Saturday, October 31, 2009

What Should We Do, America?

It's been a long time since we painted military trucks in green-gray camouflage colors. Once they were only painted olive drab. The jungle wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand brought new disguises.

Now when people think of camo colors, they think of beige and tan. The colors of deserts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The color of dust and sandstorms. That's how long it's been since our focus was on hiding in dense growth.

Iraq has largely dropped off our radar screens as citizens. Reluctantly, we are back to Afghanistan. President Obama replaced General McKiernan with General McChrystal. He's taking his time deciding on a strategy and how to support it, seriously dithering according to former VP Dick Cheney. There is validity to that criticism. Meanwhile, a doubtlessly fraudulent Afghan election has taken place. It has taken two months to decide--only to have the opponent drop out of a runoff because it would be hopelessly rigged and flawed also.

Hamid Karzai's government has been criticized as among the most corrupt on earth. Right now and for the foreseeable future it is all we have and all we will have. So now it's time for President Obama to do his business or get off the pot. Pakistan is watching. So is Iran. So is India. So are Russia and China. So are the pundits in America. But how many Americans?

But I want to ask this question of my fellow Americans of all stripes, especially people of faith: When is it finally time for Americans to decide what to do and get it done? Do we double or triple the size of our forces there? Do we just up and abandon the place? Do we muddle along with a grindingly inadequate force because we won't actually support more than that? Do we abandon military strategies entirely but go with a Marshall Plan style humanitarian effort such as we have never seen?

General McChrystal would like 80,000 more troops but might settle for 44K. Probably enough to fail but surely not enough to succeed in stabilizing a country far larger and terrain-wise far more formidable than Iraq. But General M. will be lucky to get 20K. I'm betting the number will be closer to 12K.

But America, whom should we send? Are we willing to send our own flesh and blood? Shall we implement a draft and send only fresh troops who haven't already been deployed to Afghanistan once and to Iraq twice? Are we willing to cough up an income tax surcharge to pay for it all? Are we willing to buy war bonds?

What should we DO, America?

And is attempting a military solution to all of this in direct conflict with our faith? Haven't the true saints been those who have risked everything to: 1) love God above all things (Deut. 6:4-5); and 2) love their neighbors as themselves (Lev. 19:18)? Haven't they been like the wise teacher of the Torah who responded to Jesus that living in conformance with 1 & 2 was above any ritual sacrifice and burnt offering? Didn't Jesus say that the teacher's interpretation was a very close approximation of the kingdom of God (Mark 12)?

Have you ever known a nation that was bold enough to take Jesus at his word? Do you know any churches and faith leaders who do? Have we ever honestly tried the way of Christ?

Our choices in Afghanistan are very limited, thanks in part to so much misguided and failed American involvement in the Middle East and Central Asia over the past 60 years. What is it that we could do following the lead of saints like Greg Mortenson who had the courage to act on their convictions? What is it that we could do that would eventually turn every weapon, instrument and vehicle of war into a relic collecting spiderwebs and overgrown with weeds?

Read the two pieces by Nicholas Kristof, and listen to the two recent interviews on Fresh Air. Then formulate a plan in you own mind. It's our reponsibility as a citizens in this free land. It's being done in our name with our (children's) money and it will profoundly shape the world of the next two decades. It may even have something to do with whether the USA eventually defaults on its massive load of debt.

When asked what most struck her about returning to America from Iraq, former Oregon National Guardsman Rebekkah Mae Bruns remarked, "What stuck me was that the military was at war but America wasn't." Maybe it's time we were.

BTW, Nick Kristof grew up on a sheep and cherry farm near Yamhill, OR just west of Portland. He went to high school with a good friend of mine. Unlike so many columnists and pundits, he has actually spent much of his life traveling and living in the poorest and most troubled areas on earth. He knows the poverty, lack of sanitation, clean water and medical care in Africa. He knows the modern global human slave trade. He knows the plagues of malaria, river blindness and the AK-47. He knows the religious and ethnic chasms of the places we are involved in. He has some ideas.

Do any of the rest of us?


Charles Sennott:

Greg Jaffe:

So, what should we DO, America?


Soul Food

We drove out to Sauvie Island today. Migrating geese everywhere taking a break on their way south. Beautiful day. Gorgeous day on this agricultural gem only minutes from downtown Portland.
The last of the the pumpkin patches and exotic corn mazes was still open. But most of the pumpkins and squash remain in the fields on the island. That's where they'll stay and slowly rot over winter. Too bad they couldn't be gleaned and turned into food or energy.

On the way back into the city we passed one of those busy intersections where fruit and seafood vendors often park their trucks for roadside sales.

I did a double-take, then turned the car around to be sure of what I'd read. Yeah, every time I get near those jumbo shrimp my soul flounders and clams up, too.

I wonder where they get all those free "pumkins" anyway? Matter of fact, what exactly is a pumkin?

I know, it must be a close biological relative of the "punkins" that some of my neighbors grew in Nebraska when I was a kid.

Maybe "pumkins" are the new soul food. But don't let your clams flounder, you shrimp!

All Saints' Day tomorrow. Reformation Sunday. Give thanks for those who gave their lives of faith so that you could have one in freedom. They hungered for soul food. And they were well fed. May you be as well.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Fall Specials

You know the economy is under stress when Sturgis shirts are going for three bucks. Probably knock-offs from China. One of those "must have" things in life that I've been able to not have. So far... There seem to be more and more of those things that I've been able to get by without. Never owned a pickup, a beer sign, a microwave oven, a cable box, a boat, an alarm system, a riding mower, personal watercraft, snowmobile or RV. Have never owned a Harley but do own a '73 Honda 500 Four. Should be the last motorcycle I ever own.

Our lawn mower is also a '73. Bought it new and have worn out one set of wheels already. Still going. Should be the only lawn mower I'll ever own. I don't pay any attention to spring specials on those. No need.

But fall has me thinking about other things. Time to preserve the lawn mower and garden tiller for winter storage. Maybe time to think about long-term storage for my aging body.

Passed up a good deal in Nebraska last month. Fremont Monument Co. was having a fall special on gravestones. Maybe I should get three.

Or, gee, I could go to Costco and maybe get a shrink wrapped pallet load of 10 for a better price.

Just never thought about a fall special on monuments before. But I guess they know what they are doing. It's one of few businesses I remember from my childhood that's still around in the town where I was born.
But I don't ever want a monument or anything that takes up sapce on God's good earth. I want to return to it as naturally as possible, given our crowded and regulated life today. Time to write those instructions specifically since I'm certainly in the autumn of my life. Spring and summer are past. Fall and winter remain.
God, help me to live each day so that my life becomes a monument--a memorial to You--rather than a piece of stone or a piece of land. I know you as Creator of all. I believe in the resurrection and a glorified body that will bear as much resemblance to my dying one as a blooming tree bears to the seed from which it sprang. This re-creation requires no spare parts temporarily preserved in formaldehyde, steel, concrete and buried under feet of soil.
It requires only your hands, your power, your steadfast and undying love. Fall specials that run all year.
Thanks, God!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Memorial Gardens

I've only been inside only one VFW hall in my entire life. That was in Woodland, Washington. I went to let them know there would be a special worship service two blocks down the street last November. We would honor and pray for vets, provide a brunch. I wrote the service. Led it in my U.S. Air Force uniform. Nobody from the VFW came. They had a better dinner of their own.

I was glad to leave the VFW hall. The cigarette smoke inside was so thick that my eyes watered. I had to wash my clothes after having been in there only five minutes.

While in Nebraska last month, I took pictures in my hometown. I've never been to the VFW here, but I notice they have a patriotic bench. Anybody can come for the food and drink. They are open Sundays. Just like church.

They provide color guards at local cemeteries for Memorial Day and Veterans' Day ceremonies. Probably do also for funerals of deceased vets in the community. If anyone wants.

They have a Memorial Garden on the west side of the building. It obviously needs a little paint on the fence. Could use some gardening, too. I wonder how long it's been like this and if it ever looked better.
I often wonder how much some of this means to most Americans these days.

I served four years of my life during the sixteen years that America was mired in Vietnam. Now, I don't have any difficulty figuring out how life here was improved and secured by our involvment in World War II. But really, when I look at either my 31-year-old daughter or my nieces and nephews and their kids, how were their lives made better by our 16 years in Vietnam? Please tell me soon.

Over 39 years ago, a college friend Wayne and his wife Susan emigrated to Canada. Wayne wanted to avoid serving in the military here. I stayed and served because I wanted to have a voice in the future of our country.

Now, Jean and I are wondering if we made the wrong decision to stay here--even after returning from my Air Force duty overseas. Jean has had a very tough time this year--after tougher and tougher ones the past several. Kids at school are becoming more unruly by the year. Maybe by the month. She gets depressed on weekends thinking about going back to school every Monday. But what else can she do? She's our health insurance. We couldn't afford it on our own. With a previous brain tumor on your medical charts, what new private insurance plan would call it anything but a non-covered pre-existing condition? Would she be denied insurance if she found a different job? At twice or three times the going rate? What employer would even want her on their plan? But how healthy is it to stay in a job that depresses a person every day?

Our friends who went to Canada face no such predicament. They could change jobs anytime they wanted. No concerns about loss of health insurance. Not an issue. No matter what happens in the future, they will never be denied health insurance coverage, never face the prospect of bankruptcy over health care costs. I remember when their first daughter Claire was born in the mid 70's. It cost them a buck-fifty to buy a nursing bra for Susan. That's it.

Take a look at that memorial garden. If that's a memorial garden, then I don't know what either a memorial or a garden is.

America's health care system and costs are bankrupting the country. So-called "reforms" being proposed won't really be any more sustainable than the current unsustainable system, so far as I can tell. Any better than that memorial garden? Don't think so.

It's been 34 years since Saigon fell and America's travail in Vietnam officially ended. Do we know and celebrate what it got us? Anything besides smoky VFW halls and forgotten memorial gardens? We really ought to have a good answer. Oughtn't we?

Where is our unsustainable health care delivery system going with us? Where will we be in five years, ten years? Twenty? We ought to know the answer to these questions. 'Cuz, like it or not, we're going there. Then, what will we tell our kids? They may expect an answer.

Veterans' Day is coming. Visited a memorial or a VA hospital lately? No? They're smoke-free. Open Sundays, too.

Now, what are we going to do with these things and what they got us?


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

No Backup

I didn't even call for backup. They provided it on their own.

The 20-somethings at the church home community gathering last night spent quite a bit of time discussing community and communication. Has the explosion of electronic communication actually created community?

The resounding sentiment was "No!" A young social worker backed up how much human communication is non-verbal. In other words, we must have face time.

Another observed that huge violations of appropriateness and boundaries occur when people put out very personal stuff for unlimited numbers of total strangers to read.

Consider the comments submitted online to any op-ed piece, printed either in a newspaper or posted online. From the remoteness, anonymity and aliases of our online identities and keyboards, we humans have taken to using the most degrading and judgmental name-calling to shout down each other's ideas. Would you say these things to a person across the table from you at a coffee shop? If you did, could you defend yourself or the nasty words?

I didn't have to call for backup on some of my wacky observations about modern electroculture. The younger folks provided it all on their own. That gives me some hope. Maybe it's time we headed for the exits of the technology train before it's moving too fast to jump.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Brave New Mall World

Never going to a mall has its down side. It can feel like an alien landscape when one re-enters after a long absence. Jean and I walked there last Saturday since it was too rainy to do our usual outdoor walk.

At times it feels like playing human pinball. People are side-by-side barely moving, and we come dodging and darting through hoping to sustain a certain heart and respiration rate for an hour or so. Three laps on each level usually does it. By then we are more than ready to leave.

Subtract the stuff made in China and the entire mall would implode. Just like LA without the cars and all the roads they require. Take them away, and the metropolis would fit in 1/10 the space.
As if mall stores didn't have enough stuff, there are concourse kiosks to further entice us--half of them trying to sell us new phones and blackberry-type devices.
And all over the place there are younger humans who are perhaps the early prototypes of the bionic hybrids we are sure to become in less than two decades. Some boys, but mostly girls. They walk, zombie like, led around by rectangular electronics held before them, usually in their right hands, like some kind of modern day divining rods. Their right thumbs flail like the wings of a hummingbird. They are texting. Some send and receive as many as 400 a day. They do this indoors, outdoors, at school, shopping, at the movies, probably even while swimming or playing tennis--if any still do that.
A new medical condition may be arising before our eyes: carpal thumb syndrome.
What do the constant texters not see of the world when the horizon has foreshortened to the length of their forearms, extends no further than their fingertips for so much of the day?
When attention span and thought are spread so broadly in bleeps shorter than a Twitter tweet, are brains learning to focus deeply on anything?
Is deep, reflective thought even possible for a new generation of humans? I'm not sure if humans who haven't developed along the way the ability for critical and deep thought, for ability to focus, will suddenly be able to pick it up later in life. I'm not sure we'll be humans, at least the kind of humans that have brought us to this level of development, without the thought processes that have been our nature for millennia. Based on what we now know about the development of the brain, I'd say the odds are strongly against it.
And how will that generation of humans raise and socialize their own young? We really have no earthly idea, do we? Not to worry, though. There's an ap for that.
This probably sounds very judgmental from an old guy who can't keep up. Maybe I'm wrong. I dearly hope I am. Reports from veteran teachers in primary schools tend to back me up, though. Again and again they report a shift in the kids they've seen over the past 25 years. But the real wave hasn't hit yet. Give it a decade or so.
Is electromultitasking a wondrous gift or an impediment to staying focused on anything? Do artists paint better while multi-tasking? Has anyone ever truly mastered the piano or the cello by multi-tasking as they do it?
Maybe we will be like the store: Forever 21. Maybe 21 is the new 13 in our brave new mall world of the mind.
But we can still buy shiny crosses, now barely distinguishable from the NY of the Yankees, the Mercedes-Benz star, the ankh symbol from ancient Egypt, or the Superman "S". All made in China. Unlike most of the people in the mall, I still remember when we made things here. Which makes me old and obsolete. Mall world culture has no need for elders (not synonymous with "the elderly") because culture is now electronically driven by the least experienced humans and their devices, not wisdom driven by those with the most experience and context under their belts. If you've ever felt like a river barge being pushed by a tiny tug that hasn't been where you are, it may not be a coincidence.
Brave new mall world unfolding before our eyes.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Porno, Or No?

Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. Proverbs 22:6

I don't know what to think.

About two years ago, my author friend Karen Zacharias ( asked me to do some research. I needed to find area relatives of a helicopter pilot KIA in Vietnam in the mid-60's. A living buddy wanted to contact the family. I went to the public library to search several weeks' worth of newspapers on microfilm 'til I finally found the obituary listing all the surviving family members.

Those newspapers from the so-called "free love" 60's, a time regarded by many as a time of vanished morality... Well, to put it mildly, the newspapers were shocking in their modesty. The lingerie ads from the big department stores were first of all B&W, no color. Secondly, they were all stylized line drawings, not soft porn photos of women in seductive poses. Now the ads from Kohl's, JC Penney, even mundane stores like the local Fred Meyer, feature full color shots of women and their wear that is almost equivalent to Playboy features of not so long ago.

But that's almost nothing compared to what Ms. Vicky puts in her store windows at 3x life-size.
Tell me, what's a person to think? What are little kids to think, teen girls? Specifically, what are boys and young men to think? Are they to be completely inert to it? Do the ads and photos communicate: THIS is what I want you to see in me. This is ALL I want you so see in me.

Then, why manufacture the "garments" at all?

But don't women have the "right" to wear things that make them feel feminine, glamorous? Of course! But perhaps it's wise to keep in mind that things send messages about us. Sometimes the messages received might be very different from the ones we think or intend. They might even scare us if we knew.

I wonder if store windows like this do precisely that: send a message that might not be all that wholesome. Or safe to send. Is it porno, or no?

I think the secret's out.
You can't see it in the detail of the photo, but the whole display is for a line called "Cheeksters". Yeah, words all over the bottom of the underbritches. So why put 'em there if they won't be seen by anyone but the wearer before donning them? Hmmmm...?
But wait! There's hope! The whole add campaign is themed on the color pink and those life-saving, world-changing concepts of peace, hope and love. Kinda brings to mind Apostle Paul and 1 Corinthians 13:13: And now, faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
Maybe Ms. Vicky's keeping her faith a secret. One can always hope. It's going to take lots of love to shepherd our young through the world we have created for them. May they and their parents find peace. I hope. Amen.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Government-Run Football

"There is no place like Nebraska, dear old Nebraska U. . ."

So goes the first line of the ancient anthem of my alma mater. Nebraska loves its football team. Since there is only one state university system (several campuses in Lincoln, Omaha, Kearney and points west of there) the entire state are Cornhuskers. No pro basketball, baseball, soccer or football teams. Years ago there was an ice hockey team, the Omaha Knights. . . But you couldn't pack 80,000 people into an ice hockey match at the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum in Omaha like you can into Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.

Nebraska fans are legendary for their good manners and politeness. A Louisiana sportswriter in Lincoln last month for the 55-0 homecoming rout by the 'Huskers wrote things up pretty well. . Good for you, Nebraskans! May it never change.

But did anyone ever stop to think that we are talking government-run football here? Could we really call it anything else?

Here in Oregon, the highest paid state official is not the Governor, Secretary of State or the Adjutant General of the Oregon National Guard. It's the head football coach at the U. of Oregon. He's a new hire, in the first year of his contract. Salary? Over $500,000 annually.

Apparently, half a million quid is enough to give you second thoughts about suspending a senior player (LaGarrette Blount) for smacking a Boise State player upside the jaw right in front of the TV cameras after the Oregon Ducks were upset by the Idahoans. Coach Kelly suspended Mr. Blount from play for the remainder of the season. But only a few weeks later he backpedaled. Too much at stake for this player's career and future earnings, I guess.

And recently, a high official at Florida State University admitted that some of his football players had received "inappropriate help" with so-called "online courses" in order to not be academically ineligible. They weren't cheating, mind you. Just received "inappropriate help".

Just what is that? Exactly?

Colleges and universities are the minor league farm clubs that fuel the pro teams. Using a hefty injection of taxpayer dollars.

Just why does no one object to government-run football? I haven't yet figured that out.

Meanwhile, there is no place like Nebraska. We knew that back in college.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Happy Birthday, Hilary!

Where have three decades and a year gone? My ears still ring with the first cries of a little voice imprinted on my heart and soul at 10:16 AM PDT on 10/13/78. I love you, my wonderful daughter!

I love you the way I do your Mom: for life.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Symbols and Signs

Five hundred years ago, a sea of words came to the world through the pen and the mind of Dr. Martin Luther. Parish priests didn't know the basic tenets of the Christian faith. Ordinary people knew even less and came to worship largely out of fear. Their fate was hell unless saved from it by the church--which needed their constant patronage of seven sacraments (well, last rites only came once, usually) and regular attendance at mass which was conducted in a language no one spoke but which only the highly educated studied in academia. Luther wrote catechisms and translated the Bible into people's daily language.

Luther found no peace for his conscience in the church that had been 1.5 millennia earlier the vessel of Good News.

Eventually he did find peace for that conscience in Scripture itself, specifically in the opening chapter of the letter to the Roman Christians. Light came to darkness.

And the world changed.

Luther had many words in his volumes of writings, aided in publication by the development of movable type printing, that would be useful for us to ponder today.

One insight today stands out to me. Luther said that we are tempted to follow many gods. Sometimes we become confused about which god it is we worship. Luther said the test is simple: that which we flee to and cling to in times of stress is our true god.

Having walked across the grounds of a Nazi death camp myself, I can understand perfectly the fears of modern day Jews and their comparison of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler and the Nazis of my own ethnic homeland. He has made numerous statements in abject denial of history and has called for Israel to be wiped off the face of the earth. When your people have had the experience of 20th century Jews at the hands of educated, intelligent, modern people, you don't dismiss such talk.

But for the life of me I cannot fathom the comparisons of our own president to Adolf Hitler. He's been called a dictator, someone who is trying to totally tear down all that has made America great. Really? Do people even know the conditions and the events of history to which they so readily draw comparisons? But fear doesn't require proof. Or intellectual honesty.

Hitler didn't stage a coup or a revolution. On January 30, 1933, Hitler became chancellor of Germany by entirely legal means. He was actually asked by the Germany's president to form a coalition cabinet because the two preceding chancellors were so ineffective at governing. The economy was in shambles following economic depression, and Germany was saddled with high reparations payments as part of the peace terms following World War I.

It was the economy and fear, loss of national pride, that led Germany down its dark path, dragging the world with it. Politcis and the economy failed. Dark times always send us looking for someone to blame. They identify the gods we cling to and worship.

Here in America we have lived with economic fantasy for over two decades. The full price has not yet been paid. It's not that government has lived too well. The people have lived far too well on debt that they thought would somehow disappear with future economic growth--despite the fact that we have been on a campaign of job exports for most of the past 30 years.

We haven't laid the groundwork for future energy or food security. We are defunding education. We are fighting wars on credit. Health care costs way too much. We are facing hard times and are no longer the world's leading manufacturer. We sense a loss of national pride, see dimmed hopes for the future.

What gods or God will we flee to and cling to in the days and years ahead? Will we take responsibility for a better response to our difficulties, or will we look to assign blame? These are serious questions to ponder, and for sure they must not be cast in comparisons that may be dead wrong. For God's sake, America, let's know history before we repeat it.

May God bless America with repentance, humility, honesty and love. May we be led by the better angels of the true God, not the angels of darkness and fear that have overtaken others in the past. Amen.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Living in the Past, Part II

It's hard to not think about the past when walking down the main street of Arlington, Nebraska. There haven't been gas pumps at the former French Oil Company (John Anderson's Conoco station before that) since gas was still well under $2.00 per gallon.
And directly behind in the background is the former F&R Foods. Farnum Franzenberg and his wife Rosella ran it for many years until they retired. Then somebody else. Then it closed, reopened, closed again.
I remember when the streets were busy and lined with parked cars when people shopped here. Saturday night was the time to go to town and shop for groceries, sell eggs and cream, maybe pick up some chicken feed or a salt block. Get a haircut at Rich Melvard's barber shop. Maybe you'd even stop in at Loftis' Cafe and have a root beer float or a pineapple milkshake. There were dances at the dancehall down at the Washington County Fairgrounds. For a number of years, stock car races every Saturday night in summer. The heavy perfume of drying alfalfa wafted up from the Arlington Dehydrator plant. Regular gas may have cost 24.9 cents a gallon--tax included.
Those days won't return. The past won't return anywhere. But it feels like we are expecting it to in America these days. Somehow, we think, everything will just click and suddenly America will work right again and all our problems and money woes will go away. At least that's how it feels.
But will it be that simple? If we don't think we have some very hard and serious work ahead of us, are we living in the past?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Happy Anniversary!

Last night we went out for dinner. We celebrated in the Vista Spring Cafe with a tasty salad and a superb IPA. It was the first anniversary of the longest day of our lives: Jean's brain tumor surgery--October 7, 2008.

One year ago today, October 8, was the pits. Jean was flat on her back, unable to turn her head without becoming dizzy or ill, unable to eat, unable to even think about rising from bed and trying to stand or walk with double vision and absolutely no strength.

Today, loved by God and us, she is well and whole again. But her recovery is no more miraculous than each successive breath and heartbeat that we take for granted. The seeds of God's love and life are planted in us and all around us. May we daily bask in this grace and give thanks.

Walk today in this glorious autumn light. Walk each day in peace and joy.

Last year, on October 5, Hilary ran her first Portland Marathon in the rain. It was all for her Mom. Thank you, Jean and Hilary, for running well together!


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Living in the Past, Part I

As we contemplate the prospects of sending more troops to Afghanistan, we might confront the question of why as a nation our military is stretched thin and exhausted. The short answer is that we never wanted to own or to know the cost of war: no draft, no war bonds, no tax surcharges so that we'd pay as we went rather than sticking our kids with the bill. No use to change any of that now. We'll just keep sending the same ones back. And, heck, it's a job for those who enlist in a stinky economy. Slam dunk!
All those noble denial mechanisms dissolve against the reality of bait-and-switch facing many of our current war widows.
Check my friend Karen Zacharias' blog: War Widows: Forced to Violate Their Faith. Click on: Be sure to read the comments. Many are from war widows and children of the fallen, not our favorite pundits and talk show hosts. If you are a citizen, this concerns you.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


U.S. highway 30, The Lincoln Highway, is right at my back as I took this photo. I'm looking down the deserted sidewalk that once led to the passenger and freight depot on the rail line running though Arlington, NE. Nobody has walked this way in decades. So now the walk needs to be mowed.

There used to be coal bins along the tracks near the depot. Different bins for hard and soft coal. Some people actually heated their homes with coal stoves and furnaces when I was a kid. The train brought it in. Locomotives still used it for fuel. Now we power our iPods with it.

I didn't ride my first train until I stepped onto one in Paris, France in June 1968. After an overnight flight, we students had breakfast and visited a few sights in the City of Lights.

It would be another 17 hours on that train before we arrived in Vienna, Austria where I would spend much of the summer as a student. I would ride many miles on trains that summer and grow to love them. I appreciated their roominess, the smoothness of the rails, the near-total lack of "clickety-clack".

Europe had been blown to bits in World War II, and nearly the entire rail system had to be rebuilt. New technology was developed: pre-stressed concrete ties with cast-in bolts to tie the rails down tight. Welded rails that had no perceptible joints.

And the Metro in Paris had something new and really wonderful. Those urban trains had wheels with a hard rubber insert between the steel rim and the steel hub. They dampened sound and vibrations and rolled almost noiselessly.

Then I came back to the USA and rode lumbering, antiquated trains that bumped along on split wooden ties with spikes coming out, huge gaps between the sections of rails that were still bolted together. Ear-splitting shrieks, bumps and noise on the Chicago Ell. Ouch!

Back there in Nebraska, hardly anything moves out of Arlington by rail except a little grain. Most of that moves out by truck. Nothing comes in by rail. Two types of freight move through: 1) coal from Wyoming bound for coal-fired power plants and 2) shipping containers with stuff made in China stacked two high.

But guess what! We finally have prestressed concrete ties and welded rails. Yet not a single mile of high-speed rail and barely any plans to build one.

China is busy building 13,000 miles of high-speed rail. France recently ran a train at 347 MPH. Not Km/hour, MILES PER HOUR!

Wouldn't it be fun to get from Omaha to Denver, Chicago, Kansas City or St. Louis like that? How about from San Francisco to Vancouver, BC? SFO to LA? Washington to Boston? Maybe Miami to Boston?

Check this out:

Sure, other places have population density we don't have--on average. But we have places of growing density on our coasts, heartland and the front range of the Rockies.

But even for the coal and the containers... And all the grain that gets shipped out of the heartland. There's a cheaper faster way. But only if we build it. Someday, we'll wish we had. It will never be cheaper than today.