Scientists will point out a number of factors influencing the color of the ocean, but in my northern travels one factor outweighed all else, and that was the mood of the sky. Whatever hues shone down upon them, the waters returned these with heightened intensity. Beneath the blue skies we found along the Norwegian coast, the sea was an inky blue bordering at times on indigo. Now as we headed into open ocean, the mood was quickly altered. The skies were sullen gray, as if brooding over the intrusion of the Gulf Stream into these chilly fringes of the Arctic Ocean. The sea responded in a murky gray tone reminiscent of tarnished lead and seemingly just as opaque.

During my total of about 12 days spent sailing in these waters north of Norway and south of Spitsbergen, normally the minimum wind condition I heard reported was gale (32 to 63 mph), which produced respectable ocean swells with whitecaps, causing rolls and pitches of the vessel that made walking on board an unsteady process. Then at frequent intervals lasting several hours to a day at a time, the winds increased to storm levels (64-72 mph). Here, waves regularly broke over the forward deck. They washed the lifeboat dories mounted on the second deck as the ship rolled to extremes which I at first found alarming. And water occasionally splashed into the steering house. Walking became a series of short dashes from handhold to handhold. Traversing the open forward deck had to be timed as well as possible to avoid the breaking waves.

BearILocMapAlone amid these restless waters, some 300 miles north of mainland Norway and 200 miles from its nearest island neighbor, Bear Island hunkers down in its long-standing defiance of the elements. A rocky island of sixty-some square miles, it is rimmed everywhere by sheer coastal cliffs, rising to 100 feet in the lowland parts and to more than 1,000 feet in the hilly parts of the island. The incessant breaking of waves against these cliffs, the frequent noisy rock falls, and the massive piles of rock debris and the spectacular rock chimneys and pinnacles that fringe the coastline, all these bits of evidence make it clear that the island is but a remnant of its former self, and is being diminished perceptibly even in the course of human history. Inland from the coast, this land sports no soaring peaks nor sparkling glaciers; instead, the gray and tawny shades reflect from lake-dotted plains and subdued round hills that were ground low and smooth by the stone-studded sole of the overriding ice sheet. Appropriately enough, the highest peak on the island, at about 1,700 feet, is named Miseryfjellet or The Misery Mountain. Now the ice sheet is gone, but frost continues a relentless attack. Hard sandstones are shattered into mile after mile of bouldery waste, with fragments from the size of one’s head to the size of one’s small auto. Softer rocks are churned by cycles of freeze-and-thaw into huge convex clayey polygons rimmed by rings of cobblestone and gravel. At times, even during the brief clearings of the skies in this region, the island seems to wrap itself in the protective folds of its very own fog bank and cloud cover. But to no avail, for high winds and fog seem to have no trouble coexisting here.

Polygonal patterns, shown in this view, are a common feature where there is intense freezing Fig06-copyand thawing in the upper soil layers and, below depths of a few feet, the soil is permanently frozen. 

Bear Island has a bad reputation as a place to visit. The reason has nothing to do with its name. Bears are not a usual part of the local fauna. Polar bears habitually stay with the pack ice, far to the north during the brief Arctic summer, where their chief prey of seals can best be hunted. The island was named by Willem Barents to commemorate the killing of a bear there in June of 1596. But by the mid-twentieth century, the much more benign ice conditions as well as the increased hunting pressure by man would have made a summer visit by the creatures most unexpected. No, the island’s notoriety stems from its windy weather combined with its lack of protected waters for landing. Landings must be made on small rock ledges or pocket beaches open to the full force of the ocean waves. Heavy weather has stranded travelers ashore here for as much as a month. The frequent presence of the fog bank is an additional nuisance. We were at one point in radio contact with a ship attempting to reach the island; they were in its vicinity and had been making passes at the island for two days without finding it in the fog.

So this Bear Island was our first destination, and the crossing took 36 hours.  Upon our arrival, we anchored in Sørhamna (South Harbor) to wait out the latest bad weather.  This was a partly sheltered cove without any reasonable access to land because of the extremely high and steep cliffs rimming it.  Nevertheless it offered some respite from heavy seas and an opportunity to fish.  As if on cue before even the first nibble, the sun came out, the winds died down, and the storm waves faded to gentle swells.  This calm could be brief, so we upped anchor quickly and chugged some five miles up the west coast to our preselected landing site, where we anchored about a quarter mile offshore.

Scheduled to camp on Bear Island for ten days, we were mindful of its nasty reputation and took provisions for a month for the shore party of four: Bruce, Tore, Frank, and me.  Getting all this ashore was too much for our little fiberglass motorboat to handle, so one of the large, heavy lifeboat dories was lowered and put into service.  Four or five men on deck handed the packages down to four men on the dory, timing their moves with the rise and fall of the sea swells.  I was on the dory, and working at my right side was Leiv.  Losing balance at one point, I clutched the gunwale in front of me to steady myself.  Almost immediately I was whammed by what seemed to be a baseball bat, slamming into my midriff and across the insides of both elbows.  The blow broke my grasp on the gunwale and sent me crashing on my rear end.  In what must have been fractions of a second, two realizations came upon me:  First, that the bat was in fact Leiv’s left arm, swinging straight and rigid.  And second, that even as I was still bouncing, the dory and the Godønes crashed together with a loud creaking and scraping.  Leiv had seen my eight fingers draped over the point of imminent contact, and had saved them by his usual alertness and instant reaction.

We drew ashore at the base of a vertical 100-foot cliff where a tiny beach, 6 feet wide and some 30 feet long, was situated at the mouth of a ravine.  The ravine afforded a steep route but one which we could clamber up on all fours, dragging our supplies with us, to the level ground up top.  Many hands assisted, and within an hour the job was done.  We pitched camp alongside a creek about 100 yards inland from the cliff edge.  The camp consisted of one large tent, about 9 feet square, for supply storage, meals, and socializing; and a pair of two-man mountain tents for sleeping.


Once the camp was set up, our shipboard friends wished us good luck and sailed off.  The ship was hardly out of sight before the clouds returned and the wind and waves resumed their rampage.  At no time in the next ten days did we see even a brief spell of calm that would have permitted a boat to land or depart from the island.

Sleeping at night was somewhat of a problem.  For starters, broad daylight continued around the clock.  Next, rock falls along the coastal cliffs produced booms like distant claps of thunder, several per night, which I found unnerving at first.  Further, the winds seemed to pick up in intensity around midnight, at the dimmest level of daylight, to cause incessant loud flapping of the tent.  Finally, as the wind picked up, it rained every night.  Put all this together with Frank and me bundled up and stuffed tightly into a tiny tent, and the result was a continual noisy face slapping by wet canvas.  Two hours of this was enough for Frank; he went to the supply tent, lit up the Primus stove for warmth, and made his bedroom there for the rest of our encampment.  Alone in the mountain tent, I still had the noisy flapping but at least I could avoid bodily contact with the canvas.

Fig05CabinBrI A cabin built by a German pilot after    a wartime emergency landing on Bear Island.  Supplies including timber were airdropped to him. He apparently flew off before finishing the cabin.  Ruts left by the aircraft were still visible ten years after the war. 

After a few days we recognized a deep mystery.  Though our campsite was rained upon heavily each night, nearby areas showed no sign of rain the next morning.  The soils were always moist, but there were scattered boulders that should be wet and should have puddles in their crevices; instead, they were dry.  Could we possibly have our own private rain cloud hovering above in all this wind?  And then one night I solved the mystery in a somewhat unpleasant fashion.  The tent flapping was especially loud and rapid and growing more so each minute.  As it approached a climax I lost hope of ever getting to sleep.  Then the noise stopped abruptly and total silence ensued.  I luxuriated in this sudden calm for what seemed like several minutes.  But it could only have been the several seconds needed for the collapsed tent cloth to settle down on my face; one of the two tent poles had broken under the force of the wind.  Grumpily I moved out of the warm sleeping bag, out of the fallen tent and into the cold wind and rain, in stocking feet and long underwear, to seek a replacement tent pole.  Fortunately there was one, and I soon had it in place and all was in good flapping order again.  Before reentering the tent, I looked down the creek to where it cascaded over the cliff’s edge.  It was not cascading!  Instead, the fierce westerly wind was picking the creek up bodily and hurling it back as a torrential spray onto our camp.

Next morning Frank and I pondered the possibility of moving camp, but decided against it.  It was not only the labor of moving our mountain of supplies that deterred us.  It was the fear of losing one or both tents to the wind if the two of us attempted to move them without the help of others.

Although the higher coastal cliffs of Bear Island are famous bird rocks hosting millions of nesters from June through August, the inland fauna is sparse indeed. We glimpsed a blue fox one evening as we were bedding down in the open after working some miles from camp. The fox was more troubled by our presence than we by his. Then there were a few birds, notably skuas and terns, who found the solitude of the upland plains preferable to the crowding of the cliffs. Their nesting areas could often be spotted by the litter of broken crustacean and mollusk shells reflecting the diet these birds had won from the sea. My first encounter with these ground nesters involved the old broken wing ploy. I saw this apparently injured bird hopping along, dragging one wing on the ground. Following to see if I could help, I was led to a safe distance from the nest, whereupon the canny creature took off and flew normally. Once tricked, I would not play that game again, but would merely exert caution against stepping on eggs. This decision was at my peril. For when the broken wing ploy failed, the dive-bombing plan was put into effect. This was not a ploy or a threat, but a genuine attack involving real bumps on the head, forcing me to hold onto my hat and protect the eyes. Upon mature consideration, I decided that playing along with the broken wing ploy was to be preferred.

I once read somewhere that no vegetation in Svalbard exceeds six inches in height. There may be exceptions, but none that I ever observed. Among vast barren stretches on Bear Island I saw scattered patches of thin mosses and lichens, brown or darkish green, and bits here and there of the whitish reindeer moss I had come to know earlier in Alaska. The brightest greens, seen only at a distance, were on ledges of the highest coastal cliffs where bird droppings had created a rich soil. During our stay of ten days in early July, the spring thaw was just ending on the island. The rotten ice covering the lakes and ponds finally broke up and disappeared, as did the snow banks on the shadiest north-facing slopes. So this was a poor time to judge what lusher tones, what blossoms might brighten the landscape a few weeks hence at the height of the brief summer…

Bear Island – Bjørnøya in Norwegian – had been a particularly unpleasant place to visit, yet there grew in me a haunting sense that it had the force of a special personality. Perhaps this stemmed from the human-style crosscurrents and inconsistencies of its nature. Harsh and austere, the island in its serene moments hinted almost at hospitality in the smooth contours of its gently rolling lake-dotted plains and its homely subdued hills. Its stony resistance to the elements was more than matched by vulnerability and, ultimately, a capitulation sometimes noisy but never quite ceasing. And behind all this stood the fact of its lonely vigil amid such great expanse of angry sea. Somehow, all this became a symbol of something deeply echoed within the psyche. When I dream of travels past, more often than not I see Bear Island, lonely and forlorn. Only two other places ever brought a reminder of that island and of the feelings it stirred. One of these was the barren, sulfur-decayed landscape of the Arminius pyrite mine at Mineral, Virginia, before its reclamation. The other was the site of the first lunar landing.

Our farewell view of the island was along the thousand-foot high bird cliffs on the southwestern coast. The waters here were busy with feeding birds of many kinds: puffins, auks, gulls, kittiwakes and murres, and more that I had never heard of. As we passed, one of the crewmembers fired a rifle and the sky darkened with millions upon millions of birds from the cliffs. I was unaware at the time that the shot was illegal during the nesting season. Only by hindsight, as an avid watcher of nature study shows during the ensuing years, can I now grasp the tragedy of countless chicks and eggs dropped, lost, or abandoned during that moment of panic. At the time, I felt only awe at the spectacle.


(The above is based on my book The Cold Coasts.)


The River

People living on Wheeling Island quickly learned that the Ohio River shaped their lives in many ways, and on a daily basis.

It was their source of water, and it took their sewage.  It brought huge barges of iron ore and coal to make steel at the plants where the people worked.  It provided transport, out to the nation and the world, for the many products of the local industries.   DSC00127b2

In summer, many boaters used the river – mostly motorboats, because the currents were swift.  A beach at the north end of the Island, complete with a stand selling hot dogs and cold drinks, was once a favored site for swimmers.  The beach was strewn with flat pebbles, ideal for many “skips” off the water’s surface when thrown in just the right way.  I was a generation too late to see the dance pavilion that had once been located there, within my mother’s memory.   About 1934, the beach was closed and never reopened.  Pits in the river bottom, where gravel had been dredged, set up treacherous eddies that led to the drowning of a number of swimmers.  Swimming in the river was forbidden from then on.

This dredging was one more example of a tragic theme that characterizes West Virginia’s history and, as far as I know, continues today:  Where the extractive industries conflicted with the interests of the common people, those industries won, whatever the commodity involved – coal, oil, gas, chemicals, timber, glass sand, gravel, you name it – and whatever the cost to the people.  What industry wanted from West Virginia, it usually took.  Studying the state’s history is a painful ordeal for one who cares about its people.

Winter brought occasional ice jams on the river, sometimes rising to monumental proportions.  I could look out the kitchen window and see the piles of ice reaching well above the highest land elevations on the Island itself.  Surely they must have been scraping the undersides of the Suspension and Steel bridges.  Not a good time to walk to town.

Spring was noteworthy because of the floods that it brought.  From early times through the 1930s, there were long intervals between destructive floods, intervals in which the people of the Island repeatedly showed their resilience, determination, and stamina by repairing the damage and renewing the beauty of their homes and neighborhoods.

I was present for the granddaddy of those floods, in March of 1936.  That flood crested in Wheeling at 55.2 feet, the highest on record, and one of only five floods that have exceeded 50 feet since the year 1763.  On the first floor of our house, 6 feet above ground level, the water was 4 feet deep.  Most of the Island was at lower elevations, and some houses were completely submerged.

As the floodwaters rose, I looked forward to sailing on them in a galvanized laundry tub, but my parents had other ideas, involving a move to visit friends who lived on higher ground “out the pike.” (eastward on U.S. Route 40).  While all hands were busy carrying 36Flood95MdSt2furniture upstairs to escape the water, I sulked over their plan, retreated to write poetry in the bedroom that I shared with them, and avoided helping – at least for the short time that such behavior was tolerated.  Of course I had no concept of how the fury and power of floodwaters would affect the sailing of a little laundry tub.

The house of my great-aunts at 95 Maryland Street
on the Island.  The first floor is almost totally submerged.

My grandfather, too, had ideas of staying at home during the flood.  Taking a seat near the front door on the only dining chair that remained downstairs, he asserted, “This house is the only thing I have.  If it goes, I’m going with it.”  But he shared my fate, for my uncle and my father had other ideas.  They lifted him bodily and carried him out the door, down the porch steps, and into my uncle’s waiting car.  Grandpa, too, visited friends on higher ground.  His house did not “go.”  But the steps of the front porch did go, and his beautiful golden oak upright piano, too heavy to be taken upstairs, was a casualty of the flood.  It was dumped off the front edge of the porch for cleanup crews to haul away.  It turned out that almost every house in the block had a piano, for they all ended up dumped into the flood mud.  The back yard, now raised by six inches of flood mud, had to be completely regraded, limed, and reseeded, and the concrete walkway had to be reset at the higher elevation.  The attractive concrete steps, connecting two former “terrace” levels of the yard, no longer had any function, and had to be carted away.

A year or two before this flood, an evangelist named Lehman had built the Wheeling Gospel Tabernacle, a large one-story frame structure, on high ground near the north end of the island.  Contrary to local custom, the building was not bolted to its foundation, but depended on gravity for staying in place.  As the flood rose, the tabernacle sailed like a mighty vessel down Erie Street, clipping several houses off their foundations as it moved, and all the structures ended up as debris at the foot of the embankment to the Aetnaville Bridge.  It seems that Mr. Lehman never appeared in Wheeling again, probably a wise decision.

Cleanup after the 1942 flood

42FloodCleanupAs of 1936, there hadn’t been a serious flood on Wheeling Island since 1913.  Most of the people were willing to tolerate such infrequent flooding.  But during the early 1940s, destructive floods became essentially annual events, poorly predicted, and during wartime when few men were available for the labor of preparing for a flood, or of cleaning up afterward.  This led to a collapse of real estate values and an exodus of those who could afford to move, changes from which the Island has never recovered.

As fish returned and again disappeared with the successes and failures of pollution control efforts, the river was never devoid of life.  In the absence of fish, swarms of little black tadpoles moved along the shores, turning in summer into hordes of toads that overran the entire island.  Children – at least the boys – enjoyed catching the baby toads and trying to make pets of them.  This usually ended badly for the toads.

Through the age of seventeen, I was much at home on the banks of that river.  I walked its shores and waded in its shallows.  I blazed trail in the wilderness of the northern “Point” of the Island, as we called it – the low-lying upstream tip that was flooded every spring.  In early childhood I often swam at the beach – though memories of that involve mainly an itchy coarse wool swimsuit, unendurable until wetted.  In my teen years, I swam with friends in the calmer “Back River” (west of the Island), which was free of dangerous eddies.  River swimming was a “no-no,” and the family was not to hear of it.

Another note on wildlife: While exploring the Point, I once came across a small group of younger children enjoying a picnic.  As I passed by, they suddenly screamed.  I looked and saw an animal approaching them.  I first thought it was a rabbit, but the ears were short.
Then I thought of a small dog, but the tail was very long.  It was the most enormous rat I have ever seen!  As the children fled, the rat moved in to enjoy the feast.

Despite my enjoyment of the river by day, by night it became a fearsome thing, sending shivers through my body.  This was true whether I actually saw the river at night, with the city lights shimmering on its surface, or whether I merely pictured its daytime appearance in my mind while lying awake in a dark bedroom.  I was a grown man before I ever realized the likely cause of this reaction, which was:

One summer evening when I was about seven years old, I saw large numbers of people walking past our house toward the north end of the Island.  Without hesitation, not even telling the family, I joined the march.  Such was our feeling of safety in public in those days.  The march ended in a large assemblage of people on the former beach at the “Point,” facing the city.  As darkness fell and the city lights began to reflect from the water’s surface, I noted two men in a rowboat, equipped with a bright floodlight, rowing back and forth in front of us.  I soon learned that they were dragging a hook, attempting to find the body of a drowned swimmer.  It was a young man, a strong swimmer, who had confidently disregarded the prohibition against swimming.  He was accompanied by a friend who watched, helpless, as he got caught in a whirlpool created by one of the many dredged gravel pits in the river bottom.  The friend rushed to notify the authorities.

I thoughtlessly took a position by the tailgate of an ambulance to watch the proceedings.  “Thoughtlessly” because I hadn’t foreseen what was bound to happen.  When the body was finally recovered it was brought, completely exposed, to the ambulance where it brushed by me as I watched in horror.  At my tender age, I wasn’t ready for an experience like that.  And I believe that is why I feared the river in the darkness, a fear that I never fully outgrew.

(Photo courtesy of Frank Saporito)

Through all its changes, the river has continued to be a spectacular and powerful force.  It has remained beautiful even when mining and industrial wastes drove out the fish, and in recent years it seems more beautiful than ever.  Though the State of Ohio has adopted “Beautiful Ohio” as its official song, in my mind that song with its original lyrics will always refer not to the state, but to the river.

This posting is published in my book, Once Upon a Blog (Kindle and Paperback)


Let’s try to penetrate political fog, and judge President Obama’s Syria policy by its fruits, not by biased opinions. In simplest terms, these important things have happened, or have been deliberately avoided:

Avoiding action before the August 21 event in which about 1,400 civilians were killed, apparently by chemical weapons, the President avoided a precedent of intervening in a foreign civil war solely because of humanitarian concerns or political favoritism.

Action based on the August 21 incident carries a more selective justification: national and world security threatened by existence of a chemical weapon stockpile in the Middle East, where governments are unstable and vulnerable to terrorist activity.

Mr. Obama’s decision that this threat would justify military action gave Russia, Syria’s ally, high motivation to seek peaceful means of resolving the problem. Intensely collaborating with the U.S., Russia appears to be taking major responsibility, easing the burden on us. Before the President’s decision, Russia had been complacent as the Syrian war went on for years, with casualties mounting to an estimated 100,000. His decision served an important purpose regardless of whether he personally wished for military action.

The President’s decision to request Congressional approval gained time – for the United Nations to verify that chemical weapons were used, and for the Russian initiative to progress to where it could be adopted or rejected. Further out, his decision gave a precedent for returning to the Constitutional requirement that Congress authorize acts of war – a measure more likely to build national unity. He avoided using the controversial War Powers Act that enabled presidents to wage war without Congressional declaration.

Those who charge Mr. Obama with incompetence would have us believe that he did not anticipate the firestorm by both parties in Congress, when asked to actually vote on the subject. It is easier to believe that his purpose matched his achievement, gaining time and observing Constitutional principles.

At each step, Obama’s stance brought benefits.  It’s more believable that he masterminded this relatively benign sequence of events, than that he drifted as a floating cork from one goal to another and missed them all.

Published as a Letter to the Editor by the Waynesboro, VA News Virginian, 9/18/2013.


This posting is aimed at stirring interest among modern general-interest readers in such questions as:  Down deep, how much do we have in common with these ancient people?  Are their thoughts still worth pondering today?

The following passages were translated and paraphrased from the works of Marcus Tullius Cicero, a Roman lawyer, statesman, philosopher, and prolific author who lived Cicero 2from 106 B.C. to 43 B.C.  He was a staunch defender of the Roman Republic against subversive conspiracy and, later, against the drift into dictatorship and civil war.  For this role he paid with his life.

*            *            *

Selected famous quotes and other excerpts from his philosophical writings:

The more laws we enact, the less justice we have.

In a republic it is important that the majority not have absolute rule.

Wise men are guided by reason, average minds by experience, stupid ones by need, and brutish ones by instinct.

Fools are aware of the faults of others, but never of their own.

If you lack self-confidence, you are doubly defeated in the contest of life.  With full confidence, you will win even before you start.

It is only natural justice that no one should gain wealth through damage and injury inflicted upon another.

The soul inhabits the body, and God inhabits the world.  The soul endures the body, and God endures the world.  The soul sees but is not seen, and likewise God.  As the soul nourishes the body, thus God nourishes the world.

Six mistakes mankind keeps making century after century:
Believing that personal gain is made by crushing others;
Worrying about things that cannot be changed or corrected;
Insisting that a thing is impossible because we cannot accomplish it;
Refusing to set aside trivial preferences;
Neglecting development and refinement of the mind;
Attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do.

To add a library to a house is to give that house a soul.

Read at every wait; read at all hours; read within leisure; read in times of labor; read as one goes in; read as one goes out. The task of the educated mind is simply put: read to lead.

For books are more than books, they are the life, the very heart and core of ages past, the reason why men worked and died, the essence and quintessence of their lives.

Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.

Friendship improves happiness and abates misery, by doubling our joys and dividing our grief.

Laws are silent in times of war.

To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?

The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle to those who want to learn.

Politicians are not born; they are excreted.

A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor; he speaks in accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their arguments, he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to fear.

What is morally wrong can never be advantageous, even when it enables you to make some gain that you believe to be to your advantage. The mere act of believing that some wrongful course of action constitutes an advantage is pernicious.

When the young die I am reminded of a strong flame extinguished by a torrent; but when old men die it is as if a fire had gone out without the use of force and of its own accord, after the fuel had been consumed; and, just as apples when they are green are with difficulty plucked from the tree, but when ripe and mellow fall of themselves, so, with the young, death comes as a result of force, while with the old it is the result of ripeness. To me, indeed, the thought of this “ripeness” for death is so pleasant, that the nearer I approach death the more I feel like one who is in sight of land at last and is about to anchor in his home port after a long voyage.

No one is so old as to think that he cannot live one more year.

We are not born, we do not live for ourselves alone. Our country, our friends, have a share in us.

Law applied to its extreme is the greatest injustice.

*            *            *

From a speech against the conspirator Catiline in the Roman Senate, 63 B.C.


Cicero Denounces Catiline, by Cesare Maccari, 1888

At long last, Catiline, how far will you abuse our patience?  How long will that madness of yours mock us? To what limits will your unbridled audacity flaunt itself?  Are you not bothered at all by the night guards on the Palatine Hill, the watches posted all through the city,  the alarm of the people, the gatherings of good men?  Or by the choice of this defensible place for a Senate meeting, or the expressions on the faces of this venerable body?

Don’t you realize that your plot is detected?  Don’t you see that your conspiracy is already stopped and made powerless by the knowledge that everyone here has of it?  Do you think any one of us is unaware of what you did last night, and the night before, and who met with you, and what plan you adopted?

What times!  What customs!  The Senate understands these things.  The consul sees them.  Yet he still lives!  Lives?  Indeed, he even comes into the Senate, takes part in public deliberations, and notes —  and marks with his eyes — each one of us for murder.

*            *            *

From a letter to Tiro, 49 B.C.  This passage allows a glimpse into Cicero’s demeanor toward slaves, which is believed to have been so exemplary that he instilled great loyalty among them.  Tiro had been a family slave until Cicero freed him at the age of 50, four years before this letter was written. Tiro continued to work for Cicero and became regarded almost as a member of the family. He took dictation, organized Cicero’s finances, and assisted him in his writings.  Tiro published several of his own works, including a biography of Cicero.  He devised a system of shorthand, known as Tironian shorthand, that was used into the 17th century. 

I very often miss your help, but it’s for your sake, not mine, that I’m sorry about your sickness.  Now that I know it’s the quartan fever, I can hope that with proper care you’ll soon be stronger.  Be sure not to attend to anything except what is most appropriate for regaining your health.  I realize how much you miss us, but that will be taken care of once you are well.  I don’t want you to risk seasickness while still an invalid, or to risk the hazards of a winter voyage.

I ask you over and over again to look after yourself.  Please write to me whenever you have someone to carry the letter.

*            *            *

From various letters, 46-43 B.C., during the failure of the Roman Republic:

When we last talked, I was grieving for the republic, which was dearer to me than my life.   At this time, though, I’ve found consolation by reflecting on what I’ve managed to achieve, and also by time, which usually provides remedies even to idiots.  I still lament that the political blessings we shared have so faded away that we no longer even hope that things will ever improve.  Please understand, the fault does not lie with Julius Caesar, except maybe that the situation should never have arisen.  Instead, some events have occurred by chance, and others through our own fault, so that we shouldn’t be complaining about them.  I see no hope remaining, so if you moved to Greece by design, you have shown wisdom. If you moved there by chance, you are blessed.  (VII.28)

If “standing” means having a political attitude supported by decent men, I am maintaining my standing.  But if it implies taking any action, or even defending the attitude in open discussion, no trace of my old standing remains.  Calmly enduring events is difficult in a war of this kind, which threatens massacre on one side, slavery on the other.  I foresaw this outcome when I feared not only defeat but also success, because I realized the great danger that armed dispute threatens to constitutional law.

…I was aware, if my own party prevailed through use of arms, how cruel that victory would be, exploited by enraged, greedy, and arrogant men.  Or, if we were defeated, how many citizens would be murdered, including our finest and our most eminent.  When I predicted this outcome, people thought of me as a coward rather than as a prophet.  (IV.14)

Mark Antony has not left me in peace since I returned to Rome.  His arrogance – his monstrous behavior – is such that he can’t tolerate a man’s independence, not only in speech, not even in the look on one’s face.  My preoccupation is not with concern for my own life, but with anxiety for my native land, and for the prospect of your taking office as consul, so far into the future that I question whether I will live to see it.  What can one hope when the state is subdued by the arms of Antony, and the Senate and the people are powerless, and there are no laws, no courts, nor any semblance of a community of citizens?  (X.1)

…I would have supported the honor voted to you if I had been able to enter the Senate in safety and respect.  But nobody with independent political views can be safe there, because swords are used with immunity.  I cannot appropriately express my views where armed men are better and more closely positioned to listen than are the senators themselves.  (X.2)

Antony’s madness gets worse daily.  On the statue he set up, he has inscribed the words, “To our deserving father.”  So now you’re not just assassins, you killed your own father!  I shouldn’t say “you” – I should say “we”, for he claims that I was the ringleader of the whole plot to end Caesar’s life.  I wish I had been, for then Antony would not have survived to become such a problem for us.  But that is all in the past, and I wish I had some worthwhile advice for you.  But I can’t even plan my own actions, for how can one oppose violence without the use of more violence?

…What a sad situation!  We couldn’t tolerate Caesar as our master, and now we submit to Antony, who was nothing but a fellow slave.  (XII.3)

In the Senate on December 20, I discussed the entire political situation.  It was by force of conviction, rather than any oratorical skill, that I managed to rally the Senate from weariness back to its traditionally high moral stance.

…We have a courageous Senate, but among those of consular rank, some are timid and others are badly motivated.  Our current consuls are outstanding.  Decimus Brutus is brilliant, and the young Caesar is also first-class.  I have great hopes in him for the future. (X.28)

I have vouched for this young Caesar, although he is still immature.  I hope to keep him in his position of influence, even though many oppose him.  He has much virtue, but at his age there are many who are working to corrupt him.  I will do all I can to retain my influence with him, so that I may avoid the charge of rash judgment.  (I.18)


The young Caesar (also known as Octavian), in whom Cicero had great hopes for the future, assumed the name Augustus as he became Rome’s first emperor.  He eventually brought a lasting peace to the Roman world.  

First, however, Octavian entered into a brief and uneasy alliance with Mark Antony in 43 B.C.  Together, they drew up a “proscription list” of political enemies who needed to be eliminated, totaling about 2,300 people, 300 of them senators. At Antony’s insistence, Cicero topped the list.  He was accordingly put to death that same year. 

Thus was fulfilled Cicero’s prediction in one of the letters above, “I was aware… if we were defeated, how many citizens would be murdered, including our finest and our most eminent.” 


In March 1955, I was assigned by the Geological Survey to observe an atomic test shot in Nevada.  The particular shot was known as Teapot Ess, a shallow underground burst intended to test the ability of “atomic demolition munitions” to create craters in the earth.  This was of interest to the office of the U.S. Army Chief of Engineers, with which we were engaged in a cooperative program of military geology.

Make no mistake:  In the mid-fifties, many of us construed the opportunity to observe an atomic explosion as somewhat of an honor, perhaps, and most certainly a high adventure.  After all, this subject had dominated the news in the previous ten years, and the weapons development and testing program was one of the government’s most important activities in this period.  These were times when many of us tended to believe our leaders more often than not; and they had assured us all that the tests were perfectly safe – safe for observers and participants, safe for people of the neighboring towns, the nation, and the world, and safe for the environment (though not many even thought of that word in 1955).  Of course, a few dissenters worried about strontium-90 in the food chain and about strange quirks in the weather.  But that was all sort of long-term, and shouldn’t spoil the fun of watching a blast or two!

So I arrived in Camp Desert Rock, Nevada late one starry but moonless night.  The c795px-NTS_-_Tm-55-08amp, some 50 or 60 miles out of Las Vegas, was almost completely described by its name; all that remain to be mentioned are the 12-man tents in which test observers were housed.  I remember the “moonless” detail of my arrival because, once the jeep had dropped me off with my baggage in front of my assigned tent and departed, I could not see the tent but had to feel for it.  If there was a darker place that night than under the stars, it was in the tent.  I felt my way inside, cheered on by snores, grabbing a toe here and a nose there, until I found the only remaining vacant cot.  One wakeful soul warned that everything was covered with soot because the wind had earlier blown the stovepipe down.  But, as I sat on my cot in the profound darkness, removing suit, tie, white shirt, etc. (yes, that’s how we dressed up for plane flights in those days), I couldn’t think of any way to make practical use of his warning.

I soon learned that, because of schedule changes, I would also be witnessing the Teapot Apple shot, followed by Teapot Ess a day or two later.

A couple of days after my arrival, after all the usual briefings, safety and security lectures, field trips, and general atomic orientation, about two or three hundred of us observers boarded buses at about three in the morning and raced off at 35 miles per hour toward Yucca Flat.  Most of the observers were military officers, but a few such as myself were civilians in military support programs.  Warned of cold nights, we wore blankets and as many layers of clothing as we had been able to accumulate, plus steel helmets furnished by the management.  After a two-hour drive, we were dropped off along trenches at a distance, as best I can recall, of 2,500 yards from a well-lighted steel tower 500 feet high.  After the buses departed, the tower seemed to grow ever taller as it dominated our otherwise dark desert world.  We knew we could not escape it, for to walk to a safe distance would take longer than the remaining time before the shot; our only survival would be right here in the trench.  The Teapot Apple shot, which we were here to witness, produced a yield of about 15 kilotons (TNT equivalent) of explosive power, as I understood it at the time.  More recently published records vary wildly as to the intended and actual yields, but that is someone else’s problem, not mine.

After a 45-minute wait, mostly spent stamping feet in an attempt to keep warm, we heard sirens and loudspeaker commands to get into the trenches.  This immediately revealed a problem that had been obscured in the dark.  Winds during the night had partly filled the trench with sand, reducing its depth from 5 or 6 feet to about two and one-half feet.  All parts of our bodies had to be at least 2 feet beneath the ground surface for safe cover.  And we could not lie flat.  We had been warned to keep one knee up under us to provide sufficient lift in case the trench should collapse on us.  In short, the problem led to a flurry of bare-hand digging in the loose sand almost until shot time.

At the first hint of dawn, excitement was escalated by sirens, horns, beepers, and a backward-counting voice on the loudspeaker.  I assumed the one-knee-up, face-down position, secured the steel helmet, covered all with a wool blanket, closed my eyes, and wrapped my right arm over my face.

As the zero count was reached, a light penetrated all these covers and obstructions to strike my eyes with the brightness of a candle held 2 or 3 inches from the closed eyelid.  Almost immediately, the trench began to rock, throwing and bumping me from one wall to the other.  After probably 4 or 5 very lengthy seconds of this, the blast arrived, crashing Tpotappleaand reverberant, akin to the sound of a lightning bolt far too close for comfort.  It pierced and agonized my ears, knocked the helmet off, and brought a rain of stones and sand into the trench.  A few seconds later we were told to stand and look.  While distinct echoes of the blast continued for some thirty seconds, we saw the mushroom cloud, haloed with a violet glow, already high overhead.  As we continued watching, it rose from perhaps 10,000 feet to a level of about 20,000 feet, at which it began to drift downwind away from us.  Sparks continued for some time to shower in the vicinity of the tower stubble.  We walked for some unspecified reason toward Ground Zero, trusting implicitly in the sergeants reading Geiger counters, until they told us to stop and turn back.

I often thought about the motives of the United States Government in transporting ultimately hundreds of thousands of observers and participants, most of them soldiers, to these tests.  I suppose the principal motive was to train a generation of troops that would be familiar and at ease on the nuclear battlefield.  This didn’t work for me, even after I had ultimately witnessed four atomic shots.  I came to fear and detest the thing more by having seen it.  Its savage fury, even without human victims, had visceral effects raising all sorts of emotions, mostly akin to horror and culminating in tears.  Then I thought of a scant ten years earlier, when on two separate occasions a great many human victims had been in such hellish eruptions; and more tears came.

A couple of days later I witnessed the Teapot Ess shot, a shallow underground burst TptEsswhich tested cater-forming effects.  Compared to Apple, Ess was decidedly unspectacular and anticlimactic.  The best I can say for its large, low, chicken-shaped dusty cloud is that it trapped much more of the radioactive debris in local fallout on the Test Site, as opposed to the tower and aerial bursts which generally managed to salt most of the earth with their poisons.

There is a humorous footnote to the interest by the Army Chief of Engineers in crater-forming effects of atomic explosions.  Subsequent small-scale tests established that a whole row of explosive devices, spaced at just the right intervals, could produce a huge but very neat trench, not at all the scallop-shaped hole in the ground that one might expect.  Fifteen years after Teapot Ess, the Sierra Club was engaged in a series of attacks on the environmental record of the Army Corps of Engineers.  They even resorted to humor, in the form of a fictitious article in their magazine concerning the Cro-Con Canal, allegedly a secret project of the Corps.  The name of the canal was a shortened version of Cross-Continental.  The canal was to be a deep-water, sea-level trench crossing the United States from one coast to another.  Deep-water ports would be created at such unlikely places as Denver, Colorado.  And how would all this excavation be done?  You guessed it: A long row of atomic explosions.  The Sierra Club made it clear that all this was fictitious humor, but it gave weary environmentalists a much-needed opportunity to laugh. 

This posting is published in my book, Once Upon a Blog (Kindle and Paperback)


Hairstyles for a young man

Even before I was born, my father was already enthusiastic and conscientious about his forthcoming role as a parent.  Without benefit of ultrasound imaging, he pressed his intuition to the limit and ascertained that I would be a boy.  With amazing foresight, he also pictured exactly what I would look like as a child.  Armed with this knowledge, he toured the galleries until he found a portrait of me, and he bought it.  DSC00546BoyPortr2aw2

When I came into the world, the prospects were not good that I would ever become as handsome as the boy in the portrait.  For starters, I seemed to be cross-eyed, and my left foot was deformed to the extent that, as an infant, I often fell and then had to learn to walk all over again.

As the first few years went by, I quickly came to understand that this portrait represented what was a major expectation of me.  But I also realized that I didn’t have the features needed to match it.  In compensation, the one thing I could do was to accept the hairstyle.  And so I did.

This worked well until I reached the age of about five.  My whole family enjoyed my long hairstyle, and my father was well pleased with me, and terribly proud of me, for which he claimed many reasons beyond the hairstyle itself.

JRBca1932xThen, the day came when I started Sunday school.  Next to me sat a sweet little girl, who kept studying me closely.  Finally, she asked the big question: “Are you a boy or a girl?”  I appeared to ignore her, never answering her question, even though she repeated it a couple of times.  I was both mortified and furious.  Fortunately, I had been taught never to hit a girl.  So I stored the fury away until I got home, and then I let it out on the family.  I had to have a proper haircut.  Immediately.

The clippers, comb, and scissors came out quickly, wielded by my aunt, whom I called Ann, a person of 1906 vintage whom I loved as if she were the favorite sister I never had.  Soon the problem was solved, and I had a hairstyle worthy of a rising young man of the early 1930s.

But Ann then informed me that this hairstyle carried with it certain responsibilities.  The hair had to be “trained” so that it would lie flat on the head.  Bushy, spiky manes were not in style that year.  Also, I had to select a place for the part (the line from which the hair departed in opposite directions) – left, middle, or right side of the head.  And the hair had to learn to revert to that part no matter how much it was tousled.

Training was a bedtime operation requiring the use of hairbrush, comb, a strange liquid known as brilliantine, and a skullcap made from a woman’s stocking.

First, the hair was thoroughly soaked in brilliantine. This thick, green liquid apparently consisted of very long molecules, evidenced by its property of pulling back into the bottle any stream of the liquid that was hanging outside when the pouring was finished.  These molecules did an excellent job of binding the hair together in a rigid mass.  When they dried out, the hair was as stiff as if it had been run through starch in the laundry.

After careful and thorough brushing while still wet, the hair was touched up with a comb, primarily to make sure that the part was straight and sharp.  And the tightly fitting stocking cap was then applied to make sure that nothing moved during the night.  Next morning, the cap was removed and the hair combed out to face yet another rough-and-tumble day without being mussed up the slightest bit.  I’m not sure how long the training took; maybe a month.   JRBca1933x

At last, I had achieved a hairstyle that would last a lifetime. In the next few years, I would see men with long hair, but they were artists in Greenwich Village, and they really didn’t matter.  It was more than twenty years before I saw any real threat to my style, first by the ducktails and then by the incredibly long tresses of the rock-and-rollers.  But by then I had become a stubborn old cuss with no intention of changing.  And so I’ve remained till the age of 86, and am still counting.  It seems that I inherited some very stubborn genes, but not to worry – it’s clear that I passed them on intact to the next generation.  They, too, would have hairstyle issues, but mostly in a sequence the reverse of mine.

This posting is published in my book, Once Upon a Blog (Kindle and Paperback)