Sunday, September 29, 2013

The light tells the changing of the seasons.

A week after the autumnal equinox, I'm beginning to feel the fall in the air. It's not just the cool temperatures (in the 50s overnight) or the color in the leaves that are spiraling to the ground and begging to be raked. I can feel it in the deep blue of the sky and in the cool breeze.

The days are shorter. The darkness lingers later into the morning, and it snatches away the evening light. Tonight, we sat on the deck as the gloaming light cast an eerie brightness around us — soft and diffused, not direct sunlight but light reflected and refracted by the clouds and the air, a perfect light that illumines without harshness. In that light, I could see the autumn with its brisk walks and leaves to rake and joyful celebrations to come. I could feel the early sunsets coming and the shivering cold that will inevitably follow. I could picture the yard, now green and sprinkled with bright colors, as it lost it tints and turned a listless gray-brown, and how it would look under a blanket of snow, a white, still ocean surface without movement or sound. The T-shirts and shorts will disappear, and heavy coats will come out, and we will bundle against the cold and carry lights in our hands to hold back the darkness.

The changing of the seasons no longer surprise me. I am experienced. I expect them now. But each year, year after year, they bring me excitement to know that the familiar will be transposed, the heat will turn to chill and the light will turn to dark. The sun will hang low, and comfort will mean heat, not cooling. And then everything will turn over, and we will greet the spring as enthusiastically as this week we greet the fall. The earth spins in its 584 million mile orbit, and we experience the movement not as speed, not as soaring through the vastness of space, but as changes in the light.

Friday, September 27, 2013

More stars than the eye can count

At 6 o'clock this fifth morning of autumn, I looked up from my task of taking the dog out and saw the brightly shining "Dog Star," Sirius, of the constellation Canis Major twinkling against a blue-black velvet sky. Lifting my eyes farther, I found Orion, its signature stars Betelgeuse and Rigal, along with the three perfectly aligned stars comprising the hunter's belt and the fainter straight-in-line stars of his sword. Orion has hunted across the heavens for eons, battling Taurus, the wild bull to the northwest, followed by his two hunting dogs, one of which holds the brightest star in the heavens.

The moon, just a quarter full, shone high above Sirius, showing that fourth magnitude star what real brightness is. From my back yard surrounded by tall trees and hindered by city lights, I could not make out the Pleiades, though I knew they were there, just to the right of Taurus' brighter fixtures.

Orion, Taurus and Canis Major are winter constellations. In a month or two, they will be gone from the predawn darkness and will rise after sunset, giving brightness to the long winter nights. When I was a child fascinated with astronomy in an era boldly called The Space Age, I lived in a rural area with "good sky" — low horizons framed by distant trees and a lack of light pollution from the few houses and no streetlights within eyesight. I could stand on a little hillock in the back yard and feel the expansiveness of the universe lit by distant stars. Orion marked my winters, the Big Dipper and Polaris marked true north, and on clear summer nights, the Milky Way spiraled across the sky in uncountable pinpricks of light against the darkness.

How far we have come since that night 3,000 or so years ago, when God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. No doubt, Abraham stood in the lightless night gazing up into the heavens sparkling with light from the low horizon to zenith. Those stars, like a brightly colored scarf, cascaded above him. That was a promise beyond measure attested by a sky filled with more stars than all of humanity could count.

Were that promise made today, God and Abraham would have to find a different comparison. Look up into the sky tonight, and you might see half a dozen stars or a dozen — not so many progeny to become a great people; not so many stars to fill the sky. All the millions of faint stars will have faded into the darkness of artificial light. Fortunate are those who can see the sky as Abraham saw it, full of stars and of promise.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Contemplating a new car — the last one

My wife and I have been contemplating buying a new car. Not since 1971, when we were newlyweds, had we shopped for a new car. We made a couple of side trips into car leasing in the 1990s, when lease deals were especially enticing, but the only "new" car we've ever owned was a 1971 Toyota Corona two-door. In that car, we brought our first-born home from the hospital. Fifteen or 16 years later, the little baby we brought home got behind the wheel and drove the car that had taken her from the hospital.

We are interested in a new car not because there is anything wrong with our old car, except that it's old. My wife has been driving a 2002 Honda Accord for 10 years. We bought it with 8,000 miles on it after the original owner, a minister, traded it in, and it has 110,000 miles now. But we're looking ahead to the day we retire (hoping to live that long) and think it would be wise to have a paid-for vehicle of recent vintage when we do retire. So the new car we contemplate buying might have to last longer than the 10 years or so we typically keep a car. This one might have to last 20 years.

We're looking at a small SUV because we've often found that the four-door sedan is not good at hauling big boxes or 8-foot lengths of lumber home from the store. And there have been times when we've taken off for a week of vacation with the trunk jammed full and a lot of overflow in the back seat. So we're hoping to meet our occasional needs for a bit more cargo space without going all-out on a big SUV or van.

In 42 years of marriage, my wife and I have owned (or leased) 12 vehicles, not counting the five used vehicles our three children bought while still technically under our roof (but away at school). I have felt nostalgic about a few of these four-wheeled expenses, and I have felt victimized by others, such as the one that had a nasty habit of breaking down each time we drove it out of town.

Vehicles are a necessary evil in a society built around the automobile. You can't get from Point A to Point B without a vehicle, and the costs of purchase, financing, insurance, maintenance and gasoline is overwhelming once you add it all up.

Nevertheless, here we are, about to plunge into the new car market for the first time in 42 years to buy what might be our last car, the one we'll bequeath to our heirs. Except: I'll want to replace my own 11-year-old car sometime before I turn myself out to pasture. Maybe a used car next time.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sailing — really sailing — again

My time "afloat" during my stint in the Coast Guard consisted of one weekend training cruise on the USCGC Cuyahoga, a relic of the Coast Guard's battles against rum runners during the 1920s. The 125-foot (dubbed a "buck and a quarter") Cuyahoga had been converted to a training vessel stationed at the Coast Guard Reserve Training Center in Yorktown, Va. My cruise with a crew of officer candidates and a small number of regular crew members took me from the mouth of the York River up the Chesapeake Bay beneath the traffic-clogged Bay Bridge to Curtis Bay outside Baltimore. Bright and early the next morning, we began the trip back to Yorktown.

So when my wife and I were invited to sail — really sail — out of New Bern Sunday, it didn't take me long to accept the invitation. My time with a sailing vessel had been limited to a hot half hour or so in a homemade sailboat on Lake Norman, where the wind died and left us stranded.

Our friends welcomed us aboard their 36-foot sloop, and we motored out of the marina into open waters of the wide Neuse River. The guests got the sailing experience by hauling lines, cranking a winch, helping to rig the jib and the spinnaker and enjoying the quiet of travel powered by a light wind. The experience emphasized the work involved in catching the wind with the just-right combination of sail and rudder, the intricacies of rigging a sailboat and the confusing array of sailcloth and lines. Making motion from a light breeze is no easy task, even with modern instruments and equipment.

The enjoyable afternoon disabused me of any latent youthful fantasy about owning a sailboat. As enjoyable a hobby as sailing is, it's also a lot of work, and I have enough work to do as it is.

One footnote: Several years after my cruise on the Cuyahoga, a similar training cruise ended in tragedy when the Cuyahoga, with an officer candidate at the helm, veered in front of a cargo vessel, which plowed the smaller ship beneath it. Several office candidates died.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A shooting in an almost-familiar place

Most of Monday, after I heard about the mysterious shooting at the Navy Yard, I kept thinking that the shooting had occurred in the place I used to go with colleagues for lunch at the Officer's Club. I was working at Coast Guard Headquarters at 400 Seventh Street SW, only a mile or two from the O Club. I went there a few times with fellow officers for a sandwich before heading back to the office. I also went there for farewell dinners or lunches a couple of times when colleagues retired or were reassigned to other duty stations.

It was not until late in the afternoon that I realized that the shooting had occurred at the Navy Yard on the D.C. side of the Anacostia River. The Officer's Club and Post Exchange I had visited several times was in the Navy Yard Annex, across the river from the Navy Yard. We had to drive across a bridge that took us straight into the Annex. So that was why the photos of the crime scene looked vaguely unfamiliar. That, and the fact that my memories were of a time now 40 years ago when I was a young Coast Guard officer assigned to the Enlisted Personnel Division as a letter writer to answer correspondence about Coast Guard personnel. Other than the PX and the O Club, I don't know what was at the Navy Annex. I never had reason to visit anyplace other than those familiar haunts.

Still, a shooting at a secure Navy base, wherever it might be, is unsettling. Security at the Annex was not tight, as best I can remember. A guard would wave us in upon seeing the military sticker on the car's windshield or bumper. I don't recall any armed guards in the complex itself. But that was long ago, and security has to be tighter now, just as it is in military and government campuses everywhere after 9-11. As the president said, military personnel expect to put their lives on the line in combat assignments, but not while they're eating lunch in a quiet, secure corner of the District of Columbia.

I hope investigators can unravel the mystery of this morning, but some actions are so irrational they are inexplicable. Maybe this one will fall into that category.

Friday, September 13, 2013

'Arab Spring' is a chilling winter for Christians

In this "Arab Spring" (a misnomer if ever there was one), one aspect of the changes in Middle East governance has largely been overlooked. In all three countries where the United States has favored the overthrow of long-ruling dictators, the Christian minorities in those countries have suffered.

In Iraq, where the United States overthrew the cruel, despotic Saddam Hussein, Christians have fled the country as Shiite and Sunni Muslims have fought their civil war and both Islamic factions have attacked Christians. Hussein, for all his cruelty, had kept the insurgent Shiite majority in check and had protected Christians from abuse.

In Egypt, still in turmoil since the overthrow of, first, Hosni Mubarak, and, later, the Muslim Brotherhood's Morsi, Coptic Christians, with a 2,000-year history in Egypt, have become targets of the Islamist insurgents. Churches have been bombed, and Christians have been murdered.

Syrian Christians have also become targets of the insurgency, which includes Islamist factions, including al-Qaida. Christian communities in the majority-Sunni nation trace their churches and traditions back to New Testament missionaries. Saint Paul was headed to Damascus, the Syrian capital, when he experienced his conversion. Those Christian communities are under attack by the Muslim rebels. Bashar Assad and his father had protected the Christian minority perhaps in part because Assad's family belonged to the Alawite sect, a Muslim minority.

In each case, these revolutions gave power to Islamist elements, some of whom consider it their duty to kill "infidels" or expel them from their Islamic territory. To these zealots, a Christian church is an affront to Allah and must be destroyed; Christian worship is likewise detestable; and Christian witness is a capital offense. Religious freedom is blasphemy to them.

Certainly, U.S. foreign policy did not deliberately aim to disrupt or destroy Christian minorities in these Islamic countries, but by supporting, to one degree or another, the overthrow of powerful despots who had protected the religious freedom of Christian minorities, the United States has made life more difficult for Christians throughout the Middle East.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

First-time visitor to World Trade Center site

On my first visit to New York City, the site of the World Trade Center was not on the top of my list for things to see. The horribly disturbing television and newspaper images from 12 years ago are still too haunting. But I was with a group that wanted to see the memorial taking shape there, so I went along, and I'm glad I did.

It's difficult to grasp the enormity of the site where two monster buildings once stood, dominating the Manhattan skyline. Just getting to the site takes some doing. You weave through a maze of security checks and converge on a place of quiet and awe, but it's a place not terribly different from the rest of lower Manhattan, with small trees, walkways and tall buildings looming overhead.

Two fountains mark the footprints of the buildings that stood there before the greatest terrorist attack in history. Standing at the edge of the fountains, watching the water flow downward into a catch basin, flowing like unending tears, it's hard to envision the towers that stood there or the lives that ended there. Perhaps if I had been there while the towers still soared into the sky or later, when the ruins  still smoldered and people raked through debris for human remains, I could more readily picture what was lost. Names of the victims of the attack are carved into the bronze border of the fountains. All around the site are additional memorials to the innocent victims and to the firefighters and others who perished trying to save others. Sellers hawk picture books about the attack on street corners nearby. It's a gloomy, mournful place.

Ground Zero (a moniker I never quite cared for) brings to mind another memorial — the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. I've visited that site just a handful of times, but each time it left me choking back tears for all of the nearly 60,000 names carved there in black marble. I touched the names of my contemporaries, names that could have been mine. As awe-inspiring as the World Trade Center Memorial is, or will be, it cannot top, for me, the emotion I felt standing beside that slash of black marble with so many names of so many lives lost too early.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Use of chemical weapons is not unique

President Obama announced Saturday that he would put the bombing of Syria over its use of chemical weapons before Congress, although he reserved the right to go forward with military action even if Congress objected. The British House of Commons had already shot down Prime Minister David Cameron's proposal to authorize military action against Syria, leaving the United States alone in its plan to bomb Syria.

A majority of the U.S. public and many members of Congress have reservations about getting involved in the Syrian civil war for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the acknowledgement that the administration doesn't know what the outcome of its action might be. Will it strengthen the rebels or will it strengthen the resolve of President Assad? Will it push the Assad regime to negotiate or will it lead to deadly attacks from Iran, Hezbollah or other groups against the United States, Western Europe and Israel? No one knows.

But lost in the debate thus far is the fact that Syria's use of chemical weapons is not unique. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurds in 1988, and chemical weapons were used in the Iran-Iraq war earlier. Chemical weapons were used extensively in World War I, but Adolf Hitler declined to use his available chemical weapons in World War II out of fear of deadly retaliation. This article from The Atlantic covers some of that history and explains how chemical weapons affects people.

The United States has its own history of chemical weapons. U.S. military units have trained for at least 40 years (I remember the drills) for what was called "NBC Warfare" — Nuclear, Biological and Chemical. In 1968, an accident at a secret U.S. military laboratory killed off 3,000 sheep in Utah. That accident was reported to be one of several at the secret chemical weapons lab. U.S. officials could defend chemical weapons by the Cold War excuse that it was necessary to counter Soviet capabilities. When U.S. troops invaded Iraq in 2003, they were equipped and prepared for chemical warfare.

Chemical weapons are banned by international treaty, and their use has been limited in part because every possessor of chemical weapons fears retaliation in kind. Chemical weapons lead to horrible deaths, but other weapons, conventional, nuclear or otherwise, also lead to deaths. In World War II, millions of civilians died, nearly all of them from "conventional" weapons. They would be no more dead if chemical weapons had been used.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have argued for an attack on Syria as if Syria were the only country to use chemical weapons ever. That simply isn't the case. Treaties have banned chemical weapons since the 19th century, but those international agreements that chemical weapons are bad have not stopped the production or use of chemical weapons.

Does the U.S. still have chemical weapons? I hope someone will ask that question as Congress debates an attack on Syria.

What Syria has done to its own people is horrible, but it has been done before, and the United States did not feel a need to teach the perpetrators a lesson. In fact, in the Iran-Iraq War, the United States took Iraq's side.