The Unseen Fly in the Formula’s Ointment

It’s o427 and 2 degrees,  and I’ve been at it for two hours already,my  plan this morning to get some work  done before Long Legs and I head over to our favorite local art show. True to plan I finished another draft  (no idea of which number I’m up to, and it doesn’t matter)  of a novel I’m calling BROWN BALL, and it struck me how easy it is now to create a manuscript with word processing, versus the messy days of typewriters. We all know that new technology and whistles and bells are supposed to make  lives easier, but what if they are diminishing us as human beings and turning us into seven billion half-assed, uninvolved lookers-on? 

Consider this. Among computer designers the guiding light seems to be to design the operator as far out of the operation as possible. And of course, designers are human, and by definition imperfect, which also means their creations are imperfect, no matter how elegant their creators may think them to be. More importantly, what if increased reliance on computers and other devices, shrink our own skills as human beings. Am I ranting. I don’t think so.

Consider this story, reported by author Nicholas Carr in THE GLASS CAGE: AUTOMATION AND US. Carr is an executive editor of the HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW.

Carr writes: “On the night of May 31(2009), an Air France Airbus A330 took off from Rio de Janeiro, bound for Paris. The jet ran into a storm over the Atlantic, about three hours after takeoff. Its air-speed sensors, caked with ice, began giving faulty readings, which caused the autopilot to disengage. Bewildered, the copilot flying the plane, Pierre-Cedric Bonin, yanked back on the control stick. The A330 rose and a loud stall warning sounded, but Bonin continued to pull back heedlessly on the stick. As the plane climbed sharply, it lost velocity. The airspeed sensors began working again, providing the crew with accurate numbers. It should have been clear at this point that the jet was going to slow. Yet Bonin persisted in his mistake at the controls, causing a further deceleration. The jet stalled and began to fall. If Bonin had simply let go of the stick, the A330 might well have righted itself. But it didn’t. The flight crew was suffering what French investigators would later term a “total loss of cognitive control of the situation.” After a few more harrowing seconds, another pilot, David Robert, took over the controls. It was too late. The plane dropped more than thirty thousand feet in three minutes.

“This can’t be happening,” said Robert.

“But what is happening,” replied the still-bewildered Bonin.

Three seconds later, the jet hit the ocean. All 228 crew and passengers died.

From this accident and others it began to dawn on the FAA that so much flying in autopilot mode was eroding hands-on flying skills and the agency put out an order to airlines telling them to increase hands-on flying. The accident described should have been recoverable.

But this is not just a story of human failure wrought by over-dependence on automation, there’s a less known part of the story

Writes Carr, “Airbus makes magnificent planes. Some commercial pilots prefer them to Boeing’s jets, and the safety records of the two manufacturers are pretty much identical. But recent incidents reveal the shortcomings of Airbus’s technology-centered approach. Some aviation experts believe that the design of the Airbus cockpit played a part in the Air France disaster. The voice-recorder transcript revealed that the whole time the pilot controlling the plane, Pierre-Cedric Bonin, was pulling back on his sidestick, his copilot, David Robert, was oblivious to Bonin’s fateful mistake. In a Boeing cockpit, each pilot has a clear view of the other pilot’s yoke and how it’s being handled. If that weren’t enough, the two yokes operate as a single unit. If one pilot pulls back on his yoke, the other pilot’s goes back too. Through both visual and haptic cues, the pilots stay in sync. The Airbus sidesticks, in contrast, are not in clear view, they work with much subtler motions and they operate independently. It’s easy for a pilot to miss what his colleague is doing, particularly in emergencies when stress rises and focus narrows.

Had Robert seen and corrected Bonin’s error early on,” Carr writes, “the pilots may well have regained control of the A330. The Air France crash, Chesley Sullenberger has said, would have been much less likely to happen if the pilots were flying in a Boeing cockpit with its human-centered controls. Even Bernard Ziegler, the brilliant and proud French engineer who served as Airbus’s top designer until his retirement in 1997, recently expressed misgivings about his company’s design philosophy. ‘Sometimes I wonder if we made an airplane that is too easy to fly,’ he said to William Langewiesche, the writer, during an interview in Toulouse, where Airbus has its headquarters. ‘Because in a difficult aircraft the crews may stay more alert.’ He went on to suggest that Airbus ‘should have built a kicker into the pilot seats.” He may not have been joking, but his comment jibes with what human-factor researchers have learned about the maintenance of human skill and attentiveness. Sometimes a good kick, or its equivalent, is exactly what an automated system needs to give its operators.”

Sobering thoughts. As automation and technology become more sophisticated and theoretically “reduce friction” from our lives, they threaten our lives by reducing our abilities as human beings.

And very few people regognize this aspect of technological advancement. Or care.

I write all my first drafts long-hand, with a pen. Call me Luddite, if you wish, but I prefer to tackle spelling, grammar and all the rest on my own, not with the stupid and un-creative hand of a  software designer trying like hell to prompt me in directions that make no sense to what I’m trying to do.


Requiem for Navigators of the Old School

Navigator in a Box
Navigator in a Box

This piece has been brewing for a while, but it took Nicholas Carr’s fine book THE GLASS CAGE, to push me to write it. 

Growing up as a USAF brat, a great number of houses I lived in, schools I attended, no longer exist. My family passed through them, time passed, they were torn down, end of story. The same phenomenon holds true for me one-time profession of navigator, where I flew all around the world using map reading skills, a primitive radar, a sextant for MPPs and star fixes at night, and on rare, desperate occasions PLOPs, meaning pressure lines of position. By taking atmospheric pressure readings we could theoretically take positions and use those to connect to sun observations for a primitive two-object fix. It was create thinking more than reality and most navs didn’t’ bother with it because we flew at speeds far in excess of the speeds the nav technique had been developed for decades before us. You can visualize pressure the way a cross-country skier visualizes terrain, which is to say pressure is like rolling country, pushing you down or up or left or right depending on the kind of pressure encountered. The readings let you plot a very primitive line, which you can then attempt to cross with a sextant reading on the sun, a reading that gives you only longitude, no latitude. We were also taught how to estimated wind speed by looking at the pattern of whitecaps on the ocean surface and while the wind down there might not be what it was aloft, it was one more clue to use to do the job. Navigation in my day was all science, but more than that it was an art and you either had the knack or you didn’t. Working fast at 400-500 mph was not for the slow-witted.

It was during my service that our fighter and recon aircraft began to be outfitted with new navigator devices such as inertial guidance, gizmos of the utmost accuracy compared to what we cold achieve. My employers, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) did not opt for such modern devices for us, and for a good reason. Our entire training and motive was to be ready to spring into action during a nuclear holocaust, and the truth of exploding nuclear pulses around the world would  destroy or disrupt all the ground-based radar and guidance systems. For this reason we had to be self sustaining and we SAC navs, at least those of us in tankers, had to be able to operate alone, with no support or aid from the ground or other flying vehicle. We were literally on our own.

But now navigation is increasingly being taken over by GPS systems, which are becoming ubiquitous not just in the military, but all through the civilian world. Want to go somewhere, punch in the address and let Dash Dummy tell you when and where to turn.

I don’t know how to use a G.P.S. and don’t intend to learn.

You might or might not be surprised how many times COs and I have had to located “lost” drivers who have followed their GPS units into total lostdom, where it suddenly dawned on them that they had no idea where they had ended up, and no idea how to get back to something from nowhere. We didn’t use GPS to find them. We used old map reading skills. In the years ahead this is only going to get worse as we raise an entire generation who has no clue what a map is, or how to use it.

Nicholas Clark writes,  “History is among other things, a record of the discovery of ingenious new ways to ease our passage through our environs, to make it possible to cross greater and more daunting distances without getting lost, roughed up, or eaten. Simple maps and trail markers came first, then star maps and nautical charts an terrestrial globes, then instruments like sounding weights, quadrants, astrolabes, compasses, octants and sextants, telescopes, hourglasses, and chronometers. Lighthouses were erected along shorelines, buoys set in coastal waters. Roads were paved, signs posted, highways linked and numbered. It has, for most of us, been a long time since we’ve had to rely on our wits to get around.

GPS receivers and other automated mapping and direction-plotting devices are the latest additions to our navigational toolkit. They also give the old story a new and worrisome twist. Earlier navigation aids, particularly those available and affordable to ordinary folks were just that, aids. They were designed to give travelers a greater awareness of the world around them – to sharpen their sense of direction, provide them with advance warning of danger, highlight nearby landmarks and other points of orientation, and in general help them situate themselves in both familiar and alien settings. Satellite navigation systems can do all these things, and more, but they’re not designed to deepen our involvement with our surroundings. They’re designed to relieve us of the need for such involvement. By taking control of the mechanics of navigation and reducing our own role to following routine commands – turn left in five hundred yards, take the next exit, stay right, destination ahead – the systems, whether running through a dashboard, a smartphone, or a dedicated GPS receiver, end up isolating us from the environment. As a team if Cornell University researchers put it in a 2008 paper, ‘With the GPS you no longer need to know where you are and where your destination is, attend to the physical landmarks along the way, or get assistance from other people in the car and outside it.’ The automation of way-finding serves to ‘inhibit the process of experiencing the physical world by navigation through it.’

Clark continues: “We want to see computer maps as interactive, high-tech versions of paper maps, but that’s a mistaken assumption. It’s yet another manifestation of the substitution myth. Traditional maps give us context. They provide both an overview of the area and require us to figure out our current location and then plan or visualize the best route to our next stop. Yes, they require some work – good tools always do – for the mental effort aids our mind in creating its own cognitive map of an area. Map reading, research has shown, strengthens our sense of place and hones our navigational skills – in ways that can make it easier for us to get around even when we don’t have a map at hand. We seem, without knowing it, to call on our subconscious memories of paper in orienting ourselves in a city or town and determining which way to had to arrive at our destination. In one revealing experiment, researchers found that people’s navigational sense is actually sharpest when they are facing north – the same way maps point.” Paper maps don’t just shepherd us from one place to the next: they teach us how to think about space.

The maps generated by satellite-linked computers are different. They usually provide meager spatial information and few navigational cues. Instead of requiring us to puzzle out where we are in an area, a GPS device simply sets us at the center of the map and then makes the world circulate around us. In this miniature parody of the pre-Copernican universe, we can get around without needing to know where we are, where we’ve been, or which direction we’re heading. We just need an address or an intersection, the name of a building or a shop to cue the device’s calculations.

And on the day the satellites fail, or are disabled in a cyber war, where does that leave Amerians with no clue of how to get from A to B without whispers from a box on the dash?

I don’t use GPS. I still use paper maps and spend a lot of time studying and when I trek off into the woods I carry paper in plastic in my map and a compass, and with these I can go anywhere and nobody in the world or above it can make it otherwise.

There are still some navigators in military aircraft, but they are not true navigators actually finding the way with mostly their own wits. Today, they are monitors of equipment, using diagnostics to check the health of such things, and carrying extra black boxes to install if needed. Those poor folks will never know the joy and fear of setting forth on a voyage through the air knowing that it will be largely up to them to make sure the crew and passengers and cargo get safely to Point B. What a shame. I once had to dead reckon my way from Torrejon AB,  near Madrid, Spain to the U.P., and shortly thereafter from the U.P. to Da Nang AFB  in northern South Vietnam. We had a solid under-cast and bad radar, which took that device  and map-reading away, and forced me to rely on no more than the iffy lines of the sun to guide me and I hit all of my marks dead on crossing half the physical world.

For a part of the journey we had four F4 phantoms in formation with us and they had newly installed inertial guidance navigational systems and from time to time one of  GIBs (Guys In Back) would ask me if I wanted a position check off their equipment and I would politely decline. Few will ever know the joy (or angst) of such a challenge in the years to come. Too bad for them.

Over. Sadly.


Memories Are Made of This

Thor’s Hammer, Thud Memories

I know   that some of you are deeply alergic to Long E-Mailed Harangues.  I      didn’t write this one and it is NOT political.

I am not      sure that anyone is more nostalgic than an old pilot, particularly military      ones and most particularly old combat pilots.  I certainly see it in      myself. With each year, sunrises and sunsets gain importance, not just for      their beauty and grandeur, but because I remember what they looked like from      40,000 ft.  Don shepherd’s new book, “Friday Pilots.” stoked the      nostalgia a bit.  Airplanes that I flew, flew into combat or just plain      admired for any reason grasp my attention and imagination, if not always      affection. I am an unadulterated romantic about aviation and all those that      gave their youth to it.

The      attached story, essay, love letter to one’s past, or whatever you wish to      call it; was sent to me by one of my pilot training classmates. Although I      never flew the “Thud” I always admired it from afar.  I know many, many      who did fly it and they are nearly universally ardent admirers of the      aircraft, despite its many flaws. However, I have considerable combat time,      I have flown where he flew in the face of lethal opposition, and have also      delivered more than one of my beloved mounts to the, “Boneyard.”

I don’t      think I know Mr. Carlson (but I might and just can’t remember right      now).  If our paths perhaps cross in the scrambled halls of the      internet, I would love to shake your hand.  Regardless, we have flown      the same aircraft, scorched the same paths and our senses are well      attuned.  I think this is a very good piece of work and well worth your      few minutes of retirement.  This, is how it is.

Best      Regards,

Dick      Hellier


A        Requiem – by Thomas R. Carlson
I                was looking through a spreadsheet that summarized the disposition                of the Air Force’s F-105 fleet. Little did I know that what I                discovered would start me on a journey into the past that I didn’t                really want to make. I had been more or less content with leaving                the past where it was and had long since come to grips with                memories of decisions and deeds, some right and some fearfully                wrong. “Don’t look back unless you want to go there” is usually                good advice, and still I was drawn into a place where I imagined                that I heard the sounds, smelled the smells and felt the old gut                feelings from times past. There was a near physical presence of                machines, places and people from the now long                ago.
When                I found the tail number that I sought, the message was terse,                unequivocal and final. “1984 June Scrapped.” That meant that my                faithful old #246 had been chopped into pieces and melted down to                make beer cans! 246 had been the warhorse of my youthful days, my                ride, my big afterburning, supersonic heavy metal. The aircraft                had been a proud old war veteran that had once carried the name                “Thor’s Hammer” and had met its end at the hands of scrappers,                rather than a foreign enemy. A line from Oliver Wendell Holmes’                epic poem about the ship “Old Ironsides” came to mind. “The                harpies of the shore shall pluck the eagle of the sea.” Enemies                had tried to bring about its demise, and it wasn’t for their lack                of trying that it survived the Vietnam War only to meet its end at                the hands of scavengers. The war in Southeast Asia had raged for                years and Republic F-105D Thunderchief, tail number 62-4246 had                been there from the beginning of the air war until the end and had                survived against incalculable  odds.
246                belonged to the American taxpayers and was posted to the outer                frontier of the country’s sphere of influence. In keeping with                tradition, pilots were allowed to have their names painted on the                canopy rail and, with that done, it was “their” airplane. With my                name on the left side of the canopy and Staff Sergeant Myers, the                crew chief’s name on the right, 246 was properly adopted. Other                names would occupy those same rails over the years as pilots, crew                chiefs and airplanes rotated from unit to unit or pilots were lost                to accidents or combat. My good fortune was to be first. Fresh                from the Republic factory on Long Island it still had the                distinctive new car smell and the crisp, clean look of a new                machine. In Cold War livery, it was painted silver and had a dark                blue stripe around the nose, just aft of the radar dome. The new                fighter was ferried from Republic Field to Mobile Alabama to                Okinawa with the ultimate destinations of the forward bases of                Korat and Tahkli Thailand.
By                comparison with other fighters of the day, the Thunderchief was a                giant of an airplane and incredibly more complex. My                contemporaries and I had originally viewed it with suspicion and                admittedly some trepidation. For such a machine to be powered by a                single engine and operated by a single pilot seemed optimistic at                best. Twenty- five tons of machine when fully loaded gave some                credibility to term “Fighter, Heavy.” This was almost comically                noted in the designation FH that preceded the buzz numbers on the                side of the sixty-four foot fuselage. The Thunderchief name would                give way to the universally adopted term “Thud”. What was                originally meant to be a put-down would eventually become an                accepted and revered name. The term “Thud Driver” would be a badge                of honor and respect that would be worn with                pride.
246                was assigned to the 44th Tactical Fighter Squadron on Okinawa. The                44th was a unit with a proud tradition dating to the attack on                Pearl Harbor where it’s pilots in P-40s rose to meet the Japanese                attackers. During the course of World War II, the Vampires, as                they were known, earned many battle honors, including the                Distinguished Unit Citation. Then equipped with the F-100 Super                Sabre and a legacy of excellence, the 44th would be among the                units in the Pacific Air Forces to be the recipient of the F-105                aircraft in 1963. This would be a proper home for 246. It would be                more than a year before the war in Southeast Asia became heated up                to the point that the authorities committed the unit to action and                posted the 44th to Korat Thailand on temporary duty. This time                interval had been an opportunity for pilots and ground crews to                become familiar with the new machine. Maintenance and operations                schedules didn’t always match, but when they did, it was squadron                policy that pilots flew their own                aircraft.
Far                from being my personal chariot, 246 was a warplane. The existence                of the machine and its presence in that part of the world was for                a grim purpose. The Cold War mission was well defined and far too                terrible for most to even contemplate. Much of the time, aircraft                and pilots were on alert and loaded with the deadliest weapons                ever devised. Republic had built the craft to carry and deliver                those weapons and the pilots had been trained to carry out the                nuclear mission. The alert duty was never taken lightly and yet, I                doubt that most pilots, myself included, thought that such madness                as a wholesale exchange of such weapons would ever happen. Carried                to a logical conclusion, there was no logic to                it.
The                warplane role of the Thud would play out in quite a different                direction. The twenty millimeter Gatling gun in the nose of the                craft fired projectiles at a hundred per second. The destruction                wrought by such a stream of exploding shells was a new dimension                in firepower. A one second burst, fired into a truck, a structure                or an aircraft would tear the target to shreds. Hard points on the                belly and wings carried the bomb load of a B-17 bomber from                another era. Missiles of several types were carried, intended for                airborne and ground targets alike. All the conventional weaponry                available was to be employed by the Thud drivers in the years to                come.
Modifications                were made to the aircraft over time. Hydraulic lines were                re-routed and other changes made to enhance survivability.                Introduction of the two-seater models to combat expanded the role                of the aircraft even more. Wild Weasel, a concept started using                the F-100, was soon transferred to the F-105 F, later designated                the G model. The Weasels tormented the enemy missile sites and                destroyed them when their radar came up on the air sometimes even                after the missiles had been launched. The Soviets reportedly                believed the Weasel crews were on marijuana or other stronger                drugs. The more traditional Thud drivers simply thought that the                definition of an optimist was a Weasel crew that quit smoking. The                Weasel pilots and their “Bears” (Electronic Warfare Officers)                earned a revered and special status in the hearts of all who knew                that they had performed the most dangerous task in an environment                where all faced grave danger. No tale of the Thud could be told                without acknowledging the role of the                Weasels.
The                spectrum of pilots sent to Asia to fly the Thud would be broad.                Initially, the Wing and Squadron Commanders, Ops Officers and some                Flight Commanders would be the veteran warriors from the skies of                Europe and the Pacific in World War II and From Mig Alley in the                Korean War. The younger pilots would be the Cold War era trainees                from the fighter pipeline. The Thud drivers would be West Point,                Air Force Academy and Annapolis graduates, from The Citadel and                VMI as well as those from the ROTC programs and Aviation Cadets.                Most would give a good accounting of their time in the                airplane.
There                would be Medal of Honor recipients, Mig killers, 200 mission                survivors, former astronauts and future General Officers. As the                war dragged on, and fighter pilot ranks thinned, there would be                transport and other multi-engine pilots as well as some staff                officers who were hurriedly trained to fly the Thud. While many of                them distinguished themselves in their new role, they were, after                all, in a new and far different element for which their previous                training and experience had done little to prepare them. In                training and in combat, they would die in numbers disproportionate                to the long-time fighter pilots but nobody would ever question the                courage of those who flew. Thor’s Hammer would respond to the                hands of pilots from all these                backgrounds.
246                was transferred to Takhli Thailand after my return to the States.                It was a successor of mine, Capt. Nels Running, a future                Thunderbird Pilot and future Major General, who named it. The                legend of the Norse God who brought down thunder from the skies as                he wielded his mythical hammer, was a well-chosen and appropriate                nom de guerre. Memphis Belle, Old Ironsides, Glamorous Glennis,                Enola Gay, Protestor’s Protector and Thor’s Hammer. Some of these                names would be remembered in aviation and naval history and some                forgotten. The little-known names of ships and aircraft would be                remembered only by the generation that flew or manned them. The                Thud would be legendary among aviators, aviation enthusiasts and                historians as the workhorse of the Vietnam War. Museums, memorials                and pedestals would be home for many of the retired fleet.                Memories of Thor’s Hammer and those who flew it would grow dim and                eventually disappear as the passage of time relegated them to                history’s margins.
Unlike                most other fighters, in addition to a conventional pneumatic                engine starting system, the Thud had one that utilized an                explosive canister much like an oversized, slow-burning shotgun                shell. Pilots and ground crews became accustomed to the acrid                smell of burning cordite as the coffee can sized powder cartridge                spun the big turbine engine to life. Since Chinese alchemists                invented gunpowder in the ninth century, that smell had been the                essence of war. To the doughboy in the trenches of World War I it                was his constant companion, bearing witness to the incessant                artillery fire that took friend and foe alike by the hundreds of                thousands. To the sailor on a battleship, it signaled the firing                of the big guns, sending huge projectiles toward the enemy. To the                Thud driver and his crew chief it usually meant a successful                engine start. In many ways, it was a hint of things to                come.
With                the tachometer indicating idle speed, there was a high-pitched                whine as the small air turbine motor was brought on line to power                the hydraulic and some electrical systems. An almost imperceptible                movement of the machine could be felt as compressors and turbines                came up to speed, pumps and generators came on line and the start                sequence was completed. The smells of hydraulic fluid and burned                jet fuel mixing with the dissipating gunpowder aroma completed the                sensory inputs and told the pilot that the machine had come to                it’s form of life.
Whether                in combat or on a routine training mission, flying the Thud was                always an adventure. It wasn’t trepidation as much as anticipation                of the adrenalin rush which was sure to come. The culmination of                boyhood dreams and fantasies of one day being a fighter pilot had                been fulfilled. There was the thrill of advancing the throttle to                full power for take-off. The landing gear struts which stretched                nearly eight feet from their mounting point in the wing to the                surface, bent slightly aft as the power was advanced and sprung                forward as the brakes were released. Feeling the gear “walk” was a                uniquely Thud experience. The throttle was moved outboard to the                afterburner detent and, when needed, water injection was selected                by a toggle switch forward of the throttle. With that done, 26,500                pounds of thrust accelerated the Thud along the runway and into                the air. The painful decibel level reached by the shrieking                afterburner and the continuous thunderclap of the engine exhaust                were not heard by the pilot. The tight canopy and special                fluid-filled, snug fitting headphones in the helmet left the                painful noise to torment those on the                ground.
In                a combat environment, details such as aircraft numbers appeared on                scheduling boards and mission cards but were not recorded in the                pilot’s log. I don’t know how many times I flew 246 in that role.                What were called “good” missions during that early phase of the                war were hard to come by and eagerly sought after by most pilots.                Nobody much cared about the aircraft number. Escorting unarmed                RF-101s on their low-level photo missions, interdiction sorties to                Laos, armed reconnaissance along the Ho Chi Minh trail and the                real plums, the initial “Rolling Thunder” strikes north of the                DMZ, were considered good. There was a “Bitch Board” in squadron                operations where missions were tallied in grease pencil to insure                that no pilot got more “good ones” than someone else. It wasn’t as                though they relished war and the possibility of dying. They were                Fighter Pilots who lived on the edge even in peacetime. Going in                harm’s way is what they had been trained for, what was expected of                them. It was who they were and what they were there to do. No more                scrimmage. It was time to get in the deadly contest. This time                frame in the war is reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling who made an                observation that the “Old Sarge” was usually a bit more                circumspect about going into battle than the young                recruit.
Each                pilot has his own indelible list of remembered places, previously                known only to cartographers and locals. The Plain of Jars, Vinh,                Than Hoa, Sam Neua, Mu Gia Pass, Dong Hoi and Route 1 were the                locations of early targets and were on my list. Those pilots who                were there as the war intensified would be exposed to a far more                dangerous and foreboding environment of air defenses and a new set                of names. Thud Ridge, Downtown, Hai Phong, the Paul Doumer Bridge,                Kep, Phuc Yen, the Red River, most of these in what was known as                Route Pack Six, would be imprinted in their memories. A hundred                times they were required to go where missions were no longer                “good.” Surviving one hundred missions to those places, however                unlikely that was, would earn those pilots a special status in the                aviator’s pecking order. While they might have reveled that their                skill and a measure of luck carried them through the ordeal, like                soldiers throughout history, they would grieve for their comrades                whose fortune was not as good as                theirs.
Every                combat mission was permeated with risk and, a predictable                adrenalin overdose. Even though one was in the company of other                flight members and usually part of a larger effort, there was a                feeling of aloneness. One engine, one seat, one pilot, one set of                thoughts. Dryness in the mouth and the hint of the taste of bile                were the signs of trepidation, however slight or well concealed                from the others. The mission would be flown and even the slightest                thought to the contrary immediately put aside. If a pilot didn’t                fly his assigned mission, someone else would have to go in his                place.
Surviving                one phase of flight was only a set-up for the next phase. There                was always the heavyweight take-off where every available foot of                runway was needed. The bomb laden Thud gained speed slowly at                first. It seemed to have feet of clay as the afterburner and water                injection were selected. Further along the take-off roll, the                pilot became committed to flight, since there was no stopping once                refusal speed and distance had been reached. Clearing the                arresting barrier at the far end often seemed in question. Having                survived that, the struggling Thud felt as if it remained airborne                only by virtue of the downward thrust vector of the blazing                afterburner and the extra boost of water injection. As speed was                gained and the water injection depleted, the flaps were retracted                to the subsonic flight position. The pilots breathing rate                returned to somewhere near normal as the speed increased to a                comfortable 400knots or so. A join-up with other flight members                into normal four-ship formation preceded the tanker rendezvous.                Fuel loads were usually topped-off prior to entering the target                area.
The                refueling was generally a routine matter, but there were notable                exceptions. One pilot, Gary Barnhill, suffered an internal                aircraft fuel system failure. His Thud exploded in a giant                fireball as he backed off the tanker’s boom. At the urging of John                Betz his wingman, who observed a massive fuel leak, he ejected a                split second before the fireball would have engulfed him.                Miraculously, he survived. The bombs on Ned Miller’s aircraft were                thought to have detonated because faulty proximity fuses sensed                the density of the tanker. Ned perished in the blinding flash that                left only bits and pieces of his Thud fluttering and tumbling                earthward. George Sasser, flying Ned’s wing, saw the Gatling gun                propelled forward out of the fireball as if it had been fired out                by a larger cannon. He saw Ned’s limp form descending toward the                undercast in his parachute.
The                tanker guys always seemed to be where they were supposed to be.                They hung around to refuel any post strike fighters that may be                low on fuel. This was done at great peril to themselves and with                the everlasting gratitude of the fighter pilots, especially the                ones they saved.
The                heavy weight of the Thuds soon after takeoff made refueling more                difficult than usual. There were times when the bomb load and                considerable weight of fuel already on board taxed the ability of                the engine output, making it difficult to hook-up. Being late on                the tanker or not getting a prompt hook-up was undesirable since                that may require following the tanker around a racetrack circuit                and arriving late on the target. It was better to get there first.                Flying Col. Bill Craig’s wing one day, we arrived late on target                because of a circuit with the tanker. Predictably, the flight                scheduled to follow us was already there. A B-57 pulling off the                target went between the leader and me going straight up. He didn’t                miss either of us by more than what seemed like inches. I know                that he didn’t see us and there wasn’t even time to tense. The                episode was over in a fraction of a second but the image                remains.
With                the refueling done, the target area was next. Time seemed to                switch to fast-forward between tanker and target. Lurking                somewhere in the recesses of the mind was the knowledge that one                could instantly be propelled from the comfort and familiar sounds                of the cockpit into the unknown. From the tip of a high-tech                spear, into the silent void of nothingness would only take a                fraction of a second. Transition to a grim and uncertain future in                a primitive cage, far from home and far removed from the thin                veneer of civilization, would take a bit                longer.
On                a dive bomb run at some long forgotten place, I marveled at the                countless projectiles heading my way. There were bright colored                tracers and those that were less visible shades of gray. The                anti-aircraft guns usually focused on the plane presenting the                most immediate threat and all of them seemed to be firing directly                at me. It looked as if each round was destined to come through the                center of the windshield. That none of them had hit me yet seemed                impossible. At a speed close to 600 knots, I glanced out the side                of the cockpit and it seemed as though tracers were actually                arcing up and over my right wing, following the airflow around it.                I dismissed this as an optical illusion and concentrated on the                delivery of the bomb load. The ripple of the six thousand pounds                leaving the aircraft meant that it was time for afterburner and                lots of back stick. Vision grew narrow then dim as the G load                increased, in spite of the functioning of the G suit and the                tightening of body muscles. Acceleration to maximum speed and                heading for relative safety away from the target followed. This                same drama was to be repeated thousands of times by hundreds of                pilots over the next seven years.
Surface                to air missiles (SAMs), MIG fighters, 37,57, 85 and 105 millimeter                anti-aircraft shells and small arms fire filled the airspace where                the Thud lived. According to the data contained in the article                where I learned of the fate of my airplane, by rough count, some                423 Thuds were lost to combat or related accidents. Too many                pilots and crews died in their prime and too many of them suffered                and languished in the fetid torture camps of another culture. One                could debate the Vietnam War to infinity. Good war, bad war or no                war at all. Wars throughout history represented the failure of                diplomacy and were waged as instruments of national policy. Some                wars were fought with final victory as the goal, and some weren’t.                In my experience, they were neither initiated nor relished by the                soldier since it was always the soldier who bore the heaviest                burden. Those pilot soldiers who were ordered into battle and flew                246, always made it safely back to their base. On other days and                in other aircraft, many of them were not so                fortunate.
The                heavy losses of aircraft and people were less due to any                deficiency attributable to the Thud than because of the incredibly                hostile environment where these aircraft and pilots were sent, day                after day for some seven years. Against almost incalculable odds,                Thor’s Hammer was a survivor, as were those pilots who flew it on                each individual mission. Perhaps a thousand times it went to war                and a thousand times returned safely. It would be impossible to                estimate the number of SAMs and the countless rounds of artillery                and small arms that had been fired at this aircraft and failed to                bring it down.
246                spent semi-retirement with a reserve unit at Oklahoma City where                systems were upgraded, war scars and blemishes repaired and where                it continued to serve in the nation’s arsenal. The reservists                would have known the airplane’s history since some of them had                probably flown it in combat. The old fire horse had found a new,                quieter fire station and waited for the bell. The bell, when                finally heard by the keepers, would have been a death knell from a                distant five-sided steeple. It would have appeared on the daily                scheduling board in the squadron simply as “246, ferry, DMA                (Davis-Monthan Air Force Base,                Tucson).
I                would have wanted to be there to fly Thor’s Hammer on that last                ferry flight to Tucson when it was time to go, much as a saddened                owner would take a beloved dog on that dreaded last trip to the                vet. It might be logical for Gen. Running to make the flight, but                I’ll have him occupied elsewhere (after all, it’s a fantasy).                Besides, Generals didn’t usually engage in anything so                mundane.
With                a knowing wink and nod, a Master Sergeant assisting in the                pre-flight inspection would remove the cover plates on the                outboard wing pylon stations, leaving a pair of round voids that                worked much the same as blowing across a bottle. They would be off                for the traffic pattern at destination so the familiar shriek                would be heard as the Thud approached. As a young airman he would                have done this in the past. He would have remembered the days of                sweating-out the mission on a distant flight line, counting the                Thuds as they returned. His contribution would be noted and                appreciated.
I                would have been aware that many better men than me had challenged                fate and survived, strapped in the seat of 246. It would be for                them that I would advance the throttle, release the brakes and                feel the gear walk for the last time. The afterburner would bark a                final defiant insult to the earth-bound’s ears as we lifted off                and headed west. In aviator’s jargon, “Gone West” means that one                has flown the last sortie to that final and uncertain destination.                The irony of geography dictating the direction of flight would not                be lost. This would be Thor’s Hammer’s judgment day but there was                no uncertainty.
It                would have been tempting and so easy to let the speed build and                slip through the Mach to supersonic flight. The strike of Thor’s                hammer would have brought down thunder from the heavens once more,                just as in the Norse legend. Windows would have shattered and                dishes rattled along the route of flight. Officialdom would not                have allowed such a transgression. I would have to have been                content with the memories of other days when supersonic flight had                been effortlessly attained in the same cockpit, hand on the same                throttle, looking through the same windscreen. Pushing eight                hundred knots on the airspeed tape wouldn’t be necessary on this                day. After all, we wouldn’t be headed out of the chaos and carnage                of battle, or outrunning a pursuing MIG, but bound for a vast                graveyard for old, un-needed war machines. Guns that had once                fired at the stiletto shape were far away and long silent. The                scrappers patiently waited, assured of success where the enemy’s                guns had failed. No need to hurry.
A                New Mexico rancher astride his horse, who except for his clothing,                might have looked like a knight or a cavalryman from another time,                would have looked up briefly at the long thin contrail in the                stratosphere and the barely perceptible dot pulling it along. He                and his mount would return to their earthbound chores without                knowing the meaning of the melancholy                wisp.
The                Captain of an eastbound 767 would have nudged his co-pilot and                pointed upward as his airliner passed underneath the old fighter.                With his face pressed to the glass, he would have recalled to his                captive audience other days and times when he too had been                strapped in the cockpit of the magnificent Thud. It wouldn’t have                had much of an impact on his younger colleague who was most likely                a new-age child of the magenta line. To him, old fighters would                probably have been a historical footnote, of some significance to                the old guys who lived in the past. The unmistakable silhouette of                the needle nose and the forward sweeping intakes would quickly                pass from view but not from The Captain’s memory, which would have                been instantly at flood tide. He would watch until the contrail                left by the Thud dissipated then vanished. He would turn again to                the relatively mundane yet important matters at hand. After all,                he would have thought, that was then and this is                now.
Of                course, a good solid 4 G pitch-out to downwind from a 500 knot                initial approach would be in order for the last overhead traffic                pattern. To hell with it, make it 650! In for a penny, in for a                pound! Stay just under the mach so I wouldn’t end up in jail for                destroying the place with a sonic boom. . “Black Matt” Matthews, a                legendary Thud driver, former Thunderbird pilot and genuine good                guy had already paid a price for slipping through the mach during                a flyover at the Air Force Academy. Much of the glass construction                was reduced to rubble. Matt’s good name was cleared of any blame                but still, no need to repeat that. Unlike Matt, I wouldn’t have                been blameless.
The                massive speed brakes, idle power and 6Gs would combine to slow to                the 275 knot gear down speed. The voids in the outer wing panels                where the cover plates had been removed would shriek their                high-pitched wail. Dogs for miles around would howl and the                ground-bound folk would look up and take notice. Some of them                would have known immediately without even seeing it. that this                wasn’t just another aircraft in the pattern, this was a                Thud!
Approach                control would already be on the phone to the Airdrome Officer,                making note of the speed violation to be filed. Screw ‘em. The                plastic colonels who would revel in violating this rogue pilot’s                transgression didn’t matter. Neither would a violation matter.                Thor’s Hammer’s last traffic pattern would not be one of the                post-modern era but from another day, now far in the past when                airplane and pilot were at the top of their game. Anything less                could not be done nor would it be acceptable. To wimp out at this                point would result in a well-deserved chorus of “You don’t have a                hair on your ass!” rising in crescendo from legions of Thud                drivers living and dead. Beyond that, the old war horse deserved                no less than a full gallop to the ignominious end of a                metaphorical glue factory.
Gear                down, flaps down then the 200 knot final approach to a touchdown                on the numbers. A few knots on the fast side perhaps, but a good                comfortable speed and there would be plenty of runway. The abrupt                deceleration of the drag chute would hasten the slowing process                for the turn off the runway. The canopy that had completed the                cocoon of the familiar cockpit would open slowly, once clear of                the runway. Even the sudden blast of hot Arizona desert air would                feel good against the accumulated sweat and the deep imprint on                the face that had been tightly covered by the now dangling oxygen                mask. Time to jettison the drag chute and follow the yellow pickup                with the “follow me” sign on a serpentine route to the storage                facility and journey’s end.
The                brakes would be set at the ground handlers stop signal and wheel                chocks inserted. As a final, defiant and time-honored obscene                gesture in the Thud driver’s repertoire, the refueling probe would                be extended then retracted. The device, located in the nose of the                aircraft forward of the cockpit, was not visible in the stowed                position. When extended, it had the look of a large finger. The                absolute last mechanical movement called for from within the guts                and soul of the still viable machine would be a gesture to the                unseen jury that had imposed the death sentence and those who                would carry it out. The meaning of this would probably be lost on                the intended audience, the toothless scrappers with their cutting                torches at the ready.
The                well- worn throttle, made shiny by the thousands of leather-                gloved hands that had caressed it for two decades, would be slowly                and reluctantly moved to the cutoff position. The clatter of                compressor blades, as the engine wound down would be the death                rattle of a warrior who had fought well but lost the last battle.                An official notation, entered in the logbook, “Flight # 1 OK”                would be recorded. Between the lines allotted for commentary would                be added: “So long, old timer, well done.” A few minutes would be                devoted to checklist items then, a couple of more minutes seated                there with arms resting on the canopy                rails.
The                new car smell would be only a memory from the distant past. The                sweat of a thousand pilots, the decades of cordite, hydraulic                fluid and jet fuel would have permeated the molecules of the                metal, paint and fabric of the cockpit. The smells would hang                heavy in all the recesses and voids. The familiar odor of hot                titanium and stainless steel would combine with the others and                enter the nostrils and                consciousness.
The                silence would be broken only by the “tink tink tink” sound of                cooling metal.

Thoughts on Writing, Aging, Words and Actions

Teaching of a law professor: “When you’re fighting a case, if you have the facts on your side, hammer them into the jury; if you have the law on your side, hammer it into the judge; and if you have neither the law nor the facts, hammer hell into the table.”

Most of the rhetoric and politics in FACEBOOK and the mass media seem to fit the professor’s  last described situation. And in terms of logic and language, it is a reminder to all of us, “To follow the money.” What does the adherent argue most vehemently? The emphasis placed on certain arguments will tell the reader where weaknesses most likely dwell. In the short run, rhetorical tricks and words can be used to fool people into thinking almost anything, but only for a  finite time;  eventually the words gets compared to the acts that do or don’t back them, and then the game begins to be up and plans unraveled.  We can think of many examples of ill-considered  remarks made by political candidates that undid them — in fact, damn near gutted them on the spot. This holds true for any and all parts of the political spectrum under examination.

The guideline for words, slogans, rhetoric, grand oratory – seem to matter in at least two ways. First  words can serve as an exhortation to support something or to act , e.g. “Remember the Maine/ Remember Pearl Harbor, etc.” And, second, those same words then become the recorded basis for later analyzing how much truth lay in the original exhortation, eg, the argument to war on the basis of weapons of mass destruction on the front end,  vs none found later, the front-end rhetoric words vs the reality of nothing found. One function of journalism is to sort wheat from chaff in words and statements, and this is what pisses off politicians and their supporters so much because in our so-called free society, asking questions is often seen as unpatriotic or lacking in responsibility when in  reality it is the  epitome of responsibility.  As professional journalist gives way back to the days of partisan yellow journalism the country becomes poorer. I prefer journalists digging and looking disloyal to everyone following lockstep behind some eight-ball idea or political movement. National Socialism and Hitler are examples to wit. 

Reading some of W. Somerset Maugham’s work recently and in talking about writing he writes, “The same sentence can never produce exactly the same effect on two persons, and the first quick impressions that any given word may convey will in two minds widely differ.”

This reminded me of something taught by Professor David K. Berlo when I was at Michigan State back in the Dark Ages and that is, “Meanings are in people, not in words.”

What he meant was that when we say the word “chair,” almost all of us will instantly create in our mind a picture of a piece of furniture which a  person can sit on. But the mind, without direction from the writer as to color, size, style, etc,  the hearer/reader will dig into its own memory banks or druthers to  bring up a picture specific to that individual’s mind. So I agree in part with Maugham, but it seems to me then that the writer’s job is to find as many of the words he or she can to create as close to a similar image in mind after mind.  First of all the thing to be described needs to be clear in the writers’ mind-eye.I think this can be done and is done all the time, otherwise communication would be impossible and language irrelevant. It’s not. The other way a writer can use this is instead of nailing down great amounts of detail in description to instead hit the high points and let the reader’s mind color in the details. In this way the reader becomes an unwitting fellow creator and adds personal equity to the story being read. The example I always use for audiences is that I have never told my readers much about the physical experience of Grady Service other than he is tall and generally massive in size. They provide their own details, which in turn lets them have their own protagonist to see through the tale. This can happen accidentally for all manner  of minor characters, but when you see such a dearth of physical detail for a main character, you can be pretty comfortable in the assumption the writer intended it to be that way. For you.

Maugham also took a gentle swipe at poets of his time (b 1874, d.1965). “Modern poets. I should be content with less cleverness if only they had more feeling. They make little songs not from great sorrows but from the sober pleasures of a good education.” I think Maugham’s view of what “fuels” poetry points to his own personal aesthetic for such things, but the notion that art that derives from education and learned patterns, absent much life experience or emotion, seems reasonable. I see it sometimes in the sort of production line short fiction coming out of some advanced creative writing programs, and more often out of academic poetry, where there seems to be a clubby, exclusionary approach to the business at hand. Or cliques based on arbitrary qualifications that  seem to me to have little or no bearing on the work: women, men, left handed diests with scores of x or better on Mensa tests. You get my point. The writers I know well don’t hang in groups and they all have one thing in common. They work hard and regularly and prefer working to talking about it.

Then there’s this whole deal with aging, this from one well into old fartdom and approaching 72, but still pounding out the work daily, and reading like I can’t get enough.

On another occasion (1922) Maugham instructed, “Things were easier for the old novelists who saw people all of a piece. Speaking generally, their heroes were good through and through, their villains wholly bad. But take X, for instance. She is not only a liar, she is a mythomaniac who will invent malicious stories that have no foundation in fact, and will tell them so convincingly, with such circumstantial detail that you are almost persuaded she believes them herself. She is grasping and will hesitate at no dishonesty to get what she wants. She is a snob and will impudently force her acquaintance on persons who she knows wish to avoid it. She is a climber, but with the paltriness of her mind is satisfied with the second rate; the secretaries of great men are her prey, not the great men themselves. She is vindictive, jealous and envious. She is a quarrelsome bully. She is vain, vulgar, and ostentatious. There is no real badness in her.

She is clever. She has charm. She has exquisite taste. She is generous and will spend her own money, to the last penny, as freely as she will spend other people’s. She is hospitable and takes pleasure in the pleasure she gives her guests. Her emotion is easily aroused by a tale of love and she will go out of her way to relieve the distress of persons who mean nothing to her. In sickness she will show herself an admirable and devoted nurse. She is a gay and pleasant talker. Her greatest gift is her capacity for sympathy. She will listen to your troubles with genuine commiseration and with unfeigned kindliness will do everything she can to relieve them or to help you to bear them. She will interest herself in all that concerns you, rejoice with you in your success and take part in the mortifications of your failure. There is real goodness in her.

She is hateful and lovable, covetous and open-handed, cruel and kind, malicious and generous of spirit, egotistic and unselfish. How on earth is a novelist to combine these incompatible traits as to make the plausible harmony that renders a character credible?”

Maugham also makes some notes on  what can happen to aging novelists. “The Novelist’s Material. The danger, always lies in wait for the novelist that with increasing knowledge of the world which offers him his subject matter, with a more comprehensive grasp of the ideas which enable him to give coherence, and with a more exact command of the technique of his art,  he may outgrow his interest in the variety of experience which on the whole make up his material. When advancing years, wisdom or satiety prevent him from giving an excessive consideration to affairs with concern the generality of men, he is lost. A novelist must preserve a childlike belief in the importance of things which common-sense considers of no  great consequence.  He must never entirely grow up. He must interest himself to the end in matters which are no longer of his age. It needs a peculiar turn of mind in a man of fifty to treat with great seriousness the passion of Edwin for Angelina. (from Oliver Goldsmith’s The Hermit). The novelist is dead in the man who has become aware of the triviality of human affairs. You can often discern in writers the dismay with which they have recognized this situation in themselves, and you can see how they have dealt with it: sometimes by deserting life for fantasy, and sometimes, when they have been too deeply engaged with their past to disentangle themselves from the snares of reality, by turning upon their old material with a savage irony.” Maugham used George Eliot and H.G. Wells as examples of authors who abandon fiction for sociology, and Thomas Hardy and Flaubert. I suppose his words of caution hold some water. There is no doubt that age gives us more experience which in some was serves as an anesthetic against reality. Most people don’t grow up, they age. And with age sometimes comes insight, which Robert Frost put so nicely, “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.” 

I prefer to think of myself down the lines Mark Twain laid out: “When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened. It is sad to go to pieces like this but we all have to do it.”  And therein sleeps the seed of fiction. I offer a couple of photos for your viewing pleasure, one from nature and the other man-made.


Reflections. There is beauty all around us. All we need do is learn to see.
Reflections. There is beauty all around us. All we need do is learn to see.
Polar skies in Norway
Polar skies in Norway

Planning for When the White Dirt Melts

We’re getting a foot of snow today. So be it. I let my mind travel elsewhere (which is safer than aiming the truck across the ice patch).


 Over the years we each come to understand and codify our own laws governing fly fishing.  Yours will reflect your own experience. I offer mine here:

 LAW 1:  You’re totally on your own when you are in the woods on your way to  the river.

 LAW 2: The best time to fish is when you can go. Even if the fish aren’t biting, you are fishing, which beats hell out of anything else you might be doing.

 LAW 3: The key to having fun on the river is to become deaf to what others are telling you. “This is hatching, this isn’t, you shoulda been here yesterday, better stay for tomorrow, etc.” Do your own thing and to hell with the rest of them.

 LAW 4: Don’t rush down to the river and begin fishing blindly. Sit on the bank and watch what’s going on. Then get up and start fishing blindly, because most of the time you won’t see a damn thing during the observation period. The rest will let you catch your breath after the long walk from the truck.

 LAW 5: At the exact moment when you’ve had a pretty good day and you start thinking you’re beginning get the hang of it, the whole thing will go south and the next day it will be like you never had a fly rod in your hand before.

 LAW 6: Getting skunked is part of the sport. I some circles, lying about being skunked is also part of the sport.

 LAW 7: Mission creep is a reality in war and fishing. If you catch gabillions and smakillions of 20- inch browns, you will covet a 30, and if you catch a 30-incher, you will start thinking about 31. This dementia is normal.  Pay no heed. Don’t let it bother you.

 LAW 8: Nocturnal fishing for browns is just about the most fun you can have in river. Catching them at night is even more fun.

 LAW 8 A: If you’re afraid of the dark or have a fetid imagination, never mind what was  just  stated in LAW 8. For you night fishing will be a living nightmare, unless you manage to catch a fish, in which case refer to LAW 8.

 LAW 9: The precise fly you need will be: 500 miles south with your equipment; one mile away in the back of the truck; or a half-mile upstream on your buddy’s line because you gave it to him thinking that’s a fly you will never, ever need and he won’t know the difference. Naturally he catches not just an 18 inch brown, but a 24 incher to boot. Damn.

 LAW 10: Practicing tying flies on quickly in your back yard or garage will not duplicate tying one on when the hatch is going and you can see and hear fish splashing and  gulping and flopping  all around you and you know it’s going to stop, but you can’t predict when.

 LAW 11: If you own 9,122 flies, you will not have enough. Ever.

 LAW 12: Those carefully costumed anglers in the fly shop constantly bragging about 50- or 100-fish days are full of dejas poo poo. Those who really have such days rarely talk about them.

 LAW 13 : If you spend a lot of time hiking through the bush into rivers in the U.P. in spring, summer, and fall, you will sooner or later have an unwanted, intimately close encounter with a bear.  When this happens carefully consult LAW 1.


Song of Sounds, Thoughts At the End of One Twelfth of the Year.

Song of Sounds.Thoughts Late At Night at One Twelfth of the Year

The eagle’s wings push hard air overhead.

The black bear mama chomps loudly to warn away interrupters.

A fawn bleats for Mum in a thicket on a peninsula jutting into an oxbow trout river.

Tingles of a riffle walking gravity over rippled stone tangles wrought by glacial power.

Hummers hover overhead in perpetual bellicosity.

In the dark one large fish lazily sips spinners in a back eddy.

An oriole seeks a singing partner in the neighbor’s tree.

A cow moose in heat, you can hear her calling suitors for days, all day all night, endlessly, and showing seriousness, not moving so she can be found, this the whole point of the  hullabaloo.

The kingfisher’s talons nick surface water, taking a fish from the lake.

Wasps grind inside the walls of our 75-year-old rental.

Trees and people rub each other for music or pleasure or therapy, intent far from clear, or necessary to any but participants.

Some kids on the street behind us scream, “Olly Olly Oxen Free.”

Leaves me thinking momentarily a time machine has carried me back half a century.

We see the wolves from time to time, ghosting through the woods or studying us from the far-back. They seem to save their songs for each other in      places where humans cannot hear.

But coyotes, they bark and carry on like orphans loosed for all-night recess.

Owls bark and  hack and cough and fly like stealth craft through the twisting forest all around us.

The thrum of nighthawks in a mating dance, they swoop barely into the upper zone of our sight, might be djinns or worse.

Pats on leks, old John Deere’s   that   just    can’t    quite   get    the    spark    to    start.

And fireflies dancing to a music set to lights, not sound, trailing their own stench, pheromones, one presumes.

Bullfrogs you’re certain the size of pregnant Volkswagens.

Dishes clattering softly in a sink-full of water.

The wind animates uncut grass, and acres of yellow flowers that look like dandelions. You can hear the breeze crawl across the caps, slap climbing plants against the trellis.

You hear the downy, hairy, pileated, redbelly, dollar butts and redheads, and know each one like the voices of your  own children.

I imagine some sunny days I can hear blackberries growing, hurrying to deliver fruit before the winter lands again like a white bomb.

The beaver’s tail is an exclamation point for everything in or near the water. It’s no wonder tail is thought a delicacy by trappers and Indians, it being amik’s soul musical instrument.

Red squirrels scream all day long, live in anger, something rancid  in their genes.

We sit sometimes on the rotting steps, eyes closed, drink everything with our ears alone, absorb the symphony hearable only there, only then, wrought by nature, leprechauns, spooks, djinns.

If the rule-makers knew the raw pleasure in this they would declare it all sins.

[Portage, 1-31-15]