The Watermelon Seeds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

In the Business of Time for a Long Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Blatant lying,” said another group in manufacturing.

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

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

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

“Correct.” They were getting a little impatient.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

Everyone Should Have a Mother Like This

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved