Friday, June 21, 2019

Passing Hotel California

With a budget running into the tens of billions, at least, you would think the army would spring for comfortable travel buses to move soldiers from one fort to another. But no, there were about sixty of us crammed into a glorified school bus traveling from Fort Irwin, California to Fort Carson, Colorado. The best that can be said was that my tired comrades and I were on the very last leg of what had been a month and a half long field training exercise (FTX) at Fort Irwin involving the OPFOR (Opposing Forces) unit stationed at that god forsaking desert outpost.

See, this was the late 1980's when the United States and NATO still worried the Soviet Union and the satellite nations of the Warsaw Pack would invade Western Europe in an effort to bring down the free world. So several years before the big shiny star wearing boys inhabiting the Five Sided Funny Farm (Pentagon) decided to make the 177th Armored Brigade stand in for the commie bastards by having them go against other army units using Soviet tactics and vehicles modified to look like the enemy. And the best place to pursue these war games was a dusty, semi-forgotten post out in the Mojave Desert, Fort Irwin. The best way to describe the Fort Irwin National Training Center (generally called NTC) is that its isolation and open spaces would allow a degree of realism that would difficult to get anywhere else.

So for years poor suckers like me would be loaded on buses and planes, if they were far enough away, and sent to NTC to have their asses thoroughly waxed by the OPFOR in the hopes that if the balloon ever went up we make the Soviets regret being born. Truth be told, while I shudder at the idea of having to go through that bullshit again, for the twenty-something version of myself back then playing combat soldier was fun. Another part of these deployments I did enjoy was being able to see the brilliance of the Milky Way at night since we were so far away from any major city lights.

So after what felt like an eternity living in sand, eating MRE's, and trying to avoid the irate wildlife like coyotes and snakes my unit was on the road again heading home. One particular trip had us leaving NTC late in the evening taking a route that would have us drive partially through Nevada. As the hours passed, we left all signs of civilization behind us and hit a stretch of road that would have been perfect for an X-Files episode or any other show involving UFO's and those little gray aliens.

Being glorified school buses there were no reading lights nor televisions so once the sun went down we all pretty much passed out. Except me, I was dealing with a minor knee injury that made sleeping difficult so I just zoned in and out enjoying the quiet. I don't remember the scenery outside the bus but given that we were in southern California the one thing I can say for certain was that desolate and dark would be the best description.

It was after midnight when we moved into an area with hills and we began shifting in our seats as the bus driver made his adjustments to stay on the road. While the swaying was minor it was really bothering my knee, so I was fully awake when we suddenly came upon something we didn't expect to see. One minute we're on an empty road in near pitch-black darkness and the next there is a blinding light ahead of us. This of course woke everyone up and after our eyes adjusted we were able to see what was a casino resort just across the Nevada state line.

After weeks living in the desert like monks this outpost of obvious gambling decadence and carnal sin about drove my fellow twenty-somethings and myself crazy. The parking lot was full of high class sports cars and as we passed the main building there were dozens of hot women outside dressed in tight, skimpy attire. Thinking about it now, it's a testament to our discipline and dedication as soldiers that we didn't mutiny, take control of the bus, and head straight to the casino's front door. Frankly, I'm surprised no one simply opened the two emergency doors on the bus and jumped out.

As the casino receded behind us we all calmed down and dozed back off to sleep. The lights of the casino stayed visible for far longer than seemed reasonable but steadily dwindled as our distance increased. Still nursing my knee, I watched it until it was no more than a bright star on the horizon.

The next morning my fellow soldiers and I all talked as if the casino was a mutual dream. As if our pent up desires all mashed together and created a place where our fantasies became real. That was decades ago with me now a totally different person. I have absolutely no desire to visit any casino, and being married and in my fifties makes any fantasies of young gorgeous women in tight, skimpy attire utterly ridiculous. But I've got to admit every time I hear the song Hotel California by the Eagles I feel a little of that ancient energy of a younger man.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Living On A Dangerous Edge

Maybe it was just a Southern thing, but when I was growing up most adults I knew held a certain awe for The Andy Griffith Show. For those who don't know, The Andy Griffith Show was a sitcom situated in the fictional North Carolina town of Mayberry that ran from 1960 to 1968. The central character was the county sheriff, named Andy Taylor, who each episode shared down home, commonsense wisdom as he managed the collection of harmless oddballs who were his friends and neighbors.

It was one of those shows that now would be called “family friendly” since there wasn't any foul language said, nothing in the way of sex was ever hinted, and had no scenes involving car chases or gun fights. In fact, the episodes usually contained a strong moral point about honesty, humility, compassion, patience, diligence, fidelity, and charity. The type of content that good, salt of the earth country life-loving folk use to eat up before they started worshiping the Orange Human Slug. You know, the slug who has had several marriages and multiple adulterous affairs, with one involving a porn star while his current wife was pregnant or had just given birth. To detail the slug's other character failings and abnormal behaviors is beyond the scope of this post.

Salt of the earth country life-loving folks still regularly watch the Andy Griffith reruns that persist down here in South Carolina almost tenuously as kudzu. The trouble though is that while these folks still admire the show, the principles Sheriff Taylor lived and shared on the show have been largely forgotten. Case in point was Sheriff Taylor's views on why he didn't carry a gun.

While a fictional character, Sheriff Taylor felt that if he carried a weapon the respect he received from other people most likely originated in the fear of what he could do with that weapon. A sentiment that once did have a basis in real life. Back in the 1980's I had a full-fledged gun-nut period where carrying a weapon for protection seemed like a good idea. No, I didn't live in a dangerous neighborhood nor did I carry around lots of money.

By that time popular culture had become flush with movies and television shows where the heroes regularly used weapons of many types to save the day. I admit comparing the action movie heroes of the 1980's with a sitcom sheriff from the 1960's is an apples and oranges situation, but the contrast between the two is important. All the big action movies characters solve their problems with the heavy use of firearms and lots of ammunition. If any of the other movie characters dare to mention diplomacy or even talking with the “enemy” they are portrayed as either evil sympathizers or hopelessly naive.Yes, the scenarios most action movies played with involved foreign armies or terrorist groups which logically required the use of military style weapons. The end result though was still the cultural acceptance of all problems can be resolved by the unlimited use of heavy weapons and unlimited ammunition.

The remarkable thing is that during the 1980's, I remember numerous people telling me I had a serious mental problem for wanting to buy one of those “Rambo guns.” I was repeatably told by hunters such assault weapons had no use outside of the military. The comparison one person used was that hunting with an assault weapon was like taking a sledgehammer to a fly. That if I absolutely had to have a something to shoot it was best just to purchase a simple bolt action deer rifle. But no, I had become hypnotized to the glamour of how assault weapons were presented in those movies. I wanted to save democracy from those damn commie bastards and to accomplish that task it was commonsense to purchase something designed for such extreme times.

Adding a touch of nuance to my gun-nut delusion, during those years I was serving in the active duty army as opposed to most of those wackos who somehow never found the local recruiter. Luckily, not long later I stumbled into scuba diving and got my certification and equipment paid for by selling my assault rifle and the semi-automatic pistol I had bought as well. It's funny now, but in the space of eighteen months I went from a delusional Rambo to a wannabe Jacque Cousteau. Hindsight being what it is in my book, I'm calling that one a win.

In my opinion a type of movie that is far worse than improbable action heroes saving democracy from nasty low-IQ commies are the revenge orientated vigilante motion pictures. The standard scenario for these films first had some normal, usually middle-class guy losing his family to a gang of thugs. The next act in the movie had the police unable or unwilling to go after the bad guys for lack of evidence or because of legal maneuvering by the defense lawyer. This then forces the main character to buy a gun and then seek revenge, which in the movie is portrayed as a form of justice. The final act of the movie has all the bad guys gruesomely killed by the main character who usually then disappears into background noise of society.

In my opinion such vigilante movies helped breed a misplaced idea that civilians should carry a weapon to protect themselves from the human sharks lurking in the shadows waiting for a chance to attack those they love. Yes, it's a long, clumsy jump from watching a crappy revenge movie to believing society is falling apart. But I've seen people make just that conclusion every time a shooting is hyped up on the nightly news.  Their immediate reaction is to say a "good guy" with a gun could have ended the tragedy before it happened. Their thinking based on the simplistic idea that proper training and years of experience, such as what police go through is overblown. And since the 1970's we've gone from a single gunman on a subway making the news to military-style assaults on elementary and high schools becoming almost commonplace. While "good guys" with guns have appeared on rare occasion, their success is more a factor of luck. Sooner or later some armed idiot with good intentions is going to get more people killed trying to bring down the wacko shooting up a department store or school.

As you can probably guess for me the common factor in all this is not just the normalization of civilians owning the type of weapons that once didn't go beyond the police and military. It's the bizarre attitude that some people truly believe their safety in a supermarket or walking down a street can only be assured by them carrying a firearm. Such people do not just relish the idea of pulling out their high caliber toy and blowing away another human being, its become a status symbol. The weapon they carry signifies their place in society, not their education, accomplishments, or even money.  

Yes, there are plenty of dangerous places in this country. But the extent to which this sickness permeates the country has long since crossed the line of rationality and now firmly resides in the psychotic. For these people respect now come only from their ability to inflect carnage on other human beings.

It boggled the mind to see how far we've fallen from sanity when it comes to guns. No, I am not saying civilian ownership of pistols and non-military weapons should be banned. Such a proposal isn't workable and would just further polarize this country, maybe to the point the wackos would start their long promised “Second Amendment Remedies” for us liberals. On the other hand, a free and healthy society cannot function when it is based on fear. Sooner or later the lowbrow masses will want to use their weapons to correct what they perceive as the unfairness of society. 

With television and movies a hodgepodge of remakes and reboots, I cannot imagine anyone seriously attempting bringing back The Andy Griffith Show. The commonsense wisdom the fictional Sheriff Taylor displayed with his refusal to carry a weapon is like something from ancient times. Now we are left with this as our reality: 

We can only hope this sick era passes quickly.

Monday, June 3, 2019

The Plastics You Don't See

Despite nearly three years of Trump occupying the White House and his accompanying assaults on human intelligence, dignity, and compassion, I still harbor some hope for our nation and species in general. Call me naive or simply a stupid wide-eyed fool, but having been raised on Gene Roddenberry's vision –Star Trek – I like the idea of a matured and rational humanity taking responsibility for our past actions and working to correct them. However, the scope of that task, even now, makes me have my doubts.

One example of humans trying to do the right thing is how many of us come together across the globe to cleanup beaches, namely to collect and properly dispose of used plastics. Unfortunately, even though the organization Ocean Conservancy has organized efforts that resulted in over 300 million pounds of plastics being removed, it truly is just the tip of the iceberg. See while beach cleanups are worthy efforts studying the effects of plastics that have washed ashore on remote islands shows we have a more difficult problem.

Most plastics no not decay into components parts like organic materials. Ultraviolet light from the sun and wave action does eventually cause plastics to breakdown, but just into smaller pieces that accumulate in sand on beaches or stay in the ocean. Yeah, that's still a huge problem with major repercussions for all lifeforms. The accumulation of these tiny pieces, called microplastics, makes it easier for water to flow through beach sand changing the rate it dries out. This changes the temperature of the sand which directly affects the incubation period for sea turtle eggs. Colder temperatures of turtle nests directly alters the sex ratio of these animals throwing a monkey wrench into breeding cycles.

While most people couldn't give a rip about an imbalance in the number of male and female sea turtles, given the complex and connected nature of marine ecosystems changing the chemistry of that community will most likely have further damaging repercussions. Ones that will most certainly affect human health and the overall food chain.

To get a further idea on the effects of microplastics, scientists traveled to remote islands free of large numbers of humans to study how it accumulates. The Cocos Island group, a chain of 27 small atolls is often advertised as Australia's unspoiled paradise. These researchers took samples of beach trash from twenty-five beaches from seven islands collecting organic and plastic waste that had washed ashore. Based on sampling, they estimated that string of islands contained 414 million pieces of waste weighing 238 tons with microplastics making 93 percent of that amount.

Still you might be wondering what does a trashy beach mean to me? And if these tiny plastics continue to breakdown does that mean they will become too small too matter? Besides simply decency and respect for the environment, keeping a clean beach means coastal areas can continue to draw tourists and make money for the businesses located there. For those who chiefly worry about such things, like irate a-holes who whine about their tax dollars and people on welfare that should be enough. The trouble though is that all ecosystems are connected and if you abuse and destroy just one facet of the environment enough the others will eventually feel the effects.

For those who slept through high school biology that not only means the livelihood of millions of people but ultimately the health of us all.

Read National Geographic's:


A new study reveals the dirty secret of beach cleanups: Much of a given beach’s plastic is tiny and buried.