The Emperor Has No Books

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A view of Teddy Roosevelt’s library.  Sagamore Hill.

this post originally appeared in The Nugget News, February 28, 2017

Multiple news outlets have reported that President Donald Trump does not read books. If these reports can be believed, which is a large-style “if” these days, His Excellency eschews the written word altogether, preferring, one supposes, the background noise of flattering network coverage and the occasional furtive glance at his “so-elegant” self in a gilded mirror.

True or not—and with a nod to the embarrassing lack of articulation demonstrated by Monsieur Trump thus far–I believe it.

This is very bad news for all of us.  I don’t expect the President to be a zealous adherent to Clifton Fadiman’s Lifetime Reading Plan, or to have memorized long passages of Proust, but I would be greatly comforted if I thought that, between issuing executive orders and glad-handing billionaires, he was tucking into Kurt Vonnegut, Cormac McCarthy, or John Keegan, a nice mix of authors that would, perhaps, greatly enrich his thinking.

If I were a scientist I would be hard at work attempting to prove a working hypothesis I’ve developed–that the number of books existing and/or read in a household is inversely proportional to the nitwittery that emanates from its inhabitants. Which is not to say that devoted readers are incapable of flamboyant stupidity. We just know that isn’t true, but still, my spidey-senses tell me there is something in the theory worth investigating.

In a former profession, I went inside a lot of houses. And all kinds of houses: crack houses, whorehouses, homes for rich people, extravagant mansions for really rich people, cockroach-infested hovels for poor people, and all manner of shacks for really, really poor people. Sometimes we even went into the homes of middle class folks, but usually only because little Johnny got caught with a bag of weed in his backpack, or because little Sally forgot her upbringing and boosted a pair of ballerina jeggings from Old Navy.

There were almost never any books. No bookshelves, even. There were always video game consoles, and often times, even in subsidized city housing where the inhabitants were illegally subleasing rooms, there was somehow a Cadillac Escalade in the driveway and a 60’ flat screen in the living room. But no books. Not even a worn out edition of The Cat in the Hat. Nothing.

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This was almost universally true, though in the interest of transparency I must mention the sad case of a notorious hoarder, who was actually crushed to death by his books. We discovered him much too late under a six-foot landslide of leatherbound classics and fading National Geographics. He was, tragically, DRT, which is cop-speak for: Dead Right There.

But the Emperor of America has no books.

We could, for historical interest, compare Mr. Trump to another outlandishly vain and populist president, Teddy Roosevelt. The 26th President was a voracious reader, and is purported to have read a book before breakfast, and perhaps as many as three in the evening. No doubt it was, in no small part, his deep and lifelong readings that made him such a formidable leader of peoples. Books can do that. The founder of the Bull Moose Party estimated that he had read tens of thousands of books in his lifetime, and the library at Sagamore Hill was jam-packed with tomes across a broad spectrum of interests.

Somehow, I believe the Office of the President is better served by Chief Executives who read.

I don’t dislike Donald Trump. I don’t have the time or the energy to spend hating the guy. Mostly, I find him disturbing and amusing, the same way I found Joe Biden disturbing and amusing. Both of them belong to that creepy eccentric class, the world of fabulously wealthy and pandering dolts, and are mostly ridiculous caricatures of American statesmanship. But I sincerely wish that Trump would read books. If he were to call the ranch phone I could recommend some good ones. I’d even send him a box full, free of charge, with a McGuffey Reader on top.

Books have a way of elevating us “onto the adult plateau” as Mark Moskowitz says in his fabulous documentary “Stone Reader”. In that film, Moskowitz goes to extraordinary lengths to find the author of his favorite book, “The Stones of Summer”, which revolutionized his thinking about life. A good book can explode our world, as it did for Moskowitz, and actually make us better human beings.

Even my granddad, a hard-bitten, hard drinking, World War 2 Marine who spent his life chasing cows around the American outback, read books. A lot of them, and toward the end he was reading Agatha Christie because, he said, “It keeps my bean in good shape.”

Roosevelt, naturally, came up with a list of rules for readers. Here is number 6: “Books are almost as individual as friends. There is no earthly use in laying down general laws about them. Some meet the needs of one person, and some of another; and each person should beware of the booklover’s besetting sin, of what Mr. Edgar Allan Poe calls ‘the mad pride of intellectuality,’ taking the shape of arrogant pity for the man who does not like the same kind of books.”

The hero of San Juan Hill reminds us not to be arrogant about the kinds of books we read, which is an important thing. But it also assumes, as an obvious matter, that people are reading.

I wonder what Roosevelt would make of a President, or a nation that would elect him, that doesn’t read at all?

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Slush

this post originally appeared in The Nugget News, February 21, 2017

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A long, dark, winter.  

This morning I woke up at 4 am. This is earlier than usual but I was prompted by the insistent wet-nose poking of our oldest dog, Buddy, who is nearly blind, mostly deaf, and recovering from a nearly fatal injury to his elbow that was probably my fault. He’s 14, and even if the wound manages to completely heal we are, all of us, aware that the long good night is not so very far away.

In a way, he’s become slushy, as hard as that is to accept.

But if it’s hard it’s also true, and so we indulge him in whatever ways we can, which means that I got the message, rolled out of bed, slipped into my moccasins, and let him outside. And with no small measure of frustration I saw, standing with the door open, that it was snowing on the porch like a ticker-tape parade.

Again.

I had been tuned out of the weather forecast, having mostly given up on this winter’s predictions as just more bad news, and digesting the wildly divergent results much in the same way I have come to view our national politics: entirely too loud, often obscenely wrong, routinely annoying, and completely beyond my ability to influence.

I’ve been trying, honestly, to embrace the suck with enthusiasm, and to thrive within the available margins, but mostly, I’ve stopped caring too much about either monolithic and impersonal apparatus—the weather or the government–except as they directly affect my efforts to get things done.

And later today, as it occasionally does, the sun came out. The new snowfall melted quickly and took some of the old stuff with it. That was a win for those of us who, by design, maintain long lists of things to do outside. But it’s increasingly clear that recently, as a ground-based fact in our local life, and in our national dialogue, that we have done little more than triumphantly achieve the season of slush.

The problem with slush is that it nurtures a claim to be many things, but really isn’t anything. It isn’t snow, exactly, it isn’t really ice, and it isn’t quite a warm puddle on the asphalt. On top of that, it’s usually filthy, and backgrounds our daily life like blitzkrieg photos of Polish border towns in 1939. That is to say, it exists entirely in degrees of gray, is uniformly ugly, and deeply conflicted.

I’m really not trying to be dour—though its possible I’m edging up to a rant–but let’s at least be honest about one thing: the “300 days of sunshine” meme was invented in a Bend Tourist’s guide in the 1930’s. It isn’t true at all—the “average days of sunshine” trope exists somewhere closer to half of that—and it has likely not been true, if ever, since the Pleistocene.

“300 Days of Sunshine” is an effective tool for real estate sales, and stocking our local hotels and forests with the paying camper-van and flip-flop set, but it’s also propaganda, and this winter has been particularly long and strenuous. Many of us have had slush creeping into the attics and walls of our homes, wrecking drywall, soaking insulation, buckling wood floors, and at least one family I know is actively pumping a pond out of their basement. Some of us have even come to embrace the people at Service Master as long lost cousins—or something. And I feel confident I speak for many others when I say that if I never hear the words “Ice” and “Dam” used in the same sentence again, I will have lived a fantastic life.

And, however faintly, I can hear the rest of you. It sounds like an admonishment to quit whining. And you would be right about that. It really isn’t my style, and rest assured I don’t like doing it. But then again, there is a great deal of truth in Gordon Tall’s line from the movie adaption of The Thin Red Line: “The only time you should start worrying about a soldier is when they stop bitchin’.”

So, there’s that to consider.

In the meantime we have the slush. We probably have weeks of it ahead. And mud. Lots of mud. In the grand picture of our Republic it appears likely we have a decade or so before the slush and mud form into something useful. And again, maybe that has always been the case. Maybe that’s the quiet lesson history keeps trying to show us, if we can believe those who write it.

So we try to take the lessons, and the temporary hardships for what they are: first world problems. But for us, here on our slushy little rancho in the pines, with our chickens and horses and gardens, it just keeps coming back to those things we care most about—in this case an old dog whose age has made his mind and his body slushy, who we love and respect without pre-conditions, and who we can just barely stand the thought of living without.

So. Let it snow.

 

Under the Volcano

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The Three Sisters in Winter, photo by the author

…this post originally appeared in The Nugget News, February 14, 2017

Yesterday, encouraged by the bluest skies, I bravely opened the door to our shop. Our shop, where I like to futz and putter and try to make things, or fix things, or think about things, had become a desultory crypt of neglect.

That’s my fault. It’s been something of a challenging winter thus far, as you may have noticed, and I’ve tried to conserve and focus my energies on more pressing concerns, which means that sometimes, more often that I would like to admit, I’ve tromped through the snow, opened the shop door, tossed something in, and then closed the door.

But there it was: a big, dark, yawning disaster of disorganization. Fuel cans, battery chargers, scraps of lumber, piles of hunting gear, tools in all of the wrong places, a landfill of my own making. And now it was staring back at me, punctuated by the grating irritation of the talk radio I leave on inside because I believe—with zero scientific evidence—that mice are united in their hatred of The Lars Larson Show, and will seek other accommodations.

So I went to work. And for some reason—probably because our own volcanic peaks were standing up so perfectly in the rarified sunlight—I started thinking about Malcolm Lowry’s excellent novel, Under the Volcano.

If you’ve not read it, the book follows the last day on earth of a British diplomat in the town of Quauhnahuac, Mexico. It is a difficult, sometimes sordid drama, and plays out to its tragic end under the quiet eyes of two ancient and enormous volcanoes.

The volcanoes are important to the story because they lend the perspective of time. They suggest durability, and wisdom—there is nothing happening below that they haven’t seen before–and they are a reminder that the hard hunt for the longer truths often evades us down here, in our little shops and villages, as we scheme and muscle through the daily sturm and drang of an increasingly synthetic 21st century.

It was fitting enough, then, to think of that book while deciding why I actually need an entire drawer full of rusty pipe reamers, or how a box full of .280 Ackley handloads—missing for several months–ended up with a jar of wrecked paintbrushes—all buried under a pair of old hip-waders. It was fitting, I think, because we live in the shadow our own geologic sentinels. Mountains that, when the sun is out and shining on all of that snowy transcendence, we can meditate on just long enough to experience the sublime frisson of our own impermanence.

That should–but mostly doesn’t–spur us into a different way of thinking about things. It might even, in a best-case scenario, cause us to think differently about how we intend to manage ourselves during the Cold Civil War we are apparently descending into.

We can learn a lot from just looking up. There is an old story of a Japanese water colorist who sat outside each morning, staring through the mists at a mountain across the valley. He did this every morning for decades before he ever tried to paint it. And when he finally did paint the mountain, it was a masterpiece finished in minutes. Or so the story goes, and the larger part of me wants very much to believe it is true.

True or not, it was not the story in our shop. Some part of me toyed with the idea of just staring through the mist of the mess a little longer, on the outside chance it would organize itself, and that the great invisible Lord of the Volcanic Cascades would somehow find pleasure with my conviction. But I don’t have those kinds of powers, or whatever that magic is called, and so it was back to unraveling the mystery of how, over the years, I have managed to collect so many combination locks, without recording—anywhere—the combinations, and why they were all in an old ammo can marked: Tape and Glue.

The volcanoes in Lowry’s book are monoliths. They are the Romantics’ notion of negative capability. They say everything by saying nothing. As do our own. They aren’t even noticeably bemused by the strange and grinding duplicities we put on display each day, and that we seem to be insisting on. They just watch. And listen.

It occurred to me, as I performed a kind of kabuki dance with the ponderously heavy and awkward bag containing our wall tent, grotesquely dragging it from one corner of the shop to another, that the vows of silence adopted by various religious orders are increasingly understandable.

What, really, is there to say?

Walt Whitman, who was ahead of most curves in life, wrote about an alternative, and offered a kind of salve for the sharpened dilemmas of modern duplicity that keep stabbing me in the side. He wrote: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” So that’s another way to go, if we can keep our multitudes honest. I don’t know if we can. For certain, the mountains won’t care one way or the other.

In the meantime, down here under the mountains, I was able to get the shop arranged in some kind of working order. It took some effort, and discipline, but I persevered to inject some logic back into the equation. And that kind of work is always its own reward. But this morning, naturally, in a rush to be somewhere else, and forgetting everything I had so laboriously learned, I opened the door, tossed in a bag of ice melt, and abruptly closed the door again.

A String of Pearls

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The author, with actor “Gunny” R. Lee Ermey

It’s never like old times, of course.  We get older, the world keeps spinning, things fall apart, and tucking in behind a crew-served gun, although something like riding a bicycle, feels a little different on this end of the years.  It’s slower maybe, the rust of time and a lot of miles revealed in stiffer joints and reaction times.  But at the Bushmaster Users Conference–although I was there as a journalist–I was also there as an infantry Marine, and there are some pure thrills that don’t change too much.  Hammering targets downrange never gets old.  And I mean that sincerely.  I’ve never seen a sentient human being crawl behind an M2 .50 caliber machine gun, throw a few thousand dollars of ammunition down range on a butterfly trigger, watch steel rendered into swiss cheese, and walk away with anything other than a gigantic smile and a raw, almost giddy, appreciation for the power and magnificence of heavy weaponry.

And there was a lot of heavy weaponry on the firing line.  A 7.62 “Baby Bush”, fired from a Mk 52 ViperLite Nobles Worldwide mount, capable of throwing something in the order of 30k rounds downrange without stopping–not recommended treatment of course–that is also capable of firing at that cyclic rate without failure.  Imagine that.  No misfires.  It cycles through.  Anyone who has ever been in a fight with their own weapon in a jackpot situation, due to malfunctions of any type, can understand how sexy that proposition is.

And Bushmaster has also developed a system that allows our war fighters to change a 30mm cannon into a 40mm cannon in about 45 minutes.  This cannon, which fires a suite of ammunition ranging from High Explosive to Programmable Air Burst munitions and, we are promised, Proximity Munitions in the near future, puts incredible effects on target at impressive stand-off ranges, and when mounted with either the Kongsberg or EOS targeting software and systems is accurate to an almost unbelievable degree.

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Toyota LC 79, with Remote Weapons Station and Bushmaster M230LF

Why is all of this important?  Because, as a nation, we have not made a serious upgrade to many of our capabilities since Ronald Reagan was president.  Because we are, in the words of a retired US Army artillery Colonel at the conference, “significantly outgunned” by our “near peer threats.”

That’s a somewhat shocking revelation to those of us who have assumed, based on the deluge of pretty videos, and not a little arrogance in American firepower and ingenuity, that we are always ahead of the threats our warfighters face.  The threats are real, increasing at pace worldwide, and we aren’t.

It was significant to note the presence of so many of the Baltic and Scandinavian military officers at the conference–who have no illusions about Vladimir and Co., and their designs on the old Soviet–they predate that, even–spheres of influence and hegemony.

And it was quite heartening to see the accuracy of Bushmaster’s weaponry, the sophistication of the Remote Weapons Stations, and the survivability that has been built into the next generation of vehicles.  The General Dynamics LAV–which even “back in my day” was an impressive creature, is even more impressive now.  With the next generation of Remote Weapons Stations, no one has to stand up in the turret–where they are exposed to hostile fire–to acquire battlespace awareness.  The commander and the gunner both have complimentary systems inside the shell of the vehicle.  They can see almost everything, and they can shoot with extreme accuracy on the move–either while they are moving, the target is moving, or both.  That’s lethality.  That’s a force multiplier times ten.  That’s what I want for those war fighters we send down range, the sons and daughters who shoulder the load for Old Glory.

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Back on the gun, and still on target after all these years…

One of the finer demonstrations–which we were privileged to witness in both the runup to the demonstration, and then during the demonstration itself–was the effects on target from a “String of Pearls” firing of Bushmaster’s Air Burst Munitions.  Up against a desert hillside, range techs had built a regulation NATO trench system, suitable for a squad sized element and with a mortar emplacement.  Think of the trench as built in shape of an H turned over on its side, the two legs serving as forward and secondary firing positions, with the little crossbar as a communications trench.  They filled the trench with mannequins in sandbagged positions, and filmed the resulting effects with the aid of Phantom Cameras and an air force of small drones.

Air Burst Munitions can be programmed in three dimensions.  And all of this is done inside the vehicle, by a gunner, who calls up the software in his station and programs the munitions for range, height of burst, time of flight, etc.  Then he fires.  The round flies downrange and explodes at the programmed height above the trench, sending shrapnel down on the defenders inside.  This is not entirely new–some sort of air bursting munitions have existed since WW1, perhaps even before–what is new is the extreme level of accuracy.  As it was described to me, if you can imagine a 3 dimensional box in the air, the weapons and software now integrate so that a 19 year old kid from Arkansas can send a 30 or 40mm round into that very precise box, and make it explode.  By firing a “String of Pearls”–many rounds in succession–that gunner can walk the box precisely over the entire H, and thereby eliminate a strong-pointed position in just a few short seconds.    And he can do it from beyond the enemy’s ability to engage him.

That is called stand-off.  And my compadre, Jim Cornelius, had several long discussions about how stand-off, in that very place, had changed so dramatically in just over a century.  The hills around Big Sandy were once the realm of the Apaches, whose standoff was the distance they could fire an arrow from a short bow.  From where we stood on the firing line, to the target, a distance of about 500m, was perfectly safe.

But today there is nowhere to hide–no defilade is good enough, and stand-off has increased to MILES.  And truly, if we think about ballistic missiles, it increases to thousands of miles.

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General Dynamics LAV with Kongsberg Mount and Bushmaster Cannon

It has always sucked to be in the infantry, and these systems just elevated the suck factor by orders of magnitude.  It’s Kipling:  “Well It’s Tommy This, and Tommy That, and Tommy How’s yer soul?”

War isn’t going away.  It seems likely we may end up living in a continuous state of low-intensity warfare, in one clime or another, on into the foreseable future.  The world is, perhaps, closer and still farther apart than ever, and the competition for resources has never been more immediate.  War is the most horrible of all things, but we owe it to our warfighters to send them downrange with the finest equipment and leadership that we can possibly develop, and I was heartened to see some of those systems on display out there on the Big Sandy.

 

Big Sandy and Bushmaster

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Brass and links piled up beneath the M2.  Big Sandy, Arizona

I have just returned from a weeklong gig covering the Bushmaster Users Conference for a magazine.  I was invited down to this eye-popping event by my former platoon sergeant from the US Marine Corps, Eric Rogers, who went on to become a warrant officer and Gunner, which is a much sought after and prestigious position among Marines.  Eric now works for Bushmaster, and was serving as the Range Safety Officer for the event.

What is it?  Bushmaster makes weapons, and munitions, and sells them to many different countries around the world.  They are perhaps most famous for their chain guns, which you may have seen at work on the US Army’s fleet of Apache helicopter gunships.  They also make a graduated series of much larger cannons for mounting on US Navy ships and other platforms.  And they make munitions to load into these marvelous pieces of engineering.

My compadre and newspaper editor, Jim Cornelius–who is also a lover of weaponry–and I took the long road from Central Oregon to the Big Sandy Range in Arizona, which is located about halfway between Wikieup and Kingman, off of highway 93.  It is one of the few remaining places in the US that citizens, who legally own machine guns, can shoot them, and they hold an extremely well attended and popular event known as the Big Sandy Shoot each year.

 The drive down was punctuated about midway by Walker Lake, near Hawthorne, Nevada, where the Paiute spiritual man Wovoka first danced the Ghost Dance in January, 1889.  He travelled out east with that dance, and with the accompanying vision that properly executing the Ghost Dance might bring back the bison herds.  We know what happened next:  spiritual fervor, born from the thorny bowels of abject desperation, took a deep hold amongst the Lakota at Wounded Knee, the Army got nervous, they had Hotchkiss guns, and ultimately murdered some 150 (most likely it was many more) men, women, and children.

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Wovoka, who dreamed

So the irony of Hawthorne wasn’t lost on me.  Hawthorne, you see, where the Ghost Dance religion was born, is also home to what the US Army calls the largest ammunition storage facility in the world.  And it isn’t hard to believe.  Stretching for miles in every direction are magazines and igloos.  Row after row after row of them, placed down with military precision and marching off into the horizon.

Jim and I stopped for a while on the edge of Walker Lake to contemplate the perfectly shimmering topaz waters of a shrinking lake, and to give a nod to Wovoka, who was merely trying to bring hope to people whose lives and dreams were utterly crushed by a reaching civilization they could not possibly understand.

We arrived at the Big Sandy well after dark, and after fording a deep river (where many people got stuck in the following days) found our encampment amongst the ocotillo and scrub and settled in under a perfect salting of Apache stars.

Over the next few days we had the opportunity to get our hands on some fantastic next generation weaponry, see, sit in, and man the weapons station inside the Osh Kosh vehicle just purchased en masse to replace the military’s aging fleet of Humvees, and to witness some eye-opening demonstrations of air-bursting and high explosive munitions.  We were lucky.  Because we were willing to sleep out on the ground, and because it’s who you know, not what you know, we had extraordinary access, far and above the milquetoast journalist who showed up only for demonstration day.

Which by itself was something of a spectacle.  Military officers and procurement types from over 20 nations were in attendance.  Norway, Lithuania, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, the gamut of our supposed planetary allies, all faced with their own needs, were on hand to witness the joining of new weapons, new vehicles, and a development that will change war fighting forever–the remote weapons station.  I’ll get into that in a later post.

I’m still digesting a lot of this, but wanted to check in quickly, and will post over the next few days on some of the larger issues involving weaponry, next generation technology, and the defense of our nation in interesting times.

In the meantime, I’m back on the Figure 8, under deep snow, and the threat of even more, and happy to be inside with our oldest dog, who is 14 now, and staring each day directly into the abyss of infinity.