Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Going to Guatemala

I’m going to Guatemala, the Lake Atitlan area, on an eye care missions with optometrists, thousands of pairs of used glasses, a bunch of modern equipment, and a lot of good people, all of us volunteers, all of us committed to helping people who cannot afford eye care improve their vision.  We’ll operate a four-day clinic in a small town under volcanic peaks inhabited primarily by Mayan Indians, some of whom will speak neither Spanish or English but rather Queche, a pre-Columbian language.  It’s been a number of years since I’ve been there, and I can’t wait to return.  I like the people, both those we serve and the volunteers, I like the work I do in the clinic, and I long to get completely out of here, if only for a little while.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love my home and the shack.  I’ll miss them.  I love my community. But I’m pretty sick of being bombed by the news.  I hear the internet is iffy where we’re going, the Wi-Fi intermittent, the phone service spotty.  That’s OK by me.  I’m long overdue to unplug for a while.  It’s been a long haul since the election, the inauguration, the fiasco of watching this administration flounder around carrying out ill-conceived campaign promises, to say nothing of Illinois politics in the background continuing to damage my state. 

It feels like a bad soap opera.  I am reminded of my family watching “As the World Turns”, a half-hour soap opera every day after lunch.  Dad would go to sleep in his chair, I would hang out in the living room, usually reading, half listening to the show, but Mom would be wrapped up tightly in the snowy black and white broadcast.

Occasionally she would react out loud when one of the characters announced a divorce, divulged a secret, or a calamity took place at the hospital, the lawyer’s office, or the country club.  It was a world which didn't include our family.  Sometimes she yelled loudly at the characters.

“Oh don’t tell me you’re going to do that!”

 It would wake my Dad and he would sit up out a deep sleep, alarmed, sputtering.

“What happened?”

“Ellen is leaving Don for that damned Eric!”

“Jesus Christ Catherine, it’s only a TV show.”

Mom would later talk about the characters to others like they were part of our family, often on the phone to my Aunt Lou, also a faithful As The World Turns watcher.

“Ellen is going to regret this one boy.  Don will have a new woman so fast it will make her head spin.  Probably Sylvia, that new nurse they hired in at the Emergency Room.  She’s been giving him the eye for weeks.”

The same kind of thing is playing itself out in my house only it’s not a soap opera.  I wish it was.  This is reality, although our government and the news it spawns seems to resemble a reality TV show more and more.  My wife hears me, alone, barking at a TV much bigger and clearer than our old RCA Victor on the farm.


Sometimes she rushes into the room, alarmed. 

“What is it?”

“Our government is detaining green card holders at the freaking airport and THIS BOZO IS DEFENDING IT!” (I didn’t say freaking, maybe not bozo either.)

“Oh for Pete’s sake,” she says.  “Settle down.”


The Guatemalan people may well be concerned about American politics, but they have other concerns as well, especially the people we will serve in the clinic.  Nutrition is one, finding health care including vision care is another.  My wife and I and forty some Americans are going to Guatemala to help families learn about their vision, correct it if needed and in some cases save it from debilitating eye disease.  They have neither nearby professionals or facilities to provide eye care, nor do they possess the means to travel to where those resources are located and pay for them. 

It’s not all bleak however.  I swear the people living in Guatemala have an eye for beauty, and a knack for building it into their lives, that we do not.  They seem also to have infinite patience, and a peacefulness the gringos serving them lack.  Maybe we’ve lost those qualities.  Maybe our smart phones have sucked it out of us, like tiny digital vacuum cleaners.

The Mayan people have strong communities, each village around the lake with their own identity.  They seem to know who they are and what they believe as a people apart from the Guatemalan government and its politics.  We need to find that again as Americans.  It’s a privilege to be in their world, if even for a short while.  I fantasize about putting the shack on a flatbed truck, towing it down there, finding a spot to put it on overlooking the lake, and leaving this all behind.  I had a shack when I was younger, further South in Ecuador, overlooking the Pacific.  I don’t think a shack with a waterfront view is in the cards now, at least in the foreseeable future. 

I’m about ready to go.  I’ve found my passport, my Swiss Army knife, and my traveling notebook.  The Pez dispensers are loaded.  I have a bottle of Bushmills for the suitcase.  I have a small roll of Benjamins.  Now all I have to do is pack.  I’ll take notes down there, maybe some pictures, and write a report when I get back.  Maybe I'll even settle down, but I doubt it.  Until then I have things to do.  Talk to you again in March.

photo by Lance Kinney

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Future of Drones

Usually when I write on a topic too long readership falls off, with the notable exception of “The Hot Dog Blog” which I ended only because I was tired of writing about wieners, while genuinely amazed at the widespread and growing interest in the variety of ways they are cooked and served.  Usually though I find hits to the blog page decrease the longer I write about the same thing.  The cross country road trip blogs proved that.  You can drive a good thing into the ground.

Nevertheless, I’m persisting on this topic of drones.  I cannot shake the thought of killer drones, and the more I find out about them the more terrified I become.  It may be irrational.  Has that stopped writers before?  I think you know the answer to that.

60 Minutes did a sub fifteen minute video on the latest in drones.*  Actually, the Pentagon invited them in to film.  I get a little edgy when the Pentagon collaborates with network media, wary of their motives.    However my interest in drones goes back to 1976.   My brother Denny was an USAF officer stationed at Alamogordo, New Mexico, a town near the White Sands Missile Base where they developed the atomic bomb.  I stopped there on my way back from a long trip south.  Up the road was Ruidoso, a nice little mountain town with horse racing, skiing, and good bars with music.  But Alamogordo was flat beautiful desert.  Think lots of clear days good for flying, large chunks of desert with few people, and restricted areas. 

“What’s the air force doing out there now Denny?” 

“From what we hear they have pilotless airplanes flying around and crashing into the ground.  They say they’re trying to fly them from by remote control from far away.  Hard telling what we’re up to really.  But we don’t hear much.  It’s all classified.”

Apparently they’ve been at it ever since. 

That’s why I was surprised the Pentagon allowed CBS to shoot film and work up a drone piece for national viewing.  That doesn’t always turn out well for the military.  But then I guess it depends on how you look at it.  Here is the gist of the 60 minutes story narrated by CBS National Security reporter David Martin. 

The Pentagon has taken the wraps off a secret project, with an annual budget of about $3 Billion a year, headed up by Dr. Will Roper.  He’s been working for some time on air and ground drones that talk to each other and reach solutions using Artificial Intelligence.  The flying drones, named Perdix after a figure in Greek mythology who was a nephew and student of Daedalus, look like toy model planes.  No matter, they are only prototypes to test the concept which is this.

Drones released on a mission, given a general command, can figure out how to carry it out through their mutual conversations, faster and more efficiently than humans without further instruction or human involvement.  Virtually any military vehicle can be autonomous.  That’s important because it opens the possibility of war being waged at many levels without putting American servicemen in harm’s way.  Many or few of these drones, working together, can communicate with each other while flying or otherwise moving about, talk to each other in effect, and carry out general preprogrammed commands.  They let 60 minutes film a live test of this capability. 

The cameras panned across an unnamed location in the desert, with a camouflaged tent full of cameras, computer equipment, and men with binoculars.  One of them was Dr. Roper, who was visibly nervous.  In an earlier shot, calm behind a desk, he reported thinking letting 60 minutes film this first of its kind live test of the Perdix’s capability was “a terrible idea” but there he was about to witness for the first time if they could do what they claimed, risking failure on camera.  He looked upward as F-15 fighters streaked across the sky and dumped their cargo into the sky, 104 of the tiny plastic autonomous drones.  He had his hands on his head, then pressed together as if praying, and then he became elated as the tiny flying things came into view.  It was like a breeder of homing pigeons seeing his beloved birds winging coming back to the coop.  He laughed out loud with relief.

“Look, see?  The sun flashes off their wings.  Yes and now you can hear them hum, it’s like a swarm of locusts in a way.”

He received a report in an ear piece, then announced triumphantly:

“It’s a hundred swarm.  That was our goal, and we got all 104.” 

Relief flooded his face.  He sighed, smiled, shut his eyes and shook his head.  If you’ve been working for years on a project that costs $3 Billion a year I imagine there is a fair amount of pressure to succeed.  And he had succeeded.

The little drones had been given the simple job of ‘following the road.”  There was pavement out there stretching straight through the desert.  The drones, equipped with cameras and the ability to communicate, first began to form a tighter and tighter cluster and then lined up in a straight line that corresponded to the path of the road.  All this could be seen on computer monitors with red and green dots representing the drones.  They did this much faster, according to Dr. Roper, than humans could, and more efficiently; quicker, with less movement, and all data driven.  No trial and error of which humans are so fond.  Nobody controlled the drones with a joystick in a trailer somewhere.  They were on their own.

 After a time the drones began to run out of power, their little batteries exhausted, and landed, some smoothly in a net on the road, others missing the net and crashing into the desert in a puff of smoke.  But no matter.  The Pentagon says they’re inexpensive.  I think when you have a $3 Billion budget inexpensive is likely a relative term.  Their mission was accomplished and by the looks on their faces it was a wild success. 

60 minutes then switched the segment to a mock up village constructed inside a building at a Marine Corp base in Quantico, Virginia. There they paired a ground device on wheels, a robot I guess, with a slow moving drone akin to a tiny helicopter with the ability to hover.  They had loaded the ground device with images of the 60 minutes reporter’s face.  David Martin’s face is pretty well known and available.  They fed 50,000 such images into the memory of the robot on wheels.  You could get like images of anyone off Face Book or YouTube for example.  David Martin strolled around the fake village, the robot glided around on wheels, and suddenly the machine recognized the human.  It locked onto him, followed  him around, and relayed his position to the flying drone, which came to hover above him.  David Martin was made.  Either machine, with the information it possessed, could have greeted him by name.  If armed, they could have killed him, or if previously commanded to do so, employed another means, a missile or some other system nearby, to take out David Martin.  Officials involved in the project claimed the odds of the robot making the wrong identification were 1 in 10,000, a much higher certainty than humans are able to achieve.  One official, in charge of the facial recognition software, said that if they had more time they could have done a better job, improving those odds.

The final segment of the 60 minutes piece was an interview with an official higher up the chain, General Paul Selma, a Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  He sat down with David Martin of 60 minutes to talk about the policy implications of all he had learned from doing his story on the once secret project.  Having been outed by a robot and experiencing a machine being sic’ed on him like a mechanical dog, David Martin had some questions for the General Selma.

“Are machines better at identifying individual than humans?”

“From everything I’ve read, machines surpassed human ability at image recognition, which includes facial recognition, about five years ago.”

“Could I have protected myself with a disguise?”

“Disguise doesn’t help.  One of the most individualized factors in facial recognition is the distance between your pupils.  If your eyes are exposed, if you need to see, that characteristic is in view and the information is available to the robots.”

I’m familiar with pupillary distance.  On our I Care missions in Latin America I sometimes measure the distance between a patient’s eyes when we are ordering glasses to be made in special cases, often children with unique visual problems and prescriptions.  The eye docs taught me how and gave me a little ruler.  I hold it up to their face, my finger resting on their nose, tell them to look directly into my eyes, and eyeball the distance between their pupils in millimeters.  It doesn’t have to be perfect and its not, but glasses work better when the center of the corrective lens falls at the center of the eye.  I’m guessing those camera equipped drones do it a lot faster and more accurately than me.

The policy regarding this new autonomous technology now in force at the Pentagon is this:

“Autonomous…systems shall be designed to allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force.”

David Martin’s simple question to the general was “if the machines you have developed can perform better than humans, if their judgment can be safely predicted to be more accurate, why not let them do it themselves without humans?”

“Well, that hits to the ethical question around this technology.  Do you allow a machine to take a human life without the intervention of humans?  So far we haven’t gone there.”

Now there’s a question for you.  People grapple with ethical questions all the time and as they do policies change.  How long do you suppose before the Pentagon’s policy on the use of autonomous technology is reviewed and modified?

At the end of the piece the 60 minutes reporter went back to Dr. Roper, they guy who was so excited about his swarm of plastic drones, and worked this angle.

“I’ve heard it said that the development of autonomy could be the biggest thing in military warfare since the atomic bomb.  Would you agree with that?”

“I think I might have to agree with you on that.  If by the biggest thing you mean a development that has the ability to change everything, then yes, autonomy can change everything.“

So far my thinking on this technology has gone only as far as driverless cars.  I have imagined going to the garage, setting the Buick’s GPS for Clark and Addison, climbing in the back seat, finishing my crossword puzzle and taking a nap on my way to Wrigley Field. I’m all in for that.  I am confident a machine will drive better than I.  But I hadn’t extended that thinking to wars waged by government employees behind desks directing machines on deadly missions around the globe.  Think about putting that in the hands of our current commander in chief.  Worse yet, consider North Korea getting a copy of the software.

I don’t know where we’re headed, but I don’t think I want to go there.

*To see the video go to and view the 60 minutes segment “The Coming Swarm.”

Friday, February 10, 2017

They kill us. We kill them.

There is so much political news.  We’re drowning in it.  If I’m not careful I am grabbed by news stories out of Washington first thing in the morning and they stay with me all day.  My thoughts are taken up by what I read on illuminated screens rather than what I see in the real world around me.  I’m trying to find a balance, to inject humor, to turn my attention to other, perhaps smaller, less contentious topics. 

But I can’t ignore this.  Bill O’Reilly, while interviewing America’s recently elected president, called Vladimir Putin a killer.  He was referring, I think, to the particular mean spirited practice widely believed used by the Russian president of knocking off his critics and rivals by, among other things, fatally poisoning them. 

The President of the United States, a position which, up till a few weeks ago, was also considered the leader of the free world, as if to defend Putin, said in response, making a non committal face before answering:

“A lot of killers.  We’ve got a lot of killers.  What, you think our country’s so innocent?”

He is catching a lot of hell for that.  Senator John McCain was seen on video tape at a lectern in the Senate stiffly waving his arms, broken and badly healed in a North Vietnamese prison fifty years ago, denouncing Trump’s comments, saying in effect “how dare he equivocate American government and its values to Russia and its corrupt leader.” 

I didn’t take it that way.  Though I don’t for a second believe the United States government compares to Russia, a country that punishes, imprisons and yes kills journalists, dissidents, activists, and political foes who threaten those in power, neither do I believe our country is innocent.  I think we’re overlooking something. 

I failed to write the date on this clipping, but it was buried somewhere in the Tribune one day in this new political year which has started so badly.  I never heard it discussed on television news, no one shared it on Face Book, and if I’m not wrong it was not widely tweeted.   That, in these times, makes it obscure and overlooked.  I cut it out and put it in the shack, not knowing when or if I would use it.

That’s hard to read so let me summarize.  The U.S Central Command released an estimate of the number of innocent civilians killed since the U.S. began striking the Islamic State group.  The most recent deaths of innocents were eleven civilians that were “inadvertently killed” in airstrikes in Iraq and Syria that targeted Islamic State militants and equipment late last year.  Since August 2014 that brings the total to almost 200.  The U.S. military reviews reports of civilian deaths and deems them credible or not credible.  Four recent reports of deaths from such strikes, one near Raqqa, Syria in December and three in Mosul, Iraq in October and December were found to be credible, seven reports were deemed not credible, and ten reports are still being reviewed.  Because the reviews are not complete, the 200 figure is likely low.  This was before the recent attack, some say botched attack, in Yemen in which a U.S. citizen from Peoria lost his life, the first serviceman killed under our new president’s watch.  Independent monitoring groups and activists, whose estimates of those killed tend to run higher than official U.S. sources, agree that coalition airstrikes and other actions have killed hundreds of civilians.

Our country has been killing people in foreign countries regularly, both enemy combatants and innocent civilians, since 9/11/2001.  I remember naively saying on that day in the YSB office, after the second tower went down,

“We may go to war over this.”

My fiscal person, herself an Army veteran, said

“Well I certainly hope so.”

And we’ve been at war, a war against terrorism, and terrorists, for sixteen years.  This is our third president to be briefed by generals, learn of both overt and covert operations, and be asked to approve them.  I imagine it is an eye opener for the commander in chief.  Actually there are a lot of killers, us among them.  Our American presidents, our American government, our American servicemen all involved in killings in the name of national security. But then of course they have killed us.  We blame them for lives lost in this country, live lost to terrorism, often justifiably so.  They kill us, we kill them, they kill us, and so on.

Our methods are different.  They kill us crudely, with explosive devices, with automatic weapons aimed at soft defenseless targets; randomly it seems, in Europe and within our borders, for effect.  Crowds of young people were killed at a crowded music venue, such as the attack in Paris, gunned down while the band played.  It works.  Terrorists strike terror, and we are terrified.  We hit back.  We go after what we believe is their command structure in countries where they hide.  Or perhaps that is where they live.  In any case we do not respond in kind.

We claim to target chosen individuals.  We engage in tactical killing to weaken the terror organizations.  It has changed over the sixteen years.  We began with the Taliban, switched to Al Qaeda, and killed their leader Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, ostensibly a country allied with us.  We did all that, concentrating on Afghanistan first, the Iraq, and then the battle changed.  ISIS became the organization we now target, Syria and parts of Eastern Iraq the principal battlefield.  Names of new leaders emerge, but we cannot keep them straight.  We have few if any journalists on the ground and the military releases little information.  Occasionally there is an article like the one above.  Not often.

America does its killing outside our borders primarily with drones.  Pilotless aircraft controlled by remote operators and armed with cameras and missiles, swoop in, eliminate their target, and fly away.  We, America and countries allied with us, do use manned aircraft occasionally but our preference is to minimize or eliminate the possibility of casualties.  And so we use drones. 

Can you imagine anything more terrifying than to learn of, or worse yet watch, the killing of a family member in the country where you live by a flying machine operated by a country thousands and thousands of miles away?  We are haunted by the possibility of terrorism.  I think of how those drones must haunt our enemies.  I think what it would be like to be attacked by one.  I would be such an easy target.

They would fly over my house plotting the attack.  It wouldn’t take them long.  Imagine the report being discussed by those planning and ultimately authorizing my death.  I don’t know why anyone would kill me these days, unless they violently disagreed with a blog.  Maybe years ago but not now.  However in the unlikely event I was a target, the conversation would go like this.

“OK, what do we know about this McClure guy.”

“He’s retired and pretty predictable.  Every morning around dawn he walks from his back door, across the patio, and into a little shack in the back.”

“Is it open?”

“There are a lot of trees.  You could best take him out close to the house, but there’s a narrow window.  Did you look at the pictures I sent you?”

“Yeah, I got them up on the screen.  How about the front of his house, the street side there?”

“He’s not there much.  On Wednesday morning he takes out the trash, but sometimes it’s his wife.  It will be like that till lawn mowing season.”

“He’s got a mailbox across the road.  You telling me he never picks up the mail?”

“Yeah, from inside his car.  Pulls up and reaches out the window.   Lazy bastard.”

“How about away from his home?”

“I’m telling you, he drives everywhere.”

“So?  We could take out his car.”

“Yeah, well that could be messy.”

“OK, where does he go when he leaves?”

“He goes to the YMCA.  Building downtown near where the two rivers meet.  Pulls in the parking lot about 10:35 on Tuesday and Thursdays mornings, about noon on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Not always though.  Somewhat erratic.”

“So how about there?”

“Lots of cars in the parking lot.  Mom’s putting kids in car seats.  It’s open. But there’s a good possibility of collateral damage.”

“Anywhere else?”

“Hardly.  He goes to a church on Wednesday night and Sunday morning but parks close and ducks in quick.  Same way at the liquor store.  Always the same one.”

“Doesn’t this guy ever walk anywhere?”

“Not much.  He’s got a limp.  That must be why he’s at the Y so much.  He’s not getting any exercise walking.  The most he walks is from one end of the Kroger parking lot into the store on a busy day.”

“Where’s that?”

“Just across those two ravines east of his house.  See the big building south of the main drag by the interstate?”

“Oh Christ, that’s no good.  Look.  We have to make some choices here.  How about we just take out that whole shack?  How big is it anyway?”

“Just shy of 12 by 12.  A little under 144 square feet.”

“What’s it made of?” 

“Wood.  His shack is made of wood,  he burns wood, there’s wood stacked outside.  The guy is surrounded by wood.”

“Is there anyone else in there with him?”

“We’re not sure but we don’t think so.  I mean, it’s so small.  Who else is going to stay in there all day?”

“Wait.  Did you say he burns wood in there?”

“Yeah.  We see smoke soon after he enters.  Appears to be heated with a little wood stove.  Look at that third photo.  See that skinny chimney coming out the roof?  In the winter he burns wood all day.”

“I see it.  Yeah, that’s perfect.  We can use one of the old heat seeking missiles.  Let it loose and it will go straight down his stove pipe.  He’ll be blown to bits.  Mission accomplished.  Big fire.  No problem.”

See how it might go if we were hunted by a foreign government as we hunt others?  Surveillance, then data, after which a plan forms, the order is given, the plan is carried out.  Cold calculated killing.  Their killers crudely confront us and yell slogans before killing us and nearly always dying themselves.  American killers calculate coordinates and guide soulless machines that swoop in, kill, and disappear.  Same result however you cut it.  Death.  They kill us.  We kill them.  And so it goes.

During the reign of George W, I used to print and post information on my office door regarding the number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq because it seemed so seldom reported and repeated.   Do you know those numbers?  They are at best estimates.  One with some credibility is the Iraqi Body Count project, which collated deaths reported in newspapers.  They counted 174,000 Iraqi deaths between 2003 and 2013 with 112,000-123,000 being civilian noncombatants.  That was count the count four years ago.  The number continues to grow.

In Afghanistan, beginning in 2001 with the “shock and awe” U.S. air campaign, through 2014 the number of Afghanis killed by foreign military commands number 91,000 which includes 26,000 civilian deaths.  This does not include deaths which occurred in Pakistan, nor does it take into account the high casualties suffered by the Afghan people in their war against the Soviets in the 1980’s.

Hope springs eternal in the American soul.  I hoped that Barack Obama would chart a course for us to end the killing on both sides.  It didn’t happen.  In the recent election I saw neither major party emphasize a desire, much less a plan, for peace.  We continue to advocate for an increased more well equipped military.  Somehow I am not comforted by a military three times bigger than any other in the world.  I’m sorry, but I don’t believe it has kept us safe so far, nor do I think a bigger military will keep us safer in the future. 

Terror in our country strikes fear and influences our behavior.  Some believe the shootings in San Bernardino, which killed 14 Americans and was attributed to a homegrown American born extremist and his foreign born wife, may have been one of the factors that tipped the election far away and months later in the Midwest, where the margin of victory in key rust belt states was so slim.  It most certainly prompted the famous campaign promise, then openly called a ban on Muslims entering the country “until we find out what the hell is going on”, which has manifested itself in the fiasco executive order now on its way to our supreme court.

Emotions run high.  They kill us.  We kill them.  We ban them.  Our leaders now pledge to “wipe them off the face of the planet.”  I don’t think that is a winning strategy.  It’s been sixteen years.  We need a way out.  Killing hasn’t work.  We kill them.  They kill us.  Neither side is innocent.  We need a change.

Friday, February 3, 2017

A Visit from Basil Hayden on Groundhog's Day

My friend Basil Hayden unexpectedly showed up at my door on Groundhog’s Day.  He’s looking good.  Prosperous.  I haven’t seen him since college.  He comes from Kentucky, was in Chicago on business, and stopped by to pay me a visit on his way home. 

Basil has quite a history.  In college we knew him as Evan Williams.  He’s all different from those days.  Dropped out for years, emerged with a new name, and still won’t tell us where he was or what he was doing during his disappearance.  The new Evan changed his look, the way he dresses, everything about himself.  He’s changed completely.  Well, at least in appearance.  I like to think he’s the same guy I’ve always known.

Evan was full of stories, and used to tell them to us late at night in those cheap apartments in Normal back in the early seventies.  To hear Evan tell it, he was hillbilly through and through.  How he got to ISU was something of a mystery because his family, spread out all over the country now, was a tight down home clan from humble roots in the hills of Kentucky.  Outlaw roots even.  We had turned the stereo off and were having whiskey in the downstairs apartment on Glenn Avenue when Basil, Evan then, told this tale:

My old grand dad, Pappy Van Winkle was hunting wild turkey in the woods where Knob Creek and Rowan’s Creek meet before flowing through Noah’s Mill and on down to the Ohio River.  He was slipping through the woods on a slender path that legend had it was a buffalo trace, an old path the Indians used to follow in the early times.  He had an old rifle that held but a single bulleit (sic), which meant Pappy had to make a sure hit good and solid with his first shot.  You couldn’t just go gallivantin’ around shooting any old crow when you please.  Turkey hunting was serious business. 

Past the mill was an old cabin still up on heaven hill where the Blantons used to live.  Two families by the name of Booker and Baker still lived on places down below in the hollow.  They’d watch for out for each other, all those families, and if someone strange wandered through the woods they’d let out a rebel yell, grab their guns, and head out to their stills hidden deep in the woods to scare off the revenuers, the federal agents determined to break up their way of life.  Selling moonshine was pert near the only way to make a living in those hills but it was prohibition and making whiskey was against the law.  When Basil’s old grand dad got to that abandoned Blanton cabin he stopped for a moment and looked around.  Four roses bloomed near the doorway, and in the woodshed chunks of firewood were stacked ten high.  Seemed odd, fresh firewood stacked by an old cabin, but he didn’t pay it no mind.  He sat on a stump and was having a chew of tobacco when damned if someone didn’t come around the corner of the barn.  Pappy grabbed his gun and the old man threw his hands in the air.

“Don’t shoot Pappy it’s me, Ezra Brooks, your damned cousin!”

Seemed like everyone claimed to be Pappy’s cousin but upon closer inspection it was Ezra Brooks all right.  Pappy hadn’t seen Ezra since he’d presided over a wedding between his 15 year daughter and I.W. Harper.  I.W. wasn’t at all convinced he wanted to marry the semi beautiful and pregnant Miss Brooks but Ezra persuaded him it was the right course of action with a loaded ten gauge double barrel shotgun.  The reception went quite well. Ezra broke out his secret stash of fruit jars filled with moonshine and in the end a good time was had by all.  Ezra was a cooper, a barrel maker by trade, but he made whiskey on the side, like most of those hillbillies.

“What the hell you doin’ down here Ezra?”

 Ezra looked over his right shoulder, then his left before answering. 

“You promise you won’t tell nobody?”

“Who ma gonna tell that don’t have their own secrets down here Ezra?  You know me.  We’re kin.  You can trust me.”

“I’m working on a project for Jim Beam.”

“Jim Beam?  I thought the guvmint threw his ass in jail for running whiskey to Chicago.”

“They did but his lawyers got him out.  See Jim did so good running shine that he got money ahead and now he’s laying low with a plan.  He’s got it in his head they’re gonna repeal prohibition and when they do us Kentucky folks that know how to make whiskey are going to make a shitload of money.  And it’s gonna be LEGAL!”  Legal money for whiskey.  Government approved.  Sold in stores.  Can you imagine?”

Pappy Van Winkle thought he had landed in heaven.  Suddenly the future looked bright.

“So what’s this project Jim’s got you workin’ on?”

“Jim’s got me and some other folk making white dog and instead of sellin it we’re puttin’ it in oak barrels for the future.”

“The future?”

That went against all common sense.  The men that made moonshine in the woods put it straight into mason jars and sold it on the sly on Friday nights at the barn dances. With the money they made they bought another big bag of sugar, gave the rest of the money to their family, and went back in the woods to make another batch.  They couldn’t go putting money away for the future.

“Yeah the future, where whiskey is legal.  If people start payin good money for whiskey they’re gonna want better stuff.  The plan is to go back to keepin’ it in oak barrels for four years before selling it.  Or more”

“Four years or more?  That’s crazy talk.”

“Yeah, four years.  And get this. They got this idea that in some of those barrels, they’re gonna not blend all the whiskeys together but keep the batches separate and sell them as something different under different names.  Say you can charge more that way.  They call that the small batch business.  And what do you think of this?  Some guy been talking to Jim bout how to make the taste sweeter, and now they’re fooling around with burning the inside of the barrel afore they put the whiskey in.  Even switching it to a new barrel halfway through, burning it, and doing it all again.”

 “Burning the barrel?  What the hell?  Did Jim go crazy in prison?”

“No.  But he’s talking to people from outside the hills. They got him convinced this is all gonna work.  They’re telling him instead of selling just one kind of whiskey he should make up all kinda fancy names and sell it all kind of ways.  Says the right name gives what you’re sellin’ character.  And if people are convinced it’s got character, they pay more.”

“Different names?  What kind of names?”

“To hear Jim tell it any old names.  Names of your relatives, names of places around the stills, anything that sounds like Kentucky.”

“They really think people are going to pay more for Kentucky whiskey?  Hell it all comes from the same damn place. Same water run through the same limestone, same barley, same corn.  What kind of fool would pay more for whiskey on account of a name?”

“I don’t know but Jim Beam, he’s all set.  And I’m making barrels for him hand over fist.  We’re stashin’ them in the old limestone barns up by Versailles on the western reserve.  The stone buildings Elijah Pepper built.  He was bought out by those businessmen men, Labrot and Graham.  Been closed down since forever.  You should smell the inside of those barns.  It’s whiskey heaven in there.  I tell you the angels may get their share as that whiskey evaporates but when they taste this whiskey, hoo boy, will the angels envy THAT stuff.”

Pappy Van Winkle could hardly take it all in, according to Basil.  Well, back then he was Evan.  There on Glenn Avenue in Normal, Evan poured us another glass of fairly cheap brown alcohol. 

“And that’s the story of the Kentucky whiskey business.”

We weren’t sure it was all true.  But we were fascinated anyway.

Some forty five years later I took Basil back to show him the shack.  He was carrying a smart leather satchel.  I don’t think Evan, or Basil, even graduated from ISU.  He took some chemistry and ag classes and left.  And like I said, where he went no one knew.  A girl he used to date claimed she got a letter from him that came from an island off Scotland, but that was never confirmed.  She may well have high at the time.  That wouldn’t have been unusual, for her or for us.

“I see you got a bottle of Knob Creek there.  You like it?”

“I do.  But actually Evan, I mean Basil, I like them all.”

“Yeah but when’s the last time you bought a bottle of Evan Williams?”

“Uh….”  I hesitated. 

“I thought so.  Why aren’t you buying the cheap stuff like we used to?”

“I don’t really know.  The taste I guess.  But then, maybe it’s the marketing.”
“Here, try this.”

From that fine leather bag he pulled a tall round bottle of clear brown whiskey.

I held it up to the light and read the label:

Artfully aged

Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

When Basil Hayden Sr. began distilling his smooth Bourbon here in 1796, Kentucky was but four years old and George Washington was President.  Today we make Basil Hayden’s Whiskey using the same skill and care that made it a favorite among America’s frontier settlers.

(And on the back)

Artfully aged in Kentucky hillside rackhouses then bottled at a smooth 80 proof, Basil Hayden’s sophisticated taste remains true to the old FAMILY RECIPE.  With more rye than a traditional bourbon and its trademark spicy finish, it’s easy to enjoy Basil Hayden’s any way you like.

I put the bottle back on my desk. 

“Evan.  I hate to say it, but that story on the label is bullshit.”

“Oh yeah?  Taste it.  And by the way, the name is Basil.”

I poured a glass for both me and my guest.  It had a nice nose.  I took a sip.  Smooth.

“How much does this stuff go for Basil?”

“$40 and some change at most liquor stores.”

“Damn.  That’s a lot.”  I took another sip.  It was better than the last.

“You like it don’t you?  You’ll probably like it better than your Knob Creek, which goes for $30 something.  Am I right?”

“I’m not ready to say.”

“In fact I count on guys like you liking it.  You’re our market.”

“Basil this stuff wasn’t made when George Washington was President, there wasn’t any damned rye in it back then, and if anything made in Kentucky 200 years ago was as low as 80 proof I’ll kiss your sour mash.”

“Pretty hard to prove our story isn't true.  People have tried without success.  The lawyers tell us we’re in the clear.   Besides, that story works well for us.  Our people spent a lot of time writing it.  Surveys tell us it’s a brand asset.”

I took another sip.  So did Evan.  Basil.

“So how does the future look for you and your “product” Evan.”

“It’s Basil.  As we see it, the future couldn’t be brighter.  Kentucky whiskey has come a long way from President Washington to President Trump.  You know why guys like you drink whiskey McClure?  They drink it to relax, forget their worries, and loosen up.  All of which is needed now more than ever.  I’d say the next four years are going to be fantastic.  We may go from being a luxury to being thought of as damn near a necessity.”

Evan reached for his bag and began buttoning his coat.

“Leaving so soon?”

“Yes, I was in the neighborhood and mostly stopped in to acquaint you with the product.  Heard you were a bourbon drinker.  It was a business call actually.  I’m a pretty busy guy.”

“You heard I was a bourbon drinker?  How’d you find that out?”

“Data mining.”

He turned towards the door, then paused.

“You were an English major weren’t you?  Always wanted to write?  That appears to be what you’re up to out here.  How’s it going for you?  Sold anything?”

“Not yet.” 

Basil smiled.  “Well don’t work too hard.”

“Walk you back to your car?”

‘’Not necessary.  Take care.”

Evan, Basil, whoever he was, was halfway out the door when he turned and said

“Cute place you have here McClure.  Cozy.”
And with that my old friend was gone.  Or was he?  He left his bottle behind.  Which is good.  After all, the groundhog told us this morning we’re in for six more weeks of winter, and unless we get terribly lucky, we have to prepare for four more years of Trump.  I may need to resupply.