Saturday, May 14, 2016

Patriotism

This is the oath I swore to when I enlisted in the Air Force:

"I, Bracy Ratcliff, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God."

Richard Nixon was my Commander-in-Chief, and we all know what he became. Yet, not once, not for the briefest of moments was I ever tempted to violate my oath. That year we were still fighting a war predicated on the ‘domino theory’ which speculated that if South Viet Nam fell to the communist North, the other countries around the Pacific rim would fall like dominos until we were fighting communism at our front door. It turned out to be completely wrong. We never did fight any communists in Baton Rouge or Port Sulphur. Still, I was not tempted to violate my oath. In fact, I cannot imagine a scenario that would might push me to violate my oath. My sense of patriotism back then still guides the way I live my life---I can disagree with my President, my Congressman, or anyone else for that matter, but I can do it in a respectful manner, without name calling, without threats, without arrogance; and, when I disagree I feel compelled to put together a thoughtful, cogent explanation of my position on a matter. And, I can swallow my pride and work beyond the differences for the greater good.

I hope for this every time we have a national election: when the votes are counted and one side is declared the winner, the other side, IF they are PATRIOTS, will step forward and offer, “How can we help to address the issues of our nation?” What I see instead is the losing party spending all their time and energy trying to make the winners look bad—allowing immigration problems to continue, allowing threats from outside and inside our borders to worsen, to allow our economy to continue to struggle, to allow violence and anger to flourish and grow, while petty differences occupy those who would have the power to fix things. When’s it gonna stop?

PS, I’m writing in Bracy Ratcliff in the WA primary next week. I can’t possibly do any less or any worse than the other candidates.

STAR GATE, a novel by Bracy Ratcliff

STAR GATE: BILL’S HARDWARE AND PAINT

BRACY RATCLIFF

(Excerpt)

William Ward Weatherford, better known as Bill, would take credit for the ubiquitous “www” preceding every unique address on the internet. Bill is an inventor. His “day job” though is his hardware store, Weatherford Hardware and Paint—though everyone referred to it simply as Bill’s. He is very proud of it. Not only does Bill’s offer every part required to build or repair most anything you could imagine, Bill personally offers tips and how-to advice on just about every topic you could imagine involving hardware, construction, electronics, genetic engineering, and even rock and roll music. He staffed his store with experts, as well—mostly retired builders, contractors, mechanics, mixed with a handful of enthusiastic college students—budding engineers, scientists. The store was really a cooperative, of sorts. The employees shared the substantial earnings, so it wasn’t hard for Bill to attract talented, imaginative workers.

Bill didn’t think of himself as a genius; in fact, his IQ was, according to his fifth grade guidance counselor, just average. Bill was satisfied with that. He was a realist and many years ago had to acknowledge that, though he was very good at some things, he was just average at many others. He hated biology, for example, and struggled to make a C when he took the class as a high school sophomore. He did love to read, however, and found he could read very fast. He devoured anything in print—anything—and seemed to be able recall everything he had ever read. He wasn’t much on most history, though he was an expert on the history of machines—all the way back to the first machines, levers, wheels, striking tools. And, he had the remarkable ability to figure out how things work. He could quickly dissect any machine, in his head, and determine what made it work. Often times he was able to rebuild a machine to either make it simpler, more efficient, sturdier, smaller, or even more attractive. The first time he did this was with door knobs in his grandfather’s home. He was 7 or 8 years old and his grandmother’s arthritis made it difficult for her to turn a knob. It was about 1968 and electronics were not very sophisticated—and Bill knew that—and he didn’t have any money to spend on building gadgets. What he did have was access to a huge junk pile of used and abandoned small appliances behind the old hardware store in town. It was next door to his family’s bakery and the owner had no objection to Bill exploring the mess. He dug around in the tons of mostly rubbish until he found motors, pulleys, cables, switches and wires needed to automate four doors in his grandmother’s turn of the century house. He mounted the switch in a hole he cut in the doors so the switch could be reached from either side, attached the motors via cables to the existing door knobs, plugged the motor power cords into nearby sockets and now all anyone had to do was push a button, the door latch would open and the doors, with newly lubricated hinges, would open right up. After two weeks of working on the project, with Grandpa’s help on some of the cutting and mounting, he stood back to admire his work and wondered . . . why did Grandma always want the doors closed anyway? No one locked doors in those days.

Bill’s next invention was a bread slicer. His family bakery wasn’t big enough, nor profitable enough to buy the big commercial machines, so he spent hours looking at photographs until he figured out exactly how it worked, then he built a smaller, simpler version. The machine had powered conveyer belts leading to it. All they had to do was set a fresh loaf on the belt, let it go and it came out the other end neatly separated into ¾” slices. Then it could be pushed forward with a spatula shaped tool into a brown paper bag, ready for sale. Word got around to other bakeries and the interest surprised Bill and his family. Other bakers wanted the slicer and they were willing to pay handsome prices for one. A restaurant and kitchen supply salesman saw Bill’s slicer and thought Bill could sell the design to a big manufacturer, but Bill wasn’t interested. His Father thought they should sell the design and use the money to help put Bill through college, but Bill didn’t want to go to college. At about the same time that he realized his mechanical ability he also decided what he wanted to do with his life. He knew he didn’t want to be a baker, and thankfully his two brothers did so the pressure was off there. What he did want to do was build things, invent things. He loved gadgets and tools and had a million ideas that he wanted to explore. He would open a hardware store, help people fix stuff around their homes, and he would use whatever money he made to finance his inventions.

Chapter 2

30 years later, Bill was hard at work on his latest invention. He wasn’t certain, but he thought this was #1000, counting his electric door knobs as #1, but there were a few that he didn’t finish for one reason or another, a couple others that were duplicates sort of—or maybe improved versions of earlier efforts. One thing that had not changed in all these years is that he used scrap parts, mostly, to build his prototypes. Over the last twenty years he had accumulated his own supply of junk, paying pennies for any kind of machine or gadget broken, tossed aside, and recycled in his own personal fashion. He had an unlimited supply of parts for electronic gadgets because when they broke people just threw them away. Electronics were now very sophisticated, but a lot of stuff was designed with some level of planned obsolescence in mind. In other words, it would break after a time and the cost to repair it was more than the cost of a new one. So, they just dumped the old one. Bill studied solid-state circuitry, printed circuit boards, and computer chips as they replaced vacuum tubes, and he was determined to become an expert, as he had on electricity, plumbing, carpentry, pipe-fitting, welding, machine work, automotives . . . he was also somewhat of an expert in aeronautics, aircraft engineering, jet propulsion, pneumatics, hydraulics, thermo-dynamics, and some other things—in spite of his dislike of biology, he had stumbled across a book about the “Double Helix,” and became fascinated with Watson’s and Crick’s discovery of DNA. His interest and knowledge grew and he eventually became somewhat of an expert on genetic engineering and cloning. He thought of the process as mechanical rather than biological—he still had that mental block that got him a C in 10th grade.

The new invention was the most complicated thing he’d ever built. It incorporated most if not all of the skills he had built, most of the knowledge he had accumulated, and he wasn’t even sure what it was going to be. He thought he had learned enough about time travel to know it can’t be done. Stephen Hawking said the absence of tourists from the future is sufficient proof that time travel is impossible—and Bill pretty much believed Hawking, but had nagging doubt. He’d read that travel backward in time might somehow result in altering existence or might even lead to some parallel reality—both of which frightened Bill a little. Travel to the future didn’t make any sense to him—he tried to imagine the “future” and was convinced that it just didn’t exist. No solid mass was formed, yet, no light from the sun had beamed there, yet—so if there was a future, it was a dark, empty space.

His thought was that travelling fast enough would do something. If he could propel something (not himself, yet) at a speed beyond that of light, then it would disappear. But, where would it go? To the future? To oblivion? Would it return? Could it return without re-accelerating from the “other side?” Too many questions, but there was one way to find out—build a propulsion device that would generate speed in excess of 186,000 miles per second.

It would be a monumental task. No mechanical device of the current technology would survive that speed. A rotary device on bearings would burn up long before reaching the desired speed unless he could come up with new materials, new lubricants. Maybe some kind of linear accelerator, but how would he control it or monitor it. Current materials could not stand up to the stress. Whatever it was would take miles to reach the desired speed and any remote control equipment would outrun its signal as the device neared “C,” Einstein’s shorthand for the speed of light. Maybe he could speed up or slow down a light beam somehow.

Bill worked for several months on one idea and then tossed that one and moved on to another. Maybe time travel was impossible, but what about cloning. Maybe he should try to clone himself and become immortal. Being immortal didn’t intrigue him, but continuing his work for another generation might be worthwhile. He asked himself, “Isn’t that the same as being immortal?”

Bill needed something to help clear his head and nothing worked for him like rock & roll. He was in the mood for some Aerosmith, Dream On specifically. One of the first things he had done back when he had a few spare dollars was to buy the components for a good sound system. He had heard the latest surround sound systems but he really liked the older deep bass, two-channel stereo sound so he bought a Crown XLS 5000 amplifier with 1800 watts per channel; the speakers were more homemade than manufactured, but he found some Peavey cross-overs and hooked up the biggest, heaviest bass drivers he could find with a couple of Klipsch mid-range horns, and a pair of really good broad-range tweeters. He had gotten rid of all of his vinyl LP’s but not before dubbing them on CD’s; he regretted not waiting until he could copy them directly to MP3 format; but, he now he had everything on a couple of disk drives and had it all cataloged so he could quickly find anything, by artist, title, even key-words. But, he had his favorites, so it took only two clicks to load the song he wanted. He sat in his favorite chair, centered between the two speaker cabinets. He clicked on the “play” icon on the giant LCD monitor, leaned back and closed his eyes. Four minutes of Steven Tyler was usually enough, but today he clicked again on the “random” icon and waited to see what came up next from his favorites list; and, he was pleased to see Billy Gibbons and his foot-long gray beard pop-up. He stayed in his chair another eight minutes listening to a live version of La Grange from the ZZ Top Double-down Live album. His favorite music was designed to be listened to at max volume—and max volume on Bill’s stereo was very loud. It did the job—he could feel the deep bass and the percussion and the guitar riffs, and had “been away,” as he described it, just long enough and he was ready to get back to work.

From the outside Bill’s shop was deceiving. It looked like any other warehouse/lite industry workshop. A closer look revealed the true complexity of the building. The exterior walls were of steel-reinforced concrete and braced inside with a network of steel I-beams—engineered to withstand an 8.0 earthquake or a category 5 hurricane. The wires running from a nearby power pole served four-wire, three-phase 440 volt power; the vent fans near the roof were very quiet, but moved a lot of air. Inside there were huge machines, most of them designed and built by Bill, and likely unrecognizable to most people. There were some machine tools, lathes, mills; Bill could take raw steel stock, any shape, and turn it into just about anything. He had a small “clean” room in one corner with back-up power, clean DC voltage, HEPA filtration, where he built and tested some of his work.

He didn’t like working in the clean room, though. He liked being out in the shop with the sounds and smells—he felt like the atmosphere fed his imagination. He liked getting his hands dirty, he particularly liked the smell of machine oil. But, he liked to get clean as well. He spent extra money every week on stiffly starched cotton trousers and work shirts. He wore steel toed, steel-shank, oil-tanned work boots—the kind with the big metatarsal guard on top. They offered extra protection from electrical and chemical hazards. Bill also put on a hard-hat the moment he walked onto the shop floor, always kept good gloves, safety glasses, ear protection, and dust masks handy—and even had portable respirators, like fire-fighters use, hanging in strategic locations around the building. The shop had a built-in halon gas fire suppression system (even though the EPA outlawed halon); and, the building had a high volume overhead water sprinkler system, and sophisticated smoke and heat detection alarms. Bill was a big believer in safety. He had had his share of close calls over the years, working with high powered machines with lots of moving parts, flammable liquids, explosive gases—he learned from every incident and now took a moment before every job to imagine what might happen—the worst case scenario—and then took precautions to reduce the risk.

Chapter 3

The time travel thing was frustrating to Bill. There was little serious science on the practical aspects of it. Bill was glad there was no public funding of time travel research. He wouldn’t describe himself as a passionate person, but there were things about which he had strong opinions. One was public funding of research and development on any topic that did not serve the public welfare—and time travel was one of those things. That gave him an advantage over other inventors who might be working on things that might be considered far-fetched. Money was no object for Bill—most people didn’t know it, but Bill was rich, filthy rich. For years he resisted prodding from his brothers to sell his inventions—he had given away some of his best ideas and those ideas were busy making millions for other companies; but, he finally relented and let them sell his compact, energy efficient vapor-compression refrigeration device (heat pump) to a big manufacturer that put them in nearly every airplane, every ship, every motor home, every passenger train, every city bus, and most automobiles—on earth. He figured that the little gadget made him about 800,000,000 dollars (his third of Weatherford Industries net income) and that was small change compared to what his desalinization/water purification machine was making. His brothers had long ago given up the family bakery and shared in an efficient division of responsibilities running the new Weatherford business. Bill left much of the “front-end” work, he called it, to the brothers, but he insisted that he have some control over who bought the machines. His reverse-osmosis technology wasn’t brand new, but his machine was less expensive to build and to operate than anything built before it. He coupled the de-salting process with a purification module that could take the nastiest, dirtiest water, salt or fresh, and make it potable in no time. The large capacity machines could reliably supply de-salted sea water for a city of a million people, or irrigation water for millions of acres—he could literally turn desert into fertile farm land. He and his brothers agreed to sell the machines to anyone who could afford them, the DOD had them in every ship, cruise lines paid for them, strong governments in the Middle East and Australia paid for them; but wherever he could get poor countries to negotiate in good-faith, he supplied the machines and pipelines for free. His machines would soon end famine in Africa. Bill was especially proud of this, but according to his brothers there were problems associated with saving the poor populations of Africa—the public view of the plight of these ‘third world’ countries was overwhelming sympathy, but in the highest levels of government there was concern over how the economic and strategic balance of the world might change. Many of those who advised Presidents and Prime Ministers felt that there was grave danger in allowing “peripheral” nations into the circle of developed nations.

The brothers were much alike in that none of the three had any real ambition to be rich. And, they each had their own genius-type skills. Bill’s older siblings, Wallace and George, both were ideally suited for their supporting roles in the family business. Wally “kept the books” as he described it, but his job was much more than that—he was a financial genius. He had great instincts and had been accurately predicting changes in commodity prices and remarkably foretelling the profitability of companies in all industry segments. Consequently, the brothers’ investments had grown. Over the past decade they had invested nearly all of their income, several billion dollars, and that money had doubled and doubled again. Wally knew the exact value of Weatherford’s holdings at the beginning of every business day—but no one ever asked him about it. Neither of his brothers ever asked. George lived in Grandma’s & Grandpa’s old house, was the only married brother, had two sons, and was the semi-reluctant public face of Weatherford Industries. None of the brothers liked to say it aloud, but George was the best looking of the three and was a very good speaker. He had the ability to always know exactly what to say when pressed to speak on behalf of the company. His full-time job was as an illustrator for a very popular comic book—they called them graphic novels now since they were often much longer than an older style comic book.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Old-fashioned but not old!

I admit it, I am old-fashioned. Keep in mind, though, that old-fashioned in my case includes things like muscle-cars (loud, fast, and red), 1000 watt stereos (two channels) and loud rock & roll (15” woofers), a passion for college football & Saints, the food of our heritage (fried shrimp, red beans & rice, gumbo, etouffee, catfish, bread pudding . . . ), plain t-shirts, faded Levis, and Community dark roast (black, no cream, no sugar). It also includes things like opening doors for folks (any gender, any age, any person arriving just behind me or coming in as I’m going out or vice versa). It includes treating everyone I encounter with dignity and respect (until they prove undeniably not worthy of either), and it includes respecting my elders, though that segment of the population is dwindling fast. I’ve been told that I’ve continued the character traits taught to me by my father---and there can be no higher complement, so if that’s part of being old-fashioned, I couldn’t be prouder.