Thursday, August 08, 2013

Meeting Ernie Crippen

Sixty-eight years ago tomorrow, the United States dropped a nuclear bomb on Nagasaki, three days after it dropped one on Hiroshima. The day will go unmentioned, just as the anniversary of Hiroshima generally went unrecognized on Tuesday. It wasn't long ago that the end of war in the Pacific had significance for a country that shared the experience of a world war. But those days are gone and the few people left who lived the history soon will be.

That's why I don't turn down any opportunity to talk to the people who fought the war in whatever capacity; there aren't many left.

So when Ernie Crippen of Buffalo started a sentence in our conversation yesterday with, "when we were being bombed and strafed on Guadalcanal," I was immediately aware that it was the first -- and probably the last -- time someone will ever say that to me, just as I was similarly aware last week when a veteran in Luverne showed me a scar and said, "I got that parachuting into Bastogne."

We get many opportunities in our lives to learn history from those who live it, but we take advantage of precious few of them. And time, as it has forever, is running out. Mr. Crippen has the benefit of his children, Mike and Amy, who have helped him preserve his history.

Crippen, 91, like thousands of other Minnesota kids, saw the military draft coming in 1942 when he was cutting timber in Bemidji. So he joined the Navy for a six-year engagement as a Seabee -- the Navy's construction brigades.

"The fighting was mostly over when we arrived on Guadalcanal," he told me while I leafed through his meticulously-kept scrapbooks yesterday. And by "mostly over," he meant, except for the occasional attacks by Japanese planes trying to kill him. In April 1943, he wrote in an autobiography, he was part of a crew unloading supplies from a ship offshore when an attack came. All the regular crew had gone ashore, so the Seabees took the ship into open water, shooting down one plane in the process. Some of the men shielded themselves from bullets with the only thing they had nearby: canvas.

You don't get a lot of stories like that from kids in Bemidji anymore. Or about the time Bob Hope and Jerry Colonna sat with him at dinner before a USO tour, the bugler who got into trouble for playing "Blues in the Night" instead of Taps or about being told he was to be part of the U.S. invasion force of Japan. "We were told the casualties might number 750,000," he said. "It was sobering."

"What was the last thing your father said to you before you went off to war?" I asked.

"I remember it clearly," he said. "We were sitting at the depot in Bemidji and I said, 'I might not come back.' He said, 'You have to turn that around and think different.'"

The atomic bombs brought Japan's capitulation. A month later, the kid from Bemidji was working the docks in Sasebo, Japan, a bombed-out former Japanese Navy base. And a few months after that, he was walking through what was left of Nagasaki.

"It was amazing to me at the time that something dropped from the sky could turn steel and concrete into nothing but dust," he said.

He couldn't show that picture to anyone until he got home to Bemidji. The military didn't allow anyone to send photos of the destruction home. Technically, servicemen weren't supposed to have cameras, but, as he had during the rest of the war, Crippen kept notes and pictures, knowing that someday he'd be sharing it.

His stops read like a who's who of war in the Pacific: Guadalcanal, Saipan, Tokyo, the rest of the Solomons, New Caledonia, and the Aleutians.

For the veterans of it, World War II was life's biggest paradox. A gruesome habit of nations' instinct to kill another's soldiers provided the opportunities to see parts of the world most people will never see, and a seemingly endless number of friendships that survive through post-war "real life," which for Mr. Crippen included years as an engineer for MnDOT and a wedding photography business with his wife.

But there's no such thing as "endless" in life. As he showed me a scrapbook of his pictures, Crippen noted that most everyone in it is dead now. His construction unit stopped its annual reunions in 2006; There weren't many people left or able to attend.

But next week, there'll be one more. A few weeks ago, the family of an Indiana man found Crippen after a search. The two men had served together. The man from Indiana recently had a stroke and wanted to see Crippen again. Next week, they'll meet halfway -- Iowa -- and turn back time.

Mr. Crippen will bring the scrapbooks and history in the first person with him.

(This post was originally published in Minnesota Public Radio's NewsCut blog)

Thursday, June 06, 2013

The sidewalk

The construction crew arrived today to take out the old blacktop driveway that I have been trying to nurse through another season for the last 10 years. But it is finally time for it to go; it will be replaced by a concrete driveway instead.

I looked out a few minutes ago to see how they were doing, and as luck would have it, they were just digging up a small piece of concrete that I poured many years ago to extend the driveway.

It wasn't a particularly good job but that little 2x4 slab of concrete has always meant a lot to me, because my son Sean and I built it.

Sean was pretty young at the time, maybe 7 or so, an age when most kids have the attention span of mice. But like the sidewalk we built out back one year, he was all in on the project. It was hot, hot enough to make smart people head for the AC. And he had every reason to. But he stayed and he dug and he mixed cement and he breathed dust and he got dirty and he built a sidewalk with his dad.

It was the way he subsequently approached every job and task he ever had. He was all in.

The new driveway and sidewalk will be a big improvement over what's there now.

But I'm going to miss that slab.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The need to win

I accept as a casualty of my age that I am more prone to believing that elements of our cultural past have lessons for our cultural present, but there is no way for me to avoid the conclusion as I've read this week's outstanding Star Tribune series on the money in youth sports. Fat cat boosters and parents who want their children to win have transformed the nature of the game. Advocates still tell us that high school sports, in particular, can teach children valuable life lessons. Here's the life lesson we should learn from the series: Don't let adults run youth sports.

Over the course of three days, the series has drilled a constant message from the "haves" and the "have nots." It's unfair, it has said, that some teams have more money -- and thus resources -- than others. The sadness of the series is that few people involved have noted the cultural calamity of our need to win.

There are only three things that people have said to me over these years that I have not forgotten. After I graduated from college and was looking for work in a fleeting period in our history when we weren't fighting other counties' wars, my father said, "If you want job security, join the Army."

An ex-colleague, at a reunion party for a radio network where I once worked, casually remarked, "Man, we were glad to see you go."

And a coach of a summer club hockey team said to me, "because I want to win."

I played high school and college hockey, and that sounds more impressive than it really is. I made my college team because I was the only player who could skate backwards. I beat out 30-40 other schoolmates in high school to be the last guy on the team. I didn't play much and when I did, the game was usually over. In my sophomore year, my team was 0-19-1, having tied the last game of the year. I didn't play much; my undistinguished career featured eight years of organized play, no goals scored.

To my knowledge, the only picture of me in action is this one. I'm number 5. Playing the bench like nobody's business.

In my junior year, I was recruited to play a summer league team. A family acquaintance was the coach. Because the team was mostly made up of my high school team, I, again, didn't play much. Midway through the season, we held a lead against some team I don't recall, it was late in the game, and I wanted to play. This was a summer recreational league.

"Can I play?" I said to the coach.

"Not now," he said.

"Why not?"

"Because I want to win," he said.

I never went back for another game.

I have few recollections of any of the games my teams played now. But I recall with ease, the pick-up games on a pond across the street with my pals in the neighborhood, and my hockey-loving older brother, who died a year ago. A neighborhood hockey rat didn't have shin pads -- "Termite" was his name (we had nicknames for kids back then) -- so he taped comic books to his legs.

Youth sports were the park & rec games in the ballyard behind my house (since turned into a soccer pitch, but that's another story). It's been more than 45 years since I stabbed the vicious line drive shortly before it hit one of the Shaw twins' face. I can still see the expression on his face. They're both dead now; someone said drugs were involved.

But there was a joy to being a kid playing youth sports and we have ruined that joy in the name of teaching kids life's lessons.

The ballparks in my neighborhood now are mostly empty. The kids are playing down at the big sports complex in front of the same sorts of parents I became, who lament that the traveling teams from Edina have better uniforms. After some games, as I recall, the coach -- whose son usually was the starting pitcher -- navigated a sea of parents wanting to know why their kid wasn't playing.

He didn't say "because I want to win," but he didn't have to. Winning was the point. Winning is still the point.

A few weeks ago, the Twins made a big splash out of showing a 20-year-old movie on the scoreboard. The Sandlot embodied the childhood games some of us are lucky to remember. On Twitter, an acquaintance objected to the fuss people were making. "It's not Citizen Kane," he said. And, he's right; it's not. But Citizen Kane never reminded us of the role of childhood games before my generation grew up to ruin them.

No doubt the takeaway from the Star Tribune's series will be that the "have not" teams should get more money. Here's an old man's idea: Give all the teams no money. Point to the field, and tell them "go have some fun on your own."

That's a quote they'll remember forever.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The regret of the 'no-go' decision.

Sometimes, I think I'm too risk-averse to be a pilot.

For the past six weeks, I've been planning a trip to Arizona with my youngest (25) son. We're both big Cleveland Indians fans and wanted to spend a couple of days watching the Tribe. My friend, Darwin Barrie, offered to put the RV-7A up at his airpark and give us his truck for the week to use.

And so began weeks of planning for the trip, which -- for me -- consists of six weeks of worrying, playing "what if?". I pored over the charts and established the best route. I consulted with Darwin on the best approach into Phoenix' airspace. I'd go to sleep at night thinking of the approach and memorizing every mile of the route, the fuel stops, and the time.

Last fall, I met a gentleman who was kayaking from the Northwest Angle of Minnesota to Key West. Daniel Alvarez started in June and hoped to reach Key West on New Year's Eve. He actually reached it last week. But when I talked to him at the time, I was planning a trip to Massachusetts. "I'm a little nervous about it," I admitted to him.

"If you're not a little nervous," he said, "you're not going far enough."

As I prepared for this trip, I heard his words. Constantly. The nervousness was fine, I told myself, because I'm going far enough. It's good.

About two weeks ago, the weather discussions at the National Weather Service regional sites (they reallyare very interesting and informative reads) began to encompass the departure weather -- today -- and more "worrying" as the "what ifs" grew to encompass every section of the route, weatherwise. What are my limits? What are my alternates? How prepared am I to make the no-go decision?

Of course, it's impossible to know for sure that far out what the weather will be, which necessitates more "what ifs."

Although a blizzard came through Minnesota yesterday, I was fairly confident we'd be able to get out of here this morning. (I'd already scrapped a Monday departure last week on the basis of the the weather data I'd been gathering for a week and analyzing every four or five hours). The gusty winds were to die down to about 20 knots this morning, I checked the airport yesterday and they'd done a good and quick job removing the blowing snow, and the sky was supposed to be scattered clouds at 2500 feet. It would be cold, but I was fairly sure we'd survive the three-hour trip in high headwinds to Lexington, Nebraska, our first fuel stop, and be able to get out of there before the winds were forecast to pick up there. The rest of the trip looked weather-good. I started dreaming about being one of those people who posts trip pictures on Van's Air Force.

I'd earlier been concerned about getting Patrick home in time for a shift he had scheduled on Sunday, and a test at school (he's in the nursing program) for Monday. So I bought a $550 refundable one-way ticket on Southwest from Phoenix to Minneapolis for Saturday for him, and figured if need be, I could stay in Phoenix for a few extra days and fly back alone. But at least he'd be back in time.

Otherwise, we'd plan to fly back on Friday, maybe Saturday if the weather was good from there to here.

He was excited for the trip, especially with temperatures here 20-30 degrees below normal for this time of year. All of Minnesota is experiencing seasonal disorder, as is custom, and a couple days of watching baseball was the perfect antidote. It would have been a fabulous flight down and a great experience between father and son to remember forever.
This is why I built an airplane.

I spent yesterday on final preparations for the plane, plugging in the engine heater, organizing what's staying and what's going, and trying to figure out how close to gross weight we'd be. As it turns out, I learned just how quickly two 170-pound pilots and baggage can exceed the 1800-pound limit on an RV-7A with a full load of fuel. It'd be close.

Late last evening, flight plans filed, plane ready, peanut-butter sandwiches and water packed, I made one last weather check before a go-no go decision, only to discover the weather discussions from the National Weather Service sites from the Texas panhandle (Dalhart, TX was a fuel stop) all the way to Minneapolis began mentioning precipitation and clouds for Thursday into the weekend, where they had mentioned none previously.

But it's impossible to know at this early stage what sorts of clouds and what kind of precipitation. Steady rain? Showers? Low clouds? High clouds? Clouds I can snake around or clouds that keep me on the ground? Clouds that might entice me to fly scud? There was no way to know for sure. Then I read that the two main computer models -- one from the U.S. and one from Europe -- disagreed on what might happen. The European model was suggesting the system would stall over the Dakotas through Monday. The U.S. model was suggesting it might not.

Now I had to make a decision: Which one to believe? In previous analysis of weather discussions, I felt the European computer models were more accurate, so I chose to believe them.

Then I thought about trying to fly home, and running into ice, or low clouds and not being able to find a way through. I started to think about Get Home-itis, when the urge to get home forces pilots to make bad decisions. I thought about forcing Patrick to get in a plane on Friday to try to make it home before things (maybe) got bad -- and then getting stranded in Kansas, with him missing his work shift and his test -- rather than waiting a day and putting him safely on an airliner, and I thought about me sitting in Phoenix waiting for springtime weather to be good from Phoenix to Minneapolis, paying for a motel, not getting back to work on time at a place that isn't as excited about what I do as it once seemed to be.

And then I called the trip off.

I called Patrick and told him. "It's OK," he said, although I knew it wasn't. He's already scheduled the days off. He'd already given his car away to his girlfriend to use because hers is on a bad tire. He'd already packed. He was looking forward to the experience, and somewhere along the trip, I was going to teach him the ins and outs of flying.

His goal on the trip was to play catch with his father on the hill beyond the right field at the Indians' park in Goodyear (even though they'd be on the road for the two games we'd watch, but the Reds play at the same park). "Don't forget to pack your glove and ball," he said a few days ago.

The day this morning dawned bright and sunny, though cold and windy. But it's a beautiful day to fly. "All that worry, and for what?" I said to myself as I set one foot out of the bed, and then another. My back was aching from yesterday's snow shoveling. I read the paper then sat in the rocking chair by the front window, bathing in the sun, and found myself thinking, "I'd be landing in Lexington right now."

And that's my punishment for the next few days. I'll watch the Indians game tomorrow and think "I'd be there right now," and even worse, I know my son will be doing that too. I will spend them wondering if I made a bad call.

Although I'm hoping a blizzard comes flying through the Plains on Friday on into Monday, it wouldn't surprise me if the weather turns out to be flyable, which will be an even greater punishment -- the knowledge that we could've done the trip and we missed out on a great experience. Together.

We're taught early in our flight training to use good judgment, and that many pilots have regretted trying to fly when they shouldn't.

But they don't tell you about the other kind of regret. The regret that maybe I was too cautious.

The regret that I missed one more game of catch with my son.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Who roots for the sea?

It's funny how the news can take you back to being 8 years old again.

This is the picture-of-the-day for the storm that's hammered the East Coast today. It's on Plum Island, a long spit of sand that runs along the north shore of Massachusetts, on the New Hampshire border.

The house, as you can imagine, is a goner. The people who own it are at their house in Florida and that'll have to do. Their old house, and the land on which it once lay, belongs to the ocean again. (See some amazing pictures in this Facebook album)

That's the way it works on Plum Island. And yet, people keep building as close to the ocean as they can.

Plum Island, which sits in the town of Newburyport, was a working-person's enclave back in the day. Newburyport was a fishing and shoe-making town until the '60s, when textile companies abandoned New England for the south. Now, it's high-priced real estate for the wealthy.

I know that because when I was a kid, we had the oceanfront lot. We were the '50s and '60s pre-wealthy inhabitants.

Our home, though, wasn't the multi-million dollar structure here or the type that, no doubt, are on either side of this home, awaiting their own fate. It was just an old trailer in which somehow, we fit seven people. When you were a kid on Plum Island back then, it wasn't about your fancy house, it was about exploring what was around you. My parents would turn us loose in the morning and we might come back by dinner.

There was treasure to find that washed ashore overnight, the occasional tuna that was hoisted down at the Keezer boat works when someone got lucky, the bike to ride to Fred's variety to pick up an Archie comic, sea worms to dig and get rich selling, and, occasionally, the spectacle of the drowning victim being hauled ashore from the Coast Guard cutter.

The Simmons family -- he was a milkman -- had the little cottage in front of us until the sea came calling and they moved it back a half mile or so to escape it. The Burkes had a little pink house across the sandy road, until they -- and we -- found it tipped upside down on the beach one spring. It had fallen into the path of an angry ocean and, apparently, nobody had noticed until it came time to open the cottage for the season.

That happened all the time. Like taking attendance at the beginning of class, we'd start each summer by determining what homes were no longer where they once stood.

The town tried everything to stop the ocean. Rocks, bigger jetties, old cars, truckload after truckload of sand, and for a time it seemed to work, but nature can be very patient. Even the sprawling Coast Guard station next door gave up and moved a little farther inland. In the end, you just can't shovel sand against the tide.

We never got much of a chance to find out how our own plot would fare against it, though. A few years after the Simmonses moved their house, something else came calling -- a man with money to make. He had offered my dad money for the land, but my parents wouldn't sell. He loved the place and so did their five kids.

The next winter, someone took an axe to the trailer and, probably not coincidentally, the man called my father asking if he was interested in selling now. He was. And so a prime piece of beachfront property went for $5,000. I was too young to understand what a bitter pill that must've been for the old man.

A few weeks later, the trailer mysteriously burned down -- the guy said he was working on the plumbing with a torch at the time -- and in its place rose a multi-million dollar home, which as far as I know, still stands today.

The same thing happened up and down the beach. The old cottages gave way to the big homes, the working-class was mostly pushed out, leaving a generation of boys -- now old -- feeling only a little bit guilty and not at all proud of occasionally rooting for the sea.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

When your childhood hero dies


Rex Trailer died last night, and that probably doesn't mean much to people in Minnesota, but I can tell you this: Every kid had a Rex Trailer.

For me and thousands of others in New England, he was the hero of children's TV programming.

He was a cowboy, a real rootin' tootin' cowboy, with a horse -- Gold Rush -- and a sidekick -- Pablo, until Pablo died -- and he brought us cool things, like cartoons. And he lived in a magical place -- Boomtown -- which we believed existed, because we didn't know anything about dark TV studios that made up stuff.

And we'd get up early on Saturday mornings, sneak quietly downstairs so as not to wake the parents, and turn on the TV and stare at a test pattern (ask your parents) until Boomtown -- that was the name of the show -- came on.

And if your father was a hero, chances are part of what made him larger than life is that when he had the grand opening of his grocery store, Rex Trailer and Gold Rush came. Right! My dad knew Rex Trailer!

And when you went to college many, many years after watching him ride and rope and do a trick or two, who was one of the adjunct professors teaching television? It was Rex Trailer!

And when you were 59 years old and couldn't remember where you put your keys, you could still sing the Boomtown theme song. If the hundreds of people who turn out for his funeral don't rise as one to sing it, well, then there's no such thing as cowboys.

A kid's life couldn't have been more wonderful with such heroes.

You kids today, I feel bad for you. But not as bad as I feel for all of us kids who wanted to grow up to be cowboys.