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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Sometimes the light shines through

We've lived through a dark age. We were thrust into a war by guile, deception, and a mindless belligerence. Some so-called leaders decided to refute the notion that America is a nation of decency and adopted the morality code of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as it turned into a nation that tortured. For some, torture became part of the liturgy of patriotism. They say you are anti-American if you don't condone torture.

With the wingding chorus yelling that the the White House has been invaded by fascists (one wonders how long it has been since people were taught to use dictionaries) and Mitt Romney saying that we have a monarchist administration, and a deranged congresswoman calling for a revolutionary uprising, the dark corrosive clouds of petit-fascism hover on the horizon. They would seem less threatening had not the opposition party launched an all-out attack on working people and a full-throated support of the fascistic rulers who plunged the economy into near-depression, asked for and took bail-out money, and spent it on their own vanities.

A majority of Americans support a return to democracy, but the forces of malevolence and feudal privilege and the politics of hate are rumbling and lurking on the horizon.
But the times have also given us some clear images of the fundamental virtues and qualities of character that build the real America. They are images unclouded by partisan rancor, and the qualities of competence and personal industry shine through. And they are familiar stories. But they are essential stories.

One of those competent, hard-working souls is a horse. Mine That Bird traveled 1,700 miles in horse trailer towed behind a pickup to be in the Kentucky Derby. The photo above shows him streaking across the finish line and winning. When he was a yearling, he brought only $9,500, but he won races in Canada. Mine That Bird is a gelding. Whatever his destiny is as he heads
for the Triple Crown, he won't retire to blue grass and mounting hot mares. Maybe the blue grass.

Mine That Bird's 50-to-1 shot win at the Derby begins with what his jockey Calvin Borel says is "plenty of horse." But it involves a savvy trainer, Chip Woolley, who drove that pickup for 21 hours with a broken leg smashed up in a motorcycle accident. He'd been to the Kentucky Derby once before, but said he'd never come again without a horse. He drove the 1,700 miles stopping once in Texas to give Mine That Bird a workout. And then there is the third part of the team. Calvin Borel. He guided Mine That Bird from a last position in the pack to cruise along the rail to a 6-length lead at the finish line. Wins like that make old men's hearts work harder than they need to, but they sure lift the spirit.

The so-called feel-good story in the race was 75-year-old Tom McCarthy who has a single-horse stable consisting of General Quarters who he picked up for $20,000 at a claiming race. Tom said that when he got the horse he was like a gawky teen-ager who showed up for basketball practice one day, but couldn't dribble and chew gum a the same time. General Quarters came in tenth, but he is headed for the Preakness in two weeks to try again.

Tom McCarthy was a high-school biology teacher who worked his way up to principal, but had this love of horses and racing. He is the owner, trainer, and handler of General Quarters, and would probably ride, too, if he could make the weight.

It has been a year of stories about competent people who work hard at what they like and what they do and exhibit competence and skill and a sense of responsibility to people who are affected
by the way they do their jobs. In January Chesley Sullenberger captain of an U.S. Airways Airbus with 150 passengers and four other crew members on board took off from New York's LaGuardia airport and ran into a flock of geese a minute into the flight. Both engines were disabled and Capt. Sully asked for clearance to return to LaGuardia. However, without power, he realized there was a big chance that the plane probably did not have enough glide to make it back to the airport and could crash into the city. He decided to land it in the Hudson River. As he guided it to a landing, he saw a boat in the river and brought the plane down in a textbook maneuver near the boat to insure rescue efforts for the people on board.

I use the term "textbook" maneuver with emphasis. Capt. Sullenberger is a graduate of the Air Force Academy, has flown for 40 years, and has had all the intensive and continuous training required of airline pilots. In addition, he has earned masters' degrees from Purdue and the U. of Northern Colorado. He has a consulting business on airflight safety and risk management and has served on a number of committees and boards dealing with the subject. Capt. Sullenberger was prepared for the kind of eventuality he ran into with the flock of birds.

So was his first officer and the rest of his crew.

However, the U.S. Airways 1529 story must also include the
competence and skill of the ferry boat crews and first responders from New York City who rescued the people off the wings of the aircraft as it filled with water. People doing their jobs and doing them well are not considered news, but they are what makes the world work--when it does.

Another craft captain who has earned the admiration of the nation is Richard Phillips, captain of the container freighter Maersk Alabama, w
hich was attacked by Somalian pirates. A number of people share the acknowledgment in this story for their knowledge and competence in their jobs. When pirates boarded the Alabama, Capt. Phillips ordered his crew to take security measures which frustrated the pirates' plans to commandeer the ship. An agreement was reached that Capt. Phillips would accompany the pirates off the ship in a lifeboat while the crew would retain command of the ship. It was an act of good faith on the Captain's part. However, the pirates did not reciprocate that good faith and took him hostage for ransom.

The next part of the story involves the U.S. Navy which sent the USS Bainbridge into the area to the area to provide negotiation and rescue efforts. A team of Navy Seals parachuted into the sea behind the Bainbridge and surreptitiously came aboard and set up a surveillance post on the fantail from where they could monitor the covered lifeboat in which four pirates held Capt. Phillips. After one escape attempt, Capt. Phillips was recaptured and kept bound in the boat. The Seals xeroed in their rifles on the pirates and kept them covered through their telescopic sights should there be a need or an opportunity to open fire. When one pirate came aboard the Bainbridge for medical treatment, the others began to act erratically, with one holding a rifle on Capt. Phillips as if he meant to shoot at any moment. Capt. Phillips said in a later interview that he did not expect to get out of the incident alive. Commanders on the Bainbridge ordered the Seals to take action, and in a synchronized firing, they took out the three pirates simultaneously. It was a remarkable feat.

The entire incident, as in the safe landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1529, illustrated people who trained, practiced, and worked at their jobs. The skills shown by Capt. Sullenberger and his crew are probably never called into use by the majority of airline pilots. And the skills shown by Capt. Phillips and his crew and the Navy Seals will probably never be needed by the vast majority of people in their jobs. But part of their job is to prepare for such eventualities and have their knowledge, skill, and intelligence at the ready at all times.

What these people have demonstrated is in stark contrast to the war on Iraq and Hurricane Katrina.

And then there is Susan Boyle, the woman who stunned world on the British version of Idol. As the dowdy woman prepared to perform her song, the audience and the judges waited with
derisive smirks on their faces. But three notes into the song, and the judges' expressions turned into awed gapes. The woman not only had a great voice, but it was astoundlingly trained and polished. In the superficial culture of our world, people of such unassuming appearance are not supposed to possess such an abundance of superbly honed talent. She didn't need to expose a tit or thrust her crotch at the audience; all she needed to do was sing. And suddenly we were confronted with the fact of talent and someone who learned how to develop and use it.

If you don't get immersed in cable television news, blogs and social networks, or the deep darkness of midnight talk radio, the world is not such a bad place to be right now. Thanks to people of integrity who work hard. And expect no special attention or privilege. And have no ambitions to impose anything on others.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States