The Greatest American Adventure

I guess the rest of the world has their business-creation methods, and who’s to say what’s best?  I do know that in America if you have an idea that is anywhere near solid — meaning other people see a way that they can make good money from it — then you can probably enter into the Greatest American Adventure…the small start-up business. There are many reasons people find to strike out on their own…more reward from your efforts, more control of your destiny, ability to shape your work environment. My reason was to be able to make more and different realistic simulators, such as my CPR simulator for the American Heart Association. I did not see anyone else doing this, and I knew in my heart that it was needed, and I knew I could do it well. Ah, youth.

For about a year, I talked to various people about providing money for me and others who would be working with me. It was no coincidence that I was giving talks around the country to medical, training, and computer conferences, all of whose participants were highly interested in CPR Learning System I was making, all for their different reasons. The Medical people saw it as a way to transfer physical skills across the medical world, and this actually became the most rewarding avenue. The Training people saw my simulators as a way to change behaviors in a predictable way, in processes that could be easily evaluated. The Computer people saw my interfaces with computers as leading-edge use of their nascent (1983) “distributed computing” industry, with software and hardware which were easily understandable by non-technical people – a real problem for them then, and even now.

So this was an ideal situation for me to explore starting a new business for two reasons:

  1. As I mentioned, I was quite visible with a lot of speeches and articles. The New York Times and Training Magazine and Byte Magazine did print stories because it was an interesting idea in print. CBS, among others, did news stories on the CPR simulator because it was a visual one on television. One television “clip” was when I did Congressional Testimony in Washington, D.C. with the story on Diane Sawyer’s evening news. American Airlines also picked this up for their in-air magazine. I remember getting late-night calls from friends who flew from New York to Los Angeles and ( probably with a few drinks to make them jolly) were delirious at seeing one of their own so exalted.
  2. The American Heart Association wanted to get a return on their investment by having some company license and distribute the CPR learning system. My many talks were critical to that goal of theirs, and so when the trips were paid for by the conference sponsors, I was allowed quite enough travel to also meet people who might be interested in funding my business. I had been National Training Manager and the AHA gave me the title of Director of Advanced Technology Development. (Titles by the way, are sometimes just cheap rewards.)

If it sounds like a sweetheart situation instead of a sweat hard beginning, I have to admit I was naïve and somewhat stupid in feeling the direction should be so obvious. In the first place, though people liked the idea in almost every encounter, it was an abstract (, shall we say intellectual,) interest. I should have learned with the Texas Instruments programmable calculators – which took years to catch on – that any idea that does not create a high-perceived need in people is not a potent idea for a business. In the case of the TI’s programmable calculators, the market had to be educated to desire that capability. Many companies die trying to educate a market (, and mine almost did as well).

To make my stupidity even more clear, I will give you two personal instances where there was a high-perceived need that a real entrepreneur would have grabbed up and run with. The first was in 1976 when fairly stable geopositional (look it up) communications satellites started licensing block units of “transponder time” to hundreds of small entities which would then break these into smaller time slots and rent them to news, sports and other groups for real-time communications relayed through bouncing off these transponders. There was always the risk, in outer space, of the sun burning out a satellite which flew too close or an asteroid playing the cue ball to knock the satellite into a dark hole.  Or more likely, of the satellite merely getting lost. However, to me this parcel sharing looked like real estate leasing. I mentioned to one investor that someone ought to make a large scale Transponder Investment Trust on the model of Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT). He got the idea immediately and in a flash, reached for his checkbook to get some money down. That was high-perceived need in action…But I was young and naïve and dissuaded him, saying that I did not have the full business available for investment. Ah yes.

A second example was recently when my son Liam and I were looking to make a write-off business with our money consuming sailboat. Since 57% of funerals in the state of Washington involve cremation, and since we lived beside a body of water which would allow human ashes, my son made the pitch to funeral directors that we could do “burials at sea” for the funeral homes, taking the ashes out into Puget Sound with some ceremony (– imagine night time torches, etc). The directors he began talking with immediately saw this as an added-value product with high-perceived need for some of the bereaved and wanted to put us on the program for regional funeral directors. (This was not an attractive idea to another important family member, so it fizzled). I wonder how many earthshaking endeavors went dark in this way before they started.

So anyway, I did not start my first and only company with such key proposition, a product with high-perceived need that was instantly understood by someone with money. It had a cool factor that got everyone’s attention, but it did not have a reach-for-your-wallet impact that indeed makes a business.

I finally procured a small dribble of investment money from an “angel” in New York City who was dabbling in small software companies. I had a chance to start the business in Boston which would have been wise, or in Seattle, which was a universe away from a lot of East Coast business ( and money). The advantage of Boston would have been a welcoming community of software people. I had already given a number of talks at MIT and Harvard. It would also have been a much shorter distance from New York and Washington, D.C. from which new-project moneys most easily flow. Seattle, on the other hand, had a fairly sparse software pool in 1983. Microsoft was still owned and run by a 27 year old Bill Gates (whose small company had just released Word for MS-DOS for the new IBM-PC,) with a few others, at the time nothing to compare in size or income with Silicon Valley companies.

Distance for us was the killer: the Pacific Northwest was too far for potential clients to fly in a day, and was of course the same distance for me to visit most potential clients. Someone in Boston could air-shuttle down to New York or Washington, and make it back to one’s own bed that night. Had I been in Boston I would probably have had 7-10 times the potential clients at hand. I also might have gotten my first heart attack, because clients who were even slightly interested expected a 20-page proposal the next week. Some tough entrepreneurs I knew in similar businesses spent 100+ hours a week doing fruitless proposal after fruitless proposal before one hit. Some were successful. Some died young.

My mode of operation (and survival) was to go to a meeting with an interested party. Most of them had the decency not to invite me to visit from across the country unless they were more than mildly interested. Then I would follow up with a note about our visit, suggesting the best first step would be a feasibility study rather than a full-blown proposal. This would be a 20-page discussion of ways our potential product could be down, with costs and time frames for each of at least 2 directions. Often I included a video demo showing what the product would look like. I did not do a high volume business from Seattle, but I would say I got the business with a very high percentage of these feasibility studies, with some money coming in immediately.

When you start a small business, it seems to me that ( ,unless you are rich — which has its own problems,) you come from one of two directions: you either move from a position of stability and comfort to one of constant insecurity, or else you have been placed in that position, such as being let go from your day job. One apparent option is to start your own business, but that is scary to most people. The odds and the prospects for dismal failure are so strong that, after seeing only one or two cars stop at their lemonade stand as a kid, few people will start small businesses just for fun. That said, I believe everyone needs to be involved with a small startup business at least once. Things you thought you knew about teamwork and product viability and actual survival require the most shocking redefinition almost daily. The “wolf” of bankruptcy and shame and unpaid workers and dissatisfied investors and creditors taking your house is always down the street, and too often that wolf is howling at your door. The concept of “aged-payables” (prioritizing who of your vendors and suppliers gets paid) is core to bookkeeping in a small business. In a gallows-humor sort of way, that kind of cliff hanging makes the experience, and of course any temporary bullet-dodging success, at least absorbing if not actually fun. The key is whether the little company can hang on through months, and even years, of despair.

Back in the early 1980’s a group of successful entrepreneurs participated in a study where they were asked to rank-order several phrases describing key abilities a small business founder must have. Knowledge of markets, team leadership abilities, objective decision making, cash flow management… these and many others were offered to the group of seven successful entrepreneurs, some of whom you may know by name. 5 of the 7 entrepreneurs on the panel instantly selected this one ability: to work through despair. At some point we all have the opportunity to learn — or to fail — this most important lesson of any lifetime, to continue to work through despair. Though I will relate here various interesting successes in my business, I will not talk further of those frequent months of despair – God knows it is like the mariner standing out on the windless foredeck, straining his eyes out across a pitiless, calm sea for any slight bump of land on the horizon. Though I’m considered an optimist, I swear this utter despair often lasted for months without a snippet of good news, draining every personal penny I could find, exhausting every good idea, watching good people leave me from lack of faith, and yet there would remain still more weeks of sheer despair with no schedule for its ending. Unless I am not as smart as most, it seems to me that despair must also be part of our Great American Adventure…

It did help that most of my previous employers had allowed me to creatively add value, and to develop directions that were new and unusual to the basic training jobs I held. The formula is that you do the prescribed job in spades and then add immensely greater value with spinoffs and targets of opportunity. Of course, that is about what you do in your own business, without the safety net. And without having to negotiate leases. And without having to meet a payroll monthly. And without having to understand medical and 401(K) plans. And without having to hold the hands of temperamental technical types. But most differently, in your own business you get up every morning hoping you can kill enough to eat.

Company names at the time favored the Greeks. We wanted a company name that somehow suggested videodiscs. There was a god named Ixion who for his sins was strapped to a revolving wheel in Hades, so of course we called the company Ixion. (Later, searching for trademarks, I discovered the Ixion tire company in El Paso.) Under that shingle, I was able to bring Jane, plus two others to Seattle to work with me, basically trying to drum up initial business and hopefully interest little more investment. This, of course, necessitated that the partner to the Great American Adventure had to be the Great American Business Plan. My contention is that anyone who can write a novel can knock off a Great American Business Plan in a few weekends. Numerous examples – mostly failures where there is no vital info – will show you the structure and the blanks to fill in. Speculation and facts can be artfully mixed by any second rate novelist. Patents also help, but they take a better grade of novelist.

On the other hand, we did have something real to offer. Jane and I were by that time extremely knowledgeable on videodiscs, with our early start on the CPR simulator. That first year we scraped together training videodiscs with A T & T, GTE Directories, and for IBM a now long-buried set of point-of -view flight games for interactive videotape (with which we had actually done some pioneering work in 1979 with the first CPR prototype-demo). We also made our own traveling demo disc, run by a TRS-80 100, Radio Shack’s little portable computer the size of a book. On that disc we created an interactive scenarios dramatizing answers from a salesman to a difficult Client, and in the 3 wrong answers, cut to Close up of the Boss glaring into the camera saying “You did what?!!!”It was always funny and repetition made it funnier. It was always instructive because the narrator told the viewer why each answer was wrong and finally, why the 4th correct answer was the right one.

More importantly, we had interactive action demos. In “Stop the Shoplifter,” you saw a 15-second pan across several people in aisles of a clothing store handling merchandise as they looked it over. You stopped the action when you saw the shoplifter and the screen numbered the potential shoplifters for you to select one. Then the wrong answers continued their actions to show that that they were not the shoplifters. (This one went over particularly well in China, for some reason. Crime may be the universal language.) We also had a very popular demo for my Las Vegas talks at the Consumer Electronics Show and National Association of Broadcasters show. It was a simple shell game, shot in real time three times with three different outcomes. The software programming was called drop down random wherein each time the selection was made (A B or C on the screen) the program rescrambled the 3 shells with peas and 3 empty ones, deposited them in a hierarchy of variables, and dropped down the bottom variable from the box. I did that for a crowd of 2000 in Las Vegas once and had them saying “Power to the People.” Fun as these were, the most important one was a welding simulator, where you actually adjusted the flame on a welding torch to more and less intense by holding down on one of two keys. You could “feel” the variations as you held down a key, and it was not a lot different from turning a dial. This latter demo translated eventually into a welding simulator for the Academy of Aeronautics at La Guardia in New York, later quite a bit of medical instrument business.

So that first year was just staying alive with a couple of videodisc programs, and a feasibility project on an arthroscopy simulator, jointly (so to speak) with M.I.T’s Architecture Machine Group — which was later to become the Media Lab. Our second year was staying alive with couple of those feasibility studies and finally a project from Merck, who wanted to simulate Upper G.I. endoscopies to attract physicians to their booths at shows. I volunteered my body to take internal pictures which we could insert into a demo for the feasibility study. Having some background making good but cheap video was a distinct advantage. Whatever it costs you, when you are basically selling ideas, a five-minute videotape imitating a future reality can do wonders for getting support for the final, much larger projects which have a whole lot more money attached. It is equally effective in carrying your large project through those yearly budget reviews and company reorganizations (, where projects that are hard to understand – and operations with few results to show — are unceremoniously dropped from the future. Contracts be damned, these companies have more lawyers than you could ever afford.)

With that first Merck Upper G.I Endoscopy Simulator, we had attained some stability and some respectability. It appeared that we were started, and somehow I continued 14 years as President and CEO of IXION without missing a payroll. Truth be told, despite having a Great American Business Plan worthy of any fictional novel, even our mild success was a surprise. Having started a company which still had no apparent source of revenue, I had absolutely no idea which direction to go from there, but only to let the lucky winds blow and hope we had enough tattered sail left to capture them, and enough ballast to keep from capsizing.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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Glimpses Through a 4-Year-Old’s Memory Scope

It is debatable whether dredging up perceptions from the past helps you understand the present. Of course, psychiatrists try to dig out memories of childhood trauma, but I don’t think I had those kinds of problems. Probably I did not understand enough to be mixed-up, whistling my 4-year-old whistle past those acres and miles of graveyards (, or I might have joined the crowd).

I do remember quite a bit from 1946, when I was 4 years old. Of course I didn’t know that Hitler and the Japanese had both been beaten and to the great relief of Germans and Japanese, they were not to become slaves of the victorious countries. The Marshall Plan and MacArthur’s occupation both put the world on a trip to prosperity instead of the decimation of vanquished countries as had been the rule throughout prior history. A neat trick, to say the least. As a 4-year-old, I was bobbing along in those mighty currents, as curious about learning Life as any 4-year-old before. Luckily, that life did not for some time contain another deathly war – at least for the 4-year-old.

It was actually quite a happy time for me as a 4-year-old. I cannot remember now my father who left to fly B-17s over Germany when I was about two. He was missing in action for about two years. So at the age of 4, I stayed a lot of the time with grandparents and aunts and second cousins, and everyone paid maximum attention to me. Now – at 70 years remove — I hear that, with remote prisoner camps and remote graves in remote crannies of the world, it was years before there was enough evidence of a soldier’s death for his widow to remarry. Those who started dating too soon were seen as brazen and unfeeling. Hard to say exactly what “too soon” was, and how long to wear black, but your friends would tell you.

Right alongside that time” stigma was a necessity for war widows to marry again. Their biological window was shrinking as surely as that of thirty-year-olds now. One of the cruel residuals of WWII was that many of the prettiest and brightest women were available right after the war, and some with no kids. Many were much more mature than they had been when they married soldiers and knew a lot more what they were looking for besides true love. There were, of course, a lot of the less attractive men around, because so many of the strongest and handsomest men had given themselves to the war. In truth, Life’s cruel advantages sort of evened themselves out, but with everyone only moderately happy. The pretty widows had lost their first true loves, and the men who claimed these prizes yet knew, for all their future lives together, that they were second best.

Widows with one or more children had a greater problem. I discovered just a few years ago, at a conference of World War II orphans in Seattle, that many widows sent their kids to a grandmother’s or a sister’s house and only sheepishly brought up the fact to a suitor once they were becoming seriously involved. And with good reason. In many, many cases the young male suitors went running off when they learned there were kids involved. In some of the orphan’s minds, as they approached their late sixties at the time of this Seattle Conference, the men who ran off were worse than second best and the pretty widow-moms were better off without them.

However, everyone seemed quite cheery to me. Little did I know at four what tolls the war took, in shattered loves of their lives, in sons who had just become men coming back in boxes, in sisters and cousins and uncles and everyone in a the vast connection of souls that the war short-circuited. Because my mother’s mother’s sister, Aunt Lucille, was especially fond of Sunday dinners, we spent Sundays there. Aunt Lucille was a bit fat with a boisterous Oklahoma incredulity that broke into laughter all around. When she hugged me to her heavy breasts and started a lot of sentences with “Boy Howdy” I did not feel much could be wrong in the world. She had a ne’er do well high school son named Dane who would slink into Sunday dinner and go out back with some friends and a bottle. And Barbara was a freshman in high school whom I thought truly pretty except for her acne. She barely listened to me, though. The older people were the ones who made me feel special.

Actually, come to think of it, I was pretty special, in that I was the only male survivor in three families. My father had been an only child. My grandmother had married my grandfather in Seminole, Oklahoma where her parents had come by covered wagon from Tennessee — my great grandmother a direct descendant of Davy Crockett. My grandfather had come down from Illinois with the railroad and got a job as a supervisor in the new Seminole oil fields. Apparently they were a rough crowd (known as “roughnecks” who manipulated the big pipes around on the oil drilling rigs), and he had to be a bit rougher to keep them in line. He was kind but unschooled, and my grandmother was very pretty and very smart and in Seminole, Oklahoma in those days I guess he was a catch and so was she. She had had two girls born as “blue babies” whose lack of circulation killed them within weeks of their birth. Modern medicine was not much in the 1930s, and out in the Oklahoma oil fields there were no incubators or newborn care units. They lived or they died with how strong their basic constitution was.

When she was about forty, my grandmother fell down some concrete stairs from the front porch of their house when their little dog ran between her legs. She had to wear braces and use crutches and wheelchairs the rest of her life, and my grandfather loved her and was devoted to her. To me she was extremely kind and we had long intelligent conversations (for a four year old). She was ever demanding of her “Arthur” and was often as grumpy with his slow actions as he was diligent and devoted to moving his “Robbie” (for Robin) about and bringing her whatever she might need. I felt sorry for him, and as I think back, I loved him for that selflessness. Some things even a 4-year-old can see.

My Grandma Hon loved to sit with me in her rocker. She would sing me songs from Tennessee, and tell me stories of Davy Crockett and bear-hunting in Tennessee and of his death at the Alamo. These were things she had known from her mother’s family, years before Walt Disney dragged out a coonskin cap and made him a folk hero of early television. As I think back, the focus on me was a monumental distraction from the worry about their son flying a heavy piece of sheet metal through in the middle of all hell. And their apprehension in not hearing from him suddenly. And the letters from men in his plane whom he’d ordered to bail out, asking if she knew about the whereabouts of others who had scattered across an unwelcoming Germany in their parachutes. Occasionally she would hear about one or the other who had made it back to safety, or who was alive in a prison camp, and she would write that to the others. It was all in letters that took so long to travel, while the worries were daily, hourly and the worries built up all the more waiting for news from letters.

My mother’s mother, Grandmother Ridgway (with no “e”), occasionally took me to her house, where she was a master seamstress and made dazzling quilts with intricate patchwork. The Kansas towns on the prairie where she had grown up had many of these true artists, lauded in their communities but totally obscure to the rest of the world for all their lives. One of my first intellectual feats was when this grandmother let me play Canasta with two other ladies she brought around. (I remember that they all looked at my cards and told me what to play.) It was hot in the Oklahoma summers and we had only fans whirring around. She poured me Dr. Pepper over a glassfull of ice while we played, and that was pretty much heaven for me.

All this went on for me while the war thundered to a close across two oceans, and everyone listened to the radio and read the newspapers and grew more and more sure it would be over. But there was always one question. Was my father just missing in action, but still alive? And would the war be over before it took him in, like so many others?

My mother, Daphne, and my father, Clint, had graduated from the University of Oklahoma – she in Education and he in Geological Engineering. He worked looking for oil for Standard Oil about a year before he was drafted into the Army Air Corps. Because she had me as an infant, my mother lived at home with her parents in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She spent time among relatives, and most of her Tulsa friends were from her days, only a few years before, at Central High School there in Tulsa.

Central High School in Tulsa had two distinguished alumni from 1938, the year my mother and father graduated. One was Tony Randall, who became a well-known Hollywood actor in The Odd Couple and many other movies. The other was Paul Harvey, who had a syndicated radio show with lots of opinion and a distinctive style that was easy to listen to (, and millions did listen). Both of these seniors from Central High School entered the all-city speech contest, and so did my father. My father won it with a speech on how armaments manufacturers had fomented the First World War so they could profit from all sides.

In those high school days, my father and my mother went steady, but Charlie, his best friend went along with them constantly. It seemed they were always a threesome and always got along swimmingly. Charlie had gone into the Navy and was still in training to be a tail gunner when the war ended, and in 1946 they let almost all the draftees out. I remember him visiting my mother a lot of times, still in his Navy seaman’s outfit, home in Tulsa until they official released him. Charlie was the funniest person everyone one knew, but not because he was a show-off clown. It was because he observed each situation and a put a pleasant, and never mean, humor to it. I personally remember being in stitches as Charlie talked as if he was the voice of our brown eyed dog, who sat thinking things about all these people in the room. I could see that the threesome must have had great fun in high school. I thought about that as I grew older. Although she was in love with my father, I am sure Charlie loved her then, and as the girl member of a threesome, I’m sure she knew that on some level.

Charlie saw my mother quite a lot in the months after the war was over. It had been over a year since my father was officially dead, and my mother married Charlie, kissing him at the alter while holding my 4-year-old hand. That is how I came to move to Minnesota in the dead of winter with my mother and Charlie, who had returned to work in Minneapolis for a new airline, Northwest. I really couldn’t have had it any better than in that loving family. My toes froze but I learned to skate on frozen basketball courts in the parks, and wished I’d been old enough to play some kid hockey as well.

Well, life rolled on past the Millennium but it still had more cards to show from when I was 4 years old. Because Charlie had gone to work for Northwest Airlines in 1942, when Delta Airlines acquired Northwest in 2008, my sister Sue called one day. “Hey” she said, “you know Delta gives us all free passes now?”

It was true. Dependents of retirees got free passes to anywhere Delta flies, always on standby, but as many trips as you wanted. Suddenly in 2009 I would take trips overseas and trips to friends on other coasts, a trip to France for an emergency book negotiation, a trip to make some talks in Tokyo. Better yet, most of the overseas trips were in first class because those seats did not fill up. Each time, of course, I would travel standby, and within the U.S. I learned to go at days and times when flights were not fully booked. One of the really fortunate things I discovered while waiting in those standby lines was about Charlie’s seniority in the combined airlines. Because he went to work for the young Northwest Airlines in 1942, thus at age 65 until I was 71 (when Charlie died,) I was not only the oldest living dependent in Delta, but first in line when they looked at employment seniority.

Funny the lucky things that just keep happening on your way from 4 years old.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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With Bird at The Center of The Universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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My Dear Aunt Sally Meets RPN

Training is usually the poorest stepchild of any corporate activity. However, at a certain point in the development of 1970’s consumer electronics, the public had yet to really comprehend the brilliance of what the techies had produced. The techies themselves, all young, and hardworking and excitable did not help much: many crashed computer programs displayed the sign: Tough Luck Turkey! , the screen message from computer geeks who made the program. This kind of error message appeared so that ordinary users — who could not understand how to use their new portable computers – might at least understand that they were considered a lower order of being. Marketing-through-derisiveness probably slowed down the computer revolution by ten years. This and other nerdish posturing, throughout all computers, unfortunately resulted in the The Digital Divide, an us-versus-them elitism that stalls everyone’s progress even to this day.

From a background in making smaller electronics for trucks going across the Southwestern plains looking for oil, Texas Instruments had become a world leader in solid-state electronics. They had produced a series of transistor-based products a competing with Silicon Valley companies such as Fairchild to instill the semiconductor phenomenon in cars and planes and the new personal computers. T.I. also created the first transistor radios, but Japanese companies and marketers left them out of the picture for 10 years. Later the worm turned slightly when T.I. patent representatives started making the rounds of companies like Sony and Pioneer in Japan, and laid a hefty patent license bill on them. But the Transistor Radio had already been lost to them: the horde of 1950’s teenagers were already listening to Elvis and Bill Haley on their picnic blankets. (You could never pry these portable radios from their cold dead ears.) Texas Instruments never received public credit for its transistor radio, and it hurt, hurt clear until they had their next big chance at a consumer market.

When Texas Instruments introduced the first four-function calculator, they had no idea how to approach a consumer market. They knew it could be hot, but their salespeople were from technical sales and had no feel for the general consumer nor the retailers who sold the calculators to them. The salespeople were near violating federal Sherman Act and Clayton Act guidelines, and the Texas Instruments lawyers had management worried with the possible liabilities. The retail market was a vicious jungle to the technical types at T.I., who considered themselves first as electrical engineers and scientists rather than consumer salespeople. Yet, this small Texas company was determined not to let this next opportunity slip away.

I was in no way academically qualified even to enter into this discussion. I was a news writer turned English major and then Communications MA, two majors of even less repute to electrical engineers than newswriting. However, I had been a communication/electronics officer in the military and was not immediately terrified of these intricate new worlds (– though I should have been). Meanwhile, I had evolved from a tech writer to a training program manager. Various persons had seen my video dramatizations and easy-to-understand technical descriptions, and asked me to be on the team training these crucial salespeople.

The four-function calculators caught on quickly, and the competition was stiff and cutthroat, but T.I.’s ability to mass produce and keep prices low kept it in the race at the lower end. I was asked to do legal tapes where salesmen found themselves in compromising (sales) situations, and were shown the severe implications of their actions and then given better practices to use instead. Anyone familiar with consumer marketing knows that salesmen can offer a mix of product, and also cooperative (half funding) local advertising and other tactics. Some were legal, some were borderline unfair practices. It was a wild and woolly world because no one had ever sold highly technical products to the mass public over the counter.

Even though T.I. still sold its semiconductors (transistor) products to the defense department and all manner of electronics businesses, the handheld calculator for the common man gave them not only a new public identity, but delivery problems that went clear back through the manufacturing structure. Mechanical engineers became important in this electronics company because you couldn’t allow the keys on the calculator to stick – not a small problem with the amount of coffee and diet Coke at many desks. At the beginning of the process, however, were the Wizards, the chemical engineers. Line workers who assembled T.I. printed circuit boards and put them into T.I. calculators depended upon the supply of “chips.” These “chips” came from wafers thinly sliced with laser saws across wide “rods” of gallium arsenide and other silicon mixtures. The mixtures of the chemical Wizards, though hardly exact at the first, produced the necessary conductive impurities that had allowed old vacuum tubes to be replaced the tiny transistor components. Some said that what took a roomful of the first computers was now in the palm of our hands.

So not only the mechanical engineer (, and not only the playwright,) but the chemical engineer was critical to making the new calculators on schedule. Not all chips worked. They had to be tested before they went into calculators, and the unpredictable yields of earlier days would not suffice. The chemical engineers stirred up the material that would go into the rods, and then into the tiny chips. Even then, no one knew exactly how it would turn out. In that manufacturing environment, it was still hit-and-miss.

Many days, the coffee areas were filled and the line workers were sitting outside their work areas, many smoking, some even knitting. At the time almost all of these line workers were women, as it was believed that women on the whole had finer attention to detail and smaller hands to place these transistors into the circuit boards and calculators. Because of T.I.s innovative profit sharing plan, many of these common line workers retired with handsome pensions for a career of repeated actions and tiny drudgeries. But right then, the company had essentially shut down. I asked a co-worker why that was.

“The Wizards had a bad batch.”

So these chemical engineers in an electronics company had the major responsibility in what was a somewhat random process. Only later did they learn to optimize the production of chips, but the ugly secret of those days was that the process was a little mystical and far from a perfect manufacturing situation.

When I was brought into the actual sales messaging, the engineers had created T.I.s first scientific calculator, the SR-50. What they really wanted was to educate business professionals to use complex business formulas, and with the SR-52 their first programmable calculators, with a “chewing gum stick” to hold the simple program. Because they really wanted to sell to this business community, they decided to build their scientific calculators around an Algebraic Entry. Without trying to make readers into mathematicians, math teachers could tell you that the way you construct a complex problem can affect its accuracy.

Hewlett-Packard already had a handheld calculator for scientists and engineers, and they all loved the fact that these calculators were based on RPN, or Reverse Polish Notation. RPN dictated that every subset of caculations within a larger calculation be “nested” within successive parentheses. Texas Instruments, because it was aiming at the larger consumer and business markets, decided to build their scientific calculator around Algebraic Entry, which meant you entered the elements of the problem as you would read them. That meant one kind of calculation was automatically prioritized instead of being placed in a succession of nested parentheses. Teachers used to say that decided the priority of calculations should follow the mnemonic My Dear Aunt Sally – Multiplication then Division then Addition and finally Subtraction. That is as far as I will go. If you understand it all, good. If you understand that there were major ideological considerations here – and that it was a critical business decision — well, that’s enough for here.

Because my training videos largely made sense to the common business user, I also became involved in competitive advertising strategies. Print materials would line up the HP calculators facets with the comparable Texas Instruments facets. When the HP advertisers put in their entry system, it was always RPN. I wondered why. Well of course, if you knew very little about mathematical theory, would you buy a calculator based on “Reverse Polish Notation”? Oh my God! The cruel ethic joke everyone knew was that Polish clocks were right twice a day. And then, calling it Reverse Polish. To me this looked like an immense marketing gift from Hewlett-Packard. I lobbied, and won, the ability to spell out RPN to Reverse Polish Notation on every comparison sheet in magazines and handout literature. The early T.I. Scientific calculators were never the hit product that the four-function calculators were, but we kept trying. 20 years later, from a distance, I saw the TI Business calculators — programmable and based on Algebraic Entry — become the most popular briefcase calculators for business people. It was a long haul.

The first step in that long haul was for salespersons in department stores to demonstrate the T.I. Calculators to the shopping public. At first, the salespeople they  used were selling programmable scientific calculators just like other business products, like desk lamps and planning calendars.  However, these ordinary salepersons were so afraid of trying to show the T.I. scientific calculators that they usually hid them. When our people went out to stores as mystery shoppers, the salespeople could not find the T.I. Scientific calculators and blamed their misplacement on earlier work shifts. In my sales training roles, I made tapes, but also small programs, so that salespersons could show how to easily do amortized loans and other common business tortures. When they began to look good with these examples to the customer, they began to hide the T.I. scientific calculators just a little less.

Along the way I did the first simple – and I mean simple – book on “How to Program.” With a good cartoonist, I showed the program as a conveyor belt with buckets moving along, and the variables were being dumped into the buckets by funnels above the belt, with users pouring various variables into the buckets and sometimes stopping the conveyor belt to rearranged buckets. Frankly, every other explanation since that has appeared confusing to me. But what do I know? Also, I had the idea for a book with each key of the scientific calculator explained simply on one page. I was never even listed on the credits, but the idea for T.I.s classic The Great International Math on Keys was mine. I had fought for it until the logic was clear, and as a reward it was (, as so often happened,) given to another more-qualified group to develop.

In the old West, a motley assortment of gunfighters worked for cattlemen to run off sheep men and settle water disputes with their guns, with few considerations of logical right and wrong, and they all accepted that they “Rode for the Brand.” I guess that was I was doing, riding for the T.I. brand. Although when you are riding for a brand you are largely anonymous to the outside, with technology companies you often enter new and fantastic problems in areas critical to the success of humankind. I learned a lot “riding for the brand,” and I hope I helped Texas Instruments find their way into providing breakthrough products to the general market.

That was certainly true when T.I. next came out with their first digital watches, Japanese watch companies like Seiko and Casio and Hamilton (which made the Pulsar) were making electronic watches, and a Texas Instruments watch seemed a very odd fit. The consumer public in unison scratched its many heads and said: What is Texas Instruments Doing in the Watch Business? From my ignominious perch in sales training, I provided the answer to that question, much disputed but finally triumphant. In my first training tape for salesmen, I showed a live scanning electron microscope with date flowing through its tracks and gates and I put forth the slogan “Texas Instruments has been in the business of time for a long time”. Well, the T.I. scientists at first came unglued in their resistance to this layman’s near-lying puffery, but eventually I won the argument. My slogan eventually became the core of a Clio-winning television commercial. My Clio, I always say. That will be another saga to relate before I forget: 1975 and T.I. Digital watches.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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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

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Loving Women Who Run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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No Cab for Annie

Attempting things that no one else quite understands – and when you are just groping along yourself — has its certain virtues. There are few second guessers since even the objective of the project shifts daily. The key element that guided us when creating the CPR simulator was only “Will it work?” But even that criterion was flimsy. The fragility of the concept in those early days led us to what answered only by what we thought it could eventually do…A dream defined. The system, as I described designing with the CPR doctors, would have two screens, and a full-sized manikin which would lie on the ground. A light pen would allow the user to interact with the screen (much as touch screen does now). If the screen asked you to touch a random list of actions in the correct order, you did so with the light pen and the computer recorded your answers.

As the CPR Learning System took shape, it required two separate and distinct activities coming together.

1. It was imperative that we create a manikin ( mannequin anyone?) which was realistic enough to allow the student to practice moves in the right places, and to look for signs of life or ascertain the need for CPR. To accomplish this we had to take an existing manikin, used by current classes, and embody sensors to tell us that the student actually knew what to do, and could actually perform it on the manikin.

The realistic vinyl manikin used by American Heart in its CardoPulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) classes had been supplied for some years by a Norwegian company, Laerdal, which had a good business supplying these relatively inert teaching manikins to the American Heart Association, the Red Cross, various rescue units, and a fair number of hospitals. All of these organizations gave classes on the inert Resuci-Annie manikin, which did have lungs that inflated, a neck that would tilt back, and a breastbone that would provide realistic resistance to the student. Because they foresaw a new business blooming, the Laerdal people were quite cooperative with getting us manikins to rip apart and “sensitize.”

The sensors we implanted in Annie not only had to read the precise actions of the rescuer, they had to communicate that to our Apple 3 computer, by means of a special card we built to insert into that small inexpensive machine. (We had to design in a reasonable cost for these in from the start). The location of the hands had to be sensed, and the depth and duration of compressions had to be timed to make a graphic pattern on the second, non-video screen. The lung expansion was followed with piso-electric fabric, and the student was inferred to be checking for breath with a photo-electric sensor that assumed nearness of the students face or hand checking for breathing. We would have to do a similar set of sensors for a baby manikin, except we also used mercury switches to read position of the head (down below the feet when freeing an obstructed airway) and the neck position when the student/rescuer was blowing breath into the baby.

2. The interactive Video screen had to present realistic situations, and also the learning and testing segments, in one concise package. Jane Sallis, who I had worked with before at Texas Instruments, put in an incredible number of days on the CPR video disc. I told her every day we wasted in getting this done we should imagine dead victims piling up on our doorstep (; I was a fairly crude motivator, but she later admitted it worked). We had to plan perfectly for each of the 54,000 stoppable frames, which would then be given sound by our interactive audiotape, which we had pioneered at an earlier stage. In those days, any videodisc required exquisite planning because an original high quality videotape had to be sent to Japan by one of the three nascent videodisc makers, and all of their early processes took over two months. If this all sounds like it was high speculative, it was. But first, we had to get the support of someone like Sony, which we hoped would be able to market psychic benefits of being involved with a national rescue effort. It was at that point merely a demo interactive videotape with a wired manikin and pieces hanging out the sides. Mostly it was held together by sheer belief.

As I say, it was critical that we enlist a leading-edge partner with a videodisc operation, and I was the one who had to sell this all to Sony. For that I had to take a trip to New York City and the SONY building on 59th Avenue to sell this off the wall project. The prototype equipment and its trial programming had been iffy when I left and I was wary of prematurely blowing this opportunity, and thought I might stall it a bit, but Jane said that is what opportunity looks like – something no one else understands or wants and that you step up for.

I will always remember taking this kludgy conglomeration of spit and bailing wire electronics from Dallas to the slick, spiffy executives at Sony in Manhattan. The manikin – Annie –  in its large shipping crate, and the tape player we connected to the computer to manage the interactive experience with the sensitized manikin, all this in an awkward stack of shipping crates which I could put on a small platform dolly and get from here to there: Airport to hotel with a big tip for the yellow cab to put these crates in the trunk and the back seat. Then the next morning 17 blocks from the hotel up to 59th Street…except that the rain bucketed down as I stood in front of the hotel waiting for a cab, and the cabs never stopped. I figured if I rolled the stack out to a busier street there would be more chance of getting a cab. It continued to bucket and I continue to be ignored by cabs full of happy dry people who wondered what in the hell I was rolling along the street, parting streams of water now…walking toward a 10 am appointment with Sony that would determine the future of the CPR Learning System, and a lot else.

17 blocks and no cab would even turn down any street I happened to be on. “Just get a cab,” someone at Sony had told me as I sat in Dallas a few days before. 17 blocks crossing streets up to my ankles in running water, pushing the heavy stack of equipment no one wanted to pick me up with. Finally, a block away from the Sony building, a yellow cab stopped beside me. It would take more time to load and unload the stuff than push the stack this last block. “Fugetabout it” I said in my best New York accent.

It was one of those days which began with disaster, and as if responding like true champions – every piece of electronic equipment that had sloshed for an hour through the honking downpour mid-town Manhattan…every piece worked perfectly. The Sony people had seen about everything in the world and New Yorkers have seen everything in the world on their streets, and none of them had seen anything like it. They could understand what this interactive videotape system would look like when it used their videodisc. Sometimes, and just a very few times, you can find people who are ready to take the same leap you are taking, and understand exactly what you are doing. I credit Dan Harris and several more of those whose job it was to introduce the videodisc to the U.S. with “getting it” immediately, and pulling others in from all the floors to see this crazy system that was perfect for showing off the interactivity of their videodisc.

That was a successful meeting, though I was dripping wet through all of it and could have been electrocuted at any moment of my demonstration. I believe they got a truck to get the stack of stuff back to the hotel. That was the success of the day, and they quickly agreed to get our videodisc made and wanted to take the system to several shows where they were showing off the videodisc. That was a few months out, and required a lot of shipping, but those first shows such as the Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas, drew a lot of interest for Sony, and for us. They had these little forums of people to ask questions in side rooms, and I was basking in the general appreciation and interested questioners when I got blindsided.

“Why do you have to use a young girl for the manikin? That looks extremely sexist to me…”

I looked out and there were several women, of all ages and diversities, nodding their heads at me.

“Well, the Laerdal people have done studies, with male manikins and mustaches…and the response is uniformly low for them and totally, uniformly – from men AND from women –  they are more comfortable with the young girl. “ I hoped I was convincing enough with this… but I was not.

“That’s a bunch of male chauvinist pig crap done by male chauvinist sexist marketing types…I don’t see we should believe this crap at all.”

A lot of female heads were nodding in support and grumbling louder too. I had never expected I would be on the verge of a protest march from having tried to do good in the world. So when the grumbling subsided for a second, I tried one last thing.

“I would like to tell you the real reason, the original reason for having the manikin be a young girl…”

“Because men like the idea of working on her…”

“No,” I said, “It’s because of her father.”

The crowd quieted, but the questioner remained standing, hands on her hips. Her hunched glare said Go on.

“Mr. Laerdal had a doll-making company in Stavanger, Norway, and was fairly successful at it. He had a summer home on a lake back in the Norwegian mountains where he took his large family and their friends on holidays. One summer day they were all swimming out into the lake and someone shouted Annie, and in a few minutes they dragged Annie, Mr. Laerdal’s lovely young daughter, up on the beach, and everyone tried to revived her, but she died there on that beach, that day. Mr. Laerdal was so aggrieved that he made a life-mask of his daughter Annie, and later decided to make a manikins to teach lifesaving. He closed his doll-making company, even though it was very successful, and dedicated the rest of his years and his fortune to making manikins in Annie’s image so that thousands – or maybe millions — of other lives would not be lost in that way. So that is the one we use…in a way…that’s Annie there today.”

The crowd was very quiet now, and began to shuffle away from the standing questioner, many leaving the room without further comment. She finally stood alone in the group of empty chairs, which sort of ended my presentation.

“So OK,” she said, “I’m not going to clap…but that sounds like a reason.”

Needless to say, the help of Sony was invaluable. They gave us one of their first four videodisc players to come into the country, and supplied all the videodisc processing once we had the original videotape. Later, these pieces would have to be programmed to operate together in one seamless experience. However getting to that point, riding like the wind on hypothetical constructs, was anything but seamless.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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A Sweat Sandwich in Indian Country

Not only are heroes made-not-born, I’ll swear many of them are partial heroes by accident. Someone walking the rails snatches a meandering child from an onrushing train. Quick thinking, perhaps. Maybe reflex. But the act only seems heroic if there was a split-second involved, when the option of most people would be to watch dumbstruck. In fact, my own bar is much higher. Heroism would, to me, require a few extraordinary choices leading to the dangerous situation, near despair by any normal person, and one person’s rise to action in the face of clear and distinct peril.

On the battlefield we had a clear assessment of such situations: sweat sandwiches and shit sandwiches. (Guess which is the most perilous.) If a few people were shooting at you and you could manage to make them go away, or get out of the area where they were shooting at you, that would be called a sweat sandwich, a random situation that you could probably extricate yourself from with known methods and assistance at hand, such as digging a hole where bullets could go overhead, and having other people or planes or bigger guns to shoot back. The report of action over your radio would be “sweat sandwich developing. Need some rounds on them half a click NW of us.” A click, by the way, is 1000 meters and a tribute to the fact the US military joined the rest of the metric world mid-twentieth century, while US civilians, almost alone in the world — kept the bizarre old feet and inches based from yore on the length of some of the King’s physical appendages. A sweat sandwich, then, was dangerous, but probably survivable with high energy and competent use of your own weapons (and the assistance of friendly weapons whenever possible).

A shit sandwich, on the other hand, was dire. There were usually a lot more people shooting a lot more stuff at you from all around you. Shit sandwiches mean possibly survivable with all of the above sweat sandwich remedies plus sheer unadulterated luck of these kinds: (1) Deep mud between them and you, instead of between you and your route out, or (2) some more attractive alternative to killing you, like the adoring crowd of local prostitutes who suddenly distracts them from their absolute possession of all your exits, or, (3) just a few times, it was the crazy, unexpected, demonic energy of a guy like Cage. Cage was this Marine from West Virginia and he never made more than private because his temper was hair-trigger and applied equally to all. He’d learned to control it except in a few cases when we were being attacked and some advance of the Viet Cong had put us in a shit sandwich.

One of my lasting images was of 6-foot Cage standing silhouetted against explosions, over a previously unseen ravine which was now literally pouring attackers out onto our hilltop position, and there was Cage standing in the middle of it all, frustrated with how slowly his rifle dropped them, grabbing bodies and throwing the smaller Viet Cong attackers with their rifles and grenades, and tossing them like bad rubbish with one arm and then the other, back down the ravine, collapsing the attackers onto each other like dominos. Cage was legend among the troops of the battalion. Though he might not easily blend with polite society, he was at home with Marines in Viet Nam. You might say Cage specialized in shit sandwiches.

True, the situations in which heroism arises are usually random. You don’t set out in the morning to become a hero, by anyone’s definition. Most Marines I knew just tried to do their jobs, and to be as dependable as possible to each other because, when all rationales are done, all the men I saw and respected were basically doing their jobs for each other. You occasionally hear football players on successful teams say they are playing hard for each other. I subscribe to that, and as an officer there was another level: of being loyal to your men. To watching out for them. To make sure they had beer anytime beer was to be had. To defend them against the idiosyncrasies of the military bureaucracy tangled in the battlefield, where orders came from somewhere to go somewhere you would not go in your right mind, and to do with no supporting reason whatsoever. I’m saying that there are a lot of mistakes made when the air of uncertainty is the only air you breathe all day. On one coastal operation, I sat in on a conference between our battalion commander and the head of a Navy SEAL team. Apparently there were tunnels that went down from a peninsula we were taking and some of the Viet Cong were thought to be escaping via tunnels that opened underwater at high tide. Our battalion commander was in the process of ordering the SEALs, ranking far below him, to swim into those small dark tunnels with guns and grenades waiting and intercept the Viet Cong.

“Can’t really do that, sir,” said the SEAL Team leader, respectfully but resolutely.

“Well, by God, sailor, that’s an order.”

“Sorry, sir, we can’t manage that one.”

The battalion commander was flabbergasted. He knew the Seal was right. Of the few VC intercepted, none would be taken alive in the dark tunnels, and there was a high probability that many of these highly skilled undersea technicians would have their lives wasted for nothing.

“You can’t do your job? That’s your job, isn’t it.”

“Well, sir, we’re a little short for this sort of thing.”

What I had just heard was someone with no power in the system standing up for his team of men against someone with great power over him. The battalion commander mumbled something about how this was going to be reviewed with his Chief, but he already knew he would lose this one. It didn’t absolutely need to be done, and this low ranking head of Seal Team was not going to let his men — some about to go home and thus “short” (for short-timers) — walk into a dark, inescapable pit of butchery. This was a kind of career heroism, (with his career at high risk) and the men who saw this organizational courage from their leaders became incredibly dedicated followers. Of course there were no medals handed out for this type of heroism.

The supply of medals often seemed merely a matter of supply and demand. In the areas where the fighting was constant and deadly and where the smoke rarely cleared, there were occasional allotments of medals that sat around until some lull of a few days where everyone was basically tired of fighting. We fired at each other across deep gulleys and then one side started to file down the pointed tips of the 7.62 mm NATO rounds that everyone used. The VC used AK47s and could use the same rounds as ours (or a Winchester .306 round, if you must), so they could use captured ammo. The filed down round would mash out if it hit you and tear your shoulder off instead of going through it. No one liked the filed-down rounds so our Civil Affairs guy white-flagged into the gulley and both sides decided not to file down again unless the other did. That would be called an extempore Rule of Engagement.

And the pause got better. The VC disappeared into the populace with their local girlfriends and the Marines retired to secure cantonments for some beer and steaks which magically reappeared, sometimes before ammo resupply. A net was strung up and we played jungle volleyball, the loose rules of which allowed any kind of hitting of the ball with your hand and any type of grabbing, kicking, or tripping your opponents under the net. Depending on how much and what kind of action there was, a certain quota of medals seemed to appear. They seemed to want to write up bronze stars and a smaller portion of silver stars to motivate the troops. Often, of course, a person had rotated out when the approval came through. But there was often some maneuvering for the quota of medals, especially within Officer corps.

In one of those lulls I was tasked in my secondary occupational specialty as communications officer to go set up the optimal command post for a peninsula we were in the process of taking. I say in the process because as it turned out, the helicopter deposited me in an area I was told was secured, and as the blades flop-flopped away into the sky, I looked around and did not see a welcoming committee. Actually, after looking around a bit, I decided not to blurt out my position. Apparently we had not taken this area yet. How interesting. Now the question was: had anyone else taken it? Was I being watched from the bushes, a curious intruder into a peninsula full of enemies? I decided I’d better make my way back to the beach, and then perhaps find my battalion inland. I was in Indian Country, as we called any area we had not secured.

I was in Indian Country and it was too quiet. Either they missed my exit from the helicopter or, more likely, they were just watching me to see if there were more like me around. The best I could do is act like any action from them would cause stuff to rain down like hell on them. I pseudo-confidently made my way about half a mile to the beach. On the way, there was a 500 lb bomb crater courtesy of the Air Force, and in the bottom of it was a cow. Its rear end had been blown away, and it was lying there moaning. It looked at me with big brown eyes, almost pleading. I thought for a moment the best thing I could do in this world was to put the cow out of its misery with my .45, but I reached for it, and then thought better. Noise is not good. Maybe they were watching me or maybe not, but a blast from my .45 would change the game, and not in my favor any way I could guess.

If you can tiptoe in the jungle, I tiptoed back to the beach, and then worked my way down in the shadows of beachside trees until I heard an American voice. “Who goes there?”

Now that was a question. I tried to remember a radio code name for this flank of the operation. “Mystic Crystal Bravo!”

“Wrong” said a voice from a wall of sandbags. And then the helpful, “That was yesterday.”

“Hey, I was in DaNang yesterday,” I said.

“That you, Hon?” I recognized it as the voice of the Mustang S-3 operations officer who just happened to be walking the lines.

“Yes, sir,”

“Get over it, Hon.“ He was still behind the sandbag wall. Then I realized they all stayed down because the VC were probably right behind me. “What the hell were you doing in there?”

“Chopper dropped me in there…Setting up new command post.”

“Oh…too bad. We were planning to take those couple of clicks but something snarled. Guess the pilot didn’t hear.”

“Or me, sir.”

“Well, Hon, we better get you into a briefing now, because now a hell of a lot of people want to know what’s out there.”

The few staff officers a battalion had grilled me and then the Commanding Officer and the Executive Officer grilled me and they showed me maps (one of which had never been given to me) and I tried to point out where I’d been and what I’d seen, which was not much of anything but a cow.

One of the onlookers was Lieutenant MacDonald, who I knew but never did know what he did, and he pulled me aside after one grilling. “We’ve got three more silver stars for this operation. You should get one for reconnaissance behind enemy lines.”

“It was a mistake. We didn’t know it was Indian Country. I’m not that brave, believe me.”

“But you were there, and you got out with vital information.”

“Information that there didn’t seem to be anyone there?”

“That’s valuable. And the way you got through enemy territory, that’s heroic.”

“It’s a joke.” I said. “It’s a big screw up.”

“But they probably would give you the Silver Star. There’s a case for it.”

Sometimes these things flicker past your head for second. A Silver Star would set you up for life in the military: it would always be foremost in consideration for promotions and — as the experienced Marines did in a sort of conspicuous understatement — you could wear only personal combat decorations in a slim but telling line above your uniform shirt pocket. The thought flickered, and then I could imagine being laughed at. I could imagine laughing at myself. I didn’t want a military career anyway.

“Give it to Cage.” I said.

“You don’t want it?”

“Naw, give it to Cage. Give it to him while he’s alive. There’s not a soul who’ll disagree.”

I don’t know if Cage did get that Silver Star, but he should have. He was certainly the hero I would never be and besides, I’ve since felt a little more right with the world if I did dodge a phony Star that was possibly tossed at me.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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Tactile Graphics…and a Russian Redux

With Ixion becoming somewhat known for medical simulators, we displayed our ERCP (Endoscopic Retrograde CholangioPancreatography) simulator — which we had recently shown in Sydney, Australia — at a St. Louis show for medical technology. At our booth, we were asked to take a break to talk with someone from Ethicon, the largest division of Johnson & Johnson. That someone turned out to be the CEO. He had played with the ERCP simulator. He was looking for a company to build a laparoscopic simulator for the innovative new “keyhole” surgeries that were being used by surgeons to remove gall bladders by watching their inserted tools on video monitors.

We told him what we do is not easy, and that we would require a major commitment from Ethicon to follow through the tangled pathways of building a simulator. He said Ethicon had made 11 billion that year and that he could follow this through. I said I would like to work with Ethicon on this, and we agreed that I would contact him in the next week.  All very professional, very business-like, while I was shaking in my boots!

We discovered that Ethicon was also talking with another company, a leader in making flight simulators which had excellent engineers and a significant track record in successful projects. Luckily, I had recently been granted a patent in exactly what Ethicon needed, and we agreed to do a feasibility project to demonstrate how the simulator might work. This gave us a small infusion of cash, and another impossible project to complete in a few months.

I had adopted this feasibility project approach for a couple of reasons. I did not want to do a 30 page proposal and have the ideas stolen while giving the project to a brother in law who said he could do the same thing. Other companies were doing this, spending godawful hours and ruining families generating proposal after proposal which went nowhere. If someone was interested in our participation, I suggested a short meeting to understand their needs, and then I gave them a price for a feasibility study. It would include a complete development plan with costs and time. I often built-in a 5-minute video “demo” envisionment…Managers could usually get five minutes with other decision makers to get more buy in for a final, large, package. And the deal was, when they had paid for this feasibility study, they could take the information and the demo to whomever they wanted. However, because of the time invested and the tool they could show about to get concensus on the project, we were never thrown out on the street. We created added value in this process. Some of the other companies which generated 30 page proposals got a lot more projects and grew much larger than mine. But only some of them. There were a lot of burnouts and heart attacks in those companies as well.

The question of how to create a vision of a future reality is much like advertising agencies or movie makers doing a creative pitch. The difference is that, with projects like Ethicon wanted, we did it without knowing exactly how we would make the technology, or exactly how it would all work together. Movie people and ad people know how they will get the concept completed. We didn’t. We were only vaguely familiar with software and hardware that could possibly achieve a realistic simulation. Therefore the exclusive invitation was nice, and the bit of cash helped our tiny company survive, but the next step was when we proved to Ethicon not only that this realistic laparoscopic simulation could be done, but that we could do it. Scary.

Ethicon had some urgent need, however, because they were selling surgical equipment for this new laparoscopic procedure, which was minimally invasive. This meant it left only a few small scars, and the healing time was within a few weeks. People with their gall bladders removed could be back to work the next week. Everybody wanted this procedure, but no one knew how to do it. It required operating with tools inserted in trocars in the abdomen, and the surgeon had to operate remotely with long sticks holding needles and scissors and graspers. Some of the finest surgeons who operated in the open body could never get the hang of operating so remotely, both because of their limited vision the inserted television camera, and in the limited “chopsticks” feel they could get through the special instruments.

For this reason, Ethicon had to be responsible for teaching the surgeons. And short of operating on humans for the first time with no prior experience, the surgeons could only gain their first experiences in pig labs, operating on live pigs which were anesthetized for the procedure. Ethicon had a history, selling tools and thread and other operating room necessities to surgeons since the Civil War. Now Ethicon and U.S. Surgical were selling the laparoscopic tools, grippers and scissors and curved needles, plus the trocars, the tubes that went through the abdominal wall, usually three of them. The trocars would also accommodate a video camera, which gave the surgeons their remote visualizations.

Ethicon’s real problem, in this booming new minimally invasive surgical business, was the animal labs. More than one animal rights group had real issues with surgeons practicing on pigs. It was the idea of it, being unnecessarily cruel to animals – even though they were anesthetized as well as any human in surgery, and their remains were disposed of in highly hygenic circumstances. These same people seemed to have no problem with bacon, and within limits, to animal experimentation for scientific purposes. But the surgical pigs seemed to these protesting groups to fall in an inhumane category of wasteful killing for the profits of big medicine. The problem came to a head when one of the U.S. Surgical pig labs was bombed. It occured after hours and no one was killed, but it was a dynamic protest that made headlines, and a dilemma for Ethicon. They had to teach doctors in order to sell equipment. The public wanted more minimally invasive procedures, and a whole market area was wide open if they could train without pig labs.

So, once again we had a project with psychic benefits of training for lifesaving, and one which was highly important to Ethicon to waylay criticism for the pig labs. Even developing a simulator showed the public that they were responding in a responsible way to a major social problem.

I decided to pull out all the stops with the feasibility study, and create the model for it for the actual demonstration. This would make our final proposal far more understandable and believable. It was not the first time I proceeded as if I already had contract, and put in far more effort than we were being paid for. This was one of those projects that could be worth it. We were going to have to put half a spherical background in virtual reality, and that abdominal cavity had to look highly realistic. We had Dr. Noar, who had worked with us on the ERCP do the shooting in precise circles, so that our videodisc demo could skip down up and down video “rings” when the camera went in and out and pan in real time if the camera was swiveled. The final simulator would have to have angular moves by the camera, but these rings were good enough for a demo.

To get pig footage in these somewhat precise rings, I devised metal school protractor, and soldered it to a screen which would be sewn onto the pig. My son Galen actually soldered the protractor to the screening. This was a bit slap dash, but we did get the footage we needed to index on a videodisc, and at the demo, change their parameters of perception. The surgeons they had at the demo could actually maneuver and search within the 180 degree sphere we had created.

That the people at Ethicon saw something they had not imagined could be done, even in our simple demo, moved them to offer us the contract. They were sure that another company could not do it, and I had the patent which described it. It was my first 7 digit contract…well into 7 digits in fact. Now we had to figure out how to do it. I mean really figure it out…Showing a realistic background that can be maneuvered within wasn’t doing half the job. Now we had to create virtual organs to place inside the anatomical cavity, and we had to invent our own digital instruments that a surgeon could hold and believe it, and a torso with trocars which made them believe what was inside. Moreover, we found that they unanimimously wanted the organs to react to the instruments not only visually, in real time, but tactilely.

TACTILE? GRAPHICS? 3D PICTURES THAT YOU CAN PULL AND STRETCH AND SEW AND CUT? Sometimes promises get out of hand. It was 1991 and no one in the world had done this. Not games, not the space program, no one…gulp. Visual realism can be achieved with 30 frames a second, although the 3D models in real time required a “dynamics engine” to achieve something that looked like face-morphing in the movie “The Terminator” but the Silicon Graphics computers that created them worked all night on one movement. Ours had to be done in real time. But that turned out to be the easy part. To feel what you grip and cut, requires 1,500 frames per second because our sense of feel is so refined.

Our programmers began simply, trying to create simple shapes in space, so that a stick could feel the virtual outlines and ascertain what shape it was. The only problem was, there were no experts in feeling virtual shapes. But there were experts in feeling. The blind were experts in telling shapes by feeling.

Somehow we found a computer engineer attending the University of Washington…who was blind from birth. When we brought him in to test our shapes by touching them with a stick, we had been woeful failures, taking swipes in space and trying to logically space the figure in our mind from where our sticks hit. We couldn’t tell a square from a circle from a triangle. And then the blind engineer took the stick. Tap tap. “Square.” Another tap, tap. “Triangle.” And tap, tap, tap. “Circle.” Nothing quite like expertise.

So we had a team of about twenty people, mechanical engineers, software engineers, electrical engineers to design small printed circuit boards for each instruments, plastics engineers building a torso with mechanical switching when different instruments were used…everyone trying to design an experience more realistic that anyone had seen in simulation.

And then there was Russia. Yes, Russia – but not the Soviets. Eight years later I was headed back to a new and different Russia. It turned out that our realistic anatomy of a human would be a little harder to get than that from a pig. We would have to have a human body open long enough to take a sequence of individual still pictures, high resolution, that were located exactly against each other so that the virtual camera moving in an infinite combination of angles and depths seem a totally realistic and seamless experience to the surgeon. Problem was, American lawyers could not find a way to justify having the abdominal cavity left open for even an hour, and we though we would need two or three hours, photographing hundreds of positions in a circular grid, to achieve even one virtual patient. And we aimed for 4 or 5. Luckily, Ethicon had some business going with the newly democratic Russia in 1993, and they enlisted the ex-surgeon general of the army to guide our activities. It was discovered that under certain circumstances, Russian medicine would allow up to 8 hours for a medicinal drip, which theoretically left an incision open. That’s all we needed, we would have a camera on a shaft with special lenses, and shoot through that tiny incision.

Of course, the last problem was precision. The surgeon had to be able to return to exactly the same spot with his trocar camera, and for that we had to invent a stand for the 3D circular grid. I got a film crew I knew that built innovative frames for shooting, and in the spirit of true groping we went to the butcher shop and got about twenty steaks. We lined a shooting box with meat, so we could try to design a holder for the camera that allow precise locations to return to, especially during shooting, where the hundreds of pictures would be digitally sewn into the realistic background. Ethicon saw that precision mechanical engineering of such a stand to create a 3D circular grid might be right in their wheelhouse. Free of charge, their manufacturing engineers designed and built a very precise protractor frame, in effect a sort of reverse sextant, a world of sophisticated engineering away from the little protractor my son Galen soldered to the wire screen which was sewn to the pigs abdomen a year before.

We practiced on a pig and got excellent registration of each inside photo. Having now seen robotic prostate surgery, wherein the surgeon in a 3 hr operation can stop and rest and return to exactly the same spot, and knowing Ethicon worked later with the Da Vinci folks, I strongly suspect the connection. I’m actually proud of it. I’d developed the shooting frame for one kind of precision, and if it now serves another, that’s great. The world moves forward.

So we packed up for Russia and I studied my little 30 Days to Learn Russian book, and we were off in a film crew caravan, through Frankfurt airport and on to St. Petersburg. We were taken to the top hospital in St. Petersburg, which was dimly lit and overall, fairly humble by US standards. The operating room had two stories of glass windows to make use of natural light, and the vital signs consisted of a nurse holding each patients pulse and reporting on it every few minutes. Our film-shooting structures were built to surround the patient and rigidly support our futuristic camera holder, which was lowered over the patient. However, It turned out that film processing was not that dependable in Russia at the time, and with that amount of precision involved, I decided to fly the first film photo rolls to Helsinki, process them overnight, and then call the team in St. Petersburg so they could adjust the photos for the best resolution.

The Ethicon rep in Helsinki arranged for to meet me at the airport, take the film to the processor, and then we could look at it in the early morning before I caught the next flight back to St. Petersburg. I looked at the photos and made the assessment that the grid should start about 2 centimeters closer to the tissue for best effect. We could waste a whole week of shooting if I was wrong. Then, the Russians refused to let me back into the country that morning but I made an impassioned plea with my 30 days of Russian (which also allowed me later to read the names of Russian ships in Seattle from bona fide Cyrillic). Another wait of a few hours and perhaps a few Russian medical favors cashed in, and I was free to go back to the hospital.

We did get the footage in an ardous 4 days of shooting hundreds of tightly registered photos. When I was about to go through Russian customs with my photos in lead packs, the border guard said we would have to open them up and have them x-rayed. I swear this was the big square jawed Russian in a heavy overcoat that eight years before had denied me the hotel I reserved, and sent me to another for the good of the Soviet state. Anyway this time I said Nyet, Nyet, Nyet and the Ethicon people got the ex-surgeon general and they kept this from being an international incident.

And it worked. After another year’s effort, we turned the project over to Ethicon and they showed it around. Apparently the Ethicon CEO who enlisted us and who had maintained faith in a group of ragtag innovators from Seattle (though probably no one should have) presented the system to a group of Japanese surgeons visiting Ethicon, and got a standing ovation from people who know their technology. Also, our programmers wowed the top-notch SIGGRAPH conference in San Francisco with what we called Tactile Graphics. Echoes of cool cool cool buzzed through the whole Valley for a day or so. That’s the way you want these things to end.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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Speaking of Peru

After 4 months teaching English in Manizales, Colombia, and a few more weeks seeing Equador, including Quito and Guayaquil, we ended up in Lima, Peru. It was winter in South America and being almost a thousand miles off the equator, Lima had a slightly snippy season. Another thing about Lima made it chilly (- but not yet Chile). An atmospheric quirk brings the cold Humbolt current up the Pacific Ocean from Antartica, just about non-stop. At a point in Peru, the Humbolt Current hits a southerly current bearing down from the Equator plus some hot desert winds from northern Peru. This creates an almost perpetual fog for most of 300 days a year. That place, where the major fogbank hovers, is Lima, the major city in Peru.

There is a local joke about why Lima resides in a perpetual fog bank. Apparently the conqueror Pizzaro had flashed his muskets and cannons and subdued the local Indians. The Indians had little use for wars and mostly fished the Pacific and farmed the countryside. Pizzaro was standing in one of the pensive poses he used for statues, all bejangled with armor and thinking about where they should build the imperial city of Lima. Why not ask the local Indians? They live here, they would know the best spot. So they asked a few of the tribal leaders where the best spot to build a city would be. The Indian leaders confabed for a moment and then, holding back laughter, both pointed to the same spot. Pizzaro had not been around all year, thought it was a nice piece of land, so and ordered the city of Lima built in that spot. The Indian laborers were laughing insanely as they carried out Pizzaro’s wish, and they were always pleased to laughter again, for all their lived, when they passed the cloud of Lima where all the fancy Spanish doings, balls and ceremonies, were going on within the cloud shroud.

We visited the local Centro-Americano school there, and I was asked to give a few classes. Someone said I should go see the Embassy about giving lectures in the major cities. As it turned out, they did want to send someone around to show the branches they cared about them, and so it looked like I was it. They gave me a South American Honorary Doctorate so it looked like I knew something, and left it to me to come up with the topics. The level of English I would speak was 4, which meant simple sentences and about 1000 words and lots of gestures and acting out what I was talking about. A podium was a hinderance to this kind of walkaround speaking, so I usually jumped down from the podium and walked up close to the first rows. Especially when there is no sound system, one does better to get as close to the action as possible.

Sometimes you have to fumble through your past to dredge up a connection for the present. Since the needed to come up with press releases for these two-night visits to major Peruvian cities, I had to think of topics people would like. One was “The History of the English Language.” Now little did they know that that was the only “C” I ever got in graduate school. The tombs of dreary middle English poems and sermons had had a sleep inducing effect on me, I guess. But then no one here knew that I was hardly an expert. Dr. Hon was the way they put it in the newspaper. The other subject was one I knew a little about from talking with my friend Dale at the UCLA film school. I showed them about how to tell a story with close-up and panning and tilting and cutting with understood inference, like seeing a lion from afar and then instantly cutting to his snarling mug. This sort of movie apparently terrified aborigines who had never seen film, but most of the audience would know that this was a visual language, so I called the second talk “Cinema: The Existential Language.” I have no idea what that title meant, but it sounded good in the press release.

So off we went across Peru, Brenda and I riding in nice train coaches now and being met by the Mayor or a town of a few million people and going out to dinner with he and his wife and staying at the grandest hotel in town. The Mayor and his wife would show us the newspaper press release and I was amazed to be the very guy in the picture (, who would be talking about his “C” subject and his Existential Language).

This is definitely the way to travel. We were in Cuzco, an ancient Inca city, and I was told that I was the first American since Robert Kennedy to speak in that auditorium. That fresh in my halo, we took a side trip down to Machu Picchu and stayed in a small 12 room hotel right in the ruins on the Andes ridge. We climbed the terraced mountains and traveled all the surrounding trails by which fresh fish had – centuries ago — been brought by runners from the Pacific. Their Inca rulers had resided in this city hidden from viewers below by the angle of the slope up, and by the cleverness of the ancient architects. The stones fit perfectly together in a way the historians could not account for with the crude tools they had then. Many believed they had been helped by alien wanderers from the skies. They even had the world UFO convention in Machu Picchu one year. Obviously travelogs talk about this, but I should too. Most of the water had to be carried to a high point in Machu Picchu, so that it served various functions as it flowed downward through channels. Highest was for drinking and cooking, and then the animals could drink it at another level. Then the same water was used for washing clothes and further down, to water the crops. It was probably repeated 1000 times across the ancient world, but here in Machu Picchu you could see the simple utility of their city planning.

At night, when all the tourists had gone home, we wandered back into the well-preserved ruins, in the Sierra light at evening. Llamas occasionally frisked in and out of stone doorways. And somewhere back in the city, a dishwasher off for the evening sat playing an Indian flute.

It was an addictive way of life, but the truth was we were almost broke and anything we earned here would last about a day in the States, so the attractiveness of all this was actually becoming a trap.

Back in Lima, I tried to establish contact with David Ward, who had behaved more responsibly than I, got his PhD, and was now the head of the English Department in a small college in Oklahoma. Before we left he said that if he got the job then perhaps we could find one for me. It was time to start seeking our way out of South America. In 1971, this was not as easy as dialing up on a cell phone. In fact, there were no public lines to the States except in Peru’s Ministry of Communication (or some such). To make a call to the States to find out if I could get a job with Ward at the small college, I had first to buy some “telephone stamps.” Then I had to give the “telephone stamps” (pretty things with South American birds on them) to a sort of teller in a window behind bars, and tell them where to call in the States. Then I had to go and sit on an ornate wooden bench that might have been used as a church pew – and I sat for hours. They’d call and it was busy and they would give me my stamps back and then I would give them their stamps back and have them make another call and after a few more hours they said the person was not in. Getting one call through took me three days of stamps and sitting on a hard pew just to get a long distance call through. The world is better now. With all its sins, it is better.

The call went through and David Ward had my job, but I would have to come from Peru to Oklahoma and meet his boss. That meant risking most of the money we had on that plane fare, and leaving Brenda in Lima for several days while I tried to get this only Stateside job that it looked like I could get from here.

Before I left, we did move around Lima, and noted the better eating places (which would not be rife with paramecium, for a change) and observed other peculiarities of the city. Here’s one for the road: At Guzman Blanco plaza, three major highways converged on the world’s fastest roundabout — with the cars going 60 mph. At Guzman Blanco, the two and three-story buildings of Lima were thus on pie-shaped blocks, each coming to a point at the roundabout. To follow one road by foot, the pedestrian would have to cross three major highways at these intersections, just to continue in the same direction. Merely walking there was death-defying, and people waited parts of an hour for traffic to clear enough to cross each highway. So… given this constant, fast-moving traffic, where the buildings’ narrowest points came right up to the roundabout, where would you imagine the Peruvians built their National Institute for the Blind?

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

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From Dostoyevsky to Digital Subsystems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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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

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The Future Comes to Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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Warrior on the Road

Orders for Vietnam looked to some people like a death warrant, but I took it as permission to approach life with a different attitude. I was more open to things that could happen along the way, and I chose everything. The actual trip started, I guess, in New York City. I had received the orders in North Carolina, but in the Marines Corps rush to get me into combat they also rushed the shots I needed to set foot in Asia. The list of shots is like the World Health Organization’s list of the most deadly diseases, cholera, malaria, yellow fever…You have seen the list, but I needed to get those vaccines into my body in record time. So the various nurses lined up like a debutants reception line, each with an appropriate needle aiming for the appropriate spot.

The next day the yellow fever vaccine gave me Yellow Fever, like it was supposed to, but my body was too occupied fighting off the other vaccines to snuff Yellow Fever. The doctors caught what was happening and put me in the hospital immediately to sweat and barf for a few weeks. Maybe there were a couple of diseases at work; I do not remember even the daze I was in. Anyway, after about a month, they let me out, and re-cut my original orders to leave Travis Air Force Base in California in 14 days. A week of that was leave. Originally I was to join 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines in Khe Sahn right after the Tet offensive. However, while I was sleeping, 3/26 left Khe Sahn and encountered an extremely bloody battle in Hue.

So my yellow fever probably saved my life, or at least gave me much better odds. Of course, I did not know all that during the days I was driving across the US to California.

I decided to drive across the States from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and pocket the airline fare. First stop was New York City, where I had a girlfriend staying with her girlfriend and her girlfriend’s boyfriend Monte. Monte was a brilliant prodigy who graduated from the University of Chicago at age 15, and then came back to be a super at his folk’s apartment building and moonlight driving a cab. He loved driving a cab because he loved talking with people of every variety, and often chatted up potential new girlfriends who were stewing alongside drunk beaus in his cab. (People live off the land in different ways.) I usually gave my car keys to Monte every time I was in New York City because he knew everywhere and almost everyone.

Monte offered to escort me as far as Cleveland so he could see his friend who was a leading brain surgeon at Case Western Reserve. We were invited to a brain operation for a motorcyclist who had hit the pavement headfirst with no helmet. We scrubbed up, and Monte’s friend introduced us to the operating room team as visiting doctors, here for observation. We stood on little stools above the surgery for about 5 hours, while the surgeons removed the top of the patient’s head and felt around with their fingers inside his brain. Nurses as a courtesy came by and showed us an assortment of scans or something, and we both nodded and said “Very significant” a lot. Finally Monte’s friend pulled out a huge pussball with his index finger from some lower level of the brain that had been putting some pressure somewhere, and now maybe the guy could probably walk straight again. Or even ride a motorcycle.

As a souvenir, Monte’s friend gave me something to stay awake after I left them both late in the day to drive through to Minneapolis and see my family on the way. It was Methedrine or some other speedy concoction that caused all the taillights ahead to dance and merge like tracers. Certainly an ominous vision at 70 miles per hour. It was 600 miles and after a couple of hours that night I pulled into a rest area and slept in the car. I awakened early the next morning and did the last 500 miles.  My days with the family were somewhat reserved, given that my mother had been through this before when my father went to war. I guess I was a little insensitive, and realized later when I had my own sons what a toll this must have taken. While I was there I called some friends in Seattle to whom I had willed my ski gear and stereo setup in case I did not return. We willed and left a lot of prized possessions when we were headed to Vietnam, and funny, I never saw most of those things again when I returned. They weren’t as important. Most of the friends were not either.

Next stop was California where I would leave my Volkswagen, and in those final days traded it, with some money, for a VW bus. My friend Dale kept my bus in his garage on blocks for the year I was away. Two years before, Dale had been a grad student at the University of Tulsa where I did some graduate work. He had been a philosophy major and a collegiate 125 pound wrestler. He and I marched in early March of 1965 for Martin Luther King in Tulsa, Oklahoma. 10,000 people marched down the streets of Tulsa on the Saturday shopping afternoon. King did not show up but we were all told by the organizers to say we had marched with Martin Luther King. (Symbolically I guess.) I had done some background material for a journalism class that I thought the Tulsa Tribune was going to use. Instead that whole march got one inch of copy on the back page of the Sunday paper. That pretty well convinced me not to be a journalist.

Later that month Dale wanted me to go to Selma for what was supposed to be a really big march, and I had a midterm the next Monday. I didn’t want to blow that test just to have something cancelled again – or so I said – so I skipped the weekend trip down to Selma. Also the image of the rednecks in overalls with baseball bats did stick with me, so I wonder to this day if a lack of courage kept me from going to Selma with Dale. (If some dates had worked out right, I could have been the only one most people knew who had been in both Khe Sanh and Selma. Could’ve been a major start on a bucket list, if one is into those.)

Cut to: two years hence. Now in Los Angeles, Dale had since been admitted to the UCLA film school from Oklahoma, and he wanted to involve me in his semester film project before I left. I was going to bus the next day to Travis Air Force base to fly to Camp Hanson in Okinawa for Vietnam staging, so the afternoon and evening were free. In Westwood, an L.A. sub-city, the UCLA film school students had a $1 double feature theater nearby, stocked with two of the more recent movies. We went in the afternoon and heard a constant buzz of movie critique that no sane audience could bear with. “Close up, now why did he do that there?” “This tilting and zooming and panning is endless, but what is it saying?” ”Hey watch for the soft focus in this next scene, I saw it yesterday.” Dale recruited extras from this crowd.

That night, the scene we were shooting was a narrow alley in Los Angeles. Dale had it well storyboarded. A car full of drunks was to roar up the alley at high speed, with a motorcycle hurtling at it head-on, but the rider dodging over the hood of the car at the last second, leaning over like some bullfighter but with no cape. As the cycle slipped through the slim gap between the hurtling car and the alley, the drunks in the car would throw out a basket of empty beers cans at the cyclist. The timing had to be perfect. Any collision would be at 80 miles per hour. But the storyboard looked great.

For some odd reason, Dale could find no one to play the motorcyclist, so I volunteered. I’d ridden a few bikes, so I thought I could handle it. In a somewhat surreal mood, I heard Dale shout action and I gunned the motorcycle and watched the car come at me very quickly and at the last second swerved my hips and leaned over the onrushing hood and slipped between the car and the concrete wall on the right side of the alley. Then the guys in the car threw the cans at me, a split-second too late.

“We’ll have to do another take.” Dale said, totally professionally and with no apologies whatsoever.

Once again, I sped toward the oncoming car, and dodged over the hood just as they threw the empty beer cans out. Too early this time. They fell in front of my wheels.

“Another take, everybody back in position.” He confided to me, “I’ll be out of film if we don’t get this one.”

I accelerated toward the oncoming car once again. In slowed-down motion somewhere in my head I thought what a wonderful, spectacular shot it would make if I kept going straight and hit the car splat. But I chickened out and dodged the car — and got a face full of empty beer cans.

“Perfect. Let’s wrap that.”

The big, full 747 from Travis to Kadena and the processing at Camp Hansen and the big, full 747 into Da Nang air base and the helicopter ride to Phu Bai, were a set of steps that disappear in the sand. I joined 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines at Phu Bai, when they were pulled back to a safe place to recover. It was a safe place except for Russian rockets brought down the Ho Chi Minh trail in Cambodia to catch us from that backside.

There were lots of jokes about the rockets arriving before the warning sirens, and I remember that being hilariously funny in the midst of daily rocket attacks. Incoming artillery and outgoing artillery sounded the same to me and everyone laughed when I grabbed my helmet after an outgoing round and when I laughed at an incoming round they grabbed me and pulled me into a bunker. It was 115 degrees and every bit of clothing was sticky on me — and finally it dawned on me.

I was in Vietnam.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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A Day in the Clutches of Communism

Why I thought of visiting Soviet Russia escapes me now. I’d read Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy but there was no fascination left over from the 1800’s. In 1982, I tried for about a year to get a visa with application to their embassy through the mails and had quite a collection of the necessary documents I had sent with no answer. No one in Russia had asked me to visit, of course, though I did have some things they might have wanted to see.

As I was doing quite a number of tricks with the early videodiscs in the 1980s, including the CPR Learning System, the word got around and I found myself speaking at a computer show in Helsinki, Finland. I carried a videodisc to show the crowd — as most had never even imagined one, large and round and exceptionally mirror like. I also took the baby manikin and an Apple 3 computer along with the Sony Videodisc player, to give a small approximation of the program to audiences in Europe. I had a couple of blank videodiscs just to hold up and show. In a fit of good Karma, the audience of about 500 from all over Europe was treated to a pass-around of my blank videodisc, being carefully transferred like a collection plate from hand to hand. About two-thirds through the rows, one of the audience members took opposite edges of the videodisc in his two hands, and snapped it in two. He looked up with some wonderment, as if anything so shining and solid could have a brittle character as well.

The managers of the show were beside themselves, and hurried the troubled soul out of the room blubbering. I wasn’t too worried, as it was a blank videodisc provided by Sony to show people what a videodisc looked like, but my Finnish hosts apologized over and over and gave me his current troubled story. He’d been a respected professor but his wife left him and his mind crumbled. Even though he could not teach classes, his university considered him part of the family, and let him go to events such as mine.

   I finished my presentation , including showing the baby manikin demonstration. While the crowd was still intact, the show managers announced that their special Russia trip by train needed its registered participants to check in this afternoon for the trip tomorrow. On the stage, I expressed my regret I could not go with them for the two-day trip. The travel agent, who had been selling those trips from one of the vendor booths, said she was sorry as well. She mentioned that if I had kept the application papers with the proper notaries etc, which I had sent to the Russian Embassy, she could have done something. I quickly ran to my bag, and pulled out copies of all the documents had I had been instructed to send the past year. They were the ones which the Soviet Embassy had never acknowledged receipt of. The travel agent looked over my documents, surprised.

“I can work with these.” She said. “I know the right people.”

“You mean I can get on the train trip with everyone else?”

“Well, no, but I can get you a visa to fly to Leningrad for an overnight stay.”

“On a Soviet plane?”

“Right, and where would you like to stay?”

Ah, I had the answer. When things were going well for Hitler and he felt Russia was almost sewn up, he boldly sent out gold engraved invitations to all the world leaders, friend and foe, to meet him for breakfast on a day in June at the Astoria Hotel. “I want to stay at the Astoria.”

“Done. I will have the tickets and papers delivered to your hotel room tonight, and your flight will be at 10 am tomorrow.”

That night a wildly sodden Finnish bus driver drove our group of speakers in a Greyhound-sized bus at 50 miles per hour over narrow dirt roads that must have been used for logging trucks. Luckily we had a free cocktail hour before, so this dangerous excursion was actually entertaining. The bus bounded along weaving through ruts and knocking off branches which overhung each side of the road. Finally after about ten miles into the deep dark forest he stopped at a lake. There were sauna cabins with smoke pouring out. We were given towels and a little bag for our clothes and this true Finish sauna included a jump in the icy lake afterward. Unfortunately, the icy plunge left us stone sober for the harrowing trip back with the daredevil driver.

The next morning I boarded one of those Aeroflot twin-engine passenger planes that left from the sparkling English speaking airport at Helsinki, managed to squeeze in a black bread snack, and landed half an hour later at the drab, totally Russian speaking airport in Leningrad. I had left the Apple 3 computer and the the baby manikin in storage at the Helsinki hotel, and was glad of it. In the Leningrad terminal I was interviewed by one of those 6 foot 5 inch Russians whose milkman hat made him look taller, and his wool felt overcoat with epaulets made his shoulders look much wider. He squinted at my Astoria hotel reservation with cool, bland impatience. And said “Nyet.”

“But I’ve paid for the room.”


“You’re sending me back?”


“So did I do something wrong?” Geopolitical etiquette not being my forte, perhaps I did not burp appropriately after my little airplane meal. The Soviets, I had heard, were always out to get Americans.


And then with an officiously loud stamp on my Astoria reservation, he said, “You will stay at the tourist hotel,” and he pointed toward a line of similarly confused and dismayed travelers.

Our bus full of confused and dismayed travelers rolled out of the drab Leningrad Airport, rife with rumor and speculation. “They’re rounding up all foreigners…” “Where is this bus going…We’re headed outside the city, not into it.” “Why won’t they tell us anything?” The same words were likely being spoken in French, German, Chinese, and probably even Uzbek.

We crossed a drawbridge onto an island. These islands were not unusual. The Leningrad area is laced with rivers and canals leading to the ocean. And then, out of the mist, sitting on 1000 unkempt acres, rose a sort of futuristic marble palace. We gasped in 10 languages (Sacre Bleu, etc.). The uniformed drivers and monitors guided us into this ten-story palace. Inside were many reception desks that recalled the Hilton in New York. Apparently some modern Swedish architect made this creation for Soviet Russia’s latest tourism campaign.

“Welcome to the Lenigrad Intourist Hotel. Our concierges will assist you in your visit to Leningrad, and assure your every comfort.” This pleasant loudspeaker repeated itself in several languages. There were attractive young Russians in Hotel uniforms everywhere as we checked in, and we found we had clean modern rooms, in a brand new full-function hotel. But I wanted to go into the city, to see St. Peter’s Square and The Hermitage Art museum, where so many of the paintings of art history books are stored in reality. My flight back to Helsinki was at noon the next day, so I knew I would have to see something now. Luckily I had a little note pad, and the helpful concierge wrote down The Hermitage in Russian, and said they would have a Limosine for me outside, for which I would pay $40 here inside the hotel. Ah, capitalism smells the same everywhere.

“Hey, come with me. I go here before.” I guess he was Italian, but I went with him past the rows of Mercedes limos and a few blocks away into the surrounding village where most of the staff and their families lived. There were a few old Russian taxis languishing near the bus terminal. The taxi to The Hermitage cost me 75 cents. The Italian friend had changed a ten dollar bill into god knows how many rubles for me, and they seemed to spend just fine.
St. Peter’s Square was immense, and empty midday, but The Hermitage Museum was open. The lobby was a bit disheveled, the guides questioned to about 40 of us standing there as to who needed English. 10 of us did, and were herded up a stairway to a second floor. Herded is really what we were at the InTourist Hotel as well, though they were extremely organized and pleasant about it. Here less so. We were given a precise amount of time in each room and then moved on unceremoniously. The guides seem bothered by our questions as we stood in absolute awe looking at the walls.

The Hermitage was like a gigantic warehouse of impossibly great painting. They were up there with no extravagant frames and just the even, though adequate, room lighting. Most were hung edge to edge and corner to corner, almost  like a huge quilt hung on each wall. Each room of The Hermitage was jammed on all four walls with the most famous paintings from the most famous painters in the world. Apparently Peter the Great dipped deep into the national treasury of Russia and went on a buying sprees for art in Paris. (This while serfs were freezing and starving through all of his reign.) There were walls of Rembrandts and Gaugins and everyone back to the cave painters who had ever made an impact on Europe and the world with their paintings. The Hermitage was an overload at warp speed and we had finished in two hours, breathless, our eyesight assaulted with excellence.

And then there was getting back. I tried to ask the guide in English how to say InTourist Hotel in Russian, but she was off with another crowd at once. As people filed out to buses and cabs and limos I tried to find the way to say my hotel in Russian. I had not thought even to get a card there. It was as if I was in outer space. This Russian language dominated in a way I had not been exposed to before, because they allowed so few English or Americans into Russia, I suspect. Finally a kind Algerian offered to let me pay for the cab because he needed to go near the InTourist hotel himself. It was a bargain, assuming I would not be kidnapped.

Back to Helsinki, and off to other escapades around Europe with my baby manikin, but this was the last of Russia for a while. I was so shocked at the outer-space feeling of having no way to communicate, I swore that I would learn a bit of Russian if I ever came back. I did come back ten years later, and I did arm myself with a few months study that time.

That first time, in 1983 under the Soviets, we were warned not to take any rubles out of Russia. So I slipped a few bills in between pages a book. That way I could plausibly offer apologies if they searched that far.  (With inflation that hit a few years later, they would probably become virtually worthless.)  I gave those paper rubles to my two young sons, Liam and Galen,  saying I got them at great risk and could have been years in a Russian jail just for having them. Probably the boys showed them at their grade school. Probably for years I should have been watching around dark corners in case some communist-sympathizing elementary teacher in Dallas tipped them off, and — all that way — the Soviets came after me.

Probably I am safe now.

Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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