Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Beautiful day

Cold and crisp morning. It was +2 degrees when I shot this. There was almost no wind and the sun was shining. Cows were soaking up the warm rays and dining on tasty hay. Sometimes there's something very nice about not being chained to a desk and punching a clock.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

More esses

I must have been a rotten kid this year because I got a big lump of influenza for Christmas. It set in on about December 22 and as I write this on December 30 I’m finally beginning to feel a bit better. But not a lot better.

It’s the respiratory flu, complete with wracking cough, congestion, fever and chills, aches and pains, weakness and general malaise. Hard to describe how awful it feels to feel so awful. Not a lot to do but treat the symptoms with cough and cold nostrums, take acetawhatchacallit for the pain and fever, force fluids, rest as much as possible, and endure.

Complicating matters is the fact that Mom and Dad were laid low by the same malady at the same time. They’re 20 years my senior and I could tell the illness was harder on them than on me. They also had a house full of teenage grandkids and their parental units. A reasonably good time was had by the visitors but a serious toll was exacted from Mom and Dad. The things our parents and grandparents do for us.

On December 22-23 the weather on the Ranch south of Kimball was extremely fine. Skies were clear and the temperatures were pleasant for late December. Although I was ill, I couldn't help but appreciate the beauty of the High Plains shortgrass prairie. In the bright sunshine the grasslands come alive with a brilliant gold color. Cattle grazed contentedly and basked in the warming sunshine. You can click on the images to, as they say, embignify.
Grazing with contentment.
There’s something enchanting about the quality of the sunlight this time of year. The sun never climbs very high in the southern sky, so it’s slanting rays have to travel farther through the atmosphere. As the light flows through the air it seems to gather warmth and a depth of color.
Winter light makes the mundane come alive with beauty.
On Christmas Day the snow came. A remarkable event given that we don’t often see snowfall on December 25 in this part of the country. Before, yes. After, certainly. On, seldom. It was a solid dusting, producing 8-9 inches of the white stuff, but it was also a gentle snowfall, with no blowing or drifting.

My world over the next couple of days was a bit bipolar. As the snow ended the sun came back out and bathed the landscape in a fresh coat of beauty. Gone -- for the most part -- was the gold of stem-cured prairie grasses. In it’s place was an endless vista of brilliantly clean, blisteringly white snow.
Summer's corn and sunflowers transformed.
The temperature remained reasonably mild and the wind stayed away, so venturing out to do chores was an excursion into the heart of fairytale winter. The cows and calves seemed to revel in their clean, crisp new world. They wandered about, seeking and finding still tasty and nutritious grazing. My chores were limited to forking a bit of hay, chopping a bit of ice, and eyeballing each individual cow and calf to assess their condition and health. Not a demanding job at all.

Which was fortunate, because while I appreciated the beauty of the winter landscape and the health of the cattle, I was also extremely ill and miserable. Two hours of morning chores was just about all the fun I could handle. The phrase ‘weak as a kitten’ comes to mind.

Speaking of kittens
Last summer my Mom’s precious companion Ruby passed away unexpectedly. Mom had raised Ruby from the time she was the runt of a litter of kittens, and the two of them had a powerful bond. Ruby spent her waking daylight hours close to Mom, sitting in her lap as she “did the computer” and hovering near as she did chores. At night Ruby was on mouse patrol throughout the ranch house. Her expertise was never very apparent except in the absence of mice and the signs of mice.
When Ruby died Mom swore she’d never have another cat. She tried to hide it, but her grief was profound and she missed Ruby terribly. And the mice returned to the ranch house.

On Christmas Day daughter Jenny arrived with her two sons and a carload of cheer. They also delivered a pair of nine week-old Snowshoe Siamese kittens, Jingle and Bell. The two strikingly pretty and playful kittens immediately made themselves at home and quickly thawed the icy grief in mom’s heart. Just another Christmas miracle.
Mom, Jingle and Bell.

There really needs to be another kitten picture here.
Jingle, Bell. Or vice-versa.

On December 27 at about 8:30 a.m. the sun began to break through the low overcast. I’d just finished checking calves and was negotiating the south gate of the hay meadow when warming rays of sunshine tumbled down from the heavens, illuminating the vast field of snow in front of me, setting off a riot of scintillating reflection from trillions of individual ice crystals, turning the snow into a blaze of glittering diamonds.
The temperature was hovering at about 28 degrees, and with the sunshine came just the barest puff of northerly breeze. As I watched, captivated by the sight, a mist of water vapor began to rise from the frozen snow and into the brightening winter sky.

I was all too mesmerized by the sight to capture an image. It was all I could do to witness and drink in the majesty of nature's beauty. The mist of vapor rose all about me, bringing the horizons in close and tight and wrapping my shrinking world in a cooling, invigorating embrace. Within a few minutes I stood at the heart of a classic “milkbowl” sky. All around me the air glowed with soft whiteness, far less dense than fog, but just as visually impenetrable.

My mind flashed back to a Mediterranean sky more than 30 years in the past, when as a young man I flew through a similar sky in the right seat of a trusty Intruder. There had been no snow then, and the meteorological phenomenon was completely different, but the result was subjectively the same.
In 1984 Smurf and I soared majestically through the milkbowl at 30,000 feet and 500 knots, returning to the boat from a routine SUCAP mission. We seemed to float along in a featureless void, with no up or down, left or right, front or back. There was no horizon to be seen, and no way to gauge how far we could even see. Did the world out there still exist or did it end at the glass of the canopy and windscreen? From our perch in an airborne tactical jet the sensation was both sublime and frightening. Our instruments told us that all was well, that we were wings level, upright, and proceeding normally, but our eyes told a different story. The milkbowl is a beautiful place, but it’s also a very dangerous place. A few moments of inattention, the onset of “the leans” or spatial disorientation, and disaster could strike. We kept the monsters at bay that day, but the experience has stayed with me.

In 2014 I stood firmly on the ground and had no fear of the leans or of flying unexpectedly into the sea. I could marvel at and enjoy the milkbowl sky. And so I did. The mist of vapor rising from the snow has a simple but beautiful explanation. As the sunshine washed down on the frozen snow, and as a puff of breeze wandered by, and with the air temperature and pressure at just the right point, the surface layer of the vast snowfield began to sublime.

By definition sublimation is the transition of matter from solid phase directly to gaseous phase, without an intermediate stop at the liquid phase. Most forms of matter can sublime when the conditions are right, but on our planet conditions are rarely right for any matter except water.

Water is a very interesting thing. It forms as a polar molecule, with two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen. Because of the chemical properties of oxygen and hydrogen the water molecule can form as many as four molecular bonds. This, in part, makes the phase transition of solid ice to gaseous vapor possible. All that’s required, when conditions are right, is the addition of a bit of energy. As I stood at the hay meadow gate the other day the sun and the breeze added just the right quantity of energy and countless trillions of water molecules sprang into the chill morning air as water vapor. It was a beautiful thing to see.

On December 29 Arctic air began to flow into the region. At a minute after midnight the temperature at Kimball hovered at 20 degrees. Then it began to fall. By a minute past the next midnight it was minus one, and by 8 a.m. minus four. The forecast called for minus 17 in the depths of early morning on the last day of 2014.

As I scurried about my chores on December 30 the cold was a force to be reckoned with. My pickup gets me around and keeps me warm, but a breakdown or getting stuck could be a serious problem. It’s not worth fretting over, and I've taken the proper precautions, but a chores excursion on December 30 is very different than one on June 30, when the Earth is on the other side of it’s orbit and our northern hemisphere is directly facing the sun’s warmth. The high temperature on June 30 was 88, and the mercury only dipped to 49 that night.

At first glance on a day like this the prairie appears cold and lifeless, mired in the depths of frigid winter. There’s plenty of life going on, though. The calves at the far end of the hay meadow, a full mile to the north, appear first as scattered dots, clustered about the bigger dots of hay bales. I try and try to capture the essence of this and similar scenes with my camera, but it never quite works. There's always too much information missing.

As I checked water the stock tank was frozen over with a thick rind of hard, white ice. If the pasture was larger and used more extensively in the winter, it might pay to install propane tank heaters. Then again, it might not. The conservative frugality of a successful operation dictates a manual option for making water available. And so I took up my trusty axe. Chopping ice isn't a big chore, and I have to admit that I’ve cheated a bit.
Over the last several days I let the tank float become captured beneath the ice so that a thin stream of water continues to flow from the supply valve at the bottom. A bit of water runs over, but not much, and it keeps the surface ice thin in even the coldest weather. It's the work of moments to clear a large hole. Hearing the chopping sound, calves begin drifting over for a drink of cool water. They don’t use as much water in the winter, only 7-8 gallons per head per day, but that doesn't mean it isn't critical for their survival. Chopping ice is a least favorite task, but it’s arguably the most important job of the cold season.

Thoreau had a number of interesting things to say about winter and ice. Thumbing through my well-worn edition of “Walden,” I can quickly find a familiar place, chapter 16, “The Pond in Winter.”

  • “…I cut my way first through a foot of snow, and then a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where…a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky. Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”

There are moments when the realization of my immense good fortune bursts to the fore and nearly drops me to my knees with gratitude. A frigid winter morn, a frozen stock tank, Christmas cheer and the love of a family provide such a moment. Here’s hoping that each of you kind readers will be similarly blessed in the coming year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Sunset, sunrise, solstice

This post is tardy. But hey, what's a few days when the dang blog's been on life support for two years? Trying to resurrect the thing and make it meaningful again. Or for once.

Bit of an attitude problem as I type this; combination of the flu, no sleep, nasty cold medicines, and a howling north wind have made me cranky.

Last night (December 20) a spectacular sunset presaged the arrival of overnight cloud cover. The southwestern sky was gorgeous; gauzy and ephemeral clouds were streaked with fiery colors that seemed to soak into the very molecules of the air, bringing the sea of gas alive. Tendrils of light and shadow danced across the landscape from the horizon to the very tip of my nose, playful and warm and shot through with wonder and joy. Over the next half-hour the colors faded, oh so slowly, making each moment a brand new and once in a lifetime gift. There aren’t enough words to describe the colors, let alone the feeling of the experience, the lightshow I so often take for granted, the place where Earth and air and light produce real and honest magic, seemingly just for me. Click on the images to enlarge.
Sunset, EJE ranch, December 20, 2014

And then it was gone. Behind me a photocell decided the time was right and Christmas lights came alive, warming the now chilly evening with pinpricks of color and a diffuse glow of cheer. Our little tricks of flowing electrons and hot filaments and glowing noble gases can’t begin to compete with nature’s light show, but that’s okay. Competition isn’t the point.
Christmas Lights, EJE Ranch, December 20, 2014

Finished with their lightshow duties, the clouds flowed in and covered the prairie with an insulating blanket of water vapor, holding the infrared energy of sun-warmed Earth close and tight where it could keep the air temperature relatively more warm than otherwise.

The science of this phenomenon is delightful. Water vapor is opaque to infrared light (which we think of as “heat” rather than light but which differs from visible light only in frequency), preventing the flight of photons which would otherwise zoom away towards outer space if not held in check. Kept close to the surface, infrared photons crash into molecules of air, imparting kinetic energy. We measure this motion as temperature: more motion equals warmer and less motion equals cooler.

This is the real greenhouse effect, and it couldn’t be more different from the politico-ideological version.

Around me in the dark, across the pastures of the ranch, the comparatively warmer air affected the formation of ice in stock tanks. On a clear winter’s eve, ice would form, thicken and harden quickly, but on the overcast longest night of the year, the ice formed only slowly.

The clouds hung around throughout the night. As dawn approached, a thin wash of light began to suffuse the landscape a scant few minutes before sunrise. The sun peeked over the horizon at 7:17 a.m. on this, the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice.

Sunrise (on the 21st) was far different than last night's (December 20) sunset. Same sun, same angle, same clouds, but the colors were muted and dull, tending more toward silver and gray. The light frequencies aren’t that different, a matter of a few angstroms, but visually the difference was pronounced. No less beautiful, but the light seemed cooler, maybe even standoffish. The morning felt dull and chill and far less uplifting than the previous evening. Was the light so very much different or was it just my perspective?
Dawn +90, EJE Ranch, December 21, 2014

Although the morning felt chill the temperature was just north of the freezing mark and there was little ice to chop as I made my rounds. The cattle were seemingly content; cows and calves, inhabiting different pastures miles apart, grazing on stem-cured grass.
Cows graze stem-cured grass

As I finished up my morning chores the sun managed to finally fight through the overcast and shafts of brilliant golden light illuminated the prairie, turning brooding browns and greys to uplifting gold in an instant. As the light changed so did my mood and perspective. The chill vanished and my heart filled with warm delight. There must be magic in those angstroms.
Calves graze stem-cured grass

At 4:03 p.m. the moment of solstice arrived. The sun was setting in the southwest as another sunset came on. Although I looked closely, I couldn’t tell that the moment had arrived, couldn’t see whether the sun actually halted in mid-sky or not.
See that? The sun just stopped! Winter Solstice, EJE Ranch, December 21, 2014

The notion of the sun halting and reversing course is the Earth-centric view, of course. Although the Sun seems to move southwards in the summer and fall and northwards in the winter and spring, that’s just our perspective from the surface of our planet. In reality, so far as our solar system is concerned, the sun is fixed in the center of the system and the planets – including the Earth – orbit around it.

The Earth's orbit alone doesn't account for the apparent movement of the sun. Were it as simple as that the sun would stay fixed in the sky over a single point. Half of the planet would experience perpetual day and the other half perpetual night. The moon is a good example; it orbits the Earth and rotates on its axis only once per revolution, keeping one side, the side familiar to us, always facing the Earth. The other side – the so-called dark side – never faces our planet, and only since the advent of space flight and rocket trips to the moon has man ever had a glimpse of the dark side.

But Earth, which is not tide-locked into a single rotation per orbit as the moon is, rotates much more frequently, making 365 and a quarter rotations for each orbit around the sun. Each rotation takes just under 24 hours. From these numbers, 365.25 and 24, we derive the length of our year, measured in days, and the length of our day, measured in hours.

This is all very well, but the fact that the Earth rotates once per day and orbits the sun every 365.25 days doesn’t explain the apparent north-to-south, south-to-north movement of the sun.

And now we get down to cases. Earth is tilted about 23.5 degrees in relation to the plane in which it orbits the sun, the plane of the ecliptic. This is the same plane occupied by the other seven planets in their orbits of the sun. If the Earth stood vertical in the Plane of the Ecliptic, with the north pole straight up and south pole straight down, the sun would never move north or south. It would rise each morning in precisely the same location on the eastern horizon and set each evening in precisely the same location on the western horizon. Each period of day and night would be the same from day to day, and those periods would be very close to 12 hours for most of the planet.
How it all works, more or less. From the interwebs.

Earth's axial tilt remains constant (at least in our very short temporal frame of reference) as the Earth orbits the sun. In the summer, the northern hemisphere is leaned over toward the sun, and the sun’s light shines more directly on the north half of the planet. In the winter, the northern hemisphere is leaned away from the sun, and the sun’s light shines less directly on the north half of the planet. If you live below the Equator, in Australia, say, the process is exactly reversed, and your summer begins in late December while your winter begins in late June.

All in all, three things have to work in concert to provide the seasons and the apparent solar movement we see. Earth has to orbit the sun. Earth has to rotate. And Earth has to be “leaned over” with an axial tilt.

There is wonder and magic in every single thing in the universe.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Let them eat organic!

I’ve no idea whether the French Revolution is covered anymore in public education. To the extent that it may be, I suspect it’s taught as Zinnian revisionist history. Nevertheless, when I attended school the French Revolution was covered several times; in elementary, junior high, and high school. The French, as well as a number of other contemporary and near-contemporary revolutions, were used as a foil against which to compare and contrast the American Revolution.

At any rate, the topic was thoroughly discussed including the famous but apocryphal utterance of Marie Antoinette, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.” In common attribution the phrase is translated “let them eat cake.” A more accurate translation is “[then] they [may] eat brioche.” Brioche, of course, is a bread made with eggs and butter, and not the confectionary cake we Americans usually think of.

The point of talking about the quote is to illustrate the misunderstanding of a an issue by a person disconnected from the issue. The issue in France during the revolution was hunger and the French public were demanding bread to fill their empty bellies. Marie neither lacked for bread nor brioche. She was disconnected from the issue. Her misunderstanding was simple -- if the problem is a lack of bread, then eat brioche instead. Problem solved.

Today in America there is a similar but vastly more widespread misunderstanding. A great many Americans have come to believe, for various reasons, that brioche, in the form of “organic” or “natural” food, is an equal and viable alternative to dowdy old bread, or food produced by modern agricultural techniques. This misunderstanding of the situation is every bit as silly and feather-headed as the French Queen’s apocryphal utterance.

For years now U.S. farmers and ranchers have come under attack by a number of self-proclaimed “experts” who argue that modern production agriculture is destroying the environment, putting the food supply at risk, sickening consumers, making American children obese, putting a wall between humans and nature, and a long list of other wrongs.

Michael Pollan, for instance, a University of California-Berkeley journalism professor, has written books attacking production agriculture (The Omnivore’s Dilemma; In Defense of Food) and appeared in the PBS documentary Food, Inc. Pollan argues that modern agriculture is destructive, and that humans must return to the farming practices of the eighteenth century, consuming only locally grown, organic food, produced by subsistence farming and secured through a barter economy.

A number of other “expert” commentators, with neither background nor education in agriculture, have jumped on the bandwagon, and the major media has widely and uncritically reported on all of it.

“Consumers should apologize for eating meat,” said James E. McWilliams, associate professor of history at Texas State University at San Marcos and a fellow at the agrarian studies program at Yale University. McWilliams, a longtime vegetarian and author of the book “Just Food,” claims that livestock consumes 70 percent of the water in the American west, produce 21 percent of all greenhouse gasses, and are treated with three-quarters of all antibiotics produced.

Patrick O. Brown, a Stanford University biochemist and vegan, claims that livestock production is not only contributing to out of control, man-made global warming, but is deforesting the Amazon. Both of these claims are coming under increasing fire as the planet continues a cooling trend and recent studies show expansion of Amazonian rain forest. Brown’s proposed solution? “Eliminate animal farming on planet Earth.”

Based on the claims and theories espoused by these so-called experts, organic and “locavore” movements have become a passionate fad for many Americans. And while there’s nothing wrong with choosing to eat only locally grown, organic food – so long as the supply of these foods can meet demand – mandating these production practices for the entire U.S. ag sector, as many of these experts demand, is a prescription for widespread starvation.

Leaving all other considerations aside, small-plot organic food production simply cannot feed America’s 310 million souls. In 1790, when the U.S. population was 3.9 million and 80 percent of Americans were full-time farmers, ag production often failed to meet the nutritional requirements of the nation. Hunger was a constant threat, and where crops failed, starvation was a grim reality. Today, fewer than one percent of 317 million Americans feed the country. Those 3 million American farmers and ranchers provide consumers with the most abundant, highest quality and most inexpensive food supply the world has ever known.

Fortunately, many of the real-world truths about production agriculture are coming to the fore, and genuine ag researchers are countering with fact the simplistic fiction of the Pollans’ of the world. A case in point is a paper written by dairy science professor Jude Capper. In “Demystifying The Environmental Sustainability Of Food Production,” Capper writes:

“All food production has an environmental impact and livestock production has been singled out as a major contributor to climate change. However, consumer and governmental perceptions of strategies and production systems used to reduce environmental impact are often simplistic and appear to be based on misconceptions that do not consider potential negative trade-offs.”

Capper, an assistant professor of dairy sciences at Washington State University, notes that while many commentators claim, and many consumers believe, that eating grass-fed meat or locally grown food are environmentally friendly decisions, they are often far off the mark when drawing such intuitive conclusions.

While there is widespread perception that grass-fed meat is  environmentally friendly than conventionally produced, grain-finished beef, writes Capper, “...the time needed to grow an animal to slaughter weight is nearly double that of animals fed corn, which means that energy use and greenhouse gas emissions per pound of beef are increased three-fold in grass-fed beef cattle.” In addition, she said, finishing the U.S. population of fed-cattle on pasture would require an extra 60 million acres of land.

On the trend among many consumers who want to purchase food grown locally, Capper said, “Often 'locally grown' food is thought to have a lower environmental impact than food transported over long distances due to carbon emissions from fuel. This simplistic approach fails to consider the productivity of the transportation system, which has tremendous impact on the energy expended per unit of food.”

While the desire to protect the environment by altering personal behavior is admirable, she said, “Those decisions must be based on logic rather than intuition.”

“Consumers might think they are making the responsible, virtuous food choices, when, in truth, they are supporting production practices that consume more natural resources, cause greater pollution and create a larger carbon footprint than more efficient, technology-driven, conventional methods,” she said.

The many millions of Americans presently clamoring for organic over modern food production would do themselves well to introduce a little rigor in their decision making. Ironically, today even the poorest of the poor in America have instant access to the entire world wide web, yet they cannot find a way to actually check the facts of such a critical issue.

What people choose to believe, and the evidence they choose to credit, is, of course, up to the individual. Many individuals, though, tend to believe that they can and should take it upon themselves to demand brioche over bread, based on both a faulty understanding of the issue and on a complete absence of even the most basic attempt to understand the issue. Such thinking (or lack of thinking) actually serves to make Marie Antoinette seem a paragon of reason and intellect.

A complicating factor is today’s entertainment media, which still clings to the clearly false notion that it is providing “news.”

Friday, January 10, 2014

What does it mean to support the troops?

If you randomly polled a hundred folks across the Panhandle, asking whether they support the troops, I’d be surprised if you didn’t find that all 100 answered yes. If you did the same poll across the nation, I think you’d get pretty darn close to 100 percent affirmative answers. A tiny minority would say no, probably, but I’m thinking 99 percent would unhesitatingly reply that yes, they support the troops.

What if you changed the question? What if you asked, “what does it mean to support the troops?”

That’s a different kettle of fish.

I’m not going to rah-rah you and tell you the answer. It’s something everyone has to figure out for themselves. I do suspect, though, that not many of my friends and neighbors have spent much time thinking about the question. I think it’s an important question for all Americans to consider, which is why I’m writing this piece. Why now? Why here? Let me share a couple of anecdotes and a story.

I have a cartoon stuck on the bulletin board in my office (I serve as Kimball County’s part-time Veterans Service Officer; my office is in the courthouse). It’s from a cartoon series called “Broadsides” which runs in the Military Times family of newspapers. The cartoon panel depicts a civilian human resources director sitting at a desk, examining a sheaf of paper. In front of the desk is a man in civilian attire with a military haircut and a USMC tattoo on his arm. The HRD is apparently interviewing the tattooed man. “Killed bad guys from 1982-2012,” he says. “Just a wild guess, but is this your first resume Mr. Clark?”

That cartoon has a lot of depth, a lot of layers. It’s clearly amusing. A civilian can see himself in the HRD’s position, trying to figure the veteran out. But The civilian can’t see himself in the shoes of the former marine. There are levels of that cartoon that can’t be grasped by anyone who hasn’t shared the experience of military service. I could describe them, but my description would have little meaning to anyone lacking the veteran’s perspective. It’s interesting to think about. The veteran has been a civilian, but the civilian has never been a soldier. There’s a disconnect there.

Another anecdote, from a slightly different perspective: You’ve probably all seen the trailers for the forthcoming movie “Lone Survivor.” The movie is based on the book written by Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell. I watched a book signing event featuring Luttrell when his book first came out several years ago. During the question and answer session after his talk, someone in the audience asked, “what can we civilians do to support the troops?”

“Pick up a rifle, man,” said Luttrell, Pick up a rifle.”

I’m not suggesting, and neither, I think, was Luttrell, that to support the troops you need to join the military and come to blows with the enemy on the battlefield. What I’m saying is simply this. If you think it’s important to support the troops, and if you have a desire to find a way to support the troops, you need to do a lot of thinking about what it all means.

Unless you’ve served, you’ll never be able to understand the question from the soldier’s perspective. If you’re serious about supporting the troops, you need to understand that that perspective exists. You need to think about the fact that you don’t – and can’t – understand the soldier’s perspective, and integrate that knowledge into your reasoning when you try to figure out what supporting the troops means. If you get to that point, you’ll be able to figure out a sensible and reasoned approach to deciding whether it makes sense for you to provide that support.

In other words, there may be a difference between what you know and what you think you know. Hmm. Where have I heard that before?

Now here’s a short story.

On Saturday afternoon I got a call about a veteran who was hitchhiking and had run out of money. The temperature was already tumbling and was forecast to hit 10 below overnight. Not a good night to be spending along the interstate.

I was irritated when I got the call. Saturday was the first day of wildcard weekend and I’d worked hard to arrange my schedule so I could watch the games.

But duty is duty. Irritated is emotion. Two different things. I drove out and contacted the veteran, got him in my pickup, and started calling around to see how we could help him. As I called he told me a little bit about himself. He’s 23 and got out of the Army six months ago. He spent most of the last three years in Afghanistan. He’s seen serious combat. He planned to reenlist but manpower cuts made that impossible. He worked at a job in New Jersey for a while but got into some kind of trouble and wound up in jail. He was hitching to Boise where a sister lives and he has a line on a job. It took a lot of questioning to get those details out of him. He was very reserved, very closed off.

I finally broke through the layers of answering machines and VA bureaucracy and made arrangements for the veteran to spend the night in a shelter in Cheyenne. Getting him there was the trick. I decided to break a local guideline and drive him myself (and got politely chewed out for breaking the guideline). I got him to the shelter and made sure he got checked in. I left him with my card and told him to call if he needed anything and to let me know he got to Boise okay. I don’t expect to hear from him.

The world isn’t as clear-cut and easy to understand as we’d like it to be. Supporting the troops sounds like a great idea, and one most of us are instinctively “for.” But how do you support a kid like my hitchhiking vet?

I don’t have the answer. There isn’t one. Not an easy, one-size-fits-all solution. In this country, where we’re all sovereign citizens, we have to figure those things out for ourselves.

There's no easy button for the important stuff.