Strutting and Fretting — A Retrospective

Being a playwright haunted my aspirations for much of the 20th Century. I didn’t hang around theater people in high school or college, but I still thought I would be a playwright. Some places put on my plays, and Contemporary Drama Service in Chicago published two books of short bare-stage one-acts called Rehearsals for Armageddon 1 and 2. One of plays in RFA 2 won the Olivet National Playwriting contest and was put on NPR. Some other plays were used by the Second City in Chicago, and other regional theaters. Still, when I discovered that the fourth most popular playwright in America made only $10,000 a year, it looked like this might not be a way to support a young family.

The only career opportunity, it turned out, was acting in your own plays. The ones you write inside yourself and win the leading role in. The role you make for yourself also gives you permission to operate in variable modes: as a creator,  a diligent worker, a leader, in ways that mere “positions” do not dictate. Those roles were ones I played throughout life. At first, I was just a student, but the draft channeled me into the role of a military person. The officer candidate program I entered to evade the draft allowed me to drop out and be in the Marine Reserve. On those reserve weekends, I became the senior private who always knew where to hide when there were potatoes to be peeled. It was excellent experience for later roles I was to play. In the early 60s I was mainly hiding from the Vietnam War, like many of my friends who married and had children as a draft dodge, or who took off to Canada (not far from Seattle), or found themselves 4F in the doctor’s office. I did not, and do not, disparage any of them. Humans are first of all a survival species, and surely the war would be over by the time I was called to fight.

I was also a gear-grinding truck driver (still a senior private) when I started Grad School in Oklahoma. This turned out not the best place to hide in plain sight in 1964 because I was almost called up from the Reserves to drive a truck through booby-trapped villages. The prospect did not appeal to me, so when I heard it was possible I could be reinstated in the officer program, I inquired. The Marines were losing 2nd Lieutenants daily – either to enemy fire and or to getting the hell out if they made it home. I said I would go through the last session and get my commission as officer, if they would let me go through graduate school for an M.A. They said OK, they were wanting more officers with graduate degrees. My thought: Surely the war would be over by then.

With that new military role lurking, I won a short story contest and was given a graduate teaching fellowship in 1965 at the University of Tulsa. I had been an undergraduate and graduate student, but being put in front of the class of freshman English students was a shock. What should I do with them? It seemed as if the University just wanted someone to babysit new students, and teaching fellowships are the cheapest babysitting you can get.

I took one look at their first short essays…loathsome in all. Somehow I had to use this role as a teacher to make better writers out of them. In the role of college instructor, I discovered that they would listen to me and do as I said. Never having had that responsibility, I tried to create a course to make them better writers. The university had no prescription…they just wanted us to pass the freshmen through and not fail the freshmen basketball players. So I started giving “F”s to most of the first student papers. I decided to have them write two short essays a week, one in-class essay and one at home essay to be turned in on Monday.  During the two days of class I gave them methodologies to use (compare and contrast, etc.) and subjects to use it on. This would end up generating 24 pieces of writing in 12 weeks with no mid-term or final test, just writing. I would randomly select to grade one of the two weekly essays, and for 25 students I corrected essays with extreme precision, line by line, like a copy editor at a newspaper.

We called it “English Roulette” and the students hated it. They called it illegal, and so I made an essay assignment out of that subject. (Funny thing, the “A” papers all found it “legal.”) All through that term these beginning university students thought I was the most horrible instructor they’d ever seen. But someone else was even more worried about my vicious writing class.

Two freshmen basketball players, who we shall call Lister and Freddy, had skipped most classes in high school, but gave Tulsa a chance to take the Missouri Valley Conference championship the next year.  Lister and Freddy COULD NOT complete a sentence in their first in class essay. Could not…When they received their first “F”s, I got a call from the coach, and then from my department head, and then from office of the University president. I was told my fellowship could be truncated the next quarter. But it was too late to transfer classes. The administration however, had lots of ways to terminate mere instructors, as I was. Maybe my days were short, and that would not hurt the feelings of the students who were sweating under English Roulette. Rebellious students were going to the administration to say I refused to grade half their papers, but I made a deal that if any of them contested the final grade I gave them, I would correct all their ungraded papers, and change the grade if it warranted. That quieted their ranks for a while. And allowed me to continue staying away from the military bargain.

Meanwhile, I watched the basketball practices and decided that anyone who could master 20 pick-and-roll plays and throw no-look passes to loose players cutting to the open space under the basket…could not be all stupid. I had Freddy and Lister stay after class to help me figure out what to do.

“Do you ever read anything?” I asked.

Lister looked at Freddy, and giggled. “Nope.”

“The sports pages, when it’s about you?”

“My mama like to read that to me,” Freddy offered.

Then I had a flash. “Do you every read anything your mama wouldn’t read to you?”

Freddy squirmed.

“Well, Lister’s brother he had this book we read on the team bus. We read that.”

“Can you get me that book?”

And so a newsprint book, its cheap paper pages curled and soiled by many fingers, which told sex-obsessed teen agers of erotic adventures they’d never dreamed of. This truly foul book, became the text for Freddy and Lister. I began by having them copy two pages a night, and I would correct those pages for how faithful they were, once a week while the rest of the class was doing in-class essays. Soon Freddy and Lister could copy the dirty book with perfection. From there I had them learn what made up sentences. They were not stupid.

But the administration was worried enough that they began holding little secret hearings on how to get rid of me, clear up to the time students were registering for their next semester. And then a funny thing happened: other instructors in other classes had seen samples of my student’s writing and were manuevering to see who could sign up my students. The administration heard about this too. And when they heard that Freddy and Lister were both getting “C”s in my class because they were actually writing credible paragraphs, it looked like they wouldn’t have to fire me after all. The basketball coach still looked a little sideways at me, like maybe I had created a couple of 6’ 9” literate sex-maniacs, but all was right in his world too.

Later I would become a college teacher again for a while, but before that in 1967 was another role, Marine Officer. It was scary as hell when I first walked into a base in uniform, and all these people were saluting me as I walked and I had to keep track of who saluted and salute back and then look for more senior officers I had to salute and pause while they saluted back. This seemed really crazy, but this was the military. What was just as tough, for an English teacher, was later when I made Captain. Then everyone of lesser rank was supposed to refer to you in the third person, as “Did the Captain see this?” or “Will the Captain want to inspect weapons now?” Who’s this Captain? Oh, they mean me…(I always had a sneaking hunch that those who knew enough to use the honorific were secretly joking. )

This was all the peacetime military, of course. I learned to play that role but never did understand the centuries of history that codified such peacetime behavior. The public could not be allowed to know that levels of formality in stateside bases that turned out quite different in Vietnam foxholes. In peacetime your uniforms were spotless, your shoes had a higher shine than anyone but your sergeants, who shined most of all. Same with brass on the belt buckle. It was all part of the role, and playing that role well pretty much allowed you to cruise through stateside duties.

On the other hand, there was the role one played in combat. It was not a democracy, and people would instantly do as you said, but you were acutely aware of your own role and without ever showing self-doubt, inside you were consciously questioning how to play it.  Reacting to incoming rounds was always a problem. Troops were quick to see you flinch.  I found you could make a quick glance to acknowledge the noise but needed to duck smoothly when necessary. Ducking smoothly was pure acting technique, when your wobbly legs wanted to collapse. You always had to be so busy getting supplies or radios or food for your troops such that you couldn’t be bothered with a few rounds flying in. And when heavy fire came in, or when you were defending a position, you had to be most concerned with getting things aligned for defense or sandbags filled or fields of fire crossing before anyone came.

Before I left for Vietnam, and thinking I might be a poet, I visited James Dickey, who was the Poet in Residence at the Library of Congress that year. He had won the National Book Award for Poetry (and would later do the book and movie Deliverance) but with an odd background for a poet, had also been an All-American halfback for Clemson, and was an Air Force fighter pilot during the Korean War. Somewhat sheepishly, I asked how he had handled the mental situation of an officer in combat. Dickey seemed to know what I was after: how to play that role. “There was just one thing I learned, but it always carried me through, always seemed to dictate the right posture. It’s simple, and hard as hell. You be dependable. Whatever is going on, you are dependable.”

Sometimes you hear someone say something was the best advice they ever had. This was mine. Through a lot of tricky situations, whenever anyone looked to me I was dependable. Not heroic, not gung ho. Just dependable. There are other stories in this series which are about Vietnam, and I learned a lot there. Mostly I learned how to withstand some of the terrible things I saw, and to live with decisions I occasionally had about who I might be ordering into great danger. I do feel that I was a dependable officer, in the eyes of the incredibly loyal men I had, and the peers and senior officers I worked for. A few random medals that had nowhere to go landed on my chest. It was not epic, but I’m still alive and I hope relatively sane and I know glad overall. The combat officer role was totally incompatible with anything I have ever needed since, and I am glad of that too.

The college teacher role was about the same when I came back from South America in 1972, but the playwright role got me a job at Texas Instruments as a video producer.  They needed to dramatize videos about Supervisory Skills. It’s a good thing to be both a writer and producer on the same shows, because you have more conceptual leadership. Soon I became a program manager for series of shows, all produced in the TI studios, and then even hired other video producers, but the writing of the shows was always in my hands. That was a role I was most comfortable with, and when you coupled that with overall program manager it led to fairly harmonious productions. I did learn though, to let video directors take a lot of initiative in the kinds of shots and lighting and sound they used. A few times I had someone call me off the set and told the video directors to go ahead with a lot of the show’s taping. They got twice as much done without me looking over their shoulders, and did it twice as well.

That was a great experience with roles, and Texas Instruments was a wonderfully dynamic place to be needed, but a headhunter lead me to another role which many of my friends at TI disparaged, that of National Training Manager for the American Heart Association, which was also located in Dallas, Texas. They said it was a step backwards, they said it was a dead-end, they said it was career suicide. I thought otherwise. I kind of felt like having a position rather than a sort of perpetual project manager. Also, the American Heart Association was in trouble. Their national staff was not raising enough money to support necessary basic research in heart disease. Their national training manager position was a revolving door, with 5 new managers in the last 2 years. To me this smelled like opportunity, but I wasn’t sure how. In fact, it was an opportunity, but only if I could write an entirely new role. I took the job, to the wailing of friends and associates.

It turned out that this role would be either (a) a suck-up to everyone in the world, affiliates, national directors, or; (b) something entirely new I had to create. The previous training managers had tried to get acceptable dates from everyone in 48 affiliates and 12 chapters agreed with to form a national set of courses. Someone was always taking vacation or being pregnant or for 100 other reasons could not commit students to dates that other Affiliates agreed to.  Altogether over the last 2 years the training managers had held 3 courses, with mixed results because some Affiliates would not send staff to courses including teachers from other Affiliates. Politics had doomed it. And those kiss ass politics could doom me, an outsider, quickly.

So I started with regional travels to find out what various state Affiliates wanted to see in courses. This was a fortunate tack, because there was great overlap (which I could show in Venn diagrams on my next set of visits a few months later). Then, instead of trying to please everyone with an impossible schedule of courses, I created 8 National Center courses, and four of them were fundraising. They would be held on our schedule whether or not the Affiliates could send people. And one other thing, to be more proactive I needed to heighten the role of the National Center itself. I insisted when I was hired as being the National Training Manager, instead of Training Manager, National Center. It was a small change, but helped the role I was playing a lot.

Other roles followed: When I raised fundraising income by 30%, they let me in to technical areas, and I became Director of Advance Technology Development with my notions on creating computer simulated CPR training.  I ventured into areas of intimating role expertise when in fact no one had it.  Learning Medical Vocabulary helped a lot, since doctors in particular were much more comfortable with my messages.

Later I formed my own company and had to play the role of startup entrepreneur.  Being president and CEO and Chief Technology Officer and the whole legal department and events director is not unusual for the shifting roles you must put on to run a startup.  At first — and for years —  it was just keeping the wolf from howling at the door.  The trickiest part was dealing with eventual investors who were all about money, from day one to shut down. I had to appease them with projections and a few big contracts, when I really wanted to advance simulation learning with incredibly cool inventions. I cannot say I was the best entrepreneur, but in the vicious world of technical startups, I managed to run Ixion for 14 years without missing a payroll, and that is a role I am still proud of.

I gave talks on simulation for several years and finally retired without making a large fortune. Unfortunately….that was never a role I wrote for myself.  Living now in increasing obscurity is quite comfortable because I have no roles at all. Maybe some fading achievements, maybe some useful memories, but definitely….no more roles.


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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Abe Lincoln’s Other Hobby

Abraham Lincoln is the only U.S. President to have a patent issued to him, as a young backwoods lawyer who specialized in railroad law, but also took many cases for the riverboat trade. He received his US Patent for an apparatus that buoyed up riverboats which had become caught on shallow bottoms, lifting them over obstructions. One of his lesser-known accomplishments as President was to strengthen the U.S. Patent system. Of patents, Lincoln said: The patent system secures to the inventor for a limited time the exclusive use of his inventions, and thereby adds the fuel of interest to the fire of genius in the discovery and production of new and useful things.

When I created the CPR Learning System with a computerized manikin for evaluation of hands-on procedures, the American Heart Association wanted to patent it. As I was working there, the bad news was that the Heart Association would own the patent. However, the good news was that they would pay for legally creating the patent, and along the way, teach me how to approach patents on other ideas that they would not own. I studied how the lawyers wrote these from information I gave them, and gasped at the cost the Heart Association was paying. But it was worth it to them, as they were able to eventually pass many of the costs off to interested businesses.

Having a patented product certainly helped get business interest in proliferating CPR way for the Heart Association. And evangelizing, as I had to, to get outside funding to continue with my CPR simulator, I did run into several people with money who wondered if I had any other unusual ideas they could invest in. It dawned on me that I would be wise to create such ideas for them. The first of these ideas, in 1982, was a tablet-sized console that could reconfigure itself into any kind of specific computer needed, through data. It had a keyboard, but also joysticks and ten reconfigurable LED windows. Its inputs could be optical videodiscs, data transmission either wired or wireless, and a sort of cartridge to carry specific program data for use on the system. That patent helped get me the funding for my small company, Ixion, which was to build and market these…what would you call them in 1982…tablets?

My heart and my few spare hours and my small bit of funding went into this innovative data-tablet that was WAY ahead of its time: before CDs, before the Internet data, before people really understood what a Personal Computer was. Here was the complete user of data, in any form. Here was the device that changed itself according to the data it received. Its levers and buttons changed their function depending upon what you wanted to do. Its videodisc input could give you 54,000 frames – still or moving with audio. I had schemes for it as a repository for small aircraft information (radio codes and landing fields across the world), or a reading teacher, or a game console far offering entertainment far beyond those Pong and Space Invader games then on the market.

In the previous case of my CPR learning system, I had built the simulator first and then worked with lawyers on the writing of the patent. That is certainly the easy way. On the other hand, my reconfigurable tablet console was pure design conception, and then I had to build it. I don’t know if that is the way most patents come about, but the rub is that you have to think of everything from the first – and of course you don’t know the half of it until you try to put it together and make it work, and that is often too late to get some of the best ideas into the initial patent. Perhaps my greatest good fortune was in finding Jim Dixon through a mutual friend at Texas Instruments.

It was 1982, and Jim Dixon had just retired from Texas Instruments after a long career on the legal staff there. In 1959, Jim had the distinction of being the attorney of record for Jack Kilby, an engineer at Texas Instruments who had created the first integrated circuit. The first integrated circuit was no slouch technology. When transistors were proving their worth, new uses needed more and more transistors in smaller and smaller spaces. Kilby created a printed circuit board with hundreds of tiny transistors on it, integrated in a small “chip” that would later became common in everyday electronics as well as space exploration, and of course eventually in computers.

The whole business of the top semiconductor companies was to design new conglomerations of transistors, and race other companies to 1. Get them to market and 2. Reduce costs with volume production. That made for exciting times at Texas Instruments in the 60’s and 70s. and Jim Dixon had been in the middle of it all. Just a few years ago, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Jack Kilby for that first integrated circuit. I sent Jim a congratulations note when I saw it on the news. He had mentored Kilby through the whole process of patenting a revolutionary idea.

So on an afternoon in 1982, I met with Jim at a law firm he was consulting with part time. They were lucky to get him. Apparently only about 200 patent lawyers in the world at the time were deemed experienced enough to argue a case before the U.S. Commissioner of Patents in Washington, D.C. So that made my introduction and meeting with him very lucky indeed. In addition, Jim was that soft spoken kind of wry intellect you sometimes find in the Southwest. He was thoughtful, and kind, a person who has little left to prove in life, and only wants to do projects of worth that he will enjoy working on. Fortunately our mutual friend Jack Miller had mentioned that I had an interesting idea and no money. With that understanding, Jim agreed to look over the disclosure document I had filed with the U.S. Patent Office, to show what the invention was about and possibly form the basis of a search.

Jim said he thought he could work with me if I would do the patent searching and write the initial patent. This, he said, would save immense amount of money that is usually spent for what he called “lawyer education” — bringing the lawyers up to speed (at hundreds of dollars an hour) so that they could write the patent. Sometimes that cost tens of thousands of dollars, even back in 1983. Writing claims for the patent’s uniqueness that could be argued in court could eventually cost even more. Jim said – a little reluctantly – that he would have to charge me something, a couple of thousand dollars, just to assuage the bookkeepers in his current office. That was one more place I was lucky. I had bought some lots down the street in an awkward area that became fashionable, and made about $4000 selling those.

Of course another place I was awfully lucky was in being married to Brenda. This extra money was a little bit of security in a world that didn’t pay me much, and we had lived pretty much paycheck to paycheck, in an unimpressive house across from a horse barn in the suburban outskirts of Dallas. When I sheepishly told her I would like to use half of the money to pay for a patent that may or may not go anywhere, she did not object for a moment. Brenda had not grown up wealthy, and throwing in her lot with me had not improved those prospects. Nevertheless she did not hesitate in saying “Well, that’s why you make money, to do things you believe in.”

A third and probably the most important patent I wrote (again with Jim Dixon’s kind mentorship and claims writing) was on an Internal Landscapes simulator. I had had some experience simulating endoscopies so I had some fair bit of knowledge about what I was proposing. It was a simulator to present non-invasive and semi-invasive procedures to doctors in learning situations. Of course no one had ever seen anything like it: it allowed a novice practitioner to go through a fairly complete endoscopic procedure watching on video, as is the custom now when they have remote instruments in the body. That Internal Landscapes patent secured for us a couple of large projects, and allowed my company, Ixion, to grow to about 20 people eventually.

In those early stages of the Endoscopy contract with Merch, the doctor I was working with needed footage of the upper GI tract, to integrate into the simulator. Having no other willing bodies, I volunteered my own. I was fascinated to be both the director and the set designer on this production, all using my GI tract. We took a lot of stuff and I became quite familiar with my internal self. I also came to see a lot of beauty in the tracts and muscles and colorations in what some people thought of as yucky insides. This doctor showed my Upper G.I. Endoscopy Simulator at a hospital in Germany, and apparently a few of the Nobel committee members came sniffing down to Hamburg to witness it. (No bites, however. Guess that and Jim Dixon are about as close as I’ll ever come.)

Of course, once we had something to show for our Merck contract, they wanted to show it off at trade shows to attract physicians to their booths. In Australia, our ERCP simulator was so popular that they had physicians lining up to do 15 minute sessions on it. It attracted so many physicians to the Merck booth that all the other drug companies were lonely on the other ends of the floor. One company took the emergency measure of renting a Boeing 747 to take doctors to Perth, at the other side of Australia, for a drummed up series of talks, mostly to get them away from the Merck (our) simulator. ERCP, by the way, means Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography and of course I learned to spit out that mouthful in talks I gave with such aplomb that all the doctors in attendance called me “doctor”, as if I were one of them.

Johnson & Johnson saw our demo at one show and asked us to consider a laparoscopic simulator, as they were embarking on another fortune in selling instruments for the video gall bladder surgeries. They were doing them on pigs and some PETA (animal cruelty) sympathizers actually bombed the training labs of US Surgical Corporation, which was also selling laparoscopic instruments, those you insert in the abdomen and suck out the diseased gall bladder, which people learned they could do without. They felt that if they could show they were training in this high demand areas with simulation, and not a never ending parade of pigs from Ohio farms, they could hold their heads up in this PR battle. However, we had competition for the project, and a tough one at that. These people had done flight simulators for major aircraft manufacturers and had all the background and technical expertise you could want.

However, I had the Internal Landscapes patent that fit this perfectly, and at the last minute, my son Galen pitched it, too. In my somewhat daring fashion, I told the J&J people we would present a hands-on demo with a pig, to prove we could arrange the internal footage. That meant taking some pig footage in circular panning patterns and programming that to react to some instrument. The only thing I could think of was one of those circle-drawing tools, and instead of a pencil, I had it holding a scope that would seem to go inside the pig.

That mock “scope” would activate the video and the screen would appear as if we were exploring around various layers of pig abdomen with an internal camera. But the problem remained how to attach the circle-drawing compass to the pig. My son had done some soldering and said he would solder the compass to a wire screen, and sew that to the outside of the pig. Luckily, at the demo, a doctor stepped up with a curved needle and waxed thread (after all Johnson & Johnson provided those to Civil War doctors – really…an old company), to sew the prototype device to the outside of the pig. It worked. It actually looked as if we could create a simulator to teach surgeons instead of killing pigs to train them.

And so we won the Johnson & Johnson contract, and a bunch of money with it.

To be honest, a number of people who worked with us did not like the fact that I owned the patents for my business, and several employees actually resented my ownership. I could never understand that. First, my patents had probably gotten us contracts which provided a livelihood for them — something that does not just happen by magic. I considered inventing to be something I could do that was worth something. People could be professors and football players, and others were musicians and others computer programmers. I could do none of these things, all of which had an more sure and immediate value in most phases of life than the speculative writing of a patent could ever attain.

Finally, not all patents are granted, by any means. Most fall to the wayside in initial searches, where someone else had the notion a good while back. Many more fall through the grate because lawyers want money to be educated in their subject, and then to write the patents. And finally, there is usually at least a two-year process, during which patent examiners decide whether your idea is truly unique, or would have been obvious to anyone else skilled in that field. Unique and Obvious are pivotal words in that process.

I will never understand why a good number of people acted toward me as if I were cheating, or blowing up the importance of my ideas, or was in some way undeserving — to the point I was nearly scorned at times. By the way, I am told the Chinese do not believe in patents at all, as a cultural thing. They think any person’s ideas should be the property of all. But we are not far behind the Chinese. Many of our universities also take that approach (- unless of course they own the patents) that all such knowledge should be free, and shared gladly with them. Many university people — who might otherwise have been my friends in the local universities — felt I should just give this property I had created to the world as a whole. My feeling was not that my patents should give me any chokehold on business, but that if I had a patent, no one was going to prevent me from working in that area. Jim Dixon, ever wise and ever gentle, said the real reason for patents was to stimulate others to make better devices (– or now, better programs). In that way, society always had the incentive to create and develop better ways of doing things.

Perhaps this inventing is a sort of mental disease. Even now, when I am sort of retired, I am still doing patents every few years for things I feel to be of worth, but which others may look sideways and snicker at. Maybe I will end up in one of the silly patent books yet.


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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Beating the Curves on the Pig Hill

Running parallel with much of my life was my creation of patents. Our grandfathers in the Midwest used to say land would hold its value, and become worth more as long as it is held because, as grandpa said of land, “They aren’t making any more of it.” However, a patent can be “property” created from someone’s mind. And we can make more of it. If you present it correctly, you can actually own an idea. That’s what I liked about patents. A patent is an idea made into property. However, patents are a mystery world to most people, and thus most people have a foggy notion of what patents are and what they can do.

Everyone gets ideas. It’s the human condition. But it is what you do with an idea that makes it patentable. A lot of people will say of your idea, “you should get a patent on that.” They don’t know that a patent must be expressed with plans that could be made – so probably no engines that run on air. Also, the solution a patent offers must be “unique to the practitioner of the art,” meaning that your air-powered car must impress, even stun, the German automotive engineer who makes minor improvements every day, as part of his (or her) job.

But that doesn’t stop people from creating patents. The other problem is that with the freedom to present ideas in this form, there are a lot of silly-looking patents. The eyeglasses with windshield wipers are a good example, and there are whole magazine articles, even books, full of silly patents from the past. One reason people may not work on a patent idea is the fear of looking silly. However, lucky for us, there are still inventors. There are still the Wright Brothers, who change the world or, equally life changing but unsung, the inventor who patented the electric starters for automobiles. Early on, automobiles needed real muscle to turn the crank to start the engine. Without that patent, taken up immediately by every startup car company, there might be no soccer moms, or at least they would be strong moms indeed.

Possibly inventors start as kids saying “there must be a better way to do this.” I remember at age 10 trying to make wings so I could jump off the roof and fly. My stepfather, I think, talked me into trying it first off a 4 ft high terrace in the back yard. Sure enough, I didn’t fly. At all. I put the wings made of long tree liombs with newspaper over them onto my shoulders and ran as hard as I could across the terrace and leapt into the air hoping for the air to lift me. No lift, all crash. Luckily I did not try this first from the roof. The principle I should have learned was “simulate your invention first to see if it works in a smaller scale.” It took me twice to learn it.  The second time was a truly innovative invention at age 12.

If I had known about patents at age 12, I should have patented my automobile one in I954. We were racing soap box type cars down a neighborhood hill in Seattle. These are not the kind of piddly, wimpy hills the Official Soap Box Derby is run on, somewhere in Indiana where they have never seen a hill. Seattle has real hills and this one dropped about 600 feet in elevation over about a half mile. It was known in our family as the “Pig Hill” because some new homes we looked at there, with startling views out over the water and the mountains, were advertised in a “3 little Pigs” take off, for some reason.

Anyway, the Pig Hill was more than challenging. It was a Soap Box crucible. The Pig Hill was so steep some cars could not get all the way up it, and had to take a less-steep detour. Such was suburban South Seattle in the 1950s. So when the kids in the neighborhood decided to build Soap Box cars, and actually started racing down it, the decreasing hairpin curves destroyed most of the cars within a few minutes. It was pure chaos rumbling downward at 40 miles per hour. Wipeouts were the total rule. No one even made it halfway down. Some of the kids went right through leather shoes trying to hold them on the road, and cars skidded out right and left and kids went home with concrete gashes on their arms and legs and gravel and dust from the roadside skidouts.

I thought “there must be a better way to do this.” There had to be. And behold, a 12 year old’s Eureka. I had also been learning to roller skate backward (on flatter pavement) and noticed that the good skaters did it by pointing one skate outward and then point the other one away in the opposite direction. When both skates were on the ground they formed an arc – part of a circle, and you would turn around backward with no loss of momentum. I never became much of a skater, but I was much impressed with this physical/geometric principle that skaters all use.

It seemed to me that if I could get the front wheels of the car to point in one direction, and the back wheels in a broadly different direction, you could make those arcs out of the front and back wheels. The left turn would then make a small inside arc with the left front and back wheels, and the right wheels would then make a much larger – stabilizing – arc on the right side. But how to make these all work together when you turned the steering wheel?

That was second part of the true Eureka. No steering wheel at all. The most primitive of my friends cars just had a front axle on a 2×4 that pivoted on a front bolt, and they had ropes back from the ends of that axle that they held in their hands while pushing with their right or left leg to steer. That is why my Eureka worked so intuitively, and the first time. The Eureka plan was to build the back axle bar also on a pivot, and then make the two axle-bars  connect in a way that the front steering would instantly align the back wheels to make the perfect turning arc — all part of one motion.

Unfortunately, if I just tied the two pivoting axles together, they would not make a turn at all but go skewing off obliquely to the side of the road. But AHA…if they were not tied at all, but if the pivoting front axle was allow to “drive” the pivoting back axle making an “X” underneath (which I created with long lathes I bolted to the ends of the two axle bars, then: AHA –when you steered to the left that “X” structure would pull the left back wheel into an arc with the left front wheel you were steering….and the right back wheel was pushed into a wider arc with the right back wheel. When you steered to the right, the whole system made perfect right turn. And I mean perfect…no skidding nothing, just taking that turn at full speed and holding the road like it was on a rail. I tried it on a few small hills near my house and it was perfect. I couldn’t wait to show it to the other kids.

We gathered after school on next Wednesday when the Pig Hill road was pretty clear before people came home from work. Denver Carney laughed at this silly piece of work. Larry Leview said it was no different that his front end pivot car. We couldn’t jaw much because we could only get in one run before the afternoon traffic, because we had to pull these heavy things half a mile up the Pig Hill for each run. Mike Dawson had no car, and no desire to ride along, so he started us.

The other guys roared out, running along and hopping aboard their cars. They were way ahead as I tried to keep from over steering this perfect system. Within a few minutes Denver spun out right over the edge of the road into someone’s flower bed below. He was done. Larry was a great driver, and artfully skidded through the curves on the outside gravel. Other kids were crashing because their wheels could not take the edgewise gravity.

Cars were littered like wrecking yards down the Pig Hill. Larry was still ahead of me, but he lost a little on every skidout – and I lost nothing. I lost no speed and Iost no traction. I gathered speed and built speed and shot past Larry LeView on the inside as he skidded outward again. It was a helpless look on his face. The best racer totally defeated. They all watched from above as I took every turn, building speed and never skidding out, flying down the hill, never losing a second, never missing a perfect turn, losing absolutely nothing…until it lost me.

If I had put on a seat belt I might have had a land speed record for Soap Box cars. But I hadn’t thought that success might just kill me. On a decreasing hairpin about two thirds of the way down, the tires held the road perfectly, and the car kept all traction perfectly….and it threw my little body about 30 feet through the air, luckily into a large blackberry bush. I was bloody from the thorns and purple from the berries and it took me 10 minutes to climb out. All the kids were waiting. They were laughing at me, quite glad that my invention had proved to be foolish rather than brilliant.

Larry LeView went cruising by to the finish line. But he was not laughing. He knew what he had seen. He never spoke to me again, and his family moved away soon. I wonder if Larry was watching a Grand Prix race on Wide World of Sports twenty years later, when the design engineer on the winning car said they had pioneered tilting the wheels in the turns so they made arcs, and lost very little speed.

I didn’t make another invention for another twenty five years, but after hearing the Grand Prix engineer talk about his invention, I started to feel again that I could make a difference with my ideas. Heart attacks were the major cause of early death in America. Cardiopulmonary Rescuscitation, applied in the street within a few minutes of the attack could save the person’s heart and perhaps more importantly, their brain function. In a Gallup poll 70% of the respondents wanted to learn CPR.

A comprehensive solution could mean millions of lifesavers on city street corners, but the training outreach was expensive and time-consuming and volunteer instructors burned out after 4 or 5 sessions with 10 people each time. This was no way now to reach millions, and there did not seem to be any easy answers. It had been 25 years since I had said as a young boy, “there must be a better way to do this.” Now I was the National Training Manager for the American Heart Association. That was when I said again, “there must be a better way to do this.”

My invention career from there on — started late at about age 35 with no prior training or experience — led me into roads of computer programming, sensor technology, micro-ship design, technical writing, salesmanship, politics, nation-wide public speaking, a little fame, a small business that lasted 14 years — and often cat calls from unbelievers, and occasionally, utter despair.


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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Folks Who Were Folk Singers

No one who was a teenager or young 20s in I960 will forget the resurgence of folk music. Rock and Roll had dominated the late ‘50s with its hormone-infused beats and gasping lyrics. But then a totally different musical phenomenon sprang up. Folk music was totally different than the sex obsessed rock and roll that had excited our teenage years. The voice of folk music was old, but the enthusiasm of young singers and melodic guitars made it a new phenomenon, one related to social justice. Social justice emerged as teenage rebellion without hormones, with a somber face and fingers wagging, exalting the hobos and sharecroppers and those who world Communism had purported to help, but whom it merely shifted to an even more dependent status. Soldiers at war were at first sympathized with, then scorned, as the folk singing crowd merged seamlessly with the anti-war crowd.

One sure thing about folk singing was that almost any hack who could bend his or her fingers into a few chords could use a guitar to accompany one’s own singing. Although there were groups of folk singers, it was possible and even usual to be a one-man band. I was one of those hacks with a few chords, and about my junior year at the University of Washington (1962) I started strumming on numerous occasions — whenever anyone would let me. Just being able to carry a tune and remember how words and cords went together automatically made you a temporary star, until a better guitar player with better words came alone.

I was fortunate in being able to carry a tune, and remember words. Partly that came from Miss Hydenstrom in the fifth grade. She was the music instructor who loved it when I sang out in tune when she was trying to teach the tone-deaf class about singing harmony. She wanted me to play the cello in the school band but I didn’t know what a cello was and so declined the opportunity. Miss Hydenstrom had high cheekbones and lots of enthusiasm for music. Maybe the best thing she did was got the principal to play the Standard School Broadcast over the school Public Address system, as part of her music class. Once a week we would sit in the portable classrooms where the radio station was piped in playing the once a week broadcast, about famous composers and their lives. It was of course accompanied by their most acclaimed music and I was an absolute sponge. Even to this day I can rattle on about Strauss and Mozart and Beethoven and hum a few bars of their pieces. All this made absolutely no difference to the folk music movement, however.

When folk singing came into its own, many other more dexterous and determined singers actually mastered the guitar. Often it was because they were not good singers or, more often, afraid to project themselves to listeners. On the other hand, I was probably too lazy to be very good. I played just enough cords so that the guitar was an asset, but barely so. I never did get good enough to play along with anyone else, yet being a lone college troubadour was one way to stand out when you didn’t stand out in many ways at all. Luckily, I had no fear of audiences because my mother had encouraged me to give speeches through school, and singing alone was kind of like projecting your thoughts in speeches to an audience.

Most of the better singers, and a few comedy-song acts, populated the coffee houses on the “Ave” (, University Way, which ran a block parallel to the University of Washington campus). It actually worked out well for the craft, because the under-aged who were underclassmen at the University could come and go and get a cup of coffee or tea and play chess or have deep meaningful conversations while a constant group of folk singers longing for an audience tried to get their attention. Later, in Oklahoma, I would learn the valuable lesson that no matter how good you were or how important your message, your performance was merely background music to whatever was really important in the audience’s lives.

During those early-60s undergraduate years, I was just glad to trail along with the action. On one road trip to Vancouver, British Colombia, I took along my guitar and we went from bar to bar in downtown Vancouver. Someone would ask me to play and they they’d sing along and then the bartender would throw us out and we would wander down the street and do the same thing in another bar. In those days, Canadian bars would not allow single women in without men. So there were two doors to each bar, one saying “Gentlemen” and the other saying “Ladies with Escorts.” The result of this was a line of young attractive working women, secretaries and retail saleswomen, lined up outside of downtown bars waiting for any man to take them inside. At first it looked like a dream situation for a young college boy but once inside the young women would usually say goodbye and join their friends.

Thus jilted a few times, I packed up my guitar and followed the crowd down to the harbor district, where the bars were really loud and the lumberjacks fought with the fishermen. I remember a peavy sticking in the wall at the back of the bar, a few minutes before hurled by some drunk lumberjack. A peavy was a heavy spear-looking device they used for maneuvering logs floating in the water mostly, and a dangerous item in a fight. All in all I preferred the uptown places with people who threw me out because they had no entertainment licenses. Being with a guitar, and landing in the midst of a line of young ladies waiting on the street, is not all that bad.

Later, in Tulsa, Oklahoma where I went to grad school in 1965, a friend and I started playing in a local bar which thought a few folk singers could sell more beer. It was true. For about two months, mostly my friend Andy played guitar and mostly I sang folk songs and we made jokes and got free burgers and snacks. We had people come back to hear us and they brought their friends. The bar owner was paying us $25 to show up and sing songs and drink a few beers with the clientele. How good could life get?

We started to consider ourselves responsible for bringing controversial songs to the mix to “educate” the local audience. One night a local businessman who had liked our earlier music brought a bunch of friends and their wives and they were all having a good time, so good that we felt a little ignored. That is when we decided to sing the Klan Song, about the terror of the Klan to black communities. It was a stirring song, and we sang out and the crowd quieted and listened. They were a little tipsy, but they did not applaud. One especially loaded wife asked her husband, very loudly, “Are these people  singin’ about our Klan and the niggers?” More silence. They quickly paid the bill, and filed out past us, leaving the once jolly bar, quiet and empty. Of course we were fired on the spot. This was Tulsa, Oklahoma, and not the socially responsible coffee house culture of the University of Washington. Different worlds.

In Seattle, like Vancouver, the crowds in coffee houses had not been not nearly as rowdy as those in the bars. By some act of the state congress, all drinking establishments in Seattle had to be no closer than one mile from the University. That meant any potential bar owner must first get a surveyor and a long, long tape measure. I remember several bars of that era, the Century Tavern, the Duchess, the Northlake Tavern, the Blue Moon, and of course, Sam’s Red Robin. Sam had a place across the ship canal that ran between the University and Lake Washington, and many students lived on houseboats along the canal. Houseboats were considered sub-standard housing at the time, though they run in the millions now. The law said Sam had to close down his tavern at 12 o’clock, so people bought cases of beer from him at 11:59 and took it down to the houseboats for a perpetual all night party open to all comers virtually, except Alfredo the wild Mexican who was banned for threatening another drunk with his machete.

I had taken his current girlfriend, Jan, out when she was a freshman, and later when I was of drinking age, she became interested in me again. Unfortunately she was now Alfredo’s girlfriend. Alfredo of the machete. He visited me one night in my little ($12 a month) basement room behind the landlady’s furnace, just off the Ave and so in the middle of the folk action. Alfredo said he thought I was trying to take his girlfriend. I said no, but she might be trying to take me. We agreed he should talk with her about it. I think his machete was in his boot. We had a warm beer from my stash and he said I was a good guy. I was indeed a pretty good guy, but underneath sweating blood.

Sam’s Red Robin, by the way was the first time I saw Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. It was 1962 and I had fake ID and was in the Red Robin and someone at the bar nudged me and said to look back in a back booth. It was one of those rainy midweek afternoons in November in Seattle. The two had been performing somewhere in Seattle. Now they were peering into each other’s eyes, silhouetted against the grey rainy backdrop behind. Someone said they were going to be famous. Someone else said they were in love. Sam was starting to fry hamburgers on a hot plate in his makeshift kitchen, and we were all more interested in getting one of Sam’s burgers with our beer than in Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in the back. Sam later sold out and a massive burger chain, known as the Red Robin, spread to 100 locations across the West Coast.

I saw Joan Baez several years later in 1968, when I was in the military in Quantico, Virginia, about 30 miles south of Washington, D.C. My current girlfriend was working at the Library of Congress and I was a Marine Lieutenant stationed at a communications school in Quantico. We went out in Washington D.C. a lot, and this weekend Joan Baez was singing at the Washington Monument. She had a scheduled performance at the Daughters of the American Revolution Hall in Washington. Then the Daughters realized Joan had been demonstrating against the current war in Vietnam, and unceremoniously cancelled her scheduled performance. She then announced to the Washington Post that on the next weekend she would give a free concert the next Saturday night on the grassy grounds of the Washington Monument. All it took was some kind of parade permit, I think.

She’d long ago split up with Bob Dylan, who was off somewhere making money, but it seemed liked half of Washington, D.C. brought along their blankets and picnic dinners to hear Joan Baez sing that Saturday night. There were some Capitol policemen who guard the monument around, but no other elements of officialdom. There were some porta-potties and they were definitely needed, because apparently there were about 20,000 people spread out on blankets that warm summer night. Those of us who had been through orienteering in the military could triangulate on the monument and other fixtures to find our way back to our blankets. There were no ropes or lines on the grass to delineate anything. 20,000 people on blankets had beers and chicken and hot dogs and hamburgers they had brought along.  Also, there were only about 20 refuse cans around the perimeters of the grounds. To me, a young officer who would be responsible for logistics such as feeding and cleaning up after about 200 troops, this looked like a total garbage disaster in the making. I could imagine the trash of 20,000 people left lying on that public grass.

And then, just as she was finishing up her last song, and modestly accepting the cheering of the multitude, Baez realized the same thing. She held up her right hand, and waited as the crowd quieted. “Now if you could all pick up all of your liter from tonight and carry it home with you, I would really appreciate it. After all”, she said, “I’m responsible.”

It was quite astounding, if you know picnics and trash. There in the late night, the appreciative crowd of 20,000 just folded up their blankets and packed up all their trash, and quietly filtered into the night. It seemed as if there was nothing left on the quiet grass. In the morning the grounds seemed totally pristine — nothing at all to show that 20,000 people had just been here.


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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The Evangelist at Your Door

By 1984, I was living in Seattle, and I had given talks and demonstrations – and even keynotes – for many national computer groups, medical groups, and training groups in the U.S. Then Europe caught wind of our CPR simulator. For the U.S. audiences it was a program with psychic benefits. Save a life, right there at a party, or in the street. The simulator let you try CPR hands on, and gave you feedback. In addition, the gaming crowd felt that it gave an extra dimension to computer advances. Later, when I also tried to put together games, some academics felt I had abandoned my noble callings with CPR. Don’t know that I felt as guilty as they wanted me to feel.

The European fascination with my CPR system began slowly. Personal computers were fairly new to that side of the world, and the first to see the CPR system were the technology scouts. At first it was just the odd foreign visitor to shows like the National Association of Broadcasters in Las Vegas, which attracted some quaint Frenchmen mostly turning their noses up at all American media , but then stopping fascinated when I broke out the manikin and the videodiscs and showed what real human-machine interface could do. Or the Germans, who were standoffish at these shows but had a finely honed curiousity about things mechanical and logical. The Japanese crowded around in groups as if my demonstration was a roulette table, and in fact, in Las Vegas at least, the roulette tables were never far away. There on the floor of exhibition halls, people could move in close and touch everything.

Other U.S. conferences were of a different nature, like the TED MED conference in Charleston in 1985. At the time Richard Saul Wurman had pioneered his Technical and Entertainment Design shows, which were goddawful expensive at the time — about $7,000 a seat by my recollection — attracting CEOs who wanted to hobnob with other CEOs and with none of the riff-raff of mid-level professionals who were curious to steal any bit of technical or market knowledge. Jonas Salk of polio fame was to be keynote at the Charleston affair, and several other medical luminaries were on the program, to present no more than ½ hour each as I remember. I remember being trapped in the Green Room with a guy who professed to be President Clinton’s nutritionist. I think Clinton had largely ignored him and ate a lot of Big Macs, but the guy carried on as if he had saved half of California from lurking calories. I guess we were all sort of prima donnas with our 30 minutes of fame. I’d met Jonas Salk once in California at the La Jolla Institute that my cousin John ran, when I was wandering in from Vietnam. Salk and I didn’t have much in common that first time, and this time around he was dead. Died about a week before his keynote at that TED MED conference.

Anyway, these various U.S. demonstrations sort of bred the European trips. Possibly the most interesting thing about my trips to Europe was that, unlike the States, most people did not know what CPR was. The first of my trips abroad was to London, to talk and demonstrate to the British Broadcasting Corporation Special Programs group. Hannon Foss was the leader of that and he held our talks in the same auditorium where they gave out the British version of our Academy Awards, so the seats were plush and the sound and lighting were impeccable. Hannon himself was a great big buoyant sort of guy who was curious about everything and enthusiastic about things he wished others to see. I was both a curiousity and a demonstration with highly visible message, just the thing for movie folks.

The first battle, however, was at customs. The British Customs agents had never seen a simulator manikin before, and tried to figure out how to classify it, so that they could tax it. Was I selling them? No. Why was I bringing it in? So others could see it. Did it have any animal properties? Not that I could see. They brought in supervisors and everyone had a good long look and these computers and manikins in boxes. In all it took about two hours to get through customs and I did not have to pay anything but could only stay in country 30 days. Who knows what damage a manikin could do if allowed to stay indefinitely?

And of course someone brought up the pedophile angle with the baby manikin. The London demonstrations had gone quite well and about a month later the BBC asked me if I could come back to be on “Tomorrow’s World” — which was their weekly look at technology that everyone watched religiously. I was boxing out that time slot and wondering if the BBC would send me a first class ticket to be on one of their more poplular shows, when I got a subsequent call from the producers, who had just shown my videotape to their board. They said with great regret that I would be disinvited, because a couple of board members thought the audience would not understand doing that sort of thing to a baby on national TV.

I think a number of things could have been different but for that BBC decision. It turns out that a year later the great, big-hearted Hannon Foss had a heart attack and, of all things, the local emergency people from the hospital did not know CPR and just threw him in the back of an ambulance. Hannon was dead on arrival. He might have been saved with the very CPR he was promoting through me. I guess I felt bad when I heard it, that had I been more effective I might have sparked instant awareness and a revolution in British emergency medicine – much of which at the time merely consisted of telling the patient to maintain a stiff upper lip. (Rigor mortis does that part quite well.)

Many advances in humanity may start with the well-crafted boondoggleMy CPR presentations were, in fact,  boondoggle programs across Europe – “new ideas” forums where people could see and experience the bizarre directions of the Americans and yet feel safe that these disruptions would take a while to really reach their shores. In each case however, I was able to generate an extra connection, especially with medical types but actually everyone, because the  Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation movement itself was much bigger than the simulator. CPR was a way to transfer life to the almost dead person, and often to resuscitate a downed heart attack victim on the spot. To this day I still get notes from someone who saw the CPR demonstrations and their boisterous old uncle collapse at a wedding, and they kept him alive. Or a description of the time an infant fell into the pool at a Hollywood afternoon pool party. A cameraman who had worked with me to capture interactive video of the baby rescue procedure, remembered where to put his fingers and how to hold the almost drowned infant, and brought it back to crying life there at the edge of the pool. To say these notes have enriched my life is an almost tearful understatement.

The French liked the idea of the interactive videodisc, and wrote up my demonstration in their computer magazine Memoires Optiques (Optical Memory). The crowd at the Memoires Optiques show was one of the most jolly I experienced in Europe.  But as silly as the British had been about the baby, the life-like manikin again served to bring up the subject of interactive pornography. Why wasn’t someone doing that? Some Cambodians there wanted to enter into a joint venture and provide the very lifelike plastics needed for a totally interactive experience. Although that sort of group, at a show, prides itself on entertaining absolutely every bizarre new idea, this time I really was not interested…A spoilsport, I guess, but I could not see telling my kids that’s what I do in life.

The Cannes International Film Festival was of course, focused on cinema, so I was just a curiosity. The translators had quite the problem explaining the system, which I only showed on videotape there. (It loses a lot with no hands on.) I will always remember Cannes because it was the first time I had a room with a little refrigerator full of drink mixes and little bottles of whiskey and gin and vodka so I could experiment. The winter weather was cold in Nice, and I even made a hot bath and lined up my new favorite drinks along the side of the tub, and practically melted in the booze and hot water. In my silly state, I marveled how thoughtful these people are, providing me with any drink I could want from my own little hotel stash. Honestly, I was so naïve I thought it was free. The bill when I checked out told me otherwise.

I met Aske Dam at one of the Las Vegas shows which he haunted, always trying to pick up new and cool technology to take back to Europe. Aske was one of those Europeans who spoke several languages and stayed at the leading edge of video technology. He brought me and the CPR System first to Copenhagen, where he had pioneered television Bingo and (I hope) made a few schekels at that. At a University in Copenhagen I met one of the princes of Greenland. Denmark had parts of Greenland as a protectorate, I think. And then a few days later, Aske heard from a group he wanted to me to present to in Norway. We talked a lot on the boat from Copenhagen to Olso.

Aske had run the 5,000 meters for Denmark in the Tokyo, Olympics and there met his Japanese flight attendant wife and had a son. They were divorced now, but the son was flying for a Japanese Airline. I put on the talk for some video producers outside Oslo in an enchanted forest where Aske’s current girlfriend was a glassblower. The ovens for the molten glass had to maintain a high temperature and it was on a fast flowing stream which was necessary, apparently, for cooling the molten glass. She had to tend the ovens every day and never let them go cool, so she and Aske did not travel much together.

On another European trip, because of some weather disturbance, my TWA flight from Barcelona to Amsterdam was going to detour and fly over part of the Mediterranean. In one of their international spats, Mohamar Khadafy told Ronald Reagan he would send out jet fighters to shoot down any US commercial aircraft that flew over the Mediterranean. Everyone waiting for my TWA flight absorbed that news, and hurried over to change their tickets to KLM. The KLM flight was quickly packed to overloaded and the TWA flight had only – me. I was probably too slow to get on KLM and unfortunately had to be in Amsterdam for an event, so I stayed on TWA and tried to make a brave front of it.

After all, I was an American and who was this Khadafy to try to bluff us out of the skies? Turned out to be my greatest ever airplane flight. They put me in First Class (all alone) and three female flight attendants all bought my courageous line and all vied to make me most comfortable… and to bring me drinks and grapes and nuts and lots of pillows. (And I’m certain that showed Khadafy what a real American man he was up against.)

Those days I was a sort of evangelist for interactive media. An evangelist has to have something to believe in, and I did. And an evangelist is out to make others believe as strongly. I cannot claim credit for the power of interactive media, or for the value of CPR to benefit lives in the emergency empowerment it gives the ordinary citizen. The combination, however, of the Good, and the Technical was a message that I hope resonated in its day, and can keep on being a standard for every new thing we see.


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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Backroads Through the Perilous Years

In the outlying areas of 1950s Seattle, there were not actually suburbs yet, just land to be bought and cleared of tall trees and developed into houses and homes. It was sort of the modified Wild West. We boys 13 and 14 ran in packs, unchallenged in the backroads and new groups of houses springing up outside Seattle. Later we grew up to become upstanding men, but our youthful curiosity was endless and dangerous and with a few small turns we might well all have ended up criminals.

Immediate little morsels from my boyhood include stealing landing light trophies from edges of the major airport, firing a dad’s hunting rifle at a small fishing boat a mile away, leaving a real pipe bomb sitting on fiery Sterno cans on a neighborhood road…to explode sometime later sending shrapnel for half a mile, lurking down lovers’ lanes to surround a lonely parked car with flashlights, smoking coffee flakes and dog hair, chaining a police car’s rear axle to dock pillar so the axle and universal joint ripped out when he took off in hot pursuit. To tell truth, our subsequent discovery of girls probably tamed us down a great deal. It certainly limited the range of our truly creative, truly fiendish, truly destructive imagination. Girls, at least, were finite as a species, if individually not quite all the same.

To drop back a bit: When my family moved from cold Minneapolis to Seattle in 1949, it was just my mother, me, and Charlie, whom she had married after the end of the war, and with the assurance of my real father’s death in combat. New to the Seattle area, we lived for a year in the “apartments” not too far from the airport where my stepfather was working first as a ground mechanic, and then as a flight engineer for Northwest Airlines in some of the first commercial aircraft flying the Pacific. The Boeing Stratocruisers, build here in Seattle, had four propellers that had to be kept going for seemingly endless yawning hours over water. The pilot held the plane in the right direction, but the flight engineer constantly monitored each engine — and kept them aloft through that whole forbidding expanse of time and water.

At the same time dads were in the air or otherwise at work, we children of families who had migrated to the Pacific Northwest became kid-mobs racing around the apartments on dime-store roller skates that clipped onto the soles of our shoes. The apartments, about 200 or more of them filled with families moving to the Seattle area for work were the haunts of us younger kids on roller skates. This was before elbow or knee pads were even thought of, and so every kid was a patchwork of scabs on top of scabs from falls on the concrete at high speed.

Meanwhile the older kids went off into the “woods,” uncleared land between the apartment and Puget Sound, and had BB gun wars. Some lost eyes, I heard from my mother, who forbade me to run with the big kids and I believe must have been thankful that my roller skates confined me to the sidewalks running through the big apartment complex. Most young families in the “apartments” were looking for homes they could afford to buy. The GI Bill helped a lot of them, and other new mortgage schemes developed since the war encouraged everyone else. Out near the airport in a swath of forest with roads that they called Normandy Park, getting a home meant buying a parcel of land and building a house on it. When there were enough families, a little mom-and-pop grocery store sprung up on a once remote road, and just as we arrived, the community brought in its own school for elementary grades.

We could easily have bought beachfront property in Normandy Park, but my mother, from Oklahoma, thought the sea could someday rise and come over us. That waterfront land could now be worth a fortune…but then who knows, she may have been right in the long run after all.

Yet even with property back a safe mile from the water, we kids still had the Normandy Park beach for running along the driftwood which had been brought from all parts of the world stripped of its bark and limbs, and washed up high on the beach to form a running, leaping pathway above the sand for boys with their limitless sped and balance. We’d race along those logs, zigging from one to another, leaping through space like squirrels through several trees, most of all never never touching the sand below. Needless to say, there were no parental supervised activities. Parents could never keep up with us anyway, so they just put us in sturdy clothes and said to be home for dinner or dark, whichever came first.

Ah the beach… Puget Sound was salt water, and freezing cold with its Alaska currents, but we swam in it. (Our kids later were more civilized and would not touch the cold water of Puget Sound.) On the Normandy Park public beach, we’d build rafts of driftwood logs laced and wrapped with long strands of tough seaweed. After a day’s hard work, we would stand like Polynesian seafarers on our all-natural rafts. And one day someone brought a submarine to the beach. It didn’t start out as a submarine, but as the rubberized gas tank from a World War Two bomber. People tended to glom onto all manner of war surplus in those days. So someone’s Dad brought it down in a truck to see if it would float, and left it there with us, a rubber tank we could fit with a makeshift paddle to move it about, and a top hatch where a small person could slide inside.

That small person was Denver Carney. None of the rest of us dared get inside the contraption, but Denver did so quite happily. He was inside and it was floating around the shallow water, and he was actually maneuvering it with the paddle attachment he moved back and forth. As we watched from shore, Denver shouted “Crash dive, crash dive” and other stuff he’d heard in the submarine movies.

We thought he was having far too good a time (we timid ones on the shore) and someone suggested “Let’s torpedo Denver!”

“Yeah, let’s torpedo Denver.” Repeated by everyone in that enthusiastic fashion, it seemed like an idea whose time had come, a mandate for action.

Right at hand on the beach were long slender logs that it took three of us to lift, and they made perfect “torpedoes”. We selected one and in unison glided it into the water toward Denver, who was happily shouting out movie commands inside his submarine. The first torpedo slithered past his bow and he never knew. The second log “torpedo” we hoisted and slung in unison was a winner. It hit the stern “klunk” where Denver’s head was against the soft inside wall of the rubber sub. The sub’s motion stopped. Denver’s gleeful shouted commands stopped.

We looked at each other. “Do you think we killed Denver?” One of us said.

“Better get him out” said someone more responsible. We all jumped into the cold salt water and pulled the rubber sub into shore. Denver’s eyes were rolled back in their sockets. We dragged him out onto the beach, fearing the worst as we looked at the large knot protruding from Denver’s orange red hair. We contemplated running for parental guidance, but then Denver’s eyes straightened out.

“Hey,” he said, “that was cool! Who’s next?”

None of us was next.

I think Denver was with us when Larry Mortenson brought his dad’s hunting rifle to help settle an argument. Most of the boys thought the rifle couldn’t even hit the water from the high bluff we hiked along, overlooking Puget Sound, a body of water about 5 miles wide.

“Yes it can,” said Larry. “My uncle was a sniper and said he could hit something a mile away. He drank a lot though, and we were never sure whether to believe him.”

“Well, let’s shoot it and see.”

Larry got in a prone position on the top of the bluff, some 500 feet above the beach below, and fired a couple of rounds out over the large body of water.

“Did you see any splashes?” He asked.

No one had.

“Then how are we going to know how far it goes?”

“See those guys in the boat way out there?” There was a small fishing boat maybe a mile  out. It was too deep to anchor, but they seemed to be holding a position, probably slowly trolling.

Larry was quite sure as he fired the first round from his prone position. “This couldn’t possibly get out to where they are.”

“If it does, we’re in trouble.”

“No way.” Larry said, confidently. And fired another round.

The little fishing boat started to move quickly to the Northwest. Perhaps they were headed home. Perhaps they knew of better fishing areas. But to this day I think they might have seen one or two rounds splash beside them, or skip off the water, or even hit their boat. I also cannot imagine anyone sniping with real bullets merely out of idle curiousity, but there it is: we did it.

You wonder sometimes how kids – and more importantly – you as a kid, possibly made it through those perilous years.  For instance, at the new elementary school there was blacktop surrounding the main building, and then a covered passway to the administration offices and the small gymnasium. We had discovered geared “English” bikes then, with 5 gear speeds as I remember, and they were a step up in speed and lightness from the old balloon-tire cruisers which had so much trouble going up the many hills in our community. Often we had to walk the balloon tire bikes up the hill. There was another large difference, too. The brakes on the “English” bikes were front and rear hand brakes, on the front handle bars with the gearshift lever, which moved the chain through low to high gears as you kept pedaling. It took a while to convert from the balloon tire brake, which you stepped back on with the pedal of either side, so you could put your full weight onto stopping your hurtling bike. If you tried to use the balloon tire braking method while riding an “English” bicycle, your legs would spin helplessly backward and nothing would even slow down at all.

I had just gotten my new “English” bike and was following the pack around the roads of Normandy Park on a Saturday, when we decided how cool it would be to have bicycle races on the asphalt that created a sort of track all around the main classroom building, going through the underpass between buildings. The school was locked up, and no one was around it at all. It was a dry day and as we built up breathtaking speeds, we could hit the corners and lean, braking just enough, and then building up speed to pull through the leaning turn. I was keeping up with the pack and getting the hang of leaning on the corners and knocking it a gear down from the top to churn back to high speed after each turn. The new lightweight bicycle was thrilling and I pulled away on successive turns faster and faster. I was pulling out ahead when I approached the turn toward the underpass and realized I had too much speed for that corner. My reflexes from my balloon tire days made me stomp backwards on the pedal, and my legs spun backward as the bicycle hurtled toward the corner. Way too late,  I realized I must grab a handbrake, and instead caught my hand on the gear shift, which stopped nothing.

My body hit the large plate glass window to the administration offices going – probably – 40 miles an hour. It was the early 50s and plate glass was just that, no safety glass, nothing. I burst through the window like some movie stunt man, shoulder first I believe, and the 6 foot by 6 foot window gave way all at once, and I flew hard onto the hallway which was deserted on a non-school day. The glass had broken away in an instant, and the top broken part of about 3 feet by 6 feet suspended in air for a moment, and then came slicing straight down like a guillotine…and broke in to shards on the floor just behind me. I had superficial cuts on my arms and my legs. I was actually locked into the administration building, so we broke the rest of the plate glass away so that I could climb back out. The bicycle had stopped dead at the lower wall. It was still ridable and so I pedaled home and told the story to my terrified mother. She took me to the emergency room so the cuts didn’t get infected and any bits of glass were pulled out. They said I had been lucky. I to this day remember the helpless feeling of my feet spinning backward on the pedals of that “English” bike.

That next summer we were fiddling around the week before the Fourth of July and all of us had massive amounts of firecrackers stored up, and George suggested we make one big firecracker. From somewhere he came up with a foot long iron pipe threaded at both ends, and the caps to screw onto the ends of that section of pipe. Gleefully we broke open our firecrackers and dumped them into one end of the pipe. There was a lot of gunpowder in that pipe and I’m not sure what George put in with it, if anything, but he then sealed off the pipe ends tightly. For a little while we wondered how we would set it off, and then someone suggested these little war surplus cans of Sterno, which you could use to heat up canned stuff, and adults heated up water for coffee, when we were on camping trips.

We found a secluded patch of woods about a hundred yards in from the road which was cleared of big timber, but many small alder trees had grown back quickly over a few years. We lit three of the small Sterno cans and set the pipe section – full of gunpowder – on top of the three cans in a row. It dawned on us that we should be some distance away when it went off so we waited out on one of the roads. This new property development had road names on wooden posts, but there were very few houses, very far apart, on these new roads. After about 15 minutes we crept back in to see what was happening with the pipe. Nothing…The Sterno cans burned happily along and we knew they would run out of fuel soon, so we waited a while longer out at the roadway, and then we decided that was a failure. We also knew there would be a football game developing down the road at a large grassy expanse someone planned to build a house on but had not yet. It was perfect for football.

We’d been playing football for about half an hour during that weekday afternoon, when the largest firecracker in the world went off. The sound was frightening. We timidly made our way back toward the site of the pipe and Sterno cans. Within about a quarter mile we saw little pieces of shrapnel in trees. At a crossroads not far from the pipe, we saw the post of the road sign cut in half and dangling by a sliver. We decided to go down to the beach and pretend we’d never been in the area.

As the gods of fortune determine, no one was driving by at the moment of the blast, no mother with her baby carriage was out for a stroll, no kids on their bikes were in a small pack in the area where the young alder trees were nearly mowed to the ground by shrapnel. Later, the police milled around the site and found that there were bits of shrapnel in the sides of houses a half mile away.

I cannot say we were good boys ever after, but I believe it may have been the first time when a bit of caution entered our exploits. We’d missed an opportunity to be called murderers and also – ourselves — to be quite dead. I certainly hope there were not opportunities like ours for our own children to learn cause and effect and caution, but I suspect there were…and I don’t want to hear about it. Mayhem is always lurking so close in Life, without being invited in for a party. You can wish it were not so, but perhaps our tenuous civilization has to be learned and relearned in those dangerous years.


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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Confessions of a Token Sportster

Sports were always important to my life. They were as important to me as music and art and other pursuits  which people pursue with passion and energy through their whole lives. Sports are as important to me now, as I slow way down, as they were in my youth…maybe more so. I think I know why. It was never winning or losing – though I won a few and lost a lot, to be sure. And it was never how you play the game, as the poetic sportswriter Grantland Rice consoled. It was instead, the thrill of acceleration.

When you move your body from its usual slow, lumbering entropy, and feel it move rapidly through space, that to me is one of the essential thrills of life. Go to the park on a sunny afternoon, and watch the five-year-olds. Life seems to wash over them, and they take off running at breakneck speed. They don’t have to be chasing a friend or a ball. They just accelerate because so much life built up in them they had to let it go. To my mind, that is what sport should be, all through your life. The competition is just our convenient excuse to go dashing around like five year olds.

Trying to play sports in school, with mediocre success, and succeeding a little better in college, I came to love sport for its own sake rather than as a measure of dominance which school, and later casual, athletes, thought was a way of keeping the ultimate score. Perhaps I would have upped my stakes had I been so gifted. But I had to really work at any sport, and seize my few opportunities, unlike the naturally gifted who cruised so easily through youth on that dominance. Later, as they grew fatter and slower I outpaced them, but by then they did not care…a shallow victory (– but I will still take shallow over none).

Of course it didn’t help that I contracted something approaching polio during the late 40s in Minnesota. In the hot summer, families had to keep their kids from swimming in the lakes due to that year’s polio epidemic. The doctors then (– who knew little about polio… and guessed a lot,) said I was sick with some kind of pre-polio. I stayed in bed and for many years before high school I was quite slow and pathetically un-athletic. Here my ability to read helped substitute for the real thing. I read in boy’s magazines about Jim Ryan who had burns on his legs but worked hard and became a four minute miler. And Richmond Flowers, whose legs had to have braces in much of the time he was young, and went on to be national high hurdles champion and an All-American halfback for Tennessee. Those were two of many who dragged their hopeless bodies finally into contention in sports, and finally into excellence.

Thus inspired by reading, I started running out on the roads of the neighborhood, ploddingly at first, but soon I could run four and five miles at a time, still quite haltingly. I went out for the freshman football team and was ground into the mud most days. In football I hit hard at anything within my reach, and but I very much fit the epitaph: “He wasn’t very big, but he was slow.” I then joined the cross-country team at my high school (which took all comers) and ran more, though I was always quite a distance behind the real runners. Later, I was allowed on the track team in my Junior year, and as a Senior ran a 2 minute 2 second half mile. This is laughably slow if you ask any track person. But I got third a few times and a junior varsity letter. However, I learned to loathe working out for the sake of working out. For fun, I did play basketball and baseball on various community and church leagues, and in time was able to muster acceptable speed for those activities, at least.

As important were the many hundreds of miles I put in hiking with a pack on my back, and climbing in the Seattle Area. Being in the Explorer Mountain Search and Rescue unit, we went for long distances through the mountains off-road and often off-trail. Sometimes we alternated carrying hikers on stretchers. This all really built up my legs and endurance, which have been useful all my life.

In college, I discovered Soccer. It was not something we Americans knew much about in the early 60s. I really did fall in love with the sport, long before much of it was played in the U.S. I was the right size, not too gangly or muscle-bound, and my endurance allowed me to defend by trying and failing to stop someone, but doubling around to catch them again, and again, until I wore them out with doggedness and finally stuck my foot (or my head) in the right place. I could only practice with the University of Washington team in my first two years, but I played a lot on industrial league teams, which on a Sunday afternoon were always short a player and could give me a uniform shirt and let me play. They knew I would run hard and as a defender get in the way of developing plays, even though I did not have the skill to actually turn the play around. Many afternoons there were two games and both games had teams which were a player short. They say you can run about 9 miles during a soccer game, so my endurance obviously helped there if there were 18 quick miles involved on one Sunday afternoon.

In my Junior year I made the University of Washington soccer team. It was sort of a fluke, but I accept flukes as my lot in life. (Some I have even done well by, like surviving Vietnam unscathed in the middle of combat.) This particular fluke was that the University of Washington soccer team used off-season athletes whom they had recruited internationally for other sports. Most especially, skiing sports brought in exceptional athletes, all of whom had played a lot of soccer, and many of whom had played at the semi-pro level in their own countries.

Learning soccer with that high caliber of player was a premium experience. They passed well and moved well without the ball and definitely expected you to do the same. They anticipated a play from far down the field and jogged early to the most likely area of contention instead of feverishly reacting from a distance. And always — they stopped the ball, dead. Most Americans let a long pass bounce off a bone and then the chase it down. That is very easy to defend because the American player never really has control of the ball. But these foreign guys deftly took a ball coming from 60 yards away, and caught it flat against the ground with one foot and no other movement. This always created several feet of “safe” space around them in which they had total control to move or pass before a defender could interrupt.

Stopping the ball was one of two things I learned from these exceptional athletes who it was my good fortune to play with. The other was that soccer games at the best levels are won not by doing something ordinary but merely faster or more powerfully, but by finding the slightly different approach, the small mistake in timing, something to create a scoring situation that defenders don’t expect…and a good defender anticipates nearly everything. Watching that creativity evolve is what keeps international crowds glued to their seats for the one or two goals that their teams do score, often after many close calls. When playing, I was decent with my head and only passable as a kicker, but I learned to love trying to spot situations to create openings for shots, and later became fairly good at it, and eventually even scored some goals because if it.

The fluke that allowed me to make the university team was based on other teams complaining that the University of Washington had too much foreign talent and other teams could not compete. Thus they made a rule that every NCAA team had to have at least two American players. And in my Junior and Senior years, I was one of the token Americans. However, there being only two such spots, I could look on it in a positive way and say there was high competition for those slots, and I won out.

I played in South America a few years later, and held my own, and became friendly with some team members from the English school where we’d picked up jobs at for a few months. And later, back in Dallas, I started playing left wing, which was easier for a right footer because I had developed my left handed throwing one summer at age 12 when I had broken my right wrist.  Later in soccer, defenders often dumped it out to me on the left wing to bring the ball down the length of the field, which was where the endurance came in. At the end of such a run, I often crossed the ball into potential scorers, or was able to sneak in to the “back door” of the goal and head one in that came from the right.

Because I became the leading scorer in the Dallas First Division (for a few weeks, that is…), I was invited to practice with the Dallas Tornado professional team’s ”taxi squad.” There was always a possibility one of the professional soccer players would become sick or hurt, in which case they occasionally called up someone from the “taxi squad’ to fill in the roster for a game. If that had happened, I could have said I was once a professional player (– “once” is the operative word here). However, I would have had to go to 4 hours of practice in the evening after working at Texas Instruments all day, and to have left work early a lot of times. Having a young family to support, it just couldn’t work out, so I didn’t practice with the Tornado and did not get to say I was “once” a professional athlete. Confession time: In my first few taxi squad practices with the professionals, the play seemed to be flying past my eyes and my reactions seemed far too slow. I realized that at age 32 I would have to spend most of my few extra waking hours trying to keep my body young enough to fly around at that pace. Or age might have claimed me anyway. A bad back claimed me when I moved to start a business in Seattle, and I did not play soccer again for twenty years. For some reason I was still fast, and everyone else in an over-55 league I joined had slowed down. I scored a goal, made some marvelous runs down the field at left wing, and blew out an Achilles tendon. However, it was a glorious few weeks at age 61, a sort of vacation from aging.

This was about the time I took up tennis again. I’d never been very good at tennis (surprised?), and never had great eye-hand coordination, but I could still run. Running in a seniors league made me useful in doubles matches where almost no one did run more than a few steps, and I could race across the court behind my teammate who the ball sailed over in a lob, and manage to keep the ball in play. I looked forward to such situations, and got the same old thrill of acceleration that was my original reason to love sports.

Golf — on the other hand — was something I had always abhorred, partly because of the built-in excess of leisure, but mostly because I spent time looking for balls in the forests which ran alongside the greens. My long balls always sought out those forests, to die in the underbrush. I had learned a little golf in a university Physical Education class, but in my renewed attempts about every 10 years I could never avoid the incessant gigantic slices which made the cost of golf almost double the greens fees, because of lost balls. Only now, as my running days may wain, have I started studying golf again. I can now hit a ball onto the fairway almost all the time. Thus I can now be disappointed along with the rest of those duffers in shorts who muff the short shots that I too flummox and who take as many putts as I take to get up to the hole. It’s a sort of fraternity of geezers.

However now with golf, I see that there is indeed what I most liked about sports. There is a good walk of about four miles, of course, if you don’t use a power cart. That is OK exercise, but no reason to love the sport. No, it is when you swing hard and hit the ball squarely, when that ball sails up and up and away from you, and disappears through the air straight over the next knoll. I swear, there it is…transferred to a little ball…that thrill of acceleration again.


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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The Watermelon Seeds

It was nearly Christmas of 1969 and we were backwatered, Silas and I. We were vestiges of some 1950’s dream dumped into the late 60s. His wife had left him and my girlfriend had left me while we were overseas. All the replacements from girls we had known in college were so vehemently anti-war we could not get a date. Job interviewers cautioned us not to put that employment on our resumes. All we really had was a chest full of medals on our uniform jackets. What is your work background? We were U.S. Marine officers in Vietnam during a Tet offensive. Several personal decorations…. Must be killed-crazed maniacs…Next! It seemed like the time to escape all this.

Si did have some money and bought a 30 ft. Rhodes Hull Chesapeake Bay racing sailboat. We thought perhaps we could find a cove somewhere in the Virgin Islands which had no prior judgment of us. Of course that sleek a wooden racer was wet much of the time with water washing over it low decks, and it had about as much room below as a garbage can. In December, when we picked up the boat in Norfolk, Virginia there was ice on the decks. (I still tell people I learned to sail with ice on the decks.) But it was our home now, for the foreseeable future. I seem to remember that we ceremoniously threw our uniforms and medals overboard in a spot deep enough we would never go back for them. That was freedom, in its way, but really resolved nothing.

The temperature was about 20 degrees when we left Norfolk on the Inland Waterway. The Inland Waterway from Norfolk, Virginia to Miami is a part of thousands of miles of inland waterway once used for commerce. The shipping of goods by water was – and still is – the least expensive way for goods to get between cities and regions of the country and world. Trucks, of course, long ago obviated most of the advantages, and so most of the U.S. waterways and canal systems do not have the constant dredging and maintenance that commerce that depended upon them would require.

A sailboat like ours, with a draft of 5 feet, will run aground in the soft silt bottom, and more than once we had to tilt the boat to shallow the draft and make it through. We could usually did this by shifting weight to one side of the boat, including our bodies of course. Sometimes the sail would help heel us if the wind was right. Very infrequently we had to jury-rig a way to support one of our bodies out on the sloop’s mainsail boom, extended out to the side. This was quite amusing to the locals sitting onshore – leaning back, drinking beer and spitting chewn tobacco from their back porches. Often these were fishermen and power boaters who had no use for the nostalgia and craft of sailboats, and certainly not for a sailboat’s 5 foot keel.

We kept going for 10-12 hours a day. At about 5 knots (read MPH), that made us maybe 50 miles a day. The first cold stretch was god-awful miserable. One of my lingering memories was sitting at the tiller at dawn, wrapped in blankets and a windbreaking poncho that didn’t. Nothing was moving onshore, seemingly stilled by the cold. My beard was full of icicles formed from my breath. And yet, out through a barely opened hatch came Si’s hand. In it was a steaming mug from our stove below. I took it to my breast and almost cuddled the mug for warmth. The smell of alcohol warmed my nose. It was –Ah — a glorious hot buttered rum at dawn, and forever after I have known why fishermen out to work in their small boats start drinking in the early morning.

After that cold stretch, through Virginia and North Carolina, the weather became more accommodating, though not entirely pleasant. Most of the land around the waterway was coastal and very flat and often swampy. That meant birds, and the birds must have been migrating or looking for food or something, because the sky was always full of birds at some point in the day. Their screeching seemed generally cheerful and, though we were intruders, neither of us seemed to threaten the other.

We spent Christmas of 1969 in the Sapelo Sound off Georgia. The water came in from the ocean there, and we picked a fairly scenic spot to drop anchor on Christmas day and warm ourselves with a Christmas drink (or two) and cook a Christmas pot roast on our alcohol oven. It was not really an oven, but a collection of shields that channeled the heat from the alcohol flame around the pot with the pot roast in it, cooking slowly in its own juices plus a broth we had added. It would take hours to cook so we sat around with hot buttered rums. I played my guitar and I think Si was wheezing out something on a little harmonica. After a while we fell asleep, in the dark, below decks, on Christmas day, in near a northern shore in Sapelo Sound.

We were awakened with a crash. The pot roast had slid off it alcohol flame onto the floor of the boat and the greasy liquid made that floor slippery. Jumping out of the side couch/beds where we slept, our feet hit the greasy floor and slipped out from under us. We did not have a battery to provide lights below, so we were lying there in dark cramped quarters, practically immersed in our Christmas pot roast. Had something hit us as we anchored there? Were we sinking? We tried to make it up the tilted ladder steps to the hatch above, and finally peered out to see what had happened. Nothing we should not have anticipated: the ocean’s tide had gone out as we slept, and the bottom ground came up under our boat, which then leaned violently to the right on its deep keel. Took a full grimy day to clean the pot roast grease from the bilge and floorboards.

Finally, in Miami beach, the warm sun bathed us. We needed a place to tie up our boat for a while, and decided to stop and ask the rich people with homes and docks on the various canals. Probably they could call the cops and run us off. But we lucked out. On our second stop we met one woman who said she had been hoping someone would want to tie up to her dock. In fact, she was divorced and lonely and we were a sure antidote. With a houseful of memories and furniture and clothing, and her twentyish son jet setting around Europe at the time, she was able to dress us in her son’s wardrobe and took us out to the Jockey Club and other Miami spots we might never have afforded.

We wanted to avoid a North wind against the five-knot Atlantic current coming from the south along the coast of Florida, because that combination makes the waves stand up ten feet high or more. We wanted to cross to Nassau when the wind was just right, and for ever so many fun-filled days of Miami high-life, the wind was never quite. The possibility of being kept young men on sailboats was dawning on us. We met Gary who had another sailboat with another young man, and he was welcomed as well. This could have been a long free vacation, waiting for that perfect wind, but finally the wind came from the south along with the current. That wind was forecast to stay the same, and we sailed out of Miami toward the Bahamas on a perfect day, for an overnight sail to Nassau.

The fairest of days turned to the foulest of nights within a few hours. The South wind we had been counting on headed South, and in its place a North wind roared down the Miami coast, setting the waves up to ten feet in height on a cloudy night. We had a compass for navigation, but no sun and no stars. Amidst being tossed about like a bottle someone had thrown in, we saw the phosphorescent flying fish skipping over the waves, awesome sights in the midst of peril. And peril it was, because if we sailed straight across and missed Nassau, we might hit the corral reefs of Bimini, great for snorkeling but lying within a few feet of the surface. They rose sharply within a mile of shore from hundreds of feet deep to about 3 feet. If we did not avoid Bimini, our boat would be scuttled banging up and down on the reef, and then we humans would be adrift, bounced up and down by the waves with dragged like pot roast by the currents across the knife sharp edges of corral.

Gary, in our accompanying boat had no navigation equipment but a compass. We had an old, old radio navigation finder from the 50s. It picked up Morse code signals sent by towers in Florida. We had a map with those towers on it and their identifications. With the boat tossing around in the storm, Si and I laid the map out in the cramped quarters below, and put the radio direction finder on the floor. We badly needed two strong signals with which to triangulate our position. Direction with a compass is one thing, but in the darkness with reference to sun or shore lights or stars, position is incredibly important and our means of determining it were not leading edge. Finally we did determine our position and with our estimated speed, it looked like we would smash into the reef at Bimini within half an hour on the current course. We could change direction, but we had to catch Gary in the maelstrom and communicate (with no radios, ironically having been in military communications). We would have to catch him somewhere out ahead of us, and get close enough to his boat to shout out a new heading over the storm.

We must have missed those shoals by a few minutes, and let the Gulf current carry on a northward heading. Just trying to avoid hitting anything big in the night. The sun broke in the morning and we could see a port with power boats going in and out. Gary was still out there somewhere, but Si and I followed the crowd with our little motor on and sails down, bedraggled boat and crew after a scary night on the water. On shore we contacted their search and rescue group and they brought Gary in the very narrow 50 foot wide channel which had been blasted from the low lying corral reef. Later I would get free rides from Miami back to Freeport, which is where we landed this first time on the North end of Grand Bahama Island. One of the jobs we had was ferrying boats across to Miami and Fort Lauderdale with airfare back, but instead in roamed the docks gaining a free ride by offering to be the pilot who would take them in to Freeport. What a deal.

Another of the jobs I had was first mating on sport fishing boats. I would bait the hooks with small fish, herring or sardines, wrapped with steel leader and concealing a very big hook. The captain would find schools of marlin and other fish feeding on surface creatures and algae, I guess, and would maneuver the boat and trailing bait from the fishing poles, while the customers would jump into their deckchairs and wait for a strike. The idea was that the big fish chased the little fish and chomped down on them. With the boat moving about 35 mph that planted the hook deep in the jowls of the bigger fish. Sometimes it took an hour or more to reel them in. Sometimes they were hooked and being dragged by out boat, and the sharks would smell the blood an swim as fast as the boat to take huge bites off the body of those marlin or swordfish. Sometimes nothing was left but the head to reel in.

Once when some ministers of the new government of Pendling, freshly granted independence from Great Britain, were having a day out, they pulled in a large barracuda, snapping its jaws at our legs and fighting all the way. The customers retreated to their small cabin with drinks as I grabbed a two by four as a club and tried to hit the barracuda in the head while it was writhing and snapping at my legs. The two peered out of the cabin window, jiggled the ice in their drinks, and thought this was great fun. I wondered who bet on the barracuda. Maybe both. After all, I was a white man in the new dark-skinned Bahamas, free at last from colonial rule and charting their own course.

Another job I had was cleaning barnacles and algae off boat bottoms in the marina. They were very large pleasure boats and I was free diving and at times I became disoriented in coming up for a breath, and small the length of the boat instead of the width. Once I was asked to clean off the decks and the entertainment area on one of these 90 foot power boats, since the owner had apparently given his paid crew leave for the weekend. After finishing in the hot sun, the owner, all alone with the boat, offered me a gin and tonic. It was a lazy afternoon, and all I had to do was drink and listen. Apparently this boat owner was a Consigliore for the New York Mafia. He and many other easterners with tax evasion cases came to Freeport and lived on their boats in a country where the U.S. could not extradite them.

As we drank gin and tonics he mixed expertly from the bar on the main deck, he related to me how the Mafia are true patriots, because they stopped the communists from putting LSD in the Los Angeles water supply. (I wondered if anyone would note behavioral differences in Hollywood.) After another gin and tonic, he told me how the Mafia is considered a great service organization by the U.S. police, because they maintain order among all the petty street criminals who could make things really dangerous in American communities. And after another round, he told me of all the influential Senators and Congressmen and movie stars he regularly has dinner with. I learned a great deal that afternoon, and later he said he could give me his Hollywood lawyer if I wanted to be a screenwriter. Tempted as the general ignominy of Hollywood would later make me feel, I never took him up on it.

During those loose and rambling days, Si and Gary and I got dock jobs and floated into a little bar near the marina at days end. One of our frequent companions was a Canadian named Michael Gordon, a blond haired tanned God of a young man, who had a small runabout with an outboard motor. He would free dive with no scuba gear, and spear fish which he brought fresh to the back doors of kitchens in the large hotels and Casino’s which served Grand Bahama Island, and the whole East Coast of the U.S. when you come down to it. Michael was always the soul of fun and on the days when the hotels were buying, good for many a round. We loved him for total freedom he represented.

I had just brought some smuggled engine parts from Miami – risking life in a dingy prison on the Bahamas – and then Si and I took a charter around the Island, also illegally. Life was good. I had just met Brenda and that made life even better. We were pushed by forces we could not tell. In sailing, the wind comes at an angle against the mast, forces down on the keel and spurts the boat forward like a watermelon seed squeezed between two fingers. Sailing thus into the wind was once a military secret and allowed the British Navy to rule the known world because its gunships could sail into the wind and around an enemy ship which could not go into the wind, filling it with cannonballs and splintering its masts until the surrenders. Now we were the watermelon seeds, pushed out by anti-war feelings in the States, and in our escape pressed forward here and there by circumstance.

It did not strike Si and I what we had been through until we saw them drag Michael Gordon in dead. We had money from the charter and wanted to buy him a few rounds, along with the rest of our bunch. But there he was, and the Bahamian police put him in a body bag, and we shook our heads. He had been hit between the eyes by the spike on a manta ray’s tail, they said. Hardly every happens. What a good guy, we thought, and were a bit morose as we entered the bar. After a few rounds we stopped talking about Michael, and about the yacht race setting up off Freeport.

“Wonder if Michael will find a girlfriend on those crews?” Someone said.

“They’ve probably been warned about him…” Si started to say. And then we looked at each other. We had had to grieve so quickly in Vietnam for lost friends, and then get back to business in minutes, as if they were gone in the wake of time. And now it had happened again. Michael was dead, tragically for such a one so young and blessed, and we had shut it off, instantly, out of grim habit that persisted here where we were safe. I wondered how long that business-like reflex about death would stay with us. Perhaps it will never quite return to normal.


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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In the Business of Time for a Long Time

Part of the thrill of living in the last century was watching onerous processes turn digital at the speed of light. The torture rack of long division succumbed to the 4 function calculator. Flat screen displays gave us more office space, and eventually our homes bigger screens using less space. And at last, wrist watches could be deadly accurate, with no resetting for long periods of time. It was this last area that followed the 4 function and programmable calculators as perhaps the most stunning change in the 70s, after calculators, and before personal computers. Everything was overlapping like mad.

In my time with Texas Instruments, I had helped with the introduction of calculators, first with four function calculators, and then scientific calculators, and then programmable scientific calculators. Nevertheless, though these were innovative and terribly useful devices, they were not disruptive. When Texas Instruments went into the business of time, they became truly disruptive. It was discovered that counting oscillations of a crystal could produce incredibly accurate time. In addition, a wrist display could read out the exact time in numbers and even counting seconds. Of course exact date and time were just a matter of counting those hours and minutes and seconds and then switching the day, just as a computer does.

Several centuries before, an international prize was given to a shipboard clock that could keep reasonably accurate time, since that was so necessary to navigation. In centuries before that — with painstaking daily maintenance — pendulum clocks, and hour glasses and even sundials displayed the time that was so necessary to planning and executing a myriad of human activities. All of these were a somewhat precise measurement of time based on natural rhythms or predictable phenomena. And obviously calendars and star charts had helped farmers plant and grow the abundance that elevated the human race. This was all about to be disrupted, with confusion and no little consequence.

I rode a motorcycle to Texas Instruments in those days. Being an employee with less than 5 years seniority, my car-parking place was about 20 minutes out from the front door, in an employee lot that had usurped about a mile of Texas prairie in Richardson, Texas. But I could ride my motorcycle seven miles on the freeway and park right at the front door. It was worth it when you were fresh in the morning and did not want to be demotivated by a 20 minute trudge that accentuated how low you were on their totem pole. Probably the fact that I faced death on the freeway several times before work made me just a little sharper on the job (, though I have seen no studies on this).

The motorcycle is worth mentioning, because the first digital watches in the early 1970’s, from TI and other companies, required the push of a button to illuminate the numbers on the face. Because I was with the sales training group which “explained” the digital watch to the public (, my first “explaining” being the calculators in the previous years), I was given one of the first digital watches. For those of you who have ridden motorcycles, you realize that one hand is on the clutch side (usually left) and the other on the accelerator. This meant that one hand had to reach over to the other wrist – at 60 mph – and press a button for a quick look by the driver away from a bevy of large trucks and road kill on the highway ahead. Time had taken a step backward with this disruption. When I brought it up to management, my answer was that there were much more common ways to die riding a motorcycle.

However, the Japanese company Seiko, then saved my life. They came with a digital watch that gave an analog readout, the good old see-it-at-a-glance no-push-button watch, but with digital accuracy, and that started outselling all of our new fandangled digital-displayed watches. Beaten again by the Japanese?

But why? Our lunch table discussions frothed with reasons we were being left behind. Was it the button? Could LCDs allow us to do away with the button? I argued no, it was more archetypal than that. I the English major then had to explain to the engineers what human archetypes were. After laying out what I thought was a brilliant diatribe on how most humans don’t want an exact statement of time, but want to see how to choreograph their next hour, or the two hours until lunch, or the seven hours until they went home. They want to see it quickly on a visual scale that rolls out into the future. That’s why the Japanese were beating us in the consumer market.

However, the engineers loved the digital numeric readout, and worked very hard to put an LCD display in that remained on the screen. They felt people would “learn” to like the precise numerical display. This kind of resistance was hard for me to stomach, so I made the case that in the old days before watches, the pendulum clock in the city square bonged out the number of hours, or perhaps the one in the hallway bonged out every 15 minutes, to give people in meetings the idea of the remaining time without their craning to see a watch or wall clock. I noted that in every meeting, everyone knows when you look at the clock on the wall, or sneak a peek at your watch. That says something, that you want to move on from these people and this meeting, clearly a slight on your part that is revealed. In the 1960 three-way  Presidential debate between George Bush (the father), Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot, George Bush, the clear favorite after winning the Gulf War, glanced down at his watch during a question by one of the debate attendees. This seemed to signal that he was above such discussion with underlings — and may have cost him the Presidency.

These breeches of etiquette did not happen with the old pendulum clock that bonged every 15 minutes: you could seem intent and interested in the discussion at hand and still be planning your conclusion and swift exit. I even suggested that the watch have a little oblong wheel that “tickled” the users’ wrists at preset time intervals, giving them a vital piece of information that others could not have without being obvious, and thus giving them a distinct tactical – if not strategic – advantage in discussions and , of course, negotiations.

My little tickler seems to have caught on after 40 years, as I have seen that as a feature recently. The main battle I fought with the TI engineers was about the nature of time. Conventional watch businesses like Bulova and Longeins were saying “What is an electronics company like Texas Instruments doing in the watch business?” I was a lowly sales trainer at the time, but I knew the question was out there, and I knew the salesperson at the retail counter would be hard-pressed to answer it. At the time the TI marketers were doing all they could to make the electronic watches look like the old Swiss varieties. They even hired Swiss designers and manufacturers to create expensive watches with bezels and stainless steel or gold plated finishes, along with the push button and the LED numerals. Some of them cost well over $200 dollars.

So I answered the question. I had the narrator in a sales training videotape say (in a deep but friendly voice) “TI has been in the business of time for a long time.” Up the ranks that message roiled, itself traveling almost the speed of light.

Marketing puffery,” said one group of integrated circuit engineers.

“Blatant lying,” said another group in manufacturing.

So this philosophical argument seemed to pit Space against Time. These groups were busy making watches and like most engineers, cared very little what the customer thought. The marketing folks were the only ones to give me the time of day (so to speak). After all I had a sales training video that showed common salespersons how to explain the counting and sorting of natural rhythms like the guy in the mail room sorts incoming mail. It was already useful. But now the supposed ethics of science were aligning against it. Or were they? In my sales training, I had used the scanning electron microscope footage, to show viewers how TIs “chips” controlled the electrons (much slowed down) traveling at the speed of light through the paths of an integrated circuit.

“That’s Space,” sneered the designers, when I showed them the scanning electron microscope footage.

“Yes and you create space and distance in the circuit so that it hits a gate precisely when it is open, or stops if the gate is closed.” It was a layman struggling against the Gods of Hi-Tech.

“Correct.” They were getting a little impatient.

“So TI has been in the business of space?” One of the marketing guys said. “Why put in all that space?”

And it hit me. “So electricity can hit the right gates at the right time!” I blurted out excitedly.

“Well,” concluded the engineers, who were busy and had to get back to making more of the product we could never sell. “Well that’s timing, not time.”

“Timing, time. What’s the difference?” said the Marketing manager, who had been listening quietly. He had a gleam in his eye. His next call that day was to Tracy-Locke, the Dallas ad agency which handled Frito-Lay potato chips. They had been struggling mightily for a hook, and they came over to the plant the next day. They saw my sales training tape and started taking notes furiously. And then they left, and I never heard from them again.

Well, actually I did hear from them again, along with about 100 million other people. The ad for the release of the TI watch played on the Super Bowl in early 1976. It started with a shot from a helicopter circling over the obelisk in Rome, and the voice-over narrator began describing the natural rhythms which man used to segment time. And about 15 seconds in to the 30 second ad, the music came up under the narrator, and then the various timekeeping methods such as the pendulum clock dissolved to the scanning electron microscope as he began to speak again:

“Texas Instruments has been in the business of time for a long time.”

Oh yes, I thought. And jumped up and down and missed who won the Super Bowl entirely. Later in the year Advertising Age magazine gave Tracy-Locke and TI its coveted Clio award for the best broadcast TV advertisement. God only knows where that old footage is, but to this day I still refer to that ad as “my Clio.” Can you blame me?

I did get to be in on more marketing discussions. When the $200 Swiss-looking watch did not sell, TI decided to come out with lesser quality watches at under $100. The Sales manager was in a sweat about how to get rid of 10,000 of the original Swiss-looking watches at cost. You couldn’t really have a rock bottom sale when another product was in the offing. It was then I remembered the Dakotas, the South American cartels that flew 707s full of consumer electronics into Asunción, Paraguay. They profited immensely by avoiding 300% tariffs in most South American countries. This was done by smuggling all manner of product on mules from Paraguay over “back door” mule trails to provision the “Mercado negro” (black market).

This was the South American version of a discount store. I told the Sales manager to go to Miami, and check on large shipments going non-stop to Paraguay. Apparently he did so, because a month later I saw him at coffee in the hallway, beaming. “I’m not at liberty to give you any details,” he said, “But that South American bunch saved my ass.” He handed me a free cup of coffee before I could put my change in the machine. Such are the rewards in big business.

The next year, 1976, TI made a breakthrough which took them way out ahead in watches. They discovered how to make an artificial oscillating crystal for the watch for about three dollars. This meant they could put attractive plastic watches on the market for less than $30. They were still digital readouts, but the price was so low that it undercut the Japanese by half. It would be released at the Consumer Electronics show in Chicago in February. The promotional guy, Mike, had created great 12 foot back lighted transparent posters, and planned the public release to the last poster. Then he got sick. We had no one who knew the watch and could set up the massive displays using union crews. Mike croaked out of his swollen adenoids that perhaps I could do it. What that meant was that it landed in my lap, two days before the show. The CES was at the Stevens Hilton Hotel that year, with the Chicago Convention Center under renovation. The Stevens was a grand old Chicago hotel, with enough massive ballrooms to accommodate the Consumer Electronics Show (which was somewhat smaller then than the behemoth the CES has become these days).

As usual there were carpets to be laid over wires going to the displays, and there were heavy curtains framing the massive transparent photos. Press people had picked up on the inexpensive watch and were preparing stories for opening day of the CES. They were so persistent with the TI salesperson who would be taking orders there for Fall and Christmas, that the salespeople began to panic. There were very few spaces to meet and write orders. They needed to be out of the mainstream flow of traffic, which was a fortuitous thought because when the CES opened the crowd gravitated to the new, cheaper watches, like the place had been tilted on its side. Luckily we could create little cubbyhole offices behind the curtains, and the salespersons huddled there over small tables writing very large orders.

And somewhere on a VCR in the last area of the very large TI section, someone had learned about looping video. The 30 second Tracy-Locke ad was playing in an endless loop, and I could hear it again and again all day. “TI has been in the business of time for a long time…” over and over, throughout the days of the CES show. It was like creating a monster you could not kill.


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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Everyone Should Have a Mother Like This

I arrived from Seattle about 10 at night, and got to her bedside about 11. This spring she was in a nursing home in Minneapolis. I hoped she would still be alive, and I think she was. Charlie, beside her still, said she could hear what I said, but I became tongue-tied and hoped she could read my thoughts. She had loved Charlie in her way, but as in many long marriages, he probably loved her more. I said a few awkward things. Her mouth was slightly open with her head tilted back. Her eyes were shut. It was not sleeping. By midnight, the grief counselor came in and said she was dead.

My mother and father went to Central High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma together, and then to the University of Oklahoma together, and married after both finished college. Both had been only-children at a time when most families were larger than they are now. My father, Clint, went to work in the petroleum industry as a geological engineer. My mother, Daphne Mae, had a degree in teaching, but in that time, she stayed home and had a son…me. They were young and attractive, and ripe for the future America to embrace them. All of this was pretty standard stuff for the early 1940’s – and then all hell broke loose. World War II began sucking up males, even to age 40, and making them into machine gunners and truck drivers and napalm spreaders and artillery gunners and …pilots. They needed lots of pilots. The U.S. was throwing pilots at the European fan blade as fast as they could replace the ones being shot down. After my father’s graduation from flight school they trained him to fly B-17s and almost immediately shipped him to England. That was 1943.

They say it was a virtual meat grinder in the air above Belgium and Holland and France. People watched the air wars from roofs of the towns below and cheered for their airplanes to triumph or cried as they went down in flames. Kids on bikes rode across fields to locate and possibly direct English and American flyers to safety before the local police got to them. German news broadcasts exaggerated the number of enemy killed, and the British Broadcasting Corporation underplayed the number of Germans planes downed, so everyone listened to the BBC for the true accounting. (This made it much easier for the Allies to impart false information when deception was critical to a mission, such as D-Day.)

My mother waited with thousands of other mothers with small children, watching and listening to every bit of news and meeting the postman halfway down the front walk every day. She stopped hearing from him early in 1944, and I guess that was the worst. She knew he would write every day if he could, and apparently now he couldn’t. After a year during which her Clint was missing, and another year after the end of the war when he was pronounced dead, she lived with her mother and father in Tulsa and, of course, with me. My mother never taught at any school though she went to University to be able to teach. Instead she taught me, to read when I was four, to write my own letters shortly thereafter. This was the first of the huge gifts my mother gave me.

Another of course, was her eventual marriage to Charlie, my father’s best friend in High School and later. He was an airline mechanic when air travel and air shipping was taking off (so to speak) across the world. This marriage gave me a stable loving home at a time when young attractive widows were virtually hiding their young children at the grandparents, and looking for a way to begin new lives with new husbands in a world that had dissembled their future. Little could I know then, as prince of my little world, cherished among many relatives, that thousands of graves were lost across the swath of Europe, and some families went decades before they learned any truth about their missing sons and fathers.

I was more than a bit sickly, (they thought it was perhaps some kind of pre-polio) and with little more urging from her I became a voracious reader. They tested us in the second grade and, truly because of her, I had the reading skills of a 6th grader. When most kids were being read to, she was asking me questions about things I had been reading. When most kids were struggling with Dick the Cat, I was reading the Reader’s Digest and anything lying around a doctor’s office, and finally popular books I scarfed up from the various relative’s houses and finally from the library. (Later I instructed other second graders out of “The Marriage Manual” which gave us all an oddly pedagogical taste of a forbidden literature. It helped that there were pictures.)

Then there were little things that were not so little. It was scorching hot on the beach at Lake Minnetonka, and lots of people were picnicking and generally enjoying the cool of the water. I casually walked out from the shore, apparently not aware I could not breath water. It was all very interesting, the half bodies walking along the bottom with the sharp division of light at the surface above me. I was a whole little body, just walking along the sandy bottom with my head out of the water — until it dropped off. It was all calm and not at all eerie standing there under the water, until I saw this flash of a white summer dress splashing in, spread out on the water and my mother’s cloth-draped body stretching for me under the water. She lifted me up and made our way back to the beach. Everyone onshore seemed concerned and came to look close up into my face. My sopping wet mother hugged me to her as I coughed up the pesky water. I will always remember her as that shape in the water moving toward me snatching me from the bottom as I looked up toward the shimmery plane of the surface.

My mother started a new family with Charlie and I watched curiously at this fresh creature – my little brother Dan — and everyone’s delighted reaction to everything he did. Luckily I had my books, so they could have their baby talk and rollarounds on the carpet. Even with taking care of a brand new baby, my mother would always come in and talk to me about what I was reading. At the dinner table I was the little boy who talked too much, asked too many questions. Charlie made jokes about it, and my mother often defended me, but clearly I was the odd man out.

During those years where I was her main project, even with my brother Dan about to roll over, she also taught me a little music. She had played the piano when younger, and still had some good chords in her. She discovered I had near perfect pitch, and could copy her note for note. Later she gave me piano lessons, but my eye hand coordination was still slow, as it has been except when circumstances called for lightning reflexes – a curious counterpoint. In the fifth grade some music teacher at school tested my ear, and said I should be playing the cello, but I did not know what a cello was and the school band was not nearly as  interesting as the sports teams to which I aspired but could barely keep up with. In our family, sports were of little or no concern, and I went along without much support.

Along about the fifth grade, they started having us do speeches in class. Here my mother made perhaps her greatest contribution to my life. She could have been a movie director, I think, or a record producer. I would write the presentation, but she would enhance it, sharpen it, intensify it at just the right places. She taught me to communicate the words I had written in a clear but almost conversational tone, emphasizing my points but not waving my arms or pointing at anything or using any of the trite gestures that were common at the time.

This home-coaching stood me well in talks I made throughout junior high and high school when the occasion required, and in my high school commencement speech, which I had achieved through contest. She coached me, critiqued me, and gave me a skill which lasted a lifetime. Ever after I could speak to 1000 people as if I was talking across a coffee table. I could even entice a crowd in Las Vegas to play an interactive shell game on the large screen projection with me, and afterward to to have them chant “Power to the People” with me – a theme I used for explaining my new interactive media. (The speaker after me swore he never wanted to follow me on a program again.) I was even an invited speaker on  a TED program in Charleston, run by the legendary Richard Saul Wurman, back in the days when you practically had to be Jonas Salk to get on the program.

This ability – and my confidence with it – was clearly handy when I went out on the road to talk about the CPR system at 20 conferences a year, and to raise money for the project with possible investors. I was not a showman, not a hawker. I could just talk to a large crowd as if they were sitting in a coffee shop with me. As a personal admission, sometimes I was more comfortable talking with a crowd than to a few individuals, because as any comedian knows, with a crowd you can always move your attention away from the potential naysayers with the first tilt of their heads with the first negative response.

When I was in college, she thought I should join a fraternity, as my father had. She also thought I should cut my hair. It was all in the interest of making me a better man someday, but I exploited the fraternity for free parties and numerous meals, and spent the money for a haircut on burgers with a few friends. I was a miserable son at times…I know that…but never so much as when I went to war.

Whatever came of life I was always her first born, her love child. When I was about to be shipped out to Vietnam with the Marines, she found out that as a sole surviving son of a combat deceased, it could be illegal to send me into combat. Now that I see things with more sympathy, I know she did not want to experience the same thing twice in life. She even went to Walter Mondale, the Minnesota senator at the time, and pled her case.  I had hoped there would be no options here, but I believe he may have reinterpreted a law. Anyway, he told her the decision should be mine. There it was, my option. I was convinced the right person in a bad situation could make a great difference. Shortly before, I had been teaching creative writing at a free university in Seattle, and the rebel in me rebelled at “Make love not war” on one wall, and Che Guevara leading the guerillas on the other wall. It was balderdash. I though with some regret that I should be where my actions would count for something. I went, despite her pleading, and I was right. You can make a difference if you are where it matters.

The day before my mother’s parting ceremony at their church in Minneapolis, the minister of the church met with the family to explain the presentation, and to arrange any comments about the deceased. Charlie voiced up: “David, you were always the one who could talk. How about you doing the comments?” This was not at all a compliment. My brother and sister and Charlie – usually fairly outspoken individuals – were terrified at any thought of speaking in public. I saw it another way.

“You lived with her, you all loved her. If none of you will say a few words, then no one should.”

They were mum. No one was going to step forward on that platform, even for a minute, even for love.

I turned to the minister. “Then I guess no one will.”

There was silence amongst the family then, but I did not feel resentment. They were just who they were, and anyway, I knew my mother would know what I would have said, and how I would have said it.


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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My Very Own Court Martial

One of the dangers of war is that  daily you realize that the enemy may not be your worst enemy. When you return from a war zone, it is amazing to see the handwringing done in the nightly news over casualties from friendly fire, when we who were there knew that about half the stuff flying past our heads was from our own misdirected guns and bombs. Teenage soldiers racing their supply trucks run them off cliffs, heavy boxes being swung in nets from helicopters break loose on people below, and a guy who had just returned from patrol slaps his rifle down on the table. The gun goes off, and shoots his best friend in the belly. In a war zone, negligence is everywhere.

In early 1969, we’d just been reassigned from sleeping in the mud at night and smelling burning excrement in the morning and being glad at all times when the pop-pop of gunfire was happening somewhere distant on our hill. My last shower had been weeks ago, in a jury-rigged system consisting of a poncho catching rainwater overload and punctured to create small streams so you could wash yourself with a minimum of water. We’d been bargaining at dinner time for specific cans of the usual rations with the peaches and the pound cake, and passing the Tabasco sauce which flavored everything savory from those cans. A good bar bet now is on the contents of these C-rat packs that we ate over and over again until their variety was a tasteless routine.

However now, because we were reassigned to a ship, we were given silver napkin rings. Oh yes, silver napkin rings! Containing white linen napkins! How cool was that? They escorted us Marine officers to the Junior Officer’s Mess on the Iwo Jima, a helicopter landing craft which would a few years later pick up the lucky, resourceful astronauts from the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. On this day, of our first meal afloat, the naval officers sidled down to their (clean) end of the linen tablecloth because our camouflaged clothes were worn and torn and were very grimy from the bush. They tried to make polite conversation and we tried to avoid wiping our mouths on our sleeves out of habit. Filipino mess stewards served us soup with silver ladles from fine china tureens.  In those days the Navy did things this way. Oh, I guess we Marines were part of the Navy, but they didn’t look too glad to have us. We were Special Landing Force Bravo, reconstituted from a shot-up battalion. We would be doing helicopter landings, hopefully by surprise, to help out when large scale shit sandwiches inevitably developed somewhere onshore in Vietnam. But meanwhile we were sitting 10 miles out on calm seas…safe and so big out here you could not feel the ship rock at all.

Real beds with real mattresses and little reading lights. And a desk. And my first hot shower in months. This was almost like R &R…until it wasn’t. I had a communications platoon this time, and much of my work shipboard was getting radios reconditioned and batteries inventoried and check-listing the hundred important little things. Important, because if certain tasks are left undone, no one can call for help. Radios could make sure everyone was where they ought to be. Without radios no one could replenish food or ammunition…what you had you had until it was gone (, and soon thereafter, you may be gone). And without radios, you were sometimes at the mercy of shouting distance in a storm of surround-sound. At battalion HQ, we practiced the radio checks, to be done every 15 minutes. Radiomen had little pads with duplicates to rip off when their radio check had been made. I thought it was a waste of time, but my gunnery sergeant told the men their ass was grass if they didn’t do a radio check every 15 minutes and so I didn’t make any contradictory statements. Chapter-and-verse is often a way for sergeants to maintain order and stifle a thousand pesky questions.

The Brigade even introduced to us a portable ground-surveillance radar with which an operator in the bush could sweep a quarter mile area at night and by listening to the length of the pings back he could tell if someone was out there. It was very much like submarines and destroyers use to detect each other by sonar waves, but this was on land and this could be carried on someone’s back. Later, onshore, we tried it out once. We were out looking over some area at twilight to set up this for a test, and we started getting some sniper fire.  We didn’t like to get caught out like that, with night falling. Anyway, we lay low while this operator pinged around, sweeping back and forth in the night, and finally he told us where the pings seemed most interrupted. I called in mortars from back in battalion on that place on the map where no one was supposed to be. The sniping stopped. The next morning they found blood trails away from that spot. The only person I ever killed that I knew about…and that was just a maybe. Strange feeling nevertheless.

So anyway, onboard with our first Special Landing Force there was fair amount of preparation work, but also a fair amount of leisure. The men were in tight but comfortable rows of racks below. One guy in my (intelligent) communications platoon was a chess hustler, and won thousands of dollars off the Navy sailors who thought no Marine could be that smart. At night, our battalion commander had the whole battalion out on the (small) carrier deck in red lights running laps of about a quarter mile each. Helicopter landing ships weren’t as large as the jet carriers by any means, but they were not small.

When the word went out, we had about an hour to saddle up and line up combat-loaded for the eight-person helicopters which would take us into Vietnam once again. As I remember, we were hoping to surprise a North Vietnamese Regiment that had some Army regiment pinned down. If they did not know we were coming, we could land and step off and skitter untouched to assembly points in the trees. That was ideal…a cold landing zone. If they knew we were coming, they would probably be shooting at us all the way in, and create a virtual screen of fire across the flat landing zone which might or might not explode the helicopter before it touched down – with us in it. So as we lined up eight hundred men through the winding passageways below deck, to emerge and run to waiting choppers on deck, nerves were pretty intense. It helped a lot that Joe Namath won the Super Bowl that day.

I’ll always remember that first landing, because the upstart New York Jets from the upstart American Football Conference were playing the old established Baltimore Colts of the old established National Football Conference. Joe Namath, a colorful quarterback at all times, at this time predicted the impossible, that his new upstarts would beat the Baltimore Colts. The world waited breathlessly for the outcome, and it came when we were in line for our first Special Landing Force mission to bail someone out of deathly trouble onshore. The whisper started when some Navy guy picked up the final score on the radio: “Jets won…Namath did it.” Those phrases were repeated mouth to ears throughout the catacombs of the ship where men and weapons stood in line to face death, and a little cheer swelled up. It happened! Somehow Namath beating the Colts made the whole day right, uplifted us all…

On the way to a mercifully cold landing zone, bullets from below went “pop” through the skin of the helicopter. We all pulled radios or other boxes, anything at all, to put under our seats to keep from the bullets coming up from below. Out the front of the helicopter we could see the beams of machine gun tracers 500 meters apart. Those guns had a tracer every 4 rounds so they could see where they were shooting. 500 rounds per minute. The tracers  formed a moving crisscross in the sky ahead, and we were flying right into the “X” of it. With experienced reflexes the pilot moved up and down to avoid the total concentration of fire as we clung to our seats and marveled at his skill. I suppose this is in some computer game now. Maybe it would not be as thrilling as an oaf with a chainsaw, but it was thrilling enough. We were all very glad to touch ground, even though we had no idea if our situation would be better or worse in the next minute.

During the week we set up and dug in and coordinated with the Army unit which had been in trouble, we set up radio operators with command and the companies. We used code names. For instance, Command was Mystic Circle and the companies would be Mystic Circle Alpha, Mystic Circle Bravo, and Mystic Circle Charlie. We referred to each other remotely by those names and not by real names, if we knew them. This way if one operator went down and someone took his place, that station was still the same name. Sort of interchangeable parts.

On the other hand, the Army merely handed the radio to whoever was doing nothing else at the time. When we needed to coordinate with an officer, they said they would go get Larry. I kid you not. The troops called their officers by their first names. Some might consider that egalitarian, but experienced military called it deathly. One can only wonder if this breakdown in decorum led to the breakdown in discipline that led to Mi Lai and other ghastly mistakes. The military chain of command is not just there to make riff-raff fall into line and obey orders they may not wish to. The real chain of command is unspoken but realized through the sternly dedicated examples of officers seen all the way up the order of things. This command example empowers troops, clear down to the lowly private, to take initiative within the lines of proper decorum. It is one of the unwritten rules of war.

I recount this in such detail because it was at the roots of the time I was almost court martialed wrongly.  A few years before, Korean Marines had laid a minefield in a certain area  and then were pulled out without deactivating the mines, or even completing a detailed map of where they were located. The villagers, however, were watching closely when the Koreans placed the mines, and so knew exactly where not to walk. They wouldn’t let their kids play near these areas. They wouldn’t even let dogs run wild in these areas, because any shrapnel form an exploded mine travels a long way at high speed. The villagers knew where the mines were. However, they would not always be kind enough to tell a new generation of Army soldiers or Marines where the minefields were. It was not entertainment. It was loyalty to a family member who might be Viet Cong. And there were a lot of those.

One company of Army soldiers was planning on going into an area already secured and evacuated months before, and the wise thing to do was to find out from the previous Marine units where the mines were. The Army company was in a hurry and whoever was supposed to coordinate the minefield locations did not. Four soldiers lost their lives when they went on the wrong side of a village, and two more lost their legs. They wanted to blame that on the Marines for not getting them the information. Apparently they wanted to say they had no contact because our radio net was down when it should have been up. 

As the Marine officer in charge of the communications platoon it was my duty to set up and maintain a radio network with all surrounding parties and maintain that net through all 24 hour periods. I was called to a meeting in the Army compound two weeks after the unfortunate minefield incident. They would send a Huey Cobra helicopter to pick me up. Before I got on the chopper, my gunnery sergeant handed me a stack of duplicate radiocheck forms. They were about 3 x 4 inches, roughly the size of cards people used to make card files out of, before computers. I shoved them in the top of my camouflage shirt. “They may be after your ass,” he said. ”I’ve seen the Army work like this before. They’re trying to hang this on someone else.”

So the meeting loomed more than just a curiosity to me. Sure enough, I was brought into an Army tent, and three senior officers were sitting at the table, including my Battalion commander. “We need to have your testimony on the maintenance of your battalion radio net on March 27 of this year.”

“Yes, sir, we maintain a radio net at battalion 24 hours a day.”

“Well,” said the Army colonel. “We need to know specifically about the afternoon of the 27th. Some crucial information did not get to one of our units, and they say your net was not operative.”

My battalion commander squirmed a little, and said “I communicated over that net several times that afternoon.”

“Ah, but was in operation all the time, or were there significant lapses of hours, when we needed the coordination?”

I could see right now that they were trying to narrow me into a corner where I had to say I honestly did not know if the net was up and running that whole time.

“I was in and out of that area, but we always have someone manning that station.”

“We’ll need proof, Captain.”

And then I remembered, and felt for the stack of receipts my gunnery sergeant had handed me.

“I don’t believe the Army uses our radio net method,” I said. “So in the Army it would be difficult to have proof of constant operation.” The Army Colonel nodded, a bit smug, I thought, as I pulled out the stack of receipts. I showed the top one which was a 10:15 radio check from the pad.

“But in the Marine Corps we have radio checks noted by the station every 15 minutes, traffic or not. This is the day you want, I think,” and I began to lay the radio checks out on the table in front of the investigation board. The Army colonel’s eyes were big. My battalion commander’s smile was bigger.

“So you see,” I continued, slapping down the pieces of paper one after another. “We were not contacted by your people on March 27.”

The Army colonel waved his hand in despair, meaning the meeting was over. Many months later, back in a small ceremony in the States, they pinned a couple of medals from Vietnam on me.  To no one’s surprise, one was a Navy Commendation with a combat “V.” However, to everyone’s surprise, one was an Army commendation medal, undoubtedly due to their political embarrassment.

Some days are actually fun.


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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Travels with a Baby in a Suitcase

Certain people are always offering stale advice like “Do what you love and you will never work a day in your life.” Pretty easy blather to throw out, when even most popular singers and movie stars end up working more for the money than for love of their material. However, hopefully there is a point in life for most people where they feel like what they are doing is for a larger benefit than personal applause or maintenance of a family, as worthy as those may be. Some say that kind of work has “psychic benefits.” At that point the product you present takes on a newer, higher, better life. You are not seen as just “trying to make a buck,” but appear be making the world a better place.

I arrived at that point somewhere in the CPR saga around 1982. All of the political bridges had been crossed: if it could be done, let’s do it. So we did it and proved it and the Pittsburgh Health Sciences Group (one of the top in the nation) made an excellent study of the effectiveness of this CPR system compared to standard live instruction. 33% more effective. And the Long Island Rescue establishment tested it and said that because the CPR Learning System created such a high standard, firefighters who tested on that CPR system had to qualify only once in two years rather than every year . And the Canadian Armed Forces bought our second system.

The CPR Learning System, with its hands-on simulation of a heart attack victim, started to win random media awards, because nothing close to it existed to show the possibilities of interactive training and testing. Thus it started to get written about. Shortly thereafter, I spoke at education conferences at Harvard and computer software conferences at M.I.T. The U. S. Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment was heavily influenced by Harvard and M.I.T., and on their say-so put the CPR System up for Congressional Testimony to show the possibility of such leading edge medical certification.

For all of the interest, it was not feasible to drag the whole system – manikin, computer, display screens — to every show, but I was fortunate to have done it on a few early trips. Luckily, a few news agencies generated  excellent quick stories that I could could show with high credibility.  For instance, when I showed the system to a Congressional committee on New Technology, a CBS news crew was next door in the Sam Rayburn congressional hearing room for the Abortion hearings. They were trying like mad to find a visual angle to describe that dilemma, and a few of them wandered over at 9:30 to see this me — in a suit, on my knees on the floor — hooking up a manikin to a computer for the 10 o’clock session.

Instantly the CBS  news producer saw that our CPR simulator was going to be a visual story. They quickly got permission to tape my appearance with the system rather than slog through the Abortion hearings. Ordinary people cannot believe the whirlwind efficiency of these national TV camera crews, large cameras being placed, close ups taken of the screens for later editing in, cables rolling out around me to all corners of the room. It dawned on me that this had a history, that theaters clear from Shakespeare’s time had employed sailors to handle all the rigging of the curtains, just as they had sails in commerce and war and exploring the world. Now the ropes were cables and the sailors were TV crew, and rather than travel the world on explorations, what they explored here with their cameras would be going out across the world. Diane Sawyer made it a feature story on her evening newscast. (Just let Diane Sawyer do the talking….)

As a consequence, I was invited to make talks for all of the year 1982. Medical conferences wanted to see medical simulation; Computer conferences wanted to see a realistic simulation controlled by a personal computer; Training conferences wanted to see the teacherless training; Education conferences wanted to see the future of education; and Consumer Electronics wanted to see what this interactive stuff was all about. During 1982, I really chalked up some flyer miles. I was flown to some conference about 2-3 times a month to show (a little) and tell (a lot) about this new system. People were quite interested for their several reasons, but I had an underlying pressure.

What lay underneath these public forays was the need to find someone to take this orphan on. I was made the Director of Advanced Technology Development for the American Heart Association, and now I had to find a secure home for this phenom.  I wrote a patent on it, but someone had to fund commercial development and sell it to the public. Someone had to continue testing and publicity and all of those things a glittering new project needs to sustain itself past the first “Wows.” The AHA could not run a small business – or so they were advised – and so we had to find a business partner to carry the CPR System forward. My dual purpose, then, was as an evangelist for this kind of interactive simulation learning, and as a rainmaker to keep the project from dying prematurely. That meant hitting the conference circuits while the invitations were hot. Popularity Based Marketing, for lack of a better term.

I remember when American Airlines put the CBS story (about the CPR system in Congress hearings) with their short subjects preceding the inflight movie. I was living in Dallas, but I would get calls from drunk friends across the country who had been on coast-to-coast flights and awakened to see me in front of their faces. That footage also came in handy when I was giving keynote talks in faraway places, but did not want to travel with the whole shebang. After the Congress show I almost never took the Resusci-Annie manikin, because the airlines wanted to charge for an extra seat, or extravagant onboard shipping which would cost almost as much, with those heavy crates. Diane Sawyer’s short news story was enough to show gist of the system, but people wanted to see a bit of the real thing. Enter the baby…

Luckily, we did have an Infant Resuscitation model and I could carry this Resusci-Baby and an Apple II computer in my baggage, along with hookups for TV monitors. I needed to show how the manikin interacted with the computer through a special serial card to give instant feedback on the monitor, so we made a dedicated program just to demonstrate how the sensors from parts of the baby gave feedback that you would see on the screen as a computer graphic. The baby created some special challenges for us, since you could hold its small body in your hands to do some of the rescue work. When it had an Airway Obstruction, for instance, you were supposed to have the head down and feet up and to gingerly slap its back to free the airway obstruction. (A Hiemlich maneuver would, of course, injure this small a person.)

To sense this Airway Obstruction maneuver, the computer had to know the baby’s position in space, and whether its back had been slapped just enough to dislodge any obstruction, but not so much as to hurt the child. The computer could sense this impact. We had much of the positioning of the baby sensed by a series of mercury switches, which sloshed around in a circle when the baby’s head was down correctly. However, believe it or not, one of the main problems we came up with was how to end of the lifesaving procedure, when all the moves had been made and breathing had been restored and the little heart (with air puffs pulsing through its artificial veins) was beating just fine. A happy ending doesn’t just happen by magic…

Then what? How do you clear the screen and start over? We thought of adding a button. On the light pen touch screen (full model) you just touched a box that said “Quit.” But with this traveling model we needed a quick and easy way to start over and let interested spectators try a little hands on after the presentation. We tortured with how to do this, and then one afternoon it became obvious — to someone I think was the janitor. He was cleaning up and watching us go through our mental gyrations, and just blurted: “Shake the baby.”

Of course, Shake the Baby…and the program starts over. A lot of people who saw the demo in public thought that was — AHA! — a brilliant and elegant solution. Some cell phones’ flashlight features start now by shaking and it is probably the same kind of mercury switch. To think: this slightly awesome feature of smartphones today may have actually come from a bystander 30 years ago seeing us Shake the Baby to clear the screen.  Conference attendees talked as if we must been geniuses. Little did they know.

As I’ve mentioned, this traveling setup called for me to carry a videotape clip of the whole system (thanks to Diane Sawyer), plus the Apple II computer and the actual baby manikin. It was always possible to have a monitor or screen provided wherever I spoke, if their A/V people could follow specifications, and there were only a few emergencies there.  And then there was me carrying my baby in a suitcase…

Possibly the most fun on almost every trip was carrying the baby in a suitcase, setting the case on the conveyor belt, and watching the eyes of the security people when the X-ray displayed its contents. In many cities, the security guards pulled me aside to open the case for them, and a few times they called for backup, I guess in case I was a serial pedophile killer. Some security guys in San Francisco slammed me against a wall and began frisking me, causing the person standing in line behind me to say, “Wish I’d said that.”

I actually began to look forward to that return part of each trip. Visiting each new city brought forth a new set of reactions: some unique like nearly falling from a chair, some vocal (Holy…this or that), some clandestine like pushing a red emergency button with a straight face, and quite often gathering other security personnel to make a group decision on what to do about this threat. However, as they say, you can go to the well too often.

And then there was Dallas, where I lived and worked for the American Heart Association. Leaving on one trip to New York, with my practiced nonchalance I placed the suitcase containing the baby manikin on the conveyor belt. And watched out of the corner of my eye for it to appear onscreen, and, hopefully, disturb the tranquility of this routine job. A black security lady was on top of it. And me. In a very laid-back manner she said “Is them things wires, or veins?”

Tough question. I gritted my teeth: “Veins.”

She smiled, not quite the Mona Lisa wryness. “Well that’s OK, we just don’t want any of those bombs with wires in them going through here.”

Veins were apparently OK.


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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Adios to a Continent

Our trek through South America quickened its pace when I finally had a guaranteed job at in September. This meant we had an actual schedule and an actual itinerary to see the southern end of South America from June through August…Not a breakneck pace, but one with a beginning and an ending. What did not seem to change was the ever presence of paramecium. It was in all the water that washed all the fruits and vegetables, and we inevitable got a helping of those bugs once a week, though we tried to eat only raw fruit like mangos and bananas and things with skins. Fresh vegetables were harder. We only occasionally peeled carrots and all vegetables had to be washed and therein lay the presences of the paramecium. I started out at 180 pounds and ended up at 159, svelte and fast but afraid of the most nutritious foods. Sure they made fresh potato chips and donuts, fried in grease right there on the street, but most meat and cheese and eggs were always suspicious, meaning we could eat none of those with relish and no risk.

After becoming the Ambassadors of English in Peru, we headed by train across the continent to Lake Titicaca and an overnight boat on that huge inland lake, to La Paz, Bolivia for a few days, and then flew back to Arica, Chile. We rarely took flights in South America, but occasionally it made sense to save time and trouble, especially when the local airlines were less than the cost of a hotel room. There was a reason for that. First of all, many South American nations used their Air Force as a commercial airline. This drove down costs for all carriers and was kind of cute in the way the crew stood at attention as the passengers made their way across flat dirt airstrips and up the flip-out stairways in old two engine DC-3s. Secondly, these airstrips doubled as lower division futball fields, undoubtedly to the surprise of pilots and/or players if the schedules became confused.

When we landed in Arica, Chile, our taxi driver took us to his uncle the street banker, and he gave us four times the bank rate for our American Express traveler’s checks. Then we got on a bus that took us 24 hours across the northern Chilean desert. We stopped a few times in what looked like a state park barbecue shed, and drank exquisite white wine with the other passengers from a huge clay vessel, suspended by ropes so that you could tip it into your cup. Then at night we stopped at a small fishing village and tried the Congor Eel, its large diameter cut in steaks of flakey meat. Fresh fish and white Chilean wine, all for about a dollar.

What we were about to find out – first from rumor, of course –was that Chile was a bargain if we used our Chilean money, escudos, there in Chile. Because of some political and economic skullduggery, our absolute haul of escudos would become almost worthless when converted to Argentine pesos. After scoring big time on our traveler’s checks through the Mercado Negro in Arica, Chile, we ended up with cash that would drop 75% in value when we finally crossed from Santiago to Mendoza, Argentina. Funny, that was possibly the value we started with when we entered Chile.

We got off the bus in Santiago and started calculating. We needed to stay just a week in Santiago because we were on schedule to make it back to Oklahoma. It was the early part of July, and my first college teaching job started in a little over a month. We’d approached South America with some leisure up to that point, but now we were more like tourist, on a timetable, than nomads following the seasons. If we did not spend our pile of Chilean escudos here in Santiago, in a week, they would be worth only a quarter of the buying power we had right now. It was logic inescapable. We would have to blow that money here in Santiago. Holding our two pieces of luggage, we asked our cab driver to recommend a hotel.

“Barato?” he said, also as an assumption as he looked at our cloths and somewhat ragged bags. They were used to Gringo wastrels asking for a “cheap” hotel.

“No,” I said. We pointed out the window to a tall building on the skyline of Santiago. “Is that a hotel?”

It was a hotel. The best in Santiago. Taking us there, I knew he would expect more of a tip than he first estimated from us. When we stopped, he took our threaded bags from our laps like they contained precious glass crystal, and made the doorman take extra care stowing them on the roller cart.

The desk attendant in this very best of Santiago hotels was about to tell us that they had no rooms available, and then he saw our wad. “We do of course have the Presidential Suite,” he said, sure that we would not be able to afford that. “But,” he said, “It even has a grand piano for entertaining, and a small dance floor leading out to the balcony.”

“Who was the last President to stay here?”

“Strossner.”

“I guess we’ll take it.” I said. Strossner was the ex-Nazi who had taken over as dictator in Paraguay and ruled with iron tentacles around the whole region. The desk manager was shocked.

“You didn’t ask the price.”

I laid down a wad of escudos. He nodded. We who had been riding dirty buses and chasing rats out of small pensiónes and drinking only soda pop were now turning the tables. Tough life…but you understand, we had to spend the money.

It was a gorgeous view of the city. We dropped our bags in this vastness of luxury. Couches, bars with real liquor. Tapestries on the walls. Carpet inches thick like walking on cloud in heaven.  I, who had who had learned the boogie-woogie in two years of teen piano from an always tipsy local piano teacher, was fastest to the piano, and started giving it the boogie-woogie workout as the bellman waited for his tip. Brenda, who had won school contests in piano, waited patiently to take over with Beethoven’s 9th.

There were real showers and bathtubs with gold fixtures. The toilet had a telephone extension on the wall beside the commode, which told us that powerful people never slow down. We found later that this suite had another bedroom and another bathroom, but unfortunately we knew no one in Santiago to invite. The ultimate party suite and no one to party with.

We had questions for the concierge. What is the best place to eat in Santiago? (He got us reservations) Where are the best clothing stores? (He made a list of streets where we should go shopping.)

So we ate…well. And we walked down the streets of Santiago’s boutique clothing stores like masters in need of regal drapery. Brenda got a green trench coat made of goat leather. I got a blazer and slacks and shirts (which, because I was so malnourished at that time, I could not wear after 6 months back in the States). That experience of buying anything you saw, staying at the top of the town, walking around expensive streets with money to burn…This should be accorded every human being once, so that it will never be an aspiration that exceeds family and community and real personal accomplishment. That’s what I think, anyway.

Another momentous event was happening, though we had little knowledge of the particulars. Salvador Isabelino del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús Allende Gossens (or Salvadore Allende to most of us) was elevated, with his socialist party, to the leadership of Chile. All through South American the young people felt the Chileans were the intellectuals of South America, and were ever so excited about his Marxist programs which froze prices and gave living wages to the poor. Allende even nationalized copper, one of Chile’s main exports, much to the despair of our President Nixon at the time. One of the sights of a lifetime I should remember is standing at twilight on the balcony of the Presidential suite in the best hotel in Santiago, drinking aguardiente and looking out over a large hill which hovered over the city. Lights strung across the whole hillside came alive in the encroaching darkness, and in large vibrant letters in the night, they proclaimed “Cobra es nuestra.” (Copper is ours!)

It did not dawn on me then, or for some time, how ironic it was to be standing there on the balcony in the best room of the most plutocratic hotel in Santiago, capitalist pigs from the US sipping our drinks, oblivious to the fact that a vast world was changing right front of us.

Turns out the depreciating escudos still didn’t last us more than four days – four really fun days – and then we had to fly over the mountains to Mendoza, Argentina and spend like normal pobre travelers again. Mendoza brought us back to earth when the plane landed. Things once again cost what things cost, instead of a fraction of expectations. A lovely piece of Argentine beef cooked over hot coals and a glass of wine with it cost over 7 dollars. What a shock!

To follow our schedule we took the Argentine national railway 24 hours across the pampas ( which looked for all the world like West Texas) and into Buenos Aires. Funny thing about that railroad. It seemed like something in a nation’s infrastructure that would always be there. However, recently I was brushing up on my fledgling Spanish and talked to someone on the Internet in Cordoba, Argentina. Someone in their twenties, it turns out. I said we liked Mendoza and had taken the train across to Buenos Aires. He sounded confused.

“What railroad?”

“Your national railroad from Mendoza to Buenos Aires.”

“There is no railroad across Argentina there.”

“Of course there is, I rode on it.”

“There has never been a railroad there.”

“How can that be?” I said, and excused myself from what I thought was one of those many prankish exercises young people indulge in on the Internet.

He was not wrong…Well, he was wrong, but had no notion that there ever could have been a railroad there. None of the Argentina history books were allowed to cover the real story. The real story is that the railroad went on high government subsidy and was dissolved by a political party, which then handed choice lands over to developers as quickly as the railroad ties were pulled up across Argentina. Someone as old as we are may be the only ones who remember, and we are easy to ignore by a country which did not want to admit such a failure.

So we did ride the railroad, and came into Buenos Aires in the dead of winter. A beautiful city to explore with its lush parks and tango clubs, but by then we could give it only a few days on our diminishing itinerary. We bargained for some stopover tickets through a thoroughly corrupt travel agent, and plunked down nearly the last money we had on earth to get back to Oklahoma (- which might tell you a bit about our total prospects). We were able to go from Buenos Aires to Montevideo, Uruguay, whose residential streets looked like a vintage car museum. Turns out they put about a 4x tariff on any new cars, but had no tariff on car parts. So they just kept the old ones, pre-1940s, in great condition and running perfectly. The middle class teenagers who I grew up with in the 1950’s were always rebuilding cars, and they would have dearly loved Montevideo.

From Montevideo we went to Asunción, Paraguay, which had its black market bartering big Hotel Guarani on all its money rather than some political hero. The President at the time was Strossner, an ex-Nazi immigrant who took over every element of the government and created Dakotas, huge cartels which daily brought flights of Boeing 707s full of transitor radios and other highly taxed imports, to be distributed by mule back through the back trails into all major countries in South America. The Ricos (rich families) in every country owned stock in the Dakotas and profited from those, while keeping normal tariffs very high on imports because – of course – they controlled most of the government except in Chile. (That was resolved shortly after we came back, with a coup in Chile in which Pinochet brought the Army in to occupy the capital, and Allende committed suicide as his dream socialist state of South America was relegated to history’s many backwaters.)

Iquazu Falls is one of the world’s spectacular waterfalls, absolutely worth getting drenched in its volume and majesty. From there we bused to Sao Paulo, to which so many Japanese at the end of WWII had fled that it looked like a Japanese city the size of Kyoto or Osaka. Rio was gorgeous on the beach and up the sky tram to Sugar Loaf as we ran down to almost our last dimes. Brazilia was a stop along the way, a new and empty city build by the government back in the interior to be the new government of the new Brazil. I hear it took many years to fill it up, after almost being a laughingstock of one President’s vision.

Manaus was the last city we touched down in before Miami. It was on the Amazon river and had the look of a temporary encampment…but one in which they were already building an opera house. This was years before the fictional guy made the ball field in Kansas hearing “If you build it they will come.” Apparently they did come to Manaus, as it is now a city of over 2 million people on the Amazon. It now seems amazing what can happen to places in your own lifetime. You turn away and when you look back a river stop is a metropolis.

Next stop, Miami. The problem we had been wondering how to avoid was that Brenda could not come in to the States legally. As my wife, she would have to wait outside the States 4 months for a green card. We stood there in the customs and immigration line, contemplating a quick divorce. (For the rest of the story, see “Dostoyevsky Meets the Anadarko Indians” .)


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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On the Outside Looking into the Insides

The history of medicine is thousands of years old, but one thing remains constant: the curiosity of the physician. Surgeons would linger around battlefields looking for open wounds in soldier’s abdomens, to get a last look at a working organ. Of course, they could see corpses anytime, but most were shriveled or putrid or rigid with formaldehyde. There are stories of men who recovered from wounds but did not have their abdomens or stomachs totally closed, and they sometimes hired out to medical schools so the students could observe the live body in action. Certain things like eating and digestion had to be managed, of course, but it was not a bad living being a unique specimen for student observation.

For many centuries, surgeons trying to understand the human body (and hopefully fix it) tried to see inside. This is where the idea of a scope came in. Doctors felt they could safely make a small hole and stitch it up later, except when they ran into a bone…or an artery. But they could not see for two reasons: They were looking for small anomalies, and there was no light inside the body. For centuries physicians experimented with channeling candle light through a straight scope, with lenses in the scope for magnification. One can only imagine that sometimes doctors got their ears burnt as their eyes tried to peer through the scope at the same time.

The age-old curiosity still persists, but now doctors can see more, and even perform procedures inside the patient, under full view, with adequate lighting. One of modern medicine’s miracle tools is the flexible scope, by which physicians can explore around in various tubes and cavities such as the stomach, lungs, bladder, and the colon. The tip of the scope has a light and a lens in it, and the user manipulates dials to turn the scope head in various directions. Spies and criminals also use these flexible scopes of course, to worm around corners in internal housing ducts, to see through air vents and hear privileged conversations, but that is a story for mystery magazines, and my experience was in medicine. Not that I was a doctor or paramedic or anything remotely medical except that I took Latin in High School and was able to pick up a lot of medical words pretty quickly. Because I could say Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography in one breathe I could then abbreviate it to ERCP and even medical practitioners were glad to abbreviate that.

There are other ways of seeing inside a body, of course, with x-rays and various scans, and in some cases, such as angioplasty, it is possible to perform procedures inside remote veins and arteries. These days there are jazzy illustrations drawn from CT scan “slices” and it is possible to see your insides in almost realistic fashion. Almost, but not quite. The blood is not real. The bodily fluids do not sheen their sickly green, and the organs do not writhe with the pulse of life. And few doctors would be comfortable performing remote procedures on tissue they had only seen in cartoon representation.

The endoscope however, provides a real view directly on the inside passages. Various tools and baskets can be inserted through that tube to accomplish various routine procedures in a few hours that would have been quite risky under the surgeon’s knife and would have taken weeks or months to recover from. Colonoscopies are a good example, wherein the physician can spot cancerous polyps and burn them out – cauterize then – on the spot. All of this is very routine stuff now, and yet somehow doctors have to learn how to do it on live patients. Pushing and twisting the scope inside an intestinal tract can be dangerous in the hands of a novice. Puncturing the abdominal wall means a rapid trip to the operating room, and sometimes death to the patient. Our answer was to provide simulation to novices, so that their first hands-on procedures with an endoscope were not risky to unknowing patients.

We took on a simulation project with Merck Pharmaceuticals that was at the outset merely a promotion for shows, and for doctors to work with the scope outside of a patient before they invaded the patient with the tip of their scope. We were to build not only a training endoscope, but the simulated physical and video environment through which it traveled. In some ways, it was similar to flight simulation, with the tip of the scope “flying” through the internal passages with the point of view provided on video, in the same way it happens with the actual endoscope. No one had done this before. That seems to be my problem usually. And yet somehow, the client thought I could do it.

In the feasibility study, I portrayed in a videotape what it might look like if you could insert an endoscope in the mouth of a manikin and see in live video on a TV monitor what was inside the body. Then according to my feasibility study videotape, students could proceed through the esophagus, upper esophageal sphincter, stomach, upper duodenal sphincter, and upper duodenum with smooth precise moves and the minimum of stress on the patient. There would be utter reality in look and feel. Wow! No one had ever done that. No one ever even had the chance. Almost no one thought it was possible.

Feasibility studies are like hope come to earth in demo form. They are not real. Though my client thought it showed I could do it, in reality it had no basis in reality. If I can transgress for a minute on demos, there was a joke running through the high tech community about God and the Devil getting the opportunity to woo prospects when they first die. God would show them Heaven and how everyone is calm and pleasant and singing hymns. The Angels actually looked a little boring. Then the Devil took them on the down elevator, and opened out onto gorgeously landscaped seaside resort, with golf and tennis and sailing and little carts coming around with snacks and refreshments all the time. So the prospect came back to middle earth and was given the choice of places to go, up or down. He chose down, which looked like much more fun. The Devil escorted him down again, to a second level, assuring him that he had made a good decision. The door opened and a heat blast came at them. In front of them was a vast steaming, barren, fiery top of a volcano, with people in chains writhing and moaning and hyenas laughing and nipping off pieces of their flesh. “Hey, wait a minute”,said the prospect. “This isn’t what I saw here before!” “Oh,” said the Devil, unapologetically, “That was just the demo.”

Even if the demo looked good to everyone, there is often a point in such a project that you know you are in real trouble. Existential trouble. Trouble that means reality wants no further relation with you. In truth, I did not know about 1. Endoscopic explorations, 2. The Upper Gastronentestinal tract itself. 3. Various software that could change the video as fast as the surgeon’s hand, and 4. Video footage that could simulate where the scope should be when the hands made certain maneuvers, in and out, back and forth and in circles. Luckily a friend of Merck’s, a young gastroenterologist named Mark, was enlisted to help me. He took care of my first two ignorances, of endoscopes and the G.I. tract.

My old friend the videodisc gave me the lightning fast changes in picture that were required when the scope was inserted, or turned one direction or the other. By shooting video footage in patterns that included all possibilities of exploration at every 3 centimeters, we could cover everything that could be seen, in a realistic experiment. I set these patterns up geometrically, with a route to an outer circle that doubled back on the scope, a preferred way to look around to anomalies. Mark did the shooting perfectly, and I donated my Upper G.I. tract one afternoon one of our “models” did not show up.

Our internal landscape models were patients who agree to have their G.I. tract extensively photographed for a reduced bill. The Upper G.I. was fairly easy on the patient. Later, when we were testing a lower G.I. on live patients, we set up a scheme we called rent-a-rectum for the students to do simple endoscopies on the lower tract to compare their abilities before and after using our simulator. We would pay them 20% of their stipend for the first event, and 80% if they returned for the final one. Most returned, but had we not structured it that way, I fear they may not have offered up their internal landscape a second time.

We had to build a mock endoscope that would make signals that were sent to the computer to then present certain images, all in real time, no processing delays. The doctors could tell if there was the slightest delay between what they felt with their hands and what they saw with their eyes. Of course, most of this was a bit more than I budgeted for (another problem when no one has done it). The real problem, however, came with the manikin. “What manikin!!!” I said. I had only budgeted for a box with a hole the size of a mouth that had rollers in it to gauge the depth of the mock endoscope. However, the client had seen the CPR manikin I had instrumented a few years back, and assumed that the endoscopy simulator would have a realistic manikin on a bed with a sheet over her. I say her because I learned long ago that men are gross when used as medical models. Annie had been acceptable to all and damned if I was not going to use at least one principle that had worked before.

There comes a time in the life a business when you are impelled toward making a much more involved product than you had intended. You say to yourself, this will take almost all of my profit, but the client will be satisfied and perhaps it will win a few awards and between more business from this client and others who line up at my door, this extra effort will be worth it. Then, in the real world, the client company loves it and shows it off — and then reorganizes the company and lays off everyone involved with the simulator, while keeping the simulator as a showpiece. You collect your awards, but the line at your door is not companies with money, but students who want to do theses about this new phenomenon, and universities who feel all information should be free to them and want to allow you to present all your designs and software at their institution. There is a wonderful world of free that some people live in, I guess, but it is no reward for a businessperson which, as it turns out, I was not much of.

The doctors and the company that had enlisted their reviews on this simulator were of one voice. It had to look like a real patient on the outside. So in my real world of making simulated experience, I supposed buying a manikin from a department store could work. We could lay it on its side and carve a hole for the roller mouthpiece and put a sheet over it and a pillow under its head. Her head, for reasons explained before, and a few to come. I went to my friend Dale to see if there were surplus manikins in the movie business, and he suggested Izzy. Isadoro Raponi was part of the Dino De Laurentis Italian group that created a second, more spectacular, King Kong, and in Hollywood, Izzy and his partner Carlos Rimbaldi made the creatures in two movies for Steven Spielburg, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and ET – Extra Terrestrial. When they broke their partnership up, Izzy moved about Hollywood with special skills in special effects. In his time at home in Italy, he helped build the Leonardo Da Vince museum in Rome. He suggested he could make a life mask to make the manikin look like an actual woman rather than a department store prop. We used Mark’s wife Martine, with her short black bangs and pleasant, undaunting face. In short, it looked like a real person with her eyes slightly closed.

Later, Mark, along with Merck, helped us to do ERCP, Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography, wherein we allowed the simulator user to maneuver down to the pancreas, to insert a catheter inside the endoscope with a basket tip, and to see themselves using that catheter to extract stones from the pancreas. To medicos, this was the most impressive feat, and won attention for our future projects. But at a human level, Martine made a distinct difference. Her face and hair were so real that once her young daughter mistook the manikin for her sleeping mother.

It was amazing how much better the whole project was received when the manikin, which received the endoscope through the mouth, was shrouded in sheets and laid on a hospital bed. Immediately the scope manufacturer Olympus, set up the working simulator in one of their display rooms. Mark took it to Hamburg to show off with some top medicos there, and apparently someone from the Nobel committee flew in to take a look.

I learned something valuable here. The technology may be accurate and work exquisitely, but it may fall short if there is no link to we humans at a simple level, in our case with a real face and realistic hair. The technology community must learn this over and over. Most recently a focus on human users allowed the iPhone to emerge through all the rest of the mobile phones. It worked, simply almost flawlessly, but it was also quite beautiful when it fit into people’s hands, and adorned them.


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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When Hollywood Calls…

There really are parallel realities. They are: Hollywood — and everywhere else. While I was in Vietnam with the Marines, sometimes I mused about going to Hollywood and writing the Great American Screenplay. Then — when I actually was in the glitzy blitz of Hollywood — I sometimes pondered how simple, how ironically comfortable, it had been in a hole on a hilltop in Vietnam.

I got a preview of this parallel reality by returning to the States for my final few months, attached to Camp Pendleton. I obviously had one foot out the door, so the Marines there had no earthly use for me. I reported in each morning, and left to explore the area. I learned to sail a small sailboat on base. I took up English riding at the base stables from an wiry old woman in jodhpurs, tough as nails with her riding whip, who started in World War One training young cavalry officers to ride – back when there were cavalry officers. Neither of us had much to do these days, so she taught me to ride bareback on a galloping horse and do jumps up to four feet – which I remember as one of my life’s  glowing achievements. I lived off base in Fallbrook, a California avocado-growing community, in a cottage in a tree-lined canyon with a friendly hippie commune down the gulley. In Fallbrook, I met and went out with the great granddaughter of Susan B. Anthony. When they came out with that Susan B. Anthony dollar I swear it looked just like her. I tried to call, but had long since lost her number.

It seemed an obvious thing to buy a motorcycle. Because I was now certifiably invincible, and thinking in the back of my mind that Hollywood always needed stunt men, I learned to jump the motorcycle in the sandy canyons to the East. That glorious flying fantasy lasted a few days until one nearly straight up jump runway made the front wheel rise — and rise — in the air, until I was 10 feet above the ground riding a my flying motorcycle upside down. It was coming down fast now, with me underneath, somehow I guided it over to my left and the hot exhaust nearly burned through the leg of my jeans, as I smashed down on my back. The motorcycle came down a millisecond later a foot from me. Lying there windless, astounded that I was alive, I decided Vietnam was no proof that every bullet would avoid me. Thereafter, in most things physical at least, I was not even tempted to jaywalk. And certainly not to jump horses over four-foot high fences.

From that location Camp Pendleton location, about an hour South of Hollywood, I visited my friend Dale and got my Volkswagen bus he had been keeping, and I started growing back some hair. He had finished the UCLA film school and was working on a laser-movie called Death of the Red Planet. (That little movie was eventually a star attraction at the Griffith Park Planetarium.) After a few months sojourn sailing in the Bahamas and cleaning boat bottoms and falling for Brenda, who worked there in Barclay’s bank, I decided to go back to Hollywood to seek my fortune.

Not actor or director material, I started turning out screenplays. I had done a couple of screenplays before I found out it was bad form to write a full screenplay, but was a much better strategy to have the nucleus of an idea and then find big time producers to smoke dope with and flesh out the actual script and characters in their Bel Air homes by the pool. You got partners around an idea, and then hoped they were not smart enough to finish it with their names on it and steal it. But there’s the rub. You had to meet them and attract them to you and the idea, without actually giving it away. That’s why I finished stuff and registered it and then gave pitches. Of course that did not work at all, but it’s my style. Everyone else just did ten-page treatments and then made pitches. So I fashioned treatments out of my already completed Great American Screenplays but never learned to do a truly Great American Treatment. But at least my treatments would occasionally get me pitches. And the pitches led to all sorts of meetings and agents and the possibility of options and little adventures which led to generally nothing at all in that smoky cloud that was Hollywood of the late 1960s.

I had done one screenplay called The Watermelon Seeds, named for the sailing principle where the oncoming wind creates pressure at an angle on the sail and down into the keel, and pushes the boat forward like squeezing a watermelon seed between two fingers. Brenda actually typed that screenplay for me and, knowing even less about Hollywood that I did, thought it was going to be a movie. It was based on two guys who had been in Vietnam getting out and taking off on a sailboat to various harrowing adventures. But it was loathed at first sight in Hollywood. In this time of peace marches, absolutely no one in Hollywood wanted to see anything about Vietnam. And that boycott lasted at least 10 years, I think. It was also one of the reasons I needed to grow more hair quickly.

I did another screenplay called The Lone Angel, a satire about a masked guy on a white Harley who roams the West with his black sidekick Tonto, who rode a Honda 50. They have all sorts of misadventures where they try to do good in communities, and their misplaced efforts are roundly condemned, and they are run out of towns, unappreciated, throughout the New West.

And then there was Foster, a modern Faust who learned that by taking increasing doses of strychnine he could become faster on the draw than any gunslinger around. Through the story he becomes dependent on strychnine highs to heighten his speed and killing efficiency. Just at the time Foster is about to meet the current fastest gunslinger, the accumulated strychnine catches up with him. The other gunslinger and the townspeople watch with horror, as Foster dies a gruesome death at high noon on a dusty Kansas street, with all his muscles contracting and pulling against each other.

The Catador Mandate was a Wag the Dog story, years before that popular movie defined the term for political distraction from actual malfeasance. While WWII had absolutely everyone’s attention, two dictators in South America struck an odd bargain. One of them lost so much at the gambling tables he was bound to give the other a sizable amount of his country. To do this, they decided they must create a war or their displaced people would displace them. They commissioned a Madison Avenue ad agency to stage this war, and specified when the war would end and the number to be killed and the amount of territory to be seized. A rogue reporter discovers this and tries to get the news to the rest of the world. This story had the dubious merit of being entirely true. (See “Conference of Rio de Janeiro”, which after WWII redrew totally new borders between Peru and Ecuador and gave half of Ecuador — including the Amazon River city of Iquitos — to Peru.)

So you see how unlucky Hollywood was that they never discovered my screenplays at all. These screenplays rarely got even a partial reading by anyone with the ability to make a movie. There are Hollywood legends about how successful screenwriters got producers to read their scripts. One guy stood outside the gates of one producer’s mansion with copies of his scripts and everyday threw them on the hood of the producer’s car when he slowed to remotely open the gate to his estate. Finally, he read one, made a movie of it, and the rest is history. I remember the story but I’ve forgotten the names. …

This is not unusual because everybody in Hollywood has a story about how they almost got a script read. I have at least two instances. One started in the Bahamas when a Mafia don for whom I’d cleaned his large boat offered to provide me with his Hollywood lawyer – whose call no one ever refused. But I slipped out of that kind offer, ever so politely, not wanting that kind of strings around my neck. Another time I scored dinner in Beverly Hills with a director of TV commercials and his family, and his 15 year-old-daughter decided she liked me…a lot. To my surprise, he was wholly in accord and offered us the use of the apartment behind his pool. I guess he rarely denied her anything she wanted, but I managed to decline and leave with my screenplays tucked under my arm, unread of course.

The California days were full of phone calls to people who were out and visits to people who said they knew people with money for movies. If you walked on Venice beach it was easy to meet girls, but if you asked them if they wanted a soda they asked back, “Can I have the money instead?” Everyone who had been in Hollywood a while had jobs they could slip away from to get to meetings or auditions. The restaurants had rotating chefs and bus boys, and when people were finally fired, they just made movie contacts while standing in line at the world-famous Unemployment Office in Santa Monica. (I rarely smoked dope because it made me reflective and angry that I was not working harder to make a success of Hollywood. )

There is a certain strand of artistic toughness in Hollywood, where these part time actors and writers and film editors and all manner of craftsmen do not have jobs for parts of the year. But eventually many have families for all of the year. Waiting for the next movie, the next friend to call about auditions, waiting for the next union seniority slot to open, waiting and perfecting skills and friendships calls for an incredible toughness to weather insecurity throughout all of their lives. I’d seen toughness in the Marines, but maybe psychologically the Hollywood people are the toughest I’ve ever seen. I’ll admit that eventually I was not tough enough for Hollywood.

Occasionally I would drive down to La Jolla, near San Diego, where my second cousin John Hunt was Director of the Salk Institute. It was a great location and he had Nobel Prize winners from all over the globe playing on the beach and having good old sabbaticals. I asked John how he, an English major and occasional novelist (once winning honorable mention for the National Book Award), could supervise all of these great minds from technically demanding disciplines. “Well,” he said, “the skill I’ve developed was not to supervise anything, but to create the climate in which these people can do their best work.” He did that, too, later at the Aspen Institute and the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, where Einstein spend most of his American years. John also had to be a special breed of fundraiser, who convinced the very rich that if they were lucky he could help them associate their money with sponsoring these great minds.

It was at one of the parties where some of these geniuses brought their families that someone asked what I had been doing. I said digging holes with the Marines in Vietnam. No one thought it was funny. As a matter of fact all conversation then stopped while one young French woman fluttered her eyelashes at me and asked me how I liked napalming babies. I’d pretty much avoided the subject up in Hollywood after some curt rejections, but here it slipped up on me. In those late 1960’s, it was just not acceptable in polite society to have had anything to do with Vietnam. Young people were very sure of what they believed about what they felt they knew and there was not much complexity allowed.

Then I had headed back from La Jolla to L.A. and got bummed out in other ways. The next night on the beach a crowd of adolescents were smoking dope and invited me into their circle. One guy wanted someone to put him on his motorcycle. He was apparently on heroin and he thought he just needed to be put on the motorcycle and aimed out toward the freeway. I was off motorcycles and had no interest in assisting this impending disaster. No one in our small group wanted to do it, and he moved on down the beach. One of the high teenagers in our group was all excited. She said a guy sitting stoned on the beach had just killed someone. Everyone seemed to think that was cool. They had never met anyone who killed people. They asked me if I had ever met someone who killed people. I said I had. I’ll never know if that would have made me cool because just then the heroin guy walking his motorcycle down the street some distance from us was apparently paying some money for a kid to put him on his motorcycle. We all watched as the kid took the money and helped him start it and the guy weaved away through the night toward the freeway. So this was Hollywood. Though each episode was newly bizarre, this sort of edgy tedium was tiring to me. I was maybe getting too old for it.

It was all so different from Brenda at her British bank in the Bahamas, another parallel reality. I think I made a choice around then, which reality to live in. One small film producer, Zoltan, told me that if I got photo stories in South American he could bundle them and produce them as filmstrip travelogues. That was about as close to success as I’d ever come. Actually, it was enough of a quest to marry Brenda and whisk her off to South America. I always thought I would come back to Hollywood, but aside from a few short forays with equally fruitless screenplays, I never did.


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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