Strutting and Fretting — A Retrospective

Being a playwright haunted my aspirations for much of the 20th Century. I didn’t hang around theater people in high school or college, but I still thought I would be a playwright. Some places put on my plays, and Contemporary Drama Service in Chicago published two books of short bare-stage one-acts called Rehearsals for Armageddon 1 and 2. One of plays in RFA 2 won the Olivet National Playwriting contest and was put on NPR. Some other plays were used by the Second City in Chicago, and other regional theaters. Still, when I discovered that the fourth most popular playwright in America made only $10,000 a year, it looked like this might not be a way to support a young family.

The only career opportunity, it turned out, was acting in your own plays. The ones you write inside yourself and win the leading role in. The role you make for yourself also gives you permission to operate in variable modes: as a creator,  a diligent worker, a leader, in ways that mere “positions” do not dictate. Those roles were ones I played throughout life. At first, I was just a student, but the draft channeled me into the role of a military person. The officer candidate program I entered to evade the draft allowed me to drop out and be in the Marine Reserve. On those reserve weekends, I became the senior private who always knew where to hide when there were potatoes to be peeled. It was excellent experience for later roles I was to play. In the early 60s I was mainly hiding from the Vietnam War, like many of my friends who married and had children as a draft dodge, or who took off to Canada (not far from Seattle), or found themselves 4F in the doctor’s office. I did not, and do not, disparage any of them. Humans are first of all a survival species, and surely the war would be over by the time I was called to fight.

I was also a gear-grinding truck driver (still a senior private) when I started Grad School in Oklahoma. This turned out not the best place to hide in plain sight in 1964 because I was almost called up from the Reserves to drive a truck through booby-trapped villages. The prospect did not appeal to me, so when I heard it was possible I could be reinstated in the officer program, I inquired. The Marines were losing 2nd Lieutenants daily – either to enemy fire and or to getting the hell out if they made it home. I said I would go through the last session and get my commission as officer, if they would let me go through graduate school for an M.A. They said OK, they were wanting more officers with graduate degrees. My thought: Surely the war would be over by then.

With that new military role lurking, I won a short story contest and was given a graduate teaching fellowship in 1965 at the University of Tulsa. I had been an undergraduate and graduate student, but being put in front of the class of freshman English students was a shock. What should I do with them? It seemed as if the University just wanted someone to babysit new students, and teaching fellowships are the cheapest babysitting you can get.

I took one look at their first short essays…loathsome in all. Somehow I had to use this role as a teacher to make better writers out of them. In the role of college instructor, I discovered that they would listen to me and do as I said. Never having had that responsibility, I tried to create a course to make them better writers. The university had no prescription…they just wanted us to pass the freshmen through and not fail the freshmen basketball players. So I started giving “F”s to most of the first student papers. I decided to have them write two short essays a week, one in-class essay and one at home essay to be turned in on Monday.  During the two days of class I gave them methodologies to use (compare and contrast, etc.) and subjects to use it on. This would end up generating 24 pieces of writing in 12 weeks with no mid-term or final test, just writing. I would randomly select to grade one of the two weekly essays, and for 25 students I corrected essays with extreme precision, line by line, like a copy editor at a newspaper.

We called it “English Roulette” and the students hated it. They called it illegal, and so I made an essay assignment out of that subject. (Funny thing, the “A” papers all found it “legal.”) All through that term these beginning university students thought I was the most horrible instructor they’d ever seen. But someone else was even more worried about my vicious writing class.

Two freshmen basketball players, who we shall call Lister and Freddy, had skipped most classes in high school, but gave Tulsa a chance to take the Missouri Valley Conference championship the next year.  Lister and Freddy COULD NOT complete a sentence in their first in class essay. Could not…When they received their first “F”s, I got a call from the coach, and then from my department head, and then from office of the University president. I was told my fellowship could be truncated the next quarter. But it was too late to transfer classes. The administration however, had lots of ways to terminate mere instructors, as I was. Maybe my days were short, and that would not hurt the feelings of the students who were sweating under English Roulette. Rebellious students were going to the administration to say I refused to grade half their papers, but I made a deal that if any of them contested the final grade I gave them, I would correct all their ungraded papers, and change the grade if it warranted. That quieted their ranks for a while. And allowed me to continue staying away from the military bargain.

Meanwhile, I watched the basketball practices and decided that anyone who could master 20 pick-and-roll plays and throw no-look passes to loose players cutting to the open space under the basket…could not be all stupid. I had Freddy and Lister stay after class to help me figure out what to do.

“Do you ever read anything?” I asked.

Lister looked at Freddy, and giggled. “Nope.”

“The sports pages, when it’s about you?”

“My mama like to read that to me,” Freddy offered.

Then I had a flash. “Do you every read anything your mama wouldn’t read to you?”

Freddy squirmed.

“Well, Lister’s brother he had this book we read on the team bus. We read that.”

“Can you get me that book?”

And so a newsprint book, its cheap paper pages curled and soiled by many fingers, which told sex-obsessed teen agers of erotic adventures they’d never dreamed of. This truly foul book, became the text for Freddy and Lister. I began by having them copy two pages a night, and I would correct those pages for how faithful they were, once a week while the rest of the class was doing in-class essays. Soon Freddy and Lister could copy the dirty book with perfection. From there I had them learn what made up sentences. They were not stupid.

But the administration was worried enough that they began holding little secret hearings on how to get rid of me, clear up to the time students were registering for their next semester. And then a funny thing happened: other instructors in other classes had seen samples of my student’s writing and were manuevering to see who could sign up my students. The administration heard about this too. And when they heard that Freddy and Lister were both getting “C”s in my class because they were actually writing credible paragraphs, it looked like they wouldn’t have to fire me after all. The basketball coach still looked a little sideways at me, like maybe I had created a couple of 6’ 9” literate sex-maniacs, but all was right in his world too.

Later I would become a college teacher again for a while, but before that in 1967 was another role, Marine Officer. It was scary as hell when I first walked into a base in uniform, and all these people were saluting me as I walked and I had to keep track of who saluted and salute back and then look for more senior officers I had to salute and pause while they saluted back. This seemed really crazy, but this was the military. What was just as tough, for an English teacher, was later when I made Captain. Then everyone of lesser rank was supposed to refer to you in the third person, as “Did the Captain see this?” or “Will the Captain want to inspect weapons now?” Who’s this Captain? Oh, they mean me…(I always had a sneaking hunch that those who knew enough to use the honorific were secretly joking. )

This was all the peacetime military, of course. I learned to play that role but never did understand the centuries of history that codified such peacetime behavior. The public could not be allowed to know that levels of formality in stateside bases that turned out quite different in Vietnam foxholes. In peacetime your uniforms were spotless, your shoes had a higher shine than anyone but your sergeants, who shined most of all. Same with brass on the belt buckle. It was all part of the role, and playing that role well pretty much allowed you to cruise through stateside duties.

On the other hand, there was the role one played in combat. It was not a democracy, and people would instantly do as you said, but you were acutely aware of your own role and without ever showing self-doubt, inside you were consciously questioning how to play it.  Reacting to incoming rounds was always a problem. Troops were quick to see you flinch.  I found you could make a quick glance to acknowledge the noise but needed to duck smoothly when necessary. Ducking smoothly was pure acting technique, when your wobbly legs wanted to collapse. You always had to be so busy getting supplies or radios or food for your troops such that you couldn’t be bothered with a few rounds flying in. And when heavy fire came in, or when you were defending a position, you had to be most concerned with getting things aligned for defense or sandbags filled or fields of fire crossing before anyone came.

Before I left for Vietnam, and thinking I might be a poet, I visited James Dickey, who was the Poet in Residence at the Library of Congress that year. He had won the National Book Award for Poetry (and would later do the book and movie Deliverance) but with an odd background for a poet, had also been an All-American halfback for Clemson, and was an Air Force fighter pilot during the Korean War. Somewhat sheepishly, I asked how he had handled the mental situation of an officer in combat. Dickey seemed to know what I was after: how to play that role. “There was just one thing I learned, but it always carried me through, always seemed to dictate the right posture. It’s simple, and hard as hell. You be dependable. Whatever is going on, you are dependable.”

Sometimes you hear someone say something was the best advice they ever had. This was mine. Through a lot of tricky situations, whenever anyone looked to me I was dependable. Not heroic, not gung ho. Just dependable. There are other stories in this series which are about Vietnam, and I learned a lot there. Mostly I learned how to withstand some of the terrible things I saw, and to live with decisions I occasionally had about who I might be ordering into great danger. I do feel that I was a dependable officer, in the eyes of the incredibly loyal men I had, and the peers and senior officers I worked for. A few random medals that had nowhere to go landed on my chest. It was not epic, but I’m still alive and I hope relatively sane and I know glad overall. The combat officer role was totally incompatible with anything I have ever needed since, and I am glad of that too.

The college teacher role was about the same when I came back from South America in 1972, but the playwright role got me a job at Texas Instruments as a video producer.  They needed to dramatize videos about Supervisory Skills. It’s a good thing to be both a writer and producer on the same shows, because you have more conceptual leadership. Soon I became a program manager for series of shows, all produced in the TI studios, and then even hired other video producers, but the writing of the shows was always in my hands. That was a role I was most comfortable with, and when you coupled that with overall program manager it led to fairly harmonious productions. I did learn though, to let video directors take a lot of initiative in the kinds of shots and lighting and sound they used. A few times I had someone call me off the set and told the video directors to go ahead with a lot of the show’s taping. They got twice as much done without me looking over their shoulders, and did it twice as well.

That was a great experience with roles, and Texas Instruments was a wonderfully dynamic place to be needed, but a headhunter lead me to another role which many of my friends at TI disparaged, that of National Training Manager for the American Heart Association, which was also located in Dallas, Texas. They said it was a step backwards, they said it was a dead-end, they said it was career suicide. I thought otherwise. I kind of felt like having a position rather than a sort of perpetual project manager. Also, the American Heart Association was in trouble. Their national staff was not raising enough money to support necessary basic research in heart disease. Their national training manager position was a revolving door, with 5 new managers in the last 2 years. To me this smelled like opportunity, but I wasn’t sure how. In fact, it was an opportunity, but only if I could write an entirely new role. I took the job, to the wailing of friends and associates.

It turned out that this role would be either (a) a suck-up to everyone in the world, affiliates, national directors, or; (b) something entirely new I had to create. The previous training managers had tried to get acceptable dates from everyone in 48 affiliates and 12 chapters agreed with to form a national set of courses. Someone was always taking vacation or being pregnant or for 100 other reasons could not commit students to dates that other Affiliates agreed to.  Altogether over the last 2 years the training managers had held 3 courses, with mixed results because some Affiliates would not send staff to courses including teachers from other Affiliates. Politics had doomed it. And those kiss ass politics could doom me, an outsider, quickly.

So I started with regional travels to find out what various state Affiliates wanted to see in courses. This was a fortunate tack, because there was great overlap (which I could show in Venn diagrams on my next set of visits a few months later). Then, instead of trying to please everyone with an impossible schedule of courses, I created 8 National Center courses, and four of them were fundraising. They would be held on our schedule whether or not the Affiliates could send people. And one other thing, to be more proactive I needed to heighten the role of the National Center itself. I insisted when I was hired as being the National Training Manager, instead of Training Manager, National Center. It was a small change, but helped the role I was playing a lot.

Other roles followed: When I raised fundraising income by 30%, they let me in to technical areas, and I became Director of Advance Technology Development with my notions on creating computer simulated CPR training.  I ventured into areas of intimating role expertise when in fact no one had it.  Learning Medical Vocabulary helped a lot, since doctors in particular were much more comfortable with my messages.

Later I formed my own company and had to play the role of startup entrepreneur.  Being president and CEO and Chief Technology Officer and the whole legal department and events director is not unusual for the shifting roles you must put on to run a startup.  At first — and for years —  it was just keeping the wolf from howling at the door.  The trickiest part was dealing with eventual investors who were all about money, from day one to shut down. I had to appease them with projections and a few big contracts, when I really wanted to advance simulation learning with incredibly cool inventions. I cannot say I was the best entrepreneur, but in the vicious world of technical startups, I managed to run Ixion for 14 years without missing a payroll, and that is a role I am still proud of.

I gave talks on simulation for several years and finally retired without making a large fortune. Unfortunately….that was never a role I wrote for myself.  Living now in increasing obscurity is quite comfortable because I have no roles at all. Maybe some fading achievements, maybe some useful memories, but definitely….no more roles.


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

Confessions of a Token Sportster

Sports were always important to my life. They were as important to me as music and art and other pursuits  which people pursue with passion and energy through their whole lives. Sports are as important to me now, as I slow way down, as they were in my youth…maybe more so. I think I know why. It was never winning or losing – though I won a few and lost a lot, to be sure. And it was never how you play the game, as the poetic sportswriter Grantland Rice consoled. It was instead, the thrill of acceleration.

When you move your body from its usual slow, lumbering entropy, and feel it move rapidly through space, that to me is one of the essential thrills of life. Go to the park on a sunny afternoon, and watch the five-year-olds. Life seems to wash over them, and they take off running at breakneck speed. They don’t have to be chasing a friend or a ball. They just accelerate because so much life built up in them they had to let it go. To my mind, that is what sport should be, all through your life. The competition is just our convenient excuse to go dashing around like five year olds.

Trying to play sports in school, with mediocre success, and succeeding a little better in college, I came to love sport for its own sake rather than as a measure of dominance which school, and later casual, athletes, thought was a way of keeping the ultimate score. Perhaps I would have upped my stakes had I been so gifted. But I had to really work at any sport, and seize my few opportunities, unlike the naturally gifted who cruised so easily through youth on that dominance. Later, as they grew fatter and slower I outpaced them, but by then they did not care…a shallow victory (– but I will still take shallow over none).

Of course it didn’t help that I contracted something approaching polio during the late 40s in Minnesota. In the hot summer, families had to keep their kids from swimming in the lakes due to that year’s polio epidemic. The doctors then (– who knew little about polio… and guessed a lot,) said I was sick with some kind of pre-polio. I stayed in bed and for many years before high school I was quite slow and pathetically un-athletic. Here my ability to read helped substitute for the real thing. I read in boy’s magazines about Jim Ryan who had burns on his legs but worked hard and became a four minute miler. And Richmond Flowers, whose legs had to have braces in much of the time he was young, and went on to be national high hurdles champion and an All-American halfback for Tennessee. Those were two of many who dragged their hopeless bodies finally into contention in sports, and finally into excellence.

Thus inspired by reading, I started running out on the roads of the neighborhood, ploddingly at first, but soon I could run four and five miles at a time, still quite haltingly. I went out for the freshman football team and was ground into the mud most days. In football I hit hard at anything within my reach, and but I very much fit the epitaph: “He wasn’t very big, but he was slow.” I then joined the cross-country team at my high school (which took all comers) and ran more, though I was always quite a distance behind the real runners. Later, I was allowed on the track team in my Junior year, and as a Senior ran a 2 minute 2 second half mile. This is laughably slow if you ask any track person. But I got third a few times and a junior varsity letter. However, I learned to loathe working out for the sake of working out. For fun, I did play basketball and baseball on various community and church leagues, and in time was able to muster acceptable speed for those activities, at least.

As important were the many hundreds of miles I put in hiking with a pack on my back, and climbing in the Seattle Area. Being in the Explorer Mountain Search and Rescue unit, we went for long distances through the mountains off-road and often off-trail. Sometimes we alternated carrying hikers on stretchers. This all really built up my legs and endurance, which have been useful all my life.

In college, I discovered Soccer. It was not something we Americans knew much about in the early 60s. I really did fall in love with the sport, long before much of it was played in the U.S. I was the right size, not too gangly or muscle-bound, and my endurance allowed me to defend by trying and failing to stop someone, but doubling around to catch them again, and again, until I wore them out with doggedness and finally stuck my foot (or my head) in the right place. I could only practice with the University of Washington team in my first two years, but I played a lot on industrial league teams, which on a Sunday afternoon were always short a player and could give me a uniform shirt and let me play. They knew I would run hard and as a defender get in the way of developing plays, even though I did not have the skill to actually turn the play around. Many afternoons there were two games and both games had teams which were a player short. They say you can run about 9 miles during a soccer game, so my endurance obviously helped there if there were 18 quick miles involved on one Sunday afternoon.

In my Junior year I made the University of Washington soccer team. It was sort of a fluke, but I accept flukes as my lot in life. (Some I have even done well by, like surviving Vietnam unscathed in the middle of combat.) This particular fluke was that the University of Washington soccer team used off-season athletes whom they had recruited internationally for other sports. Most especially, skiing sports brought in exceptional athletes, all of whom had played a lot of soccer, and many of whom had played at the semi-pro level in their own countries.

Learning soccer with that high caliber of player was a premium experience. They passed well and moved well without the ball and definitely expected you to do the same. They anticipated a play from far down the field and jogged early to the most likely area of contention instead of feverishly reacting from a distance. And always — they stopped the ball, dead. Most Americans let a long pass bounce off a bone and then the chase it down. That is very easy to defend because the American player never really has control of the ball. But these foreign guys deftly took a ball coming from 60 yards away, and caught it flat against the ground with one foot and no other movement. This always created several feet of “safe” space around them in which they had total control to move or pass before a defender could interrupt.

Stopping the ball was one of two things I learned from these exceptional athletes who it was my good fortune to play with. The other was that soccer games at the best levels are won not by doing something ordinary but merely faster or more powerfully, but by finding the slightly different approach, the small mistake in timing, something to create a scoring situation that defenders don’t expect…and a good defender anticipates nearly everything. Watching that creativity evolve is what keeps international crowds glued to their seats for the one or two goals that their teams do score, often after many close calls. When playing, I was decent with my head and only passable as a kicker, but I learned to love trying to spot situations to create openings for shots, and later became fairly good at it, and eventually even scored some goals because if it.

The fluke that allowed me to make the university team was based on other teams complaining that the University of Washington had too much foreign talent and other teams could not compete. Thus they made a rule that every NCAA team had to have at least two American players. And in my Junior and Senior years, I was one of the token Americans. However, there being only two such spots, I could look on it in a positive way and say there was high competition for those slots, and I won out.

I played in South America a few years later, and held my own, and became friendly with some team members from the English school where we’d picked up jobs at for a few months. And later, back in Dallas, I started playing left wing, which was easier for a right footer because I had developed my left handed throwing one summer at age 12 when I had broken my right wrist.  Later in soccer, defenders often dumped it out to me on the left wing to bring the ball down the length of the field, which was where the endurance came in. At the end of such a run, I often crossed the ball into potential scorers, or was able to sneak in to the “back door” of the goal and head one in that came from the right.

Because I became the leading scorer in the Dallas First Division (for a few weeks, that is…), I was invited to practice with the Dallas Tornado professional team’s ”taxi squad.” There was always a possibility one of the professional soccer players would become sick or hurt, in which case they occasionally called up someone from the “taxi squad’ to fill in the roster for a game. If that had happened, I could have said I was once a professional player (– “once” is the operative word here). However, I would have had to go to 4 hours of practice in the evening after working at Texas Instruments all day, and to have left work early a lot of times. Having a young family to support, it just couldn’t work out, so I didn’t practice with the Tornado and did not get to say I was “once” a professional athlete. Confession time: In my first few taxi squad practices with the professionals, the play seemed to be flying past my eyes and my reactions seemed far too slow. I realized that at age 32 I would have to spend most of my few extra waking hours trying to keep my body young enough to fly around at that pace. Or age might have claimed me anyway. A bad back claimed me when I moved to start a business in Seattle, and I did not play soccer again for twenty years. For some reason I was still fast, and everyone else in an over-55 league I joined had slowed down. I scored a goal, made some marvelous runs down the field at left wing, and blew out an Achilles tendon. However, it was a glorious few weeks at age 61, a sort of vacation from aging.

This was about the time I took up tennis again. I’d never been very good at tennis (surprised?), and never had great eye-hand coordination, but I could still run. Running in a seniors league made me useful in doubles matches where almost no one did run more than a few steps, and I could race across the court behind my teammate who the ball sailed over in a lob, and manage to keep the ball in play. I looked forward to such situations, and got the same old thrill of acceleration that was my original reason to love sports.

Golf — on the other hand — was something I had always abhorred, partly because of the built-in excess of leisure, but mostly because I spent time looking for balls in the forests which ran alongside the greens. My long balls always sought out those forests, to die in the underbrush. I had learned a little golf in a university Physical Education class, but in my renewed attempts about every 10 years I could never avoid the incessant gigantic slices which made the cost of golf almost double the greens fees, because of lost balls. Only now, as my running days may wain, have I started studying golf again. I can now hit a ball onto the fairway almost all the time. Thus I can now be disappointed along with the rest of those duffers in shorts who muff the short shots that I too flummox and who take as many putts as I take to get up to the hole. It’s a sort of fraternity of geezers.

However now with golf, I see that there is indeed what I most liked about sports. There is a good walk of about four miles, of course, if you don’t use a power cart. That is OK exercise, but no reason to love the sport. No, it is when you swing hard and hit the ball squarely, when that ball sails up and up and away from you, and disappears through the air straight over the next knoll. I swear, there it is…transferred to a little ball…that thrill of acceleration again.


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

The Watermelon Seeds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

When Hollywood Calls…

There really are parallel realities. They are: Hollywood — and everywhere else. While I was in Vietnam with the Marines, sometimes I mused about going to Hollywood and writing the Great American Screenplay. Then — when I actually was in the glitzy blitz of Hollywood — I sometimes pondered how simple, how ironically comfortable, it had been in a hole on a hilltop in Vietnam.

I got a preview of this parallel reality by returning to the States for my final few months, attached to Camp Pendleton. I obviously had one foot out the door, so the Marines there had no earthly use for me. I reported in each morning, and left to explore the area. I learned to sail a small sailboat on base. I took up English riding at the base stables from an wiry old woman in jodhpurs, tough as nails with her riding whip, who started in World War One training young cavalry officers to ride – back when there were cavalry officers. Neither of us had much to do these days, so she taught me to ride bareback on a galloping horse and do jumps up to four feet – which I remember as one of my life’s  glowing achievements. I lived off base in Fallbrook, a California avocado-growing community, in a cottage in a tree-lined canyon with a friendly hippie commune down the gulley. In Fallbrook, I met and went out with the great granddaughter of Susan B. Anthony. When they came out with that Susan B. Anthony dollar I swear it looked just like her. I tried to call, but had long since lost her number.

It seemed an obvious thing to buy a motorcycle. Because I was now certifiably invincible, and thinking in the back of my mind that Hollywood always needed stunt men, I learned to jump the motorcycle in the sandy canyons to the East. That glorious flying fantasy lasted a few days until one nearly straight up jump runway made the front wheel rise — and rise — in the air, until I was 10 feet above the ground riding a my flying motorcycle upside down. It was coming down fast now, with me underneath, somehow I guided it over to my left and the hot exhaust nearly burned through the leg of my jeans, as I smashed down on my back. The motorcycle came down a millisecond later a foot from me. Lying there windless, astounded that I was alive, I decided Vietnam was no proof that every bullet would avoid me. Thereafter, in most things physical at least, I was not even tempted to jaywalk. And certainly not to jump horses over four-foot high fences.

From that location Camp Pendleton location, about an hour South of Hollywood, I visited my friend Dale and got my Volkswagen bus he had been keeping, and I started growing back some hair. He had finished the UCLA film school and was working on a laser-movie called Death of the Red Planet. (That little movie was eventually a star attraction at the Griffith Park Planetarium.) After a few months sojourn sailing in the Bahamas and cleaning boat bottoms and falling for Brenda, who worked there in Barclay’s bank, I decided to go back to Hollywood to seek my fortune.

Not actor or director material, I started turning out screenplays. I had done a couple of screenplays before I found out it was bad form to write a full screenplay, but was a much better strategy to have the nucleus of an idea and then find big time producers to smoke dope with and flesh out the actual script and characters in their Bel Air homes by the pool. You got partners around an idea, and then hoped they were not smart enough to finish it with their names on it and steal it. But there’s the rub. You had to meet them and attract them to you and the idea, without actually giving it away. That’s why I finished stuff and registered it and then gave pitches. Of course that did not work at all, but it’s my style. Everyone else just did ten-page treatments and then made pitches. So I fashioned treatments out of my already completed Great American Screenplays but never learned to do a truly Great American Treatment. But at least my treatments would occasionally get me pitches. And the pitches led to all sorts of meetings and agents and the possibility of options and little adventures which led to generally nothing at all in that smoky cloud that was Hollywood of the late 1960s.

I had done one screenplay called The Watermelon Seeds, named for the sailing principle where the oncoming wind creates pressure at an angle on the sail and down into the keel, and pushes the boat forward like squeezing a watermelon seed between two fingers. Brenda actually typed that screenplay for me and, knowing even less about Hollywood that I did, thought it was going to be a movie. It was based on two guys who had been in Vietnam getting out and taking off on a sailboat to various harrowing adventures. But it was loathed at first sight in Hollywood. In this time of peace marches, absolutely no one in Hollywood wanted to see anything about Vietnam. And that boycott lasted at least 10 years, I think. It was also one of the reasons I needed to grow more hair quickly.

I did another screenplay called The Lone Angel, a satire about a masked guy on a white Harley who roams the West with his black sidekick Tonto, who rode a Honda 50. They have all sorts of misadventures where they try to do good in communities, and their misplaced efforts are roundly condemned, and they are run out of towns, unappreciated, throughout the New West.

And then there was Foster, a modern Faust who learned that by taking increasing doses of strychnine he could become faster on the draw than any gunslinger around. Through the story he becomes dependent on strychnine highs to heighten his speed and killing efficiency. Just at the time Foster is about to meet the current fastest gunslinger, the accumulated strychnine catches up with him. The other gunslinger and the townspeople watch with horror, as Foster dies a gruesome death at high noon on a dusty Kansas street, with all his muscles contracting and pulling against each other.

The Catador Mandate was a Wag the Dog story, years before that popular movie defined the term for political distraction from actual malfeasance. While WWII had absolutely everyone’s attention, two dictators in South America struck an odd bargain. One of them lost so much at the gambling tables he was bound to give the other a sizable amount of his country. To do this, they decided they must create a war or their displaced people would displace them. They commissioned a Madison Avenue ad agency to stage this war, and specified when the war would end and the number to be killed and the amount of territory to be seized. A rogue reporter discovers this and tries to get the news to the rest of the world. This story had the dubious merit of being entirely true. (See “Conference of Rio de Janeiro”, which after WWII redrew totally new borders between Peru and Ecuador and gave half of Ecuador — including the Amazon River city of Iquitos — to Peru.)

So you see how unlucky Hollywood was that they never discovered my screenplays at all. These screenplays rarely got even a partial reading by anyone with the ability to make a movie. There are Hollywood legends about how successful screenwriters got producers to read their scripts. One guy stood outside the gates of one producer’s mansion with copies of his scripts and everyday threw them on the hood of the producer’s car when he slowed to remotely open the gate to his estate. Finally, he read one, made a movie of it, and the rest is history. I remember the story but I’ve forgotten the names. …

This is not unusual because everybody in Hollywood has a story about how they almost got a script read. I have at least two instances. One started in the Bahamas when a Mafia don for whom I’d cleaned his large boat offered to provide me with his Hollywood lawyer – whose call no one ever refused. But I slipped out of that kind offer, ever so politely, not wanting that kind of strings around my neck. Another time I scored dinner in Beverly Hills with a director of TV commercials and his family, and his 15 year-old-daughter decided she liked me…a lot. To my surprise, he was wholly in accord and offered us the use of the apartment behind his pool. I guess he rarely denied her anything she wanted, but I managed to decline and leave with my screenplays tucked under my arm, unread of course.

The California days were full of phone calls to people who were out and visits to people who said they knew people with money for movies. If you walked on Venice beach it was easy to meet girls, but if you asked them if they wanted a soda they asked back, “Can I have the money instead?” Everyone who had been in Hollywood a while had jobs they could slip away from to get to meetings or auditions. The restaurants had rotating chefs and bus boys, and when people were finally fired, they just made movie contacts while standing in line at the world-famous Unemployment Office in Santa Monica. (I rarely smoked dope because it made me reflective and angry that I was not working harder to make a success of Hollywood. )

There is a certain strand of artistic toughness in Hollywood, where these part time actors and writers and film editors and all manner of craftsmen do not have jobs for parts of the year. But eventually many have families for all of the year. Waiting for the next movie, the next friend to call about auditions, waiting for the next union seniority slot to open, waiting and perfecting skills and friendships calls for an incredible toughness to weather insecurity throughout all of their lives. I’d seen toughness in the Marines, but maybe psychologically the Hollywood people are the toughest I’ve ever seen. I’ll admit that eventually I was not tough enough for Hollywood.

Occasionally I would drive down to La Jolla, near San Diego, where my second cousin John Hunt was Director of the Salk Institute. It was a great location and he had Nobel Prize winners from all over the globe playing on the beach and having good old sabbaticals. I asked John how he, an English major and occasional novelist (once winning honorable mention for the National Book Award), could supervise all of these great minds from technically demanding disciplines. “Well,” he said, “the skill I’ve developed was not to supervise anything, but to create the climate in which these people can do their best work.” He did that, too, later at the Aspen Institute and the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, where Einstein spend most of his American years. John also had to be a special breed of fundraiser, who convinced the very rich that if they were lucky he could help them associate their money with sponsoring these great minds.

It was at one of the parties where some of these geniuses brought their families that someone asked what I had been doing. I said digging holes with the Marines in Vietnam. No one thought it was funny. As a matter of fact all conversation then stopped while one young French woman fluttered her eyelashes at me and asked me how I liked napalming babies. I’d pretty much avoided the subject up in Hollywood after some curt rejections, but here it slipped up on me. In those late 1960’s, it was just not acceptable in polite society to have had anything to do with Vietnam. Young people were very sure of what they believed about what they felt they knew and there was not much complexity allowed.

Then I had headed back from La Jolla to L.A. and got bummed out in other ways. The next night on the beach a crowd of adolescents were smoking dope and invited me into their circle. One guy wanted someone to put him on his motorcycle. He was apparently on heroin and he thought he just needed to be put on the motorcycle and aimed out toward the freeway. I was off motorcycles and had no interest in assisting this impending disaster. No one in our small group wanted to do it, and he moved on down the beach. One of the high teenagers in our group was all excited. She said a guy sitting stoned on the beach had just killed someone. Everyone seemed to think that was cool. They had never met anyone who killed people. They asked me if I had ever met someone who killed people. I said I had. I’ll never know if that would have made me cool because just then the heroin guy walking his motorcycle down the street some distance from us was apparently paying some money for a kid to put him on his motorcycle. We all watched as the kid took the money and helped him start it and the guy weaved away through the night toward the freeway. So this was Hollywood. Though each episode was newly bizarre, this sort of edgy tedium was tiring to me. I was maybe getting too old for it.

It was all so different from Brenda at her British bank in the Bahamas, another parallel reality. I think I made a choice around then, which reality to live in. One small film producer, Zoltan, told me that if I got photo stories in South American he could bundle them and produce them as filmstrip travelogues. That was about as close to success as I’d ever come. Actually, it was enough of a quest to marry Brenda and whisk her off to South America. I always thought I would come back to Hollywood, but aside from a few short forays with equally fruitless screenplays, I never did.


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

With Bird at The Center of The Universe

In some government jobs, you inherit people and a raft of problems that goes with them. I had a temporary assignment at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, with a battalion that had just come back off “the float.” This was a part of a Marine Expeditionary Brigade that keeps a sizable strike force near distant trouble spots. “The float” was also a lot of very young men to keep cooped up at sea for a year with a few raucous stops in some various dubious port cities. In a day or so they had to store up all the girls and drinks and drugs and general trouble that would ordinarily come at a slower pace.

Most of the young men came back as older men who could say they “saw the world.” However, occasionally the world saw them first. At best, there would be casualties: broken arms and fingers from fights, and some diseases that have yet to be classified, and at worst, very occasionally, a truly broken spirit like that of Private Bird. Bird had fallen in with the most curious men who visited the darkest dens and swallowed the most potent of hallucinogens they could find. A very few died in some alley, stripped of money and clothing, but most stayed together and watched out for each other in this very different kind of combat. Most made it back to the ship, though often not without consequence.

When I checked in to my new communications shop, I learned about Private Bird. They had confined him to quarters with his wrists wrapped in gauze after two suicide attempts. No one knew what to do with him. Eventually they could give him a section 8 dishonorable discharge, but I thought we should look into it more, and maybe get him some help. I was that first line of help.

A number of these Marines knew a Vietnam tour of duty (, often a second one) would soon materialize. Many – especially but not exclusively the draftees — were not pleased with this. Some who could were running for the exits, and one of the only ways to keep someone who knew how to do a critical job was to promote them. They even offered me the Major rank, shortly after they’d dropped Captain on me. In the old days, it took 10 or 15 years to make Captain. I was anointed in three, but there was a rub: You can’t hide the rank once you’ve got it. You just have to learn to play that role. There was no one else to do it.

Bird, by his description, was “fighting for his soul at the center of the universe.” He told me things, and I listened. His father had beaten him a lot and berated him even more, but was pleased when his son chose to be a Marine. They put the smart ones in communications, and though he was only a wireman, he made lance corporal before the “float.” However, then he began wallowing shipboard in the drugs and depression. He lost his lance corporal rank when he returned to the States. Largely Bird stayed in bed, staring up at the upper bunk springs, at first missing several musters and finally unsuccessful at suicide.

I thought it would be best to check Bird in to the mental ward at the base hospital, but that was not as easy as it looked at first. It would require the signature of the commanding officer, Lt. Col. Thibodaux, to effect that requested temporary transfer. To talk to the commanding officer you had to go through the executive officer, Major Marlind. Turns out Marlind had his mind made up about Bird before I came. He had turned down similar requests before they could even get to Lt. Col Thibodaux. Major Marlind felt Bird embarrassed the Marine Corps and wanted to give him a dishonorable discharge as quickly as he could push it through.

I counseled with Major Jack Mendez, the operations officer, outside the battalion offices, as to whether I could walk right past Marlind’s adjoining office and knock directly on Thibodaux’s door, a stark breach of etiquette. (Not too much later, in Vietnam, Mendez had been given a tank company, and in my stopover in DaNang he would offer me the communications job. It was tempting, but tanks sounded at worst like a creeping kind of claustrophobia, so I declined.) To my surprise, Mendez said Thibodaux probably knew of the situation, and would kick my ass if I didn’t do it. So I marched right past Marlind’s open door and knocked on Lt. Col Thibodaux’s. He said to come in and I related the situation and my recommendation. He was a kindly Southern gentleman who had been through Korea and affectionately called men in his command “peckerwoods.” I could feel Marlind’s ear on the adjoining door between their offices as I laid out my case for Bird. All that time when Thibodaux was listening to, and agreeing to, my recommendation, I knew I would never make it nonchalantly back past Marlind’s door. I did not.

Upon leaving Thibodaux, I started to edge past Marlind’s open hallway door.  He was waiting. He spoke out to me. “Hon,” he said, “You’ll need to come in here and close the door.” I did, and he chewed me out for 10 minutes straight, and all I said was “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” He immediately rose from his desk to where I was standing at attention, and he began a cool but vicious rage — his face inches from mine with bad, bad breath. For 10 long minutes Marlind seemed to need no explanation from me for my many character flaws and what seemed to him a flagrant betrayal of the chain of command. He knew he could not penalize me in any way, but he made it abundantly clear with colorful – and somewhat devastating – language that I was on his eternal shit list. Now that I am older I wonder if old Thibodaux’s ear was pressed to the other side the adjoining door, and smiling away at this education of a young officer.

So I was allowed to transfer Bird out of his confinement to quarters and in to the hospital. I took him and his gear in my car, and detoured out to my fisherman’s cottage on the stream that led to the beaches. My girlfriend was there, and made him lunch. Giving him that short respite was a mistake. I was in more of a spotlight than I knew for my defense of Bird, and I suspect now that it would have hurt him later.

I visited Bird in the hospital after about 10 days. He said it was OK here, but there were a lot of weird people and one, named Kohler, was a supremely intelligent patient who had been there some time, and he continually “worked on people’s minds.” Bird said Kohler convinced people of their low worth, and suggested that suicide in many cases to be the only solution. If there was any redemptive value to the psychiatric ward, Kohler was its evil antithesis, the devil within who unsettled those who came for refuge, and further confused those who came already lost in themselves. He showed me Kohler when he passed by, and even in his mannerisms I could see the almost psychopathic intensity Bird told me about.

I brought Bird a book I liked, The Plague by Albert Camus, which was sickening in its descriptions of the Black Death taking over a Middle Eastern port city, but finally redemptive of the human condition in a way I thought would help Bird. He kept it and returned it before I was shipped out to Vietnam. I left the book with some other possessions to be picked up when, and if, I returned. About six months later, in Vietnam, I dived into a deep ditch outside An Hoa to avoid what seemed to be a full afternoon of incoming rockets from near Cambodia. I recognized a gunnery sergeant from that “float” battalion, who was now with another infantry unit.

“You know your buddy Bird?” he said, opening a Snickers bar that had somehow escaped the penetrating Vietnam heat.

“Right…” I said, feeling remiss that I’d never checked back. I was now keenly interested. “Did he get back to the battalion?”

“Naw, did himself in. Was with some of the crazies who got to work in the garden, and cut his wrists with a rusty hoe. Bled out in some flower bed.” There was an air of righteousness to this sergeant, as if Bird had put the sergeant’s universe straight once again. It shook me until the next rocket, which hit very close and left curled bits of shrapnel in a post above our heads.

Vietnam informed me of other things of course, and sometimes messages came from other odd places. My peacenik girlfriend who gingerly chastised the war had run off with a soldier. (Go figure.) Also, back in 1967 at Quantico, I had demonstrated an experimental method of riot-busting — playing music favorites of the crowd so loudly in the streets that they could not communicate and organize — a win-win kind of protest-quelling not at all unlike a rock festival. Flushed with its success and dreaming of a kinder world, I had written the demonstration up and sent through channels to the top communications folks in the Pentagon. I learned from someone, who was  later transferred to Vietnam from that office, that my work had been very favorably received, but with some slight modifications they would use. Turned out they all thought it was a great idea to blow out protesters eardrums…Not quite my intention.

Waiting to go back in Camp Hanson, Okinawa, I was given a company for a few weeks as they transferred troops fresh from the States to postings with units in Vietnam. Basically I watched over where they slept and ate. I had no idea where they came from or where they were going, but I had a small staff to keep track of their orders and get them to where they needed to go every day. And then I saw Kohler – the evil spirit in Bird’s mental ward – there in my squad bay…and he saw me at the same time. He tried to turn away, but I got the duty sergeant and we went over to him. Kohler did not have orders with him to show he was attached to anywhere. He had somehow made it into the mainstream of troops headed toward Vietnam, and then in Camp Hansen managed to disappear from the group he was with, and totally unfortuitously nested in my facilities. Bad mistake, Kohler.

“Looks like AWOL to me, sir” said the duty sergeant. Kohler had that cool evil look as if he was sure of his next move. “Please take your weapon, Sergeant. This man may be dangerous.” I went and got a couple of MPs quickly, and sent Kohler to the Marine Brig on Okinawa for safekeeping. I was shipped home a few days later myself. I never heard what happened to Kohler. I’m sure he was partly responsible for Bird’s suicide at the Lejeune Hospital back in North Carolina, but what I did was official duty. It was not revenge. At least I tell myself that.

I boxed up my stuff when I got back to the States and they mustered me out within a few months. Some months later, after some adventures in a sailboat (including falling in love), I came back to L.A. and moved in with my friend Dale a block off Venice beach. I was trying to grow longer hair as quickly as possible to match the crowd in Hollywood and the Venice beaches. I went down weekly to stand in the most entertaining unemployment line in the world. Dale gave me a high row on his bookshelf for my books, which I had boxed before I left for Vietnam and never taken out until now. One of the books was Camus’ The Plague, which was returned to me before I left for Vietnam.

As I reached up high to put the book in place, something fell from between its pages. Something metal. It clanked on the floor. I picked it up. It was a military “dog tag.” In the dim light as I picked it up, I could read the word “Bird” impressed into the face of it. What that was saying to me I cannot quite understand to this day, but Bird was there, and he was saying something. Maybe “thanks” or maybe “didn’t finish this.” I guess some profound secrets of the universe must remain always just out of reach, even when they fall right into your hand.


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

From Dostoyevsky to Digital Subsystems

Down the road from Oklahoma is the Texas border, and further down the road from that border is Dallas. From South America to Oklahoma was a major step, which I luckily took with Fyodor Dostoyevsky. From that backwater college in Oklahoma in 1972 to the leading edge of digital technology in 1973 was several more steps, including a piano teacher, the first commercial video recorder, and actors in Texas with very few opportunities.

Teaching English in a small college was one of those dream jobs you soon awaken from. It had looked good from a distance, first from Vietnam and then from Lima, Peru, but small college politics are no fun especially if you are merely on a short-term visit. You have no actual territory to defend in the vicious budget sessions, or any way to assure your place in a diminishing pie. So waking up went this way…

One day a student I knew needed a short play for his director’s class. I brought out some short plays I had written for South American conversation classes, simple English with exceedingly obvious characters and plots and bare stage with a few chairs. The drama instructor at the college snapped them up for use with his director’s classes, and the directors’ group started playing them at county fairs because they were also bare stage with few actors and fewer props. (Later these plays were published as Rehearsals for Armageddon and then were used by the Second City in Chicago, and later became English  conversation classes as Not Quite Shakespeare. Another story…  But this fits.)

Along the way at some party I met an instructor for Redkins hair products, who said he would give a performance cutting hair for anyone who could make movie of it. I had been reading about the new Norelco reel-to-reel tape recorder, and decided to buy one and give that a try. I had him talk while he was cutting the hair, as he would with a live audience of hair stylists. But the video was odd. He had already almost finished the phase he was talking about, and the viewer had to make the connection several seconds into the new area of cutting. It was like you were always feeling left behind. I tried to get him to start his dialog sooner, but he actually used his cutting as cues for his talking, so it was never natural sounding.

It was then that I realized something that was of course one of the bedrocks of early movies, that the sound track was separate from the video track. In movies it was the reason for all the loops of film in the projectors, so that the audio was read from the side of the track in a different place than the video. Film was processed that way, and novice projector operators often got the sound out of sync by not putting in the proper loops into the wheels of the projector. In this case, the separation of video and audio provided a different opportunity.

By moving the sound track off the reel to an audio tape, and then mixing it back in offset by about 6 seconds, it made the instructor start talking about the process just slightly before he started doing it. The narration then fit the video perfectly, and viewers were not confused at all: they saw what was being talked about in the same moment it was being done.

At another party Anita, the piano teacher at the college introduced me to Joe, a male friend of hers who was up from Dallas. Joe was a child prodigy who interned with Texas Instruments in Dallas as a sophomore at Southern Methodist University, became skilled in integrated circuits and went back to teach in the SMU graduate school on loan from TI. There was indeed brainpower in Texas, and a lot of it gravitated to Texas Instruments, which had invented the first transistor radio. When I first heard of them through Joe, TI was leading the world in integrated circuits, which would put thousands of transistors on one small chip.

Joe entranced me with a story of his Texas Instruments development team being given a contract to make an electronic collar for self-destructive children, which would allow parents to zap them if they tried to hurt themselves. It was much like a dog training collar, and this team of engineers realized it could easily be used on bad children, and finally just precocious children. However, these TI engineers realized they could not just refuse to do this project (which came from a child-welfare organization), but they must find some answer that would prevent any other group of engineers from doing what obviously could be done. After some weeks of despairing of a solution, Joe’s engineering team finally refused the project because (they said) any such system could also be activated by lightning.

I told Joe I had done some playwriting and that his solution would make a great play. In fact, that year I wrote that play, The Collar, and it won the Olivet National Playwriting competition. So I sent that play to Joe, and, when I saw him again, told him that I was also working on reel-to-reel video projects. He remembered he had been talking to a friend at TI who was running the Learning Center, which had acquired some old studio videotaping equipment, and may need people like me who would know what to do with it. They had been using surveillance cameras in classrooms to record the classes of engineers on various uses of their integrated circuit products. I went down to Texas Instruments with Joe, my Redkins video and my new book of short plays in hand.

While I was visiting with Jack, the head of the Texas Instruments Learning Center, I offered my thoughts on their current use of video. It was then one step above warehouse surveillance.  I suggested that the two-hour recorded sessions could be done in forty five minutes if they were first scripted with the presenter, graphics were developed to that script, and the blackboard and easel graphics they used popped in and out of the video while the instructor continued talking. These visuals were always getting out of order or falling off the easels or chalk was breaking — or 100 other things that were slowing down the classroom presentation – and putting students to sleep.

(Those who remember early video will have fond memories of the “pop ins” where an original reel and a new reel had to sync to the frame, and often had to be done several times because of rollovers. Sorry to recount this to those of you who were never there and never will be.)

Having to key the presentation to the visuals also made each area more cohesive and visually representative of the subjects. With the first class I reorganized for them they saved time and money on instructors and students and had an altogether better result. I was hired as a contractor for the next summer not only to construct classes in digital electronics, but to create videos on Supervisory Skills. The world’s leading electrical engineers had hired a playwright. The summer went so well that I requested a leave of absence from the college, and got it. Brenda and I packed up our few belongings and our son Liam and, frankly, never looked back.

Technically I was a tech writer. At the time all tech writers wrote entirely in the passive voice (observe : the passive voice was used by all tech writers). There was a sign on the wall in the Tech writers area: We explain what we barely understand because those who understand can barely explain it. I started doing scripts for electronics courses I did not understand, but I did understand the active voice. This immediately made my stuff intelligible to ordinary people and the other tech writers looked bad. “Hey, if batteries not included, who’s not including them?” I offered to the tech writers. This exposed the dirty secret of much of the technical writing of the day, that in having no subject, the sentence had no responsible party. That was the essence of objectivity, to dodge responsibility, or so it appeared.

Then Jack said they had a client who wanted to make little video sketches to demonstrate supervisory skills. Though I scripted them so that no one could possibly fail, these male electrical engineers and various female employees were all uniformly lifeless in the roles we tried at first. I knew there must be local actors starving out there. It was a difficult sell to Texas Instruments management, especially when the outside actors could not be paid for an afternoon’s work on a net 90 payment aging schedule. What I did was total the amount of hours it would take for these dramatic novices to be pulled off their high-yield electronics manufacturing jobs. Then I calculated the hourly rate that TI was paying. Then I compared it to the local SAG-AFTRA scale for actors. Furthermore, I said, the actors were pros and could finish the shooting in half the time. My numbers won, except there was another problem: when the TI managers told me I could use actors, they expected me to find them.

I started going down the list of talent agencies in Dallas. Most of the talent was in these gorgeous photo books where they all gaze off with their cheeks on their hands. It turned out that most of them were pretty faces and had never had a speaking role. But they certainly wanted them, because these roles paid more and looked better on the resume which was their road to stardom, right here in Dallas, Texas. There was really no precedent for the talent agents to turn pretty faces into actors. I sat through a couple of meetings with possible actors and everyone was fawning and trying to guess what I was looking for in these supervisor roles. And frankly, I wouldn’t know who I wanted until I saw them try a role.

Whatever seems like a good straightforward idea is almost always in fact a potential labyrinth of ugly logistics and impossible timing. Theoretically, nothing should ever get done. The talent agents were protective, the wannabe voice actors saw this as their way out of Dallas, and – as you can imagine – the Texas Instruments management was suspicious of all this glitz when their background, up to transistor radios and the current 4-function calculators, had always been selling the electronics for Harpoon missiles to the Defense Department.

So I asked the talent agents if their people could audition on tape for us. Uh Oh! That meant the SAG-AFTRA union had to approve these aspirants being put on TI tape without being paid. But our taping studios were onsite. So I asked SAG-AFTRA: if the tape audition place was in a neutral setting, could we skip those fees and give copies of the tapes to the actors as payment? That finally passed after my bear dance to the union bosses, promising their share of the electronics revolution to come. But where was a place that was neutral enough? No self-respecting talent agent would allow his or her people to audition at the offices of another agent (– agents bandit away talent all day long anyway.)

Finally it turned out that one of the actors had a cousin who managed one of the big downtown theaters, and got that cousin to let us use the massive lobby on one Thursday morning when there were no movies showing. Texas Instruments had to be talked into renting portable taping equipment and lights audio, etc. that they could use in other situations that week. The unions slipped me a free audio guy just so its actors would sound OK. (So far I had no budget whatsoever.)

It was almost cruel, this march of the wanna-be actors through the taped auditions, with cue cards giving them sentences which would come from little supervisory skills dramas. Probably the only crueler thing would have been the Dallas auditions for the local production of the musical Annie, with hundreds of little girls from tiny Texas towns hundreds of miles away, bellowing and tap-dancing with their stage mothers hovering too far away to whisper, but mouthing encouragement non-stop. Mine was not that bad, but Texas Instruments had an international clientele, and many a dream died when a clipped set of words (gotta hep us out ta do binez hair) or a too-nasal Texas twang failed to match the pretty face on tape.

The supervisory skills tapes were a hit, got some national awards in training (also good for actors resumes)  and led to my getting professional narrators to do the electronics courses in which they explained what they could never understand with golden throated credibility. Pretty soon other divisions, such as sales, were requesting tapes, and my pallet got so full I had to find other producers to take scripts I’d written and produce the little shows. It was an empire, to be sure…except for one thing. I had to use the tech writers — who hated every bone in my active voice body –as producers! I was about to have a raft of failures when Jane walked in. Jane Sallis was high class and somewhat exotic for Dallas, and totally out of place and more totally unappreciated at Texas Instruments. None of that mattered for either of us. What mattered was that Jane saw exactly what was needed and came back to me with ten zinger questions that made me fall in love — almost. Jane had been a debutante in Dallas best society, and a fine arts major at Tulane, and with the first production I gave her (insisting to the Texas Instrument brass that we could bring in a producer as well as actors and let the other tech writers continue with the really important user’s manuals for digital subsystems), she offered a professional job on time under budget that looked great. The actors loved her, the crew loved her – she made their stuff look so good!  I still don’t know exactly how Jane stumbled into my life, but Jane was great at Texas Instruments and later in producing video and art for my CPR system and eight years later when I had my own company in Seattle, we produced a bunch of training videodiscs for GTE Directories in – guess where – Dallas.

There are several joys in the hassle of professional life, but maybe none more rewarding than being remembered in an enthusiastically favorable way by people whom you had treated decently, but thought were lost in the past. When Jane put out the word that Hon was back and needed actors for a production, there were no weeks of negotiating and meandering through talent agencies, no bear-dancing for union bosses, none of that. They remembered we’d gotten starving actors paid the very week they worked, they’d elevated some of the talent I used through taped resumes to approach national accounts, keeping large Dallas ad agencies from having to go to the coasts for talent. The whole Dallas creative community was there for us. One week we walked into town and the next week Jane had the production going for GTE, a big one, and one the first training productions ever using interactive videodisc. Whatever goes around… does come around.


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

The Future Comes to Town

It is sometimes tempting, when you are older, to act as if you were an earpiece to history. I hate to say it, but some monumental events in the history of the world actually traipsed by me in full close-up, and I didn’t even say “wow”…until now. Though it is a little late, looking back from this grey beach on a remote Pacific shore in Canada, I can see that significant personalities and significant events did roll by. Only now am I considering what a parade it has been.

I had decided to start my new company in Seattle because that is where I wanted to end up. Boston had had some beckonings in that both Harvard and M.I.T. had me do several presentations. Harvard suggested I might apply as an instructor, which is what people with unique subject expertise and startup companies with no money sometimes do. Given the solid logic of Boston, of course I chose Seattle. At the time, in 1983, I had hardly heard of Microsoft. A  years before I had presided over the “non-introduction” of Philips CD-Rom at the Nebraska Videodisc conference, which CPR had also won as “best application so far” or some such. This “non-introduction” is inside humor for when everyone hears about a new product and the manufacturer wants them to hold off buying decisions but won’t say how long.

My small company, Ixion, consisted by 1984 of a few people who thought interactive media might be the future. Ixion was the Greek who offended the gods and for that was strapped for eternity to a revolving wheel (– like a videodisc. The black humor symbolism was of course lost on all but the most arcane of observers). The CardoPulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) simulator was well behind Jane Sallis and me, left back in Dallas with the American Heart Association when we came to Seattle. There were a couple of other folks who had been instrumental in getting the funding and new business, but after a few months the new car smell of this enterprise had worn off. We were selling interactive media, and most people said “what’s that?” 1984 Seattle was still more of a fishing, timber, and airplane city, and had not yet evolved into a hi-tech mecca.

Meanwhile I’d sold my family of five on coming to Seattle. I wanted to get the kids out of Dallas before they became Texans. Brenda liked the climate because it was reminiscent of Ireland, and the hills suited her running. Liam and Galen liked the nearby skiing. And Deirdre, at four years old, liked anything everyone else liked.

We stumbled onto a huge house that had been on the market for a year because the owner had been a high stakes, high-living bank VP who left his bank billions short in questionable deals. The house had been a party house with a view of the water and the mountains on a clear day. Lucky for us….The scandal of its owner left it with a taint, and over the year the market price had descended way down until it dangled just above our outside range. Through some banker’s contortions, like a contract to deed, we took it off their soiled hands. The boys ran around the big house testing the intercom systems and listening in on everyone else who was for the time unsupposing.  For years there were interesting sounds within the walls — maybe the intercom or, maybe we had ghosts of investors , still looking for 50 cents on their lost dollars.

Because the CPR simulator had had some following in the press, Microsoft invited me to speak at their conference a couple of years later — the week they went public. The night before his Initial Public Offering, a 27-year-old Bill Gates hosted a dinner for the speakers in the back lawn of his modest bachelor home in Seattle. Something like chicken and rice on paper plates with four people at each card table and folding chairs. I found myself at a small table with Bill Gates. Rumor was that Ross Perot had tried to buy him out for 2 million but now Microsoft was going public, the very next day. I had thought we were going to hear a lot of new tech stuff at dinner, but all Gates wanted to talk about was how to hold on to all of these good people he had working for him. Many local people bought Microsoft stock right out of the gate, but I was too smart for that…

The portion of the evening’s speaker program was on data storage, and was supposed to deal with CD-ROMs as the “new papyrus” (which was the title of a now classic book buried somewhere). Before the presentation, we speakers were honest with each other. “Have you ever made a CD-ROM?” “No, You?” “I’ve made a videodisc” “Wow, you can go first.” Truly the rest of the cast of speakers seemed to be theoreticians while I had done a videodisc which was not really the data storage device that everyone touted, but for now was close enough.

Let me take a short detour about the videodisc. Philips of the Netherlands, one of the world’s giant companies, had the patent on the videodisc and through Sony and others were trying get the world to make applications on it.  In 1984, this videodisc was truly the superkid stepchild laid on the doorstep of technology, a newborn which was bigger and stronger than anyone in the family, to the point that no one knew what to do with it. Computer programmers had no vision of what to do with 54000 video frames except to store pictures. Movie producers had no idea of how to use computer access except to show movies and sequence parts of them like chapters. Finally the videodisc failed because, as the angel said, with the world in the palm of our hand — we failed this time because of a failure of imagination.

That is why, in my wild and bizarre fashion, I had a small measure of credibility with both groups during that first Microsoft Conference in Seattle in 1986. The CPR simulator, which Jane Sallis as a producer make sparkle, showed what random access video could do, and appeared continually interesting to both software and video groups…a go-between for a while.

Most of that year I busied myself with trying to get some kind of business for my new company. Jane and I made a stunning demo disc, where you could play a shell game over and over with the on-screen huckster, spot and stop shoplifters who were using all manner of deceptions to slip items into pockets and purses, and adjust the flame on a welding torch. The fact that I could control everything on the disc from a small TRS80 Radio Shack notebook computer made it even more compelling, and exquisitely portable. My business got generated by having potential clients say “Hey, could you do (this or that) with this thing?” Too often, however, I would fly to Columbus. Ohio for a meeting and see nothing but glass eyes across the conference table. Unless this new technology did exactly what they needed with their exact product in their exact situation, people mostly could not make the conceptual jump.

I also began to understand why the young Bill Gates was paranoid. Managers from his newly public company came trying to entice my best people away. One of the Microsoft managers, seeing me eating with a group in a local restaurant at lunch, actually bragged straight to me that he was hiring one of my best programmers. Computer folks may have education, but that doesn’t necessarily bestow class.

Gates himself was a different matter. He had a sort of naïve graciousness, that some programmers are fortunate enough to retain. (Joke from back then: Q: What’s the difference between programmers and terrorists? A: You can negotiate with terrorists.) I was invited again as a speaker the next year, and this time it was for the world’s primo CD-ROM conference. The event was at the downtown Sheraton in Seattle and there were separate rooms for various subjects. For my presentation there was a curious requirement, that I found out at the last moment. I could show slides and talk about videodiscs, but I could not show an actual program with one. This I discovered was because the CD-ROM, or any other kind of data storage and manipulation, still wouldn’t be half as fast or look half as good or be half as dependable as the videodisc. If you want a truly techie reason, it was because the world Microsoft wanted was all-digital, and the world the mass public understood was still analog. (If you didn’t need this explanation, that’s OK too.)

Anyway, money creeps in. The speakers’ dinner the next year, in 1987, was in a penthouse suite overlooking the city. It did feel a bit more exclusive looking out at the  world silhouetted against the reddened skies of sundown. Exclusive, but no more fun than Bill’s Backyard Dinner the year before. After this penthouse dinner the group began to mull about what they heard was happening downstairs. Unbeknownst to anyone, the Philips company from the Netherlands had rented the auditorium in the same hotel for that evening, and the word was out that they were going to introduce their new CD-I, (Compact Disc – Interactive,) disc product on that stage, for this group of speakers, and others they could round up.

A few of the speakers commented that Philips chews up and spits out small fry like Microsoft, This Philips introduction was clearly an affront and a challenge to any leadership Microsoft was taking, which was very little at all beyond pronouncing themselves a leader. I happened be right next to the (now) 28 year-old Gates outside the penthouse dinner when he was accosted by a Mr. Telza of Philips. (The name is an approximation) Telza wanted very much for Gates to announce to the speakers at the dinner that the Philips CD-I product was being introduced that night in the  hotel auditorium downstairs. This was obviously to show Microsoft’s newly pronounced software leadership challenged at his own sponsored conference by the international hardware leader and patent holder. If Gates resisted, it would show weakness. If he gave in, it would show he was cowed by Philips.

He pondered the situation for just a moment, and then I was surprised at the non-chalance with which Gates answered, “Sure, we’ll have them go down and see it.” The Philips man looked a little surprised with the quickness of the answer, and then he ( and I) knew it was the perfect one. Without further words, Gates was saying that his speakers, of high caliber, would know if CD-I was any good.

They went, and it wasn’t. At that juncture, CD-I was largely vaporware, put in to get attention built on some kind of technical innuendo that such a thing could possibly be done if anyone wanted it.  Beyond that dinner, I never worked with Gates or ran in his circles, but I have always admired how he handled Philips that night. My business went into medical simulation and his into business software, and paths didn’t cross again.

There is a final irony, however. I learned from some other videodisc practioners that one of them had been hired in hush-hush secrecy, to back up announcements made by Gates at yearly events, touting new Microsoft direction. The new Microsoft software product often would have bugs and would have crashed their computers right there on the big stage when Gates was out there presenting and showing off new products on the huge screens for audiences of thousands. Such crashing was not fun, for anyone…So…

The videodiscs which were “backup” could be made to work perfectly every time in linear precision. So it happened, (if my rumoring friends are truthful,) that clear up to the year 2000, videodiscs were always used instead of the real program on a real computer when the images and sequences were mission critical. Show biz folks might find that comparable to Milly Vanilly lipsyncing whole performances. But I thought it was fine. Like my friend Stan Jarvis always said, if you believe it can be true, you are justified in imitating a future reality.


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

Telemetric Rhythm…Heartbeats by Phone

Some things happen on the way to other things. Then you look back and what had been a mere milestone along the way was actually where you should have been going. When I joined the American Heart Association as National Training Manager, people from Texas Instruments where I had been a program manager said it was career suicide. Of course any business person secretly thinks the non-profit world is career suicide. But I was full of the good intentions that hamstring the young, and thought that Texas Instruments did not have a real world platform for the innovative training technologies I had imagined. Or perhaps I rationalized…because here was finally a real position in a real national organization whereas at Texas Instruments you were like a small business having to sell your programs and account for their success. Little did I know: (1) that the Texas Instruments Profit-Loss centers were the best life education I could possibly have and (2) that only if you became instrumental in bringing in money could you call more of the shots.

I’d made several friends in the electrical engineer crowd at Texas Instruments in the early 70s, and even won some national awards for training videos (which at the time were a strange bird) on supervisory skills and ethics in the technical sales area. The obstacle to my career there was that I was not an Electrical Engineer. However, at the American Heart Association, the action was all doctors. A staff member at the AHA had a definite subordinate role to all of medicine, and the initial training challenges which were handed to me were in fundraising, and management of community programs. Most of these had little to do with the basic research which was the main goal of the Heart Association in those times, and thus, though fairly successful, I was definitely a staff member who was shunted out of the mainstream mission.

These were the terribly exciting days of heart medicine, when the heart-lung machine could reproduce 29 body functions and make ready for the first heart transplants. These were the days when angioplasty was developed, a bizarre notion that you could insert a balloon where there was plaque like concrete, and enlarge the balloon and the concrete plaque would harden into a channel for the blood that was stronger than the artery wall itself. What a fantastic concept, laughed at until it became a rock solid reality and bedridden patients were up and out running marathons and swimming channels like new superhumans. And these were also exciting days for Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation… or CPR.

CPR was perhaps the craziest of all. Its progression to modern medicine started about the time of Genesis …really. The CPR combination of heart massage and breathing had been developed by Dr. Peter Safar in the early 60s, though the Paris Academy of Sciences recommended mouth-to-mouth resuscitation as early as 1740, (and there are numerous Old Testament references to breathing life into those thought to be dead). Dr. George Crile in the US developed a method of closed chest massage in 1903. There are accounts that Dr. Safar also studied the ancient Egyptian Temple of Medicine, where there are several examples in the wall art of patients being revived with hands on their chest. Even in the sixties there were still many medical skeptics who laughed at breathing carbon dioxide into victims, but then they discovered that even discharged air had 80% oxygen in it. In Seattle emergency Physicians had developed a community program in 1981 for citizens to learn CPR, and they taught that CPR within the first five minutes could prevent the brain death that often comes with saving a heart attack victim, since the oxygen circulated to the brain is the most critical area. Because of the emphasis on citizen training, it was often said that Seattle was “the safest place in the world to have a heart attack.”

I would in time contribute in a fairly large way to CPR, but at first I had to address some major staff training challenges such as fundraising. Other things arose however. I saw that Prestel, the British Post Office had developed a way to send text over the telephone lines to small personal computers which were starting to gain attention, especially the Apple computer which some guys in California had built in a garage. I thought that could be a way to distribute medical information that was much faster than the quarterly journals. Early on our information systems guy who programmed the IBM mainframe for AHA assured me that these small computers in widely distributed system would never go anywhere. Nonetheless, I got one of the Apples and tried to learn to program in BASIC. I made a box appear on the screen, and a few other tricks, but most of the useful programming at that time was done at the intricate machine language level that you either had to be an electrical engineer to master, or have the marathon concentration of a 12th century monk carving intricate cabinet doors for the church.

Along the way I got to talk with a lot of doctors, and studied a little book on Medical Terminology which gave me scads of useful terms and was a bit easier because of my two years of Latin in high school. With those words, at times I could pass for a doctor. Certainly I could parse meanings as they flew at me. One example of the synergetic connections one can make when straddling two worlds was the telemetry project. Because of my interest in CPR, I talked to a lot of paramedics who used it. Pacemakers were one of the prescriptions for heart attacks, but the paramedics said they wished they had something the person could wear at home that would give warning of upcoming problems and could also transmit information to the rescuers while they were on the way.

It so happened that in those Texas Instrument days I had a friend who was working on data compression for sound, which would be essential fitting recordings into small packages for listening and most especially for voice recognition. Electrical engineers held out voice recognition as the Holy Grail, and over and over when they thought they had something which could take dictation, it really couldn’t. But they kept trying, from those year right up to now. If you have used Siri or Cortana you have seen voice recognition at work, and probably have managed to confuse those systems even after they had been worked on and refined over 50 years. The engineers at TI even hired opera singers to record the largest range of data that could be assembled.

The American Heart Association National Center was only a few miles from Texas Instruments, and I still had lunch with the TI guys at times. On one occasion I asked if the voice recognition devices and software they were working on — which always fell so short of complete human voice recognition – could possibly be used to recognize heart rhythms. They said of course, that would be trivial. But why would anyone want to do that?

Why would anyone want to recognize heart rhythms and send the information over a phone line? Why indeed? How about communicating your precise heart rhythms to emergency services when your heart is failing? I went back to work that afternoon, and fortunately there was a conference on Emergency Medicine at the National Center that day. I asked one emergency doctor what they could do with a device which could read heart rhythms and send them over a phone line. Well that doctor wanted to talk immediately with the TI researchers, and sure enough, two years later they had developed the world’s first telemetry system which would be worn by the patient when recovering from a heart attack. It would call the emergency center if the rhythms diverged, and would transmit that information over a phone line for assessment by the emergency teams. I had little further involvement in that project, but it was the sort of thing that gave me several open doors when I later needed them. When various gatekeepers said “Who is this guy?” they were told that I had helped put telemetry together, and also increased fundraising income by 30%. One of those doors got us to the CPR simulator.

I saw that I must Immediately raise the possibility of a training simulator with the Emergency Care Group in charge of standards for CPR. They would meet in a week and I had to get the CPR simulator on the agenda. Many agendas were set by consensus months ahead. But if CPR was not on this meeting agenda it would have to wait, even to be considered, for another year. I had this feeling that millions of heart attack victims could not wait that long to be saved. And who knows what could be another set of priorities when a year goes by?

The Gallup Poll had just found for us that 75% of Americans who had heard of CPR wanted to learn it, to be citizen lifesavers. As a market this was incredible, and one that the ordinary teaching of a class of 10 or 12 could not make a meaningful impact on in 40 years. The case for the simulation trainer was made in serveral ways: (1) The logistics of meeting rooms and scheduling would be obviated if this were not just a simulator, but an entire learning system that kept scores, etc. so that a single administrator could martial 100s through in a week. (2) the consistency of instruction would be immutable, since the varieties of instructors would not be a factor, and (3) the costs of training would not include salaries, rent, or much upkeep since the systems would be electronic, computer based, and thus not subject to ordinary wear and tear.

I absolutely had to get a spot on the meeting, and had to lay all this out – without actually begging — to the doctor, Steve Scheidt of New York Hospital Medical Center, who was the group’s chairman that year. He was difficult to get hold of as he ran resident programs and the emergency room and a hundred busy things an administrator must do. Close call. I didn’t get him until the very last afternoon, before he left from New York to Dallas for the meeting. But he listened intently to my case, and asked me if I really thought it could be done. I said yes, and he said OK he’d squeeze me into 15 minutes on the program. This is the way things seem to happen…as if by magic…when indeed they have been pushed and prodded and developed to a point and redeveloped to touch another direction.

At that meeting, they gave me the go-ahead to develop a prototype simulator, using of all things, interactive videotape.

The only problem, which I did not mention, was that interactive videotape had not yet been invented. I called a group in Oklahoma City who had mentioned they had a card for doing interactive audiotape. That was close enough for a start. People would have to see what I was talking about, even before it was completely operable, so the interactive videotape would take them a good part of the way to the interactive videodisc, which I had only heard about but which immediately dominated my future plans. I felt a little guilty, hanging out this way, and mentioned it to a friend. He said this was not actually lying, that I was merely imitating a future reality. It takes such friends to get you through.


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

Dostoyevsky and the Anadarko Indians

Back in the days when we all thought that being a college instructor was the best way to skate through life, I actually ended up as a college instructor. It was really the only job I could get from South America, where my wife Brenda and I had been riding dirty buses for many months and teaching English in spurts, but not finding a way to make enough money to survive even for a while if we returned to the States.

So when a college teaching job at Oklahoma College of Liberal Arts cropped up, I risked most of our travel cash to fly alone from Lima, Peru to Oklahoma City, and then hitchhiked down to the interview from the Oklahoma City airport. It was over 100 degrees out as I stood on the highway hoping that at 85 mph cars could even see me and my thumb against the hayfields behind. Arriving in this distinguished manner, with my tie undone and my suitcoat over a sweaty shoulder, I’m sure I looked like an upscale drifter. This was definitely not the cool and smooth way to walk into an interview. However, they seemed glad to see me and gave me the job. This made me suspect that no one in the States wanted it enough to come to the middle of Oklahoma for an interview, and they had to draw from nomads in South America.

Brenda probably would not have married me if I had not promised to take her to South America, but more about that later. She had only an Irish passport and we’d left the States before she could receive Green Card she’d applied for when we married. A few customs people mentioned that it would be difficult or impossible for her to get back in, but we thought we would deal with it when we returned. It turned out that she would have had to reapply from outside the States and live in that country for 4 months…unless somehow we could place her again as my wife within the States.  So we thought we would fly to the Miami airport with our last nickel, and try to run the border. Ah, youth!

We choreographed a careful entry back into the States at the Miami gate, with Brenda using her unmarried name and US Travel Visa in one line, while I went through another line about the same time. We had to let other people ahead of us, in order to to make our entry at precisely the same time, thinking if we could delay the correlation of the immigration folks, we could get into the States and out of the airport. Dumb kids trying to trick the system… but it worked. And that is how Dostoyevsky discovered Oklahoma.

Not knowing our exact status but fearing the worst, we traveled inside the U.S., up to Chickasha, Oklahoma where the college was, and I started being a college instructor. The English department had a fellowship for Communications and I had done some sports writing and I guess that was close enough. They also had a couple of freshmen English courses, which it was the duty of all junior instructors to teach. They had a recommended curriculum, which had the students read Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mocking Bird, and some play or other. All of the freshman English instructors followed along with the recommended reading …except me.

“Has anyone decided to use other materials besides the ones the book store has?”

I raised my hand.

“What will that be?”

The Possessed, by Dostoyevsky”

“That’s pretty difficult material. Even Crime and Punishment is a bit much for freshmen.”

“I think it’s the best novel ever written, so why not teach that?”

Well, they did let me teach it though it was going to be difficult for the bookstore to find the paperbacks in translation. At the instructors’ coffee afterward, the opinions of my new cohorts had me surrounded.

“You’ll die.” One of the instructors said. ”It’s all we can do to get them to read Huckleberry Finn. And that’s in English.”

“This is translated just fine,” I answered. “And they need to know that other cultures have literature.”

“But it’s so borrrring.” Said one female instructor who tapped her pen knowingly.

I laid my hand out flat. “You haven’t read it.”

“But it sounds boring,” defended another instructor. I stood up and stared down at them.

“These are student radicals plotting to pin an equipment theft on one of their friends who is going to commit suicide to prove he is better than God. And another student radical is running through streets of Moscow at 2 O’clock in the morning trying to find a midwife for his pregnant wife who is about to deliver the child of another man who abandoned her. Not only that, the narrator is really funny.”

Not a splinter of agreement, not even a recognition of something they had not known before.

“And most of our freshmen are Indians, here on grants from the Anadarko. This will not work.”

“Borrrring.”

“Death in front of the class.”

“My problem,” I said, and they were glad to admit that.

Meanwhile, my wife Brenda was now an illegal Irish immigrant. We decided to call the Immigration Service in Dallas and see if we could finesse it now that we were inside the States already, and maybe they wouldn’t ask how. On the call, I said that we had some kind of confusion — that I have a job teaching in a college here and we came into the States on her travel visa.

“Well,” said the kind Southern Lady who may not have been expecting honest confusion. “They shouldn’t have done that at the border.”

“Well,” I said. “Here we are, pretty settled in Oklahoma now. What should we do?”

“Well,” she said, “I don’t know how this happened. But I suppose that since you are in and have a respectable job and all… Just bring her down to Dallas next week and we’ll get her a Green Card.”

Good old down home folks.

Meanwhile, I had my first classes and after the first hour struggling with Russian names the students began to see the characters in The Possessed as real people, actually real students. Like most college age students, some had trouble with the concept of God. One of the novel’s main characters, Stavrogin, says he doesn’t believe in God, but then says he also doesn’t believe he doesn’t believe. Maybe a tough concept for Bible Belt folks, at that. But then…a most curious thing happened.

The bookstore called and said they had way too many orders and some would be delayed. As far as I know we had enough for the class, but this was odd indeed. After the second week I walked around the campus and noticed many Indian (now Native American) students sitting under trees with copies of the book, deeply involved in reading in a way we had never seen them. The bookstore got its order in and soon the book was everywhere…everyone in this part of Oklahoma, it seemed, was reading The Possessed. Well, maybe not all the townspeople…but some. Meanwhile, the other instructors were pissed because their students were all reading this bizarre existential Russian novel and not the Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird they had been assigned.

I do not know how this Russian writer tapped into the cultural veins of the Indian students from Anadarko, but the number reading the book on their own made it look as if I had started a cult. I’m enthusiastic when I teach something I like (which I have always finagled my way to do), but I am not a great enough teacher to transplant the crazy Russian soul to plains of Oklahoma. I just put the book in front of them, and Dostoyevsky did the rest by himself.


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved