Tag Archives: Family

Bald Eagle Recovery a Reason for Optimism

I will never forget the first time I saw a Bald Eagle. I was twelve years old and on a family camping trip to Deception Pass State Park. My Dad and I, and perhaps my sister Barb, had hiked to the top of Goose Rock. Not a long or difficult hike, Goose Rock provides territorial views of Deception Pass, the San Juan Islands, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, mountains, and more.

At the top we saw a large, brown bird soaring over the pass. My Dad identified it as a juvenile Bald Eagle. I was in awe. I watched it for what seemed like hours, as it soared near and far, in overlapping circles, not once flapping its wings.

This was a big moment for me. First Bald Eagle of my life, not for lack of looking, but because their numbers had declined so precipitously in prior decades.

DDT, a major factor in the shrinking population, was still a few years from being banned.

The good news is Bald Eagles seem almost common now. I believe that on any given day I could find one within a half hour of my home if I set out to do so. Within the past couple of years I had six circling over my house as they moved slowly from west to east. A few years back I missed by a day or two  a congregation of close to a hundred at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

This success story points out why government needs to keep a firm hand on what businesses can and cannot do. Had DDT been left on the market, we would likely see no Bald Eagles in the continental U.S. They would likely be restricted to northern Canada and Alaska. But that’s not all. Peregrine Falcons, Brown Pelicans, and Ospreys may have disappeared from the contiguous states as well. And California Condors, to this day struggling to rebuild a viable population, may have vanished from the face of the Earth.

The Bald Eagle is now a symbol of hope.

 


Our favorite family memories live on in special places

Published originally in the Puyallup Herald: 11/16/11 2:39 pm

Certain places have importance in our lives and families. I’m sure that, given enough time, I could list dozens of places the mention of whose names could make me smile, or maybe even tear up. But I’ll try to keep the list under control.

I’ll start with Sunrise in Mount Rainier National Park. From the late 1960s through most of the 1970s, and a few times since, my family would make the long trek from the suburbs of Seattle to the highest point accessible by car in the park.

In large part, this was driven by my grandmother, a Norwegian immigrant. We tried to time these trips to coincide with the peak of wildflower season, because it reminded grandma of her childhood in Norway. My mom also loved Sunrise for its flowers.

It is no coincidence that the second place on my short list is also a national park. Dad was very drawn to them but tended to avoid the highly popular ones like Yellowstone or Yosemite.

Big Bend National Park in west Texas is one of the least-visited national parks, most likely due to its remote location. Named for the “big bend” of the Rio Grande River along the border with Mexico, it is mostly desert. It also features the Chisos Mountains, the only range located entirely within the boundaries of one national park.

We visited Big Bend a number of times when the Army posted dad in Texas. He really loved it there. Laurie and I returned about seven years ago and found it remarkably unchanged after 40 years.

A place that evokes mixed feelings is also in Texas. For about a year, we lived in Galveston, literally across the street from the Gulf of Mexico. My dad had been appointed the district engineer for the Corps of Engineers. I was just 4 years old at the time, but I remember thinking it was pretty neat to have a beach so close at hand.

In September 1961, our family was part of what was then the largest peacetime evacuation in our nation’s history. More than half a million people left low-lying coastal areas to flee inland from Hurricane Carla, now described as the most severe hurricane to make landfall in the United States. My sister’s school, Ursuline Academy, was destroyed by a tornado spawned in the storm.

Also destroyed in Galveston was dad’s chance of promotion to general due to a principled stand he took against a proposed Corps of Engineers project. A decade later, the project was the subject of a lawsuit brought under the National Environmental Protection Act. A reporter from the Houston Post was very interested in dad’s perspective.

I think of these places, and many others, often. At times, I wish I could rewind my life and relive the experiences I so treasure. But I’d have to take the bad with the good, and that I can do without.


All our veterans deserve to be honored this Memorial Day

The following was originally published in the Puyallup Herald

With the approach of Memorial Day I begin to think of all who have served in the military, especially friends and family. Technically, Memorial Day was established to honor and remember those who died in service to our nation, but I know of no family member or close family friend who I can so memorialize.

My father, grandfather, brother, father-in-law, and a number of uncles all served honorably in the military.

My maternal grandfather, Edward Bertram, was commanding officer at Vancouver Barracks when my parents met. It was 1941, and Dad was the new officer on base. He quickly charmed his way into Mom’s heart. Hal Brown and Kitty Bertram married after a short engagement.

A year later Grandfather Bertram was dead from heart disease and America was at war in the Pacific and Europe. Dad would return home in 1945 after serving in New Guinea and The Philippines, suffering from a combination of malaria and dysentery. He spent months in a hospital recovering.

Dad's 1944 Christmas Card to Mom

By this time he was also a dedicated smoker. There is some uncertainty as to when he picked up the tobacco habit. My sister thinks it was prior to his admission to West Point. I’m having a hard time reconciling that with the fact that he ran cross-country and was the number two miler on the track team.

What I do know is that many of our military men who served in World War II picked up the habit due to cigarettes included with their C-rations, or those distributed by certain non-governmental organizations.

In 1946 Dad was sent by the Army to the University of Chicago to study nuclear science. He received a Master’s Degree in 1948. During his time there, he was hospitalized when a canister of chlorine gas was accidentally breached in a lab while he was working in another part of the building. His lungs were blistered, leaving them scarred.

After finishing his degree, Dad spent the next several years building bombs in New Mexico. I don’t know much about the safety precautions taken around radioactive materials in those days, but I would hazard a guess that he was exposed to considerably more radiation than the average Joe working in a factory.

We can never know how many of our veterans died prematurely from service related injuries. Dad spent the final years of his life struggling to breathe, a nebulizer always at hand. No doubt the cigarettes he smoked for most of his life were to blame, but the chlorine gas cannot be dismissed.

So on Memorial Day I will be honoring those who died bravely in combat, but I will also be thinking of those whose fates are not easy to connect to patriotic duties: Those who returned from World War II addicted to tobacco; the veterans who were exposed to toxic chemicals in uniform; those with mental illness due to post-traumatic stress who died alone on the street.

All deserve to be honored.

 


What are the limits on a teacher’s time?

A teacher at “Education Nation” suggested that union rules regarding the teaching day limited her ability to meet the needs of her students and she just wanted to “do my job.” She wondered why she wasn’t allowed to bring students in on Saturday to do extra tutoring with those who needed it.

My simple question to her is: Where do you put limits on your time? Most teachers I know, myself included, put in time beyond the contract. Today I worked one hour forty-five minutes beyond my contractual obligation. On this past Sunday I spent three plus hours in my classroom grading papers and planning. I also scored papers at home on Saturday and Sunday. I brought home more papers to score tonight.

When I was a young teacher, I put in many more hours than I do now. Of course, I was living away from family and friends, and had no social life to speak of then. Now I’m older and have a wife and son. My energy level is not what it was. Tell me, what is a reasonable expectation of my time as a professional? Do I reach my limit when I drop dead?


Bootstraps

Many people have succeeded in life by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, as the saying goes. These people are to be admired for their determination and grit. We often use the same phrase as a suggestion to those who are struggling. “You just need to get up off your duff and pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” some have been heard to say. The problem is that not everyone has bootstraps, or boots for that matter.

Seventy years ago this June 11 my Dad, Harold Clifton Brown, graduated first in his class from West Point. Born the first son of an electrical engineer and a Norwegian immigrant who had briefly written for silent films, things looked pretty bright for his future from the start. He soon had two brothers to play with and his parents were doing pretty well providing for the boys. His dad, Harold senior, worked for Pennsylvania Power and Light. He was called “Brownie” by Grandma Brown, and she took care of the boys and the home. When Dad was about six, Brownie died of a sudden illness, leaving Grandma to provide and care for three young boys. It was 1924.

Through the worst of the Great Depression Grandma Brown worked hard and raised the boys. Dad did pretty well in school, except in the area of conduct.

Third column from the left is Conduct, preceded by attendance numbers. According to the scale it was his worst area.
Yep, Dad was a bad boy with potential. This was recognized by U.S.Senator Fred Brown (No relation. And no relation to the former Seattle SuperSonic.) of New Hampshire who appointed Dad to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

Dad continued to work hard once at West Point and in the end was incredibly successful. He served in World War II with the Corps of Engineers, earned a Master’s Degree in Nuclear Science at the University of Chicago after the war, and eventually retired as a Colonel. He went on to work fifteen years as an analyst for Boeing.

Funniest caption ever.

So dad had a bit of a rough start, but his life by most standards was successful. He certainly pulled himself up by his bootstraps, wouldn’t you say?

In no way do I consider myself the success Dad was. I went to college, reluctantly. My record as an undergrad was undistinguished. I flailed around at a variety of jobs for six years afterwards. Something finally clicked and I got my teaching credentials with a 3.74 GPA. Since then I’ve been gainfully employed as an elementary school teacher. But I didn’t pull myself up by my bootstraps. Couldn’t find them. So how did I get where I am? I’m white, male, grew up in an upper middle-class community, and I’m the son of a very successful father and saintly mother. Had but one of those puzzle pieces been missing I might be missing too (See Depression).

So when I hear or read about people using examples of others overcoming long odds to “make something out of themselves” to justify criticism of those who fail at same, I get agitated. Sometimes I even get hot under the collar. On rare occasions it gets my back and my dander up. Way, way up. If someone opines that you should stay out of the kitchen if you can’t stand the heat, well, better make yourself scarce, because that’s one too many cliches.

Sometimes people need help to simply lead a normal life. We all are products of our families, communities, nations, and genetics. Fortune determines the variety and quantity of each. Genetics can impact ambition, health, and talent. Our families impact our self-image, values, and attitudes. Community and nation provide opportunity, resources, and security. If fortune is kind we find it easier to make our way in the world. If fortune shorts us in one or more areas we struggle a bit more. If too much is missing, ambition can find little room to grow.

So, when I see the alcololic homeless man vomiting by the side of the road I try not to judge him. I don’t call him “loser.” I see the me that might have been had my circumstances been slightly different.


Teaching is Not a Life Commitment

When I was a new teacher I spent an average of ten hours a day at school. That does not include weekends, when I often put in an additional half-day. I would arrive in the morning before most staff, other than the chief custodian. I would stay late and have a fast-food dinner on the way home. Not the best for my health, but I didn’t really think about it. I was thirty-one, in good health, full of energy, and single. I was also three thousand miles from home, so I had no social life. Many of my colleagues were married so I didn’t hang out with them. The single ones were not so new to teaching as I, and we really didn’t have much else in common.

After that first year, I moved home and eventually went to work for my current employer. As the years went by, I continued to put in long hours at school. I also remained single. The average length of work-day gradually decreased, but not rapidly. When I turned forty, still a single man, I thought, “I’m still not married, but no biggie. I’m a good guy, educated, have a steady job, own a house, and I like kids. Ummmm, why am I not meeting eligible women?”

To make a long story short, I’m now married. We have a healthy, energetic five year old son. Really, really energetic. We have a house with a yard, both of which need upkeep. We both have families, friends, and interests which need attention. I still arrive at work earlier than required, leave later than required, and I work on weekends, but the hours are fewer. I don’t expect to ever be recognized as a star educator. I’m no Jaime Escalante. I don’t want to be. What I want is to be recognized for what I do well. Then I want to be told, with manners and respect for my education, experience, and humanity, what I need to do better. I want to be given a chance to fix those weaknesses in a way that makes sense to me. I don’t want to feel manipulated by legislation, bureaucrats, or politicians, and most of all, I don’t want to be the target of threats, insults, or intimidation by educational leaders or parents. That’s not an unreasonable expectation, is it?


Depression

I am not religious. I haven’t attended church on a regular basis since I was about fifteen years old. To that point I was a Roman Catholic. I had gone through Confirmation and First Holy Communion. I even tithed, intermittently anyway. There was a certain comfort in childhood in attending church on Sundays, going to midnight mass on Christmas Eve, or being smudged with ashes on Ash Wednesday.

Mom was a devout Catholic and I know she wanted her children to be the same. I think it’s safe to say that none of us turned out as such. Because Dad was not a Catholic I did not face much pressure as I began drifting away from church. I know Mom wasn’t happy, but there was no anger. She just looked sad. I never spoke to her about my reasons and she never asked. She died of breast cancer six years later.

What it came down to was unhappiness. I seldom felt really, truly joyful as a child and a young teen. Doing all the right things in my church never made any difference. Happy times always seemed to be experienced through a filter of haze. While I had a few close friends, many of my peers teased me, especially as I began to gain weight through my obsession with junk food and television. Thankfully, time has helped me understand what I now believe caused that hazy filter. Depression.

About ten or so years ago, listening to my future wife describe her own symptoms and experience with depression I realized it sounded much too familiar. I had never had a name for it until then, had no way of asking for support because I didn’t understand and I feared being judged.

A few years earlier, after months of the worst symptoms, I described my experience to my doctor. He had no clue whatsoever. No diagnosis. Nothing. I went back to the same doctor after learning about depression, and asked him if I might have depression. He gave me a brief questionnaire, reviewed it, and gave me a prescription. That first prescription actually made my symptoms worse, but things have gotten better over the years. I’ve since changed health care providers.

I could not even begin to tell you how many people have tried to draw me into their religion over the years.  My thin veneer of normalcy did not conceal my core of sadness, making me an obvious target. Let’s start with the Hare Krishna in San Francisco in 1974 when I was seventeen who called me a “far-out guy.” I walked away with a book I didn’t want and less money than I started with, but I was too polite to say no. Then there was the time a high school buddy and I were approached outside the Seattle Scientology office, and asked to take a “personality test.” When they found out we were under age they quickly moved on. There have been more Jehovah’s Witnesses than I can begin to count. Once, a JW woman came to my parents’ house offering literature. Strangely, I came to know her several years later as the bride to be of my step brother, also a JW. Nice enough people, but why do their churches tend to be window-free? Not a good fit for claustrophobics. I sat next to a Mormon missionary on a Greyhound during my freshman year in college. Once he knew there was no chance of me converting, we were able to discuss music for the rest of the trip. When I was thirty I ended a seven year friendship because he could not stop proselytizing. I had been one of his groomsmen. I question that decision to this day, but I feel talked down to anytime people treat me as though I’ve had no experience with or knowledge of their religion. Ultimately, it wasn’t religion that helped me take the first step on the road to wellness, it was knowledge.

Then there are the people who simply practice their beliefs with no expectation that those around them be anything other than what they are. If anyone will bring me back to church it is these people. They treat non-believers like human beings, not objects to be manipulated. They lead with their joy. They live their lives fully and meaningfully, setting an example which your average televangelist cannot. They will never carry garishly colored signs with cruel messages at the funerals of fellow Americans who gave their lives in hopes of  preserving freedom of speech. You won’t see them blowing themselves up in a crowded public space on the evening news. And they won’t beg for your money to support their “ministry” on channel 96 at 2 a.m. More than anything else, they won’t call for a “holy war” or burn heretics and witches, real or imagined, at the stake.

During my most recent depression flare-up I made a 40 mile drive to visit with an old friend. I made a point of it because I knew the support of friends and family is an important element in the treatment of this illness. My friend is the minister of a Presbyterian church in an urban area. I couldn’t have predicted such an outcome for him thirty-five years ago. As we enjoyed lunch at a neighborhood cafe he listened patiently to my story and was very supportive. Not once did he suggest that I make any spiritual changes in my life. He simply affirmed my feelings and concerns. After lunch we drove back to his church. I had brought along my camera equipment because I wanted to take some pictures of the interior of the beautiful church. He left me there as he headed off to an appointment. I stayed another thirty minutes or so, inside a church of my own volition, not as a guest at a wedding, or a mourner, or tourist, for the first time in almost forty years.


Using the Sandbox

This morning I saw a cat using the sandbox, and by sandbox I don’t mean litter box. In a neighbor’s yard is a child’s sandbox and in the child’s sandbox was a cat. The cat was scratching in the sand, and you know what that means: Little gifts awaiting the children who play in that sandbox. This is not an isolated incident. Cats find these play areas to have perfect conditions for their potty needs.

Other perfect kitty commodes include flower beds, vegetable patches, and garden paths, but that doesn’t end the opportunities for cats to do damage to your property. Young trees and fence posts make wonderful scratching posts. Your car’s tires are a perfect target for their spray, not to mention the paint!

I gotta tell ya’, there’s nothing quite like weeding the garden and unexpectedly grabbing a fistful of cat crap. There is also nothing like the “magnificence” of watching a well-fed, pampered, healthy feline stalking its feathered prey, pouncing on it, then tormenting it for twenty minutes or so until it finally, mercifully, and needlessly, dies.

Of course, there are controls for wandering cats. They’re called coyotes, stray dogs, busy streets, leaking antifreeze, cat hating humans in three ton vehicles, and occasionally, large raptors. When I was in third grade, I visited a classmate’s farm and saw the damage done by a barn owl. Several dead kittens were scattered around the property in various states of wholeness. I was horrified to see one with its eye hanging out of its socket. That image is still pretty vivid 45 years later.

None of this is necessary. If you love your cat, keep it indoors. Build it an enclosure if you must let it go outside, or leash train it. I’ve seen it done.