Thursday, April 28, 2005

A Long Time Ago ... In a Country Far, Far Away ...

A strange anniversary this week, marking the end of a war ... a very different sort of anniversary, being observed in a markedly different manner from the ends of other conflicts we have celebrated.

This Saturday, April 30, will commemorate the 30th anniversary of the fall of South Vietnam's capital Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1975, ending the Vietnam War and reuniting North and South Vietnam.

Needless to say, there are all kinds of anniversary features running everywhere in the media, and that includes the blogosphere. You name it ... multi-part series, historical features and retrospectives, electronic journals from participants in that original conflict as they return to that troubled part of the world ... it's all out there right now.

Among those many, many topical features, is one produced by a member of Midland's own part of the blogosphere, Wallace at Streams. Wallace's life included a tour of duty in Vietnam during the war. But, in addition to his own insight, we are treated this week to postings from a friend of his, Joe Galloway, who spent the better part of five years in Vietnam as a journalist with UPI. You may not recognize Galloway's name, but you're probably familiar with the Mel Gibson movie, "We Were Soldiers," which was adapted from his writings. Streams this week also features a few stories about other acquaintances of Wallace's who served in Vietnam ... all-in-all, a good stop for those trying to understand that conflict, and the era which it defined.

My own recollections of that era would be a little different. I was busy graduating from high school the spring that Saigon was overrun. Me? I was looking forward to going to college in the fall. By that time, America's involvement in the Vietnam War had already been reduced to near-zero. We still registered for the draft, but most of us realized that there was less and less chance of us being called-up. If America had still been mired in Vietnam? ... I don't know. My father had already served two tours in Vietnam, and was pretty adamant that we would NOT have two generations of our family fighting there. One part of our family or another had been serving in the armed forces since the 1770s. But very few of us had gone to college. That was something my father and others of his generation were out to change.

But I was probably better-informed than most kids my age ... all of us military brats were, really. Still, though, it's a little unsettling to realize things that were a common part of our country's shared knowledge and vocabulary - even among civilians - seem to have been totally forgotten by just about everyone under the age of 40. Tonkin Gulf Resolution, Quang Tri, Hue, DMZ, Ho Chi Minh Trail, Mekong Delta, My Lai, ARVN, VC/Charlie ... what is all that stuff, anyway?

Important? Maybe. At least, if people are going to argue whether or not the Iraq War is Becoming another Vietnam War, maybe they should have a little more knowledge of one to compare to the other.

I like to think, though, that maybe we learned some things from the Vietnam era. Even those who oppose the Iraq War today, at least support the men and women sent over their to fight. A far cry from the response soldiers received in America back in the 60s and 70s ... not just the name-calling and spitting from protesters, but also the incidents where some local chapters of veterans organizations declined to welcome Vietnam vets, afraid they might have to rub elbows with some youngster strung out on dope and rock'n'roll ... who wasn't really in a war, anyway, but a 'police action' ... and who lost it, to boot. And are you old enough to remember the days when just about every police drama on television - from "Hawaii 5-Oh" to "Streets of San Francisco" - had an episode where some Vietnam vet would freak out and start killing everybody around him?

Next time, let's do better.

Monday, April 25, 2005

The Little Town That Could ...

Things are quiet now on that long stretch of remote highway stretching from Fort Stockton south to Sanderson. For the past few days, there has been thunder rolling up and down that road as the 2005 edition of the
Big Bend Open Road Race came rolling into West Texas.

Imagine anywhere from 100-200 very, VERY nice cars from across the country, most driven by people who are not professional racers, but have an enthusiasm for speed and high performance that is nothing short of passion. Then you give them an open stretch of road, cleared of all debris, closed to all other traffic, with driving conditions monitored at all times. With the flash of a green light and the wave of a starter's flag, they're off.

The BBORR is not like the open road rallies you see in old movies, like "The Love Bug." Racers start one-at-a-time, and race against a clock rather than each other. Their goal is to match as close as possible the exact time it would take to travel from Fort Stockton to Sanderson, then back, in their speed group ... from 70 miles-per-hour and up. The only exception to matching an ideal time is the Unlimited Class, who go just as fast they can, and that can be up to 200 miles-per-hour.

It's colorful, it's exciting, it's entertaining ... and it's lucrative. It means hundreds of drivers and navigators, and their families spending the better part of a week in Fort Stockton and Sanderson, filling hotel rooms and restaurants, buying lots of supplies (like gasoline!) and souvenirs, visiting attractions in town and in neighboring communities and giving the local economy a generous annual boost.

And it almost didn't happen ...

I was Editor of the
Fort Stockton Pioneer when an open road race - the first outside the State of Nevada - was first proposed for West Texas. The race was originally proposed for Brewster County, and would run between Alpine and Study Butte. Our sister paper, the Alpine Avalanche kept us apprised of the details on that developing story ... though that development did take an unexpected turn.

What emerged from a series of public meetings was a feud between the northern and southern sections of Brewster County. The north (Alpine) generally loved the idea, while the south (Study Butte) generally hated it. They raised just about every objection one could think of ... and even some new ones ... the roar of car engines would destroy the serenity of their Big Bend lifestyle; somebody would sneak through the barricades and get run over; bingo players wouldn't be able to get to their weekly game as easily or as quickly if the highway were closed; the fumes from all that high-performance traffic would threaten rare and endangered plant species.

It got pretty heated over the weeks, and race organizers finally decided to forget the whole thing and stay in Nevada. "You don't deserve this race," one local supporter told part of the room at one meeting. "I'm glad I don't have to give up my bingo," one opponent crowed after the proposal was withdrawn.

It might have ended there if it hadn't been for a community that ranks, in my opinion, as the greatest concentration of over-achievers in the State of Texas ... Fort Stockton and Pecos County. Where Brewster County saw only a threat to some guy's bingo game, one weekend out of the year. Pecos County and its neighbor, Terrell County, saw an opportunity that would pay dividends all year long.

They went to the old Roger Ward organization that originally staged the event and proposed moving the race eastward to U.S. Highway 285 between their county seats of Fort Stockton and Sanderson. And while they tried to get the race organizers on board, they were already reaching out to the affected communities, asking questions, listening to answers, identifying problems and developing solutions.

And there were some problems, at first. Perhaps the most significant came from the Fort Stockton Ministerial Alliance, which applauded the idea, but asked that organizers give thoughtful, prayerful consideration to moving the race from Sunday, to Saturday. Without hesitation, organizers made the change.

In the meantime, ranchers planned ahead to prepare for the date when their roads connecting with the highway would be closed off for the better part of the day. Oil and gas companies re-arranged their work schedules so that field crews would be able to change shifts, come in or go out before or after the race. Notices to truckers went out months is advance so they could adjust their routes/schedules accordingly.

And it worked.

In the ensuing years, the event - now the Big Bend Open Road Race - has grown in popularity, offering a combination of open straightaways and challenging curves and climbs (in the 'Big Canyon' area) that have made it a favorite with open road race enthusiasts. It's not been without accidents, and there was even a fatality one year, when a driver walked away from a crash, finally yielded to paramedics' insistence that he go to the hospital for a checkup, and later died.

The success of the event even inspired people in Midland County to try one of their own, working in cooperation with Upton County. Unfortunately, the inaugural event was also the final event. Whatever lesson might have been learned from Fort Stockton's success, it apparently did not include taking a good idea and running with it, not just in a sprint but for the long distance.

I would like to acknowledge as many people as I can remember who were the movers-and-shakers in the effort to bring open road racing to West Texas. At the county level, there was Pecos County Judge Fredie Capers and Terrell County Judge Dudley Harrison. At the city level there was Fort Stockton Mayor Joe Shuster and City Manager 'Chuy' Garcia (Sanderson is not an incorporated community, and is governed by the county). The Texas Department of Transportation was a BIG factor in getting the permits for the race, and getting the highway closed, and that included Eddie Munoz from the local office in Fort Stockton, and Glen Larum and other members of the staff at the Odessa district office. The Powers family of Alpine were among the most ardent supporters at the private level.

But if I had to pick one person most responsible for coordinating these efforts, for getting the race established upon a firm foundation from which it could grow and develop in the future, it would be Genora Young, the City of Fort Stockton's Tourism Director at the time.

And it will grow. While the Midland/Rankin race has apparently run out of gas, BBORR organizers have announced a second annual event, October 5th - 8th, racing on U.S. Highway 385 from Fort Stockton to Marathon and back.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

An Extraordinary Man Visits the Tall City ...

NOTE: This has been sitting in the "Draft" folder for nearly a week. It was time to knuckle-down, finish the post, and publish the dog-gone thing.


The latest installment of the Davidson Lecture Series at Midland College was an especially important one for me. The speaker was Richard Leakey ... writer, politician, environmentalist, advocate and - most significant for me - paleontologist.

It was the work of Richard Leakey and his family, among others, that inspired me to study anthropology in school, then pursue my own career as an archaeologist through the mid-80s. And while the foci of our work was different, we shared a desire to better understand humanity and its development through the study of its remains ... and the remains of those who paused at one point or another along the evolving path that led to homo sapiens sapiens.

It isn't often one gets a chance to meet an inspiration ....

While he's best known for his work in paleontology, Leakey is also accomplished in many other areas ... an environmentalist and ecologist seeking a reasonable balance in an unreasonable world, for example, and a government reformer in a land where bullets are as much a part of the political process as ballots. He is the author of over 100 books and articles on a variety of topics.

He is also an accomplished speaker ... that would have been apparent in any context. But it was especially obvious as it came on the heels of two brief - and pretty lame - presentations by Midland College officials, one of whom was pleased to introduce Richard "Lively."

Leakey's presentation, delivered in an easy manner that reflected his African colonial origins, was both entertaining and informative, and was often highlighted by sparks of humor - some of which he directed towards himself. One of my favorites was his answer to a question about whether or not there might still be some Neanderthals among us. Another was his recollection of a prosthetic leg (he lost both his legs in a plane crash) breaking on him in the middle of a busy London street.

Perhaps the greatest attribute of his presentation was its calm, and reasonable delivery. I realize that many of you have a pre-conceived notion, a wild-eyed, ranting stereotype that comes to mind when you think 'environmentalist,' or 'evolutionist.' Yet, here was someone who could come to Midland, Texas, and speak about global warming, wildlife preservation and evolution ... and we listened. I wonder if one of the greatest obstacles to discussion of topics such as these is that we leave the extremists on both sides of the issue to engage in the debate ... and all this accomplishes is increased polarization that makes accommodation and resolution difficult, if not downright impossible.

All in all, it was a great evening, and I am grateful to the supporters of the Davidson Lecture Series for making it possible.

Monday, April 18, 2005

A Learning Environment ...

According to a story that came over the AP Wire earlier today, students at the University of New Mexico are learning about the relationship between the government and the media on campus, and how that relationship might be developed once they get their degrees and head out into the real world.

full story - for now, at least - is available on the Albuquerque Journal's website. According to a story posted there, "high parliamentary drama unfolded at the University of New Mexico as student senators subpoenaed the editor of the campus newspaper, who refused the summons Friday. Marisa Demarco, editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo, replied: no way - she won't appear for questioning before the student Senate."

According to the article Justin Crosby, vice president of the Associated Students of UNM, the student government, said senators want to quiz Demarco about issues such as how editors decide which student events to cover and where articles are placed in the paper.

For her part, Demarco responded in an editorial that the subpoena is an unprecedented attempt to involve student government in the operations of UNM's student newspaper. She also pointed out that all members of the UNM community have equal access to the editorial staff of the Lobo, and that concerned students, staff members, faculty members or other readers can make appointments any time.

She's right, you know. And as a former contributing writer to the UNM Daily Lobo, I've e-mailed her to voice my support - for what it's worth - for her stance.

Writing for the school paper, and perhaps preparing for a career in journalism, is not confined entirely to learning the AP Style Manual, and the fundamental rules for reporting, photography and production. It also involves learning about the role of the media in society at-large, and the all-too-common attempts by governing bodies to define that role to their greatest advantage.

The journal article goes on to say Demarco received the subpoena one day after the Lobo published an editorial critical of student Senate candidates. That editorial, "Irrelevant agendas sap interest in ASUNM," questioned the relevance of issues raised in a recent student government election.

Coincidence? Maybe ... or, maybe not. Ask ten people, and you're likely to get eleven different opinions on that question.

As for Ms. Demarco and her staff, my advice is to remember they are in college ... a learning environment, so take good notes. Because what you're learning, today, in the student world, will help greatly, tomorrow, in the real world ... and that's not just helping you, the individual pursuing the trade of a journalist, but the community as a whole that will rely upon you and your product.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Future ... Just Down the Road, Maybe? ...

Next week, makers - and lovers - of independent film will be converging upon the Permian Basin for the 2005 edition of the Desert Reel Film Festival. In addition to the website link (above), you can also go to the Odessa-based blog, Bull Durham's Hot Corner, for more information about film screenings, workshops, panel discussions, visiting filmmakers and more.

This is just the second year for the festival, but it's already attracting lots of attention. It's still a small festival ... but so was Austin's South by Southwest Festival, once upon a time. And some of us are old enough to remember when the Sundance Festival was just a quaint little eccentricity up in Utah.

Speaking of SxSW, a recent report on NewsWest 9 featured an interview with Midland filmmaker Rick Owens, whose "Mind's Eye" will be among the features screened at Desert Reel this year. Among other things, Owens discussed how his experience at SxSW (including a meeting with Robert Rodriguez) led to his own decision to get into filmmaking. Owens also expressed his hope that Desert Reel will inspire others, that the Basin's own film festival can have the same impact on future filmmakers.

If an exhibit in Odessa is any indicator, there may some fertile ground for sowing that inspiration. It's in the Cardozier Gallery, in the Visual Arts Studios on the University of Texas of the Permian Basin campus, and it's the entries in this year's Rio Grande Computer Animation Competition & Festival. The festival itself is over with, but you can still see and hear the entries in a special screening room in the gallery.

According to this festival's website, "this regional competition invites entries from secondary and college students in Texas, New Mexico, Chihuahua, and Coahuila to compete in the Secondary School, Community College, or Open Divisions. Categories for the competition include narrative stories, design or commercial shorts and experimental animations."

Some works are those of individuals, while others are team efforts. Some document a view of history, while others explore one realm of fantasy or another. Each, in its own unique way, is the result of someone with a story to tell, a view to offer, an alternative to suggest ... and the technical ability to bring all that to some semblance of life in a compelling manner.

Along the way, they are developing the skills that could someday serve in film production. The future of filmmaking being explored at Desert Reel? One view of that future may very well be just down the road. I would recommend a stop at UTPB, on your way to Desert Reel activities in Odessa next week.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Keep It the Same ... Just Different ...

Eric at Fire Ant Gazette, one of the 'renaissance men' of the Tall City blogosphere recently posted on another of the many topics upon which he dwells with more than the usual level of insight ... popular films. He had just finished seeing 'Sahara,' and was sharing his impressions with us, as well as a cyber-thumb-up for the film itself.

BTW, the nature of Eric's work allows him to take off early in the afternoons on weekdays, and attend the discounted matinees ... which leaves him extra money for popcorn, the lucky son-of-a-gun!

Anyway, in the exchange of comments following Eric's original post, a number of us were looking forward to a pair of films coming out later this year, each based upon a well-known book - The War of the Worlds, and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

I honestly don't know if I'm looking forward to the movies or not. I'm a great fan of both H.G. Wells and Douglas Adams, and both of the works listed above are permanent fixtures on my bookshelf. But what might Hollywood do with a pair of stories that have been favorites of mine for such a loooong time?

If the trailers and images on the WOTW official website are any indicator,
Spielberg's 2005 film will draw inspiration and direction from Byron Haskins' 1953 film, as it does from Wells' 1898 book. One significant point ... in the new film, will the Martians be absolutely unbeatable by anything 'Man' can bring to bear upon them? In the 1953 film, they were completely impervious to even an atomic bomb. This was a significant point of deviation from the novel, where the British armed forces scored small, isolated victories over the Martian tripods. One of the most exciting scenes in the novel occurs when the HMS Invincible rushes in to save boats full of refugees, and takes on three Martian tripods in a bitter, deadly engagement off England's coast.

And while these victories don't change the outcome of the war, they do add moments of drama, even suspense, to the narrative. And I can't help but think they also represented some social commentary on Wells' part. Remember, this was the 1890s. One of the more remarkable points of Wells' story was that he took British society/culture of the period, and turned it upside-down, placing it in the unfortunate position of so many other cultures worldwide that had engaged in a WOTW of their own as they resisted conquest by British imperialist forces ... moments of victory, but an inevitable defeat in the end.

Sometimes, I'm a stickler for how well the film stays with the book from which it's adapted. But, sometimes, I'm not. I'm consistently inconsistent in that respect. I'm also consistently inconsistent on whether or not I enjoy the film adaptation. I'm a great fan of "The Natural," even though it turned Bernard Malamud's novel upside-down and inside-out. On the other hand, I've stopped going to see films adapted from Tom Clancey's novels (except for the first, "Hunt for Red October") primarily because of what screenwriters have done to his stories.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Not Clairvoyant ... Just Experienced ...

I made a friend of mine at work laugh the other day. She had just returned from a press conference held by one of the parties to an ongoing debate over a proposed municipal ordinance. At that press conference, they announced the results of a poll taken among local, registered voters, asking them a variety of questions related to one facet or another of the debate.

I'm no Great Carnack, and I don't have his really fine turban ... but I took a stab at predicting what response the poll results had gotten from the opposing parties in the debate.

'One side,' I guessed, 'would say the poll represented a mandate from the people, as to how they wished our local elected representative to act in considering the proposed ordinance.'

'The other side,' I went on, 'will state that the results of this poll are not relevant ... that, really, you can make the numbers say anything you like.'

She laughed ... I was right.

I'm not clairvoyant ... just experienced. One of many revelations that come to anyone in my business - after enough time and enough interviews with enough people - is that there seems to be a finite set of attitudes and comments employed by those who reach out to the public at-large on behalf of a special interest. That doesn't mean that there is a limit to what we can say and think ... only a limit to what your average spokesman wants you to say and think.

I have not identified the proposed ordinance, by the way, and I don't intend to. I suspect that a number of you with contacts in West Texas know EXACTLY what I'm talking about, anyway.

You really hear much the same on just about every topic, at just about every level of society and government.

And the best thing of all ... this finite set of attitudes and statements is truly universal, and completely interchangeable. One example ... six years ago, Democrats labeled the Whitewater investigation as a partisan witchhunt, while Republicans labeled it a righteous probe into one of the greatest moral outrages of the modern era. Now, Republicans label the DeLay ethics investigation as a partisan witchhunt, while Democrats label it a righteous probe into one of the greatest moral outrages of the modern era. One can almost imagine in Washington, every four (or eight) years, not just a transfer of power from one political party to the other, but a transfer of dictionaries and style books, as well.

It's happened before ... and it will happen again, and again and again. It's not clairvoyance that has me making that prediction ... just experience.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Looking Beyond the Gas Pump ....

For many in the news business - speaking of those outside the Oil Patch - the first reaction to reports of rising oil prices is something like, "What's going to happen at the gas pumps?" Too often, that may also be the last question asked. Now, questions like that are heard in local newsrooms, as well. But they are just one of a number of questions asked, and the answers they generate will be just a part of the complete answer to the overall question of 'impact.'

In places like our own Permian Basin, in the San Juan Basin of New Mexico, in parts of Alaska and the Gulf Coast, and elsewhere, answers to the overall question of impact cannot be found by focusing soley upon the negative effect for consumers at the gas pumps. An outstanding answer can be found at Streams, where Wallace demonstrates how the impact touches so many of us in so many positive ways we might not have suspected. Check it out.