Beating the Curves on the Pig Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

Folks Who Were Folk Singers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

Backroads Through the Perilous Years

In the outlying areas of 1950s Seattle, there were not actually suburbs yet, just land to be bought and cleared of tall trees and developed into houses and homes. It was sort of the modified Wild West. We boys 13 and 14 ran in packs, unchallenged in the backroads and new groups of houses springing up outside Seattle. Later we grew up to become upstanding men, but our youthful curiosity was endless and dangerous and with a few small turns we might well all have ended up criminals.

Immediate little morsels from my boyhood include stealing landing light trophies from edges of the major airport, firing a dad’s hunting rifle at a small fishing boat a mile away, leaving a real pipe bomb sitting on fiery Sterno cans on a neighborhood road…to explode sometime later sending shrapnel for half a mile, lurking down lovers’ lanes to surround a lonely parked car with flashlights, smoking coffee flakes and dog hair, chaining a police car’s rear axle to dock pillar so the axle and universal joint ripped out when he took off in hot pursuit. To tell truth, our subsequent discovery of girls probably tamed us down a great deal. It certainly limited the range of our truly creative, truly fiendish, truly destructive imagination. Girls, at least, were finite as a species, if individually not quite all the same.

To drop back a bit: When my family moved from cold Minneapolis to Seattle in 1949, it was just my mother, me, and Charlie, whom she had married after the end of the war, and with the assurance of my real father’s death in combat. New to the Seattle area, we lived for a year in the “apartments” not too far from the airport where my stepfather was working first as a ground mechanic, and then as a flight engineer for Northwest Airlines in some of the first commercial aircraft flying the Pacific. The Boeing Stratocruisers, build here in Seattle, had four propellers that had to be kept going for seemingly endless yawning hours over water. The pilot held the plane in the right direction, but the flight engineer constantly monitored each engine — and kept them aloft through that whole forbidding expanse of time and water.

At the same time dads were in the air or otherwise at work, we children of families who had migrated to the Pacific Northwest became kid-mobs racing around the apartments on dime-store roller skates that clipped onto the soles of our shoes. The apartments, about 200 or more of them filled with families moving to the Seattle area for work were the haunts of us younger kids on roller skates. This was before elbow or knee pads were even thought of, and so every kid was a patchwork of scabs on top of scabs from falls on the concrete at high speed.

Meanwhile the older kids went off into the “woods,” uncleared land between the apartment and Puget Sound, and had BB gun wars. Some lost eyes, I heard from my mother, who forbade me to run with the big kids and I believe must have been thankful that my roller skates confined me to the sidewalks running through the big apartment complex. Most young families in the “apartments” were looking for homes they could afford to buy. The GI Bill helped a lot of them, and other new mortgage schemes developed since the war encouraged everyone else. Out near the airport in a swath of forest with roads that they called Normandy Park, getting a home meant buying a parcel of land and building a house on it. When there were enough families, a little mom-and-pop grocery store sprung up on a once remote road, and just as we arrived, the community brought in its own school for elementary grades.

We could easily have bought beachfront property in Normandy Park, but my mother, from Oklahoma, thought the sea could someday rise and come over us. That waterfront land could now be worth a fortune…but then who knows, she may have been right in the long run after all.

Yet even with property back a safe mile from the water, we kids still had the Normandy Park beach for running along the driftwood which had been brought from all parts of the world stripped of its bark and limbs, and washed up high on the beach to form a running, leaping pathway above the sand for boys with their limitless sped and balance. We’d race along those logs, zigging from one to another, leaping through space like squirrels through several trees, most of all never never touching the sand below. Needless to say, there were no parental supervised activities. Parents could never keep up with us anyway, so they just put us in sturdy clothes and said to be home for dinner or dark, whichever came first.

Ah the beach… Puget Sound was salt water, and freezing cold with its Alaska currents, but we swam in it. (Our kids later were more civilized and would not touch the cold water of Puget Sound.) On the Normandy Park public beach, we’d build rafts of driftwood logs laced and wrapped with long strands of tough seaweed. After a day’s hard work, we would stand like Polynesian seafarers on our all-natural rafts. And one day someone brought a submarine to the beach. It didn’t start out as a submarine, but as the rubberized gas tank from a World War Two bomber. People tended to glom onto all manner of war surplus in those days. So someone’s Dad brought it down in a truck to see if it would float, and left it there with us, a rubber tank we could fit with a makeshift paddle to move it about, and a top hatch where a small person could slide inside.

That small person was Denver Carney. None of the rest of us dared get inside the contraption, but Denver did so quite happily. He was inside and it was floating around the shallow water, and he was actually maneuvering it with the paddle attachment he moved back and forth. As we watched from shore, Denver shouted “Crash dive, crash dive” and other stuff he’d heard in the submarine movies.

We thought he was having far too good a time (we timid ones on the shore) and someone suggested “Let’s torpedo Denver!”

“Yeah, let’s torpedo Denver.” Repeated by everyone in that enthusiastic fashion, it seemed like an idea whose time had come, a mandate for action.

Right at hand on the beach were long slender logs that it took three of us to lift, and they made perfect “torpedoes”. We selected one and in unison glided it into the water toward Denver, who was happily shouting out movie commands inside his submarine. The first torpedo slithered past his bow and he never knew. The second log “torpedo” we hoisted and slung in unison was a winner. It hit the stern “klunk” where Denver’s head was against the soft inside wall of the rubber sub. The sub’s motion stopped. Denver’s gleeful shouted commands stopped.

We looked at each other. “Do you think we killed Denver?” One of us said.

“Better get him out” said someone more responsible. We all jumped into the cold salt water and pulled the rubber sub into shore. Denver’s eyes were rolled back in their sockets. We dragged him out onto the beach, fearing the worst as we looked at the large knot protruding from Denver’s orange red hair. We contemplated running for parental guidance, but then Denver’s eyes straightened out.

“Hey,” he said, “that was cool! Who’s next?”

None of us was next.

I think Denver was with us when Larry Mortenson brought his dad’s hunting rifle to help settle an argument. Most of the boys thought the rifle couldn’t even hit the water from the high bluff we hiked along, overlooking Puget Sound, a body of water about 5 miles wide.

“Yes it can,” said Larry. “My uncle was a sniper and said he could hit something a mile away. He drank a lot though, and we were never sure whether to believe him.”

“Well, let’s shoot it and see.”

Larry got in a prone position on the top of the bluff, some 500 feet above the beach below, and fired a couple of rounds out over the large body of water.

“Did you see any splashes?” He asked.

No one had.

“Then how are we going to know how far it goes?”

“See those guys in the boat way out there?” There was a small fishing boat maybe a mile  out. It was too deep to anchor, but they seemed to be holding a position, probably slowly trolling.

Larry was quite sure as he fired the first round from his prone position. “This couldn’t possibly get out to where they are.”

“If it does, we’re in trouble.”

“No way.” Larry said, confidently. And fired another round.

The little fishing boat started to move quickly to the Northwest. Perhaps they were headed home. Perhaps they knew of better fishing areas. But to this day I think they might have seen one or two rounds splash beside them, or skip off the water, or even hit their boat. I also cannot imagine anyone sniping with real bullets merely out of idle curiousity, but there it is: we did it.

You wonder sometimes how kids – and more importantly – you as a kid, possibly made it through those perilous years.  For instance, at the new elementary school there was blacktop surrounding the main building, and then a covered passway to the administration offices and the small gymnasium. We had discovered geared “English” bikes then, with 5 gear speeds as I remember, and they were a step up in speed and lightness from the old balloon-tire cruisers which had so much trouble going up the many hills in our community. Often we had to walk the balloon tire bikes up the hill. There was another large difference, too. The brakes on the “English” bikes were front and rear hand brakes, on the front handle bars with the gearshift lever, which moved the chain through low to high gears as you kept pedaling. It took a while to convert from the balloon tire brake, which you stepped back on with the pedal of either side, so you could put your full weight onto stopping your hurtling bike. If you tried to use the balloon tire braking method while riding an “English” bicycle, your legs would spin helplessly backward and nothing would even slow down at all.

I had just gotten my new “English” bike and was following the pack around the roads of Normandy Park on a Saturday, when we decided how cool it would be to have bicycle races on the asphalt that created a sort of track all around the main classroom building, going through the underpass between buildings. The school was locked up, and no one was around it at all. It was a dry day and as we built up breathtaking speeds, we could hit the corners and lean, braking just enough, and then building up speed to pull through the leaning turn. I was keeping up with the pack and getting the hang of leaning on the corners and knocking it a gear down from the top to churn back to high speed after each turn. The new lightweight bicycle was thrilling and I pulled away on successive turns faster and faster. I was pulling out ahead when I approached the turn toward the underpass and realized I had too much speed for that corner. My reflexes from my balloon tire days made me stomp backwards on the pedal, and my legs spun backward as the bicycle hurtled toward the corner. Way too late,  I realized I must grab a handbrake, and instead caught my hand on the gear shift, which stopped nothing.

My body hit the large plate glass window to the administration offices going – probably – 40 miles an hour. It was the early 50s and plate glass was just that, no safety glass, nothing. I burst through the window like some movie stunt man, shoulder first I believe, and the 6 foot by 6 foot window gave way all at once, and I flew hard onto the hallway which was deserted on a non-school day. The glass had broken away in an instant, and the top broken part of about 3 feet by 6 feet suspended in air for a moment, and then came slicing straight down like a guillotine…and broke in to shards on the floor just behind me. I had superficial cuts on my arms and my legs. I was actually locked into the administration building, so we broke the rest of the plate glass away so that I could climb back out. The bicycle had stopped dead at the lower wall. It was still ridable and so I pedaled home and told the story to my terrified mother. She took me to the emergency room so the cuts didn’t get infected and any bits of glass were pulled out. They said I had been lucky. I to this day remember the helpless feeling of my feet spinning backward on the pedals of that “English” bike.

That next summer we were fiddling around the week before the Fourth of July and all of us had massive amounts of firecrackers stored up, and George suggested we make one big firecracker. From somewhere he came up with a foot long iron pipe threaded at both ends, and the caps to screw onto the ends of that section of pipe. Gleefully we broke open our firecrackers and dumped them into one end of the pipe. There was a lot of gunpowder in that pipe and I’m not sure what George put in with it, if anything, but he then sealed off the pipe ends tightly. For a little while we wondered how we would set it off, and then someone suggested these little war surplus cans of Sterno, which you could use to heat up canned stuff, and adults heated up water for coffee, when we were on camping trips.

We found a secluded patch of woods about a hundred yards in from the road which was cleared of big timber, but many small alder trees had grown back quickly over a few years. We lit three of the small Sterno cans and set the pipe section – full of gunpowder – on top of the three cans in a row. It dawned on us that we should be some distance away when it went off so we waited out on one of the roads. This new property development had road names on wooden posts, but there were very few houses, very far apart, on these new roads. After about 15 minutes we crept back in to see what was happening with the pipe. Nothing…The Sterno cans burned happily along and we knew they would run out of fuel soon, so we waited a while longer out at the roadway, and then we decided that was a failure. We also knew there would be a football game developing down the road at a large grassy expanse someone planned to build a house on but had not yet. It was perfect for football.

We’d been playing football for about half an hour during that weekday afternoon, when the largest firecracker in the world went off. The sound was frightening. We timidly made our way back toward the site of the pipe and Sterno cans. Within about a quarter mile we saw little pieces of shrapnel in trees. At a crossroads not far from the pipe, we saw the post of the road sign cut in half and dangling by a sliver. We decided to go down to the beach and pretend we’d never been in the area.

As the gods of fortune determine, no one was driving by at the moment of the blast, no mother with her baby carriage was out for a stroll, no kids on their bikes were in a small pack in the area where the young alder trees were nearly mowed to the ground by shrapnel. Later, the police milled around the site and found that there were bits of shrapnel in the sides of houses a half mile away.

I cannot say we were good boys ever after, but I believe it may have been the first time when a bit of caution entered our exploits. We’d missed an opportunity to be called murderers and also – ourselves — to be quite dead. I certainly hope there were not opportunities like ours for our own children to learn cause and effect and caution, but I suspect there were…and I don’t want to hear about it. Mayhem is always lurking so close in Life, without being invited in for a party. You can wish it were not so, but perhaps our tenuous civilization has to be learned and relearned in those dangerous years.


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

Apologies to Ayn Rand

Most of you know that Ayn Rand was a novelist of economic fiction, with such impact from her book Atlas Shrugged that some 50-year-old politicians today are still under her spell. She came from a capitalist family which escaped Soviet Russia. Her heroes make the world happen and are only burdened by governments and have total disdain for the assorted hangers on — who turn out to be most of us. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Senator was named so by his Ayn-Rand-devotee father and congressman, Ron. Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, claims to have most of his moral direction in politics from Ayn Rand. The Tea Party phenomenon, which tried to diminish government at every turn, had many Randians.

It is better to run smack into Ayn Rand when you have almost nothing, because if you have some money, or some measure of success, she will convince you that you deserve it. If you have next-to-nothing, then eventually, even if you get something, you will probably realize it did not all come from you, and that you were lucky to scrape a few crumbs off the general common wealth and — try all your life to grab a few more crumbs off that wagon. I had worked as a carpenter for two summers in high school, and I thought I was a model for Ayn Rand, a maker, a paragon of personal responsibility, and a disdainer of all takers.

I wandered into the University of Washington a few years after Sputnik, and Universities were tightening up on their admissions. With the great public push to beat the Russians came the realization that we needed to generate more educated people…fast. On Orientation day, the speaker said to look to the right and left, and two of these students, perhaps you, would not receive a degree. I said goodbye to those on my right and left, and they did not take it well. I was sure that was what Ayn Rand would do.

The death of my father in WWII should have given me some room-and-board money under the GI Bill. However, I had just read Ayn Rand’s  Atlas Shrugged and I would be damned if I would go to school on blood money. My mother was beside herself. My adopted family could not pay for my education, but she thought the government ought to, and my naïve but cold-eyed refusal made her go through all the possible arguments. My father was not here to put me through school, but he would have used this GI Bill, so now they offered it to me. Nevertheless my distraught mother was not as convincing as Ayn Rand. I would be cool and make it myself with no help. While some of the money I’d made carpentering was still around, I studied and got a 3.5 and lived in the student dorm. Then the money ran out next semester. I got jobs dishwashing, and being a houseboy in a sorority, and being an afternoon counselor for YMCA kids. These jobs each made a pittance, and the time for study – let alone any fun – tightened up a lot. I got an old bicycle to go between classes and jobs, but before long, the bicycle broke.

I started to play soccer for little other reason than it was played by people my size, which was average. The local industrial league teams could always use a fresh body and sometimes I played two 90-minute games in an afternoon at the pitch (the surface of which was partly made of broken Coke bottles) near Green Lake. The next year the U. of Washington started a team, but I was not remotely good enough alongside the Europeans there who were off season from ski scholarships – truly fine athletes. They did allow me to turn out with them and that was exceptional training, keeping up with those who had played the game at a high level, sometimes semi-pro level, all their lives. Gradually I learned to control the ball, trapping it from the air with a soft foot and then snapping a relevant pass to someone. By my junior year, I did make the University of Washington team, for one reason: I was an American who could keep up.

The University decided that the soccer talent from overseas was far above what they could find in Americans from Seattle, so they made a rule that two players on the team had to be American citizens. Actually, that made it pretty competitive, to be one of the two players. When I made the team in my Junior year, a tuition scholarship came with it. Ayn Rand would probably approve of that, but my grades were dragging and I was living down behind some old lady’s furnace for $10 a month, and showering within a curtain hung over the laundry room drain. I had started in Journalism and found I could get away with more as an English major, so I learned to read Ford Maddox Ford fast between jobs. All this being poor and pleasing Ayn Rand was starting to annoy me, and no one I knew could understand the connection anyway, so that helped me rethink the whole proposition and take the GI Bill money in my Junior year.

Did I feel I had failed Ayn Rand? No way. Instead I felt liberated, free to take the money granted me for an education from my father who, after all, died for his country. Turns out the money kept coming. Before I turned 21, I’d had also  rejected the money from my mother on my father’s $10,000 life military life insurance money, and now it reverted to my possession. I had not accepted it – until now. Now they were handing me $10,000 (probably worth $100,000 now) to spend on what I wanted. Well, first of all was a Porsche. An old Porsche (granted) but a 1953 Porsche shipped from Germany by a servicemen who now needed the money. I rode a cold train cross country and got it for $5000 in Bayonne, New Jersey.

What a deal. Me, 21 years old with a Porsche. I also got a Guild guitar, which makes fine music to this day. What a day that was! To put everything you ever wanted – granted a low bar – into one package, and buy it!  I drove the Porsche cross country and it took curves like it was on a rail and for some reason in Montana the engine caught fire, but it was air-cooled and somehow cured itself enough for me to make it to Seattle. This was such a formative moment that I have never lusted for those things I cannot buy.( I could even take girls on a dates that weren’t Dutch.) At least once in my life I could have all of the tangible objects of my desire – because my list then was so short.

Parallel to all this, the military had ever been marching in the background. The first year I was in ROTC like every student in land grant colleges in 1960. The idiot student leaders in charge at 7:00 am marched us through muddy grass and into the sides of buildings. The prize was to be an Air Force officer. The ROTC building burned down that year, very probably by accident, and I turned in my Cadet Uniform thinking all records had been destroyed. Home free…but not. They came back when I was a junior and said they had found the records and I would not graduate unless I completed the loathsome ROTC. I fixed them, however. I had a plan: The war could not last much longer and I could drop out and be in the Reserves. I went into the Marine Platoon Leader’s course that summer, which shielded me from everything…except the Drill Instructors.

These Marine Drill Instructors hated college boys. Many of them had studied civilian subjects while in the Marines and some even had Master’s degrees as well as karate black belts, but they all hated college boys. Their sole purpose was to cause as many college boys to drop out of the Platoon Leaders program as humanly possible. Their dropout record at the time was likely comparable to the SEALS, about 60% for Marine Officers. But their soft side was that they admired physical prowess. Not my long suit, but….

Luckily, during the previous Spring Semester I was given the opportunity to pedal pedicabs at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. Members of the soccer team were given jobs peddling pedicabs all over the World’s Fair Grounds, as tours and also as taxis. We were the real workers. The members of the UW football team were given menial jobs like measuring the length of the grass on the walkways. Pansies.

However, the pedicabs were not made for heavy duty usage. Most of them broke down, and we did not complain, because the company was paying us $2 an hour, just to sit with the broken down machine until some mechanic could come around and haul it back to the main garage. $2 for baby sitting was not bad at the time. But it could not – and did not – last. They took the pedicabs out of operation and we were without a job. They gave me a position running electric cars with 8 people in them, because I knew the grounds, etc. I actually knew the grounds so well, that I would give some preference in my tour spiel to food vendors who would give me a free meal when I got off. This angered the vendors I had not included, who got to my boss, who seemed glad to fire me as an example to the rest.

“Say,” I asked, as I was dismissed. “What are you doing with the pedicabs?”

“Nothing,” he said. “We’re not going to start the operation up again, if that’s what you mean.”

“Not exactly,” said, with this germ of entrepreneurship exploding behind my eyes. “I thought if I rented one some day, for about $10, I’d see what I could make off it. Better than no income at all for you.”

He chewed on that a minute, and then nodded. “But no advertising…That’s trouble for you.”

So the next day I got the best-maintained pedicab of many in the garage and took it out for a whirl. 10 feet onto the grounds someone stopped me and asked if I gave tours. I said yes, $10 a person for a 20 minute tour of the grounds. $20 and twenty minutes later I had a thriving business going. I was the only pedicab on the World’s Fair grounds! People with tired legs were ready to jump in the seat, when I let the last load out. I worked 16 hours that day and made over $400 with the tips the late night drunks gave me just to get them to an entrance with a cab.

In just a few days of this, I had expenses for the school year. Kodak had me hold a camera while sitting on the pedicab seat and the photo became a national print ad which was actually up in New York’ Grand Central Station for a while. A friend there called me to say he had seen it. This was success! There were only two problems: how to keep my earnings a secret, and how to keep my legs from knotting up. Since I was renting the cabs for $10 a day, it was no one’s business how much I made, so I lied with abandon. “How’s it going,” the pedicab supervisor said when he saw me re-infusing my cells with a milkshake. “Not great” I said. “Some days it’s going to be tough even to make the ten dollars, but I hope some weekend days will work.”

“You’re not thinking of quitting are you?” He was worried about losing this income, but also wondering if he could put other drivers on.

“I’ll see how it works for a few more days. Sure isn’t as good as the $2 a hour I could depend on.”

“Well that’s business.” He said. Such a ruse… and it lasted me about 3 weeks. I moaned what a mistake this was to everyone I knew there. I groaned when I passed the supervisor, as if I was getting a hernia. I really made a lot of money those days.

The other problem, legs cramping, definitely impacted how much income I could produce in a $10 day. Luckily there was a “club” on the grounds with a masseur. In midafternoon, for $5 he would massage my legs for about half an hour, and I was good to go until closing at midnight.

This windfall could have lasted longer but some poor soul the supervisor wanted to befriend with a temporary assignment, paid the $10 and started making $50 a day almost doing nothing. He rushed back to the supervisor before I could intercept him and thanked him profusely for such a great deal. My days were obviously numbered.

Luckily, I had made a bundle by then and I had to report to the Marines for 6 weeks anyway. They were as vicious as advertised. People who giggled in ranks the first night were lifted two feet in the air by the drill instructors boot, and thereafter did not even smirk in the darkness. But then there was the fitness. Ordinarily fit college boys, some who had played sport, were ground into the dirt of the Quantico hills by endless running, much of it in heat conditions considered dangerous. I saw a few thrown in an ice bath to get their temperature down. These were the weaklings. The rest of us kept running. And climbing. And learning to use the toilets for all functions in the one minute they gave us. (Some of us started smoking as a rapid laxative. A little-known medicinal value rarely touted in cigarette ads.)

I was not great at the drilling, often turning the wrong directions. And I was not great at the tactics we were supposed to study at night after running all day. My book scores were a compendium of guesses, and barely passing at that. There was every reason they should drop me out of the program, except for two: (1) They wanted people to drop out as their own decision, that they could not take this kind of life any more. (2) After all my peddling and grunting and pulling on the handlebars getting 700 lbs of passengers up the hills at the World’s Fair, I scored number 2 in the whole physical testing in that class, behind some guy who they said might make the Olympics in the Decathlon. So, unlike anyone before or since, the Marines liked me for my body.

There is more to this Marine story, which I thought would end when the Vietnam war ended. Except it didn’t end, not quite soon enough for me, nor for several others exponentially more unlucky than I was.


Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

Trombones We Have Known

Nothing then was as nearly so obvious as it seems to be now, so far away.

Back in 1961 there was a new President Kennedy who gained office with the votes of southern Democrats.  We all thought his Boston accent quite strange but he was young and had a great sense of humor. He made his brother Robert his Attorney General. At first they both saw Martin Luther King as a threat to America, and had him watched by Hoover’s FBI. Many Republicans and northern Democrats pushed integration of the races while other Republicans and the southern Democrats favored segregation. There were still “whites-only” water fountains in parts of the country and many hotels in large cities which would not admit black professional athletes when they were in road games. A tremendous number of upscale neighborhoods in major cities still required contractual covenants which would not allow any subsequent owners to sell their property to blacks or Jews.

My grandmother, who came to Oklahoma from Tennessee in a covered wagon, and was a great-granddaughter of Davy Crockett, was an intelligent, kind Southern woman who rocked me in her rocker and sang songs like “There was an old darkie whose name was Uncle Ned, He died long years ago, He had no hair on the top of his head, The place where the hair ought to grow….Lay down the fiddle and the bow, Lay down the shovel and the hoe, Ain’t no more work for poor Uncle Ned, He’s gone where the good darkies go.”

At seven years old, I never dreamt that song — or my grandmother — would be called racist, a word I’d never heard and would not hear for years. Later while in college I argued with my grandmother about Martin Luther King, and she said she saw they had good reason, but they were trying to “move too fast.”

The curious thing about segregationists in America was that quite a few blacks agreed with them. I am using the word “blacks” as this was considered a neutral descriptive term for several interim decades, and represents the best of adjectives used for African-Americans at that time and for some time thereafter. The gentleman I am about to describe was the epitome of what was called “Black Pride.”

Keve Bray did not cater to integration, though he was a high school teacher and it might have benefitted him to do so. He never wanted integration because if someone has to be integrated then automatically that made them a victim, and Keve Bray was not going to be anyone’s de facto victim.

Googling Keve Bray doesn’t get you much of anywhere. Like they say of the great Gayle Sayers running the football, you had to be there.  What they have to say online is all so far removed from the contact that I had with him in 1961, that I have to remember him in a more innocent time when all our roles seemed so much more innocent as well.

First of all, you have to know that Keve Bray was an actor. A big baritone of an actor, but with a wry intelligence that transcends the usual stage. He would be on anyone’s short list to play Othello, probably even Shakespeare’s. I got to know Keve because in 1961 I took a playwriting class at the University of Washington and wrote a short (forgettable) play and he was teaching high school drama and had me read it to his class.

Seattle was ever the place where social movements took root. First it was friendly relations of settlers with Native Americans, living alongside tribes whose living came from the land – and sea – in this temperate climate. There was so much meat and fish and berries and corn and wood to burn that almost no one could die of cold or hunger. There was so much plenty that ever so often a rich family was obliged to hold a public potlatch where they gave away everything they had to the many visitors, and were judged socially by how much they had to give away. I guess you would call the potlatch societies both pre-capitalist and post-capitalist (since they obviously had to accumulate something in order to give it away).

Later the American Communist party took infiltrated the docks, and Woody Guthrie came to write songs and sing songs about the new progressive movements, most specifically “The Great Grand Coulee Dam.”

So it was fitting that many blacks in Seattle at that time were seeking an identity that had been denied to them since the Civil War…They were mostly descended from slaves, but were still not any kind of equal citizen.  Keve Bray felt that blacks in America should own their own banks and their own insurance companies and their own farms, and hire their own people to build their own houses and run their own grocery stores to feed their own communities. He felt that until blacks could stand proudly with their own institutions parallel to the rest of society, then this new integration phenomenon was merely patronizing condescension from the white community.

So when $50 was a lot of money, and I was working three jobs to stay in school at the University of Washington, I invested $50 in Keve Bray’s Evergreen Insurance Company, the first black insurance company I know of anywhere. And when Keve Bray put on All Gods Trombones as a benefit play based on a collection of sermons in verse, at the Opera House downtown, I agreed to play the white foreman on a slave plantation. Barely having started college, it was probably the only role in life I was then qualified to play.

A couple of nights before the first dress rehearsal of All Gods Trombones, and we were playing a critical scene in which I played the white plantation foreman who was to throw the main character down and run him off. ( FYI – My word processor now suggests I use the word supervisor instead of foreman.) The main character was a sprightly singer and dancer who stole the rehearsals with his talent and charm and was sure to steal the show when we put on the play. All the cast was in high spirits as we rehearsed in the basement of a church in downtown Seattle. This was a chance to show off everything good, and also raise money in a real way for real businesses, in the black community.

I was the only white person in the play, and everyone was gathered around in a cheerful mood when Keve said we had to put maximum energy into this scene, so it would look real from far out in the audience. I moved onto the stage, and on cue grabbed the main man and threw him down, spouting my rehearsed invective, and one of the other “slaves” caught the fall on his knee. There was a groan from the star, and he rolled over holding his ribs.

The eyes which had been laughing and cheerful turned mean on me. I may have ruined their show, and I was a white guy. It was not my fault and yet, in a much larger sense, it was my fault. I was the only one here who was privileged to be white. I felt the helplessness of a baby on the beach, looking up at a large wave. Keve Bray stepped into this vacuum of solid, silent resentment and said, “OK, let’s change roles.” He pulled the groaning dancer to his feet. “You’ll be the foreman.”

I was so glad to be grabbed, so glad to be thrown to the floor in front of all the cast. They were all laughing in that release of sudden bad feelings. I was OK. We were all just playing roles. And Keve’s play went on that week and made money. Soon I was involved in other college classes and activities, and later involved in combat and in a few business conflicts, but this command decision, made by a director to save his play, stuck with me as one of the more brilliant and perceptive moves I have ever seen.

From Tulsa, where I was in graduate school in 1965, I saw an article from the Seattle Times that Keve had organized a group to ban the children’s book Black Sambo, from the Seattle Public Library. I smiled at this, envisioning his gusto and his self-assurance on the steps of the city library. And then, being in my own war and trying to return from that strange role to a different America than I left, I heard no more about him until now. One of the better accounts online omits a lot of grisly detail, but reads like  this:                                                Seattle businessman and political activist Keve Bray played an essential role in the local civil rights movement and is especially notable for his role in the black power movement in the Central District. Bray was born on June 9, 1925. Very little is known about his childhood background. By the 1960s Bray emerged as an early opponent of integration as the best means to advance equality for African Americans in Seattle. As early as 1964, he spoke out against the integrationist rhetoric of many civil rights leaders. This political dissent foreshadowed the emergence of black power ideologies in Seattle later in the 1960s.
By 1968, Bray had become a leader of the “black nationalist” faction of the African American community in Seattle. He and his followers asserted their dissatisfaction of the direction of the civil rights movement, under the leadership of the Central Area Civil Rights Committee, at a particularly heated community meeting in March 1968. From that point on, many young black Seattleites openly supported the black power rhetoric of Keve Bray, the Nation of Islam, the Black Panther Party, and other leaders of the Black Nationalist movement.  Bray was very active in community organizations and carried a strong voice in Seattle. He co-founded the Negro Voters League in 1966 and was a member of the United Black Front (UBF).  In 1969 he joined other UBF members and eight Seattle Black Panthers in presenting a list of Central District grievances to the Washington State Senate Ways and Means Committee. Bray was also a frequent contributor to the Afro American Journal, a short-lived publication in Seattle that openly supported the black power movement.                                                                                                                                                       In addition to his involvement in political activism, Keve Bray was a major supporter of African American arts and culture in Seattle. Bray headed the Black Cultural Center, a center that promoted black community education and served as a place for young African Americans to display arts and crafts. The Center also housed the Banneker School, an alternative private school for African American youth in the Central District. In 1972 Bray moved to Denver, Colorado after becoming a Black Muslim.  He changed his name to Keve X and was assigned by Nation of Islam, The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, to reorganize the Denver Mosque. Bray was assassinated in the doorway of his Denver home on November 17, 1972, allegedly by Denver members of the Nation of Islam.

We travel through events and roles in life. The events mostly become slips of paper in old drawers (or on old web sites) and the most momentous ones are usually far away in the news and are never like the personal ones which form the real course of the world. And the roles…It may not matter what roles you chose, or why you chose them, but only how you played the role. The role Keve Bray played was his creation and yet a creation of the times, and — when all the lights fade on all of us — I have to think he played his role to perfection.


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

Requiem for a Thunderboat

History used to be mainly oral. For most of our early centuries, history was passed from generation to generation by memorizing what older people said, along with songs and stories, and then telling it all over again to future generations. Then came writing, and then printing and we didn’t have to remember as much. And then, of course, with the photograph we didn’t have to be as descriptive because, after all, there was the picture. Now more and more we tend to think of life as recordable. If we miss something said on the radio, we know that somewhere in the station files this hour was preserved. And we see so much news footage that it seems impossible that various events could exist not on film or video or in photographs, but only in the minds of people who were there.

But that is way far from true. The camera is usually there for scenes which are predictable, and is only very occasionally present when something truly significant happens, like the Hindenburg Dirigible disaster. Where were the cameras at the sinking of the Titanic, or the Lusitania? Football and baseball games have a predictability to each situation, and a camera can be waiting to catch the scene, but most of our little wars now happen at night, or in unexpected ambushes which defy camera setups. Obviously ceremonies and speeches are often live situations, but most are not too interesting even the first time. That nearly means that if a live subject is caught on film or video, there is by definition a dull predictability about it. Most of the truly arresting pictures were spontaneous occurrences, and most of them are still NOT captured except by fortunate accident.

Body cameras on policemen and surveillance cameras in parking lots are beginning to catch a lot of pertinent action, and in sports the use of instant replay has been sparingly used to resolve controversy. One invention I was touting gave an instantly accessible eight-second rendition of every football play from four different camera angles. It was a referee’s dream, I had supposed, only to be told by the National Football League that the referees didn’t want that much information.

There is occasionally a sight so uncaught and amazing that it becomes a lifetime memory, if you survive it. Seattle was an early sponsor of major hydroplane races, the kind where they go 200 miles per hour and shoot up roostertails behind as they skim and bounce along the surface of water. It was all part of Seafair, a citywide festival with numerous parades celebrating sections of the city. It was, and is, the one-week occasion for archery contests and old car shows and drum-and-bugle-core presentations in torchlight parades. Events were listed in the papers. Everyone had their favorite event, but in the 1950’s the city’s favorite of favorites was the Gold Cup Hydroplane race. Four hundred thousand people lined the shores of Lake Washington, an Indianapolis of water sports in the Pacific Northwest.

This was Seattle, remember, as it existed in the 50s before Microsoft and Amazon, a city dominated by Boeing workers and Teamsters who controlled work at one of the busiest ports in America. It had of course been the home of timber barons and the departure point for Alaska…and the promise of Klondike riches. Lesser known was the heavy influence of communist union organizers, and as a destination for the legendary folk-singer, Woody Guthrie.

A lot of us kids thought of the Gold Cup Unlimited Hydro Race as an exclusive Seattle event, but it was not. There were a few years then – and many years since – when Detroit racing boats took the Gold Cup back there, back East. When it happened, we considered it stolen, and definitely a temporary affair. The boats were bedecked with ads by their major sponsors. Think Miss Pepsi and Miss Detroit. However, our local pride was in those boats sponsored by local concerns like Miss Bardahl (a Seattle auto oils manufacturer,) and the Slo-Mo-Shun boats. Seattle’s Miss Thriftway had the legendary Bill Muncey as its driver. The boats packed in huge aircraft engines behind the driver, and the roar carried through much of the city all week, as the big boats qualified, often with record times over the 2 ½ mile course and speeds in excess of 200 mph..

At the other end of the social scale, our family had a very small boat with a cabin. In 1958 my stepfather managed to buy a space on the log boom that surrounded the unlimited Hydro races. Right up very close we could see the huge, noisy unlimited-class hydroplanes roar through first turn of 20 laps. People snapped photos and had movie cameras going, as the massive boats growled and bounced along the top of the water, throwing up massive rooster tails behind them.

Earlier in the day the Blue Angels had flown in formation overhead, for a world-class air show. When they came low over the course at 500 miles per hour, every boat below rocked and every house on shore shook, and many wine glasses fell off their shelves. Seattle was an airplane town, remember, and the Blue Angels reminded us of the Air Superiority we would have on the battlefield. Three years earlier, in 1955, Boeing was just prototyping the 707 jetliner and in a test-pilot burst of bravado its pilot, Tex Johnson, executed an impromptu barrel roll with the huge airplane right above the crowd of hundreds of thousands on the Seattle shores. But all of this was captured by Boeing footage from a trailing plane. When Johnson was brought on the carpet before the CEO of Boeing and asked to account for himself, he said he was just “selling airplanes.” And they did sell a few 707s as it turned out.

To repeat: All of these spectacular events were on film. All are a history of the human race. What came next was not. It is in my head, and in the head of everyone who was electrified by it but, to my knowledge, not a photo or a piece of film exists of when Miss Thriftway slammed into a Coast Guard patrol boat at way over 100 mph.

So you will have to go by my account, or that of any one else who was there in 1958.        

The day was warm and gorgeous, with 14,000 ft Mt. Rainier towering above all of us at sea level on Lake Washington. Beers and barbeques on the boats had been going for hours and this was the first of three finals heats. Seven unlimited hydroplanes, all powered by the massively noisy aircraft engines, came thundering out from under the Lake Washington bridge to hit the starting line. We were on the end curve of the first turn. We could see Miss Thriftway’s driver, the legendary Bill Muncey, skillfully take his perfectly-timed speed at the starting line and convert it to rising momentum that gained him the inside position on the first turn. Often the boat that could take that position from the start went on to win the Gold Cup.

We were all standing up watching, excited, as the boats swung around that first turn in parallel concentric arcs, beautiful and bewitching in the danger of   boats, their wide front sponsons tripping like light-footed dancers across the small chop of waves,  each boat longer than a truck — going about as fast as humans ever go on the water. The man in the boat next to us had his film camera whirring. I may have had a beer in my teenaged hand. People were cheering as the boats swung in unison and you could hear that shouting through the tumult and churned up waters. Muncey seemed to be veering a little wide, nosing other boats wide as well, all this at well over 100mph…and then Miss Thriftway broke free of its curve and went absolutely straight toward the small boats on the log boom. Its throttle seemed jammed open and its rudder had broken away as the huge hydro cut off the other racers and sped straight toward the edge of the first curve totally out of control and ready to kill 50 people… if it would go on to plow through the surrounding small boats.

And then…it didn’t kill 50 people. It hit only one boat, a small Coast Guard cutter sitting on the edge of the first turn, sitting in the water and then lifted – all its great tonnage – up out of the water as Miss Thriftway knifed into its side. Did Muncey stay with the boat and guide it that way to save all those spectators? We don’t know. We may never know, but when Miss Thriftway’s runaway bow knifed into the metal side, it lifted the whole boat up out of the water. I swear the impact lifted that heavy Coast Guard boat right out of the water and I swear to this day I saw daylight under the both of them. When the big hydroplane had broken away from the pack, coming almost right toward us, the man next to us with his movie camera said, “Holy…” and let his finger off the button, almost dropping the camera in rigid shock.

The two boats, one cloven into the side of the other, settled back down into the water and the Coast Guard boat began to take on water rapidly. One of the sailors below, wormed out the hole in the side before it sank. Refuse and boat parts from the Miss Thriftway were everywhere and we thought surely the driver, Muncey, was dead. Police boats arriving quickly sent divers quickly down to look for him, as the Coast Guard vessel filled with water and its prow began its downward descent. In only a couple of minutes the stern kicked up and it slipped into the deep, but most of the crew had been up top watching and were thrown into the water. One crewman we found later had broken his leg. Bill Muncey was somehow thrown free and was floating over in some waves, with many bones broken inside and out. He was unconscious from the impact with the water.

On the final heat, another boat swerved wide toward our log boom and people from 10 or 12 boats dived off the back of theirs but there was no runaway this time. Every one who had frozen in place and stopped taking pictures as disaster neared in the first heat was now ready for anything, diving off or shooting pictures as the boats bounced through the whole first turn without incident.

YouTube has the 10 Most Spectacular Hydroplane Crashes Ever on collected old newsreels. Over 300,000 Internet viewers have watched these. But unfortunately they have seen nothing. The most important one, in 1958, the most thrilling, most terrible, and most devastating hydroplane crash in that sport’s history, was witnessed live by 100s of thousands on the shores. And because not one good picture was taken, it doesn’t even exist in history. It will only exist…as long as we spectators exist. In some ways that is an oddly comfortable feeling, that the most significant things of all may still be fleeting, and not preservable in stone or film or digits, but only in the souls of those of us who on that day actually felt history.


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

The Mountains Don’t Care

Every spring and summer in Seattle someone gets lost in the vast forests of the Cascade Mountains. The Cascades are a short distance from both Seattle and Tacoma within an hour’s drive for hikers. One of the major peaks was Mount St Helens. “Was “ is the operative tense, because Mount St. Helens was an active volcano, and blew its top in 1980 and totally filled the 15 mile long Spirit Lake with boulders and lava and ash. The ash in the air is said to have blackened skies for 300 miles around for weeks. As though a major dam had burst, the vast waters of Spirit Lake sloshed – to use the best verb available for miles of moving water – out to flood surrounding towns with mud, with whole uprooted trees bounding along on the flash flood current. Not a safe place to be. These eruptions are rather special events that happen once in many centuries.

However, if you are a hiker lost in the mountains on any given day, that is your special event, and it is no less dangerous – to you –than Earth’s upheaval. There are hundreds of reasons why people get lost, but only a few possible reactions. Some people — on becoming disoriented — lose other reasoning as well. They go in wrong directions trying to find their way, and worst of all, become so separated from other hikers (and usually it is hikers trying to take a short cut) that they have to stay out overnight with only a daypack or less. Now some of these people are well enough equipped to survive a few days, and often find their way down a river to be found by searchers. Even in a daypack, they will have a few pieces of food and a few item of extra clothing. A small can of tuna fish can keep your body in protein for days. Dry socks – especially wool ones — can serve as mittens as well as cheering up wet feet immensely. Even without a map, a compass can give your meanderings some purpose when the sun is gone for days.

On the other hand, mountain people have a saying: “The Mountains Don’t Care.” Often hikers will be wet from trying to cross a stream or from quick rain showers or from trudging through deep snow. Food is heavy and a lot of hikers carry little or none. The lost person tires easily, often with despair playing a large part. Eventually these elements of cold and hunger and frantic indecision work against the lost person’s chance of survival. Quite a few of them die of exposure, not just freezing to death, but of the slow sapping of energy – and willpower – that comes with unrelenting cold and little provision.

In our day there were few helicopters to pull people out, but other than that it was the same problem; either someone had to find them and get them out, or they would have to find their own way out. They usually had a couple of days at most, which is why the call usually came in the middle of the night, to suburban homes with people sleeping for work or school the next day. The call directed them to a rally point in the city within the hour. It usually said how much gear to bring, including sleeping bags which may have been for the victim’s warmth, or may have been for the searchers staying several nights….depending.

When we arrived in the middle of the night, the scene was eerily similar every time. Usually these lost people had been reported to the county sheriff’s department, and highway patrol cars, and perhaps even an emergency rescue vehicle were gathered at the road and trailhead where the lost hiker had last been seen. Often there were spouses, or parents, or fellow hikers standing around with breaths steaming out. Sometimes they were sitting in cars, police talking on walkie talkies, and everyone with a hot cup of coffee.

And who was it that arrived? Who had been called out in the middle of the night to plunge into the mountains, and find the lost hiker in ten square miles or more of the densest forest in America? If they were lucky, it was Ome Daiber, who had lived in the mountains most of his life and hiked 20 miles with a 60 pound pack as if it was down to the store. Ome Daiber was a legend among Seattle mountaineers, and many of these mountaineers were legends themselves, men (at the time) who had first ascents of the highest Himalayan peaks. Jim Whittaker was the first American to climb Mt. Everest. On K-2, one of the most dangerous peaks in the world, Peter Scheoning saved ten injured people he was roped to when their sled broke free, by diving over the precipice on the other side of the ice ridge falling 30 feet straight down and being slammed against the side…but the rope between them held. These were people who thought Ome Daiber was a legend. And because he was, they would be packed up in the middle of night and joining the Mountain Rescue Team, though in the dark and in the urgency, no one knew who they were, even the sheriff who’d called when the situation looked impossible for his patrolmen.

If you were lucky, you would get one of these mountaineers, and they would climb in where no sane climber would go and get you out alive. Or, on the other hand, you could get me. I was in the Explorer Search and Rescue group formed by some ex-mountaineers who felt young teenaged legs could tromp the woods further and sturdier than most adults, and we could go without sleep longer. It was sort of cool to be called out of our high school class to go on rescues. Usually that only happened to kids who had stolen cars, and frankly our fellow students didn’t know exactly how to treat us. The other students thought us strange indeed.

After all we weren’t football heroes or anything. We were just going out to beat through the woods after some hiker. Most of our days we were running a “grid” which meant 20 of us being about 20 yards apart (and sometimes closer if the growth was denser). The leaders flagged the ends of the grid line as we walked holding that line and seeing all between. Sometimes that “line” would go down the sides steep muddy gullies and sometimes over massive tangles of fallen trees, and sometimes straight up near cliffs. Then the leaders would pivot and the “line” would move back the other direction to cover another 400 yards. No helicopter could accomplish this close a search, and few dogs could pay attention to the “grid” line and ignore all the wonderful, diverse smells of forest animals. Occasionally we would find someone and had to bring them out on a stretcher, which was very hard work in the trailless mountains and we needed about 6-8 people per stretcher just to switch off. The parents and spouses back at the trailhead with the sheriff were usually quite grateful to see the people back that we brought out, before we got them into ambulances to go back to local hospitals, mostly for surveillance if they were lucky and hadn’t been out too long, and sometimes for sprained ankles or the occasional broken bone. There were, of course, the parents who wanted to sue because we carried their daughter six  miles out of the cold mountains in the middle of the night with a broken leg. They were shocked and tormented that we had left their daughter’s cashmere wool scarf somewhere on that dark rainy trail at zero dark thirty. The lawyer they wanted to prosecute the suit laughed at them, as I heard it. Anyway, I was young and could not possibly understand.

Because you could never tell the situation the mountains would put upon a searcher, we took the Mountaineer’s Climbing Course offered in Seattle in 1958. This has since become one of the premier mountain climbing courses in the world, but it was a down home affair then. Except that it was run by some of the more demanding climbers in the world, some of those just described. They did not want anyone on their rope who could not stop them if they fell. I remember to this day being yanked out of my feet by two instructors on my rope, and sailing on my back down a steep snow hill, expected to twist around and make an arrest with my ice axe and my knees and my boot tips. And they jerked me out again, running like horses down the steep snow, doing everything gravity could possibly do to dislodge me again. And they did jerk me backward, two, three times until I hand dug my ice axe head deep into the snow and arched my body and…stopped them. One of these men was Roy Snyder, a Himalayan veteran, and Jim Whittaker who helped found Recreation Equipment Cooperative (now the expansive REI) and who would, in 1963, climb Everest.

I met Jim Whittaker first when he was repeatedly sticking a knife in the wooden timber floor of Recreational Equipment Cooperative. It was a little store above a pawnshop on 5th Avenue in downtown Seattle. He was on duty as the only salesperson. There were very few customers in those days because, as a cooperative, most climbers had placed orders for Whittaker and other Mountainteers representatives to travel to Switzerland and buy the latest alpine climbing equipment such as ice axes, pitons to drive into ice or cracks in rock faces, carabiners to clip and manage ropes and make them into hanging chairs if necessary. There were also lightweight Primus stoves to heat coffee and stew and sometimes melt ice for the only water we could find. I got my ice axe from REC, and my first (and to this day only) pair of hiking/climbing boots. They have lasted this long, and I am the same size. I met Whittaker again 50 years later, at the concourse in Chicago where passengers wait for the late flight to Seattle. We were the only two. I mentioned to him that I had taken his early climbing course and he remembered those days (, but not me, of course).

Much of our equipment was not from Switzerland, of course. A whole lot of it was Army surplus from World War II and Korea. Warm wool pants and shirts, metal canteens, rubberized ponchos that could become makeshift tents. Eating kits and small cooking pans. Sealskin covers for wooden skis used by ski troops, that held in the snow and let your heel come up to walk as in snowshoes. Then you took off the sealskins and, even with no metal edges, could ski down a mountain you just walked up. We did that on a climb of Mount Saint Helens which, was the most heavily crevassed mountain in the US when we climbed it, before it blew its top in 1980. It almost killed us then in 1959. The hard snow froze and our wooden-edged skis wouldn’t hold on the steep slopes and we were cutting steps with ski poles and George Hendrey broke loose and was picking up speed headed toward a deep crevasse and with the pressure of his hands on the prickly ice slowed himself down and stopped just before the crevasse. A trail of blood from his hands streamed 30 yards behind him on the ice.

Another time Mt. Rainier almost killed us when we were carrying the parts for and building a rescue shelter at 11,000 feet on Steamboat Prow.  A 70 mile an hour blizzard came up and all we had for shelter were building materials  and our down sleeping bags. The snow blew through cracks in our makeshift shelter for a full day and buried us shivering. My mother was quite worried at this one. But the blizzard let up and we trudged down home. We had had a few cans of tuna fish and had only shivered away about 8 pounds. But all in all it was fun, and we are proud to this day to have carried up all the materials across Emmons Glacier to make a rescue shelter for climbers of Mt. Rainier. What more could you ask as a teenager than to be alive and glad to be in these glorious mountains?

Who knows why it is we set aside something we love? For me it was several things. At first it was college. Then the military, then moving to Texas. But in honesty, my departure from the mountains came earlier. When I was in college I noticed that some red white and blue nylon backpacks started appearing in stores. No longer did people have to rummage the war surplus stores for clothing. There were plastic canteens and dehydrated meals. All of this meant hiking and to a lesser degree, climbing was beginning to be popular. I am reminded of Yogi Berra saying of a popular night spot: “No one goes there anymore. It’s too popular.” I am odd that way. When the mountains started to be commercialized, something important was lost. I never climbed again, even when I moved back to Seattle in 1983.

But two of my kids got into the Explorer Mountain Rescue. My son Galen started it from his scouting work, and my daughter Deirdre at age 14 wanted to follow along. The Explorer Scouts were exploring letting in girls, and she jumped to it. She’s a mother and a PhD now, but we were never so proud as when she qualified to go on search and rescue. It was the same tough crowd, a generation later, that had dragged me backward down the steep snow slopes, requiring that I be able to stop them pulling their hardest on my rope if I were to be allowed to join them in their mountains. It is a demanding tradition, and my daughter went through an 11 mile compass course in the snowy mountains, sleeping overnight by herself and falling through on a creek crossing in the middle of the night, and emerging the next day, proudly finishing the course like everyone older. The girls in her high school could not understand all this, and once again, a generation later, thought that she was very strange as well. Maybe that is inherited.


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

The Sports Editor…and The Kid

It is still hard for me not to look at life through the eyes of a sportswriter. Politics and war and business are often thought of as mere games. So many fascinating matchups seem so critical to the fans and the participants, though in actual sports lives are not usually lost and governments don’t usually fall. Probably virtual reality explains it. Sports are clearly a distilled simulation of life. We can easily understand the conflict and we know it will occur in a defined space and roughly within a time period we can set aside to be in that world, totally.

The sportswriter, as opposed to the sportscaster, lays out what is at stake and who the characters are, and then describes exactly what happened in colorful detail. Nobody “beats” anybody. The winner “nabs” victory in the last minute, or the loser “falls short” in the last quarter. The sportswriter, with active words, helps the memories – the experience — of the fans and the participants. And it is unusual, if not firmly prohibited, for actual athletes to become sportswriters. Sportscasters, yes. Coaches, yes. Managers, yes. Trainers and equipment managers probably. But not sportswriters. I would be tempted to bet that no more than two city newspapers, in all of America, can present any of their sportswriters who were ever accomplished enough in any sport to be written about.

It would be a far better bet – an odds-on favorite – that 99% of all sportswriters were once aspiring athletes, who failed at the games they were so passionate about, who stood by while the stronger and the faster took the field, and who wrote about the feats of the stronger and the faster before and after.

Back in the late 1950s, I had tried hard and generally failed at most sports in high school. I also wrote sports for the high school newspaper from when I was a 14-year-old sophomore. It was an easy job to get because no one in high school every wants to write anything that is not a class assignment. So the student editors always assigned me stories and were glad to get my copy. I was dependable, and I only learned later that that, and not even slightly the quality of what you wrote, was what kept them coming back for more.

The local shopper in Burien had a once-a-week, heavy-advertising paper called the Highline Times, and the same company printed our school paper. Richard Stredicke, one of the editors at the Highline Times had been covering Puget Sound League Sports as a favor to the Seattle Times. As a young man about town, he was getting tired of staying up late to call all the local assistant coaches for the scores and highlights, and then to compile and relay all those scores and highlights of all the high school games — at midnight for the next day’s paper. So he asked me if I wanted the job. He said that they paid $7.50 a week. (Remember this is the late 1950s).

I asked did he think I could do it and he said no sweat. I would not have been so glad of the recognition if I had heard his sigh of relief to his girlfriend, who I suspect had to wait late nights for him to retrieve the scores and statistics from each high school game – football and basketball and baseball, right after the games on the days and nights they were played. So he was probably glad at the possibility he could download this awesome responsibility, even to a 14 year old. He gave me the number of Bob Schwarzmann, who ran the Sports Desk at the Seattle Times. I said I’d call in the morning and was told the afternoon was best, when he had come in for work but before the evening’s game coverage had started the phones ringing and the teletypes clacking.

Mr. Schwarzmann sounded kind, but chronically busy. He understood that I was in school and would have to come in to see him on a Saturday. On that Saturday, my mother gave me a freshly-ironed shirt and I brushed my teeth twice. She drove me to the city bus in White Center for my hour-long ride downtown and to the Seattle Times. The Seattle Times was an imposing building with an imposing logo. To me, at 14, it was like auditioning as a choirboy at the Mormon Tabernacle choir of news. They called Mr. Schwarzmann from the front desk and a kindly woman took me upstairs and past these monstrous printing presses that still held lead type generated from machines that took it hot and melted and cast it into lines of type. The linotype machine.

This big city paper had linotype machines and presses rolling out thousands of pages a day, and printer journeymen who put the lines of warm type into frames and made little spaces of “air” between paragraphs. The printers had on large black aprons and what was most impressive to me as a sports writer was when they got an ill-formed line of type. Backhand, they flung it across the shop into a large metal barrel. It could be dangerous in there for a novice, with heavy lead pieces flying across the shop from a nonchalant flip of a printer’s hand. And a clang into the metal barrel. It is a sight and a sound and a smell that will not be seen again, as chemicals now burn plates and newspapers are now photographic prints. (Or maybe some other digital magic happens by now). Actually, we may not be far from the next generation, when newspapers are not seen at all.

However, even in that next generation, and perhaps the next, we will have sportswriters. They are value-added commodities in sports. They create the sizzle, the drama, and even a few epiphanies. Sports are the religion of a lot of people, and the sportswriters are the mischievous princes of play. The kind lady walked me away from the roaring presses and passed an open floor with a few reporters clacking away on typewriters. Most were finished for their day. An Associated Press teletype machine was spitting out stories from everywhere in the world, and when an editor was short of copy for his pages, he would “rip and read” which means take a few stories from the AP wire without modifying them, and meeting his deadline with international news and often arcane news, anything he or she could justify to fill the pages.

The kind woman escorted me into Mr. Schwarzmann’s office. He was at a desk cluttered with stories, notes, telephones, spindles with impaled notes and phone numbers, and I swear an ashtray, which held his cigar when he wasn’t chewing on it. He looked slightly up at me over his cigar.

“So Dick sent you…” Cigar chewing. “So you want to write sports for the Times?”

Put like that it was really scary. My 14 year old legs wobbled. “Yes, sir,” I squeaked.

More cigar chewing. “Ok, take these facts about the upcoming Clover Park – Sumner game. Give me a story.”

He pulled a few notes from the spindle and slid them toward me across the desk. I thought he meant for me to take them home and I started scooping up the few notes.

“Now…” he said, taking out the cigar and waving it toward an empty desk and typewriter to his right. “Over there.”

“Write it now?” I trembled. “Over there?”

Mr. Schwarzman nodded. “6 inches.” That meant a one column, six-inch long story at about 30 words per inch.

He pretended to go back to his stories and took up a ringing phone, but I knew he was watching my every move as I collapsed into the chair at the typewriter, and started reading through his handwritten notes. My mother had taught me touch-typing so I composed right there on the typewriter, only peeking back at him once or twice. Never have I felt so scrutinized in my life, not up to then and not ever since. In about fifteen minutes, I finished the story. I just know he had been watching his watch, though I never saw him look. I walked over to hand him the story as he finished a call. He chewed on his cigar as he read. He snorted a bit, his eyes covering my words like a speeding cheetah after a wayward gazelle – which was me.

Finally he slid my fresh new story aside, and matter-of-factly said. “Ok, you’re hired. Get with Ramona and she’ll set you up with everything.” He then looked away. I kind of expected a handshake like they do the movies, but Mr. Schwarzmann was none of that. He was busy. I backed away and said something like OK, thank you, but he was onto other matters. I only know now after many more years of life that that was the ultimate compliment. He was trusting me to let him be busy with all the other things he had on his desk, and his bruskness was his approval that I could do the job.

After several months on the job, gathering scores and writing lead stories late at night, a competing sports editor on the Seattle Post Intelligencer called and said they liked what I was doing with the Puget Sound League sports and could I do that for them.  It was OK with Mr. Schwarzmann. They would pay me the same as the Times. For a high school kid that amounted to an easy fortune. For the Post-Intelligencer, I was to write exactly the same story again but with a different, more flowery, set of expressions. Those few years of experience were most useful, though my life of journalism soon fizzled for reasons we can reveal later.


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

The Mist and the Woodpile

Seattle in the late 50’s was much mistier than it is now. As I remember, a cloudy mist punctuated the Summer and a rainy mist dominated Fall and a snowy mist enclouded our Winter. We middle school kids pretty much ran wild when we were not in the classroom. We did everything in the mist: played tennis with warped wooden racquets on public courts slimy with mold, played football and baseball in the constant mud, skied on wet snow slopes into the spring. Our mothers put up with the muck and damp we dragged in, glad I suppose to see us back alive for another day. They would have loved global warming.

In general we ignored the mist, but I know now it affected our eyes, and more. My eyes stayed wide open and I never had to squint, as you must in the Midwest and Oklahoma and Texas. You know, there is something evolutionary about a place with a constant mist. The foliage loved it all year round, and when you breathed the air in during patches of sunlight, it all sort of ignited and was like the pulsating heart of God, everywhere.

Later in life, I spent 10 years in Dallas, Texas. For all the opportunity Dallas gave me, my eyes never forgave the stark sun. I think squinting all the time leads to a narrowing of perception. This can be debated, of course, by those who leave Texas and miss their open skies. I still hold to that though: squinting throughout your life cloisters your outlook and maybe even deadens the soul. There are no studies I know of to back up this opinion, so you’ll just have to take it from me.

Mist and middle school…We were all kids getting more height and more muscle and — we thought — more sense. We didn’t realize in the mist of our young minds that this was social combat training. Those boys who were slighter of build had to learn political skills fast, while the rest of us just pushed each other around. I still wonder if that was not the core of boy’s social evolution: much as the plants needed a lot of mist boys needed to grow muscle. Neanderthal in a lot of ways, as we will observe.

Lucky for me – and I say that now whereas I had no inkling at the time – lucky for me we moved into Seattle on an uncleared lot with towering fir trees to be cut down before my stepdad could build a house. And when we had a house and a yard, we still had those trees, but they were cut into two-foot sections by a kind chainsaw, and ringed the backside of our lot with potential firewood. I say potential firewood because each if these sections of trees were a foot and a half in diameter. Someone had to split them down to fireplace size. One afternoon after school, when I was complaining about having to help my mother weed her garden, my stepfather handed me a massive sledgehammer and two five-pound iron wedges. He pointed to the piles of uncut wood. I had seen him split a few of them up. I looked back at the nagging unweeded garden, and thought how hard could this be?

Splitting large sections of tree into fireplace logs is one of those lost arts I believe everyone used to know. Surely it goes back to the first Ice Age, because caves definitely needed logs for a comfy cave. Maybe they did it using large rocks with sharpened stone wedges, but the idea was the same. You wrestled the big round section of tree out to an open area. If the twentieth-century logger had been proficient, then both ends of the cut section were flat and you could tip the section up onto its round end. Then you took the head of the sledgehammer and one wedge and tapped the sharp edge of the wedge into the very middle of that wooden diameter, looking if you could for a place where there were slight fault lines you could exploit. Up to this point, you had a lot in common with a diamond cutter, who could ruin a perfectly good jewel by not finding the right cleavage.

After this point you can forget the diamond cutter, because it was a large swinging arc of the sledgehammer and dull metal smash on the wedge and a hope to hell you didn’t hit it off center. If you hit it off center on that first smash, the iron wedge would ring pure like a church bell and go flying sideways wherever it chose. Dodging those flying iron wedges, and occasionally catching one in the foot or the leg, was instrumental in focusing the log splitter on his next swing. After I had done the first successful split, my stepdad left me with the sledgehammer and wedges for about five years. It was my job. When you cut down perhaps 20 of those huge 100 foot fir trees, there is a lot of after school work. Do the math. 50 sections per tree, times 20 trees makes 1000 to split. Along with the constant mist, the main vision I have of my youth is rows and rows of cut-up trees still to be split with an accurate sledgehammer.

The “lucky me” part is that about the time I’d split my 500th log swinging like John Henry, boys my age started pushing each other around. Now other boys were stouter and stronger and a good number of them were truly mean, but I was one they avoided pushing around. Not that I was menacing; actually I read a lot and was fairly good-natured. But the bullies looking for prey would nudge my shoulders and move on. Believe me, that does wonders for your outlook during your first social combat training.


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved