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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com.

There’s no politically correct way to express this, but, yeah… ahhh. I feel a little out of place.

I’m a 56-year old conspicuously Caucasian guy in the crowd-packed center of the massive Mexicantown Cinco de Mayo street celebration late on a hot May afternoon in Detroit.

There’s heavy ganja haze in the air. It’s thick enough for a contact buzz. I’m carrying a huge U.S. flag in my hand, and feeling like I’m not particularly understood or appreciated here. Other than the double file line of about 50 quasi-military, tacticool, mostly white guys and girls with a distinctly law-enforcement look that are behind me, I feel pretty isolated. And pretty conspicuous with my flag and backpack as we navigate the tightly packed downtown party crowd of tens of thousands. There is almost no room on sidewalks, the streets are bumper to bumper and packed with crowds. And smoke.

We’re doing GORUCK Light Detroit 2018.

In the evolution of participation sports GORUCK events have emerged. With approximately 500 events scheduled in 2018, GORUCK challenges are huge now. Today I’m in my first one. I’m wondering if it’s coming slightly off the rails.

GORUCK Light is a team endurance event that includes military style calisthenics, running and a lot of walking or “rucking” between 8 and 12 miles in group formation while you wear a weighted backpack. Think basic military training, then add your new constant companion, a 10- 40-pound weighted backpack that makes everything that would have been easy for a reasonably fit person, a good bit tougher.

GORUCK events are inspired by contingency training for military special operations units.

Jason McCarthy, a fit, chiseled, dark- haired guy with that bolt upright posture that screams former military, founded the GORUCK brand in 2008. There are a lot of remarkable things about GORUCK, but the single most remarkable thing is its growth. In only ten years GORUCK has become huge.

McCarthy founded GORUCK while still in U.S. Army Special Forces and deployed in the Middle East during the Global War on Terror (GWOT). He made an emergency survival and evacuation “Go Bag” backpack for his wife who served in the Foreign Service. If there was a coup d’état, an IED attack, or any other threat in one of the most dangerous places on earth, Jason’s wife Emily could grab her “Go-Ruck” and evacuate with the essentials of food, water, additional clothing and rudimentary survival gear.

GORUCK founder Jason McCarthy (center), a former member of U.S. Army Special Forces.

Without knowing it, McCarthy had conglomerated an idea that had been around for a long time into a saleable brand, then began to parlay that brand into an image, an event and even a lifestyle.

GORUCK could have become just another military backpack brand, and in the wake of the 9/11, there are a lot of them. But Jason McCarthy also built something else along with his simple, sturdy, square, tech-free backpacks. He built a vibe.

The GORUCK vibe is a learned responsibility. It’s isn’t politically yawed, it’s not a “movement”. It’s an insight and acceptance of the real world in accelerated change. A change that in the post-9/11, Arab Spring and polarized U.S. political world can just as easily come off the rails as it can evolve into a new unified world. Either way it goes, the GORUCK ethos is adaptable. And capable.

Most participant endurance sports are compensation. Compensation for a sterile life lived too easily, too slowly, too conveniently. Our culture has become overweight and underprepared. If most Americans got a flat tire in a rural setting and had to walk six miles in hot weather to find a tow truck they would be in deep trouble, especially if their smart phone battery died. GORUCK Light acknowledges that. So, you train for the “real world” and gain some functional fitness and endurance while meeting friends and re-connecting with how to cooperate on a team. GORUCK events are no different in terms of compensating. They offer a “synthetic” or contrived set of discretionary challenges. But much of what you learn and practice at GORUCK is practical, and it may come in handy if you are ever have to walk your way to safety, or even make a connecting flight across the airport after the shuttle has left.

GORUCK Light Detroit on Saturday, May 5, 2018 in Hart Plaza.

In December, 2016 CNN reported that, “Karen Klein, 46, was headed to the Grand Canyon National Park with her husband Eric and their 10-year-old son. State Road 67, which leads to the canyon’s north rim, is closed for the winter and their car’s GPS detoured them through forest service roads.” Klein was stranded in her car and forced to endure a brutal, freezing 26-mile solo hike for 30 hours. CNN reported she, “Subsisted on twigs and drinking her own urine, to get help.”

In December, 2006 Daryl Blake Jane was stranded in snow in his Jeep Cherokee on a remote U.S. Forest Service road west of Mount Adams, Washington. He was forced to survive in his vehicle, in the depth of winter, for nearly two weeks.

In between these instances there have been many more when people had to rely on basic fitness and skills to survive. This isn’t the fringe “prepper” or “survivalist” mindset. This is basic responsibility for your own life and the people around you. GORUCK teaches and tests that responsibility.

Different from the vibe of Ironman triathlons with their finisher photos and individual stories, GORUCK is about the group. It’s about cooperation, teamwork, unity and acceptance. It is about admitting your shortcomings and about doing more than your share while not expecting an extra pat on the back. It’s about carrying someone else’s ruck when the going gets tough, and having them carry yours. Everyone has a bad moment in GORUCK. There are no solo finisher photos in front a branded banner, no medal around your neck. You get a Velcro patch for making it as a team for the hook and loop section of your GORUCK. Every tribe has its icons.

GORUCK events include a community service component where participants have to plan and execute a project that benefits the community. Every participant is required to play a role in the community service project. Our event participants collected food and clothing for homeless people in Detroit and raised cash donations for shelters.

GORUCK events vary in intensity from the GORUCK Light, the easiest and shortest introductory event, to the difficult long distance, non-stop GORUCK events like GORUCK Tough and GORUCK Heavy. GORUCK also provides practical skill training events.

The GORUCK events mesh well with the Crossfit, veteran, law enforcement, emergency services crowd but don’t have an exclusive mindset. This is about teamwork, integration, doing more than your share and accepting help when you inevitably have a weak moment. And everyone has a weak moment sooner or later. But the sum of the parts is greater than the whole, and that is one of the lessons of GORUCK. Two is one, one is none, and synergy gets everyone to the finish as a group. In GORUCK, you are never more than an arm’s length from a teammate. Stray too far, and you are doing another combination of push-ups, bear crawls or eight-count body builders. You don’t even go the bathroom in a GORUCK event by yourself.

We’re through Mexicantown now in full Cinco de Mayo swing. Now we’re making our way at a fast trot along Vernor Highway, underneath the iconic Detroit ruins of the Michigan Central Train Depot. We hump our packs up from underneath the train tracks and through Roosevelt Park where we pose for a group photo. From there it is double-time east on Michigan Ave. as we enter the final miles of the event at a fast clip.

Our team carries a simulated casualty on an improvised litter in the final miles of the event.

But one man goes down from heat, dehydration and the workload of moving fast with a heavy pack. Our “cadre”, the instructor/administrators of a GORUCK event, show us how to rig an expedient casualty litter from an eight-foot section of 1” tubular nylon climbing webbing. In only minutes, we have the “casualty’s” ruck off, I wear it on my chest with my ruck on my back, and we continue east at combat speed on Michigan Ave. You never know the distance or course in GORUCK. We may have another three miles to go, or another five. We may have to climb four parking structures, or one. We may have to cross open waterways (the GORUCK Light event earlier in the day in Detroit was in the Detroit River four times). Not knowing the course or distance is a component of the event.

Finally, we reach Washington Blvd. and take a right, still moving fast, still carrying our “casualty”, a roughly 230-pound lad who is finding out that riding in a field-expedient improvised litter isn’t much more comfortable than humping a 40-pound ruck. Everyone is out of water. There are no aid stations in GORUCK. No support. No mile markers. No course map before the event. Like selection for the most elite special forces units you never know when the instructors will stop the “class”, circle you around, and declare “ENDEX” or “end of exercise”.

The GORUCK baby elephant walk.

One of our scouts veers off into a parking structure two blocks from the Detroit River. It’s dark now and I wasn’t looking forward to figuring out how to move our “casualty”, our rucks and ourselves through the dark water of the Detroit River as the air cools way off. So, I’m glad when our team hits the stairs and begins to run up eight flights to the roof of the parking garage. I’m glad until I realize I am at the front of the group running up flights of stairs wearing two 35 pound rucks. By the fifth floor I am destroyed. Three to go.

At the top of the parking garage our instructors “Wild Will” and “DS”, one a former U.S. Air Force Special Operations Combat Controller, the other a former U.S. Marine Corps Special Operations member, both with combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, circle us around. What now? When does this thing end?

Wild Will unzips one of the team weights we have been carrying over the last 8 or nine miles, a massive and awkward cordura duffel, and produces a can of Dos Equis. We’ve learned a lot today at GORUCK Light Detroit, and perhaps the best lesson is that, whether it is in a big party crowd in Mexicantown on Cinco de Mayo or carrying your new buddy in an improvised litter down Michigan Ave in Detroit, GORUCK Light brings people together. Then we hear those magic words:

“ENDEX! You made it.”

GORUCK Light Detroit 2018 ENDEX, “End of Exercise.

 

 

Author Tom Demerly is a former member of a U.S. Army National Guard Long Range Surveillance Team (LRS) and Company Honor Graduate from the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. He has raced endurance events on all seven continents including Antarctica and completed over 200 triathlons including the Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Kona. Hawaii. His articles have been published in Outside, Business Insider,Velo-News, Bicycle Guide, Bicycling, Inside Triathlon, Triathlete, Triathlon Today!, USA Triathlon Magazine and many other publications around the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com (originally published in 2004)

The weather report said the sun would go down today at 7:49 pm. And it did.

Now it is dark.

In the street there is a sporadic, somber procession. It is a black and white picture. There is no color, no pageantry, and no grandeur. The grace is gone and now and it is down to gritty reality.

It is the time of The Strugglers. 11:18 pm, Taupo, New Zealand- the 20th, 2004 Anniversary Bonita Banana Ironman Triathlon.

The Pros are asleep. Their stomachs are full, their muscles are massaged. Their performances are a matter of record now. They are done. Have been for quite some time. They finished in the sunlight in the front of cameras and microphones racing for paychecks and trophies.

It’s easy to understand why they race. They should race. They look like they should. Lithe and toned and buff and tan and serious, the Pros and the other talented athletes reap the generous gift of genetic athletic abundance, meticulous preparation and clear-cut motivation. They are here to kick ass. It doesn’t take a psychologist to decode their motives. They’re athletes, and this is the big show. It’s what they do.

The pros’ time is over. Now it is time for The Strugglers.

There are no levels of performance for The Strugglers. You either are or you aren’t one. If you haven’t finished by now and you’re still out under the lights you are a member of this vaunted fraternity, The Strugglers. Just as the stark street lights leave either harsh illumination or black despair for The Strugglers this is a matter of finish or not finish, victory or defeat, do or die, pride or humiliation, success or failure. It is all the chips on one square, all the cards face up on the table, and all the aces have already been dealt today. The Strugglers play high stakes with a bad hand.

It may never have been pretty for The Strugglers. Most of them may not be athletes in the sense that they spend hours and hours every week training, but they line up nonetheless to do this race. The downtrodden, the meek, the ones with something to prove or something to defeat. Whatever it is they bring it here and beat it into ugly submission over 140.6 miles, each one a full 5,280 feet. The Strugglers earn every inch of every foot of every mile.

In a day so daunting and fearful they line up on the beach as if bravely facing the gallows. A cannon sounds the beginning of their trial and there is little known at the onset about how matters will be resolved, except to say it will be hard and uncomfortable and then downright painful. That may be the most frightening part: The not knowing. Some will find absolution, some will teeter and wobble and fall. There will be polite acknowledgement of their ambition, but ultimately, for The Strugglers the only thing that matters is Finishing. It’s what they’re here for.

So for The Strugglers, this is a huge gamble. Hero or failure. No in between.

And struggle they might, against awful odds and distance and poor conditioning and genetic poverty, but in bravery they are absolutely peerless. Without equal.

The Strugglers know it will not be pretty. They know it is not a sure thing. They do not have the luxury of prediction or past performances or experience. This is not their aptitude. But this is their choice and their bold dream.

Imagine being sent to do something, something beastly difficult. You know in your heart of hearts you are not prepared, maybe not even suited for this. You know the stares of others less brave and more envious fall heavily on your effort. They want The Strugglers to fail. For every Struggler who crosses the finish line it is a failure for those who never dared try. For every Struggler who sadly and reluctantly succumbs to the distance before the finish line and is carried off the course it is a victory for those who never started. They take sick pleasure in that. Shame on them.

Those who never had the courage to try have no right to cast judgment on The Strugglers.

The Pros are comfortable and resting. But the Strugglers have not left their sacred vigil. They soldier on, unswerving in their oath to finish, No Matter What. People marvel at the Pros performance, but I say The Strugglers are the real athletes. Explorers on the terrible frontier of self-doubt, fear and potential embarrassment on a grand scale. They bring less to the start line and they do more. Longer, harder, more painful: It is a different race for The Strugglers.

It is a parade really. A parade of people so brave and tough and fearless that they don’t care if it might not work. They bank on the fact that it could. They don’t back away from the possibility of failure. Imagine their performance as set against the backdrop of the very best in the world and they are not self-conscious about their version of the very same dance. Ask yourself, would you take the stage at the Kennedy Center after Barishnikov or Pavoratti? Are you that brave?

The Strugglers are.

Their performance is tedious and grinding. It is utterly relentless in its duration. The distance, the time, the struggle cannot be compromised. The Strugglers know this, they accept it- embrace it even. And they never succumb. Under the street lights, through the cool air, in filthy clothes streaked with their own discharge of minerals and fluids and sometimes even tears and blood.

The Strugglers do a different kind of race. A harder one. And they are Elite. It takes longer. It is less practiced. It seems to never end, and it does more damage.

Decode their motives if you will. But I decode yours as trying to explain more why you didn’t try than why they are. Instead, I respectfully suggest, salute them. Unless you have walked with The Strugglers until midnight on the Ironman course they stand above you in the athletic arena. Struggle as they may, they mustered the courage to try.

 

 

Tom Demerly has been doing triathlons since 1984, still does them (but slower and fatter now) and just completed the Detroit, Michigan GORUCK Light event. He worked in the triathlon industry since it began, and the bicycle industry from the age of 15, over 40 years. Today he is a correspondent for TheAviationist.com in Rome, Italy.

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

After the shortened course and prolific drafting at this year’s first U.S. Ironman in Texas, it’s worth asking: has the gold standard of endurance sports become a diluted accomplishment-for-purchase?

The answer is an unfortunate, undeniable “Yes”.

The sooner Ironman’s new parent company, Chinese conglomerate The Dalian Wanda Group, acknowledges the decline in event quality, the sooner it can be restored. But the problem is real, and it didn’t happen overnight.

Ironman is entirely different today than it was when the race began on the beach in Waikiki in 1978. In the early 1980’s Ironman struggled for legitimacy. By the end of the decade, in 1989, Dave Scott and Mark Allen’s “Ironwar” two-up race duel vaulted the event into something even more significant than athletic competition. In 2004 I wrote “The Strugglers”, an homage to the everyman finisher at Ironman you can read by clicking here.

Ironman became legend. It was revered as somehow tougher than mere athleticism. Scott and Allen’s high noon, mano a mano slugfest defined a gritty toughness that transcended other endurance events. Marathon running, once the high bar of the everyman endurance world, took a back seat to completing an Ironman triathlon. In the late 1980’s and 1990’s, Ironman became modern gladiatorial combat for the masses in a new electronic coliseum.

Emmy winning television production spotlighted the transformation of the everyman to hero status. With spectacle like the Julie Moss crawl to second place, Ironman was depicted as the one-day filter through which a mortal person could pass to achieve super-athlete status. Everyday people arrived at the Ironman start line as caterpillars, left as colorful M-Dot butterflies decked out in officially licensed “Finisher” apparel.

Ironman became big. Then came the internet. And Ironman became enormous.

The defining Dave Scott/Mark Allen “Ironwar” race of 1989.

As internet and social media exploded a universal virtual podium made Ironman status visible around the world instantly. It became normal for Ironman participants to chronical every step of their journey to Ironman in social media, triathlon forums and blogs. They would top it off with wordy, indulgent “race reports” for all to (presumably) read.

All that was missing from Ironman was the mass production of this new event-product. It was so well recognized that one trademark defined our impression of a person the instant we saw their t-shirt, bumper sticker or tattoo. That status was bestowed when you crossed the finish line and the verbal Excalibur, “YOU! Are an IRONMAN!!!” touched your shoulder.

A person could earn a college degree, raise a family, beat a terminal disease, overcome a disability or serve in the military. But until they dragged their life story across the finish line at Ironman to earn the M-Dot stamp of significance, it was just average. Just life. At Ironman, it became significant. It became a story. A filter through which we must pass to achieve exceptional status.

Ironman sold. And sold. And sold. Events a year away sold out in minutes. Entry fees went up, travel and lodging costs climbed. You had to earn an Ironman finish, and by the turn of the century in 2000 it took not only a deep aerobic base but also deep pockets to finish an Ironman.

Ironman gave the well-heeled everyman the opportunity to be exceptional. And while the majority of the participants in Ironman did have an intrinsically challenging experience preparing for and completing an Ironman, the heavy-handed branding of the event created a brand more conspicuous than structural.

As prices and participation climbed, the quality of race venues and officiating suffered. The event became increasingly “interpretive”, with swim cancellations, course shortenings, inadequate drafting enforcement and no effective athlete drug screening.

Ironman became pass/fail.

I worked and raced in the triathlon industry since the early 1980s and had a front row for the transformation of the sport. I saw it change from fringe endurance activity to apex life-defining event. Then into a credible athletic sport including Olympic competition. And today into a just-about-anything-goes social media stunt. Cutting courses, drafting and using performance enhancing drugs is more likely to be enforced in the kangaroo court of social media than by the people paid to administer the race.

As Ironman peaked in popularity, the races filled from the back of the pack. Race winning times did get marginally faster among top professionals. But the bigger expansion was at the back of the race. Despite a proliferation of “wind tunnel tested superbikes” triathletes were going slower and slower as a group at Ironman.

In the 1980’s and ‘90’s when I either raced or watched an Ironman event, the volume of finishers after 13 hours tapered off to a trickle. By the early 2000’s the floodgates opened at 13 hours with hordes of everyman Ironmen streaming across the finish line. That influx of participants created more demand for Ironman events. Individual athlete performance and overall event quality suffered. If you could drag yourself across the finish line at Ironman, whether you made the 17-hour cutoff time by a second or nine hours, whether the swim was shortened or cancelled, whether the bike course was long, short, flat, windy or mountainous, “YOU!” were still “An IRONMAN!” There was a distinct lack of standards for what had been a high bar of endurance sports.

The double edge sword of social media that helped immortalize and proliferate the sport has now become its undoing. The event organizers appear immune to criticism and largely unconcerned with maintaining event quality. Today brandishing an M-Dot logo on a calf tattoo, bumper sticker or officially licensed T-shirt doesn’t carry the clout it once did. Ironman has become a sketchy, “everyone’s a winner” attention grab that is low on event quality control and high on licensing fees, entry fees, and official merchandise prices. Until that changes the Ironman motto, “Anything is Possible” has become a decidedly cynical commentary of a once great event.

 

 

 

Author Tom Demerly has raced triathlons and worked in the triathlon industry since 1984, completing over 200 races including the Ironman World Triathlon Championships in Kona, Hawaii in 1986 and Ironman events in Canada, New Zealand and the U.S. He has participated in the Discovery Channel Eco-Challenge, The Raid Gauloises, The Marathon des Sables, The Antarctic Marathon and the Jordan Telecom Desert Cup. He raced bicycles as an elite amateur in Belgium for the Nike/VeloNews/Gatorade Cycling Team and is three-time Michigan USA Cycling State Champion. He is a former member of a U.S. Army National Guard Long Range Surveillance Team (LRS) and now works as an aerospace and defense columnist for TheAviationist.com, the world’s foremost defense and aerospace blog published in Rome, Italy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

With Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg testifying on Capitol Hill this week the question about what function social media actually performs in human society is relevant.

Like most new technologies, from the atom bomb to pesticides, cancer drugs, semi-automatic sporting firearms, and smart phones we tend to develop the technology before we develop the social rules to best employ them.

New technology often creates problems, especially in an increasing cultural scarcity of some individual, internal decision making framework to create good judgements that preside over our decisions. A new technology that forces previously distanced and opposing ideologies closer together is bound to create conflict.

That same technology also creates a new opportunity for unity and understanding by erasing distance and compressing time. Within that vast opportunity for unity and understanding the hope for a better future lies. Exactly like Thomas Edison with the light bulb, Mark Zuckerberg has illuminated a new opportunity for unity and understanding through social media- if it is used optimally.

Social media crosses borders with impunity at the speed of light. It does not recognize nationality, race, religion or orientation. In its most unregulated form, it is our individual voices amplified to be heard around the world. We can use those voices to magnify differences, or to recognize our universal needs as a human culture trying to coexist. By analogy, it is forcing the entire world into a small room where we can either learn to get along, or engage in circular arguments that become increasingly draining on our spirit.

A unique feature of social media is that the consumers and creators are the same group. And the ability to create media brings with it responsibility. Almost none of us using social media are trained in using media. All you need is an email address and a password and you are a citizen journalist. That responsibility is significant since, whether you are the BBC World News or Mary Smith from Dubuque, Iowa, you both wield the same 800 X 600 space on a computer screen. And, even though the number of screens you reach varies from billions in the case of the BBC World News to Mary Smith’s five hundred Facebook friends, that face time on a computer screen is still very relevant. From the Arab Spring to gender rights and the U.S. presidential campaign, social media has proven to have the inertia to change the world, one post at a time.

What is the best use of social media like Facebook, both for the individual using it and for those consuming it? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Share Knowledge.

In bringing the world together we create a communal database rich in new information. From exotic and unusual animals we’ve never heard of, to places we’ve never visited or seen, social media is a conduit to spread knowledge about things we’ve never learned about. This may be the best use of social media, posting a photo of an animal or a machine that not everyone has seen before and sharing that knowledge with your friends.

  1. Ask Questions. 

Social media is a great net for collecting ideas. Asking questions on social media delves into the great repository of collective knowledge that exists in our world. There are pitfalls to that since people can give incorrect or somehow disruptive answers to questions, but having the openness to listen to peoples’ replies and the judgement to interpret them adds value to the responses we can get from questions on social media.

  1. Listen to Ideas. 

The single most valuable thing about social media is the ability to listen in on a great global conversation. While the volume of that conversation is usually maddening, there is value buried in the rising din of posts. One great pitfall of social media, and this is a serious one, is that it can be technically calibrated or manipulated to reinforce our own opinions and beliefs without us realizing us. If you only “Friend” people who agree with you and think like you, your opportunity for learning is limited, but if you seek to challenge your existing beliefs with friends who think differently you are in for a stimulating experience of thought and introspection. Author George Orwell wrote, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” It also comes with the individual responsibility to listen.

Social media is at its best in a raw, unfettered, unregulated form. But with that mighty capability comes mighty responsibility. The United Nations created a manifesto for using social without realizing it, before social media was even invented:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

It’s up to us to use that right and these media constructively and with good judgement.

 

Photos and Story By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Aqua Cat’s engines purr a low hum as she glides on blue-glass crystal seas casting a dark shadow on the white powder sugar sea floor. A squadron of flying fish flutter their skimming escort across low wave tops at our bow. The golden sun simmers the water in comforting warmth. Besides the gentle chortle of our engines at low throttle, there is a blissful, structural silence here in the eastern Caribbean.

We have left the earth as we know it, transcending turmoil and scarcity and fear. We skim across open ocean to a new world, a world so fantastic and exotic and improbable it can only be described with fictional analogies. Nothing on this earth is- in fact- this remarkable.

Fiction is full of this: The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter, Star Wars. These made-up tales of unlikely journeys to unreal places with fantastic creatures. But this journey is real, and our gravity-enslaved earth is only separated by the thin surface tension of the sea to a place where we float and fly and glide like superheroes, where frightening beasts displace us down the food chain but become our companions, guides and guardians.

And amongst their opulent welcoming embrace, the sea and its beasts convey quiet worry.

We are tourists. I make no apology for that. We are aboard the dive ship “Aqua Cat”. She is a three-level, 102-foot live-aboard with a luxurious 35-foot wide beam. She draws only about 6 feet of water. As a broad, stable catamaran, she is fast, quiet and maneuverable. She transits rolling seas in comfort. Aqua Cat sails from Nassau, Bahamas east across an open Atlantic strait to the Exuma island chain. It’s about 100 miles of open ocean.

Three weeks ago, I knew little about the Exumas. Few people do, mostly only SCUBA divers, billionaires and cocaine traffickers. Lying as the first real landfall of substance along the latitude between the African Western Sahara and the Americas, the Exumas are the natural reef fence that separate the inner Caribbean with the vast ocean wilderness and abysmal plains of the deep Atlantic. Beyond the Exumas, there lies only the bottomless wild sea.

For the 32 divers aboard Aqua Cat, the gate to the wild, open sea and the deep Atlantic has been left open. We gaze beyond it and even swim through it.

Now I hover in silence 60 feet below the surface gazing into the true abyss, the blue-black transition to the open Atlantic. This is where the continental shelf plummets to depths measured not in feet or fathoms, but miles. I watch in silence, waiting. Perhaps something will emerge from down there. Something really big.

Michele, call her “Shell”, is our divemaster. When we reach the abrupt cliff at about 40-feet of depth plunging into the abysmal plain of the continental shelf, Shell gestures with both arms like an underwater ballerina taking a bow in front of the vast submarine theater. As Shell is a prima ballerina of the undersea world, her gesture seems appropriate. This is it, she indicates, the end of the continent. Shell is one of our instructors back in the U.S. where we got our NITROX diving certification. Shell’s goal on this trip is to complete every dive, five dives each day including a night dive. It’s a tough schedule with about 4 hours plus of underwater time per day. She has inherited us as human pilot fish during our dives. While I gawk around looking for creatures and adjusting my camera, she makes sure I don’t wander off underwater, run out of NITROX and forget to surface. It is so remarkable down here that’s not out of the question.

Terrestrial travel is encumbered by gravity and the hard platform of earth with its constant horizon. Not down here. Down here the rules are completely different. We don’t even breathe normal air. Each inhalation through my SCUBA regulator is enriched with more oxygen than we breathe in the atmosphere. The NITROX gas in my large capacity SCUBA tank allows me to stay down longer and recover faster on the surface so I can return to the edge of inner space more quickly. But should I descend too deeply or rise too quickly, that same benevolent gas mixture of oxygen and nitrogen could put me in a dangerous corner of the dive envelope. To avoid trouble floating in inner space I watch a bank of computers on my arm measure my depth, pressure, time and remaining NITROX gas. But it is hard to stay focused on the numbers down here. It is just too… fantastic. And this NITROX goes down pretty easy.

Billionaires’ superyachts transit the Exumas regularly.

Our undersea party skirts the drop-off to the Atlantic abyss at the edge of the Caribbean in a “wall dive”. It’s a dive along the edge of a deep drop-off that forms this underwater cliff between the coastal shelf and the deep sea. Some of our divers descend deeply along the wall past 100 feet. At that depth color and light are filtered by the water overhead to merge into a blue-grey monotone less sensational in appearance to the human eye than the moderate depths I favor. My party is contented with the middle-depths of 30-80 feet. There is more life here, more color. And less danger.

A placid nurse shark rests on the white sand bottom.

Our schedule aboard Aqua Cat this week has been brisk. Wake, eat, dive, dive, eat, dive, dive, eat, dive. Five dives per day are available to divers on Aqua Cat, although few divers will do every dive, except, of course, Shell. There is too much else to do.

During breaks from diving we laze on the upper deck in Caribbean sun, watch the rocky islands slide by, stay on the lookout for passing whale pods (we spotted rare pilot whales during dinner) and take excursions to shore on one of our two dinghies.

The barren islands are worth exploring. The weather here in May is calm and warm. One island harbors a shallow saltwater marsh with crystal clear water, home to exotic great hammerhead sharks. We take the dinghy to shore amidst a covey of weathered, practical sailing yachts and a pair of mammoth, billionaire luxury superyachts crewed by polo-shirted Ken dolls scrambling around the decks in hurried chores.

It would appear someone lives here, at least part time. An island caretaker who watches over the yachts moored in the lagoon and makes sure that the same number of people who land on the island each day actually leave it. Beyond that there are only scrub plants, palms, an assortment of reptiles ranging to quite large iguana, sea birds and the fish, sea animals and crustaceans that occupy the littoral environment.

On one expedition from Aqua Cat to a remote deserted island my girlfriend Jan Mack and I discover a hidden trail into a low mangrove thicket. A sign has fallen into the sand at the trail’s entrance. It offers only one word, “DANGER”. We follow the overgrown trail and discover it is, in fact, quite treacherous. Coral and rock outcroppings have been eroded to razor-sharp sinkholes easily large enough to swallow a person. Fetid pools draped by spider webs lurk at the bottom. The crusty terrain feels unstable under our amphibious sandals. After a half-mile push inland we retreat, satisfied that there is slim chance of finding anything remarkable in this low jungle mangrove. As it turns out, we are wrong. Four days later another person from Aqua Cat in the same region shoots a photo of a mammoth hammerhead cruising through the mangrove shallows. It would have been a spectacular sight.

A remarkable slipper crab seems excited to pose for a portrait.

Before we are barely able to savor our experience, Aqua Cat is crossing the open strait back to the Bahamas at the end of our expedition. There has been too much to digest, too much to take in, too much to experience. We’ve packed a month into a week aboard Aqua Cat. To try to take in the grandeur of the sea in a one-week trip is an absurdity, like trying to get a satisfying drink from a gushing firehose. There is simply too much to contemplate, too much to absorb, to many sensations to manifest.

A great barracuda guards our boarding ladder beneath the Aqua Cat.

But as remote and pristine as the Exumas felt we heard a quiet cry from her waters and her beasts. They are threatened, retreating, shrinking, dying. On the remote beach we found, Jan Mack and I spent the first thirty minutes picking up plastic waste and trash from a passing yacht crew who had made a bonfire on the empty beach and left their offal behind. In these waters plastics are dangerous to turtles, rays and sharks. They take years to decay, if at all, and can trap marine animals and strangle them or choke their digestive tracts. Some of the big sharks who guarded each of our dives showed signs of fin damage from boat propellers or had fishing hooks lodged in their mouths. On one dive, I swam after a cloud of drifting plastic bags to retrieve them before they drifted into the deep where they may wind up in a whale’s stomach.

Divers Phyllis Indianer, Divemaster Shell Robinson and diver Jan Mack surface after a drift dive.

I knew we would see the impact of man even in the remote Exumas. Part of the reason we wanted to be here was a looming sense that the clock ticking toward environmental calamity has passed the point of no return. That we are losing the Exumas and all places like her at an irreversible pace. I hope that is not true, and I’ve made an internal effort to manage my life at home in Michigan so I use less plastic, recycle more trash, drink from reusable water bottles and give to the organizations that protect the sea and her creatures.

Sailing on the Aqua Cat gave us a look into the wild sea and her massive expanse, exotic wilderness and remaining pristine beauty in a way no other experience could. That is priceless and ephemeral. It is something to be treasured and protected for as long as we can.

 

 

 

 

 

Author and photographer Tom Demerly has to be kept from petting things underwater around the world.

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

 

  1. We each create our own reality. (Arthur C. Clarke)

I recall first reading this, and contemplating it for at least three decades. It took that much time holding this template against real life to verify its truth. I can say with absolute certainty that Arthur C. Clarke’s omniscient observation is irrevocably true. In fact, it is one of life’s few absolutes.

Whether you believe in God, karma, or are an atheist your beliefs shape your reality with enormous might and inertia. What you believe in the abstract manifests in the physical through your decisions.

One person sees lights in the sky at night. They believe it is a star, and go on to study astronomy. Another person sees the same light, believes it is a UFO and latter attends a convention for UFO witnesses. A third believes the light is a communications satellite and goes on to study space exploration. A fourth person sees the light and believes this is the Star of Bethlehem and becomes a devout religious follower.

Each person saw the same light. But each person created a different reality from it, because based on our interpretation of the stimulus around us we each create our own reality.

Understanding this key concept helps us make sense of a world that often seems mad and chaotic. Everyone is exposed to like stimulus, but against the template of their beliefs, fears and aspirations, they craft an often wildly different reality. When these realities fail to coincide, or threaten each other, there is conflict.

If you can value and respect the realities that others create, then we can live in harmony and tolerance. The key thing is that these realities are not imagined or conjured, they are solid and material, people behave around them, and they are often unmalleable. Hence the need to accommodate each other’s reality to the degree necessary to coexist.

There is a dark side to this fact though. The reality of an ISIL terrorist, for example, is that anyone with beliefs other than theirs must be eliminated. There is no room for any other set of ideas, and their own ideas are the only ones that are real. When a set of ideas or realities leaves a person’s own sphere of influence and harms or limits another person’s reality it’s important to moderate that reality. That is how realities collide in conflict. History has shown us realities, even conflicting ones, can be moderated to coexist constructively, but the process has often resulted in massive tragedy. This reality is one we collectively continue to create and re-create.

 

  1. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. (Steven Covey) 

As our earth becomes more crowded, resources become scarcer. Communication has become faster and more accessible. The volume of human interaction has gone up. It is a planet increasingly engaged in a conversation with more and more voices getting collectively louder and louder. The only way to be heard above the din of shouting is to begin in the silence of listening.

One of mans’ greatest desires is to be heard. By listening, we fulfill that need. But there is a vast difference between listening and waiting to be heard. Listening is a deeply personal experience that challenges us to hold new ideas against what we believe in the risk of learning that we must change ourselves. Real listening is a deeply humbling experience.

While listening and then thinking takes an enormous amount of cognitive energy it is also deeply exhilarating. Our lives take on new colors, new dimensions, and hurtle forward into an infinite realm of possibilities when we listen.

Listening with the sincere motive of understanding is the gateway to all of life’s experiences. Once you truly attempt to understand something before you wish to be understood the volume of your character and wisdom increases. Listening is like water flowing into an ocean, it is ever expanding, ever renewing and all powerful.

  1. Between stimulus and response is our greatest freedom, choice. (Viktor Frankl)

Sometimes you believe you have no choice. The liberty of choice is always present between an event and an outcome. In that space is our greatest power, the power to decide.

There are times when the material outcomes of our choices are bad. You chose not to work for a bad boss, quit your job, so food is hard to come by. But suddenly you encounter networks of ways to get the food you need. So, you survive, and you do so on your own terms. The outcome of this choice is that you have preserved your personal options. You have the day to search for a new job, and you used resources to get the food you need to sustain your search. This is already a massive step forward compared to living under the oppression of a bad boss who removes your greatest personal freedom, even if you have to be hungry for a few days to exercise this power.

Millions of people have sacrificed themselves for this basic human principle, and probably billions more wish they had the personal resolve to use their power of choice, but they are too afraid. If there is one thing that separates people who live in abundance from those who live in despair, it is the courage to preserve choice.

Choice is expensive and often is not conspicuously easy to make even after it is earned. But it is the most precious part of the human condition, the ability to use our massive brains to decide our destiny against any condition.

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Major Roman Filipov is dead. Last week in Syria he pulled the pin on a grenade, held it behind his head, let the firing lever go and shouted, “This is for our guys!”

And then he died.

Major Filipov was a combat pilot for the Russian air force. He flew the Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack aircraft. You can think of the Su-25 as the Russian equivalent of our A-10 Warthog. A flying tank. Both of these planes fly the dangerous close air support and strike mission. Low and slow in the smoke, anti-aircraft missiles and flak. Major Filipov’s job was the modern day aerial equivalent of fighting in the trenches with bayonets. Ugly, dangerous, demanding and unforgiving.

Major Roman Filipov’s sturdy Sukhoi Su-25, “Red 06” before he was shot down.

And last week, Major Filipov’s luck ran out. But not his valor.

Before we go much further I want to answer your question about me writing about a Russian pilot. If you read this in the United States, a part of our upbringing is to believe that Russia is our adversary- our enemy even.

There are times when we are at odds with Russia. Politically, ideologically, economically. But to blankly condemn Russia as an “evil empire” because of the gulags, human rights violations, their communist legacy and more, is to view history through a straw. A more balanced perspective today is that Russia is not an enemy, but a roughly analogous superpower struggling, as the United States is, to maintain a foothold on this earth. In the sometimes bloody and inexcusable conduct of a nation, Russia has their atrocities and the United States has theirs. This is not to forgive either, far from it.

The story of Roman Filipov, the man, and his heroism is not about a discussion of the morality of nations. It is about the courage and resolve of one man; Roman Filipov, and the iron spirit of the Russian fighting man.

Roman Filipov fishing.

Before you broadly condemn Russia’s actions in Syria, consider that if they weren’t there fighting any number of ruthless terrorist organizations, expelled largely from Iraq by previous U.S. incursions there, the U.S. would be in Syria, fighting ISIL and its spin-offs instead. In the case of Syria, it is not too much of an oversimplification to suggest Russia is doing our dirty work for us. And yes, I acknowledge that the current Syrian “leadership”, President Bashar al-Assad, is, on the best of days, a despot. But there is a time honored saying in the Middle East: “The enemy of my enemy, is my friend.” And in this case, we may do well to consider Russia a friend for taking care of the Syrian mess, a mess the U.S. actively contributed to creating.

As they did in WWII, when Russia lost 14.2% of its population to the war (compared to 0.2% of the American population lost), the Russians have shouldered the burden of this war in the Syria. This has given the U.S. at least a partial reprieve from years of large scale wars in foreign countries that have helped to nearly bankrupt America.

Last week Major Roman Filipov was part of a recent Russian surge in daring low-altitude airstrikes around Idlib, Syria where a desperate band of terrorists aligned with ISIS is backed into a corner. Like anytime you corner a dangerous snake, it lashes out in one desperate attempt at survival. This is the Alamo for ISIS, their last stand of any substance in this region. And before their cancerous hate melts back into the dried blood red dirt and dusty ether of war-torn Syria to become malignant again elsewhere, they fight to the death. Major Roman Filipov’s job was to be sure the terrorists achieved their goal of martyrdom.

Filipov’s Su-25 operated at extreme low altitude, a daring tactic that the Russian air force has changed since his death. Video shot by insurgents on the ground show a hail of anti-aircraft shells streaking head-on into his Su-25 as though it were in a laser light show. But only every fifth shell had the phosphorus tracer, so for every shell you see, there are four more in between. But Major Filipov is determined to get his weapons on target, and that means flying low.

Filipov’s Sukhoi is hit. The right engine burns. It remains in level flight partially because the Sukhoi Su-25 is built like a flying tank with armor plating using simple, durable systems. Filipov ejects from his burning Sukhoi and parachutes to the ground, ISIS insurgent bullets cracking around him as he slowly descends into the seething cauldron of medieval street fighting that is Idlib, Syria. For a Russian pilot who just spent the last two days pounding lawless insurgents from the sky his chances for survival on the ground are precisely zero. Filipov knows this. They may behead him on video. They may burn him alive inside a cage. ISIS has done both of those things to unfortunate pilots they managed to capture alive. ISIS holds a particularly virulent hatred for combat pilots who rain death on them day after day with apparent impunity. They reserve the most grisly and agonizing executions for them.

Insurgent video of Major Roman Filipov’s Su-25 just after it was hit by anti-aircraft fire.

One could suggest that rather than parachuting to the ground in a vain attempt at survival, Major Filipov is drifting downward toward the insurgents specifically to exact some final revenge on them for destroying his Sukhoi. That is how the Russian warrior-mind works. He is armed with a handgun, three ammunition magazines and a hand grenade. And he is ready to fight.

Before you discount the admittedly romantic notion that Filipov parachuted to the ground with the express motive of mortal combat with his enemy, let me tell you a few quick stories about the Russian combatant mindset.

Sometime after midnight, on June 22, 1941, Hitler’s armies surged into the Soviet Union in what would become the most titanic land battle in human history, the German invasion of Russia. Streams of Nazi bombers blotted out the sun as they thundered east over Russia. The German planes were well engineered, durably built and heavily armed. Many were crewed by experienced combat pilots. The Russians met them with sturdy, but obsolete, sluggish fighters that were not equipped with radios. Coordinating a cohesive air defense was impossible.

So, the Russian pilots simply rammed the German bombers with their aircraft in midair.

The Russians considered that trading one Russian fighter and one Russian pilot for an entire Nazi bomber and its multi-man crew was a reasonable trade-off. This lethal arithmetic was repeated nine times by Russian pilots in the first hour of the invasion alone.

Nine times in one hour.

Russian Lieutenant Leonid Illarionovich Ivanov flew his barrel-shaped little Polikarpov I-16, a plane that looked more at home in a circus that a dogfight, into the tail of an advanced Luftwaffe Heinkel He-111 bomber. Lt. Ivanov did not survive his attack but knocked the Nazi Heinkel out of the sky. He was posthumously awarded the nation’s highest honor, the Hero of the Soviet Union.

But it was not just the men who proved the national resolve of Mother Russia in the skies of WWII. Senior Lieutenant Yekaterina Ivanovna Zelenko dove her Sukhoi Su-2, an underpowered, sluggish, portly single-engine trainer aircraft into a vastly superior German Messerschmitt Bf-109. Neither Lt. Zelenko nor the German pilot survived, but Zelenko had traded an obsolete training aircraft for an advanced German fighter and its experienced combat pilot. Such is the bloody arithmetic of Russian air combat and its fearless pilots.

One of the first lessons I learned about Russian history was the story of the Siege of Stalingrad in 1942. A few tendrils of this horror have seeped into western media, including a popular Hollywood movie about Russia’s deadliest sniper, Vasily Zaytsev, nicknamed the “White Death” by the invading Germans. But from the same battle I learned of how hard Russians were willing to fight, especially on their own soil.

The Russian soldiers fighting for their nation’s survival on the outskirts of Stalingrad lived a hellish existence in freezing temperatures with no opportunity to get warm. Even a small fire would give away their position in the shattered ruins of their city to the Nazis. The fighting raged non-stop, day and night, with more soldiers succumbing to exposure, disease and starvation than enemy fire. Conditions were so horrific that surviving defenders resorted to cannibalism in a last, desperate attempt to remain alive long enough to kill one more Nazi on Russian homeland soil.

But here is the chilling part.

Some Russian infantry units on the outskirts of Stalingrad, isolated and alone against the advancing Nazis, ran completely out of grenades and ammunition. They had no radios to call for artillery support. One at a time the Russian soldiers, clad in tattered, long wool overcoats stolen off the corpses of dead Germans, would dart into the open long enough to convince the Germans they were an easy mark. Then they scurried back inside the toppled ruins of a bombed-out multi story building. The Nazis did not know the Russians had hacked holes in the upper floors of the buildings. When the Nazis took the bait, and stormed into the ruins in hopes of catching a Russian soldier, his comrades would drop huge chunks of concrete through the holes on top of the hapless Germans, crushing them to death. Then the Russians would take the dead German’s weapon and turn it back against them. Eventually the German invasion was repelled by the Russians, at a cost of, what one historian characterized as, “Rivers of blood”.

In any study of the Russian martial mindset, the stories about brutal resolve continue.

Consider further, and more recently, also in Syria, the case of Senior Lieutenant Alexander Alexandrovich Prokhorenko of Gorodki, Oblast, Russia.

Lt. Prokhorenko was a member of Russia’s elite Spetsnaz, roughly analogous to our U.S. Army Special Forces. His job on March 17, 2016 was to protect the priceless cultural and historical artifacts of Palmyra from destruction by ISIS. The ruins of Palmyra are an analogy for all of the Middle East. Built on and off again starting sometime around AD 32 (that is 1,986 years ago, or about 20 centuries) the city has been conquered, ruined, rebuilt and conquered again. Like much of the middle east the sediment around Palmyra holds not only the sands of time but the stratified blood of warriors from many nations who died there. Like Roman conquerors before him, Prokhorenko was there to make sure Palmyra did not fall one more time.

Senior Lieutenant Alexander Alexandrovich Prokhorenko.

Calling in airstrikes on advancing ISIS insurgents, the short story is that Lt. Prokhorenko found himself encircled and isolated. He fought like a rabid wolf, down to the final yards, calling in airstrikes over his radio. Russian history, like all history, is a subjective craft. The account based on who is telling the tale. The official Russian version of what happened is that, when Senior Lieutenant Alexander Alexandrovich Prokhorenko realized his position was encircled by ISIS and there was no escape, he transmitted this message:

“I am surrounded, they are outside, I don’t want them to take me and parade me, conduct the airstrike, they will make a mockery of me and this uniform. I want to die with dignity and take all these bastards with me. Please my last wish, conduct the airstrike, they will kill me either way. This is the end commander, thank you, tell my family and my country I love them. Tell them I was brave and I fought until I could no longer. Please take care of my family, avenge my death, goodbye commander, tell my family I love them” 

Whether this version of Lt. Prokhorenko’s last radio transmission is a verbatim transcript, a fortified dramatization or an outright fable will never be known, but given the Russian penchant for ferocious resistance against impossible odds, I don’t doubt at least its spirit, if not its authenticity. Never back a Russian into a corner.

So, the story of heroic conduct last week on the part of Major Roman Filipov is absolutely amazing, but not at all new for a Russian fighting man.

But as it glided, on fire, toward the ground last week there is another reason Major Roman Filipov’s Sukhoi remained in a slow, controlled descent just before he ejected, wings level, in its terminal plunge.

Our modern hero Roman Filipov grew up wanting to fly.

He was from Vladivostok, east Russia. His father was a decorated combat pilot. In casual photos of Filipov on holiday his face is deadpan. Serious. Stoic. Only one photo shows a smiling Filipov, when he is fishing. It is as if he were the perfect Russian character pilot Tom Clancy invented for one of his novels.

“The boy was fond of sports, he studied well. He dreamed of being a pilot,” his teacher Lyudmila Lazareva told reporters yesterday in Russia. “He was never childish, but adult, serious, reasonable and balanced. He was among the best.”

Miss Lazareva looks at the floor. “He had a sense of justice. That was how he behaved- he knew what was right.”

So, as I write this, I do not write exclusively about Russia, but also about a heroic pilot- an image that transcends nationalities and ideologies. Roman Filipov’s courage, determination and ferocity was greater than any one country, any one flag. His courage and heroism is the ideal of all combat fliers. Give the enemy hell from the air, die with your boots on.

There is an oft quoted Roman battle axiom by the great philosopher and sage Heraclitus:

“Out of every one hundred men, ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.”

Regardless of the flag he flew under, fighter pilot, Hero of Russia award winner, combatant and officer, Major Roman Filipov was that one.

 

 

Author Tom Demerly is a U.S. correspondent for one of the world’s most widely read military aviation blogs, David Cenciotti’s TheAviationist.com published in Rome, Italy. He is a former member of a Long Range Surveillance Team and writes full-time from his home in the United States.

 

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

I have, in fact, grown old. This is how I know.

When I was a kid (you know you are old when you start stories like that) we would watch space missions on television in school. It was difficult. We had to check a television out of the library, the school only had one. The class leader helped the teacher wheel it to our room on a special cart. It took a while to get a picture.

Walter Cronkite talked about the space mission. There was a high pitched “beep” when the astronauts spoke and a long delay. The pictures were grainy if they were in space. If it was a launch the reporters set up a desk at Cape Canaveral.

These times were grand and dangerous and bold. We were shown this, the space program, in school. It was the height of aspiration. The grandest endeavor. Science. Daring. Space. Knowledge. We would cure diseases, end the energy crisis, find universal peace in space exploration and one day… find new life. This we were promised. This we would go to college for, study math for, join the military for, eat Pillsbury Space Food sticks and drink Tang for. We cut our hair short and dressed like astronauts on Halloween.

While all else on earth was mundane and tarnished and dull, space was unimpeachably hopeful. Every science fiction author from Roddenberry to Clarke promised salvation in space, as long as mankind could own its many foibles.

Space… the final frontier.

But today a businessman hurled a sports car into orbit and streamed it live on social media.

I watched the launch today. My heart went tearing back to a place I had not been since July 1969. It was summer, school was out. But there was no one on the streets on July 16. That day we began to make, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The sound of today’s Falcon Heavy entered my ears and grabbed the base of my spine. I hurtled back. I was eight years old again.

Eight years old was a magical age for a boy in 1969. I did not understand the politics of war, the scandal of Vietnam, Nixon had not yet been elected President. We watched films of President John F. Kennedy. He told us, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!” We reviewed the speech from six years earlier when Martin Luther King told the country he had a dream, “A dream deeply rooted in the American dream- one day this nation will rise up to its creed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal!”

At eight years old the needle on my moral compass had not yet begun to quiver from true north. Good was good, bad was bad. It was quite simple.

The astronauts landed on the moon. These men were heroes. This is the height of human achievement. This is the high bar. Everyone in class at Haigh Elementary School in Dearborn agreed, this was the biggest thing ever. Ever.

I never aspired to be an astronaut, although I idolized them. I had seen the missions on television. My aspirations lie elsewhere in the space program. When the astronauts re-entered the atmosphere, their capsule charred and weathered, the three bright red and white parachutes would open. They would fall, and fall, and fall into the ocean. Splashdown! And then my heroes, my men, the men I aspired to be, the frogmen, flew out in a Sea King helicopter and leapt into the deep, wild ocean to rescue the astronauts.

The astronauts may have been cool, but the frogmen who saved them were cooler.

Fast forward about twenty years and I am sitting in the door of a helicopter wearing too much equipment getting ready to jump into deep water. I’m grown up now, and I am in a U.S. Army long range surveillance unit. It is different than television, and I am scared. The engine is screaming, the rotors kick up heavy, opaque mist and I cannot see how far off the water we are. Will I float? Can I swim with all this crap on? Where is our rescue boat?

It was different than television. Walter Cronkite did not announce our arrival.

But I did manage to largely avoid adulthood as I flitted around the world trying to conjure my diluted version of the things I had read about from Alistair MacLean, Ian Fleming, Reinhold Messner, Admiral Byrd, Roald Amundsen, Edmund Hillary, Jacques Cousteau and later Tom Clancy.

It was never as grand and sparkling and true and… “right” as the astronauts though.

It was never that good, even though it was pretty darn good at times.

But today, for just a moment, that deep, structural, tearing sound of the air igniting returned for just an instant. The trail of flame was as long as the rocket itself. Did you see that? It thundered and crackled and growled in force so massive that only physics itself presided over it. All else were either spectator or passenger. And it arched up, up, into the long delirious burning blue…

But, in the end, it was a sports car with a dummy in it while a song from a cross-dressing gender-bender played in the background instead of hearing Walter Cronkite. And those things are new to me.

I guess times have changed. And I realized I had not.

 

 

 

Tom Demerly remembers old things about aviation and reports on new things about aviation for TheAviationist.com, the foremost defense and aerospace blog published by David Cenciotti in Rome, Italy. www.theaviationist.com

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Late October, 2017.

His coat is thick and sturdy now. Opaque, firm strands of night-black fur add the impression of size to his increasing bulk as he grows. Mr. Blackie was taking advantage of his heat-retaining color by rolling around on the broken pavement of our run-down back porch in the late summer sun. There may be a stigma to being a black cat, but there are advantages too, and Mr. Blackie was enjoying his genetically predisposed ability to absorb heat from the sun like a freshly tarred Georgia backroad.

This was a good day to be a wild cat. A day that makes me envy cats like Mr. Blackie. Free, wild, unaccountable. Mr. Blackie sits powerfully atop a complex suburban food chain that includes the servant-humans who think of him as an unfortunate stray. They fail to realize his reign over the neighborhood. No human exerts control of the North Levagood neighborhood the way Mr. Blackie does. People alternately ignore him, take pity on him or worship him. I reside with the last group.

Inside the house just a few feet away our three indoor cats gawk at Mr. Blackie through the window. Threat? Friend? Overlord? Realistically, Mr. Blackie is all three. Vice-Admiral Malcom Fredrick Davis III, our huge, portly white cat, regards Mr. Blackie through dirty windows with downplayed interest. He tries not to look too interested, but his fixed, green-eyed gawk says he is in amazement, and fear, of Mr. Blackie.

MiMi despises Mr. Blackie. When he appears on the back porch she stares at him with her one eye and unleashes a tirade of cat profanity in meows and growls and rapid tail gestures like an angry Greek swindled in a market. She hates Blackie. She regards him as a threat, an intruder, a predator even. And as senior cat and survivor of eye removal surgery and (most recently) complete knee replacement along with growing up hard in the open desert next to an air force base, MiMi has street smarts. Part of what she thinks about Blackie is right. He is a hard man, a nomad, a thief. A murderer even. And Mr. Blackie makes no apologies.

And then there is young Chester. Young Chester is everything good about youth. Fit and lean, his paws sometimes too big for his growing cat-body. Chester does not just love Mr. Blackie, he idolizes him. Chester is awe-struck by Mr. Blackie. Blackie is Chester’s hero. He watches his every movement outside, eyes widened in amazement and anticipation of Blackie’s next move. All paws and tail, Chester bashes into furniture tearing through the house following Mr. Blackie’s movements outside the house at every window. In the mornings, it is young Chester who wakes us with loud, long meows at the window announcing Mr. Blackie’s arrival for his morning meal.

But even while late summer sunlight heated the tar-black fur of Mr. Blackie’s side as he lay on the pavement of our back porch, that very same pavement began to hold onto the persistent, creeping morning chill of autumn longer and later into each day. The sun came up later, went down sooner. Less time on the pavement rolling around warming his black fur. Winter was coming, and coming fast.

I did some research and called a polite lady in Blythe, South Carolina who runs Blythe Wood Works. The company has been building custom cat and dog houses by hand in their shop since 1990. She was incredibly knowledgeable and helpful. Once I described our situation she helped design a two-level cat shelter that could house both Mr. Blackie and his older brother who visits occasionally, Darth Vader.

A few weeks later three giant crates arrived at our house and construction began on our own feral cat sanctuary and shelter. It took a couple solid days of work, but the assembly, staining, weatherproofing and placement of the cat feeding shelter and cat houses was complete. We later added a third house when we discovered that Mr. Blackie was reluctant to use the flexible in/out doors on the two-story cat shelters. The third house had an opening with no door whatsoever. Mr. Blackie preferred that one.

The new feral cat sanctuary worked, sort of. Mr. Blackie would eat inside the fancy, handmade South Carolina cat house but did not trust the flexible plastic door. He had been trapped here, by us, once before when he underwent the ordeal of being captured, immunized, neutered, microchipped and released. It’s unlikely he would ever forget the trauma of captivity. Mr. Blackie would put his body three-quarters of the way inside the cat house, the flexible door bent upward over him, eat his warm breakfast or dinner, then slowly back out of the house. He always kept one rear paw on the outside deck. But on the newest house with no door, Mr. Blackie was comfortable going all the way inside, sitting down, enjoying a meal and a nap.

Mr. Blackie was on a schedule, and it became quite routine. I would wake up around 5:00 AM, feed the indoor cats. Then I would heat up a towel, run some warm water and heat up cat food in the microwave for Mr. Blackie. One glance outside and there he sat, inside the cat house without a door, looking for me in waiting for his breakfast tray, warm blanket and drink.  He would stop by twice a day for a meal and a nap in his house.

Each time I went outside, out our far back door, juggling a couple bowls and a warm towel awkwardly through our back porch,  I would make a quiet clicking sound with my tongue to let him know I was coming. Blackie would momentarily retreat to a couple yards away until I laid out his table inside the cat house. As soon as I stepped away he would return, darting inside the house to get his hot meal. Afterward, he would crouch like a loaf of black bread just inside the door while watching us watch him through the window. Here is the routine caught on video by my girlfriend, Jan Mack:

Over time Blackie’s behavior changed slightly but noticeably. He would not let me get closer to him, and I rarely tried. But he would get closer to me. The pattern of our arranged feedings was well set for weeks. When I approached through the low west gate in the back-porch wall, he would retreat through the east gate momentarily, then return once I had set his table inside his house.

But the last week something changed. Mr. Blackie got much closer to me. One day he crept to within two feet of me. Blackie knew I always left through the west gate. One day he blocked the gate with his body, looking up at me, silent and staring. What did this mean? Was Mr. Blackie torn between instinctual fear and distrust of human-apes and a moderating… longing for my benevolence?

Cats learn language, given enough time. And while you may dispose of a cat-person’s conversations with their cat as ridiculous, cats do learn our vocabulary and, if we listen long enough, we can learn theirs. It is similar to me moving in with a Vietnamese mountain tribe. Sooner or later, we would figure out a way to communicate basic wants, needs and emotions. With my indoor cats, our mutual language is quite articulate. Their vocabulary consists of tail movements, blinks, meows, purrs, chirps and postures. Mine is clicking noises, key words and inflection. Our mutual vocabulary includes hundreds of “words” now. We can have fairly sophisticated conversations that communicate not just, “I want food” but emotions like, “I am frustrated”, “I am scared”, “I am happy to see you”, “I love you” and “I am cranky and angry at you”.

Mr. Blackie on the left, Darth Vader on the right. The two brothers are easy to tell apart. Blackie, the younger brother, has perfect ears, is slightly smaller, never speaks and has bright green eyes. Darth Vader (right) has a distinct permanent bend or kink in his right ear, is larger, will speak to people, has darker eyes and a fuller tail.

Mr. Blackie had not developed these communicational skills. He does not have this vocabulary. He is a rough cat, a wild animal, who lives in a binary world of survival and death with almost no grey area for emotion or frivolity. He never owned a cat toy, didn’t know his own name, rejected the notion of having his own blanket and likely regarded the food I gave him as a weirdly repetitive windfall rather than a dependable act of care or kindness.

But that last day, Mr. Blackie acted different.

If you spend enough time looking at a cat’s face you easily learn their expressions. Fear, anger, apprehension, contentment, elation.

The last day I saw Mr. Blackie his normally confident face exuded doubt and concern. He darted behind me when I brought his food, then waited for me to set his table inside his cat house as usual. But, when I turned to leave, Mr. Blackie blocked my exit. He crouched firmly across the gate leaving the patio and stared at me, unmoving. It was as if to say, “You- stay!”

I spoke to him, asked him a couple questions, but he just heard babble. And continued to stare. I could not leave the back porch. He continued to block my exit. Finally, I went out the long way around where he enters. It was odd, very odd. That pattern persisted for two days.

Then, he disappeared.

On the first morning he did not arrive for breakfast I realized I had made some kind of emotional mistake. That I had bought into this too deeply, too enthusiastically. That I had admired him too much and hoped he would be something I longed to be; brave, wild, free, utterly tough and unafraid. I think in my mind I eventually hoped he and I would visit together on the back porch and I would learn of his life, his adventures, his cunning comings and goings. He and I would be like some Disney movie about a boy who adopts a wolf or some such crap.

But instead, he just disappeared.

I did not give up though, even though I realized what I did here was likely at least somewhat poor judgement. My girlfriend did not share my enthusiasm for Mr. Blackie, even mentioning that, “This was starting to become a problem”.

But I went on patrol for him, set out remote triggered night vision video camera traps, printed flyers, sent out messages on community bulletin boards and e-mailed volunteers at the animal shelter where Mr. Blackie had been microchipped and immunized.

Nothing.

Soon there was a weird change. Darth Vader, the bent-eared black cat and older brother to Mr. Blackie, returned for a visit.

Darth Vader is larger, older, wiser and much more civil than Mr. Blackie. Once, about eight months ago, I briefly petted Darth Vader at about 3:30 in the morning when he and his younger brother, Mr. Blackie, were discussing a border dispute between the two sibling cats on the sidewalk near our house. The border between their territory runs right through our house, Darth Vader owns the entire front yard, and Mr. Blackie owned the backyard and the outdoor cat sanctuary.

But on this day Darth Vader moved through Mr. Blackie’s village with caution, searching each building, sniffing, exploring. Then he looked at up at the window to see me. His expression was unmistakable. Darth Vader was looking for Mr. Blackie too, and he was clearly worried about his disappearance.

Since that day about a week ago Darth Vader has returned several times looking for his younger brother, Mr. Blackie. One night I spoke to him, asked him where Mr. Blackie was. Darth Vader responded with excited meows, extremely unusual for a feral cat who did not grow up with humans. Ferals usually never meow at a person unless they somehow regard them as a parent. But in his cat articulation, Darth Vader’s concern was clear. He was worried about Mr. Blackie too, and he was out looking for him almost every morning and night.

Darth Vader, the feral cat who lives on the northern side of the neighborhood. He is recognizable by his eye color, large size, kinked right ear and calm demeanor.

Mr. Blackie has not been seen for over 21 days. I contacted the animal shelter. He is not there. I search for him, usually, once a day. Sometimes more, and am always looking outside for him. There have been cat tracks, but most are directly attributable to Darth Vader’s larger paws and easy to identify. I have not seen Mr. Blackie’s signature smaller paw prints. Mr. Blackie’ body has not shown up anywhere. It is likely he is still alive. Somewhere.

I distributed flyers door to door again with all my contact information. Made a post on the local neighborhood bulletin board, Nextdoor.com.

I got one lead. A house two blocks from here installed a cat door on their garage. Mr. Blackie may have moved in there. For now, we don’t know. But I hope against increasing odds that as spring approaches something inside Mr. Blackie’s animal memory will draw him back for a warm meal and a soft blanket. Hopefully.

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

There are few wild things left in our lives, and that is what attracted me to the mysterious neighborhood feral cat we began calling “Mike Charlie 2”.

He visited in the night, we started feeding him. He visited more, we started feeding him more. I learned of a neighborhood feral cat “trap and release” program sponsored by the Metro Detroit Friends for Animals where feral cats were captured in a baited cage, taken to a veterinarian and neutered, given immunizations and then released back into their environment. A few e-mails and Mike Charlie 2 was on the list. Tracy Balazy of the Dearborn Animal Shelter/Metro Detroit Friends for Animals volunteered to bring a cage trap out to our house to catch Mike Charlie 2.

There are two “Mike Charlies” or Mysterious Cats. Mike Charlie 1 (Mysterious Cat 1) was sighted last year. He is also all black, but can be identified by an odd bend to the top of his right ear. When we first sighted them both a year ago, Mike Charlie 1 was significantly larger than Mike Charlie 2, and Mike Charlie 1 controlled the territory that surrounded our house. We learned that Mike Charlie 1 was called “Darth Vader” by local kids who saw him on his early morning and evening rounds out hunting and patrolling his neighborhood. Some people fed him, he caught local varmints. He quietly ruled the neighborhood as the alpha predator. While neighborhoods just a mile south of here complained to the city about a rat problem, we never saw a single rat. Darth Vader eradicated any pest rodents long ago. We soon learned from posts on the online forum Nextdoor Neighborhood that both Darth Vader and Mike Charlie 2 were related, likely brothers, and were members of a clan of feral cats that neighbors could trace back at least 40 years in the area. This was a noble clan of predators.

Darth Vader, or “Mike Charlie 1”, the original mysterious cat, is identifiable by the bent in his right ear seen in this remote night-vision infra-red game camera image shot in October 2017.

Friends for Animals of Metro Detroit volunteer Tracy Balazy set her traps at our house. Within hours we captured Mike Charlie 2. He was originally supposed to be participate in the Dearborn Animal Shelter/Friends for Animals of Metro Detroit’s free trap and release program. The no-cost program controls feral cat populations by trapping feral cats, confirming they do not have a microchip, evaluating their behavior to determine if they are feral cats or a lost stray, and then neutering, immunizing and marking them by clipping one of their ears so others can identify them as an immunized trap and release.

Tracy Balazy of the Dearborn Animal Shelter sets the live traps for Mike Charlie 1 and Mike Charlie 2. We were only able to capture Mike Charlie 2, who became “Mr. Blackie”.

There was one problem with the plan. When I trapped Mike Charlie 2 I sat down next to his cage and looked at his eyes. They are a depth of green that is impossible to describe, if flame burned green it would be this color. As I looked at him in the cage, every ambition of freedom, wildness, strength and courage reflected back from those eyes. Nothing about Mike Charlie 2 was domestic or tame. When I tried to pet him, he hit my hand so hard with his paw he nearly broke it. It was bruised for days. Mike Charlie 2 made it clear that his domain was this neighborhood. He was no one’s pet. No one would own him. I realized that Mike Charlie 2 was everything I aspired to in life; free, strong, powerful, confident in his abilities and unwavering in his priorities. Mike Charlie 2 was something pure and perfect. To disfigure him by snipping his ear would change that, leave a mark on him. Somehow diminish his wild perfection. I did not want that.

I paid the animal shelter to not snip Mike Charlie 2’s ear, and send him through the same medical checks and procedures any pet cat would get. No ear snip, but Mike Charlie 2’s singular concession to civility (besides being neutered) was a microchip implant to identify him if he were captured by someone else. We had not provided a name for Mike Charlie 2, the animal shelter did not know what to call him, so Mike Charlie 2 became “Mr. Blackie” on his new microchip, invisibly implanted just under skin through a small incision. He was a little less wild now, but he was also a little safer, and that made me feel a little better. By now, having Mike Charlie 2 as the singular wild, perfect thing left in this neighborhood had become immensely important to me.

Mr. Blackie returned to our house from the animal shelter, microchipped, immunized, vet-checked and neutered. I briefly felt bad about potentially ending the genetic proliferation of these noble wildcats, but there was still Darth Vader. According to everyone in the neighborhood, Darth Vader had never been trapped and neutered. Until he was, it was up to him to continue the gene pool in the neighborhood. Neighbors suggested his romantic trysts with other cats were legendary.

While Mr. Blackie recovered from his surgery he stayed in a large cage in our garage, an arrangement he very begrudgingly accepted. It was here that I tried to pet him, and he very clearly let me know that would never, ever happen. I gently extended my hand to him in his cage after feeding him, just letting him get a sense that I was close, but not too close. The instant my hand entered the kill zone of his powerful right paw he rotated his entire arm, straightened for increased power, wheeled it in a lightning fast circular motion, and hit my hand a blow so hard it felt like a fur-covered ball-peen hammer. I had a massively swollen hand and Mr. Blackie had made his point very clearly. Look, but never, ever try to touch, and let me the hell out of here.

My girlfriend Jan Mack and I released Mr. Blackie one warm Saturday afternoon. When we opened the cage he stalked carefully toward the exit, wary of some other kind of trap. As soon as he cleared the door, he became a bounding black fur-missile. Gone in two seconds over a high fence and between backyard garages.

And then we would wait to see if the trauma and betrayal of trapping him and subjecting him to his medical routine would permanently destroy our strange relationship.

I had flyers printed that were designed by lifelong friend and graphic artist Kim Ross. She did an amazing job, we got them printed and I walked the streets distributing them in peoples’ doors so they would know who Mr. Blackie was and that he was now part of the neighborhood.

Food is a powerful motive for a wild animal, primary even to reproduction. Since that second priority had been removed for Mr. Blackie, it was food that drove him back to us 48 hours after his release from detention.

At first, after his incarceration, Mr. Blackie did not look entirely well. The ordeal had caused him to lose weight. His coat- previously an elegant black cloak of glossy stealth-black night camouflage, now looked gray and patchy. Had this whole thing been a mistake? Mr. Blackie had gotten a bloody nose from colliding with his cage during captivity, such was his desire for freedom. He looked haggard and beat up. He looked like a stray, not a wild animal in beautiful harmony with his environment. Bringing Mr. Blackie into contact with humans had not been good for him, and it would take time for him to return to the powerful, wanton vitality that defined him.

Mr. Blacky visited daily and ate, and ate, and ate. On some days he downed three cans of cat food, the same amount of food all three of our indoor cats consumed between them in a day and a half. His appetite was ravenous, and he put on weight. His nose healed, his fur grew. He put on more weight. And he grew. It is likely Mr. Blackie has increased in overall size by at least 30% in the four months since we first saw him, partially due to the neutering, mostly due to a steady diet of healthy food. After about four weeks he slowed down to two cans a day, a caloric intake necessitated by his exposure to the elements, the need to maintain body heat, and the increased physical activity of a predator cat who ranges over more than a square mile of territory every day and can run twice the speed of a human for a city block, jumping fences four times his height in a single bound all the way. We heat his food in the microwave during the winter so he gets a hot meal.

But winter was coming, and Mr. Blackie needed dependable shelter. So, we began a project to build Mr. Blackie and his wide-ranging associate, Darth Vader, a home. The project to build houses for them had begun. (continued in Part 3).

 

 

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