A Jet Stream All the Way

Surrounded by national forest, Fish Hole Creek flows through the small Oregon town of Bly.   For a small town located in the midst of a national forest, 50 miles from the closest Walmart, Bly has had more than its share of notoriety.   Besides being the home of Earnest Ujaama, who in 2002 was indicted and arrested for setting up a Taliban terrorist training camp just outside of town, Bly was also the place where, in May of 1945, a Japanese bomb exploded and killed six people while picnicking.   That makes Bly the location of the only fatalities suffered during WWII in the contiguous United States as a result of an enemy attack.

The bomb was one of several hundred attached to balloons that the Japanese launched in the hope they would reach the west coast of the United States.   At the time, the Japanese knew a bunch of things that we gringos did not, including how to take advantage of the jet stream.

It wasn’t until American bombers launched raids out of the Marianas to Japan and faced headwinds as strong as 200 mph that Americans “discovered” the jet stream for themselves. American meteorologists were late to the party, and it took pilots facing the challenge of how long their fuel would allow them to fly to educate them.

When flying coast to coast commercially you will have noticed, undoubtedly, that the trip typically takes an hour less when flying from west to east than in the opposite direction.   That is because most route planners try to save fuel by hitching a ride on the jet stream, which blows perpetually from the west to east on this planet (other planets with atmospheres have them as well). The jet stream can be found between 25,000 and 40,000 feet above ground, and can move anywhere between 50 and 300 miles per hour, which is why when you have it on your tail you can really make good time.

Understanding the physics behind the jet stream requires a much deeper knowledge of the fundamentals of meteorology than I have ever had, which is a sad reminder that the “B” I received in high school physics was an act of sheer generosity.   If you’re interested in the how and why of these things, you will need to know about the Coriolis effect and a few other key meteorological concepts, and if you do know this already you are certainly a better person than me.

What I do know is that this powerful wind meanders through the atmosphere above us, affecting the flight path of airplanes as well as the weather below and around it.   It gives new meaning to the phrase “go with the flow” in my quest to find new meaning in pedestrian phrases.   Pilots can hitch a ride on it, or try to avoid it going the opposite direction.   Warriors can launch balloons into it in order to deliver explosives to their enemies.   And blog writers linking the world of aviation to the world of the psyche can attempt to use it as a metaphor.

Given that the jet stream will likely be around as long as there is an atmosphere surrounding a large spinning ball creating energetic forces, then we can say with some confidence and apologies to Stephen Sondheim that when you’re a jet stream you’re a jet stream all the way. Fierce winds of hatred seem to blow interminably amid the surrounding atmosphere of loving-kindness.   Government and the taxes that support it is a force majeure that seems to operate the same way.   Suffering, also like the jet stream, is an ineluctable force of nature that follows a capricious, meandering path.    And, not unlike a pilot who tries to avoid it, trying to ignore either taxes or suffering in general will likely only make the pain last longer.

I can be fairly certain that some of Ujaama’s neighbors may not have even known that he was training terrorists in the nearby woods.   And while there may not be balloon bombs threatening overhead at this very moment, the sky and the forces of nature it contains will offer up its surprises and outlive all of us.

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