Monday, February 28, 2011

Farewell to A Patriot

Today, America lost its last surviving veteran of World War I when Frank Buckles passed away on his West Virginia farm. He was 110 years old.

World War I lasted from 1914 to 1918, and was known as The Great War up until World War II broke out in the late 1930's. The U.S. became involved in 1917 and America's soldiers were called "doughboys."

Buckles served as an Army ambulance driver on the Western Front. In the post-war years he traveled the globe as a purser, and was there in person to watch Jesse Owens win gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. When the U.S. and several other nations were attacked in December 1941, Buckles was captured in the Philippines by Japanese forces; he was held as a civilian POW for more than three years, until being freed in a joint raid by American and Filipino forces. He and his wife purchased their farm in 1953 and lived there for the remainder of their lives. Now his body will be laid to its final rest in Arlington National Cemetery, perhaps wearing his old doughboy tunic that has been hanging in his closet for generations.

Buckles's passing means that across the entire planet, there are just two people still alive who served in World War I: A 109-year-old Australian man and 110-year-old British woman. The sacrifices of their generation have largely been ignored by historians and educators, in contrast to the sacrifices made by the later generation that fought World War II. Fortunately, it is never too late to rectify the slight.

Au revoir, Corporal Buckles.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Leader Like No Other

He is called The Father of Our Country. Everybody knows the image of his face that was memorialized on the dollar bill, and everybody knows he was America’s first president. Most people know he was a general in the Revolutionary War and that he led colonial troops to victory over the British. But beyond that, few people know anything about George Washington, so with today being his 279th birthday, here are a few facts.

Though Washington was not born poor, he was also not born into the elite like most people assume. He was 11 years old when his father died, and in his young adulthood he worked as a land surveyor.

Some 20 years before the Revolutionary War, Washington fought heroically for the British in the French and Indian War.

Based on his role as a brigadier general in the Monongahela Expedition of 1758, he is considered a major player in the founding of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Throughout the Revolutionary War his troops were greatly outnumbered and underequipped, and experienced defeat more often than triumph. But his intelligence, especially as manifested in his knack for trickery and espionage, led the way to ultimate victory. His crossing of the Delaware River is a classic example of him outwitting the enemy in the face of imminent disaster.

Washington became the nation’s first president after a unanimous vote of the electoral college in 1789. He was so revered that many wanted him to be king, and he probably would have kept getting re-elected for as long as he sought re-election. However, after finishing his second term he chose not to run again, because he thought that one man holding executive power for a long time ran counter to America’s founding principles and was not in America’s best interests. This was an unprecedented abdication of power at the time, and its vivid example served to solidify the founding and put America’s limited-government experiment on the right course.

Modern day America-bashers like to denigrate Washington’s stature by pointing out that he owned slaves. However, of the Founding Fathers who owned slaves, Washington was the only one to free them. His will accomplished that (upon his wife’s death) and established means by which they were provided for and given educations so they could become self-sufficient.

In the interest of getting information “straight from the horse’s mouth,” here are some of the things he wrote and said during his time on earth:

The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army…We have, therefore, to resolve to conquer or die.

Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak, and esteem to all.

To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.

The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, ’till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole People, is sacredly obligatory upon all…

There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation.

Liberty, when it begins to take root, is a plant of rapid growth.

True friendship is a plant of slow growth, and must undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity, before it is entitled to the appellation.

I am embarked on a wide ocean, boundless in its prospects, and in which, perhaps, no safe harbor is to be found.

Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for ’tis better to be alone than in bad company.

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.

I look forward, with a kind of political faith, to scenes of national happiness, which have not heretofore been offered for the fruition of the most favored nations. The natural, political, and moral circumstances of our nascent empire justify the anticipation.

I have always considered marriage as the most interesting event of one’s life, the foundation of happiness or misery.

’Tis our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.

Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder.

Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.

My manner of living is plain, a glass of wine and a bit of mutton are always ready, and such as will be content to partake of that are always welcome.

A free people ought not only to be armed and disciplined but they should have sufficient arms and ammunition to maintain a status of independence from any who might attempt to abuse them, which would include their own government.

Firearms stand next in importance to the Constitution itself. They are the American people’s liberty teeth and keystone under independence.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

All Around Us

Last February I wrote about how rare it is for people to take time to notice, much less appreciate, how pretty the sky is. The point was that if people simply would take the time, they would feel less stress and feel more like they are on vacation, even when they are at home.

Well, lately I have been thinking of how true that is not only when it comes to the sky, but when it comes to the natural world as a whole. Which is too bad, because nature’s landscape is all around us -- more than 90 percent of the U.S. is undeveloped even when farms and roads are counted as developed land.

Far-flung national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite get all the publicity, but they are only a fraction of our public lands. Everywhere you look, other properties under many different jurisdictions are waiting to be explored. Even city parks fit the bill, from small oak-shaded parcels all the way up to the likes of LA’s 700-acre Deukmejian Wilderness Park -- which contains two canyons plus four miles of hiking trails with a combined 2,400 feet of elevation change. Another good example of an “urban wilderness” is Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, which has scenic bridle paths and 13 miles of mostly undeveloped shoreline on Long Island Sound.

I reside in America’s 14th largest media market, less than 25 miles from downtown Tampa, yet there are three sizeable preserves within a 15-minute drive of my front door. Each of them is owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, a governmental entity that was formed to protect water resources in order to meet the needs of residents and businesses. Fortunately, in the process of doing that it creates preserves where people can recreate.

Since New Year’s I have been spending a lot of time enjoying cool temperatures in these preserves, and this is what has gotten me thinking about the fact that so many people are not aware of them. The pictures above were taken at Brooker Creek Headwaters Preserve and Cypress Creek Preserve, respectively, while the one below was taken at Conner Preserve:

Conner opened to the public only about a year ago. On my first hike there, I started encountering deer soon after daybreak and managed to see eleven before the morning was over. I failed to get any pictures of the two bucks, but did capture this shot of a pair of does:

These places all make for productive wildlife-viewing. In Brooker Creek Headwaters I saw several kestrels, which are America’s smallest birds of prey. In Cypress Creek I startled a flock of turkeys that Sarah would have called “ginormous,” and when all those huge birds suddenly took flight, the beating of their wings echoed like a coordinated fury.

The preserves are free to use and have no roads…unless you count the miles of unpaved Jeep roads that serve as hiking trails. At entry points to the preserves, gates block vehicles from entering but pedestrian access is granted by walk-through openings in the fence. While I prefer to experience things on foot, most of the “road trails” are open to mountain bikes and horses in addition to hikers. Sarah has brought her bike and accompanied me on some of my visits to Cypress Creek:

Taking your kids into the woods is a good way not only to get some “quality time” with them, but to cultivate their love of the outdoors and ensure that they don’t need TV and video games to have fun. One time Sarah and I buried about half an ounce of “treasure” in a very particular spot, and we intend to dig it back up in the future. On another occasion she picked up an open pine cone, started finding shells to stuff into it, and named the creation “Mr. Pine Cone Head,” which I assume is a tribute to the Mr. Potato Head she played with when she was younger.

Wherever you are and wherever you go, be sure to visit those places that everyone seems to overlook. Go to Google and search for county parks or city parks in your area to see what they have to offer beyond the playgrounds. Do the same for state parks and state forests, and do the same for whatever entity manages the water supply -- because after I learned first-hand what a good job the Southwest Florida Water Management District does with its preserves, I did some research and learned that many similar agencies across America do the same.

Finally, if you are going to be in West Central Florida and want to check out any of my water district’s properties, you can find information about all of them -- not just the ones I named -- by going here. Enjoy!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Lincoln's Birthday

There has been no shortage of current events to blog about in recent weeks, from the federal court ruling that Obamacare is unconstitutional, to the ousting of totalitarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, to the discovery of a Pennsylvania abortion clinic that is such a house of horrors it makes Friday the 13th seem like a Barnie episode.

But I have not written about any of them. Between the birthdays of Ronald Reagan and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the 25th anniversary of the Challenger explosion, all of my recent blogging has been focused on things from the past…and I am fine with that, because history is filled with timeless lessons that we should apply to the present.

Today my “look back” streak continues, because it was 202 yeas ago today that Abraham Lincoln was born in a tiny log cabin in Kentucky. Even the “Reader’s Digest version” of his life is impressive: he was almost entirely self-educated; he rose through the ranks of state and federal government to become President of the United States, in which capacity he oversaw the ending of slavery and preservation of the country; then he was assassinated by a national celebrity while watching a play.

It is obvious that we all have many reasons to be thankful he won the 1860 and 1864 presidential elections. Rather than recount those reasons, I will simply leave you with some of my favorite Abraham Lincoln quotations:

Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in us. Our defense is in the spirit which prized liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands everywhere. Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism at your own doors.

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.

No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent.

Property is the fruit of labor -- property is desirable -- is a positive good in the world. That some should be rich, shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another, but let him work diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built.

Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it.

Are you not over-cautious when you assume that you cannot do what the enemy is constantly doing?

I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.

Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and, under a just God, cannot long retain it.

I have always thought that all men should be free; but if any should be slaves, it should be first those who desire it for themselves, and secondly those who desire it for others. Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.

Most people are about as happy as they make up their mind to be.

Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better.

You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot help the wage-earner by pulling down the wage-payer. You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich. You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.

Gold is good in its place, but living, brave, patriotic men are better than gold.

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Accustomed to trample on the rights of others, you have lost the genius of your own independence and become the fit subjects of the first cunning tyrant who rises among you.

Truth is generally the best vindication against slander.

It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.

If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.

When I am getting ready to reason with a man, I spend one-third of my time thinking about myself and what I am going to say and two-thirds about him and what he is going to say.

To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.

As President, I have no eyes but constitutional eyes; I cannot see you.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

More On Reagan

On Sunday I wrote about Ronald Reagan to commemorate his 100th birthday. Two days later I heard a radio caller describe an encounter he had with him in 1980.

The caller was in college at the time, and like many college students his political views were positioned well to the left of center. He attended a campaign speech that Reagan gave on campus, after which Reagan shook people’s hands. When Reagan reached out to him, he said, “You know, I’m not a Republican,” and the future president responded simply by grinning and saying, “Well, neither was I when I was your age.”

That anecdote captured Reagan’s personality better than anything I could hammer out from my keyboard. He was comfortable in his skin and serene in his confidence that people of good faith would, more often than not, eventually come around to his way of thinking because that is where the realities of life would lead them.

He did not respond to the college kid by repeating the talking points of whatever stump speech he had just given. Instead, knowing that the speech stood on its own merits, he was quick to find common ground with the kid, and to use that common ground to address him as a fellow citizen in good standing.

Reagan did not demean himself or the kid by embarking on a tit-for-tat debate or groveling for a vote. Instead, he made a brief but thought-provoking point and moved on.

One of the things I always admired about Reagan is the ability he had to be partisan without being prickly. He could dismiss liberal ideas without dismissing liberal people, as evidenced by his use of the phrase “our liberal friends” when describing how some people arrive at erroneous conclusions despite having the best intentions.

I feel very blessed that Ronald Reagan was America’s president in my formative years, and that my father talked openly about world affairs and had me watch the news with him, so that I was paying attention during those years. I feel bad for people who came after me, whose experience when it comes to presidents is of people who are much less inspiring and much less worthy of our trust.

The picture at the beginning of this post is one of my favorites, because it, like the story shared by Tuesday’s radio caller, captures the one-of-a-kind personality of our 40th president. In closing, here are some more pictures that do the same.

Feeling triumphant:

On horseback when young (well, middle-aged) and when old:

On horseback (notice a trend?) with Queen Elizabeth II on the grounds of Windsor Castle:

Leaving office in January 1989 to return to private life:

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Gipper's Centennial

He was born one hundred years ago today in Tampico, Illinois.

His family relocated several times during his childhood, moving throughout the state and eventually settling in the town of Dixon. His father was a hard-working but alcoholic shoe salesman. His mother, a born optimist and active member of the Disciples of Christ Church, provided the financially-strapped family with moral stability.

He excelled at sports, and at the age of 15 his first job was as a lifeguard on the Rock River. At Eureka College he played football, captained the swim team, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social science and economics.

After college he worked in radio, broadcasting Iowa Hawkeyes football games and Chicago Cubs baseball games. At the age of 26, while traveling with the Cubs in California, he took a screen test for Warner Brothers and earned the lead role in the motion picture Love is in the Air. He went on to appear in 52 movies, and, contrary to what revisionists would later say, his performances were well-received by critics at the time.

World War II interrupted his acting career, but afterward he returned to Hollywood not only as an actor but as an important figure in the Screen Actors Guild. He served as its president for seven years, and it was in this role that he honed his leadership skills and learned the art of hard-boiled negotiation. In the 1950’s he became a television fixture as the host of GE Theater.

He married Jane Wyman in 1940 and they had three children -- two biological daughters, one of whom died at just a day old, plus an adopted son. After disagreements about his political ambitions, Wyman filed for divorce in 1947.

Two years later he met the love of his life, Nancy Davis. They married in 1952 and remained so until he died more than a half-century later, and together they had a daughter and son. Many observers consider their marriage to be America’s greatest true love story.

Although he spent time in the often-superficial world of Hollywood, he was a man of substance who thought critically about world affairs and sought to influence public policy. He eventually left the world of show business and emerged as a political titan who changed the course of history.

Because he became known as the ultimate conservative Republican, many people today are surprised to learn that he was a Democrat until the age of 51. He changed parties partly because his views moved rightward as he aged, but mostly because the party of his youth moved leftward and away from America’s founding principles. When asked why he switched, he quipped, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party -- the party left me.” He elaborated more on the issue in his autobiography, writing: “The classic liberal used to be the man who believed the individual was, and should be forever, the master of his destiny. That is now the conservative position. The liberal used to believe in freedom under the law. He now takes the ancient feudal position that power is everything. He believes in a stronger and stronger central government, in the philosophy that control is better than freedom. The conservative now quotes Thomas Paine, a longtime refuge of the liberals: ‘Government is a necessary evil; let us have as little of it as possible.’”

The first time he ran for office, in 1966, he won the governorship of California. Four years later he was easily reelected. After narrowly losing his bid for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination, he returned to win the 1980 nomination and defeated Jimmy Carter in the general election, becoming the 40th president of the United States. In 1984, he was reelected in a history-making landslide in which he won 49 of the 50 states.

When he stepped into the Oval Office in January 1981, communism was on the rise, freedom was in decline, and America’s economy was failing. Unemployment was high, and for those who were employed, the purchasing power of their money was evaporating because of double-digit inflation and 20 percent mortgage rates. But rather than be scared by the challenge, he embraced it.

On the economic front he created an environment in which entrepreneurial innovation could flourish. He did this by scaling back regulations that were burdensome and anti-competitive, and by dramatically lowering tax rates in all income brackets so that people would have more money in their pockets to spend as they saw fit. And last but not least, he championed entrepreneurs and the social benefits that derive from their businesses; unlike his political adversaries, he did not vilify business because he understood the truth of Abraham Lincoln’s warning that "you can not help the wage-earner by pulling down the wage-payer."

The results were staggering. Inflation and unemployment were all but eliminated from being national issues, and incomes soared -- in fact, incomes soared so much that the total amount of money taken in by the government skyrocketed, even though the government was taking a much smaller percentage of each person’s income than it was before he was elected. Those who think government must raise taxes to raise revenue should take notice, because its annual revenue was much higher every year he was in office than it was in any year before he took office; and by the time he left office, its revenue was nearly twice what it was before.

On national defense and foreign affairs, his achievements were even more staggering. Instead of following his predecessor’s path of na├»ve appeasement, he drew a line in the sand and made it clear that America would not allow Soviet-sponsored tyranny to continue its assault against human liberty. He pushed back against the Soviets, first by installing intercontinental ballistic missiles in Western Europe, and then executing a brilliant squeeze play by rapidly building up our military technology and introducing the SDI (a “shoot their missiles down from space” initiative that his critics ridiculed by calling it “Star Wars”). The USSR tried to keep up because it was power-hungry, but could not do so because its top-down communist system was incapable of generating resources and innovations like America’s free-enterprise capitalist system. In the end, because he allowed America’s system to function without its hands tied, the inherent flaws of communism were exposed and the USSR itself -- along with the abusive power it had wielded over smaller nations -- collapsed like the house of cards it was.

Many “realists” thought the Cold War would last in perpetuity, but he, an “idealist,” brought it to an end by design and without firing a shot. And with the disappearance of the USSR and its control over other nations, millions of people throughout the world, especially Eastern Europe, were able to taste freedom for the first time. Today this man is a hero in their country as well as ours.

People who lived in fear of commissars in what was once East Germany, and of the Communist Party’s police state in what was once the Soviet Union, will tell you how in the 1980’s they were emboldened by the knowledge that an American president was finally standing up to their tormentors; how they were inspired by the knowledge that he was genuinely on the side of humanity and would not ignore their plight. They will tell you that without him, their freedom would never have come to be.

In Prague, the capital of a nation once held hostage by the Soviets, celebrations in this man’s honor are planned throughout this year to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of his birth. In London, the capital of a nation with whom he reaffirmed a heralded “special relationship,” a statue of him is being unveiled in Grosvenor Square.

Here in America, we should remember that he was a man imbued with humility despite his great accomplishments; that he was “the leader of the free world” but always knew it was about us and not about him; and that he did not gain entree to power because of inherited wealth or family connections, but instead earned his way up from a modest beginning in a small Midwestern town.

He gave speeches like no one else I have ever seen, because he believed what he said and everyone knew it. While Abraham Lincoln was called “Honest Abe” and Andrew Jackson was called “Old Hickory,” this president was called “The Great Communicator.” Everyone who saw him agreed that nickname fit, but, humble to the end, he disavowed it when he said this during his last speech before leaving office: “I wasn’t a great communicator, but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation -- from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries.”

In that same speech, he summed up his love for America when he said this: “The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the ‘shining city upon a hill.’ The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined…I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still…After two hundred years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”

He departed this earth in 2004, but that will not stop me from pausing today to say, “Thank you, Ronald Wilson Reagan.”