Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Golden Fleeced

There’s gold in them thar tourists’ pockets!

Riding the rails of the Alaska Railroad as I write this; on our way south from Fairbanks to Denali. Day before yesterday was spent on the train—eight hours northbound from Talkeetna to Fairbanks. Yesterday morning we boarded a stern wheeler for an excursion on the Chena River—watched a float plane take off and land, saw a team of sled dogs pulling a four-wheeler, and trooped ashore to be herded through a replica of an Athabaskan Indian Fish Camp. Typical tourist-trap trek.

Yesterday afternoon we boarded a bus for the El Dorado Gold Mine outside of Fairbanks. El Dorado is a “working” gold mine, and although they do extract gold from the hills, they extract a lot more green from the daily trainload of tourists that visit. But, I have to admit that I was pretty excited to find gold flakes in the bottom of my pan when we were given the opportunity to try our luck. The 5.5 grains of gold is probably worth about 11 bucks, but the taste of gold fever was priceless.

When we get to Denali this afternoon, we are taking a white-water raft trip. The prospect of such adventure used to be fire me up. Guess I’m getting old—I’m trying to decide if I would rather ride a rocking chair at the lodge instead.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Denali Denied

As I write this it is a little after 6 in the morning and the sun has been up for two hours. Sunlight leaked into our room past the curtains until after midnight last night. The last time I experienced such lattitudinal effects on sunlight was in Norway in 1987. But, that time, as several previous trips to Norway's arctic, was in late winter, and the sun made a rather brief appearance on the horizon each day--the rest of our training day was conducted in twighlight or darkness lit only by the aurora borealis. This is the first time I've experienced more than 20 hours of sunlight and it is a bit disconcerting.

Out the window this morning Denali's peak is shrouded in cloud. It made a brilliant, snow-capped appearance yesterday evening after dinner, but the weather failed us earlier in the day.

We rode the Alaskan Railroad from Anchorage to the thriving metropolis of Talkeetna yesterday morning. Actually, Talkeetna makes my adpoted hometown, Abbeville, Mississippi, look like a bustling example of modernity. And, Abbeville ain't big enough for a traffic light. Upon our arrival in Talkeetna, we checked into the tourist lodge and caught their shuttle into "town." After seeing the sights for all of 15 minutes, we walked over to the bush pilot airfield and waited for our prearranged flight over the Alaskan Range.

The six of us strapped into the antique aircraft, a De Havilland DHC-2 "Beaver," while the pilot went over the location of survival gear and safety features of the aircraft. He actually managed to do so while not acting bored to tears. He later told us he averages 4 flights a day and has been doing this for nearly 30 years.

Our flight lasted an hour, but seemed to go by much quicker than that. We flew up to the base of the range and worked our way up through passes leading toward Mt. McKinnley's peak--looking for a break in the cloud to allow us a circling view. No break. However, the view on the way up was spectacular. We flew alongside towering rock walls and over gleaming white high altitude snow fields. The second leg of the flight took us back down over the massive glacier that flows from McKinnley to the river below. Still mostly covered in snow, small bright icey-blue pools of meltwater, looking like saphires at a lady's throat, opened tiny portals of light by which we stole a glimpse into the soul of the thousand foot thick frozen river.

Later this morning we catch the train on up to Fairbanks. Hope Miss Brenda gets those pictures of the moose and grizzly bears she wants. I just hope the coffee is hot and plentiful.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

North to Alaska

The cruise director wannabes in my family (the comely Miss Brenda and her homely twin sister) have been scheming to get us back on a cruise ship to make a trip to Alaska, and this curmudgeonly cruisaphobe has been resisting mightily. The last cruise I went on failed to improve my very low opinion of ships and sailors. Cramming my backside onto a floating prison for temporary incarceration with a thousand civilians trying desperately to have fun was not at the top, or bottom, of my bucket list. I told Miss Brenda I wanted to take a train tour, instead.

Tomorrow morning, Miss Brenda, her parents, and I will catch a flight out of Memphis and link up with Miss Brenda's sister and her hubby in Anchorage tomorrow evening. For the next nine days we will train and coach (tour group euphemism for "bus") our way across a select slice of the 49th state of these re-United States. Should give me some time to catch up on my reading--I mean, how much time can you spend looking at snow-capped mountains, moose, and icebergs?

The last time I was in Anchorage was January of 1982. I was on a charter flight with a couple hundred other miserable Marines headed for the garden isle of Okinawa. The first leg of our polar arc flight took us from LAX to Anchorage and we were allowed to deplane for a couple of hours while they refueled our bird. I wanted a glass of orange juice but didn't have the $10, so I settled for a $5 cup of coffee.

I can only imagine how expensive my caffeine fixes will be this time around.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Polecat Predicament

When you set a trap for a nuisance critter, you better be prepared for what happens if you actually catch something.

I bought a couple of live-catch traps at the local feed store to see if I could catch the varmint--suspected to be an armadillo--that had been digging up my back yard. I placed them out in the middle of the back yard, and after no action for a few days moved one of them back onto our back porch. I neglected to take the bait out and disarm it.

This afternoon I stepped out back to refill the bird feeder, and detected a whiff of something at the opposite end of the scent spectrum from a bar of Irish Spring. A quick glance at the trap confirmed via my optic nerve what my olfactory sense was hinting at. There was a skunk in the trap. There was a skunk in the trap, on my back porch. There was a skunk in the trap on my back porch, right next to my back door.

Luckily, Pepe hadn't le pewed yet. But, I didn't know how I was going to free the little bugger without getting sprayed in the process. I reckoned that I would gently move the trap off the back porch and as far away from the house as possible--if I could. I changed into some clothes I wouldn't mind burning, grabbed an old towel and eased up to the trap. I draped the towel slowly over the trap, gingerly picked it up by its handle and headed for the back forty--expecting to get perfumed at any moment.

There was no explosive emanation forthcoming. I set the trap down, put on a pair of gloves to protect against a bite, opened the door of the trap, locked it in place and stepped away expecting our unwanted guest to leave at his earliest convenience. Instead of departing the premises, the little stinker backed further into the cage and tripped the trigger springing the door closed again with a clang. I sucked in a deep breath and went into my sprinter's crouch, certain I could outrun stink molecule propagation should the skunk be startled into fumigation. Pepe sat calmly curled up against the back of the trap. I eased the trap over on its side and locked the door open again so that he wouldn't step on the trigger if and when he decided to leave.

At dark this evening the skunk was still crouched in the trap. Hope he'll make good his escape under cover of darkness. If not, I'll have to call in the Skunk Whisperer--Miss Brenda.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Just Another Brick in the Walk

Thirty years ago today, I graduated from the University of Mississippi and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. Seems like only thirty days ago--not thirty years. I hadn't really mentioned this particular milestone to anyone in the family, but Miss Brenda, wonder woman that she is, knew the significance of the date.

About ten years ago, Ole Miss bricked in a Walk of Champions leading from the plaza in front of the student union and across the Grove toward Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. More importantly for me, the walk also begins in front of what was McCain Hall--named for Senator McCain's father--housing the Naval ROTC unit from 1949 to 1988. I spent more of my time, and learned the most valuable lessons of my college education, in that building than in any other during my four years at Ole Miss.

As a fund-raiser, the Ole Miss "M" Club, sells (at a steep price) and places personalized bricks in the walk. On a game weekend a few years ago, I casually remarked to Miss Brenda and one of my sons that I'd like to see The Colonel's brick in the walk someday. To be honest, I didn't expect that particular wish to be granted--I daily wish out loud for things to my family that rarely get granted.

This morning, Miss Brenda asked me to take her to lunch in town at our favorite sandwhich place. After lunch she told me to drive through the campus, and then told me to park next to the Union. She had her camera with her and I dully figured that I'd have to stand around while she took pictures of squirrels, blades grass, or odd tree bark formations--there's a long story behind that...grist for another post. So, I got on my phone and started conducting business.

When I finally got off the phone, Miss Brenda said, "Let's take a walk down memory lane," took my hand and started down the Walk of Champions. At the end of the personalized bricks she stopped and I looked down to see...THE COLONEL'S BRICK!

Now that it's there, I'm not sure I like the idea of being trampled on by the masses.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Tractor Pull

One glaring difference between me and most of my neighbors--my lack of a tractor--will be remedied today.

For the past year Miss Brenda and I have worked several major projects here on Eegeebegee, by hand. I kept saying we needed a tractor. Miss Brenda kept responding with "We're not farmers!" I began to calculate that the amount of money we were spending monthly on motrin ("grunt candy," as we Marines call it) would come close to paying the note on a decent tractor with a front loader.

But, I have learned from long experience with Miss Brenda that all I need do is plant the seed of my want in her mind and then shut up. So, I shut up and we dug up trees and walkway forms and moved gravel and sand and trees and bricks--mostly by hand. We popped copious amounts of motrin and awoke each morning with stiff backs.

One morning last week as I was struggling to eject myself from the rack, Miss Brenda opened one eye and muttered, "Let's go get you a tractor." I pretended not to understand, "I'm sorry, Sweetie, what was that?" But, she had already fallen back asleep.

About 10 that morning, Miss Brenda sprung from the bed and immediately began to shout orders as if I were the one who had been burning daylight. "Let's go! Get movin'! Goin' to town! Gonna go get you a tractor!"

"Sweetie," I replied, without a hint of sarcasm, "we don't need a tractor. We're not farmers."

I got the look that can cook steak in reply.

My tractor is supposed to be delivered out here some time today. Wonder if Miss Brenda will let me ride it.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Thanks, Mom!

To be honest, I'm not a big fan of special "Days." Seems to me that if you can't make someone you care about feel special more than one day out of the year, you aren't gonna have much luck with a card, flowers, and lunch out. Now, I freely admit that you will find my name at the very bottom of any list of people who do a good job of making loved ones feel special all year 'round. But, hey, I believe in the political science maxim that competence is not a commentary prerequisite.

For those of you who rank just above me at the bottom of the list of considerate sons, this is your Mother's Day wake up call. For those of you who have caused and graced our collective existence with your motherhood, this is a heartfelt "Thank you" from a calloused curmudgeon who knows enough to give credit where credit is due. As I pause this weekend to honor the ladies whose proper presence in our lives provide blessed balance and temper to what otherwise would be masculine mayhem, there are four to whom I am especially indebted and who deserve much more than the meager recognition I will accord them below.

My mother, born in rural Mississippi in the Great Depression, possesses an awe inspiring combination of grace, grit, good manners, and sense of style that quite frankly has always been an intimidatingly high standard by which to measure myself. So, I've taken the easy way out and quit trying. She is matchless. To her I owe what sense of propriety I possess in my often impolitic manner--I shudder to think what low level my behavior would attain were it not for the appropriate-living lessons she gave me. There was never any doubt that she loved my brother and me deeply and unconditionally--had she not, she would have early-on thrown up her hands in disgust and despair at the gross pair of boys behind whom she picked up and for whom she prayed. She once told me, when I was a young teenager, that she prayed for me every morning after I had gone off to school. Brings tears to my eyes, even today, remembering how much that simple statement meant to me. Dad was a great dad, but Mom made the men that my brother and I became.

My best friend in this world raised my children almost single-handed while I was off making the world safe for democracy. She did a spectacular job. She doesn't think she did, but our children now live their lives in ways for which my pride cannot be contained. The credit is all Miss Brenda's.

Miss Brenda's mother is one of my favorite people. Her wisdom and discernment is amazing. Case in point: she saw enough potential in her future son-in-law to adopt me as a son when other mothers were warning their daughters to steer clear of me. She raised a great daughter, without whom I would be lost--that's a life-changing accomplishment.

The newest mother on my list of favorites is she who holds the vaunted and hallowed position as the mother of my grandsons. She is a great mate--I couldn't think of one better--to Number 1 son, and she has given me two of the most special boys on the planet over whom I am completely and unashamedly crazed.

Ladies, I thank you.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Stormy Weather

Under a tornado watch this morning and this is starting to get old. We had tornadoes scouring their way across our neck of the woods last week, and after the hit we took back in February everyone in our community gets as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs every time the skies get dark. Heavy thunderstorms rumbled over us last night and television news reports this morning that a tornado is on the ground east of us over in Tupelo.

I'm starting the reconsider my decision not to build a storm shelter.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Reminiscences to a Road Warrior

I'm not one to ordinarily go out of my way to call attention to myself. Those of you who know me well may disagree, but my self-perception is of a terribly introverted boat-stabilizer. There is one thing I do, however, to advertise who I am to others. When on business trips, I wear a small Marine emblem lapel pin on my sport coat. Invariably, that miniature eagle, globe and anchor catches someone's eye and they comment with either a "Semper Fi!" or a question about my service. What I love most is the short stories I hear from complete strangers about their connection with the Marine Corps--their own service, a child's, a spouse's.

A flight attendant on one recent flight pointed to the Seventh Marines pin on her apron and proudly told me her son was in 1/7 and in Iraq. She was enormously proud of him, a huge fan of the Corps, and terribly worried about his safety. I told her to pass on an "ooorah" from me, and then I told her she was now on two of my lists--my personal hero list and my prayer list.

A gentleman in his eighties tapped me on my knee as I sat in a terminal waiting for a flight, and volunteered quietly, "I was in the Sixth Marine Division." "Iwo?," I asked. He nodded and his voice seemed to lose six decades of age as he commented, "I can still smell that stinking island." Then his age returned as he remembered, "Lost a lot of good friends on Iwo." As I always do, I thanked him for his service and told him it was the exploits and sacrifices of his generation of Marines that made it so honorable to be a Marine in my day.

Occasionally, folks with no Marine connection, will volunteer a story about their service in one of the other branches of the military. Recently, a gentleman asked me how long I had been in the Corps. He laughed at my stock answer, "25 years, 5 months, and 17 days--but who's counting," and then told me that he was in the Army Reserve and had commanded a tank battalion in Desert Storm. He told a quick story about training hard in Saudi Arabia and wanting to reward his soldiers in a special way. We officially and strictly obeyed the kingdom's ban on alcohol, but this commander had an idea. He contacted his golfing buddies back home--one of whom owned a beer distributorship and was owed some favors by a local soft drink bottler. A pallet of high octane cokes was shipped to Saudi Arabia, a savvy sergeant major traded for some ice, and a battalion of tankers enjoyed a surreptitious cold one (or three) on the eve of their battle with the Republican Guard.

I really should start writing all these stories down.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Evolutionary Full Circle

Thirty years ago this week, I was sorrowfully engaged in the final examinations that would culminate my undergraduate career. For the majority of my time beneath the oaks at Ole Miss, I had longed for the time when I would see the statue of Johnny Reb at end of University Avenue in my rear view mirror and finally get on with my adult life. Not a natural student, mostly due to a severe case of ADHD--for which I would have most likely been drugged into a zombie had I been born 30 years later--I detested the prison of the classroom. For the first couple of years at Ole Miss, I struggled to stay in good standing.

But, beginning in my Junior year, a certain transformation began to take place in my outlook. I was becoming a Mississippian. Like an ancient amphibian emerging from the ooze of a vast primordial swamp, I was evolving from a lower life form that had existed as a nomadic denizen of the deep into a citizen of an island of higher consciousness. After spending my previous life as a military dependent unable to claim a hometown, I was beginning to identify with North Mississippi and thereby reconnecting with my lineage. Now I was not so anxious to leave.

I did leave, in body, if not totally in spirit. Thirty years ago, next week, a diploma was handed to me and the gold bars of a second lieutenant were pinned to the epaulets of my Marine officer's dress whites. For the next three decades I resumed my itinerant life, wandering between temporary abodes. But, I had a patch of territory to call home, and I touched base with it more and more often the longer I was away from it. My sons' matriculation at Ole Miss, beginning eleven years ago, gave me even more reason to return regularly, and the more I returned the deeper the reconnection became.

My neighbors most likely still, and will for some time I'm sure, consider me an outsider--a newcomer to these hills. That's okay. I know I'm home--I have arrived back at my Life's (with a capital "L") starting point.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Rein in the Rain

When you pray for rain, it's a good idea to be prepared for a flood.

Last summer nary a drop of rain fell here at the northern end of southern nowhere, and Lake Brenda's water level dropped precipitously. By the time the leaves started to fall, the shoreline had receeded by at least twenty feet and the water level had fallen at least six feet from where it had been when Miss Brenda and I dropped anchor here at the end of March last year. As the water level dropped, I decided to take advantage of the siutation and built a dock on dry land that had hitherto been underwater. As the water level dropped and the shorelined receeded even further, I added on to the end of the dock.

There were two different high water marks along the dam at the northern end of my impoundment and I reckoned that as dry as the weather had been and seeing that global warming was going to desertify the southeastern re-United States anyway, it would probably take many years, if ever, to refill the lake to its maximum capacity. So, I built the dock with the the top of it just above the lower of the two high water marks. Mind you, the dock was completely on dry land during its entire initial and additional construction. In fact, after its completion, the gap between the dock and the water's edge continued to grow. I felt a bit like Noah, building for a flood in the desert. Except that my faith in the water's return was not complete enough.

Six weeks ago, a week of steady, heavy rain dramatically raised the water level--up and inches over the top of my dock. Not to worry, I told myself, it'll drop again. And it did. Then last Friday we got another 5 inches of rain and my dock is under water again.

Guess I'll be raising the top of my dock this summer--wonder how I'm going to do that.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Coming War with China

Recently I ran my mouth, as I am wont to do, during a dinner discussion with some clients and stated that I believed with a fair degree of certainty that we would go to war with the Peoples Republic of China within the next twenty years. Somewhat taken aback, as most civilians are at my refusal to share in their naive belief that peace is the natural condition of nations vis-a-vis each other, they asked why I would even consider that a possibility. I answered by saying that we would go to war with China for much the same reasons we went to war with Japan in 1941. The incredulous reply was, "They're going to bomb Pearl Harbor?"

Unfortunately, that inane response is exactly the type we should expect from a product of American school systems, in which the teaching of history is limited to events' dates and associated names with no critical examination of the underlying causes of those events. Most Americans' understanding of the cause of our war with Japan (1941 to 1945) is limited to the Japanese pre-emptive attack on our Pacific military forces and facilities in early December of 1941, as if the Japanese leadership woke up with a sake hangover one morning in mid-November 1941 and decided to send their fleet to destroy ours in Hawaii. The actual reasons for our conflict with Japan date back several decades prior to the "date that will live in infamy."

Japan really came of age on the world scene 104 years ago with a victory over the Russians in a war in which trench warfare, use of machine guns and barbed wire, and battleship engagements presaged the battles of the First World War. The Treaty of Versailles at the conclusion of WWI stripped Germany of its colonial possessions in the South Pacific and granted control of many of those islands to Japan. We had previously seized control of the Hawaiian Islands (in 1893) and wrested control of the Philippines and Guam from Spain (in 1898), and control of the Pacific was now an American--Japanese contest. American military planners saw the imminence of war with an increasingly imperialistic and expansionist Japan as early as 1920 and by 1922 had developed War Plan Orange as our strategy for a war in the Pacific with the Empire of Japan. The first "disarmament conference" in modern history resulted in the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 and placed limits on signatories' (the U.S., U.K, Japan, France and Italy) capital ship construction. The US specifically sought to limit Japanese battleship construction and Japan (grasping the war-changing nature of airpower) built aircraft carriers on the capital keels already laid. Further, we missed the point that Japan's expansionist designs on Manchuria and China were as important to her as her Pacific naval capability, and after Japan invaded China in the mid-1930's, we reacted with economic sanctions aimed at throttling Japan's access to industrial resources (oil, iron, and rubber; prominently). Japan's atrocities in China were followed shortly thereafter by Hitler's invasion of Eastern Europe and by 1939 the world was at war (the United States involved as a "neutral" providing war material and support to Great Britain, and later the USSR following Germany's invasion of Russia).

So, Japan's aerial attack on our bases in Hawaii and the Philippines on December 7/8, 1941 may have been the proximate event that led to our formal declaration of war on Japan, but our participation in what became known as the Second World War had been going on in a support role for nearly three years, and the seeds for our war with Japan had been planted as far back as the end of the previous century. In the end, it was all about who would exercise hegemony in the Pacific--Japan or the United States. And so it is today with China.

For the first 50 years of its existence the People's Liberation Army, while huge, was laughable with regard to military capability. When politicians began to hyperventilate in the early 90's about the possibility of a PRC invasion of Taiwan, US military professionals derisively dismissed the potential as "the million-man swim." The Chicoms didn't have a significant amphibious capability. Today they do.

Twenty years ago, the People's Liberation Army Navy (how about that for an oxymoronic appellation?) had little capability to counter US naval power in their own littorals, let alone across the Pacific. Today, the PLAN is strong enough to stand toe-to-toe with the US Navy anywhere in the Pacific. They are even building aircraft carriers. Their growing fleet of nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines will soon expand their land-based ICBM threat to our West Coast to include a credible nuclear threat to our entire homeland.

At current rates of economic growth the PRC's GDP will eclipse that of the United States sometime in the next decade. PRC presence and influence worldwide, in places once the United States' unrivaled stomping grounds (particularly since the fall of the Soviet Union) is growing alarmingly. Case in point: our attempt to establish an Africa Command HQ on the dark continent. Every "friendly" African nation we have approached to allow us to establish this "equivalent" to EUCOM and PACOM, has given us a polite "No, thank you." Ten years ago, there would have been a wild competition among several African nations for the honor of hosting such a Command. Today, the PRC (flush with cash from American markets) lines the pockets of those nations' decision-makers and whispers promises of swelling Swiss bank accounts for continued refusals of US overtures. And, oh, by the way, Africa is kinda important to us because that continent provides over 95% of the world's supply of raw materials necessary for the production of critical strategic materials like titanium--used in nearly every advanced weapon system we possess.

To those who would point to the Beijing Olympics this summer as proof that China is learning to play nice in the world, I would remind that Hitler's Germany hosted the Olympics in 1936.