About Alan

I am a long-time student of science and science history. I frequently reflect on the world around us and life in general, with a particular emphasis on the power of science to shape our thinking and to change our way of life.

Bye-Bye Birdie: My Recent Intervention with “Chickadees”

June 15, 2019: Yesterday was replete with both a happy ending and a sad one. The story began two days earlier when my wife and I arrived home after our regular workout at the local gym. We were not home long when Linda informed me that we had “birds in the garage.” Sure enough, there were at least two small, apparently very young birds flitting around among the exposed rafters: wonderful!

I immediately knew this could be a significant problem and could only wonder how multiple birds got into our seemingly (but not quite) airtight garage. As best we could recall, neither the large garage door nor the small side door had been left open for any period of time, recently!

After the two of us watched the tiny aviary flying to-and-fro within the garage, Linda opened the back door to briefly go into the house. At that point, one of the birds in flight headed right for the open doorway to the house which caused Linda to panic and to quickly close the door while retreating back into the garage.

Taking a cue from that, I figured we merely had to open the main garage door and the little denizens of our very own accidental aviary would head for daylight and freedom. Up came the door and we were greeted immediately with the sight of another small bird trying to get into the garage! We waved our arms and the new invader turned back. At the same time, neither of the two “captive inmates” showed any inclination to fly out to freedom.

What is going on here, I wondered? I soon deduced that the third bird was likely the mother bird, well-aware that two of her newly flight-qualified charges were somehow inside our garage. Further attempts to open the main garage door while patrolling outside to discourage mama from entering proved fruitless. The two tiny flyers inside, so recently flight-qualified, seemed not to recognize that they belonged outside, in the daylight and fresh air and not inside our garage. Daylight was not synonymous with freedom, to them, apparently.

Now, I knew we really had a problem. Another wrinkle to the situation: Linda is a bit terrified by the prospect of any close, personal encounter with birds, living or dead. More than once in our fifty-two years together, I have been despatched to her beloved garden to remove a dead bird from the flower beds. A dead bird discovery in her garden evokes an immediate freak-out from Linda.

What to do with these newbie birdies? I spent much of last Wed. evening and a good part of Thursday in the garage with my large, bright LED flashlight scanning the darker regions of the overhead rafters and the racks of storage boxes in the garage. Before long, the frenzied flying about was done; now, I had to audibly track the frequent and persistent squawky-peeps emanating from various corners of the garage in order to catch them in the beam of my flashlight. Wednesday evening, realizing the dire situation, I ordered a bird net from Amazon: two day delivery!

Once I located one of the birds in the beam of my flashlight, I would try to “coax” it to re-locate to a spot where I might capture it without harm. I armed myself with a large, wet rag to toss over a cornered or surprised bird. That led to several quite humorous, but decidedly unsuccessful encounters: they were too wily and quick for me! Before long, I concluded that my best option was to stun them a bit on their perch or in mid-air using my damp rag balled-up as a projectile. That did not work. My last resort was to gently swat them in mid-flight with the bristles of a broom, enough to stun them to the ground where I could employ my wet rag capture. Tracking flying birds in our garage which is crowded with boxes and stuff of all sorts means risking life and limb – a nearly impossible and dangerous mission.

I had the feeling that leaving the garage doors open for extended periods might only invite the mother (and other of the flock) inside. Besides, these confused baby birds seemed unable to recognize the freedom represented by daylight. They acted as if the garage were “home.”

More than once, after fruitlessly stalking these birdies for well over half an hour at a time, I would declare out loud, “I am done with these birds!” My LED flashlight batteries needed replacing, and I was discouraged, but I found myself unable to resist for long, going back to the garage to try some more, consumed by a stubborn persistence!

Finally, on Thursday afternoon, I left the side garage door open and tried, yet again, to roust the uninvited residents of my garage and herd them with a broom toward daylight. I was 90% certain that one of them actually flew out the side door after considerable effort on my part. I thought I saw it out of the corner of my eye! Before he and/or others might decide to come back in, I closed the door, confident that I had but one uninvited guest remaining.

Now, it is Friday morning, and time is running out. The bird net I ordered from Amazon was not due until that evening, and I figured that a rescue was paramount before the end of the day. Without food and water, our uninvited guest surely could not last much longer, it seemed. That morning, I went out to the garage with my trusty flashlight, and my wet rag. Sure enough, there were still some weakly audible, squawky-peeps to be heard. When rousted, the little bird’s flight was slow and labored. At one point, the little flyer fluttered to the floor of the garage, exhausted, where I finally was able to cover him with my wet rag.

Scooping him up ever so carefully within the rag, I opened the side door to be greeted immediately by mama bird who quickly retreated when I stepped outside. She surely could hear her charge’s weak, squawky-peeps through the side door. Carefully, I laid the rag and its squirming little captive on the sidewalk and gently peeled back the flap covering him. The exhausted, cute little down-covered flyer was able to gain his feet, fluff himself up, and sit there motionless with eyes half-closed. I retreated several yards back, and, sure enough, mama bird was quickly there. Linda and I placed some water and crushed

cracker crumbs next to birdie, doing what little we could.

I spent close to a half-hour watching with fascination how mama bird energetically worked the various plants and bushes nearby, apparently looking for food. Twice, she went up to birdie and ostensibly transferred some sustenance to him beak-to-beak. She then departed for a while, only to come back, yet again, to check on her charge.
I came back later and found that birdie had moved off the sidewalk and onto the adjacent dirt strip – a wise move for the purposes of camouflage, if nothing else. Another half-hour passed, and I returned to find birdie still in place. I carefully attempted to place his water next to him and was startled when suddenly he took flight smoothly and straight to a bush some fifteen yards away – a very good and welcome sign! I have not seen him since, but, after what I have witnessed, I have no doubt that mama bird found him fairly quickly. Perhaps she has a few more lessons to impart before finally letting go!

The Final Chapter

Our Friday morning trip to the gym was long-delayed by the events described above, but we left happy in the knowledge that the little bird we rescued now had a chance at life. I heard no squawky-peeps in the garage prior to finally heading out for our workout. After the gym, we had not been home but a few minutes when Linda came to tell me she found a dead bird. My heart sank as I followed her to find out where she discovered the bird. Surprisingly, the bird was lying on the floor inside the garage, close to the side garage door. I immediately surmised that the second bird which I had thought flew out the open side door the day before, must not have done so. A wad of dust-balls from underneath some nearby cabinets was clinging to its feet. Sad was I, yet happy that the rescued birdie was still alive out there, somewhere, hopefully with a life ahead of him/her.

I learned a lot about these little birds during my three-day, up-close and personal interaction with them. Despite having small, “bird-brains,” they are hard-wired by mother nature with a strong instinct to survive. The mother/young bond on display throughout the three days was emblematic of that instinct. The endurance of the baby birds was evident by all the flying in a warm garage and the constant stream of squawky-peeps emitted from them, cries for help that the mother bird duly heeded.

I call these little birds “chickadees” for want of any more expertise. They are recent arrivals (within the last several years) in our neighborhood. Many are the times I have watched through the patio window as they deftly made their way among the plants outside, looking for dinner. My admiration for them has only grown deeper, given this recent experience.

Postscript: How Did They Get into the Garage?

Soon after discovering these little “garage invaders,” I employed my ladder to investigate. I was aware of a small masonry ledge just under the front eaves at the corner of the garage door where there was bird activity in years past. As I climbed to eye level with the ledge, an adult chickadee flew around the corner of the garage and landed on the ledge, not two feet from my nose. That startled me, and my unexpected presence there apparently startled the bird as well which left as quickly as it appeared. “That must be the mother bird,” I thought, and she seems familiar with the territory. A few moments later, I noticed the mother three feet away, peering at me around the corner of the garage while hanging tenaciously on to the side brick masonry which extends around the corner. One look from me, and she was gone, again.
My investigation revealed a construction area/strip about one inch high where the chicken wire underlay (for stucco) was exposed. But it was backed by a rafter – except for a two-inch length at the end. There, nothing showed behind the wire except a black hole! Despite the small diameter openings in the chicken-wire (approximately one inch), those birds somehow found their way through that area and into the garage. A rag is now stuffed into the narrow ledge opening outside. I expect no further Chickadee invasions!

A Young Boy’s Toys: The Rex Mays Toy Racer and the Story Behind It

In one’s late years, as time and life continue to move inexorably forward, a curious thing happens – at least to me. Certain objects and images we recall from our youth surface from a long-dormant state to beguile our memory and to re-kindle a new-born enthusiasm: a recollection of our youth and the things that mattered most to us in childhood.

Two of my favorite play-things early in life were my American Flyer electric train and a much less spectacular, nonetheless coveted, plastic wind-up Indy-style race car. Through the many decades since childhood, and for some obscure reasons, the recollection of that little motorized race car as one of my favorite toys stubbornly remained with me. I believe the jaunty little toy racer came to me around the time that my family moved from Chicago to California in early 1948. Special toys for my sister and I were few and far between in the lean postwar years, and this toy car was highly prized. I recall that my racer was made of light-blue plastic with an ivory-colored “underbelly,” and it had substantial, real rubber tires mounted on aluminum wheels. The car just looked “neat,” and it ran well: the wind-up motor could get it up to a pretty good speed on any extended smooth surface. My little race car disappeared many decades ago, and I never thought it likely that I would ever see one like it again.

Serendipity at the Pleasanton Antique Fair

Two years ago, at the annual Pleasanton, California, open-air antique fair, I found a suspiciously similar wind-up plastic race car with the exact same tires/wheels as my prized toy of over seventy years ago. Although the shape of its grey plastic body was somewhat different from the memories of mine, the wheels and tires registered exactly with my mental images. This car also differed in that it had a red plastic driver seated behind the steering wheel: mine did not. Despite not being exactly like mine, this “find” piqued my curiosity. The car came with its original, very nice box (rarely the case), and it was in good working condition, as well. I just knew this car had to be descended from my boyhood racer. For nostalgia’s sake, I made the dealer an offer: sixty dollars, and it was mine.

An imprint molded on the plastic bottom of the car reads:

MFG. BY PAGLIUSO MFG. CO.
GLENDALE 4. CALIF. USA

On the bottom of the box for the “Pagco Jet Racing Car,” the legend reads:

Manufactured by the makers of the original famous Rex Mays toy racer.
PAGLIUSO ENGINEERING COMPANY
113 West Harvard Street – Glendale 4, California, USA

 

 

Immediately, I deduced the possibility that my prized boyhood race car might have been “the original famous Rex Mays toy racer!” referred to on the box. And, by the way, who was Rex Mays, anyway?

My wife, Linda, and I were both intrigued by the fact that the Pagliuso Engineering Company was long ago located in Glendale, California – the city of her birth.

After acquiring an apparent “descendent” of my boyhood treasure at the Pleasanton Fair, I commenced to do what I do, and I began to Google the internet for information. I quickly verified that the “Rex Mays toy racer” was made under the name “Rite Spot Plastic Prod.” by the same company at the same Glendale address as my recent purchase, the “Pagco Jet Racing Car.” I deduced that my recent purchase was likely manufactured ten to twenty years after the Mays toy racer was produced which could place the latter date somewhere in the late nineteen-forties.

The Final Proof!

A distributor’s advertisement cut from a vintage, contemporary magazine surfaced for sale on E-Bay for several dollars. The ad offered the Rex Mays Racer with “free-wheeling motor” and “rubber tires”…all for $2.50 postpaid! The small ad included a picture of the racer offered. One look, and I could see: that was my little car – exactly, in all respects! I purchased the original ad.

What does the experience described in this post mean to me? Adding substance to the remaining mental imagery of my long-gone racer via the miracle of Google and the internet is yet another instance of the good and the joy that technology can bring to our lives. To the rest of the world, my experience with this toy race car will appear trivial, yet it illustrates convincingly the power of the internet. For me, on a very personal level, the experience has enabled a mental (and physical) reunion with the times, the toys, and the enthusiasms of a young lad some seventy years ago. And, at my age, that proves to be symbolic and satisfying – the closing of a circular journey back to my distant past, a time-tunnel to my boyhood.

Two days ago, I placed an internet order for a Rex Mays toy racer, exactly like my old blue over ivory car except that this one is a rare sea-green color over ivory (pictured earlier). Instead of $2.50 postpaid, this one cost $75, shipping extra! The little car arrived yesterday in great condition. I was not disappointed.

My new car has the following legend embossed on the bottom:

MFD BY
RITE SPOT PLASTIC PROD
113 W. HARVARD
GLENDALE 4 CALIF.
MADE IN U.S.A.

“Rite Spot Plastic Prod” on this car was clearly affiliated with “Pagliuso Engineering” as marked on my earlier Pleasanton Fair purchase: the Glendale addresses are identical.

It so happens that surviving examples of this little car are available “out there” (who could have found them fifteen years ago?). Most of these toy race cars were “heavily enjoyed” by their youthful owners, so the significant challenge is to locate one in nice condition and good working order. Who knows, the remnants of my original, treasured little race car might still be out there, somewhere, on that vast sea of possibilities called “the internet.”

And Finally, Who Was Rex Mays?

Rex Mays was a very popular champion race car driver in the nineteen-thirties and forties with many important race victories. Although placing second twice at the Indianapolis Speedway 500, he never won there. In 1949, during a race at Del Mar, California, Mays lost control of his car and was killed. Press coverage of the event and the accident was widespread: a stop-action series of published photos in Life Magazine showed the grisly details of Mays’ ejection out of the car and onto the track where he was then run-over by another car coming along. Rex Mays, it seems, adamantly refused to wear a seat belt on the racetrack! It is not clear whether the introduction of the Rex Mays toy racer occurred before or after his fatal accident: most likely before, I imagine.

The Rest of the Story

In the course of my internet travels while unraveling the story of the Rex Mays toy racer, I came across this very applicable obituary on the founder of the Pagliuso Engineering Company in Glendale, California. Robert J. Pagliuso was evidently a very successful engineer/entrepreneur. In addition to his very popular motorized toy race cars (both gas-powered and wind-up), I learned that his photography tripods were considered the Rolls-Royce of the genre. It seems fitting that his story be a part of mine in this post!

Published in the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 23, 2003:

Pagliuso, Robert J.
On April 14. 1913, Robert J. Pagliuso (Bud) was born to immigrant parents in Glendale, California. He was raised on 11,000 acres known as The Ross Ranch. Bud and his brother John attended Glendale High School where both were student body presidents. Bud attended USC and from there he studied several fields of advanced engineering. As a young entrepreneur, he founded the Pagliuso Engineering Company. Through the duration of WWII, he contracted with the U.S. Government and operated his facilities 24 hours a day. Additionally, he designed, patented and manufactured his Hollywood Tripod and motor driven toy racecars which were distributed throughout the world. Bud and John developed and owned The Glendale Plaza Shopping Center which remains in the family. Bud went on to develop other commercial real estate holdings in LA County and cattle and horse ranches in Kern County. He bred, raised and raced thoroughbred running horses.

One Last Comment

The stories I have related in this post epitomize, for me, the differences that exist between growing-up as a young boy in today’s world and coming of age in the environment of the nineteen-forties and fifties. I wrote this post because it strikes me as quaint that a little, unsophisticated plastic wind-up race car could have captured a young boy’s fancy as was the case with me. This post expresses my interest in the contrasts between then and now.

In today’s world, high-tech, lithium battery-powered robotic toys which flash, move, and talk while creating a virtual new reality are the play-things that capture young boys’ attention – not that there is anything wrong with that. There is no stopping technological progress: that is a given. With my electrical engineering background, I can appreciate what is available in today’s toy/hobby venues, but the bar is very high for modern toys.

The wind-up Rex Mays toy racer and simple toys like it, back in the day, captured – and held – the imagination and appreciation of us kids for a very long time. The culture of those times and the role of play-time “imagination” had much to do with the attraction and staying power of simpler toys. Will the same hold true for today’s toys, or is it already time to move on to the next, big thing? Could it be that less is more?

Doris Day Is Gone; She Was One of a Kind: Never Before and Never Again

Yesterday, Linda and I attended the Sunday Matinee at the Stanford Theatre which featured the film, Pajama Game starring Doris Day. The double bill also featured her in Calamity Jane. We left the theatre last evening totally entertained, musing that we had just seen one of Hollywood’s finest talents, ever, once-again lighting-up the screen with fabulous performances. Not having seen these two films, but well versed in Doris Day, we expected no less. We felt compelled to be there.

This morning, our clock radio came to life at 5:40 am with the news that Doris Day had just left this world after ninety-seven years of a life packed full of living and great accomplishment in the arts!

I have always really liked Doris Day, along with millions of others. Perhaps my favorite performance of hers was a co-starring role with Jimmy Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s great film, The Man Who Knew Too Much. In it she plays a young wife to Stewart whose young son is kidnapped in a Marrakesh bazaar while on a trip abroad. Her character in the film is as fresh and natural as sunlight: her acting is superb.

Everyone has their distinct favorites when it comes to movies, the stars, and the scenes they played. Doris Day gets my vote for the best-acted scene in any movie in Hitchcock’s aforementioned film. The scene: Stewart has just learned that their young son, Hank, has disappeared in a Marrakesh bazaar not because he became separated in the milling crowd, but because he has been kidnapped in an international plot of political intrigue. When he breaks the news to his wife, Jo (Doris Day), she breaks down in an hysterical fit of uncontrolled emotions.

Her acting in that scene is as touching and compelling as any I have ever witnessed on the screen. Since I first saw Hitchcock’s film as a teen-ager in the nineteen-fifties, I have respected Doris Day as far more than a pert and pretty Hollywood face. She could act, she could sing, and she could dance. And could she sing! One of her great hit records, Que Sera, Sera, made its film debut in The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Day began her career in the nineteen-forties as a big-band singer for Les Brown and His Band of Reknown. Her greatest post-war recording hit with Brown was the famous tune, Sentimental Journey. Her voice possessed a sweetness and a vocal clarity that was equalled by only one other pop vocalist of the era, Eydie Gorme. Like Gorme, Day’s clear diction while conveying the lyics was superb as well.

Another, lesser known starring role for Doris Day paired her with Kirk Douglas in the 1950 film, Young Man With a Horn. She (convincingly) played a band singer who fell in with a young trumpet player whose attentions were divided between Day and her best friend, portrayed by a young Lauren Bacall. While I enjoyed Doris Day very much in that film, the film’s greatest claim to fame was the featured trumpet playing, all dubbed-in by the great Harry James on a sparkling-clear soundtrack.

Young Man With a Horn featured yet another of my all-time favorite movie scenes. In it, Day and Douglas visit a sophisticated jazz nightclub in which his former trumpet teacher/mentor is performing with a small combo. When the mentor recognizes his former pupil in the audience, he invites Douglas up on the stage to play for the audience. And play he (Harry James) does! James’s rendition of With a Song in My Heart is enough to send chills up and down the spine. The entire scene is mesmerzing, with the audience a-buzz at what they just heard and Day with tears in her eyes back at their table.

For the girl who seemed to have it all, Doris Day reportedly paid a heavy price for her fame and fortune. Married four times, her spousal choices were highly problematic. When third husband Marty Melcher died in 1968, she shockingly discovered that her presumed financial security was an illusion. To her complete shock, she learned that Melcher and his financial associates had mis-managed much of the fortune she had earned while at the peak of her career. She found herself forced to continue working at a time in life when she should have been solidly financially independent.

I have not read her autobiography yet, but I understand it is butally direct and honest. The prevailing message: Doris Day was not about to be defined by such popular illusions as exemplified by: “the girl next door.” Doris Day was apparently not an uncomplicated woman.

What is clearly uncomplicated and easy to digest is the vinyl and celluoloid evidence she left behind that tells us we will not see the likes of her ever again.

The Collings Foundation’s 2019 “Wings of Freedom Tour”

In a few weeks, the familiar and unmistakable drone of World War II heavy bombers will be heard once again in the skies over-head. I am already getting excited! It is time for the annual reappearance of the Wings of Freedom Tour at nearby Moffett Field. Moffett will be one of many stops across America for the tour and its priceless collection of beautifully restored, vintage aircraft.

The stated mission of this annual tour is two-fold: first, to restore and preserve vintage aircraft in flying condition; second, to pay tribute to those who flew in the war while insuring that future generations will be reminded of those veteran’s experiences and sacrifices. The war years of 1941-1945 were, on balance, undoubtedly the worst of times; yet in many smaller ways, they were also the best of times for this country. The book, The Greatest Generation, by Tom Brokaw reflects the uniqueness of the times and the generation who lived them.

While I have no personal affiliation with the Collings Foundation, whatsoever, I wholeheartedly support their mission to insure that the contrasts and the color of those times are never lost to future generations. I write this endorsement of their tour strictly as an act of appreciation and thanks.

I especially look forward to re-visiting the Wings tour this year because I had the great, good fortune last Memorial Day to fly the Foundation’s most iconic warbird, the P-51D Mustang. For one glorious half-hour, I had the ability to take the rear seat controls of that beautiful bird under the watchful eye of pilot Nick, seated up-front. I posted, here, on that experience last year: it and other related posts can be located by entering “Mustang” in the search box on the top right of my home page.

My flight in Toulouse Nuts was the thrill of a lifetime for someone like me interested in aviation – especially the warbirds from World War II. The Collings tour offers anyone the chance to go up in one of several iconic airplanes that played a pivotal role in the war. A half-hour ride in the P-51D will cost you $2400, but a half-hour adventure aboard the B-17 Flying Fortress or the B-24 Liberator bomber runs $450. A nominal fee of $15 for adults and $5 for children, enables you to crawl at your leisure through the bombers mentioned for an up-close-and-personal ground adventure!

If you have not visited the Collings Wings of Freedom Tour, Google it on the internet to see if it will be coming your way this summer. Take your children and treat them to an eye-opening reality-experience that will make a lasting impression. The following photo says it all for me:

A veteran who flew on B-24’s provides a living link to hundreds of kids who are learning that a knowledge of history has far more to offer them than spending still more social media time on the internet. If you visit the tour this year, chances are that you will still encounter a veteran volunteer docent who was there decades ago and can relate, first-hand, what it was like to fly these great warbirds which won the war for freedom. Sadly, as each year passes, fewer of these folks are still with us who can pass on their memories and their realities to the next generation.

The B-24 Liberator, Witchcraft – the last one flying

The airplane in the background of the above picture is the very last of its kind still flying: The storied B-24, Witchcraft. The B-24 Liberator had the highest production run of any airplane in history – approximately 18,500 were built! Such a large number supports two facts: first, the importance of this, our largest, long-range bomber; second, the huge losses suffered during countless bombing runs over Germany. Given these facts, I deeply appreciate that the Collings Foundation does what it does to “keep ‘em flying,” as they say, while preserving this precious heritage for future generations to experience.

Go hear for yourself the sound of the B-24’s four piston engines coughing, smoking, and belching to life during engine startup. See for yourself that big bird lift off the runway, straining for altitude. Go crawl through the belly of the beast and see what its crews faced at thirty-thousand feet with freezing cold during six-hour missions into Germany and back (if lady-luck was with them that day)!

While you are at it, check out the signature, raspy/throaty roar of the twelve-cylinder, 1600+ horsepower Rolls-Royce Merlin engine as it catapults the P-51D Toulouse Nuts into the air on take-off. The P-51D was the greatest fighter of the war, bar-none! Its introduction to service as a long-range bomber escort in late 1943 saved countless bomber crews who would otherwise have gone down at the hands of German pilots. Aside from its unmatched ability to escort the bombers deep into Germany and back again, the P-51 proved superior to any fighter/interceptor in the German arsenal. Many nine and ten-man bomber crews developed a great fondness and admiration for their P-51 escorts – their “little friends,” as they called them.

Go catch the tour and see for yourself: you won’t be sorry that you did!

Notre-Dame de Paris: What to Do with This?

Coincidences and connections: life presents us with some interesting situations. “Pre-ordained” is not the proper phrase for what sometimes occurs, and yet the situation is often rather inexplicable – puzzling, to say the least.

My wife and I were at the gym, yesterday morning, for our usual Monday workout. Linda was already upstairs on the treadmill, and I came up to join her. As in most workout facilities, there is a bank of televisions overhead for the patrons.

As I stepped up on the machine next to hers, she said to me, “Notre-Dame is on fire!” There, directly overhead, was an image that was no less unbelievable than was the sight of New York’s twin-towers smoldering some eighteen years ago.

As the day played itself out, we, collectively, slowly but surely, lost one of civilization’s most precious icons. Notre-Dame de Paris has exemplified, for over nine-hundred years and many generations, what humans can accomplish by setting their sights beyond existing horizons…and working together on a common cause.

These past few weeks, my wife and I have been busily reorganizing our household with an eye to streamlining and simplifying our future lives. This has entailed going through the myriad of memories preserved over our lifetimes, memories residing on bookshelves and within file cabinets. Accordingly, the house is currently a mess, with papers, files, and “stuff” scattered all over.

Why This One?

Slowly, but surely, we have discarded “stuff” and consolidated storage for all the rest. There was one item whose future fate I had not yet been able to determine: “Shall I keep this or not, and if I do keep it, where will I put it?”

“It” is a travel guidebook from 1975 with illustrations and information on Notre-Dame de Paris. Two days ago, with a sense of frustration and after hours of difficult mental verdicts on so much “stuff,” I laid the book on our living room end-table: “Fate to be determined, later,” I thought to myself. And then yesterday happened. Yesterday, I took these pictures, as well.

We had been to Paris as a family in 1994, and we acquired this little book at the very same time indelible and precious memories of Notre-Dame de Paris were being formed. I will find a good, safe place for this little book as we all grieve for our loss in far-away Paris, the City of Light.

The Navy’s Blue Angels Begin Another Season

This past weekend brought the 2019 version of the Navy’s renowned flight demonstration team, the Blue Angels, to Salinas, California. Salinas marked the second of many stops on the Blues’ performance calendar for this year.

For the uninitiated, I offer the following:

-The mission of the Blue Angels is to demonstrate the performance capabilities of the modern Navy’s latest aircraft and the Naval/Marine aviators who fly them. The carefully chosen team of six aviators is comprised of the best of the best in Naval and Marine aviation. They execute the team mission by flying difficult maneuvers at high speed while maintaining very close proximity to one another in formation. This is not stunt flying. The difficult and precise routines are performed to demonstrate the ultimate capabilities of both men and machines.

-If you have never seen the Blue Angels, by all means, go do it! I can confidently speak not only for myself, but for millions of others who have attended their airshows when I say that the excitement of seeing a Blue Angels performance will rank near the top of anything the average person will experience in a lifetime. I still recall the memories of my earliest exposure, nearby at the-then Moffett Field Naval Air Station; that was in the mid-nineteen-fifties. Since then, I have seen the Blues perform several times: the thrill is ever present with each performance!

The Blue Angels were formed in 1946, just after the war. During that first year, they flew the venerable Navy warbird, the Grumman F6F Hellcat. The following year, the team embraced the faster Grumman F8F Bearcat. The team entered the jet age in 1950 with the Grumman F9F Panther. The Blues’ current ride is the McDonnell Douglas F/C-18 Hornet, an iconic airplane which has earned the longest tenure with the Blues of any airplane (the F/A-18 in1986).

This airplane is currently transitioning into an advanced configuration called the “Super Hornet.” The Navy has chosen to forego the latest high-performance airplane available in the arsenal, the advanced F-35. Procurement, maintenance and operating costs for the F-35 relative to the Hornet dictate that decision.

While anyone witnessing a Blue’s performance cannot help but admire the capabilities of the men who fly these yellow-trimmed, azure blue Hornets, my mind also focuses heavily on the aerodynamic beauty and raw power of the F-18 itself. The brute power of the airplane manifests itself with a deafening roar as the Blues roll down the runway using full afterburners during take-off. For much of the performance, the sleek Hornets slice through the air almost silently at first, only to be followed a split second later by the throaty roar from their powerful jet engines – even with afterburners off.

During their performance demonstration, the Blues’ two solo airplanes, tail-numbers five and six, employ full afterburners as they skim low across the field and rapidly swing nose up into a vertical position prior to heading several thousand feet straight up into the deep blue sky – all with no loss of momentum. To witness such performance from a flying machine is to marvel at the vision, determination, and engineering brilliance of its creators. Equally incredible is the realization that what is on display right before one’s eyes is occurring a mere one hundred and sixteen years after the Wright Brothers first left the ground for twelve seconds in 1903. That fragile machine was powered by a tiny 12 horsepower, four-cylinder piston engine machined by the Brothers’ bicycle shop mechanic, Charlie Taylor.

I like to call such positive experiences like the Blue Angels “perspective builders,” experiences which go a long way toward neutralizing the demonstrated array of follies and foolishness that history attributes to the human-race – individually and collectively. There is a sad irony, however, in the realization that some of the greatest and most rapid advances in aviation have been motivated typically by the prospect of fighting wars!

At the Airshow, It’s Time to Fly: The Excitement Builds!

In the opening moments of the program, the pilots stride six abreast with military precision along the flight line as they approach their airplanes which are precisely parked in numerical order along the line. The eyes of the crowd are affixed on the pilots, naturally, but I tend also to notice the crew chief assigned to each pilot/airplane standing by his/her aircraft, hands behind the back, waiting to swing into action. Like their crew chief counterparts in World War II combat aviation, they, too, are unsung heroes tasked with the responsibility of keeping their airplane in flying condition. In the same vein, I also appreciate the skilled mechanics who travel with and are part of the Blue Angels organization, responsible for the perfect condition of all six airplanes. There is no room, here, for less than “perfect.”

The group commander flying Blue Angel number one moves first to his airplane from his position in the procession down the flight line, followed sequentially by the pilot of number two, and so on. Each pilot “mounts” his aircraft and deftly clambers into the cockpit of an airplane which is meticulously groomed ahead of time by the support staff under the watchful eyes of each crew chief. The crew chief helps each pilot “strap” into his airplane. Then, matching yellow helmets are donned by each pilot and electrical connections made to the vital on-board communications equipment which connects all six airplanes with each other… and the ground. Now the crew chiefs step nimbly down off their airplanes and, starting with Angel number one, the Hornets’ canopies close in sequence down the line.

The excited tension in the crowd is now palpable as a perceptible “whine” and loud “whoosh” emanates from the engines of Blue Angel number one, usually accompanied by a thin puff of white smoke expelled from the tailpipe. The same scenario repeats with Blue Angel number two and so-on down the line until a very robust whining/shhhhh sound emanates from the entire flight line. Now number one pulls out from the flight line turns and starts for the taxiway, followed, as always, in sequence by the rest of the team. In a few minutes, the crowd will hear all engines release the throaty roar which signifies the take-off roll with afterburners and the start of yet another in the long line of incomparable Blue Angels flight demonstration performances.

The airshow crowd is peppered with young children whose parents brought them to see the modern-day version of the barnstorming phenomenon of the nineteen-thirties: a pilot and his Jenny bi-plane landing in a farmer’s field to demonstrate to the amazement of local folks what he and his airplane can do.

My wife and I took our two young grandsons to the airfield last Saturday to see the Blues. I wanted them to experience the same inspiration and unforgettable panorama that I was fortunate enough to witness as a teen-ager – the impressive display of men and machines at their very best. The boys loved it! They all do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“While England Slept”: Winston Churchill and Serendipity at the Book Fair

Last weekend, Linda and I went to a book fair in South San Francisco: I had a very interesting experience as a result. We had a choice between attending this smaller, “book and paper” fair or the annual International Antiquarian Bookfair across the bay in Oakland, one of the largest of its kind in the world. We have been to many of those over the years, and they provide a dazzling experience for any bibliophile. But we opted for the simpler afternoon excursion closer to home where book prices are not so astronomical. Linda bought a few inexpensive items, but I came home with an empty shopping bag. There was one book which did capture my attention – a very nice but pricey copy of the 1940 publication by a recent Harvard graduate, one John F. Kennedy. Its title: Why England Slept. That title rang a bell in my mind: I believed it to be an important book explaining how England was so unprepared to deal with Adolph Hitler’s subjugation of Europe in the late nineteen-thirties. Because I have a very strong interest in the subject matter, the book was tempting but for the price and a considerable degree of uncertainty on my part. I decided to pass and do some research on both the subject and the book.

Caution can be a very rewarding virtue, and so it was in this case. Back home, I quickly discovered that young Kennedy’s book sprung from his senior year college thesis and was ostensibly a coat-tail project which followed Winston Churchill’s 1938 publication titled, While England Slept. This latter book contains a collection of Churchill’s opinions and speeches in the period from 1932 to 1938 whose intent was to warn a “sleeping” England and Europe of the dangers posed by Hitler’s rapidly spreading dark shadow. Young Kennedy’s book focuses on the reasons why England was so unprepared prior to Dunkirk and the ensuing Battle of Britain. At least one reviewer panned the book as the relatively immature effort which might be expected of a recent college graduate, no matter how bright! Whatever merits Kennedy’s effort might possess, it also seems clear that old Joe Kennedy had a hand in his son’s publication and its success in the marketplace by calling-in a few personal favors within the publishing world.

It was immediately clear to me that Churchill’s book was THE book to have and read, and it was this title of which I was vaguely aware. Of course, only Winston Churchill could be the author of such an important book, a book that gives throat to a lone voice warning of impending disaster for Britain, indeed for all of western civilization. I am relatively new to the detailed panorama that was the thirties, with its dark Nazi storm clouds forming, and the forties when lightning struck the world at large. But I do know this much: Winston Churchill was likely the greatest figure of the twentieth century. This uniquely colorful character of a man seemed, by some pre-ordained, divine destiny, to be uniquely qualified to do what he did – which was no less than saving the world from Nazi tyranny. Indeed, Churchill himself deeply believed that such a destiny was his protection from risk and harm when he often emerged from underground air-raid shelters to quickly survey the damage from Hitler’s latest blitz attack on London. These images of him amid the smoking rubble and his desire to be among his people were not lost on Londoners.

England survived two major crises subsequent to the infamous appeasements of an invading Hitler by then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in the vain hope that an independent England and a Nazi dominated Europe could peacefully coexist – never a possibility in Churchill’s mind. The first crisis was the potential immediate loss of most of Britain’s 250,000-plus army at Dunkirk after Nazi tank divisions and the Luftwaffe had forced the weary remnant of British troops to the sea near that small French village. Only a miraculous small-boat “armada of the people” saved the army by ferrying it across the English Channel to Dover, literally overnight, while the Nazi’s bided their time, assured of victory, so they thought.

                                                                                  Aviation artwork by Robert Taylor

The second historic event that saved the nation, known as the Battle of Britain, was fought in the skies above the English countryside. From July to October of 1940, a planned German invasion across the English Channel from occupied France was stymied by the intrepid young fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force. These youngsters, most barely 20 years of age, were badly outmanned in number and equipment, yet they answered the call to scramble their Hurricanes and Spitfires three, four, and sometimes five times a day, intercepting German bombers and fighter escorts of the Luftwaffe whose directive was to destroy RAF airfields and aircraft in preparation for Hitler’s imminent invasion of the island nation. The invasion never happened. The Luftwaffe’s losses signaled the beginning of its end.

After three months of deadly combat in the skies and destruction rained down on British soil, Hermann Goering’s superbly equipped Luftwaffe was beaten back by the courage and skill of the young pilots of the Royal Air Force. Today, there are barely any of them left, those young Brits who flew Hurricanes and Spitfires against the Luftwaffe. Thankfully, there exist a number of excellent interviews and film documentaries which feature the dozen or so survivors still alive several years ago. Go find them and watch them and find out for yourself why Churchill eulogized them forever with his famous words, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

“Alone.” That word for many months symbolized the state of both Winston Churchill and the British island nation after Hitler crashed his way across Europe, finally occupying neighboring France on June 17, 1940. Weeks earlier, on May 10, Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlin as Prime Minister. England finally had heeded Churchill’s urgent warnings about Hitler and the need to rearm, but almost too late. Churchill had thought it might be too late, once France had fallen.

So, it is this 1938 book of Churchill’s, While England Slept, which I purchased from a bookseller last week, that embodies those urgent warnings of Churchill to pay heed to the Nazi threat while putting aside the memory of Britain’s revulsion to the all too recent World War I experience. Late last year, the fine movie, Darkest Hour, had implanted in my head the full measure of Churchill’s greatness. His written and spoken eloquence remind me of another great leader/statesman with similar attributes, Abraham Lincoln. It is said of Lincoln, that he saved the union. It can truly be said of Churchill that he saved Europe and western civilization. Lincoln also found himself very “alone” during his first months in the White House as the Civil War raged around him. Although from opposite ends of the personality spectrum, similarities between the two men and their history abound – including well-honed personal senses of irony and humor.

I had already been into Churchill and World War II history for some years before serendipity brought me to this latest book acquisition last week. I now have all the material resources required to truly learn the subjects in greater depth. Along with the problem of available bookshelf space, only available time can slow me down!