Sunday, May 26, 2019

R&R -- and Less


Markham, Virginia -- Soot’s Camp, Saturday, May 25, 2019. This was a hard week. Saturday I slept in. When I woke, about 7:30, I flipped on National Public Radio and cogitated. I sorted through familiar thoughts -- pulling the bowstring taut to launch what's next, my cares and obligations, those about me whom I love. Work is incessant. More effort lies ahead -- on Wednesday, an executive asked for increased velocity for a project I lead, citing her Senate testimony and newspaper headlines.

The reward for good work is more work. I do good work. But it can pile up.

I walk outside, replenish Soot’s water, and fill her food bowl with kibble and meat. I pour olive oil over top. She likes this. At nearly 11 years old, Soot is slim and fit, though she has slowed. On hikes after a first mile of dancing off the front, she falls in behind and we trudge on. I love Soot. She connects me to my young son -- and she is a friend, a gentle soul at the end of each day.

Soot tromps down the deck stairs, sniffs the long grass, and rolls about, twisting her back like a flat “S” against earth and bramble. The birds are active, flitting from trees to bird feeders and bushes that circle the deck. They sing and chirp, accenting blue sky and sunlight. A train whistle alarms in the distance; a shallow echo rises up-valley. Baby bluebirds clamor when their parent returns with a mouthful of grubs. Cool air flows over Soot's pond, rockface, and field. It perks my skin. I could get a blanket to cover my legs and lap, but I do not. Before long, the sun will be on the deck and things will warm. I’ll get some blue jeans and head to the garden store. First, I make a pot of coffee. I drink it black, with sugar in the first cup.

Last week my lawnmower died. I about broke even on the tool, considering the cost of a $350 mower against a season of lawn cutting service. The mower had a great engine, a Honda, that started with one pull, but its air filter flew off, the blade ground to a stop, and the whole damn machine became frozen. Nothing would move. I went online, read reviews and ordered a new mower, a Craftsman. I’ll pick it up and cut grass this afternoon.

~~

Cutting lawn at Soot’s Camp gives me a sense of order. That said, I’ve let more lawn become field than before and have planted grasses to attract deer -- red clover, chicory, rye, rape and radish. The grasses grow long and flower. In evening I see many deer when driving nearby lanes, but I see few on my property. I think hunting on the adjacent lots has kept the deer at bay. (There is a bow-and-arrow stand in a field about 100 yards off, on the other side of an antebellum wall. I’m tempted to knock the stand over but I do not.) Aside deer, nature has steadily increased at Soot's Camp -- more birds, nesting creatures, coons, turtle, frog, snake, field mice, chipmunk and fish -- bass, cat, crappie -- and bursting greenery, sedge, willow, duck weed, honeysuckle, lilies, and on.

While two of the three eight-foot weeping willows I planted last month went brown, all are now freshly fringed with the beautiful yellow-green fronds of niobe golden. In not too much time, with roots continuously moist aside pond and creek, they should grow quite large, maybe to forty feet. Like other bits at Soot’s Camp, the willows tie me back to past joy -- here, the willow grove before my grandparents' house on the Tred Avon in Easton where my sister Kathy and I would cavort barefoot entwined by leafy tendrils. Kathy and I were very young then.

I love nature. Sitting on the cabin deck, secluded with my interests and concerns, I wish to blend in, be absorbed and embraced by what surrounds me -- sights, smells, moisture, coolness and heat, echoes, gentle breeze. A healthcare friend, a past lover, told me I am on the autism spectrum. This may be true. I find comfort in being clamped, burrowing in small boxes (as I did when a child), and cocooning in bed — best, when enfolded in my lover’s arms, her breasts flattening against me. Autism or no, this is how I am wired.

~~

Wiring difficulties? I could compete for the United States in the Olympics of neuroplasticity -- brain reprogramming, new conduits, training -- rewiring that enabled me to live, to flourish. (I was struck by a drunk driver when 17, suffered brain injury, was not expected to live, endured craniectomy, coma, paralysis, aphasia, and such.)

~~

My generally unbounded faith in humanity took a step backward today. I bought a lawn mower at Lowes, hauled it in my BMW “farm vehicle" and assembled it at Soot's Camp. When I discovered that the mower ran on clear gas (not a 4-cycle mix), I drove down the road to get some unleaded, leaving my shiny new toy in the drive tucked behind forsythia and holly. When I returned, the mower was gone: Theft!

I checked to make sure the mower hadn't rolled down the hill and sunk into the pond or become lost in the brush. It hadn't. I called the Fauquier police, an officer came to our cabin, he investigated, and we filed a report.

The officer was a good man. He walked the property, and took down make, model, and serial number for the mower. We chatted about law enforcement work, his, Karen's and mine. Out of Warrenton, the officer noted he drove past my cabin several times a day. Having met us and learning the cabin was a weekend retreat, he said he would keep an eye out.

~~

My grace appeared and we leveled our concern about humanity (and the desperado who boosted my mower) with a bottle of Markham's finest, a Phillip Carter claret. I offered a humorous toast: “May the mower cut off every toe or pinky for its new owner.” We giggled. That night, I ordered a new machine online. My friend Steve wrote: “I try to put a positive spin on this kinda stuff. Had my car broken into on multiple occasions over the years -- one time while it was parked in my driveway. Cash and radio stolen. I kinda visualized the thief as Jean Valjean. Made me feel a little better about the inconvenience.” I am sympathetic: Cosette's song stirs me, as does a ramrod-straight man caring for a vulnerable child (as I do). Another friend, a Uganda NGO chief, suggested that I turn the other cheek and set out my chain saw for claim. I will not: drug-induced thievery, which this probably was, is not rational. I'd rather give cash to the rehab shelter.

Karen, the officer, and I speculated that the theft was a quick heist “of convenience,” maybe by a substance abuser, a heroin addict. In the grand scheme the theft was little; only my second in 40 years. My faith in humanity’s goodness will resume its inch-wise progress.

I ordered a game camera to set-up monitoring for future adverse events -- or maybe to snapshot a few wandering deer or a timid bear when the camp is still. I picked-up the mower and cut the grass on Monday, Memorial Day, a day I'm drawn to George and Mud Soldiers.

The mowing went well.



Monday, April 15, 2019

Camp Morning



Soot’s Camp is magical this morning. Light rises with fog in the valley. A train whistles. I sip coffee in my Adirondack looking across the pond. Soot lies in grass below, chewing steak bone from last night’s grill. Boards, gravel, and slate are cast about, ready for garden work and carpentry. (Weeping willow trees arrive later. They will fill a hollow between pond and swale.)

Birds surround the deck, toing and froing feeders and tree. Algae mass in mats on the pond surface. Jelly eggs with tadpole dots double in the green mix. Goldfinches, up to five or six, dance and caterwaul on the thistle feeder. Geese honk high above in the gray sky. A nesting pair paddle quietly below. Their ripples unfold across the pond. House finches, chickadee, and sparrow gambol and stab at seed. Turkey vultures, who against my design nested in a duck box, cluck and beat loud wings. I hear a turtle splash from rock-to-water, but I haven’t seen him. He’s likely a paint. No sign of swamp monster, the big snapper. Not yet, but spring is early and cool. He will come; maybe he'll grab a cygnet and sup. A bullfrog pops his throat, “Harrumph.” The peeper chorus will sound off as the day warms.

I watch the big, fatty cob — dad goose — paddle on Soot’s pond. I wonder if he knows about the swamp monster below, able to clench and sever his leg. How did the cob react to gunfire last night, hunters on the other side of the mountain? We don't know.

The air is moist this morning. Rain will come.

I leave my deck perch as the drizzle mists in.

~~

It’s been a long journey, my second mountain. Or third, or fourth. Whatever. We all climb, and we fall into valleys. I’m happy, I’m alive, and my boys are well.

~~

I purchased the cabin, five acres and and a pond, a year-and-a-half back. It cost much. While the building is pre-Civil War, it is in nice shape, well-outfitted with new kitchen, heating, cooling, bath, tin roof, and wood stove. I put in a wider deck; rebuilt the pond inlet and outlet; and constructed rustic benches, a bridge, and stuff.

The deck is circled by bird feeders — thistle, sunflower, and mixed seed, and nectar for hummers. The cabin is furnished from my Georgetown home, antique shop buys, and tables I built from ambrosia maple. My first year I went to the cabin every weekend save a couple. These were often work trips, building stuff. (I slept on air mattress at first.) Now the place is pretty much done, and my visits are to read, write, enjoy music, and recreate. I like hikes on the Appalachian Trail, which is near. In warm weather, I canoe the Shenandoah.

Friends and family visit, smile and laugh. We frequent nearby wineries and sleep before the fire. My love and I find respite at Soot’s Camp. She paints with acrylics on the deck and about the pond, while I muse.

~~

I grew-up with my parents Joan and George and sister Kathy. We most always had a weekend or summer house on the water, the Severn or lower Potomac River, tributaries to the Chesapeake. Usually, the house was not much more than a shack. But it was full of love, fishing gear, scavenged buoys, swimsuits on porch chairs, saltines, crab shells, beer, and damp books. This is where I learned to swim, fish, and sail; where I read every Hardy Boy novel. Carolyn never liked the idea of a second house, so it was not to be for my children.

I fancy a bridge.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Bridge Building


I sketched the design, wrote out a bill of materials. I let the drawing sit, revised it, added detail, thought it through, looked at models. I designed a buttress of rock and rebar, one for either end, measured the gap. It was 20 feet across the pond inlet, bank to bank.

I debated what type lumber. What type stress will my bridge support? Grand kids jumping up and down? (I dream.) A lawn mower? Snow and ice … Most lumber only goes so long as sixteen feet. How to form a 20 foot truss? I work alone. How to build, then carry the bridge? I could build it in place, over the water. Maybe. Maybe not. How do I haul lumber to the site? It could be delivered. I asked an expert, a builder friend, Robert, how wide should I make the bridge? “The wider the better,” he said. I chose 32 inches, so I could cut three deck pieces from each eight foot board, about fifteen long boards in all.

It was a delightful cogitation, which I stretched and chewed for about six months. I decided to bind two ten-foot wood girders with a sixteen foot piece. I debated types of stock — 4x4” treated, or 2x6” or 2x8” — the types of bolts, binders, screws and fasteners, and the type of glue. I pulled up bridge designs for the Appalachian Trail and challenged my specs. I considered features like a toe rail, but said not. I decided on 2x8” treated pine for the truss frame, topped by 5/4x6” deck boards. I fastened the truss beams using brown-enameled carriage bolts, washers and nuts, and a finger-thick smear of all-weather glue snaked between the bolted boards.

~~

My grandfather H.R. Gibbons was a Stevens-educated engineer, working first at Hyatt Roller Bearing and then General Motors, both jobs under Alfred Sloan. H.R. was a man of precision and standards. His wood shop and garage was immaculate and well-equipped — DeWalt radial saw, drill press, band saw, automotive tools and more. H.R. built the row boat my sister Kathy and I, my mother Joan and I, pulled out onto the Tred Avon which curled around my grandparent’s house, Boundary Point, in Easton, Maryland. We fed ducks in the swale.

H.R. and my grandmother Dot had two daughters, Lois and Joan. Joan, my mother, took to son-like hobbies with her father. She built furniture, made skilled things with wood, glue and varnish. Joan and H.R. sailed and fished Barnegat Bay. She was a lab worker at Merck early on and, later, for most of her life, a middle school math teacher. I loved her. We played baseball catch together, on the tarry pavement and on park playgrounds in Washington, DC.

~~

I loved Dad, too, but he was different, a disorganized creative, a writer, a disrupter. He fixed the world, on a large scale, e.g., the Pentagon Papers, Vietnam War, and Iraq, a valiant embed with mud soldiers (at age 75).

Dad and I built a lot of things together. We made a soap box derby race car from plywood, lathe and fiberglass, with wheels and steering gear from a General Motors kit. We took my mother’s ironing board and used it to draw the pattern of the fuselage bottom on a 4 by 8 foot sheet of three-quarter inch marine plywood. That car, the soap box derby, was the bomb. We had it for many years, racing down neighborhood streets, and pushing it back uphill. I was about nine years old when we drew the fuselage. When I grew too big for the box, Dad and I cut away the car’s rear bulkhead, so I could squeeze in my long, lanky teenage frame. My Great Falls neighborhood buds, Russ, Dan, Jamie, Tom ("Squirrel") and others, would do crazy things in the yellow race car, skidding it across gravel and tumbling into a ditch, and worse.

None of us died, and all injuries seemed to heal in about a day. That was good. We were cool kids. Dad was a cool dad, “Jungle George.”


I built things for and with my own boys, Nathan and Avery. Some of it was good, some not quite. I remember the delight they expressed when I built a chair framed in two-by-fours, with the seat and back “crafted” from their old skateboard decks. “Dad, so cool!”

Skateboarding was a thing of their youth. We’d hunt out skateboard parks with ramps and pools where the boys would drop-in, loop, whip and hop about (far beyond any skill I ever had). They’d foregather with their friends to perform and perfect tricks. An early project I built was a quarter-pipe ramp, which the kids could roll-up, twist and squirt about — and sometimes crash and fall.

The initial ramp was a simple wedge made of three-quarter inch plywood undergird by two-by-fours and scrap wood. It rose from the driveway to about 18 inches high. Pretty good. The kids loved it. They’d roll down the street, into our driveway and cut a curve and twist across the wedge. Like many things I do, the ramp was subjected to progressive refinement. We made it taller and, using stubs, braces and flexible quarter-inch marine plywood, created a gentle curve, and a top lip, so it genuinely resembled a quarter-pipe, not some kick ramp. More kids were attracted to our house (a win in most any child’s esteem). Sometimes, we’d come home and see the ramp in full use, skateboarders training and experimenting. They were quite good.

I saw my own possibility for fun and elevation. I didn’t do skateboards owing to my poor balance, but I rode bikes. I had bought a used ten speed for $15 at a garage sale; it was my commuter bike.

I called attention to my boys, put on my cycling helmet, pedaled hard and launched off the ramp. I had a vision of Evel Knieval on his motorcycle, soaring over a stack of cars or across a river gorge, landing triumphantly, throwing his arms up in victory as he rolled smoothly out after his daring leap. My weight distribution and speed were wrong, so as I came over the ramp my bike nosed-down and dropped away. I continued in the air, at about six feet altitude, and then belly-flopped down to the street pavement. I wasn’t dead. It hurt like hell. I moaned. My wife Carolyn came out; the boys said, “Dad are you okay?” I said, "No." “Should I call an ambulance?” Carolyn asked. “No,” I groaned. “Just hot bath, hot tub.”

After about five or ten minutes of inert groaning and injury self-assessment, I lumbered-up, aided by family members, made my way into the house, had the bath, and medicated with pain pills and smears of ointment. I was pretty bruised-up, kind of like a soap-box derby crash of yore. Otherwise, I was somewhat pleased with myself. This is how we Wilson boys played.

Old fool was I. Cool dad.

###


Friday, July 6, 2018

Soot's Pond

Soot's pond is shaped like a tear, with spring and rain water flowing in across the top, the southern end, and flowing out a rocky bed due north, the direction John Mosby and his raiders famously advanced. At maximums, the pond is about 75 yards end-to-end and 25 yards across. They say it goes three-to-four yards deep, but I haven’t yet swum it and touched bottom. I will.

On still days the pond water can be clear to near five feet. On rainy days, it is opaque, the color of tobacco spit. Floating in the pond middle, on a sunny day, we may see the swamp monster, a mossy snapping turtle about two feet from snout to tail. He could bite off a toe, or another tender bit. But I think him all-timid — Give me my daily mash of detritus, perhaps a young fish or frog, and move on. Life advances, says the swamp monster, sometimes slow and phlegmatic, sometimes sparklingly fast. There are dozens of black bass and catfish a foot long or so, and hundreds more fingerling, crappie, frogs and whatnot beasts. It is a lovely place. I set there and think, or imagine, or imagine I’m thinking. Sometimes I’m just sating my curiosity with a local whiskey or ale. I watch thoughts and writing snips come in and out, across my brain’s imperfect stage. Great words appear, and they disappear before the laptop is cracked. Writing is best, I guess, when not air drawn, but with fingers on keyboard, or pen to paper. At least it is not lost.

The pond flows out a small vee in the berm, a shallow channel lined with smooth stones and flagellating mosses, and falls into a swale below. When the water flow is high, after a rain or during most of springtime, a second pond forms in the fen, bordered by the stone fence, and shot through with fallen tree, ferns, mosses, other ancient plant and rot. The lower pond is the more scary place, home to snakes, cottonmouth vipers, thick poison ivies, and cutting bramble. In spring it is a thrumming orchestra of peepers — leopard, bull and tree frogs. Raptors and herons fly in and swoop to dine at Soot’s Camp’s ponds, probe the fen, grab and guzzle a small beast, and fly off.

Hummingbirds and bluebirds are constant companions on the granite flat, the house and homestead above the pond. My guests and I tend to stay there, lounging in Adirondack chairs or benches I built. Dogs run here and there, slipping into the pond for a drink or swim. They may return mucky, so we soap their coats and hose them down, pulling out an errant tick or bramble when we can.

A family of coons lives by the pond. I see one or two on occasion, pawing at the algae’d surface from a big rock, maybe grabbing a small turtle or crappie to eat. A large heron swoops in late in the day. She sits in the tree, silhouetted by the gloaming sky. Maybe she’ll swoop down and pluck dinner from Soot’s pond.

A train whistle blows in the background, a mile off, down Leeds Manor, aside Goose Creek. The wheels thrum over the rails and cross-members.

My whiskey is soft.




Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Poolesville Road Race

Saturday, May 12, 2018, was magical. I rose early and drove from DC north into Maryland, having volunteered to serve as the medic for the National Capital Velo Club’s (NCVC) Poolesville Road Race. When I arrived about 7:15, there was a purposeful bustle of the race getting organized — police officers, race officials, club members setting-up registration, a bicycle repair tent, port-a-potties, food truck — all told, a crew of about 50 preparing to stage six races ranging from 32 to 74 miles for several hundred men, women and junior cyclists.

Poolesville is a unique and, for some, most favored race. It traverses country roads for a ten-mile loop in upper Montgomery County across farmland, woods and aside the Potomac River and C&O canal. One section along River Road is hard-pack dirt and gravel. It elevates riders’ thoughts to the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix, one of the greatest and most grueling races of the European classics. It is also where, as riders quickly descend the paved Edwards Ferry Road and turn right onto the dirt, we see a lot of crashes.

~~

There was an immense warmth as I stood amidst the race-prep action. I held back tears of joy and nostalgia.

From 2004 to 2011 almost every weekend morning from March to September I was at bike races with my boys, Nathan and Avery. I served in a number of capacities. Initially, as a flummoxed parent trying to do things right — from pinning the race number on my child’s jersey in the right spot, cheering riders, filling and handing out water bottles in feed zones, to taking photographs as a race photographer, to being trained and working as a race official, to performing medical duties (I was trained as an emergency medical technician).

It was a full and joyous life. In about 2006, I was named Team Director for the age 18-and-under NCVC squad. We became quite good, winning a national title for the best developmental team, and preparing talented riders who later rose to compete as professionals across the United States and around the world.

When my children went on to college and beyond, I stopped my intense involvement in the bike racing scene. At Poolesville this day, dressed in my medic garb (purple EMT gloves, gauze sponges, and bottles of saline solution poking out my pockets and backpack), dear old friends came and hugged me. Myron, the lion and long-time president of NCVC, Mimi and Jim, distinguished national race officials, Claudia, Tom, Marc, Bill, Ryan and dozens, racers and friends. Almost all had been captured in my photographs over the years and worked side-by-side with me as a volunteer. Some I had tended to after race crashes. I was “Doc Willy,” my moniker from elementary school, where I cared for buddies who got busted up in the DC schoolyard. This was a nest and community where I raised and supported my boys.

~~

Serving as medic is like sailing — hours of boredom mixed with moments of “terror and chaos.” I rode in a car that followed the race packs around the course, traveling about 120 miles across the day, at an average speed of 15 miles per hour. I watched as a woman racer, "Marilyn," tried to move up in the peloton of about 30 racers and, by mistake, edged right off the road. She tumbled and flipped over the top of her bike. Her left-side skin, jersey and shorts were shredded, shoulder, arm, and hip. Marilyn’s alertness and level of consciousness was normal. She was in pain. I assessed her as stable and gave her gauze sponges for immediate self-care and returned to the medic car (my duty was to attend to trauma, to save lives, and stay with the race pack). Marilyn returned to the race start area. I later cleaned and treated her with saline, povidone-iodine, and occlusive bandages. I gave her supplies so she could also wash and treat her injury in private areas in a private room.

While following the later “Pro 1/2/3” race our radio crackled and my cell-phone rang. A rider was down and needed assistance at Corner 5, the start of the dirt section. We pulled in and parked out of the way. A young man, "Thomas" was standing unevenly near his dusted-up bike; other volunteers and officials stood about. I looked at Thomas and sat him in a chair. He was alert and oriented by four standard measures (AO4). Thomas had come fast into the gravel section and, it seemed, flew over his crashing bike in superman position, landing predominantly on his front right-side. He had abrasions and lacerations from head to toe. My assessment indicated that an ambulance was not needed. (None was called.) Most serious, Thomas had an avulsion of skin and tissue on his chin and jaw that exposed a spot of underlying white tissue, which I surmised was bone. Thomas initially reported little or no pain, “just a numb feeling.” Later, he said, as the adrenaline wore off, the injuries hurt. I performed an initial saline wash and povidone-iodine clean of Thomas's wounds over about 20 minutes, checked his symmetry, palpated his thorax, re-checked alertness, and had Thomas transported back to the race start.

After the race concluded, I returned to the start area and further cleaned Thomas's wounds, applied 4 or 5 occlusive bandages to the larger wounds (excluding his chin, which was not amenable to bandaging, given Thomas's beard), and applied Neosporin ointment to Thomas's unbandaged abrasions. I had him self-clean and treat his chin, given the tenderness of the injury and confusion of flaps of skin and exposed tissue. He salved his chin generously with ointment. I gave Thomas additional gauze sponges, occlusives, saline, and Neosporin, and advised a soon visit to a hospital emergency room or his doctor. His chin would require stitches, and likely debridement and cosmetic surgery.

We joked that while he did not win a race trophy today, Thomas would have a trophy on his chin for a long time.

Thomas was very grateful for this care. I learned he is a third-year medical student at Temple University in Philadelphia. I noted that I was honored, a basic EMT treating a doctor, a balancing of skills and need.

~~

I got home a bit late, 5 PM, and washed and shaved myself thoroughly. (Though I wear medical gloves and protective gear, I always feel a bit tainted by blood, body fluids and medicines after duty.) I put on my good suit, white shirt and blue tie, spritzed with after-shave, and headed to a charity event with high society in McLean, with my love.

Life is fine.


Ed. -- patient names are changed to respect privacy.

Race photos by Claudia GM -- http://claudiagm.zenfolio.com/p626684369#hab65f8c3

Monday, May 7, 2018

Soot's Camp

Soot’s Camp is Open – Time to Visit
3596 Leeds Manor Road, Markham, Virginia 22643
571.239.6772 – jamesrwilson@gmail.com



Lots to do – read, walk, enjoy a cup or glass, gaze at the pond or a fire, visit with friends, build something, ride thy bike, write the Great American Novel ... Nearby highlights –




We’re out most weekends – Call or text to confirm



Soot’s Camp Directions
3596 Leeds Manor Road, Markham, Virginia 22643
571.239.6772 – jamesrwilson@gmail.com

From DC/Beltway (about 45 minutes) –

• From Beltway (I-495), take Route 66 West to Markham, Exit 18
• At bottom of exit, turn left onto Leeds Manor Road, Route 688
• Stay on Leeds Manor Road (cross John Marshall Highway / Route 55 just south of I-66 … do not turn left or right on Route 55 … even if your GPS says to …)
• Cross small creek and turn right; continue on Leeds Manor Road over railroad tracks and about one mile to Soot’s Camp, at top of hill on right
• Park where convenient on driveway
• If driveway is full, continue up Leeds Manor Road about 75 yards and turn left into gravel road and park where convenient; walk back (be careful)

From Northern Virginia (e.g., Dulles Airport) –

• Take Route 28, Route 15 or Route 17 south to Route 66 West, directions as above

Cyclists –

Bike pump, water, tools around back ...







Monday, April 23, 2018

Ricalton Research -- 4.2018

James Ricalton in his study, Waddington, NY

Roger Bailey, a retired art professor from Saint Lawrence University in Canton, New York, reached out to me a year or so ago because he is interested in my great grandfather and namesake James Ricalton. James was a great but largely unheralded photographer and explorer. James’ photographs are in many collections, including the Library of Congress, Smithsonian, and Metropolitan Museum of Art. He did much work for Thomas Edison.

Roger saw this and wanted to explore who Ricalton was. I have a pretty good trove of Ricalton writings and artifacts, from the chest he packed to carry material down the Saint Lawrence, to his diary from his 1909 walk from Cape Town to Cairo, to various photographs, Edison notes, and Kikuyu carvings. I also know Ricalton and his stories through his daughter, Mary, a beloved friend, my paternal grandmother.

~~

We hit off easily. I picked Roger up at the GWU Metro Thursday evening and we came to my Georgetown townhouse, and poked through various papers, boxes and troves, discovering stuff of which even I was unaware. Then we went to a local pub, Sovereign, for dinner and beer. On Friday, Roger spent the day at my house reviewing material, with a trip to the Library of Congress to meet with a curator. The curator, Josie, was wonderful. She showed us various references and, most fantastic, moving pictures Ricalton had made — in Cairo, Egypt, and most likely Canton and Shanghai, China, c. 1897. (Specific provenance of these old but now digitized films requires further research.) My father George had always said we should go to the Library to see Ricalton’s films, but we never did. (Dad, a writer, was much more a man of “should do” than “do.”) So this visit with Roger felt a bit warming for me, akin to a lost father-son activity.

On Monday, we visited with the senior photography curator at the American History Museum, focusing our insights and interests. In a couple weeks I will meet with a noted antique and old-book expert to gain more knowledge, and perhaps learn other references. Roger and I surfaced a few new Ricalton materials. I am continuing my research into Ricalton’s Africa journeys, in particular, his responses to adversity that ranged from technical inconvenience to medical trauma and death of a young tribesman, to the loss of Ricalton's son Lomond by typhoid pneumonia in British East Africa.

I remain in search of Ricalton photographs or writings from Abyssinia, what we know today as Ethiopia (where I do charity work).

~~

Ever to learn. -- James Ricalton Wilson (Jim), 4/24/2018

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Post (the movie)

Steven Spielberg and Amy Pascal’s movie The Post is a compelling depiction of the decisions made by Katherine Graham (played by Meryl Streep) to publish the Pentagon Papers in opposition to the Nixon administration, against the advice of her lawyers and investors, and in support of her news staff led by Ben Bradlee (played by Tom Hanks). Two themes stand out: Freedom of the press against an ill-motivated government and the courage and insight of a very impressive woman, Mrs. Graham.

Like many documentaries, the movie was selective to fit a complex event into a two-hour film – to paraphrase Mrs. Graham’s husband, Philip, it was a rough draft of history. What was missing included the decisive Bazelon appeals court scene between Pentagon officials with a “top secret” supposedly contained in the Pentagon Papers, which the Administration forcefully argued supported non-publication, and the Washington Post lawyers and experts, highlighted by George C. Wilson’s decisive testimony. This deeper investigation of prior restraint and rule-by-facts is covered by Geoffrey Cowan’s 2008 play Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers and described by CBS's interview with George.

I had an insight from George, my father, that fit nicely with Spielberg’s movie, which I submitted to Pascal’s creative executive early in 2017. It fit nicely with movie scenes portraying the tension between Mrs. Graham and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara – though it may have been over-elaboration, given the already effective screenplay.

Here’s part of the bit I offered: “Every time Robert McNamara saw Katherine Graham, Secretary McNamara would jab his finger at her (I imagine at a high society Georgetown cocktail party) and say: ‘George Wilson is the worst reporter in this town.’ Mrs. Graham would turn, smile and say, ‘I know.’ (We like it that way, she'd convey.)”

Dad had a strong track record taking on the military and Pentagon on many counts, wrote sharply and critically about the Vietnam War, sometimes covering the front page of the Post with three stories of breaking news.

An amazing thing about Mrs. Graham, Dad later reflected, was that she never told Dad or others about Secretary McNamara's criticisms. She kept the newsroom from this undue or tilting influence. Mrs. Graham was extraordinarily decent.

In any case, please see The Post, an enlightening and hopeful film. You can purchase a copy of Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers play on Amazon or learn more from this USC Annenberg web site.

-- Jim

-- originally published on Facebook on January 1, 2018

References --

-- The Post movie -- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Post_(film)
-- Top Secret (play): The Battle for the Pentagon Papers -- http://topsecretplay.org (USC Annenberg)
-- Top Secret (play/docudrama) on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Top-Secret-Battle-Pentagon-Library/dp/1580813879
-- CBS New article about George C. Wilson and Bazelon courtroom scene -- https://www.cbsnews.com/news/reporter-recalls-role-in-pentagon-papers-saga/

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Time to Cry


11.14.2015 -- Why do I cry? I am very fortunate. I was walking my boxer Soot in the woods and fields at Langley Forks, adjacent to the CIA. A soccer game had mustered in the lower field. Soot ran and leapt with joy, cavorted as we walked about the upper field and through the woods. The day was beautiful, crisp air, blue skies, and puffy white clouds -- cliche. We walked about the soccer game at the lower field. The grass was damp but crisp. The players were good, very good; a mix of men and women in their twenties and thirties, I surmised. Cheers and lacing teamwork, as they cut and pushed the ball back and forth, quick stepping in corners or about an opponent. About two-dozen spectators sat on benches and folding chairs at the side of the field. Young children ran about, dodging in and out of spectators, between blankets and coolers. Meadow, woods, and a bit of marsh surround the field. Soot was in heaven, nuzzling the crisp, dried grasses, golden-hued, rolling and gyrating on her back. I was crying.

This was the field some 40 years past where I had run joyously, running laps for fitness and playing rugby with many beloved friends. Age and injury had taken away my athleticism. But I cried because of the gap, the missing joy of this experience, for my boys. In the restricted and constrained lives that they were given, I felt they missed some of the careless joys I had. And I missed holding them; I missed their happiness and love, which was somehow abrogated in a broken relation. I walked further with Soot and sat in the tall grass at a meadow, out of sight. Soot rolled joyously. I began to sob.

The night before I was at Blues Alley with Adriene, an artist and creative, a journalist, friend of Barack and Michelle, and many. We were listening to Jonathan Butler, a South African, who sang and played deeply, soulfully. His work includes a tribute to Nelson Mandela, which I had listened to earlier this week, and cried. My seat and table had me twisting to watch Jonathan, about eight feet away on stage. Various lights shined. Tears flowed on my face. It was the beauty of Jonathan’s music, the close scene, Adriene, and my release from Ethiopia.

When one walks about the impoverished, the destitute, and as much or more, the givers who make things better, much comes to the soul. I was heavy with emotion. Joy, yes, because we made things better. But trouble and sadness because things are so bad. “Shee-shee-shee,” replayed for me. I wanted to go back, to help more, and give comfort.

I was also afraid. Adriene did not know until I told her. Nor did the band. (I told the keyboardist, Arlington Jones, after the show.) More than 100 people had just been killed in Paris, victims of coordinated terrorist attacks. Many were youth attending a concert, inside the Bataclan, slaughtered by submachine gun. Others were dining in a couple popular Right Bank restaurants. Others were incised, avulsed and compressed by suicide bombs. Paris was littered in blood.

The event was live, as we listened to soulful music in a nightclub in Georgetown. I checked the exits, my path there through people, tables and chairs. How I would pull Adriene down and cover her if something happened. The blood, death, trauma, and injury in Paris were alarming, but I don’t think I cried because of it. I cried because of the beauty of the human response. Those who care, those who ran in to aid (and some thus killed), those who opened their homes to the injured and displaced. (“#Porteouverte” was the social media hash tag -- Our door is open if you need.) I cried because of the innate beauty of the human response, like those who gave me care, those in Catalog.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Those We Serve -- Liver Cancer

Liver Cancer

10.27.2015 – I had dinner with Dr. Alemayehu at Rodeo, a cowboy-themed open-air restaurant in Bole, Addis Ababa. It was lovely; wood fires burned ambitiously in large pits about the patio. I had steak and beer; Alemayehu, chicken and rice and mineral water. We coursed over many topics, from the deeply personal to operational matters for our charitable healthcare program, EHN. We spoke of the larger framework of governmental health programs, charity and NGO management, including work by the Gates Foundation. I said I understood that the government’s model is to provide a healthcare worker (a nurse) or two for every 100 households, and one clinic for every 1,000. I thought this was good, and hoped that it would put my small non-profit out of business.

Alemayehu lamented the quality of care at the large health centers, and said there are still large gaps that EHN and NGOs fill. In fact, today, he said, he saw a man [1] who had terrible stomach pain. He had been to multiple doctors and health centers. He paid 1,700 ET Birr (about $90 USD) for an invasive endoscopy. They had given him medicines and many tests. Nothing improved. Alemayehu touched the man, palpated his abdomen. He felt a mass on his liver. He conducted ultrasound. There was a large mass, a tumor. LeAlem’s lab analyzed the patient’s liver enzymes and function. The numbers were very high. The man had liver cancer, and was going to die. Alemayehu respectfully and kindly gave the accurate diagnosis and prognosis. The man was comforted, thankful, after months of stress and wrong diagnosis and treatment.

We discussed the patterns where the large health centers perform the function, but do not treat the patient, and as a result they miss things. I’ve seen this in the United States, for example, where my father was on needless chemotherapy (Neupogen) for months, and my mother’s amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease) went undiagnosed by esteemed practitioners. (Even the suggestion of ALS, by my father, was laughed at by our family physician, my wife’s doctor.) So nothing is perfect. But my base sense is the medical care provided by a patient-focused doctor, who seeks to understand the full context, is better. More, I think a community-based physician in a developing country like Ethiopia may be more skilled because he or she has to cope with a broader array of affliction, with less technical intervention and support. In the main, a third-world community doctor, like Alemayehu, is very closely connected to those he treats.



[1] The subject is a private patient, not an EHN beneficiary.

Those We Serve -- Kittens

Kittens

10.27.2015 – A few doors down our next beneficiary lived in a similar one-room hovel, a bed, a couple of boxes as chairs, and a box of kittens and mom-cat. She paid about 35 cents US (7.5 Birr) per month in subsidized rent. For the prior four years she had lived on the street under a plastic tarp. She was about 50 years old, clothed in bright colors and beautiful. I insisted she sit next to me, atop her bed, legs trailing down towards the room center. She had suffered so much, but was thankful for the medical care we gave. With the health care, she was now able to get out of bed and go to work, where she could make money to help support her daughter (who had lived under the plastic tarp with her). Her deferential sensitivity struck me. I wrapped my arm around her back. Her husband, her daughter’s father, had died several years ago, of AIDS. She and her daughter are HIV positive. I gave 200 Birr, about 2-year’s rent. Better, I hope, a good meal.

Those We Serve -- Maggot Head

Maggot Head

While Kneeling describes recognition and a compassionate response, other recognitions did not yield such kindness. There are many poor, begging on the streets of Addis. Some with grave deformity, young children pressing out before their mothers, old thin women pointing a finger into their mouths, ‘give me food.’ My one-kilometer daily walk from the Jupiter hotel to LeAlem Higher Clinic passed perhaps a dozen sad cases. I did not take pictures. In the first block, a higher sidewalk in front of construction sites, I’d walk past men sleeping on the cement, splayed like fish on a dock. One fellow’s head, face, and neck were crawled over by hundreds of white maggots. This was shocking. I knelt; I thought, should I bring him to the hotel room and have him bathe? Part of me considered buying a bottle of disinfectant alcohol and swabbing and cleaning his head, then bringing him to the clinic for de-lousing and medication. I did nothing but let him sleep. There are limits and one develops filters in such situations. When I was trained as an emergency medical technician (EMT), we learned ‘scene safety’ as a first, most important rule. You have to protect yourself. An ill or dead caregiver is a greater loss than one person’s suffering, than to go forward with an unsafe incident. With maggot head, I considered my own susceptibility (and that of the next person to sleep in my hotel room). Also, I thought about the general structure of the problem. A man without employment, sleeping on the street, covered with maggots. There are many contributing problems that need repair to make a durable solution. My conscience was also eased by the fact that I give so much already, to mothers and children in need, in Addis. Alas, though, it is an important question and urge. We wish we could fix many more things. There is no shortage of need, of the compelling and grotesque that may be improved. But we are mortal, and cannot cure all.

Those We Serve -- Kneeling

Kneeling

10.27.2015 – We were at Meseret Humanitarian Organization, a women-focused NGO in Addis Ababa, sub-city Kirkos, to see their tour of capabilities and accomplishment. After, we visited several beneficiaries. The first was a mud-walled, tin-roof home about 12 feet square, with a rear niche that was for cooking. A man, about 46 years old, sat rocking on an upturned bucket for his chair. He was crying gently, “Shee-shee-shee,” as he rocked back and forth. With the oncoming of three social workers and me, his niece, a beneficiary, turned and relocated him to another chair (an upturned box with a towel atop), more in the corner, out of the way. He complied. We learned he was mentally retarded, deaf, and blind in one eye. Assembled in the dark house, we talked our normal business with the beneficiary: How have you worked with Meseret, what has been your experience with healthcare provided by LeAlem? Do you have children? How are they? Are there areas we can improve? The woman answered steadfastly and appreciatively. She had had right leg pain and diffuse stomach pain, epigastric pain. She had been treated well at LeAlem, with respect and good results. (This wasn’t her prior experience at other centers, she said.) Her children had scalp fungus, which was treated with antifungal cream and antibiotics provided by EHN/LeAlem, and cured. We spoke for about 15 minutes. These things passed through. I took a couple pictures. Four healthcare workers. We’d ignored the man. I asked, “Can I touch him?” I kneeled on the mud floor, and reached my right hand to the man’s back, and stroked. I reached and held his left hand, and squeezed gently. I drew a bit closer, and held for a few minutes. His crying and rocking stopped. The man’s older sister, also disabled, had hidden herself behind a dingy curtain in the kitchen. She started to cry.

We stepped out of the house to the alley. I lingered. The sister came out and hugged me. “Thank-you-thank-you-God-Bless,” she said. I touched her face and said, “Thank you.”

Sunday, October 25, 2015

On the Stoop ...


I love the city ... flat-faced old row house, I was leaning against the wall (my stoop), watching the traffic -- people on different paths, edgy car drivers, big trucks -- like a child obsessed with train tracks, parking spaces filling and emptying. When Nobue arrived, we coursed a mile to the market, for a baguette (or not), Belgian beer, and tarts. Dinner in the old basement, new industrial kitchen, warm spaghetti and absinthe for the soul ... hugs and dessert ... so much: I love the city ...


Saturday, October 17, 2015

Africa 10.17.2015

Saturday, 10/17. Good launch in Ethiopia. Landed 6:40 AM at Bole, cleared customs and got to Jupiter Hotel in Cazanchis about 9:30. (Melaku met me at airport and drove.) Not having slept on plane, after unpacking clothes and gear, I quickly fell to sleep until early afternoon. I then headed over to clinic for visits with Gashaw and Dr. Alemayehu. Spent a couple hours making observations and note taking, including reviewing beneficiaries' case records and developing questions for formative evaluation. Then a couple kilometer walk to Hilton for a late pizza and Amber beer, outside on lower terrace with a small concert underway -- African and American songs. Very lovely. Walked home and continue to read and write. Cape Town looks like a good respite later in the trip. I brought Ricalton's diary of his 1909 time there, including hikes up Table Mountain and trekking the area with his view cameras. (Ricalton subsequently trekked from there to Cairo.)