 20th to permit elections after an anti-slavery amendment was proposed for the state constitution.

William S. Rosecrans is ordered to take command of the Department of Missouri on the 22nd.  On that same day, Arkansas selected Isaac Murphy, a pro-unionist, to be the provisional governor until elections could be held in the spring.

The U.S. government lifted trade sanctions on Missouri and Kentucky on January 23rd.

Confederates in Louisiana organize a government around General Henry Allen, designating Shreveport as the state's capital.

Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest attacks and defeats Union William Smith near Meridian, MS on the 25th.

January 26th saw elections being held in Tennessee in areas where the Federal Government is in control.

On the 29th, steamer Sir William Wallace, loaded with northern supplies, is attacked on the Mississippi River near New Orleans.

The Civil War: Events of December 1863

On December 2, Union General Meade started to withdraw his troops north of the Rapidan River, an action which marked the end of the Mine Run Campaign.

After the Siege of Knoxville, Confederate General Longstreet began a 2-day withdrawal from Knoxville to Greeneville, MS on December 3rd.

On the 6th, Union General William T. Sherman broke the siege of Knoxville, entering the city.

On December 8th, the Union declared a Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, offering a full pardon to any Southern soldier in exchange for taking a prescribed oath of allegiance to the United States.

As Longstreet withdrew northeast, he was trailed by a Union force under John G. Parke, who had relieved Ambrose Burnside.  On the 13th, Longstreet turned back to capture Bean's Station on the Holston River in northeast Tennessee.  Longstreet approached in three columns, hoping to trap the northern troops in a vise.  His lead forces began attacking Union pickets around 2 a.m. on the 14th.  The pickets held and warned Union General Shackleford, who deployed his forces for an assault.  The battle lasted most of the day, but the arrival of Southern reinforcements forced a Union retirement.  They managed to entrench themselves at Blain's Crossroads on the 15th.  Longstreet, seeing the strength of their position, withdrew and went into winter quarters at Russellville.  Union forces began probing Longstreet's winter camp, after which Longstreet counter-attacked, driving Shackleford's troops back before they made a successful stand.  Later that evening, the Union forces withdrew.

Union Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase, on December 9th, recommends that the words "In God We Trust" be added to U.S. coinage.

Winter brought some changes in the Southern Army.  on the 16th, Joe Johnston was ordered to take command of the Army of Tennessee.  On the 22nd, Leonidas Polk received similar orders for the Army of Mississippi.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

An Empty Page


From honesttogodjo.wordpress.com
Copyright ©2013 by Ralph F. Couey
Written content only.
"Creativity is always a leap of faith."
--Julia Cameron
"A blank page is no empty space.  It is brimming with potential."
--A. A. Patawaran
"The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there,
written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible."
~Vladimir Nabakov
"There are thousands of thoughts lying within a man
that he does not know till he takes up the pen and writes."
 ~William Makepeace Thackeray
It was sharply cold, that Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend.  Part of our family, blood and extended, had gathered to celebrate the long holiday.  Our youngest daughter visited from Colorado and brought with her that alien culture which maintains that frigid temperatures should be no impediment to outdoor activities.  It was largely at her insistence that we fled the warm confines of our home and made the trek to Alexandria. 
Alexandria, Virginia is one of those really interesting places, if you have any sense of history.  It started out as a warehouse for tobacco located on the Potomac River around 1730.  By 1770, it had grown to become a thriving commercial and shipping center.  The historic part, called "Old Town," is lined with mostly brick buildings that have been renovated and retrofitted into a mile-long shopping and dining district, flanked by neighborhoods consisting of picturesque homes, some of which are more than 200 years old.  It is a pleasant place to go and while away the hours of a day off.
We began our explorations at the far eastern end of King Street, where the waters of the Potomac River slide by on their way to the Atlantic.  We drifted in and out of stores, occasionally making purchases, and keeping track of each other's movements via text.  It was in the second block that I made my discovery. 
The sign over the door read "Paper Source, Inc."  Since I am a writer, and writers still use paper, I dropped in.  The shop was exactly what it advertised.  The walls were lined with racks holding samples and reams of various kinds and colors of paper, from the basic stuff you'd find in any copier, to the really fancy stuff.  I saw, and touched, some of these, parchments and the luxurious linen papers with gold-embossed designs across the tops.  As I moved among the shelves, I was overtaken by an irresistible urge to write. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Manger, The Cross, and the Price of Commitment

Copyright © 2013 by Ralph Couey
We are entering that time of year that we most often associate with joy.  Thanksgiving is upon us, and in a month, Christmas and then New Years.  This is a time in which friends and co-workers have parties, we begin that mad rush of cleaning, shopping, cooking, baking, and decorating, all in preparation for that much-anticipated gathering of family.  It is a happy, if frenetic period.  It is mainly the reason why January is so hard to endure. 

At the core of this whole event is, of course, the celebration of the birth of Jesus.  The giving of presents honors the supreme gift given by God of his only begotten son.  The bright, colorful lights that brighten the lengthening nights remind us that the coming of Jesus was a light unto the world.  Even the gathering of families and the sharing of that love helps us to remember the depth of the love God has for us. 

And yet, the story of the manger is only the first step of the journey Christ took that led to that cross on the hill, and eventually the miracle of the resurrection.  It is important for us to remember that it was those awful hours on that cross that gave meaning to the celebration of his birth.  Jesus was sent here to take upon himself the sins of man, therefore the only reason for his birth was so that he would journey to the cross. 

Yeah, I know.  Buzz kill.  This is not a season in which we want to dwell on dark thoughts, on negative events.  We don’t want anything to disturb this holiday euphoria of ours.  The bad stuff can wait until April, when we can share time for the crucifixion story with Tax Day on April 15th. 

There is a building tension in the recounting of the time between the manger and the cross.  We don’t know a lot of details about Jesus as a child, although there are a few highlights, like his teaching in the temple.  We really don’t begin to know him until that day he shows up with John the Baptist.  From that point, we know about how he gathered his disciples, and how he taught the masses, challenged his enemies, and performed miracles.  We follow along as he came to cross-purposes with the Sanhedrin, and how they plotted to take his life.  We see his torment in the Garden of Gethsemane as he accepted his fate, and his isolation as he saw that even his devoted disciples couldn’t stay awake to share the vigil of those final hours. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Glow of Thanksgiving*

Unattributed graphic from Google Images

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat November 22, 2007
*Clinton (IA) Herald, November 21, 2007
*Glasgow, KY Daily Times, November 21/2007
as "The glow that comes with Thanksgiving"

Copyright © 2007 by Ralph Couey
Written content only

"I do not think of all the misery,
but of the glory that remains.
Go outside into the fields, nature, and the sun;
Go out and seek happiness in yourself and in God.
Think of the beauty that again and again,
discharges itself within and without you;
And be happy.
--Anne Frank

The setting aside of a national Day of Thanksgiving is one of those events whose origins become shrouded in mystery over time, truth and myth interwoven into a fanciful tapestry unquestioningly enjoyed by all. Thanksgiving is truly an American holiday, the trappings, traditions, and tapestries drawn from the past, both the collective and the personal.

Most societies whose survival depended on the bounty of the land have held a harvest celebration of some kind, and for good reason. As anyone who’s ever done it can tell you, farming is hard work. It was even harder before industrialization produced the tools and machinery we so often take for granted today. The risks were huge. Planting had to be accomplished late enough to escape the frost, yet early enough to ensure that the food would be ready to harvest before the cold moved in and killed the plants. In between were dangers such as hail, high winds, locusts and other insects, drought, flood, disease, the health of the farmer, and then the race to harvest and store the bounty before it rotted in the fields. So, when the harvest was successfully brought in, it wasn’t just a business accomplishment; it meant survival.

The Pilgrims who arrived in 1620 were intimately familiar with the hazards of life on the frontier. Had it not been for the largesse and generosity of the Wampanoag tribes, it’s not likely the colony would have survived. As writer H. U. Westermayer observed, “The Pilgrims made seven times more graves than huts. No Americans have been more impoverished than these who, nevertheless, set aside a day of thanksgiving.”

Monday, November 04, 2013

Losing October

Copyright © 2013 by Ralph Couey
Image and written content.
There is something in October sets the gypsy blood astir,
We must rise and follow her;
When from every hill of flame,
She calls and calls each vagabond by name
--William Bliss Carmen
The road lies before me, dappled in sunlight.  The black asphalt curving beneath the trees serves to highlight the bright colors of the leaves scattered across the surface.  A cloudy morning has given way to bright sunlight and a sky of the purest blue.  The air is cool, but not yet cold, and the sunlight slants through the trees illuminating the leaves, leaving them almost incandescent.  To the left, the Blue Ridge rises from the valley, its flanks alive with bright colors.  Besotted by this unmatched beauty, my heart is full; my spirit joyful.  It is October, and I am at the center of my world.
Autumn has always been, and will always be my favorite season, within that three months, October is the crown jewel. 
There's to much to love.  Summer's oppressive heat and humidity is a fading memory.  Winter, with snow and cold, is still weeks away.  In this short span of time, my days are full of beauty.  That they are noticeably shorter only serves to heighten the pricelessness of each daylight hour.
For sports fans, it's the best time of year.  Baseball is in it's final climactic act of the season.  Football has hit its stride.  Basketball and hockey have begun to stir from their off-season slumbers.  There is a snap in the air that heightens the senses sparks the spirit.  Unlike the other seasons, each day is different as the leaves slowly change, from spotty color on the first, to a brilliant palette on the thirty-first.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Drunk Driving: It's Time to Take a Stand

Photo from Missouri State Highway Patrol
Copyright © 2013 by Ralph F. Couey
Alcohol, in the form of distilled spirits, has been around almost as long as organized human culture.  It has been used as a celebrant, a relaxant, the lubricant of human interaction.  IT has also been used, and abused, as a way to push aside sorrows, anxiety, and depression.  Used in moderation, alcoholic beverages are accepted and even encouraged.  But their abuse has taken many down the dark tunnel of alcoholism, a path marked by anger, violence, and even death.
One of the places where the dangers of booze have been made manifest is on our streets and highways.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that in 2009, an estimated 30.2 million people reported driving under the influence of alcohol at least once in that year.  Some 900,000 are arrested annually for DUI/DWI, a third of those are repeat offenders.  On average, around 12,000 people in this country die in alcohol-related accidents each year.
There is good news in the trends.  Since all states adopted a universal drinking age of 21 in 1981, alcohol-related traffic fatalities have fallen almost 50 percent.  In the 1970’s, half of all traffic deaths were attributable to alcohol.  Today, that figure is about one-third.
But that kind of celebration carries a heavy dose of rationalization.  If that figure represented only the intoxicated themselves, there might be found a bit of justice.  However, most of the people who are injured, and who die in alcohol-related accidents are innocents, those who just happened to be on the same road at the same time as the drunk.
In the United States, the legal limit is 0.08% blood alcohol content (BAC).  In some states, drivers under the age of 21 can be charged if there is any detectable alcohol at all.  In Germany, for example, where the legal drinking age is 16, standards are much stricter.  The allowable BAC levels start at zero for beginning drivers, with less than 2 years' experience, and drivers under the age of 21. The same zero-tolerance standard applies to drivers performing the commercial transportation of passengers.  For all drivers, the legal limit is 0.03% in conjunction with any other traffic offense or accident, and 0.05% without evidence of alcoholic impact.  A BAC level of   0.11% results in the suspension of the person’s driver’s license for about one year.  A BAC level of 0.16% means that the driver will require a successful Medical Psychological Assessment before the license can be reinstated.  These stringent rules, and their unbending enforcement, keeps alcohol-related deaths to around 5% of the total each year.
I think there is something we can learn from this.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Civil War: Events of November 1863

On November 2nd, President Lincoln, almost as an afterthought, is invited to make "a few appropriate remarks" at the dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg.

On the 4th, Confederate General Bragg orders Longstreet to Knoxville to take on Union forces under Ambrose Burnside.

November 6th opened the Battle of Droop Mountain in Pocahontas County, West Virginia.  Confederate forcers under John Echols and a fellow named Patton were driven from their positions to the summit of Droop Mountain.  They were reinforced, but in the afternoon, Union General Averell turned the left flank, and sent dismounted cavalry in a brutal frontal assault against the main Confederate line.  The Rebs gave way, fleeing into the woods.  Echols eventually rallied his troops, but was forced to retreat back to Virginia.  As a result of this battle, Confederate resistance in West Virginia collapsed.

In the afternoon of November 7th, Union forces under John Sedgwick and William French attacked river crossings at Rappahannock Station and Kelly's Ford. After heavy fighting, the Union troops carried the positions.  The loss of these two bridgeheads destroyed Lee's plans for an offensive, forcing him to move his army back south again.

The siege of Charleston Harbor continued, with Fort Sumter falling under heavy shelling between November 7th and the 10th.  After a quiet couple of days, the shelling resumed on the 12th

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Civil War: Events of October 1863

On October 3, President Lincoln called for a national day of thanksgiving at the end of November.

Starting October 2, Confederate cavalry General Joseph "Fightin' Joe" Wheeler began a series of raids in central Tennessee. On the 2nd, he raided a Union supply base at Powell's Crossroads and destroyed more than 700 wagons.  Pursuit was begun, but he managed to raid McMinnville and scooped up the 600 men of that Union garrison.  On the 5th, he cut the railroad between Nashville and Chattanooga at Stones River.  These raids helped tighten the Confederate siege of Chattanooga.

Also on October 5th, the submarine CSS David damaged the USS New Ironsides in Charleston Harbor.  The Union ship, as tough as her name, remained on station.

The next day, Confederate President Jefferson Davis embarked on an inspection tour through South Carolina and North Georgia, speaking in Atlanta on the 8th.

Starting October 9th, Robert E. Lee led the Army of Northern Virginia across the Rapidan River in an attempt to outflank the Army of the Potomac.  In response, Union General Meade withdrew to the river on the 10th.  On the 11th, heavy skirmishing broke out as the two armies clashed between the Rapidan and the Rappahannock.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Shutdowns, Furloughs, Sequesters, and the DC Merry-Go-Round

Copyright © 2013 by Ralph Couey
Like many of my fellow federal employees, I viewed the October 1st shutdown with a mixture of eye-rolling exasperation and quiet concern.  Unlike others, however, I still have to go to work, albeit sans paycheck.  But as of today, 12 days in, with no solution is sight, concern has turned to worry.
America is deeply divided.  In fact, that only view we all hold in common is a shared resentment for those in DC whose responsibility it is to solve problems like this (and who are still getting paid, by the way) before they become catastrophes.
The word "shutdown" is actually less descriptive of the current situation.  Those of us who are considered emergency essential, whose jobs involve the security of the nation, are still going to work.  Remember the pursuit and gunfire involving that woman who tried to drive onto White House grounds?  The cops who pursued her were (and still are) doing what is essentially volunteer work.  Most federal employees remain at home, filling the hours with long-delayed household projects.  Bills have already been passed ensuring that we will receive our backpay when this thing is settled.  In the meantime, we will sharply curtail household expenditures and dread that day when we are forced to dip into that emergency fund that every prudent fed has carefully nurtured.
So here we sit, the wealthiest, most powerful nation in the history of this planet rendered impotent by the poison of dueling extremism.
While disturbing and disruptive, the shutdown is not as serious as the debt crisis. If we the people haven't taken notice, the Chinese government, who own about a trillion and a half of our debt, are taking notice.  Last week, they issued a strongly-worded statement warning American that Chinese financial interests are at risk.  Within those words, many heard a thinly-veiled threat.
Blame.  Everyone wants to sling it; nobody wants to receive it.  Folks on the left blame the right; folks on the right blame the left.  But blame, however it is generously spread, has never solved a problem, never crafted a solution.  Solutions do not exist on either the right or the left, but in that common ground in the middle, the no-man's land called compromise.  Historically, compromise has been the great healer.  Inherent in that art is the principal that both sides must concede important things before peace can be restored.  For too many, compromise means "my way or the highway."  Pride and reputation erects walls between what is and what is possible.  But if those two sins can be set aside for a time, this thing, and the looming debt crisis, can be solved.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Memory Lane and the Reconciliation with Time

Copyright ©2013 by Ralph F. Couey
except quoted and cited portions.
There are moments in life that can be either dreaded or anticipated. Or both.  Next week, I will travel cross-country to revisit those three years encompassed by the words "high school."
I (along with some 350 others) graduated on a humid May night in 1973.  Yes, I can count.  That's 40 years.  I told one of my co-workers where I was bound.  He whistled and exclaimed, "You've been out of high school longer than I've been alive!"
Like I needed to hear that.
It's a common thing to compare the past to day in economic terms.  In 1973, the average American income was $12,900.  Out of that, people still managed to afford the average-priced home at $32,900. One of the hottest cars was the AMC Javelin, priced at $2,999, which swallowed 40-cent-per-gallon gasoline at a precipitous rate.  That, of course, changed in October when OPEC embargoed all crude oil going to countries that supported Israel. 
The Yom Kippur War, the fourth and largest of the Arab-Israeli wars, was fought.  Unfortunately for the Arabs, Israel won again.  Richard Nixon was inaugurated for his second term, but throughout the year saw his administration, his reputation, and his legacy trashed through the Watergate scandal.  He would resign the Presidency in 1974.  Lyndon Johnson, Nixon's predecessor, died in Texas.  Abortion became legal by the Supreme Court's ruling on Roe vs. Wade.  Members of the American Indian Movement seized the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee and held it captive for two months.
The Miami Dolphins capped a perfect season by defeating the Washington Redskins in Superbowl VII.
And in an event that provided a breath of relief for all draft-eligible young men, U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War ended with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

9/11 and the Spinning Wheel of War

Flight 93 Memorial, Shanksville, PA
Copyright 2013 © by Ralph F. Couey
Photos and written content

Time, as they say, is the healer of all wounds.   In most cases, this is true.  But for some events, the healing is never complete.
On September 11, we commemorated the 12th anniversary of the terror attacks. In New York City, Arlington, Virginia, and in the rolling countryside near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, as well as hundreds of other places across this country people gathered, bells tolled, names were read aloud, and memories resurfaced.
There are a few people who, for whatever reason, would be happy to see this day pass without notice.   But for the vast majority, this is a day of remembrance, a day when we realize that while the wound may have closed, the ache remains.
Thanks to digitized video, the images of that desperate day will live in shocking clarity, preserved for generations to come.  Children not yet born to parents yet to meet will experience the record of that awful day much the same as we did. 
Yet, we should not only remember those who were lost, and their surviving families and friends, but also those who survived; those who carry scars, both seen and unseen.  Their legacy is a daily struggle with survivor's guilt, forever asking the unanswerable question of "why them and not me?"
September 11th is a date which will never need an explanation, or a memory jog.  There have been other dates of significance, November 22nd, for example.   But 9/11 will always live side-by-side with December 7th (and shame on you if you don't recognize that one).   In both tragedies, it was not just about the tremendous destruction and loss of life, but instead about the profound shock those events inflicted upon the American system.  In the transition from the day before to the day after, life was completely and permanently altered.   On both days, war was thrust upon us.  Young people volunteered and shipped out.  Some never returned; others came back with horrendous physical wounds.  Others, even nearly 70 years later, still carry invisible scars inflicted on the soul and psyche.  Similarly, both generations have been reluctant to speak of their experience in combat.   As one World War II veteran told me, "I can't tell you about war.   If you've never been there, you'll never understand."

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Civil War: Events of September 1863

In Scott County, AR on September 1, 1863 Union forces under James G Blunt fought a Confederate brigade commanded by William L. Cabell.  Cabell had just abandoned Ft. Smith, which was occupied by the Bluecoats without a fight.  Cabell fought a retiring action while crossing over Devil’s Backbone in the Ouachita Mountains.  Despite being outnumbered and saddled with a command filled with deserters, conscripts, and jayhawkers, he managed to get his command out of the area mostly intact.  The battle itself was pretty much a draw, but with the Union possessing Ft. Smith, they now controlled the Arkansas River Valley.
The next day, troops under Union General Ambrose Burnside occupied Knoxville, TN.
Southern hopes for naval support from Great Britain were broken  on September 5th when Lord Russell ordered that two ironclad warships bound for the Confederacy from Liverpool to be detained.
The Siege of Charleston took another bad turn for the South on September 6th when General P.G.T. Beauregard ordered the evacuation of Batteries Wagner and Morris Island.
In the Second Battle of Sabine Pass on September 8th, US Navy Captain Frederick Crocker entered the Sabine River in Texas near the Louisiana border with four gunboats and 5,000 Union soldiers.  The pass was defended from Ft. Griffin by 46 Rebel soldiers and six guns of the Jeff Davis Guards under Lt. Richard Dowling.  Surprisingly, the Rebel fire was accurate and deadly, forcing the Union fleet to withdraw, losing two gunboats and 200 sailors.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Running Towards an Immutable Truth

"Uphill"  --Picture by Stefan Jansson
Copyright © by Ralph F. Couey
Except for photo and cited quotes
I love to read. Unfortunately, my busy schedule doesn't leave me much time to delve.  However, one place I can go and be guaranteed a few minutes of uninterrupted peace are the...um...facilities.  I'm sure I'm far from being alone in that department.
I was at work when I found a copy of a magazine oriented towards runners -- not 3-to-5 milers like myself, but really long distance folks, half-, full-, and ultra-marathoners.  Myself, I've been running regularly now for about 15 months and have gotten to the point where I feel guilty for skipping a day, even when my Achilles acts up.  So, I was idly flipping through the 'zine when I came across a page full of printed tweets about running.  One of them caught my eye.
"Never make a decision going uphill."
It took a bit of digging after I got home to find the source of this captivating piece of wisdom, but I was able to track it to a fellow named John Burton who is the "pacer" (no, I don't know what that is) for ultra-marathoner W. Caitlin Smith. 
Anyone who has taken on the challenge of running (not on a treadmill) should immediately be able to relate to this statement.  I run primarily the streets, sidewalks, and occasionally, trails in and around the delightfully sublime village of Vienna, Virginia.  I've mapped out about 9 different routes, ranging from flat and easy 3 milers on the W&OD trail, to 5.5 milers through the attractive "Leave It To Beaver" neighborhoods.  Vienna is a hilly town and as a result these courses tend to take on the character of a roller coaster ride.  While it's nice to go downhill, at 58 years old, I find that my joints will only allow me so much speed, hence my pace tends to be a glacial 12- to 13-minute mile. 

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Becoming an American

Copyright © 2013 by Ralph Couey
Words and photo, except cited quotations.
Americanism is a question of principles, of idealism, of character:
 it is not a matter of birthplace or creed or line of descent.
 — Theodore Roosevelt
About 10 years ago, give or take, our son fell in love.  In the experience of raising children and turning them loose on adulthood, this is something that can only be described as inevitable.  While stationed in Seoul, Korea with the Navy, he met a charming young lady with a dimpled smile and a delightful laugh.  She struck a spark somewhere deep inside of him, making him aware that he had an empty space in his heart, a space only she could fill.

I guess you could say that it was there that he found his...um..."Seoul" mate.
In the years since, Yukyung has become as honored and loved a daughter as the three we already had.  Their family has grown to include two children, a bright, effervescent, loving girl with her mother's dimples named Diana, and a smart, active, incredibly articulate and loquacious boy named Ian.  Robert and Yukyung have proven themselves to be a great team, having weathered some storms and celebrated joys as any married couple do these days.

Yukyung was born in Seoul, Republic of Korea, something she has always been proud of.  The Korean people, at least the southern ones, have accomplished a great deal in the industrial and economic areas despite a terrible and endemic problem with governmental corruption.  These achievements are fed mostly by a work ethic one has to witness to believe.  Seoul may not be high on many people's vacation lists, but if you want to be awed by a people and a country that few in the U.S. understand, or even know about, I highly recommend a visit.

She loves her homeland, as any of us would.  So it was a surprise when she announced to us that she was intending to become an American citizen. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Civil War: Events of August 1863

August 1st: Admiral David Porter assumed command of Federal naval forces on the Mississippi River.  That same day, Union forces began a sustained bombardment of entrenchments surrounding the vital port of Charleston.

On that same day, Union General Frederick Steele launched the Little Rock campaign, to capture the Arkansas capital.

The next day, Lee's retreat from Gettysburg, and Meade's less-than-enthusiastic pursuit ended with both lines stabilized on either side of the Rappahannock River.

On August 5th, President Lincoln sent a letter to Nathaniel Banks stating that he would never return a negro freed under the Emancipation Proclamation to slavery.

Three days later, on the 8th, General Lee, in response to the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, submits his resignation to President Jefferson Davis.  Davis refuses to allow his best General to leave the fight.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Adrift and Alone

Earth from the rings of Saturn
From NASA Cassini spacecraft
Copyright © 2013 by Ralph F. Couey
Written portion only, except quoted sections
“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us.
On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of,
where every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.
The aggregate of our joy and suffering,
thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines. 
Every hunter and forager, every hero and coward,
every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child,
inventor and explorer, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there
-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."
--Dr. Carl Sagan
"The Pale Blue Dot"

We look around every day and see crowds.  Cities alive with bustling humans going about their business.  Freeways jammed with cars, trucks, and motorcycles, always going somewhere.  Even outside the urban areas, it's still a crowded place, chockablock with trees, plants, animals, and insects.  We tend to think of earth as a place running out of space.

Then something happens.  A picture, always worth a thousand words, appears before us, tapping that sense of awe within and putting the percolating details of life in proper perspective.

This week, NASA leaked the very first pictures of Earth taken by the Cassini space probe, currently orbiting the ringed planet Saturn.  At first you don't see it.  Then, you do.  A small bluish speck glowing by reflected sunlight against the empty backdrop of the universe.  Your mouth falls open just a bit; maybe you take an involuntary gasp. 

Astronauts and Cosmonauts have all talked about that magical moment of perspective when they first see their home planet from space.  Suddenly, a world and its people once thought of as being bisected and divided by borders and boundaries is seen, not as a collection of geopolitical states and races, but as one organism, fragile and alone, hanging in a vast ocean of...nothing.

It is a humbling thing to behold.  We, as a human race, tend to think highly of ourselves, of our place in the universe.  To be fair, there are those of us who do produce large splashes in our particular pond.  But we have always considered us to be favored by creation, what- or whom-ever the author.  In our early history, earth was thought to be at the center of the universe, that the sun orbited around us instead of the other way around.  When Copernicus first proposed the idea of a sun-centered system, he was brutalized by the religious authorities of the day, who thought he was somehow insulting God.

The truth is that the earth and her teeming billions are but one planet in an otherwise unremarkable solar system floating around the galaxy, not close to the busy center, but shunted off to the side.  Even our galaxy, vast and seemingly crowded with hundreds of billions of stars is but one of hundreds of billions floating throughout the known universe. 

Monday, July 08, 2013

Favorite Rides: Fort Valley Loop

Copyright © 2013 by Ralph Couey
Maps from Microsoft Streets and Trips,
and Google Maps
160 miles
3 hours
US29, US211, US11, Edinburg Gap Rd., Ft. Valley Rd., VA55, VA626.
This enjoyable jaunt takes in some beautiful Virginia countryside with a couple of history lessons thrown in.
This run starts in the parking lot of the Manassas National Battlefield Park visitors center.  This large park is the site of two major engagements during the Civil War.  In July 1861, public pressure was strong for a march to Richmond, the Confederate capital, to quickly end the war.  Union Commander Irvin McDowell pleaded for more time to train his very green troops and officers, but the political pressure overcame his objections and he was forced into battle. 
It was expected, by the public at least, to be an easy victory.  People from Washington came out with baskets to picnic on the battlefield and watch the fight.  But it turned into a bloody rout.  McDowell's orders were poorly executed by his untrained officers and after a heroic stand by an unknown VMI Colonel named Thomas Jackson, hereafter known as "Stonewall," the Union troops were routed.  Throwing aside their weapons the fled for Washington, along with the terrified civilians.
A little over a year later, in August 1862, Robert E. Lee was on the offensive.  He sent Jackson's Corps on a wide flanking march to capture the Union supply depot at Manassas Junction.  After two inconclusive engagements, Jackson dug in on a ridge.  Convinced he had Stonewall trapped, Union Commander John Pope committed most of his troops on a direct assault against Jackson.  Unknown to Pope, however, another corps of Southern troops under James Longstreet broke through at Thoroughfare Gap, marched to the battlefield and hit Pope's forces in a massive flanking attack.  Pope's army was crushed, the remnants sent into retreat.  This time, the Union troops didn't flee all the way to Washington, but collected themselves at Centreville.  It was a disastrous defeat just the same.
Leaving the visitor's center, turn right on Sudley Road and go up to the US29 intersection, by the Stone House.  Turn left and head west.  After about 18 miles, you'll have to navigate some heavy traffic through Warrenton.  Look for the turnoff to US 211 and take it.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Favorite Rides: The Winelander Run

Copyright © 2013 by Ralph F. Couey
For six great years, I hosted a two day motorcycle ride which I called "The Winelander Run."  The route started in Kingdom City, MO and ran through Fulton, Columbia, Rocheport, Jefferson City, Hermann, and ending up in Hannibal on Sunday. It was a great run, and a great weekend with fun had by all who attended.  This was the Ride Brief I provided to the riders before we started.
Winelander Run
Welcome to the Annual Winelander Run!  I am very happy to have you along today and hope your ride will be enjoyable.  First, a few rules for safety and fun enhancement:
1.  Fill your tank before the ride starts and at all designated fuel stops.
2. When possible, use the approved staggered method of riding.  Don’t ride directly behind the bike in front of you.  On twisty roads, however, stretch the spacing out and use as much as the road as you need.   
3.  No passing. That is, maintain your position in the group through out the ride.
4.  After the ride has started, please don’t leave the group unless you suffer a breakdown or a medical problem.
5. Each person on the ride is responsible for the rider behind him when making turns.  If you have lost sight of the rider in front of you, continue straight ahead, assuming that he will wait for you at the next turn or change in route number.
6.  While in the curves, ride at a pace that is comfortable for you. When you come out of a curve, use the straightaway to catch up.
7. Do not tailgate.  However, in congested areas, keep the formation tightened up and staggered as much as you safely can as you approach traffic signals so that the group moves through the light as a unit.
Now a few notes about the route.
1.  This is “critter country” that we’re riding through.  We shouldn’t see many deer during the day, but there are plenty of dogs, cats, raccoons, skunks, foxes, etc., so be alert.  Also, the great Missouri turtle migration starts about this time, so watch for little helmets with legs and avoid them.
2.  There are places where you will see me slow down a bit.  Some are curves where there is always a spray of gravel around.  There are other places where I have often seen deer cross in the past, so if you see me slow down and begin to scan the roadsides, there’s a good reason.
3.  If you need to stop for gas or to pump bilges (an old Navy term) give three long beeps on your horn and I’ll pull over at the next available spot.  We will take breaks about every 60 minutes or so.  The travel distance to Hermann on this route should be about 190 miles.   I have scheduled the fuel stops within a mileage range that should not present a problem.  
 Here’s the route for Saturday (220 miles, 5 hours):

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Favorite Rides: Southwest Sojourn

Copyright © 2013 by Ralph F. Couey
Alamogordo, New Mexico to Tombstone, Arizona
330 miles, about 6 hours
US70, I-10, NM80, AZ80
There's something special about the Southwest.  It's hard for people from the more forested regions of the United States to see the inherent beauty within the harsh and unforgiving terrain of the desert.
This ride starts in the city of Alamogordo, New Mexico, nestled at the foot of the Sacramento Mountains.  To the west lies the Tularosa Basin which humans inhabited some 11,000 years ago. The city was established in 1898 when the El Paso and Northeastern Railroad extended their line into the area.  The name, Alamogordo, which means "large cottonwood," was inspired by the presence of a grove of the hardy trees.  From the 1940s on, Holloman Air Force Base was the site of aerospace work, including rocket sleds and high-altitude balloon flights.  The two chimpanzees who flew in space, Ham and Enos, were trained here.  That tradition carries on with the New Mexico Museum of Space History.
Heading west on US70, you cross the basin and the Rio Grand Rift.  To the north, the forbidding desert called Jornada del Muerto, Journey of the Dead, points your attention to the Trinity site, where the first atomic bomb was detonated.

Writer's Block: The Dam of Creativity

From Henry Harvey Books.com
Copyright © 2013 by Ralph F. Couey
Written Content Only.
Every writer, whether accomplished Pulitzer laureate or casual blogger knows intimately the frustration of sitting in front of the computer (or pad and paper) burning with the desire to put words to paper, but cursed with a stubbornly blank brain. It is the curse of this art. One can never predict its onset, but you can almost guarantee a visit from this demon at that moment when a deadline is staring you in the face.
There are two basic types of writer's block.  One involves having that juicy idea trying to push it's way out of the brain.  The other is that complete blank best articulated by that oh-so-familiar Windows alert:  "Error 404:  File not found."

According to recent research, there is a part of the brain called the corpus callosum.  This connects the two lobes of the brain, and is thicker in the brains of people who are creative types. The thicker the corpus callosum, the more effective the brain is at synchronizing activities, therefore enhancing the ability to be creative.  Supposedly, the corpus callosum is always the same size.  But every writer will swear on a stack of thesauruses that there are times when the lobal bridge drops its gates completely.
For a writer to be successful, it will be necessary to develop strategies to overcome the block.
A tour of the Internet turned up dozens of ideas on how to get past the block. I chose the ones I felt were more realistically effective.
The first step (and the most important) is to recognize that moment when that virtual cube of granite thunks down upon your desk.  There will always be those moments when a writer searches frantically for a particular word or turn of phrase to best illustrate the point being made.  These are ephemeral momentary interruptions.  But when the ideas come to a halt, or the mind goes completely blank, it's time to act.
Don't panic.  Tying your brain up in stressful knots is not likely to help.
Get caffeinated.  While I'm the last one to endorse using chemicals to poke the brain, there are times when a cup of coffee or can of soda provides just enough of a spark to light the fires once again.  Also, you might consider having a snack, since low blood sugar and hunger fatigue are notoriously deleterious to creativity.
If there is a "have-to-do" intruding on your conscience, go take care of it. Vacuum, put a load in the wash, run the errand, take care of those guilt trips and free yourself.

Monday, June 24, 2013

A Reservoir of Memories Found on a Humid Summer's Night

Copyright © 2013 by Ralph F. Couey
After a long and coolish spring, summer has finally arrived here in Northern Virginia.  For the next week or so, temperatures will soar into the mid- to upper-90s with humidity levels for which the word "oppressive" seems utterly inadequate.  There's no real surprise here, just a grim sense that the inevitable has finally arrived.
I'm no stranger to this kind of weather.  After all, I grew up in Missouri where this kind of weather is an every day occurrence between the last week in May and the second week in September.  I will admit, however, that seven years spent in the mountains of western Pennsylvania (four, and only four, 90-degree days in that span) has spoiled me.  And last summer around here, as it was for most of the country, was a scorcher.  So while I've started to acclimate again, I still don't have to like it.
It's not so bad if you are dressed properly and you have a day when you won't have to be anyplace where a sweaty body is not completely out of place.  However, if you have a job where a coat and tie is still the de rigueur uniform of the day, then weather of this type is a confounded nuisance.  It's terribly difficult to project that cool professional appearance if you look (and feel) like a wet malodorous dishrag.
Humidity is a natural consequence of the season, except in the desert.  Shifting weather patterns keep the cool Arctic air locked up far to the north while opening the door to the moisture-laden air mass from the Caribbean.  It is helped along by the contribution of plants and trees which emit not only oxygen but large amounts of water vapor. 
I've always disliked this kind of weather, but having dropped 178 pounds in the last five or so years, I can tolerate it much better than before.  I do make adjustments.  Instead of running five miles per day, I power walk 3 to 4 miles, while wearing a camelback reservoir and sunscreen.  Why not exercise inside you ask?  Because, I reply, I hate treadmills even more that humidity.
Still, there are aspects of this season to which I've come to a point of reconciliation.
Riding a motorcycle in these conditions adds to the already-abundant hazards on the road.  During the day, there is the risk of becoming overheated and dehydrated.  This is especially true if the rider is caught in a traffic jam where sitting in place for an extended period of time exposes one to not only the discomforts of the atmosphere, but the reflected heat from the pavement and the waves of thermal energy emanating from the cars and trucks around the bike.  At night, the sun is gone, but the soupy atmosphere retains much of the heat of the day.  In addition, critters are very active, so the odds of striking a deer, even in the city, are very high.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Favorite Rides: Virginia Byways

Copyright © 2013 by Ralph F. Couey

Virginia Byways
US50, Snickersville Turnpike,
VA7, Blue Ridge Mtn. Rd., US17,
VA55, Middleburg. 
70 miles

Virginia encases a lot of history, from the first settlements, The Revolution, War of 1812, Civil War, and on into the modern era.  While many sites are well-known and well-marked, others require sojourns off the main routes onto those quaint country lanes that existed, some as Indian trails, for hundreds of years.
West of the busy ‘burbs of Fairfax and Chantilly is an enjoyable loop that has become one of my favorites, and only partly because it’s so close to home. 


Heading west on US 50, the transition from city to country overtakes you.  Before you realize it, the forest of newly-built homes and townhouses recedes in the rear view to be replaced by rolling hills, bucolic countryside, and the vast picturesque horse farms that have earned this part of Virginia the descriptor “Hunt Country.”  The first checkpoint is the town of Aldie.  
Aldie was established in 1765 when the Mercer brothers established a mill.  It was a natural location, in a gap between Catoctin Mountain to the north and Bull Run Mountain to the south.  It was on the main road between Winchester and Alexandria.  A post office arrived in 1811 and seven years later the Snickersville Turnpike was opened.  In the run-up to the Battle of Gettysburg, a series of skirmishes were fought here between Union cavalry and Mosby’s Rangers, screening the move of Rebel forces into Maryland and eventually Pennsylvania.

Favorite Rides: Der Weinstrasse

Copyright © 2013 by Ralph F. Couey

The Weinstrasse
Jefferson City, MO – St. Charles, MO
140 miles, mainly US 50, Routes 100 and 94


When the words “Missouri Wine Country” are spoken, most people react with a blank stare, and if they’re from Napa, California, outright derision.  But as John Adams once remarked, “Facts are stubborn things.”  And the facts are these.  
German settlers arrived in the area around 1801.  The soil was rich, but the abundant hills in the area made agriculture difficult, but proved to ideal for viticulture.  The first commercial grapes were grown prior to 1850.  Napa got its start about 10 years later.  Up till Prohibition, Missouri was actually the second largest wine producer in the United States.  When the 21st Amendment was ratified, the vintner industry throughout the U.S. was pretty much destroyed.  It wasn’t until the 1960s that the industry began to rebuild itself.
The Federal Government, recognizing the rebirth and vibrancy of American vintners, in 1983 began to establish American Viticultural Areas.  The first one was in Missouri, not California.
Start this trek in Missouri’s capital city, Jefferson City, the only American capitol city not on an interstate highway.  Head east on US 50 for just under 15 miles to the town of Loose Creek.  There you take a left on County Route A. 

The next 6.5 miles is sheer motorcycle joy.  Route A has several deeply-dished right-angle turns, most of which have excellent visibility all the way through.  Hazards here include critters and farm vehicles.  Route A ends as you coast down a steep hill into Bonnots Mill.  It’s a quiet town, somewhat quaint, lying along the Osage River, which parallels the Missouri River just before joining the Big Muddy just east of town.  If you want a meal (and it’s after 3:00 p.m.) Johnny Mac’s Bar and Grill fills the bill.  Known for their barbecue, the rest of the menu, while unremarkable, is all good, tasty stuff.  If you just need a cool drink, there’s a grocery store with a large and inviting veranda owned by some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet.