Monday, August 30, 2010


It just seemed like I turned 40, now 50 is here. What happened to the time? It's like those mornings when you wake to the first nip of Fall in the air. I love Fall, the air ripe and sharp with the smell of burnished sun on dying leaves, while the faint wisp of chimney smoke from that first fire is melancholy. I listen longingly for the sound of a train from beyond the cornfields, and look up for the comfort of a vapor trail in the cold sky, letting me know I'm not alone. Autumn is almost upon us, and with it the end of another year.

As I open the door to let Barkley out, the warm air rushes out, set loose in a sudden gush and I think about how quickly time gets away from us. Shadows stir, the season shifts and before you know it, another year is behind you. The summer is past, with days on the run, and still evenings aloft, and all too soon you're herded inside walls, the routine of chilled mornings and dark nights, cold absolution for the time you spent out in the sun in months past. The days themselves were unchanged, but what you were able to do in them was, with mornings and nights passing in the immaculate intervals of quick daylight and long nights in front of the fire wishing for the cold to pass and Spring to arrive. Yet, when Spring does start, you think again of how quickly another season flew away, and of the last months you ask yourself - did you really accomplish anything to warrant the passing of precious time?

I remember one cold night in front of the fire pondering over Joseph Conrad's story "Youth", an old man's story of his perilous experiences as a young seaman on a storm-wracked coal liner. Having always been a headstrong girl, taking on one dangerous job after another, I empathized with what he said. "I remember my youth and the feeling that I will never come back anymore, the feeling that I could last forever, outlast the sea, the earth, and all men".

How easy as a child, a teen, even into your 20's to think you are invincible. Certainly some of my adventures would indicate that I too subscribed to this vision. But with adulthood, not only comes responsibility, but loss. Suddenly, for myriads of reasons, aging, illness, war; the people around you, as reliable as the sunrise, leave. Someone I knew casually through work was ill, and terminally. All of us had been trying to visit and as I passed through the door after our last time together, she said. . "when will you be back?". I said, brightly, "soon" and the moment it was out I knew that I'd never see her again, and that we both knew it. We simply refused to give voice to it, as to do so, would be to admit our own mortality.

If I had the chance to be 20 again I wouldn't. Time and memory is what has made me who I am. Events in my life, even the ones I'd rather not repeat, all served to awaken within me a stranger who was strong enough to survive it, to grow, becoming someone forged new, honed sharper and stronger. I've moved past the deception of Conrad's youth, to a place where my soul is still, my heart is full and when I leap from a runway with the wind in my hair, I know I will not live forever on this earth and it doesn't bother me, it just makes me treasure what I have.

I got up early this morning and after opening up the curtains to the outside, I went in and looked in the mirror in the morning light - closely. Start with the body. OK, it's not 20 any more, there's those extra pounds that set up base camp somewhere low and safe and never hiked out, my knees can't climb K2, and there's quite a few small scars - that time I fell off a ladder refueling a tanker, the tiny hairline one where I fell off my bike on a hill, the almost invisible one on my knee where I had a mid air with a hurdle in high school track. Yet what is there serves me well, taking me where I want and need to go, seeking and finding my life.

Now I look at my face. Thanks to good Scot/Irish/Norwegian genes and sunscreen there's not much in the way of lines around the corners of my eyes, but those there when I smile simply map the laughter, including the best laughs, the one you share with those you hold dear. The few little wrinkles? Earned them. Every damn one of them. Finally I look at my eyes. Still green, edged with blue. The eyes can be serious. Like others who do what I do, I've seen a lot. Blood, senseless violence, and careless tragedy. I have learned the hard way that there is danger and dangerous souls in the world and I'm not one to shy away from it. My reaction to attack is to defend, not give in. It's not a cognitive thing, but a visceral reaction. Hit unawares, I have ducked, turned, and struck back, ending up tired, and emotionally bruised and wondering how I got there.

But I do it, for to me there is hope in it, there is order.

No it's not youth, but it's a vast intangible strength we call "soul" that's going to persevere for a long time to come. I wouldn't trade that; exchange the sense of who I have become, the self that is secure in its structure, the self that is loved, for any chance to be a firm, pert 20 year old again. So, content, I will start my day as a singing bird erupts into sweet song in my back yard. What I know now; now that I am considered "old" by my daughters generation, is not how to be dead, which I know too well how to do from all I have witnessed, but how to be alive. Living and breathing, growing and loving, as the trees in my garden and the liquid tranquility of a rushing river or a mere small red-winged songbird, who truly believes that in this moment, he's eternal, and for an instant, may very well be.

When I was a teen and looking at my parents I thought 50 was ancient, now I realize that to survive to middle age is to be slowly born.

I wouldn't trade this moment in time for anything.

- Love, Brigid

Friday, August 27, 2010


"We carry our homes with us,
which enables us to fly."

-John Cagelet

Going through the airport, I hear the grumblings about the security lines, note the little sign that the alert level for aviation is still orange. No one looks at the sign with anything other than mild disinterest any more. But there is always threat.

Granted, most people don't want to spend the day in fear's blind crush, the breath-stealing conviction that things will always be the worst case.
Yet what we fear can happen at any time, there's no guarantee that when we breathe out we're going to breathe back in again. There's a term we use - "shelter in place". It's the opposite of "run away run away!" and it's used in the event of a chemical, nuclear or biological attack, when it won't be safe to go outside.

Shelter in place. I like the concept of that. Make your shelter where you can, a sanctuary even in dismal circumstances. It might be a tree blind, a quiet room with music. For me it's sitting here, typing these words. It's the cockpit of a yellow tailwheel equipped airplane. Quietly aloft, I know I'm not completely free from danger, there's carburetor ice, and geese without transponders and gusts of wind that can come from no where. But it's an environment in which I've tested my mettle. Once you've landed on a strip of gravel 100 miles from another human, in a valley full of bears, no radio signal, no help, just a wrench, some food and a .357 magnum on your hip, just because you have to pee, some things just don't seem all that scary. It's an environment that has given me the courage to go on.

Outside of the bush, and crop dusting businesses, you don't see a lot of tailwheel aircraft any more. Learning to fly one is a challenge, as in giving a cat a bath is a challenge. I was fortunate enough to learn to fly at a small flight school that had the good sense to have a a couple of them around for primary instruction. They didn't have much in the way of radios or navigation features, finding your way around in those aircraft back in the day was a matter of dead reckoning and pilotage, skills going the way of the Dodo in this GPS age. But I got some instruction in them, as well as aerobatics, not enough to make me airshow material, but enough to save my ass years later in a swept wing jet gone topsy turvy. Of course the aircraft had its appeal, the rest of everything on the ramp resembling a Can of Spam with a nosewheel.

When you fly a tailwheel airplane, be it Cub or Stearman, or something in between, you are never more aware of your environment. I remember the first time I flew the Stearman solo. I stood and watched it on the ramp, staring at it, staring at the wind sock, staring at the aircraft again, it seeming to have grown larger in the last glance, staring at the wind sock. I had never been quite so cognizant of the wind before. I knew the crosswind limitation of the Cessna and that old Apache. But in a tailwheel airplane, especially in one the size of a Stearman, the wind is a force, and how it swirls and lifts and pivots was another matter entirely. Wind is a science of chaotic truths; it twists and turns with complex disregard for your plans yet can be made simple merely by bank and the turn, how and when, as you gauge the adequacy of a landing strip against fuel remaining, as you push against wind and time. Like risk itself, wind is a science of geometry, measured sharp angles, the force and will of a cold breeze gleaming with two honed edges; one of laughter and one that can cut the heart asunder.

But it's a valuable lesson, not just for the air, for for life. You learn about chance taken, what you are comfortable with, what you are not. You learn about options. As a pilot those options can keep you safe and renew your faith. Not a blind faith that all will be well, that feeling has been the death of more than one airman, but a tentative faith that gives us the courage to venture onward. You have the knowledge that nothing is fixed and the blessed understanding that as long as you are breathing and that old Lycoming is humming along, anything is possible.

I got my love of airplanes from my favorite Uncle who worked as a senior engineer for Boeing. He traveled around the world, taking my Aunt with him, as they weren't able to have kids of their own. Their small house was filled with the unique; beautifully sublime pieces of oriental wood and glass, exotic smells and book after book of amazing adventure and history. He also came home with more than one airplane model.

We kids were like their own, and we spent a great deal of time there. We saw the door on one of our first visits there, a hefty air tight looking piece of sheet metal, that covered steps leading down to a cement-lined small room. We'd heard about it from the neighborhood kids and we wanted to check it out. As we took a small glance into it we saw lights, an emergency generator, some water, and some canned food. We'd heard about the shelters reading about the Cuban Missile Crises, I knew well the stories. Yes, if ANYONE on the block was going to have a real Cuban Missile Crisis bomb shelter it was going to be our Uncle Rich and Aunt Marion.

That bomb shelter became our hideaway, our fort, our playground. We'd creep down the stairs and lay on the floor, taking in the mysterious earthy smell, the eerie greenish glow of the single outlet casting dark shadows on the wall. Down in the dark and the quiet we'd talk in little trickling bursts of secret murmurings, conversations among best friends, fellow survivors. Our only light would be a small flashlight, the beam shining on the pallet of supplies we lay on, half in the light, half in the dark, the beam on our legs like moonlight.
After my Uncle died only months after retirement while mowing the lawn, my Aunt stayed. My older brother and his son took care of any needed repairs to the place, taking her where she needed to go , for although she traveled the entire world, both with him, and after, alone, she never learned to drive.

I lived far away, out of a suitcase. When I saw her it was always at my Dad's house for all the usual holidays. I talked to her often, but I never went back to her house after I grew up as we always met at Dad's.
In the summer of 2001 she died suddenly, and it was after the service I went back to her house for the first time in years.

I never noticed how small it really was, only 600 square feet, the yard a postage stamp of tired grass.. They never wanted anything bigger, their passion was travel and that's where their road lay, their time and income. In that inevitable failing of those who haven't shaken hands with death, I thought our time together was infinite. Each year I thought about making an extra trip to visit her house, but before you knew it, I was grown and the mysterious dark bunker was a distant memory, though she never was. As my family said our last goodbye to the home that week, as it went to sale, I saw the closed shelter doors. I hadn't been down there in probably 25 years. It was still small, and dark, clean, snug and dry. Then I noticed the tiny washer and dryer, the cans of food, the laundry basket. I looked at my older brother. "This was her laundry room" he said, where she had some extra space for her small home.The "bomb shelter" was nothing more than their post war laundry and cellar; with a few supplies in case of storm, a special built little extra space for their tiny home, on its tiny lot.

The bomb shelter story was simply a childhood myth, spread through the years by neighbor kids and embraced as something uniquely strange and foreign to our stable and prosperous life in the 70's. Ours was one of the first generations to live with concept of instant global annihilation, yet as children, a generation who had never directly experienced war, we only thought it cool, a sci-fi like fable.

The same year she died that fable ended, on a September day, a week after I graduated from the Academy. As I closed my Aunt's cellar door behind me that day, there was no laughter of children, simply the deep clang of metal against metal, sealing tight, shutting in the last remnant of naivety I had borne with me to its sheltered walls that day.

For shelter is a beautiful word. It brings to mind soft cotton sheets, a milky bath, a tail wag of a dog, a sip of Jameson, the voice that is like warm lips to cool skin after you've unloaded your long day of misfeeds and misadventures. We often take shelter from such joys, from our friendships.

Sometimes you stay in one place, with only a memory of the past, until you wake up one morning and it's as if you are waking up in a strange place. Daring not to move, you lay there in bed, staring at the wall, listening to the silence, willing yourself to simply get up and quietly leave with what's left of you, listening quietly to see if what's remaining of your heart has enough beat in it to sustain what's left. You shut your eyes and take a slow, deep breath, in and out, trying to get air past that dull ache so you can function.

There is no shelter there; it's like being on the road for days on end. Nights in a unfamiliar hotel in another time zone, the air weighted with unfamiliar smells and the noise of the airport next door banging on your window like an unwanted peddler, and even if you stayed there willingly, you can't wait to get away. Where is the shelter in this, if only in the emptiness that reminds the heart of what it's capable of. With that, you know it's time to move on, and you will, with joy.

That movement might take you to an air strip, a small bit of grass on which I all can launch my freedom. Shelter for me is a destination that I may invite my closest friend to share, yet it remains uniquely mine. It's the soft throated roar of an engine that even as it ceases, remains in the immediate air, an echo of where I wish to go. It's the wheels breaking free of the earth, like a hand lifted above the profound desolation of the past, supplication to the sky. It's the glint of the sunrise ahead, the smile of daybreak hinting at upcoming wonders, a lovers smile of promise. My craft surrounds me, it's tangible and honest and real and if I care for it and treat it right, it will not fail me; it's an affirmation of trust in a web of fabric and wood. When I look up I see only light and when I look around, I see only what is necessary for my happiness, nothing more.

When I'm aloft I don't know who I was or who I will be, I am simply there with the element of infinity that is the horizon, I know that I am alive. I know that I love. I don't need to know anything else, moving forward into the immortality of a small piece of time, of all that my mind is capable of, and my spirit can want. Risk is but a novelty that drives me to excel, to take control of my craft, of my future and my life as I find comfort in the shifting boundaries between earth and the heavens. It's an escape and a shelter, as essential to my spirit as the ocean-like smell of the air and the wave of my comrade with me as I waggle my wings, leaving formation. Away to my future, to a secret place of joy that no one can steal from me

Away to my sheltering sky.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

While Mom is on the Road - A Post from Barkley

It's hard to get a good picture with that whole opposible thumb thing going on.

For my Mom - A Haiku

I am your best friend,
then, now and especially
during veal stew.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Science of Risk

Part of what I do is being able to work in the absence of absolute certainty. Perhaps it's easier to "think outside the box", when the there is nothing left of the box but trace bone and blood, shattered lives to be pieced together in late hours. It's why I've turned down promotions that would take me to headquarters or academia. I love the field work. Part of what fascinates me about it is the cross disciplinary commonalities in the field of studies, and always the application of science to the legal process. So I tend to look through the entire world through those eyes.

So it was when work took me to Hawaii for a few days. Brigid Jr, was adopted into a Hawaiian family so I feel closer to her when I'm there. As it was a business trip, I was only able to play tourist for a couple of hours, boarding a bus from hotel to the beach with some Japanese tourists.

I read somewhere that the Japanese view Westerners as stone, but regarded the Asian countenance as water, a generalization that does justice to neither. Liquid water carves the stones that guide the streams, and in glacial form carve deep valleys that lead to the sea. The pond sits calmly still as the stone and landslides crash like a waterfall.
What is the difference between ice and stone? They both sit solid and still, melt when intense heat is applied. Both are powerful, and both can be destroyed in a moment of careless nature. Time and tide waiting for no one.

Who and what we are is simply who and what we are. When I observed myself pushing my way through their group, I vowed not to be that rigid stereotype but to become more like water for this day. I would infuse my motions with the smooth physical flow of a stream. I would place myself in the current and simply float, drifting where the day took me. I couldn't wait to refresh my travel weary skin in the ocean while boogie boarding the waves I'd seen through the window on final approach. I could see the great ranks of inviting waves curling towards me and my pulse quickened.

As my bus companions headed for the shallows, I noticed a young man with binoculars staring out into the water, watching intently. He wasn't a tourist and was carefully studying the landscape, how the water lined up, the break of the waves. I shyly approached and said "Aloha kakahiaka aku, how is it today?" He replied "Stay where the water is smooth, if you get out much further than that (and pointed) the rip current will take you there, pointing to a little huddle of rocks that stood sentry at the distant edge of the tourist swimming area. He looked at me very carefully and said quietly,"If you make it past that", pointing to even bigger rocks way off in the distance. "you will be ". . . and he paused. "Pau?" I said, not sure if I got the word right, and we both nodded.

I wondered what would have happened if I'd ignored the warnings and just jumped in, swimming past all the caution signs into those friendly looking breakers that looked like a post card. And I began to think how easy it is to die. To just disappear, with little warning or fanfare, off the face of the planet. I had gone from the airport to asking directions to the bottom of the food chain in little more than hour.

Ignore the signs and there is a price.

There is a great book called "Deep Survival", that tells a story of a rock there, a popular photo site, where the waves crash against it majestically. Tourists stop, the breakers breaking behind them showering them with drops of the sea. A man will pause to adjust a setting on his digital camera, and look up to find his lover gone, never to be seen again.

As the book so well points out, one of those things that kills us is that we don't understand the forces of nature we engage. The environment my generation grew up to expect, is one of peace and sustenance. There are many people struggling, but unlike much of the rest of the world there is food in abundance, light and heat. A domestic den of civilization. Then we go into nature and the playing field is leveled and we are tested in ways that life or TV does not prepare us for.

Most of us sleep through the test and we come out of the experience never really knowing what we did or didn't do to survive, yet somehow believing that we are hardy, knowledgeable adventurers. As pilots say "been there - done that". It's smoke and mirrors.

I watch and I'm aware, reminded regularly that several somethings are out to eat your crop, eat your pets, or eat you, simply because they are hungry. There is not a "let's all just get along" in nature, a fact that is oft lost on the urban dweller.

Most people don't think about it until its too late, when they leave their predictable environment for something new, something that cares little for their outcome. Fate is long of fang and claw, cold teeth gnashing against the soft underbelly of life. Some people may think about it once in a great while, the responsibility for their own survival something that only occasionally haunts the edge of their subconscious, thinking "Oh I could do it if I had to, no big deal".

I felt that way when I first learned to fly, gaining the foolish confidence that culls the weak out early. Testing my craft, testing my limits.There is a psychological theory developed by Gerald J.S. Wile, a professor emeritus of psychology at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, known as "Risk Homeostasis". It grew out of traffic studies but always fascinated me. It's base premise is that an individual has an ingrained target level of acceptable risk which does not change. This level varies between individuals. When the level of acceptable risk in one part of the persons life changes; there will be a corresponding rise/drop in acceptable risk elsewhere.

I've pushed the envelope, purposely and sometimes simply because I had additionally safety features in my gear that I thought would offset the increased risk. That mind set is what Dr. Wile studied. Psychologically, risk homeostasis shows that varying individual trends toward risk adjustment become displaced by the introduction of a safety feature. The concept results an inadvertent psychological neglect of natural automated adjustments to these barriers. In the most basic of terms - if you add in additional safety features, many individuals up their personal level of risk to compensate and the accident rate remains stasis.

I'm one of these people. Give me the extra gear and I would be the one climbing the sheer face of rock. But then you look at what you are doing, and you look at yourself. For me it was a day I was in a little airplane alone over the mountains. Looking down, it looked so pristine and perfect. After a wind that lasted all night and morning, the snow had packed into what skiers called "breakable crust", the kind that holds your weight so very well, then suddenly doesn't.

As I flew westward, everything around me howled of the winds fluid past, the keening power not abated as forecast, winds sluicing downward from a day that still roared. Tossed about by a mountain waves indifference, having to make that split second decision that would lead me away to safety or give way completely beneath me, I looked up towards the other seat. It was a habit pattern from seeing my instructor for so long. All I saw was a reflection in the window. Mine. It's a different way of looking at things, just as the panel you've stared at for months or years as a novice looked completely different when you were alone, how I looked at everything around me looked different as well. Every mistake, every decision, every movement, it all boiled down to the person in the glass. Nature didn't care.

That visage stared back at me as I looked into the tumbled glassiness of a tropical ocean. What's a little wave? What's a little undertow? I remembered the exhilaration of my first solo white water rafting trip. I also remember when my single-man raft flipped and I was trapped underneath the rushing water, bumping against rocks much bigger than I was. Many things could panic me - spiders, airport food, blind dates, but being upside down, under water in the cold and fading light, did not. If there was panic there, it quickly trailed on behind me in the water and I simply pushed my little raft off of me, not attempting to stand, but pointing my feet downstream and floated free. Pointing to to dancing light, to precious air, and water that calmed down to quiet pools further downstream, crickets chirping in encouragement.

Did that mean that I got back into the water that day? No. Not alone. I may have had the current or the rocks figured out that time. Next time, I might not be so lucky.

Author Jon Krakauer wrote about mountaineer guide Scott Fisher, the one who encouraged him to climb Mt. Everest. "We got the 'big E' figured out" he told him" "We've got it totally wired". Yet, on Everest, Scott Fisher died. The psychology of oblivion is not a new science, I've been studying it for years. Making someone else into a believer, coming to terms with the unfamiliar forces of nature is hard. Few think of it. Few of us believe in our own mortality until we're faced with it, and then, even then, after the threat passes, we forget. So we have no way to prepare for what seems too removed a possibility. As Christopher Burney, who was a prisoner of war at Buchenwald said "Death is a word which presents no real target to the minds eyes".

I agree, the surest way we can become a believer in mortality, short of dying, is to sit and contemplate those things.The world we reason about isn't the one that we reside in, I thought as a wave crashed down into the ultimate storm tossed dream, which to comprehend, is to share. How old is survival? It's as old as fear.

And so that day, instead of body surfing in the growing white waves, I sat, as I will here so early this morning. Sat and thought of blue as deep as death or desire, of tumbled glacial turbulence, of currents that pull you down, deeper than you ever expected to go.

Sat. Very still and quiet. Like stone.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Some Time off.

Woke to a early winter day,  hardly enough light to take a picture.  I will be back tomorrow with an actual (not saved) post. I've put in a lot of hours and travel this week and I was ready for some R and R, especially after the long commute home. (Yes, it's a flip phone, I still know how to beat your ass at Asteroids too :-)

But just so you don't worry. I have the "three B's on standby. Barkley, Bacon and Biscuits (with lingonberry preserves.)  See you tomorrow!
click to enlarge photo

Thursday, August 19, 2010


Almost 4 million people have discovered daily life at Home on the Range. I'll probably hit it by the end of the weekend and am frankly, amazed. The first public post was in May of 2008 (though I have recipes archived behind that for lack of a better place to put them). A lot of people have visited, coming back again and again to share in laughter and tears, dog stories, gun stories, and of course bacon. The writing helps me unwind, and your sharing in my often solitary life has brightened up many a long day on the road.

Along with the many, kind and uplifting comments I get questions. None have been rude but they are usually posted with "please do not post this! But I wished to know". Most I did not answer at the time. But for you, the inquisitive but polite, here you go - Brigid's HOTR answer forum.

1. What is your current relationship status?

2. What are your views on marriage?

3. What is your favorite man's cologne?

4. What's in your purse?

5. Does size really matter?

6. What is the last movie you watched that you loved?

7. Where do you live?

8. Do you prefer a Bath or Shower?

9. Where do you work?

10. Who do you look like?

11. What do you drive?

12. What did you do on Saturday?

13. What did you do on Sunday?

14. I'm from California and I LOVE nature. Do you belong to any environmental groups?

15. We know you love bacon, what is your second favorite breakfast treat?

16. You are up early! Are you a morning person?

17. I love your recipes. What's your secret to fresh tasting fried chicken?

18. What you would say if you were free to say ANYTHING on the blog.

Thanks again, all of you, for the kindness, for the support, for the friendship.

Love - Brigid and Barkley

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Spaghetti Westerns

Spaghetti Western, is a nickname for a broad sub-genre of Westerns that came out in the mid-60's, so named because they were produced by Italian studies, often with a Spanish partner. There was a cast of local actors and, sometimes a falling Hollywood star, sometimes a rising one, like Clint Eastwood, who starred in many of Sergio Leone's films. The films were primarily shot in the Andalusia region of Spain, and in particular the Tabernas Desert in Spains southern province, because it resembled the American Southwest.

Most of these films were not that good, one of the first exceptions though, being Michael Carreras' Spanish-produced Savage Guns (1961) starring Richard Basehart and Alex Nichol. Later there was the Man With No Name trilogy (or the Dollars Trilogy) directed by Sergio Leone, starring then-TV actor Clint Eastwood - A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

Though it wasn't a "spaghetti western" one of my favorite Eastwood films was the later Outlaw Josey Wales.

Josey Wales: You have any food here?

Lone Watie: All I have is a piece of hard rock candy.
But it's not for eatin'. It's just for lookin' through

Josey enjoyed a good spaghetti dinner in that movie. A meal I enjoy as well.

I've posted a couple of pasta recipes on here, made from scratch, but what about when you don't have a lot of time, or a lot of fresh ingredients and a couple hungry cowboys or cowgirls show up at the door.

Home on the Range Easy Spaghetti and Meatballs.

You start with a bottle of jarred pasta sauce. Sure, there are expensive ones, but I like the Classico with basil as it isn't too salty, doesn't have that "tons of white sugar" taste, and has big chunks of fresh tomato in it. I don't measure (I eyeball it) so here are my best approximations. Add two small pinches of crushed rosemary, about 1/2 heaping teaspoon garlic, a shake of white pepper, 1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper, one half teaspoon of wild honey, 3/4 to 1 teaspoon Penzey's Italian Seasoning, and about 1/3 cup of beer as it cooks so it doesn't get too thick. Add in a couple heaping cups of frozen Italian Meatballs (I like Schwanz products) and simmmer uncovered for 30-40 minutes. If you want to go wild, add another pinch or two of basil or (circle the wagons!) fennel. Serve with pasta, grated Romano cheese, bread (to mop up the sauce) and salad.

There won't be much in the way of leftovers tonight, for as Josey Wales said.

"When I get to likin' someone, they ain't around long.
click to enlarge any photo

Cowboy Action. .


No, that really wasn't how I planned to spend my Saturday. But with a lot of chores to do and a forecast for occassional heavy rain, sticking around the homestead was going to be it today.

At least I can make something like. . .

Cowboy Action Cookies

click to enlarge food photos

With peanut butter, oats, vanilla, dark chocoate mini chips and M and M's they are a family favorite.

Dense but soft and filling, have two with a cup of cowboy coffee and you'll be able to make it through that afternoon gunfight. But try to stick to two, or you might need a new belt.

Monday, August 16, 2010

History In The Making

I just finished reading "Haskell of Gettysburg" edited by Frank L. Byrne and Andrew T. Weaver (State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1970). I think it's one of the better personal accounts of the battle by someone who was there, simply a short volume of letters written by a Union soldier to his brother. Critics say Haskell wrote with future publication in mind, with language overly flowery. But he was successful in transmitting details of the fighting with the weapons they had, with remarkable immediacy.

It is telling that when he survived to return to Gettysburg four months later for the battlefield's dedication as a national cemetery, he left abruptly in mid-ceremony. The civilian throngs, he said, despite their reverence, had absolutely no idea of the horrors that had taken place on those grounds. That is something I understand all too well.

Gettysburg. The battle of which had the largest number of casualties in the Civil War. A battle which is frequently cited as the wars turning point.

A fellow named Marcellus E. Jones, Lieutenant, 8th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry, is on record as stating he fired the first shot in the battle, resting rifle on a fence and taking aim at an officer on a light horse and firing. That claim has proved arguable but his weapon of choice, the Sharps carbine, signified a growing revolution in small arms development.The Sharps carbines and the Sharps rifles, invented by Christian Sharps and manufactured by Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company, would become legends for the roles they played in the theater of this battle.

h/t to Jay Sharp for musket photos and resource.

From a weapons and warfare standpoint, there was little that was 'new' tactically, in 1863; armies still fought the way they had since the Napoleonic era, in line of battle, firing away at one another. What had changed were the weapons.

During this time frame, self contained metallic cartridges started coming onto the scene in quantities. Many wealthy Officers bought their own "Henry's" repeating rifles with which to carry into battle and for many Civil War soldiers, owning a Henry rifle was a point of pride. Even though it was never officially adopted for service by the Union Army, it was said that one or two of their mounted units purchased their own Henry rifles to use throughout the war.

.. . . . picture from Wilkipedia
The brass framed rifles could fire at a rate of 28 rounds per minute when used correctly, so the soldiers who saved their pay to buy one often believed it would help. The only drawback to these early lever action rifles was the anemic cartridge for which they were chambered. It was a small, rimmed, .44 caliber round loaded with black powder and a soft lead bullet. Penetration couldn't have been all that good and some have speculated that was the reason Custer didn't have them in his troop that fateful day in the Dakota Territory. Truth be told, the old copper cases of the .45-70 Govt. cartridge would stick in the weak trapdoor action and many of the soldiers were found to have used pocket knives to pry the swollen cases out when they stuck in the action.

However, a soldier armed with a 39-inch long breech-loading Sharps carbine held a real advantage over an opponent armed with a near six-foot long Springfield or Enfield muzzle-loading rifled musket. The Sharps loaded weapon from the breech, fairly simple either mounted or on the ground. The soldier would open the action, load a paper- or linen-encased powder and ball cartridge, close the action (trimming the paper or linen and exposing the powder), cock the hammer, pull the trigger and fire his weapon. The Sharps also did not have to have an individual primer inserted with each shot, coming equipped with an unusual pellet primer feed. Someone skilled with it could load and fire his single-shot weapon 10 times in a minute and the shorter weapon was easier to handle, especially on horseback. For that very reason, they earned the nickname of "Cavalry Carbine" and were carried by mounted units for many years thereafter, including the final skirmish of Gen. George Armstrong Custer, on the rolling plains near the Little Big Horn river.

An opponent armed with a musket had to load his weapon from the muzzle, the military equivalent of herding cats on horseback. The soldier would have to hold the weapon as vertical as possible, resting the butt on a a surface that would remain firm. He had to then place a paper-encased powder and Minié ball cartridge into the barrel, withdraw the ramrod from beneath the barrel, ram the cartridge into its seat, return the ramrod to its home, cock the hammer into firing position, insert a primer beneath the hammer, and, finally, pull the trigger to fire his weapon.

The skilled shooter could fire two or three times in a minute, but for every skilled marksman there were five Barney Fifes. The musket was much improved over the old smoothbore weapons, which had basically fired a large 'ball' with several other smaller, balls. This made the weapon deadly at close range, but neither accurate nor effective past about 100 yards most of the time. This is why armies of men equipped with muskets could stand and blast away at one another for long periods of time without sustaining massive casualties. It had to be a hellish scene, the clattering grapeshot ringing out through smoke and moans, both sides clustering and firing, a volley of curses and prayers, not words mingled together yet discernible, but one great sound gathered together in unceasing anguished thunder.

From that great mournful clash there were casualties, so many casualties, and they were grim. For although the technology of weaponry had improved, the tactics had not caught up with it. For hundred's of years we strained under the self-deception that the only way to win a war was to get more and more troops, and battalions than the enemy had and launch them upon one another in a volley of powder smoke and flashing blades until one side was destroyed. Gettysburg was a turning point in weaponry, but the gloves came off for good, when the first nuclear bomb was dropped. War as we know it, as we might know it, makes Gettysburg look like a romp in the park.

We are no longer limited by our past conceptions as to what defines war anymore than a rogue nation is limited by muskets and horses. It's close, it's watching and it's watching from within. Keeping this country safe and stable will require more than weaponry, more than troops, it will require physical courage and vigilance on the part of all Americans. War is a wretched thing, but even more wretched are those that feel there is nothing worth fighting for, as they sit back in the comfort of their homes waiting for big brother to send the next check, oblivious to the exertions of better men and women than themselves, fighting and dying so that the next battle won't be on home soil.

Honor requires difficulty. But for whatever deficit of nerve has been demonstrated by leaders in the past, I'm continually amazed by our growing advocacy of the qualities in which our countries hopes are hung. They do exist that fight lawfully and with honor for freedom, in those that speak up against the degradation of those concepts on which our country was founded, those that fight for the Constitution and all it entails, those that support our nation even as they prepare themselves and their homes for dangers that could arise. There is a sublime heroism ingrained in many of us that I know won't be lost amidst an ever changing political landscape.

But even with growing dedication, our country is not imperishable, and our rights and responsibilities should be relearned by every generation. Ask the average high school student about Gettysburg, and all you will get is "that was just some battle somewhere, dude", if you don't just get a blank look. Will society remember 9-11 as something other than just a bad day their parents told them about ten years from now? Will we continue to be watchful and wary of those that wish to risk our lives by eroding our rights and trivializing the risks that we face as individuals and as a nation.

Time has passed and weapons have changed, yet history is something that we need to remember, as always, a gentle rebuke to the present. Some would say I read too much of it. Some definitely say I worry too much about the terror threat around the world,, some even say that it is simply a fabricated political mechanism to distract us from what is really wrong with the country. But anyone that turned on a TV on 9-11 knows the threat is real, and while we go about our daily business, the world spins faster and faster outside, on its axis of turmoil. The sad thing is, while America is as war, most Americans are at the mall.

Living is a risk and life itself is a two edged blade, one of joy and one of violence, that can cut you clean from the earth without a moment's hesitation.There are many people that wish to pluck us out of the safety of our cover like a predator. To whom we are merely prey. I think about that now, as I look out on a vast field of corn as a hawk dives down for a field mouse, his talons glinting in the last scrap of daylight. We are all vulnerable. As the Tao Te Ching puts it: " Heaven and earth are inhumane; they view the myriad creatures as straw dogs."

As the approaching twilight runs off in all directions under a low, uncaring sky, I realized how alone out here I am. My hand drifts to the cold steel on my hip, thankful that whether LEO or citizen soldier, my right to carry is confirmed, for I am indeed vulnerable. We all are. But I am still one good step above the winged hunter and prey in this field. For while they survive by adapting themselves to their background, I survive by knowing the background and adapting it to myself. Watching, learning, from history, from all the senseless brutality that roams on the wind, seeking the defenseless, the complacent.

The sun takes its final bow in the western horizon, and all that's left is fire and blood. In the encroaching darkness, the hawk stole away with his prey, taking only what he needs for food, not killing for a jihad of hate. A hoot owl called, and I headed back to the safety of my house. I see lights coming on from the distance, people warm and happily inside, watching sitcoms and "reality" TV, basking in the illusion that the world is all one big happy family and they are safe on home soil and will continue to be. But maybe illusion is really all they have.

But a growing number of us know too well the self induced damage that living with an illusion can do. As the men at Gettysburg learned with their lives, the hard fact is that tactics have to keep up with threat. So so we, as individuals, as a nation, need to remember, lest we too, are left with a landscape that is nothing more than the wind and the dark.