August 30, 2021

Lake Hartwell, which straddles the Georgia-South Carolina line, shimmered in the 90F Southern sun. I felt the perspiration flow as I fumbled with the spinning reel and rod Sandy had given me as a wedding present 43 years ago to the day, August 26. It was our anniversary. I was standing at the end of the fishing pier at Lake Hartwell State Park. She was back at our cabin, enjoying the air conditioning. I tried a few casts toward the Georgia side.

We thought we’d do something different for the big day. She had found the “camper’s cabin” on the state parks website. South Carolina state parks typically rent cabins for three nights to a week. Only at Lake Hartwell were the cabins available for two nights, all we wanted. The camper’s cabin is four walls, two windows, and a roof. It does have an air-conditioning unit, but no kitchen or bathroom—you use a community bathroom 100 yards up the road and cook on a charcoal grill or bring your own equipment. The only lighting is a bare bulb mounted in the ceiling. We didn’t think of bringing a lamp.

Whitewater Falls

We made the trip eventful: we drove the previous day to Whitewater Falls, the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi. Our daughter Marie drove up separately with the grandsons. The falls, off U.S. 130 just across the state line in North Carolina, truly are spectacular. From an observation platform they appear to cascade from a rocky ridge to a deep gorge, throwing off a graceful, ghostly spray. Marie is homeschooling the boys because the state has blocked school boards from protecting schoolkids by requiring masks. She had them bring their sketchbooks. They sat on the platform and sketched.

Our next stop on the tour, my idea, was the Walhalla Fish Hatchery. Sandy went along without much enthusiasm, Marie declined. We drove south from the falls on 130 then headed west for a few miles to U.S. 107 for a while to rutted, pitted Fish Hatchery Road, which winds down a mountainside through thick forest. The hatchery sits along the rushing whitewater Chattooga River, which forms the border between South Carolina and Georgia.

We parked in an empty lot and followed a winding path to the hatchery gate. There it was, twelve concrete “raceways” in which swam hundreds of thousands of brook and rainbow trout, separated by size. We walked the full football-field length of the raceways, inspecting the trout as they darted through the narrow troughs.

The place was silent. A sign told us that the hatchery was staffed by a fisheries biologist, three technicians, and a part-time assistant. But we saw no one, we were alone. Employee lunchhour? A billboard described the hatchery’s work. The trout are separated by sex until they’re bred. The fingerlings are cultivated to nine to 12 inches. Some 500,000 fish are released in the state’s rivers and lakes each year.

Sandy showed polite interest as I stared down at the hordes of swimming fish, but I sensed this was not a pre-anniversary outing she would have chosen. Soon she stopped trying to hide her impatience. I got the hint. After I took a quick stroll to look at the rushing Chattooga, we headed back up the twisting mountain road.

Why in heck did I want to visit the hatchery? I had not caught a trout in a local stream since I was a teenager. Eleven years ago I took my son fishing in Canada’s Northwest Territory. We hauled in fifteen-pound lake trout and northern pike. That was then, this is now. But the fish hatchery is here, one of those places you—scratch that—I need to see. Probably only once.

The cabin was reasonably comfortable. On anniversary morning we hiked the park’s sole nature trail, one uphill mile, rocky and rooted, leaving us perspiring and panting. We needed insect repellent. We got in the van and headed out of the park then south on I-85 looking for a grocery store. Immediately we were in Georgia. The first exit took us out to the boondocks. We drove around aimlessly. I thought: this is how we’re spending our anniversary? The second exit was Livonia. We found a restaurant for an anniversary lunch, then headed into tiny, sunbaked Livonia and found a store. It then was in the 90s. We fled back to the park.

I moved to the other side of the pier, drew the rod back behind my head and cast again, maybe thirty feet. The lure plunked on the surface, I let out some slack, then reeled. The lure bounced along easily, no fish interest. The late August sun beat down on the lake, the heat radiated up from the surface.

I looked across the water to the distant Georgia shore, a dark silhouette in the afternoon glare. I could make out a couple of speedboats, just dots, moving along the shoreline. I looked down at the water, and back at the catwalk up through the woods. I felt no hint of a breeze, not a leaf swayed in the treetops. How hot was it?

I guessed it didn’t matter. We had chosen to be here for this quiet milestone. The heat had been the same on the wedding day, when the Tennessee sunlight collided with suffocating humidity, me in my suit, Sandy in her wedding dress, the guests all nicely fitted out, gasping as they stood waiting on the steps of St. Mary’s Church in downtown Nashville

I recalled the two of us talking, a night or two ago, about those who are no longer with us, parents, brothers, cousins, my former boss. The two priests who officiated are both long gone. And here we are in the northwest corner of South Carolina four decades and three years later, with four kids, some medical close calls, and many lessons about life behind us.

I smiled as I thought of the fish hatchery visit. Who does that on an anniversary trip? I paused with the rod. The line hung limply into the pale green water, undisturbed. I reeled in, wiped my forehead, removed the lure from the line, closed the tackle box, and drove back to the cabin. In the morning we headed for home and, we always like to believe, on to the next anniversary.

Dunkirk 2021

August 27, 2021

The Taliban have ridden into town with terrorists, who Thursday killed 10 Marines, two soldiers,  a Navy corpsman, and dozens of Afghans. We’re blasting the country’s foreign policy leadership of the past 20 years. Biden, Obama, and Bush have been condemned as dupes of their generals and diplomats.

In 1975 the end in Saigon was the same as the end is now in Kabul: Americans and their local-national allies, thousands of them, fighting and dying to get out. The world was very different then, that war was very different.

The men who died Thursday and their brothers—Marines, soldiers, medics, civilians, came to Kabul to conduct an evacuation, but really they came for combat. No other word works. They are the newest heroes of Dunkirk. Who remembers?

From May 26 through June 4, 1940, when German divisions had trapped British and French troops against the English Channel near the port city of Dunkirk, the British Royal Navy and hundreds of private ships and boats evacuated roughly 215,000 British and 123,000 French troops in Operation Dynamo. Some 68,000 were rescued on May 31 alone, roughly 64,000 on June 1. About 75,000 French troops came out between June 2and June 4.

The dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London called the evacuation the “miracle at Dunkirk.” Books were written about it, movies were made, the last one in 2017.

The British people welcomed the troops home. Then they learned that some 68,000 British troops were killed, wounded, missing or captured in the six-week-long Battle of France. The British Expeditionary Force, or BEF, left behind 2,400 artillery pieces, 20,000 motorcycles, and 65,000 other vehicles in France, as well as hundreds of thousands of tons of stores, ammunition, and fuel. Six British destroyers and three French destroyers were sunk along with hundreds of small craft.

At that point Americans weren’t in the fight, but they heard—the world heard—about Dunkirk. But few knew that two British divisions returned to France to reconstitute the BEF, along with French troops who had been evacuated. Then the Brits’ high command bowed to the reality on the ground and withdrew the force by June 14, the same day the Germans entered Paris. The Germans took 35,000 French soldiers prisoner.

Ten days earlier, on June 4, Prime Minister Winston Churchill set the tone for England’s warfighting heart with his immortal “we shall fight on the beaches” speech to Parliament. The Royal Air Force then engaged the German Luftwaffe in an all-air battle that lasted from July to November, followed by the Blitz on England’s cities that killed more than 40,000 civilians through May 1941. Churchill had given the approaching fight for survival its name in his June 18 speech: “The Battle of France is over. I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin.” He ended with “… if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘this was their finest hour.’”

The U.S. fought with its Western allies for the survival of democracy, of freedom, against forces of pure evil. For the war the West lined up with one outlier, the USSR, which months earlier had been in bed with the Nazis and when combat ended in August 1945 assumed Germany’s role in threatening the existence of the free world.

What’s different today? Nearly everything, starting with the world’s political alignments and the technology of war. More than that: the flawed judgment of U.S. political and military leaders over these last 20 years—the 9/11 anniversary is two weeks away—are the menu for nonstop agonizing. The menu is, more or less: the U.S. can’t impose democracy where it’s not wanted; we didn’t learn from the British or Soviet failures in Afghanistan; we should have killed bin Laden and got out; we should have known the Afghan army wouldn’t fight.

Instead, we now know it was an ugly, bloody, tragic failure from the start. The most experienced four-star Army and Marine Corps generals and their diplomatic colleagues kept sending those sunnyside-up briefings to the White House and Congress. In the end they were wrong, not just wrong, but monumentally wrong. Were they incompetent or just gullible, hearing from their subordinates what they wanted to hear? Who knows?

Who really understood the truth about Afghanistan? No one we knew, no one we trusted.

In France in spring 1940, the BEF and the French and Belgian armies were routed by the Germans. Like our generals in Afghanistan, the British commanders didn’t understand their enemy, who used tanks and bombers to outmaneuver them. The Brits could only throw their ships, trawlers, ferries, and small craft into rescuing every soldier they could squeeze aboard in two weeks, under constant air attack.

At home, the British cheered and supported their men as they came off the boats, not knowing what lay ahead. Those rescued soldiers weren’t safe for long, eventually they returned to combat, in North Africa, in Italy, again in France. Churchill knew, and he hammered home the truth: that the Germans were massing their bombers for a year-long assault on fortress England. The Brits stood up and supported their wartime leaders.

Right now the U.S.-led Kabul evacuation may get 150,000 out—a strong maybe—over three weeks, while facing suicide bombers and ragtag guerrilla-terror teams.  

Here in the U.S. we see some admirable folks welcoming the refugees, others turning their backs. The political recriminations will continue. The President will make a campaign promise, no more Afghanistan deployments. Maybe, maybe not. But Afghanistan will be remembered, in all its sadness.

Hot Week

August 23, 2021

I guess the air conditioning unit died weeks ago if not months ago. It died a lingering death. We knew it was not well. Eventually I called a contractor to look at it. He inspected the device in the backyard, called the condenser, and climbed into the attic over the bathroom to check whatever was up there. He climbed back down with an unhappy story.

Weeks ago we read about and watched the TV coverage of the nightmare “heat dome” over the Pacific Northwest, that moved to the Midwest. Innocent people lived through triple-digit temperatures, many if not most without air conditioning. Hundreds died.

As summer approached I heard the usual radio and TV ads by heating/air-conditioning companies of discounts on HVAC system inspections. Through many summers in Virginia we never had problems, usually Sandy kept the house too cold for me. So I ignored the commercials. In early June, when it got warm enough to need or want air-conditioning, we switched on the system and waited. A feeble flow of lukewarm air wafted from the vents. We set the thermostat at 73F, the temperature settled into the low 80s. The system cranked away, all day and all night. The temperature never broke 80. Well, I thought, we were new in this house. Maybe it was working out the kinks. We turned on the ceiling fans.

Sandy and I both grew up in homes without air conditioning. In southern Tennessee she and her family, and many if not most families in those parts endured the five-month-long Southern summer with fans and open windows. I recall lying awake sweating on summer nights in northern New Jersey. Over time more and more homeowners in our neighborhood put in window units and eventually central air. Yet millions of Americans have never had air conditioning. When did it become indispensable?

I read that smart people built primitive air conditioners over the past couple of hundred years. In 1901 Willis Carrier built the first modern air-conditioning unit. Later he formed the Carrier Air Conditioning Company of America. Someone found that in 2019 about 90 percent of new U.S. homes were built with air conditioning (more in the South than elsewhere).  A generation ago air conditioning contributed to the economic growth of the so-called Sunbelt. Earlier, Southern states were mainly sleepy agricultural places, producing cotton, tobacco, indigo, home-raised vegetables. Over time, they recognized they needed air conditioning to attract Northern industry.

Our son Michael and daughter-in-law Caroline visited last month. He said they keep their AC at 71, cooler at night. They arrived on a hot day. We all gathered for dinner, it was stifling. Michael got on a chair and held his hand in front of a ceiling vent. “It’s blowing warm air,” he said. “You need to get someone out here.” Okay, I said. We changed the filter. The ceiling fans blew the warm air around. The guest room never cooled off, Michael and Caroline finally opened the windows. When we rode downtown with them the next day they had the car air-conditioning on full blast.

It seemed to cool off for a few days. The house seemed comfortable. In my home maintenance dreamworld, in which things really aren’t so bad, I postpone calling service people. In early August the mercury inched up again, then shot into the mid-90s. The sun beat down, the flowers wilted. The neighborhood pool water warmed to bathtub temperature. I had seen Five Star Heating and Air Conditioning on a nearby street. I looked them up and dialed.

Jason, the technician, was at the house the next day. When he finished his inspection we sat in the living room perspiring. “I can’t in good conscience try to fix the system,” he said. “Your condenser isn’t compatible with the evaporator coil on the inside unit. They use different coolants. The one in the condenser is obsolete. Someone did a bad job here.”

I showed him a 2017 invoice for a “2,000-pound AC unit” from a sole proprietor we had found in a kitchen drawer when we moved in. Jason looked at it. “I never heard of this guy,” he said. “This was a ripoff.”

We pieced together the story. The previous homeowner, an elderly widow, had moved to a nursing home about four years ago. The house sat unoccupied through those years. A nephew took care of the yardwork and presumably other maintenance. When the AC failed he, or someone, hired the sole proprietor to make a minimal, low-cost fix. He installed a condenser not compatible with the rest of the system and added the wrong coolant. The system never worked.

“You need a whole new system, condenser, evaporator coil, coolant. The furnace is part of it. We can do that for you. Our ‘comfort adviser’ can discuss it with you if you’re interested.”

An hour later Devin, the “comfort adviser,” rang the doorbell. He was a foot taller than Jason but crawled into the attic to look at the unit. He echoed Jason’s verdict. “The system can’t be fixed,” he said. “We can do all the work next Friday. Two options, one is $9,600, the other is $8,500.” Sandy jumped in. “We’ll get the cheaper one. Is there a senior discount?” she asked. “I can take off five percent,” Devin said. We said OK. I handed him my credit card.

The days grew hotter through the week we waited for the Five Star crew. The temperature inside rose to 90F. Some days I took three showers. Kyle and Ed arrived at 8:00 AM Friday. They disconnected the old system, dragged it out and threw it in their truck, and hauled in the shiny new coils box and furnace. The equally shiny new condenser went around the back.

Through the day they worked in the backyard and the attic, hammering, soldering, running wiring, while guzzling ice water. I cringed to think of the sauna-like heat of the attic. Around 6:00 PM, while we waited, hoping nothing went wrong, they switched on the new system. We felt a thrill of rushing, chilling air. They climbed down from the attic, drenched and dripping. Kyle showed us how to use the newfangled digital thermostat with the glow-in-the-dark symbology. We shook hands, they ran for their air-conditioned truck.

The next day I dug out our homebuyer’s inspection report. “The HVAC system is aged and will need to be replaced within five years,” the inspector had written. “It should be checked by a certified contractor.” We didn’t quite get five years. We didn’t get five months. Well, that’s over, I told myself. I took a deep, cool breath.  

Child Abuse

August 19, 2021

School buses are back on the roads of neighborhoods all over America. Aboard are many of America’s roughly 35 million elementary schoolchildren under 12, who are not vaccinated against covid-19. They crowd together in school corridors, classrooms, and cafeterias. In eleven states and the District of Columbia they’re wearing masks because those states either require masks in schools or allow local school boards to require them, complying with guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Legislatures in seven states have prohibited mandates. Florida and South Carolina have threatened to withhold state funding from school boards that try to require masks. Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson signed a law banning schools from requiring masks. As covid ran rampant through the state he said he regretted signing it and asked the legislators to rescind the no-mandate law. They refused.

On August 3, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, discussing the dangers of the covid delta variant, said, “It’s clear that this variant is capable of causing serious illness in children. Anyone that says you don’t have to worry about it if you are a young, healthy person, there are many counter examples.

“You do need to think about it and that’s the reason why the recommendations are, for kids under 12, that they avoid being in places where they might get infected, which means recommendations of mask-wearing in schools and at home.” He later clarified his comments, saying that it’s not necessary to wear masks at home.

Collins, M.D., Ph.D., has served as NIH director since 2009, the only Presidentially appointed director to serve in more than one administration. From 1993 to 2008 he was director of NIH’s National Genome Research Institute.

In South Carolina, Dr. Hunter Moore of the Children’s Medical Center of Greenville obtained signatures of more than 1,000 physicians on a petition urging Governor Henry McMaster to rescind the state ban on mask mandates in schools. Moore said that “the most recent data for South Carolina shows the rate of daily cases is over 2,000 over the past week. These are the highest numbers we have seen since February 2021, and it is not reaching a plateau but is increasing at an alarming rate.

“With school starting in South Carolina this week and next and the rate of spread of the delta variant among the unvaccinated population, we have every reason to expect the case rate to explode in the coming weeks.”

On August 17 the Florida State Board of Education announced that the Broward and Alachua school districts could face financial penalties for violating a state law that bans schools from mandating masks. The Board said it would investigate and the districts would be “possibly punished,” according to The Washington Post, for failing to comply with the law.

At an emergency board hearing, Nikki Fried, state Agriculture Commissioner and Democratic candidate for governor said, “shame on all of you. How embarrassing that you may be more afraid of the governor than you are [concerned about] the lives of our children and teachers who already are getting sick and dying in record numbers.”

Meanwhile, the Post reported that Hillsborough County Public Schools, which includes Tampa, said that 8,400 students and 307 staff members are in isolation because of a positive test or in quarantine.

I stopped at the YMCA in Taylors, S.C., and watched a crowd of young kids file out of their daycare. None wore masks. I asked the college girl in charge about masks. “No, they don’t wear them,” she said. “We follow Greenville County policy. But they’re an option.”

South Carolina’s McMaster, rejecting the physicians’ petition, offered that “parents should be the ones who decide whether their children should wear masks. Parents know their children. They know what’s good for them. Common sense is the best way to fight the virus, not shutdowns or mandates. National covid experts, he said, are “exaggerating and engaging in hyperbole and unnecessarily alarming people.”

He reiterated his position that “mandating masks is not the answer. Personal responsibility is the answer, common sense is the answer, and we have an abundance of both in South Carolina.”

McMasters’ idea is that “personal responsibility” is a higher priority than schoolchildren’s safety. The state’s covid statistics cited by Dr. Moore show the dark consequences of the no-mask posturing.

A few days ago Collins said, “I do believe that [vaccine] mandates make a difference. … How did we get here? We’re incredibly polarized about politics, we really don’t need to be polarized about a virus that’s killing people. We ought to be doing everything we can to save lives. And that means get the vaccine. And that means wear a mask when you’re indoors in a crowded space. And if you’re unvaccinated, wear it all the time. … This is not a political statement or an invasion of your liberties. … We know that kids under 12 are likely to get infected, and if we don’t have masks in schools, this virus will spread more widely.”


August 16, 2021

Coastal North Carolina is a good hike from Greenville S.C., no matter how you plot it. Typically that’s I-26 to I-20 in South Carolina, then I-95, the east coast’s north-south thoroughfare, to “future” I-74, now U.S. 74 when you cross the state line, all the way to Wilmington. We have friends there we had not seen in five years.

The interstates, hard to tell apart anywhere, are especially monotonous along this stretch. The piedmont countryside levels off in a blur of lush green scrub growth on both sides through small towns until Florence. Squarely on the state line is South of the Border, the massive Mexican-themed amusement park/fast-food stop/fireworks market that, depending on your taste, may be only a massive eyesore. Why, you wonder, does it exist right here?

Wilmington was an important Confederate port, a point of export for Southern cotton and tobacco to Europe and import of weapons and soft and durable goods that supported the rebel armies in the field. The ship route up the Cape Fear River was guarded by Fort Fisher, the largest of a series of fortifications. After multiple attempts Union troops captured the fort in January 1865.

The Wilmington to Southport peninsula, created by the fast-flowing Cape Fear, has become a retirement destination for thousands of Yankees looking for a milder but not-quite tropical climate. The flat terrain and thousands of acres of pine forests and wetlands is a northern marker of the swampy Southeast coast down to Florida. The major artery, U.S. 17, once a lonely rural road, still cuts through swamps but now passes new gated golf communities, stripmalls, Walmarts, and shooting ranges.

The visit was a kind of mission, as they tend to be lately. We reunited with four friends, two couples who had relocated from Virginia fifteen or twenty years ago. The initial connection then was our children, the community swim club, daycare, and elementary and high school. The kids grew up and scattered to college, jobs, other states. We met over the years for weddings. They were near Wilmington, we were still stuck in Virginia, we traveled, gladly. Now the conversations are poignant updates: the new community, the kids, and that perennial favorite, the health and medical situation—the aches and pains report. I started the weekend Friday with another CT scan, my twelfth. But we all have something to contribute.

We dodged monsoon-like rain to visit Wrightsville Beach and looked out at the boiling gray surf. The beach area resembles shore areas everywhere: a boardwalk separating the sand from the casual restaurants and bars, the tattoo joints, the souvenir shops. We said hello to a staff person from the local chapter of Life Rolls On, a nationwide charity that uses surfing to inspire persons with disabilities. When the rain let up dozens of volunteers in colorful shirts carried their clients to the water on surfboards and helped them catch the fast-moving waves.

Southport, maybe 30 miles south of Wilmington, is an old port town at the mouth of the Cape Fear where the river meets the Intracoastal Waterway. Bay Street is lined by stately antebellum homes with a majestic view of the river and Battery and Bald Head Islands, which I guessed offer some protection from hurricanes. We walked along the rocky shore and looked out at the wide river. Powerboats and ferries plowed by through the calm waters. A giant oil tanker appeared at the mouth of the river and turned sharply north toward the Port of Wilmington. We checked the lively restaurant scene at the end of Brunswick Street. Afterward we walked on the beach. Volunteers had marked sea-turtle nests, doing what they can to protect turtle eggs and miniature turtles as they hatch. We watched the gentle surf roll in. The air was warm and soothing as the bright, fiery red sun set through a hazy sky.

Not far from downtown is St. James, once part of Southport, now incorporated, and like the rest of the peninsula home to a large contingent of Northerners who decided to pack up and move to a place near the water without tramping a thousand or more miles to Florida or the tourist-heavy beach towns of Myrtle Beach or Hilton Head, S.C. We admired the beautiful homes and careful planning. Settling in St. James, like anywhere on the Atlantic Coast means a commitment to seashore life. The beach and marina are there, along with the golf and tennis, which is everywhere in these places, for those who like those things.

Our friends who used to run on mountain trails in northern Virginia tells us you can’t find that. At St. James you can stroll, you can jog, you can go to the fitness centers and take yoga. You look around—you see houses, grass, trees, and dark ponds where alligators live.

We drove home, through what seemed like the daily hurricane-like cloudbursts. The rain came down sideways as we crawled back along U.S. 74, heading for the Upstate, with its gentle view of the southern fringe of the Blue Ridge. We talked, Sandy and I, for the hundredth time about why we landed there instead of on the seacoast. We like the crash of the surf, the warm breath of sea air, the thrill of the sunrise on the Eastern shore. But we’re nestled at the pointed end of pie-shaped South Carolina, near the mountains, the crashing waterfalls, the rocky trails, the quiet forests. We can drive to the beach.