28 Days of Inspiration – Day 23

75th Anniversary Reunion of the Battle of Gettysburg

Last night the Chicago Cubs erased a 108-year championship drought in the 10th inning of game 7 of the World Series in Cleveland.  This effectively passed the torch of longest active championship droughts from the 1908 Chicago Cubs to the 1948 Cleveland Indians.

Just 5 years after the Cubs last World title, there was a gathering of Civil War veterans at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for the 50th Anniversary of the battle.  There was consternation as to what may transpire when the some 53,000 veterans of the war – now aged men – from 46 states came together to mark the occasion.  However, according to the event’s Wikipedia page: “the peaceful reunion was repeatedly marked by events of Union–Confederate camaraderie.President Woodrow Wilson’s July 4 reunion address summarized the spirit: “We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten—except that we shall not forget the splendid valor.”

Twenty-five years later, there was one final reunion in 1938 for the 75th Anniversary of the battle.  My dad was a 7-year old boy.  I let that sink in from time to time; that my father was a little boy at a time civil war veterans – however few – still carried with them a time when the fate of this country was less than secure.

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 On July 6,  John W. Cooper (91), a Confederate veteran of Largo FL., and Union veteran Daniel T. Price (91), of Marion, IN., and David T. Weaver (95), a Confederate veteran of Muldrow, OK passed away at a local hospital. photo from newspapers.com. Veterans’ stories from civilwartalk.com

The ensuing 25-years reduced the number of gathered civil war veterans from 53,000 to  about 2000. In 1913 there were about 8000 Confederate soldiers in attendance now there was an estimated 8000 total living veterans of the war – only about 70 gathered had actually fought at the battle of Gettysburg.

The veterans average age was 94 and they began arriving June 29 in 12 special Pullman trains.  Not on veteran died en route to the gathering, but two or three died before the celebration closed and five more passed away making their way home. It was apparently important for them to be there, at that place, one last time.

And this gets me to my point: it’s important to us as human beings to share experiences with others, it’s important to us to have goals and to have a meaning beyond ourselves.  It was somehow spiritually important to these men 50-years after fighting each other to come together and recognize the nation that remained.  It was important to share this common bond with others, even those who were on the opposite side of the conflict, and it was more important to share it than it was to have been on the victorious side.  It was more important to come together than to be “right.” 2000 veterans of 8000 still living – that’s a commitment beyond oneself.  90-year old men coming together for closure and for the historic record.  Above all, the healing for the good of the county – just one more time. For me, this event stands for the proposition that despite differences, despite having faced each other in anger, several times over the course of that 75 year period, these men gathered together to reflect on their service to their respective armies, and to bond together as brothers once again.  Time sometimes does heal old wounds, but the desire has to be there – as it was here.

It’s important to take those steps while you can.  By the end of August 1956, 7-champions after the Cleveland Indians had last won the World Series, the last of the civil war veterans had passed on: the last verifiable Confederate, Pleasant Crump, passed away on the last day of 1951, and the last surviving Union soldier Albert Woolson passed away August 2, 1956.

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28 Days of Inspiration – Day 22

Witold Pilecki Auschwitz Prisoner 4859

Unless you’re a particularly studious student of the second World War, you’ve not likely heard the name Witold Pilecki.  He was a Polish solider who was executed in 1948 for espionage and his story was largely supressed by the Polish government until 1989.  If you’re particularly astute, you’ll remember the Communist hold on Poland collapsed in 1989.

“The underground army was completely in disbelief about the horrors,” Storozynski explains. “About ovens, about gas chambers, about injections to murder people — people didn’t believe him. They thought he was exaggerating.”

NPR Story September 18, 2010

While his trial was largely a kangaroo court with a predetermined outcome, he after all WAS a foreign agent if you’re a 1940’s Stalinist – he remained loyal to the Polish government in exile – and given that the Stalinists did take over Poland for the better part of 50 years, if that had been all Pilecki had done I would still consider him to be an inspirational character; giving one’s life for the greater good while resisting injustice is always going to be a call for selflessness and to be better, which is a good reason despots wish to quash such rebellion.

But he had a greater role in the history of the 1940’s and indeed arguably saved the lives of millions of people.

Pilecki created a plan by which he would be incarcerated in the Auschwitz concentration camp and would then report back what was happening. It was through his work the world outside the Nazi diaspora learned that these were in fact not internment camps, but rather death camps.  While he was there, he joined an underground movement, built a radio transmitter built from smuggled parts, reported to the Polish resistance what the camp was, number of prisoners, conditions, and more. After three years of backbreaking work, he managed to break out of Auschwitz, with documents stolen from the Nazis in his possession.

I’ve been trying to live my life so that in the hour of my death I would rather feel joy, than fear.

— After the announcement of the death sentence, Bartłomiej Kuraś, Witold Pilecki – w Auschwitzu z własnej woli, „Ale Historia”, w: „Gazeta Wyborcza”, 22 kwietnia 2013.

Consider that he was a highly skilled operative who used his skills to build morale among the prisoners, and to provide the Polish government the information it would need to first defeat the Nazis, then the Communists, with the hope of returning to power.  When it became clear that the post-war would not see the return of the exiled government, he was ordered to cease his information gathering on the Communists and escape – orders he declined and was ultimately arrested.   He was tortured, but never revealed information on his fellow operatives.

Clearly he was a patriot of Free Poland, but because of his heroism, the world learned of what was happening in Nazi Germany, and galvanized the world against such heinous acts…by volunteering to be imprisoned.

28 Days of Inspiration – Day 21

Patrick Downes & Jessica Kensky and Adrianne Haslet-Davis 

On April 15, 2013 their lives changed.  While at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, then recently married and Boston area natives, Patrick and Jessica were there to enjoy the day.  It was that day they became victims of the Tsarnaev brothers first bomb in their bombing attack.

It was that day Adrianne fell victim to the second bomb in the attack, opening her eyes to find her left ankle and foot missing. A professional dancer, she was looking at her life’s work and direction irrevocably changed in an instant

This year they demonstrated ridiculous resilience when Patrick became the first marathon bombing survivor to come back to the race and finish it on foot.  Through it all, Patrick and Jessica have stayed together and become stronger.  Three years after the attacks, Jessica is still undergoing surgeries. He’s lost a leg.  She’s a double amputee.  This is still a fresh wound for them both. Adrianne also lost a leg and took up running because of her injuries – not in spite of them.

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Patrick raising his arm to approach the finish line.  From the NY Daily News.

Patrick didn’t know it, but he finished the race at just about the time the bombs first went off that fateful day completing the race in 5:56:46

“[When I first started] learning how to use the blade, I made a pact with myself that I would at least try to run. I [thought], ‘Gosh, this blade is so difficult to use,’ so I decided to make it a challenge that I would overcome.” Adrianne Haslet-Davis 

Adrianne too was at the 2015 Boston Marathon, as a dance performer at the finish line.  This year it took her about 10-hours to run her race. Less than a year after the bombing, she performed on Dancing with the Stars.  From the beginning she knew she was in for a challenge.  She accepted it, and worked on advancing.  She did not quit.

Neither were runners previously but have used their life experience.  All of them could have easily succumbed to the ease of “giving up.”  They could have easily have made excuses for themselves, to feel sorry for their condition, to allow themselves to hate the Tsanaevs for what had happened to them.

When you focus on hate, you don’t allow yourself to grow, to change, to rise above.  All three of these people have risen to become more powerful, more inspirational than they were before.  Patrick was running to raise money – $250,000 – to fully endow a scholarship for disabled students.  Adrianne was running to raise money for Limbs for Life, a charity for providing prosthetics for those who cannot afford them.

There is nothing routine about completing a marathon.  There is nothing routine about experiencing life changing circumstances, and resolving to accept the challenge.  There is nothing routine about accomplishing goals and then setting them higher.  It takes mental fortitude, resilience, and commitment.  And ANYONE can do it, but not everyone does.

28 Days of Inspiration – Day 20

Daniel Kish and his parents

Daniel was born with retinoblastoma – cancer of the retina – and by the time he was 13-months old, he had both eyes removed.  From the time he was very young, he relates in a profile of him on the TED Radio Hour on NPR, he says his parents expected he would be self sufficient, and allowed him to explore the world in ways that made sense for him.  He eventually became expert at “seeing” through a variation of echolocation – a system of clicks he makes with his mouth, that upon bouncing off targets lets him know how big an object may be or how close it may be.

Kish believes that echolocation produces images similar to sight, and allows the visually impaired to transcend the expectations of society. You can watch his TED talk here.

He’s an amazing person without question.  He’s taken his skills and used them to make the world a better place for many sight-impaired and blind people, but for fully sighted folks as well.  He’s made it his life calling.

But in listening to his story, I think of his parents.  Imagine being told your baby has retinal cancer and has to have his eyeballs removed.  To have the personal strength to impose your expectations on him that he will contribute to society, he will have his own life.  That you expect that he will develop his own tools to navigate the world, and that he will live on his own. From those expectations, and humble beginnings, he’s built the World Access for the Blind – an organization dedicated to creating opportunities for freedom and sensory perception for blind people.

And then, to have those expectations come to fruition.  His parents never tried to dissuade him from clicking, perhaps not knowing what he was doing, but allowing him to be himself.  And because they didn’t fall victim to the allure of being helicopter parents, to keep him “safe” from the world, they gave him every opportunity to succeed in it.

So this is inspiration at two levels: a family with every opportunity to keep their loved one “safe” and wallow in their (and their child’s) bad luck, and instead pushed him to reach his potential; and Daniel who took his good fortune of having been born to the right family and using his gifts to enrich the lives of others.

Sometimes the story of amazing people doing good work, is more about the story of the even more amazing people standing behind them.

28 Days of Inspiration – Day 19

New Horizons

The New Horizons spacecraft was part of a program initiated in 2001 and was launched on January 19, 2006 to begin its approach and fly by  of the Pluto system some nine years later on January 15, 2015.  On July 14, 2015 it began it’s exploration of the dwarf planet, and this past week, 469 days hence on October 25, 2016 its final images of the July 14 exploration was received by NASA.

Some 50-Million gigabits of data from New Horizons have now traveled the 3.1-Billion miles back to Earth. Consider that: 50-Million giabits of data is the equivalent of 6.25-Million Gigabytes.  Your couple year old notebook computer may have a 500-GB harddrive.

Consider the possibilities: For the first time in Human history, we’re seeing up close pictures of a terrestrial body more 3-Billion miles away from us.  On that July day in 2015, something built on and launched from our little planet Earth soared 7,750 miles above the dwarf planet Pluto taking pictures.  The distance between Boston and New Delhi, India is a little less than 7200 miles.  New Horizons was about the radius of our planet away from Pluto.

Why Pluto?

Our solar system contains three zones: the inner, rocky planets; the gas giant planets; and the Kuiper Belt. Pluto is one of the largest bodies of the icy, “third zone” of our solar system. In the early 2000s, the National Academy of Sciences placed the exploration of the third zone in general – and Pluto-Charon in particular – among its highest priority planetary mission rankings for the coming decade. New Horizons is NASA’s mission to fulfill this objective.

We’ve learned Pluto is far more complex an environment than we’d imagined.  Pluto and Charon combine into a “binary system,” and while relatively common in the galaxy, we’d never explored one.  We have more information that suggests is more water ice on Pluto than we had thought and we know that the red cap at the north pole of Charon is trapped methane gas.

When I was growing up, I thought of Pluto as this strange, far flung rock of a planet, perhaps not unlike the Star Wars ice planet of Hoth.  My boyhood imagination was captured by space and the thoughts of space travel.  That there may be other worlds on which to put our feet down.  We are still years, decades away perhaps, from landing a man on Mars – a grave disappointment for a middle aged man growing up with thoughts of intergalactic travel – but it’s so incredible to me to be able to see photographs of a planet so far away.  It makes it so concrete and real that in this age of almost instantaneous communication that it could take over a year to send images from one place to another.

NASA describes this data as a treasure-trove.  I submit its far greater than that; I submit that it is the cause of generations of people to look toward the sky and dream of what still further treasures lie beyond that 3.1-Billion miles waiting to be seen by us.

 

28 Days of Inspiration – Day 18

Principles of Unitarianism

500px-flaming_chalice-svg1I’m not much a follower of organized religion and I’ve generally stayed away from discussing religious figures over the previous 17 days of inspiration – the world doesn’t need another list of inspiration including Jesus Christ or Mohammad.  What I believe the world does need, though, is to draw inspiration from multiple sources, multiple perspectives, multiple beliefs. Perhaps a little more understanding of each other and a little less posturing.  In disclosure, I am not now nor have I ever been a member of the Unitarian church.  I simply appreciate their teachings.

The UUA does not use dogma nor a specific creed.  Indeed, they’re more interested in the principle of freedom of thought than having these things, but they do use seven principles that are meant to guide their congregations:

  • The Inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

The message I read in these principles is to be the best person you can be, whether or not that means being a Unitarian or not.  Consider what the world might look like if more people were interested in a search for meaning and truth than in pushing their truth and meaning on others; where compassion would be the guiding principle instead of righteousness.

In an age where we can be so divided, I am heartened to believe that others seek congregation and justice and am inspired to be more than what I may currently be by virtue of others seeking truths as well – even if they’re not my truths.

28 Days of Inspiration – Day 17

Paul Baran

baran
Paul Baran  ibiblio.org/pioneers/baran.html

Paul Baran was an immigrant, an engineer, and a really bright guy.  He joined the RAND Corporation in 1959 and by the account in Walter Issacson’s The Innovators was still trying to figure out what was his life’s mission.

As he was looking through military requests for products, he seized upon building a communication system capable of surviving a nuclear strike and realized that successful completion of such a system could actually avoid nuclear war, by reducing the likelihood of a first strike.  Follow the logic:

If either the US or USSR believed that war was imminent, they may be inclined as to strike first to knock out communication hubs of the other to avoid their communications from being struck.  In other words, he realized the most important strategic element in a catastrophic war would be means of communication.  If there was a system capable of surviving a strike, or strikes, then one side or the other would be less likely to preemptively attack to avoid their communications being cut.

At this time, American military communications used high frequency connections which could be put out of action for many hours or permanently disabled by a nuclear attack. Baran realized that a distributed relay node architecture – one where messages were broken up into pieces, sent along different routes and pieced back together – would created a system that would not be easily disrupted and would be scalable.

How visionary was this?  Consider this anecdote from the Rand Corporation website:

In an interview with Wired magazine, Baran discussed his vision of how the new technology might be used. “Around December 1966, I presented a paper at the American Marketing Association called ‘Marketing in the Year 2000.’ I described push-and-pull communications and how we’re going to do our shopping via a television set and a virtual department store. If you want to buy a drill, you click on Hardware and that shows Tools and you click on that and go deeper.”

Now, I said he was a pretty bright guy, and to wit, it took some time to conceive, test, and demonstrate proof of concept but that was accomplished by 1960.  He spent the better part of the 1960’s trying to convince industry of the idea.  Sometimes entrenched interests are harder to conquer than technological challenges.

This work basically set forth the structure under which data – think email – is distributed through the modern internet today.  Baran helped set the building blocks of how we get work accomplished today with his desire to stop nuclear annihilation.  Consider for a moment how important this would have been to someone who emigrated from Poland – then controlled by the Soviet Union and indeed the part of Poland from which he came had actually been annexed by the Soviet Union and is today part of Belarus.

Indeed his personal mission was so important to him that he resisted efforts to have his work classified because in his conception, it would work best if the Soviets had technology that would ensure their communications remained in tact as well.  No one would have an incentive to launch a first strike.

Baran stands, to me, for the power of one person taking stock of his talents and knowing where his moral compass lies and finding a connection in the two.  Sometimes, just sometimes, having a larger meaning leads to amazing things.  Over a half century later, his work (and the work of others to be sure) allows you to communicate instantly across the globe, but could arguably have prevented nuclear war as well.  Consider that for a bit.