America Lags Behind …

We hear that all the time. Today I read an article saying that America lags behind THE WORLD in processing e-waste. I heard on the radio yesterday that American higher education is at risk. You would think we lived in the worst place it world.  Yet anybody who has lived or especially worked anywhere else knows that America is one of the best places in terms of almost everything people really want. 

Is everybody just stupid for not seeing this?  Is it anti-American propaganda?  Do “they” hate us? Are we betrayed by the opinion-making elites in our own country?   I think the answer often is simpler and structurally-based on a few factors that seem neutral in themselves but produce the negative buzz we have come to expect from the chattering classes in the American and international media. 

Doom and gloom industry

There are definite concrete and often money advantages to looking at the negative side of life.  Various NGOs have organized to solve the world’s problems.  They depend on bad news to fund raise.  What are the chances they will announce that the problem they have been fighting for years has been substantially solved?  This incentive system goes double for lawyers, who can often get courts to use their coercive power to get money directly.   Of course, this doesn’t apply only to America, but it applies especially to America where the money going to NGOs and lawyers is by far the largest in the world.  It makes sense to go after the deep pockets.

Cherry picking comparisons

One of my jobs was to give talks about America to foreign audiences.  I used to start with the statement, “Everything you have heard about America is right.”   This is true because the U.S. is so big and diverse.  We have the some of the best schools and some of the worst.   We have the fattest people and the fittest people.   We also have fifty states, each with its own problems and personality.    We like to make lists and it is very easy to pick the comparison you want and usually those comparisons are negative.

The U.S. is a continental country.   In many ways, it can be compared only to other continental units, such as China, Russia, Brazil, India or maybe the ENTIRE EU. Otherwise we get inappropriate unit comparisons of the whole U.S to whatever are the best performing countries in any particular category.   It would be like comparing the average of 1000 people in various categories against the best individuals – different ones depending on the need.  We could do the same with states. For example, the relatively poor American state of Arkansas has a per-captia income about that of Germany.

There are also problems of scale.  A country like Norway has only around 5 million people and they are relatively homogenous.  Many things can be done on a small scale that cannot be scaled up. I lived in Norway for four years and thought it was a great place to be but I understood that the institutions that work for them cannot be scaled 60 times, even if all the 300+ Americans wanted to do it.

What they say, not what they do

Surprise.  Not everybody does what they promise.  This is especially true among leaders of less democratically oriented countries, since they have less of a domestic check, but it works for everybody.  My personal indicates that America promises less than many other places, but delivers more. Many countries declare the RIGHT to things and may even assign a government bureaucracy to deliver, but they don’t.  Citizens get stuck with long waiting lines or defacto rationing.   For example, I observed that people found it very difficult to get day-care in Norway.  It was a RIGHT, but there was a long waiting list.   Sometimes the problem was solved when the kid got old enough not to need it.  We have fewer official social rights in the U.S. but we can often GET things easier. 

One problem is that REALITY in America is compared with promises or aspirations elsewhere.  It is always easier to make plans and promises than to deliver results.   But it gets even worse when the promises are compared.    We lose whenever we get into a rhetorical bidding war.  Reality is more important but harder to measure.

Government v private & theories of history

The government even today has a smaller role in American society than it does almost every place else.  This goes back hundreds of years.  Alexis de Tocqueville described it in 1831.  We Americans rely much more on self-organized groups and volunteers.  No other country has such a large charity and volunteer sectors.

Related to the role of government is a deeply embedded theory of history and storytelling.  Stories have heroes and villains.   Actual events often do not.  The American system is decentralized and much more self-organized than the average country.  But people still look for some human agent even when something happens for diffuse and impersonal reason. They always find one.  That is why conspiracy theories are so popular.  It is usually not true, but we get blamed anyway.

The Katrina Effect

I was listening to NPR as I was writing this an on came Daniel Schorr with a tangential example.  He was talking about the shortages of H1N1 flu vaccine and how people were blaming government incompetence. People get very high expectations that government can control natural disasters, he said, and when things work less well than can be imagined, they get angry.  It was a similar problem with Katrina. I was a little surprised that Schorr used the Katrina example. I guess as we get farther away from it, it becomes less politically charged. 

Improvement actually makes things look worse

I wrote about this in a previous note. Continuous Improvement Makes Everything Look Bad Looking Back

Anyway, these are a few of the thoughts that came to me after seeing those articles.  I am not saying that there are not bad guys out there that want to give us a hard time, but even absent ill will, we still face structural challenges.  The sad part is that there is little we can do about them.   In many ways it would be better if it was the work of our opponents. We might be able to identify them and contain their propaganda, maybe even change some minds.  With structural problems … we just have to live with them.  I would say that we can slowly change them, but I am not sure we can.  Sometimes you have to choose between actually doing something and seeming to do something. Promises are great, but it is usually better to get something really.

Mongomery, Alabama

Montgomery is on a flat site so it spreads out easily.  The central part of the city is very quiet.  It is easy to drive and find your way around the grid pattern streets, and there is ample parking all around.   The country’s first electrical trolley line was set up here in 1886.  That started spreading out the city’s population.  There are no natural barriers, so since it was easy just to move a little farther out and since the city’s population is only 200,000 (a little less than Arlington) the whole place has more the density  of a suburb than a city. Above is the state capitol. 

Below is the Confederate White House, where Jeff Davis lived.  Montgomery was the first Confederate capital. The woman running the reception desk was originally from Czechoslovakia.  Her parents fled Sudetenland when Hitler took over, only to be subsumed when he took over the rest of the country after the Munich sell-out.  After WWII, her family wisely got out when the communists took over.  Although she came to the U.S. when she was only eleven, she still had a trace of a Czech accent, overlaid with the Alabama drawl.

I was a couple hours early for my appointment at the Alabama Forestry Association, so I got a chance to walk around the Capitol area.  The buildings are classical revival built with white marble from Alabama or the neighboring states.  Below is the Alabama Archives building. There is a museum inside.  Notice the classical style with the white marble again. 

The city has clearly gentrified.  Near the river are a lot of old warehouses and railroad buildings, now converted to loft apartments and nice restaurants.  I didn’t take pictures of them, but below is the Dexter Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King served as pastor 1954-1960.  It was from here that he organized the Montgomery bus boycott.

At the Alabama Forestry Association, I met Rick Oates.  Forestry is an important industry in Alabama.  Although the state tree is the longleaf pine, loblolly is a lot more common. Mr. Oates said that woody biomass looks like it will take off and some of the pulp firms are worried about it.  I wish.  The price of pulp is so low now.  It would take a big change in biomass to bring it back up.  You can find out more about Alabama forests at this link.

Above is a memorial to police officers at the Alabama Capitol.  Below is a traditional Alabama cabin.

Time Travels

I used to daydream about how much better life would be if could go back in time with the knowledge I have now and make changes.  Used to.  My daydreaming was cut short by the anxiety about what I would lose. I couldn’t go back any farther than January 1991, for example.  Otherwise Espen wouldn’t be born.  Nothing could make up for that loss.  But even stipulating that would not be a factor, it still is problematic. 

The dangers & unintended consequences of using foreknowledge to change the future have been a part of literature since there has been literature.   It captures the human imagination, usually with the ironic twist that the very attempt to change the future is the catalyst that brings about the predicted outcome.

The farther back you go, the more small changes would have big and unexpected consequences.  There is no such thing as destiny.  Things did not have to develop the way they did in the past and the farther back you go the more leverage you would have, but you could never guarantee a better outcome.

It is probably a good thing that we fallible and conflicted humans cannot travel in time. But we can benefit from imagining the possibilities. Analyzing alternative possibilities in the past can allow us to make better decisions about the future. Thinking about what might have been is not a fruitless pastime for dreamers as long as you keep it in its place. I found imaginary time travel a more useful tool after I stopped daydreaming about the real past and started to think about the present and near future in the past tense. It is easier to think backward than forward. I believe I have avoided some regrets this way. I decided to be less career oriented and devote less time to work way back in 1998. I got more time with the family and – unexpectedly – better at my job.  Proper work-life balance makes you more effective all around.   A few years ago I used a similar analysis to decide to buy the forest land. It turned out to be a great decision from the personal fulfillment point of view and not a bad one from the investment angle, at least compared with stocks in recent years.   

Now I am trying to analyze a retirement decision. This is not the first time I have thought about this.  I planned to stay in only seven years when I joined the FS, but they always gave me something fun to do before I could organize myself to move on. I have been eligible to retire since my birthday in 2005. Of course, I couldn’t retire and just not work. I could retire with the FS pension and do something else; there are some enterprises I might try before I get too old.  But the present intrudes in the future.  I still have two boys in college and there is always a risk in giving up familiar work for the promise of something new. I hated looking for a job. I don’t suppose the process is much improved since I did it back in 1984. My resume has improved, but my perceived potential has declined. 

How will this decision seem looking back five or ten years?  I will probably do as I have done in the past: make it contingent on my next job.  The FS has always given me good jobs before I could organize to leave. Opportunism is a strategy, or to say it more elegantly, sometimes a series of tactical decisions becomes a strategic decision. Anyway, what I decide to do now … or not will change the “future-past” but my method of prospective hindsight is not working very well this time.

Will continuity or change be the better choice?  Who know?  Nobody knows.  That is precisely the problem with the future, no matter how you look at it. 

Bees Exposed

All the bee hives I have ever seen were rounded or in protected places like hollow trees.  Then I saw this up in a tree in Montgomery.  It looks like the bees didn’t bother to put up any defenses or walls, maybe because it never gets very cold. I noticed that many of the houses in the Deep South are also open to the elements.

BTW – I would not have seen this bee hive except for a stranger telling me about it.  I found the people of Alabama extraordinarily friendly and open.  People at shops and restaurants talked with me and were very happy to tell me about their town.  

A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations

The article I read about education in the Arab world was depressing.   There is controversy about the evolution debate in the U.S., but even in the most evolution-hostile fundamentalist environment, there is a debate.  But only around a third of adults in Egypt have ever even heard of Charles Darwin.  There is no biological science w/o Darwin.  That started me thinking about communicating with people who not only disagree with us but may not even share fundamental facts and assumptions.  

We tend to assume that our public affairs programs will resonate if only we craft them right or that a good policy will get the support it deserves.  These assumptions are not justified, overambitious and probably unnecessary.  Let’s do some reality checking by putting the challenges into familiar terms.

We have the controversy within America about bias on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC among others. Some people disagree strongly with people like Glenn Beck, Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity or Keith Olbermann, accusing them of bias or not being “real” journalists. But let’s put them in the international perspective.  I chose examples from right and left of the spectrum and we would expect much disagreement among them, but the differences among these guys are small potatoes when put in an international context.   And their journalistic ethics and commitment to accuracy would certainly put them much above the international average. 

We have to look at the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.

So before we tear our hair out about what the world thinks about us, let’s be clear.  Overall, the world information environment is not open, not fair, not balanced and not friendly to us.  The problem is worst precisely in the places we have the most trouble and this probably is not a coincidence. It is useful to keep in this in mind when we talk about lack of popular international support or approval of America and its policies.   Or let’s put this in our own context.  Glenn Beck would get a fairer shake on the Rachael Maddow show (and vice-versa) than we get in the media in much of the world.

The world is a big and diverse place.  Of course it is true that parts of the world enjoy standards of living & openness similar to ours, Democracy, prosperity and freedom are more widespread now than ever, but the blessings of liberty are still a minority proposition among the world’s people.  The Index of Democracy estimates that only half the world’s population lives in some sort of democracy, but only 14% live in full democracies.  Despite advances in democracy, more than a third of the world’s population still lives under authoritarian rule.  Economic freedom is about as widespread (The most democratic countries with the freest markets also tend to be the richest and most competitive.)  And according Freedom House’s press freedom report, in 2009 only 17% of the world’s people live in places where the press is free.    In one of our key areas, the Middle East, there are NO countries with completely free media and the region has more to worry about than that.   

Let’s again take this back to our terms.  Imagine a fundamentalist polygamous community living someplace in the remote mountains.  They spend significantly more time teaching religion than science or math.   They inculcate a general impression that the outside world is vaguely hostile or at best out to cheat or disrupt the community.   We have all seen such communities in the news.  Get the picture in your head.  Now imagine that your job is to convince them of the fundamental goodness and trustworthiness of the Federal Government.  This would be a daunting task.  Now imagine that most of them don’t speak English and a significant number cannot properly read in any language.  

Much of the world’s population presents a challenge like this, or worse.

That is why it doesn’t make particular sense to try to reach the WHOLE world or even very large numbers.  Most people don’t really care very much about our issues.  Others don’t really understand them.  Some are hostile to the messages or have contrary interests.  That is why it makes more sense to target carefully and make our interventions transactional. I don’t really care if people love me in general if they cooperate with me on mutually important specific issues. 

All that requires, however, that we understand our audiences, our goals and our own limitations. 

I spent a lot of time learning not to blame other for my failures. I tried to be proactive and figure out what I could do, no matter what others were doing.  This is a useful and valid outlook.  I have not abandoned it, but I have moved beyond it.  I now understand that sometimes my problems are indeed caused by others. I still have to be proactive, but mostly in ways to avoid the obstruction.  Some people cannot be brought around and it is not my fault.  There are even some people who you DON’T want as friends.  Lay down with dogs and you come up with fleas. The same goes for public affairs. Some people & groups cannot be reached – for all practical purposes – and some shouldn’t be reached because of THEIR characteristics.  There are things you just cannot have and if you look carefully you find sometimes you don’t want them need them.

Unlearned Lessons

I participated in a seminar led by guy who had been on a CORDS team in Vietnam. CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) were supposed to do some of the development and coordination activities done by PRTs.  I was aware of CORDS but through talking to some older guys who knew about them. You cannot find much about them otherwise. It is the forgotten war and maybe the forgotten victory.

The professor pointed out that the insurgency in South Vietnam was decisively defeated after the TET offensive and CORDS cemented the victory.   After that, it became a problem of invasion from North Vietnam.  The popularly held idea that a bunch of insurgents, living with the people in the countryside, overthrew the South Vietnamese regime is just wrong.  We all remember the fall of Saigon, but we often forget that it was conquered by the armies of the North; big armies complete with armor and air support.  It wasn’t little guys in black pajamas.     

The successful counterinsurgency, including CORDS operation, was linked with the disastrous fall of Saigon and because we got the history wrong, usually w/o even thinking much about it, we were unable or unwilling to learn the lessons.  

The strategy associated with the surge worked in Iraq. We went from near defeat in late 2006 to a clear success (call it victory) a year later. I personally saw the change and felt its effects.  It was literally a matter of people dying or not. You can do all the academic analysis you want and round the words until they fit into square holes, but I am morally convinced that thousands of people are alive today because of what we did. PRTs were part of the surge and people like me contributed to the victory in Iraq. 

Our work at the PRTs may be following CORDS down the memory hole. It just doesn’t have many powerful champions and there are detractors. Some people are almost embarrassed that the surge worked, since they had so vociferously predicted its failure. Others have convinced themselves that success would have happened anyway.  Still others deny that we were successful at all since the situation is not a perfect as they could imagine. And then there are those who imply that victory or defeat in Iraq were/are just irrelevant.    

Some of the participants in the seminar asked me how State Department had taken advantage of the unique experience I had gained in Western Anbar. How had we absorbed that knowledge as a learning organization.  This is what they wanted to know.  I thought about it. I thought about it again.   The Marines invited me to Quantico to discuss my experience, several times, I told them. An independent scholar contacted me.  He had read my blog and wanted to see if I could tell him anything else.  At State Department … well, FSI asked me to present to classes of PRT folks going to Iraq.  I was on a panel with four other people and collectively we talked for about an hour.  That was good.  I sponsored my own brown bag lunch to discuss Iraq.   Five people came, all of them my friends just trying to be nice. I wrote a few entries on our State Department wiki, Diplopedia.  I don’t know if anybody read any of them, but information gets stale anyway unless it is converted to knowledge.

The follow up question was something like, “then how do you all learn?”  I mumbled about “reading in” to the cable and reports.

It is hard to be a learning organization because it is hard to turn experience into information and even harder to turn information into useful knowledge. We too often content ourselves with information on paper, or these days on computers.  We can gather all the numbers, metrics, whatever you want to call it, but it has to be converted to useful knowledge and categorized by human intelligence.  Creating useful knowledge usually means putting it into understandable context.  It usually also requires that the person digesting the information is also someone who can make decisions.  You cannot outsource your brains.

As a PRT leader, I had first-hand, primary knowledge. I sometimes didn’t know the significance of my information or how it fit into a bigger picture. It was helpful when someone had the secondary knowledge to evaluate and figure out what my information was part of. That is why a learning organization is stronger and smarter than the individuals in it.  If the information contained in individual minds remains un-harvested, the organization doesn’t learn.  It can be full of smart people who are adept at learning and improvising solutions, but it will lack the synergy of a learning organization. This is our problem.

I have been observing organizations for a long time.  You have to look at the organization as a whole with its own behaviors, not only at the separate individuals because groups are more than a the sum of individuals.  They develop a culture. We all know that individuals can learn, but so can organizations under the right conditions.

I see that many can be episodically learning organizations.  Much depends on characteristics of individuals in charge and the culture they engender. People have to talk and exchange information informally and non-judgmentally. The learning episode stops if anybody gets in trouble for being wrong, stepping out of line or presenting information that contradicts a agreed upon course of action.  But it is clearly a lot harder than just letting people talk and engage.  There has to be a way to evaluate information. Someone might be 100% honest and open, but still lack the perspective to create accurate or useful knowledge.  On the other hand, the old saying applies that even a broken clock is right twice a day, so you have to listen to everybody. 

The Marines in Iraq had become a learning organization.  I wrote about it at this link. Parts of State Department have been learning organizations during some periods.  I have been involved in some. It was exciting but those flashes of lights tend to flicker out when personnel or priorities shift. 

Maybe both personnel and priorities have shifted concerning PRTs in Iraq.  Maybe its just me.  Maybe the State Department has moved along.  Maybe the old Arab proverb applies, “The dogs may bark, but the caravan moves on. I don’t suppose my banana index translates very well anyway. It even stopped working in Iraq before I left

The Changing Face of Hate

It might be a positive sign that there are more hate groups.  This is counter intuitive, but according what I learned at at the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of active, affiliated “haters” has actually decreased while the number of groups has gone up.  That indicates a fragmentation of the hate culture.  Maybe some people are ostensibly members of several groups and not committed to any. In the 1920s, the KKK had an estimated 4 million members and was organized enough to influence politics at the state level.  Today there are fewer than 10,000 members, mostly unorganized losers. 

I didn’t know that the Klan of the 1920s recruited most of its members by its anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant stance.  In other words, they hated people like my Polish-Catholic grandparents. That probably explains why the Klan was not strong in Wisconsin.

The speaker said that 6-10,000 hate crimes are reported each year.  Most of these crimes are now aimed at Latinos and immigrants.  Ironically, some of the perpetrators are urban blacks who fear that new immigrants are taking their jobs.  This is in many ways a repeat of the anti-immigrant ideas of generations ago and is evidently the hardy perennial of problems.

We have to be very careful in the “hate crime” designation.  It is a very broad category that can range from name-calling and vandalism to actual murder.  Even in cases of actual violence, the hate motivation is slippery.  Murder is always a crime of hate, whether or not those involved are ethnically similar.  And as in any broad distribution, the very serious instances get the most attention but are very rare.    In a classic case of vividness bias; we more easily recall extreme events and our imaginations turn to frightful images when we may have merely a more comprehensive definition or reporting.

It was much more dangerous in the past to stand up for civil rights in America than it is today and the Institute documented the history of the struggle, especially during the 1950s and 1960s.  There was a memorial listing the names of the forty people killed during those decades.   Alabama was in many ways the center of the struggle and the struggle was much more black and white and not only in terms of race.  When Martin Luther King led boycotts and marches, he was asking only for dignity that most of us agree that all humans deserve.  He was success precisely for this reason.   He appealed to the humanity, virtue and fundamental goodness of his opponents.  Some willing to use firehouses, dogs and worse against protesters, but most suffered pangs of morality.  Almost everybody could agree about what was right and wrong.

Non-violent methods work less well against jihadists or dictators willing or even eager to kill hundreds or thousands of innocent people to make their points and maintain themselves in power.  In Rwanda, Bosnia, Congo or the unfortunately many other places, murder was/is done on a vast scale and individual voices are silenced before they can be heard, sometimes even when they are heard – and murders are seen in the media – as in the recent case of the Iranian elections the regime rolls on. That is the fundamental dilemma of pacifism.  It requires a fundamentally decent society in order to work. 

It has become a lot more complicated since then, which is why I think we often hearken back to those days when right and wrong were clearly defined.  Forty five years after the Civil Right legislation, it is much harder to know which side is right on debates on affirmative action, racial preferences or even – especially – immigration.  The people as the Southern Poverty institutes talked more about immigration than anything else.  Maybe it was just because of the nature of our questions, but I suspect that the direction has indeed turned.

IMO, immigration is much more nuanced and problematic as a civil rights issue.  Good people can disagree about fundamental values.  Of course, individual immigrants are entitled to civil rights and human dignity.  But the act of immigration is not a right and an immigrant who enters the country illegally has committed a crime, no matter what we consider the motivations. A country is also entitled to design its immigration laws as it sees fit. 

I am generally in favor of immigration, since it strengthens the diversity of our country, but there are plenty of problems I do not want to import.  I don’t want immigration that encourages things like the Russian mafia, human trafficking or drugs.  Most people would agree with me on the broad direction, but some of the details of procedures and laws would work against this.  And clever reading of rules can provide “rights” to some pretty bad people in situations that good people might not have envisioned.  I would hate to see the definition of hate expanded to encompass vigorous debate about immigration.

The discussion of immigration inevitably turned to race.  Most new immigrants are non-white, but race is not a necessary dominant factor.  The focus on race indicates a lack of historical understanding or perspective. There are plenty of reasons to advocate strict immigration rules that have nothing to do with race. I remember when our rejection rate in Poland was over half and as I mentioned above the KKK disliked Polish-Catholics.  It just now happens that no European countries now have the growing populations that export people, so that is no longer an issue. The problem with immigration is that immigrants bring different values and often create economic dislocation. Most people want SOME change; not many people want comprehensive change.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to keep change manageable or even not wanting much of it at all.  America is a great country.  It makes sense to be careful when changing a good thing, since usually more things can go wrong than go right.

Frankly I don’t want my country to become more like most countries I have visited in many ways. That is not saying we should just freeze in place.  A culture that doesn’t change, dies.  I like the America of 2009 better than the America of 1969 in most ways. I just want us to get the best, not the worst of what the world offers.  We don’t want to just open the doors and let whoever or whatever come.  It is our right to choose. That is why I want rights to remain attached to individuals, not activities, not groups.  If you protect the people, other legitimate things follow.  It doesn’t work the other way around.

Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothin’ Left to Lose

The only other time I was in Alabama was in March 1974, almost thirty-five years ago. It was cold in Wisconsin during the spring break so I decided to hitchhike to Florida. I memorized a map, but I got it wrong and ended up two days later in south Alabama.  It took me that long to figure out that I didn’t have enough money and no plan, so I turned around and headed home. This trip was my first big adventure and the first time I understood that being on your own was not always much fun.

I got a ride all the way from Nashville to Alabama state highway 10. This was a very local rural road back then. A guy in a pickup truck picked me up.  He talked to me for about ten minutes, and I understood not a word.   It worried me.  It was like being in a foreign country.   He dropped me off about two miles down the road, where a farmer was out working in his field.  He came over and talked to me (people were very friendly).  He had an accent, but it was easy to understand.  I mentioned my earlier problem and he just laughed.  “That’s old James.  He’s the town drunk.  Ain’t nobody understands old James,” he told me. 

My turn around point was a cemetery near Brantley, Alabama on the way to Opp.  I found the place and you can see it up top.  I spent the night there, actually right outside.  That was not my plan. I was talking to some guys at a local gas station.  They warned me about the poisonous snakes in the tall grass.  Now I understand that they were just giving me a hard time. As I walked out of town in the dark of early evening, I saw nothing but tall grass, until there was some short grass.  I thought it was a roadside, so I spread out my blanket and went to sleep.   

In the morning, I saw that it wasn’t a roadside.  I was sleeping near the tombstones not far from a graveyard.  Had I known where I was, I think I would have slept poorly.  As it was, I spend a peaceful night with the quiet neighbors but that was enough.  I was hungry and lonely and I wanted to go home. I took a picture near the spot where I think I was.  Those leyland cypresses were not there yet.  There was just I was grass and some bushes.  Just being there brought back the feelings of those days.  I did lots of stupid things when I was nineteen, but I think this was the stupidest, on balance.  Above and below are pictures are Brantley what used to be the business district thirty-five years ago and some houses along the road.

I started to hitchhike back north from the spot on the top picture outside Brantley, Alabama.  (For the last thirty-five years, I have believed that I turned back south of Opp.  I remembered that name because it is odd and I saw it in writing.  Now, however, I am 99% certain that the spot above is indeed the high water mark of my first lonely travel adventure.) I made it to Nashville by that night. 

I might have gotten there earlier.  I had a ride going all the way up there, but I got out near Decatur.  The driver was drinking whiskey.  He claimed that he was going to kill his wife and his former best friend.  The wife had run off with the friend. This didn’t seem to bother the guy too much, but they had also taken a couple hundred dollars of his money. This pissed him off. His story sounded a little too much like the words from a Hank Williams, Jr song.  I remembered the words of the old Roy Acuff song, “Whiskey and Blood on the Highway” (There was whiskey and blood all together; mixed with glass where they lay; I heard the moans of the dyin’; but I didn’t hear nobody pray) so I bailed.  I tried to pay attention to the news the next day and didn’t hear about any spectacular murders, so I figure he was just talking … and drinking.  People who picked up hitchhikers often were just looking for someone to talk at and they often are not serious.  But guns, booze, anger and cars are not things you should mix or mess with if you can avoid it.

I spent my last $7 on a bus ticket from Nashville to Evansville, Indiana.  I didn’t particularly want to go there, but that was as far I my money would take me.  What I really wanted was a warm & reasonably secure place to spend the night and the bus was the best I could do.  I arrived in Evansville just about dawn and set off up Hwy 41.  It was 5 below.  They had an ice storm the day before and then it got really cold. Hitchhiking was hard and I picked up only short hops.  The worst was when some A-hole dropped me off directly in front of a sign that said something like, “Rockville Prison.  Do not pick up hitchhikers”.  I later found out that it was a woman’s prison, but the sign didn’t specify. 

I got up to Chicago about the time it was getting dark and a really nice guy drove me all the way home to Milwaukee. It is probably not a good idea to depend on the kindness of strangers, but I was glad that I ran into some good people. Besides the Rockville Prison guy and the homicidal boozer, everybody I met treated me okay, some were very friendly and shared lunches with me. I would have been a lot hungrier if not for that. 

The whole adventure lasted only four days, but it made a deep impression on me, so much that a half a lifetime later I can still recall details. This was the first time I was really alone and unconnected. I realized that a guy could just disappear.  I remembered how it felt to be “homeless” as I drove back from Brantley to my reserved room at Courtyard in Troy, Alabama. It is comforting to have a place to go. The most disturbing part about wandering is looking around for a place to bed down at dusk and hoping that it doesn’t rain or you don’t get rolled.  It is nice to be able to come & go when you want, but in the words of that great country philosopher Kris Kristopherson, “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”

It was a good lesson and not a very expensive one for me.  It was good to learn it early, but it wasn’t smart to set off with no map, no plan and almost no money. I can’t even put myself back in that stupid young-man mindset.  I make much more sophisticated stupid old-man choices today.  I have always been lucky and luck can substitute for intelligence and foresight … until it doesn’t.

I didn’t stop hitchhiking, BTW.  That is how I and many car-free students got around in those days.  And I subsequently hitchhiked around Europe.  But I prepared better.

Air War College in Alabama

The Air War College is located on Maxwell Air Force base in Montgomery, Alabama.  It is a pleasant place and it is still summer in Alabama.  The housing is nice.  I am here for three days of seminars.  It has been interesting so far. I like to get away sometimes and think about the work.  I only wish I could translate the ideas better into practice.

Above is a B-25.  It is also called the Mitchell bomber, named after Billy Mitchell, who warned America that the Japanese could launch a Pearl Harbor style attack.  For his insight, he was court martialed, although later he was honored.  Too bad he was already dead.  He was a Wisconsin boy and the airport in Milwaukee is named for him too. 

The Mitchell bombers planes were used in WWII and were the planes used during the Doolittle raids, when we showed the Japanese that we were serious about taking the war to them after Pearl Harbor. 

Below is some of the housing on the base.

Below is the Wagon Wheel restaurant, where we had breakfast.  It is simple eggs and bacon … and grits for those that like them.  

Golf, Pools, Horses and Sheep

I don’t know if it is true, but several people told me that air bases are required to have golf courses, the idea being that all that flat, grassy space is available in emergencies for landing or at least the storage of aircraft.  It sounds a little glib, but who knows?  Home owners in some arid regions sometimes get a discount on their fire-insurance policies if they have swimming pools that can serve as reservoirs.   We got a discount on our insurance from USAA in New Hampshire because our house was within a convenient hose length from a pond.  I thought that was just a specious reason until the condominium clubhouse caught on fire and the fire department did indeed tap the pond water.   Their attempt to save the structure was futile but they did prevent the fire from spreading to the neighboring woods and homes.

On the left is pond in New Hampshire.

A surprising number of people hate golf courses.  They are evidently offended by them and work themselves into a frenzy saying things like the land and resources devoted to golf courses could be used to feed poor people. I suppose if we were close to subsistence, this would be true and if we plowed up all the golf courses we could feed a few more people.  Of course, there are lots of other places food is wasted that would come first.  We have all sorts of fruit trees we don’t harvest and all kinds of unused land.  I think the real problem is that luddites associate golf course with affluence.   I don’t golf, never have.  But golf courses are usually attractive.  They provide nice vistas and often good places to run -around the peripheries; golfers get annoyed if you get to close to them.

Maxwell Air-Base features another luxury item – horses.  Even the luddites rarely object to horses because they are graceful and beautiful.  I would not want to own one, since I don’t know how to care for them, but I am glad to have them around.  Mariza is very fond of horses.  If she (and we) lived nearer to the tree farms, we could buy one for her.

Grazing animals are good management; of course a couple horses are not enough. It is good to have different types of animals, such as sheep or cows or goats to rotate in the pastures. Animal species have different digestive systems. The sheep help slow the spread of horse parasites and vice versa and tend to favor different mixes of greens. Healthy pastures are diverse because of the different habits of species and the different characteristics of their manure. 

They have lots of nice trees on base and Alabama is a big timber state. Slash, Loblolly & longleaf pine together are called “southern pine”  and they sustainably supply around 58% of American timber needs.