Archive for the ‘Memories’ Category

Memories of my youth: Titan launch

May 3, 2018

On the 3rd of May, 1961, the Air Force conducted a silo launch test at Vandenberg AFB. The test was to see if a missile could stand the stress of being launched from inside the silo, rather than being lifted to the surface. The Silo Launch Test Facility (68-SLTF) had a W-shaped blast deflector at the bottom and two vents on the sides. This was intended to be the normal launch method for the new Titan II ICBM, but that missile was still in testing, so they used a Titan I, instead.

I was a teenager, living on Vandenberg at the time, and of course we all knew the test was going to take place. We also knew of a good place to observe it from, so on the day of the launch we bicycled down the back roads of the base.  Turns out, it was such a good place to observe launches from that the Air Force had set up a press facility there.

After some delays (as usual), the missile was launched, and was spectacular, also as usual. I took pictures with my 35mm camera, and my friend, Jim Bones used an 8mm movie camera on a tripod, looking through one lens of a pair of binoculars.

Unbeknownst to us, an Air Force cameraman included us in his shot of the launch, which photo was used as the basis for a painting, currently in the Air Force Art Collection. I actually saw it, thirty some years ago, hanging in a back office in the Pentagon.

That’s me, kneeling, on the left

The equipment on the left was a quad-.50 caliber anti-aircraft machine gun mount, modified to hold a 150mm tracking camera. The two people kneeling next to the tracker were me and Jim. Our jackets were actually olive drab. The Air Force blue was artist’s license. The trailer with the white canopy on the right is a press phone bank.

Here’s a video of the launch:

Painting Reference:

Artist: Nixon Galloway
Catalog Number: 1961.082

Video Reference:

Memories of my youth: Germans

March 17, 2018

This set of pictures brings back memories. It was March or April of 1971, and I was deployed to Crete, supporting an Army training exercise — Sergeant ASP (Annual Service Practice with the Sergeant missile).

It was a multi-national operation, and there was a group of German Air Force aircrew down, with their C-160 transports, the ones that look like a twin-engine C-130. Heading up their operation was a LtCol, Oberstleutnant. I was a junior Captain.

The German pilots were very friendly. They had all trained at Williams AFB in Arizona, and had a fondness for Mexican food.

I met the Oberstleutnant on the ramp, and of course I saluted. He, being a laid-back pilot, stuck out his hand to shake. I pulled down my hand from the salute, and reached out to him. Meanwhile, he had brought his hand up to return my salute. So I brought my salute back up, just as he was reaching for my hand. A couple cycles of this and we got into synch, laughing like mad.

Much later, that became popular among politicians

Great people, the Germans, and yes, many of them looked like those pictures.

Nine Years

March 5, 2018

This blog started on March 5th, 2009, nine years ago. Will it make it to ten? We’ll see.

Memories of my youth: Farewell Compuserve

December 15, 2017

Compuserve dies today. This is where we all say, What? It’s still around?

I got into the CIS online forums very close to the start, back in the early 80’s. It was a perfect activity for someone just home from shift work with time on their hands at 3AM. It was a walled-garden, with lots of good discussions about space and technology, with very little politics and no trolls. An elegant solution for a more civilized time.

Then came the Internet, and buyouts and re-brandings, and people just slipped away. When I finally called in to drop my subscription, the guy on the other end at CIS didn’t even twitch — OK, thanks. Bye.

I am such a pack-rat that I suspect I could find my old Compuserve number, if I wanted to spend a day or so, getting paper cuts.

Meanwhile, here’s what I’m doing tonight.


Memories of my youth: Titan OSTF

December 10, 2017

It was a cool December night on the central coast of California. The year was 1960, and we were living on Vandenberg AFB. I had  my telescope out in the back yard, doing some star-gazing, when a friend called and said they were doing some interesting stuff at a Titan I silo across the valley.

Family housing at VAFB was all new construction on the north side of the facilities area of the base. Looking north from there (you had to climb up on the roof, which I did), you could see across a plateau (where the 4th Armored Division trained in WWII, back when this was Camp Cook) and San Antonio creek (where wild boar would wander now and then) to where the USAF had built a number of test/training launchers for their various ICBMs.

Ready to launch

Ready to launch

In fact, VAFB had at least one of every kind of AF launch pad, from the Atlas D gantries to the Minuteman I silos. The one I was looking at that night was Operational Silo Test Facility, used for the Titan I ICBM.

Titan I was one of the early ICBMs, and was not designed to be launched from within a silo. The procedure was to load the fuel (RP-1) and oxidiser (liquid oxygen) in the protection of the silo, then bring the missile to the surface and launch it — lift to launch, in the parlance of the day.

On the 10th of December they were conducting a fueling test, a mock wet firing, in preparation for an actual launch later in the month. The plan was to load the missile, bring it to the surface (stages 1-5 in the graphic below), run a bunch of diagnostic tests, and then lower back down and defuel it. Unfortunately, something went wrong.

Steps 1 through 5

Steps 1 through 5

My first indication was a beautiful fireball, more blue than orange, with lots of sparkly bits. Fifteen seconds or so later came the rumble of the explosion, and then a lot of smoke and fire and flashing red lights.

What had happened was this: when they were finished with the exercise and started to lower the missile back down for defueling, the elevator slipped, and the fully loaded missile fell to the bottom of the silo. There, it ruptured, mixed the fuel and oxidiser, and blew up with a force strong enough to pull the entire steel scaffolding structure out of the silo. It was later reported that the explosion broke down two of the three blast doors between the silo and the launch control center.

That's the interior structure of the silo, laid out to the left

That’s the interior structure of the silo, laid out to the left

Today, OSTF lies rusting, covered in creosote bush and manzanita. Here’s a Wikipedia picture:

It's still a hundred feet deep, so watch your step

It’s still a hundred feet deep, so watch your step

And here is a link to a gallery of current pictures. The grey, overcast background is typical of the California coast that I remember from my youth.

Memories of my youth: Nuclear warfare

December 4, 2017

I did not expect to be doing so many of these Memories entries, but we’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of lots of things, and then new events force their way in.

Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers fame, has just published a memoir on his time with RAND corporation, studying command and control in nuclear war.

According to the article, the book officially comes out tomorrow, the U.S. nuclear war plans of the 1960’s, and the C3 system that supported them, were marked by hair-trigger responsiveness, all-or-nothing rigidity, and unimaginable overkill. That was before my time, but it sounds about right.

The problem is, all this was new. No-one had ever worked way through the problem. As with many such, you had to do it to see what you had done (Kissinger once said that he wished we’d given more thought to  the implications of MIRV’d weapons). Plus, we were all driven by a very real Cold War fear. And as with many fear driven situations, we were willing to read the worst possible meaning into every Soviet action. When Khrushchev said “We will bury you“, we heard “We’re putting you down“, not “We will dance on your grave“, which is probably a better translation of the phrase. Things that now appear to be stupid (with 50year hindsight) were urgent and compelling in the day. I suspect that in time our successors will view the war on terror the same way.

Everybody knew the system was insane at the core, but no-one knew how to defuze it, given the very real trust and perception issues between us and the USSR. The key, then, was to make sure we never got in a situation where those decisions were necessary.

Fast forward to 1973. I was assigned to the Military Airlift Command Indications and Warning Center at Scott AFB. Our job was to keep an eye on everything that went on around the world, if there was the possibility it could require some sort of MAC involvement: war in the Middle East, non-combatant evacuation from Congo, airlift of relief supplies to Bangladesh. Support the rest of the US military when fighting a nuclear war.

Shortly after I arrived, we had a visit from the USAF assistant chief of staff for Intelligence, Major General George Keegan. He was travelling to every I&W Center in the AF, and he had one message, that he was delivering personally:

Your primary mission is to prevent a nuclear war.

We knew that Russia and the US had painted ourselves into a corner, and were doing the best we could to keep things from getting out of control. So far, it’s worked.

Memories of my youth: Fifty years ago today

November 29, 2017

I entered Air Intelligence Training Course at Lowry AFB. Start of a long and happy Air Force career. Met my wife there, the first Woman Marine to go through AFAITC.

Now, I’ve been out longer than I’ve been in, but the blue still shows.

Memories of my youth: The Fish and Duck

November 28, 2017

The Fish and Duck is a pub and marina on the Great Ouse River in Cambridgeshire. As they say, it caters to the river trade. Many vacation canal boats tie up there, and many amenities have been added in the last 50 years.

For Thanksgiving of 1970, our first Thanksgiving as a married couple, and in England, we were told it was a very nice place for a special dinner. So we got on the phones and called them. Actually, we called the Mildenhall operator, who put us through. She said it was a very nice place and she was sure we’d have a nice time. You don’t get service like that any more.

Theoretically, it was a half-hour drive from RAF Mildenhall, across the great, flat, featureless fens of East Anglia. Actually, on the night, we had our first experience of a fenland pea-soup fog. We drove with the windows down. I hung out the right hand side (England, remember) peering at the centerline, while MJ hung out the left hand side, watching for the verge. On these pictures, by the way, the Google Maps yellow line is the most obvious thing, but we didn’t have Google Maps back then.

A bridge too near

We had been told that if we reached the bridge, we’d gone too far. Well, here it came, looming hugely up out of the fog (it doesn’t loom so much in the daytime). So we turned around, looking for a sign. What we found was, a farmer tilling his field. In the dark.

A re-enactment

You see, in East Anglia, on Thanksgiving, the sun sets at 4PM, and by six or seven, it’s pitch black. And then the fog rolls in.

The nice farmer told us it was the wrong bridge, and we had a couple of miles to go yet.

We finally found the turnoff, and turned off. The last half mile was an unpaved road that was essentially one side of a sugar beet field. It’s been paved since then, but otherwise it’s not much changed.

You should try this in the dark

The pub itself is a small, unassuming place. Back in the day it didn’t have the big caravan park surrounding it, and didn’t feel the need to build a six foot chain link fence around it.

The food was great, and the service was everything people said it would be (“Which of these avocados would you like…“). There was only one other couple in the place.

While we were there, we bought tickets to their Christmas brunch. That was a daytime event, and much better attended.

Fast forward two years. For one reason or another, we hadn’t been back. MJ’s parents came over and we thought it would be a nice example of an English country pub. Once again, I got on the phones and the operator put me through.

I’d like to make reservations for four for Wednesday, name is Shervais.

…short count…

Ah, yes, Captain Shervais, we’ll be able to fit you in, no problem.

Two years.

Once we got there, the food and service were as outstanding as I remembered,and they remembered. “Well, if you recall, the wine you had that time was the Langousta Rose…

Things have changed. The old owners are long gone. The pub now has a rock band, I am told. Still. Fond memories.



Memories of my youth: Charles Manson

November 20, 2017

So, Manson is dead, and a bizarre chapter in American crime starts to close.

Strange links in a long…ish life. Not many people know that Sharon Tate was an Army brat. She attended the same high school my sister-in-law did, in Richland, WA, and hung out in the various Army recreation facilities there, where a young Second  Lieutenant taught her to shoot pool.

The Army was in Richland because of Hanford Nuclear Facility, and one of their installations was an Ajax SAM complex defending the facility from Russian bombers, and he was there to man the SAM sites.

Thirty years later, I worked with that Lieutenant, now a retired Army LTC. Not sure how that would fit in a degrees of separation game.

Memories of my youth: bugs

October 22, 2017

When I was a lad, and Eisenhower was President, we lived in Northern Virginia, Quantico, to be exact. Since we didn’t have cable, there was nothing to do of a Sunday afternoon but pile in the non-airconditioned family car (a Kaiser, as I recall), and take a Sunday drive through the countryside. When we got back, the windshield would always be covered with bug spatters, big and small and many.

Some decades later I was stationed in DC, and lived just north of Quantico, maybe ten miles from my former home. No-one had time for a Sunday drive in our modern times, but we’d sometimes find ourselves driving through that same Virginia countryside on our way somewhere. When we got home, our windshield would be … pretty clean. I won’t say that the occasional entomol didn’t come to a sticky end on our glass, but that was a relatively rare occurrence.

Now I find that we are not alone, but are more alone, or something. A study in Germany found the same thing, only over a much shorter time span. Something is causing a drastic drop in flying insects, and there are just not enough windshields out there to account for all of it.

Memories of my youth: Shaking hands with Napoleon

September 13, 2017

Well, shaking the hand that shook the hand.

In 2009, when Freeman Dyson came to Portland to give a talk at ISEPP, the Institute for Science, Engineering and Public Policy, he told a story about Napoleon Bonaparte.

It seems that after Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 and succeeded in capturing Moscow, there was no-one to surrender the city to him. All the officials had fled. Being the sort of person who needed public validation of his actions (much like our current President), he arranged a fake surrender. In the surrender party was a young girl, a child, who presented him with a bouquet of flowers. He solemnly shook her hand.

Many, many years later, the old woman who had been that child, shook the hand of Freeman Dyson’s young  grandfather. Dyson, over the years, had, of course, shaken his grandfather’s hand many times. As part of the ISEPP ceremonies, Dyson shook hands with Terry Bristol, the President of ISEPP.

And I shook Terry Bristol’s hand.

Five handshakes from Napoleon to me. History isn’t as far in the past as one might think.

Memories of my youth: MJ carries on.

June 18, 2016

It was the early 70’s. We hadn’t been married very long, and were still living in England. Back then, the British tradition was that worker strikes would cause rolling electricity blackouts every winter. It might be the electrical workers in the coal-fired power plants. It might be the train crews of British Rail, who hauled the coal. Or it might be coal workers themselves, in the black pits of Lancashire. Whoever it was, you could be sure of ending up with four hours of power, at the most inconvenient times. This time it was the coal workers.

We had just moved into a new house, third and last of our homes in the UK, in a small town north of Cambridge. The others had been furnished. This one was also furnished: bed, sofa, kitchen table, two straight chairs, and a TV. We went out and splurged on new furniture, to be delivered when available, and went home to our cold and somewhat Spartan digs.

Well, MJ went home. I went to Crete on a deployment to support some Army units that were training on the missile range at Souda Bay. It was a month in the sunshine of the Eastern Med (but it was March, so not so warm), working every three days when a new Army unit rolled in. The harbour at Kania was a little gem (some Hollywood stars have bigger pools), with fishing boats moored alongside, and octupi drying on lines next to them. We sat at a little cafe and drank retsinated wine and dined on calamari and moussaka.

A month later and it was over. We flew back in our C-130, loaded with souvenirs. I got back to the house in the dark of a high latitude afternoon, and met a bunch of workmen getting into their truck. The power cuts had ended that morning, and the furniture had just been delivered. MJ seemed a little miffed, for some reason.

Now, almost half a century later, MJ is sitting at home with a shattered shoulder and no idea of when the replacement surgery will be, nursing one of our favourite dogs, who is dying of cancer. Or maybe dying of chemo is a better phrase.

And me? I’m heading out to the airport for a two-week trip to London and Cambridge. MJ seems a little miffed.

Memories of my youth: President’s Day Snowstorm of 1979

January 23, 2016

Seeing Washington, DC buried in two feet of snow reminds me of my time in the National Military Intelligence Center (NMIC), deep, as they say,* in the bowels of the Pentagon. The NMIC sits back to back with the National Military Command Center, and, like the NMCC, is manned 24/7/365 with a staff of specialists in all regions of the world. I was a Soviet Command and Control analyst at the time, and regularly pulled shifts there.

The President’s Day Snowstorm of 1979, unlike this week’s pummeling, came as a surprise to all concerned. The storm was supposed to miss DC. I was on the afternoon shift — 2PM to 10PM. Most of us junior officers could only afford housing well outside the Beltway, and there were enough of us living in the Dale City area (45miles south of the Pentagon) that it was possible to form a carpool of NMIC shift workers.

It was a dark and stormy night when the four of us made our way to the small parking lot next to the power plant. If we’d been out in North Parking we’d still be looking for the car. We were probably the last carpool down I-95 that night, and the next morning there was 18″ of snow on my drive, in the street, at intersection at the top of the hill… I called in and said I wasn’t going to make it. Nobody else made it, either.

It was three days before we were able to get a regular shift set up again in the NMIC. During that time, the analysts slept on the floor and emptied out the vending machines all over the building. One could get to the Metro without leaving the building, but there wasn’t anywhere to go, and nothing was open. They put together a scratch relief team from those who lived close enough to the Metro to walk to a station, but mostly it was the unshaven, sleep-deprived half-starved survivors of that same night shift who met us days later.

So, I didn’t have to go through it, but it was a possibility that all of us faced, and it’s one of the things that doesn’t get mentioned very much when they talk about a heavy snowfall in DC closing the government. It does. Just not all of it.

*In fact, it wasn’t all that deep. If you walked in the entrance on the NE face, and past the guard desk where they shot the intruder in 1987, and down some corridors, you’d come to a set of unmarked doors that were the emergency exit from the watch center. The actual offices where the day ladies worked were on the floors below.

Memories of my youth: Phantom Sounds

July 21, 2015

My time in the Air Force pretty much coincides with the heyday of the F-4 Phantom. The 366th TFW flew F-4Cs out of DaNang AB, my first base level assignment. The 48th TFW at RAF Lakenheath transitioned from F-100s to F-4Ds when I was next door at RAF Mildenhall. My own 51st TFW flew F-4Es out of Osan AB in Korea, my last base-level assignment.

The early F-4’s had leading edge flaps to help maneuverability. In later models, these were replaced with two-position leading edge slats, which reportedly gave the same maneuverability with more stability. What they took away was the distinctive deep whistling sound, almost a moan, that an F-4C would make as the flaps were cycled in the final turn in the landing pattern. Despite hours of searching, I’ve only been able to find one video that halfway captures this sound (and then only 7sec worth), at

Boise, Idaho, in 1988.

In case it doesn’t queue up properly, the sound starts at the 2:24sec mark.

The sound of an F-4C in the landing pattern, and the sound of a C-130 “low-speeding the outboards”, are the quintessential sounds of my Air Force career.

Memories of my youth: Gangsters

July 14, 2015

Having just turned 68 a couple of years ago, and thus having to finally admit that I’ve entered middle age, I thought I’d start writing down some incidents from my past — little snippets of memories that bubble up from time to time, and that others might find interesting. Or not. And even if you don’t, it leaves a record for me to gum over a couple of decades from now.

This is a tale related to me by an old audiologist, when I was in elementary school and he was in my ears, conducting tests. He was talking about his life as a young doctor in a rather sleazy district of Chicago, back in the days of Prohibition and gangsters.

One day, a local member of the gangster profession — we will call him Big Louie because I cannot remember his real name — comes into the doctor’s office. It seems that Big Louie has an ear ache which is bothering him more than somewhat and he wishes our doctor to examine it. Our doctor inserts his otoscope into Big Louie’s right ear and he takes a look around. He figures it is a regular old ear infection, and since antibiotics have not yet been invented, he knows there is not much he can do, which is sad. Instead, he finds a snarl of string, with several blobs of pus and other detritus sticking to it, and he follows said string all the way back into the depths of Big Louie’s ear. It seems that Big Louie sticks this string in his ear one day, back when he is just Little Louie, and there it sits for the next few decades, rotting and infecting and interfering with his hearing in general. Our doctor pulls out the string, and the pus balls, and the detritus, cleans up the ear, writes out a bill, and sends Big Louie on his way.

A week or so later, Big Louie is back. “Doc, I gotta thank you” he says. “Don’t nobody say anything on that side that I don’t hear now. Get your hat and coat. We are going for a walk”.

So, out they go, arm-in-arm, for a half-hour stroll around the district. Up this street and down that, across town and back, Big Louie saying hello to people now and then, and them saying hello right back. After a while, Big Louie and the doctor are back in the office. Big Louie says another big thank you, and leaves, leaving our doctor more than a little confused.

A week or so after Big Louie’s second visit, our doctor is walking towards his office in this sleazy district of Chicago, when what should happen but two tough-looking guys appear, one on each side of him. And these tough-looking guys start pushing our doctor towards an alley, the assumption being they are looking for a quiet  place where they can mug him in private. Suddenly, three other guys come running down the the street towards them. They stop the two tough-looking guys, and they say to them “This, is a friend of Big Louie’s”. Well, right away the two tough-looking guys get all apologetic and say that if they know this when they see him, they never would bother him.

And our doctor is never bothered by criminals in this district again.

I suspect that the doctor tells me this story as a way of reminding me that it does not matter what my career goals are, I should not put stuff in my ears.