Monday, August 22, 2011

The Panama Canal

Before reading David McCullough's "The Path Between The Seas" I knew little about the building of the Panama Canal.  Sure, I'd heard about the mosquito infested jungle with its tropical fevers and malaria.  I recalled the world famous photo of Theodore Roosevelt in white suit and straw hat at the helm of an immense steam shovel. But I had no idea of the number of years this project took, the geographic and engineering obstacles it overcame or the incredible sacrifice in human life it involved. 

Today technology seems to advance in such a cerebral way. In sterile laboratories behind surgical masks, in pristine manufacturing facilities controlled by computer software and operated by immense "sweat-less" machinery. The construction crews one encounters along the highway or in the process of erecting yet another mall seem to lack the glistening skin and dirt smeared faces once associated with labor. Instead, its backhoes, bull dozers and excavators; fancy new hard hats and fashionable safety apparel; the ever present cell phone and of course the reusable insulated coffee cup. For some reason, no one ever appears to be working. I know this isn't true, because things are getting done, but whatever happened to the pick and shovel and perspiration soaked head band?

Obviously the modern day Occidental isn't about getting his or her hands dirty. If the job we need done can't be accomplished with a machine, then we ship it overseas or we open the fence along the border for a few months. When the grunt work is at an end, the illegal work force is shipped back home at tax payer expense.

Indentured servants, African slaves, Chinese labor gangs and that old main-stay, the impoverished European immigrant seem to be a thing of the past now that most of our dirty work is being done in other parts of the world. But lets keep things in perspective. Although the Panama Canal is considered one of the United States greatest 20th century achievements, who really provided the labor? 

"The full work force in the last years of construction numbered about 45,000 to 50,000, which was nearly equal to the combined populations of Colon and Panama City. But the total number of white North Americans was only about 6,000, of whom roughly 2,500 were women and children."

Conditions were so bad in Panama during the early years of construction, so rife with disease and work related injuries, that both the Japanese and Chinese governments refused to allow their citizens to work in the canal zone. Instead, it was the black islanders of the Caribbean who made up the majority of the pick and shovel crews; 20,000 from Barbados alone. 

"Segregation by color, long an unwritten rule in Panamanian Society, became established policy. There were separate mess halls for blacks. Housing, schools, hospitalization were separate, but by no means equal." White employees were paid in gold (the American standard at the time) but people of color would be referred to as "silver roll" employees, receiving their wages in silver. They were paid 10 cents an hour and worked ten hours a day, six days a week in the equatorial heat and humidity. And of course, just because they were black, they were no less susceptible to death by malaria or yellow fever regardless of the day's prevailing sentiment. 

I try to teach my kids that everything contributing to civilization's infrastructure was made from the earth by labor at the expense of energy. I also remind them that men are created equal and no man should purposely pass off his required "dirty work" to another. An education should not exempt a person from doing their fair share of the labor required to sustain their own life.

Which brings to light a great quote from George Goethals, the third American Chief Engineer to oversee the work of the Panama Canal (a man who drove himself sixteen hours a day on a regular basis):

"Executive ability is nothing more or less than letting the other fellow do the work for you."

With all technology's advances, that is one thing that appears to have remained the same.

Synchronicity and the Panama Canal

The  last pages of David McCullough's "The Path Between The Seas" touched on an epic coincidence; the beginning of the first World War and the opening of the Panama Canal. The Canal was both a physical and symbolic leap forward for civilization just as the  "War to End All Wars" was an equally immense step backward. 

The Panama Canal cost four times more than the largest cumulative expenditure of any project in US history, including the acquisition of all US territories to date (from the Louisiana Purchase to Alaska, which had totaled $75,000,000). It was completed without graft.  No pay offs or kick backs or price gouging have ever come to light and even the huge cost in human life (slightly over 5,000 lost) can be offset by the worthiness of the cause and the appreciation by those involved of the magnitude and meaning of the work.

Myron Herrick, US Ambassador to France (1912-14, 1921-29) had been Phillipe Bunau-Varilla's social and political chaperone in the United States.  It was Bunau-Varilla's vision and arduous campaign that convinced the US government to rescue the French dream of completing the seemingly impossible challenge of building a path between the seas.  

Years later, on August 3, 1914, it was Ambassador Herrick who delivered word to the French Prime minister that Germany had declared war on France.  That news arrived on the same day, at the same hour, that Phillipe Bunau-Varilla, aboard the ship Cristobal, passed into the lock at Pedro Miquel to mark the official opening of The Panama Canal.   That the staggering magnitude of these two events had occurred in such "yin-yang" fashion caught my attention.  It seemed so perfectly synchronistic.     

A word coined by the psychologist Carl Jung, synchronicities are people, places or events that our souls attract into our lives to help us evolve to higher consciousness. The more aware we become of how our soul manifests, "the higher our frequency becomes and the faster our soul manifests positively." 

 Jung believed that each time we encounter "acausal parallelisms" or meaningful coincidences-- synchronicities-- we have attracted, or created these experiences.  It is why we are here. It is how our reality works.

If we think of human consciousness as sprouting from a  genetically connected root, much as an aspen grove grows as one large plant, then the grinding together of the tectonic plates of our universal "Id" or "collective unconscious" may be what gives birth to such phenomenon.  Geologic, biologic and psychologic evolution of the planet and its species might occur at synchronistic seams or tension-filled tipping points.  Technological and spiritual chaos meets spiritual and technological order; past collides with future and the present manifests in a rapid succession of occurrences that dramatically alter the course of the earth's history and development.  

Compare this essay's accompanying photos.  Pictured are two types of trenches.  One is associated with WWI, the other with The Canal.  They are cisterns holding two parallel sets of hardships, failures and successes.  How can the pathos played out in these subterranean arenas not touch the imagination and hint of a universal force that holds us in its sway?   History is both an exercise in observation and interpretation.  It is the doorway to who we were, what we are and who we will be.  Step through and let your imagination lead you.     


An article in the "New York Times" Monday edition stated that global arms sales brokered by the United States have never been better. Recession be damned, we've done to the French and Italians what Lance Armstrong did to their cycle teams; whipped their sorry shaved-leg asses! Great! 

Now think about global warming and the rather epic world wide cultural reformation it is going to take to reign in this trend if in fact it can be reigned in at all. Wouldn't a little low cost legislation limiting or ending weapons sales to foreign concerns have a far more direct and positive impact on our quality of life and health of planet?  It is strange that we think we can cure the world of excessive carbon emissions but the only way to get rid of an M-16 is to tear it from a solider's cold dead hand. 

Count The Branches

“Count the Branches" is a game they play in Spain.

A beautiful woman finds a soft spot under an orange tree and lies down on her back. She must try to count all the branches of the tree and she must count out loud... "uno, dos, tres," ... in the meantime her handsome lover must get busy under her skirt. If he makes her lose count before she reaches the top branch of the tree, he wins and they may play again. On the other hand, if she reaches the top of the tree and has counted every branch, he loses. The beautiful woman must then say " adios" to the man and go in search of a more talented opponent. It is a very old game.

The Catholics banned "Count the Branches" for many years, but when the Cortes party came to power they tossed out the Jesuits and again legalized the game. As a matter of historic interest, there is a large park in Madrid where in spring there blooms a huge orange tree (they cover this tree in the winter to prevent it from freezing). This tree was transplanted more than a hundred years ago from the town of Seville. It was brought to Madrid with a team of 150 Belgium horses gifted to the crown by King Leopold I and planted in the park at the request of Queen Isabella II (1830-1904).

Isabella II had been installed as Queen of the Spanish throne at the age of thirteen. In order to keep the French happy, and they have always been a tough bunch to keep happy, Spain's court dignitaries decided that Isabella should marry her cousin Prince Fernando, a very snappy dresser much loved by both the French and Spanish people. In a cruel twist of fate it was soon revealed that Fernando wasn't quite the man Isabella had expected. Night after night, when the candles of the royal nuptial chamber were extinguished, the only sound to be heard by the Queen's late shift attendants was the rhythmic, sedative like snoring of her young Prince. It was not that Isabella wasn't attractive. Compared to ladies of the royal Hapsburg clan, she was down right stunning. No, it was just that Fernando was born to prefer the leotard leggings and gallant military dress of the male conquistador. Chicks just didn't do it for him.

In need of an heir, the Queen decided that a little orange branch counting might be just what the doctor ordered. After all, she had not yet given up on Fernando. He still was a dashing young man; she admired his penchant for fine perfume and they had spent some wonderful afternoons comparing the weaves of exotic clothing in the many shops and open-air markets of their lovely city. The Queen, who was not one for searching out dark clouds, preferred to think of Fernando as...well… just a sleepy young bull. And nothing could be better than a good competitive game of "Count The Branches" to put a little life back in the lad. Aware that her dreamy-eyed husband might need more time than most to make her lose count of the branches, Isabella ordered the largest orange tree in Seville to be brought to Madrid and placed in the park outside the Royal Palace.

On a glorious spring day, after the tree had firmly taken root, the Queen challenged Fernando to a match of C.T.B. and off to the park they went. Many hours passed. Finally, looking exhausted and forlorn, Issy (as her close friends liked to call her) and Fernando returned to the Royal chambers. Soon everyone in Madrid knew. There were exactly 632 branches on the orange tree that had come from Seville. 

Now, since Isabella was the Queen of Spain and there were many political alliances to consider, she decided that she could not say "adios" to Fernando. Sure he had lost but there was the country to consider and beside, she loved when they did their nails together. So Fernando remained her husband. Fortunately, as royal lineage goes, the House Guard, emboldened by the Queen’s victory, covertly challenged his boss to a match a few days later. As you can imagine, Madrid's ruling champion of "Count the Branches" (a title no girl really wanted to hold) graciously accepted.

To this day, there is a city holiday celebrating the outcome of that sporting event. It is said that on a brilliant April morning in 1848 loyal Spanish subjects through out Madrid heard their beloved Queen Isabella scream "qui, qui, qui…iiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnceeeeee!” At first, many thought the Queen was calling for her favorite court cat Quincy, but then they realized that she had actually reached the fifteenth branch of her orange tree and could count no higher.

The House Guard had won! To the nation’s jubilation, an heir to the throne named Alfonso was to follow some nine months later (Isabella bore many children, but none were thought to be Fernando's.).

So now, every April, on the 15th day of the month, the Spaniards of Madrid pop their corks and let the wine flow...its "Count The Branches Day*!"

*The Queen vs, Guard match was one of many that Isabella would play during her reign. The date of the first “Count the Branches” challenge is actually thought to taken place on the twenty-first of April but for obvious reasons, the 15th became the official day of celebration.

One Gets Off, One Gets On

I'm on the subway heading home during rush hour. The train is packed and I mean packed.  Sardine City.  Cheek to cheek.  Pervert "rubby-rubby"-Heaven.

The train pulls into the station. It’s outbound for Brooklyn. I notice a man standing on the platform backed by the milling mass of commuters. It is very hot. As the car doors open I am wondering how this fellow can stand it.  He is wearing a beaver hat, a black over coat, and has a beard with long curling side burns hanging from his temples like sweaty bed springs. 

Just then the stench of the station wafts in and like a breathing body, the car exhales a single person; ejected, discharged, popped like the head of a swollen pimple. I clutch the overhead pedestrian rail; press my back against a boney mass of elbows and knees. I am determined to hold my position. I will not be pushed out. 

And I watch him, this anemic looking man with the long side curls and top hat.  He is flitting back and forth now on the platform, dancing a flat-footed, side-step shuffle before the subway car entrance.  He is fiercely intent, his body coiled with the energy of a starving squirrel bent on darting into traffic for a acorn spotted on the pavement.  

Suddenly he charges.  My world goes silent as the slow motion sequence of a body hurled against a wall of suit and tie passengers unfolds.  His shoulder glances off a brief-case shielded rib cage.  Faces contort and redden.  His footing falters and he stumbles backward, but regains his balance and shakes off the defeat.  My ears are ringing.  Steel brakes screech as the uptown local grinds to a halt on the other side of the station. Fully recovered, he now swells and puffs like a mad bull.  With head down he runs at us again. I take an elbow in the stomach, but there is an elasticity to the crowd behind me.  Taunt muscles stretch and like a bow string, spring back and the man with the wide brim hat is again repelled.  

As I brace for another assault, a surge of adrenaline courses through my veins; my ears suddenly feel as if they have burst into flame.  With the pent up frustration of a thousand rush hour indignities, I snap out of my heat induced stupor and scream, "What the fuck are you doing you asshole, can't you see there isn't any room? 

The odd little man with the long black coat and scuffed leather shoes glances up and in a calm, heavily accented voice, counters my enraged obscenities with the clarity of logic.


As if this proclamation were uttered by God himself, the interlocked bodies part, the warning horn blares and the train doors grind shut behind the sweat-soaked back of one more passenger.

Geology, Ecology, Economy and Politics

Susquehanna County is the second most sparsely populated county in Pennsylvania. It lies in the Endless Mountains, a section of the Appalachian range in the northeast corner of the state. 

According to the theory of plate tectonics, the Appalachians are some of the oldest mountains in the world, dating back 1.3 billion years. They were formed by a series of collisions and separations of today's continental land masses, which originally rested in a clustered grouping along the equator at a ninety degree angle to their current position on the globe. (Visualize the circular face of a clock. The continents once lay along a line drawn between nine and three, but then turned, pulled apart and aligned along the axis between twelve and six).

Geologists believe the earth's crust compresses and expands along seams in an accordion like fashion. When the land masses shift and collide, mountains are thrust upward like snow pushed by a plow. When they drift apart, oceanic basins form that slowly fill with organic material and sediment from the eroding hills. This infinitely slow "breathing" process of the crust is thought to have formed the Appalachians in three distinct phases. The first occurred when the western coast of South America collided with Proto-North America (the land mass which became today's continent). After they floated apart on the surface of the earth's molten core, two large "arches" of islands gradually followed one another into the vacated area. Both were drawn toward the continent by a "sub-duction zone" which with gravity, heat and pressure swallows and digests the earths crust, returning it to molten form. 

During these two geological periods, ocean floor sediments and the Taconic and Avalonian islands were peeled back and shoved up onto the hills driving the mountains higher. To the west of these new Alpine like peaks, a shallow sea formed stretching to what is today Indiana. This became an immense collection basin for eroded materials washing down the inland side of the mountain range. 

Sediments left in this region of the Appalachian-Catskill Delta would later fossilize into Pennsylvania bluestone, a variety of sandstone mined almost exclusively in Susquehanna County. Blue stone was formed from mineral rich sediments in tidal pools and along shorelines with the highest quality stone grains resulting from deposits created by shallow swift currents spreading the sand over long distances. 

The most current collision and separation of continents began 350 million years ago when Proto-America was rammed by the lands of Gondwana. They separated 130 million years later forming North America, the Atlantic Ocean and Africa. The period of compression metamorphosed much of the rock of the Appalachian range and then stretched, cracked and rearranged it yet again as the continents drifted apart. 

Successive glacial periods followed, periodically blanketing the northeast in ice until about 11,000 years ago. The tremendous weight of the expanding ice packs, as deep as the highest mountains, reshaped the hills, exposing rock strata from previous geological periods, carving out rivers and lakes and strewing "erratics" (boulders carried for miles by the moving ice) over the reformed landscape. When the ice melted, deposits of "glacial till" formed new landscape features, like the lands of Brooklyn and Long Island, which are an accumulation of sand, pebbles and rock shorn from the hills northwest of Manhattan. The sea level rose some 400 feet and the shore line retreated from the edge of the Continental shelf to its present location.

The geology and ecology of Susguehanna County has defined the region's economy since the first white settlers began to infiltrate the then hunting ground of the Iroquois Nation. 

The hardwood forests of the region wood be decimated for charcoal production. The bark of hemlock trees would like wise be exploited in mass for the tannin used in leather processing. By the 1850's, the virgin forest would be clear cut and towns named "Stumpville" would rise in its stead. Sheep and cattle would be grazed on treeless pastures, confined to acreage by stone walls made from the alluvial shale found plentifully mixed in the region's thin topsoil and ceaselessly disgorged by ox drawn plows. To the south, the Wyoming and Lehigh valleys would become the primary source of anthracite coal which replaced wood as a fuel source during America's 19th century industrial revolution. 

There were two main waves of settlers to locate in Susquehanna County, the Scots-Irish who came when the region was still frontier (1810-50) and then the later spill over of Eastern European immigrants who arrived seeking work in the mines and valley's textile mills after our Civil War.

There is an odd paradox in this county. Although it has always been a land of small dairy farms, independently operated bluestone quarries and timber-men, it is a Republican stronghold. I suspect this affiliation can be traced back to Lincoln era and the fiercely anti-slavery Methodists and Baptists who voluntarily gave a disproportionate number of young men to fight with the Union. More recent are the Reagan-Bush Republicans, who derived their income from work with military sub-contractors. These included the now closed Bendix Corporation which was located near the county seat in South Montrose and Lockheed Martin, just over the northern border in Owego, NY (which recently lost the contract on Presidential helicopters granted by the Bush Administration) as well as IBM which had its international headquarters in Endicott, NY, thirty miles from Montrose. 

Beside government and healthcare, these corporations offered the only substantial white-collar employment in the region. Support for the military-industrial complex has been a Republican mantra for the last forty plus years. Marry job with patriotism and it’s easy to see why the "hawks" have found support here.

The coal region to the county's south begins in Forest City, PA. It is a Democrat stronghold. It drafts its political complexion from the valley, much as the giant electric generating windmills on the surrounding hills are fanned by thermals rising from the warmer lowlands.

Carbondale, the next town south or "down the line" from Forest City was the west terminus of the first gravity driven rail system in the United States. To deliver the anthracite coal to its markets in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, New York and Boston a canal system was used that started in the town of Honesdale, Pennsylvania and connected to the Delaware River, where it was floated south in barges. To get the coal to Honesdale a narrow gauge track was constructed over the mountain. The weight of the loaded coal cars descending the east side of the mountain pulled the freshly filled cars up the west side and the empty cars back from Honesdale. 

Before anthracite coal, there was no substantive railroad system in America. Rails came into prominence with the development of the coal and iron industry. 

Prior to the Revolutionary War, Great Britain forbid the colonies from producing finished iron products. Instead, unrefined "pig iron" smelted from ore over charcoal fires was shipped to England where it was made into finished products that were then sold back to the Colonies (a grievance every bit as great as the tea tax). 

It was not until the mid 19th century that a Philadelphia entrepreneur figured out how to make anthracite coal burn; a result achieved by blowing pre-heated air on the fuel. Once ignited, the high carbon content made anthracite burn hot and it became the choice for America’s iron industry as well as for homes and factories in the growing metropolitan areas on the eastern seaboard. 

In order to meet the rising demands of coal consumers, networks of railroads began to supplant the earlier canal systems. Prior to the Civil War high quality iron rails where purchased from England, but with the rapid expansion of tracks spurred by the war, production in America grew. 

The Bessemer process of steel production was then developed in England and brought to America by Andrew Carnegie. Burning bituminous coal mined in western PA in special ovens, an almost pure carbon product called "coke" was developed (anthracite was called "natural coke"). With anthracite and coke for fuel, iron ore was smelted into molted pig iron through which air was blown. The impurities in the iron attached to the oxygen and burned off, leaving steel as the finished product, a better choice for rails and the boilerplates of steam engines. With the Bessemer process, steel could be manufactured at about 10% the cost of the traditional smelting process, changing production time from a day to fifteen minutes! By the end of the 19th century, one third of all steel produced in the US was going to the manufacture of rails for the expanding transportation network.

Thus began the great corporate take over of America’s Gilded Age and the transformation of the Union from a democratic, subsistence agricultural culture to today's monopolized capitalistic system.

South of the family farms in Susquehanna County, in what was then the nation's wealthiest city, the Irish coal miners of Scranton, PA were organizing the first labor unions in the United States. Galvanized by the inhuman working conditions and poor wages of this immensely profitable industry and originally unified in opposition to Abraham Lincoln's discriminatory draft laws introduced during the Civil War, the Irish in New York City's Tammany Hall brought the Democratic Party to the mines. Generations later, the Democrats still have a vibrant coalition in the hamlets of the great anthracite valley. 

But the labor unions bled and continue to bleed. Carnegie, who's company created a closed economic system, owned the natural resources, the transportation, as well as the raw and finished goods manufacturing. The costs of all the components of production were then fixed commodities except for the human element...labor. And Carnegie went after labor with both barrels of his Pinkerton guards' guns blazing. He broke the Union at Homestead, PA and his steel empire moved into the twentieth Century unchallenged.. Then came the age of reformation and government regulation, of Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, of the graduated income tax and eventually a new king, JP Morgan and United Steel.

However, as time has passed, the strained rope between regulatory government and big business has seemed to shorten, and a "new" government of America has emerged. It is a voting coalition of professional politicians and lawmakers funded by the cooperate elite. 

Local government and unions, the forums of free speech and the voice of working men and women, have either erroded or dissolved all together, leaving what was once a one person, one vote democracy disenfranchised from its life support systems. No more do we derive our strength from small community units, but instead we seem to have become dispensable members of a hive community with 1% of the population controlling 98% of our countries wealth. 

The American Republic has twisted and transformed like the geology of the landscape. The two party system so repugnant to John Adams is now firmly entrenched and Jefferson's lofty ideals of a government for and by the people have drifted as far from their origins as the continents on the shifting global mantel.

Adams was a farmer. He tilled his own fields with his own hands and he knew the "common man" on a first name basis. Jefferson was a slave owner, a dreamer of great dreams, a self-proclaimed Agrarian who spent years in the most sophisticated cities of Europe. These two men differed on the fundamental question of mankind's nobility. While Jefferson wrote of all men being created equal, he owned his slave lover. Adams on the other hand, felt that given the opportunity to power, the most humble man could become a tyrant.

I have worked hard on my own property in Susquehanna County for the better part of forty years. As a young man, I set an aesthetic goal for these two hundred acres quite different from the the dairy, quarry, or timber men that had come before me. Like the wind and the rain, we have shared the spotlight as elements of change. I have acted upon stone and earth as have the great forces of glaciers and plate tectonics and they have acted upon me, creasing my skin with wear and age. We have become part of one another. I have tried to honor this work. I have felt grandly involved and at other times worthless before this rippled landscape. 

Is anything held in judgement? How can a flat stone skipped across a farm pond be compared with the seismic shudder of sub-ducted bedrock? How can human plans rival eons of random geological reordering? 

Zen Buddhists often meditate on riddles or questions that can not be solved logically. These Endless Mountains are often my own "koans" and its a sugary thought that great questions are but wooded foot paths between spectacular views.

The Used Book Store

Yesterday, I stopped in a "stacked to the ceiling" used book store in Syracuse and picked up two volumes on Argentina (one endorsed "with much love to Papa from Dorothy. March 11, 1918." and the other published in 1969). 

At the register, I mentioned to the owner that Argentina was my destination for the month of February. "Ah!" he said "My sister is moving to Panama in the same month. Here....let me show you what I put aside for her." 

A moment later he was gingerly handing me a broad-faced, well worn volume on the building of the Panama Canal containing incredible black and white photos of everything from the Cristabol slums to the landslides in the Culebra cut. I had noticed a copy of McCullough's "The Path Between The Seas" in the Latin American section, so after spending about an hour with his find I went back, dug it out and suggested he add it to his sister's gift package.

With shelves overflowing, the bookshop was still half in boxes. A dozen college kids were hunkered down around what would one day be the cappuccino bar, cataloging pyramids of faded bindings from the inventory collected over a lifetime by the previous owners. It was like an "Inkheart" fantasy and very musty smelling to boot; nothing quite like the odor of an old book along with a trace of malt Scotch and stale tobacco. 

While I was thumbing pages, a fellow in his early twenties stopped in and began reminiscing about how he and his childhood buddies would ride over on their bikes and spend the afternoon perusing the reams of comic books stashed in one of the store's forgotten back rooms. He was very happy to see the place had reopened.

The shop keeper, perhaps a bit drunk on all the print cascading down around him, expressed the rather disheartening observation that life is simply too short; that just when you REALLY start appreciating how much there is to taste and touch and learn, the sands in the hour glass are nearing depletion. I nodded in agreement, but pointed out that a healthy sense of time's fleeting nature helps get us off the bench and into the game. It also makes us take our work seriously, because like the books, what we leave behind embellishes the future. 

Driving Home

I went to the Kost Service Center today to buy two new All Season radials for the front end of my Saab 900 only to find the low profile tires I required weren’t in stock. What for a Saab is ever in stock? 

It might have been wise to have placed the order back in October or during that stretch of balmy weather just before Thanksgiving. Only a fool would have chosen to buy tires on a slushy December afternoon during the first real snow fall of the season; only a fool famous for never giving a thought to food until starving or to tires until being dragged from the depths of a roadside ditch. 

The ride home from town was challenging; the interstate, a wind tunnel of corrosive salt brine, battering windshield and wipers, blasted from high pressured nozzles mounted on the backs of speeding semi’s and bulky SUV’s. 


But the historic Great Bend Turnpike, the two hundred year old dirt thoroughfare that winds from the village of Gibson over the hill to our farmhouse greeted me with a glistening sneer and toboggan run sheen unmarred by even the faintest fleck of traction inducing cinder. 

I made it exactly nine tenths of a mile; well within site of the eternally glowing pole light by Grosvenor’s cow barn; no more than 300 feet from the summit, just shy of where the road “Y’s and the right foot leaves the gas peddle and habitually taps the brakes to navigate the flocks of Guinea hens, Banty roosters, goats and sheep that push through broken fences and cross between fallow fields like the starving masses in famine plagued Calcutta. 

So close! 

And then begins the blind, backward slide, the terrifying reversal of fortune witnessed only by the leafless limbs and scarred trunks of ancient sugar maples, dormant as death to my frantic brake-pumping pathos.

A hundred yards down grade I manage a “one-eighty.” A sphincter flexing, do or die maneuver, in which the current of the road sucks the rear end of the auto into the eddy of a driveway as gravity’s momentum swings the car’s front end around like Clooney’s doomed fishing boat in “The Perfect Storm.” I can hear the cheer of the absent crew above the howl of the snowfall’s silence. I feel a momentary rush of relief as my Swedish vessel rights itself and then slumps into a far more dignified slide cushioned now by the pillowy illumination of its headlights. 

Safe at the bottom I choose an alternative route home, Berg Hill. A three mile detour combining State and Township roads, macadam and dirt, with a longer, more gradual ascent past the old Union Hill cemetery. On the last slope, in second gear, my wheels spin at such an incredible RPM that they melt their way through to the gravel and are able to catch just enough surface to inch over the final rise beneath a shower of obscenity enhanced prayer. 

Forty minutes later the phone call I place to the home of our Road-master is my first ever. Leonard is 75 years old. With no pension coming for his 35 years of unblemished service he seems to have grown tired if not bitter from the many snowstorms he's played shepherd to. His response to my inquiry concerning the apparent lack of storm maintenance is blunt.

“Went through with the plow about 4:30. We’ll cinder in the morning.” 

It is now 8pm Saturday night and still snowing. Could I be the only local with tread worn thin? The only mountain man who passed up four-wheel drive for a pair of flurry white adrenaline soaked knuckles? Could there be truth to rumors that dollars spent in un-spread cinders pad the ledger of a secret retirement fund? 

Winter is a bitter pill indeed. 

And every year it comes earlier and stays later. Summer seems little more than a fortifying sprint against the glacial season’s inevitable assault. I talk more and more about moving south. I suppose I’m getting soft or old or both, but the dry skin, head colds, flu shots, firewood, shoveling, plowing and the incredible number of gray, dreary days makes me wonder why one hangs on up here. 

Christmas is the biggest pain in the ass there is. I am repulsed by the hollow ritual of consumer gluttony, the cattle drive to market under the whips of Christmas music and gaudy decorations, the costumed cowboys ringing sleigh bells and begging alms; the shock and awe media blitz that now begins in mid November. 

I don’t ski, skate or snowboard. I don’t snowmobile, deer hunt or ice fish and worse yet, I abhor televised football which is the only non-cable weekend offering for like minded unfortunates relegated to indoor living by our eclectic taste for warm air and ice free seating. 

Reading helps. Certainly there is romantic appeal to the holiday image of yellow lamp light on snow drifted sills, but I can read in heat and I can read in humidity and I can read in the all healing glow of brilliant sunshine with equally unbridled vigor.

And so I boil water and make tea and eye the calendar conscious that for many December holds the holiest of days. It does for me too. Only mine is the Winter Solstice, the annual starter gun in the race away from cold and darkness.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton's position on the under funded, poorly outfitted Colonial Army:

"America, he argued, didn't need to triumph decisively over the heavily taxed British: a war of attrition that eroded British credit would nicely do the trick. All the patriots had to do was plant doubts among British creditors about the war's outcome. 

'By stopping the progress of their conquests and reducing them to an unmeaning and disgraceful defense, we destroy the national expectation of success from which the ministry draws their resources.'"

For many working Americans 95 cents of every dollar of family income is spoken for, swallowed in descending order by housing, transportation, food, taxes, utilities and healthcare.* The thought of a net household profit to invest in equity growth endeavors appears no longer within reach for the average American. Consider for a moment that for a person who earns $30.00 an hour, every dollar saved is equal to $20 earned. To pay for a fifty dollar family dinner out of savings, $1000 of income had to have been generated. 

As the "War on Terror" drags on, as health care costs continue to rise, as projected life expediencies increase while employment opportunities diminish, how will the "ministry" Hamilton referred to garner the revenue to pay the public and private institutions whose goods and services it employs?  Who will lend the government money if it can not raise the income to pay the interest on the loans? 

There is a science to the manipulation of public opinion. In business we refer to it as marketing, in politics, propaganda. An economy suspended above huge debt can function as long the public scurries across the ropes with out looking down. It is the job of political appointees like Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke to keep our eyes from drifting. Economists employ an illusionist's skills; bankers and brokers are but grandiose horse traders with a talent for making an aged hag appear as a powerful steed. 

The paradigm will shift. It will come like a storm. Perhaps as a revolution. The last forty years of "get it while you can" policies have gutted the future for the working middle class of this country. A clear message was sent to Washington and Wall Street when Obama was elected. Yet the monied elite has turned a blind eye. Who could think they would do anything else. 

The French were always an artistic culture and they favored the guillotine because of its metaphoric message... sever the head of failed soc-political ideology... let a new mind sit atop the shoulders of the people. 

There are many brilliant, socially conscious individuals willing to give their lives to revitalize this country and its position with in the world community. Their time is at hand.

In 2006 the NY Times found the middle fifth of American earned $45,000 pre tax dollars and the by quantity money dispersal went to Housing, Transportation, Food, Taxes, Utilities, Healthcare and left $2.300 net profit (5% approx)

In my county of Susquehanna, PA, the 2003 average pre-tax wage per job was $23.4k. The average household had 2.5 people. The 2008 household pre-tax income "estimate" is 42k (how this was arrived at is not clear, unless there are two full-time workers per household).

A thought: In retirement, if one hopes to generate a 40k pre-tax income, a rule of thumb is that one million dollars of invested savings is required. If the average household is consuming 95 cents of every dollar in budgeted expenses, how will this nest egg be created?

*US Dept of Labor statistics 2009: based on an average pre tax household income of 63k (1.3 workers) 34% goes to housing, 17% transportation (auto & fuel) Food 12.4% Healthcare 6%.