Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Fitch Barrier: A Risk-Taker's Lifesaving Legacy

Among the artifacts of daily life so ordinary that they give no hint of their extraordinary origins are the yellow, sand-filled crash cushions found on highways in all 50 states. It’s unlikely that many motorists give them a second glance, let alone wonder how they came to be fixtures of the American roadway, but if they looked into it, they’d find that the story of the Fitch Barrier and its inventor, John Fitch, is as colorful as the barriers themselves. 

Born in 1917 to a wealthy and inventive family (his great-great grandfather was an inventor of the steamboat), John Cooper Fitch studied civil engineering at Lehigh University before dropping out to travel the eastern U.S. and Europe by motorcycle. Sailing and airplanes were early interests, and after an unsuccessful attempt to join the Royal Air Force at the outbreak of World War II, he joined the US Army Air Corps in the spring of 1941. Flying the A-20 Havoc bomber and P-51 Mustang fighter, Fitch was one of a handful of pilots (including famed test pilot Chuck Yeager) to shoot down a German Me 262 jet fighter. Later, shot down by ground fire, he ended the war in a German prison camp.

Fitch and the Cunningham C4R

After the war, Fitch found his niche in sports car racing, parlaying impressive driving skills into a successful career with legends like Briggs Cunningham, Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio. He successfully managed the Corvette racing program in the late ‘50s, and between 2003 and 2005, in his late ‘80s, drove in land speed record attempts at Bonneville in a 1955 Mercedes 300SL Gullwing, the type in which he’d won the GT class at the 1955 Mille Miglia. He designed several racing and sports cars, including the highly regarded Fitch Sprint and Fitch Phoenix, both based on the unfairly maligned Chevrolet Corvair.

June 11, 1955 - the Le Mans Disaster
It was the infamous 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans, however, that provided the pivotal moment of Fitch’s life and career. During the race, another driver swerved in front of teammate Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR, launching it into an embankment, ejecting Levegh, and propelling the flaming wreckage into the spectator stands. Levegh and more than 80 spectators were killed, and nearly 180 more were injured. The Le Mans disaster, to this day the worst racing accident in history, was caused by a racetrack inadequate for the speeds of the day and having little or no crash protection for drivers or spectators. Although Fitch continued driving professionally until 1966 and in vintage racing for years afterward, he remained greatly affected by that horrific day at Le Mans, and realized he could make his greatest contribution to society through the promotion of automotive safety.

Fitch became a prolific inventor, patenting crash cushion and barrier systems for racetracks and highways, fuel, emissions, and brake products for cars and trucks, and safety improvements for cars and occupants. He devised cushioned racetrack walls and guardrails with deformable cylinders, and designed a race car helmet restraint that anticipated the modern HANS device for preventing fatal neck and skull fractures. 

John Fitch testing early crash cushion prototypes in a '60 Chevy
The engineer in Fitch knew that reducing the severity of crashes required dissipating energy and increasing the time of deceleration of the crashing vehicle. He built the first prototypes of what would become the Fitch Inertial Barrier from sand-filled liquor barrels, testing them himself in his own driveway at speeds of up to 70 miles per hour. Fellow race legend Sam Posey recalled, “He had these barrels arranged. It's freezing cold, and John gets the car warmed up and charges toward these barrels. At the last second he throws himself down on the floor of the car. He crashes into the barrels. Sand everywhere. Just a huge mess. And John emerges, grinning like a sonofabitch." 

Now, of course, Fitch Barriers are found on highways across America. No one knows how many lives they’ve saved in the decades since their adoption in the late ‘60s; the most commonly cited figure is almost 20,000. The value in human life is of course incalculable. 

John Fitch died in 2012 at the age of 95, having lived a storybook life. He’d traveled the world and moved easily among the powerful and famous, receiving a trophy and kiss from Eva Perón, and befriending the likes of the Kennedys and the Duke of Windsor. But it was his legacy of automotive safety that he valued most, and he counted as his greatest accomplishment the familiar yellow barrels that bear his name.

For further reading:



Fitch and a Mercedes 300SL Gullwing at the Mille Miglia

Fitch with the Fitch Sprint and Fitch Phoenix at Lime Rock, Connecticut

Fitch and the Gullwing at Bonneville

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Fear Not!

Note: This was originally posted on Facebook on the eve of the election. It's a bit moot now, but not without value for the future, I think.

"Bonhoeffer's experience with the African American community underscored an idea that was developing in his mind: the only real piety and power that he had seen in the American church seemed to be in the churches where there was a present reality and a past history of suffering. Somehow he had seen something more in those churches and in those Christians, something that the world of academic theology- even when it was at its best, as in Berlin - did not touch very much."

-- Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus proclaims to Peter that the gates of hell shall not prevail against his Church.

But that wasn't to say said gates wouldn't give it their best shot, and in Matthew 24, Jesus paints a vivid, frightening picture of what was to come, and did come.

It found partial fulfillment in the decades following his death and resurrection. In Rome, when Emperors like Nero tried to stamp out Christianity in the most monstrous ways, Christianity flourished, the message of grace, mercy, forgiveness, redemption and hope through the completed work of Christ spreading like wildfire throughout the known world and changing it forever.

And so it continues. In modern-day China and North Korea, a Christian caught proselytizing is at risk of the State-imposed penalty of disappearance and death. In Egypt, Coptic Christians have their churches and property seized, and in other parts of the Middle East, Christians are routinely hung, tortured, beheaded and burned alive by the likes of ISIS. Yet, like modern-day Wycliffes and Latimers and Ridleys, still they come.

In the United States, the Church has been free of any real persecution. Yes, disturbing inroads are being made on religious freedom, such as violating the rights of conscience of a Catholic religious order by requiring it to provide contraceptives coverage, and the severe curtailing of religious speech of the military's chaplain corps and servicemembers. But in America, the Church has always been surrounded by affluence and comfort and plenty that would leave third-world believers a-gape.

And yet (or more accurately, as a result), it seems to be wandering, seemingly more concerned with worship team amplification and pastors' piercings and skinny jeans and pandering to postmodern proclivities than with being a living sacrifice. As it always has, the Church in the US does an enormous amount of work that gets very little media attention. But where is our vital witness to a dying world?

Where is the salt and light? Where is our life-changing impact on the culture at large?

I believe this is a result of individual Christians' (me at the front of the line) pursuit of worldly goals and our eyes being focused on this world and looking to the things of this world for our sustenance and protection, rather than to our Creator and to the Author and Finisher of our faith. We are like the only seed sown on the pathway and rocky ground and among the weeds in Matthew 13. We have become indistinguishable from the world and have thus lost our power. Not the temporal power of princes and politics, but the power to change hearts and build the Kingdom. In pursuing political power, we have not gained it, and worse, have lost our spiritual power.  We're exchanging our birthright as children of the King for scraps from the tables of impostors.

Jesus never told us to organize into coalitions for the purpose of amassing political power. He never told us to try to cozy up to the seats of earthly power. These are lessons we were supposed to have learned in the '80s and '90s.

Jesus called us to be salt and light. He called us to proclaim the Good News. He called us to disciple others. When his disciples said the crowd around him was hungry, he said "YOU give them something to eat." He said to care for the elderly, the widow, the orphan, the childless, the sick, the imprisoned, the bereaved. He told us to let our light shine before men, that seeing our good works, they would glorify the Lord. He told us that we are to act humbly, sacrificially, in love.

And yet, here we are in 2016.

I've read and heard some odd and even disturbing things from my fellow evangelical Christians this election, as if we've forgotten who we are. I'll avoid a cataloguing of them here, because that's not what this is about. But will I do a facepalm over the shriveled view of God that dares to claim Him for one or the other side of an election, as if the plans of the Alpha and Omega, the Creator and Sustainer and Sovereign of the Universe, hinge precariously on who becomes the head of one of three branches of the US federal government for four or eight years, forgetting that it is for us to try to be on His side. (See Psalm 2 and Abraham Lincoln.) Because every four years is the Apocalypse and the End of America if our person doesn't win, I've seen a lot of things that seem to be motivated by fear.

Fear that has taken our eyes off the Master in the midst of the storm, like Peter's, whereupon he began to sink.

Fear that the wrong President will "take away our right to worship." I don't know about you, but given what we know of the history of the Persecuted Church, and knowing how Americans typically react when told they cannot do something they consider a fundamental right, that might be the best thing that could happen to the fat and unhappy Church in America.

Jesus said no servant is above his master; that if they persecuted him, they would persecute us. Read Matthew 24. Jesus promised that his disciples would be delivered up to tribulation and put to death; that we'd be hated by all nations for His name's sake, and I don't believe his words have seen their complete fulfillment yet.

But if the history of the persecuted church teaches us anything, it's that Jesus's promise to Peter is true, and that the greater the persecution and tribulation, the more power and vitality is found in the Church and the gospel. The greater the danger, the more converts brave the persecution to come to the One who has defeated death (Romans 6:9, 1 Corinthians 15:54-55, Hebrews 2:14, Revelation 1:18).

In Syria, Christians walk to the gallows singing hymns. In North Korea, they distribute Bibles at risk to their lives. In Malaysia, they risk beatings and death. In parts of Africa, people walk an entire day to attend a weekly Bible study.

It seems they have all taken to heart Jesus's words in John 16:33 in speaking of his death and the Disciples' temporary separation from him. "I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Why are we then engaged in such strenuous pain avoidance, knowing his promises and our ultimate reward? Do we want to kick the can of trials and tribulations on down the road to our grandchildren, who, by all accounts, will be even less equipped to live through them than we are?

This rambling piece is meant, not for admonition, but encouragement. This election has been demoralizing for almost all of us, no matter where you find yourself on the political spectrum. We've probably all said things we regret. But in 2 Timothy 1:7, Paul says "for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control."  So render unto Caesar tomorrow, knowing God sits on his eternal throne. Vote for whom you will, but don't do it out of fear, which is ungodly and un-American.

Fear not! Greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Election 2016 - Compassion for the Fearful

Christ commanded us to love our enemies. How much more, then, should we love those who aren't our enemies, but with whom we merely vehemently disagree about almost everything?

St. Paul told us not to destroy the faith of others, to not insist on our rights, but rather to place others above ourselves.

The Bible is full of exhortations of mercy and compassion. Jesus taught by his divine example that love (which must necessarily include love for our enemies) is sacrificial. He suffered and died for those who mocked him, flogged him and spit on him.

Jesus had many hard teachings.  He expanded the definitions of murder and adultery. He called for meekness, humility, compassion, sacrifice; the taking up of our cross.


Presidential elections seem to present a real challenge to our being Christ-like.

It's not exactly a state secret to those who know me that I was vehemently opposed to both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. So, I feel like while many on the two sides continue to shout at, or past, each other, I can understand both sides to some extent. Both sides are right about some things and wrong about others. Neither side is 100% right nor 100% wrong. Accepting that reality is a good first step toward moving forward. Take all the time you need. I'll wait.

Now, when I see people gripped by fears that they and others in their various identity groups are entering a period of darkness and oppression, that they even fear for their personal safety, I don't think those fears are invalid after the excesses of the campaign. But even as someone repulsed by the excesses of Trump and some of his supporters, I do think those fears are exaggerated. Some will say that's easy for me, a safe, white Christian male, to say. I'll concede that, and will gladly refrain from Trumpsplaining, or explaining to you how you feel or what it's like for you to be who you are.  But I will say that there is such a thing as objective truth, and whether a thing is true or not does not depend on how easy it is to say. Even a scoundrel can speak truth. And if you know me, I'll ask you if you really think privilege precludes empathy and compassion, because if you do, I'm saddened by your low view of me.

Anyway, there are a number of reasons I think the present fears are exaggerated, quite apart from my privilege. I won't go into them here, as those with those fears don't really want to hear explaining right now.  They need to work through their feelings. This fits in with my goal of doing more listening and thinking. I was going to add "and less talking," but here I am, talking, and talking, and talking. You can't have it all, people.

At long last, here's my point. If people are expressing fears we disagree with, it's okay to comfort and encourage them, if that's what they want. But if we just want to discount, to minimize, to justify, to argue, then remember, silence is golden. If we feel that the fearful ones are snowflakes that need to be toughened up for their own sake, fear not - if necessary, life will do that for them without our assistance. If you don't care about the person, shut up and go away. If you do care about them, shut up and stay.

If we think they're the enemy, I think we need to put down the politics and back away slowly. But at the very least, remember that thing about loving our enemies. And remember that love isn't a feeling, but an act of the will. Act in love, even if you're not feeing it. Jesus probably didn't have warm and fuzzy feelings as he was committing the ultimate act of love on the Cross. Be merciful as He is merciful to us.

This isn't about those committing violence and hate with Trump as an excuse. What they hate is America, and democracy when it doesn't give them the result they want. They'll get no defense from me, no matter how righteous they think their rage is.

And it's not about politics, but about filtering our politics through the Gospel if we believe we can't compartmentalize our Christianity, but must make all our thoughts and deeds captive to Christ, that the Gospel must permeate our lives and thoughts and deeds, that we died with Him to live in Him, that in Him we live and move and have our being.

It isn't easy.

But this is how we be the face of Christ to those those who are hurting and feel marginalized, because they have, rightly, or mistakenly, internalized what they believe to be hateful messages from Trump and many of his supporters. From the point of view of Christian ethics, if we're going to be skeptical of people's fears in the wake of the election, it's incumbent on us to 1) have compassion for them and 2) work to make sure their fears are never realized. Instead of telling them they're wrong, work quietly and lovingly to ensure they are and will remain so.

Speaking of Jesus, Matthew 12:20 says "a bruised reed he will not break..." and I am positive he never sneeringly called anyone the Aramaic equivalent of a "special snowflake." Filter any objection you have toward this through the Gospel. You may cringe at what you perceive to be the virtue-signalling of the safety pin, but the meaning behind it (I will protect you) is unassailable, isn't it? I may not wear a safety pin, but shame on me if I don't defend someone who needs defending.



Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Thoughts on Depression and Suicide

It's a few days after the sad death of Robin Williams, and along with all of the tributes, there is a lot of opinion flying around the interwebs about depression and suicide.  Having some firsthand knowledge of the topic, and never being a shrinking violet when it comes to giving my opinion, I held forth on Facebook and was surprised and pleased that it seemed to resonate with and help people.

For the person with clinical depression, there is no life circumstance that will protect them from it.  None of the things we aspire to in life will stop it.

The answer to the question "How could someone so (gifted/talented/intelligent/confident/competent/strong/seemingly happy) take their own life?" is that when driven by clinical depression, suicide is not a rational act.  Depression isn't just being extra sad.  It is a real mental illness that can make people imagine and believe the most horrible, irrational, outlandish lies about themselves, lies that everyone else knows to be lies.  Such a person can feel that they ought to die, and deserve to die, even painfully, as a gift to the world and restitution for the crime of having been born and lived.  Does that sound shocking to you?  Because that is the depth of irrational self-hatred to which depression can drive a person.  Severely depressed people can also be subjected to the chaotic short-circuiting of thoughts, resulting in what I can only describe as the feeling that one's mind is on fire.  Given that, it should be evident that suicide is not necessarily an act of weakness, selfishness or cowardice.  For some unfortunate people, simply being is itself at times unbearable.  People point out that suicide is a choice, and while that's true, it's not necessarily a choice made by a person in possession of their faculties.  I wonder if it ever is.

Society can help by understanding that mental illness is physical.  The brain is a physical organ that operates through chemical processes, and it is no more immune to malfunctions in those processes than is, say, the digestive tract.  A person with mental illness is no more defective, flawed or bad than is a person with ulcerative colitis.  But mental illness is the one physical illness that carries with it fear, stigma and judgment.

We would also do well to be a bit circumspect and humble in our opinions about anti-depressant medication if we have never personally had our lives and sanity saved by them.  They are not "happy pills" and they are not an escape for the weak.  For some, when prescribed and used properly, they erect a floor beneath their feet, a stop, a limit to keep their depression from spiraling out of control, and for them, they are a godsend.

Of course, I believe the best thing for any person is to be reconciled to their Creator and enjoying fellowship with him, through the redemption of our lord Jesus Christ.  I believe that much anxiety and depression is the result of unresolved guilt and unrepented sin, and the library has not been built that could adequately address the topic of the mind of the person whose soul is at enmity with God.  But mental illness is real.  And if we can make use of our God-given gifts and arts and intelligence to come up with ways to treat the physical problem of mental illness, we should.  And if we can stop seeing those afflicted with mental illness as being specially and frighteningly damaged, we should.

John 9:2-3 
And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"  Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him."

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Traveling Companion

Not even I should go a year between posts, so I figured I'd check in, and with no topic in mind, just put down what's on said mind.

My depression is visiting me this week, but he's different than he has been in the past.  It seems like he's matured and mellowed along with me.  When he first sunk his teeth into me in earnest, some eighteen years ago, it was a savage, hard-edged thing.  It knocked me flat.  As I was able, with the help of doctors at least somewhat versed in brain chemistry, to control him, the edge came off, he donned softer clothing, but whenever he drew closer, he was still hard underneath the skin, and took me down for the count at least once.  The medical help?  The ignorant think it's some kind of chemical escape mechanism; as one uninformed, tactless nursing undergraduate called it, a "happy pill."  Those who really know, know better.  It's no such thing. I take my meds, and I still have clinical depression... but I'm alive.  That's the difference.  In the throes of depression, one is spiraling down a black hole with no end, and no desire to stop descending.  The medicine simply nails up a sturdy floor to stand on to stop the descent.  That floor may be lower than the surrounding ground, and it's made of rough-hewn planks, not carpeted in flowers and unicorns, but it is a floor, a limit to further downward movement.  And that's enough, and thank God for it.

Anyway, I've grown and learned, and I have people who depend on me.  My children get my mind out of myself, and they're worth it.  I had my chances to be more than a mediocrity, but now is the time to be a springboard to their dreams, and it's a joyful thing to do so.  Now, thanks mostly to the much-maligned doctor-prescribed SSRI in residence in my bloodstream, rather than being a savage primate riding piggyback, screeching in my ear, depression is more of a companion walking a few paces behind silently in a hooded robe.  (If I were a man of consequence, perhaps he'd be the slave standing behind me in the chariot as it passed beneath Roman arches in the triumphal parade, whispering "Remember thou art mortal.")  I'd love to be altogether free of depression's company, but that's probably not in the cards, and I can tolerate it.

This week, he's pulled up abreast of me.  Not on my back, saying dark things to me from behind gritted teeth, but keeping pace.  But where before his mutterings were a danger to me, this week, they're causing me to withdraw from people, all people except for family and the closest friends.  It's not falling down a hole, but left unchecked, withdrawal into one's self isn't much better.  But I think this is an episode that won't last; he'll drop back again and take his designated place behind me in our pathetic two-man parade.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Reflections - 2013 A to Z Blog Challenge

It all started innocently enough.  A post to the Writers of Kern facebook page by our president, Dana Martin, said "Hi guys! Who has a blog?? I'm doing this challenge..."  And, genius that I am, said "Sure, I'll do it."

One month later and here I am, a Survivor of my first  A to Z Challenge.  I've written a blog post for every day of April, save Sundays, one for every letter of the alphabet.

Now, I've made no secret of my distaste for runners.  They're so fit, and always so high on endorphins, and you can actually make out their abs, and they don't eat Moon Pies and wash them down with Dr. Pepper, and they have those "26.2" stickers on their car and they run, of all things, and like to talk about it.  I really do hate them.  But I have to borrow from their world to describe what doing this Challenge was like for me.  (I think I ran some in eighth grade, so I'm not completely without firsthand knowledge here.)

Yes, this challenge was like a marathon.  At the beginning, you're borne along on excitement, then pleasure at doing what you love and doing it in an actual event.  After a few miles, it gets harder as the enormity of the task sets in.  Well into the race, there are hints of panic and a thought of bailing out, but some perverse pride keeps you going.  Farther in, it becomes a real slog, with actual pain, and all your strategies go out the window save to just keep putting one foot in front of the other.  But as the possibility of actually finishing becomes better than an even bet, something curious happens, the "second wind."  As the finish line draws closer and the you realize that yes, you really are going to make it, the tension and fatigue in the muscles fade, the lactic acid and cramping is forgotten, and you find your form and hit your stride with a kick of newfound energy.  Finally, as you cross the line, the thought of never having competed seems ludicrous, the pain is forgotten, and only pride remains.

And I am proud.  I'm great at starting things, but not so great at finishing them.  Not too experienced with closing the deal.  Most of my projects lie unfinished.  If you're not like me, it's hard to explain how exhilarating finishing a month-long task can be. 

There have been costs.  I've stayed up too late, too many times, finishing posts.  It's made it hard to get to work on time and added to my fatigue at work.  Worse yet is that time spent writing was time not spent giving my attention to my family. 

But we made it through, and it's time to give the computer a bit of a rest.  I'm glad I did it. 
It's been great for my writing chops.  I'm pretty much an essayist, and my best-ever essays have been for this challenge.  And it's turned my blog from a neglected and somewhat embarrassing thing to something I'm proud of, an actual blog.  That gets updated regularly.  And people read.

I'd like to thank the 2013 A to Z team that made this Challenge such a polished, professional showcase.  They are The Madlab Post (Nicole Ayers), Tossing It Out (Arlee Bird), Amlokiblogs (Damyanti Biswas), Alex J. Cavanaugh (Alex J. Cavanaugh), Life is Good (Tina Downey), Cruising Altitude 2.0 (DL Hammons), Retro-Zombie (Jeremy Hawkins), The Warrior Muse (Shannon Lawrence), The QQQE (Matthew MacNish), Leave it to Livia (Livia Peterson), No Thought 2 Small (Konstanz Silverbow), Breakthrough Blogs (Stephen Tremp), Spunk on a Stick (L. Diane Wolfe), and thanks to their cohosts, teams, minions and helpers.

Thanks also to all my fellow Challenge participants who encouraged me just by sticking with it, and provided me with so much great reading.  Thanks especially to fellow Writers of Kern A to Z bloggers "Coach" Dana Martin and Dennis VanderWerff and newfound blogging friends like Kern Windwraith, Bethie, Susan Scott, Kathy Wiechman, Suzi the Literary Engineer, Sylvia Ney, Julie Kemp Pick and many others, and to Arlee Bird for sending A to Z love in my direction.  Thanks for everyone not mentioned by name here who took valuable time from their day to read and commnent on my posts (including the very same Mom and Dad who used to put my stuff on our Avocado Green refrigerator)After all, without you all, what's the point?

Finally, I'd like to thank all of my fellow Writers of Kern for support and encouragement, particularly my biggest cheerleaders, Joan Raymond, Dana Martin and Annis Cassells, whose comments I eagerly looked forward to every day.  I suppose I could have managed something without you, but it wouldn't have been nearly as good or as fun or as worth it.

Love you all,