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Love

There was a chill in the air that late fall in Amsterdam.  It was the “Bohemian” phase of my life.  I spent my days wandering through art galleries, sipping hot coffee and eating pastry in the afternoon and drinking wine and dining on modest Dutch food in the evenings.  I was in no particular hurry to go anywhere.  I had sufficient money to see me through for some time.

On a particularly chilly day, I stopped for coffee and lunch at a small coffee shop.  When the server brought my order I knew that I was in love.  She was as beautiful a girl as I had ever seen.  She had long blond hair hanging down over her shoulders.  Her  smile was captivating.  She spoke English with that wonderful Dutch accent.  We were both young.   So every day for the next couple weeks I returned to the same shop for lunch.  After she  was off work we wandered the streets laughing, drinking wine and hanging out with her artist friends.  It was her hope to someday be a famous artist.

Bull Dog

So we moved into  a little four story walk up attic room in an old house near her work.  It was just a room in the attic but was very quaint.  It had old brick walls that tasted of salt when you licked them and had magnificent views from the little gabled windows.  There was a sink with running cold water, a little gas stove that served for cooking and heat and a tiny refrigerator.  There was a small cabinet that served as a place to hang clothes and to store food.  The bathroom was on the floor below and was shared by another family.

Brouwersgracht

We placed a pad on the floor and bought  comforters to snuggle between.  It was heaven to lie there looking out the windows on chilly fall nights.  While not particularly convenient to go down stairs in the unheated halls to use the bathroom late at night or to heat water for washing and cooking during the day it was nevertheless “Bohemian”.

We lived on coffee, crackers  and camembert cheese squeezed from a tube.  Her friends visited often and we sat around on the floor drinking wine, smoking pot and discussing world affairs, especially the Vietnam war.  Sex was an open thing between everyone and just occurred spontaneously with anyone in the group.  We strolled the streets going to galleries and museums on week-ends.  We talked art, politics, religion, war and death.  We were comfortable with each other and with our own identities.

When winter set in it became very cold and the little heater we had no longer provided any comfort as wind leaked around the windows and chilled the room.  It became more and more apparent that I was not a “Bohemian” after all and did not fit in with her and her friends although they were wonderful to me.  I had come down with a bad cold in December and she encouraged me to go home to California.  I refused to leave even though everyone in our little group urged me to go.

Amsterdam Winter

One particularly cold morning I crawled out from under the comforters to heat the tea-pot for our morning coffee.  She called out to me that she was “stuck”.  When I turned around I realized that during the night her hair had frozen solidly to the brick wall.  After the water was hot I slowly and carefully poured it down the brick wall and freed her hair.  I think it was some time during this operation that I realized that I needed to proceed as soon as possible to the nearest warm place.  She agreed.

departure board

Africa seemed like the most logical choice since I had been offered work there.  That afternoon I said my goodbyes to everyone and we all promised to meet under the Eiffel Tower on New Years Eve of the year 2000 which seemed an eternity away.  I never saw or heard from them again.

More than 50 years later I can’t remember her name.  Shame.

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Madagascar

Madagascar is a large island country located about 550 miles due east of Mozambique in East Africa.  It has a colorful and varied history dating back millennia.  Some of the first settlers on the island coming from far away southern Borneo and perhaps Polynesia. While the country has variously been influenced by Africans, British, Arabs and others it was colonized by France and French is widely spoken on the island.

The capital is Antananarivo but was called Tananarive when I visited there many years ago.   Located on a hill in the city is the royal grounds where the kings and queens lived until the late 1800’s when the French deposed the queen.  I feel privileged to have been able to explore the grounds and the king and queen’s palace while I was there.  In 1995 they burned to the ground.

In order to reach the front gate to  the grounds one climbed many stone steps etched with hundreds of years of footsteps of loyal subjects.  My recollection  is that the king’s house was a large, lofty open building quite similar to a Polynesian building.  The queen’s house was somewhat smaller but similarly built.

ambohimanga

 

 

My work took me to the city of Tulear, now Toliara, in southwest Madagascar.  Much like the American southwest the area is semi desert.  It is located on beautiful beaches of the Mozambique channel.

City_Centre_Toliara_2007

A short distance inland lies the spiny forest and home to the unique Baobab trees.

Baobab

Somewhat like Australia, Madagascar’s flora and fauna are unique to the island.  There are huge numbers of species of Lemurs and chameleons.

During breaks from work it has always been my habit to jump on my motor bike and head  off  in search of people and places.  It was on such a trip that I came across two old men sitting at a table on the sidewalk in front of a coffee kiosk in a  small village.

They were intent on a game they were playing with dice.  I was not familiar with the game they were playing nor did they give any indication that I was present or alive in their world.  I got off my bike and strolled up to the kiosk window where I ordered a cup of thick hot coffee.  I walked back and sat down on the old stone curb a few feet away from the players.  I sat and sipped my coffee from a ceramic  cup that appeared to be well used.  No words were spoken and my presence was never acknowledged.

Being a curious and somewhat obnoxious person I was determined to strike up a conversation to see what I could learn about the area from them.  They were the only people nearby on the street.  After I cleared my throat a couple of times without being acknowledged I decided that it was a lost cause.  As I have already admitted to being  obnoxious you will understand that I could not just get on my bike and leave.

After returning my coffee cup to the proprietor I stopped in the street next to the curb by where the men were lost in concentration.  I removed my cap and bowed very low towards them and held it for a few seconds and then stood up ready to run.  To my surprise when I stood up the two men had stopped playing and were staring at me rather sternly.  Almost simultaneously they suddenly burst into peals of laughter.  One of  the men motioned me  to a  small stool near  their table where I sat down.  They continued their game while I observed.  We three shared another pot of coffee served to us by a young girl perhaps ten years old.  The girl could speak some French, as could I, so we made small conversation as best we could.  I could not understand what the game was all about nor  have I ever learned.

After about a half hour or so the two men rose from their chairs and nodded towards me that I should also stand.  The proprietor of the stand and his daughter appeared on the walk.  An old dilapidated Peugeot car was lumbering towards us with several people in the car, on top of the car and following behind the car.  They all seemed to be in a festive mood.    I thought it was most likely a wedding party.  The driver was a man in his 40’s perhaps.  The person in the passenger seat was dressed in white linen covering her body and head.  As they went past everyone was singing and dancing happily.

I asked the girl if it was wedding which she then translated to the others present.  Again everyone burst into laughter.  After some conversation between them she informed me that it was a funeral ritual.  Most of the Malagasy people at that  time were not Christians but were worshipers of their ancestors.  They believed that they were also interconnected with the Lemur’s on  the island and considered them sacred.   It was their belief that their ancestors brought them earthly benefits and would look after their souls after their death.  Each year the family removed the body of an important ancestor from its rocky tomb, took it home, cleaned the bones, wrapped it in fresh linen and then drove it around town.  The purpose was to make sure that the ancestor was celebrated and was aware of any recent changes to the village or families so it could be returned to the grave to lie peacefully until removed again.  The passenger in the car was the skeleton of one of  the families ancestors, perhaps a parent or grandparent, that they were all celebrating.  Frequently the celebration would  be accompanied by other festivities, food and a band.  It all seemed all quite logical and beautiful to me.

The shop proprietor, his daughter, the two old men and I fell into the end of the line and followed the celebrants to the cemetery.  Having missed all of the food and music we were only present for the interment of the body back into a  rocky hole in the ground surrounded by other graves.

madagascar images

Each headstone was a carved wooden plank perhaps 10 to 15 feet tall.  The carvings represented periods and achievements in the person’s life.  At the top was something of great significance about the person’s life.  There were thousands of these around various cemeteries and one could only try to guess what they meant.  For example many had cattle so I presume they were cattle owners/herders.  One with a bus was perhaps the first person in the area to own a bus.  I saw one with an airplane at the top and surmised that the person may have gotten a ride in an airplane or perhaps just saw one for the first time.  They reminded me of a more refined version of the old boot hill markers of  the American southwest.  They are some of  the finest works of art in  the world in my view.

It was getting late afternoon as we returned to the coffee stand.  The two old  men drifted off.  I sat on the curb for a few minutes talking to the girl and her father about their lives.  I noticed that they all wore a similar bracelet which I presumed was elephant hair.  They told me that it was worn to ward off the paku, or something like a devil.  They also told me that everyone lived on the second floor of the houses there for the same reason.  The paku could not climb stairs and he only went out at night.  Good families and children always stayed safely in their homes upstairs after nightfall.  I have never heard this story before or since but the people of this village sincerely believed there was something lurking in the night.  It is certainly possible that the French or others may have spread this rumor in order to control the people and keep them off the streets at night.  In any case, I drove a little faster into the setting sun to get back to my hotel before nightfall.  After all, I did not have one of the elephant hair bracelets.

 

 

 

 

Friesland Cows

It has been almost 55 years now since I took a short break from a job that I was doing in the northern part of the Netherlands.  I wanted to explore around a little and see how people lived.  I had my backpack and bicycle and intended to just drift.

My bicycle was not just your ordinary bicycle.  It was a Solex!  It had a little two-stroke motor mounted on the front fork with a handle that stuck up near the handlebars.  Once you got pedaling you just shoved forward on the handle and it would cause the friction wheel to come in contact with the front tire and the motor would start right up and continue to propel the bicycle.  As long as the friction wheel remained in contact with the front tire you were moving out.  It worked great most of the time and it didn’t need much gas.  It did have to have a little help going up any hills so you just pedaled along until you were on flat land or going down hill.  ED on Solex Bike

Note the klompen I am wearing AND I also had on klompsockjes.  They were very touristy for me since they were authentic but not worn down like a farmer’s would be.

I had no specific plan of travel but first went to the city of Leeuwarden to spend a day or two.  There was an air force base there and I thought perhaps I would run into some old acquaintances.

friesland

Wandering along an old country road one day I came across a farmer working in his field.  Because I grew up in a farming area I was particularly impressed with the neatness of his fields and the condition of his cows.  I was hoping that I would see one of the beautiful Freise horses that are world famous.  I stopped to inquire about his cattle but found that he did not speak English.  His principle language was Friese which was widely spoken in the area.  We hit it off nevertheless and ended up sitting in the warm afternoon sunshine for a time, sharing his pipe sitting on the bank of a canal.

After a time he invited me to follow him up to his barn where he obviously had chores to do.  Soon his entire family, three boys and two girls plus his wife joined us in the barn.  They boys wore long pants, heavy wool shirts and klompen.  The girls wore long dresses, pigtails and klompen.  Their klompen however were well-worn from tramping around damp fields.  Only one of the younger girls spoke some English but we made do.  They were quick to give me chores to do and I think they were impressed by my skill at milking the cows.  At least they didn’t laugh.

friese cows

Even though evening was coming on and I would have preferred to have gone to a nice hotel for the night they all insisted that I come into the house that was attached to the barn.   Everyone stopped in the little vestibule of the house and took off their klompen leaving some with only heavy wool socks and others with little leather klompsockjes.  It was obvious that I would have to stay for dinner and we sat for a time around the kitchen table while the older boys and their father smoked a pipe and the girls mostly teased me and examined my clothes, shoes, etc. and helped their mother with dinner preparation.

After a time the mother placed several bowls and spoons around the big wooden table and in the center she soon sat a very large iron pot full of what I thought was some kind of stew.  One of the girls poured a glass of rich creamy milk for each place.  Everyone in their turn took the big ladle and poured some of the stew into their bowl.  Since I was the guest I had to go first so I was careful not to over fill my bowl and look like I was greedy.  We sat and ate the stew with big chunks of thick bread washed down with the milk.  The stew was mostly vegetables, especially potatoes and small chunks of meat, perhaps lamb.  It was hot and tasty.  Once, as I ate, the farmer noticed that I had bitten down on a hard piece of overcooked potato and he laughed….his daughter told me to just put it back in the pot because he had previously gotten the same thing in his bowl and put it back!  Everyone laughed.

After dinner was finished we all sat in the living room next to a small fireplace where everyone asked me many questions about my life, work, airplanes, country and travels.  I asked them about school, the farm, Friesian horses and the older folks life during the war.   The room was filled with a never to be forgotten warmth and smell of rich dutch tobacco.  Years later I could identify some dutch people by that smell, especially if they smoked.

They prepared one of the boy’s beds for me while two of the younger boys bunked together in the loft above the house.  The beds were big feather mattresses and the covers were feather filled comforters.  In the chill of an early morning we all lept from the beds, threw on our clothes and raced downstairs to be by the kitchen fire.

friesfarm

Following a dawn breakfast of bread, cheese, stong coffee and fruit we all parted company.  I rode my Solex off into the chill morning mist and they went to their chores on the farm and to school.

I hope they enjoyed the rather silly tourist milking their cows and the stories that I told them by the fire.  I know that they left me with a life long love and admiration of common, decent people who were good to a total stranger.

I was never able to contact them again and 50 years later I tried to locate the farm but could not remember where it was.  I don’t think farmers wear klompen anymore.  They probably don’t eat out of the same pot.  I  think everyone in that area now speaks english, at least all of the younger people.  I still miss the old ways.

 

Ameland

In the spring of 1963  Shell Nederlands set out to do a seismic survey of the North Sea area known as the Wadden archipelligo and out to sea about 60 miles.  They engaged the services of Nederlandse Aardolie, Mij. to determine the feasibility of and to conduct the survey.  It was determined not to use surface based vehicles due to (1) some areas of very shallow water and (2) the possibility of remaining unexploded mines in areas outside the shipping lanes.  They decided that helicopters large enough and powerful enough to carry the necessary equipment would be required.

NAM contracted with World Wide Helicopters out of the Bahamas to provide two S-58 helicopters that would be fitted with the operating equipment in the Netherlands.  The plan called for helicopter #1 to be fitted with the recording equipment, a cable/hook attachment, Decca Navigation system, certain crew safety lanyards, pop out emergency floats and duplicate essential aircraft instruments mounted outside the pilot’s window.  Helicopter #2 would be fitted with a large bin for holding canisters of blasting materials in cylindrical canisters of approximately 24 inches by 4 inches, a Y shaped tilting device mounted in the door for dumping the loaded charges overboard, a secure box for holding booster caps near the operator seat in the front of the cabin, a secure box for holding blasting caps in the very rear of the cabin (minimum distance of 8 feet from the boosters), a mount for nitrogen bottles for blowing up ballast balloons and a container to hold up to 100 large balloons of approximately 2 feet diameter.

Copy of Ameland18

NAM built landing pads and a maintenance hangar on the island of Ameland near the town of Nes and it was from here that all flights would originate. Some crew members shared a house rented for the summer and took their meals at the Hotel Hofker in Nes while others rented their own lodging and brought their families for the summer.

Landing Pads Today and in 1963

During the initial tests in the spring it was discovered that (1) the cable hook on helicopter #1 was too far forward and the helicopter flew dangerously nose low which might cause the unporting of the fuel pumps as well as make it difficult to recover in an emergency, (2) the cable had insufficient strength to handle speeds of 60 to 70 knots (the required speed to complete the job in the summer), (3) the noise of the helicopters and rotor wash with doors and windows open while hovering over water was so loud that the crew couldn’t hear each other, (4) the Decca navigation system had massive failure due to static electricity discharge at the moment that the helicopter was connected to the cable in the water.  In fact the Decca meters would spin crazily and the paper on the plotter would sail wildly through the plotter and end up all over the floor of the cockpit.

To remedy the problems, the cable hook on helicopter #1 the recording helicopter was moved aft, a new cable was made up with a steel inner cable to support the outer plastic waterproof chambers and sonobouys , new throat style microphones were purchased for the crew and Decca representatives “desensitized” the system and made a momentary cutout while a cable was dropped in the water to discharge static electricity.

Decca Navigation Chart

Operationally it was simple enough; the recording ship would fly to the proper spot using Decca, halt at a hover above the water while the blasting ship would hover alongside the center area of the cable (which was about 1000 meters long), drop three canisters/boosters/blasting caps overboard that had been fitted with three large balloons to get the correct depth for the charge, the blasting helicopter would back away from the cable reeling out cable as it went to about 300 meters and on signal would set off the charge.  The blast sent a plume of water  about ten times the hight of the helicopter.  Then the blasting helicopter and recording helicopter would move on to the next designated spot and repeat the process.

Nes Explosives

Practically speaking there were a few troublesome operational matters.  At about the half way point out to sea the helicopters had fewer and fewer minutes on line because of their fuel consumption and it became ever more difficult to recover the cable so it was decided to anchor it at the last shot with a recovery beacon on the buoy so it could be found the next day.  It took about 2 days until the fishermen in the area found the beacon and confiscated the cable as “salvage” under the sea laws.  After tracking the cable down and purchasing it back from the fishermen a few times NAM finally just hired one of the fishermen to remain on site and tend to the cable overnight.  As the major North Sea traffic lane lay across the upper 1/3 of the operation area there was always risk of the cable being chewed up by a passing freighter.  On one rather poor visibility day I heard the pilot of the recording ship (I think it was Ted Von Capelle) shout several swear words and saw the helicopter frantically clawing for the sky.  Coming dead at the cable was a large freighter.  Poor old Ted ended up at 5,000 feet in the air with 3000 feet of cable swinging around like a large piece of spaghetti under him.  I can only imagine what the ship captain thought.  Ted managed to get it back in the water without further damage to his very great credit.

Cable Recovery on Beach 3

As the operation reached the furthers corner of the area it took so long to reach the spot that the helicopters were only able to get in one or two shots before they had to scurry for home.  It was on one of these return trips that my Canadian friend Lloyd Cummings called me to say that he was losing oil pressure and did not think that he could make it back to land.  I snuggled up behind him in the helicopter that I was flying expecting to have to pluck everyone out of the icy water and onboard the blasting ship.  Both ships carried rope ladders for this purpose and all crew had practiced with these procedures.  Luckily for the crew and for NAM the recording ship was saved when Lloyd managed to put her down on the beach on the island of  Terschelling where we then had to do an engine change.  The engineers removed the old engine and George Strolenberg slung it back to base.  Fritz Hasselman,  using a helicopter as a crane held the new engine in place while the engineers, Hank Hendry,  Ken Metcalfe, Bob Bishop and Tony Biddle mounted it with sand blasting everywhere.  It was like changing an engine in a sand storm.

Engine Change on Beach

The operation was completed to Shell’s satisfaction as far as I know.  All of the processing was done in The Hague so we never saw the final result.  It was certainly a test of men and machine.  It was a testament to the skill, ability and willingness to take the risks involved of the crewmembers involved.  I personally have recollections of flying the blasting ship and leaning over to look between my knees at the cabin below to see a young man, Jam Fens or Piet Alofs sitting on a stool at the open door assembling blasting materials between their legs, the floor covered with sea spray, string, balloons, wire and a second man slipping around in this jumble going to the back of the helicopter to pick up a blasting cap and carry it to the man in the door to assemble.  Knowing that there was a blasting cap only one meter away from the fuel tank of the helicopter did my heart no good at all.  But we were all relatively young and it was exciting and rewarding to be able to accomplish the work.

In the winter following the project Shell sent me back to Ameland with one of the machines to fill in some photographic sequences just involving the helicopter and the island.  That was the last of its type project that I am aware of.

In 2001 I took my grandson back to Ameland for a visit and offshore you could see several oil rigs so I presume the survey was successful.  We stayed at the Hofker hotel where the owner’s son (who was a teen-ager when we were there) had taken over the operation of the hotel.  Hardly anything on the island had changed.  The people of Holland who made up most of our crew and with whom we lived for the summer were the most courteous, fun, capable and enjoyable people anywhere on the globe.  They are forever in my heart.

 

The two helicopters were Sikorsky S-58’s bearing the registration N885 and N871 with N871 being the blasting ship.  N885 was last known to be sitting a derelict at Madras airport in India.  World Wide Helicopters who had been mostly owned  Arne Sumarlidason is still in business but not as a helicopter company rather it is real estate holding company in the Caymans (probably a wise move after all).  I recently spoke the owner’s grandson of the same name who is an engineer in Delaware.  He told me that he had no knowledge of the helicopter operations other than it had existed.

Most of the story is about the people.  George Strolenberg from the Netherlands was the chief pilot and coordinator between the flight operations and the recording operations.  I was a 24 year old green pilot from the United States.  When George gave me my first test flight in the airplane I forgot to flip the clutch switch after starting the engine….he gently reminded me that the rotors wouldn’t turn without the switch!  He was kind, professional and considerate to a fault.

George Strolenberg

Pilot Fritz Hasselman from the Netherlands rented a bungalow up near the light house on Ameland and had his family with him for the summer.  He was an extremely experienced aviator who had been with World Wide for a long time.  We crossed paths later in Libya.  His son Jan Win Hasselman remains in touch with the group on Facebook.

Pilot Ted Van Capelle from the Netherlands was a very skilled aviator and a person that everyone instantly liked.  He had a sense of humor and warmth that naturally drew people to him.  His sons Ewuut and Walter remain in touch with the group.

Wood, Driessen et al

Harry Dreissen, John Wood, Ted Van Capelle, ?

Pilot John Wood from the UK had been in the RAF and had flown many aircraft that we all envied such as the Spitfire.  John was a sincere and decent person, an experienced pilot and a good friend.

Pilot Lloyd Cummings from Canada was a gifted pilot, level headed under stress and had a great sense of humor.

Hendry Bishop and Cummings

Hank Hendry,  Bob Bishop, Lloyd Cummings

I, Ed Stewart, the least experienced pilot of the group came from the U.S. Navy and this was my first commercial job.  Almost all of my memories have to do with the wonderful people on the job and those living on the island of Ameland.

Chief Engineer Hank Hendry came from the Royal Navy and was an experienced, no nonsense professional in every sense.  He eventually moved on to Australia where he retired and still lives there.

Engineer Bob Bishop was a former Royal Navy engineer.  He was a likeable decent guy and a great deal of fun to be around.

Engineer Tony Biddle also came from the Royal Navy.  I could listen to his stories about his navy career forever.

Maintenance Crew

?, Tony Biddle, Hank Hendry, Ken Metcalfe, ?, Bob Bishop

Engineer Ken Metcalfe was not only an artist when it came to helicopter engineering he was also an artist when it came to meeting people of the opposite sex.  He had a much deserved reputation of “chatting up the ladies”.  Years later I entered the Hilton Hotel in Cairo and saw a man sitting in a chair by the pool surrounded by numerous women, all laughing and having fun.  I turned to my companion and said “I know that guy, it’s Ken Metcalfe”.  He was working for Bristow Helicopters at the time.

Shooting Master, Jan Fens had a background in explosives and was cool and steady with a handfull of explosives sufficient to have blown the entire helicopter into small pieces.  Personally, he was a nice young man with many interesting stories.

Nes Ameland1

Shooting Master Piet Alofs was one of the younger people on the crew and we two had many laughs.  He was nevertheless deadly serious when he stepped into the helicopter.

Nes Ameland2

Kneeling:  Ted Van Capelle, Ed Stewart, Piet Alofs, Jan Fens, ?

Standing:  ?, ?, Ken Metcalfe (standing on tire), ?, ?, ?, ?, John Wood, Hank Hendry, Harry Driessen, George Strolenberg

I have no doubt left out some of the crew who were just as important.  I have only mentioned the flight crew but there were several others equally valuable in handling the cable, getting the recording information and doing the navigation.

 

From the recollections of Ed Stewart June 2013

It’s My Life

I believe in science.  Every passing day re-affirms the value and certainty of science while at the same time denies the existence of any god.  It renders pointless the worshiping of the idols of Jesus, walking around a fallen rock in the desert, bowing before a fat smiling dude, spinning wheels that are supposed to offer prayers, multi armed women, elephant people or literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of objects worshipped all over the world.

junk religions

 

I hereby declare that I and I alone are responsible for my life.  It  is mine to live with compassion, responsibility and decency with respect to my fellow travelers on the planet.  It is mine to terminate under the circumstances which I decide warrant such termination.  No invisible gods may decide my fate, cause me to abandon my principles or punish or reward me in an imaginary afterlife.

religion (2)

As I approach the end of life I can see clearer than ever my destination.  I am satisfied with that destination and recognize it as a natural condition of our species.  It’s a way of moving on and making room for the next generations of our species.

Unfortunately we humans have made such progress in science and medicine that people live longer and longer.  That is not a good thing.  My witness is the overpopulation and pollution of a once pristine planet.   Now not much more than a cesspool clogged with human waste our planet is rapidly dying.

beach junk

I have personally had a great life.  I lived during a time of opportunity and relative prosperity.  I have had the joy of having a family and the crushing sadness of loving those I loved.  Almost 80 years old, I can safely say, “I have had enough”.   At this age there is nothing to look forward to except the continued deterioration of a rotting body.  A terminal disease at this point in life should be a normal and expected end of life yet the medical profession will try to do incredible feats just to extend your life for another few years.  It is a waste.  You must die sometime.  Yet I see people my age going through the agony of terrible surgeries followed by chemotherapy and radiation just to extend their life a year or two.

athiest2

I  am prepared to hang on here for a couple more years as long as my health is good and I can be of use to my grandchildren.  I will not subject myself or them to a traumatic effort to “fix” my body though when all of the signals are that the end has come.  I know that the word “suicide” has a  negative connotation but in our present world with few exceptions there is no other choice.  It is either end your life or months or even years of agony, terrible expense and being a burden to those who care about.  I prefer to bow out as gracefully as possible with the least fuss and mess.  Yes, most places it is illegal but they don’t usually arrest a corpse.

grim_reaper

THE END OF LIFE IS A NATURAL EVENT.  THERE IS NO MYSTERY TO IT.

I suppose that most countries around the globe have their own unique social issues. Even today most of us are aware of various conflicts between religions and ethnicities.  While the history of the United States is relatively short compared to many it is nonetheless exceptionally confounding when it comes to race relations.  There has been some religious friction throughout the years but no event has ever caused such open wounds as slavery.

The caucasian destruction and near annihilation of the North American natives was so complete that it hasn’t lingered on as the festering sore that slavery has caused.  Inequalities between various religious groups has surfaced now and then but has never risen to the degree of full-blown catastrophe.  Why is it that slavery had such a long-lasting effect?

Slavery has existed and to a degree still exists here and there around the world.  From the 16th through the 18th centuries there was a robust slave trade in mostly Caucasians along the North African coast.  The Barbary Pirates seized people from European ships and coastal towns all along the European coast and sold them into slavery in Arab states.

slaves for sale

In 1619 the North American colony of Jamestown received its first slaves when a damaged Dutch slave ship came into the harbor eventually trading its cargo of slaves for food and other goods from the local citizens.  The English colonists were engaged in a lucrative albeit labor intensive business of growing tobacco so the slaves were essential.  The Africans and a handful of Caucasians were originally considered indentured servants who after serving for 7 years would be freed.  They were never freed however because of their enormous value to the colony.  More slaves flooded into the Southern settlements.  With the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 slavery was already well established and would continue in the southern United States until the civil war in 1865.

slaves plantation

Perhaps there were a few slave owners who were compassionate and treated their slaves reasonably but it was still slavery.  People were sold as chattel, families were separated from each other and people lived in desperate conditions.  Slaves served in the Revolutionary Army during the war for independence in 1776.  They served on both the British and the Continental side.  They mosly served in hopes of gaining their freedom after the war and some states did grant their freedom.  Between 1774 and 1806 all of the Northern States abolished slavery.  Even when slave trade was abolished in 1808 there was still a busy slave trade in the Southern States.

Tubman

slave resistance

 

two men hanging

When the civil war was over and slaves were freed there was insufficient planning or services to help the newly freed people so many of them became basically indentured servants to those they had worked for in the past.  They became economic slaves.

There developed great hostility to the former slaves throughout the south and it is still visible today.  Poor and uneducated whites view blacks as competition.

In the 40’s and 50’s blacks primarily in the south were subject to lynching for any actual or perceived crime.

 

Through the protests and legislation of the 60’s and 70’s blacks in the south were able to at last attend schools of their choice.  But there was still open hostility and discrimination.

Today it is fair to say that there has been great progress.  We have had a black president, we have black congressmen and women, blacks have the same legal rights as others.  The law and the law enforcement officers don’t always apply the law the same and there are many more blacks imprisoned than whites.  As a country we have not achieved complete equality for everyone especially the poor of both races who suffer disproportionately before the courts and police.

Today multi-racial couples are growing rapidly.  About ten million people at last estimate.  That’s a good sign that young people are finally laying down the old taboos that kept them apart in the past.

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biracial couple

With older people it is different.  In many cases there still exists open hostility toward those of the opposite race.  Ask an old black grandmother what she thinks about her grandchildren marrying a Caucasian or dressing like a Caucasian.  They want desperately to hang onto their traditions which regrettably contributes to racism.  Ask an old grandfather what he thinks about his granddaughter marrying a black man and they will cringe at the very thought.  These old prejudices die-hard especially when you see the inequality between blacks and whites when it comes to jobs, the law, crime and economic opportunity.

I once thought that if only a black child could spend a year with a  white family and that a white child could spend a year with a black family there would be greater understanding and compassion.  After all, how could people live together and not actually know each other.  I think perhaps the young people growing up today are moving forward faster than any of us older people thought.  Given economic opportunities, jobs, healthcare and housing opportunities perhaps we will be all right as a country.

no to racism

Bite Me

Only in the United States of America are people without teeth so proud of their government and country.  Look around poor neighborhoods anywhere in the country and you will find the same thing;  missing teeth.  I wonder why.

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Most people’s preference is not to do without teeth.  They don’t prefer to let them decay so badly that they can no longer be saved.  They don’t prefer to have their children grow up with crooked and deformed teeth.

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Starting early in life children of the wealthy or those lucky enough to have paid dental insurance get braces.  Cost:  between $7500 and $10000.

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Later on as  adults they simply let their teeth go because most people can’t afford dental insurance and those who do buy it find that it only covers about half of the cost of various procedures so they still can’t afford to have anything done.  The insurance is simply a waste of money.

The cost of a tooth extraction:  $150 to $350 with no complications.

Braces:  $7000 to $10000

The cost of a crown:  $800 to $1000

The cost of a bridge:  $500 to $1000

The cost of a dental implant:  $3500 to $5000

If you are earning $2000 per month you have about $1500 after paying taxes and social security.  Take away housing, food, transportation expense, insurance and utility expenses you have about $200 per month left.  Not nearly enough to cover the cost of dental care.

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If you need serious dental work and have the money, you can travel to Costa Rica, stay in a nice hotel for a month, have all of the work done and fly back home and still have a few bucks left over.

If you want to travel across the border into Mexico you can have a tooth extracted for $50.  A crown done for $300.  A bridge for about $400 and an implant for about $1500.  AND don’t underestimate the quality of Mexican dentists.  In some ways they are more progressive than American dentists when it comes to sanitation and equipment.

So what do we do as the leader of the free world, defender of truth, supporter of the downtrodden and protector of the impoverished.  We let people’s teeth rot and fall out because they can’t pay the cost out of their paycheck from McDonalds.

Why is it that American dentists charge from 100% to 500% more than dentists from other countries?

I say, SHOW ME BEAUTIFUL WHITE TEETH AND I WILL SHOW YOU SOMEONE WEALTHY, IN TERRIBLE DEBT OR LUCKY ENOUGH TO HAVE AN EMPLOYER WHO PAYS FOR THEIR DENTAL INSURANCE.

Start the revolution.

 

The Barn

If you grew up on a farm you didn’t have easy access to a library but on a quiet  fall afternoon when you wanted to read a good book or just be alone with your thoughts you retreated to the barn.  Barns were special places of wonder filled with sites, smells and sounds never reproduced anywhere else.

A barn had a big double door at ground level for getting equipment and supplies in and out.  Frequently there is a small door in one of the larger doors so people can duck in and out without having to open the larger doors.  High above the big double doors on the second level was another large door used for pitching hay into the loft where it was stored for the winter.  Hay was originally pitched up into the loft from wagons and piled loosely.  Later with the advent of threshers it was bailed and stacked.  The loft was called a haymow but I haven’t heard that term in many years.

barn

When you step through the small door and closed it behind you a whole new world opened up.  A world of dim light pierced in places by shafts of sunlight pouring between cracks or  knot holes in old wood.   The few windows were small and usually covered with years of dirt and cobwebs.  The smell of a hundred years of hay, feed, wood, leather, cow manure and sweat permeated the air.  There was the soft purr of pigeons high in the beams of the loft.  There was the occasional rustle of a barn owl or the cackle of a chicken hiding her eggs in the loose hay.

Down  the center of the barn was a long corridor usually piled with tools or other equipment.  On the walls hung rope, various harness’, buckets, brushes and brooms.  On one side was a long trough for feeding milk cows.  Stanchions were fitted along the trough to fit around the cow’s neck to keep her from moving about while being milked.  The stanchions were originally just two pieces of wood, one fixed upright and the other pinned at the bottom so you could pull the movable piece around the cows neck and secure it with a block or pin to hold it in place.  It fit loosely but was just enough to keep her from backing her head out.  Later the stanchions were made of metal but still served the same purpose and probably not any better.

 

milking barn

Directly behind the row of cows there was a long trench in the concrete to catch the urine and manure dropped by the cows while being milked.  One of the family members usually got to clean out  the trench and shovel it outside where a huge pile of manure developed that was used in the spring for fertilizer on the fields.

Somewhere in the roof above the corridor there was an opening where hay in the loft could be pitched through to feed the cattle.  There was also a ladder on the wall for climbing up into the loft.  It wasn’t so much a ladder as just several boards nailed onto the wall for climbing on.  On the side of the corridor opposite the milking station there were several separate rooms containing feed, harness, tools and other supplies needed.

Further down the corridor there was usually space on one side for pigs and the other side for horses.

Climbing up the wooden blocks nailed to the wall you entered the loft through a small opening in the loft floor.  It was like entering a cathedral.  It had a holy atmosphere about it.  There was life everywhere.  There were birds high in the rafters, chickens digging in the hay for grain and an occasional mouse scurrying away.

hayloft

If you wanted to read you looked for a spot where the sunshine streamed through a crack in the wood and landed on a pile of hay.  It was here that you settled down and moved slowly with the sun as it crept across the hay.  If you just wanted to dream you found the softest pile of hay and dropped down into it until you had to get up and do your chores or you heard your mom shout from the house “supper time” or rang a bell on the back porch.

One of the most exciting times for a kid was during a thunderstorm when the rain poured on the roof and lightning crashed outside.  There were lightning rods on the roof of the barns and one felt safe from the storm high up in the loft with the other animals around.

Kids and young adults worked in the barns alongside their parents.  They worked with tools, pitchforks, ladders, buckets and other items considered hazardous  today.  It was a different time.  I don’t remember anyone ever getting hurt much except maybe having an old cow step on your foot.

Barns could also be great places to play and learn.  They were alive with nature.  Possibly as a precursor to my later aviation career I once had a brilliant idea and I built an airplane out of wooden orange crates assembled into the shape of an airplane.  They were just nailed together and obviously could never fly.  Nevertheless I and my brother lugged one to the top of the barn roof and tied the tail of it to one of the lightning rods.   I got into the crate and with the nose pointed down the steep roof certain of flight I had my brother cut the rope.  I accelerated smoothly down the metal roof prepared to glide effortlessly out into space and perhaps land some distance away in the pasture.  Regrettably when my plane reached the edge of the roof it nosed straight down and landed with a plop right in the big mound of cow manure that we had been shoveling out of the barn for months.  It was a soft, albeit shitty landing and by no means my last shitty landing by any standard.

I love and miss old barns.

barn collapsing

 

 

 

 

Nellie

When I was 4 or 5 years old, Nellie came to live with us.  Her baby had just died during birth and she was sad and afraid.  She had big brown eyes and I could put my face close to them and peer inside.  There was a gentle sadness there not easily forgotten.  While I peered deep into her soul she never stopped chewing, round and round, that big ball in her mouth like a huge wad of bubble gum.  Dad said that if she ever swallowed the ball she would die unless we took a rag, smeared it with lard and grass, rolled it into a ball and  put it in her jaw  to save her.

Cow

She had huge soft ears with fine hair on the inside and she used them to swat away flies in the summer.  Once I dropped a marble into one of them and she wobbled her head back and forth a couple of times and flung the marble clear across the yard.

She had one horn that curved up over her head and another that curved down toward her cheek.  The one curving toward her cheek had been cut a little shorter because it had started to grow into her skin.  It made a wonderful handle for support or for guiding her along.

cow nose

Her nose was one of nature’s marvels.  It was bumpy like big sandpaper but soft and moist.  There were whiskers growing out of it here and there in no particular pattern.  When she sniffed you she would suck in a huge amount of air and then blow it out like a tornado.  Sometimes if you kissed her on her big slippery nose she would slather her big magnificent wet tongue across your face.  Even today, years later, I tell all of my grand children that it is good luck to kiss a cow on the nose.

In late summer when the grass in our small pasture became scarce I could walk her down the country road in front of our house so she could eat the tall grass growing there.  She was never on a rope or anything, she just grazed along eating the grass while I threw rocks or searched for frogs or something.  About mid-day she would usually settle down under a big walnut tree and kneel down on her front knees and then gently roll down onto her side.  I usually found a spot on her neck or just behind her front shoulder to lean back and stretch out.  You could never lie on her back haunches though because it would tickle her and she would kick.  Sometimes I slept and maybe she napped too but she never stopped chewing on the ball in her mouth.  It was that rhythm that made the world stand still for me.

cow2

After resting for maybe an hour or so Nellie would roll a little giving me the signal to get up and then she would roll onto her belly, rise on her front knees and stand.  With no input from me she would start grazing her way back up the road toward home.  If I wanted, she would let me crawl up onto her hips and ride for a while but it was so bony and uncomfortable that it wasn’t fun.  Dad had always told us to NEVER ride on her back because her 2000 pound weight could not stand to have anyone riding on it.  I always thought that it would break her back if I got on so I never did.

Shortly after we got back home Nellie would go to the barn and wait for us to bring her a bucket of feed….maybe oats, I don’t remember.  You had to clean her udder and teats and make sure they were all flowing properly.  I knew it was serious if one of her teats got stopped up or became infected.  While she ate I would milk her enormous udder bursting with milk.  Sometimes I would aim one of her teats at the cat and see if I could hit it directly in the mouth.  Other times I aimed it at my own mouth and had a few swigs of warm creamy milk.  Usually Nellie just kept eating but if I got too feisty she would kick my stool with her foot or swat me on the head with her tail to tell me to stop acting crazy.

milking a cow

I don’t remember exactly what happened to her.  I grew up and went away and she grew old and I think she died and was buried out there in the fields near the house.

Today when I drive by cattle feedlots where cows are raised in hellish conditions just to provide meat for hamburger I feel really sad and I remember how Nellie was a family friend who helped support a large family with her gifts.  I understand how commercial dairy farms impregnate their cows to make them lactate and then sell off their babies for meat.  I understand why activists protest the treatment of these animals.  It is criminal.

cattle feed lot

I still love milk.

 

So Long Democracy

I suppose there has always been a certain amount of corruption in the United States of America.  We just didn’t want to believe it because we believed in fairness, honor, decency and openness.  Especially when it came to the politicians representing us in Congress, Judges and the Executive offices.  Maybe we were just naive.  Maybe we just didn’t want to see it.  Today it’s all out in the open, accepted as normal, expected and thrown in our faces like so much confetti.

Not for sale

You and I, busy with feeding a family really haven’t had time or resources to scrutinize the situation.  Most of us are working two jobs just to put a roof over our heads and food on the table.  We  only have a limited amount of time to get involved but with the internet it has become ever easier for us to see what is going on.

I don’t care if you consider yourself conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, city slicker or country person.  We are all in it and we all suffer from it.  Most of all, our cherished democracy, constitution and bill of rights suffer from it.  The very idea that almost all our representatives in government at every level are corrupted in some way is repugnant.  They are corrupt because of their morals but they are corrupt because the system requires vast amounts of money to get elected or appointed and the only way you can get that money is to prostitute yourself to the people and corporations with the money.

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Somehow, someway we have got to get money out of the political process and get back to a representative democracy.  All of these PACs and Superpacs have got to go.  Billionaires buying advertising to promote their stooges has got to go.  Lobbyists have got to go.  The electoral college has got to go.  Career politicians have got to go.  Slicing up states into districts to be manipulated by politicians and their supporters has got to go.  Placing restrictions on citizens from voting has got to go.  We need ONE VOTE for ONE PERSON and we need to have a penalty for not voting.

Brandeis3

We are on the brink of having a country bought and paid for by those able to purchase favors, commonly known as a plutocracy where the rich and powerful make all of the decisions for us.  If we don’t fight it now we might as well burn the constitution and accept our fate.  It won’t be pretty.