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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.
18 Feb

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

01 Feb

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.


01 Feb

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]



31 Jan

Thinking About Rhetoric and Such

Reading sometimes reveals some interesting quandaries. Lucius Annaeus Seneca ,aka Seneca the Younger, was long-time tutor and advisor for the Roman Emperor Nero.  Around the year BCE 59, the boss tried to kill his mother Agrippina in such a way as to make it look accidental. When this failed he had to send hitters to take her out with knives and  in the aftermath he was faced with explaining this to the Roman Senate.. Naturally, like any corporate or institutional head-dog, he called in his flak-writer to put together a public explanation. Seneca, who authored DE BREVITATE (On the Shortness of Life) got the shoulder- tap for game-time. Only one line of the letter extant  survives. The rest of it we know of in paraphrasing in various sources, but it was the lone surviving line that got my attention.  Elizabeth Kolbert in this week’s NEW YORKER  (“Such A Stoic: How Seneca Became Ancient Rome’s philosopher-Fixer”) tells us the one line was considered an example of Latin rhetoric at its finest, though, Kolbert notes, it loses something in translation: That I am safe, neither, as yet, do I believe, nor do I rejoice.”

This struck two chords: First, it sounds like every bit of gobbledygook that issues from Washington and corporations around the world. Second, Wah, youses know dis sounds  hullhelluvalotlke my Yooper pals dey tawg, eh?

 For a quick brain scratch, here’are definitions of rhetoric. “the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the use of figures of speech and other compositional techniques, e.g.,language designed. Synonyms include: oratory, eloquence, command of language, way with words, “a form of rhetoric…or, another definition in similar light,  to have a persuasive or impressive effect on its audience, but often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content. “All we have from the opposition is empty rhetoric. Synonyms include: bombast, turgidity, grandiloquence, magniloquence, pomposity, extravagant language, purple prose.

 Bombastic is defined as” high-sounding but with little meaning; inflated.” The dictionary should add, “See FACEBOOK.”

 Purple prose is “prose that is too elaborate or ornate.” The dictionary should again direct readers to, “See FACEBOOK, again.”

Czech novelist Milan Kundera reminds us “The future is always mightier than the present.”


30 Jan


Tribute to Trevor-Roper

Letters writ, Mercuriusly

Lightly envenomed darts

Shot straight blue-through or  banked

Angularly, as in Snew-ka, one must

Write and read

Painfully slowly, you see,

Any exceptional bit of work,

Nevermind nevermind

Come-from-behind pigheaded

Vulgarians, moral lepers,

Self-serving memories of old men

Wearing once-a-year

Onceuponatime gewgaws

Flashes and splashes tinkling

Like fine chest China,

Rum work this,  so very much rum in its veryness

Desperately behindhand, absurd

Credulous opacity

Of that prose dammitdammit

Yes, prose from the nose

Brings stenches vigorous

As the language lags,

Squalid Tories, indexing frivolity

They exude hypocritical geniality

Generally said, generally

Gregarius introvertia at the mic and podum,

We sit in a boneheaded muddle,

Drowning in hustings catchwords,

Hearing disputations advancing backwardly,

Combined with herd-detestation,

We dream we dream’

Of defenestrating, do we not,

Out with the bums on same, you see, walkem’ the plank dearie,

Big steps or baby the outcome is identical

Especially for that coterie,

That ensheltered, enhelicoptered, enbubblewrapped

Unconvicted unscrupulous mendacious minority

Heat provoking l’affairatti of  genetic dead-braining,


On genial malice

Diffuse iridescent tissues

You can feel the slipperiness, you see,

Ennui of ephemeral verbiage

Canted in sang-froidian torpor,

I looooong for valleys remote and rural

Where families have the same name,

Mix  their damn hairrendodairy blood and solvencies,

Play the goff  game, old boy, whacking balls  like wankers

You see on the links and off, intent on erasing all us-ness,

To replace it with tedious diversions]

From odious pulls on the Gordian knot of the hangman,

Breast in Pisa, leaners and all.

It’s a ky-hy hippy-higgy kind of a day

Ky-hy hippy hippy Hey!

[Portage, Jan. 30, 2015]\

30 Jan

Late January Morning

If you’re a blog follower, you know my mind sometimes takes fancy flights of fancy. I breaks loose and I let it go until it’s tired.  As light now comes, this was born in darkness before morning twilight (BMT).

Here I sit I ere fruhstuck in the garden of gloaming,  sotto voce I love the language I am born to, am drawn to its music and possibilities yes, even to the smell of it, not so much to the meanings, which are relative lacking metal or mettle, and temporary at best. Word play, mindplay, myplay, yourplay, ourplay, allplay in the innards. Medical students carving human brains and sheep brains asked to compare, quoth one, “Felt tough and rubbery. When cutting into it, it gets a lot softer as you cut through.” There is an appalling lack of specificity here, are we talking quadrupedal ruminant, or bipedal hominidae? We are now past the doldrums, subsumed in the ticktockery of glacial time (and if glaciers are melting, what is time doing?), just having traversed the puolitiessä that halftheway mark, the Finnlanderen Heikinpäivä, grand celebration of arf-winter, the time in Yooper parlance to “Wah, make sure half in your barn is the hay eh.” Mountainmantously, our Finnish brethren take it slowly, sixteen days to celebrate half-winter, (half a month for half a winter, a world of halfs and semis and hemis and quasis and all that good stough). The celebrating (a relativist concept at best in the Soumi sense) so  measured that it actually starts on January 10 and lasts to January 26.   Our baseboard for normal in the slowdownsnowdowndays  (icefornosefollicles) we be farfarfaraway from Suthin’ Caliporneyeay and it seems somewhat different this time of year, plumbed differently, like Alternative Rock of snow and ice against the memory and hope of that Pure and Driving Rock music of summer and Speckled Trousers. Thoughts pile up in drifts in winter, painstakingly transparent, for example yesterday a lesson in uglity,  fiddlesticking with legal documents  (écrivains de testaments et les procurations) preparing for orderly earthy exits at times and locations yet to be known, much less determined, things of nullity vs unfullity, papierrhic victories, forlorn majesties of the billing hour.  All this work  in the unseen wake of the anniversary of the Challenger (instantaneous disjecta membra) and it reminds us that safety is a terribly relative thing. What good is an ejection seat in outer space, or inner to not put too fine a line on it? How did Dudedarwin put it? a grain in balance will decide which lives, which dies, hey there hi, here there, bye bye. Odd are a human self-fooling.What’s it offalabout, Alfie?  (Pigtail gals wonchucomeouttonight, comeouttonight?)  We feel the gravitational pull of chicken gravy, drink up-pinky wines with friends of the Martian modernist construct, quasi-vegan, chi-chi free-range, andyibiondock-free locavores in-shoveling dainty portions of chicken pot pies. It is fact that dances may appeal to mermaids, but they will never be able to cut the rugs of reality on equal footing, especially those creatures frozen into cryogenic ice cubes of idled minds, take mine and have a glass of vinicultured fluid,  please pretty. My life bogs down. I sense gravity pulling on Mensewer i Pad (a new cargo cult deity, the equivalent of a ‘39 Ford coupe in Melanesia, not a lot more intelligent, and far less useful in real world terms, and is that  less-than capital shrimpy “I” for Apple idolator or idiot what might be called pomme dumb?). We dwell in this vertiginous world of continuous vertigo, in Kundera’s quipping, a world without shared values, we lack ontological bedrock and fossil-records, remain stuck in the mass of the unwashed we of the unspeakably unsanitary bottom dweller class, which relatively comprises 99 percent of all of us in the lowlife-e-teria (declared by certain statistical counter-uppers). I am, at of this very only moment, 1/ 6,500,000,000th of our world of brothers and sisters,  distincts and trannies (and other should they be), and may we remind ourselves that we started as and shall remain pure Africans if we care to go back far enough and laserly excise all irrelevant ponderings of color.  We down here en masse in mass and out, keep our pedagoggles surreptitiously toward our feet, not  out on horizons of hope; we must  look for mines, step by step, not for glowing Disneysations in our mmmminds. We walk among mounds of doggydirt with the hugely discounted minority niney-nie, essai enigmatic dogmamen, coincidentia, unprecedentia epoch-see glue (transparently holding over advert eons) we stick to each other like Velcroids and deny it all.  Lo we pull, pull, pull, we cannot separate. We got the snap, we got the crackle, but where wenteth the pop? We lack a speculum for neurologists and other brain diggers, we are lopsiders and ontological aural nulls, Speculum humanae rectum usque in aeternum, Eye esswhyenn, all this trainspotting painmaking even in the absence of same. Where goes life collectively? Heidegger The Unreadable, imagines indderweltsein, I referoogle here to that a konditioning of all, that is, being in this world, we are bound to each other like snails in shells. What changes without, forces conditions within, and though not written, it pertains, ask thunderKunderakunderakundera, once present at the bloodlettingdoom wrought in Prague by Red Russkings, no one believes in the driffeldown of propaganda, not even them who manufacture it. Fallout? Tha’s diff, bro. If ISIS attacks Turkey in the rear will Greece help?  The horror of such imponderables in our fleshy pusses. We make religions (yes, make them, assemble them like long lasting eternal jigsaws or outhouses or teeter-totters for kittles) in the hopes of telling good and evil apart, clearly, black from white, no effing gray, thank you very much. We build whole castles of religions on these desires for clarity, which life by definition denies.  The smallness of our world, 24 hour news cycle included, means we are all on the Mothershee-ip, mutha-mutha, breaker-breaker, ain’t nobody getting outten da shit, sayin’? Each life needs a themesong to keeps us on course, but don’t ask Old Bill Bailey, who ain’t been much heard of and is (in Startrekkyan terms), no doubt out there, somewhere in die Lebenswelt, the life world, Heaven to some, replete with virgin legions, and to others the old notion of do-overs. We seek and never find the kamidana, God’s shelf. C’mon summer, don’t treat me this way. I remember a special moment in Flight of the Intruder.  “Low Lead, Sandy Low Lead, this is Cole/ Go ahead/ I’m done, Sandy. I’m all screwed up. My back’s broken. They’re everywhere.  I’m sitting on a ZSU. They’re using me for bait. Do it, Sandy. Lay it in on me, man. I’m popping smoke/Virgil!/Virgil!/Do it, Sandy. Do it now. I’d do it for you.” All the buildup for  $uperboil XLIX (do we pronounce it Ex-lax?) and not one damn bit of the big play-game matter$ in comparison to what our troops have been through.  In these times, you think it accident we use Roman numerals to enumerate the game, and not Arabic? But now I must get back to teaching the dog to kill the groundhog with kind teeth, should that sucker show face soon. I love the language I am born to.


25 Jan

Reputation and Authors

I’m currently plowing through the prodigious AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARK TWAIN and ran across this little  entry concerning authors and popularity. Twain and the author Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, one of his pals) were sitting on a public bench at Washington Square in New York City. They were engaged in (no doubt smoking cigars)  what we now call people-watching. Twain wrote:

 “There on that bench we struck out a new phrase – one or the other of us, I don’t remember which – ‘submerged renown.’ Variations were discussed: ‘submerged fame,’ ‘submerged reputation, and so on, and a choice was made, ‘submerged renown’ was elected. This important matter rose out of an incident which had been happening to Stevenson in Albany. While in a book shop or book stall there he noticed a long rank of small books cheaply but neatly gotten up, and bearing such titles as DAVIS’S SELECTED SPEECHES, DAVIS’S SELECTED POETRY, Davis’s this and Davis’s that and Davis’s other things: compilations, every one of them, each with a brief, compact, intelligent and useful introductory chapter by this same Davis, whose first name I’ve forgotten. Stevenson had begun the matter with a question:

‘Can you name the American author whose fame and acceptance stretch widest in the States?’

I thought I could, but it did not seem to me that it would be modest to speak out, in the circumstances. So I diffidently said nothing. Stevenson noticed, and said –‘Save your delicacy for another time – you are not the one. For a shilling you can’t name the American author of widest note and popularity in the States, but I can.’

Then he went on and told me about the Albany incident. He had inquired of the shopman – ‘Who is this Davis?’

The answer was –‘An author whose books have to have freight trains to carry them, no baskets. Apparently you have not heard of him?’

Stevenson said no, this was the first time. The man said – ‘Nobody has heard of Davis, you may ask all around and you will see. You never see his name mentioned in print, not even in advertisements; these things are of no use to Davis, not any more than they are to the wind and the sea. You never see one of Davis’s books floating on top of the United States, but put on your diving armor and get yourself lowered away down and down and down till you strike the dense regions, the sunless region of eternal drudgery and starvation wages – there you’ll find them by the millions. The man that gets that market, his fortune is made, his bread and butter are safe, for those people will never go back on him. An author may have a reputation which is confined to the surface, and lose it and become pitied, then despised, then forgotten, entirely forgotten – the frequent steps in surface reputation. A surface reputation, however great, is always mortal, and always killable if you go at it right – with pins and needles, and quiet slow poison, not with the club and the tomahawk.
But it is a different matter with a submerged reputation – down in the deep water; once a favorite there, always a favorite; once beloved, always beloved; once respected, always respected, honored and believed in. For, what the reviewer says never finds its way down into those placid deeps; nor the newspaper sneers, nor any breath of the winds of slander blowing down from above. Down there, they never hear of these things. Their idol may be painted clay, up there at the surface and fade and waste and crumble and blow away, there being much weather there; but down below he is gold and adamant and indestructible.’

Pretty interesting comments it seems on the vagaries of literary reputation and realities.

When asked my own status in this vague realm of relativity, I tend to put it this way: I began my writing career as internationally unknown and have risen steadily to regionally obscure. With the number of people who tell me how many of their lifelong non-reading relatives (usually husbands) have eagerly devoured all the Woods Cop books, on might even term me the poet lariat of the illiterate. See, there’s lots of company down here deep in the sea or reality, even for one who makes a living off unreality.


21 Jan

Gold and Red and Green and Gray

My badge is gold, my blood is red.

My office is unencumbered by walls. I wear gray — the color of a menacing sky, and green from the forest. My truck is usually brown from mud and dirt. As are my boots.

I am: spouse, parent, grandparent, child, sibling, I am part of an extended birth family and there are times I know my work won’t allow me get to everything families do together.

I pay this price without complaint.

I am male, female, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, married, divorced, separated.  I am 25 or 55 on the job six months, or 26 years. All of us are also a family of brothers and sisters in a common cause and uniform.

I am equipped with some of the finest equipment made. I carry handguns, pepper spray, a taser and baton, a rifle, a shotgun, weapons all.

I can shoot a ping pong ball off a mouse’s ass a thousand yards down range.

But it is my brain that makes me special. My brain — my training, and the men and women I serve with.

I have a computer that lets the state, other police agencies and my colleagues track my location. The cab of my truck crackles with sound: I am monitoring dispatchers from the state police, counties, townships, city police and sometime campus police.

I take calls from Station Twenty in Lansing, directly from citizens lodging complaints, or wanting to provide me with information, or just to ask questions. I have two cells phones in my truck,  e-mail on the computer and two radios  everything squawking at the same time and sometimes my nearest backup is fifty miles away — if anyone is on duty, which during some time periods they are not because of budgets.  But I am out there because this is what we do.

When I hear or see trouble, I go to it immediately, without being told. My job is to preserve and protect our natural resources, but human life comes first.

I am trained not just to look, but to see — a critical distinction.

I never get behind a vehicle on the highway that I don’t check the bumper or tailgate for blood or hair.

I watch people’s body language when I approach them — their eyes, their voice changes, their demeanor.

While we talk I try to take in everything.

I pay special attention when people start repeating my questions before answering them. If there is more than one person, I keep them all in front of me. Safety comes first.

I have never shot anyone and I hope I never will. But situations can force decisions none of us welcomes. I hope if that day comes, I won’t hesitate. If I don’t come home safely at the end of a patrol, I will have failed myself, my department, and most of all my family.

I know that every day I go out I will be lied to, sometimes yelled at, and often cursed.

Occasionally I am threatened sometimes openly and aggressively, other times with a whine.

Mostly I meet many normal, law-abiding sportsmen. But I also swim among the wood ticks and wing-nuts with mean minds, driven by greed.

Sometimes the people I meet want to wrestle (We don’t say fight.). If it must come to that, I will put them on the ground as fast as I can. If they want to run, I will track them down. I don’t back down.

My family is special. My spouse and children are used to opening the fridge in the morning to discover a pile of fish or birds confiscated at 4 AM while they were asleep. They rarely comment.

I tell my family what I do, but spare them most of the details.

Most people call police stations when they need help. But out where I live they call my home and my wife is on first-name basis with the top ten scumbags in the county. She is my unpaid dispatcher.

I accept the solitude, long hours, and the dangers inherent in my calling.

I have been scoped as I approach a hunter, had guns pointed at me, found night scopes and silencers on rifles in deer blinds, and I’ve caught drunk snowmobilers driving 70 mph through the woods.

And yes, sometimes it falls to me to tell next of kin their beloved will not be coming home.

I have saved people from drowning and heart attacks, or found them too late. I’ve located folks lost in the woods, who have accidentally shot themselves, or fallen on an arrow.

I have seen a lot of bad luck, but few truly bad people.

What I do see most is stupidity, huge portions of it. I have seen unspeakable things and dealt with them because I am sworn to do so.

I have found suicides and taken care of people mutilated in wrecks or by hit-and-run drivers. I see some people on their best and normal behavior Far too many at their worst but most people aren’t bad, they’re just acting stupid, without thinking about consequences. If safety is involved, I’ll write a ticket. If the issue’s not safety, I may just warn.

And most people who get tickets or warnings never repeat their error. Knowing this helps me do my job and remain positive.

But details haunt me, inspire me and even make me laugh. Sometimes you have to laugh because there are no tears left for what you see.

A felon just released from prison is out riding and drinking road beers with a pal, windows down, shining fields late on a starry summer night. We stop them and approach. The felon is in the passenger seat, starts fumbling beneath it. My instinct tells me to intervene. I grab his wrist as he extracts a handgun and I pull him through the window and put him on the two-track and cuff him. His last words leaving jail had been he would shoot the next cop who stopped him. Nobody got that word to us.

A window comes down and out rolls a cloud of skunk weed smoke and when I ask what he’s smoking he will say, “Nothing, dude” even as smoke curls up from a spliff in the ashtray.

If I ask someone who seems under the influence, “How much have you had to drink,” the standard answer is, “Two beers.” Sometimes I think this must be one of the questions on the DMV new driver’s test.

I have a hunter emerge from the woods three hours after shooting hours with a loaded rifle and spotlight because he was “afraid of rabid coyotes.”

I see this see an archer twenty feet up, back against the tree and tell him to come down, three times. Finally he relents, walks over to me, asks, “Dude, how did you see me?” I told him camouflage doesn’t make you invisible. I didn’t mention the knee-high white boots he was wearing.

I ticketed a hunter for hundreds of pounds of bait and learned he had been a felon but had his record expunged. Curious, I asked what he had gone to jail for. “Robbing banks,” he said. “How Many?” I asked. He answered, “Twenty seven.” When he was 17, and never spent a dime.

I once walked up on a night shooter who yelled at me for scaring him — after he squeezed off a shot from this truck at midnight.

Every year when we hold the briefing for Michigan elk hunters we tell them someone in the group will shoot more than one animal. They all smile and shake their heads. The record is five. Two isn’t even unusual.

I have had dads tell me that their brother shot the deer on the buck pole, but had to go back to Indianapolis, and a ten-year-old son chimes in to corroborate the lie, “Yeah he had to go back.”  Kids are sponges. Sadly, they learn early and will learn the wrong things as easily as the right things.

The number of cops I’ve come across not following the law in spirit or letter is far too many to count. I don’t like this and I don’t understand why, but don’t dwell on it. Is what it is.

I don’t make a great deal of money. I have had as many as six unpaid furlough days in a year, and I long ago stopped counting how many hours I donated to the state because there was no overtime available, but the work had to be done. I hear repeatedly how soft state workers have it. Come walk in my boots.

I’ve been called Fascist, liar, bully, and accused of planting evidence, or intimidating people with facts.

In private camps I’m told I have no right to be there, even though our plane has seen six truckloads of bait in front of six tower blinds –and I have the photos in my pocket.

When citizens have snow days, I am outside. Rain, fire, floods, blizzards, sleet, tornados, wind, riots, demonstrations, Presidential visits: you name the condition or emergency, I’ve worked in it or helped other first responders clean up the aftermath.

I am an employee of the state, but my work is more a calling than a job. It is a passion, something that flows from my heart.

I try to treat everyone I meet with respect and courtesy. And I hope for the same from them. Usually I am not disappointed.

You ain’t no real cop!” people will gripe at me.

Or one who refused to stop for my blue lights, and I had to chase him down and PIT him off the road, “I knew you was the man in the woods, sir —  but I didn’t know you was also the man out on the road.”

I don’t make the laws. I enforce them — even when I don’t agree with some of them. I leave my personal politics at home and try to listen to the people I meet and answer their questions.

I could grow bitter, but I choose not to.

Yes, I’ve heard the wolves have eaten all the deer and that coyotes were planted by the state.

And no, five hundred pounds is not just a shade over two gallons.

When the law says you have to hunt with your minor it does not mean being just in the same section, or county. You have to be with them.

I know one day that I will retire and slide quietly into another life, at a far different pace, one it will take time to adjust to. Putting away my badge and boots will be among the hardest things I’ll ever do.

I walk a hallowed path that thousands have walked before me and try my best to uphold what they created –some with the ultimate sacrifice of their lives.

I am determined that when it’s time for me to go I’ll know it; I want to go with my head up.

I’m not just a real cop, I’m something a lot more.

My badge is gold, my blood is red.

I am a Michigan Conservation Officer and I proudly serve the people of our state, all of them.

 [Portage, March 8, 2011]

16 Jan

Poem For A Friday

Growing Up Global
Football in a barren lot with Paolo
His not ours, no need for arms.
He had but one. I suggested baseball
But he demurred, said he’d tried it once
With a grenade
It took away all sporting options
But soccer, and even then
No goalkeeping,
Fated to be strictly a field player,
Cutting grass with his feet.

Joy of precocious anatomical gifts
Adultified lust in full flower
She panted like a dog on a hot day,
Out in the hedgerows, like paratroopers
Miles inland from beaches and all that stuff,
She confided she wanted to be
A math scholar, or stripper in Rome
Un po ‘di questo , un piccolo di quello
The same attitude clothed or not.

Silly Mairizia, All-A’s we caught a freight
To Pisa, the old way, jumping aboard
As it chuffed up a slight incline,
Our plan to escape Latin taught by
A woman in a wheelchair who
Loathed males and assertive girls,
Equal in our faults, one by gender,
The other by action.

Gonfalons in Sienna
Men in gaudy yellow uniforms
And shiny armor su destrieri,
Classmates cheering with winter snots
smettere di correre!
The American boys are hopeless
In their untamed ways.

By the sea by the bay
Bare tits, fully grown, and in full play,
In Napoli, well known to tars
On shore leaves when the
Fleets came in. We watched the
Ladies parade the piazza.

Pompeii we find is still still,
Eighteen hundred,seventy five
Years down the road, leaving
Only us and small serpents
Moving around the paved graveyard.

We live between two lingos,
“Andare al negozio di pane ,
Ottenere alcuni colpi ,
Non si fermano a giocare con Paolo, yew lis-nen?

Plane home, measles
Three weeks in the Azores,
Just more to the adventure.

We crossed on a ship of cement
All adults puking for two weeks straight.

Our world is small and real, a globe breathing real air.

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