The Sports Editor…and The Kid

It is still hard for me not to look at life through the eyes of a sportswriter. Politics and war and business are often thought of as mere games. So many fascinating matchups seem so critical to the fans and the participants, though in actual sports lives are not usually lost and governments don’t usually fall. Probably virtual reality explains it. Sports are clearly a distilled simulation of life. We can easily understand the conflict and we know it will occur in a defined space and roughly within a time period we can set aside to be in that world, totally.

The sportswriter, as opposed to the sportscaster, lays out what is at stake and who the characters are, and then describes exactly what happened in colorful detail. Nobody “beats” anybody. The winner “nabs” victory in the last minute, or the loser “falls short” in the last quarter. The sportswriter, with active words, helps the memories – the experience — of the fans and the participants. And it is unusual, if not firmly prohibited, for actual athletes to become sportswriters. Sportscasters, yes. Coaches, yes. Managers, yes. Trainers and equipment managers probably. But not sportswriters. I would be tempted to bet that no more than two city newspapers, in all of America, can present any of their sportswriters who were ever accomplished enough in any sport to be written about.

It would be a far better bet – an odds-on favorite – that 99% of all sportswriters were once aspiring athletes, who failed at the games they were so passionate about, who stood by while the stronger and the faster took the field, and who wrote about the feats of the stronger and the faster before and after.

Back in the late 1950s, I had tried hard and generally failed at most sports in high school. I also wrote sports for the high school newspaper from when I was a 14-year-old sophomore. It was an easy job to get because no one in high school every wants to write anything that is not a class assignment. So the student editors always assigned me stories and were glad to get my copy. I was dependable, and I only learned later that that, and not even slightly the quality of what you wrote, was what kept them coming back for more.

The local shopper in Burien had a once-a-week, heavy-advertising paper called the Highline Times, and the same company printed our school paper. Richard Stredicke, one of the editors at the Highline Times had been covering Puget Sound League Sports as a favor to the Seattle Times. As a young man about town, he was getting tired of staying up late to call all the local assistant coaches for the scores and highlights, and then to compile and relay all those scores and highlights of all the high school games — at midnight for the next day’s paper. So he asked me if I wanted the job. He said that they paid $7.50 a week. (Remember this is the late 1950s).

I asked did he think I could do it and he said no sweat. I would not have been so glad of the recognition if I had heard his sigh of relief to his girlfriend, who I suspect had to wait late nights for him to retrieve the scores and statistics from each high school game – football and basketball and baseball, right after the games on the days and nights they were played. So he was probably glad at the possibility he could download this awesome responsibility, even to a 14 year old. He gave me the number of Bob Schwarzmann, who ran the Sports Desk at the Seattle Times. I said I’d call in the morning and was told the afternoon was best, when he had come in for work but before the evening’s game coverage had started the phones ringing and the teletypes clacking.

Mr. Schwarzmann sounded kind, but chronically busy. He understood that I was in school and would have to come in to see him on a Saturday. On that Saturday, my mother gave me a freshly-ironed shirt and I brushed my teeth twice. She drove me to the city bus in White Center for my hour-long ride downtown and to the Seattle Times. The Seattle Times was an imposing building with an imposing logo. To me, at 14, it was like auditioning as a choirboy at the Mormon Tabernacle choir of news. They called Mr. Schwarzmann from the front desk and a kindly woman took me upstairs and past these monstrous printing presses that still held lead type generated from machines that took it hot and melted and cast it into lines of type. The linotype machine.

This big city paper had linotype machines and presses rolling out thousands of pages a day, and printer journeymen who put the lines of warm type into frames and made little spaces of “air” between paragraphs. The printers had on large black aprons and what was most impressive to me as a sports writer was when they got an ill-formed line of type. Backhand, they flung it across the shop into a large metal barrel. It could be dangerous in there for a novice, with heavy lead pieces flying across the shop from a nonchalant flip of a printer’s hand. And a clang into the metal barrel. It is a sight and a sound and a smell that will not be seen again, as chemicals now burn plates and newspapers are now photographic prints. (Or maybe some other digital magic happens by now). Actually, we may not be far from the next generation, when newspapers are not seen at all.

However, even in that next generation, and perhaps the next, we will have sportswriters. They are value-added commodities in sports. They create the sizzle, the drama, and even a few epiphanies. Sports are the religion of a lot of people, and the sportswriters are the mischievous princes of play. The kind lady walked me away from the roaring presses and passed an open floor with a few reporters clacking away on typewriters. Most were finished for their day. An Associated Press teletype machine was spitting out stories from everywhere in the world, and when an editor was short of copy for his pages, he would “rip and read” which means take a few stories from the AP wire without modifying them, and meeting his deadline with international news and often arcane news, anything he or she could justify to fill the pages.

The kind woman escorted me into Mr. Schwarzmann’s office. He was at a desk cluttered with stories, notes, telephones, spindles with impaled notes and phone numbers, and I swear an ashtray, which held his cigar when he wasn’t chewing on it. He looked slightly up at me over his cigar.

“So Dick sent you…” Cigar chewing. “So you want to write sports for the Times?”

Put like that it was really scary. My 14 year old legs wobbled. “Yes, sir,” I squeaked.

More cigar chewing. “Ok, take these facts about the upcoming Clover Park – Sumner game. Give me a story.”

He pulled a few notes from the spindle and slid them toward me across the desk. I thought he meant for me to take them home and I started scooping up the few notes.

“Now…” he said, taking out the cigar and waving it toward an empty desk and typewriter to his right. “Over there.”

“Write it now?” I trembled. “Over there?”

Mr. Schwarzman nodded. “6 inches.” That meant a one column, six-inch long story at about 30 words per inch.

He pretended to go back to his stories and took up a ringing phone, but I knew he was watching my every move as I collapsed into the chair at the typewriter, and started reading through his handwritten notes. My mother had taught me touch-typing so I composed right there on the typewriter, only peeking back at him once or twice. Never have I felt so scrutinized in my life, not up to then and not ever since. In about fifteen minutes, I finished the story. I just know he had been watching his watch, though I never saw him look. I walked over to hand him the story as he finished a call. He chewed on his cigar as he read. He snorted a bit, his eyes covering my words like a speeding cheetah after a wayward gazelle – which was me.

Finally he slid my fresh new story aside, and matter-of-factly said. “Ok, you’re hired. Get with Ramona and she’ll set you up with everything.” He then looked away. I kind of expected a handshake like they do the movies, but Mr. Schwarzmann was none of that. He was busy. I backed away and said something like OK, thank you, but he was onto other matters. I only know now after many more years of life that that was the ultimate compliment. He was trusting me to let him be busy with all the other things he had on his desk, and his bruskness was his approval that I could do the job.

After several months on the job, gathering scores and writing lead stories late at night, a competing sports editor on the Seattle Post Intelligencer called and said they liked what I was doing with the Puget Sound League sports and could I do that for them.  It was OK with Mr. Schwarzmann. They would pay me the same as the Times. For a high school kid that amounted to an easy fortune. For the Post-Intelligencer, I was to write exactly the same story again but with a different, more flowery, set of expressions. Those few years of experience were most useful, though my life of journalism soon fizzled for reasons we can reveal later.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

Sunnydale School Greets The General

  • We rarely have experiences in the 3rd grade that relate to cataclysmic world events, and if we did, we probably would not know it at the time. In 1976, I was visiting Seattle again after several years away, and I got lost driving my rental car to the airport. It was not a case of knowing too little, but knowing too much. I had grown up not too far from the Seattle-Tacoma Airport, close enough that teenagers in those days would go out onto the runway and steal approach landing lights as souvenirs of a misspent youth. Now, it seemed to me that I remembered a short cut into the airport. I dodged down one of those off ramps you never take unless you are lost.

It was a short cut…a short cut in time, back to 1950 when my stepfather had moved the family from Minnesota to Seattle. Most of the flight crews tried to live near the airport. In Seattle, I was in the third grade in a new school, Sunnydale.

In those days, my stepfather Charlie was a flight engineer on the 4-engine Boeing Stratocruisers that flew regularly to Japan by way of stops in the Aleutian Islands. At one stop, Dutch Harbor, the U.S. military had been preparing for an attack by Japan, and had left whole supply depots at the end of World War II. It was just too expensive to ship them back to the States so all of those tools were left there in that lonely frozen place to deteriorate. Because the below-zero cold much of the time acted to preserve the tools, and even engines, that were just left there, they were in excellent condition – but it was still too expensive to ship them back and too expensive even to store them under guard. It was known that tools of all varieties and even small machines were there for the taking – if you could get there, and if you could carry them out. With the one night layover in Dutch Harbor each way, it was the ultimate do-it-yourself candy store, especially for the flight engineers, all of whom had been mechanics before. It was a mechanics’ Christmastime on every flight. I remember hammers and grinders and even a chain hoist brought home in pieces over several of his trips.

Anyway, now in 1976, meandering around what I thought would be a back entrance to the airport, I came upon Sunnydale School once more. Its landscaping was overgrown but seemingly still in use, on what had been the main road into Seattle from the airport. That road, I found, was now an insignificant backroad, but there…there was Sunnydale School, which was not insignificant at all. The front of the old grade school still had a lawn along the front and a short front wall of square stones in cement. I could remember that one morning in 1951 we third graders were told that General MacArthur was coming through, and we were herded out to sit on that wall, all in wonderment for what was about to happen. It was the first most of us had ever heard of a General MacArthur, but the teachers seemed to think it was a big deal.

The right general at the right time can determine the course of nations, and sometimes the world. MacArthur had been such a general. When the whole continent of Australia was frantic about a pending Japanese attack on her shores, MacArthur told the Australians that he would stop the Japanese before they could get to Australia, and his first major conquest was in the jungles of New Guinea. He was the five-star commander of the Pacific War. He took the surrender of the Japanese aboard the USS Missouri in 1945 and administered Japan’s dynamic rebuilding for 5 years. Then in 1950, when communist insurgent forces from the North of Korea, backed by Russian Soviet aircraft and tanks, were sweeping over South Korea, MacArthur took over as commander of the “police action” authorized by the United Nations.

From a position of near defeat, MacArthur made one of the most daring landings in history at the Korean port of Inchon, which had vicious tides and small windows of time to land. It could have been a catastrophe, but MacArthur cut off the Koreans and the Russians and the Chinese forces which were flowing down the Korea peninsula, and turned that “police action” into a near route of the communist North. He’d thwarted the communist takeover of the South, but almost immediately he was relieved of duty.  Against President Truman’s orders, MacArthur wanted to chase the Communist Chinese back across the Yalu river, and chase them to Beijing to conquer China as well. Feeling he was in the right, and in control of the battlefield, MacArthur defied President Truman, and Truman fired him for that insubordination. I’m not sure to this day whether he made his first Stateside landing back from Korea in Seattle. I do know that he flew into Seattle on that day in 1951, on the road from the Seattle-Tacoma airport to a speech and the Olympic Hotel downtown. I do know for certain that General MacArthur passed by us when I was a third grader at Sunnydale School.

Some people were already talking about putting MacArthur up for President in the 1952 election. We third graders barely knew what a President was, except that he was a grey-haired man with big glasses whose portrait was on our classroom walls. We did hear our parents’ friends who had come over to the house for drinks saying worse and louder things about Truman as the evening wore on.  I just listened, quiet in my bed.

On that morning in 1951 all of we third graders at Sunnydale School sat along the road on the low stone wall. As usual those days, an open rainwater drainage ditch lay between the wall and the roadway. The teachers had said that the whole school would be brought out to stand on the lawn, but that we third-graders would be on the wall in front. They gave the whole school practice in saying one phrase which the whole school would shout out on que. Getting all the third graders, not to mention all of the elementary grades of Sunnydale School, to shout the same thing at the same time took a lot rehearsal. We were out there at the front of the school practicing for half an hour before our big moment.

“When the General comes by he will have his window closed, but he will see you. And when he waves, it will just be moving his hand back and forth in front of his face. But he does know you are there and he will see you, even if he is looking straight ahead.” I’m glad they prepared us in this way, because our little third grade feelings might have been hurt by one who seemed so distant.  Could we have conceived that he probably had other things on his mind besides this gaggle of third graders in front of Sunnydale School?

“He’s coming, he’s coming.” Teachers were buzzing and kids were repeating. “You’ll see the caravan of cars in a moment.”

And sure enough, two motorcycles came around the bend on the road from the airport, followed by two small black cars, and then a large black limousine. We looked inside the limo at a gaunt man in an overcoat staring straight ahead.

“All right, get ready. On ‘3’ we shout it all together like we’ve practiced.” We could see our principal standing as if he was an orchestra conductor with his hand going up and down as his mouth said “1…2…3…” And then there was a joyful sound coming from the whole of Sunnydale School at once.


We thought his eyes would turn. We had not heard anything much louder in our lives, but his eyes stared straight ahead. Then slowly, with the eyes of the world of third graders upon him, he started moving his right hand back and forth in front of his face, never looking to the side, but waving in this rigid way past the assembly of Sunnydale students along that roadway.

It was a back road then, in 1976, but as I sat there in my idling rental car I could see, and hear, the whole scene again… our part in American history when General MacArthur returned from Korea.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

The Universe Calls, Unannounced

One night I was breezing through emails and I answered an unexpected call. It was not the one – of a possible two – that I had been waiting for during several days now.

“Hi grandpa…It’s me, Caitlin,” said the voice of a young girl.

I was, for a very long moment, petrified: the order of the universe was awry in a way we humans are never prepared for. My granddaughter Caitlin had not been born yet.

It was one of those periods in life when things are changing and you are resigning yourself to change. My mother had died the year before, and now my stepfather Charlie, had congestive heart failure. He was now being watched closely in a hospital ward. Charlie was still funny in his earnest, non-snarky way, and all the nurses loved him. He also said some wise things I’ll always try to remember. I visited from Seattle and my brother and sister, who lived there in Minneapolis, and their grown children were visiting with him, one or another during most hours of the day. One of the kids naively asked if he felt bad about being here. “No,” he said, “It’s just another stage of life, I guess. It’s kind of like my plane is landing.” There are times – and certain people — when you realize what a treasure you have had with that person and that it will be gone soon, and that you should try to horde every possible minute left to you. It is a form of pure greed, I think. Wouldn’t it be great if all of us could know at least that legacy before we die, that our last moments were so treasured?

Sometimes things do fall in that orderly, timely progression, even the tandem deaths of two married people. A friend of mine was doing some traveling in China, and agreed to escort the daughter on a task of touching importance. Her parents – teachers – had been jailed as revolutionaries 40 years before, and their young marriage, and young family, were wrenched apart when they were sent to prison. They never saw each other during the 40 years in prison, and when they were very old and sickly the State released them . The prison was in the North and the extended family was in the South, and the family decided to send the daughter to bring them back by train. When the couple, now over 60, were reunited again at the prison gates after all this time, they were like kids in puppy love. It would take several days on the train, and stopping at hotels along the way. The husband was very sick, and though in loving arms at last, he died during the night. His wife was beset with shock and grief after anticipating being with her husband again for so many years. One can only imagine.

It took the better part of a day for my friend and the daughter to arrange for a coffin to escort them on the train back to the family. During that time my friend who spoke no Chinese, and the daughter, who spoke no English, communicated only through Google Translate on their laptops. Finally on the rails again, they stopped again a second night. During that night the grieving mother died of pneumonia, which she had carried with her from the prison. The daughter was almost inconsolable, but my friend did a supremely thoughtful job through Google Translate. Together they dutifully arrange for the second travelling coffin to accompany the first. They travelled two more days on the train, with the coffins, to the families city in the South of China. During that time they communicated intensely through Google Translate, and fell in love. Each had lost a spouse within the last two years and, soley through Google Translate, they decided to get married. They sent that message ahead. That is why the week they arrived with the two coffins, the family was preparing not only for two funerals but a gigantic wedding ceremony as well. Death begetting new life. It happens. It did happen.

Back to my story: So a year after my mother died at 91, my stepfather Charlie died at 92. I was waiting for the call to get a plane to Minneapolis when Caitlin called.

Because my wife is Irish, at the time still an Irish citizen, the kids had Irish passports. And my daughter was pregnant at exactly that time I was waiting for the call. Although they did not look at the sex, one of the leading names my daughter Deirdre and her husband had been considering for a female child was Caitlin. So the time for delivery was actually within the next few weeks, so that was a second call I had been expecting.

What I did not expect — and what caused me this limp, awestruck, feeling — was the tiny voice on the other end that said, “Hi grandpa…It’s me Caitlin.”

“Who is this?” I said, trying to be challenging but also accessible. Who, indeed, was this?

“Grandpa. I’m your granddaughter…Caitlin.”

Who would even know enough to make such a strange joke? I stuttered, and I rarely stutter. “Who are you calling for?”

“I’m calling YOU…Grandpa John.”

Such a relief. Such a load of bizarre confusion lifted in that second. It was after all, a coincidence, one of those supreme coincidences that sometimes results in the perfect storm at sea, or the invention which appears years before its useful time. It was a mistake. It was a WRONG NUMBER! Glory be to God after all. A wrong number: The universe was back in place again, and causes had effects and there was reason to believe that eventually we could figure everything out.

Later that week, I did get the call that my granddaughter was born. Her name…her NAME! Was it Caitlin? No, they said, we decide to call her Clodagh, after the Irish river. All the ancient Celts named their first born females after rivers. Of course…Clodagh was the good choice.  My daughter then arranged for Clodagh in her hospital in Kalamazoo to meet Charlie in his hospital in Minneapolis. He seemed ever so pleased. Technology can elevate our human condition so often.

A month later I spoke at Charlie’s church funeral, since he always said I was the talkative one. I tried to relate some funny things he said, but I was ineffectual. It was the kind of humor which does not travel, I guess, you just have to be there. I remembered something about how he told me as a little boy I was born with two heads and one had the brains and the other was empty and just when they were going to cut off the empty one, I rolled over. It was the kind of joke where you had to be there, and probably to be a wide-eyed little boy.

As I was groping through ideas to say anything, anything cogent to the gathered assemblage, it dawned on me that Charlie was leaving just as Clodagh was coming, and there was something in the universe that made that an orderly progression, too.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

Reveries of a Hitchhiker

Hitchhiking and our vast American roadscapes were made for each other. Possibly the concept of mindfulness was actually invented by a hitchhiker, because the living moment out there was as expansive as the 360 degree sky — and yet it all focused down into you at the lonely middle. There were long times between cars and even longer between rides. Wyoming was one State I thumbed across a lot, because at age 19, I was working with an oil exploration crew, and drawing “hotshot” pay.

This seismograph-exploration crew, out of Oklahoma City, drilled holes for dynamite from a rig on the back of a truck. The surveyors laid out the pattern of dynamite holes so that geologists could later “read” the underlying rock formations. These depth lines formed geologic patterns, with suspended  ink pens jiggling across large scrolling white paper in a trailer. These signals issued from the shock-reading “jugs,” devices which I had stretched in the manner of Christmas lights across miles of ridges and dry gulches. I planted all the devices on a grid, and picked them up, and moved them to another location – all day long. I ran the lines of jugs exactly and directly to the surveyors call, whether straight up a mountainside cliff or across a rattlesnake lair with them snapping at my high boots. I was a “jug hustler,” and a damned good one.

We were a “hotshot” crew, which meant we worked 16hrs for 4 paid days “on” with a hotel room, and had 3 days “off” on our own, a practice which we knew saved the company a lot of money. Not many people know that because that oil exploration needed miniaturization of electronics, General Instruments eventually became Texas Instruments, which first mass produced semiconductors and helped create the digital electronics revolution that then made small computers possible. A long sentence, and I didn’t even know any of that back in Wyoming.

So for those 3 unpaid “hotshot” days, I was on my own. It didn’t take me long to find out that Yellowstone Park was on the other side of the State. During the Summer college kids –boys but most especially girls – worked as guides and waiters and hotel maids. This smelled like good times, a siren smell, coming clear from across the alkaline plains where we looked all day for oil . So the minute my hotshot pay stopped, my thumb was out. We had a drink at night in one of the 7 bars, but I rarely met any of the normal townspeople except when I got a ride, because my goal was always – Yellowstone!

It was a time past when college men and drifters stood as equals beside those long open spaces, little more than a small pack and a bundle of aspirations in hand. There was a strong kinship, as well, with some drivers. Those drivers who had hitchhiked before, or who had sons or husbands who had hitchhiked seemed to have inherited an obligation. They tended, at least, to give my thumb a lookover, and on some occasions to stop. Sometimes you just had to be polite company. Numerous times, though, the hitchhikers struck up conversations with lonely drivers, and they became temporary friends. Occasionally you’d both would go to a bar at the driver’s destination, and you’d hear the local opinions about the state of the world. Occasionally a farmer would have a couple of days work and a tack room to sleep in, that is if you weren’t headed to Yellowstone. Of course, if you had that cross-state smell of youth in your nostrils and two days at most to find a place to crash and seek out the parties, you moved right along.

Of course, a significant number of the drivers who roared past a hitchhiker never felt that need, nor experienced that kinship. As I say, it was a time past, and now, in our next Century, we have all become very cautious…and for good reason. In the early 1960s, however, there seemed to be a Samaritan quality afoot, especially in those plains, which were so often stark and harsh.

Hitchhiking had its opportunities, but if you had to be somewhere for a job, you left early. You may have had good luck with long rides for a couple of weeks – and most rides in Wyoming are long ones – but you could never count on steady good fortune. Sometimes you got off at the turnoff to a ranch and then waited an hour just to see another car or truck. Sometimes it got dark on you and sometimes it rained. Sometimes the dust blew. And sometimes you had to string together many rides just to make it back.

All of which is to justify why early one Sunday morning I lifted myself from my comfortable pad on the floor of a hotel’s laundry room. On the road with no time to waste because I had to be 300 miles across the state by tonight, through the city of Casper and up to Edgerton where our trucks were and where my hotel room was. So I was out there outside the edge of Yellowstone Park, thumbing away at 8 that morning. A grand total of 3 cars passed me and then I had a ride…and what a ride. It was a 1962 Pontiac Bonneville convertible with a 450 horse 8 cylinder engine. The driver had slick-greased side burns coming out from his Stetson, and dark glasses so that I never saw if he actually had eyes. He clearly wanted someone to appreciate his wheels. He laid a forty foot strip of rubber and smoke as my bottom hit the seat and the door slammed shut. I knew the right thing to say: “Wow!”

“My Johnnie Ponnie. Some engine, huh?”

“Yeah, it is.”

“Far ya goin’?”


“Pretty far. I’m going to Thermopolis.”

Thermopolis. Shoshoni was halfway to Edgerton. Aha, but only about 50 miles from Casper. Hmmm….

Johnnie Ponnie at full roar covered the 200 miles to Shoshoni in about 2 ½ hours. The long, square Bonneville had to fill up its tank before heading north to Thermopolis. At 21 cents a gallon, I had an idea.

“Bet if got this tank of gas, I could talk you into dropping me in Casper.”

Greaseburns thought about it for a minute. “On one condition.”

“What’s that?.”

“You wait for me to get a case a beer for the seat.” Behind those dark glasses I know there was a crude twinkle.

“K.” (I have always been considered fairly easy in these matters.)

In those past days, before air-conditioned cars, the police in places like Texas and Wyoming considered it inhumane to make a person drive between towns without a cold beer in hand. The police smiled and waved as we entered their town at 100 miles an hour, respectfully slowing down – and stopping dead – for their one stoplight,  only to lay rubber out the other end. Finally, Jonnie Ponnie let me off in the center of downtown Casper.

This Sunday afternoon in Casper, Wyoming was over 100 degrees, which I had not noticed in the wind of the convertible. And not only that, the whole city was motionless. The Woolworths with their soda counter was closed. The few department stores were closed. Everything was still and very few cars even came through that intersection in the middle of town. I had no notion what to do next, until I saw the Orpheum Theater. The air-conditioned Orpheum Theatre. It was playing “The Guns of Navarone.” I had never seen the Guns of Navarone. There was no one in line at the box office, but the Orpheum Theater seemed to be open. I could feel its air conditioning gushing out to greet my 100 degree armpits. I bought a ticket and went it. The noon show was just beginning, and I could hear the stereophonic music booming as I opened the door. The theater had about 1000 seats, and every seat was empty.

Then, with the voice of James Robertson Justice relating how the Guns of Navarone guarded the shipping channels near Greece, I counted down the exact number of rows and counted to the exact middle, and took a seat absorbed by the huge screen and blaring music. This was a good way to spend an afternoon, I thought, my senses soaking up this almighty symphony. Alone.   And then the lobby door opened and a slit of light came through. What follows is the truth.

One of the local cowgirls came in with a large bag of popcorn in one hand. By the door’s glint of light I could see thigh-tight jeans and a cowgirl hat and a short sleeved plaid shirt.  I had never seen her before, not hitching through Casper or anywhere else. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she counted down the rows, as I had, and then, as I had, counted seats right into the middle of the theater. My eyes, of course, had been following her since she entered. She sat right down beside me, and held out her popcorn.

“For a minute there,” she said, “I didn’t think I’d find a seat.”

Okay, I know you don’t think this is true. But it is. And just to show you, I’ll let you figure out your own ending.  I’ll keep my ending to myself, but I will say it was pretty special and it gave me a great impression of Wyoming on the whole.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

The History of a Millisecond

Some things are bound to happen due to genes, some things are made to happen because of events…and then some things just occur in a thickened millisecond with no history at all. My daughter Deirdre and I had that happen on a hairpin curve one day. We were headed uphill on a switch-backed road coming home tired from sailing on Puget Sound. Suddenly a drunk in an old car came roaring downhill and careening around that hairpin curve ahead of us, taking up both lanes and closing fast for a head-on collision. To our right there was a very thin shoulder and a steep cliff with no guardrail. Dodging away was just as deadly as hitting the drunk head on. There was no way out…except to accelerate straight toward him.

My father died piloting a B-17 when I was 2 years old, and my mother remarried and I grew up wondering what he was like and how he died. Luckily, he wrote a lot that I could read when I was older. He won a city essay contest at Central High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, beating out future communicators Paul Harvey and Tony Randall at the same high school. I also read his flight log/diary when he was flying 15 missions over Germany. I felt I knew him from these writings. He sounded eerily like me when he wrote.

When I was seventeen, I hitchhiked around Europe and visited his grave there for an afternoon. Margraten is a U.S. National Cemetery with 8000 graves on rolling farmland in a slim southern tip of The Netherlands. After World War II, the people of that area around Maastricht, Belgium, were so grateful to these soldiers and airmen who had run the Nazis out of their country that every grave is “adopted” by a local family. To this day second and third generations bring flowers to their adopted saviors. Walking through the rows and rows of graves, I noticed both Jewish and Moslem headstones which were mixed in with the crosses – all of equal size, and with no special placement together, just at random, possibly as they fell.

The custodians there keep an account of the circumstances of death of each of the buried soldiers. I read my father’s, which said “Lieutenant Hon – flying alone – veered from an exploding crash ahead of him into another craft in flames and diving.” I did not take down the actual words, but it appeared as though he had ordered his crew to parachute out, and as pilot he was still trying to get the plane back across the channel to England. The B-17s at the time flew without fighter escorts after the English Channel. The scene of their attempted return from a bombing run over Germany — with the sky filled with burning planes and blown away wings — can only be imagined as a Hell in three dimensions. My mother always told me that my father was looking down at me from heaven as I grew up.

Sometimes it takes a lot longer to describe what happened than for the thing itself to happen. My daughter Deirdre did not have time to scream, for ahead was a drunk bearing down on us at about forty miles an hour on the two-lane road, taking up both lanes. There was no time to stop and only a sliver of a second to veer off the slim shoulder over the cliff or to take the head-on smash from the car coming down on us.

What I cannot understand is how Deirdre and I survived. It seemed to me as if I had been to a rehearsal, and the stage manager had laid out the precise dimensions of almost certain death either way. Yet in slowing down the scene and carefully examining it, there was one possible chance to survive, a chance that took precision driving (at which I was no expert) and perfect timing and instinctive recognition of every deadly factor, all within a fraction of a second.

Somehow in that millisecond or two I understood everything; that if I accelerated straight at him, rather than braking — and then cramped the wheel as I braked hard, my car would spin sideways onto the narrow shoulder.  If perfectly done we would not plunge over the cliff, because exact timing would allow the drunk to nick my rear end and spin my car back forward onto the narrow shoulder. Each few inches were crucial to salvation. I swear this again and again: How I deserved to comprehend the solution — and then squeeze its execution into a mere sliver of a second — is beyond my pay grade as a human being.

As if a guiding hand was on my shoulder, I took one millisecond to plan and a second millisecond to execute, as cool and deft as a stuntman. My foot was already on the gas. I barreled straight toward the oncoming car, and jammed the wheel skidding sideways. The drunk’s car in our lane just clipped my rear bumper and spun us until my car straightened out on the right lane and shoulder — as his car roared past. The hit stopped us completely. Death had passed us by, clean and cold.

I cannot but wonder to this day if there was some connection to how my dad died up there, veering to his right, and my chance – and his granddaughter’s chance – to live so many years later. Does love, persisting through some surreal ether, provide the opportunity to rehearse a do-over, and to get it right this time?

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

Madman Muntz and the Children’s Crusade

Much of the known world does not know what the world would be like without television. And despite years of breakthroughs and Philo Farnsworth patents and World’s Fair demos, Television never seemed to catch on. Thus a phenomenon which was created in the 1920’s was still a mirage to the next generation. My generation. However, with the help of Madman Muntz and Flash Gordon, we solved the dilemma and started a children’s crusade for television.

The dilemma came down to this: Television was perfected but nobody had one. They had no reason to; there were no programs to watch. Milton Berle and Jimmy Durante and Fred Allen and a host of radio personalities, as well as Superman and the Lone Ranger, all waited anxiously for advertisers to pony up the money to take their shows to the television screen. But…the advertisers were hesitant to put up the money because (back through circle) nobody had a TV set.

Well, a few rich people had TVs, just for the novelty. In our neighborhood in Minneapolis, Dickie Mortensen’s dad was a building contractor and they got one. All they could see on the screen was the Indian test pattern and about an hour a day of local programming plus a few movie serials that kids usually saw on Saturdays with their double feature and cartoons. Flash Gordon was a favorite black and white serial, with rocket ships that sputtered along as if they ran on baking soda, and Ming the Merciless always trying to control the Universe, along with his vampy daughter. Many the night we other not-so-rich kids would sneak in from our usual neighborhood marauding to gather in a ring of eager little faces around the edges of Dickie Mortenson’s living room window. This marvel held us transfixed, until Dickie Mortenson’s dad would run us off. Flash Gordon became the legendary symbol of the TV Have-Nots.

Television would later be the pattern for two other Children’s crusades of the American midcentury, against littering the highways and against their parents’ smoking, where children all of over America, and much of the world, found that they had immense power to change the world. After they grew up with TV, children would shout “Litterbug” when parents would throw garbage out the window, and within a year in the 1960s, garbage strewn highways became pristine thoroughfares. With smoking in the 1970’s: children would mimic the anti-smoking ads on TV and wretch when their parents lit up cigarettes. Often they would steal the cigarettes and flush them down toilets. The mediaeval Children’s Crusade was a bad idea that ended in squalor and carnage, but here, in our 20th century, we kids got it right. In America, there were no greater activists than we children. The very first time we used our unique power to crusade for a better world was in 1950, when we stepped forth in song to break that wicked circle of no TV sets, no ads, no shows, thus no TV sets.

To understand how America’s children became so empowered as to bring on a national phenomenon and a record-breaking advertising medium, you have to know a little about Tom Mix. We of the radio generation would listen in the afternoons and evening after school to the radio dramas of Tom Mix, Bobby Benson and the B-BAR-B riders, Red Ryder, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, The Green Hornet, the Shadow, The Whistler, The Count of Monte Cristo, Sergeant Preston of the Mounties and his dog King, and so many more. It was a fantastic set of images in kids’ minds as they listened to the Count of Monte Christo in massive swordfights (done with clicking spoons, we know now), all in their ear’s imagination.

Of course, the commercial breaks for these shows were aimed at children. Here is how one would go with Tom Mix: The actor himself would take a break and talk straight to his radio audience. “Kids, “ he would say, “you deserve to have Instant Ralston for breakfast, and here’s what I want you to do. When you are at the grocery store with your mother, and when she isn’t looking, slip a package of Instant Ralston into the shopping cart, down in the bottom somewhere. Then, when the cashier is pulling out each item, your mother will see the Instant Ralston, and say she isn’t buying it. Then you should tell her how healthy Instant Ralston is, and if she still tells you to put it back, you should tuck the Instant Ralston package in your arms and lie down on the floor and kick and scream until she buys it to stop the embarrassment. I want you to do this for me, little buddies.”

A few of us did it, and a few of us regretted it because we were not yet a generation freed from spanking.  Then the groups of parents complained to the store, and eventually advertisers reluctantly withdrew that ad.  However, creative minds immediately went to work on dozens more. We kids were the avenue into the cupboard for cereal grains with a higher markup than pizza.

Which is where Madman Muntz came in. Mr. Muntz had a factory that made TVs, and he wanted to sell just enough TVs that advertisers would realize it would be the greatest marketing tool ever, and also realize that they had to fund the Big Talent in the radio wings so people would watch the new advertisements. This is where Madman Muntz, who must have been listening to Tom Mix, took out radio commercials to appeal directly to the children of America, asking them to lead the crusade to have their parents buy a television for the household. At some point in October of 1950, Muntz himself came on the radio in shrill tones, saying he was Madman Muntz and he was calling on every child in American to ask for a TV for Christmas. He said he wanted children to sing this song, over and over until their parents relented to buy a television.

It was sung by various Long Island kids who they must have picked up at a New York ad agency. To parents the radio kids sounded bratty. To we kids they sounded like freedom fighters. It must have been intentional casting, because it was a tone every kid could mimic to perfection. The song went: “I WANNA TELEVISION CHRISTMAS…” and that’s all. Every kid could sing it and every kid did. “I wanna television Christmas.” The radio gave them the whiny key and the words and they were off, through the months before Christmas, singing up the hallways and during their homework. When mothers sent them off to school “I wanna television Christmas” was being hummed in four parts by kids who hated their music lessons. It was such an annoying song that parents finally knew the only way to stop it: Get the family a TV for Christmas. Muntz TVs were less than $100 a set, and for the average besieged parent, that was a bargain.

So that is how television finally got started. Madman Muntz sold 400,000 televisions that Christmas, and the log jam broke. Texaco sponsored the Texaco Theater with starring Milton Berle, and soon Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca had American laughing to their variety sketches, and the baseball and football leagues televised their championships. Kids…well, kids got to see Superman flying over Metropolis and the Lone Ranger riding the plains. Kids got to see Howdy Doody and Disney’s Mouseketeers and many old western movies buried in the vaults from the 30s and 40s. Television and kids were made for each other, and kids caused the miracle of national television. You heard it here.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

The Run up Dai La Basin

Just as Hamlet had a “play within the play”, there are often business within businesses, and “wars within wars.” Hamlet wanted to win the conscience of the King, as I remember. Likewise, there are many ways to “win” within a business that have nothing to do with profit. Wars also stress winning, (at least until recently) and at Dai La Basin we had a little war within a war. This war was over my mustache.

Around Christmas 1968, I was a junior officer transferred into a Marine battalion that was guarding the perimeter of Da Nang City and its airfield. This battalion had been in heavy combat south of Da Nang, and its battalion commander, call him Lt. Colonel Robbins, had driven his men to take hills in the old Marine Corps fashion. A lot of lives were lost and then the hills were handed over to the Army which promptly lost the hills and the Marines had to take the hills back, losing even more men. This was a sore point among junior officers, who hated losing good men to salve a battalion commander’s ego.

Of course the rumors abounded about Col. Robbins and how he got his Silver Star. Apparently one night his command post on a hill was being attacked and he was parading around shouting meaningless orders and showing he had no idea what to do. In the mayhem of rockets incoming and Viet Cong sneaking up unprotected ravines, the operations officer, a major who was a Mustang (which is the name of someone who was promoted from the enlisted ranks) did know what to do, and told the battalion commander to shut up and get in his ass in his hole, and he’d take care of this. With precision this Mustang major readjusted useless fields of fire and called in artillery too close for comfort that kept the enemy off the hill. When Colonel Robbins peeked out of his hole, it was all over, and the command post was saved. Then Robbins stood up and strutted around and surveyed the situation and called it good, while the Mustang major reached for a much-needed whiskey flask. Robbins told the Mustang major he should watch the insubordination stuff, and the Mustang major said he would. They both received Silver Stars.

The battalion I was joining was called in to plug a hole in the perimeter around Da Nang. Two nights before the North Vietnamese broke through straight into the streets of Da Nang, which was an old French city and the second largest Port in Vietnam. The NVA were having a riotous good time shooting the place up, because anyone who could defend the city was out on the perimeter and not inside. But there was one thing they had not counted on: The First Marine Division Band.

The 1st MarDiv Band played a lot of John Philip Sousa pieces at military receptions for visiting US Senators who wanted to say they had seen the war. Of course one war within the war was the maneuvering for more funding from Congress, and so the 1st MarDiv Band was essential to that task.They were career Marines, and all Marines have to qualify once a year with their basic weapon, in this case an M-16 which was clean as new because the Band had little use for them. Until now. It looked like these musicians were the only ones inside Da Nang with any weapons. So they laid down the trombones and bass drums and grabbed their clean, clean weapons and piled into jeeps and took off for the NVA. Meanwhile, the NVA invaders couldn’t really achieve anything, and the sight of the 1st Marine Division Band coming down the street at them weapons blazing made them think it was indeed time to leave.

So that was the story going around with great pride in those guys in the Band who had never picked up a weapon. They’d run the NVA out of Da Nang when there was no one else to do it.

Dai La Basin was the carved out inside of a hill that overlooked Dai La Pass. In the year before during the Tet Offensive, NVA troops in large numbers had broken through at Dai La Pass. This was a devastating dishonor to the career of any career officer in command. When the action was over, the commander of that Battalion called his troops to attention, and then to “order arms”. The troops thought it was odd that they would have an inspection now, but stood rigidly with their weapons to the front. With stiff military precision, in front of the whole battalion formation, the dishonored battalion commander drew his own .45 and blew his brains out.

The inside slopes of Dai La Basin were where our troops made hooches out of panchos and slept on the ground next to holes they had dug for the surety of incoming mortars into that Basin. One of the other junior officers showed me the switch backed trails that were cut into the side of the basin. They said Robbins ran that 3 mile course every day, up the switchbacks, across the top just below the ridgeline, and back down. He had the record, they said. None of the junior officers had beaten it.

I was an extra officer for the moment as they had no open platoons to lead, so I just found the Officer’s Club, which was a slightly better constructed group of boxes with a thatched roof. I had already heard about Lt. Colonel Robbins, who held court for his junior officers there like some medieval Baron. All of them had been drinking quite a bit when I walked in. I told him I was reporting in and he immediately noticed my mustache.

He spoke with a broad accent from the Virginia hills. Some said Robbins was a hog farmer who couldn’t make it there, so he joined up. “Are you a fairy, Hon?”

“Uh…No, sir.”

“I think you are probably a fairy. You know they are a lot of fairies have mustaches. But none of my officers have mustaches. I think I’d better not see that mustache on you next time I see you.”

“There is a problem with that, sir.”

He squinted through his whiskey glass. “Son, I’m your battalion commandah, and I don’t see any problem at all when I order you to take off that mustache.”

“It’s about the Geneva Convention sir. My picture on my Geneva Convention card has a mustache, and the fine print says the card is not to be modified.”

“But it doesn’t say your face can’t be modified.”

“Well, I was thinking, sir, you really don’t want any fairies in your battalion. And someone who could beat your record running Dai La Basin certainly couldn’t be a fairy.”

Everyone was really drunk, and now they were really entertained. He stood up, wobbly, and started to tower over me as I sat. “You’re saying you can run faster than your battalion commandah. None of these here can.”

“If I beat it, I keep the mustache.”

He reddened; he was incensed. I wondered if my short career was on the decline. But then he decided he liked the idea. “Hell yes, Hon. But when you lose you not only have to shave that thing, but you come back here and tell everyone you are indeed a fairy.”

We set the next morning for my run and although no one had announced this to the battalion, in the hooches up and down the Basin trail they were all up and standing alongside the trail. There was more to this than the run. They hated this battalion commander for the way he wasted lives in battle, strutted about as if he were their lord. Just the fact that I had challenged him made me one of the safer officers in Vietnam, one of them told me in confidence.

Robbins was holding a stopwatch as I started up the switchbacked trail. I had done the required running in officer training, but I had also been left wing on the college soccer team. The left wing is always racing down the full length of the field and it is estimated that they sometime sprint 9 miles within a game. Some game, this.

I dug dug dug like a goat to get altitude and all along the way troops were saying “let’s go, sir.” “Let’s get him, sir.” And as I was cruising along below the ridgeline on the top someone along the top said I was 10 seconds behind his time. Then it was down, down, down the switchbacks, letting my legs stride out and glide and make up time time. And all way the troops were clapping and cheering. As I neared the finish a huge cheer filled the basin, the cheer rolled through all the hooches and buoyed me as I finished. The troops were jumping up and down and shouting. I’ve had applause a few times, but this was crazy jubilant applause that welled on and on as I crossed the finish line.

“I didn’t get the time. The watch stopped.” Robbins was trying to welch on this in the face of the deafening battalion voicing their revenge in an unmistakable din.

The Mustang major sidled up to Robbins, with his own stopwatch. He showed the result. ”That’s OK, sir. I’ve got it.”

Robbins shook his head. “What is it.?”

“He beat your time by 8 seconds.”

“So I’ve got a fairy on my hands,” said Robbins, glowering at me.

“Looks like it, sir. But I’ll keep it trimmed.”

Wars come and wars go, but this mustache was hard-won, and I kept it for a while.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

Staring Down the Money

 “Compensation” is the American business way of saying “pay”. If you look at that word, it would seem to mean that because you don’t like work (whatever it is), you have to be compensated for those bad feelings, and for the amount that you don’t like it. The flip side of this premise is that any kind of work is OK as long as you are compensated. Everyone, it is said, has his or her price. But what is more true, I found, is that we each decide how to live, based on the times and conditions before us.

My American Heart Association CPR simulator, which used video discs and a manikin controlled by computer, gained enough notoriety in 1985 at various US trade shows to also be known to China. The General Electric Personal Computer Division asked me to spend a week there showing the technology to the Chinese. Not just any Chinese, as it turned out. The 5th Party Congress of the People’s Republic of China brought all of the key representatives from all over China to a few weeks of planning their future. Little did I know how key they would be, or how I much would figure into their future.

Luckily I had a passport, but the critical item I did not have was a business card in Chinese. I had just started my own business in Interactive Media and the Heart Association allowed me to represent the system I had built for them a year earlier. I had about 3 days to get such a card. I took the phrase “Interactive Media” to the Chinese Language department at the University of Washington. I had no time to double check with other translators. It was supposed to say “Interactive Media” but It could have said “This person is an idiot from the West,” as far as I knew.

There were three days left before I boarded the plane to China, and I had no cards which was, in Asia, like having no existence at all. So I looked around Seattle phonebooks for someone who could print up 100 cards with whatever it said about me. The front desk person said yes they did things in Chinese for clients, and I should stop by and talk with them. I did, and they were slick young businessmen who told me of the high speed presses they had. When I said I wanted 100 cards to go to China with, it looked like not such big business to them. They said they could have this small order in a couple of weeks. I was crushed.

Fortunately there was a stooped little man in a black printers apron who had been listening at the periphery of our meeting. I thought he was some shop guy. I was wrong. He was the father. Without upstaging his sons attempts to make big business, he came in his short strides over to me. He could see I was crestfallen. “How soon?” he said.

“Two days, so it looks impossible.” I said, from my fallen crest.

“Maybe not…impossible. You have cards?” He said. I said I did.

“I can make you Chinese woodblock print for the back of your cards.”

No kidding. A printing method that far proceeded Gutenburg, smack in the middle of the new computer age. “Could you…Please?”

And that is how I walked into China with head held high, with my own wooden block print saying “Interactive Media.”

Apparently the invitation sent was signed by cabinet level ministers, because in Shanghai I was rushed through a customs that looked like an upscale refugee camps. People must have been there for weeks as officialdom stamped things and check them again and then closed down for yet another day of waiting. But as I say, the people escorting me shouted something in Chinese and waved whatever official visa they had given me, and waters parted.

It seems there was a reason behind all this. They did take me to the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs, but they also worked me about 10 hours a day making demonstrations in the grand Beijing Hotel of my computer driven video and the CPR system, which fascinated them. In the evening we would go out with people from everywhere in China who were representatives in Beijing for this 5th Party Congress, and each section of the country would order their specialties, like thousand day old fermented eggs from the South, and a horses spinal cord butter-basted and fried from the North. It was all good. Finally, on the next to the last night I was there, we had private showings for the top ministers. One of them, the minister for Technology, said he really liked what I had shown, and wanted to do that sort of thing for China. However, he said, he was a little short of cash. I joke – a little – that I could probably trade for oil. He said he would try to think of a way.

The next after all the ordinary demos for the day, they had me stay later to do private demos for even higher ranking ministers. The translator had it down by now, but at one point a pudgy little minister, the Minister for Finance, leaned back in his chair and said “Hey, I don’t need the translator. I was a record executive in L.A.” I learned later that many young American Chinese had given up successful careers to join the revolution, and become part of the new China.

Also among the ministers on this last evening in the Beijing Hotel was the minister for Security. After the majority of high ranking officials at the evening session had gone, the ministers for Technology, Finance, and Security gathered in a little cluster at some distance from me, deciding what they would say. Finally the minister for Technology came over alone. “We would like to know if something could be done,” he said, carefully. I said I would try to give him an answer.

“We want to put every Chinese on one frame of the videodisc. Then we make relational data bases to store like a ‘juke box. Can this be done?’”

I almost giggled when I heard him say “juke box,” but then I began to put it together. This was a big project. It would have every Chinese in a system which could be drawn up immediately.

“Yes, I think so.” I said, calculating like crazy in my mind.

“How much can it cost?”

“Well,” still stalling and calculating because I knew he would need an answer very soon. “It would take an almost unlimited commitment by China of workers to compile this mass of data, and you would pay for all the equipment and incidentals involved.”

He nodded. “ OK, and how much does it cost?”

1 billion people, each on a disc frame of data, 54,000 frames per disc. 200 videodisc players linked together. I figured about $50 million for the job, and $20 million profit. This was for everyone in China. “It could be done for about $70 million, “ I said, somehow without gulping as I said it.

The minister of Technology went back to the huddle, and the minister of Security was looking pleased and the minister of Finance was looking dour indeed, But he finally must have said OK. The minister of Technology started back to me, but I had also been working some things out in my head. I had never made much in my life, and my little startup was struggling on every thousand dollars that came in the door. I had remortgaged my house to make payroll, and yet the wolf that eats small companies was braying out in the street once more.

As the minister of Technology came closer, I knew he was pleased to come back with positive answers from the other ministers. And yet I already had started another calculation, a very different calculation.

“Yes,” said the minister of Technology, firm in my eyes, “we want you to do it.”

At that point some different calculations flashed past my mind, like some videodisc frames going 30 frames a second, each with an individual life, and each individual life in the palm of my hand. I wondered if someone had had that opportunity to catalogue Jews in Nazi Germany, so they could be categorized and located and indexed and filed away dead. I saw something in the future I did not like.

“I did say that it could be done for that amount, but I didn’t say I would do it. “

The minister of Technology looked severely non-plussed. Who was this in front of him? What was this person saying? “You would not do it? For $70 million dollars?”

“Actually,” I said, “This is not the sort of thing my company does. You can see from my demonstration that we are mainly into lifesaving and other training.”

“But you maybe could do it.”

“Probably, if that was the kind of thing we do. But it is not. I am very sorry.”

He carried the message to the back of the room and the meeting closed very quickly. They were looking at me like this was no businessman that they had ever seen.

Of course, they were right. I ended up as a mediocre businessman at best. My kids had to work through college and as it turned out, my company did well enough for several more years…until it didn’t.

That China opportunity was in 1985. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre a few years later, the ministers of Security wanted to round up every dissident and the families of every dissident, quickly, before all the enemies of the state could disperse. However, when they really needed it, they didn’t have enough data in hand, or in a cohesive relational data base that could be drawn up quickly by computer. Something like what I didn’t do.

So it remains clear that I did not make a large success of things, and the few who’ve heard my story said well clearly something could have been done, some compromise could have been made. I guess they were right. In this case I probably just lacked the imagination and the ability to compromise when I saw what lives would clearly be compromised. I wish I could say that I slept supremely well, as I saw those solutions and compromises — and money — go by the board, but even at that point I knew that soon, very soon, someone else would do it for them.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved