YPs!

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Inspired by spotting that YP last week, I thought I would spend some time writing about them this week. YPs (technically short for “Yard Patrol,” Wikipedia, US Navy) are 110 foot long boats that are more or less designed to be a standard boat. Their purpose in life is for midshipmen to practice driving ships without having to like, go through all the time and expense of driving a destroyer around. Plus they’re smaller, so they fit in the Severn River a lot more nicely. They have two propellers and two diesel engines and a bridge and lookout stands and you can take ’em out and practice driving them around.

Every midshipman has some interaction with YPs. If you ask me, they should put a lot more effort into training midshipmen into surface warfare officers (SWOs), but nobody asks me. But you do things like seamanship classes and the like, and the practice evolutions for these classes are going out on YPs and driving them around. Some midshipmen interact with them even more and go on summer cruises on them for training. And then some midshipmen, some midshipmen are on the YP squadron.

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Some YPs from above.

For my first three years at the Naval Academy, I had less interaction than most with Yard Patrol craft. I was on the sailing team, you see, and we had a particular disdain for YPs. Why motor around on a YP, practicing going in straight lines and then turning on command, when you can sail around on the sleek, clean lines of a sailboat? But then halfway through my 2/C (junior) year, I decided to quit the sailing team when they wouldn’t give me a slot on a donated boat. Everyone at the Naval Academy is required to do a sport, and for that spring semester I was on my company’s intramural basketball team.

Senior year, however, I had come to miss my days on the water with the sailing team, and chose instead for my sport to do… YPs. I joined the YP Squadron, mentioned above. So this is wild. Like I just said, everyone at the Naval Academy is required to do a sport. Everyone. But one of the “sports” you can choose is to join the YP Squadron. What is wild is that it counts as a sport. What the YP squadron does is go out on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and drive YPs. This mostly involves different people standing around in different, discreet spots, and maybe moving their hands or something and then saying things to each other. Absolutely wild that is a sport, but that is the sport I chose so I could get out on the water again.

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Looking into the bridge from the starboard bridgewing.

The Naval Academy, as far as I could tell from my time there, does not have a chess team. It was my opinion that all the people that would have joined the chess team instead joined the YP squadron. You had to be a special kind of nerd to do this. What you practice on the YP squadron is standard commands and docking and undocking boats and then like, navigation. All of which I love, but YP squadron is your sport, so you had to love it more than like, playing dodgeball. Rare breed at the Naval Academy indeed, despite what you’d think. The YP squadron actually gets a fair number of Plebes to sign up every year, because over Plebe Summer the squadron gives them a talk about how amazing and awesome it is and Plebes sign up, not knowing better.

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Down in the galley, with our zoomie on the left.

The squadron itself is in a lot of ways pretty bonkers. If you’re an officer at the Naval Academy, and you just love SWO stuff, you try to help out with the YP squadron. The squadron also attracted the exchange officers. The British guys were always a special kind of crazy because they have a longer naval tradition, and their deck officers are just deck officers; they don’t tend to do engineering stuff too like American officers. So they are fanatical about navigation and try to instill this fanaticism on the YP squadron members. I don’t know if it worked but it was fun to watch. When I was there, the squadron also managed to attract an exchange cadet from the Air Force Academy. I guess he just wanted the full experience. If I didn’t care much about what we did, the zoomie really didn’t. Plus one time we toured a destroyer and he kept calling it a “boat,” much to the annoyance of the officer showing us around, and that was funny.

I actually had a great time on the YP squadron. I was a 1/C (senior) at the time, so no one really like, tried to tell me what to do. And you got to be on the water twice a week, which was fun. And no one got too mad if I just missed it (I actually had a chemistry lab scheduled concurrently, but it usually ended early). I actually did love navigation, and was pretty good at it, so I spent most every afternoon with the YP squadron taking one of the hapless plebes and teaching them navigation, which was relatively undemanding and pretty rewarding. I hope there are navigators out there who might not remember but at least picked up a practical tip or two before their navigation class. Plus it was nice just being out on the water.

Where other sports go to competitions or whatever, the YP squadron went on MOs (Movement Orders). That is, we would just drive the boats somewhere. This was usually pretty neat, because navigating the boats around was fun, and you got some good parking spots. When we went to Norfolk we parked right next to the Wisconsin, and when we went to Baltimore we parked right in front of the aquarium. The squadron also went to the Army-Navy game in Philly, which compared to the bus is a pretty luxurious way to travel. Then we parked next to the Olympia.

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Dad at the helm.

The trip to the Army-Navy game was especially fun because on the way back I got to bring dad. Turns out dear ole’ dad was actually commodore of the YP squadron back when he was a Mid, cementing him as an absolute bonkers NERD. But he had YP experience, and I asked nice, and he got to come with us on the way back down. I told him to not miss our underway time, and he was diligently waiting in the mess decks on the ship before the sun came up and before anyone was even awake. He spent some time at the helm while I was driving (standing officer of the deck), so I was ordering him around and that was fun. He tried to be chill about it all but he had a grand time, even digging up and busting out his old deck jacket from when he was driving destroyers around.

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Imagine like, a bald eagle screeching too, please.

All in all my time on the squadron was absolutely great. For a professional writing/communications class my senior year, I even made a poster that was meant to promote the YP squadron, depicting some Mid on a lookout post looking patriotic (pictured above). I was hesitant to go to the YP Squadron annual dinner, feeling a bit like an interloper, but due to all the Plebes being underage and the organizers accidentally ordering too much toasting port, we had a great time talking YPs long into the (Tuesday) night. So I stand by my opinion that the YP squadron are all nerds, but for a bit… they were my nerds.

Mystic Seaport Museum

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Last weekend my absolutely amazing girlfriend and I went to the Mystic Seaport Museum, which was awesome. It was her idea; her family used to go to Mystic on vacation when she was a kid and so had some nostalgia for the area, and she also knows I like boats. I have been to Mystic a few times, but never actually made it into the museum, despite the aforementioned deep love of boats. So on a particularly hot Saturday in July we packed up the DeLorean and head up to Mystic to check it out.

It was a great day to go to the seaport. We got there right when it opened at 10, and initially had some confusion about the ticket counter (well, I had some confusion), though after a security guard cleared it up for us we were right in. They were handing out a free book that day with admission, Through Hand and Eye by a guy named Ted Hood, who I had never heard of but is a sailor dude and apparently important (or self-important) enough to get an autobiography published of himself that normally costs $50. And more importantly, they were renting out sailboats FOR FREE!!!!

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I was very excited for this because I very rarely get to sail and I do love it so. I guess on a normal day you can pay money to rent one of their sailboats, but given that large chunks of the museum were closed due to coronavirus, they were letting people just take boats out as a bit of compensation I guess. Since it was free, and first come first serve, I was anxious about getting there in time to be able to take a boat out. So I speed walked us right over there and arrived before the boathouse even opened up. I loitered nervously and made sure to get even closer when another couple arrived, though I shouldn’t have worried because they wanted a rowboat.

I was excited to take my girlfriend sailing because she had “maybe once, though I can’t remember for sure” gone sailing before. And I mean I talk endlessly about it. I even wrote an essay for a magazine about sailing mostly to impress her. So I was excited to take her sailing and show her both the literal ropes and the metaphorical ropes, and teach her all sorts of great vocabulary like “port” and “sheet.” To be able to take the sailboat out, you had to pass a rigorous knowledge test, which consisted of the person asking “do you have small boat sailing experience?” to which I cunningly answered “yes,” though I had specifically worn my 2009 Marion-Bermuda race hat to show off my sailing credentials.

So with a shove from the dockhand we were off! We were sailing in the river there and it was a lot of fun. The breeze was light but constant and there was plenty of room and not much traffic and we got to go around for like 40 minutes before I started to feel guilty and pulled us in with a slightly too aggressive docking maneuver (we made it anyways). I had her take the tiller for a bit and she did amazing, absolutely fantastic, because she is both absolutely amazing and absolutely fantastic. It was a great time.

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The YP (Yard Patrol) craft!

Then we were off to see the rest of the museum. One of the more exciting bits was discovering that the Joseph Conrad (pictured up top) was owned by Alan Villiers. I own a number of his books so it was really cool to walk around his boat. That era of ships is also pretty astounding to me, because of how it spans different eras. The Joseph Conrad is a square-rigged sailing ship, but has an iron hull, you know? Villiers was of an era where you could both work on sail-powered cargo ships and then later also see the moon landing.

As we walked over into the shipyard area, I was also absolutely delighted to discover they had a YP! I almost didn’t recognize it at first because I walked up to it at a weird angle, and it was painted a super weird blue instead of it’s usual inspiring grey. I guess this one is owned by the Merchant Marine Academy, and was at the seaport because they’re experienced with working on wooden hulls. But my long and lasting experience with YPs (which I think I’ll detail next week) meant she couldn’t hide from me for long.

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Walking around the rest of the museum was also very nice. It’s not a single building, but actually a small village-looking thing. Although like I mentioned, much of it was closed, there was still plenty to look at. There was a scale model of the river from 1870 or so, and an old US Life-Saving Service hut, and various buildings full of boats. In the above picture, I convinced my super amazing girlfriend to stand next to a triple-expansion steam engine, because I find steam engines very sexy. I am comfortable posting the above picture because she has a mask and that will provide her some deniability of my obsession with steam engines. Actually going through my camera roll I managed to take pictures of a whole host of engines that day:

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So yeah. It was a great day at the Seaport Museum. We saw all sorts of ships and saw all sorts of nautical stuff and even got to go sailing!!! We managed to have lunch at a seafood shack not too far away, and after we were hot and tired from walking around and getting excited about nautical stuff we went to downtown Mystic and had some ice cream. After all that, the only other picture I wanted to post for you guys was the one below of the two little sailboats (one of these we had taken out earlier) because I thought they looked like they were racing. Maybe they were just going about the same direction at about the same time, but it my heart you can’t have two sailboats doing that and not believe they are racing:

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Battle of Lake Tanganyika

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I’ve mentioned it before (briefly), but the Battle for Lake Tanganyika is probably one of the wildest naval expeditions to have ever happened.  During WWI, the Germans had set themselves up for naval dominance of Lake Tang, causing the British to launch an overland expedition to bring two tiny gun boats to the lake to try to even out the naval odds. It’s one of those tiny little episodes of history that are both nearly forgotten but also have a legend all their own (The African Queen is loosely based on it!). This post isn’t really about the battle, because I could hardly do it justice, there is so much crazy stuff that happened. For a long time I thought there wasn’t much to read about it, but I guess I finally googled it or something and came across Mimi and Toutou’s Big Adventure: The Bizarre Battle of Lake Tanganyika by Giles Foden. Despite the name, it’s a book for like, adults, and is a colorful if straight history of the whole expedition (for a fictionalized account, A Matter of Time by Alex Capus is good if not entirely accurate).

Digging into the book, I was excited to discover that he had cited an article published in the October 1922 issue of National Geographic, which contained a whole series of photographs by the expedition’s historian, Frank Magee. With the power of the internet, I was able to buy the nearly century-old issue (which contained the “Special Map Supplement” of Africa), and it arrived on my doorstep mere days later.

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The point of this blog post was really to show you some of the pictures from the issue. There are like 30 of them. Unfortunately, the nature of my scanner is that I couldn’t really get good scans of the majority of pictures, though fortunately some were placed nearer to the margins and that is what you get to see here. These top two are nice because they actually show some of the ships involved in the battle, with the Mimi, one of the two gunboats, featured in the one up top. There are other, even wilder pics, including one of the gunboats being hauled up a hill by a whole team of oxen. If I can figure out a better way to get the pics scanned in, maybe I can give ’em a post.

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The bottom pic is at Lake Bangweulu.

The one point I wanted to make though is that in telling the story of the battle, the people that get lost in the tellings is the thousands and thousands of native Africans that were affected by it. I’ve written about the effect of WWI on the people of Africa before, and the short story is that it doesn’t go well. Fortunately, the Lake Tanganyika expedition doesn’t appear to have resulted in thousands of tenga-tenga dying or anything like that, but certainly the expedition couldn’t have happened without their support, as the pictures above illustrate. Giles Foden’s book actually touches on the lives of the people affected by the battle, and he goes to some lengths to find oral history about the battle from the people still living at the lake.

But when Foden tells his story, he has to rely on the primary sources, such as Magee’s article, and in those sources the story of these people is lacking. I’m not actually that familiar with 1920s era literature on Africa, so I can’t judge Magee against the standards of the time. I would judge him in a lot of ways sympathetic to the people, like when he tells the story of how at one point the expedition relied on “native women from local villages” carrying water in gourds and jars from eight miles away in order to fill the water tanks of the steam-powered tractors they were using the haul the boats. He notes that since water carrying is “domestic work,” the men refused to help, and expresses some disgust.

But way more often than he ponders the gender balance of work, he is concerned about all the cannibals he believes himself to be surrounded by. Graves of German sailors killed in the battle are guarded against natives “addicted” to cannibalism. On noting one particularly decked out chief, he notes “the origin of the spats and pink sunshade puzzled me somewhat until I remembered we were in the land of reputed cannibals.” But most of all the native population just aren’t characters in the story; the only Africa native that is mentioned by name in the whole article is a pet chimpanzee the expedition dubbed Josephine.

Then again who am I to judge? If you go back and read my blog articles from my time in the Peace Corps you won’t find a whole lot of names. A chunk of that is privacy, but a lot of that is just that, like the people on the Lake Tanganyika expedition, the people I met were more or less the background to my own adventures. In the link above (here it is again) where I mention the Battle of Lake Tanganyika, I was myself travelling to the lake to find a ship (the remains of one anyways). The people in that story don’t have names (even the ones that helped me along the way), and in that telling I treated them more has a hindrance to one white guy trying to find the material legacy of other white guys on their turf. I still have some lessons to learn.

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This photo is from the Nile river, not Lake Tanganyika, but I like dhows.

Maryland

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A coal bunker I got built for my Eagle Scout Project.

As I mentioned last week, my super amazing girlfriend and I traveled down to Maryland. I don’t quite know what to say about it, though I gotta say something because I am low on other potential blog content and although the aforementioned girlfriend is the only one that reads this blog, it’s important to me to get something out.

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It’s kinda weird to talk about Maryland. I mean, not desperately weird to talk about the state itself. I’ll talk your ear off. But anytime I move someplace new now, the latest round being moving to New Haven to attend Yale, you gotta tell all sorts of people where you’re from. “Where are you from?,” they ask, and I respond “Maryland.” This just feels weird at this point because I haven’t really lived there for nearly a decade, since graduating from the Naval Academy. That’s not true either, as I have spent several months-long stretches living in my parents’ basement (“the guest room,” my mom insists on calling it). But I suppose that is where I grew up and for large swaths of time has been my legal residence, and it was to my parents’ house that much of my mail always went. But now that picture gets complicated, because my parents are moving, cutting my last real physical ties to the state.

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“Where in Maryland?” is the follow-up question to where I’m from. I typically answer “Annapolis,” which is not really true. Much of the center bit of the tri-city (Annapolis, Baltimore, Washington DC) area is a sort of formless suburb of any or none of those cities, and I’m really from one of those suburbs. But then again it is sorta kinda true, because being from a formless sorta suburb there’s nothing really in my home town to latch onto as a sort of origin story waypoint, except for maybe a rather popular donut shop. I even went to High School out of my district. But then again if I’m from anywhere in Maryland, I do feel like I’m from Annapolis. I went to the Naval Academy for four years after all, an experience that feels often like an origin unto itself. When I go back to Maryland, it’s Main Street in Annapolis that I make sure to travel back to.

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But my girlfriend had never been to Maryland, so it’s a half decent excuse to drag her around and show her some stuff. It’s also a good excuse to wander around some bits you don’t normally wander around. The day we visited Annapolis was sunny and hot. We parked a few streets from Main, instead of paying for parking right downtown. Much of Annapolis was closed that day; I couldn’t show her the Academy, which would have been most of the tour, and the historical sites like the Capitol building were closed to visitors. But we managed to wander up and see a cannon I had never seen, and I read a plaque which finally clued me into the identity of the Old Treasury Building. We got to wander into my favorite used book store before many of the crowds arrived. We had arrived in Annapolis before many people were downtown, but by the time we left the crowds felt somewhat oppressive in a COVID-19 world. We managed to get some ice cream though.

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Besides Annapolis, we went to go visit a park near my house. This park’s main feature was a coal bunker, the building of which I had organized in pursuit of becoming an Eagle Scout. I’m still rather proud of the thing, and it is still standing and still bunkering coal 13 years or so later. It’s pictured up top. The coal bunker is next to a blacksmith shop, and the blacksmith shop is there because the park used to be a farm. In a nod to the park’s farm origins, there are a variety of animals kept by the local 4-H club, which included alpacas, which are viewed in high esteem by my girlfriend. So that was nice. In the same park we returned later with my dad and brother to look for deer, which when combined with the alpacas gave the whole event a lot of safari vibes. Or I thought so, anyways. We were just walking instead of bounding around in a Land Cruiser pickup.

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Eventually we left Maryland and returned up here to New Haven, and the next time I head southwards my parents will have moved to Florida, leaving me without any convenient place to stay east of Silver Spring. I’ll be back in Annapolis again, for sure: there are Academy reunions held with vigor every five years. But I guess we have to see if it still feels like home.

Mt. Vernon

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Yesterday, on the 4th of July (if I get this posted in time), my super amazing girlfriend and I went to Mt. Vernon (specifically “George Washington’s Mt. Vernon”). She is a big fan of presidential historic sites, and since we were in Maryland for the week so I could retrieve some things to store in my near-mythical storage unit, we decided to take the drive on down to see George Washington’s old digs. In addition, it seemed like a vaguely patriotic thing to do on a day when most fireworks displays were otherwise cancelled.

The particular bit of George Washington myth-making that intrigues me the most is the vision of a man who only really ever wanted to be a farmer, but kept acquiescing, with great reluctance, to lead a revolutionary army or serve as President of the United States. It is the central myth of George Washington, a myth that serves to embody in a man the notion that the revolution the founding fathers fought was for the people and by the people, and not for the aggrandizement of any one person. The nice lady at the tomb made sure to call out the myth explicitly: the one thing she said that stuck was her noting that peopled called ole’ GW the “American Cincinnatus.” It is also a myth that could be true. The facts are a matter of the historical record: George Washington did fight the revolutionary war, and did resign his commission when it was done. George Washington did serve as President of the United States, and did quit after two terms despite no one forcing him to. The story you tell around those bare-bones facts is a story about his motivation for doing so, the truth of which is unknowable without being in George Washington’s head.

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Some of the vegetable gardens.

One version of the myth I toyed with as we explored the grounds of Mt. Vernon was George Washington as just a conservation farming nerd. I imagined him as willing to fulfill the duties to which he was called, but viewing those duties as a distraction from his true passions of soil improvement and crop rotation. I like to picture him meeting an ambassador for the first time, and sure, yeah, doing the whole diplomacy thing, but most desperately interested in having the ambassador send over seeds for exciting new crops. That’s a man that quits the presidency only because he just can’t get anyone in the government to get as excited as he does about manure processing.

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Greenhouse framed with some palms.

Touring Mt. Vernon makes this an easy version of George Washington to conjure. Although there is a museum, the site isn’t a presidential library or anything of that sort, and besides for the whole President thing visiting Mt. Vernon is really just a plantation tour. Like my personal vision of the man, I too am a conservation farming enthusiast, and I thoroughly enjoyed walking around and checking out some of the traditional crops they have growing there and the extensive gardens. The plaques describe Washington’s extensive efforts at growing living fences, and makes note of the garden he would personally tend as he recorded the successes and failures of different experiments. His careful forest management, innovative barn designs, and greenhouse with exotic fruits are all lauded in detail.

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As we wandered up towards the main house, which is surrounded by outbuildings, I wondered what it would have sounded like in 1798. This is my schtick at places like this; you can see the buildings easily enough, but can you really get a sense of the place? As all plantations were, Mt. Vernon was essentially a small town. It was fairly crowded on July 4th, 2020 (masks were worn and social distancing measures were in place), but there was a whole wide array of sounds the landscape was missing. What would it have sounded like with horses pulling carriages up the path? With the roaring fire in the greenhouse keeping the orange trees warm, fed by an enslaved tender? With enslaved women doing the washing in the wash house? With the enslaved blacksmith pounding away in the blacksmith shop? With an enslaved carpenter repairing the roofs on the buildings? With the enslaved cooks chopping meat in the kitchen?

The myth of George Washington as a humble farmer who just really wanted to tend to his fields works well in the 20th century, against the backdrop of the US presidency as the most powerful position in the world. Why would any one man give up so much power over the running of the entire country? But in 1797, the landscape was much different. The presidency was a small job in a new, daring, but weak nation. But at home, at Mt. Vernon, George Washington was instead the lord and master of over 500 enslaved persons, wielding over them the power of life and death. He was, as the museum tells me, one of the richest men in America. So that’s my other vision of George Washington, as a man who returns from his duties, back to Mt. Vernon, so he could finally exercise real power.

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1983 monument to the enslaved persons of Mt. Vernon.

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Slave Cemetery

Mt. Vernon confronts George Washington’s legacy of slavery, but it is in no way a reckoning. At the slave cemetery, nearby Washington’s tomb, there are two markers, one dating from 1929 and another from 1983, and archaeological efforts are ongoing. Throughout the site, there are constant references to the work that enslaved persons did. In all these references, the interpretation falls far short. They all report, I assume, facts, but fail to contextualize them in ways that speak to truth.

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Near the main house, there are bunk rooms for both enslaved men and enslaved women. “Why Bunk Rooms?,” one plaque asks, before answering that “the unusual barracks-style1 bunk rooms were useful here because most of 59 adult slaves at the Mansion House Farm were either single men, or men whose jobs required them to live apart from their families six days a week.” That is a strange and underhanded way to phrase that George Washington, in his power over these people, decided it was more important that he have a butler on-hand than to allow these men to see their families for more than one day a week.

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Punt plaque.

Down by the water, nearby a model slave house made up to look quaint and cozy, there’s another plaque describing a punt. A punt “is a flat-bottomed boat with a square-cut bow that was designed for use on small rivers or other shallow water.” At the bottom, the plaque tells a touching tale about how “Sambo Anderson, one of George Washington’s enslaved carpenters, had a punt that he probably used to cross Little Hunting Creek in order to visit River Farm, where his wife and children lived. Although Washington owned many boats, he sometimes borrowed Anderson’s small vessel. Years later, Anderson recalled that Washington always asked permission to use the boat and invariably returned it to the location where he found it.” This story tells us that George Washington was nice to the people he enslaved. He asked permission to borrow Sambo’s boat! And returned it to the same spot! The plaque doesn’t bother to delve into why Sambo was forced to live away from his family. The insidious task the plaque undertakes is to polish the sharp edges of the relationship between Sambo and George Washington. George Washington had the power to order Sambo killed at any time and for any reason. George Washington personally prevented Sambo from living his own life as he chose. If you’re George Washington, why not be nice to a fellow human being whose life you could end at any time?

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Outside of the COVID-19 era, we might have come across it sooner, but it wasn’t until we were really heading out of Mt. Vernon that we found the portion of the museum dedicated to discussing the lives of enslaved persons on Mt. Vernon. Here, the museum works to paint a picture of a man torn in his very soul about the legacy of slavery. It’s a picture I just couldn’t buy.

In the submarine force, we had these training modules, called SOBTs (Submarine On-Board Training), that detailed events that lead up to various submarine accidents. Almost invariably there was a note in there, along the lines of “and the Quartermaster thought the ship was in trouble and this was a Bad Idea, but he told no one and did nothing about it.” I always felt you didn’t get credit for that; no one cares if you thought something was a bad idea if you didn’t do anything about it. Right from the start the museum spins a similar tale about Washington. It explains that his views on slavery changed over time, and towards the end of his life he thought it was a bad idea. But he didn’t do anything about it. You don’t get credit for freeing enslaved persons after you die and don’t need them anymore. I found frustrating the line that he was “unable to extricate himself from slavery during his lifetime.” That’s not true. What is true is that he couldn’t find a way to do it, and maintain the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed.

In my head as I was imagining this post it was an eloquent analysis of the mythmaking surrounding the founding fathers, a notion buoyed by a viewing of Hamilton last night on Disney+. It’s turned into more of a screed, but one that’s necessary, I think. The museum continues to shy away from truth while reporting facts. It discusses how slavery was economically unviable, how George Washington lamented that many of the enslaved persons didn’t really earn enough to make their “upkeep” profitable. That turns slavery into a charity case: these people couldn’t survive on their own, being unable to do productive work, but good ole’ George Washington keeps them on the farm anyways so they could stay fed and clothed. Let’s ignore why they were never able to save up for a retirement on their own.

The museum details the various punishments that George Washington could employ to keep the enslaved persons under control. The direst was selling them to the West Indies, which the museum noted was tantamount to a death sentence. This was reserved for only the most pernicious troublemakers, for whom George felt there was no real remedy. This puts the onus on the enslaved persons: if only they had acted better, Washington wouldn’t have been forced to send them to their deaths. The crimes for which these men paid with their lives? Fighting for their freedom and inconveniencing George Washington.

The most galling was the museum noting that freedom for many of the people George Washington freed in his will was “bittersweet.” Washington did not really own all of the enslaved persons on his farms; many he controlled via his marriage to Martha Washington, who had inherited them via the Custis line. Since the persons enslaved by Washington and persons enslaved by the Custis’ had intermarried, in some cases only parts of some families were freed upon Washington’s death. This is what made freedom “bittersweet,” in the museum’s telling. In that telling, sure, slavery was bad, but at least it kept families together!

The museum is wrought with, at first I was going to say “contradictions” like that, but “contradictions” is not quite right. There is no way to tell the whole truth of the life of a slaveowner and make that slaveowner look anything but evil. Whatever ideals George Washington fought for, he compromised them at home. The only question we have to answer is how much can a man compromise, and still get credit for fighting? In the year 2020, we can no longer accept a moral compromise that entailed the enslavement of hundreds of people so one man could continue to live a particular lifestyle. George Washington could have freed his slaves in his lifetime, but he just couldn’t figure out a way to do it and still be the “gentleman farmer” that he, or maybe just historians, imagined himself to be. When people argue against tearing down Confederate statues on the slippery-slope principle that, before you know it, we’ll be tearing down George Washington, they think they have a pretty rock-solid argument. Instead, I think we must reevaluate these men with every new generation. While it is imperative to learn about the context in which history happened, in order to actually understand the decisions people like George Washington made, we are not bound by the moral judgements of the past. It is the right of every present generation to look back and judge these men by the standards to which we would like to uphold, and only then take the lessons from their lives to help us live ours.

1I also want to say, the plaque notes that the bunkhouse as it is shown at Mt. Vernon today is based off of barracks occupied by Continental Army troops, which they make note of I guess as a way of citing their sources, but also seems to me says something like “look, George Washington treated enslaved persons just as well as Army troops! Couldn’t have been all that bad!”

Hammonasset

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When I took this photo I initially didn’t spot my own legs on the viewfinder; my swimsuit just ended as far as I could tell.

Reading this week:

  • The Arabs: A Short History by Philip K. Hitti (1949)
  • Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
  • Make Your Bed by Admiral William H. McRaven (USN, Ret) (gift)
  • Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans (from a seminar)

This past weekend (as I’m writing this) my girlfriend and I went to Hammonasset!

When I was a wee youth, my family and I would go camping at Hammonasset nearly every summer. My dad has roots in Connecticut, and I think we generally went up to coincide with a family reunion on that side. The big draw of the place for us kids was that there are miles of biking trails (or at least, trails upon which you can bike), which must have offered a pretty nice vacation for my parents. We just went off all day, entirely failing to bother them, and just made sure to stay generally within the confines of the state park. It had been years since I had been here, and I hadn’t quite ever placed Hammonasset (when I was a kid I always wondered how the name related to pigs, and specifically pigs on some sort of asset, but the name apparently actually means “where we dig holes in the ground“) in my head geographically until I was driving to New London to meet up with some friends and spotted the sign. Turns out it is only like a half hour drive from New Haven, so since it was a sunny weekend my girlfriend and I decided to have a beach day to get out of town.

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We left fairly early, because we were afraid of the beach being at capacity and not being allowed in. We got there in plenty of time when the park was still relatively uncrowded (later in the day it got crowded to the point where I kinda no longer felt it was pandemic-appropriate, but we managed to minimize interactions I think) and started off going on some nature walks. When I was smaller I remember the park being much bigger, but it has some very lovely trails overlooking marshes and such. You could even spot, from one rather nice location, some navigational markers (pictured above), which I then got to explain in great detail to my girlfriend. Sudden realization: maybe she asked about them on purpose so I could talk about the International Association of Marine Aids to Navigation and Lighthouse Authorities System B????? Awww she’s so sweet.

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Besides navigational markers, the park seems to be very very good for birds, with a variety of habitats and a whole mess of bird houses placed all over the park. I made sure to take several pictures. Other things I took pictures of (not included here) were some solar panels (infrastructure!!), a spiral herb garden, and my girlfriend eating a sandwich. I also took some pictures of sailboats, who appeared to be drifting but with gusto, the usual fate of sailboats in Long Island Sound:

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With our exploring done, it was time to hit the beach. We gathered up the camping chairs we had brought, took off our pants, and settled in. We mostly sat there reading our respective books, which is about the best way to spend a day on the beach if you ask me. Sunscreen was not applied as liberally as it should have, but frankly that would have been difficult in the best of times. The day was beautiful and warm even if the water was cold (we dipped our feet in and got no further) and the beach drew a rather massive crowd. I think they should have limited it a bit more, but people seemed to be at least trying to keep their distance from each other.

After a few hours, we decided we had enough sun and packed it up. We drove around the park a little, and I indulged in a bit of nostalgia, pointing out, for example, the parking lot where I used to ride my bike into flocks of birds in order to scare them, or the field where I used to fly a kite and where that day other people were flying kites. A pretty fun experience and I highly recommend.

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Navy Life Story: Sub Ride Part II

Reading this week:

  • Mimi and Toutou’s Big Adventure: The Bizarre Battle of Lake Tanganyika by Giles Foden (a perfectly normal adult book, besides the name)
  • Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (I worry this is a feel-good book for white people)

One of the more exciting times came when we did Midshipmen ops. During 2/C (Second Class aka Junior) Summer, Naval Academy Midshipmen go on PROTRAMID (PROfessional TRAining MIDshipmen), which involves a lot of stuff, but includes 24 hours on a submarine. The submarine pulls into port, a whole bunch of Midshipmen board, the submarine goes underway, dives, does some typical submarine-y type operations, serves everyone pizza, and then pulls in and discharges its Midshipmen cargo with them hopefully buoyed by wonder at the submarine life. Midshipmen ops on the Montpelier started about three days after the rest of us had come aboard, so by this time I was practically an expert in all things submarine-related. The Midshipmen that came aboard where actually ROTC Midshipmen, so I didn’t know any, but we had the same rank insignia and therefore I was a friendly face. I guided them in the essentials of Midshipmen life on a submarine, such as “how to ask to go up to the bridge to look at the ocean” and “where are the bathrooms.” That was fun showing off, but I was equally glad to be rid of all the other Midshipmen, and hear the crew complain about how annoying Midshipmen ops are. “Ah but you’re different,” they told me, a Midshipman, mostly because I was sitting within earshot (to be fair to me, Midshipman ops are annoying because doing all those different activities in 24 hours is taxing on the crew, and the Mids take up a lot of space and force people out of their bunks so the Mids have a place to sleep, whereas the longer-term ride-alongs like us don’t really impose any additional requirements on the submarine except that we occasionally bother people by pushing the “test lamp” button on the Tomahawk firing panel to make all the lights light up).

I remember being most impressed by the captain of the ship, who’s name I entirely forget. One time I came up to the bridge to find the captain already there. He had both the legs and sleeves of his coveralls rolled up, and his hat on backwards, enjoying the weather and driving around his nuclear-powered warship. I remember thinking that was just so cool, him relaxed as can be in total command of his domain. This trip was also my first real glimpse of the terror a Navy captain can instill. One of our limited duties as Midshipmen onboard the submarine was to get the movie ready every night in the wardroom. This involved loading up the DVD and getting the popcorn ready. One night we finished watching the movie, and the captain said “Tomorrow we’re gonna watch Talladega Nights.” So the next night we go to set up the movie, and flip through the wardroom’s large binder of movies, but we don’t find the ballad of Ricky Bobby. We ask around, and no one’s got it. So, being the enterprising young Midshipmen we are, wanting to forge ahead and not bother Garcia (I hate that book), we simply chose another movie. Shortly before the movie was about to begin, we casually mentioned this to the XO. “Oh no,” he said, fright evident in his eyes, “that’s not good.” This initiated a flurry of activity. People were woken up. Audio-visual systems were to be rerouted. Additional potential sources of movies were hunted down. Panic commenced when none of these options were bearing fruit. Suddenly, the captain walked in! We told him that we didn’t have the movie. The captain then simply walked out. We figured we were doomed. We couldn’t find the movie! How much of an abject failure could each of us be? But then shortly thereafter the captain simply returned to the wardroom, tossed a copy of the movie on the table, and stated flatly “Man to do a man’s job,” and we watched the movie.

Other exciting things happened during our time on board. We had two swim calls, to take advantage of the Caribbean weather. These are what it sounds like, where the submarine surfaces, stops, and people can go topside and go swimming. Also during this event we had a gun shoot (on the opposite side of the ship as the swim call). The ship came up with some excuse that they needed to shoot the 50-cal they had onboard for force protection, and we got to fire it and some boxes they had wrapped in plastic bags (submarine cruises are very very much recruiting trips). In the battle of AUTEC, the boxes lost, let me tell ya. Smoking was banned on submarines in 2010, but on this trip I also made sure to smoke a cigarette or two just for the novelty of smoking underwater. I had been given the advice to bring a pack of cigs or two onboard even if you didn’t smoke, because hanging out in the smoke pit and giving a away a few cigarettes was an effective way to make friends. I also fondly remember the ship’s gas-station-style cappuccino machine; the galley was small enough that in the right spot you could sip your cappuccino and then reach over and refill your cup without getting up from you seat. Heaven, truly.

Like I said at the beginning, this trip is what convinced me to go submarines. What I liked is how small and tight-nit the ship and the crew seemed. No one seemed aloof or distant, and there were few enough people it seemed you could get to know everyone. People were friendly, or at least willing to give you their time. The crew was irreverent that seemed especially appealing to 19-year-old me. I remember one Chief yelling to another that was disembarking “DON’T FORGET MY GOAT PORN” for when he was to return to the ship. It was a short ride, and after nine days we were off, loaded onto a tugboat that came to meet us and bring us back to shore. Quite the good time.

Swim call cigars.

Navy Life Story: Sub Ride Part I

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Reading this week:

  • The Savage Wars of Peace by Max Boot
  • A Problem From Hell by Samantha Power

If you’ll allow me to briefly skip over the entirety of Plebe Year in my Navy Life Story, I’ll talk about my submarine cruise during Youngster Summer. Every summer at the Naval Academy, you have professional training. This was split up into several different blocks, and on one of those blocks you went on a Fleet Cruise, wherein you did something with the fleet, aka the Navy outside of the Naval Academy. Each summer is named after the following school year, so Plebe Summer becomes before your Plebe (Freshman) year, and Youngster Summer comes before your Youngster (Sophomore) Year. My Youngster Summer I went on a submarine cruise.

During your Youngster Summer, your options for your fleet cruise are limited to either a surface cruise, where you go on a surface ship, or a submarine cruise, where you go on a submarine. The point of this cruise is to give you a taste of what life is like for an enlisted summer. Back in the day, like 1900, you would actually do like, work, but I think these days mostly Midshipmen just sorta wander around the ship looking lost. I can’t remember if submarine cruises or surface cruises were the more popular choice (you did whatever the Academy told you, but you got to put in preferences). Anything submarines-related was generally unpopular at the Naval Academy, but the submarine cruises had the advantage of tending to be shorter. The surface cruises were all for a month, but I wound up on a submarine for a whopping 9 days. I had put in my preference to go on a submarine because I was genuinely interested in submarines, I promise.

This cruise really cemented my desire to go submarines. Usually when I tell the story, I pithily say that “I found my people; they took me in, fed me coffee, and I was quite happy.” The first step was reporting to the Naval Academy, where we stayed overnight for some processing. I was to go on the USS Montpelier, which was stationed in Norfolk. Since it was pretty close, they just drove me down there, along with some other Mids. There was to be three of us on this particular submarine. We were driven by a newly-minted Ensign, who was at the Naval Academy on temporary duty, and had no real idea what was going on. He drove us to Norfolk Naval Base, and then drove along the pier until he found a submarine, and tried to just drop us off. We objected to being dumped on the pier next to some random submarine, so he next drove us to the squadron headquarters. This went better and we checked in with squadron and eventually checked into the on-base hotel for the night. Our submarine was leaving the next morning, and we’d come on board then before departure.

Now that I am writing this I am struggling to remember anything about the first day or so of being underway on the submarine. It must have been fairly overwhelming. Honestly I’m not even sure about the hotel thing, but it seems right. I do remember two officers from the ship picking us up and taking us out to dinner, which was fairly exciting because like, here we were meeting real life officers out in the fleet doing fleet stuff. Also they bought us dinner, after one guilted the other into it, citing the fact they got paid way more than we did. The next morning we must have gone to the submarine with our stuff. We probably sat in the wardroom for a bit while doc got us our TLDs (thermo-luminescent dosimeters, aka radiation detectors) and someone briefed us on the ship and had us sign whatever paperwork we had to sign. We were assigned bunks. I do remember getting the “Iron Cross,” as that particular bunk in 9-man berthing is known. Unlike most bunks, it is half hidden behind some other bunks, leaving a relatively small hole where you can enter it. And it’s the top bunk, all of which means you have to do some particular gymnastics to get up into it. I tried to minimize the number of times I had to crawl into that thing, unusual for a Midshipman.

There frankly wasn’t a whole lot for us to do on the submarine. We were assigned crew buddies, who we were nominally supposed to shadow. I don’t remember his name, but my buddy was a firecontrolman, who stood his watches in the control room. That was convenient because it gave me a pretty good excuse to hang out in control and sit at the fire control stacks. The major advantage there is that was the easiest way to figure out where we were in the world, by looking at the chart on those stacks. This was my first time underway on a ship, and since a submarine doesn’t have windows, it’s a little disorienting figuring out where you are in the world. Over the nine days we were on the submarine, it was slated to first drive down to Cape Canaveral for some Midshipman ops (I’ll explain later), and then to AUTEC in the Caribbean to do, uh, something I guess. I tried to spend a reasonably large amount of time with my crew buddy there to learn the ins and outs of submarine stuff. I eventually figured out someone friendly on each shift I could hang out with and so that’s mostly what I did, hanging out with people on watch. Quite the life.

Please come back next week for Part II, so I can stretch this into two weeks of content. Thanks!

CelNav

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This story doesn’t really have a point, but I was asked in a conversation recently if I had ever learned to navigate by the stars, and I didn’t really get to answer, and there is a pandemic going on. The short answer is yes.

Back at the Naval Academy, I was on the sailing team and over the summer we would compete in various races with the team. That year I competed in the Marion-Bermuda Race, which runs in the years that the more famous Newport-Bermuda race doesn’t. The exciting part of this race, unlike its more famous cousin, is that it is a celestial navigation race. You got more points (or more accurately weren’t penalized) if you navigated the entire race using celestial navigation instead of GPS.

So that was pretty exciting! We got to learn how to use a sextant and stuff! I think I was officially the assistant navigator on this little journey, but firmly the celnav guy, and dove right into it. I was already firmly a Bowditch fan, so this was a lot of fun. I learned all about how celestial navigation worked, got pretty familiar with a variety of stars, and would plot sun lines by hand even though we wound up using a computer program to try to plot star shots. Before the Bermuda race we also did the Annapolis-Newport race, and although that was a GPS race we took the opportunity to practice our celnav skills and it was all pretty great! (that photo up top is of me doing navigation stuff on the sailboat)

Then came the actual race itself, which was overcast the whole time. It is pretty hard to do celestial navigation when the sky is covered in clouds. We got exactly one star shot during the trip, and we frankly weren’t sure whether to trust that more or our dead-reckoning position more. The most significant lesson I learned on that trip is you can dead-reckon your way across an ocean. The rule was that you could turn on your GPS within like, 30 miles of Bermuda, so when we thought we were within 30 miles we turned it on, discovered we were really like 50 or something out, turned it back off again, and repeated that process until we were in fact like 30 miles out. We got second in the race! Pretty good!

Anyways, flash forward about five years when I was a submarine officer and held the title of Assistant Operations Officer which, due to reasons, put me in nominal charge of navigation department. My most significant task in that role was approving the maintenance schedule, which is how I discovered that we had an annual maintenance item to check the ship’s sextant. This is how I discovered that we had a ship’s sextant. That was cool! A sextant onboard! Sextants are cool! I have no idea why we had one. I mean, presumably in was in case of emergencies, but I really cannot conceive of the scenario where a submarine would use a sextant. Like first the GPS system would have to go down, and then with all the backup and inertial navigation systems on board, and then the fact we would have to surface to use the sextant, there just isn’t any way we’d use it. I also had trouble figuring out how you would actually go about using it, even if you were on the surface. Not that anyone on board would know how. Except, you know, for me.

Since I knew how to use a sextant, navigation division decided to have a training on celestial navigation, which I would lead. I was looking forward to this, the division was looking forward to this, it was great! Until I was in the wardroom happily putting together my training PowerPoint. I didn’t usually hang out in the wardroom, almost entirely due to reasons like what happened. The squadron ops officer, who used to be our navigator, was on board for an exercise or something. He saw me putting together the Power Point, and asked what I was doing. I explained what I was doing, and then he asked why the hell I was doing that.

There’s actually a lot of use in learning celestial navigation, even if there is no conceivable reason a submarine would ever use a sextant. There’s a lot of really basic navigation concepts that you get to flex in interesting ways. And lemme tell ya I think submarine crews (maybe not navigation division itself but officers for sure) lack knowledge in basic navigation concepts. You have all these systems and computers that put a lot of it out of sight and out of mind, and so people just come to expect a magical box to give them their position and don’t think much about it, but things can go wrong and it is important to both understand what the magical box was doing and the thought behind it so you could actually rely on the magic box. Somethings the magic didn’t work right and when you run a $2 billion submarine aground people don’t really accept the excuse that “well I didn’t really question the magic box.” So there was a lot of use to it! Plus people were excited for it! No one is ever excited about training!

But the SQOPS apparently didn’t approve of celestial navigation training despite my reasoning. But that didn’t matter, he’s not in my chain of command. But then I guess he told the XO, who yelled at the current navigator, who was my boss, and who yelled at me. This was mildly annoying because the navigator APPROVED the training plan! That said I was going to be training on celestial navigation! And now he was yelling at me for trying to carry out the training plan he approved! It’s things like this that made me quit the Navy. But thankfully nav bought my “it’s really training on basic navigation concepts disguised as celestial navigation training” and so I got to do the training and play with a sextant and everyone loved it and it was a great Power Point to boot.

Sheep Shearin’

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Reading this week:

  • Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis with Michael D’Orso

This past week it was back to farm country. We were officially on summer break, so we decided to head back north for some idyllic pastoral scenes, such as the above one with fluffy sheep. But! These fluffy sheep were not to last, because the World Famous Fred DePaul was coming down to shear some sheep and I got to help out!

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Glamour shots.

Shearing sheep was the big event for the weekend. It only happens once a year, after all. Or anyway it’s supposed to happen once a year. The big drama this particular weekend is that the local newspaper had a front-page photo of Sheep Shearin’ Fred shearing a sheep that hadn’t been sheared in two years. This was dramatic because any responsible sheep farmer knows to shear their sheep every year, because it’s neither good for the sheep nor good for the wool to let the sheep go two years. Fred didn’t own the sheep, but everyone involved was worried that their good reputation would be harmed by the journalistic indiscretion. What has the world come to anyway?

Sheep shearing was scheduled to start at about 10 in the morning with the arrival of Fred. Farmer Billy, as my girlfriend’s dad is known to his legion of online fans, had prepared by rounding up the sheep. Besides being sheared, they were getting their hooves trimmed and getting deworming shots. All the lambs were getting banded and docked just so they wouldn’t feel left out.

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It is a joke that I managed to make several times that day, but with the whole world protesting so they can be allowed to get a haircut the sheep were notably unethusiastic about their all-inclusive spa day. I mean between a haircut and a mani-pedi what more could you want? But they were unenthusiastic (I know I can’t blame ’em). To shear the sheep, you flip ’em on their back or on their butt, at which point they largely go limp. Most of the time I thought they resembled toddlers who didn’t want to do something, having to either be dragged along or hiding behind their parents. But Fred and Farmer Billy are very experienced and caused them no harm. I feel like after they’ve been sheared they must have quite the spring in their step, having lost all that fuzz. At the very least they must be cooler, with summer temperatures finally starting to make a debut.

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One of the sheep reluctantly waiting her turn.

My role in the whole operation was largely moral support. I opened several gates and reluctantly bagged several bags of wool. One time I also measured out some medicine, but that was only because no one else was available. I did get kudos for grabbing the lamb of one particularly protective sheep. “Wow, you dove right in there!,” I was lauded, after heroically picking up a cute lil lamb, which we then used to lure its mom towards her inevitable haircut. Later my girlfriend took over lamb-holding duties, and she had to pose for both me and her mom as we obsessively took the cutest pictures ever. Those pictures are not included because she is the only person that reads this blog and I think she would be upset if I posted them.

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After several hours the sheep were all finished getting sheared, and were released back into the field, where they were quickly distracted from their woes by grass. If I learned anything that day it is that, as my girlfriend pointed out, sheep are very easily distracted by grass. All the little lambs had very tight rubber bands around their tails at this point and couldn’t care less when presented with some grass.

Of all the sheep, the most dramatic makeover was Emmett, the friendly ram. He was tricky because his horns had to be maneuvered around, and I had failed to realize he had ears, but here he is, in all his shorn glory:

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Overall quite the exciting day, and afterwards I lay down on the couch for quite some time out of laziness. I hope my lamb-wrangling skills managed to impress Farmer Billy.