Tuesday, December 5, 2017

NEITHER RAIN, NOR SLEET : THE "SNOWSHOE EXPRESS"

We’ve all heard of the Overland Express, and of course the Pony Express.  But how much do you know about the “Snowshoe Express” ?
Back in 1856, an unusual plea was printed in a Sacramento newspaper:
People Lost to The World,
Uncle Sam Needs a Mail Carrier . . .
read the two-line appeal.  The unusual story which began with those brief words has been all but forgotten among those tales of daring-do which spice the history of our Mail Service.
Scattered along the ridges of the High Sierras between Nevada and California were dozens of mining camps and the isolated communities which grew up around them.  For much of the year, winter storms and twenty-five foot snow drifts effectively cut the inhabitants of these camps and villages off from the rest of the world.  From the first snowfall to Spring thaw, there were no lines of communication and the remote gold-seekers were strictly on their own.
A Norwegian-born Californian named John Thompson, himself a prospector-turned-farmer, read the newspaper advertisement and, after some trial experiments, presented himself to the U.S. Postmaster in Placerville with a plan.  Equipped with a set of what he called “Norwegian Snowshoes” - long wooden skis- constructed from childhood memories, ten feet long and weighing a good 25 pounds, Thompson proposed to carry the mail.  Real snowshoes were known as "webs" or Canadian snowshoes while the long skis Thompson used were often called "Norwegian skates". The post office quickly signed him on.
For the next 13 years, “Snowshoe Thompson” became the winter angel for hundreds of isolated families, carrying 80-pound sacks of mail over uncharted miles of the most perilous alpine country in North America, with 1 or 2 blankets and only such dried foods as he could fit into his pockets.   In time the people along his bi-weekly route came to depend upon him, not only for mail, but for medicines and emergency supplies. John Thompson was much more than a carrier of mail and supplies. He was a powerful man of exceeding generosity and a deep sense of devotion to the people he served.
 In December of 1856 he found a miner named James Sisson lying on the floor of a cabin in obvious distress with both legs frozen and gangrenous. Thanks to Thompson's efforts and rapid back-country travel the man was transported to the care of a medical Doctor who upon examination refused to perform the needed amputation without anesthetic. To provide the needed pain-killer Thompson skied another 90 miles to Placerville, then another 50 to Sacramento and finally the same distance in return. Sisson survived the ordeal and eventually moved back east.
Sadly, the postmaster in Placerville never came through with any of the promised pay for Thompson’s unique service and it fell to the families he served to compensate him as they were able.  Finally, with the completion of the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869, the need for Thompson’s “Snowshoe Express” ended.  His grateful clients petitioned Congress to grant a pension to their devoted carrier, but it never happened.  His tireless energy finally gave out, and he died at the age of 49 unable to complete the spring planting of a grain crop on his farm.
 As a collector of philatelic cancellations, I would give almost anything to run across one of those envelopes once carried by the skiing mailman of the high Sierras bearing his own handmade postmark:  “SNOWSHOE EXPRESS - 1857”.
There remains one last postscript to the story of John Thompson.  The unusual service he rendered may have been forgotten, but the long wooden “snowshoes” he used left their mark.  The sport of cross-country skiing in the U.S. West owes its origins to his example.


Monday, December 4, 2017

LOST TRADITIONS AND THE DEMISE OF NEIGHBORHOODS

            You can no longer even find the town of Coytesville on a map of New Jersey; it has long since been absorbed into the sprawling collection of ambiguous and ever-changing bedroom communities serving as way stations for New York City commuters. But in my circling mind it looms ever larger in importance. Founded and laid out in the early 1800s by my maternal great-grandfather, its’ very name is eponymous with one of my own and its imprint lies deep in my spiritual DNA. For the first 14 years of my life it was my home, and my own mother, like her own, had never known any other; with family roots imbedded in the same sod on which Washington’s rag tag army had encamped in its most desperate days and whose musket balls and cannon shot I could find untouched beneath mere inches of forest duff.
            I thought of this once again as another Thanksgiving celebration came and went, surrounded by three generations of my own posterity, not one among whom has ever walked where I played hide-and-seek beneath arching oaks which were two hundred years old, now doubtless paved over by “progress”.
             One of my Thanksgiving Day memories is of a local tradition which saw neighborhood children dressed in colorful costumes roaming the streets and ringing door bells, usually armed with a cast-off purse or money bag, asking “Have ya anathin’ for Thanksgivin’?” Usually small coins or other treats were happily handed out from stacks waiting just inside every doorway for the playing out of a much-enjoyed event known as “Ragamuffin Day”. As a kid I assumed that “ragamuffins” were universal; that they inhabited the streets of every American community during this festive season. Only years later would it dawn on me that this was not true; that ragamuffins and their colorful antics had been born in New York City’s Brooklyn neighborhoods where European families had settled, and from which the observation would branch out only to nearby enclaves – obviously to my own. Popular in the 1930s and 40s, it would die out in postwar years, and would remain only a fond memory for folks of my generation who had lived there.  Interestingly, historians looking back on the ragamuffin parades which took place in New York City in those largely-forgotten days believe that the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade had its birthing with those costume-clad clown-like ragamuffins of bygone times.
                        My favorite dictionary defines the word tradition as “the passing down of elements of culture and time-honored practices from generation to generation”. I subscribe wholeheartedly to the belief that traditions – whether family-centered, locally-born or widely held – are the glue that binds us together, and endows us with a sense of identity that clings protectively in good times and in bad. I, for one, take comfort from the notion that if our parents and grandparents could return for an ethereal visit to our 21st century family, they would recognize us as their own, and find reason to take pride in the things they passed down to us. I sometimes feel - on special occasions - that they even sit at our table with us.
            While I try hard to convince myself that we live in the best of times, and that even better days are still ahead, there is part of me that laments the loss of the kind of closely-knit and caring neighborhoods of the past many of us grew up in, and I find comfort in the words of the great Scottish poet and thinker James Barrie who wrote “God gave us the gift of memories that we might have June roses in the November of our lives”. 


Wednesday, November 8, 2017

THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE TO OUR COUNTRY!



            When I answered our doorbell yesterday, I was met by the happy face of a neighbor and very special friend who is as “close” to my heart as any fellow human not born my twin could be. She – with her husband – lives just 3 miles away from my front door today, but when I arrived at Seoul’s Kimpo Airport to help defend her country 65 years ago she had not yet been born. We share between us not only a mutual love for and devotion to the United States of America which is our homeland, but a deep appreciation for the unique history which ties us together across years, miles and continents.
            Both together and separately we have addressed or attended dozens of gatherings, on both sides of the Pacific in the interest of insuring that the struggle which kept the land of her birth free is not forgotten, and that those who fought that very costly war together will be honored and remembered across the “free world” and across the generations. Each year we gather Korean youth to our “backyard”
 here in southern Utah for several weeks of remembrance, and many of the college-age grandkids of our American veterans have been introduced to “the land of the morning calm” in the company of this friend. And in addition, for several years, my friend – Sunny Lee of Springdale -- has been personally leading the families of U.S. MIAs on voyages of discovery searching out the stories of their loved ones “over there”.
            I make reference to all this in order to introduce the exact subject about which I wish to direct today’s comments. Not only do I welcome the “THANK YOU” greetings our veteran headgear invite as we wend our way through everyday society, but this quiet “communication” which is a reassuring part of American life affords me a chance to let those I meet know that I am immensely proud to have had the privilege to serve; to actually represent the thousands - even millions of my fellow citizens who didn’t happen to have that opportunity.
            Make no mistake about it; I hate war as does anyone who has held the hand of a wounded or dying friend or who has grown up in the family of a disfigured and damaged loved one; I have experienced both. On the other hand I have learned the meaning of the word honor at such a personal level that my entire concept of living a good life was changed forever. How do I pay for that!
            When November 11, 2017 dawns, I will once again don my Air Force class A dress “blues” and venture out upon the public way in order to “rub shoulders” with my neighbors and perfect “strangers”, as I do every year. Not only does it give the people I meet an opportunity to think about and even speak of important things, but it gives me a chance to express my very personal sense of pride in having had the privilege to serve, and a visible reverence for all those American men and women whose ability to do the same thing has been denied them by the very cost of that service.
             At any given time, it is estimated about 1.4 percent of our national population are living veterans. Talk about an honored minority!
                                                                                                           
Historical Note:  At 5:00 AM on the morning of November 11, 1918 the Central Powers and the Allies signed the documents of armistice officially ending World War I. The “politicians” among them decided to delay the actual announcement until 11:00 AM, making possible the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month mantra which they thought had a nice ring to it. In those six hours of warfare 2,738 men from both sides died while more than 8,000 were wounded; needlessly. Nearly 3,000 men who would never get to be fathers, grandfathers, et cetera.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

AMERICAN VOLUNTEERISM IN THE FACE OF DISASTER



            As the ongoing Hurricane Harvey disaster unfolds before our eyes I cannot help but be carried back 13 years in time to another August and another storm, that one with the assigned name of Hurricane Charley.  Charley came ashore on Florida’s Gulf coast near Punta Gorda on August 11, 2004 as a category 4 storm with winds of 145 mph. After doing unprecedented damage there and at Port Charlotte, it headed north into the heart of southeast Florida and into Hardee County where it was destined to devastate the county seat of Wauchula. Before it was done it would take 18 lives directly and do 16.3 billion dollars in damage.
            The state of Utah had only recently become a signatory to an interstate disaster assistance compact, and when Florida sent out a plea for outside aid Utah’s Emergency Management leaders responded. I immediately volunteered and became one of a task force of four to represent Utah in response to the stricken state. Flying into Tampa, we were immediately assigned to Hardee County where local responders had been overwhelmed by events which crippled the county seat of Wauchula and the surrounding communities. When we arrived rescue efforts were still in progress and first responders were still involved in a door-to-door search for people trapped by fallen trees and debris in homes and workplace. There was no electric power and would not be for weeks to come and only one limited fuel source was operating on generator power.
            The management of response and recovery efforts was in the hands of the Public Safety Director whose home and everything he owned had been totally destroyed. He and his family were living in the downstairs of the Public Safety building in who’s upstairs operating headquarters we would find ourselves huddled for the next six days with a dedicated cadre of local volunteers directing every life-saving and public safety effort for a wide area of suffering. Every single person answering phones, making decisions and dispensing resources in that room had likewise lost all or part of their own home.
            At first it seemed impossible, in our clean clothes, intact footwear and fresh clean-shaven faces, to fit in with that roomful of tired overworked and weary “veteran” responders, but by the time we departed a week later they would be our “brothers” and “sisters”, and a cheer for Utah would go up from the tear-stained faces of everyday heroes handing out sincere hugs and kisses.
            It was decided that we could be of most immediate and effective use to the command structure if we took charge of managing volunteers and donations, one of the designated and important Incident Command functions. Dividing our duties between the phone desk at headquarters and the volunteer assignment point in the field, we would soon become immersed in one of the most personally gratifying areas of disaster operations; one in which we had direct one-on-one personal contact with everyday Americans arriving by the hundreds each day, dedicated to the most magnificent of human motivations – the thing we call loving thy neighbor. And come they did, with chain saws and tools, with prepared meals to feed a crowd or a few, individually or more often by the whole-family, from as far away as Tampa and Orlando. Since we had 5,000 lost or homeless domesticated pets housed at the Fair Grounds, we had a ready-made and safe arena in which to employ the children who wished to perform a service while their parents were assigned elsewhere.
            Most often assigned to the desk at the Command Center (where I often and gladly manned the desks of other functions as needed: infrastructure management, animal services, diesel fuel supply for dozens of commercial-size generators or emergency medical response). It was here I came to understand the broad area of donations and donors. In a single hour (we operated the center in overlapping 12 hour shifts) I might hear from a PETCO semi driver approaching town with 20,000 pounds of pet food wanting to know where to deliver, a loaded-to-the-gills WAL-MART van wanting a location to set up, a family wishing to donate a meal of spaghetti-and-meatballs to feed 100 seeking directions to an appropriate parking lot, or an expert on Florida alligators offering his needed services to deal with one of our ongoing problems. Arriving daily would be generous individuals with money (large and small), often preferring to donate it to “local” rather than national institutions (a common sentiment I found in such disasters.) I always had a deserving and proven alternative in mind including one group who helped families with expensive power line problems on their own property, or other repairs uncovered by utility companies or insurance.
            Many of the local residents of rural Wauchula were non-English -speaking and too concerned by their uncertain citizen status to even come forward and admit they needed help let alone sign their names to a questionnaire. (One of my pleasures was to drive our van during time-offs into such residential areas where I could invite little kids inside for ten minutes of air conditioning comfort and watch the sheer joy on their faces.  (And thrill to their joyful “high-fives”!)
            Later, I would serve at FEMA headquarters at Port Charlotte where I would gain important Disaster Management skills, but from where I would have given anything to be back in the “front lines” touching hands with real people and experiencing the wonderment of American Volunteerism at its finest.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

LUCKY TO HAVE A BOYHOOD HERO



            I might more properly have titled this working document Lucky to Have Had a Boyhood Hero until I thought about it a while, and realized there has never been a time when Jack Dwyer ceased being just that for me; a hero whose image and imprint is as real today as the last time I saw him standing in his sharply-pressed Army Air Force “Pinks” in our front yard.  All these years after he most certainly passed on from this world I wish there was a way I could say a “Thank You” to him.
            I must have been no more than seven years old when Jack – in his early 20s – would have arrived with his parents who came to live in the big old house across the street from our hundred-year old New Jersey family home. I know that Pearl Harbor had not happened yet when I was first invited to tour Jack’s upstairs “private museum” of swords and knives and weapons-of-war collected from around the world. Mr. Dwyer Senior was a senior executive with the Cunard White Star shipping line, and Jack had gotten to work as first a cabin boy and then a steward aboard that shipping giant’s passenger vessels since his early youth.
            Along with every shining, jewel-encrusted blade came a story, and Jack was an accomplished collector and teller of tall tales. Along with a Gurkha knife would come a recitation of Kipling’s Gungha Din and a replay of a story known to every child of the day. When allowed to hold in my hands a curved scimitar of rippling Damascus steel, I was able to envision images of knights in shining mail as seen in my favorite weekly newspaper chronicle Prince Valiant, while the iconic twisted blade of the Kris dagger  from Java is easily the most easily-remembered of them all to this day. Then too there was an attic room hung with an assortment of military weapons from WWI: a British Lee Enfield rifle, a French Labelle, a German Luger pistol, a “Broomhandle” Mauser and a belted Webley as I still recall; all exciting and memorable for an imaginative kid of my age.
            I realize now that Jack was a “one-of-a-kind”, even for the age in which he had grown up, and was obviously – if not a thoroughly spoiled lad – at least one greatly indulged by generous and loving parents. Along with the aforementioned collection of weaponry, he had managed to bring home on his father’s ships an English sports car and an unusual matched motorcycle and sidecar of European manufacture he had acquired from a “bored” Prince (or other person of royal birth.) Both were to add their own chapters to my legacy of hero-worship.
            The bright-green sports car was an open two-seater with three headlights, the center one of which was “steerable” for seeing around bends. We took it for an initial spin at dusk so that I could steer the light from my passenger seat on the left. On subsequent trips I made certain to guide Jack down every side street in town on which I knew other kids would be sure to see me; especially Barbara Hummel and Elizabeth Riker. The motorcycle was an even bigger thrill, and my driver knew just how to go around a curve so that the side-car in which I rode rose up in the air just enough. I think we wore matching leather hats, but I could be over-imagining.
            When war broke out Jack was quick to join the U.S. Army Air Corps and enter training to become a fighter pilot. (He may have already been a Reserve pilot since he advanced - it seemed to me -quite rapidly.) To begin with he was flying Curtis P-40 fighters, made famous by Clair Chennault’s Flying Tigers and the best we had at the time. Flying training missions from east coast bases, Jack would regularly buzz my house at altitudes low enough to shake my Mom’s upstairs clothes line.  Shortly thereafter, Jack transitioned into a P-51 “Mustang”, the plane whose arrival would change the very course of victory, and whose Rolls Royce Merlin engine I could hear coming when still many miles away.
            On those increasingly rare occasions today when my ears are “serenaded” by that mystical sound, my boyhood friend comes automatically into view and I feel renewed to realize that I still enjoy the imprint of a boyhood hero who remains larger than life.
                                                                                                           

Monday, August 14, 2017

SHINING A LIGHT ON FERMI’S PARADOX



            Back on June 4th, 2017 I wrote about the West Virginia county where CELL phones and other electronic appliances give way to a giant telescopic “ear” with which earthlings listen for interstellar messages. Since then I have given much thought to some of the possible implications of Fermi’s Paradox, which that research pointed me toward; an invitation as it seemed to explore some subject matter I would not ordinarily take the chance of boring my readers with. The name of Enrico Fermi, the father of the nuclear age, has been well-known to me ever since I came under the influence of a New Jersey junior high school teacher who was devoted to educating her students on much more than the Math her contract specified.
             Fermi, an Italian-born physicist and Nobel laureate who escaped his fascist homeland just in time to head up the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb, had the chance in his short lifetime (he died of stomach cancer at age 53) to think logically of possibilities beyond the earth’s sphere and even the outer reaches of our galaxy. In a discussion with some of the best scientific minds of his day, he discussed what has famously become known as The Fermi Paradox. I note here that there are those who argue that the “question” is not a true “paradox”, and that beyond that, it does not have any support in established science.
             Because I am a story-teller and not a papered professor with a scholarly reputation on the line, I feel free to continue anyway.
            At the heart of the so-called paradox is the increasingly evident fact that not only are we surrounded in our galaxy by billions of other planetary systems – that is a central star (or two) such as our sun, around which a family of circling and associated planets have organized – but that many of them are similar enough to our own to suggest the possibility of a life-sustaining, earth-like environment. Add to that the likelihood that many of them would be older – perhaps much older – than our planet’s teenage level of maturity.
            The big question that possibility poses for an earth-bound thinker boils down to this: If there are other human-like populations in advanced development stages elsewhere who know about us and “our world”, and have the technological prowess to do so, why haven’t they made contact with us?
            Setting aside all the cosmic and scientific hypotheses which make Dr. Fermi’s list of 22, I am fascinated most by these two:
1.      It is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself.  And . . .
2.      It is the nature of intelligent life to destroy others.
If either or both of these be true, perhaps potential “visitors” may have destroyed themselves just about the time they might have said “hello” to us; OR perhaps they observed just enough of our earthly doings from a distance to decide they couldn’t afford to get involved with folks who were building big bombs and exhibiting so limited a respect for the doctrine of “loving one’s neighbor”.
            [In 1954, I was briefly tasked by the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigation (OSI) to interview citizens reporting UFO sightings near Washington’s Hanford Atomic Works as part of Project Blue Book (UFO investigations 1949-1969). Since “declassified”, I will still only mention that most of my reports came from experienced pilots, control tower operators, aviation professionals and on one occasion a gathering of 50 adult RC (radio control) hobbyists who all saw the same thing. Please don’t ask me what I think of all this; I really don’t know what to say.]
            As an octogenarian who reads history, has seen war, watches several hours of TV news every day, and has a large and loving family, I am a worrier. Why then do I work so hard at what I do every day?  I still believe that living a good life and loving my neighbors, and doing everything I can to contribute something worthwhile is important. I hope you feel the same.