Friday, November 22, 2013

Filibusters and the nuclear option

I am saddened by the decision of the Democratic majority (but credit West Virginia’s Senator Manchin as one of the few Democrats to vote against this) to invoke the “nuclear option” reducing the votes needed to stop a filibuster from 60 to 50 (if the Vice-President breaks the tie vote). I think this will join the Citizens United v. FEC case as one of the major contributors to the loss of our American democracy.

I don’t deny that the minority party has been more obstructionist than ever before. However, it seems to me that there was a better solution than invoking the nuclear option that, only a few years ago, the Democrats were crying foul about when the Republicans suggested this option.

To me, the solution would be to go back to the true meaning of a filibuster—as was demonstrated in the classic Jimmy Stewart movie “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” (hopefully some of my former students will remember this movie). Back in 1975, a Senate rule change meant that a Senator only needed to announce his or her intention to filibuster to require a 60 vote “supermajority” to move legislation. No longer did they have to stand and openly talk about their opposition. It became too easy to use the simple threat of filibuster as an obstruction tactic.

It would have been better to get rid of the 1975 rule change than go nuclear. If minority members (whether Republicans now or Democrats prior to 2009) want to filibuster, make them stand in the well of the Senate and explain to the public why they oppose a particular measure or nomination. The glare of the spotlight (we didn’t have a 24/7 news cycle in 1975) would often show their thin arguments on the merits and demonstrate to the world that it was really about obstructionism.

If they were actually required to articulate their opposition, and to do it for a long and physically exhausting period of time blocking other activities in the Senate, then some might re-think whether it was really worth it. The general public would grow tired of these childish tactics, and I think filibuster usage would soon decrease from where it is now. It could still be used when absolutely necessary, but not for every little action.

The best part is that this solution would not have had the same impact on party polarization. Heck, the GOP’s Rand Paul already has shown his willingness to use the classic filibuster (plus Ted Cruz’s effort, while more of a soliloquy and not a real filibuster, was a bit similar). For the Democrats to go nuclear, just five years after they were in the minority and up in arms about it being used against them, is very short-sighted. Yesterday’s decision will likely come back to haunt them when they are in the minority. It will only lead to further political polarization, which is a terrible thing. To me, our democracy requires leaders who can compromise for bipartisan solutions, rather than those who use their temporary majority status for a power grab.

Somehow it is probably fitting that I am writing this on the anniversary of JFK’s assassination, which—when historians of the future look back over the centuries to our era—will probably be seen as the beginning of the end of the American empire. Yesterday’s vote is yet another contribution to this decline. But I still cling to my idealistic hope that things can get better.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Rocket Boys

I’m a big fan of Homer Hickam, author of the outstanding book entitled “Rocket Boys.” In 1998, I was serving in my second term on the county school board when I first heard about a great new book celebrating education, the space race, and West Virginia—a perfect combination for me! I eagerly devoured the book “Rocket Boys” and eventually the rest of the Coalwood Trilogy.

I loved Homer’s stories in part because of the similarities we share (although he is much older!).

• Both of us were born in West Virginia, and have a strong affinity for its land and people.
• Both of us were blessed with some inspiring teachers who cared about our education (you can read about mine at
• Both of us did science fair projects about model rocketry (although mine didn’t win a national award) and formed a rocket club with our friends (you can read about some of my model rocket history at
• Both of us were eventually able to turn our interest in rocketry into a job at NASA and visit its facilities at Cape Canaveral, Houston, and Huntsville (I was working at NASA HQ when Challenger exploded--
• Both of us have been underground in a working coal mine, and experienced the “blackest black of darkness” as well as the grim reality of carrying a numbered bronze tag so that your body could be identified in case of an explosion (for more about my trip underground, see

I also had another connection with the “Rocket Boys” story. While serving on the school board, I learned that the only school in the entire state that had not been successfully paired with a business partner was Homer’s alma mater, Big Creek High School. I contacted a former co-worker at NASA Headquarters and shared the story, which resulted in a unique partnership with NASA through Marshall University.

Fortunately for me, Anna is also a big Homer Hickam fan. About a dozen years ago, we made a trip to McDowell County to visit Coalwood (on the same Route 16 that starts near my hometown along the Ohio River in Pleasants County—see We stopped at the convenience store across from the house where Homer had lived, and talked with the folks there. They insisted we needed to get the “grand tour” and called for Red (O’Dell’s dad, the junk yard guy). He soon picked us up in his old pickup truck and proceeded to drive us around the Coalwood area, pointing out various landmarks from the books. It was a great experience!

However, it was a bit depressing as well, because it was easy to see how the economy had changed so much and that Coalwood was just a shadow of what it had once been. It wasn’t just the Coalwood community, though. On our way there we drove through Welch, the county seat, and it was obvious this once proud major city was on the decline (and the same can be said for most of the West Virginia coalfields). It is a problem with which West Virginia continues to struggle.

We decided to return to Coalwood a couple of years later to attend the annual “October Sky Festival.” It was a big event and most of the “Rocket Boys” were there. It was good to see the community on a festive occasion, as well as seeing some of the real life characters from the books. It was interesting to see them as adults (and to meet Homer’s wife, too).

We had met Homer for the first time in 2002 when he spoke at Ohio University, not far from Parkersburg. This was not long after the Quecreek mine rescue in Pennsylvania, and Homer was able to include in his presentation some pictures of his dad’s similar rescue device from the Coalwood mine. We later attended Homer’s presentation at WVU’s Mountainlair in Morgantown. Each time we got a chance to briefly talk to him afterward.

These various brief meetings with Homer culminated in a chance meeting at Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC. We just happened to arrive at an entrance door at the same time and recognized him, leading into a nice conversation in the airport lobby. He truly is a wonderful gentleman—whether he really remembered us from those previous meetings or not.

Last year, we heard about “Rocket Boys: The Musical.” Apparently some Broadway folks thought that the Rocket Boys story had potential as a play. They wrote songs that fit the story and decided to try it out at Grandview State Park near Beckley (where the “Honey in the Rock” and “Hatfields and McCoys” shows have always been performed). We wanted to check out this new “song and dance” version of the story, but just couldn’t fit the limited run into our busy schedules the past two summers.

We finally got our chance to see the show this past weekend. Fairmont State University made arrangements to bring the show to their campus as another way of celebrating West Virginia’s sesquicentennial year. It was a good performance, and a great way to commemorate our 150th! We also enjoyed touring the special museum exhibit about coal mining that they are concurrently hosting in the top floor of the theater building.

If you liked the “Rocket Boys” book (or the movie “October Sky” which is an anagram of the book title), then you should also see “Rocket Boys—The Musical” (details on the FSU engagement can be found here). As they say in the book, it is prodigious! And (even though we haven’t crossed paths in the past eight years or so) if you ever meet Homer Hickam, tell him I said “Hi!”

That’s me inside the actual Space Shuttle trainer in Houston. My left hand is on the joystick controlling the shuttle's robotic arm. The window into the payload bay is in front of me, while another window is above my head. It was a day I will always remember!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

High on Alpine Lake

We are always looking for new places to take our flat-water kayaks. It is fun to be “the captain of your own ship” and explore different sites from the unique vantage point of the water. Recently, we made a short trip to Preston County to try out Alpine Lake, a privately developed vacation community with golfing, a hotel/restaurant, and a huge lake. I don’t remember how I first heard about Alpine Lake, but I had originally thought it was an exclusive resort that required membership. However, we had noticed their billboard along I-68 and had heard radio ads, so it was clear they welcomed visitors.

To get there, we drove I-68 to Bruceton Mills, then south through Albright and beyond to Route 7. From along the Cheat River we headed up Route 7 (with its beautiful view from the high ridge) to the interesting town of Terra Alta. Like many small towns in West Virginia, it is apparent that Terra Alta was a bustling place in its heyday. Just beyond the town (after passing Hopemont, the old West Virginia tuberculosis hospital), a sign directs you to turn left.

Just a few miles up this county road is the entrance to Alpine Lake. There is a guardhouse at the entrance, and we told him we wanted to kayak on the lake. He gave us a temporary parking permit and directed us to the lodge. At the reception desk inside the beautiful lodge, we paid $5 each for a day pass, and then headed for the boathouse area. Everyone was very friendly!

Alpine Lake is at an altitude of nearly 3000 feet, and sits adjacent to the state borderline that runs north/south between Preston County, WV and Garrett County, MD. What really attracted me to this lake was the fact that they don’t allow gasoline engine boats. With all the motorboats on Cheat Lake, Summersville Lake, and other major lakes, we have found ourselves dealing with their wakes more than we wished. It was nice to have a large body of water to explore on our own without worrying about the waves—or the noise.

We paddled our way around the perimeter of the lake, watching for wildlife and enjoying the scenery. For the most part, the trees come right down to the shoreline, with occasional big rocks along the shore. In some areas, we enjoyed gazing through the dark wooded banks at lush beds of ferns growing on the forest floor. Besides seeing fish, herons, and a muskrat, we also enjoyed seeing some of the nice houses hidden among the trees. Unfortunately, it was a bit cloudy and overcast that day, but we still had a good time.

Afterwards, we drove around parts of this huge development, admiring many interesting homes, most of which were well hidden amongst the woods. We had chatted with some residents at the boathouse and at the lodge, and they enjoy living there. Some of the homes are just summer vacation cottages, but others live there year round. It is a modern community nestled among the trees high in the mountains of Preston County. They also have a nice golf course (as well as miniature golf).

If you are looking to get away from the jet-skis and speedboats to enjoy a quiet paddle in your kayak, or if you just want a Sunday drive to a beautiful spot in West Virginia, then I recommend taking the high road to Alpine Lake.