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Sad, perplexed watching Newtown’s survivors

By Jayson Jacoby

I felt a queer mix of emotions Wednesday as I watched relatives of the Newtown shooting massacre join President Obama to lament that the U.S. Senate had rejected a bill expanding background checks for gun sales.

I was sad, obviously.

It’s impossible to feel otherwise when I think of the tragedy these people endured so recently. I doubt anyone truly recovers from such a shock. The pain subsides, numbed by the inexorable and terrible passage of time, but this cuts both ways. 

Every year thickens the cushion against that initial, seemingly insurmountable grief. But each year also lacerates the old wounds with a series of milestones, of birthdays never celebrated, of graduations and weddings that will never happen.

I was also angry.

I understand that no one forced these people to become symbols of a divisive legislative debate, yet it seems to me that neither are these victims fully in control, as it were.

It’s a natural reaction, of course, for people who have suffered so much to try to spare others from a similar ordeal. I admire the Newtown survivors’ bravery and their commitment.

But it seems to me unnecessarily cruel that, just four months after they lost so much, these people should stand before the cameras and witness another defeat which in comparison means so little.

The implication, or so it seemed to me, is that the bill might have passed if only lawmakers could have brought the survivors to Washington, D.C., while their cheeks were still wet with tears.

“If we’d have gone to a bill like this immediately, boom,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who helped write the legislation which would expand background checks for gun sales to include online buys and transactions at gun shows.

I’m certain that neither Manchin nor any of the bill’s other supporters wanted to use grief to garner votes. There was a tingle of exploitation here but perhaps it could not have been avoided.

Anyway I don’t believe that grief, or anger, ought to override sober contemplation in creating laws.

That said, the third sense I had on Wednesday was surprise.

I was perplexed that just 54 of the 100 senators believe all gun sales should be treated the same. That was six fewer votes than was needed to pass the bill.

To be clear, I’m a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment. I find its wording admirably clear and its intent, as a result, equally obvious: U.S. citizens have a constitutional right to own guns.

But this right is not sacrosanct.

We have, for instance, as a society decided that people who commit certain felonies have forfeited their right to own a gun.

I think this is both a wise precaution, and a constitutionally sound one.

Even the National Rifle Association, which is, well, a trifle sensitive about matters related to gun ownership, doesn’t seem eager to give paroled murderers the run of their local gun shop.

Yet the organization, and nearly half of our senators, oppose the expansion of background checks, which is intended to make it more difficult for people who none of us wants to have a gun, to get one.

“Intended” is a key word, of course.

The bill the Senate turned down Wednesday is no panacea in our era of Newtown and Aurora.

Yet I refuse to concede that we are powerless. The notion that requiring background checks for all gun sales would foil some madman’s plans is statistically unlikely, of course, but it’s hardly implausible. If we prevented even one slaughter we would have reason to celebrate.

Moreover, I don’t consider background checks, whatever the sales venue, as an infringement.

A hassle, sure.

But that word, and in fact that concept, is conspicuously absent in the Second Amendment.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala, called the defeated background checks bill “the first step in the erosion of my rights under the Second Amendment.”

This “first step” conceit is a popular one, along with its alliterative cousin, the infamous “slippery slope.”

But where Sen. Shelby seems to envision a long ladder, and presumably the kind of steep one with tall steps you only find in old buildings, I see, in expanding background checks, a barely perceptible pimple atop the minor bump that already exists when you buy a gun in a store.

That’s because nothing in my background prevents me from buying any gun I take a liking to.

(Which I might well do. I have just a few long guns now, and one revolver, so there’s ample space in the gun safe my in-laws were kind enough to buy for me.)

And I’m not unique. The vast majority of American adults — surely the figure must exceed 99 percent — are equally unrestricted from buying and owning guns.

For all of us in that group, the bill the Senate rejected this week would mean nothing but maybe another form to fill out.

You have to do that just to get your mail stopped.

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.

GMO labels: No heartburn, but what’s the use?

I like to know what it’s in my food, except for the calories.

And the grams of fat.

And the milligrams of salt.

I’d just as soon stay ignorant of all the stuff that’s wreaking havoc on my circulatory system.

Guilt, I’ve noticed, is not what you’d call a flavor-enhancer.

The difference between driving past, or through

Baker County has never been what you’d call a bustling place, but today it’s a trifle lonelier than usual, even though there are no fewer people about.

The recent closure of the only gas station in Durkee seems to me a minor milestone in a transition that started more than 40 years ago, when the freeway began to replace old Highway 30.

The major change, of course, happened as soon as the comparatively straight, four-lane swath of I-84 (originally, I-80) supplanted the ostensibly outdated two-lane.

Baker County became a place to drive past rather than a place to drive through, which are altogether different propositions.

March, the homeliest month, finally nears its end

March, in my view, is the least attractive month.

“Ugly” is a more direct description, of course, and nicely pithy, but I don’t believe it to be a fair description of March or, indeed, of any month.

Each of the 12 has its charms, its moments of beauty.

March just doesn’t have a surfeit of these, most years.

And often as not these interludes are so brief that they leave no lasting impression.

At the moment you glimpse the fetching buttercup, winking from beneath the sagebrush, you are forced to squint and turn away as a squall pelts your cheeks with icy rain and desert grit.

Listening to history, 40 years after it was made

Most of us who regularly read history books, I’d wager, have wished mightily at some point that we could actually witness the scenes we’re reading about.

I was able recently to listen to history being made — before I was born.

Which isn’t quite as compelling, I suppose, as seeing an epochal event happen.

But this experience, though purely auditory, was awfully interesting just the same.

The subject, I’ll concede, is unpleasant. But then much of what gets into the history books is like that.

I would argue that the Manson murders of 1969 constitute the second most notorious criminal case in America in the 20th century.

‘Lying speedometers’ and the lure of the gauge

If you ran across a news story headlined “Lying Speedometers” you’d likely assume, as I did, that the instruments in question give false readings.

That when the gauge shows your speed as 65 mph you’re actually doing 62, or 68, or anyway not 65.

It turns out, though, that speedometers are prone to another kind of prevarication, according to The Associated Press.

The article begins by noting that the speedometer in the Toyota Yaris, a subcompact that looks like nothing so much as a mutated mollusk, tops out at 140 mph.

Yet the Yaris in fact can muster only a meager 109, the AP reports.

The teacher who brought music to life for me

One of life’s great mysteries, it seems to me, is how each of us, as a child, came to acquire those interests which persist into adulthood, as stubborn as barnacles.

Sometimes there is no mystery, of course.

Take for instance the woman who became fascinated with the ocean the very instant, as a little girl, that she peered into a tidepool and felt the queer sensation of a sea anemone’s tentacles grasping her finger.

Or the boy whose first-grade field trip to Gettysburg spawned his insatiable curiosity about the Civil War.

Both of those examples involve rather specific hobbies.

But what about more general subjects — an abiding appreciation for music, to name an especially common example?

This affinity, I think, is one which most of us absorb over an extended period of immersion, as it were. This is quite different from the immediate experience of the girl on the beach or the boy on the battlefield, either of which, to belabor the analogy, is more akin to an inoculation straight into a vein.

Driving can be frightening — even at a mere 2 mph

The biggest scare I’ve had while driving happened at 2 mph.

Which is a speed even a generally slothful person can easily manage while walking from the sofa to the kitchen to get a soda from the refrigerator.

But it felt to me like terminal velocity.

This exaggerated sense of my momentum had much to do with the nearly vertical slope that was separated from my left front tire by a sliver of snow-covered dirt road about the width of a skateboard.

Actually it had everything to do with that cliff.


Online database a treasure trove of Baker’s history

By Jayson Jacoby

Baker City Herald Editor

I learned recently that a meteorite landed in Baker County during the Great Depression.

Or maybe it didn’t.

The surviving records on the matter fall somewhat short of conclusive.

Nonetheless, the lack of certainty about this possible extraterrestrial incident in no way detracts from the value of the digital treasure trove of which the meteorite story is but one glittering fragment.

I credit a couple of recent articles with leading me to this historical cornucopia.

Although to be honest, given that I have more than a passing interest in both history and geology I ought to have stumbled long ago across the online archives of the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI).

I was looking for background first for a story about the new exhibit for the gold display at U.S. Bank’s Baker City branch, and later for an article about “Ghost Mine,” the Syfy channel series filmed last summer near Sumpter.

I didn’t dig up much that aided either story.

But I didn’t mind, because DOGAMI’s database is so rich in compelling detail that I could easily have dawdled half a day away poking around in photocopies of decades-old documents, some rendered in the rough scrawl of a long-dead geologist.

The website, by the way, is www.oregongeology.org/sub/milo/index-miningrecords.htm.

There’s a separate index for each county.

(Well, almost. Two of Oregon’s 36 counties — Benton and Clatsop — aren’t represented.)

Baker County boasts one of longer lists of documents, as you’d expect given the area’s extensive mining legacy.

One item caught my eye right off, in part because its title seemed to have little if anything to do with mining: “Baker Meteor Impact Crater Report.”

The one-page, typewritten report, dated April 23, 1968, bears the name of N.S. Wagner. That’s Norman Wagner, a DOGAMI geologist who was for many years in charge of the agency’s office in Baker City.

According to Wagner’s report, a meteorite supposedly landed during the winter of either 1933 or 1934 on a placer mining claim along Wilson Creek, about 10 miles southwest of Baker City.

The owners of the claim found the alleged impact crater when they arrived in the spring to start mining for the season.  Wagner, going off the miners’ story, describes the crater as a “trough some 10 feet wide by 15 feet long,” 

The miners also noticed that a large branch had been snapped off a tree beside the trough, and “chunks of frozen ground were reportedly nested in the branches of some small trees located adjacent to the end of the trough.” 

Wagner mentions a photograph of the scene that a friend of the miners supposedly had, but if the geologist obtained the photo, or learned anything more about the incident, it seems that no record of his findings survives.

Beyond the obvious lure of this tale — meteorites are pretty rare, after all — I was fascinated by a brief passage from Wagner’s report that seems to me a poignant, if unconventional, anecdote about why the Great Depression of the 1930s acquired its capital letter designation.

The miners, Wagner writes, were initially intrigued by the possibility that a chunk of interstellar stone had crashed into their placer claim.

But rather than devote their summer to digging around for strange-looking rocks, the miners apparently got back to business. Wagner wrote: “they didn’t do very much digging because of the need of offsetting the prevailing Depression conditions by getting hard cash from the mine.”

In other words, times are tough, bud, so get the stars out of your eyes and find some gold.

Gold, of course, is the metal that lured miners in their thousands to plumb Baker County’s placers and lodes. And DOGAMI’s records for the county are dominated by reports and newspaper clippings dealing with the search for, and extraction of, gold.

But the voluminous written history also includes a few unusual nuggets.

“John Hunter Coal Mine,” for instance.

I was no more aware of the presence of coal in Baker County than I was of a purported meteorite impact crater.

And as it turns out, the county never came close to becoming the Pennsylvania of the West.

But there is some coal out there.

The Hunter mine was discovered in 1937, according to a report written the following year by John Eliot Allen, another eminent Oregon geologist.

Allen, who died in 1996, joined DOGAMI in 1937 and later started the geology department at Portland State University. He wrote a geology column for The Oregonian in the 1980s and later co-authored “Hiking Oregon’s Geology” with Ellen Morris Bishop. Allen’s autobiography, “Bin Rock and Dump Rock: Recollections of a Geologist,” was published posthumously in 1997.

The Hunter coal deposit, according to Allen’s report, is about 500 feet south of the Powder River near Boulder Gorge, about midway between Baker City and Sumpter.

After confirming by map that the site is on public land, I figured I’d strap on snowshoes and try to find the place and see if any remnants remained. Allen mentioned in his report a “blacksmith shop, mine car, and track, small hoist, a good cabin on property.”

It is purely coincidental that the date of my hike, Jan. 19, was just three days short of 74 years from the day Allen collected ore samples from the 200-foot-long tunnel that had been dug (presumably by Hunter and his associates) into the surrounding basalt.

Allen makes no mention of how he got to the prospect.

But at least he made it, which is more than I can say for myself.

The biggest problem is the river.

Or, rather, the lack of a bridge.

I distrust the solidity of river ice, even in the midst of a long cold snap, so I drove to the nearest public bridge, which is about two miles upriver at the Powder River Recreation Area.

My topographic map implied a straightforward route, but I’m forever falling for its promises, like a oft-jilted lover, or a man who can’t resist the siren call of the roulette wheel.

Anyway, once I had slogged through the sugary, thigh-deep snow — even with my Sasquatch-like appendages I was plunging clear through to the ground — to a point I thought was pretty close to the old prospect, there was a 100-foot gorge in the way and it was getting near to lunch time so I turned back.

I suspect Allen was more determined than I am. Besides which he had a coal sample to hack out of the tunnel.

Of course miners, often as not, didn’t find what they were looking for either.

The haphazard nature of their enterprise is captured quite nicely in a report for the Tom Paine Mine, an operation in the Elkhorns west of Baker City.

In a letter dated April 30, 1938, Albert V. Quine, a mining geologist at DOGAMI’s Baker City office, describes the digging going on at the Tom Paine as being “in the same manner as one would consult a ouija board — it wanders all over the country here and there....”

In a separate report, dated three days earlier, Quine wrote that work at the Tom Paine “seems to start nowhere and evidently heading for the same place.”

Quine’s analysis of the miners’ methods is a trifle harsh, I suppose.

But it’s also refreshingly straightforward, a quality that has not distinguished government documents in the ensuing decades.

The advantages of growing up close to an ash tree

Every kid ought to grow up in a neighborhood graced by at least one ash tree.

There was a fine specimen of the species just two houses down from mine and I thought it was the best thing in the world.

Well, maybe not better than a set of foam pads for my BMX bike, or watching a corpulent man in a singlet pretend to puke on “Portland Wrestling,” or that game where you slammed a plastic football player’s helmet as hard as you could to kick a plastic football through plastic uprights or possibly into the side of your younger sister’s head.

But the ash tree was pretty awesome just the same.

Its greatest attribute — actually its only attribute, as the tree wasn’t tall enough to make climbing it worthwhile, nor stout enough to build a fort in — was that it produced each year a veritable bonanza of berries.

I believe this to be a common trait of ash trees, although I’m no botanist.

These fruits were about the size of blueberries, this being the only thing they had in common with blueberries, except for the word “berries.”

The ash berries grew in clumps as big around as a tennis ball, and they were an alarming shade of yellowish orange that on a sunny day could sear your retinas.

Which is nothing compared to the damage, ocular and otherwise, that the berries could cause when you hucked a handful at somebody riding by on a bicycle at a rate that only a 10-year-old kid pedaling a one-speed can muster.

A velocity best measured in parsecs per hour, in other words.

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