Wednesday, January 02, 2013

After a too-long respite away from the keys....
The beginning of the year is always one of those times when you reflect on things that were, might have been, and could still be.  We woke up in Berkeley, having flown the morning of Dec. 31st to SF, one of those six + hours of westbound flying in Coach (I’d actually like to SEE the coach this was named for) and which, when you finally step off the plane next to the Pacific Ocean, make you think, “geez, if only I’d done the Wrong Way Corrigan trick, and headed the other direction, I’d be eating Portuguese grilled chicken tonight.”   We have certainly shrunk the world in terms of our ability to travel upon it.  Not always in style or grace, but compared to what it must have been like trucking across oceans in choppy wooden boats in those post Renaissance years, we have it made in the shade. We have come to take it so for granted that trans-continental travel is so easy that I think we lose sight of what a trip like that used to be.   As a life long aviation buff, I still pine for the days of DC-6b’s and Lockeed Constellations, as they represent that amazing advanced, post-war technology that existed in my youth.  And there remains something magical about the roar of those piston engines.  Frankly, when you think about it, a 28 cylinder  engine like the Pratt /Whitney  Wasp Major, a behemoth with four rows of seven heads, required thousands of individual explosions every minute, and in a plane like the C-97 Stratofreighter, did that for hundreds of minutes at a time.  All that stuff worked.  It probably seemed crude by today’s standards, but if you had been born at the time most of the engineers were who worked on that plane, you can imagine that the Wright Brothers first flight took place when you were a baby.  A helluva lot of progress was crammed into the first few decades of the 20th century.   As a kid in grade school (Oakwood Elementary, class of 1958) in the 50s, we lived in a combination of what we felt was incredibly advanced (jet engines!) and yet with WWII only a decade earlier, a number of direct connections with things which seemed technologically distant. 

Recess, a concept which I’m not even sure has survived into the new millennium, was a time best described as a forum for breathing exercises, most of them involving yelling of some sort.  We played marbles (two-ticks take was standard – you actually had to hit the other guy’s marble twice before you could keep it) which had a dizzying set of rules, the particulars of each match decided on ahead of time.  There was even a marble tournament every spring, where a large nail-on-a-string would be scribed into the broom-smooth dirt to create a yard wide circle where the play would take place.  Do the words  “knucks down” and “mig” mean anything to you?  If not, you probably missed those amazing tourneys, for which you were actually allowed to leave class to play, though in my case, most of the time I went out in the first round.   There was a hop scotch tourney for the girls, and in what must have been seen as a giant leap forward, I even entered that contest my 6th grade year.   Throwing your hoppy-taw accurately isn’t as easy as it looks, and in my case, making the turn around on “8” was the death knell. But  I was happy to have tried it, even if I didn’t get very far.   The standard sports at recess included dodge ball (yes it did hurt when you got hit in the head,)  tetherball, and snowballs.  In what was probably a precursor of the Hunger Games, the school would put a sign out about 80 yards from the building, behind which was the area known as the “snow-ball zone” and in which you could make and throw as many snowballs as you wanted at anyone you wanted to.  And probably take a few in the face, while you were at it. 

In the fall and spring, I remember the “horse girls” with fondness.  Susan Decker, Linda Wideberg, names attached to girls I haven’t seen in decades, and a few other equus-o-philes most of whom actually owned horses at home, would spend their recess racing around, whinnying, leaping as if to rise up on their back legs, Blackbeauty style,  and toss their hair back like long well kept manes.   We knew it was their thing, they whinnied as much as they wanted, and when the bell rang ending recess, we’d all go back into school ready to take on math, science,  and a host of other subjects.  The point was, we made do with not very much save our imaginations. 

We boys, mostly aviation buffs of one sort or the other, would often run around, arms spread out like the wings of a B-17, dipping in and out of the clouds as we escaped ack-ack from near by Highland Drive.  Our doodling was more likely than not to be a scene of P-47s darting amongst the bombers high over Germany.  I remember once being admonished by a 3rd grader friend’s mom, as I pretended to make a bombing run “… bombs away over Tokyo…” I said.  She reminded me in a firm but gentle voice… “that was years ago.  We don’t bomb Tokyo anymore.”   It kind of made sense, and certainly made an impression (50+ years later, I still remember it) and I think helped me to understand that the movies we watched about the WWII aviators, while full of aerial “excitement” were something which for many of us needed context.   My mom, a college graduate in 1938 – Stanford in Journalism, missed her  one chance at an interview with an old Salt Lake friend at the Washington Post as it had been scheduled for September 1, 1939.  She waited around for hours, but because the Wehrmacht had that afternoon invaded Poland, her interview never happened, and what I see as the sometimes fanciful notion of mom having ended up being a WaPo reporter, and me, growing up in DC remains just a what-if.   

Our world has changed so much in the last (insert any integer from 5 to 40 here) years.  Watching a friends grand-kids, aged 4 and 6, play with an iPad and laptop last night made me wonder how we ever will be able to try and keep some kind of chain together, linking the past and present.  As kids, we babyboomers at least understood much of what our parents had gone through, and we felt connected to it.  My dad, who was born in 1906 and lived a full 88 years, was in diapers before the US Army took delivery of it’s first airplane (1909.)  Yet, dad always was accepting of, and even excited by the ‘new:’  almost any building going up in almost any place was, for him, a sign of progress.  More than once some hideously designed suburban office edifice would, merely because it had come to be, get the “Look at that beautiful new building...” treatment.  For him, there were no limits on what one could adapt to.  The mere idea of airplanes flying, cars going from early Model Ts to dad’s favorite, a 1959 Desoto, whose fins were on loan from the Air Force, meant of level of 
 dad would have loved watching this building go up
acceptance of the unknown that I have always found striking.  Yet now I worry that his positive way of looking at the world, believing that the things men and women conjure up can be made to be for the betterment of society, seems to have gone the way of the billion dollar IPO, and how to game a system which has devolved into wanting to be gamed. I hope that somewhere, 5th grade girls still run around at recess, without their cell phones or iPads, and kick, whinney, and toss their manes around like crazy.  It would be nice if there could be a snow-ball area which didn’t require ten adults with clipboards monitoring who threw what snowball at whom, and regulating the kinds of childlike behaviour which shouldn’t require outside regulation.  So much of what we knew as kids, and what we were forced to deal with on our own – with each other – has turned into some kind of horribly misled attempt by parents to make sure  that nothing bad ever happens, no one is ever disappointed, that every kid always wins.  It’s a terrible plan for adulthood.  Learning to deal with your failures is probably the single biggest thing in success.  If everything is regulated, arranged, and done in a way that makes sure no kid fails, how will they ever deal with real life?  In life there are ups and downs, and no one is immune from those elements.   I’d like to go on and on here, but I hear the engines on the Super Connie starting to crank, and I need to go hop in the shower so I can watch that plane take off for the Azores, or Madigascar, or Samoa.  It’ll only take three days, you know.  And hey, they still offer free chewing gum on those flights so you can chew your way through the ear-popping.  Awesome.  Great time to be alive.   We’re just sayin’… David


David Hutson said...

What a great column, Dave, thanks.
Especially liked the marble part and should you come through KC I'll treat to a visit to "Moon Marble Factory" and a knuck down game.
1958 3rd Grade (Cubberly Elem School, LB, CA) Marble Champion!
Remembering my first flight from LA to NYC in a DC-6, watching in the cockpit and getting my wings from the pilot.
Happy New Year.

Anonymous said...

I loved those old airplanes - got to fly a few, like the DC3, B24, etc. Come to thin on it the B52 is now pretty much an "old classic." For the record my granddaughter, while living in that controlled environment you worry about, has a very active imagination. She says she likes to play with Grandpa because he too has a "good imagination."