It's Not Pure, But It Floats

My fellow octogenarian coworker and I were returning yesterday from part-time jobs inspecting flexible couplings for Helical Products in Santa Maria. I spotted what looked like a large balloon in the sky several miles north of us.  I thought it was probably an anchored balloon advertising a local car dealer, but as we got closer it turned out to be a Met Life blimp.  So, I was partly right and partly wrong. It was a balloon of sorts and it was advertising, but it was neither local nor tethered.
 
It brought to mind my second year in Mrs. Downing's combination first/second grade class at Cutler Elementary School. It was a time when hopes for rigid, lighter-than-air craft were running high.  The Macon and the Akron had followed the unfortunate Shenandoah in capturing the nation's imagination.  It was also a time of great economic hardship, and these huge craft gave people something to take their minds off of their troubles.  It was sometime in 1932 or early 1933. The sky was overcast and gloomy with fog. We left the warmth of our classroom one morning and walked several blocks south near where the town's one railroad track crossed the north-south corridor of Palm Avenue. We were told to look south and watch the sky, which we all did. No one told us what to expect, so all of us were curious as to the purpose of our venture.  Curious, but unquestioning. We were glad just to be out of class.
 
A round shape became visible in the clouds several miles south of us. The shape grew larger, then veered to the west. We could see clearly what it was: a dirigible, sometimes called a zeppelin. I can't remember if it was the Akron or the Macon, but something tells me it was the Macon. The fog never lifted, so it remained a large gray shape as it moved slowly across our field of vision, disappearing into the western clouds. It is a picture imprinted in my obviously impressionable mind. The Macon crashed off Point Sur a few months, weeks or days later, and the Akron followed suit a short time later off the New Jersey coast.
 
Dirigibles proved too costly, too often the victims of bad weather to be suitable for expanded use. Perhaps the Hindenburg disaster finished them off in the minds of most people. Our dirigibles, however, did not face the same danger as the German models that used flammable gas such as hydrogen. We had a corner on helium production, and we weren't sharing — at least not with Germany. The smaller, less expensive blimp did become a useful tool for the Navy during World War II, however. It was well suited for submarine spotting, and was used with our convoys throughout the war. Yet, by the end of hostilities, our newer ships were much faster and had a tendency to outrun the blimps. So, once again, they lost much of their usefulness. After the war, there was a brief period of renewed hope for the viability of dirigibles in the transport of passengers back and forth to Europe and other places of interest. I can't remember what happened to these dreams, but probably the development of the airlines put the idea finally to rest. As planes grew larger and faster, and air travel more common, the notion of slow blimp passage, I suppose, lost its charm.
 
It's a bit of a digression, but I just remembered that the First Radioman on our crew — I was second — had served in Lighter-Than-Air (LTA) service before being court martialed. The pilot on his blimp got airsick easily and had to gulp down extremely hot coffee to settle his stomach. The skipper, it seems, was not well liked. My first radio added some powdered tobacco to the coffee causing the pilot to throw up all over himself after gulping down the mixture. There were accusations of trying to poison him. My crewmate served no time in the brig, but he lost a couple of stripes on his sleeve and was, it seems, drummed out of the LTA squadron.
 
I had forgotten all this until a picture on the Internet jogged my memory. I also remembered that the Empire State Building was built so that dirigibles could anchor to its peak. Once stationed there, they could float and turn in the wind, but they were still a long way off the ground. It was a large step indeed from the gondola to the nose. How they managed to dismount is a mystery to me, and one that I will probably never know the answer to.

Enough Already

Representative John Murtha of Pennsylvania has proposed that our troops be brought home from Iraq within six months. This proposal, coming from a consistent hawk and supporter of the military, brought out the worst of the attack dog mentality from the White House and its minions, though they have since backed off con­siderably. Apparently, they decided that neither Dubya, whose daddy got him into a safe haven for the well connected, nor Dick, who demurred and was deferred, are qualified to question the courage or patriotism of a decorated Marine Corps veteran. Murtha's consistent support of the military during his decades-long tenure in the House give considerable credulity to his attack. Dick, the original IHOP ("I had other priorities,") has now turned his vitriol on the Senators who question the honesty of the claims that took us to war in the first place, a war decided upon before they came to power.
 
In the House of Representatives, a different twist was added to the administration's usual tactic of changing the subject. Representative Hunter, a Republican, put forward a version of Murtha's call, and this version was debated instead of the one that should have been on the docket. Of course, all the rhetoric was aimed at Murtha under the guise of another topic. In my opinion, Murtha should have let the Republicans debate their own proposition and waited until they wanted to address his recommendation before becoming engaged in the discussion himself. The Republicans brought every military veteran to the podium they could muster to disagree with him. (There aren't many veterans in the House in either party.) It was a lot like their nominating conventions, where they crowd every moderate onto the lectern, keeping the true leaders of the party under wraps. This particular exercise in futility ended as expected, with a no vote.
 
Dick Cheney made his name as Secretary of Defense during the first Gulf War, before we knew how comfortable he was dangling his legs off the right edge of the flat earth. Now, this demurrer turned war hawk is the chief attack dog for the president. His statements before the war are being strongly questioned, and it is all too easy to see why he is attacking so viciously those calling his lies lies. These questions should have been raised at least two years ago, and the failure to do so then showed a real lack of backbone.
 
Murtha has also lifted the curtain to reveal the best kept secret of the war: the maimed and wounded youth who will suffer the rest of their lives for this war of choice. Pictures of flag-draped coffins tell part of the cost, but once the lid closes it is difficult to picture the bodies of our dead. Those who have given up limbs, eyes, hands, feet, genitalia, and much of life to roadside bombs should remind us forever. May we never forget.
 
One final thing Murtha may have done is to short circuit the administration's plan to bring home the troops in time for next November's election. He has put forth the arguments they themselves might have used to justify a long anticipated political move. The administration might have said that our military has done all that it can do, and we must leave before we are seen as occupiers. Now that argument has been taken. No one hates the truth quite so much as those who defend and depend upon a lie.

The Bully's Pulpit

I have just finished reading Jimmy Carter's new book, Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis. Before I finished the book I took time off to see the documentary Good Night and Good Luck about the courageous battle Edward R. Murrow fought in his capacity of newsman against Senator Joseph McCarthy. I must say, the two did not seem unrelated. The McCarthy era, as it came to be known, was as dark a period as I have experienced in my eighty years on earth. It was a  period of irrational fear during the early days of the cold war, focusing on communism. It followed on the heels of the most cohesive time in this nation's history: World War II. It amounted to a time of national paranoia not seen before or since — at least until now. For those too young to remember, it was a time when being accused of being a communist, or of having communist ties of any kind, was as damaging as if one had been accused of molesting a child.  Guilt by accusation was the order of the day, and the junior senator from Wisconsin played it to the hilt.
 
Jimmy Carter's book addresses the real moral issues we face today, particularly with the current administration. I could not hope to compare credentials with President Carter as a scholar or practitioner, either religious or secular, but I will say, nonetheless, how heartening it is to see how often we see eye to eye on the problems we are facing today. President Carter's multiple roles in doing good around the world put most of us to shame, certainly me. I could claim it's because he's older, but I doubt that one year could explain it. More likely seventy points on the IQ scale and a huge difference in motivation are to blame. Suffice it to say, he is a man I greatly respect and admire. He has done a lot of praying, but not on street corners. Instead he has worked to improve the lives of the forgotten, whether in Africa or the rest of the world, including here at home. A true humanitarian.
 
He sees the real moral issues as being the exploitation and pollution of the environment, the disregard for the poor in order to benefit the rich, and dishonesty in government. The costly war of choice we are currently fighting was unnecessary — and he says so. The debt we are building is a national disgrace. He discusses the real attributes of greatness and great nations, and clearly there is a total mismatch with our current leadership.
 
Fear is a valuable asset in many circumstances. It can keep us alive when we might otherwise be killed. But, fear attached to jingoism is a deadly combination, as many people are beginning to realize. Was it fear of being called unpatriotic or soft on defense that caused most of the Democrats in the Senate and probably most of the Republicans to give war powers to the president? Was it not similar to the soft on communism tag that was used in the fifties and sixties to disparage one's political enemies?
 
Now we are being told that to criticize the lies used to take us to war is unpatriotic and demoralizing to our troops. What nonsense. It's time to demand some answers from the current leadership in Washington, and it's good to see that Republicans are also making that demand. It's time for the moderates in Washington and in the hustings to demand some sensible cooperation from our leaders, and to stop the fiscal hemorrhaging tied to current policies. This is a nation that can make sacrifices if shown the need. Our nation's balance sheet should suffice to prove that point.

Look Who's Talking

Dick six-deferments-or-was-it-seven-I-had-other-priorities Cheney came out of his secure location recently to back up the president's argument that it was unpatriotic to say that the lies we were told to get us into war were untrue. He called those who say such things spineless, or words that mean much the same thing. When terms like that are applied to the context of fighting a war, he is something of an expert.
 
In his speech Dick used the same intonation of unquestioned authority he used when admonishing Moses for dropping and breaking the first set of stone tablets. 
 
Most people need to use both sides of their mouths to deliver such fiction. Dick was able to deliver the whole speech without moving his lips at all. Fortunately for him, there was a fire extinguisher handy to cool his pants after he finished. His buttocks sustained only second-degree burns.

I Am Not A Crook

President Bush has taken the offensive against those who intimate that he cheated on his pathway to war. Personally, I have always found him offensive, but that is neither here nor there. He is using the most familiar of his defenses, basically that questioning his ethics and/or honesty is unpatriotic, because it demoralizes our troops and encourages the enemy. You get the same results by questioning any of his decisions since the 9/11 attacks. Either you're with him or you're unpatriotic.
 
He has accused the Democrats of attempting to re-write history. Oh, that we could. Those of us who opposed the war from its inception would love nothing more than to have the chance to replay that scene. Since the lies we were fed never sufficiently justified war, it would be nice to have one more chance to vote. The only part of history that needs rewriting is the vote by our Democratic Senators that gave Bush a free hand. No matter how they have tried to justify it, the real need right now is to admit that the vote was a mistake. That admission is long overdue.
 
The attempts to blame the war on faulty intelligence has always rung hollow. I am reminded of the story of a man being interviewed for City Manager. When asked by a councilmen what two plus two equaled, he shut the door and asked in a whisper, "What would you like it to be?" I think that sums up the behavior of former CIA director George Tenet and his employees. After a while, it became obvious to them that there was only one "correct" answer to the administration's questions. 
 
Only those with short memories will buy the rewritten history defense. The administration spokesmen were quite successful in convincing the majority of our lightly informed population that Iraq had an involvement in the 9/11 attack. It was never said specifically, but it was inferred over and over again.  Any reference to the attack, and there were many, included some mention of Iraq, or some reference to Saddam Hussein. Polls have shown that a sizable majority of Americans believed the hijackers were Iraqis. Quite an accomplishment, considering the publicity they and their true countries of origin received.

Let us hope that the offensive against those who question will be a much harder sell.

Pat Robertson, God's American Spokesman

It has been truly said that Pat Robertson opens his mouth only to change feet. Having assumed the Old Testament role of pronouncing God's wrath on a people, we may expect the catastrophes to begin in Dover, the Pennsylvania town that ousted most of its school board this week for pushing Intelligent Design. FEMA will be glad to know there is one less town to worry about. After all, these people will have invited the hurricanes and tornadoes on themselves.
 
What seems to be missing in this battle over Intelligent Design is the realization that they accept Darwin's and others' theories of evolution. They have been tweaked a bit, but they recognize the process. That is quite a turnabout for those who crave another Scopes monkey trial. I have no personal argument against the concept of Intelligent Design, as long as it is not passed off as science. It seems entirely appropriate in a context of church activities and beliefs. It might even be an appropriate topic for a Philosophy class. But, unless those who espouse it welcome the scrutiny of scientists, it is not science. True science never stops investigating, never stops looking for alternative explanations of physical phenomena. It continually adjusts its insights to admit new discoveries. I don't think something based on faith will fit that description, even with Pat Robertson's support.
 
When I see Pat on television I am both reminded and convinced of Hamlet's remark, "That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain."

Peace, Brother

I see that the IRS has been unleashed on an Episcopal Church in Pasadena for speaking out against the war in Iraq. The timing may have been the decisive factor, since the sermon was delivered just two days before the 2004 election. Karl Rove has been known to keep an eye out for such dissenters. These worshippers of the Prince of Peace were threatened with the loss of their tax exempt status for speaking out against war.

How ironic. 
 
I have not heard of any such threats being raised against churches promoting Proposition 73 in today's California election. (Written notification and consent of parents before abortions involving minors.) I guess the only reason to call in the IRS is when the plans and beliefs of the current administration are questioned. Perhaps tax threats are used only in cases of dissent. Someone should tell Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell to be careful what they profess. It might be a good idea to check with Karl or Dick before taking a stand.

Unions Torn Asunder

Unions in America are in real trouble.  They have lost much of their membership. Many deserted their fellow employees in 1980 when they voted for Ronald Reagan, one of the more successful union busters. Oddly enough, the real problem for union leaders has been their success. They were able, over the last half of the twentieth century, to gain wage scales high enough to allow their members to join the burgeoning middle class. But, the self-made man mentality convinced workers that they had somehow pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps and no longer needed the strength of numbers.
 
We now have a Wal-Mart economy, and many of the hard won gains of the last century are being lost as new agreements are forced upon workers. Outsourcing has sent many jobs overseas, and many more are on the way. The situation in third world countries is much like it was in the United States of the nineteenth century — the day of the robber barons.  Rockefeller, Carnegie, Gould, and others of the industrial era gave as little as they wished to their employees, and it was just such a culture that fostered the unionization process.
 
There is little that unions can do domestically until things change in other parts of the world. They need desperately to expand their efforts overseas, because until the workers in India, Bangladesh and other exploited countries realize they are being used, nothing will get better here. Until then, things are likely to get worse. Perhaps they should send copies of Markham's The Man With The Hoe to workers and organizers overseas.

Alito, Scalia Light?

Much has been made recently of the Catholic majority on the Supreme Court that will result if and when Alito is confirmed. This is not particularly worrisome for me, since I can't get pregnant. It does, however, represent quite a change since Al Smith and JFK, but even that is OK with me. My only worry is that they may share a philosophy as well as a religion with Pat Buchanan.
 
I'm sure that Roe v. Wade is high in the minds of our Senators, and also in the minds of a majority of our women. Other than Alito's Pennsylvania decision, I see little to guide us in that arena. But, there are other things in his portfolio of decisions that may be just as important to all of us. He has sided consistently with big business against the individual, and that is particularly worrisome, given the mentality of the current administration and the Republican led legislature. It carries over into the misuse of our natural resources. He does not seem sympathetic to efforts directed at sustaining our environment or at preserving our natural wonders. We don't need another guy who suffers from a short term profit mentality. Harriet, where are you?

The Hell You Say

Last night I watched a segment on CNN about churches scaring the hell out of teenagers. It seems they are setting up houses of horrors depicting Hell and its promised pain. The scenes, or short plays, are straight out of Dante's Inferno, featuring selected "sins" from the modern day world. It follows the political and emotional agenda of the right wing of evangelical Christianity. The scenario is basically the same as the discredited Scared Straight program which featured hardened criminals yelling at potential criminals. Many of the youth in the CNN segment were left in emotional tatters from this religious experience and ready to accept salvation. It's a modern day version of the sawdust trail of decades ago.
 
The preacher who put this program together, and who continues to write the dialogue for it, is planning to publish his work in book form. He expects to turn a profit from this exercise in misery and fear. I guess that is, after all, the American way and I can't blame him for wanting to make a buck, but I prefer Stephen King's horror works. They make no religious claims — just entertainment and profit.