One Finger, One Note

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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Guayaquil in the Rear View Mirror

Some things look good on the map, and from everything we saw about Guayaquil — a large population, the only pacific port city for 1000 miles, a warm climate with Pacific Ocean breezes — this had to be a good next stop to make while we were in Ecuador. However, when we mentioned we might go there, people looked away, a bit shifty. Our Spanish was embryonic, but there was some message. Something we didn’t know.

Quito had been gorgeous, a tiny European replica in the Andes, almost on the equator but high enough to be like spring year round. A lot of ex-pats, banks, coffee shops, big hotels. Pretty much the real South America if you could afford it and didn’t have places to go on dirty buses. Dirty buses were the way to see that world though. Buses with banana stalks and stowaway kids on top. Buses with chickens and goats and dirty diapers you lived with for hours. Buses which stopped quickly at every town and the vendors stuck frozen juice popsicles up for tourists to buy through the open windows.

And if you were a Gringo, the buses stopped at every state boundary and made you spread you belongings out on the dirt road for the local policeman to inspect along with your passport. As I was obviously a Gringo I qualified for every inspection stop. Brenda, however, had an Irish passport and, though we were married, she jumped at the chance to disown me. “No Gringo!” She said as she flashed her Irish passport. “Irlando. Yo soy Irlando.” So much, I thought, for death do us part. (I probably deserved about anything because I had forgotten her birthday that year, not in a flush of activity, but as the two of us waited patiently for half the day at a bus stop.)

The word Gringo, if you haven’t heard, comes from when Texans and other cowboys went down through Mexico with cattle herds and sang the mournful songs to put the cattle to sleep at night. One of their favorites (and likely the cattle favorites as well) started out “Green grow the lilacs in Oregon.” They slurred “Green Grow” into Gringo, and thereafter every American who ventured south of the Mexican border was a Gringo. Its usage spread clear down to the chilly tip of the southern continent. Brenda, by the way, just became an official Gringo last year, perhaps a world record for holding onto a green card.

Guayaquil, which provoked sideways glances and few endorsements from people we queried about it, seemed a little foreboding — but it wasn’t our first forebodement in Ecuador. Upon crossing from Columbia into Equador, right at the border, I pulled out a map I had brought from the States, and started to look for a route to Quito. I was lifted under the shoulders by two stout gendarmes and deposited in a room with no windows. Brenda was allowed in, but they took my map, and I could hear them arguing outside the door. Vaguely it sounded like they might shoot me for carrying this map.

“We take this map.”

“Can I have it back?”

“No, it is a crime.”

We did not like the idea of being criminals in a place where the jails were the dark hole of any political universe. “But it is not a crime if I give it to you.”

This sort of question is a horrible mistake when you use it on non-native English speakers. (Yes, it is not – or, No, you are right that it is not?) Spanish speakers cannot really comprehend how to answer a question asked as a negative question. It does not translate. The mistake could send someone to jail.

“We take this, and you stay here now.”

They came back half an hour later and with no reason at all, the head gendarme flicked his hand in a signal we could go.

Go we most certainly did. The taxi driver got a huge tip to hurry us to what was the dirtiest, dustiest, hangdog bus station on the continent, I am sure. Later I learned the story. My father had received the map when he worked as a petroleum engineer for Standard Oil in the States before WWII (which, sadly, claimed him). The map was in his belongings and so I took it along on our trip in 1970. As often happens in South America, I learned what follows from a drunken history professor who probably later got his tongue cut out.

Apparently two dictators in Colombia and Equador struck a deal when the dictator of Equador amassed humoungous gambling debts. Colombia demanded about half of Equador’s land mass in repayment. Probably the real story is far more complicated. In any event the two dictators apparently staged a war, prenegotiating the eventual boundaries and even estimating the what would be an acceptable number of dead and wounded. It had to play with the populace, of course, with harangues and bands and young men marching off to war. One can imagine it being managed by a Madison Avenue advertising agency like the product rollout of a new potato chip.

Mindless as I am of the details, this little war did happen in the early 1940s when most of the world’s attention was elsewhere. It truly resulted in the decision by a world tribunal in the Conference of Rio de Janeiro to change boundaries between Colombia and Equador to give Colombia about 2/3 of the Equadorian land mass. My father’s map displayed a much larger Equador. That is why the border guards confiscated it, as their politicos needed no reminders of this skullduggery lingering about, even this far in the future.

All of this brought us with a detour in lovely little Cuenca, to the big bad port of Guayaquil. On the map it had a large zoo and a race track. One could imagine families on weekends buying cotton candy on one of the large parks. What could be that bad?

To this day I cannot tell you why we had the feeling, shared by most who I’ve talked with, that Guayaquil had some sort of evil seeping out of its pores. When we got off he bus people looked at us a bit askance, not a friendly sort of askance, like here are more stupid Gringos (though Brenda quickly apprised them of the difference). Instead it was sort of a strange askance, like they knew something bad might be about to happen. Where we ate sandwiches was oddly unhospitable even to our money which was clearly their money and it was not refused, but everything seemed dirtier, as if disease germs were riding on our money, but they had to take it, reluctantly.

Across South American, we often were befriended by the first taxi drivers we hailed, who we asked to show us where to eat with no amoebas and to sleep with no rats. Usually that was an opportunity for him to make points with his friends (– we never had a female driver) or relatives. The understanding was that if we would tip him, and perhaps exchange travelers cheques with him at a rate higher for us than the bank, he would not send us to die.

He dropped us at a large hotel near the government buildings. Maybe the day was just grey, but everything seemed bland and tasteless in Guayaquil, and as I said, always steeped with foreboding. Our hotel room was clean, with a double bed in the middle of the room under a light bulb that hung all the way from the ceiling from its cord and was turned on with the little beaded string such lights have.

There were no windows in the room. All the rooms seemed to be accessible from a long balcony with stairs at each end. It was not a friendly place, but not friendly to rats either, so we slept soundly – until early the next morning. Of course with no windows we had no way of sensing the time. And then we heard the commotion on the balconies outside. The room was pitch black and I realized the only way to see would be to reach up for the light cord above. I reached – and it was not there. Groping this way for the light must have seemed comical to some creature with night vision, but it was weird to the point of panic. Then my fingers brushed the cord. The cord and its light bulb were apparently swinging in large arcs above out bed. I caught the cord on the next swing and pulled it, stopping the pendulum. We quickly pulled on clothes and opened the door to the balcony.

Guests were all out of their rooms, some making their way to the stairways, others staring at the sky. We stood at the rail of the balcony and stared at the sky as well. Government buildings of that architectural period have a crest upon which sit half of the birds in the city. Right now they all chose to fly at once, like a huge black swarm of bees, clouding the sky which had tried to turn bright this morning. It was the flight of nature from itself. The blackened sun seemed to represent the evil of Guayaquil.

We took the first bus we could get to anywhere, just out of Guayaquil. Though the small earthquake had subsided, I guessed later that the whole city must rest on some gigantic geologic fault that quivers enough to bestow a constant tension on the air, and only occasionally jiggles enough to disturb the animals. The buildings which still stood had probably made it, some inadvertently, through several earthquakes.

We fled all the way to the border of Northern Peru, where we discovered the city of Tumbes and its graveyard. The hotel was horrible but the people all proudly told us to visit the cemetary. And they had reason to be proud. The majestic sculpted shrubs there, many of which were two stories high, represented Alice in Wonderland with huge rabbits and queens, and clubs and diamonds as they would be on playing cards. I could call it therapeutic.

In Tumbes, it seemed as if the sheer effort and creativity of the gardeners at this cemetary were somehow the antidote to Guayaquil. This was a place which – though a cemetary – had happiness and humor and a vigorous confirmation of life.


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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Birthing the Anatomical Keypad

It is one thing to be given the green light to explore possibilities. It is quite another thing to take that exploration and boil it into a single quest. No matter how obvious the need, if the solution defies people’s expectations, then the path becomes strewn with obstacles. I was doing sales training on Texas Instruments programmable calculators, and we had been having little success trying to bring programmables to the consumer market in large department stores. People were basically terrified of these devices. One bright associate at TI said that basically what we had to do was “de-terrify” people before they could appreciate programmability and become customers. Panasonic had an advertising slogan back then that was brilliant.

The slogan Panasonic used was “Just slightly ahead of our time.” This was a deterrifying slogan. People knew the technology Panasonic was offering was not so futuristic that they would not understand it or, even worse, look stupid trying to use it. It was many years later that the Business Analyst brought the TI programmable calculator into widespread use, and that was only after most of those customers already owned personal computers. It seems we humans don’t instantly make the connection between what we know, what we need, and what advancement you are proposing. A great deal of the process involves most people digging their heels in, resisting learning anything new. Customer Education then was the major problem with those extremely useful calculators TI was trying to sell.

Fresh off that resounding failure — with business people not knowing why they needed cube roots, and not wanting to admit they did not even know what a cube root was — I accepted the training manager job at the American Heart Association. There I began to see the need for an android CPR simulator. The path of CardioPulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) itself had been long and sketchy since it appeared as a painting in the ancient Egyptian Temple of Medicine and even in I981 was only just becoming respectable in lifesaving circles. The AHA was in Dallas, but Seattle, where I grew up, had created a mass outreach in training ordinary citizens how to respond to a heart attack with CPR, and from that example people everywhere began to understand that they might need CPR someday.

In no way did anyone anywhere know that they needed a simulator to proliferate CPR. Thus, parallel to making a piece of equipment that no one had ever envisioned, I had to make a case for something no one had ever voiced the need for. As a design pathway, I decided I would take all the problems that currently existed with teaching CPR to the millions who ( , according to the Gallup Poll,) said they wanted to learn it in the near future. Then – simple – I would flip each problem into a solution. That would set forth the basic design needs of the simulator. Here were the problems:

  1. Logistics – Whatever organization was teaching CPR had to find and schedule a room that would hold about 20 people for the lecture and hands on approaches. With small classes given at odd intervals, teaching millions of ordinary citizens would take an impossibly long time.
  2. Performance Feedback –Students did not have an easy method of understanding the effect of their performance in decision making and in manual application of CPR.
  3. Message Inconsistency – Whenever CPR was taught, even with one of the several manikins available, the material varied a slight bit, and sometimes a lot, depending on which instructor taught it.
  4. Testing Inconsistency – When testing was done on the students, the evaluation by the testers was highly variable even though they had checklists. Often other instructors, with their varying viewpoints, were the test evaluators.
  5. Performance Recording – Along with inconsistencies in Message and Testing, the records of which students attended when and received which scores becomes an immense record-keeping problem
  6. Instructor Burnout – Possibly the greatest detriment was volunteer instructor burnout. Instructor qualification took some time and dedication, but then the average number of classes each instructor taught was five, before they called it quits.

So this great, wonderful phenomenon of citizen CPR could assure that a capable person would be there the exact minute when a life was ebbing from the body down on a city sidewalk or at a wedding party. However, it was the problems, the obnoxious practicalities, that made CPR in ordinary citizens only a weak possibility. Logistics and continuity would doom its promise. That is why we needed a CPR Learning Simulator. Flight Simulators taught pilots to bring planes in safely. Why couldn’t a CPR simulator teach people to save lives, right at the spot of a heart attack and at the very moment the victim lost consciousness? The rest of a victim’s body could carry on much longer even with the heart stopped, but the brain was key. Many, many victims lost their brain function, forever, before the paramedics could arrive. The father, or uncle, or elder sister, or young girl in the pool — each had about five minutes until their brain began to die for lack of oxygen.

When I finally got my chance, just in time and with limited credibility, I presented the idea to the Emergency Rescue Working Group. The advantages of a CPR Learning System were clear. The vision was mine and with limited funding and 6 months to work on it before the midyear meeting, I got the opportunity to show it. I told them I would prototype the simulator with interactive videotape and be able to give everyone the clear idea that was possible. Notwithstanding the fact that interactive videotape had not been invented, and was thus an obvious design objective as well, here is how the final simulator had to solve the variety of problems we had observed.

  1. Logistics – If the CPR Learning System, based on simulation, could be available 24/7 in a small, dedicated room, vast amounts of scheduling and notification would not be needed, and thus many more students could be taught in a given week. The scale of CPR learners – and thus heart attack survivors – could be scaled upward with one-time investments, IF the equipment were affordable and available.
  2. Performance Feedback – The students should be able to see and feel the effects of their performance on a manikin in real time, and with that instant feedback on their every move, they could rapidly adjust their performance until it was satisfactory.
  3. Message Inconsistency – Although there were adequate textbooks and lesson plans, the variety of emphasis due to individual instructor differences, led at times to poor decision-making by somewhat confused students. A computer-learning program would be the same every time.
  4. Testing Inconsistency – Since CPR was beginning to be required by various paramedics, firefighters, police officers, and hospital workers, the end performance needed to be extremely consistent so that these various emergency workers, and hopefully ordinary citizens, would be compatible between anyone involved when there were seconds to spare in the life of the victim. A computer program based on input could solve this.
  5. Performance Recording – The difficulties in maintaining records, especially when CPR certification was required for various jobs, could mean people’s livelihood, in addition to complicating planning by emergency facilities. Computers are excellent at record keeping, and this presented a way to integrate a standard CPR on a broad scale.
  6. Instructor Burnout – The CPR Learning System could teach the students one on one without an instructor present, and thus the training could be in constant operation 24/7 through many weeks and months if the demand continued.

As it turned out, the interactive videotape for the instructional part could be controlled by an Apple 3 computer, with a special card that accessed individual frames in the way computer editing was conducted in making television programs. Not easy, and not even obvious. But doable. Clearly the straight video education could be presented. Also it could be interactive so that when the student touched the screen with a light pen, he or she could answer questions and if necessary, have remediation – in pictures and demonstrations – brought up immediately.

On the other hand, a truly difficult problem presented itself, the simulation of hands-on CPR with real results, with sensors in a manikin processing input data in nearly real-time, and showing ongoing results instantly on a second computer screen. We first attached a number of different sensors to an existing training manikin, Ruscussie-Annie, and made a display box with various lights for on-off touching and analog gauges for depth and length of compression. That way we could see the signals coming from our variety of sensors in the manikin. Friends and detractors alike came to call this supersensitive manikin the Anatomical Keypad. Then “cutting the cords” and attaching them to the special computer card to read and process them drew our modest cheers for ourselves. It was truly a birthing process of a new kind of training, and a sensitive manikin for CPR was born.

With 35 more years gone by now, the various toys and computer games make this challenge seem somewhat trivial, but at the time it was like playing God. It was truly the “laying on of hands” and we could actually tell, and document what would be happening to a victim, and evaluate a rescuers’ performance before a real victim lay before them.

Because real-time computer-graphic overlays of video pictures was not a reality yet, we needed two screens, one for the didactic instructions and decision-making protocols, and a second screen to show the graphic results of manual input to the manikin. The students would look up from his or her compressions and interact with a light pen on the screen, and be able to see their placement, depth, and timing in exactly the same moment they were performing CPR on the manikin.

When we returned to the 6-month meeting of the Emergency Rescue Working Group, the doctors were both fascinated and reticent. The real time graphics responding to their light pen were clearly impressive, but the doctors had two very serious reservations before we could move on. First, they said, we would need different CPR courses for nurses and cardiologists, of course, in addition to those for civilians and non-medical hospital workers. The first question, different course for different levels of medical knowledge could present death by complexity to the CPR Learning System. I immediately feared an infinite cacophony of levels of medical power impinging, creating a hierarchy of concerns and more separate course than I, or anyone, could put together to the satisfaction of the multitude of interest groups. I did not want to offend, but I answered as simply as I could:

“The victim doesn’t care.” I said. “The victim is unconscious and has only a few minutes to live.”

They seemed to focus on that. “ But one doctor said, “but there are special skills some of us know.”

I knew I could not let this CPR Learning System become an elitist toy. “I think the victim just wants to breathe, and just wants his heart to start pumping. If I am the only one there I will have to know enough to save him.”

Wrinkled eyebrows. How could I say these things not being a doctor?

Look at it this way,” I said. “Johnnie Rutherford won the Indianapolis 500 four straight years. He is probably the best driver in the world and he lives right here in Texas, right over there in Fort Worth. And yet I am really glad that Johnnie Rutherford has to have the same Texas State drivers license that I do, because that means he’ll drive on his side of the road and stop for red lights, just like I will. And in CPR, if I am doing it with anyone, I want to know you are doing the same things I know have to be done, right then, right there, with no second opinions.”

Ok, they agreed, we’ll assume a standard vanilla course will be prepared at first. Whew!

Then secondly, they could not, even with my technical explanation see why we could not just use one screen. I was technically constrained to the two screen approach. The overlays and interleaving that we now take for granted were not possible then, on a small portable computer and a commercially available videodisc player. One screen took the light pen input, and held the pictures, video, and artwork on a videodisc, 54,000 frames to be managed by computer.  On the second screen the computer gave easily understandable computer graphics that represented performance on the manikin.  However, I knew that I needed a better answer, and pulled this one from somewhere.

“If a group of doctors were creating the first human being, someone would say ‘why not just one eye’ or ‘why not just one ear?’ Because our bodies needed to operate in 3 dimensions, and two eyes and two ears let us perceive in stereo.”

True, but two screens?

“Yes, it gives the student a stereo learning experience, a right brain for what they see and a left brain for the data they need.”

Well, they did not run me off for that. And in a few months I got the funding for what would be an early 1980s demonstration that machines and people could work together in learning CPR, something which on the streets, in broad daylight, was most crucial to life and death. There were more obstacles to come, as usual, but this much we knew to be true.

See the early CPR simulator in the World Book Encyclopedia.


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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Requiem for a Thunderboat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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The Market for Hitchhiking

Selling, as many salespersons will tell you, is all about closing a sale on something that a buyer is already inclined to buy. Rarely can even the best salesperson take someone cold off the street and sell them something they have absolutely no need for. Brassieres to football players would be a good example. For that thinking ahead of time, you need marketing. Marketing and Sales are at ends of a scale, as many people in business know

Everyone in every career — and every other relationship — needs to learn a little marketing. Now. Marketing includes identifying what group of people you want to approach with what kind of product, and perhaps where and when as well. In between is actually making, or procuring, that product. Selling takes all of those marketing decisions, which should have identified buyers and the products they want, and closes the sale of the product.

In my days as a hitchhiker, I learned mostly about marketing, and less about selling. The cars are coming quickly and have a few seconds to size you up. Most drivers will pass you by even if you are the most charming, upright, smiling, clean-cut person they have ever seen on the side of the road. That, I have explained elsewhere, is because most people who pick up hitchhikers were once hitchhikers themselves, or had brothers or sons or husbands or others who did so. So there is automatically some kind of relationship in hitchhiking, and that is the first most important rule of marketing: Everyone is not going to want what you are selling.

Once they stop for you, it is almost as you have closed the sale. Very rarely will anyone ask you to step back out of the car once you are in (unless you show them you are carrying a gun). However, beyond that, other good marketing concepts can increase a hitchhiker’s chances immensely. Finding a place on the edge of town where they are still moving slowly is clearly important. The faster they are moving, the less likely they are to put on the brakes.

I once thumbed on fast highway cresting a hill outside Helena, Montana where the national smokejumpers school is. I missed so many rides. Rather than walk a few miles back to slower traffic bordering Helena, I was thinking of going up to the door and volunteering as a smokejumper. These are forest fire fighters who parachute from airplanes into the mountains, to get on a far side of a developing fire. Short of the worst combat, it may be the most tiring and dangerous situation you can be in. (The kindly farmer who finally stopped for me was the first time fate probably saved my life. The second was when I was preparing to go on a Marine night patrol in Vietnam. My ankles cracked as they have all my life, and I was asked politely not to go on any night patrols.)

There are some standard roadside strategies that occasionally work. They say if you are a young man, you should carry a tennis racquet. This obviously signifies you are an upperclass college boy and would not do anyone any harm. If you are a young woman, you don’t have to do anything. You don’t even have to look at them. Women hitchhiking never have to give a thought to marketing, as they present no danger. Sometimes a man and a woman hitchhiking together will have the woman stand on the road until someone stops, and then once she is halfway in the door, she asks the driver if he has room for her boyfriend (now emerging from behind a nearby tree). Clearly a bait and switch.

One variation that worked well in Wyoming was when my little brother, Dan, came to visit. He wasn’t into girls yet and so that weekend I did not hitch to Yellowstone, but rather showed him around Wyoming by thumb. I was 19 and he was 14 and much shorter than me at the time, and it looked for all the world like I was babysitting. We had no trouble getting rides because the image was right. We even got a ride on one of the long haul trucks out in the middle of Wyoming, when these drivers had huge penalties for picking up hitchhikers. But they all must have had a little brother at one time, and at that time – lucky for us – one driver could not resist. Sitting up high above the plains was doubly enjoyable because my little brother was going through a “big trucks” phase where he went to the library and studied all the makes and models and variations in horsepower. This made for a deeply involved conversation between my little brother and the surprised driver, as I fell asleep against the door.

Marketing while hitchhiking provides fairly immediate feedback, as the cars shwish by and both the passengers and the drivers look straight ahead, rigorously, as if they know but don’t want to admit you are there and in need of a ride. Sometimes, I admit, I liked it if they felt guilty. Did they not know what a charming conversationalist I was? Or what a great altruistic impression this would make on their children who were otherwise coloring outside the lines and poking each other all day in the back seat.

There are times, however, when you cannot blame the drivers for not wanting to know you are there. It was the very end of the baseball season in 1961 and Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, both of the New York Yankees, were both nearing Babe Ruth’s home run mark of 60 that had lasted over 30 years. With only five games left in the season, Maris had 58 and Mantle had 57 home runs. Who would break the record of 60 first? And who would be the final winner in this “home run derby” as the sportswriters coined it. When I would get a ride back from Yellowstone and those college kid parties which ended the season, I would always hear the car radio going and would always be updated on the progress of Mantle and Maris in their epic drive to the finish – and most likely a new home run record.

And then suddenly the rides dried up. I was standing outside a mom and pop gas and groceries stop, where it would usually be very easy to get a ride. At least that is what my tried and true marketing savvy told me. But nothing was working. The drivers not only ignored me as they accelerated past, they positively scorned me. A few shook their fingers at me. Mothers made kids in the back roll up their windows and the kids put their noses to the glass as if they’d never seen a hitchhiker. I check the front of my clothing. Had I dripped grease on myself from my latest hamburger? Were my shoes on the wrong feet? I went into the mom and pop gas and grocery stop to sooth my angst with a small bag of Fritos and a coke, and hopefully get the days’ update on Maris and Mantle. But that is not what was on the radio. Instead, there was this urgent message from the National Safety Council:

“Due to the violent axe murder of a travelling family by a hitchhiker near Denver, Colorado, the National Safety Council is warning all motorist on this holiday weekend NOT TO PICK UP HITCHHIKERS!”

Even the mom and pop who ran the gas and groceries store looked at me rather strangely as I bought my Fritos and Coke. I had not, after all, parked a car at the gas pump, or anywhere else they could see. I had a small backpack I carried. I was a little scruffy from a weekend of parties. Mom looked me up and down.

“Where you from?” She asked. Something malevolent in me wanted to say Denver. But I didn’t.

“Working down in Edgerton. Oil exploration.”

“One of those hotshot boys?

“Yes, ma’am.”

Pop came in. “You guys make it up this way on weekend a fair bit.”

“Yeah, they only pay four nights. Saves the stockholders money.”

“Well, you’ve mostly behaved yourselves in Sheridan.” I seemed to be passing my evaluation. An idea bubbled up from my Fritos and Coke.

“Say, it’s going to be tough getting back down to Edgerton, even the 80 miles, by tonight. Do you suppose you have a couple of things that could help me?”

It wasn’t much, so they agreed. I bought three colored grease pencils from them, black, a yellow, and a blue. They gave me an old cardboard box and some heavy duty scissors to cut it up with.

This is the part of marketing about advertising. I had to take what I knew they were hearing on the car radio all weekend as they drove, and make it work in my favor.

Like the girls in high school we all hated, I prettied up my sign by using the blue to outline the yellow letters in the middle of an oval. Mom and Pop both looked a little askance at what they had abetted, but shrugged it off as one of those crazy hotshotters from Edgerton, who usually did no harm.

I went out to the side of the road with my sign, and held it up to the leery passersby. Even if they kept on going, their faces seemed to brighten and some of the kids even looked back out of the back windows and gave me a thumbs-up. The seventh car, with two carpenters on the way to Edgerton, picked me up laughing.

“Like your sign,” said the driver.

“Needed the right advertising,”

“Better keep it,” urged the driver, and motioned me to throw it in the back seat. The sign was about two feet by three feet, and looked something like the Good Housekeeping seal. Except for what it said:

“APPROVED” was the word in the center. And circling around the edges it read: “NATIONAL SAFETY COUNCIL.”


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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Telemetric Rhythm…Heartbeats by Phone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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The Mountains Don’t Care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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Adrift in Colombia…Sácalo

It’s hard to say how we discovered Manizales, or it discovered us. Perhaps because it was on the road from Medellin (which was just a lovely spring-like city then and not yet a drug-kingpin headquarters). Anyway, Brenda and I were just beginning our travels, and were thrilled to get our first South American jobs in Manizales. We stayed, and learned as well as taught.

The Centro-Americano was one of the US Information Agency outreaches, basically English language schools that sought to make a good impression on the populace whereas “gringos” (from the US) had not done so well. The Peace Corps was a similar undertaking. Not too many Americans wandered through Manizales, as it was in the mountains and had no touristy attractions. For us, however, it seemed an ideal first stop, and a respite from riding cheap dirty buses over bandit-infested mountain passes with partially eroded roads that had no guardrails. As I remember, some of these mountain passes had a collection box sponsored by one of the Saints. When the bandidos were active in the area, people filed off the buses to drop a few pesos in the “protection box.” At least if the bus was stopped those were a few pesos the bandidos did not get.  But then, perhaps it was easier just to rob the collection box.

Manizales is a city in one of the major coffee-producing regions in the Colombian Andes. It had its major city buildings on the top of a ridge, and the barrios – the poorer sections of town – lay down in the small valley below. The barrios had constant mudslides in the rainy season. In the dry season that made everything coated with dirt and dust. On the other hand, along the top of the ridge was the city where everyone did business, and where the “Ricos”  (rich people) had their in-town houses. Of course most of the Ricos had “fincas” (farms) where they grew coffee.

The administrator of the Centro-Americano, a diplomat named Applegate,  snatched us up when we went by to inquire about this facility. As native speakers we were most welcome there, as people felt we could offer real American English. Only a few of the most snobbish South Americans felt that British English was superior. This feeling was more prevalent in Europe, as I understand it, and probably with good reason. Many of the US troops stationed there could get gigs teaching English, and I heard of one English school in Europe where you could walk past the doors and hear instructors teaching the students to say “had did.”

Of course, our Spanish was very poor and remained so, though it is possible to pick up words and phrases that get you where you want to go. Brenda was more studious and careful in her approach, and thus more consistently correct. On the other hand, I used what few words I had to rattle on with people, and in the process learned somewhat proper Spanish pronunciation by imitation, which made me sound like I knew more than I did. Brenda was teaching bilingual secretarial students, an excellent fit because she had been an executive secretary in Barclay’s Bank in Africa and the Bahamas. This also meant that she gave them essentially British English, which was another gold star. Some of our pillow talk was on which was the correct thing to teach “We usen’t to go to the beach in the winter,” or “We didn’t used to go to the…etc.”

My small advantage here was that I had played soccer in college and now could go out with the Centro Americano team and hold my own. Scoring a couple of goals in the weekly games made for immediate friendships, and those were further cemented by the drinking we did after the games. Aguardiente was a South American anise-tasting liqueur that the players mixed with strawberry soda pop to make a truly awful concoction that led to some truly heartfelt conversations (, my Spanish truly notwithstanding). I taught with the same enthusiasm for English equally poorly at every level. Because of my light brown hair I got the nickname of “Mr. Armarillo” (Mr. Yellow.) There were entry level classes where we largely smiled a lot and pointed at things. And then there were were English conversion classes with doctors and lawyers and other Ricos, sometimes just to take a yearly trip to shop in New York or Miami. Also in those classes there were a few airline pilots, who needed English as the universal tower language. With this group I ordered Time magazines to read, and wrote short one-act plays in intermediate level English, for the class to produce. These one act plays were especially good for learning English, because each person had a role to learn and how his or her words interacted with others. Because they were simple one-act bare stage pieces, these plays eventually became easy-to-use director’s projects for college drama classes, and at one point even took the stage with the Second City in Chicago. Eventually several of these plays were published in a book called Rehearsals for Amageddon and then later as Not Quite Shakespeare, where they now reside on Amazon. This level of intermediate English also, much later in life, put me into contact with an international phenomenon called Globish. Funny how your youthful sins follow you forever.

Making a new home in a foreign city can be at least as foreign as the language. We found a room in the higher section of town, in a building owned by a family who also lived there on the bottom floor. We had first to buy a mattress. A new one was available cheaply in the barrio section of town, and so we bought it there and I carried it on my head up through the streets. Crowds gathered to see this crazy gringo pretending to be Christ with a cross. It was a long way up the hill from the barrios, but I was determined not to set it down. I’m sure there was some betting going on amongst the onlookers.

In that huge house where we had rented a room, one of their teenaged kids had a boom box and incessantly played South American rock (whatever that was) loudly through 24 hours. The landlady was not into giving tenants any hot water in the bathroom and so one of my fondest memories of Manizales was coming back dirty (and a little tipsy) after a Futbol (soccer) game and taking an ice cold shower. However, this landlady was OK in that she saved my life. I was grabbed one week by “La Grippa.” This was an undiagnosed disease that the Colombians were quite familiar with, and my immune system had never seen it before.

My temperature went up to 105 degrees and stayed there. I was in a daze and it seemed like I had formaldehyde in my veins. For a week the landlady came up with pitchers of this mixture of cane sugar, lemon and hot water which she called “Panilla.” After a few days of this high temperature, she told me I should be dead, but she kept pouring “panilla” down me every few hours. This went on for a week until finally the fever broke. Then – and only then – I was visited by some of my students from the English conversation classes, including a couple of doctors who had curiously stayed away until I was well. Perhaps they trusted the landlady’s folk medicine. Or perhaps they just preferred well patients to sick ones.

The Ricos were unlike the Ricos in the States or anywhere I had been. They interacted daily with the “Pobres” (the poor) on a daily basis, but always from a position of superiority. Actually I think it is like this in most of the world and, being from the US middle class, I just hadn’t seen much of that. For instance, I had heard of the student protests in South America, many of who were Marxist and vaguely espoused land reform and other leftist solutions. We in the US in the 60s thought these South Americans really knew how to do it. However, this was not at all the kind of activism I had seen in the US. Here, it was totally different. When students had protests it was usually the university students from rich parents and they used the protest as a social occasion. The girls put on their make up and the latest designer jeans for the occasion, and the boys took showers mid-day and slicked back their hair, all going to the protest to meet each other. The local police were notified of the protest and stood at attention in the town square. The police commander was on a white horse and, I swear, had a sword. The gathering students started shouting things at the police who stood firmly at attention.

Then a student or two would start throwing rocks. This was the signal for the commander to charge forth on his horse, and chase the students down the cobble stone streets. People gathered along the edges of the streets to watch this political entertainment. After chasing the students a few blocks, it looked as though the horse would catch the slowest girls and so, to delay the chase, the commander would motion to someone in the crowd and the police on foot would go in and drag  away some unsuspecting bystander. This allowed the students to escape and run to the private clubs that their parents belonged to, where of course the police – of a lower caste – could not follow. So it was all a show, a ritual between the rich and the poor, a bit of social theater to perk up the constant conversation on the streets.

On a few surprising occasions the theater became reality. One afternoon when the Futbol team was sauntering back after a win — and the necessary imbibement that followed — the streets of Manizales were crowded and a woman in her Land Rover moved through one avenue crowded with pedestrians who lingered in groups. The woman was dressed nicely in an Italian leather coat, and seemed impatient that something had stopped her large vehicle.

“Es un niño” (It’s a boy) was the mumble around as the crowd bunched around the front of the Land Rover. A little boy had been run over and caught up in the front of the large vehicle.

“Sácalo,” said the rich woman very coolly, expecting the crowd to do something. The boy seemed to be alive but tangled in the front suspension. “Sácalo,” she said. “Take it out.” The words could have also meant “Take him out,” but the way she said it definitely conveyed “Take it out,” whatever was this bothersome obstruction under her vehicle. She pulled off one glove and inspected her fingernails while she was waiting. Near the car, looking under it with the other bystanders, the mother was screaming.

Sometimes it is handy to have a Futbol team around. In this case, we all rushed to one side of the Land Rover and about ten of us lifted it up, with a little whimper from the rich lady who was much inconvenienced by the aggressive tilt, luckily held in place by her seat belt. Instantly some brave little man with no fear at all scrambled underneath, and disentangled the little boy from the front axel. He was pulled out limp but breathing. The bystanders hailed a cab and took him to a local hospital. Sweating mightily, the Futbol team lowered the side of the Land Rover back, the exasperated rico lady started the engine again. We stood back as she drove away, as if nothing had ever happened.

When I think of South America, I remember many scenic venues and many lovely people, but I cannot forget the Rico lady in her Land Rover whose command to the frantic bystanders was merely “Sácalo,”get it out, because “it” was interfering with her privileged life by being underneath her car.


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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A Court Martial for Corporal Connelly

The good soldier, Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz, told us that “War is politics by other means” but he should have known better. Politics, in my days and perhaps even in his, was certainly war by another means. In 1968, we witnessed the assassination of two dynamic political leaders in the space of a few months, and the disintegration of a political party at the Democratic convention in Chicago, that summer.

It was hard to know how to be a good soldier in Vietnam. I had fancied myself as a poet during college, and when I was in Quantico, I discovered that a famous poet was working in Washington D.C. as the Poet in Residence at the Library of Congress. James Dickey, who had received the National Book Award for his poetry (and later author of the book Deliverance) had also been a jet fighter pilot during the Korean War. So early the summer of 1968, with my orders for Vietnam in hand, I made an appointment with him at the Library and shared some misgivings. I asked him how, with his grasp of the terror and the beauty and the ironies, he had managed to stay sane in that environment. “Be dependable,” he said. He went on to say how being dependable was all he could hang onto, and all that those around him could expect of him. It seemed too simple. I was looking for profound from the poet. Perhaps I got it after all, and perhaps the great truths are that simple. The question was to become: Dependable to whom?

I arrived in country in time to join the 26th Marines after the first Tet offensive and just after the taking of Hue. We moved south and I was transferred to another regiment in DaNang, in a communications company that handled all the high-level communications for the 1st Marine Division in DaNang. My company commander was a Major Abercrombie. I was executive officer and as it turned out, the only one in town. Abercrombie caught helicopters to high stakes poker games all over Vietnam, and told me that I would be running everything. I should check in with him once a week if he had not returned. I had a feeling that during those weeks away he was stacking up a large amount of winnings.

The Marines in the communications specialty had the highest IQ scores. This resulted in two possible directions in Vietnam. Either they were in supreme danger in the bush, where every radio operator was a prime target, or assigned to a “Comm Center” where messages came in for Generals and other high-ranking staff officers around the clock. The Comm Center was pretty safe, until it wasn’t…if a VC rocket attack from Indian country was anywhere near accurate. There were some days it was safer in the bush.

I was just as happy to be out of the bush, and I began by instituting four 8-hour shifts, three for the segments of the clock and one on call for peak loads of message traffic. Traffic gets very busy during operations where trucks are running into ditches, and the Army is dropping artillery by mistake on the Marines, and shipments of rations arrive at the wrong ports and, somewhat ironically, planeloads of ammunition are unloaded and become planeloads of bodies for the return trip. I ran the communication center in DaNang for those couple of months, and in the course of the day inspected the living areas where the men slept. Connelly was a most interesting Marine. I noted from his books that he and I both read Dostoyevsky, but he read it in the Russian. Turns out, he had a Russian grandmother who raised him.

The communication center had sandbags high around its walls and over the ceiling, because rocket attacks from the Viet Cong were frequent, and the message center is critical to running a war anywhere. The quarters of several Generals and Colonels were nearby, with the comfort of wooden doors in the wood frame that held up canvas walls. The men came in on their shifts and I usually managed to be around at least a short time on each shift. Other times I was in my office or around in briefings. Connelly was especially good with top-secret cryptographic messages, which took careful decoding from a daily book. Occasionally those messages were between Generals on where they would golf on their next R&R, but that was secret information as well.

At the end of August, we rapidly got all the news about the Democratic Convention and its riots in Chicago.  It left an atmosphere of some consternation among the troops who wondered if America was coming apart, and a slightly different attitude of abandonment among the Generals, I think. I was somewhere in the middle. My college friends were rioting back there against many things, but mostly against Vietnam. Certainly I understood, and in some ways even supported them. There in DaNang we all watched from our separate eggshells,  but did not venture many opinions. Except Connelly, who was on the night shift.

The CID people called me in the middle of the night. CID was the Criminal Investigation Division and they were usually out of sight unless something bad was going on. “We’ve got your man Connelly here,” they said. Apparently they had been going through the burn bags from the communication center, which were to be burned in the morning. They had been looking for the mimeograph master for hand lettered signs that around midnight had been stapled to all the Generals’ doors. The sign had a Peace symbol, the round one divided in thirds. Its bold lettering said “What are we fighting for?”As there were few mimeograph machines in this combat zone, the CID did not have far to look.    There were only three Marines on that Comm Center night shift, and Connelly admitted to it.  When I got down to the CID headquarters, they had Connelly in handcuffs. He was looking pretty guilty.

“Sorry sir,” Connelly offered. There wasn’t much I could ask, and not even much I could say. I turned and told the CID people that I would take charge of Connelly and they said no I would not, and that I would be receiving a call from the General, which I assumed was the three star General of the 1st Marine Division, who I had never met and never wanted to meet. “Sorry, Connelly.” I said.

Just as I got back to my sandbagged office, intending to look up this situation in the Uniform Code of Military Justice manual, the phone rang.  It was indeed the General.

“Is Major Abercrombie there?”

“No sir, the Major is at a conference, in Chu Lai I believe. This is his executive officer.”

“Hon,” he was looking at the organization chart, I guessed. ”Well, Hon, I know all about Connelly and his posters and this has to be taken care of immediately. I want him written up on a sedition charges. Now.”

“Yes, sir.” This hit me like walking straight into a half opened door. Gulp. Sedition. And a General court martial for offenses in a combat zone.

“I will call you back early tomorrow morning. I want everything it takes to begin a General court martial immediately.”

“Yes, sir,” I answered. A General court martial in a combat zone could mean a firing squad for Connelly, especially in this tense atmosphere. I could see that the General might even be envisioning a mutiny of confused troops, and he was moving decisively…through me.

“Early in the morning, Hon.”

“Yes, sir.”

The fact was, I kind of liked Connelly and didn’t think this General court martial and maybe a firing squad would do anyone any good. Unlike most opinions  about soldiers among the college crowd, I did believe we were being paid to think, so I opened the Uniform Code of Military Justice manual…and studied. And studied all night. I went through everything that could possibly relate to Connelly’s case and sure enough it looked like sedition. So I had to get the exact wording from the UCMJ manual. As I studied, (and studied,) I realized that if I did not find the right passages for a court martial, the General and his legal staff would certainly do so in the next few days. I had to find something, something that made the situation better, but something legal, and more legal than anything else, something that I had no idea how to find.

And then I read the several definitions of sedition…and glory be…there was only one that applied. “Sedition can be defined as spreading seditious literature amongst one’s peers.” I swear, it was the only one that applied. Maybe the statement is there like that, even to this day. Connelly was not distributing this to any peer. I checked and double-checked the UCMJ for hours, and that was the only true statement. I could not go any further. I fell asleep at the small set of crates that made up my desk.

Early in the morning, the weak little phone rang in my ear. It was the General, as promised. “Ok, Hon, I need to start the court martial today. What have you got for me?”

“Well, sir, Connelly can be written up on sedition charges. But there’s one thing…”

“What’s that?”

“The UCMJ says it has to be spreading seditious literature amongst one’s peers. We’d have to promote him to General.”

I swear, there was a full thirty seconds of silence as the General took this in. Thirty long seconds began to seem as if the wire had been cut.

“General? Sir?”

“I’m here, Hon. Now listen up, you’ve got to do something, anything that can stick.”

“Yes, sir, “ I said, “But it may not make a court martial.”

“Well…well…” He was entirely flustered. “Do something…today.”

“Yes, sir, I will find something.”

He hung up with no further questions and no further directions to me. I assumed he would find some legal personnel to go over this and if he did, that person should come to the same conclusion I did. I was relieved that no one called with a further interpretation, and in the afternoon I wrote Connelly up on a non-judicial punishment for misuse of government property. His penalty — by the book –was one month’s pay and confinement to base (, which in a combat zone was relatively the safest place for him anyway). The CID reluctantly released Connelly to my custody and I chewed him out royally and docked his pay. He never knew the rest of the story.

My belief is that the General saw to it that I was transferred out to a combat unit, and then after that to another bush battalion near the edge of Cambodia. One day I was sitting there eating captured rice with my canned rations, and lo and behold who should report in to my platoon but…Corporal Connelly. The same Corporal Connelly. Sometimes the good news just never stops coming.


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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The Sports Editor…and The Kid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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Sunnydale School Greets The General

  • We rarely have experiences in the 3rd grade that relate to cataclysmic world events, and if we did, we probably would not know it at the time. In 1976, I was visiting Seattle again after several years away, and I got lost driving my rental car to the airport. It was not a case of knowing too little, but knowing too much. I had grown up not too far from the Seattle-Tacoma Airport, close enough that teenagers in those days would go out onto the runway and steal approach landing lights as souvenirs of a misspent youth. Now, it seemed to me that I remembered a short cut into the airport. I dodged down one of those off ramps you never take unless you are lost.

It was a short cut…a short cut in time, back to 1950 when my stepfather had moved the family from Minnesota to Seattle. Most of the flight crews tried to live near the airport. In Seattle, I was in the third grade in a new school, Sunnydale.

In those days, my stepfather Charlie was a flight engineer on the 4-engine Boeing Stratocruisers that flew regularly to Japan by way of stops in the Aleutian Islands. At one stop, Dutch Harbor, the U.S. military had been preparing for an attack by Japan, and had left whole supply depots at the end of World War II. It was just too expensive to ship them back to the States so all of those tools were left there in that lonely frozen place to deteriorate. Because the below-zero cold much of the time acted to preserve the tools, and even engines, that were just left there, they were in excellent condition – but it was still too expensive to ship them back and too expensive even to store them under guard. It was known that tools of all varieties and even small machines were there for the taking – if you could get there, and if you could carry them out. With the one night layover in Dutch Harbor each way, it was the ultimate do-it-yourself candy store, especially for the flight engineers, all of whom had been mechanics before. It was a mechanics’ Christmastime on every flight. I remember hammers and grinders and even a chain hoist brought home in pieces over several of his trips.

Anyway, now in 1976, meandering around what I thought would be a back entrance to the airport, I came upon Sunnydale School once more. Its landscaping was overgrown but seemingly still in use, on what had been the main road into Seattle from the airport. That road, I found, was now an insignificant backroad, but there…there was Sunnydale School, which was not insignificant at all. The front of the old grade school still had a lawn along the front and a short front wall of square stones in cement. I could remember that one morning in 1951 we third graders were told that General MacArthur was coming through, and we were herded out to sit on that wall, all in wonderment for what was about to happen. It was the first most of us had ever heard of a General MacArthur, but the teachers seemed to think it was a big deal.

The right general at the right time can determine the course of nations, and sometimes the world. MacArthur had been such a general. When the whole continent of Australia was frantic about a pending Japanese attack on her shores, MacArthur told the Australians that he would stop the Japanese before they could get to Australia, and his first major conquest was in the jungles of New Guinea. He was the five-star commander of the Pacific War. He took the surrender of the Japanese aboard the USS Missouri in 1945 and administered Japan’s dynamic rebuilding for 5 years. Then in 1950, when communist insurgent forces from the North of Korea, backed by Russian Soviet aircraft and tanks, were sweeping over South Korea, MacArthur took over as commander of the “police action” authorized by the United Nations.

From a position of near defeat, MacArthur made one of the most daring landings in history at the Korean port of Inchon, which had vicious tides and small windows of time to land. It could have been a catastrophe, but MacArthur cut off the Koreans and the Russians and the Chinese forces which were flowing down the Korea peninsula, and turned that “police action” into a near route of the communist North. He’d thwarted the communist takeover of the South, but almost immediately he was relieved of duty.  Against President Truman’s orders, MacArthur wanted to chase the Communist Chinese back across the Yalu river, and chase them to Beijing to conquer China as well. Feeling he was in the right, and in control of the battlefield, MacArthur defied President Truman, and Truman fired him for that insubordination. I’m not sure to this day whether he made his first Stateside landing back from Korea in Seattle. I do know that he flew into Seattle on that day in 1951, on the road from the Seattle-Tacoma airport to a speech and the Olympic Hotel downtown. I do know for certain that General MacArthur passed by us when I was a third grader at Sunnydale School.

Some people were already talking about putting MacArthur up for President in the 1952 election. We third graders barely knew what a President was, except that he was a grey-haired man with big glasses whose portrait was on our classroom walls. We did hear our parents’ friends who had come over to the house for drinks saying worse and louder things about Truman as the evening wore on.  I just listened, quiet in my bed.

On that morning in 1951 all of we third graders at Sunnydale School sat along the road on the low stone wall. As usual those days, an open rainwater drainage ditch lay between the wall and the roadway. The teachers had said that the whole school would be brought out to stand on the lawn, but that we third-graders would be on the wall in front. They gave the whole school practice in saying one phrase which the whole school would shout out on que. Getting all the third graders, not to mention all of the elementary grades of Sunnydale School, to shout the same thing at the same time took a lot rehearsal. We were out there at the front of the school practicing for half an hour before our big moment.

“When the General comes by he will have his window closed, but he will see you. And when he waves, it will just be moving his hand back and forth in front of his face. But he does know you are there and he will see you, even if he is looking straight ahead.” I’m glad they prepared us in this way, because our little third grade feelings might have been hurt by one who seemed so distant.  Could we have conceived that he probably had other things on his mind besides this gaggle of third graders in front of Sunnydale School?

“He’s coming, he’s coming.” Teachers were buzzing and kids were repeating. “You’ll see the caravan of cars in a moment.”

And sure enough, two motorcycles came around the bend on the road from the airport, followed by two small black cars, and then a large black limousine. We looked inside the limo at a gaunt man in an overcoat staring straight ahead.

“All right, get ready. On ‘3’ we shout it all together like we’ve practiced.” We could see our principal standing as if he was an orchestra conductor with his hand going up and down as his mouth said “1…2…3…” And then there was a joyful sound coming from the whole of Sunnydale School at once.

“HI GENERAL!”

We thought his eyes would turn. We had not heard anything much louder in our lives, but his eyes stared straight ahead. Then slowly, with the eyes of the world of third graders upon him, he started moving his right hand back and forth in front of his face, never looking to the side, but waving in this rigid way past the assembly of Sunnydale students along that roadway.

It was a back road then, in 1976, but as I sat there in my idling rental car I could see, and hear, the whole scene again… our part in American history when General MacArthur returned from Korea.


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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The Universe Calls, Unannounced

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m calling YOU…Grandpa John.”

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

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

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

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


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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Reveries of a Hitchhiker

Hitchhiking and our vast American roadscapes were made for each other. Possibly the concept of mindfulness was actually invented by a hitchhiker, because the living moment out there was as expansive as the 360 degree sky — and yet it all focused down into you at the lonely middle. There were long times between cars and even longer between rides. Wyoming was one State I thumbed across a lot, because at age 19, I was working with an oil exploration crew, and drawing “hotshot” pay.

This seismograph-exploration crew, out of Oklahoma City, drilled holes for dynamite from a rig on the back of a truck. The surveyors laid out the pattern of dynamite holes so that geologists could later “read” the underlying rock formations. These depth lines formed geologic patterns, with suspended  ink pens jiggling across large scrolling white paper in a trailer. These signals issued from the shock-reading “jugs,” devices which I had stretched in the manner of Christmas lights across miles of ridges and dry gulches. I planted all the devices on a grid, and picked them up, and moved them to another location – all day long. I ran the lines of jugs exactly and directly to the surveyors call, whether straight up a mountainside cliff or across a rattlesnake lair with them snapping at my high boots. I was a “jug hustler,” and a damned good one.

We were a “hotshot” crew, which meant we worked 16hrs for 4 paid days “on” with a hotel room, and had 3 days “off” on our own, a practice which we knew saved the company a lot of money. Not many people know that because that oil exploration needed miniaturization of electronics, General Instruments eventually became Texas Instruments, which first mass produced semiconductors and helped create the digital electronics revolution that then made small computers possible. A long sentence, and I didn’t even know any of that back in Wyoming.

So for those 3 unpaid “hotshot” days, I was on my own. It didn’t take me long to find out that Yellowstone Park was on the other side of the State. During the Summer college kids –boys but most especially girls – worked as guides and waiters and hotel maids. This smelled like good times, a siren smell, coming clear from across the alkaline plains where we looked all day for oil . So the minute my hotshot pay stopped, my thumb was out. We had a drink at night in one of the 7 bars, but I rarely met any of the normal townspeople except when I got a ride, because my goal was always – Yellowstone!

It was a time past when college men and drifters stood as equals beside those long open spaces, little more than a small pack and a bundle of aspirations in hand. There was a strong kinship, as well, with some drivers. Those drivers who had hitchhiked before, or who had sons or husbands who had hitchhiked seemed to have inherited an obligation. They tended, at least, to give my thumb a lookover, and on some occasions to stop. Sometimes you just had to be polite company. Numerous times, though, the hitchhikers struck up conversations with lonely drivers, and they became temporary friends. Occasionally you’d both would go to a bar at the driver’s destination, and you’d hear the local opinions about the state of the world. Occasionally a farmer would have a couple of days work and a tack room to sleep in, that is if you weren’t headed to Yellowstone. Of course, if you had that cross-state smell of youth in your nostrils and two days at most to find a place to crash and seek out the parties, you moved right along.

Of course, a significant number of the drivers who roared past a hitchhiker never felt that need, nor experienced that kinship. As I say, it was a time past, and now, in our next Century, we have all become very cautious…and for good reason. In the early 1960s, however, there seemed to be a Samaritan quality afoot, especially in those plains, which were so often stark and harsh.

Hitchhiking had its opportunities, but if you had to be somewhere for a job, you left early. You may have had good luck with long rides for a couple of weeks – and most rides in Wyoming are long ones – but you could never count on steady good fortune. Sometimes you got off at the turnoff to a ranch and then waited an hour just to see another car or truck. Sometimes it got dark on you and sometimes it rained. Sometimes the dust blew. And sometimes you had to string together many rides just to make it back.

All of which is to justify why early one Sunday morning I lifted myself from my comfortable pad on the floor of a hotel’s laundry room. On the road with no time to waste because I had to be 300 miles across the state by tonight, through the city of Casper and up to Edgerton where our trucks were and where my hotel room was. So I was out there outside the edge of Yellowstone Park, thumbing away at 8 that morning. A grand total of 3 cars passed me and then I had a ride…and what a ride. It was a 1962 Pontiac Bonneville convertible with a 450 horse 8 cylinder engine. The driver had slick-greased side burns coming out from his Stetson, and dark glasses so that I never saw if he actually had eyes. He clearly wanted someone to appreciate his wheels. He laid a forty foot strip of rubber and smoke as my bottom hit the seat and the door slammed shut. I knew the right thing to say: “Wow!”

“My Johnnie Ponnie. Some engine, huh?”

“Yeah, it is.”

“Far ya goin’?”

“Edgerton”

“Pretty far. I’m going to Thermopolis.”

Thermopolis. Shoshoni was halfway to Edgerton. Aha, but only about 50 miles from Casper. Hmmm….

Johnnie Ponnie at full roar covered the 200 miles to Shoshoni in about 2 ½ hours. The long, square Bonneville had to fill up its tank before heading north to Thermopolis. At 21 cents a gallon, I had an idea.

“Bet if got this tank of gas, I could talk you into dropping me in Casper.”

Greaseburns thought about it for a minute. “On one condition.”

“What’s that?.”

“You wait for me to get a case a beer for the seat.” Behind those dark glasses I know there was a crude twinkle.

“K.” (I have always been considered fairly easy in these matters.)

In those past days, before air-conditioned cars, the police in places like Texas and Wyoming considered it inhumane to make a person drive between towns without a cold beer in hand. The police smiled and waved as we entered their town at 100 miles an hour, respectfully slowing down – and stopping dead – for their one stoplight,  only to lay rubber out the other end. Finally, Jonnie Ponnie let me off in the center of downtown Casper.

This Sunday afternoon in Casper, Wyoming was over 100 degrees, which I had not noticed in the wind of the convertible. And not only that, the whole city was motionless. The Woolworths with their soda counter was closed. The few department stores were closed. Everything was still and very few cars even came through that intersection in the middle of town. I had no notion what to do next, until I saw the Orpheum Theater. The air-conditioned Orpheum Theatre. It was playing “The Guns of Navarone.” I had never seen the Guns of Navarone. There was no one in line at the box office, but the Orpheum Theater seemed to be open. I could feel its air conditioning gushing out to greet my 100 degree armpits. I bought a ticket and went it. The noon show was just beginning, and I could hear the stereophonic music booming as I opened the door. The theater had about 1000 seats, and every seat was empty.

Then, with the voice of James Robertson Justice relating how the Guns of Navarone guarded the shipping channels near Greece, I counted down the exact number of rows and counted to the exact middle, and took a seat absorbed by the huge screen and blaring music. This was a good way to spend an afternoon, I thought, my senses soaking up this almighty symphony. Alone.   And then the lobby door opened and a slit of light came through. What follows is the truth.

One of the local cowgirls came in with a large bag of popcorn in one hand. By the door’s glint of light I could see thigh-tight jeans and a cowgirl hat and a short sleeved plaid shirt.  I had never seen her before, not hitching through Casper or anywhere else. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she counted down the rows, as I had, and then, as I had, counted seats right into the middle of the theater. My eyes, of course, had been following her since she entered. She sat right down beside me, and held out her popcorn.

“For a minute there,” she said, “I didn’t think I’d find a seat.”

Okay, I know you don’t think this is true. But it is. And just to show you, I’ll let you figure out your own ending.  I’ll keep my ending to myself, but I will say it was pretty special and it gave me a great impression of Wyoming on the whole.


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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The History of a Millisecond

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somehow in that millisecond or two I understood that if I accelerated – rather than braked — and then cramped the wheel I would spin my car sideways onto the narrow shoulder but not plunge over the cliff, because it had to be timed exactly to allow the drunk to nick my rear end and spin my car back forward onto the narrow shoulder. Each few inches were crucial to salvation. I swear this again and again: How I deserved to comprehend the solution — and then execute it perfectly — is beyond my pay grade as a human being.

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

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


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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Madman Muntz and the Children’s Crusade

Much of the known world does not know what the world would be like without television. And despite years of breakthroughs and Philo Farnsworth patents and World’s Fair demos, Television never seemed to catch on. Thus a phenomenon which was created in the 1920’s was still a mirage to the next generation. My generation. However, with the help of Madman Muntz and Flash Gordon, we solved the dilemma and started a children’s crusade for television.

The dilemma came down to this: Television was perfected but nobody had one. They had no reason to; there were no programs to watch. Milton Berle and Jimmy Durante and Fred Allen and a host of radio personalities, as well as Superman and the Lone Ranger, all waited anxiously for advertisers to pony up the money to take their shows to the television screen. But…the advertisers were hesitant to put up the money because (back through circle) nobody had a TV set.

Well, a few rich people had TVs, just for the novelty. In our neighborhood in Minneapolis, Dickie Mortensen’s dad was a building contractor and they got one. All they could see on the screen was the Indian test pattern and about an hour a day of local programming plus a few movie serials that kids usually saw on Saturdays with their double feature and cartoons. Flash Gordon was a favorite black and white serial, with rocket ships that sputtered along as if they ran on baking soda, and Ming the Merciless always trying to control the Universe, along with his vampy daughter. Many the night we other not-so-rich kids would sneak in from our usual neighborhood marauding to gather in a ring of eager little faces around the edges of Dickie Mortenson’s living room window. This marvel held us transfixed, until Dickie Mortenson’s dad would run us off. Flash Gordon became the legendary symbol of the TV Have-Nots.

Television would later be the pattern for two other Children’s crusades of the American midcentury, against littering the highways and against their parents’ smoking, where children all of over America, and much of the world, found that they had immense power to change the world. After they grew up with TV, children would shout “Litterbug” when parents would throw garbage out the window, and within a year in the 1960s, garbage strewn highways became pristine thoroughfares. With smoking in the 1970’s: children would mimic the anti-smoking ads on TV and wretch when their parents lit up cigarettes. Often they would steal the cigarettes and flush them down toilets. The mediaeval Children’s Crusade was a bad idea that ended in squalor and carnage, but here, in our 20th century, we kids got it right. In America, there were no greater activists than we children. The very first time we used our unique power to crusade for a better world was in 1950, when we stepped forth in song to break that wicked circle of no TV sets, no ads, no shows, thus no TV sets.

To understand how America’s children became so empowered as to bring on a national phenomenon and a record-breaking advertising medium, you have to know a little about Tom Mix. We of the radio generation would listen in the afternoons and evening after school to the radio dramas of Tom Mix, Bobby Benson and the B-BAR-B riders, Red Ryder, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, The Green Hornet, the Shadow, The Whistler, The Count of Monte Cristo, Sergeant Preston of the Mounties and his dog King, and so many more. It was a fantastic set of images in kids’ minds as they listened to the Count of Monte Christo in massive swordfights (done with clicking spoons, we know now), all in their ear’s imagination.

Of course, the commercial breaks for these shows were aimed at children. Here is how one would go with Tom Mix: The actor himself would take a break and talk straight to his radio audience. “Kids, “ he would say, “you deserve to have Instant Ralston for breakfast, and here’s what I want you to do. When you are at the grocery store with your mother, and when she isn’t looking, slip a package of Instant Ralston into the shopping cart, down in the bottom somewhere. Then, when the cashier is pulling out each item, your mother will see the Instant Ralston, and say she isn’t buying it. Then you should tell her how healthy Instant Ralston is, and if she still tells you to put it back, you should tuck the Instant Ralston package in your arms and lie down on the floor and kick and scream until she buys it to stop the embarrassment. I want you to do this for me, little buddies.”

A few of us did it, and a few of us regretted it because we were not yet a generation freed from spanking.  Then the groups of parents complained to the store, and eventually advertisers reluctantly withdrew that ad.  However, creative minds immediately went to work on dozens more. We kids were the avenue into the cupboard for cereal grains with a higher markup than pizza.

Which is where Madman Muntz came in. Mr. Muntz had a factory that made TVs, and he wanted to sell just enough TVs that advertisers would realize it would be the greatest marketing tool ever, and also realize that they had to fund the Big Talent in the radio wings so people would watch the new advertisements. This is where Madman Muntz, who must have been listening to Tom Mix, took out radio commercials to appeal directly to the children of America, asking them to lead the crusade to have their parents buy a television for the household. At some point in October of 1950, Muntz himself came on the radio in shrill tones, saying he was Madman Muntz and he was calling on every child in American to ask for a TV for Christmas. He said he wanted children to sing this song, over and over until their parents relented to buy a television.

It was sung by various Long Island kids who they must have picked up at a New York ad agency. To parents the radio kids sounded bratty. To we kids they sounded like freedom fighters. It must have been intentional casting, because it was a tone every kid could mimic to perfection. The song went: “I WANNA TELEVISION CHRISTMAS…” and that’s all. Every kid could sing it and every kid did. “I wanna television Christmas.” The radio gave them the whiny key and the words and they were off, through the months before Christmas, singing up the hallways and during their homework. When mothers sent them off to school “I wanna television Christmas” was being hummed in four parts by kids who hated their music lessons. It was such an annoying song that parents finally knew the only way to stop it: Get the family a TV for Christmas. Muntz TVs were less than $100 a set, and for the average besieged parent, that was a bargain.

So that is how television finally got started. Madman Muntz sold 400,000 televisions that Christmas, and the log jam broke. Texaco sponsored the Texaco Theater with starring Milton Berle, and soon Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca had American laughing to their variety sketches, and the baseball and football leagues televised their championships. Kids…well, kids got to see Superman flying over Metropolis and the Lone Ranger riding the plains. Kids got to see Howdy Doody and Disney’s Mouseketeers and many old western movies buried in the vaults from the 30s and 40s. Television and kids were made for each other, and kids caused the miracle of national television. You heard it here.


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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