Sunday, May 29, 2016

Charlie Chases a Coon

Jennifer snapped this photo of the raccoon on our front porch yesterday. 

I have spotted three raccoons on my property this year.  That is a rare thing.  I can count on one hand the number of raccoons (hither called coons) Jennifer and I have seen at all on our land and it has been several years since I saw the last one. Earlier this spring I caught a glimpse of one scurrying into the privet hedge.  I wasn't sure it was a coon, it could have been a opossum or maybe a large cat.  We have plenty of those.

A couple of weeks ago I came face to face with another coon. I was walking the path down from the upper field, being quiet as usual on my walks, when a good-sized adult coon came running across our back yard near the woods and up the path toward me.  The coon was occupied with something and did not see me immediately.  I froze and watch it for maybe two seconds before it saw me.  It stooped, looked at me for a moment, then quickly returned the way it came as I stood motionless.  We were maybe 15 feet apart before he bolted. That is as a close as I have ever come to that animal on my property. 

Until yesterday.  It was during the heat of the afternoon, about 88 degrees with low humidity, and I was standing in my living room, just happening to look out through the wooden blinds on our front porch windows when I saw a rather scrawny coon come up the steps to our front door.  

The coon cautiously crept around our porch being very curious.  Jennifer got her phone for a photo.  I tried to lift the blinds but the coon stopped at the motion of them and stared directly at the window, but it was lighter outside than in and we were behind the blinds so it could not see us.  Jennifer was forced to snap a photo through the blinds for fear of scaring the critter off if I continued to lift them.  That is the photo above.

After a few moments of observing the coon, I decided I had to make some sort of statement in order to keep it from being so casual about our house.  When I opened the front door the coon leaped off the edge of our porch and run away.  I waited a minute or so and then let Charlie, our English setter, out to sniff the situation.  

Charlie was crazy all over the woods, probably smelling the scent of the coon, or searching very hard very fast for it.  I came back inside.  After a couple of minutes I heard Charlie aggressively barking and I figured he may have treed the coon, or possibly one of the neighbors cats.  The cat treeing happens regularly resulting in the same barking enthusiasm.  Jennifer started yelling at Charlie.

I slipped on my shoes and went out our back door to walk into the woods near our hot tub where Charlie was barking.  I figured I'd have to pick him up and carry him inside until whatever it was had sufficient time of make its escape. What I did not know was that the coon had gone under our hot tub deck to escape Charlie and Charlie was going crazy trying to fit under the deck. Before Jennifer could grab the dog, the coon ran out from under the deck around the back of our house.  

It was running for its life with Charlie close behind when I turned the corner to head down toward the hot tub.  It slowed down since we had surprised each other.  Charlie was almost upon it.  Thinking as quickly as I could I ran forward onto our terrace to get out of the coon's path.  The animal shot by me with Charlie literally inches behind it.  The coon ran directly into our carport under both of our vehicles, forcing Charlie to swing around each of them. I was yelling at Charlie but he did know i existed in that moment.

By that time Jennifer had made it from the hot tub to where I was standing.  She made the plan that we should go around the house in opposite directions.  She was terrified that Charlie was going to get the crap torn out of him if that cornered coon decided to lash out.  I went to the right across the carport, Jennifer to the left back toward the hot tub deck.

I could see the chase at that point but the coon and the dog ended up back around the hot tub and Jennifer was yelling at Charlie again.  He wasn't listening to anyone and as soon as I rounded my side of the house the two animals were running wide open along our front foundation shrubbery.  

I ran after Charlie who was following the coon but I could not possibly keep up.  There was an absurd moment when the three of us ran around the shrubbery line twice before the coon shot into the interior of the shrubs and Charlie gave out. I quickly grabbed him just as Jennifer was getting there from the hot tub and I carried him inside. The coon was in the shrubbery and needed time to escape.

After about a half hour we let Charlie out again and, of course, he went wild sniffing the ground for coon scent.  But all his searches turned up in vain. The coon had survived the ordeal and was likely further in our woods by then.  Calm was restored.

Jennifer felt I made a mistake in allowing Charlie out so soon after the coon ran off the porch. Perhaps so.  But, on the other hand, everyone survived the fanatical animal encounter and I feel fairly certain the coon has been taught a valuable lesson.  I hope we don't see it around the house again. Charlie, on the other hand, was so pumped up he couldn't even eat his dinner last night.  He was restless doubtlessly thinking about how close he came to biting that coon, without realizing, of course, that the coon could have very well gotten the best of that exchange.

Oh, life in the country!  Sometimes nature reveals itself as an untamed wonder, as with a hawk snatching up a rabbit or a long "chicken snake" crawling across our driveway.  We have seen two snakes near our carport this year as well.  I am reminded we live more closely on edge of the wild than the usual natural tranquility of my property routinely reveals.  

Later: After I posted this Jennifer was greeted by either the same chicken snake we have already seen twice or a third snake just like the other two.  The snake looked like it had just eaten a vole or a field mouse.  Jennifer was forced to reschedule her potting bench activities for the afternoon.
Just hanging out on the potting bench in our carport after a good feeding on a hot afternoon.  Notice the bulge in the snake's body just behind the small glass jar.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Gaming Cassino '44: An Overview

Cassino '44 fully spread out with the playing counters unpunched.  The map is artistically impressive but it is too big for my gaming table.  You can see Monte Cassino in the upper right.  The scenario I chose to play sets up on the two maps on the left.
On May 15, 1944, two reinforced British regiments attacked a stitched together German kampfgruppe near Monte Cassino in Italy. The British attempted to cut a major road held by the Germans who were blocking supply from getting to the 8th Indian Division in the overall attempt by Allied troops to capture Monte Cassino.  The attack began in the predawn hours, with visibility limited by darkness. The road was taken but the Germans launched immediate counterattacks and control shifted back and forth until the British finally secured the area mid-afternoon with the assistance of heavy artillery fire and a few aircraft sorties. This was a small part of Operation Diadem.

Long-time readers know that I enjoy military wargaming as a hobby.  Currently, I have a scenario set up on my gaming table representing this specific attack.  It is part of a game from Avalanche Press called Cassino '44: Gateway to Rome, another of their popular Panzer Grenadier (PG) Series.  I own several PG games in my collection. Most of them represent fighting on the Eastern Front but I recently bought this one because it offered a grand-tactical look at the four battles for the capture of Cassino between January and May 1944 - a typical situation in the overall Italian Campaign of World War Two.

PG games come with several scenarios depicting the innumerable tactical actions of the Second World War.  In the past I have played their Guadalcanal game as well as Eastern Front. I own other games from this system but use them more as a reference than for play.  There are other gaming systems which I prefer to play with my limited time. I have blogged about many of them over the past 8 years. But the time felt right to revisit this series.  So here I am, setting things up, learning the fourth edition of the rules, and getting ready to roll some dice.  

Like most PG scenarios, this one simulates a relatively small action. In and of itself it did not decide the Battle for Cassino. But small military actions are the primary focus of the PG tactical series.  As a player your control (or attempt to control depending upon the effects of moral and causalities) the actions of infantry and tanks at the platoon level and artillery at the battery level.  I was drawn to it because it represents the different fighting capabilities of the British and German forces in Italy in 1944.  On the British side there is a battalion of Sherman tanks (among others), the most reliable Allied tank of the war. On the German side there are two Nashorn platoons (among others), a weapon system I have always found interesting for some reason.  It is a clunky beast with inadequate armor but it sports an 88mm gun that was perhaps the finest armored tube of the war.
My gaming table all set to start the scenario.
Let me start by explaining why I don't normally play modern tactical games like this.  I prefer wargames of a strategic or operational scale. Strategy and operations are ultimately what wins or loses wars.  So games on that scale seem more relevant to me. Tactical scale games are interesting but they are more tedious for me in many ways. For example, at the tactical scale you have to deal with "spotting" and "line of sight." Obviously, soldiers tend to seek cover in the terrain they are fighting over.  So, if they are in a wooded or urban area they are less likely to be seen by the enemy than in, say, an open field. Rules governing this tend to be more of an art than a science. There are innumerable ways where it becomes questionable whether one unit can fire at another due to the lay of the land.

Then there is the whole idea of "ranged fire" that does not appear at the operation or strategic level. Each type of armor or artillery or infantry has a particular strength of fire at particular ranges.  It isn't that complicated to understand how to reduce fire values due to ranges but it does require more mental capacity when are attempting to keep track of who has fired at whom and what the variable effects are of range upon fire.  To me this is often experienced as more "bureaucracy" to game play. 

"Opportunity fire" is another fundamental tactical system concept. In PG terms opportunity fire is where a unit is spotted at particular ranges during its movement.  If the enemy decides to fire upon the moving target then the target has to stop and opportunity fire has to be resolved.  The result of this could be the end of the unit's movement or no effect at all, in which case you have to keep up with how many movement points the unit has used before entering the next hex, where more opportunity fire can be triggered.  If the unit can continue movement then another possibility for opportunity fire is simulated. This is a realistic simulation of tactical combat but it often slows game play to a crawl, hex by hex.

Each PG turn represents 15 minutes of real time. Usually, depending upon the scenario, the player can complete his turn within that amount of time.  But, when the fighting becomes intense - which is, after all, the point of the game to start with - it can take much longer than that to resolve everything. As a rule I have never really enjoyed playing games that take longer to play than the time frame they represent.  

For these and other reasons, modern tactical wargames are not what I prefer to do with my limited gaming time.  On the other hand, these games do offer a lot of excitement and insight into this scale, which is where the "real" fighting takes place in every battle and war.  I like the PG system because, as these things go, it offers a realistic feel with minimal (but necessary) game "bureaucracy." I also enjoy the system because it is a great way to gain insight into the weapons and tactics each side used during the war.  You can compare tanks from 1941 with tanks from 1943 with tanks for 1945, for example, and obtain a genuine appreciation for the evolution of armor and the diversity of armor types during the war.  I'd just as soon experience these details within the context of a gaming system as I would to read about them in books. 

This particular scenario is one of 30 that come with the game. That is a plus in any larger format PG game - lots of different situations to exemplify in a historical manner all the types of fighting that occurred at the scale where an individual leader can change the outcome of the battle.  The British outnumber the Germans roughly 3 to 2 in terms of infantry and 2 to 1 in terms of tanks. Additionally, they have more artillery and the variable advantage of air power (you roll a die to determine whether or not they receive an air attack that turn). Moreover, they have more leaders which is a huge advantage. As the PG rules clearly state: "Leaders are the most important pieces in the game."  This is as it should be with any tactical system. Without good command and control your troops cannot coordinate their actions and they will not recover as quickly from enemy fire and adverse conditions.

British leaders prepare their assault with six platoons of Sherman tanks in reserve.
A platoon of German Nashorns awaits, partially hidden by the woods hexes to the right. Some half-tracks are next to them loaded with infantry ready to move along the road depending upon where the British decide to attack. A German stronghold marker protects the flank at the top of this photo.
The game itself is a beautiful design.  The map, counters, and other components are of the highest printed quality. Avalanche Press is a leader in the industry with their artistic presentations, though I have purchased a few aesthetic duds from them too. Cassino '44 is a four-map game, which means it will not fit on my gaming table.  I only have space for two maps.  Fortunately, outside of the two campaign games provided, most of the scenarios can be played on one or two maps.  The scenario I selected uses most of the southern two maps. Mount Cassino is off the map to the north.  The scenario depicts fighting the Liri Valley, just south of the mountain.

The British have 24 game-turns (about 6 hours) to clear the Germans from the would-be supply route in order to win. But, the victory conditions also stipulate that they must inflict more causalities on the Germans than they receive. So that precludes a reckless direct assault.  This attack must be more methodical.  For their part, the Germans win if the hold just one hex of the road by the end of the scenario and inflict more causalities on the British than they receive.  Visibility during the first few turns is only one-hex due to darkness, unless hexes are illuminated by flares.  Full visibility (12 hexes) does not come until half-way through the attack.  

The darkness is a slight advantage to the British, however, as it allows them to advance (units in good order typically can "activate" themselves but at night it requires a leader to do so) without the Germans spotting them (except for flares). Everything is set now.  Let the die rolling begin!  I'll post an after-action report whenever I complete the scenario - which may be awhile due to my limited playtime availability. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Atlanta Braves Really Suck

April 2016 was unkind to my favorite sports team, the Atlanta Braves.  Or maybe I should say the Braves were unkind to April.  They sucked.  They experienced the worst 20-game start (actually extended to 21 games) in franchise history and ended the month at 5-18. This is baseball's oldest franchise, going back to 1876. So the absolute worst start in all that time is not only historic it is difficult to witness as a life-long fan. The closest season by comparison in my lifetime was the 1988 Braves, who experienced a 4-16 record and went on to lose 106 ballgames.

At a family gathering in March I was asked how many games I thought the Braves would win this year.  My deadpan response was "61" (which means 101 loses).  This surprised the guy I was talking to. I guess he figured since I am an avid fan I would be more optimistic.  Well, perhaps I was too optimistic even with that dismal prediction.  Right now, the Braves are on a trajectory (or nose dive) to lose 136 games(!) - which might be the worst season in major league history.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.  I don't think things will get THAT bad.  At some point this season, the Braves are likely to put together a meaningful winning streak or two.  To quote Tommy Lasorda: “No matter how good you are, you're going to lose one-third of your games. No matter how bad you are you're going to win one-third of your games. It's the other third that makes the difference.”  I'm not sure the Braves are good enough to win many of that "other third" of games they will play.  But they should win at least 54 games - which is still a disastrous season.

Don't blame Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez.  He is a competent skipper, he just doesn't have much to work with after the Braves front office continued to dismantle their ball club.  I mentioned before a short list of good to great players the Braves let go in order to manage the team's overall salary versus talent situation.  Since that post they have traded away arguably the game's best defensive shortstop, Andrelton Simmons. They traded away perhaps their best starting pitcher, Shelby Miller, a player I had high hopes for. 

The one "star" left on the team is Freddie Freeman. He is off to a dismal start at the plate (though he is improving).  In fact the Braves as a whole are not hitting, their fielding is mediocre at best, and their bullpen (mostly Jason Grilli but there's plenty of blame to go around) has already blown at least 2-3 games that should have been won.  That isn't really the manager's fault.  Gonzalez is making do with what he has.

But there are slivers of silver linings here.  The Braves got a lot of promising minor league talent for these trades.  There are a number of young players who likely will have a chance to learn the craft of baseball at the major league level at some point this season.  Several are in the minor leagues but progressing quickly.

One ray of early hope this season is Mallex Smith, who is showing promise in all facets of the game. Coming in to today's play, Smith is only batting .218 overall but he has terrific speed and great instincts in center field.  Over the past seven games, however, Smith is batting .462 with three doubles.  He is one to watch.  

Even more interesting, recently Gonzalez has Smith batting ninth in the line-up, the traditional pitcher's slot, and it is this move that has lit a fire under Smith.  Little things like this is why I like Fredi as a manager.  By placing Smith at the bottom of the line-up he is, in effect, a "delayed" lead-off hitter for Nick Markakisthe only consistent bat (so far this season) in the Braves line-up. This probably won't last all season, but it is a fascinating footnote to an otherwise horrendous start to 2016.

Of course, none of this wins ball games by itself. But it is an example of thinking outside the box when nothing else seems to be working.  Who knows?  Maybe things will jell a bit in later in the season and this team might at least end up being fun to watch, even if they finish dead last.   

The 2016 Braves remind me of the 1988 and 1989 Braves teams in many respects.  There were a number of promising young players back then, among them Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. Hopefully, we have a new crop of "young guns" and position players emerging that will fill the ranks of the traded and decimated. Only time will tell.

Jennifer has been a Braves fan since 1990.  So she has never experienced the team in this sad state. We still follow the team, of course.  Checking scores, player stats, and watching highlights (yes, there are a few highlights worth seeing).  But we are not spending a lot of time on the team, frankly.  

We have tickets of the final game against the Detroit Tigers in Turner Field this season.  It will be the final game ever in that stadium as the Braves will move to a new location just north of Atlanta next season.  Back in 1997 I purchased a nicely made Inaugural Season commemorative cap at the stadium during a game we attended way back then. It wasn't the first game played at Turner Field, but me and my cap will be there for the last game.  Sort of putting bookends on all those seasons there.

Until then I will sit and suffer, like Braves fans everywhere. It is going to be an ugly season.  But, as I told some mutual Braves fans recently, bad baseball is better than no baseball at all.  Do I really believe that?  The 2016 Braves will sorely test that theory.

Note:  The Braves beat the New York Mets tonight 3-0.  One of the Braves' promising young starters, Matt Wisler, pitched eight strong innings, allowing only one hit while walking two and striking out four. Mallex Smith, batting ninth, hit his first career home run. I really like how he wears his socks, way up high to the knee.  Classic.