Friday, April 24, 2009

A New Gig

Surfing the ads on Craigs List does work. They have two categories for writers and I found an ad that caught my eye. I am now under contract with the Turner Publishing Co. of Nashville to compose the captions, chapter introductions, preface, and dust jacket for their Historic Photos of Puget Sound due out in November. Among other things Turner produces coffee-table books with archival images. Walt Crowley completed one for them covering Seattle in 2007 and Nick Peters did one for Tacoma. I also agreed to attend three book signings or promotional events. And I get some free books.
The publisher's representative said that he was impressed by my web site.

So by Christmas I should have three books on the shelves.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Birth of the Tank

The title and the photo are related, really. I grew up in Stockton, California which was home at the turn of the 20th Century to Benjamin Holt and his Holt Manufacturing Company. Holt invented a moveable track on agricultural tractors to cultivate the fertile but boggy peat soil of the San Joaquin Delta. He called this system the Caterpiller.

In 1914 the British Army needed to move artillery through the mud of France and dispatched officers to the U.S. for an alternative to horses. In Stockton they met Mr. Gilmore the general manager at Holt. To demonstrate the Caterpiller system he took them to his cattle ranch near Linden, east of Stockton, where the Sierra foothills begin.

Using a Holt tractor Gilmore built an earthen dam on a creek to create a lake. (the dam is at lower right in the photo)
The British were impressed enough to buy Holt tractors as prime movers for their guns. In France, Colonel Ernest Swinton saw the tractors in action and dreamed up the idea of putting armor plate on them to assault enemy lines. The tank was born.

My father managed Gilmore's cattle ranch in the 1940s and 1950s when Greenlaw Grupe (pronounced GROUP-ee) owned it. Dad told me the story then. Grupe trucked in sand, built a bathhouse and shelter, and added a boat dock. On Sundays in the summer we drove out to the lake for picnics and swimming and boating. It was the one day a week I could drink strawberry soda. We returned to town bloated with hot dogs, potato chips, and sugar. Mom hosed us down in the yard to clean off the sand.

The photo is of me (blowing up the balloon) and Bert Sandman standing on the dam built by the Holt tractor that inspired the tank. Hardly the stuff for a History Channel interview, but perfect for a blog.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

For Opening Day

(This is from last year.)

Somewhere it is written that boys must join Little League where they will learn about physical fitness and teamwork and self reliance and the other manly virtues. Introducing boys to baseball is an ideal way to develop them into young men. This benefit is now extended to little girls so that virtue no longer belongs to men alone, but the premise is the same: Baseball is good for America. Little League is viewed as wholesome and American and baseball as nothing less than preparation for the rest of life.

The seasonal nature of baseball and school compresses the Little League season into a few months in the spring. Everything, from organizing to training to competition, is jammed between about St. Patrick's Day and the last day of school. This is probably appropriate for nine-year olds whose concepts of time are, at best, no wider than a week or so. Entering into a Little League season with its calendar of practices and games is a long term commitment.

For the nine year old, Little League baseball is the only path to social standing and personal identity. That spring, I happily brought home the note announcing the tryout session for Saturday. Come the appointed morning, I rode my bike to the play field, looking for baseball heaven. I found nothing but two kids playing catch. I had missed the tryouts. Everyone else in my class was going to be in Little League except me. I had been left behind. Little League was gone.

I pedaled home in tears. Closer examination of the note by my mother showed that I was a week early. Enthusiasm had warped time and I had gotten the wrong Saturday.

On the correct Saturday, hundreds of nine year-olds crowded the field. At registration tables for each age group we submitted forms and fees in exchange for a large card bearing a number. Volunteer moms pinned the cards to our shirts and shuttled us into lines. Young players slammed fists or balls into gloves trying to get the pocket just right. Moms and dads hovered at the edge of the crowd while disinterested siblings scampered about. Men with clipboards commanded lines of placarded boys to move to the different stations. I was thrilled just being there.

The first tryout was fielding. An older boy hit fly balls to about ten of us at a time. Somebody else always caught the ball.

We reported to a backstop for the next station. Each boy had three chances to demonstrate his batting skill. Arrayed to one side sat a row of men with sunglasses on lawn chairs, holding pencils poised over clipboards. Suddenly, there I was, at the plate, all alone. Everyone, the boys in line, the pitcher, the catcher, the fielders and, worst of all, the seated men, all watched ME. A seventh grader smiled malevolently from the mound.

Pitch, swing. Pitch, swing. Pitch, swing. The men in the chairs wrote on their clipboards. Although I missed every pitch, I have no recollection of any feeling of failure though. My sense of baseball then was less about catching and hitting than it was about belonging to baseball.

A week later, boys at school announced that they had been assigned teams and I worried because I had not heard from anyone. One evening, I received a telephone call from a strange man. He who told me that I had been selected for his team. I was so excited that ran to tell my mother and I didn't think to remember his name or to ask when or where I was to report for practice. My mother had to make several phone calls to reconstruct things.

I was in! I was on a team! A sports writer once proclaimed that baseball is all about coming home, and when I reported my assignment to my classmates, I was home, a member of the Brown House (for the sponsoring department store) Miracles. After that first practice, team mates wore the same caps to school and hung around together. The world split between those who on a Little League team and those not, then subdivided by colored cap.

The euphoria of being on a team soon began to fade. Just as marriage can dissolve into bills and diapers and a new job can become just another Monday, my career crashed into one harsh reality: I had no talent for baseball. Not only did I not know the rules (which were never taught), but I couldn't catch, I couldn't hit, and I couldn't run. At first, I attributed these shortcomings to equipment. But new shoes and a new mitt and my own bat did not compensate for being afraid of the ball and for a serious lack of athletic aptitude. I was a klutz.

Little League policy entitled each kid to play a minimum number of innings. This guaranteed opportunities for me to strike out and stand around in right field. Even when a ball made it all the all the way out to me, I could only run after it (if I didn't trip) and throw it in the direction of home plate. All I can remember is people yelling at me. At bat I struck out. Once, just once, I was thrown out at first base. But I usually just struck out. Only in my very last game in my second season, did I actually score a hit.

This lack of baseball skill resulted in an immediate rift between me and the more accomplished athletes. They hit regularly and they competently pitched and caught and threw to the adulation of parents. They could play baseball and they saw that I could not. Not only did I not help win, I contributed to losing.

The coaches, dads just doing the best that they could, were all very patient, and I cannot recall a single critical remark from any adult. However, the sneers and insults and complaints from teammates all blend now into one bad memory.

That was it for sports and me. The jocks went their way and I went mine. Naturally, it did not help that I developed an asthma condition or that I was a little overweight. The next athletic competition I entered was at age 30 when I got sucked up by the running craze and did a fun run with some other cops. But this wasn't really a competition and running is not a team sport.

This early separation from the group formed my social development: I became a bit of a bookworm and joined other, non-athletic clubs like the school paper, if I joined a club at all. I did not date in high school and I married just once. Although I have always managed to be employed by institutions, my work remained solitary in nature. The awards in my personnel folder cite "independent action" and "initiative." Like the time I arrested that rapist when a dozen other officers searched for him blocks away. Or one night when two of us commandeered a Coast Guard cutter and rammed a drug smuggler. One thing that made me a good Scoutmaster was not being the least bit concerned how I looked to other adults while wearing a brown uniform and relating to twelve year-olds. I couldn't teach them to bat, but I showed them how to saddle a horse and how to right a canoe.

Today I do not read the sports pages and I do not watch games on TV. The only good part about baseball on TV is holding hands with my wife, but I can't even do that for nine innings. She explains the game to me and I wonder how a girl learned all that and I did not. I think I am still afraid of the ball.

In any event, I haven't missed the athletes and I suspect that they haven't missed me either. Being unable to catch or hit meant that I could not belong to baseball, so I had to belong to myself. Although I have valued being a member of a good team, I never needed a team to do what I wanted or to succeed.

I guess they were right; baseball is preparation for the rest of life.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Publishing Update

I just heard from the folks at about two books I wrote with the late Walt Crowley. They are going ahead with centennial histories of Seattle City Light and Children's Hospital of Seattle.

I wrote the City Light history about five years ago and was originally timed for the utility centennial, 2002 or 2005, depending on when you start counting. I got to use historical documents, archival photos, and interviews of City Light employees.
The hospital story took more than two years of pouring through archives and interviewing patients, physicians, nurses, staff, and the countless volunteers whose dedication and devotion has made that remarkable institution what it is today. That project too, was timed for the 100th anniversary of the founding, but Walt got sick and things have taken a while to come to this point. Both books will have both our names on them.

With any luck I will have some books on the shelves by Christmas.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Pickups II

I got to use the truck while I was a member of the Civil Air Patrol in Sacramento. The CAP is nominally the auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force and dates from 1942 when civilians used private planes to search for U-Boats. In the spring of 1966, CAP still flew searches for missing planes, but mostly it was a youth group. We teenagers drilled in Air Force uniforms and dreamed of flying jet planes. Our real flying was limited to orientation flights and instruction in small, even tiny, planes. Our home squadron had an Aeronca Champ, a two seater totally inappropriate for searches over the Sierras, but perfect for weekend trips around the Central Valley. The Champ is a lot like the J-3 Cub, but you can solo from the front seat.

My call to action came from some CAP senior members, as the adults were called. The squadron Champ had just received a new engine, but it conked out and had to make an emergency landing at a tiny strip in the Sierras. They needed me, or more precisely my truck, to haul the old engine up to the strip for a change. How far away from high school could that be?

I recruited my good friend Bob Snyder and we met at the squadron (in uniform of course) on Saturday. The senior members helped us load the replacement engine into the truck. Bob and I navigated from Sacramento up to the gold rush community of Georgetown.

We found our way up an unpaved road to the airport. In those days the Georgetown strip had no services and the Champ might have been the only airplane there. We had no trouble finding it. After a short wait while Bob and I giggled at this pleasant diversion from senioritis, the mechanics arrived by air with their tools.

The seniors had day jobs as machinists at the Air Force base and they knew their way around airplanes, not that there was much to know about the Champ. Changing engines proved amazingly simple. Off came the prop and the engine cover. Four bolts (if I remember correctly) and retaining wires held the engine to the firewall. The connections to the few engine instruments and the fuel line came off quickly. By backing the truck up to the airplane, the engine dropped right to the bed. I bet it took the four of us only an hour for the whole operation.

The Champ has no electric starter so I seized the honor of hand cranking the prop. You stand close to the propeller, so as not to lose your balance and fall forward, and you take the right blade with both hands. You call out “brakes!” to the pilot insure that when the engine comes to life it doesn’t run over you. Then you pull on the prop to see that the brakes are set. Next is “switch on” and the pilot sets the magneto switch. One pull on the prop is usually enough to get it going.

Off flew the Champ with its new/old engine and we drove back to Sacramento with the old/new engine. It was all soooo cool.

The Champ flew for CAP for nine more years. In 1976, our friend Mike “Andy” Andrykiewicz attempted a takeoff for a search mission. Andy apparently got disoriented in the fog and crashed. He did not survive.

Pickups I

I drive a pickup these days, but it isn’t my first. My dad bought our first pickup in 1965 for $100 from a Japanese gardener named K. Sera. It was a ’53 Chevy, 110,000 miles, with corner windows and a three-on-the-tree stick shift. Someone had hit the truck on the passenger side stoving in the door and smashing the window. Dad and I hammered the door out and he scared up some new glass. After we painted the thing red, I had a serviceable set of wheels to get to school.

In those days Dad managed a chain of service stations and they had a setup in the warehouse to put striping in tires. He took the four old recaps from the truck and put two red stripes in each tire mimicking expensive, high-performance tires that had become the envy of the hot car set. I turned many heads in the parking lot at school. We added a holder for a GI jerry can for five gallons of gasoline, a radio (that took a full minute to warm up), and several cans of water sold in the service stations for survival after a nuclear attack. We even included some National Guard C rations for under the seat. You never knew where you might get stuck with that truck.

Attending parochial school required a commute and families formed car pools to get kids back and forth. The pools involved complicated arrangements orchestrated by the moms. In my setup I picked up two freshmen in our neighborhood, took them to within a block of their school, then on to another corner where I picked up a classmate, Denis, for the run to our school. The freshmen found their own way home somehow and I dropped Denis near his house. My passengers gave me cash for gas money, but since I used the family credit card, it was basically my running around money.

I mentioned the caved-in door. It proved to be warped and riders tried and tried to slam it shut. I was the only one who could close it. I learned to reach across and pull it firmly shut allowing an extra instant for the latch to engage. If my mother or sister borrowed it they experienced extreme frustration until they got it closed.

That wasn’t the only problem. Somewhere K. Sera had bottomed out and knocked the transmission out of alignment. Shifting worked fine if you double clutched. Then when you cruised along in 3rd for any distance it popped out of gear. I tried a string with a rubber band and a hook that I placed over the gearshift to keep it in place.

I could perform most repairs with three tools, a crescent wrench, a pair of pliers, and a slot screwdriver. The gearshift linkage occasionally slipped out of alignment and I had to get under the hood to disassemble the linkage box.

In the summer of 1965, I took the truck to Bakersfield for six weeks to work on a summer school for the children of farm workers. I thought I was going to be a teacher, but because I showed up with a truck I became the milkman and bus driver.
Every morning I picked up cases of donated milk at the Carnation plant, stopped for some crushed ice, and ran my nutritious load to the school sites. For field trips we loaded as many as twenty-five children in the back (totally illegal these days). The experience was formative in many ways, but its most enduring impact came in meeting Christine a prospective nun. Christine introduced me to Lorraine who has lasted longer than any truck. Lorraine actually visited our project that summer. She never met me, but she remembered my red truck.

That truck served our family for five years or more. I used it to haul the cats and tow the boat from Sacramento to Seattle when we moved. I helped friends move (for a case of beer) and hauled junk for neighbors (for $5 and the dump fee). It got me back and forth to college for a year or more although on cold mornings getting it started involved a complicated procedure of pumping the throttle just right and patiently cranking the engine. To avoid the commute and never knowing if the truck would start, I moved into a dorm you could see from our house.

When I got a real job in 1969, I bought a car, a new one that started every time you wanted it to. The truck then passed out of my employ and Dad sold it, I think, for $100.