Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Risky Business Of Radio Listening

was watching Risky Business for the second or sixth time on cable so I could see Rebecca De Mornay. There's a bit of a connection there. A very thin one, but a connection nonetheless.

Rebecca De Mornay's biological father was the late Wally George, a right wing radio and television personality whose studied abrasivness bordered on the comic. His early radio career included a stint at a 5000 watt radio station located On the top floor of a whorehouse hotel in Eureka, California, which had the unintentionally revealing call letters of KHUM. For Humboldt County, you see. That's where Eureka was located. Still is.

By the time I worked there, a decade later in the mid-60s, the station had changed owners and call letters. It became KINS "Friendly 980." I understand the KHUM call letters have been resurrected, so to speak, by a Humboldt County FM station.

Wally George was long gone by then, but his reputation lingered. According to one old-timer, Wally would fake epileptic fits and throw office furniture into the street. He was one of a colorful crew which included a DJ who collected stray dogs and kept them chained in the studio during his record shift, even when they had to pee. Eventually the stink became overwhelming.  The urine leeched into the walls and stained the wallpaper in the hourly rate hotel rooms below.  While this Saint Francis of dogdom was commendable in spirit, the station managment let him and his dogs go before the dogs could go any more.

Another announcer was an aged Thespian named Frank Robinson Brown.  He had a Shakespearean voice, especially after downing two or maybe five shots of whiskey in the whorehouse hotel bar each morning before going on the air to read the news while wobbling precariously on a bar stool in the studio. He would read the news flawlessly in mellifluous pear-shaped tones, then fall off his bar stool at the end of his newscast.  But I was told that he fell with elan, with style.

Someone once told him, "You'd better slow down. You're going to hit the skids." His response: "My good fellow. Here I am working in a 5000 watt station in the town brothel in a small fogbound radio market, and you tell me I'm going to hit the skids?"

I met him years later, after he'd sobered up and was peddling a self-published book of lyric poetry. I admired him.

And Wally George? Wally moved on to be an emcee in a topless strip club in Santa Monica, then to a syndicated television show called Hot Seat out of Anaheim, a show with such a conservative bent that it makes Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity look like left wing bliss ninnies in comparison. You can Google it. It's almost a self parody. The show aired live between 1983 and 1992 with segments sold in syndication thereafter. I'm sure it's still floating around in the ether someplace.

Since then AM radio has evolved. Maybe devolved. Now it's an anvil chorus of conservative blather, foreign language broadcasts and the sort of money mad Bible thumpers that Jesus would kick out of a temple and off the air. FM radio, with the exception of NPR and a few brave and broke independent stations, is so largely consulted by suits and programming so automated, so predictable, that's it's blander than tap water. Lukewarm tap water.

Well, shoot. I miss the Wally Georges, the Frank Robinson Browns and their broadcasting brethren -- and no, I don't include that fat gasbag Rush Limbaugh, although he can change my mood from blah malaise to self-righteous anger with a flick of a dial. I mean, it's entertainment, right?  Even the His Gasbagness admits that.

I wonder of Rebecca De Mornay is a Republican? 

 Or worse, a Limbaugh Dittohead?

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Airplanes, Hamburgers And Heroes

Being a gourmand, I like to have lunch at the Jack In The Box burger place on Sacramento’s Freeport Boulevard, just across the way from Executive Airport, where light planes roost.  The airport was built in the 1930s as one of  Franklin Roosevelt’s Work Projects Administration programs to provide jobs for the unemployed.  Hoover Dam was a WPA creation.  So were a lot of municipal buildings, streets, parks and airports.  Executive Airport served airlines as well as light aircraft until 1967 when an airport big enough accommodate passenger jets was built north of town. 

Exec, as pilots call it, came under a cloud in 1972 when a privately owned Korean War era jet crashed into an ice cream parlor on Freeport Boulevard, just off the end of a runway.  Twelve children attending a birthday party were killed. (The pilot survived.)  The county banned vintage military jets from the airport after that, although modern business jets are allowed.

My Jack In The Box does not have a runway aimed at it, but it does have a swell view of airport comings and goings that I enjoy while munching my Sourdough Jack with artery clogging fries and slurping down a big drink of strawberry flavored chemicals.

You see, I’m an ex-pilot.  Second generation.  The reason I’m an ex-pilot is that I cannot pass the federally required physical exam due to decades of fun but bad habits.  Plus the cost of renting a light airplane nowadays would put me on a Top Ramen diet.  Aircraft I rented for $15 an hour in 1967 now rent for 10 times that amount.

Ah, yes. 1967.  That’s the year I was licensed as a private pilot, paying for my time aloft with two jobs, and later with the G.I. Bill while attending college in Eureka, Caifornia, a coastal town 300 miles north of San Francisco and one of the foggiest locations in the continental U.S.  

The man who licensed me was the late Matt Ward, a former Marine aviator who had served in the Pacific during WW2.  The flight portion of the two part licensing exam was localized.  That is, student pilots had to learn to navigate the twists and turns of the Mad River Canyon to avoid the fog when approaching Eureka, and to do it within the canyon walls.  We also had to learn how to take off and land on hillside air strips that were little more than firebreaks.  

Matt and my other instructors also worked on my thinking. "Fly ahead of the airplane," they counseled.  Anticipate what's ahead; weather, air traffic, trolls and ogres, whatever.  Try not to be surprised.  Be ready in case a surprise pops up anyway.  Start flying mentally at least an hour before getting in the airplane.  Have a preflight checklist and follow it.  Complacency is your enemy, especially if you have trusting passengers on board.  Oh, and rest assured you will be the first to arrive at the scene of an accident. 

Then Matt was killed in a crash when approaching North Bend, Oregon, along with three passengers.  The feds determined that he'd had a heart attack, slumping forward on the control yoke and throttles of a twin engine Cessna Skymaster at an altitude of 500 feet.  The largest piece of the wreckage was a tire.  Matt was 52-years-old.

My parents drove up from Los Angeles that day. I did not tell them about the wreck.  My dad, who had flown commercially for 40 years, was not happy that I was learning to fly and my mom hated flying anyway.   They'd lost too many friends to accidents over the years.

Yet there were moments aloft when I felt like I'd been slapped with an epiphany.  No, God did not smite me with a bolt of lightning, but whenever I ascended above the clouds through a hole in the overcast, where the sky was a cerulean blue above a dazzling white layer of frosted clouds, well, I could almost hear the final chorus of Beethoven's Ode To Joy.  

Another time I was flying over coastal waters with just enough altitude to reach the shore if the engine quit.  I looked down and saw two humpbacked whales just below the surface, lazing their way from the Bering Sea to Scammon's Lagoon in Baja California. I didn't hear any ode to anything, but the sight remains with me to this day.

So do thoughts of Matt Ward, Captain, United States Marine Corps, and, of course Nat Browne, Lieutenant, Aviation Section, United States Army Signal Corps, WW1.

I'll probably observe the holiday with a Sourdough Jack, fries, and a red chemical drink at Jack In The Box, watching airplanes come and go, and thinking of my two heroes.

That will be my Memorial Day.

Comments, critiques, letter bombs?

Beautiful Michael. I'll never forget the time you flew my mother and me from Sac to Redding in the middle of a storm after my dad died. I've never been so scared in my life. My mother was speechless with fear. But, we made it unscathed. As I remember you weren't too thrilled about making the trip yourself. It's sobering to hear how many people have died in light plane crashes. I guess it just wasn't our time. Thanks for getting us safely to my grandfather's house. Love you. -- Annie

Aww, it was just the tail end of a thunderstorm.  More sound than fury.  It was a little bumpy, but that's about it.

Mike- Your prose soars heavenward like a homesick angel. -- Ron

Great writing, I enjoy reading all your observations,stories and thoughts. Have a great holiday. -- Bsrs

Wonderful story, Mike. You were very lucky to have been taught by a pilot like that. And it does bring Memorial Day to mind. Thanks -- Wht

Thanks. That was a nice memory for this Memorial Day weekend.  Several years ago, I was sitting in a passenger arrival/departure area at National, now Ronald Reagan National, Airport, waiting for my husband's plane to land --this was way back when when airports actually allowed non-passengers to wait in the seating areas. There were four of us sitting there, myself, two men, and an obviously well-traveled, worldly woman. The other three had been talking about their flying experiences. The woman told them about a time she had to laugh when she had gotten onto a flight to discover the cockpit door open and the pilots so inexperienced they needed to use a cheat sheet to ensure they were doing things correctly.
This woman, who had spent two years working in an Air Force flying squadron, just rolled her eyes, bit her tongue and, surprisingly, said nothing. It wasn't worth the effort.   – Brat

I like it. You have this relaxed style that makes easy to read. Smooth .  – Renado


 Wonderful as always!  -- Juli


Great writing, I enjoy reading all your observations,stories and thoughts. Have a great holiday. It's been too long, sir.  I love what you have been writing and have meant to tell you much sooner. – Brett

Nice, Mike.  You make storytelling seem so effortless. I know better, so thank you for the labor you've done in putting this story together and sharing it with us.  -- Karen

John Steinbeck counseled "writing for the ear," reading sentences aloud, especially dialogue, to determine mental veracity.  Including fragments.  People don't.  Think in.  Complete sentences. 


Thanks for sending this. Happy Memorial Day and weekend. -- Angel


Your writing is always a nice surprise to receive, and a great time to read, so I really appreciate the vivid, clear images you paint and share with words. Thanks so much..  -- Zoey


Excellent, Mike. I lived off of Fruitridge Road between Freeport & 24th Street Road and I'm very familiar with the airport. Thanks for the stroll down memory lane. --   Rusty

Nice writing Pilot Mike.  Thanks.  -- Smirks

Keep them coming Mr. Mike. I have been to so many wonderful places when I read your Times.  -- Carol

One of your absolute best. I wish I could join you and hear more.


Thanks everyone for your kind responses.  If I could, I'l treat you all to a Sourdough Jack, some coronary fries and free refills of strawberry flavored chemicals.  We could do Plane Spotting across the road from Executive Airport

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Birthday Gift Of Priceless Memories.

Among the gifts I received for my 70th birthday was a hangar filled with restored vintage airplanes and one 69,000 ton aircraft carrier.  Quite a haul of birthday loot, I must say.

I left the airplanes and the aircraft carrier, the USS Midway, in the custody of the San Diego Air and Space Museum and the Midway Foundation, both of which seem to have a proprietary interest in keeping their exhibits right where they are and might get peevish about outsiders claiming ownership.  Since they are doing a swell job of taking care of my new possessions, I decided to leave the status as quo.

Anyway, neither the vintage airplanes nor the Midway would easily fit in the carry-on luggage I’d brought to San Diego for a weeklong visit, courtesy of Don and Karen Simons, and Karen’s mother, Wanda.   Besides, the extra baggage fee levied by Southwest Airlines for a squadron of antique airplanes and one aircraft carrier on the return flight would have been downright discouraging.  Getting through the airport metal detector would have been problematic too.  So my decision to leave things as they are was not entirely altruistic.

I was also given the historic gold mining town of Julian in the high desert of eastern San Diego County, but magnanimously left it in the care of the state which is doing a fine job of keeping the place up.

We also stopped by the former Naval Training Center where Seaman Apprentice Browne, the recruit Brigade Commander, led a graduation parade of 2500 newly minted sailors in 1961, which is now a shopping center name Liberty Station. The asphalt parade ground, called The Grinder, is now covered with retail enterprises. 

But an aluminum and wood mock-up of a destroyer escort, the USS Recruit, remains landlocked in place and registered as a national historic site.  Between 1949 and 1967 an estimated 50,000 sailors annually learned basic shipboard nomenclature and procedures aboard the Recruit, also called the USS Neversail.  Not one case of seasickness is noted in the ship’s log. Homesickness, maybe, but I didn’t see the log.

Karen treated me to breakfast with the Oceanside Chapter of the Old Bold Pilots Association in a Denny’s banquet room.  The name is based on the axiom “There are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.”

Oh but there are. I was among about 100 of them, mostly former and retired military pilots, some of whom had flown combat assignments in three wars; WW2, Korea and Viet Nam.  Even at 70, I was a relative kid among these guys who had more flight time in training that I did in my entire flying career.  Yet there was not an ounce of braggadocio among them.  Just self-deprecating humor and mild inter-service ribbing.  It was a privilege to be among those people.

 An attractive woman who appeared to be in her 40s appeared during the breakfast, saying her late father had flown B-17s during WW2 and wondered if she could join us.  Of course the gallant old horndogs made a place for her.

We also visited Point Loma Lighthouse which has been in continuous operation since 1891.  It was the last sight of America  that 17-year-old Seaman Apprentice Browne saw in 1961 when sailing aboard the USS El Dorado for a new home port in the Philippines.  As the El Dorado passed the lighthouse, the morning fog lifted showing a cobalt sky and a matching sea.  Two dolphins swam inches from the bow of the ship, showing the way.

So, my thanks to the Simons family for the gift of priceless memories.

# # #


Love it Mater-man, you kid you. I was 70 last year. You will love the 70's. Much better than the 1970's!  Stay well, and know we love you Mikee.  -- Canids

Call me Mikee one more time and I'll cut you off my tomato-prunecake at Xmas list.

Happy Birthday! Better late than never, eh? -- Lynda

Hell, I'm happy to survive lunch.

Thank you! I needed to read this. Peach of a fellow, you!  Astounding, considering your absolute tomatoness  -- Kaanii

Aw shucks. You say that to all the produce

Love it!  After all these years, I can still count on exquisite prose whenever I open a T-man Times!  -- Sum

Wonnderful as always, and a very very Happy if belated Birthday to you. -- Juli

Such skillful writing! And thinking. They are related.  -- Galen

Thanks!  I am verklempt!

Your anecdotes are always welcome. Planes and ships and how we felt the first time seeing them are always with us. A birthday is a good time to reminescence. Happy Birthday to YOU!  -- Wht

How nice to get a piece of mail from you again after a long absence of it. As always, I enjoyed rereading the stuff I'd read before, and the new stuff, too. "Requiem" is one of my favorites. The new one  I read with great interest, paralleling, as it often does, with bits of my life as well - especially the people and emotions that make up a hell of a stockpile of memories to keep. Your words ring so true and are so relatable, Mike.  -- Zoey

Happy birthday Mike.  My older brothers were in the Navy - 1966 - 1972 - and did their basic training in SD. We attended their graduation ceremonies at that time. My father thought he was on the freeway heading home when he flew by a guard that came running after our 1961 yellow Oldsmobile. My dad looked in the rear view mirror and said, "There's a man running after us". The guard gave my father stern directions how to get out of there and on the right road. Funny memories! -- Dana aka Meemir

Wow, what a wonderful memory you were given. It's a good thing you wrote it down, because.... No, I won't go for the loss of memory joke. I think you filed away some permanent memories, cemented by your trip, and your wonderful friends, the Simons.  -- Beaty

Thank you for your service! (and writings!).  My draft classification was 1-Y.  I could only be used in a national emergency, and wasn't called upon. Truly, I was a very conflicted young man.  -- Gambatay

So was I.  At time I was running away to sea where I thought I would have the least chance of being shot at. I didn't factor in a greater chance of drowning.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Radio Sorcerer Of The Redwood Coast

Dean Elliott was entitled to the honorific of “doctor,” which he refused to honoriff to himself, and he didn’t want you to do honoriff him with it either.  “The Latin root of doctor means ‘to teach,” Dean said,. “Doctoral degrees require an original contribution to a given field, except one. Medicine. I don’t practice medicine and I don’ t teach.”

Oh, but he did teach.  Maybe not in a classroom, although he had done that in an earlier time, which I’ll get to in a moment.  Consider his creds:

* Bachelors and masters degrees in Latin and Greek from Hamilton College,  a small college in upstate New York founded in 1794 with Alexander Hamilton as a trustee.

*  Member, Phi Beta Kappa.

*  A doctorate in mathematics from Northwestern University.

*  Military service in WW2 as a lieutenant commander in the Navy assigned to the Office Of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA, where he taught code to agents who would be parachuted into German occupied France.

*  An accomplished pianist who earned extra money while attending Northwestern by playing piano in Chicago clubs, including with touring bands that  needed a pickup pianist, Benny Goodman’s and the Dorseys’ among them.

*  A godfather named Rudyard Kipling.

How did Rudyard Kipling get into the mix?  Damned if I know, but I can guess.  Dean was in his sixties when I met him in 1966. He was born in Governeur, New York, a town named for Governeur Morris, one of the signers of the Declaration Of Independence.  Dean’s father was a man of means and an anglophile.  He sent Dean to England to attend Harrow, a prep school on the order of Eton where privileged boys lived on bad diets and cold baths.  Kipling visited America now and then, and became pals with Dean’s father, enough of a pal to attend Dean’s christening and be named as Dean’s spiritual and moral guide.  Maybe Kipling influenced Dean’s father to give the lad the benefit of a British schooling, lousy food and all.

Okay, so how did a high school dropout like me get to know such a man?  Well, we both worked for the same small radio station in Eureka on California’s north coast.  Dean was the chief engineer.  I was an announcer/DJ/guy who emptied waste baskets and part time newsman.  I was just starting my broadcasting career.  Dean was finishing his.

At the time he was converting rhe station’s ancient Collins transmitter into solid state, which is like making a Lambroghini out of a Ford Escort.  He replaced the huge glowing tubes with equally huge transistors he’d designed and fabricated from old telephone transformers.  Those are the big gray things that look like garbage cans atop telephone poles.  When he was done, it only took seconds to get the station on the air instead of the usual half an hour to allow the tubes to warm up.  He also taught voice, piano, overhauled the organ for his Episcopal church and learned to play the recorder, the medieval predecessor to the flute.  He was active in the March Of Dimes and a promoter of the Republican party at a time when being a Republican was not seen as a character flaw.

Dean also had an on-the-air shift on Sundays playing classical music.  He loved the music but hated the shift, showing up for work in his Beethoven sweatshirt with a shopping bag containing a quart of Rainier Ale, a science fiction magazine, a bag of Fritos corn chips and a grim look on his face. It was not wise to talk to Dean at such times. The ale was against federal rules and station policy, but Dean had all the modifications he’d made to the station in his head and not on paper, which gave him unlimited job security, but he still had a corn chip on his shoulder about having to pull a record shift.

About that time I was dawdling about returning to school.  Hell, I had a high school GED, why bother?

“Because tough times are coming, that’s why!” Dean exploded at me. “You can either get an education or go on welfare!”

So I enrolled in College Of The Redwoods that fall and graduated Humboldt State four years later. I was working at the station the night of my graduation.  Dean showed up with two quarts of Rainier Ale to celebrate. 

His approval was my Phi Beta Kappa key.


Any sound and fury?

Mike, just a minor point. The first "doctorate" was granted by the University of Bologna in Italy and was in law, not medicine or some academic field. [You can see Portia referred to as "doctor" in "The Merchant Of Venice"]. Good story. --  HadleighSJD


Nice. And so glad to see the Times again. Wish I'd had a Dean in my life. Glad you found him, or, he found you. – Penny

Thnanks.  Right now I'm going round and round with the editing function of this jewel of a program trying to match up the fonts.  I wish Dean was here.  He's figure it out in a jiff.


One comment, not on your words per se, but on those quoted from the subject, Dean Elliott, where he says only the physician is called "doctor" without having contributed something original to his profession.  I have a doctorate in law (Juris Doctor degree) and while I believe I have made original contributions to the profession, it wasn't via any formal, peer-reviewed means, that is, like the physician, I have a doctorate without having had to write a dissertation and have it accepted by an academic board.  – Trog.

Thanks.   Noted and posted.

'Bout damn time! – Brat


Thanks, Mike!  Been far too long between TManTimes fixes here. -- Sum

Are these new pieces? Good for you getting them out for your adoring reading public.  -- Karen

Sorta.  This one has been simmering in my computer for years.

It's really nice to get something from you after a long time. Thanks. – Zoey

Love it!! – Juli

Enjoyed your story.  Your conversational style is easy on the brain. – Gambatay

I have to really work at seeming relaxed.

Could you play "Misty" for me ?  -- Gerard

Can’t read music.  But then, neither could “Misty” composer Errol Garner.  Anyway, “Play Misty For Me” was a stinker of a movie.  Any disc jockey who could afford a Jaguar XK-120 and a redwood house in a radio market the size of Monterey, as Clint Eastwood’s character did, is selling nose candy for the Medellin cartel.  He also has a lousy radio voice.  However, he  is an accomplished jazz pianist.

Nice article, as always, and good to hear from you again – SOY

We all need a Dean in our life. Our world would be in much better shape. I always have a hard time holding onto my grumpyness after reading your articles ...always make me smile  -- Tammy

It's really nice to get something from you after a long time. Thanks. – Z

Love it!! – Juli

Enjoyed your story.  Your conversational style is easy on the brain. – Gambatay

An absolutely fantastic character sketch of a person, so real, I feel acquainted! --Ig Bear

Love it!  -- Shannon

Good read thanx for sharing !!  Much love  -- Renaldo

Friday, January 10, 2014

Age Is Not Your Friend

Hang around the coffeehouses of midtown Sacramento long enough and you risk becoming a character, an aging guy who wears Birkenstock sandals, a ratty denim shirt, and  has what remains of his hair pulled back in a ponytail.  If you're female, facial hardware and purple streaked hair is just around the corner of your life.

Such people keep the Peace And Freedom Party on the ballot and lead the fight to legalize pot for medicinal purposes. And here they are, sipping Guatemalan Ganja Roast at little round tables while perusing the personals ads in the alternative weekly. Thing is, I fit right in as far as the age cohort goes. Only I don’t have enough hair for a ponytail, I wear cheap sneakers instead of Jesus shoes, and I think the Peace And Freedom Party is comprised of useless ninnies whose brains were permanently fried during the Summer Of Love. 

 Not all the patrons are that depressing. As Saul Bellow wrote in Henderson The Rain King, “Every 20 years the earth replenishes itself with young women.”  A lot of them spend time in coffeehouses. But these young women are not the ingénues Bellow imagined when he wrote those words in 1959. With their purple hair and hardware piercings, they are hardly the type to be draped in the creations of Oleg Cassini, as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was before she broke America’s heart by marrying That Greek. 

 No indeed, these latter day waifs appear dressed and accessorized in poverty chic by a couturier with a rapper name like Hott D. Dawgg. Not one Vogue model among them, but nor are they like the bubble-brained Gidgets of the Jackie O era. They appear to be determined students as they tap away on laptop computers or have their pierced noses buried in serious books. Who knows? One of them may cure cancer or herpes some day. Besides, I am no Halston model myself. I was clad in an old flight jacket and a grubby beret I affect to cover my shiny bald head. A pair of khaki pants completed my warrior ensemble. Some warrior. I spent four years in the military during the Vietnam war making damn sure I never got within 500 miles of the shooting. That’s how you become an old warrior. 

 Anyway, I was waiting to meet an on-line pal I'll call Bill, an aspiring writer I met in an on-line chat room where all the chatters are nominally writers, or claim to be, even though they may only write overdue checks. Some of them even read books. 

In fairness, I have met some actual published authors in that chat, a few of them quite well known, although most of those were run off by the viciously envious or by desperate appeals to read unreadable works in progress. Besides, the successful ones are too busy actually writing to spend much time in a computerized rehab for the chronically lonely.      

Bill wrote that he was composing a memoir.  I’m doing the same thing myself. As Bill is about my age, I thought we could have fun by sharing our views on what we had done during our three score and change on this mortal coil. So we agreed to meet at a coffeehouse on neutral turf, halfway between his place and mine, in a kind of cerebral blind date between two old heteros who could at least compare Medicare coverage if their literary nattering fizzled to silence. 

 Turns out Bill was another coffeehouse character, like me, and yes, I do tend to judge by appearances. Anyone who doesn’t is someone who reads with his fingers and carries a white cane. Bill’s appearance betokened a womanless existence in subsidized housing: hospital scrubs, thrift shop pants, a Greek fisherman’s cap and fingernails that apparently had not been clipped since June. He was also pushing a wheelchair. “I have emphysema,” he said, adding that he had broken both kneecaps in a fall years ago. “I push the wheelchair for exercise, and so I can sit down when I run out of breath.” 

 In short, except for the wheelchair and fingernails I was seeing myself. As we talked about our efforts to write memoirs, it occurred to me that we were actually writing our epitaphs. That was not a good thing. I do not need help being depressed, although, depression, like self-pity, is always sincere. 

 I made my excuses to leave after an hour’s stroll down a littered and weed choked memory lane, coming away with a resolve to only visit that coffeehouse to drink coffee and sneak looks at the girls. That way my character can remain in character without a lot of bad news.

 I wrote the above last summer, or maybe spring, or maybe a year ago. I don't know. But I do know that since writing it, the Divine Yawp or whatever diety is running the Holy Bureau Of Retribution has bestowed a case of emphysema upon me. I imagine a 50-year cigarette habit, since ceased, also contributed to my wheeze-along existence. I am not yet pushing a wheelchair as a rolling rest stop, but I am backpacking a portable oxygen bottle when venturing out. At home I'm tubed to a squat little machine I call R2D2.  Like its Star Wars namesake,  it makes noises and blinks lights, but with the added benefit of helping me breathe normally instead of gasping like a landed carp.

I tellya this aging stuff is whole lot of not fun. 


Sunday, June 16, 2013


In 1978 I was working in a Los Angeles office when my mother called from New Mexico to say my father was dying. “You better come now. He’s going,” she said. The man was 83 years old and in poor health. I had been expecting my mother’s call. I muttered my assent, closed the office door, put my head down on a desk and wept. An elderly secretary brought me half of her lunchtime sandwich, her consoling kindness only provoking more tears.

That night I was in a half empty Boeing 727 which seemed to whisper thorough the desert sky en route to Albuquerque as passengers dozed in the dimly lit cabin. I was thinking of other flights, the ones of my childhood in Alaska when I rode with my dad when he flew mail, freight and people to villages along the Kuskokwim and Yukon Rivers down to the Bering Sea. His airplanes didn’t whisper. They roared and rumbled like angry gods.

My ears would ring for hours after a flight in dad’s Bellanca, Waco and Stinson powered by thundering Pratt & Whitney engines. Sometimes I sat in the still warm pilot’s seat after a flight, listening to the metallic click and tink of heat stresses working out of the engine while an unseen gyroscope in the instrument panel whirred to an eventual stop, the ringing in my ears adding a musical note to a cadenza of cooling machinery.

That was in the late 1940s and dad was not a young man.  He was 54 when he married my mother and later adopted me after my mother was confident the marriage would last.

He’d had quite an airborne career by that time. The number on his airman’s certificate was #712.  Orville Wright had been issued #1.  Dad dropped out of dental school at Baylor University in 1918 to join the Aviation Section of Army Signal Corps, then the nation’s air arm. The war ended before dad could fight the Hun, but he did manage to keep Oklahoma and Texas safe from the Kaiser’s army.

After the war he bought a surplus Army trainer known as a Jenny, the nickname of Curtiss Aircraft’s JN-4 trainer, and sold rides at county fairs all over the south and midwest. By 1925 he had accumulated enough to experience qualify as a test pilot for Swallow Aircraft, which was building an early version of the flying wing, an ahead of its time airplane the German Luftwaffe copied when designing a rocket powered fighter late in WW2.

Swallow sold its assets to Clyde Cessna, William T. Piper and Olive Ann Beech 1927.  Dad went to work for Ford Airways in Dearborn, Michigan, where he flew Ford Tri-motors between the midwest and New York. Then Ford got out of the airline business and sold its airplanes to other carriers, but by that time dad was off to other adventures, which eventually led him to South America and later Alaska -- after a failed attempt to make a solo flight from Seattle to Tokyo in 1932.

Please forgive a digression. During dad’s stint with Ford Airways, Henry Ford himself took New York office supply manufacturer Jim Rand of Remington Rand for an airplane ride with dad as the pilot. Rand was in the market for an airplane as a present to his wife, the equivalent of giving a spouse her own jumbo jet today. Rand bought a Tri-motor and hired dad to fly it, but Rand’s wife, who was not well, died the very day dad delivered the airplane to New York’s Roosevelt Field on Long Island.

About that time a man named Ralph O’Neill, and his friend and former Harvard roommate Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, approached Rand to invest in an international airline they were starting. The proposed company would fly a route from New York to South America and be named NYRBA Lines, an acronym for New York-Rio-Buenos Aires Lines. Rand became a backer. Dad was sent to Buenos Aires as NYRBA’s chief pilot for its South American operations.

Prior to going to South America, dad was sent on a tour of the U.S. in a Tri-motor to publicize the safety of air travel by giving elected officials, reporters and famous people who attracted reporters along for a ride, Will Rogers and Amelia Earhart among them. The publicity paid off. NYRBA got its charter, a mail contract, and flourished until 1930. That year, in a series of political machinations with the postmaster general -- in short, bribes -- competing Pan American World Airways nabbed the mail contract and forced NYRBA into a shotgun marriage, offering dad a job as lowly copilot where he had once been the boss.  The postmaster general was later indicted for accepting payoffs, but the damage had been done to NYRBA Lines.

Dad declined the Pan Am offer and took flying jobs here and there until 1932. That year he attempted to fly non-stop from Seattle to Tokyo for $25,000 put up by the city of Seattle and Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper as a prize. He was even given a gold watch to present to Emperor Hirohito.

Fate had other plans. His airplane crashed during an attempt at air-to-air fueling over Puget Sound, as Boeing Field was not long enough to permit a takeoff with the amount of fuel his airplane needed for the transpacific flight.  The plan was to take off with his tanks half full with the rest being supplied by another airplane in flight. 

He carried a helper named Edward Muldowney in the back of the cockpit to handle the weighted hose from the fueling airplane flying above.  Once the transfer was completed, Muldowney was to bail out, as the flight was supposed to be a solo effort. 

Both planes made two successful practice flights, but the third ended in disaster when the fueling hose snagged the tail of dad's airplane and yanked it off, causing the overloaded aircraft to roll over and fall apart in midair. Dad and Muldowney parachuted out. They were picked up by a boat as the wreckage sank to the bottom of Elliot Bay, along with Hirohito’s gold watch.

After a brief hospitization, Dad recovered and bought a one of a kind all metal airplane called a Thaden T-1 and sought his fortune in Alaska. Fate again intervened in the winter of 1933. The Thaden was wrecked when its skis struck a snow covered log on landing in Chitina, Alaska, bending the airframe beyond repair. The fuselage was recovered in the 1980s by retired Eastern Airlines captain William Thaden, the son of the manufacturer, and is now on display at the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, California.

Dad found the wherewithal to buy a Waco (pronounced walk-oh) YKS and flew bush routes out of Valdez, Fairbanks, Anchorage and Bethel during the late 30s and early 40s, which is where he was based when he married my mother.

It was his fourth marriage. “I am the fourth and final Mrs. Nat Browne,” my mother announced. “Please, honey,” dad responded. “You make the future sound so dull.”

The marriage lasted 35 years through thick and thin economic times, mostly thin. There was a government contract to map potential radar sites in Alaska for the Air Force during the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, a mining venture that bankrupted him, a heart attack, and his final employment in a foundry owned by his son-in-law in the Los Angeles area. He’d had a daughter and a son by a previous marriage. The boy was killed during the 1920s when a car struck the bicycle has riding. My step-sister was my mother’s age and had two kids of her own. This made me an uncle by default the moment I was adopted. Some uncle. My neice was two years older than me.  My nephew was my age and could beat me up, and did.

Dad made his final flight in 1958 when selling the last of his airplanes, a Piper Super Cub, an aircraft light enough to glide a considerable distance in the hands of skilled pilot if the engine quit. His engine did quit three times during that flight, forcing dad to land on sand bars each time. Dad traced the cause to particles of dirt that had clogged the vented caps of the two gas tanks in the wings, creating a vacuum that stopped the flow of fuel.

“See there? I learned something new on my very last flight,” he cautioned me when I was learning to fly and had more confidence than sense.  He also gave me the most valuable counsel I’d ever received about flying when I was complaining about an airplane that was difficult to control: “The worse the airplane, the better the pilot.”

The 727 began a gradual descent approaching Albuquerque. The whoosh of air over the fuselage diminished.  The fasten seat belt sign blinked on.  Flight attendants turned up the cabin lights and patrolled the aisle making sure passengers were buckled in. 

Sleeping passengers awoke and stirred as the jet bounced on landing.

I was met at the airport by a neighbor of my parents who drove me to their mobile home in Santa Fé, sixty miles away. Mom was in no shape for the drive.

“Your father died,” the neighbor said the moment he met me.

Gee, thanks.

“He likes spreading bad news,” mom later explained.  So I noticed. Glad I could I could make someone’s day. Anyway, I was emotionally a zero by that time. Numb.

Sometimes I believe in an afterlife, sometimes I don’t.  If there is one, I hope there are airplanes in it, and fathers to fly them.



Thanks for sharing with me.  Made me cry.  -- Uma

I have to tell you-that is not only factually fascinating but brilliantly written.
Beautiful.  -- Pat

You sweet soul.  You always grab my heart. --  Canids

Mike:  Tab A Insert B forwarded me your wonderful essay about your late father. I read it with particular interest because I'm a lifelong aviation buff,  Your dad truly was a brave and important aviation pioneer. I particularly liked the parts about the Ford Trimotor, because at the age of 14 I was allowed by two American Airlines pilots to actually pilot their beautifully restored Tin Goose from Palmdale to LAX. The thing was so draggy and underpowered that we had to hunt for thermal updrafts to make it over low mountains.  It was so cool flying that beast, right elbow slung out into the slipstream. We were kind of all over the sky because as flying machines go it was extremely sloppy to handle, but at 14, who knew?

The reason I was so fortunate to get that and several other wonderful opportunities was due to my late uncle, Ed Rees. Like your dad, he was an extraordinary and bigger than life character. He went from college dropout/copy boy for Time magazine to flying 25 missions on a B-17 as a radioman/gunner, returning to Time after the war to become the Aviation/Aerospace Editor at age 27. -- Ronald

Very nice Mike.  Your mother and father would be very proud.  You have a wonderful way with words. -- Carol

Mike, that was really great. I, too, had a stepdad who I aquired my brother and me at age 7.   My stepfather and I had our ups and downs.  He liked to tell people we were like oil and water.  Not a great endorsement, but in truth we were a lot alike.  He came to depend on me to help him and my mom after he had a stroke. He asked the night nurse for me while in the hospital the last and final time. She said he had called her by my name all night.  Mom died 6 years later.  We sold the house which I pass by everyday going to work. He adored my two daughters and treated them even better than his own "blood" grandchildren. I like to think it was his way of loving me in a way he couldn't quite do directly.   I just wanted to share with you, since you also had a stepdad. Our memories are wonderful and I know you cherish them. --  Bonnie

That's quite a back story, and one I knew nothing about. I couldn't read it fast enough. I think I'll print this one out and settle in when I'm more awake and peruse this incredible story.  -- THAB

Wow. What an amazing life behind all those tomatoes. Thank you Mike. And I'm sure wherever your father is, he's flying. -- Linda B

Of course there are airplanes in the afterlife. I believe Mr. Young wrote the following after a quick peek into the afterlife. Okay, I made that up,  but it is a nice thought. -- Tammy

Well, I dreamed I saw the silver
Space ships flying
In the yellow haze of the sun,
There were children crying
And colors flying
All around the chosen ones.
All in a dream, all in a dream
The loading had begun.
They were flying Mother Nature's
Silver seed to a new home in the sun.

-- Neil Young, "After The Gold Rush."

Thank you Mike. You are write on! -- Gambatay

As you know from reading the piece I sent to you about my Dad, and since my mother was no help at all in my physical or emotional growing up, my father meant everything to me. This piece of yours is a most lovely tribute to yours.  Mike, for all the humor you often put in your writing, and all of the wry comments and thoughts that make me smile. -- Zoey

Beautilful tribute! -- Lynda

What a tribute, Mike! When I think of you, I first think of tomatoes and next think of the stories you relayed to me about your Dad & his flying career in Alaska. Our daddies both flew - mine for sport, yours for a more serious and important purpose. Regardless, I believe they have their hand on the throttle - wherever they may be. You make me smile. Thank you. -- Bachlennon

He would have been very proud and very pleased to see what you remembered and how much of an impression his life made on you. Your admiration and affection for him comes across quite clearly. -- Tab

Good story, Tomatomike!.  I lost my dad a few weeks, ago and I still have that numb feeling ..Even though my concentration level is not the best at the moment, sounds as if you had quite an interesting upbringing with smart and loving parents. Love your stories! -- Pirate.

I’m sorry for your loss. -- MB

I knew most of this story, but it's always good to hear it again. Good story-telling, 'Materman.-- Shannon.

Yeah, I had written a similar one several years ago, but wanted to do something for Father’s Day. -- MB

Mike, thanks very much for sharing your Father's Day tribute. I've passed it on as I'm sure others have as well. I always enjoy a quick break for your "The Tomatoman Times".  -- E. R. Murphy

Mr. Murphy was a Navy lieutenant.  Among his other duties, he was the education officer assigned to the same base in the Philippines where I was stationed as a sailor who had dropped out of high school. Lieutenant Murphy was an absolute tyrant who confined me to the base until I passed a high school GED test.  Oh, the agony!   I later graduated from the same college he had attended.  He went on to become the executive officer of the USS Pueblo, which was captured by North Korea in 1968 and its crew imprisoned for 11 months. Prior to his assignment to the Pueblo, Mr. Murphy and another naval officer received the Navy Marine Corps medal for lifesaving. They had swum through cold and dangerous surf on California’s north coast to rescue some endangered fishermen. He wrote a book about the Pueblo capture entitled  Second In Command - The Uncensored Account Of The Spy Ship Pueblo,  published in 1971. -- MB

Thanks for making me cry at work, Hot Shot. -- Sandy

Why aren’t you playing computer Solitaire like everyone else in the office? -- MB

Wonderful requiem for your dad. What a great adventure his life was. -- Mike C.

Thanks Mike. As always, well done. -- BG

I knew most of this story, and it still rings fresh and true and a wonderful read. -- Tim

My luck. I beat you by about 15 minutes! I was sending a link for Tomatoman Times to a friend in Sacramento and happened across this earlier. I loved it. Don't lose touch, Mikie. -- Barb

Call me Mikie one more time and I’ll dispatch a horde of accordion players to your next social event. MB

It is always fine to read your work, Mike. -- PLH

I haven't spoken to my father for a whole year. Not even on Father's Day yesterday. His fault, not mine. I swear. I might give him a call soon.  Just give me a little time. -- Gerard.

Oh well, I wasn’t the poster child of a dutiful son myself.  MB

I loved the piece; it's something I am working on now. Inspiring. Thanks for sharing. -- Peggy

Really really nice, Mike. A great tribute to your dad! -- Karen

Thanks. Nice reminiscence. -- ML

As the 4th and final Mrs T., I feel a special kinship with your mother. If there's an afterlife, I’ll be looking for her. What a gift she gave to you in this man as a stepfather. This was easily one of your best My Tomato. -- Tracy

Monday, May 6, 2013

Ninety Seconds Of Hell

As a former limousine chauffeur for 10 years, news coverage of the burning limousine on the San Mateo Bridge over San Francisco Bay last Saturday got my attention. Nine women in a bridal party, including the bride-to-be and her mother, were in the car when the rear section caught fire. The cause of the fire has not been determined.

The chauffeur and four women escaped. Five others did not. Authorities found their bodies clustered around a three foot wide opening in the partition between the passenger and driver compartments.

That three foot space has a panel that can be raised or lowered by the chauffeur or the passengers. It’s called a privacy panel. Initial reports state that four survivors escaped through the open privacy panel and out the front doors along with the chauffeur.

The limo had two doors at the back of the passenger section. Some limos also have a hinged plexiglass window in the roof, called a moon roof. In recent years fewer and fewer limousine companies have had the moon roof installed.  Too risky.  Inebriated male passengers have been known to climb through an open moon roof for a fresh air ride on top of the car. Sometimes inebriated female passengers use an open moon roof to flash their assets. This can dangerously distract other motorists into causing insurance headaches.

Whether or not this limo had a moon roof was not cited in the reports I read. It might not have made any difference if it had. The moon roof is usually placed over the rear of the passenger compartment. That’s where the fire was.

Stretch limos have extended windows on each side of the passenger compartment. Those windows are made of shatterproof glass and composite plastics. They can only be opened by a strong person with a sledge hammer.

Then we have the trunk, which is directly over a 35 to 55 gallon gas tank.  Some limo companies stash an empty one gallon gasoline can in the trunk.  Empty gasoline cans have fumes if they’ve ever contained gasoline. Fumes are explosive. Some limos still have road flares in the trunk instead of, or in addition to, collapsible plastic triangles with reflectors. Flares are made with chemicals that are nearly impossible to extinguish.

Another thing. The faux wood fixtures in limousine interiors, such as the lids for the ice compartments, are made of plastics that give off toxic fumes when ignited. So does upholstery and carpeting. 

Given all the combustibles in the interior of a stretch limousine, I was not surprised when the chauffeur told authorities that the limo went up in flames in 90 seconds.

Those 90 seconds may have seemed like eternity for everyone involved.

For five of the women in the limo that night, it was.


I have never seen the point of limousines. Never rode in one, never had the urge to. (No offense, just me being me.) I always enjoy your limousine stories though, and your analysis on this sad accident was very illuminating. It seems as if limos need some kind of escape route better than what they have now! -- Eve

A horrible accident. -- Lynda

Sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. Next time I'll ride a scooter.  -- Pre

Scooters are hard to spot in traffic.  You might get smacked by a limo.

Thought of you immediately when this story broke!  It was helpful reading what you wrote; sobering and informative. So glad you are okay, and very sad about those women. -- Miriam

What a nightmare for all, and on the darned bridge too. -- Diane

I'll never look at a limousine the same again. -- Linda B.

It gets sadder and sadder. Seems like a lack of communication between the woman and the driver. So sad.  -- Uma

They did communicate. According to news accounts, one of the women alerted the driver about smoke in the back.  The driver came to a stop and bailed out along with four of the women.  The other five, well...

Helluva a post -- very informative and as usual, really well written. -- Tim

All I know is that people are dead who should not be, and families are grieving and will for the rest of their lives. Maybe some changes in the next limo that rolls off the production line will happen because of that incident. Maybe some people who didn't think something awful could happen to anybody in that car that night -- and anyone who sees people they love roll away for a night of fun -- will think a little harder about how much they love someone and tell him so. People will bury their loved ones this week, and the rest of us will go on living. It's what we do. Terribly sad, and resiliently good that we have to and can. What a sad, awful story, Mike. -- Zoey

I won't ride in a limo now. Very sad. -- Meemir

This was a very freakish event that has safety investigators all over it. My view is that you’re safer in a stretch limo in Saturday night traffic than you are in a car.

Mike...I thought about you when I heard the news, particularly since the driver's last name was Brown. SO GLAD it wasn't you!  I was up in SF last week for a couple of days, viewing the Dutch Masters' exhibit at the DeYoung.  Creepy, awful accident! -- Cyn

My last name is spelled Browne, and I gave up being a chauffeur over a year ago.

I, too, was afraid that you were driving that limo; didn't know you have given up the driving gig.  Still, I know you must feel badly, as a fellow driver. -- Shannon.

Aw hell. Literally. -- Tracy

Keith and I were so sad to hear that story. Those poor women and their families. -- Sandy

I also was saddened by news of the limo disaster on the San Mateo Bridge. 90 seconds for that many people to escape, unbelievable. Words can not describe how awful it must have been, but you told the story that may make companies reexamine evacuation procedures. -- Karen

Unbelievable tragedy. I too thought of you. Even though you are not doing that anymore, I still thought of you. The limo driver must be feeling really awful right now. Thank you for all of the information that most people would never know or even think about. Sad. -- Carol

It is very sad that these five women died at a young age. Perhaps investigators will discover what caused the fire, and perhaps this information will make limousines safer in the future. -- Ken