Homeward bound

Approaching on the Thruway from the East, a sign greets traffic whizzing through the chilly drizzle -- "Buffalo: An All-American City."

My hometown of Amherst is a bucolic suburb northeast of the city. Amherst is comfortably middle class, with 88 percent of its 116,000 residents describing themselves as white. For six of the past seven years, Amherst was designated as the nation's safest city in City Crime Rankings. It's a nice place to live and a great place to eat.

Incorporated in 1818, the town is named after Lord Jeffrey Amherst, America's first bioterrorist.

In one portrait, Amherst stands beneath a dark and foreboding sky, gazing moodily toward the west, daydreaming of conquest and genocide:

Commander-in-chief of British forces in North America during the French and Indian War, Amherst held the country's indigenous people in contempt. Amherst believed that the best way to control Indians was with strict regulation and punishment rather than "bribery" with provisions. In a letter, Amherst wrote
...it would be happy for the Provinces there was not an Indian settlement within a thousand Miles of them, and when they are properly punished, I care not how soon they move their Habitations, for the Inhabitants of the Woods are the fittest Companions for them, they being more nearly allied to the Brute than to the Human Creation.

In the summer of 1763, with weapons and gunpowder provided by disgruntled French insurgents, Indians staged an assault that overtook four forts in what became known as Pontiac's Rebellion. Amherst was so infuriated that he directed a colonel under his command "to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race."

Delaware Indians were invited to a peace-making meeting at Fort Pitt on the Pennsylvania frontier. Smallpox had broken out at the fort. "Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox among those disaffected tribes of Indians," Amherst asked the colonel. "We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them."

Amherst ordered that two blankets and a handkerchief from smallpox victims in the fort's infirmary be given to the Indians as a gesture of goodwill. By the spring of 1764, smallpox was raging among the Indians.

My hometown.

Jeffrey Amherst and Smallpox Blankets
Morgan Quinto Awards
Town of Amherst, New York
PBS's History of Biowarfare
Lord Amherst Motor Hotel



What I want to know is, if airliner seat cushions are such great floatation devices, how come you never see anybody take one to the beach?


Under the gun

Last spring I took the family to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Bethesda, located beneath the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology on the grounds of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Built to withstand a nuclear blast, AFIP is a windowless building with massive vault-like doors.

The medical museum has been a perennial DC favorite for generations, where you can see pieces of Abraham Lincoln's skull and James Garfield's spine, the pickled leg of an elephantiasis victim, conjoined twins and ancephalic babies floating in formaldehyde, and all sorts of morbid curiosities.

They don't have Dillinger's penis. That's folklore.

Back to our visit. It was a beautiful mild day when we pulled up to the Georgia Avenue gate. Walter Reed is a medical center, but it is also a miltary base. The medical museum is open to the public. Like much of DC, Walter Reed is sporting new security measures -- tire spikes and bollards, large concrete planters, two armed military police at the gatehouse.

One soldier approached the driver's window and requested my license. Another soldier stood several feet in front of the car, on the passenger side, with his assault rifle leveled at us. I handed my license over to a young guy who until a few weeks or months earlier was probably a high school teacher in Des Moines.

I eyed the second soldier uneasily as he kept his weapon trained on us while my name or the license plate was run through a computerized database. This did not sit well with me. You don't point a weapon at somebody unless you intend to shoot.

How threatening could we be -- an ordinary couple with two teenage children? Was it necessary to have the weapon raised and aimed? Several uncomfortable minutes elapsed. I wanted to say, "Ferchristsake please lower the fucking weapon. This is my family, my kids."

But I didn't. Another indignity tolerated. Took my license as we were cleared to proceed to the parking lot, and visited the medical museum beneath the bomb-proof building.

It was cool.


Criminal mischief

Those of us who work in the District of Columbia are accustomed to armed officers of various agencies greeting the commuter trains and mingling on the subway platforms, chem-bio sensors in the stations, surface-to-air missles on the Mall, black vans with darkened windows parked at street corners with the motor running. It becomes habitual to keep moving along, don't let your eyes linger.

Every day we are vividly reminded of the risks we face doing our daily routines. You're taking your life in your hands just going to work. It isn't the terrorists I worry about so much as public transit agencies. I'm convinced they're out to get us.

Weeks ago, 20 Metro passengers were injured when one subway car violently kissed another. At my station, a 400 square foot chunk of ceiling collapsed during the start of rush hour. I've lost track of the number of people injured or maimed by the Metro's escalators, which are more often than not kept out of service as a public health measure.

This is the Metro system of the nation's capital, where they know how to help commuters deal with a crumbling infrastructure. They arrest you.

They'll arrest you for talking too loudly on your cell phone at an outdoors station, even if you're pregnant, and they'll arrest you for chewing the last bite of your candy bar. In 2000, Metro cops handcuffed a 12-year-old girl for eating a french fry.

I worry about slurping coffee puddling on the lid, wonder whether the act of putting gum in my mouth will attact law enforcement scrutiny.

Not long ago, a wheelchair-bound commuter with cerebral palsy cursed when he was unable to find a working elevator to exit the subway system. Metro cops gave him a ticket.

Your government, at your service.


Prelude to tomorrow

I'm a skeptic who holds no currency in quackery or new age nonsense. So it was really just an amusing curiosity when I began hearing about John Titor a couple of years ago.

Titor is either elaborate hoax or a soldier from 2036 sent back in time to correct an error in Unix that eventually causes a Y2K-like crisis. Titor showed up in some discussion forums in November, 2000, and over a five-month period of time said some provocative things about what supposedly lay ahead.

According to Titor, civil war begins festering in the U.S. in 2004-2005, leading to an escalation in 2008 that ultimately results in nuclear war.

"You will be forced to ask yourself how many civil rights you will give up to feel safe," Titor allegedly wrote nearly a year before 9/11. "The conflict was not about taking and holding ground it was about order and rights. They were betting that people wanted security instead of freedom and they were wrong."

For details about Titor and discussion about his hoax/prophesies, look here and here.

Of course it's all baloney.

Isn't it?


Bad dog

My dog has eaten a pair of shoes, two pair of sandals, three remote controls, a kazoo, my cell phone (the third time was the charm), five ink pens, and a wallet. Yesterday she ate Silly Putty. I wonder if her poop will bounce.


Responding in kind

The tone of public discourse has been set.

Months before the election, ever since Dick Cheney's foul-mouthed outburst, I decided to stand in front of the White House on election night holding up a sign bearing a few choice words of my own -- "Bush/Cheney: Go Fuck Yourselves."

The plan was to walk over to the White House, maybe four blocks away from my workplace, after polls closed at 7:00. I'd stand in Lafayette Park across Pennsylvania Avenue, a place known for dissent, protest and free expression.

I'd follow the rules -- holding poster board and not a prohibited stick, keep moving so I'm not blocking a sidewalk, and following any reasonable demand of law enforcement officers.

Family and friends advised against it. My mother and older brother were certain I'd be arrested, charged with disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace. Expect to spend a night in jail with a couple hundred of your best friends, my brother told me. The cops will use some sort of Catch 22 to arrest you, he said, like telling you to get rid of the poster board and then charging you with littering when you try to put it in the trash bin. There are no trash bins in front of the White House, I told him. Well, there you go, he said.

My sweetie insisted that you can't say "fuck" in public. It isn't a word you see in the newspaper, she said. The Washington Post used the word when reporting on Cheney's exchange with Patrick Leahy, I replied. You're not the Washington Post, she said.

That much is true. I'm not the Washington Post. I'm a citizen, and last I checked there are still a few shreds of the 1st Amendment remaining. I've been subjected to some of the sleaziest, most devious, hateful and invidious politics in memory, and I have something to say in reponse -- "Bush/Cheney: Go Fuck Yourselves." It's something I have to get off my chest.

On election night, a few people mingled in Lafayette Park with uniformed Secret Service officers. Tourists snapped photos in front of that familiar edifice. It was a scene much like any day, perhaps with more foot traffic than usual at this late hour.

I held up my sign, designed with one tactical compromise. Rather than use poster board, which seemed inclined to invite law enforcement attention, I wrote my message on a Post-It note.

It was the message that mattered, not whether its intended recipients read it. I never expected Bush or Cheney to walk out on the White House lawn to read my sign. It was something that had to be said, and I said it.

I feel better.