Paying a visit to the ‘old neighborhood’

August 12, 2011

A couple of decades ago, one of the things I loved to do was go out at night and take photos of the night sky. I actually got started doing this for several reasons. Comet Halley was one of them. When it made it’s last appearance in the 1980’s, it was predicted to be one of the brighter of it’s many visits to the vicinity of Earth. Another was my interest in space and astronomy in general. Back then, I was reading and writing about space and space exploration a lot. So it seemed a natural extension to begin paying attention the stars in the sky. Last, but far from least, the images I captured, primitive as they were, had a beauty to them that is hard to describe. There is no secret to how to capture a night sky image, you just need a camera that will allow you to open the shutter for an extended period of time so the film can gather the maximum amount of light possible. The fact that I used “film” should tell you that I’m not lying about how long ago this was. Back then, the few CCD cameras that existed were the property of either the government or some of the high-end educational institutes. Of course, it was no where near as easy as I describe it. For one thing, keeping the shutter open required some sort of mechanism to to both open and close it without causing the camera to shake or move in any way. Most decent SLR camera had a “manual” setting, which when engaged, caused the shutter to remain open for as long as the shutter release button was kept depressed. Of course, you couldn’t just hold your finger on it, because no human is completely still all the time. So trying to hold your finger on the button would cause the camera to shake enough that what you’d end up was a lot of strange-looking squiggles on a dark background. A better route was to use what was called a shutter release cable, which screwed into a small opening in the center of the shutter button. Once in place, you just pressed a button on the end of the cable and the shutter opened. A second, concentric button could then be released whenever you were done with the exposure, releasing the button and closing the shutter. Now, because as I said earlier, you shake all the time, you could not actually hold your camera. No, to take night sky images, you needed a tripod that was strong enough to take your camera (plus the weight of any telephoto lenses you might add to get more detail out of an area you were imaging), and stable enough to not shake if the wind happens to start blowing. I had all this, but to really, really get good images, you needed to be able to track the stars as they slowly move across the sky. This requires what is known as a sidereal drive, and it was both expensive and in no way a snap to set up properly. Not being graced with a ton of money even then (and not being sure I could ever learn to properly adjust the drive so it could function as it should), I opted for what is known as “unguided” photography. If you limit yourself to fairly short exposure times (less than a minute), the results aren’t all that bad. You get a view of the brighter stars on a background that is often a field of deep grayish-green (the sky doesn’t come out black because of a lot of factors that aren’t important to this missive). If you go beyond that limited time frame, what you end up with is more stars, but they’re not pinpoints, but blurred lines stretching across the background.

For really stand-out objects, things like bright comets, the Moon and the brighter stars that make up the constellations, unguided photos will give you very nice results. They’re even fairly good for some of the brighter galaxies (I was once lucky enough to capture a fine image of the Andromeda Galaxy as a fuzzy patch of light on my image, lucky because I couldn’t see it in the viewfinder!). But to capture the real beauty of the night skies, the fainter stars, nebulae and other objects, you need to go to guided photography, preferably with the camera connected to a telescope. That, coupled with way too many experiences of having a camera shop develop my film, then tell me it was “unexposed” because “it was all dark, there weren’t any images on it”, lead me to eventually abandon night sky photography. I even stopped just going out and looking at the night sky.

A bit of boredom, coupled with a chance reading of a story about the Perseid meteor shower and the forecast of a cool, clear night led me back out under the night skies. Without any film, I didn’t have the option to get my old camera out and try capturing any meteors streaking across the sky, so I decided to just go see what my eyes could see. Living in a small town, fairly well away from large cities, finding a place to go watch wasn’t hard. What you really need, more than anything else, to enjoy the night skies are dark skies. Cities, unless the power fails, are never dark enough to really bring out the splendor of the night skies. No, to see the stars, and more important, to see dimmer objects like smaller meteor, you need to be in the country, well away from any source of light. For me, such sites are within less then half an hour’s drive. So, with the meteors forecast to really start putting on a show after midnight, I decided to go to bed early and get up at midnight to go out to see what I could see.

The alarm drove me out of a sound sleep, and in that befuddled state you often are in in such a situation, I got dressed, got in my car, and headed out. It didn’t take me long to spot a place that interested me: a perfectly-black stretch of land off to one side of the road. At the next crossroad I came to, I turned onto a gravel road and started hunting for someplace in that wonderful blackness. A second, crossing gravel road came out of the headlight’s glare, and I turned again, moving deeper into the unpopulated area. At this point, I slowed down and began to watch for a ramp off the road, one the farmer’s use to access their fields. This sort of spot is ideal, as it gets you (and your car) off the road, while providing a solid base to park on so you have less chance of ending up stuck in the middle of nowhere. One presently presented itself, and because of the orientation of the road to direction I wanted to watch, I worked the car around so I was backed into it.

Now was when all the things I’d learned, and should have remembered, came flooding back to me. Usually, if I’m planning on lying on my car (a favorite and convenient place to relax), I try to remember to bring an old blanket. This both protects my car’s paint and also keeps my clothing from picking up all the crud that is usually on my car. Well, I hadn’t remembered to bring one, so I had to be careful how I moved, and know that the clothing I was wearing was going straight into the dirty cloth when I got back home. A blanket also gives you the option to pull a flap out and cover yourself if things start to get chilly. You can also take a light jacket to put on if you get cool, but like the blanket, I hadn’t thought to bring one of those either. I also hadn’t thought to grab the little clip-on bug repellent I sometimes use. The chill air kept the damage on that front down considerably, but I still managed to collect a few bites.

So how did things go? Well, you can get away from the lights of the cities, but there’s one light you can’t get away from if it’s present: the Moon. Being within a couple of days of full, the Moon was bright enough to allow me to walk around without tripping within a minute of the car lights being shut off. This limited what I could see in the way of meteors quite a lot I’m sure. As it was, I saw three meteors I’m sure of, plus another four I think I caught out of the ‘corner of my eye’ (the most light-sensitive part of the human eye) in the course of an hour’s time. By that time, it was feeling decidedly chilly to me in my tee shirt and jeans, so I decided to go home.

Wasn’t it all a waste, you ask? No. I got out under the night sky again, got familiar with the constellations once more, and remembered all the other reasons I love to be out doing things like this. While the bugs might have bitten me, I got to listen to their night songs once more. I also was reminded of just how well sounds can travel if there’s not a lot to drown them out. Out there in the countryside, I could hear trains blowing their horns, trains that were never nearer than fifteen or twenty miles. Cars on the road I’d first turned off sometimes got me to looking around, wondering when they’d come up on where I was parked. Beneath all that, lingering at the edge of perception, was the slow thump of my own heart.

They say you can’t go home again, but sometimes, you can pay a visit to someplace you loved and find you still enjoy the ‘old neighborhood’. Last night, I got a chance to do that, and I think I might just start visiting again soon, and as much as I can, because the night sky is a neighborhood we should all visit from time to time. It’s a beautiful place, so if you can, get out someplace near you and enjoy a visit.

The death of a farm house.

August 3, 2011

Back in the heyday of the Cold War, Ray Bradbury wrote a short story that he later incorporated into his marvelous “The Martian Chronicles”. The story, “There will come soft rains”, is one of the more haunting tales to come from those dark times. It describes what might best be described as a “smart house”, the only one left standing in a city devastated by a nuclear exchange, and how it attempts to function without the family that once lived in it. In the end, events in the wider world, a storm, causes a fire to start in the house, which destroys it. That story came back to me today, because of something I saw.

People who live in or grew up in the Midwest have seen what I like to think of as the prototypical “Midwest farm house”. Many of them still dot the landscape, even as the days of the small farmer become the stuff of myth. There isn’t a set layout or floor plan. There’s no prescribed style, color or even a required square footage. Some of them are single-story affairs with wings and additions that sprout in every direction. Some are two and even three story buildings that would not be out of place in a town. There is one thing they all have in common: they set, often surrounded by the outbuildings that support the workings of the farm, in the midst of the fields that make up the family farm. They stand, proud and alone, telling the world this place is home to people who work the land.

Sadly, as the size of farms has grown, so the number of farm houses has decreased. Some of them end up being bought by people from town who think they want to live the “real country life”, and don’t, in reality, know Thing One about what country life is like. While the folks may not know anything, the houses continue to do what they were built for: provide a family with a place to live, a spot to call Home.

In that way, they’re the lucky ones. Other houses, though, aren’t that lucky.

One of the routes I drive regularly has one such house. A big box of a house, two full floors with a third made out of an attic with dormers added and a nice big front porch. A large barn, corn crib, garage and the odd couple of extra buildings surrounded it, all standing on maybe a couple of acres of land festooned with mature trees made up the rest of the scene. A nice-looking house, it’s square lines and well-maintained appearance speaking to passersby of a place cared for, a family with a place.

Then there didn’t seem to be any vehicles there anymore. The lights were never on in the house at night. Then the yard began to go without being mowed for long periods of time. Then the paint began to peel and flake off. Suddenly, one of the windows was gone, broken, but someone came to cover the ugly gap up quickly, showing that at least the house wasn’t completely forgotten. It didn’t last. Shortly after the window was broken, the line connecting the house to the electric power lines was down, then coiled up and hanging on the side of the house.

The end was nigh, but you could still hope for the house, that this was just a temporary state of affairs, perhaps to keep someone from squatting in the house. It wasn’t. One day, the trees that had stood so proud were all down, not cut down, simple uprooted by heavy machinery and drug into an huge, ugly heap. Then a backhoe came and tore the porch off. Then it tore the house down and treated it with all the dignity of a pile of garbage. Why? I don’t know. I honestly don’t think I could walk up to the person running the backhoe and speak to them civilly, what with the blatant destruction they did to that house. No effort to save anything, not any flooring, windows, not even the plumbing and electrical wiring. All just shredded, shoved into a pile, then loaded into a dumpster. Will the barn and the other buildings meet a similar fate? Will another house rise on the site, one more in tune with “modern” sensibilities of how a house should look? Will the whole plot be cleared, all the buildings torn down, the foundations removed and the land turned back into farm land?

In some ways, that might be the kinder fate, for even if the family that once lived in the house, that farmed the land it stood watch over, at least then the land will continue to be farmed. Even without the house and it’s family, a farm is still a farm, even if it’s a soulless monster of a farm.

(Postscript: I passed the site again today. The house, the barn, corn crib, everything, is now just a pile of shattered wood  standing in what was once the basement to the house. The dumpster is still there, but it appears more likely that it will be used to take away whatever does not burn in what is looking increasingly like a prepared fire scene. So far, the foundations of the buildings have not been touched, though the heavy equipment needed to remove them is still on site. So dies a house, a farm, and a way of life.)

Catching up on old business

July 27, 2011

A couple of past blog posts have spoken of things I wished I could have given images of.

Well, in both cases, I had an image to go with the post, I just didn’t have it in my possession. You see, I don’t have a digital camera, which makes importing images to this blog a major problem. What I do have is a sister with a ‘smart’ phone, and in both cases, she took pictures for me of the subject in question. The things she did not do until just the other day was forward me the images! Well, now I’d love to pass along her work and a few of my words.

In “Evolution is beautiful”, I spoke of the white violets in a nearby yard. Here’s an example of one I brought home with me.

Beauty in the hands of a beast.

The other post was “An embarrassment of riches”, in which I spoke of my recent black raspberry harvest. Here’s an image of one day’s pickings, about 3/4 of a gallon freezer bag full.

This is one day's worth of berries!

 

So that’s that. The berries are gone now, with neighbors and friends supplied for another year. The birds (again, as usual!) repaid me for leaving some for them by dive-bombing my car with their rather-distinctly-colored poo!

Hopefully I will someday be able to afford a digital camera, though when that event will occur I have no idea. Until then, I hope I can bring a few more images to this blog in (hopefully!) a more timely manner.

Posturing for the “Home Crowd”, or Republicans Fiddles while America Burns

July 15, 2011

There are times when it seems the only thing some politicians can do in the face of a crisis is find something else to think about. This was brought home very strongly to me recently by the actions of the House of Representatives.

The House is the source of much of the sound (and more than a little fury) over our budget deficit. Republicans there have all but demanded that Something Be Done, and soon! Their “something” has revolved exclusively around cutting spending on “wasteful” programs (read any program they don’t like), and, to an extent, the White House has agreed with them. Multiple meetings have been held, without any positive developments, but this isn’t what drew my attention. No, what caught my eye was how, while they cry out about how the ‘national edifice’ is in danger, they’ve been occupying their time with…….amending HR-6, the Energy Independence and Security Act.

HR-6 was originally passed in 2007. When it was originally voted out of the House and passed onto the Senate for their consideration, it garnered 264 votes in favor and 163 votes against, with 8 members not voting. 36 Republicans voted with 228 Democrats to pass the bill, and when the Senate had made it’s changes and sent the bill back to the House for final approval, 95 Republicans were part of the 314 members who voted for passage. Then-President George W. Bush signed the bill into law, and it was heralded as a major step on the road to making America more energy independent.

Like every bill these days, HR-6 had many provisions in it. One of these was a requirement that all light bulbs be at least 30% efficient, that is, that they waste no more than 70% of the power the consume in the form of heat. Given the amount of power that’s used in America to simply light things up, that makes a ton of sense. It also means the death of the “traditional” incandescent light bulb.

When he invented it, Thomas Edison was breaking new ground with his light bulb. Before then, if you wanted light, you either worked outside in sunlight, or you burned something, be it oil, kerosene, tallow, beeswax, or whatever; and used the light given off by that burning to light your work. Edison came up with the simple but brilliant idea that, if he could put a metal filament into a clear glass bulb, then suck the air out of it and apply an electrical current to it, the filament would reach a white-hot state. In that “incandescent” state, it would give off a bright white light that could be used for illumination. The problem was, what it was really doing was generating a lot of heat in order to produce a little light, with the most efficient incandescent bulbs never getting above 10% efficiency. So, if you want to cut the amount of electricity used to light things up, one of the simplest ways to do it would be to replace incandescent lights with newer, more efficient lighting technology. Simple, right?

Well, it’s simple if you’re not engaged in a bit of political posturing.

You see, in their ‘anti-Washington’ fervour, the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party decided that trying to cut the amount of energy wasted on lighting things up amounted to “government interference” in Our Daily Lives. So they decided, with the government on the brink of defaulting, that the best use of the House’s time would be to debate a repeal of the provision of HR-6 setting a minimum efficiency standard for light bulbs. The provision failed to pass, but there is already talk of trying to amend a bill currently making it’s way through the House to include much the same language.

No one engaged in this asinine effort is claiming that there is no need to cut our energy consumption. Nor, for that matter, is there anyone claiming that America shouldn’t be doing everything it can to make itself more energy independent. And no one is claiming that incandescent light bulbs are somehow vital to American ‘national interests’. No, we get the same tired ‘keep government out of our private decisions’ talk we hear from the same folks who want to ban abortions, outlaw same-sex marriages, and tell us all to believe America is a “Christian nation”.

So, here’s what I wish I could say (preferably in a loud voice, from about half-an-inch from their noses) is this:

There are more important things to worry about! So get your head out of your butts and get to them!”

What do you do with an ’embarrassment of riches’?

July 2, 2011

I’ve written several times about my adventures in black raspberry growing. This last year, I gave away some of my harvest, but kept a fair amount for myself, planning (or I guess I should say hoping) to put it to use. Well, so far, it’s still were I put it at in my freezer. Which brings me to this year.

It’s been warm here where I live for several weeks now. Temperature wise, we jumped over Spring and went straight into Summer. Ninety degrees was passed early last month, which isn’t quite a record, but close enough. One sure thing about warmer weather: it gets raspberries to ripening quickly. Right about now would be what I’d consider the “normal” start to my harvest, usually a small bowl-full of berries from the ‘early’ plants. This year, that first bowl of berries came off the canes over a week ago, which means that right now is well into the peak of the harvest. Which comes back to that freezer full of frozen raspberries……

So what do you do when you’ve got berries coming off the canes, no space to store them for yourself, and you know that you never, ever want to eat too many berries at one time? You start scrounging around for folks to give them to, that’s what!

The neighbors (outside of a couple that are on vacation) have already had me at their door, bowl in hand, offering them a portion of my current bounty. The extended family is slowly but surely being worked through. After them, though, I think I might be in trouble. There are a few friends I have who live near enough to me to make the trip to give berries away not too big a drain on my gas tank, but a lot more of them live long distances from me. I’d love to see these berries enjoyed by someone, but I don’t have the money to spend to drive out as far as some of these folks live and give them away. As many of them are in a similar boat as far as I am on spending money, it’s not likely they’ll be driving here to get some free raspberries, no matter how good they are.

So, what do I do?

I’ll have to figure that one out, but sometimes, an embarrassment of riches is a hell of a thing to have!

Grow, grow, grow!

June 23, 2011

Last year, I launched into an experimental garden with my potato crop derived from a few sprouted spuds. If you read this blog, you’ll know the results were somewhat less than great. With that in mind, when I got the urge to garden again this year, I decided it might be a good idea if I gave my small garden plot a rest to (hopefully) regain some of it’s fertility.

So, with that decision out of the way, I was left with two possible courses of action:

Find a section of the lawn I could turn and use for planting, or

Find some sort of containerized gardening solution.

Having past experience with going from lawn to garden, I knew this meant a lot of work and the problem of a bare spot after I decided to move my garden. So, container gardening it is!

I know some folks who have used those hanging plant containers, and they all report that while they look odd (and are occasionally cumbersome to get planted), they’re very effective at producing healthy plants and fairly good harvests. The problem, of course, is cost. Most of the hanging planters come without any dirt, so you have to pay for both the planter, plus whatever you use to fill them, be it bagged topsoil, compost or anything else. On my budget, cost is Factor #1, so the less costly a solution is, the better I like it. This lead me back to the tried-and-true system of planting garden plants directly in a bag of whatever soil/medium I was going to use. A bit of shopping around turned up the cheapest bags of suitable planting medium, specifically composted cow manure, at the local Wal-Marts (yes, I know, I’m no big fan of theirs either). Given the space I was going to have available to me (the corner of the same porch last year’s potatoes had grown next to), I figured that I would have room for two, perhaps three bags. Rather than try to squeeze the maximum number of plants into the space and risk them shading each other too much, I opted for only two bags. What to grow was a lot easier: tomatoes and bell peppers. Here I caught a break: the local grocery store was selling garden plants, and not only did theirs look better than those on offer at Wal-Marts, but they were offering heirloom plants that were priced cheaper than the Wal-Marts ‘specials’ too.

In the end, I chose an heirloom tomato plant, a “Brandywine”, and a more modern “Valencia Orange” hybrid pepper plant. As with a lot of things, once the decisions were made, Fate stepped in to have it’s say. In this case, it happened that while I was unloading the bagged compost, I managed to snag one of the bags along the edge and tear it. The usual approach when doing this sort of approach is to lay the bags down flat, just as they were stacked where you bought them, and open the upper surface to allow the plant to be planted. With an opening already in the bag, it wasn’t a hard decision to make to turn the torn bag on it’s side and just expand the opening already there. Well, that was the theory at least. You see, what with being stacked up and all, the compost inside the bags gets pretty well compressed. That, in turn, means that what you’ve got inside the bag is sometimes less like garden soil and more like cheaply-made concrete. In my case, it wasn’t quite that extreme, but it definitely took a good deal of work to break up the compost into something that could be planted in without leaving it in huge chunks. The resulting bag was much thicker than it would have been, and seeing as how tomatoes like a good, deep bed to grow into, the place to plant my “Brandywine” was decided. After it was in, the other bag for the “Valencia Orange” was slit open and the compost inside it broken up in the immediate area under the opening. Getting it planted took even less time than the tomato had (the bag wasn’t nearly as neatly opened or controllable on the tomato bag) and I was done. Plants planted, garden ready to start growing.

Or so I thought.

Like last year, things happened that gave me options I hadn’t thought of before. In this case, it was some garlic I’d bought. I needed some fresh to season a dish, but I didn’t need the whole clove. So I put the rest aside, thinking that it would be safe to leave it lying around. No, it wasn’t. In this case, the weather took a hand in making the decision for me. After a couple of says when the local temps shot suddenly into the mid-80’s, I happened to look at my left-over garlic and found that almost all of it was sprouting. When I took the clove apart, I found six segments had sprouted. I knew these would not last long, and with nothing to use them in, I decided to do what I did last year: plant them. As a general rule, garlic like to be planted in cooler weather, but with the only other choice being throwing the sprouted segments out, I figured I had nothing to loose. Because of the way the bags were lying, the bag holding the pepper plant had more space, so it drew one segment at each corner of the bag. The tomato bag took the other two, one at each end. That was about three weeks ago.

Right now, the garlic is growing like a proverbial weed, with the tops already six or more inches tall. Whether they’ll form cloves or just go to seed is something I’ll find out in the next month or so. Both of the ‘non-volunteer’ plants are doing well, with strong growth on both plants. The pepper has already flowered twice without showing any signs of fruit forming, but it’s early in the season, so I’m not discouraged. One thing I had not thought of, and that I’ll have to tackle soon, is how to support the tomato plant. “Brandywine”, like many other heirloom tomatoes, has a tendency to grow big and grow fast. Mine is already showing signs of wanting to take off in it’s own direction, so some sort of support to keep it upright is going to be a necessity soon. What that support will be, well, I guess you’ll find out shortly after I do.

I hope anyone who reads this will give serious thought to growing something for themselves. It’s getting a bit late to be planting things like tomatoes and peppers, but not too late if you have a long warm season. There’s also plenty of time, even in the shortest of warm seasons, to grow things like lettuce and other salad greens. A bag container is a good solution for these sorts of crops too, and between the satisfaction of ‘growing your own’, the savings on your grocery bill and the generally better quality of crops you grow yourself, it’s a good thing to do. So give it a whirl.

The joys (?) of summer.

June 19, 2011

Officially, summer arrives on June 21. I think someone forgot to tell summer that.

Already this year, the area I live in has seen multiple days with the temperature over 90, and the actual day summer should start is forecast to be at or around that temperature. Now I know the Earth isn’t a climate-controlled environment where every day dawns the same, the temperature never exceeds a specified range, and it only rains when it’s supposed to (like at night or when I feel like setting inside and watching it). I’m actually glad for that fact, because the very idea of such a world seems very distasteful to me. That said, I really, really do not like hot, humid weather. It’s like you can never get comfortable, and no matter what you do, you always end up sweat-covered and feeling like you’re carrying around a couple of pounds of general crud stuck to your body. Around here, if that weren’t enough to make your life miserable, you’ve also got the mosquitoes. I have never, ever been able to close a house up tight enough to keep those little blood-sucking buggers completely out of it. Admittedly, I don’t have a house with central AC, so some of the rooms are left with windows and doors that are usually open (abet, with screens over them) to the outside. I don’t know if they manage to squeeze through the screen openings, or through small gaps around the doors, or if they just await their chance to steal in whenever you have to go out, but somehow, they always manage to get in. Then, the real fun begins!

MOSQUITO HUNTING!!!!!!

It’s the moments when you’re least able to do a lot that they seem to strike. It could be that you’re “occupied” on the toilet, or paying attention to a show on TV, or some other similar instance. Then, out of nowhere, you hear that irritating little buzz that tells you a mosquito is stalking you. If your house has any darker-colored walls, and the mosquito is between you and one, they can almost seem to vanish into the background, unseen until a chance movement draws your attention. Even in rooms where the walls don’t help them to ‘blend in’, they can often be hard to spot, frequently approaching from behind as if they know which way your attention is focused. If you don’t spot it, your only hint that you’re about to give of your blood to further their species is the sudden quiet that tells you they’ve landed. Then it’s the frantic search of your exposed body parts, trying to find the culprit before you’re bitten. Now is the real fun, because a mosquito can sometimes just alight on any convenient surface, like it’s in need of rest, or like it’s watching you to see how fast you can move. If you’re lucky, and you spot it while it’s resting/scouting you, you have a chance to swat it before it can get to you. What you use is more a question of what you have at hand, rather than a planned defense. I usually try to use my hands, even though when I succeed in catching my potential attacker unaware, the resulting debris leave a nasty mess on them. Nothing to reach out and grab, no hesitation, just swing and (hopefully) SMACK!, one dead bug. If you spot it on yourself, the mess is compounded, but if you can get your lick in before it has a chance to get you, the satisfaction factor is not to be ignored.

If, on the other hand, you either don’t spot that the malefactor someplace nearby, or it has managed to land on you someplace you can’t see, it’s time to wait for the bite. Some of them seem to have barbs on their snouts, given the level of pain they can sometimes inflict when biting. Others, you never feel them until you start to itch. I’ve tried all manner of creams, sprays, lotions, you name it, to control that desire to scratch a mosquito bite. Some of them aren’t half bad, but none I’ve ever run into really does a good job of it. That wouldn’t be bad if it only lasted a day, but I’ve had bites that continued to itch for two, three and even more days. After a while, it’s just maddening, trying to fight the desire to just start scratching away.

How I sometimes wish they would just vanish, that they’d suddenly go extinct and be nothing but a bad memory. The reasoning part of me knows that this is never, ever going to happen, but it’s a nice fantasy, isn’t it? Kind of like winning a big Lotto jackpot or something like that, it’s a dream more to be take your mind off what’s going on around you than one you expect to happen. Still, it’s a nice dream, and if I can find that little buzzer who’d been bothering me all morning, I just might let my mind stay there.

If you’ve got mosquitoes where you live, and it’s summer, good luck and good hunting! Winter comes soon!

Loosing our past.

June 13, 2011

Sometimes it seems that history has a way of slipping away from us. One day it’s all around us, easy to remember; then the next, it’s gone. Something that happened today, fairly near to where I live, brought that home to me.

In the 1930’s, America’s military was in a state of ferment. Some officers were busy trying to perfect the tactics of the last war, while others were looking around the world to try to get an idea of what sorts of nasty surprises the next war might bring their way. In no other field was this more true than aviation. America hadn’t really even had a service dedicated to aviation when it went into WWI, and it found itself embarrassed to find that the birthplace of flight was woefully behind the rest of the world when it came to military aviation. The inter-war years were a time when American military thought turned to flying, but matters were far from settled as far as whether America would manage to make any major advances in military flight. Some innovative designs were put forward, but so were many that might best be described as “furthering the status quo”. Part of this was reluctance on the part of those at the top, but part of it was money, or more precisely, a lack thereof. As conflicts began to break out in lead-up to WWII, though, military aviation thinking began to crystallize around several ideas. One was that American fighter planes would be mostly used as short-range interceptors, used primarily to defend American cities from attack. The other was that, because we hoped to keep our enemies as far away as possible from American soil, if we were going to have a chance to strike back, we would need a large, long-range bomber.

With this in mind, a request was put out to industry for the development of (what was at the time) a very long-range bomber, capable of carrying a a large payload at speeds roughly as fast as those achieved by current-generation fighter/interceptor aircraft. Of the three companies that responded with designs, Boeing won the contract. Thus was born the progenitor of what would become the B-17. A single test aircraft was built that proved to be successful enough to warrant further production. Over the next few years, the design was moved from a flying concept to an aircraft ready for serious production. As 1941 started, Boeing began to churn out B-17 for the war that everyone could see was coming. Over the course of the war, the basic design was refined and improved, often building on lessons learned in blood and death. A total of 12,731 B-17’s built during WWII era, most of them seeing service in the European theater. Bristling with as many as 13 guns, the B-17 flew in attacks that could see hundreds of these massive machines gathered together to attack targets deep inside Nazi-occupied Europe. At the beginning, with their heavy .50 caliber defensive machine guns, it was thought that the “Flying Fortress” could defend itself well enough to go to and from the target without the aid of fighter escort. After loosing hundreds of aircraft and their ten-man crews, American thinking finally realized that if we were not to burn through resources as such alarming rate, a fighter escort would be needed. Even with this added protection, air crews often found their lives depending on the toughness of the planes they flew. Here, the B-17 served it’s crews well, taking damage that would have brought down other aircraft, while continuing to fly.

There was one thing that the B-17 couldn’t defend against, and that was time. As a design first conceived in the mid-1930’s, the B-17 was showing it’s age well before the war ended, and no number of tweaks and refinements could spare it from one foe it could never overcome: obsolescence. Even before the end of the war, B-17’s were regarded as “expendable”, often serving as testbeds for new idea in weapons, or even as targets for new defensive systems. When the war ended, many were simply returned home to go straight into scrap yards. Some few found other uses, such as aerial water tankers for fighting forest fires. The bulk of them, though, ended up going back to the furnaces that had once produced their own aluminum. Today, depending on who’s counting, there are somewhere around 14-17 flying examples of this once-numerous machine.

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to see one, especially to see one fly, it is an experience never to be forgotten. For all it’s size on the ground, once it’s in the air, it is a thing of grace and beauty. To hear one roar overhead, it’s four radial engines radiating a noise that is felt as much as heard, is to have a glimpse into a past age, when they almost literally darkened the skies over England and Europe. But chances to experience that sensation are becoming rarer and rarer. Like the men who once flew them, age is beginning to kill off the last flying B-17’s. Some end up retired to aviation museum, to live a long (if static and somewhat staid) life. Other continue to fly, and those who fly them know what they are, and how rare a bird they have a chance to pilot. There’s now one less of these magnificent birds in the world. After a weekend display at Aurora airport, the Collin’s Foundation’s B-17, “Liberty Belle” took off to continue a tour of Midwestern cities. Shortly after take-off, a fire was detected in one of the engines, leading the pilot to make an emergency landing in a field near the town of Oswego, Illinois. Many airplanes would not have made such a sudden landing without harming their crew, but once again, the B-17 proved it’s worth, as the plane landed without incident and the crew exited safely. Unfortunately, shortly after they had made it out of the plane, a second fire broke out, one that eventually consumed the bulk of the aircraft. Here is a good article with excellent, if terribly sad, photos of the B-17’s end:

http://www.chicagobreakingnews.com/news/local/chibrknews-crews-responding-to-incident-involving-wwii-bomber-20110613,0,5339638.story

Those who know them expect the remains of the destroyed bomber to be salvaged, and any usable parts to go into keeping the rest of the flying examples going. So, in a way, “Liberty Belle” will continue to fly, but the plane itself is no more. Sometimes, when something like this happens, people ask if it’s worth the risk to the few remaining aircraft to allow them to continue to fly. As someone who loves old airplanes, I will miss “Liberty Belle” very much. That said, if the only remaining link we have to these incredible machines, and the brave young men who flew them into deadly skies, are a few “stuffed-and-mounted” examples setting in some dark building somewhere, the world will be a poorer place. If we can’t see one fly by, hear it’s thunder and wonder at the courage it took to take one on a mission that it might never return from, I think all of us will loose something.

Keep’em flying, keep the memories alive.

A disturbing development.

June 7, 2011

Politicians are people, just like you and I. Given that, it is not a shocking idea that they might occasionally screw up. How they respond when they screw up says a lot about them. What’s more important, though, is how the folks who support them react. Take Sarah Palin as for instance.

As you know by now, while on her non-campaign bus tour, she in Boston, where someone asked her about Paul Revere. Almost everyone knows the poem, and many of us know the actual facts of what happened that night on the eve of Concord. Ms. Palin, though, either because she does not know, or because she suffered an all-too-human ‘brain cramp’, managed to make a total muck of telling what happened. All well and good, she proved she’s human and made a mistake. However, she made that mistake in front of a TV camera, and it was all captured for broadcast. Again, no big deal, politicians have shot their mouthes off in all manner of different and “creative” ways in front of cameras since, well, there have been cameras capable of capturing those foul-ups. What happened next, though, is the story that has to be remembered.

Ms. Palin, as you no doubt know, is also a television personality, specifically, a commentator on Fox. That means she has access to the media that a lot of former politicians would not have. That would be a great avenue for her to admit her mistake and explain how it came about. Instead, she has used her media platform to deny that she screwed up, and to insist that all the history books are wrong, that her version of “history” is, in fact, the real one. That she is so unwilling to admit error is a dangerous hint at what sort of mindset she possesses, and should give pause to anyone who’s watched these events unfold.

An even more disturbing outcome of this, though, has been the reaction of the people who support Ms. Palin and her political ambitions. There are confirmed reports that Wikipedia, the online information site, has seen numerous attempts to change it’s entry covering Paul Revere. Those attempts to rewrite history have, almost universally, been attempts to portray Sarah Palin’s telling of the story as the “true” one. What does it say about a group that it will willingly attempt to change the past so that what we think of as “truth” is merely a reflection of a politician’s mistaken pronouncement?

Hubris, that most dangerous of all afflictions that politicians can fall victim to, has brought many political careers to an end. By her actions, Sarah Palin is demonstrating that she is already deeply in the grip of hubris. That those who follow her are willing to do anything to make her look good speaks less of a political movement, and more of a cult. Which one is more of a danger to America and our body politic, I am not sure. That they are a danger to those institutions, I have no doubt whatsoever, because when any politician is placed above the truth, then we are all in danger.

Dishonoring Memorial Day.

May 30, 2011

Some folks can’t seem to deal with reality. I’m not talking about the folks you see in a big city, the unfortunate ones who wander the streets in something of a perpetual haze. No, I’m talking about the ones who seem to be willing to forget the world around them, and everything that happens, or has happened, in it.

One of the biggest culprits of this sort of self-delusion are the people who love to pontificate about how today, America is “paying” for all the various and sundry “sins” of what they often refer to as the “Me” generation. In their minds, America is wallowing in lassitude, governed more by some sort of desire for more and more for less and less work. It’s morals have supposedly deteriorated from some earlier, higher state; and unless we can “return” to those ‘higher’ values, we’re doomed.

What a load of crap.

I wonder how many of these fine folks have been to see a young man or woman come home from Iraq or Afghanistan in a metal box. None of them had to go and die, there being no draft to compel them. No, they, often held as symbols of the “failings” of our current society by these same ‘concerned’ folks, volunteered to defend their nation. In the end, they laid down their lives for that nation and put the lie to the idea of a generation of selfish do-nothings.

They aren’t alone. One of the things that stands, perhaps more than anything else, from this Spring and it’s savage outbreaks of tornadoes, is the willingness of people to help. In both Alabama and, more recently, Joplin, within as little as a day of the true scope of the damage was known, people have arrived, willing to help in any way possible. None of them is looking for a job or any sort of reward, they just saw some others who had suffered terribly and came to do what they could to help. They spend their own money, use their own vacation time, to do nothing more than help others. They too put the doom-sayers, the folks who deride the current society as somehow less than it was in some mythical past.

America’s not perfect, that is something I would never claim. The problem is, it never has been, and when people try to pick a past era as somehow representing a “more perfect” state of our nation and society, shows nothing so much as their own ignorance and willingness to engage in wishful thinking. The thing that is truly great about America isn’t our perfection, nor how we are ‘greater’ than any other nation. It’s how we can can rise above the imperfections present in us all and be something better, even, occasionally, something great.

A final sort of “pet peeve” in the vein of rewriting reality occurred today, and it truly pissed me off. I was flipping around, looking for something to watch on the TV, and I came up on the start of a baseball game. The Chicago Cubs were getting ready to start a game, and it being Memorial Day, they were in full ‘patriotic fervor’ mode. It wasn’t really over-the-top, or even very offensive…..until the announcer told everyone to stand for the national anthem. I do not know who the woman was who they has asked to do the honors, but someone should set down with her and have a good, long talk. You see, rather than answer that announcement by stepping up to the mike and opening with the stirring lines of “The Star Spangled Banner”, she decided to open with “God Bless America”, THEN she decided to actually sign our national anthem. I know, many conservatives these days want to do away with “The Star Spangled Banner” and replace it with a song that reflects (in their words and pathetic little minds) “our nation’s Christian roots”. Until they accomplish this idiotic task, I would hope they would have the decency to remember what song we all do rise to.