Archive for May, 2011

Bullitt Lite

Posted in American University, Bullitt, House Post Office, Longworth Building, Plymouth Horizon, The Italian Job, The Vanishing Point, Trans Am, TransAm, Uncategorized on May 19, 2011 by smpiv


Like many American males I love cars and movies with cars. If I had my druthers and monetary wherewithal I would have a garage full of American, German, Italian, Japanese and whoever’s high performance car.

So, let’s see, my first car, a 1974 Ford LTD. It had belonged to my grandfather.

And my second car? A 1981 Plymouth Horizon that I managed to keep on the road for over eleven years and 130,000 miles. It wasn’t a particularly good looking car and by the time I had it towed to the junk yard it was downright ugly.

The list doesn’t get any more interesting following the Horizon, so I won’t bore you with it.

If I could be a stunt driver in any movie it would be either “Bullitt”, “The Vanishing Point” or the original “The Italian Job”. I was driving the Horizon when I had my Steve McQueen moment, my Bullitt moment.


Easily one of the most interesting jobs I had was working in the House Post Office in the Longworth Building. And one of the most interesting parts of the job was the interesting cast of characters I worked with.

All were there through some direct, indirect and, in my case, very indirect relationship with a Congressman or woman. We were all in patronage positions, every mail pitching, box chucking one of us.

There were a few congressional children who worked all year round, but during the summer a hoard of them showed up. Some even displaced people who had come on with the understanding that they would be gone to make room for the kids. Some of these congressional children worked, others showed up on payday, and some skipped all formalities and had their checks mailed to them. But I digress.

On the particular night I will describe I was with a co-worker whom I got along with very well and spent time socializing with after work. This night he had asked me for a ride home because his car was in the shop and his girlfriend was unavailable—we will call him M and he was not a congressional child.

Our shift ended at 10pm so the streets of DC were relatively empty as we headed toward his house in Northwest, close to American University. We chatted aimlessly, laughed too loud and repeated one of our favorite stories that ended—“I bumped my head………twice,” said with a Southern drawl, the bitter end of a tail of one of our lesser co-workers. You had to be there.

At this point I’m fairly sure we were on Military Road when I saw some headlights coming very fast towards us in my rearview. My car rocked as a TransAm busted past us at a very high rate of speed.

“Holy shit!” screamed M.

“Wow”, I added.

And then? And then a Hollywood stunt turn in the wild. One of those where the ass end of the car slides around one hundred and eighty degrees with the wheels smoking as they try to overcome the cars inertia and get it moving in the opposite direction.

And it did. It literally leaped at us head on.

Now if I got anything from my test-pilot father it would be coolness in adverse situations. I was intent on the TransAm while M, with a death grip on his seat, was screaming—and I have to say it—like a girl. The Trans Am was coming at us head on and accelerating.

At this point all went silent and I remember thinking that this guy was in control. My choices were limited because I didn’t know who he was or what he was after, so I realized my safest bet was to keep going straight and let him do whatever he wanted. He was obviously trying to scare the hell out of us and M had already gotten rid of hell and was onto whatever leaves after hell.

I wasn’t scared. I would be scared later after I extricated us from our predicament.

The TransAm’s lights were growing at a great rate and at the last second, and I do mean the last second, swerved around us. The Horizon was rocked again and this time I tromped on the gas—this is rather comical if you are at all familiar with my car—and we were off.

I looked in the rearview and again witnessed a beautiful Hollywood stunt turn, but I wasn’t going to wait around to see how close he would come this time.

Now, the beauty of mechanical separation is that the Trans Am still had to bleed off a great deal of forward motion in his picture perfect turn. This allowed the four exhausted squirrels that were powering my car to get far enough away to lose sight of the Trans Am.

At this point I was pushing beyond the Horizon’s performance envelope as I flew through red lights, stop signs, one family’s yard, several post boxes and I juked left and right through one neighborhood after another. I checked my six constantly to see if the TransAm was anywhere in sight. It wasn’t.

Sound returned and M was still screaming as I slowly worked my way back to his house, stopping one street away.

“What was that all about?” I asked M.

“No idea. Oh my God I think that guy was trying to kill us.” M replied.

Probably not, because he would’ve had to have done serious harm to himself, but……….


For years I thought this was an isolated, interesting, random event, but like most things it wasn’t.

While I knew M at the post office his brother had been in prison on drug charges and I would find out later through another friend that M would also go to prison on drug charges. In fact nearly the entire House Post Office would go down on drug and money laundering charges ten years after I left.

I have little doubt that M knew who was in that TransAm and we’re probably lucky we never came face-to-face with whoever was in that car.

So kids, remember, just say no and, if you can, get a faster car.


I Shook the Hand

Posted in Uncategorized on May 14, 2011 by smpiv

I shook the hand of an empty man

His grip was firm,

He took my eye.

His child was taken in a horrible way

I shook God’s hand

I asked him why

He left me blind

When darkness grabs the light

When my boy is down for the night

I check his pulse, I check his breath

His eyes shut tight

He takes my hand


I grasp it tight,

My eyes wide open, I enjoy

The light

Three Vignettes

Posted in Autobiographical, baby photography, F8F, Gaulledet, MARC, Mojave Air Races, P-38, P-51, Photography, Uncategorized on May 10, 2011 by smpiv

1.Waiting for a Train

Train stations are one of the ultimate people watching venues.  Airports don’t have the same vibe and bus stations are just sad.  The ebb and the flow of arriving and departing trains has a dynamic all its own.

People running to catch a cab or a bus; others meandering with their wheeled suit case, eyes raised to the tote board.  The sound of the tote board flipping through names and times of departing and arriving trains.  And Security Guards and police wandering through, that seemingly have nothing to do.

I participated in this urban movement for three years when I took the MARC train from Baltimore to DC while I went to Catholic University for my Architecture degree.

One late night, while I waited for the last train for Baltimore, I heard a cackle of grunts and groans that without the visual sounded very disturbing.  When I finally turned my head to find out what was going on I was faced with a girl asking me for directions.

Attached to each of her hands was another girl and to their hand another girl until there were about twenty girls all looking at me a bit wide eyed all hand in hand.  As she formed her question it was obvious that she was deaf.  From the sweatshirts it was obvious that they were from Gallaudet University (although I think it was still a college then) and Greek as well.

She was asking for directions while her friends all chimed in trying to help her.  With their hands in other hands they couldn’t communicate with each other very well, if at all.  I understood the question well enough to begin to answer and I found myself speaking the answer and trying to use hand gestures to flesh it out in some sort of pidgin-sign language of my own.

It only made them laugh and then I laughed.

One girl was taking down my answer and all eyes were on my mouth, then they would turn to the scribe and talk to her.  And her eyes darted from mouth to mouth in what seemed a vain attempt to understand it all.  Their arms were undulating like waves as they began to sign and realized they couldn’t as it was part of this pledge ritual.

Finally I stopped talking and they stopped talking.  It was very quiet as the scribe approached me and showed me my answer, which was my answer and I nodded that it was my answer.  Their hands went up as one, quickly realizing their imposed burden and laughed and gabbed as one.

They said thank you and off they went hooked together much like a train.

2. The Sitting

My short and miserable career as a baby photographer was interspersed with several moments that were special for one reason or another.  One I described at length in an earlier blog and this one.

We had been warned that the company we worked for would, at times, send out people from corporate to “test” us in the field.  As I was working my magic on a particularly squirmy baby I saw out the corner of my eye two women standing in line for their pictures to be taken that looked like aliens—seriously.

When they finally came to the head of the line, it was clear that they were not aliens.  Their faces however
were frozen, for the lack of a better term. Their mouths didn’t move, their arms and legs were stiff and they rarely blinked.  They looked nearly identical except one of the women looked a bit older than the other—I would later figure out from their conversation that they were mother and daughter.

My initial thought was that corporate had sent these women out to see how I would handle the situation.
Someone would later tell me what their syndrome was called, but I’ve long since forgotten.  Until that day I
had no idea such a thing existed.  This was very alien to me.

Despite having no facial expressions I quickly realized this was not the case, they were not from corporate.
I asked them what poses they would prefer, what backgrounds they wanted and if they wanted to pose together or individually.  Their replies had nearly no muffled inflection to them despite their perfectly immobile mouths.

They wanted all their poses to be of the both of them.  I arranged them on the poser and went back to my camera.

“Smile” I said.

I didn’t see anything that hinted at a smile as I clicked the shutter, but I cooed with “Oh, that’s a nice one”, and “I think I got that one.”

I gave them their ticket that told them when I’d be back with their pictures and they left.  I wasn’t sure I’d see them again.

Two weeks later on the scripted date they came back and waited patiently in line for their turn. I’m sure I greeted them by name—one that has long since escaped me.  I had seen their pictures before they arrived looking for that elusive smile and seeing none. I hadn’t shown their set to any of my fellow photographers as we often did with out-of –the-ordinary sitters from weeks past.  They had a dignity I wouldn’t sully by letting others gawk at their pictures.

I was happy to see them and I’m fairly certain they blushed in anticipation as they sat down to look at their pictures.  I pulled them out and went through the entire sales speech as they sat patiently.  I noticed that the daughter was crying—the only obvious emotion I had seen to this point.

I was crushed, I was certain I had done something hurtful or awful to make this shy little creature cry.

I stopped and asked if there was something wrong.  Through her tears and frozen mouth she said that she was so happy because this was the first time anyone had taken a picture with her mother and her smiling—a smile I couldn’t see.

They bought them all. Partly, I’m sure, because I had caught them smiling, a smile only they could see, and partly to make sure their pictures didn’t end up in someone’s collection.

3. The Plane Crash

My family didn’t take many vacations together.

Some of our best trips were by default as we drove cross country from one duty station to another. The Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, the Painted Desert, and Meteor Crater were a few of the stops that resulted from those trips.

What about a trip with just my father and brother?  Well I can only remember one—the Mojave Air Races in 1974.

At the time my father and several others owned shares in a Cessna 172 and a Beechcraft Bonanza. We would be taking the Cessna and for some reason the Cessna was at small airport somewhere in the Simi Valley—I suppose because it was closer to our house than Ventura Airport where it was usually kept.

When we arrived at the airport it was completely fogged in.  I thought since my Dad had an instrument rating we would just fly on out, no problem but he told me to be patient—for one thing there was no tower.

When the fog finally lifted the sun shone on the steep hills that surrounded the airfield on all sides. Once we took off we needed the fly within the bounds of those hills until we had enough altitude to clear them and be on our way.

The flight was uneventful to Mojave, but as we neared the airstrip we could see planes of all sizes coming in all directions.  One call after another to the tower stepped on the caller before as everyone tried to get clearance to land.  The tower was finally able to get through to announce that the field would be closing in fiftee minutes and anyone who wanted to land would have to do it without input from the tower.  It was an airborne free for all.

With its wide and long military airstrip it was able to take one plane after another, sometimes two abreast, sometimes three abreast, sometimes in a row and miraculously all safely.  And then it shut down.

We taxied to the Flight Systems hanger where my Dad had friends.  It was a civilian company that
tested military hardware on surplused jets-F-100s, F-86s, T33s, and, at the time, some recently acquired Sea Furies, the Navy’s version of the F-86.  We came to a halt, shut her down and tied her down.

We were surrounded by aircraft, I was in heaven.

The races began soon after we arrived.  There were Formula One, Sport Biplane and AT-6 races, all noisy and all fun to watch, but what most people were there for were the Unlimiteds and Jets.

The Unlimited Racers were all WWII era fighters now owned by private citizens-P-51s, Sea Furies, P-38s, F4Us and the odd P-63.  My favorite, and still my favorite, were the F8F Bearcats.  An aircraft that was
steaming towards Japan on carriers when the war ended, it was the ultimate propeller driven naval aircraft resulting from WWII.  A stubby little thing that was all purpose—any shorter and the pilot would have been on top of the engine.

And this year would see the introduction of Jet racing as a number of older jet aircraft were being surplused onto the civilian market—mostly F-86s and T-33s.

Then finally it was time for the first of the Unlimited Races.  Three or four, sometimes six aircraft would be in each heat with their V-12s whining or their throaty Radial engines roaring around the course.  Like any race there were rules—you had to pass above, never below and there was a hard deck.  And like most races these
rules were sometimes ignored.  To top it off they were travelling around the course at speeds from 350 to 450 mph.   It was a beautiful thing to watch.

I was mesmerized by each heat.  In one of the first heats a P-51s engine blew and the pilot mad a dead stick landing with no harm done.  The others were uneventful until later in the day.

I was watching the races from the Flight Systems hanger and earlier in the day a pilot had come by to ask if anyone had a spare oxygen mask.  He had forgotten his—the pilot was Bud Fountain who owned one of the F8Fs that were racing that weekend.  Not one of the flashier ones, but a Bearcat none the less.

At the time no one seemed to be able to help him so I’m not sure if he ever did find one or if that had anything to do with what would befall him later that day.

His heat began well. A pace plane would bring the group towards the start (Clay Lacey in a Learjet if I remember correctly) soar up and out of the way and call the start.  Off they went, throttles to the
firewall, most so low that dust swirled off the desert floor and then on their wingtips pulling some serious Gs through the pylons.  Soon the planes were spread out as the slower aircraft fell back while the faster ones usually pulled back a bit, when it became obvious how it would finish, to save their engines.

As I panned with the front runners there was an explosion—kind of a pop and a boom put together. Someone’s engine had exploded and a deep, heavy black smoke was pouring from beneath the engine cowling.  It was
Bud Fountain.

He pulled straight up and out of the race, the smoke delineating his flight path in excruciating detail.
Had this been a flight demonstration you would have prepared for the hammerhead stall or if it were someone more daring a lomcevak.  A maneuver that has the pilot throwing the plane out of control and then recovering–the plane looks like a leaf falling.

But not on this day—the Bearcat slowed as it lost power, pushed slowly over the top and then went straight down gaining speed. Everyone kept waiting for the aircraft to gracefully pull out of the dive, but it didn’t.  The desert floor rose to meet the plane and just like the movies there was a miniature mushroom
cloud and then seconds later the report from the impact.

Sirens began to wail and crash trucks took off over the desert.  It seemed a pointless gesture, but everyone
had their job and they were going to do it. Later one of the crash trucks that had torn across the desert from the Flight  Systems hangar came limping back with a very somber crew who reported that there was simply a black spot in the desert nothing more.

The races continued.

That night at the racer’s dinner I was expecting something like a wake, but no.  It was noisy, lots of laughter, smoky and permeated with the moisture of overcooked spaghetti.  I was a bit taken-a-back.  When I did hear some of the pilots speaking of the crash they didn’t mention the pilot, they all hung their heads one as one of them said, “God, it was a beautiful airplane.” They all nodded as one.

They, like us, would get to go home.