I Take The Con by Chuck Thurston

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Every now and then, Captain Kirk orders one of his starship Enterprise crew to “take the con!” as he beams elsewhere to handle other business. It’s usually Spock, but if Spock joins him on his mission, the con passes down to Sulu or Checkov, or…who knows? In a recent movie, so many of the high level regulars were elsewhere, that the duty might have passed down to a surprised ship’s steward, as he delivered coffee to the bridge.

Just what is the “con” and what does one do with it? The expression originated on early battleships and cruisers, and dates as far back as 1840 sailing warships. These ships were built with “conning towers” – a raised platform on a ship, often armored, and usually located as high on the ship as practical, to give the conning team good visibility of the entirety of their own ship, and of ocean conditions and other vessels. The officer could “con” the vessel, i.e., command or “conduct” the operations of a ship during battle by passing orders down to the helm. The Star Trek crew assumed a lot of Naval terminology as they sailed through the stars.

I was always obsessed with airplanes. As a young boy in WWII, I collected books and pictures of the warbirds of that era. I wanted to be a pilot. One of my idols was the lead character in a movie serial, “Don Winslow of the Coast Guard.” Commander Winslow piloted a seaplane on the lookout for spies, saboteurs and other enemy agents that might be threatening America’s Pacific coast.

Some years later, I had the con for a very short time.

I never did get to pilot training, but I did get to fly – and I had the best seat in the house. I joined the Coast Guard, went to Aviation Electronic School and flew as radioman on the principle search and rescue aircraft of the day – the Grumman Albatross amphibian, military designation UF1G. The radioman’s seat was on the flight deck on a slightly raised platform directly behind the co-pilot – one looked over his shoulder, as a matter of fact.

grumman-albatross-in-flight-copy

On one SAR flight, the co-pilot had to answer a call from nature and went aft to the plane’s small head (toilet, to civilians) – smaller than a phone booth, and located in the very rear of the aircraft. As he left, the pilot turned to me and said, “Like to sit up here, Radio?” Did I! I hurried up and strapped myself in before he belayed (rescinded, to civilians) the order. After a minute or so, he spoke again, “How would you like to feel the plane?”

To this day, that short query remains among the most exciting offers I have ever received. I can’t describe the feeling as I took the yoke and gently moved it up and down just a bit, while watching the artificial horizon gauge on the instrument panel. I had the con!

I’d like to say that I spotted something in the ocean below, turned and banked, and roared over the object of our search – a distressed soul waving frantically from a life raft. Of course that isn’t true. Soon enough, the co-pilot finished his business, returned to claim his seat and I went back to mine. My four or five minutes at the con were over.

 

Chuck Thurston is a retired IBMer living in Kannapolis, NC. He is married to Heidi Wibroe Thurston and both are published authors. In another life, he flew in US Coast Guard search and rescue aircraft as a radio/radarman. Chuck has published two books of essays and remembrances – Senior Scribbles Unearthed, and Senior Scribbles Second Dose. He is currently working on a full length mystery thriller, The Coroner Takes A Ride.

 

The Sleep Of Reason by Chuck Thurston

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pantheon of the gods

Many of us believe things to be true that have been proved not – e.g., President Obama is Muslim or Kenyan-born. Many of us do not believe in things that have been demonstrated to be true – climate change is one of the most pervasive non-beliefs.

These positions are part of our personal belief systems. If we disagree with the president’s policies, believing that he has strong ties to a particular religion or country allows us to rationalize behaviors of his we see as suspicious. It confirms our fear, and we tell our acquaintances, “See! I told you so!”

If we don’t believe in climate change, then the dire predictions of what the long term consequences are likely to be won’t worry us.

In either case, our beliefs are driven by fear. Franklin Roosevelt took the office of the presidency during the depths of the depression – with turmoil in Europe and the Far East. He quickly realized that many public fears were irrational or unfounded and kept the nation from moving toward solutions. He was probably familiar with Mark Twain’s famous quote: “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened!”

FDR early on told people “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!”

I recently discovered the science fiction of Alice Mary Norton, who wrote under the pen name of Andre Norton. Female sci fi writers were rarer than hen’s teeth and had very little cred amongst fantasy and sci fi readers in the 50’s and 60’s. I won’t go into a long critique of her work – which I am enjoying – but a particular passage in one of her works stuck with me. Here’s the scene:

A group of space travelers from earth land on a strange planet – almost paradisiac in its beauty, climate and inhabitants – a gentle, handsome Polynesian-type race with extraordinary ESP skills. They can, for instance, communicate with dolphins. In the course of events, the earthmen are following a native girl, guiding them through some very old, dark tunnels toward an old structure that may be frequented by an ancient evil that frightens the natives. At one point the girl says that these tunnels are inhabited by their “old gods” – and they have hundreds – and to disturb them is very dangerous. The girl is terrified and is ready to abandon the expedition.

One of the earthmen attempts to calm her fears. He says, “But they are not our gods! There is no power where there is no belief!” Another adds, “No being without belief!” The girl eventually concludes that she must be safe if she is in the company of those who simply do not believe – and therefore evaporate – the old deity’s which so frighten her. The troop continues on.

So Norton’s characters are saying that if you don’t believe in these whatevers, they cease to exist. Is it this easy? Over the course of millennia, humans have taken up, worshipped, and eventually discarded – thousands of gods. Most of us don’t believe that Thor or Jupiter have any power over us any more. We aren’t moved to offer up prayers to Venus or Aphrodite in exchange for some favor. Is there going to be an eventual discarding of whatever is left?

Should we consider bringing back a few specialists to handle modern complexities – or does boiling it down to one streamline the process and make it more efficient for the digital age?

Chuck Thurston’s “Senior Scribbles” are available on Amazon. He is currently working on a longer work, but the muse of mystery thrillers hasn’t helped him much. He is about ready to dump her and try cheap wine.

The Root of all Believable

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money sack

The Root of all Believable

“I don’t care too much for money…” John Lennon sang, but that’s easy for a member of the Beatles – who was rolling in it – to say. “Money can’t buy me love,” he adds, but that’s not entirely true, and just adds insult to injury for us of modest means. Money can buy you all kinds of companionship if you’re not very picky, although my wife has pointed out that companions are like wine: money will allow you to pick good ones over the cheap types you used to hang out with.

As it turns out, even if you are not looking for love outside your significant other, money might be needed to stay in the game. When my doctor wrote my first prescription for performance enhancing pills some years ago, he said, “I bet you never thought you’d be paying for sex, did you?” He paused, and then thoughtfully, “Of course we always have, you know…flowers, dinner, drinks, theater…”

Mae West hit the nail on the head: “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor – and rich is better!”

We don’t play the lottery regularly, but now and then as our supermarket purchases are being checked out, I glance at the customer service desk and see it’s manned. I check my wallet, find a single or two and buy a ticket. At home, along with an evening glass of a lower-priced wine, we play the popular game of what we’d do with a multi-million dollar prize. After we have factored out allowances for kids, grandkids, other close relatives and favorite charities we examine our own pipedreams. New car maybe…better wine, for sure…move to a big house in a gated community or restore our 30+ year old house and stay in a neighborhood we like? Pretty tame stuff, really. Maybe it’s just our lack of imagination. I’m sure we have friends who could suggest several ideas – probably even offer to help us realize them. I’d pick those pals carefully, though.

Some years ago I hired a contractor for some work and enjoyed his company well enough to have a beer or two with him when the workday was done. When he found out I was a writer, he suggested that I might be interested in his story.

“I made a million dollars and lost it,” he said.

I told him I didn’t think his story was that unique – that lots of people have made fortunes and lost them.

“I’ve done it three times,” he said.

I happened to be acquainted with him during one of his financial troughs, but not long after, he divested himself of his property and holdings, and was probably back to seven figures after those deals. He headed for Florida. I wished him well, but if his karmic sine wave holds true, he is probably cutting bait on some fishing wharf in the Keys by now.

 

Chuck and Heidi Thurston live in Kannapolis, NC. You can find their books on Amazon and help make these their happy years by buying them. The lottery thing hasn’t worked out so far.

Code Yeller by Chuck Thurston

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air pollution

Code Yeller

A few years ago, my wife and I volunteered to man a booth at a health and nutrition fair. Our bunch was pushing the value of fruits and nuts. After we had done our shift and our replacements had taken over, we wandered around to see what other good advice was available.

Not far from our booth was one that dealt with air quality. A young lady was passing out literature and answering questions, so we dropped by to see what we could learn. How are things in our neck of the woods? Not very good, it turns out.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg region, with its million plus population, is just a few miles to our southwest. In this area a million population probably translates into about twenty million vehicles once you total up cars, pickups, motorcycles, trail bikes, ATVs, various watercraft and riding mowers. Our prevailing winds in this latitude are from – wouldn’t you know it – the southwest. In 2011, the EPA ranked Charlotte as the 10th smoggiest city for the second year in a row.

“But, there is a nearby area just as bad!” our young lady chirped. “Rowan County!” In fact, in 2011, Mecklenburg County was ranked number two in health risks from criteria air pollutants and Rowan was ranked a respectable 4th in the state!

Now wait. Rowan County is just to our north. Big parts of it are bucolic fields and woodlands. There are probably as many cows as people. How could this be? Well, the roaring traffic’s boom from I-85 traverses the county on the east side and I-77 does the same on the west. It is a geographic bowl where stuff tends to settle, it is downwind of Charlotte – and there are all those cows.

And we poor citizens of Cabarrus country are right in the middle of this. We never used to pay a lot of attention to the Air Quality Index until Heidi began having problems with asthma. Even after that diagnosis, we didn’t think that we would have to worry until the AQI got into code red. We have since decided we aren’t going to spend a whole lot of time outdoors once it reaches yellow. That is occurring more often these days and a good part of the summer air is…lousy. What to do?

gas-mask

Heidi has been putting a wet washcloth over her nose and mouth to make the journey from house to car and car to supermarket. She keeps it in a plastic bag in her handbag. I told her that it might be handier if I just brought her a gasmask she could use for these short treks.

“They look terrible,” she said.

“We could decorate it – kind of like hockey goalies do their face masks. Might even give you a little air of mystery.”

“It would scare the great grandchildren,” she said. “They’d be fine with a wet washcloth.”

I hadn’t thought of that.

Chuck and Heidi Thurston (cough) live in Kannapolis, North Carolina. Their books can be found on Amazon (hack, hack). They are currently working on new projects when time and oxygen allow. (hack, cough).

 

 

A Sermon For The Mellow by Chuck Thurston

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I took a couple of English courses in college requiring I write poems, and I wrote quite a few. An instructor remarked at the time: “Your poetry is very personal.” This was not a compliment. He explained that my efforts were poems with little meaning to anyone but me. They were sound in structure, but narrow in expression. It represented a view of my personal life and conflicts, but not in a way that illuminated it for anyone else. I was doing little more than writing irate, self-aggrandizing editorials with a rhythm and rhyme scheme.

I was then a young married father, with all of the associated struggles. I had a good job, but knew I would find my level in it sooner or later, and it wouldn’t be all that high. The war in Vietnam was turning into the horror many had feared. The Peace Movement was burgeoning. The skirmishes for civil rights had begun. Smoke was in the air and it wasn’t all gunpowder or tobacco. I was an angry young man. Worse, I bought with unquestioned agreement, into almost every extreme pronouncement that complimented my own resentments. I had become what can easily turn into that most dangerous of humans – The True Believer.

Believers of one stripe or another have been around as long as humankind. That’s a good thing. Belief precedes experiment, which precedes verification, and well – it’s the only way we ever gather the facts on anything. Scientists call it a hypothesis. Copernicus woke up one morning and said to himself, “Gee, I believe the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around!” He was, as it happened, a great mathematician and developed a heliocentric model that made sense. Let me extemporize on that a bit. Copernicus couldn’t prove his belief – but no other mathematical model made sense to him. Those who believed otherwise went to great lengths to construct models that were torturous in their description of how things worked. These models did, however, jibe with the religious dogma of the time. Although Copernicus got away with it, Galileo, born almost a hundred years later, took most of the heat for this hypothesis – almost literally; he was threatened with death at the stake if he didn’t recant. This threat came from – you guessed it – True Believers.

Now there is nothing wrong with true belief on its face. And there is nothing wrong with an enthusiastic and impassioned defense of it. In their time, humans have given unquestioned obeisance to Paleolithic superstitions, Bronze Age myths and legends, Hebrew tribal laws, prophets, shamans and cultists, medieval alchemists, mystics, psychics and self-proclaimed wizards. All of these authorities have vestigial form today, and we have upped the ante with media-fueled baloney by the megaton. You are free to believe any of this you want. Be my guest.

If it were left at that, people could go merrily on their way chasing Bigfoot or hunting down the Appalachian Devil Monkeys. But a lot of True Believers don’t want to leave it at that. True Believers have harassed and taunted women and gays; True Believers have killed, with routine nonchalance, young people who made romantic attachments their families didn’t approve of; True Believers have flown airplanes into skyscrapers; True Believers have concocted bogus evidence to justify inciting wars. Like the old geocentric model makers, True Believers have warped new insights or observable evidence to match their convictions. “If you don’t like the diagnosis,” said the quack surgeon, “we’ll retouch the X-rays!”

I once attended a religious ceremony where a man officiating told me that I was cursed if I did not believe as he believed. I would, he assured me, roast in perpetual torment after I died, unless I adopted his particular beliefs. He did not actually say that he had placed a curse on me, but it wouldn’t be putting too fine a point on it to interpret it that way, if you ask me.

Well, I didn’t believe that for a minute, and would have told him so, but held to manners I had learned at mother’s knee – a lack of which apparently did not trouble him. His position, to be sure, was met with murmurs of approval from a sizeable part of those in attendance – troubling in itself. The rest sat on their hands along with me and accepted their damnation with polite demeanor. He graciously invited anyone troubled by his pronouncements to meet with him after the service, where we would be set straight. I demurred.

The world has become infected by TBs. Countries are torn apart by factions settling scores for perceived slights perpetuated centuries ago. Politicians embrace their way or no way. The Age of Chivalry is dead and the Age of Civility is evaporating. Statesmanship is moribund. Progress is deadlocked because negotiation and collaboration are dirty words.

My cafeteria lunch mates and I used to have heated discussions on the day’s hot topics, and great philosophical issues. There were always a couple of TBs in these groups. I represented a puzzling anomaly to them. I confessed to a profound curiosity about our whereabouts in the hereafter, but no real ideas on whatever might take place or whoever might be going wherever.

“But Thurston, you have to believe in something!” I was told.

Note: TBs often express things this way; to which I say “Why?”

 “It isn’t just a belief,” I told them. “I know for absolute certainty what happens to us when we die!” This always made them hoot. “We will all be recycled,” I said.

Now you can’t argue with that – and they couldn’t. I’m not talking about that spiritual component. I let the TBs work that part out, and keep it to themselves when they do; but – if every atom in our bodies isn’t sentient, then certainly some critical mass of them must be. We’ll find out one way or another in eight billion years or so when the Sun runs out of fuel and that big fusion bomb implodes and gobbles up its planetary children. Think of that. Assuming we ourselves haven’t incinerated everything by then, our urns or caskets will be atomized and the contents will be off on another adventure. I believe, with no evidence to back it up – Jeez, I’m not a TB, after all – that those contents will accrete again, gravity being what it is, and who knows? Not me, not you, not even Stephen Hawking – who has his own views on it, but is smart enough not to advance them as gospel.

I like the way Richard Feynman put it, “I am a universe of atoms, and an atom in the universe.”

Frankly, there is more empirical evidence to support my scenario than there is the fiery pit described by the proselytizer mentioned earlier.

I eventually returned to poetry after I got over the idea that I had to write angry stuff. I couldn’t begin to match up with Sassoon, anyway: “He’s young; he hated war; how should he die/ when cruel old campaigners win safe through?/ But death replied: ‘I choose him.’ So he went,/ And there was silence in the summer night.”

Whooo! No competing with that! I had to set my sights much lower and settled on doggerel. In fact, I discovered that I didn’t have to knock much polish off of my serious stuff to drop down into this stratum. I whacked out a few lines and thought myself pretty good at it! This would be my poetic niche!

The Lightning Bug

 The lightning bug with logic smug,

Lights up the summer skies,

To find a mate and procreate;

Those clever little guys!

 

The logic here is very clear,

To all who empathize.

So, don’t be coy, dear girl and boy;

It pays to advertise!

Now look – my light verse does not mean that I am glib about the woes of the world. I know full well there is suffering and hunger. Humans can rationalize anything, and a lot of TBs have rationalized cruel responses to ideas they can’t make themselves believe. Don’t join that crowd. One amazing feature of our great gift of free will is the ability to hold several opposing views in our brains at one time without going nuts. Hang out with me for a while.

Here is my belief for this day: It is beautiful outside. I believe I will get a good cigar out of my humidor, give myself a healthy pour of something red, sit out on my deck for an hour or so and ponder all of this. You’re welcome to come over and join me. You can pass on the stogie and choose the booze if you want; or maybe light up a cheroot and pass on the vino. You can bag them both and bring your own iced tea. I don’t believe you’ll be cursed any way you go.

Postscript: The air quality code was green, so my wife joined me on the deck. I didn’t get in an hour of private ponder, but she sat upwind of me, had a glass of wine and the company was welcome. Oh, and later that evening, I came across an article by scientists who have lowered the sun’s time to extinction from 8 billion to around 5.8 billion years. We don’t have as much time left as we thought.

Post-Postscript: A Sermon for the Mellow will be in Chuck Thurston’s next Senior Scribble – “The Bathroom Reader: Your Results May Vary.”  He should have it out by the end of this year if the wine and occasional cigar don’t get him first.

 

Ellie and the Hoyas by Chuck Thurston

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The oldest cliché in human relationships is that of the contentious mother-in-law. I luckily escaped that dynamic. I truly loved my wife’s mother, and we had wonderful times together. She lived in Denmark, so getting together wasn’t a matter of a neighborhood visit or a short road trip. Consequently, when she came to see us, it was usually a stay of a couple of months. She was an easy houseguest, and one we thoroughly enjoyed.

She didn’t like the hot southern summers, so her visits were invariably in the spring or fall. During one such stay, I introduced her to “March Madness.” During the mid 1980’s, the Georgetown Hoyas were usually in the NCAA’s championship tournament and for one reason or another, Ellie – who knew nothing of basketball, adopted them as her team. Maybe it was the blue and grey uniforms, which dated back to the civil war and signified the union of north and south – although she didn’t know much about that conflict, either. Ellie’s adoption of the Hoyas ran counter to popular sentiment. The team was routinely – perhaps because of its success and the swagger that goes with it – the one that everyone liked to dislike.

Georgetown’s coach, John Thompson –a giant of a man – captured her admiration. Perhaps his display of passion for the game and for his team appealed to her. He prowled the sideline during games with an ever-present towel over his shoulder.

john thompson

In the spring of 1984, the Hoyas took it all. They polished off the Houston Cougars, and Ellie and I watched every game, usually with a beer or two. I didn’t make many attempts to explain the intricacies of the game. I’m not an expert in any case, and the athleticism and competitiveness of the contests spoke for themselves. When the final whistle sounded on the final game of the tournament, we both felt satisfied, but somehow incomplete – there would not be another round of basketball to look forward to. It would have to wait until the next year and the next March Madness. In those days, it was almost a given that Ellie’s Hoyas would be back – and Ellie would be back to cheer them on.

PS – in 1985, the Hoyas were back, and lost in the final game, a 62-64 nail-biter to Villanova.