Archive for the Autobiographical Category

The History of Youth Part II or An Ode to John Denver

Posted in Autobiographical, Carmarthen, Central College, John Denver, K1000, Llanstephan, Llanstephan Castle, Snowden, Snowden Horseshoe, Trinity College, Uncategorized, United 747, Wales on April 7, 2012 by smpiv

          “He was born in the summer of his 27th year

           Comin’ home to a place he’d never been before”

          John Denver, “Rocky Mountain High”

For me it was in my eighteenth year; and it didn’t inspire a song; and it wasn’t until years later that I realized it.


I had been dumped off at Heathrow Airport, wide eyed, stiff, and tired, having endured the people packaging process aboard a United 747, toward the end of August in 1977. From there I had taken the HST from London to Cardiff and then to a slower train that would detrain me in Carmarthen.

My eyes grew wider still during this part of the journey when I was having difficulty understanding the people around me.  They were speaking English, the King’s English, but it was being filtered through less than regal mouths that seemed to be swallowing large bits of vowels and consonants and singing at the same time.

The result was a herky-jerky, sing-song language that my ears had no talent for and as we headed deeper into Wales it got worse.  This was to be my year abroad in the safety of an English speaking country.  It was my sophomore year and I was excited and scared.  This inability to understand my mother tongue was disconcerting.

My arrival in Carmarthen was celebrated by no one, including the woman who was supposed to pick me up at the train station and take me to Llanstephan, about twenty minutes outside of town by bus.

Lesson #1—you didn’t hail cabs in Carmarthen, you called for them.

Lesson #2—you smell of your country of origin, you might as well have a flag on your back.

An American girl quickly surmised my dilemma after asking me where in the US I was from without me opening my mouth.

Both insulted and happy to meet a fellow American I told her where I had come from, where I was headed and my lack of transportation. She quickly agreed to share a cab to Trinity College, which was to be my eventual destination, just not my first.  I was quickly 60p into my limited resources.

The cab deposited my at the gate to the College and the guard directed my to the Admin building where I repeated my dilemma.  After a few phone calls and a bit of time I was united with the wife of the Resident Director who oversaw the foreign students.  On the drive to Llanstephan she was adamant that I shouldn’t be there, that in fact I was to arrive the following day.  I was an inconvenience.

Lesson #3—physical presence often does little to overcome perception.

Llanstephan can best be described as quaint. Its importance had long since passed into the fog of history. The Normans had built a castle there during their conquest, its hulking ruin left to overlook the village below ( Now a byway of history it was left to be little touched by modern hands—it did bow to electricity, but otherwise it inadvertently developed its quaintness.

So there I was, an American, from a country that didn’t exist when most of Llanstephan was built sitting among thirteen or fourteen Americans listening to a recitation of the handbook we had been given before we came.

“This thick handbook (recitation) holds more information than you may want to read or be able to absorb.” Check.

“I understand myself to be the product of an American family, American schools, American media, American life-styles and values.” Check—I already waved the flag without even trying.

“I will see the year as a living laboratory.” Wow, life size Rat-Mazes—damn, I’m already drifting.

“I will deliberately keep my expectations low, my opinions quiet, my emotions in check.”  Of course, the “this-party-is-going-to-suck” approach to life.  OK let’s get this party started.

It went on for a couple of hours as we went through a few mid-seventies versions of trust exercises and what was then called rapping.

And then I was alone.

I remember sitting among these people.  A motley collection of young Americans that, as the year progressed, would show the best and worst our country had to offer.  It was a collection that I wanted no part of—I wanted to get on with it.

I was taken from my funk by the mildly lisping voice of the person I had decided on first site I wanted nothing to do with.

“Do you want to room with me?”

“Of course,” I said ever wary of confrontation and “keeping my expectations low,…(and) my emotions in check.”

Mark and I would spend the rest of the year together as a unit.  We eventually were given the nick-names, Captain America and Joe Cool, by our English classmates.  I can’t remember which one I earned; no matter, I was no longer alone.


Quickly escaping the gravity of our American brothers and sisters, Mark and I made our escape.

It would be an escape that would last the year.  We never purposely avoided our countrymen, no; it was quite easy, because they quickly formed a pack that seemed to avoid interaction.  They chose to do everything together and to have very little interaction with the Welsh, English, Scots, Dutch, and whoever would come through the school that was other than American.

“Rather than flaunt my American life-style or my personal independence, I will study and try to adapt to the local patterns.” Check.

Lesson #4—familiarity breeds familiarity.

Our first interaction with the college student body would be in a class called Outdoor Pursuits.  We would travel in what Mark and I would later call the 30/30 or the Tea and Pee mode of travel.  Thirty minutes into the trip get tea; thirty minutes later pee; rinse and repeat until you reach your destination. It made every short trip a journey.

This particular journey would land us in the Welsh highlands where we would stay in a hostel and then hike the Snowden Horseshoe that included Snowden, the highest elevation in Wales.  Following this we would visit a lake that if you were to spend the night it was said you would wake the next morning either of poet or crazy.

My initial train ride to Carmarthen had introduced me to South Wales which had been infected by industry and Brit Steel in particular.  Swansea, Cardiff and most towns in between were homely towns built quickly beyond their initial rural beginnings to satisfy man made industry.

Swansea was the bitter end of this plague and Carmarthen, for the most part, escaped this blight.  It had the feel of a larger town built around the rural fortunes of the land surrounding it.

As we made our way north towards Snowdon the countryside and the manifold levels of green took over.  The towns and villages looked as if they had grown from the earth fitting comfortably and, yes, quaintly into the land.  It was lush and beautiful.

As we neared the mountains and they reared their heads above the horizon the vegetation began to thin and take on a Tolkien doom-scape feel.  All angular and jutting the mountains hacked at the sky, a beautifully deep blue sky, with wispy green carpets joining the rough hewn granite together.  I was comfortable and at home in this landscape.

A picture that Mark took of me with my trusty K1000 just after we arrived shows a fading layer of pimply skin, a bit of baby fat, and a mop of curly, thick hair all framing my usual wincing grin-smile.  I was three months short of my nineteenth birthday.

          “He left yesterday behind him, you might say he was born again

You might say he found a key for every door”

          John Denver, “Rocky Mountain High”

Lesson #5—maybe John Denver was God after all.

It was the wind.  There was no song, no lullaby, no incessant humming, just the wind. It was a sparse landscape that did nothing to capture the wind, just gave it voice as it whipped through rock crevices and shook the low laying plant life.  It moved the clouds at a vigorous pace across the sky until as we moved higher up the horseshoe we were surrounded by a cloudy heaven.

Our guide was a man in his sixties who defied his age.  Chatty, who tended to talk as he walked and fell silent when he stopped, the previous conversation overwhelming his silences.

As we neared the summit the clouds began to thin and hints of sun popped through here and there.  Our guide stopped, gathered us around, and in a voice that lowered an octave, he described one of the rarest, most magical, sites one could behold in these spare, rocky peaks—the circular rainbow.

He could only tell us on faith, and second-hand knowledge that they existed, for he, in all his years, had never seen one. He paused.

The sun burned its way through the clouds and, as if on cue, met with the clouds to form a circular rainbow just over his shoulder.

“Like that?” I said.

He turned, was struck dumb and he gasped, his hand coming to his mouth and he cried.  He was alone in his thoughts.

“Thank you,” he said to no one in particular with tears streaming down his face.

Lesson #6—life is fair, it’s just not consistent.


So there you have it, my release from my adolescent womb.  The birthing process I have to admit took years and not hours, but began my adult journey there.  I was set free to chase and dream of my own circular rainbows.

I saw one man touch the face of God and I can only hope that my circular rainbow is out there to be had.

Amen, and pass the chips.


The History of the Universe Part II or “A wormhole, about yay big.”

Posted in Autobiographical, Machu Picchu, Zathura with tags on December 24, 2011 by smpiv

00:53:11 What’s a time sphincter?

00:53:13 A wormhole, about yay big:

Thus quoth the astronaut, in the movie “Zathura”, as he holds up his thumb and index finger to outline a small orifice.

I love this line.

It’s a pithy way to say that something is difficult; difficult to understand; to find; to go through; to comprehend.


I’ve tried to peak around the corner a number of times in an effort to cheat time—not to garner more of it, but to see how this book will end and is this only volume one. Too comprehend.

The first time I thought I had gotten a look was when I was in the second grade.  I was in a Quaker elementary school and like a lot of my early years; quiet reflection was not one of my abilities.  For me it was all head on, very visceral.  Rambunctious would best describe me.

So with the elegance that only slow motion can detect I jumped from the upper deck of a playground jungle gym and squarely on my head.

Isaac, the custodian, picked me up and carried me.  In my time compressed timeline I am then in an ambulance, laying thrilled by the sound of the siren.  As I looked up the ceiling light was filled by the head of someone dressed all in white.

A halo sparked around the edges of someone’s head.  Presbyterian Kindergarten, Catholic first grade and now Quaker second grade, made it quite obvious to me that I was in the presence of an angel. My mother told me it was my father in his whites.

Even being told the obvious that image haunts me.


In my teen years I could hold my breath for a long time.

To push this talent to an extreme I had trained myself to relax to an extreme.  My resting heart rate was very low and I could slow it even further.  I would take a deep breath and lower my head into the water and fade away.

I never contested anyone with this talent or even told anyone what I was doing.  I also never pushed it to the SEAL extreme of borderline death—I think.  What I did do was to reach a point of relaxation that allowed my mind to wander away.  It was very much like going through a door.

A small door with very little room on the other side, but comfortable all the same.  Once there I would leave for two or three minutes, sometimes more.  When I came back it was rarely for lack of breath, but for a sudden consciousness that said to go back.  Up would come my head, my long hair framing my face with the sound of water streaming back on itself.


The highlight of my architectural education was going to Machu Picchu.  It was part of a three week journey to Peru, that included two weeks far down the Amazon River and then for a week in Cusco and Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu is a place I had wanted to visit since I was a child. “Gods, Graves and Scholars”, lent to me by my mother, was the portal that opened my mind’s eye to history and man’s footprint.  It motivated further exploration that brought the Incans to light for me.

I was certain that if there were truly power points on earth that this would be one of them.  A blue aura would emanate from the stone like the aurora borealis; the universe intermingling with our small rock.  I would be able to hear the Aborigines; echoes of the Druids; and the ancient Incans.  I would see beyond our earthly existence.

Well, the closest I came to seeing the other side was on the bus ride as it switched back again and again as it made its way to the ruins.  The road is perilous and view down is straight down—nerve wracking.

The ruins themselves are spectacular, but there was no blue light, no epiphany, the universe stood at its usual distance and the voices I heard were mostly in German and English.  The place is breathtaking but quite dead.


So in this brief survey it seems that, in fact, I haven’t gotten the briefest glimpse of the other side.

I do think, though, that the journey is the difficult part and that passing through the time sphincter will be the easy part.

Just shut your eyes and hold your breath.

The History of Creativity Part II or The Danger of the Ad Lib

Posted in Art, Autobiographical, Harry Callahan, Photography, Vivian Maier on December 2, 2011 by smpiv

Life is scripted.

No really.

Well, not really.

It’s confusing.

Just before Thanksgiving Min and I went into DC.  For Min it was a return visit to the Building Museum and the Lego exhibit.  For me it was my umpteenth visit to the West Wing of the National Gallery and in particular for the” Harry Callahan at 100” exhibit.   He didn’t make it to 100 but his birthday did.

Except for major pieces of his that were shown in group shows I hadn’t seen an exhibit of just his work, so there were some surprises, mostly good, but like most photographers, at least, the collection went a little thin around the edges.  His multiple exposures were less than interesting and his “twigs” in the snow images that he is very well known for were dated.

His images of his wife make up for the lesser work. Like Stieglitz with Georgia O’Keefe he transcended his love and admiration for his partner well beyond the pale.  The images of his wife Eleanor are touching, beautiful, and poetic.  He seems to use her visage to occupy the cold and gray of his surroundings with warmth and charm.  She may have been a harridan in life, but that would be unknown here.  She is a siren; a sylph; a nymph—she is female beauty and danger wrapped in one.

Also curious was the size of most of these prints.  Most of the early work was very small in scale, not much beyond a 5×7 and, most, smaller than that.  There is preciousness to many of the images.  The size of the images are, seemingly, as brief as the shutter speed.

Hopefully I will be able to go back, because my first visit to any show is a fairly quick walk through to let the images wash over me and then to go back to really soak myself in the pictures that initially caught my eye and to appreciate others that I at first dismissed.

Callahan’s trajectory of photographic success was a typical one.  For him it was an early meeting with a giant of the day (Ansel Adams) that led to his moving forward seriously with his own work.  Beyond that it was a progression of teaching and showing that culminated in a well respected career as a photographer that was followed by and written about by many.  No surprises—well scripted.

After arriving back from our Thanksgiving trip to DC I was greeted by my always helpful neighbor with my mail and several UPS boxes.  In one was a book I had been looking forward to for some time.  It was as monograph with the work of Vivian Maier—“Vivian Maier, Street Photographer”.  A woman who had worked in utter obscurity for decades leaving behind over 100,000 negatives (the same as Callahan) that were plucked from the darkness at the eleventh hour at an auction house that had earlier acquired the contents of her unpaid storage unit.  She died soon thereafter in her nineties never having met the man who purchased her negatives and would make her famous.

As mentioned Callahan’s arc was a comfortably recognizable one.  Maier’s is not.

As I paged through the volume I felt I was looking through a history book on street photography.  Every major name in the opus was represented by an image in this book.  Her images are as good if not better at every turn.  The difficulty comes in the realization that other than amassing an amazing number of negatives Maier left nothing behind that could speak to her influences.  Were these conscious decisions to emulate images she was familiar with or something more toward the “idiot savant” end of the spectrum?

As far as I know there are no prints from her negatives done by Maier that would hint at how she would have shown them.  Would she have preferred precious—not much larger than her 2-1/4 inch negatives or the approximately 9×9 images in the book?  Does it matter?

One thing is for sure her talent will always be on the fence.  Her talent will always be advocated by others. Her voice will never be lent.  The art world doesn’t like surprises, particularly ones that have no other voice than the image.  She was apparently a crusty old nanny with few vices other than photography.  Vivian went off script.

For me personally, the work is beautiful.  It doesn’t matter who her influences were or how she was influenced.   The difficulty now is in the editing of her work by others.  I tend to think that many of the images were pulled consciously or not because they did tingle with familiarity.

Ansel Adams long ago compared the making of a photographic print to the playing of music and the negative being the score.  In fact anyone with reasonable credentials can print from Adam’s negatives.  With Maier you have the added facet of editing the score yourself—unlike Adams she left behind no primer.

Her story is a wonderful one.  It is a story that will resonate for some time and she will be a talent that will rise and fall with the seasons—in and out of fashion, but never classic.

If only she had stuck to the script.

Border Crossing

Posted in Autobiographical, Barnes and Noble, Borders, Starbucks on September 27, 2011 by smpiv

This shouldn’t take long.

Borders has gone out of business.  A sad reminder too many and a surprise to a very few.

Now, I did my best to support it and kill it all at the same
time.  I spent lots of time reading magazines I had no intention of buying; plotting for future purchases on Amazon; and drinking lots of their coffee.  I had a Borders Card and I did buy enough there to get my Borders Bucks, so I wasn’t a complete scoundrel, but….

Yes, but, I do have a Kindle.  If any of you truly think our houses will have shelves to keep our large collection of books in the near future, you are sadly mistaken.  Even Ikea has redesigned its Billy book case to be deeper and happier as a storage shelf and not a book shelf.

Is this a bad thing?

No, just a different thing.

Anyone of my age well remembers LPs and for me my father’s large jazz collection of 78s.  Where are they now?  Some land fill somewhere.

I think it’s harder with books because we grew up with the story of the Guttenberg Bible and the advent of the printing press.  The great democratizer of knowledge—the power of the printed word.  Books everywhere.  You needed to know something you found it in a book.

One of the first jobs I had fashioned for my future was the Information Librarian.  I thought that would be the coolest thing to look things up all day.  To track down minor details lost in abstracts, moldy magazines and even moldier ancient texts.  An archeologist of the mind–a keeper of facts.  Can’t tell you why I didn’t pursue it, but my mouth still waters at the thought of banks and banks of card catalogues and indexes.

So as I approached West Leb’s version of Borders, with its huge swayback sign that said, “Going Out of Business” for the last time it was with sadness.  I’m just not a Barnes and Noble guy, although they do have Starbucks, which is a plus.  The yellow caution tape had now girdled the remaining stock towards the front desk, so there was more empty space than not.

Children’s section, gone. Music—long gone.  DVDs—not many.  Even Sting’s latest CD was being shilled at a
great markdown—I bit.

Amongst this shriveled bit of bookery was an elderly lady who wandered the aisles as if she had all the time in the world.  Stopping every few feet to run her fingers over the spine of a book, flip through a few pages and just being blithely in the way.  I passed her several times as I took advantage of the markdowns and finally made my way to the cashier.

The little old lady stood in front of me in line.  Just before her turn a woman was making her purchase,

“I am so sorry to see Borders go out of business.  It’s so unfortunate.”

“We are as well.  But the lease has been purchased by Books-a-Million,” he offered up as a salve.  More like Bactine, it helps but it still hurts.

Amidst the deluge that is an Irene-like closing, with yellow markdown signs everywhere, empty bookshelves shoved around in total disarray, bits and pieces that have no obvious use, but for sale anyway, and yellow
caution tape delineating the dangers of the closed areas, our wizened little lady looked around wide-eyed, suddenly conscious, blurted out, “Borders is closing?!”

Yes my dear it has.  Is it a monument to bad management and bad business planning or a sign
of the demise of the printed word?  Just so I can be right—it’s both.  Barring an upper atmosphere electromagnetic pulse that fries all our electronics, books are going the way of the dinosaur.

I will miss Borders because it always felt like a really nice library where I could drink coffee in the stacks and peruse an amazing collection of magazines.  Things were categorized by type—fiction, literature, science fiction and on, and not by the dismal Dewey decimal system.

I have been totally subverted by Amazon but, I wonder, when they go out of business, where will they hang the banner?  And who will blurt out, “Amazon is closing?!”

Just asking.

The sun set all dressed in evening blue

Posted in Autobiographical on July 3, 2011 by smpiv

The sun set all dressed in evening

Blue, Blue, Blue

I kicked my head back

Stars were popping

Piercing the blue as it became

Black, Black, Black

Flashing red light on its horizontal flight

A later report said

Pop, Pop, Pop

A cartoon dragon raged across a white sheet

The soundtrack roared, it screamed

Our hero blew it to smithereens

Scream, Scream, Scream

The movie ended

I had only snored once

The blue warm air

Given over to a black cold night

The sheet now blank

I set off for home to

Dream, Dream, Dream

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.

The History of Poetry Part I or My Welsh Brother

Posted in Autobiographical, Joan Armatrading, The Clash on March 11, 2011 by smpiv


Rain, rain, go away…….

Joan Armatrading.

Bad poetry?



At one time her first album might as well have been my theme music; my signature color.

It wasn’t the words, because, truthfully, not until recently have I actually listened to the words to a song.  And even now I have a difficult time parsing the words from the music—musical dyslexia?  Perhaps.  Might explain my inability to remember the words to a song and don’t even ask me to take dictation—it all jumbles together.

I first heard her music with my girlfriend at the time– Sian McCaffrey.  She was from a small town outside Manchester, England.  We were both students at a small teaching college in Carmarthen, Wales.  It was 1977 and I was all of eighteen years old with a full head of hair.

Her voice—Joan’s not Sian’s—went straight through me.  Every time she clipped a note or popped a “c” or “s” it was like a tuning fork.  She was on my wave length.  Yet she was counter to everything I had listened to—or for that matter what I would later listen too.

Britain was firmly in the grips of Punk—not New Wave—but Punk and I loved it.  “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols was played at every dance (there were two a week) and we all danced the Pogo.  The Pogo?  We literally bounced up and down as if we were on a pogo stick for hours.  The Jam, The Clash, The Stranglers, The Buzzcocks, et al, and we pogoed to them all.  It was usually loud, difficult to understand, and completely absorbing.

Joan was my secret pleasure.  Sian and I would be at the Drovers until closing at 11pm, get a couple of bottles of Cider and go back to her room at a parsonage off campus and put that album on.  Again and again, until she kicked me out and I would walk back to my digs at an old Victorian Mansion, off campus as well, with that music in my head.

It was usually raining—ah, finally, the rain part. 

A Welsh weather forecast was usually rain.  You put your rain coat on automatically, without looking out the window.  It was rarely a cold, invasive rain; it was just part of the landscape.  When the sun came out it was usually to peek through or around rain clouds, arc a quick rainbow and then back to rain.

It made for a very green and lush landscape.  It was very Hobbit like in its execution.  Having read the “Lord of the Rings” several times before I arrived, I was struck by the similarity.

That was quickly subverted by the poetry of Dylan Thomas.

For the average Welshman his choir and his poet—in both Welsh and English, was what moved the sun above those eternal rain clouds.  Thomas was the god poet and very much alive for most.

Above all Thomas’ words were carved and warped by that lush countryside; a countryside that defined and redefined the color green; and just as magnificently his words defined an ancient countryside that had been seen to by the guttural sounds of the Welsh language.   

      The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
      Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
      Is my destroyer.
      And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
      My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.


So there I was very much ready to pogo my way through life—after all I would be eighteen forever, right?  Well I am now long past my Punk days, although I still have a particular soft spot for the Stranglers “Black and White” album, and it’s been years since I walked beneath the rain leadened skies of Wales. 

We often wonder what will last, what will be eternal.  I remember having an argument with my next door neighbor in Poway, California as to who would have more staying power, the Monkees or the Beatles.  I’ll let you guess how smart I was—enough to say it was one of my dimmer moments.

I had forgotten Joan Armatrading until recently.  Not until I listened to it again did I realize how important it had been to me.  Her music had looped in my head as best it could in those days before portable music.  It now conjures up memories long forgotten.

Thomas’ poetry never left me.

I’m not a big poetry guy, but there is something about his words and how he turns and enslaves them for his use that makes me come back again and again.  For me it transcends the page.

More importantly it pushed me beyond my adolescent musings and simplicity and made me think. 

      The force that drives the water through the rocks
      Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
      Turns mine to wax.
      And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
      How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.


So here I sit, thirty some years later, the rain coming down steadily to knock down the snow to reveal the dirt and grime that is hiding beneath.  It is the rain that brought Joan Armatrading to mind; that brought to mind Dylan Thomas. 

Now in Vermont, another lush, green land probably better described by Robert Frost than Thomas, it is still Thomas’ words that ring in my ears.  His are the words I wish I had written; the words I wish I could have shaped; the words I could have etched.

But I didn’t and I won’t.  So I leave it to the likes of an Armatrading for theme music and the likes of a Thomas to take me beyond myself.  And now I leave you with more of his words—

     And death shall have no dominion.
     Dead men naked they shall be one
     With the man in the wind and the west moon;
     When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
     They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
     Though they go mad they shall be sane,
     Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again
     Though lovers be lost love shall not;
     And death shall have no dominion

Good poetry?