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

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Sonora, and its Siren Call

Giant Saguaro Cactus,
The symbol of the Sonora Desert

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

Since coming here with my Dad in my youth, I have long had an affection for the desert southwest.  To me, it has always been a land without limits; a wide open sky surrounded by a horizon that seems to go on forever.  The land is  mostly flat, but dotted by mountains that seem to spring up suddenly from the desert floor, some of which have been sculpted over the centuries into strange and inscrutable shapes.

It's tempting to call this land "empty." There are none of the thick hardwood forests of the northeast, or the streams and rivers of the midwest.  Birdsong, the joyous soundtrack of any woodland hike, won't be found here in abundance.  In my hikes thus far, the only birds I've heard have been the squawking cry of the huge Chihuahuan Raven and the somber, sad plaint of the mourning dove.  But the land teems with life.  You have to know where to look.



Twenty to Forty million years ago, the Sonora Desert was a hotbed of volcanic activity.  The land holds that memory in the form of several giant caldera and signs of lava flows.  Then the drift of continental plates began to stretch and pull the region apart.  The crust crumbled into the the sudden uplifted mountains and hills that remain today.  Mountains bordering what is now the desert, uplifted high enough to cut off the flow of moisture from the Pacific Ocean.  The land dried out and plantlife over time adapted to the new climate. The air sinks into the desert basin, compressing and heating.  Unrelieved by moisture, the heat in this region can reach into the 120-degree range, as it did last week.  But nature is adaptive, and in the hot sands, plants such as the Giant Saguaro and the Organ Pipe cacti flourish.  Sagebrush (not related to the herb sage in any way) also covers the ground.  Rather than being empty, the land is full of animal life.  Coyotes, chipmunks, jackrabbits, javelina, rattlesnakes, Gila Monsters all live in the desert.  In addition the smaller critters, seemingly dozens of types of flies, spiders (especially the black widow and tarantula), scorpions reside here as well.  The large number of venomous creatures will demand close attention of the terrain by human hikers.

This is a harsh land, not for those of weak constitutions.  The heat during the summer months, and the epic thunderstorms and flash floods that occur during the July monsoon pose dangers to people.  The land doesn't absorb much moisture, so when it rains, just about all the water becomes runoff.  Dry gullies can become raging torrents.  Streets and roads can become flooded in a matter of minutes.  Early settlers understood this, and the descriptive names like Skull Valley, Rough Rock, Tombstone, and Bitter Springs tell a history of their own.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Wild, Wild West of Cinema


Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

I grew up watching the west.  Not so much the actual place, although I did travel there with my father several times.  No, this was the west that was shown to me through the magic of films and television.  It was a land of cruel, if antiseptic violence, but a place where heroes could be found, and where right almost always triumphed.

It was not a day for the faint of heart.  The temperatures were well into triple digits, and some 6 visitors had already been taken away for medical treatment by the time we arrived.  After being cautioned to "water up frequently" by our guide, Sheriff Jack, we headed through the gates and into the past.



In 1939, Columbia Studios needed a set for their upcoming movie "Arizona."  Not finding a suitable location in Southern California, they traveled to Tucson, Arizona.  Already a place where several films had been done, the flat desert, relieved by the sudden uplift of isolated mountains, and decorated by sage brush and giant Saguaro cacti was a filmmaker's delight.  The company decided on a site just west of the Tucson Mountains off a winding dirt road which had serviced camps of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and a tuberculosis preventorium.  In a month, the company sunk a well, built a power plant, and constructed an exact replica of Tucson, circa 1862.  When filming was completed in June, the movie folks packed up and went back to Hollywood, leaving the set to become a ghost town.  Then, in 1946, the Junior Chamber of Commerce opened the set on weekends, setting up some concessions, and put on some recreations.  Some people did come, braving the 10 miles of twisting, dusty dirt road to arrive 100 years in the past.  During their tenancy, the JayCees made some rough repairs to the building and managed to sub-lease the set for the production of 22 movies.  Each production added new buildings and renovated old ones, according to their needs.

In 1959, a Kansas City promoter and entrepreneur name Robert Shelton assumed the lease and turned what was called "Old Tucson" into a tourist destination.  The dusty streets were lined with restaurants and stores, and Shelton added realistic gunfight shows.  Old Tucson in short order became the most visited tourist site in Arizona, after the Grand Canyon.  Shelton was a born salesman, and that talent, plus his contacts in Hollywood, brought the filming of some 112 movies, 48 TV shows, and also a lot of commercials.  Another set town, named "Mescal," a remote set 30 miles out into the trackless desert was also built.  While Old Tucson remains open to the public, Mescal is only accessible by special invitation.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Rock of Aging



Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey


Past a certain age in life, the number of obligations begin to shrink in number, creating, or I should say, recreating moments of spontaneity.  Such a thing happened Sunday when, quite by accident, we discovered that Chicago and the Doobie Brothers, two rock bands who had largely shaped my adolescence, were in Phoenix for a one-night show.  It was so spontaneous that I bought the tickets on my phone standing in the parking lot. 

For teenagers and young adults, music, as much as any other thing, provides not only entertainment, but a soundtrack through which our lives are expressed.  I turned twelve in 1967, which meant that my brain was filled with the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, and yes, Elvis.  As the decade turned over into the 70’s, the music took a much harder edge.  The Beatles were now four separate acts.  The Stones, Zeppelin, Deep Purple and the Grateful Dead.  Pop now achieved its divorce from rock n’ roll with the Jacksons, Elton John, Neil Diamond, and the Supremes.  Folk emerged from the Village coffee houses and we heard Gordon Lightfoot, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Simon & Garfunkle, and Joni Mitchell.  Motown surged with muscular authority with James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Gladys and the Pips, and Wilson Pickett.  American radio stations blasted listeners with all those formats, a kind of electronic cross-culturalism.

I had several favorite acts, and a ton of favorite songs.  But around 1970, two bands emerged for me. 
In 1969 San Jose, California, survivors of a band called Moby Grape formed a new group that would eventually evolve into the Doobie Brothers.  By 1972, they were charting nationally. Their unique sound pushed through the background noise and captured my attention.  I remember when Cheryl was pregnant with our son, I would put a Doobies record on and place the headphones on her belly, hoping to entertain that developing fetus.  Oddly, after he was born, he never liked either band.
About that same time, another band came out of Chicago, originally called “The Big Thing” and “Chicago Transit Authority” until threatened legal action by that city’s mass transit bureaucracy force a shortening of the name to simply “Chicago.”  They were a rock band with horns, a trombone, sax, and trumpet, that brought a bright, brassy sound to the radio.  I was a brass player, so naturally they appealed to me.  Those two bands were at the top of my charts from adolescence through almost early middle age.  I had gone to see Chicago when they were touring with the Beach Boys round 1975, but hadn’t been back since.  I had never seen the Doobies on stage.  So it was with great anticipation that we entered Ak Chin Pavilion that evening.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

In the Presence of the Past

The Ruins at Casa Grande

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

"The ascendance over men's minds of the ruins of the stupendous past,
the past of history, legend, and myth, 
at once factual and fantastic, is half-mystical in basis.
The intoxication is not the romantic melancholy 
engendered by broken towers and moldered stones.
It is the soaring of the imagination into the high empyrean
where huge episodes are tangled with myths and dreams;
it is the stunning impact of world history on its amazed heirs."
--Rose Macaulay

I have my life long been fascinated by the past.  Whether a stack of newspapers from World War II America or a stunning Mayan temple in Mexico, history speaks to me in a way nothing else does.  Today was our first completely free day since coming to Arizona and we set out early to do some exploring.  Our first stop was a set of ruins, the last remnants of a culture of native Americans that thrived for about 1,150 years before fading from history around 1400 CE. 

The site is located outside of Coolidge, Arizona, about 20 miles from the city of Casa Grande.  It consists of the remains of what are likely residential structures surrounding a massive structure that the Spaniards called "Casa Grande," or Big House.

The civilization responsible for this impressive construction were the last of the hunter-gatherers that settled in the Gila River Valley around 300 CE.  Their specialty was agriculture, an amazing undertaking in the Sonoran Desert.  To bring water to their crops, they hand-dug some 220 miles of canals.  The culture, originally called "Hohokam" and now referred to as "Ancestral Sonoran Desert Peoples," thrived for over 1,100 years before fading away around 1400.  The cause for the collapse and dispersion vary -- some say a breakdown of civil authority or internal or external conflict.  But the likeliest explanation is that they were victims of their own success.  At their height, some 2,000 souls lived in the communities along the canals.  It is highly possible that the population increased beyond the land's ability to support.  This is partially supported by the thought that the civilization Balkanized -- broke into smaller groups.  It is surmised that this culture were the forebears of the Pima and Tohono O'odham cultures.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Where We Are, Who We Are, What We Are

From Pinterest.com

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

Every part of the country – heck, every part of the world has its particular charms and curses.  These are things like weather, geography, traffic, etc…  More often than not, they are the things that a particular area is best known for, or reputed to be.  Those elements even have a way of shaping the people who live there.  The northeast and mountain west have their long and blizzardy winters.  The southeast has hurricanes, and they along with the rest of the south and much of the Midwest are burdened with impossibly hot and humid summers, and tornados to boot. California has earthquakes, and under a National Park in Montana and Wyoming there lies slumbering a super volcano that, if awoken, would likely end civilization as we know it.

Each of those regional challenges creates a bit of a swagger among those who have to face them, although that doesn’t necessarily make them completely tough.  I’ve known several New Englanders who on one hand brag about surviving a winter nor’easter, only to wilt completely on what passes for a reasonably normal summers day in Phoenix or Las Vegas.

Still, we like to think that living in proximity to nature’s examples of bad temper does make us stronger in some ways, even speciously.  Coloradans like to think that the privilege of staring up at those snow-capped peaks every day makes them naturally superior to ordinary mortals.  Hawaiians feel the same way about “their” ocean.  I grew up in Missouri, which is not really known for much.  But I’ll never forget the reaction of a visitor from Korea on a drive from St. Louis to Liberal, Kansas.  She was struck speechless as we spent hour upon hour driving through productive farmland, crops stretching to the horizon, so different from her native land.  At one point she whispered, “No wonder you Americans can feed the world.”  But despite my momentary bump of national pride, I reminded myself that Americans don’t know what it’s like to live within range of 20,000 artillery guns owned by a leader whose rationality is suspect.

Friday, June 02, 2017

The Dream, and Living It


Appalachian Trail, Virginia

Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

It's early.  The night has just given way to a grey, overcast dawn.  It had been raining when we arrived the night before, not a heavy downpour, but that kind of steady, patient fall that always seems to murmur, "Relax. I'm gonna be here awhile."

We had come east from Colorado to spend a few days with family, the part of which we left behind when that heavy steel door marked "retirement" closed behind me with that heavy, hollow boom of finality.  My wife is what is called a travel nurse, a contractor working 13-week assignments before moving on to the next one.  The stay is Colorado is done.  Now, we will head for a town south of Phoenix to endure the brutal heat of an Arizona summer.  We don't know what experiences lie in wait, though admittedly, that is part of the adventure.

My life long, I've always been anchored by the idea of "home."  In my case, a structure wherein resided my family; where I could relax and be myself.  Where I felt safe. It was a place to leave, and a place to which to return, a place I could say I was from.  But within me has always been a restless streak; a strange desire to live on the road, going where my whims directed, staying only as long as I wanted to, and hitting the road again.  It's a life that has fascinated me; to drift along from place to place, the only direction given by the capricious winds.  In my mind's eye, we did this on the back of a horse, or a motorcycle, loping along through plain, prairie, and desert.  That romantic tableau only somewhat altered to the comforts of an SUV, the wilderness trails swapped for highway asphalt.

Despite this wild urging, my life has always been framed by a safe predictability.  While the long-term future remained ever fuzzy, the short-term view seemed to provide a clear path and a life anchored by a career, a home, bills -- the dragging anchor of obligation.  While stultifyingly mundane, that structure gave me a sense of security to those passing moments we all know as the "now."  The environment in which we now find ourselves is completely different.  A lot of hard work and sacrifice has eliminated almost all of our debt.  We now enjoy that wonderful sense of freedom of not being weighed down, or even smothered, being forced to delay or even abandon dreams to the steel cage of revolving payments.  In that process, we've learned how to say "no" to ourselves, trying to limit our possessions to what can fit in the back of the vehicle.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Where Dawn's Early Light Illuminated a Nation


Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey

The morning rain had given way to a light mist and a warm, palpable humidity, an unfamiliar sensation after bone-dry Colorado.  Leaving the glass and steel towers of downtown Baltimore behind, we carefully drove between two brick pillars that separated the rough industrial infrastructure of the port from the red brick and deep green grass of the grounds of Fort McHenry.  

The War of 1812 is probably, along with Korea, the least known and understood of America's historical conflicts.  The seeds of war were sown at first in the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair.  On June 22, 1807, the British warship HMS Leopard encountered and hailed the American frigate USS Chesapeake in the waters off Norfolk, Virginia.  A British officer boarded and presented Captain James Barron with a warrant for British deserters.  Captain Barron refused the warrant and sent the officer back to the Leopard.  The situation quickly escalated when Leopard opened fire on the Chesapeake. The American ship had just put to sea prepared for a long voyage and her decks were cluttered with freight, and her guns unloaded.  In response to the barrage, Chesapeake managed only one return shot.  With his ship damaged and dead and wounded among his crew, Captain Barron struck his colors and surrendered.  The British removed four crewmen from the Chesapeake, one of whom was eventually hanged.  Captain Barron, upon his return to port, was court-martialed.  

The news was received in America with indignation and fury.  The systematic impressment of American merchant sailors, many in US territorial waters by the British added fuel to the growing fire.  Also, the British were materially supporting the effort of a coalition of Native American tribes to control what was then called  the Northwest Territories (modern-day Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota), which resulted in numerous clashes along the disputed border.  Adding to all this was the persistent clamor among American politicians for annexation of British Canada and Spanish Florida.  While this was all a big deal in the U.S., Britain was largely unaware of the deteriorating situation in her former colonies, being neck-deep in yet another continental war with France.  So it was with a great deal of surprise when on June 18, 1812, President James Madison asked congress for a declaration of war.