Remembering Wake Island…

“When we got up, a wind of between 20 and 25 miles was blowing from the north. We got the machine out early and put up the signal for the men at the station.”  Orville Wright’s Diary, December 17, 1903

That was the day of the Wright brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk. I was born the same day (December 17) thirty-four years later, and in 1960 the Chance-Vought Aerospace Company gave me a pin for flying one of their F8 Crusaders 1000 mph. It seems impossible that time could collapse so dramatically in 57 years.

I shouldn’t be surprised, but I always am, at the remarkable coincidences that miraculously come together to connect the pieces of our lives as we drift toward our final destination. I had another one of those experiences last week.

Following WWI, 27-year-old Juan Trippe a Yale graduate and global visionary, who had trained as a Naval Aviator but never saw combat, founded what would become the world’s greatest and most important airline. It was never part of my grand design, but fortune smiled on me as I was trying to escape life in a big Los Angeles law firm. Pan Am offered me a way out and I latched on. I stayed for 20 years. 

Sadly, poor management government animosity and predatory competition drove Pan Am into bankruptcy in 1991. The Pan Am Historical Foundation is the last vestige of its remarkable legacy. Now, thanks to the generosity of its members and a number of generous donors the Pan Am story has been dramatized and is currently showing on PBS in a three-part mini-series called Across the Pacific.

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Basically, I’m an introvert. I don’t like crowds, cocktail parties or reunions. I love my friends – grade school, high school, college, law school, military Pan Am – and work hard at keeping up with them. We correspond regulary by email, text, Instagram, and Facebook. I know what they’re up to, and they know follow me by reading the blog, But, my Pan Am friends have a special place in the heirarchy for several reasons. It was a special time in our lives; we were young, mostly single, and shared adventures in some of the most exciting and exotic places on the face of the planet. A special group of people at a special time in our lives.

One personal story… While we were watching Episode 3 of Across the Pacific the other night, the story focused on Wake Island –the missing piece in Juan Trippe’s Trans-Pacific puzzle. No airline had figured out how to cross the Pacific. None of the aircraft in production, not even Pan Am’s Clipper Flying Boats, had range enough to do the job. The key was to find a spot to land and refuel in the mid-Pacific. Wake Island is tiny coral atoll midway between Hawaii and Guam just big enough to support a small maintenance base with an interior lagoon to that had to be cleared of coral heads in order to land a Flying Boat. It’s a great story.

My story isn’t that big, but it includes Wake Island. Because of the winds (prevailing westerlies) and lack of navigation aids I was sometimes assigned as a navigator on the 707 flying between Hawaii and Tokyo that stopped for refueling at Wake. Because they didn’t need me on the leg to Tokyo, I got off at Wake Island and stayed until the return flight 24 or 48 hours later. Wake was an important staging area for the B29 raids on Tokyo in WWII, but there was nothing but a weather station, runway and a couple of Quonset huts by the time I got there. There are no beaches. It’s all rough coral although the water is crystal clear. I walked around the island, swam in the lagoon and ate in the Navy mess hall, but I found something there that still has a place in our bookcase. M didn’t know the story but midway as we were watching I told her the story.

In one of the rocky coves on the island I discovered this remarkable example of nature’s ingenuity. It’s a tiny conch shell encased in a pyramid of coral. The shell is very fragile now. It was more intact when I found it, but it’s still a miracle that millions of tiny organisms could, over time construct this perfect artwork.

I’ve loved all the jobs and phases of my life, but the Pan Am years were particularly rich – so many interesting people, places, and adventures. Wilbur Wright wrote the eulogy for a friend and aviation pioneer named Octave Chanute, which David McCullough quotes in his Wright Brothers biography. It might equally apply to Juan Trippe who deserves much more space than I’ve given him here.

“His writings were so lucid as to provide an intelligent understanding of the nature of the problems of flight to a vast number of persons who would probably never have given the matter study otherwise… In patience and goodness of heart he has rarely been surpassed. Few men were more universally respected.”

Dinner Companions…

James Salter is one of my favorite writers. We had a lot of interests in common–both fighter pilots, skiers, climbers, Francophiles, and food lovers. He wrote elegantly about all of them – The Hunters, Downhill RacerSolo FacesA Sport and a PastimeLife is Meals — and I grieved when he died at age 90 in 2015 .

Yesterday, M and I decided to keep his Life is Meals, a book he wrote with his wife Kay, on our coffee table. Subtitled A Food Lover’s Book of Days, it presents a short entry, maybe a story, an historical anecdote, or a recipe for each day of the year. Today’s entry (June 23rd) is entitled “Dinner Companions” and begins “Epicurus, Montaigne and many others offer the same advice; choose the companions first. Certain people will be better with certain others.

Naming people we’d like to have dinner with has always been an imaginative exercise. Leonardo? Marilyn Monroe? Einstein? JFK? Jackie Robinson? Who would you pick? I didn’t have any trouble. My number one pick was Arthur Ashe, someone who is always at the top of my most admired list.

When I read Salter’s prompt, race didn’t cross my mind. I didn’t admire Arthur Ashe because he was an accomplished black athlete. I simply saw him as someone I’d like to share a meal with. From the days when I lived in West LA and watched him practice with UCLA teammate, Rafael Osuna, I was a big fan. He was a graceful mover, always a joy to watch, and from the day he refused to play in South Africa I admired his character. Then came his AIDS diagnosis (from a blood transfusion) and until his death I was awed by his courage and quiet advocacy.

He wasn’t the only person I was thinking of, but his was the first name that came to mind. I thought, in light of the Black Lives Matter protests, his input would be extremely interesting. You can’t imagine how alarmed I was to discover that just four days ago, the statue honoring him in Richmond was defaced by a white supremacist and covered with White Lives Matter graffiti. Inconceivable…and it changed my dinner list completely.

M and I like small dinner gatherings, so we limited the guest list to six. We think it’s the upper limit for good conversation, and because we’re sports fans and political junkies, we added Jesse Owens, Thomas Jefferson, Serena Williams, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Josephine Baker. Observers and participants, past and present.

If not for the Covid-19/Black Lives Matter crises the list would have been much different. I probably would have invited an artist (Leonardo or Georgia O’Keefe), a scientist (Leonardo or Madame Curie), an engineer (Leonardo or Hedy Lamarr), a musician (yes, Leonardo or Alicia Keys). No doubt about it…Leonardo would have been at the head of the table.

But, instead of the rich conversation about art, science and the humanities I imagined, this conversation would be focused on the crises of our times and ways to address them. I don’t pretend to have answers, but I believe enlightened people like our guests would start with how we treat each other and realize the solutions to both Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter start there.

At a personal level, I want to know if my dinner companions would see me as part of the problem? Would they think I’m blind to my own prejudice? It’s surely a possibility. The dictionary defines racism as the belief that a particular race is superior to another, that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and the differences produce the inherent superiority of a particular race. I don’t believe any of that, but I’ve lived my life mostly on the sidelines of America’s systemic oppression of African Americans. Does that make me complicit? The current dialogue is drawing us all in.

We were surprised by the coronavirus pandemic, and most of us believe our government grossly and fatally mismanaged it, but we shouldn’t be surprised at the intensity of Black Lives Matter. America has sat on the sidelines watching black Americans being murdered by white policemen and vigilantes without consequence. Our dinner conversation would no doubt be rich, heartfelt, and angry. It might even lead to a discussion of guns by the time dessert is served.

Then maybe, after dinner, Arthur would hit some balls with me:

Can We Stand Together?

M and I live in an autonomous zone, not the CHAZ (Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone) you’ve read about – where Black Lives Matter protestors are occupying six city blocks and a park in Seattle – but our own Covid-19 autonomous zone ten miles north of the CHAZ.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines autonomous, an adjective, as meaning:

  1. (Of a country or region) having the freedom to govern itself or control its own affairs (self-governing, independent, sovereign, free, self-ruling, self-sufficient)
  2. The freedom to act independently 
  3. (In Kantian moral philosophy) acting in accordance with one’s moral duty rather than one’s desires.

I’m not being flippant; M and I are locked down in our own “zone” to protect ourselves from the death-dealing virus but equally concerned – not about protests in the CHAZ – but over the mounting crisis in America. What can we do about it? This is about more than Covid-19. This is a global crisis with America is its epicenter. We sit in the throes of a viral pandemic with a surfeit of African-Americans dying at the hands (or knees) of white police officers and a White House willing to use pepper spray, flash bangs, and rubber bullets against peaceful protestors to clear a path for the president to stand awkwardly holding a Bible in front of a church.

Fifty-one years ago, on “Bloody Thursday,” Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California, had helicopters dispense tear gas while 2,700 National Guard and 791 state troopers, local and campus police used shotguns, batons, pepper spray, and rubber bullets to “liberate” Berkeley’s People’s Park from student protestors. Sound familiar? 

Reagan had run on a platform condemning student protest and the establishment of People’s Park. He called the Berkeley campus “a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters, and sex deviants” and considered the creation of the park a direct leftist challenge to the property rights of the university, so he seized on it as an opportunity to fulfill his campaign promise. Sound familiar?

Today’s “perfect storm” of Covid-19, the murder of George Floyd, police shootings of unarmed black men, women, and boys makes this more than a People’s Park situation. This is a national crisis of unparalleled proportions. People’s Park divided a California community. The current crisis has divided and galvanized millions of Americans. The “law and order” folks consider it un-American to protest while the vast majority of Americans see the murder of George Floyd as the last straw in 400 years of institutional racism. 

We all saw it; a black life snuffed out under the knee of a white police officer. It looked like a scene from the apartheid era in South Africa. It was the last straw. Black Lives Matter. It’s time for us to stand together and do something about apartheid in America.

But, what does an 80+ year old couple self-isolating from a killer virus do? We vote. We reach out to our friends and neighbors. We write letters to the editor. But… we feel impotent.

Until now, I knew I was the beneficiary of white privilege. I knew I would not be discriminated against in housing, employment, college applications, or the military. What I didn’t fully grasp until now is that my white privilege meant I wouldn’t be stopped by police because of the color of my skin or murdered for the same reason. Now I get it!

This country is so fractured that, when I reached out to a friend during the protests to see if he and his family were OK, his response was to question my motive. Was I more concerned with the looting than the underlying racism? That was not like him, but we’re all living on the edge. If the virus doesn’t get us, some rogue cop might, or the market could collapse and we could find ourselves homeless. The fabric of society is fraying. What do we do? Help us out here…what do we do?

Let’s not let this die like gun control legislation after Sandy Hook, Pulse, and Parkland. The 14th Amendment to our Constitution guarantees the more than 47,000,000 black Americans equal protection, the same protection we whites have under the law. For 400 years black Americans have been treated as second class citizens or worse. It’s time to set things right. This is not about protests – violent or non-violent – this is about human rights.

The Surface of Things…

As a writer, I’m trying to avoid the three Big topics of the day:

  • Black Lives Matter
  • Covid-19
  • Donald Trump

These are this week’s low hanging fruit. Unless I have something personal to add, I think they’re better left to professionals working those beats while I limit my perspective to the surface of things – at least for today.

The events of the past few months have impacted the way we live our lives. We see the world differently because of the invisible threat. We’re aware that it’s inherently dangerous and unpredictable. The fallout from it has taken me places I thought I’d never go and given me permission to navel gaze as never before.

Voltaire said (paraphrase) “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” by which he meant striving to do something perfectly and getting nowhere can keep us from achieving something good.

As one who is both ADD (attention deficit disorder) and OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), I give Voltaire a qualified maybe. Stretching for a metaphor, I think of Buddha’s quest for nirvana. Nirvana is perfect enlightenment. Buddha exhorts his followers to persist in its quest. I feel the same about closets and bookcases; shirts facing left arranged by color and season, scarves and hats on the shelf stacked and folded, suits and sport jackets facing right. Books arranged by subject, author and size. It gives me a feeling of order and organization in a world that is anything but. It’s not nirvana or perfect…but it may be as close as I get.

To shed a little light on it I should explain that when I became a pilot, it wasn’t because I was mechanically inclined or loved airplanes. It was because I liked the idea of the silk scarf, Ray-Bans, and leather jacket. It may not have been the smartest way to choose a profession, but with deference to Voltaire it turned out to be nearly perfect. And, that was 15 years before Tom Cruise owned a pair of Ray-Bans or knew the difference between an A4 and an F-16.

With my lack of interest and aptitude, it was clear I was never going to be Mr. Fix-It. As a pilot, technology consumer, and automobile owner I’ve always been strictly superficial – a systems operator. Unlike some of my Pan Am colleagues I’ve never changed the oil in a car. I figured a college degree and good job would provide the means to hire a professional. I want good service and as long I can afford it and my machines work properly I’m a terrific systems operator.

What Covid-19 has taught me is that in times of crisis when outside help is unavailable, I can learn to do things I would ordinarily avoid. For example, our TV died two weeks ago. Ordinarily I would call my stepson, Jon, an IT whiz kid, network specialist, and a really nice guy, to help me setup the new one. He’s always on call for technology emergencies. He comes by, puts his head down, does the work, and the problem is solved. Now that we’re isolating he’s not available, so I had to order, carry, unpack, assemble, setup, and activate a smart-TV with TiVo, DVD player, ROKU, and 4 HDMI ports. I’m not the least bit interested in dealing with inputs, outputs, and video jacks but in this instance I had to. Thanks to Covid-19 I’ve added a new skill to my CV and feel good about it.

One other casualty of the virus crisis is our friend and housekeeper, Julie, who used to come every two weeks. She’s a miracle worker, but she’s sheltering at her home on Whidbey Island, which means we have to clean our own house. Not our choice but necessary, so I vacuum and dust. M mops the tile floors and cleans the sinks and toilets, and what takes the housekeeper 3 hours – moving furniture, waxing wood, and chasing dust bunnies – takes the two of us 6. Not new skills but ones we’ve refreshed.

It may sound odd, but when I took the job at Pan Am, a stockbroker friend smiled and welcomed me to the second dumbest group of investors in America (only doctors, he said, were dumber). What he didn’t tell me was it was also one of the cheapest. Over the ensuing years, I watched senior Captains argue over nickels when splitting a dinner bill and the next morning give $10,000 to a complete stranger who promised to double it. That’s not all pilots…but some.

A related airline story involved walking into the crew room in Berlin where several pilots were discussing their investments. My friend Dennis, walking in with me, was asked about his investment strategy and without missing a beat offered this bit of advice, “I’ve invested heavily in pleasure and it’s paid great dividends.” He was on to something and I’ve done my best to follow his advice.

After all is said and done, I still don’t change my own oil, choose my own stocks, or ask friends to split the dinner bill, but I do program my own TV, vacuum, dust, make fresh pasta and organize closets and bookcases. And, I own it… my OCD keeps me focused on the surface of things. Sometimes, M even invites friends over to look.

“I Have No More Words.”

Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is a man of few words. He is the sometimes boyfriend of Mma Precious Ramotswe, the title character in Alexander McCall Smith’s series The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Mr. Matekoni is a car mechanic in Botswana where the series is set. He is a simple man – wise and laconic – who, when asked to explain something, often responds with “I have no more words.” I use it jokingly when M pushes hard to continue a conversation I’m not comfortable with.

Today, it’s not a joke. It’s exactly how I feel. “I have no more words” to explain what’s currently consuming us – a killer virus, police brutality, racial division, a violent culture, government stalemate – in effect our whole existence on this 2nd of June 2020.

I get up early, before M does, and while I’m making my triple shot latte I always put on some music, usually jazz. Yesterday something made me choose Mendelssohn. I think it was an unconscious need for meditative calm. What came up was Lied Ohne Worter (Songs Without Words). Perfect. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni and Felix Mendelssohn were trying to tell me something.

As a writer I am seldom at a loss for words, but the imperfect storm of Covid-19, the George Floyd murder, nationwide protests, rampaging anarchists, and Donald Trump using tear gas and rubber bullets to clear his path to a photo op (with a Bible) is too hard to process. I have no more words…

But…I have questions. Why don’t black (or brown or Asian) lives matter? Why was George Floyd murdered by four white police officers? Why are people of color being gunned down by police officers (Filando Castillo and Laquan McDonald). Why haven’t police cracked down on murderous white vigilantes (Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin)? Why are thousands of Latinos still in detention, turned away or deported? Why do we tolerate Donald Trump’s attacks on female reporters of color (Asian-American journalist Weija Jang of CBS and NPR reporters Yamiche Alcindor and Ayesha Rascoe).

And… why are black and brown people dying from Covid-19 at three times the rate of whites?

In the last two days I’ve received emails from friends in Berlin, Singapore, Saigon, and Sydney asking about the “riots” and if I’m safe. And, when I emailed a black friend to see if he was OK, he responded by asking if I was more concerned with the looting than the underlying racism? I assured him I was not, but was concerned with his safety and that of other friends. Everyone is on edge. I have no more words…

Why have peaceful protests turned violent? Why is there a violence pandemic? Why are there so many guns around? M’s garden helper called 5 minutes ago to say he’s locked down at the VA hospital because cops are swarming the place with helicopters overhead. There’s is an active shooter situation. What the fuck is going on?

The No. 1 lady detective, Mma Ramotswe, was ingeniously good at solving crimes, but I don’t think we need her to solve this mystery. America is infected – yes, there is a killer virus loose in the world, but the culture is infected with another contagion. There is a systemic infection underlying this Lord of the Flies moment. Forty million Americans have filed unemployment claims since March 1. Officially, the unemployment rate is 14.7% but economists estimate the real number is between 25 and 30%. And, there is no leadership in sight.

In May of 2019, a Federal Reserve study showed that 27% of adults would be unable to cover an unexpected expense greater than $400. One-quarter have no retirement savings at all. That was a year before Covid-19 and the recession it triggered. Since then it’s clear that the impact on communities of color has greater than on whites. 

Diagnosing the problem is much easier than solving it. It’s a compound problem—a killer virus exacerbated by a legacy of slavery. The framers of our Constitution agreed that a black person was worth only 3/5 that of a white. Not a good way to start out, and it continued for almost 200 years despite the Emancipation Proclamation, Reconstruction, Brown vs. Board of Education and Great Society legislation. George Floyd is only the latest victim of ingrained racism.

I worry for my grandchildren. Five of them are children of color. Will they be OK? I don’t know. Right now, I have no words… to express my concern, my fear, and my anguish for them, for America, and for all the good people suffering this fate. We’re flying blind, but my response like Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s is “I have no more words.”