Bad Day at Mars Bluff

…In one of my earliest posts here, I mentioned that My Beloved Service has had a long series of…problems…regarding the weapons we only half jestingly referred to as Instant Sunrises or Crowd Pleasers, better known as nuclear or thermonuclear weapons.   Strategic Air Command, May Peace Be Its Profession Unto Them, made a positive fetish out of nuclear safety, but it was wise to do so.  And we were blessed by the results – since the beginning of the nuclear age, the United States Air Force has never had a nuclear yield caused by accident or carelessness.

Not to say we haven’t lost a few and not gotten ’em back.  Sadly, that’s been known to happen, though it’s been a while.  But during the 50s and 60s, we were known to bobble a bomb or two, and that’s wherein lies our story on a windy March afternoon fifty-seven years ago.

On March 11, 1958, a B-47 bomber was flying over the little town of Mars Bluff, SC, on its way to exercises with our Cousins Across the Pond.

The Boeing B-47E Stratojet.  The buildings in the background and the Avro Vulcan visible to the right suggest this was taken on an RAF base.

The Boeing B-47E Stratojet. The buildings in the background and the Avro Vulcan visible to the right suggest this was taken on an RAF base.

Tucked snugly into the bomb bay was a Mark 6 atomic bomb – roughly four tons worth of cutting-edge destructive technology with a variable yield of up to 160 kilotons (put into perspective, that was eight times the yield of the Mk 1 ‘Little Boy’ at  Hiroshima.).

The Mark 6 nuclear bomb - the United States Air Force's way of saying, "Back the feck off."

The Mark 6 nuclear bomb – the United States Air Force’s way of saying, “Back the feck off.”

Now, it wasn’t at all unknown in those days to fly live nukes hither and yon, in this case because if the Balloon went up while they were over there SAC expected them to do their duty from an RAF runway if need be.  So when they launched from Hunter AFB near Savannah, GA, CAPT Earl Koehler, USAF, was being extra careful with his airplane and the plutonium horror a few feet behind him.  Unfortunately, this was going to be one of those days when careful just wasn’t going to cut it.  Now, I should clarify here, especially for the faint-hearted among the Dear Readers, that the Mark 6 wasn’t technically live when they left the runway back at Hunter.  Back in the day, aircraft simply did not have the hyper-reliable status they have now – accidents could and did happen on a regular basis, and a fully armed nuclear weapon could not help but make things worse.  So the ‘capsule’ – a steel case containing the actual nuclear material for the bomb – was kept separately from said bomb and if the call came, would be inserted into the bomb by the Bomb/Nav, CAPT Bruce Kulka.

CAPT Koehler got the Stratojet off the ground promptly at 1553 hrs.  Just before that, the copilot, CAPT Charles Woodruff (you know his call sign had to be ‘Woody’) had pulled a lever in his cockpit to insure that the primary locking pin on the Mark 6 was disengaged, so in the event of an emergency on takeoff they could jettison the bomb and try to get back to Hunter – the Stratojet, for all it’s sleek, futuristic beauty, was a true and genuine pig to fly with a full warload and fuel.  If anything went well and truly south on takeoff, it was felt that it was better to lose the unarmed bomb than the aircraft and its crew.  A silver-grey arrowhead atop a pillar of smoky black exhaust fumes, the Stratojet rose slowly but majestically upwards to join the two other aircraft in its formation.

CAPT Koehler got through the takeoff just fine, but here is where their problems began.  Unknown to the crew, the loaders had a bit of a problem getting the Mark 6 properly hung in the tight confines of the bomb bay – to be precise, the locking pin wouldn’t fully seat.  There was a prescribed solution for this:  call the Weapons Supervisor and have him hit it with a hammer.

No, really.  This required them to briefly take the weight of the bomb off the shackle while the prescribed hammering was accomplished, then the bomb was allowed to rest once more with its full weight on the shackle.  Trouble is that once that was done, no one on the load crew thought to run the locking pin through the emergency release cycle.  Evidence on why this happened is murky, but it appears the load crew may have been running up against time pressures and said, ‘Screw it.’  Whatever the reason, it now came back to bite CAPT Koehler and his men in the backside, for as they got up to altitude over the South Carolina lowcountry, CAPT Woodruff tried to reengage the locking pin…and it wouldn’t work.  He tried for about five minutes, but the pin stayed stubbornly disengaged.  SAC had a procedure for everything, and in this case the procedure was simple:  send the Bomb/Nav back to see if he could fix it.  CAPT Kulka hesitated not, he headed aft and entered the bomb bay.

And it should be mentioned to Dear Reader that, as came out in the official inquiry, CAPT Kulka was…um…how shall I put this…unsure exactly where the locking pin was.

(The veterans reading this are encouraged to take a moment and reflect upon what you know is going to happen next.)

CAPT Kulka entered the bay and tried searching for more than ten minutes for the locking pin, while Koehler and Woodruff were probably becoming increasingly concerned as they waited – there was no way for Kulka to tell anyone what the problem was from the bay, and he was probably feeling the stress of “Holy Crap, I gotta fix this.”  It then occurred to him that the locking pin had to be at or near the shackle itself, and he couldn’t see it because he wasn’t tall enough.  With that, he grabbed a hand-hold to pull himself up.

Unfortunately, that hand-hold was the emergency manual jettison control.

There was a loud SNAP as the shackle functioned as designed and all eight thousand-ish pounds of the Mark 6 – with CAPT Kulka lying atop it a la a certain MAJ Kong – dropped onto the closed and locked bomb bay doors…which resisted their inertia and Newton’s siren call for just a heartbeat before locks and braces screamed, failed, and with a roar of slipstream the bomb headed for the earth below.  Precisely below, as a matter of fact, was Mars Bluff.

Ground Zero, South Carolina.

To Be Continued…


Meanwhile, Back At The Secret Service……

….My apologies for the dry spell; I have returned and the situation is well in hand.


When last we left the United States Secret Service, they were having a REALLY bad time.  Of course, when you’ve lost your way this badly, apparently the only possible option is to triple down on stupid:


Now, they haven’t asked me – and more’s the pity, I’m sure somebody has my number, and my fees are very reasonable – but when you get to the point where somebody leaks a confidential employment application (just happening to be that of a Congressional critic) to try and shut ’em up, these are your options:

*The Director goes.  NOW.  No negotiations, no “he-has-my-full-support-until-this-gets-so-bad-I-HAVE-to-86-him” dance, no grace period, nothing.  This would not have happened unless the Leaker believed that he/she/it would walk away from it.  And if that was not the Director’s attitude or intent…tough.  Instead of making efforts to ‘earn the agency’s trust’, he should have made some very quick, direct efforts to gain their fear if they screwed up.  He played Mr. Nice Appointee, and he’s clearly lost.

*The House needs to take a leaf from Wilford Brimley at the end of Absence of Malice, and show up with a briefcase full of subpoenae and start handing ’em out – and enforcing them – until somebody fesses up.

The Secret Service is responsible for the security of the most senior members of the United States Government.  At this point, I don’t trust them to know who they are much less protect them from harm.  Thus endeth today’s rant.


The Adventure Of The Green Iguana

When I arrived at Wurtsmith AFB on December 8, 1978, I remember expecting a crack bomber unit embodying steely-eyed discipline, Spanish Inquisition-level devotion to regulations, and a certain sunglasses-silk-scarf-and-grin panache that would indeed tell you that you were an elite, entrusted with the Nation’s Survival In It’s Darkest Hour.

What I found was snow. Dear God, SO much snow. I thought growing up on the south side of Lake Erie would have prepared me for this, but I was wrong. It’s not that there was physically that much more than back home, but rather that it started falling in September (a fact that led me to meeting my first wife) and stayed there until late May. In fact, at the time I was there the only month it had never snowed was August…and I was at a concert at Castle Farms in Charlevoix the night it almost did. But I digress. The point here is that the snow and the cold and the dark and the childishly easy (and indeed, encouraged) access to spiritus fermentii could do things to people, and did so on a terrifyingly regular basis, and those who were already constitutionally inclined to bad behavior followed that path all the more easily. My introduction to this took all of about twenty-four hours after arrival, when I met My Sponsor. A word of explanation: when one goes from Base A to Base B in the USAF, you are assigned a Sponsor. This is a person from your new duty section who is supposed to set things up for you as far as possible so as to make your transition easy-peasy, don’t ya know. The trouble is that not All Sponsors Are Equal – I had some who worked very hard to get you started and cover every possible problem you may run into. The rest figure that hey, you got yourself into this mess, you get out of it.

My first sponsor was one of those. He shall be callsigned here Eightball, because I remember thinking when I first met him that it was exactly what my former Marine father would have called him…and it was no compliment. Eightball wasn’t that much older than me, in his early twenties, married with a child and devoted to what (at the time) seemed to be the Four Tenets of the Ammo Lifestyle: Drinking, Smoking, Fornicating, and Swearing – not always in that order, but often at the same time, and in apparently superhuman quantities to boot. He was a fireplug of a guy with a mustache that looked like badly severed broom bristles with just a hint of nicotine stain that had somehow embedded themselves in his upper lip, just above a cigarette that never seemed to go out. He didn’t so much speak as brayed just about everything that came out of his mouth, usually followed by an often inappropriate and high-pitched, cackling laugh that could send a shiver down your spine, and indeed, Dear Reader, still does. And as a finishing touch, I cannot ever remember being in close proximity to him without smelling alcohol – alcohol in such great quantities that I was convinced if you put a wick in his mouth, he’d burn for three days. (A Marxist phrase – Groucho’s – not mine.) He may not have been the worst of the Ammo troops in that dank, cramped little building, but you could see it from there. And – most disturbing of all – the United States Air Force, after spending three hectic months training me, entrusted me to Eightball’s tender mercies. And it scared the hell out of me. But, since by that time, changing my mind about the whole thing wasn’t really much of an option, I soldiered – or airmaned – onwards.

It was about a year later – late ’79 – that things began to subtly change. Say what one will about President Carter (and one would probably be right), but credit must be given where it was due – arresting the disintegration of the US military after the Southeast Asian unpleasantness actually started with his administration, and SAC jumped on it with gusto. After all, this was a time when multiple DUIs were not unknown in one’s career, and the use of certain herbs for other than medicinal purposes was common and as long as it didn’t impair one too badly, the worst you could expect was a letter of counseling…IF you were caught. (That problem – on someone else’s part – led to one of the truly Bad Days of my life, but that’s another story for another time.) And over time, it became clear that drinking was, if not actually on the list of things to rein in, something that would be Watched Very Closely. Which, in turn, led to Eightball and a couple of the other old hands in Conventional Section being Watched Very Closely.

Now, by this time, I was under the direct supervision of another Senior Airman, but I still worked with Eightball daily. He had not done well under the drinking crackdown, and it was quietly assumed that indeed, he Had A Problem. And it was getting worse, quite likely (but never AFAIK proven) buttressed by the use of certain controlled substances. His off duty behavior had disintegrated – domestic spats and public displays, don’tcha know – and on duty he was withdrawn and barely functioning at an acceptable level. But, as so often happened, as long as he was functioning it was allowed to slide…until one evening when the slide broke, and proceeded to take the swings and merry-go-round with it.

We assumed that there was a Second Female involved in his life, and this was not an incorrect assumption as it meshed well with the Four Tenets. The trouble here was this: first of all, Wurtsmith then, for all its power, was a VERY small base and everybody knew everybody else. Secondly, drinking and self-administered pharmaceuticals in combination not only sap one’s self control, they make it pretty damned hard to handle the moral and functional juggling that keep Mrs. Eightball and the Small Base from finding out about the Second one. And in Eightball’s case, he had apparently engaged the Second Female in a remarkably indiscreet case of PDA during one of those impaired moments…while telling Mrs. Eightball he had in fact been Doing His Duty. Bad Show, indeed. Mrs. Eightball, faced with incontrovertible evidence – or more likely, simply unable to ignore it any longer – threw him out of their quarters and prepared to lower the boom. Eightball apparently dimly realized he had well and truly screwed the infamous Pooch, and was willing to leave the premises – but then discovered that thanks to his recent behavior, absolutely no one was willing to take him in. And regs at the time prevented him from even getting a bunk in Barracks 514, so the poor lad was stuck. It was a Mexican Standoff – she wanted him gone, but he couldn’t leave, so the two decided on an uneasy cease-fire until things could get worked out.

Things, however, came to a head a couple days later. Mrs. Eightball was confronted with evidence (and my memory clouds here) that either the relationship with the Second Female was far more complex than she had been led to believe, or that there was, in fact, a Third Female. Now, this would not have been unknown – one of our NCOs there at this point was juggling three, and evidence pointed to a fourth – but it required a level of social awareness and time management that Eightball was simply incapable of. Be that as it may, it apparently ignited a Biblical-level meltdown on the part of Mrs. Eightball.

Now, having been through a divorce (and one that I am assured was far less unpleasant than most), I can assure those who have not that it ignites passions and furies in both parties that would do justice to the greatest of the Greek tragedies. Love, romance, shared parenthood, friendship, common decency, and the shared experiences of even a short time together give way to an attitude that can best be summed up in two words: Going Nuclear. And brothers and sisters… Mrs. Eightball decided not only to turn both keys herself, but to sing along with the air-raid sirens. Leaving her home, she went to a friend’s and made…an Accusation. I shall not go into detail here, for it is at best a horrifying one, and IIRC, was not proven after a thorough investigation. But the Accusation itself was sufficient to start the wheels of military justice turning, and that was where things went completely off the rails.

A friend of his at the Law Enforcement side of SPS found out what was happening, and gave Eightball a heads up. What this dimwit was thinking, I do not know – the Accusation itself would have been enough to unbalance better men, and when he got the call Eightball was already three sheets to the wind and ready to request takeoff clearance, pretty much his default mode by then. So at that point – faced with a career that was literally imploding around him and criminal accusations that could have landed him in Leavenworth to this day – Eightball disintegrated. He knew he couldn’t stay where he was at, for the Forces of Justice Descending were saddling up their ’75 Plymouths and preparing to land upon him like avenging angels. Mrs. Eightball had taken their car and child and fled, so he was left, most definitely not sober and on foot. The main gate was out of the question, and hiding was probably not an option. So, facing all this, Eightball stood up and decided to go out in glory. He staggered to his feet and reached for the two things he thought he would need to cross over – a BB pistol, and his pet iguana, Ivan.
Now, I’d met Ivan on a couple of occasions – he was a fairly good sized, bright green iguana having a calm, phlegmatic attitude, as do you and I. Never knew exactly what he ate – Eightball suggested on a regular basis that the source of Ivan’s diet was somewhat more sinister than the insect life that abounded up north – but he seemed happy and well-cared for enough, so much so that on occasion we suspected Ivan was indeed a lot happier and well-cared for than Mrs. Eightball and their son. However, that night Eightball looked around the wreckage of his life and came to the conclusion that the only source of love, unquestioning devotion, and comradeship unto the end was Ivan, and Ivan, in unspoken eloquence, would share that end. Or maybe Ivan was just too damned cold to argue, being where we were, but never mind.

The Law Enforcement troops apparently missed Eightball by mere seconds, and immediately started asking the other residents if they had seen anything. And promptly disbelieving what they were being told. The gun – quickly confirmed as a BB pistol – made a certain amount of sense…but a lizard? Aw, hell no. Gotta be something else. This serene conclusion lasted mere minutes before an exponentially increasing number of calls came in from a few blocks away that someone was shooting out windows on parked cars. While raving incoherently and carrying what appeared to be a fluorescent green cat/dog/stuffed toy/unknown animal. The LE guys looked at one another, and their blood ran cold as they realized the awful truth: a nutcase with a BB gun was loose…and El Lagarto walked by his side.
Or, more properly, was carried. But you get the idea.

Military law enforcement does not now, nor did it then have many of the cultural imperatives and impediments we see on the civilian side of the house – the rule and directive at that point was simple: GET HIM. (And his little lizard too, it went without saying.) Within minutes, the LE force was coming down like the wrath of God, aided and abetted by the far more serious firepower of the Security Police. The blue berets deployed around a cul-de-sac where screaming, popping noises, and busting glass was heard, and sure enough there was Eightball, drawing down on any expanse of car window that caught his fancy, and Ivan was firmly by his side. I was told by witnesses on both sides – SP/LE and in the houses – that it was a thing of tactical beauty to behold as the cops came out from between the houses just as Eightball and Ivan found themselves dead center in the middle of the cul-de-sac proper and cop vehicles, gumball machines blinking to beat the band, came roaring up the street. Even in his seriously altered state, Eightball knew the game was up – there was no escape, and although everybody knew it was a BB gun, this was a SAC base and these were SAC security troops. If he made a run for it, it could turn terminal right quickly – the men with the guns were angry and embarrassed, and the guy with the lizard had nothing to lose.

Which is why I’d like to think that in some part of Eightball’s disintegrating brain, a couple of synapses misfired in just the right sequence to explain what happened next…for Eightball looked at El Lagarto….and El Lagarto looked back with an expression of quiet understanding…an imperceptible nod…and an unspoken pact passed between them at that moment. It would have been that look that Butch and Sundance passed between each other that warm afternoon in Bolivia as their adventure came to an a close, and it spoke more eloquently than any words could ever do: If this was the end, then let it be so. One would sacrifice for the other, even if to buy just a few more seconds, and however it turned out, was how it would be. So, before anyone could move, Eightball swung up the BB gun, placed it to Ivan’s head, and cried, “Back off or I WILL SHOOT THIS FECKING LIZARD!!”

There was utter, complete, and total silence for a few heartbeats, not even the birds chirped, nor did a single sound from the flightline echo down through the trees and the houses. No one spoke – no one could speak – until one of the SP Lieutenants said, quietly, “…Guys….I think he’s serious….”

This apparently had two effects – first, everyone turned to the ell-tee with a “What the hell did you just say?” expression, and then one of the senior NCOs present gave that timeless expression known as the facepalm and ordered his men to rush Eightball. They tackled him with the ferocity of an NFL line defending their end zone with one second left on the clock, and I understand there were some minor injuries on Eightball’s part before he was wrestled into a LE cruiser and taken off to Building 180, SP HQ on Wurtsmith and a place with the same terror and dread that Winston Smith’s Room 101 inspired.

We never saw Eightball again; his gear at work was quietly boxed and sent to the squadron, his home emptied of the things that had once belonged to a family and sent elsewhere. I do know there were no courts-martial, but there was a very quick discharge, and the matter was dropped. Some quiet inquires some time afterwards were answered with long faces and reminders of the Privacy Act. Whatever happened to him happened fast, and he became as much an unperson as one of those poor Stalinists who is airbrushed out of a picture after the People’s Courts have their way. He was perhaps to a certain extent a victim of circumstances – a remote assignment, a personality disposed to problems to begin with, and easy/semi-tolerated substance abuse – and in the end there may have been no way around what happened. At the very least, I hope that this was as much of the bottom as he hit. I know Mrs. Eightball later married another one of the Ammo troops, and at last report (many years ago) had done well. In the meantime, Eightball’s Run became a legendary – and cautionary tale – in the 379th Munitions Maintenance Squadron.

What’s that?

Oh good heavens, I almost forgot – there are two versions of Ivan’s fate. The first was that he was scooped up by one of the SPs and eventually found his way to a pet store downtown – Mrs. Eightball wanted NOTHING to do with him. Hopefully, he found another owner to care for him, and he settled into a warm, well-fed retirement. But others tell a different tale…how, in the tumult and shouting, Ivan escaped that day, and lived out a short, defiant remainder of his life in the lush woods until The Snows Came and enshrouded him in silent white Death.

Legend, though, told around missile stands and entry control points, whispered over pool tables and pitchers of beer at the Club, told of a silent, almost unseen form who walked a certain cul-de-sac, seen only fleetingly from the corner of your eye – then GONE – leaving odd footprints in the snow, and an alien hissing sound that you could never quite lock in on. You’ve seen that too, Newbie? Then count yourself fortunate that El Lagarto has passed you by…..


Attention to Orders: Birthdays

…Strategic Air Command (SAC) is stood up on this day at Bolling AFB, D.C., in 1946.

The Armor’d Hand is not Dead, no, Nay,
It but sleepeth, waiting like Arthur for the Day
When its People cry for its return, saying,
“The Bear roams again, the Peril rises, and the Persians connive,
“Ronaldus Magnus rests in the House of his Fathers, and hears us not,
“Defend us once more, we pray ye.”

The Armor’d Hand shall rise and don its steel once more as in the Olden Time,
Shall pick up his shield and gather his eagles from their rest,
The sound of the Stratofortress shall be heard again in the land.
And the spirits of LeMay and of Power and yea, even of Mitchell, shall take their place at his side,
Their spirits and vigor undimmed.
And they shall say unto the People,
“You denied us when the Bear spoke of peace, and when the Peril offered its hand,
And even when the Persians smote you in your own lands, you still denied us.
You rent our eagles in twain, you threw away our ballista, you scattered our servants to the winds.
“But we shall defend once more, for that was our promise unto you and your fathers before, and as it shall ever be unto you, yea, even unto the hundreth generation.
“Peace was our profession, and shall be again.”


And my devotion to SAC was such that on its fortieth birthday, I arranged for my son’s birth:


I believe that someone needs a certain heart to fly a Spitfire, one of courage and elan and spirit unbreakable.  That would be Mike.  Happy Birthday, Bear.  Next year you’re officially old. 😀


There Are Days I Hate Being Right…..

…Dear Reader may remember a post from a few days ago where we looked at the sad state that has befallen the United States Secret Service.  I posited two options that the USSS leadership (or more properly, the Department of Homeland Security, under whose aegis the USSS resides these days) could take in getting things fixed, and then asked Dear Reader to decide which one Our Federal Gummint had chosen.

Wonder no more:

“Dude, you don’t have to earn their trust. You’re their boss. They’re supposed to earn your trust,” Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, told Director Joseph Clancy. 

Stewart was responding to Clancy — trying to explain why the Secret Service has been caught up in a series of controversies and security incidents — saying it will “take time” to change the culture and he, as director, needs to “build trust” with the workforce…”

I’d expect better than that from a cop named Clancy, especially today.  Fortunately, however, the lads seem to have their priorities in order:

Secret Service Asks $8M For Simulated White House

You can NOT make this shiat up.


Lo, How The Mighty Have Fallen

…There are certain Organizations whose names alone inspire – or at least once inspired – trust, confidence and faith in the men and women who worked for them.  This was one of them:

The Secret Service Disaster:  A Timeline

It has been my experience that when an elite begins to falter, there are exactly two ways to deal with it.  First, one finds the absolute best in that elite and puts them at the top, with an unlimited and unfettered mandate to clean house and bring back The Old Ways.   It will be assumed (regardless of what that word means to anyone who spent five minutes in a uniform) that there will be blood and anger and shouts of some sort of -ism when people who have exceeded their level of incompetence are required to pay the piper.  It will also make no difference whatsoever, because the mission must take priority.  If you cannot hack it, regardless of your motivation, politics, or connections, you must be gone – smoothly and quietly if it can be so, brutally and quickly if not.  You are an elite for a reason; failure to meet the standards set for you can result in nightmares that change the course of history.  It will take years to correct, the rot sets in without even a whisper and once it has gotten to this point you cannot simply administer the cure for a short while (or until the protests become too loud), and then return to normal in the belief that all will be better.  It takes generations to build the trust and faith and standards, and that is a measure of time that cannot be denied.  To lose one’s way is to be defeated in your most basic missions.

The second way is to appoint leaders who with oily precision echo the meanderings of their bosses, who in turn place political correctness above competence, cronyism above integrity, and above all a refusal to admit error or any of the previously enumerated sins.  Their task is not to successfully accomplish the mission, but to keep the eruptions of incompetence and malfeasance to a minimum and, when that cannot be accomplished explain to the People’s Representatives in a suitably contrite fashion that this will never, ever, ever happen again.  Until, of course, it does.

I shall leave it to Dear Reader to decide which of those paths has, in this case, been taken.


In Which Someone Actually, You Know, READS The Constitution

I would draw the attention of our Dear Readers to a certain kerfluffle that has arisen over the last few days involving 47 members of the United States Senate and a letter they wrote to the Iranian Government.  (Just as an aside – a kerfluffle is the same as a brouhaha, but with less actual grounding in fact and more sound and fury, signifying nothing.)  The short version, as I understand it, is that Said Senators have pointed out to the Iranian government that any deal they make with us regarding the Iranian nuclear program is subject to approval by Said Senate, and anything else is simply a handshake deal that could be changed at any time once President Obama moves on, much like keeping one’s fingers crossed behind one’s back.  On the other hand, the Secretary of State and a great many of the Usual Suspects on the President’s side of the argument are saying that this was an Incredible Affront To The Dignity Of The POTUS and a clear effort to sabotage what is clearly the last hope for Peace In Our Time.  The word ‘treason’ has been tossed about, and a petition to have Said Senators charged with treason is actively being pushed and trumpeted apparently in the belief that if three-tenths of one percent of the total population of this country has no idea what they’re talking about, it’s pretty damned important.

I make no claim to be a Constitutional scholar.  I do, on the other hand, claim to have read it.  And on a few occasions – at least five that I recall, and with witnesses and signed statements – I swore to defend it, at the cost of my life if need be, so I felt it at least prudent to have some knowledge of just what the hell I was getting myself into.  Most of the people I served with had read it at least once as well, and at one point My Beloved Service actually issued pocket copies of the Constitution to all NCOs and officers.  Today such an action would be considered dangerous and oppressive, dont’cha know, as well as risking more of the money needed for buying F-35s, but I digress.  So, let us look – for just a moment; this won’t take long and I PROMISE there won’t be a test – at the term ‘treason’.

Treason is the one and only crime specifically defined in the Constitution.  There’s a reason for that – the Founding Fathers had seen the term twisted, stretched and broken beyond repair in order to cover the prosecution of viewpoints the Crown didn’t like.  Therefore, they spelled it out:


Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.

The Congress shall have power to declare the punishment of treason, but no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood, or forfeiture except during the life of the person attainted.

Let’s ask a few very simple questions:

1) Did Said Senators levy war against the United States? No.  No one has picked up a weapon or planned military or paramilitary action of any kind.  Some feelings have clearly been damaged here, but such is life.

2) Did Said Senators adhere to their enemies? No, my reading of this leading me to understand that they did NOT swear allegiance to or support of ANY enemies.  After all, according to the President and SecState, Iran is not our enemy, nearly forty years of unremitting hostility and terror on their part notwithstanding.

3) Did Said Senators give them aid and comfort?  No, in that they did not materially, morally, or emotionally assist them.  They did point out that our system works in a certain manner, and that if it doesn’t, there could be results other than the ones they’re hoping for.  And besides, they’re not our enemies, remember?

There has been no treason.  Not by any possible reading of the statute.  Given that the President has been held up and described as a Constitutional scholar I am mildly surprised that he has not yet pointed this out to his supporters, but surely there is a good reason for this.  The only conclusion I can come to is that the people calling for charges of treason are doing so because A) they have not read the Constitution and are therefore sadly ignorant of the actual definition thereof and B) they consider simple and mere disagreement with their views treason…the very same reason that the Founding Fathers made sure that there was such a precise standard required for such charges in the first place.  This, I am sure, is no more than yet another flaw in the Constitution that prevents them from keeping those icky Republicans in their place.

I am also mildly surprised that there has been little – or no mention at all – of the fact that it appears to have been the surprisingly consistent policy of the Congressional Democratic leadership to contact and speak with, on a regular basis, people the United States is in conflict with to one extent or another.  Edward Kennedy – a man known as the ‘Lion of the Senate’ – and Robert Byrd contacted the Soviet leadership to undermine Ronald Reagan’s attempts to end the threat the USSR posed to this nation and the rest of the free world.  Kennedy’s visit – backed up by declassified Soviet documents – was intended to let the Soviets know that if he was elected President (and any help they could give would be quietly appreciated) things would be a lot more pleasant.  I would point out that this does appear to at least bear some resemblance to 3) above, but never mind.  Nancy Pelosi went to Syria to shake hands with the gangsters who run that beknighted land and assure them that they really had nothing to worry about.  They in turn promised her (among other things) that they would not use chemical weapons they didn’t have against the rebels who were trying to bring them down. That promise lasted until they used the damned things, but I’m sure Representative Pelosi was very upset in private. Fella named Kerry, while a Senator, went to the notably free and democratic country of Nicaragua and brought back what I’m sure was a solemn, pinky-swear, Honest-to-God promise to not shoot at the rebels as long as Congress didn’t vote for aid to said rebels.  All of these instances – and more, should Dear Reader care to spend some time digging around the Innertubes – interestingly enough took place while Republican presidents occupied the White House.  I am unable to find any instance where Democratic politicians attempted to undermine a Democratic president.  I’m sure there’s some out there, though I may simply not be smart enough to understand and appreciate the nuance that I’m sure was involved.

Which leads us to another point:


…He shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur;…

The President may sign all the treaties and agreements with foreign governments he wishes; it is his prerogative to do so.  It is the Senate’s right and duty to approve them.  There is no fuzziness about this, despite the insistence of some that there may be.  This is one reason why the misbegotten Kyoto environmental treaty was signed, but never implemented – the Senate never approved it.  There were many reasons for that, not least of which is that the job losses and economic pain inflicted on the American public would have resulted in the effective termination of the political careers of those voting for it, but never mind.

The President and his SecState are apparently determined to conclude an agreement of some kind with the Iranians.  That is their privilege.  Why they believe that the Iranian government will keep its word and/or not look for for every conceivable loophole is, frankly, beyond me – the Iranians may not have the most untrustworthy government on the planet, but you can see it from there.  We must also, however, accept the unpleasant possibility (remote though it may seem, Dear Reader) that the Administration’s insistence on said agreement is based on factors other than insuring regional peace and the safety of our allies.  This is why the Fathers insisted that the Senate ‘advice and consent’ – to insure to the maximum extent possible that political desires do not overcome realistic necessities.  SecState has since stated for the record that the agreement they’re working on will not be ‘legally binding’, implying that the Senate (of which he was so recently a member) need not concern itself with such matters.  I respectfully disagree with the SecState, though as my military duties once took me to the desert, he may not consider me to have sufficient education to discuss the matter.  If there was ever an agreement that required the advice and consent of the Senate – involving the development and deployment of nuclear weapons by a devout theocracy whose foreign policy has included death sentences for authors and genocide as an avowed goal – then yer darn tootin’ I want somebody, even our Senate as it stands, to review every last word.  The 47 spoke legally and correctly, though had they asked me (and I am slightly wounded that they did not) I would have suggested that the letter be quietly handed to the President with an urgent appeal to consider it…and a promise of sending it if he did not.  Given the SecState’s comments of the status of the proposed agreement, I have a hard time coming to any other conclusion other than the primary reason for the hurt and offense among the President’s supporters is that the 47 are challenging a course of action that is at best legally iffy and at worst, already decided upon and approved.

In any event, I am more than willing to accept that there will always be politicians on both sides who will gainsay anything the other side does/says simply for the sake of doing it.  That can be best and most politely be described as Pythonesque, but there you are.  I have long ago accepted that at a certain level, politicians in our great land will behave in ways that would make Francis Underwood blush, solely for the sake of a few minutes’ advantage and the frisson of knowing they have gathered unto themselves just an atom’s more power.  What I despise is the utter, shameless hypocrisy of those involved and their apparently secure and unshakable faith that no one – no one – will call them on it.  On the other hand, they’ve been right on that account so far.

Thus endeth today’s lesson.


The Great Barracks 514 Live-Fire

…A brief word of explanation:  my friends at a couple of other sites have already seen this story and the others that shall follow, but it was suggested that I share them here because the more people who understand just how out of plumb I am, the better.

I have always said, Gentle Reader, that the United States Air Force tried hard to make our lives at Wurtsmith AFB, MI, as pleasant as the realities of budget and practicality would allow, and in the main they did all right. The trouble is – and one should sit down for this, for it may come as a shock – young men in their teens and twenties tend to create their own amusements regardless of what may be provided, and not always for the better. A story from a lovely summer Saturday should suffice.

Now, perhaps I should begin by explaining that 514 was inhabited by three groups of people:
· The 461s, – Ammo to the rest of you and the true reason that SAC wasn’t just another unscheduled airline, thank you very much.
· The 462s – loaders (or, somewhat more indelicately, ‘muzzlefeckers’) who spend all their time breaking the toys we 461s so lovingly and selflessly provided for the safety and sheer fun of the Buff crews, and
· The 463s – the Nuke Pukes – whose primary job seemed to be smiling and saying, “I could tell you but I’d have to kill you.”

As a rule, we all got along well enough despite the occasional flare-up of professional jealousy, though in fairness it was easy to understand why the other two would be jealous of the 461s. Based on sheer physical attractiveness alone we were in the lead by a wide margin, but I digress. The jealousy really tended to come into play when it came to what we euphemistically referred to as ‘function checks’ – i.e.; that is, and to wit, setting some of our goodies off.

Now, as a rule we did not pop these things in daily operations. That tended to bother people at Higher Headquarters as well as annoy the taxpayers, not to mention the whole death, injury and damage thing. I was front and center for one such event in August of 1979 and sorry, but no. I’ll simply say that it was bad enough that even though I was uninvolved save for being present, grim and taciturn men with eagles on their shoulders were deciding whether or not I should remain in my career field or instead take up the thrilling and demanding world of Civil Engineers groundskeeping. Unpleasant memories, and damned so.

Now, where was I? Oh yes. We were allowed, on occasion, to set off – under extremely controlled conditions – various and sundry of our toys when they got too old or developed some sort of flaw that rendered them even more unsafe. Burning, functioning and occasionally and most reverently desired, explosive demolition was a routine function of the 461 field. If we were really lucky, the SPs would invite us to sit in on a training session where such toys like M60s, M203 grenade launchers (which, if I say so myself and I do, I was pretty good with) or even the revered Ma Deuce were available to try one’s luck. During my year’s sojourn in the Land Of The Morning Calm, I was asked on one memorable occasion if I wanted to try my hand at such apocalyptic goodies as the 90mm recoilless rifle (immense fun but a little difficult to handle when you are, like me, devastatingly handsome but a tad on the short side) and a few minutes later, the piece de resistance, a lovely and amusing piece of high tech death known as the M163 – a armored personnel carrier with a Vulcan rotary cannon where the personnel used to be. The 462s, however, had no such opportunities save for their once a year trip to the range where they qualified on the trusty M16. They got to handle and load weapons of unimaginable destructive power, but had to hope and pray that the damn things never went off. The 463s, being the keepers of the secrets of the Atom, couldn’t even talk about the fun they’d have letting one go lest some wet blanket deny PRP clearance unto the seventh generation of their offspring. For instance, there was one occasion where a few 63s, feeling unjustly maligned (and with SOME slight basis in fact, if not justification), allowed Higher Authority to believe that they had done…. something…to some weapons.

On an alert bird. Or birds, actually. Five of ‘em, to be precise.

Imagine the fun that ensued from that, Dear Reader, and all the more so since we were told to erase the incident from our memories, as the leadership may or may not have gotten around to telling HQ SAC about it. But anyways, they had the same problem as the 62s – look all they wanted, touch on a regular basis, but set off? Weren’t happenin’. So, being relatively smart and inventive chaps, as well as being marginally disturbed, they invented their own high explosive fun. For starters, they – and the 62’s were especially bad for this – would obtain garden-variety firecrackers, light them, and then throw them beneath your door, ideally in the middle of the night for maximum effect. (I solved this particular problem by nailing a piece of steel weatherstripping to the inside bottom of my door. When they bounce back out and explode on your bare feet, it tends not to be anywhere near as much fun any more.) Firearms – officially banned in the barracks – tended to be another popular diversion, and for quite some time there was an arms race of terrifying proportions underway. The 62s, being more practical than the cerebral 63s, ran away with this one just about every time. However, you can only carry two weapons at a time, and despite a couple actual attempts to do so, that idea ran out of steam surprisingly quickly. In addition, despite something resembling actual military firearms training, these lads had a tendency to be…well…less than accurate when handling said weapons, and stories of near misses and unintended impacts were legion.

So, in any event, the denizens of 514, being nothing if not imaginative, searched for more effective ways to recreate the Big Bang in their own living spaces, and one day did so. The persons responsible shall be callsigned here as Jake and Ski (no, not me, honest), a couple of 62s who had spent a gorgeous Saturday afternoon enjoying brewed Pilsner products and trying to figure out a way to blow shiat up. Now, Jake was a decent guy, normally of the Firearms Are Cool! faction whose only potential cause for concern that comes to memory was an intense dislike of squirrels. This in turn dated from an incident when Jake and some others had gone deer hunting (a cultural ritual in northern Michigan more than deserving of its own story) and a squirrel’s sudden chatter had chased off a buck whose size and point count increased with every telling of the story. Furious, Jake whipped out a pistol – after all, one never knows when Bambi is going to throw down on you – and blew the little rodent straight to Squirrel Heaven. A witness later assured me that after the echoes died away from the Michigan forest all that remained was “a hole with four paws and a tail.” Ski, on the other hand, was somewhat more hard-edged – he and I got along well for quite some time until for reasons I was never clear on, he decided I was a Class I Enemy, and that was it. He was also of the gun faction, and at the time we got along so being on the wrong end of said guns wasn’t a concern.

I was heading back into 514 from the south door at about four in the afternoon, and the day had gone well. I’d slept in, enjoyed the bill of fare at the Chow Hall (never a bad meal there) and then spent the afternoon in blissful, silent contemplation of the printed word and image while at the base Library – someplace, Dear Reader, where you went to learn and research things before the age of the Innertubes or whatever we call it. And best of all, I had a date that evening. The lady in question will be callsigned hereafter Mags, for such is a reasonable diminutive of her Christian name. Mags was a remarkable young woman raised on an honest to God ranch out west, as such inexpressibly exotic to this city boy, and a true and genuine free spirit (in the finest sense of those words) who taught me a great deal about Life, the Universe, and other imponderables. In addition, she was a Fire Control tech – responsible for the radars and quad .50s that defended Miss Buffy – and in all honesty, it’s hard not to be attracted to a woman in a tight t-shirt and a belt of .50 API draped over her shoulder.

At least it wasn’t hard for me, but your mileage may vary.

She was also slightly – ever so slightly – OCD about being on time for an engagement. This was reasonable enough, as she had enough friends/admirers/entourage to have no problems lining up other diversions for an evening. And as we were going to dinner early before an evening with friends, my plan was thus: get back to the dorm, shower, shave, meditate upon the human condition, dress to kill and then escort Mags to dinner down in the bustling metropolis of Tawas City. Four o’clock now, collect her at five, dinner at six. If you learn nothing else in Strategic Air Command, you learn precision in planning.

Except I couldn’t get to my room. Between my room –two doors in from the south entrance – and I were Jake and Ski, and a rocket. Nothing as wicked as the SRAMs we worked with, or as lethally dignified as the Minuteman III ICBMs our cousins in arms kept beneath the golden prairie. No, this was a pretty much typical Estes model rocket about a foot long, hanging off a launch pad hanging parallel (more or less, which is relevant later) to the floor, having been duct taped to a chair. By Jake and Ski. They were rigging some kind of box – a transformer, as I recall plugged into the wall – with a truncated cord and two bare leads into the rocket motor, in-between swigs of whatever beer had been cheapest at the Class 6 store that morning. They were not necessarily inebriated, mind you but I’m quite sure they could see it from there. And most frightening of all, Dear Reader, this wasn’t fazing me in the SLIGHTEST. I was, however, curious as to exactly what the feck these two had in mind.

Jake enlightened me, and upon reflection the plan was simplicity itself. They were going to fire said rocket down the hallway – Ski belched and motioned down the hundred and something feet of tile and concrete block – and out the doors on the other end. Now, in terms of pure physics, this wasn’t at all impossible – My Beloved Service had, in matters of research and institutional violence, been doing this sort of thing since 1947, more or less. But we did not as a rule do it for purposes of sheer recreation and we sure as hell didn’t fire them down a 8’x8’x120’ tube with people in it. Admittedly, there were no high explosives involved here so there was that, but the fact was that my comrades in arms were about to fire a seriously ballistic device inside their home. At this point however my curiosity not only won out over my professional training, it dragged it into an alley, mugged it, and stole its wallet. I WANTED to see how this came out.

Thing was that time was becoming a factor – I had just a few minutes left to get to my room and begin preparing to meet my social obligations, so whatever devilment was going to take place here had to happen quickly, a point I made with no little urgency. This information was accepted with surprising equanimity, probably because Mags was well known and liked within the 514 community (although there was affectionate but general bewilderment as to exactly what she saw in me) and equally likely because nobody wanted to see me get on her bad side, which was indeed Formidable. In addition, a small crowd had now gathered behind me, and was watching the proceedings with intense interest to the point where it is possible that wagers were being taken on exactly what this operation would accomplish in terms of damage and injuries. But on the whole, we were rooting for our guys. The countdown was of necessity short, and only one hold was required when someone pointed out that there were a few room doors open down towards the other end of the hall and that perhaps we should suggest that those good souls batten down the hatches and with that Ski jumped at the suggestion and headed downrange to warn the innocent.

It was here that things went just a touch pear-shaped.

One of the assembled multitudes picked that moment to ask Jake exactly how they were going to ignite the rocket motor. Jake, after one final swig, was more than happy to explain: the leads coming out of the transformer were in the rocket motor, and would ignite said motor when one threw the switch on said transformer LIKE THIS –

Oh, feck.

There was a simultaneous cavalcade of sights and sounds – the pop of a spark, the smell of ozone and the SWOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSH of the rocket fulfilling its short spectacular destiny, followed by a seemingly solid wall of brownish gray smoke and the acrid smell of solid rocket propellant. Jake staggered out of the hallway, coughing and laughing hysterically at the same time…until someone asked WHERE THE HELL WAS SKI???? We all had the same thought at the same time, and plunged into the smoky maelstrom, caroming off the walls and each other, screaming Ski’s name and wondering just when we were going to trip over a still, silent corpse harpooned by a little red rocket. Fortunately, after what seemed like forever, we heard a squeaky voice say, “I’m right HERE, you (body part that everyone has)!!!” And sure enough about three quarters of the way down the hall was Ski, safe and sound….and flattened into the 2” deep space between someone’s door and the hallway wall, a feat of contortionism that I would defy even the greatest fakir to repeat.

Now that Ski was confirmed among the living, the next question was what had happened to the damn rocket? Whoops of laughter and glee from outside the north entrance gave us our answer: the little bird had indeed performed its mission with flawless precision, having apparently cleared the door quite nicely and sailed with unerring accuracy into the side of the next dorm over….the better part of another hundred feet past 514. All that remained of the proud little rocket was a small pancake of plastic and cardboard flattened against the outer wall, about three feet off the cool green lawn, with the one remaining intact fin twitching slightly in the breeze. We gathered around it in silent respect and awe for a few moments, as the smoke drifted steadily out of 514 as banners in formation to honor a fallen comrade. Without a word spoken or command given, all of us snapped to attention and saluted our little friend…following which we quickly gathered up the wreckage and got it safely to the dumpster before anybody else saw this.

Much laughter and discussion followed the last rites for the rocket, much of which centered on Ski’s remarkable ability to get out of the line of fire. But it was only as we got back into 514 that we saw what turned out to be the true cost of the experiment. It seems that the first and most important finding of our scientific effort was this: Gravity works. As the rocket left the horizontal launch rail – only about three feet long – it didn’t have quite enough thrust to deny Isaac Newton’s siren call and the little sonofabeachball dropped like a rock, leaving a scorch mark about two feet long in the tile. But as the thrust built up, it apparently did so…somewhat asymmetrically. The Little Rocket That Could turned to starboard after skidding on the floor for a few feet, and proceeded to climb UP THE WALL, in an abbreviated corkscrew before getting as high as the ceiling and apparently dropping back down to about four feet off the deck and exiting 514 at extreme speed. We deduced this from the exhaust stain that stood boldly out against the white paint. More laughter ensued before it was pointed out that somehow the damage was going to have to be made good, and right quickly at that. Some paint was found, and that took care of the wall, but the floor was another matter entirely…because the rocket motor had, in fact, started to burn through the tile. Jake and Ski broke out the buffers and wax, and put their backs into it. (They tried hard, but the scorch mark was never completely erased, and remained there until the dorm was carpeted some time later.)

All things considered, an amusing afternoon and a grand lead-in to what I hoped would be a glorious evening and HOLY CRAP LOOK AT THE TIME. It was now, according to my Timex with about half a dozen different dials and knobs, four thirty-eight. I don’t believe that even in basic training did I ever get myself cleaned up and dressed as quickly as I did right then and there, leaping nimbly through the damage control parties as I did my best to get mission capable. It was close, but all was well at 1655 when I went upstairs to collect Mags. She, of course, was ready – all sunglasses and jeans and boots and attitude, and I was silently congratulating myself on having overcome such an unusual hurdle to be ready on time when
– She wrinkled her nose.

This was no ‘Bewitched’ wrinkle, friends, this was a wrinkle that I was at that moment sure she had learned back on that ranch when one of the local fauna had obeyed Nature’s call in a particularly unpleasant way. And as it turned out, I didn’t even to ask why the wrinkle – I suddenly got a whiff of acrid rocket motor exhaust. You see, when the rocket hit the ground, it did so right in front of my door – and since this was before the weatherstripping refit, a great deal of that exhaust went right under it and managed to attach itself to the clothes I had hanging out for the evening.

I was about to explain, even as my brain told me that there was no possible way to logically explain this, when Mags strode past me, gave me a pat on the shoulder and headed down the hall to the stairs, looking back at me and saying, “You coming along? Oh, and lose the cologne.”

I, of course, promised with stout heart and complete honesty to never again use Eau de Estes.

US Navy

Attention To Orders


…It is a sad thing to see a Ship of the Line go to her end.  It’s called ‘recycling’ these days, which has a fairly happy connotation, but that’s only because it has a so-much better sound than the word that actually fits.


United States Ship Ranger (CV-61) was the ninth ship to bear the name, the latest in a line that goes back to 1777, before there really was a United States Navy and commanded by a ferocious Scot – though in fairness, is there any other kind ? – named John Paul Jones.  CV-61 carried on the tradition of another Ranger (CV-4), the first US carrier built as such from the keel up.  History has unfairly regarded her as something of a noble failure, but she was designed at a time when we had yet to figure out what a carrier did.  We learned soon enough, and Ranger fought a little known war against the Nazis in Occupied Norway where no quarter was asked or given.  My dad’s brother Jack – a tough, smart-assed engine room wiper who’d had a tanker shot out from under him in the Med – was down in her spaces, making sure she had the speed she needed to stay one step ahead of the furious Germans.  Who, by the by, claimed to have sunk her.  On a number of occasions.  She even made it out to the Pacific before the end came there, serving as the night fighter training carrier – she taught our Naval Aviators the skills that would remind the Japanese why they feared the night.  Her end was quiet and without fuss, a few months at a pier in Chester, PA, and a graceful warship was gone.

Ranger -61 was built in Neptune’s Forge, the legendary Newport News shipyards and within sight of where her predecessor rose.  She stood watch seven times on that trackless spot of ocean known as Yankee Station, and her airmen took the war to the enemy for eight long years, some of them never returning to that wide, welcoming expanse of deck in the Gulf of Tonkin.  She would save lives too – Vietnamese refugees and Filipino flood victims, for whom those towering gray flanks must have looked like angels’ wings.  Ranger would spend the rest of her career in the Pacific, a regular sight at places like Alameda, Subic, and Yokosuka.  It wasn’t all work; she’d get the Hollywood treatment and most impressively, standing in for Enterprise in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.  (She’d stand in again for Enterprise in Top Gun, but I get the impression from certain members of the Naval Aviation community that this particular film is not held in high esteem.)  She would fight one more time during Operation Desert Storm, where she helped liberate Kuwait and remind a dictator that there is always, always a price.

She would end up going to WESTPAC/IO twenty-one times before one warm Washington day in 1993 when they rang the bell for the last time and pulled down the flag, and it was over.  The War was over, and she wasn’t needed any more.  Nothing personal.  Nearly twenty-two more years would pass while she slumbered at Bremerton – there were tries, good honest ones, to get her saved as a museum but it was never realistic.  She was too big, needed too much work, and would have cost too much money.  And as time went by, the Navy spent less and less on keeping her up.  Other things needed the money, you see.  She was a proud ship too, and the Navy had honored her, but times change.  Nothing personal.

She was sold to a scrapper in Brownsville, TX, where her elder sisters Forrestal and Saratoga had already gone for execution.  The cost was a single cent, paid by the Navy, f’r God’s sake, to satisfy some arcane piece of legislation from decades ago.   Last Wednesday, they started the tow to Brownsville.  It will require a transit around South Africa, an adventure in and of itself, but I think she’ll behave.  The end will not be swift, though.  Not the sound and fury and terror and bravery of battle but a slow-motion dissection punctuated by cranes and the sibilant hiss of torches, one careful layer at a time.  Each deck will be removed, revealing things that have not seen sunlight since Newport News’ shipfitters placed them there more than sixty years ago.  And as each overhead disappears, a thousand stories held within those bulkheads will appear for a brief, almost undetectable moment, all from the men who worked, laughed, cried, and in a few cases passed over to the other side in those spaces.

In a few months, there will be nothing recognizable as a warship.  When it is almost done, the only thing that will remain is the massive keel beam that ran down the center of her hull’s bottom, and that will be unceremoniously winched ashore and cut into pieces, then hauled away.  And without fanfare, without notice, and quite probably without caring, she will finally be gone, at least in the physical sense.

The name, though…it remains.  Six simple letters whose mere speaking evoke memories of cannonades at close quarters, of Avengers and Wildcats hurtling down icy fjords, of black nights over blacker jungle, of Justice delivered to a dictator.  You cannot recycle that.  You cannot decommission or mothball a name, or the emotions it brings.  You can – you must – treasure it, revere it, and keep a candle beside it for future generations.

Until some day in the future – blessedly soon, we pray – an officer in Navy whites again turns to his crew and calls, “Bring the Ranger to life!”  And that ship – be she carrier or LCS or even submarine – will Remember, and the years will fall away.


A Night At The Opera


koger center main

…The Fair Melissa took me to see La Boheme at Columbia’s famed Koger Center for the Arts last night.

Now, I love opera.   Only seen two in person (including last night) but still, I know what I like.  I myself have been compared to opera, having been told that we were both “loud, vaguely musical, and dramatic”.  (Some people just can’t be pleased.)  But anyways – even in a relatively formal setting like this, it’s hard not to see in my mind the Marx Brothers running amok in their classic A Night At The Opera, and I’m sure I stifled a laugh.  Or two.  Or twelve, even.  I’m a bit fuzzy on that.  In any event, every moment was still a joy.  To hear voice and instrument combine into a single, flawless stream that one could feel as well as hear is a treat that can atone for a great deal that is unpleasant in this life.

A little bit of background – the story is about a group of Bohemian poets, writers, and philosophers in mid 19th century Paris.  If you’ve ever seen the musical Rent, you’ve seen an updated take on the plot.  The tenor was a remarkable man from Korea who was once a child star there and then found a true and wonderful gift for opera.  On the other hand, that leads to one’s mind framing the stage directions as, “ACT 1:  A Korean gentleman, singing in Italian, is in his Paris apartment.”  Puccini clearly didn’t see modern multiculturalism coming, but he would have loved the result.  On the same note, it was interesting that most of the cast was Slavic – from the Balkans, and they knocked their parts right outta the park.  Makes you wonder how many potential opera greats we lost behind the Iron Curtain to careers in the Glorious Second Week in March Tractor Factory #6 or some other such socialist pursuit.

The crowd was of interest as well, and I still maintain that people watching at an opera is even more fun than people watching in Las Vegas.  There was an elderly lady sitting on my right – my guess was that she was in her eighth decade – and she was there with some friends who, through the vagaries of ticket sales, were actually spread out a little bit further down the row.  It didn’t really seem to bother her; she seemed quite happy to enjoy things as they were.  Turns out that La Boheme was her favorite opera of all, and the night couldn’t get any better for her.  And it also turned out that she was one of the Donors so gratefully acknowledged in the program, so I made sure that we expressed our thanks.

Act 1, as it turned out, was us getting to know the cast.  You have the Hero, his Sidekicks, A Bad Girl With A Heart Of Gold, and the Heroine.  Or in this case, the Lead Victim.  Act II takes place at an outdoor cafe where one of said Sidekicks hooks up with the Bad Girl while a marvelously choreographed crowd appears and sings about everything going on around them.  You have to think that life would be so much more interesting if that happened to us every now and then, but never mind.  At one point, the Bad Girl throws a plate of fruit off a table, and this time something went a bit awry for the fruit went ballistic.  For a moment, the audience was locked onto the apples and oranges that went skidding wildly across the stage, and one rolled with an final and inexorable directness right into the orchestra pit, where it appeared to have grazed a member of the string section.  No injuries seem to have occurred though and the orchestra pressed on in the finest traditions of musicians under fire from random produce.

The best part of this act were some of the kids who served as extras – members of a program in the local schools meant to give twenty-first century kids a chance to learn about a musical art form that involves…well, art.  One of them – a little girl who couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old – marched around that stage like a trooper for at least twenty minutes not withstanding the look on her face, that incredible expression of childhood that wavers a thousand times a heartbeat between inexpressible joy and stark screaming terror.  She did just fine, though, and I know that someday, when she’s a grandmother, she’ll tell her grandchildren about the night she stood on a stage in a gown and sang in Italian.

Act 3 involved finding out that the Hero has gotten all stalkery, and the Heroine is now Mortally Ill, something Puccini telegraphed with all the subtlety of a ten-pound sledgehammer back in Act 1.  Sadness abounds, and in order to make everybody cheer up the Hero and Heroine decide that it’s best if they see other people.  Act 4 can best be described as, “Everybody sings until somebody dies.”  Curtain down, and that’s it.

There are the requisite bows and curtsies, and the cast was generous enough to bring the orchestra conductor up to share in the applause.  (When he took his solo bow, someone in the pit tossed him up the errant apple from Act 2.  It appeared to have been a dud.)  The whole cast got a resounding standing O, and they’d earned it.  As the applause died down, I glanced to my right and saw the lady who had helped make the whole show possible standing up with a gentle smile on her face, and one small tear carefully treading down her cheek.  She had said that La Boheme was her favorite, and it had to be a wonderful moment seeing it on the stage once more, knowing that she had helped bring it here.  The tear may well have been for the lost Mimi, who slowly had expired before us over the last two hours – more than a few ladies in the crowd, the Fair Melissa included, were gently dabbing at their cheeks.  But I’d like to think that perhaps she was also remembering a young girl, sitting warm and safe between her parents in an opera house that no longer exists, watching in joyful awe as the curtain came up, the conductor’s baton rapped on his music stand, and for the first of many happy times she heard the story of Rodolfo and Mimi.  God Bless You, dear Lady.  May you hear the story again and as many more times as you wish.