The season of the weeping birch tree has come round again and our city basks in its unique beauty.
I don’t own a birch myself but am partial to the species.
Most deciduous varieties please our eyes when they take on their temporary autumn dress, of course.
In New England an entire tourist industry is built on the ephemeral show.
Somebody has to sign off on all those checks the federal government writes, but why does it have to be Congress?
The Founding Fathers might have botched that one.
Although in their defense, none of those august men ever had to deal with John Boehner.
Or Harry Reid.
Or any other modern politician for whom the words “principle” and “posturing,” which have little in common except containing nine letters and starting with “p,” have become so corrupted as to be nearly synonymous.
This has been, and will continue to be, quite a year for 50-year celebrations.
There’s probably a term for these, something more pleasing to the ear than “half-centennial,” but I do not know it and am too lazy to look it up.
(Which, in the era of Google, is immensely lazy indeed.)
The year 1963 was, among much else, a crucial one in the civil rights movement. Most famously, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. held much of the nation spellbound with his “I have a dream” speech on Aug. 28 in Washington, D.C.
On Feb. 11 in London, a four-man beat group recorded its first long-play album, all in a single day. These clever lads called themselves The Beatles. They had some success later.
And of course the best-known event of the entire year, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22.
The publicity for the anniversary of that tragedy will be considerable.
This torrent of reminiscing has reminded me of another milestone, one which arrives in 2014.
That year — and specifically, July 28 — marks one century since the First World War began.
This, of course, puts the event beyond the living memory of almost everyone who’s around today.
(And even those rare methuselahs would have been just kids, and thus unlikely to have been following geopolitical events with any great enthusiasm.)
Yet a compelling case can be made — indeed, many historians have made it — that the First World War was the most significant event of the 20th century.
Many of the defining characteristics of that century — chief among them the nuclear age and the Cold War — are today linked more closely with the Second World War.
But their origins date to the earlier conflict.
Beyond the obvious chronological connection — you can’t have a second world war without a first — the historical record shows that the two wars are in effect one long fight, two bloody stanzas separated by a 21-year intermission during which no grievances were settled, and another major one was sown and bore its deadly fruit.
It is no coincidence, certainly, that the cast of characters was much the same in the two wars, the major differences being that Italy switched sides in the Second World War and Japan joined the Axis (what were known as the Central Powers in the First World War).
Even casual students of history understand that Adolf Hitler — the architect, as it were, of the Second World War — was in effect a prisoner of the First.
Not only did he fight in the 1914-18 war, but the whole of his monomaniacal life after the armistice was driven by his hatred for the punitive terms imposed on Germany by the Versailles Treaty of 1919.
The sequence of monumental events which happened during, or soon after, the First World War seem to us, at such a distance of time, as inevitable, neatly laid out as they are in the chapters of our history books.
Yet we can’t know whether the Russian revolution, the seed of the Cold War, would have happened in 1917, or indeed at all, had that country not suffered through the calamity of the Eastern Front during the previous three years.
And, as mentioned, it is hard to imagine that, without the First World War, a minor artist from Austria would have been able, by sheer force of his charisma and psychosis, to unleash the greatest military conflict in the world’s history.
I’m sure the First World War centennial will get into the news.
But I doubt it will garner anything like the attention given to, say, King’s landmark speech.
This would hardly come as a surprise; a century is an awfully long time.
And in some ways the First World War seems even older than it actually is. There were a lot more horses than trucks, the soldiers carried rifles that had more in common with a musket than an M-16, and the airplanes were about as technologically advanced, by today’s terms, as a push lawnmower.
Perhaps most important, America’s role in the First World War, though significant, came late in the conflict, after France, Germany, Britain and Russia had squandered much of an entire male generation.
America’s experience in the Second World War was rich in iconic events and place names. “Pearl Harbor” and “D-Day” and “Iwo Jima” continue to resonate down through the decades.
By contrast, “Belleau Wood” and “The Meuse-Argonne” seem as foreign as, well, France itself.
Perhaps it’s just as well.
I don’t see that we need to use the Somme or Verdun to remind ourselves of how inhumane humans can be. Sadly, we can use more recent disasters to illustrate the point.
Still and all, 100 years after the guns of August blasted away the notion of war as a gentlemanly pursuit, we might do well to pause briefly to acknowledge that some mistakes carry greater consequences than we could ever conceive at the time.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.
By Jayson Jacoby
Baker City Herald Editor
I often walk past the defunct Ellingson Lumber Co. sawmill, and the scene never fails to provoke a twinge of sadness.
I don’t go out of my way for these doses of maudlin.
It’s just that I live directly across 15th Street from the fence that marks the western boundary of the millsite. To avoid the place I’d have to reconfigure most of my normal routes, which strikes me as an unnecessary, albeit aerobically beneficial, hassle.
Last Sunday morning I walked along Broadway, on the north side of the property, and even the fading yellow of the rabbitbrush, a sort of farewell to summer’s palette, failed to enrich the somber scene.
If anything, the blooms accentuated the sense that something is missing here, that a site which once teemed with activity, where good salaries were earned and useful products were made, is being taken over gradually by the shrubs of the desert.
Lamenting the loss of a mill is a common refrain these days, of course, and it’s an emotion more often than not informed by the partisan politics pitting the timber industry against the environmentalists.
Yet I rarely consider that debate when I look at the barren buildings on the Ellingson parcel.
I don’t pine for a bygone era when stacks of ponderosa logs loomed over Auburn Avenue, some with butts almost as wide as the street itself.
That prosperous period could not have continued in perpetuity, at least not at the pace which marked much of the half century after the end of World War II.
In a region where a pine needs a century or more to attain such girth, there just weren’t enough trees to satisfy every saw.
Still and all, I can’t help but wonder whether this transition needed to be as abrupt it was.
I ponder whether some minor tweaking of national forest logging policy might have made it possible for this industry, which had been a mainstay of Baker County’s economy for better than a century, to survive, albeit in diminished form.
I remember interviewing Rob and Pete Ellingson after they closed the mill in 1996.
They talked about multiple factors, including government-subsidized lumber from Canada that depressed prices for U.S.-produced boards.
But the most pressing problem, they said, was that they could no longer rely on the three nearby national forests to supply enough trees to augment the logs coming from the company’s own comparatively modest acreage.
The volume of timber cut on the national forests has risen a bit from its nadir in the mid 1990s, but the numbers remain trifling compared with those of previous decades.
Oregon’s congressional delegation has tried several times to craft a compromise that would get log trucks rolling in more significant numbers, but nothing has come of it.
Perhaps nothing ever will.
Or at least not until the hundreds of thousands of acres of young forests in the region have matured, and the public lands once again are best measured in billions of board-feet.
The term “sustainable forestry” has been around for decades and although its creator was no doubt well-intentioned, his work, it seems to me, was for naught.
Our definitions of “sustainable” vary so widely as to render the term useless.
I used to believe that one apt description was that a small town which has a lot of productive forests nearby could sustain at least one sawmill, and in turn all the ancillary businesses which support it.
Moreover, I believed this could happen without our denuding those forests of the other qualities — wildlife habitat, sources of pure water, recreation — which we as a society prize.
It was not to be so in Baker City.
The city, of course, endured the loss of the mill.
I don’t mean to suggest the city’s future was ever in jeopardy. Baker City is a substantial place, and has been so for longer than most of Oregon’s cities. This is not Valsetz, nor any other town defined primarily, if not wholly, by lumbering.
Yet as the paint peels from the buildings which once housed the singing saws, as the wind blows without spreading the fresh scent of pine, I see, in my mind, the people who made careers here, the families which depended on this place, the homes and the cars and the Christmas presents which, in a sense, got their start here.
My eyes just see rabbitbrush, its luster gone again for another year.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.
I watched over the course of the Labor Day weekend as two of my children embarked on the great adventure of education, one nearing the journey’s end and the other quite close to its beginning.
This juxtaposition left me a trifle dazed, jerked from one side by old memories, and from the other by a fresh glimpse of the future.
Although it’s also possible that driving 800 miles in a couple days, half that distance amassed in a cumbersome moving truck which didn’t so much go around corners as ooze through the apexes, contributed to my dizziness.
I started the holiday weekend by driving that truck, bearing my older son Alexander’s belongings, to his new apartment in Albany.
Alexander, who’s almost 19, starts his sophomore year at Oregon State University later this month. He’s majoring in nuclear engineering, a subject which seems to me as foreign as Swahili.
I struggle to engineer something as simple as a birdhouse. I have no business tinkering with the nucleus of anything.
A couple days later I watched my younger daughter, Olivia, who’s 6, assemble her pencils and papers and paste sticks for her first day in first grade.
That morning my wife, Lisa, took a photo of Olivia striding across the field on the west side of Brooklyn School. She looked impossibly small, a lone figure in that grassy expanse, too small to be going off by herself.
Lisa’s photograph reminded me of another September morning, more than a decade earlier.
The setting was the same.
But on that day the dimunitive pupil walking toward the big brick school was Alexander.
I remember that I drove around the block, to make one more pass down Washington, and I caught sight of him there on the asphalt of the playground. I sensed his timidity and my stomach clenched (or maybe it was my heart), in the way it does when you wonder whether your child is scared, or unhappy.
I endured the same twinge on Olivia’s first day, but my trepidation lasted only until she burst into the kitchen that afternoon, nearly hysterical with tales of the wonders of Mrs. Mays’ classroom.
Alexander, of course, is a different matter.
He is 350 miles away.
I worry about mundane matters such as whether he’s getting enough to eat; or at least I did until one evening when Olivia called his cellphone and, after a brief conversation, she told me he was cooking bacon.
So that’s all right, then, if he has bacon.
The disorientation of my tumultuous weekend has dissipated, replaced by the sort of dull ache that marks milestones, after which nothing can ever be quite the same.
This is a queer sensation, never terribly painful and sometimes even pleasant. I am gratified to watch the little boy who’s now a young man who’s got a couple inches on me, no longer taking hesitant steps past the swings and the monkey bars but exploring the mysteries of the atom.
I will no doubt feel the same happiness when Olivia goes off on her own quest, whatever and wherever that might be.
Yet when they go, these children who we set loose on the noble quest for knowledge, they take some part of themselves which we, their parents, can never retrieve.
We mourn these losses.
And we remember the distant days, when they also walked away, so tiny and so delicate, but they always, at the end of the day, walked back to us.
. . .
One nice thing about buying a used book — besides saving some bucks, usually — is that occasionally you find hidden between the old pages some curious artifact.
A while back I came across such a thing inside a volume of essays by the late E.B. White.
As a brief aside, White, to the extent that he is known today, is so largely due to his trio of novels, “Stuart Little,” “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Trumpet of the Swan.”
These are described, almost invariably, as “children’s novels” but although this is not an inapt term I think it an unfair one. The three books have been beloved by generations of young readers, to be sure, but it seems to me a pity that White’s reputation is afflicted with the asterisk of triviality which inevitably attaches to fiction read primarily by children.
I too became acquainted with White through “Stuart Little.” But for me his richest legacy derives from his nonfiction essays, the form of which he is, I believe, the undisputed master.
I have yet to read a writer who matches the rhythm which, more than any other trait, identifies White’s work. Rhythm, of course, is more typically associated with music, but the word applies to writing, too, in the sense that the words make sounds in our heads as we read them silently to ourselves. White was a prose man, by and large, but his essays have the pleasing quality of the finest poetry, or of a beautiful melody.
It is quite an accomplishment, I think, to render a single sentence or paragraph that conveys even a bit of White’s magic.
He wrote hundreds of thousands of them.
But back to this book.
As I flipped from one page to another toward the back, a receipt slipped out and fluttered to the floor. The slip of paper must have been used as a bookmark.
It bore the heading “Willamette U. Bookstore” and the date of Jan. 21, 1983.
The location suggests the book didn’t get out much — I bought the thing in a bookstore in downtown Salem, just a few blocks from the Willamette campus.
I immediately wondered how long this receipt had been lodged between pages, whether it had been stuck there like a forgotten secret for the whole three decades.
I wondered too whether the buyer was a student, and if so whether the purchase was a required one, for a class, or was acquired for recreational reading.
And, finally, I wondered what I was doing on that day. I was 12. That was a Friday so probably I was at school in Stayton, about 15 miles east of Salem.
I’ll never get answers to my questions, of course.
But about one thing I’m pretty sure: The anonymous 1983 buyer got a bargain.
Although the six items on the receipt aren’t identified, the prices range from 69 cents to $3.
The list price on the book is $5.95.
I paid $6.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.
Given that Oregon’s economy isn’t exactly blistering in its pace, you’d think a $68 million construction project in Eugene — all private money — would be a cause for celebration.
Unless you’re James Earl, emeritus professor from the University of Oregon.
To say that Earl dislikes the new football office at the U of O is akin to saying Rush Limbaugh has had a couple of minor disagreements with President Obama.
To Earl, the massive structure that Nike founder and Oregon alumnus Phil Knight and his wife, Penny, paid for is, among other distasteful things, “hugely depressing” and “absurd.”
You could almost believe the Knights built a gargantuan pit in which to burn books.
I was listening to Secretary of State John Kerry the other day as he explained why the U.S. is obliged to bomb Syria, and he seemed awfully sure of himself.
Confidence is valuable in a fighting soldier, to be sure — as valuable, sometimes, as a good rifle.
But when those who send others to fight wax rhapsodic about the moral imperatives of the coming battle, well, my instinctive skepticism deepens.
(See: Sir Douglas Haig’s diary entries before the Battle of the Somme.)
Kerry is certain, for instance, that Syrian president Bashar Assad is responsible for a chemical weapons attack on his citizens on Aug. 21.
A car’s sun visor, it turns out, makes for a pretty effective facsimile of a calendar.
I had a week’s vacation recently and so was afforded the great luxury, but for an occasional early-rising child, to tack on an extra hour or so of sleep each day.
And so it came as a surprise — not a shock, exactly, but in the ballpark — when I awoke on the Monday of my return in a bedroom that seemed to me as dark as a mine tunnel.
I thought at first that I had awakened a couple of hours early, a sort of overreaction to my reacquaintance with the working world.
But as I squinted at the clock radio, trying to bring its red numbers into a brief, blurry focus (I have the approximate eyesight, without my glasses or contact lenses, of a cataractic bat), I saw that it was 5:20 a.m.
Right on time, in other words.
(Or, more aptly, wrong on time. I’m not one of those people who literally jumps from bed, eager to attack the new day as though it’s an advancing soldier with bayonet fixed. My habits are more akin to those of a sloth. I emerge from the covers always slowly, always with great reluctance and, not infrequently, with outright dread.)
The reality, though, of how far summer had waned during my time off seemed especially acute a bit later, as I turned my car from 15th Street onto Auburn and headed east.
My left hand, acting in the rote way of a habit long-ingrained, reached for the visor that keeps the rising sun from temporarily blinding me and jeopardizing my fellow travelers on Auburn, including squirrels in the barrow pit and ducks crossing to get to Settlers Slough. (I don’t know why chickens cross the road, but the slough is why ducks, most generally, cross Auburn.)
At that moment I realized that the only light was coming not from 93 million miles away, but rather from my own headlights, which are considerably closer, though less bright.
(Our Buick, though a dozen years old, has several nifty features, including headlights that turn on, and off, automatically.)
There was a silvery glow on the eastern horizon, just enough to reveal the silhouettes of the Wallowas’ high peaks, but it was clear that the sun would not cleave the hills for another half an hour or so.
My hand dropped back to the steering wheel and I went on my way.
I relish this time of year because my favorite season, autumn, has begun to insinuate itself.
And its ascendancy is revealed in ways other than the lingering gloom of morning.
That Monday — actually it was this Monday, Aug. 26 — brought an autumnal chill as well. I briefly considered retrieving my light jacket from the bedpost but decided to leave it be, in deference to the forecast for a high of 86.
A couple days earlier I went for a hike on Black Mountain, just to the south of Phillips Reservoir. Although the day rode the border between warm and hot the air was also quite hazy, infused with smoke from the massive wildfire near Yosemite National Park, and it reminded me powerfully of late summers on the eastern fringe of the Willamette Valley where I grew up.
Farmers raised an awful lot of grass seed in those parts — indeed, they still do.
What they don’t do much of these days is burn the stubble fields after the harvest.
Back in the 1970s and ’80s, though, seed-growers torched thousands of acres of fields each summer, creating a miasma that, on most days, turned my street into a scene fitting for shooting a documentary about Jack the Ripper.
(Except for the absence of cobblestones. And Cockney accents. And serial murderers.)
Notwithstanding the damage this pall must have done to my lungs (I had only a passing understanding of the respiratory system anyway) I enjoyed those murky days because they foretold, as reliably as the acquisition of a couple new pairs of Tuffskin jeans from Sears, the coming of the school year and the bracing days of fall.
As I stood beside Black Mountain’s cairn-topped summit I detected the old tang of distant combustion on the air and felt refreshed, as you do when a pleasant memory of childhood comes suddenly clear.
I don’t begrudge summer.
This year’s version, although more than a trifle dry and dusty, was rather a pleasant one, a bit warmer than usual but quite nicer than the torrid season Boise residents endured, where just a handful of days since the solstice haven’t reached the 90-degree mark.
But the smoke, and the slight chill before dawn, promised better times, hinted at those crystalline days at the edge of winter when the tamaracks gleam and the dusk comes early and cold and the light from a familiar window, seen at a distance in the gloaming, can bring water to the eyes.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.
The U.S. Forest Service during the past half century lost much of its ability to explain what it’s doing, or what it intends to do, in simple words and pithy phrases.
Which of course hardly makes the agency unique among departments of the federal government, that legendary purveyor of documents sometimes measured in pounds rather than in pages.
I came across a yearly report from the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest a while back that seems to me curiously quaint and innocent.
Even if the paper weren’t going yellow with age, and even if the year — 1962 — weren’t printed on its cover, you’d recognize after a few pages that this is the product of a vastly different era.
In that distant age, when few Americans could find Vietnam on a map, and writing “beatles” would drag down your spelling grade, the Forest Service needed just five words to explain its purpose.
That still covers things nicely, so far as I can tell.
Yet this admirable brevity was as surely doomed as the eight-track tape and psychedelic rock.
The syntactic unraveling had progressed quite a ways even by 1990. I chose that year mainly because it’s when the Wallowa-Whitman published its most recent forest plan, which is a sort of guide for how the 2.4 million acres will be managed.
In 1990, “recreation” had bloated into “Recreation Opportunity Spectrum,” a gain of two words and 19 letters but with no obvious increase in information.
If anything, the three-word version is apt to confuse rather than enlighten a reader.
“Wood,” which was understood in 1962 to mean mainly commercial timber but also firewood, had morphed by 1990 into such clumsy, impenetrable constructions as “maximum implementable levels of timber harvest under a nondeclining flow schedule.”
Now I’ll concede that the Forest Service’s task is considerably more complicated today (and in 1990) than in 1962.
In 1962 the National Environmental Policy Act was seven years in the future. That law requires the Forest Service, and other federal agencies, to study the possible environmental effects of everything from big timber sales to replacing little bridges, and then to publish the findings. The resulting tomes can run to hernia-inducing heft.
1962 also predates the Wilderness Act (1964), the Endangered Species Act (1973), the National Forest Management Act (1976) and doubtless much other legislation that has prompted the Forest Service to become such a prodigious producer of words.
And given that federal laws are the antithesis of lucid communication, it’s hardly surprising that the predilection for larding reports with jargon has infected the Forest Service.
Still and all, the Wallowa-Whitman’s 1962 report proves that federal employees can give an accounting of what they’ve been up to for the past year and to do so employing terms and statistics that any competent reader can grasp at a glance.
This makes for interesting reading, too, particularly as a comparison with current conditions.
The greatest disparity, as you’d probably guess, is in the amount of logging.
In 1962 the Wallowa-Whitman sold 178 million board-feet of timber, and loggers cut 117.5 million board-feet. Another 246.8 million board-feet had been sold and was awaiting the chain saws.
By the standards of the past 20 years, those figures seem almost mythical in their immensity.
Since 1991, the Wallowa-Whitman’s top year for selling timber was 1992, when the total was 79 million board-feet. The second-highest was 54 million board-feet, and in most years during that period the forest sold less than 40 million board-feet.
I think it’s beyond dispute that the 1962 figures, which actually accelerated during the 1970s and 1980s, could not have been sustained until now. The Wallowa-Whitman had cut much of the mature ponderosa pines that made those big volumes possible.
Yet it seems to me that the drastic decline in logging that started in 1991 was more precipitous than can be justified solely by the federal mandates that the Wallowa-Whitman protect salmon, steelhead and other species.
It’s as if the forest, confronted by an aggressive environmental movement flush with the success of the spotted owl protection in westside forests, was afflicted with a malaise.
But it’s a single photograph in the 1962 report, not the several accompanying charts of logging statistics, that strikes me as the most striking difference, in attitude if not actual result, between then and now.
That photo shows a logger putting the back cut in a old growth ponderosa, probably 30 inches or better in girth.
They don’t cut pines like that on the Wallowa-Whitman these days, or at least not often. And the forest certainly doesn’t boast of the practice in photographs.
The other section of the 1962 that I read with particular interest has to do with roads.
During that year, timber buyers built 130 miles of roads on the Wallowa-Whitman, and the Forest Service constructed five miles.
Forest engineers also surveyed 170 miles of new roads, and designed 94 miles.
These days, as is obvious to anyone who has so much as a passing interest in the Wallowa-Whitman, the main issue is which roads ought to be closed to motor vehicles. The notion of building new ones, aside from an occasional short temporary road needed to haul logs, is at best an afterthought.
The 1962 report also rebuts the idea, which seems to me to be relatively common, that the Wallowa-Whitman’s network of roads is nearly as old as the Forest Service (founded in 1905) itself, that in the main we ply the same roads our forebears did five or six generations ago.
In fact, hundreds of miles of roads have been built during the past 50 years, a necessary part of the sustained logging during the first half of that period.
Roads, of course, as an integral part of one of those five words that constituted the Forest Service’s motto in 1962: “recreation.”
As the report from that year shows, Wallowa-Whitman users had reason to be optimistic about their ability in coming years to get around the forest in a rig.
This is what some people mean when they talk about “the good old days.”
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.
The world’s automakers seem bent on making it easier for people to do everything in their cars.
Which seems to me a curious oversight.
Not so bad as forgetting the steering wheel or leaving off the lug nuts, of course, but curious just the same.
The most significant change in the automobile interior over the past decade is the proliferation of devices designed to help drivers communicate with people who are somewhere else.
(Like as not these other people are also driving, possibly in the next lane.)
Carbuilders boast of how “connected” or “wired” their latest models are. I envision Ricardo Montalbán extolling not “rich Corinthian leather” but “rich Bluetooth capability.”
I’m hardly immune to the enticing nature of this technology. I’m enthralled by the notion of someday owning a car that’s a mobile wi-fi hotspot. The concept of hooking up to Skype and having a friend’s or relative’s face show up on a video screen in the middle of the dashboard has a Star Wars flavor to it that makes me wonder whether the era of the long-awaited flying car is impending.
Except it’s dangerous enough to have people carrying on conversations, or Googling “road rage,” while they’re rolling along at 65 mph.
We don’t want them sharing airspace with 747s.
“Hold on, tower control, I can’t land until this YouTube video is over. You won’t believe how cute these kittens are!”
Carmakers, of course, tout their latest options as “hands-free,” which enables people to update their Facebook profile without taking their hands off the wheel.
This sounds like progress.
Except a study commissioned by AAA concluded that that’s not necessarily true.
In fact, researchers found that in some cases using a hands-free device to have a conversation or send an email can distract a driver more than holding a phone and talking into it.
This level of distraction has been compared — and this is the scary part — with driving while intoxicated.
Funny, though, you don’t see automakers installing beer taps — not even ones with a Camelbak-like tube that juts out of the headrest so you can guzzle brew hands-free.
Cars aren’t always in motion, of course.
And I’m not a bit troubled by a person sitting in a parked car, texting or tweeting or whatever.
Except this technology doesn’t turn off when the engine is turned on. And you needn’t be an expert on human behavior to know that if you can do something while driving, you will.
(McDonald’s probably wouldn’t exist otherwise.)
It would be a great pity, it seems to me, if our highways, which have been getting safer for the past few decades, turned more dangerous even as our cars are better able to protect us in a crash.
In 2011, a total of 32,367 people were killed in traffic crashes on U.S. roads. That was the fewest deaths in a year since 1949.
Even more impressive than the raw numbers is the fatality rate, since the latter takes into account the vast increase in the number of cars and the miles traveled.
The most-used measure is the number of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.
The rate in 1949 was 7.13 deaths.
In 2011 it was 1.10.
This nearly miraculous improvement is due in large part to cars being vastly safer. In 1949 life-savers such as anti-lock brakes, airbags and crumple zones were more in the realm of fantasy than assembly line fact.
Back then carbuilders designed parts to look neat, and never mind that the stylish steering wheel hub, in any crash over 20 mph, would skewer you as efficiently as one of Vlad the Impaler’s stakes.
Today the engineers, having taken auto safety about as far as physics allows (roadside oak trees being rarely equipped with air bags) are turning their prodigious abilities to matters of convenience and utility.
This isn’t necessarily a disaster, of course.
I like mp3 jacks and USB ports as much as the next driver.
But I also cling to the quaint notion that piloting a vehicle with competence and single-minded focus is not merely the driver’s most important task.
It’s his only one.
Facebook can wait.
The little kid who just chased his wayward rubber ball into the street can’t.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.