Guest Post — a Birthday Wish

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Hello, this is Jim’s daughter Laura, writing a special birthday post for my Dad.

Because physical distance separates us today, we are not able to celebrate together in person, so this virtual celebration will have to do until we’re together again.

I chose the above photograph, taken at the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center in Florida last year, because I think it describes fairly well the experience of growing up in this family, and some of the values that Dad has worked to instill in the next generations.

“We have dreamed big.” Dad’s big dreams have been infectious and inspiring, and while the big dreams don’t always come to pass, our attempts have led us down paths we never would have seen otherwise, and brought us rewards we never could have dreamed of.

“We have ventured on wild seas, lost sight of the land a few times, and found stars to guide us on our journey.” Dad has been willing to step out into unknown territory, courageously go against the tide sometimes with no dry land in sight, and look for guiding stars to lead the way. We all must move through life doing things for the first time and often not entirely sure how to proceed. In some ways, as I understand it, my arrival in the family presented a swath of unknown territory which my parents somehow managed to navigate and then repeat twice more, applying what they’d learned 2013-07-03 09.18.47and becoming even better, more capable people because of it. It is said that the important thing is the journey, not the destination, and I know my journey so far has been made richer because of my Dad.

“We expanded our horizons and learned lessons.” If you know my Dad, you know that learning is important to him. As he reaches this double-digit age (nope, not 55; not 66 either), he still has an infectious and inspiring love of learning. Even better, he wants to share what he and others are learning, which is one reason I set up this blog for him a couple of years ago (and that, of course, is why I can write this as a surprise to him — I know the password!).

Dad, it has been a remarkable journey so far, and I hope there is much more journeying to come. Happy Birthday, Dad. I love you!


Laura (A.K.A. #1)

Rate Our Worst “Blunder Of War” In History

Recent conversations with some facebook friends about Sen.Bernie Sanders’ recent remarks that the Iraq War will go down in history as our worst diplomatic and military blunder, makes me wonder what others think might take first place. Do you agree with him? Have another to offer?

If we look at the history of provocations, threats, military goals, and political aims, and the ultimate outcomes of all wars and military conflicts since the revolutionary war of 1776, how many actually were not blunders? The “Great War of 1918 was one in which we fought to help our allies to contain and defend from German aggression. We were separated from that fighting by the wide ocean. It was costly, and only set up the situation for the next great war of 1938-1945. In WWI America was not directly imperiled by that aggression, although I guess it could be argued that if Germany had succeeded in defeating the allies, we would have been targeted sooner or later.

WWII rose out of the ashes of that war, because of the manner in which reparations were extracted and the utter depredation imposed on the defeated countries. It was the last war and only war in which we were actually at risk of invasion, so a it was a war where we were defending our freedoms. Had we not fought that war we would have been invaded and forced to defend ourselves on site. I rate it a just war to defend our freedoms and those of our allies, with the Cold War with USSR arising from those ashes.

Which war since then has actually been fought to protect our freedoms? Let’s list a few candidates:

The “police action” in Korea as part of the United Nations police forces was fought to protect our ally and support the west-leaning South Korean government from the aggressions of communist China’s puppet, North Korea. There was no threat to our liberty or safety from North Korea, and still isn’t. But, we are still there to maintain an uneasy truce. That war is not over yet after more than sixty years.

Other major conflicts through the years merit mention, but the one that stands out above the others is the war in Viet Nam. It was another war to support a “friendly” regime, one that we felt was needed to provide a buffer between us and communist China. It was a hot spot in the Cold War. It was not, as the zealots claim, a war to defend our freedoms, or to protect our “interests” unless you count the source of rubber. We inherited the lost cause the French had waged for years, only to waste the lives of almost a generation of young men. Many of the brave men who survived the shooting are the walking wounded we see on the streets today. It split our country apart, for no good reason.

Then we fast forward to 2003: in anger and reaction to the sneak attacks of 9/11, the world was in sympathy with us, and shared our mourning of the innocent victims. We had the world on our side, only to squander that sympathy on a personal vendetta. The invasion of Afganistan was probably justified, in searching for the bad guys, but could have been limited and focused with that country’s assistance. Or not.

Ah, but invading Iraq was based on totally fabricated intel, most from our own government, but all of it lies. Intel which the administration knew at the time were lies, like WMD, and terrorist support, none of which existed, and intended to entice us into a ground-based guerilla war, a war in which we would become mired for more than ten years. That war has cost thousands of our military lives, tens of thousands severely wounded, millions of Iraqi civilians killed by “collateral damage”, and trillions of dollars thrown away, all on credit. It was what Ben Laden wanted us to do. He won. His jihad movement is stronger than ever.

And for what? Was it to defend our freedoms? If that is so, then why have we surrendered so many of our civil liberties, our treasured freedoms in the name of national security? No, it was not to defend anything, it was to gain bragging rights for Junior, to enrich Haliburton, to secure access to crude oil, and on the mistaken and utterly misguided premise of stabilizing the region. Oh, and throw in the idea of democratizing those tribes of Sunnis and Shias, and Kurds. And destroying those elusive WMD. No, we were not there to defend our freedoms.

(How much more “defending” are we getting into? At least the current Iraqi action is humanitarian, so far.)

Take a moment and vote for the war you think was our worst military blunder since 1945. I’ll wait.

Political Alignment, Liberal vs. Conservative, Sectarian vs. Non-Sectarian

We humans seem to require a specific label or identity, maybe so we can feel part of something, as a member belonging to a community of like thinkers. We form congregations of class, family, group, clan, religion, or party so that we can find self-identity. We adhere to our “clan group” so strongly, that the tendency must be a hard-wired part of our genome. Perhaps it is an evolutionary development that helped our ancient ancestors survive in a hostile environment.

We still live in a hostile environment, with shooting wars, economic battles, and base survival needs pressing upon us. “Us” meaning the human race. It is just a global zone now.

Among the most dangerous threats emerging on our horizon that threaten our very existence is global warming. In spite of avid deniers, our world is getting warmer at a velocity far ahead of the worst case scenarios scientists predicted just a decade ago. Recent symptoms include eerie holes in the vast reaches of Siberia, probably from the release of methane gas which had been captured in the frozen tundra for eons. Methane bubbles from deep beneath the ocean may also be a result of warming sea waters that have contained the gas below.

Is that a problem at this point? Only that it portends a cascade of methane gas release as artic ice melts and flood our atmosphere with methane, the world’s most effective greenhouse gas. That release will trigger a tipping point in our atmosphere, and the warming will cascade into total melt down of polar regions, with the ensuing destruction of our livable environment. Once it begins, there is no stopping it. We will be in a downward death spiral. And it may already be too late. Building an ark will not help.

The initial cause of the warming is the industrial era which grew the use of fossil fuels beyond any previous levels. The rapid growth of human needs are adding to the problem at the same time. We are the cause and will suffer the effects.

Which brings me to the title topic: clan membership identity. In previous blogs, I bemoaned the use of labels. Labels are too restrictive, and we are more diverse than any labels can describe. I have considered myself as politically “Independent”, preferring to cast my ballot for the individual and on the issues, rather than for any political party or sect. Most of my voting decisions leaned toward conservative economics, and liberal social issues. Those leanings often get into internal conflict with the resulting angst of my vote decisions.

Recently, at least in geologic terms, I have found myself often voting against a candidate rather than for a candidate. It seems to be a choice of the “less bad” rather than a choice for the “better good”. Where do I fit in the political spectrum? Conservative, Liberal, Independent, Libertarian, or ?? Does religion have a part to play? Not to me, as I deplore the current trend of religious zealots who have taken over the GOP. We must get the sectarian agenda out of our politics.

While I agree with many proposals of fiscal conservancy, I disagree with the meat-axe approach of most Republicans (read Tea Party) and Libertarians. I also disagree with those who want to shovel money at problem issues with the hope they will just go away. Neither approach makes any sense to me, and are both fraught with serious consequences.

For instance we have congress pouring billions of tax dollars into war material that the military doesn’t want, doesn’t need, and won’t use. We have tanks that are rusting away in an arms depot. (Maybe we can sell them to the Kurds.) We are building billion dollar jet fighters that are spectacular failures, with no prospect of ever reaching a positive conclusion. Wasted dollars that could be used to provide so many really needed services to our people. And save taxes at the same time.

At present rates, those wasted dollars could pay for every college degree for the next 58 years. We could also provide food for the starving millions in our country and in Africa. We could rebuild our rusting and rotting infrastructure, employing millions of idle workers. Those workers would earn a decent living, pay taxes, stimulate the economy, re-energize the country like nothing seen since the reconstruction after WWII.

So, which label applies? Neither. I am a rational independent, both in politics and society. My current position appears leftist, only because the conservative right has gone so far beyond rationality. I am what I am, a rational thinker who wants the best for the most, not the most for the fewest.

We need to get some rationality into our politics rather than blindly adhering to an artificial label. Let’s get our minds out of our rears and do something rational for once.

Misleading And Slanted Political Polls

All over the internet, almost everywhere you turn, you will be asked to respond to a poll on some issue or another. Those polls are usually on political or religious issues. Today, while reading a news story about an anti-gay extremist, one of those polls popped up from “” Turns out “Townhall” is a conservative media post of ultra conservative so-called “Christian” evangelicals, that blogs to their readers who lean that way.

The poll was not about the story; it had no relationship to the story’s topic, but it was featured prominently so that it stood out and grabbed your attention. What was the poll asking about? A simple one question poll:

“Do you agree or disagree that it should be legal for teachers and students to pray in school?”
The only options were: “Yes, it is a freedom of religion.” or “No, Separation of Church and State.” (There is a term for that kind of misleading question/answer form, but I can’t recall the term.)

That’s it. Respond with “Yes”, if you agree, “NO” if you don’t agree. No discussion, and yet the question is so slanted that it makes one wonder what the poll was trying to do. My impression is that the pollster wanted to prove a point by harvesting as many “Yes” votes as possible, while using “No” votes in the minority as a “See, I told you so” rant. (Maybe get a few “Gays” snared in. At the page bottom was a tiny-print message that announced that responding to the poll was authorization for them to add you to their mailing list, and for you to receive emails and promotional materials. Sneaky, sneaky.)

What the pollster left out of the question was that there is no law against private prayer of any kind in public schools. None. Never has been. No one is forbidden by law from personal private prayer in schools or public places, or public meetings, or anywhere else for that matter.

No Law? Nope. None. Nada. No way. A verifiable FACT. What is unlawful is installing and requiring an established sectarian prayer to be prayed by all, by any public authority, or political entity such as a public school or municipality, under the First Amendment Establishment clause of our Constitution. That’s a different animal. (That’s where we get the “separation of Church and State” meme.)

There is no way to answer the poll properly, or any poll that ignores or distorts fact. They are suggesting by omission that there is such a law, though none exists. Are they are trying so hard to expose a non-existent law so that they can get support for a new “Freedom of Religion” law passed? I call that sneaky, underhanded, and at best, misleading for a sectarian purpose. Slanted propaganda.

Slanted? Yeah, about as steep as an Aspen ski run. And about as slippery. If the public lets that slip by, we will get that new law, and slide down deeper toward an American version of (Christian) Sharia Law. There is no help for us if we let that happen.

As Christ was quoted as saying “Do not pray openly as the pious do, on the corner to show how pious you are, but go into your closet and pray privately.” Do Christians actually read and follow their holy book?

Collecting Lessons At The School Of hard Knocks

The small loan business is particularly nasty. Most of the customers who became indebted to the lender, even at the low maximum of $600 as limited by VA law at that time (now almost unlimited) were not the smartest consumers. They usually were at the bottom of the economic ladder, working at minimum wage jobs that were not always steady. Construction, manufacturing, agriculture, low-end sales jobs were the norm. A few, and only a few, were earning wages above minimum. That is when minimum hourly wages were less than $1.oo per hour. It seems they are still not smart with title loans, pay-day loans, and furniture financing deals.

One of the toughest groups were the pulpwood cutters, who made a hard scrabble living by cutting scrub pine logs and trucking them to the paper mill in Covington. It was dangerous, hard and dirty work for little money, and not always having a market for their logs. Their income was marginal at best, usually making $8 or $15 a day for their labor when the mill was buying. In off season, they cut firewood to heat their cabins, and scraped up a few bucks for food. Welfare was scarce, and they were not eligible for unemployment compensation. Workers comp didn’t apply, either, so an accident was usually fatal.

When I say “tough” I mean both physical and hard to deal with. First, they were hard to find out in the nether woods. They usually got the owner’s permission to harvest the trees, but not always, and some of their trees came from the national forests. They were always on the lookout for the Rangers, so finding them was not the simple task of a phone call. And negotiating with them was dicey.

I learned that I was most effective if I came on slowly, with no threats, and a genuine offer to help them deal with the office manager. I usually got them to share a few dollars of their meager take home pay to apply to their balance. What had they borrowed the money for? A broken down truck to fix up, or to get a chain saw out of hock. Pillar to post.

One story that I have shared only rarely, and with MR only after 25 years of marriage, happened soon after I went to work with the company. I was working out of the Williamson Road office, and was assigned a “dead file” account that had been shelved a long time ago because it was deemed uncollectable. The first day, I located the house, but no one was there. The family lived in an old farm house on the west side of Route 11, a few miles past Buchannan, up a long narrow road, and about a mile from the pavement. A neighbor told me that the family had moved the day before, to another house near Livia, which is on the other side of Buchannan. By the time I located that house, they had already moved again. They moved two more times that week, with me just one day behind.

On that Friday, I went to the truck stop on Rt. 11 across from the first road, and asked if they had seen those folks. They had just seen them, driving a flat bed truck. Sitting next to me at the counter was a state trooper. He asked why I was looking for them, when I told him the story, he nodded and got quiet. As I was leaving, he said he was taking a break, and would be there for another half-hour. I was to come back and see him when I got through. An omen of things to follow.

The road into the farm house was rutted dirt, and muddy from the rains. I could see the tracks the truck had made. As I neared the house, I saw the folks walking from the truck to the house. He was carrying two bags of groceries, she was climbing the front steps, with a baby in arms and a bag of groceries. They stopped when I pulled up behind the truck and got out. (Hello, I’m from Piedmont, and I want to talk with you a minute.)

At that, she dropped the groceries, tossed the baby to her husband, who had to drop the groceries he had to catch the baby. Cans and bottles, baby diapers, and a bag of beans scattered everywhere. She ran into the house, through the hall to the back. I could see down the hall way through the screen door, as she took down a rifle from over the back door, and came running back, racking a round into the rifle chamber as she ran.

The first shot came through the screen door, and I was on my way to the car. The second shot went over my head and shattered the truck windshield, I heard a third shot, but by then I was moving. You may have seen movies where the driver does a 180 in reverse and gets away. I performed that move perfectly. I was not waiting around to see if she had better aim, and I was moving down that dirt road at a fast pace, just as that trooper met me coming in. He got off the road a I passed.

Back in the office, I related my experience to the office staff. The two men almost died laughing. I wanted to sock them when the manager said the man and woman had promised to kill the next person they sent out, which is why they had dead-filed the account. This was a test.

Just before closing time, about quarter to six, the man from Buchannan walked in, came up to the counter asking for me. I was more than a bit nervous as I met him a the counter. The rest of the office staff retired to the back room. He looked mad as hell, and I really thought he was going to attack when he pulled out his wallet and peeled off $600, slammed it down on the counter and demanded a receipt.

That trooper gets the credit for collecting that debt. My baptism by fire.

First Amendment Issues: Public Funding For Private Schools

One of the most important doctrines of our democracy, of any democracy, an important condition required for the successful functioning of our society, of any free society based on democracy, is providing universal public education to all. Educated citizens are required to adequately govern ourselves. We are best served when the general public has a solid foundation in academics, at least the basic fundamentals of reading, writing, arithmetic, the sciences, and certainly, critical reasoning skills. Critical thinking skills are essential to understanding and plowing through the mountains of information and propaganda thrown at us every moment.

It is a terrible thing to see our public school systems being targeted for destruction, in favor of private sourced corporate-provided market-based schooling. The volunteer program of core values offered to help struggling school systems to meet the needs of their pupils has been vilified by those who would destroy public schools so that their private academies run by corporations and religious groups can prosper.

Do we have issues in some schools? By all means. The urban inner-city schools struggle to stay above water as the challenge of educating kids from low income and single parent families who have little or no time for participating in education programs. We complain that the money spent on those kids is wasted when the scores come out poorly. Budgets are slashed as a result, plunging the system into a downward death spiral. The outcome is predictable. Rural schools suffer from a lack of resources, as well.

More budget cuts are made to public schools while at the same time funds are shifted to private schools, many run by religious and secular organizations that have their own agendas. Our taxes, which should be used for educating through public school systems, are diverted to those private, religious, for-profit organizations, many of which do not provide a proper education. Testing results of charter schools, and private schools do not justify the transfer of public funds to private businesses.

When our kids are taught that evolution is a fraud, that science is unproven, that global warming is fiction, that creationism is fact, then we are in deep trouble. WE ARE IN DEEP TROUBLE. When the general public is dumbed down to the lowest level of thinking skills, then those who would grab the power has the reins. For instance, check out the popularity of cable news programs which are not news at all, just fountains of gibberish, slanted opinion, and political hype. Most of Fox news is wrong, incorrect, or just plain lies. They are not alone.

As a prominent spokesperson of note recently said: “Facts no longer matter; Perception is all.” sadly he is correct.

May we have a moment of sorrowful inner weeping.

GUIGC: Another Adventure In Camping

After Bobby was born, the house on Montvale was more than a bit crowded. The small bedroom that we boys shared was cramped, although I was not aware that it was too full. The next year we played musical houses with uncle Herman and uncle Steve. Herman and Mary moved to Martinsville with DuPont, we moved to their house on Alberta, and Steve and Pauline moved into our house on Montvale.

The Alberta house provided a lot more room for us, with a separate bedroom for Joe, one for Harry, and Davis and I shared the “sun room” at the back. Bob stayed in the master bedroom for awhile, before he too moved into the sun room. A full attic provided a view of the valley, and I stayed up there many months later.

Our house on Alberta was the center of motion in the neighborhood, as usual. People coming and going all hours, parties, games, projects. Motor bikes and tinkering with cars on Sunday mornings. The place was a three ring circus. I don’t know how mom managed it all.

As the middle guy in this circus, I usually felt left out, a part of the background. I suppose it was just the normal angst of becoming a teen, as it now looks from here, but it seemed real at the time. I wondered if anyone really cared if I was there.

I determined to find out. On a Summer Saturday morning, I stuffed my backpack with cans of beans, some bacon, a few eggs, a few biscuits, my sleeping bag, a half-shelter pup-tent, my handy hatchet, matches, a fry pan and a pot. With not a word to anyone, I left on my adventure. Not so much as “Bye”.

At the end of Alberta is a path through the woods that emerges on Spring Road. Across that road was the lane to the Spessard Farm. I followed that path past Mr. Spessard’s house, across Lick Run, up the hill past Mr. Brickey’s log cabin, with the hogs and chickens under it, and into the wilds I had not seen before.

Wilderness and woods and no paths to follow. I finally found my way to Garst Mill Road, crossed it and up the hill on the other side. Over the hill was the Bower’s farm, with a large spread of corn, and vegetables growing along side the dirt path. I went past the Bower’s place along the lane that led to McVitty Road at Oak Grove. Electric road was not even a dream then. Farmer’s fields covered the landscape.

Across McVitty road was a small pathway to my goal, a camp site I had heard of, at the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain. The climb up the mountain was not so hard, as I remember it. Today I would have a struggle to reach the top.

There was a small camp site on top, where someone had made a fire pit, and cleared a space for a tent. that fit my plans perfectly. I set up camp and settled in for the duration. All I had to do was get water from the tap at the store down the mountain at the corner of the highway.

I was alone with my thoughts, in solitude and quiet. Here I was the central character, the main man. The challenge I had set was to live on my own and make it without help from anyone. I was feeling pretty cocky by week end.

The next Saturday, I broke camp, and hiked back the way I had come, back to Alberta. I arrived just as lunch was being put on the table. Grilled cheese sandwiches, made with mom’s pimento cheese. Still my favorite.

I walked in, sat down at the table and munched on my sandwich. No one asked where I had been, or why I had been gone. No one made mention that I had been absent for a week, with no one knowing where I was. Not even that I hadn’t bathed for a week. That took me down a notch or two.

Today, a kid who is a half hour late would raise an alarm. I was gone for a week, and no one seemed to notice. Such were those times.