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

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

Loving Women Who Run

Sometimes you have a fascination and you don’t really admit it. Sometimes it even takes many long years for you to come to terms with it. Mine is: I think I am predisposed to love women who run.

You can see women who run at 3 years old on a beach, at 12 years old on a soccer field, at 35 years running on fitness trails, and even at 65 running for a tennis ball. Like wild mustangs, it’s the living gusto of their hair flying and arms pumping, and also… they seem to float. Why is it that men, for all their strength and speed, never seem to float? Men lumber along, and they sometimes drive with great horsepower…but they don’t float. Take it back…Baryshnikov seemed to float, but that was a different stage.

I found out my wife Brenda was a runner when she decided to run off some lethargy after our second boy was born. She entered the 8-mile Turkey Trot in Dallas, and won it. Brenda mentioned once that when she was very young and very poor, the Irish seaside community of Kinsale would have festive days and she would win money in the kids races.

That first Turkey Trot started a long progression of Brenda running while the boys were in school, or I watched the boys and we sometimes went out to watch her. Most boys moms did not run, but ours grew up thinking it was the usual thing. Brenda was invited to be in a women’s running club in Dallas, the Metroplex Striders, and she was able get expert workouts with coaches for 5,000 and 10,000 meter races along with ex-college runners and others who took running dead seriously. 5 to 10 miles a day of running gave her lasting health benefits, of course, but one drawback… Brenda went through running shoes rapidly, and there was no mileage guarantee as you would have on automobile tires.

However, there was also a solution to the constant need for shoes…New running shoes were often prizes by running shoe companies. Brenda would thus win shoes by winning races. Running was just beginning to become popular and in events like the Six Flags season opening 10K run, they would give occasional trips to other running events. In this way, modest as our income was, Brenda could stay in shoes and take some running trips around the country and, as it turned out, the world.

Once when she won the local Six Flags opener, a local radio station had as a prize a trip to any marathon in the U.S. Brenda had her heart set on running the Dublin marathon, but it took a little talking. I told the people at the radio station that Fairbanks, Alaska was almost as far as Dublin from Dallas – a few hundred miles difference. There were not at that time any marathons in Fairbanks, Alaska and the local big airline, Braniff, did not fly to Fairbanks, so I convinced the radio station manager that they could accomplish the same prize and also tout the new flights of Braniff to London. So that is how Brenda got to run the Dublin marathon, visit her sisters, and become an international runner-mom with kids in tow.

We also raised a daughter, Deirdre, who ran. Women who run run after soccer balls and basketballs and tennis balls… floating all the way…in my eyes at least. It should have been obvious to us from birth. Brenda kept running – 9 months pregnant – until 3 days before she delivered Deirdre. They were in the delivery room and I was still struggling in a dark hospital closet (where they stuck me to put on my paper shoe covers) when I heard this little squall pierce the air. I went into the delivery room to see this naked little baby girl writhing on a pedestal with a towel over it and then…to everyone’s amazement, little Deirdre rolled completely over, almost off the pedestal, before they caught her. Those of you who’ve had kids know they sometimes take months to roll over, and here she was doing it fresh into the world. One theory was that Brenda running all through that pregnancy thoroughly oxygenated her baby, and so our Deirdre was ready to go from the first minutes. Brenda’s Metroplex Strider team came up with a pair of baby running shoes, coupled with the pronouncement that when she turns 13 she is ours.

One Dallas running event, held for Easter, was a 6-mile husband-and-wife team run, called the Bunny Hop. The idea was that the men would go charging along ahead and their wives would be dragging along miles behind. It occurred to us that if Brenda beat the man in the best combo, all I would have to do is beat the wife. (Are you still beating the wife?) I was playing soccer at the time and they say you run 5 or 6 miles a game, so I guessed I could make it. I had learned pacing somewhere and so I did the first 2 mile lap around city park course in 14:57 minutes with Brenda well ahead but with the other man and wife blasting along together a good ways ahead of me also. But I was patient and did not want to burn out. At the 4-mile mark, I was 30 minutes on nose and just about even with the wife. Brenda was, not surprisingly, ahead of the man of the other pair, with a long hill in front of her.

As it turned out, Brenda always adored running hills, especially running up hills.  It’s a valuable preference for a distance runner, as hills are where many running careers go to die. I thought that might be my case as well, as I edged out ahead of the tiring wife going into that last long hill. By now a lot of the trailing — and leading – spouses were stopping and walking that killer hill. I kept going past many of them, and the wife was just behind me so I had to keep running. I swore that if she stopped to walk I would stop to walk as well, but each time I looked back, she was still chugging up the hill behind me. I looked back 7 times and on my eighth look over my shoulder…she had stopped running and was walking. I’ve got her, I’ve got her I thought as I trudged on, barely running to make it over the top, and then to glide downhill, watching Brenda far in the distance leaving the husband well behind in a final downhill sprint…floating over the finish line. We won — I with the lesser half of the trophy medal.

My granddaughter Clodagh is running now. At four years old she just runs in random long bursts of bellowing glory across the grass of a park, but as I look at her I swear she is floating…and I think: here is one more woman I love who runs.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

One Finger, One Note

Elegance is one of the most poorly defined words in the language. Here’s a usual definition of elegance: ”the quality of being graceful and stylish in appearance or manner, the quality of being pleasingly ingenious and simple; neatness.” From this definition you get the impression of some French Renaissance fop daintily folding his gloves and looking down his nose at the goose liver pate’. We are ill-served by this definition, to the detriment of humankind, really. Because true elegance is the creation of a premise universal enough to work for a multitude of circumstances, and yet stay concise and simple.

Computer programmers call it elegant when the best of them can make 8 lines of code do the work of 2,000. In that world, and in most others, elegant is cool. And yet, it is more. That which is elegant opens possibilities in a simple way that was never conceived before.

Angioplasty is taking the body’s enemy, plaque in the artery, then inserting a balloon with a catheter and cracking the plaque back along the sides of the artery, where it sets again like a concrete pipe, protecting precious blood flow to and from the heart. Think people up from their deathbed running marathons. Angioplasty, when we saw it, was a medically elegant solution.

Salman Kahn in his Kahn Academy dissertation on Evolution, says – more or less — that Evolution is God’s elegant system of perpetuating life in its most complete forms. He explains that if you were God designing a system, it would be a self-correcting system that, once set in motion, did not require the hand of God again and yet would operate in full accordance with the original design through millennia of changes. God, if he were God, would surely design the most elegant systems for his world.

This applies as well to systems which are in essence, our tools built on interconnected rules. Needless to say, the object of cybernetic (or sustainable) systems is to maintain and replenish themselves without outside input. If there were a perpetual motion machine, it would be the most elegant of designs.

Naturally, this brings us to the subject of when Brenda and I bought an old upright piano. Brenda had advanced skills and I had thumped through a few years of music lessons beginning around the 5th grade. We thought it would be nice to have something to make music on. The unsuspecting piano was delivered one afternoon into our small house. Our two boys. Liam, 5, and Galen, 4, were 22 months apart.

Though normally rowdy, they were somewhat awed by this device, and hesitated at first even to touch it. That did not last long. We had barely gone into the other room when we heard the thunder of two little boys pounding with both hands to squeeze in as many keys at once as they could under their outstretched hands. The old upright piano was getting an initiation from which none of us could survive, and I ran into the room and stopped the cacophony dead.

“This is not going to work,” I told them. Then I realized that forbidding them to touch the piano at all was counter to our reason for having it, so that would not work either. I offered a compromise. “You can play with the piano,” I said, “ but you can only play one note at a time, with your one finger.”

They seemed satisfied for the moment, and actually for the next few days they experimented poking each of the different keys with their single fingers. Some of these notes were complementary, and some were not. But at least they were single notes and you could hear each one for its distinct character. It was a good rule, and kept us from going crazy with cacophony. It was also good because eventually the boys would repeat notes that sounded good one after the other. The had not arrived at melodies yet, but we were hopeful that would come. The main thing was to stand back and watch their discernment between notes, and where innate curiosity would take them. We did hear a few struggling melodies that petered out to nothing within a few notes, but we were not ready for the step function that a truly elegant rule brings forth. Let me explain:

Working at that time at Texas Instruments, I helped construct courses on Design to Cost. This phenomenon was first observed in the building of thousands of bombers in World War II. The cumulative volume of production seemed to magically create savings in materials, labor, and overhead, such that the cost of a bomber dropped immensely – six or seven times – during WWII. Surprised production engineers identified these massive savings as step functions in the manufacturing process, and in the heady days of semiconductors and integrated circuits and LSI (Large Scale Integration) chips that made electronics product cheaper and more durable at the same time, companies like Texas Instruments used to project, and bid on, projects with these step functions built in, without knowing exactly when and how these would occur. They called it “racing down the Learning Curve” and Motorola and Fairchild and Intel and Texas Instruments were in a breathtaking competition to see who could take market share most quickly and hold it. Design to Cost…The Texas Instruments engineers had a saying that “The Six Million Dollar Man Should Have Cost Five.”

All of which brings us back to the new piano, and the impetuous boys who tested it. Their little melodies were easy enough to listen to, though none were very complete. I was not ready for the step function, and that is the point: with a good rule step functions just happen as a result of cumulative volume.

They were waiting for me when I came home one day with a penetrating question. “Can we do two fingers two notes?” asked Liam, the oldest. It seemed like a reasonable request. We could always go back to one finger one note if it got (so to speak) out of hand.

Star Wars was just out, and the boys saw it a couple of times, as did many of the kids in that now distant universe of the mid-70s. One day when I came in, weary and ready for the national news,  I heard something else instead. It was not “one finger, one note”, or even two fingers, two notes. It was the Star Wars theme, played in two finger chords with both hands, bass and treble, and ever so majestic for a 5-year old. It was the rule that made itself over, the elegant solution that allowed maintenance and replenishment of the musical variety. The two finger cords were in perfect harmony and my weariness left me.

If we are honest, it is those perfect rules that we should all be trying to find. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” was a good try at social cohesion through the centuries. “One man, one vote.” was catchy, but somehow no more productive than our “One finger, one note.”

I’ve had a little experience with patents, and patents testify to what some feel is mankinds primary ability – being a toolmaker. The toolmaker empowers all others who find his or her way superior in getting a job done. Though there are various kinds of saws, the saw is one of those elegant tools that turned collections of hovels into tight-fitting cities.

Abraham Lincoln supported and improved the US Patent system, because it carried the potential improvements in civilization with it as surely as his political imperatives on federal government and no slavery.  I was having lunch with Jim Dixon, the attorney who wrote the US Patent on the Integrated Circuit with Texas Instruments engineer Jack Kilby — which won Kilby the Nobel Prize a few years ago. Patents, he related, were not to give power and exclusivity to individuals, but to show others how the tool is made, so that to compete these others must improve on that tool in a unique way. The idea, Jim said, is that ideas are continually improving and patents are a way to make those paths clear to others who will carry them forward. The advantage of protecting a patent and minting money with it, according to Jim (and Abraham) occurs only if practicioners have no further imagination to provide to the process. So the patent system is (or should be) a set of rules allowing an elegant process for renewal and replenishment of ideas of the toolmakers.

I guess I have always considered an elegant rule the most important tool we can discover. At the time of the piano incursion in our lives, I was supporting my small family and also I was fiddling with the notion of becoming a mediocre professional soccer player and trying to be a run-of-the-mill playwright. Those faded in importance (to my great good fortune).  My sons taught me that the most important things were rules that empower people. We went from “one finger, one note” to seeing parallels and perpendiculars throughout the house. While they were young, they went on to learn to read – and to calculate — before kindergarten by writing their own books instead of reading books of others (see The Haunted House Dictionary and The Astronaut’s Guide to Adding and Subtracting). In my profession, I went on to develop tools for learning by computer and I think I owe my reverence for rules and tools to their patient coaching from my weary lap in those evenings.

Tools, it would seem, are either physical or mental, and truly unique software programs are as important as apparatus in the Patent System (or should be). Rules are either mental or – in the case of a ruler (or a level bubble) – physical embodiments of a core process. Elegance in either Tools or Rules should be the main concern of parents and teachers and preachers and union bosses and politicians.  When things have failed, as the angel said, it is a failure of imagination.  We have failed to build elegant rules and tools with a unique resilience that will last.

That is what my boys taught me, and that is still my 2 cents worth.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

The Universe Calls, Unannounced

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m calling YOU…Grandpa John.”

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

The History of a Millisecond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

The Pitcher from Out of Town

Family legends abound across the plains, because people set off for new lands with a variety of persecutions, complaints, opportunities, law problems, poverty, and whatever other direness in their condition drove them to pack up and head out to what amounted to Outer Space in the late 1800’s. In my case, Davy Crockett had a pretty good life in Tennessee, even went to Washington as a Congressman, but finally decided he would throw in his lot with those at the Alamo. He was my great, great, great grandfather and I actually knew his granddaughter Mary Crockett, who became Mary Crockett Tharpe and married Pap with whom she raised a family near Seminole, Oklahoma.

For me, the only great grandparent I ever knew was the meek but dignified Gamom. She had a soft Southern woman’s lilt with no whine. Gamom lived with my grandparents in Tulsa and when I visited from Seattle it was fun to hear her say “payuhs” when we had pears for desert.

Gamom married Pap in Tennessee before they decided to come by covered wagon to homestead in Oklahoma in the late 1800’s when the government was handing out acreage to encourage settlers in what was then Oklahoma Territory. Their farm was near Seminole, Oklahoma, a town named for the Indian tribes which had been forced from their homes in fertile Florida to march all the way to the hinterlands of Oklahoma in what became known as the Trail of Tears. Pap loved to hunt foxes and bet on anything…what day it would rain, how late the train from Tulsa would be, whether a newborn colt would be cross-eyed, and baseball…especially his town’s baseball team.

Oil was starting to be very important to people’s lives by the 1920’s, and there was oil in Oklahoma. Starting an oil company then was about as easy as starting a software company now. You just had to be drilling for water and hit oil instead. Not everyone did, of course, and my family, though lucky in a lot of ways, did not locate atop any oil riches. However, by the 1920’s towns with oil prospered and had sturdy young men – roughnecks from the oil fields — running around causing sturdy-young-men problems, but also playing baseball. Burn-off gas from the wells lighted the first night games in the world, when people could go to the ball game after work. Natural Gas was considered a useless byproduct of petroleum at the time.

So there was a lot of oil money around, and even more pride swelling when your baseball team met that of another town. The boasting doubled down and the bets burgeoned and doubled and tripled in the days leading up to those oil town night games. Pap had lost a fair bit on the Seminole team that year. He was becoming the butt of jokes from most of the neighboring towns. The wealthy elders of those towns considered betting against poor Pap and the Seminole team the best investment they could make that year. Not hard to imagine the egos involved… the same as now or any time people bluster about their luck with the unknowable future.

Baseball was a national passion as well, but there were a few baseball publications back East which reached Seminole. Any picture of any player on the cheap newsprint was generated by dull inky runny metallic engravings that were of limited value in reproducing in black and white any faces or actions from the relatively new photographic methods of the day. There was no Sports Illustrated (and certainly no swimsuit edition) in the early 1900’s. When Pap realized this, he hatched his plan to get even with the mockers and detractors from the various towns.

You’ll have to bear with my vague recollections of this event from Gamom and my grandmother, who were not baseball people, but remembered the occasion for sure. Apparently another oil town, Holdenville, was the bitter rival of Seminole, and had won so many games that they nicknamed the Seminole team after the best-selling toilet paper of the day. It was into a crowd of these mockers and detractors — at a political gathering in a local hotel — that Pap walked in and laid down his bets, big bets, on the upcoming game with the rival town. The bet money came flying at him from the men of means who saw this as a way to silence Pap for good, and in the process become men of even more means. Not that they were mean men, but spirited and sporting and full of vices, like all of the men who built the West.

What they didn’t know was that Pap had traveled to Chicago to make a proposition to Walter Johnson the month before. Walter Johnson pitched for the Washington Senators and is generally considered one of the ten best pitchers in history. Some say his fast ball beat out Nolan Ryan’s, but there was no way of measuring speed in his time (, or you can be sure someone would have bet on it). Pap’s proposition was that he pay Walter Johnson $10,000 to pitch one game. Johnson would not be pitching in the rotation during the St. Louis series, and could clandestinely take the midnight train down from St. Louis to little Seminole. Pap had already told the league that he had a cousin he would register to play and bringing in relatives who were not on other teams was apparently a fairly regular occurrence.

$10,000, by the way, was the modern day equivalent of about a quarter of a million, not a small bet for a local farmer, and a good one night’s payday even for the great Walter Johnson.

So the day of the big game came in Seminole, with Holdenville visiting the fourth time in the season. They had won all three games in Seminole, and 3 more in Holdenville. With good reason, the sluggers from Holdenville were supremely confident of knocking the whole Seminole team out of the park.

The Seminole pitchers had given up 10 runs a game to Holdenville, and even they were glad to hear the team had a new pitcher, a cousin of Pap’s from up in Shawnee named Walter Smith, who hadn’t played this year. No one was expecting much from the new pitcher, but there were a few raised eyebrows in the locker room as he put his Italian leather suitcase in a spare locker and changed from his tailored suit into the Seminole team uniform. When he was warming up, he was careful to throw very slowly, and try a couple of curves, anything put show his fast ball.

The Holdenville players were raucous with confidence that tonight they would blast homers into the gaslights and maybe meet a few of the Seminole girls after they had won game convincingly. However, Walter Smith’s first pitch to the first batter was faster than anything that batter had seen. It was a sneaky side arm and it was a strike. Smith fanned the first three batters, who had never seen a ball come so fast from down so low. The next inning their coach had called the Holdenville batters cowards, so they swung at all pitches in that second inning. And missed. Luckily for Holdenville, no one on the Seminole team could hit. Except tonight.

After six Seminole players had fanned out, Walter Smith himself got a double in the third inning and made it home on a couple of bunts. So the score was Seminole 1 , Holdenville O. Then Smith really got to work. The constantly stunning sheer swish of speed in the passing pitches now seemed to panic the Holdenville batters. They stayed so far back from the plate that strikes were easy for Walter Smith. He was able to carefully “paint” the side of the strike zone and save his arm. Any time the Holdenville batters got brave, he would brush them back with a bullet much much closer to their young bodies than they could have imagined before that game. The Holdenville team actually seemed to give up at the end, and the Seminole team held on to win 1-0.

Pap was collecting his money from bets as Walter Smith showered and put on his tailored suit. In the car to the train station, Pap handed him the $10,000, which was almost exactly what his bets had won. Pap hadn’t made a cent, but what he won was priceless.

As he was driving Walter Johnson to that midnight train to St. Louis, where he would rejoin his traveling Senators, Pap carefully took backroads so that no bettor would see them. Johnson complained that Pap wasn’t paying him to hit, and that his winning run should have been worth another $1000. Pap said Johnson had better get on the train before the betting people of the town started to question who he was.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved