Wednesday, September 18, 2019

"Thank you for your service" - revisited

After some discussions with two of my close friends, I feel the need to expound a bit more on the touchy topic of people thanking me for my service.  As I have said elsewhere, I have very mixed feelings about my service.  I wasn't ever involved in combat in Vietnam, but my service was in a logistical supply unit that kept our troops supplied in I Corps (the northernmost region of South Vietnam).  We didn't shoot people - we provided the means by which combat troops could shoot people.  Our "service" was a critical component of sustaining that war.

As most Vietnam veterans know, we were victorious in most of the battles in that war, including the Tet Offensive in 1968.  That victory, in particular, was the root cause of my tour in Vietnam being so free of combat.  The Viet Cong were crushed in that offensive and the NVA was seriously set back.  The combat troops who fought in that battle made my "easy" tour possible.

Some veterans feel that if you didn't serve in combat, you weren't really in the war.  And there are those who say if you weren't actually on the ground in Vietnam, you shouldn't be allowed to call yourself a "Vietnam Era Veteran".  I call bullshit on both these notions. 

Our combat troops served our nation's military objectives - in a war we should never have begun and had no clear path to some sort of conclusion.  That war ended, not with a massive strategic victory comparable to Dien Bien Phu, but with us essentially abandoning South Vietnam to its fate.  The ability of our troops to fight those battles required massive logistical support and my outfit was neck deep in that support.

The web of support for those combat troops spread much wider than the nation of South Vietnam.  Those who served during that time, but who never made it to South Vietnam, were embedded in a complex system that indirectly enabled that war to go on.  The USA has a military presence in many places around the world.  We can argue about the need for all those expensive installations, but by serving in the military without ever setting foot in Vietnam, our military had to draw from existing units, including the National Guard and the Reserves.  The draft was the only way the military could have enough warm bodies to support our Vietnam campaign.  I was swept up by the draft, of course.  In today's world, it is political suicide to even think about re-instituting a draft, and so our military has been stretched thin, and multiple deployments by infantry divisions are the rule, not an exception.

TV documentaries often refer to the comradeship within military units being the primary motivating factor for troops fighting in actual battles.  I can say nothing about that since I wasn't ever in combat, but what I can say is this:  for us REMFs in Vietnam, we lived in a world many of us deemed to be infected with a form of insanity.  Even non-combat troops clung to each other for support, for fear of becoming as insane as Vietnam seemed to us.  The movie "Apocalypse Now" is not a very realistic depiction of the Vietnam war, but it does capture a semblance of the feeling that I had landed in a place where many people were simply crazy.**

What this all means (to me) is that my service made possible some awful things in a war that I didn't believe was one in which we as a nation should have been involved.  After we bailed out, Vietnam fell to Communism, but it didn't become the start of a massive shift to communism around the world, as the "Domino Theory" held.  What it left our nation with was a smoldering cultural division that has lingered to this very day, long after the end of the Vietnam War.  Hence, I'm not very proud of having made my contributions in support of that war.

Nevertheless, with the passage of time since I was in the military, I'm increasingly proud of having answered my country's call.  Now, when people thank me for my service, I've been holding back my negative reactions for the simple reason that such wishes are made with the best of intentions:  to honor soldiers who were not honored after their return in any way, myself included.  What I really want to say is: "I appreciate the spirit of your gratitude for my service, but that was an evil war that left many veterans of that war with lasting pain and even death.  In addition to thanking me - a person who escaped the worst that Vietnam War offered - the best way to honor my service is to support in a concrete way those veterans who suffer from PTSD, cancer likely induced by Agent Orange, and homelessness.  Thousands of our veterans were killed in Vietnam, but have died here in the USA from disease, drug addiction, alcoholism, and suicide.  Help them in some material way - skip the "thoughts and prayers" garbage - that helps precisely no one.  Do that and your thanks will be truly honoring my service."

And we as a nation should not send our youth to foreign lands to fight in seemingly endless wars that, like Vietnam, offer no plausible end game, short of killing everyone who serves to oppose our incursions.  We do ourselves a great disservice by such wars, consuming our resources with no meaningful return on such investments for anyone other than the military-industrial complex President Eisenhower warned about.  I especially despise "chicken hawk" politicians who lead us into war with no intention of serving in combat - either for them or anyone they choose to shelter from the obligation to fight in our nation's wars.
[** Footnote - no movie can ever depict any war with absolute accuracy, but some get it more right than others.  I favor "Full Metal Jacket" and "Platoon", to name a couple that include some realism in depicting situations that I witnessed or knew about during in my service.]

Thursday, August 15, 2019

A tribute to Fred Goodwin, Jr.

Yesterday morning (14 Aug 2019), I lost another friend:  Fred Goodwin, Jr.  My sincere condolences to his family and his friends (of which there are many, for good reasons).  What I'm saying here isn't a summary of Fred's life, but is an account of how and why Fred and I became friends.

This is one of my favorite photos of Fred, giving a summary of my son Chad's accomplishments on the way to Eagle Scout, at the Ketner farm (see below), during his Eagle Scout Court of Honor.

Thanks to the enthusiasm of my son Chad, he joined a Boy Scout troop (Troop 777, now dissolved) and though I didn't know it nor did I even suspect it, I was about to embark on a great adventure with my whole family - Scouting!  My knowledge of scouting was minimal, since I had quit Scouts as a boy before I even earned my Tenderfoot status - the leadership of that troop was more like a collection of Army drill sergeants and that was not appealing to me.  What I wanted was hiking and camping!  Little did I know that my wish would be granted decades later!

In the process, I was "drafted" as an Assistant Scoutmaster to be a "patrol dad" in the new Eagle patrol that included Chad.  It was via this process that I met my fellow patrol dad, Fred Goodwin, Jr.  I knew nothing about Scouting and Fred was physically challenged as a result of Cerebral Palsy.  He needed some support to stand and was eventually confined to a wheel chair.  But Fred was an Eagle Scout, as was his father, so he used his knowledge and experience to help me learn what I needed to learn.  Together, our combined abilities were one complete patrol dad.  And I found an amazing new friend.  Plus I got to know his boys, John and Fred III, and truly enjoyed the fun experiences we had on hiking and camping trails where my partner couldn't go.  At the end of the trail, Fred would be there with questions about how it went and what experiences we had shared.  He was justifiably proud of his sons, who both eventually became Eagle Scouts - Freddie at the same time as my son.  They were the second and third boys to make Eagle in our Troop.  And the first 777 Eagle scout was in our patrol!

Our patrol had some boys who were challenged by their home situations.  That was common in Troop 777.  Fred told me that for some boys, the experiences they had as a result of scouting could be the only positive experiences they were going to have in a given week.  Moreover, Fred informed me that if Chad needed any correction to his words and/or actions during a scouting event, the other adults in the troop would take care of it.  In other words, I was to back off and shut up!  I learned the wisdom of that and found I have large reserves of patience for teenage young men other than Chad.  I tried to put my ego aside, and to apply that lesson of patience with my own son!  We're in Scouting to help boys mature into good men, to push that process forward however we could.  The troop was zeroed in on the boys, not us!!  It became evident that our leadership included some pretty wise people, including Fred.

Fred and I made extensive use of land owned by the Ketner family in East Norman, who had generously donated use of that land for weekend campouts.  Fred let me know that our job was to help the boys learn how to run the patrol on their own, so we gradually increased the scope of their responsibilities and after a few years, Fred and I could relax and let the boys run things.  They readily accepted their responsibilities and I learned that we had to allow our Scouts to fail as they tried new things.  Failure can be an excellent teacher. 

There are far too many stories of how Fred helped me in Scouting to tell here.  The Ketner farm was where Freddie and Chad wanted their Eagle Scout Court of Honor.  That ceremony became quite a memorable experience, thanks to hordes of evil chiggers!

It became clear that I wanted to be part of the process that Fred and other adults in the troop were carrying out.  There was a perfect balance between fun and doing what was necessary to achieve rank advancement in Scouting.  We were not a Scouting "eagle factory"- but we did produce our fair share.

Fred accepted many more roles in the troop than "just" a patrol dad.  He was always willing to help if need be, and he helped many more Scouts than the members of our Eagle Patrol.  He trusted me with both his boys during their journey in Scouting as Scouts.  His boys have both become fine young men, with families of their own, and I'm proud of what they've achieved so far.  We loved Fred's parents a lot, and still miss them.  I know Fred was proud of his family, naturally.

Fred's grown-up boys John (left) and Fred III ("Freddie"- right) as we were working on a project at Fred's home.

Fred was "handicapped" with his CP, but in my humble opinion, he did more with his capabilities than most others without such handicaps ever manage to achieve.  He worked for the OU Physical Plant and clearly was an important cog in that machine.  That Fred will be missed is pretty much assured and his deeds achieved good ends that will live on, many of which I probably am unaware.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

A tribute to a very special friend - Joel Price

Anyone observant of my posts on Facebook will recognize the name of someone whose shared thoughts here were so very much in sync with my own: Joel Price. I "met" Joel Price, thanks to my friend RJ Evans. RJ invited Joel to participate on his internet radio show, Shocknet Radio's "American Heathen," and later invited my participation. Joel's persona on the show was as "Yahweh" and he dispensed considerable wisdom and insight in his show segments. And the theme song for his show segment was Chris Rae's "The Road to Hell" - a favorite tune for me.  The lyrics to Part I: 

Stood still on a highway
I saw a woman
By the side of the road
With a face that I knew like my own
Reflected in my window
Well she walked up to my quarterlight
And she bent down real slow
A fearful pressure paralysed me in my shadow
She said 'Son, what are you doing here?
My fear for you has turned me in my grave.'
I said 'Mama, I come to the valley of the rich, 

myself to sell.'
She said 'Son, this is the road to hell!'

I think most all the listeners looked forward to Joel's part in the show.  His radio voice was dignified and powerful, making his words seem all the wiser. After RJ shut down Shocknet Radio, I stayed in contact with Joel and always found his FB posts to be of the same caliber as his radio show segments. I've reposted many of his contributions.  He was a relentless fan of the Constitution and our nation, with its mandated separation of church and government.  And, of course, he was an atheist.  There are, no doubt, more accomplishments and wisdom he dispensed about which I know nothing.

Joel was a practicing attorney in Fort Smith, AR, and I can imagine he was a successful lawyer. His arguments certainly reflected his commitment to truth and justice.  His tag line for his American Heathen show segments was:

"It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."
- a quote from Thomas Jefferson.  Recently, he informed selected friends with whom he was in touch in June that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer that had metastasized to his lungs.  This morning (30 July 2019) I got word that Joel has died.  Cancer can be really cruel. For someone I never met face-to-face, I find myself seriously grieving over the loss of my friend. His insights and his profoundly rational views (especially concerning religion) will be missed by many, and I will miss him terribly. My condolences to his family and his close friends.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Thoughts on American Patriotism

A friend and colleague has challenged me to write up something about patriotism.  My usual starting point for this sort of musing is the definition of the key word - patriotism - "Patriotism or national pride is the feeling of love, devotion and sense of attachment to a homeland and alliance with other citizens who share the same sentiment."  I make no claims to deep or exceptional insight.  These are just my thoughts at the moment.

Let there be no doubt or confusion - I love my native land.  It's a nation with much natural beauty, dramatic weather, large amounts of natural resources, and (perhaps most important) a set of principles that are inspirational and form the basis for the Constitution.  This lays down the rules for a government that's intended to reward individual initiative so that, by hard work and creative insight, anyone can achieve their dreams here.  Pecuniary rewards and a successful career are not guaranteed to anyone.  Equal opportunity for all, but the outcomes of any efforts are not determined in advance.

The principles of equal treatment under the law, and freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, religion, and gender have not consistently been followed by our elected officials, right from the very beginning, including those considered to be founders of our nation.  That even the founders have not lived up to the noble words in our national documents (the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) says that we as a nation still suffer from injustice and discrimination that are direct violations of those principles.  We have a long history of genocidal tactics against the indigenous people who, after all, were the very first Americans.  We have created "legal" exemptions from some of the laws that forbid unequal treatment of minorities and the world observes our hypocrisy as we fail to live up to our noble principles, despite the claims of "American Exceptionalism" by some Americans.

When the USA was founded, it was recognized that the founders were conducting an experiment, in which the Constitution lays out government procedures among the three branches of government envisioned by the founders and promises the existence of many important freedoms.  It is often referred to as "a grand experiment" which no major nation before us had ever tried.  Freedom and equality are important first principles.  I have long been pleased, and a bit proud, to have been born within this experiment and its continuance is important to me.  

The fact that we're not perfect at following the very concepts we claim to hold dear means that any objective review of our behavior must include a recognition that our national, state, and local governments have failed to observe the rules as documented in the Constitution.  We need to "own" our misdeeds as a nation and seek to learn from our mistakes and seek to prevent further violations of our national principles.  I subscribe totally to the notion that while I love my native land, I often disagree (sometimes  strongly) with the behavior of our government.  Even Abraham Lincoln used the excuse of the Civil War to suspend use of the writ of Habeas Corpus - a writ requiring a person under arrest to be brought before a judge or into court, especially to secure the person's release unless lawful grounds are shown for their detention.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt sanctioned the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII.

As we saw in the Nixon era, our government can run off the rails for Constitutional democracy into corruption and evil.  Many in our nation are actually opposed to freedom and liberty for all Americans - they are bigots who consider those who are different from them to be somehow unworthy of the support offered by our governments.  Such attitudes often come wrapped in the Bible and the flag, where the adherents to injustice see themselves as patriots as they seek to abrogate the very principles that have made our nation so successful,

While I was in graduate school, I was drafted to serve in the Army.  I had already been reading of the history of Vietnam and I learned they had a long history of stubborn resistance to those who would occupy their lands.  Evidently, the government of America during the Presidencies of JFK, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon felt we could just brush aside any interference from the Communists leading the revolt against the puppet government of South Vietnam.  Apparently, our government felt they could succeed where previous invaders of Vietnam (including the French) failed.  I had a dilemma:  I was being ordered to become part of a war effort that I opposed.  My choices were: 

1. refuse being drafted and go to jail,
2. escape to Canada, or
3. accept the order and go serve. 

As I saw it at the time,  the first two options would mean I would probably never have the career I desperately wanted.  I had to go serve, on that basis, and that's what I did.  I continue to have mixed feelings about my service - during my 11 months in Phu Bai, South Vietnam I never was in any combat, so my good assignment left me free of nightmares, PTSD, and all the ravages of being in combat.  However little I contributed to the war effort, I never made a public stand against the war.  I just wanted to survive it and get back to the USA in one piece.  I'm not necessary proud of my service, but when my nation called, I went and served despite my misgivings and doubts.

The Vietnam war became an albatross around Nixon's neck and was an issue that led to deep divisions in American society.  Nixon was forced to bring the war to an end and perhaps he was the only person who actually believed we left Vietnam in an "honorable" fashion.  The fact is, our asses were kicked by a third-rate power that had the advantage of seeking to remove unwanted invaders and was willing to take many casualties for so long as it took to get the USA to turn tail.  We "won" most of the battles, but we lost the war.

A favorite saying among the conservatives (the so-called "silent majority") who at the time supported the war was "America - love it or leave it."  Well, my view is that that saying is bullshit!  If I disagree with something the government has done, I'm supposed to pack up and leave my native land so that all the rednecks who supported the war wouldn't be challenged to examine the behavior of their government?  No way, dude!  There's no point to all the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution if someone who disapproves of some government behavior isn't afforded those rights.  If we lived in a perfect world, perhaps there would be no disagreements and no clash of principles.  But that's not our world and it's not the way my nation operates.

I've come to the conclusion that public protests (like that of Colin Kaepernick) are the most important element of our national freedoms.  Great love for the nation is exhibited by those who want to work within the system of laws to try to turn something wrong into a positive.  We can't learn from our mistakes if (a) we believe our government never makes mistakes, and/or (b) we ignore or even cover up those mistakes.  A patriot doesn't see America as perfect but works to overcome our errors and misjudgments via the rules and norms of our democracy, and may advocate changing rules and norms to prevent injustice and discrimination.

Right now, we're experiencing a critical juncture of our national history.  Trump and his GOP enablers are seemingly working toward the abolition of the Constitution and the creation of an authoritarian dictatorship.  They're providing encouragement to bigots in our nation, committing a crime against humanity against the migrants seeking asylum and a new opportunity for their families.  My government is being transformed from a Constitutional democracy into a cruel dictatorship.  How can I support the Trump regime?  As I see it, I would rather die than live under a Trumpian version of totalitarianism.  Despite my deep and abiding love for my nation, if its government is recast in the image of Trump and his enablers, I will exhibit my patriotism by being an advocate for the cessation of the Trumpian dictatorship!

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A tribute to Matt Biddle, my friend and colleague

Matt with his daughter, Faith, on the occasion of a visit to our home

My friend Matt Biddle died last evening (10 April 2018 - the 39th anniversary of the Red River Valley tornado outbreak), after a long struggle with a host of physical challenges.  I can't detail his entire medical history, but his most recent problem was a heart stoppage, resulting in anoxic brain damage.  When Vickie and I went to see him in the ICU of Mercy Hospital, he was unresponsive and on a ventilator.  His family then decided the best thing would be to take him off of life support.  His passing was peaceful and his family was there at the end.

Matt was saddled with these physical difficulties for the entire time I knew him, but he somehow managed to carry on with his life.  To me, that represents extraordinary courage and determination - those were two of his defining characteristics.  Matt was seriously dedicated to issues that involved people, as a geographer who felt compassion for others and sought to provide mechanisms to reach out and help those with physical handicaps in severe weather situations, even as he had to overcome so many physical problems himself.  His contributions to the University of Oklahoma in terms of storm preparedness were vastly out of proportion with his rewards - both financial and personal.  He was an avid storm chaser and participated in scientific field programs whenever given the opportunity - he supported the science with his full commitment to whatever missions he was given.  He was also a big fan of the Detroit Red Wings.

Matt was an opinionated, argumentative person, so naturally I was drawn to him - so much of what he said and stood for made perfect sense to me.  Of course, I didn't always agree with him about everything, so we argued frequently.  I don't believe he ever took this personally and he gave at least as much as he got.  I always respected what Matt had to say, even if I disagreed at times.  Sadly, Matt wasn't appreciated by academics and management because he spoke his mind clearly and with passion.  Most seemed ready to kick him under the proverbial bus rather than to provide him with opportunities and the means to contribute.  I was able to help Matt obtain his PhD in Geography after Matt had a stroke that left him with aphasia affecting his ability to speak and write his thoughts.  Think about how frustrating it would be to have thoughts but be unable to express them!  Nevertheless, I forced him to do as much as he could without my intervention, so he could feel he "owned" his dissertation.  I was so proud of him and pleased to see him conquer the process and his aphasia on the day he successfully defended his doctoral dissertation.  Unfortunately, even that achievement failed to win him much respect in the professional world.  We tried several times to get funding to do various interdisciplinary projects related to severe storm preparedness, but ... no luck.

Matt's PhD Advisory Committee after his successful dissertation defense

His life during the time I knew him seemed to be a constant roller-coaster ride.  Great joy and satisfaction with his successes, only to be laid low by one physical issue after another.  His greatest and most constant joy was his daughter, Faith, who is pretty and quite bright - she's always done well in school.  I know she looked up to Matt and did things to help him cope with the tough side of his life.  He simply adored her.

I regret not having spent more time with him.  I'm reminded of an occasion when I was chasing with Al Moller in Kansas.  Several of us, including Matt, converged on an Applebee's in Newton, KS for a late supper.  We all jabbered on for a long pleasant interlude before going our separate ways.  A happy memory.  It's also somehow comforting to know that despite all his difficulties, he was able to chase;  it was something he loved doing.

Occasionally, we'd get together for a beer and perhaps a meal, but in retrospect, I wish we had done so much more often.  Matt leaves behind many in the chasing community who held him in high esteem.  If the level of his professional support had been based on the admiration of his friends, he'd have been able to do great things.  His passing is far too soon but the challenges with his body he faced were too much even for his strong will.  Matt may never be cited very often in scholarly circles, but his spirit and his accomplishments live on in the hearts and minds of the many who knew and loved him.  He will be missed by a multitude.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

My de facto brother, Bob Lundeen has died

Last night, we learned that my cousin, Robert Lundeen, died after a protracted battle with Alzheimer's Disease.  Bob was the big brother I never had.  To understand how this came about, I have to acknowledge that my mother and her younger sister, Frances Lundeen (Bob's mother), had a very special closeness.  Thus, it came to pass that I spent my summers on the farm of my Aunt Fran and Uncle Irving for many years.  I was treated just like their two boys, Harlan and Bob.  In addition to my idyllic summers on the farm, we visited them every Christmas, and they visited us most every Thanksgiving.  Their farm was about a 4-hour drive from our house, near Galesburg, IL.

Cousin Bob, in 1998.  That wry smile was a trademark of his.

Being a few years older than I, it was inevitable that I thought of Bob as a role model.  It was also inevitable that he would tease me without mercy.  That's what older brothers do, naturally.  There were times when his teasing would really make me upset, but I eventually learned that if I didn't show him I was upset, he'd quit - teasing's no fun if it has no impact.   That was when I sometimes referred to him as "Sweet Old Bob - or sometimes just the initials"!  Despite all the teasing, Bob was mostly pretty good to me and we did many fun things together, including him taking me to the drag races:  specifically, the World Series of Drag Racing at the dragstrip in Cordova, Illinois.

We had many hours together on the farm, so we sometimes did things that young boys do.  One time, we filled up a pipe welded closed at one end, used to pound metal fence posts into the ground, with about 50 large grasshoppers.  Bob's parents had left us alone on the farm - with Bob, that was an open invitation for boyish deviltry.  After filling the pipe, we threw in a "Silver Salute" firecracker (an M-80) that Bob had obtained somehow.  When it went off, a jet of flame and grasshopper parts sprayed out and splattered pieces of grasshopper all over the north exterior wall of their house.  The pipe itself contained a "soup" of grasshopper parts and the goo of grasshopper guts.  Blech!  I don't know if his parents ever discovered the evidence, which was gradually washed away by rainfall.  We didn't repeat the incident.

I'd already been leaning toward a career in meteorology, and Bob was destined to become a mechanical engineer.  During slack moments on the farm, we would talk about our dreams and hopes for the future.  Bob had a small mirror telescope and we would go out into a field in the evening and use the telescope to see Jupiter and Saturn and the Moon and nebulae and star clusters and so on.  On a warm Illinois evening in the summer, it was an inspirational trip to the planets and stars we made many times.  I always loved the night sky on the farm - the very little light pollution and virtually no haze made the dark sky pop!!  The typical summer rains in Illinois corn country are associated with nocturnal thunderstorms.  Many a night I was awakened, in the room Bob and I shared when I was there, by the thunder and lightning show.  My enjoyment of storms was a foreshadowing of my storm chasing hobby, as well as my career as a scientist.

Bob wanted to get away from the farm, whereas I felt it was a delightful vacation to be part of an American family farm enterprise.  I guessed eventually that living it constantly could give one a different perspective, as opposed to my occasional dabblings in family farm agriculture.  Bob helped me to see how someone might have a different point of view from my own.  He was teaching me a life lesson.  One of many.

When we had both grown up and established in our careers, Bob used to call me on the phone from Idaho and just wanted to talk, sometimes at great length.  I always was happy when he called and so I could hear about what was going on in his life, and share my experiences with him as an equal.  Bob's mechanical engineering career led him to work for the Navy in Idaho Falls; evidently associated with the nuclear machinery in a submarine.  His work was classified so he couldn't say much about it.    Vickie and I finally made it to Idaho Falls on a 2012 vacation trip out West, and it was great to visit with him in the Idaho home where he raised his two boys, Chris and Gregg.  Chris and his wife Cindy have been caring for Bob during the course of his battle with Alzheimer's.

I can't even begin to recount all the ways that Bob has influenced me in positive ways.  His passing leaves an unfillable hole in my life.  He is already profoundly missed.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Spirituality and loss of self

After some discussions with friends over the weekend, I was reminded of very profound events that have occurred during storm chases, and during the pursuit of my scientific understanding of the world.  The essential element in this is what I refer to as "loss of self" that can occur when your ordinary life with its concerns about yourself and your needs or obligations fades away and is replaced by a peaceful surrender to what is happening around you.  Your ego disappears and you experience a feeling of merger with what you are experiencing.

During storm chases, this can happen when you find yourself confronted with something much larger than yourself that's just so awe-inspiring you may be "thunderstruck" (pun intended) - your jaw drops open and you're mesmerized by what you're seeing.  A chaser might well be so absorbed with what she's witnessing that cameras are just hanging in her hand by her side, unraised and unused.  The majesty of what you see can be so overwhelming in its majesty and power, you can become completely absorbed in the event.  The "self" has disappeared, in a flood of astonishment.  Such moments are unpredictable (as are the events that create them) and are always unexpected.  These examples are relatively easy to explain and are understandable to most people.  This part of storm chasing is often described by storm chasers in their accounts of their adventures.  It leads to such adjectives as "incredible", "awesome", "jaw dropping", and so forth - terms that in my opinion are both overused and somewhat misleading.  They seek to describe the triggers for this loss of self.

When Al Moller and I intercepted the 08 June 1995 tornado in Pampa, TX, about halfway through its life cycle, we stopped and got out of our chase vehicle to continue our photography and videography of the tornado.  When the tornado finally dissipated, I discovered that my mouth was completely dry.  Perhaps this was because of adrenaline, or the fact that my jaw had dropped open and stayed that way, or both.  Regardless, it's somewhat amazing I managed to continue operating my video camera during this time of loss of self.  I was transfixed with the spectacle.  It felt like waking up from a dream when the last remnants of the rope-out faded away.

There's another way I've had this loss of self during chasing.  I've developed a serious love affair with the U.S. central and high plains and the people who live there.  In the process of a chase, there can be a certain amount of down time and I often try to use that down time to capture images that convey the emotional content of my feelings toward the plains.  Yes, I'm a hopeless romantic when it comes to those oceans of seemingly empty real estate.  What I see clearly is influenced by the light we encounter (photography can be thought of as "capturing the light"), by the dramatics unfolding in the sky, by the flora and fauna of the plains, by the wistful character of weather-beaten human structures and the stories they can tell, and so on.  When we get out of our cars and walk into the landscapes of the plains, I can find myself in a very spiritual state where my self vanishes.  For instance, many of the beautiful wildflowers of the plains are at the end of relatively long stalks, so they're prone to flailing about from the action of the virtually inevitable plains wind.  To capture what we envision, we may have to wait for that brief moment when the wind calms down and we can capture that moment.  Ordinarily, I can be impatient and not want to spend time essentially doing nothing.  But I find I can call upon something in those moments that lets me wait, silent and immobile, for just that brief instant, for many minutes, if need be.  When my self disappears, I'm able to wait, like a spider, to capture my "prey".  I experience in a first hand way something akin to what that spider in her web experiences.

In becoming totally absorbed in doing my science, the effort to concentrate on what I'm doing becomes easy when I'm so wound up in my work that time and seemingly boring, repetitive simple tasks become important only as the means of reaching my goal of following some new insight.  What might look to someone else as a task both tedious and trivial is, for me, a transcendental experience.  The passage of time is not noticeable.  I can immerse myself in this for hours without difficulty, as I'm so fixated on finishing the work.  Most of science seems boring to non-scientists but in my world, it can be transformed into a deeply spiritual adventure with the potential for something really exciting at the end.

I often tell people that the plains can elicit spiritual experiences, but in order to experience them, you have to slow down, go to quiet places in your mind, stop talking, and focus deeply on what's going on around you.  The light, the wind, the sky, the life of the plains can transport you to a world you can experience at the the deepest levels of your conscious mind.  Such moments can't be summoned on command.  You don't reach them simply by willing them to happen (although you can put yourself in situations that might lead you to them).  They come on without you being aware of their approach until you realize you're in them - a timeless state of union with the world around you and the universe.  As Robinson Jeffers wrote:
Integrity is wholeness,
the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty
of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man's pitiful confusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken. 

Man, a part of that, not man apart from that.  Your self disappears when you have that deep sense of being a small part of the majesty and glory of the natural world.  The feeling that we dwindle to insignificance is by no means negative when we feel we've somehow merged with those majesties.