Friday, January 12, 2018

No Shit

"Any man who judges by the race is a pea-wit. You take men one at a time."   Sergeant Buster Kilrain (Kevin Conway), Gettysburg (1993).

National Western Stock Show, Jumping competition
I sympathize with President Trump. I really do. I, myself, visited a shithole tonight.

There was a lot of bull shit. I was able to sidestep some pig shit, but I got a mess of horse shit on my cowboy boots. There was even a bit of sheep shit, which was not easy to avoid because of all the damn sheep. Much as the muck rakers, goat-ropers and cow punchers tried, there was shit everywhere.

There were also a lot of hard-working, hard-playing, hard loving folk drinkin' beer, eating barbeque, talking loud and wearing their big ole belt buckles under their big ole bellies. Big hat, lotta cattle. And, when you go to their place in Montana, or Nebraska or Kansas or the Great State of Colorado and you stand on their porch you are looking at where God Almighty feeds and clothes the world.

Yup. It was a total shithole, full of a lot of good people doing the best they can.

Just like every other shithole.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

When the Music Plays

"Breathe deep the gathering gloom, watch lights fade in every room." Nights in White Satin, The Moody Blues, (1967).

Noting the passing of Moody Blues founding member and flautist Ray Thomas.

September, 1972. Boston.

The day comes, too soon but then not soon enough. My parents dropped me off at White Hall, a dormitory on the campus of Northeastern University. A small town boy in several senses, I was in a totally alien environment...a big city.

White Hall was an older building, begging for renovation. It was not air conditioned, so we kept the windows open. It was not uncommon to have someone hoist microwave-sized speakers onto window sills and blast music into the courtyard. It always seemed to be The Moody Blues' Nights in White Satin.

The song, written by band member Jason Hayward, is a love song, of sorts. Love from afar, yearning love that is not returned. Perfect, cloying, to a seventeen year old on his own for the very first time.

Many people remember this song by the "Late Lament," spoken by band member Mike Pinder. "Cold-hearted orb that rules the night, removes the colors from our sight. Red is gray, yellow white. But, we decide which is right, and which is an illusion."

I always remembered Ray Thomas's haunting flute solo. For some reason, it seemed to capture perfectly the mixture of self-doubt, of naïve optimism, of an adolescent's fireproof belief in the hopeful possibilities of tomorrow. Whenever I hear that song, and that flute, I remember Boston in the fall of 1972.

I had no idea that, nearly thirty years later, daughter Katy's flute playing would have a similar effect - memories of days and nights at band competitions, at concerts and a university dormitory where she bid good bye to one life and embraced another.

Thank you, Mr. Thomas, for a gift of music.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Just Plain Folk

"Everyone else gets in an airplane. [John Young] wears his airplane." Astronaut Charles Bolden.

Mourning the passing of Astronaut John Young.

The Space Transportation System, known as Space Shuttle, was to be the delivery truck America needed as the third phase of exploration began. Big as an airliner, designed to (eventually) hold seven astronauts, it was unproven technology. All other space fliers, from both the Soviet Union and the US, reentered Earth's atmosphere as ballistic vessels, arresting their breakneck descent through a series of parachutes.

The Shuttle would be different. She would have wings, and glide - after a fashion - to a controlled landing on a runway. Glide being the operative word, as the descent would be unpowered, giving the crew one shot at a controlled landing. And, a whole lot of shots at piling their billion dollar machine into a heap somewhere. The commander of the first orbital Shuttle? John Young.

John Young was born in California, and joined the Navy in the early Fifties. He learned to fly helicopters and fighter planes. He became a test pilot, then one of a group of NASA astronauts  - "Group Two" - that contained luminaries such as Neil Armstrong, Pete Conrad and Jim Lovell. 

His first space flight was beside Original Seven member Virgil "Gus" Grissom, who had irreverently (and defiantly) dubbed the craft Unsinkable Molly Brown, the initial flight of the Gemini portion of the early space program. Grissom's wasn't the only departure from staid NASA protocol to take place  on the flight - Original Seven member Wally Schirra "caused" a corned beef sandwich to be placed in Young's suit pocket.

Of course he ate it in orbit. NASA officials went nuts.

All was eventually forgiven. He commanded Gemini 10, with Mike Collins (who described Young's "awe shucks" manner as enigmatic, masking a keen engineer's mind). In April 1972 he became the ninth person to walk on the Moon as commander of Apollo 16. Later, he was Chief of the Astronaut Office.

The initial flight of the Shuttle in 1981 landed at Edwards Air Force Base. Once the craft was rendered safe (which took longer than he hoped, causing him to complain on an open radio frequency) he descended the air stairs and, in the words of a book written on the subject - "gesticulated" - as he inspected Columbia. That, of course, is a gross understatement. Young prowled, he gestured, he clapped his hands in sheer joy. He was always known as a reserved flier, a laconic and awe-shucks kind of guy. Clearly, he was overcome with the utter improbability of flying - not plopping down in the ocean - but really flying a spacecraft to a controlled landing on a runway.

No one who has watched the video of that shuttle landing, and that pilot circling the bird in awe and wonder, will ever forget that in the early days of space flight America looked to brave men, and later brave women, to carry the torch of exploration into an unpredictable future. John Young accepted the challenge, and flew the world's most complex craft toward uncharted horizons, and lived to tell about it.

Fair winds and following seas, sir. There sure weren't many like you.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Yeah, You Blend


1. A socially inept or uncomfortable person.

2. A carnival performer who performs wild or disgusting acts.

Well, okay. Embrace it.

I'm a geek. No, not the second one. The first one, sort of. Specifically, I'm an "avgeek," which I understand is a known and collected sub-species. The reference is clear - "There are two kinds of people. Those who look up when an aircraft flies overhead, and those who do not." I'm one of the former.

We lived for a while in Commerce City, CO. Before you locals go "Eeeewww, Commerce City," two things. First, that odor near the refineries? That's what a money printing press smells like. Second, it was Reunion. It's more like Southern Brighton.

Anyway, we were directly in the flight paths of DIA. Sometimes departures, sometimes arrivals, depending on the wind. Frontier A-319s make a sound like a roller coaster going downhill (but, no screaming...that we could hear) when the engines throttled back. The Lufthansa 747s (headed either to Munich or Frankfurt) made a deep whooshing sound as they climbed, weighing nearly a million pounds.

It is inherited, and manifested itself into middle age when my good friend John and I drove to Oshkosh, WI for the annual fly-in there. He is a pilot - a damn good one - and we spent the better part of a week poking around the grounds, watching airshows and soaking it all in. My first novel - Out of Ideas - began there. It was a bucket list trip, one of the best.

So, WTF?

I pay a fraction over a soy latte at Starbucks every month to be a member of Big Jet TV. It is a streaming service based in London. Two guys - two wonderful, goofy, loveable guys - go to airports in England (and Germany and...sometime in 2018, San Francisco) and do 90-120 minute sessions watching planes take off and land. No...stop, really there is a point to this. They stand on the roof of a compact SUV with a fairly expensive set-up, do video and provide running commentary. They really are geeks, unabashedly and unapologetically so, about commercial aviation. I totally love it.

Today, they got...nicked? Yes, that's it. They were contacted by the local police and told to pack up their shit. It began innocently enough - sirens and a report by Jonny that there was some police activity in the area. It turned out they were the police activity. Apparently someone, possibly a pilot or three, had called them in as suspicious and even a hazard to aviation. Bloody hell!

The initial responding officers accepted their explanation, their credentials and a laminated letter from the property owner that they were allowed to be where they were set up. Of course, that didn't last long and the broadcast ended rather abrupt, like. Brilliant.

Aviation fans of Jonny and Jerry weighed in from all over the world (seriously, the whole world) with the usual "Don't them coppers have anything better to do?" I, myself, a fan of Jonny and Jerry (especially since they gave me a shout out last week...oh, you didn't hear it? A pity) weighed in and blamed it on command staff. But, my plane spotting unsated, I nipped about the morsels still available and happened upon a photo.

Jonny and Jerry are standing on the roof of their SUV, directly adjacent to final approach. They are wearing bright yellow jackets. Their vehicle is in the middle of a field, acres of barren ground surrounding them. Whenever a plane flies (a few hundred feet) overhead Jerry waves madly at the crew.

Okay. Maybe... 

Monday, January 1, 2018

"Knew We Were Coming"

"I am not the thinker Kicking Bird is. I always feel anger first. There are no answers to my questions." Wind in His Hair (Rodney Grant), Dances With Wolves, (1990).

Bullets fly, and according to initial reports five Douglas County officers are hit. Early information suggests that there is at least one fatality (A source tells press representatives "It doesn't look good for us"). Two citizens are also wounded. Again, no definitive word. I check in with a buddy, a deputy for DCSO. He's fine, on his way in. Everyone there is on their way in.

I don't feel sad, or somber. I'm angry. Whatever this asshole's malfunction, shooting five cops is no solution. It's never going to be a solution. A disturbance? Offer your explanation, take your ticket, fight it out (or plead it out) in court. Yeah, but not this guy. Five cops and two citizens hit. 

I could sit down and write, but they will be angry words, undisciplined, unfocused, a string of variations on a theme...fuck you, strong memo to follow. None of the news channels have additional information - why would they. Douglas County is still trying to get control, account for their people, reach the loved ones of those who were hit. Then, confirmation that one of the officers didn't make it. I head for the gym.

At W. 1st Ave, I pass a fire station. Two firefighters are making haste toward the flag pole in front of their building. Both are wearing shorts (in fifteen degree weather). They have been informed by their command to put the flag at half mast, and they were not wasting time doing it. Out of the mutual respect firefighters and cops share, it's going to get

Further along toward the gym, a marked Lakewood PD Tahoe pulls up beside me at a light. I'm sure I know the officer, but the angle is wrong. All I see is a grimness of purpose, that unamused look we all get on the way to a meaningful call. Maybe, he's on the way to a disturbance...

Because, it never stops. The phones rarely stop ringing. Hell, nowadays they barely slow down. There is always another call, always another crisis. The reason my friend came in to work, that the surrounding PDs took some of Douglas County's "routine" load, is because the pace is unrelenting.

Some years ago, two of our officers were shot by a sniper. He knew they were coming and laid in wait. I went in to work, having been woken by a phone call from a friend. "Do you know what happened?" she asked. My job when I arrived? Put together shift schedules for the next day. Because, it never stops.

Additional information is now available, in the calm that overtakes the investigation of a major incident. The officer - Zack Parrish - was a stand-up dude, a dad and husband. The others who were shot - all good people. One, a Castle Rock PD SWAT officer. Dispatch traffic was released. "Be sure you're kitted up," someone says. That means helmets, rifle plates. One of the officers is down inside the apartment. One hundred rounds. An ambush. The Sheriff says "He knew we were coming." 

Of course he did. And, I'm angry all over again.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Insecurely Grateful

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”
Helen Keller, The Open Door

2017 is an impossible year to grasp, to understand... To absorb. There have been so many moments of pride, of achievement - a doctor in the house, a daughter traveling long distances to help others, another staying closer to home being a supportive voice in parents' darkest hours, a son preparing to help men and women who have spent themselves in the service of others embrace the chance to step aside in peace.

We have left so many good people behind. Two friends whose lives ended by their own hand, another whose time with us ended abruptly, and far too soon. We are not alone in our grief, nor in our insecurity. One of the vices of our modern means of communicating is to share the news, and despair, of hardships once born only by those close at hand.

But, this has also been a year of personal illumination, best told with two stories:

Killer hurricanes brought death and destruction of biblical proportions far and wide, two into an area of the world we have visited repeatedly, and grown to love. The lives, and livelihoods, of the people in the storms' paths were profoundly altered, or vanished forever. Yet, amid the suffering - an outpouring of love, of support and sacrifice. People opening their wallets, their homes, their businesses to ensure that those who had lost everything were cared for. One of our family members deployed with his military unit, seeing it all first hand. A voice among the ruins rose to make a simple, eloquent, powerful statement of human perseverance - "If it's only a generator, a door on two saw horses and a blender, we'll be making Painkillers on the beach while everyone is rebuilding."

Individual achievement belongs, first and most obviously, to the person in the arena. Others may cheer, shout encouragement or pick the contestant up when they falter, but it is the one who meets the challenge head on who suffers, and stumbles and, ultimately perseveres. Over the last six years I saw, up close, the inner strength it takes to earn a doctorate. My wife had every reason to boast and strut. This is what she said (in part), the remarks she made in front of friends, colleagues and a live audience of thousands:

"Winnie the Poo said that sometimes the littlest heart contains the most gratitude."

Some of us didn't make it to the end of 2017. We will never forget them. But, the rest of us - in all of our insecurity and uncertainty - carry on with a lot of gratitude in our little hearts.

Friday, December 29, 2017

A Place in the World

The times you lived through, the people you shared those times with — nothing brings it all to life like an old mix tape. It does a better job of storing up memories than actual brain tissue can do. Every mix tape tells a story. Put them together, and they can add up to the story of a life.” Rob Sheffield.

Fiction writing is about balance. Too much of a good thing is still too much. So, when I get feedback from other writers, people I trust, who say "Too much" I listen to them.

Sequel works play this balance to the hilt. At some point, any writer worth their web page wants their reader to feel, not just know, that the character has a past that begs exploring. It is way too obvious to insert "Here, you might want to pause and buy the first/second book in this series." So, hints are necessary once in a while.

But, it may be one of those cases where life doesn't imitate art. Maybe it's the other way around. Fixing dinner, listening to music from my smartphone (what an amazing time to be alive). Dan Fogelberg, straight out of the '70s.

There's a place in the world for a gambler. There's a burden that only he can bear.

The 1976 Winter Olympics took place in Innsbruck, Austria. Among the memorable moments was the downhill run of Austrian Franz Klammer, the favorite. He skied last in the group from which the winner would surely emerge, on a gorgeous day in the Alps. The call by Frank Gifford (1930-2015) and Bob Beattie built to a crescendo as Klammer flirted with disaster ("He's almost into the hay bales, Frank!" Beattie screamed after one moment of mortal peril). Behind most of the race, Klammer pulled out the gold by the slimmest of margins. 

NBC put together a slow motion montage of Klammer's winning run, interspersing bits of the Gifford/Beattie call. Overlaid was Fogelberg's song - beautiful, haunting, simple. Perfect. Klammer had gambled, and he'd won, the calm in the eye of every storm.

I was all of twenty-one, living with my parents, preparing for my cross-country cycling adventure and helping coach a hockey team. It was a year of supple physical strength, boundless energy and limitless dreams. There were few guarantees for the future, but there was always a place for a gambler.

This was a mix tape with only one song, recalling deeply buried memories of a past that was filled with hope, supported by love. 

Facebook let me know, between chopping carrots and cooking chicken nuggets, that someone else had commented on a picture of me, holding my granddaughter's hand - Donuts and Airplanes at DIA with daughter Katy and her children. 

There's a place in the world
For a gambler
There's a burden that only
He can bear
There's a place in the world
For a gambler,
And he sees
Oh, yes he sees