Friday, August 26, 2016

Going Beyond 'A Stroll with A Million Dollar View'

One of the first things I did when I moved to Texas Hill Country more than seven years ago was walk Canyon Dam, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project that constrains the Guadalupe River in Comal County. As of this writing, my most recent piece for the Canyon Lake department of the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung newspaper is about the people who walk the dam every day for exercise and relaxation ("A Stroll with A Million Dollar View," August 26, 2016). As usual, I submitted more photos than the paper could actually use, and so have posted some of them here as a visual supplement to my article. 

Canyon dam overlooks the water and its boulder-covered interior face slopes down to it from an elevation of about 60 feet to the east, and the grassy slope of the dam plummets about 200 feet into the largely-wooded area known locally as the Hidden Valley, ending just short of where South Access Road passes by it.

Overlook Park, located along the south side of Canyon Dam, includes its own wooded trails, fishing access, and this pleasant little swimming area. 

A view from the western edge of Canyon Dam, toward where the Guadalupe River flows out of it and continues on in the direction of New Braunfels. A small hydroelectric plant there generates some of the energy used in our area. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Going Beyond the 'Butterfly Effect'

One of things I do these days is cover the Canyon Lake department of the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung newspaper where I live in south Texas! My most recent piece as of this writing was on the beautiful butterfly garden at Tye Preston Memorial Library, which was based to a large extent on a visit there with Susan Bogle, one of its founders ("The Butterfly Effect," August 19, 2016). Unfortunately, the paper was only able to run two of the six photos I submitted, along with their associated cutlines, so I am posting the balance of the material I developed here for people's enjoyment. I am also including color versions of the images they had to run in black-and-white and a direct link to the video I shot of my walk through the garden with Bogle. Above right, a Sulphur butterfly feeds on blue mistflower, a nectar plant especially favored by pollinators. 

Austin sculptor Margie Bivens created “Butterfly Effect,” a massive iron representation of a Texas redbud tree, and it was donated to the library by a member of our community in honor of her mother. Bogle said it is her favorite tree in the garden because it is the one that requires the least water or care. “If watch it from left to right, you can see that its leaves morph into butterflies,” Bogle said. “I have counted the butterflies on it innumerable times and never gotten the same number.”

“It has a lot of things that you might have in any garden,” Bogle said, but creating a butterfly garden meant there were rules they had to follow. “We needed to provide host plants, nectar plants, places for them to hide, places for them to hang their chrysalises. We have grass here, which you’re not going to see in most gardens, but that is where they go when it rains. So, we’re providing habitat and food for these creatures.”

Above left: “Just the idea of a butterfly garden seems to inspire people,” Bogle said. This bench shaped like a butterfly and decorated with pieces of colored glass was created by a local artist for installation in the garden. Above right: TPML’s butterfly garden is on the west side of facility and deliberately situated outside of its largest window. Bogle said she initially expected that it would be a maximum of 20 by 30 feet in size, but its actual footprint is about 90 by 80 — larger than the library’s original building in Sattler! 

“We’ve tried to have a complete habitat” for butterflies and other pollinators, Bogle said. “Someplace place to live, something to eat, something to drink. You need to have nectar plants to attract butterflies but what keeps them here is the fact we have so many host plants,” notably milkweed,” which is what they lay their eggs on and the caterpillars live on until they go through their several stages to become butterflies.” Butterfly varieties that can regularly be found in the garden include the Buckeye, Checkered Skipper, Gulf Fritillary, Hairstreak, Monarch, Painted Lady, Queen, Red Admiral, Black Swallowtail, Pipevine Swallowtail, and Sulphur. 




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).