28 November 2013

Quakers in the Country: Sandworm




After 500,000 miles as an over-the-road truck driver, I have taken on a new job.

I have become a Sandworm.

It's kind of an odd title for what I do, I suppose. My job consists of several tasks, and only one of them is actually tending the sand hopper. But as a newbie to the company, I'm still a worm, as the oilfield phrasing goes. So "sandworm" has a certain satisfactory ring to it, and it makes me laugh. But more specifically, I'm now working for a well completion company based only 14 miles from my house. In the vernacular, I frac gas wells.

"Fraccing," as it's called, is a technique for increasing the productivity of shale gas reservoirs, and is responsible for economic booms in several oil-producing regions in the United States, most specifically, Right Where I Live, in eastern Ohio. "Hydraulic fracturing" involves starting with a pre-drilled well and then pumping down a slurry of sand, water, and chemicals under immense pressure. The pressurized fluid travels down the well casing and emerges through perforations into the reservoir rock some eight to ten thousand feet below the surface, along a horizontal well bore some five or ten thousand feet more. As it enters the formation, the pressure opens small fissures, which are propped open by the sand being carried in. When the pressure is relieved and the well allowed to flow back into catch tanks on the surface, the cracks remain open, allowing oil and natural gas to bubble back up the well bore to be recovered at the surface and piped to a refinery.

The newbie job at a well pad is to tend the sand hopper, which is a big steel tub into which the sand is dumped from a conveyor belt. The job is very simple, and very important. The slurry being pumped into the well is pressurized to as much as 10,000 psi. If the sand hopper is allowed to empty completely through error or inattention, the pressure in the above-ground steel pipes spikes and may cause them to rupture or explode. Believe me, hundred-pound sections of steel pipe flying through the air high above a congested work site will get your attention real quick. Even if the pipe doesn't break loose, a stream of water at that pressure can cut through your leg like a knife. To keep people safe, nobody is allowed to walk around near the iron when it's under pressure, except one or two crew members specifically assigned to look for problems. That's fine with me.

There's a lot of controversy about hydraulic fracturing right now, and a lot of people trying to come to grips with a technology about which they know relatively little, and sometimes about which they have been deceived by various factions on both sides of the issue. Fraccing has been blamed for earthquakes, groundwater pollution, excessive truck traffic and road wear, environmental spills, noise and light pollution, and so on. Some of these issues are genuine and should be addressed. Some are not, and are the product of misinformation, ignorance, and occasionally outright deception. While we're thinking about it, though, it's important to remember that the process has been a part of American oil field practices for some fifty years, and is one of the chief means that our 21st century lifestyle is allowed to continue. By 21st century lifestyle, I'm talking about those things that we all take for granted: heat, light, transportation, and plastics, all of which depend on natural gas and oil wells.

Just as an aside, the oil fields aren't new to me. I'm from Oklahoma, and the farm my great-grandfather plowed behind a pair of mules was home to four oil wells during the time I spent there. The hollow thumping of the casing head gas engines driving the slowly-bobbing pumpjacks is an inseparable part of my childhood memories of the farm where three generations of my family were born and grew up. My father was an operations geologist, and would take me along on his route from well to well, where I would kick my heels from the steel bench in the doghouse, a few yards from the roaring Caterpillars and the swinging stands of drill pipe. As a teenager, my first real summer jobs were as a roustabout on drill ships anchored off the coast of Borneo. During college, I worked in the  Gulf of Mexico and sunny Caribbean Sea on seismograph boats doing both streamer work and backdown drag. One summer I spent in Custer County, Oklahoma, stomping geophones for a doodlebugger crew that still used dynamite as a sonic source, rather than the modern vibro-seis trucks. And my first job out of graduate school was as an operations geologist with Exxon Corporation in West Texas, where I worked with mudloggers and wireline crews to pick core points and evaluate reservoir potential in Permian Basin wildcats.

It's been a long and circuitous journey from then to now, but still, the oil fields and their culture are familiar and unmysterious to me. So I'm somewhat bemused by the hostility and fear that the process of well drilling seems to instill in many people, especially when they depend so heavily on its products for their own lifestyle choices. Obviously oil and gas are limited resources, and equally obviously there is going to have to be a transition from them to other sources of energy such as solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, and likely as not, nuclear. But until then we're stuck with what we have, and I believe we should use the extra time made available to us by the current shale gas developments to make these alternative sources a reality for more of us than just the editors of Popular Science. And of course the vast dependence of our culture on the availability of inexpensive plastics—which come from oil and gas wells—is seldom given the airing that it needs in this discussion. Plastics, industrial chemicals and lubricants, fertilizer, and pharmaceuticals are the elephant in this room that still has to be acknowledged.

These decisions came into focus recently when my Yearly Meeting decided to decline the offers made to it to lease oil and gas rights under the 270 acres it owns in Ohio. This decision was made during a called meeting of Yearly Meeting members, and all the points were given a chance to be aired, both for and against the question. In the end, the decision was made in unity, although what exactly that unity consisted of is still somewhat fuzzy. But made it we did, and we now have a responsibility to act upon that decision and become a part of the future that we chose to embrace.

What that action will be is problematic. I and the other members of my meeting heat our houses with oil and gas. We light our homes with oil and gas. We drive to and from meeting using oil and gas. And I'm typing these words on a computer made from oil and gas, using a desk lamp made from oil and gas, while in my kitchen my dinner is being cooked using oil and gas. As Friends, what shall be our witness about oil and gas development? Are we justified in refusing to be a part of the oil and gas development in our own neighborhoods, while remaining active consumers of the oil and gas produced in the neighborhoods of others?

To my way of thinking, this is an extremely important point that many Friends seem to push under the carpet. Remember John Woolman, that 18th century Quaker who rejected slavery and worked hard to make the rest of the Society of Friends do the same? Woolman provides an important example of how to make one's profession match one's practice. Not only did Woolman pioneer for the rejection of slavery, he refused to accept the economic benefits that slavery made possible. As a merchant clerk, Woolman refused to accept payment for writing a bill of sale that included ownership of a negro slave. Later, he sacrificed business opportunities and refused to write wills that listed slaves as property. When he travelled in the ministry among slave-owning Friends, he would pay the slaves for their services in attending him. Woolman even refused to eat from silver plates and cups, as he believed that slaves were abused in mining. 

What should be our own witness in this matter? For myself, the question is moot, as I personally support oil and gas development so long as we are simultaneously working towards sustainable alternatives. I am slowly introducing solar illumination to my own home, and will eventually install wind turbines. Our newly-drilled water well will use an electric pump at first, but eventually I plan to install a windmill and an elevated water tank to supply our house. Our household heat was formerly lump coal, is currently electric, but may eventually use our fifteen acres of hardwoods as a sustainable source for an outside boiler. In other words, I'm trying to be a forward-looking part of the solution, at least with respect to energy. 

But as part of the larger culture, what should the witness of the Society of Friends be? If we are against oil and gas development, how can we reconcile our profession with our practice? If we support it, what are we doing to transition our use to sustainable sources before we are driven to it by scarcity and price? And since so much of our foreign policy is driven by involvement in the oil and gas-producing regions of the world, how do we reconcile our views of oil and gas production with our beliefs about our political activities there?

The questions are important ones, and the answers aren't easy. But in the meantime, I'm home every night now, and my houseful of kids now has a father that they see a lot more often than when he was driving a truck 25 days out of thirty. So for me, the 14-hour workdays are worth it. But I'm concerned about the bigger picture, and I'm equally concerned that the Religious Society of Friends provide a witness to a forward thinking part of a solution, rather than to a self-centered and selfish part of the problem.

So far the solution to that dilemma is in doubt.




24 January 2012

Canaan

It is a blazing hot morning in a dry, dry, land. A barefoot man dressed in a ragged  brown loincloth stumbles behind a pair of skinny oxen, sidestepping over the ragged furrow dragged into the ground by the worn wooden plow. He pauses to wipe his brow, and looks over the green, sprouting barley in the next field, to the hilltop. As he watches, a mass of men appear above the horizon, the sun glinting off hundreds of spear points.

He pauses.
He watches a moment more, his mouth and fingers moving as he counts, then drops the plow handle, and runs towards a shaded grove of trees near a shallow stream. As he nears it, he shouts to a short woman already watching the hilltop, and then snatches up a toddling boy and keeps running. He and the woman splash across the stream, while a teen-aged girl looks back, dropping a basket of half-cleaned vegetables to the ground.
As she looks, the men descend the hilltop, and a mass of people begin to fill the horizon. They are led by a curious procession of oddly-dressed men, surrounding a small box carried between them on poles. When they reach the oxen, still standing placidly in the field, one of them steps aside and swings a bronze-colored axe, sweeping the head from the nearest ox. It falls, dragging the second down next to it, bawling, still yoked. A second sweep partially decapitates the second ox, and the girl turns and runs after the others, leaving the basket spilled over the ground.
The runners don’t pause until they reach a  village, where more people are arriving from other fields, hurrying through the wooden gate in the low, mud-brick walls. The man pauses while the women rush inside, and another runs out and hands him a short javelin. Together with twenty other men he watches the approaching strangers as the gate is dragged closed behind their backs. The pounding of the wedges being hammered in is the only sound louder than than the cooing of the doves sitting on the top of the wall.
The mass of men approach, the ones in the midst dragging a log. The man sees that the log is the central pole from the sacred grove near the stream, the source of his village’s prosperity and the symbol of the goddess that they trust to bring fertility to their crops and families. Now it has been cut down and turned against them as a weapon of war.
The forerunners don’t pause when they reach the defenders, who wait, standing their ground. Ten men move forward for every defender, and they are instantly hacked down. The man in the loincloth is among the first to fall. The attackers step over the bodies and drag the sacred pole to the gates, pause to gather their strength, and then smash the pole against the wood. the gates crack and bow inward. the men swing the pole against the gates again and one half breaks free from one hinge and swings aside, dangling from the gatepost.
The men drop the pole and run inside, scattering chickens and pigs, and spread out across the courtyard, filled with old men, women, and children, shouting and clutching at each other in fear. They hack at them with their swords, impaling others with their spears and javelins. The villagers scatter, running to hide, crawling into the storerooms, behind the wattle fences, into the shadow of the walls.
The short woman and her child flee into the darkness of a stable, followed by the teenaged girl. As they scrabble among the straw, a man in a short woolen kilt pauses in the light of the door, a short sword in his hand. He quickly walks to the woman, who now cowers on the ground, covering the crying child with her ragged cloak. With a blow, he slices off her arm, and the child screams, still clutching the detached arm that protected it as it falls away. The woman looks up at him in shock, and a second blow splits her skull. She falls into the straw of the stable floor, while the teenaged girl looks on, her mouth working soundlessly. The man picks the child up by the feet and swings it against the door post, smashing open its skull.  He drops the twitching child, grabs the girl by the hair, and drags her through the door. Out in the sunlight, she finally she finds her voice, and screams and screams.
The small courtyard is littered with bodies of old men, women, and young boys. The girl is thrust among a group of a dozen other girls, their wrists now being tied together by cords by two of the attackers. As they watch, pressing against each other, some of the strangers methodically set fire to the houses, stables, and storerooms of the village, while others run after the pigs, sheep, chickens, and donkeys, killing each of them where they catch them. The noise of the screaming girls and dying animals is deafening, but the strangers work silently, knowing their business, without speech.
In just a few minutes it is all over, and the strange procession of men carrying the box enters the village and sets it down. Several of them bring in a sheep from outside, and the men begin to prepare a sacrifice of thansgiving. The girls are led outside the walls, and the smoke rises into the clear blue sky as the flies begin to gather on the pools of blood, and the bodies.
*     *     *     *     *
Folks, this is a little story, one that i just made this up, right here and now. But if scripture is accurate, then this scene was repeated in many variations during the Israelite conquest of Canaan many centuries ago. I don’t have any doubt that an event just like this occurred, and that such scenes were common at that time and within that culture.
What I do doubt is that this scene was commanded by a God who tells me to love him, and to love my neighbor as myself. Many people tell me just that, and i have heard various reasons.
What is your opinon? Is this event justified by the gospel of Jesus Christ? Why?
The reason I am asking this question is because I do not believe that an inerrant reading of Christian Scripture is adequate to define Christianity. As a Friend, I hold Scripture to be very important to my understanding of God, but I also hold that the reflections of  the Light within us are affected by the color of the glass through which we perceive it. I believe that the Scriptures are inspired, but I do not believe that what I read there today is has been transmitted infallibly, nor do I believe that what I read there is likely to have been recorded infallibly in the first place.
Think about this, please. We believe that the Light provides guidance to us from heaven. Is our reception of it perfect? Can any of us stand and say, "I speak infallibly for God, because inspiration renders my understanding without flaw or error." I believe the ordinary and humble answer is, "No," and that this answer has been assumed to be the case for thousands of years among those who attempt to listen and follow, as opposed to those who attempt to speak and demand obedience. I believe that the same scrutiny that we as Friends apply to the inspired ministry in our monthly meetings must also be applied to the physical documents relating the history of God's dealings with humankind.

Scripture has it both ways. On the one hand, Old Testament Scripture records the divine sanction of violent war:

Deuteronomy 20:16: But of the cities of these people which the Lord thy God doth giue thee for an inheritance, thou shalt saue aliue nothing that breatheth:

And on the other, New Testament Scripture teaches that God now commands the opposite:

Yee haue heard, that it hath beene said, Thou shalt loue thy neighbour, and hate thine enemie: But I say vnto you, Loue your enemies, blesse them that curse you, doe good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully vse you, and persecute you: That yee may be the children of your father which is in heauen:
But what is your own belief, Friend? There are long-standing apologetics available within any Scripture commentary that will explain the slaughter of the Canaanites in light of a primitive people who required a progressive revelation, of a doctrine of successive dispensations, of another of continuous covenantalism, of the sovereignity of a God who rightfully destrys the flawed pottery to make way for the better. Are these explanations sufficient to reconcile the apparent views of a God who loves his creation, and of one who hates it?

What is your view, Friend? How are you led?


03 September 2011

Three Good Days


You know, raising kids is a full time job for most responsible parents. For me, as I drive a truck over the road with just a three-day weekend at home every couple of weeks, it actually isn't as full-time as i would like. What happens is that it becomes more or less double-time for my long-suffering wife, what with five maniacal imps of chaos spending their time disassembling the house and wreaking havoc in various other ways that I won't go into. Sometimes it seems like the kids are growing up more like those wolf-changelings so common in Hindu folklore, like old Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli.
What in the world possessed Rudyard Kipling's parents to choose to name their son "Rudyard?"
Anyway, what this means is that generally when I do come home, it's to a skeptical group of self-aware and highly critical scary geniuses, ranging in age from six to fourteen. At that age, fathers often know very little about the real world, and are generally not competent to venture an opinion that a sub-adult offspring can respect. Golden, my youngest, puts his hands on his hips and speaks slowly and clearly to me when he decides that I need to be educated about how things really work, while my oldest just shakes his head and storms off in frustration. The three in the middle generally roll their eyes when I tell them something, the old "Oh no, here we go again. Don't be fooled . . . " My life at home is full of denunciations of what I know, including the memorable, "Well, when you were young cities weren't invented and everybody lived in grass huts."

So when I do achieve a measure of public validation at home, it's a red-letter day, one that I chalk up in my bank account of credibility that my kids will start withdrawing from in ten or twenty more years, by which time I will hopefully have learned a great deal. And recently, I had not only one good day, but three in a row—three good days in which grizzled old Kevin demonstrated a level of competence in urgent affairs in the life of mice and men that hopefully made an impression on my flinty-eyed brood. Maybe only a temporary impression, possibly, but it was very good while it lasted, and I'll take what I can get, you know.
The First Day: Broadband
The first good day was my first day at home. Since the invention of the internet, my household has remained separated from the dominant culture in a lot of ways, as a result of our choice to live off the beaten path. One of them has been the internet. We've actually had net access for several years, but not in the way that many people consider adequate. After all, we live in a ramshackle old farmhouse, for a hundred years the last house on our road, until Jim dragged an old mobile home down into the copperhead-infested bottom a mile below us and installed power. Not a lot of high-tech compatibility in a house built without running water or even anything thoughtful in the way of electrical wiring.
We had a telephone, although not much of one, so we could have dial-up. But our telephone lines are old, and solid copper. That means that with local dial-up net access, our data speeds are positively chelonian, and it gets worse whenever the wind blows and makes the wires bounce around, or when it rains. But we were used to pressing "enter," and then having to wait two or three minutes for the screen to paint. My kids used the net more or less sparingly, because it was always more exciting to go outside and watch the old trucks rust.
But now things were going to be different, because Kevin was bound and determined to Do Something. I had met another truck driver at a rolling mill in Cleveland, and he had a little gizmo that he took around with him that accessed the net through a cellular telephone connection, right out of his truck, and gave him WiFi broadband more or less wherever he went. What an excellent concept, I thought, and an improvement over the clunky air cards of several generations back (see, you're old, too, now). So when I arrived home, I visited the local telephone company and brought back a little thing about the size of pack of Lucky Strikes, with one button and a little light. A MiFi, they called it. It was even smaller than the little brochure that pretended to be the manual that came with it.
I took it back and plugged it in, which these days is essentially all you have to do with new hardware. After a bit, the little light started flashing purple, and a dialog box on the lap tops' computer screens suddenly inaugarated a new world of broadband net access to the family. We were connected.
"Wow," said my skeptical imps, one after the other. "Look, YouTube even works."
YouTube, of course, is inaccessible without broadband, as are many net features the dominant culture takes for granted, like utilities websites, or the abortive net-based home-schooling program offered by our state board of education. Before, one minute of YouTube took about one hour of download, so we just didn't bother. Now, however, the kids were exploring a world of internet trivia that they had never before thought possible. News, and games, and heavens forbid, FaceBook.
"You're on FaceBook? Since when?"
"We use the WiFi at the McDonald's."
I remember signing onto FaceBook, from about the first day it went online. But it quickly turned into more of an annoyance to me than it was worth, and I deleted my account. I haven't been back since, but my kids got on all by themselves.
Even Shawna was impressed, which takes a lot as well. I tried to present it in its best light.
"Look, Shawna. Now you can pay all the bills online, twice as fast as before."
"Thank you. Very nice."
And so the day was a success. Dad had demonstrated himself competent on the cutting edge in the modern world of high tech, and introduced something previously unheard-of to the household electronics menagerie. Even if he couldn't figure out how to make the mean-faced little mercenary jump out of the attack boat in his son's murderous video game, at least he could install broadband. The kids disappeared to investigate the stimulating new world of intermittent high-speed internet, and Kevin retired to the couch.
And the evening and the morning were the first day. And it was good.
The Second Day: The High Board
The second day was clear and warm, with a blue sky that just invited a day outside for the whole family. And so, of course, we drove all the way to the local public swimming pool in town.
We have a perfectly good tree-shaded swimming hole just down the road from where we live, past the abandoned schoolhouse and the flat spot by the creek where the blacksmith used to be. But there's nothing like novelty to excite the kids, and the swimming pool in town has real diving boards, after all.
Now, diving is not something that one normally practices in the kinds of swimming holes that we have near the house, both because the only available places to dive from are generally the old bridges across the creek, and because the water under them is not usually deep enough to go into headfirst anyway without risking cervical readjustments of the type not normally recommended by the local chiropractor. But the pool in town has two diving boards, one about four feet up, and another way up in the sky.
"Kevin, you're going to dive off the high board," challenges Griffin, my Number One son, and the one most skeptical of my general abilities and wisdom.
"Okay," I say nonchalantly, looking up at the underside of the board, way, way up there in the clouds.
I looked it over while the kids got wet. Out here in Appalachia, the high boards are more or less considered crazy zones by everybody. Nobody ever goes off them headfirst, for two reasons. First, there simply isn't any good reason to go and do something as dumb as dive headlong off a little springy platform up in the altosphere, and second, there is no need for any other reason beyond the first.
But today, Kevin had a good reason, because the kids were watching, and gauging, and making conclusions.
"Have any of you kids ever dived off the high board before?"
"No."
"Low board?"
"Of course," says Griffin. "And I've jumped off the high board, too."
"I've jumped off the low board," says Devra.
"Me too," says Paoli.
"All right," I say, heading for the ladder. "You all watch."
Up on top, I look down into the cool water far below. It's really only twelve feet, but to leap off anything from twelve feet headfirst is not something that is instinctively attractive. But I step to the end of the board, give a big bounce, and do a test jump into space, feet-first.
Wham! The water hits my feet like a flat paddle and I'm instantly enveloped in the cool blue wetness. Not so bad, I think, surfacing and swimming to the side. Hauling myself over the edge, beard dripping, I get back in line for the high board, with the kids still watching critically. Nobody, ever, dives off the high board at this pool. My moment has come.
At the very top, I wait patiently until it's my turn to walk the plank. I pause halfway out, judge my distance, and with three quick steps and a jump, I launch my fat old fatherly figure into the air, arching into my best interpretation of a classic swan dive, heels together, toes extended, arms out and then swept into position in front of me, as the blue blue of the water rushed forward into my face as I descended.
Wham! Old dad hits the water in a vertical dive. Probably not something to score for at the Olympics, but the first dive off the high board this little pool has seen all week, I imagine. I arch up to miss the bottom, and break the surface in the middle of the deep end, flicking my head to clear my ears while I tread water.
To my great satisfaction, I am facing a row of open-mouthed astonishment, as my kids observe that once more, useless old Dad can accomplish something that nobody else dares. This is too good not to milk some more, I decide, and head up the ladder to the high board again. My triumph is reinforced again and again, as I repeat the performance under the eyes of my children, until I finally decide that even I have had enough accolades, and take a break.
And the evening and the morning were the second day. And it was good.
The Third Day: The Serpent
Out in the sticks, we have a lot of wildlife, of various kinds, sizes, and taxonomic affinities. Some of them are snakes. We have copperheads, the beautiful but poisonous pit vipers down in the bottom lands. We have a myriad of lined snakes, ribbon snakes, garter snakes, and so on, down in the grass and on the edges of the swimming hole, all Thamnophis, but beyond that beyond my remembering. We have the clownish black and brown hognose snakes, always ready for a bout of playing possum. And we have the elegant rat snakes, Elaphe obsoleta.
The rat snakes are viewed with suspicion by the locals.
"Those black snakes are interbreeding with the copperheads, you know," Jim tells me.
"How do you know that?"
"Just look at 'em," he says. "You can tell."
I happen to love the Elaphes, and catch all that I can get hold of to let go around the house to keep the mice down. This often makes for amusing travel, as after I pick one off the road I have to drive home in the old one-ton, shifting the four speed while holding a struggling three or four-foot snake in my gear shift hand. Once I had to stop as one tried to escape down the ventilator duct on the floor of the truck. Not a good place for a snake to die, so I held tightly onto his tail and eventually coaxed the busy end back out of the hole. Elaphes are pretty docile, as snakes go, although they will happily bite you a good one if you introduce yourself to them too abruptly.
"Dad, there's a snake on the porch," announces Devra, my number one daughter.
"That's nice," I say. "Is it alive?" First things first. With cats and dogs in the house, we have lots of things show up on the porch that aren't alive, and in many cases aren't even anatomically complete. So I always ask.
"Yes. Come and see."
I get up from my lunch and step out onto the kitchen porch, where all five kids are staring intently at something half-concealed in the tall weeds that fringe the ancient concrete slabs I dragged there when we re-did the meeting house sidewalks. We're cheap, so I'll make a porch out of anything handy, and these old slabs of sidewalk work great, both for us, and as warm relaxing places for visiting snakes.
Resting calmly on the concrete is the head and a few coiled inches of a large snake. A good-looking black one. So far so good.
I step over to the snake and look down, making sure I know what I've got. We don't have cottonmouths this far north, but whip snakes and racers are sometimes dark, and they're nervous snakes, prone to bite. The hognose snakes won't bite, but this isn't one of them. It's a nice big rat snake, maybe even one of the ones I dropped off on the property a season or two before. No way to tell how big it is, as it's mostly hidden in the weeds.
Shawna stands inside the kitchen, watching through the screen door and trying not to look anxious. She's not scared of snakes, really, at least when she's inside and they're not, but she'd usually just as soon not have them surprise her by twisting and writhing under her bare feet when she steps onto the porch in the morning. Mice are another thing entirely, and will always cause her to scream as they scurry across the kitchen floor, tail straight up and diving for shelter. But the kids watch me and the snake closely, looking to see what I'll do with this interesting anomaly.
And I know just what to do with big snakes, which is always what I do: pick 'em up and see what they look like. I carefully reach down to grasp the rat snake behind the head, but as soon as I touch it, it jerks its head backwards and scrambles for safety, the weeds next to the slab suddenly coming alive as it boils and loops itself around to disappear.
But I'm prepared for this, and quick as I can I reach down grab the snake by the middle, and swing it up out of the grass, where it hangs reeling at both ends like a flexible black thunderbolt in the hands of Zeus.
And like Zeus, I triumph over nature. I spin, gently swirling the snake out like a rope, and then quickly swing it between my legs and clamp them shut on it, trapping its head behind me with its tail end still firmly in my hand. But my triumph is somewhat marred, as I inadvertently leave too much snake loose behind me, and the offended reptile lunges its snaky head around my leg and firmly bites down on my trousers, a bit too close to my trouser fly for comfort.
Shawna gasps and wrings her hands from behind the kitchen door. The kids stand and stare, and Dad carefully disengages the lovely four-foot snake's jaws from his unharmed leg and loops the body around his forearm, in the correct herpetological manner of holding a snake to both calm it down and keep it from harm. The snake becomes immediately docile, and I invite the kids over.
"You can tell it's a rat snake because it has a completely flat belly, with the body like a loaf of bread in cross section. See the white belly with the little dots?"
"Can I touch it?" asks Starbuck.
And so as the evening progresses into a gentle calm, and the lightning bugs venture out to illuminate the hilltop, I spend a few minutes basking in the warm glow of accomplishment. And I realize that this was the evening and the morning of the third day, and it was just as good as the two just preceding it. In a scant three days, I had demonstrated a practical grasp of modern high-tech computer science, physical bravery in the face of almost certain death, and a mastery of the mysterious things of biology heretofore only expected of nature gods and other fabulous characters.
And I also know enough to enjoy it while it lasted, because one of the things that grizzled old gray hairs know for sure is that the memories of the young are ephemeral things, and while I'm looking good today, tomorrow won't be building itself on any foundation older than its own sunrise.
But by gosh, it's good to look good, every now and then. And doing it three days in a row was a gift that doesn't come often.




23 April 2011

The Great Hot Air Balloon Failure



My kids are a curious lot, perpetually  interested in making things, destroying things, changing the shape and/or color of things that I would rather they have left alone, and so on. We give them a lot of freedom in this respect, as we consider experimentation an important part of a quality General Education. As part of this philosophy, we homeschooled them until we got too many to keep up with. I suppose lots of what we try to do with them still constitutes experimental education, from “Adventures in Rhetoric” with my Number One Daughter, to “Don’t Set That on Fire, It Will Explode” with my Number Two Son. But one of the things we do a lot of is just basic experimenting.
Experimentation is the best way to learn about the world, in my opinion, and is one of the things that make Quakerism significant to me. After all, one of the foundations of Christian Unprogrammed Quakerism is that personal experience lies at the base of all knowledge of God. Of course, most all interpreters of Christianity will say that, but they will usually add “. . . and this other person’s personal experience is the one you should listen to . . .” My lovely wife and I take a different approach to the matter, sometimes intentional, sometimes accidental. Rather than learn about the Creation from the hoary experts in their ivory towers, or from the hoary authorities in their cloistered rectories, I try to let my kids learn as much about the world as they can directly, from the hoary world itself. And of course, they always have their hoary father around to assist them in avoiding the incineration of their home and other such unintentional consequences.
Our kids are especially fond of bright colors, paper, defying gravity, cutting things up, destroying solid objects, and discovering new uses for fire. So one day last week, I considered that it was time to teach the children something useful about all of these things. How, I wondered, could I possibly fit all this into a single day? Fitting it into a single day is important, because driving a truck for a living means that my home time is extremely limited. We’re still waiting for the opportune moment to glue the masts onto the ships they built inside old whiskey bottles the time I was home before last. I didn’t quite ream out the holes in the wooden hulls big enough before we glued them inside the bottles. Manipulating the masts and sails into place at the end of long , slender drinking straws turned out to be more difficult than I expected, and we ran out of time before I could come up with an alternative technology. But not to worry, all I have to do is sneak a few more whiskey bottles past my wife, and we’re ready to try again.
Anyway, I hit onto the solution to the current problem while driving across Wisconsin, and immediately called Shawna to make the necessary arrangements.
“I need you to buy some stuff for me for when I get back.”
“What stuff?”
“Well, I need some long tissue paper, some tomato paste in the small cans, some glue sticks, and some 90 percent isopropyl alcohol.”
“Why should I help you build a bomb? We can’t afford insurance.”
“It’s not for a bomb. We’re all going to build a Hot Air Balloon. And I just want the cans for the burners.”
“You mean you’re going to throw away perfectly good tomato paste?”
“You can make spaghetti for dinner.”
“No.”
And there you have it. A quick project that involves the exercise of solid geometry, convection, a bit of history, requires the uses paper, glue, an electric drill, perhaps, and would result in a spectacular and emotionally satisfying visual extravaganza to seal the lessons into the malleable and receptive minds of my five children. It would also show my lovely wife that I could actually do more during my 72 hours at home than just sit on the couch rolling lint out of my navel. Yes, such are the dreams of mice and men, but little did I realize how soundly my hopes would be dashed by the cold hard reality of nature and nature’s laws. But I digress.
I arrived home to discover a complication already waiting for me.
“Your son’s science teacher said to use Sterno for the heat source, so that’s what I got.”
“Sterno? That won’t work,” I said, hefting one of the heavy cans filled with an evil-smelling pink gel. “Why couldn’t you just buy the tomato paste and alcohol?”
“Stuff it.”
So we made another trip to the grocery store in the next town, my wife having washed her hands of this stage of the affair. At lunch at the McDonald’s, I grilled my Number One Daughter on her geometry skills, because at the age of 13, it would be her responsibility to supervise the design of the gas envelope.
“Devra, what is the value of pi, to eight decimal places?”
“Three point one four one five nine.”
“That’s only five,” I said. “What are the next three?”
“How should I know? I can’t remember. Two six nine, maybe.”
“Wrong! Two six five!”
I consider pi to be an important number for children to know, and make sure that its value is included in their education somewhere. After all, it’s a necessary number for making Hot Air Balloons, as well as for many other household tasks, such as determining the amount of cornbread batter to prepare for a round baking pan if you want the cornbread to be a certain thickness. You know, important stuff.
“Okay, if you want to make a round balloon about three feet in diameter, how many one-foot wide panels do you have to cut?”
“Nine.”
“And if you want the balloon to have a one-foot hole in the bottom, how wide do the panels have to be at the bottom?”
“Um, three feet divided by nine? Four inches?”
“And what is the angle of the top of the panels, to make them fit together right?”
“How do you do that?”
“You take the number of degrees in a circle, and divide it by the number of panels.”
“Um, forty degrees?”
We were all set.
Constructing a hot air balloon is something everybody should do at some point in their lives. Building a lighter-than-air craft, even in miniature, is an interesting lesson in convection, in relative air density, in buoyancy, and in history too, for that matter, as well as being fun. After all, the first man-made vehicles to venture off the earth’s surface were the hot air balloons of those old Montgolfier brothers, and the technology has been fundamentally the same ever since. My own experiments as a teenager in England used lightweight tissue paper for the gas bag, but my wife explained that tissue only came in small sheets in America these days. Innocently, I chose to substitute longer gift-wrapping paper. This was my first mistake, but it would be a while before this one came to light, and in the meantime there was plenty of opportunity for making others.
Most immediate was my preoccupation with burner construction. To make a good burner for a hot air balloon, just take a small tomato paste can (or similar), stick it over the end of a piece of wood, and drill a whole bunch of quarter-inch holes in it. Leave enough non-perforated space at the bottom to hold some alcohol, and attach a loop of flame-proof bailing wire at the top to hang it from under the balloon. Voila! Instant burner! A bit heavy, though, I thought. In England, I had used aluminum pill bottles when I did it, but those are hard to come by in Appalachia. We set the tomato paste can on a flat rock on the dining room table, poured in some alcohol, and I dropped in a match.
“Is that all it does?” My Number One Son Griffin queried us skeptically from his position of safety behind the fire extinguisher in the kitchen. Griffin is fairly blasé about fire. In fact, he was the trigger man in the Great Hilltop Grassfire a few years ago that taught my city-slicker wife how unexpectedly exciting it can be to try to burn a dried-up old Christmas tree in a dried-up old hayfield next to your dried-up old house. Which is another story, but one that may never be told for diplomatic reasons. But truly, the burning rubbing alcohol was not a very impressive sight—a tall, cool, yellow flame that smoked and didn’t seem to put out much heat at all.
“Give it some time to warm up and start boiling the alcohol into a vapor, “I suggested hopefully. “I remember the flame making a tight cone of purple fire that really put out the BTUs when I did it.”
After a while it did get a little better, but not much. Another mistake. Puzzled, I thought about why it wasn’t burning like I remembered. Then I remembered that I had used methanol in my own attempts, years ago.
Methanol. Wait a minute—that was the answer. There had been no water in the fuel I had used, it had been pure wood alcohol. Thinking about it, I realized that a 91-percent isopropyl flame would never get really fierce, because boiling the water mixed into the rubbing alcohol was absorbing the heat produced by the combustion, making steam instead of hot air, and decreasing the heat available for raising the temperature of the air going into the balloon. Heat of vaporization and all that. Not good. A better fuel was necessary.
“We need some meth,” I said.
“Excuse me?” replied Shawna.
“Methyl alcohol, you know, methanol, methylated spirits. I need to get some at the apothecary.”
“The fact that you buy it at ‘the apothecary’ is an indicator that you aren’t likely to find what you need around here. This isn’t England anymore.”
But another trip to town netted a small can of pure wood alcohol from the paint section of the hardware store. Refueling the burner with the methanol brought a dramatic change, and a tight purple cone of hot, hot flame hissed gently above the top of the tomato paste cans, just as I remembered. We were in business.
In the meantime, my daughters were busily snipping out panels for the balloon, using a large pattern cut from a cardboard box we’d salvaged from behind the drugstore (not from the apothecary, note.)
“How many do we need?” asked Paoli. Daughter Number Two is likely to turn into an artist like her mother, and was instantly involved in the patterning and cutting of the panels. This was her element. She’s also a literary type, so I’m making plans for a future project to capitalize on that. In the meantime, a three foot balloon will need pi times 3 (or so) panels to get all the way around.
“Nine panels for each balloon. Let’s make just one first, and see how it goes.”
Fitting the panels together was sort of like building a giant paper fan, except that the glue sticks didn’t seem up to the task of holding the paper together, in the neat edge-to-edge match necessary to produce a clean, prolate spheroid when unfolded. Another mistake, I realized. But with a judicious application of packing tape and staples, we managed to produce something that looked like a cross between Humpty Dumpty and one of my grandmother’s cotton quilts. A ring of bailing wire at the bottom to suspend the burner was installed, a round paper cap at the top to seal the crown, and the balloon was done! A bit heavy, I thought innocently, not yet having perceived my technological humiliation rapidly approaching from the far distance.
“Hold this up, “I said to Shawna. “I need to see into it to center the hook so we don’t set it on fire when we light it.”
“On fire?” asked Griffin, still in control of the fire extinguisher. “Aren’t you going to take it outside to test it?”
“Nope. Too windy. We’ll just fill it a little and try it here in the dining room.”

“Can you do that? Did you do that when you built yours?”
“Of course,” I explained, neglecting to mention how my own balloon had met its dramatic fiery end in the basement bathroom of my London high school.
“Can I have a can of Sterno?” asks Starbuck. He will soon be nine, and playing with matches is a wonderful way to anticipate a birthday. Playing with a can filled with napalm is even more interesting.
“You can’t take it away, but you can light it here if you want to watch.” I decide that gathering all the pyros into one place would concentrate the danger, and would likely make adequate response more timely.
“Can I have the other can?” asks six-year-old Golden.  I nod. Starbuck and Golden are close enough in age to plot together at acts of destruction. Luckily Golden’s attention span isn’t as long as Starbuck’s. When he catches up, I imagine that all the remaining screws holding the doorknobs to the doors will disappear to wherever Starbuck put the first ones. And the bolts holding the bunk beds together. And everything else he has taken apart since he discovered how to use a wrench and a screwdriver. Golden is still in the more direct hammer-and-hatchet phase, and has blazed every wooden object near the house with his signature series of gnawing rodent imitations, including the porch railings and the bench by the front door.
But now we’re ready for the big moment, the moment when I shine in front of wife and children, when obscure and mundane components unite in a miracle to vindicate my claim that Dad Really Does Know Something Interesting After All. My time had come.
“Shawna, stand on top of this milk crate and hold the balloon up, so I can light it from below.”
Obligingly, Shawna takes hold of our alcohol bomb and I get down on my hands and knees to light the burner hanging underneath. (She’s sort of short, even standing on the milk crate.) After a moment, I step back, and the little burner hisses out its little purple cone again, this time directing the heated air straight up into the one-foot wide basal orifice of the magnificent Hot Air Balloon.
And then we wait. And wait some more. A little too long, I think. It wasn’t going up.
“It’s not going up,” Shawna observes.
“Let me hold it a minute,” I suggested.
“I can feel the heat coming out of the holes in the top. It’s burning fine. And look at the ceiling.”
Holding the balloon by its crumpled crown, I can feel the heated air slipping out between the badly glued edges, past the many staples, and past the packing tape patches, then escaping to the ceiling. Looking up, I see ring after ring of concentric diffraction shadows rippling across the ceiling just above the balloon, proof that the hot air was pumping out of the burner. Just not enough to lift the leaky balloon, which by this time was getting pretty heavy, what with me having to hold it up in the air. Obviously, we had a weight problem, combined with excessive leakage.
“Okay. Let’s think about this.”
While I thought about it, Griffin returned the fire extinguisher and sat down in front of the computer to slaughter as many Third World mercenaries as he could in his new video game. Starbuck and Golden disappeared to burn up the Sterno in unsupervised privacy. I sat with the two girls looking at the failed balloon.
“Just not light enough, I think. The tissue paper version was lots lighter. And I used balsa wood to reinforce the opening in that one, not bailing wire.”
“Should we make another?” asks Paoli.
“No. Go get a garbage bag, and we’ll test whether the burner is up to the job.”
So there in the kitchen, we built another balloon, smaller and lighter, this time. I couldn’t help but think of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, laboriously building his first boat so large that he was unable to launch it, and had to build a smaller, lighter one, nearer to the sea. This new balloon was just a simple lightweight garbage bag, with a ring of wire at the bottom holding the same burner. I filled the burner, lit it, and held the bag up over the gently roaring flame.
“Look! It’s lifting!”
And it was, but that was all it did. The lightweight garbage bag filled into a satisfying balloon of heated lighter-than-air air, strained to the ends of its tether, and floated in mid-air over the burner, which still sat solidly on the wooden boards of the kitchen floor. We had fuel, we had ignition, we had containment, but we had no lift off.
And that is where we ran out of time.
So at this point, the Great Hot Balloon Project is still in stasis, as I write these words to the sound of the rumbling diesels alongside me in this small Oklahoma truck stop, ten days out from the house. The procedures have worked well enough to vindicate science, but not well enough yet to vindicate our interpretation of the technology. We have heat, probably enough, but we have too much weight, or we have too little volume, or both. Alternatively, perhaps what we need is a steeper density gradient. Perhaps if we had taken the balloon and tested it in the colder cellar, the difference in weight between the inflated balloon and the cold air it displaced would have been enough to generate sufficient lift to raise it, possibly to the point from which it could have ignited the kitchen floor from underneath. Perhaps it was all a combination of these things. Perhaps the stiffness of the wrapping paper envelope prevented it from expanding into a large enough volume to hold adequate heated air (it was open on the bottom, after all, and could only hold so much).
So, for the next iteration of this continuing project, we are first going to conduct a post mortem with the children, and enlist their help in the design of the Great Hot Air Balloon, Mark II. Probably we’ll return to the lighter and more flexible tissue paper, but if we do we’ll have to build the panels from multiple pieces. Probably we’ll make the balloon bigger, which will make it that much more impressive if it works. We seem to have reached a technological ceiling with the burners, except for further experimentation with the small aluminum prune juice cans that are much lighter than the tomato paste versions. Maybe we could use a better fuel, after all. I had briefly considered using nitromethane, but decided that race-car fuel would not be a safe heat source. But maybe being wise wasn’t so smart, after all. I'd also thought about generating hydrogen using water and an automotive battery charger, as the old method of dropping iron into sulfuric acid was likely too hazardous, even for us. And perhaps we’ll dispense with the bailing wire, except for the components directly in line with the flame.
In the end, there’s no telling what we’ll do. After all, this is Experimental Learning, and therefore a failure is just as informative as a success. It just doesn’t make Dad look as good, you know.
Maybe we should try making black gunpowder next.