Monday, April 30, 2012

THE COG TRAIN

This past weekend Vivian and I drove past a large railroad yard and passed a train, powered by some huge diesel engines, that must have been almost mile long. It brought to my mind a pleasant memory from my past. I hope it will also bring you some enjoyable moments. 

THE COG TRAIN

Somewhere in Northern India, where the hot, dusty plains rise steeply toward the heavens to form the Himalayan Mountains, there was an old, steam powered and narrow gauged train.  It was not like most trains, which run with their smooth iron wheels on smooth steel tracks.  With typical trains, because of their immense weight and the generally gradual grades of the rail lines, there is usually more than adequate traction for running the trains on the rails.
However, on these steep Himalayan mountain gradients, smooth iron on smooth steel was not enough, and an extra apparatus was needed for the climb.  To the two railroad tracks, a third special track was added in the middle.  This track was for the running of the cog train.
I rode up into the Himalayas a couple of times on this train. As soon as I took my seat on the first trip, I knew that it would be an enjoyable journey. The first part of the trip was similar to all of the steam trains that I rode on in the plains, but as we began to climb higher, and as the ascent became steeper, the difference became obvious.
Soon, we came to a point on the journey where the engineer stopped the train and climbed down from the locomotive cabin.  On the side of the train engine was a long, iron lever.  Lowering the lever also lowered a special toothed cogwheel that was powered by the engine.  The engineer grabbed the lever with his leather gloved hand and, kneeling down and peering under the train, lowered the lever slightly until he saw that the cogs were engaging properly with the third track in the center of the two other rails.  Then, with a firm movement, he pulled the lever the rest of the way down into the engaged position. He then climbed back into the cabin and slowly pulled the throttle.
The old steam locomotives had their own distinctive sounds.  As the throttle was pulled, the engine would begin to breathe with deep, labored breaths.  The old locomotive pulled hard on the line of iron cars behind it.
The starting of the movement for these old steam trains was the most difficult.  Once the train was underway and there was some momentum added to the effort, the breathing came a little easier.  It would soon settle down to a more rhythmic breathing of a galloping horse and the clickity-clack, clickity-clack of the rails.
However, the task ahead for this little train was not such an easy one.  The gradient was steep and the breathing never did come lightly.  Our locomotive continued to labor and gasp.  Nor did the sound of the rails ever settle into such a rhythmical clickity-clack.  Instead, those sounds were replaced by the clanking and rubbing sounds of the gears of the cog engaging the additional track in the middle.
We climbed higher and higher.  The speed was usually about as fast as a quick walk.  For entertainment, the boys riding the train would jump out of their cars at the beginning of a hairpin turn, run across the bend and jump on again when the train came around.
What the train was providing for all of us passengers was not speed, but effort.  It carried all of our heavy supplies and gear up the mountain – and it carried us.  All that remained for us to do was to sit back and to enjoy the passing scenery of the beautiful Himalayan Mountains.
I sat by my window and tasted the acrid smell of coal smoke from the locomotive as it billowed and snorted.  Despite the scent of the smoke, the trip was far more pleasant than travel by automobile.  In an automobile, the roadside passes so quickly that it becomes a steady and blurred stream of change.  If you see an interesting or beautiful sight, you hardly have time to look.  And certainly you can not share it with anyone else in the car.  By the time the words are out of your mouth to get the others to look, the sight is gone.  The best that you can do is to say, “Do you know what I just saw?”
This ride on our mountain train was much more relaxed.  As we rounded a corner, a man working in his small, terraced field came into view.  As we approached, I watched as he shoveled the soil to allow the water to flow onto his crop.  He was growing tomatoes.  As we passed him, I watched how the terrace filled with water.  He lifted his head to watch us go by.  We served as his small diversion for the day – an excuse for him to stop his labor long enough and watch the train pass on by and up the mountain.  I decided to lift my hand to a small wave.  He smiled and waved back.
Behind him I could see the valley, which was still quite wide at this point, continue to narrow and climb up between two towering mountain ridges.  It was up into that valley that we were going.  It would take most of the day and every bit of effort for our little, narrow gauge, cog train.
The breathing of the train began to become more laboured again.  We were climbing a steep grade.  The smoke was black, as the fireman shoved the even blacker coal into what was quite a ravenous mouth for such a small train.  At the top of this grade was a town where we would stop for about a half an hour while the locomotive was replenished with coal and water.  The air was delightfully cool.  Every train station had its chai walas, selling their steaming hot glasses of Darjeeling tea.  I noticed fine grains of coal cinders floating in mine.
The journey continued much the same until the end of the line.  At every stop, the air became brisker and the towns seemed smaller.  The cheeks of the children became rosier and rosier and the tea tasted better and better.  The end of the line was my destination.  It was an old, British hill station up in the coolness of the Himalayas.  During the British rule in India, the English built quaint little hotels in many of these spots where they would escape the oppressive heat of the lowlands during their holidays.  It was for that same reason that I had made the trip.
The English were mostly gone now, although to the people of the town I was an Englishman.  “Ingles!” the children would call out to me as I walked along.  They spoke, not out of spite, but only by way of recognizing my presence.  They would often call out the first English phrase that they learned in school, “What is the time by your watch?”  I began to feel a bit like an Englishman on holiday in a hill station in Northern India.
The old cog train was an antiquated piece of machinery, but in some ways, it was very futuristic.  It performed a work of science fiction.  In its laborious journey up the mountain, it transported me back in time like an H. G. Wells’ time machine.  I retreated in time a full century to the colonial days of India.  It was not a perfect time, I know.  Nevertheless, here in the hill stations, it seems that the good things were remembered and the days of old still lived in the present.
And I – I was transported back to that time.  It was not with a whirring of electronic components and flashing of coloured lights, but it was with the clanking and clicking of iron on rail, and with a breath of steam and the scent of coal.




Thursday, April 26, 2012

WATCHING FOR THE DAY

video
This is the book trailer for my latest book. As you can see, it is about what the Bible teaches concerning the last days of the present earth. The year 2012 has long been predicted by some people to mark this end. Is this true? I am inclined to think it is not true, but I guess you will have to read the book to be sure.

Friday, April 20, 2012

CITY BOY FARMER

When Vivian and I were last in New Zealand, we were staying as guests with some friends on a farm. We loved being out in the country, and of course, that is our life here in Wisconsin. One day, our friends wanted to take us to a farm show near a town some distance away. The show was called the Agriculture and Pastoral Show (in this case, the “pastoral” referred to rural life, not training pastors of churches). The show was great; it was like one of our county fairs, but with a New Zealand flare. There was an entrance fee to the show, and as I was getting ready to pay, I asked the fellow if he accepted EFTPOS.
Now – I need to explain something here. EFTPOS is an acronym that stands for something that no one seems to know, but EFTPOS is a card that is the same as a debit card; it’s just that they say EFTPOS instead of debit card (despite the difficulty for English speakers in pronouncing the “FTP” sound). In Auckland and in any town, this is what almost everyone uses for any transaction, even for buying a cup of coffee. So, when I was going to pay at the gate of the farm show, I did not think my question was unreasonable.
However, the guy looked at me, almost surprised that I would ask such a question. “EFTPOS!” he exclaimed. “Out here in the country?? We don’t use EFTPOS here. What are you, some kind of city boy?
Oh… those words cut me deep. But they didn’t seem to cut deep into the hearts of our Kiwi friends, who roared with laughter. During the entire time that we stayed with them, they did not let me forget what the man called me. My friends would just look for the opportunity to ask me, “What are you, a city boy?” They did this whenever they thought it was appropriate, which, it turns out, was pretty often – far more often than I would have guessed. What the guy called me, I told our friends, one of the worst insults that I have ever received (there have been others, but I am also in the process of trying to forget those).

Now we are home on our farm in Wisconsin. Soon after arriving here, I bought four little calves to raise as steers. I myself grew up on a farm raising calves. I know calves. I know how to feed them and know how to take care of them. But despite what I thought was my experience, last week three of the four developed scours, which for you city people, is a type of infection accompanied with diarrhea that calves can get if you are not careful. It can cause severe dehydration and even death. I at first thought that they would get over it on their own and I started with medication too late. During the night last night, two of them died. The third, I think is going to be ok.
Well, this is all a bit sad for me, and of course, not the way one should raise calves. Despite what I thought was my farm experience, this morning the question that the ticket guy asked me does not seem so out-of-line. “What are you, some kind of city boy?”
But I have learned something as well. Despite some things that are difficult about country life, I am remembering some of the good things. One of the things that I have always loved about being raised and living in the country is that despite sometimes long distances from your neighbors, a neighbor is never really that far away. They are always ready to help if one has a need.
Thinking that I could handle this problem on my own, I asked for help too late. Of course, one does not like to be constantly badgering your neighbors for help, but you should also remember that they know what it is like to try to get medication down a scouring calf’s throat. They also have tried to get a sick calf to drink some liquid. They have experience that can help a neighbor.
So, I am a little sad this morning. But by the time I post this on the blog tonight, I will have remedied some of the things that I did wrong in providing for my new calves, and later in the summer (after Vivian and I are done with our travels to visit churches), I will look to buy a couple of more calves.
And I have learned something else. After having been away from actual farm involvement for about 20 years and living in other parts of the world, I may need to consider myself a bit of a “city boy” when I start with farm things again. I have forgotten a lot and need to re-educate myself. However, despite this act of self-examination that I am writing about in this post, I have also tried very hard to evoke some sympathy so that my Kiwi friends will stop teasing me about the city boy comment. I doubt if it will work.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

SNAKES THAT I HAVE KNOWN


 This morning I preached a message in church which included as one of the Scriptures the story when the Apostle Paul got bitten by a viper. I did not say this in the message, but it reminded me of something that I wrote several years ago about snakes with which I have had an encounter, but not bitten (thankfully).
By the way, I have also added three more letters to the Polynesian Discovery series that you see on the left side of the blog page. Sorry, but you have to scroll down to read them. I have put up to Part 8 (of 22 or 23 total)

SNAKES THAT I HAVE KNOWN

When we lived in Venezuela, I had a trail on which I took walks when I needed to get out into the country for a little while.  Occasionally, when I was out, I would see a snake on the path traveling wherever snakes go, and for whatever purpose.  Most of the snakes, I am sure, fled long before I came upon them.  Having been warned by the vibrations of my footfalls, they avoided a confrontation by disappearing before I arrived.  I was grateful to them for this.  I do not mind sharing a path with most other creatures, but I would prefer if snakes used their own trail ways.
On one walk, I came upon a Mapanare lying on the trail.  Venezuela has many notable snakes.  Most notable of all, perhaps, is the Giant Anaconda.  The Anaconda can grow to a length of fifty feet or more and have the diameter of a dinner plate.  It is a constrictor, which means its bite is not poisonous, but if it is able to get one coil of its body around a limb of an animal (or person), it quickly is able to pull it into its grasp and squeeze the life out of its prey.
However, it is the Mapanare that is Venezuela’s most deadly snake.  It is the Western Hemisphere’s largest venomous snake.  Whereas the Anaconda is content to stay mostly in the more dense jungle areas, the Mapanare is found throughout the country.  His bite is very toxic and once bitten, the prey has little chance of survival, no matter what the victim’s size.  In Venezuela, the people call it the “four step” snake, meaning that once you are bitten, you can take about four steps before you are dead.  Like any venomous snake, the Mapanare not only uses its bite for hunting, but for defense.  In addition, he is very aggressive in his personality and does not easily use the fleeing tactic to escape a dangerous situation.
Normally when I saw a snake on my intended path, I stamped my foot firmly to send the signal to this traveler that something big and dangerous is coming on the trail and that he had better move off.  Usually it worked.  The snake would generally slither off into the brush, yielding to me the right of way.  I then passed (very carefully and with no small apprehension) past the point where he had disappeared.
On that day I used the same tactic.  The Mapanare was lying in the trail, facing away from me at an angle, head up, tongue flickering and sensing my nervousness.  He was about a meter long and the end of his tail was about two meters away from me.  He never flinched at my threat.  I stamped again, harder.  Nothing.  I decided to pick up small pebbles to toss in his direction.  I must have thrown three or four in his proximity but he acted as if he did not even hear them.  He was frozen still except for that dragon-like tongue.  To raise the level of threat to this obstacle in my path, I picked up a larger pebble and tossed it, not to land close to him, but my intention this time was to hit him.  This, I thought, would send him off to another trail.
The result was not what I expected.  When the stone hit him in the back it did not send him scurrying timidly off into the grass.  The moment he was struck, every muscle in his body instantly came to life.  He did not move in the direction he was facing as I thought he would, but so quickly I that I could not believe his agility, he reeled around and lashed at me like a spring released.  I can still picture his open mouth.  I can still see his ugly fangs.
What was even more surprising to me was how fast I could still move.  It is amazing what fear mixed with adrenaline can do.  He missed, and as an admission of defeat slithered off the trail going back in the direction from where he had come.  And I, after several frozen moments of listening to my racing and pounding heart, proceeded up my path.
I have had other experiences with snakes, but that is the first time that I would say I had been attacked by one (and hopefully last time).

Once, during the time when I lived in India, I was taking a shower at a friend’s place.  I was staying in a bungalow apart from the rest of the house and the bathhouse had an outside entrance.  My host had warned me to always keep the door shut because snakes liked to crawl into the cool, humid atmosphere of the shower to escape the heat of the day.  It was for that same purpose of escaping the heat that I decided to take a shower one afternoon.
I had tuned on the shower and was just beginning to enjoy the freshness of the cool water wash off the grime and heat, when I had a strange sensation that I was not alone there in my cubicle.  I looked down at my feet and then over to the corner just in time to see a cobra raising its head and spreading its hood to me.  His tactic to claim the shower for his own was amazingly effective.  That time it was I, and not the snake, who yielded, and I yielded in a hurry.  I think that I very well may have been the first streaker in India, although I did manage to grab a towel on the way out.

Several years later, Vivian and I led a few teams of young people to do work projects for different mission works.  The training for the teams took place at a wild and rustic site in Florida.  Our living was camping conditions in the Florida lowlands (I guess it is all kind of lowland).  One day as I was in our tent, I heard the team members outside suddenly scream and get up and run, yelling “snake, snake!”  As I was coming out of our tent, I saw a coral shake crawling through the middle of our sitting area.  I suppose the correct thing to do would have been to allow it to escape because I am sure it was more frightened than were the girls.  That perhaps would have been the nice thing, but I did not want to have to go back to my tent wondering where it had gone.  Fortunately, my foot was armored with a heavy boot, the heel of which came down even heavier on the head of our unwanted guest.
The team members returned to see what had happened and immediately the inevitable discussion arose on how you can tell the difference between a very deadly coral snake and a harmless king snake.  The animated conversation between our two members from the state of Florida made me laugh.  Who was right?  Was it “black on yellow-dangerous fellow!” or “red on black-get back Jack!”?
        
This was not my only run in with the coral snake. We once had a house in Guatemala with a small garden or lawn in the back. The garden was so small that I used to cut the grass in it with a machete. On the three sides of the garden that were not bordered by the back of the house, it was bordered by cement block walls. The area was completely enclosed.

Enclosed as it was, one day as I was cutting the grass, I was suddenly surprised by a coral snake crawling toward me. I have no idea how he got into the garden and wondered if they must burrow in the ground. No matter, he was there and I did not want him there. Leaving a venomous snake alone in the wild is one thing, but within the confinement of your home is quite another.

I don’t suppose that he was really attacking me, but the fact that he was crawling toward me and not fleeing from me was enough for me. With a quick stroke of my machete I cut my little adversary in half.

However, much to my shock, even this did not end his advance! The front half, the half with the head and the fangs, continued the charge. In my imagination, that front half looked very angry with me! My machete fell again, not once, but three or four times. Finally my foe lie motionless in the newly cut grass.

An over-reaction on my part? Perhaps so, but the little fellow really seemed intent on biting me with his venomous fangs. I did not like his plans. 
 
A couple of years after that incident we were in Mexico, working at a Bible camp for a year or so.  There was a Mexican brother of Mayan descent named Valentin who worked with me.  We were clearing brush in a low area to bring an electrical line into the camp.  Valentin told me to keep my eyes open for snakes, as there were water moccasins in that area.  Well, my eyes were not trained as my Mayan friend’s were, and as we worked, I heard him suddenly say to me in a loud whisper “culebra”.  It took a little time for him to help me to see where a large water moccasin laid curled up and sleeping in a shady spot.
Again, the good thing to do may have been to let it be.  But once again, who wanted to be working and at the same time wondering if the snake was still sleeping?  And if it was not still sleeping in that spot, where was it now?  Valentin’s plan was simple but effective.  He would take a crotched stick, approach the snake, trap it and hold it down.  Once he had it, I could just come up with the machete and cut its head off.  Simple – only that Valentin did not know the gringo who was working with him did not possess the same calmness of temperament when it came to snakes as he did.  Valentin did his part silently and stealthily.  When it was my turn, I came rushing in flaying the machete around as if I was going to battle.  I am sure Valentin must have wondered if I planned to attack him or the snake.  Somewhere in there I did manage to get the snake, much to my (and Valentin’s) relief.

Snakes, I know in my mind, are our friends.  They share our environment and I am somewhat ashamed of the natural repulsion that I feel toward them.  It may be from my years of living in the tropics that I hold these negative responses to snakes.  The snakes that live in these places are so deadly and so, well…deadly.  That is the only word that comes to mind.  I did not have these same feelings at our safe home in Wisconsin, where poison is not part of a snake’s arsenal.  I hope that the snake world can forgive me for these feelings.  After all, it was not I who first began the feelings of antipathy in our relationship.

Monday, April 9, 2012

POLYNESIAN LETTERS REPRINT

Occasionally someone asks me to send to them the Polynesian Discovery letters that I began writing when Vivian and I were first to leave for the Pacific. Lately there seems to be a lot more people reading the blog, so I thought that I would just republish them all so that they will just be here to read.
They are on a new page that you can find  on the left side of ← the screen under "Here are the books I have written." I will try to get them all up here in the next few weeks.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

AN INVITATION

By Donald Rhody

Come, sit with me on the porch, my love.
Come and watch the sun in its setting.
The great Artist of the heavens above
Has His paints prepared, His canvas set,
And even now His brush is wetting.

You may hold your cat, your little pet,
On your lap as you sit beside me.
But if we both watch, we will not forget
How our great God paints the sky tonight -
And how His moods and colors agree.

If you still have some chores - that’s alright,
I’ll help you with them when we’re done.
We don’t want to miss this marvelous sight -
Let’s not even miss the first brushstroke.
Come and sit with me.  We’ll watch the sun.

Do you remember that once we spoke
How God, in His creativity,
Is still pleased to paint for just plain old folks?
Folks like us.  So come - sit with me.
The admission to this show is free.