Tuesday, May 31, 2005

John Harper Brent, Jr.

HarperBrent Harper Brent could have been my father, but he wasn't. He was my stepfather. We laid him to rest last weekend in the family cemetery at his childhood home, "Roanoke," in Heathsville in Virginia's Northern Neck. He was 85.

"Roanoke" is adjacent to Heathsville High School. It was there in the early 1930's when my mother and Harper began dating. Harper & Mother002But they drifted apart after mother moved to Richmond after graduation and Harper enrolled in V.P.I. - what today is called Virginia Tech. In 1940 Harper graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering. Soon thereafter mother met another recently graduated electrical engineer, this one from UVA. He would become my father.

But before marriage or parenthood would come World War Two. Harper joined the Army, my father the Navy. Harper ended up in Europe while my father remained close to the US coast installing a new weapon of war, radar, on Navy ships. If Harper fired a gun or came under fire he did not speak of it to me. Instead he told stories of military support roles he played and the time he was almost caught behind the lines during the "Battle of the Bulge." I expect he saw more than he cared to talk about. He eventually rose to Captain, earned the Bronze Star, and developed a love for the nation he was helping liberate, France.

JeanBrentWhile his attempts to find employment in France after the war were unsuccessful, he had better luck with Gilberte Jeanne "Jean" Mourice, who became Mrs. Brent in early 1947.

Harper and Jean moved back to the states, spending their years together in the New York metro area. Harper had several employers as he came to specialize in industrial, commercial and military batteries. Harper&Jean Jean excelled in her role as the Parisian war bride, providing a bit of the exotic for her new southern in-laws. Although they had no children, they devoted themselves to their numerous cats, and, it seems, to each other.

Meanwhile, in 1942 my mother and father were married in - of all places - Harvard Chapel, Cambridge Massachusetts. My father was taking classes there in preparation for whatever assignment the Navy would have for him. A few days after VJ Day in 1945 they decided to start a family. I was born in May 1946, among the first of who would be called “boomers.” About the time Harper and Jean were sailing to America my father took a job in Southside Virginia with a small electrical cooperative. These electrical distribution companies were collectively known by the name of the federal governmental program that spawned them, REA co-ops. While Harper designed and built batteries, my father designed and built power lines to rural customers.

In the early 1980’s both Jean and my father died of cancer. A high school classmate told mother of the death Harper’s wife. Mother sent him a card of condolence. Before long exchanges of letters and phone calls led to visits. Harper married his high school sweetheart in 1983.

Harper retired and moved to mother’s home in Southside Virginia the following year. Harper&MotherAs much a traveler as my mother was not, Harper yanked mother out of her kitchen and to Alaska and France, among other destinations. Although both were by now set in their ways and often got along like oil and water, they were good for each other.

A couple of years ago Harper’s health began to fail. His lungs were weak, probably as result of industrial asbestos damage. His bones became brittle; osteoporosis ran in the family. Finally his short-term memory began to fail. Like the parson’s one-horse shay, last week Harper just gave out.

Harper was always kind and thoughtful to my sister and me. He was sensitive to the memory of my father and devoted to my mother. While he fought his growing disabilities, Harper complained little as his health failed, occasionally finding humor in his reduced circumstances. He was an inspiration to my daughter, instilling a love of France and the French language that is embedded deeply in her being.

Harper is back home now, lying beside Jean. We are sad; we will miss him. But perhaps we should be happy as we remember him, and his long and good life.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

the Bonny Blue

BonnieBlueLast week-end, my wife and I took a two-day excursion aboard the Bonny Blue. Amid our concerns about my step-father's failing health and my wife's new responsibilities as co-administrator of her late father's estate, the trip was a welcome bit of R & R. It was also a commemoration of our tenth wedding anniversary. It was like staying in a floating Bed & Breakfast.

It looked for a while as if we had chosen a bad week-end for an outing. The weather in Norfork on Friday was cool, windy and rainy. However both Saturday and Sunday, though still a bit cool, were wonderful days to be on the water.Canal1

Travel on this portion of the inland waterway is slow and peaceful. Most of the time we spent on the historic, man-made Dismal Swamp Canal. I had prepared for the trip by starting to read the recent The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company by Charles Royster. The remaining portion is on the scenic Pasquotank River.
The Captain and crew were wonderful. With only sixteen passengers at a time the ship is not crowded and we had plenty of time to get to meet the other passengers and be waited on. The crew, high school students, were fun to watch. Several were new, learning both their hosting roles as well as how to crew a ship. They all agreed that it is the "best summer job, ever!"

Once docked at Elizabeth City, North Carolina we walked around, had great seafood dinner, and returned for a concert in the piano bar provided by Captain Jeff and the boat's designer and builder, Merritt Walter. We slept like ballast.
Merritt Walter was a "passenger" for this trip as he is turning over daily operations of the Bonny Blue so he can work on other projects. Captain Walter is a retired Navy diver, boat builder and captain of federal research vessels. He is best know for his traditional "Rover" series of masted wooden sail vessels. An example is the Downeast Rover. The American Rover is another. He was a pleasure to talk with. He plays a mean "piano bar" keyboard too.Canal4

The return trip was equally relaxing, just what we needed. It was not quite the proverbial "slow boat to China." But last week-end it was close enough.

Sunday, May 15, 2005


MouseRugLast fall while visiting my daughter I noticed her unusual mouse pad; it looked like a rug. I used it a while and thought, "Christmas Present!"

I dropped a few hints. I even sent her the URL for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation design I wanted, which they seem to no longer sell. So on Christmas day I was very pleased, but not surprised, to open the present from my daughter and find a new pad.

I have been using it for almost five months and would like to report it is the best mouse pad I have ever used; no pad comes close. Besides looking way cool, this pad does something no pad I had previously used had done, it cleans my mouse.

Twenty years of using a mouse and the story had always been the same. Yuck collected under every mouse I owned. What a drag. It was especially bad before optical devices replaced the rolling ball style. At least once a week I would have to turn the little booger upside down and clean it. But not with MouseRug. The rug may get dirty, but the mouse stays clean. I have not had to clean my mouse since I began used MouseRug.

What a elegant solution to one of my most nagging personal problems. If all of life was this easy...

Friday, May 13, 2005

I'll Always Remember...

Alzheimer’s is a progressive brain disorder that gradually destroys a person’s memory and ability to learn, reason, make judgments, communicate and carry out daily activities. As Alzheimer’s progresses, individuals may also experience changes in personality and behavior, such as anxiety, suspiciousness or agitation, as well as delusions or hallucinations.

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, a group of conditions that all gradually destroy brain cells and lead to progressive decline in mental function.

Increasing age is the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s. One in 10 individuals over 65 and nearly half of those over 85 are affected. Rare, inherited forms of Alzheimer’s disease can strike individuals as early as their 30s and 40s.

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer's is a fatal disease.
Taken from the web site of the Alzheimer's Association.

Over the past two months my family has been dealing with the direct effects of Alzheimer's on two of our loved ones, and the indirect effects on the rest of us. Last month my wife's father passed away from the disease less than a year after her mother died, her health weakened trying to take care of her husband.

At almost the same time my stepfather's Alzheimer's, along with other health problems, finally required his placement in a nursing home. My mother's mental resources, likely now suffering the early effects of some form of dementia (she is 86), have been further strained by both her attempts to deal with his failing health and her loss of a companion.

There are many myths that surround Alzheimer's; that the stress and strain of dealing with Alzheimer's patients can quickly lead to physical and mental issues for the caregivers is not one of them.

While suffering from the same condition and demonstrating many of the same behaviors over time, my father-in-law and step-father were examples of the different ways the disease can manifest itself in individuals.

My father-in-law seemed to us to slide into the disease with little awareness of what was happening to him. A strong, robust man, he was otherwise generally in good health almost to the end. Like many men of his place and time he seldom shared his "feelings," preferring talking about events and the trials and tribulations he had seen around him. In his last years his stories grew more personal; he would tell the same ones - almost word for word - over and over to anyone who would listen. My wife said that through these stories, many she had never heard before about his youth and war experiences, she came to know him better.

My step-father's health had been in decline for a number of years, osteoporosis and probably asbestosis being the most difficult. But he must have recognized early on that something else was happening to him. He has been fighting his growing memory loss since with every ounce of his strength. Looking back it is evident that he developed coping mechanisms that hid his worsening disease from the rest of us. By disposition orderly and detailed, a professional engineer, my step-father tried to become more so. He used Post-it notes to record his daily activities as if he was conducting a lab experiment. I believe he purposefully steered conversations to things he remembered well - like the day in 1946 when he was discharged from the Army - and away from those he could not - like if he had eaten lunch today. When he thought he was alone he would practice his numbers aloud - telephone number, mailing address, social security number - over and over so he would not forget them. Recently I watched him struggle to answer the doctor when he was asked what year it was. He just slumped when he realized that 2039 was not the right answer. Just a couple of weeks after being placed in the nursing home he asked me to please tell the doctors that he was not crazy.

These men spent their youth in the Great Depression and young adulthood fighting in WW2. Both then worked many years contributing to the material wealth of this country. Both valued their family and community life. They lived long and well. But in their 80's both lost the ability to look after themselves. As they once took care of others, it became our turn to care for them. We all did the best we could given what we knew at the time, but it has been difficult.

Alzheimer's is a terrible enough disease without being made worse by ignorance. It is clear now that - unless a dramatic scientific breakthrough occurs - the huge number of us baby boomers now approaching retirement age will swell the number of Alzheimer's patients. This will stress families and severely stretch the resources of our health system. We owe it to the previous generation - we owe it to ourselves - to learn about this disease, support those in need, and find the resources to develop treatments, cures, and maybe a prevention.

Ask not for whom that damn bell tolls...

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Old & in the Way

Old and in the WayOld and in the Way was a a bluegrass supergroup in the early 1970's: David Grisman, Vassar Clements, Peter Rowan, John Kahn, and Jerry Garcia. Their name was taken from a Grisman song:
Old and in the way
That's what I heard him say
They used to heed the words he said
But that was yesterday
Coal will turn to gray
And youth will fade away
They'll never care about you
Cause you're old and in the way
I was thinking about this lament the other day as I thought about approaching another birthday. Then, as I was thinking about how it had been thirty years since I first heard those words and it never occurred to me then I might get old and much less, in the way, I had an epiphany of sorts.

I may be getting "old and in the way" but I plan to keep getting older and staying in the way for a long time. Those expecting me to step aside easily will be disappointed; further, they can kiss my arse.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Kid of Speed

elenaEver so often I run across a website that illustrates what a fascinating World Wide Web we weave. Allow me to introduce Elena Filatova, a Ukrainian woman with stories to tell, maybe more than she is letting on. To make a long story short, this is adapted from Wikipedia:
Elena (Lena) Filatova (Russian: Елена Филатова) (born 1974) is a Ukrainian motorcyclist who gained Internet fame, under the nickname KiddOfSpeed, after her web site was mentioned at Slashdot and other online news sources.

On her web site, she posted photographs of her alleged motorcycle trips in the area around the Chernobyl nuclear plant, 18 years after the nuclear accident there. She mainly visited the virtually abandoned city of Pripyat, Ukraine.

The photos are arranged in the form of a story presented as an account of a biker's trip who somehow got a permit to travel alone in the radiation zone. The accuracy of that story has since been questioned. It has been alleged that Filatova visited the Chernobyl exclusion zone only as part of an organized tour. The story itself showed a number of discrepancies and factual inaccuracies called for criticism of her initial account. Later versions of the story were corrected.

Nevertheless, the actual value of Elena's story is neither her degree of personal involvement nor her narrative, but the photos themselves. While some of them could have been staged to a degree (one of the points of criticism), she obviously could not have staged the whole ghost town. While there are numerous accounts of the consequences of the catastrophe, Elena presented it to the world in a way never done before.

Recently Elena's original homepage was replaced with a new photojournal about the Serpent's Wall near the city of Kiev, her home. The new journal contains photos of Elena's exploration of an ancient wall and more modern World War II fortifications built among its remains.
Indeed there does seem to be something not quite right about her Chernobyl trip story. At least one illustration seems to my eye "Photoshopped." It also appears she has made multiple rides in the vicinity of Chernobyl and has compressed them without actually saying so. Maybe she was just trying to make a good story better and expected neither the tremendous interest in her website nor the critical attention it received.

But all that aside, what is not discountable are the photographs showing the effects of the world's worst nuclear accident on the surrounding countryside. Her other photojournal that discusses the battlefields around Kiev are not under question and stand on their own. Her site is a testimony to the power of the internet and WWW to both tell a story, open a window into another part of the world, and invite critical assessment.

The link associated with the title is to her most commonly linked site. However here is her Anglefire hosted site that seems to have been update recently.

Friday, May 06, 2005

RRE @ Merlefest


Last Friday my daughter and I headed for the hills. It was Merlefest week-end in Wilkes County, North Carolina and we wanted to hear our new favorite band, Railroad Earth.

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while know that I have posted about the band before, first after I heard them in Floyd and later when they fell in with Phil Lesh last winter. They had not been in the area since last September when my wife and I heard them in Charlotte.

The timing of their appearance could have been better for us. My daughter was battling a nasty sinus infection. However, RRE was schedule to play twice that evening, justifying both the steep one-day ticket price and the frown of her doctor - had he known. I needed to get back to my mother's by Saturday to attend to family medical business, so Friday evening was all I had. And it was the last day of the semester at my wife's college which made it inappropriate for her to cancel her classes, as would have been necessary. So she had to make do with the RRE t-shirt and hat I brought back.

We were early to the Hillside stage and enjoyed front row center seats for the first performance.
RREHillsideAnd as the band closed the Watson stage that night, nice ushers allowed us to sneak into a relatively empty part of the reserved section. This allowed us to get much closer than 250 yards to the band. As you can see in this daytime photo, the Watson stage is a large venue.WatsonStage

Of course, both sets the band played were wonderful, as was all the music that evening. But what made last Friday so special were the two members of the band, Andy and Tim, who took the time to talk with my daughter and me. My wife had enjoyed their music when both were members of Blue Sparks from Hell, an east coast jump blues and swing band, in the early 1980's. So when I recognized Andy on the sidewalk before the first show, we approached him. He proved happy to chat with total strangers about the Blue Sparks, as well as more current events, as we walked toward the Hillside stage area. Parting, my daughter and I settled in at the foot of the stage under threatening skies to enjoy the Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble. This photo lifted from a website shows Andy and Tim doing the same behind us.TimAndy

After RRE's Hillside set I caught Tim during a pause in striking the stage and asked him if he would shake hands with my daughter. I knew from his web site and talking with him in Charlotte that he had recently played for the Dalai Lama in India and shaken his hand. My daughter's affection for His Holiness being considerable, I knew she would be thrilled to talk with him and shake the hand that shook the Hand. Tim was also most gracious and the two of them talked for some time. I noticed afterward that the cares of her day had seemed to melt away; even her sinuses felt better.

Few things in life have proved as joyful over the years as seeing my daughter happy. She told me on the phone later that while she liked their music before, now she was a Hobo. I could almost hear her smile.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

You Look Wonderful Tonight

Wonderful TonightAmid the sad news and distress of the past few weeks was one Saturday night to remember. My sister's eldest son and his bride, fresh from their barefoot on the beach at sunset marriage at Key West, held a "Celebration of their Marriage" at a country club in Virginia.

The event was "an evening of dinner, drinks and dancing." Everything was perfect; even the thunderstorms left the area before the guests started to arrive. I had a great time, and it appeared everyone else did too. Our newest family couple sure know how to throw a party.

My nephew provided the light entertainment by asking me to give a toast. He cleverly realized I would take the opportunity to give him a light roasting as well as leading the guests in wishing him and his bride well. I refrained from making embarrassing remarks about the bride, much to the dismay of at least one table of her friends who indicated I would have had plenty of material to use.

After dinner the dancing started, the DJ mixing the songs with skill and taste. The photo shows my daughter and I slow dancin' to Eric Clapton.

So here is to Kevin and Heather, from Neil Young's "Long May You Run."
We've been through
some things together
With trunks of memories
still to come
We found things to do
in stormy weather
Long may you run.

Long may you run.
Long may you run.
Although these changes
have come
With your chrome heart shining
in the sun
Long may you run.