Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day 2010

For the past several years, I've been more affected by this weekend than earlier in my life. Perhaps it is the tendency for us as we get older to look back over our lives to try to figure out where in hell we are today. Or perhaps its just a normal tendency on special days to reminiscence about friends and acquaintances from earlier in our lives. 
I looked in a roster of classmates to see which of us had died on active duty and tried to remember them. Because many of them died in Vietnam or in the 60s, I remember them as pictures in our yearbook, young, fresh faces, eager to get out into the Air Force and fly. When I hear about a classmate today whom I've not seen in years, the yearbook picture pops into my mind making the fact that we graduated 50 years ago seem somehow wrong.
When I'm thinking like this, my first thoughts always go to Hal, a classmate and Kansas farm boy. We were on the fencing team together for four years. Hal captained the foil team and won just about every match he had. We also went to pilot training together down in Mission, Texas. His wife, Dee, was allergic to cats, and they "borrowed" an ocelot for a weekend to see if she was allergic to ocelots. On Monday she looked like someone had punched her eyes a bunch of times. No ocelot for Hal. Hal flew O-1s like I did, and he got killed in 1966 when artillery he was directing hit his bird. 
Then I think of Bill, who lived directly across the hall from me our Doolie year. Freshmen at the Academy are called Doolies--don't ask me why, they just are. Bill was from New Jersey, and was a state sprint champ in track. Whenever we had to fall out in the hallway for some kind of formation, I always wound up staring into Bill's eyes. That got us in trouble more than once when we couldn't keep from laughing. His B-57 got shot down in Vietnam in 1966. I was stationed at the Academy then, and Bill was one of the first of many I served as pallbearer for. His funeral was especially hard because I knew him so well. And I had orders to Vietnam in my hand at the time.
Then there's Tom, a California kid who was in my squadron at the Academy for two years. We became good friends, and he was a sword bearer at my wedding. Tom flew F-4s and was shot down in 1967 over North Vietnam, while I was in Nam. He was declared MIA and carried that way on the rolls until 1979, when he was finally declared dead. His was an especially tragic story because his wife couldn't stand the strain and committed suicide, leaving three kids as orphans. 
Dave wasn't a classmate, but was a major I was stationed with at Quang Ngai. He had only been in our detachment of 6 FACs for a couple of months. He had a bad habit of flying too low. I got a call that a Vietnamese Army unit needed a FAC, so I woke him at 6:30 to fly the mission. At 8:00 when I walked to our ops room, our radio operator came running out to tell me that Dave had been shot down. His O-2 crashed into a command Huey as it dove out of control, killing another seven Army troops. His death was really difficult for me since I was assigned to pack up all his belongings, read through all the letters he had to make sure none would be particularly upsetting to his wife, and send his personal effects to her. 
And there are the many Army and Marine grunts I supported who were killed. I knew a few of the special forces guys I supported out of Quang Ngai, but most of the grunts were just someone on the ground, hunkered down behind a paddy dike or tree line. On one particularly bad mission a patrol from a special forces camp was hit with a command detonated mine--today it would be called an IED--and had four dead and nine wounded. I couldn't get air support, so I fired marking rockets at the enemy until they finally pulled back and I could get helicopters in to evacuate the dead and wounded. That mission is the event that inspired me, many years later, to write this poem. The poem appeared this year in Voicings from the High Plains.
Across the highway, red 
and yellow smoke drifts, 
from a green hillside 
where trainees play at war. 
Memory jumps 
thirty years … 
He circles the tiny plane, looks 
at the green hillside, 
at a hole 
blasted in yellow clay, 
soaked red with blood, 
draped with arms and legs.
Death snaps hungrily at him,
at helpless men below.
No bombs, no shells, 
no help to pry open 
the savage jaws 
of ambush. 
Cursing, crying, he watches friends 
die … 
Tires jolt off the road, and time jerks back. 
He stops the car and rubs eyes that sting 
from red and yellow smoke.
© 2009 Art Elser
There are many others, but these are the faces or situations that come to me at times like this when I think about what Memorial Day should mean. So today I give thanks for their sacrifices and for my own good fortune at being here at my laptop, writing, 40 years later. 

Friday, May 28, 2010

Another tough day at the office

The past couple of weeks have been futile as far as writing anything. Seems there are a host of little things in the yard and in life that have called me away from the computer. Even when at the computer, the siren call of other "stuff" has kept me from being very creative. This morning, for example, Kath asked if I was going to get the fountain set up today. And, are you going to get the swamp cooler set up?
Yesterday serves well as an illustration of how things have been going. I started the morning with good writing intentions. But, as I fed Principessa on the back steps, I noticed dark blue stains on the cement patio, the result of water dripping through a leaking patio roof. I have to walk past those stains every time I go into the back yard for anything, including walking to the garage. So out comes the CLR, the stiff-bristled broom, and I hook up the hose. A couple of hours later, I'm finally finished. 
I surveyed my handiwork and decided I might as well take the covers off the patio furniture, put them away for the summer, and put the furniture in its accustomed spots on the patio. An hour later, I decide I might as well take the protective tarp off the fountain base while I'm cleaning up the patio. Of course the cover was a mess from mud, leaves, and the crap that falls out of the air that we breathe every day. 
Once the cover was off, I noticed that the basin was full of algae laced water, so I had to clean it. One of the few advantages of having taken science in high school is that I remember how to siphon water using a length of plastic tubing--or did I learn that from … No, I'd better not go there.
After another hour, I finally take the dog for a walk, have some lunch, and take the dog for her quarterly grooming. While she's being groomed, I run to the battery store to pick up a new battery for my laptop. The battery cover is black. My MacBook is white. I complain to the store manager who says all their batteries come in black. He says the battery cover is at the bottom of the laptop and won't show. Obviously a PC person with a PC person's sense of style--NONE! I rationalized by saying I can always tell anyone who asks about the black rectangle on the bottom of my MacBook that it is a multicultural laptop. 
But the day ended beautifully, both literally and figuratively. I conducted a full-moon wildflower walk out on the prairie in the evening with a dozen and a half people. The recent rains and warm weather have conspired to bring out lots of prairie wildflowers. Here are some of the wildflowers now in bloom. 
The sand lily is one of my favorite prairie flowers. It is usually the first flower to push up into the early spring. For me is is like the pasque flower in more wooded areas. Their brilliant white petals are a welcome change from the brown of the winter and early spring prairie. I really enjoy finding my first one, particularly if has pushed up solo. Something about a single brave flower pushing into a iffy environment really captures my soul. 
The western wallflower is growing profusely on the prairie this year because of a combination of cool weather and more than average moisture. We always have them, but they are usually more sparse. Parts of the prairie, particularly around prairie dog colonies where there is lots of disturbed soils and room to grow, are blanketed with these brilliant gold blooms. 
The stemless evening primrose has appeared this year in bunches I've not seen in previous years out at the Plains Center. These flowers are about four inches across and just barely hold their heads above the ground. I found one patch of them the other day that must have had several dozen groups of three or four blooms. When the day really gets hot, these flowers close to preserve their moisture.
This tiny flower is filaree or storksbill. The flower is barely a quarter inch across and, like most prairie wildflowers hugs the ground. They are so tiny that it is easy to walk right past them without noticing them. We've had a patch of them near the nature center in the past, and I've found myself walking right over them, sometimes stepping on them, before seeing them. Talk about dainty flowers.
This flower is easily recognized as a daisy, but it is only about a half inch across. It is just appearing on the prairie and where I only found a couple a week ago, last night we found a fairly large patch of them, perhaps two dozen, with buds showing many more to come. Notice again how close to the ground these flowers grow. Prairie flowers are assaulted by heat, sun, wind, and dryness. The grow close to the ground and have leaves with little surface area to reduce moisture loss due to the harsh conditions. They close up at night, opening with the sun in the morning.
We accidentally discovered the first of this copper or globe mallow I've seen this year. We had walked off the trail to look at another flower and someone asked me what this one was. It is a flower that will be found frequently on the prairie and in the foothills. It has a more common name of cowboy's delight. I've heard two different stories for that name. One is that the petals of the flower, when crushed, help relieve the pain of saddle sores. The other is that early cowboys thought it was a cure for syphilis. Take your choice on it. 
Neither story diminishes the beauty of this bright flower. Perhaps it is called cowboy's delight because spotting a cluster of them delighted the cowboy who has been riding a hot, dusty, and colorless range all day. That's the reason for its common name I like best.
We walked about a mile out on the prairie to a riparian area that has several large cottonwoods in it. Along with wildflowers, I wanted to show off our great-horned owl family, and sure enough an adult, one juvenile, and one other I couldn't determine age on showed themselves to the group.
Here's a picture of a parent on the left and one of the chicks on the right. I took this picture last week. Notice the chick doesn't yet have the "horns" the parent has and its feathers are downy. Last night it was just a bit dark for much more than identifying the large shape as an owl. I'm wondering if the owls are using that hole in the tree, where a large branch has broken off, for their nest.
As we walked, we also heard and saw meadowlarks, a couple of killdeer, and two nighthawks who flew over us calling and gobbling down insects. As we walked back, it was past the 8:34 moonrise time, but we could only see a faint glow behind some thin clouds where the moon was. Finally, as we neared the end of the hike, the moon showed herself, gold, round, and breathtaking. We smiled and laughed about what a perfect night we'd had. For me, it was a perfect end to a day that started out not so perfectly. Again, retirement sure is tough! And these hikes out into a full moon. Really tough! But someone has to do it.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Bird and the Machine

On Monday night I awoke at 1:30 AM thinking of images from an essay I often remember by Loren Eiseley. I couldn't remember the title, so I got out my copy of The Immense Journey and looked through the table of contents. The first title I came to that looked like it might be the right essay was "The Judgment of the Birds," but it wasn't the one I was looking for. The very next essay was "The Bird and the Machine," which was the one I wanted to reread. 
I enjoyed reacquainting myself with Eiseley. I had a long love affair with Eiseley's writings years ago, probably 20 years ago, when I read almost all of his books. He wrote several very popular books of essays, The Invisible Pyramid and The Immense Journey being my favorites. He also wrote some beautiful poetry, with the collection The Star Thrower being my favorite. 
Eiseley, a native of Lincoln, Nebraska, was an anthropologist and paleontologist who spent his early years scouring the high plains, mountains, and deserts of the Rocky Mountain region looking for signs of postglacial man. Many of his most lyrical essays reflect back to that period when he waxes nostalgic about those adventures. He sees how the event of those days now provide a basis from which to look at where man is in the early nuclear and computer age immediately after WW II and early cold war. He died in 1977. 
At the beginning of "The Bird and the Machine," Eiseley sits over his morning coffee and reads about how machines are becoming ever more capable and that in the near future machines and computers will surpass nature's abilities. Perhaps machines will even be capable of creating themselves. He goes on a philosophical journey about what he had seen in his younger days out in the vast western landscape of high plains and mountains.
I remembered two scenes from that essay as if I had read them yesterday, and read them with the joy of meeting an old friend after a long absence. The first scene has Eiseley sitting "through hours of a long afternoon" on a high ridge that looked out over "a waste of sand dunes." He sat there soaking up the sun and allowed himself to discover that after his many months of wandering in nature he had  begun "to live on the slower planes and to observe more readily what passed for life there."
He woke from his trance-like state to see that a large rattlesnake had coiled next to his boot, also sleeping in the sun. "We were both locked in the sleep-walking tempo of the earlier world, baking in the same high air and sunshine." Perhaps my recent meeting with a prairie rattler out at PCC inspired this memory that woke me. Or perhaps it was just some pleasant memory of reading this essay. 
Eiseley goes on discussing philosophically the several planes of time, as he calls them, from that slowness of the rattlesnake and man in the afternoon summer heat to the geological time of the weathering of rocks into fantastic shapes. Then he remembers a particular episode from that same adventure in which he suddenly found himself in the time plane of a pair of birds, a time plane much faster than man's.
Part of his mission during this time was to capture birds from the areas he searched because zoos and museums needed them. At dusk one day, he went into an abandoned stone cabin to see if he could capture a bird roosting there. He found a pair of sparrow hawks, today called kestrels, and managed to capture the male. (The smaller bird with the blue wings, lower on the branch.)
Eiseley ruminates on how that bird immediately and ferociously attacked his hand when he grabbed it, allowing his mate to escape. He looks at the bird and sees that it peers at him "with a fierce, almost indifferent glance. He neither gave nor expected mercy and something out of the high air passed from him to me, stirring a faint embarrassment."
He puts the bird into a small box for the night so it can't hurt itself. In the morning, he takes out the box and puts it on the grass of the high meadow they had spent the night in. He gets ready to build a cage, but then stops and takes the bird out and sets it on the grass. It sits there for a minute not realizing it is free to fly and then "he vanished with my eyes full on him, but without actually seeing even a premonitory wing beat."
The hawk climbed into a "towering emptiness of light and crystal that my eyes could scarcely bear to penetrate …. And from far up, ringing from peak to peak of the summits over us, came a cry of such unutterable and ecstatic joy that it sounds down across the years and tingles among the cups on my quiet breakfast table." The bird he has freed calls back and the two hawks "met in a great soaring gyre that turned to a whirling circle and dance of wings." 
Eiseley goes back to the idea in the article that machines will someday soon replace nature and ends with this very poetic image: " … on the other hand, the machine does not bleed, ache, hang for hours in the empty sky in a torment of hope to learn the fate of another machine, nor does it cry out with joy nor dance in the air with the fierce passion of a bird. Far off, over a distance greater than space, that remote cry from the heart of heaven makes a faint buzzing among my breakfast dishes and passes on and away."
How is that for pure poetry? Rereading that essay was well worth getting up at 1:30 AM to read. Eiseley's images and the cries of those birds are again in the vast blue sky of my mind

Monday, May 3, 2010

Silence of the antelope ...

Well, there weren't any lambs out on the prairie. I did my monthly critter count at the Plains Center this morning and it was really peaceful and restful for me. I needed some quiet because it seems as if the last several weeks have been hectic. Unfortunately, all that hecticnicity didn't involve getting much done.

I had walked for about three hours and my legs were feeing the inactivity my bout with sciatica has caused, so I decided to stop for lunch rather than hike through it. I was near the Adelia Wells Homestead, one of three that were established back around 1887. Ms Wells, who was a widow, came out west with two sons and set up a homestead on 160 acres. She was unable to "prove" the homestead, build on it and make it a going agricultural concern, so she abandoned it.

All that's left are a couple of rolls of barbed wire, a few depressions in the ground, a galvanized pail with holes shot in it, and a rusting dish pan. I took some pictures to share. The first is a faintly visible wagon track. Nothing like those around Casper, but this was just one family.

This is what might have been a root cellar. It is only about 8x15x3, so it isn't big enough to have been the house, not for three people. I ate my lunch here, sitting on the lip of the depression at the right, hanging my feet into it.

At the far end of the depression you can see something with what looks like two antennae rising from it. That's an old galvanized bucket shot full of holes. Just out of sight at the left is a pan, probably what Adelia washed dishes in. The dish pan is below, along with a picture of a piece of a dish.

PCC has had an archeological survey of this site and the other two on the property to preserve this piece of American history on the prairie.

The rusted dish pan. I'm sure she had to haul water from the intermittent creek and pond about a quarter mile to the east. After hauling it, she had to heat it, often using buffalo or cow chips, and then use it to do dishes, clothes, and bathe. Not a life of luxury by any stretch of the imagination. It had to be very hard. Just think of the winters with the creek frozen and knee-deep snow.

One of Adelia's dishes. As I sat here eating lunch, I wondered what life must have been like for a widow with two sons, moving from who knows where back east and realizing she was failing as a homesteader. It could not have been very easy. I wondered how her husband died, on the trip or before.

She probably chose this site because it has a beautiful view to the west. You can see the top of Pikes Peak about 80 miles southwest, Mount Evans 40 miles directly west, and Longs Peak, 80 miles to the northwest. And, of course, all the Front Range in between and disappearing into Wyoming. She probably hated to leave this view. I know I hated to get up and continue my critter count.

As I finished my lunch, a coyote jogged by. I think a wagon load of PCC visitors probably spooked it from the riparian area to the east. As it jogged past me 25 yards away, it saw me and had an OMG look on its face. It laid back its ears and sprinted for cover over the ridge. It must have spooked three nice pronghorn bucks which sprinted back the way the coyote had come, about 75 yards from me. One stopped to check me out and decided that I was harmless and way to slow to be a danger.

I really enjoyed sitting there listening to just the meadowlarks and the wind in the grass. What a calming place to be. I didn't have to make a life there, just rest my old bones and walk back to my car to drive home. The sky was prairie blue with lenticular (lens shaped) clouds to the north and west near the mountains. The only non-natural sounds were the occasional airliner letting down into DIA and a flight of four F-16s out of Buckley.

As I continued my critter count, I suddenly became aware of a four-foot prairie rattler about a dozen feet off the dirt road I was hiking. It was a beautiful snake, stretched out in the sun getting warm. I suspect it heard me coming and was moving away when I got close and it froze. Here's my first view.

This critter doesn't look malnourished by any means. I think it's had his fill of mice and voles. The prairie dog pups are coming above ground, so they have been underground for six weeks or so, and this snake has probably dined on a few of them too.

Here's what it looked like after a few minutes. I inched closer to it, probably about six feet away, but talked to it, telling it how beautiful it was and that I meant no harm. It didn't talk back, but I suspect it knew I was not going to hurt it. It never rattled or coiled. It slowly pulled itself into a semi-coil and eyed me suspiciously. Had the rattle up and ready, but never used it. These rattlers are very non-aggressive.

Finally, as I walked away, 20 feet down the dirt road, it crawled in the opposite direction. It flowed into a bunch of grass about six inches high and a foot across. It disappeared into the grass and I thought perhaps it had a hole there. I walked back and around the opposite side from which it crawled and there it was all in a coil and looking at me. I wonder, given how difficult this critter is to see, how many times I've walked within a few feet of a rattler and never known it? Ya gotta love it!

So I enjoyed the silence of the antelope this morning and got some really cool pics to show for it. It really is a tough job, but someone has to do it. The pay as a volunteer is good too. ;-)