Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Happy Cows Come from Mars

We are merely placeholders in the landscape. If not for the names of places, much of what we see has changed with time. Scenes we remember of these places would seem to always be there - last forever - but given enough time are gradually rearranged or suddenly shifted. In the end, things will never be the same again, and likely never return to what they had been, no matter how long the wait. Given enough time, even with the same names, places change so much they would now be unrecognizable to past inhabitants - strange as images transmitted from a neighboring planet, after a successful NASA rover landing. For me, Wisconsin is one of those places.

Some cultures have an oral tradition for passing on their history to future generations - my mom must be from one of those people groups. As far back as I can remember, I have known about Wisconsin through the stories or short comments she made as I was growing up. As I drove recently from the Milwaukee Mitchell Field airport to visit my Uncle Gordon while on the way to a meeting in Madison, the GPS map and road signs bore familiar names: Calumet County, Green Bay, De Pere, Chilton, New Holstein, Brillion, Chilton, Potter, Oshkosh, and Lake Winnebago - a body of water I knew of before there were recreational vehicles. That these names are familiar is somewhat remarkable, because even when taking the shortest driving route, it is still 2,183 miles from my home in Visalia to these places, and my relatives and their lives - etched in my mind because my mom stayed in touch - letters, phone, and occasional visits and returned visits.

Her Wisconsin is the Wisconsin I picture in my mind. She was born in a white house, next to a red dairy barn with silos, near the village of Hilbert - the homestead is more than 150 years old. She had three brothers - Uncle Earl who worked at the Brillion Steel Mill, Uncle Gordon, a World War II Veteran and the Hilbert Postmaster, her kid brother, Uncle Mike, an engineer at Allen-Bradley - and Earl's wife Aunt Rosie, and Mike's wife Aunt Maggie, but Gordon: a life-long bachelor. I remember Grandma and Grandpa on the farm when we visited before I was five; but the farm was sold in 1963, so when I next saw them in 1964, they lived in a house in town, near the village park where the Fourth of July Celebration was held. When my mom and we four kids came through the door, a polka dance show was on the television. Mom's cousin Lucille, always referred to as "Cousin Lucille", was married to Sam, who worked for American Can. They lived in the first twin cities I knew, Neenah and Menasha, until they moved to Connecticut - they were my God Parents. That was the year of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, when I first became aware of large eastern European women who could throw the shot put great distances; Sam commented so, and I remember it to this day. All of this may have not included me, if not for certain people in irregular orbits having their paths unpredictably cross - like country roads the connect farms and towns and the people that live there.

If not for my grand mother's sister being married to a man whose sister was my dad's mom, and they having another brother who got his wife-to-be pregnant before they were married, that family would not have left Wisconsin and moved to California; and my mom would have had no reason to visit her aunt in Visalia where her aunt's husband's sister lived half of a mile north on another farm and married to a man who was to be my paternal grandfather; and would not have met their son who would chase after my mom all the way back to Wisconsin - 2,183 miles; and eventually marry my mom and which resulted is me - one of three brothers with a sister - a West Coast bookend family the mirror of my mom's Midwest family one generation earlier with the same sibling compliment that is carried forward to the present with my wife's and my clutch: three boys and a girl.

If not for time, Wisconsin, America's Dairyland as the license plates read, should always be a place of dairy farms, corn and alfalfa hay fields, milk trucks, cheese and Sheboygan summer sausage factories.... a land with rivers of beer - Pabst Blue Ribbon and Miller Genuine. Even as my mom migrated west to California, so have many of the black and white holstein cows. So much so, that my home county where my mom now lives is the greatest dairy producing county in the greatest dairy producing state - sans the red barns with clusters of silos and white farm houses with old hand pumps out front that drew water up from wells drilled deep into the dark earth, set upon rolling hills bordered by woods, where the only remnants of the long-gone yellow cheddar cheese wheels are the golden flowered trefoil flowers that line the country roads and interstate freeways that crisscross north and south and east and west - the only similar thing about Wisconsin and California, because the California cows can now speak. But like the times past in Wisconsin, the memories carved in my mind are like the names carved in stone that are found in St. Mary's Cemetery, south of the village, on the highway from Chilton, the place I stop to look at first, the two times I have returned in the last 15 years, like bookends on time - later in midlife, complimenting two times earlier when I first visited as a little one.

If not for highway construction detours that kept me from driving straight west to see Lake Winnebago, I would not have seen the new Wisconsinians - tall white sentinels that tower over the silos surrounded by pastures empty of black and white cows. Against the tall blue sky capped with thunderheads, on the way to Fon du Lac, near the south end of Lake Winnebago, stand new giant engines of industry, whipped by rivers of wind carried over the neighboring bluffs - so quiet and different than roaring rivers of air that stoked the iron smelting furnaces of the Fox River Valley in years gone by, as are the long-gone mill workers, like my Uncle Earl. These giants dominate the rolling hills and red barn landscape, dwarfing the once tall silos, like something machine out of a science fiction short story - likely also to be gone sometime in the future, when even long memories in comparative times are relatively short, sneaking up and passing us when no one expects anything to be different. When these giants are no longer useful, future inhabitants who remember them will either choose to go with the flow, or be drug forward kicking and screaming into the times future - people displaced by events they fail to see or realize, events over which they have no control.


I was struck by the presence of wind generators that seemed so out-of-place across the Wisconsin landscape near Fon du Lac. I pulled over along the back roads I took for the highway detours on my way to Madison. But then, maybe they are not as out-of-place as the soybean fields growing in the foreground, whose ancestors originated in China, twelve time zones - half-way around the world. For some reason, the first thing that popped into my mind was remembering my reading of the Martian Chronicles way back in high school. There was a time before long ago when instead of taking formal English courses, electives such as Science and Fantasy were offered. Ray Bradbury's collection of short stories around the theme of Earth settlement on Mars was one of the books I remember (1). So, as I was driving through this wind farm, I thought of how this scene related to the end of the book when an Earth family looked down into the waters of one of the Martian canals (remember, the stories were written in 1948, long before Neil Armstrong, the Hubble space telescope, or interplanetary rovers), and saw the reflections of the new Martians - those who came after the original inhabitants. This is the story of the flora, fauna, and peoples in North America as well. Thus were my thoughts of this new Wisconsin landscape, my relatives, places, and times.

They reached the canal. It was long and straight and cool and wet and reflective in the night.

"I've always wanted to see a Martian," said Michael. "Where are they, Dad? You promised."

"There they are, said Dad, and he shifted Michael on his shoulder and pointed straight down.

The Martians were there. Timothy began to shiver.

The Martians were there - in the canal - reflected in the water. Timothy and Michael and Robert and Mom and Dad. The Martians stared back up at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water....

The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury, 1948

While on vacation in Oregon, I found a hardback copy of the book at the Book Bin used book store in Corvallis. My youngest son and I had made it a quest: looking in a bookstore at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, and Border's Bookstore in Corvallis. I enjoyed each chapter, and remembered most all of them, but may one or two.

(1) It wasn't until I had to start writing for a living - first my Ph.D. dissertation, then publications that went to refereed journals, and now, on a Program Staff that at times has to write more than there is time to think - that I really had to sharpen my composition skills. I don't think I can describe how I know how to write, I just do from the repetition of it. Penmanship and spelling are different issues - I am grateful for the spell checker in Microsoft Word.


It is no wonder that dairy cows in California are happy in their new environs, able and willing to talk. Though the quaint rural settings shown in the cheese commercials are more like idyllic Wisconsin (or Mendocino Country) than Tulare County - where the land is flat and dry, and the pens are bordered by pipe with cable fences that hold the black and white cows as they wait to be milked two or three times a day, their massive frames spent after a year or so, and only able to dream of green rolling hills and rustic barns, in distant places only remembered by past generations - where Western farmers find Midwestern wives - almost like a Hallmark Channel romance movie. But then, these dreams may be more believable than illusions of evidence of alien visitors buried deep in the New Mexico desert - contrasted to here where talking cows, happy as they watch their time pass them by, waiting for the next migration, maybe to Mars .... or even back to Wisconsin where giant white windmills stand in empty green pastures bordered by woods, and turn silently twenty-four hours a day, driven by rivers of air bordered by invisible canal banks, reflecting back the images of old and new inhabitants alike - memories that float through minds past and present, waiting to be spoken of by future tellers of oral history traditions, and remembered by their young listeners.

See the Happy Cow Commercial at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Up880afV_qs&feature=related

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Different Place

We are a military family.

On April 1, 2003, my wife called me at work to say our second son had phoned to talk. When she asked him what's up, he answered: "I joined the Army." My knees buckled. But then she said: "April Fools... he got us good with that one!" I laughed and began recovering, we said good bye, and I got back to my work. But, sometime that day, maybe driving home, I thought: "Where did that come from?" The next night he called again: "Dad, I really do want to join the Army." Come September, we saw him drive off with a friend as he headed out to report for basic infantry training on September 11 at Fort Benning. Four years later, August 2007, our Army son was safely out and back in Oregon.

Our dads and uncles were in WWII, her brothers and other relatives served, and one died, in Viet Nam - but I had not. She had seen brothers off to the Navy, but this was a different experience for both of us - children in the military. And being a parent-of-a-child-in-the-service wasn't over.

On June 28, 2006, our youngest son reported on Induction Day to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. While on a business trip in May a year earlier, I called home to check in and my wife said we had received a West Point graduation celebration announcement for the son of friends we hadn't seen since living in California years before. Our youngest son was only six months old when we moved to Oregon and didn't have any recollection of that family, so asked questions about them and began Web surfing about West Point. I didn't think West Point was such a great idea - it seemed like lots of second lieutenants were getting killed in Iraq at that time. In September, while on another work trip, I called and asked what was up. My wife had just gotten home from work and said our youngest had called our Congressman's office to find out what he needed to do to get a nomination to the Naval Academy. What is it with kids these days?

Our two younger guys are similar but different: one Army - enlisted infantry; the other Navy - headed to be an officer, maybe a pilot. As for the older two kids - also similar but different: our son - a youth director in church; our daughter - a children's director in another church. Our eldest put it this way: "Two of us are in the ministry, and two of us are in the military, both begin with an M and end with a Y, and both are on the front lines." The Naval and Military Academies' grounds are that way, too: similar, but different.

Since I was going to be in the Hudson Valley for a business trip (see: Local Food Sociology 101), I figured there was never a better time to visit the United States Military Academy - the Black Knights, the arch rivals of the Midshipmen. With all the travel I do, I typically fly in for meetings and then get out and back home as fast as I can. But being so close, I decided to leave early in the morning to check out West Point on the way to my conference. Living in Annapolis and having a son attending the Naval Academy, we are able to drive onto the Yard any time we want - a divers license and family pass is all it takes. We consider ourselves fortunate to be so close and able to lend support - home nearly every weekend, lots off food, a place to crash and be alone, or to bring along friends for a meal, lots more food - we know the Academy routines about as well as a parent who did not attend can. As for West Point, I have only read books, heard a few stories, know from a distance. So what is it like? Not being Cadet parents, or having the rights and privileges we do as Midshipman parents - how could I know what to do, where to go?
There was only one option: Tourist - park in the public lot, get your ticket at the visitor center, wear your N cap with pride, and hang close to the retired Marine Corps tourists, just in case.

Compared to the Naval Academy, at West Point the security is greater, and access is limited to where the tour bus takes you. But this makes sense. The Yard covers only 400 acres, is adjacent to downtown Annapolis - the capital city of Maryland - and is surrounded by rivers on three sides. It is compact, so where ever you look, there are easy views of water in all directions. West Point, on the other hand, is way out in the country side north of New York City, up the Hudson River, with the campus sited on 15,000 acres (a great description is given in James S. Robbins' excellent book, "Last in Their Class: Custer, Pickett and the Goats of West Point").
The buildings are gray like the cadet's uniforms, and the main chapel has a touch of a castle look from Medieval Europe. The Midshipmen sometimes wear all white - the color of bleached sails contrasted by aqua seas and blue skies. Thinking of the Yard as a Navy ship - compact and self-contained - floating on the waters that surround it. The Army's West Point - sprawling and tree-covered, mountainous with rugged terrain - gives the impression as if the cadets were troops soon to be deployed in the field, soon to be in battles half way around the world - and a river runs through it. West Point is not a place to take it all in with one view, except perhaps from high above on the Route 9W highway, where the details below are left to the imaginations of we who are mostly unfamiliar. But then there are parts we see that are the same: both filled with young men and women who signed up at a time of war, who have little privacy or time to themselves - squad life, hard studies, companies marching and training for long hours.

Both end in Y and both begin with early mornings, regardless of whether there is an N or A at the beginning of their service branch name, or the letter on their cap.

Yes, we are a military family.


For an insider's perspective about A's and N's, see the blog story: "Beat Army, Yes - Bulldoze West Point, No" at:


For reference to family members mentioned in the service records above, see the Web links at:



Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Franklin Square, Washington, D.C.

John Barry, Commodore, United States Navy.
Born County Wexford, Ireland, 1745.
Died in Philadelphia, 1805.

I had just come up out of the McPherson Square Metro station, when I came upon this statue of Commodore John Barry in Franklin Square. I was on my way to a meeting to make a short budget presentation to a working group of the Biomass Research and Development Board. I had never been this way before, so when looking on my map for directions after coming up to street level, I expected the statue I saw in the distance to be one of Benjamin Franklin - but the closer I got, the more curious the form, and with each step I was sure this wasn't him. When I read the inscription, I recognized the name at once. Having a Midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy has given me many opportunities to take in the history of the Navy. I couldn't pass up this shot - actually 20 images automatically compiled in Photoshop because there was no way to do justice to the statue's height with a single shot from my little digital camera, looking up at this great figure. Other than the automated blending feature, I haven't touched up the image. To the right side there is a little bit of cubist artist effect from a building in the distance, just beyond the boundary of the Square. It gives a little bit of an unexpected surreal effect to the photograph that I like, and which blends in with the overcast sky at 7:30 in the morning today. As I was snapping and waiting for each of the images because of the flash I used, I thought of how Michelangelo was way out ahead in his time as a sculptor. I remember in art history class that he used a technique of making the upper parts of his statues disproportionately larger to the lower parts so that the viewer from the ground looking up would have the illusion of looking at a form that was proportionate - bottom to top. The statue of Barry looks dwarfed by the base, not at all a metaphor for his stature as the founder of the United States Navy - but then again, it is not about the man, but his service.

For more information about the Barry Memorial, go to here.

There is also a nice painting of the Commodore above the first table on the right, in the furthest back section in the Galway Bay public house, on Maryland Avenue, near State Circle, in downtown Annapolis.