Category: Personal

Back to the Plantation

Back to the Plantation

One of the vestiges of the plantation system which depended on slavery for its existence was the racial divisiveness perpetrated by economic elites to maintain their power and control over both blacks and whites. In simplest terms, this translates to “divide and rule.”

“You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings,” Georgia populist leader Tom Watson told a gathering of white and black laborers in 1892. ““You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both.”

Lyndon Baines Johnson, who rose through the ranks of Texas racist politics to become the president who, after decades of helping block civil rights legislation in the House and the Senate, fostered passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, once related essentially the same theory to Bill Moyers. In classic LBJ style, Johnson told Moyers, a Johnson staffer before he became White House Press Secretary and, later, a journalist, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

Women March on Washington
Women March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Library of Congress.

This was a theory I first learned in the aftermath of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It made sense to me then, and it still makes sense to me, though the nature of those elites have changed during the intervening half century, as have their tools. And it wasn’t just white populists who laid out the theory, plain as day for anyone who cared to look.

The white liberal and the new plantation

The white liberal is the worst enemy to America and the worse enemy to the black man.”

That’s not a quote from Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh. It’s a quote from Malcolm X, the black liberation theology leader and firebrand, who said it about the same time LBJ was getting the civil rights theology and launching his War on Poverty, and not long before Malcolm X’s assassination on February 21, 1965.

The white liberal aren’t white people who are for independence, who are moral and ethical in their thinking. They are just a faction of white people that are jockeying for power,” he said. “The same as the white conservative is a faction of white people that are jockeying for power. They are fighting each other for power and prestige, and the one that is the football in the game is the Negro, 20 million black people. A political football, a political pawn, an economic football, and economic pawn. A social football, a social pawn.”

Malcolm X
Malcolm X. Source unknown. Used under Fair Use.

Malcolm X’s message – it’s worth reading the full quote, which is quite long – was that blacks need to solve their own problems and not depend on whites of either persuasion, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, since for either of them it’s just a game of power and control.

The worst enemy that the Negro have is this white man that runs around here drooling at the mouth professing to love Negros, and calling himself a liberal, and it is following these white liberals that has perpetuated problems that Negros have. If the Negro wasn’t taken, tricked, or deceived by the white liberal then Negros would get together and solve our own problems.”

Now, 55 years later, Malcolm X’s message still hasn’t gotten through to many African Americans, much less to both white and black people who continue to pursue and support policies that effectively keep blacks, and all people of the underclass, down on the new plantation. I’m reminded of his message watching the multi-millionaire Nancy Pelosi and her hypocritical House Democrats kneeling in Kente cloths draped around their necks, and as trendy young white people proclaim on social media that they “stand against racism,” as if any right-thinking person doesn’t stand against racism, any less than someone might stand against kicking puppies or drowning babies. Or as politicians, lacking as much in balls as brains, call for disbanding the police, when it is black people who will be the main victims of the lawlessness, violence, and vigilantism that inevitably would ensue.

Look at what people do, not what they say

By way of disclosure, I’ve never considered myself a liberal, even during my radical phase (aspects of which persist). Like Malcolm X, I’ve never trusted self-proclaimed liberals who always have struck me as having ulterior motives or who operate under some sort of misplaced guilt or, at best, a Pollyannish view of the world. I tend to discount what people say in favor of what they do and, even more, the results they obtain through their actions and policies. This is highly relevant if you want to see the principle of “divide and rule” at work in contemporary liberal politics.

Consider this crucially important fact: While the U.S. has spent somewhere north of $22 trillionthat’s trillion, as in a thousand billion or a million million dollars, 22 times over (by some estimates, depending on how you count it, it’s closer to $27 trillion) – since LBJ declared the War on Poverty in his 1964 State of the Union address, the percentage of the population living in poverty has hardly changed at all in the past half century. Given that in the most recent normal year total U.S. GDP was just over $21 trillion, that’s a powerful lot of money to garner zero real reduction in the poverty rate. How can this be, you ask?

Look at the charts, below, to get a visual picture of the reality. What we see is that poverty was in major decline beginning in 1959, five years before Johnson’s declaration of his war on it. That decline continued for another five years, running through 1969. Beginning in 1970, a full 50 years ago, there has been essentially no long-term change in the poverty rate even as the country threw trillions of dollars of the national treasure at it.

As is visible, there have been blips up and down through both Democratic and Republican administrations and congresses, but the same overall reality persists across the span of a half century. As the third chart demonstrates, the African-American poverty rate has shown, marginally, the most improvement, especially when compared with the Hispanic and general poverty rates. But an interesting and undeniable reality emerges when you look at the first and third charts: The highest recent poverty levels in all three key categories – African-American, Hispanic, and the general population – peaked during the Obama administration, and all three reached historic lows during the Trump administration. How can this be, you might ask, given that Obama is painted as a friend of the poor and minorities and Trump is portrayed not only as their enemy, but as an out-and-out racist?

Like I said, get below the rhetoric and the reality emerges. Clearly taking the brakes off the economy and creating jobs that lower the unemployment rate and empower individuals and families, as Trump did in stark contrast to the effect his predecessor’s policies had on the economy, provides a road map for reducing poverty. Jobs are a key factor, if not the only one, in poverty reduction. There are other factors at work, too, and we’ll look at them toward the end of this piece.

Follow the money

Follow the money” is a phrase that we learned from Deep Throat during the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s. It’s salient to our discussion here.

I had a sociology professor when I was an undergrad at Rutgers University sometime in the late 1960s. I don’t recall his name, but he was a black man, and I always looked forward to his classes. One thing about him was that he was straightforward and honest in his discussion of social issues and didn’t try to promote any ideology, something that seems to have become a hallmark of more recent sociological education (I can say this having since been a professor of sociology myself and seeing the ideological blather in the text books, and ostensibly believed by other professors, that is fed to students in the field).

In any case, my professor had previously worked with an anti-poverty agency on Long Island in New York. He told us how this agency had spun its wheels “studying” how to provide low-income housing to people, how much money passed through it, how it debated one approach and another approach, and in the end, not a single unit of housing was built. My professor said that, had the money the agency spent been given to the people it ostensibly had been set up to help, every one of those families could have gone out and bought their own house.

Sadly, my professor’s example is far from a unique case, given the trillions of dollars spent on “helping” poor people over the intervening five decades without any real effect (a similar calculation was made for FEMA’s spending after Hurricane Katrina when it was determined that the money the agency spent bureaucratically could have paid for a new house and two new cars for everyone who lost their home in the storm, and that, too, is far from unique).

If you still have any doubt that the vast bulk of the money spent fighting poverty doesn’t go to the people in poverty, the chart below should dispel that doubt. As per-person spending has climbed inexorably over the past six decades, it certainly hasn’t gotten to those in need of the funds. As per-person spending approaches $20,000, the poverty level this year for a family of four is set at $26,200. If the preponderance of the money went to that same theoretical family, they’d be receiving nearly $80,000, a long, long way from the poverty level. Needless to say, that’s not where most of the money goes.

When you look at the sheer volume of money involved, is it any wonder that those into whose hands, and pockets, it passes want to be sure to keep their constituents in poverty? In this context, what is said about one party in particular, the Democratic Party, that it depends on the existence of a permanent underclass for its very existence, begins to make sense and takes on credibility. Looking strictly at the numbers, the existence of poverty, maintaining as many people as possible dependent on the largesse of what passes for anti-poverty spending, bolsters its electoral power and, more, furthers the interests of its power brokers while favoring their influence and their wealth. They are the new plantation masters.

Down on the urban plantation

It’s a clever ploy, a revival of “divide and rule” for more than half a century, and the Democratic Party continues to rely on this strategy, keeping its black constituents down on the urban plantation, well into the 21st Century. Consider for a moment these facts:

  • Democrats run 35 of the nation’s 50 largest cities (37 if you count the “Independent” mayors of San Antonio and Las Vegas, both of whom ran with Democratic support).
  • Democrats run 15 of the 16 cities ranked the worst-run cities in America in 2019 by WalletHub, including Washington, D.C., which came in 150th out of 150 cities ranked. Other cities in the bottom 16 include Los Angeles (ranked 135th) , Philadelphia (137th), St. Louis (139th), Chicago (140th), Cleveland (141st), Oakland (144th), Detroit (145th), New York (146th), Chattanooga (147th), and San Francisco (148th). Gulfport, Miss., ranked 149th, is the only one of the worst-run cities with a Republican mayor. The only big city to rank in the top 10 of best-run cities was Oklahoma City, also with a Republican mayor.

    Detroit decay
    Detroit decay. Pixabay.
  • All of the top 10 most dangerous cities in the country, including Detroit, St. Louis, Oakland, Memphis, Birmingham, Atlanta, Baltimore, Stockton, Cleveland, and Buffalo, have Democratic mayors. Of the top 25 most dangerous cities, most are controlled by Dems, and have poverty rates between 18 and 39 percent, compared with a 2019 national average of 12.3 percent. As gun violence runs rampant in these cities, most have strict gun control laws, giving meaning to the phrase, when guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns.
  • All but two of the 10 cities rated “least healthy” on two different lists are run by Democrats.
  • All 10 cities with the highest numbers of homeless residents, led by Los Angeles with an estimated 58,000 homeless people, are Democratic-run sanctuary cities which provide refuge to illegal immigrants, disadvantaging lower-income legal residents of those cities and creating unsafe and unhealthy conditions for all residents.
  • The Democratic virtual one-party state of California, with one of the largest and most prosperous economies in the world, has the highest poverty rate of any state in the union, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure.
  • Six of the 10 least educated cities in America are in the same Democratic one-party state of California. In Democratic stronghold Baltimore, which ranks fourth in per-student educational spending in the nation, not a single student in 13 public high schools is proficient at math, and nine of 10 black boys in the city’s schools can’t read at grade level. Meanwhile, thousands of consultants, contractors, and administrators are paid salaries in excess of $100,000 a year by the city’s school system.
  • Many of the cities run by Democrats haven’t elected a Republican mayor in more than 100 years. That’s the case in Newark, N.J., ranked the fifth worst city in the nation to live in. Detroit, once the wealthiest city in America and the one LBJ planned to be the “Model City” of his Great Society, and which today is ranked the country’s worst city, hasn’t elected a Republican mayor since 1957, about the
    Detroit decay
    Decay of Detroit, the “Model City.” Daniel Lincoln/Unsplash.

    time its golden era began its swan song. Chicago, one of the country’s most segregated and violent cities, elected its last Republican mayor in 1927. St. Louis, one of the nation’s most dangerous and poverty-stricken cities, has been electing Democrats as mayor for 71 years. Philadelphia, for 68 years. Baltimore and Oakland for more than half a century. In Flint, Mich., Dems have been mayors for 88 years. In New Orleans, mayors have been Democrats since 1872 – 148 years, longer than most countries have been in existence. What do all these cities have in common, besides being Democratic fiefdoms? They’re all wracked by poverty, crime, corruption, and urban decay. If anyone cares to argue that the Democratic Party, the party that in its history supported slavery and Jim Crow, has changed over all those decades, if anything the change has been for the worse where these cities’ residents are concerned and as their condition has continued to deteriorate over the decades.

So where have all those trillions of anti-poverty dollars gone? That would be a good question to ask these mayors, city councils, state governments, their Congressional backers, and those running the various anti-poverty agencies and failed school systems, spread from coast to coast to coast. And maybe their bankers and investment brokers and real estate agents, too.

And don’t buy into the argument that other developed countries spend more on anti-poverty programs than the U.S. (for the most part, they don’t), or on healthcare (they don’t), or education (they don’t). Money, at least not its lack, isn’t the problem. Misguided programs, corrupt officials and politicians, and just plain bad policies are. Given the dismal results of those policies over such a long period of time, one has to assume that malice of intent more than just bad judgment lies at the heart of their failure. Divide and rule: Keep those poor folk down on the plantation and rake in the big bucks. Follow the money.

Martin Luther King Jr. march on Washington
Martin Luther King, Jr., leads the march on Washington, August 28, 1963. Library of Congress.

What things work and how the plantation masters work against them

There are some things that are known, at least empirically, to help people get out of poverty. The plantation masters know this, and they work against them methodically, often under cover of some sort of politico-babble. We’ll look, briefly, at them here.

Education

Getting a decent education and at least a high school diploma – and, better, a college degree — is one of the known routes out of poverty. Educational choice, through vouchers and charter schools, in many cases have been shown to offer low-income people a better education than often available in the normal public school system. Even Barack Obama said “The best anti-poverty program is a world-class education.” So why do he and so many of the urban plantation masters oppose both vouchers and charter schools (while putting their own kids in private schools)?

Two-parent families

Two-parent families are another antidote to poverty. The overall child poverty rate is 17.5 percent. For children in homes headed by a single mother, it’s 50 percent. In 2015, 77.3 percent of non-immigrant black births were to unmarried mothers. For Hispanic immigrants, it was 48.9 percent. For whites, it was 30 percent. In 1965, the rate was 24 percent for black babies and 3.1 percent for white babies. There are many factors involved in this differential, the role of welfare rules that favor single mothers, households without a man or father, being just one of them. Whatever the reasons, the economic impact is significant.

Helping black men improve their situation

A better educational environment, improved employment opportunities, and staying out of trouble with the law help black men improve their situation, which overall has a positive impact on reducing poverty among African-Americans. Trump’s answers have been improving employment prospects, economic opportunity zones in under-privileged communities, and criminal justice reform. The answer of at least one Democratic candidate, Bernie Sanders, is to help African American, Latino, and Native American communities “start businesses selling legal marijuana.” Yup, keep those poor folks in the drug culture. After all, it’s been such a big help to their communities over many years.

Full-time employment

Finding and keeping full-time employment Is another of those elements that are basic to getting out of poverty. Rather than depending on public assistance, becoming self-sufficient is a critical step in upward mobility, and its efficacy is evidenced by the relation between a declining unemployment rate and declining poverty rate. But the new plantation masters would rather depress employment, shutter whole industries and send jobs to China, thus increasing dependency on them.

These are not the only things that impact on poverty, but they are some of the bigger ones. By now, 56 years on, it’s time to declare America’s longest war – the War on Poverty – a lost cause, and to begin to empower all people in poverty, and most especially African-Americans, as Malcolm X said, to solve their own problems, and to send the new plantation masters packing. All the signs are that they won’t go easily, and they’re already figuring out new ways of fleecing the populace and keeping folks down on the plantation. Divide and rule is as relevant today as it was in 1892, and as long as people buy into it, its impact will be as pernicious and long-lasting.

Featured image: Sugar Cane Plantation. North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy Stock. Used under Fair Use.

That Time of Year Again: Thoughts on “The Longest Day in the World”

That Time of Year Again: Thoughts on “The Longest Day in the World”

Three years ago, on June 21, 2017, the Summer Solstice, I initially posted a piece that I’ve re-posted here every year since. Today, June 20, 2020, it is once more the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, and the actual solstice officially occurs at 5:44 p.m. EDT/21:44 UTC this evening. This year I decided to post the piece on my fiction blog, stonedcherry.com . You can see it there, and I hope you enjoy it.

 

Bigger Than a Big Weather Story

Bigger Than a Big Weather Story

When I was a practicing journalist I came to learn that there are few stories bigger than a big weather story. I still remember, more than three decades later, my managing editor at the daily paper where I worked standing in the middle of the newsroom as a tropical storm was headed our way and bellowing, “Blow it all out of proportion!” And we dutifully did.

So what’s bigger than a big weather story? The current furor over COVID-19, AKA the coronavirus, reminds me of our coverage of tropical storms and hurricanes, but on steroids. The media has certainly seen to the task of blowing it all out of proportion, making it bigger by far than a big weather story.

Now I can already hear the protests and mocking retorts. “But, BUT! This thing is deadly! It’s killing people! It’s a pandemic! It will destroy civilization as we know it!”

Yes, yes, I know all that (except the last one, of course), and I don’t mean to minimize the potential for death and destruction that this virus can wreak, any more than I would minimize the potential of seriously bad weather to kill and destroy. I’m also not intending to discourage people from taking reasonable precautions to protect themselves and others, though I am advocating that people not overreact. While some people, mostly older people and those with serious underlying medical conditions, are at high risk, many cases of the virus in the U.S. have been relatively mild. I think it’s both useful and even hugely beneficial to keep things in perspective and not run off the cliff by blowing things all out of proportion.

Striking a balance

As with any emergency, two factors are critically important. One is to recognize the danger and how to best address it, and the other is to stay calm and avoid panic. The kind of media coverage we’ve gotten on COVID-19, for the most part, has been heavy on the former (even as it was late in coming and largely distorted, which it remains), and exceedingly light on the later. I don’t think it has done what it could to make people safer and shockingly little to calm them or put things in perspective. We’ve seen the results of this as people rush to alter their everyday lives in ways that often are gross overreactions while not necessarily making them any safer. Meanwhile, the impact on the economy, with more than a 20% drop in the markets and massive slow-downs and shut-downs of whole industries, appears to be perhaps more harmful to the country than the virus itself.

We’ve watched on television as people in places, mostly on the West and East Coasts, stripped store shelves bare, as if theynauris-pukis-S0XbrnbUo-g-unsplash close quarters were expecting some sort of plague of locusts to descend on them. By way of comparison, as recently as a few days ago everything remained normal here where I live in North-Central Florida. I felt people were being sensible, given the remote risk involved, and there were no signs of panic. And then the dominoes started falling here as elsewhere. The National Hot Rod Association announced it was postponing the Gator Nationals hot rod races in Gainesville, which particularly pissed me off, partly because I had already bought my ticket, but more because it is an outdoor event, furchrissake. Florida colleges and universities are considering moving all classes online. And then yesterday I visited some of the local stores and, while I wouldn’t characterize the atmosphere as one of panic, it clearly had shifted from the usual norm. I’m not an expert, but I have to think the chance of contracting a virus in the closed confines of a supermarket has to be greater than in the open air.

As in other places, along with water, toilet paper and some other products had been stripped from the shelves. While I can kind of understand and even expected the water – these stores run out of water even in more normal times – but toilet paper? Folks, this isn’t a dysentery epidemic. What possible need for toilet paper, beyond normal consumption, can anyone have? And it turns out this isn’t just happening in this country, but overseas, too. There is the family in Australia who (by mistake) ordered not 48 rolls but 48 cases of toilet paper. By their estimate, 12 years worth of the stuff. Now admittedly the order was placed before the coronavirus furor reached full bore, but the family is finding they’ve become very popular among people who can’t find TP in the stores in Oz and are re-selling the rolls as a fundraiser.

Watching people rolling carts topped to the brim with products, one wonders if they’re planning on withdrawing to underground bunkers to await the all-clear after the radioactive fallout from nuclear war has stopped dropping or for when the invading aliens have returned to their distant galaxy. In large part promoted by the media, this sort of rush is now under way across the country.

One report I got was from my contractor, who described the scene in coastal Mississippi: “I stocked up on enough food and supplies to last a month just in case we have to be isolated but I’ve seen people buying enough to last for the rest of the year. It’s absolutely ridiculous.” Number, as of today, of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Mississippi: 10, at least one of which originated out of state. Number of deaths in the state from COVID-19: 0. Mississippi’s population: 2.99 million.

Ridiculous, indeed.

Putting things in perspective

To further see how ridiculous, let’s put things in perspective a bit. As of today, this county where I live has had a grand total of no cases of coronavirus. The county to the east has had five cases, the county to the north has had one (which came from Georgia, the state, not the country), and one to the southwest has recorded one case. None of the other four counties that border on this county has had any cases, and no deaths have been recorded in any of these counties. The state of Florida, which has about 22 million people, not counting its many visitors, has so far confirmed 76 cases and three deaths, several cases involving people who had traveled abroad or were from other states.

Meanwhile, so far this year, if averages from other recent years can be relied on, in just 75 days something like 630 people have died in road accidents on the state’s streets and highways and another 51,000 or so have been injured. Perhaps if people paid more attention to their driving and less to concern about wiping their butts they’d be a lot better off.

I haven’t even been able to find accurate statistics on how many people have come down from the flu or died from it in Florida, but nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that as many as 49 million people this flu season alone have contracted the flu, there have been up to 23 million medical visits and 620,000 hospitalizations, and 52,000 deaths, including 144 children to date (that includes 12 so far in Florida). By comparison, the CDC is reporting 1,629 cases of coronavirus in 46 states and the District of Columbia, and 41 deaths, with no child deaths in the U.S. Not that any of those cases or deaths are to be dismissed, but the comparison with the illness and deaths from the flu and other things can’t be ignored. In this country, we see more than 67,000 people die each year from opioids.

Hysteria and playing politics

If you look objectively at what the current Administration in the White House has done to control introduction and spread of this virus, it has acted decisively and quickly. When it became apparent that the virus had originated in or around the city of Wuhan in China, the President on Jan. 31 ordered a limited ban on entry into the U.S. by most travelers coming from China, and it went into effect on Feb. 2. This past week, on March 11, the President ordered a similar ban on travel from Europe, with exemptions for travelers from the U.K. and Ireland, both of which were later added to the ban. And on March 13 he declared a national state of emergency, with the effect of releasing additional federal resources and funding to deal with the crisis.

To assure a coordinated approach, the President on Feb. 26 had put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the government’s response to the coronavirus, with experts from the CDC and National Institutes of Health (NIH) leading the medical response to the threat posed by COVID-19. If you didn’t see that press conference you should now since I think it was one of the most explanatory and straightforward presidential press conference I’ve ever seen.

You’d almost never know that President Trump was doing anything to address the threat of coronavirus if you only follow the never-Trumpers on the left wing of the media who, along with some on the Democratic side of the aisle in Congress, have disgustingly done their utmost to politicize what is a national crisis. It reached the point where on some networks program hosts blatantly squelched any views that offered support to the President. This was transparently obvious, for instance, to anyone watching as CNN’s Don Lemon – who, in my assessment, would have a hard time beating out a clever hamster in an intelligence contest – repeatedly shut down former Ohio Gov. John Kasich (himself no big Trump supporter) as Kasich attempted to defend the President’s response to the crisis.

Along with the anti-Trump prejudice, we heard such inanities as commentators saying it was “zenophobic” and “racist” to call macau-photo-agency-4I6VHLP5Ws4-unsplash masked familythe virus “the Wuhan virus” or “the Chinese virus,” despite the fact that the origins of the virus in and around Wuhan is little disputed. That encouraged Chinese officials to blast the U.S. for saying the virus originated in China and even to threaten to withhold vital medications from the U.S. Meanwhile, lots of viruses and ailments, including Ebola, West Nile, Zika, and Lyme, not to mention “the Spanish flu” and “the Asian flu” – remember those, from 1918 and 1957, respectively? – have been named after the area in which they originated, and no one ever called those names racist or zenophobic.

Two big scandals exposed by the coronavirus

Not to sugar coat anything, there are at least two big national scandals this coronavirus thing has in fact uncovered, and we should be grateful that it has. One is the lack of our capacity to produce kits to test for the virus on a massive scale. While South Korea has been able to test 20,000 people a day, it is safe to say we don’t really know how many people in the U.S. have been tested. We do know that testing capacity in this country has been severely limited – perhaps no more than 20,000 tests in total performed to date – and this falls squarely on the shoulders of the CDC. Conflicts between the CDC and some states, such as the conflict with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, at the epicenter of the outbreak, have been reported, and little has been done to tap the capacity of the private sector to produce test kits of sufficient number. Fortunately, on March 13 the FDA approved pharmaceutical giant Roche’s new automated test, which should allow a rapid ramp-up of testing capability as it begins to roll out. Roche says it already has 500,000 tests ready and can produce another 1.5 million of them per month. Going forward, a more flexible approach to developing and deploying testing for various diseases needs to be implemented.

The other big scandal, and perhaps the bigger and more difficult one to address, is how dependent the U.S. has become on overseas production of pharmaceuticals and pharmaceutical components, with China holding the lion’s share of production of some key medications. It is estimated that China is the source of 97 percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S., and two countries, China and India, produce most of the pharmaceuticals and pharmaceutical materials used in the U.S. Along with the strategic threat this preponderance of source represents, there also have been issues of quality control and corruption in the Chinese pharmaceutical industry. It would seem that moves should begin immediately to domesticate key elements of this country’s pharmaceuticals production, something other countries also should do.

We have learned lessons from previous pandemics, such as the H1N1 pandemic of a decade ago, but sometimes lessons are forgotten and each new pandemic brings with it new challenges. Making systemic fixes to address such obvious and serious problems as these two needs to be a national priority. And that is not blowing things out of proportion.

Photo credits: Featured image: Max LaRochelle/Unsplash; Crowded: Nauris Pukis/Unsplash; Masked Family: Macau Photo Agency/Unsplash

Voyage to the Moon: A Personal Journey

Voyage to the Moon: A Personal Journey

“Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” – Words on the plaque left on the moon by the crew of Apollo 11

There have and will be many words written and numerous commemorations broadcast this week to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first time humans set foot on the moon. For that reason, and others of a more personal nature, this will be an account of my own journey leading up to that momentous event, and since, and not any kind of historic or scientific record of the flight of Apollo 11 or the first moon landing. Yes, it’s long. But it’s been a long trip.

What happened on July 20 and 21, 1969, to me was the culmination not just of my own interest in space and space exploration that I had pursued since I was a child, but the result of many centuries of human scientific development and evolution, and also the climax of the eons that preceded them when primitive humans looked up at the moon with wonder, yearning, and maybe even fear. That phrase on the Apollo 11 plaque, “We came in peace for all mankind,” best summed up my feelings on that historic night.

The Early Years

I can’t say specifically what triggered my early interest in space, except perhaps a general interest in science, but I do know that by the age of 9 I was writing novellas about future space explorers engaged in both dramatic and mundane tasks in the far reaches of the solar system. Starring protagonist Fairleigh Starr and his intrepid crew aboard the space freighter Euphrates, I still have those little string-bound books and their illustrative covers, hand-drawn in crayon on cardboard, somewhere in my archives. I also still have some of my early astronomy books.

I don’t remember the exact year or my age, but at some point my father got me an actual, real, reflecting telescope, and this opened up new vistas beyond our planet to me. Many were the nights he and I would brave the cold out in our driveway pointing the telescope toward the moon and beyond. Under the red skies of Northeastern New Jersey, illuminated as they were by the myriad lights of the New York Metro area, it was hard, if not impossible, to see much beyond the biggest and brightest celestial objects, the moon being paramount among them. All these decades later I can still picture in my mind’s eye the distinct craters and the bright silvery surface of earth’s sole natural satellite as seen vividly through that telescope.

The late 1950s and early 1960s were heady times for anyone interested in space exploration. In fact, they were heady times even for those not so interested. As the United States faltered through one failed launch after another, the Soviets – known more generally to us as the Russians – were succeeding in their advance into space. The thing that got our attention more than anything was the successful launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, in October 1957. More than attention, it struck fear into the hearts of many, including my own mother, who tucked her 7-year-old son, being me, into bed one post-Sputnik night, saying as she did, “I don’t think we’re going to live to see Christmas this year.” Thanks for that, Mom.

As it turned out, we did survive to see that Christmas, and many since. But again it was the Russians who were first to send a man not just into space, but into orbit, when cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin circled the earth one time on April 15, 1961. Less than a month later, on May 5, 1961, the U.S. finally succeeded in launching the first American into space, astronaut Alan Shephard, on a 15-minute sub-orbital flight launched atop a Mercury-Redstone rocket from Cape Canaveral. Watching the launch and recovery of the Freedom 7 Mercury capsule on TV still remains in my memory, as do the other Mercury launches and recoveries to follow. And then, nine months later on February 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth, three times, aboard the capsule Friendship 7, and the U.S. took the lead in what was clearly a space race. By then I was hooked on space, and there was no looking back.

What led us on the path to the moon was a speech President John Kennedy gave to Congress on May 25, 1961, when he said that the U.S. “. . . should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” Kennedy repeated the same objective in a now-famous speech he delivered to 40,000 people in the stadium at Rice University in Houston on September 12, 1962, saying, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”

The course was set to the moon, and despite a chorus of naysayers, the objective was reached, Kennedy’s challenge fulfilled, on July 20, 1969.

The mission of Apollo 11 had lifted off four days earlier, on July 16, 1969, at 9:32 a.m. EDT (13:32 UTC), from Launch Pad 39A at Cape Canaveral – known at the time as Cape Kennedy in JFK’s honor – carrying Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins toward the moon. A product of the work of Wernher von Braun and his team of German rocket engineers brought to the U.S. following World War II, the Saturn V rocket that bore them aloft was, and remains, the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built, so loud on launch its sound waves broke windows in Titusville, 12 miles away. Armstrong later described the initial ascent as a very bumpy ride, at least until first-stage separation, when he said things became smooth and totally silent. At that point, the world waited, and watched.

“The Eagle Has Landed”

July 1969, exactly a half century ago, was a personally tumultuous time for me. At 19 ½, in the summer between my sophomore and junior years at Rutgers University, I was in the midst of my first real affair, and that in itself was proving more challenging than I had bargained for (Sheila was an artist, she didn’t look back – thank you Bob Dylan for summing things up so well). I had a summer job mowing grass and picking up litter on the New Jersey Turnpike, out of the Secaucus yard in the most congested and polluted sector of the Pike in its final miles between Newark Airport and Exit 18, the northern terminus and gateway to the George Washington Bridge. I was living back at home for the summer and in a state of ongoing conflict with both my parents. Worse was how I sensed my father often didn’t have the heart for the conflict, but my mother goaded him into it and to appease or please her, he’d rise to the occasion.

It also was perhaps the most creative time of my life. On the many and prolonged breaks my maintenance team on the Turnpike would take, once Moe, our supervisor, had driven off and left us to our own devices, we would drop our mowers and tools and retreat to the shade under an overpass, or occasionally wander off the Pike to some nearby diner for a late breakfast. While the other guys sat around and shot the shit for hours, I would sequester myself to write and draw in my own imagined, but productive, world. Along with my writing, I was able to draw in ways I had never before, nor since, been capable of. If you can imagine completely changing the gears in your head, that was what it was like that summer.

I don’t remember all the details or reasons, but the small group of friends of which Sheila and I were a part could not be together the night of the moon landing. It was a Sunday night, July 20, and I had work the next morning, moon landing or no moon landing. As I recall, my high school friend John Horohan was with his girlfriend Jane, who had introduced me to Sheila, and I don’t remember whether Sheila was with them or somewhere else. She wasn’t with me, though, nor I with her, which was the main thing.

The lunar lander had touched down on the moon’s surface earlier that afternoon, almost out of fuel and in a different location – the Sea of Tranquility – than initially planned, at 4:17 p.m. EDT (20:17 UTC). As it turned out, Armstrong had to take over the controls of the lander following a computer overload and finding too many bus-sized boulders at the initial West Crater landing site. It was with relief when Mission Control, along with the rest of the world, heard Armstrong’s words, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

The actual moon walk was planned for later that night, and that to us was the big event. I had been sleeping out on our enclosed back porch, as I was wont to do in the summers spent at home, and that night I was watching there in the dark, on the small TV we kept on the porch, the events unfolding 240,000 miles away on the moon. On the moon! My parents were upstairs in their room also watching on their TV, and we could have been on separate planets for the divide between us on that historic night. Other than some forays my mother would make down to check on me – mostly to harass me for staying up past my alleged bedtime, as I recall – we had little or no contact that night.

The telephone provided the link between me and my friends, a kind of lifeline as it were, and we stayed in touch intermittently via it as the time approached for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to step out of the lunar lander and descend the craft’s ladder to the surface of the moon. As we and 600 million other people around the globe watched, that came at 10:56 p.m. EDT (02:56 UTC on July 21), when Armstrong stepped down onto the lunar surface, uttering the famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” (controversy has dogged those words ever since, and it’s pretty well believed that a blip in the radio transmission changed the intended and spoken “one small step for a man” to what is commonly attributed to Armstrong). Aldrin followed Armstrong down the ladder, and together, as we watched in fascination and through bleary eyes and blurry black and white video images, the pair bounced around on the lunar surface, collecting moon rocks as they did, for the next two and a quarter hours. Meanwhile, Collins, in the command module, named Columbia, orbited the moon, keeping an eye on things from 69 miles above the lunar surface.

Little did I realize at the time what connections I would have with Armstrong, and especially Aldrin, and other men who set foot on the moon, a decade and a half later.

The Aftermath

What I saw in the lunar mission and the success of Apollo 11 was not just a victory and amazing achievement for America, but the culmination of centuries of discoveries and achievements of many people of many nationalities. There was Copernicus, a Pole, who in the Sixteenth Century, postulated a universe with the sun, not the earth, at its center. He was preceded in the heliocentric theory by Aristarchus of Samos, a Greek, eighteen centuries earlier, and followed in the next century by Galileo, an Italian, who was declared a heretic for his beliefs by the Catholic Church in 1633. It took the Church three more centuries to finally concede that it’s supposedly infallible belief was, well, wrong. Galileo’s theories of gravity also proved to be correct, not bad for a heretic.

There was Newton, an Englishman, and his discoveries of the laws of physics. And Lippershey, a Dutchman, who invented the telescope. And da Vinci, another Italian, who had invented an actual flying machine – the helicopter – and the parachute, and who also had postulated a heliocentric universe. The Chinese in the Ninth Century invented the rocket, but Goddard, an American, invented the first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926. And von Braun and the other German rocket engineers brought it all together, with American support and funding, with the Saturn V. I don’t mean this list to be inclusive, but simply illustrative of the worldwide, global contributions over the centuries that finally resulted in Apollo 11 and the moon landing.

Indeed, as the plaque said, “We came in peace for all mankind.” And at the moment of mankind’s first steps on the moon and the days that followed, the world was largely united in hailing a feat that previously existed only in the realm of dreams and the imagination. Of course, there are still those on the fringe who continue to imagine that the whole moon landing was staged, that the astronauts descended to some hidden chamber under the launch pad or went to Hollywood, where there was a set made to look like a moonscape and the whole thing was an elaborate deception. And when I was posted as a diplomat to Albania in the 1990s, people there said they had been told by the previous Communist regime that it was the Russians, not the Americans, who had landed men on the moon.

A week after the lunar landing and walk, on July 27, 1969, my father died, unexpectedly, in front of me, in the midst of one more of our low-level conflicts. He had gotten to witness people walking on the moon, something almost unimaginable at the time of his birth in 1913, and then he was gone. And thus, with his death, began the rest of my life, the half century that followed.

After Apollo 11, there were just six more lunar missions – five lunar landings, one short of what was planned when Apollo 13 ran into serious problems en route to the moon and had to return to earth without reaching its destination. Later, as a journalist covering the space program, I lost count of the number of times when engineers and managers who had been involved with the Apollo program told me that getting men to the moon was not the big challenge of the Apollo program. It was getting the crew of Apollo 13 back alive. In any event, with the splashdown of Apollo 17 on December 19, 1972, the moon program was over, less than three and a half years after the launch of Apollo 11. The country, embroiled in the Vietnam War and deeply divided, was withdrawing into itself, and Congress cut NASA’s funding. What was left of funding for manned space flight was directed toward the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission with the Soviet Union and three missions of Skylab, the world’s first space station. After all the years of striving to reach the moon, and meeting the challenge President Kennedy laid down, we reverted to missions in low earth orbit. To this day, that is where we have remained.

What struck me then, and continues to trouble me, is how for eons people looked to the heavens and wondered and dreamed of what it would be like to walk on the moon. And now billions of people, billions of children, and adults, were born and lived since the last human left the moon, and again are left to look toward the heavens, toward the moon, and wonder and dream, just as primitive humans did millennia ago.

As America and the space program drifted through the 1970s, I looked inward, too, and essentially cut myself off from what was going on in the world, and what remained of the space program. I had this peculiar idea that if I cut off the news of the world and its problems those problems would go away and leave me alone. It didn’t take more than several years to realize that’s not how things work.

A Return to Space

My return to space came in 1982. After detours through Woodstock and Key West and grad school at the University of Florida, I wound up taking up a reporting job in Cocoa, Fla., at the doorstep to Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center. While I was with the weekly paper, The Tribune, I struck up a friendship with the lead reporter, Peter Adams, at our sister daily, TODAY (now FLORIDA TODAY). Perhaps it could only happen in Brevard County, Fla., but the lead reporter was the Science Writer, formerly known as the Aerospace Writer, whose primary duty entailed covering the space program.

The Space Shuttle program was under way, with the launch of the orbiter Columbia and STS-1 in April of 1981. Peter invited me to accompany him to witness a launch of the Shuttle at KSC, the launch of Columbia and STS-5 on November 11, 1982. It was one of the most exciting things I’d ever witnessed, and again, I was hooked. I later finagled my first assignment actually covering a space launch, as a freelancer for The Globe and Mail of Toronto, reporting on the launch of a Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral carrying a Canadian satellite that subsequently failed to go into orbit and was lost. Peter and I continued to remain in close contact, and when he left the paper to go to The Orlando Sentinel, our main competition, he recommended me for the choice position of Science Writer. I not only moved to my first position on a daily, but to the premier reporting position, with the charge to report daily on the space program and other science topics.

The first launch I was to cover as primary reporter was the maiden launch of the new orbiter, Challenger. But before it could launch I received a phone call from a confidential informant late one night in the newsroom. The word was that a problem with the Shuttle’s main engines had been discovered and the launch would be delayed, possibly for months. I was able to chase down other sources to confirm the report, and we were first to break the story of Challenger’s impending lengthy delay, which turned out to be totally correct. I had already managed to win the confidence of those closest to the Shuttle program and to break my first big story.

Challenger finally did launch on April 4, 1983, carrying a tracking and relay satellite into orbit. The flight, the first of many Space Shuttle missions I would cover, also featured the first EVA – Extra-Vehicular Activity, or space walk – of the Shuttle program. In my time as Science Writer, I got to cover many other firsts: The first flight of Spacelab. The first American woman in space. The first flight of two women in space, and the first space walk by an American woman. The first African-American in space. The first Shuttle night launch. The first launch of the orbiter Discovery. The first Shuttle landing at KSC. The first recovery and return to earth of orbiting satellites. The first classified Department of Defense Shuttle mission. The first in-space repair of an orbiting satellite. The first flight of a politician in space. Many of my stories got national play via the Gannett News Service and appearance in USA TODAY, for which TODAY served as the model.

I approached my work as a Science Writer the same way I approached other reporting positions I had filled, which was to build in as much diversity and have as much fun with it as I could, all while doing a competent and credible job of reporting. I felt my specialty was taking highly complex scientific and technical details and issues and translating them in a way that just about any reader could understand, without dumbing them down. In the course of my term, I managed to score a wonderful stint at Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., got to visit the WET-F – the huge water tank where astronauts practice doing EVAs in simulated weightlessness – in Houston, launched my own weather rocket, the Yacenda-1, from Cape Canaveral, flew aboard a NOAA hurricane tracker plane through a tropical storm, rode on the huge transporter that carried the Shuttle to the launch pad, and sat at desks of scientists with actual moon rocks on them. I came up with the term “astroworker” – a word my editors hated and took out at every chance they could, which is why you’ve never seen it – to encapsulate the kind of manual activity many astronauts and mission specialists engage in while in space.

More than anything was the thrill of meeting, interviewing, and in some cases spending time with people who had helped establish America’s place in space, people that had just been names bordering on mythological to me, and now I had the opportunity to be face-to-face with them. I got to interview and know half the men who had walked on the moon. It was said even then that Neil Armstrong rarely granted interviews. I had a telephone interview with him while he was a professor in Ohio, and he was indeed the humble, quiet, non-self-aggrandizing person I had been told he was. And I got to pal around for several days with Buzz Aldrin, who was and is every bit the character he was ascribed to being, though also knowledgeable and serious about America’s space pursuits. He told me of what was to be his next mission, setting up a space science program at the University of North Dakota. I love that the President featured Aldrin at the most recent State of the Union address.

I got to visit Edgar Mitchell and meet his family aboard Mitchell’s yacht when it was docked in Brevard County. I had the opportunity to interview Alan Bean about his art and Alan Shephard about his beer business. I had a number of encounters with Fred Haise, of Apollo 13 fame, both as a reporter and later as someone bidding for business from the company with which he became an executive, Grumman Aerospace. As then chief of the astronaut corps, John Young was someone I got to see and quote in numerous news conferences. I was able to meet Tom Stafford at an evening event. Though he wasn’t an astronaut, I got to interview Chuck Yeager, the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound and live to tell about it. And, a high point, I got to hang out with Walt Cunningham of Apollo 7 fame during some very entertaining days at Cape Canaveral when I had invited him to speak at a conference I helped organize, and then some time later have lunch with him at Brennan’s in Houston. I still remember the moment when we were waiting to board a tour bus at KSC and Cunningham was sitting on top of a waste basket, just as a place to rest. The bus driver informed us we needed to get tickets to take the tour, and then, realizing who the unassuming guy sitting on the trash can was, came bounding back off the bus, practically giddy and shaking, blurting out, “I’m sorry, Mr. Cunningham! I didn’t recognize you at first! Of course you don’t need a ticket! Anything you want, Mr. Cunningham!”

Along with all the other names and personalities, I got to interview Judy Resnik, one of my most memorable interviews. I still have the tape of that interview in which Resnik said she didn’t fear going up on the Shuttle since NASA took such care looking after the astronauts’ safety. When Challenger blew up on the bitterly cold morning of January 28, 1986, taking the lives of Resnik and her six crew mates with it, NASA wasn’t looking out for the astronauts’ safety, and neither was it when Columbia disintegrated on reentry on February 1, 2003. Both were avoidable disasters.

Looking Forward

I was no longer covering the space program at the time of the Challenger disaster — in fact, earlier the very morning it occurred I had looked toward the space center and said to myself, “One day that thing is going to blow up and I won’t be there when it does” — but I still was involved with space through my public relations firm, ITech International, which specialized in aerospace and high technology, among other areas. To me, the Challenger disaster was personal, both on account of the needless death of Judy Resnik and the other astronauts and specialists and the civilian school teacher, Christa McAuliffe, aboard, all of whom I had seen in news conferences and reported on, but because I helped bring Challenger into the world, covering its first launch, and the issues that had delayed that launch.

Following the Challenger disaster my old paper, TODAY, invited me to write an op-ed piece about the disaster and my views on where the country should go in its wake. In it I wrote how the Space Shuttle was equivalent to the early iterations of airliners that eventually led up to the DC-3, the first commercially successful airliner, and rather than expending money on another Shuttle orbiter, the nation should dedicate itself to new iterations of space transportation systems and go on to further space exploration. Obviously, Congress and NASA felt otherwise, and the space agency went on to build the orbiter Endeavour, which launched for the first time on May 7, 1992. And then, with the landing at KSC of the orbiter Atlantis on July 21, 2011, the Space Shuttle program came to an end.

And now, 50 years after the triumph of Apollo 11, we remain confined to low earth orbit. The International Space Station, development of which began when I was still involved with the space program, is the sole embodiment of humans in space. Since the end of the Shuttle program, the U.S. doesn’t even have the means of bringing our own astronauts to and from the ISS, depending on Russian rockets to do so. There are commercial rockets in the late development stage that are expected to be able to carry people to and from the ISS, but they’re not certified for this purpose yet. In fact, much of what holds promise for the future of space exploration rests with private companies, such as SpaceX and Boeing and several others.

I’m sure there is a lot of important work that goes on aboard the ISS, but I would venture that few people outside the program can name even one or two projects, specifically, that the ISS crews are working on. There is even credible argument that space is an expensive and not terribly great place for doing science. Regardless, whatever they are doing, it doesn’t provide the kind of excitement and global attention that deep-space exploration, most notably the Apollo lunar voyages, provided, and can provide. I am not denigrating the tremendously exciting and important and truly amazing unmanned space missions we’ve conducted. Our knowledge of the solar system and the universe beyond has been expanded enormously by these missions, and they should be continued. But somehow they lack the appeal and drama of manned missions of exploration to new destinations.

NASA and the space program reached its nadir in 2010 when its then-Adminstrator, Charles Bolden – himself a former astronaut – told Al Jazeera television that he had been charged by President Barack Obama with three primary tasks: Encourage children to learn about math and science, improve relations with foreign nations, and, Bolden said, “perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science … and math and engineering.”

Compare that with President Kennedy’s challenge, that the nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade was out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. Not because it was easy, but because it was hard. In the intervening decades, it seems we have come down not just from the moon, but from rising to the kind of challenge the nation responded to in the 1960s.

Now there is talk of going to Mars. I’m happy to see that. While recognizing the costs and dangers involved in such missions, I think it is inevitable that the human spirit is always going to drive us on to bigger and more daring ventures, whether on earth or in space. I think it makes a lot of sense for us to go back first to the moon, and establish a base there. It takes a whole lot less energy to launch a rocket from a place where the gravity is one-sixth what it is on earth. There may be other justifications for a base on the moon, but that one alone provides justification if, in fact, we are intent on going to Mars and elsewhere in the solar system.

Most of my space interest these days is constrained to looking at the full moon, when it appears and the skies are clear, and watching for night launches from Cape Canaveral. I’m living 120 miles from the launch site, but in the dark of night I can get pretty clear views of the launches, which continue to excite me. Recently, during the latest SpaceX launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket from Pad 39A on June 25, the same launch pad from which Apollo 11 launched, I actually got to see the return to earth of the two first-stage boosters that came back to land at KSC. I think that was even more exciting than the launch, all the more so since I wasn’t expecting to be able to see that, just as watching the first Shuttle landing at KSC from the grandstand beside the runway was so exciting 35 years ago. I’m sure that one of these days I’m going to need to go back down to the space center and watch a launch from closer up.

And now, fifty years after that first footstep on the moon, I and the other 7.7-whatever billion people on this planet can only look up at the moon, and wonder: Will mankind ever again set foot on that celestial body? Will my children get to go there? Some might even wonder if they, themselves, will get a chance to go to the moon.

It is of such wonderment that giant leaps are born.

Watch the actual ignition and liftoff of Apollo 11 shot by a NASA camera at the launch pad

All images by NASA except the last image which is by SpaceX

This is a joint posting with my fiction site. It also appears on Medium.

That Time of Year Again: Thoughts on “the Longest Day in the World”

That Time of Year Again: Thoughts on “the Longest Day in the World”

This piece initially appeared two years ago, on June 21, 2017, the Summer Solstice. Today it is once more the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, and the actual solstice officially occurs at 11:54 a.m. EDT/15:54 UTC this morning. The time and other references and weather comments in the piece are as they were two years ago, when the post first appeared. I’m no longer living on the boat, and it’s been a rainy year so far. And this year it’s been 50 years, half a century, since my father’s death. I think I will make re-posting this piece an annual event. I hope you enjoy it.

It’s June 21, the day of the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s a day that holds various meanings for different peoples, and its significance goes back millennia. The solstice, whether summer or winter, officially took place at 12:24 a.m. U.S. Eastern Daylight Time this morning, or 04:24 UTC.

Just to set the record straight and dispel any questions about my scientific knowledge, I know it’s not the longest day in the world. It’s the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest day in the Southern Hemisphere. But we’ll get to this a bit later.

It’s been a mixed bag today here on the West Coast of Florida. We’ve been having a lot of rain, something we didn’t have much of over the winter, and the rainy times are interspersed with sunny breaks. Right now, as I look out the window of my boat, the sun is mostly out but I’m looking at the light through rain-drop spattered glass. At least we’re not getting the effects of Tropical Storm Cindy, which is much further west and at this moment dumping lots of water on the upper Gulf Coast.

In this country, the summer solstice marks the official beginning of summer, though in other places and other cultures it marks the middle of summer, as indicated by the name Midsummer Night, which can occur anywhere from the 20th to the 24th of June. And really it is midsummer, since the days, which have been lengthening since the equinox three months ago, now will start to grow shorter, the nights longer.

The sun has reached its apogee in this hemisphere, as it stands today directly over the Tropic of Cancer. I feel summer ending, we already are on the downhill side, the side that will take us through the hot coming months but already on the slide back into winter, the cold time of year. Just as in the Southern Hemisphere the days will begin to grow longer as the seasons move back to summer.

A year ago on this day I was in Alaska, where there never really was a night. Where I was, well below the Arctic Circle, the sun went down sometime around midnight, but there was a kind of twilight that lasted until the sun rose again a few hours later. Above the Arctic Circle on this day, the sun never sets, and it truly is the Land of the Midnight Sun.

My thoughts turn to other things on this day. Someone asked me the other day, which was Father’s Day in the U.S., what thoughts I had of my father on that Sunday. But really, I think of Father’s Day as a commercial holiday. I also remember the last Father’s Day I had with my father, and how my mother did her unwitting best to create conflict between me and my father. While I may wish a happy day to the fathers I know on Father’s Day, it is today, the day of the solstice, that I think of my father. June 21 was his birthday, which in most years coincides with the solstice. I was told as a child that it was the longest day of the year, which I translated in my own way into it being the longest day in the world, and I would go around telling everyone who would listen that it was.

“It’s the longest day in the world!” I’d exclaim each year on his birthday, from morning until night.

I think today of my father on this day, the 21st of June. Gone now, for nearly 48 years. And I think back to the day of his birth, June 21, 1913. One hundred and four years ago. Even had he not died young as he did, just 56 years old, it is hard to imagine that he would still be alive today had he not died when he did. A prolongation of the inevitable.

A factoid I learned earlier is that today is not the longest day in the history of the world, as one might imagine it to be given that the earth’s rotation on its axis generally was slowing. Rather, the longest day in the history of the world is believed to be June 21, 1912, and things like the earth’s tides and recession of the glaciers have caused a slight increase in the rate of the planet’s rotation since then. My father was born a year later, which arguably could have been the second or third longest day in the history of the world, if not the actual longest day in the world.

I wonder what it was like on that June day, the day of the solstice, the longest day of the year, the day my father was born, in Jersey City, New Jersey. Did his father and mother, his Italian parents, my grandparents that I never knew, know it was the solstice? Did they even know of the solstice? Regardless, I’m inclined to think they did not think of it, if for no other reason than that they had something else on their mind that day. And then I think of the things people from then knew and were taught and how many of those things have been lost today, in these encroaching new Dark Ages in which we find ourselves, and I have to wonder. Perhaps they knew, better than most people today know. Or care to know. And they did note the auspicious day on which their son was born.

I’ll think of my father again on July 27, the anniversary of his death, and by then even our summer, the summer as we define it, will be half over.

The solstices, like the equinoxes, serve as a kind of punctuation for me. I watch the ebb and the flow of the days, the seasons, the years, and they mark the passage of time, time that increasingly slips by way too quickly. All of life is punctuation, I think. Slowing. Stopping. Breaking things, even waves on the water, into different parts, different pieces, different rhythms and fugues and movements and phrases and sentences. It is through such punctuation that we mark our lives, mark our transit through summer and back into winter, from day into night, from life into death. Watching, as a reader of a story does, while the time of our lives flows past. When we lose that punctuation, everything blends into one big mass, and we feel lost in the current, flailing and drowning as we’re pulled inexorably along. At least I do.

Enjoy this song, which I found today amid my files, and with which I end this post, and enjoy the time that nature and life give us.

Click here if song doesn’t play.

This piece also appears on Medium. Follow me there, and here.