5/31/2010

"I lament that there are those who can learn no lesson of humanity ..."

It's Memorial Day 2010, and we're entangled in a couple of wars that seem to have no end. But as Harper's Weekly noted in its issue of August 17, 1861, war is pretty much the perpetual state of the human race.

"War is among the oldest historical facts," Harper's editors wrote. "The world has always been fighting more or less. It is the final appeal when ignorant men quarrel or when grave men differ. It is not necessary to hate your enemy, but it may be necessary to kill him. If a man sincerely thinks that he ought to cut your throat, he can not complain if you think with equal sincerity that he ought not."

Harper's published those words less than a month after the First Battle of Bull Run, the first major battle of the Civil War which had been an unmitigated disaster for Union forces.

For 234 years, young men and women have been sent to fight in America's name. Sometimes they've been put in harm's way for reasons that were questionable at best. Other times, they unquestionably preserved our way of life.

But regardless of the reasons, young lives were cut short. So here are some photos of the Americans who have gone off to fight since the Civil War.


The photo above, from the Library of Congress, shows unidentified Confederate soldiers who were captured during the Battle of Gettysburg, which was fought from July 1 to July 3, 1863. More than 600,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died in the Civil War, which provided a horrifying example of the carnage of war in the Industrial Age.

The photo at right, from the website FamilyOldPhotos.com, shows Davis Wilson Wolfcale, a corporal in the Indiana National Guard. Wolfcale was around 21 years old when this photo was made during his service in the Spanish-American War of 1898. That war was touched off by the mysterious explosion of the battleship USS Maine in Havana, Cuba in February 1898.

It was the golden age of Yellow Journalism, and Americans' passions were inflamed by sensationalistic and wildly inaccurate stories published by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, who were locked in a fierce battle for newspaper circulation in New York.

Wolfcale survived that war and died in Michigan on October 13, 1941, about six weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II.

The United States was reluctant to enter World War I, which broke out in Europe in August 1914. Americans were enraged when a German submarine sank the passenger liner Lusitania in 1915. Still, American troops didn't join the Allies fighting Germany until 1917. The fresh American troops turned the tide of the war, and Germany surrendered in 1918.

The above photo, from the website WorldWar1Gallery.com, shows unidentified American soldiers during World War I, which was called the Great War because no one imagined there could be another conflict of the scale of that war. They were wrong, of course.

The United States was still a segregated society when it entered World War II in 1941, but black soldiers and sailors played a vital role in that conflict. This photo shows an African-American soldier working on a truck engine at Fort Knox, Kentucky in June 1942. The photo is from the National Archives and was made by Alfred T. Palmer.

The war that erupted on the Korean peninsula in June 1950 wasn't even given the designation of "war" at first. It was officially referred to as a "police action." But the fighting against Korean and Chinese communist forces was as bloody and deadly as any war the United States was ever involved in. And it was a war of uncertain purpose. When a cease-fire was finally signed in July 1953, Communist forces still occupied North Korea and controlled the North Korean government.
This photo shows an American soldier of the 19th Infantry defending a position in Korea during the grim fighting of July 1950. It's from the website The Korean War, produced by B.L. Kortegaard.

The Viet Nam War was another well-intentioned but confusing effort to stop the spread of communism in Asia. The war provoked a determined anti-war movement in the United States and opened cultural and social fissures that still haven't been closed 35 years after the war ended in 1975.

The above National Geographic photo shows a young American soldier warily relaxing in Viet Nam.

The latest major commitment of American troops reflects some profound changes that have occurred in our society since the end of the Viet Nam War. Women are now serving in combat. This U.S. Army photo shows Specialist Jennie Baez serving in Iraq. American forces have been in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003.

The last photo shows Navy Chief Petty Officer Adam L. Brown of Hot Springs, Arkansas. Brown, a decorated Navy SEAL, was killed a couple of weeks ago in Afghanistan. He left behind a wife and two children. The photo is from the website ArkansasOnline.com.

I have no doubt that the enemy Brown was fighting in Afghanistan means to do us harm and has to be fought. But his death calls to mind another quote from that Harper's Weekly issue of August 17, 1861. The quote is from the 19th-century English poet Walter Savage Landor: "I lament that there are those who can learn no lesson of humanity, unless we write it broadly with the point of the sword."

NOTE: The photo at the top of this post shows the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. It was shot by Myron Davis for Life magazine in 1942,

5/27/2010

Boycott BP, continued


As crude oil gushes from British Petroleum's blown-out oil well in the Gulf of Mexico and anger at the uncontrolled spill increased, BP essentially is deploying truckloads of lawyers to mitigate the damages to their corporate bottom line. Not long ago, BP began an effort to cap their financial liability for the spill at $27 million.

Believe it or not, $27 million is not a lot of money these days. Let me put a little perspective on that figure.

If someone wins the Powerball lottery drawing on Saturday, they'll have the option of accepting a prize of about $114 million if they take a lump-sum payout. If they opt for an annuity, they'll get a total of about $220 million in annual payments spread out over 30 years.

So a Powerball winner would be pocketing more than four to eight times more than what BP wants to pay in liabilities for the negligence that led to one of the worst environmental disasters in our time. In other words, BP wants to limit their liability to the amount a winner receives in a mediocre lottery payout.

Here's a little more perspective. Nicholas Graham, writing today for the Huffington Post, reports that the spill is costing BP about $16 million a day. But there's no reason to worry about BP's solvency. In the first quarter of 2010, BP made a profit of about $66 million per day, Graham reported. And for 2009, BP's profits were $14 billion.

If you take that figure of $66 million per day in profits and divide it by 24, the result is $2.75 million. So if BP succeeds in capping their liability at $27 million, their penalty for a catastrophe that will cause untold billions of dollars in damages that someone will still be tabulating years from now will cost them less 10 hours worth of profit.

It would be the equivalent of someone dropping a dollar bill in the grocery store. BP is not even going to notice a $27 million fine.

So, as I said yesterday, boycott these people. They don't need any more of your money.

5/25/2010

Boycott BP

I'm usually very deliberate about what I post on this blog. Even when I'm upset about something, I don't sit down and bang out some kind of hasty screed and slap it up here. I do sometimes pester friends with e-mail rants about something that's annoyed me, but I'm very careful about posting anything publicly.

But the disaster that's taking place in the Gulf of Mexico as I write this is so disheartening and so infuriating that, for the moment at least, I don't want to be all deliberative and careful and even-handed about what I say. I'm very angry and deeply frustrated. And my emotion is aggravated because I visited the Louisiana wetlands a few months ago, shortly before the British Petroleum oil rig blew out and started dumping millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. So I'm wondering what those beautiful, pristine wetlands that I saw a few months ago look like at the moment.

I learned to appreciate coastal wetlands when Jane and I lived in South Florida. My perception of wetlands evolved during the time we were there. Before I lived in Florida, I regarded wetlands as dreary, dangeous and disgusting swamps. They were soggy snake-infested wastelands. Ick.

But that was before we made a few visits to the Florida Everglades, and visited many of Florida's wonderful state parks. After a few years, I realized that wetlands are amazing. They are the fountain of life and a barometer of environmental health.

It's a pretty simple equation: If the wetlands are healthy -- if the alligators are basking in the sun, and the turtles are sunning themselves on a log, and the herons are carefully stalking through the shallow water, and the otters are floating on their backs and cracking clams on their stomachs -- everything else, even if it's a thousand miles away, probably is healthy.

So in late February, while en route to Texas, some friends and I stopped for a few minutes at what I guess was a state park along the Creole Nature Trail in Louisiana. To be honest, I didn't pay that much attention to where we were and I can't tell you the name. It was a pleasant 15 minutes to get out of the car and walk around. There was a boardwalk over the wetlands. I shot a few snapshots. It reminded me of Florida.

And then we were on our way. I took what I saw for granted. Now, of course, I'm wondering what's going on in the wetlands where we stopped.

Accidents happen. I realize that. And risks must be taken. When I was much younger, I spent many years working hard-hat jobs where carelessness could get you seriously hurt or killed in the blink of an eye. Because of bad luck or my own inattention to detail, I could have been killed a couple of times. But the money was good, brushes with death are funny when you're 25 years old, and I'm still here. The money helped me pay my way through school, and the only thing I can figure about why I'm still alive is that it just wasn't my time to go.

So my point is that I realize that heavy industry -- the kind of industry that carries big risks but pays rewards, big paychecks, and big benefits to our nation -- is part of our system. I certainly wouldn't change that.

But it's becoming pretty clear that the British Petroleum Company did a lousy job of running at least one oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. And it wasn't carelessness, or bad luck, or a so-called act of God that caused that oil rig to blow up, kill 11 people, and cause what's probably going to be the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

BP gamed the system, apparently to cut expenses. They avoided having to install and maintain safeguards that could have prevented this catastrophe. Now, no one knows for sure how we're going to prevent the Gulf of Mexico from becoming a giant lake of oil.

So, for whatever it's worth, my tiny little response to this is to declare that I'm through with BP. I'll never spend another nickel at a BP station unless my gasoline gauge is slam against the "E" and I need a gallon or two of gas to get me to the next station.

Yes, it's silly symbolism in a way. But my suggestion for everyone is to boycott BP. Don't spend any more money with these people. All they're concerned about is their own bottom line, and the only way they're going to realize the magnitude of their failure is to see that bottom line suffer.

So, boycott BP.


Photo: Wetlands near Cameron, Louisiana, late February 2010.

5/20/2010

N.C.'s Former Golden Boy Now Trying to Stay Out of Prison


John Edwards, the disgraced former candidate for vice-president and one-time golden boy of North Carolina politics, is back in the news. There are reports out that he's trying to cop a plea-bargain deal with the FBI and the IRS to avoid going to jail for misusing campaign funds to buy the silence of his former mistress, Rielle Hunter.

Say it ain't so, John-boy.


When Edwards was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1998, I was delighted. Finally, after decades of having North Carolina associated with the thick-skinned, hell-no politics of the late Jesse Helms, here was someone who I thought represented the state's true political heart. Edwards reminded me -- and apparently a lot of other people -- of the late Terry Sanford, a progressive Southern Democrat who served as North Carolina's governor in the early 1960s and later won a seat in the U.S. Senate and served as president of Duke University.

Edwards seemed to have stepped straight from the streets of Mayberry, the fictional North Carolina town that has been immortalized in "The Andy Griffith Show." In Mayberry, people disagree with each other but their disputes inevitably are resolved by the application of some good old down-home common sense, usually applied by the town's joshing, good-natured, smarter-than-he-looks sheriff, Andy Taylor.

Edwards cultivated an image that made you think he'd grown up as the best friend of Sheriff Taylor's son, Opie. "I believe I can be a champion for regular people," Edwards said back when he was crafting that image. "My own life experience allows me to see things through their eyes. They are the people I grew up with, the people who worked with my father in the mill, the people I fought for as a lawyer."

It sounded so good. When Edwards was elected to the Senate in 1998, it seemed the first step in a political career that could very well take him to the White House. But something changed when Edwards set up shop in Washington, D.C. Or maybe he didn't really change, he just shifted gears to pursue his true ambition of becoming president. He seemed to instantly forget the good old folks in the mill towns back home and set his sights on the White House the moment he arrived in the District of Columbia.

I'll admit I was fooled at first by Edwards's charm and political skills. But in my own defense, I also was among a few people who started having serious doubts about Edwards's sincerity soon after he took office and years before his hypocrisy was brought to light.

Around 2000, an issue surfaced in North Carolina politics that should have been tailor-made for Edwards's populist promise to represent the interests of the "regular people" he grew up with. The U.S. Navy began a ham-handed and ultimately futile effort to force Washington County, North Carolina to accept an unwanted training airfield for carrier-based jet fighters from nearby Norfolk, Virginia.

Since the jets using the training field -- known as an outlying landing field, or OLF -- would not be based in Washington County, there would be no economic benefit to the county for having the airfield. And the constant coming and going of the noisy, low-flying jets would be a serious disruption of residents' daily lives.

Despite protests from local political leaders and nearly every single one of the 13,000 residents of Washington County, the Navy pushed ahead with its plans.

Washington County is one of the state's poorest counties. Around 52 percent of its population is African-American. The county has little political clout. So the Navy thought it could force the OLF on the county because no one would come to its defense and the political costs to politicians for not opposing the OLF would be minimal.

Long story short, the Navy's plans to build the OLF in Washington County were halted thanks to a determined effort by local residents, the generosity and legal skill of the Charlotte law firm of Kennedy Covington, and the eventual opposition of most of the state's political leaders.

But John Edwards was nowhere to be seen in the fight against the OLF that dragged on for several years. He should have been a leader in the opposition to the Navy's plan. But he ducked it. And since the fight against the OLF never really gained national attention, no one called him on his refusal to represent the people he'd promised to defend. The most effective opposition to the OLF came from U.S. Senator Elizabeth Dole, a Republican.

All of this was playing out while Edwards was a rising star in the national Democratic Party. The OLF issue was still undecided in 2004, when Democrat presidential candidate John Kerry picked Edwards as his running mate for vice-president. Edwards's personal charm, boyish good looks, and soothing Southern accent seemed to make him the perfect running mate and regional counterbalance for the New England native Kerry.

The Kerry-Edwards ticket lost. Not long after the ticket's defeat in the 2004 election, reports surfaced that Kerry deeply regretted picking Edwards as his running mate. And then in late 2007 the National Enquirer -- a supermarket tabloid scorned by so-called serious political journalists -- nailed Edwards in an affair with Rielle Hunter. And now the guy who could have been Opie's pal and perhaps President of the United States is negotiating with the feds to try to avoid a prison term.

You fooled us, John. Frankly, I hope you go to jail, even if it's only for a few months. In case you've forgotten your small-town North Carolina roots, hypocrisy has never been popular among the "regular folks."

5/11/2010

An Evening of Nostalgia at Durham Athletic Park


In the summer of 1989, a couple on their second or third date had the following approximate conversation during a Durham Bulls baseball game at Durham Athletic Park:

Girl: So my mom went to high school with some guy who broke some kind of baseball record.

Guy: What was his name?

Girl: I don't remember.

Guy: What team did he play for?

Girl: I don't know.

Guy: Hmm. Where did your mom go to high school?

Girl: Fargo, North Dakota.

(A brief pause, while the guy searches his memory for hometowns of famous baseball players.)

Guy (astonished): Roger Maris? Your mom knew Roger Maris?

Girl: Did he break some kind of record?

Guy: Yes. In 1961 he broke Babe Ruth's record for home runs.

Girl: Maris. Yeah. Maris. That name sounds right.

The guy was me, and for almost 20 years I've been married to the girl whose mom occasionally saw Roger Maris in the halls of Fargo Central High School before he transferred to Shanley High.

Maris was five years old in 1939 when the Bulls played their first game at the then-new Durham Athletic Park. If 1939 seems like a simpler time, it was at least partly because simplicity was cheap and people couldn't afford extravagance during the Great Depression. Durham Athletic Park was a WPA project that was built for around $100,000.

Thousands of baseball games have been played at the DAP in the past 71 years, and there's no way to calculate the memories that are associated with the old ballpark. And when you sit in the DAP in the complicated and tiresome present and review your memories of long-ago games you saw there, the past always seems infinitely simpler and thus more appealing than the moment in which you're living.

That's what nostalgia is. And last night I was awash in nostalgia when I attended a special Bulls' game at the DAP. It was fun. And it was a bit strange.

I have no idea how many games I attended at the DAP from 1980 to 1993, when the Bulls were a Class A minor league team in the Carolina League. But it was the backdrop of my summers in those days. At one game, I heard a 12-year-old boy perfectly describe the visual appeal of Durham Athletic Park. "It's like everything is just the right size," he said.

Hollywood spotted that small-town charm, however, and the DAP became a co-star in the movie "Bull Durham" that starred Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins.

The movie made a national brand of the Durham Bulls. But it also profoundly changed the ambiance at the DAP. The usually large crowds at Bulls games were swelled to overflowing by tourists who came not to see baseball, but to be seen at the DAP. At one game, I heard a woman ask her friend, "Which one is first base?"

The Bulls moved into a glitzy new retro-chic ballpark on the other side of town and soon became a Class AAA team, one rung below the Major Leagues. The DAP fell into disrepair and was looking positively shabby by the late 1990s.

But it had become a major landmark for the city, which has spent about $5 million to renovate the ballpark and has an agreement with Minor League Baseball to use the park to train grounds-keeping crews. There's also plans to build a museum of minor league baseball at the DAP, and the ballpark is being used by area amateur teams.

So with irony that only an ancient Chinese philosopher could understand, the cause of the DAP's demise -- that damned movie -- has also become its salvation, because the movie made it too valuable to lose.

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The Bulls played the Toledo Mud Hens in the DAP last night to celebrate the renovation of the old ballpark. My wife couldn't make the game, but I wasn't about to miss it. For the record, Toledo defeated Durham, 6-2, before 3,911 fans.

The playing field was immaculate, but the bleachers that used to be along the foul lines have been removed. So I sat on the grass behind the left-field fence with Ben Misenheimer, who is the son of a guy I grew up with back in Stanly County.

We had a few beers. We talked about baseball, and what a great coach Ben's late grandfather was, and I told Ben how much I enjoyed playing for his grandfather. I told the story about my mother-in-law and Roger Maris, and the guy sitting next to us on the grass overheard it and laughed. Ben plays for a semi-pro baseball team in nearby Raleigh that plays some of its games in the DAP, and he talked about what it's like playing in the old landmark.

So it was a typical night at the DAP, and 20 years from now in a time that is more complex and complicated than today, Ben and I will be talking about the good old days when we saw a game together at Durham Athletic Park.

Photo and film clip: The photo at the top of this post shows early arrivals going into Durham Athletic Park before the Bulls' game against the Toledo Mud Hens.

The film clip shows Durham Bulls first basemen Chris Richard flying out for the second out in the bottom of the ninth inning. If the film clip appears as a black rectangle, it should still play if you click the "Play" button.

5/03/2010

"Kamikaze Bugs" are the World's Most Aggressive Biting Insect

When Jane and I lived in South Florida, I thought the small coal-black mosquitoes that swarmed around us in clouds when we went into the Everglades were the world's most annoying and aggressive biting insects. But now that we've lived in eastern North Carolina for a while, I'm convinced that the deer flies that emerge here every year around this time make the Glades mosquito look timid and withdrawing by comparison.

And after battling these crazed insects while working for a few hours this morning in a neighbor's yard, using a .44-caliber magnum pistol to kill them seems perfectly reasonable to me.

It takes me 15 or 20 seconds to walk to an outbuilding at the back of our property. When I make that walk this time of year, I'm likely to feel five or six deer flies bounce off my head.

I started calling these beastly insects "kamikaze bugs" the first time I encountered them. There is nothing subtle about how they approach a target. They just come at you full tilt and don't stop until they slam into you. And if they bounce off, they slam into you again. And when I feel one hit me, I slap angrily and reflexively, and I often feel something disgustingly wet and squishy but also primitively satisfying beneath my hand. Hence my nickname for them.

But the most annoying thing about deer flies is their bite. It's not nearly as painful as a bee or yellow-jacket sting, but it is a tiny, sharp and annoying nip on your exposed skin -- and at this time of year here in the South, people are exposing more skin every day.

I grew up about 250 miles southwest of here in the North Carolina Piedmont. I spent an awful lot of time outdoors, especially in the spring and summer. I remember several biting insects that were a warm-weather annoyance -- giant horseflies, small bee-like insects we called "sweat bees," and the ubiquitous mosquitoes -- but I don't remember being bedeviled by deer flies.

Deer flies emerge here in late April or early May, and live until around early August. That's not a long time for them to accomplish whatever task the Creator assigned them in the Grand Scheme of Things. But whatever their purpose is -- and it clearly involves sucking blood -- they pursue it with a frenzied gusto during the few months that they have.

A website produced by the Illinois Department of Public Health (apparently they also have them up there) says deer flies are attracted to their targets by the carbon dioxide and moisture that is exhaled during breathing. Their bite is painful because of their tiny, scissors-like jaws. The bite draws blood, and the bugs are happy -- at least until they're reduced to a bloody pulp by an enraged swat from their victim.

So it's early May here in North Carolina and these tiny nemeses have become part of the backdrop of the emerging season, along with the herring run on the Roanoke River, fading azalea flowers and magnolia blossoms that will open in a few weeks. And if our neighbors hear sporadic gunfire from our property during the next few months, they'll know I'm working in the yard.

Photo by R.C. Axtell, North Carolina State University

5/01/2010

The Venerable Shag is a Southern Classic

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NOTE: The videos may appear as black rectangles, but they should still play if you click the "Play" button."

The Shag, which has been described as a laid-back version of the Jitterbug, has its roots in the dance crazes of the 1920s and '30s that swept New York and other large cities, but the dance has evolved into a Southern tradition. Friday evening, shaggers turned out on the banks of the Roanoke River in downtown Plymouth to dance to the Band of Oz, a group that's been playing rhythm-and-blues and soul music for shaggers since the 1970s.


In the video above, John Daigle -- in the yellow shirt -- is shagging with his wife Eileen. In the background, Chris Winstead, in the pink shirt, dances with Jim Hardison. They're members of the Eastern North Carolina Shag Club in Greenville. You can pick up on the easy tempo of the dance as you watch these dancers, but the Shag's ancestors were much more frenzied.

In June 1937, syndicated columnist George Ross issued a tongue-in-cheek warning to his readers about a wild new dance craze. "'Shag' is the latest dance that threatens to sweep the country," Ross wrote, noting that the dance "has been in vogue in the south for years."

"It is the only dance step ... that goes well to swing music," Ross concluded.

But he
was referring to a dance that also went by the name of the Collegiate Shag, which took its place with two other wildly popular dances of that era -- the Big Apple and the famous Jitterbug. All three were fast, frenetic dances done to swing music. Dancers flailed their arms wildly and did high kicks. A careless dancer on a crowded floor could easily deck another dancer who happened to be too close.

The Collegiate Shag and other swing-era dances were done to music with a tempo of around 200 or more beats per minute. In the brief clip below from the 1939 movie "Blondie Meets the Boss," you can see the dramatic difference between the Collegiate Shag and the more sedate Carolina Shag.

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There are many variations of the story about how the Carolina Shag evolved from its wilder ancestors, but most of the stories agree that the dance was developed in the beach towns of North Carolina and South Carolina in the 1940s and '50s. Instead of the rapid tempo swing music, however, dancers did the Carolina Shag to the more serene tempo of rhythm and blues -- around 110 to 130 beats per minute.

That's a more civilized pace that also allows shaggers to sip a beer as they dance.