The Run up Dai La Basin

Just as Hamlet had a “play within the play”, there are often business within businesses, and “wars within wars.” Hamlet wanted to win the conscience of the King, as I remember. Likewise, there are many ways to “win” within a business that have nothing to do with profit. Wars also stress winning, (at least until recently) and at Dai La Basin we had a little war within a war. This war was over my mustache.

Around Christmas 1968, I was a junior officer transferred into a Marine battalion that was guarding the perimeter of Da Nang City and its airfield. This battalion had been in heavy combat south of Da Nang, and its battalion commander, call him Lt. Colonel Robbins, had driven his men to take hills in the old Marine Corps fashion. A lot of lives were lost and then the hills were handed over to the Army which promptly lost the hills and the Marines had to take the hills back, losing even more men. This was a sore point among junior officers, who hated losing good men to salve a battalion commander’s ego.

Of course the rumors abounded about Col. Robbins and how he got his Silver Star. Apparently one night his command post on a hill was being attacked and he was parading around shouting meaningless orders and showing he had no idea what to do. In the mayhem of rockets incoming and Viet Cong sneaking up unprotected ravines, the operations officer, a major who was a Mustang (which is the name of someone who was promoted from the enlisted ranks) did know what to do, and told the battalion commander to shut up and get in his ass in his hole, and he’d take care of this. With precision this Mustang major readjusted useless fields of fire and called in artillery too close for comfort that kept the enemy off the hill. When Colonel Robbins peeked out of his hole, it was all over, and the command post was saved. Then Robbins stood up and strutted around and surveyed the situation and called it good, while the Mustang major reached for a much-needed whiskey flask. Robbins told the Mustang major he should watch the insubordination stuff, and the Mustang major said he would. They both received Silver Stars.

The battalion I was joining was called in to plug a hole in the perimeter around Da Nang. Two nights before the North Vietnamese broke through straight into the streets of Da Nang, which was an old French city and the second largest Port in Vietnam. The NVA were having a riotous good time shooting the place up, because anyone who could defend the city was out on the perimeter and not inside. But there was one thing they had not counted on: The First Marine Division Band.

The 1st MarDiv Band played a lot of John Philip Sousa pieces at military receptions for visiting US Senators who wanted to say they had seen the war. Of course one war within the war was the maneuvering for more funding from Congress, and so the 1st MarDiv Band was essential to that task.They were career Marines, and all Marines have to qualify once a year with their basic weapon, in this case an M-16 which was clean as new because the Band had little use for them. Until now. It looked like these musicians were the only ones inside Da Nang with any weapons. So they laid down the trombones and bass drums and grabbed their clean, clean weapons and piled into jeeps and took off for the NVA. Meanwhile, the NVA invaders couldn’t really achieve anything, and the sight of the 1st Marine Division Band coming down the street at them weapons blazing made them think it was indeed time to leave.

So that was the story going around with great pride in those guys in the Band who had never picked up a weapon. They’d run the NVA out of Da Nang when there was no one else to do it.

Dai La Basin was the carved out inside of a hill that overlooked Dai La Pass. In the year before during the Tet Offensive, NVA troops in large numbers had broken through at Dai La Pass. This was a devastating dishonor to the career of any career officer in command. When the action was over, the commander of that Battalion called his troops to attention, and then to “order arms”. The troops thought it was odd that they would have an inspection now, but stood rigidly with their weapons to the front. With stiff military precision, in front of the whole battalion formation, the dishonored battalion commander drew his own .45 and blew his brains out.

The inside slopes of Dai La Basin were where our troops made hooches out of panchos and slept on the ground next to holes they had dug for the surety of incoming mortars into that Basin. One of the other junior officers showed me the switch backed trails that were cut into the side of the basin. They said Robbins ran that 3 mile course every day, up the switchbacks, across the top just below the ridgeline, and back down. He had the record, they said. None of the junior officers had beaten it.

I was an extra officer for the moment as they had no open platoons to lead, so I just found the Officer’s Club, which was a slightly better constructed group of boxes with a thatched roof. I had already heard about Lt. Colonel Robbins, who held court for his junior officers there like some medieval Baron. All of them had been drinking quite a bit when I walked in. I told him I was reporting in and he immediately noticed my mustache.

He spoke with a broad accent from the Virginia hills. Some said Robbins was a hog farmer who couldn’t make it there, so he joined up. “Are you a fairy, Hon?”

“Uh…No, sir.”

“I think you are probably a fairy. You know they are a lot of fairies have mustaches. But none of my officers have mustaches. I think I’d better not see that mustache on you next time I see you.”

“There is a problem with that, sir.”

He squinted through his whiskey glass. “Son, I’m your battalion commandah, and I don’t see any problem at all when I order you to take off that mustache.”

“It’s about the Geneva Convention sir. My picture on my Geneva Convention card has a mustache, and the fine print says the card is not to be modified.”

“But it doesn’t say your face can’t be modified.”

“Well, I was thinking, sir, you really don’t want any fairies in your battalion. And someone who could beat your record running Dai La Basin certainly couldn’t be a fairy.”

Everyone was really drunk, and now they were really entertained. He stood up, wobbly, and started to tower over me as I sat. “You’re saying you can run faster than your battalion commandah. None of these here can.”

“If I beat it, I keep the mustache.”

He reddened; he was incensed. I wondered if my short career was on the decline. But then he decided he liked the idea. “Hell yes, Hon. But when you lose you not only have to shave that thing, but you come back here and tell everyone you are indeed a fairy.”

We set the next morning for my run and although no one had announced this to the battalion, in the hooches up and down the Basin trail they were all up and standing alongside the trail. There was more to this than the run. They hated this battalion commander for the way he wasted lives in battle, strutted about as if he were their lord. Just the fact that I had challenged him made me one of the safer officers in Vietnam, one of them told me in confidence.

Robbins was holding a stopwatch as I started up the switchbacked trail. I had done the required running in officer training, but I had also been left wing on the college soccer team. The left wing is always racing down the full length of the field and it is estimated that they sometime sprint 9 miles within a game. Some game, this.

I dug dug dug like a goat to get altitude and all along the way troops were saying “let’s go, sir.” “Let’s get him, sir.” And as I was cruising along below the ridgeline on the top someone along the top said I was 10 seconds behind his time. Then it was down, down, down the switchbacks, letting my legs stride out and glide and make up time time. And all way the troops were clapping and cheering. As I neared the finish a huge cheer filled the basin, the cheer rolled through all the hooches and buoyed me as I finished. The troops were jumping up and down and shouting. I’ve had applause a few times, but this was crazy jubilant applause that welled on and on as I crossed the finish line.

“I didn’t get the time. The watch stopped.” Robbins was trying to welch on this in the face of the deafening battalion voicing their revenge in an unmistakable din.

The Mustang major sidled up to Robbins, with his own stopwatch. He showed the result. ”That’s OK, sir. I’ve got it.”

Robbins shook his head. “What is it.?”

“He beat your time by 8 seconds.”

“So I’ve got a fairy on my hands,” said Robbins, glowering at me.

“Looks like it, sir. But I’ll keep it trimmed.”

Wars come and wars go, but this mustache was hard-won, and I kept it for a while.


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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Staring Down the Money

 “Compensation” is the American business way of saying “pay”. If you look at that word, it would seem to mean that because you don’t like work (whatever it is), you have to be compensated for those bad feelings, and for the amount that you don’t like it. The flip side of this premise is that any kind of work is OK as long as you are compensated. Everyone, it is said, has his or her price. But what is more true, I found, is that we each decide how to live, based on the times and conditions before us.

My American Heart Association CPR simulator, which used video discs and a manikin controlled by computer, gained enough notoriety in 1985 at various US trade shows to also be known to China. The General Electric Personal Computer Division asked me to spend a week there showing the technology to the Chinese. Not just any Chinese, as it turned out. The 5th Party Congress of the People’s Republic of China brought all of the key representatives from all over China to a few weeks of planning their future. Little did I know how key they would be, or how I much would figure into their future.

Luckily I had a passport, but the critical item I did not have was a business card in Chinese. I had just started my own business in Interactive Media and the Heart Association allowed me to represent the system I had built for them a year earlier. I had about 3 days to get such a card. I took the phrase “Interactive Media” to the Chinese Language department at the University of Washington. I had no time to double check with other translators. It was supposed to say “Interactive Media” but It could have said “This person is an idiot from the West,” as far as I knew.

There were three days left before I boarded the plane to China, and I had no cards which was, in Asia, like having no existence at all. So I looked around Seattle phonebooks for someone who could print up 100 cards with whatever it said about me. The front desk person said yes they did things in Chinese for clients, and I should stop by and talk with them. I did, and they were slick young businessmen who told me of the high speed presses they had. When I said I wanted 100 cards to go to China with, it looked like not such big business to them. They said they could have this small order in a couple of weeks. I was crushed.

Fortunately there was a stooped little man in a black printers apron who had been listening at the periphery of our meeting. I thought he was some shop guy. I was wrong. He was the father. Without upstaging his sons attempts to make big business, he came in his short strides over to me. He could see I was crestfallen. “How soon?” he said.

“Two days, so it looks impossible.” I said, from my fallen crest.

“Maybe not…impossible. You have cards?” He said. I said I did.

“I can make you Chinese woodblock print for the back of your cards.”

No kidding. A printing method that far proceeded Gutenburg, smack in the middle of the new computer age. “Could you…Please?”

And that is how I walked into China with head held high, with my own wooden block print saying “Interactive Media.”

Apparently the invitation sent was signed by cabinet level ministers, because in Shanghai I was rushed through a customs that looked like an upscale refugee camps. People must have been there for weeks as officialdom stamped things and check them again and then closed down for yet another day of waiting. But as I say, the people escorting me shouted something in Chinese and waved whatever official visa they had given me, and waters parted.

It seems there was a reason behind all this. They did take me to the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs, but they also worked me about 10 hours a day making demonstrations in the grand Beijing Hotel of my computer driven video and the CPR system, which fascinated them. In the evening we would go out with people from everywhere in China who were representatives in Beijing for this 5th Party Congress, and each section of the country would order their specialties, like thousand day old fermented eggs from the South, and a horses spinal cord butter-basted and fried from the North. It was all good. Finally, on the next to the last night I was there, we had private showings for the top ministers. One of them, the minister for Technology, said he really liked what I had shown, and wanted to do that sort of thing for China. However, he said, he was a little short of cash. I joke – a little – that I could probably trade for oil. He said he would try to think of a way.

The next after all the ordinary demos for the day, they had me stay later to do private demos for even higher ranking ministers. The translator had it down by now, but at one point a pudgy little minister, the Minister for Finance, leaned back in his chair and said “Hey, I don’t need the translator. I was a record executive in L.A.” I learned later that many young American Chinese had given up successful careers to join the revolution, and become part of the new China.

Also among the ministers on this last evening in the Beijing Hotel was the minister for Security. After the majority of high ranking officials at the evening session had gone, the ministers for Technology, Finance, and Security gathered in a little cluster at some distance from me, deciding what they would say. Finally the minister for Technology came over alone. “We would like to know if something could be done,” he said, carefully. I said I would try to give him an answer.

“We want to put every Chinese on one frame of the videodisc. Then we make relational data bases to store like a ‘juke box. Can this be done?’”

I almost giggled when I heard him say “juke box,” but then I began to put it together. This was a big project. It would have every Chinese in a system which could be drawn up immediately.

“Yes, I think so.” I said, calculating like crazy in my mind.

“How much can it cost?”

“Well,” still stalling and calculating because I knew he would need an answer very soon. “It would take an almost unlimited commitment by China of workers to compile this mass of data, and you would pay for all the equipment and incidentals involved.”

He nodded. “ OK, and how much does it cost?”

1 billion people, each on a disc frame of data, 54,000 frames per disc. 200 videodisc players linked together. I figured about $50 million for the job, and $20 million profit. This was for everyone in China. “It could be done for about $70 million, “ I said, somehow without gulping as I said it.

The minister of Technology went back to the huddle, and the minister of Security was looking pleased and the minister of Finance was looking dour indeed, But he finally must have said OK. The minister of Technology started back to me, but I had also been working some things out in my head. I had never made much in my life, and my little startup was struggling on every thousand dollars that came in the door. I had remortgaged my house to make payroll, and yet the wolf that eats small companies was braying out in the street once more.

As the minister of Technology came closer, I knew he was pleased to come back with positive answers from the other ministers. And yet I already had started another calculation, a very different calculation.

“Yes,” said the minister of Technology, firm in my eyes, “we want you to do it.”

At that point some different calculations flashed past my mind, like some videodisc frames going 30 frames a second, each with an individual life, and each individual life in the palm of my hand. I wondered if someone had had that opportunity to catalogue Jews in Nazi Germany, so they could be categorized and located and indexed and filed away dead. I saw something in the future I did not like.

“I did say that it could be done for that amount, but I didn’t say I would do it. “

The minister of Technology looked severely non-plussed. Who was this in front of him? What was this person saying? “You would not do it? For $70 million dollars?”

“Actually,” I said, “This is not the sort of thing my company does. You can see from my demonstration that we are mainly into lifesaving and other training.”

“But you maybe could do it.”

“Probably, if that was the kind of thing we do. But it is not. I am very sorry.”

He carried the message to the back of the room and the meeting closed very quickly. They were looking at me like this was no businessman that they had ever seen.

Of course, they were right. I ended up as a mediocre businessman at best. My kids had to work through college and as it turned out, my company did well enough for several more years…until it didn’t.

That China opportunity was in 1985. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre a few years later, the ministers of Security wanted to round up every dissident and the families of every dissident, quickly, before all the enemies of the state could disperse. However, when they really needed it, they didn’t have enough data in hand, or in a cohesive relational data base that could be drawn up quickly by computer. Something like what I didn’t do.

So it remains clear that I did not make a large success of things, and the few who’ve heard my story said well clearly something could have been done, some compromise could have been made. I guess they were right. In this case I probably just lacked the imagination and the ability to compromise when I saw what lives would clearly be compromised. I wish I could say that I slept supremely well, as I saw those solutions and compromises — and money — go by the board, but even at that point I knew that soon, very soon, someone else would do it for them.


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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Dostoyevsky and the Anadarko Indians

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

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

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

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

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

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

I raised my hand.

“What will that be?”

The Possessed, by Dostoyevsky”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Borrrring.”

“Death in front of the class.”

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

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

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

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

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

Good old down home folks.

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

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

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


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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Earning the Digital Pinocchio

Things do not often happen for the right reasons, or in the right order, or to the right people. Usually there have been years of fits and starts until the constellations align, and something truly begins. Such was the case of the first computerized CPR simulator. A tremendous number of people wanted to learn Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation, or CPR, and a tremendous number of cities and fire departments and police departments and business wanted them to learn it. The Gallup Poll had the number of people who desired to learn CPR at about 90 million. But the logistics befuddled everyone. On a non-profit budget, the Heart Association (and eventually the Red Cross) had to rent rooms and sign up students and provide good instructors, even when the average “burn out” rate on those instructors was about five such courses. Even techies who knew in 1977 that the digital age that was coming, could provide no idea how to computerize that CPR experience that could save thousands of lives during the few minutes left after a heart attack..

I meandered through a few interesting careers before I found myself as the National Training Manager of the American Heart Association. Not counting a few days packing slug bait and a few years in the military, and a few years teaching college, I began doing real work for a few years at Texas Instruments, and then landed as the National Training Manager of the American Heart Association, which had recently departed New York City and landed in Dallas, Texas. It was 1977 and I knew they would need electronic medical journals and interactive training, but I accepted that I would first have to make a new kind of training department, one that defined results and worked backward to create classes that produce them. The old pros were leery of me from the start. I was “the next one” when they had had five training managers who had been unsatisfactory. The problem with that position is that they always promoted from within and every new manager had a trailer-full of political baggage, and in truth, few ideas how to add value to the task.

No such baggage on me, I traveled to talk with several Affiliate directors and asked them what they needed done in the training area. I did that in each of four regions and the drill was mostly the same. They then, one by one, told me how exactly I should do it and which of the other directors not to listen to or otherwise watch out for. On top of that festering pile of politics at every turn, their turnover rate was about 3 people per year in each position. So obviously these people going through the revolving door needed training. From training in the Marines, I guess I sensed it was time to cut through the froth and blather.

“OK,” I said finally, “What’s your biggest problem?”

“Fundraising,” was the chorus in five-part harmony. Eyes rolled at stating the obvious once again.

“So you want your new people to raise more money?”

This seemed always to bring more nods. They started to venture all their theories, but I cut them off.

“What is the single thing you can think of that would help that the most?”

Heads scratching, most finally agreed that they longed for their young managers to be able to write a fundraising plan to coordinate staff and volunteers and local businesses in one concerted effort. Their problem was that writing the plan was onerous and fragmented and never seemed to get done even halfway by the fundraising season. This left many volunteers thinking this was all disorganized chaos, and they walked. Repeat over several years. They’d never done a good one….Never even seen one.

“What if they could write the whole fundraising plan in one weekend?”

Consensus was that that would help a lot. So we agreed to design fundraising courses that would achieve that. They wanted to know how I could do that and I said I would design a simulated community, and they would write a plan, in class, and have it graded by experienced fundraisers. They would attend three days of lectures and group work to learn items that should be required in a fundraising plan. On the third evening, a Wednesday, each would be given a packet which contained a 20 page description of a community, with demographics, income sources, governmental structure, major businesses, language groups…the sort of thing I suspect the FBI gives you if you are a new agent in town.

At five o’clock, the students received that packet, two large pads of legal paper, and a manila envelope. I told them that by five o’clock the next afternoon they would turn in their papers. On each page, and on the envelope, they were to make some visual mark, like a flower or shape, so that they could identify their package, but no one else would know whose package it was. The reason for this was, again, politics. In this manner, each individual alone would get his package back, hand-corrected and annotated by long time fundraisers for the Association. They would thus have heavy feedback, but no favoritism among the grading group, and no recrimination from their bosses, at least not from any information supplied by us.

The young student/staff members took it quite well after the shock of realizing they would have to do the equivalent of a large term paper in about 24 hours. However they managed to do it — working together with papers spread the length and width of their motel rooms — they completed this “death march”, and handed in their manila envelopes full of detailed planning for fundraising campaigns in this “mock” city in their state Affiliate.

The real groaners were the fundraisers who used to sit around the bar and tell fundraising stories into the night until trainees were able to slip away. That was the formal “training” in the old days.

Instead, with several of these plans in each of their hands, I asked the fundraisers to go line by line and critique each thought, and say what could make it better. Some of them wrote many sentences per page until they realized they would be up all night as well as those students who had just been through the 24 hour “death march” (for which I became famous and despised by all). I had to keep all the graders happy and awake, bringing in beer and pizza at first. However, as the early morning hours grew in number, I was bringing in coffee and napping pillows.

The students would be in the main conference room to receive their papers back at 9am that Friday morning and receive a general critique by the fundraiser/graders. No one know who had written what or who had graded what, but of course each student knew his or her performance in great detail. The students who had partied all night and the fundraisers who had graded all night were red eyed and a bit shakey but overall, surprised at what they could accomplish.

After giving about six of these classes the first year, to thirty students in each class, the national fundraising went up 30%. The Association was sold on my training, and at that point I asked the Board for money to make a CPR simulator to standardize procedures and allow the outreach of a course that had been plague by the logistics of time and place and the availability of instructors.

CPR courses used a manikin for practice, and my vision was to computerize it. Many physician volunteers had helped in this process, but several of the Board members vocipherously balked when I said I would need $100,000 to do it.

“How do we know it will work?” They asked.

I gave them a lot of studies on flight simulators because there were no directly relevant results anywhere else. I even mentioned that the fundraising training was a sort of simulation that had worked. That was not the ironclad assurance they wanted. However, they knew they must try to solve the problem of giving mass instruction of CPR, and they very much wanted to show that they were doing something.

“Yes, but how do we know it will really work?”

“Because I say it will.”

That was apparently the right answer because, I’m sure partly because of the fundraising success, they wanted someone they could trust who would commit to a solution completely. Luckily my previous job was with Texas Instruments, where I learned how they Design to Cost. The world was about to see both a computerized CPR learning system, and one of the first important demonstrations of the new videodisc technology. It would also make me slightly famous.


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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The Pitcher from Out of Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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Their Place on the Bench

In 1985, China beckoned and sucked me up within one frantic week. Occasionally an oddly urgent opportunity whisks you away to another world, and when you are there, gaping at the newness and strangeness, you realize something about your own world that you never would have.

I’ll tell you more background at another time, but when I woke up in the Beijing Hotel after a long flight from Seattle, the six lanes of traffic going into the city were solid bicycles. They tell me now that,  after 30 years, all those lanes are solid with cars. My task at that time was to demonstrate my CPR simulator, complete with videodiscs, to representatives from all over China who had come for the 5th Party Congress from every corner of the country. These were obviously the movers and shakers of the emerging country: their poise and intelligence were obvious straight through my barriers of culture and language.

All day long I demonstrated my CPR system with a translator, and allowed many of the audience members to come down from the surrounding benches to try its interactive learning, with a graphic screen printout of their performance in depth and rhythm of compression on the manikin. I also demonstrated a videodisc simulation that helped store managers spot shoplifters by their movements in the backgrounds of various scenes. The viewers  would stop the video and identify the individuals they felt were shoplifting. If they caught the shoplifter, then in a video branch the shoplifter would show his or her moves in more detail. The CPR simulator drew people’s appreciation because of its hands-on interactivity, but the interactive shoplifting videos elicited unquestioned smiles of understanding. Crime, it seems, may be the universal language.

All week long my Chinese hosts moved people in an out every hour, and I wondered how much of China they had invited. One thing I did notice was the many old soldiers in stiff grey uniforms who sat on the top row of the rollout benches set up in the Beijing Hotels ballroom for these demonstrations of Western technology. At first I thought they were some kind of police force, but most were very aged and some had to be helped up to their top rows and back down by the younger representatives, all with the utmost respect. The translator answered my question as to who they were. They were the survivors, the victors from the Long March.

No history of modern China could ever leave out the Long March. The small communist cadre was on the verge of being eliminated by the old government, and they fled to the countryside. Over a period of years these ragtag forces fought battles with the pursuing government troops and at times were reduced to eating tree bark. But over a few years,they persevered in the outer regions of China, and collected up thousands of peasants and believers in their cause of a new China. And when they returned to Shanghai and Beijing and Hong Kong a few years later, the People’s armies had swollen to hundreds of thousands. The remnants of the Chiang Kai-Shek’s army fled to Formosa (now Taiwan), and the new China was born under the General Chou Enlai and the President Mao Tse Tung. So these old soldiers in grey were the last of them, the veterans of the Long March and most honored in China as they sat, some with vacant stares, on the top row of benches in my several presentations all week long.

From some corner of my memory I remembered being a  nine-year-old with my older cousin Tharpe in Cushing, Oklahoma. We walked around the small town, some of whose roads were still red dirt like the surrounding countryside. There was a very small city park there, and a bunch of very old men in cowboy hats and boots, sitting on the line of park benches and speculating all day long on what the next day’s weather would be. I commented to Tharpe that this looked liked some kind of old folks’ home. He glanced around, hoping no one had heard my innocent comment, and then leaned into me and told me the real story.

“See that little guy on the end of the bench. The one whittling?”

I did see the wizened, wirey little man, and the stick he was working on, and the pile of chips near his dusty boots. “Yeah.”

“Well, when he was nineteen years old he was the volunteer sheriff here. That guy was the one who ran Jesse James out of Cushing, Oklahoma. He’s always on that particular bench. Nobody else gets it.”

Oh…It was clear now. He had earned his place on the bench.

And the old, decrepit veterans of the Long March were still most honored in the new China…They had earned their places on the bench.

So it may be China or it may be Oklahoma, there are people who did what they did in a few years or a few days or a rapid moment, and in that time earned their place on the bench for as long as they wanted it.

I probably will never be invited to give a commencement speech, but if I ever did I would tell the bored listeners in the hot afternoon that they might be educated now, and they might turn out rich, and they might achieve some successes or be fleetingly famous, but only a very few of us ever, ever truly earn our place on the bench.


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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The Mist and the Woodpile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Copyright 2017 David Hon – All rights reserved

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