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16 Mar

2015 MCOA Banquet a Success

We attended the Michigan Conservation Officers (MCOA) annual fund-raising banquet Saturday night in Auburn Mi (just east of Midland). Huge turnout. Got to see the legendary Michigan conservation giant Bob Garner and have a good talk with DNR Law Enforcement Division chief Gary Hagler. My many-time patrol- partner, Sgt. Jeff Rabbers (acting lieutenant) was name MCOA Officer of the Year. Got good update on progress at the academy (lost seven of 44 so far), and assessment from State police pal who teaches some of the academy classes is that this is “a great bunch.” That’s a high compliment for an academy class. Good food, good time. It’s fun to be with officers when they’re off duty and can relax. Over.

Milling around, scmmoozing.

Milling around, scmmoozing.

Getting everyone organized

Getting everyone organized

MCOA Officer of the Year, Sgt. Jeff Rabbers

MCOA Officer of the Year, Sgt. Jeff Rabbers

The legendary Bob Garner with his legendary smile.

The legendary Bob Garner with his legendary smile.

11 Mar

Yellow-brick roads and the marriage of fraud and gullibility.

This excerpt is from an essay by Lewis Lapham, “Paper Moon,” in Spring 2015 LAPHAM’S QUARTERLY. The publication’s issue’s sole subject is Swindle & Fraud.

This is fine writing and history at its best.  I offer it solely as tasty brainfood for all my thought hungry friends of all political stripes. Everyone these days seems entirely disenchanted with poltics and blames the politicians for this turn of affairs, but we as a country and as an electorate put them into positions of power, buy what we want from their image-making and seldom question our choices. Enjoy.

“L. Frank Baum, now chiefly remembered as author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but known to contemporaries as Chicago’s leading trimmer of department-store display windows, told his associates in 1898 to let the hats and shoes and furs “come alive” as if they were figures on a stage, to bring the “goods out in a blaze of glory,” invest them with color “that would delight the heart of an Oriental.” Baum commodifies the chorus to Shakespeare’s Henry V, who calls upon “a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention”  to invest the groundlings in the Globe Theater with the scene and sound of battle that “did affright the air at Agincourt.”

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts/Into a thousand parts divide one man/And make imaginary puissance./ Think when we talk of horses that you see them.

So too the sales promotions that fabricate the retail merchant’s view of heaven, shape with the hand of romantic  metaphor the willingness of the customers, gentles all, to see what isn’t there, to pay, and pay handsomely for paper moons sailing over a bottomless sea of human hope and desire. Fortunately so. Were it otherwise, America’s colossal shopping malls and banks too big to fail, would like “cloud-capp’d towers” and “solemn temples” on the enchanted islands of Shakespeare’s plays, melt into thin air, dissolve, fade, leave not a rack or an ATM 3ehind.

No different from any other loyal American who loves to be fooled, I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t drawn, mothlike, to the candles flickering in the wind of imaginary puissance. As a boy in San Francisco in the 1940s I found the American hero as noble knave and knight errant in comic books and Hollywood –movie palaces, in hard- and soft-boiled detective stories, with a troupe of confidence men performing in books by Mark Twain – Sawyer and Finn, but also the Duke and the Dauphin, the Yankee in King Arthur’s court, the jumping frog of Calaveras County. At boarding school I was introduced to Homer’s Odysseus, “man of twists and turns,” well schooled in the arts of dissimulation by the goddess of wisdom. In the years since I’ve yet to come across a confidence game as satisfactorily played as the heroic exile’s return to Ithaca – the setup is the disguise of feeble old age, the con protracted with the stringing of the great bow, the sting as unerring as the feathered death that did affright the air at Agincourt.

Among the confidence men on the program at Yale College in the 1950s top billing was reserved for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Maj. Jay Gatsby, big-game hunter, World War I hero, collector of jewels “chiefly rubies.” The narrator of Fitzgerald’s novel admits that on first listening to the major tell the story of his counterfeit life he was hard put to restrain his “incredulous laughter” because the threadbare masquerade was “leaking sawdust at every pore.” But on sober second thought that lasts no longer than a paragraph, his doubts give way to “fascination…it was like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines.”

So also journalists and politicians skimming hastily through cue cards illuminating illusory talking points in a society abject in its adoration of graven images. My instruction on the methodology I owe to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democratic Senator from New York in the years 1977 to 2001, effective legislator, eloquent orator, once-upon-a-time ambassador to the United Nations.

Somewhere in the mid -1980s we had been summoned to appear on the same radio news show, and in the green room awaiting our turns at the microphone, Moynihan ran through the long list of subjects on which he was presumed to be reliably informed – education, health care, foreign policy, highway construction, the multiplication of cancer cells. He didn’t bother to restrain his incredulous laughter. No senator could possibly know what he or she was expected to know, he said, but one was obliged to keep up  appearances. Let the people understand how little their rulers know, and they might be frightened. When we talk of politics, he said, I think of a “fourth-grade Christmas play. The little boy comes out onstage wearing a crown of paper stars and saying that he’s the north wind.” The thought pleased him, and when he was called into the studio knowing himself to be leaking sawdust at every pore, he paused in the doorway to strike a pose, adjust his expression from smiling to solemn, glance back over his shoulder to say, “Enter the North Wind.”

Understand government is representative as representative in the theatrical, not the constitutional, sense of the word and Moynihan’s  observation was in keeping with that of Socrates instructing his student Glaucon in the used of “noble falsehood” as the stuff with which to bind society in self-preserving myth. Children must be taught to know what the rulers of the city would have them know in order to maintain the health and well-being of the body politic. “All of you in the city are brothers’ we’ll say to them in telling our story,’ but the god who made you mixed some gold into those who are adequately equipped to rule, because they are most valuable.’” Whether the story is true or false matters less than the children not forgetting their duty to believe it.

Fast-forward  the lesson into the 1934 translation by Joseph Goebbels, minister of culture for Adolph Hiter’s Nazi Germany, the noble falsehood becomes “propaganda…a necessary life function of the modern state,” the creative art that gives light and warmth to the body politic, and with it the power “to win and hold the heart of the people.”

Ask why the power failed in Germany’s Third Reich but not in Ronald Reagan’s America, and the answer, at least in part, is one proposed in the fourth century by St. Augustine, the founding father of the Catholic Church. “Not everyone who says a false thing lies, if he believes or assumes what he says to be true…that man lies, who has one thing in his mind and utters another in words,” but a man may say a false thing “and yet not lie, if he thinks it to be so.”

Goebbels knew he was lying. Ronald Reagan did not. A movie actor thing like a paper moon in the make-believe Hollywood sky, the great communicator never doubted that all of it was so – America the beautiful as painted by Norman Rockwell, the home on the range made safe from Apaches by John Wayne, Jean Arthur, and Jimmy Stewart, the major motion picture produced by Cecil B. DeMille with music by Rodger and Hammerstein, the theme park by Disney. To an electorate that in 1980 was sick of Jimmy Carter’s niggling malaise, Reagan offered a happy return to an imaginary American past, a country “above all…where someone can always get rich.” During his eight years in office, playacting more for the benefit of others than for himself, Reagan was near perfect in his lines  (“Honey, I forgot to duck.”), sure of hitting his marks (on Omaha Beach, at the Berlin Wall), tipping his hat (straw, top, or dress uniform), snapping a sunny salute to a Girl Scout cookie or nuclear submarine. At ease with klieg light and sawdust, he preserved within himself the imperturbable calm of a public statue or a department-store window display.

The Saturday-matinee crowds loved him, so di the national news media. How could they not? TIME magazine’s “sweet soul with firm if simple beliefs,” Reagan was as amiable a confidence man as Gatz, so obviously having such a good time on the White House vaudeville stage that it was easy to forgive his lapses of memory (the names of his own cabinet members, the whereabouts of Poland), his frequent flights of fancy (air pollution caused by too many trees, ketchup a nourishing vegetable).

Nor did it matter that 138 officials in the Reagan administration were investigated, indicted, or convicted on various charges of criminal fraud or misconduct, or that the Iran-Contra arms deal was comic farce played with a troupe of Iranian mullahs and a junta of Nicaraguan thugs depicted by President Reagan as “the mortal equivalent of the founding fathers.” Congress never found out what happened to the money, the weapons, or the hostages. The questions were irrelevant because what mattered was the warmth of Reagan’s winning smile, his golden album of red, white, and blue metaphor instilling consumer confidence in an America that wasn’t there.

The  ancient Greeks were careful to distinguish between deceptions that served the public good and those engineered for private gain, the former set forth as works of art or the comforts of religion, the latter as brazen theft from a vast and inexhaustible  supply of human vanity and greed. The Reagan administration was capable of both. The wandering rhapsodists aboard Melville’s Mississippi steamboat drew distinctions between a swindle that “dimples the cheek” and one that “curdles the blood,” but all of them held to the opinion that it’s a good thing – and speaks to human nature – that men can be swindled. Their willingness to be fooled is a credit to their character, proof that their hearts and minds are not yet set in stone. Pride goeth before a fall, but trust goeth before a sham. The rule of thumb guided Ronald Reagan in the White House, confident in his conviction that “the difference between an American and any other kind of person is that an American lives in anticipation of that future because he knows it will be a great place.”

Which is the one true mark of American exceptionalism, the deal on the table of the democratic gamble with fortune, all present shuffling the currencies of contrived appearance. Encountering a stranger on a train (in an airport lounge, a motel parking lot, or a bar in Casablanca), who but an American envisions a prospective friend instead of a probably enemy? “There may not be an American character,” said the British essayist V.S. Pritchett, “but there is the emotion of being American…that feeling…of nostalgia for some undetermined future, when man will have improved himself beyond recognition and when all will be well.” Pilgrims outward or homeward bound on yellow brick roads made of their own invention, Americans tell  each other traveler’s tales  — the story so far, youth and early sorrow, sequence of exits and entrances, last divorce and next marriage, point of financial departure, estimated time of spiritual arrival, the bad news noted and accounted for, the good news still to com. Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them.


08 Mar

Six Weeks Hence, the Mind Works the Future

Writing about fishing is almost more fun than doing it and in any case my mind can conjure perfect weather rather than the crap the opener usually drops on us.

An Emerger Called Guilt

[March 6, 2015]


Such a helpful girl,

Her and those looong legs,

She says, “They can screen you for it,

At the derm clinic?

You know, how you scratch

Like a dog after a mole

In sooty crusted-over snow?”

But I keep silent and endure,

It’s only larvae of obsession

Creeping outward through fat

Winter muscles toward my skin,

While the south wind blows softly

And spring beckons.

“They have salves,” she goes on,

 Not one to quit easily,

“To give one respite,

It’s prolly nothing.”

But I know she’s  got it wrong.

The only cure for this is time,

And warmer air, spring sprung,

Snow gone, last Saturday in April

Me on the bosky riverbank

Fly rod poised, watching for life,

Careful as a bombardier

Before pressing the release

I am thinking of allures that worked

In past years, always something

With a lovely smidge of red,

My nose, my eyes, feathers in the fly

I can imagine guiding it

Under the end of that sweeper

I marked in my mind

Five minutes before dark on the

Last day of last season

Kept its promise

All to myself. No doubt

God now punishes me with the itch,

A penalty for my selfish ways.

We have been down this lane before

Will survive it again.

03 Mar

Some Thoughts on Names: The Exzil Effect in Naming Conventions

When readers and fans talk to me about my work, they almost always ask about the names in my stories. Where do those names come from? I think my answer always disappoints: From phone books, newspapers, magazines, wherever lists of names congregate. Obituaries are a particularly  rich source, and over my forty plus years in this business I’ve kept a list of names that I might use somewhere down the line. They are arranged by country or ethnicity. And of course, I sometimes invent a name for a story.

This list-keeping is not exactly an innovation. Writers now and long before me and my contemporaries have done similar things. Shakespeare used many sources, including Camden’s essays in Remains (1605). Henry Fielding used a subscription list. Henry James collected names from The Times  newspaper (London, not New York). Emile Zola consulted the Paris Directory, and Charles Dickens, just as I do, kept extensive lists of potential names.

Names are important to writers. That’s a given. Some names are chosen for assumed inherent meanings, but more often just because the sound seems right to the writer. Some contend that names can help determine character development and this seems true to me only insofar as an apparently strange name may have a superficial effect on the reader upon initial contact.

But as a writer I know too that even a name that may seem shocking or dizzying at the start of the journey will change over time as I flesh-out that character and render them into a full person; as this happens our intial resistance to the name will disappear as we learn more about the character and spend more time with them. I’m pretty sure this holds true for my character Limpy Allerdyce. At first glance he was a monster, but over time the reader may begin to see him in different lights (as do I, it’s creator) and I suspect feelings change as we see he is a more complete human being than we were led to think in the early going. A lot of people criticize the genre of mystery because they believe a character is drawn are all made in bare-bone outlines, and that may be true in one story, but as the series stretch out to ten volumes, the writer, I hope, has stretched out and paints recurring characters so that they have evolved and are evolving  into full people with strengths and weaknesses. This, for me, is the great appeal of a series. The (Upper Case) Literati no doubt don’t agree, but that’s their deal, not mine.

I had a note from a fan recently who took me to task over my use of names and said some of the character names almost made him quit reading the most recent Woods Cop book. I asked for examples and he sent me a list of names, almost all of which had been in all but one or two of the stories, so they were far from new, and what suddenly stimulated this extreme response? I wrote back to him and tongue-in-cheek told him he must have a very boring circle of friends that most of the names he cited were not all that unusual. He wrote me back a couple of days later. Said he’d made a list of names of friends and I was right. We both laughed.

Names are interesting creatures. For example, most of us have different names at different times in our lives, especially nicknames. I’ve been Joe, Joey, Tex, Loot, Cap’n, Nav, Hump, Boss,  and the Poet Lariat in my life depending on when and where. I doubt I’m unusual. And keep in min that in some Native American tribes people expected to change names over time based on events in their lives. Or consider royal titles and how they are not the same as the name of the person holding the title. Names surround us all the time.

With formal names, no matter how unusual they may seem at first contact, familiarity helps them to fade away. I’ll address that in a little while.

One thing’s for sure. Names are important, in life and in writing.

The so-callled mavens of fiction often preach to writers to keep the number of characters in stories as  few as possible. I can certainly see this in the small canvas of a short story and especially for a playwright, where number of characters equals number of actors equals pay equals effect on the budget.

But novels are huge canvases in comparison and I see no reason for such an arbitrary restrictions. The argument from my academic friends is the potential loss of focus, that people can’t juggle that many names and my response is this is nonsense. As human beings we juggle enormous name loads all day, every day and I want my stories to be lifelike and by that I mean my characters need to live in the same approximate environment that flesh-and-blood folks live in. In truth most of us know hundreds of people to one degree or another, some intimately, some from afar, some only by sight, but in whatever category, these people are part of the inventory our minds must shift through and somehow deal effectively with in order for us to maintain control of, and focus, our lives. This is normal, not unusual. But we sometimes forget this when we begin to read.

Don’t agree? Okay, bear with me. When I worked in the corporate world I had fifty or more people reporting to me here at HQ and another 150 or so in direct or indirect reports in subsidiaries all around the world. Many of these folks also had outside consultants and service agencies, all of whom I had to know and direct in some way.  I also had to know most of the people my contacts worked with. In my own building I walked past a hundred people every time I went to do something. I knew them, their spouses usually some of their kids, and some of their business associates in other divisions and parts of the company. Then I took the kids to hockey or soccer practice, where we knew the names of all the kids and their parents, plus other coaches and officials and other players, ad infinitum. Add to this teachers, neighbors and so forth and you get the idea The thing is that we simply don’t recognize just how extensive our personal and work networks are. Or how we can call up names of people not seen in weeks, or months, or sometimes even years. Yet human beings do this all the time. It’s  normal.

Or how about a teacher who has 350 students EVERY DAY added to 100 colleagues in the building and somewhere between 350 and 700 parents and you begin to see another huge sea of names that human beings must swim in and contend with.

Most people have some sort of extensive network built into their work. Let’s take conservation officers and their reality. There are 240-250 DNR law division personnel in the state. They get together as a group from time to time. A CO in Houghton County knows at least the names of all these division personnel, and often more than the names. A CO in a district may have 15-20 colleagues and he or she knows them fairly well, plus their families, spouses, kids, and all that. And all the retired officers still in the area plus their spouses and families. Plus the personnel in the district office who are not part of the law division, but with whom they have to work, eg. Fish biology,  wildlife, forestry, parks, etc. So we being with just the work contacts in the division and allied divisions, add some spouses, sig others and all that good stuff and now we shift into the field where the woods cop meets sportsmen acting legally and illegally every day he or she is on patrol. Some of these contacts become repeats and the officer gets to know others beyond the person first met in the field. And now the officer’s list of names is piling up in the mind by the hundreds, or even thousands. Plus all those idiots dealt with in the past. And of course the officer’s family, immediate and extended, schools, doctors and all that

You see how it works. This huge mass of names is normal and regular. We just don’t think about it every day because it is a part of life we just don’t think about in this way.

Here’s a reality of human behavior. I can name a character XXzzxyyll (PRON Exzil) and the first time someone sees all those strange letters they’ll likely think, “Holy shit, has he lost his mind?”

Okay, I’ll grant the possibility of that, but it’s not likely. Rather, it’s more likely that I may know something about how the brain works. The first few times you see that name you will think of the entity solely as that name, but over time as you accumulate experience with the character, the optic nerve will flash XXzzyyll, but the brain will read Exzil and not even just the name, but the brain will call up all of its impression of the creature, real or imagined, that is named Exzil and the innermost discussion in the mind will no longer be the name, but the entity carrying the name. This is human nature and how our brains work. The optic nerve continues to photograph and image XXzzyyll, but the brain automatically translates to the sounds of the name and the things associated with that particular sequence of sounds.

There is of course the whole deal around what names mean or symbolize and this debate has been going on at least since the Greeks. It boils down to this. Does a name (a particular sequence of sounds) relate directly to some sort of meaning, or is it arbitrary? For example, a musician named Singer is an example of that concept called Cratylic. And Heywood, my name is sort of in this line, because if you follow it back to the Middle or Old English it would relate to high wood, meaning someone living in the hills, no doubt a near do well or poacher  (or something along those lines) and that certainly might apply. On the other hand there is a school of thought (Hermogenean)  that  contends names are simply arbitrary collections of socially accepted sounds and Exzil is an extreme example of this, because the sequence some might argue is unusual and therefore a clinker on the ear, which is true. But isn’t this true to of many languages and sounds foreign to the English-hearing ear? The point is in these schools of contention that names are either derived from something which identifies the object or function with the word, or it’s just arbitrary, a hodgepodge of sounds.

To the American ear a lot of foreign names sound like the latter descriptor, but may in fact in that language be Cratylic. I give you from our own country J’Mare and L-A (PRON, Jamari, and Ell-dash-a), or Zzyzzymanski (Polish) or Thai names, Panupol Sujjayakorn and Pakorn Nemifrmanswk. All of these names may sound as ordinary to that language’s native speakers as Smith or Jones in our own English.

Someone may name their daughter Hope because they see in the new life of that child an embodiment of their own prayer or hope for hope, or they may use the name simply because they like the sound, and the shortness of it (one syllable).

Along the lines of sound, some names might be used to approximate something in the character. As a simplistic example, think of the name Buzz, which is onomatopoeic (a word made from a sound associated with what is named (e.g., cuckoo,sizzle or in this case “bzzzzzz”) like a bee, and this character of course has a buzzy, breathless way of talking which the name reminds the reader of every time they see it.

As an aside, when we got our dog “Shaksper” we had quite a number of people ask why we’d given him such a complex name. This one threw us. One of our friends has a cat named Junior and I said, “Your cat’s name has more syllables than our dog’s.” They argued, “No way,” until we talked a little further. I said Shaksper is no more complex than the two syllable names of other friend’s beasts, Murphy, Lucky, Grover, Cooper, etc. What was at work here was the Exzil Effect. We first threw people off balance by using one of the few presumed original spellings of the more familiar “Shakespeare,” and in their minds they may have been seen that long two-syllable,  11-letter word that is so familiar, and contrasting it with the two-syllable  6-letter Junior. Their brains could not fix on the two-syllable 8-letters “Shaksper.”

Over time of course, the “Exzil Effect” takes over and the weirdness evaporates.

We live in our own seas of names and vocabularies and we cope rather nicely, thank you very much. I see no reason for my fictional worlds to be any different.

Once upon a time I had a friend of my daughter report to me that a professor at a small college was teaching The Snowfly in his class and that he informed the students that I had named Grady Service because I wanted his name to stand for what it was he does, e.g. serving the public through his state civil service position.

The fact is that I took the name from Robert Service (Dangerous Dan McGrew, etc) because I equated it with the extremes of life in the far north. The given name of Grady came from my undergraduate navigation training school (UNTS) classmate North Carolinian Grady Hawkins. I found his first name unique and told myself I’d someday find a used for it, which I did, more than thirty years later.

I also make up names. Take Tuesday Friday. The reality of my life is that I have an A-Fib problem and for this I take rat poison (Coumadin) every day of my life. Most days I take 5 mg, but on Tuesdays and Fridays the dose is elevated to 7.5 mg. The name then is a mnemonic device to help me remember my med dosages. Hey, it’s my book and I like to have fun with the stories, so why not use the names for reasons readers may not ken?

Names fascinate me and other writers and always have and some have hard and fast rules about names. Joyce Cary (The Horse’s Mouth) believed characters shouldn’t be named unless they play a part in the story and I guess I agree with that. If Grady Service drives past a cop directing traffic because a light is out there’s not need to name that cop.

Then there is this more or less recent fad among the young to label people rather than use their names, Red Hat Boy or Blue Hair girl. I confess to being not at all sure what that convention is all about, but I’m sure you’ve heard it, and it’s common enough,  that I try to adopt it when I’m using younger characters —  because that’s how some of them talk. One think I wonder is how much of that labeling comes from spending less face-time with other humans and conducting more and more commo via Twitter or Facebook, etc.

Enough for an icy March morning.

Atley Arghdahl Gillead and his grandson are calling my name.


02 Mar

Some thoughts on Drawing and the Relationship between the Arts and Sciences

Over the years I’ve tried in many fora to express how important art is to the sciences, how many scientific theories ride on mind experiments, which we could call visual sketches in the mind. For most folks, the connection between science and art, the cross fertilization, is obvious. But not to all. Here I’m dipping one last time into Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage.

Writes Carr, Architects have always thought of themselves as artists, and before the coming of CAD (computer-aided design)  the wellspring of their art as the drawing. A freehand sketch is similar to a computer rendering in that it serves an obvious communication function. It provides the architect with a compelling visual medium for sharing a design idea with a client or a colleague. But the act of drawing is not just a way of expressing thought: It’s a way of thinking. “I haven’t got an imagination that can tell me what I’ve got without drawing it,” says the modernist architect Richard MacCormac. “I use drawing as a process of criticism and discovery.” Sketching provides a bodily conduit between the abstract and the tangible. “Drawings are not just end products: they are part of the thought process of architectural design,” explains Michael Graves, the celebrated architect and product designer.  “Drawings express the interaction of our minds, eyes and hands.” The philosopher Donald Schon may have put it best when he wrote that an architect holds a “reflective conversation” with his drawings, a conversation that is also, through its physicality, a dialogue with the actual materials of construction. Through the back- and-forth, the give-and-take between hand and eye and mind, an idea takes form, a creative spark begins it slow migration from the imagination into the world

Veteran architects’ intuitive sense of the centrality of sketching to creative thinking is supported by studies of drawing’s cognitive underpinnings and effects. Sketches on paper serve to expand the capacity of working memory, allowing the architect to keep in mind many different design options and variations. At the same time, the physical act of drawing, by demanding strong visual focus and deliberate muscle movements, aids in the forming of long-term memories.  “When I draw something, I remember it,” explains Graves. The drawing is a reminder of the idea that caused me to record it in the first place.” Drawing also allows the architect to shift quickly between different levels of detail and different degrees of abstraction, viewing a design from many angles simultaneously and weighing the implications of changes in details for the overall structure.

Carr goes on, Drawing might best be thought of as manual thinking. It is as much tactic as cerebral, as dependent on the hand as on the brain. The act of sketching appears to be a means of unlocking the mind’s hidden stores of tacit knowledge, a mysterious process crucial to any act of artistic creation and difficult if not impossible to accomplish through conscious deliberation alone.

The Yale School of Architecture held a symposium in 2012 (called “Is Drawing Dead?”). Carr writes that the stark title reflects a growing sense that the architect’s freehand sketch is being rendered obsolete by the computer. The transition from sketchpad to screen entails, many architects believe, a loss of creativity, of adventurousness.  Thanks to the precisions and apparent completeness of screen renderings, a designer working at a computer has a tendency to lock in, visually and cognitively, on a design at an early stage. He bypasses much of the reflective and exploratory playfulness that springs from the tentativeness and ambiguity of sketching. Researchers term this phenomenon “premature fixation,”  and trace its cause to the disincentive for design changes once a large amount of detail and interconnectedness is bguilty too quickly in the CAD model…By weakening an architect’s “personal, emotional connection with the work,” Michael Graces argues, “CAD software produces designs that, “while complex and interesting in their own way,” often “lack the emotional content of a design derived by hand.

Juhani Pallasmaa argues in his 2009 book The Thinking Hand, that the reliance on computers is making it harder for designers to imagine the human qualities of their buildings.”

Enough said. Computers increase some degree of efficiency, but they often drain human influence and contrasts from work. Making a design on a computer is not the same as making one with your hand using a brush or chalk or pencil or whatever.  Different muscles, different ways of looking and seeing, different outcomes.

It’s also been shown in recent years by a number of studies that students who doodle have better retention of details than those who don’t. Being a doodler myself (and catching hell at every level of my education for the same) I used doodling not as a way to let my mind wander, but as a way to concentrate and focus.

Art is a way of pursing curiosity about the world around us, just as is science. They may use different tools and approaches, but the creative process is nearly identical and the crossover and cross pollination unarguable. Someday perhaps some of our school systems will figure this out. For now they seem pretty clueless about such interconnectedness.

You might say relative to the architect that drawing is drawing, be it by hand or with a computer. Author Pallasmaa says to this, “the false precision and apparent finiteness of the computer image can stunt an architect’s aesthetic sense, leading to technically stunning but emotionally sterile designs. In drawing with a pen or pencil,” he writes, “the hand follows the outlines, shapes, and patterns of the object,” but when manipulating a simulated image with software, “the hand usually selects the lines from a given set of symbols that have no analogical – or consequently haptic or emotional – relation to the object. “ I had to look up “haptic.” It means, “of or relating to the sense of touch, in particular relating to the perception and manipulation of objects using the sense of touch.”


28 Feb

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.


27 Feb

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.


26 Feb

First Out in 1987 and 1992, Now Back in Print!

Just got copies in the mail this morning!

The Berkut was first published by Random House in 1987, and the Domino Conspiracy in 1992.

The Berkut was first published by Random House in 1987, and the Domino Conspiracy in 1992.

26 Feb

Hot From the Pubolish

Just got my copy. Official pub date is March 1, but they are in circulation now.


18 Feb

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.
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