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

The Greatest American Adventure

I guess the rest of the world has their business-creation methods, and who’s to say what’s best?  I do know that in America if you have an idea that is anywhere near solid — meaning other people see a way that they can make good money from it — then you can probably enter into the Greatest American Adventure…the small start-up business. There are many reasons people find to strike out on their own…more reward from your efforts, more control of your destiny, ability to shape your work environment. My reason was to be able to make more and different realistic simulators, such as my CPR simulator for the American Heart Association. I did not see anyone else doing this, and I knew in my heart that it was needed, and I knew I could do it well. Ah, youth.

For about a year, I talked to various people about providing money for me and others who would be working with me. It was no coincidence that I was giving talks around the country to medical, training, and computer conferences, all of whose participants were highly interested in CPR Learning System I was making, all for their different reasons. The Medical people saw it as a way to transfer physical skills across the medical world, and this actually became the most rewarding avenue. The Training people saw my simulators as a way to change behaviors in a predictable way, in processes that could be easily evaluated. The Computer people saw my interfaces with computers as leading-edge use of their nascent (1983) “distributed computing” industry, with software and hardware which were easily understandable by non-technical people – a real problem for them then, and even now.

So this was an ideal situation for me to explore starting a new business for two reasons:

  1. As I mentioned, I was quite visible with a lot of speeches and articles. The New York Times and Training Magazine and Byte Magazine did print stories because it was an interesting idea in print. CBS, among others, did news stories on the CPR simulator because it was a visual one on television. One television “clip” was when I did Congressional Testimony in Washington, D.C. with the story on Diane Sawyer’s evening news. American Airlines also picked this up for their in-air magazine. I remember getting late-night calls from friends who flew from New York to Los Angeles and ( probably with a few drinks to make them jolly) were delirious at seeing one of their own so exalted.
  2. The American Heart Association wanted to get a return on their investment by having some company license and distribute the CPR learning system. My many talks were critical to that goal of theirs, and so when the trips were paid for by the conference sponsors, I was allowed quite enough travel to also meet people who might be interested in funding my business. I had been National Training Manager and the AHA gave me the title of Director of Advanced Technology Development. (Titles by the way, are sometimes just cheap rewards.)

If it sounds like a sweetheart situation instead of a sweat hard beginning, I have to admit I was naïve and somewhat stupid in feeling the direction should be so obvious. In the first place, though people liked the idea in almost every encounter, it was an abstract (, shall we say intellectual,) interest. I should have learned with the Texas Instruments programmable calculators – which took years to catch on – that any idea that does not create a high-perceived need in people is not a potent idea for a business. In the case of the TI’s programmable calculators, the market had to be educated to desire that capability. Many companies die trying to educate a market (, and mine almost did as well).

To make my stupidity even more clear, I will give you two personal instances where there was a high-perceived need that a real entrepreneur would have grabbed up and run with. The first was in 1976 when fairly stable geopositional (look it up) communications satellites started licensing block units of “transponder time” to hundreds of small entities which would then break these into smaller time slots and rent them to news, sports and other groups for real-time communications relayed through bouncing off these transponders. There was always the risk, in outer space, of the sun burning out a satellite which flew too close or an asteroid playing the cue ball to knock the satellite into a dark hole.  Or more likely, of the satellite merely getting lost. However, to me this parcel sharing looked like real estate leasing. I mentioned to one investor that someone ought to make a large scale Transponder Investment Trust on the model of Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT). He got the idea immediately and in a flash, reached for his checkbook to get some money down. That was high-perceived need in action…But I was young and naïve and dissuaded him, saying that I did not have the full business available for investment. Ah yes.

A second example was recently when my son Liam and I were looking to make a write-off business with our money consuming sailboat. Since 57% of funerals in the state of Washington involve cremation, and since we lived beside a body of water which would allow human ashes, my son made the pitch to funeral directors that we could do “burials at sea” for the funeral homes, taking the ashes out into Puget Sound with some ceremony (– imagine night time torches, etc). The directors he began talking with immediately saw this as an added-value product with high-perceived need for some of the bereaved and wanted to put us on the program for regional funeral directors. (This was not an attractive idea to another important family member, so it fizzled). I wonder how many earthshaking endeavors went dark in this way before they started.

So anyway, I did not start my first and only company with such key proposition, a product with high-perceived need that was instantly understood by someone with money. It had a cool factor that got everyone’s attention, but it did not have a reach-for-your-wallet impact that indeed makes a business.

I finally procured a small dribble of investment money from an “angel” in New York City who was dabbling in small software companies. I had a chance to start the business in Boston which would have been wise, or in Seattle, which was a universe away from a lot of East Coast business ( and money). The advantage of Boston would have been a welcoming community of software people. I had already given a number of talks at MIT and Harvard. It would also have been a much shorter distance from New York and Washington, D.C. from which new-project moneys most easily flow. Seattle, on the other hand, had a fairly sparse software pool in 1983. Microsoft was still owned and run by a 27 year old Bill Gates (whose small company had just released Word for MS-DOS for the new IBM-PC,) with a few others, at the time nothing to compare in size or income with Silicon Valley companies.

Distance for us was the killer: the Pacific Northwest was too far for potential clients to fly in a day, and was of course the same distance for me to visit most potential clients. Someone in Boston could air-shuttle down to New York or Washington, and make it back to one’s own bed that night. Had I been in Boston I would probably have had 7-10 times the potential clients at hand. I also might have gotten my first heart attack, because clients who were even slightly interested expected a 20-page proposal the next week. Some tough entrepreneurs I knew in similar businesses spent 100+ hours a week doing fruitless proposal after fruitless proposal before one hit. Some were successful. Some died young.

My mode of operation (and survival) was to go to a meeting with an interested party. Most of them had the decency not to invite me to visit from across the country unless they were more than mildly interested. Then I would follow up with a note about our visit, suggesting the best first step would be a feasibility study rather than a full-blown proposal. This would be a 20-page discussion of ways our potential product could be down, with costs and time frames for each of at least 2 directions. Often I included a video demo showing what the product would look like. I did not do a high volume business from Seattle, but I would say I got the business with a very high percentage of these feasibility studies, with some money coming in immediately.

When you start a small business, it seems to me that ( ,unless you are rich — which has its own problems,) you come from one of two directions: you either move from a position of stability and comfort to one of constant insecurity, or else you have been placed in that position, such as being let go from your day job. One apparent option is to start your own business, but that is scary to most people. The odds and the prospects for dismal failure are so strong that, after seeing only one or two cars stop at their lemonade stand as a kid, few people will start small businesses just for fun. That said, I believe everyone needs to be involved with a small startup business at least once. Things you thought you knew about teamwork and product viability and actual survival require the most shocking redefinition almost daily. The “wolf” of bankruptcy and shame and unpaid workers and dissatisfied investors and creditors taking your house is always down the street, and too often that wolf is howling at your door. The concept of “aged-payables” (prioritizing who of your vendors and suppliers gets paid) is core to bookkeeping in a small business. In a gallows-humor sort of way, that kind of cliff hanging makes the experience, and of course any temporary bullet-dodging success, at least absorbing if not actually fun. The key is whether the little company can hang on through months, and even years, of despair.

Back in the early 1980’s a group of successful entrepreneurs participated in a study where they were asked to rank-order several phrases describing key abilities a small business founder must have. Knowledge of markets, team leadership abilities, objective decision making, cash flow management… these and many others were offered to the group of seven successful entrepreneurs, some of whom you may know by name. 5 of the 7 entrepreneurs on the panel instantly selected this one ability: to work through despair. At some point we all have the opportunity to learn — or to fail — this most important lesson of any lifetime, to continue to work through despair. Though I will relate here various interesting successes in my business, I will not talk further of those frequent months of despair – God knows it is like the mariner standing out on the windless foredeck, straining his eyes out across a pitiless, calm sea for any slight bump of land on the horizon. Though I’m considered an optimist, I swear this utter despair often lasted for months without a snippet of good news, draining every personal penny I could find, exhausting every good idea, watching good people leave me from lack of faith, and yet there would remain still more weeks of sheer despair with no schedule for its ending. Unless I am not as smart as most, it seems to me that despair must also be part of our Great American Adventure…

It did help that most of my previous employers had allowed me to creatively add value, and to develop directions that were new and unusual to the basic training jobs I held. The formula is that you do the prescribed job in spades and then add immensely greater value with spinoffs and targets of opportunity. Of course, that is about what you do in your own business, without the safety net. And without having to negotiate leases. And without having to meet a payroll monthly. And without having to understand medical and 401(K) plans. And without having to hold the hands of temperamental technical types. But most differently, in your own business you get up every morning hoping you can kill enough to eat.

Company names at the time favored the Greeks. We wanted a company name that somehow suggested videodiscs. There was a god named Ixion who for his sins was strapped to a revolving wheel in Hades, so of course we called the company Ixion. (Later, searching for trademarks, I discovered the Ixion tire company in El Paso.) Under that shingle, I was able to bring Jane, plus two others to Seattle to work with me, basically trying to drum up initial business and hopefully interest little more investment. This, of course, necessitated that the partner to the Great American Adventure had to be the Great American Business Plan. My contention is that anyone who can write a novel can knock off a Great American Business Plan in a few weekends. Numerous examples – mostly failures where there is no vital info – will show you the structure and the blanks to fill in. Speculation and facts can be artfully mixed by any second rate novelist. Patents also help, but they take a better grade of novelist.

On the other hand, we did have something real to offer. Jane and I were by that time extremely knowledgeable on videodiscs, with our early start on the CPR simulator. That first year we scraped together training videodiscs with A T & T, GTE Directories, and for IBM a now long-buried set of point-of -view flight games for interactive videotape (with which we had actually done some pioneering work in 1979 with the first CPR prototype-demo). We also made our own traveling demo disc, run by a TRS-80 100, Radio Shack’s little portable computer the size of a book. On that disc we created an interactive scenarios dramatizing answers from a salesman to a difficult Client, and in the 3 wrong answers, cut to Close up of the Boss glaring into the camera saying “You did what?!!!”It was always funny and repetition made it funnier. It was always instructive because the narrator told the viewer why each answer was wrong and finally, why the 4th correct answer was the right one.

More importantly, we had interactive action demos. In “Stop the Shoplifter,” you saw a 15-second pan across several people in aisles of a clothing store handling merchandise as they looked it over. You stopped the action when you saw the shoplifter and the screen numbered the potential shoplifters for you to select one. Then the wrong answers continued their actions to show that that they were not the shoplifters. (This one went over particularly well in China, for some reason. Crime may be the universal language.) We also had a very popular demo for my Las Vegas talks at the Consumer Electronics Show and National Association of Broadcasters show. It was a simple shell game, shot in real time three times with three different outcomes. The software programming was called drop down random wherein each time the selection was made (A B or C on the screen) the program rescrambled the 3 shells with peas and 3 empty ones, deposited them in a hierarchy of variables, and dropped down the bottom variable from the box. I did that for a crowd of 2000 in Las Vegas once and had them saying “Power to the People.” Fun as these were, the most important one was a welding simulator, where you actually adjusted the flame on a welding torch to more and less intense by holding down on one of two keys. You could “feel” the variations as you held down a key, and it was not a lot different from turning a dial. This latter demo translated eventually into a welding simulator for the Academy of Aeronautics at La Guardia in New York, later quite a bit of medical instrument business.

So that first year was just staying alive with a couple of videodisc programs, and a feasibility project on an arthroscopy simulator, jointly (so to speak) with M.I.T’s Architecture Machine Group — which was later to become the Media Lab. Our second year was staying alive with couple of those feasibility studies and finally a project from Merck, who wanted to simulate Upper G.I. endoscopies to attract physicians to their booths at shows. I volunteered my body to take internal pictures which we could insert into a demo for the feasibility study. Having some background making good but cheap video was a distinct advantage. Whatever it costs you, when you are basically selling ideas, a five-minute videotape imitating a future reality can do wonders for getting support for the final, much larger projects which have a whole lot more money attached. It is equally effective in carrying your large project through those yearly budget reviews and company reorganizations (, where projects that are hard to understand – and operations with few results to show — are unceremoniously dropped from the future. Contracts be damned, these companies have more lawyers than you could ever afford.)

With that first Merck Upper G.I Endoscopy Simulator, we had attained some stability and some respectability. It appeared that we were started, and somehow I continued 14 years as President and CEO of IXION without missing a payroll. Truth be told, despite having a Great American Business Plan worthy of any fictional novel, even our mild success was a surprise. Having started a company which still had no apparent source of revenue, I had absolutely no idea which direction to go from there, but only to let the lucky winds blow and hope we had enough tattered sail left to capture them, and enough ballast to keep from capsizing.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

Glimpses Through a 4-Year-Old’s Memory Scope

It is debatable whether dredging up perceptions from the past helps you understand the present. Of course, psychiatrists try to dig out memories of childhood trauma, but I don’t think I had those kinds of problems. Probably I did not understand enough to be mixed-up, whistling my 4-year-old whistle past those acres and miles of graveyards (, or I might have joined the crowd).

I do remember quite a bit from 1946, when I was 4 years old. Of course I didn’t know that Hitler and the Japanese had both been beaten and to the great relief of Germans and Japanese, they were not to become slaves of the victorious countries. The Marshall Plan and MacArthur’s occupation both put the world on a trip to prosperity instead of the decimation of vanquished countries as had been the rule throughout prior history. A neat trick, to say the least. As a 4-year-old, I was bobbing along in those mighty currents, as curious about learning Life as any 4-year-old before. Luckily, that life did not for some time contain another deathly war – at least for the 4-year-old.

It was actually quite a happy time for me as a 4-year-old. I cannot remember now my father who left to fly B-17s over Germany when I was about two. He was missing in action for about two years. So at the age of 4, I stayed a lot of the time with grandparents and aunts and second cousins, and everyone paid maximum attention to me. Now – at 70 years remove — I hear that, with remote prisoner camps and remote graves in remote crannies of the world, it was years before there was enough evidence of a soldier’s death for his widow to remarry. Those who started dating too soon were seen as brazen and unfeeling. Hard to say exactly what “too soon” was, and how long to wear black, but your friends would tell you.

Right alongside that time” stigma was a necessity for war widows to marry again. Their biological window was shrinking as surely as that of thirty-year-olds now. One of the cruel residuals of WWII was that many of the prettiest and brightest women were available right after the war, and some with no kids. Many were much more mature than they had been when they married soldiers and knew a lot more what they were looking for besides true love. There were, of course, a lot of the less attractive men around, because so many of the strongest and handsomest men had given themselves to the war. In truth, Life’s cruel advantages sort of evened themselves out, but with everyone only moderately happy. The pretty widows had lost their first true loves, and the men who claimed these prizes yet knew, for all their future lives together, that they were second best.

Widows with one or more children had a greater problem. I discovered just a few years ago, at a conference of World War II orphans in Seattle, that many widows sent their kids to a grandmother’s or a sister’s house and only sheepishly brought up the fact to a suitor once they were becoming seriously involved. And with good reason. In many, many cases the young male suitors went running off when they learned there were kids involved. In some of the orphan’s minds, as they approached their late sixties at the time of this Seattle Conference, the men who ran off were worse than second best and the pretty widow-moms were better off without them.

However, everyone seemed quite cheery to me. Little did I know at four what tolls the war took, in shattered loves of their lives, in sons who had just become men coming back in boxes, in sisters and cousins and uncles and everyone in a the vast connection of souls that the war short-circuited. Because my mother’s mother’s sister, Aunt Lucille, was especially fond of Sunday dinners, we spent Sundays there. Aunt Lucille was a bit fat with a boisterous Oklahoma incredulity that broke into laughter all around. When she hugged me to her heavy breasts and started a lot of sentences with “Boy Howdy” I did not feel much could be wrong in the world. She had a ne’er do well high school son named Dane who would slink into Sunday dinner and go out back with some friends and a bottle. And Barbara was a freshman in high school whom I thought truly pretty except for her acne. She barely listened to me, though. The older people were the ones who made me feel special.

Actually, come to think of it, I was pretty special, in that I was the only male survivor in three families. My father had been an only child. My grandmother had married my grandfather in Seminole, Oklahoma where her parents had come by covered wagon from Tennessee — my great grandmother a direct descendant of Davy Crockett. My grandfather had come down from Illinois with the railroad and got a job as a supervisor in the new Seminole oil fields. Apparently they were a rough crowd (known as “roughnecks” who manipulated the big pipes around on the oil drilling rigs), and he had to be a bit rougher to keep them in line. He was kind but unschooled, and my grandmother was very pretty and very smart and in Seminole, Oklahoma in those days I guess he was a catch and so was she. She had had two girls born as “blue babies” whose lack of circulation killed them within weeks of their birth. Modern medicine was not much in the 1930s, and out in the Oklahoma oil fields there were no incubators or newborn care units. They lived or they died with how strong their basic constitution was.

When she was about forty, my grandmother fell down some concrete stairs from the front porch of their house when their little dog ran between her legs. She had to wear braces and use crutches and wheelchairs the rest of her life, and my grandfather loved her and was devoted to her. To me she was extremely kind and we had long intelligent conversations (for a four year old). She was ever demanding of her “Arthur” and was often as grumpy with his slow actions as he was diligent and devoted to moving his “Robbie” (for Robin) about and bringing her whatever she might need. I felt sorry for him, and as I think back, I loved him for that selflessness. Some things even a 4-year-old can see.

My Grandma Hon loved to sit with me in her rocker. She would sing me songs from Tennessee, and tell me stories of Davy Crockett and bear-hunting in Tennessee and of his death at the Alamo. These were things she had known from her mother’s family, years before Walt Disney dragged out a coonskin cap and made him a folk hero of early television. As I think back, the focus on me was a monumental distraction from the worry about their son flying a heavy piece of sheet metal through in the middle of all hell. And their apprehension in not hearing from him suddenly. And the letters from men in his plane whom he’d ordered to bail out, asking if she knew about the whereabouts of others who had scattered across an unwelcoming Germany in their parachutes. Occasionally she would hear about one or the other who had made it back to safety, or who was alive in a prison camp, and she would write that to the others. It was all in letters that took so long to travel, while the worries were daily, hourly and the worries built up all the more waiting for news from letters.

My mother’s mother, Grandmother Ridgway (with no “e”), occasionally took me to her house, where she was a master seamstress and made dazzling quilts with intricate patchwork. The Kansas towns on the prairie where she had grown up had many of these true artists, lauded in their communities but totally obscure to the rest of the world for all their lives. One of my first intellectual feats was when this grandmother let me play Canasta with two other ladies she brought around. (I remember that they all looked at my cards and told me what to play.) It was hot in the Oklahoma summers and we had only fans whirring around. She poured me Dr. Pepper over a glassfull of ice while we played, and that was pretty much heaven for me.

All this went on for me while the war thundered to a close across two oceans, and everyone listened to the radio and read the newspapers and grew more and more sure it would be over. But there was always one question. Was my father just missing in action, but still alive? And would the war be over before it took him in, like so many others?

My mother, Daphne, and my father, Clint, had graduated from the University of Oklahoma – she in Education and he in Geological Engineering. He worked looking for oil for Standard Oil about a year before he was drafted into the Army Air Corps. Because she had me as an infant, my mother lived at home with her parents in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She spent time among relatives, and most of her Tulsa friends were from her days, only a few years before, at Central High School there in Tulsa.

Central High School in Tulsa had two distinguished alumni from 1938, the year my mother and father graduated. One was Tony Randall, who became a well-known Hollywood actor in The Odd Couple and many other movies. The other was Paul Harvey, who had a syndicated radio show with lots of opinion and a distinctive style that was easy to listen to (, and millions did listen). Both of these seniors from Central High School entered the all-city speech contest, and so did my father. My father won it with a speech on how armaments manufacturers had fomented the First World War so they could profit from all sides.

In those high school days, my father and my mother went steady, but Charlie, his best friend went along with them constantly. It seemed they were always a threesome and always got along swimmingly. Charlie had gone into the Navy and was still in training to be a tail gunner when the war ended, and in 1946 they let almost all the draftees out. I remember him visiting my mother a lot of times, still in his Navy seaman’s outfit, home in Tulsa until they official released him. Charlie was the funniest person everyone one knew, but not because he was a show-off clown. It was because he observed each situation and a put a pleasant, and never mean, humor to it. I personally remember being in stitches as Charlie talked as if he was the voice of our brown eyed dog, who sat thinking things about all these people in the room. I could see that the threesome must have had great fun in high school. I thought about that as I grew older. Although she was in love with my father, I am sure Charlie loved her then, and as the girl member of a threesome, I’m sure she knew that on some level.

Charlie saw my mother quite a lot in the months after the war was over. It had been over a year since my father was officially dead, and my mother married Charlie, kissing him at the alter while holding my 4-year-old hand. That is how I came to move to Minnesota in the dead of winter with my mother and Charlie, who had returned to work in Minneapolis for a new airline, Northwest. I really couldn’t have had it any better than in that loving family. My toes froze but I learned to skate on frozen basketball courts in the parks, and wished I’d been old enough to play some kid hockey as well.

Well, life rolled on past the Millennium but it still had more cards to show from when I was 4 years old. Because Charlie had gone to work for Northwest Airlines in 1942, when Delta Airlines acquired Northwest in 2008, my sister Sue called one day. “Hey” she said, “you know Delta gives us all free passes now?”

It was true. Dependents of retirees got free passes to anywhere Delta flies, always on standby, but as many trips as you wanted. Suddenly in 2009 I would take trips overseas and trips to friends on other coasts, a trip to France for an emergency book negotiation, a trip to make some talks in Tokyo. Better yet, most of the overseas trips were in first class because those seats did not fill up. Each time, of course, I would travel standby, and within the U.S. I learned to go at days and times when flights were not fully booked. One of the really fortunate things I discovered while waiting in those standby lines was about Charlie’s seniority in the combined airlines. Because he went to work for the young Northwest Airlines in 1942, thus at age 65 until I was 71 (when Charlie died,) I was not only the oldest living dependent in Delta, but first in line when they looked at employment seniority.

Funny the lucky things that just keep happening on your way from 4 years old.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved