Friday, December 31, 2010

What Do You Get?

In the mid 1950's, singer Tennessee Ernie Ford had a hit with the song "Sixteen Tons". The chorus went, in part, "You load sixteen tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt." On this last night of 2010, I find myself asking a similar question. "It's the end of the year, and what do you get?" Certainly, another year older, but no longer in debt for the first time in over 40 years! Our goal is to remain that way. What else did we get? A good feeling, the feeling of independence, and the freedom to pursue new adventures in 2011. What else did we get? We got two weeks in Alaska. We got memories of brown bears and wolves, moose and caribou in Denali National Park, of Mt. McKinley exposing its summit through the clouds, of massive ice bergs calving off Hubbard Glacier, and of eagles fishing the Mendenhall River near Juneau. In 2010 we mourned and celebrated the lives of friends and family members who departed this world for the next. They shall not grow older as we grow older. There were none like them before and surely none shall follow in their stead. They are sorely missed. But now, it's 2011 and what do we get? We get the promise of a new year! Where we have met our current goals, we get a "keep up the good work!" Where we have fallen short, we get a "do over." Where we want to re-invent or re-image parts of ourselves we get the opportunity to do so, or to try and try again. And this opportunity is renewed every day. In 2011, I resolve to make the most of every second of every minute of every day -- to be all that I can be, and to live every instant to the absolute fullest. I resolve to pursue every opportunity placed before me. And I resolve to enjoy myself in the process. May you also be blessed with limitless opportunities to be everything of which you are capable.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Multi-tasking -- Who? Me?

I have a confession to make.

 In accordance with the advice of some of the most well-respected authorities on effectiveness and efficiency, I don't multi-task.

Neither do I single task particularly well.

Rather, I tend to ping from task to task like riccochet rabbit, hitting a lick here and a lick there as first one thing and then another captures or forces its way into the center of my attention.  Somehow, in the chaos of bouncing from task to task like a ping-pong ball in a clothes dryer, work gets done. Somehow, in the midst of the interuptions, thoughts get put on paper. Somehow, the analysis get completed and the report gets produced. Somehow.

At the end of the day, I feel like I've spent much of my time spinning my wheels, and I am exhausted.

I am capable of single tasking. If a task is compelling enough, I have been known to pursue it to the exclusion of all else. But such compelling tasks are few and far between, and all tasks, compelling or not, require dedicated time and effort to bring to completion.

Keeping current project and action lists and attempting to order my efforts by those lists helps, but not always.

Closing my door helps, but again not always.

Attempting to keep my desk clear of all except that on which I'm working also helps and I'm getting better at it.


I'm working on improving my focus, but focus is fragile. I can disconnect from the internet, but can't ignore the person who knocks on the door to ask "Did you get my email?" and then proceeds to spend the next fifteen minutes explaining something for which no immediate action is needed. By the time the subject is sufficiently dealt with, time has passed, focus is gone, and starting over is the only option.

Is there any solution short of mayhem?

Maybe I could seal my door with crime-scene tape. Maybe the answer is to pack up my laptop and files, occupy a table in a corner of the cafeteria or an unoccupied office, and bang out whatever is needed.

If anyone asks, I'm not available. I'm hiding out, single tasking, being productive.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Not a Minimalist

I am not a minimalist. Those who have visited my comfortably cluttered household will agree that I am not a minimalist. I read and enjoy minimalist blogs like Zen Habits, Becoming Minimalist, and even to name a few. I read of challenges to live for 30 days with only 30 items of clothing, or to pare ones possessions to less that 100 items, or to live in a tiny house or apartment of less than 200 square feet. I have even taken steps to allow me to work from wherever I am to the point that I am writing this post on a netbook from my easy chair with a cup of coffee at my elbow. The point is that few if any of these challenges fits my life style, wants and desires. I desire not necessarily minimalism, but abundance, and not complexity but simplicity. And I desire not the simplicity of earlier times -- I don't want to return to the days of chopping wood, drawing water, and using an outhouse -- but the convenience of today, with central heat, modern plumbing, and inside facilities. Unlike Thoreau, I don't really want to spend two years in the woods contemplating the simple life. I want to live it today in suberbia! I want to live it among things that I enjoy. And, since I can only really enjoy things I use, I want to either divest myself of all of the things I no longer use or bring them out and use them. If I don't use it, I can't enjoy it and if I can't enjoy it, I might as well not have it. Life is too short not to use your best.

Friday, November 26, 2010


In his book, "My Life in the Woods" or "Walden", New England transcendentalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau penned the words "Life is frittered away by detail. Simplify. Simplify." Simplify: Have less stuff, but have better stuff. Have stuff that you really use and enjoy. Simplify: Do less things, but do better things. Simplify: Buy less, but enjoy more. Eat less but taste more. Pack it up and put it away. If you need it, go get it, use it, and assign it to its place. If you haven't needed it for six months or a year, get rid of it. Stuff accretes like barnacles on the bottom of a ship. Let life show you what you really need and let go of the rest. Simplify.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving -- It's a Tradition

Thanksgiving is perhaps the most American and most traditional of all holidays celebrated in the United States. Older than the nation itself, the roots of this tradition run deep. On the fourth of December in 1619, Captain John Woodlief led thirty-eight newly arrived colonists to a grassy knoll along the James River and instructed them to drop to their knees and pray in thanksgiving for their safe journey to the new world. That day, the men of Berkely Parrish proclaimed that "We ordain that the day of our ship's arrival at the place of plantation in the land of Virginia shall be yearly kept as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God. Two years later, in 1621, another group of English Colonists celebrated their bounteous harvest with a feast of Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It is from this celebration that we get elements of the tradional menu of turkey, cranberry sauce, corn pudding, and pumpkin pie. Family has always been part of the tradition, and somewhere along the line football got added to become an essential part of the feast, as did shopping the day afterward. My personal Thanksgiving tradion is to write a list of things large and small for which I am truely grateful. The big things are easy: life, the love of my family, interests and ideas, continued employment, friends and shared experiences. This year, I am very thankful for two weeks in Alaska with my wife and her sister and brother-in-law. As a result of those two weeks, I find myself newly thankful for bears, both black and grizzly, and for wolves, carribou and moose. I refer to my list throughout the year whenever I need an attitude adjustment. For me, that's the important part of thanksgiving: the conscious act of remembering, recording, and giving thanks. I am, among all people, most richly blessed, And most profoundly grateful.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

My Father's World

Had he lived, we would be celebrating my dad's 100th birthday this month. The world in which he drew his first breath was different than the world in which we live today. As was customary for the time, Dad was born at home in the small village of Browningsville, Maryland. Like his father before him, Dad grew up in the house in which his grandfather had also raised his children. In that house, which still stands today, water was pumped by hand from a well twenty or so feet from the kitchen door and carried to the house in a bucket. Hot water, for washing or doing dishes, was heated on a wood stove which also served for cooking, baking, and heat in the winter. As a boy, Dad's job was to keep both the water bucket and the wood box full. I would later perform the same functions for my grand parents who lived there for most of the 67 years of their marriage. In the winter, the downstairs was heated with wood and the upstairs with whatever heat escaped to it through the ceiling. On cold nights, sleepers would rest under two or three thick quilts while frost formed on the inside of the windows. The fire would die overnight, ensuring that one woke up to a cold house. Dad received his elementary education in a two-room schoolhouse build on land donated by his grandfather. For high school, he walked the three miles to and from Damascus. And, while not exactly up hill both ways, there is one significant summit at the midpoint. Dad became a farmer, a grower of tobacco, which was the money crop, and also enough wheat and corn to get the animals -- the horses and a flock of chickens -- through the winter. In the beginning, he worked the land using horses. He also planted enough potatoes for the winter and a sizable garden. Dad's first tractor, a 1940 John Deere model B, was useful for plowing, cultivating, and pulling stumps and other heavy objects but wouldn't go slow enough to pull the tobacco planter, so the horses, two big white Clydesdales named Harry and Jimmy, stayed around until 1949 when dad bought a John Deere model M. During his lifetime, Dad lived through two world wars, survived the great depression, witnessed the advent of the automobile, the telephone (and its evolution from hand-cranked monster to direct distance dialing), household electricity, indoor plumbing, radio, and television. He watched the airplane develop from an interesting toy to a means of transportation that eventually outpaced and ultimately doomed the passenger railroad. At age 61, he actually allowed himself to fly on one. And when the Concorde flew into Dulles International Airport for the first time, Dad was in his back yard in Frederick, MD. to watch it make its final turn inbound over the Frederick Airport. He told his young niece who was with him "You are seeing history," and she was. Dad saw the economy and his community change from agricultural to suburban and his land increase in value until it was no longer economically viable to farm it. Today, most of that land and area are grown over with ticky-tacky houses. The way of life Dad knew and lived has all but disappeared from the area in which he lived, all in less than 100 years. Growing up when I did and where I did put me squarely on the cusp of a lot of the changes I mentioned here. Although I was too young to work them, I remember the horses, and I really did learn to drive on a John Deere tractor! I remember how to split wood and keep the wood box full, and how to carry out the ashes. And I remember the warmth and comfort of sleeping under a pile of quilts with only my nose sticking out while frost forms on the inside of the windows. But I also remember the inconvenience of having to go outside to use the bathroom, and of heating water in which to bathe on a wood stove, and splitting and carrying wood, and stoking the fire for heat and a hundred other things that were normal parts of life at the time. There is a certain nostalgia involved. If I had to, I could live that way again, but I'm not sure that I would want to. Maybe, I'm getting soft. Or maybe, I am as much a man of my times as my Dad was of his. As my children observe my 100th birthday, I wonder what changes they will remark that I lived through. I look forward to being there to listen.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans' Day

A haiku: We stood together For Liberty and Freedom, Sacrificing all.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Once, There Was a War

Once, there was a war, a great war, a war to end all wars. For five years, the combatants savaged one another from one end of the European continent to the other. New weapons were developed, new means of increasing the horror. When it ended, it was not by victory or defeat, but by a negotiated armistice that took effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Peace negotiations dragged on for another year and the terms finally imposed virtually insured that the peace would not endure. And the peace did not endure.

Again, there was a war, and it was a war of such global extent as to be termed a world war. New weapons and tactics provided new means of inflicting punishment. Ironically, this war was ended by the use of a weapon of such unspeakable horror that it has not been used since. In this war, there was no doubt who won and who lost, of who were the victors and who were the vanquished. Afterward, the victors assisted the vanquished to reconstruct so that these former enemies are now among our staunchest allies.

But again, within five years, there was a war. Not a declared war but a police action in the land of the frozen Choisan. Men endured almost unendurable conditions. Men suffered. Men died. And the war was ended by a negotiated armistice. War continues to threaten while peace negotiations continue to this day almost sixty years later.

Once again, there was a war, and this one was my war. Maybe it wasn't much of a war, but the mud, the blood, the pain, and the sacrifice were as real as in any other. The troops in the field did their jobs but the politicians back home lacked the backbone to win. We were winning when they negotiated away what we and our allies had won and sent us home from where we watched our legislators abrogate treaty obligations to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

There have been two wars since then. The first was conventional. Ended by negotiation short of absolute victory, the terms of peace virtually ensured that the another war would be necessary, as it was. So, once again, we are at war, and this time it is not a war among nation states, but against shadowy organizations loyal not to any nation but to a religious ideology. Conventional strategies and tactics are of only marginal value in a fight where the primary weapon is the improvised explosive device and the primary objective is to sow destruction and reap terror among non combatants.

In this war, there can be no negotiated peace. How does one negotiate with an implacable enemy whose only desire is to see us dead? In this war, victory will come to the one who is best able to endure, and endure we must, lest we cease to be a nation. Have we the backbone to do what needs to be done and to keep doing it for however long it takes?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

To Original Happiness

A good friend recently sent me an article documenting the continued gratefulness of the citizens of the city of Plzen in Czech republic to the American soldiers who liberated them at the close of World War II. It's an annual celebration and the article closes with an invitation to visit Plzen in May. I'd love to visit Plzen in May or any other time of the year. Plzen -- English spelling Pilsen -- is where they invented the beer called Pilsner, and where they continue to brew it today. In German, the word Ur means original, as in "original recipe". The word "Quel" means source, as in source of a river. Urquel therefore means "Original Source". So Pilsner Urquel is the original recipe Pilsner from the original source, the Pilsner Urquel Brauerei in Pilsen. I am a long-time fan of Pilsner Urquel. In Germany, I sought out establishments with signs advertising "Pilsner Urquel vom Fass", that is "from the barrel" or on tap. That sign has been the source of very many very pleasant evenings. Germany boasts many excellent beers, and among them many Pilsners or Pils. More than a few called Ur or original Pils. Some, like Kirner Pils and Alpirsbacher Klosterbrau, are excellent, but there is only one Pilsner Urquel, and it's the best. If you find yourself in Pilsen in May or any other time of the year, please consume at least one Pilsner Urquel in my honor. Or, if you can't make to Pilsen, feel free to consume one purchased locally. Benjamin Franklin once said that "Beer is God's way of saying He loves us, and wants us to be happy." Ben was right. Pilsner Urquel proves it.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Every high school class has one -- the girl who is near or at the centre of everything. Known by all, if she is not in charge then she gets everything organised for the one who is. If she's not the organiser, then she's the tireless worker who makes the event or whatever happen. She has very definite ideas about what needs to be done, how it needs to be done, when it needs to be done and, if all else fails, the gumption to do it herself and to joke and cackle and make it fun. In our class, that person was Anna. No matter the activity, whether a dance, a choral performance, an operetta, or a student council election, she was part of it, usually infecting and involving a lot of others with her enthusiasm. We met during our first week of kindergarten in 1950 and remained classmates until graduation in 1963. After graduation, we saw each other only infrequently but somehow maintained the bond of shared experiences. At our most recent class reunion, all of us spent a great deal of time recounting and chortling over incidents and events long past, yet still as fresh as yesterday in our minds. Anna chortled the loudest. Anna left us last Monday. She was visiting one of her daughters, and on Sunday evening complained of a cold. On Monday morning, she failed to awaken. She leaves behind her loving husband of 44 years, four daughters, numerous grandchildren, many friends, and at least one BFF. Her death leaves a large hole in the lives of those of us privileged to be her classmates and friends. Go in peace, Anna. You left us too soon. There was never anyone like you before, and after you there shall come no other. You are missed.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Lazy Days

Leaves are beginning to fall in Northern Virginia. The trees have yet to turn, but some leaves, not knowing any better, have begun to fall and cover the back yard. It is the turning of the seasons. Some trees have the first blush of colour, some have started to go yellow, and others remain summer green. But the leaves have begun to fall. Today, Columbus Day, we celebrated European discovery of Western Hemisphere by working in the yard. My wife raked up the first leaves of autumn and I mowed our scant fifth of an acre for what I hope will be the last time this season. Each time I mow, I am freshly amazed at the number of mini-climates of which I am steward. Today, the weather was too perfect not to be outdoors. In this weather, autumn often seems better than spring, more settled, more laid back and relaxed. Days like today, joy is found in the simple and ordinary things of life -- a sunny day, an autumn breeze, and the smell of fresh cut grass. Sometimes, life just can't be more perfect.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Never Again

Several readers have been kind enough to take exception to my last post in which I expressed rage at being attacked on 9/11, rage at the perpetrators of those attacks, rage at those who persist in saying "Peace, peace!" when there is no peace, and rage at those who lack both the passion to recognise that a great wrong has been done and the resolve to see it righted.

My rage is born of passion and I am passionate about only a few things.

I am passionate in my love of this, my country, which I have served, for which I have killed, and for which I've bled and nearly been killed myself. I carry in my body scars that are the results of that passion. I always will. Whatever else, I am a soldier and will always remain so. A great evil has been and is being done to my country.

Should I not be angry? Should I not as a soldier and a citizen be resolved that this evil shall not triumph?

I am passionate in my devotion to my family, for whom I would give my life and possessions, and for whose welfare I labor daily.

Should I not be angry at any and all who seek to enslave them? Should I not be resolved to oppose all who seek such slavery with my every waking breath?

And I am passionate in my desire that evil shall not triumph. In my church, when we recite the creed that states, in part "We are called to be the church ... to seek justice and resist evil," I passionately believe in the meaning every one of those words.

Should I not be angry when I experience a great evil? Should I not be resolved that it never be allowed again?

My good friend Lash pointed out in an email earlier this week, that, in the end, my rage is less about anger and more about resolve. In his words "It would have been easy to roll over and accept our earlier great Satan's: the NAZI's, or military rule by the Japanese, or domination by the Soviet Union's Communism; but we did not take the easy way out. We didn't just give in or give up in order to avoid war and deaths. We were even willing to use our ultimate weapon to end WW-II!! Then we helped those enemies recover. Those enemies are now some of our closest allies... Also, "ISLAM" needs to be 'Judged' by free people everywhere! If 'they' (the majority of Muslims) can't see the difference between murder, freedom, individual rights, respect for other religious beliefs, then they need to be judged and dealt with harshly; just like the other Great Satan's."

We must maintain our resolve, if not our anger, and never forget and NEVER LET IT HAPPEN AGAIN"

Thursday, September 9, 2010

That Day

Dies illa, Dies irae, Calamitatis et miseriae” (That day, day of wrath, calamity and suffering...) Gabriel Faure, Requiem.

This morning, I raised the American flag over my small suburban lot and said a prayer of remembrance. It is 9/11. It is time to remember, and in my memory, September 11, 2001 remains as vivid as yesterday.

On that day, I was at work in the Pentagon. At 9:38 am, I was less than 200 feet from where the right engine of American Airlines Flight 77 tore through C ring before coming to rest against the wall across A-E drive. I smelled the smoke. I saw the fire. I stepped over debris as I exited the building. Outside, I watched as the victims were cared for.

When I learned that what I had experienced was the result of a deliberate act, I was enraged. I remain so. I am enraged that my country was attacked in the name of 'a religion of peace'. Neither terror nor mass murder can ever be part of any rational definition of peace, nor can they ever.

I am enraged.

I am enraged that it took less than six weeks for our elected representatives to start speaking of compromise and negotiation rather than retaliation against those whose sole objective is to obliterate us as a nation. We negotiate. We compromise. We appease. We accommodate. They want to kill us.

I am enraged!

I am enraged that no one in the Islamic world has come forward to condemn these acts of murder for what they are. It's been nine years.

I am enraged!

I am enraged that so many of our priests, ministers, and bishops have joined our pettifogging Congress in blaming us, the victims, for this unprovoked attack. Pale comfort, that.

I am enraged!

I am enraged that even today, we are letting ourselves to be bullied into building a shrine to the religion whose teachings led to the despicable acts of 9/11 at the site of one of those attacks.

I am enraged!

And I am enraged that we cringe so much in fear of the Islamic world that we refuse to advance our rights as a free people living in a free nation. Giving in to bullying is the moral equivalent of “paying protection” in Chicago and only benefits the bullies.

I am enraged.

Everything I ever needed to know about Islam, I learned on 9/11 in the Pentagon. Nothing since then has changed my mind.

And I am enraged!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Gospel of Labor

This year, I attained the age at which most American citizens choose to retire from full-time employment go on to whatever comes next. As one who chooses to remain part of the workforce for the foreseeable future, I find myself increasingly called on to answer the question "Why?" and the honest answer is I don't really know. Maybe I continue to work because it's a habit and I'm simply too old to know better or to change. I've been called to work since I was grown enough to make a difference on Dad's farm, where I learned a lot of truth at the end of a long handled hoe. I've worked in a machine shop, and learned the value of always striving to be a master of the craft. I've been a full-time student, earning grades rather than money. I've been a soldier and known the freedom of eagle flying armed helicopters in harm's way. Most recently and currently, I am employed as a systems engineer (and refugee from a Dilbert Look-alike Contest) figuring out how to make diverse hardware and software platforms play together in perfect harmony to do useful things. I know of no life without useful work. Maybe I continue to work because I like what I'm doing. All of my jobs have been interesting. All have spoken to some aspect of my psyche. And all have been emotionally if not monetarily satisfying. I like getting paid to do interesting things. Or maybe I continue to work because work is what I was made to do. The way I read the creation story, God placed the man he had created in the garden, to dress and to keep it. And when the man and his wife were driven from the garden the curse was not on the man but on the ground, that it not yield its fruit without increased labor. And so, I continue to work and to eat my bread by the sweat of my brow. And, as I age, I find it all good. In the words of an anonymous poet, "This is the gospel of labor, Peal forth, ye bells of the kirk, For the Lord of Love Came down from above To live with men who work. And this is the seed that He planted, Here, in this thorn-curs'd soil: Heaven is blessed With eternal rest, But the blessing of life is toil." Have a great labor day!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Content Free Warning

Somewhere over mid-America, I opened a pack of airline peanuts packaged by King Nut Companies of Solon, Ohio, an excellent product and one I recommend. After consuming my peanuts, I was surprised to read that the contents were "Produced in a facility that processes peanuts and other nuts".

I realise that the notice is probably a legal requirement meant as a warning to those with nut allergies, but really, is there any other way?

Did this warning, so carefully worded and prominently placed on the wrapper, really transmit any new information?

The package was labelled "Peanuts". Is it really to possible to obtain a package of salted peanuts that are not produced in a facility that processes peanuts? Or is the American public so dense as to not realise that peanuts are and indeed must be processed in a facility "that processes peanuts"?

Is the company so frightened of potential litigation that they feel obligated to post a a content-free warning on their product? Did some judge actually decide that peanuts were such a danger to the public that all foods processed in facilities that process peanuts and other nuts, including peanuts, must be so labelled?

Why not rather assume that when we open a package of peanuts or other nuts it comes from a facility in which such things are processed and leave it at that. Please, save us from any more content free warnings, and leave us free to enjoy our peanuts as we see fit.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


At lunchtime today, I walked out into one of those midsummer days such as I remember when I was a boy. The air is soft and humid with just enough breeze to keep it comfortable. Trees and grass are lush shades of green. The sun is bright and the sky a brilliant blue. In the west, cottony clouds are building with the promise of an evening thundershower. The light, the colors, the smells, and the touch of the breeze on my skin take me back, to make me think, to make me remember not only days but also events of long ago .  

Has it really been more than half a century since I first experienced the summer in images so real that even today they rush to my memory with all of the freshness and power of current impressions?

“Yes,” my soul tells me. “It has.”

Has it really been over 45 years since I first saw a girl in a green dress and fell tail over teacups in love? Has it really been that long since our first date and all of our subsequent dates, since movies and prom nights and football games and Sunday afternoons when our chief joy was being with each other?

“Yes,” my soul tells me. “It has.”

And has it really been 43 years since that same girl, dressed in white this time, walked down the aisle and joined her hand and life to mine? We were two kids with huge dreams and absolutely no idea what they were getting into, and none of that really mattered. For better or worse, we were together. 

And has it really been nearly forty years since our eldest made his appearance, and thirty since our youngest? And have we really lived at our current address for over 25 years? It’s just not possible.

And are there now kids that call me “Grand Dad”?

“Yes,” my soul tells me. “It is so.”

Good times, fun times, challenging times, and even trying times, all long past, but at the same time still fresh and new, continuing in memory. 

Someone once wrote that we are all products of our pasts and I am no exception. My past was very good but I am constrained to live in the present. 

Here, in the present, at the juncture of past and future, it is my job every day to wrest from each moment every ounce of flavor that life has to offer. For it is the moments of the now that will make up all of the fond memories of the future.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

In the Company of Heroes

I recently returned from a week in the company of heroes; of men who answered the call of their country and went to war in Vietnam behind the controls of a helicopter. War correspondent Joe Galloway called us "God's own lunatics", and, whatever we flew, "God's own lunatics" is a label in which we continue to take considerable pride. Those who flew the Light Observation Helicopter (LOH or "Loach") had the mission of flying low and slow to observe the enemy and mark targets. The rest of us joked that our target would be marked by a burning loach. We didn't need to be convinced that deliberately trying to draw fire was insane. We knew it . Those who flew the UH-1 Huey, or Slick were workhorses. Slicks hauled the infantry into and out of the fight, often landing under fire to deliver reinforcements, food, water, and ammunition; to carry the wounded to aid; and to bring the dead home. When they were called, they came. Where LOH pilots were high spirited and exuberant, Slick drivers were more subdued and business like. The heavy lifters who flew Chinooks and Sky Cranes didn't get enough respect. They just showed up and did their job of moving heavy objects, relocating artillery and resupplying firebases day in and day out every day, faithfully maintaining their part of the supply chain. LOH drivers had callsigns like "Scalp Hunter"; slick drivers had call signs like "Robin Hood", "Crusader", and "Gladiator". Heavy Lifters carried call signs like "Playtex", "Pachyderm", and "Big Windy". Then, there are the gunship pilots. Gunship pilots had call signs like "Bucaneer", "Joker", "Cougar", and "Panther". Gunship pilots directly engaged the enemy and, whether they flew Bravo models, Charlie models or the AH-1G Cobra, always knew themselves to be members of the elite. Gunships covered and protected loaches, performed airmobile escort, and provided fire support; those who flew them knew they were special. As my friend Mike takes pride in saying "Three kinds of people flew helicopters in Vietnam -- those who were Panthers, those who were covered by the Panthers, and those who wish to God they were one of the other two!" Every year, when I attend the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots' reunion, I leave with a deep sense of appreciation and honor to be numbered as a member of this company of heroes. Someone once asked if I was a real hero. "No", I replied. "But I've drunk beer with a lot of people who are." Most of my Vietnam Helicopter Pilot friends would say the same.

Monday, June 28, 2010

I Have Seen the Morning

"I have seen the morning burning golden on the mountain in the sky, Achin' with the feeling of the freedom of an eagle when she flies... These lines, penned by American troubadour Kris Kristofferson, have the power to draw me back to late 1971 and early 1972 when I was an Army Aviator privileged to see the morning burning golden on the mountain and to experience the freedom of the eagle. I have seen the morning burning golden on the mountain, and the name of the mountain was Chu Pao, but we all called it the rock pile. It guards the west side of the pass between Pleiku and Kontum. When I first saw it in late December of 1971, it was thrusting its heavily wooded shoulders through a blanket of early morning fog into the morning sun. When I last saw it a scant six months later, it was battered and nearly devoid of vegetation -- the result of heavy bombardment and fighting. I have seen the morning burning golden on the mountain, and the name of the mountain was Leghorn. Leghorn stands atop sheer cliffs in southern Laos and is accessible only by helicopter. Visible at any altitude above 500 feet from just about anywhere around Dak To and Ben Het, it was a handy navigation aid. If you could see Leghorn, you might not know exactly where you were, but you weren't lost. The slanting rays of the morning sun would cause the sheer cliffs to gleam like gold in the morning. Sometimes, someone would mention it as we passed by on our way to doing the business of war. I have seen the morning burning golden on the mountain, and the name of the mountain is lost to me. It stands on either side of the road through the Mang Yang pass. At the summit there is a meadow marked by regularly spaced round depressions, remnants of an earlier war. It is a graveyard where the Viet Minh buried the dead of French Group Mobile 100 reportedly standing up, facing Paris. I have seen the morning burning golden on the mountain in the sky, and the mountain was more of a ridge than a mountain. We called it Rocket Ridge since it was the launch site for rockets aimed at Tan Canh, Dak To, and Kontum. Anchored on the south by a mountain we called Big Momma and the north by Firebase 5, it stretches over 20 miles from just west of Kontum to slightly south east of Ben Het. Besides Firebase 5, Rocket Ridge was the site of a number of Firebases, including Charlie, Delta, and Yankee. Firebase Charlie was occupied by a Vietnamese Airborne Battalion and subjected to heavy attacks. Of the nearly 342 men that went onto Charlie, less than 40 survived to walk off. From the cockpit of my helicopter, I have seen the morning burning golden on the mountain in the sky; I have ached with the feeling of the freedom of an eagle. I would have it no other way, and I would gladly do it again.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Description of a Hero

He's old or he's young; he's tall or he's short. He's thin, or fat, white, brown, yellow, or black. As often as not, "he" is really "she" and the distinction is obscured by the conventions of our language. But something sets him apart. He wore a uniform, or he did not. He accomplished much, or he accomplished nothing. His efforts were successful, or they were futile. But he always dared greatly. He may have been given medals which he displays proudly, or keeps hidden in a box in a drawer. He may have received nothing but aches, pains, and scars for his efforts. His name and history may be known to many, or known to few, or remembered by none, but the benefits of his service are enjoyed by all. We call him a hero. He admits only to doing what needed doing at the time, and to not quitting. When he departs this world for the next, his life may be recounted or it may not, but the world will have been made better by his efforts. And he could wish for no more. In Arlington, there rests in honoured glory, an American Soldier known only to God, a hero representing the hundreds of thousands of others we have to thank for our liberty and independence. They are heroes. Honour their memories.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Enjoy the Journey

The author of one of the blogs I read has stated "Life is not a destination. It's a journey. Enjoy the journey." Yesterday was a journey in more ways than one. I departed on travel to a conference. Since conference activities were scheduled to start at one, I booked a non-stop that would get me to the hotel shortly after noon. No problem. My wife dropped me at the airport in plenty of time. I breezed through security, bought a breakfast burrito and a cup of Starbucks on my way to the gate and sat down to await the boarding call. I should have guessed that something was awry when my coffee cup leaped from my hand to the floor, spilling about half of its contents and bespattering my white shirt. "No problem", I thought, rejoicing that it had missed my coat and trousers. "I can change my shirt before the meeting." The next indication that something might be amiss was when they called "the persons assigned seat numbers such and such" to remain at the podium during boarding. You guessed it --my number was among those announced. Still, no problem. Then, at the podium, we were informed that weather conditions required the pilot to carry more fuel than normal so that, if needs be, he could fly to and land at an alternate destination. You guessed it again -- I was among the lucky few selected to be involuntarily bumped and was left standing at the counter with seven of my soon to be best buddies as our luckier compatriots boarded the plane. Potential large problem. The gate agents tried frantically to sort things out. I felt sorry for them. I felt equally sorry for the customer service representatives assigned the task of getting us alternate flights to deliver us where we needed to go. At least three of us ended up on another carrier with a connection through Dallas Fort Worth. Kudos to the customer service people! The connection would be a bit close, but not frantic. I'd miss most of the first day sessions, but at least get there in time to pick up my registration materials. After a brisk walk and a train ride to another terminal, I found myself seated in the aft bulkhead window seat of my new flight. I was squished in with little leg room, no way to recline, a great view of the right engine and two people to climb over if I needed to avail myself of the facilities. Still, I had a seat and was on my way. Then, the alternate flight departed a half hour late due to a maintenance delay and what should have been an easy connection became a mad dash, again via train, from the arrival gate on one side to a departure gate on the exact opposite side of the terminal complex. I arrived at the gate, walked up to the podium, presented my boarding pass and was seated immediately -- in first class! Hey, those customer service people are all right! Suddenly, I had leg room, hip room and beverages served in real glass tumblers! It was only forty-five minutes, but it was wonderful! Five minutes after I was seated, the doors closed and we were wheels up to San Antonio. The rental car was ready. The directions to the hotel were clear enough that I only had to stop one time to ask for directions. I missed the afternoon session, but I arrived in plenty of time to change my shirt and pick up my conference materials. I even treated myself to a much deserved Starbucks. Modern business travel is definitely not about the destination, but the journey. It's more fun and a lot less frustrating if you relax and enjoy the journey.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The First Rite of Spring

Winter is officially over. It may not yet be warm enough to say that spring is here, but winter is officially over. We will certainly have some more raw days and cool nights before it gets warm for good. We could even still experience a frost. But six weeks after the ground hog saw his shadow, winter is officially over. My lawn told me that winter is done. It told me by growing green and tall enough that decency forced me to drag out the mower and cut it. It told me by teeming with new life, grass and clover and violets and even the lowly dandelions. Even the bare spots -- of which there are more than a few -- are bringing forth an abundance of moss and wild onions. In the first rite of spring, my mower responded to the second pull of the starting rope with a pop and a cloud of blue smoke before settling into a satisfying purr. After a winter in the shed, it seemed almost eager to get back to work. I acknowledge that winter is over to the point that I am surveying the yard for the best place to grow some tomatoes. The winter storms took out several trees allowing me more choices than last year. Winter is over. The old brown grass is fast being replaced by a new coat of green. In the sunlight all things seem new. Winter can fool a person; on occasion, it can even fool the ground hog. But it can't fool your grass.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Second Cup

Let there be no doubt. I like my coffee. I like my coffee so much that I measure my workday in units called "Starbucks". A one Starbucks day is nothing worth writing about. A two Starbucks day is normal, and a three Starbucks day is a super active "my pants are on fire and the devil is after me" kind of experience. Luckily, I have only experienced a couple of "three Starbuck's" days, and only one "Four Starbucks day" in my lifetime. The fourth Starbuck's was a "Venti Double Red Eye" from which it took several days to recover. The first cup of coffee in the morning is always "wake me up and shoot me flying out the door" urgent. The first cup starts the day, gets the body moving, starts the blood pumping and clears away the cobwebs. On workdays, the first cup is all I have time for before hitting the road and getting down to the business of life and work. On weekends, however, there is time to relax and enjoy a second cup. My second cup of weekend coffee is my favourite of the week. For some unknown reason, the second cup of weekend coffee tastes better than any other. As I drink it, I find myself living in the moment, savouring the aroma and contemplating the subtle nuances of bean, roast, and taste, enjoying the blend of bitter, sweet, acid, and a hundred and one other things only hinted at that combine to make each pot and each cup unique. At such times, the world narrows down to three things: me, the morning, and the coffee. At such times, life is very good. The first cup of coffee is all about waking up and getting down to business. But on weekends at least, the second cup is all about luxury and leisure. Others may urge that we "wake up and smell the coffee." I urge you instead to take your time, linger, and enjoy all that coffee and life have to offer. Life: it's all about the coffee.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Spring Fancies

Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote that "In the spring, a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love", and perhaps it does. However, it's been my experience that a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love just about every season of the year and that in the spring a young man's fancy turns to a lot of things other than love. In the spring a young man's fancy seriously turns to thoughts of baseball! From the day that pitchers and catchers report for spring training in late February there is a feeling of expectation. Maybe this will be the year the home team brings home the pennant. After long years of home baseball deprivation since the Senators moved to Texas, I find myself once again feeling the thrill of reading the training reports and grapefruit league results in mild to wild expectations. Alas, after two games my beloved Nationals are zero and two for the season. In the spring a young man's fancy seriously turns to thoughts of vacation! Lazy days on sandy beaches, watching the waves with a book in one hand and a tall cool drink in the other. Or maybe, lounging on the deck of a cruise ship scanning the distant horizon for whales. Maybe this will be the year that my wife and I will get to enjoy the wildlife of Denali National Park in Alaska. From experience, I recognize that planning and anticipation are almost half of the fun. And, for me at least, in the spring a young man's fancy seriously turns to thoughts of gardening as surely as my wife's fancy turns to thoughts of spring cleaning and organizing our mountain of stuff. Maybe, with the snow-damaged trees removed, there will be enough light to grow some really good tomatoes. As John Denver says in the song "What would life be without home grown tomatoes?" He also sings quite correctly that "I forget all about the sweatin' and diggin' each time I go out and pick me a biggun!" And he's right! And not only home grown tomatoes, but maybe we'll also be inundated with zucchini and swiss chard and green beans. In the words of the same song. "There's just two things that money can't buy. And that's good lovin' and home grown tomatoes!" So maybe Tennyson was right. In the spring a young man's fancy does lightly turn to thoughts of love and more seriously to thoughts of baseball, vacation, and home grown tomatoes.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

My Father's Wisdom

Other than his wallet, my dad always carried two items in a trouser pocket. One was a very short stubby pencil, hand sharpened almost down to the eraser. Too short and blunt to be a stabbing hazard, the pencil rode in his the right side trouser pocket along with the pen knife he used to sharpen it and a clean handkerchief. The other item, always carried in a hip pocket, was a piece of paper, most often the remains of a used envelope, neatly folded and tucked inside of his wallet. Wherever he was, Dad used these two items to record and conduct the business of farming.

I've watched him spread the paper on a dusty tractor tire to record the number of a needed part. I've seen him spread it out on a wagon bed or the hood of the pickup to calculate how much additional fertilizer or how many plants were needed to prepare or plant out a field. And I've seen him support the paper against a wall or even on his knee to write down some item for future action. Once the needed information was recorded, the pencil went back into the correct pocket and the paper was again folded carefully and returned to the wallet from whence it came.

Dad pretty much ran his farm by writing things down. In the evening, he would look over what he had written during the day as he considered and recorded what he needed to do or think about tomorrow, the next day, the next week, or the next time he went to town.

 From my Dad, I learned the wisdom of always carrying something to write with and something to write on. In fact, woe be unto me if Dad ever asked me to write something down and I was found without the necessary equipment. As a result, writing things down became and remains a fairly consistent habit.

As my circumstances changed, I graduated from writing things on the backs of used envelopes with stubby pencils to writing in bound notebooks with some pretty fancy pens, but the principles remain as my father taught me. "Write it down. Get it on paper. Deal with it later".

Amazingly, the act of writing helps me remember what I've written. And, although I review and deal with my notes after I have written them, I'm don't really write them to remember later so much as to remember now!

 Long before David Allen documented and popularized how to get things done, my Dad was using his stubby pencil and neatly folded used envelope to apply the Getting Things Done principles. A wise man, my Dad. Makes me proud to be a chip off the old block.

How do your record things you need to remember later?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Masters of the Craft

My second paying job out of high school was as an apprentice scientific instrument maker in the machine shop at the National Bureau of Standards. I was the first candidate accepted into their apprenticeship program. Once accepted, I spent the next four years learning the art and craft of using hand and machine tools to make useful items out of metal. When I graduated four years later as a journeyman, I knew how to grind my own tools and mount them correctly in the machines. I knew how to operate the machines themselves, some of which had seemed as complex as a multi-engine aircraft when I first saw them. By the end of my time, I was able to build complex assemblies from scratch. Moreover, at the end of the day I was able to point to or hold something in my hand and say with a degree of pride "There it is. I made it. And it's right." I owe my trade to a succession of senior mechanics who were entrusted with the responsibility of passing their skills to me. These men would show me how something was done, and stand by to see that I did it right. They showed me how to check my own work and then followed through by checking it exactly as they had taught me. And they exercised extreme patience when my fumble-fingered first attempts produced not the desired item but a useless piece of scrap. As I worked under the guidance of my instructors, I learned that each of them had at least one person whom they considered to be a better craftsman and to whom they would go for guidance when faced with a difficult set up or fabrication challenge. My instructors were quick to point these men out and to introduce me to them; they wanted to be sure I learned how to do things right, and they wanted me to learn from the best. My instructors were equally quick to point out those from whom I should not learn, lest I pick up bad habits. Through their actions, those who gave me my trade made me want to be like them, a master of the craft. Mostly by example, my instructors taught me the truth of words first spoken by Aristotle: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit." My apprenticeship not only gave me a trade; it taught me to practice excellence, to make it a habit, and in all things to become a master of the craft. And that has made all of the difference in the world.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

The last time my wife and I visited Alaska, we were privileged to ride the White Pass and Yukon Line from Skagway, Alaska to the top of White Pass in British Columbia. The scenery was magnificent; the rail road, built in 1898, a marvel of engineering. During our excursion, we passed through two tunnels inside of which the rail cars are immersed in obsidian darkness. I, for one, was glad to emerge once again into the light. The image of light at the end of the tunnel is a popular one. People experiencing or emerging from hard times speak of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Others speak of hope that the light at the end of the tunnel is not an oncoming train. Still others opine that "due to the current crisis, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off," and "things always look the darkest right before the light goes completely out." The vision of light at the end of the tunnel says that darkness and gloom are temporary, that we can hope one day to emerge into glorious light. I've spent time in the tunnel. All of us have. I've stumbled forward and cringed as each hint of light proved to be an oncoming train of some sort. And I've survived. And then, one day, as I saw a light and stepped to the side to avoid the oncoming train, I discovered that was no wall. I looked up and saw sky, and twinkling stars and realised I was no longer in the tunnel. When and where I had emerged were lost to me. I was out of the tunnel, and free to go left and right at will. It was night and still dark around me, but there was light ahead. The light wasn't at the end of the tunnel -- I'd left the tunnel long ago -- but ahead, on the horizon, the dawn of a new and promising day.