Monday, February 22, 2016

Short Stories: The Pocosin

The year was 1711 and the young, grey-eyed Quin was feeling troubled. His life had been good as he was a highly respected Tuscarora brave, whose mother - a member of the Wolf Clan - had selected well her husband - who, in turn, had become a chief of the Tuscarora. A matriarchal tribe, the Tuscarora tradition was that no one owned the land, but the women were the stewards of it. They grew the food - mainly the “3 Sisters” - maize, beans and squash - while the men hunted and fished. Called ‘The Hemp Gatherers’, this tribe greatly valued the hemp fibers which were used to make thread, string, rope, nets, and cloth. They did not waste the edible seeds, or even the leaves, instead combining them with tobacco to smoke and thereby communicate prayers to the Great Spirit during Festivals and other times of import.

Life in eastern North Carolina was relatively easy, especially compared to the northern climes from which the Tuscarora had come centuries before. Then, they had belonged to the Algonquin tribes, whose traditions and language they continued to use. Eventually, many Tuscarora would rejoin the Five Iroquois Nations, and become recognized as the Sixth Nation.

But, now, their peaceful existence was being severely threatened by the impact of lawless European settlers, who were coming in increasing numbers and were not proving to be very good neighbors. These newcomers were encroaching upon and claiming land the Tuscarora depended upon. In their haste for quick wealth, they indiscriminately over-harvested turpentine, tar and timber to export as naval stores, and cleared forests to plant tobacco and cotton, quickly depleting the soil. They also brought disease for which the Tuscarora had no resistance, and alcohol, soon to be the bane of the indigenous people. Worse, indians were being raped, sold into slavery, tortured and killed by the newcomers. With their traditions and lifestyles under attack, the normally kind and peaceful Tuscarora were being sorely tested, especially Quin.

Just a few years earlier, Quin had readily agreed to accompany and guide John Lawson on a survey of the Eastern Carolinas, after which Lawson published a book that attracted more settlers. Proof of that came quickly, when Lawson brought ‘Baron’ Christoph von Graffenried and 800 new settlers from Germany and Switzerland to establish a new town - New Bern - at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent Rivers, where they form an estuary of Pamlico Sound. That location was an ideal one, but with the major flaw that it was already occupied by the Tuscarora!

For centuries, the tribe had considered the New Bern site and its surrounds as the seat of their homeland, situated as it was close to the rivers along which they lived; the Neuse, Cape Fear, Tar and Roanoke. Their very lifeblood depended upon these streams and their rich, growing, hunting and fishing areas. Both Quin and his father, Chief Hancock, took this latest crass action by land speculators as a direct affront, tantamount to a declaration of war! But, for the moment, they kept quiet and waited until a plan could be conceived and approved by the two councils of elders, male and female, with the latter having the final say.

After all, Lawson, himself, had admitted the Tuscarora were “really better to us than we have been to them, as they always freely give us of their victuals at their quarters, while we let them walk by our doors hungry, and do not often relieve them. We look upon them with disdain and scorn, and think them little better than beasts in human form; while with all our religion and education, we possess more moral deformities and vices than these people do.” 

Quin’s mother, Logan, knew that he could never become the next chief, so she reluctantly approved an important different role for him. First, she met with her peer sisters at the Village of the Clan Mothers, received their wise counsel and then quietly informed her son Quin of what he must do. He was to guide his father, Chief Hancock, to meet with Lawson, then capture him and bring him to a secret place to administer the justice meant to save the tribe from further settler encroachment - and the Tuscarora’s last resort - war!

The place Quin selected was designed to lure Lawson to come willingly, for it was a prime hunting spot in a nearby pocosin; literally, a swamp on a hill. Elliptical in shape and surrounded by a sandy rim, pocosins trapped only rainwater, were acidic and relatively nutrient poor, making them suitable mainly for evergreen plants like loblolly pine, holly, bay, pond pine and briars, plus the venus flytrap. They supported many species of reptiles, amphibians and rodents as well as black bears, bats, white-tail deer, opossums, raccoons, muskrats and bob-white quail, plus insects, including mosquitos. When they dried out, pocosin peat fires could burn for days.

Lawson quickly accepted Quin’s invitation, but decided to bring along two companions, von Graffenried, himself, and a black servant. This was an unexpected complication that Quin - and his concealed father - resolved as soon the party gained access to the pocosin’s interior. First, they subdued their three captives, tied them with hemp rope to facing trees, serving to frighten them severely. Then, as the others watched, Quin retrieved a large hemp net in which he had trapped a giant cotton-mouth moccasin, which had become quite agitated. Slowly, he released the snake on the ground between the terrified Lawson’s legs and watched as the reptile repeatedly struck him with open fangs. Lawson’s death would be certain, but painful and slow, a death befitting someone who had abused the Tuscarora so terribly. Then, Quin left and swiftly made his way north, leaving his captives with his father, Chief Hancock.

Quin would never return, but would open the way for other Tuscarora to follow. He left on August 18, 1711, exactly 124 years after the birth of Virginia Dare, the first white child born in the American Colonies.  

Monday, February 8, 2016

Short Stories: The Nightmare Before Elections

The Nightmare Before Elections

After weeks of steady, unbalanced bombardment via public airwaves with constant angry rhetoric, mostly by that eye of Mordor known as Fox news, I’m feeling a little worried and worn-out. The Sauron-like figures behind Fox remind me of the evil forces in J.R.R.Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings [LOTR] trying to take power by stealing the ‘One Ring’. Steady exposure to such propaganda and rhetoric, particularly the negative kind, does affect people by instilling doubt, fear, disgust and disengagement from public elections, which is the only real remedy for making those meaningful changes needed to benefit all citizens. But, simply appealing to emotions over reason seems always an easier path for those wishing to influence voters.

Rather than following a rational approach to benefit people with real needs, as exemplified by the so-called ‘Bleiker Life Preserver*’, these talking heads prefer doing things the old-fashioned way - by trial and error, forgetting any lesson learned along the way. What a pity! As someone great once said; ‘those who refuse to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it’.
The Bleiker Life Preserver is a four step process:

  1. Acknowledge a serious problem exists that needs timely and effective resolution
  2. It’s our [Congress] job to deal with it, and no one else’s 
  3. Our plan will be well thought-out, reasonable and non-partisan
  4. We do listen to ALL the public, we do care about good results

        No wonder, my sleep was interrupted by the cumulative effect of too many Republican debates, with too many sorry candidates, all wanting to repeal Social Security and the Affordable Care Act for medical care. Hey, as senior citizen, I worked for those things, deserve them, and depend on them for healthcare and income!

Additionally, they all seem to want to go to war at every opportunity and perceived offense, always unilaterally attacking with superior force, and without ever having to pay for it or acknowledging any adverse consequences to our own troops, their families and loved ones, allies, or innocent foreigners impacted.

Some want to summarily take away the liberties guaranteed by our Bill of Rights and replace them with their own ideas of morality, religion, opinions and beliefs, without regard to legalities or other consequences.

Some wish to deport millions of immigrants, build huge walls to keep out migrants and refugees from other places, plus increase draconian, police-state restrictions and monitoring on those who remain.

All seem to want the ‘Citizens United’ decision by the US Supreme Court to stand, meaning that Corporations are PEOPLE and Money is SPEECH! Go figure! Can you spell SuperPAC? How about ANONYMOUS donors?

Many think that our current duly elected President is actively undermining our nation with policies that are ineffective, subversive and illegal. That’s troubling, especially when the evidence seems to prove otherwise!

All seem prone to making such numerous, unsubstantiated claims and complaints about current Administration officials that could be summarized in a standard checklist and used for future political speeches and grand-standing.

All talk like they don’t believe in science, at least in terms of climate change. 

All dismiss environmental concerns as if they were some sort of liberal wish-list.

All are for good education for all, but don’t want to provide it.

All are anti-labor, anti minimum wage, anti-taxes, and doubtful that the Federal Reserve System works at all.

All want foreign trade, but refuse to advocate any resistance to restrict US Corporation from moving off-shore.

All are expert at half-truths, refusing to fact-check themselves before giving political speeches, counting instead upon spinning quick, self-serving sound bytes.

All quickly discount the value of a Public Works Project capable of repairing our nation’s critical infrastructure, creating millions of living wage jobs and enabling trade and commerce to operate much more efficiently and safely.
The various candidates appear to fit one or more of the following categorical villains from LOTR:
  • Ring-wraiths - those nine ghostly nobles who perpetually serve Sauron
  • Trolls - large disgusting beasts with chips on their shoulders and no manners
  • Nazguls - flying versions of Ring-wraiths appearing as large dragons
  • Balrog - the nastiest beast ever encountered, uses fire and long tail to drag down Gandalf (the good wizard)
  • Orcs - nasty goblins controlled by evil forces; can only fight at night
  • Uruk-hai - a hybrid race of larger, stronger, faster orcs and better fighters, who can also fight in daytime.
  • Gollum - a disgusting, insidious creature who desires the One Ring for himself
The reader gets to pick which category of evil villain fits each candidate. I have my own selections, but prefer -for the moment- to keep them to myself.

After this parade of horribles, I awoke with a start, thinking something was trying to smother me - but, it was only my Continuous Pulmonary Air Pump [CPAP] hose, used to help me sleep better. I noisily thrust it off, awaking my wife in the process.

Then, I stepped out of bed and headed to the bathroom, but something else quickly and painfully restrained me. It was my tethered catheter bag partly filled with urine! Ouch! What a way to wake up.

After all those frightening dreams and now this frazzling awakening, I still tried to sleep more, just to make up for the awful nightmarish sleep I’d had. Bad idea! As I continued to dwell on all the negativity I’d conjured earlier, I did manage to capture a few key points; maybe for a future blog. Later, after I’d finally gotten up, I jotted down a few notes to help me remember my nightmare.

Then, I made a firm resolution; I’ve gotta stop watching the Republican ‘debates’ propaganda bullshit! Also, stop reading and watching Tolkien’s stuff. And the meds; either take more or less of them! Maybe a little more wine before turning in?

Failing all that, I’ve gotta get rid of the catheter! Would an adult diaper help?
Just $42 for 72 Men’s max at Costco.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Short Stories: Sea Buoy 2 Charlie Bravo

Sea Buoy ‘2CB’ marks the entrance to Chesapeake Bay and the Thimble Shoals Channel, major water routes used by both merchant and military vessels as well as pleasure craft. The importance of these deepwater routes is immense and of absolute critical value to us, as is demonstrated by the sheer density of ocean-going traffic - inbound and outbound - 24/7 every week. Congestion and, therefore, danger are always present to the wary and the unwary alike. It is with this clear perspective that certain early morning events that occurred just before a fourth of July weekend are now being told. 

CC-1 was a communications flagship, a unique vessel designed and operated to maintain direct, continuous voice contact with the White House. With dimensions of 700 feet in length and a beam of about 50 feet, CC-1 was initially intended to become a coal collier, but converted into use as a cruiser by adding an extra deck, extensively redesigning both interior and exterior, and outfitting it with electronic equipment, with very little armament. Aside from a unicorn-like mast, the ship was further distinguished by a smooth topside surfaces to allow rapid wash-downs when required by contamination. A crew of 1200 men included almost 200 radiomen and electronics technicians to tend the ship’s main mission.

NAN Division was the name assigned to the Navigation Department, a group of 20 Quartermasters responsible for operating and maintaining the ship from the bridge, maintaining charts, publications and navigation instruments, keeping track of CC-1’s position at all times, and taking direct charge of navigating during times of General Quarters, severe storms, special Sea & Anchor Details during entering and leaving port, going alongside another vessel, and piloting in restricted or unfamiliar waters. A related duty was keeping the communications staff informed frequently of the range and bearing to their land-based antenna, located in the Virginia Capes area.

The morning in question saw an unusual weather condition, with dense surface fog that masked both vision and detection by electronic instruments. Just after dawn, NAN Division and its special Sea & Anchor Detail was set to relieve the regular watch at the piloting table, helm, lee helm, port and starboard wing lookouts, and after-steering. A Master Chief Quartermaster oversaw these changes on the bridge, assisted the Navigating Quartermaster, the Officer-Of-The-Deck and the Navigator - who, in turn, reported directly to the Captain.

A single sweep of the surface radar briefly showed a small blip on the screen off the starboard bow, but repeat sweeps showed nothing, probably due to ‘sea-return’ caused by the relatively short distance between ship and the blip. That was clearly a cause for alarm, as CC-1 continued its slow westward approach toward 2CB. As a precaution, the Captain ordered ship speed to be cut to ‘all-ahead one-third’, then to ‘all-stop’.

At nearly the moment the new helmsman took the wheel, a visual sighting of a ship bearing down on CC-1, off its starboard bow, was made! The Captain immediately ordered ‘right full rudder’, then ‘all-emergency-back-full’ and the ship began to physically shudder as its forward progress was stopped, then reversed. Unfortunately, the ‘lee helm’, responsible for the engine order telegraph, did not know how to properly signal the order - by repeated movement of a lever. But, the helmsman quickly leaned over and performed this signal to make sure the engine room responded as needed. Slowly, CC-1 turned and began backing down, but the other ship continued to bear down on it, looking like a sure collision. Quickly. the Captain sounded the collision alarm, simultaneously ordering the starboard side to be cleared of all personnel. Sailors stationed at the bow were frozen by fear that the ship approaching would certainly kill them in the inevitable collision that would soon follow. 

As CC-1 backed down and gained sternway, the bow began to swing left, placing it again closer to the approaching ship. The helmsman loudly requested permission to shift the rudder to correct the leftward swing, but this went unheard in the commotion. But, with the Chief’s blessing, the helmsman shifted the helm to left full rudder, countering the dangerous swing and thereby lessening the chance of a collision. Just in time, the bow missed the ongoing ship by a matter of less than 10 feet! The two sailors stationed on the bow later reported they could actually look down the stack of the ship passing right to left. Loaded almost to the ‘gunnels’ with what turned out to be JP-5 aviation gasoline, that ship continued its course without so much as acknowledging CC-1’s presence! Apparently, it had set its auto-pilot as it exited the Chesapeake Bay, meaning no one was even paying attention to what might be encountered. Unfortunately, this has been a common cause for maritime accidents and near-misses, particularly with merchant vessels.

The sense of relief onboard CC-1 was palpable! Everyone had been on nervous edge from the tension of a likely collision at sea. What happened after that was a tense and  unrelenting focus on getting the ship safely into port. The helmsman was so intent on steering a course so precisely that he hardly noticed the time passing, until CC-1 was nearly at the dock. 

When liberty call was sounded for R&R, the helmsman and other members of NAN Division and ship’s crew elected not to go ashore, instead to rest, thank God for saving them, take showers, and try to sleep. Those who did go ashore, went straight to a beer joint. It took some time to remember the Fourth of July was a national holiday, meant to honor our country’s founding, celebrate its blessings and the reasons their ship was necessary. 

Later, NAN Division held ‘lessons learned’ sessions, after which training exercises became much more relevant and compelling because of the vivid memory of what nearly happened near Buoy 2 Charlie Bravo.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Short Stories: Snowball's Adventures

Snowball’s Adventures

As a Tar Heel born, I spent most of my youth living in a small city in the Coastal Plain with activities like school, sports, scouting and church. I liked living there in a semi-bucolic existence, where citizens were friends and the flora and fauna were congenial. The climate and sandy loam soil conditions made this area full of ‘grow-y’ things, most of them useful and benign, particularly the plants which grew in variety and profusion. The main ‘money crops’ were tobacco and cotton, but there was always plenty of corn, hays, timber and truck vegetables as well. Around the city, most fauna were common to urban areas, with small mammals, birds, reptiles and insects leading the list. Of course, pets counted too, with dogs and cats more prevalent. 

Among the plant life, their variety and profusion was truly impressive. From tall long-leaf pines to hardwoods, flowering dogwoods and magnolias, the trees have always been a major asset to the area. Then, rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias, bushes, hedges and flowers - like roses, daffodils, tulips and annual seed flowers. Various grasses, dandelions and other weeds rounded out the list, with the exception of garden vegetables which were planted from seeds or starter plants. The latter was my specialty, and also my chore. I was responsible for the garden; clearing and turning, seeding, weeding, and - eventually - picking, eating and sharing the fruits of my labor.

Tomatoes were the most popular, followed by leaf lettuce, radishes, carrots, corn, squash and green onions, plus strawberries. How I loved to yank the vegetables right out of the ground and just eat them dirty! Hard to beat vegetables that fresh. Anyway, the point is I spent a lot of time out in my back yards tending the garden, not all of it fun, with the hot sun, humidity, bugs, sweat and sunburn. Often, there were other things I’d rather be doing, but a chore was a chore and no one else would do it.

One day, I was sitting on the back stoop when a little scenario played out in front of me. Our cat, Snowball, a good sized, all-white, short-haired Tom was just lazing around on the grass near me, when our neighbor’s dog, Duz, a little Boston Bull Pup started yapping at him as he always did. Now, Duz thought he was bigger and fiercer than Snowball, which was a delusion to say the least. Anyway, Duz got through the fence with the intent of chasing Snowball, which he did, with Snowball’s almost lackadaisical consent. Round and around the house they ran, with Snowball easily eluding Duz with long loping strides, while Duz simply ran too long in one place. After two or three times around the house Snowball had almost lapped Duz to the point that if you didn’t know better, you might’ve thought the chase was the other way around! 

As he came around  the corner in front of me, Snowball hopped up onto a corner of the picket fence and assumed what I considered to be an amused posture, as Duz ran right under his nose and continued on around the house at least two more times! At last, Duz figured out he’d done his doggy duty and chased Snowball away, but he continued to sniff the ground - back and forth - anyway just to make sure. Duz finally returned to his yard, possibly feeling satisfied with himself, while Snowball quietly jumped down and resumed whatever he was doing before the chase. This, I saw as fitting entertainment for me during my rest, and it was. This, I’ll call Snowball’s adventure number one, so we’re about halfway through my story.

Some time later that same summer, another entertaining encounter occurred, this time between me, Snowball and a large robin hunting worms in the yard. Again, I was sitting on the back steps, resting and watching when I observed this sequence of events; Snowball, lying just in front of me, spotted the robin and began a very slow and stealthy advance, every muscle tensed and every step measured and silent. So focused was he that I was mesmerized into watching each move of both cat and bird. Would the bird sense the approach and fly away before Snowball could reach him? Would Snowball make a mistake and give himself away, or just get bored and ignore the robin? No chance of that I thought, with the sheer intensity of the silent stalking beginning to make me wonder if I was about to witness a near-miss, mugging, or worse, a cold-blooded murder. 

Should I intervene, and if so, how? Should I continue my well-deserved rest and much-enjoyed entertainment? Soon, I would have to decide, so why not just scare the bird away and end the problem? That’s what I decided to do, but the way I did it created even more excitement in a way I hadn’t anticipated. Neither had Snowball.

I picked up a pebble and threw it generally towards the robin, but it never got that far, because it hit Snowball on top of his head instead. All the pent up tension, anticipation and drama dissipated in a split second, as I witnessed Snowball launch himself straight up into air about five or six feet! Can a cat really do that? Snowball did! In mid-air, he twisted and turned in multiple orientations before hitting the ground - feet first - then taking off like a rocket, also in what seemed to be several directions all at once. I’ve never seen any animal move that quickly, and doubt I will again.

Needless to say, the robin just flew off to find another worm in another place, hopefully without a predatory cat in the vicinity. I didn’t see Snowball for a while after that, but when I did, he seemed somewhat miffed at me, but maybe that was just my imagination. So, my rest and entertainment over, I again returned to weed the garden.