Putting back the pieces

I’m having an odd day in an odd year. Not really sure what direction this discussion will take, but what the hell. Hold onto my beer and watch this…

It all started with a beautiful cover of a Hendrix song.

Since I came home, music has been tough for me. Not sure why, it just makes me a bit sensitive (for lack of a better word). So I ration my listening fairly carefully and I turn it off if it gets to be too much.

Today was one of those days. I could barely stand to hear the soulfully played song.

No idea why this is, I’ve never brought it up with the VA people. I have only noticed this lack of control since Afghanistan, though.

I could go on at boring length about some of the stuff that plays in my head, but I won’t. Anyone can wikipedia some of the results of combat exposure and blast trauma, so if you feel like making yourself smart about this stuff, go right ahead. I won’t stop you.

I dunno, a lot of this thinking was brought about by the weather and the re-discovery of some old images hidden deep within the files of my old computer; I backed up the old MacBook when I busted out the new machine (Thanks, Prime Day!). Lo and behold I came across a couple of Power Points my old boss had me write.

I thought they were corrupted beyond any use, gone forever.

It turns out they were just outdated and inaccessible with the junky old software.

With some degree of trepidation, I opened the file called “Explosive Hazards of “x” Province, Afghanistan, October 2011.”

Good God, it was riddled with images I took and catalogued some nine years ago. Stuff I thought I had forgotten, like the blast crater below.

Just a dumb hole in the ground, you say. Yeah, it is that.

But there’s a story there. You see, I watched that hole being made. I watched as an Afghan Police truck passed over that exact spot. The IED with my name on it, but not that day, exploded violently.

The bomb was planted along a road I travelled daily, either on foot or riding as shown below.

Riding as the gunner on an 1151 Humvee.

Good God I shook like a leaf as we rode through that crater shortly thereafter. I nearly pissed myself as I felt the truck lurch while passing through the hole. That bomb. That Improvised Explosive Device. It sought to tear the life from me, to blast me and my friends to rags and red filth.

So yeah, maybe I should have never opened that file.

But that’s the hell of it. These days nothing electronic ever truly dies. Long after I have passed someone cruising the web or whatever will be able to search for images of the Afghan War, and there I will be, in living color. Maybe even rendered in a 3D hologram or something.

So the war will never truly die with us, its combatants.

It will be preserved, like a fly in amber.

I have my doubts as to whether this is a good thing. No, you know what? It’s not. But it doesn’t matter, the cat is out of the bag for good. Digital immortality is upon us, for better or worse.

For an eternity I will ride on top of my machine in my gunner’s harness, my right hand on my trusty PK. For uncountable years I will wait on the explosion.

This. As I sit behind this computer typing, my teeth chatter. I remember.

There is no forgetting. Likewise forgiveness. Understanding, the same.

All that is left is to endure.

A Prime Day

I’m not sure if I’ve ever specifically expressed this, but we live in an amazing world during exceptional times. A lot of stuff is good. Some of it is bad.

Today I’d like to mostly discuss good stuff. You can go somewhere else for politics, etc.

OK, so it’s kind of odd here in my house. Many large ticket items can be dated from various deployments.

Well, almost all of our electronics dated from the final Afghan trip, 2011. Do the math, that stuff was getting long in the tooth. For example, the laptop I’m typing on. The bluetooth has given out, several of the keys are illegible and some of the software is glitchy.

If I haven’t written five hundred thousand words on this MacBook, I haven’t written one. It is an amazing machine.

A big reason I didn’t replace it sooner was because of Apple’s dumb butterfly keys. They were notoriously unreliable. Hey, Apple! I buy Apples because they are reliable, not because they are cutting edge or cool. So for years I held off until they fixed the problem with the “new” Magic Keyboard. Ha. All this is is a refinement on the tried and true scissor keys.

But I digress.

Lemme get to the core of this post.

Amazon Prime Day.

They blew my doors off with the deals. Seriously. A lot of people don’t care for Jeff Bezos or the Beast. My response is that he saw an opportunity and took it. If he wouldn’t have, someone else would have and people would be cussing whomever instead.

In regard to the mom-and-pop stores, they are gone. In my little village the main street used to by filled with small shops. Empty storefronts or gap-toothed holes remain where lives used to be.

There’s no going back; the changes are coming hard and fast.

In fact, there is a noticeable acceleration. Within my lifetime we have gone from rotary dial phones to cheap crappy Walmart phones that could literally build an atom bomb.

Which brings me full circle to where I want to go with this today.

For the full price of one laptop I got the laptop as well as a pile of other stuff to replace the obsolete/malfunctioning 2011 purchases.

So in practical terms I got electronics that are far more capable than the old ones for HALF the 2011 price.

For example. We bought a replacement sitting room TV for a ridiculous price. I won’t say how much, but it was stupid.

The TV is a full foot (30.4cm) larger than the old one, was much easier to set up, is far more capable, and the colors are intense, cinematic.

And it cost 60% less than the old TV in 2011 dollars.

I’m still shaking my head. See the remote above. If I want to watch (name the app), I push a button. Or (and I wasn’t aware of this when I bought the TV) I can push a button and have Alexa find me whatever.

I’ll bet a first grader could set up this TV. Ten or twenty years ago this would have been a mighty struggle for 1/100th the capability; I remember well.

My old TV is outclassed in every respect by this unit. It is simply amazing.

And that is but one item.

But look, this brings me back to the point of this post. We live in a world filled with amazing stuff; many of us exist at a level of comfort which would have been foreign to our grandparents. The world has so much potential. Seriously; the TV is an infinitesimal speck of the whole.

So why do many of us want to screw it up? Are people so bored or stupid that they want to tear down what our ancestors have built?

Stop it.

Leave your guns at home.

When the time comes, exercise your right as a citizen to vote.

This is a democracy. Compromise and imperfect solutions are part of the experience.

This is a peaceful and beautiful land; the vast majority of the residents have never known war or hardship.

Let’s keep it that way; let “Call of Duty” be the closest that many come to the sound of the guns; or a rainy camping trip be the worst misery that the vast majority see.

Look at your humble TV remote; you are holding the product of a thousand generation’s knowledge and wealth.

Me, personally? I am floored by this.

So if you feel like it, let today be the day that you take some joy out of simple things.

Let life be long. Live and let live.

And now I have a Netflix button and Alexa.

Life is good.

The Maternal Line

My mother, pictured above. The final link in the maternal line.

I have a bit of a different story for you all today. You see, I stand in awe of the knowledge that is transmitted through families, if only we keep an open ear.

Today I’ll tell you of my quest to chase down an ancient family recipe, and the odd chances and turns it took to be preserved.

I’ll cut to the chase. The recipe was transmitted by the woman pictured below, Imo. But it was her great-grandmother’s, name unknown.

She gave it to her daughter, Alice.

Alice is who I turned to for help in 1999, when my mother-in-law needed a recipe for pumpkin pie from scratch. I remember calling her. I said, “Grandma, how do you make a pumpkin pie from fresh pumpkins?”

She said “I don’t know. I always used canned pumpkin.” A pause. Then she said “I think I have a recipe from my mother, who got it from her grandmother.”

My Great-Great-Great Grandmother! Civil War era, at least. She read it to either me or my wife, not sure who. My wife translated the recipe into Dutch, then she gave it to my mother-in-law. It looked like this:

My mother-in-law baked the pies, we ate them. They were good, but they were really unlike any other pumpkin pie I have had before or since. Something about the proportions, maybe? But they were not as sweet as the modern pumpkin pies by far.

The years went by, I forgot about this incident, although I never quite forgot those lovely pies. Alice, my Grandma, died in 2016 after a full and very long life.

Fast forward to this, the year of the plague. I put in a big garden, and I ended up with ten pumpkins.

What, what to do with fresh pumpkins?

And then I remembered. My maternal line’s pumpkin pie recipe. I asked my parents if they could find it. Well, they found a recipe in my Grandma’s handwriting, but I didn’t think it was “it.”

See below.

In my Grandma’s careful hand, and undoubtedly old, but not the very old recipe she read over the phone to my wife.

Was it lost?

Then I thought to call my mother-in-law. Did she still have the recipe?

It didn’t take long for her to find it; she sent me an image of the recipe in Dutch. Fortunately my wife had transcribed the proportions in the old English measurements back then. All I had to do was convert the recipe back to the original language.

Via a very irregular method, it was saved. This one tiny chunk of knowledge from deep time, back a long way on the maternal line.

Today, readers, I am very glad to be able to share this recipe with you!

It makes a pumpkin pie that is different from the modern, store bought ones.

Here goes, from my family to yours!

What else has been lost? So much. But this little jewel was saved.


The Compass

Another folksy, woodsy article. Why? Because I felt like passing along some arcane knowledge.

Alright, it’s been my experience that people are afraid of the common woodsman’s tool, the compass. I don’t know why. So today I want to do a quick and dirty bit about common sense compass use.

Look, it’s kind of a big deal to be able to figure out where you are and how to get to where you want to go. I know, cell phones have an app for this, right? And what about GPS?

Too much technology, and always have a backup. I enjoy “Bitchin’ Betty” on an iPhone just as much as anyone, and it’s nice to have a precise ten-digit grid when you are utterly lost. But who says you’ll always have that stuff? No one, really. So learn a little about a compass.

First, a few basics. I’ll point them out.

You should always be able to find the cardinal directions by simply observing the sun. The sun rises in the east, and sets in the west. In the northern hemisphere, it tracks across the southern sky. South of the equator, the opposite.

What does this mean. Here is an example.

In Virginia, you face the rising, morning sun. You are facing east. Your left arm points approximately north, your right arm points south. Your back is to the west.

Just like that, you know your cardinal directions.

At night, in the northern hemisphere, find Orion. South. Look the opposite direction for the Big Dipper. Roughly north. Polaris, or the north star, is close by.

How useful is this stuff? It can be a life saver. For example, generations of runaway slaves navigated from the Deep South to the North using nothing but the above: a journey of a thousand miles. Talk about courage and resourcefulness, along with a pinch of fieldcraft.

Alright, now let’s up our game a little.

We have a compass and a map. See image below.

Above is a cheap, crude compass and a common road map. You can see the scale bar and the “north seeking arrow.” Note that the north arrow is roughly aligned with the compass. This is important.

Why. Because now you and the map are pointed in the same direction. Your body faces north, left is west, east is right, and behind you is south.

The pictured compass is crude and cheap. It is also surprisingly accurate, and is probably better than what the Spaniards used to navigate the globe. You can get from one town to another with such a device, look at the map. If you need to walk southwest to get there, turn your body until the compass, held flat, is pointing southwest. Look up. Find something in that direction. Walk towards it. When you get there, take another “sighting,” and continue walking. Repeat over and over until you get where you’re going.

This is where I must mention that I’m leaving a lot out.

For example, there is a thing called “magnetic declination” that throws off a compasses’ accuracy.

Here’s my take on that. If it’s less than ten degrees, and you are traveling short “legs,” don’t worry about it.

If it’s over ten degrees where you are (Google it), then read up on how to compensate for it. Not really hard. For example, here in Ohio it is 8 west. This means that for a true reading you need to add 8 degrees to what your compass says for accuracy. For east declinations, you subtract.

Also, it is helpful to know how far you must travel and approximately how far you have covered.

How do you know how far to go?

See image above. All maps have a “scale bar” that allows you to plot approximately the distance on a map. Mind you, this is “as the crow flies” distance, and not what you will actually travel because of terrain and obstacles.

Maybe go down to a football pitch and measure off your “pace count.” This is easy to do. Start at one end, step off taking normal steps. Count every time your left foot hits the ground. My walking pace count is 62/100M.

And like everything else, this has a caveat, too. Your pace count changes if you run, go uphill, etc. So just do like I do and keep it simple; use the walking count on average.

An example. Using the scale bar on the map, you know you have to walk southwest about five miles. Convert to kilometers right away, or you are in hell. So 1 mile= 1.5km. 5 mile=7.5 km. 620 paces per km. Start walking. After an hour and a half, you should be pretty close unless you had to swim a river or something else stupid (been there, done that).

A practical example with the cheap compass.

Alright, you have oriented your map to the north, you and your map are pointed in the cardinal directions. You want to move from Summitville to Augusta. Using your handy scale bar and guesstimating, you see it’s about eight miles away cross-country. Looking at the compass, you can tell you need to go almost due west. Close your map, turn until your compass and your body are facing west, and start to move.

Make sure that you periodically check that you are in fact moving west. When you hit a road about 12km later, look for signs. If it is Route 9, good. You will be fairly close to Augusta.

If you spend just a few dollars more, you are capable of much more precision. The compass above has a ton of good features, but not so many that it overwhelms. Also, note that it is partially luminescent. Handy if you need to move at night.

Once again, we want to move from Summitville to Augusta. Using the scale bar and the ruler, we can do a better estimate of our traveling distance. Also, instead of an approximate heading, we can nail this one down to degrees. See how the compass is centered over Summitville? Look right and you will see Augusta. 268 degrees, map heading.

You could go ahead and add your 8 degrees here for the declination, which would give you an adjusted true heading of 276. This would be accurate and would potentially land you in the center of Augusta.

But I said don’t bother with that. So move out at 270ish degrees, you’ll be close enough for rough work.

After all, we aren’t calling in artillery.

And buddy, I sure am glad!

There you go, rough and dirty. This is how to use a compass. Just make sure it’s roughly flat when you take a sighting and check your heading early and often.

Piece of cake.

Now go spend your five bucks and put the compass away somewhere. Forget about it. And when your car is broke down by the road, cell reception is lousy, and you need to get to the next town, you’ll remember.

There’s a compass in my glovebox, and I know how to use it.

Cast Iron Recovery

Cast iron pans are amazing to cook with. Since I was a small child, I’ve enjoyed who knows how much food, healthy and otherwise, that was prepared on black, oily cookware of indeterminate age.

The pans are pretty much immortal if maintained properly. We use cast iron almost daily around here, and the pans are over a hundred years old.

Why am I talking about this today. Well, something I would like to do this year is to discuss the use of the produce from our vegetable garden; I would like to practice my campfire cooking. It’s been a while. I thought about it and I didn’t want to use our kitchen pans for this. Then I remembered that in a hidden corner in the basement there are a whole stack of cast iron skillets.

I think my mom picked them up at a garage sale or something. I’m not sure. Took a look at what was there and I decided upon a large, deep and heavy No. 8 skillet. It seemed perfect for campfire cooking.

But there was some work to be done.

See below.

What a piece of junk, many would say. Some would shake their heads and plant daisies in this fine piece of cookware. Not I. I’ve done a lot of metalwork, and I could see past the rust. This was one solid pan with tons of potential. I cracked open the newly cleaned and ready garage and went to work.

What you see above is called an angle grinder with a wire-wheel attachment. This is the quick way to deal with crusty, ancient rust.

A note of caution: These tools, while useful, are potentially dangerous. The wires can and will let go as you clean a surface. You can and will be struck by the sharp wires. Wear eye protection, gloves, and a long-sleeved shirt. Also, the grinder is powerful. Hold on tight! Finally, the grinder can cause sparks. No flammable materials nearby.

If the thought of using an angle grinder now freaks you out, you can also do this with a wire brush and steel wool. It will just take forever, that’s all.

With an easy half-hour of work with the wire wheel, this is what I had.

Looks much better, right? Well, it is. However, it is not yet ready to fry stuff up. As-is, this pan will rust again in a heartbeat. What it needs now is “seasoning.”

This isn’t hard. Lemme explain.

First, wash off the pan with boiling hot water to remove rust dust and other debris. Once you’ve done that, wipe it dry with paper towels. The pan will be a dull gray, and it will be dry.

Now you need shortening or vegetable oil. Either will work. DO NOT use non-food oils. Very, very bad idea. Edible oils only. Wipe the pan down with a generous coat of oil. Place it upon the cookie sheet that you have prepared with tinfoil. It should look like this:

Another note. Maybe it’s best if your family isn’t home for the next step. It stinks more than I remembered!

Set oven to 375F, (190C) set timer for 45 minutes. Once oven has pre-heated, stick the pan in. After about fifteen minutes it will start to really stink like something is baking. Do not be alarmed, but maybe do turn on the range fan and open a window. Wait.

Once the time has past, the pan is done. Note that it is now a shiny black color, instead of a dull gray. This is good, and desirable. The pan will smoke a little when you first open the oven. Let it cool down. Once it is cool, wash again with hot water and wipe it down with paper towels or a clean rag. Never use dish soap on cast iron, this will cause it to “lose season” and rust.

Now the moment of truth had arrived. Time to cook!

I chose to make pierogies, a regional favorite, as this aged pan’s first meal in decades.

As you can see on the first image, it did more than fine. Pierogies, loaded with potato and sharp cheddar, browned up nicely on the elderly iron.

I served them up to my kids. Success!

Not bad for a morning’s work.

If you come across a cast iron pan in need of some lovin’, don’t be scared. As long as it isn’t cracked, pick it up and recycle it.

It will be just as good as, or better, than new. Probably cheaper, too.

Put that old iron back to work!