Cut and Run?

My son was a student at the University of Colorado when he joined the National Guard. He’d used up the four years worth of college tuition his mother and I promised and needed more to keep going. His focus was on paying for school, but his sport was biathlon (skiing and shooting), and the National Guard was the sport’s biggest financial sponsor.  It was a good option.

He didn’t think he was going to go to war when he signed up. Neither did I when I joined the Marine Corps. It was a remote possibility in both cases but given the circumstances we saw opportunities to learn essential skills that could save us in case it did happen. I became a fighter pilot. He became a Special Forces soldier.

I was luckier. I finished my 8-year commitment before Vietnam got big, but in the wake of 9/11 he and his Special Forces team were among the first US troops deployed to Afghanistan. Their mission was to track down Osama Bin Laden in the mountains of Tora Bora.

Yesterday, in response to the calamitous pullout of US troops and affiliated civilians, he wrote the following:

“Watching the news is hard the last couple of days. I hear my friends asking, “Did we make a difference?” These are my brothers and sisters, who have stood shoulder to shoulder with me in some of the hardest times and with whom I would stand back-to-back with against any odds. Quiet professionals who committed to doing the best job they could no matter what the obstacles in their way were.
I remember watching my teammates interact with the locals in Jalalabad, kicking a soccer ball or throwing a frisbee, seeing the laughter in the children and their parents.
I remember searching the mountains and meeting with people to find the tools of war that could have brought down a plane of innocents and taking them to be destroyed.
I remember meeting an old man who just thought that firing his anti-aircraft weapon was fun and telling him that might not be a great idea.
I remember our medics helping people to have clean water so that their children could be healthy.
I remember one man who turned his fighters around to come and save my friends when everyone ran.
Maybe the big picture is hard to see right now. I hold by what Admiral William McRaven has said much more eloquently than I can. “One person can change the world by giving people hope.” If I or my teammates have affected one person, if we have given one person hope, the effect cannot be denied and is exponential. Would I do it again? Yes. Absolutely. If I have given one person hope through my actions, then every sacrifice and all the effort to get me to that moment was worth it.”

I’m proud of his service and agree with his statement. From Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan, America has fumbled the ball repeatedly. Since the end of WWII, our leaders haven’t shown they don’t know how to set goals, execute a plan, achieve it, and get out. Korea. Vietnam. Bosnia. Afghanistan. Iraq. All failures.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, America’s stated goal was to hunt down Osama Bin Laden and decimate his organization. My son’s team chased him through Tora Bora but were called off so the Afghan army could get credit for doing the job. We know how that worked out. Then George Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle co-opted the 9/11 opportunity to “liberate” Iraq, something they had been aching to do since George H.W. stopped at the border in the Gulf War. The rest is history. Osama vanished and Afghanistan morphed into an endless tribal conflict and second-tier nation building exercise.

Girl Scout cookies from home 2002

Shortly after this picture was taken, a clueless new “Big Army” General was all over my son’s SF team for uniform violations. They were under pressure to shave their beards, take off the keffiyeh scarves, and wear traditional Army field uniforms – the functional equivalent of turning them into targets. Fortunately, they survived and completed their tour because they got the job done. They returned to the US unharmed. He retired two years ago after 20 years in Special Operations and a dozen overseas deployments.

In the 20 years since the war in Afghanistan began the US has spent roughly 1 trillion dollars. There have been 3500 coalition deaths, 21,000 US soldiers injured, 64,000 Afghan security and national police killed, and according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama), nearly 111,000 civilians killed or injured since it began systematically recording civilian casualties in 2009. (

I’m profoundly upset and angry that Joe Biden, a man whose judgment I respected until now, couldn’t order and execute an organized and peaceful withdrawal of American troops and vulnerable Afghan partners.

Shameful…and so is the BS defense he’s throwing up since Kabul fell on Saturday. Today, the Taliban controls the streets and access to the airport. The tarmac at Kabul International Airport is a mosh pit for thousands of desperate Afghans. A failure of colossal proportions. 

Own it, Mr. President! Saying, “The buck stops here” then retiring to the isolation of Camp David doesn’t cut it. When mistakes are made the Commander-in-Chief needs to step up and fix it even if it means taking”friendly fire” from friends and foes. We owe it to the troops and our Afghan partners to provide a safe exit and safe havens before we cut and run.

Get your ass back to the White House and manage this crisis.

Flying and Writing…

I love the huge adrenaline rush of Top Gun’s opening flight deck sequence. With Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone pounding in the background, I can smell the JP-4, notice my heart rate accelerate, feel the engines spool up, and scrunch back in my seat waiting for the kick of the catapult. I get sucked in by the air-to-air training exercises, the oiled-up volleyball porn, “the need for speed nonsense and Maverick and Goose singing You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling. It’s the real McCoy, even if Tom Cruise is an imposter and the majority of the film is a Navy puff-piece.

I’m often asked why I don’t write about flying, since it’s taken up a large part of my life. It’s probably because it doesn’t seem relevant to who I am now. I wasn’t a kid who loved airplanes. I didn’t hang around airports hoping for a ride and yearning to get my license. I was going to get drafted and thought flying jets would be better than chipping paint on a Navy destroyer or crawling through the mud in Carolina swamp. Flying was an adventure choice not a career path, and when it was over it was over. 

My friend Laura wants me to write about those white scarf and Ray Ban days, and she may have a point. One of the cardinal rules for writers is “Write what you know,” and flying is part of what I know. I can’t quite explain my reticence. Military flying is fueled by adrenaline but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will make a good story. There are so few writers who’ve done it well. Many have tried but only a handful have spun literary gold out of the experience. There are the romantic “slip the surly bonds of earth” writers and the macho “nuke ‘em back to the stone age” writers but only a few who have integrated flying in a story with literary value.

Beryl Markham is not a name most people recognize today, but Ernest Hemingway told his editor Maxwell Perkins that “she can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers.” I agree. She is one of three or four writers I know who managed to blend aviation credentials with serious literary intention. What I admire most about her memoir West with the Night is the simple, cogent, articulate prose – all in service to her story.

But Beryl Markham brought a world of experience to her writing. Raised on a farm in Kenya, she spent years as a bush pilot and racehorse trainer before setting her sights on a westbound Atlantic crossing. She accomplished it nine years after Lindbergh’s eastbound flight (more favorable winds). In her 294-page memoir, she doesn’t get to that most memorable accomplishment until page 277. She followed the memoir with The Splendid Outcast, a book of short stories and later, Paula McClain, author of The Paris Wife, wrote a fictional account of her remarkable life in the novel Circling the Sun.

Markham was a true aviation pioneer as was Antoine de Saint-Exupery, one of her lovers and another of the aviation writers I admire. Saint-Ex, as he was known, pioneered airmail routes in South America, flew for France in two world wars (his plane disappeared near Marseille in 1944) and wrote several novels (Night Flight and Wind Sand and Stars) in addition to the best-selling not-quite-a-children’s book The Little Prince. The novels are beautifully written – especially Night Flight – describing aviation’s early years in fine detailToday’s pilots would be ill equipped to confront the situations Saint-Ex encountered and wrote about so well.

Recently, Mark Vanhoenacker, a British Airways Captain developed a reputation and cracked the bestseller lists as an aviation author. His Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot created a stir when it was published in 2015, but it reads more like a romantic travelogue to me than a literary effort. I admire the way he gives the reader a cockpit-view of the world, but I don’t want a 30,000 foot high guidebook. I want fresh insights into people and places. Yes, flying is the environment, but good lit is about more than just its setting.

The contemporary aviator/writer I admire most is James Salter, a Korean War F-86 pilot with 100 combat missions under his belt. The Hunters is a novel about that experience. It’s authentic from a fighter pilot’s perspective but is more than just a vehicle for the author to discuss aerial combat and give the reader sweaty palms. He wrote what he knew about the air war but also about the psychological tensions and stresses of squadron life in wartime. Yet, Salter wasn’t a one-trick pony. He went on to write about expatriate romance (A Sport and a Pastime), rock climbing (Solo Faces), skiing (the film Downhill Racer), marriage dysfunction (Light Years), end of life issues (All That Is), as well as a couple of fighter pilot memoirs and Life is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days with his wife Kay. 

When asked if he’d learned anything from flying that helped him in his writing, he answered, “The time flying, that didn’t count… You deduct that from our literary career. That isn’t my life. I have said many times I don’t want to be considered one who once flew fighters. That’s not who I am.”

I feel the same. I loved my yank and bank days in the F8 Crusader, and I’m proud of my Marine Corps fighter pilot days, but that’s not who I am today. That person is someone I don’t know. That may be why I find it hard to write about it.

Salter died in 2015 and the New Yorker obituary described him as “a man’s man first and a writer’s writer later.” After “Me too” I’m not sure “man’s man” still works. I hope mine will say “a good man first, an admirer of good prose second, and eventually a good writer.”

Love Letter to Ellen…

I’ve always been a list maker, another vestige of my OCD – shirts hung according to color, shoes arranged by function, books by subject, music by artist, etc. So, 21 years ago it didn’t seem crazy to begin keeping a list of books (including plays and films) and restaurants, by year, so I could look back and refresh my memory. Around then time was collapsing, and what I thought was 10 years ago was really 5 and so on. 

Recently, reading my high school English teacher’s obituary, I discovered she did the same – “7000 books, 3000 movies and plays and 27 countries visited.” Not the only similarity!

I’ve never written about it until now, but I had a bit of a crush on Ellen McComb Smith my pretty, young, demanding English teacher. She was always Mrs. Smith to me and “EM” to her faculty colleagues. I never dared call her Ellen though our friendship spanned nearly 50 years. The only time I used her first name was when I formally introduced her to my wife and daughter, “Abby and Diana, this is Ellen Smith, my favorite teacher.” Even then it was awkward, though we had been friends for 25 years.

Back in high school I was a good student but indifferent and unchallenged. School was easy, and Mrs. Smith knew it. For some reason, she thought I had potential and made it her mission to jump start it. She began by suggesting books and writing projects I might be interested in. She urged me to get me off my ass (not in those words) and start reading books for ideas not story. Before my senior year she told me to take an elective literature course even though she wasn’t teaching it. I did, and had my first serious encounter with books. We read The Old Man and the Sea and Grapes of Wrath among others, and that class changed my life. I went on to major in English at the University of Washington and creative writing at San Francisco State.

Thoreau, Voltaire and George Bernard Shaw quotes on the blackboard

The idea for a love letter to Ellen came from reading Pat Conroy whose memoir My Reading Life tells a series of stories about people and books that have made a difference in his life – teachers, agents, booksellers, neighbors, family, and friends – none of them famous but all of them important influences. Conroy is the famous “southern writer” who wrote The Great Santini and Prince of Tides.

Early in My Reading Life, he introduces readers to his high school English teacher, Gene Norris, who encouraged “a profoundly shy and battered young man and changed the course of his life with the extravagant passion he brought to his classroom.” Mr. Norris was Conroy’s guide. Mrs. Smith was mine.

Conroy acknowledges he’s not in the same category as Dickens or Dostoevsky though many of the people profiled in My Reading Life thought he could be, just as Mrs. Smith knew I could do better. Conroy may not be America’s greatest writer, but he’s almost unparalleled as a storyteller. His bibliography is long – novels, memoirs, essays, and non-fiction – but the personal stories in My Reading Life are my favorites, wonderful character studies that honor his influences.

He begins by telling the reader that every fall Mr. Norris’s introductory lecture included “what he expected us to learn over the course of a year, the number of books he required us to read, and the quality of essays we would write. With English department funds, he had gotten each of us a subscription to The Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Magazine. He expected us to have an intimate knowledge of current affairs and required that we become familiar with the New York Times.” Mrs. Smith did the same.

It’s been 67 years since my first class with Mrs. Smith, but I remember her suggestion that I read The Late George Apley, a Pulitzer prize-winning novel written by John P. Marquand. It failed to interest me, but in the lit class she recommended the following year, Santiago the fisherman, the Okie Joad family, Robert Jordan, and Jay Gatsby lit that flame and prepared me for college. I should probably take a second look at George Apley from this distance. I’m sure it would please Mrs. Smith.

Pat Conroy became friends with Gene Norris just as I became friends with Ellen Smith. She followed my career changes and when I visited Seattle, I never failed to visit the home she and her husband lived in for 54 years and where they raised their two daughters. When I became a Pan Am pilot and was flying to London she connected me to her brother-in-law who was a Foreign Service officer at the US Embassy, and later with her daughter who was an exchange student in Japan though we never got to visit there.

The last time I saw Mrs. Smith was a chance encounter at a museum in Seattle. After retirement, she developed an interest in miniatures and was working on her own French chateau. She was at the museum to see Queen Mary’s dollhouse, an exquisite miniature built for the Queen in 1920. When she asked about my family, I told her my children were in a private school in Sun Valley. She gently rebuked me for not supporting my local public school, though I hope the money I raised for Seattle Public Schools later made up for not meeting her expectation then. 

I never saw her again. She suffered a major stroke in 1993, before I returned to Seattle. Marilynn did stop by at my request and wished her a good recovery but she passed away soon after. 

RIP Mr. Norris, Mrs. Smith, and all the teachers who bring the best out in their students.


In researching Ellen Smith’s life and death I discovered another article celebrating her impact as a teacher. The writer, a journalist at The Daily Kos particularly admired the fact that she was a “proud card carrying member of the ACLU” in Roosevelt High School’s lily white conservative corner of the city.

The Sorcerer’s Garden…

She loves to garden and has since she was this age. So did her grandmother, Lena, and mother Virginia. But my wife, Marilynn, has taken it to a new level. Two years ago, I profiled her as My Gardener and people were amazed. 

She started 20 years ago with a vision and a bare concrete patio. She did a masterful job bringing her vision to life, but now the creation is threatening to overwhelm the creator. 10 years ago, when it was clear she couldn’t do it alone, a friend with a degree from the UW Horticultural Center offered to help. That arrangement lasted five years and then a talkative hardworking Austrian showed up. Last week he announced he’s moving to Hawaii and the job is open again. My fingers are crossed that another garden angel shows up to give her a hand.

This is what it looks like now. June was camellia, rhododendron, peony, and lilac time. This month it’s hydrangeas. Next month and into the fall it’s Japanese maple, dahlias, day lilies, and others I can’t name. In winter it’s pansies and dusty miller. There’s a year-around plan for fragrance and color, flowers and blooming plants. But it’s not toil free. There’s planting, watering, fertilizing, deadheading, pruning, and seasonal changeovers. All in ceramic pots (50+), in our front courtyard plus cut flowers in the soil below our back deck. 

In Goethe’s poem, Die Zauberlehrling (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) an old sorcerer hires an apprentice to do chores while he’s away, but the apprentice is lazy and employs some magic he doesn’t really understand, i.e., enchanting a broom, to fetch the water. When the broom brings too much and floods the room, he chops it in half thinking it will stop the flow. But, in fact, it doubles the action. The crisis is solved when the sorcerer returns, breaks the spell, and scolds his apprentice. Only a master should practice magic.

I’m not sure if Marilynn is the sorcerer or the apprentice. She seems more like a master to me, but I’m a lowly hod carrier. In any event her plants keep reproducing, the jungle grows denser and no one, least of all me, knows how to break the spell. We need a garden master to conjure powerful spirits and find us a helper.

I regret not taking pictures when we moved in, but that was before the iPhone made it easy. The space was bare bones – like an oversized dog kennel – but she was energized and excited to have space for a garden at her small urban condo. Never mind that there was no dirt, no pots, and no view. There was a hose bib and that’s all she needed to get started. We’ve dumped enough topsoil, compost, manure, and fertilizer in the 50+ pots to create another Dunn Garden.

I’m clueless, but everyday when I walk in the door she asks if I saw this or that – something blooming, something added, or something moved – and when I say “no,” she takes me by the hand like a small child shows me the change. In defense, I argue it’s hard to see the change, because of the jungle. More and more it feels like the vegetation will take over and start eating visitors any minute. We’re going to need a machete to get from the gate to the front door soon.

Her garden is a marvel. Like compound interest it keeps growing over time, and like interest you don’t notice how much until you check the statement. I sometimes grouse about the time and money spent creating it, but every day I get to watch it grow and flower. It’s her passion and her gift, and I’m the primary beneficiary. By any measure, we live in park…

Now…if you know anybody with a green thumb who needs a job… Give us a call, we need help. 

A River Runs Through It…

My mother died in 1997. I honored her wish to be cremated and the cardboard box holding her remains sat on a shelf in my closet until the summer of 2009. I wasn’t trying to hang on to her in some creepy way, but I had a plan that took 12 years to execute. 

Claudine Mildred Christy Bernard was born in Missoula, Montana in 1906. I was born there 31 years later. Both my father and mother graduated from the University of Montana in 1928, where she was one of the first women graduates of the UM School of Journalism. My son, Brent, majored in geology at Montana State, and in 1997, daughter Diana and her husband, Nick, graduated from UM with degrees in English. Last year their son, Will, entered UM as an art major. 

We have deep roots in Montana; my grandparents homesteaded a small farm near Flathead Lake. My aunt and uncle owned a lumber company in Deer Lodge, and I spent one high school summer as a ranch hand in the Helmville Valley north of Missoula. Norman Maclean’s family settled in Missoula about the same time as my mother’s. 

Norman was four years older than my mother, his brother Paul was her age, and all three were in high school together. Norman left Missoula to attend Dartmouth College, and after a long career on the English faculty at the University of Chicago wrote A River Runs Through It, his exceptional novel of growing up in Montana with a father who used his love of fly-fishing as a metaphor to teach his sons about life. It is without question my favorite novel – spare, profound, poignant, and lyrical.

My mother loved Montana, and the two family stories came together again in the summer of 2009 when my wife Marilynn, Diana, and I took Mom’s ashes back to Montana. I chose a spot close to where A River Runs Through It is set and tossed them handful by handful into Rock Creek while seated on a log hanging over the river. The novella locates the story in Missoula and on the Big Blackfoot, near Rock Creek (below), where both tributaries feed the larger Clark’s Fork.

The novel opens with: 

In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of two great trout rivers in Western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.

My mother loved the book and in 1992 when the Redford film version was released, I took her to see it. As the opening credits rolled there was a sequence of sepia-toned photographs of downtown Missoula, including the historic Missoula Mercantile department store. By then, at 86, she was hard of hearing but there, in the quiet of the theater, she leaned over and in a loud voice announced, “That’s not right. That’s not what the Merc looked like then.” She would have known. She worked at the Merc when she was in college. The audience rippled with giggles and I told her we could talk about it later.

In June, John N. Maclean, Norman’s son, a journalist with the Chicago Tribune, published Home Waters: A Chronicle of Family and a River, his memoir of family and the writing of A River…, recalling times at the cabin they still own at Seeley Lake, the mystery surrounding Paul’s tragic death, and his father’s last days.

The Bernards no longer live in Montana but I do have a grandchild (fourth generation) enrolled at UM. My son-in- law, Nick, is a well-established fly-fishing guide, and son, Brent, guides as a sideline to his job as a hydrologist. Both love the great trout fishing rivers – the Madison, Yellowstone, Gallatin, Big Hole and Blackfoot – of Montana. The Macleans are absent too but maintain their family cabin at Seeley Lake. Montana has a hold on both families for good reason.

I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then, in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. 

I am haunted by rivers.  (Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It, University of Chicago Press, p161)

Rock Creek 2009


Climate change is devastating the great trout fishing rivers in the West. Last week (July 25, 2021) the New York Times published an article entitled Crisis in the Clear, Deep Pools of Montana citing unprecedented high temperatures and low water leading to trout die-offs, closures, and worries for the future.

I am haunted by rivers. (A River Runs Through It, University of Chicago Press, p161)