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Recent Writings I
The following pages represent compilations of my most recent writing in the Allenspark Wind and elsewhere.
It may have been Laura Dever, a well known and respected lover of all things animal, who named a local coyote “Gimpy,” because he had an inoperative hind leg. Those of us in the Meeker Park area have seen him for many years.
Being politically incorrect, we do throw some scraps out our back door, and we have a number of coyotes who regularly enjoy the effluvia from our kitchen. In the winter we not only see them in the evening, but we see their tracks in new fallen snow. Gimpy’s track is very special, as his lame leg’s toenails drag and provide unmistakeable proof of this passage. This set of tracks also proves that although the old boy is getting along, he doesn’t lack for companionship.
Over the years we have seen Gimpy by himself, with a mate, and once with three young ones and his mate. In a hostile world he is our local symbol of survival.
In the dead of winter we look for signs that we, too, will survive. The vicissitudes of a mountain winter are manifold. I often marvel at the grit of those who braved winters in our valley before hot water, electricity, indoor plumbing, telephones, automobiles and all the other marvels that currently make our lives so easy by comparison. Those who wrote about those times, like Katherine Garetson at her Big Owl Homestead, endured the winter stoically, unwilling to complain and unable to envision double and triple-pane windows and hot water heating.
We are not quite so stoic. Stepping out of our warm homes into a January wind which only a few minutes before whistled over the continental divide, we complain bitterly about the cold as we hurry to our cars, turning the heater up to its limit and driving to shop, visit, work or church.
Gimpy’s world has undergone no such change. He faces each winter as he did the last, in a neverending struggle for survival.
We’ve read quite a bit about cats in the WIND. Marge’s life with Grandma Cat was an experience we shared. If you don’t like cats, as many people don’t, what follows may not interest you.
My brother accuses me of providing food for coyotes, and there may be something to that. Since the 1996 old-age death of my friend Benedict, a Burmese I inherited from Emily Johnson in the middle of the 80s, we’ve had a succession of cats who’ve become part of the food chain. Brandy was a tabby who loved to go out at night and one night she got out without our knowing and we never saw her again. Then we had a black, Wiley, who came from the city and he, too, was a wanderer and one night he wandered too far. Finally, Elvira, another black, found a way out one night and all I found was her tail. Probably a coyote, but it could have been a bobcat. We have a resident bobcat and cats being what they are, it wouldn’t have any qualms about dining on a relative. Anyway, we’ve lost three cats in the past few years.
It’s really been pretty depressing.
Now we have still another black who looks and acts much like Benedict, so we named him Benjamin and we think this one may have a chance at a longer life.
Dogs want to stay inside with the family or go out with the family. Cats want to go out alone and they’ll grab pretty much any opportunity to escape. They really only care about food, water, a place to sleep and a clean spot they can use as a toilet. Anything else is pretty much a bonus to a cat. If our sizes were reversed, I’d just be a tasty snack. Grandma cat was pretty much like that until she got old and Marge’s house looked like a good place for assisted living.
Now and then you find a cat that’s different. Benedict was more like a dog than a cat. He liked to go for walks with us. He would go outside to check things out, but he was never far away and never gone for long. He liked being around people. And he was way too smart to let himself get caught by a coyote.
Benjamin must have some of the same genes. He’s young and fast and always knows the distance between himself and the nearest tree. And like some dogs he’s absolutely indiscriminant when it comes to people. Workmen, guests, strangers, he doesn’t care. He crawls over all of them, smelling their breath, looking them in the eye. He seems particularly fond of people who don’t like cats, hanging around, rubbing their legs and generally making them uncomfortable until he’s shooed away. Mostly he’s probably just considering that if he were just a little bigger and they were just a little smaller they’d make a fine meal.
The rest of our family hasn’t had many cats here. My cousin used to bring her cat up to her cabin from Denver, but it was always a trial. Cats don’t travel nearly as well as most dogs. They whine, they throw up; it disturbs their routine and cats love routine. A cat that doesn’t like to travel can make life miserable. So we don’t see many summer cats, the way we see dogs.
Having pets in the mountains is always a crap shoot and the odds on a long life aren’t very good. Benedict lived to be 18, and he was an active outdoor cat to the end, but he was pretty smart and forest-wise. Our neighbors across the way last summer had a little city dog that got out and hasn’t been seen since. They put up signs all along Big Owl Road, offering a reward. But a city pet that gets out and is missing for more than a few hours will almost certainly never be seen again.
Benjamin seems to be learning fast about surviving in a dangerous world. But if he isn’t careful, he too could go the way of Brandy, Wiley and Elvira. “It’s a mighty world we live in, but the truth is we’re only passin’ through.”
The Dever Memorial (2003)
There’s a little hill just north of the Meeker Park stables, the crest of which overlooks a small lake. At that site on August 10th 2003 a group of about 50 family members, friends and employees past and present dedicated a memorial to O.L. (Danny) and Crete Dever, cofounders of Meeker Park Lodge. O.L. died in 1973 and Crete in 1999 at the age of 101.
It’s just about impossible to think about the fabric of the recent history of our valley without the warp and weft of Devers.
You may know Keith and Marion who, along with their children, Danny, Laura, Bonny and Patty, are currently the most visible. If you’re as old as I you may remember O.L. and Crete. But there are some other names connected to Meeker Park you may not know.
Isaac Stapp was the first homesteader, but didn’t prove it up, settling instead in Ward. Frank Hornbaker then squatted on it and earned the deed in 1891. He built a house that still stands just north of the Lodge. He built a two-story addition on the east end of the building, since torn down, to accommodate tourists at what he called the Good View Ranch. His nearest neighbors were Enos Mills on the north and Mr. Copeland, who built a lodge next to a small lake he named after himself. Mr. Hornbaker was quite an entrepreneur: besides his tourist business he operated a stage road from Lyons to Estes Park, guided guests up Longs Peak and operated a toll road from his ranch to Estes Park. Twice a week he carried the mail from Allenspark to Ward. But in 1901 Mr. Hornbaker died and the family sold the ranch to Fred Robinson, whose property adjoined the Good View Ranch and who at one time owned more than 700 acres. In 1917, after Mr. Robinson died, my grandfather had the opportunity to buy 640 acres from Mrs. Robinson for $5,000. That was a lot of money in those days and my grandfather passed, having just purchased 160 acres from John Grant. I have never quite forgiven him.
The homestead cabin of Mr. Hornbaker stood vacant for about twenty years before Mr. O. J. Ramey of Lyons, real estate broker and insurance salesman, showed the property in April of 1922 to Mr. & Mrs. H. G. Nowels and Mr. O.L. Dever and his fiancé, Miss Crete Childers. Apparently men of this period in Colorado used only initials for given and middle names, but Mr. Nowel’s went by his middle name, Gay. O. L. and Gay Nowels were both teachers at Longmont High School. Mr. Nowels was a manual training teacher, what we would call “shop” today, and he brought his skills to bear in the rehabilitation of the long vacant Hornbaker cabin. Mr. Dever taught physics and chemistry. In later years he and Crete taught in Yuma and New Haven, Colorado. Mr. Dever was the school superintendent in Lyons for seven years and for many years was in the office of the County Superintendent.
Gay Nowels sold his interest in Meeker Park to the Devers in 1929 after the death of his wife, Leota. He was the architect of the Lodge that took five summers to build. He selected the twisted logs from the hills around Allenspark and made much of the furniture, beds, dressing tables, dining room tables and chairs that make the Lodge unique. Similar structures were built at Copeland Lake and Longs Peak Inn, but Meeker Park is the only one left in the area as all the others have been torn down or burned. Mr. Nowels started the Knotty Pine Furniture Shop in Longmont. He died in 1961.
It would be very difficult to quantify the impact O. L. and Crete had on three generations of family, friends and employees. Suffice to say it was substantial, based solely on the number of tears shed at the dedication of the memorial. What they did for those who knew them, often by example, lives after them. More than 80 people bought land from them. One young couple wanted a piece of land and couldn’t afford the full price. O. L. let them pay it off in five years, without interest. Such stories abound. The memories were etched in the faces of thos in attendance. It’s comforting to know that a third generation of Devers will carry on the traditions of this valley landmark.
We have a number of places in the area with landmark status. Maybe we should be able to bestow landmark status on families as well.
Finding Good Help
Looking back, it’s odd that although this publication is called The Wind, very little writing in the publication has been about the wind. Perhaps it’s because high winds are almost entirely confined to the winter months. In the winter I often find forecasts like this:
“Strong westerly flow aloft will combine with passage of a strong Pacific cold front to produce strong winds at the surface in the mountains and front range foothills Monday night and Tuesday morning. Strongest winds will likely occur late Monday night
Following passage of a strong pacific cold front and as west winds aloft shift to the northwest. Wind gusts may exceed 70 mph in mountain areas along and east of the continental divide.”
In the middle of November we had just such winds and they took some roofing off my house. Summer residents are accustomed to arriving in June or July and finding a tree or two blown down and they wonder about when and how it happened.
The fact is that The Wind is well named because it blows often and hard and sometimes very hard. The first time I was up here in the winter was in 1961 and we could look at the ceiling of the summer cabin we were in and watch the boards ripple as the wind roared. We could hear the big gusts coming and then they would hit the cabin and the boards would rattle as they were lifted up and then dropped back on the beams. Scary. But we later came to realize that the cabin had been through this for 35 years and it was still standing. Since that time I’ve had several times when I’ve had to replace bits and pieces of roofing and I’m not alone. But it’s one thing to find it in the spring or summer and quite another to live with it in the winter. So I called one of our best known handymen, one of our advertisers, and he took care of the problem with dispatch, at a fair price.
Recently the uproar du jour has been about finding good help for hire. There have been times in the past when I had trouble finding someone who would show up as promised and get things done. But all in all I suspect those problems were no worse than those I encountered on the various flatlands where we’ve lived. Charlie Baker put on the addition to our house. Barney Graves was always on time and helpful. I found someone local who did a prompt and good job thinning the trees around my house. One of our advertisers did a first-rate job of replacing the stove-pipe on our kitchen stove a couple of years ago.
Certainly one of the difficulties is the short span on time in the year available to do much outside work. Things get very busy in the summer and that’s when everyone wants everything done. The business people who have been here a long time are certainly aware that their reputations for good work, fair prices, honesty and promptness are their most important assets. Word that someone does poor work spreads pretty fast. So it’s just common sense to do business with those who have good reputations.
There is always the unforeseen, too. I suspect that someone had to wait an extra day because my roof rose to the top of the priority list. Our good business people are very responsive to emergencies.
I’ve observed in the past that we like to complain. I’m certainly as guilty as anyone else. Sometimes it’s warranted and sometimes we do it just because it feels good. But we need to be careful about generalizing hastily. It’s simply unfair to castigate a group of people because of the faults of a few.
Readers of last month's issue know that Martin Shockley died this summer at the age of 95, full of years, widely admired and loved by his kith and kin. He would have liked that phrase.
Martin was our summer resident scholar: Dr. Shockley, professor of English at North Texas State, curmudgeon of Coyote Hill, and I'm in no position to try to replace him. Like many others who have come and gone during my tenure, he was one of a kind.
We met in the middle of the 1950s when I was doing my best to corrupt his daughter, Ellen. Wisely, as with many others I tried to corrupt in those halcyon days, she spurned my advances. In spite of that, I slowly wormed my way into his good graces, so far as that was possible, as well of those of his charming wife, Eliza, and his smart and energetic son, John. All smart, quick, with-it in many ways, certainly when it came to politics and scholarship, but, like many in academia, often behind the times when it came to anything electric. I had to deal with his telephones and radio antenna and record player. He liked to see whether I could walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Sometimes I could. Sometimes I couldn't. I think he enjoyed it when I couldn't.
We argued a great deal. We both liked to argue and he was very good at it, being a scholar. Frequently he produced the most outrageous assertions he knew would be challenged, just to have a little fun.
I remember small, inconsequential things about Martin. Whenever he came to visit he would search the ground between his car and the house and would pick up a nail left from one of many re-roofings and hand it to me as though he had found a land mine. "You should be more careful for your visitors," he would say.
Some years ago I had a letter to the editor published in The New Yorker. Martin was furious. "I've been writing them for 50 years!," he fumed. But he didn't mean it. A few years later they published another letter of mine. Martin shook his head. "Things have gone downhill at The New Yorker," he said.
He thought war was a stupid idea, and I agreed with him, but we differed about how it might be avoided and what might be done when it was a fact to be faced. He tolerated my work in the Air Force. We argued about the weather and politics and just about anything one can think of. Such disagreements didn't alter our friendship.
I stayed with them once at their home in Denton, Texas for a few days in 1958. Many years later when they had to be in Boulder for a few days they stayed at our condominium, which didn't suit them at all, but was more convenient than the commute and they were kind enough not to say anything.
Martin was in precarious health for a few years before his death. I doubt that he was fully aware of the current world political situation and I'm glad he was spared. Had it all been a few years earlier his hair would have been on fire as he fumed about the idiots in Washington, the idiots in other parts of the world, the idiots in Texas and Colorado and idiots everywhere who were putting his beloved country in jeopardy. Because, for all his railing and his flaws, he was a man devoted to his country, who worked all his life to love his wife and raise a good family and do his best to pass on what he knew to three generations of students. He was a man of many parts. He would have liked that phrase, too. He left behind a good family, a legacy of writing, students who valued him, a cabin on a patch of ground on Coyote Hill he dearly loved and friends who will miss him.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
Many readers are no doubt aware that I spent 25 years in the Unites States Air Force. A Master Navigator, I retired in 1983 as a lieutenant colonel with 6,200 hours of flight time, 720 hours in combat in Southeast Asia, 11 Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Probably more important, I’ve been a teacher since 1957.
The current situation at the Air Force Academy has reminded me of many of the things I liked about the Air Force, some of the things I didn’t admire, and a lesson for those of use who live in what the Denver Post calls our “rural enclave” in Boulder county.
In 1958 I was a first lieutenant, teaching navigation on the ground and in the air at Harlingen AFB, Texas. One day I was in the dining hall at lunch and I saw a cadet student of mine who was having a hard time with his studies, so I sat down with him and had lunch and we talked about his problems. When he left, I noticed a table of officers having lunch and one of them, a Lieutenant Colonel, crooked his finger at me, so I went over to the table and he said, “Fraternizing with students is not condoned.”
“Sir, he’s one of my students and he’s having difficulties so I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk with him.”
“Fraternizing with students is not condoned, lieutenant.”
I never forgot it. To the Administration, not “fraternizing” was more important than either teaching or learning.
In 1968 I was finishing my Ph. D. at the University of Oregon and I was asked if I wanted to apply to teach at the Air Force Academy. So I flew to Colorado Springs and spent a day at the Academy. I was shown the chapel, the athletic field, the library, the academic offices of the English Department, and the officers in the department met with me and asked whether I was related to George Steiner, a well known English scholar. I am not. I was told about the wonderful area, the skiing, the climbing, the excellent base quarters, the possibilities for career advancement, and the ability to avoid the war in Southeast Asia insofar as actual combat was concerned. Their contribution was along the lines of writing propaganda leaflets to be dropped on the communists. The Academy, they told me, was an entity unto itself, an unassailable enclave.
At the end of the day it was clear both to me and to them that I was not a good fit. I pointed out that I had been there all day and I’d heard not one word about the students. I thought the attitude toward students would be different at the Air Force Academy, but, nothing had changed in ten years. They might as well have been clones of the administrators at Harlingen. These officers were interested only in what the assignment could do for them; the students/cadets were only a necessary part of their job, interesting only because they made it possible to have this great job. And “fraternizing” was apparently still not condoned.
They did not bother to let me know that I had not been selected.
In 1974, having served in Southeast Asia, I was assigned as an instructor in a Reserve Officer Training Corps detachment at San José State. As the Commandant of Cadets, I made sure the officers fraternized with the students. We knew our students. We knew who were going to be good, so-so, and not very good additions to the officer corps. Twenty-five years later I still hear from some of them. Had there been any sexual harassment among the young men and women in our detachment, we would have known about it, and we would have done something about it. The officers at the Air Force Academy claim “they didn’t know.” I am not surprised.
Here in our valley we sometimes think that, like the Air Force Academy, we live in an unassailable enclave, but, as the AFA is finding out, an enclave is unassailable only so long as it can avoid the outside world. In the Information Age, all such enclaves may be endangered.
Residents of Boulder County have long been known for their reverence for the environment: the water, the trees, all the flora and fauna. They have taken some pains and spared little expense in demonstrating their love of the land. Some have been known to hug trees and apologize before cutting them down.
I don’t count myself a member of that group. When the wind downs a lodgepole pine I just go and cut it up for firewood without a second thought. A couple of years ago Patty Dever needed some new fence rails and I had a grove that needed thinning, so she got the rails and I got a healthier grove.
In the first decade of the last century there was no WIND to record the life and times so we don’t know when the last fire went through the valley. It could be carbon dated, of course, but there’s been little interest. It doesn’t really matter. It does matter that, give or take a few, we haven’t had a fire for 100 years,
I’ve tried to ignore the number of trees close to my house but the forces of nature make it impossible. So I was not surprised to find three nice Ponderosas with beetle infections within 50 feet of my house. Two of them had to come down and we’ll have to keep a close eye on the third, according to the gentleman from the Forest Service. [It finally died in 1012]
Keith Dever recommended Bob Alm as one who could perform the onerous task of killing my trees. So, when he came to look them over we decided this would be a good time to take out a number of lodgepoles as well, some of which were dead or dying anyway.
There is, of course, a tree hierarchy we’re working with here. Aspens are at the bottom; they grow no matter what, and they grow pretty much everywhere. Lodgepoles are the bread and butter of the forest; the basic needle tree with shallow roots and, like the aspen, a limited life span. We have a few Blue Spruce, a beautiful and dense, usually shortish tree, long lived and deep rooted. And then we have the slow growing, stately and relatively rare Ponderosa, most people’s favorite. The ones in front of my house, one of which was doomed by beetles, look exactly as they do in pictures taken in 1920. But in the past few years, largely as a result of the lack of fires and overcrowding, many of them have been attacked by beetles. My brother lost a whole grove of them several years ago. Now it was my turn.
We spent an hour or so walking the forest, deciding which trees should live and which should die. When we stepped back and looked we thought we hadn’t done enough, so we went through and marked some more for death.
If it had not been for the beetles I probably wouldn’t have done the thinning. Neighbors took much of the usable wood and there were two big truckloads of slash. But if we have a big fire the thinning I did isn’t going to make much difference. It might take a few seconds more for the house to burn. No, mostly it just makes me feel better. Makes me look like an environmentalist.
When Mr. Alm and I were deciding which trees should die we marked them with spray paint. I stopped in front of the Ponderosa in front of the house, a tree I’ve known since I was a child. Before I pressed the button on the spray can I said, “I’m sorry.”
I may have lived in Boulder County too long.
For and Against (2004)
I have loads of politically incorrect attitudes. I’m not really a fanatic about them and mostly I try not to express them in company where I’m likely to be attacked. But recently they’ve sort of piled up, so, in honor of the new year, I’m going to exercise my support of the first amendment.
I’m against an amendment to the Constitution that would prohibit the burning of the flag. Aside from yelling “Fire!” in a theater and similar exceptions, I’m against anything that limits free speech. I’m against anything that limits any citizen’s right to peacefully protest government actions. Flags aren’t burned all that often and amendments to the Constitution shouldn’t be about trivia like burning a piece of cloth.
Here’s another unpopular item. I can’t understand what all the fuss is about regarding the pledge of allegiance. The pledge is a fairly recent thing, in the 20th century, and the phrase “under God” was added (in the wrong place) in1954 by a Congress frightened by Joe McCarthy.. But for the first 125 years we didn’t have a pledge. George and Thomas and Abe and all other prior presidents apparently didn’t think we needed a pledge. Back in the 1950s when communist-hunting was in vogue people had to swear loyalty oaths, too. I’m sort of surprised they haven’t made a comeback. Will a loyalty oath make me more loyal? Does reciting a pledge of allegiance make a 5 year old or a 95 year old more of a patriot? Can oaths really do that? Aren’t a person’s actions more demonstrative of their devotion to God and/or country? 90% of everybody is in favor of the pledge, but that doesn’t keep many of them from cheating on their taxes or hating people of a different race or religious persuasion. Does forcing people to recite the pledge make us better people? Really? I doubt it. Does all this fuss unite us or divide us?
Every year there’s a big fuss about Columbus Day. Protests at parades, letters to the editor saying we should eliminate Columbus Day because Columbus brought venereal disease and bad treatment and in some cases death to the residents of the West Indies. But I don’t see anyone complaining about honoring the birthdays of all those Presidents who oversaw the ethnic cleansing of the American Indians. Washington, Jefferson, the Adams, even honest Abe, all supported the elimination of the native Americans to make room for people who would recite a pledge swearing justice for all. Columbus was a piker by comparison.
Politicians, no matter how they really feel, have to be seen going to church and reciting the pledge. They do everything they can to avoid questions about where the Protestant version of the ten commandments should be placed. I wonder about that “showing mercy” part of the 1st one whenever I hear about a church bus crash or lightning striking a church. Bureaucrats don’t work on Sunday, so they can obey the 4th commandment, but most of the rest of us have broken that one. I don’t like that 5th one, either. I know plenty of parents who don’t deserve to be honored by their children. I have trouble with number six, too. It’d be pretty hard to get through life without killing anything. And I’m not sure I want anything about coveting my neighbor’s ass hanging in middle-school classrooms. In fact, most of us have broken so many of the commandments that venerating them looks like pretty obvious hypocrisy. Why do so many people want to publicize the things they do that they shouldn’t be doing? It isn’t as though we don’t have enough churches where we can hang copies of the Protestant, Catholic and Hebrew versions. Why should we fight about hanging them in schools and courthouses? Does hanging them make us more pious? Does hanging them guarantee our entrance into Protestant or Catholic or Hebrew heaven? Does placing them on two tons of granite make us better people?
One of the things I like best about this journal is that people who read it get to write and tell us what they think. Probably someone will write and complain about this. And we’ll print it. It’s one of the most wonderful things about this wonderful country. Happy New Year.
Changes in Our Mountains
Back in the mid-1980s we were attending the opera at Central City and we once again wandered past the Gold Nugget, where, as I always pointed out to Mary, Roger Perry, a fellow thespian at Grinnell who went on to better things in Hollywood, once played in the 50s. A gentlemen asked us to sign a petition to allow gambling in Central City. We inquired as to the nature of the gambling and the petition looked harmless enough, limiting wagers to what seemed low amounts. We envisioned poker games in the Gold Nugget with guys named Doc and Festus. So we signed. Little did we know.
When gambling was voted in for Central City and Black Hawk, Black Hawk was just the only stop sign within 20 miles. A number of casinos opened in Central City and the traffic became so bad that we stopped our annual trips to the opera and haven’t been back since. But what happened to Black Hawk was truly amazing. Gamblers, it seems, will stop at the first place they see where they can lose their money, and Black Hawk came before Central City. Today Black Hawk has 40 casinos. That’s right, 40. And Central City has withered on the vine. They still have the right, now restricted by the voters from more venues, to have gambling, but most people stop in Black Hawk.
So Central City has, more or less on its own, financed a new road from I-70 to Central City, at a cost of forty million dollars. The town fathers apparently hope that Central City’s moribund casinos will thrive as a result. Talk about gambling!
Still, Mencken said that nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public. And he was probably correct. It’s astonishing that so many people find pleasure in losing their money. So it may work.
We often talk about progress and whether the virtues of progress are outweighed by the loss of the past. Travel by jet is surely faster but lacks the graces of the dining, observation and Pullman cars. E-mail is fast and easy, but penmanship is pretty much a lost art. So gambling saved the infrastructures Central City and Black Hawk but destroyed the ambience that made them destinations for a couple of generations of people who liked visiting Colorado’s mining past. Everything, it seems, is a trade-off. We’re used to that around here, too. You can think of plenty of examples.
But our thirtieth anniversary is also a reminder of the many things about our part of the mountains that haven’t changed. It’s been a very long time since a new building went up on our main street or that one came down, for that matter. Some little things change. The bulletin board is over at the fire station. Things like that. Some places have changed hands, but that’s really nothing new. We have a new postmaster and she’s certainly prettier than Otto, and she pays more attention to regulations, but, thankfully, life at the post office hasn’t changed very much. We have better fire equipment, but it meets new needs. Nobody complained much about inadequacies in the past.
The land between Boulder and Denver continues to be developed. The boundaries between cities along the front range continue to be obscured. Even the signs telling us we’re leaving one town and entering another are becoming difficult to see. Once we get to Longmont change is everywhere we look. There are six new stop lights just this year between Longmont and I-25. The traffic continues to increase and it takes longer and longer to get anywhere in the Metro area. And Black Hawk and Central City aren’t even recognizable to those of us who knew them when. So when we look around here and see that not much has changed, maybe we should just count our blessings.
What is a Patriot?
We’ve been observing the 30th anniversary of this journal and it set me to thinkin’ as Gary Williams might put it. This March is an anniversary for me. Thirty years ago this month I was evacuated by air from Southeast Asia, missing the best parts of three fingers of my left hand. And if you say “Gee, wasn’t the war over in 1973?” you would be correct, officially, but I can assure you that I earned my combat pay in March of 1974.
I have a certain familiarity with war, and I’m not proud of it. It was a career, and I did what I was told, mostly, for 25 years in the Air Force. But I lost some friends and neighbors, people I cared about. I saw good people become disillusioned by a bad war, created on the pretext of the infamous Tonkin Gulf Incident, when a Navy ship was supposedly attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. A flimsy fiction, but it was deemed necessary to appear to be attacked in order to respond, and we did, for ten years at the cost of the lives of more than 50,000 young men and women from the United States, with more than three times that number wounded in one way or another. I was one of them.
I’ve been surprised by the support from civilians for the military in the present war. When I was brought back to Fitzsimons we landed at Buckley and there was no welcoming committee, no politicians, no flags, no media, no stories about my wife and two young sons who had spent the previous year alone at our home on Big Owl Road. When I had recovered enough to be reassigned I was sent to an ROTC detachment at San Jose State where we weren’t allowed to wear uniforms on campus or drill our cadets for fear of being spit on or demonstrated against.
I suspect that the young people of that dark period who wanted to spit on us have had some second thoughts about how we were treated. I suspect their current support of the military, whether or not they agree with the conflict itself, stems from those second thoughts.
Many of those of us who fought that bad war 35 years ago have looked askance at the present war, an adventure with even less foundation than the inciting incident of the Vietnam War. But for the most part we’ve held our tongues. Our President and his Attorney General have made it clear that if one questions the validity of this adventure one is not a patriot. Speaking out might very well result in a telephone being tapped without due process. One could even be jailed without a charge for engaging in suspicious activity, such is the breadth of the Patriot Act, which only one Senator and 66 Representatives had the nerve to vote against.
But what is a patriot? A patriot is one who loves, supports or defends his or her country. And to love, support or defend the country one doesn’t have to be limited to those who would attack the country from outside, but from inside as well. Fifty years ago, it took a number of patriots, many of whose lives were ruined in the process, to defend the country from a madman, Joseph McCarthy. He was not the first to try to move the country down a bad road through fear and intimidation and certainly not the last.
Americans are committed to fairness. Invading a country without cause is unfair. Americans have always condemned it whenever it has occurred and we have gone to war when our allies have been victims of naked aggression. Yet, in the present circumstance that is exactly what we have done; invaded a country without cause. The reasons given for the invasion have turned out to be as false as the torpedo boats in the Tonkin Gulf. Meanwhile the perpetrator of the attack on our country lives a free man, still a threat, far more a threat than Saddam Hussein ever was. And all the while our young men and women risk their lives and die in a country that never attacked us, had nothing to do with the attack on our country, but we nevertheless invaded. For those of us who risked our lives and who think about our 58,235 comrades whose names are engraved on those long black walls in Washington in another war without a good cause, it’s a very sad time.
Spring is here and with it the 2004 presidential campaign which will be the longest and most expensive in history, eight months, and $455 million, and will probably bore us silly by September, much less November.
The issues will be debated more or less endlessly, not only by the candidates, but by their surrogates. In the end, though, it’s just a question of who we want to lead us.
One of the most interesting and divisive aspects of living in our valley has always been leadership, or, to be more precise, our disdain for leadership. Just about everyone who ever tried to lead the residents wound up being ignored, vilified, and/or laughed at, sometimes laughed right out of the valley. You can probably think of plenty of examples.
Of course one of the hallmarks of leaders is that of certainty. Leaders always believe in the correctness of their beliefs. In recent politics we’ve heard quite a bit about “flip-flopping.” According to some, changing your mind is a leadership sin.
But, as Moe Howard said, “Only a fool is positive,” and while those of us who live here are often as positive as anyone at any given time, it’s also true that most of us live here because we changed our minds about something; about what we want to do with our lives, or how we want to live our lives, or something that caused us to want to leave the flatlands for the mountains. We often change our minds about more mundane local issues: water, roads, weather, how people use their property, even whether we enjoy/like/approve of this little journal.
A good friend of mine spends quite a bit of time, when he’s not climbing mountains, thinking about the American search for certainty. He says that as a people we want things neat and tidy, with no unanswered questions. So we continue to look for long dead soldiers, and use the courts to decide exactly how much time a child of divorce should spend with each parent. He thinks the search for certainty is a waste of time.
Oddly, the search for certainty is itself uncertain. As we get older, if we’re lucky, we find that not only is all of life unfair, it’s also uncertain. And we change our minds about things, politics, marriage, the uses of money, the way we live and many other aspects of living based on our experiences and what we learn.
“A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject,” said Winston Churchill. I’ve known a lot of people in this valley over the past half century, and none was a fanatic. In fact many of them changed their minds about things, some of them big, important things, from one day to the next. According to some this doesn’t make for great leadership, but it sure makes life interesting.
As for the presidential race, I’d much rather have a leader who’s willing to change his or her mind based on realities, than have a leader who’s always positive, even when demonstrably wrong. Moe Howard was right about that.
The Merry Month of May
May is one of my favorite months here in our valley. Not only do we begin to see the flowers growing and the grasses turning green and the aspens budding, it’s the month when those of us who have been away all winter begin to return for the summer. What could be better?
This May will be even better for us, as our younger son, unmarried far too long according to his mother, will finally wed.
These days we are glad not only that he’s getting married, but that he has avoided controversy and legal problems by marrying a woman. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.
The wedding is in Atlanta. I have nothing against the south. Well, maybe I do, but certainly not as a venue with regard to a wedding, particularly since both Rich and his fiancé Christina and her family live there. Mostly it’s the weather. We had enough of heat and humidity on Guam. We like much less humidity and less heat. Our valley fits that description. Plus we have better views.
I suspect that many of us have been faced with this problem, since weddings often take place in late May or early June and this can conflict with the summer plans to return to our summer homes.
That’s what happened to us. Instead of returning to the Valley early in May, we’ll return in June, the latest we’ve returned in more than 20 years. As a result the summer, always too short anyway, will be even shorter for us.
By the time we get here we will have missed many of the things we count on in May. Hummingbird arrival. Seeing the Devers. I get to see more of them in May, before the lodge opens, than any other time. May flowers. We will have missed the Pasque flowers. In May we get to watch the ice melt and the stream fill and the banks overflow with plant growth. This year the stream will be as full as it’s going to get. May snows. Often we get some beautiful heavy snows in May. And it’s peaceful in May. Not as peaceful as after Labor Day but not the steady hum of motors we hear at the height of tourist season.
This year the aspens will have leafed out, the road will have been graded, we’ll be pretty much like regular summer people. All the summer businesses will be open, the campgrounds will be full and the only snow will be that melting on Mr. Meeker. Still, there will be time to fish, sit on the screened porch, read some books we’ve been saving. The hummingbirds will probably still find us. Things could be worse.
Notes On the Cost of War
The recent uproar over the pictures of caskets in the bellies of C-17s was something that took me back 35 years, to 1968, when I was a navigator in C-141As flying out of McChord AFB in Tacoma, Washington. That's a long way from our peaceful valley, but if things go on as they are our current wars will eventually touch all of us.
I was in the 4th Military Airlift Squadron in 1968. I had a six year old son and another a year old. My job was to fly from Tacoma to Southeast Asia, carrying men or equipment to support the war, undeclared by Congress, but a war nevertheless, and to bring back bodies, either dead or maimed or dying. I made more than a hundred such trips.
The things we carried on our four engine jets that flew at .82 of Mach 1 were labeled "hi-valu." That's how they got on an aircraft that burned 14,000 pounds of jet fuel every hour. Some were airplane parts. Some were technologically advanced weapons. Sometimes we delivered a cargo of tiny bombs to Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand, each packed in foam, each of which would be dropped on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, to little effect, as things turned out.
Our cargo on the return to the United States, through Japan and Alaska was caskets or wounded, mostly men who had been burned, who needed more immediate care at the burn center in Texas than those who had been wounded in other ways, who could be handled on hospital ships. They weren't marked "hi-valu," but that was work I took most seriously, searching the skies for the tail winds that would give us the fastest, smoothest ride. When we hit turbulence I could hear the men in the back of the plane crying out. I can still hear those cries. I did my best, but sometimes it wasn't enough.
The bodies we carried in olive drab caskets. There were no flags on them, but unlike our other cargo, we didn't stack them; they were carried in a single layer on the floor of the C-141, which was a very big aircraft, even in the "A" model I flew in those days so long ago. We could get 35 or 40 caskets on one trip. And we did so, often.
It was the bodies of those young men (and women) eventually numbering more than 58,000, and the pictures of them that had a profound effect on the American people. The pictures of the caskets being off-loaded from the C-141s changed things. It was no longer a war halfway around the world, but a war that killed young men and women for no apparent reason other than to satisfy what General Eisenhower called the military-industrial-complex and that resulted in their bodies being brought back to be buried.
In our current three undeclared wars on Terrorism, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the Administration and the Department of Defense have made what looks like a smart decision in not permitting pictures of caskets. Still, they cover each casket with a flag and take a picture, and one is entitled to wonder why? In Vietnam we had no flags to cover the caskets. A picture of our cargo bay would have been unimpressive. If publishing pictures of the caskets isn't permitted, why have pictures taken?
Whatever the answer, the cat is out of the bag. A new generation can now see that war, declared or not, kills the youth of our country, and we are entitled to ask if this sacrifice of all that these young people have, or will ever have, is worth their lives?
Flying those long hours over the Pacific, bringing the shattered bodies of those people home, many of whom were draftees, I had plenty of time to consider what I was a part of. I was a volunteer; I had signed on because I was reservist and my country had said it needed me. I knew my American history; I knew about Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys who grabbed their rifles from over the mantle to serve the country when they were needed. I was on a Wolf Hunt, but now I wasn't sure who was the hunter and who was the wolf.
This administration, like many others, has made plenty of mistakes. Two of them were draping every casket with an American flag and then preventing the publishing of their pictures. They thought they had learned from the Vietnam War. But people who have never seen war and seen their buddies die have no idea what it's really like. The politicians now waging these wars have never seen what war means. They visit men in hospitals, they pin medals on the wounded, but they haven't watched their friends die. They don't attend the funerals, they don't look at the mangled bodies. They don't even want pictures of the caskets published. They didn't learn enough.
More Notes on the Cost of War
We’ve heard quite a bit about the Geneva Conventions these past few weeks. You probably know that they’ve been around a long time, with various meetings and resolutions and treaties, since 1864, and they became official (whatever that means in war) in 1949.
But war is a messy business, and countries routinely try to figure ways around the Rules of War, somehow believing that such things are necessary in the interests of national security.
For example, in 1966, Robert McNamara submitted a memorandum to President Johnson informing him about the imminent launch of a clandestine operation. "Project Pop Eye is a covert and highly classified operational experiment which we plan to run within the next few weeks in the Laotian panhandle," he stated. The objective of the experiment would be to damage the Ho Chi Minh Trail structure in Laos by heavy rain and thereby reduce North Vietnamese infiltration into South Vietnam through the Laotian panhandle.” McNamara noted that during the normal monsoon season vehicular traffic through the trail was virtually halted because rainfall greatly softened road surfaces and turned them into mud. Project Pop Eye would enable the Pentagon to determine "the feasibility of increasing the rainfall during the current monsoon season and possibly extending the duration."
“I have authorized the program to proceed even though there may be some objections raised by the international scientific community - if there is a breach in security. Such possible objections have not, in the past, prevented the carrying out of military operations considered to be in the interests of our national security. “
Mr. McNamara's statement was an authoritative acknowledgement that it was established practice for Washington to regard as legitimate its right to engage in any military or covert operation that it considered necessary to promote U.S. security interests. Washington had no obligation to pay attention to objections that might be raised by the "international scientific community."
So, from 1967 until 1972, the USAF Air Weather Service used C-130 aircraft to drop lead and silver iodide flares over Laos in order to make it rain on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I know, because I was one of those who did it in 1971 and 1972, flying Air Weather Service aircraft from Guam.
In March of 1972 a Washington columnist, Jack Anderson, broke the story about rain making in Southeast Asia, and, no surprise, the international scientific community did indeed object. As a result the program was canceled in July of 1972. Senator Claiborne Pell chaired an inquiry and in a closed hearing in March of 1974 Pell asserted that, as a result of $16 million and 2,602 sorties flown in those five years, “An elephant labored and a mouse came forth.” It turned out that the process didn’t really work all that well, and that when it did work, it rained on the just and the unjust alike.
Like many such hare-brained schemes, this one was so secret that only the Presidents, Johnson and Nixon, four generals in Southeast Asia, including Generals Westmoreland and Abrams, the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific (Admiral Morrison), and the aircrews knew what the project entailed. The ambassadors to South Vietnam, Laos and Thailand were not informed.
As a result, in 1976 the United Nations approved a treaty banning environmental warfare. Ironically, it was Laos whose ratification of the treaty in 1978 put the treaty into effect.
Unfortunately, not much has changed. Washington still regards as legitimate any military operation considered to be in the interests of our national security. That is how we’re currently in the mess we’re in. President Bush considered the invasion of Iraq to be in the interests of our national security. We still have things going on in secret that, once uncovered, prove to be of little or no value and some violate the Rules of War and result in scandals and courts martial.
Currently we’ve had fewer than 800 killed in Iraq. So far, perhaps 9,000 civilians have died in Iraq. In Vietnam we lost 58,000 young men and women, but the North Vietnamese had more that 450,000 people killed by us and we still lost that war. Thirty years after we sacrificed all those people and all that money with all those secret programs and all that prestige to bring democracy to Vietnam in the interests of our national security, it’s still a communist country.
© 1985 – 2003, David E. Steiner
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