This column has obtained one of Space Shuttle Columbia pilot William C. McCool's final e-mails from space, given to us by one of his former Navy aviator buddies who asks not to be identified: -- "PS - As I write, we just experienced a sunset over the Pacific, just (west) of Chile. I'm sitting on the flight deck in the CDR seat (front right) with a view of the Earth moving gracefully by. Sunsets and sunrises from space come every 45 minutes, and last only about 30 seconds, but the colors are stunning. In a single view, I see looking out at the edge of the Earth - red at the horizon line, blending to orange, then yellow; followed by a thin white line, then light blue, gradually turning to dark blue, then various gradually darker shades of gray, then black with a million stars above. It's breath-taking."
Cmdr. McCool in 1983 graduated second in his class from the U.S. Naval Academy. He went on to receive a master of science degree in computer science from the University of Maryland, and a master of science degree in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.
McCool logged more than 2,800 hours of flight time in 24 aircraft and more than 400 carrier landings before being selected by NASA and reporting to Johnson Space Center in August 1996.
BEER AND BEANS
Belated happy-birthday greetings to former President Ronald Reagan, born Feb. 6, 1911. Nobody celebrated the Gipper's 92nd birthday like patrons of Baltimore's historic Ropewalk Tavern, which held its annual Reagan Birthday Bash. The party's gotten so popular that it's covered by newspapers and TV stations alike. It's even been recognized on the floor of Congress. This year, in addition to the beer, jelly beans - a favorite treat of Reagan's - were served.
Former President George Bush this week will help his longtime barber from Afghanistan, Zahira Zahir, rebuild her alma mater - Zarhona High School in Kabul.
Joining the former president will be his secretary of state, James A. Baker III.
No, the current president's father won't be swinging a hammer like former President Jimmy Carter. Rather, the senior Bush will deliver the keynote address Wednesday (Feb. 12) at a Watergate Hotel fund-raiser for the Friends of Zahira's Schools.
Funds collected will be used to purchase books, chairs, pencils and other supplies as well as repair vital buildings, and electrical and plumbing facilities destroyed during the many years of turmoil in Kabul.
Since the liberation of Afghanistan, women are being encouraged to pursue their dreams and seek the education they desire. Thanks to the rebuilding efforts of the U.S. military, thousands of Afghan women are attending classes, reading books and becoming part of a world that has long been denied them.
As for Zahir, hers is a fascinating relationship with the Bush family. Twice each month, Zahir has kept personal appointments with President Bush in the family quarters of the White House. And she groomed his father and Ronald Reagan, too, as presidential hairdresser.
Zahir is a mother of three and wife to a former Afghan diplomat, and has operated out of the Watergate for many years. In the months after September 11, she was featured on national TV because dozens of her clients stopped coming to her because of her nationality. Cost of a Zahir haircut: $30.
CASTLE FOR REFLECTION
For almost 200 years, on the north tip of Governors Island, at the confluence of the Hudson and East Rivers, two fortifications served as outposts to protect New York from enemy attack.
Construction on Castle Williams and Fort Jay, two of the finest examples of defensive structures in use since the Renaissance, started in 1806. They played important roles in the War of 1812, the Civil War, and even World Wars I and II.
Of the two, Castle Williams, with its rocky promontory, served as the most important strategic defensive point in the entrance to New York Harbor. But such a castle is useless these days, certainly not the target of the terrorist hijackers who flew into New York and the Pentagon on Sept. 11.
On Feb. 7, President Bush issued a proclamation establishing the Governors Island National Monument. For the past two centuries, he said, the island has been managed by the U.S. Army and the Coast Guard, but today it is no longer required for national defense.
Rather, Bush suggested, with its proximity to lower Manhattan, the island makes "appropriate location from which to reflect upon the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001."
REINVENTING THE WHEEL
On Monday, this column caught up with a descendent of Capt. John Smith who's created a novel way to honor America and President Bush.
John D. Smith, president of Clever Covers, Orlando, Fla., has just introduced a set of patriotic, highway-safe wheel covers featuring the American flag and a giant color photo of Bush.
Smith says his patented wheel covers, which fasten to tires like hubcaps, combine Bush's popularity and American citizens' penchant for using their vehicles to promote everything from political affiliations to patriotism.
"They're more colorful and attention-getting than bumper stickers or car flags," says Smith. "Our presidential wheel covers turn a lot of heads."
In this case, one of those heads is that of Bush, whose face is right-side-up only part of the time.
"Democrats and comedians must smile," says Smith, "as on the road at least, the president changes his position frequently."
Among those who like the product is Orlando Republican mayoral candidate Pete Barr Sr., who says they "do a great job of honoring a man I've known for 34 years."
Given that Smith is a "nonpartisan entrepreneur," he tells this column he's working on a line of Democratic-contender wheel covers (www.clevercover.com or toll free 877/253-8371). However, given the lack of a Democratic front-runner, he has to hold off on production.
White House National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice revealed to a jam-packed National Prayer Breakfast Feb. 6 how God tracked her down during her brief college hiatus from the church.
Rather than attending church services one Sunday morning, Rice was pushing a grocery cart down a supermarket aisle when she was approached by a total stranger. The man commented to her that his small black Baptist church was in need of a pianist.
"Do you by any chance play the piano?" he asked.
"My goodness," Rice thought to herself, "God has a long reach - right into the spice aisle of the Lucky Supermarket."
From that point on, Rice was the church's piano player. And yes, she acknowledged, the congregation had difficulty singing on key.