Friday, June 23, 2017

A WELCOME RETURN TO NO NONSENSE SCHOOLING



            Shirley and I are proud great grand-parents of seventeen, each one of whom is a gift and a blessing in our lives. We delight in almost-daily reports from the “field” where life plays out and family adventures are the currency of everyday. Since the beginning of the current school year we have been noticing something new and exciting taking place in the lives of our three Denver-area kids:  Aged seven, ten and thirteen and all highly intelligent and doing well in school, their lives as “scholars” seemed suddenly to literally “take off” with their acceptance into Golden View Classical Academy.
            Golden View is a K-12 school founded and organized on principles and programs developed and supervised by The Barney Charter School Initiative at Hillsdale College with the aim of delivering a classical education with an emphasis on our own history and civic ethics and a sense of individual responsibility. Qualifying standards are very demanding and parents who end up requesting consideration for their children are generally highly motivated to partner with their kids in “going the extra mile”. And it shows everywhere we looked both on the campus and at home where our three have turned a serious circle in the enthusiasm and dedication to learning and achieving we all notice.
            After meeting the Principal, my wife and I together with our grand-daughter were invited to sit in as officially-welcomed guests to 10-year old Taj’s 5th grade history class, where I could see where his excited interest in the American Civil War had come from to bubble over in so many of our conversations. As the class of thirty or so students, obviously proud of their sharp, neat uniforms moved through their well-ordered discussion groups and class presentations, they would pause to greet or shake hands with us as they passed close by, perfectly at ease with our presence. Several individuals – including our Taj reported on the results of science projects they had just completed outside class, in which they had been challenged with a particular hypothesis leading them to a conclusion. I was impressed by their teacher explaining that they would be scored as much on their attitude as an attentive audience as they would as a presenter.
            Noticeable at every juncture in our school walking tour was the overwhelming presence of a patriotic ambience, including a large study area hung with classic art pieces illustrating the importance of the classical virtues in our national consciousness, and an education which places a heavy emphasis on an undergirding honor system. Young kids were anxious to stop and explain to us just what the iconic portraits stood for, including the qualities of courage, moderation, justice, responsibility, prudence, friendship and wonder; and they knew the stories behind them. It was also easy to see that this campus had rules and expectations. I was also impressed by the conspicuous absence of “big brother” computer stations at every bend and curve at the same time that cordial and happy conversations seemed to be welcome fare between students wherever we roamed; there was even an off-the-beaten-path corner where a kid could pause to touch the keyboard of a handy piano!
            Our most charming demonstration was put on by 7-year-old Asha who volunteered to teach the adults in our Denver home a lesson introducing the Riggs method of English pronunciation; a system which breaks down grammar-based phonetics into recognized mouth sounds. It was a revolutionary “discovery” for several of us, as we were practically mesmerized by our 1st grade-aged “professor” who understood “articulatory phonology” so well as to be able to explain it to us with surprising self-confidence. I wondered how much faster I might have progressed in the world of language, radio and public speaking if I had been exposed to this International System at so early an age.

            By the way it was little Asha who managed to place in humorous perspective for us all just how she digested these changes she sees taking place in her book-conscious older sibling, Taj.
            “I now have a brother who is one of those people who has to read all that stuff they print on cereal boxes!”

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

AT LAST! A PLACE WHERE CELL PHONES ARE BANNED



            High on my bucket list of destinations worth visiting is a town (in fact an entire county) in West Virginia. Green Bank is not very big; in fact Pocahontas County is neither large nor famous other than for the facility which lies at its center. The rather remote area is not very well known itself other than to a particular scientific “community” for which it might as well be the center of the universe. So to speak. And that takes me back to a different – though related – story.
           
THE WOW MESSAGE
            On the night of August 15, 1977, astronomer Jerry Ellman was holding down the fort at Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope in the town of Deleware when he noticed that a cryptic set of alpha-numeric symbols had crept mysteriously across the computer screen. So surprised and excited was he that he quickly made a distinctive scientific notation in red ink on the printout: WOW!  Both the symbol and its intensity represent a close approximation of the chemical formula for hydrogen, known to be the most plentiful – and most commonly-recognized chemical in the Universe. The event quickly became the closest evidence yet for intelligent life outside our own planet – this one emanating from somewhere near the constellation Sagittarius. The search for intelligent life (SETI) beyond earth thereafter became much more serious. Over the years following WOW, a whole new scientific importance was placed on the very expensive hunt for “messages” from a long distance away from home; for instance a four-hundred-eighty-feet tall tower in Green Bank, West Virginia.

IS ANYONE THERE?
            The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank radio-telescope is so sensitive it can detect the electro-magnetic arrival of a snow flake on earth one of the most alert “listening posts” anywhere, with a parabolic collecting area covering more than two acres in size. To make the “steerable” installation as efficient as possible, the entire surrounding area of more than 2300 square miles is officially defined as a “National Quiet Zone”, within whose boundaries electronic emissions are tightly restricted. Not only are CELL phones and other electronic signal sources restricted, but most micro-wave ovens and spark plug-equipped appliances and vehicles cannot be operated in many areas where they might interfere with operations; diesel equipment is therefore favored. In the interest of communications a single low-powered public radio station serves much of the region.
            What I find interesting is that when asked about their unusual limitations most of the residents of the “quiet zone” seem to like it just the way it is. What’s more, they may be among the first folks anywhere to know when we find someone listening somewhere out there.
           
CONSIDERING THE FERMI PARADOX
            The very fact that intelligent contact from outside our solar system has not yet been demonstrated to have occurred, presents scientific “thinkers” with something of a puzzle. As physicist Enrico Fermi famously pointed out in his Paradox, given the billions of star systems similar to ours, many of which are far older, dozens or even hundreds of resident “earth-planets” ought to have visited us by now. He lists some very thought-provoking – even cautionary – reasons why this might be so.
            Oh, by the way, the current “favorite” prospect is a planetary system nicknamed Tabby’s Star in Cygnus. Stand by.

Friday, May 26, 2017

BEING TRUE TO THE STRAIGHTEST GENERATION



            I have read – and expect to continue to run into – some well-deserved editorial reminders that this year is the 75th, and likely the last numbered and remarked anniversary of that epochal episode known as World War Two, within whose embrace I experienced my crucial growing up years, and true to whose promise I lived out some of my country’s most crucial and foundational decades. For me and a fast-disappearing number like me it is the centrifugal and defining event of a lifetime. It fills the capacity of my memory cells so fully that virtually all other subjects are subordinate and related to it. Including – and perhaps especially – that three-year “diversion” we call Korea.
            Yesterday a Vermont friend phoned to report that Jerry Thomas had passed away in a home-town nursing home. Jerry had been one of six of us who traveled to the Air Force Recruiting Station in Montpelier one December day in 1950. That original “six” represented one third of the boys in our high school graduating class and we chose to enter the U.S. Air force and take our basic training together. I fear I may be the last of that “spirited” bunch, with each of whom I had shared uncounted “cherry-cokes” at THE SPOT.  In the following months, as the Korean War grew larger, most of the others followed in one Service branch or another. It was what our older brothers and cousins had done a few years earlier, and it was what we did. Like those predecessors we too had weathered the Great Depression, gotten by on less and witnessed everything World War II had brought to our 20th century door step. We were in every sense of that generation, and motivated by the same sense of brotherhood and patriotism. We were true “believers”.
            In fact, it is worth pointing out that more than 400,000 of those of us who fought in Korea had also seen active service in WWII, including most field-grade officers and a preponderance of senior “non-coms”. (To our ever-lasting benefit.)
            I think often of the world we came home to, and the unique nature of its shape and character; and of the unvarnished reality of our modest expectations. Married, with a young family and only a high school education, I had the good fortune to attract the attention of an Air Force Reserve senior officer who was a Vice President of Vermont’s most important business enterprise, and who recruited me into the most august of its departments - even without an advanced degree. There my similarly selected colleagues included Cal Haskell, a recently released Air Force Major and experienced senior command pilot, and Gordon Paterson who had served with the 82nd Airborne Division and who limped from a bad training injury. Gordon, a devoted Masters candidate became my business mentor and best friend. We shot competitively and wandered wild country together. (He became a senior staff member of the University of Vermont and is still a good friend.)
            We were next joined by Lt. Clayton Jordan who came home from the Battle of the Bulge and Stalag Luft III – one of the most notorious of the worst Nazi prisons – as a proudly honored local hero. As a Sergeant who fought on with his last bullet after releasing his men to surrender he was awarded a “battlefield commission”. Clayton twice survived being sentenced to execution by firing squad by sheer audacity. He is perhaps the bravest man I have ever known. I also was assigned to work on a daily basis with a man named Glen Rice, my opposite number in our Dallas, Texas branch office. Glen had been taken prisoner in the fall of Manila back in 1941 and had survived the Bataan Death March. Crippled for life from his years of beatings and punishment by the Japanese, he never complained and felt honored to be working with the rest of us.
            Each of us in our own personal variations, had watched our loved ones go off to war, rally behind a united cause, honor deeply-held values and convictions and remain true to our own personal sense of honor. We came from a generation or two that went to church, opened doors for ladies and pretty much stayed married once we got that way. We didn’t own a lot of Mutual Funds, but tried not to buy stuff we couldn’t afford. I know I am super “old fashioned”, but still write checks and don’t know feel deprived not knowing how to use an ATM machine. And I think I have lived in the very best generation; in perhaps the straightest generation. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

SCARING UP A FARMSTEAD BREAKFAST



            When my Dad was in charge, he never “made” breakfast, he always “scared it up”. When living in a cabin – he assured us – he would leave the door open so that he could run outside just in time to catch the manually-flipped “flapjacks” as they exited the chimney. I thought of all that last week as I noted an unexpected “find” in a nearby meat department, thereupon bringing home a lovely, glistening, five-pound “pork belly”.
            After drying the exceptionally lean fresh cut, I covered it with a dry rub of salt, pepper and brown sugar (my private stock of maple sugar too precious to reduce further), and set it to cure, wrapped, in the bottom of my outdoor refrigerator where I was careful to turn it several times daily over its five-day aging process. Rinsed, dried and ready for the most sacred step of all, it went into my pre-heated smoker over chips of maple wood where I tended it lovingly for about five hours. With a golden “bark” and an internal temperature of 165 degrees, I pulled it out to cool gently before slicing thick quarter-inch slabs redolent of sweet-salty maple magic.
            The next morning, I made a brief stop at our hen house to pick up a couple of just-laid brown eggs before putting a skillet on the heat. I drank in the incomparable smoky smell of the first few strips of hours-old bacon which I set aside on kitchen toweling when half done. Spooning just a jot-and-a-tittle of hot pan fat over the quivering yokes, the bacon returned just in time to get re-acquainted and back to temperature before it was savoring time. You’ll have to cut me some slack for believing that I haven’t scared up a better, sweeter-tasting breakfast than that one in a very long time; and I still have at least 4.5 pounds of incomparable smoked pork belly to look forward to.
            Back on the Vermont hillside farm of my teenage years, the smoking fire would have been funneled underground through several feet of smoldering maple chips or dry corn cobs before being “trapped” in an inverted wooden barrel where the bacon and hams hung suspended, for a longer period of time. We had no “electric freezer” back in those times and in that far northern clime, and along with other parts of the pigs and other farm animals the cut meat leavings were merely wrapped, labeled and placed on shelves in an old outdoor cabinet in our woodshed where they kept frozen solid until May – or maybe June.
            My Dad was probably fortunate to pass on from this world before such wonderful breakfast fare became “illegal”.