Abe Lincoln’s Other Hobby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

Beating the Curves on the Pig Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

Folks Who Were Folk Singers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved