Archive for October, 2007

California Firestorm

Monday, October 28, 2007

The scene blazing across the television screen brings back a flood of memories.  This time, the images sparkle in high definition.  It’s been four years since the Paradise Fire belched its way up the hill and over the ridge from Hellhole Canyon invading our home town devouring everything flammable.  We’ll never forget those days.  Now the nation watched as another Southern California October brought dry heat and high Santa Ana winds – and fire.  Out-of-control, raging, ravenous fire.

The staggering enormity of the wild-fires of 2003 taxed a writer’s capacity to find words big enough to capture the sheer magnitude of the destruction.  The fires of 2007 present the same challenge.  Thousands of homes.  Too many fatalities.  Hundreds of injuries, many serious.  Tens, hundreds of thousands of acres scorched.  The interactive Google map summarizes a week of hellish fury, a week that sent a clarion call on firefighting resources from all over the nation.  Personnel, vehicles, equipment, even aircraft (including a retardant chemical dropping DC-10 jumbo jet) all arrived on the scene.  They went to work.  Tirelessly.  Courageously.  Fearlessly.


The picturesque Malibu Presbyterian Church perched on the ridge burst into flame – reduced to ash.  The nation listened in as pastor and people talked through their tears about a theology of church and the theological tension; serving a loving all powerful God while standing on the smoldering ruins of a sanctuary.

A poignant moment came in a telephone conversation with a good friend who four years ago raced barefoot with her husband and children and grandchildren from the oncoming flames in the middle of the night, that frightful Saturday night October 2003 that will forever be etched in her memory.  When Brenda and the family returned a few days later, her home and everything in it was gone.  Once again, October 2007, she was evacuated just like before.  This time however, she remained fearful but hopeful.  From her refuge she spoke via cell phone.  She told me that reliable information was hard to come by – and she still wasn’t sure.  Did she lose yet another house?  Later, we confirmed that her rebuilt home survived the second wildfire.  We are all thankful.

Pam answered when we punched in her cell number.  Yes, she and Allen had been evacuated.  She called it a tail-gate party at Ralph’s.  The whole neighborhood made their way down the grade and off the hill.  Reverse 911, a new phrase, a new strategy that utilizes new technology, went into affect.  With the alert came an exodus of residents escaping the encroaching flames.  The laughter and joking in the parking lot away from the flames, masked the powerful fears lurking just beneath the surface of conversation.  What would they find when they returned?  What did they forget that would spark a lifetime of regrets?  It’s a rare sense of helplessness that’s hard to describe.  All one can do is wait.

I talked to Pam later.  “Ken,” she said, “there are so many stories for you to write.”  She’d been contemplating them all.

John and his brother Nick fought the blaze in their own backyard.  The two, one an attorney, the other a doctor battled side by side to save their homes.  CNN found out and interviewed them on the national feed and aired their home video tape.  You can hear Dr. Nick sigh, “Lord, help us…”  Those of us who know Nick understand that this was a genuine prayer.

Pam is a resourceful lady.  While most all the roads leading to her home along the ridge were blocked by officials enforcing evacuation, she managed to find an un-patrolled back road in.  When she pulled up to the familiar driveway, she exhaled in relief, drew in a long breath and whispered a prayer of praise and thanks.  The house was untouched.  Her animals greeted her.

Then she surveyed the vista beyond the property line, panning two hundred seventy degrees around.  The familiar mountains and ridges in the distance were covered with smoke; here and there she could see the flash of red and orange, flames reaching upward, angry tongues of fire licking at the tinder brush and dry grass toward the sky, whipped about by the hot winds.  She saw that Paradise Mountain was still threatened over there across the valley.  But her home would be alright, at least for now.

So she went inside.  There it was, just as she and Allen left it.  Not knowing why exactly, she took a stick match, struck the side of the box, and lit a candle sitting at the center of her dining room table.  The flame took hold and flickered gently off the wick.  She extinguished the match.  The candle flame then caught Pam’s full attention.  She pulled out a chair, and sat.  Focused on the light.  This flame, so innocent, so radiant, so warm, so compelling, is made of the same stuff as that terrible inferno just down the canyon.  Thoughts swirled around in her mind like the smoke billowing on the mountaintop outside.  She remembered the terrible midnight battle against the insatiable flames just four years before; flames that extinguished the lives of a fifty-one year old mom and a sixteen year old high school beauty just down the road.  She thought about her three daughters now independent and finding their own way in a dangerous and inimical world; minefields aplenty.  She reflected on the wonder of friendship, and the support of caring neighbors and a community of faith that really believed.  She thought about firefighters tired and hungry and fighting still.  The candle’s flame glowed before her and she clasped her hands together alone in the kitchen and she began to pray.  Then tears started down her cheeks, hot tears that mixed fear and love and relief and hope and the weightiness of parenthood while outside one of history’s most destructive blazes followed the wind’s lead.

And peace flowed through her like a river.

* * * * * * *

It’s Monday morning.  You are a leader.  The fires seem to be settling down.  The temperature drops.  The wind slows; and turn from harsh Santa Anas to an ocean breeze.  Firefighters gain the upper hand – “containment” they call it.

And a candle glows.  The work of cleanup and restoration starts now.

And peace like a river attends our way.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2007

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Al Capone ran the city of Chicago during the prohibition era (1920-1933).  Alcohol was banned by the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution.  But Capone capitalized on the unpopular law.  It made him rich and powerful and the target of law enforcement agencies – both local and federal.  But he remained untouchable.

“Easy Eddie” emerged as his top legal counsel.  An attorney who amassed a fortune in St. Louis, Easy Eddie built a second even larger personal fortune as Capone’s first lieutenant in organized crime in the windy city of Chicago.  Capone paid him handsomely.  A key strategy in the game was to keep “the Boss” isolated and insulated from any apparent connection to illegal activities.

Eddie raised a respectable family.  He built a large, magnificent estate outside the city.  He was a disciplinarian; he expected hard work, loyalty and respect.  But he saw too much.  Knew too much.  Capone’s thugs roughed up just one too many of the innocents.  Fast Eddie had enough.  The contradictions got to him.  He had a son.  He wanted more for him than a dressed up life of crime.

So Eddie took what he knew and brought it to the authorities.  He talked.  In a high profile court case, in which Al Capone stood in the dock before a District Attorney who accused him of twenty-three counts of tax evasion, fast Eddie took the stand.  He gave the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) all they needed.  They brought it to the judge and the jury.  The feds won a long sought after conviction.  Capone was sent to Alcatraz.

On November 8, 1939, on a wide Chicago boulevard, just days before Capone’s release, a black sedan pulled up next to Eddie’s Lincoln Zephyr coupe, and with automatic weapons in gangland style, peppered Eddie’s car with lead.  They left the bullet ridden luxury automobile sitting in the afternoon light, radiator steaming, Eddie slumped over the wheel.  Most Chicagoans could identify the perpetrator.  But none could prove the connection.

* * * * * *

Lt. Commander “Butch” O’Hare pulled back on the stick of his powerful F4F Wildcat.  He felt the bottom drop slightly, then catch as he reached the end of the launch ramp.  The nose of his fighter plane tilted upward and he felt the power of the radial engine and the Aircraft Carrier Lexington dropped away behind him.  He joined his squadron for their assigned mission.  He made some quick calculations.


They were about a half-hour out when it became clear.  Butch’s F4F had not been refueled to capacity as it should.  He would not have enough to make it to the target and then return home to the carrier deck.  He signaled his wingman, “Duff” Dufino.  The two turned back.

But on the way home, he saw a collection of familiar silhouettes glittering in the clouds below.  He dropped a few thousand feet.  His training kicked in.  It was clear.  A formation of nine Japanese Mitsubishi G4M twin engine heavy bombers – “Bettys” the guys called them – headed straight for the Lexington and its escorts.  The American vessels were sitting ducks.  Butch called on all his training.  He signaled Duff.  They went to work.

With precision and focus and skill, Butch and his wingman Duff dove toward the enemy squadron.  Duff’s guns jammed.  Butch O’Hare would be on his own. 

Here’s the commendation from President Franklin D. Roosevelt as he presented Edward Henry “Butch” O’Hare with the Medal of Honor.

“Having lost the assistance of his teammates, Lt. O’Hare interposed his fighter between his ship and an advancing enemy formation of nine attacking twin-engine heavy bombers. Without hesitation, alone and unaided, he repeatedly attacked this enemy formation, at close range in the face of intense combined machine gun and cannon fire. Despite this concentrated opposition, Lt. O’Hare, by his gallant and courageous action, his extremely skillful marksmanship in making the most of every shot of his limited amount of ammunition, shot down five enemy bombers and severely damaged a sixth before they reached the bomb release point. As a result of his gallant action–one of the most daring, if not the most daring, single action in the history of combat aviation–he undoubtedly saved his carrier from serious damage.”

In fact, the three remaining bombers, so terrified by the effective attack (from a single American pilot) turned and went home.

* * * * *

Pastor Chico Goff shared these two stories in a biblical Sunday morning message on the subject of integrity.  “How do these two stories relate to one another?” Chico asked rhetorically.  

“Easy Eddie,” Capone’s attorney, was Edward Joseph O’Hare, Chico said.  His son was Edward Henry O’Hare.  “Butch” O’Hare.  Both Edward O’Hare.  Father and son.

In 1939, Butch’s father was shot in cold blood in the streets of Chicago – gangland style – presumably the price he paid for telling the truth.  In 1943, just four years later, Butch O’Hare single-handedly saved an aircraft carrier, her crew and escorts from sure destruction.

Chico raised the question – would the young Ace have been an Ace at all without a father who chose integrity over ill-gotten wealth and power?

It’s Monday morning.  You are a leader.  Our choices matter.  Our kids (and grandkids) are watching. 

Integrity matters.

Now you know how Chicago’s busiest airport got its name.  He’s a Chicago hero.  A Chicago legend.

O’Hare International Airport.  

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2007

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October 15, 2007

A photo of my Mom appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1943.  She would have been sweet sixteen at the time.  The section with the full page picture was published in living color.  I suppose it would have been new technology during the War.  A cherished copy is tucked away in an old album.  The colors are faded now; but real.

Mom sits in a classroom looking up at a uniformed GI.  It’s a close-up.  Behind her on a black board are chalked mathematical formulas, complicated but clear.  The soldier holds a balsawood model of a winged fighter plane and looks as though he’s explaining some complicated principle of aerodynamics or airborne engagement with the enemy.  She smiles with delight.  In each hand she holds a knitting needle.  She listens intently working the stitches without the need to look down.  On her head, she wears a cap with a Red Cross.  Her white uniform identifies her as a volunteer.  She’s young, pretty and symbolizes a community’s commitment to the war effort.  Behind her, Old Glory.  She’s a daughter of the Windy City, Chicago.  And she’s the daughter of a nation at War – with victory in her sights.


She was the kind of young citizen Ken Burns highlights in his seven episode fifteen hour retrospective on World War II aired on PBS.  America may never repeat the national commitment to the war effort that those four years demanded.  Franklin D. Roosevelt led the nation out of a depression.  And then, he led the nation through the inevitable involvement in a world war that was triggered by the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Mom was in high school.

She knew the dark turmoil of the depression years.  Her mom and dad barely kept the rent paid and food on the table during those hard days when employment was scarce and the weather harsh.  What she experienced during that cruel era she rarely talks about. 

This photo is a treasure.  You don’t see the pain of a complicated childhood.  You see instead the optimism and hope that lit the smile and signaled what would become a lifetime of service and care. 

It was a sailor who captured her heart. 

Ken Burns has created another masterpiece in The War.  Using original photographs and sixteen millimeter newsreel footage, letters and interviews, he traced the history from beginning to end on both sides of the globe.  The perspective he chose was from the small towns in America who sent their men to war.  He focused on the universal war effort that turned factories into twenty-four hour a day munitions machines.  Ships and tanks and cannon and rifles and sleek fighter planes and high-altitude bombers and countless uniforms and boots became the products that flowed off the assembly-lines until both the European and Pacific theaters were thick with the weapons of war.  It’s an amazing story.

Mom and dad found each other during those days.  They started their life in the post-war era that gave us Ike and Leave It to Beaver.

So now we’ve been together all these years.  Back then, we predicted what life might be like after the year Two Thousand.  We imagined that everyone would fly in their personal airplanes and that the world would be wired to nuclear power plants and we pictured a landscape that looked something like the animated utopia the Jetsons called home.  We didn’t even think of a thing called the Internet.  But the year two thousand has come and gone and it doesn’t look much like we imagined it would.

We still drive internal combustion automobiles and talk on telephones and watch television.

Mom is about to begin her ninth decade.  In so many ways, she is still the same woman she was in that photograph.  Her smile still draws people in.  Her warmth brings healing and hope.  Her laughter livens up the room.  Conversation is her life.

Everyone wants time with her.  The children.  The spouses.  The grandchildren.  The great-grandchildren.  They want to tell her their stories.  They want to hear her advice.  They want to tap into her faith.

All fifty-two of us will celebrate, along with a host of her favorite friends.  We’ll celebrate the memories. 

But mostly, we’ll wonder where the years went. 

* * * * * * *

It’s Monday morning.  You are a leader.  The years have come and gone and some things remain.

The most important things.  Like family and faith and optimism and hope – a smile from underneath a Red Cross, knitting needles in hand, listening to the words of a starry-eyed visionary paint a picture of victory and conquest with the formulas in place and the red-white-and-blue signaling the identity of a Grand Old Flag that declares liberty and gives assent to the pursuit of happiness.

It’s all there.  This Monday morning.

Thanks, Mom.


Copyright Kenneth E Kemp October 2007

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October 8, 2007

The National League Wild Card game this week put the Rockies against the Padres in Denver.  A single game would keep the winner in the running for the championship.  A shot at the 2007 World Series.  The hometown crowd packed Coors Field.  San Diego fans huddled around high definition screens.  True believers would hang on every pitch – for thirteen innings.

The lead went back and forth.  Some would call it the greatest game ever.  There was plenty of scoring.  Close calls.  Errors.  Brilliant base running.  Terrific throws.  It was baseball as it was meant to be.  Neither side was disappointed in the performance or the effort of their team.  When it came to the ninth inning, and the score was tied at six runs apiece, both sides settled in for the battle to win the coveted Wild Card spot in the National League play-offs.  No one knew how late they would be required to stay up on a Wednesday night to witness the illusive finish live. 

The thirteenth inning would end with the Rockies defeating the Padres.  It was final play neither side would ever forget.

The tie lasted until that inning – the thirteenth.  The hour was late.  The Padres broke the spell, scoring two runs in the top of the inning to take the lead.  The hopeful Rockies took to the batter’s box, tension high in the stands at Coors Field.  Bang.  Bang.  Two doubles off pitcher Trevor Hoffman.  Kaz Matsui and Troy Tulowitzki.  The two now occupy second and third base.  Bam!  Matt Holliday clobbers a triple, driving both hitters home and tying up the score one more time.  The winning run now stands nervously on third base.

The scoreboard lights deliver the message – Rockies 8, Padres 8.

The Padres feel the heat.  Pitcher Hoffman intentionally walks Todd Heldon hoping for the force play.  Jamey Carroll steps up to the plate.  The bat cracks against the ball, and Carroll pops a low line drive to shallow right field.  It drops.  The crowd roars.  Holliday jumps off third and sprints toward home.  Victory in his sights.  Fans screaming.  Padres’ fielder Brian Giles on a full run snatches the ball from the grass, up to into his hand and rifles a throw to catcher Michael Barrett crouched and guarding the plate.  Everyone on their feet.  All eyes fixed on the little white ball speeding toward home.  It looks good.  Holliday starts the head-first slide.  He bangs his chin on the hard surface and splits the skin.  He reaches for the plate with his open hand.  The ball arrives just in time.  A precision throw from right field.  The players collide.  The catcher goes for the tag.  But as he makes contact, the ball dribbles out of his mitt.  Umpire Tim McClelland hesitates.  Focused, intense human concentration, processing sequence of the spit second action.  A hush falls over the stadium.  Then, in a moment of clear resolve, his arms snap outward spanning the scene and he shouts a raspy “Safe!” 

The crowd explodes.

The Rockies dug-out empties.   Players jump, fingers point skyward, team-mates pile on Holliday.  The announcer shrieks, “The Rockies win it!”


But then, after considerable celebration, the broadcasters in the booth hesitate.  They take a look at the video replay.   Just a minute folks.  Let’s take a look.  Did Holliday touch the plate?

That became the burning question.  The reviews came too late.  But close scrutiny made it clear.  Super slow motion analysis brought it to light.  As Holliday dove head-first toward the plate, the catcher’s shin-guard stood firm covering the base knocking Holliday’s arm away from the baseline.  He missed the crucial touch.  As Holliday’s body slid by, no part of him got anywhere near home-plate.  But from the umpire’s vantage point, he couldn’t see it.  He made the call.

Do you win the game because you touch the plate or because the Umpire thinks you did?

Maybe someday Baseball will do what Football has done.  In football, the referee can, in a close call, refer to an instant video replay from the sidelines to be sure he gets it right.  Not so Baseball.  So until then, the human element prevails.  Baseball relies on the immediate, close range judgment of the Umpire.  Good or bad.

So think about it.  Who won?  The Rockies.  Bad call?  Yes.  Will fans and players and sponsors live with the contradiction?  Yes.  No choice.  It’s the way the game is played.

And that’s why we love Baseball. 

It’s so much like life.

* * * * * *

It’s Monday morning.  You are a leader.  You may be the one required to make the call.  You may be the victim of the call.  You may be the beneficiary of the call.

Some calls are good.  Some are bad.

Either way, leaders step up.  Leaders stand in the box at the ready.  Leaders run hard.  Leaders throw with conviction.  Leaders take the hit.

Leaders get up the next day and suit up to play one more time.

Copyright October 8, 2007 Kenneth E. Kemp

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Into the Wild

October 1, 2007 – Inaugural Issue 

When Christopher Johnson McCandless graduated with honors from Emory University with a degree in English literature, he knew too much.  The focus on language and the great characters and the classic stories gave him a depth of insight and understanding and perception that left his peers bewildered.  Most of his classmates shared a common view of what their education meant.  It was the launch pad for a “career.” 

But McCandless would have nothing of the predictable notion of career.  For most, an Emory degree meant privilege; open doors for higher paying entry level employment with the assurance of rapid upward mobility.  Many continued their academic quest, entering graduate programs in business, medicine, law or education among others.  The assurance of upscale living seemed to energize theirdreams; but not the dreams of Christopher Johnson McCandless.

Maybe it was the conflict between his mother and father that informed his contrarian views on career.  Walt and Billie McCandless pursued dueling careers that left them weary, combative and rich.  Chris and his sister Carine observed from close range the regular post-workday sniping.  Every night, the quibbling progressed to clever squabbling and after a few drinks escalated to feuding and finally full-on marital warfare.  Young Chris would lose himself in his books.  He surmised that his embattled house under siege from within was the reflection of a social order gone amuck.  The demands of the workplace combined with the pressure to perform at an acceptable level in a neighborhood of over-achievers caught in a consumer culture devouring ever greater volumes of meaningless stuff, expecting an ever expanding display of conspicuous affluence; well, it all made for a private hell.  From the curbside it all looked so pleasant and appealing.  But by bedtime night after night, the alcohol drenched arguing in the room down the hall drove the young boy into a world of epic story; a world alive with imagery and passions and ideals.  Tolstoy and Jack London and Thoreau.  A world beckoning him from somewhere out there beyond the hedges and junipers and magnolias.

He didn’t view the manicured neighborhoods of suburban Atlanta as the Promised Land his fellow graduates longed for.  He rather considered them as a sad kind of dressed up prison house.  The mindless conformity, the sacrifice of joy, the relentless pressure to prove one’s self worthy, the obsession with efficiency and high-performance had no appeal to the new college graduate.

So when Chris turned down the new car as a graduation gift and then gave the remaining twenty-four thousand dollars in his education account to charity, he set out on a new odyssey.  He didn’t expect approval or encouragement or permission from anyone.  He just left.  Into the wild.

It all ended sadly.  But the Emory graduate who loved words left a trail of notes and letters and journals.  And in them, he documented a rich journey that in a not so random way led him to encounters with people, places and most significant – a natural world of wonder.

Sean Penn read the book (Into the Wildby Jon Krakauer) and then made the film.  There is an undeniable spiritual dimension in the chronicle; with lots of Christian imagery.  McCandless traveled light – a backpack stuffed with a few good books and some simple tools to live off the land.

It’s Monday morning.  You are a leader.  The true story of Christopher McCandless, aka “Alexander Supertramp,” will draw you in.  It may be the memory of that time in your life when the world was new and mysterious and wonderful and you followed those impulses in a full on discovery mode.  You were not content with someone else’s version of reality.  You had to find out for yourself.  Remember?  But it will also remind you that there is something more out there than simply getting things done.  Much more.

McCandless meets a retired military man, Ron Franz (played with panache by an aging Hal Holbrook) and spends a few weeks in his sparse desert house.  Franz lost his wife and daughter nearly forty years before in a random car crash.  Alone, somewhere near California’s Salton Sea, Franz moved on from his military career and lost himself in his leather art.  He shows McCandless how it’s done.  The young college man takes to the craft and makes a leather belt.  From one end to the other, in words and symbols, the belt tells the story of his odyssey that began in Atlanta and took him out beyond Mississippi up into the Rocky Mountain high country down the Colorado River into Mexico and up to California.  (Later, he would trek the forests of the Pacific Northwest and on to Alaska.)

 Into the Wild

The friendship sparks something in the older Ron that died a long time ago.  Through young Alexander’s eyes, Franz begins to rediscover the world he’s left behind.  Up on a mountaintop, where weeks before the young sojourner set up camp, there is a spectacular view of the valley below and the Sea in the distance and he wants to share with the old man.  Ron declines to climb the steep rocks to the top.  “Too old,” he explains.  And he sits back down on the back of his banged up four-wheeler.

“Too old?” Chris calls back from high above.  “Too old?” he says it again.  “How long you gunna sit on your ass and miss it?”

“Sit on my ass?” the old man yells back.  What’s with the blatant disrespect? 

But the challenge is on.  Ron gets up, mutters something unintelligible and up the mountain he climbs.

At the top, the aging former soldier, breathless but triumphant, turns and takes in the view.  The two laugh uproariously and high five the achievement and they sit down on a rock and they talk. 

About friendship.  About dreams.  About God.

Copyright October 1, 2007 Kenneth E. Kemp

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