Friday, August 21, 2009

Just a Little Hospitality

As I merged onto Route 50 on my way to work this morning, I noticed a hearse in my side mirror coming up from behind in the middle of the three lanes. I now drive my new Prius for economy mileage by using the heads-up display gauges in the dashboard, so I don't accelerate like I used to - there is nothing like getting 55 miles to the gallon. As the hearse passed me, I saw a flag draped coffin inside, and following close behind was a dark Ford Focus - likely a military escort I thought - I didn't feel like listening to the rest of the long version of Creedence Clearwater's Susie Q on the XM Satellite radio station I was tuned into. I turned off the radio and pulled in behind the subcompact Ford, what was likely a rental. There was no need to go my typical 75 miles per hour - 69 would do fine - I had a good idea where they were heading, west on Route 50 towards Washington. It was like I had seen this before.

I am usually slow wanting to see new movies. For me, it is such a big commitment to get into the plot, get to know the characters, and figure out whether their chemistry is going to work. It was the same way when I caught glimpses of advertisements for HBO's Taking Chance, I didn't have a clue what that movie was about - another military story. There may have been mention of Taking Chance on the Naval Academy Parent's list serve, I don't really remember, but by the weekend it was to show on television, I wanted to see it.

Taking Chance is a gut breaker. I sobbed off and on throughout the entire movie, and have watched it four or five times since then. I am getting better at handling it emotionally - but still not all that much better - Jan asks me each time from another room why I keep torturing myself - she doesn't want to watch. [1]

The hearse and trailing car stayed in the center lane most of the 15 miles from Annapolis, through Bowie, and to I-495 - I stayed close behind, close enough to see the Delaware license plate - that made it more likely they had come from Dover Air Force Base. I had known of Dover, but when the first clandestine photographs of flag-draped coffins coming in from Iraq hit the news, I began to understand what the base represents. When our Army son was first posted at Fort Myer, he made a couple of "Dover Runs" in Blackhawk helicopters to escort fallen soldiers from Dover to Arlington - that was before he was assigned to the Tomb of the Unknowns - these soldiers where Knowns. By now, there have been many similar escorts to all points of the country - to date, 5127 fallen service men and women have been received back in the U.S.

If not for Taking Chance, I would not have fully grasped what I caught a glimpse of when I first got on the freeway. But the methodical detail of the journey Lance Corporal Chance Phelps made from Iraq to Dubois, Wyoming is fixed in my memory for life - a hearse, the flag, a trailing rental car, now me following - like the cars and trucks in the movie: not in a hurry, not wanting to pass, a part of a procession, but not with my headlights on - it was just a little thing I could do. As we got to the Beltway interchange, the hearse and I merged into the lane to Richmond, I-495 S. I could tell that the escort was a little panicked by the way he kept looking back over his right shoulder for a way to pull back in behind the hearse - I briefly saw a young soldier with close cropped hair in his Class B Dress Uniform. I slowed down and held up the cars behind me, making space between the hearse and me so the escort could slide in between us. As he fell in behind the hearse, I made my next merge to the I-495 N lane as the two others continued in the south-bound exit, pretty much confirming they were likely headed to Arlington National Cemetery - me, I was on my way to Beltsville.

The meaning of the word hospitality in Greek is to show kindness to strangers. That is what I thought about when I was following behind the short procession in front of me. Two strangers I will never know: one a fallen soldier and the other an Army escort; me not rushing to work, quietly following, yielding to a car needing to keep pace, a soldier doing his duty as his Nation asks him to do, on their way to a quiet place for rest.

The detailed story of Chance Phelp's journey written by Lt. Col. Mike Strobl (USMC, ret.) can be found here.

Information about the Chance Phelps Foundation supporting veteran and Gold Star families can be found here.

Be sure to watch the movie Taking Chance, it is out on video. You can view the movie trailer here.
[1] Since this posting, we have had closer encounters with this subject: A soldier our son (shown above) served with at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was killed in Afghanistan on October 28, 2010; we and our son attended his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery; our son suffers from PTSD - partly triggered by his friend's death; and my wife watched most of Taking Chance about six months ago. December 18, 2011.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Fireflies Illustrated

One of the few positives about hot and humid summer days here in the east is the appearance of fireflies (1). I think I became aware of these little beetles when I first rode the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. Those little faux creatures were probably light emitting diodes hanging from black-colored wires that gave the appearance of small Christmas lights strung out across the bayou - blinking on and off to the plucked stings of a banjo. My next encounter was as a graduate student trying to repeat seed energetics experiments using a liquid scintillation counter. A carefully measured amount of luciferin-luciferase (2) reagent was injected from a micro-syringe into a cocktail of ground up sugarbeet seeds and chemical buffers in the hope that the resulting amount of light that glowed was proportional to the amount of active adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in the seeds - an indicator of the energy capacity of the sample. The relevance of all this is that the source of the glowing concoction was none other than fireflies that were raised for their abdomens in a controlled environment by a chemical supply company - they gave their all for science. A professor of mine in graduate school, Te May Ching, refined this technology for studying the vigor of seeds.

For those poor little ones - there was no justice.

Jump ahead 25 years, it was early June 2006 and my wife was making final preparations for her move East to join me. On my way West to join up, attend our youngest's high school graduation, watch the movers pack up our house and turn our keys over to the new owners, see our second grandson born, then fly back to Maryland, and three days later deliver our son to the Naval Academy - I went south to Georgia to do location visits at two of my agency's laboratories, and speak at a conservation society meeting in the mountains north of Atlanta. After arriving at Watkinsville, one of my friends at the laboratory invited me to join him and his wife for dinner at their home - Southern hospitality. After sitting out on their back deck - perched over a steep grade that dropped down through the woods to a creek - and having an enjoyable dinner and conversation, my host offered to show me the front yard. We went through the house and out the front door where to my amazement was a stunning display of twinkling lights covering the shrubs and trees. When I asked Harry how he had set out all of those twinkle lights, he just laughed and said: "Those aren't twinkle lights, those are lightning bugs!" - it may as well have been a Southerner taking a city-raised Yankee out for a snipe hunt (3). Even this past week, three years later, he mentioned that he had told someone that story about me.

The bug's revenge - there is justice in the world.

Regardless of how hot and humid the day, I know that the pleasure of fireflies' company will be the summer's treat - I can count on it. Whether taking a walk down the street in the neighborhood, or sitting in the backyard with the patio light off.... the silent, cool flashes of these floating wonders against a dark background will be there - an evening display well worth the wait (4).


(1) Lampyridae is a family of insects in the beetle order Coleoptera. They are winged beetles, and commonly called fireflies or lightning bugs for their conspicuous crepuscular use of bioluminescence to attract mates or prey. Fireflies are capable of producing a "cold light", containing no ultraviolet or infrared rays. This chemically-produced light, emitted from the lower abdomen, may be yellow, green, or pale red in color, and has a wavelength from 510 to 670 nanometers.

There are more than 2,000 species of firefly found in temperate and tropical environments around the world. Many species can be found in marshes or in wet, wooded areas where their larvae have abundant sources of food. These larvae can also emit light and are often called "glowworms", particularly in Eurasia. In the Americas, "glow worm" also refers to the related Phengodidae.

(2) In luminescent reactions, light is produced by the oxidation of a luciferin (a pigment):

luciferin + O2 → oxyluciferin + light

The most common luminescent reactions release CO2 as a product. The rates of this reaction between luciferin and oxygen are extremely slow until they are catalyzed by luciferase, sometimes mediated by the presence of cofactors such as calcium ions or ATP. The reaction catalyzed by firefly luciferase takes place in two steps:

luciferin + ATP → luciferyl adenylate + PPi

luciferyl adenylate + O2 → oxyluciferin + AMP + light

The reaction is very energetically efficient: nearly all of the energy input into the reaction is transformed into light. As a comparison, the incandescent light bulb loses about 90% of its energy to heat.

(3) A snipe hunt, a type of practical joke that involves experienced people making fun of newcomers by giving them an impossible or imaginary task. The origin of the term is a practical joke where inexperienced campers are told about a bird or animal called the snipe as well as a usually ridiculous method of catching it, such as running around the woods carrying a bag or making strange noises. Incidentally, the snipe (a family of shorebirds) is difficult to catch for experienced hunters, so much so that the word "sniper" is derived from it to refer to anyone skilled enough to shoot one.

(4) The numbers of fireflies where we live are not at all as great, so the displays here are not as spectacular as the one I saw in Georgia. But here the advantage is I can watch and concentrate on only one or a few at a time - following each one's path, either slowly flying on a calm night or invisibly catapulted by a breeze between flashes to the next sighting. The pleasure of studying one here is inversely proportional to the attention to each in a great crowd, but together they provide the same collective pleasure as watching one alone.