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 river which curled around my grandparent’s house, Boundary Point, in Easton, Maryland.

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 76).

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 part. 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 will 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 in 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 site 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 fom 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 ... Nearby highlights –

• Stribling Orchard – pick-your-own -- http://www.striblingorchard.com
• Marriott Ranch – trail rides, B&B -- http://www.striblingorchard.com
• Philip Carter Vineyard (2 miles) -- http://www.pcwinery.com
• Chateau O’Brien’s Vineyard (1 mile) -- http://www.chateauobrien.com
• Linden Vineyard (7 miles) -- https://www.lindenvineyards.com
• Ashby Inn – fine dining, B&B -- http://www.ashbyinn.com
• Orlean Pub (live music Saturdays) -- http://www.orleanmarket.com/
• Red Schoolhouse Antiques -- http://www.redschoolhouseantiques.net
• Downriver Canoe Company -- https://www.downriver.com
• Washington, Virginia -- dining, antiques, art -- http://washingtonva.gov
• Thompson Wildlife Area – https://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wma/thompson/
• Sky Meadows Park -- http://www.dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/sky-meadows
• Appalachian Trail (4 miles), Skyline Drive, Shenandoah River, Passage Creek (trout), Elizabeth Furnace, Skyline Caverns … bike rides – on and off road

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, as 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 Ms. 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 Ms. Graham and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara – though it may have been overelaboration, 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, brightly colored 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 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.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Catalog – Why Write? (Precis)

PrĂ©cis—Why Write?


Robben Island Prison, Cape Town, SA, where they held Nelson Mandela and others

A base reason for writing is to preserve – oneself, knowledge, ideas, experience – and in some way to change the reader. Change may occur by providing technical information such as how to develop a glass plate negative using chemicals in a darkened room, or a map providing guidance to a location down the road, or a pathway to the top of a complex mountain. More vastly, writing may change the way we think and how we feel.

Writing also serves the writer’s soul and mind, helping him [1] to understand, proportion, and organize. Writing and reading can engage so many responses: interpret, inflame, enlighten, entertain, relieve, inform, enrich, persuade, teach, memorialize, inspire, depress, defile, and many thousand more.

Catalog is here to capture, reveal, transfer, and inspire. This is an intertwined story of James Ricalton in Africa, destitute women and children of Ethiopia, and myself, James Ricalton Wilson.

Today, as written in 1905: “The public knows less of Ricalton, one of its obscure great men. He has gone through a long life, with his nose to his work, like a dog to a scent, heedless of fame and money. He is original, alone, and has done things no other man has done. It was he that Thomas A. Edison sent into all the tropical jungles twenty years ago [1885] to search for a vegetable fiber for the electric lamp… He has traveled through every country on the globe, exposing 75,000 negatives, and has photographed most of the great men of his generation … At the battle of Caloocan a soldier near him was winged; Ricalton picked up the useless rifle, grabbed the cartridge belt and went up with the skirmishers. At the siege of Tien Tsin he stood on the walls and photographed Americans as they were dropped by Chinese bullets. Little the public knows when it sees photographs of war how few of them come from the front. Ricalton is one of the few who gets the real things.” [2]

Ricalton's grandson, George Wilson, my father, a military reporter and war correspondent, was like this, too. George was at the front in Vietnam, in the trenches with mud soldiers in the A Shau Valley, in 1968. A young soldier at his side was shot through. (George was horrified and panicked; he unraveled a bit.) George was embedded with the Marines in Iraq at age 76, advancing from Kuwait to Baghdad, during the US-led invasion, in 2003. They called him ‘Canary,’ a detector for poison gas, because he slept unprotected on the ground, while the soldiers dug foxholes every night. George pondered destitution in Beirut during war with Israel in 1974; despaired high politics inside the Capitol and Pentagon; unraveled prior restraint by the military, saving Mrs. Graham, Mr. Bradley, and the Washington Post in 1971; and more. George would frequently say that he cared deeply about the ‘little people,’ those without voice; and he saw a core mission in giving voice to those without, cutting right, lighting truth, with his swift sword, the writer’s pen. George was reviled by a number, but he was loved by many more.

So many of my family, it seems, touched and observed trauma and mortality, and saw great moment and gave keen observation. Ricalton had a fascination with crude executions in India and China, war mortalities (the “opposite shore is lined with bloated human forms” [3]), and other scholarly detail and endings. He was a petulant and righteous Scot, soberly observing, bringing to light with his cameras, in writings, and public lectures, barbarisms and shocking tumult. Ricalton was cut down, himself, brought to his knees sobbing, as his beloved son of 24 years, Lomond, died before him, on May 26, 1914, stricken with jungle fever (typhoid pneumonia) over two weeks, in British East Africa, Kenya. (James and Lomond were working on a film project for Edison.)

Ricalton’s wife, Barbara Campbell, never spoke to him again. A man of thirty-nine Atlantic Ocean crossings and more than 500,000 miles journeying in 68 countries, and 100,000 photographs, Ricalton travelled abroad no more, after Lomond died. He walked his beloved Saint Lawrence River, many tens of miles a day, elongating his sadness, in Waddington, New York, where he died, angrily, on October 28, 1929.

Ricalton’s daughter Mary fell to her knees, too, 63 years after her brother Lomond’s death, when her grandson James Ricalton Wilson was gravely injured and not expected to live, after he was brutally struck by a drunk driver, on New Year’s, January 1, 1977. James’ brain was cut open by surgeons, and he lay in deep coma for days, before inching back.

33 years later, in 2010, James Ricalton Wilson, Jim, this writer, fell to his knees when a negligent truck driver struck down his beautiful 19-year-old son, Nathan, while he was training in Tucson, Arizona, for bicycle races in Europe and across the US.

Jim’s grandfather, Harold Ralston Gibbons (H.R.), who worked for Alfred Sloan, fell to his knees and begged God as he watched first his wife, Dorothy Francis, then his son, Junior, die, of influenza in 1918. H.R. was spiritually emptied and cast to zero. He married his son’s nurse, Dorothy (Dot) Binns. Subsequently, Dot herself mended as many as she could, and comforted those who did not mend (and died), as an infantry nurse during the Great War, in France, 1919.

What more of these people, our family catalog? How did they cope with tragedy, death, and loss? I learned and observed that they and we were many things. They grieved, they became furious, they mourned, they were derelict, they became spiritually vacant, and they cried and wailed. Some became drunk. Most were in some way extreme. Each was immensely deepened by their intimacy with loss, and in some way despondent. I sense each became painfully aware of his or her good fortune, to have not died or been wounded, and was thus drawn to charity and love, albeit sometimes with unformed vocabulary. Each found a need, new or sharpened, to make the world a better place. We continue to learn, and we try to better love, to “much love,” as the Gibbons meme impels.

Death and trauma can be cherished experiences, immensely enriching relationships, deepening personal knowledge; providing opportunities to nourish, comfort, and give; and awakening the survivor’s awareness of his good fortune. (The decedent also experiences great depth, but he ultimately can make no response.) One recognizes an immense gap between those who remain, and those who do not, between those who recover and those who fail. We observe a sense of inequity and are drawn with compassion to mend the gap, as we hope others will mend the gap, provide comfort, when we are afflicted.

Survivors of trauma may feel obliged to return the favor of compassion they received; they may have injured others in their broken recovery and experience guilt; and some may feel obliged to heal others in order to more fully repair themselves. I sense that members of the Wilson catalog carry these traits, some that are learned by unkind experience, others imprinted by family lore and behavior, and perhaps others made by epigenetic casting.

Let us look at their journeys and consider what is given. Let us also mind, but not deeply, contrary patterns, among those who flee, the avoidant. Perhaps we will find a bridge.



[1] My intent is to be gender neutral. Him/he/his can usually mean her/she/hers.
[2] Railroad Men, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, “An Intrepid War Photographer,” October 1904; p. 337.
[3] Ricalton, James, The Boxer Uprising, Underwood and Underwood, 1902; p. 193.



Ricalton in his Study, c. 1920


Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa

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.)

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Family Skiing

To the top we go, my sons and I, to the Vista Haus, for coffee, juice and muffins. At near 12,000 feet, we look over the high valley to peaks mng the Continental Divide. “Hey, Dad, this is great. It’s beautiful up here, I can see everywhere,” my son declares as he quaffs breakfast. The sun is brighter than ever, set amidst perfect blue. The air is thin, making me feel like an old man, struggling to keep up with my energy-filled boys.

We push off through the crunchy snow. “Whee!” and “Whoosh!” we go, slanting down a well-named run – Psychopath, High Anxiety, or Crescendo. My boys are shredders, bashing about on snow boards, while I carve and cut powder on 15 year-old skis, still serviceable, shrieking phosphorescent orange from days long gone by.

It’s a rush! I bend and fall forward, leaning onto the tips of my skis, tossing my back and pelvis up high, shoving my knees out over the toes of my boots. A subtle nudge right, coupled with a stronger push in the knees. I rise and press down and left, and repeat. Seven or eight times, and I stop and look up the hill. Behind me lies a gentle serpent cut in the snow. My boys follow, crisscrossing my tracks. One falls, and leaves a scattered, bright angel in the snow. He pops up and quickly rides down the rest. We three gather and look up at our art. “Awesome,” says my oldest. “Yahoo! That was great,” cries the younger, huffing to recapture his breath. I am inwardly jubilant, wondering at the temporary helix of family DNA carved in the snow.


-- From a lost journal, composed in June 2003, when my boys were in middle- and high-school. Breckenridge, Colorado.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Eulogy for George

George Cadman Wilson, July 11, 1927 - February 11, 2014

Thank you, so many, for sharing your love and memories of George.

Dad was an immense man, a man in full, who touched many people, and impacted the course of important human events – he helped end wars.

I am going to focus on one part of George that you may not know much about, because George was very private with his inner self.

George Cadman Wilson was the strongest man I ever knew.

He schlepped and lugged a rifle, armor, and backpack among Mud Soldiers in Vietnam. There he found great dignity, integrity, and selflessness – and, yes, humor.

At age 75, Dad enlisted as an embedded correspondent in the Iraq War drive to Baghdad. The young soldiers asked and thought, “Hey, how old are you? You must be at least 50.”

Dad had two major heart surgeries, in 1979 and about 1995. Dad was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome in 2001; this is sometimes caused by Agent Orange used in Vietnam … MDS kills most people in 6-7 years … Dad sailed past that.

Last March 2013, George and I went to Los Cabos, Mexico. He met an attractive 40-something journalist from Canada, and joined her for a trip to a fishing camp up north … His parting words were, “Jim, I’ll meet you at the airport Saturday.” There was a raw strength and masculinity to George.

He also had the strength to be sensitive, to cry and feel other’s pain. He certainly did this for me as I struggled from deep coma and traumatic brain injury for 35 dark days in 1977, and for many years beyond. In January, when we had an important family matter, apart from Dad’s cancer, Dad wrapped me in his arms and fought to find reason with life’s events, and we sobbed together.

The comfort George has given others is greater than any I have known or seen.

On Tuesday, February 11, two days after visiting with dear friends here with us today, Dad could barely communicate as he battled raging fever and sepsis that poisoned his blood. Abeje and I were at his bedside continuously, anointing Dad, providing morphine and other care.

This Titanic strong man, this New Jersey and Pennsylvania track star, rose to his final hurdle. I held and kissed him, calling my, Kathy's, and all our love into his ear, as he fought with every last fiber the air hunger that in the end took him from us and upward to heaven. I kissed and spoke to George as his breathing ceased, and caressed his wrist and neck until his pulse was no more.

George was an immensely strong man. His strength is not lost. You see it in his family. Kathy who works a farm, teaches school, and raises a beautiful daughter with Jason. Jim, me, who lived when very few expected him to survive, and fought mightily to gain successful footing in academics, at work, and family. Nathan, his grandchild, who survived a horrific accident when a truck hit him while riding in Tucson; he went on to win and place high in major bike races in the US and abroad.

The Wilson family is a strong family, not just raw physicality, but a family of deep love and courage.

My father gives us all a lesson, an example of a life lived quite well, and the strength to be kind. Let us carry this forward. Thank you.