In Memoriam – Kevin Ballantine

PHOTO CREDITS: Please mouse-over the photos for corresponding image credits.

August 9, 1988 — January 15, 2012

There are certain moments that stand out as turned-down pages in the book of life. There are moments when we are met with inconceivable challenges, but are reminded of the reasons we must forge on. There are moments when we pause to reflect on our blessings – not of material wealth or fame – but of our fortune of sharing a portion of our life journey with a true friend who has always served as a beacon of hope in the midst of doubt and confusion. Today, I take that moment – that blessed opportunity – to reflect on a voice of inspiration and a life well lived.

I first met Kevin when we were both students at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York and members of the Big Red Marching Band. Although my fellow trumpet players and I would regularly assert musical dominance on the football field and in parades, the truth was undeniable – the ensemble would have been nothing without the drumline. The drummers were the heartbeat of the band, the pulse of the music, and it was no surprise that Kevin was there, leading the charge. I clearly remember the countless rehearsals and performances when Kevin was the most visible and energetic member of the drumline, standing in the middle of the band with his characteristic curly hair and unsinkable spirit. We jammed to Pinball Wizard, Carry On My Wayward Son, Call Me Al, and other classical rock favorites. As the band’s drill instructor my senior year, I came to associate Kevin with the cornerstone of the freshman class. Nothing could stop his steady rhythm on the quads. No amount of torrential rain, wind-driven snow, or bitter cold could dampen his mood as the band sloshed through the fields and sidewalks throughout the Ivy League. His smile was infectious. His enthusiasm was contagious.

At the end of the football season, Kevin performed at the band’s traditional “Non-Sectarian” closing ceremony, not on the drums, but with his voice. He was the lead singer in our rendition of “Time of Your Life” by Green Day:

Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road
Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go
So make the best of this test, and don’t ask why
It’s not a question, but a lesson learned in time…
It’s something unpredictable, but in the end it’s right…
For what it’s worth it was worth all the while…

Over a year before time directed Kevin to his life’s major turning point, he had already embraced the ideal of making the best of each test that life presented him. He never asked why, because it was never a question to him. Each challenge was only a lesson to be learned in time. No matter how unpredictable life became, Kevin always cherished every moment and lived as if each day would be his last. Each day was worth all the while. As he sang this often-played but rarely-understood song, Kevin’s voice carried across the room, and his fellow band members gathered to sing along, some shedding tears of joy:

In addition to Kevin’s passion for music, I will never forget his love for severe storms and winter weather. His interest motivated him to consider switching majors from engineering to meteorology, and he enrolled in a weather analysis and forecasting class that I TA’ed in the spring of 2007. His favorite type of weather was snow, and nothing could get him more excited than to wake up to several inches of snow on the ground with flakes drifting through the air. We had our fair share of snow-related adventures, which usually involved a combination of flight delays and driving each other to and from some airport. I remember accompanying Kevin to the Elmira regional airport to catch his flight home one winter while attempting to beat a developing snowstorm, only to discover that his flight was canceled. On our way back, we became nearly stranded in the rapidly rising snow drifts and had to push my Toyota Corolla up a hill in order to make it back home.

After moving to Oklahoma for grad school in the summer of 2007, I returned to Cornell for homecoming the following year. At the end of the weekend’s festivities, Kevin drove me to Syracuse to catch my return flight to Oklahoma. Of course, the flight was delayed, and Kevin spontaneously offered to wait patiently – for hours – at a nearby pizza parlor to make sure I would be okay. We joked that we were destined to forever provide each other ground transportation to and from airports. Sure enough, later that year, on my way back to Florida to visit my family, I was stranded at Chicago O’Hare on Christmas Eve due to a major snowstorm… and guess who came to my rescue? As frustrating as it was to be stuck halfway across the country from home on Christmas Eve, the situation was a complete blessing in disguise. I not only spent quality time with Kevin but also met his wonderful family: Dave, Diane, Pooja, and Keerti. They took care of me like family that Christmas Eve. That night, Kevin and I stayed up and discussed our goals and thoughts about life until 4 am. In the midst of the good conversation, we mutually invented a quote to live by:

An insurmountable object, emotion, or thought is nothing more than our reluctance to take up the challenge of trying to understand it.

There are no impossibilities… just things we don’t understand. There are no obstacles… just challenges that are meant to test our resolve. Everything happens for a reason.

Two months later, in February 2009, Kevin was diagnosed with leukemia.

The night I found out about the diagnosis was also the night before a major atmospheric dynamics exam. Let’s just say that I did not do very well on that exam the next day. The shock that came from the news was stunning for all of Kevin’s friends, yet Kevin took it with great courage. In the months that followed, he diligently kept a blog titled, “An Uphill Climb – Confessions of a Leukemic Optimist.” Through his characteristic humor and talent for writing, he made us laugh, smile, and cry. He taught us the greatest lessons of life by living as an example of fortitude in the face of impossible odds. Nothing could bring him down mentally, not even one of the worst diseases that man has ever known.

After struggling for a full year, Kevin went into remission and returned to Cornell to resume his studies in the spring of 2010. He renamed his blog, “A Different Point of View – The Voice of a Philosophical Minority.” He conveyed his message of hope by inspiring others through his own story. But, as fate would have it, his leukemia returned later that summer. He was not able to complete his final semester at Cornell. In a heartfelt message on his blog on July 6, 2010, he addressed his many friends and family who had repeatedly asked him the sacred question, “Is there anything I can do for you?” Kevin responded with these words of wisdom:

Remember that life is fleeting, and there are more important things than grudges or ill wishes. Underneath our different skin colors, yarmulkes, head scarves, or crucifix necklaces, we’re still the same people. We still want the same thing – for people to be nice to us. All I ask of those who want to help me is this – treat your strangers as you would your best friends... We are all forced to share the same planet, like it or not. And we are ALL responsible for that planet, for the sake of ourselves and our children.

So if you want to do something for me, here’s what you can do. Be nice to those you encounter, don’t hold grudges, and please – hold your government accountable. Get involved, make your voice heard…. don’t just believe something because you’re told to, research it yourself and come to your own conclusions. Independent thought is the backbone of an intelligent society, and is what separates us from the mob mentality…

Kevin’s arduous journey lasted for nearly three years, all while making the best out of each moment. Everywhere he went, his positive attitude and enthusiasm permeated the air like a beam of light from a lighthouse, piercing through the fog of uncertainty. He inspired all those around him to be the best that they could possibly be. Kevin’s Delta Phi fraternity brothers established an event at Cornell called, “Shave a Brother to Save a Brother,” where students – many who never met Kevin – shaved their heads to champion the cause of cancer research. They raised over $1,300 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. In that same season, on May 2, 2009, a girl from Kevin’s high school approached him to say that his story in the local newspaper inspired her to continuing fighting, after she had attempted suicide.

As Kevin’s disease progressed, chemotherapy after chemotherapy, his physical body gradually decreased in strength, but his mental resolve to persevere and make a difference grew exponentially. His favorite quote has always been these words spoken by Mohandas Gandhi, which hung on the wall of his bedroom to remind him of his life’s mission:

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

This was his mantra. This was the principle to which he devoted every remaining ounce of his energy to championing.

I visited Kevin at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas during Labor Day weekend of 2011. He was in residence for a clinical trial that did not prove to be fruitful. As I laid next to his bed for two nights, I was struck by how motivated he still was to help others and to devote the remainder of his life to service. He admitted that his strength was not perfect, that he was “not superman.” However, he never uttered a single complaint, nor did he ever say, “this is not fair.” Even as he laid in bed, his words spoke to my heart as a voice of reason, cutting through the darkness of night. “I want to inspire people,” he said calmly but firmly, with his eyes closed. His only fear was that he did not know whether he would have enough time to accomplish his goals of making the world a better place. He expressed his sorrow at this unfortunate possibility as he painstakingly dragged his rolling IV stand across the floor to go to the bathroom.

On September 19, 2011, in his struggles to come to terms with his predicament and after a conversation with his Dad, Kevin shared the following realization with me via Skype:

There is a difference between giving up and admitting defeat. Giving up, you have options left [and have a conscious choice]; admitting defeat is saying you have no options left [and accepting that]. At this point, I don’t have any options left. So I’m not giving up. I will never give up. I will fight to the end, till the last breath, but I will not give up.

Kevin receiving communion.

A few days later, on September 23, Kevin was released from M.D. Anderson. The clinical trial had failed, and it was time to go home to spend his remaining precious moments with family and friends. Over the course of several weeks, Kevin received over 200 letters from his friends, describing how he had inspired them. Cornell University set up a scholarship fund in his name, to continue his vision of supporting education. DeKalb High School, where Kevin first established his talent in marching band, dedicated their new percussion practice room in his honor, naming it “The Kevin Ballantine Percussion Studio.” On the night of Saturday, December 17, his high school choir showed up at his front yard to sing Christmas carols with white candles in hand – the perfect treat for someone whose favorite holiday was Christmas.

On January 12, 2012, after losing his last bit of energy and not being able to go to the hospital for another blood transfusion, Kevin admitted defeat and said:

I have accomplished all of my goals; I am done, Mom.

Not many of us, even if given 80 years, would be able to say, “I have accomplished all of my goals.” Through the outpouring of love and support from all the people he had inspired, he had finally put to rest his doubts and become convinced that he did in fact make the most of his time on earth. Yet, in that bittersweet moment, Kevin did not give up. He may have admitted defeat, but he still did not give up. At only 23 years old, he had faced intense suffering and had walked through the vale of tears with unparalleled confidence and courage. Kevin’s last wish was for some snow, and he was treated to approximately 4 inches on the ground this past weekend, with snowflakes drifting through the air. Yesterday, after three long years of torture, his painful struggle came to an end.

Kevin passed away peacefully on Sunday morning, January 15, 2012, at around 9:40 am, surrounded by family at home. I would like to ask all who believe in the goodness and strength of the human spirit to offer a silent prayer for the most kind-hearted, positive-thinking, and inspirational friend I could have ever hoped to meet in my lifetime. Kevin is surrounded by the immeasurable love of all those whom he has inspired. As he walks through the valley of the shadow of death, he is not alone. He has nothing to fear.

Today, while we mourn, we also celebrate a life well lived – an example of the best that humanity has to offer. By staying so positive and being so uplifting over the course of several years, even as he faced the biggest life challenges, Kevin has helped countless numbers of people. He thought not of himself, but only of how he could give back to others. He has shown us the value of unity and of overcoming petty human differences. He has shown us the strength of perseverance. He has shown us the art of finding value in even the most difficult of circumstances:

Life is not measured in days or months, but rather in laughter and love.

Through adversity, Kevin’s voice of inspiration did not diminish, but magnified. Through pain, his spirit of fortitude did not wane, but spread. Through life, the temporal manifestation of his desire to help the world did not shorten, but will remain timeless:

If it’s worth the emotion tomorrow, then it’s worth it now. Conversely, if it won’t bother me tomorrow, why let it get to me now? Spread the love, not the hatred or sadness.

Kevin, you have contributed so much to who I am as a person, and I am infinitely grateful that our paths crossed so many years ago, far above Cayuga’s waters. May you truly rest in peace, knowing that the human race is better because you were among us. But your work on earth is not yet finished. On behalf of all of your friends, rest assured that your spirit and motivation will live on as we do our best to be the change that you wished to see in the world. As I promised while holding your hand on the last moment before I left your hospital room at M.D. Anderson, I will do everything in my power to help you fulfill your dream of inspiring people. Somehow, somewhere, sometime, I will follow through with that promise to completion. And when at last, my wearied hands too must lay down the working tools of life, I will hear your drum cadence from above and know thy will is done.

…and when we meet again, just let me know if you need a ride to the airport.

“The best kind of friend is the one you could sit on a porch with, never saying a word, and walk away feeling like that was the best conversation you’ve had.” ~ Unknown Author



Kevin’s wish has always been to contribute to the education of future generations. To help fulfill his wish in a small way, Cornell University has established a scholarship fund in his name. Please consider making a contribution, in Kevin’s memory.

Online:
1. Go to https://www.giving.cornell.edu/give/index.cfm
2. Choose “College of Arts and Sciences” in the “Designation” box
3. In the second drop-down menu, select “Other”
4. In the “Other designation” box, type: “Kevin Ballantine Scholarship Fund #0008243”
5. Fill out the rest of the form however you would like

…or…

Check payable to:
Kevin Ballantine Scholarship Fund
Fund number: 1845255

Send to:
Cornell University
P.O. Box 223623
Pittsburg, PA 15251-2623



To see more photos from Beck Diefenbach’s Photo Journal of Kevin Ballantine, please visit the following links: Original, Part 1, Part 2, 75 Days

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Posted in Events, Philosophy, Random Musings | 28 Comments

Life at Sea – Finale!

12 Dec
1630 UTC

After logging over 840 hours at sea and traveling over 3,500 nautical miles (over 4,000 statute miles) across open ocean, we safely returned to the port of Phuket, Thailand on the morning of 11 December… 35 days after we first left the lush green land of this tropical Southeast Asian country.

A few days prior to our arrival, we had to turn off the TOGA C-Band Doppler radar and end all scientific data collection because we had left international waters and entered the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as 200 nautical miles from shore, where a state has territorial rights to ocean resources. We also had a rendezvous with a fuel barge that met us at sea on 10 December to deliver more diesel for the upcoming cruise 4 of the R/V Roger Revelle for the DYNAMO field experiment. That night, many of the scientists gathered on the bow to watch the total lunar eclipse that occurred right over our heads! Since it was our last night at sea, we soaked in the nostalgic moment of feeling the wind on our faces and hearing the splash of the waves below. Our Research Technician (ResTech) brought out his guitar and strummed a few tunes as we gazed lazily at the gorgeous eclipse of the moon.

Our port arrival on the following day was not without its challenges. We did not have the usual convenience of docking the ship and stepping off onto a pier. Instead, our reservation was deferred to a cruise ship that needed the dock, so we were left with no other options but to anchor offshore and to take a Thai “water taxi” boat to shore. This “water taxi” was nothing more than a rusted metal container with a propeller. If there were a Thai boat equivalent to an old, beat-up Ford pickup truck from Oklahoma, this would have been it.

After the Thai customs and immigration officials climbed aboard our ship and cleared our passports, we each put on a life vest, handed our baggage to the 3rd Mate, and slowly climbed down a rope ladder into the metal hold of the Thai boat that was being madly tossed around by the waves. When it was my turn, the 3rd Mate dropped my Marine Corps sea bag into the boat, and I strapped on my life vest. After shaking hands with the Captain and the 3rd Mate, I descended the rope ladder and jumped into the boat right as it temporarily swung away from the hull of our ship. As you could imagine, transferring all of our baggage from the ship to the boat that was struggling to remain steady against the swells and waves many feet below was a chore. But with some effort and special attention to safety, we were able to fit most of the scientists in the rusted bed of the “water taxi.” As we pulled away from the R/V Roger Revelle, we could see the entirety of the ship for the first time since we left port over a month ago. The immediate change in perspective was surreal. As we pulled away from the starboard side of the ship, the crew stood on deck and waved. We bid them a final farewell and headed to shore.

My 35 days at sea have been nothing short of an adventure. Between the diverse people, the exotic setting, the extreme isolation, and the random humor of life at sea, I have tasted the essence and the thrill of life as a sailor. In fact, I and fellow scientists were properly inducted into the “Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Deep,” by Neptunus Rex, Imperium Neptuni Regis (King Neptune, Ruler of the Raging Main). This was part of an ancient Naval tradition that originated in the Middle Ages and is still observed today by the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and other navies around the world, whereby new sailors (polliwogs) must pass through several initiation rites organized by the experienced sailors (shellbacks) upon crossing the equator. These activities were originally meant to test new sailors for their ability to handle the rigors of life at sea, but now, they have become mostly traditional and much less severe than the activities that took place aboard ships in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Nevertheless, they preserve some standard elements that contribute to camaraderie among all who have participated. The international nature of this tradition is captured in this recent news article from aboard the USS New Orleans. I was presented with an official identification card and a certificate, signed by the Captain and Chief Scientist (who played the role of King Neptune). These will prove my identity as a “shellback” the next time I am aboard a U.S. Navy ship.

Now, back on land, I can fully relate to the yearning for adventure on the high seas that is characterized by sailors and maritime lore. So goes the slogan of the R/V Roger Revelle and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography:

Ocean exploration is our business. The world is our office.

Conventional thought and habitual ideas are challenged while living aboard a vessel thousands of miles away from civilization. Life at sea is at once an educational and a humbling experience, knowing that few human beings have experienced life in that setting for such a lengthy period of time. Whether it was waking to the calm morning sunrise peering through the horizon or braving the gale-force winds and rough seas during a developing tropical cyclone, there was always something to learn and some question to ponder. In the words of Saint Augustine:

Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.

This underlies my personal fascination with nature and the pursuit of scientific adventure. Whether I am climbing the largest volcano in the world, snorkeling with sea turtles, hiking through alpine meadows, or living on a ship in the middle of the ocean, there is always something to learn – not just about the world – but also about myself.

Perhaps the best moments on the ship were spent standing on deck and watching the wide expanse of the ocean reach far into the distant horizon. When the weather was quiet, the seas were tranquil, with waves no larger than tiny ripples along the water surface. The gentle swells of the ocean passed underneath the ripples, completely unaffected. These subtle undulations of the sea surface can never be seen from land, as the laws of physics dictate that swells must break into waves near shore. The ocean as seen from a beach and the ocean as seen from its heart are entirely different experiences. The gentle swells formed the perfect canvas for spectacular sunrises and sunsets, with beauty that far surpassed anything that the human tongue could express. I composed this poem in an attempt to capture the spirit of the sea:

ODE TO THE SEA

The Sea, mother of humanity
Giver of life across the lands
Your voice reaches no ear in vain
Full of wisdom, hidden ‘neath your ceaseless waves
Your calm can sooth the roughest soul
Yet your force can crush the sturdiest of ships
Your glistening waters inspire peace
Yet your storm-swept waves inject fear
You humble the most conceited among us
Yet you empower those who seek your source
You command the respect of all the elements
Yet you are part of each living thing
You are in all
And all are in one.

In conclusion, I am very happy to say that that this field experiment at sea was a huge success. Although the DYNAMO project continues for the next few months, we have already collected vast amounts of oceanic and atmospheric data that will be analyzed for many years in universities and government laboratories throughout the world. The Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO) remains an enigma in the realm of tropical meteorology, and yet, its effects reach across the globe and affect weather and climate on every continent. The large equatorial Indian Ocean thunderstorms associated with the MJO generate atmospheric waves, like ripples on the water surface that form in response to a pebble being dropped. These waves can affect global weather patterns, from floods in Pakistan to droughts in Africa and even to snowstorms in the northeast United States. Yet, we do not know exactly why the MJO develops and what determines its amplitude. Links to other large-scale climate factors such as the El Niño – Southern Oscillation are still hot topics of research today. Furthermore, how all of these seasonal and intraseasonal events relate to the increasingly pressing concerns of global climate change remain a question.

There is little doubt in the scientific community that climate change is occurring, and there is overwhelming evidence that humanity will soon be faced with economic challenges that are directly related to rapid changes in regional climate. Exactly how global climate change will affect local events such as tornadoes in Oklahoma and hurricanes in Florida are still a topic of intense debate, and science is only beginning to shine a light on these topics. At this time, Cornell University, my alma mater, is performing a faculty search to identify a new professor who would be willing to develop a new research program to address this very question: How will climate change affect extreme weather events? There has been evidence that if the average temperature of the globe warms, local regions may experience more extreme fluctuations between seasons. So a warmer earth may not necessarily result in warmer temperatures at a particular location. Correlations are not simplistic. Much more research must be done to bridge the gap between global causes and local effects.

In this time of uncertainty, we would be wise to pursue renewable energy sources to cut down on our artificial effects on the earth’s climate system. Both solar and wind energy are growing markets, but solar may have a greater potential as an untapped energy reserve. The sun is always there. While wind magnitude and direction both change with time, the energy of the sun is primarily affected by the presence of clouds. Cloud distributions are modulated by geography and follow patterns on the seasonal timescale that are usually more predictable than wind, which allows a greater ease for the energy markets to estimate the amount of energy that can be extracted from the sun on any given day for a particular location. However, engineers are faced with the task of developing ways to store the energy that is collected from the sun and the wind. Until we are able to do that efficiently, we will still be at the mercy of the changing weather patterns.

With such deep economic roots in weather and climate, we cannot escape the fact that we must understand the MJO in order to build a complete picture of global weather patterns and climate change. The MJO has been a missing link in our understanding of the physics of the global climate system. Someday, somewhere, the valuable data that we collected at sea will come together as pieces of the puzzle to shed light on the mystery of the MJO.

At the end of the day, science – as it always has been – remains “to be continued…”

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Remember Pearl Harbor (Life at Sea – Day 32)

07 Dec 2011
1830 UTC

Seventy years ago, at exactly this time (1830 UTC, 8:30 am Hawaii local time), the tranquil morning over the calm waters of Pearl Harbor were brutally shattered by the second wave of 170 Japanese aircraft, following another 183 at 7:51 am when the Empire of Japan launched its initial attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The second wave of aircraft sank 9 U.S. Navy ships and severely damaged 21 others.

On that fateful morning, thousands of American men and women serving their country both in uniform and as civilians arose to face the imminent reality and brutality of war. On that fateful morning, 2,403 lives were lost, of which 1,177 were aboard the USS Arizona, which sank within seconds after an armor-piercing bomb detonated a forward ammunition compartment. Seventy years ago, our nation and our world faced a mounting crisis of epic proportions, one that would cost more human lives than mankind could bear to witness. Seventy years ago, men and women the world over were challenged to dig into the deepest recesses of their souls while shedding tears that could not fill the void left by the loved ones that were lost.
Tonight, as I looked across the waves from aboard this U.S. Navy ship, I could not help but feel the anguish of the sailors as they rushed to save their fellow brothers in uniform. Tonight, as I stood on the bow under the shadows of the bright moonlit sky, I could not help but hear the cries of the injured. Tonight, as I smelled the characteristic scent of the ship’s quarters that is identical to that of the USS Missouri still on guard in Pearl Harbor, I could not help but feel especially close to the officers who awoke to the madness around them. Tonight, as Old Glory waived proudly on the mast above my head, I could not help but think of the sacrifices that fellow American citizens – both military and civilian alike – offer each day to preserve the sanctity of the U.S. Constitution and the Republic for which it stands. The soldier defending the front lines, the student educating himself at school, the doctor attending to patients, the scientist making discoveries, the teacher assuring the continuation of our generations, the protester fighting for a cause, the police officer enforcing laws, and the civil servant upholding the respect of our institutions – all of these men and women – have each contributed equally to this dynamic place that we call home.

Only seventy years since that awful day, the Japanese Navy flag can often be seen flying on ships docked right next to the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor. How times have changed. How ephemeral are even the most poignant events of passion. Time is the chisel of change. Time washes away the ills of history. Yet, time teaches us an important lesson about anger. Anger is futile, because all things change like the clouds in the wind. Even feelings as strong as the passions of war come and go with the sands of time. Objects of anger also change with time. As atrocious as events such as Pearl Harbor are in the history of this great country, and as deserving as we are to feel frustrated and angry, let us turn our anger not into hatred for any particular person or group because those change with time, but into a steady resolve to unite in the face of challenges. Let us remember the most brutal events in order to honor the sacrifices that others have made so that we can have liberty and be inspired to become better. Let us use these difficult moments to reflect on our common bond as we the people. Only then can we declare victory over the greatest war of all: the war against hatred.

Throughout World War II, the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt kept these words on a piece of paper in her pocket, which are now inscribed on a plaque at the shore of Pearl Harbor:

Dear Lord, Lest I continue, My complacent way, Help me to remember, Somehow out there, A man died for me today. As long as there be war, I then must, Ask and answer, Am I worth dying for?

Each day, as I walk to work at the Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Pearl Harbor, I am solemnly reminded of that infamous day seventy years ago. Even the outer walls of the Air Force’s 17th Operational Weather Squadron still remain scarred by bullet holes from the Japanese aircraft strafing of Hickam Air Force Base. How harrowing the experience must have been, and how sudden the face of mortality and hatred reared its ugly head.

So today, take a few minutes out of your busy schedule. Pause. And offer a silent prayer for those who have given the ultimate sacrifice so that we may be afforded the opportunity to pursue justice over vengeance, freedom over suppression, and tolerance over hatred.

And ask yourself this sacred question…

“Am I worth dying for?”


Posted in Adventures, National Affairs, Philosophy, World Affairs | Leave a comment

Life at Sea – Day 30

05 Dec 2011
2215 UTC

Alright, it’s official. We’ve hit the 30-day mark of living in the middle of the open ocean… and we’re all dying to return to life on land!!!

Even many of my Navy friends have said that they have never been out to sea for so long without at least some breaks in port, and the crew on this ship has similarly acknowledged the unusual length of this trip. Our ship has become a floating sociology experiment. It should be no surprise that living in close quarters with people of widely differing personalities can result in some interesting situations. Add to that the isolation of the environment and the length of time, and you get the workings of a sitcom combined with a reality TV show; think “The Office – R/V Revelle Edition.”

We’re all ready to return to our native habitat. I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to walk on pavement, stroll through the grass, and experience all the simple pleasures of life on land. Trees… the oh so wonderful trees! How awesome it must be to see the color green again – and not on a radar screen. I am going to be such a tree hugger – literally – on our first day back in civilization. While the tourists in Phuket, Thailand are flocking to the beaches for the day, I will be perfectly content staring at the land.

I am also looking forward to a bed that (1) isn’t moving, (2) is big enough so that I can roll over without falling off, and (3) does not require me to crawl in order to avoid hitting my head on the ceiling. Faucets with water that does not spontaneously sway back and forth would be nice, and being able to go for a run without seeing the same scenery repeat itself every 15 seconds would be cool too.

I was recently told that I look pale. I suppose that’s what happens when you work the night shift on a ship, with your only exposure to the sun being at sunrise or sunset. I’ve learned to see the world through a radar screen. I know the sun is rising or setting because of a “sun spike,” an interference signature. I know what direction the ship is moving based on the relative movement of radar echoes of surrounding storms. I tell time by the large digital UTC clock by the porthole and the non-alcoholic ginger beer that is served onboard every Sunday evening as a weekly treat.

Food and supplies are beginning to dwindle. As of last week, we have no more fresh fruits or vegetables. We have been relegated to freezer food for the remainder of the voyage. One of the chefs came by my radar control room earlier tonight to ask about what I wanted to eat tomorrow, because she was out of ideas. Some of the scientists have had cravings for simple things like potato chips, and the handful of bags of Lays seaweed-flavored chips (yes, there is such a thing apparently) have flown off the snack cabinet.

Thankfully, we departed our station several days ago, and we are currently traveling east, stopping occasionally for the oceanography teams to deploy CTDs (Conductivity, Temperature, and Density sensors) that sample the ocean to depths of 1,200 meters. It’s amazing to think that over 4.5 kilometers of water exists below me as I type this. We’ve been running a sonar that collects sea floor measurements and contributes to the database that Google Earth uses for ocean topography. According to the sonar, we sailed passed an underwater mountain a couple days ago.

On Nov 30, the other DYNAMO research ship, R/V Mirai from Japan, sailed past us approximately half a degree to the west. They stopped for several hours to perform radar inter-comparison, and I was designated as the contact person to negotiate radar scans with the other ship. I suppose that as a representative of the United States during the dialogue with the Japanese vessel, I temporarily stepped foot into the realm of international “scientific diplomacy.”

Finally, the vast majority of our science team has been busy in recent days with certain age-old maritime traditions that have been passed down for centuries. My Navy and Marine Corps friends would likely sympathize with what I’m referring to. For those of you who have crossed the equator at sea…

“HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A SAILOR???”

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Life at Sea – Day 20

25 Nov 2011
2000 UTC

Wow. This has been a Thanksgiving for the books! After weeks of relative peace out here, the weather has ramped up dramatically. Well, that’s a bit of an understatement. I suppose I should say…

***Mother Nature has UNLEASHED ITS FURY in the Indian Ocean.***

As I type this during a brief break in operations, we’ve been fighting sustained gale-force winds with gusts clocked to over 40 kts! Winds accelerated dramatically starting around 0800 UTC yesterday, and since then, the ship has been desperately fighting raging seas, with visual estimates of 10-12 ft swells, likely reaching 15 ft at times. With GPS and dynamic positioning glitches yesterday, the crew had to manually steer the ship with a steady forward motion into the wind to keep weight on the bow. This was to prevent us from “troughing” between wave crests… which would not have been good.

We are observing a rapid intensification of the MJO, with brisk westerly winds along the equator combining with a developing tropical cyclone (TC) just south of India. Waterspouts were sighted near the ship in recent days, indicative of increasingly convective weather. The circulation of the developing TC has grown to encompass nearly the entire North Indian Ocean, and its effects are being felt for thousands of nautical miles. The storm is heading to the northwest into the Arabian Sea at about 13 kts.

I woke up yesterday while nearly falling out of my upper bunk as the ship pitched and rolled heavily in the relentless swells. Since then, every few seconds, we experience weightlessness, followed by a loud thud of the bow crashing into the water and a period of downward pressure. Lateral rolls send us launching into walls while attempting to walk, and the ship occasionally hits a resonance frequency where the entire vessel vibrates for several seconds at a time. Staving off dizziness has become a routine chore.

I’ve always wondered what stormy seas look like, but this is absurd! The dark, roiling, turbulent ocean gives me goosebumps – not from fear, but from that tingling sense of awe at the untamed power of nature. It is that same feeling I get when observing a rotating supercell thunderstorm or witnessing a tornado. Standing on deck and watching swells as large as a house rise and fall with the horizon is surreal, and I once again realize how small I am in comparison to the undulating ocean surface rising multiple feet above my head and horizon. Storms are one of the few things that humans have yet to conquer. We can only stand back and watch in wonder.

The amount of energy that is stored in those swells battering our ship is tremendous, and yet, we are “only” in 30 to 40 kt winds. I cannot even begin to imagine what seas are like during a full-blown hurricane. No wonder tropical cyclones have held the distinguished honor of “Monster of the Sea” since the beginning of nautical lore – from the destruction of Geghis Khan’s fleet during his attempted invasions of Japan, to the obliteration of Christopher Columbus’ contingent in the West Indies, to the 700+ deaths that resulted from Admiral Halsey’s fateful encounter with Typhoon Cobra during World War II when the U.S. Navy suffered its greatest loss in history.

The Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC) in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was created in part due to Halsey’s disaster, and I have been in touch with them continuously throughout this ordeal by providing them much-needed data from our weather balloons and other scientific instruments aboard the ship. In this day and age, while we have not been able to tame the greatest of storms of Mother Nature, we can at least monitor them closely and save lives through scientific collaboration.

My responsibilities thus far have been quite daunting at times, especially when being entrusted with the title of “radar scientist” aboard the ship, but I have done my best to rise to the challenge. Without the C-band Doppler radar that I am operating, the ship would be “flying blind” with respect to storms upwind beyond the range of the shipboard radar, so I have had to respond to calls from the 2nd Mate on the bridge to produce an immediate wind gust forecast for the sake of controlling the ship against lateral drifting. When the Captain walks into my office to ask for a status update, I have to immediately produce a forecast – which is a lot of responsibility, complete with all the consequences of making a mistake. In between radar scans and monitoring the weather for the deck crew, I am also making decisions on data collection, setting radar scan angles, writing in the science log, corresponding with the PI about radar theory, and donning a rain slicker and life jacket to help launch weather balloons while braving the elements on deck. There have been many moments when I’ve been so busy that I haven’t even had time to be stressed!

As the ship continues to get battered by winds and waves, an interesting mix of birds have sought shelter here. The egrets are beginning to look weary and worn out, and some of them have actually passed out and fallen off of the ship. Much to their dismay, we are not a fishing boat, so we don’t have free food laying around. Yesterday, while going on deck, I was assaulted by a panic-stricken hawk. He was frantically trying to make sense out of his surroundings but was apparently getting as dizzy as the scientists. I never thought a bird could make a puppy face before, but this hawk put on the saddest face as I approached him, quivering by the lab entrance. There have also been owl sightings on deck. Yes, owls. We have owls. Meanwhile, we are routinely finding flying fish stranded on deck, having accidentally landed on our ship in the high winds. Other sea life that are not supposed to fly have become airborne nonetheless, and the oceanography team recently reported a squid flying horizontally out of a wave through thin air…

…and on that note, hope everyone had a good holiday! I can’t say I ever imagined I would spend Thanksgiving in the middle of an ocean with front-row seats to a developing tropical cyclone. To all my family and friends, please enjoy the dry (and stable) land for me!

Here’s to the continuing voyage…

—-
(IR satellite image courtesy of NCAR/EOL. Waterspout photo courtesy of Liam Neeley-Brown.)

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Life at Sea – Day 14

19 Nov 2011
2300 UTC

After a brief rain shower at the start of my evening radar watch, the clouds cleared and revealed the splendor of the night sky. Like a curtain lifting before a play, the sunset-tinged clouds parted to usher in the midnight show. Being in the middle of the open ocean, with no human souls beyond the boundaries of this ship, I looked toward the horizon with the greatest sense of awe. Upon adjusting my eyes to the moonless night, infinite constellations appeared before me – Taurus to the north, standing watch over Orion, flanked by Aries and Perseus. From horizon to horizon, sweeping across the sky was the Milky Way, our home, interrupted only by iridescent meteors shooting through the darkness of night. Between Pegasus astride in the western sky and Triangulum standing stately ahead, I catch a faint glimmer of Andromeda, a magnificent spiral galaxy two million light years away.

The calm of the night was invigorating. The tranquil waters below reflected a stillness of mind. The vast expanse of the ocean ahead begged the adventurous spirit. The boundless universe above challenged the ego. As I gazed into the distance, I was reminded of the words of the late professor Carl Sagan, who spoke about the earth in a photo that was taken of our planet by the Voyager spacecraft as it journeyed through our solar system:

…That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us.

It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Tonight, as I peered into the distance and looked into the past, under the watchful spiral of Andromeda, I was left to ponder the state of our world. Anger, greed, and hatred are all too prevalent. Even fighting for what is right or supporting a worthy cause, if done in anger, will never lead to peace. We spend countless hours of our lives fretting over our inconveniences, bragging about our achievements, judging others instead of ourselves, and arguing with our loved ones because of our habitual clinging to our imagined self-importance. We are like “someone who fails to see a boundless ocean a hundred thousand miles across and is aware only of a single floating bubble,” as the great ancient Indian philosopher, the Buddha, once admonished in the Surangama Sutra, spoken from along the northern shores of this very ocean. We “see that bubble floating there and think it is the vast tide that surges toward the farthest branches of the sea.” We think the smallest of things are the biggest of problems. We amplify frustrations by losing ourselves in negative emotion. We dig a hole and never realize that we are sinking with each breath. In this confusion, in this box that we draw around ourselves and our lives, we live out our limited days. Ignorant, arrogant, and close-minded, we as a human race continue to cheat, to wrong, and to defraud each other day in and day out, not realizing the futility of our ways. We think that how “I” view the world is ultimately correct, never stopping for a second to ponder, “What is the reality beyond my personal bias?”

Tonight, while listening to the ripples on the sea, I heard the wisdom of nature.
Tonight, while looking into the boundless universe, I discovered perspective.
Tonight, while witnessing the ephemeral flash of the shooting star, I saw myself.

Alas, no words can possibly describe the lessons of life, as there are no words to describe the vastness of the night sky. The Buddha once said of our attempts at discriminating and judging the world at large, “…why have you resorted to terms used in the reckless fabrications of worldly discourse? You might as well try to seize a handful of space. However much you weary yourself in the attempt, space will forever elude your grasp.” Indeed, these words of wisdom spoken some 2,500 years ago near the shores of this Indian Ocean still ring true to this day.

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Life at Sea – Day 13

18 Nov 2011
2300 UTC

After waking up this “morning” (well, morning for me, but late afternoon for everyone else) at 1630 and after the completion of the daily science meeting, I went on deck to get some much-needed sun when I came upon an unexpected sight…

BIRDS!!

There were flocks of egrets flying along the horizon, and several of them were lounging on various structures on our ship. I can’t remember the last time I witnessed emotion coming from wild birds, but I could definitely see the exhaustion in the eyes of these egrets. They were spent! They just stood there, hunched over, with not a care in the world. I could have approached them, and they would not have budged. Although, they are apparently VERY afraid of weather balloons. We launch them every 3 hours from the deck of the ship, and there is an exodus of birds from our deck each time… before they return again once the deck is clear. Somehow, the birds have decided to fly hundreds of miles away form any major land, possibly in pursuit of fish, only to realize that they have no place to land – literally.

Speaking of fish…

After sunset each night, because of the light at the stern of the ship that illuminates one of our oceanographic instruments, small fish come up near the surface to eat the algae and other debris from the hull of the ship. A short time later, larger fish and squid show up to eat the smaller fish. Then, the tuna come around to eat the larger fish and squid. Meanwhile, the bright blue/green mahi mahi come swimming by to get their fair share. Some of the poor fish getting eaten are actually flying fish, so as the tuna chase after them, they extend their wings, fly out of the water, flap around for a few seconds, only to land in more dangerous territory below the ocean surface. And tonight, SHARKS decided to join the fray. So pretty soon, there was an all-out, no-holds-barred, merciless feeding frenzy behind the stern of the ship!! Several of the scientists gathered on deck, and we watched in awe as the tuna and mahi mahi charged at the smaller fish, splashing, and jumping all over the place. Out of pity, we started cheering for the flying fish. The water out here has been very clear, so we could see the massacre happening from above.

“He’s coming! HE’s coming!! GO! GO! GO!!!!!” we would all yell at a flying fish as a tuna started charging at it.

Who needs ESPN out here? Just cheering and yelling at the ocean was enough excitement for one night.

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