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The Case of the Missing Biscuit

We have all at sometime misplaced or lost our car keys.  The memory of the event lives on.  We never forget the frantic search–looking under cushions, turning out pockets, thrashing around in junk drawers, blaming one’s spouse, children, or even the family pet that cannot defend himself.  Oh, and don’t forget that all of this was done while under pressure to keep an appointment.

Losing one’s car keys is an inconvenience, or even an unexpected expense, but what if one lost something really important?

I was prompted to ponder that question just the other day while listening to the evening news.  It seems that during the Clinton administration one of the president’s aides lost, or should we say “misplaced,” a note card on which was written a code necessary for the launching of nuclear weapons.  The card, known as the “biscuit,” was needed to open the “football.”  The “football” is the little black suitcase that contains the codes. 

Wherever the president goes, he is accompanied by an aide carrying the “football.”  He is never far from the President.  As some have pointed out, he sticks to the President like glue.  Think of those pictures of Elvis on tour accompanied by his stepbrother carrying a little black suitcase filled with pills?

The revelation regarding the lost nuclear codes is found in a new memoir by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Hugh Shelton.  The General alleges that an unidentified aide to President Clinton, one who carried the “football,” misplaced the “biscuit” for several months. The aide was able to keep his little secret until it came time to issue a new “biscuit” with new codes.  Only then did he confess, no doubt with head down and eyes sheepishly staring at the floor: 

“I’m sorry Mr. President, but it seems that I have temporarily lost the codes.  If we have to fight a war, we will have to do it the old-fashioned way.”

There is no reason to suspect that President Clinton was ever aware of the missing codes.  It seems that the aide was more successful than he should have been at carrying out his “little” deception.  However, in this age of international terrorism, one cannot help but ask the question:  “What if. . .”?  What if the “biscuit” had fallen into the wrong hands? 

Those in the know about nuclear warfare assure us that there was never any danger of some “unauthorized” person having been able to launch any nuclear weapons.  The protocol for launching a nuclear attack is, as they say, “a multi-layered system” in which the “biscuit” is but one part.  Put simply, it could not have happened.

Such assurances remind me of the message that precedes the satirical cult-classic movie from the Cold War era, “Dr. Strangelove.”  In a rolling script that precedes the movie, viewers are told that what they are about to see could not happen.  I’m not sure that I can always trust what the government tells me, but a friend who flew one of those nuclear-armed bombers that circled the Soviet Union 24/7 during the height of the Cold War assures me that in the “real world,” the Dr. Strangelove scenario could not happen.

Still, as one newsman commented when General Shelton’s account of “the mystery of the missing codes” appeared, “It’s not quite the same thing as losing your car keys.”  What if President Clinton were called upon to respond to a nuclear attack on the United States?

The whole affair got me thinking about a one-act play, The Case of the Missing Biscuit, by the unknown playwright, P.R. Waibel:

SCENE ONE

A melody of soft romantic music is heard as the curtain rises.

 Before us is the Oval Office.  Only two figures can be seen.  One is the President.  The other is a young, female intern named, Miss Flora Williams. 

INTERN, speaking in a soft voice with romantic overtones:  Mr. President.  Slight pause.   It’s such an honor to be here with the President of the United Sates.

PRESIDENT:  Yes, it’s the Oval OfficeIt makes a visitor feel humble, even grateful, if you know what I mean.

INTERN, looking to one side as if a little embarrassed:  I do.

The President takes a few steps to the side of the room and opens a liquor cabinet.  He holds up a bottle and a glass.  Care for something to drink, Miss Williams?

INTERN:  Do you think I should?  I mean . . . well . . . what I mean is . . . it kind of goes to my head.  I lose control.  She stares at the President with her head cocked to one side and a blank look on her face.

PRESIDENT:  Where is it that you go to school, Miss Williams?

INTERN:  Ole Miss.  It’s in Mississippi.

PRESIDENT:  Yes.  I know.  A party school, or so I’ve heard?

Intern is acting very ditzy; eyes open wide, giggling a lot, increasingly animated.

INTERN:  Ooh yes.  Lots of athletes.  They’re very muscular—She puts emphasis on “muscular”—especially the football players.  Brief pause.  Intern  moves in close to the President.  I’ll bet you’re athletic, Mr. President.  She smiles while looking up at his face.

PRESIDENT, smiling with a twinkle in his eye:  I have been known to, as they say, play around a bit.  Slight pause.  May I call you Flora?  It’s a lovely name—means “flower”.

INTERN, moving in closer so that their bodies almost touch:  You can call me “Flower,” if you like.  Smiling, she moves in closer and begins to run her hand down the lapel of his sport coat.  Or, you can call me what the boys at the frat house call me.

PRESIDENT:  And what is that?

INTERN, leaning forward, their bodies touching, she whispers in his ear:  Willing!

As they begin to embrace, there is a loud banging on the door.  The door burst open.  In rushes a soldier in a full-dress general’s uniform.  Lots of medal s on his chest and tough looking.  Behind him is a young man is a suit, rather nerdy looking.  He has a small black suitcase in his hand.

PRESIDENT, surprised at the intrusion, he pushes the young lady aside:  General Lockjaw!  I must object!

GENERAL:  I’m sorry, Mr. President, but it’s a national emergency!

PRESIDENT:  Do you mean?

GENERAL:  Yes, Mr. President.

PRESIDENT:  Now?

GENERAL:   Yes, Mr. President.

PRESIDENT:  Right now? 

GENERAL:  Yes, Mr. President.

PRESIDENT:  Moving about, obviously thinking.  Stops and looks at the general.  The Klingons?

GENERAL:  No, Mr. President.  Slight pause.  Then with anger and irritation in his voice.  The Communists!

PRESIDENT:  Communists?  Didn’t we win that one?

GENERAL, moving about, agitated and, ranting:  You never win with the Commies, Mr. President.  They’re sneaky!  They’re like a flu virus.  You think you have licked them, but they keep coming back.  They’re everywhere.  Why . . . Why—pointing at the intern who is standing off to the side, trying to be inconspicuous—she might be one!

INTERN, shocked at what the General has said:  Really General!  Daddy is a Republican!

PRESIDENT:  Yes, General Lockjaw, Miss Williams’ reputation—pause—is beyond reproach.

GENERAL, anxiously looking at his watch:  Mr. President.  We have less than an hour, perhaps only minutes.  We must launch a counterattack.

PRRESIDENT, both irritated and anxious:  Very well then.  He addresses the nerdy looking man in the suit, carrying the little black suitcase.  Mr. Kent, hand me the “biscuit.”

KENT, hesitant and stuttering:  Mr. President . . . ah . . . there’s . . . ah . . . there is something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about. 

GENERAL: Not now, you idiot.  This is a national emergency.  Civilization itself hangs in the balance.

PRESIDENT:  Well spoken, General.

GENERAL:  Thank you Mr. President.  He turns to face Kent, fists closed tightly at his sides, anger in his face.  Hand the President  the “biscuit.”

KENT, steps back, fear in his face and voice:  I don’t have it.

PRESIDENT, GENERAL, INTERN, in unison:  What?!

KENT, addressing the President:  I lost it.  Months ago.  I . . . I . . . been meaning to talk to you about it.   

All present stand staring at one another silently.  As the lights dim and the curtain begins to come down, Vira Lynn can be heard singing,

We’ll meet again,

Don’t know when, don’t know where.

But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.*

The muffled sound of distant explosions can be heard as Ms. Lynn continues,

Keep smiling through,

Just like you always do,

Till the blue skies chase those dark clouds, far away.*

Of course, such a scenario could never happen in the real world, or could it?

*Words and music to “We’ll Meet Again” by Ross Parker and Hughie Charles.

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Remembering Gene Autry

Where were you when (fill in the blank) happened?

Depending on your age, you might be asked if you remember where you were when you first heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President Kennedy, Neil Armstrong’s moon walk, Elvis Presley’s death, or the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers known as “9/11.”  Except for the first, which preceded my birth by 3 years and 15 days, I can remember all the other events, and many more that are memorable, at least for me.

One event I recall from time to time, and especially around this time each year, occurred on October 2, 1998. 

I was on my way home from work, cruising along I-20 between Jackson and Clinton, Mississippi.  As was normal for me, the car radio was tuned to the NPR’s “All Things Considered.”  During a news break, I learned that Gene Autry had died. 

I’m not sure how to describe my initial reaction.  Just three months earlier, Roy Rogers passed away.  It seemed like my world was coming unraveled.  It was as if something, or someone, had broken through what I thought were impregnable barriers and threatened my cherished childhood memories.

I do not remember being very happy as a little boy.  Apart from my younger brother, I did not have any playmates.  There weren’t any of today’s common distractions such as video games, television, soccer clubs, daycare, etc., that conveniently insulate children from the harsh reality that surrounds them.  I coped by creating for myself a make-believe world of my own imagination, one in which I was a hero and compatriot of heroic men drawn from the silver screen.

Like many boys during the early 1950’s, I was into cowboys.  I loved the world of sagebrush, stage coaches, cattle drives, bank robbers, rustlers, wild Indians, and of course cowboys like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassiday, Lash LaRue, and many others.  For me, the greatest of them all was Gene Autry.  In my world of make believe, Gene Autry and I rode together.  It was he and I against the bad guys, who if not for us, would get away with stealing the ranch from some beautiful and vulnerable young lady.

Gene and Champion

I can be seen wearing a pair of Gene Autry suspenders in my official school portrait from the first grade.  I even owned a pair of Gene Autry cowboy boots.  They didn’t fit very well, as I recall.  They were just too wide for my feet that were like the rest of me, rather skinny.   I owned a cap pistol, although not an official Gene Autry cap pistol.  I never owned a cap pistol and holster set.  Like a bicycle, BB gun, or new pair of ice skates, they were luxuries beyond my parents’ means to provide.

It was the Gene Autry in the movies, the singing cowboy of the silver screen, who was my hero.  He was the man I wanted to be like, complete with a horse like Champion.  Gene Autry always played himself in the movies.  He was not just an actor playing a fictional hero, as with John Wayne and others.  The Gene Autry that I saw on the movie screen was the same as the one who sang on the old 78 RPM records I listened to, and whose picture was on the penny-arcade picture cards I bought at an amusement park near where we lived.  He was simply Gene Autry, my hero.

Gene Autry was acutely aware of the fact that he served as a role model for us young buckaroos.  In 1948, when I was just four years old, he published his “Cowboy Code of Conduct.”  The Cowboy Code enshrined the best of America’s values—loyalty to God, family, fellow citizens, and the nation; truth, honesty, and respect; and tolerance, both ethnic and religious.  Other cowboy heroes issued their versions of the Cowboy Code, each in its own way promoting the values upon which America was founded.  Gene Autry and his pals (Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, and the Lone Ranger) were the kind of heroes and role models so badly needed by our children today. 

Gene Autry’s Cowboy Code

A cowboy never takes unfair advantage—even of an enemy.

A cowboy never betrays a trust.  He never goes back on his word.

A cowboy always tells the truth.

A cowboy is kind and gentle to small children, old folks, and animals.

A cowboy is free from racial and religious intolerances.

A cowboy is always helpful when someone is in trouble.

A cowboy is always a good worker.

A cowboy respects womanhood, his parents, and his nation’s laws.

A cowboy is clean about his person in thought, word, and deed.

A cowboy is a Patriot.

My family lived on the shore of Saginaw Bay in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.  Mine was one of only two families with children who lived there year-round during the 1940’s and 1950’s.  The other homes along the beach were occupied only during the summer months.   I remember a large boulder beside our house that served as my horse.  Our yard was large and full of trees.  It was perfect for a little kid with a vivid imagination.

Later as an adult, I noticed when Gene Autry was mentioned in the news.  Often it was in connection with his success as a business man or as owner of the Major League Baseball team, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.  Many recall his successes as an entrepreneur, but in my memory he remains simply “America’s favorite cowboy.”

The first thing I thought of upon hearing of Gene Autry’s death was how from time to time over the years I thought of writing to him.  I wanted to write a long letter telling him how he was my hero, when I was a kid.  I wanted to tell him that he would always be my hero.  But, I never did.  I wished then that I had, and I still do.

When I think of Gene Autry’s passing and what he meant to me and so many others of my generation, I am reminded of these lines from the song, “Hoppy’s Gone,” by Johnny Slate, Larry Henley, and Red Lane: 

Rock-a-bye yesterday

Winds blow and cradles will fall

And down comes the curtain

And all of a lifetime of mem’ries live on

Hoppy’s gone, boys, Hoppy’s gone.

And so, I will take time out from the normal day’s routine on October 2, to listen to some Gene Autry recordings, remember the days he and I rode together in the Wild West of my imagination, and maybe, just maybe, watch one or two Gene Autry movies.

The images of Gene Autry are copyrighted by the Autry Qualified Trust and used here by permission.

A good place to start learning more about Gene Autry is the Official Gene Autry web site:  http://www.autry.com/home.php

Check out youtube.com to listen to Gene Autry songs or view movie clips.

 

“Brother, do you have the Spirit?”

My wife and I had the good fortune to spend a few days in London during the summer of 1984. Due to the intercession of a friend, we were able to stay just across from the famous “Speaker’s Corner” of Hyde Park.

The residence we stayed in reminded me of the old BBC series “Upstairs, Downstairs.” Beginning in the basement, where the servants once cooked, ironed and performed the other duties that made life comfortable for those living upstairs, the residence consisted of one room stacked on top of another, each connected to the one above, or below, by a dumb waiter and a stairway.

It was a center of social life during the interwar years. The gentleman who owned it during the 1980’s was a descendent of the original owners. He had become a Christian and decided to use the residence as a place where visiting missionaries could stay while passing through London. For a small donation, we were able to stay in an area that would otherwise have been prohibitively expensive.

My wife and I were not missionaries, but we were spending a couple of months at L’Abri, a Christian study center in Greatham, a small village in the historic county of Sussex. It was there that we made the connection that led to our being able to enjoy the historical ambience of staying across from Hyde Park.

One afternoon while “having tea” in the kitchen, I met a gentleman I will refer to as “George.” Since George and I were sitting alone at the table, and there being no one else to talk with, we struck up an informal “How are you?” conversation.

Before I had a chance to say more than my name, George began to explain that he had just returned from a mission trip to Africa. He was not exactly a missionary. Actually, he was a preacher of the charismatic variety from the western United States.

In order for you to fully appreciate what I am about to relate of our conversation, it is important that you, dear reader, understand what I mean by “a preacher of the charismatic variety.” So, just in case you are not well acquainted with the concept, a charismatic Christian is one who believes in and practices what are called “the gifts of the Spirit.”

There are seven spiritual gifts mentioned in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 12:1-14). Christians disagree as to whether or not they exist today. For many in the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement, they not only exist today but are practiced. Many of such persuasion believe that practicing one or more of the gifts, particularly the gift of “speaking in tongues,” is evidence of one’s salvation.

George informed me that he not only had the gifts, but that the Holy Spirit used him in a mighty way in Africa.

“As I was preaching in he power of the Holy Spirit,” he said, “I looked to one side, and I saw people with their hands in the air praising Jesus. I looked behind me, and I saw people slain in the Spirit.”

By “slain in the Spirit,” I assumed he meant people were falling on the ground, their bodies jerking.

“Wow!” I said, “That’s amazing!”

The more he related of his experience, the more excited and animated he became. All I could do was sit there with a blank stare on my face, wondering what he would say next.

George testified to having seen people healed of all sorts of illnesses and even raised from the dead. Whenever he paused for a moment to catch his breath, I would say: “Wow! That’s amazing.”

After relating his experiences in Africa, George began to tell how he got the gift of the Holy Spirit.

“I was driving down a country highway in my pickup truck,” he said, “when the Holy Spirit just grabbed hold of me. Why, I got so excited, I almost wrecked my truck. I just couldn’t stop praising the Lord.”

“Wow!” I said.

Then George leaned over the table and looked me straight in the eye. As some would say, he invaded my space. His face was only about twelve inches from mine. I felt as if he were looking right through me.

“Bro. Waibel,” he said in a low voice, pausing for dramatic effect, “Do you have the baptism of the Holy Spirit?”

I didn’t know what to say. I just sat there starring back at him as if hypnotized. Then I heard myself say the only thing I could think of.

“Wow! That’s amazing!”

Something about Food

I was recently asked to contribute a short essay on some aspect of food. The instructions were simple enough. It should describe some personal experience that would interest the casual reader and, if possible, include a recipe. Simple enough, won’t you think?

My first thought was to write about my first encounter with Southern cuisine. As one who was born in Michigan, and who spent his early childhood on the shore of Saginaw Bay, I was completely unprepared for the shock of collared greens with fatback, fried grits, okra, catfish, crawfish (or “crawdads”), cornbread cooked in a skillet, and sweet potato pie.

Now, I have learned to appreciate, even enjoy, some of those “delicacies.” Cooked grits that have been allowed to chill into a loaf, then sliced and fried on a greased griddle until crispy on the outside, served at breakfast with melted butter and syrup, are truly delicious. Sweet potato pie is only an inferior version of the pumpkin pie we Yankees insist tastes better.

Everyone knows, or should know, that cornbread is best when baked Yankee style, that is fluffy and sweet, not gritty. And what are those things called “cracklins” Southerners put in their cornbread? As for okra, well, I don’t even want to go there. Most shocking for this kid from up North was the idea of eating catfish and crawfish.

Like most boys, I had my adventures fishing. From time to time I caught either a catfish or what we called a “bull fish,” a small, slimy, scaleless, dark brown version of the much larger catfish. Of course, I knew to throw it back. “People do not eat those things!” insisted my mother. “They’re filthy!” And so I never ate one, and I never will.

Eating catfish was enough to make me shake my head, but crawfish? A dear friend of mine in Mississippi told me that to really enjoy crawdads, you have to suck the heads. That’s right, suck the heads. I do not believe that he was just saying that to make fun of a gullible Yankee. I have been given that advice more than once by Mississippi friends.

I have long since given up eating any kind of fish or other seafood. But, even after many years in the South, I still long for some of my mother’s Yankee cooking. Her cooking was a blend of Polish, German, and just plain working-class food. There were plenty of potatoes, squash (i.e., Hubbard squash, not the small yellow squash popular in the South), asparagus, and rhubarb. As for meats, we ate a lot of beef, pork, and chicken. Roast duck, or pheasant when hunting season was on, were extra special treats.

What we like in the way of food is a cultural thing. At least that was the case before the interstate highways and the franchisement of America turned all of us into “generic” Americans with no taste for real food. We pay a price for progress. Except for us senior citizens, regional delicacies are now limited to gourmet cooks.

Well, that was my first thought. But then I decided that no one would be interested in my experience with Southern cooking. Besides, Michelin is not likely to ask me to rate restaurants in Mississippi, or anywhere else for that matter.

What about a recipe?

While recently going through a historical museum in Omaha, Nebraska, I came upon this recipe for fire water: 1 gallon raw alcohol, 3 gallons water, and 1 pound chewing tobacco.

Bon appétit!

Starry Night

Starry Night

What do you see when you look up at the night sky? I am assuming, of course, that you are somewhere that the night sky is not obscured by the artificial lights of civilization.
I was prompted to think about that question the other evening while doing some background reading on the Scientific Revolution. It was during the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries that our understanding of the universe we inhabit and who we are fundamentally changed. It was, to borrow a term coined by Thomas S. Kuhn, a “paradigm shift” in our fundamental assumptions–a revolution!
During the 13th century, the High Middle Ages in Europe, the scholastic theologians managed to reconcile classical humanism and its emphasis on reason with the Bible and its emphasis on revelation. To put it another way, the appearance of conflict between reason and faith or between Athens and Jerusalem was removed. That was the great achievement of Thomas Aquinas to whom the pope gave the task of reconciling Aristotle and the Bible. The result was the so-called Medieval Synthesis.
Everything made sense. God created a universe that was not only orderly, but also meaningful and purposeful. Everything, including and especially human beings, has a reason for being. Everything has its place in the great chain of being (scala naurae) decreed by God. Human beings knew where they fit in the great chain of being. Did the Bible not teach that they were below God but above the angels? Each person in society knew his place, whether peasant, merchant, nobleman or priest. God created peasants to work the fields, merchants to engage in trade, noblemen to govern and the clergy to pray. There was one set of laws that ruled the terrestrial realm and another that ordered the heavens.
When the believer looked up at the night sky before the Scientific Revolution, he beheld something that was at once both awe inspiring and mysterious. “The heavens declare the glory of God” wrote the psalmist, “and the firmament showeth his handiwork.” Viewing the stars on a clear night, he might feel as if he was seeing the lights of God’s Heavenly City. Here below the individual believer was but a pilgrim wondering through the City of Man corrupted by sin, but he need only look up and see in the perfect order of the heavenly realm a glimpse of the pilgrim’s destiny.
The change began with the Polish astronomer and mathematician Nicholaus Copernicus. He felt that the accepted geocentric model of the universe would make more sense mathematically if the sun and earth switched places, that is, if one assumed a heliocentric model. He presented his theory in On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs, first published in 1543, as he lay dying. To us moderns, it may seem like a minor change, a mere tweaking of the model of the universe. But, it was shocking at the time and proved to be revolutionary.
Copernicus was followed by Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and finally Sir Isaac Newton. Each one, and many others, used inductive reasoning and mathematics to uncover the hitherto unknown natural laws that governed all of God’s creation. With each step, these early scientists, or natural philosophers as they were then known, were developing a new methodology for discovering truth and a new model of the universe. Slowly at first, and then finalized with Newton’s universal law of gravitation in 1687, the universe took on the appearance of a clock, a universe of cause and effect natural law. The Scientific Revolution was a revolution in physics. Newton’s model of the universe remained unchallenged until the birth of nuclear physics at the turn of the 20th century.
The early scientists were Christians, or at least thinking from within a worldview shaped by Judeo-Christianity. They believed that by discovering the natural laws of the universe, laws by which God ordered his creation, they were merely thinking God’s thoughts after him. At least that is how the Englishman, Francis Bacon, defended the new “scientific” view. A defense was necessary. Since the Medieval Synthesis harmonized Aristotle and the Bible, to challenge Aristotle was to contradict the Bible. And that was a serious matter. Recant or suffer torture and martyrdom was the choice given to Galileo.
The intellectuals of the 18th century Enlightenment were more daring. They were fascinated with the new methodology and the new model of the universe. They were more propagandists than philosophers. They wanted to communicate the new way of thinking and the new model of a cause and effect, natural law universe to the literate population. By what they called “the application of reason,” they wanted to liberate the mind from the shackles of lingering religious mysticism.
The so-called philosophes saw Christianity (and religious thought in general) as an obstacle to clear thinking. Hence they launched a direct assault on what the French philosophe, Voltaire, called “that infamous thing.” They were not atheists. It was reasonable to assume that if there was a universe machine, there must be a machine maker. Hence they became what we call Deists. They accepted God as creator, architect, clock maker, designer, or whatever term one used to describe God, but they did not accept the God of Christianity, the God-Redeemer who entered into his creation as the God-man, Jesus Christ. For them, reality was a cause and effect, natural law universe that did not allow for supernatural causes.
Of course we are all grateful for the great thinkers of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment. In one of the earliest science fiction stories, New Atlantis, first published in 1627, Francis Bacon foresaw how the discovery of the natural laws of the universe would lead to a new world where applied science would produce marvelous machines. Many since have seen in Bacon’s mythical “Bensalem” a prophetic vision of the Industrial Revolution. Much was gained with the acceptance of Newton’s clockwork universe, but something rich was also lost.
I remember looking through a homemade telescope at the Moon, when I was about eight or nine years old. I was amazed at what I saw. Could there be life on the Moon? What was it really like? Many low budget science fiction movies were made during the 1950’s. The real possibility of space travel was one of the things, along with the prospect of a nuclear holocaust that came out of World War II. Hollywood capitalized on the speculation about what we might find, when we actually visited the Moon, and perhaps even Mars. The silver screen was filled with fascinating movies about earthlings visiting the Moon and Mars, as well as the earth being visited by creatures from outer space.
Until the first lunar landing, scientists did not know what the surface of the Moon was like. They knew it was not made of cheese, but would a spacecraft attempting to land on its surface disappear in a cloud of lunar dust? What mysteries were left vanished with the Apollo XI mission. On when July 20, 1969, the lunar module Eagle landed on the Moon in an area referred to as the Sea of Tranquility. Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin descended from the lunar module to become the first earthlings to walk on the Moon. Ever since, we look at the Moon and see only a rest area on an interplanetary highway to Mars and beyond.
In his popular book, A History of Knowledge: Past, Present, and Future, Charles Van Doren speaks of the impact of the Scientific Revolution on our understanding of the universe and who we are as residents: “Now, when we look up at the stars on a clear, dark night, we see a splendid vision, but it is not the vision that mankind once saw there. . . . [instead] we inhabit a world that is resolutely material, and therefore in many respects a desert of the spirits.”

Garrison Keillor, Muslims and Illegal Immigrants: Random Thoughts on August 10, 2010

Today is August 11, 2010, the last day of my summer vacation. Tomorrow I begin my thirty-fifth year of teaching. The actual teaching part will not begin until the eighteenth. The days in between will be spent, as usual, with what are called “faculty workshops” consisting of coffee, OJ, and Danish pastries. The bulk of the time is spent listening, or at least appearing to do so, to things of little interest to all but a few.
What I will miss about the end of summer vacation is my usual morning ritual of beginning the day by listening to Garrison Keillor’s “The Writer’s Almanac” online. If you have not listened to this program, either online or on MPR Radio at noon, then you really must give it a go. For five minutes the bard of Lake Wobegon talks about the birthday of writers and poets, or the anniversary of some great novel, poem, or historical event. These little gems of literary trivia are followed by Keillor reading a poem.

This morning, for example, I learned that today is the birthday of Marilyn vos Savant. Born in 1946, she is two years younger than I. She has written several books and writes a column for Parade magazine. What caught my attention however is the fact that she has the highest IQ on record through 1989, the last year that the Guinnes Book of World Records included that achievement among its lists.

Being a slow learning that learned to read while enjoying the fifth grade for the second time, I admire people like Ms vos Savant. Perhaps that is why Dr. Gregory House and Dr. Temperance Brennan are among my favorite television personalities. Marilyn vos Savant once said, “If your head tells you one thing and your heart tells you another, before you do anything, you should first decide whether you have a better head or a better heart.” A good preacher could add a few Bible verses and turn that bit of wisdom into a really great sermon.

Today is also the beginning of the month of Ramadan, the most sacred time in the Islamic calendar. Ramadan commemorates the time when Muhammad is supposed to have gone out into the desert, where he was given the first verses of the Qur’an. Muhammad claimed that Allah gave him a new and final revelation. Hence, the Qur’an has greater authority for Muslims than the Bible.

For those of us who do not know what Ramadan is, or are not yet educated in the basic beliefs and teachings of Islam, it is time we spent less time watching football and reading internet blogs (like this one) and spent some time learning about the worldview of an estimated 1.4 billion of the earth’s population. No longer do we live in isolation. While many of us were sleeping or discussing last week’s big sports event over cans of Bud Light and barbecue Buffalo wings, the USA became a multi-cultural society, religiously and otherwise.

Many Americans and Europeans alike are becoming rather hysterical about the growing number of Muslims among us. The fear appears to be due to acts of terrorism by individuals or groups claiming to be defending the honor of the Prophet Mohammad or combating the spread of American popular culture, which even many Americans acknowledge is grossly immoral.

The paranoia is fueled by politicians who find votes and dollars in promoting the message that America is somehow threatened by our historic support of freedom of religion. However, to paint all Muslims as terrorists is simply wrong, not to mention unbecoming of those who profess to be Christians. One day there may be more mosques than Super Wal-Mart’s in America, but if that should happen, who will be to blame, Muslims or Christians?

Some political pundits warn that the real threat to our way of life comes not from the Middle East, but from south of the border. We are told that thousands of illegal immigrants, mostly Hispanic, cross our borders daily, taking jobs that otherwise would be filled by honest Euro-Americans. It has even been suggested that these illegal immigrants are using a secret weapon against us, one not permitted under the generally accepted rules of illegal immigration. They are using the “baby bomb,” sometimes referred to as “baby drop.”

It is claimed, and I suppose in some cases true, that some pregnant women enter the United States illegally in order that their child be born here and thereby entitled to dual citizenship. I think that if I were in their position, I would seriously think of trying that, myself. After all, a child born poor in America has better prospects for the future than a child born poor south of the border.

Illegal immigration and terrorism are both serious issues for our county. I certainly am not qualified to provide the perfect “fix” for either. Perhaps a “guest worker” program like those in place in Germany and other EU nations would be worth considering as a reasonable response to illegal immigration. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves why we have become a target for international terrorists. It might have something to do with a new form of economic imperialism driven by modern international corporations, many of which are based in the United States and Western Europe. I will save that thought for a future blog.

Many Christians feel a special burden to pray for Muslims during the month of Ramadan. Of course we should pray all year for Muslims, as well as all of our fellow human beings who remain in bondage to the Enemy. God is no respecter of persons. There are really only two categories of people—those who have accepted God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and those who remain in bondage to the devil. We Christians are to be known for the love we have for one another, the love we have for those who are yet lost, and the love we show the stranger among us.

If I had not listened to Garrison Keillor this morning, I probably would not have thought of either the Muslims or the illegal immigrants. At least, that is, until a more spiritually alert brother or sister mentioned them. Maybe God meant for me to be reminded in that way today? Can God use Garrison Keillor to speak to his children? Is God alive and well in Lake Wobegon? More important, is He alive in my life and your life?

Remembering Hiroshima

I cannot help but take a break from the boredom of everyday life to think one of the most significant events in modern history. On August 6, 1945, President Harry S. Truman announced to the nation that the USA had dropped a single atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The decision to drop “the bomb” was Truman’s. He took responsibility for making the decision, and throughout the rest of his life, never indicated that he ever doubted that he made the right decision.

Historians and others have ever since debated whether dropping the atomic bomb was necessary in order to end the war in the Pacific, or at least avoid the immense loss of American lives that surely would have resulted from an invasion of the Japanese home islands. Some argue that it was meant to be a warning to our wartime ally, the Soviet Union.

Some ask why Hiroshima? After all, the city was of no military significance and the residence of numerous refugees from the war. The usual explanation given is that the military wanted a kind of “laboratory experiment.” And then there is the question of why the bombing of Hiroshima was followed only three days later by the dropping of a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki.

The debate will continue without end. What is not debatable is the horror produced by the bomb, so graphically portrayed by John Hersey’s little book, Hiroshima. Based upon eyewitness accounts, Hersey’s story was first published in the August, 1946 issue of The New Yorker. It filled up the entire issue. No other articles. No advertisements. The issue sold out in just four hours. The story was quickly put in print as a book, and mailed free to all members of The-Book-of-the-Month Club. It has never been out of print since, even in this present era of declining literacy in America.

Less known to Americans is Japanese artist, Keiji Makazawa’s Barefoot Gen (Hadashi no Gen), first published in serial form between 1973 and 1974, and then as an animated film in 1976. It is based on Makazawa’s experience as a survivor of Hiroshima. In cartoon art similar to Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986-1991), Nagazawa provides graphic images of the horrors described in John Hersey’s Hiroshima. Barefoot Gen does for Hiroshima what Elie Wiesel’s Night (1960) does for the Holocaust.

Every year since August 6, 2010, the Japanese mark the exact time of day when the bomb fell on Hiroshima with a public observance. This year, for the first time in 65 years, the USA and its wartime allies (the United Kingdom and France) sent representatives. Why did it take so long for the USA, in particular, to join with the Japanese in remembering the tragedy? Did it take America becoming the victim of international terrorism for Americans to feel the suffering of those who experienced nuclear war first hand? Or, was it because we are the only nation to have actually used nuclear weapons, and even in recent years, threatened to use them again?

The atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ranks as one of the greatest war crimes of the twentieth century. Questions remain and ever will. If the war in Europe had continued, would we have used the atom bomb against Germany? Or, was there perhaps a bit of racism involved in the decision to use it against Japan? What is there to fear about international terrorism for those of us who grew up in the shade of the mushroom cloud?
My generation believed that someday the Cold War would become a nuclear holocaust. It was never if, but when? Perhaps one thing positive resulted from the nightmare of Hiroshima. Because the leaders of the super powers during the Cold War knew, really knew, what nuclear weapons could do, they never used them. Even during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when nuclear war came within perhaps an hour of becoming reality, the example of Hiroshima kept the demon at bay.