Monday, July 25, 2016

Martin, Whitey, and the Manifestation of Ignorance

When I was in the 4th grade, I had an enigmatic and menacing nemesis named Martin. He was tall, hulking, and hunched, with straight red hair and buck teeth, and I can recall him wearing an overcoat and heavy shoes and having a backpack hung from his sloping shoulders. He was strong and hateful and I knew he could hurt me if he ever laid hands on me, but he was also pretty slow, and as long as I stayed alert I could keep out of his reach. 

Somehow Martin and I ended up in a special reading class together for a short time — I remember being told after maybe two or three sessions that I should not come back to it — and it was at these that he revealed a strange new dimension to me. When Martin would read, I was amazed to discover that he could see in the text things that I could not. Even as I followed along in my copy of the book we were reading from, he would utter words that I simply could not see, different from and in addition to those visible to me. That made this monster both mysterious and an object of envy to me and I wished that I was able to see the things that he could. 

Eventually, I realized that Martin was not a magical ogre and that he was simply stupid. If my ability to read a page of text, understand the words on it, sound out those I didn't know, and generally comprehend it could be envisioned as a connect-the-dots image with a hundred points, then his might have had, for example, 70. So, when he had to connect that diminished number of dots, his lines were coarser and less nuanced, sometimes they went to incorrect points, it was unclear how to incorporate some of them, and the final picture he created would inevitably be warped and incomplete. 

When the mass shooting in Munich, Germany, occurred on July 22, I was even more moved by it than I was by other recent but similar incidents, as my family had lived there for seven years, including those when I was in high school. I am still friends with many people I knew there, along with a handful that still live in Munich, and so I started looking at their Facebook pages to see how they were reacting, make sure everyone was alright, etc. While I was doing that I came across a comment from someone I had known some 30 years ago from the old neighborhood, who for a couple of reasons I will dub "Whitey" for purposes of this discussion. I remembered him as being a good-natured kid and as not having any weird issues, and so before turning in I sent him a Facebook friend request. 

Next time I got online, I had a notification on Facebook that Whitey had accepted my friend request six hours earlier and that he had sent me a message about an hour after that. The first thing that struck me upon reading his brief message was that he had used a racist epithet to describe one of my friends, and then asked if I thought that person would be offended by posts on his Facebook page. On the face of if that is a nonsensical question and kind of confused me, because he and I being friends would not cause my non-mutual friends to become aware of his page. It was also disquieting that his first words to me in three decades needed to include racist insults.

Things got stranger still when I went to his Facebook page and, near the top of it, saw that he had shared a post I had made more than four months ago about a book I had written about the folklore and mythology of Ethiopia. This book covers timeless themes and tales of things like dragons, architectural wonders created by mysterious ancient peoples, hippopotamuses the size of islands, men that can turn into hyenas, and the like. He appended one comment to his re-posting of the item: "The government and corruption in Ethiopia is noteworthy." There nothing pertinent to modern politics in my book, which draws upon folklore going back hundreds or thousands of years, rather than ephemeral things like the current governmental regime, so this was a really baffling and irrelevant comment. I then began to scroll through the rest of his posts and, to my disgust, discovered the same sort of racist, xenophobic, hatemongering posts that have become all too familiar to me anymore. 

But how had Whitey drawn a connection between a book about folklore and the government that happens to be in power in a particular country today? And then I remembered Martin who, as a particularly stupid child, had filled in the blank spots in the things he could not decipher with random words and concepts from his limited experience, and I understood what Whitey had done. Not particularly smart to start with, unhinged by the same 15 years of war and terror that the rest of us have also had to deal with, Whitey had connected the limited number of dots in his mind according to what he had nurtured and allowed to grow there. And, while the pictures young Martin drew were merely incorrect, middle-aged Whitey's are grotesque, misshapen, and malignant, connected not just by lines of ignorance but also ones of hate, bigotry, and violence spawned from decades of fear, confusion, disappointment, and growing mental illness. 

And then the rest of what had happened became strikingly and appallingly clear to me. Six hours before I got online, Whitey had received my friend request and accepted it. He had then spent a full hour exploring my Facebook profile and scrolling back through at least four months of posts on my timeline. As he did all this, he became increasingly agitated by evidence of my love for other cultures, the many races and nations represented among my friends, my African-American children. He then reacted by sending me a message laced with racist insults and, right after that, unfriended me. 

And, among all the unhappy elements associated with this unpleasant tale, that last is the one I actually feel good about. 

Monday, June 6, 2016

Introduction to 'D-Day: June 6, 1944'

Following is the introduction to my 2001 book D-Day: June 6, 1944, which is a snapshot of the first day of the Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II. 

To many Americans of the 21st century, D-Day may seem to be a subject of limited relevance, fought as it was on the shores of a foreign continent nearly six decades ago by the men of a generation that has been depleted by the passage of more than half a century.

Had the mammoth amphibious operation launched on June 6, 1944, failed, however, the world we live in today would be a very different place, and certainly not a better one. The successful execution of Operation Overlord — the code name used by the Allied leadership for the invasion of Normandy — was the first great moral victory on the Western Front against the military forces of the Third Reich. Indeed, the Allied beachhead in northern France helped turn the tide of the war.

D-Day also ushered in a new era of American involvement in both Europe and the world. True, U.S. troops had crossed the Atlantic and battled Germany 27 years before during the Great War, but after their victory they had packed up and gone home. This time they were in Europe to stay, and they remain there to this day, albeit in numbers much reduced since the reunification of Germany and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Indeed, D-Day was emblematic of American ascendance in the world. Foreign observers of the beaches at Normandy were staggered by the amount of wreckage strewed about the landing zones, the ruined landing craft, vehicles, and weapons intermingled with human remains. In the latter years of World War II, few countries could have absorbed that sort of material loss and considered victory still possible. With the resources of a large continent behind it, however, the United States could make good those losses quickly enough to exploit its advantage — just as the Soviet Union, its counterpart in the new world order, was even then doing on the Eastern Front.

D-Day: The Invasion of Normandy is the second book in the “History at a Glance” series that began with Michael Varhola's Fire & Ice: The Korean War, 1950-1953 (Summer, 2000). Like its predecessor, D-Day was written to provide an overview of its subject for people with little or no knowledge of it. It will also serve as a road map for experienced students of World War II who want to discover other avenues worthy of deeper investigation. Readers will find it full of fascinating and useful information about the men, strategies, tactics, and weaponry of D-Day, all presented in a fresh and interesting “fact book” style format.

Several aspects of this book make it useful in both these roles. One is that its chapters are divided thematically. For example, readers can refer to the chapter on “Air and Airborne Operations” when they need information on this aspect of Operation Overlord, rather than jumping throughout the book in search of information relevant to them. D-Day also has a number of chapters with crucial information that weightier volumes, especially narrative histories, fail to cover at all or relegate to skimpy appendices. These include the chapters on weapons, armored vehicles, and Allied and Nazi leaders, all of which contain background information that can help readers more fully understand and appreciate the invasion of Normandy. ...

There are numerous individuals who assisted us in preparing this book for publication. Author and publisher Lee Meredith offered sound advice and read portions of the manuscript, as did historian Mary Deborah Petite. David Lang, of San Jose, California, who knows as much about both world wars as anyone, shared useful information with us all along the way. Finally, publisher Theodore P. Savas, of Savas Publishing Company, offered suggestions and guidance as this project developed, albeit slower than he would have liked. 

We sincerely hope that you find this book useful, interesting, and enjoyable, and that it facilitates your study of history in general, and D-Day in particular. 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Honoring Korean War Veterans in Ethiopia

Was honored yesterday to be contacted by the Military Attache at the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and asked to send her a copy of my book Fire & Ice: The Korean War, 1950-53, for inclusion in a permanent historical exhibit being installed in a ceremony there next month. Suffice it to say that I immediately signed a copy of the book, dedicated it to the Ethiopian soldiers who fought and died in Korea, and got it into the mail.

“Ethiopia agreed to send an infantry battalion to Korea, which included volunteers from Emperor Haille Selassie’s Imperial Security Guard, a unit of elite six-foot-tall soldiers,” I write in my book. “Dubbed the Kagnew, or Conquerors Battalion, the unit was relieved by fresh battalions twice during the Korean War. (Kagnew, according to some sources, was an imperial warhorse and the namesake of the unit.)”

“Ethiopia's 1st Kagnew Battalion, a 931-man unit, arrived in Korea in May 1951 and was attached to the 32nd Regiment of the U.S. 75th Infantry Division in June 1951. In April 1952, the 1st Kagnew Battalion was replaced by the 2nd Kagnew Battalion. In April 1953, it was relieved in its turn by the 3rd Kagnew Battalion, which remained in Korea until April 1954.”

“Ethiopian soldiers fought in many battles during the war and were highly regarded for their skill in hand-to-hand and bayonet fighting, patrolling, and night fighting. Altogether, 3,158 Ethiopians served in the Kagnew battalions. Of those, 121 were killed, 536 were wounded, and none were taken prisoner.”

“A number of Ethiopian nurses also worked with the Red Cross in Japan.” 

Ethiopian soldiers, like those of other U.N. contingents, were among the best their country could provide. Here, an Ethiopian gunnery crew prepares to fire a 75mm recoilless rifle. 

Friday, December 18, 2015

An Exercise in Resolve, Month 12

Spent first week of December in Ethiopia and, while I was not on a regular exercise schedule, did naturally get some substantial exercise in on a number of days. It bears mentioning that I draw a distinction between being "in garrison" and "in the field" and make no effort to work out or stay on any sort of schedule while I am operating in the former environment. I rather operate under the assumption that the field can present its own challenges and that it is prudent for me to keep my resources in reserve while out and about. As usual, entries in quotes are adapted from my Twitter posts. 

December 1-7: Spent the first week of the month visiting my brother in Ethiopia and then travelling back to the U.S.! As noted, did not try to maintain a regular exercise routine but walked most days and ended up hauling a substantial load on at least one of them. 
December 8-9: Spent two days visiting my daughters in Northern Virginia on my way back to Texas from Africa. Did not get in much exercise at all and, being exhausted from my trip and on a different time schedule, actually slept about half the time I was there. 
December 10 (Thursday): No walk; first day back home after my trip and spent the day getting caught up on things, recovering, and getting ready for our d-Infinity Live! show on "Hacking, Cracking, & Data Jacking."
December 11 (Friday): Two-mile walk with a medium load. 
December 12 (Saturday): Got in a 0.6-mile walk with at least a light load. 
December 13 (Sunday): Two-mile walk with a medium load. 
December 14 (Monday): "Two-mile walk with a medium load; getting back to an exercise routine now that I am back from Ethiopia. Warm and sunny here in Texas Hill Country!" 
December 15 (Tuesday): "Two-mile mid-afternoon walk with a medium load; a bit stiff and achy but pushed through. Low 70s here in Texas Hill Country  great for December! 
December 16 (Wednesday): "Got in a two-mile walk; knees and shoulder a bit achy so took just a light load and skipped the backpack. Sunny and cool here in Texas Hill Country! 
December 17 (Thursday): Quick, 0.6-mile walk up to the mailboxes; always hustling the day I have d-Infinity Live! show and rarely have time for more than that. 
December 18 (Friday): Probably walked between 0.6 and two miles with a light load. 
December 19 (Saturday): Probably walked between 0.6 and two miles with a light load. 
December 20 (Sunday): Probably walked between 0.6 and two miles with a light load. 
December 21 (Monday): "Got in a one-hour twilight hike with a light load on the bluffs west of the Devil's Hollow here in Texas Hill Country!" (An image from this walk appears below.)
December 22 (Tuesday): Probably walked two miles with a light load. 
December 23 (Wednesday): "Two-mile walk with a light load; knee a bit achy so did not carry more or go too fast. Cloudy but warm, bright, and 80 degrees here in Texas Hill Country!" 
December 24 (Thursday): Walked just 0.6 miles, up to the mailbox to see what may have come in last-minute before Christmas! 
December 25 (Friday): No walk, due to holiday activities and laziness. 
December 26 (Saturday): 
December 27 (Sunday): 
December 28 (Monday): 
December 29 (Tuesday): 
December 30 (Wednesday): 
December 31 (Thursday): 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

My Recent Events (December 2015)

Following are events I have recently participated in, and which I am listing here with links back to archived editions of radio shows and webcasts, blog posts about them, etc. Times are Central Standard Time, in keeping with where I live near San Antonio, Texas. 

December 10 (Thursday), 8 - 9 p.m.: "d-Infinity Live! Series 4, Episode 42: Hacking, Cracking, & Data Jacking" (webcast). 

December 13 (Sunday), 7-8 p.m.: Paranormal Filler: Michael Varhola on Filler (radio show), with host Wes Forsythe. 

December 17 (Thursday), 8 - 9 p.m.: "d-Infinity Live!: d-Infinity Play Krampusnacht" (webcast). 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

My Ethiopia Reading List

For a number of reasons I read very little purely for pleasure and most of what I am looking at any given time is vocational in some way and ties in with whatever I happen to be working on at the time. That is not to say that I do not enjoy those things, and often have a lot of selectivity with them, just that they tend to be fairly narrowly focused while I am involved in a particular project. Books I read or referred to before, during, or after my two-week trip to Ethiopia included: 

Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese. This historical novel looks at the history of Ethiopia in the 1950s through the 1970s through the experiences of a medical doctor in Addis Ababa and the staff of the hospital where he is born and eventually practices. My mother read this book in conjunction with her own trip to Ethiopia and gave me a copy of it as an early Christmas present so that I could avail myself of it as well. It is both a fascinating work of fiction and an insight into the troubled period of history that began with the demise of Emperor Haillie Selassie's regime and the rise of the repressive Soviet-backed Derg government. 

Ethiopia, the Bradt Travel Guide (Edition 6), by Phillip Briggs. Suffice it to say that this was a very useful general-purpose travel guide and that I got good use out of it. It did not have entries for a number of places that I stayed out, however, revealing a degree of apparent bias in what the author chose to cover or not. It also contained some commentary that I think was off the mark (e.g., that the food at the Blue Nile Resort in Bahir-Dar was not good, whereas I had an excellent meal there). 

A Guide to Lalibela

A Treasury of African Folklore, by Harold Courlander. 

A History of Ethiopia in Pictures. Several of the vendors in Axum were peddling this book and my guide recommended I pick up a copy. He negotiated a price for me of 300 birr ($15) and said it tends to cost about 450 birr; probably paid too much for it in any case but am glad to support the Ethiopian economy in my small way. It is, in any event, a fun and useful title with lots of great information and black-and-white illustrations and has become the current bathroom book in my home office. 

The Blue Nile, by Alan Moorehead. 

Culture Smart! Ethiopia, by Sarah Howard. My brother loaned me this book but pretty much de-recommended it in favor of the much more substantial Bradt travel guide mentioned above. It did, however, include some useful information on social mores that I did not stumble across in the other book. 

Monday, November 30, 2015

An Exercise in Resolve, Month 11

November started off rainy and markedly cooler than the previous month. I finally increased the weight of what I routinely carried, which represented a key step forward, going from a "light" load of up to 10 pounds to a "medium" load of 10-20 pounds. I also sporadically supplement my routine with a few pushups, situps, chinups, or bench presses, but the walk is definitely my main exercise and that is why carrying gear is key. And, now that I am carrying a day pack again, I am able to carry my walking stick on the walk up to the mailbox and often have a couple pounds of mail in the pack for the balance of the walk. Entries in quotes are taken from my Twitter posts. 

November 1 (Sunday): Walked 0.6 miles with a light, c. 9-pound load. 
November 2 (Monday): "Got in a two-mile walk with a light load. Perfect walking weather, sunny, bright, and cloudless but also cool here in Texas Hill Country!" 
November 3 (Tuesday): Walked c. 0.75 miles. Added a day pack and increased equipment load to c. 15 pounds and intended to walk two miles but tried to help someone catch their dogs and, in the process, dragged my trailing foot over a cactus and ended up with about 20 spines of various sizes in my foot, ankle and leg  including one so deep in my big toe that I had to take off my shoe and pull hard to get out. 
November 4 (Wednesday):  Walked 1.5 miles at twilight with a medium, 15+ pound load. 
November 5 (Thursday): "Got in a 1.5-mile twilight walk with a 15.3-pound load! Unseasonably warm today here in Texas Hill Country but cooled off a bit in the evening." 
November 6 (Friday): "Got in a two-mile late afternoon walk with 15+ pounds of gear! Has been raining and was damp and very cool here in Texas Hill Country." 
November 7 (Saturday): No walk; was part of an author panel at Bulverde/Spring Branch Library and got back too late.
November 8 (Sunday): No walk but mowed the lawn for a full hour. 
November 9 (Monday): "Got in a two-mile late afternoon walk with 20+ pounds of gear; was overdue increasing load and glad to have done it twice so far this month!" 
November 10 (Tuesday): Did a brief, 0.6-mile walk with 20+ pounds of gear. 
November 11-14: Getting ready for three weeks on the road and certainly walked to some extent during this period and know that I did some prolonged mowing sessions on probably a couple of the days. 
November 15: "Brief, 1.2-mile walk with 17-plus pounds of gear. Wore boots instead of sneakers to make sure they were in good shape for my upcoming Africa trip." 
November 16-22: Traveled to and spent six days in the Washington, D.C., area. Did not try to observe a regular exercise routine but got decent walks or workouts in a number of days; e.g., one day hauled 100 pounds of luggage crosstown on the Metro from Silver Spring, Maryland, to Alexandria, Virginia, and on Friday, November 21, walked a mile-and-a-half from my daughter's house to the Franconia-Springfield Metro Station and then probably a similar distance around D.C. with my friend Paul Knorr. 
November 23-30: Spent last week of November in Ethiopia! Did not try to maintain a regular exercise routine but stayed active and got some substantial workouts in some days. Most significant was a 15-mile roundtrip hike involving a 1,000-foot ascent, from the city of Lalibela to a mountaintop monastery during Day 5 of my Ethiopian Adventure (shown below is a picture of me during this excursion).