About Me

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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Friday, September 26, 2014

Learning How to Wait

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

I'm sitting here this evening with my eyes on the computer, but my ears pegged to the broadcast of a baseball game.

Baseball has had a huge influence on my life, in ways both substantial and subtle.  While I've always been a fan of "the game," my loyalties have been tied like heartstrings to the fate of the Kansas City Royals. 

Tonight, hopefully, will be special.  If the Royals can hang on to their 3-0 lead over the Chicago White Sox for nine more outs, they will gain entry to that post-season tournament we call "the playoffs."  Before you sigh and intone "so what?", let me explain.

In 1985, the Royals made the playoffs.  No real surprise, since they had been there in 1976, 1977, 1978, and 1980.  But this time, they survived all the way to the World Series, a memorable seven-game dogfight against their cross-state rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals.  After a controversial play in game 6 gave the Royals one more desperate breath, they absolutely destroyed the Redbirds in game 7 to bring home the World's Championship of Major League Baseball.

The Royals were a dominant team, combining airtight defense, superior pitching and enough offense to do the job.  They remained competitive through the rest of the '80's, but beginning in the '90's and on into the first decade of the 21st century, the team sank as far as a team can go.  There were several 100-loss seasons in that time, and the tight-fisted owners pedaled away star players in favor of keeping the salaries under control.  Fans grew disillusioned and began staying away in droves.

A change in leadership and a re-invigoration of the farm system (including a heavy investment in culling talent from the Dominican Republic) began to show dividends.  This year was the year everyone talked about as the season when their impressive talent would mature into championship material.  And that has finally been the case.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Hiking, Part 12



Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

Today we went back to the Potomac River, a place I haven't hiked since spring.  I remember how enchanting it was, the paths lined with bluebells, and those wonderful sunny days after a winter that just wouldn't go away.  I decided to start a bit upstream from Great Falls Park, another park called Riverbend.  Using the GPS, we located the visitors center, a modernish-looking structure set on a low rise overlooking the river.  We picked up the trail and headed north.  

This particular stretch is part of the Potomac Heritage Trail, a system of trails that stretch from Stafford County, Virginia, south of Washington DC, all the way to the Conemaugh Gorge near Johnstown, PA.  Added together, the primary and secondary trails add up to a whopping 830 miles.  If you were to stay on the main trail itself, you would pile up some 425 miles, if I've done the math right.  The section we were on today is actually two trails, one on each side of the Potomac.  The trail on the east side is called the C&O Towpath, which provided mule power to haul flat boats up and down the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

You would think that walking along a river might be a pretty easy, flat path.  In truth, the trail does have it's easy portions, but then it meanders inland and you end up climbing and descending the bluffs, some of which are pretty doggone steep.  So it ends up being a mixed bag, which is a good thing especially if you have a new hiker along with you.

The first mile or so was flat and in some places, pretty sandy, deposits from frequent flooding.  This is a section easy on the eyes, with the forest to your left, and to your right the waters of the Potomac River, today a vivid blue under flawless early autumn skies.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Questions, Answers...and Patience

"We are often confronted by questions
which we cannot answer
because the time for answering them
has not yet come."
-- Thomas Merton

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

Recently, a friend lost his dear wife to cancer.  My friend is a man of science and is thus a pragmatist by nature.  There are many others like him who look at the world as a technical problem awaiting a technical solution.  Within them, there is a gnawing frustration that science could develop the technology to travel to other planets and map the human genome, but has yet to find a solution to cancer.  The knowledge that evidence is mounting towards an eventual cure is cold comfort to someone who is dealing with the acute pain of  the loss of the most important person in their life.

Scientific knowledge is a progression of sorts.  Each discovery is added to and enhanced by succeeding generations gifted with much better technology and improved processes, and in some cases, better brains.  Leonardo Da Vinci was a brilliant scientist.  Unfortunately, he was trapped in the 15th century.  It is reasonably stunning to project what his accomplishments might be if he were brought forward in time and equipped with even your average desktop computer and CAD software.  If any of the physicians who struggled against the Black Plague of the 14th century knew as much as the average Mom today about infectious bacteria, the plague might have been slowed or even halted.

There are about a hundred thousand questions we ask today that future generations will look back upon, shake their heads, and say sadly, "If only they knew..."  We have to have patience, dedication, and a firm belief in the premise that there are no unanswerable questions, given enough time.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Star-Spangled Banner, and the People Who Still Make it Wave


Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
 
 
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
 
 
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
 
 
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
--Francis Scott Key
Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

The words are familiar to every American, a song we’ve sung countless times and listened to even more often.  Most people don’t know that, even though the words were penned on a British ship in Baltimore Harbor in September of 1814, the song did not become the anthem of our nation until a congressional resolution was passed on March 3, 1931, and signed by President Hoover.
That’s an interesting tale in itself, as it wasn’t until Robert Ripley (Ripley’s Believe It or Not) pointed out that the United States as yet had no national anthem.  The tune came from John Stafford Smith, who originally composed it as “To Anacreon in Heaven” for the Anacreontic Society, a men’s social club in London.
It is a difficult song to sing, covering a musical span of one note over an octave and a half, as countless singers can attest.  But it is the history behind the words themselves that give the song it’s powerful meaning, and subsequent national status.
Of late, the anthem has come under fire from some, saying that the song glorifies war.  Maybe its time to take a closer look.
By 1814, Britain had defeated Napoleon in Europe, and was now free to send the bulk of her now-veteran troops across the Atlantic to deal with those pesky former colonials. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Hiking, Part 11





Bull Run Mountain

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Photos and written content

It couldn't have been a more perfect day.  Clear sky, low humidity, temperatures in the low 70's, and a day off to boot.  If Amazon sold days like this, their site would crash and burn.  The first hint of fall weather has arrived after summer threw one last high hard one at us last week.

Following Cheryl's instructions, I picked a place we hadn't gone yet.  About 15 minutes west of Manassas right off I-66 is a real treasure.  The Bull Run Mountains are a 15-mile stretch of peaks which form the easternmost range of the Blue Ridge.  The two are separated by the beautiful Loudoun Valley, an Eden of streams, hills, forests, and fields that stretch gently across the landscape.  The mountains connect with the Catoctin range in Maryland (home of Camp David) and the Pond Mountains south of I-66.  

Like many similar areas of Virginia, there is a great deal of interest in preserving it as much as possible in it's natural state.  To that end, the Bull Run Mountain Conservancy was formed in 1995, and took custodial care of a 15,000 acre tract starting just north of I-66 in Thoroughfare Gap and running north along and either side of the three parallel ridges.  Today, the "headquarters" sits at the end of Beverly Mill Road which is where the trail head is located. The area was an important part of local history, starting with the establishment of a mill along Broad Run in 1750.  The mill operated, under several families, until 1951.  The shell of the original mill building still stands, an impressive 7-story structure with walls made of native stone.  This was a remarkable feat of engineering, since rock walls tended to fall over if built too high.  

The location of the mill, sitting in a convenient gap in the mountain range, became an important location during the Civil War.  The South used the mill as a place to store beef for the Army of Northern Virginia.  In August 1862, opposing forces were gathering for the Second Battle of Manassas.  The Union sent  two brigades to block the gap and keep Southern General James Longstreet's corps on the west side of the mountains.  Longstreet eventually came up with a plan to take possession of the heights on either side of the gap and forced the Union forces to retreat.  This opened up the way for Longstreet to march for Manassas where he was able to land the crucial blow that gave the South the victory.  Later on, when it became apparent that the North would take possession of Thoroughfare Gap, the Confederates burned the mill and the enormous supply of beef before departing.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Justice, Mercy, and Grace: Defining Discipleship

Louis Zamperini, Olympic Champion
and Disciple of Jesus


Copyright © 2014 
by Ralph F. Couey

Then came Peter to him and said, "Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?  Seven times?

Jesus saith unto him, "I say not unto thee until seven times, but until seventy times seven.  Therefore is the kingdom of Heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought before him which owed him ten thousand talents.  But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.

The servant therefore fell down and worshipped him, saying, "Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all!"

The lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt.  But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellow servants which owed him a hundred pence, and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, "Pay me that thou owest!"

His fellow servant fell down at his feet and besought him, saying, "Have patience with me and I will pay thee all!"  But he would not and when and cast him into prison till he should pay the debt.

His fellow servants saw what was done, they were very sorry anc came and told their king all that was done.  Then his lord, after he called him, said, "Oh, thou wicked servant!  I forgave thee all that debt because you desired my mercy.  Shouldst thou not also have had compassion on they fellow servant, even as I had pity on thee?"

"The king had the servant delivered to the tormentors until he could pay all that was due unto him.  So likewise shall my Heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one their trespasses."

--Matthew 18:21-35

This scripture tells an interesting story.  A servant had somehow encumbered himself with a debt of 10,000 talents.  This was a sum of currency that would require at least a lifetime to repay, and actually may have been the kind of debt that was never meant to be paid back, only as a way to bind a servant to master. The modern equivalent might be called a student loan.  But the king called in the debt.  The servant, realizing he was facing an impossible burden, went to the king and begged for relief.  The King was moved by his plea and forgave the entire debt.

But this was not the only debt of this story.  As it happens, the servant held the debt of another servant, in the sum of 100 Denari, a much more humble sum, although it still represented about three months wages.  The forgiven servant then did something that qualified him to be on the list of the dumbest people in the Bible. He went to the servant, grabbed him by the throat and demanded full payment of the debt.  Of course, the second servant could not pay, so the forgiven servant had him thrown in prison.

But this was a secret that would not be kept.  Other servants who witnessed the incident, went to the King and told him what happened.  Angry, he summoned the servant.  When the man appeared in his presence, the King thundered, "Should not you have shown the same mercy to this man as I showed to you?"  The King turned the wicked servant over to be tortured until his debt was repayed.

Some might call this  by that familiar phrase, "poetic justice."  But there are two other concepts in play here:  Mercy and Grace.

In my day job, I work for the Department of Justice, the symbol of which is a set of scales.  In order for justice to be served, the scales must be balanced.  As long as one side hangs lower than the other, justice cannot exist.  The scales can only be balanced when force is applied.  In the literal sense, that means add weight to the higher side until the force of gravity evens the scales.  In practice, it means that when someone commits a crime, justice means they are arrested, arraigned, indicted, tried, convicted and either imprisoned or in the case of capitol crimes, put to death.  If someone has been wrongly accused and found not guilty, they are set free.  These days, the use of DNA evidence has helped to free people who were wrongly convicted.  More prosaically, when on the freeway we are victimized by a speeder weaving in and out of traffic, and we later see that same driver parked on the shoulder with a State Trooper behind, we like to say that justice was done.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Hiking, Part 10


Copyright © 2014
by Ralph F. Couey
Pictures and written content

In 1936 during the worst years of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt ordered that land be set aside for the purpose of giving inner city children and their families a place to go where they could discover nature outside the grim habitat of the city.  This area, originally called Chopawamsic Recreational Demonstration Area, was established as a summer camp, with the buildings and infrastructure constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of the Works Progress Administration as a way of providing employment as well as teaching valuable skills to young men.  Using locally harvested materials, the CCC built camping cabins, trails, and bridges.  People started coming to the area in 1936, spending as many as 5 weeks in the woods.  When World War II broke out, public access was halted and the area turned over to the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, as an area for training covert operatives for the war effort.  After the war, the land reverted to public use.  Today, the original area was split, with Quantico Marine Corps Base on the south and the now-named Prince William Forest Park on the north.  The park, operated by the National Park Service, occupies some 19,000 acres, the largest preserved forest tract in the DC area.  It is considered to be the finest example of Eastern Piedmont Forest existing.  It contains some 37 miles of hiking trails and tantalizing bits of history.  The park has the most original CCC building inventory in the U.S., some 153 buildings, all of which are still in use.  The park is located south of DC near the intersection of VA-234 and I-95.

This area had been on my "oughta-visit-there-sometime" list for awhile, but in planning my hiking ventures, I stayed to the west, thinking that anything closer to DC would be too urbanized for my taste.

Okay.  I admit it.  I was wrong.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Age and the Shifting of Circadian Rhythms

Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey

As long as I can remember, I've been a nightowl.  My perfect day was defined by a mid-morning wakeup and a bedtime that lay beyond the boundary between yesterday and tomorrow.  Of course, life has a way of not bending to one's druthers, hence every job I've had up to this one has forced me out of bed as early as 4 a.m. (still the middle of the night by any measure).   

A decade ago, the bosses at the factory where I was gainfully employed insisted on rotating us to an off-shift once a month. Usually because of staffing levels, that meant working third shift.  Having children at home, that was for me the shift from hell.  Circadian rhythms mandate that when it's dark outside, humans should sleep.  Daylight was a time to be up and active.  Our children were of the active type (if you hear silence, better go investigate) so it was nearly impossible for me to be able to sleep during the day.  So when I returned to work that night, I was already tired and ended up fighting sleep all night long.  When you're working around machinery, that's a dangerous state to be in.  As the week wore on, I got even more fatigued.  The last night I worked that schedule, I actually fell asleep driving a forklift with a one-ton load of steel.  I remember entering the drive lane at one end of the plant, and then suddenly I was at the other end.  I was  danger to myself, my co-workers, and the plant's equipment.  I parked the truck, shut down and cleaned the presses I was running and went home, leaving a note for the day supervisor.  Back on day shift the next week, I had a long talk with the leadership who agreed that it would be best for me to rotate to 2nd shift, which they were willing to do.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The Changing Seasons



Copyright © 2014 by Ralph F. Couey
Pictures and written content

It's been an odd summer, at least here in Virginia.  While there have been some hot miserable days, most of the season has been comparatively temperate.  Not that anybody is complaining.  After the awful summer of 2012, this year was positively wonderful.  Two weeks ago, I read that in Western Pennsylvania that the summer has been so cool that leaves were beginning to turn in mid-August, the earliest anyone can remember that happening.

I enjoy the changing seasons.  Every three months, the world changes in so many remarkable ways.  As they cycle through their assigned three month span, they drive the clock of my life.

Each season has its charms, and we fill that time with the events that give them meaning for us.  But everyone has a favorite time of the year, and we are approaching the season that makes my year.