Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Greenland and Nuclear Bombs

Reading Barry Lopez’ Arctic Dreams has made me reflect on how I might have taken the opportunity to live in the arctic by volunteering for duty at Thule, Greenland when I was in the Air Force. At some point during my security police training, perhaps midway through, all of us in the same graduating class were given the option to volunteer for duty virtually anywhere in the world. At the time, there were about fifty openings at Clark AFB in the Philippines; otherwise, we would be put on a waiting list and, once graduating from our training, sent within the continental US to where the Air Force decided would be best for us until an opening were to appear at one of the places we had selected. Thule, Greenland was an option; it was considered a hardship tour and only required a year tour of duty because of the isolation and the extreme cold.

In keeping with American history, constructing the base at Thule required the displacement of the native people who had lived at that location. Apparently, the Americans had convinced the Danish Government that this location was the most suitable site, perhaps because of the harbor that was ice-free and open to shipping during two months of the year. Although these native people sued their government, they were denied the opportunity to live where they had for generations.

News reports have emphasized some of the changes occurring in the Arctic as a result of global warming. We tend to think of the arctic as pristine. Only recently have I discovered that Thule was the site of a nuclear accident in 1968, what was known as a Broken Arrow within the Air Force. A fire had broken out inside a B52 carrying four nuclear bombs. It was military policy at that time to keep bombers constantly aloft in the event of an attack and to have these planes carry nuclear bombs. When the plane missed the runway at Thule, all but one member of the crew bailed out. The plane ended up crashing a short distance away on the sea ice. The government claims to have recovered all four of the warheads. One of them might have been recovered from the seafloor but the government denies having to make that recovery effort. Even so, there was radioactive material scattered among the wreckage, and both the American military and the Danish government spent a considerable amount of time on the clean up of this site. The Danes who assisted in the recovery effort developed higher than normal rates of cancer. No report to my knowledge describes the health effects that the American military personnel might have known (this event occurred about ten years after American troops, without the aid of protective clothing, were in trenches downwind from nuclear detonations in the Nevada desert). Eventually, even the contaminated snow and ice was placed in barrels and shipped to an underground facility in Georgia.

I don’t remember whether any of the sources found on the Internet indicated what type of bomb was involved in this accident. Wikipedia includes a long list of the kinds of nuclear bombs developed by this country and the Soviet Union at this link . Years ago, when I was called out of bed by the klaxon in my barracks signifying the existence of another alert, I was assured of five or six hours in the proximity of either a B28 or B43 . Every combat ready fighter at the airbase where I was stationed in England was loaded with a nuclear bomb during these alerts. I stood guard as the munitions people brought out a bomb from one of the silos, eventually loading it onto a F100. These alerts were marked by incredible amounts of tedium as I ensured that at least two people were present when they were working around the bomb. This surveillance was meant to prevent any one crackpot from harming the bomb in some way.

The list of nuclear bombs, nuclear shells, and nuclear warheads at Wikipedia represents the sheer waste of money and research that went into developing these weapons and stockpiling them for future conflicts. Just think of all of that money that could have been used for so many more important things than creating the resources for destroying the Earth and all of the living things on it. It’s hard to imagine that our government would consider using any of these weapons in the near future. Despite the assurance of government officials telling us that the radioactive fallout from nuclear bombs used to destroy underground facilities will not reach the air and will not affect any other location, I doubt those claims and believe that any detonation will create serious complications. Our governmental officials, who have repeatedly lied about war and the negative effects of weapons in the past, cannot be trusted with such deadly weapons in their arsenals. Maybe it is up to individual members of the military to reject their orders when they are given their commander-in-chief’s directive to use nuclear weapons. I personally don’t feel very safe knowing that George Bush has the authority to launch nuclear missiles and to authorize the dropping of nuclear bombs. No one should have that kind of power.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Canadian Geese Wintering Nearby

A number of Canadian geese has been wintering where I live in northeastern Kansas. They are most visible around dusk when groups of ten or so can be heard and seen overhead as they return from their expeditions for food. I was lucky to find several hundred grouped together on Friday. When I returned to the same place on Saturday, all but ten or so were out finding enough food to withstand the night of snow that was forecasted. Many of them were frightened when I approached them on Friday and took to the air just long enough to circle overhead once or twice before coming back.

How someone can find pleasure in hunting Canadian geese is beyond my comprehension. I’m reminded of that scene in Fly Away Home when the geese following the ultralight airplane in their migration south are shot at by hunters. I think the geese have learned that there is a certain amount of protection in living near human dwellings as opposed to those bodies of water that are secluded and seemingly offer sanctuary because of their distance from humans.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Back to School and Basketball

Three of my five online classes are now underway this semester. One period of time I enjoy the most is when my classes are up and ready and the students have gained access but the first assignment remains a few weeks away. The time invested during breaks in revising the quizzes, revising and uploading the assignment pages and the introductory and explanatory material, and updating both the calendar and the dates for the assignments and quizzes suddenly seems worth while. Sure, I have been responding to student questions and discussion postings, but the grading, what I dread the most and what I spend most of my time on, hasn’t yet started.

I currently have forty-two students and will be gaining another fifty when my two other online classes start in February. Although these two additional classes are classified as late-start, that is, ones that start about two weeks after the semester gets under way, students have been asking me about gaining access, not having realized that they signed up for a late-start class.

Not having all five classes start at the same time is easier on me in a number of ways except financially because I don’t get paid unless I’m teaching. There’s a trade off, I guess, in having to undergo less stress and fewer sleepless nights but in forfeiting the money that would start arriving earlier than February 15. It’s always amazing that the Zogby surveys I fill out ask me whether I am part of the investor class. If I had the disposable income for investments, I would also have the money to pay off my student loans, and my wife’s, and to pay off the mortgage and her car. Wouldn’t that be great!

In preparing my classes, I missed the Oklahoma State-Texas basketball game on Tuesday. I saw the first few minutes before getting back to work after dinner and had the impression that it might be a repeat of Oklahoma State’s loss to Kansas. I should have had more faith in Mario Boggan and JamesOn Curry. It turned out to be a historic game with Oklahoma State beating Texas 105 to 103 after three overtimes. ESPN, fortunately, repeated the game on Thursday for those of us who missed Brian Eaton’s thirty-five foot shot to the basket in the last second of the shot clock, the multiple three pointers made by JamesOn Curry, and Mario Boggan’s winning shot in the final seconds. Even the walk-on Tyler Hatch scored during the last overtime. Oklahoma State basketball in particular, and Big XII basketball in general, make these first three months of the year enjoyable. No matter how many essays require my attention, no matter how little money I make, no matter how little initiative my students possess, and no matter how many of their questions reflect not having read the material, there is always Oklahoma State basketball to get excited about.

A few years ago, when CBS was broadcasting one of the Oklahoma State basketball games, they kept leaving the game to show the progress of some Eastern school, something like North Carolina or Duke or Pittsburgh, and after the first half, the network never returned to the Oklahoma State game. I ended up having to write the network to complain. CBS needed to get its priorities straight.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Learning to Adapt to the Environment

Newspaper stories have been reporting on the number of cows that died in western Kansas and eastern Colorado as a result of the winter storm that struck at year’s end. The initial figure included 3,000 cows; revised figures, including the number of cows killed at feedlots, where grass fed cows are fattened with grains before slaughter (see Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation), now estimate that at least 15,000 cows have died.

This economic disaster for ranchers and feedlot owners reflects the problem of raising cattle unsuited for the climate on the Great Plains. Ranchers in the past have known similar problems during severe winters. These kinds of problems illustrate the lunacy of replacing the buffalo, a species that had adapted to the Great Plains over thousands of years, with the ill-suited beef cow. It’s true that the American government in the 19th century recognized that destroying the buffalo would effectively starve the Plains Indians and force them to rely on the government for handouts. That ethnocentric and ignorant view of the native people and that unwillingness to learn from, say, the Cheyenne, the Kiowa, and the Sioux regarding how to adapt to the Great Plains resulted in the economic problems that occurred because of severe blizzards and prolonged drought.

It’s doubtful that anyone in western Kansas and eastern Colorado will recognize the advantages of raising buffalo in place of cows. As Dan O’Brien describes in Buffalo for the Broken Heart, buffalo move aside the snow with their big heads so that they can get to the grass underneath. Frank and Deborah Popper were partially, if not totally, correct in calling for a Buffalo Commons, that is, an expanse of land in the Great Plains that has been restocked with buffalo. The Poppers recognized how suited the buffalo are to the climate of the Great Plains and understood the problems associated with using the underground aquifer to raise crops that are planted, fertilized, irrigated, and harvested using fossil fuels when both the water in the Ogallala aquifer and the fossil fuels are finite resources. Even if a large expanse of open land running from the Dakotas to Oklahoma weren’t set aside, the Poppers recognized the value of raising buffalo, the species most suited to the aridity and the temperature extremes found west of the 100th meridian. It’s true that less water is readily available now, compared to the 19th century when the Arkansas River, for example, actually contained more than a trickle of water. The amount of water required to supply buffalo would still be less than the amount currently used in agriculture. Raising buffalo would ultimately lead to hefty profits when the meat is packaged for retail at a place like Dillons or served at places like Ted’s Montana Grill in Kansas City. I haven’t yet begun to address the health benefits associated with eating buffalo instead of beef.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Squaw Creek

Squaw Creek National Wildlife Reserve , a bird sanctuary located near Mound City, Missouri, which is north of St. Joseph and just a few miles off of I-29, reported recently that 203,000 snow geese are currently at the sanctuary, in addition to the 28,000 ducks, and 295 bald eagles. I manage to visit the sanctuary once every autumn. If I lived closer, I would welcome the opportunity to go there more often; it is about a two hour drive one-way from where I live. Spending time among the birds now, before the approach of a winter storm, would be preferable to preparing for another semester.

During my visit in November on what the merchants call Black Friday, that is, the day after Thanksgiving, there were more than 100,000 snow geese and about 200,000 ducks at the site. The weather that day was abnormally warm, about 55 degrees or so, and a number of frogs were sunning themselves along the pathway to the observation tower. The frogs would have made for an easy dinner for the great blue herons that typically layover before heading farther south.

The snow geese are more easily frightened than Canadian geese and some strange sound or an eagle passing close-by causes nearly the entire flock to suddenly lift off and circle the water where they had been resting just minutes before. All of this activity occurs as the geese are vocalizing to each other; the combination of what the Smithsonian Birds of North America refers to as “nasal barking” creates a cacophony that fills the afternoon and haunts one afterwards.

This nature reserve closes at dusk. A great many ducks return around this time from their forages for food in nearby fields. The combinations of their songs are especially pretty, with some birds more prominent at one moment but silent a moment later. Although I had been capturing the afternoon at this reserve with my camera, I was awestruck by the sounds that I was hearing and would have preferred remaining much longer. Those sounds are replayed in my head when I look at some of the pictures I took during that Friday afternoon.

Friday, January 05, 2007

A New Year Summary

It will be a year in February since I started this blog. I had loftier intentions at first by thinking that I would be addressing my job search and my current job situation, but I opted not to include that element of my life in detail, choosing instead to share my ennui with Ms. Mentor at the Chronicle of Higher Education. My postings initially either delved into Kansas history, particularly a writing and research assignment that my students had once engaged in, or pursued my interests in jazz, poetry, and Irish music. There occasionally have been postings in which I am more confessional about some of the details in my life, but those moments of disclosure are usually followed by the impersonal in the next several postings.

Through keeping this blog, I have learned the virtue of not describing the minutiae of my life. It’s doubtful that anyone really cares how often my poems are rejected or what happens on a daily basis in my life. Perhaps if I were commuting for almost two hours every day, as I once did before I began teaching online, I would find something to say about the idiocy of Kansas City drivers, the poor quality of the roads heading south into Johnson County, or the traffic jams that often tie up I-435, the freeway that loops around the Kansas City metro area.

My wife would say that males in general are less willing to disclose details of their private lives. I’m less taciturn now, but I’m not yet loquacious. There is no reason why I would want to describe the details of my marriage of twenty years or my previous relationships when I was single. Not much of a home repair type, I cannot describe my home improvement projects, apart from planting native flowers and grasses outside. I don’t even repair my car or my wife’s; we’ve actually been quite lucky with our vehicles and wouldn’t own anything but a Toyota.

The BBCNews recently reported that many of the blogs that have been created are generally abandoned within the first month or two because the blogger discovers how little he/she has to say after all. I’m certainly not as opinionated as Teacher Lady , the woman who provided the idea for this summary, but I have a few things to say every once in a while, mostly when I’m either trying to postpone grading a set of essays or when I’m not burdened with the demands of teaching five sections of writing, mostly composition.

Although I am less political than some other blogs, I am very much anti-war. This attitude surfaces at times. It generally doesn’t make much sense to rehash what others have said about current events, despite how maddening or how stupid certain events are in this country and elsewhere. Let it be said that the officials currently in office in Washington seldom reflect my views of government. I have to agree with Alice Walker who, after reading from her current book of essays and when answering questions on BookTV, says that there needs to be a major change in this county because capitalism neglects the majority of the people. When the economy collapses, and once the people come to recognize how government has not and will not meet their needs, some sort of major change will occur.

I confess that I want to spend whatever free time I have on writing essays and writing poems, but I still see myself maintaining this blog for a while longer. There are things I haven’t said yet about the Kidder Massacre and Beecher Island, for example. Who knows, maybe my own life will become a bit more exciting in the near future, not that I want to live in interesting times. Just a little excitement now and then could lead to a few more blog postings. Stay tuned for future developments.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Pawnee Rock

When I get the chance, I try to discover places that I haven’t yet gotten to know in Kansas. While visiting relatives in Pratt over the holidays, I managed to take a side trip to Pawnee Rock, which was a natural landmark along the Santa Fe Trail because it provided an overlook and gave the travelers an idea of where they were headed. Currently measuring 2,000 feet above sea level, Pawnee Rock was higher at one time, at least before the settlers began quarrying the rock for their houses.

If the sky had been clearer (or if it had been less windy and less cold) during my visit, it would have been possible to see farther. According to Cheryl Unruh, whose website Flyover People first informed me of this place, it is possible to see Great Bend (twelve miles away), Larned (eight miles away), and a few other cities and towns from the structure built on top of Pawnee Rock. I want to return there sometime during the summer. It would be a great spot to picnic and to admire the scenery while basking in the sun.

Eventually, I have hopes of visiting Rock City, outside Minneapolis, the geographic center of the US outside of Lebanon, the Garden of Eden in Lucas, and hiking through the Flint Hills and the red hills of Barber County, in addition to revisiting Monument Rocks and discovering a few other places in western Kansas.

If there had been time enough, particularly if my twelve-year-old weren’t in a hurry to return to his video games, I would have liked stopping to take pictures between Peabody and Strong City on the way back from our holiday visit. What I need to do sometime is take a leisurely trip through the center of the state, beginning at Emporia.

At one time, I have hopes of taking my family on a cruise to Alaska, followed by a train ride across Canada, before we visit my sister in Connecticut. I also want my son to meet his Irish relatives and my wife to experience San Francisco, where I once lived, briefly, when younger. It is important, in the meantime, to know the place where one lives now because the exotic, the picturesque, if it cannot be found nearby, cannot be found anywhere.