Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Dark Passage to Light

He plunged into the dark, cold water and drifted easily downward while he considered the situation. He was in a canal filled with water that was over his head and he must be near the bottom now.

His lower hand reached out and touched the mud at the bottom. It was time to go to the surface now but he didn't want to suddenly thrust up in the water and get his feet mired in the muck.

He rolled over and tried to orientate himself so that he could propel himself upwards without having to kick out behind him. Although he was relaxed, it was definitely time to get to the surface.

But the coldness of the water and the slow turning of his body had disoriented him and he was suddenly acutely aware that he had only a single breath of air. An urgent note of finality characterized his actions.

He felt that he had only one chance to attain the surface now. He hoped that he was pointed upwards because he didn't want to dive headfirst into the bottom mud and have to wrestle around down there getting reoriented while his single breath waned.

He pushed off and his eyes opened to light and he sucked in a breath. The dim luminescence of dawn was filling his bedroom.

He lay under the sheet considering. He'd been dreaming, and perhaps a little bit of acute sleep apnea was involved.

His dream sequence was eerily similar to being trapped under the boat in the rapids last month. He remembered that when he'd described his near-death experience then to his sister afterwards, she'd used the word reborn to characterize his escape.

He thought about the dark, lonely place under the boat, with nothing but fluid surrounding him in his confined space. Then he had pushed off downwards to launch his journey into the unknown, which he feared might lead to him being pinned by the current against the rock that the capsized raft was wrapped around.

But there had been no other choice then because it was time to leave, and he had traveled under the stern of the boat and come out into light and air, before being plunged down the rapids in a wild ride where he had to fight for his life. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Parking enforcement in the District

The District has expanded its metered parking exponentially and enforces the restrictions aggressively in its desperation to garner revenues. Parking at any meter citywide costs $2 an hour from 6 am to 10 pm Monday through Saturday.

Personally, it just means that I actively stay out of the District on Saturdays. I reckon that attitude represnts a loss to the city in the form of potential lost sales tax revenue.

The city is very efficient at dispensing parking tickets, having its uniformed meter-maids zip up and down the sidewalks trolling for expired meters on Segways. With a couple of taps on his or her hand-held computer, the officer prints out a $60 ticket, slaps it on the windshield and is speedily off looking for other miscreants.

Going to lunch the other day, I observed one of these hard working parking enforcement officials during a few seconds of downtime from revenue enhancement. He was cruising hands-free on his two-wheeled vehicle in the middle of the street alongside a slow moving Metropolitan Police patrol car with its driver's window rolled down, engaged in a discussion with the pretty officer inside while he smoked a cigarette with one hand and held a cell phone to his ear with the other hand, conducting yet another conversation.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Got soccer redux?

Boo hoo, America lost in the knockout round of the World Cup. Yawn. We scored once all game, on a penalty kick.

Ghana's second goal was a wicked shot, the best I've seen in the tourney so far. Beautiful kicks like that are few and far between because scoring in soccer is so hard, especially with defenders hanging on you every step.

It's almost impossible to get "space" in the box. The scorer in overtime created a tiny bit of space and made a superb shot.

If you get a step on the defenders, they'll take you down. And half the strikers cowardly take a dive in traffic trying to get a free kick.

Soccer needs scoring. It needs fixing.

The Americans could help out here. FIFA should borrow rules and procedures from the NHL, NBA and NFL.

Every goal in soccer is suspect because of the archaic, stifling offsides rule. Make offsides only be dependent upon no one being offsides when the ball first crosses midfield (the blue line in hockey).

Then strikers could spread out and get open. Teams would have to make choices in defending their end.

To ensure that two strikers don't hang out bracketing the goalie, have a three second rule in the box like in the NBA. We love those riveting nil-nil games after all.

Soccer is so boring because of all that backwards passing, often all the way back to the goalie. The rest of the world slowly passes the ball back 75 yards to try to advance it 90 yards into the scoring zone.

This is trying to get a head start, I guess. You know, like a quarterback taking a snap at midfield and running back to the 10 to try to throw a bomb.

To keep movement mostly being progressive, institute the backcourt and icing rules from basketball and hockey. No passes backwards past midfield once the ball on offense has entered the box unless it has been lost in the interim, or else the other team gets a free kick at the spot the ball was touched by the offending team (always at least 10 yards outside the penalty area regardless). No backwards passing series past two lines anyways, to eliminate all that boring back-to-the-goalie stuff.

When a player gets fouled, give a free kick from there but tack on 15 yards (move the ball closer). Why let the defense use fouling, and the resultant free kicks from the point of the foul, as a chance for the defense to catch up and reset.

Keep the game time on the scoreboard clock, and have it stop during all that "stoppage" time when players are writhing on the ground after receiving phantom hits. When the period is over, that's it.

This will give sponsors the ability to have TV timeouts. There is no 45-minute-long continuous flow to soccer, that's a ridiculous notion.

Change the asinine rule (which is hard to determine) that the ball is scored, or dead, only when it completely crosses the line. Adopt the NFL's break-the-plane rule.

And for sure, have the FIFA commish assess fines each week after reviewing game tapes for flopping, unseemly unwarranted writhing, peacock strutting after gooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaals, clothes-grabbing and bad fouling. Soccer sucks the way it is now.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Goodbye Melvin Dean, I hardly knew ye!

I'm still in spring cleaning mode although summer has arrived. Now that I no longer do any coaching or administration because my running club and I are no longer an item, I've got lots of time on my hands on weekends.

After ordering cable TV over the winter and having the novelty of channel-surfing 500 vacuous channels wear off, I looked around my house and noticed all the neglected tasks. In the basement are about a dozen boxes I packed a few years ago, labeled with the initials of my three sons.

Since none of my now-adult children has responded to any of my entreaties for years, on trash day this week I brought one of the boxes, labeled "JBL-bed buddies," to the curb and left it for the garbage truck to haul away to the dump. First, I looked inside and said goodbye to the box's contents of the Hulk Hogan wrestling buddy, the Cabbage Patch kid Melvin Dean clutching his "birth certificate," the Wild Thing that made my oldest child shiver when he opened it one Christmas, and the Daffy Duck doll which my mother sent him two decades ago.

The box was gone when I came home from work. I'm moving on, and will throw out another box each week until they're all cleared out.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Got Soccer?

I have been watching the World Cup on TV. This weekend I saw England (where modern soccer was born) play Algeria to a Nil Nil tie.

I sat still for ninety minutes of non-riveting action. Two beers helped me get through this.

Twenty players on the "pitch" using only half their bodies for play (if you ignore all the handballs) while two athletes get to use their finely tuned hands and arms. Is it only America that knows about opposable thumbs?

The goalies made the only exciting plays in this hour-and-a-half stinker, a coupla outstretched overhead catches of high balls sailing across the goal mouth, the type of plays that T.O. makes in the first quarter of an NFL game.

Yawn. Before you start thinking I'm just an ugly American who doesn't understand this "beautiful" game, I'm a certified soccer coach.

Tonight I was watching Chile beat Switzerland One Nil. At least there was a score in the interminable ninety minutes, because the referee had sent off a Swiss player on a questionable foul and thus pre-determined the contest.

This red card led to a Chile Goaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaal! The Chilean peacocks in their little short pants went whipping around the pitch clawing at their shirts in their frenzy, sliding on their knees and backs to signal to the world, Look-At-Me!

There's more flopping in elite soccer than in the NBA, and these lithe international athletes regularly lie writhing on the ground for minutes after each close non-contact, holding their faces in their supposed agony at receiving a phantom elbow. World Cup soccer is a phoney.

I switched to a mid-season baseball game after awhile, a 2-1 contest. It was so much more satisfying, real and action-packed.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Happy Father's Day, Dad

I hated losing you when you were just 61 in 1986, Dad. I'm glad one of my three sons was held in your strong hands, and I'm sad the other two never encountered you.

I salute you as the father of six, husband to one, son, brother, combat marine, attorney, intellectual, liberal, volunteer, difference maker, fearless example and principled person.

In times of trouble I think of you, Dad, and ask myself what you would have done. I love you.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


I went to see Toy Story 3 this afternoon. I'd been in a funk all day because of the holiday tomorrow and I thought seeing a well-reviewed movie would help alleviate my blues.

It is an excellent movie, with wonderful writing and a complex plot. I was glad it was a 3-D film and I was wearing dark glasses because when Andy gave away the toys he'd outgrown to the little girl who would give them a welcoming home, the tears just rolled out of my eyes.

Both eyes. They just silently spilled out during the movie's heart-rending final scene, a denouement that imparted so much promise and goodwill for everyone and everything.

I usually don't cry, although some tears did spill out a couple of years ago after we lost a Bucket Trip companion to a heart attack in the Grand Canyon. I don't think the movie audience today noticed my water-stained cheeks because I craftily didn't wipe my face.

You see, this morning when I was pulling up weeds in a corner of my yard, I came across a plastic green army man buried in the dirt, lost during some long-forgotten battle a long time ago. It was the type of toy soldier that my middle son always used to play with, sometimes in the yard.

Finding this weather beaten little trooper reminded me of Johnny, and also my two other estranged sons, all of whom are adults now. I just hate it when the good-bad memories get stirred up.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Congratulations, Johnny.

Sunday is Father's Day. For me, holidays always suck because I have three children, who I love and have fully provided for from birth through full payment of their college tuition and fees, and not a one of them has talked to me in seven years.

They all walked out of my life permanently in a show of support for their Mother when she actively made them her close allies in our interminable nuclear divorce litigation. It's called Parental Alienation Syndrome ("PAS"), it's a form of child abuse, it's devastating to everyone involved and it happens when the alienating parent, usually the primary caregiver, instills an us-against-him feeling in the immature minor children.

I think my middle child graduated from college in Richmond this month, because the annual summary I get from the Virginia pre-paid tuition plan that I own for their benefit showed that on January 1st he had used up 3 1/2 years of his four years of eligibility. As with his high school graduation, I wasn't invited to this ceremony.

Why would you inform the person who purchased the plan that paid for 100% of your college tuition and fees (no college loans, yay!) of your graduation? This is a special graduate; I am imagining him now, walking across the stage, receiving his degree, flipping the tassel, tossing his mortar board into the air . . . .

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

That's a wrap

I was telling Maria, a friend of mine in Colorado, that I went rafting on the Dolores River in Colorado and Utah last month when she informed me that she was a river guide and had traveled down the Dolores River plenty of times herself. Since I almost drowned when the boat overturned in a rapids and I became trapped underneath it, I asked her how you get out from underneath a capsized boat.

"Keep ahold of the boat and let it pass over you," she said, "by using your hands to pull yourself upriver as it floats downstream. Use the air pocket under the boat to breathe, and when you come to the back of the boat, duck under the gunwale and come out behind the boat, holding onto to the boat until you can determine whether you want to stay with it or take your chances swimming down the rapids."

She added that you don’t want to come out downstream so the boat is pushing you, because it might hit a rock and pin you between it and the rock. Better to emerge upriver and have the boat pull you, so you can let it go if need to achieve separation.

"Maria," I said, "there was no air under that boat. The current had pinned it against a rock and it wasn’t moving."

"Oh, you were under a wrapped boat," she said. "That’s different and very dangerous. You have to get out from under a wrapped boat any way you can, although you still want to try to get out upriver, in case it suddenly starts moving." (Right: A wrapped boat.)

I got out from under the wrapped boat downriver, on my third try with my life hanging in the balance, after failing two times to get out upriver. Maria is the first person I have talked to about the situation I was in who immediately understood that there was no air pocket down there, which gave my efforts to escape an air of immediacy which fully garnered my attention.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Longest Day of Sergeant Thornton

Sixty-six years ago today, Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy in the greatest amphibious landing ever, successfully breaching Hitler's Fortress Europa enroute to an historic meeting with Soviet troops on the Elbe River in Germany less than a year later. Some commentators say that ancient history flowed into that date and modern history flowed out of it.

It was an enormous, complex enterprise involving hundreds of thousands of men. Allied airborne troops preceded the troops splashing ashore at daybreak by several hours.

Ever heard of Sergeant M.C. Thornton of the British Sixth Airborne Division? This one man might have changed the course of history that night.

The German plan to throw the invaders back into the sea depended upon Panzer units counterattacking the left flank of the landings while the Allies were still on the beaches. To do this, their tanks had to cross the Orne River and the adjacent Caen Canal in order to get at the British.

Ever heard of Sergeant M.C. Thornton of the British Sixth Airborne Division? The road to modern history might have flowed through his foxhole early that morning.

Maybe you've heard of Omaha Beach, where the Americans almost came to grief; probably you haven't heard of Pegasus Bridge, where the British almost came to grief. Historian Stephen E. Ambrose wrote a book about the Sixth Airborne's early morning battle at the bridge over the canal, seeking to deny the Germans the only road their Panzers could take across the water barrier blocking their armor from the Allied beaches.

The Allies didn't simply blow these bridges six miles off the beaches because they wanted them so their troops could use them to break out of Normandy and head east towards Germany. Just after midnight British paratroopers captured the bridges, but their thin ranks had to hold them until troops landing later that day could come to their aid or else the intact bridges could turn into an avenue for furious Axis armored counterattacks.

In the early morning of June 6th, the Germans knew something was up. Glider troops had landed and heavy firing was going on.

The local German commander sent his tanks along with some infantry in the dark to investigate the confused situation at the bridges. As they approached the Pegasus (Benouville) Bridge, a single company of British troops who had landed practically on top of the bridges in gliders just after midnight waited with no antitank weapons save one Piat gun, the British equivalent of the American bazooka.

The noisy German tanks were moving slowly and cautiously towards the bridge, with the foot soldiers following. Sgt. Thornton was in a fire pit with his Piat gun 30 yards off the bridge entrance way, near the end of the weapon's effective range.

All other weapons the lightly armed British paratroopers had with them were useless against buttoned down tanks. The German troops should have preceded the tanks, but the German response was hesitant and uncertain that first night.

"The Piat actually is a load of rubbish, really." Thornton said years later. "Even fifty yards is stretching its range."

"Another thing is, you must never, never miss." It was too time-consuming to reload and the gunner would be killed by counter fire if he missed.

The British held their fire as the tanks approached. Shaking like a leaf, Thornton took aim and fired at the lead tank as it turned towards the bridge.

In typical British understatement, Thornton described what happened. "I hit him right right bang in the middle."

The round penetrated and the tank went up, and burned slowly for the rest of the night, cooking off rounds occasionally. The rest of the tanks retreated, not to return that night.

A British paratrooper colonel came up later towards the burning tank with a few additional troopers as reinforcements. "What the bloody hell's going on up there," he asked Thornton.

"It's only a bloody old tank going off," Thornton replied, "but it's making an awful racket."

With the bridges leading directly to the Normandy Coastal Road in Allied hands, German armored counterattacks were forced to divert far inland around Caen and they were committed piecemeal, with ineffectual results. Eastern Front veteran Colonel Hans A. Von Luck, commanding the elite 125th Panzer Grenadier Regiment of the 21st Panzer Division which was east of Caen at the time, "contends that if those bridges had been available to him, he could have crossed the Orne waterways and thrown his regiment into the late-afternoon D-Day counterattack. The attack, by the 192d Regiment of 21st Panzer, almost reached the beaches. Von Luck feels that had his regiment also been in that attack, 21st Panzer would surely have driven to the beaches. A panzer division loose on the beaches..." Pegasus Bridge, p. 125.

Put yourself in Sgt. Thornton's foxhole at 2 a.m. on June 6th in Normandy in 1944, staring at a German tank 90 feet away that hasn't spotted you in the dark. One shot is all you will get, and if you shoot and miss, the tank will kill you. Even if you shoot and hit the tank, it or the second tank might kill you anyway. The small detachment of British troopers nearby cannot help you in this solitary duel. The British troops who will pour ashore hours later on Sword Beach are depending upon you to do your duty, to keep these tanks off their flank. Your trembling finger slowly tightens on the Piat gun trigger as the iron monster noses forward, its cannon swiveling looking for a target.

When interviewed decades later by Stephen Ambrose for Pegasus Bridge, Thornton told him, "Whatever you do in this book, don't go making me a bloody hero."

Ambrose replied, "Sergeant Thornton, I don't make heroes. I only write about them."

Saturday, June 5, 2010

A lot to say

I sure had a lot to say about the third day of my recent Bucket Trip down the Dolores River in Utah, when our boat capsized in the rapids. A friend who reads my posts said, "You tend to go on and on."

What, half a dozen or so posts concerning a single minute on (in?) the river is going on too long? Well, maybe.

But since I returned, I have related the story of my minute underneath the overturned boat to a few select friends, and have had the good fortune of receiving in return two excellent commentaries about travails on the river. The first one is from J, a running buddy of mine.

J was tubing on the Snake River many years ago, and because he was much younger and less wise, he wasn't wearing a life jacket. He can't say for sure, but he might have had one or two.

The rushing river took him straight into a large rock, where the current swirled around and around in front of the standing impediment creating a fierce mini-maelstrom. Perhaps you have never truly been on (in?) a river; but I can say from close experience that the incredible power of the water is both unrelenting and unforgiving. It can kill you like that.

The whirling well of water drove J down and he could feel the inner tube he was gripping being torn from his hands. An inner tube has buoyancy and is likely to return to the surface at some point whereas a human body might stay submerged within the center of a deep, rotating pool of water for a long time.

J held on for dear life as he was swallowed up. A few seconds later the inner tube was ejected from the whirlpool and discharged downstream, with J still clinging to it.

To this day J credits his death grip on the inner tube's handles with saving his life. In a subsequent post I'll relate what I learned from a river guide friend of mine.

Incidentally, J was practically the only person who gave me unbridled support after I ascended to the presidency (short lived) of my former running club last year and vicious board infighting broke out. He watched my back when I stood up after my last board meeting and I was, um, closely confronted by four belligerent young alpha male board members who had been disruptive throughout the meeting.