Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Trip - Heading for New Brunswick

We left Niagara Falls a few days ago and have been without the internet until tonight.

Before we left I looked up the rules for motorhome driving in Canada and discovered that our towing setup is not legal there. All wheels on the ground are supposed to have brakes, but our tow dolly doesn't have its own brakes, so we've had to plan our route so the motorhome stays in the US. Fortunately, the World's Longest Covered Bridge in Hartland, New Brunswick, is close enough to the border with Maine that we'll be able to camp in Houlton, Maine, and go to Hartland in the car as a day-trip.

But that meant trying to map out a route to Houlton, which is generally Northeast of Niagara Falls, when all the Interstate routes want to go North-South or to the Southeast. So we're making a scenic beeline for New Brunswick, although "scenic" takes its toll on the number of miles we can cover in a day.

We drove along the north coast of New York, where the War of 1812 played a prominent role, since Canada (the British at the time) is just across the water--either Lake Ontario or the St. Lawrence River.

Our road took us into Rochester, NY, where we must have missed a turn, because we stopped seeing signs for our State Route number. Instead we were driving in a run-down urban area where we had no room to pull over and figure out how to get where we wanted to be. All we could do was go when the lights were green, turn sometimes and try to find a sign pointing to a numbered road we could find on the map. From the run-down area, we ended up driving into the downtown business district with narrow lanes and one-way streets and cops all over the place. Finally we spotted a sign directing us to Interstate 490, which my mom found on the map at the south end of town. We had wanted to stay on the north end of town, but we took the I-490, just to get out of downtown, and I felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders once we were on the interstate.

We found our way back to the coastal route and managed to stay on it after that.

Yesterday, we stopped in Clayton, NY, a quaint town near the Thousand Islands, where they invented Thousand Island salad dressing (a dubious achievement, in my opinion). We found a place to park the motorhome (fed all three parking meters) and wandered around town. These are a couple of the Thousand Islands.

We're starting to find more and more of autumn, seen here at last night's campground.

But there are so many beautiful views and charming homes along our route, that we don't have the time (or turnout space) to stop and photograph them all. In response to the lack of photo opportunities, I've developed a Point-and-Shoot method. It leaves out the unspoken but crucial middle step of "Compose." I just hold up the little camera, point it in the general direction, and take a picture. Most of them come out lousy, like this...

... or this...

... but some of them come out tolerably well.

We're in Vermont tonight, and tomorrow should be a three-state day (Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine). We may stop briefly for a couple sights in New Hampshire, but most of our sightseeing will start when we drive across the covered bridge in New Brunswick two or three days from now.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Crocodile Navigation

Photo credit: Botswana Tourism

The Times Online (UK) reported yesterday on crocodile navigation systems.

Australian scientists have discovered that the long-established practice of capturing and removing the most aggressive crocodiles from Outback swimming holes used by tourists, and dumping them in remote locations, could be a waste of time. They can find their way back.

In fact they are capable of complex navigation over long distances.

The findings - released this week by a University of Queensland team in the online scientific journal PloS ONE - followed the world’s first satellite tracking study of wild crocodiles undertaken by the University of Queensland and Australia Zoo, which was founded by Steve Irwin, the naturalist who was killed by a stingray last year.

Three of the beasts were taken from their home rivers in far northern Queensland by helicopter and carried hundreds of miles before being released in distant locations. All three made it back to their home rivers, swimming between 6 and 19 miles a day. One swam round the northern tip of Australia to reach its home after a journey of more than 250 miles in 20 days.

Each of the crocodiles spent weeks exploring its new location before setting out on its homeward journey. The study observed: “It is noteworthy that all three individuals spent some time at the release point before embarking on an apparently purposeful and direct travel homewards.

This is not good news for people in crocodile-infested regions. But it's always good to know the truth. Now the Australian government agencies can save the money they would have used for relocating the rogues, and they can use it on something more helpful. Perhaps a bullet for the man-eaters.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Trip - Niagara Falls

The road into town was narrow and busy, and we didn't know exactly where the falls were, so when we got to the RV Park last night, we set up camp and stayed put. They had an information office that sold tours to the falls, but by the time we finished our hook-ups, the office had closed.

This morning we went to the tour office, looked at our options, and selected the All American tour. We could have gone on the All Canadian tour, or done both over two days. The Canadian tour would have taken us to some gardens and the waterworks for the hydroelectric system (or something equally uninteresting--I didn't pay much attention to that part), when what we wanted to see was the waterfall. The American tour gave us lots of places to see the falls.

It was a four-hour tour with our guide, Martha. We all had to wear nametags with her name, even the men, and everyone had a good time calling each other Martha. This was my mom and me near the beginning of the tour. By the end we looked like drowned rats and we were exhausted, but it was a good kind of exhausted.

We started at the Whirlpool then went to a park that overlooked the American edge of the Horseshoe Falls, where the river slips past the last edge of rock.

A bicyclist had her dog in a trailer, although the dog didn't seem particularly interested in the view.

After looking from above, we went to the Cave of the Winds, where we were each issued a yellow rain slicker, a pair of neoprene velcro-sandals, and a plastic bag to (hopefully) keep our shoes and socks dry. I got an extra plastic bag, so I put my camera in it.

Then we went down to the wooden walkway at the base of the Bridal Veil Falls. Martha (the real one) had recommended rolling up our pants legs, but it proved futile. As we walked closer to the falls, we were met by the mist, then the spray, and then the splashing of water as it hit the rocks and continued down to the river. We were all soaked up to the knees.

After a short break, our time for the Maid of the Mist boat ride had come. We all kept on our Cave sandals and were issued a blue rain slicker. The ride started by taking us past the American Falls and its close companion, the Bridal Veil Falls. We could see the walkway we had been on not too long before.

Then the boat approached the Horseshoe Falls, where the mist rises in a plume that obscures anything behind it.

As we got closer, the mist got heavier.

In the center of Horseshoe's curve, the spray was so severe, my eyes stung and I couldn't look at anything. I finally pulled the hood of my rain gear down over my eyes, so I could at least see the waterfall, even though it looked blue.

After the boat ride, some of us climbed up the stairs that took us above the midpoint of the Horseshoe Falls' plunge to the bottom.

Our tour ended after a trip up the elevator to the Observation Deck, where we could look down on the Horseshoe Falls and the Maid of the Mist boats below.

After Martha dropped us off at our RV Park, my mom and I discussed our plans for the evening. We would have liked to have seen the falls lit up at night, but we were too tired to pull the car off the dolly, figure out how to get to the falls without Martha, find a parking spot, and then get back again afterward. So we put our wet clothes in the dryer instead.

Tomorrow we start heading north for New Brunswick. We don't know how long it will take to get there.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Trip - Ohio

We've spent most of our time in Ohio visiting friends and family, rather than sightseeing.

Ohio is beautiful this time of year, but then I'd be hard-pressed to find a place that isn't. I noticed once again how much the countryside changes at the state line. Ohio has more trees than Indiana, and it's grassier. I don't understand how that works. The states have no natural borders where we crossed, just a straight line on the map and a "Welcome to Ohio" sign next to the road, but somehow the grass grows better east of the line. This picture was taken while we were driving, because--like Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma--there aren't any good shoulders or turnouts for stopping to get pictures.

My mom and I are close to getting whiplash from all the swivel-necking we've done, looking at the houses in the Midwest. Lots of farmhouses with wrap-around porches, or fancy brickwork, or Victorian embellishments, or classic Colonial styles. There were even a couple houses that made the Addams Family theme song run throught my head. I stopped (in the car, not the motorhome) in a couple people's driveways to get a picture of their houses.

This is the kind of house that makes me say, "Ahh..." It's an updated version of an old farmhouse with a nice, big porch. A house should have a porch. In California, a porch is just a cement slab by the front door where people stand when they ring your doorbell to ask you if you'll subscribe to the newspaper and help them win a fabulous prize. But in the Midwest, porches are made to be noticed, to be used.

This is the kind of house that makes me say, "Would you look at that!" Of course, I took its picture.

My cousin told us that Ashtabula County, which is the next county over from our campground, has a bunch of covered bridges. I looked them up, and there are 15. I charted a route to eight of them, and this morning we drove to see them and take pictures, before hooking the car back up to the motorhome and heading out.

Harpersfield Road Covered Bridge, longest covered bridge in Ohio:

Netcher Road Covered Bridge:

Riverdale Road Covered Bridge:

My cousin told us something else, and I found it hard to believe, but she was certain, having lived in Cleveland for most of her life. She said Niagara Falls is only three hours away. We have to get out of Ohio, go through Pennsylvania, and then some of New York. And it's only three hours. We'll get to Niagara Falls today. I never would have guessed.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

President Bush Speaks to UN

The AP reported today on President Bush's speech before the UN General Assembly.

President Bush announced new sanctions Tuesday against the military dictatorship in Myanmar, accusing it of imposing "a 19-year reign of fear" that denies basic freedoms of speech, assembly and worship. "Americans are outraged by the situation in Burma," the president said in an address to the U.N. General Assembly.

Instead of Iran, the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar, also known as Burma, was drawing Bush's ire. He was announcing new visa restrictions and financial sanctions against the regime and those who provide it financial aid.

The policies come as Myanmar's military government issued a threat Monday to the barefoot Buddhist monks who led 100,000 people marching through a major city. It was the strongest protest against the repressive regime in two decades.

The AP writer, Ben Feller, couldn't resist a little jab at the President, a non sequitur in the midst of a couple paragraphs about the original goals of the UN:

The president heads to the forum, though, with his clout weakened by the plodding war in Iraq.

The article focused on " the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar, also known as Burma," as well as the way Bush's speech didn't focus on Iran. So I went to the full text of the speech, and the reality is different from the AP's slant. The speech wasn't momentous, but it had praise and criticism to go around--it wasn't as narrow as the AP would have us believe. Here are a couple excerpts.

The United States salutes the nations that have recently taken strides toward liberty -- including Ukraine and Georgia and Kyrgyzstan and Mauritania and Liberia, Sierra Leone and Morocco. The Palestinian Territories have moderate leaders, mainstream leaders that are working to build free institutions that fight terror, and enforce the law, and respond to the needs of their people. The international community must support these leaders, so that we can advance the vision of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security.

I love the first sentence. Any progress toward liberty should be commended. But President Bush seems blinded by his allegiance to Mahmoud Abbas, who comes across as being as two-faced as any of the other terror-supporting leaders in the Middle East.

Every civilized nation also has a responsibility to stand up for the people suffering under dictatorship. In Belarus, North Korea, Syria, and Iran, brutal regimes deny their people the fundamental rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration. Americans are outraged by the situation in Burma, where a military junta has imposed a 19-year reign of fear....

In Cuba, the long rule of a cruel dictator is nearing its end. The Cuban people are ready for their freedom. And as that nation enters a period of transition, the United Nations must insist on free speech, free assembly, and ultimately, free and competitive elections.

In Zimbabwe, ordinary citizens suffer under a tyrannical regime. The government has cracked down on peaceful calls for reform, and forced millions to flee their homeland. The behavior of the Mugabe regime is an assault on its people -- and an affront to the principles of the Universal Declaration. The United Nations must insist on change in Harare -- and must insist for the freedom of the people of Zimbabwe.

In Sudan, innocent civilians are suffering repression -- and in the Darfur region, many are losing their lives to genocide. America has responded with tough sanctions against those responsible for the violence. We've provided more than $2 billion in humanitarian and peacekeeping aid. I look forward to attending a Security Council meeting that will focus on Darfur, chaired by the French President. I appreciate France's leadership in helping to stabilize Sudan's neighbors. And the United Nations must answer this challenge to conscience, and live up to its promise to promptly deploy peacekeeping forces to Darfur.

It would have been criminal if he had ignored Zimbabwe, where the latest reports I saw said inflation is now back under 7000%. As though 6600% inflation is some sort of blessing.

And I'm not sure I agree with the UN sending peacekeeping forces to Darfur--not since there have been so many reports of the "peacekeepers" involved in sexual abuse of the people they're supposed to be protecting. The Sudanese people in Darfur don't need any more abuse.

The speech was pretty good, as presidential speeches before the UN go. The praise was good, and the slams weren't body blows. And nothing will change, because the UN will refuse to do anything the US recommends, just to prove it's not America's lackey.

And the AP will keep slanting its articles so they're sticking it to the President as much as they can without appearing too, too biased.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Trip - Indiana Part III

I mentioned before that, in my never-ending quest for a new career in a medical field, I found a Nuclear Medicine Technology (NMT) program that I could finish in about two years instead of the four years at other schools. It's at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). While we were in Indianapolis, I stopped at IUPUI and talked to an enrollment counselor and also someone familiar with the specifics of the NMT program.

The out-of-state tuition is my biggest concern, at over $600 a unit (choke! gasp!). In California I'm used to paying only $20 a unit (aka, credit hours), which makes community colleges really affordable there. So if I wanted to go to school at IUPUI, I'd need to establish residency first.

The problem in a lot of colleges is that if you start out as an out-of-state student, they keep you as out-of-state forever and ever, amen. But when I asked the IUPUI people about it, they said that you pay out-of-state tuition until you become a resident, and then you can appeal your residency status, and they'll switch you to in-state from that point on. In-state tuition is just over $200 a unit.

I still have prerequisites to finish--Anatomy & Physiology (2 semesters), Chemistry (2 semesters), Physics (1 semester), and possibly Algebra & Trig--I took Calculus 30 years ago. But the enrollment counselor recommended taking those at a community college, where the out-of-state tuition is less than IUPUI's in-state rate. I can do that while I'm establishing residency.

The NMT program starts every year in June, so I'd need to be ready to start in 2009. So I'd need to move to Indiana before June of 2008 and bust my tail to finish all the prerequisites in time.

The problem with all of this is that it's falling into place. The only thing that would get in the way of doing it is if my house hasn't sold and closed by this coming May. And I still might be able to work around that for a while. Maybe.

I've gone from hypotheticals to real life in the course of a conversation with the counselor. I've gone from having no clue what program to study (because the available programs didn't ring my chimes) to having a direction and a game plan in the same short amount of time. And it's scary.

I might be moving to Indiana.

I probably will, but I wasn't ready for the decision yet. It hit me last night at 4:30 in the morning, and I lay there staring at the ceiling thinking about my kids and my friends in California, and about the friends I don't know if I'll be able to make in Indiana. I haven't had to start over in a new town since 1985, and I'm a little out of practice...

But I'm not worried, just scared. There's a difference. It's helping me focus, and I've started getting practical and thinking through all the little--and big--decisions I'll have to make. (I'll take the "In God We Trust" license plate design, thank you.)

Now all I need is for my house to sell.

The Trip - Indiana Part II

Today we visited places north of Indianapolis. Our first stop was at the Elwood Haynes Museum, which is housed in his former home in Kokomo.

Haynes was the man who built the first American automobile, pictured here.

But his first passion was metallurgy, not automobiles. He loved making improvements to the metals of his time, using different alloys for different qualities. When his wife, who had to entertain often because of the success of the Haynes automobile, asked him to make her some flatware she wouldn't have to polish all the time, he invented stainless steel.

His doctor and dentist friends loved his invention for their instruments. And, well, you know the rest...

Our second visit was to Conner Prairie Living History Museum in Fishers. It's the kind of place where you go back in time, to 1836. They had animals...

A donkey who wanted to pose.

A cow who saw her buddy the donkey getting all the attention and ran over for her turn at the camera.

An Australian Shepherd hanging out behind the fence near some sheep.

They also have artisans who will tell you about their craft.

A weaver (she wasn't part of the 1836 area) who was making strips of carpet for the Conner House.

A potter making a flower vase.

And the buildings looked properly rough-hewn and weathered. This is the storage alcove for the general store.

Conner Prairie was a lot of fun, especially chatting with the historical folks, who stayed in character and had so much information about what "their life" was like in their day. Thumbs up.

The Trip - Indiana Part I

We came into Indiana Thursday afternoon, and at a rest area near the border, this was the first sign I saw inside the door.

It seemed to say, "Welcome to Tornado Alley." I was... impressed.

As we came into our campground in Noblesville, the road curved toward the White River. Along the banks floated the green algae that announces mosquito breeding areas. When the campground manager gave us a choice of their only two available campsites, I picked the one that was farthest away from the water. This is it, up against the corn fields. It wasn't far enough, though, because last night a mosquito got in the motorhome and bit me in the forehead, and now I have a huge knot there for everyone to see.

Yesterday we went into Indianapolis, and one of the places we visited was the Congressional Medal of Honor Memorial. I went there last year when I attended the National Missionary Convention, but I wanted to see it again and give my mom a chance to see it too.

They had some plants near the memorial with purple berries. That color is not a trick of the light. I have no idea what they are. Anyone?

The memorial is arranged by war or overall campaign. On the World War II panel, I found Audie Murphy's name. His heroics were memorialized in the movie, To Hell and Back.

On the Civil War panel, the second or third name (the names are in alphabetical order) said he got his medal from action in France. France? In the American Civil War???

I went over to the computer touch-screen panel (which is really hard to read in bright daylight) and typed in his last name (Aheam). As I recall, it said he was a Navy paymaster on a ship that battled a Confederate ship off the coast of France (who knew?), and he kept his cool under heavy fire.

After the Medal of Honor Memorial, we found the USS Indianapolis Memorial, which is only a year old. It tells the story of the final voyage of this ship. After delivering top-secret cargo (the first atomic bomb) to Tinian, she left port and was later torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine just two weeks before the end of World War II. What the crew endured in the Pacific was horrific. The events of the sinking and its aftermath have been chronicled in Doug Stanton's In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of its Survivors. Excellent book. I recommend it.

There are places in Indiana, here and there, where autumn is beginning to show itself. Most of the time, I haven't been able to get a picture. But down along the canal near the USS Indianapolis Memorial, these trees were nice enough to pose for me.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Phone Books

When we were still in Cisco, my mom couldn't find her phone book for Abilene, so my sister brought over her spare. It's a good-sized book, thick but with a smaller page size than I'm used to in Southern California. The phone book for Cisco is so small, I wouldn't have known what it was if I hadn't seen my mom using it.

I have phone books at my house, two sets of two books: one white pages and one yellow pages. But I almost never use them. Most of the individuals I need to look up are in our church directory, so I use that. If I need a business phone number, I type the name in Google, and one of the search results will have it. If I need the address, I'll click on their website to get it.

I'm not sure when the change happened. I used to use the phone books all the time. But now, if I need to call my doctor, it's easier to Google his name than decide which book to pull out and then flip through the pages and look down the columns until I find it. And it's been easier for a long time.

The Information Age has brought changes that are huge, like a computer (or more) in nearly every house. But it has also brought changes that are more subtle. More and more, we're going to discover that the hallmarks of our times have become hallmarks of a bygone era. The phone book is just the beginning.

Rattlesnakes and Llamas

Two news stories about animals doing what they do.

Rattlesnake Trick: reported Wednesday on a man who put his pet rattlesnake in his mouth.

A Portland man nearly died after putting a pet rattlesnake into his mouth to show off for friends.

Matt Wilkenson admitted that he made a poor decision, but he’d been drinking and messing around with friends and apparently lost some common sense.

So when he was showing off his reptile relations with friends, he thought it would be fun to put the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake into his mouth and make them laugh.

The rattlesnake latched onto the back of his throat and sent venom surging into his body.

And within seconds, his tongue began to swell up, fill his mouth and cut off his airway.

Wilkenson was dying and the pressure forced blood out of his nose. Doctors later told him the snake had shot enough venom in his body to kill as many as 15 people.

He was losing his life as he arrived at Oregon Health and Science University but quick-thinking doctors inserted a breathing tube in his throat and injected anti-venom into his body.

Wilkenson was also put into a medical-induced coma for three days, to give his body time to recover.

Miraculously, it all worked and three weeks later, he’s doing well. The hole in his throat is healing properly and doctors said he’s on the path to a full recovery.

Wilkenson no longer owns any poisonous snakes. Apparently he hasn't given up drinking, though, and that looks like the real cause of his problems.

Berserk Llama:

The AP reported yesterday about an innocent woman who was the victim of a rogue llama.

TERREBONNE, Ore. -- Nancy Campbell of Terrebonne expected an uneventful evening jog Monday night with her eight-year-old daughter riding along on her bike.

Instead she ran into a llama suffering from what veterinarians call "berserk llama syndrome."

The llama knocked Campbell down, stomped its feet, spit, and bit her. Her daughter raced home to tell her father what was happening.

Staff from the Humane Society of Redmond arrived and it took five people to pin the 250-pound animal down. Veterinarian Dr. Rachel Eaton says male llamas sometimes go "berserk" around puberty if they aren't gelded. This, often after they have bonded too closely with people.

The owner of the llama says she adopted the animal a month earlier from an animal rescue agency. She gave veterinarians permission to euthanize the animal the day after the attack.

Good thing Nancy had her daughter with her.

Stories like these make you wonder why people don't just stick with cats or dogs for pets.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Trip - Illinois

Our trip is taking us across the middle of Illinois. We left Hannibal this morning, crossing the bridge over the Mississippi River and trading one world for another. In Missouri, the land is rocky, rolling hills, full of caves hidden by lush greenery. The history there tells of slavery and Confederate hearts. But just across the river, Illinois is flat farmland with a few low hills thrown in for variety. And during the Civil War it was solidly for the Union. It's hard to believe such contrast is possible when only a bit of water separates the two states.

According to the travel books we have, there's nothing of note to see along our route across Illinois, outside of Springfield. We drove into town in the motorhome, taking the main road whose lanes were too narrow for comfort and hoping we'd be able to park the whole rig. If it were summer or the weekend, we may not have managed, but because it was a weekday we found plenty of metered parking right in front of the visitor center. We had to feed three parking meters.

This is Abraham Lincoln's house, the one he and his family lived in before he became President. The National Park Service gives free tours by Park Rangers, and ours was excellent.

The Lincolns did a lot of entertaining, since he was a successful attorney and politician, so two of the downstairs rooms were used for receiving guests. This is the room where leaders of the new Republican Party came to see Lincoln right after their party's convention and offered him the presidential nomination.

When Lincoln was out on the campaign trail, he took his own variety of motorhome to travel and sleep in. Not a bad idea. This is a replica.

After Springfield, we drove east and stopped in Champaign at the only RV Park we could find in our directory for the east end of the state. It's almost completely surrounded by corn fields. We got there near sunset.

Our campground boasts a small lake, which looks manmade. The warning sign may not be accurate (it says, "Beware of Alligators"). We didn't ask. We also didn't take Scooter near the water.

But Scooter managed to show his true colors. He's not as ferocious as he wants you to believe. When he's inside the car and he sees a cat or a dog (or a person, cow, goat, horse, deer, or even the ceramic elephant at an RV Park we stayed in last week), he barks up a storm. But let a kitten come up to him, and he hesitates. He even wags his tail. He's a softie, that boy. But you didn't hear it from me.

Tomorrow we should get to Indianapolis.

The Latest from Ramadi

Michael J. Totten, an independent journalist working in Iraq, has an excellent two-part report on the Anbar Awakening, particularly in Ramadi, Iraq (HT: Hugh Hewitt).

Part One is "The Battle of Ramadi." In it, Totten describes the takeover of Ramadi by al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

Al Qaeda was initially welcomed by many Iraqis in Ramadi because they said they were there to fight the Americans. The spirit of resistance against foreign occupiers was strong. But the Iraqis got a lot more in the bargain than simply resistance.

“Market Street [the main street downtown] was completely controlled by Al Qaeda,” Lieutenant Welch said. “They rolled down the streets, pointed guns at people, and said we are in charge. They had crazy requirements for the locals. They weren’t allowed to cut their hair. Girls were banned from going to school. They couldn’t shave or smoke. One guy defiantly lit a cigarette and they shot him four times.”

After Al Qaeda took over Ramadi, the local government was replaced with terrorists who only cared about fighting Americans and violently suppressing Iraqis. Al Qaeda was in charge, but it wouldn’t be accurate to say they were the new government. None of the basic city government services functioned. There was no electricity, no running water, no telephone service, and no garbage collection. Every single local business closed down. The city could not have been any more broken.

That was about the time that everyone, even the optimists in the military, saw Ramadi as lost to AQI.

And then Totten talks about this spring, when the people of Ramadi turned against AQI (emphasis in the original).

Sheikh Jassim’s experience was typical.

“Jassim was pissed off because American artillery fire was landing in his area,” Colonel Holmes said. “But he wasn’t pissed off at us. He was pissed off at Al Qaeda because he knew they always shot first and we were just shooting back.”

“He said he would prevent Al Qaeda from firing mortars from his area if we would help him,” Lieutenant Hightower said. “Al Qaeda said they would mess him up if he got in their way. He called their bluff and they seriously f***ed him up. They launched a massive attack on his area. All hell broke loose. They set houses on fire. They dragged people through the streets behind pickup trucks. A kid from his area went into town and Al Qaeda kidnapped him, tortured him, and delivered his head to the outpost in a box. The dead kid was only sixteen years old. The Iraqis then sent out even nine year old kids to act as neighborhood watchmen. They painted their faces and everything.”

“Sheikh Jassim came to us after that,” Colonel Holmes told me, “and said I need your help.”

“One night,” Lieutenant Markham said, “after several young people were beheaded by Al Qaeda, the mosques in the city went crazy. The imams screamed jihad from the loudspeakers. We went to the roof of the outpost and braced for a major assault. Our interpreter joined us. Hold on, he said. They aren’t screaming jihad against us. They are screaming jihad against the insurgents."

Part Two is called, "Hell is Over."

“As of July 30,” Major Peters said in early August, “we’ve have 81 days in the city with zero attacks since March 31.”

“We’ve had only one attack in our area of operations in the past couple of months,” said Captain Jay McGee at the Blue Diamond base. He was referring to the Jazeera area immediately north of the city and including the suburbs. “And we haven’t had a single car bomb in our area since February.”

Violence has declined so sharply in Ramadi that few journalists bother to visit these days. It’s “boring,” most say, and it’s hard to get a story out there – especially for daily news reporters who need fresh scoops every day.

“You know what I like most about this place?” [Marine Lieutenant Colonel Drew Crane] said.

“What’s that?” I said.

“We don’t need to wear body armor or helmets,” he said.

I was poleaxed. Without even realizing it, I had taken off my body armor and helmet. I took my gear off as casually as I do when I take it off after returning to the safety of the base after patrolling. We were not in the safety of the base and the wire. We were safe because we were in Ramadi.

I saw no violence in Baghdad, but I would never have taken off my body armor and helmet outside the wire. I certainly wouldn’t have done it casually without noticing it. If I had I would have been sternly upbraided for reckless behavior by every Soldier anywhere near me.

But in Ramadi the Marines are seriously considering dropping the helmet and body armor requirements because the low level of danger makes the gear no longer worth it.

How's that for a turnaround? And how come we haven't heard about it in the mainstream media? Or in Congress?

Read both parts. They're long but well worth the time, and they have lots of pictures.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Trip - Hannibal

Mark Twain lived in Hannibal, Missouri, as a boy. He used his memories, along with his imagination, to inspire the writing of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And now the town is devoted to Mark Twain. This is the house he lived in.

They offer a self-guided tour of his boyhood home, Becky Thatcher's home, his father the judge's office, the doctor's home, and a museum that includes Norman Rockwell's illustrations for Tom Sawyer along with other Twain memorabilia. I was a little disappointed by the displays. In Mark Twain's house, they quoted him from letters he wrote after his last, nostalgic visit to Hannibal. But there weren't any signs telling which room had been his or his brother's, and which one was the living room, or any other details that might have made the tour more interesting. The other buildings had even less in the way of identifying information. You just looked into rooms from behind glass and hoped your picture didn't get too much glare from the camera's flash in it. Only the museum gave a lot of information.

There were a couple gift shops, and the one by the Mark Twain House sells this T-shirt. If I were much of a T-shirt wearer, I probably would have bought it.

Getting from the homes and businesses on the tour down to the museum requires a walk down Main Street. The shops there include a pet store that sells homemade doggie treats (I bought a chicken-liver brownie for Scooter), and a coffee shop that says it's "the first coffee shop west of the Mississippi."

Down a few blocks from Main Street is the Mississippi River, and Mark Twain Riverboat rides are available. The river banks are much prettier here in Hannibal than they were in St. Louis, and the water isn't muddy. I can see why young Sam enjoyed the river so much.

Just upstream from the riverboat is a small park, and in it is this stand of birdhouses. The marker at the base of it says, "Purple Martin House." Since the houses aren't purple, my guess is that the martins are purple, but there weren't any birds around the houses.

A mile or two south of town is Lover's Leap, which as far as I can tell has nothing to do with Mark Twain or any of his characters. The marker tells the legend of a pair of star-crossed lovers of warring Indian tribes who together leapt from this promontory so they wouldn't have to be without each other. The Lover's Leap park gives a great view over the town, up and down the Mississippi, and over Illinois farm country.

It was a pleasant afternoon--hot, though--but I don't think I'd need to go back again.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Trip - St. Louis

We spent the day in St. Louis, most of it at the Gateway Arch.

I wandered around, getting out-of-the-ordinary shots. The Arch is made of stainless steel that catches the sunlight, and I had a good time playing with the light.

And I love taking pictures looking up.

When we got to the entrance, my mom was surprised that I wanted us to go to the top. It's high (630 feet) and we're afraid of heights. But, just like at the Space Needle, you can't come that close and not go up.

So we bought tickets for the tram, little five-man pods that work a bit like a ferris wheel's seats, righting themselves as needed to keep the passengers from ending up sideways at the top. While we were waiting in line for our tram to arrive, we chatted with the lady who kept us under control. We told her we were Cardinals fans, and she's a fan too (what a surprise!). But she's disappointed that they dropped out of contention for first place this past week.

I told her about the World Series plaques I saw in a sports bar in Indianapolis, where they had the Red Sox listed as the '67 Series winner, and she was horrified. It was so gratifying to have someone to share my distress with.

At the top, there were slit windows looking east and west, and I took lots of pictures. This one is Busch Stadium, home of the Cardinals, where they'd be playing tonight.

After lunch, we took the riverboat ride. It wasn't as scenic as we had hoped, so I haven't posted any pictures from the ride. But we met a couple of delightful ladies from British Columbia and had a great time talking to them about our respective travels. One of them is planning on taking an around-the-world cruise on the maiden voyage of the Queen Victoria. The cruise lasts four months, though she will only be on it for three months--she's skipping the Panama Canal part of the trip, since she's done that before. I can't imagine!

After the riverboat ride, we drove north to the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge. It used to be the bridge where Route 66 crossed the Mississippi, but it fell out of use after 1965 and was later restored for use by pedestrians and bicycles.

The Chain of Rocks that gives the bridge its name is a series of small rocks that cross the Mississippi in several lines and create a bit of turbulence. The guidebook that recommended the bridge made it sound like there would be waterfalls. I imagined something like Spokane Falls. But the Chain of Rocks only made a long line of burbling. That was OK, though, because I liked the bridge for its own sake.

They have some Route 66 memorabilia on the bridge.

At the peak of the bridge (it rises from the Missouri side for about 2/3 of the length, then levels out for a short distance and drops down to the Illinois side), I stopped and looked upstream. Part of the reason I wanted to come to the bridge was the promised view of the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi Rivers. That's them in the distance. The Missouri comes from the left behind the lighter-green spit of land in the center, and the Mississippi comes from the right behind that clump of bushes just above the right edge of the bridge.

So now I've seen both the beginning and the end of the Missouri River. Just like Lewis and Clark.