Wednesday, November 21, 2018

‘Next great chapter’ for sweet potatoes

           Since nothing that Donald Trump says can be taken seriously except as work for bone-weary fact-checkers, I didn't take seriously his recent call for the creation of a sixth branch of the military: Space Farce.

            Now I acknowledge that I should have taken Space Farce seriously.

            For one, the administration was talking about an $8 billion price tag. For another, how could I not take it seriously when Vice President Mike Pence pronounced it the "next great chapter" in the defense of our nation?

            Yet for some reason, early on, I was skeptical.

            Here Trump was talking about an "elite group of war fighters specializing in the domain of space."

            I had to admit confusion, as he regularly uses "elite" as an insult. What was he saying about the noble space fighters we had yet to shoot into the heavens?

            Semantics, all. Since then, though, I have shed my skepticism. I'll tell you now why I am fully prepared to embrace Space Farce.

            It comes from reports of studies centered on the next generation of outer-space weapons, a veritable Manhattan Project of a decade's duration.

            First inklings:  A 2009 report from NASA about an experiment to grow sweet potatoes in space.

            In deep secrecy, scientists from the Tuskegee Center for Food and Environmental Systems for Human Exploration of Space – yes, this is a real thing – dispatched a team of sweet potato cuttings to ride with astronauts aboard Space Shuttle Columbia.

            After a short voyage, the growth of the cuttings in space was compared to cuttings held to Earth's surly bounds. The results were promising, if you like sweet potatoes.

            Fast-forward to today and a hydroponic system now employed on the International Space Station, growing -- you guessed it.

            At first I was wholly offended by this. But that was because I didn't understand.

            If the intention was to consume sweet potatoes in space or grow sweet potatoes that the universe didn't need – well, that had to be science fiction. I tried to eat sweet potatoes once. Once.

            What was afoot up there? Surely Earth has enough loamy soil to grow sweet potatoes for the ink, or plastic or other legitimate non-dining purposes George Washington Carver carved out in his laboratory.

            Why sweet potatoes in space?

            Only now has the puzzle been solved, and I realize that as a theorist I've had a role in it – a Werhner von Braun role, a J. Robert Oppenheimer role.

            I've been writing for decades about finding non-dining purposes for sweet potatoes -- because, well, you can't eat them. I tried that once.

            I want sweet potato farmers to prosper like the rest of them. So in my research/reportorial role, I've pointed out all the ways the starchy objects could serve mankind other than by casserole dish.

            In the 1990s I suggested that with sturdy mortar, sweet potatoes would make good building materials. That's right. Had budget writers in the House continued to be dominated by Trump droids into the year ahead, this president could be building his beautiful border wall with sweet potatoes. Alas.

            In the 2000s I shared reports of scientists' use of sweet potato peelings in removing hazardous chemicals at Super Fund sites.

            Work with me, people. Such was my message to mankind. Let us find constructive uses of sweet potatoes other than bolstering the marshmallow cream industry.

            Now, to my immense relief, I realize that someone other than me was thinking big-picture about these things: the idea people in the Trump White House, the minds behind Space Farce.

            I wrote way back in the '80s that sweet potatoes would make highly effective weapons if dropped or flung from above. This is no exaggeration. When deployed in their red birthday suits, sweet potatoes are pointed, dense and menacing.

            Now, I realize the merits of what Vice President Pence has pronounced but whose strategic details have yet to be sprung:

            Sweet potatoes will serve as the weapons Space Farce deploys to keep our fiercest galactic enemies at bay.

            Should, for instance, a cross-stellar caravan of Central American refugees telegraph their intention to couch-surf at the International Space Station or any Trump star properties, Space Farce could stop them in this very way.

            I'm with you all the way, Mr. President, Mr. Vice President. Sweet potatoes for interplanetary defense, not for dinner.

            Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

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