The Poignant Moments of Escorting a Soldier Home

13962608_10101820071738685_4811447333640032288_nNew Orleans   As we prepared to take off from Denver on the last leg of our flight on United Airlines, the pilot came on the intercom with an announcement that fortunately I had not heard in all my miles of air travel. He said that we were carrying an escort who was flying a solider home with us. He said that American soldiers pledge to stand between the enemies of our country and American citizens, and that we were carrying a soldier back home who had honored that pledge and made that sacrifice. He said that he would announce this again when we landed, though as it turned out it was not needed, but he asked that we would allow the escort to depart the plane first before rising to leave the plane on arrival in New Orleans.

I had seen a ramp worker walk the Air Force sergeant onto the plane before any other passengers. When we entered, he was seated on the aisle in a bank of three seats on the left side of the plane by himself in the first row that follows first class, only a couple of rows up from us. Before we departed, while the air conditioning was still coming on, I listened as the attendant approached the escort and asked if she could take his jacket. This was his uniform. He of course refused. He sat silently throughout the less than two hour flight without reading, talking, or rising from his seat. He never looked back, only forward.

Anyone who has ever flown knows that when the bell dings that the gate airway ramp has been lowered and the door is ready to open, it is a mad scramble as people get up from their seats and collect their bags, sometimes pushing forward to get a preferred place in line to leave. This was different. Looking forward there was no one rising. I turned to look towards the back of the plane, no one was standing. It wasn’t just a matter of keeping the aisle open, as the pilot had requested, which some might have done by rising and getting ready, but keeping out of the aisle. This time no one was moving, everyone was sitting silently, and waiting. Even after the escort rose and walked out of the plane there was a minute or two when no one moved still, making sure the way was clear.

Chaco and I walked up the airway ramp and into the large circular waiting area where a dozen gates departed. We stopped in front of the ticket counter near the bank of windows. We were not alone. There had been no announcement in the waiting area, but somehow people knew something was happening. There were hundreds of people standing up, standing on chairs, and watching the runway below where a black hearse was parked on the tarmac near the baggage chute. Two police cars had their lights flashing next to the hearse. Several ramp workers in orange vests were standing alongside two women, and off to the side behind them were a half-dozen blue uniformed Air Force personnel who stood straight and at attention.

The pallbearers marched towards the plane as the casket glided down the chute and took it to the hearse. The rain had begun to pour and a ramp worker walked a large umbrella over and raised it above the head of the two African-American women, perhaps a mother, a sister, a fiancé, a wife, but certainly two women who were locked in an embrace without moving from the moment the casket had left the plane with their loved one.

They had a private moment as hundreds watched in unknown silence. Some weeping. Many, me among them, with tears in our eyes. No one seemed to move until the hearse door was closed. A German couple next to us, looked at me and said, “So sad.”

We were all civilians. The public being protected. This was a tragedy. A reminder that the war and the killing go on, many thousands of miles away in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, where soldiers are lost and lives are sacrificed. For a moment we were all touched and jolted into the reality of war as this solider came home, and as we came home, and we all were welcomed into a lifetime of mourning for lives lost that had hardly begun.



The Chaos Theory Controls Weather


Missoula   After almost a dozen days of clear skies, hot days, and cool nights, we were reminded what weather is really like in the mountains. At first it was a piddling kind of rain common in the West. A rain no one would hardly notice as more than a momentary annoyance or cause you to break your stride. Rain might be in your face even as you could see sunshine on the side of the mountain coming your way. Gear was moved under cover, but it was mainly the heavens spitting at the dust. Then the next day dark clouds crept over the mountains and announced that they were upon us with thunder claps, steady rain, and occasional downpours so that we felt lucky that there was now a roof over the eating area at the camp. Fog encrusted the mountains as I drove the dirt road along the creek to take the first two of our team to town and travel. We had asked someone at a fishing shop about the weather, and they had called it all the way, but who knew if we would be packing tents and awnings wet or dry?

All of which made sense to me because I had been reading a book about wind and weather, And Soon I Had Heard a Roaring Wind: A Natural History of Air, by Bill Streever. The book was as much about weather, meteorology, and the science or lack of it in predicting the weather as it was about the wind per se, but fascinating all the same. And, truth to tell for all of the amazing progress especially over the last 100 years or so, partly spurred on by military demands on the science and its practitioners that were much more effective than simple farmers or travelers, we’re still a bit clueless.

If you’ve every cursed the weather forecasters thinking they should be able to give you so much better information, maybe it’s worth knowing that there’s still huge guesswork in the whole enterprise governed more by chaos theory than rigid, predictable applied science. Streever offered a simple explanation that chaos theory holds that small incidents or events can lead to major implications and outcomes. One mathematician wrote a paper on whether the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Texas could cause a tornado in Brazil, and argued following the theory that you couldn’t discount that possibility, even if you couldn’t prove it.

When applied to wind and weather, the whole world becomes the weather pattern of the mountains, where a change here or there might not be as visible as rain pouring down on your tent or trailer while you are watching blue sky and sunshine on a mountain several miles away, but it’s close, since the physics of wind movement can change and disrupt any forecast. That’s not to say they are clueless, but that they have to embrace chaos and change.

Coming back on-the-grid for another year, that’s probably a lesson worth remembering for me and perhaps for all of us.


Why Can’t Women Get More Protection for Sexual Harassment?

shutterstock_185374205Missoula   The starter on our 1979 Toyota fishing truck has been putting on a sketchy show. Sometimes, we turn the key, and the truck jumps into action. But, not once, but twice, I found myself looking at all systems saying go, but not a sound when I turned the key. Solenoid? I have been there and done that too many times, but usually there are telltale clicks before death. After jiggling and thumping the starter and anything else under the hood, magically, the truck has started again, but with a dawn drive from the Creek to the airport for two of our family, wisdom and the Boy Scout still stuck deep inside of me got me up at 5AM to drive the truck in for a some kind of diagnosis or repair. The mechanic said sometimes there’s a “flat” spot in a starter, where a jiggle and 8 or 9 tries will get past it. The drama alone and being more than 50 miles off-the-grid, said that $200 for a new starter and labor was a deal worth making.

On the other hand, here at the Break Café with Chaco while I wait for their call and read the paper on-line, staying off-the-grid this season until snowfall is tempting, if just to escape the news. I just read a long article which basically made the ultra-depressing case that even the recent horrific publicity of Bill Cosby, once a comedian, and Roger Ailes, once the Fox News hater-in-charge and power broker extraordinaire, being brought down below sea level over devastating charges of sexual harassment and worse in Cosby’s case, that there might be a blip where more women come forward, as they now have, to report sexual harassment on the job, but then it will be back to normal again.

Oh, my god, let’s be clear. Back to normal means sexual harassment on the job as one of the terms and conditions of employment for women. How can we pretend we are building a just society, and accept that such a circumstance is just part of being a woman and working?

And, why? Lawyers for women fighting sexual harassment and even experts at the EEOC were quoted essentially arguing that the act of going to court, whether justice won or denied, pretty much guarantees a woman future discrimination once they have stood up against such employer abuse and discrimination on their current job. Where once a judicial filing might have been lost in the weeds, one lawyer argued that now, a simple Google search by any interviewer or human resource person would immediately find chapter and verse on the woman and her complaint and she would be judged not a hero or a freedom fighter or a sister standing up for other sisters, but a “troublemaker,” and likely unemployable within the career of her choice.

Is there no protection for such secondary, secret discrimination? Rape victims in most communities are allowed their privacy and protection. Is this what we must now extend to women in order to bring peace and a semblance of equity to the workplace? And, if so, let’s get to work on it from the EEOC to the local courthouses, because this has to be stopped. None of us can allow our mothers, daughters, partners, or any woman to endure sexual harassment in order to make a living, nor can men agree to abide by such a condition, seeing, but silent, without permanent damage.

This needs to be stopped now!


Arizona is in Play in November and It Could Matter

Promise Arizona Get Out the Vote Float

Promise Arizona Get Out the Vote Float

Rock Creek, Montana    Whenever a state is compared to Mississippi, it’s a sure fired signal there’s trouble coming, so I hunkered down to read an article in the recent New Yorker that referred to Arizona as “the Mississippi of the West.” Trust me, that’s not a complement, and trust me on this as well, Arizona has earned every piece of this putdown in the way that it has dealt with its Latino population, calling to mind in excruciating detail the way Mississippi has been infamous for its discrimination against African-Americans over the years.

No surprises, the article focused on the fact that there are huge efforts to register 75,000 Latinos to expand the voting pool. Most of the groups mentioned in the article are organizations we know well and have worked with at various times in the past in one way or another: Puente, Promise Arizona, and One Arizona. These are good people with deep commitments. There’s a real organizing community in Arizona, which makes it a pleasure to work there.

Given the fact there is always more turnout in a general election year, and that Republican nominee Donald Trump has gone out of his way to alienate the Hispanic population nationally, and especially along the border, this is an important peoples’ effort to make a difference and prevail despite incredible efforts by the state legislature to suppress voting access and create voting barriers. There isn’t a poll tax, but there’s’ almost everything else, including the kitchen sink that politicians have thrown in the way of voters. The recent scandal when polling places were reduced in Maricopa County, home of Phoenix the state’s population center where 40% of the electorate is Hispanic, to about one-third of what they had been, thereby creating huge lines and waiting periods is just one example. What’s at stake may not be the Presidential election, because there are other, larger battlegrounds like Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania that will play a larger role, but to the degree that longtime Senator and former Presidential candidate, John McCain, could lose his seat, affecting the Senate majority, and that arch nemesis Sheriff Arpaio could finally fall make this coming election worth watching.

Last time a joint effort called Adios Arpaio came very close to throwing the Sheriff out of office. This could be the time, but only if the registration effort succeeds and voter turnout is high. A recent effort, covered in the article, was successful statewide when all groups joined together to push through a ballot proposition that will reallocate $3.5 billion from the state’s land trust to the public-school system where 44% of the population is Latino. Importantly, the measure won by 20,000 votes.

Much of the article focused on Petra Falcon, a former Industrial Areas Foundation organizer and longtime activist in the state, who directs Promise Arizona. It was fun to read that she still uses the old Fred Ross house meetings as a regular part of their methodology. The piece didn’t paper over the fact that the Latino organizing community is not monolithic. The religiosity Falcon and her organization attach to the work is not shared as widely by other groups and her support for the Gang of Eight immigration compromise, roundly attacked by almost all other immigrant groups when proposed, puts her a bit out of step with others.

More importantly though, on this election, everyone in Arizona is united and that could mean something great for the whole country and speed up the process of taking the Mississippi out of Arizona in the future.


Mental Health Clients are Organizing in Alaska

Michael Penn | Juneau Empire Greg Fitch is starting a nonprofit to help advocate for those with mental health issues.

Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Greg Fitch is starting a nonprofit to help advocate for those with mental health issues.

Rock Creek, Montana   Since Tocqueville’s journeys in America in the 18th century, people have talked about the America affinity for associations and organizations of all shapes and sizes to the degree that their diminishment in recent decades is news itself for scholars and others. Membership has fallen like a rock in churches, unions, scouting, and other voluntary organizations. All of which makes it worth noting when groups that have never organized begin to do so, which brings me to an exceptional effort stirring now in Alaska where mental health clients are coming together to build a statewide organization to advocate and represent their interests.

MCAN, the Mental Health Consumers Action Network, is a fledgling organization getting on its feet over recent months in Alaska of all places. The spark-plug for this exciting development is a former ACORN organizer who worked in New Orleans more than twenty-five years ago named Greg Fitch. His most exciting memories of his years with ACORN involved the organizing around the savings-and-loan crisis and the Resolution Trust Corporation, remember that outfit, which managed their “bailout” of sorts. Greg had bounced around the country working with several organizations after leaving ACORN, and over the last 15 years or so ended up with his own personal experiences with the mental health system before being able to get the treatment and help he required, and in the process he found himself in Alaska.

As Fitch described it to me, he wanted to apply the lessons he had learned as an ACORN organizer and using the ACORN model and methodology and apply them to community of mental health clients. His early work has been encouraging with immediate and enthusiastic support from mental health consumers, and as the organization gets on its feet a pretty supportive response from policy makers and politicians as well. Early press in the Juneau Empire has been fair and positive which hasn’t hurt his efforts either.  I’ve signed on to help him build the organization and the board as they already begin to think about building a statewide organization and reach out for resources to support their work.

At first glance all of this might seem unusual, but it reminds me of many similar organizing projects, and none more than my time with the National Welfare Rights Organization. There, we were organizing and working for a constituency that was maligned to assist them in building an organization where they could assert their rights within a densely bureaucratic system, develop their own voice and demands, and the power to advocate and change the system where many had felt victimized as often as they felt they benefited. Furthermore, though controversial, the process of welfare recipients organizing could also impact the general public’s view of their circumstances. In the health care area the dramatic contribution made by ACT-UP in changing the way that AIDS patients received treatment and altering the priorities and policies that saved many lives is the golden standard for such client advocacy. There are also incidents of mental health consumers organizing in places like Massachusetts. The new mental health legislation passed by Congress recently also reportedly protects and advances the role of patient advocacy organizations.

It would seem past time for such organizations to build, so why not now and why not Alaska, and in fact why not everywhere across America?


Inviting Alexander Humboldt to Your Birthday Party

“Alexander von Humboldt in seiner Bibliothek.” Chromolithograph copy of watercolor drawing by Eduard Hildebrant, 1856 (Berlin: Storch & Kramer) [Graphic Arts Collection]. Rooms in Humboldt’s apartment at 67 Oranienburger Strasse in Berlin, where he lived from 1827 to the end of his life.

“Alexander von Humboldt in seiner Bibliothek.” Chromolithograph copy of watercolor drawing by Eduard Hildebrant, 1856 (Berlin: Storch & Kramer) [Graphic Arts Collection].
Rooms in Humboldt’s apartment at 67 Oranienburger Strasse in Berlin, where he lived from 1827 to the end of his life.

Rock Creek, Montana    Months ago I bought The Invention of Nature: Alexander Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf and put it aside to take with me off-the-grid. I had thought, how appropriate, read a book about the famous German explorer, naturalist, and scientist of the 19th century whose name graces mountain ranges, ocean currents, weather maps, and even US landmarks including things like Humboldt County in far northern California. The book is excellent, but there also turned out to be an unexpected dividend, if you happened to be old-as-dirt and reading the book on your birthday.

Humboldt lived from 1769, virtually at the dawn of revolutions in America and France, until 1859, almost the beginning of the Civil War in the United States. Living to 90 years old is still something worth amazement even in the 20th century more than 150 years later, but then it was truly exceptional.

Humboldt made his mark young, having exhausted an inheritance with a 5-year expedition – and the publications that followed it — that took him deep into South America through Columbia and into Brazil along the Orinoco River. He climbed mountains thought to be the tallest in the world at that time, which we can still see on a clear day near what is now Quito, Ecuador, in order to collect rocks, plants, and take endless measurements. He returned via Havana and cities in the United States where he met and debriefed everyone from President Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin on conditions in South America, though his trip was facilitated by the Spanish government. By the time he returned to Europe at thirty years old after his grueling adventures, he was the toast of Berlin, London, and Paris as well as South America and the United States.

Wulf makes a constant and strong case for Humboldt as a scientist breaking new ground and ahead of his time on subjects as critical as the understanding of the interconnectedness of nature or the environment, as we would see it now, to being an early voice theorizing on what has now become our understanding of tectonic plates in the formation of earth’s landmasses. Enjoyably, she keeps the book from being a mere travelogue by interestingly connecting Humboldt, who has lost his status with many as a household name, to many contemporaries where he had both connections and huge impact. The poet and author of Faust, Goethe, in Germany was a mentor and friend. Jefferson and others were constant correspondents. Simon Bolivar, a man of many statutes in Latin America and claimed as the liberator of a number of countries, was a companion and friend. Emerson and Thoreau followed his footsteps. Byron and Wordsworth included him in poems. Darwin was a fanboy.

Though I have more to go on the book, what makes it a great birthday book for me is reading about his troubles getting into India, which I know too well myself now, and after a 30-year delay his next and therefore last great expedition to Russia at basically 60-years old, when many would have written him off as a dinosaur ready for little more than a pedestal and a headstone himself. He made it all the way to the Chinese border and was able to confirm similarities between mountain ranges in far eastern Russia to what he had discovered in the Andes. For good measure he had theorized that diamonds could be found in combination with other rocks he was finding, and, damned, if they weren’t.

The book is worth reading just for the measure of the man, but it’s also worth a close reading just as a reminder of what is possible as long as we keep the fires burning, work every day and give meaning to our lives and stewardship to our communities, both large and small. Read Humboldt and The Invention of Nature on your birthday, and when you finish, go out find and explore new worlds, and bring the knowledge and experience back to all of us.