Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 730, July 21, 2013


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Matagorda Island
Sunset on Matagorda Island, Texas
Photo 2001 by Kenneth E. Harker of Austin, Texas
Via Wikipedia

From The Rust Belt to Matagorda & Back Again:
a History Lesson and Hope for the Future of Freedom
by Jeff Fullerton

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Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

Welcome to Matagorda Island. An interesting strip of land also referred to as a sand split or barrier island off the coast of Texas that was acquired by the War Department as a bombing range during World War II. Later became an Air Force installation and eventually a federal wildlife refuge.
This was the place my old friend and one of my mentors in herpetology and snake hunting—the late Bob Levendusky of Scottdale PA aka "Big Bob" was stationed as an airman in the late 50s or early 60s. It was a special duty assignment in the Air Force called Operation Wildlife where he worked with a team that improved the wildlife habitat in support of outdoor recreation for military members and even met and entertained many dignitaries including General Curtis LeMay and Jacky Gleason and Marlin Perkins of Wild Kingdom fame! He also did quite a bit of snake hunting—that mostly involved removal of the abundant Western Diamondbacks which Bob said infested the island and they collected and shipped them off to zoos by the crate load. These were much bigger, and more aggressive snakes than the Timber Rattlers he began honing his skills with on the ridges of Pennsylvania in his youth. And one time when he least expected it—apart from actual snake hunting he had a near fatal encounter with one while building brush piles to enhance the habitat for quail hunting. It bit him in the neck and he passed out immediately and awoke later in a military hospital on the mainland. After recovery he returned to duty and continued hunting snakes on Matagorda and for many years after leaving the service—back to the hills and hollows of Western PA and many times in Florida, the Carolinas and even the southwest on his cross country runs as truck driver. And in addition to at least 15 venomous bites in his lifetime; mostly by rattlesnakes (copperheads which are generally non-life threatening to a healthy adult he did not count) he also kept at one time or another just about every poisonous reptile known to Man including King Cobras, Kraits, Cantils and even some of the really bad Australian ones like the Death Adder and Taipans!

At Matagorda, Bob almost made a great contribution to Herpetology—the study of reptiles and amphibians—in the way of a new Milk Snake subspecies that might have been named the "Matagorda Milk Snake" but alas it was deemed to be an intergrade of the Louisiana and Mexican Milk Snakes—which if you consult the the range maps in the back of the Roger Conant field guide, Matagorda is about where the ranges of the two populations meet. It is also where the flora and fauna typical of the US Gulf Coast merges with the more tropical elements of Mexico.

When Bob started telling me the tales of his days at Matagorda, around the time we met back in the early 1990s—I remembered that was the place where former astronaut Deke Slayton based his ill fated Conestoga rocket enterprise in the early 80s. Had seen the footage on TV of one of riding aloft on a pillar of flame on a brief test flight that ended with a splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico. Who knows, it might have been the beginning of a vibrant private space flight effort the likes of what is going on today had it not been for the fact that the fledgling enterprise was hounded and squeezed out of business by NASA and a number of other federal agencies because they didn't want competition with the Space Shuttle.

Big Bob didn't think much of human space flight despite some interest in old science fiction movies and a rather fervent belief in UFOs. As for the government space program he thought it was a big waste of money and years after his passing in 2001 time is proving him right in many ways. I on the other hand had been a long time space enthusiast since I discovered Gerard K. O Neil's "The High Frontier" on the library shelf in High School. Sadly by the time I learned of the existence of organizations like the L5 Society—much of that was winding down, but I had been sold on the idea of things like orbiting space colonies and solar power satellites as a solution to many of the problems that those with anti-space sentiments had been crowing about incessantly since the days of disenchantment with science and technology in the post Apollo era. As I continued on thru my college days and then on into the Air Force—which was sort of a temporary escape from the region which was suffering the effects of the decline of its industrial base in those days—the dream of "From the Rust Belt to the Asteroid Belt" was born. Never the less—many of my fellow "bitter clingers"—a label that was even then apparent long before the current political climate made it obvious—did not share my enthusiasm. Many of them were prone to knee-jerk reactions at the notion of humans living in space or beaming power down from orbit. One of my early attempts to convince Big Bob made him so mad it nearly destroyed our friendship.

Another time in response to the idea that building space craft and launch facilities, not to mention cheep energy from the powersats as a means for reviving basic industry and the fortunes of the dead and dying river towns of the region—he just scowled "Those are all high tech jobs. They won't help ordinary working people like us".

In those days that defined in part the attitude of the people who came to be called "bitter clingers" which has fortunately along with the prospects of the region has improved over time. And ditto for both sides of the arguments that can be looked at more objectively now in the early 21st Century. Bob's apocalyptic vision of all life on Earth being destroyed by pollution (he was sort of stuck in a time warp of 1970s thinking about pesticides and acid rain while everyone else in the environmental movement had moved on to saving rain forests and worrying about global warming)—has yet to come to pass. And ditto for my dreams, inspired by the L5 Society, Gerry O Neil, Thomas Heppenheimer and let's not forget Freeman Dyson and Dandridge Cole who were the intellectual giants of the space vision back in the day. Cole, who unfortunately died way too young is probably the one who should be given credit for giving us the idea of large spinning habitats in space with his concept of hollow asteroids beautifully terraformed as illustrated in his book titled "Islands in Space: Challenge of the Planetoids".

But alas all that seems consigned for now to the ash heap of history or the world of what could have been. Yet might still be—in light of current developments in the commercial space enterprise—which is still plugging along despite the best efforts of NASA which now has now scuttled the shuttle and become shamefully reliant on Russian rockets and the private sector while foundering aimlessly with a vague and uncertain vision of returning to the moon or a manned Mars mission. And private companies the likes of Virgin Galactic and Planetary Resources currently sitting now like the pioneers of commercial aviation in the early 20th Century.

Looking back again thirty years—the government tried to abort the birth of private spaceflight on Matagorda Island. At first they figured Deke Slayton and his crew were crazy and would get nowhere. But once they actually got something on a launch pad, lit a fire under it and flew it—the government and its minions descended like vultures to shut it down. Sadly—even Ronald Reagan who was President at the time signed the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 which for a while had been a setback for private enterprise in space. So much for the inspiring speeches on "perusing our dreams toward distant stars" for what became the current International Space Station and developing a Strategic Defense Initiative to "render nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete". I was totally sold then on big ideas and big science. Not long after; the loss of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 made it evident that putting all our eggs in one basket was a dubious folly. Reinforced by the prophetic words of Marshall T. Savage in the "Millennial Project" who said "Since the Challenger Disaster, NASA officials talk about civilians in space "within 20 years." After they blow up the next one, they won't talk about it at all".

Today I look back in shame to some of my own previously held beliefs regarding private space ventures that were similar to current sentiments of public service employee toward the Tea Party. I was still a big believer then in Big Government. Reasoned that only the government could muster the resources to make human space flight and colonization a reality. Those guys putting up satellites on cheap little rockets were just a dead end that would take away business from the shuttle and other big rockets that could lift people and bulk freight into orbit. Not thinking that in time the profits might be reinvested in building better spacecraft capable of doing the things I wanted to see done. Or that someone else with more ambitious plans might share in the lease for the launch facility and a full fledged spaceport would be born.

In recent times the message of science fiction has mostly been that massive amounts of capital are required to get humans into space—or at least to overcome that major hurdle of getting away from the Earth's gravitational field. As opposed to the earlier literature of the Golden Age that often had inventors building spaceships in their own back yard out of parts from a junkyard. But times have changed. There are is a lot of junk left over from the space program and military rockets. And technology is improving to the point where a lot of big ideas could be kicked off on a small scale. That is part of the coming revolution that could end the Age of Authority that El Neil has written about in "Down With Power" and many of his novels written since the botched attempt to stop the advance of private enterprise into space when it first attempted to lift off from the launch pad on Matagorda.

Like the reptiles and other hobbies—my enthusiasm for science fiction and the human aspiration to colonize space in real life has been an eye opening lesson in libertarian principle and a source of compelling desire to to throw a monkey wrench into the gears and cogs of tyranny and bring this wretched age of administrative dictatorship to an end. As seen in the history contained in the accompanying link at the beginning of this article there can be no more denial of the kind of evil we are up against. The nature of acquisition of these lands by the government under the FDR Administration shows the true color of American Progressivism. Properties taken for pennies on the dollar and dreams and happiness destroyed. Of course there was a war on back then— the favored excuse of statists of many stripes down through the ages. Looks like these poor folks—fellow freeholders in the flesh and spirit were essentially given the same deal as the Japanese Americans rounded up and detained—minus the internment camps. Had they resisted they would no doubt have been slaughtered just like the families at Waco.

From this point forward, we are on our own. There are no other powers on Earth—at least no one else we we'd care to have come to our rescue who can stand against the all powerful police state of the Progs. But if we can manage to turn this nation around—or at least establish something like the "Jackalope Republics" of West America described in Neil's novel Pallas—or some kind of Red State Coalition or my favorite : a New Republic of Texas—that would be a good stepping stone toward the creation of a new society in space based on libertarian values and principles. Last night my friend the Historian and I discussed this up on the ridge on the front porch of the Redneck Chateau. He remains confident that when this happens, Western Pennsylvania will go with the West—which is not out of the question given that we are something of— excuse the expression—a Snake Pit of the Tea Party movement and we even have the Timber Rattler; which is the emblem for the "Don't Tread on Me" Gadsden Flag and the more recent "Time's Up" version where the snake is pretty much fed up to the hilt and striking with fangs barred! I hope my buddy is right and we can prevail here. Otherwise I will definitely have to move.

Over the past week I have been wrangling with this issue deeply. Like Big Bob, I joined the service and ventured out to see the outside world—Texas, California, Washington DC and even a trans-Atlantic med-evac mission with a mid night stopover in the Azores and 15 hours crew rest in Germany—and yet remain deeply attached to the region and returned. I just love the hilly topography, the flora and fauna unique to this climate and the change of season. As well as my family roots and the local history. And on top of that—the matter of property which makes it even harder—despite the warnings of Claire Wolfe "Don't let your possessions make you a prisoner". I have a feeling even Davy Crockett may have had similar qualms about leaving the verdant hills of Tennessee behind forever before he finally got fed up and said "You Can All go to Hell; I'm going to Texas"!

The verdict of whether or not I stay or go remains up in the air. But in these musings I am gaining an important lesson to share on the problem of baggage in relation to tyranny and how that understanding may give someone, someday the chance to smash the yoke forever. Which becomes ever more promising as humanity breaks the bonds with Earth and moves outward to populate the rest of the solar system and eventually the stars. It has often been said that the Articles of Confederation did not work and that the kind of society like the one described in "The Probability Broach" novel where I might in addition to being able to carry any kind of gun or knife I wanted open or concealed—would be able to keep, buy, sell, trade or propagate any kind of reptile or other non-sapient living thing without worry of harassment or worse at the hands of some government busybody and homestead a private asteroid to boot!—is but a foolish fantasy—an untenable pipe dream. It is hard to believe that unfettered freedom and responsible self-government as originally advanced by America's founders is even humanly possible— unless you realize it was not because the Articles of Confederation did not work—they just did not work for everyone. Much of the problem stems from the fact that we failed to get rid of the baggage left over from the old English system that persisted at the local and municipal levels of government that were evolved from medieval and classical concepts that the Founders studied well in their efforts to formulate a better system of government. They did not want to micromanage things at the state and local levels and to do so would be tyrannical in itself and would have failed because of a critical mass of people which tends to inhabit densely populated areas would have protested and the backlash might have destroyed any hope of success for the fledgling republic. We started off—so goes the claims of historians—with about a third of the population of the original colonies in favor of the American Revolution, a third: British loyalists and the other third were fence sitters waiting to see which way the wind blows and go with the winning side. Much of this holds true in the political structure of our current republic.

Another important lesson leaned learned; it's kind of hard to fight city hall. But if you can avoid having one in the first place you don't have to worry about it getting out of control further down the line. I don't see much of a need for one in a sparsely populated rural setting like where I live and a few years ago I even stood up to speak my mind at a township meeting to help head off efforts by some misguided locals to create a zoning board complete with police and jail, higher taxes and many other pleasant trappings of municipal tyranny and the financial problems seen with ever increasing frequency elsewhere in the nation and the world. We succeeded in quenching the fire for now. But it is amazing how some people will persist in relighting another.

I will keep on trying to stop them until we can light a good one of our own. Preferably under the tail of a rocket ship.

Space colonization will be the golden opportunity to leave these kind of people behind. And if they're smart, the future pioneers won't let the parasites worm their way back in again after doing all the hard work of founding new worlds and making them worth living on!

As for Matagorda:

Considering all the injustices the current government has wrought there—it would be only fitting if there ever is some kind of West / East America split or independent Texas in our future; that the New Republic or whatever it comes to be called ; took that land and give the people and their descendants restitution in the return of the land to the rightful owners or compensation at fair market value. Since the site according to both the US government and the Deke Slayton team was considered a prime location for a bombing range or launching rockets (open ocean down range)—it might still make a good land for a space port and could be be purchased by a private or group of private investors. in addition to whatever currency is in use at the time, compensation could also include stock shares in the enterprise or: seats on spacecraft and land grants on the new habitat colonies!

Hope we all make it through the coming storm and live to see it!

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