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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Is the new GORUCK Star Course non-stop 50-mile, 20-hour military style endurance event the new holy grail of endurance activities? Has the Ironman Triathlon, with its Emmy Award winning, reality show hype and boom growth in the early 2000’s, trended?

Both events were founded in military tradition. Both were started on a dare. One event is trending upward as participation grows, another is waning downward as participation and event integrity declines. The evolution of the two events acknowledges the normal life cycle of a brand and the typical behavior of trends in American fitness and leisure activities. One is growing, one is dying.

The Ironman Triathlon has struggled with course modifications from bad weather, traffic control concerns on the bike courses, an inability to enforce competitive rules resulting in rampant bike course cheating, escalating entry fees and costs associated with doing the three-sport event. It has also been hit by growing concern over bicycle/car accidents in training as dangers like distracted driving become more prevalent.

The GORUCK event brand, that produces over 500 annual endurance events of various distances around the U.S. has benefitted from much lower entry fees, lower financial barriers to entry, safer training and participation, fewer requirements for expensive equipment, simpler preparation and finally, that one litmus test that grants any event true credibility: Toughness.

The start of the first-ever GORUCK Star Challenge earlier this year in Washington D.C.

While Ironman has become a caricature of its original self with nearly every participant finishing, GORUCK Star Course boasts a brutal 40-50% dropout rate. Most people who enter Ironman can finish within the cutoff time. About half the field at GORUCK Star Course don’t make it, hobbled by foot problems, navigation errors, undertraining or an overall lack of the toughness it takes to survive 20 hours on your feet, in the dark, in bad weather with a heavy load on your back.

GORUCK Star Course is also a team event. Teams consist of 2-5 people. For many competitors, the social aspect of having a small team adds additional value to the experience and makes training, travel to events and participation more attractive. While the Ironman triathlon has a reputation for ruining relationships with its solo training and financial demands, GORUCK Star Course actually reinforces core relationship values.

For companies looking for team building, wives and husbands, fathers, mothers, daughters, brothers and sisters looking for a bonding experience, GORUCK Star Course brings small numbers of people onto a cooperative team competing against the rigors of distance and time more than the other teams.

This evolution in event status also signals something else in U.S. popular culture, the ascension and erosion of “street cred” in participant sports and the social status of iconic, discretionary accomplishments. The Ironman “M-Dot” used to carry significant clout and status, but as the number of Ironman finishers exploded in the early 2000’s, the exclusivity and status of Ironman was diluted over increasing numbers of finishers. Ironman was no longer perceived as being quite as “extreme” as it was prior to large numbers of people finishing the event.

One big difference between GORUCK Star Course and the Ironman Triathlon is media. Ironman rose to prominence on the back of network television coverage prior to the explosion in internet and social media. People entered Ironman after seeing it on TV. People will enter GORUCK Star Challenge as word spreads on user-contributed social media. It’s unlikely GORUCK Star Challenge will ever be the subject of a network television broadcast or spin off a version of itself as an Olympic sport. But ultimately, it will be the participants that spread the virus of the GORUCK Star Challenge as more events take place and the participation germ spreads on the winds of social media. How fast the epidemic spreads remains to be seen.


 

Author Tom Demerly training for the upcoming GORUCK Star Challenge 50-Miler in Cincinatti, Ohio. 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

April 3, 2018. Tuesday. 

Winter hangs on like dampness caught in an old curtain. Under the tight, chilling grip of low cloud I walk the neighborhood in the early morning before sunrise while people wonder what it is I am looking for, stopping on the sidewalks to peer between houses and up driveways. Either one of them could be anywhere, and they are much better at hiding than I am at finding them. Their lives depend on that.

A man messages me. He has seen one of the cats at 5:36 AM. That next morning I am out searching. Batteries are charged, new memory cards are installed. The remotely triggered night vision cameras go out. Our yard is transformed into a feline version of a surveillance state. No cat, no animal, no leaf blowing can cross the yard without setting off the infra-red night vision cameras.

The two feral cats appeared last year and I found them interesting, then fascinating, then more remarkable than I had imagined possible. They created a secret society under our noses and re-ordered the local outdoor food chain, eliminating rodents, chasing pet cats back to their homes where they belong and policing the dark like a secret feline security force while setting order to an evolving suburban wilderness most people don’t realize exists.

There were two of them. One has disappeared.

“Mike Charlie 2” or “Mysterious Cat 2” went on to be formally named “Blackie”. He got his nom de guerre the way any shadow warrior does, against his will and under duress. I had enlisted the help of the local animal shelter’s trap and release program, captured Mike Charlie 2 with the intention of putting him through their trap and release program. But I made a huge mistake. I sat with him in silence, he in his cage, me outside in mine. As I looked at him, I realized, he could exist outside his cage, was born to live outside, had the courage and resourcefulness and cunning and stamina to live outside it. I only step out of my cage occasionally, and even that is more than most people.

The two brothers of the northern clan. The missing Mr. Blackie on the left, the more civil Darth Vader on the right.

Trap and release feral cats that are immunized and neutered have their ear tip clipped to signify they have been through the program. Mike Charlie 2 was perfect. I did not want his ear clipped. Instead I paid to have him micro-chipped, neutered, immunized and returned to me, where I would set him free again. In no uncertain terms Mike Charlie made it clear he would never be an inside cat. Nothing about him was domestic. Mike Charlie 2 left our house with an official name, “Blackie”, given to him at the animal shelter. He also had an implanted micro-chip, number 956 000 010 017 739. I even enrolled him in pet health insurance in case he needed another vet visit. It was as though, for a short time, he had entered “The Matrix”. But then, like a feline version of Neo, he took the red pill to return in the real world.

Blackie stayed around for a while after we did the trap and release. He ate outside with us, seemed to be getting more comfortable with us. Our indoor cats loved him, lined up at the windows to see him. Then one day he disappeared. That was in late December. We haven’t seen him since. We’ve been to shelter, posted notices, passed out flyers. I found a dead black cat on Ford Rd. north of here and sheepishly took it to the animal shelter to have its poor, broken body scanned for a micro-chip in case it was Blackie. No chip. We gave the unknown cat a decent burial in our backyard.

There have been three reports of a mysterious black cat south of the large park, Levagood, that separates our neighborhood. This week my early morning search will move south to that area. Maybe…

While the search for Blackie has been fruitless we have welcomed back his accomplice, Mike Charlie 1, who actually has a name and, as we learned this week, a home. Not just any home, Mike Charlie 1, whose real name is Darth Vader, lives in the most famous home in all of Dearborn, The Kingsbury Castle. It is a fitting home for such a regal animal.

Darth Vader lives with the Marusak family who has lived at the Kingsbury Castle for decades, since I was a kid. The house is a local landmark. The Marusaks have done an excellent job maintaining the property and keeping up the entire appearance of the neighborhood, along with property values. Following their lead, many new, larger houses are being built in the North Levagood neighborhood. When anyone asks where we live in Dearborn, all I have to say is, “One house away from The Castle”.

Darth Vader’s home, the Kingsbury Castle, one house east of our house.

I’ve had several conversations with Darth Vader. He is a dignified and reserved cat, gentle and calm. He visited our house in these surveillance videos when he noticed the buffet we had laid out in hopes of attracting Blackie back to the area. Darth is well fed at home though, and only picks at the food left for Blackie, leaving the lion’s share behind in hopes that Blackie returns. Darth Vader also searches for Blackie, sitting on high vantage points along our street and gazing to the south, where we believe Blackie vanished to.

In one of these videos Darth Vader marks our outdoor cat feeding house with the scent from the corner of his mouth, effectively leaving a note for Blackie if he returns, “Call me Sir. We all miss you greatly.”

If you see a cat you believe may be Blackie, phone me at (313) 400-0150, email tomdemerly@yahoo.com or message me here. 

The Missing Mr. Blackie, Micro Chip 956 000 010 017 739.

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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

In nature, Winter is death. It arrives with enormity and silently blankets all that is living and vibrant. Entombed under inches of bleak snow, blown by frozen air in stinging particles of diamond ice, it becomes dense silence. All that lives clings to desperate and painful survival.

In winter the contrast of living and dead is greater in a human suburb than anywhere on earth. Mere inches of insulated wall separate comfort from the torturous unrelenting cold and endless strife for survival outside. For the animals that live outside in suburbia, only the distant spring offers respite.

The contrast between feral cats and domestic cats is never greater than in winter. Our domestic cats have heated beds and warm blankets and electronic games and battery powered toys. They live in an artificial climate that rarely varies more than five degrees in temperature and never rains or snows. A feral cat dodges lethal street traffic, avoids dangerous dogs and raccoons and scavenges for varmints and garbage. It sneaks into garages for shelter and never enjoys a warm night living outside in winter. It walks on wet ground and has dense, black fur adapted for outdoor winters that is covered in snow flecks.

Mr. Blackie had disappeared without a trace. No information from neighbors after flyers were passed out. No one at the animal shelter told me he showed up there, unlikely anyway since a feral cat would never wind up in an animal shelter unless trapped. I posted on community message boards, followed up on leads and tips. Nothing. He just vanished. One tip reported an animal body by the side of the road at Ford Road and Telegraph Road. We grimly hurried there, only to find a dead raccoon. No Mr. Blackie.

November, December, January, mid-way through February. Not a trace.

I missed him. That was my mistake. I had gotten emotionally involved and that is always a mistake in dealing with wild things. Mr. Blackie would never be a domestic cat, but I entertained the notion that he and I could sit together on the back porch during the summer, me drinking coffee in the morning before starting work and him lazing on the warm concrete in the sun. Then we would part company and go about our business to repeat our ritual again tomorrow. Unfortunately for me, Mr. Blackie apparently did not share my quant vision. Animals’ priority is survival, and Mr. Blackie’s motives were clear. He was all business.

Mr. Blackie, you may recall, is a member of a feral cat clan that can be traced back forty years in this neighborhood. It is the reason we have no problem with rats here, and the population of squirrels and chipmunks and birds is healthy and held in check. There is a natural food chain, and the North Levagood Feral Clan sits firmly atop that food chain.

Darth Vader’s right ear is permanently bent inward.

Mr. Blackie’s older brother is Darth Vader. He is easy to spot. Darth Vader’s right ear is permanently bent inward at the tip, the result of some kind of altercation with another cat, a raccoon or something else.

While the two are brothers, they are vastly different in personality. While Mr. Blackie is aloof and guarded and entirely wild, Darth Vader is talkative and has a soft side. I have talked to him, he has meowed back in extended conversations. He has sniffed me, I have petted him. The exchanges in physical contact are brief, but the message is clear. Darth Vader knows me, I know him, we are friends and neighbors and we chat over the back fence whenever possible or necessary.

On Friday, February 16, 2018 I was returning from a run. Darth Vader was waiting for me, seated on the next-door neighbor’s front window sill outside. I went inside to get my camera to shoot some portraits of him, having not seen him weeks.

A massive series of snow storms had torn through Dearborn, dumping nearly a foot of total snowfall. Feral cats know to shelter in place during these weather events. It is too difficult and dangerous to travel and there is little food available anyway.

But the sun was out and the snow was well on its way to melting. Darth Vader took this first opportunity to visit the cat village behind our house, check in with our indoor cats through the windows and see if there was a trace of his younger brother, Mr. Blackie.

The two brothers of the northern clan. The missing Mr. Blackie on the left, the more civil Darth Vader on the right.

I asked Darth Vader about Mr. Blackie and his response was as clear and articulate as if he were a human sharing the same language. Darth Vader had not seen Mr. Blackie since fall. He came looking for him, and he was worried about him. While the two cats are not social, they are, in fact, competitive, Darth Vader does maintain his older brother role of at least checking in on Mr. Blackie.

Darth Vader and I chatted for some time. He had not seen Mr. Blackie, was surprised he was gone, knew nothing about his whereabouts, and was concerned. He was pleased to see me, sniffed me and let me pet him. Then, our reunion and business affairs complete, he hopped down from the window sill and sauntered across the street to another one of the houses he frequents on his patrols. While Mr. Blackie is entirely feral in behavior, Darth Vader appears to have mellowed in his age, now acting about… 50% feral. He lets me pet his coarse black fur with flecks of gray. He purrs, he meows. Mr. Blackie never uttered a word to me. Even on that last day. He only communicated with behavior and facial expressions. Never verbally. Darth Vader is significantly more articulate and conversant.

I maintain the feral cat village. Clearing snow, shoveling walkways. Now that the snow is thawing I keep the house dry and check the pressure activated heater. The straw is fresh, the houses are clean. But the village is empty. It is, I will admit, at least disappointing, somedays heartbreaking.

I worry about Mr. Blackie. Every single day I worry about him. I hold out hope that since there is no tangible evidence of demise that he may return. Maybe one early spring day I will look out the window and he will be sitting there, waiting for warm food and a fresh blanket. That our indoor cats will begin meowing and call me over to the window to see him patrolling the perimeter of the house for compliance with his territorial boundaries.

I still have hope.

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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

Our neighborhood feral cat, Mr. Blackie, photographed in our back yard in October, 2017. (Photo: Tom Demerly)

Feral cats, alpha predators atop a complicated, evolving food chain in suburban neighborhood environments, may be the most exotic and remarkably adapted animals we’ll ever encounter. In most cases, we don’t even realize they are living among us or the benefits they provide to our suburban environment.

Feral cats live between being wild and domestic. They include us in their food chain as an integral part of it, usually without us even knowing. Their adaptation to a changing environment is masterful, as only an apex predator can manage. It is so complex it takes months or even years to fully understand, even as it changes right before our eyes.

Feral cats use sophisticated camouflage, mimicry, stealth and adaptation to benefit our neighborhoods and survive. They manage rodent populations, cull bird and small mammals who may carry disease and conduct a secret, covert “policing” of suburbia. They even manage to adapt and survive across wild swings in seasons, from freezing winters to blazing summers.

Most remarkably, feral cats form a dynamic evolutionary bridge between wild cats like the North American lynx, the African sand cat, the ocelot, cougars and mountain lions and domestic cats like the tabby, Maine coon and Siamese. Feral cats are smaller cats that resemble domestic cats in size and appearance and are not only predators, but highly adapted scavengers. Feral cats exploit both wild food sources, including mice, rats and varmints, and food sources shared with them by humans. Both are an integral part of their food chain.

In 1999 I traveled to the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, Africa on safari. The Ngorongoro Crater is one of the greatest natural game spotting destinations on earth. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the massive natural game preserve is over 3,000 square miles in area and home to a boggling population of African wildlife, from primates, lions, hyenas, gazelles and impala to elephants, zebra, wildebeest and nearly every exotic species of land animal on the continent. We toured the crater by day from Landrovers. By night, the crater took on an entirely different life. What I learned about the food chain at night in the Ngorongoro Crater in Africa, I began to recognize in my own neighborhood in Dearborn, Michigan when I began watching the feral cats.

In 2002, I spent nearly a month in the high jungles of northern Vietnam, a remote, mostly untouched region left alone by the long war. I saw the difference in behavior between animals during the day in the jungle, and at night. One of the biggest reasons for the dramatic change in their behavior from night to day was the presence of one of the last large land-based alpha predators on earth, the tiger. When I remarked to a local Vietnamese Hmong tribesman that I had not seen a single tiger in Vietnam during the entire month, he told me, “Ah, but they have seen you…” It is exactly the same with elusive feral cats in our neighborhoods.

 

A little more than a year ago we became aware of a feral cat in our neighborhood. The more I saw him, very late at night and early in the morning, almost always in the dark, the more fascinated I became with him. When I started to study his life and behavior, what I discovered was incredible beyond my wildest expectation. The feral cat behavior and its effect on our neighborhood was nearly identical to the influence big cats exerted on the dense jungles of Vietnam and the vast, wild game lands of Tanzania, Africa.

We soon learned there was not just one cat,  but two feral cats. We cataloged them as “Mike Charlie 1” and “Mike Charlie 2” for Mysterious Cat 1 and 2. The two are related and members of the same clan, possibly the same litter, and divide the neighborhood up into to regions from what we have observed. Our yard sits at the central border of the two regions. The night-vision video from a remote camera shown above is Mike Charlie1, the photo with the mouse at the beginning of the article, Mike Charlie 2.

The feral cats were influencing the behavior of every other animal in the neighborhood, from birds to small mammals. While other neighborhoods in Dearborn reported problems with rats and other pests, our neighborhood had no problems with pests. Our ferals kept rodent populations in check.

What I saw was not just one feral cat, but a complex nexus of several feral cats and the evolving, complex drama of their existence playing out secretly right outside our windows. The cats belong to a “clan”, or lineage of cats that is over 50 years old in this neighborhood.

Since we first became aware of the feral cats living in our neighborhood I’ve stepped up efforts to learn more about them, to help them where appropriate and to support their survival. Feral cats aren’t pets. Although some are converted to domestic cats most live their lives as some version of wild, an evolving predator in an evolving environment.

The series I am beginning here is the story of their lives and survival in our neighborhood.

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Photo Credit: ABC News.

The greatest casualty in any tragedy is division. Division of opinion, division by fear, division by prejudice, division in belief, division by hate.

In division, we remain isolated and paralyzed in a repetitive script of tragedy and loss. History shows us that when we remain divided and isolated we suffer loss, but when we unite in courage, empathy and compromise we all live better lives.

Before we address any other argument, we must address division. That starts within ourselves. We must be humble and courageous enough to examine and re-examine our own values and beliefs, and hold those values and beliefs against the grand template of what is good for all mankind, not just our own lives.

Before we do anything else, let us not descend into division. At the crossroad of retreating into fear or the courage to embrace our unity, know that there is strength, freedom and safety in unity, and only darkness and loss in fear.

Before we do anything else, let us unite.

By Tom Demerly.

Lt. Col. Eric Schultz, USAF. 1973-2017.

During the last 72 hours, I’ve written three articles read around the world about the death of U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Eric Schultz. They talk about his career, and they guess at his mission at the time of his death.

But they say nothing about the man himself, Lt. Col. Eric Schultz.

During my research one photo continued to come up. The photo you see here of Lt. Col. Eric Schultz, USAF. It is on hundreds of articles written about him around the world in many languages. He is seated in the cockpit of a U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II, the Air Force’s newest, most advanced aircraft. I’ve seen that photo a lot over the last few days, but tonight was the first opportunity I had to spend some time looking at it carefully.

Who was Lt. Col. Eric Schultz and what does his life and passing mean to Americans and people around the world? I never met him, at least not that I know of, but I will try to explain what I have learned about him over the last few days to you.

Lt. Col. Schultz earned six degrees including a PhD in aerospace engineering. He had difficulty becoming a pilot because of his eyesight early on, but he did not let that stop him.

Based on what I’ve learned, Schultz never stopped, never gave up. Or, if he did give up once or twice as any human being occasionally does, he gathered himself from whatever setback he had, like his vision preventing the Air Force from initially taking him as a pilot, and then he got back to work. Schultz typified, in every way that I have read, the American ideal. Fortitude, integrity, selfless service, courage and more.

In his final role in the U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Schultz effectively disappeared from normal life. No Facebook page, no LinkedIn page, no Instagram, no Pinterest. He took a job that required him to live and work quietly and honorably well behind the scenes in a role that could sell a million books and pack theaters with its story. But Schultz did all this silently, humbly, with integrity and honor and commitment to something he believed was greater than himself; his country.

However cliché it is to say, Lt. Col. Eric Schultz had The Right Stuff. A modern-day Chuck Yeager or Neil Armstrong who worked behind the veil of national security doing things we’d likely all find hard to believe. It is an irony of military service and the fickle nature of history that the greatest heroes often remain anonymous. Such is the case with Eric Schultz.

In short, Lt. Col. Eric Schultz was a hero and a role model. He is the American ideal. A man made of his own accord, with clear vision of his goals and steadfast resolve to achieve them. His goals were selfless and difficult. Schultz’s service benefitted the Air Force in ways we will likely never read about. His work spanned the globe, took him to war and cemented our ongoing peace at home that we enjoy today.

When internet banter criticizes the cost of a defense program or spins a wild conspiracy theory about the government, it does so on the parchment of a free press that Lt. Col. Eric Schultz silently protected. The delicate balance of peace here within our borders is insulated only by the tireless and quiet toil of the few people like Lt. Col. Schultz. We live and think and speak freely because of their vigilance and dedication. If for one instant you doubt this consider the building pressure that presses inward against our lives from countries like North Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria and too many more to list. They remain at bay preserving our frail, precious bubble of freedom because of the very few people like Lt. Col. Eric Schultz.

I’m privileged to meet and work with the women and men of our Air Force, Navy, Marines, Army, Coast Guard and Homeland Security and our intelligence agencies frequently in my job. It is the best part of my job. They elevate me, hold me to a higher standard that I know I can never match. They make me believe in heroes and know that they exist. And they remind me that the simple liberties we so commonly take for granted like weaving tales of possible secret projects in hidden deserts are so tremendously precious, and so incredibly frail. I make it a point to shake the hand of a pilot or a Marine or an aircrew member or a maintainer or a soldier or a sailor when I meet them. I hold their hand tight for a moment, hoping that some of what they have will somehow pass over to me. I have heroes, and they are mine.

I am thankful for heroes like Lt. Col. Eric Schultz, and dreadfully empty when we acknowledge their loss. Their passing weakens the fabric of our nation, makes us vulnerable until someone else steps up to try to stand their place on the wall.