Weekend essay: The persimmons twins of Jones Mountain

Any gardener worth his mulch loves a challenge. If you see an interesting but unfamiliar plant species on a trip, you think, “Hey, I’d like to grow that!”

So, you snip a few leaves, pick a few berries or seed pods, then take it all home in an attempt to make a positive identification. And once you have – and as long as you’ve not imported an invasive species — you put your junior horticulture skills to the test.

Thus began The Great Persimmons Experiment five years ago.

Two persimmons, once dubbed “the fruit of the gods,” made their way back to Western Pennsylvania from a trip to Southern Shores, N.C., along the Outer Banks. Not trees, mind you, but the fruit, which, technically, is a big berry.

Persimmons, of which this gardener was not very familiar, look like a cross between a half-grown peach and a small tomato. (The fact that the flower sepals stay with the orb when picked reinforces that visual.) Cut it and, ripe, the “meat” is the consistency of pudding. Taste it and it’s just as sweet, apricot- and even date-like.

About a dozen seeds were harvested. They were conditioned (“stratified”) over the winter of 2012-13 – kept moist and cool in the refrigerator for a few months — then planted in the spring of ’13.

Very late that spring, two of the seeds finally germinated in a large plastic pot. And what a kick it was to watch something “new” grow. Four years later, the root-bound persimmons twins had outgrown that pot. Which presented a challenge:

With no available space at my humble abode, where to plant them?

But last month, the perfect spot finally was found. It’s at a place I’ve dubbed Jones Mountain.

In West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle, it’s not far from my birthplace. Nor from the final resting place of my paternal great grandparents, my paternal great-great grandfather and a great aunt and uncle. They’re buried high on a hillside overlooking a large creek’s peaceful waterfall.

Those persimmons trees, now more than four feet tall, are thriving at their new home. Chicken wire protects them from the voracious deer that tend to eat even everything they’re not supposed to like. Bees visit often, though there have yet to be anything resembling blooms. Perhaps next spring.

And, silly as it might sound, how satisfying it is for the custodian who sowed their seeds to see them on their own — greeting the fog deep in the valleys of each mountain morning, basking in the afternoon sun and welcoming the solace of each mountain night in a place that truly is “home.”

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

Notes on the state of things

The fallout from Philadelphia’s tax on sugary drinks is redefining “sour.”

A new Tax Foundation study says Philly’s 1.5-cent-per-ounce impost has created a true public policy mess. It even suggests (based on prior studies) that the tax, which is 24 times the Pennsylvania excise tax rate on beer, might even have driven some consumers to more alcoholic beverage consumption.

The foundation also notes that Philadelphia’s beverage tax collections originally were promoted as a vehicle to raise money for pre-kindergarten education. “But in practice Philadelphia awards just 49 percent of the soda tax revenues to pre-K programs.”

And “poor revenue performance” – think everything from depressed soda sales to tax avoidance” – threatens the very programs the tax was designed to support.

Hundreds of jobs have been lost, too. Lawsuits claim that since the soda tax is levied against distributors, who pass on the tax to consumers, and that consumers then are taxed again when they purchase such products, it amounts to double taxation, a violation of the Sterling Act.

And so onerous has the tax proven to be, Pepsi doesn’t even bother trying to sell some of its brand products in grocery and convenience stores in Philadelphia.

“The legal battles and consumer angst the tax has attracted make the tax unattractive …,” the foundation says. “Other localities wishing to avoid these travails should seek funding for programs with broader-based, more predictable tax instruments.”

Here’s hoping any Pittsburgh officials perhaps with similar taxing designs pay heed to the Philadelphia experience instead of learning the hard way.

One cannot help but be struck by the intellectual vapidity of a protest sign at a Sunday rally in Pittsburgh following the horrific weekend violence in Charlottesville, Va.

Included in an otherwise acceptable litany of appeals for “No Racism” and “No Fascism,” among others, were entreaties for “No Capitalism” but “Yes Socialism.”

Good grief. Consider this thought, from the late, great Carnegie Mellon economist Allan Meltzer:

“Alternatives to capitalism, whether socialism, communism, fascism or some religious orthodoxies, offer some groups (a) utopian vision of mankind that becomes the one ‘right path.’ Utopian visions and orthodoxies always bring enforcement, often brutal enforcement.

“The 20th century saw many such outcomes. None achieved both higher living standards and greater individual freedom. National Socialism, Soviet and Chinese Communism instead produced mass murders of millions.

“This should have extinguished the appeal of utopian visions, but it has not,” the distinguished late scholar continued.  “Many still believe that social justice can only be achieved by ending or severely regulating capitalism. … (But) capitalism disperses and limits power while the alternatives concentrate power in a few hands.”

Tyrannical “few hands,” it must be noted.

This is not a difficult lesson to learn. History is a most adroit teacher. Why then do so many among us remain so blind to the manifest dangers of socialism?

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has nominated Jerry Oleksiak, the president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (the powerful teachers’ union), to be the next secretary of the state Department of Labor & Industry.

Oleksiak, a longtime special education teacher and union boss, appears to have no experience pertinent to the job.

That is, unless the administration plans to change the name of the department to the Pennsylvania Department of Organized Labor.

Ahem.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

Taxed by the mile, not by the gallon of gas?

Whether it is a public policy idea whose time has come remains to be seen. But it is, in the least, worthy of serious study. But would Western Pennsylvanians embrace such a concept?

We refer to word out of Eastern Pennsylvania that researchers will begin a federally funded $1.2 million study to investigate the viability of a mileage-based highway tax system to pay for highway infrastructure.

What’s prompting such a study in the Keystone State, and what led to previous studies elsewhere, is two-fold.

First, modern vehicles with better fuel mileage use less gasoline and diesel. Which means less money is being collected in fuel taxes at the pump. Which is how much of America’s highway system has been maintained for the last century.

Second, forays into alternative-fuel vehicles – electric, primarily, but also hydrogen fuel cells (and should either, or both, gain mass acceptance) — also would cut into gasoline and diesel fuel taxes.

As pennlive.com reported last week, “a very limited test of a mileage-based fee will take place in Pennsylvania and Delaware in the Interstate 95 corridor. A group called “The I-95 Corridor Coalition,” a multi-state partnership of transportation agencies and related groups is spearheading the research project.

To its credit, the coalition says is it not endorsing such a user fee but does deem it worthy of investigation. Thus, it is refreshing to see a prospective study without a preconceived conclusion, as too many government-funded “studies” begin.

So, is a mileage-based highway tax system a good and/or a reasonable idea? Would the motoring public accept such a change?

A year ago, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) offered a quite balanced overview. It noted that taxes could be based on a flat cent-per-mile charge. Or they could be based on GPS (global positioning system) data. They even might be still charged at the pump.

And, indeed, researchers note that charging highway uses by the mile could end up being an incentive to drive less, driving down collected revenues.

Implementation of a mileage-based road user charge would have to overcome other challenges, as well, CRS researchers Robert Kirk and Marc Levinson wrote in their June 2016 study.

There are privacy concerns; think of that GPS tracking.

There would be higher public costs to establish, collect and enforce such a new tax regimen; Kirk and Levinson say estimates range from 5 percent to 13 percent of collections. (Another study, by the Government Accountability Office, suggests a range of from 8 percent to 33 percent of collections.)

The billing process, itself, given the size of the private vehicle fleet (estimated then at 256 million), could prove particularly daunting. And expensive.

Perhaps the biggest challenge: “(T)he setting and adjusting of the road-user charge rates … would likely face as much opposition as increasing motor fuels taxes,” the researcher say.

That is, the politics of such a proposed public policy could be brutal.

Then there’s this: A number of small-scale studies have been undertaken to date in the United States, Kirk and Levinson remind. Large-scale studies would provide better information. One such larger study is being undertaken by the University of Iowa.

A February 2014 study by the Reason Foundation supported transitioning from taxes on fuels to taxing miles driven.

“The replacement should be a direct charge for the amount of highway services a motorist uses,” wrote Robert Poole Jr. and Adrian Moore. “It should be sustainable, fair, efficient, and – for major highways and bridges – tailored to the capital and operating cost of those individual facilities.

“The system used to implement the direct charge should not create privacy concerns by enabling governments to track where and when people travel,” they stress. “And it should give motorists choice in how to pay for their miles traveled.”

That’s a smart overview. But, again, such a transition likely would be easier said than done.

Both the Reason and GAO studies suggest going from a fuels tax to a mileage-based tax also could reduce congestion by better allowing the implementation of congestion pricing. That is, motorists who chose to travel at peak congestion times could be charged more – an enticement to drive outside traditional rush hours to reduce traveling costs.

But would that create new rush hours? Ah, the Bastiatian “seen and unseen.”

Of course, human action being what it is, it is difficult to gauge how highway users would react to such a change, in theory and in practice.

Perhaps residents in the heavily urbanized Eastern Pennsylvania will react differently than, outside of Greater Pittsburgh, those in more rural Western Pennsylvania. Perhaps Pittsburghers, who still appear to have an aversion to crossing rivers, would cross even less?

Once quipped Albert Einstein, “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

Here’s to well-rounded, science-based and politics-free studies of the mileage-based highway user tax. For it’s the only way We the People will be able to make an informed decision.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

Weekend essay: The pains of August

High school cross-country runners are everywhere this time of the year.

You see them – harriers, they once were called — in the early morning hours, shaking off the previous day’s aches and, sometimes, agonies.

You see them in the afternoon heat; they know that meet conditions won’t always be morning-pristine.

Others prefer the cooling night for some good speed work.

They’re working hard to learn how to not be fooled by “rabbits” and come to understand their inner pace, if not the concomitant exhilaration and inner peace of having achieved the nirvana of a “second wind” in the middle of their second mile.

The truly devoted have been hitting the pavement thrice daily and no matter the weather.

Their goal is to log the miles — hundreds of miles, maybe even 1,000 miles — over the summer. And they’ll hit the hills — hard — and “stride out” for 50 or so yards at the top.

They understand how the burning in their lungs and the rubber in their legs now can make them winners later. The pain of August leads to the payoff of October and November when the championship meets roll around.

Having once long ago been one myself, I can attest that cross-country runners are a dichotomous and curious lot. There’s the communal aspect of the team and learning the strategies necessary to win. (The lowest score prevails, do remember.) But cross-country, by its very nature, is one of sport’s most solitary endeavors.

And by that same nature, it just might be one of sport’s greatest teachers of discipline — a discipline that will serve these young runners well long after they’ve retired their flats and spikes.

As these runners prepare to take their first “mark” of the season, they’ll be taking another step on their long journey to becoming good human beings.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

Beware the Foxconn con

Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald tells the Post-Gazette that “Pennsylvania is well positioned to become competitive” in an effort to lure some kind of Foxconn facility to Penn’s Wood.

Translation: Hold onto your wallets, Keystone State taxpayers.

Foxconn is the world’s largest contract maker of electronics. It’s perhaps best known for making liquid crystal displays (LCDs) for Apple iPhones. It recently said it would build a $10 billion (that’s billion with a “b”) plant in Wisconsin to make LCD panels used in television and computer screens.

But that deal comes with a steep price for Badger State taxpayers – up to $3 billion (again, that’s billion with a “b”) in cash payments over 15 years if the facility ends up employing 13,000 people, the Post-Gazette reports.

But as The Washington Post detailed in a March 3 story, Foxconn has a pretty remarkable history of making grandiose promises it does not keep, including here in Pennsylvania.

To wit, four years ago Foxconn said it would invest $30 million (that’s million with an “m”) and hire 500 workers for a high-tech factory in Central Pennsylvania. Nothing came of it.

Three years ago, The Post said Foxconn hinted at building LCD facilities in Arizona and Colorado. Nothing. Indonesia? There was talk of a $1 billion facility. Nothing, the newspaper reports.

Promises of multibillion-dollars investments also were touted in India, Vietnam and Brazil. And while The Post says some facilities were built, the selling sizzle was far less than the delivered steak.

Now comes Wisconsin. Now comes again Pennsylvania, with one of its top elected officials touting a possible new Foxconn “investment” here.

But at least in Pennsylvania, it appears that Foxconn’s proposed 2013 “investment” faded away because, as it told CNN, the commonwealth – that is, taxpayers – didn’t cough up enough money to make the Harrisburg-area facility “economically viable.”

Sounds like a shakedown, does it not?

So how much have Pennsylvania “leaders” offered Foxconn on behalf of beneficent taxpayers. A spokesman for the state Department of Community and Economic Development said he couldn’t say. There was a non-disclosure agreement. Well, of course there was.

But that same spokesman did tell the P-G that the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf continues to “aggressively seek” such foreign investment.

ACE Fitzgerald, too, cited non-disclosure agreements to the newspaper in not talking specifics about taxpayers being, yet again, set up as venture capitalists. But he did say the region and the state are “well positioned’ to be included in any additional Foxconn expansion.

Translation: Even more taxpayer money.

No one should find any comfort in such an assessment. And the taxpaying public should demand the details of any offer, past or present, to which their “leaders” seek to indebt them once again.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

Just say no to Stadium Authority extension

Pittsburgh City Council has a chance to strike a blow for better public policy. But that’s about as likely as the council deciding to ratchet back bike lanes on congested city streets.

The council must vote on whether to accept the Pittsburgh Stadium Authority’s dubious vote to extend its existence until April 2049. But this authority should have ceased to exist, as the authority itself declared, with the demolition of Three Rivers Stadium in 2001.

The Stadium Authority was created more than a half-century ago to shepherd the construction of Three Rivers.  It voted itself a 21-year extension on life in late July. Four years ago, it sought an extension of between 35 and 50 years.

But that proposal had no legs when then-Pittsburgh City Councilman (and mayor-in-waiting) Bill Peduto argued that the authority should cease to exist when the debt on the West General Robinson Street parking garage was retired 15 years hence, in December 2028. Thus, the Stadium Authority voted, in 2013, to extend its life until then.

The authority long has had nothing to do with sports stadiums. These days it oversees the 25 acres or so of property between PNC Park and Heinz Field.

That acreage now is nearly fully developed. It was done so in a sweetheart deal with the sports franchises and a handpicked master developer, void of any competitive bidding that has led to cookie-cutter architecture best described as “meh” – vanilla and boring.

It’s to what government-backed and or –directed central planning typically leads.

Mary Conturo, the authority’s executive director, defended the extension to the Post-Gazette. It is part of a long-term joint financing deal – still being negotiated – with the Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority (which owns the sports stadiums on the public’s behalf, and for which Conturo also conveniently serves as executive director) for fixed-rate financing for three North Shore parking garages.

The Stadium Authority owns two North Shore parking garages and some surface lots; the SEA owns another garage.

The move ostensibly is designed to replace shorter term financing with longer term financing to capitalize on lower interest rates, Conturo told the newspaper.

The terms of that proposed financing – 20 to 25 years – necessitated the authority extending its life beyond 2028, she said.

Ah, we see: Keep yourself alive by reorganizing your debt to keep yourself “needed.” Only in government, right?

Or as Allegheny Institute President Jake Haulk pointedly asks: “(W)hich came first, the refinancing or the vote to extend (the life of the Stadium Authority)?”

He wonders into what next the authority might inject itself to justify its continuing existence.

As far as Mayor Peduto goes, he and his administration appear to have had a change of heart regarding the Stadium Authority’s demise. In 2013, Peduto favored the authority becoming part of the city’s Urban Development Authority.

As Chief of Staff Kevin Acklin told the P-G last week, a Stadium Authority review (again, how convenient) of folding itself into the SEA, the URA or the city Parking Authority (which would have made the most sense) might have led to “additional transactional costs without significant public benefit.”

But that is a specious argument on its face.

Do remember, as the Allegheny Institute reminded in 2012, that, as per the Stadium Authority’s own website in 2001, the authority’s “existence and function will conclude with the planned demolition of Three Rivers Stadium.”

Sixteen years later, the authority is still around. And it will be around for another 32 years — unless Pittsburgh City Council puts the kibosh on the charade of rubber stamping an extension on a duplicative authority that already should have been long out of business.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

Weekend essay: A city chicken

Once upon a time, in a land not so far, far away – in the 1960s, in Eastern Ohio, about an hour from Pittsburgh – city chicken was a supper staple.

Mom would take cubes of stewing beef and pork (fairly cheap cuts and/or scraps), alternate them on short wooden skewers, drench them in egg and bread them with Kellogg’s Corn Flakes crumbs.

Lore has it that the skewered meat dish was designed more than a century ago to mimic chicken legs which, for many during depressed times, weren’t very affordable.

Mom was a child of the Great Depression. Her family constantly kept a pot of stew going on the stove; whatever edible things they came upon on any given day were dropped into the mix.

That experience was the genesis for learning how, as an adult, to stretch a grocery store dollar. Think elbow macaroni in milk. City chicken was another of her many budget-stretching manifestations.

Freshly breaded then lightly seasoned, into a searing-hot iron skillet with crackling Crisco the city chicken went for a good browning. Next came a 40-minute oven bake at 375 degrees, turned once.

The aroma? Incredible. The results? Smothered in chicken gravy with plenty of mashed potatoes and wax beans on the side — melting-in-your-mouth dee-VINE. It might as well have been lobster for the four-brother brood. Not that we knew what lobster tasted like, mind you.

How sweet it was for all those memories – the tastes, the smells, the details –  to sweep over a certain cook this week as he made city chicken for the first time in a long time.

Consider the recipe quasi-faithful to Mom’s, given a changing product and cooking methods.

Today’s city chicken tends to be all pork and of choicer cuts. Marinating the skewered meat all day in a bowl of nicely seasoned beaten eggs leads to plumper and tastier “legs.” And butter, butter, butter has replaced the Crisco, as has a slightly hotter oven.

But the result was the same, if not better.

The meat didn’t quite fall of the skewers but neither was there any resistance. The gravy was the perfect complement to the meat and the cream-and-butter whipped potatoes. The wax beans, delicate in their taste, offered the perfect counter texture.

Fifty years ago, the standard city chicken leg allotment was one per person at the McNickle supper table known as “the nook.” One! Thus, cube by cube of beef and pork were savored, and with great reverence.

Four legs of city chicken were savored this past week. And, cube by cube, so were revered the memories that each one conjured.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

A reassessment lawsuit

That can of worms created by Allegheny County officials in their steadfast refusal to conduct regular property reassessment has been opened by a Pittsburgh law firm.

 

A lawsuit filed in Common Pleas Court contends that the practice of school districts and municipalities challenging the assessment of respective properties based on higher sales prices are illegal “de facto spot assessments.”

 
Those on the other side of the equation say such challenges are perfectly legal and, in reality, no different than a homeowner seeking an assessment reduction.

 

But thinking people can conclude that such issues would not arise as frequently if the county conducted regular reassessments, which, for reasons political, have not been done in Allegheny County for a number of years. (And that following court-ordered reassessments in 2001 and 2012.

 

Various and sundry county officials, past and current, argue against regular reassessments, claiming they do everything from spiking tax bills, to discouraging new investment, to stifling job growth.

 

But it’s simply not true. As the Allegheny Institute noted nearly a year ago:

 

“When property assessments are not kept up to date and accurate as possible using regularly scheduled and fairly frequent reassessments as all states but Pennsylvania and Delaware require, all sorts of bad things happen.

 

“Tremendous inequities arise when some properties are grossly under assessed and others are over assessed. The Constitution of Pennsylvania is clear on this point. That situation should not be allowed to stand.”

 

What very well could – and likely should – happen as a result of this latest lawsuit is that the court(s) once again will not be amused by such constitutional nose-thumbing and, for the third time in 20 years, will order a reassessment.

 

Indeed, there likely will be tax spikes that shock taxpayer sensibilities. (Just as properties that have lost value will generate lower tax bills). But those spiking tax bills could have been mitigated had county government done the responsible thing and reassessed properties every three years.

 

As this institute noted a year ago, the only folks who benefit from a poorly executed property reassessment regimen are “the consultants and attorneys handling the appeals.”

 

If Allegheny County officials can’t act responsibly, then someone else should. And that’s yet another call for the state Legislature to show fealty to the rule of law and order regular reassessments for all counties.

 

It once was written that while in individuals, insanity is rare, “in groups, parties, nations and epochs it is the rule.” Surely it is a form of insanity for those in Allegheny County government to insist that regular reassessments will result in what their nonfeasance indeed causes.

 

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

The Pa. Senate’s budget farce

 

More than half a billion dollars in new taxes, including a double nose-thumbing to one of the commonwealth’s leading economic growth engines and, not to forget, a most dubious borrowing plan.

That’s the gist of the Pennsylvania Senate’s odoriferous plan to balance the state budget. It is a plan that brings to mind a most apropos quote from one Publius Cornelius Tacitus, the great Roman orator: “Reason and judgment are the qualities of a leader.”

Given this budget plan by the Republican-controlled upper chamber is so bereft of reason and so lacking in judgment – anathema to sound public policy – the word “leadership” cannot be applied.

The Senate’s plan to close a $2.2 billion hole in a $32 billion spending plan not only includes a severance tax on top of the already existing impact fee but consumer consumption taxes (technically a gross-receipts tax) on natural gas, electric and telecommunications bills.

Talk about economic perversion. The additional layer of taxation on the shale gas industry – a $100 million or so annual drain — likely will result in less drilling, less production and fewer jobs, resulting in lower tax collections.

Additionally, the higher impost on utility bills – a $405 million shakedown — likely will result in reduced consumer consumption. That not only stands to reduce projected tax receipts but also to spark a glut of gas that will lead to lower prices for producers that will – what, class? – lead to lower tax receipts.

Brilliant!

And how does one count the intellectual perversion? In myriad ways.

As The Associated Press reported it, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman defended the indefensible by noting the commonwealth simply needed more revenue to avoid freezing some government spending.

“We came here to make tough choices,” he told colleagues on the Senate floor Thursday last. “Tough choices,” yes, not uninformed choices.

But this choice would not have been “tough” for true fiscal conservatives: state government spending remains out of control; freezing spending would have sent a strong message to taxpayers that at least a modicum of fiscal responsibility had returned to Harrisburg.

Cutting spending would have been better.

Corman amazingly conceded to reporters that the shale gas industry already pays enough in taxes. But the Senate bit on a big carrot dangled on a long stick by Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf – “significant permitting and regulatory reform,” the lack of which has handicapped industry development.

The wags with whom this scrivener regularly converses are convinced that carrot will be gobbled up by political expediency and all that remains will be the same old and onerous regulatory s(ch)tick.

But, wait, there’s another sleight of budgetary hand: The Senate plan would borrow $1.3 billion from expected future revenues from the 1998 multistate tobacco settlement. Of course, taxpayers will cough up a premium – borrowing costs, by one estimate, to be $700 million over 20 years.

That’s most of the bad news. The good news, at least for now, is that the Senate measure has no legs in the House. At least that’s what House leaders are insisting.

But, it appears that leadership has given itself, and its members, more than a bit of wiggle room.

“(W)e certainly have no intentions to rubberstamp these bills,” it said.

If that means merely a wee tweak here or a little nip and/or tuck there, taxpayers and the commonwealth will be in deep trouble. If, however, it means the Pennsylvania House is ready to take a stand and begin to instill true economy into the budget, the proverbial “new day” should be embraced.

Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

 

 

 

Saturday essay: The storm

MARBLEHEAD, Ohio

 
They arrive with choreographed precision here on this peninsular outpost on the North Coast of America.

 
The distant thunder enters first. The lightning, pulsating just over the horizon, soon assists. The wind rises and the seagulls join in a near-perfect harmony that belies the scramble of distress. And, quite suddenly, “they” are here.

 
Storms.

 
They whip up quickly on Lake Erie, the shallowest of the great bodies of fresh water. Their ferocious nature is legendary for those caught short of safe harbor, stung by the needle-piercing, gale-driven sideways rain or, worse, scuttled in the engulfing waves.
But for those on the shore — perhaps in sleep’s deepest throes, awakened by the first rumbles and compelled to crank in the cottage windows — these storms are brutish beauties.

 
“Sweeesh-crack,” goes the huge lightning bolt, the sight spectacular but its telltale “voice” delayed like some long-ago overdubbed Japanese horror flick.

 
The first artillery of thunder is an intimidatingly deep and soul-rattling “BOOMMMMM!” It’s attached to but, at the same time, separate and distinct from the bolt. Counting the time between tells you the action is safely 17 miles out over roiling water. At least that’s according to the formula by which a late grandfather swore.

 
Another broad and long flash of lightning illuminates a wall of driving rain spreading across the open lake; a Winslow Homer painting – “The Signal of Distress” comes to mind — has been brought to life.

 
And as quickly as it kicked up, the Gods of the Waters kick this storm out, the artillery moves on and the light show fades.

 
Calm. The cottage windows are rolled open. For now. For there’s fresh thunder to the Northwest.

 
Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).