A Real Fighter Pilot…

“We just love our pilots.” Marine Sgt. Major TC Crouson (VMF-323 Reunion)

History’s most famous fighter pilot, the “Red Baron,” Manfred von Richthofen, offered the following description of how a fighter pilot approaches his job:

“Fight on and fly on to the last drop of blood, the last drop of fuel, to the last beat of the heart.”

Since the death of Senator John McCain last weekend, a number of journalists have seized on his days as a fighter pilot to describe his personality and character. The conventional wisdom is that fighter pilots are aggressive, competitive, work-oriented, cocky, conscientious, extroverted, risk takers. Looking back it’s clear that the life and career of John McCain was faithful to both the Red Baron’s and conventional wisdom’s summary of attributes.

The fighter pilot Senator from Arizona lived his life and prepared for his death in the best traditions of both fighter pilot and senator. I like to think John and I would have been friends had we known each other. Not that I, in any way, am comparing myself to this national hero, but I’m proud to have shared some friendships, airplanes, and history going back to our days in Pensacola and beyond.

McCain graduated from Annapolis in June of 1958 and went straight to pre-flight training in Pensacola. I graduated from the University of Washington in December of the same year and went to Marine Officer Candidate Class in Quantico, Virginia, before going to Pensacola in May of 1959. Our paths didn’t cross there, except possibly at an aspiring aviators’ bar on South Palafox called Trader John’s or on a Friday night at the Mustin Beach Officers Club where young working girls from town came to meet pilots-in-training. I’m sure we were in those rooms together more than once.

Among Naval aviators there’s always six-degrees-of-separation. John and I shared a couple of friendships I know about, maybe more, including my friend and Marine squadron-mate, Carl Vogt, who went through flight training with John and later knew him in Washington DC as the senior partner at the law firm of Fulbright & Jaworski. In 1992 George H.W. Bush appointed Carl Chairman of the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) and Senator John McCain presided at his installation ceremony

This is the official photo of Carl Vogt the lawyer, not Carl Vogt the fighter pilot (although, if you look closely, those are Navy wings in his lapel).

Carl and I joined VMF-323, an F8 Crusader squadron at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, after getting our wings. Then, following our active duty service, started law school together at UC Berkeley. If you met Carl today you’d be impressed by his courtly, dignified manner, but beneath that smooth surface is the fighter pilot who once ejected from a Crusader and who, during a break from our law school studies, saved my sorry ass by taking out a guy in a dive bar on San Pablo Avenue when the guy thought I was getting too familiar with his girlfriend. One punch. Fighter pilot friendship. That’s another story John McCain would have smiled about.

So it goes with fighter pilots… but back to John McCain. In addition to the mutual friendship with Carl, McCain and I flew some of the same airplanes, F9s, F11s, and our last airplane, the A4 Skyhawk, the airplane he was flying when he was shot down over Hanoi’s West Lake.

The version below, in Marine colors, carries markings that designate it as part of the USS Forrestal contingent, coincidentally the carrier McCain was stationed aboard when his A4 caught fire on the flight deck during the tragic accident that killed 134 sailors and injured 161.

John’s post-Vietnam history is well documented, but a new story caught my attention this week. In an interview with Terry Gross on NPR, his Chief of Staff talked about a visit the senator made to the Yukon. As a congressman, he actively supported measures to combat climate change, and on this trip to the Yukon to observe its effects he met the mayor of Whitehorse. Upon meeting McCain, the mayor mentioned that Whitehorse was the home of the poet Robert W. Service, whereupon McCain, to everyone’s surprise, began reciting Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee.

It seems that during his days in the Hanoi Hilton, the prisoner in the cell next to his was a Canadian, and as they were unable to speak to each other they developed a code they tapped out on the common wall between their cells. During their long stay as POWs, the Canadian taught McCain the Service poem which he never forgot. In fact, as he was reciting the poem to the mayor of Whitehorse he began tapping it out in code, and soon after that they left the delegation behind, and in his unique and unconventional way, went to visit Robert Service’s home.

I didn’t share John McCain’s political views for the most part. I’m a Berkeley-educated liberal and the son of an insurance salesman. He was an Academy-educated conservative, the son and grandson of Navy admirals. He made mistakes (so have I). He wasn’t afraid to admit them (neither am I). And, he did his best to correct them (I hope I have too). While we didn’t share the same politics, I have the utmost respect for him and I’m proud to have served as a fighter pilot and shared those experiences with him.

I admired McCain for his independence, self-deprecating sense of humor, and highly tuned bullshit detector – the one that set off alarms when Donald Trump emerged as the Republican’s nominee in 2016. McCain knew immediately that he was a fraud and needed to be stopped.

This week’s ceremonies honoring McCain’s life has brought about a national period of mourning and highlighted the differences between a man of courage, integrity, and character with those of a pathological liar and draft dodger who famously had the audacity to question McCain’s status as a war hero.

McCain always laughed when he acknowledged his fifth from the bottom finish at Annapolis while Trump never tires of puffing himself up to tell us he graduated at the top of his class at Wharton – The truth, of course, is that he transferred to Penn to take classes in the Wharton undergraduate program after spending two years at Fordham. Character is destiny. We’ll see whose legacy lives longer.

“Fight on and fly on to the last drop of blood, the last drop of fuel, to the last beat of the heart.”

RIP John McCain

Preserve and Protect…

“There is a delight in the hardy life of the open. There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm. The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value.” — President Theodore Roosevelt

The timing is coincidental but today is the 102nd anniversary of the National Park Service, the federal agency founded by Theodore Roosevelt to manage the national parks, monuments and other natural properties designated for conservation and preservation.

As Americans, we are the beneficiaries of a legacy that kept North America from becoming a patchwork of British, French, Spanish, and Native American colonies. The founders of our country battled – literally – to bequeath us this rich chunk of the planet bordered by oceans east and west, mountains on the north, and sub-tropical deserts to the south.

It’s impossible to overstate the beauty of the American landscape or the importance of preserving and protecting its rich resources.

I was lucky. As a child my parents took me to several national parks, introduced me to park rangers, and helped me understand that these lands were owned by the American people and open for all to enjoy.

When I was younger I loved to adventure in them – rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon, floating for 18 days through the Grand Canyon, tent camping at Cinnamon Bay in the Virgin Islands, sleeping sauvage behind the Awahnee Lodge in Yosemite, scrambling up the Grand Teton with Dick Dorworth, climbing the Camp Muir snowfield on Mt Rainier to meet Doug, riding mountain bikes on the White Rim, Slickrock, and Gemini Bridges in Moab, and camping by the Road to the Sun in Glacier Park.

In recent years, M and I have spent time exploring some of the cultural treasures included in America’s national park system – the Washington Mall monuments and museums, Civil War battlefields at Gettysburg and Antietam, John Adams House in Quincy, and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial along with the Arlington National Cemetery – solemn reminders that our freedom came at a cost.

The National Park Service is an agency in the Department of the Interior (often referred to as the Department of Everything Else), and while it may not be in the news every day, it, could well be the most important agency in terms of long-term impact on the country? It’s not the biggest or the smallest of the cabinet level departments, but it oversees 75% of the land owned by the federal government (Department of Agriculture controls the remainder) and regulates the activities on all that land. Its management responsibility includes the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, US Geological Survey, Bureau of Reclamation, and the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement. It manages oil and mineral resources and grants permits for offshore drilling.

Even before I was aware of the NPS anniversary, I planned to write about our responsibility to the land, to its parks, managed lands, and natural resources, because the current Secretary of the Interior and a covey of grifters and political hacks have taken over the agency and are moving to cheat us of our inheritance by opening these lands and waters to exploitation by extractive industries.

I find grandstanders repugnant, so it’s impossible to hide my disdain for the current Secretary of the Interior riding a Park Service horse to work his first day on the job. I know he’s from Montana (so am I), but when I see a fool on a horse in downtown DC I’m reminded of a friend’s comment about the stockbrokers and real estate developers who showed up in Sun Valley watering holes in the ’80s and ’90s sporting cowboy boots and Stetsons saying, “Yup, I’ve always worn ‘em.”

What was he thinking, this ex-Navy Seal, now Secretary of the Interior, on a Park Service nag in downtown DC? I think I can hear him now, “Yup, I’ve always ridden a horse to work.” You should also check out the Native American beadwork on those gloves – recently purchased, no doubt, at the Flathead Indian Reservation store in Polson, just south of his “homestead” in Whitefish. “Yup, I’ve always worn ‘em.”

I would still laugh at him, but I wouldn’t be so critical if I thought he was protecting America’s natural resources, but Zinke is a Trump-style raider unlike his predecessor, Sally Jewell, the former CEO of REI (Recreational Equipment Inc), who was an avid hiker and mountaineer as well as a zealous guardian of our national parks and natural resources.

Since taking office Zinke has granted Red-State Florida an exemption from offshore oil drilling while denying Blue-State California the same exception. But, perhaps his most egregious act was reversing the Obama administration’s protection of 1,000,000 acres of pristine red-rock canyons in Utah’s Bear Ears National Monument––to allow uranium and oil interests to drill and extract minerals.

As with all government agencies, budget cuts are pinching the NPS, stretching manpower resources, and mandating increased fees. M and I have Golden Age Passports (now called the America the Beautiful – Senior Pass), lifetime passes that cover entrance and amenity fees to over 2000 federal recreational sites and available to anyone over 62. It’s a bargain by any standard but upsetting that Zinke raised the cost of the pass by 700% last year, making it much more expensive for Americans to enjoy and explore the parks and wild places they own.

On this 102nd anniversary of the National Park Service, my thoughts go back to Theodore Roosevelt who never lost his reverence for the land but lived to see the effects of overgrazing, the exhaustion of specific natural resources, and the need to preserve and protect what remains.

“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”

TR preserved them for you. You own them now. When was the last time you visited a national park, monument, or museum? You owe it to yourself…and TR. Do it.

The Biggest Art Heist…

Everyone loves the story of a daring art robbery with keystone cops, priceless paintings, a colorful cast of characters, a famous museum, an eccentric collector, and an unresolved ending–as mysterious as an M.C. Escher print.

In literature there are many examples of stories that deliver that mixture of art, crime and mystery – The Art Thief, The Raphael Affair, The Art Forger, and The Faustian Bargain. On the screen, it’s difficult to top Steve McQueen as the art collector and Faye Dunaway as the insurance investigator in Version I of The Thomas Crown Affair, or better yet Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo in the updated Version II. Check ‘em out. They’re still cliff hangers.

But, nothing beats the real deal… and perhaps the most surprising real deal heist took place on August 21, 1911, when three employees lifted a little-known painting off the wall of the Louvre, hid all night in a closet, and walked out the door in the morning with the painting hidden under a worker’s smock. Two years later, the ringleader tried to shop it to an art dealer who blew their cover, called the police, and returned the Mona Lisa to the Louvre. Today, La Gioconda is widely regarded as the world’s most famous painting and its theft would land the thief in jail for life. In 1911, it was just a missing painting and the feckless Louvre employee went to jail for seven months.

There have been a number of famous art thefts in addition to the Mona Lisa, including the Ghent Altarpiece (several times), several Van Gogh, Picasso, and Gaugin paintings taken from the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester later discovered in an abandoned lavatory (waggishly called The Loo-vre) and the highly publicized 2004 theft of Edvard Munch’s The Scream and Madonna from the Munch Museum in Oslo.

It’s difficult to handle stolen art. It can’t be sold on the open market and has to remain hidden from the public. Nevertheless, it’s a temptation that keeps criminals scheming and insurance companies raising rates. The one that has them all baffled took place in Boston in 1990 and to this day remains unsolved

The Heist, as it is commonly known, is the biggest art theft in history and took place on 18 March 1990 in the 81 minutes beginning at 1:24 a.m. when two men dressed as Boston police officers “responding to a disturbance” gained entrance to Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, tied up the two night guards, and systematically looted the museum.

It’s remarkable that the thieves have never been caught and none of the 13 works of art, including a Vermeer (below), two Rembrandts, a Manet, and five Degas drawings have never been found. In 1990 the value of the stolen art was pegged at $500,000,000. In today’s dollars, adjusted for inflation the figure is $977,494,052.34. Almost one billion dollars…

In January, the museum renewed its offer of a $10,000,000 reward for information leading to recovery of the art. In 2013 the FBI asserted that they knew the perps but that they were both dead. The statute of limitations ran out in 1995, and it remains a black hole mystery.

Despite its notoriety as the biggest property theft in US history and the fact that there is a full length documentary and book about it as well as an active FBI web page devoted to it, the museum’s staff is not allowed to discuss the heist with visitors except to note that empty frames on the walls of the museum stand in place to remind the visitor of the missing art that once hung there.

Here, M stands next to the frame that held Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, his only known seascape (shown as it was, on the right).

The heist might be the only thing people know about the Gardner, but it’s no more noteworthy than the museum itself. Isabella Stewart Gardner was an eccentric woman of the Gilded Age, part of the Boston circle that included John Singer Sargent, Henry James, and Edith Wharton. She traveled extensively in Europe, was widowed at 58, and for the remainder of her life devoted herself to building one of the great American art collections housed in the Venetian-style palazzo she designed and lived in on the Fens in Boston.

Mrs. Gardner’s home/museum is an eclectic mix of ancient artifacts, personal letters, Flemish tapestries, and Renaissance master’s paintings guided and curated by Bernard Berenson. When she died she instructed her heirs to maintain the collections as she had arranged them in the palazzo. The result is a delicious, crowded, poorly lit, treasure hunt, difficult to navigate but worth every minute. In 2012 a modern addition was added, not to house the art but to provide administrative, conservation, retail, and restaurant space. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

What could possibly have happened that night in 1990 at the Gardner? Where is the missing art? Twenty-eight years later there are many theories about who could have masterminded the robbery–from employees and police accessories, to Whitey Bulger, Mafia goons, Euro-thieves, a Vatican operative, IRA terrorists, greedy billionaires and oil rich Middle Eastern emirs.

Like the DB Cooper mystery, the Gardner heist has achieved mythic stature. The difference is that DB Cooper disappeared with a suitcase full of cash not 13 priceless one-of-a-kind art treasures. Consensus is that the thieves are dead, but like others I keep hoping the paintings will be recovered and back in their respective places on the walls of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. One can only hope.

Listen to the Music… Up Close and Personal

I won’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of Steve Piper. I hadn’t either, but here’s the point; Steve is a journeyman singer-songwriter I heard last month while traveling in Western Massachusetts, and in this life, when you’ve been around for a while, you begin to appreciate how much talent there is – in your neighborhood, in your city, maybe even in your own family. I’ve been saying this for a long time, but it hard registered last month when I heard Steve play one night in Stockbridge.

That night, after a day meandering around the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, we decided to see if we could track down a good burger. There weren’t a lot of choices but the Lion’s Den in the basement of Stockbridge’s Red Lion Inn looked promising. There were a few other patrons, but it wasn’t crowded. We settled in, ordered burgers, a Pinot Grigio and a draft ale.

I’m not a good judge of age anymore. I tend to think anyone with gray hair and a few wrinkles is my age. Not true, but my tiny mind wants to believe it. Regardless, about 9 p.m. a guy “about my age” took the small stage, tuned his Martin, and did a short sound check while we were waiting for our burgers.

As noted above, there is an immense about of talent in the world, and when Steve Piper, the guy nobody’s ever heard of, opened his set with a 12-bar blues run and the first verse of Sweet Home Chicago I knew we were in its presence. I didn’t talk with him, so I don’t know if he makes his living as a musician or pounds nails on a local construction crew, but he was good and it was a treat to listen to him play and sing. We stayed for two sets as he covered John Prine’s Angel From Montgomery, some Stevie Ray Vaughan, and one or two of his own songs. Good stuff… and live.

Steve’s talent was notable, but our visit to the Lion’s Den is an example of something else I’ve felt strongly about for a long time. The ordinary in-person experience of a performance, whether it’s music, theater, or gallery art, is worth more than a dozen videos of a great performance. I spend too much time in front of a computer and often see “Watch Live Now.” But, if it’s up close and personal, even across a room or stadium, it’s different. There’s a human connection with the artist communicating in his or her special way. I’ve known a few famous musicians, actors, and artists, and all of them speak through their particular medium. Some are eloquent off the stage, and some are so shy you can’t imagine how they overcome it in performance. In any case, it’s always better live.

All this is background to the reason we were in the Berkshires. After a week with friends in Rhode Island, our destination was Tanglewood the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and a music venue like no other – a sprawling 210-acre park two hours west of Boston with a lovely lawn, a visitor’s center and several performance halls. This summer it’s celebrating the 100thanniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth and featuring some of his work.

Throughout the day and during the evening music can be heard across the park at Tanglewood. Admission is generally free during the day, with ticketed performances in the evening. One of the secrets of Tanglewood is the dress rehearsal. These usually take place a day or two before the scheduled performance and the audience is treated to an inside look at how the conductor, performers, and music, are fine-tuned prior to an upcoming performance.

During our three days at Tanglewood, we saw and heard a dress rehearsal of La Bohemewith Susanna Phillips as Musetta and Kristine Opolais as Mimi, a piano recital with Paul Lewis playing a Mozart concerto, the BSO and Tanglewood Festival Chorus performing Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms on the 100thanniversary of Lenny’s birth, and a minidress rehearsal with the flamboyantly glamorous Yuja Wang (below) playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #1.

Tanglewood is unique in many respects; Because it is not in a metro area there isn’t any drop in traffic. It’s a destination experience. You know it’s there and you’re willing to drive for two hours and pay for overnight accommodations in order to see and hear world class musicians do their thing in an informal park setting. The performance halls at Tanglewood are indoor/outdoor spots surrounded by grassy lawns, and many of the audience members choose to picnic on the lawn rather than be seated in the Koussevitzky Shed, the largest of the venues, or the smaller Seiji Ozawa Hall (below). We paid $34 to sit inside but tickets for the lawn are less.

Everyone loves summer, and it’s the perfect season to experience live action – music, theater, and art. There are outdoor art festivals, Shakespeare in parks, and concerts at wineries. There is no better time to Watch Live. Get out there and as Nike says, Do It.We loved our experience at Tanglewood and the evening with Steve Piper at the Lion’s Den.

Now we’re home in Seattle, and last weekend we went to see Lauren Weedman Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, a one-woman show at ACT Theater written and performed by the title character. After the show there was an audience Q and A with the playwright/actress and her director. The play wasn’t perfect; most things aren’t, but the Q and A provided a personal encounter with an artist and a work in progress that gave us insights into the artistic process. I hope you can find a performance close to you that will give you the same experience. Remember… whether you buy a ticket or sit on the lawn it’s better to –

 

Chess Anyone?

The Great American Chess Match is underway – President Donald J. Trump vs. Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III. I’d like to believe the majority of Americans are as curious about this riveting duel as I am, but recent reporting tells us that most Americans are more concerned with how their two income households can make the rent, find or keep a good job, or help their children get to college than they are with Russian interference in the 2016 election or collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives.

I’m not surprised but I find it alarming, because the Great American Chess Match may very well determine how American families will have to deal with their primary concerns in the future.

Chess is a game of strategy and tactics, and while Trump and Mueller are both cagey strategists their tactics are dramatically different. Trump distracts us from his end game (whatever that is) by turning over the board and scattering the pieces. Mueller quietly picks them up, resets the board, and methodically moves them as he closes in on the king.

America is in the midst of a dynamic reset with the pendulum swinging wildly between the structures the “founding fathers” carefully designed to protect the republic and the current global swerve toward populist driven autocratic governance. How else do we make sense of Charlottesville, the North Korean summit, the abusive treatment of traditional allies, Trump’s servile, bootlicking bromance with Putin in Helsinki, and his inconceivable decision to invite Putin to the White House for a state visit this fall?

For months I was in denial as Trump and his posse went about dismantling government institutions, ignoring traditions, repealing regulations and upsetting protocol. Look at what’s happened at the Department of Justice, State Department, Treasury, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, EPA, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Department of Education, and most brutally by Homeland Security’s separation of migrant parents from their children.

I believed our system of checks and balances would counteract Trump’s one-man rule autocratic impulses and Republican leaders would see and react to the damage this ignorant, arrogant pretender was doing to their institutions and the lives of ordinary Americans.

I was wrong; tax cuts for the rich haven’t trickled down to wage earners, draconian border enforcement hasn’t kept asylum seekers from looking to America for a safe haven, racist xenophobic travel bans haven’t kept us safe from foreign intrusion, and cozying up to autocrats like Putin, Orban, Duterte, and Erdogan hasn’t enhanced our standing in the world order.

Protectionist tariffs are hurting American farmers and manufacturers like Harley-Davidson and Boeing. In March, 45 American trade associations representing some of the largest companies in the country warned in a letter to the White House that such tariffs would raise prices on consumer goods, kill jobs and drive down financial markets. But the beat goes on…

My childhood friend Bob Lucas (above), won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work in macroeconomics predicting outcomes based on “rational expectations.” Like Bob, I’m a fan of rational expectations and I suppose it’s the reason I was in a state of denial for so long. Trump’s outrageous violations of normative behavior are crazy, vulgar, and undemocratic, and my “rational expectation” was that one of the traditional forces – the Senate, the House, the Department of Justice, or the Supreme Court would step in and end the carnage. It hasn’t happened.

Like many Americans I haven’t always supported the policies and decisions of those traditional forces but until the election of 2016 I believed that they and our presidents acted on the belief that what they were doing was best for the country and most Americans.

I was wrong. Rational expectations are out the window with this president and his spineless Republican Congress. I can’t wrap my head around it. I thought Congress would resist an assault on our democracy. I thought the American electorate would rebel too. I thought the rule of law would prevail. Not so. During his first year in office, his support hovered around a base of roughly 30%, but today his numbers are alarming. A recent poll shows that 88% of Republican voters approve of him and his actions. That’s not a majority of the population but it’s his base and it’s growing and coalescing in support of his policies. To me it’s scary to think he has that kind of support.

There is no way to explain the phenomenon in terms of rational expectations. We would normally expect Republicans to support limited government, free trade, individual liberty, lower taxes, balanced budgets, reduced deficits, and moral leadership. Strike those expectations. Trump has hijacked the party and today’s Republicans are redistributing wealth upward, increasing the national debt by more than a trillion dollars, imposing tariffs that restrict trade, and building useless walls while their president personally profits from his elected position and pays porn stars and Playboy models to keep them quiet about his depravity. What’s up with that?

Today, I’m pissed and we all should be. Even if you’re dyed in the wool “Live Free or Die” conservative you should be pissed. Donald Trump is an imposter who’s hijacked your government. Don’t let him get away with it. Find a righteous candidate who believes in democratic ideals and support the hell out of him or her.

When the Great American Chess Match is over I’m counting on Mr. Mueller to show us that the Emperor’s new clothes are the real Fake News and we can once again resume the test of the greatest political experiment in history… 240 years and counting. Today, our future is in the hands of a clear-eyed, clear-thinking, Princeton and Harvard educated ex-Marine bolstered by a free and independent press. Let’s hope the system is up to the test.

 Semper Fidelis