Commentary Stories


I met this man who trains dogs to sniff out explosives.  They call them bomb dogs.  He does this for the police department in Washington, D.C.  Of course, a lot of people both home and abroad would like to plant explosives in Washington, D.C. our nation’s capitol.  Even some people who work there in-and-out seem to want to blow the place up. It isn’t clear these dogs can save the day, but who knows?

The man I talked with told me they get the dogs from Germany, and a fully trained dog is worth over a hundred thousand dollars.  One reason is that it takes the trainer a year of full time work to get a dog ready.  An untrained dog will smell all the smells there are, and there are so many it must be hard to get a dog focused on the few things a bomb can smell like.

The trainer I talked with said they get very attached to their dogs, and the dogs to them. He said they even get bereavement leave if their dog dies or gets killed.  He said the thing that makes a bomb dog’s day is to do his job well and have the trainer pet him and tell him he’s a good dog.  But it has to be the trainer telling him that.  Anyone else tells him “good dog” and he’ll say “well who the heck are you?”  He has one master, and what the master says about his work is the only thing that matters. Bomb dogs are very clear about this.

It must be hard, working every day as a bomb dog. You’re trained you to go in where the bombs are so people don’t have to. People used to do this themselves, but now they have you to do it so they can stay safe. 

So you have to work alone in there where a bomb may be.  You have to make your own decisions.  There’s no such thing as calling over a fellow dog and asking him to take a whiff please.  Ask him what this smells like to him.  Have a conference on it there like those umpires do when they throw down their little flags.  They huddle together and try to decide why they did that.  But these dogs have to make the decision alone and in a hurry.

And speaking of in a hurry, it would be easy to get heavy-nosed while in a hurry. The bombs are lying there just waiting for a heavy-nosed dog to set it off. A bomb dog can’t get heavy-nosed or he won’t be staying on the bomb squad long. Rush in there and hard nose right down on a bomb and BOOM! His trainer who spent a year just with him wouldn’t appreciate this. Instead of “good dog” he’d be hearing something else.  Or hearing nothing at all. His memorial service would get scheduled.

When you’re in an explosive situation, the first thing you have to do is stay light-nosed.

Think about this.


Commentary History

Passing Knoxville

When I was a boy growing up in a small Tennessee town, Knoxville was the biggest city in the world as far as I could prove. To go to Knoxville with my parents was a special occasion. Actually I think it was somewhat special for them as well as me. Later on, to go there by myself was a brave adventure. I can still remember my first solo ride on the White Star Line bus from Maryville to Knoxville. Our town had no hospital then, but Knoxville had many of them. Our town had one high school, but Knoxville had no telling how many. Our town had a small college where my father taught, but Knoxville had the University of Tennessee.

The treasures of Knoxville included the Army Navy surplus store off Gay Street, my favorite. Knoxville boasted the first trampoline I ever saw or used. And the Court House lawn is where we waited with our packs and gear for school buses to come and take us to Camp Pellissippi on nearby Norris Lake. Near Miller’s Department Store was the S&W Cafeteria where men in uniforms carried the tray to your table, imagine that. Nearby was the Sterchi Brothers Furniture Store which started in Knoxville and then expanded in the Southeast. On the north side of town was the Whittle Springs Hotel, named for the nearby mineral springs that were said to have healing properties. Beside the winding Tennessee River sprawled the university, where our high school band was invited to march and play at halftimes when small crowds were expected. No small crowds are ever expected there today.

Although we had two movie theatres in my town, those in Knoxville were larger and more special. The Tennessee Theatre was my favorite, but there was also the Riviera and the Bijou. I always thought the Bijou had an odd name. 

There were two newspapers in Knoxville: the Knoxville Journal and the Knoxville Sentinel. My parents took the Sentinel. The two main radio stations (it’s hard to imagine, I know, but there was no television then) were WBIR and WNOX. My family listened to WBIR. WNOX was famous for its “Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round.”  It also hosted the “Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour” which Dolly Parton sang on when she was 10 years old. Dolly grew up in nearby Sevierville.

Orton Caswell Walker, always known as Cas, was a colorful and influential Knoxville figure. He owned a supermarket chain which featured a “Dollar General” type approach to selling groceries. He catered to lower income and working class customers, in his stores and in his political career. He served on the Knoxville city council and tried hard to become mayor but never made it. He was a hard-spoken, attacking style of populist, and all who knew him were either “for” or “against.” Cas opposed every progressive idea that ever came up, such as putting fluoride in the drinking water which he said was a communist plot against our children. My mother always did her shopping at the local A&P store.

Knoxville was also a place of anonymity, which my home town was not. In our town you might be observed at any time by someone who knew you. They could also know your teachers and your brothers and your parents. Knoxville was a foreign place where no one knew your face or name. People did things in Knoxville they would not do at home. What things those were I leave for another time.

Tonight I am passing Knoxville along I-40 on my way to Chattanooga. It is now, not then. I am passing by and thinking back.

Most of Knoxville is unfamiliar now. The GPS would have to help me find my way around.


It’s All Relative



Comparison is the thief of joy

                — Theodore Roosevelt


It’s an animal trait, which human animals share, to make comparisons among ourselves. A canine animal, when meeting another, will size the other up. A human animal will do the same. A woman will size up other women with whom she might be compared, and a man will do the same—or a boy, or a girl. We learn this early, and we do it often.

Most of the time these comparisons are fleeting and virtually unconscious. A quick glance, a quick conclusion, and no more thought about it. But other times the game is serious, with high stakes riding on the outcome. Sometimes there are winners and losers, with consequences attached to both.

Normal human beings have a sense of self worth. We rate ourselves, constantly rate ourselves, and our ratings may rise high or fall low. They may also get stuck in a high-risen or low-fallen position. You likely can think of examples of famous people stuck in the high-risen view of themselves, or the low-risen as well.

These self-ratings come from within us, from our thoughts and feelings, our reactions to daily events. They may be driven by external influences, by what we hear from others as it relates to ourselves. One negative comment we hear may sometimes hang around all day and into the night. These may be driven by comparisons such as: “He’s smarter than me,” “I’m prettier than her,” “We’re better than them.” In a more tribal society, including human ones, there are a lot of “we’re better than them’s.”

One’s dependence on favorable comparisons is a slippery slope. Except is rare circumstances, all comparisons are relative. Most of us are better than some, and inferior to many others. 

In the 4.4 mile Great Chesapeake Bay Swim of 2016, I finished in 2 hours and 36 minutes. Now, the great majority of people who swim can’t swim across the Chesapeake Bay at all. I’m a better swimmer than most people, then, at least in terms of swimming four miles in open water. But the swimmer who won this race finished in 1 hour and 24 minutes. In one way of speaking, that puts my effort to shame. But much depends on the comparison. That winner was 20 years old, and I was more than three times his age. When compared with others in my own age group, I did quite well. All is relative.

I love photography, especially nature, wildlife, and landscape photography. When I post my pictures on Facebook, friends comment on how they love them, and say I’m a good photographer. But I mustn’t take that too seriously. I know and follow some really good photographers, and I’m very average compared to them. My friends may not be aware of this comparison, but I am. All is relative.

When I took the standard IQ test on entering college, my score was pretty high and it made me feel good. I do consider myself to be fairly smart, and I do meet people I think are not as smart as I am. But I’ve also met plenty of people, and heard of many others, that are much smarter. There are other people whose smartness is in a different league than mine. Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Fareed Zakaria, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Barack Obama, Charlie Rose, David Remnick, many others. All is relative.

There are two approaches we can take to this relativity. On the one hand, we can try to keep ourselves in situations where we compare favorably, as many do. We can flaunt those easy comparisons to make ourselves feel good. We can avoid situations where we might be compared unfavorably, keeping in the spotlight and avoiding any shadows. Play to our fans and avoid any critics.

On the other hand, we can deliberately do the opposite. We can seek the company of people who are smarter than us, faster than us, better spoken and better looking, better dressed, whatever all the “betters” are. We can learn to be comfortable in situations where we look up to others, and use the comparisons to learn better ways, and to motivate ourselves toward improvement.

You see, it’s always better for me to swim with the faster swimmers, feel challenged and inadequate, and struggle to keep up, than to swim easy with slower swimmers and feel superior. If I can, I want to rub shoulders with some of those really smart people and watch them perform. 

I knew a really smart man once. He was a brilliant speaker and writer, read scholarly works in several languages, and in addition possessed great social and interpersonal skills. As a student of his, my admiration came close to worship. But the remarkable thing about this man was his humility and down-to-earth-ness. He believed there was something he could learn from every person he met, regardless of their station in life. He could meet a janitor or cab driver or hotel maid and find something of value this person could tell him. Whatever it was that you knew and he didn’t, he would find it out and learn from it. He was a great man, but there was a humility about him that meant he had no need to prove himself better than anyone he met. 

You might say this is easier if you’re at the top of the heap and have less to prove. You might say it’s harder if you’re at the bottom of the heap and have more to prove. The point is not to think in terms of proving anything, other than to yourself. The point is that all is relative anyway, and that the most meaningful competition is all within ourselves.

Commentary Humanity Stories

Meeting A Woman at the Pool

I drove to the pool with maybe a few problems on my mind. Eighteen strokes to the lap, thirty-six laps to the mile, half an hour of hard exertion, counting down, counting down.

My left hand is getting better. It used to start the pull too soon. The timing now is even and the stoke is smooth. It has taken years of daily swimming to accomplish this.

But what a feeling! To glide to the wall that last lap and let the body go loose. Let it hang free while the breathing slows to normal. While the day begins to form again, and the arms pull me up. Feet go under and the legs lift, and I am now like people suppose they were meant to be instead of swimming in water like a frog or fish. Hands take off the goggles and rub the eyes.

I headed for the small pool in the corner where you sit in hot water that churns at you from all sides. Good for the circulation but don’t stay too long and don’t use if you have a bad heart, they say. And I found a woman there, a woman all alone.

She was a friendly woman. Smiling and saying hello and wanting to talk. Talk I do not remember not much of, as you will soon understand.

For what I kept from that day till now was the sight of her body. Her body I tried not to be caught looking at. But whenever her head turned, or I dared a glance, I did look. Over and over I looked, as if forced and powerless.

And what I saw more of, each time, was always what I knew from the first. That she was a dying woman here in this water. Of cancer that was somewhere, maybe everywhere. A body looking dead already. As if nothing were left between her bones and the covering skin. Nothing.

It made me look strangely at the parts of myself I could see along with her parts. Mine were no stuff for a magazine cover, yet what a contrast. As if I were rich and famous and beautiful now. A different class of person from her. It felt good and bad both. Proud at first, then guilty. Conspicuous even, as if I was the one who should hide myself from view, not her. The lesser person there, and not the better one.

And I remembered there those troubles I’d brought. They came at me with a vengeance, as she smiled her bright smile, and chatted about the water and how nice the day was. Then said goodbye, pulling up to leave. And was sadly beautiful as she made her way.


Commentary War

Talk of War

Now again in early January 2080 we hear the talk of war: threats, grievances, incidents, mobilizings, bombings, murders, and always the justifications.

With all this from today’s news in mind, I was listening to “The Green Fields of France” by the Celtic Thunder. I decided to share. I suggest you listen to the music first, then review the words below.


Oh how do you do, young Willy McBride,
Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside,
And rest for a while in the warm summer sun,
I’ve been walking all day, and I’m nearly done.
And I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen,
When you joined the great fallen in 1916,
Well I hope you died quick,
And I hope you died clean,
Oh Willy McBride, was is it slow and obscene.
Did they beat the drums slowly,
Did the play the fife lowly,
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down,
Did the band play the last post and chorus,
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest.
And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind,
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined,
And though you died back in 1916,
To that loyal heart you’re forever nineteen.
Or are you a stranger without even a name,
Forever enshrined behind some old glass pane,
In an old photograph torn, tattered, and stained,
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame.
Did they beat the drums slowly,
Did the play the fife lowly,
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down,
Did the band play the last post and chorus,
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest.
The sun shining down on these green fields of France,
The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance,
The trenches have vanished long under the plow,
No gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing down.
But here in this graveyard that’s still no mans land,
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand,
Till’ man’s blind indifference to his fellow man,
And a whole generation were butchered and damned.
Did they beat the drums slowly,
Did the play the fife lowly,
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down,
Did the band play the last post and chorus,
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest.
And I can’t help but wonder oh Willy McBride,
Do all those who lie here know why they died,
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause,
Did you really believe that this war would end wars.
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame,
The killing and dying it was all done in vain,
Oh Willy McBride it all happened again,
and again, and again, and again, and again.
Did they beat the drums slowly,
Did the play the fife lowly,
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down,
Did the band play the last post and chorus,
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest.

Commentary Humanity Religion

Do Short Shorts Matter?

There are those who live their lives with no moral struggles. To them, nothing is right or wrong. Things are simply desirable, or they aren’t. Self interest makes the choices. The laws of man or God may get in the way, but only as barriers to get around. 

Most of us aren’t able to live that way. Most of us have a nagging conscience raising questions of right and wrong. This can be a burden or a blessing . . .  depending. Most of us struggle to develop our standards of right and wrong, and struggle even more to follow them.

I was reminded of this at a dairy farm in Pennsylvania. A wonderfully clean and healthy place. A great place to live if you’re a cow or calf or human child. A place where Amish buggies come driving in to buy milk and eggs, delivering children to enjoy ice cream and animals.

The folks who run this farm work hard, love one another, live modestly, help their neighbors, study their Bibles, and go to church on Sundays. And like most of us, they consider the rightness or wrongness of their words and deeds. So as I read the polite request bullet-pointed in a list on the wall, I smiled but did not scorn it. It said:

To many, such a sign will seem quaint and belonging to an earlier time. When I first read it, I had that reaction. But then, the very next day, I read about the funeral of Aretha Franklin in Detroit. There was much discussion of the mini-skirt worn by one of the singers, and whether it was appropriate for a funeral or not. Many considered it “immodest attire.” And former president Bill Clinton was accused of gazing at the singer in an inappropriate manner by a Fox News panel. They called it “leering.” So the sign I read in rural Pennsylvania is more current than it appeared. …

Commentary Environment Guns Religion

Not Me? Reflections On the Day of Donald Trump’s Ban on Muslims

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 29: Demonstrators march down Pennsylvania Avenue during a protest on January 29, 2017 in Washington, DC. Protestors in Washington and around the country gathered to protest President Donald Trump’s executive order barring the citizens of Muslim-majority countries Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen from traveling to the United States.

He is banning members of the Muslim religion from our country, but I am not of that religion.

He is building a wall to keep out Mexicans, but I am not a Mexican.

He will not allow us to shelter the suffering, homeless, and dying refugees of war, but I am not a refugee.

He intends to torture prisoners, but I will not be one of those tortured.

He may cancel the health insurance of 20 million people, but I have other health insurance.

He will do away with protections for the environment, but I do not have so many years left to live, and future generations will pay for this, not me.

He is moving to further restrict the voting rights of minorities and others who oppose him, but I am a white man from Tennessee and I will still be able to vote.

He will degrade public education, on which most families depend, while funding private education for the well-off. But I already have my education.

He intends to deport some 12 million immigrants, including many who were born and grew up here. But I am not one of those to be deported.

He will reverse the civil rights gains made by lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgendered persons, but I am not one of these persons.

He wants to make abortions illegal and even criminal, but I will not be needing an abortion. …

Commentary Guns

Evolved Thinking

On Tuesday, November 8th, 1960 I cast my first vote in a U.S. presidential election, at the age of 23.  I voted for Richard Nixon against John F. Kennedy. I was a Southern Baptist ministerial student at the time, and although I did not openly admit it, I was influenced by the fervent anti-Catholic sentiments I heard around me in Tennessee. Preachers said that a vote for Kennedy was a vote to have the Pope running things in America. My voiced rationale for the Nixon vote was that he was “more experienced.” 

kennedy nixonI did learn better. In the 1964 election I voted for Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater, then for Hubert Humphrey against Nixon in 1968, then for George McGovern against Nixon (who seemed never to go away) in 1972. My thinking on Nixon and what he represented had clearly “evolved.” 

I grew up in rural Tennessee, and although he had a Ph.D, my father was still a mountain man from North Carolina. He gave me a rifle at an early age and taught me to shoot and hunt. I developed a love for guns and hunting and marksmanship.

I joined the National Rifle Association and benefitted from its connection with the U.S. military that allowed NRA members to purchase surplus weapons for almost nothing. I obtained and refinished guns such as the classic M1903 Springfield .30-06, the army M1 .30 Carbine, and the .45 caliber pistol. I learned to re-finish and re-blue weapons, and to fit and furnish them with new and beautiful wooden stocks. In those days you might have called me a “gun nut” and been pretty accurate. …

Commentary Health Stories Swimming

Don’t Hold Your Breath

When I was a boy and aspiring to become a man, I spent most of my summers at Boy Scout camp. For me, this was Camp Pellissippi on Norris Lake in East Tennessee. I began as a regular camper and later became a camp counselor and handicrafts instructor. I was also the camp bugler. I played Reveille to get them up, Assembly to form them into rows before the flag, and Mess Call to bring them to meals. Other calls sounded throughout the day, and Taps was played at the end, when they were obliged to go to sleep.

The highlight of my week at camp was the Saturday morning swim meet down on the waterfront. We swam in the lake, but mostly inside a floating wooden “crib” as it was called. Wooden boards formed the side walls and bottom of the crib, and it was supported in the water by empty oil drums. Water from the lake circulated freely in and out. It was much like a regular swimming pool, having diving boards, walkways, ladders, and life guards. The crib was attached to shore and held in place with cables, and these were adjusted as the lake level rose or fell.

My favorite swim meet event was the underwater swim. The goal was to swim farther underwater than anyone else. Those entered went one at a time and the order was determined by drawing straws or guessing a number or something similar. I became good at swimming distances underwater. I learned how to hyperventilate and store up oxygen in my system, and how to dive in with lungs full and exhale most grudgingly. Another camper was good as well, and one or the other of us always won the event. Often it came down to the order. If he went first, I had the advantage of knowing just how far I needed to go to beat him. If I went first, this advantage was his. …

Scroll to Top