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.
                                                                                                           

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

ON THE LOOKOUT FOR LIFE’S MILESTONES



            The place known to its non-resident owners as Melody Ranch embraced some 400 acres of mostly hilly and heavily-wooded northern Vermont countryside. Its many mysteries included long-abandoned  barns and outbuildings, the remains of a prohibition-era whiskey still, and a “bottomless” pond whose black waters were said to hide a wagon and team that had fallen through thin ice one long-ago winter.
            For several years of our young married life, the rambling 13-room farm house which presided over Melody Ranch was our home, and we were the designated “care takers” of the premises. Exploring the vast and diverse acres of that 200-year-old “homestead” was a never-ending adventure, and by the end of our tenancy, we had still not seen it all.
            One day, while wandering among a mixed stand of maples, beeches and other hardwoods far from farm buildings or any roadway, I literally stumbled over what I thought at first was some random piece of stone poking its way above old leaves and forest duff. It seemed though to be out of place surrounded otherwise by a carpet of relatively unbroken woodland floor. Bending to look more closely I saw that it was the top of a square granite post, obviously hand cut to shape. There was a two-digit number barely visible through the time-encrusted build-up of lichen on the stone’s top, and I found that the whole thing was firmly and deeply set into the ground. Looking around, I could find no similar object anywhere in the area, and I thought it unlikely that any surveyor would go to such pains merely to mark a boundary line.
            The trees whose spreading canopy I stood beneath were up to a foot in diameter, and I knew they were not “Johnny-come-latelys”. In northern New England hardwood trees are what plant scientists call the “climax forest;” that is they do not just spring up on available land, but follow in orderly progression a complex series of preparatory steps. First come berry bushes and ground covers, followed by birches and poplars, beneath whose protective umbrella the conifers – spruce, hemlock and pines – make their appearance. Only after this lengthy environmental metamorphosis do the hardwoods emerge, eventually denying sunlight and moisture to the underlings they dwarf. What I was standing under was a forest which must have been more than one hundred years in the making.
            The incident played in my mind for some time until one day at the general store in the village of Worcester, I mentioned it to an old-timer. “Oh”, he exclaimed with no particular surprise, “what you came across was a mile marker on the old Hardwick stagecoach line. It used to go right through this country in the early 1800s. Every so often there was a granite post to let the driver know just where he was on the old turnpike.”
            “Old Turnpike”! I marveled. Right through what was now an unbroken forest stretching as far as the eye could see in both directions.
            That unexpected woodland discovery took place sixty years ago, and if some farmer with a chainsaw hasn’t come along to change things, those sugar maples are now probably two feet in diameter, and that old granite marker completely covered by forest detritus. Ever since that day though, I have looked at human history from a very different perspective, and as I have traveled this wide, wonderful and disparate land of ours, I have looked for the “mile markers” – in whatever guise -- along the way. In the process, I have become a pilgrim; not a mere tourist.