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Archive for October, 2009

Monday, October 26, 2009

I inherited my fascination with flight from my father who was a high school kid when World War II dominated the scene.  He had dreams of flying back then.  In many ways, it was an air war.  But my dad’s dreams of piloting aircraft were never realized.

We made model airplanes together, and spent hours at the end of runways just watching the airplanes land.  Dad’s sense of wonder rose up whenever a big old airliner approached the landing site.  I can still hear him describe the sensation of take off in the new Boeing 707 on business trips; the power of four jet engines thrusting that big bird into the clouds.  Impossible, he would say, but there it is.  Take a look.  The fact that those heavy steel machines could get off the ground at all was miracle enough for my Dad.  He was a true believer.

So I read and re-read all the entries related to flight in our Compton’s Encyclopedia as a kid just in case I ever ended up in flight school.  I wanted to have head start on my classmates.  The basics of lift and drag and aerodynamics fueled my own dreams.  Ailerons and rudders and instrument panels and flaps and trim tabs.  Retractable gear.  Vector navigation.  I remember pouring over the maps with my rich-kid pal who secured a multi-engine rating just after he got his drivers license.  We would map out our journey, factoring cross winds and fuel consumption.  We’d fly his dad’s Cessna Skymaster all over Southern California.

So when I heard that there would be a movie about Amelia Earhart, I knew I’d be first in line on opening day – just like I did when the Howard Hughes movie was released (The Aviator).

Seeing the movie (starring Hilliary Swank as Amelia Earhart) is better than a trip to the museum.  You get to see these old historic birds fly.  She flew them all.  The single engine speedster.  The heavy seaplane.  The tri-motor.  And finally, the Lockheed Electra 10E.  It is all right by me when the special effects kick in, computer generated graphics and the use of models.  But then, this film, made by a purist, used real airplanes and real flight sequences.  The Lockheed Electra in polished chrome with the radial engines sparkled in the sunlight.  It called up all those memories from Compton’s Encyclopedia, complete with a musical score.

Amelia’s life was complicated.  The focus and drive to break records and inspire are now the stuff of legend.  Her personal life, too.  Was hers a marriage of convenience (to fund the flying) or was it love?  She was just a little girl when the Wright Brothers proved that it could be done.  A child of the heady roaring twenties, she became one of those models of can-do Americanism during the dark depression years when the New Deal set the pace for innovation and hard work.  After conquering the trans-Atlantic barrier, and the trans-continental, too, she set her sights on the impossible: circumnavigating the globe along the Equator.  Twenty-four thousand miles.  It had not been done before.  She would be the first.  And she nearly made it.

Except for the last great challenge.  And there, she would be lost to history.  Crossing the Atlantic was tough enough.  But the Pacific.  Wow.  It would be nearly five thousand miles over water with but two stops.  Howard Island and Hawaii.  A few years before, she made the trip from California to Hawaii: two thousand miles over water.

But the two legs that presented the greatest challenge to this day seem entirely beyond reason.   New Giunea to home in Oakland with those two unimaginable stops.

In May of 1937, she took off in Oakland, California to circle the globe.  Then she crossed the Southern states, dropping down through Florida through the Cuban Islands to South America all the way to Brazil.  There, she soared over the Atlantic to Africa, and across that Continent.  Over the endless sand dunes of Saudi Arabia and on through India to Calcutta.  From there she flew over Southeast Asia over the islands of Malaysia all the way to New Guinea.  From there, she launched that impossible mission, along with her Navigator, Fred Noonan.  (Map.)

And that’s the piece of her story that leaves me breathless.  Howard Island is but four hundred fifty acres of dry land barely above sea level two thousand five hundred miles from Lae, Papua, New Guinea.  It’s roughly half way over the open water to Hawaii.  They built a makeshift runway on the Island just for her.  The Navy vessel Itasca waited there with fuel brought in just for this momentous record-breaking project.  They set up radio communication to assist her in the middle of the vast stretch of open sea.  But make no mistake.  Given the navigational tools available to her at the time; this was mission impossible.

It would be like flying from Cleveland to Bakersfield non-stop with no GPS, no radio navigation, no Omni stations and finding the campus of Bakersfield High.  But think about it – no visual reference points, either.  None.  Twelve hours of wide-open, mind-numbing sea.  Vector navigation.  One tenth of a degree off with trade winds and air currents is all it takes and you’ll never see that little dot on the horizon.  Worse still, you can’t see it on the horizon.  It’s flat.  You must be directly over it to catch it in your sights.

So she prepared for launch.  And that’s when things went wrong.  One after the other.  Noonan the navigator slipped into his habit of drinking too much.  Radios failed.  Morse code, too.  Late in the flight, the veteran pilot seemed disoriented in the few transmissions anyone could pick up.  Radios went silent.  Primitive locators failed to pinpoint her position.  Howard Island never picked up a definitive signal.  An intense search followed.  No sign of Amelia, Fred or the Electra has been found to this day.  She was barely forty years old.

The conspiracy theories still live.  Like Elvis and John Lennon and JFK and Anastasia, post-death (in her case, [post-disappearance) sightings of Amelia abound.  But like so many aviation stories, the ending is Shakespearian level tragedy.

So what do we take from Amelia on this Monday?

The common bromide, that at least she died at the stick in the captain’s left seat she loved, doesn’t do much for me.  But her passion for flight.  Her courage as a woman.  Her instincts.  Her ambitions.  This is what we remember.

Pursuing your dreams is risky business.  The dangers are real.  Mistakes get made.  The sky beckons still.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009

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Monday, October 19, 2009

When you come through the tunnel from the West towards the East, and you reach the opening, just to your left is perhaps the most stunning, the most recognizable, the least forgettable sight on Planet Earth.  There was a time when this vantage point was only accessible by trail.  Now it is a scenic outlook.  Generally speaking, only those with plenty of discretionary time and money would see it, until Mr. Ford made the automobile accessible to just about all us Americans.

It really does not matter when it is you finally emerge from the tunnel; morning, afternoon or evening.  Every variable of time of day or season or weather condition has its own distinct charm.  (The exception would be an enveloping, dense fog, which would be a monumental disappointment.)  As the scene opens up at tunnel’s end, there it is: the imposing sheer face of El Capitan on your left.  The waterfall on your right, like a bridal veil flowing over a v-shaped granite trough.  And if the sun catches it just right, you’ll see its very own rainbow glittering the complete spectrum of color against the deep velvet grays of the wet rock glistening behind.  The jagged peaks of the Three Sisters reach for the sky.  The tall pines of the forest in the foreground point to the meadow in the distance, the wide, flat valley floor.  The Merced River meanders toward you with rich grassy open spaces on either side.  The steep granite on either side of the valley looks every bit like a natural cathedral and in the distance the unmistakable granite dome, eerily cut in half, stands like an altar.  Half Dome begs a series of mysterious questions.  Where is the other half?  How did it break away?  But beyond, there is still more.  The broad granite fields stretch across the horizon from left to right, above the tree line, nearly white, reaching out towards infinity.  The fresh open air fills your lungs, you scan the scene and you don’t want to leave.  If an eagle or two or three drift by, wings spread wide, soaring the updraft, your Yosemite experience will be nearly complete.  But this is only the front door.  There is much more waiting if you will but enter.

Study the park and you will learn of the first Americans who called this magnificent valley their home.  You will also meet John Muir and Ansel Adams.  You’ll learn about the battle to preserve this irreplaceable space.  You’ll discover that there is yet another valley, equally spectacular.  But you will never see it this way.  It is under water.  The Hetch Hetchy Dam stands in the way of the river’s flow just to the north.  It is now a reservoir, a filled up gorge with fresh water stretching into the ravines and canyons like a giant basin, covering up the valley floor and half the sheer granite and shortening up the falls up and down the scene.  There was an attempt to build another dam on the Merced River blocking off  this priceless scenic outlook.   It would have made Yosemite Valley a deep man-made lake, just like Hetch Hetchy.   But the plan was voted down.

Ken Burns calls his newest high-definition series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.  I am quite sure there are those who will come up with an American idea that may arguably be better.  But as I watch his stunning sequence of images and listen to the narrative, calling up all the memories of visits to so many of the scenes, I’d be hard pressed to name one.  The first of the wide geography calling out for protection was Yosemite Valley.  And the entire national park system grew out of the commitment of the federal government’s reluctant vote; a distinctly American ideal – to make these parts of the country accessible to all.  En perpetuity.

One of the lasting heroes in the cause is the irrepressible President Teddy Roosevelt.  In 1903, Roosevelt made a train tour from Washington DC to the West, intentionally stopping by the magnificent natural attractions along the way.  Yellowstone.  The Grand Canyon.  And Yosemite.  He read John Muir.  He knew the roots of the son of a hard-line Presbyterian clergyman; Muir’s father a convinced Calvinist.  So Muir had a profound sense of the sacred.  We wrote about the valley and the cliffs and the dancing water and the wildlife and plants and towering trees as though he walked on holy ground.  He approached his subject with the meticulous eye of a scientist collecting data, systematizing like a Presbyterian; but woven into the narrative is a profound sense of mystery.  The President was impressed by the intentional manner of this gentle man and how he had so effectively convinced so many to put preservation before enterprise.  He wanted to meet him.

So one afternoon, the President’s entourage all comfortably housed in the Wawona Lodge, Roosevelt escaped alone into the Mariposa Grove with John Muir.  Teddy did not bother to tell his staff that he had no plans to return that night.  The Presidential dinner went on without their honored guests.  No secret service.  No press corps.  Just two influential men without tents by the campfire underneath the oldest living trees stretching high above into the starry night sky, talking.  Laughing.  Storytelling.  Roosevelt tested Muir’s skill in identifying birdcalls.  Muir faltered.  Roosevelt, an avid ornithologist, chided the naturalist for this deficiency.  Muir retorted with a scolding.  “When, Mr. President,” he addressed the passionate hunter, “will you set aside this infantile need to shoot and kill living things?”  Roosevelt broke into a belly laugh.  Touché!

Out of that conversation and overnight under the stars, with the scent of campfire and redwood filing the crisp night air, came the preservation of the Grove for all time.

When we are cut off from our own history, our present is hollow and our future unsure.

The Great Isaiah Scroll was unveiled in Orange County on Saturday night.  It is in words what Yosemite Valley is in wonder.  The scribes who preserved this text, and then hid the parchment in the caves nearly two thousand years ago did for us what Muir and Roosevelt did under the great Sequoia trees.

In that ancient Hebrew text, preserved on the scroll, Isaiah wrote –

But those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2009

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Monday, October 12, 2009

I suppose it could well be called the most significant archeological find in history.  But then, such judgments betray certain presuppositions about the world.  For those of us who consider the Bible a sacred book with profound implications and eternal consequence, then the discovery (just over sixty years ago) of two thousand year old scrolls containing significant remnants of just about every book we Christians call the “Old Testament,” ranks right up there as a breakthrough for all time.  The treasure sat for two millennia, untouched in the caves of Qumran.

The story of the find itself near the Dead Sea is enough to fill a couple of good books (and it has).  Scholars debate some of the assumptions related to the ruins located nearby.  While the New Testament does not mention the “Essenes,” Josephus (the first century historian) does.  They appear to be a sect of Judaism, like the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  But they were a particularly separatist group, purist, ultra-conservatives, who believed that the mainstream denominations were hopelessly watered down, polluted by the world.   In their attempts to accommodate modern culture, religious leaders who ranked high on the social scale had abandoned the true faith, according to the sect.  The Essenes were vocal in their critique, and built little enclaves designed to cut themselves off from the contaminating influences of pluralism.

One of the most remote of those enclaves they located near the barren Dead Sea.  The harsh climate and intense heat and relentless sun allowed for the kind of isolation that heightened spiritual sensitivities.  They held to strict rules requiring steadfast obedience, and they revered the holy texts.  The members with the most honored skill were scribes.  They believed that the words they put on the parchment had eternal value.  They believed that calamity – a great and terrible cataclysm – was eminent.  They were determined to preserve these precious words and phrases for future generations, and protect them from a ruthless and pagan attack, sure to come.

So, they created a scriptorium in the desert heat.  They spent their days carefully copying the sacred texts.  They prepared parchment and papyrus.  Quills with tips as nibs.  Ink that would last.  They fired clay pots, jars to protect and contain the scrolls.  They dug great spaces in caves as cool, protected storage places.  Their work went unnoticed in the bustling city of Jerusalem just over the mountain.

When the Romans marched into the desert region with their legions slaughtering everyone associated with Judaism in their path, they leveled the little community of Qumran.  The fate of the occupants is unknown, though it can be assumed that those who did not escape into the desert were cut down in 70CE as the army passed through.  The troops kept only the rich cisterns as a fresh water supply.  The massive army focused on Masada, further south, where some of the most notable rebels from Jerusalem had taken control of the Roman outpost situated high on a natural and well-protected plateau.  The ten year long resistance of this brave band of insurgents would become the stuff of Israeli legend.

Remarkably, the Romans, who were determined to pillage whatever wealth they could find and destroy whatever vestiges of religious life left behind, never stumbled across those caves.  And then, even more remarkably, for the full twenty centuries that followed, as treasure-hunters of every sort from every age combed through the ancient desert hills and cliffs like the California Gold Rush, the treasures of the scrolls in clay jars tucked away in the caves built the by the Essenes were never found.

Until 1947 when a Bedouin shepherd boy tossed a stone through an opening in the ground and heard the shatter of a clay pot echo inside.  The discovery coincided with the United Nations vote that made Israel an independent nation state.

That was over sixty years ago.  That small find on the desert led to more than two hundred other scrolls.  The sheer volume of ancient scroll material is staggering.  At first, the scrolls were managed by a hand-full of hardened, unscrupulous dealers in ancient artifacts.  Soon, credible archeologists and university researches realized the enormous treasure that had been unearthed.  The best dating technologies were employed to certify the age of the scrolls.  Scholars agreed.  The scrolls were made between 150 BCE and 50 CE, putting them smack dab at the time of Jesus and the tumultuous first century in and around Jerusalem.

The story of the Dead Sea Scrolls is filled with drama and intrigue.  Perhaps for us, the greatest significance is they way in which it confirms the preservation and accuracy of the text of the Bible for thousands of years.

Dr. George Giacumakis, with more than a little help from his friends, will be unveiling a state-of-the-art facsimile, the fourth of its kind world-wide, painstakingly crafted in London by the world’s foremost technicians and scholars, the twenty-three foot long Great Isaiah Scroll.  Thanks to the high-quality images of photographs taken shortly after this treasure was removed from its container over fifty years ago, the scroll looks just as it did as the scholars got their first look.  The genuine papyrus, carefully stitched just as the artisans sewed them together two thousand years ago, is clear and readable.  It contains the entire book of Isaiah.

The event will be held this Saturday night at the Great Park Neighborhood in Irvine, near the site of the proposed Museum of Biblical and Sacred Writings.

Come join us.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009

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Sunday, October 4, 2009

We have many things in common, you and me.   Among them, I presume, is the habit of reading several books at the same time.  While I may be off by a title or two, I think the current count is about six.  That is, I’m reading something like six books at the moment.

It happens mainly because as much as I am enjoying a particular book, someone comes along with yet another must read, and I can’t help it.  I’ll start the next one before I complete the first.  And then it happens again, and so on.  And here I am, surrounded by great books, partially read.  The bookmarks and dog-eared page folds betray my series of incompletes.

Sound familiar?

Which is, I suppose, one more evidence that Neil Postman was right after all.  He wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985, the year after the infamous George Orwell’s dark prediction was scheduled to come true.  Just after the Second World War, the futurist envisioned that we would all be living under the thumb of an oppressive, controlling, all encompassing government.  He gave the phrase “big brother” a whole new meaning.  But Postman postulated then that Orwell missed it.  Huxley got it right.  In Brave New World, the other classic on social/cultural/political trends, written more than a decade before Orwell, Huxley imagined a world in which pleasure would trump pain; like Pinocchio, we would become so comfortable in a world of excess and accessibility to entertainment, that our indulgences would overtake us, and render us incapacitated.

I picked up Postman’s book over a year ago.  I know because I wrote “Blowing in the Wind” in July 2008.  Recently, I looked at the bookmark and marginal notes which ended somewhere in the middle of the book, realized how much I had enjoyed the first half, and set out to read it all the way to the end.  And when I was through, I re-read the introduction written by his son, twenty years after his father wrote it.  In the mean time, it has become a standard in college and university classrooms, translated into scores of languages and read all over the world.  His son’s tribute to his father’s work is as good as the book itself.

Postman is primarily an educator.  His passion is the classics.  He believes in the cultivation of the disciplines of logic, rhetoric, reason, argumentation and nuance.  None of these can be contained in a sound byte.  They require sustained concentration, careful and thoughtful development of ideas, access to vocabulary, grammatical acuity, sequential reasoning.  In a world afflicted by attention deficit disorder, civility is the first thing to go.

Every time I turned the page, I found another quote I wanted to share with you and then discuss.  Here’s a sample –

“Embedded in the surrealistic frame of a television news show is a theory of anti-communication, featuring a type of discourse that abandons logic, reason, sequence and the rules of contradiction.  In aesthetics, I believe the name given to this theory is Dadaism; in philosophy, nihilism; in psychiatry, schizophrenia.  In the parlance of the theater, it is known as vaudeville.”

Over a year ago, when I wrote Part I, we were still a couple of months away from the current economic crisis.  We had not yet elected our new President.  The stock market had yet to lose half its value.  No one had heard of Bernie Madoff.  Look at it one way, and everything has changed.  Look at it another, and nothing has changed, really.

The wisdom of the ages is still available.  Our technologies have advanced.  The means by which we access information, each other, the markets, our professions has changed dramatically.  But the content remains largely the same.  The underlying disciplines that make it all work are still pretty much operative, intact.

Kenneth Starr (yes, you got it right) made a speech last week over at the University.  The most striking element of the presentation was that most of the students populating the large lecture hall were barely toddlers during those infamous impeachment proceedings targeting the sitting President back in the Nineties.  (“Who is Kenneth Starr?” they wondered.)  He is now Dean of the School of Law at Pepperdine University.  At the end of a brilliant speech on Constitutional Law (he has argued thirty-six cases before the Supreme Court), he issued a convincing charge.

By now, he had the crowd in the palm of his hand.  These are bright people.  Top tier.  They understood the caliber of intellect and breadth of experience before them.  Looking directly into the eyes of the students, Starr said, “As I close, I want to leave you with a challenge.  I have a deep concern that relates to your generation.”

Before he laid it on the table, he went on to compliment the emerging generation for their intelligence and passion.  He noted the extraordinary difficulties of entering into the marketplace at such a time as this.  He expressed optimism that these resourceful people will rise to the occasion and make the world a better place.  But, he repeated, I have a concern.

To make your case, to advance your cause, Starr continued, you must pay more attention to your communication skills.  “I may be mistaken, but I find your generation lacking in this area.”  Work on your writing.  Stand up and make speeches.  Take courses in both.  Sharpen your verbal skills.  Read widely.  Tighten up your language.  Imagine yourself standing before a judge in open court, and stating your case with precision, brevity and passion.  Eliminate the slang.  Replace colloquialisms with a well-chosen metaphor.  Join the debate team.  Engage in meaningful, civil dialogue.

It was all us old guys, including faculty, could do to keep from giving him a standing ovation.

Afterward, the students lined up and down the aisle.  They all wanted to meet this unlikely man with gray hair and gray suit who told them the truth.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009

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